Sunday, July 25, 2010

Women are not just pretty faces anymore

While it was another relatively slow weekend of MMA, Strikeforce did have a Challenger's series card they put on in the State of Washington, which featured some of their rising young stars. One of those featured on the card was their 135lb. women's champion Sarah Kaufman (12-0, 9 KO's) (Pictured left). After a close back and forth match-up against tough Roxanne Modaferri (15-6, 1 KO 2 Subs), Kaufman maintained her perfect record by finishing Modaferri late in the third round with a Quinton 'Rampage' Jacksonesque type slam that KO'ed the challenger.

After witnessing this display of skill and power and seeing the total beatdown last month that Strikeforce's 145lb. champion Cristiane 'Cyborg' Santos put on game Jan Finney; it made me wonder, what possesses pretty women to want to engage in combat sports? Of course, there is the other debate which is, do women even belong or have a place in sports such as Mixed Martial Arts or Boxing?

The first time I ever witnessed a professional women's fight was back in January 1994. On the undercard of the first Julio Cesar Chavez/Frankie Randall Pay-Per-View, they featured a bullish looking 140lb. fighter by the name of Christy Martin. Her nickname, 'The Coalminer's Daughter', along with her appearance summed up my "bullish looking" reference and bully is what she did as with over 20 fights under her belt, she proceeded to knockout a fighter with just two fights on her resume in the first round.

I remember the reaction my friends and I had when they first showed they were having women fight on the undercard; we were shocked, but pleasantly surprised. Not so much at their skill level, but at the heart they displayed as they put on more action in less than one minute than most of the guys did that night.

Of course, women's boxing went on to become an accepted normality and some women, besides Martin, went on to become household names and featured attractions within the sport and beyond. Fighters such as Mia 'The Knockout' St. John and Laila Ali even went on to become mainstream with St. John being featured in Playboy and Ali eventually participating in 'Dancing with the Stars'.

The same can now be said for females in MMA. Just a short two years ago, the flag for women's MMA was begrudgingly placed upon the shoulders of poster girl Gina Carano. With runway model looks and Muay Thai skills to match, Carano springboarded women's MMA as she was twice featured on CBS with the now defunct EliteXC promotion and then headlined a Strikeforce card last summer against the aforementioned 'Cyborg' Santos. While she lost against Santos and hasn't been heard from since, she's taken her good looks to the big screen for the moment; her contribution cannot go unnoticed and hasn't been in vain.

Since then women's MMA has exploded on the scene and more fighter's are becoming stars not just for their looks, but rather their skill. While Santos is currently the cream of the crop, there are other women to keep an eye out for. Megumi Fuji is a 120 lbs. Japanese grappling sensation that is currently (20-0, 16 Subs). Erin 'Steel' Toughill (10-2-1, 5KO's) @ 155 lbs. is as tough as her nickname implies and Zoila Frausto, another 120 lbs. fighter, @ (7-1, 1 KO 2 subs) is another "Warrior Princess", which is her nickname, to lookout for.

For a moment Strikeforce was the only major promotion carrying a women's division; However, Bellator followed suit and plans to have a women's tournament in their third season. The UFC currently does not feature women and although Dana White has emphatically said no to the idea and publicly denounces it, I think he realizes he may have let a golden opportunity pass him by.

As to the question, why do women fight? I think if we're going to ask that question of women, we need to start with the men first. Knowing what I know as a man who understands the thrill of competition and the love of this sport, the answer is no different for women. I mean let's face it, women are not just pretty faces anymore.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

MMA's mid-year report card (Part II)

Now that I've covered the first six months of 2010 for the UFC and Strikeforce, let's take a look back at the successful first half of the year for the two promotions I feel did really well, WEC and Bellator. First on the agenda is World Extreme Cagefighting.

