2006 will be remembered as the year Mixed Martial Arts arrived—like a tsunami. Citing the gaudy Pay-Per-View numbers, the success of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), or that enormous billboard of Chuck and Tito near Time Square, doesn’t do the phenomena justice. It’s here, it’s the zeitgeist.
This elicits various feelings in me that need explaining. Boxing is my first love and an ongoing addiction that I plan never to kick. No sporting event comes close to a great boxing match. In spite of the game being virtually ignored by the mainstream sports press—and thus the vast majority of sports fans—I know I chose the best sport to write about. Nothing else offers such drama, psychology, colorful characters, and heaping portions of purity and filth to dive into. And as elemental as boxing may appear, you never become to smart for it. (A gander at my fight predictions will bear this out. If I’m batting .500, I’m probably up on my colleagues.)
That said, 2006 was also the year I officially became hooked on MMA—and this only matters because I am one of millions who caught the bug. I had previously watched most of the free stuff on Spike and FSN; this year I finally broke down and ordered PPV’s (Hughes-Penn II, Saturday’s Liddell-Ortiz II, and I was on the fence for Pride’s Shockwave but my wife’s New Year’s plans sidetracked me).
I fit the profile of many MMA newbies: The first season of TUF was like that free sample of drugs a pusher uses to hook an eventual crackhead. I found myself engaging in constant MMA chatter, emailing, texting, even rapping with strangers about it on the train.
But whenever I do this, an internal dialogue results, because I can’t think about MMA without feeling a pang of guilt—like I’m cheating on my old lady.
I obviously want to see boxing not just survive but thrive. And I truly believe the success of one need not suggest the demise of the other. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t mind seeing boxing suffer, that has me thinking, “Ha! Good! Look what you’ve done to yourself, you self-mutilating heathens!” Maybe boxing ought to have all of its bones broken in order for them to grow back stronger? Maybe that’s the only way it will find itself? I’m sure the long-suffering ever-loyal boxing fan will be there when it’s finally healed.
For the real boxing fan has already been through it all: the stalemate/pissing contest between Bob Arum and Oscar De La Hoya, which is ultimately an unwelcome golden shower in the face of you know who. He has endured HBO—the self-proclaimed “Heart & Soul of Boxing”—counter-programming Showtime and, whenever possible, announcing the other network’s fight results so that those who TiVo it or watch on tape-delay are screwed. He tuned in to B.A.D. despite all those Paul Williams Specials that were appetizing to only the fighter’s powerful advisor, Al Haymon. Christ, the fan didn’t even hit “mute” when the accompanying babble of Max Kellerman, Fran Charles and Lennox Lewis spewed forth—some of the worst stuff since Dennis Miller was doing Monday Night Football. Yeah, he stood by the game he loves despite nearly all of today’s promoters being no more than glorified booking agents. Booking agents who occasionally perform a ritualistic quid pro quo with the media called a press conference—free steak sandwiches for some hype. And let’s not speak of the crooked sanctioning bodies, shady state commissions, and lame PPVs that have driven away all but the most rabid fans.
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With some of these thoughts percolating in my head, I set off for Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun last Friday to check out the International Fight League’s World Team Championship Finals.
Established in 2005, the IFL is the first team-based MMA pro league. Each team consists of five fighters and a coach. If a team wins three of five matches, they take the team title. There are financial incentives for a team victory, and even more if the wins come by knockout. The fighters are talented up-and-comers (perhaps not all exactly UFC material) and their coaches are MMA legends—Pat Miletich, Maurice Smith, Matt Lindland, Don Frye, Ken and Frank Shamrock, and Bas Rutten, to name a few.
The IFL’s pay structure is progressive, and superior to the unstable conditions and laughable amounts these fighters have traditionally been subjected to. A publicly traded company, IFL coaches have been given handsome stock in the company and the fighters receive a salary, benefits, and the above mentioned bonuses. They also have the security of knowing they won’t get dropped from the league should they lose a match—not so with young MMA fighters competing for other outfits. The fighters seem pleased.
