Sunday, December 29, 2013

UFC 168: 'Shattered' Dreams

Alas and unfortunately, the image seen at left will most likely be the last one we see of arguably the greatest fighter ever in the history of mixed martial arts inside the cage. The fighter is of course the great Anderson 'The Spider' Silva and sadly the image is of the seemingly invincible Silva clutching his broken left leg after Saturday night's rematch with UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman.

In a night where two of the most anticipated rematches in MMA history were to take place and the first four bouts on the main card delivered nothing but fireworks and electricity in the air, all that was put out in an instant with the flick of one swift kick; a kick Silva (33-6, 20 KO's 6 subs) probably has thrown a thousand times in his life of competition, but this one time it failed him at no fault of his own. A left round kick thrown with his shin, intended to catch the inside part of Weidman's plant leg, instead caught Weidman's bent knee right at the most exact point of its vulnerability.

The result, as you can imagine, is the same result you would get if you whacked a broom stick against a fire hydrant. Some may think that is an unfair analogy, but if you stop to think about it for a minute, the tibia or shin bone is no thicker or wider than a broom stick handle. By the same token the knee bone is one of the strongest in the human body and when bent is multiplied in strength. However, let's look at it from another perspective; the perspective of the kick itself.

As a Taekwondo practitioner for 13+ years and a black belt for the last seven, I feel I may know a little something about throwing kicks to the body. That said, taekwondo fighters are taught to use the ball of the foot as its preferred weapon, versus the shin bone. Thus, a taekwondo round kick, for explanation sake, is being thrown with the head of the hammer as its point of impact. A Muay Thai round kick, which is what most MMA fighters use and is what Silva used on Saturday night, is thrown with the handle of the hammer. Sure the handle of a hammer is strong, but given a choice, which would you rather hammer a nail with?

I am in no way trying to correct Anderson Silva's form or question his or any other MMA fighter's methods. However, for argument sake, this is not the first time we have witnessed this same scenario inside the octagon. Five years ago to the month, Corey Hill suffered the same exact injury in the same manner when he threw a Muay Thai round kick to Dale Hartt's leg. At the time, and for good reason, it was considered a freak accident. However, when it happens again, this time to the greatest fighter to ever grace the cage, one has to wonder is this just a freak accident or an accident waiting to happen?

All that said, Weidman (11-0, 5 KO's 3 subs) retains his title and Silva, sadly appears to have ended an illustrious career on the most down of notes. Yet, isn't it pretty much the way it always ends for the truly great ones; as they hardly ever go out on top. The only other fighter in MMA history who can actually be in the argument for greatest of all-time, Fedor Emelianenko, though he ended his career with a couple of wins, had already been brought down to human reality with three straight losses before that. Nonetheless, this should never take away from their greatness.

Besides the actual injury to Silva, the saddest part about the whole thing is it took away the shine from the best fight of the night, which was the rematch between UFC Women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey (8-0, 8 subs) and Meisha Tate (13-5, 3 KO's 6 subs). These ladies were not only the stars of the night for the UFC, but the stars of the year for the company. They reinvigorated a previously stale 'Ultimate Fighter' reality series and carried that momentum and disdain for one another into the octagon.

After two and a half rough and tumble rounds, where Rousey literally threw Tate around like a rag doll at times, it was the 'Rowdy' champion who went on to win with her signature arm bar submission. All respects due to Tate though as she did all she could to avoid the eventual outcome and at times had her own moments throughout. However, I and many others will forever question her continued willingness to attempt to clinch and take down the former Olympic Judo Bronze medalist. I'm sure she herself has to be asking, "What was I thinking?"

Regardless, it was an exciting fight to the finish, one that had the entire MGM Grand Arena resounding along with everyone else who watched. As was the entire card as a whole, which included three first round KO finishes before these two main event fights. On a positive note, the UFC ended the year with a blast and a shocking finish that was actually the lead story on ESPN Sportscenter afterwards. Yet, on the other side of the spectrum, for Anderson Silva and Meisha Tate, UFC 168 will most likely be remembered as a night of shattered dreams.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Finally, sweet justice for many reasons

Just when you think there isn't any justice in boxing, Marcos Maidana comes along and disproves that theory. The hard hitting Argentinean (35-3, 31 KO's) put on a beautiful display of boxing and power punching as he defeated the previously undefeated brash talking Adrien Broner (27-1, 22 KO's) for the WBA welterweight championship. Maidana (pictured at left respectively against Broner), who has been the victim of a couple of previous injustices within the ring actually pulled off this feat in the State of Texas; the Mecca for robberies and outlandish decisions in the world of boxing.

Broner, who is a fast punching boxer with a Floyd Mayweather, Jr. type defensive stance, looked nothing like Floyd as Maidana had his number from the opening bell. It wasn't a shutout by any means as Broner had some moments in the middle rounds when it looked as the ghost of Maidana's past, his gas tank, was going on empty, but a few unexpected circumstances kept stalling any momentum Broner attempted to build. The biggest problem for 'The Problem' however, was Maidana's powerful left hook to both the body and head which Broner had no answer for.

Let's not get it twisted though; Maidana put on a boxing clinic against the supposed superior boxer, by pressuring the mentally weak Broner and throwing punches in bunches from all angles including overhand rights and vicious uppercuts. The reason I refer to Broner as mentally weak is you could see it in his face and more importantly his corner as he was put in a situation he's never been in before; coming back from being knocked down from legitimate power punches on more than one occasion. Maidana nearly knocked the previously untouchable Broner through the ropes as early as the second round.

Able to survive the round, when Broner got back to his corner it was nothing but chaos, as he had no concern for what his trainer had to say. He in essence pretty much talked back in distain for what his corner had to say, which includes his own father as his assistant trainer. This is where I say Broner is mentally weak at 24 years old. He has basically been coddled as a boxing prodigy since the age of nine, always hearing nothing but praise by those close to him. This includes his entourage who was fairly large during his in-ring entrance, but was nowhere to be found as he shown exiting the arena only flanked by security.

Was that by design, or did Broner just push everyone away like a spoiled child when he doesn't get what he wants? Things that make you go hmmmmm? Everything is honky dory when you're winning; it's easy to have people brush you hair for you in the ring and stroke your ego when you're on top. However as soon as you lose and that mystique goes out the window, reality sets in. Broner got a dose of reality last night as he may idolize Floyd Mayweather, Jr, but he's no Floyd Mayweather, Jr.

Maidana on the other hand, as great as he looked, wasn't a lock to earn a decision at the end. First off Maidana, whose only three losses were all questionable decisions, two in previous world title fights, is the poster boy for bad outcomes. Second, the fight was in San Antonio, Texas. The Texas boxing commission for years has been under serious and justified scrutiny for horrendous decisions; Native son Juan Diaz over Paulie Malignaggi on HBO comes to mind right away. Finally though, it was Maidana himself who almost threw it all away by getting a point taken in round 8.

After knocking Broner down a second time in the fight and having him in serious trouble again, 'El Chino' made a serious error in judgment. As Broner clinched to stop the onslaught, Maidana threw an obvious head butt to Broner's chin; right in front of the referee no less. Broner, who was hurt at the time and in desperate need of a break, fell to the ground in a poor acting performance and milked it for all it was worth.

You would have thought he was hit in the jaw with a hammer the way he reacted as it was an obvious delayed reaction. Regardless, he used it to get his legs back under him; but what he failed to realize is that it also afforded Maidana a much needed rest who was clearly slowing down in the middle rounds. Funny how things work in the end; karma is a bitch!

At the end, Maidana won a well earned unanimous decision en route to winning back the WBA world title he had lost previously to Devon Alexander. Only time will tell if Broner will grow from this experience; if he will humble and dedicate himself to being a professional fighter instead of a showman. The fact that Broner was humbled, along with Maidana coming out on the positive end of a decision for once, in Texas of all places, just shows that finally, sweet justice for many reasons.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Ingredients for an instant classic

We as fans of combat sports are luckier than ever in the generation we're currently living in. Just about every weekend it seems we are treated to some form of combat, whether it is mixed martial arts or boxing and many times both. On top of that, many of these fights, especially a/o late, have been offered to us for free on television. Just last night for example you had the World Series of Fighting showing four fights on NBC Sports network and HBO serving up three fights of a boxing card on their channel.

Yet, with all these fights going on, only a few turn out to be truly entertaining. Then, every so often, one stands out above the rest and is immediately considered an all-timer or one for the ages. That happened this past Friday night when Mark Hunt 'The Super Samoan' and Antonio 'Big Foot' Silva (Pictured above respectively) stepped in the cage in Australia and unleashed on one another. After five rounds of a furious back and forth main event, the fans in the arena and even the broadcast team of Jon Anik and Kenny Florian were deafening in their enthusiasm.

