Sunday, June 24, 2012

Weekend of MMA filled with contenders and legends

I vividly remember less than 10 years ago when I would have to wait three months at a time for the next live UFC card. How far has the sport of Mixed Martial Arts come in the last decade? This weekend we had three successive nights of MMA; beginning Thursday with the final fight of a legend and ending Saturday night with possibly the same.

Fedor 'The Last Emperor' Emelianenko (34-4, 10 KO's 16 subs), arguably the greatest fighter in the 19 year history of the sport, cemented his legacy when it took him all of 84 seconds to dispatch of another legend in former UFC contender Pedro 'The Rock' Rizzo (19-10, 11 KO's 4 subs). Fighting for M-1 Global in his native Russia, 'The Last Emperor' informed the MMA world, that it would be the last time he would compete in the cage as he officially announced his retirement; his reasoning, one that has always been important to him, his family.

I'll discuss more on the career and legacy of Emelianenko below, but for now I move to the UFC, which pulled a first in its growing history as it held live fight cards on back to back nights. First on Friday from Atlantic City, NJ, lightweight (155 lbs.) contenders Clay 'The Carpenter Guida' (29-12 4 KO's 15 subs) and Gray 'The Bully' Maynard (10-1-1, 2 KO's) headlined the UFC on FX 4 card. The result saw Maynard pull out a boring five round split decision.

To Maynard's credit, the boredom of the fight was no fault of his own as Guida did his best Kalib Starnes impersonation and ran for five rounds; how Guida won on one judge's card is shocking to say the least. The first three rounds were so boring, I was starting to compare it to Ivan Salaverry vs. Nate Marquardt, which was a TV main event from years ago that was equally horrible to watch.

In the fourth round though, Maynard dropped his hands and challenged Guida verbally. That finally lit a fire under 'The Carpenter', but the fuse was quickly put out when Maynard caught him in a tight guillotine choke attempt. Guida eventually got out for the only fireworks, albeit brief, of the night. Up next for Maynard, he said, "I want Edgar again; we should do it a fourth time."

As for Guida, honestly who cares? In my humble opinion, I've always thought his game was overrated. He's a bundle of energy who can wrestle, but that's it. He's always been a fan favorite, but on Friday night he even lost that as his fans booed him and cheered for Maynard.  A role as a gatekeeper for lightweights seems to be his future role.

Then on Saturday night at UFC 147 from Brazil, Rich 'Ace' Franklin (29-6 15 KO's 10 subs) and Wanderlei 'The Axe Murderer' Silva (34-12, 24 KO's 3 subs) met for a second time at a catch weight of 190 lbs. Franklin was subbing for Vitor Belfort who broke his hand during training. The result was the same as it was when they met three years ago as Franklin won a unanimous decision in a relatively routine five rounder.

I call it such because, other than a knockdown of Franklin from a Silva right hand in the last two minutes of the second round that had Franklin in some serious trouble, there was no other serious action throughout. Silva appeared to punch himself out though in a furious attempt to finish the fight and Franklin meticulously took over from there with a methodical, but non-spirited attack.

With both men towards the end of their careers, it remains to be seen where they go from here. Franklin was coming off a 16 month layoff due to injury and has hinted at one possible final run, but to where? Unless Anderson Silva loses next month to Chael Sonnen or retires, he's already proven twice he has Franklin's number.

As for Silva, while he was coming off a KO victory over Cung Le, before that he was only (2-6) in his previous eight fights, including some scary knockout losses. While he went the distance here and didn't look too bad, why should he keep fighting? He will no longer contend for a title and he has nothing left to prove. Also, he's a far cry from the "Axe Murderer" he was in his heyday as the Pride middleweight champion.

So while I don't think it will happen, I can only hope he follows the lead of his contemporaries Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and soon Tito Ortiz into life after competition. Sure he's only 35 years old, but in Wanderlei's case, it's an old 35 and seeing some of the damage he's taken in the last few years, all I can do is hope that he gets out while he's still relatively healthy.

Coming full circle, the weekend started and ends with the legend that is Fedor. Casual and new fans may not truly appreciate how great Emelianenko was, but true hardcore fans know and do. That is because casual fans will only remember the three fight losing streak he endured in 2010-11, but they won't know about the 10 years prior without a loss; a record in MMA that may never be broken.