So was the boisterous crowd of 6,825 that turned out for the card. The evening began with four intraleague “superfights” at lightweight (155 limit), two at light heavyweight (205 limit), and one at heavyweight (265 limit). (All bouts were scheduled for three five-minute rounds.) The best known fighter among them was Mike Whitehead, a graduate of TUF Season 2. Fighting for the Scorpions of Tucson, Arizona, he won a bad decision, which the crowd met with boos. That the relatively unknown heavyweight, Krzysztof Soszynski, of the LA-based Anacondas, fought as well as he did, speaks well of the caliber of competition in this league. And the best heavyweight had yet to fight.
After a brief intermission the team championships began. The two that had made it to the finals were the Silverbacks from the Quad Cities, Iowa/Illinois and the Wolfpack from Portland, Oregon. The Silverbacks were the defending champions and are coached by Pat Miletich.
Miletich is MMA’s answer to Freddie Roach. An aura of invincibility surrounds the man and, to some degree, those whom he’s molded. The guru made his bones in the UFC at lightweight and welter years before it went mainstream. Consequently, most new fans to the sport only know him as the founder and coach of Miletich Fighting Systems (MFS) in Betterndorf, Iowa; the place that’s produced Matt Hughes, Tim Syliva, Jens Pulver, Jeremy Horn, Spencer Fischer, Robbie Lawler, Brad Ames, Josh Neer and many others.
Miletich believes the five guys he’s groomed for the Silverbacks are thoroughbreds, but perhaps still a couple years away from P4P status. But they’re young and would. “Remember the gym you comes from,” I’ve frequently heard him say to his young charges. MFS is probably what Kronk was in its heyday. Fighters need to raise their game just to walk through the gym’s front door; a world champ can still be run off the mat if he’s not on his game; and those who survive the physical and mental toll of the training carry the honor like a badge.
Of course, there are other badass teams throughout the States and abroad. Matt Lindland’s Team Quest qualifies as of them. Lindland won Olympic gold as a Greco-Roman wrestler and transitioned beautifully into MMA. Most of the great fighters in this sport make decent coaches, and Lindland is no exception. Culling his available talent for the IFL, he’s come up with what is known as the Wolfpack.
The first match-up was at light heavy. Silverback Mike Ciesnolevicz was targeted by coach Lindland, who won the coin toss for choosing the night’s line-up. Fair or not, Mike was perceived as the weak link that would offer the Wolfpack a quick lead. Not sure if Wolf Aaron Stark felt this way, but if he did, his mind was changed when a high kick to the skull crashed his computer. The Miletich man wasted no time applying an impressive sideways guillotine choke at 1:03 of the third. It was an emotional win for a fighter that has had to prove himself to his coach and fight for his spot on the team.
The heavyweights were up next and, if you retain nothing else from this piece, remember the name Ben Rothwell. The Silverbacks Big Ben runs about 6’5’’ and winnows his body down to 265. He looks like a big fleshy farm-boy that might play tackle for the Hawkeyes. But if you’re thinking big, slow, plodding, you haven’t done your homework.
This guy is a deceptively athletic…blond gorilla. The smaller Devin Cole came out in the first looking to trade. Big mistake as Rothwell had the niftier—not to mention heavier—hands. Along with an effective jab and straight rights, he couldn’t miss with the right uppercut. Around three minutes into the first, he backed Cole into the ropes with a knee upstairs. Seeing his opponent’s hands held dangerously low, Rothwell launched a lighting-fast roundhouse kick that Bruce Lee would’ve applauded.
It was one of the most brutal, cleanly executed KO’s I’ve seen in a while from a man this size. An already bloodied Cole went down in a heap. The crowd went bananas, as did the Silverbacks.
Pat Miletich has said repeatedly that the two best heavyweights in MMA are on his team. One of them is no secret, Tim Syliva, the reining UFC champ. The other is this 26-year-old from Kenosha, Wisconsin. I have personally witnessed him knock Sylvia from pillar-to-post in the gym. I’m not saying the same isn’t done to him as well. But Miletich isn’t exaggerating when he makes such claims about Big Ben.
The Silverbacks Polish lightweight, Bart Palaszewski, rarely finds himself in an easy fight. Ryan Schultz had no intensions of changing this pattern. And for two the first two frames and a portion of the third it was nip-and tuck. If anything, Schultz was getting the better of the exchanges, throwing more compact right hands that found their mark. Bart showed some bad habits by pulling back and raising his chin like a lantern in a storm when the heat was on him.
