Sunday, February 27, 2011

UFC 127: A night of upsets and disappointments


After much anticipation and expected outcomes, last night's UFC 127 from Sydney, Australia, turned out to be a night of upsets and disappointments. Upsets are what make the sport of mixed martial arts so great because of its unpredictability. The disappointments come from unfinished business, which we had, in two different forms in both featured bouts last night.

In the main event between welterweights (170 lbs.) B.J. Penn and Jon Fitch, the outcome was as even as the stare down between the two at the weigh-ins (pictured above). In a fight full of twists and turns, ebbs and flows, or whatever other term you want to use, Fitch closed the show in dominating fashion, which we now know served as his saving grace. The smaller Penn had a game plan that appeared to be working until Fitch caught onto it and did the same to Penn, only worse.

Penn's game plan was simple, take down the much larger wrestler first and work his superior jiu -jitsu, before the wrestler took him down. In the first two rounds it seemed to be working as in both rounds Penn secured impressive takedowns and then worked his way to Fitch's back. It was there that it appeared Penn, on a few occasions was going to secure a rear naked choke on Fitch and end the fight. However, as I predicted, three rounds were just not enough as Fitch was able to avoid the choke attempts and inevitably reverse position on Penn, where he would work some ground & pound for the last minute of each of the first two rounds.

This is where things get tricky. Do you score the first two rounds for Penn, where he secured takedowns and had Fitch in serious trouble with possible submission attempts or do you score it for Fitch based on escapes, reversals and strong finishes? In his mind, Fitch was taking no chances as in round three he immediately took Penn down and with over four minutes left, he pounded on Penn unmercifully, giving him no room to breath, let alone escape. As soon as the round was over I turned to my buddy and said, "I would not be surprised if this fight is scored a draw, if Fitch's third round was scored a 10-8 based on his dominance."

I only wish my predictability was this good the rest of the night as the scores read 29-28 Fitch and 28-28 on the other two judge's scorecards for a majority draw. When asked after the fight if he think he won, a humble honest Penn told Joe Rogan, "no." "In the first two rounds, I was able to secure dominant position, but in round three Fitch kicked my a**," Penn said. With champion Georges St. Pierre tied up with a title defense in April and then a possible showdown with middleweight (185 lbs.) champion Anderson Silva, I wouldn't be surprised if a rematch is imminent. When asked about it, Penn said, "if Fitch wants to do it again, I'm down."

That wasn't the only letdown of the night as in the co-main event where an absolute war was expected between middleweights Michael Bisping and Jorge Rivera, we got what we wanted, I think. Bisping won via TKO due to a second round ref stoppage after pummeling Rivera to the ground with punches in bunches, but was it fair? Everything about the decision to stop the fight was without question, except was it a round too late?

In round one, when both fighters were measuring each other and trading back and forth an incident occurred during a scramble that changed the complexion of the whole fight. During a sequence that found Rivera on the ground underneath Bisping, he was able to work his way back to his hands and knees and looked like he was about to get up. That is when Bisping, while Rivera was clearly on both knees, leveled a knee of his own to the face of Rivera. Under U.S. MMA rules, you cannot kick or knee a downed opponent to the head and in this case Rivera was clearly down. The question is, was the blow from Bisping blatant or in the heat of action?

According to the ref, it was the latter and only enough to warrant a point deduction and warning to Bisping. Now the other question, should Rivera have been allowed to continue? After a grace period allowed recovering, he chose to continue. However, he was obviously not the same after that and it showed in his performance the rest of the way. Some knowledgeable people I know suggested he should have stayed down and got the disqualification win. However, my response is, while that seems logical, in the heat of the moment it's not plausible.

If he stayed down people would have accused him of faking it and taking the easy way out. He chose to stand and continue and we see what outcome that got him; Rivera was in a no win situation. In that moment, a true fighter will always continue because his heart will not allow him to think rationally. Pride is a great thing, but it can also be your worst enemy and in Rivera's case, it appears it may have been just that. Alas, another disappointing finish.

In two other bouts, the so-called obvious wasn't so predictable. Dennis Siver, the lightweight (155 lbs.) kickboxer from Germany, spoiled the homecoming for Australian George Sotiropoulos. Siver avoided all of the Aussie's takedown attempts and won a unanimous decision, thus snapping Sotiropoulos's eight-fight win streak. In the process, he also took away a possible shot Sotiropoulos had at the winner of Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard III.