That said, as dominant as Fedor was, he never fought in the octagon of the UFC and that will always be a sounding board for those that question his true greatness; I'm not one of those. Fedor fought the best of his era in Pride at a time when that organization clearly had the best heavyweights in the world. Cro-Cop, Nogueira and Coleman were all legends who Fedor fought during their prime multiple times; they all suffered defeat at the hands of Emelianenko.

I mentioned above that he is arguably the greatest fighter in MMA history. I say arguably because Anderson Silva, UFC middleweight (185 lbs.) champion, has more than a legit argument in his favor; especially considering his run in the UFC, which Fedor never had. However, if Silva ends up being the best overall, Emelianenko is clearly and without argument the greatest heavyweight of all-time and that's not a bad title at all. Thanks for the memories Fedor.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Son of a legend doesn't make you one, yet.

In the sport of boxing, all because you are the son of a legend, doesn't necessarily make you one; in most cases, history has shown it turns out to be just the opposite. Marvis Frazier, Hector Camacho, Jr. and Aaron Pryor, Jr. are just a few notable examples that quickly come to mind. However, Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. is trying to break that history and become a legend in his own right.

On Saturday night he did his best to continue to stake his own claim as he successfully defended his WBC middleweight title. He did so by defeating challenger Andy Lee (28-2, 20 KO's) via TKO in the seventh round. Chavez (46-0-1, 32 KO's) looked impressive in the finish, but started off sluggish in his second consecutive fight. He raised some concerns, along with some eyebrows, to me anyway, with not only his performance, but his physicality as well.

Ready for a conspiracy theory, because here it comes? Now normally I used to hate when fans and journalists quickly turned to performance enhancing drugs as reasoning behind a fighter's success either in the ring or in the cage. It is not fair to the athlete to prejudge without proof, although I'm about to do my best courtroom lawyer act and raise some questions here; and for the record, no I'm not hating on poor little Junior, so hear me out.

Up until two or three fights ago, it was universally agreed upon that Junior's record had been strategically put into place; don't believe me, well let's take a look. In his second pro fight, he fought a guy who was (5-13); in his sixth fight, when competition should be rising, his opponent was (0-14). In his 13th pro fight his opponent was an undermanned (1-6); and in his 21st fight, when he was undefeated, his opponent was an average (10-10). So, while he does have 32 KO's to his credit, his opposition leaves something to be desired.

That said, he was never considered a heavy puncher, up until lately anyway. In his last three fights against some decent fighters at least, he's mustered two TKO finishes. However before that, in his previous eight fights, he only mustered one TKO finish; right around the time he started to step up in competition against the likes of durable journeymen fighters such as Matt Vanda and John Duddy. So, here's where the questions come in.

Is it possible that maybe Junior's camp saw that he may have some trouble against viable contenders in his division and decided that he can possibly use an edge? Once again, there is no proof, thus this is merely speculation on my part. However, let's take a look at some of the circumstantial evidence.

In his last three fights he's suddenly having trouble making weight; I mean serious trouble. In his previous fight against Marco Antonio Rubio, he had to cut 15 lbs. two days before the fight and ended up coming into the fight well over 180 lbs.; this in a division where fighters weigh in at 160. Sure, people say he's big for the division, but that wasn't always the case.

Speaking of big, he wasn't always the heaviest of punchers either, but a/o late he's been teeing off with a lot more power in his punches. To finish off guys like Peter Manfredo, Jr. and Andy Lee the way he did, who have been know to have pretty decent chins, was pretty impressive. Yet, he says if it wasn't an on-going problem with his legs cramping up before and during the fight, he would finish them even sooner; hmmmm?

Another big brow raiser is his sudden propensity to not "be able" to provide urine samples to the state commissions before his fights. I say "be able," because is it that he was not able or not willing. Saturday night for example a concession was made to have him provide a sample after the fight. Now I would think if you are unable to provide a sample before the fight, then after the fight would be even more difficult after you've depleted your body of fluids through sweat after going seven rounds in the ring; I don't know, that's just me.

Finally, while I understand Junior is now a grown man of 26 and no longer the baby faced assassin pictured above, the sudden and wolfman like growth of facial hair does make me wonder. Okay, I know I may be reaching on this one, but I don't remember the legend Senior, even to this day, ever walking around with facial hair. Maybe instead of possible PED's he's taking Rogaine, I don't know.

