Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The US/Brazil Cotton War: A secret conflict that says much about our political myopia

Tonight while trying to keep my sanity on a gridlocked 405 freeway at rush hour, I had a chance to revisit an old friend, NPR’s All Things Considered. The flagship news program of the American public radio scene, ATC was my co-pilot and information czar during my long commutes from home to grad school. However, since the advent of the iPod, I find I seldom listen to the radio. This night, however, I had forgotten my little metal box and leash so I got get reacquainted with the pleasures of public radio.

What shows like ATC do that no other broadcast news medium does (as well) is to find the depth of the topic and explain it to the listener who, it is assumed, is an intelligent critical thinker. Case in point , evidently we are in a kind of trade war with Brazil over cotton. Brazilian farmers were having a hard time competing with American farmers because we are “breaking the rules” by giving subsidies to our cotton farmers. Brazil took the US to the WTO. The WTO found in favor of Brazil. But the WTO has no enforcement power so the US went right on giving subsidies to the cotton farmers. In other words, nothing changed.

We should mention that this was the early 2000s, during the W Bush administration . Subsidies are the dirty little secret in the world of Republicans. It is socialism by definition, but some would call it “trade promotion.”

Then the Brazilian trade commissioner discovered that the WTO ruling allowed Brazil to retaliate. But how so? The commissioner sent letters to every major American trade association and trade-related politician in the US stating that due to the US’s continued defiance of the WTO’s ruling, Brazil would, in 30 days time, begin to apply taxes on a wide range of American goods exported to Brazil.

That rang a few bells. Long story short, the Obama administration got involved. They sent a trade delegation to Brazil to discuss what can be done. Obviously, the Brazilians want the subsidy program stopped. But the thing is, the US is not in a position to do that now. Subsidies are the lynchpin of big agra in this country. For some farmers, the subsidy is all that is keeping them profitable. So while there may be some talk of phasing out subsidies in the future, it’s not to happen overnight. So, another impasse, yes?

No. The Americans offered the Brazilians a deal: for as long as we continue to pay subsidies, will pay your farmers, $147 million dollars a year. Not bad considering American tax payers front cotton farmers $3 BILLION dollars a year. $150 million seems like chump-change.

What I love about this article is the way it takes a seemingly esoteric trade policy and casts it the black light of explicit irony. These are expenditures hidden in plain sight. No one cares because no one on CNN, MSNBC, or FOX is going to talk about trade policy when it is much sexier to talk about personality politics as a horse race. Think back to all those times that John McCain would groan about ear marks… a few million hear, a few there. Did he ever mention the big fat payout to American cotton farmers who are essentially bribed to plant crops even when prices are low (thus undermining one of the major tenants of capitalism, the law of supply and demand?)

Coming out the midterm election cycle where issues and individuals were foisted on the public like the coming of a new fall season of television, I am even more disgusted by the low-regard politicians and pundits have for the American public. It’s as though a conspiracy of silence has been erected to keep real problems from being discussed. $3 billion dollars a year is a scandal. Bribing another country not to tax us is a scandal. Both the Bush and Obama administrations should be called to task. Instead, we get the dumbest of the dumbed down rhetoric from both sides. Politicians presented as celebrities, saviors, or the worst kind of scum. OR, if you live in states unfortunate enough to have an initiative process, you get a chance to vote on complicated and possible unconstitutional potential laws which are described in 20 second TV ads in such simplistic terms, you’d think the State capital is located on Sesame Street. It makes you wonder, perhaps briefly, but indelibly and with slightly sick twinge in the gut, whether we’re really cut out for democracy in this country. At some point we opted for a popular culture rather than a political culture. And yet, we still want to do the dance. We want to feel like we are doing something. And if things are too bad, we can have a do-over in two years. And the change of seats will be to us like the coming of a new dawn. A euphoria will overwhelm us long enough to let us forget that we ever cared at all.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brave New World

Gliese 581 g as it faces its red dwarf sun

Just this week, astronomers have released news that they have found an Earth-sized, extra-solar planet. More importantly, the planet is orbiting its start within the so-called "Goldilock's Zone," - an orbit that is not too close, nor too far from the star. The temperatures there range from 160 degrees Fahrenheit to 25 below. Neither extreme is unfamiliar to life as we know it. In fact, consider the tubeworms of the Pacific Ocean that thrive (along with dozens of other species) next to super-hot thermal vents spewing sulpher into the surrounding water. According to one scientist, if there is water on this new planet, the chances of life are "100 percent."

The planet is 20 light years away, meaning that even communicating at light speed with the critters on the planet would take decades.

It is frustrating living in 2010. Meaningful space exploration beyond our neighborhood will not be a possibility for generations. Or at least it looks that way. The moon and Mars and the local asteroids will consume our attention for the next 100 years. Solar slings, fission drives, quarter-light speed engines are just science fiction at this point. It would be nice if our new neighbors in Gliese 581g would send power up their warp drives, take on a two year mission and get their assuredly quadrupedal butts to Sol a deliver a Care package to get us caught up. Naturally, if they are that advanced, they probably know a thing or two about us already. We are no threat to them, but we are also nowhere near being ready for first contact.

