Friday, May 31, 2013

Don't call it a comeback


In 1990, LL Cool J's classic hip-hop song, 'Mama said knock you out' started out with the verse, "Don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years." In two weeks when WBC Continental Americas welterweight champion Ronald Cruz (17-1, 12 KO's) steps into the ring at the Sands Event Center in his hometown of Bethlehem, PA, it will be the first time in nine months. However, this is no comeback; he was just following doctor's orders and nursing an injury sustained during training.

Nonetheless, the layoff, especially after the first loss in his career, a controversial split decision, may have been a blessing in disguise for Cruz; and a bad omen for his upcoming opponent Ray Narh (25-2, 21 KO's). That is because it gave him time to reflect on everything that went wrong in his last fight and all he needed to do to correct it. With a reassembled team and a hunger to get back to his winning ways, Cruz (pictured above sparring in blue headgear and gloves) looks ready to do just that.

I spent a couple of hours Thursday night at Cruz's fight camp with Head Trainer Lemuel 'Indio' Rodriguez and Strength & Conditioning Coach Craig Merrick in Cruz's corner and what I saw had me come away repeating one word over and over to myself, "Precision." Everything I saw from training to sparring to punching and even cooling down was precise.

Merrick, head trainer at 'The Nazareth Barbell & Strength Training Center', is a new addition to Cruz's team; one Cruz realized he needed along with a professional nutritionist. "When it came to my diet, I thought I was eating healthy, but I had no idea what a boxer's diet should be," said Cruz; "and as for my conditioning training, I was doing it all wrong; before I would go all out right from the start of my camp eight weeks out. Thus, with three weeks till my fight, I was already burned out."

He went on to say, "Now, working with Craig, I understand how to condition and train properly. He mapped out my whole camp and when I first started working with him I thought to myself, this is easy; that is because he explained there was no reason to go all out right from the start. Thus, now at the middle of my camp, the workouts have become progressively harder and I feel it. With two weeks to go, he's explained to me how we will begin to dial it down slowly, so come fight night, I'll be at my peak ready to go."

Narh wasn't Cruz's original opponent, however when his original opponent got hurt during training, they not only got him another fighter; they got him his toughest fight to date. Narh may not be a household name, but he has world class credentials. A native of Ghana, Narh was on the 2000 Ghanain Summer Olympic Team. As a professional he has a win over former WBA featherweight champion Freddie Norwood and one of his two defeats came in his last fight against current WBO light welterweight champion Mike Alvarado on the undercard of Pacquiao-Mosely; in other words, this is definitely a step up in competition.

However, when I asked Cruz if he had a message for all his fans who have been asking me over the last nine months, "What's up with Ronald Cruz?" He said to me, "Just let them know to be on the lookout, because I'm hungry. I'm not resting on my laurels, I want to become a world champion and I'm working hard to get there." I saw it first hand with my own eyes on Thursday night and I'm here to tell you, "Don't call it a come back." This kid is coming to pick up where he left off.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Junkie Radio Gathering: It just gets better with time

  
UFC 160 Viewing Party/Lagasse's Stadium
 


What do cities such as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Seattle, Washington, Odessa, Texas, Humboldt, California and Las Vegas, Nevada along with countries such as Austria, Canada and New Zealand all have in common? They are just a few of the places that are home to MMA Junkies. What are MMA Junkies? Well the photo above is full of them, but they are so much more than the name suggest. They are friends, better yet family; brothers and sisters who have been getting together now officially for three years in the fight capital of the world, Las Vegas, for the better part of a week to enjoy each other's company; all brought together by one common denominator.

MMA Junkie Radio is an internet radio show broadcast daily from 9-11 Pacific Time, covering the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. Its hosts, brothers Gorgeous George and Goze Garcia, have been doing their thing for six years running and this year we celebrated with them as they broadcast their 1500th show. It was their 1000th show two years ago, which brought together a band of listeners from across the world during Memorial Day weekend and what was to be a one-time celebration has turned into an annual love fest of MMA, laughter and fun.

For the third straight year, Goze has become an event planner of sorts as he hosts all the Junkies above, and more, by putting together a dream week of events. This year that included, comedy, trivia, another visit to a pro MMA gym, bowling and a hip-hop concert and of course the viewing party (pictured above @ Lagasse's stadium) for UFC 160. This was all capped by a going away party at The Foundation Room in Mandalay Bay on Saturday night. Note, I say dream week, because each event featured either MMA fighters or notables from within the industry; even the going away party was blessed to have UFC bantamweight George Roop in attendance; mere hours after his victory earlier in the evening.

