Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bellator 63: Finally time to shine

The first three weeks of Bellator's sixth season hasn't been easy for the organization. A move to Friday nights had forced them to deal with opposition such as the NCAA Tournament and the start of 'The Ultimate Fighter's' new season, which also moved to Fridays. I readily admit, other than commercial breaks during March Madness and TUF, I didn't catch much live Bellator action the last couple of weeks myself.

However, this past Friday night the setting was different. With the basketball down to the Final Four on Saturday and TUF not beginning till 10PM, Bellator had the stage to themselves. It was finally their time to shine and they made most of the opportunity. With the quarterfinals of the season six welterweight (170 lbs.) tournament, Bellator 63 gave us not just four, but five exciting fights on the telecast.

Back at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT, the night started with a pre-tourney favorite in former UFC veteran Ben 'Killa B' Saunders (13-4 6 KO's 5 subs). A finalist in last year's tournament, Saunders won a very entertaining unanimous decision over previously undefeated, but untested, Raul 'Smash Mode' Amaya (9-1, 4 KO's 5 subs). Amaya may have been in smash mode, but the experience and five inches he gave up to Saunders was too much to overcome as the 'Killa B' put it on him both standing and on the ground.

To Amaya's credit, how he survived Saunder's onslaught of punches, knees and constant submission attempts is simply a testament of his heart and will. He was so determined that he even had his own moments throughout the three rounds. However, in the end it was Saunders making his way to the next round. Up next, it was Jordan 'Mata Ele' Smith (17-3, 7 KO's 7 subs) versus David 'The Caveman' Rickels (10-0, 2 KO's 6 subs).

Smith, a last minute replacement for Brian Foster, was ecstatic to finally be on the big show. His confidence wasn't lacking either as he boldly stated that regardless of his experience he felt he was a favorite in this tourney. Unfortunately, he forgot to tell Rickels as 'The Caveman' clubbed him upside his head a few times with some punches and ended his run in 22 seconds of the first round. Smith contested the referee's stoppage, but there was no dispute as he was clearly out on his way to the canvas.

Rickel's meanwhile must be vying for a Geico sponsorship because in his post fight interview with Jimmy Smith, when he was asked about his performance, his response was, "It was so easy a caveman can do it." Apparently somebody needed to tell the participant's of the next quarterfinal, Bryan 'The Beast' Baker (17-3, 8 KO's 3 subs) and Carlos Alexandre Pereira (33-10, 22 KO's 5 subs). Their fight lasted all three rounds and ended up in a very close split decision.

Baker, a former finalist in Bellator's middleweight tournament, was making his debut at 170 lbs. and it showed as the normally explosive 'Beast' started out fast, but faded just as quickly as the fight progressed; no doubt results from cutting the extra 15 pounds from middleweight to welterweight. Pereira meanwhile, came in with a reputation of heavy hands, but when it was all said and done, it was Baker winning a razor thin lackluster split decision.

However, give Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney credit for knowing how to schedule the order of the fights, because the night capper clearly stole the show. That is because the combatants Chris 'The Cleveland Assassin' Lozano (9-3, 7 KO's 1 sub) and Karl 'Psycho' Amoussou (14-4, 4 KO's 8 subs) clearly had no love for each other. At the weigh-in the day before, Rebney himself had to step in between the two as they had a heated head to head exchange.

Before last night's fight, referee Dan Miragliotta had to do the same as Lozano especially appeared fired up before the bell; notice I said before the bell. Once the fight started, reality set in and Lozano, for all his jawing, was tentative in his approach as the two circled and fainted for a minute and a half before anything happened. However, once it did happen, it happened fast and furious.

After a brief exchange where Amoussou connected with a left round kick to the face (pictured above), Lozano shot in and took the Frenchman down. Amoussou quickly pulled guard and Lozano made a major mistake as his posture was too high in that guard and allowed the 'Psycho' to pull of a swift and beautiful sweep. All of sudden it's Amoussou on top in mounted position and eventually on Lozano's back.

