Saturday, November 26, 2011

Will legendary boxing rivalry ever exist in MMA?

As I watched Mexican boxing WBC super middleweight champion Saul Alvarez defend his title Saturday night against Puerto Rican former titleholder Kermit Cintron live from Mexico, one thing was clearly evident; this legendary rivalry in boxing between fighters from these two proud countries is alive and well. Nowhere will this be more evidently on display than next Saturday night when Puerto Rican WBA super middleweight champion Miguel Cotto defends his belt in a rematch against his Mexican arch nemesis Antonio Margarito.

These two bouts are just the latest in a long line of classic moments and fights between fighters from these two boxing rich Latin nations. I ought to know, as I've been a long time boxing fan who also happens to be Puerto Rican; and unless you are a fan who is either Puerto Rican or Mexican, I don't think you can truly appreciate how big this rivalry really is. It is something that goes beyond just a winner and a loser.

It all stems from pride or as we say in Spanish, "Orgullo." Sure, it is something you learn because you grow up in it, but it is also something that is embedded inside of you because of you're Hispanic heritage; I think it is a Latin trait period as you see it prominently displayed in MMA through Brazilians. To truly understand it, just consider some of my own personal experiences within this boxing rivalry.

In August 1981, Wilfredo Gomez, arguably the greatest fighter ever to be produced by Puerto Rico, took on the late great Mexican legend Salvador Sanchez in a featherweight championship at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. At the time, I was an 18 year old getting ready to start my sophomore year of college and Gomez was like a God to me. So when I saw him take a beating over eight rounds, ultimately losing by TKO, I am not ashamed to admit that tears welled up in my eyes. This may be hard to understand by some, but easy to understand by others.

Seven years later, my pride swelled again in the hopes and anticipation that another late great champion Puerto Rican Edwin Rosario would take away the pain from the Gomez loss as he took on Mexico's greatest champion ever Julio Cesar Chavez. Unfortunately though, from a personal standpoint, the result was the same as Chavez closed Rosario's left eye and forced his corner to stop the fight after ten rounds. However, it wouldn't be considered a rivalry if it were just one-sided.

Alas, in 1999 redemption came when Puerto Rico's Felix Trinidad defeated Mexican/American Golden Boy Oscar De La Hoya via decision. How serious was I about that fight? Beforehand I asked my friends who I watched the fight with, who normally drink Corona beer, to drink Heinekens instead so as not to show any allegiance to Mexico in any form that day. That is how crazy this rivalry is; thus, the question is, will this legendary rivalry ever exist in MMA?

Since the sport of MMA is still in its relative infancy, just recently celebrating its 18th year of existence last week, the sport is now just expanding to include fighters from these proud ancestries. Nonetheless, there are fighters of note already in place such as Mexican former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and Puerto Rican former Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez. Yet, there aren't enough yet to establish any rivalries.

Alvarez, when he was champion, had been talked about in a proposed fight against Mexican Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez and that could have been the beginning of a great one, but it never materialized. Alvarez did defend his title in October 2010 against former UFC cover boy Roger Huerta, which was really the first significant match between a Puerto Rican and Mexican in MMA, but by that time Huerta had lost his luster as a contender, thus it was nothing more that just a title defense.

However, as the sport continues to grow, more and more young fighters of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, who used to automatically turn to boxing back in the day, are now turning to MMA instead. Therefore, it's inevitable that at some point we will have a significant fight between Puerto Rico and Mexico inside a cage instead of a ring; quite possibly Alvarez vs. Melendez one day soon. Yet, till then the question remains, will this legendary boxing rivalry ever exist in MMA?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

UFC 139: The night two legends stole the show

How much do I love MMA? I missed the live telecast of UFC 139 Saturday night because I was DJ'ing and didn't get home till 4:30AM. However, I set my alarm for 6:45AM, so I could get up to watch the replay at 7AM Sunday morning and it was well worth the effort. On a stacked card being fought in San Jose, CA, it was a pair of legends that stole the show.

The main event alone was worth the price of admission as light-heavyweights (205 lbs.) Dan 'Hendo' Henderson (29-8, 13 KO's 2 subs) and Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua (20-6, 7 KO's 1 sub) put on an epic battle that is already being lauded as one of the greatest in UFC history. After five grueling rounds of back and forth action, it was the 41 year old former Pride FC and Strikeforce champion Henderson who emerged the victor in his third return to the UFC.