However, as great as all that is, it all pales in comparison to the love and friendships that have been formed over the years. Originally we were all just MMA fans looking for a chance to visit Vegas and hope to catch a few photo opportunities with some of our favorite fighters; at least that's how it started. A strange thing happened though; the bond that was formed as listeners to the show began to get even stronger as we met one another and learned about each others lives. Spend four or five days with a group of people and you become more than friends, you start to become a family; in our case a Junkie family.

Every year there are highlights and memories that bring an instant smile. For me there are so many that if I were to list them all, this would become a two-part blog. However looking back fondly, here are just some I'll never forget; Buffalo Blue yelling Justin Bieber for just about every answer during trivia. On that note, Blue taking off on a broad jump that nearly broke his ankle; sure that's nothing to smile about, but the sight of a 6'4" 300+ pound man winding up to take-off is not something you see every day.

The appearance of Billionaire Playboy Devante Morgan at bowling was a thrill; especially the majestic wave he gave to all of us upon being acknowledged in the building. Watching my fellow Junkies kick the ass of professionals and amateurs from Syndicate Mixed Martial Arts in dodgeball was awesome; as was watching Jorge from Houston battle Kela from Hawaii at Texas de Brazil. It was like watching Joey Chestnut and Kobayashi go at it.

That brings me to another highlight, meeting the new Junkies who are now part of the family. The aforementioned Jorge and his boy Marcus AKA 'Omar Epps' from Houston, Joe and his buddy Mario from Odessa, Taper Steve (who never really told us why he's called Taper), Jason AKA 'Oloff The Russian Hitman', Martine from San Francisco, Victor from West Virginia and Lucas from New Zealand.  How tight do you become over a few days? When Lucas was shown on camera during the PPV broadcast holding his flag, the entire group above began chanting in unison "Lucas, Lucas, Lucas, Lucas..."

I can go on and on about all the events that took place, but honestly my favorite part of the week is what I always look forward to the most; simply sitting around the lounge in front of the studio over a few beers and sharing laughs and stories with one another. Those moments supersede anything else and are cherished more than you can imagine. I guess maybe because I realize they are only for a short period before I have to wait a whole year to do it again.

Goze shared with me before this year's gathering that he wasn't sure if he could do this again next year as it is becoming too much to handle. However, considering the results of all his efforts I'm hopeful that by spring time next year he'll be ready to do it all over again. I mean why not? Like the legendary Whispers once sang, "It just gets better with time!"

Big ups to Goze for all his time and effort in making this the best gathering yet; your work does not go unnoticed my brother and is greatly appreciated!

Photo comes courtesy of the official Junkie Gathering Photographer Mike 'Northern Lights' Waluk

Sunday, May 19, 2013

'Phenom'enal


February 7, 1997 at UFC 12 in Dothan, Alabama of all places; that is the first time anyone saw a 19 year old phenom named Vitor Belfort fight in The Octagon. It was actually only the second time anyone saw Vitor Belfort fight period. That is because prior to this appearance he only had 12 seconds of pro experience, winning his first and only bout by knockout in that amount of time.

He didn't spend too much time in his second and third fights, which took place on this night, either. That's because he won both with a total time of two minutes exactly. Already a black belt in jiu-jitsu under the late renowned Carlson Gracie, Belfort had something other jiu-jitsu practitioners at the time didn't have; striking ability with his hands that were as fast as any boxer you could think of. Thus, with a combination of striking and grappling that was unparalleled, the kid was aptly nicknamed "The Phenom."

Move forward 16+ years and the now 36 year old Belfort with a record of (23-10, 16 KO's 3 subs) is a former UFC Heavyweight and Light-Heavyweight (205 lbs.) Champion who is looking to be the next middleweight (185 lbs.) champion; thus making him the only three-division champion in UFC history. He already had one shot at the middleweight crown, in which he came up short in February 2011. However, after going (4-1) since, with his only loss being to light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones in a fight he pretty much took as a favor to the company, chances are looking good he'll get another shot soon.

This especially after the way he disposed of former Strikeforce middleweight champ Luke Rockhold on Saturday night in his home country of Brazil. In two and a half minutes of the first round with a spectacular spinning hook kick to the head that spelled the beginning of the end for Rockhold. Follow that up with some of Belfort's precise and powerful punches and the UFC newcomer was all but out when the referee jumped in to save him.