Showing a well rounded game, Amoussou sunk in a rear naked choke, tightened it up and just two minutes into the first round forced Lozano to tap. While the semifinal pairings have not been set, I hope Saunders and Amoussou find themselves on opposite ends of the bracket as those two appear to be the clear cut favorites. I'm no matchmaker, but I think a final between them would be dynamite and would just give Bellator more time to shine.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

You just can't beat Father Time

If there is one thing that has been proven time and time again in professional sports, it's that no matter how good you are you just can't beat Father Time. Name the sport, football, basketball baseball etc, it makes no difference. However, in no other sport is this more evident than in boxing.

Unfortunately, this was on display again Saturday night as Mexican living legend Erik 'El Terrible' Morales (52-8, 36 KO's) lost a unanimous decision to young upstart Danny Garcia (23-0, 14 KO's). The fight was for the vacant WBC light welterweight (140 lbs.) title, but it wasn't supposed to be vacant before the fight. Truth is, Morales was supposed to be defending that title.

Yet, the reason he wasn't was because he was stripped of that title after he failed to make weight the day before, weighing in at a soft 142 lbs.; I say soft because it was clear from his body that Morales did not put forth his best effort getting into fight shape. If this was the first indication that the 35 year old Morales was past his prime, then the fight itself solidified it.

While he put on a valiant performance, and early on even looked as though he was getting the better of the 22 year old challenger, during the course of a 12 round fight Father Time would eventually make his presence known. That is exactly what happened as a much slower and lethargic Morales started to look as though he was fighting in mud. He plodded along in his approach as the youthful Garcia became stronger with each round; a left hook on the chin that dropped Morales to his knees in the 11th solidified that point.

HBO analyst and trainer Emanuel Steward stated, "His heart and mind are willing, but he has no more legs underneath him; he's starting to look old." This is not shocking considering we've seen it over and over again. Supposed ageless wonders in all sports such as Brett Favre, Michael Jordan and even the ageless of them all Randy Couture, in an instant becomes that dreaded word "old." On Saturday night it was Erik Morales, who at only 35 has joined the club.

Generally, 35 years old in boxing is considered past your prime anyway; but in the case of Erik Morales, he was long overdue. You see, this seven time world champion over four weight divisions, began his career as a scrawny 16 year old bantamweight (118 lbs.) 19 years ago in March 1993. Not only has he had 60 fights since then, but many of those fights were all out wars; most experts call them career enders, which shorten a career by leaps.

Six of those "all out wars" were part of two classic trilogies against two of the sports all-timers in Marco Antonio Barrera and current welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao. 12 years later Morales/Barrera I, from February 2000, remains one of my personal favorites and considered an all-time classic; 12 rounds of fury back and forth from two of Mexico's greatest that literally took a little out of both that night. After that fight, although they both continued to have success, it's fair to say that neither fighter was ever the same again.

In his post fight interview Saturday night, Morales was asked if he would fight again. His response was, "I have to think about it; I have to seriously think about it. My health is a concern and I have to decide if I am able to truly compete at this level with these young competitors."

Personally, I hope 'El Terrible' never fights again; he has nothing left to prove. It was summed up best when HBO's Max Kellerman referred to him as one of Mexico's top ten all time greatest fighters. Considering Mexico's long and rich boxing history, that is an even greater achievement than all the world titles combined; and besides, no matter what you do, you're never going to beat Father Time.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

How good is Sergio Martinez really?

It's been a busy weekend. Friday night while there was a live Bellator MMA card on MTV2, I admit I caught no part of it and it was by choice. That is because I was too busy watching my hometown Lehigh Mountain Hawks live the dream and shock the world as they beat powerhouse Duke in the NCAA Tournament.

Saturday night I was committed to D.J. a party, thus I had to miss the WBC middleweight championship fight in boxing; the fight featured champ Sergio 'Maravilla' Martinez (49-2-2, 28 KO's) defending his title against challenger Matthew 'Mack the Knife' Macklin (28-4, 19 KO's). Luckily, the fight was on HBO, so I was able to get up early and catch the Sunday morning replay. The fight was entertaining, but left me asking the question, how good is Sergio Martinez really?

Martinez ended up defending his belt by knocking down Macklin twice at the end of the 11th round, hurting him to the point that Macklin's trainer Buddy McGirt told the ref to stop the fight. However, what took him so long? That comment is not meant as a slight to Macklin, who fought a good fight and probably led on the scorecards after the seventh round when he registered a knockdown of his own. Yet, it appeared that knockdown is what finally awoke Martinez and made him realize he's rated the number three pound for pound fighter in the world.

