Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cheap Seats

(originally published on on March 7, 2011)

March 2011, a Saturday night. Illinois is deep in cloud cover, awash with snow and icy rain. Forty minutes west of Chicago, inside the Odeum Expo Center of Villa Park, ex-champion Jens Pulver is hounding local palooka Wade Choate around the ring. It’s the closing minutes of the three-round main event, a mixed martial arts fight, but the arena is already half emptied out.

Pulver can’t bother himself with the audience now, though. He’s been eating jabs the whole round and, with only a few minutes left in the fight, he’s desperate to make an impression. Pulver needs this win. Up until just recently, the featherweight went three years without a single victory, and hasn’t won two consecutive fights in nearly half a decade. Suffice it to say, Jens Pulver has seen better days.

Indeed, around the turn of the century, Pulver, known as “Li’l Evil,” was considered by many to be the best lightweight mixed martial artist in the world. In a combat sport that combines, among other things, the martial disciplines of boxing, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Pulver excelled, and in February of 2002, he took the lightweight title in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, today the world’s biggest and best mixed martial arts organization. Even back then, though, the undersized Pulver was never seen as the most talented fighter. He fought up the ranks tooth and nail, pulling off surprising victories thanks to a granite chin, explosive hook, and the gravel in his guts—that gritty, inexhaustible will that is his trademark. But, where today his will remains vigorous, Jens Pulver’s body betrays him. After so many years of hard competition, Jens Pulver is, at only 35, an old man.

Pulver and Choate fight it out for a final, lonely couple of minutes before a thinning, indifferent crowd. When it comes time to hear the judges’ decision, Pulver heavily favors his left foot as he walks to the referee. It’s a close fight to call, hard to tell who’s ahead on the judges’ scorecards, but people are nevertheless crowding the exits. Win or lose, it’s clear that there’s been no resurgence for Pulver. We may not have known it at the time, but we didn’t buy tickets to witness some great comeback. We’ve come to see the darkening embers of a once great career.


Arriving in Villa Park, IL, we are presented with a contrast in prosperity. Three-story houses with large picture windows and sprawling lawns stand across the street from discount clothing outlets and dreary ninety-nine cent stores. We’ve pulled into town with an hour until doors open at the Expo Center, and decide to kill some time at Swap Mart, an indoor flea market.

Rows of booths are set up in an echo-y, cement-floored space. The vendors’ shelves are crowded with squirt guns and stuffed animals, airbrushed portraits and votive candles, soccer cleats and blue jeans with rhinestone butterflies on the rear pockets. Life-size statues of a Roman solider, of Elvis Presley and of John Wayne, are posted around the market, apparently not for sale, but not for taking pictures with, either (that’s prohibited). Today, Swap Mart is hosting something called Metal Fest, a battle of the bands with a metal theme. The sounds of crash cymbals and muddy guitar work emanate from the back of the building, drowning out the vendors’ little radios. It’s time to go.

As it happens, we’re destined to hear the musical stylings of at least one more would-be Metallica. Inside the Odeum Expo Center, a live band is screaming and grunting their way through a cover of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” while, backstage, the fighters warm up. Compared with the makeshift bar set up at Swap Mart, this band got the prime gig.

Men of Illinois, pot-bellied, barrel-chested, carry beer five plastic cups at a time. They take seats next to their wives, and on their knees they bounce little sons and daughters who cover their ears against the arena’s blaring stereo system. Someone’s girlfriend is arguing with a security guard, something about them being caught in the wrong seats, when the house lights dim and a spot light shines on the fenced-in ring, the cage. We settle into our hard, plastic stadium chairs as the evening gets officially underway.

The undercard, the night’s earliest bouts, tend to be populated by inexperienced fighters. The novices tonight are mostly small, pale and slight of frame, skittish but resolute young men fighting out of towns called Northlake, Granite City, and Buffalo Grove. Into the cage they carry the old, hard names of their families: the names Pitz and Graves, Grindstaff and Kreigermier. An aficionado would call them rough, or green, or raw. They take chances, throwing wild punches while leaving their own jaws exposed. Many are wrestlers in the Midwestern tradition, and dive for their opponents’ legs, dragging them to the mat. From there, they latch themselves onto their opponents’ backs before sliding an arm under the chin. With bicep and forearm they constrict the carotid arteries in a popular submission hold called a rear naked choke, forcing their opponents to either tap the mat in surrender or go unconscious.

It becomes immediately apparent that this event is more of a family affair than one might expect. In a small town, at an event like the Chicago Cagefighting Championships tonight, most of the audience can be broken down into factions of family and friends, each dedicated to the support, invested in the fate, of one young fighter, be that a son or nephew, grandchild, neighbor boy, or old high school buddy. With the introduction of each fighter, these groups, in small pockets across the arena, erupt in applause. Across the aisle to our right, elderly men and women cheer for lightweight Will Brooks of Libertyville, Illinois, who, in his second professional fight, obliges the calls of his mother in the stands—“Put him to sleep!”—and submits fellow novice Guillermo Serment with a rear naked in the second round.