Ten days into the New Year, WEC #46 was held at the Arco Arena in Sacramento, home of former featherweight champion Urijah Faber. This card marked the return of 'The California Kid' after his loss against Mike Brown, where he broke both his hands. His opponent that night was no easy task as he took on #5 rated, at the time, featherweight Raphael Assuncao. In an exciting back and forth fight, Faber came back strong and showed his desire to want to get back his belt as he choked out Assuncao, who had never been submitted before.

Faber was not the headliner though as that same night one of WEC's fastest rising stars, lightweight champion Ben Henderson shed the interim champion tag against former champ Jamie Varner in another exciting fight. This would only be the beginning as the WEC, who always puts on competitive entertaining fight cards, and up to this point always showed it for free on the Versus network, would attempt their first ever pay-per-view event in April.

WEC 48, back in Sacramento, proved to be monumental for a few reasons other than being the first time ever on PPV. The card was stacked with two championship fights that clearly featured the number one and two ranked fighters in both the lightweight and featherweight classes. One of these included featherweight champion Jose Aldo, the new face of WEC and easily one of the top three pound for pound fighters in the world. He of course would defend against former poster boy and hometown favorite Faber and he did so in dominating fashion, decimating his left leg in the process with vicious round kicks.

While the undercard included fights that determined number one contenders for future title fights, it also featured a rematch of the fight of the year for 2009 between lightweights Donald 'Cowboy' Cerrone and champion Henderson. This time Henderson made quick work of the 'Cowboy' and solidified his standing as a champion to be reckoned with. While their second fight did not live up to the hype of potential fight of the year for 2010, another fight on the card did.

Featherweights Leonard 'Bad Boy' Garcia (pictured above) and the aptly named 'Korean Zombie' Chang Sung Jung not only put on the fight of the year, but one for the ages. While both fighters are capable of showing a technical display, they threw that out the window for three rounds that was MMA's version of Hagler vs. Hearns. While Garcia won a close disputed split decision; Jung won over the American fans as I saw people wearing 'Korean Zombie' shirts everywhere during the UFC Fan Expo Memorial Day weekend.

With all these great fights and a roster filled with a bunch of very talented young fighters and potential superstars, also including bantamweight champion Dominic Cruz and former champ Miguel Torres, the WEC clearly was the best promotion for the first half of 2010. Except for some minor issues regarding who will be their featured color analyst in the future, as they parted ways with Frank Mir, and the resignation of long time ring announcer Joe Martinez, WEC had a solid first semester, which earns them an A-.

The same can almost be said for the surprising second season of the Bellator Fighting Championships. Using their successful formula of holding tournaments in each weight class to create and expose MMA stars, their second year turned out even better than their first.

Entering this year Bellator already had champions in four weight classes they had determined in their very first season and all four proved their standing in super fights held throughout the first six months of 2010. Light Champion Eddie Alvarez, especially upped his stock with a slick submission winning performance against tough UFC veteran Josh Neer, earning him a top five world ranking.

Featherweight champion Joe Soto remained undefeated and impressive with a first round win against dangerous Diego Saraiva. Meanwhile, light-heavyweight champion Hector Lombard worked a total of four and a half minutes in 2010 thus far, including only six seconds in his super fight, which is all he needed against Jay Silva.

As for their tournaments, they all produced very exciting and entertaining fight cards every week on Thursday nights, free on the Fox Sports Network, and also came up with some formidable contenders for their champions. Such young stars as featherweight Joe Warren and lightweight Pat Curran have a world of potential, as does welterweight tourney winner Ben Askren who will face champion Lyman Good in their next season.

With a crop of exciting new fighters in their stable, a refreshing and different formula that seems to work perfectly for them and an improved production value in their second season, I give Bellator a solid B as their grade. Their future looks very bright as they have scheduled a heavyweight tournament along with a woman's tourney for their upcoming third season.

As for the UFC, Strikeforce and WEC, there is a lot of anticipation for the second half of this year as all have some very intriguing match-ups and storylines on the horizon. If the next six months resemble anything like the previous six, we are in store for an exciting finish to 2010 in MMA. See you at the end of the year.