Although it was a non-title fight, this classic proved the UFC brass right in making all main events five rounds; although early on it didn't look like it would get past one or two. In vintage Dan Henderson style, his lethal right hand caught Rua throughout the first three rounds and it looked like it could be the beginning of the end in all three. However, 'Shogun' somehow weathered the storm and found moments of his own throughout.

Ironically, as the fight progressed into the fourth and fifth rounds, the tide turned and it was Rua who had Henderson (pictured above) in serious trouble, especially in the fifth when he was in mounted position on the ground for at least four minutes. Yet, just like Rua before him, Hendo found the will, which is about all he had at the end, to survive. The result was an instant classic. In typical Henderson fashion, after the fight he told Joe Rogan, "That guy can take an f'in punch."

The co-main event was electric right from the entrance of the combatants and that electricity carried right on through into the cage. That's because it featured two combat sports legends, one in MMA and one in kickboxing, in former Pride champion Wanderlei 'The Axe Murderer' Silva and former San Shou world champion Cung Le. In a crossroads fight for both fighters as Silva (34-11-1, 24 KO's, 3 subs) was only 3-6 in his last nine fights and Le (7-2, 7 KO's in MMA) at 39 has a successful movie career going, it was Silva who would emerge the victor.

For Silva, four of those last six losses were by knockout, the last one in 27 seconds just four months ago. Thus, UFC President Dana White had been talking about possibly forcing him to retire and in the first round it looked as though that may be the case as Le had him in trouble at one point. However, a champion's heart cannot be measured and late in the second round it was Silva who hurt Le with a punch and then unleashed his patented fury. With vicious knees from a Muay Thai clinch, he dropped the hometown Le and finished him with hammer fists forcing the referee to step in.

An emotional Silva said in his post fight interview, "It's been a difficult last few years for me, but things can happen through belief and hard work. Jesus Christ is always with me; it is he who is the boss." As for Le, this was his first fight ever in the UFC and with this being his first fight in over 16 months, only time will tell if he'll have another or will finally call it a career. Fighting in movies is a lot safer and glamorous than in the octagon.

'California Love' is not just the signature entrance song for popular bantamweight (135 lbs.) Urijah Faber (26-5, 7 KO's 14 subs), but it is also what 'The California Kid' gave and received to and from the northern California crowd. The former 145 lbs. champion in World Extreme Cagefighting, took on Brian Bowles (10-2, 3 KO's 6 subs), who himself is a former bantamweight champion in the WEC. On this night though it was all Faber as he just outclassed Bowles with his speed, boxing and wrestling, eventually winning by submission using the vaunted guillotine choke his Alpha Male team is known for.

What had the potential to be a possible fight of the night candidate, turned out to be a three round technical affair; due in part to welterweight (170 lbs.) contenders Martin Kampmann (18-5, 7 KO's 6 subs) and Rick 'Horror' Story (13-5, 3 KO's, 3 subs). On this night, it was Kampmann, an extremely talented fighter who's been on the losing end of a couple of questionable decisions, who was on the positive end tonight and justifiably so. Using a nice combination of kickboxing, take downs and jiu-jitsu, Kampmann defeated Story who has now lost two in a row after being one win away from a title shot.

In the first fight of the night, it was a clear cut case of experience and overall better technique superseding talent and potential. Stephan Bonnar (14-7, 3 KO's, 7 subs), one half of the famed greatest UFC fight of all-time with Forrest Griffin, who at one point in the last few years had lost six fights in a row, has found new life as he defeated Kyle Kingsbury (11-3, 4 KO's 2 subs) via unanimous decision. Using a superior ground game, Bonnar totally dominated Kingsbury over three rounds to earn his third victory in a row.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Time to make a statement to the world

When I first interviewed Bethlehem, PA's own Ronald Cruz in April 2010, he was an unknown professional boxer with an (8-0) record that few outside of the northeast area knew about. Move forward a short year and a half and today he's an up and coming welterweight prospect with a record of (14-0, 11 KO's), who's ranked #59 in the world. This weekend in Atlantic City, he looks to improve on that record and as he says, "make a statement to the world."

Although he got his start in the boxing game relatively late, this young 25 year old is making up for lost time and making the most of it. A lot has changed since we last spoke 18 months ago, a new trainer, a new wife and six more wins; but one thing hasn't changed and that is Ronald's focus and desire to someday make his dream come true of becoming a world champion.