In other welterweight action, Chris Lytle, who was riding a four-fight win streak of his own, lost an unexpected decision to last minute replacement Brian Ebersole. Ebersole, a veteran of over 60 fights, finally got his chance in the octagon and did he ever make the most of it. Over three rounds, he outgunned and outlasted the veteran Lytle, even surviving numerous submission attempts. UFC 127 was definitely a night of upsets and disappointments.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

UFC 127 Penn vs. Fitch Preview


You know MMA has finally arrived when only one week has passed since the last major fight card on pay-per-view and you start to feel like you can't wait till the next one. On the heels of Strikeforce's electric card last weekend and Anderson Silva's front kick heard around the world @ UFC 126, just two weeks ago, we are less than one week away from UFC 127 in Sydney, Australia.

This potential 'Thunder from Down Under' is highlighted by a possible number one contender's match between former lightweight (155 lbs.) champion B.J. 'The Prodigy' Penn, now fighting at welterweight (170 lbs.), and Jon Fitch, winner of five straight. Also on the card is the guaranteed throwdown between middleweight (185lbs.) contenders Michael 'The Count' Bisping and Jorge 'El Conquistador' Rivera, along with some other intriguing match-ups.

Of course, it's all about the main event and it includes one of the most fan favorite fighters of all-time; B.J. Penn (16-7-1, 7 KO's 6 subs), who continuously reinvents himself every time you think his best days are behind him. It's strange to say this about a 32 year old fighter, who should be considered to be in his prime, but 'The Prodigy' has been in this game 10 years come this May. Hard to believe, but true, and in Fitch he's facing a naturally bigger man who may not be the flashiest fighter, but is definitely skilled.

Fitch (23-3, 5 KO's, 5 subs), a former Division One wrestler at Purdue University, is now a well-rounded mixed martial artist that has perennially been in the top ten and better for years. His only loss in the last eight years was a unanimous decision to Georges St. Pierre in a previous bid for the welterweight title. Since then, he's reeled off five straight decision wins, which hurts him when it comes to fan support. Nonetheless, he's reinforced his game while training at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, CA and in the process has earned a black belt in "Guerilla" Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under renowned trainer Dave Camarillo.

As much as I love Penn and I would not put it past him to finish this fight either by a KO or submission, I'm picking Fitch by decision here. Besides Fitch's natural size and strength advantage, I think that a three round fight bodes well in his favor against Penn versus a five rounder. I feel Fitch has developed enough skills, standing and on the ground, to avoid any mistakes in just 15 minutes of fight time. I anticipate he'll take Penn down and maul him over the course of the fight, similar to what St. Pierre did in his second fight against Penn. Besides, Fitch's 33rd birthday is three days before the fight and I'm anticipating a huge celebration.

As stated above, if the fireworks don't blast off in the main event, it's probably because they would have exploded in the fight previous to it. That's because I'm expecting nothing less in the co-main event between Bisping and Rivera. These two, who possess the gift of gab, have been trash talking one another to comedic levels and now it's time to put up or shut up. Bisping (20-3, 12 KO's 4 subs), the former 'Ultimate Fighter' Season Three winner, is the bad boy from England that U.S. fans love to hate. Winner of his last two fights, and six out of his last eight, 'The Count', embraces the villain role and usually relishes in it.

On the contrary, Rivera (19-7, 13 KO's 2 subs), a veteran at 38 years of age, has resurrected his career both in the cage and out. (6-2) in his last eight fights, including three in a row, 'El Conquistador' has won the fans over with his knockout power and willingness to put on a show. Rededicating himself after the loss of his teenage daughter to illness a couple of years ago, Rivera looks primed and ready for what he admits is probably his final run. He's also displayed quite a sense of humor while using all facets of the world wide web, including YouTube and Facebook, to appease his fans and talk trash on his opponent.

Not only has he won the war of words, but I think he'll win the fight as well via knockout. That's assuming Bisping decides to stand and trade instead of taking the fight to the ground where he's quite effective at pounding his opponents into submission via punches in bunches. I don't think either have an advantage over the other in the ground game, thus the reason I think it will stand long enough for Rivera to find his range and catch the battling Brit with a right hand. Curious to see where the winner stands in the UFC middleweight pecking order after this one.

Another interesting fight with major implications is the lightweight tilt between Germany's Denis Siver (17-7, 5 KO's 9 subs) and Australia's own George Sotiropoulos (14-2, 1 KO, 8 subs). Siver, a kickboxer with excellent ground skills, has won his last two and six out of his last seven with only one win going to decision. Meanwhile, the home country boy Sotiropoulos is riding an eight fight winning streak and has a potential number one contender spot riding on this fight; that is per UFC President Dana White, this past weekend.