Do you ever wonder what that day will be like? When we first get "the call," the unambiguous signal from that far out somewhere just beyond the tail of Scorpio saying, "yes, we are here and your are there. We share the same universe"

Riots in the street? Break down of civilization? Or, to be optimistic, a wholesale conversion to humanism and an end to all religion and superstition.

Both outcomes seem unlikely. I think we all know what will happen:

- The news will be sensationalized
- Scientists will say they need to study the signal more
- One or many conspiracy theories will develop,followed by an equal number of conspiracy theorists and devotees
- Religious zealots will see this as science's final attempt to quash their belief by making the greeting correspond somehow to a passage in Revelation
- UFO nuts will see this as confirmation of ALL of their ideas - from flying saucers to "Grays" to abductions
- Political leaders will make uninspired, ho-hum announcements, none of which will really capture the magnitude of the moment
- The Pope will say something along the lines of the opportunity to declare "The Good News" to a whole new group of pagans (as IF!)

But the discovery will fall out of the news cycle. Lady Gaga will wear something weird. An American Idol judge will say something stupid A drunk Southerner will ride a John Deer into doughnut shop and steal a dozen glazed Cruellers. The new iPhone App will allow you to send pictures of yourself doing things you haven't done yet. The Sex and the City sequel will be dislodged by The Jersey Shore movie.

Seriously, haven't the aliens been watching our sci-fi films? We need dozens of mile-long ships hovering over Washington DC for days on end. We need mind control and menacing silver robots. We need a spectacle, not a candy-gram.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Sympathy for the Bully: Two recent studies

Why do bullies bully? It is an evergreen question that has age old assumptions to go along with them:

- Bullies are from broken homes
- Bullies are exposed to booze
- Bullies have a low self-esteem

A recent article on LiveScience reports on a study conducted in the UK which seems conclude that the assumptions about the motivations of bullies are actually pretty much spot on. The study shoes that bullies tended to be from single, or no parent homes, had been exposed to alcohol "in the last seven days," and tended to have a low self opinion.

The study was a modest one. Just 666 students at 14 schools. Not nearly as robust as the one reported in July by Science Daily. SD reported on a meta-study of 153 separate studies conducted over the course of the last 30 years. Similar conclusions resonate with the British study and also seem to chime the bells of conventional wisdom. Bullies are more likely to be boys than girls, and bullies tend to have very poor problem solving skills, and will have low academic performance.

An interesting divergence between the British and American studies concerns who actually gets bullied. In the British study, kids who perform poorly in sports and in academics are libel to fall into the cross hairs of the bully. The classic bullied-victim, at least in the American conception, is the high performing male student, the "nerd." However, many of the American studies in the meta-report included both American and European students, so it may be the relatively small sample size of the British report that accounts for this rather specific bully-bette noir.

The American study further teased out details about a sub-population of bullies known as the bully-victim.
The typical bully-victim ... also has negative attitudes and beliefs about himself or herself and others... . He or she has trouble with social interaction, does not have good social problem-solving skills, performs poorly academically and is not only rejected and isolated by peers but is also negatively influenced by the peers with whom he or she interacts,

The article doesn't speculate about this profile beyond this assertion, but it is easy to imagine a "pack" of rough kids with an alpha leader and a cadre of betas and omegas. Being among the "in-group" of bullies requires adhering to a hierarchy. The one above steps on the one below, with the lowest order getting the worst of the abuse.

Fictional examples of the bullied-bully are numerous. In Grease, Danny Zuko and Kenickie compete for the alpha-dog position within the T-birds. Danny is clearly alpha at the beginning of the story, but as he attempts to win the love of Sandy by trying out for the cross-country team (a violation of the anti-establishment posture of the T-birds), Kenickie seems ready to graduate from beta status at the moment of the big car race. A subsequent injury in Kenickie re-establishes Danny's position in the clique. Meanwhile, the three remaining T-Birds, Doodie, Sonny, and Putzie, remain un-reconstructed omegas through the duration of the story, paring up sexually only with their counterpart omega-femmes in The Pink Ladies.

Similarly, in the animated world of The Simpsons, the alpha Nelson has, from time to time, crossed swords with Jimbo for control of the alpha position, while perennial omegas Kearney and Dolph must satisfy their angst by picking on the "nerds" of Springfield Elementary. Nelson is often seen keeping his "boys" in line with punches to the stomach and other acts of brutality. Acts which then filter down to the omegas and, eventually, into the society of victims ranging from Bart Simpson to Milhouse and beyond.