I asked Ronald why the change in trainer from his amateur then professional coach Alec Morales and his response was respectful, but candid. "Very simply we weren't getting along too well. A fighter/trainer relationship is a very sensitive one since you have to work together every day. I just noticed over time that wasn't happening and a change was needed," Cruz said. Luckily, the change came in the form of a trusted friend who just happened to be experienced in boxing.

Lemuel 'Indio' Rodriguez is an old friend of Cruz's who comes from a family of boxers in Puerto Rico and although he didn't have professional experience behind him, Ronald saw something in him that told him this was the way to go. He said, "Before we even started working together, I went to him about the idea to try and feel him out. I noticed right away, that this would work out."

I asked Cruz what was it about Rodriguez that made the difference and his response was, "Besides his boxing background, I noticed he had a different philosophy for training. He uses different workouts and he notices little things as well. For example, when we talked he immediately pointed out to me that I need to use my legs more. The other thing I like about working with Indio is, even if I'm doing something right, like throwing my jab, he'll keep stressing it over and over; he's a perfectionist and I needed that."

The other big change in Ronald's life this past year came in the form of marriage to his long-time girlfriend Daisy. "She's always supported me," he said. "Being slightly older than me, she understands the demands this sport has and that there are days when I can hardly spend the time I wish I could with her and my kids. She makes the necessary sacrifices it takes to make this work for us."

This past July Cruz won his 14th fight in convincing fashion when he headlined a professional card at the Sands Casino in his hometown. I asked him if there is a possibility of that happening again and he told me, "Yes there is; they are currently building an events center adjacent to the casino that should be open next spring and they are talking about possibly doing something in May."

That's the future, but the present is this Saturday the 19th and the opponent is Ronald's stiffest and most experienced yet. Anges Adjaho (25-6, 14 KO's) is a veteran from Buffalo, NY who's last fight was a tough 10 round decision loss to perennial contender Joel Julio; a guy who has fought for the world title twice, so you know this is a big step up in competition. With such a strong opponent ahead, I asked him what he's been doing differently from his previous fights.

"We've been working a lot on speed for both the hands and the legs," he said. "Also, we've been really working the jab as he is an extremely good defensive fighter and we feel this will be an important weapon in penetrating that defense." He also told me, "I know I have a knockout streak going (7 TKO's in a row), but I can't get caught up in that. I have to go in there, do my job and if it doesn't happen, I can't desperate looking for it. I have to be smart and win the fight."

With nothing but success so far and so much riding in this his biggest fight to date, I asked Cruz what he expects for Saturday and where he hopes to be a year from now at the end of 2012. "With this fight, I want to go out there and make a statement. I want to show the world I can do everything these world class fighters have and haven't done yet." Finally, he says, "The goal is to get that world title belt. I don't know where I'll be a year from now, but we'll be working towards that goal and hopefully, we'll be close."

Ronald Cruz fights this Saturday November 19th at Bally's in Atlantic City. I want to thank Ronald for taking time out from his busy schedule and wish him luck.

There is no substitute for power

According to 'Scarface' Tony Montana, "In this country, first you get the money. Once you get the money, then you get the power." When it comes to Mixed Martial Arts however, it's just the opposite. First you exhibit the power; then when you show that power you get the money. Either way, there is no substitute for power, which is exactly what Junior Dos Santos showed everybody on Saturday night.

If there is any doubt at the power that new UFC heavyweight champion Dos Santos (14-1, 9 KO's 3 subs) must pack in a punch, just look at the size of his massive fist compared to mine in the photo above. Now I am not insinuating in any way that I have a large fist compared to the champ's, but his is abnormally huge. It is reminiscent of the 'Seinfeld' episode when they showed that the girl Jerry was dating at the time had "Man Hands."

It was that fist that made all the difference for Dos Santos Saturday night as with one looping right hand to the back of the ear, ala Chuck Liddell, he dropped former champion Cain Velasquez (9-1, 8 KO's) to the canvas and finished him; it took all of 64 seconds. Mike Tyson's 88 second demolition of Michael Spinks in boxing back in the day seems like an eternity. Yet, as exciting a finish as it was the question now remains, how good was it for the UFC and its first ever telecast on mainstream television? I say, it was perfect.

Sure, a five round classic may have been better and not all fights usually end this fast. However, on a night when the main event needed to make a splash and a strong first impression, it did pretty good. You see, while hardcore MMA fans are knowledgeable and appreciative of technical fights, it was the casual fans the UFC needed to appeal to on this night; the ones that are usually blood thirsty for quick action. Well, they got that and more on Saturday.