Conspiracy theories set aside, Chavez, Jr. is starting to become a star in a sport where young stars are sorely needed. I just hope that my theories are just that and he proves that he's just an improving fighter, which he'll get a chance to do on September 15 when he faces Sergio Martinez in Las Vegas. His game better be correct on that night, because he'll be fighting one of the best pound for pound fighters today. Remember son, all because your father was a legend, doesn't necessarily make you one, yet.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Things that make you go hmmm...?

As I sit here in front of the computer beginning to type, my mind and thoughts are going in various directions all at once. What's right and what isn't, conspiracy theories, justification etc., are all part of my thought process after the decision rendered in the Manny Pacquiao/Tim Bradley fight. I'll try to make sense of what I'm feeling as once again, boxing became one of those things that make you go hmmm...?

Before the fight I made my prediction public on both Facebook and Twitter that I felt Tim Bradley (29-0, 12 KO's) would defeat Manny Pacquiao (54-4-2, 38 KO's) via decision. Though the final outcome was Tim Bradley winning by split decision and becoming the new WBO welterweight champion, I can't sit here and say, "I told you so." That is because though the fight may have even possibly been closer than I and most thought, there's no way Tim Bradley won.

Regardless of sport, I've never been a statistics or numbers guy to prove an athlete's worth or effort; whether it's on the field or in the ring. In the case of this fight, you don't need the numbers to justify Manny Pacquiao winning this fight. However, for the sake of adding to my argument, his numbers well outweighed Bradley's in the final punch stats in all categories.

That said, let's take a quick look back at the fight and then try to make sense of it. In my estimation, Pacquiao won all but one, maybe two rounds. He did it by beating Bradley to the punch throughout, landing clean and evident power shots that clearly connected; and also exhibiting tremendous defense with his constant movement. Bradley made an effort throughout, but outside of the 10th and possibly the first round, I can't remember thinking Bradley won any other round.

So then, how does Manny Pacquiao lose? There are many theories running though my head; some logical and some not. However, at this point who is boxing to argue any of it? First the logical; I wonder to myself, how can a judge not see what we've seen? As I think about it, I have to remind myself that each judge is at ringside, on one side of the ring, looking at whatever angle they can to see the live action. We on the other hand have the benefit of the best seat in the house with cameramen giving us the best angles, sometimes up close and now in high definition, with the benefit of instant replay.

That is one thought; of course on the illogical side there is the thought that a judge could be swayed or even sad to think, bought. I know people will begin to say I'm crazy, but think about it. If a NBA referee can admit to fixing games for money, is the thought that far fetched? Say what you will, people are human; thus, the thought that shady business cannot take place in sports is ridiculous. We've seen it time and time again; so am I really that crazy or are people just being naive?

Before the fight, HBO Sports asked their judge Harold Lederman to give his thoughts on the judges picked for this fight, which I found kind of strange. What was even more odd is that Lederman himself called into question a couple of the judges, even going so far as to say the pro Pacquiao crowd in Vegas could possibly sway an inexperienced judge like C.J. Ross, who ironically scored it for Bradley.

Another theory is that subconsciously we are misled by the on-air commentary regardless of what we may or may not see. If that is the case, then I am truly feeling a robbery took place here because Jim Lampley of HBO Sports is the biggest Pacquiao "supporter," for lack of a better word, there is. His commentary in my estimation is so bias towards certain fighters it makes me sick, but that's another story for another day.

Whatever it is, I believe boxing has given itself yet another black eye, with another terrible decision. I'm not just going to bad mouth boxing here as there were some really questionable scorecards in Friday night's UFC event as well. Truth is, this type of judging really leaves a bad taste in my mouth as it sours me on the sports that I love. Things that make you go hmmm...?

Friday, June 8, 2012

UFC on FX 3: Fireworks until the main event

It's one thing to get a couple of free fights on TV, Ala boxing's Friday night fights on ESPN, but 10 fights are a fans dream. That's what the UFC and its President Dana White gave us with their UFC on FX 3 card live from Sunrise, Florida. Six prelims on Fuel TV and four main card fights on FX, made for an enjoyable old school feeling Friday night filled with fights.

