“I can no other answer make, but, thanks, and thanks.”
– William Shakespeare
This is a time of year steeped in tradition. We are honor bound to gather together stuff our faces until we fall deep into a food coma. Most of us, while our women slave over a hot stove, will watch football all day long, as is our charge from God itself. And though it seems less customary these days, Thanksgiving is still, at least in some small way, about giving thanks. This being an MMA column, I’ll spare you the sappy prose about how blessed I am to be blah blah blah whatever. What I’m thankful for is fighting. Pugilism, hand-to-hand combat, two men (or women) entering a ring or a cage and settling things in the way that nature intended.
Here’s what I’m thankful for, as it relates to MMA, in 2009.
Shane Del Rosario
The fascination began while watching the YAMMA pay-per-view. That’s right, I was one of the 38 people who actually paid money to watch that train wreck, and I’ve got a shirt to prove it. The opening bout on that card featured something that I still have trouble believing to this day. Former UFC Heavyweight and a local to me, Sherman Pendergarst, lost to Alexey Oleinik. There’s no surprise in Pendergarst losing, but this was very much not a typical loss. Oleinik managed to win the fight with an ezequiel choke. The maneuver never should have worked with Oleinik not wearing sleeves, yet it did.
You see, on the night of the YAMMA event, it occurred to me that I had never seen and will likely never again see an ezequiel executed with success in an MMA match. That got me to thinking of what other moves I had not seen used to win a match. At that point, I was still enamored with Nick Diaz’s win over Takanori Gomi via gogoplata. The combination of my enjoyment of that fight and my amazement at seeing an ezequiel executed with success filled me with a great desire to see a fight finished with an omoplata. A shoulder lock in which the person executing the maneuver uses their own leg in order to control the arm, the omoplata is often used as a set up, including for the aforementioned gogoplata, as well as for transitioning to other positions. I watched and I waited, but no omoplata.
The fights passed. Then entire cards came and went. Pretty soon, on year, then another. Then, on November 6, Shane Del Rosario fought Brandon Cash in a battle of undefeated Heavyweight prospects for Strikeforce. Cash pummeled Del Rosario early, and it seemed as though the night would end early for Del Rosario. Instead, Del Rosario reached deep down and mounted a spectacular comeback.
It began when Del Rosario threw his right leg over the Cash’s left shoulder, setting up the omoplata. I’d seen it so many times before that I had become desensitized. I knew what was going to happen, that Cash would either roll out of the hold, or Del Rosario would decide instead to take his opponent’s prone back. However it happened, I was confident that this move I longed to see work in MMA, what had become my “White Whale”, so to speak, would once again be a narrow miss.
Then something so simple, yet so effective happened that made left me at a loss. Del Rosario used his arms to tie up the neck and right arm of Cash. I couldn’t even believe that I hadn’t seen anyone try that in the past. But there it was. Cash was stuck. He tapped out. Del Rosario won with an omoplata. Two years and hundreds of fights later, I saw the move I had begun to think I’d never see executed with success in MMA.
So, thank you, Shane Del Rosario for proving once again that, truly, anything is possible in MMA.
No, really. I’m not going to give you a song and dance about how he’s actually a competent MMA official with a sterling background in karate. Actually, the latter part is true, but that’s beside the point. While Peoples’ scoring (along with Nelson Hamilton’s, for the record) sparked a nation wide debate amongst MMA fans about the need for judging reform, he actually directly led to me winning a vast sum of money, relatively speaking. I had a parlay bet for UFC 104 that was capped off with Lyoto Machida beating Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. As I watched the fight, I couldn’t help but hear the sound of a toilet flushing as I watched my bet and my money sucked into oblivion.
Thankfully, Big Cec concluded that leg kicks are not, in fact, an example of effective striking. They don’t end fights, he explained. It’s stunning to hear this from a professional Mixed Martial Arts judge, and incomprehensible to hear from a black belt in Karate. And yet, his blunder (along with Nelson Hamilton’s) in scoring that fight in favor of the champion, despite the apparent vast majority of the audience (rightly) concluding that the challenger was the victor, allowed me to win my bet.
Cecil, call me. I owe you a beer.
Sticking with poor officiating in MMA, I am legitimately thrilled with Marc Ratner. Not in the selfish way I was thrilled with Big Cec, but because he continues to pave the way for the overall improvement of MMA.
While it didn’t get as much attention as the atrocious decision for the Machida v. Shogun fight, a significantly worse decision was levied early in October. Mike Easton, another local for me, was gifted a split-decision victory over former WEC Bantamweight Champion Chase Beebe during the Ultimate Warrior Challenge (UWC) 7 event. While Easton only one round two of the five-round contest with any legitimacy, the judges favored the local fighter based on…well, we’re still trying to figure that one out. Beebe controlled the vast majority of the fight, spending rounds controlling Easton’s back. This dominant control meant nothing to two out of the three judges sanctioned by the Virginia state athletic commission. The decision was so poor that it led to concerns that promoters would shy away from holding events in the state until the issues were addressed.
Enter Marc Ratner. With the UFC poised to hold an event for the first time in Virginia on January 11, 2010, the former Executive Director for the Nevada State Athletic Commission turned UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs has met with the Virginia Athletic Commission. I don’t know for sure that the topic of judging, specifically the judging in the Easton v. Beebe fight came up, but that would sort of be like talking to Dana White without the UFC being brought up.
Either way, if there’s anyone that inspires in me a confidence that the judging in Virginia can be improved, it’s Marc Ratner.
Fights of the Year (so far)
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are a few of the fights that brought me a tremendous amount of joy this year:
Miguel Torres v. Takeya Mizugaki (WEC, 4/5) – A back and forth striking battle that, despite Frank Mir’s commentary, came down to the final round.
Scott Smith v. Benji Radach (Strikeforce, 4/11) – Smith took a beating for the first two rounds, only to stage a tremendous comeback, knocking Radach out in the third.
Hideo Tokoro v. Abel Cullum (DREAM, 5/26) – A tremendous fight that showcased Tokoro’s jiu jitsu and Cullum’s ability to defend submissions, wrapped around a brief but exciting stand up exchange.
Diego Sanchez v. Clay Guida (UFC, 6/20) – A fast-paced testament to Guida’s heart and Sanchez’s improvements both striking and grappling.
Ben Henderson v. Donald Cerrone (WEC, 10/10) – The closest fight of the bunch saw Cerrone outwork Henderson with his submission grappling while Henderson showed a tremendous heart and super submission defense and flexibility. I’m still trying to wrap my head around Henderson’s ability to survive and ultimately escape that omoplata.
I know that at this particular time, there are a lot of issues with which MMA must contend. The UFC is struggling to put together cards worth paying for due to a rash of injuries and illness. WEC continues to draw only a relative handful of fans, despite the great events they put on time after time. World Victory Road’s public relation’s manager has just been fired while that promotion struggles to develop it’s own foothold. It’s true, things could be and have been better for this sport of ours. Still, while things could be better, I think it’s pretty clear that things could be much, much worse. Indeed, there is much to be thankful for in MMA in 2009. I’ve only just scratched the surface.