Sunday, September 30, 2012

The greatest 'Skyscraper' of them all?

In the nearly 19 year history of Mixed Martial Arts, there have been a few legitimate giants along the way. No, I am not referring to icons of the sport, but rather literal giants who towered above the opposition; heavyweights who were both big and tall. Yet, at only 24 years old, I'd argue that Stefan 'Skyscraper' Struve will soon be the greatest skyscraper of them all.

After Saturday night's second round KO finish of previously undefeated Stipe Miocic (9-1, 7 KO's 1 sub), Struve is now (25-5, 7 KO's 16 subs). On top of that he has received a ringing endorsement from his boss, UFC President Dana White, that he is now considered a top five heavyweight in the world. That's high praise for a young man, who just three and half years ago came into the UFC as a long wiry weak looking kid who got demolished in his debut in less than a minute by current UFC champion Junior Dos Santos.

At the time of that fight at UFC 95, I couldn't help but think, "Who was this sacrificial lamb the UFC dug up for a mercy killing?" However, fast forward three+ years, including 12 UFC fights later with a (9-3) record, and I'm not thinking that anymore; nor is anyone else. That is because Struve is a legitimate contender to be reckoned with who is still growing literally and figuratively.

A native of The Netherlands, this Dutchman is not just some sideshow freak for the UFC to promote as a special attraction every few months the way pro wrestling did with 'Andre the Giant' back in the '70's. On the contrary, Struve is a real fighter who has grown up an athlete his whole life and it is just now that his body is finally developing along with his skills.

Before he ever considered martial arts at the age of 14, this Holland native, as most boys in Europe do, grew up playing football (soccer). Thus, while he was always a tall kid, he was not clumsy by any means as his foot work was always there. However, once he saw a professional MMA fight, he knew where his path and passion lied and he pursued it with fervor. So much so, that he had his first professional fight by the age of 16; a debut submission victory via armbar.

Though he would lose his next fight, he would then reel off 10 wins in a row before tasting defeat again at the hands of current Bellator light-heavyweight champion Christian M'Pumbu. Another five fight winning streak would land him a shot in the UFC and that's where he's been ever since. A slow climb up the ladder, he's worked his way up diligently, while developing himself into a serious contender in the heavyweight division. Miocic was just the latest of the many Struve has knocked off the mantle of the unbeaten.

Some may question me calling Struve the "Greatest skyscraper of them all" considering Tim Sylvia at 6'8" was a three-time UFC champion and fellow Dutchman Semmy 'Hightower' Schilt at 6'11 was a four time (three consecutive) K-1 champion. Those are some serious credentials, for some formidable fighters. Yet, neither Sylvia nor Schilt possessed the size 7'0, athleticism and overall skill set that Struve has; all once again at only 24 years of age.

Being from Holland, where world renowned kickboxers such as Shilt and other striking legends such as Ernesto Hoost and Peter Aerts learned and now teach their craft, his striking is top notch. His grappling skills are second to none for a heavyweight as noted by his 16 submission victories. His chin for this division is tried and tested with notable wins against heavy handed punchers such as Miocic, Lavar Johnson, Pat Barry and Paul Buentello.

Sure he's suffered a few KO losses to the like of Dos Santos, Roy Nelson and Travis Browne. However, the last of those was a year and a half ago and since then, Struve has grown leaps and bounds with his stand-up, which is now catching up with his body that has now developed into what you see above. This is not Sylvia, Schilt or other awkward giants such as 6'10" Gan McGee or 7'2" Hong Man-Choi. Struve is by far, the best young tall prospect ever in MMA and may very well soon be the greatest skyscraper of them all.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

'My Philosophy' on UFC 152 and Jon Jones

Unlike other post fight UFC recaps, as I begin to write this piece I am very hesitant as my feelings are torn in numerous directions. That is all due to one man, UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones (pictured @ left). I don't want to be a hypocrite, I don't want to be a hater and I don't want to be a liar; but this guy evokes all those emotions inside of me.

It is because of such that I've decided to give you my thoughts on UFC 152, besides just the facts. However, because Jones is now spitting quotes on life at every turn he gets on the microphone, I've decided to title this piece 'My Philosophy'; as an ode to the Hip-Hop classic by another philosopher KRS-One. This is where I feel I am being somewhat of a hypocrite, because I too have favorite quotes I try to live by; but this guy thinks he is a modern day Confucius as his whole vocabulary now is nothing but quotes.