I myself was at home on the edge of my recliner glued to the action as I listened to Kenny Florian rave about how this was one of the greatest fights in UFC history. Considering all the fights that have taken place inside the octagon over 20 years, that is rarified air. It made begin to compare it to other great fights I've seen over the years, including this year, and I immediately began to ask myself, "What are the ingredients for an instant classic?"

I've often talked about how the word 'great' is tossed around way too loosely in its usage. However, sometimes it is quite just in its use and this fight was one of them; but why was that? Here's my recipe for a fight to end up being part of that exclusive club of all-time classics.


Matchmaking - The pairing of two fighters doesn't necessarily mean instant action, a lot goes into it; but at least the pairing of two opponents that are pretty much on a level playing field will at least offer the solace that one opponent won't necessarily run through the other. UFC matchmaker Joe Silva is universally regarded as one of the best in the business for this and many other reasons.

Style - There's a phrase in boxing that says, "Styles make fights." Nowhere is that more prevalent than in MMA where so many different styles come into play. It is important to know how two fighters will mesh with each other to not only provide action, but to bring the best out in one another. Unfortunately, things don't always work out and even the best made plans don't live up to the hype; example, Demian Maia vs. Jake Shields a couple of months ago. Two jiu-jitsu aces going at it, I for one was salivating at seeing the action on the ground. What happened is their skills neutralized each other so much, we ended up having a relative snooze fest.

Home field - When one of the fighters is literally fighting on his home turf, it makes for an interesting dynamic; especially when it is a foreign country involved. Hunt, who is from nearby New Zealand, is recognized as a living legend in Australia. Thus, the Aussies were going crazy with every punch he threw. Another reason this ingredient is important is because it can be an equalizer for an underdog going into a fight, which Hunt was on Friday.

Heart - It is hard to imagine that anyone who steps into a cage or a ring doesn't have any heart; that is not in question. However, it is safe to say that some fighters just have more heart than others. That shouldn't be so hard to understand, especially once you remember that with people in general, some just have bigger hearts than others emotionally. When you get two fighters who have huge hearts, the sky's the limit. Anyone who saw Hunt and Silva barely standing at the end, totally spent, with nothing left to give, yet trying, will not question their heart.

Will - Finally, all the above ingredients, including heart, are for naught if the will to lay it on the line and give it all you got isn't there. The determination to not be stopped regardless of the punishment and to push forward even when your body says no, but your mind says yes. That is a rare quality that is difficult to understand unless you've ever been pushed to the limits both physically and mentally. When that happens, it is something special to behold.

It is fair to say that Friday nights fight between Mark Hunt and Antonio Silva had all these ingredients. Thus, as you can imagine, the fight was an instant classic. Just like the best tasting cake or dish you've ever had, this fight compares favorably to Liddell/Silva, Couture/Nogueira, Shogun/Henderson, Chandler/Alvarez I and any others that are in that special club of excellence. In the words of Big Daddy Kane, "'Nuff respect due."

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Bellator celebrates Thanksgiving in the Christmas City

With less than one week to Thanksgiving, the toughest tournament in sports celebrated the holiday in the Christmas City as Bellator MMA came to the Sands Event Center in Bethlehem, PA. With a 10 bout card that included the middleweight championship of the world, electricity was in the air and fists were flying as the Lehigh Valley came out strong and represented with a sold out arena.

As stated, the 185 lbs. title was up for grabs as champion Alexander 'Storm' Shlemenko (48-7, 29 KO's 7 subs) was defending his title against this season's middleweight tournament winner Doug 'Rhino' Marshall (18-7, 12 KO's 4 subs). It was expected that this one wouldn't last long and it held true to form as it ended within the first five minutes.

A spirited Marshall, the former World Extreme Cagefighting titleholder, took it right to Shlemenko and the champ was all too willing to oblige. As the two traded shots back and forth, Shlemenko secured two takedowns; however, Marshall was able to get back to his feet with relative ease. Rhino expected to get the better of the two standing, however to his surprise a Shlemenko liver shot wobbled the challenger.

Though Marshall fought back valiantly and appeared to briefly recover, it was the beginning of the end. A left hook from the champion to the challenger's mid-section appeared to pick up where the liver shot left off as it dropped Marshall immediately. The pain etched across his face, was enough to tell the referee that was it. The time was 4:28 of the first round.

The co-main event was the final of this season's welterweight (170 lbs.) tournament and it featured Ron Keslar (11-4, 1 KO, 5 subs) taking on former tournament finalist, title challenger and Olympian Rick Hawn (18-2, 11 KO's). In a high energy battle that was anybody's fight going into the third, Hawn finally cemented the tournament victory by finishing Keslar with a brutal right hand to the jaw.

Early on you would have never expected it to finish that way, or even get to that point, as Keslar started fast and furious, taking the fight to Hawn and knocking him to the ground within the first minute with a knee strike to the mid-section. However, he appeared to have punched himself out as Hawn rebounded in the second round with crisp combinations, which were connecting as Keslar was clearly tiring.

In the third, it was more of the same only this time Hawn finished what he started by landing at will until the finishing blow that caused referee Dan Miragliotta to step in and wave his hands. I asked Keslar at the post-fight press conference if he had expended himself trying to finish it in the first. He told me, "No; the truth is I didn't listen to my corner and execute our game plan going into that last round. In the end, he was just too fast for me tonight." Up next for Hawn is Douglas Lima as they will battle it out for the vacant welterweight title.

The featured bout on the main card was the season's lightweight (155 lbs.) tourney final between American Top Team's 'Ill' Will Brooks (13-1, 4 KO's 4 subs) and Shlemenko protégé Tiger Sarnavsky (25-2, 6 KO's 15 subs). In what was expected to be a competitive match up between two of Bellator's rising stars, was pretty much a one-sided affair as Brooks surprisingly dominated Sarnavasky from the opening bell. Using a nice combination of stand-up strikes to set up his takedowns, Brooks tamed the Tiger over three rounds controlling him with an effective ground and pound attack.

In his post fight interview inside the cage, Brooks said, "Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez can keep beating each other up if they want to, they're just holding onto my belt." I asked Bjorn Rebney in the post fight presser, what happens if he does the Chandler/Alvarez rematch; where does that leave Brooks and is Dave Jansen, last season's tournament winner who is on the mend from an ACL tear, still in the mix?

Bjorn's response was, "Chandler/Alvarez 3 is definitely the next lightweight championship; that one is a no-brainer. I spoke with Jansen last week and he's far from ready; he hasn't even gotten into the rehab phase yet. Thus, most likely, Brooks will get the winner of Chandler and Alvarez." Brooks meanwhile made life easy for Rebney by grabbing the microphone and saying, "I'll fight Jansen; I said it before, I don't care how I get to that belt, I'll do whatever I have to."

Getting things started on Spike TV was a lightweight tilt between Patrick Cenoble (9-3-1, 8 KO's) and UFC veteran Terry Etim (16-5, 2 KO's 12 subs). Etim, making his debut inside the Bellator cage, showed there was an obvious difference in class of opposition faced as he manhandled Cenoble on the ground throughout. Other than the start of each round, and a few seconds here and there in between, the fight was pretty much contested on the mat with Etim controlling his opponent throughout; he ended up winning a lackluster unanimous decision much to the dismay of the sellout crowd.

One of the featured fighters on the preliminary card was highly touted prospect Bubba Jenkins (5-1, 2 KO's 3 subs) who took on veteran Ian Rammel (5-6, 1 KO, 2 subs). A former All-American wrestler, Jenkins used his superior grappling to take down and control Rammel every round, until the third where he finally unleashed some ground and pound, which ended in a TKO finish. Jenkins obviously has potential, but is clearly a work in progress.

Highlight of the undercard was provided by Brazil's highly touted Goiti Yamauchi (16-1, 1 KO, 13 subs) as it took him all of (2:04) to knockout Saul Almeida (13-5, 3 subs) The fight was supposed to be contested in the featherweight (145 lbs.) class, but was moved to a catchweight of (153 lbs.) after Yamauchi came in seven pounds overweight. As they stood toe to toe in the center of the cage trading blows, it was obvious that extra seven pounds didn't hurt Yamauchi's cause.

In the post fight scrum, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said of The Sands and Bethlehem, "This was great; we have everything we need under one roof here. We had a sellout tonight and the crowd was electric. We'll definitely be back as soon as they can have us." For a writer who is based in Bethlehem, that's just fine by me.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Boxing is bustling in Bethlehem

On a night when the UFC was celebrating their 20 year anniversary and pound for pound contender Andre Ward was doing his thing in California, a busy night of boxing was being had in the new hotbed for boxing on the east coast, Bethlehem, PA. You did not read it wrong as this old steel town an hour north of Philadelphia and less than two hours from Atlantic City is slowly, but surely, becoming the place to be for fights. To put it mildly, boxing is bustling in Bethlehem.

