18 April 2007

Interesting Times in MMA


I’m not sure where to start, really. The first thing I saw this week was the farewell to arms of Dream Stage Entertainment. Pride really seems to have taken the purchase by the Fertitta brothers to heart, because there was no sense at all of Pride’s continuing to be a fight company in the future. The tone throughout was incredibly sombre, as though – like Boyz II Men said – they truly had come to the end of the road. I wonder how fighter moods will change when the first Pride International Holdings LLC shows get underway; one would hope the sense of tragedy was merely to humour the departing President Sakakibara.

As a Western MMA fan, the idea that Pride and UFC are now under the same umbrella has great potential for working out whom is the best at each weight, and just in terms of seeing promising fights. Still, I can’t help but feel bad for the Japanese fans. One of their key promotions has been bought out, and seems as though it is on the verge of being stripped for parts. What was once the clear best heavyweight division recently lost Mirko Filipovic and now Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. In terms of how much of a blow this is, they were not only two of the top three Pride heavyweights, but of the world top three.

With that said, it was exciting to see Rodrigo turn up in the Octagon the other day. He is one of my absolute favourite fighters, is still relatively young, and has sufficient skill to bother anybody on the ground. (Incidentally, it is interesting that the company is also advertising Fabricio Werdum as appearing on their cards – all other heavyweights need to brush up on their grappling or else learn the best time to tap.)

I do wonder how many of these masturbatory episodes of ‘BIG NEWS’ Dana White is going to put the audience through, though. Knowing the Fertittas own everybody, there is little surprise when a Pride veteran is wheeled out in front of the baying herds; especially when a lot of these fighters are not well known to the aforementioned herds. Fortunately, Nogueira is six foot three (so he looks the part even in street clothes) and speaks English well (so the drunken hordes are less likely to boo during interviews), so this session went swimmingly. One hopes this is the end of such unveilings, though, as the returns will undoubtedly diminish in a hurry.

Anyway, the Pride heavyweight division, once a gleaming rocket ship of quality and variety, is now a charred wreck, the occasional mutant skulking out of the shadows with smoke radiating from its shell. I exaggerate, but the matches on this card had star power more befitting Cage Rage or even Hero*s.

The most intriguing fight on paper turned out to be the most enjoyable to watch. James Thompson performed his usual routine of terrifying his fans while flailing away in his inimitable style. Thompson runs the risk whenever he utilises such strategy of getting sparked out by a stray opposing fist. When the fists in question belong to such a seasoned brawling veteran as Don Frye, the worry increases exponentially. While it is most definitely true that Frye is certainly… older than he once was, he seems not to be losing power, and speed is not an overly important attribute in this kind of fight anyway.

The pre-fight festivities were arguably as entertaining as the fight proper, and that is meant as no slight. The preceding video package had marching band music befitting a superhero from the nineteen fifties: perfect for someone like Frye. Thompson started his march down the runway shuddering and vibrating, as ever, as though he had licked both forefingers and stuck them in plug sockets. Say what you will about his lack of finesse, few fighters appear as intense as James Thompson.

The stare-down, too, was something to behold. The two seemed fit to burst with mutual animus as they ground their foreheads against each other, eyes locked and jaws jacking, mouthing what were presumably the polar opposite of sweet nothings.

The fight itself was as wonderfully chaotic as one would hope. There was the slapstick opening of Thompson charging toward Frye, only to get plonked right on his arse; there was a brief re-enactment of the Frye-Takayama backstreet-nose job (and backstreet- other forms of reconstructive surgery), though thankfully more brief. At one point the chaos temporarily abated as Don Frye demonstrated some admirable top control. The fight was odd in its swings to the ground and back to the feet.

It was in familiar territory, on those feet, where the fight came to its ultimate end. Those familiar with Thompson’s pugilistic oeuvre will know the scene well, as the fatigued Bristolian was swinging those massive arms for all he was worth. The result was somewhere closer to Thompson’s fight with Yoshida than Frye’s fight with Le Banner: Thompson was punching and punching, and Frye was eventually stopped. What is interesting is that, for all his weight and muscle, it takes a lot of shots for Thompson to drop people; this was not the clinical assassination Le Banner delivered.

The biggest story coming out of this show was not the heavyweights, though (even if Butterbean did win a match via submission to keylock). It was the further adventures of one Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, as he followed his dramatic knockout victory over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira with a dramatic knockout victory over Ricardo Arona. While I like to resist the hype of bandwagoneering, this is quite the achievement. Judo champions with heavy hands, who train at Team Quest, should be feared. Given the impressive takedown defence and the fact that, off the top of my head, the only other man to have beaten both Nogueira and Arona is one Mauricio Rua. I am not about to declare him the future of the weight class, but Sokoudjou is moving in high circles indeed. I eagerly await the next development in this man’s career.

Another fighter who saw another win on this card, albeit to infinitely less surprise, was Shinya Aoki. On the surface, it seems as though – after rolling through the likes of Hansen, Kikuchi, French and Black – he had paid his dues; that this fight was something of a Gilles Arsene (though not exactly, as Sakuraba took way too long to find the win in that fight). The submission here was quick and deadly, and one hopes this is a mere tune up for what has to be a firmer test, in the lightweight tournament that begins next month.

Speaking of master grapplers who inhabit that limbo betwixt light- and welterweight, this past week saw what has to be the crowning achievement of Matt Serra’s career. While I have gone on at length in the past about my fondness for the underdog, Serra vs. St. Pierre transcended that. See, Matt Serra (along with Randy Couture and Carlos Newton) is one of the fighters I took a shine to when first getting into MMA.

I thought his was a name to be consigned to history. Then TUF4 rolled around and my favourite took the series championship in a tight fight, and booked himself into what even I saw as certain defeat for the Renzo Gracie protégé. What happened when the two finally hit the Octagon was unbelievable.

Before the fight, I entertained an outside chance of Serra getting a takedown and then being well-placed to hit a submission, Aurelio-Gomi I style. The eventual chase knockout was something I am not likely to forget in a hurry, and respect really does to out to Serra for working on his stand-up so effectively. To think that, after GSP rampaged through Trigg, Sherk, Penn (well, perhaps ‘rampage’ isn’t the most apt verb in that case) and Hughes, it would be Serra who stopped him – and in such dramatic fashion.

I’m not about to pretend that Serra is as potentially a dominant as Hughes or GSP seemed they were/would be, but this is a definitely deserved moment in the sun for the veteran. Like Couture as heavyweight champion, the scene just got a lot more interesting as theoretically very many people might now be the next champion. Hughes looks likely to get another shot, and is likely to be successful if he does. As for St. Pierre, he is ever the gentleman (note to Tim Sylvia: this is how you lose a fight without losing fans) and, at just twenty-five, seems destined to be reunited with his belt at some point in the near future.

I made my DSE eulogy in the last issue, but it would be remiss of me to finish this article without a farewell nod to arguably the most entertaining epoch of MMA seen thus far, and indubitably the most epic. Here’s hoping the promotion does not flounder under new ownership, because the name certainly deserves to live on in opulence. While the heavyweight raids take a toll on the fight cards, the impending lightweight tournament fills me with optimism, especially as it reminds of the classic ninth Bushido show.

Pride is dead! Long live Pride.

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