Oops, there is part of the hater coming out in me, so let me get to UFC 152 before I really start to unleash the venom. Anyway, the card as a whole was great; if you include the under card fights. The prelims on Facebook were fantastic as all three finished within the first round, two within the first minute; and the prelims on FX were just as good.

The main card began pretty much as the under card had gone as Cub Swanson continues to look like all the potential he's always had has finally come together. He destroyed Charles Oliveira within three minutes all due to his boxing, which is clearly some of the all around best in mixed martial arts. Cub is a force to be reckoned with at featherweight (145 lbs.) and I am so happy that he has finally remained injury free for once.

How and why Matt Hamill and a first time UFC fighter named Roger Hollett got a main card slot ahead of Evan Dunham and TJ Grant is beyond me? Hamill hasn't been interesting since TUF 3, and he wasn't that interesting then, and who is Hollett? Meanwhile, Dunham and Grant put on a three round war for the ages that, oh by the way, ended up becoming 'Fight of the night'. 'Nuff said!

Michael Bisping vs Brian Stann and also the flyweight (125 lbs.) championship between Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson were both good fights; but I think the expectations on both were so high, that the final results just didn't live up to the hype. Not fair to all four combatants as they did their thing, it's just that their name value along with what came before them on the card had fans clamoring for something that was just too difficult to live up to.

Now onto the main event between Jones and third or fourth replacement, I've forgotten already, former champion Vitor Belfort. I cannot tell a lie, Jones has gotten under my skin so bad for some reason, that I was pulling for an upset here of major proportions; and it almost happened. In the first minute of the fight, Jones took Belfort down and while in his guard, he got caught in an arm bar. Shades of Fabricio Werdum catching Fedor Emelianenko went through my mind.

The submission was tight, but to Jones credit he did not tap and alas it was not meant to be as he wriggled out of it and the rest was history. For the next three plus rounds it was Jones kicking while standing along with grounding and pounding until he too caught Belfort in a keylock submission that forced the Brazilian to tap. Belfort put up a good fight, but he never really let his legendary hands go and kept opting to pull guard, which had everyone, including cage side analyst Joe Rogan baffled.

Meanwhile, it appears that the early submission attempt by Belfort was legitimately tight as Jones was clearly favoring his right am in his post fight interview and early reports indicate there may be some possible nerve damage to the bicep. While I never would wish any serious harm to any fighter, regardless of how I feel, once again, I cannot lie; this one doesn't bother me much.

In nearly 19 years of MMA, Jones may very well be the fighter I dislike the most. Why, I have such disdain towards the guy, I don't know. I've never met him and don't know him from a can of paint. Yet, I'm a pretty good judge of character and there is something about him that rubs me the wrong way. I feel I can see right through the guy because everything about his persona is phony.

The guy is clearly a great fighter and I am one that feels the word 'great' is used far too loosely in sports, but this guy is great. He's obviously not afraid as he has stepped into the cage with future Hall of Famers in his last five fights. However, his stance this month on fighting Chael Sonnen really turned me off, but my hate stems from way before that.

It's a personal thing for sure, but to me it speaks volume. As a fan of this sport, not a journalist, of all the many fighters and notables I've come across, and I'm talking a lot and a who's who of MMA, he's the only one that didn't give me the time of day when I approached him two and half years ago in Vegas. He wasn't eating at the time and he wasn't with family; he was actually outside a UFC Fan Expo in Mandalay Bay. This was when he was just a budding star, but his arrogance shined right through the sun glasses he was wearing; indoors by the way.

Okay, maybe this is personal and sure, who cares about my feelings towards Jon Jones; especially Jon Jones. However, the boos he received at the weigh-ins on Friday do not lie and they show that I am not the only one that feels this way. The fact that he now has grown a long bushy frazzled beard to go along with all his quotes on life makes it seem as though he is trying to become 'Black Moses'. Well sorry buddy, only Isaac Hayes, the original Black Moses, could pull off that look.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Murphy's Law rears its ugly head in Bethlehem

Murphy's Law simply stated means, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." On Friday night, one can argue that Murphy's Law was in effect in Bethlehem, PA as the shining 'Star of Bethlehem' welterweight Ronald Cruz (pictured @ left) was just not aligned with the other stars of the galaxy. Cruz (17-1, 12 KO's) suffered his first defeat in a tough split decision loss to veteran Antwone 'The Truth' Smith (22-4, 12 KO's).

