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.

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