Monday, 12 November 2012

UFC 154: Grit and the Expectations of a Fighter

In the aftermath of UFC 143, fans of the sport of mixed martial arts were left disappointed with the performance of Carlos Condit, a fighter nicknamed the Natural Born Killer. The fight had been against Nick Diaz for the promotions Welterweight title, albeit the interim version, following a serious injury to the champion Georges St-Pierre. While many voiced the opinion that it was Diaz who won the fight, it was Condit who clearly out struck and out manoeuvred his predictable opponent to take a clearly earn a decision on the judges scorecards.

Condit had been the underdog going into the fight, and in winning he had upset not just the odds against him but a chance of a ‘super fight’ between Diaz and St-Pierre. Many were quick to criticise Condit’s approach to the fight, saying he ‘ran’ from Diaz during many of the exchanges. Condit had fought a smart fight but not a fight that was deemed courageous or dignified.

Many past fighters had been drawn into Diaz’s brawling style and relentless cardio, all to be eventually overwhelmed. Condit’s tactic to stick and move has long been a staple of boxing and in fact follows the legendary trainer Cus D’amato’s adage, ‘‘you’ve got to be clever, you’ve got to be smart and not get hit, and when your able to do this you’re a fighter’’. Yet Condit wasn’t deemed a fighter, quickly being given the name ‘The Natural Born Runner’.

Carlos Condit is no coward. The same man who survived repeated overhand rights from power punching brute Jake Ellenberger, rebounding from the verge of unconsciousness to win a close decision. The same man who flew to England to take on Dan Hardy in what would be a pure kickboxing match, winning by first round knockout when Hardy’s last opponent, champion St-Pierre, had done everything in his power to keep him on the floor. The same man who came back from two rounds down on the scorecards to destroy the ridiculously talented Rory Macdonald cant be classed as a coward. In fact out of 33 professional fights this was only the 4th time Condit had gone to a decision. Condit has repeatedly shown grit and tenacity in fights where many others would have wilted under the pressure. Yet people were quick to overlook this and criticise Condit the same way many criticise the champion St-Pierre, for playing it safe.

Georges St-Pierre was 13-1 when he won the UFC Welterweight title from Matt Hughes, winning by technical knockout after landing a head kick. He was an ideal champion for the UFC at the time, he was dynamic, good looking, finished fights and even pulled off being French to a certain degree. His first title fight would be a squash match against a natural lightweight in Matt Serra, who had been awarded his title shot after winning a series of the Ultimate Fighter, where lower and mid-tier fighters were given a ‘Rocky-like’ chance at glory should they win the season. Matt Serra wasn’t really expected to win, not against the mighty St-Pierre, yet sure enough and given the unpredictability of kickboxing (read the other blog entries for further details) Serra managed to repeatedly rock GSP  with power shots leading to a shocking first round upset win.

This loss would have a devastating effect on that incarnation of Georges St-Pierre, from that day he would never be the same fighter. This isn’t to say he faded away into shadows to Marlon Brando himself toward obesity. St-Pierre would prove his class, as he would come back from this defeat better than ever. How was he able to manage this? From the realisation that kickboxing only ever provides a 90% chance of winning, you will always be open to a knockout blow if you stand and trade with your opponents long enough. GSP was always a well rounded fighter, but now he was to change his entire approach towards fighting to that of a pure grappler. Developing a devastating takedown game, St-Pierre could minimise the chances of being knocked out and instead use his natural athleticism and expert submission defence to stay out of trouble on the floor.

GSP would win his next two fights to gain the opportunity to fight for ‘his’ Welterweight title in a rematch against Matt Serra, who had tellingly not fought since defeating St-Pierre a year before. This time GSP would use his grappling to neutralise the chance of a repeat occurrence and destroyed Serra in less than two rounds. St-Pierre would go on to defend his title six times to this date.

However as Georges St-Pierre grew in popularity, becoming one of the UFC’s biggest pay-per-view stars, there was also growing criticism for his cautious fighting style. Winning one-sided decisions against fighters like Dan Hardy, Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch and Jake Shields showed St-Pierre’s dominance at the top of the division. Yet all these opponents have been knocked out in one round by lesser opposition, some in there very next fight after taking on GSP.

There isn’t a critic in the world that’s doubts St-Pierre’s talents as fighter, the criticism towards him is more focused on the fact GSP doesn’t seem to ‘try’ to win fights by finishing his opponents, always seeming content to coast to a decision. People feel that St-Pierre fights ‘too pretty’, that he avoids the need to display the grit that is synonymous with great champions and legendary fights. This is similar to how many fans felt hoodwinked by the game plan of Condit against Diaz, a fight which on paper seemed to be and back and forth barnburner, with Condit’s own pre-fight admission ‘It’s gonna be a dog-fight’ played during the pay-per-view advertisements.

An interesting question is, are either of these men wrong to have fought this way? The answer is of course ‘no’. Condit was not the favourite against Diaz for a reason, had the fight of occurred like many believed it was going to he would have put up a good show, maybe had some early success, but inevitably the chances are he would have been overwhelmed by Diaz. Could he have knocked out Diaz if had he planted his feet and traded from the start, possibly, but even feared knockout artist Paul Daley had Diaz down twice with his best punch, the left hook, only for Diaz to recover and finish him in very first round.

Similarly, St-Pierre was considered a laughing stock following his surprise defeat to Matt Serra, and now he is a huge star in his home country of Canada and has millions in the bank. Likewise Carlos Condit can now command a lot bigger pay checks having been UFC interim champion regardless of how his fight with GSP goes down, although St-Pierre probably wrestles his way to a decision should his knee be fully rehabilitated.

Another fighter who can no doubt make a similar claim to Condit as possessing, or even adding ‘grit’ to his fighting style is Martin Kampmann. The Dane finds himself one fight removed from a possible title shot should he beat Johnny Hendricks in the co-main event of UFC 154. Through out his 15 fight UFC career Kampmann has seen many ups and downs, originally experiencing success as a middleweight until he was blown out the frame by Nate Marquardt at UFC 87. Kampmann had previously shown the ability to take punishment and come back to win in his fight against Drew McFedries, where he was repeatedly rocked on the feet before securing a takedown and then an arm triangle choke. However in the fight with Marquardt he was badly rocked with a head kick and the finished by TKO against the cage, despite having a knock out loss on his record Kampmann had never lost consciousness.

He would drop to welterweight and successfully spoil Carlos Condit’s UFC debut by split decision. He would then by stopped in his next fight by hard hitting Brit Paul Daley and be once again be shuffled back into the division and under card obscurity. Once again one thing that stands out in both Kampmann’s knock out losses was at no stage was he knocked out cold, taking hard blows that would normally flatten most fighters. However it’s the ability to comeback from these moments that make the characteristics of true champion and Kampmann was yet to show the steel needed to fight back from the bring of defeat.

After going 2-2 in his next four fights, including being robbed of a decision against a more determined but less skilled Diego Sanchez, Kampmann would find himself taking on rugged wrestler Rick Story.
The fight began similar to how many of Kampmann’s previous fights had started, with him getting clobbered with hard hooks to the face, and within a minute of action he was bleeding from a cut above his eye. Yet this proved a minor insignificance to the Dane, who would recover to expertly control the rest of the fight to get a decision victory.

His next fight would be against Brazilian kickboxer, in what would be a closely fought contest Kampmann would find himself losing heading into the last minute of the fight. A poor decision by Alves to take the fight to the floor would see the Dane, always as confident in submission as he was on the feet, secure a guillotine choke for a submission victory.