The main event featured a title eliminator between flyweights (125 lbs.) Demetrious 'Mighty Mouse' Johnson and Ian 'Uncle Creepy' McCall in a rematch of a very close fight just three months ago; so close it ended in a draw. This time they picked up right where they left off, only now there was a winner.

After three rounds Johnson (15-2-1, 3 KO's 6 subs) won an outright unanimous decision against McCall (11-3-1, 4 KO's 3 subs). The difference tonight is what I thought should have given McCall the first fight, wrestling. Only this time it was 'Mighty Mouse' who won in that department along with out boxing 'Uncle Creepy', thus earning a title fight against Joseph Benavidez to determine the first UFC flyweight champion.

In the co-main event, 'The Spaniard' Charlie Brenneman (15-4, 5 KO's 2 subs) did his best to turn his welterweight (170 lbs.) tilt against Brazilian Erick Silva (14-2, 3 KO's 8 subs) into a wrestling match, but Silva was having none of it. Though Brenneman had some early take down success, Silva was able to sustain and get up. That would lead to Brenneman's downfall.

After Silva started to open up on 'The Spaniard', Brenneman tried to shoot in again; only this time Silva sprawled and eventually took the wrestler's back. Then the young Brazilian, got his hooks in, flattened out Brenneman and inevitably sunk in a rear naked choke that forced the tap. Another first round finish for Silva, who's had three in a row in his first three UFC fights, though one was, ruled a disqualification against him.

In what I thought could end up being fight of the night between two tried and tested welterweights, Mike Pyle (23-8-1, 4 KO's 16 subs) and Josh Neer (33-11, 17 KO's 12 subs), may very well have ended up being the knockout of the night bonus winner. After a back and forth first round that saw Neer get up after being taken down and start to come on, saw Pyle clip him with a short right hand on the jaw that ended the fight emphatically; pretty impressive considering Neer's solid chin.

With the flyweights headlining this card, kicking things off on the main card were a couple of other fireplugs as bantamweight (135 lbs.) WEC vets Scott Jorgensen (13-6, 2 KO's 4 subs) and Eddie Wineland (19-8, 10 KO's 5 subs) slugged it out for the better part of two rounds. Wineland a former title holder and Jorgensen a former title challenger went at it right from the start, but Wineland got the better of it throughout eventually catching Jorgensen in the second round with a beautiful right cross right on the button.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mocco makes move to MMA

As I sit here writing this column my feelings are bittersweet. That is because I am lucky enough to have a personal connection with the fighter at hand. That fighter is Steve Mocco, former 2X National Collegiate Wrestling Champion, 2008 U.S. Olympian, current MMA heavyweight and my soon to be former neighbor.

I say "soon to be former neighbor" because Steve is currently in the process of packing his bags and moving he and his family to South Florida. It is there that he will embark on his next career path of professional mixed martial arts fighter, competing at heavyweight under the American Top Team banner. He will train at their main location in Coconut Creek, Florida under the tutelage of head trainer Master Ricardo Liborio.

While it shouldn't come as a surprise to me, because Steve has hinted at this path for the last couple of years that I've known him, it did come as a surprise at how quickly this all materialized. It was just in late April that he was competing for a spot on the 2012 Olympic team at the U.S trials. After a stunning and disappointing third place finish, a phone call he received didn't give much time to relax and ponder his next move.

He was invited to ATT in Florida to assist heavyweight Antonio 'Bigfoot' Silva with his wrestling as he prepared for his fight last month at UFC 146 against Cain Velasquez. While down there for two weeks, the itch that had been pecking at him for the last couple of years finally got scratched. The training, the atmosphere and a little Florida sunshine all contributed to his decision.

As he told me of his decision when he got back, he admitted himself, "This decision was a whirlwind. I was down there training and all the guys were great. Once they discovered I was interested in fighting, everything fell into place." Explaining he had a job coaching back home along with a family to support, including a wife and three kids, apparently American Top Team "made him an offer he couldn't refuse;" to quote Marlon Brando from 'The Godfather'.

Steve told them he was interested in keeping his job coaching at Lehigh University and Athletic Club, but they explained to him that to make a serious go at this, he needs to commit to it full-time. So, even though there is an ATT affiliate school right here in Bethlehem, PA run by UFC vet Carmelo Marrero, which is where Steve's initial contact with ATT came from, he had an important decision to make.