However, before we get to the fight, we have to go to the day before the fight when early signs of Murphy's Law should have been noticed. On Thursday afternoon, the weigh-ins for the Friday night NBC Sports Network fight card were slightly delayed in getting started. While I have no confirmation, word was spreading that Cruz was busy shedding some last minute weight. Whether he was or not, to his credit when it came time to weigh-in, he tipped the scale at 146 lbs.; one pound under the 147 lb. welterweight limit. His opponent Smith, whose last fight was fought at junior middleweight (154 lbs.), stepped on the scale at 150 lbs; a whopping three pounds over the limit.

Thus, what was originally scheduled as a 12 round fight for Cruz's WBC Continental Americas title belt automatically became a 10 round non-title fight. As you will see, I believe those extra two rounds would prove extremely critical in the outcome of the fight. Nonetheless, after negotiations between the two camps, the fight is agreed to go on.

Before I get into the fight and how I viewed it, let me preface this by saying that in 1987 I am one of those that had Sugar Ray Leonard defeating Marvin Hagler in what was billed as 'The Super Fight'. Many argue that Hagler should have won the decision based on aggression and constantly pursing Leonard. I argue that while Leonard was not the aggressor, he clearly out boxed Hagler, thus out pointing him in the long run to earn the decision. Such appeared to be the case on Friday night, except that Cruz was not the aggressor that Hagler was or that he usually is.

This in itself was a huge surprise because Ronald Cruz has built his career to this point on always being the aggressor in his fights; one who walks down his opponents, especially boxers, and breaks them down with a punishing and relentless body attack. Early on and throughout I noticed that was not the case Friday night. Before the fight, his trainer Lemuel 'Indio' Rodriguez told the NBC Sports cameras, "Tonight you will see a different Ronald Cruz." Unfortunately he was right, but for all the wrong reasons.

As the fight started and progressed, I immediately noticed Smith was firing off a piston like jab and peppering Cruz with one-two combinations. Though Cruz implemented a perfect (what I like to call) chicken wing defense, where he kept his hands up and elbows in, thus protecting his head and body, he was not throwing any punches. After the first three rounds I immediately asked myself, "What is Ronald waiting for?" In his post fight interview in the ring, Cruz himself said, "I got off to a late start; I knew I gave away the first three rounds."

Finally in the fourth, Cruz began to open up; using his patented style of stalking his opponent and unleashing powerful punches to the body and head; but it wasn't sustained throughout. It came in spurts and was far and few in between. Therefore, the middle rounds, though Cruz was winning were relatively close. While he may have won the power punch output, he never really hurt Smith at any point. Anytime Smith would get caught, he stepped back, gathered himself and came right back with his jab.

After the final two rounds it was a toss up. I had the fight even with both fighters winning five rounds apiece, but I quickly shook my head and told those around me, "I don't know, its close." The bottom line was Cruz, in my estimation, just didn't let his hands go enough while Smith remained busy throughout. Just like Hagler vs. Leonard the question was, will the judges support the boxer or the puncher? Unfortunately for Cruz, two out of three judges supported the boxer giving Smith the decision; just like Leonard over Hagler.

After the fight, many of the hometown fights argued that Cruz was robbed. I, putting my personal feelings aside, responded by saying, "This was not a robbery; I'm not saying Cruz lost, but he did not clearly win either." The judge's scorecards reflected that as the scores were 96-94 on all three cards; unfortunately for the hometown kid and fans, two of them were for Smith. I truly beileve with two more "championship" rounds, Cruz would have pulled out a different outcome.