Down in the floor seats, Carson Beebe’s mother is less fortunate. The twenty-two year old bantamweight’s family falls silent as the previously unbeaten prospect passes out inside Giovani Moljo’s inverted triangle choke, a complex Brazilian jiu-jitsu maneuver that involves using one’s legs to clamp down on an opponent’s neck. Beebe failed to tap, and now his legs have gone stiff, stuck at a gruesome thirty degree angle in the air.

Such personal stakes, such family drama, lend a strange intimacy to the populous arena, and for a moment I feel like I’m intruding. And it’s the absence of such personal stakes that determines the audience’s boredom in the main event. Now fighting in the lighter featherweight division, Pulver has recently relocated to a new training camp in Illinois with the hopes of rejuvenating his career. However, he’s originally from Nampa, Idaho, and he has no hometown contingent to support him. By the time he makes his entrance, the remaining audience has grown a little chilly.

For Pulver, having just snapped a six-fight losing streak last January, this fight is his first chance in nearly five years to put two wins together and begin to change the story of the end of his career. His opponent Wade Choate is in a hole almost as deep. Dubbed “The Last Dog Man,” he also just recently emerged from a stretch of losses, which saw his record fall to 12 wins and 12 defeats, before a victory last August. He’s a little younger than Pulver, but he’s never reached the heights the former UFC champ has seen. As if he’d like to erase the past two years of his career, Choate’s introduction states his record as it stood in January of 2009, before his five-fight skid: twelve and seven. It’s easy to imagine how desperate he is to string a couple of wins together, and though outside the cage he may have observed Pulver’s recent downward spiral with due sympathy, in the fight it’s every man for himself. Hence Choate’s stubborn adherence to a stick-and-move game plan that sees him make use of his reach advantage, peppering Pulver with jabs while constantly backpedalling out of Pulver’s reach. It’s been surprisingly effective. Pulver’s had trouble chasing him down all night, and the power punches for which he was so famous have come slow and fallen short time and again. It’s enough to draw angry boos from the crowd.

One would think that, having been a former champion, Pulver would excite more fans into attendance. Indeed, if mixed martial arts websites and message boards are any indication, Jens Pulver has almost become more popular, more beloved to the devotees of the sport, since his tumble down the ranks. But it seems that he’s tumbled a little further than most of those hardcore fans would care to admit. The name Pulver holds little weight for these people. His two-tone eyes and crooked grin that so endear him to the diehards fail to tap any vein of sentiment here tonight. Unthinkably, the words “You suck” rain down from somewhere in the audience. Someone behind us asks, “Does the guy in green wrestle much?”

Pulver, in green shorts, limps his way to the final bell. He reveals later that he broke his foot, somewhere in the first round by his reckoning. The handicap nearly sticks him with another loss, but the third judge’s scorecard reads 29-28 Pulver, and “Li’l Evil” scrapes by with a split-decision victory. In his prime, Pulver would have probably flattened Choate in a single round.

Pulver apologizes to the near-empty stands, and confesses that he’s taking small steps to rebuild his career. Strange to see him like this, down in that small-time cage, rendered anonymous before so many small-town Americans. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Pulver didn’t mind a bit, as he flashes a smile and says he hopes to fight here again real soon. For whatever reason—a pinch in his wallet or the non-stop ruckus in his heart—Jens Pulver can’t walk away.

Report: Cut Throat MMA's Brawl at Bourbon Street

(originally published on on March 24, 2011)

March 23, Wednesday. It’s amateur night at 115 Bourbon Street, a large bar-and-grille joint 45 minutes outside Chicago, IL. The president of Cut Throat MMA, Mike Davis, is pressing palms when we get to the ticket table. He hands us a couple of passes and with a pat on the shoulder sends us in. “Go wherever you want,” he says, “ just so long as you’re not in the way.” He looks awfully familiar, and I realize that I’ve met him before, a couple of years ago at something called the Wes Sims Fan Expo—a gathering of about four fans and a dozen homeless people under an interstate overpass, where UFC-veteran and modern-day flaneur Wes Sims handed out sandwiches and engaged in arm-wrestling contests. That was the first mixed martial arts event I ever covered. “Oh yeah, that was me, I organized that, ” Davis says. “God, don’t remind me.”

