19 October 2007

UFC 76

Reasonably hot on the alternately distressing and exhilarating UFC 75, the MMA giant returned to its home shores, specifically Anaheim as I recall, for another instalment of Angry Blokes with Tattoos. It’s human cockfighting, don’t you know.

Considering the generally well-populated recent cards put on by the UFC, one of which having the gall to actually call itself ’Stacked’, this was the one I was really waiting for. ‘Waiting for’ in the sense of ‘screw what happens after this’, child-looking-forward-to-Christmas manic excitement. Yes, ‘Stacked’ was reasonably well constructed.

For my money (zero pounds and zero pence, then, as I’m English and watch my UFC on Bravo. Go Bravo!) UFC 74 was on paper way more interesting, as it had stuff like Couture-Gonzaga and GSP-Koscheck, one of my faves ‘Babalu’ and, well, no Sean Sherk seemingly intentionally not finishing a clearly outclassed opponent. While on steroids. Err, ‘allegedly’ and stuff. Add to that the actual card being cool to watch, and it was officially better than 73.

If 74 was a quality bit of top-shelf fighting action (in that it was really good, as opposed to being pornographic. Unless you go for that kind of thing, in which case be my guest), UFC 75 compensated its relative lack of… let’s call it card consistency… with heart-stopping sporting moments of excitement, grief, national pride and loads of other cool stuff. And, after all, are those heart-in-mouth, living-in-the-now single events not the very reasons we watch sports in the first place? The answer is ‘yes’, by the way, unless you are the kind of joyless wonder who eschews actively supporting competitors in their athletic exploits in favour of dryly analysing whether a fight was ‘objectively good’ or not.*

But there were some objectively good fights to boot! The broadcast I caught for some reason (got to fit those adverts in, natch) omitted Ryoto ‘LYOTO’ Machida’s win over Kazuhiro ‘KAZUHIRO’ Nakamura. Now, some people don’t like Machida because he fights strategically and would rather win without receiving a scratch than get involved in a stupid brawl. What an idiot he is! Anyway, he’s fantastic and I don’t particularly like Kazuhiro Nakamura (historically the best fighter I don’t like, though that status has lately been usurped by Sean ‘Roid Shark’ Sherk) so the result was all good to me.

Someone who doesn’t mind getting into a scrap, to the benefit of all those watching, is one Tyson Griffin. Known prior to his UFC debut for stopping WEC’s featherweight overlord of the gods Urijah ‘Not Heap’ Faber, he has made his name in the last year or so for having fantastic fights. After dealing rather quickly with David Lee, he went the distance in wars with Frankie Edgar (Griffin lost, but it was close and Edgar seems pretty damn hard anyway), Clay Guida (another schmart fighter, but this time Griffin won, and the fans in Belfast actually got entertained by something that night) and now Thiago Tavares. He’s like a better Roger Huerta.

Now, Tavares was last seen in the Octagon (trademark!) making absolute mincemeat of Jason Black, and was to this point undefeated. So they went at it for three whole rounds, and I didn’t really think either man would get the finish on account of they’re both as tough as my old Caterpillar boots (that’s tough). Anyway, it was a close-fought fight with a ton of action and I instinctually assumed Griffin was going to take it. Maybe I’m just cynical when it comes to UFC judges – though Edgar taking their fight was a pleasant surprise – but I didn’t see Tavares winning, even though it’s not like Griffin dominated or anything. So Griffin got the decision, Tavares his first loss, and I am sure we’ll see them both again very soon.

In the months leading up to the next fight (well, after rumours of BJ Penn and Hayato Sakurai being in it) I had been certain of its outcome. After Josh Koscheck beat Diego Sanchez by virtue of Sanchez only actually doing anything for a combined twenty seconds or so, leading to the legendary ‘nineteen and ONE!’ post-fight speech, Sanchez was given Jon Fitch to fight. I remember reading a rumour a few months ago that Koscheck and Fitch were two fighters welterweights in general didn’t want to fight. Well credit to Sanchez for taking both fights, but I knew he’d end up 19-2 when all was said and done.

And he did! At least the TUF alumnus acquitted himself a lot better than he did against Fitch’s team-mate, in which he decided staring was the way to victory. No, he was attempting submissions and the lot against Fitch. Fitch though is the scariest welterweight there is (I’d probably pick GSP and Hughes over him, but the hobo beard and crazy eyes add to the fear factor), and he pretty much dictated what happened and when.

So Sanchez is on a two fight losing streak, so he’ll have to think about things. There are rumours he is going to fight at lightweight (it seems the magic answer to any fighter woes is just to go down a weight class), possibly chopping off a leg at the knee in the process, but he’s not challenging for a title anytime soon. With Koscheck losing to GSP, it would appear that Fitch would be due a shot at some point but, with St. Pierre the current number one contender for a belt whose owner at that point is still yet to be decided, that would be a long time coming. Like, summer 2008 or something. Perhaps Koscheck and Fitch can conveniently fall out with each other in the interim. Or maybe someone can fight Sakurai!

