Saturday, September 24, 2011

UFC 135: The Next Generation is now

It wasn't necessarily The Prodigal Son returning home, but UFC 135 taking place in Denver, Colorado where UFC 1 took place 18 years ago was a memorable occasion. For one, they had a lot more fans in The Pepsi Center than the approximately 2,500 people they had back in the McNichol's Arena in '93. The other reason had to do with reigning light-heavyweight champion Jon 'Bones' Jones (pictured).

Jones (14-1, 8 KO's 4 subs), only 24 years of age, put on a dominant display well beyond his years against former champ Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson (32-9, 14 KO's 7 subs). Just as I expected, Jones who is multi-faceted in his game, used a cerebral approach and pretty much toyed with the one-dimensional Jackson for three and a half rounds. Boxing, kick-boxing, wrestling, Muay-Thai clinch work and jiu-jitsu, Jones displayed it all until he ended up winning by submission with a rear naked choke against the always tough to finish Rampage.

Jackson may be one-dimensional, but that one dimension, his heavy hands, usually works against most opponents. However, this is not your average 205 pounder, as Jones stands at a lean 6'4" and has a freakish 84 inch reach. Thus, Rampage was trying in vain to land one of his patented haymakers as he couldn't reach his target. It's almost like fighting a human sized tarantula.

When asked by Joe Rogan after the fight what he thought about Jones, Rampage responded by saying, "He's the real deal; I don't know if there any light-heavyweights out there that can beat him." Yet, Jones next scheduled opponent, former teammate Rashad Evans feels otherwise as he told Joe Rogan afterwards in the cage, "I'm glad the UFC is making this fight, I'm looking forward to it." Jones response, "I'm not saying anything till the fight. This is the second time he's ruined my special moment in the cage."

In the co-main event, sadly it was another legend that has fallen prey to Father Time as welterweight (170 lbs.) Josh 'Kos' Koscheck (16-5, 5 KO's 5 subs) finished former two-time champion Matt Hughes (46-9, 17 KO's 18 subs) via TKO @ 4:59 of the first round. Although Hughes looked competitive early, it was only a matter of time once Koscheck opened up. That's two first round KO losses in a row for Hughes; yet when asked what's next by Joe Rogan, Hughes surprisingly said, "I'm not retiring; I'm going to ask the UFC to put me on the shelf and then we'll see what happens."

Finally, I hate to say I told you so, but in the first fight of the night that's just what happened. In my preview I said that Japanese icon Takanori 'The Fireball Kid' Gomi (32-8, 12 KO's 6 subs) would probably lose to Nate Diaz (14-7, 3 KO's 10 subs) in the first round either by triangle choke or arm bar; Diaz obliged by applying both before finishing him with an arm bar at the end of the first round. However, that was only after he owned Gomi on the feet with beautiful boxing combinations. Diaz looks great back at lightweight (155 lbs.) where he truly belongs.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

UFC 135: Jones vs. Rampage Preview

While it's not taking place in the same venue, UFC 135 is returning home to its birthplace of Denver, Colorado. Nearly 18 years ago in November 1993, UFC 1 took place in the McNichols Sports Arena. This Saturday, the UFC returns to Denver, only this time to sellout the Pepsi Center. It's kind of ironic too, because this card is filled with match-ups and stars from the last era taking on the next generation and it all starts at the top.

The main event is for the world light heavyweight championship and it features current titleholder Jon 'Bones' Jones (13-1, 8 KO's 3 subs) defending against the legend simply known as 'Rampage'. While there may be three other MMA fighters who lay claim to the nickname 'Rampage', there is only one that matters; former UFC champion Quinton Jackson (32-8, 14 KO's 7 subs). Jones vs. Rampage is an interesting match-up on many levels and they all have to do with the contrast in every way between the two combatants.

Rampage, while only 33, represents the old guard. A former champion who made his bones, (no pun intended), in Japan during the Pride Fighting Championships days; he's been fighting professionally for 12 years and only knows one way to fight. Meanwhile, Jones is not only the new breed, he is the next breed. Only 24 years old, Jones is a complete mixed martial artist who's barely been fighting over three years now.

Jackson lives up to his nickname, not only through his fighting style, but by being outspoken, boisterous and mean. Jones on the other hand is 'Cool Hand Luke', to coin a phrase from 1967. He's quiet, reserved and soft spoken, yet his style in the cage is quick, effective and fluid. Though both are African-American, Jackson is a country boy from Memphis, while Jones is a city kid from upstate New York. They have nothing in common, except the UFC 205 lbs. title.