With the momentum of all those victories on his side along with an entire country on his shoulders and the chance at a title fight, I can't see any way Sotiropoulous loses this fight. With an adequate stand-up game and a very slick high level jiu-jitsu game on the ground, I expect the Aussie to win this fight and do so in convincing fashion; most likely via submission. If that happens, I expect him to face the winner of Frankie Edgar/Gray Maynard III for the lightweight title.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Strikeforce tourney a knockout; literally


All good things must come to an end, or so the saying goes. In this case it is not a good, but great thing as legendary Fedor Emelianenko (pictured @ left/post fight) lost his second fight in a row, this time in the first round of the Strikeforce heavyweight (207-265 lbs.) tournament. Could we have just seen the last of 'The Last Emperor'?

Fighting in the main event of the heavyweight fight card that took place at The Izod Center in East Rutherford, NJ, Emelianenko (31-3, 8 KO's 16 subs) took on the man known simply as 'Bigfoot', Antonio Silva. Silva (16-2, 11 KO's 3 subs), now riding a three-fight win streak, fought the fight of his life as he held his own exchanging punches with the former 'Pride' heavyweight champion in the first round, before totaling dominating and beating him down during the second. Emelianenko, with a closed right eye and badly bruised face survived the round and beatdown, but could not get past the ringside physician who stopped the fight.

To his credit, Emelianenko, who was giving up more than five inches and at least 40 pounds to his opponent, never quit when he ended up underneath Silva in full mount position for nearly four minutes. He tried his best to fend off the onslaught and escape, but it was hard to do against such a massive man with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt pedigree. Besides the punches, Silva had at least three submission attempts during the round, including a rear naked choke, a tight arm triangle choke and a knee bar, but somehow Fedor survived every one. Miraculously, he nearly turned the tables at the end of the round, attempting a heel hook of his own on the "Bigfoot."

When asked in his post fight interview, what was his mind set having coming off his first ever two fight losing streak, the always humble Russian legend stated through his translator, "thank you for your love and support. Maybe this is it; maybe it's time to move on." The knowledgeable packed crowd, with a large Russian contingent in attendance; showed their emotions as in unison you could hear a somber "no" ring throughout the arena. Sadly, he may not be the only former Russian champion to have lost on this night and possibly for the last time.

Andre 'The Pitbull' Arlovski (15-9, 11 KO's 3 subs), who just turned 32 a week ago, appears to be at the end of his career as he lost his first round tournament fight against fellow Russian Sergei Kharitonov (18-4, 9 KO's, 8 subs) via first round knockout. Arlovski, who just a short five years ago was at the top of the game as the former UFC heavyweight champion, has now lost four in row, including three by vicious first round knockouts. Meanwhile, Kharitonov looks like a live dark horse in this eight-man tournament, especially with Emelianenko losing in his side of the bracket.

In another exciting heavyweight affair, up and coming Shane del Rosario (11-0, 8 KO's 3 subs) traded bombs with 'Big' Lavar Johnson (15-4, 13 KO's 2 subs) before finally catching him with an arm bar submission in the first round. With the win, Del Rosario put himself in position as the first alternate in the heavyweight Grand Prix tournament, should one of the original participants has to drop out for any reason. The second half of the first round tournament fights will take place the first weekend in April.

In another heavyweight tilt on the main card, Chad 'The Grave Digger' Griggs (10-1, 9 KO's 1 sub) continued his spoiler winning ways in Strikeforce. Coming off a surprising win over pro wrestling sensation Bobby Lashley, Griggs put on an exciting display of punching power as he outlasted a game, but undermanned Gian Villante (7-2, 5 KO's 2 subs). Villante, a young talented prospect from nearby Long Island, NY, had a few moments in the nearly three minutes the fight lasted before being stopped and finished by a flurry of Griggs punches.

However, it was Emelianenko who, even in defeat, was the star of this evening. Should this be his last hurrah, sadly, many casual and new fans to the sport may not realize the magnitude of this legend's career. When he reigned supreme during the heyday of the Pride Fighting Championships, he fought and defeated some of the best in their prime including Mirko Cro-Cop, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mark Coleman. Along the way, he has defeated five former UFC heavyweight champions, while never once fighting for the organization. Yet, it is beyond the fighting where he may be most revered.