The main event featured the man who is pretty much responsible for this explosion of fisticuffs in The Christmas City, welterweight contender and Bethlehem native Ronald Cruz (20-2, 15 KO's). Cruz (pictured above with trainer Lemuel 'Indio' Rodriguez), who lives less than a mile from The Sands Event Center where the fight took place, took on rugged Hector 'El Hurricane' Munoz (22-12, 14 KO's) from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Cruz came into the bout riding a two fight win streak, both via knockout, while Munoz was coming off a huge decision win over former contender Hector Camacho, Jr.

A notorious slow starter who likes to feel out his opponents, Cruz was content to let Munoz come at him aggressively early while he felt his power and slowly began working his game. After two rounds he had felt enough as he caught Munoz with a beautiful over hand right in the third that dropped him where he stood. To Munoz's credit he got up, but with over two minutes left in the round, he left Cruz with too much time to attack. After a couple more power shots, a brutal left hook to the body knocked Munoz down again.

I thought for sure that one had finished him, but somehow he beat the count of 10 and although he was clearly wobbled, referee Steve Smoger let it go on. All Cruz needed was one more clear shot to the head to drop Munoz a third time and force Smoger to finally call a halt. The time was (1:43) of the third round.

In his dressing room afterwards, a jubilant Team Cruz was happy as they discussed with me what their impressions were. I said to Cruz that from press row he looked to be more relaxed than usual in there. His manager Jimmy Deoria told me, "Composed, that's what he was; more composed than ever." Ronald Cruz then said, "I truly believe the experience of 22 fights is now starting to kick in. I could feel it as I was in there."

On the undercard, a battle straight off the Garden State Parkway that took the wrong exit as Camden, New Jersey's Jason Sosa (11-1-3, 7 KO's) took on fellow New Jerseyian Bryne Green (7-8-1, 3 KO's) of Vineland in a six round lightweight tilt. After a few workmanlike rounds, Sosa, who I've seen in the past finish opponents with body shots, did it again as he dropped Green with a left to the ribs that had him down for the full count of 10 and then some; the official time was (2:34) of the fourth round. Though he's from Jersey, Sosa is becoming a fan favorite here in Bethlehem with the large Puerto Rican community.

Cruz's stablemate, junior welterweight Jerome Rodriguez (6-0-2, 2 KO's) of Allentown PA is quickly making his own mark as a fighter to watch out for in the Lehigh Valley. Rodriguez, a slick southpaw with fast hands, used that speed and agility to effectively box with a tough Darnell Jiles (9-3-1, 3 KO's) from Rochester, NY over six rounds. Staying on the outside and using the entire ring to pick his shots, Rodriguez threw punches in bunches with pinpoint accuracy, much to the delight of the hometown crowd. However, Jiles had his moments as well in between and in the end all three judges had it with identical scores of 57-57 for a draw.

After the fight I spoke with Rodriguez who acknowledged it was a close one, but felt he had clearly won a decision. In a display of pure class though, before the decision was read Rodriguez had his four year old daughter hand Jiles a gift bag as a gesture of true sportsmanship. In an equal display of class, Jiles then proceeded to hug the young girl and hoisted her on his shoulder as he walked her around the ring.

Knockout of the night goes to another local favorite, welterweight Arturo 'Tully' Trujillo of Easton, PA, as he upped his record to (4-0, 2 KO's)in quick fashion. It took him all of (1:48) to finish Pablo Sanchez (1-1, 1 KO) of Indianapolis, Indiana. Trujillo caught Sanchez with a straight left that dropped him dead in his tracks and although Sanchez was able to get back to his feet, it was the beginning of the end. Trujillo jumped on his hurt opponent with a barrage of punches that inevitably caused Sanchez to fall again, prompting the referee to wave his hands and stop the fight.

The opening bout featured yet another teammate of Cruz's making his pro debut, Ismael 'Speedy' Serrano also from Bethlehem. In an entertaining four round junior welterweight bout, Serrano battled it out with 19 year old Jean Hernandez from The Bronx, NY, also making his pro debut. While both fighters had their moments throughout, exhibiting good boxing skills, in the end the maturity of the 26 year old Serrano proved too much for the youthful Hernandez as he won a well earned unanimous decision.

Hall of Fame promoter Russell Peltz of Peltz Promotions in Philadelphia appears to have found a niche and created a nice buzz here in The Christmas City. With frequent entertaining cards at The Sands Casino that feature a mixture of up and coming local talent, sprinkled with top notch contenders, it's safe to say boxing is bustling in Bethlehem.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What's right, wrong and needs to change in boxing

In a week in mixed martial arts where the UFC had not one, but two free live cards on TV, which featured two first round knockouts in the main event, I am talking boxing; it is for good reason too. There are a few current events I've witnessed, enjoyed and read about in the last week that have compelled me to write about what's right, wrong and needs to change in boxing.

Earlier this week, I came across a story that blew me away. That was because earlier this year, I had written a piece entitled 'The Curse of The Contender', which was all about tragic and unfortunate events that had befallen numerous fighters that appeared on the first three seasons of that once popular reality show. You can read the original blog written back in February by clicking this link:

You can imagine my reaction then when I had found out that Gary 'Tiger' Balletto, a participant from Season 2, was paralyzed and in a wheelchair from a freak accident suffered a few months ago in his backyard. Balletto, one of the more likable and humble characters from the show, who had had retired with a professional record of (31-3, 26 KO's), was a former gymnast who had wedged and nailed a pull-up bar between two trees in his yard for his son to workout on. One day while showing his kids some gymnastic routines on the bar, the bar broke from the trees and he fell head first onto the ground breaking vertebrae in his neck and back.

Lucky to have survived at all, the former fighter who owns a boxing gym in his hometown of Providence, RI now finds himself strapped to a wheelchair with only hopes of someday walking again. His boxing brethren and community decided to hold a fundraiser this past Thursday in Providence to help the Tiger and his family with mounting health care costs surrounding his recovery and rehab. This is what's right in boxing.

Ironically, earlier this week I watched an awesome documentary on HBO that featured another popular fighter from the New England area. 'Legendary Nights' was the story of the now historic trilogy of fights between Mickey Ward and the late great Arturo 'Thunder' Gatti. Having watched all three of those fights when they happened, I had forgotten how brutal they actually were. However, HBO in their infinite wisdom of production was able to put together a tremendous documentary that not only captured the brutality, but the reality of it all as well.

As I watched footage of the fights, especially Gatti-Ward 1 and the all-time classic round nine of their first fight, I found myself getting emotional. Back then when I saw it, I was caught up in the action of the fight. This time as I watched it, I realized what both fighters truly gave of each other that night and found myself almost moved to tears as HBO commentator Jim Lampley was as he recalled it. Whether you've seen the fights, and definitely if you haven't, you owe it to yourself to watch this documentary.

Strangely enough, as I tell you of the brutality of those three fights, it was just one week ago that HBO showcased a fight on their air that ended up being just as violent. It featured two promising undefeated heavyweight prospects in polished Cuban defector Mike Perez (20-0, 12 KO's) and a heavy punching Russian named Magomed Abdusalamov (18-1, 18 KO's) fighting for the WBC United States (USNBC) title. No one, including myself, figured this would get past one or two rounds; especially considering the climate of heavyweight boxing today.

However, these two fighters were the real deal in terms of their skill, athleticism and most of all heart. They pounded on each other for the full 10 rounds, with Perez clearly getting the better of it on the strength of his superior boxing skill; Perez out pointed and out boxed the bigger, more powerful Abdusalamov, while punishing him as well. The less experienced Mago, as he is called, who was used to ending the majority of his fights within one or two rounds, realized he was in uncharted territory when he came back to his stool after round one and started to show concern about his face.

After only one round, he started to ask his corner about swelling and a possible injury he had sustained around his cheekbone; that should've been a tell tale sign right there. As the fight progressed and more damage ensued, Mago continued to show concern for himself, yet his corner just kept imploring him he needed to go out and knock this guy out; just as he had done all 18 times before when he stepped in the squared circle. To Addusalamov's credit, he tried; going the distance even though it was in vain.

The loss was the least of his concern. After the fight, which took place in New York City, Mago was taken to Roosevelt Hospital for what he thought were a possible broken hand and broken jaw. What they found was he also had a blood clot in his brain that heeded to be relieved; thus immediate surgery was required and as you can expect the end of a promising career.