I said on Friday this was a difficult fight to call as it was the former champ's wrestling versus the new champ's boxing. On this night, the boxer won out, mainly because the wrestler made the mistake of thinking he could box with the heavy puncher. The result was Velasquez losing his belt in his first title defense. He was coming off a year long lay-off due to injury and it showed. However, there is no excuse; Dos Santos was simply the better man on this night.

As for 2012 and the network television deal between the UFC and Fox, the possibilities are exciting; when you look at the roster, see the current champions and the potential for intriguing match-ups. Note, I said possibilities; because if there is one thing we've come to learn with the UFC, it is that nothing is guaranteed. However, one thing we can always count on is, there is no substitute for power.

Friday, November 11, 2011

More than just a title fight

On a weekend that should be dominated by boxing, due in part to Manny ‘Pac-man’ Pacquiao and his third fight against Juan Manuel Marquez, the UFC is crashing that party and making a splash of its own. In a historic move for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the UFC will premiere on the Fox network Saturday night with no less than the heavyweight championship of the world.

This move is historic for the UFC, but not for the sport of Mixed Martial Arts which has been featured on major network television before. Both the EliteXC and Strikeforce promotions have appeared live on the CBS network, with pretty fair ratings and reviews. However, this is the UFC; the number one promotion in all of MMA. Therefore, if the UFC makes it, MMA makes it.

Undaunted by the mega-draw that is Pacquiao, Dana White, President of the UFC and Fox will counter program, somewhat, with UFC champion Cain Velasquez (9-0, 8 KO’s) defending his title against the clear number one contender Junior Dos Santos (13-1, 8 KO’s 3 subs). I say somewhat because the Fox telecast will only broadcast this one fight, which will be for one hour between 9 and 10 eastern time. The boxing par-per-view starts at the same time, but the main event will not come on till after the UFC event is over.

Nonetheless, this is a risky and dare I say, ballsy move on the part of White. Universally credited, and deservedly so, with bringing the UFC and MMA from the doldrums of the dark ages and making it the fastest growing sport in the world, White is now determined to bring it to the masses and make it mainstream. All good except first impressions are forever lasting and to attempt this venture against Pacquiao shows White’s commitment and belief in his product.

White has been openly stressing this date all week for numerous reasons such as, will the fight live up to the hype or will it make a big enough splash? However, probably the biggest reason is that more than a few times this year, especially a/o late, the fighters slated for the main event haven’t made it to the finish line of the fight date healthy enough to have a main event; and while both fighters appear strong and healthy with a little over 24 hours to go, White will not relax till show time.

One thing in his favor is the combatants he has chosen for this inaugural fight on Fox. Velasquez and Dos Santos are not just heavyweight sluggers; they are two of the most athletically gifted and skilled heavyweights on the planet. Both capable of finishing the other with one punch, these two are destined to put on a show for the ages; whether it last five minutes or five rounds.

For once, I am truly having difficulty picking a winner in this one. If the fight had taken place earlier this year, I probably would have leaned towards Velasquez, solely because of how dominant he looked against former champion Brock Lesnar. However, that fight was over a year ago in October 2010 and a serious shoulder injury from that fight forced the champion on the shelf. Thus, is ring rust a factor?

Dos Santos on the other hand is primed and ready. Coming off a convincing victory against former title challenger Shane Carwin, where he dismantled Carwin in every facet; Junior looks like the real deal. The determining factor for me lies in the wrestling; can Junior nullify Cain’s takedowns and avoid fighting off his back?

Considering the long layoff, I would normally say yes. However, watching both Chael Sonnen and Rashad Evans, two top fighters in the UFC who are also excellent wrestlers, come back from long layoffs this year and not lose a beat, I’m thinking Cain can do the same. So, though my heart is saying Dos Santos, my mind and logic are saying Velasquez. Thus, I am picking Cain Velasquez to defend his title in a five round epic that should make Dana White look like Kool-Aid because he’ll be smiling from ear to ear.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The UFC vs. Boxing; the rivalry continues

It isn't often we get free fights on television anymore; and when we do, it is usually some up and coming prospects in either boxing or MMA that just don't deliver. From the days of closed circuit TV in boxing to pay-per-view events now in both sports, it's all about the Benjamin's these days. However, Saturday night we got the rare double in boxing and MMA, that was not only free, but delivered big excitement as well.