Young men with broad shoulders and ropey forearms, dressed in garish t-shirts, mill around, do mild horseplay. Some of the older men, curious and unwinding after a day of work, stumble in from the bar the next room over. To my left, preternaturally tan young women in form-fitting sweatpants make small talk and inspect the ring cards. I take a spot by the blue corner. It’s the corner typically reserved for the fighter that’s introduced first—almost always the less popular of the two, or the underdog. Sure enough, across the first nine fights, not a single fighter from the blue corner manages a win.

Evan Eckhoff, of watery physique, makes an ill-advised debut at heavyweight against six-foot-seven, 252-pound Quinn Corbett. Corbett, undefeated in his amateur career, is a monster, heavily muscled and surely a head taller than his pot-bellied opponent. If Eckhoff shares my reservations, he doesn’t much show it, as the starting bell sounds and he walks right over to Corbett, clubbing him with an overhand right. It startles Corbett into a double-leg, and he lands in side control. Eckhoff holds onto an ineffective guillotine, and Corbett decides to clamp onto Eckhoff’s neck in turn. They ring each other’s necks until Corbett lets go in favor of some light ground-and-pound. He passes to mount and fires away as Eckhoff turtles up. The referee stops the bout at a minute and forty-six seconds into the first round. Eckhoff’s cornermen maintain a sunny disposition, and one says to the other, “He did good for his first time.”

Spencer Debendetti and Kyle Geary are fighting at a catch-weight of 160 pounds.

Debendetti, representing Victory Martial Arts, comes out trailed by a group of eight or ten, all wearing matching t-shirts. Debendetti’s coach takes a seat next to me, the first of three times he’ll conduct an underdog to the cage tonight. Geary walks out to what’s probably the dirtiest song of the evening. I do believe the n-word was uttered at least four times, along with ample references to fellatio and various forms of intercourse.

The fight is brief. Debendetti eats a jab before finding himself planted on his back. He closes up his guard and locks up what looks like a fight-ending guillotine joke, but Geary explodes out and transitions to side control. He pins Debendetti in the crucifix position and lets loose with short punches. They don’t seem to be doing much damage but, with Debendetti unable to buck out, the referee decides to call it early in the first round.

J.L. George looks uneasy standing across from Jimmy “Slice” Moreno. The heavyweight tilt runs for just over two rounds, and sees Moreno threatening with heavy punches on the feet before swiftly planting George on the mat. George very nearly stages a comeback in the second, taking Moreno’s back in a scramble and almost sinking in a rear naked choke, but he fails to slip the forearm below the chin, and burns himself out. Moreno reverses into George’s full guard, stands, and dives in with a heavy right. George wilts, covering his face and turtling up. Moreno wails away for the remainder of the round.

Moreno looks a little winded coming out for the third, and George advances too zealously, with his chin up in the air. Moreno clips him with a straight right that sends George crashing to the mat only seconds into the final round.

Lightweight Louis Robles makes the mistake of hanging around in Bobby Moffet’s guard. Too intent on ground and pound, Robles ignores the cries from his corner to stand up, and Moffet slaps on an arm bar. Robles can’t punch his way out, and submits in the first.

Bobby Andrews, of Victory Martial Arts, finds himself in over his head against Jason Ignacek, the fourth-ranked featherweight in the promotion. Ignacek’s much-improved striking leaves Andrews desperately working for a double-leg along the fence. Ignaceck takes advantage, jumping into full guard and trapping Andrews in a guillotine choke. The tap comes at 2:10 of Round 1.

Representing Coalition MMA, Zac “Three Piece” Feece, six feet tall and weighing in at a prodigious 245 pounds, wins the award for nickname most resembling a KFC value meal. His opponent, Chris “The Clinch” Hill, weights in at a similarly stupendous 270. Hill immediately dives for a takedown, and the two tumble into the corner right in front of me. Feece tries for a triangle, but Hill shrugs it off. He makes like a jackhammer and forces the referee to stop the fight after 34 seconds.

Lightweight A.J. Masters is the second Coalition MMA fighter to take to the cage, a slight young man tasked with the barrel-chested Jake “The Simian Smasher” Frias. Masters’s corner eggs him on: “He’s a short fucker, come on A.J.” Cold comfort, as Frias shoots in for a single leg right out of the gate, dumping Masters onto the mat before posturing up and unloading with punches. The fight is stopped within the first minute.

Heavyweights Tim Williams and Mike Petersen come out slugging. Petersen, the heaviest fighter of the night at 280 pounds, gets the better of the exchanges, and Williams resorts to a bull rush. He drives Petersen into the fence, and the cage shakes violently. They tumble to the mat, where Williams struggles out of a rear naked choke and into Petersen’s full guard. He postures up and lands a punch before the bell sounds.

Williams starts the second with a couple of lackadaisical kicks. Petersen promptly counters with a right. A second lands flush and Williams slumps to his knees. The doctor cradles the supine William’s head as the fighter answers questions through a mouthful of blood. TKO at seventeen seconds of Round 2.