That would have been fine if that is all it was. Four days ago, Abdusalamov took a turn for the worse while in an induced coma and now lies on life support in intensive care. This is a man who had migrated to Florida with his wife and three children with aspirations of becoming a U.S. citizen; now you can only hope he survives, but at what cost? This is what's wrong in boxing, which brings me to what needs to change.

Earlier this week I had read an article where a writer I respect had suggested that boxing needs to move to smaller gloves. He gave reasoning why he felt this would help save fighters, but while I respect his opinion, I totally disagree. The gloves are not the problem; the amount of punishment taken is the problem. This is why I feel boxing needs to get off its proud high horse and take a page from MMA; change it's format to make fights shorter.

I'm old enough to remember when championship fights were 15 rounds and contender fights were 12. However, after high profile deaths in the ring during the '80's, boxing agreed to shorten championship fights to 12 rounds and contender fights to 10; it's time to revisit that. I propose that championship fights only go 10 rounds and contender fights to eight. There are a few reasons why this is obvious and will work.

The obvious of course is the less wear and tear a fighter will sustain; less time, less punishment. Beyond that, the sport will benefit from it as well because the level of action will be lifted. Part of what makes MMA so exciting is because of the length of their fights. Most fights are three rounds, albeit five minutes each versus three in boxing, and five rounds for championships or main events. Three or five rounds do not allow for a feeling out process; thus there is action right from the beginning.

I believe boxing should actually make fights even shorter than the 10 and eight I proposed above, but I know that's a reality that won't ever happen. However, shortening the length of fights is long overdue and will be better for the sport as a whole. There's always talk from casual fans that boxing is dead, which is not true at all; but if boxing doesn't make some drastic changes to ensure the safety of its athletes then that casual assessment will eventually become true because the sport will kill itself.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

It feels like the first time

"It feels like the first time; it feels like the very first time." Such was the verse and the song of the same name by the rock band Foreigner back in 1977. That's exactly the thought that was going through my mind as I watched the rematch between Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler Saturday night for Bellator's lightweight championship. The first fight nearly two years ago to the day in November 2011 was considered fight of the year in many observers mind; last night may very well end up being the same for 2013.

In what was originally supposed to be the co-main event, which I always found hard to believe, to Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson vs. Tito Ortiz, in Bellator's first ever pay-per-view event, ended up being the main event on a free TV card on Spike; that was due to an injury suffered by Ortiz in training. Truth be told, that was the best thing that could have ever happened for Bellator because people got a chance to see two of the best lightweights in the world go at it again for free.

The first time, it was Alvarez (pictured above left) who was the defending champion and favorite while Chandler was the challenger. Last night the roles were reversed in a dream rematch that in the past year was in danger of never happening. That was due to Alvarez's long standing contract negotiations with Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney and the possibility that he may end up in the UFC. Luckily for us the fans, it worked out.

Sure people may say, we don't get a chance to see Alvarez face the likes of Gilbert Melendez, Ben Henderson and current UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis; but that's okay because it's obvious now after two fights and nine rounds that Eddie Alvarez (25-3, 14 KO's 7 subs) and Michael Chandler (12-1, 5 KO's 5 subs) are made for each other. They say styles make fights, well these two are perfect for one another the same way the late Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward never had a boring moment in 30 rounds of boxing; they just click.

In the first fight Chandler was able to wrestle away, literally and figuratively, the championship. Last night it was more of the same where both fighters got the best of each other at times on the feet, Chandler was able to score a few take downs and inflict some ground and pound, while Alvarez was able to punish Chandler every so often with some heavy blows. In the end this time it was Alvarez winning by split decision wit all three judges having scores of 48-47, one way or the other.

The decisive and (or) questionable round for me was the second. The first and fourth clearly went to Chandler, while the third and fifth were easily Alvarez's. The second though could have went either way as Alvarez was able to get a take down in that round, however that was also the round that Alvarez scored better with punches, including a left that wobbled the champion's knees and almost dropped him to one knee; that could have been the decisive blow. Dependent on how you scored the second round, is how you determined the winner.

In the end, the winner was us the fans because a third fight between these two is now a natural and the evidence shows that it will be as good as the first two. Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler are made for each other; to me it's clear that these two could fight 10 times and it will be great every time. As a matter of fact, it will always feel like the first time.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Props to two of the best for knowing when to say enough

After DJ’ing mobile parties and nightclubs for 30+ years, I am quick to deter anyone who is interested in getting into that business; that is because I feel it is an underappreciated field of endeavor. However, for my many reasons to feel this way, it cannot even begin to compare to the lack of appreciation a referee in any sport receives. No matter what they do, it is always going to be criticized by someone. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in combat sports such as boxing and mixed martial arts.

Yet for as much criticism as a referee receives, and in some cases justified, he or she is the person we must rely on not only to call a fair fight, but more importantly to possibly save someone’s life. This past weekend there were two vivid examples of this in high profile bouts in both sports and for all the negative press refs receive, I feel it is just that they receive some praise when it is due.

Herb Dean (pictured above) and Tony Weeks (pictured below)are both prominent referees in the sports of mixed martial arts and boxing respectively. Both are well known, have been around for awhile and most importantly are highly respected by their peers. Many outside the cage and ring consider them to be the preeminent examples of the third man within their sport.

All those adjectives and superlatives were justified this past Saturday when their final call in two separate championship bouts in both MMA and boxing were not only the right call, but quite possibly a life saving one in the long run. However, their decision to end the fights when they did was made even more special by knowing when to do it. They gave the losers in each fight the utmost opportunity to overcome their opponents, without hindering their safety.

Herb Dean is a veteran referee of over 3,500 MMA fights worldwide. He’s also been the referee of some of the most unique situations and historic endings in MMA history such as Tim Sylvia’s arm breaking when being caught in Frank Mir’s armbar submission at UFC 48 and Gabriel Gonzaga’s knockout victory over Mirko Cro-Cop at UFC 70. In both cases Dean played a prominent role in the outcome; thus there isn’t much he hasn’t seen or been through.

Besides that, he was a professional fighter himself with five professional fights from the early to mid 2000’s. That unique perspective came into play this past Saturday during the UFC heavyweight championship between champ Cain Velasquez and challenger Junior Dos Santos. In the third fight between these two, this latest installment pretty much played out like the second one with Velasquez laying a thorough beating on Dos Santos.

With Dean watching closely throughout, he gave the challenger every chance he could to possibly find a way as long as he was fighting back. That was until midway through the fifth and final round when a last ditch effort by Dos Santos to muster some form of submission, resulted in his forehead hitting the canvas directly. Noting it right away and realizing the champ was about to unleash some fury to his downed opponent, Dean stepped in to wave off the fight. In an already dazed state, Dos Santos was rescued from some possible irreversible damage from a dangerous and still strong champion.

Meanwhile, at around the same time in Denver, Colorado, a world championship boxing match was taking place as former WBO light welterweight champion Mike Alvarado, lost for only the second time in 36 fights when his fight was stopped by referee Tony Weeks after the 10th round of a scheduled 12 round fight. Part of that decision may have come from Alvarado himself, but it was only after Weeks had the resolve to confront the fighter face to face in his corner in between rounds.

Tony Weeks has been a professional referee for 17 years, dating back to 1996. His love of boxing made him pursue the profession in Arizona while working in the corrections system there. However, his passion led him to the state of Nevada in 2000 where he was licensed to work in the fight capital of the world, Las Vegas. Since then he has worked many high profile championship bouts including this past Saturday where Alvarado was defending his title against Ruslan Provodnikov.

Provodnikov is the same boxer, who earlier this year was part of possibly the fight of the year, excluding this past Saturday, against current WBO welterweight champion Timothy Bradley. His performance in the Bradley affair, even though it resulted in a decision loss, garnered him the shot against Alvarado.

A vicious puncher who keeps coming at you with a relentless attack to both the body and the head, Provodnikov shook off Alvarado’s early boxing effort to punish the champion. The beating was such that he dropped the former champ, who had never been dropped previously, twice in one round. Weeks took a close look at the former champ, who in desperation fought on valiantly.

However, after the 10th round, as Alvarado sat on his stool while his trainer was asking a clearly shaken fighter if he should stop the fight, Weeks took the initiative to bypass the cornerman and confront Alvarado face to face. He looked directly into the fighter’s eyes as he asked him how he felt and if he could continue. Seeing what he already knew when he knelt down before him, Weeks stood up and waved his arms signaling his decision to stop the fight.