What do bullies do? Do they serve some sort of social function? Presumably, we'd all be a lot better off if we got along and were tolerant of each other. Maybe even the bully would agree, if he thought that "model" was a worthwhile one to follow. It seems that Nelson, et al have little faith in the "program." Already let down by parental units, given academic opportunities which he assumes set him up for failure, and then positioned within a hierarchy that rewards violence with respect (or fear), the bully settles into his role a kind of soft enforcer of social conservatism. The bully punishes the fat boy, the too effeminate kid, the “butch” girl, and the brainy “nerd,” all of whom are also loathed passively by the society at large. The bully concretizes this resentment with his jibes and his closed fists. We punish the bully, yet on some level must recognize that he is only manifesting the intolerance that becomes reflected in the culture through skinny teen models, uber-masculine “dudes,” endless heterosexual porn imagery, and a complacent culture of rampant anti-intellectualism.

The bully is society’s Mr. Hyde, its dark reflection. His pig-honesty sees the hypocrisy in our denunciations of him. His perpetual detentions and demerits only serve to underscore an ugly truth about society’s true feelings about itself.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bright and Shiny! My new Blackberry!

I recently purchased a new mobile phone. A Blackberry Bold 9700. It is the first such purchase I have ever made. I am a very late comer to these devices. The past two models I’ve owned, a Verizon LG, and a Motorola of some sort (the latter being the epitome of compact design in my estimation) came with a packaged set up by my wife. Basically, the deals were pretty good so why not take a phone for emergencies? I have to confess, it only took being broken down and stranded on the 134 freeway at 10:30 at night to make you see the wisdom of owning a piece of cellular technology.

But recently I’ve noticed increasing number of my friends, colleagues and students have begun preferring text messages to email messages. Still other interlink their home and office email addresses with their mobile devices. Then there are the various functions that mimic or parallel the performance of a computer, such as accessing individual websites, purchasing good and services, getting directions. I realize these aspects of use are probably as interesting as oxygen to anyone under 30. Generation Y and their little brothers and sister in Generation Z increasingly disinterested in sequestering themselves in their rooms when they could be out in the world. But they still over their technology, just as their older cohorts and Gen X elders do. But the new wave of mobile technology allows them to seamlessly integrate their virtual lives with their flesh-and-bone lives.

And yes, the attention span does suffer. Focus erodes as capacity increases. It is also unclear how pervasive this trend is. As far as I know, no formal studies of youth behavior have been conducted to account for this almost absurd level of multi-tasking. I sincerely doubt there will be a dramatic decrease in the appeal of “cocooning” one’s self in his or her office and exploring the virtual space unselfconsciously. The youngest cohorts of Gen Y (approximately born around 2000 – 2001) will be entering their teen years shortly, whereas their oldest brothers and sisters are in their late 20s by this point. The middle cohort, hovering in sophomore and junior years of high school, are stuck between the coddling restrictions of the home-place, and the promise of adult freedom of movement. Mobile technology allows for a version of freedom that allows them to feel as if their world is much more expansive than it is. Meanwhile, tech-savvy Gen X parents feel the comfort of “sustained” contact with their children, even though they really can’t be sure if their kid is actually at their friend’s house, or visiting a tattoo parlor and making friends with a 25 year old named Hawk.

I don’t remember who said it… and I don’t even really remember the quote itself, but the gist was that Americans are never happier as when they are on their way to, or leaving from, someplace they want to be. In other words, we are restless. Mobile technology seems designed to placate, endorse, and facilitate this sensibility. The oafish call of “where you at?” is a code for the real question, “are you having a better time than I am?” The technology provides ample opportunities for “escaping” a less-than-desirable destination. How many women have extricated themselves from a bad date by feigning an important phone call? How many dull lectures have students avoided with the plausible excuse of a family emergency? The pantomime of sociability, trumped by the kabuki of far-off, personal matters.

Who will be the brave soul who call “Bullshit!” to this practice? He will be honored in Sweden, surely.

The long-term implications are impossible to presage, but certainly we will become more adventurous. We have mobility on so many fronts – from the personal vehicles we drive, to the tiny digital devices that allow us to be “stationless” – that we might well simply live totally on the lamb, as it were. We won’t live anywhere anymore, we will simply “crash” where we can. (There almost certainly an app for this for the iPhone.) Perhaps the unborn late cohort of Gen Z (eta, 2015) will grow up to become a vagabond middle class. Working itinerate service-sector jobs. They can do their work from the mobile command ports at Starbucks or Pink Berry. Their social lives will run the clock out. Although, by that point, we can expect neural interfaces to usher in the something like digital pseudo-telepathy. That would such a remarkable development that the paradigm shift that would be wrought can scarcely be imagined.

Meanwhile, in mid-2010, I am searching for a tiny SIM-card among the detritus of packaging material that came with my new Blackberry. It seems our shift away from paper has created a physical-world vacuum that will be filled, if not stuffed, with discrete pieces of clear plastic, and black twist-ties.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nostalgia & Kitsch: A Review of Bob's Big Boy Restaurant

The following is a longer version of my Yelp review of Bob's Big Boy restaurant. A new location opened in my area.

For those of you unfamiliar with the chain, Bob's is a more-or-less typical middle of the road family dining establishment. The franchise has been around in one form or another since the late 1930s. It had its hey-day in the 60s and 70s as one of a dozen or so popular restaurants that appealed to the post-War generation of parents who, in possession of surplus income, found "eating out" to be a novel family entertainment.