Kampmann would then be given a chance to solidify his position in the welterweight division against heavy handed wrestler Jake Ellenberger. Surely this would be another stumbling block for Kampmann, while he began his career as a kickboxer he had always lacked the power to be a serous threat on the feet which had left him looking a bit like a sitting duck in fights against big punchers. Ellenberger contains brutal power in both hands and given his wrestling base making him hard to take down it was obvious that at some point he would connect a big punch, then it would become a question of whether Kampmann’s chin would hold up.

Sure enough, 50 seconds into the fight Ellenberger landed a huge left hook which dropped Kampmann to floor. However this time the Dane wouldn’t be overwhelmed and expertly held out the rest of the round controlling Ellenberger in his guard. The second round would begin like the first with Ellenberger throwing hard shots on the feet, however Kampmann had already survived the worst his opponent had to offer. Given Ellenberger hook-centric attack, Kampmann was able to time a counter right hand which clipped Ellenberger and put him on wobbly legs. Kampmann, who had been losing the fight up to this point, pounced expertly with a flurry of knees in the clinch dropping his opponent to the ground for the referee stoppage. Kampmann would finish the fight with his face covered in blood, battered but victorious.

His opponent Johnny Hendricks, possesses what could be argued as the antithesis to grit and determination, one punch knockout power. Why bother exchanging for three gruelling 5 minute rounds, taking damage and taking a fight into the trenches when you can end a fight and the drop of a hat (or opponent). This fight maybe a bridge to far for Kampmann and he may once again succumb to the big power of his opponent.

Hendricks had announced himself as a top contender in his fight against Jon Fitch at UFC 141. Fitch is regarded as once of the toughest fighters in the division due to his near impossible ability to resist submission and the brutal 5 round beating he managed to survive in his title shot to St-Pierre. The fight would last a mere twelve seconds with an overhand left from Hendricks removing Fitch from his senses, by the time the referee had stopped the fight Fitch had recovered slightly, but only to the point where he was trying to wrestle the referee. This fight shows the possible conclusion to the match up with Kampmann, what will be interesting is if Kampmann can once again display the necessary grit to come back from these moments.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Its Showtime 55 Leeuwarden - Post Fight Review

While the UFC was making its return to Fox with a disappointing main card filled with decisions the best combat sport event of the evening had taken place hours beforehand in the northern town of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands. I had made the trip from London with a friend for a chance to see the last kickboxing fight of former K1 superstar Badr Hari as well as a card packed with top names in several weight divisions. The event bizarrely contained two It’s Showtime fight cards (54 and 55), presumably this was done so that they can sell the two cards separately to TV stations while not having to worry about filling two arenas.

The first card of fights, essentially just an undercard, was a bit tame at times. With a few fighters content to lose decisions after failing to get the better of the first round. The one fighter who stood out the most in terms of excitement was Andy Ristie who absolutely devastated the more favoured Japanese fighter Hinata Watanabe in the first round. From the opening bell where Ristie landed a hard teep that sent Watanabe staggering back to his corner, you could see the Ristie’s intentions to finish the contest early. Which is what happened when referee called a stop to the fight after three quick knockdowns.

This would be the only knockout of the undercard as the remaining four fights all went to decision including a title clash between the Frenchman Yohan Lidon and the Moroccan L’houcine Ouzgni. It was strange that ‘It’s Showtime’ put its 73kg title fight so early in the event, which shows that ‘It’s Showtime’ don’t really value their belts that highly. Perhaps they value their belts higher than Lidon who put up a poor effort in retaining his title and was easily defeated by a decision. The heavy Moroccon contingent in the crowd were really supportive of Ouzgni, for obvious reasons. However they cheered loudly for him before and after the fight but not during, possibly from lack of clear action in the bout.

The biggest fight on the undercard was between Tyrone Spong and Melvin Manhoef, a match up which many people viewed as guaranteed to produce a knockout. Manhoef was clearly the more popular amongst the crowd and even enjoyed two entrance songs (‘Por Una Cabeza’ hilariously followed by ‘Niggas in Paris’). However when the fight began he was clearly overmatched against disciplined Spong, while not finishing in a knockout the fight was still far more entertaining than the 5 round title fight that preceded it.

The action picked up considerably, as did the crowd, for the first fight of the main card between Anderson Silva and Michael Duut. The fight got a bit feisty at the end of the first round with Duut throwing a few deliberate shots after the bell, which the crowd loved because it was one of the first times we had seen real emotion from the fighters. Silva made the Dutchman pay in the second round, battering him and dropping him for an 8 count on his way to a clear decision win.

The next fight was between It’s Showtime 70 Max champion Chris Ngimbi against the Armenian Marut Grigorian. Nigimbi’s belt wasn’t on the line as this was perhaps a stroke of good fortune for the Congolese fighter as he was absolutely picked apart by the faster Armenian. Grigorian’s constant forward movement and technical combinations offset Ngimbi’s usual game that mostly revolves around repeated flying knees. The fight was stopped in second round due to cuts and saved Ngimbi from further punishment.

Another fight that took place in the 70kg division was a thriller between Robin Van Roosmalen and Murat Direkci. The fight was quiet even throughout but I felt the decision was awarded to the right man in Roosmalen. Robin seemed able to generate ridiculous snap in his leg kicks from very close range and landed several clean punches to the solid jaw of Direkci, who announced his retirement from kickboxing after the fight. It’s Showtime announced that their next event would take place on the 30th of June and would feature a fight between Grigorian and Roosmalen, this will no doubt be a very exciting match up.

A heavyweight fight between Errol Zimmerman and Rico Verhoeven produced the first clean knockout of the night, with Verhoeven being flattened by a Zimmerman left hook. I said in my pre-fight preview that Verhoeven’s lack of knockout power could prove costly against the powerful Zimmerman, especially since heavyweight kickboxing is essentially ‘Kill or Be Killed’. Rico seemed content to stand directly in front of Zimmerman which proved a huge mistake, and possibly an equal mistake by organisation who seemed to want to push Verhoeven as a potential star. A possibly reason for this is that Rico had a huge vocal support from the women in the audience (who had kept quiet until he appeared) as well as him being purely Dutch which makes him a more marketable in the Netherlands, as this is quiet rare among top kickboxers. I doubt that Verheoven has the power to be the next Peter Aerts as he is touted as, despite weighing in at over 117kg. However he is still young as could gain some success should he be matched more carefully by the promotion until he’s ready to take on such a hard hitting heavyweight. A match up with the resurgent Zimmerman was always a huge risk for any opponent, who now extends his streak of knockout victories to five fights.

The ‘It’s Showtime’ Heavyweight Title was on the line in a much anticipated rematch between the champion Hesdy Gerges and the challenger Romanian Daniel Ghita. In a similar vein to the Shogun-Machida sequel, Daniel Ghita removed all possible controversy out of the rematch by knocking the champion clean out in the first round with a sharp left hook. Ghita showed crisp boxing in this fight and didn’t rely on his usual bombardment of leg kicks which probably caught Gerges off guard. With this win Daniel Ghita emerges as one of the top heavyweights in the world, now with a complete arsenal of strikes to go with his iron chin. A fight with Badr Hari would be great if Badr wasn’t leaving the sport.

The main event was somewhat anti-climatic yet at the same time a suiting tribute the best of Badr Hari, his ferocious knockout power. His opponent Gokhan Saki had been sat at ringside for most of the event and seemed very relaxed going into the bout. This attitude proved costly as he was caught with a huge uppercut in the first round, which he bravely got up from but never recovered, two more knockdowns and the fight was stopped. While Saki is a great fighter, the size difference between the two meant it was also going to be hard for him to get anything going without being caught by the power shots of Hari.

For what its worth Hari’s boxing looked very good on the night, finding nice angles to penetrate Saki’s guard. The Moroccan fans in attendance where going wild during the fight with chants of ‘Hari Boombaye’, which really added to the atmosphere of the fight. Hari’s star power was evident the entire night with huge cheers from the crowd every time he was shown backstage on the big screen. After the fight Hari gave a long speech in Dutch which I didn’t understand, but the speech did appear to show Hari in a more noble light as he thanked not only his trainers but also his opponents throughout his career, he also made a light hearted joke about Manhoef which everyone seemed to enjoy.