There was no reluctance on Alvarado’s behalf as it looked as though he was relieved someone was smart enough to save him from himself. A true fighter’s mentality is to continue even in the face of defeat and quite possibly death if that is the case. It is a referee’s job to keep that from happening. In this case Herb Dean and Tony Weeks did that admirably for two great combatants who may now live to fight another day; props to two of the best in their respective professions for knowing when to say enough.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Give your baby a standing ovation

This past week the UFC had two fights they featured on Wednesday night. One was headlining a live 'Fight Night' card in Brazil, while the other was just the next fight in the on-going 'Ultimate Fighter' television series. One featured a grappler vs. grappler match, while the other was striker vs. striker. However, the most glaring comparison was one paired two male welterweight contenders, while the other featured two females trying to make a name for themselves and their sport, women's MMA.

In the end, the battle of the sexes on the same night wasn't even close. That's no slight towards welterweight (170 lbs.) contenders Demian Maia and Jake Shields as much as it is a compliment to bantamweights (135 lbs.) Jessamyn Duke and Raquel Pennington (pictured above). As you can see by the photo, Duke and Pennington went toe to toe for three rounds, in a fight many are calling a defining moment for women's MMA. Some are even saying that this fight may end up being the equivalent to what Forrest Griffin vs. Stephen Bonner was to MMA in general in the finale of 'TUF' season one; that fight was voted as the number fight in MMA history, so you can imagine what this fight was like to be mentioned in that same breath.

It wasn't so much that they went toe to toe as much as it was that Duke and Pennington (in blue) displayed a heart and determination that is rarely seen in most fights. It's the type of heart that you only speak about when you discuss legendary battles such as Griffin/Bonner or Gatti/Ward and Barrera/Morales in boxing; it will go down as a classic!

Now some may argue that I'm only saying this because the girls were striking versus grappling, thus I'm hating against the ground game. Let me begin by saying that as a student of the game, I love submission grappling and jiu-jitsu. Second, I'll respond by saying that Nick Diaz vs. Diego Sanchez is still one of my favorite fights of all-time and that was a three round non-stop tussle back and forth on the ground. However, that had something that the Maia/Shields bout didn't; action.

When the Demian Maia/Jake Shields fight was put together, I was actually looking forward to it. Finally you were pitting two undisputed jiu-jitsu masters against one another. Ultimately though that was the problem; this was not a jiu-jitsu match. This was a mixed martial arts fight and when push came to shove, when they did grapple on the ground they neutralized each other so much, it ended up being more a positioning game than anything else. In the end it was a disappointment in my eyes, though the fight was very close.

Duke/Pennington on the other hand was a pleasant surprise where one wasn't expected. Sure they took it to each other and both refused to back down, but they did so while showing skill and technique. These weren't two girls swinging arms wildly in a schoolyard. These ladies know how to fight and they displayed it with punch combinations, knee strikes in the clinch and an arsenal of kicks.

In the end it was Pennington's hand that was raised in a very narrow decision victory, but more importantly what these ladies did for women in MMA will ultimately be the bigger picture. They showed those who doubted that women can fight, they do belong in this sport and there is talent outside Ronda Rousey and Meisha Tate in his weight class. Are they at that level yet; probably not? However, on this one night these two ladies stole the show and showed the world that when it came to the battle of the sexes, it wasn't even close. Kudos ladies; as The Dells once sang, "Give your baby a standing ovation;" you girls deserve one!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

What a difference a week makes in boxing

It was a just a week ago on Saturday night that the sport of boxing had itself another Britney Spears moment when they "Oops, did it again." What they did was rob a deserving Bryan Vera after he had fought his heart out and clearly defeated former middleweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. on points. A fight, originally scheduled to be 12 rounds, was fought for only 10 and I, along with most outside experts, had Vera winning eight of those 10 rounds; maybe only seven if I wanted to be generous to Chavez.

However, why would I want to be generous towards Chavez? What has he done to deserve anything; especially a gift decision from three so called ringside experts? All he's done is get suspended for nearly a year due to his lack of discipline when it comes to smoking the wacky weed of marijuana. Yet, this is not a slight towards marijuana smokers; it's a slight towards a spoiled brat who has not displayed any reason to think he is deserving of any glory that is attained from being a true boxing champion.

However, let's forget the lack of discipline when it comes to recreational marijuana smoking and focus on the lack of discipline towards his craft. A fight that was originally scheduled to be contested at 160 lbs., had to be adjusted numerous times because the lazy Chavez, Jr. would not put in the necessary work to make the weight. Thus, while Vera was primed to weigh-in at the agreed upon middleweight limit, he had to concede to fight the privileged namesake of his legendary father at nearly the light-heavyweight limit of 175 lbs.

Yet, besides all of that, he doesn't even have the courtesy to acknowledge that Vera took it to him and that he wasn't truly deserving of the victory. Instead, he made like his parental predecessor and came with nothing but excuses, claiming that Vera was continually using dirty tactics in the ring such as hitting low and head butting. Chavez, Jr. and that decision are what continue to hurt the great sport of boxing.

Ah, but wait; just when you think the glory days of boxing are dead, then comes along Miguel Cotto. A three-division champion who has had a storied career and at (38-4, 31 KO's) has lost only to the elite of the sport; Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Manny Pacquiao and Austin Trout. I, nor should anyone else, include Antonio Margarito in that class; let alone acknowledge that loss to Margarito considering what he has been found guilty of and Cotto clearly exposed in their second bout.

On Saturday night, Cotto (pictured above) was coming off two consecutive losses in his career, the first time he had experienced such a thing, and at 32 years old many, including myself, thought his best days were behind him. However, considering the true champion that he is and always has been he proved us all wrong. Never once making any excuses for his consecutive short comings against Mayweather and Trout, Cotto realized "defeat only meant there was something wrong in his doing," as the late Bruce Lee once said.

Thus, he turned to Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach who basically took the former champion back to the basics and what made Cotto such a scary fighter to begin with; a stalking, punishing body attack that is climaxed with a vicious left hook to the body and head. The result was a less than three round pummeling of former two-time world title challenger Delvin Rodriguez (28-7-3, 16 KO's).

Miguel Cotto is a shining example of what the sport of boxing needs and should strive to be; a championship caliber athlete who is dedicated to his trade and does so while constantly displaying dignity and class. I know that's a lot to ask in the shady world of boxing, but in just one week we went from the worst the sport had to offer to just about the best. What a difference a week makes in boxing.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

'Legends of Boxing' fight night is a knockout

Not your typical fight night at The Sands Event Center in Bethlehem, PA Thursday night as the boxing royalty that was in attendance made it feel more like you were inside a Las Vegas casino versus one in this old steel town. However, such was the case as 'The Legends of Boxing' tour kicked off their inaugural event with a seven fight card that featured a hometown hero in the main event.

Put together by Hall of Fame promoter Russell Peltz out of Philadelphia, 'The Legends of Boxing' event included former multi-division champion Thomas 'The Hitman' Hearns, former heavyweight contenders 'Gentleman' Gerry Cooney and Earnie 'The Acorn' Shavers and local favorite, former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes of nearby Easton, PA. Their attendance along with the fireworks provided by the next generation of fighters featured made for an exciting and fun evening of fights.

Before the main event the crowd in attendance stood as a memorial 10 count was tolled for former heavyweight champion Ken Norton, who passed away just last week before this gala featuring three former opponents from his own legendary career. In the main event, Bethlehem's own Ronald Cruz rode the wave of a second round knockout victory just six weeks ago and upped his record to (19-2, 14 KO's) with another KO win over a game Alberto Morales (11-3, 8 KO's) from Miami, Florida by way of Nicaragua in a welterweight contest; but it wasn't as easy as his last fight that's for sure.

Cruz, needed almost all 30 minutes of a 10 round war before finally catching Morales in the middle of the last round with a looping right cross that dropped the Nicaraguan in his corner. Morales beat the count and it looked like he may even survive the round, however Cruz (pictured above) caught him with another left-right combination that dropped him face first on the mat; this time there was no getting up as the ref waved it off.

Before that KO finish it appeared to be anybody's fight and many in the arena, including myself, thought Cruz may actually be losing. Apparently his corner thought so as well as in between the ninth and 10th round, Cruz's trainer Lemuel 'Indio' Rodriguez yelled at him and told him, "You need to get going." Cruz's manager and corner man Jimmy Deoria told me after the fight, "We told Ronald we felt he was losing by a point."

In my post fight interview with Cruz, I asked him what he thought when his corner told him they felt he was losing? He said, "I just thought to myself I can't let this happen again; I've worked too hard for this." His team's frantic requests for him to get going resulted in the kid known around his hometown as 'Hands of Steel', using those same heavy hands and possibly pulling victory straight out of the jaws of defeat; definitely an exciting finish to a back and forth main event that had the crowd on its feet at the end. While the thought before Thursday was to get Cruz one more bout before the end of 2013, time will tell if this fight took more out of him than it appeared.