Bob's was very appealing to children thanks to its rotund mascot, free comic books, and amble dessert options.

The chain went into decline in the late 80s and eventually declared bankruptcy. Subsequent revivals have seen an explosion of interest such that nearly 500 Big Boy's are now a going concern in North America.

In the following review, I refer to "The Fat Vegetarian." That is my moniker on Yelp. I write all my reviews from a vegetarian perspective. I try to locate vegetarian options at "regular" restaurants.

Pea-Soup Andersens meets Johnny Rockets?

The Fat Vegetarian hasn’t always been a vegetarian, but he’s always been fat. (Except for a brief but appreciated growth spurt in the mid-teen years that produced a rail-thin, Bowie-like vision that made him passable for leading a Roxy Music cover band… but I digress.) The fat begins and, evidently ends, with trips to Bob’s Big Boy, that bastion of family dining from the 1970s. Pappy Parker… Big Boy Combos… milk shakes… strawberry pie… and the infamous hot fudge cake, each were soldiers in the army that overthrew my will power for the better part of the Carter administration. (Equal blame can be laid at the feet of Sambo’s, Denny’s, Spire’s, The Park Pantry, The Parasol, JoJo’s, Norm’s, Alphy’s, and once a year, The Velvet Turtle… all those sundry middle-of-the road chains that sprouted up in suburbia between 1960 and 1980 that served predictable, inoffensive food to Boomers and their babies.) Bob’s was ubiquitous enough in the South Bay of Fat’s youth that you could drive from one location to the other and never have to turn left or right off of Hawthorne boulevard. They have always been an average, but enigmatic establishment. From the red relish to the near-perfect Thousand Island dressing, to the odd, pink glyco-gel they use to bind their strawberry pies, you were never unsure about where you were eating. The franchise, from what I can tell, has been through at least three revival attempts since the closures started in the 1980s. The “Hollywood hipster” revivals came in two phases in the 90s and seemed to coincide with the obnoxious Neo-Swing, doofus crowd converging at the Bob’s on Hollywood boulevard, and the old timey car crowd that, for whatever reason, associated Bob’s with car culture and nostalgia. But nostalgia is a poor business model. Just ask the owners of Ed Debevic’s. There has to be value and something you can’t get anywhere else. The reason Bob’s won’t die is because they use nostalgia to get old timers to visit, but they actually do provide a modestly interesting selection of unpretentious American food standards at a price comparable to the infinitely less interesting Denny’s or Carrows. (Has anyone ever desired their last meal to be catered by Carrows?)The newish location in Northridge (why is it listed as Chatsworth?) is immune to hip and keeps the kitsch to a minimum. It’s location predetermines it to be a utility player in the host of eateries up and down Corbin and Tampa. It’s traditional red and white color scheme partners it perfectly with its neighbor, Target, thus creating that all important “synergy” that businesses seek out. Load up at one, then load up at the other. The lack of hipness suggests that this location may be here to stay, and gauging by the packed house evidenced by a causal drive-by, it looks to have sparked the interest of the locals.

We went around 2:00 PM on a Thursday afternoon. There was plenty of seating.The interior is clean and bright, with lots of white surfaces and red vinyl seats . Chrome appointments accent the purposely-visible dessert station, thus providing the scene a hint of drive-in, “New Frontier” nostalgia without being pushy about it. The menus are falling apart… strange given how recently the joint opened.

From the vegetarian’s perspective, the Bob’s experience in general can be hit or miss. Not all carry veggie patties and most do not list them as an option on the menu. (Burbank being the notable exception.) And if they don’t have said-patties, the options are rather meager. Their grilled cheese sandwich is awful. The bread is never crisp and the cheese is skimpy. That being said, the Northridge location does offer the patty on request and is happy to put it on anything menu item you want. Because I was feeling jaunty I asked for a classic Big Boy combo with the veggie patty. I assumed the waitress would baulk at this idea as the classic Big Boy is a Big Mac-style burger… two patties. (When I have ordered a veggie burger at Burbank, they bring me a single-decker.) But she didn’t even blink, and a few minutes later, I had a double-decker with cheese with lightly cooked veggie and grain patties. Overcooking the veggie patty is usually a concern at restaurants, but here they were perfect. Also, the red relish was present and as tangy and tasty as I remember. I was charged extra for a second slice of cheese, which I thought was a bit cheap. Given the option of fries or onion rings I went with rings. They were fair. But frankly, the sandwich was a lot of food! This meant no room for dessert, but we did get a chance to watch many hot fudge sundaes and shakes being made. The staff looked to be very generous with the fudge sauce. Which is a positive sign.

Our waitress was very attentive. I asked for ice coffee (not on the menu) and she went to great lengths to make sure it was made the way I wanted it. She could have just said “no, we don’t do that” but she made a real effort, which is appreciated.