However, as he explained to me, the decision was simple once he broke it down. "I'm 30 years old, so my window as a pro fighter is now, not later," he said. He also went on to say, "I told them what I needed and they met all my demands without question, so they made the decision easy for me." That said, he gave notice at Lehigh, left on good terms and is looking to move down to Florida as early as this week sometime.

Why so fast? "I'm ready to go; I'd like to be ready to take a fight in three to four months," he said. So, after two years of living two houses down from one another and getting together at each other's homes to watch MMA fights on TV, I'll have to get use to cheering for and not with my friend. As I told him this morning when we spoke, "Just keep your hands up Steve, because I know once they can't knock you out, you'll grab a hold of them and take care of the rest." Good luck buddy, I'll miss you.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Star of Bethlehem shines in national TV debut

No matter where you're at in Bethlehem, PA, if you can see South Mountain within your vicinity, then you will always see The Star of Bethlehem nestled in the foreground. It is the landmark of this old steel town known affectionately as The Christmas City. However, Friday night the star shined brighter than ever and it wasn't the one on the mountainside; it was South Bethlehem's other star Ronald Cruz.

Cruz (17-0, 12 KO's), a welterweight boxing contender, is now also a champion as Friday night he won the WBC Continental Americas title. He did it as the co-main event of a sold out boxing card from his hometown inside the brand new Sands Casino Events Center that was part of a national TV doubleheader featured on NBC Sports Network's Fight Night series. Competing for the vacant title against skilled Prenice Brewer (16-2, 6 KO's) from Cleveland, Cruz showed the formula necessary to defeat a slick boxer; you don't try to outbox him, but rather you take it right to him.

That is just what he did from the opening bell as Cruz (pictured above) throughout the course of 12 rounds, was the aggressor who kept the pressure on Brewer, hardly giving him any space or time to deliver any damage. The only time Brewer was able to muster any type of effective offense, was in the sixth and tenth rounds when Cruz clearly took the rounds off to rejuvenate after really big offensive outputs in the previous fifth and ninth rounds respectively. The fifth round was so big in fact, both ringside analysts Freddie Roach, Hall of Fame trainer, and BJ Flores, current WBC Continental Americas cruiserweight champ, scored it 10-8 for Ronald; that without even a knockdown.

I know this because I came home after watching the fight live and caught the replay on NBC Sports. Roach and Flores were both very impressed with Cruz's performance, prompting Roach to say, "I like the way he puts his punches together and goes to the body."

Of course, if you've ever seen Ronald fight, you know body punching is his forte. However, on this night he did a beautiful job of touching Brewer's body with a lead right and following it up with a looping left hook that kept connecting flush on Brewer's jaw. Cruz and his trainer Lemuel 'Indio' Rodriguez, continue to come up with the perfect game plans for his opponents. To his credit, the taller challenger has a pretty good chin because the kid known around his hometown as "Hands of Steel" caught him with some bombs.

If there was any flaw at all in his performance, I'd say he tried to loop some punches a bit too much. Yet, as I explained to someone who pointed that out to me, I truly believe it was because he was trying too hard at times to please the hometown crowd by hitting a home run. With the crowd constantly chanting, "Ronald, Ronald..." all night, you could tell he really wanted the KO finish. However, to his credit, he did just what he told me he was going to do at the weigh-ins on Thursday.

When I asked him if fighting at home for a second time in a year, this time on national TV in the new events center, brought any added pressure from the previous time? Cruz's response was, "Nah; I mean there is pressure there don't get me wrong, but I am doing my best to just block it out by staying focused on the fight itself, nothing else." He did a masterful job as the final scores were a unanimous 118-110 from all the ringside judges.

As a journalist, it is important to remain unbiased in your opinion, so you can develop some form of integrity. I try my best to not include personal emotion as part of my overall writing. However, in this case it is very difficult not to exude some form of pride as I've been covering this young man from my hometown since he was an amateur. I've seen him come from humble beginnings, work extremely hard to attain his goal of becoming a champion and yet remain humble.

Friday night, former world heavyweight champion Larry Holmes was in attendance. He addressed the hometown crowd by telling everyone, "I appreciate you coming out to support boxing here at The Sands and I want Bethlehem, not Las Vegas to become the Mecca of boxing." Well, we may not necessarily become the fight capital of the world, but as Jadakiss once said, "The champ is here;" and his name is Ronald Cruz.

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