There were lots of Kickboxing legends in the crowd such as Ernesto Hoost, Peter Aerts and Remy Bonjasky. Aerts at one point received a larger ovation while leaving the Arena than Marut Gregorian did while he was making his ring entrance at the same time.

Overall, the event proved to be a hugely exciting and far eclipsing the supposedly stacked card that the UFC, which leads to question; why is kickboxing dying when it can put of great fights like these? No doubt political pressures in the Netherlands have a huge effect on its growth there. Where as the continued failure of Japanese fighters to break into the top of the sport slowly but surely cost K1 its existence in Japan, similar to Pride. However, the audience for these events does exist, I have no doubt that if you put this card on instead of the recent UFC 138 I attended in Birmingham (which was still a fun card) the entire crowd would have enjoyed this more regardless of their familiarity with any of the fighters, the same would apply in America or Canada for other events. I’m not saying the Kickboxing is better than Mixed Martial Arts as it is essentially a less complete sport, however it does guarantee action in a way that UFC’s second show on Fox didn’t. There is room for growth in the sport which constantly creates such good entertainment yet at the moment no promotion has been successful in getting the product to a western audience which would surely enjoy the stand up action. With this event being the last ‘It’s Showtime’ will hold in the Netherlands for the foreseeable future it seems unlikely they will be able to get the audience their product deserves.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

It’s Showtime 55 - Leeuwarden

At the end of this month I have the good fortune of attending the biggest kickboxing event since the demise of the Japanese promotion K1. The event is being held by the Dutch promotion ‘It’s Showtime’ who are undoubtedly looking to take other the helm as the premier organisation for the sport. The event is bizarrely taking place in the northern Dutch town of Leeuwarden due to political pressures inside the Netherlands as well as the promoters hoping to steer clear from the Dutch equivalent to the Hell’s Angels whom have links to many fighters in the sport.

The event features 7 of the top ten heavyweight in the sport as well as good selection of fighters at lighter weights. The most prominent name on the card is the always controversial Badr Hari, whose talent and knockout power is often overshadowed by moments of madness both in and outside the ring. Having been twice disqualified from fights for illegally kicking downed opponents, most notably in his fight against Remy Bonjasky in the 2008 K1 Grand Prix final. Hari has also spent time in Jail for assault and was once spotted wearing a t-shirt in support of a recently incarcerated drug lord. However, Badr Hari remains the most potent attacking talents in the sport with an extensive list of knockout wins over a who’s who of kickboxing (Peter Aerts, Ray Sefo, Alistair Overeem, Glaube Feitosa, Semmy Schilt, Stefan Leko, Errol Zimmerman, Ruslan Kareav…). Despite this Hari has announced the fight on the 28th of January will be his last as he will attempt to transfer is talents to the sport of boxing. The decision for Hari’s departure from Kickboxing is no doubt due to the collapse of K1 and lack of sizeable paydays in a sport that appears to be dying.

His opponent will be fellow top Heavyweight Gokhan Saki. While Saki possesses perhaps the most technical stand up in the division he seems to suffer from the lack of a proper crusierweight division in kickboxing. At 5’11 and 15 stone he is often a lot smaller than his opponents, despite this he still has garnered success in the division. Saki qualified for the 2010 K1 Grand Prix after knocking out Freddy Kemayo, and progressing to the semi-finals after a gruelling battle with Daniel Ghita. In the semi final Saki would take on the eventual winner Alistair Overeem, Saki went into the fight with a broken arm and gave a tremendous effort even knocking down Overeem with a spinning kick (which was wrongly not counted by the referee), before Alistair landed a kick to the broken arm of Saki which forced him to stop fighting.

Saki’s biggest strength are his lightening fast combinations which he usually punctuates with kicks, for these to be truly effective he will need to get on the inside of Hari’s long reach, which wont be easy. At 6 foot 6 Badr Hari uses his reach to fire devastating straights down the pipe, always getting the better of opponents who try to match him blow for blow. The fights which Hari has lost in recent years are were all against opponents who were patient enough to counter his aggresivness and land shots on his Achilles heel, his weak chin.

Despite his 63 knockout wins, Hari has been on the receiving end of 7 KO’s perhaps suffering due to his early start in the sport that saw him fight men much older than him while he was still a teenager. While kickboxing is generally a volatile sport where even the very best are prone to brutal knockout defeats (Ernesto Hoost, Peter Aerts, Andy Hug…), Hari’s chin is far more susceptible to giving out on him due to the damage its already taken in his career, such as his 2006 loss to Australlian Peter Graham’s spectacular trademark kick ‘Rolling Thunder’. However given the disparity in reach and size I would expect Hari’s jaw to be mute issue as he remains one of the most destructive fighters on the planet and will probably be able to stop Saki within the first three rounds.

Ironically, Saki perhaps has the better boxing skills than Hari and would probably benefit more from a move to boxing provide he fought as a cruiserweight. The Golden Glory fighter will also be leaving the sport of Kickboxing to become a mixed martial artist, a career move that has the potential to go either way.

The co-main event of the evening is a rematch of Hesdy Gerges and Daniel Ghita for the ‘It’s Showtime’ Heavyweight title. The original fight took place in march 2011 and while it only lasted 9 minutes it was filled with exciting back and forth action, especially the second round where Ghita dropped his gloves and let Gerges fire countless punches to his exposed jaw. The fight was not without controversy as a low blow to Ghita was counted as a knockdown by the referee, and while Ghita came back in the third round the ruling definitely affected the judges decision.

Hesdy Gerges famously won the title by disqualification after getting illegally kicked in the face by Badr Hari in 2010. While it would be somewhat harsh to describe that as good fortune, Gerges needs a big win here to cement himself as one of the best in the world after failing to qualify for the 2010 K1 GP losing to Semmy Schilt and recently losing a shock upset loss to up and comer Rico Verhoeven in a close but controversial decision. Similarly, Ghita has alos lost some of the momentum he built on the back of his clinical knockout win over Errol Zimmerman in 2010 and his devastating barrage of leg kicks that stopped the tough Russian Sergei Kharitanov back in 2009.

Both men have similar styles and statures (Gerges 6’6, Ghita 6’5), with both being reliant on leg kicks. Their first fight showed Gerges to have the speed advantage in the earlier rounds, where as Ghita began to find success going to the body of the Egyptian. The rematch is now scheduled to go 5 rounds, probably an attempt to avoid the controversy a 3 round title fight can generate. The extra rounds should give the advantage to Ghita should he come on stronger in the later rounds given Gerges tendency to noticeably tire after the first round.

Another Important Heavyweight fight that takes place on the card is the resurgent Errol Zimmerman taking on 22 year old Dutch prospect Rico Verhoeven. After a devastating 2010 that saw him drop three out of four fights, including a brutal knockout defeat to Daniel Ghita, Zimmerman has rebounded with a 6 fight win streak culminating with the ‘SuperKombat’ tournament title (winning all three fights by KO). Now it remains to be seen just how well he does against a current top ten fighter, filling that role is Rico Verhoeven, having just snuck past Hesdy Gerges in a close fight.

Verhoeven is being billed by some as being the next Peter Aerts. While that might be hyperbole, Rico certainly has the physical qualities to excel in the world of kickboxing at 6’5 and 18 stone already. However the biggest criticism of Verhoeven’s game is his inability to finish (wikipedia claims he has 8 ko’s in 36 wins but only lists four of them). This might be a crucial flaw in his fight with Zimmerman, who has the power to end a contest at any moment.