This Bob’s also has a modest salad bar that doubles as an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. Those options and the dessert intrigue made us curious to return. I suppose that is something nostalgia can’t provide... a future-tense of a place.

Friday, July 09, 2010

The Rear-Naked Dope: The MMA Files moves on

I started writing Mutable Gestures some years ago simply to doodle with ideas that struck my fancy. MG is a clearing house for writing that doesn't quite fit into my usual day-to-day writing concerns. A catch-all for the vagaries of my short attention span.

More recently, you may note that this space has been almost exclusively devoted to ruminations on the sport of mixed martial arts. This is quite a surprise to me personally for several reasons. I have never been a sports fan of any ilk. I also tend to loath most of the MMA fans I have had the misfortune to communicate with. Boorish oafs, meatheads, and spotty geeks for the most part. And the fighters themselves tend to be nearly as oafish and boorish, and very often come from a place of almost fanatical conservatism and religious zealotry.

The sport itself, the-fighters-as-fighters, and the fans-as-fans, represent a fascinating tripartite intersection of masculine fantasies, masochistic obsessions, and a level of commerce that blends true athleticism with pure spectacle.

Frankly, I can't get enough of it. And to witness a cultural phenomenon like MMA as it moves from awkward adolescence to plausible maturity is the proverbial once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The narrative is compelling, the characters are intriguing, and the opportunities for deep analysis are inexhaustible.

So it seems I am hooked. I will be writing about MMA in this informal, digressive way (as befits the blog format) now and for the foreseeable future. For that reason I have started a new blog, simple titled The MMA Files. Mutable Gestures will continue to be a place of occasional writings and rants.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The MMA files: The Flipped-Script Blues

Scott Coker weighs options post Fedor/Werdum

The fall-out from Fedor’s loss to Werdum has generated more interest than the fight itself. And while Dana White may rightfully gloat over the unqualified success of UFC 116, where his champion redeemed himself by winning a fight that redeemed the UFC’s heavyweight division, he must also take more than a little delight in the problems that plague his competitor, Strikeforce president Scott Coker. Aside from the usual sanctioning complications and money hemorrhaging that new promotions experience, Strikeforce has problems unique to itself. Recently, the company brought MMA middleweight superstar Dan Henderson into the fold in order to remove their home-grown champion, Jake Shields, whose workman like performances and lack of celebrity appeal made him an untenable envoy for a promotion with mainstream ambitions. Shields ended up running through Henderson during their match and he retained his belt. Now he is, ironically, UFC bound, and Strikeforce is stuck with an expensive 0 and 1 fighter and a vacant middleweight championship.

But it was the contracting of Fedor Emelianenko and his subsequent loss that has engendered so much speculation regarding Strikeforce’s plans for itself as a fledgling MMA promotion. The former long-time kick boxing promotion had a great deal of early success when began featuring MMA events in 2006. It set a box office record for an MMA in March of that year when it promoted the Frank Shamrock/Cesar Gracie match in San Jose, the promotion’s hometown. It was also the first MMA promotion to get the sport regulate in the state of California, thus opening a huge market for the sport. But this early success was not immediately followed up with. After the 18,000 – plus attendance of the Shamrock/Gracie card, subsequent events have struggled to approach the 10,000 mark. Buy-rates for PPV events were equally paltry.

One problem was the lack of named talent in the ranks. It is telling that one of the next major headlining event for Strikeforce after Shamrock/Gracie was a heavyweight match between early UFC chancer Tank Abbott, and journeyman Paul Buentello. (Buentello’s victory over Tank was essentially a “qualifier” for a shot at the then-non-existent Strikeforce heavyweight championship.) Another card with and aging and battered Shamrock as headliner against aging but viable kickboxing phenom Cung Le manage to pull a good gate. It was also the inaugural event for Strikeforce on premium cable, as the fights were broadcast live on Showtime. Nonetheless, the issue of depth-of-talent remained a concern. As the UFC witnessed stars, new and old, thriving in nearly every weight class - thus allowing fight makers more flexibility with creating plausible main-events, Strikeforce continued to struggle with its roster of aging stars and itinerate journeymen.

All young promotions go through a period of developing talent, especially as regards the heavyweight division. After all, the aforementioned Tank Abbott was a top contender in the early days of the UFC. The division is hard to keep stable because many fighters are physically better structured for light heavyweight. So you get fighters like Couture and Rashad Evans who can slip between the two. It is not surprising, therefore, that Strikeforce has had not really attracted a lot of big men. To this extent, I suppose one begrudge Strikeforce’s long-time, seldom defending champion, Alistair Overeem's desire to go abroad for several years and fight elsewhere. But once it had Fedor contracted, the question was how can Coker and company build a division that can rival what the UFC has to offer? Strikeforce had its own champion, a popular international star in Overeem. With some Stateside promotion, the good looking Dutchman could become a popular figure in the sport’s mainstream. With Fedor, the had the “uncrowned” king of all heavyweights. For however long he was under their auspices, Strikeforce could be an attractor of new heavyweight talent. They could potentially draw those big, young fighters away from Dana White and company.