Friday, July 16, 2010

MMA's mid-year report card (Part I)

With all four major U.S. based Mixed Martial Arts promotions taking a break of sorts this month, what a better time to look back on the first half of the year and see how each promotion fared. So far, 2010 has been a memorable year in MMA with some highs and definitely some lows as well; let's start with the UFC.

Not wasting anytime, the UFC started the year off the second day of 2010 with UFC 108, which featured Rashad Evans defeating Thiago Silva via decision. This win of course opened the door for Evans to settle his grudge match against Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson at UFC 114 during Memorial Day weekend, which also featured their second fan expo. While the fight itself did not live up to the hype, the expo was even bigger and better than their first one and drew over 125,000 fans over two days.

We witnessed a major upset in April when Frankie Edgar won a decision against longtime lightweight kingpin B.J. Penn and won the title; yet, that wasn't even the biggest upset in 2010, as we'll find out a little later. Edgar vs. Penn was of course the co-main event of UFC 112, the promotion's first foray into Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

The main event on that card was the debacle between light heavyweight champion Anderson Silva and Demian Maia, that left UFC President Dana White in total disgust with the champion over his performance or lack there of. However, from that low point we went to UFC 116 and the return of heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar earlier this month, where Dana White went from total disgust back in April to saying, "this was the greatest night of fights I've ever seen."

Finally and hopefully, we saw the last of two UFC Hall of Famers, Mark Coleman and Chuck Liddell (pictured above), who both went out with lopsided losses and looking like they are fighting well past their prime, which they are. The UFC's attempt to give them one last hurrah before the sunset on their careers backfired on them and these once proud champions.

Taking this into consideration, along with other factors such as the UFC providing free cards on both the Spike and Versus networks, my grade for the first half is a B-.

Their chief rival meanwhile, Strikeforce, did not fare so well. Even though there were some positive moments throughout, the negatives thoroughly outweighed the bad. The positives, include the emergence of future stars such as light heavyweight champion Muhammad 'King Mo' Lawal, lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, one of the best in the world and women's champ Cristiana 'Cyborg' Santos, the definitive best in the world.

Another positive is their TV contract with both cable's Showtime and network television's CBS. However, that was also part of the negative. With a major opportunity to put a big foot forward with a network telecast in April featuring three championship bouts, they bombed with three sub par fights that all went to decision then finished the CBS telecast on a down note with an unexpected melee inside the cage.

That notwithstanding, they followed up that fiasco with another. Finally seeing the return of their heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, instead of matching him up against their #1 commodity and drawing card Fedor Emelianenko, they chose Brett Rogers as the challenger who ironically enough was coming off a loss to none other than Emelianenko. To no one's surprise, Overeem destroyed Rogers.

If that wasn't bad enough, the icing on the cake was the next month in June when they paired Emelianenko against Fabricio Werdum and in the biggest upset so far this year he lost. So much for the mega heavyweight fight they were hoping for; or is it? At this point they're not even sure which way to go.

Combine all this together along with the indecisiveness on what broadcast team to use including a two-man versus three-man team or using Frank Shamrock versus Pat Miletich as an analyst and it was not a good first half. My grade for Strikeforce at the halfway point is a D.

In part II of my mid-year report card, I will discuss the two promotions that really did well in the first half of the year and scored the two highest grades so far, WEC and Bellator.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Larry Holmes was, is and always will be a champion

Does being a champion once, equate to be considered a champion your entire life? I believe it depends on the individual themselves. O.J. Simpson was a Heisman trophy winner, yet his trophy is not on display with the others at USC. Mark McGwire, one-time holder of the single season home run record and a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame, has not yet been voted in during his first few years of eligibility. These former sports champions are no longer looked upon in that same breath because of judgements on their character.