Perhaps the most exciting fight of the night takes place on the undercard, which is bizarre as it features two of the biggest names on the bill, Tyrone Spong and Melvin Manhoef. It’s highly unlikely this fight goes to a decision given Manhoef’s wild concussive power and propensity for getting knocked out himself. Tyrone Spong is the more polished fighter of the two and should be able to find Manhoef’s jaw if he can avoid the powerful hooks of Melvin which will be fired at him in return. Spong put on a valiant showing in the 2010 K1 GP against Overeem, rocking the eventual champion early before losing a decision.

Spong is also looking to start a career in MMA and has been helping former UFC champion Rashad Evans in training his stand up in return for some lessons in wrestling and stopping takedowns. Manhoef has already had lengthy career in MMA and is known for his stints in Cage Rage, Dream and Strikeforce. Spong will no doubt be looking at this fight as a stepping stone towards launching his MMA career, in a favourable contest where he wont have to worry about being taken down.

However it would be a mistake to write off Manhoef’s chances in any fight as he still remains the only man to ever KO legendarily iron chinned Mark Hunt, a feat he managed in less than 19 seconds. This fight has the makings to be the most exciting on the card, although it may not last long.

Further strange scheduling means Yohan Lidon will defend his 73kg ‘It’s Showtime’ belt on the undercard against Moroccan l’houcine Ouzgni. While late replacement Chris Ngimbi will not be defending his 70kg title against Harut Grigorian on the maincard. It will still be good to see the high flying African fight as he provides a lot of excitement, with 2 wins by flying knee knockout in his last four fights. The card will also feature an appearance of the unfortunately named Brazilian striker Anderson Silva, whom has furthered the links between himself with the UFC Legend by recently helping Lyoto Machida train for his fight with Jon Jones. Also on the main card is a fight between Robin Van Roosmalen and Murat Direcki. Roosmalen will be looking to continue his success after winning the ‘It’s Showtime Fast and Furious 70MAX’ Grand Prix in September of 2011 which included a decision win over Chris Ngimbi.

While there are some questionable decisions made by ‘It’s Showtime’ in the organising of this event (such as location, decision to have certain fights on the maincard…), its good to see an event that puts top fighters against each other. For example the upcoming ‘Yokkao Extreme 2012’ being held in Italy features the two top 170 pound kickboxers on the planet, Giorgio Petrosyan and Buakaw Por. Pramuk, but has given them both easy opponents instead of delivering the much anticipated dream fight. Similar scenes could be seen in 2011’s ‘Its Showtime Lyon’ event which had Hari, Ghita and Spong easily defeat overmatched opponents instead of putting on fights that have relevancy to the heavyweight division. This is no doubt due to demise of K1’s brutal GP format which took the best 8 fighters from a weight class and made them fight an elimination tournament until one was crowned the best in the world. While this wreaked havoc on fighters records, with seven of the men guaranteed losses, it provided great entertainment which is what ‘It’s Showtime’ must start to do if they want to revive the sport of kickboxing.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

God Gave Me Style, God Gave Me Grace

There’s little argument that Jon Jones is the most physically gifted fighter to ever compete in the sport of mixed martial arts. His unparalleled athleticism, functional strength and explosive striking have catapulted him to the elite of the UFC’s roster of fighters. The ease of which he is able to perform jaw dropping manoeuvres against opponents to devastating effect has gained him a reputation as one of the most exciting combat athletes on the planet. Jones’s array of spinning elbows, flashy kicks and lengthy punches combined with his skills to dominate many grapplers in their own field have marked Jones out to many as being the future of the sport, from a technical as well as physical perspective. However it is important to mention the genetic gifts that Jones possesses ( i.e coming from a family of professional athletes, having the arm span of a 7 foot tall man at 84.5 inches etc) that have helped to separate Jones even further from his competition.

A lot of people comment on how fast Jones has risen to the top of the sport, but not many realise just how fast it’s actually been. It took Jones just 4 months from turning professional to get his first win inside the UFC. In only 3 years as a professional fighter he obtained the UFC Light Heavyweight Title, in doing so he became the youngest ever fighter to win a UFC championship at the age of 23. In the process he became the only man to ever knockout MMA legend Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, as well as the first person to submit NCAA division 1 wrestler Ryan Bader. Adding to this impressive feat is the fact that in all 15 of Jones’s MMA fights he never been in trouble, dominating in every aspect of his fights.

The one Jones has experienced on his record is nothing more than a fluke. Similar to the loss suffered early in the career of the great Fedor Emelianenko, Jones’s careers only blemish comes from being on the wrong side of a ridiculous ruling.

The controversial defeat came against wrestler Matt Hamill in a fight Jones dominated from start to finish. Before the fight began people were curious to see who would have the wrestling advantage, Jones quickly answered these question slamming Hamill to the canvas from a Greco Roman Clinch. From here Jones quickly gained full mount and began raining devastating elbows towards face of Hamill. While alternating the angles from which he was throwing his strikes from, Jones broke a bizarre bi-law in UFC rulebook that disallowed elbows thrown vertically downwards, an angle referred to as 12-to-6. The referee ruled that Jones should be disqualified, therefore handing him his first defeat of his career. The irony of the situation being that Hamill had dislocated his shoulder from Jones’s takedown, had the fight continued to the end of the round meaning Hamill would have been unable to continue fighting thus awarding a TKO victory to Jones. The rule had been made by a member of the Nevada athletic commission who had witnessed a martial arts shows where someone had broke a block of ice with a 12-to-6 elbow and thus decided they were unsafe for competition.

However, the UFC saw the enormous potential in Jones and would put him in the main events for its first two shows on the American network Versus. In the inaugural event on the channel Jones would take on Brandon Vera, a fighter once subjected to the same hype Jones was currently experiencing. Vera also knew firsthand how quickly fan favour can change when he himself failed to live up to his early career hype. Jones once again managed to effortlessly get his opponent to the ground, once there he was caught with an illegal up kick from Vera, causing a pause in the action while Jones was allowed to gather his wits by the referee. Once the fight was restarted Jones landed a devastating elbow to the face of Vera, shattering his eye socket, a few more punches later and the fight stopped with Jones being awarded victory by knockout.

Jones second fight on the network would last less then two minutes as he took experienced veteran Vladimir Matyushenko. Jones would once against effortlessly out grapple an experienced wrestler, getting Matyushenko on his back and quickly assuming side control. From this position Jones transitioned to what is referred to as the Ivan Salaverry position/mounted crucifix, with Jones being able to trap both Matyushenko’s arms. With his opponent unable to defend his head, Jones landed a quick succession of elbows which caused the referee to stop the fight.

Jones rise through the ranks of the light heavyweight division continued as he took on undefeated ‘Ultimate Fighter’ winner, Ryan Bader. While Jones was considered the favourite to win, no one was expecting an easy fight, due largely in part to Bader’s wrestling credentials and knockout power.

Although the fight went longer than Jones previous two fights, he was thoroughly in control for the duration of the bout before locking in a modified guillotine choke to win in the second round. Jones was able to exhibit some extremely unorthodox moves that confused Bader, such as a backwards jump over the head of his crouched opponent to take his back. Moves like this showed the uniqueness in Jones approach to MMA but also a confidence in his own natural abilities.

Following the fight Jones would be informed that his then training partner Rashad Evans would be unable to challenge for the title due to an injury he suffered in training. As a result Jones was offered to take the fight against Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, which was in less than 6 weeks time. For any other fighter this would be a huge ask on such a short notice, but for Jones this was almost six weeks too long. As Jones showed in the fight against Rua that he already had the ability to beat the world’s top light heavyweight.