The script, therefore, had Overeem returning from the road to defend his title against Brett Rogers and then, eventually, against Fedor. Fedor would probably beat Overeem, but win or lose, the fight had the potential of eclipsing anything Strikeforce had done in the past as far as attendance numbers and viewership were concerned. But for whatever reason, Strikeforce gave Fedor to Werdum, and with one tight triangle choke, made Strikeforce’s script moot. So what do you do if you are Mr. Scott Coker? What revision do you make the narrative?

First off, it should be understood that Stirkeforce does not care about concerns for "fairness" and title legitimacy. It wants legitimacy for itself as a promotion, which means it has to draw eyes first and foremost. Post-Fedor loss, the matchmaking scenarios it has in front of them are as follows:

  1. Overeem/Werdum (for the belt)
  2. Fedor/Werdum II
  3. Fedor/Antonio Silva (or possibly Ricco Rodriguez… or a similar non-UFC heavyweight)
  4. Overeem/Fedor

Scenario #1 makes sense from a sport's philosophy point of view. Werdum beat the #1 contender. The champion should fight the #1 contender, right? Right, except that match will be a flop for Strikeforce. They haven't built Overeem as a brand. Also, casual and mainstream fans only recognize one heavyweight champion right now, and his name is Brock Lesnar. Names make matches. I don't think this match is really on Coker's radar at all right now.

Scenario #2 has the ethos of "the rematch" and might do as well or slightly better than the first fight. Winner get's Overeem. A good option would be to have Overeem defend his belt against Silva. “Bigfoot” has experienced some laudable wins in the past several years, including a dominating performance over Andrei Arlovski in May. Silva was a nominal world champion, briefly, for EliteXC, the company from which Strikeforce salvaged many fighters. So there is some symmetry there.

For many of the same reasons, Coker could opt for scenario #3 and have Fedor face Silva, the only other plausible heavyweight competition in the promotion. Such an arraignment might make Overeem/Werdum viable as a co-main event. That way, both winners would be on pace to meet each other in four-month’s time (providing neither is injured). Ricco Rodriguez comes up as a possible candidate as both he and Overeem were to meet ostensibly for a match in Japan’s DREAM promotion. The lack of a contract may make the former UFC champion attractive to Strikeforce. But there are dozens of unaligned heavyweights “out there” waiting to be signed, and it may not make much difference to Coker who Fedor faces as long as their names aren’t Arlovski or Rogers. Who’s to say that Coker isn’t also considering Kimbo Slice as a possible acquisition? A Fedor/Kimbo headlining card would certainly draw eyes… as well as derisive howls of ridicule.

I think scenario #4, Fedor versus Overeem for the title, is the only match that guarantees Coker two good-to-excellent outcomes. A win for Fedor – who would still be the likely favorite - would give any rematch with Werdum much stronger gravitas. Fedor would be seeking redemption. Werdum would get his title shot as well as a chance to confirm that his first win wasn’t a fluke. It is would make for great drama and easy promotion.

While all this is going on, Strikeforce’s legal department is working on getting new verbiage into fight contracts that requires a champion to stay in the promotion as long as he is in possession of the promotion’s title. Coker must know, however, that Fedor as champion is untenable for the long haul. He will defend it to beat Werdum, but he isn’t going to stick around and fight… who? Rogers again? Overeem again? Silva? Even if the strategy works and Strikeforce begins to blossom and attract talent, there would simply not be enough time to arrange and promote an outsider for Fedor to fight. The division would be developing, but far from developed.

What needs to be understood at this point in the story is that the ultimate destination for Fedor in the twilight of his career is the UFC. Two dominating wins and a division championship is probably exactly what it is going to take for Dana White to get back in the business of Fedor Emelianenko. Of course, now Zuffa’s hand will be much stronger, and M-1’s much more compromised. Fedor will come to the UFC, but he will come as a fighter, not as an enigma.

Coker must foresee this outcome, too. He can sue Fedor for breach of contract, sure. But Zuffa’s legal team is sure to make this case drip like cold sap through the legal system. There may be a payoff at some point, and Strikeforce may win, but by that point, Fedor will have appeared on The Ultimate Fighter, won the belt at a massive out-door main event, and made the White et al millions.

So why not make hay while the sun shines? Or in this case, while the “Russian Tsar” shines? If he can pull off a duo of Fedor cards before the big man bolts, Coker might just have… well, what will he be left with? Two good gates? Decent ratings? But no star. No dream matches. And this gets to the heart of the real dilemma for Scott Coker: without a solid, loyal fanbase, without regular, weekly TV exposure, and without a stable of viable and attractive fighters, it doesn’t matter what direction you send Fedor. He is one fighter with his own destiny. Strikeforce is a business with a future that must be project far past the exigencies of single fighter, a single match, or a single season of cards.

Friday, July 02, 2010

The MMA Files – EXTRA: Werdum beats Fedor! ( And the World Doesn’t End!)