There’s a distinct pattern developing, where underdogs are consistently drawn from the same training camps, as if these groups yet lack the savvy or clout to put their fighters in favorable matches. Victory Martial Arts has produced three such over-matched fighters this evening. The same goes for Coalition MMA, which suffers it’s third and final loss of the night, as lightweight Brian “Two-Time” Titus falls in the first round to the Uflacher Academy’s Derrik Malert. Titus started the round showing off, with a silly jumping front kick. Malert remained unimpressed, and surged forward with a flurry of punches, throwing Titus off-balance. Malert followed with punches as Titus stumbled to the mat. Titus was unable to scramble away, and Malert continued to level shots to the head, forcing the referee to stop the fight.

An intermission before the title fights get under way. As the night wears on, deciphering the verse tattooed on the ring girl’s upper thigh is becoming an increasingly important mission. Conducting this operation in a fashion both sly and gentlemanly is a tricky business that I handle with great aplomb. Congratulations all around. She’s wearing a skirt that falls far short of her rear end. She seems totally un-phased by this insufficiently tailored garment. A true professional.

In the co-main event, the undersized David “Baby Ruth” Booth takes on the Cut Throat MMA Light Heavyweight Champion, Bill Johnson. Booth draws laughs from the crowd as he walks out to the Lion King soundtrack. Johnson draws approximately zero laughs by walking out with Top-10 bantamweight Miguel Torres in his corner.

Despite the pair’s supposed grappling acumen, the fight takes a quick turn for the riotous. Johnson is strongest at range, with straight rights and uppercuts breaking through Booth’s guard. When Booth manages to collapse the distance, he makes a hockey fight of it, with looping punches in the clinch that frequently stagger the defending champion. He drops Johnson twice, once in the beginning of the second and again in the fourth, but absorbs tremendous punishment in the interim. By the fifth round, chants of “Simba” roll through the crowd, and Johnson is badly gassed. Booth takes the initiative, marching forward with slow but heavy hooks that win him the round and put an exclamation point on the fight.

The crowd is so moved by Booth’s tireless efforts that they forget how handily Johnson folded Booth up with kicks to the body, how often his uppercuts sent Booth’s head snapping back in the first few rounds. The judge’s suffer a similar bit of short-term memory loss, and Booth is awarded a split-decision victory and the Cut Throat MMA light heavyweight title.

Headliner and welterweight champion T.J. Rowley wins the award for best entrance song of the night, walking out to a metal version of Hall of the Mountain King, which has increased the room’s zaniness quotient ten-fold. He’s defending his belt against Ryan Storey. Both sport impressive amateur records—Rowley with nine wins, one loss, and Storey at twelve and three. Storey is the more impressive physical specimen, a rocky 170 pounds, but the more slender Rowley has the distinction of already having beaten Storey once before, by unanimous decision back in January of 2010. Both are poised to make professional debuts.

Rowley opens the fight with a lead-leg kick to Storey’s mouth. Storey doesn’t like the taste and takes the fight to the ground, where Rowley threatens briefly with an omoplata. Rowley cannot sweep, though, and has to content himself with full guard. He inches his legs up towards Storey’s shoulders, but Storey is mindful of any impending submissions and stands up. On the feet he plasters Rowley with a hard right cross that persuades the champ to dive for a takedown. Storey sprawls and slaps on a guillotine, but Rowley remains calm, advancing to half-guard and bruising up Storey’s rib cage until he lets go. They find themselves back on their feet only briefly, as Storey eagerly clinches up and slams Rowley to the mat. He begins to tighten up an arm triangle choke, but he’s short on time, and the round ends just as Rowley pops his head free.

In the second, Rowley again tries to kick and punch at range, but Storey barrels forward and drags Rowley back to the mat. Storey advances to full mount, where he puts Rowley to the guillotine. The choke is in tight, and though Rowley, only some twenty-four inches away, is likely falling into unconsciousness, his eyes are open wide, gazing I guess on some alter-earth, all the good things that must slip away as he taps out. The submission comes at 1:45 of Round 2.

With this victory, Storey has become the new Cut Throat MMA Welterweight Champion, improved his record to 13-3-0, and avenged every loss ever suffered in his amateur career. Before exiting the cage, he announces that, with this final bit of business taken care of, he’s leaving the amateur circuit behind.

Hard to Watch: Fedor Emelianenko and the Fall of MMA's First Great Generation

(originally published on on February 18, 2011)

Tough year for the diehards. Tough for the old-schoolers and the true-blues. Tough for the midnighters, all of us who stay up to catch a glimpse of PRIDE's glory days, played out in evermore sparsely attended Japanese arenas. And tough for the dearly devoted who swear that the ultimate heavies still have one good ruckus in the tank. Tough for the also-rans and almost-weres we didn’t love enough. Tough for those old champs, the Renaissance bruisers, who bore our sport out into the bright lights of the mainstream, and showed us what mixed martial arts could become.