How do I see this one playing out? Jackson's only chance is to bully Jones and eventually catch him with one of those bombs he throws with either hand. Problem is Jones has a freakish 84 inch reach, in which he uses every inch of it to keep his opponents at bay until he decides to engage. When he does, he's quite adept either standing throwing strikes or grappling as a former state wrestling champion. It's not rocket science here; Jones has too many ways to win versus Jackson's one way. Jones will keep Rampage at a distance and frustrate him till he wins via TKO in the second round.

The co-main event is quite interesting as well as it features another former legendary champion, welterweight (170 lbs.) Matt Hughes (45-8, 17 KO's 18 subs) taking on two-time title challenger Josh 'Kos' Koscheck (15-5, 4 KO's 5 subs). Hughes has been fighting even longer than Rampage at 13 years plus and is facing a product from 'The Ultimate Fighter' era as Koscheck was on season one. Both former All-American wrestlers in college, Koscheck is the more accomplished as a former national champion. They are both coming off losses though and haven't fought since 2010.

The last time we saw Hughes in November last year, it took B.J. Penn all of 21 seconds to punch his lights out. Koscheck on the other hand, took a serious five-round beat down at the hands of current champ Georges St. Pierre in December. The beating was so bad; Koscheck suffered a broken orbital bone around his eye. The question is which defeat will impact what fighter more?

While I think Koscheck's was much more mentally impacting, I do believe Hughes best days are behind him; thus the reason I believe it took him 10 months to get back in the cage after just a 21 second TKO loss. Koscheck remains stable at American Kickboxing Academy, while Hughes is not sure where to be these days; though he owns his own gym in his hometown. Anything is possible, but I see Koscheck winning convincingly, probably by third round TKO via ground and pound and possibly sending Hughes into retirement. Especially since this is Hughes last fight on his current contract.

The other bout of note on this card is the lightweight (155 lbs.) tilt between the Japanese Icon Takanori 'The Fireball Kid' Gomi (32-7, 12 KO's 6 subs) and the younger bad boy from Stockton, California Nate Diaz (13-7, 3 KO's, 9 subs). I say younger because Diaz is of course the younger brother of Nick Diaz, who ironically fought Gomi in February 2007 at Pride 33. Though Nick won via Gogoplata choke submission, the decision was ruled a no contest by the Nevada Athletic Commission after Diaz tested positive for marijuana.

This fight marks the return to lightweight for Nate who tried his hand at 170, till he literally got tossed around like a rag doll in his last fight against Rory McDonald; I don't see that happening here though. While Gomi has a ton of experience, 13 years worth though he's only 32, five of his seven losses have been to submission. This of course is Diaz's forte, thus I see him catching Gomi, either in a triangle choke or arm bar, quite possibly in the first round. Sad but true, it looks like out with old and in with the new at UFC 135.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Protect yourself at all times

Before I begin, let me preface my remarks by saying, "Outside of his boxing skills, I have never been much of a Floyd 'Money' Mayweather fan." That said; I have no problem with the outcome of Saturday night's fight against former welterweight champion 'Vicious' Victor Ortiz. I can hear the uproar already, but before all the anti-Mayweather fans start screaming bloody murder at me, let me explain my reasoning.

For three and a half rounds Saturday night, the fight was going just as I and many boxing experts had expected it would; Floyd Mayweather (42-0, 26 KO's) keeping the fight in the center of the ring picking apart a game, but outmatched Victor Ortiz (29-3-2, 22 KO's). Sure, Ortiz came into the ring the WBC welterweight champion, but at just 24 years old, his level of experience is still nowhere near Mayweather's and it showed early on and throughout.

Although Ortiz had a couple minor flashes/moments throughout, it was Mayweather's precise counter punching that dictated the way the fight was going the first three and half rounds. That was until all hell broke loose. For one of the very few moments in the fight, Ortiz backed up Mayweather and appeared to finally be doing some damage while having the slicker opponent up against the ropes. As a matter of fact, had he stayed with what he was doing at that point, he looked as though he could possibly pull out the fourth round. That was until the unexpected happened.

In the midst of throwing punches at Mayweather, Ortiz, for some strange reason, decided to live up to his nickname, get "vicious" and throw a head butt at Mayweather's chin. Blatant and obvious, referee Joe Cortez jumped in and stopped the action. He then proceeded to take a point away from Ortiz. After this, the two fighters embraced with Ortiz apologizing for his actions and Mayweather seemingly accepting. What happened next is what ends the fight and starts the controversy.

As they parted their embrace, Mayweather hit Ortiz with a left hook and right hand that knocked down the former champion. Unable to recover, Ortiz was counted out by Cortez, who for a 'Hall of Fame' referee looked a bit bewildered by the whole thing. The stoppage came at 2:59 of the fourth round. Immediately the question began, was Mayweather dirty or unprofessional for hitting Ortiz as they finished their embrace and his hands were down? I say no and here's why.