Seldom is history ever really made in the world of mixed martial arts. It is a new sport. It has a growing fan base. The competitors tend to come and go. Careers are brutal and very few get to perch on the narrow summit of glory and gold. But Fedor Emelianenko is one of the sport’s legitimate international success stories. He’s been there, he has won the championships, and he has made his money. Fedor has been the #1 heavyweight in the world for nearly a decade, and in the top five of the pound-for-pound standings for nearly as long. But what made Fedor the most talked about man in MMA for all these years is one quality that no other fighter could boast as possessing… an undefeated record. With the exception of technical loss due to doctor’s stoppage of a tournament match, Fedor had never lost in 34 matches. That fact alone was his most compelling argument. It was his management team’s leverage. It was his mystique. His calling card and in many ways, his greatest weapon. It created an aura of invincibility and a level of intimidation that no amount of training could every replicate. That aura vanished on the night of the Saturday June 26th in San Jose, California as “The Last Czar” was submitted by fellow ring veteran, Fabcricio Werdum in under two minutes of the first round. Fedor came at Werdum with a flurry of wild, looping punches. The salvo sent the Brazilian to the mat and it looked like a quick KO was in the offing for Fedor. But Werdum, a black belt in BJJ, kept catching Fedor’s arms before they could land cleanly. And in the spirit of Beckett’s maxim “try/fail/try again/fail better” Werdum persisted with grappling until he had Fedor’s head in a tight triangle lock. Werdum had two advantages at this point in the match. One, it was early in the round so the fighter’s bodies were still relatively dry. As matches progress, BJJ holds become increasingly difficult to hold onto. But Werdum and Fedor had not started to perspire, thus the lock had friction to help it “stick.” Second, Werdum is 6’4” with perhaps 40% of that height being in his long legs. Leg-length means more leverage and a “deeper” cinch. Triangle chokes in general favor long legs. Once sunk, they are nearly impossible to escape. The hold also leaves an arm vulnerable, and the head exposed for striking. In other words, properly applied, it is pretty much the worst hold to find yourself in. There is no real “answer” to the hold unless you can create space in the cinch to allow a modicum of blood to continue to flow to the head. Travis Lutter had some success with this defense when he met Anderson Silva. Silva had the triangle totally locked but Lutter was able to work his hand in enough to keep from being choked out. Of course, Silva still had a clear shot at Lutter’s skull, and promptly began bludgeoning him with elbows. The point it, Fedor found himself in the worst possible hold for him, at the worst possible time. There was really no chance for escape and the bell would not rescue him. The single tap from Fedor on Werdum’s thigh was a gesture made, not so much out of desperation as resignation.


1. Win re-legitimizes Brazilian Jujitsu as strong finishing discipline:
The UFC’s emergence as the major league mixed-martial arts promotion has brought with it a host of unintended consequences. Among other things, its acceptance by the American mainstream has meant that fighters tend to want to “end big,” which usually means instigating a striking war. Grappling, once the co-equal partner in the MMA game along with striking, has taken a backseat to flashy, “highlight reel” knockouts. The UFC even has a multi-volume DVD compilation called Ultimate Knockouts. (An Ultimate Submissions compilation was released in 2003, but it has since gone out of print.) It is perhaps an American bias, but if MMA is to truly take root as a wholly-integrated combat sport, rather than a sloppy punch fest, it will need to hold on to its roots. Fedor’s submission at the hands (and legs) of Werdum should go a long way towards reminding fans of the deadly potency of BJJ. The sub should sit alongside Frank Mir’s ankle-lock win over Brock Lesnar, BJ Penn’s gory rear-naked choke of Joe Stevens, and Ryo Chonan’s flying scissor lock submission of Anderson Silva as examples of how exciting submission grappling can be.

2. Loss suggest massive hole in Fedor’s game: Fedor’s long winning streak has essentially been against two types of fighters: wrestlers and kickboxers. The last time he fought an elite, black belt in BJJ was 2004 when fought two grueling matches against a young Rodrigo Nogueira. Prior to those encounters, one was to return to 2003 and “Big Nog” again to see Fedor against a BJJ artist. Further back, and it’s not until 2001, very early in Fedor’s career, that he meets Renato Sobral, another BJJ artist. Finally, in 2000 and Fedor’s forth match as a professional, he met Ricardo Arona. All of those matches went the distance. Fedor picked up wins in all but the single no-contest against “Big Nog.” It is only after the loss to Werdum that we can look back and note how strange it is that an elite fighter could compete for over ten years and only meet four BJJ black belts. Fedor, himself a black belt in judo and a decorated samboiste would seem a natural to fight the legitimate heirs to the judo tradition as represented by the discipline of BJJ. But he simply hasn’t. Was this by design or simple matter of scheduling? Surely Fedor knew Werdum’s pedigree. Perhaps he and his camp read his getting cut from the UFC as evidence of Werdum being in the nadir of his career and therefore an easy entrĂ©e before the inevitable and long-overdue title shot against Overeem. Whatever the case, the loss will force Fedor to do something that he has never done before: re-evaluate his game. Indeed, Fedor seems to have already diagnosed his problem. Minutes after the loss, in his in-ring interview, Fedor knew he had over-committed to striking Werdum on the ground without taking his position into consideration. He essentially assumed he could bludgeon his way through Werdum’s guard and break through whatever hold he was contemplating. It is unlikely he would make such a mistake in the future. But once was enough.