Saturday night, Fedor Emelianenko, a one-man institution in the world of mixed martial arts, lost for an unprecedented second fight in a row, falling in the first round of Strikeforce’s heavyweight tournament to Antonio Silva. The loss prompted him to seemingly retire before some ten thousand protesting fans. Whether or not he has, in fact, taken his final bow is largely beside the point. Should he enter the ring again, it will be as a different man, diminished in the eyes of many. The man he was, the greatest heavyweight of all time, is an artifact of what we must admit is a bygone age. This last fight of his may act as a sign of the times, a seal, fastening shut the book on his generation’s exploits.

Truth be told: for those of us who rhapsodize about Chuck Liddell's rise to power, Wanderlei Silva's reign of terror, or B.J. Penn's quixotic, multi-division ambitions; for those who envisioned a UFC belt around Cro Cop's waist, kept a soft spot for Tim Sylvia, or relished the twisting of many limbs under Kazushi Sakuraba's hands, this past year merely caps off a near half-decade of disappointments and growing pains. Cruel years, wherein a whole era of heroes--the names Pulver and Arlovski, Sakurai and Silva, Franklin, Ortiz, Yamamoto, Nogueira--has been gradually rendered, not unskilled, never powerless, but suddenly old.

Some, like Pulver and Sylvia, or one-time contenders Hermes Franca and David Louiseau, have stumbled their way into irrelevance, relegated to the obscurity of regional fight promotions. Others, like Hidehiko Yoshida, were able to bow out with relative grace. Most, however, continue to work on the sport’s largest stages, with all their hampered motivations, all their nagging injuries and old wounds there for everyone to see. Consider Cro Cop, whose thoughts wander more and more towards his hometown, a quiet lake, a fishing rod in his hands. Consider deposed middleweight Rich Franklin, rudderless between two weight classes. Consider Rodrigo Nogueira’s softening jaw, Matt Hughes’s slowing double-leg, all that tape holding Sakuraba together. Take a look at the scattered remains of Chute Boxe, the thinned ranks of Brazilian Top Team, the shuttered windows of Miletich Fighting Systems. By degrees, the old standards have relinquished their place, effaced themselves, and our efforts to hold on to the past have been undone, time and again, by the likes of Frankie Edgar and Junior dos Santos. The Strikeforce tournament, itself something of a conceptual relic, looked to be a final chance for Emelianenko, perhaps the finest specimen of his generation, to stake one last claim not only for himself, but for that crop of mixed martial artist that drew tens of thousands of fans to the Saitama Super Arena, and who served as the first coaches on The Ultimate Fighter. Yet, if there was even a sliver of hope that the old guard had one more lesson to teach the up-and-comers, it’s gone now, lost somewhere under the hammer falls of Antonio Silva’s fists upon Emelianenko’s head.

We’re on the edge of an exciting, new time for mixed martial arts. The sport receives greater media attention every year, and tremendous athletes such as Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez prove that MMA is worth all the attention. But for we sentimental knuckleheads—and surely every good fight fan has at least a touch of nostalgia in them—this period of time has been a dirge five years running.

What can you do? Don't look for a comeback. These young bucks and new-fashioned killers are too hungry to let it happen. The new MMA order, it's here. It's been here all along. May it be glorious and violent. May it be worth the bitterness of giving up all our old heroes.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Blog is on hold for a bit while I put together a couple writing program portfolios. Shorter pieces appearing at

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Big Questions: UFC 113

Though beleaguered with injuries and last-minute replacements, UFC 113 turned out to be one of the most satisfying events the organization has put on in some time. Replete with submissions, TKOs, long-distance struggles, and a bit of controversy, last Saturday's show was also capped off by the best championship fight of the year so far, which saw a brief yet enigmatic title reign come to a close. And like all things interesting, UFC 113 has left us with questions...

Was firing and banning Paul Daley from the UFC the right thing to do?

It all comes off as a bit excessive, frankly, and given how fast the decision came down, smacks of an outraged, knee-jerk reaction. Likewise, I'm not convinced that firing Daley does anything for the mainstream reputation of MMA that a lengthy suspension couldn't have done in kind. Having said that, firing Daley was, if not the right thing to do, certainly the smart thing to do.