In the build up to the fight with Shogun, Jones had been rumoured to have been signing photographs for fans as ‘Jon Jones Champion 2011’. a move which had angered Rua who felt slighted by the lack of respect Jones had been showing him. While Shogun would be coming back from a year long hiatus from the sport, the result of an knee injury he picked up winning the title from Lyoto Machida. It is hard to discredit Jones victory as being a matter of good timing due to the ease he was able to pick apart such a experienced fighter.

Many expected Jones’s to cause Shogun problems with his takedowns, few expected him to give Shogun problems on the feet given Shogun‘s Muay Thai pedigree. Furthermore, no-one expected Jones to land a flying knee to Shoguns jaw seconds in to the fight which rocked the champion. In interviews after the fight Shogun credit’s the knee as being pivotal in the proceedings that followed, stating that he was badly rocked by it and never fully recovered.

In the fight Jones would mix together his arsenal of flashy strikes, Greco roman takedowns and elbows on the ground to devastate the tough Brazilian. Shogun valiantly fought on but the result of the contest was never in too much doubt. After Shogun failed to hook in a leg lock at the beginning of the third round, it was the beginning of the end for his reign as title holder. Jones continued to batter Shogun with strikes from inside his guard. Shogun managed to make it back to his feet but was in a very bad condition, he staggered backwards across the ring with Jones stalking him, smelling blood. Finding Shogun with his back pinned to the cage, Jones landed a hard left hook to the body that buckled Rua, catching him with a knee on his way down. The referee waved off the fight seconds before Shogun himself taped on the floor to signal his resignation from the contest and an acknowledgment that he had been defeated. When the newly crowned king of the light heavyweight division was interviewed post fight, his first words were ‘Jon Jones champion 2011’, a cocky reminder of his prophetic boasts before the fight.

Jones would go on to defend his belt against Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson in a fight he controlled using his extraordinary reach advantage. Keeping the fight at distance Jones was able to avoid the powerful punches of Rampage on the inside. Jones was also instructed by his coach Greg Jackson to throw kicks to the body every time Jackson looked to throw a hook, with the foot landing underneath Rampage‘s punching arm. As a result, Jones was able to nullify the power of Rampage by punishing him every time he looked to get on the inside. After wearing down the former champion Jones was able to secure a rear naked choke in the 4th round to finish the overmatched Rampage.

With that victory Jones became one of only two men to defend the Light Heavyweight Title since Rampage lost it in the summer of 2008 to Forrest Griffin. The other man is none other than Jones’s next opponent, Lyoto ‘The Dragon’ Machida.

The fight this Saturday is intriguing as Machida actually matches up with Jones far better than any of his last opponents. Lyoto possesses great takedown defence as unmatched ability to fight at range. If Jones is unable to take Machida down then he might fight himself getting picked apart by the defensive Brazilian. Also in the fight Jones’s reach may work against him as Machida will be able to cause damage if he can get on the inside. Because of this Jones will prefer to keep the fight on the outside, however this is a risky strategy as Machida is very intelligent at moving in and out of his opponents reach, although it is yet to be seen if he can overcome a  reach a large as Jones.

While striking I fully expect for Jones to utilise kicks to the body similar to Shogun did against Machida. By focusing on the core of Machida rather than his elusive jaw line, Jones will have a higher success rate in landing strikes. Machida prefers to fight on the counter but could be in for a ‘long’ evening (sorry) if Jones can stifle him with singular strikes such as jabs and Muay Thai Teeps.

Both men possess power to end the fight, Jones has a reliance on flashy spin kick and jumping knees but he is most powerful when throwing strikes on the ground. As a result I think his best strategy is to attempt to take Machida down and work from inside his guard. While Machida has great takedown defence and good clinch game, I expect Jones is the better athlete as should be able to get Machida to the ground. If Jones wants to keep the fight at range he will be negating his physical gifts and could see himself in similar situation to Rashad Evans when he fought Machida. Greg Jackson was Evans coach for that fight and he now coaches Jones, surely Jackson would be wise not to make the same mistake again.

Fighters with long reaches don’t respond well to being swarmed on the inside. An notable example of this is six foot eleven world champion K1 fighter Semmy Schilt, who suffered three loses to fellow Dutchman Peter Aerts. These fights were won due to Aerts not being afraid to step through his opponents jab to land his shorter punches on the inside. Jones actually as 1 inch longer reach than Semmy, but doesn’t have the same height and will be easy to hit if he cant establish his range early. Although this gameplan isn’t reminiscent of ones Machida has used in the past it could be used as counter measure should Jones be able to get the better of the fight on the outside should it become a slow paced point fighting contest.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

‘And behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns’

The quote in the title comes from the ‘Book of Revelations’ in the Bible, an admittedly odd choice to begin a post about Lyoto Machida, an half Brazilian half Japanese MMA fighter. The description was later turned into a series of water colour paintings by the poet William Blake. One painting in particular, ‘The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun’, would in turn be used as the motivation for a fictional serial killer in Thomas Harris novel ‘The Red Dragon’.

The character of Francis Dolarhyde goes on a killing spree in the belief that it will make him more like the dragon in the painting, which he perceives as being as powerful as God. Dolarhyde is very calculating and methodical in his actions, using film from of his victims home videos which acquires through his work as a videotape technician to carefully orchestrate his attacks, he is able to avoid capture by the FBI. While primarily referred to as the ‘tooth fairy’ in the beginning of the novel, he like Machida gives himself the name of ‘The Dragon’.

The link between the two men is perhaps unfair to Machida who seems like generally nice guy, never engaging in trash talking to his opponents and always conducting himself respectfully in victory. However like Dolarhyde the nickname ‘The Dragon’ is best suited not to Machida as person, but perhaps just who he becomes when he is at his most violent. While not considered a power puncher, Machida is responsible for some of the most devastating knockouts in the UFC. From a brutal onslaught of punches used to finish Rashad Evans to capture the UFC Title, or the spectacular flying front kick Lyoto used to retire Randy Couture. A kick that could be seen in the replay sending a tooth flying out of the mouth of Couture, possibly Machida and Dolarhyde could share a another mutual nickname, the ‘tooth fairy’.

However despite these highlight reel finishes Machida is primarily a defensive counter puncher. Fighting from a Southpaw stance, his strongest attribute is highly ability to avoid damage from his opponents. Machida uses a wide variety of feints and misdirection’s to confuse his opposition, landing punches of his own before promptly retreating back to outside his opponents range.

A cautious style that had lead to some fans stating he has a tendency to run from his adversaries during fights. Tito Ortiz could be heard telling his corner in between rounds of his fight that Machida is ‘‘fucking running all the time’’. This reaction was no doubt partly due to the frustration on Ortiz’s behalf as he was being successfully outmanoeuvred and was trailing on points, it gives a good indication to helplessness opponents feel while fighting him. However Stephan Bonnar was more complimentative about Machida‘s style, after suffering a first round TKO loss to Machida early in both men’s careers, he describe the contest being like fighting ‘a ghost’.

Machida is also very unorthodox in the sense that he is reliant on traditional martial arts for his success in mixed martial arts. While he does have the prerequisite of a solid ground game with his BJJ black belt, he is able to use Karate to great success.

The invention of MMA was seen by many as the deathblow for traditional martial arts as they would be shown to be ineffective in an actual fight. However the fighting style titled ‘Machida Karate’ taught by Lyoto’s father Shotokan karate master Yoshizo Machida was developed for real life combat. While most Karate schools teach with the aim of preparing students for Karate tournaments, with rules like no punching to the head, Machida Karate is altered to have more effect in a MMA contest. Yoshizo Machida’s transition of the martial art is similar in it’s ideology to Helio Gracie’s development of Brazilian Jujitsu from the traditional Japanese form.