My point is, when you are considered and talked about in the same breath as the Floyd Mayweathers and Manny Pacquiaos of the boxing world, you are not supposed to go 11 rounds with a fighter that's not in that class. Sure Macklin is a tough fighter with a nice record, but before Martinez his resume consisted of two notable names; journeyman Felix Sturm of Germany last August and a way past his prime Yori Boy Campos in 2008. The rest of it is made up of virtual unknowns he fought primarily in Europe.

Martinez meanwhile has made his name demolishing guys like Paul Williams and Kelly Pavlik when these were the young stars to beware of. Also, the only blemishes on his record are all in question. His two losses were a disputed decision to Williams, which he avenged in grand fashion and a TKO loss to Antonio Margarito 12 years ago; considering what we now know about Margarito's past that speaks for itself. As for the draws, the one against Kermit Cintron in 2009 is universally recognized as highway robbery and the other was in his third fight as a pro.

Martinez's qualifications are clear and his boxing skill is evidently superior, yet after last night's performance I was left wondering if at 37 years old he's just content to finally be in the limelight. He seems to be a fighter who fights at the level of his opponent and last night before he turned up the volume, he was caught more than once by a fighter that was nowhere near his level. Therefore, instead of worrying about making fights with names such as Mayweather and Pacquaio, which are way too small in size for you anyway, continue to demolish middleweights put in front of you and show us how good you really are.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Friday nights alright for a fight or two

Normally when it comes to high profile MMA, Saturday night is usually the time it takes center stage. However, with 'The Ultimate Fighter's new season debuting on FX and Bellator's new season debuting on its new night, Friday night was the prime time for mixed martial arts; and with a long history of boxing on Friday nights, that's definitely alright for a fight or two.

That was the case last night as Bellator 60 from Hammond, Indiana had five fights on the main card headlined by the featherweight (145 lbs.) championship between now former champion Joe Warren (7-3, 2 KO's), pictured @ left above, and new champion Pat Curran (17-4, 5 KO's 5 subs), pictured @ right. The other four fights on the card were the quarterfinals of this season's featherweight tournament. While all that live action was taking place on MTV2, over on FX there was live action as well.

That is because for the first time in its history, 'The Ultimate Fighter' reality television series, the UFC's recruiting ground for new talent, is trying a new concept as they are going live every week. It remains to be seen if this will be a good move or not once the fighters move into the house, but last night it was fight night to see who gets that privilege; 32 fighters in 16 fights to determine who gets in and who goes home.

However, as if that weren't pressure packed enough, with the new live format, the UFC instituted a new rule in the elimination fights; all fights would be one five minute round, that's it. If you finished your opponent within those five minutes, the winner would receive an additional $5,000 bonus besides entry into the house. Two big incentives in a sudden death type format brought about but one thing, a lot of action.

With all those fights, there's too much to cover, that is why my focus will solely be on two fighters from last night, Justin Lawrence of 'TUF' and Pat Curran of Bellator. You may ask why those two and my response are checking out my blogs dated January 24 and July 24, 2011 respectively. In those blogs I wrote exclusively and specifically about these two young fighters and I predicted the following.

In my piece from January, I had just interviewed a then 20 year old Justin 'The American Kid' Lawrence, who then at the time had only one professional fight under his belt. I explained that the reason I was hyping up such a young inexperienced fighter was because he was talented enough to impress the management and fighters of Blackhouse MMA enough to warrant them signing him. I also said, "Look out world, there's a new kid on the block."

Well since that interview, Justin has won two more fights to boost his record to (3-0, 1 KO 1 sub) and last night he defeated a 19 fight veteran in James Krause who is (15-4) as a pro. Not only did Lawrence win, he demolished Krause, whose experience includes both Bellator and the WEC, in winning by KO. I told you before and I'll say it again, look out world there's a new kid he's not just on the block this time, but in the TUF House; his name is Justin Lawrence.

In the blog from July, I recapped the Bellator 47 card and in it I talked about how then contender Pat Curran easily had won his tournament semifinal bout against renowned Ronnie Mann. I also said, "I am picking Pat Curran to defeat Marlon Sandro next month, and this time eventually winning a world championship when he gets that shot again."