Put simply, the UFC has nothing to lose by cutting Paul Daley. During his time with the organization, he merely displayed to a wider audience that which many of us already knew: he's a powerful striker with poor all-around skills. He was dominated by competent wrestlers before and, with little improvement evident in his UFC fights, it seems that he always will be. Daley has little to offer any welterweight with a talent for grappling and a head for game-planning, which basically characterizes the entire upper echelon of the UFC's welterweight division. Combine that with even the slight chance that anyone would accuse the UFC of harboring a criminal guilty of assault and battery, and there seems to be few if any advantages to keeping Daley around.

What about cutting Kimbo?

With an official 1-1- record inside the Octagon, Kimbo Slice could have reasonably stuck around for one more fight. Yet, with Kimbo delivering disappointing performances dating back to his last fight on CBS, it's entirely possible that the casual audience for whom Kimbo is a draw might by now be sufficiently disillusioned. Between the network television fight, the reality show appearance, and two fights in the UFC, it must be clear enough to curious audiences that they aren't going to see the brawling thrill of Kimbo's YouTube career writ large. With this in mind, the UFC has recognized an impending scenario of diminishing returns and rightly put out to pasture a fighter whose high-profile, relative inexperience, and hefty price tag make him a matchmaking migraine.

All's well that ends well, though. Kimbo Slice could very well find some lucrative opportunities in Japan, where sensationalist matchmaking is not so harshly stigmatized, while the UFC makes space on its roster (and budget) for one or two more legitimate prospects.

What's next for Lyoto Machida?

Broadened horizons.

The former champion kept his fight with Mauricio competitive, but seemed undone by his own predictability. So while the takedowns were a welcome addition, Machida's striking seemed largely unchanged since his first meeting with Rua. If the pre-fight footage is any indication, the problem might lie with his training almost exclusively under his father. Extended training camps outside of his dojo in Belem, Brazil, might prove a big help in rebuilding Machida's puzzle-box arsenal.

What's next for Shogun Rua?

Just about anything, it seems.

To any fan, Machida's loss last Saturday was disappointing. The idea that a fighter with a base in karate could become the next great light heavyweight champion was intriguing, and his ascent suggested a lot of interesting things about the changing template of the modern mixed martial artist. At the same time, Rua-a seemingly pleasant guy with a hunger for serious violence between the bells-is as good a champion as any. And he makes for infinitely better light-heavyweight matchmaking.

Consider that while both Anderson Silva and Rogerio Nogueira are emerging forces at 205 pounds, both have preemptively refused a fight with their friend Machida. And with Thiago Silva and Rashad Evans already suffering at his hands, there weren't many compelling contenders for Machida's belt, save for a flaky Quinton Jackson. By contrast, Rua has yet to fight any of these men inside the UFC. Rematches with Nogueira or Jackson would be welcome addenda to their respective fights in Pride, while a meeting with restless middleweight champ Anderson Silva would be as excellent a proposition as I could imagine for this year. I'm just going to pretend I didn't hear Rua suggest a fight with Randy Couture.

Is Alan Belcher out of his mind?

A little, but it's kind of working for him.

Belcher's recent post-fight campaigns have been compelling for the wild ambition and conviction that they reveal. That Belcher wants a fight with Anderson Silva so bad, by any means, even at light-heavyweight, might color him a little unhinged, but in a way Belcher has his head screwed on better than most.

In pushing for a fight with Anderson Silva, middleweight title or no, Alan Belcher seems to understand that a championship belt has no intrinsic value, that it's only a symbol for the fighter upon whose hips it rests. Likewise, while one man might prize the weight of that gold strap, another fighter may enjoy a distinction of greater importance. To this point, Frankie Edgar is the new lightweight champion, but B.J. Penn is likely considered by most as the best lightweight of all time. Similarly, though Anderson Silva might lose or vacate his title, most middleweights for the foreseeable future will labor under Silva's long shadow. That Belcher is more interested in testing himself against the middleweight juggernaut of our time rather than wearing a gold-plated accessory lays bare a focus, drive, and sharpness of mind obscured only a bit by his southern drawl. Unfortunately, Belcher's mission seems yet to land decidedly on the futile side of things, though not for lack of effort.

To his credit, Belcher has shown fair improvement in the last two years, with displays of tenacity in his wins over Ed Herman and Denis Kang, and a gritty, crowd-pleasing style in fights with Yoshihiro Akiyama and Wilson Gouveia. This weekend afforded Belcher the opportunity to flaunt a bit of raw power in his nigh-illegal slam of opponent Patrick Cote, as well as a carefully employed array of punches and kicks that show promise. It's all still a bit raw, though, isn't it? Despite his pleas to the contrary, bringing Belcher up slowly would be best. A few more fights with the likes of Aaron Simpson, Dan Miller and, later, Michael Bisping, Nate Marquardt, or Demian Maia, are essential for this earnest but unproven middleweight.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Suddenly Bananas: Dispatches from the Punch-Drunk Side of Our Fair Sport

For those of us who enjoy a touch of disgrace with our mixed martial arts, this past Spring has bestowed a windfall of weirdness and shame on our confused, collective head. Press on, dear reader, and lay them peepers on this season's best worst mixed martial slag.