First of all, Mayweather did nothing wrong. The timeout that was called after the initial head butt was back in, which means "protect yourself at all times." That is the first and repeated rule of boxing, MMA, wrestling or any other combat sport in the world. Mayweather had his hands up after the embrace, so why didn't Ortiz? Experience, that's why.

Second, it was Ortiz, not Mayweather, who initiated the intentional head butt, thus turning an otherwise clean fight up to that point, into 'no holds barred'. Therefore, even if the punches Mayweather threw after the embrace were "dirty," which I am saying they were not, he was just adapting to dirty tactics that were being used upon him. In other words, Ortiz made a mistake by fighting a fighter at something he is good at. Not necessarily fighting dirty, but using it to your advantage. At this, Mayweather is a master.

The unfair uproar that is being hurled at Floyd Mayweather has nothing to do with professional prizefighting and everything to do with people's diluted perception of sportsmanship. Don't hate the player, hate the game. As much as boxing and mixed martial arts are sports, they are not played with the same courteous etiquette that you will see on a tennis court or golf course. While there are rules in place, it is still a fight.

Floyd Mayweather fought that fight within the rules. If he hadn't, the same way referee Joe 'Mr. I'm Fair, but I'm Firm' Cortez penalized Victor Ortiz for not fighting within those rules, he would have penalized Mayweather. Also note there was no negative reaction or response at all from Ortiz. He just smiled in his corner as though he realized he was just outmatched. A valuable, but costly lesson was learned by Ortiz Saturday night, protect yourself at all times.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Semifinals: AKA cleans house

When it came to the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Semifinals Saturday night in Cincinnati, Ohio, the underlying story had to do with American Kickboxing Academy (AKA), who had a clean sweep in their four fights; three of which were on the main card. Oh yeah, a little guy known as Josh Barnett, former UFC Heavyweight Champion, also won in his tournament semifinal fight setting up a showdown with probably the biggest winner of the night, Daniel Cormier (pictured @ left).

Cormier (9-0, 4 KO's, 3 subs), a former two-time U.S. Olympian in freestyle wrestling and last minute replacement in this tournament, made the most of his opportunity as he knocked out his much more imposing and experienced opponent in the first round. Antonio 'Bigfoot' Silva (16-3, 11 KO's 3 subs) was coming off the biggest win of his career after he thrashed Fedor Emelianenko back in February. Everybody expected the same against the much smaller and inexperienced Cormier who only stands 5'10 1/2", compared to Silva's 6'4" frame. However, someone forgot to tell Cormier.

It took the former Olympian less than four minutes to dispatch of Silva, dropping him three times in the first round with punches the last one with a beautiful right handed uppercut from the inside. Cormier, who was an alternate who replaced former champion Alistair Overeem in the tourney, now finds himself in the final against an even more experienced former champion, Josh Barnett (31-5, 7 KO's 19 subs). When asked about his chances, Cormier responded by saying, "I train with the best heavyweight (UFC Champion Cain Velasquez) in the world on a daily basis."

Barnett, who has not lost in nearly five years, took just about 30 seconds longer than Cormier to defeat his opponent Sergei Kharitonov (18-5, 9 KO's 8 subs) via an arm triangle choke. It was business as usual for Barnett, who avoided Kharitonov's punches early and eventually caught him in a clinch and took him down. Once there, Barnett used his superior position to pound on his Russian opponent until Kharitonov made the mistake Barnett was looking for.

The only negative about Barnett's performance tonight was him changing his nickname to 'The Warmaster'. It may very well be the cheesiest and worst nickname in MMA history, but then again Barnett comes from a pro wrestling background in Japan. As a matter fact, in his post-fight interview Barnett said, "Catch wrestling is where it's at; pro wrestling all the way." Barnett and Cormier will meet sometime in early 2012.

The other featured bout had AKA middleweight (185 lbs.) Luke Rockhold (8-1, 1 KO, 6 subs), wrestling the title away from former champion Ronald 'Jacare' Souza (14-3, 11 subs) in an entertaining five round affair. In the end, it was Rockhold winning a very close unanimous decision as two judges understandably scored it 48-47, while one judge had it 50-45, which was outright ridiculous. This was Rockhold's first fight in 19 months due to injury, which made it even more impressive and it showed as he was overcome with emotion after the decision was rendered.

Also on the card, former light-heavyweight champ Muhammed 'King Mo' Lawal (8-1, 6 KO's) added another notch to his short, but impressive list of victories as he knocked out the latest installment from the first family of MMA Roger Gracie (4-1, 4 subs). Looking extremely relaxed and patient with his boxing, Lawal, who recently joined the AKA team, caught Gracie with an overhand right on the temple that was the beginning of the end for the decorated grappler. Up next for 'The King', "I want Feijao." Rafael 'Feijao' Calvacante is the man who defeated Lawal for his title.