In a featured bout, junior welterweights Jerome Rodriguez (6-0-1, 2 KO's) and Juan Serrano (3-8-1, 2 KO's) put on an entertaining six rounds of boxing. Ironically, it was a right hand from the upset minded Serrano of Killeen, Texas, which wobbled Rodriguez and seemed to stop him in his tracks for a moment; that inevitably woke up the slick southpaw from nearby Allentown, PA though. Before that punch it was pretty even, but after that it was all Rodriguez using a nice combination of head and body punches en route to earning a unanimous decision.

Junior lightweight Jason Sosa of Camden, NJ needed less than two rounds to up his record to (10-1-3, 7 KO's), as a punishing left to the stomach of Tyrone Luckey (5-4-1, 5 KO's), proved nothing but unlucky for the 130 pounder from Middleton, NJ. Sosa looks like a prospect to keep an eye on.

First fight of the night featured a scintillating debut as Berlin, New Jersey's Chris Diaz, fighting at 122 pounds, earned a second round TKO finish over Johnny Portillo out of Lancaster, PA. Diaz used crisp combinations capped off by a repeated vicious left hook to knock down Portillo three times in the second before the ref mercifully stopped it. While Diaz wins his first pro fight, Portillo drops to (0-2) with the loss.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sometimes it's not about who won or lost

Going into Saturday night's light-heavyweight (205 lbs.) championship fight between challenger Alexander Gustafsson and champion Jon 'Bones' Jones, not many people gave too much credence to the thought that the slightly taller product of Stockholm, Sweden could actually give Jones a fight. I myself, though not totally dismissive, wasn't yet convinced he was on Jones's level as can be witnessed by my piece entitled, 'Could this be the next Jon Jones' written back in April, 2012. Click on the link below to check it out:

However, some of the best things in life come when you least expect them and that is just what we got as mixed martial arts fans on Saturday night. Some have already begun to call it 'Fight of the Year', while UFC analyst Joe Rogan stated on air, "We have just seen the greatest light-heavyweight championship fight in UFC history." That is saying a lot considering the now world renowned Ultimate Fighting Championship is closing in on its 20th anniversary.

Even though Gustafsson (15-2, 9 KO's 3 subs) was coming into this fight riding a six fight win streak, including a win in his last fight against former champion Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua, everybody just figured that there was no particular area he was actually better at than Jones (19-1, 9 KO's 6 subs). While he's a great kickboxer, Jones's striking was evolving to the point where it was being referred to as next generation; and as for grappling, Jones, who is a wrestler by origin, had showed that his take down skills were good enough to manhandle such great wrestlers as Rashad Evans, Vladimir Matyushenko and Matt Hamill. Thus, he should have no problem taking down a 6'4" lanky Swedish kickboxer right?

Wrong is the answer as Gustafsson displayed fantastic take down defense, no doubt from training side by side with fellow UFC light-heavyweight contender Phil Davis. However, beyond that it was the damage he was actually able to inflict on the champion while doing so. Before Saturday night, the only fighter to even come close to touching Jones in any serious fashion was Lyoto Machida and that was in a back pedaling defense first approach that lasted one and a half rounds. Gustafsson actually took the fight to Jones and was connecting as can be witnessed by Jones face after the fight aptly shown in the photo above.

For three rounds the Swedish challenger was actually winning and doing so in a fashion no one could believe. Though Jones had moments throughout those first three rounds, there was no arguing he was behind at that point. However, in MMA rounds four and five are "championship rounds" and it takes a champion who's been there to understand what it takes to get through those extra 10 minutes.

Gustafsson's lack of experience clearly showed in those next two rounds as he started to slow down while Jones, admitting afterwards he was fighting with a little desperation, began to turn it up. The result was the champ connecting with punches, knees, elbows and kicks while also finally getting the take down he wasn't getting in the first three rounds. How Gustafsson didn't go down from some of those strikes is a testament not only to his chin, but his heart.

Yet, respect, including my own, has to be given to Jon Jones as well. I've admitted on numerous occasions openly and in print I'm not a Jones fan, for various reasons. However, I am a fan of combat sports and when a fighter displays as he stated after the fight, "A warrior spirit," you have to respect him for that. Jones ended up winning a unanimous decision, though not without debate which is to be expected in a close fight; but I think in the end Jones won a lot more in his performance. I believe he actually gained some respect from fans and his peers alike and in that sense, sometimes it's not about who won or lost.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

World beware and get ready for this dynamic duo of MMA

My good friend MMA Junkie Radio host Gorgeous George Garcia is constantly heard saying, "Right now at this very moment, there are beasts around the world training that will become the next superstars of MMA." While we don't always agree on a lot of things, this is one thing we can both agree on. However, for me I don't need to look around the world for those "beasts," as I have two of them right here in my backyard

World beware as there is a dynamic duo of MMA right here in the Lehigh Valley. Step aside Batman and Robin as Scott Heckman and Rick Nuno (pictured above respectively) are ready to make their mark; as Rick Nuno told me, "Get ready, the Bash Brothers are coming." Though one is still relatively new to the game, in terms of fights and experience, the other is a veteran of 19 fights already, including three in the Bellator Fighting Championships. However, all those 19 fights have been in less than three and a half years; so he's been both busy and hungry.

Not just a beast, Scott 'The Animal' Heckman (15-4, 1 KO, 11 subs) is an animal as his nickname suggest. At 145 lbs. this featherweight becomes a monster when he gets in the cage. A ball of fire who is a wrestler by trade, Heckman tends to walk his opponents down, as an animal stalks his prey, and literally overwhelms them with punches, takedowns and his ground and pound before looking for the finish.

A product of Bangor, PA, Heckman began his college wrestling career at Bloomsburg University on full scholarship, where he qualified for nationals as a true freshman, before transferring to my Alma Mater East Stroudsburg University. After college, he wasn't sure what direction he wanted to go in, but as he told me, "I knew I was not ready for a desk job." A fan of MMA before he ever considered doing it, it was a chance to see a friend fight locally that cemented his career choice.

"At first, I thought MMA was only fought in the UFC and Strikeforce; I never realized there were other organizations out there you could fight in and work your way up to that level," he told me. However, once he found out, he went up to his friend's trainer, introduced himself and told him, "That's what I want to do." The trainer told him if he was serious to be at his gym Monday at a certain time and 19 pro fights later, the rest is history.

A lot has changed over the last few years, besides his game and skill level. Heckman is now a full time professional fighter who trains with the some of the elite of the sport at AMA Fight Club in New Jersey, his boxing with noted trainer Lemuel 'Indio' Rodriguez and his Strength and Conditioning with Craig Merrick at MADE S&C in Nazareth, PA. That combination resulted in a seven fight win streak that was derailed in his last fight in June, but not without controversy.

Heckman, who had recently won and was defending the XFE featherweight title, was dominating his opponent Terrell Hobbs in the first round. However at the beginning of the second is when an overhand right from his opponent resulted in a thumb going directly into his eye. From that point on as Heckman told me, "I was in survival mode." Unable to see, he told the referee whose only response was just, "keep fighting." Unable to defend himself, he inevitably gave up his back and neck resulting in a choke hold submission loss.

Heckman and his camp attempted to appeal the decision to the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission, trying to change the decision to a no-contest, but his appeal fell on deaf ears. Three months later, he's ready to put that behind him and get back to his winning ways next Saturday September 21st at the Valley Forge Casino as he fights for Caged Fury Fighting Championships @ CFFC 27. Besides the incentive of coming off a loss, Heckman has another motivating factor in his corner.

A week after that controversial defeat, he was quickly lifted from any possible setback as he got married to the love of his life Sara. I asked him how this monumental change in his life has impacted his MMA career and he said, "If anything it's had a positive impact. I can be hard to deal with sometimes, yet she's so positive. She's always supportive of my career and has become that final piece of my heart that will drive me to go all out."

On that same CFFC 27 card, Heckman's teammate lightweight (155 lbs.) Rick 'El Numero Uno' Nuno (2-1, 1 KO) will step into the cage as well. Coming off a big win at that same XFE card three months ago, Nuno, from Bethlehem, PA, looks to ride that momentum as he propels his career. Rick, who is a dynamite striker with super fast hands, has been working really hard at rounding out his overall MMA game.When asked specifically how his jiu-jitsu has been coming along, he told me, "It's coming really good. Training everyday at AMA with guys like Charlie Brenneman, the Main Brothers, Renzo Gracie black belt Jaime Cruz, UFC fighter Jimmy Hettis and of course Scott Heckman, it can't do anything but get better."

I asked Heckman first hand about Nuno and his response was even more impressive; "Here's a young kid that's going to be good. He already had the stand-up; we just transformed him into a complete fighter. When he first started I would get the best of him on the ground because that's my world, but that's no longer the case." Since Nuno also has the same circuit of trainers for MMA, boxing and strength and conditioning, I asked him what it's like training with Heckman every day. His response was, "We hit it off well right from the start. We both come from opposite ends of the spectrum as fighters, so we complement each other perfectly. Plus, because of his experience, I'm able to pick his brain."