When it comes to sports, I'm a fan plain and simple. Yet, while I love all sports, combat sports are my favorite. I've been a fan of Mixed Martial Arts from the beginning. However, before MMA came on the scene I was a life-long boxing fan.

This love for the sport came without influence. There was no adult male figure in my household when I was growing up, yet as far back as I can remember, I was just drawn to it on my own. A lot of it probably has to do with growing up in the '60's and '70's when boxing was dominated by the most charismatic figure in its history Muhammad Ali.

As a teenager I moved to Pennsylvania from New York and another young fighter came on the scene. One who had local ties and also had ties to the aforementioned Ali. This fighter's name was Larry Holmes and with him being from the Lehigh Valley, Easton, PA, my love for boxing got even greater. Now I wasn't just a fan of the sport, but I had a local fighter I could root for, one that would go on to become heavyweight champion of the world and one of the greatest fighters of all-time.

The '70's was a time most boxing experts consider the golden era for the heavyweight division. Holmes rose to become the best of that era. A guy from very humble beginnings, he took his God-given talents as an athlete and worked himself into perfection as he climbed his way up the ladder to eventually earn a title shot against one of the most feared fighters of the era Ken Norton. In an epic battle that lasted 15 grueling rounds, Holmes showed his will and courage as he outlasted the legendary Norton to win the heavyweight championship of the world.

As somewhat of a boxing historian, I consider what Holmes did after that unheard of in boxing annals. He won his title in 1978 and through 1985 he defended it successfully 20 times. In today's era where there are multiple champions recognized within a division due to the various organizations that claim to have the "world champion," you do not have that many title defenses. Holmes defended it three times a year.

He fought the best the division had to offer and beat them all, including a dominating performance against his own idol Ali and a brutal bout against the universally recognized hardest hitting heavyweight of the era, Earnie Shavers. He also fought in one of the greatest fights in boxing history 28 years ago this past month when he knocked out the previously undefeated Gerry Cooney; this fight went beyond the realm of sports and into the social climate of racial barriers. He was undefeated in 48 fights before a controversial decision loss against Michael Spinks denied him a chance of breaking Rocky Marciano's record of 49 fights without a loss and boxing immortality.

Holmes finished his boxing career winning 69 of 75 fights. All of his losses were due to either extremely controversial decisions, or because he fought well past his prime against the greatest of the next era such as Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield.

Holmes has gone on to become a successful businessman in his hometown, where the city recognized his achievements by naming a street after him. Larry Holmes Drive, which runs along the scenic Delaware River, is also the address to his beautiful sports bar/restaurant/nightclub Larry Holmes Ringside. For eight years from 2000-2008, I was fortunate enough to work as a DJ there. This opportunity gave me the chance to get to know this great champion on a personal level.

In today's era when superstar rich athletes are all about themselves and could care less about their fans, Holmes is anything but. Many times, new fans would come into the Ringside and I never once seen him turn down an autograph or photo opportunity. Even on days when I knew he was not feeling well, I saw him make the effort to acknowledge his fans. I've also witnessed him share his wealth on holidays, summer or winter, with picnics and parties where he would invite numerous relatives, friends and even acquaintances and all he ever asked you to bring was yourself.

In the rich and long tradition of boxing Homes easily ranks in the top five heavyweights of all-time. On ring achievement alone the only names that can possibly be placed ahead of him are those of Ali, Joe Louis and Jack Johnson. Louis and Johnson deserve recognition because they fought at a time when they had to endure numerous obstacles as African Americans.

Larry Holmes held the single greatest title in individual sports for 7 1/2 years; Other than Bernard Hopkins, no fighter today, regardless of weight class, does that. Outside of the ring, the man is still a champion, which is why I always refer to him as "champ" and always will be a champion.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Growth and evolution of a fighter and champion

On the eve of the Fourth of July, UFC 116 provided some fireworks to say the least. Chock full of KO's, submissions and exciting fights, the card was highlighted by the return of the UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar who did his part to add to the festivities. In only his sixth professional fight, Lesnar (5-1, 2 KO's 2 subs) showed tremendous growth and evolution as both a fighter and champion.