On Thursday after the weigh-ins and before the fight, I asked Cruz's manager Jimmy Deoria, assuming everything goes right, what is the plan moving forward? Deoria told me, "Our plan all along was to get Ronald four fights this year; this will be his third. Thus, we would like to get him back in the ring sometime in December, whether it is here in Bethlehem, Atlantic City or Philadelphia." With this loss, I don't know if that alters the plan at all, but knowing Cruz the way I do, I will not be surprised if he is in the gym on Monday because I know he can't wait to get back in there to break Murphy's Law.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

School is now in session son

I would like to tell you that very much like the picture to my left, Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. (@ left) and Sergio Martinez went toe to toe on Saturday night; but I can't. However, that is not to say there was no action and (or) drama in the fight, for as one-sided as it was, the bout was very intriguing. The bottom line was, school was in session and Martinez was giving a boxing lesson.

Now two-time WBC middleweight champion Sergio 'Maravilla' Martinez (50-2-2, 28 KO's) stayed true to his word in more than one fashion in his fight against former champ Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. (46-1, 32 KO's); as he told him he would take him to school and that's what he did. For nearly all 12 rounds, Martinez did just what I had told many he would do, which was run circles around Junior and destroy him with his speed, lateral movement and superior boxing skills. Though he did not finish him by the 10th round as I had predicted, he did do something else he said he would.

On HBO's 24/7 preview series, Martinez said that after their fight Chavez would be unrecognizable to his family. Well, one look at Junior's puffed up face and nearly shut left eye, and you could see the effects of Martinez's punches. One would think reading this that there can't be that much to write about regarding this fight, but that wasn't the case.

Though Martinez clearly dominated the overall majority, he did not finish strong; that scenario believe it or not went to Chavez. After getting beat to the punch all night and barely throwing any of his own, the kid came back to his corner after the 10th round just looking to survive. His Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach looked him in the eyes and told him bluntly, "Julio, you need a knockout to win."

With that, Chavez gave Roach a slight nod acknowledging his coach and then proceeded to come out in the 11th attempting to do just that; by stalking Martinez and winging hooks to both the head and body. Though he showed signs of life, it wasn't till the 12th and final round that the true drama would appear. He came out with the same fortitude and while trading shots, caught Martinez with a left hook to the head that shook the native Argentinean.

Seeing Martinez in trouble, Chavez kept throwing a barrage of shots, finally knocking down Martinez and sending the Las Vegas crowd and everyone in attendance where I was watching the fight into frenzy. However, Martinez, though weary, was able to gather his senses enough to outlast the last ditch effort and win a unanimous decision. In triumph and defeat, both Martinez and Chavez were humble and respectful in their post fight comments.

Yet, the fact that Max Kellerman asked the question of both about a potential rematch, solely because Chavez was able to muster a knockdown in the last round left me scratching my head asking why? There was no indication that another fight between these two would not end up the same way. Though Junior did get to 'Maravilla' at the end, I doubt an expert and veteran like Martinez will make that same mistake again.

In closing, it was a fantastic night of fights on two separate events taking place in Vegas between this HBO PPV show and the Showtime card headlined by Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez and Josesito Lopez. While the main events in both ended up as foregone conclusions, the under card fights on both shows such as the super featherweight tilt between Rocky Martinez and Miguel Beltran on HBO and the welterweight slugfest between Marcos Maidana and Jesus Soto Karass on Showtime were great.

How good were they? Well during a friendly back and forth exchange via texts with legendary boxing and MMA trainer Jacob 'Stitch' Duran during the Puerto Rican/Mexican battle of Martinez and Beltran, 'Stitch' eloquently quipped, "If those fights on HBO are as good as the ones on Showtime right now, it is a great night for Latino boxing." I could not have said it any better my friend.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Son of God (S.O.G.) = Student of the Game

Because of a bus trip to Baltimore Saturday to watch the Yankees/Orioles game, I wasn't able to catch the Andre Ward/Chad Dawson fight till Sunday morning. While I was intently looking forward to it, I wasn't sure what to expect from two such highly skilled boxers. However, though I didn't put it in print, I had predicted to numerous people whose boxing opinion I respect that Ward would "school Dawson."

I hate to say I told you so, but such was the case on Saturday night; as WBA/WBC super middleweight (168 lbs.) champion Andre 'S.O.G.' Ward (26-0, 14 KO's) gave WBC light heavyweight (175 lbs.) champ Chad Dawson (31-2, 17 KO's) a boxing lesson. Yet, while I had said Ward would "school Dawson," I never truly believed it would be as one sided as it was. Ward won just about every minute of every round, outside of the first, en route to a 10th round TKO finish.