Machida is also a great grappler and has terrific takedown defence, this is in part down to Machida’s Sumo training, he even successfully took part in Sumo Competitions, proving that other martial arts can be used successfully in MMA if they are correctly integrated into the existing essentials skills of a MMA fighter. Due to this Machida’s difference in style provides a great contrast to the existing fighter clich├ęs as the wrestler/boxer from America or the Muay Thai/BJJ fighter from Brazil.

Lyoto Machida’s arrival in the UFC was far from awe inspiring, his first three fights were all slow paced unanimous victories in which he used his defensive point fighting style, which he had mastered in years of karate tournaments, to safely guide himself to gaining the judges decision. It wasn’t until he stopped the rapid rise of Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou in the second round of their fight by arm triangle choke that he began to gain recognition in the division. Sokoudjou was fresh of first round knockout victories over highly ranked Brazilians Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona and was making his debut in the UFC. He was seen as a dangerous opponent for Machida, yet it was Lyoto who controlled the pace of the fight, reversing the Cameroonians judo throws with sweeps the second they hit the mat and countering his strikes with brilliantly timed trips.

Machida’s next fight would be against the UFC superstar Tito Ortiz. Machida would be selected to face Ortiz by UFC president Dana White, as it would be the last fight on Tito’s contract and after long running feud between the two men White wanted an opponent that would give Ortiz no chance of a farewell victory. The fight would see Machida expertly control the pace while avoiding takedowns from Ortiz, who was growing frustrated by his inability to connect with punches on Machida. In the third round Lyoto dropped Ortiz with a knee to the body and followed his opponent to ground in an attempt to finish the fight. Ortiz then managed to catch Machida in a deep triangle choke, which Machida somehow managed to escape from before the fight ended, with Machida being awarded an unanimous decision victory.

Machida’s next fight would be against aggressive Brazilian Brawler Thiago Silva, who like Machida sported an undefeated 13-0 record at the time. Silva’s aggressiveness would play perfectly into Machida counter striking style. The performance by Lyoto could be deemed a work of art, as he was able to repeatedly drop Silva with well timed attacks, all the while avoiding the power of his fellow Brazilian. Thiago relentless pushed the pace forward putting himself further and further into danger from Machida’s Counters. With Ten seconds left in the first round both men found themselves pressed against the cage wall, from here Machida was able to trip Thiago before landing a finishing blow to the jaw of his downed opponent, seconds before the bell sounded to end the round. It would be Machida’s first knockout win in the UFC and one that would, due to fortunate fight cancellations, lead him to a shot at the Rashad Evans Light Heavyweight title.

Evans had rose to prominence in the UFC with his two knockouts of fan favourites Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin. The latter earned him the title and his first defence was supposed to be against Rampage Jackson at UFC 100. However the fight was traded with Brock Lesnar v Frank Mir to UFC 98 due to a minor injury to Mir. With Rampage being unable to fight on such short notice, Machida was given the opportunity to fight for the title, an opportunity he would capitalise on.

Both Machida and Evans were undefeated going into UFC 98 and it was unclear what type of fight to expect going in. Despite recent success on the feet Evans was primarily a wrestler, would he try to knock out Machida or take him down to ground where he would be unable to employ his effective footwork. Evan’s coach Greg Jackson is seen by many as to being the best strategist in the sport, people felt he would be the man to develop a gameplan to solve the enigma of Machida. Instead it would be one of Jackson’s biggest tactical disasters, as Evans attempted to stay on the outside and try and play Machida’s point fighting against him, with the hopes of landing a big knockout punch. The gameplan resulted in a second round knockout with Evans losing his belt after being repeatedly dropped and then finished with a multitude of punches from the Challenger.

Sadly, Machida’s reign as champion wouldn’t last long either, as he came across his first Challenge to his new belt, Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua. The first fight at UFC 104 would be subject to vast controversy as Machida was awarded an unanimous decision victory following five rounds of action. While the fight was a lot closer than many people like to remember it, Shogun was able to frequently land heavy kicks to the body and legs of Machida, noticeably slowing down Lyoto in the later rounds. Machida would counter each kick with a straight left to the head of Shogun, who was keeping a tight guard.

Here in lies the controversy in the scoring, with neither man able to get the knockout, what causes more damage a kick to the legs or punch to the face? the judges opted with the punch and awarded the victory to Machida. While shogun clearly took the last two rounds the first three are open to debate, a lot of people only remember the attacks of shogun choosing to look past moments of success for Machida, such as rocking Rua in third. The controversy would also lead to people critiquing the judging criteria for UFC fights, Machida had successfully defended every takedown attempted by Shogun, as a result you would have to say Machida won the ‘effective grappling’ element of the fight, but what importance does that play in a fight that was mainly striking? It certainly shouldn’t be weighted the same.

Shogun would be granted a rematch at UFC 113, the fight was highly anticipated due the controversial scoring of the first fight. The previous encounter was the first time Machida had been made to look mortal, despite this he still the bookie’s favourite to retain his crown as many expected he would make the necessary alterations to his style to be able to defend more successfully against Shogun’s Muay Thai.

The fight saw a much more aggressive Machida attempt to push the pace against Shogun frequently throwing knees and scoring takedowns. However the new aggression saw Machida’s defence compromised, as he was found repeatedly flat footed when Shogun attacked which saw him take more punches to the head then usual. Seconds after landing a hard knee to the body of Shogun, Machida was tricked by a dummy leg kick which attempted to counter with a straight left which left him exposed to an overhand right by Shogun which clipped him on the side of the head, dropping him to the floor. From there Shogun’s killer instinct, the best in the sport, took control as he landed straight into full mount and threw a series of devastating punches to finish the fight.

The aura of Lyoto Machida had been shattered in brutal fashion, what was once proclaimed the ‘Machida Era’ by commentator Joe Rogan had lasted barely two fights. The once unbeatable monster had been usurped violently. The first fight against Shogun had turned public opinion against Machida, and the second had seemed to validate it. The idea Machida being this mighty Dragon who would dominate MMA for years to come had been crushed. Very few people entertain the opinion that Shogun was just a bad match up for Machida. Shogun’s ability to fire powerful kicks to body of Machida, while possessing a strong chin to be able to walk through Lyoto’s counters proved to be deadly combination. Any fighter who is reliant primarily on their kickboxing is going to be prone to suffer the odd knockout defeat, take a look at any successful K1 fighter and they have no doubt been knocked out at some point in their career. There are just too many variables to consider in the stand up department, which is why a more measured approach such as that of Georges St. Pierre leads to more long term success as champion. Anderson Silva has stayed Champion for long time while primarily being a kick boxer but hasn’t fought any fighter as dynamic as Machida or Shogun on the feet.

Machida would attempt to get his career back on track against the heavy hitting Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson. Machida could be seen to be very timid in the opening rounds, no doubt influenced by his knockout defeat to Shogun. The first two rounds had very little action with both fighters doing enough to take a round a piece. However Lyoto Machida looked more like his old self in the final round, rocking ‘Rampage’ with strikes and then controlling him on the ground. This time however Machida was on the wrong end of a bad judges decision that saw Jackson awarded a split decision victory, no doubt heavily influenced by the caution Machida showed in the first two rounds.

Machida would rebound from these consecutive losses with a vintage performance against an 46 year old Randy Couture. It was already decided by the Couture that he would retire from the sport win or lose after having a long successful career capturing world titles at two different weight classes. Couture had always mentioned in interviews that he wanted to take on Machida to see if his Greco Roman wrestling could be successful against Machida’s defensive counter fighting style. However it would not be the triumphant send off Couture had hoped for as he was unable to use his effective clinch game in the opening round and found himself unable to close the distance against Machida’s elusive footwork. The second round saw Machida bring the fight to a close with a sensational right footed front kick that instantly knocked out Couture.

