Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TUF 15: Early Assessment

As another season of The Ultimate Fighter draws near, there is always some new pre-show hype to get fans ready for the show. There are two big changes for Season 15, as the fights will be broadcast live and the show moves from Spike to FX. However, the core format will stay the same, and one fighter will be crowned “The Ultimate Fighter” at the end of the season. Starting March 9, 32 lightweight fighters will enter the Octagon under the guidance of bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz or number one contender Urijah Faber. The 32 man field is filled with young prospects and veterans looking to make a name for themselves. Here are my pre-show picks for fighters that could make the biggest splash this season.

Cristiano Marcello – Hardcore fans will know Marcello as the former jiu-jitsu coach for the famed Chute Boxe Academy in Brazil. Other fans may know him for the YouTube video of him choking out Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett backstage after an altercation between camps at a PRIDE event. Either way, Marcello has a good deal of experience, and previously fought in PRIDE, albeit in a losing effort to Mitsuhiro Ishida. Still, training alongside all those killers at Chute Boxe, one would think that he’s probably added a few things to his striking game. Add to that a solid background in BJJ, and we have our first favorite for Season 15.

Dakota Cochrane – Most people had no idea who Cochrane was until September 23, 2011. It was that day where he fought Jamie Varner on just four days’ notice on a Titan Fighting Championship card broadcast live on HDNet. He pulled off the upset, dominating Varner for three rounds to earn a unanimous decision victory. Though he lost his most recent bout, he still has an impressive 11-2 record. Plus, winning the Varner fight proved that Cochrane has a lot of guts and the capability to rise to the occasion and seize the moment. Expect Cochrane to make some noise this season.

James Krause – Krause is probably the most experienced competitor in the field. He holds a win over TUF 12 runner-up Michael Johnson, and has fought against tough veterans Ricardo Lamas, Toby Imada, and Donald Cerrone. He’s also had experience in front of the camera, fighting for televised promotions such as Bellator, WEC, Titan FC, and Shark Fights. Having been on TV numerous times before and fighting some tough veterans in the field may give Krause the experience edge to win the whole thing.

Myles Jury – You always need to pick a darkhorse, and Myles Jury is mine. It’s not just his 9-0 record that compelled me to make this pick, but it’s the fact that Jury has already been on The Ultimate Fighter (though it was technically only for one episode). He was a part of Season 13, but was forced to withdrawal with an ACL injury. Even though he was only on the show for one episode, it’s still one more episode than anyone else in the field. He already has experience dealing with the cameras and environment of The Ultimate Fighter, and that may give him a mental edge going into the season.

A sense of PRIDE at UFC 144

As we all know, PRIDE went out of business in 2007, and the landscape of MMA in Japan hasn’t been the same since. The theatrics and style may still be alive in DREAM, but the fighters and fights fail create the aura that made PRIDE so special. The fighters in PRIDE knew that the Japanese fans would love and appreciate them if they fought with every ounce of energy they had. It didn’t matter if they won, lost, or drew; if they left it all in the ring on a given night, they would be invited back to fight another day. At UFC 144 this past weekend, it felt like that aura was in the air of the Saitama Super Arena once more.

It started from the very first prelim fight between Tiequan Zhang and Issei Tamura. The fight started with the two fighters rocking each other before two minutes passed in the first round. The ending was even more spectacular, as a thunderous Tamura right hand left Zhang flattened and unconscious on the canvas. Takeya Mizugaki vs. Chris Cariaso brought back one of the memories of PRIDE many fight fans try to forget: horrible decisions. Though it was a very close and entertaining fight, it seemed that Mizugaki had done enough to walk away with his hand raised that night. However, the judges disagreed with everyone else and gave the decision to Cariaso. A fun fight was marred by an extremely questionable decision once again. During the Fukuda/Cantwell fight, the crowd shouted “AAAYYY!” in unison, much like they did in the old days, when Fukuda was landing sharp ground strikes on Cantwell. Though “The Robot” threatened with submissions and strikes throughout, Fukuda stayed out of trouble and seized victory.

Comebacks were a big theme of the night, and Kid Yamamoto vs. Vaughan Lee and Takanori Gomi vs. Eiji Mitsuoka were two prime examples of that. Kid looked like his old self in the beginning of his fight with Lee, dancing around and beating the British fighter up on the feet. However, Lee was able to land a flurry of strikes that wobbled Yamamoto, and then locked up a fight ending armbar. Gomi was getting beat up by Mitsuoka in the first round of their fight, but Gomi was able to find a home for his powerful strikes and finish Mitsuoka in the second. The TKO finish likely saved his job in the UFC. Still, all the action wasn’t relegated to the prelims.