In only his second title defense and first fight in just under a year, Lesnar submitted interim champion Shane Carwin (12-1, 7 KO's, 5 subs) via an impressive arm triangle choke in the second round. I had predicted Carwin would knockout Lesnar in the first round and for four minutes, it looked like that was the way it was going to play out.

Carwin caught Lesnar with a looping left uppercut that staggered the champion and proceeded to unleash a flurry of punches that would eventually drop Lesnar against the cage. With four full minute's left in the round, Carwin maintained top position on Lesnar as he rained down power shots and hammer fists. Lesnar to his credit covered up well and maintained his composure, weathering the storm while Carwin seemingly punched himself out through the round. Luckily for Lesnar, while he offered nothing in return, he stayed active and alert enough to keep the referee from stopping the fight.

As the second round began, a clearly gassed Carwin looked across the cage to find a smiling Lesnar coming at him. Apparently, surviving the best Carwin had to offer gave Lesnar a boost of confidence because he came straight at him and eventually took him down. Instead of using Carwin's approach of trying to punch him into submission, Lesnar showed patience as he used his wrestling to control Carwin. Eventually he worked himself into an arm triangle and unlike a man that weighs 265 lbs., he quickly changed his position to side mount from Carwin's half guard giving him all the leverage he needed. With Lesnar's power and the choke locked in tight, Carwin had no other recourse but to tap or go to sleep.

In his post-fight interview, Lesnar was a totally different person from the one who berated his opponent and UFC sponsors last summer @ UFC 100 in his win against Frank Mir. Apparently, his near career ending bout with Diverticulitis, an intestinal infection, was enough to wake up, humble and tame this once wild beast. "This isn't about me tonight, this is about my family, my doctors, my training partners and my training staff."

However, he made sure to let it be known that it his newfound epiphany doesn't mean he's getting soft. "I am blessed by God ladies and gentlemen; I stand before you a humble champion, but I'm still the toughest SOB around baby."

In the post-fight press conference he showed the same calm humble demeanor as he answered every question reporters threw at him and also displayed a sense of humor in the process. When asked when will he fight again, Lesnar took at look at Dana White from the corner of his eye, smiled and said, "we'll get together and talk about it."

I'm not a professed fan of Lesnar's and as I stated above, I thought Carwin would knock him out. I figured ring rust and the comeback from the illness would be too much to overcome. I also made the mistake of thinking he had no heart, as most bullies don't. I figured that once he got cracked in the jaw and found himself in trouble he would fold under the pressure and give up. On the contrary, he didn't wilt and he showed tremendous heart in coming back the way he did. He showed he does have what it takes to be a champion.

After the fight I discussed his performance over the phone with Brian 'Goze' Garcia, producer of MMAJunkie Radio. I told him I felt Brock not only deserved respect for the way he fought, but for evolving as a fighter. He told me that in his eyes, "Brock grew as a fighter tonight." One thing's for sure, this Independence Day 2010 will not only be remembered for our country's birthday, but as the day Brock Lesnar grew and evolved as both a fighter and champion.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Blackhouse, so much more than just a gym

Look up the word black in the dictionary and you'll find numerous definitions, all with negative connotations to them. Therefore, the casual person may assume that a place called Blackhouse can't have anything good associated with it, big mistake. In the world of Mixed Martial Arts, fans and people alike know that Blackhouse is just the opposite; it is something good. So good, it is the home of multiple world champions and some of the sports elite; Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo, Lyoto Machida and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to name a few. However, it is more than just a gym and after talking to Ed Soares, Manager of Blackhouse, I found out "it is the mentality the entire organization runs under everyday; everybody is here to help each other."

