Sunday, January 26, 2014

Pros and Cons of being a number one title contender

If you're a professional mixed martial arts fighter competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the major league of the sport, and you've worked your way into being the number one title contender, everything should be just about perfect. "Not so fast my friend," as ESPN College Football Analyst Lee Corso is known to say. Sometimes being in the driver's seat doesn't necessarily mean you have all the right answers; you still have to choose whether to turn left or right at the next intersection. Just ask Josh 'The Punk' Thomson. (Pictured above)

Thomson was on top of the world in terms of his MMA career, a long and illustrious one, and in the matter of 25 minutes, it all came screeching to a halt. Thomson, a former Strikeforce lightweight (155 lbs.) champion, had recently made a surprising and successful return to the UFC with a stoppage win over perennial top contender Nate Diaz. That performance, coinciding with the transition of the title from former champion Benson 'Smooth' Henderson to Anthony Pettis and an unfortunate injury to number contender TJ Grant, catapulted Thomson to replace Grant as the title contender; perfect scenario right?

Unfortunately, the real world of MMA does not always allow for such dream endings. Just as Grant had suffered an injury, killing his current opportunity at the title, the current champion Pettis also endured one. That injury would force him to be on the shelf for an extended period, so now Thomson was faced with a dilemma that often confronts title contenders; do you sit and wait for your promised shot or do you keep fighting and potentially risk losing it?

I know it seems simple enough, but for fighters who have an unbelievable thirst for competition and challenge, the decision often is to keep fighting. This was the case for Thomson who more than willingly agreed to take on former titleholder Henderson. What was in it for him? Well, the exposure of being in the main event of a card on the FOX network in front of millions could only catapult his career even further. However, you have to win first and as I stated previously, MMA doesn't always allow for the fairy tale finish.

Enter 'Murphy's Law', "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." In Thomson's case, his fight against number one ranked Henderson couldn't have gotten off to a better start. He dropped the champion immediately in the first round and eventually maneuvered his way on the ground to Henderson's back and into a body lock position. Looking good so far, but inevitably Henderson worked his way out of the position, back to his feet and the fight continued. No problem as Thomson was looking as comfortable standing and striking as he was on the ground; that was until his right hand broke.

At some point in the second round 'The Punk' breaks his hand and now his whole game plan goes out the window, turn to plan B and C, kick and continue to take Henderson down. Surprisingly he was able to do that, with relative success at times too, but Henderson now had his moments as well. Nonetheless, while he never hurt Henderson the rest of the way, nor had him in any danger, I thought he did enough to win the fight. Problem is, what I think doesn't matter.

Two of three judges saw it for Henderson, so now Thomson loses his title shot, breaks his hand and suddenly is even pondering retirement. If only he had decided to sit and wait for Pettis to heal; that's what featherweight (145 lbs.) title contender Ricardo Lamas did. Winner of his last four fights he became the next title challenger for champion Jose Aldo. However, ironically enough, Aldo sustained an injury which put him out of commission for a while.

Lamas, whose last fight was exactly one year ago today, decided to turn right instead of left though; he decided to wait it out. Sure it cost him exposure, money and everything else, but it did not cost him his shot; which he will take next week, during Super Bowl weekend on a Pay-Per-View. Lucky for Lamas right; not really, these are just pros and cons of being a number one title contender.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

'Grudge Match' + Sam's Top Five Boxing Films

After being stuck indoors for two weeks due to surgery, I finally got out yesterday for a little while and went to the movies. I was even well enough to catch a comedy, where I was previously avoiding any laughter at all costs after post abdominal hernia surgery. I went to see 'Grudge Match' starring Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro, which I enjoyed very much.

As I was watching it, I suddenly began to think of all the boxing movies made over time that I have seen. There are quite a few and I instantly began to rate them. Thus, the following is a quick review of 'Grudge Match' followed by my top five choices for best boxing movies to watch. Note that my top five picks is not an all-time list, but rather my personal choices; however, first up is a look back at the movie pictured at left.

The movie' Grudge Match', as the title suggests, is a score to settle rubber match between two over the hill retired professional boxers from the blue collar steel city of Pittsburgh, PA. Billy 'The Kid' McDonnan played by DeNiro and Henry 'Razor' Sharp' played by Stallone, are both responsible for the lone loss on each other's pro records. However, what has driven them all these years to settle the score isn't their hatred for one another or even so much the blemish on their records; it was a woman.