In the first main card fight, Anthony Pettis returned to “Showtime” form with his head kick KO over Joe Lauzon. Hatsu Hioki also returned to form, dominating Bart Palaszewski for three rounds to earn a unanimous decision victory. Going back to the comeback theme, Tim Boetsch pulled off perhaps the biggest comeback of all-time. After being dominated by Yushin Okami on the feet and on the ground for the first two rounds, Boetsch was told by his corner to go for broke in the third. As Joe Rogan said, Tim Boetsch is an animal. He came out swinging, and landed several power shots on Okami, earning a TKO victory before a minute passed in round three. Yoshihiro Akiyama was introduced by Bruce Buffer only as “Sexyama,” and he did look good in the first round of his fight with Jake Shields, landing some good strikes and an impressive unorthodox trip technique. However, Shields proved he’s got some of the best intestinal fortitude in the business. Though his takedowns weren’t very successful, he was able to land a multitude of crisp, accurate strikes on the feet. Though they lacked any finishing power, the accumulation of strikes in the last two rounds was enough to earn Shields a hard fought decision win.

Mark Hunt looked like he did in his heyday in Japan, defeating tough striker Cheick Kongo via punches just over two minutes into round one. Though he didn’t look good at all during most of his fight with Ryan Bader, Quinton Jackson did deliver us a special moment. In the middle of round two, he caught a knee attempt by Bader, picked him up, and slammed him to the canvas. Though Rampage lost the fight, he reminded us of what got him to this point in the first place. The main event lived up to the hype as well. It was an extremely close fight for four rounds, but Ben Henderson had likely done enough to win them. At the start of round five, down on the scorecards and with his eye almost swollen shut, Frankie Edgar once again reminded the MMA community why no one can ever count him out of a fight. He dropped Bendo in the fifth frame, and definitely did enough to win the round. Though Ben Henderson is the new UFC lightweight champion, it is clear that Frankie Edgar’s heart is twice the size of his body.

All of this brings me to my point: the warrior spirit of the fighters that was showcased in PRIDE was found once again on the UFC 144 card. It truly had it all: amazing comebacks, brutal knockouts, technical fights, crazy techniques, and gutsy performances. From the first fight to the last, it was undoubtedly one of the best cards the UFC has had in recent memory. Also, I believe it proved that there will always be a home for MMA in Japan. All of the fighters that night gave everything they had in that cage, and it rekindled some of the magic we had all loved watching PRIDE fights in the Saitama Super Arena. Zuffa’s return to the land of the rising sun should be considered nothing less than a success, if not one of the best cards of all-time.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Putting Down The Pitbull

When I look back at the fighters that helped hook me into MMA, I’d absolutely put Andrei Arlovski on that list. The 6’4” Belarusian heavyweight had one of the most impressive highlight reels from 2003 – 2005 in the UFC. The uppercut KO of Matyushenko, the striking clinic against Cabbage, the achilles lock to capture the heavyweight title against Tim Sylvia, and the one-punch KO of Paul Buentello were just a few of the reasons I became an Arlovski fan. The speed, technique, and power he displayed at heavyweight made him look practically unbeatable going into his second fight with Tim Sylvia. However, that’s when things began to unravel.

Arlovski lost his belt to Sylvia by a first round knockout. Arlovski’s chin came into question after the fight because the initial punch that rocked him was a seemingly weak uppercut. He had also rocked Sylvia with a punch early in the fight, but failed to capitalize on it. He then lost an immediate rematch with Sylvia in a lackluster five round decision. However, “The Pitbull” gained new life after his second loss to Sylvia. After a KO of Marcio Cruz, a lackluster decision win over Fabricio Werdum, and a TKO win over Jake O’Brien, Arlovski left the UFC for a bigger payday and new opportunities.

He would up in the Affliction promotion, who had also signed the likes of Josh Barnett and Fedor Emelianenko. During this time, he also began training with famed boxing coach Freddie Roach. His hands never looked better. He battered Ben Rothwell en route to a third round KO victory on the first Affliction card. Although the stoppage was a bit controversial, he did hurt Roy Nelson worse than anyone else in recent memory, and earned a KO stoppage victory over him on an Elite XC card. Arlovski was beginning to look like his old self again, perhaps even better. He had compiled an impressive five fight winning streak, and had gotten the call from Affliction to fight Fedor Emelianenko.