It was a clean sweep for AKA fighters tonight and it started on the prelims with light-heavyweight Mike 'MAK' Kyle (19-8-1, 12 KO's 3 subs) who scored a unanimous decision victory over previously undefeated Marcos Rogerio 'Pezao' de Lima (8-1, 6 KO's 1 sub). Kyle, who used to compete at heavyweight, was rebounding from a loss last December to none other than the previously mentioned Antonio 'Bigfoot' Silva. AKA, was already regarded as one of the top gyms around the world in MMA circles and with the clean sweep tonight from their young lions, no one can argue that point.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

10 years later, the pain still lingers

With a slow weekend in both Boxing & MMA and one week till the infamous 10 year anniversary of 9/11, I decided to write a tribute column to three friends I lost that day; one who I used to train with side by side in martial arts.

August is now over and summer is dwindling down. Labor Day is upon us, which means that a dreaded infamous anniversary is on the horizon. September 11th or 9/11 will always live in infamy, but it’s hard to believe that nearly ten years have passed since that fateful day.

Recently, I watched the movie ‘World Trade Center’ and I was moved by the true expression of humanity that was displayed in the rescue efforts following the tragedy that befell upon us that day. However, I am not here to comment on the film as much as I am to discuss how the movie itself stirred some personal emotions within me that are connected to that day. I lost three friends on September 11, 2001. One I could talk to personally, the other two though could only talk to me.

First and foremost, I want to dedicate this column to a personal friend, Alan Merdinger. Alan worked on the 102nd floor of the North Tower, the first tower to be hit. He worked in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, a brokerage company who lost more than 600 employees that day. While Alan was a Native New Yorker, he was a resident of the Lehigh Valley, like myself, who resided in Whitehall, Pennsylvania.

For seven years he would make the daily commute back and forth from Pennsylvania to New York to work at the pinnacle of the New York Skyline. I came to know Alan a couple of years prior to 9/11 through our mutual interest in Martial Arts. We both trained at Lehigh Valley Taekwondo and besides sweating side by side under the daily regimen of martial arts training, we found that we had other common bonds.

I too was originally from New York, but beyond that we both loved The New York Mets. We would constantly discuss the highs and lows of our beloved baseball team and even discussed catching a game together someday. Unfortunately, we never got that chance.

A week prior to 9/11 while training together, I vividly remember one night I had to grapple with Alan; in other words, we were submission wrestling. He hated this part of training while I loved it, so it made for a very interesting encounter. Let me just say, we shared a few laughs while trying to submit each other. It was this encounter that would lead Alan to ask me if I would assist him in his upcoming blue belt test. I told him, “It would be my honor." However, once again I never got the chance.

At 47 years old Alan was determined to accomplish his goal of becoming a black belt. He was well on his way as he was an accomplished martial artist with many years of experience. It was the commute back and forth from New York that delayed the process for him as it cut into his training time.

Yet, it was inevitable he was going to achieve his dream. That is why Master Lee Arnold awarded Alan’s wife with the coveted blue belt he was going to test for the week after 9/11. As is stated on a plaque that now hangs on a wall inside the training academy, “Alan Merdinger was a good father, a good student and most importantly a good friend.”

However, as I stated earlier, I lost three friends that day. The other two were a big part of my life, especially since they were around since my childhood. We were both conceived in 1962, but they weren’t born till 1966. They grew a lot quicker than I did though; so much so that they reached puberty by 1970 and by 1973 they were officially introduced to the World. Who were these friends of mine? The historic Twin Towers of The World Trade Center.

It is hard to explain how a person can feel this way about inanimate objects, but if you lived and grew up in New York City, especially in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, you can relate. These were not just two buildings, these two were a part of my adolescence. As they grew, I grew with them.

The same way we celebrate birthdays and holidays as people, I did the same with my two friends. In 1974, I was there when wirewalker Phillipe Petit walked across a tightrope between the two of them on a crisp August morning. In 1975 when Kong laid in the plaza for days while they filmed the ending scene to the remake of King Kong, I was there; and in 1977 I watched in awe as ‘The Human Fly’ George Willig scaled the South Tower in three hours.

These towers were a personal part of my life and even though their time on this earth wasn’t as long as mine, they left me with memories that will last me a lifetime. All those memories were stirred last week as I watched the movie ‘World Trade Center’ and strange as it may seem, it literally hurt to see the image of my friends who were so tall and strong crumbled down to their very core.

I can still see them from time to time, as they once were, whenever I watch the opening scene to ‘Saturday Night Fever’ or I watch the 1976 version of ‘King Kong’. However, I miss them very much. Thus, even though the old adage is “time heals all,” I am here to tell you that ten years later, the pain still lingers.

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