"Phenomenal" is the best way to describe how Belfort looked and it seems that like fine wine he is just getting better with age. A lot of that has to do with maturity; at 19 Belfort was talented, but like any kid his age he rested on his laurels assuming his talent would carry him. It took a beat down from a UFC newcomer named Randy Couture at UFC 15 in October 1997 to make him realize that talent will only take you so far.

So as time passed and life's experiences took their natural course in maturing Belfort, he had his ups and downs along the way; as do most people as they grow. That showed itself to be the case in his fights as well as there were moments of grandeur along with losses that left you wondering whether we'd ever really see the full potential of a truly great fighter.

It took a while, but better late than never because it looks as though the best Vitor Belfort is here now; primed, dedicated to both the sport and his family and as talented as ever. Now training with the Blackzilians camp in Florida, Belfort is expanding his game and it is showing. His work with kickboxing coach Henri Hooft is paying off as in 16 years, no one has seen a spinning hook kick from Vitor Belfort; in two and a half minutes on Saturday night he threw two and the second one proved the difference; in a word, 'phenom'enal!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

MMA loyalty vs. Boxing casualty among fans


With the rare weekend where there is no major MMA or boxing event, I've decided to write about something I've noticed more and more over the last few years. It is the unwavering loyalty MMA fans have versus boxing fans. Now before boxing fans, of which I am one, decide to hurl defensive comments at me, listen first to what I am talking about.

I'm not trying to suggest that one group of fans is more hardcore over the other; and I'm definitely not saying boxing fans are not knowledgeable about their sport. However, I am saying that the majority, not all, boxing fans are definitely casual in their approach to fights that are not main event status. How do I know? The proof is in the pudding whenever you watch either sport at home with a group of friends.

As stated above, I am and have been a boxing fan for as long as I can remember; this is easily over 40 of my 50 years on this earth. Thus, I was a fan long before MMA came on the scene in 1993. Over the last 25+ years I have watched numerous fights on pay-per-view, if not at my home with friends, then at some other friend's or relative's home. Hell, I just did it last weekend when I was invited to a friend's house to watch the Mayweather/Guerrero fight; note, I said I was invited to watch the main event.

Of course I was invited over before the PPV began at 9PM, but truth be told not too many people were interested in the undercard; which is my point in this column. When it comes to boxing events on PPV, most boxing fans are in it for the main event. It is rare that an undercard fight gets any love, let alone viewing. Boxing fans with an open mind will acknowledge what I'm saying is true.

How many times have you been over a friend's house for boxing and during the undercard, there is music blaring, conversation taking place about topics other than the fight at hand and just straight socializing? Sometimes, more often than not, if there is another sporting event on, such as a football or basketball game, that will take precedence with the occasional click on the remote over to the PPV to see where we're at on the card in relation to the main event. When it comes to boxing, it happens all the time.

MMA fans are a totally different breed; I know because besides being one, I know many "MMA Junkies" across the country and world very well. MMA fans will not only watch every fight on the card, from the very first prelim to the main event, but MMA fans will watch the weigh-ins for every single fight on the card from beginning to end. In terms of the UFC, this can number up to as many as 12 fights on a card; yet it makes no difference.

The UFC understands this loyalty from their fans all too well, which is the reason they are gracious in giving their fans all of their fights, up until the PPV main card, for free. That means access to the very early prelims on Facebook live streams and featured preliminary bouts on either the FX or Fuel TV network. When a UFC fan knows there is a fight card on, they don't ask when does the PPV start, they want to know when the first prelim starts.

As I watch the preliminary fights on Facebook, I am either chatting with other MMA fans on-line about the fights taking place or texting with many of my MMA Junkie friends from across the nation about the fight taking place. On another note, when it comes to live shows, it is the same argument. Watch last week's prelim fights and you saw empty seats everywhere; by comparison, at a live UFC show, I'm not saying the arena is packed for the first fight, but fans show up in large numbers for the first bell.

One part of the problem is boxing does not promote their up and coming fighters. Outside of ESPN 'Friday Night Fights', where are you going to get introduced to potential prospects? The UFC meanwhile has their own reality show where they introduce you to tomorrow's stars and then helps promote their fighters with such events as Fan Expos; Bellator Fighting Championships is also beginning their own reality show.

How loyal are MMA fans? They'll stand in a long line just to take a photo with Keith Jardine (as can be seen in the photo above); not a superstar like Jon Jones or Georges St. Pierre.but Keith Jardine; a fringe contender at best, however at the time it made no difference to MMA fans because they were familiar with the fighter. Second reason is the fights themselves.

