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."

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