While (eagerly) awaiting this card, the Jardine-Liddell fight interested me least on paper of all the broadcast bouts, but the draw of an upper-card (or in that case, main event) fight is one not to be under-estimated; there was something of an event about what was yet to come, even though I had been far more looking forward to the two above fights. Of course that was all to change as the night wore on, but there was a little tilt before that.

I don’t know what to think any more. Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua was the second most sure prospect for me in this post-Pride dissolution epoch of MMA; his beating Forrest Griffin was a foregone conclusion. To Griffin’s credit, and Rua’s massive disappointment (and more the latter to be honest), ‘Shogun’ experienced his first loss at 205 in over four years. It didn’t start out too badly: Griffin impressed with his strength and willingness to take Rua on, but the first round or so went in favour of the Brazilian. Then something happened halfway through the second round; ‘Shogun’ just stopped.

From that point on the fight was pretty unbearable for me to watch. While he’s not my favourite fighter at the weight, I dig ‘Shogun’ a lot, and it’s always nice to see historically elite fighters doing well. This was not ‘Shogun’ doing well, as he seemingly ran completely out of energy – Alberto Crane style – and spent most of the fights second half trying not to lose. Or die. Griffin displayed admirable killer instinct, and managed to get the tap from a rear naked choke seconds before the fight ended. Watching this I finally realised what bad results mean to fans of other sports; I was, to quote so many football managers, gutted. As with the early fights of a lot of historically Pride fighters, I hope to see better from his future bouts in the Octagon.

More intriguing, and infinitely more enjoyable, was the main event. Going into the show this was at least fourth-fiddle for me, but it really developed into something special with each passing minute. I don’t particularly like Keith Jardine. He has the worst nickname – The Dean of Mean – in a sport of poor noms de combat. He spent his camera time on The Ultimate Fighter grinning inanely and winning anonymously. I’m not even sure how many fights he had on the show. I don’t dislike him either. He throws a nice leg kick, is up for the scrap and has a beard that puts me in mind of Steve Von Till.

Liddell’s another odd one for me. Again, I have nothing really against him outside the fact that he holds numerous wins over fighters I like (e.g. Couture, Overeem, Sobral). That and he allegedly thumbs people in the eye. And he doesn’t like to grapple, and I like to watch fights with decent grappling in. but I can’t blame him for any of that (apart from the thumb thing) because he fights whomever is in front of him and he’s more effective when striking than offensively grappling. So with both fighters neither here nor there to me, I was supporting Jardine for the underdog factor.

Early in the fight, Jardine visibly knew all too well that he was indeed the underdog. He looked like he was about to wet his shorts at any moment, as he danced around the Octagon peeling off the occasional shot of hope. Liddell, meanwhile, practiced his usual strategy of waiting for his moment to strike. It was clear that Jardine rightly feared that strike.

As the fight wore on, though, the psychological battle was the most interesting aspect of the tilt. Canny Jardine maintained his strategy of fighting scared, peeling off a leg kick here, a body blow there. Still danced around; still looked terrified. Liddell waited, ever patiently, for his moment to strike. By the halfway point, though, a realisation dawned: Jardine was winning. Though his strategy had been piecemeal, he had been hitting his opponent to little reply. Though the spectre of that Liddell one punch knockout loomed ever present, there was a chance Jardine could take this.

And so the third round was one of the tensest experiences I have had as a sporting fan. I was now positively willing, begging, Jardine not to make a mistake, to make it to the end of the round without being clobbered. He knew he was winning, too. He had to know. So he kept plugging away at Liddell’s side, occasionally throwing head shots. Liddell, meanwhile, was almost at husk level in his inactivity. A mixed martial arts Jupiter, such was his silent presence and massive red mark on his side, he seemed psychologically broken. While he could have gone for a trademark looping hook, he didn’t. Nor did it seem like he would. It was just a matter of time before the unthinkable would happen: Keith Jardine beating Chuck Liddell after fifteen minutes of fighting.

There it was: the decision impossible to screw up. Not only was ‘Shogun’ felled, but Liddell had lost his second straight fight (where, though, are the calls for retirement that have been plaguing the similarly fated Filipovic of late?). The light heavyweight division, with its surfeit of good fighters and practically no qualitative hierarchy is the most exciting it has ever been. Overall, then, this was quite the card. No fight was boring and it was full of drama. It was amazing: upsetting, enthralling and scintillating. This is the stuff MMA is all about, and I’m just upset that – on paper – we’re not going to see a card of this quality for quite some time.



* Case in point: My favourite sporting moment by an absolute mile was the Wimbledon 2001 men’s singles final. Both competitors on the verge of retirement, Goran Ivanisevic and Pat Rafter engaged in a war for the ages. Was it a dazzling exhibition of technical perfection? Not in the slightest, as there were probably more double faults served than in any other match I have seen. Including my own. But it was precisely because of, rather than despite, this display of human imperfection and emotional exhaustion that the match is such a classic. So those people who cry that Nogueira-Herring I was ‘too one-sided’, or that Griffin-Bonnar I ‘didn’t have enough grappling in it’, please lock yourself in the garage with the car running and an OPM singles collection on the stereo.

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