Fedor was still a top-three pound-for-pound fighter and number one ranked heavyweight in the world at the time he fought Arlovski. For the first few minutes of the bout, it didn’t look that way. Arlovski was seemingly outclassing “The Last Emperor” on the feet, and looked like he might be the one to finally put away the stoic Russian. However, Fedor reminded us that if you leave an opening against him, he will find and exploit it. With one right hook during an Arlovski flying knee attempt, Fedor walked away victorious while “The Pitbull” lay unconscious on the canvas. Things wouldn’t get much better from there.

After the Fedor loss and the demise of Affliction, Arlovski was signed by Strikeforce. His first fight was against powerful up-and-comer Brett Rogers. Talk of Andrei’s glass chin reignited and spread like wildfire after Rogers pummeled him and put him away in 22 seconds. In his next fight against Antonio Silva, many thought Arlovski would use his superior speed and striking technique to stop “Bigfoot.” However, he looked tentative and gun-shy throughout the fight, and lost a decision as a result. I almost didn’t want to watch his next fight against Sergei Kharitonov, as I had a strange feeling I knew what would happen. Sure enough, Kharitonov knocked out Arlovski in brutal fashion in less than three minutes.

Since then, I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch anymore of his fights. Sure, he got signed to the new ProElite and has won his first two fights by KO/TKO, but have you looked at those fights? His first win was against Ray Lopez. Who? Exactly. His second win was against Travis Fulton, “The Ironman” who has had over 300 fights. From what I’ve heard, the fight could’ve put you to sleep except for the last five seconds where Arlovski threw and landed the head kick that ended fight. Gone are the days when the Belarusian fighter would tear through his opponents like a pitbull, and I doubt he will fight, let alone defeat, a top heavyweight again. It is undeniable that Arlovski helped attract and suck in fans like myself to this wonderful sport, but the recent times have proved that there is a “changing of the guard” taking place. Arlovski will have a place in the hearts of many MMA fans, but his time as a dominant heavyweight is over.

Invicta Fighting Championships

Women’s MMA may finally have the launching pad it needs. New promotion Invicta Fighting Championships will hold its first card on April 28, and every single fighter on the 11-bout card is a female. It is headlined by former Strikeforce women’s 135-pound champion Marloes Coenen, and there’s loads of other talent on the card. Strikeforce veterans Liz Carmouche, Sarah D’Alelio, and Shana Nelson are fighting that night. Sarah Schneider, Leslie Smith, Jessica Penne, and Lisa Ellis-Ward had previously fought for Bellator. Kaitlin Young had been in the cage with Gina Carano in the Elite XC days, and Michelle Gutierrez was featured in the video game Supremacy MMA. What I’m getting at here is that Invicta has booked an impressive amount of marketable and talented female fighters to launch their promotion. This quote from longtime MMA industry executive and Invicta Vice President Shannon Knapp best sums up the promotion’s goal: “Invicta is committed to increasing the depth of the women’s field and building female superstars by providing women athletes with the opportunity to compete and hone their skills on a consistent basis throughout the year.”

So, personal hype aside, will this work? Two of Gina Carano’s Elite XC fights on CBS were watched by over five million people. Her fight with Cris “Cyborg” Santos attracted 856,000 viewers on Showtime, setting an MMA ratings record for the premium cable network. Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey have been getting quite a lot of attention going into their March 3 bout in Strikeforce. I’d go as far as saying that Tate vs. Rousey could be the fight that saves Strikeforce. There is a market for female fights out there. The VP of the promotion has held positions in the UFC, IFL, and Strikeforce prior to Invicta, so I think Knapp has the experience to find and target that market. Tachi Palace Fights became the haven for flyweight fighters before the UFC, and they gained a strong following for actively promoting the 125-pound division. There’s no reason why Invicta can’t do the same for female fighters. I hope everything comes together well and goes off without a hitch, because this is a great next step for women’s MMA.

Five Steps for Flyweight Success

The UFC starts off its flyweight division with a bang on the quickly approaching UFC on FX 2 card with the semi-final round of the four-man tournament. For the company’s third effort on Fox, two more flyweight bouts have been announced in the form of John Dodson vs. Darren Uyenoyama and Louis Gaudinot vs. John Lineker. With a solid base of established flyweight fighters and talented bantamweights dropping down, the UFC is off to a great start. Here are some things the UFC should consider to ensure the division lives up to its “nasty potential.”