What many, including myself, were afraid might turn into a lackluster 12 round counter-punching affair, immediately became a tactical, in your face prize fight. Because of Ward's orthodox stance facing the southpaw Dawson and also because of Dawson's clear height and reach advantage, Ward understood right away that he had to fight Dawson on the inside. Yet, what made Ward's performance so brilliant was that he fought on the inside in many different facets.

It was clear Ward and his trainer Virgil Hunter had a game plan and they worked it to perfection. The plan as it played out was to confuse Dawson by fighting him a different way in every round. Early on it was to get inside and punish the body, then in the third and fourth rounds, Ward started to catch Dawson repeatedly with a quick left hook over Dawson's lazy jab. That plan in itself could have easily won Ward the fight.

Yet, every time Ward came back to his corner in between rounds, Hunter changed the game. One round at a time Hunter would give Ward instructions such as, "This round I want you to double up on your jab and follow it straight in with your right; okay, now this round let's start using your uppercut." etc. and so on. Hunter was masterful in his instruction and Ward was ever the 'A' student in working the game plan to perfection. Simply put, Ward ran a clinic on Dawson.

In his post fight interview, Ward was not only respectful and humble, but also very well spoken and to the point on every question HBO's Larry Merchant asked him. In the dirty world of boxing, seldom is a young man, now 28 years old, so righteous in his approach to the sport and life itself. Ward's path is clear, as he stated before answering his first question to Merchant, "Larry if you'll permit me five seconds to give thanks to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

It's that value that has guided Ward on his journey to a 2004 Olympic Gold medal, the super six middleweight tournament title and the world super middleweight championship. For 16 years this young man has been applying his craft, along the way not garnering the respect and coverage he deserves. After his performance Saturday night, he'll get it all now because not only is he a Son of God, but S.O.G. is a student of the game. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Interim world champion is just a TITLE

Carlos Condit, interim world champion; figuratively speaking, seven months later it is now quite evident that was his title all along. After winning that belt on February 5th in a lackluster performance against Nate Diaz, Condit (pictured @ left), will finally put that title on the line against, the actual world champion; how convenient?

UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre (22-2, 8 KO's 5 subs), due to a serious knee injury, has not fought since his last title defense against Jake Shields. That fight was on April 30, 2011, 16 months ago; during that same time span Carlos Condit (26-5, 13, KO's, 13 subs) without injury only fought twice, which included the interim title fight with Diaz. St. Pierre tore ligaments in his knee while preparing for his next title defense.

With St. Pierre suffering an injury that would clearly keep him on the shelf for a long time, the UFC decided it was best to create an interim world champion. This was so the title in a stacked welterweight division, where there are numerous contenders, would not lay dormant. Logically this makes sense and in theory, it's not a bad idea; however, in practice it was a waste.

In reality it turns out, that interim championship fight between Condit and Diaz was nothing more than a glorified number one contender match. That is because Condit will end up fighting St. Pierre in his first fight back from injury on November 17, 2012. More than nine months between winning the interim championship and fighting the actual champ, Condit did not compete. Therefore, I ask the question, what purpose did it serve in giving him the interim title?

As I previously stated above, I was under the impression it was so that the welterweight championship could remain active while St. Pierre, the actual champion, recovered from injury. Apparently I was wrong because Condit conveniently held onto that title without ever defending it, even though there were a bevy of contenders he could have fought. On a weekend, where a pay-per-view event had to be canceled because a UFC champion refused to fight a replacement opponent, this doesn't sound so good.

Since winning the interim belt in February, top contenders such as Martin Kampmann, Jake Ellenberger, Josh Koscheck and Johny Hendricks were forced to beat up on each other because Carlos Condit figured it was in his best interest to wait and fight the champion. That's great for Condit, but not so great for the UFC who have suddenly developed a stable of champions who pick and choose when and who they want to fight.

Some, including UFC President Dana White, may not see it that way, but all I know is that this weekend there was no UFC 151 event and there has not been a welterweight title defense in 16 months. Therefore, if you seem to be having an issue with world champions refusing to defend their titles in a timely manner, why increase the problem by creating interim champions who are seemingly doing the same? Because when you get right down to it, interim world champion is just a TITLE.

Junkie Gathering 2017... this time it was personal

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