Sunday, June 30, 2013

To be loved; win, lose or draw

When a professional athlete embarks on a career at the highest level, they do so in hopes of some day being recognized as a champion. To be known simply as the best and at the top of their game, regardless of what it is. For a gladiator sport like mixed martial arts this is especially true.

However, in every sport there is an even greater title; one that only a certain few are ever able to attain. That is to be loved by fans of that sport unconditionally, win, lose or draw. In MMA, I'd argue there is no fighter more beloved in the sport than the legendary Wanderlei Silva.

With a nickname like 'The Axe Murderer' you would think it would just be the opposite; however, nothing can be further from the truth. I've followed Wanderlei Silva's career since I first saw him step into the cage for his seventh pro fight at UFC 17.5 in October, 1998 as a 21 year old against another future legend, the then 20 year old Vitor Belfort. We all know the outcome, a 44 second demolishing loss; his second in his first seven fights.

Yet, over the succeeding six years he would only lose only once in 25 fights before succumbing to heavyweight Mark Hunt in an open weight tournament in the now defunct Pride Fighting Championships from Japan; a split decision loss to a man who outweighed him by more than 50 pounds. Nonetheless, it was during this time in Japan at Pride that he would attain his legendary status as a champion and a warrior in the cage that would go on to fight some of the all-time greats in the sport.

Regardless of his record, which currently stands at (35-12-1, 25 KO's, 3 subs), it has been his fighting style in the cage and his demeanor outside of it that has made Silva such a popular figure in MMA. However it goes beyond popularity, this man is genuinely beloved by fans; and not just his fans, I'm talking about all MMA fans. So much so that everyone refers to him by just by one name Wanderlei; almost as though he were a personal friend of yours.

The strange thing is that is how you feel about him. When you're a Wanderlei fan, it's more than just a fight, it's personal. I'm not ashamed to admit that I was literally moved to tears when I saw him get knocked out cold nearly two years ago to the date at UFC 132 by Chris Leben. That is because not only am I a fan, at that point I was lucky enough to have met the man in person. The year before while visiting Las Vegas, my friend Brian 'Goze' Garcia of MMA Junkie Radio was kind enough to take me to his gym to meet this living legend.

When I met him, I was in awe, yet he made me feel at ease. He had just finished working out, yet he was kind enough to take a photo with me (this one below):

He also jokingly took a jab at me about my gut; but that is Wanderlei, never demeaning and always endearing. It is what makes him loved beyond his accolades as a pro fighter. He is extremely personable with his fans.

Last month while visiting Vegas, I was once again lucky enough to cross paths with this icon; this time after he conducted a radio interview at the MMA Junkie Radio studio in Mandalay Bay. After the show was over, even though there were hoards of Junkie Radio fans waiting outside the studio to take photos, he gladly took time to oblige everyone, including myself (which is the photo at the top).

It was also after that show that he openly invited all the MMA Junkies in attendance, me included, as guests to his gym next year during our annual Junkie Radio Gathering. We all roared in joy and applauded our beloved champion. You can tell he was openly moved by our genuine affection for him. It is something that not every fighter attains, but only a chosen few; to be loved by your fans, win, lose or draw.

A couple of other fighters have reached this level such as Randy Couture and BJ Penn, but for many fans, it is more mythical. I mean unless you're lucky to catch them at a UFC event, how many of us are going to cross paths with them. BJ Penn stays in Hawaii and Couture is busy with his many business ventures, including being a movie star. For the record, Couture was in the studio with Wanderlei last month, but unlike Wandy, he graciously told us fans he could not stop to take pictures. This is no slight at all towards Randy, but rather it's just another example of why I say Wanderlei is the most beloved fighter in MMA history; 'nuff said!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The age old debate continues: The Boxer or The Puncher

They say a picture speaks a thousand words; however, after Saturday nights championship fight between former WBA welterweight champion Paulie 'Magic Man' Malignaggi (pictured @ far left) and new champ Adrien 'The Problem' Broner (pictured @ near right), this photo may speak a thousand, but it still doesn't answer the question. That question being, who really won; the boxer or the puncher?

On this night, the puncher Broner ended up winning a split decision over the boxer Malignanggi, though it wasn't without controversy. In a fight that dealt with a lot of pre-fight hype from both fighters, the verbal sparring continued afterward. So much so that Malignaggi hinted that the outcome may have been fixed; though his exact comment was, "I'm not saying it was fixed, but it's just another example of the connected fighter getting the decision."

In this case the connected fighter was Broner who is managed by boxing's latest power broker Al Haymon. Yet, this is just the latest in the age old debate of who should be favored in such a fight, the boxer or the puncher. Though Malignaggi threw well over 300 more punches than Broner 843 to 524, it was Broner who landed the more telling blows; this can be witnessed in the photo above. He also landed at a better percentage as he connected on 246 of those punches while 'The Magic Man' could only make 214 "reappear."