As fate would have it, once again Machida now finds himself awarded a title shot due to the cancellations of other fights. This time he takes on the current big thing Jon ‘Bones’ Jones, who like Machida previously, is seen by many to be unbeatable. Also Once again Machida fins himself trying to take the title of a Greg Jackson trained fighter, will Jackson repent from his tactical error in their first meeting? Look for a future instalment of this blog where I detail the rise of Jon Jones as well as break down the stylistic elements of the match up between the two.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

For your consideration...

At UFC 139 last weekend grizzled veteran Dan Henderson got the better of Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, winning an unanimous decision over 5 brutal rounds. Following a frenetic first round that saw both men on the canvas, Henderson took control of the contest battering his opponent with his powerful right hand. The third round was exceptionally decisive for the American Henderson, who nearly claimed a stoppage victory after dropping Rua for the second time, but was unable to land those vital blows to his finish his downed opponent and the fight was allowed to continue by the referee. However, despite being severely beaten and bloodied, it was the Brazilian ‘Shogun’ who came back to claim the 4th round and then go on to dominate Henderson on the ground for the final round of the fight.

While there was some controversy in the media about whether the fight should have been scored a draw, with Rua being awarded a 10-8 score in the 5th round, there was agreement among sportswriters that the bout could be considered among the greatest fights of all time. Now if the greatest boxing match of all time is Marvin Hagler vs. Thomas Hearns and the greatest kickboxing fight is Ray Sefo vs. Mark Hunt, it should be just as easy to draw on the same collective answer to what is the best MMA fight in history. However its not that easy, in the 18 year history of mixed martial arts there has been so many exciting fights for different promotions that arriving a definitive answer is very hard to achieve. I have however composed a list of fights that can be in my opinion be considered the greatest MMA fights of all time.

1. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Mirko Filipovic
2. Nick Diaz vs. Takanori Gomi
3. Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen
4. Wanderlei Silva vs. Rampage Jackson 2
5. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Bob Sapp
6. Shogun Rua vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira
7. Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard 2
8. Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg 2
9. Anderson Silva vs. Forrest Griffin
10. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Fedor Emelianenko 1
11. Nick Diaz vs. Paul Daley
12. Tito Ortiz vs. Frank Shamrock
13. Melvin Manhoef vs. Evangelista Santos
14. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Randy Couture
15. Shogun Rua vs. Forrest Griffin 1
16. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Josh Barnett 1
17. Wanderlei Silva vs. Chuck Liddell
18. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Fedor Emelianenko 3
19. Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar 1
20. Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard 3
21. Wanderlei Silva vs. Rampage Jackson 1
22. Wanderlei Silva vs. Dan Henderson 2
23. Lyoto Machida vs. Shogun Rua (1 and 2)
24. Don Frye vs. Yoshiro Takayama
25. Clay Guida vs. Diego Sanchez
26. Pat Barry vs. Cheick Kongo
27. Nick Diaz vs. BJ Penn
28. Fedor Emelianenko vs. Dan Henderson
29. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Sergei Kharitonov
30. Mirko Filipovic vs. Gabriel Gonzaga
31. Rampage Jackson vs. Dan Henderson
32. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Heath Herring 1
33. Alexander Emelianenko vs. Sergei Kharitonov
34. Forrest Griffin vs. Rampage Jackson
35. Leonard Garcia vs. Jung Chan-Sung
36. Joachim Hansen vs. Luiz Azeredo
37. Lyoto Machida vs. Thiago Silva
38. Takanori Gomi vs. Jens Pulver
39. BJ Penn vs. Matt Hughes 2
40. James Thompson vs. Kazuyuki Yoshida
41. Jon Jones vs. Shogun Rua
42. Wanderlei Silva vs. Vitor Belfort
43. Roger Huerta vs. Clay Guida
44. Ryo Chonan vs. Anderson Silva
45. Mark Coleman vs. Igor Vovchanchyn
46. Randy Couture vs. Vitor Belfort 1
47. Wanderlei Silva vs. Mirko Filipovic 2
48. Shogun Rua vs. Ricardo Arona
49. Andrei Arlovski vs. Tim Sylvia 2
50. Rampage Jackson vs. Ricardo Arona

While a definitive list will always be somewhat controversial in its inclusions and omissions it inevitably comes down to a matter of opinion. Are fights that are evenly contested throughout better than fights that feature remarkable comeback victories? Are fights where the underdog pulls off a sensational win better than a champion delivering a career defining performance? It’s is ultimately my belief that a great fight is one where a fight transcends violence and sport and becomes an art form. This can be seen in Nogueira’s submission victory over Mirko ‘CroCop’ Filipovic in the number one spot. The fight will always stand out as the quintessential MMA fight where Nogueira finds himself on the wrong side of a stylistic mismatch, having to be saved by the bell from being finished by ‘CroCop’ at the very end of round one after taking a powerful headkick. Nogueira then at start of Round 2 manages to overcome adversity through sheer will, when he eventually takes the Croatian out of his comfort zone as world class kick boxer and manages to utilise his brilliant Brazilian jiu-jitsu for the armbar victory.

All these fights will be looked at in further instalments of this blog, however at the moment the question remains, where does Henderson vs. Shogun rank among them?

I think the answer is at number 6 just above Shogun similar fight with the Little Nogueira brother in the Pride FC’s 2005 middleweight Grand Prix Quarter Final. A fight it surpasses by delivering even more action. While Shogun gets off the Canvas to knock down his opponent in both fights he was never in as much danger against Nogueira as he was against Henderson, nor was he able to dictate the pace of the fight as frequently as he could against little Nog, recklessly diving into Brazilian’s guard with hard punches. Both fights ended the same way with Shogun outlasting his opponent he was unable to win the judges decision against Henderson who had done enough in the first three rounds. Ironically had the Henderson fight occurred under Pride rules Shogun may have won the decision as the scoring was not based on a round system instead the fight was reviewed as a whole, favouring the fighter that finishes stronger.

The list features some unusual inclusions such as the extremely one sided fights like Anderson Silva v Forrest Griffin or the under-rated Lyoto Machida v Thiago Silva. These fights were added due the brilliance performances delivered by the victors, both showing such a high level of technical skill as they pick apart highly ranked opposition, both fight culminating in stunning knockouts. Likewise upset victories such as Couture vs. Belfort and Gonzaga vs. Filipovic, where the underdogs were able to use effective strategies to turns the tables on their opponents and knock out men who many expected them to get knocked out by.

The list also features many of the same fighters multiple times, I think this is due to certain styles exhibited by the fighters. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for example is known for taking tremendous punishment in fights only to comeback a pull of sensational submission wins from the bring of defeat. Likewise Nick Diaz has the ability to turn every fight into a exciting scrap, where his open defence leaves him prone to getting hit with hard shots, only to outlast his opponent due to his tremendous cardio and effective boxing. His ability to deliver accumulative damage to his opponents with his constant barrage of seemingly light punches can be seen in his fights with power punchers like Britain’s Paul Daley and Japan’s Takanori Gomi. Both men known for their one punch knockout ability and provided an interesting contrast to the stand up approach of Diaz. Despite being dropped twice in the first round against Daley by massive left hooks, Diaz’s exceptional cardio allowed him to recover where as the build up of damage done by Diaz on Daley proved to much as British fighter was overwhelmed with a combination of quick jabs and powerful shots disguised in combinations of light punches. While both fights were very short they were filled with more back on forth action than most fights on the list that went the distance.

Most great fights rely on fighters who have great chins and ability to take punishment way further than physical limits of ordinary fighters. Clay Guida for example features multiple times on the list due to his ability to push a fast pace in fights and his ability to take blows that would finish weaker fighters, such as the head kick he received in the first round against Diego Sanchez. The same is true for Henderson and Rua, people were intrigued in the pre-flight build up as neither have suffered true knockout defeats before, due to their iron chins, while both are known for their knockout power. This sort of clash, no matter how long it last is always a recipe for great action.