Young in his career, but moving along nicely, I asked him where he would like to be a year from now in his career. Nuno responded by saying, "I'm not promised tomorrow or even my next fight. I want to keep working hard, get better and hopefully if an opportunity came along to get on either 'The Ultimate Fighter' or 'Fight Master' reality shows, I will be prepared."

Bellator has a show scheduled at The Sands Event Center in Bethlehem on November 22nd. Heckman, who's fought for Bellator before, has a signed a one fight deal to appear on that card. Nuno, as of now, is not scheduled to appear however he told me, "I'm all about it; I want to be on there, so if they call I will be ready to go." Bellator, UFC, world beware and get ready for this dynamic duo of MMA.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Nothing special, just be myself

It's barely been a month since welterweight contender Ronald Cruz (pictured at right) was last in the ring, yet on September 26, the young man known around his hometown of Bethlehem, PA as 'Hands of Steel' will do it once again for the hometown fans. This time though he'll do it in the main event as the headliner of a seven fight card that will also feature 'Legends of Boxing' in attendance.

That is the theme of the night as former champions and contenders Larry Holmes, Thomas Hearns, Gerry Cooney and Earnie Shavers will be in attendance at ringside inside the Sands Event Center in Bethlehem. Cruz meanwhile is the next generation as he puts his (18-2) record on the line against another up and comer in Alberto Morales (11-2) of Miami by way of Nicaragua. Morales, who is coming off a decision loss in his last bout which was for the NABA welterweight title, finds himself in the same situation Cruz was in before his last fight.

Undefeated through his first 11 bouts, he's lost two in a row, which means he's hungry. Cruz knows this feeling all too well because he too was in a two fight skid after winning his first 17 along with the WBC Continental Americas title. However, after a couple of changes to his training regimen and most importantly getting back to doing what he does best, he's riding the wave of a second round knockout victory last month.

When I asked Cruz if he minded fighting three fights in three months his response was, "If it were up to me, I'd keep this going every month as long as my health is okay. Training is not easy by any means, but once you go all in and you start to feel strong, you can't wait to get back in the ring." That training is something else that has Cruz excited and rejuvenated these days.

Continuing to work with boxing trainer Lemuel 'Indio' Rodriguez, along with strength and conditioning Coach Craig Merrick, Cruz feels he's the best he's ever been. "Craig is great at what he does; he believes if you give the body the same workout day in and day out, it will not reach its full potential," Cruz said. "That's why when I train with him it's different every time. Plus he's so knowledgeable about the human body, that when Indio explains to him what he wants to do, Craig formulates a program to go with it. He's been a big part of my turn around."  

However, the biggest part of his resurgence is something simple, yet very important. He told me, "In my last few fights I got away from doing what I do best. Fighting at home, I think I was trying to please the hometown fans so much that I was trying to hit a home run with every punch. However before my last fight, manager Jimmy (Deoria) and my trainer Indio both told me. "Don't do nothing special, just go out there and be yourself."

He did just that as he put his punches together and most importantly, unleashed the punishing body attack he had become know for; the rest is history. The scary thing is Cruz says we still haven't seen all he can do. "I'm a skillful fighter that still hasn't showed the world what I can do. When the next fighter pushes me, then you'll see." According to Cruz regarding his next opponent, "I saw some video on him and I see he likes to come forward and he likes to bang. That's perfect for me; I'm just going to go with the flow and do whatever it takes; nothing special, just be myself."   

Sunday, September 1, 2013

It's Showtime!

Sometimes, try as we might, no matter what we do, there are just some things that cannot be conquered. It's not a matter of failure, it's just the way things are; I mean we're only human. Even Superman had kryptonite and in mixed martial arts, there are some great fighters, Supermen per Se, that have their own kryptonite.

Legendary Kazushi Sakuraba could not overcome Wanderlei Silva; even after three tries. Future Hall of Famer Rich Franklin had Anderson Silva; so did Chael Sonnen for that matter and BJ Penn, as great as he was, just couldn't get past Frankie Edgar. The latest example of kryptonite comes in the form of new UFC lightweight (155 lbs.) champion Anthony 'Showtime' Pettis (17-2, 7 KO's, 7 subs).

In typical Pettis fashion, he highlighted an exciting UFC 164 card with another show stealing effort; this time in the main event in front of family and friends in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In a rematch of a bout nearly three years earlier against now former UFC lightweight champion Benson 'Smooth' Henderson, Pettis followed up his electrifying five round show stopping performance against Henderson in 2010 by leaving no doubt this time.

In less than five minutes he finished the equally talented former champ by catching Bendo in a tight arm bar submission at the end of the first round forcing a verbal submission. This finish and win was even more impressive considering everything going into this fight. Henderson (19-3, 2 KO's 8 subs) was on top of his game, having defeated the aforementioned Edgar for the title and then defending it three times against him, Nate Diaz and Gilbert Melendez. Besides this he had the revenge factor going in after losing his WEC lightweight title to Pettis in that 2010 classic.

However, call it karma, as Pettis did about the whole scenario afterward, or just call it bum luck; some may even call it a jinx, but Henderson losing via submission seemed to be destined after Joe Rogan before the fight had made a big deal about Bendo coming into the arena for the first time wearing his "black belt in jiu-jitsu." Ironically I had written about this very thing last week as being an overused and tired cliche.

Nonetheless, it appears Rogan put the whammy on Henderson, who is a legit submission grappler, as he talked about his recent jiu-jitsu promotion. It appeared though he started out using the right game plan by pressuring Pettis and giving him no room to operate. However, Pettis never showing emotion continued to free himself from every clinch, eventually starting to assert himself offensively and getting the better of the exchange till he went for the show stopping cartwheel knee strike that caused him to fall off balance to the ground.

Of course Henderson pounced on top of him and why shouldn't he? He had no problem at all in avoiding submission in Nate Diaz's guard for five rounds and Donald Cerrone couldn't make him tap, even after it appeared he had him in chokes and joint locks that were tighter than a rusty vice grip. There's no way, as talented as he is, that Pettis was going to submit the new appointed black belt in jiu-jitsu.

Well to Rogan's credit this time, he did also say beforehand that Pettis "has an active guard from the bottom" and "is dangerous off his back." Either Henderson slept on him or Pettis is that good, but he swiveled his hips and trapped Bendo's right arm in a blink of an eye and before you knew it, with less than 30 seconds in the round, Henderson tapped; verbally no less. That's like the equivalent to saying "uncle," which considering how bad he wanted to avenge his previous loss to Pettis, was a bitter pill to swallow.

Benson Henderson is a legit talented young fighter and former champion and I anticipate that somewhere down the line he will work his way back to the point that he and Pettis will meet a third time. However, whether that happens while Pettis is still champion or not, even he has to be wondering if Pettis just has his number. Meanwhile, Pettis has called out featherweight (145 lbs.) champion Jose Aldo and if that dream match comes to fruition I just have two words, "its showtime."

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Overused and tired cliches in MMA

With a slow week in both mixed martial arts and boxing, it gives me the opportunity to write, or more appropriately vent, about something that has been bothering me for some time now; I'm talking about overused and tired cliches in MMA. Coming off vacation where I got to spend a couple of days lying on the beach at the Jersey Shore, I had time to gather my thoughts and really focus. Thus in my estimation, here are five cliches that have definitely run their course and need to go.

In no particular order because they are all tired, we will start with one of my not so favorites, "I train with the best fighters in the world." No disrespect with the guys (or gals) you train with, but as my good friend Brian 'Goze' Garcia likes to say all the time, "How do you know?" Have you been around the world to train with everyone? That's a pretty bold statement; and to just throw that out there nonchalantly without justification is just not realistic.

I understand people feel strongly about their training partners and that's a good thing, but when they are constantly being referred to as "the best in the world," well that tends to be a bit over the top. Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney uses this all the time when talking about his top tier stable of fighters and that's fine considering he's a promoter trying to sell a product; but when fighters use this it's just too much. How about, I train with some really good guys? That's one I can live with.

Next up is a combo in as much as regardless of which one you hear, they go hand in hand. I'm talking about the phrase(s), "This was my best camp ever/I'm in the best shape of my life." I realize fighters are putting their best foot forward going into a fight when they say this, but my issue is simple. If this was your best camp ever, what have you been doing all along? I thought the last one was your "best camp ever."

Shouldn't a fighter, whether amateur or professional always be in the best shape possible? I mean if your chosen profession is putting your health and life on the line, then I would think being properly trained is priority number one. If so, then going through the best camp and being in the best shape is a given and in this case redundant.