Pray that Alexis Vila loses in the upcoming Bellator tournament – Most people who know Alexis Vila know him from his run in the Bellator bantamweight tournament. It’s with good reason; his KO victory over Joe Warren in the first round is one of my favorite knockouts of all-time. Vila made it to the finals, but was defeated by Eduardo Dantas. Most people probably don’t know that Vila fought as a flyweight until he joined Bellator. Vila is a powerhouse at 125, and is most likely the strongest fighter in the weight class. Add to that his stellar wrestling base (an Olympic Bronze medalist) and improving striking, and that’s a recipe for success. However, the clock is ticking. Though Vila has only been fighting since 2007, he is 40 years old, and currently signed up for the upcoming Bellator bantamweight tournament. Vila would be a huge addition to the UFC flyweight field, but he needs to be added sooner rather than later. I like watching Vila fight, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I hope he loses in the upcoming Bellator tournament.

Find Pat Runez and give him a contract – John Dodson, Ultimate Fighter 14 winner, is returning to his natural weight class. If you look at his record, you’ll see his last loss was to a guy named Pat Runez for the Ultimate Warrior Challenge (UWC) Flyweight Championship. The fight, which took place in October of 2009, was billed as the most important flyweight fight in North America. Those that saw it know it lived up to the hype. The fight had it all: back-and-forth action, heart, techniques, knockdowns…it was a fantastic display of what MMA is all about. It was my introduction to the flyweight division. Perhaps one of the reasons I advocate for flyweights is because to this day Runez vs. Dodson is one of my favorite fights of all-time. However, that fight was also the last one Runez has had. He is 4-0, and being the last guy to beat Dodson would help his stature. If you haven’t seen it, just go to YouTube and watch his fight with Dodson. After that, you’ll know why he’d be good for the UFC.

Sergio Pettis – Name value is a wonderful thing. Just look at Kim Couture. She’s really not a great fighter, but she continues to get fights because her last name is that of a UFC legend. Sergio Pettis may have name value, but he may also have a lot of talent. Anthony Pettis lives up to his nickname of “Showtime” by the exciting and innovative style he brings into the cage. Sergio must look up to his big brother, as he finished his first two fights by TKO with head kicks. After he won his last fight by a first round arm-triangle choke, the younger Pettis announced he would be making his flyweight debut in May. This excited many hardcore fans, as Sergio would certainly bring a little “Showtime” to the flyweight class. At just 18 years old, the sky may be the limit for Pettis, and hopefully he tries to reach those limits in the UFC.

Use weight class for International seasons of TUF – We all saw what TUF 14 did for the featherweight and bantamweight divisions. The UFC has already expanded its flagship reality show to Brazil, and places like Mexico, Australia, and Philippines have all been rumored for a version of the show. What better way to get new fighters for a new weight class than featuring them on a season of TUF? It’s a win-win situation. The winner of the show would be put in the mix right away, and there would be an international star to attract attention to the new division. With people being naturally smaller in those countries, it would be a great way to tap into new talent for the flyweight class. Heck, even a TUF flyweight tournament here in the States wouldn’t be a bad idea. Regardless of where it takes place, featuring the flyweights on The Ultimate Fighter would be a great way to get exposure and new talent for the 125-pound division.

Keep getting talent from Tachi – What do Michael McDonald, Eddie Yagin, and Ian McCall have in common? They all became champions in Tachi Palace Fights and earned Zuffa contracts as a result. Hardcore MMA fans know that TPF has the best current roster of flyweights. The Lemoore promotion is home to 125-pound studs Jussier da Silva, Darrell Montague, Mamoru Yamaguchi, and Dustin Ortiz. So, keep the pipeline open and get these guys in the octagon! That’s what I love about Tachi, they don’t mind grooming new talent and shipping them off to the major leagues when they’re ready. It’s a trend that should definitely continue with the flyweights.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Devil’s Advocate (part two)

The UFC putting flyweights on FX is poor decision – This one came from a website which usually has great opinion columns, but I couldn’t disagree more with this one. The argument centered around the UFC putting the flyweights on an FX card rather than a pay-per-view card. The author argued that they would get more exposure and credibility if they were featured on a pay-per-view card instead. Here’s why I disagree. While it’s true that getting a main card slot on PPV card is an instant credibility boost, it’ll be hard to gain exposure if no one watches. Cruz vs. Faber II was one of the best fights of 2011, but only 350,000 people cared to buy it. The fact is that not a lot of people know who these guys in the lower weights are yet. People won’t buy it if they don’t know what it is.