Ultimately while most great fights depend of the strength of the match up of the two fighters, both stylistically and physically, it takes that one special moment when the action of the fight defies the belief of possibility to truly become a great fight. Examples of this includes Frankie Edgar’s sensational repeat comebacks against Gary Maynard or Anderson Silva’s Magic against Forrest Griffin. In that regards the press are right in heralding the main event of UFC 139 as one of the best fights ever, due to the unbreakable will to win from both men and the ability to fight back in almost impossible situations.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men

I was fortunate enough to attend UFC 138 in person at the Birmingham LG arena. While the card had attracted a lot of criticism due to lack of big named fighters as well as some unfortunate cancellations of exciting match ups in the weeks leading up to it. It nonetheless delivered on the night with an action packed main card, filled with brutal knockdowns and quick submission finishes. The lack of familiar fighters provided an opportunity for new names to emerge in the much maligned British contingent of fighters in the UFC. The arrival of the two lower weight classes in the UFC, Featherweight and Bantamweight, meant that highly touted London born 135 pound Brad Pickett could finally make his mark on the worlds biggest MMA promotion.

The lack of big names was long since forgotten about as the lights went down for Pickett to make his entrance. Pickett had instantly been accepted by the patriotically biased crowd, who now hoped he would go on to achieve the accolade of being the first UFC champion to come from Britain. Pickett entered the ring to a comedy song called ‘Wallop’ by duo Chaz and Dave, a genre of music dubbed ‘rockney’, also wearing dungarees, a white vest and a trilby hat reading a copy of the daily telegraph it was unmistakably London entrance. Despite the event taking place in Birmingham the crowd welcome the distinct eccentric style of the unmistakably British fighter in a sport dominated by violent Brazilians and American wrestlers. The is great importance for the UFC to continue to create popular fighters in Britain, after fighters like Michael Bisping and Dan Hardy failing to make an impact at the very top of their divisions.

His opponent almost seemed like an afterthought, although his opponent Renan Barao was unbeaten in 27 fights their had been claims in the MMA media that his record was severely padded and his only fight in the UFC prior was a dull decision win. If Pickett would pick up a win on home soil he could be immediately be thrown into talk of title contention against current Bantamweight champion, the talented but tame Dominic Cruz.

However, as the UFC had experienced many times in their history as a promotion as well as their history on hosting shows on British soil, that the combat sports are highly unpredictable.  Pickett was impressively defeated inside the first round after being outclassed in every department. The circumstances were similar to Pride Superstar Mirko ‘CroCop’ Filipovic when he pretty much wrote the book on shocking upset defeats at UFC 70 in Manchester. Where his expected cakewalk to a heavyweight title shot was derailed by an irony steeped Gabriel Gonzaga head kick. So true to form, it was Barao who looked sensational out striking Pickett on the feet, keen to let his opponent control the centre of the ring as he moved in and out winning every exchange. A sensational flying knee stunned the durable Pickett before it was quickly followed up by a barrage of punches that sent the British fighter to the ground. The Brazilian instantly leapt on the back of Pickett and after a brief struggle secured a rear naked choke to end the fight.

A week later a similar upset would occur in the UFC’s inaugural debut on American network television. The event titled ‘UFC on Fox’ was to feature on one fight, a clash between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos for the promotions heavyweight title. Velasquez had rose to fame capturing the title from pay per view behemoth Brock Lesnar. Velasquez’s Mexican heritage was seen as a winning ticket for the UFC as along with it game the lucrative Mexican fight market. Now while Dos Santos was seen as a very talented fighter with destructive knockout power, which he had used to stop his first 5 UFC opponents and bludgeon the other two, he wasn’t seen as being able to provide an answer to the wrestling of Cain. Velasquez had also made a name for himself in knocking out opponents, taking out tough opponents such as the legend ‘Minatauro’ Nogueira and Brock Lesnar. Cain was seen to have multiple ways to win, where as Dos Santos was seen as too one dimensional. No one in the UFC had seen the overall game of Dos Santos due to his excellent takedown defence, which was still not seen as being enough to stop the relentless Velasquez.

The event had seen endless promotion in the weeks preceding it and was scheduled for 5 rounds in front of a largely pro Velasquez crowd in California. Once again the viewing public were shown just how unpredictable a sport mixed martial arts is when in just 64 seconds Dos Santos had obliterated the now former champion Velazquez with a devastating right hand and follow up punches. The fundamental mistake made by Velazquez in his boxing had cost him massively, an attempt to counter a Dos Santos’s jab with a lazy left hook left him open to and overhand right to the side of his head from which he was unable to recover. The most basic combination in boxing, the 1-2, had usurped the moniker of ‘baddest man on the planet’, previously owned before Cain by Brock Lesnar. While Velasquez had previously shown good head movement in his offensive punching, the decision to wait for a powerful puncher like Dos Santos to attack was what was responsible for his defeat.

It was the inability to deal with a right hand that had cost former champion Randy Couture his title to Brock Lesnar back in 2008, instead of dipping his head underneath the punch of Lesnar he instead dipped to his right which gave Brock enough time to angle the movement of his punch downwards just enough to catch Couture on the back of his head sending him to canvas in similar fashion to Velasquez. Likewise it had been an overhand right at the beginning of Couture title winning challenge to Tim Sylvia, where the 6 foot 8 Sylvia failed to deal with a right hand that sent him crashing to the floor which set the tone for the rest of the fight. However unlike these to previous fights the title now belonged to a man seen as being less marketable, and therefore less financially viable. UFC president Dana White was left to criticise the decision of Velasquez to try to stand with Dos Santos instead of going for takedowns on the on air broadcast, stating somewhat unprofessionally that Dos Santos is known for getting tired later in fights and this weakness should have been exploited by Velasquez.

Thus is the unfortunate side of fight promotion is that for every two men there is always one more marketable than the other, yet the unfortunately for the promoters the marketability of the two men isn’t what settles the fight.

The UFC has seen countless examples where the more popular fight has experienced a deflating loss or brutal knockout. The career of Chuck Liddell is a prime example, his rematch against Rampage Jackson was huge fight for the UFC. While both men had mainstream potential it was important for the promotion that because of their main demographic of viewers, which were white, that the Light Heavyweight Champion Liddell would win. Instead a quick first round knockout for Rampage rendered him the new champion, in a result that perhaps foreshadowed UFC’s debut of FOX.

The promotion then attempted to rebound their poster boy with a rematch against the notoriously questionable chin of Keith Jardine, who at the time was fresh of the heels of a first round knockout defeat. Surely Liddell’s power would be enough to put him back on winning ways. Needless to say that Jardine put on a great performance using his unorthodox style of kickboxing to frustrate Liddell, at one point scoring a knockdown on his way to a split decision victory. The UFC were so sure of a Liddell win at the time that they even named the event UFC 76: Knockout, such a fate testing event title would end in a show where there where no knockouts at all. The event also featured a surprise upset loss for Pride FC knockout machine Shogun Rua at the hands of Forrest Griffin. Years later a seemingly shot Shogun would be paired against Liddell at UFC 97, for what the UFC presumed would be an easy victory for Liddell over a big named fighter. Shogun was seen as past his prime having spent over a year away from fighting due to multiple knee surgeries and hadn’t look impressive in his comeback win over the then 44 year old Mark Coleman. The fight would be highly entertaining before Shogun rolled back the years and managed to drop Liddell with a lunging left hook which was then followed by brutal hammer fists for a TKO loss for Liddell. Shogun would go on to claim the Light Heavyweight title over two fights with Lyoto Machida, where as Liddell would take a break from fighting to go on ‘Dancing with the Stars’.

In the words of Scottish poet Robert Burns, and perhaps also the words of UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, ‘The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men. Gang aft agley’.