This next one was once cool about 15 years ago when the sport was still in its infancy, but it no longer has any impact. I'll explain what I mean after I share, "He's a black belt in jiu-jitsu." In the mid 90's when people were still being mesmerized by the exploits of Royce Gracie and his band of brothers with their unique art, this phrase had some power. To say one was a black belt in jiu-jitsu meant that person was equipped with skills others just didn't possess.

However, very nearly 20 years after Gracie showed the world his 'opponent disarming' and 'joint locking' techniques, jiu-jitsu has become one of the world's most popular martial arts; thus, there are black belts in just about every area. To be a black belt in jiu-jitsu once meant something mysterious and powerful. However, it has become so saturated and watered down that even a black belt like Roli Delgado was questioned about his lineage during his appearance on 'The Ultimate Fighter'. Enough already with the "black belt in jiu-jitsu;" at this point I'd be happy with a simple, "He's one tough S.O.B."

On second thought let's not use that either because this brings me to my next one, which is the exhausted, "He's a really tough guy." Whether it is by the broadcaster or the victorious fighter, this phrase is heard in, during and after just about every fight. It is the fall back line to describe an opponent you know has little chance before hand against a highly favored fighter. It is also the respectful tag placed on a defeated opponent; at least I used to think it was used as a gesture of respect towards the loser, but now I believe winners use it as a means to pat their own back. Let's face it, if a guy is brave enough to step into a cage, he's a tough guy period; end of discussion.

Last but not least is not necessarily a cliche, but more so a word. One word that is used to describe a fighter and is tossed around way too loosely; the word is "great." If there is one thing that irks me more than anything else is how easily the adjective 'great' is used when discussing a fighter or his skill set. Just stop and think about this for a second; if every fighter is great, then what are guys like Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre known as? You see where I'm coming from?

The word 'great' is defined in the dictionary as "unusual or considerable in degree." Considering their careers, that is the perfect description of Silva and GSP; which means this word is only supposed to be used when talking about the very elite. To constantly hear good fighters or just apt skill sets being referred to as "great" drives me nuts! It goes back to my argument for the Hall of Fame, which I feel should be for only the truly "greats" of the sport; but that's a story, or better yet tirade for another day.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The ultimate measure of a man and a fighter

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands during times of comfort and convenience, but rather where he stands during times of challenge and controversy." Former UFC two-division champion Randy Couture once said, "A true champion is the one that can pick himself up after a loss." In welterweight Ronald Cruz, he's done both in the span of a year; especially after garnering his eighteenth win on Saturday night after two consecutive losses.

A little over a year ago, Cruz (18-2, 13 KO's) was on top of the world. He was undefeated at the time (17-0), had fought on NBC Sports Network and had just captured the WBC Continental Americas title. Then, 'Murphy's Law' came into play; you know the one, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." Well it did as a controversial split decision loss at home, followed by an injury that sidelined him for nine months and climaxed by a comeback loss at home just about deflated a once promising career.

Amidst the setbacks Cruz along with his team, including trainer Lemuel 'Indio' Rodriguez, Manager Jimmy Deoria and newly appointed strength and conditioning coach Craig Merrick, began to hear the whispers of the naysayers; or as we like to say in the streets, the haters. I know because I live in those same streets of Cruz's hometown and heard the comments first hand; "Ronald doesn't have it," "He needs a new trainer," "He needs to work on his jab," etc. and so on. Worst yet, Cruz heard the comments as well.

Boxer, fighter, champion or not, he's still a young man with emotions. Thus, when you're already suffering from self doubt after consecutive losses, those whispers begin to take a toll on a person. However, never wavering in his commitment to his team and more importantly himself, he asked to get back in the ring as soon as possible. That was on Saturday night, where in front of a sparse hometown crown at the Sands Event Center in Bethlehem, PA, Cruz went back to basics and his bread & butter, body punching, and finished his opponent Rodolfo Armenta @ 2:40 of the second round.

I mentioned above how the crowd was "sparse" at best. Now I'm not sure if 'Musikfest', the nation's largest non-gated music festival, taking place right outside the Events Center doors had anything to do with it; or fickle fans who sold out the arena in previous fights have fallen off the Cruz bandwagon after a couple of bumps in the road. Whatever the reason, Cruz's will and determination was not deterred. 

As a journalist, I must attempt to remain as unbiased as possible; if not my integrity will be questioned on every word. However, when I see a young man, who in the face of adversity has remained loyal, humble and committed to those who have done the same by him, it's hard to remain unbiased. I openly root for this kid because I've seen the ultimate measure of a man and a fighter who has garnered my ultimate respect!

Other fighters of note on Saturday night included the appearance of 2012 Olympian and fast rising star out of Puerto Rico Felix Verdejo (7-0). With Hall of Fame legend Wilfredo 'Bazooka' Gomez in his corner, Verdejo used superior hand speed and counter punching to outlast hard charging Guillermo Delgadillo over six rounds. Verdejo has come with a lot of hype since turning pro and he did not disappoint, though his opponent proved to be a tough test. 

Also on the card, NABO featherweight champion Gamalier Rodriguez (22-2-3, 15 KO's), successfully defended his title with a 10 round unanimous decision over tough Jorge Pazos (14-6, 8 KO's) out of Mexico. Finally, Cruz's stablemate, light welterweight Jerome Rodriguez, also locally trained by 'Indio' Rodriguez, upped his record to (5-0-1) with a six round unanimous decision over Ariel Duran from Queens, NY.   

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Is this the best pound for pound fighter on the planet?

After his winning performance and successful title defense on Saturday night, is this currently the best pound for pound fighter on the planet? Jose Aldo, the UFC featherweight (145 lbs.) champion is currently (23-1) and has not lost a fight in eight years; yet before his win on Saturday, he was listed as only fourth in the latest pound for pound rankings. It's hard to dispute those currently in front of him, but for argument sake, I will attempt to do so.

Before I discuss Aldo and my reasoning why he should be considered number one, let me start the heated internet debate by saying that Anderson Silva, currently listed as number three, should not be ahead of Aldo; (right now I know Spider Silva fans around the world are losing their minds!) However, as great as the former middleweight champion is, the truth is he lost earlier this month and he lost badly. You can try and argue that he lost only because of his own shenanigans in the ring, but then that just adds to mine.

Anyone who jeopardizes his standing as the greatest fighter in the world by acting the way Silva did and then gets knocked out cold in the process, should not be ranked number three in the world on this list. I'm not saying Anderson Silva is still not one of the pound for pound best, but not ahead of the man pictured above. That brings me to number two, the current UFC welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre.

Just as impressive, but not quite as good, GSP (24-2) is on an 11 fight win streak and has not lost in the last six years. However, of those 11 wins, eight of them were by decision, which means he was only able to finish three of his opponents. Granted he fought top flight competition, but the same can be argued for any champion at this level. I don't deny St. Pierre should not be in the top three, but at this point number three appears to be where he should be.

That brings me to number one and the man many consider the present and future of mixed martial arts, Jon 'Bones' Jones. The UFC light-heavyweight champion, Jones is currently riding a nine fight win streak. Unlike St. Pierre though, Jones has finished eight of those nine with only one fight going to decision. However, unlike St. Pierre and Aldo, his current streak is only three and a half years old. Also, while some may argue he's defeated five former champions in the process, I'd respond by saying he's also fought an over the hill "janitor," so to speak, in Vladimir Matyushenko and two legit blown up middleweights in Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen.

Jones's stats are impressive, to say the least, and his current choice as number one in the world is hard to dispute, but now let me speak on Aldo. Since his last (and only) loss in 2005, Jose Aldo has won 16 fights in a row; of those 16, no less than nine were finished within the time limit. However, of those nine finishes, seven have come within the first or second round; with four of those coming inside the first; including an eight second destruction of Cub Swanson, currently ranked no less than the number three featherweight in the world by most.

During that streak, Aldo not only garnered the UFC title, but he was also the featherweight champion in the WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting), which was the preeminent organization for 145 lbs. fighters, since the UFC was not carrying that weight class at the time. That means that unlike Jones and St. Pierre, Aldo was a two organization titleholder during his run.

He's defeated three former world champions in the process and one, Frankie Edgar, was the former lightweight (155 lbs.) champ. The other two he completely decimated when he smashed Mike Brown in less than two rounds and destroyed Urijah Faber, in his hometown no less, when he literally chopped him down for five rounds.

Granted, the pound for pound list is all opinionated, since none of the fighters will probably ever fight each other. However instead of dismissing the lighter weight fighter simply because he's smaller in stature, one needs to look at things objectively and question, is this the best pound for pound fighter on the planet? 

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