Soares, along with his partner Jorge Guimaraes, runs Tough Media, Inc., the management firm that oversees Blackhouse. Originating in 2006, it was Guimaraes who came up with the name Blackhouse. When I asked Soares to explain the origins behind Blackhouse, he told me, "the idea we came up with was to have a place for our fighters to come together and train under one roof."

You might ask, what's so different about that? It's very simple, Blackhouse is a private gym in Los Angeles, which only caters to their fighters. Each of their fighters are individuals who have their own respective fight teams and gyms where they work, but when it is time to come together this is the place where they converge, unite and become the best in the world. According to Mike Ramirez, a member of the Tough Media family, "I've never been around a group of guys like this that are totally down with one another."

I witnessed this first hand Memorial Day weekend when I was in Las Vegas for UFC 114. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira was fighting on the card and the entire Blackhouse team was in town to support him. However, this wasn't just a bunch of guys that trained together. It appeared they had a genuine love for one another. When I brought this up, Soares said, "it comes down to the people we choose to represent. These are not just great fighters, these are great people."

This explains something else many people may not realize. This group of fighters that are some of the most respectful, in terms of etiquette towards their opponents and serious when it comes to their work ethic are also some of the biggest clowns when it comes to joking around. The photo above, featuring WEC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo and UFC Heavyweight Contender Junior Dos Santos, was taken in the green room of the Junkie Radio studio while they were waiting to do a segment on the radio show. During their wait, Dos Santos, who is still learning English, was killing time by rapping the lyrics to 'Rapper's Delight' and singing his own rendition of 'Viva Las Vegas'.

Meanwhile Aldo, who I found out is a huge basketball fan and was totally engulfed by the Lakers-Celtics play-off game being played on the big screen at the Mandalay Bay Race & Sports Book, also has a great sense of humor. According to Soares, he and Anderson Silva, two of the best pound for pound fighters in the world, if not the best, are also the two biggest jokers. He told me, "Aldo is quick to snap a joke on anybody; he's that funny."

A problem managing so many of the world's best is that inevitably it may get to a point where two of them may have to fight one another. I asked Ed Soares if he could see a scenario where two Blackhouse fighters would face each other? His response was, "I'd really like to say no, but I understand it may come about eventually." One example that was brought up was Lyoto Machida and Rogerio Noguiera, who are two of the UFC's top light heavyweights. Aware of this Lyoto once told Soares, "the same way I want to be champion, I know he wants it as well. Why, would I want to stand in the way of that? Plus, if I lost, then at least I lost to one of my own."

The gravy train doesn't stop there, as there are others in the stable slowly, but surely making their mark. Rafael 'Feijao' Cavalcante will fight next month for the Strikeforce light heavyweight title against Muhammad 'King Mo' Lawal. Some other up and comers to look out for who are already making noise are Mario Miranda, Andre Galvao, Jordan Smith and Glover Teixeira just to name a few.

As for Soares, he's extremely busy, but thankful for where he's at. Owner of his own clothing line as well, the popular 'Sinister' brand, he told me he's very excited because Sinister just became an official brand of the UFC. He also announced that he just inked a deal where as early as late July, Sinister clothing can now be purchased at K-mart. "I'm very happy because I grew up poor, so I know what it's like to want to wear cool clothes, but can't afford them, Soares said. This deal will allow people to purchase some cool gear at an affordable price between $9.99 and $14,99." As not only a fan, but also parent of two teenagers who love the gear I say, thank you. I also asked if he would consider managing boxers besides MMA fighters and he said, "I love combat sports, so it's something I would like to do in the future, though it's not my forte."

Elite level fighters, training partners, jokers, etc. I think Mike Ramirez summed it up best when he told me, "I don't look at this as a job because it's such a family atmosphere. I don't even feel this kind of love from life long friends, that's brotherhood;" and that's what makes Blackhouse so much more than a gym.

I want to thank Ed Soares for giving me the time in his busy schedule for this interview and Mike Ramirez for not only his time, but also his assistance in setting this up.

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