A journalist friend of mine once told me, that I should never write about boxing and MMA in the same column. Well today, I'm bucking that advice and doing it because the two fights Saturday night were so good and so similar in fashion; they earned equal billing in my book. In MMA, it was the main event of UFC 138 between Chris 'The Crippler' Leben (22-8, 12 KO's 5 subs) and Mark 'The Filipino Wrecking Machine' Munoz (12-2, 6 KO's 1 sub) that capped off an exciting card from Birmingham, England.

The mix of Leben, the veteran mixed martial artist with the heavy left hand and Munoz, the All-American wrestler with the vicious ground and pound, was a recipe for fireworks and it went off with a bang. Right from the start, the two were throwing bombs at each other whether it was standing or on the ground. Not surprisingly, Munoz got the first take down; but what was surprising was Leben got up and got the second and third take downs on the decorated wrestler Munoz.

The result was a back and forth first round that had both announcers Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan exclaiming, "Wow, what a round!" The difference though was Munoz looked fresh and ready to go for the second, while Leben looked gassed as he was breathing heavy and looking weary. Tell tale sign or not, they came out and picked up right where they left off; only this time, the damage would be too much.

Sensing Leben was too weak to fend off his take down attempts, Munoz shot in on 'The Crippler' repeatedly. However, to Leben's credit, as tired as he was, he kept fighting back with submission attempts off his back, punches to the head and body and working his way back up to his feet. Yet, it was Munoz who delivered the most telling blow as during some of his patented ground and pound attack, he cut Leben over his left eye that caused a lot of bleeding.

It also caused the referee to stop the action during the second round, to have the doctor look at it. Ultimately, he let the fight go on, but while sitting on the stool between the second and third rounds, Leben told his corner he could not see and they decided to stop the fight giving Munoz an all important win in the middleweight (185 lbs.) division. Munoz is still a little green around the MMA edges, but you can see his all-around game continuing to improve every time out.

Luckily, the timing was perfect because as that fight ended, the boxing match on HBO between light-middleweight (154 lbs.) contenders Alfredo 'El Perro' Angulo (20-2, 17 KO's) and James 'Mandingo Warrior' Kirkland (30-1, 27 KO's) was about to start; thank God and HBO for 'Boxing after Dark'. In what was projected to be a can't miss/don't blink affair, the fight lived up to the hype and then some. Unfortunately for Angulo, who was fighting in his home country of Mexico, it was the tale of two halves.

The two halves came in the first round where both fighters, known for coming forward, did just that; testing each others chin to see who can withstand the other's power. Within the first minute, it looked as though the winner would be Angulo as during an exchange, he caught Kirkland flush with an overhand right to the face that dropped the American challenger to the canvas. With Angulo living up to his nickname, which translates to 'The Dog', he went on the attack as he threw everything he had at Kirkland during the second minute.

Problem was, Kirkland withstood the onslaught and Angulo ended up punching himself out; credit to the referee for not stopping the fight too early. Thus, in the third minute of the round, it was Kirkland who cleared the cobwebs and came on with his own vicious straight forward onslaught of combinations, which included a left uppercut that found the mark on Angulo more than once. The result was Angulo went down before the end of the round and barely survived as Kirkland came back off the canvas to win the round.

How good was that first round? Analyst Max Kellerman said, "That is a round people will be talking about for years to come." From that point on it was all James Kirkland, who recently reunited with his former trainer Ann Wolfe, yes a female and it paid dividends. Wolfe's no-nonsense boot camp style training had Kirkland ready for the long haul.

Angulo wasn't expecting to go that haul and it showed as Kirkland wore him down over the next four rounds, ultimately forcing the referee to step in @ 2:01 of the sixth round and save 'El Perro' from himself. For Kirkland, he's back after a stint in jail and an unexpected loss three fights ago. This was a WBC semi-final eliminator for the title and the 'Mandingo Warrior' looks like he's primed, ready and most importantly hungry.

As for the UFC vs. Boxing on the same night, this was just a precursor of things to come as next Saturday, the UFC premieres on the Fox network with the heavyweight championship of the world between champ Cain Velasquez and challenger Junior Dos Santos. However, they're going head up with one of boxing's two biggest draws, Manny 'Pac-Man' Pacquiao as he takes on Juan Manuel Marquez for the third time. Luckily for us, the UFC fight should be done by the time the boxing main event comes on; thus, the rivalry continues.

Junkie Gathering 2017... this time it was personal

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