However, though numbers supposedly don't lie, many people saw Malignaggi winning. I'll be honest, my heart said Malignaggi, but my mind said Broner; and for me that's surprising. That is because I usually am in favor of the busier and more technical fighter when scoring. Yet, while Malignaggi was easily the busier fighter, I felt as though Broner was not just the aggressor and heavier puncher, but the more technical as well. Nonetheless, that argument goes out the window whenever I discuss the greatest example of this debate.

It was 26 years ago on April 6, 1987; it was dubbed 'The Super Fight' before it ever happened and has been called that since. One of the two greatest middleweight champions of all-time Marvelous Marvin Hagler (the other being Sugar Ray Robinson) fought another 'Sugar' in all-time great Sugar Ray Leonard. On this night Hagler played Broner as he walked down Leonard for 12 straight rounds, while Leonard played Malignaggi back pedaling and out boxing Hagler; stealing rounds with flurries of punches throughout.

After the fight was over, it was Leonard who won a controversial split decision; I personally saw Leonard winning as well as I felt he landed the more effective punches. While Hagler was the aggressor throughout, unlike Broner Saturday night, I didn't feel he landed as many punches of significance. Thus in this case, I rewarded the busier and more effective fighter in my eyes, which differs in my opinion of Saturday's bout.

Yet 26 years after the fact, if you ask 100 people their opinion on 'The Super Fight', I'd be willing to bet you'd be close to, if not at 50-50 as to who won. That question has been haunting boxing for as long as it's been around; how should fights be judged, on technique or aggression? The boxer or the puncher, I don't know if it will ever be answered. In truth, it is part of what makes boxing so intriguing and one of the most debated sports. Thus, unless we go back to the days before the Marquis of Queensbury rules were adopted, where fighters fought unlimited rounds until one finally dropped, this age old debate will continue.

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland USA Today Sports

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Blood, Sweat and Tears = Bond of Brotherhood

The UFC card on Fuel TV Saturday night live from Fortaleza, Brazil was an exciting and memorable one for a few reasons. The record eight submission victories in 12 fights should have been reason enough. However, after watching the card early this morning, as I DVR'd it because of a DJ commitment Saturday night, I came away with something much more.

The photo above shows UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo hugging 'Nova Uniao' teammate Leonardo Santos after his victory earned him 'The Ultimate Fighter/Brazil 2' title. What cannot be clearly seen are the tears of joy Aldo literally had in his eyes for Santos. The story of Aldo and Santos relationship was well documented by Jon Anik and Kenny Florian live on air.

Santos, seven years older than Aldo, is not only a teammate at 'Nova Uniao', but he's like a big brother. Apparently when Aldo, who comes from very humble beginnings, was just a teenager at the gym, Santos, also from a poor background, looked out for the youngster; even to the point of sharing money with him. That relationship, coupled with the blood, sweat and tears they've shared and endured over the years, literally brought the champion to tears in the cage last night. It is a bond of brotherhood that is shared commonly by martial artists who train together day in and day out.

Note I said martial artists and not mixed martial artists. That is because this has nothing to do with the sport. I've been training in martial arts for nearly 13 years at the same school and I can tell you that when you're literally sweating on one another, creating bumps, bruises and brush burns as you roll around on a mat trying to submit each other, a respect is formed. You're there with a brother pushing each other to limits you had thought were unattainable and when you reach them, the joy is mutual for one another; it's hard to explain unless you've been there.

This is why it angers me when I hear fans of MMA along with executives like UFC  President and promoter Dana White saying they don't understand why teammates won't fight each other. Granted this is a business, but friendship and more importantly brotherhood goes way beyond that. How far beyond?

Daniel Cormier is currently undefeated and the #3 ranked heavyweight in the world. However, his teammate and training partner at 'American Kickboxing Academy' Cain Velasquez also happens to be the UFC heavyweight champion. Thus, Cormier, believing Velasquez's reign will be long instead of short, has said he will fight one more time at heavyweight and then make the drop to light-heavyweight. This sort of thing has happened at other camps as well, such as at 'Alpha Male' where a perennial contender such as Urijah Faber has dropped to bantamweight (135 lbs.), so as not to compete with the ascent of teammate Chad Mendes at featherweight (145 lbs.).

Yet, there were other examples I saw on Saturday night of the bond of brotherhood I am speaking of. When Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira came back to his corner after the first round of his fight on Saturday night, you saw Anderson Silva, the consensus number one pound for pound fighter in the world and arguably the greatest MMA fighter of all-time, carrying Nogueira's spit bucket into the cage. The champ then proceeded to hold an ice-pack on his mentor's back while wiping the sweat off his forehead and brow. This is a humility and respect that is forged only through blood, sweat and tears.

Finally, when Nogueira, a legend in the sport and master in jiu-jitsu, was submitted in the second round by fellow jiu-jitsu master Fabricio Werdum I saw another gesture of respect. Werdum, only two years Noguiera's junior, knelt down and bowed to Nogueira. While they are not teammates, they have the common bond that comes from years of training and sacrificing. Thus, through blood, sweat and tears, a bond of brotherhood was formed.

Junkie Gathering 2017... this time it was personal

Wow! I feel the only way to properly start this summary of what I just experienced is summed up in that one word. Although there is anothe...