Anglo Gentleman of Means Releases Afro-Rhythmic Musical Programme of Rhyme and Fancy

Jared "Skala" Shaw, son of former EliteXC figurehead Gary Shaw, may be most famous for blowing his top on national television after the referee halted the disastrous bout between Kimbo Slice and Seth Petruzelli. With EliteXC collapsing soon after, there followed an exodus of fighting talent and an opening on CBS for any fight organization with enough savvy or interest. That's a lot of balls in the air, but, guys, was Jared Shaw not the biggest ball of all? "What about Jared Shaw?!" we all screamed. No one could stop it (the screaming). "What's to become of the poor little guy?" and "Will we ever hear his sweet voice on a rap album? Please Lord God let him release a rap album before the apocalypse wipes us off the face of this Earth."

Sure enough, Shaw the Younger did turn to poetry in the wake of the EliteXC tragedy, and has ingeniously paired his verse with notes most musical. A snippet, from a lusty little ditty titled "Main Girl," reads thus:

Take the door to the one,
Now times that by three,
Maybe four, maybe more [!]

In this verse, the bard has provided us a riddle. Does he live on the first floor, or the fourth? Or is it twenty-and-seven? Or mayhap Shaw has used the guise of a numbered apartment building to stand in for some finer, erotic point. Such as wiener length or something. At any rate, if you wish to find your way to the end of this winding stair of sexual innuendo, you best make a diligent study of your mathematics, because a true understanding will require that you "times" one integer by another.

Known Maniac Blows a Gasket, World Follows Suit

"If Nick Diaz went crackers, would you go crackers, too?" Somehow, the answer turns out to be "Yes."

When a victory speech by Jake Shields devolved into a bench-clearing brawl (due in part to Shields' middleweight rival Jason Miller cutting into the interview, and in part to Shields' teammates going berserk), it seems nobody knew just what to do, so they all decided to make the worst of it. Commentators Gus Johnson and Mauro Ranallo couldn't stop apologizing for a dust-up no more serious than those witnessed semi-regularly at baseball or hockey games. Making matters worse, Johnson tried to dismiss the whole thing as par for the course: "Sometimes these things happen in MMA." But of course, they don't. With the exception of the Hammer House vs. Chute Boxe fracas of four years ago at a PRIDE event, such lapses in judgment are rare to non-existent.

Unfortunately, lapses in judgment happen to be one of the internet's signature characteristics.'s Mike Russell found himself in the mix after he sent an inflammatory email to Strikeforce president Scott Coker. The message, laden with thinly veiled insults and loaded questions about Johnson (an employee of CBS, not Strikeforce), found its way to the beleaguered commentator, who in turn called Russell's house. A transcript, since removed from Cage Potato's website, documents a conversation that eventually led to Johnson inviting Russell to hop a plane so they could settle their differences mano-a-mano. The last time I heard such a challenge, I was being verbally assaulted by a 14-year-old from a far-flung corner of this great nation thanks to the wonders of online gaming.

As for Strikeforce proper, things didn't fair much better. In anticipation of a ruling by the Tennessee Athletic Commission, Coker and Co. opted to suspend Nick Diaz and Jason Miller from upcoming fights due to their involvement in the post-fight antics.

And while their intentions here are respectable, the fact remains that, in cancelling the appearances by two of their most popular fighters, Strikeforce is thinning an already anemic roster. One can't help but wonder if the problem might not have just faded away had everyone not so promptly lost their marbles.

There is one guy who walked away from that mess without looking like a total goof, and he also just happened to be the saltiest dude in that ring. For Dan Henderson (who lost to Shields that night), I guess the urge to dog-pile and kidney punch someone into oblivion on national TV is just something that fades with age.

I Spent a Couple of Hours Watching King of the Cage

On March 26, 2010, I decided to take a look at King of the Cage "Legacy," which aired on HDNet. Next thing I know, I'm half-awake with drool on my shirt, and I've sat through the entirety of Tony Lopez's championship fight with Tony Johnson, Jr. That's 25 minutes I could have spent comparing shampoo ingredients, petting an animal, becoming acquainted with the King James Bible, or washing myself (with actual soap). Why did I do it? Maybe it's Tony Lopez's braided hair. I guess this is more of a personal problem than anything else.

Concluding remarks?