Idolized in his native country and beloved worldwide, the quiet champion with the humble demeanor possesses an aura about him that only a select few ever attain. I compare it to the living legend that is Muhammad Ali. In other words, there could be a room of high level dignitaries and celebrities, yet if Ali walked in, they would all be in awe of him. The same reverence seems to follow the deeply religious Fedor wherever he goes. Strangely, if this should be the end of his storied career, as time passes the aura will not fade as it does with most retired athletes, but it will grow instead. That is the mark of a true legend and such is Fedor Emelianenko.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

UFC 126: Proof is in the Pudding


In the fight game, whether it's boxing or mixed martial arts, no matter how dominant a champion is, there is always a challenger out there that poses a threat. The one guy that has some fans starting to believe, the champion may finally have met his match. Such was the case with UFC 126: Silva vs. Belfort, or so we thought.

It took middleweight (185 lbs.) champion, Anderson 'The Spider' Silva, now (28-4, 16 KO's 5 subs), a little over three minutes to quell any thoughts that he is not the number one pound for pound fighter in the world. Facing off against the one guy who finally had hands who were even more lethal than his in Vitor 'The Phenom' Belfort (19-9, 13 KO's 2 subs), Silva (pictured above) didn't need his hands at all. Instead, he used a front kick to the chin that showed the proof is in the pudding.

With a very cautious start from two heavy-handed punchers, the first three minutes of the fight saw no action other than the fighters circling each other measuring striking distance. Then after a quick exchange that saw Silva fall, but able to get up right away, 'The Spider' threw a front kick from the back leg that caught Belfort flush on the chin, which all but had him out before he hit the mat. Silva, realizing his opponent was pretty much helpless, showed mercy in hesitating to pounce on him and hit him flush with a left and right hand before the referee jumped in to end it at 3:25 of the first round. Belfort must have thought Silva had eight legs like a spider because he never saw the kick coming.

Silva, a true martial artist in every sense of the word, showed immediate compassion as he went to Belfort while still on his back and cradled him to express his true feelings towards his downed opponent. At the weigh-ins the day before, Silva provoked a heated exchange between the two fighters; but understanding there's a fine line between martial arts etiquette of respect and putting on a show for the promotion of the fight, he masterfully weaves his web between the two worlds.

Now that he's pretty much cleaned out his division of all viable challengers, other than Yushin Okami, which is another story, what's next for 'The Spider'? According to UFC President Dana White, it's a potential showdown against welterweight (170 lbs.) champion Georges St. Pierre, probably at a catch-weight. That is assuming St. Pierre defeats title challenger Jake Shields in April. St. Pierre, the other fighter that is argued as the best in the world pound for pound, will no doubt be the next challenger that is labeled as "the guy" who will finally defeat Silva. As great as St. Pierre is though, I can't see him matching up with Silva who is a huge middleweight that has fought numerous times at light-heavyweight (205 lbs.).

Speaking of light-heavyweights and guys that are huge for their weight class, Forrest Griffin (18-6, 3 KO's 7 subs) used his superior size and strength to garner a unanimous decision against former middleweight champion Rich 'Ace' Franklin (28-6, 15 KO's, 10 subs). After a first round that found Franklin in survival mode for four minutes after Griffin got on top of him on the ground, he was never able to mount any type of attack against the much stronger former light-heavyweight champion. To show Anderson Silva's true dominance, he has wins over both of these former champions in devastating fashion with brutal knockouts; in Franklin's case it was twice.

In the other light-heavyweight feature of the night, Jon 'Bones' Jones (12-1, 7 KO's 3 subs) continued to show his versatility as he submitted previously undefeated Ryan 'Darth' Bader (12-1, 5 KO's 3 subs) via guillotine choke in the second round. Jones, who has been tabbed as the next future star of MMA, has found out his future is now. In the post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, Jones was told that due to an injury sustained by teammate Rashad Evans, which forces Evans out of his title fight against champion Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua next month, Jones will now get that shot. Since he came out of this fight virtually unscathed, it appears the fight date will still be March 19.

Finally, in the first fight of the night, former World Extreme Cagefighting Bantamweight (135 lbs.) Champion Miguel Torres (39-3, 9 KO's 23 subs) used his sizeable height and reach advantage to outbox Antonio Banuelos (18-7, 7 KO's 1 sub) en route to a unanimous decision. Torres an unbelievable 5'9" for a bantamweight, was six inches taller than his opponent and used every inch of it as he kept Banuelos at bay with a stinging left jab and right cross combination all night. Now training under St. Pierre's trainer Firas Zahabi, Torres showed a renewed discipline in his fight approach.

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