However, unlike your typical love triangle, there are a few twists and turns involved, which makes it more like an octagon. Ironically, the UFC's octagon makes a memorable appearance in this film, thanks to a great cameo by none other than UFC fighter Chael Sonnen. The twists and turns in the form of a female love interest, her son and grandson, an old trainer and a want to be Don King boxing promoter all make for interesting scenarios and lots of laughs.

Co-starring Kim Basinger, who has aged quite gracefully, Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart and Jon Bernthal, 'Grudge Match', was better and funnier than I had expected. Though it won't make my top five list, it was very entertaining and definitely worth two hours of your time. Besides, though it doesn't make my list, not surprisingly, its stars Stallone and DeNiro do.

Now onto my top five boxing films that you should see and please remember that these are my choices, not necessarily an all-time list; though I would argue that four of my five would easily make any all-time list. Nonetheless, I put that disclaimer out there for anyone who wants to scream at me for leaving off such noteworthy films such as 'The Hurricane' or 'The Cinderella Man'; both excellent movies.

5.) 'Streets of Gold' (1986) -

This movie may be unknown to many, but not to me. I actually went to see this movie in the theater when it was released and have enjoyed it ever since. A little known film starring Klaus Maria Brandauer and two young talented actors at that start of their careers in Wesley Snipes and Adrian Pasdar, this movie is about a former amateur boxer from the Soviet Union who was not allowed to compete on the national team because of his Jewish descent.

He later migrates to the largely Russian populated Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, NY where he comes upon two promising club fighters, which he eventually coaches and turns into U.S. National team members. This movie may not stand up to the other four on this list in terms of caliber, but for heartwarming storyline and pure amateur boxing, it should be viewed. Try it, you may like it.

4.) 'Million Dollar Baby' (2004) -

The first of three Academy Award winners on this list, this movie won four Oscars in total including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. Starring Hillary Swank as a humble girl with aspirations of pursuing a boxing dream, along with Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman as gruff old boxing trainers, this film is an emotional roller coaster.

Eastwood, who won an Oscar for his directing, masterfully takes you on a ride which puts you on the highest of highs, only to drop you into the lowest of lows in an instant. Whether you're a fan of boxing, let alone women in boxing, you owe it to yourself to see this movie.

3.) 'Requiem for a Heavyweight' (1962) -

As a fan of Anthony Quinn, old black and white films and boxing, 'Requiem' is a match made in heaven. Starring the aforementioned Quinn as Mountain Rivera, a once ranked, but now washed up journeyman fighter, this movie does for boxing what 'The Wrestler' did for wrestling; show you the sad, but true side of the sport.

Also starring Jackie Gleason as Rivera's shady manager and Mickey Rooney as his loyal trainer, this is a must see for any true boxing fan. I just happen to come upon this movie as a kid and it has stuck with me ever since. A definite all-time classic!

2.) 'Raging Bull' (1980) -

For many this should be number one on the list and for good reason. Starring Best Actor winner Robert DeNiro in his memorable performance as the legendary Jake LaMotta, 'Raging Bull' is another true, but tragic portrayal of the life of a boxer. A champion's life is not all glitz and glamour and DeNiro gives his usual star turn in showing us as much.

Also starring Cathy Moriarty and a couple of young soon to be well known fixtures in the film industry, especially in the mob movie genre, Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent, this could easily be number one on this list. How it lost to 'Ordinary People' in the Best Picture category is extraordinary.

1.) 'Rocky' (1976) -

Flip a coin and 'Raging Bull' along with 'Rocky' are at the top of any boxing movie list; so why do I go with 'Rocky' here? Well, I could argue that 'Rocky' won the Best Picture Oscar, where 'Bull' didn't. However, it's even simpler than that; this movie touches me in a way that the other doesn't. I don't know if it's the underdog theme or the Philadelphia background, but 'Rocky' still resonates with me personally whenever I see it.

This is the one that made Stallone a star and actually proved he can act. Burgess Meredith's turn as an old time trainer is the standard all other's will follow and the performances by Talia Shire and Burt Young are noteworthy. Let's face it, 'Raging Bull' is a classic, but 'Rocky' is a part of America's lexicon and for that, along with its great picture value, it is number one on my list.

If you love boxing the way I do, you owe it to yourself to see these movies. However, if you love movies, but don't necessarily love boxing, you still owe it to yourself to watch these movies.

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