His flaws notwithstanding, he’s the type of fighter you can never sleep on. He’s tough as a $3 steak and packs bricks in his mitts. During an exchange, a round right hand caught Schultz with a punch he never saw coming. As ugly (or beautiful?) as Rothwell’s size-15 foot to the head was, this did the equivalent with a fist. The fight was stopped immediately at 2:16, and Schultz was taken out of the ring on a stretcher for precautionary reasons.
Ever the warrior, Schultz, who was never unconscious for too long, raised his hands in the air as he was lifted out of the ring. His unspoken “I’ll be back” gesture was the most moving part of the evening, and typical of the grit and desire these athletes possess. The crowd made their feelings known by standing and applauding.
With this win, the Silverbacks clinched the team title.
Things then mellowed for a while as middleweights (185 limit) Ryan McGivern of the Silverbacks won a unanimous decision over Matt Horwich. Spoiled by all the scintillating stand-up, the fans didn’t appreciate the tedious groundwork. While McGivern is an accomplished wrestler from the Iowa Hawkeyes, what took place with the strong and awkward Horwich was hard to watch, especially if you lack an appreciation for the finer points of this stuff (as I do).
While McGivern unnecessarily apologized to the fans for not entertaining them, it was a big win for him nonetheless; he’d lost by submission in his last two outings. The relief on his face when the unanimous decision was announced spoke volumes.
Now up 4-0, it seemed a forgone conclusion that the Silverbacks would sweep the competition. Welterweight Rory Markham has been crushing opponents in the IFL and has never known defeat within the league. He likes to stand and trade and comes out at the bell like a whirling dervish.
But almost immediately the Wolfpack’s tall and lanky Chris Wilson landed blows with pinpoint accuracy. With 4-oz gloves, you can only take so many shots on the button.
Early in the first, a one-two that Tommy Hearns couldn’t have thrown better caught the sturdy Markham flush. He went down and Wilson ground and pounded mercilessly. Somehow Markham was able to push Wilson back with his feet and stand. Groggy, Markham quickly took a knee to the head , which cut between his high and tight guard.
Later in the round Wilson landed a gorgeous overhand right, slipped Markham’s counter right and followed with some knees to the ribs. He then swept Rory’s feet with a Judo-style takedown and ground-n’-pounded effectively.
But Rory was still game and eventually made it back to his feet. This night his heart outweighed his skill. That, or he was in there with the next Anderson Silva. Could be? Wilson ended it with six hard blows that couldn’t have connected any cleaner. The last one, a right hook, put Marham down or the last time. The Silverback intelligently made like a turtle withdrawing into his shell. And after a few hammer blows to the head, the ref stopped the fight at 2:14 of the first.
It was hard to believe this utter demolition took place in only half a round. Wilson is a fighter I am dying to see more of, especially since Markham was looking like a can’t-miss MFS material. This being MMA, where losses are much more commonplace and acceptable than in boxing, Markham will regroup, chalk it up to a bad day at the office, and undoubtedly look for payback down the road.
A fantastic, action-packed evening ended on a whimper as the closing “superfight” between MMA legends and IFL coaches Carlos Newton (Toronto Dragons) and Renzo Gracie (New York Pitbulls) was no more than glorified sparring and painless rolling.
Fighting at middleweight—15 pounds over their prime—Newton was by far the stronger of the two. The jiu jitsu master Gracie fought effectively on his back in the first. When he stood, you could see he’s worked hard on his boxing. But his shots didn’t have much on them and had little effect on Newton.
Newton dominated the fight in the second and third. When the ref separated the two on the ground and made them stand, Renzo put out his hand for his pal Carlos to help him up. He did this on two separate occasions and Carlos gladly complied both times.
The crowd was understandably upset. They paid to see fierce competition, blood and guts. These two might be MMA gods, but if they have no intentions of hurting one another, they should go play checkers or something—on their own time and dime.
Still, the fans got more than their fill and it’s clear the IFL is far more than an experiment. Whether it will grow into a force rivaling the UFC and Pride remains to be seen, but 2007 will tell us a lot. It’ll be their first full season, with 11 scheduled bouts held all over the country. (Here’s the schedule as per their website: http://www.ifl.tv/events.aspx) If you can’t make it to a live show, check your local listings to see when Fox Sports Net will be airing the cards. The season opener will be held on January 19, in Oakland, CA, with four teams doing battle—Condors vs. Tiger Sharks and Lions vs. Razorclaws.