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do Jared Shaw things happen to any people?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Savages of the Year

What makes a great fight? A Fight of the Night? Of the Year? We'd ask for something exemplary, a fight that we can hang our banner on ("MMA" it reads). A fight that shows off the best that mixed martial arts has to offer: studied kickboxing, cannonball wrestling, feverish clinch work, python submission attempts, unfailing will, fearlessness. And a violence tactical, and a brutality sporting. Those last bits are important for us. As fans of a developing, occasionally maligned sport, we worry about its perception, and eagerly dismiss whatever might impede MMA's growth and acceptance. We want to impress, and dub mixed martial artists like Georges St. Pierre and Lyoto Machida and B.J. Penn our cultural champions. These are sportsmen, technicians, and artists who promise to erase MMA's reputation for thuggish, talentless cruelty. These are men who bring a form to the otherwise chaotic struggle between two barehanded men. And then there's Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung.

Saturday evening, April 24, 2010. Leonard "Bad Boy" Garcia and "The Korean Zombie" Chan Sung Jung stand before the judges, sweating through their logo-covered t-shirts, waiting for the scorecards. Between the exhausted featherweights is a trash heap of telegraphed kicks, exposed jaws, and reckless haymakers far off the mark, piled one on top of the other, over and over. No otherworldly jiu-jitsu was to be had in their 15-minute fight, and no immaculate boxing, either. Garcia vs. Jung was a dog fight, a game of chicken, a trench war 1914. It was the sloppiest, most reckless, bullheaded display of mixed martial arts we've seen in months. It may be the best fight we've seen all year.

Garcia vs. Jung was bell-to-bell thrilling, but we can still imagine what the MMA skeptic might call the fight: crass, witless, ultra-violent junk. Or something like that. We know better, though. There's a gut feeling: Garcia and Jung's brand of violence is exceptional. Mad, maybe, but not stupid. And while apologists might be tempted to concede that Garcia vs. Jung is something like a guilty pleasure, that would be a mistake.


Garcia vs. Jung followed close on the heels of several high-profile, promising, and ultimately stale fights. MMA paragons Georges St. Pierre, Gilbert Melendez, and Jake Shields all, in recent weeks and months, emerged from the ring triumphant, but left us somehow disappointed. Looking back it seems that their performances were so flawless as to become near-lifeless. Their fights were cumbersome with strategy, and formulaic to the extreme. St. Pierre's unending assault of double-leg takedowns, or, say, Frankie Edgar's relentless hit-and-run campaign against B.J. Penn, were game plans followed so carefully as to leave the fighters looking somehow mechanical. There was no apparent passion, and raw fighting spirit in these instances seemed not paired with, but obscured by, technical prowess.

By contrast, Garcia vs. Jung seemed all passion. And while critics might say that any two bums could do what Garcia and Jung did, let me say first that I know for sure, bums cannot. It's a rare person who could throw themselves into battle with Garcia's same gleeful abandon, or slip and wing punches as tirelessly as Jung did that Saturday night. It was rough stuff, to be sure, but it was artful. And so let's take a second to say that, indeed, MMA is more than a sport. That it is, after all, art. And with that in mind, let's consider that whenever someone likens Garcia and Jung to drunken tough guys, they are committing the same error suffered by artists like Matisse and Picasso whenever some incredulous viewer claims "My 8-year-old kid could paint that."

To date, nobody's kid has painted a Guernica, and I have yet to see or hear tell of any Average Joe who can bring a non-stop fury as potent as can Garcia and Jung.

Potent and transformative. Because in showing us the ragged edges of humanity, Garcia and Jung fulfilled that mission of art which is catharsis. In seeing Garcia's swollen grin, or Jung's stoicism in the face of danger, in watching them bravely, unceasingly set to demolishing each other's bodies, our own tensions were purged. That's not New Age bullshit, either. Aristotle called it when he judged the Greek tragedy-replete with insanity and violence-as worthy art.

Fighters like Kenny Florian or Lyoto Machida, fastidious in their game-planning and mindful of all dangers and advantages, represent a triumph of the rational over the whirlwind of chance and hazards that a fight represents. That is art. Garcia and Jung-as if possessed, moved by forces greater and more violent than their own rational nature could generate-chose instead to enact that chaos in as pure a way as we could stomach. They spoke to the nagging suspicion within your hearts and mine that, though our lives are day-to-day sanitary and ordered, the universal struggle for life is still pretty bloody. That, too, is art.

Garcia and Jung are primitivists. On Saturday night they reintroduced the primal-raw, sincere, and violent-into an art form that has become, at the highest levels, occupied with spotless technique. Deceptively amateurish, Garcia vs. Jung is the Art Brut to Lyoto Machida vs. Shogun Rua's Renaissance, Basquiat to Leonardo da Vinci. The fight offered us a peek at total chaos and irrationality. It was in Garcia's bruised, laughing face, and in every one of Jung's footsteps as he marched through a rain of punches. With genuine, ecstatic savagery Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung took the wilds of a brawl, and they made it transcendent.