So, how do you get them to buy it? Give them a free sample. People like free. Even if it doesn’t have the biggest names on the card, more people are likely to watch fights on FX simply because they won’t have to pay for them. If the fights turn out to be as exciting as they should be, people will take notice. That way, when the flyweights finally do transition to PPV, people will say: “Oh yeah, I saw that guy in a war on TV, I’d definitely pay to see him again.” In my mind, it’s a win-win situation.

Putting UFC on Fuel TV is a smart move – While it may be true in the long run, it may not be now. Remember how I said people like free? Fuel TV is a part of a more expensive package on most television providers, and some regions (like the one I’m currently in) don’t even offer it. Even if I wanted to pony up the money and get it, I can’t. Just look at the numbers. UFC on Fuel TV 1 = about 217,000 viewers. Spike TV’s counterprogramming of old Diego Sanchez fights = about 674,000 viewers. Spike TV is just more accessible right now, and if the trend of counterprogramming continues, Fuel may lose the battle every single time.

Also, another thing going against them: the internet. Smart hardcore fans will likely find a live stream of the fight or streaming videos of the fights with just one Google search. Why go through the hassle of getting more channels when you can just stream it? Do I want to see Fuel become the home of the UFC? Yes, that would absolutely be great, but they’re going to need to do more to convince casual fans to get on board. I think what they need to do is put on a big time fight with some big time names in it to really draw attention to Fuel. Then, once fans start clamoring to see those big fights, Fuel TV will be in higher demand. Don’t let fans think cards on Fuel are second rate and have no meaning; show them fights on Fuel are just as important as the ones on FX, Fox, and pay-per-view. Bigger fights = bigger success for the UFC on Fuel.

Devil’s Advocate

Viewpoints and opinions are what make talking about sports so fun. Recently, I’ve read/heard discussions about a few topics in the MMA world, and while I agree with some of the views, there are a few counterpoints which can be brought up. It’s time to play Devil’s Advocate.

Blaming the UFC for “lackluster” fights on Fox thus far – OK, let’s start from the first one. Did the UFC screw up by not showing the Bendo/Guida fight? Yes, they absolutely did. Every fan and pundit out there knew this fight would be a barnburner, and it lived up to most of the hype. The UFC knew what kind of fighter Velasquez and dos Santos are, and I bet they knew it could’ve lasted only 64 seconds. Putting the Velasquez/dos Santos title fight on Fox was not a bad decision at all, but not putting at least one more fight on the live broadcast was a huge error. To those that say Henderson vs. Shogun should’ve been the main event on the Fox card because it was one of the best fights of all time, I say that’s quite easy to say in hindsight. Everyone knew it was going to be an important and entertaining bout, but I don’t think anyone knew it would’ve turned out like that. Velasquez/dos Santos could’ve lasted a lot longer and been a back-and-forth battle, but Cigano found the first opening that night and capitalized. That’s part of the allure of the sport; you never truly know what could happen in a given fight.

While I agree with the major complaint from the first Fox effort (not showing Henderson/Guida), I have a tough time agreeing with the major flack the UFC is getting from its second effort. The major complaint was that all of the fights shown were snoozers. Admittedly, the fights didn’t have a lot of fireworks, but there were still interesting storylines that came out of the fights. Chris Weidman made Demian Maia look worse than he did, and Weidman took the fight on 11 days’ notice. If he did that with only 11 days to prepare, imagine what he could’ve done with a full training camp. Bisping vs. Sonnen was an extremely close fight. While it wasn’t “exciting,” it was entertaining to watch the chess match unfold. Rashad stifled a very dangerous Phil Davis and finally earned a match with rival Jon Jones.

However, as I stated earlier, these storylines did not emerge in the most exciting fashion. To blame the UFC for this, however, I feel is a little unwarranted. They put on three solid fights, two of which determined a number one contender spot. Those three fights could have easily been in a co-main event (or maybe even a main event) slot on a pay-per-view card, and we got them for free. Image how upset you’d be if you paid $45 for those three fights. Just like no one knew that Henderson/Rua would be a contender for the greatest fight of all time, no one could predict these fights would be as lackluster as they were. That’s simply what happens in MMA: some fight to entertain, and some fight “not to lose.” The UFC will try to rectify that on their next offering on Fox, which will be headlined by Nate Diaz and Jim Miller. While not the biggest names, lightweight fighters, especially ones like Diaz and Miller, consistently put on more exciting fights. I feel like this is an excellent headlining choice by the UFC, and I’m excited to see how it pans out. Still, to say the lackluster fights on the second Fox card was all the UFC’s fault is a bit much. A matchmaker can’t decide the gameplan and gas tank of a fighter.