MMA prelims are only three five minute rounds, where as boxing prelims are usually 10 rounds; unless it is a title fight, which automatically makes it 12. It seems like an eternity till the main event in boxing, where as in MMA, it feels as though the fights are flying by. Not to mention, shorter scheduled fights promote more action. There's no such thing as feeling out rounds or taking a round off in a three round fight.

I know this all sounds unfair to the boxing fan, but I'm just pointing out the obvious. Except for a select few who truly appreciate that when any two people step in the ring, regardless if it's the first fight on PPV or the co-main event, anything is possible. I know boxing as a sport isn't going anywhere, but unless the casual attitude by its fans doesn't change, the loyalty of MMA fans will continue to help its sport grow and prosper.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

There's good and then there's great!


If there is one pet peeve I have, it is how easily the word "great" is tossed around to describe a fighter, whether it be in boxing or MMA; this also applies to athletes in general. I think the adjective "great" is used way too loosely when talking about an athlete's, or in this case, a fighter's skill level. In sports, as in life in general, there are many good performers and then there are the chosen few who are truly great.

In Floyd 'Money' Mayweather, Jr., we are truly witnessing greatness when it comes to boxing and arguably the greatest ever. I say arguably because to hear Floyd tell it, he is the greatest. However, I'm not ready to afford him that title; especially taking into consideration some of the truly great ones that have come before him. Yet, at (44-0, 26 KO's) he clearly has to be in the discussion; especially after the dominating performance he put on Saturday night.

How dominating was it? Mayweather took a former three-division world champion in Robert 'The Ghost' Guerrero (31-2-1, 18 KO's) and made him look average at best. That is no slight towards Guerrero, it is just what Mayweather does; he takes really good fighters and makes them look bad. Count the fighters, look at the names and you'll see Guerrero is just the latest in a long line.

What made Saturday night's performance even more impressive is that he did it after a year away from the ring and a three month stint behind bars last summer. Ring rust? I don't think so. Truth is I'd argue that the jail sentence actually benefited Mayweather. Not from an emotional or spiritual standpoint mind you, but physically.

People keep trying to make an issue about his age, pointing out that he's now 36 years old. I am quick to respond that he's had just five fights in the last five years; one a year. That means he has not taken a physical toll on his body, especially when no one has really put any type of hurt on him. Add those three months in jail, where he claims he was confined 23 out of 24 hours a day, and I say while it may not be beneficial emotionally, physically he received much needed and forced rest; not just from boxing, but his extracurricular life in general.

At 36, he is six years older than Guerrero, but naturally gifted with speed, he has not lost a step. On Saturday night he was so fast in comparison to his opponent, that I remarked to someone, "Guerrero's reaction time to Mayweather's punches is so slow, he's finally responding on Tuesday."

As for being "The Greatest," I suggest such is not the case because I believe others in the discussion took far more dangerous fights and chances throughout their career. Sure Mayweather has fought quality opponents, but he never fought Manny Pacquiao, regardless of whose fault it was, when he should have and he refuses to address the potential 'Canelo' Alvarez fight; at least not yet.

The Pacquiao fight within the last three or four years during their prime would have settled any debate between the sports two greatest competitors at the time. Also, while I feel at this point Alvarez may be too strong and young to possibly overcome, the reward for taking such a risk and coming out the victor would do wonders for his standing.

Instead he dealt with Juan Manuel Marquez, who was clearly a blown up 140 pounder, an over the hill Shane Mosley, an overmatched Victor Ortiz and Guerrero, which we found out is clearly not in his league. He did fight Miguel Cotto last year at 154 lbs., but the future Hall of Famer hasn't been the same fighter since his two beatings at the hands of Antonio Margarito and Pacquiao.

That said though, in Mayweather's defense, who else was or is there? During the same period Pacquaio also fought Cotto, Mosley, Marquez twice, Margarito (who was exposed after being caught cheating), an outclassed Joshua Clottey (has anyone heard from him since) and current champ Timothy Bradley. So by comparison shopping, Mayweather did what he had to, and unlike Pacquiao, won all his fights; Pac-Man suffered the decision loss to Bradley and the decimation by Marquez in his last fight.

The only reason for the Pacquiao comparison was to show there really wasn't much more Mayweather could do in the last five years. However, if he plans to continue fighting, he has to find something or someone that will solidify his legacy; I think at this point outclassing Alvarez would do just that. Believe me, anyone who knows me knows I'm far from a Mayweather fan; but what's right is right and in this case there's good and then there's great!

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Junkie Gathering 2017... this time it was personal

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