Of course I was referring to Curran's failed attempt at winning the lightweight (155 lbs.) title against then champion Eddie Alvarez a year earlier. Well, not only did Curran make my prediction come true, he did it in grand fashion. He withstood the pressure put on him from the self professed "Baddest man on the planet" Joe Warren as in typical Warren fashion, he charged at Curran, attempting to control his opponent using his world class Greco Roman wrestling skills.

Although he had some minor success in the first two rounds, Curran withstood the pressure, showed great take down defense and clearly had the better striking. This all came to fruition early in the third as Curran caught Warren charging in with a knee flush on the jaw. The result was the beginning of the end as Warren was clearly dazed and Curran pounced on him with punches from all angles and more Muay Thai style knees that eventually ended Warren's night and reign.

Up next for Curran is the challenge of last season's featherweight tournament winner Patricky 'Pitbull' Freire, a very dangerous opponent. Nonetheless, I'm predicting Curran will hold this title for a quite awhile as at age 24, he is showing skills and experience beyond his years and will only get better. Pat Curran and Justin Lawrence are two more young stars of the new generation of mixed martial arts to look out for.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Flyweight tourney proves to be worth the weight

***Please see note at end of article.

The UFC on FX II card may have featured welterweights (170 lbs.) Thiago Alves and Martin Kampmann in the main event, but it were the flyweights who stole the show. This 125 lbs. division may have been a long time coming, but it was definitely worth the weight (pun intended). So, just how do you offset a Pitbull and a Hitman, (Alves and Kampmann respectively); you start by pitting Mighty Mouse vs. Uncle Creepy.

No, 'Uncle Creepy' is not a villain to the cartoon superhero, it is the nickname of the universally recognized number one flyweight fighter in the world Ian McCall (11-3, 4 KO's 3 subs). He and 'Mighty Mouse' Demetrious Johnson, former number one contender in the UFC bantamweight (135 lbs.) division were the two participants in the first ever flyweight fight in UFC history, which was part of the inaugural flyweight tournament. I expected the flyweights would be fast, but their speed was beyond anything I ever expected.

McCall and Johnson (15-2, 3 KO's 6 subs) were so quick, that it felt like I was watching a live fight in fast forward mode. An entertaining fight that went back and forth, resulted in what I feel was a horrible split decision as Johnson won on two of the three judges cards 29-28. While Johnson had some moments throughout, he was clearly out wrestled and manhandled by McCall; so much so, that in the third round, McCall had Johnson flattened out while he sat on his back raining down punches and playing to the crowd.

The knowledgeable Australian crowd, which was extremely appreciative throughout and after the fight, voiced their displeasure upon hearing the decision as they apparently agreed with what I saw. McCall was so upset; he stormed out of the cage, which is a real shame as he really lived up to the pre-fight billing he came into the UFC with as the number one flyweight in the world. As UFC President always says, "Never leave it in the hands of the judges."

Apparently Joseph Benavidez (16-2, 4 KO's 8 subs), either took White's words to heart or just said to himself, "I'm not letting that happen to me," after watching the McCall/Johnson fight as he did what McCall didn't; he took the fight out of the judges hands and kept it in his own. Benavidez, another former top contender from the bantamweight division, completely dominated his opponent Yasuhiro Urushitani (19-6-6, 5 KO's), the number one flyweight from Japan's Shooto organization.

In the first round, the fireball that Benavidez is, took it right to Urushitani, implementing his wrestling and just smothering him, eventually taking his back and almost securing a rear naked choke before the end of the round saved the Shooto champ. However, the bell would not prove a factor in the second as Benavidez caught Urushitani with a punch that dropped him dead in his tracks at the beginning of the round and he pounced on him with more unanswered shots that forced the referee to jump in and stop the fight.

Benavidez, my pick to win this tourney when it was set, looks primed and ready, especially as I think he'll just blow through Johnson the way he did Urushitani. It would've been interesting to see how he fared against McCall, but once again a poor judge's decision has robbed not only 'Uncle Creepy', but us the fans as well of a great fight. Regardless, the flyweights have proven to be worth the weight. The heavyweights may pack the punch, but the flyweights pack their lunch because they come to work.

***Note, after this article was written it was determined the scores of the Johnson/McCall bout were tabulated and read incorrectly and the fight should have been scored a majority draw. Thus, a rematch will be in place to determine who fights Joseph Benavidez.

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