3. Loss may help get Fedor into the UFC:
It is no mystery that Dana White has been campaigning to bring the big Russian into the Zuffa fold for years. The acquisition of PRIDE by the UFC seemed a bellwether for a mass exodus of talent from that withering promotion. Many came, but Fedor stayed aloof. Negotiations stalled. Both sides blamed the other for intransigence. While it is possible that White, et al, may not have given Fedor and his management team the degree of deference they may have felt they had coming to them, what has surfaced over the months and years of failed talks is the rather untenable scope of the Russian’s side’s demands. For the privilege of bringing Fedor to the UFC, Zuffa must allow him to continue to compete in amateur sambo events. In other words, UFC would release their potential head-liner and world champion to fight in another combat sport where he could possible get injured. In addition, the UFC would have to give contracts for members of Fedor’s fighting club. That’s right, along with the great Fedor, the world would get to witness the likes of Lassick Shibanov, Dzhamal Kubanov, and the great Maxim Grishin. (I should add that not all the members of the club are regional yokels. Light heavyweigh standout and multi-promotion world champon, Gegard Mousasi also fights under that banner.) And finally, and perhaps the tipping-point for the Zuffa side, all Fedor bouts would have to be co-promoted with M-1 Global, a small promotion out of Holland, co-owned by Fedor. Naturally, the UFC has no interest in diluting its brand after spending nearly two decades establishing it just to get a single fighter under its banner. The enigma of Fedor’s place in the world of MMA, however, meant that the pressure to get Fedor would remain, regardless of who else fought in the heavyweight ranks of the UFC, and no matter how much Dana White railed against the consensus of Fedor as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. But now that enigma has been compromised it is possible that much of M-1’s leverage has eroded as well. They can no longer pitch Fedor as the invincible monolith. He was beaten soundly in under 90 seconds by a fighter who had been cut from the UFC after a devastating first-round loss of his own. This, combined with the legitimate (and now some would say confirmed) criticisms of Fedor’s lack of real competition since 2005, and the reality that Fedor is only getting older, more injured, and slower conspires to weaken Fedor’s negotiating hand. It is now doubtful whether he will ever gain mainstream acceptance as one of the greatest fighters of all time unless he competes and dominates the UFC heavyweight ranks. Honestly, it is likely that he would dominate Lesnar, Mir, and Carwin, if he were to sign with the promotion in the next 18 months. Indeed, he would be favored to win the title, recent loss or not. But the ranks of the division are growing exponentially and the younger talent are looking very impressive indeed. If he were to take a contract with the UFC, it is equally likely that he’d receive his second legitimate loss. So, the clock is ticking in more ways than one. The Werdum loss may expedite something that many saw as inevitable years ago.

On July 1, Dana White verbally closed the door to the notion of Fedor coming to the UFC in an interview with ESPN radio, suggesting that there was no longer any incentive to sign the Russian after his loss to Werdum. The consensus among MMA pundits and prognosticators is that White is essentially entering into a kind of pre-negotiating stance, anticipating a humbled, hat-in-hand gesture from M-1. Where once Fedor’s management believed they held all the cards, the combination of the Werdum loss and the poor ratings and gate of both the Fedor-fronted Strikeforce events (not to mention the disastrous PPV numbers for the PRIDE event in Las Vegas of 2006), would make it laughable for them to reiterate the same contract demands of previous years. For his part, White would be ill-advised to write off Fedor’s marketability. The UFC greatest asset is its ability to promote itself and its fighters. They could supply the missing piece to Fedor’s legacy, which is mainstream recognition, and pull off the biggest card of its history. One can imagine a July 4th weekend card… perhaps in 2011 or 2012… that sees Fedor fighting for (or defending) the belt against a big American opponent. Lesnar… Carwin… even Randy Couture, the dream match of the ages… red, white, and blue American flags, blue, white, and red Russian flags. Surely White has this image in his head as well. The hard talk is just that, talk. One must remember White’s other “absolutist” statements regarding such matters as Liddell’s retirement after the Rua knockout, and the “Kimbo sucks” comments that eventually led to the big street fighter headlining The Ultimate Fighter in 2008.

4. Outcome bungles the script for Strikeforce:
The plan was to go something like this: Spend the money, bring Fedor into the fold after the UFC balks. Fedor being the biggest name in MMA (at least according to the hype) would help the upstart MMA promotion compete with the UFC for a national audience . Mix network exposure with a heavily promoted premium cable events to get the names out there. Give Fedor a couple of “gimmie” matches. Collect your home-grown heavyweight champion from his globe-trotting. Bring him to the States so he can defend the belt for the first time. After both the champion and Fedor clear out the paltry stable of contenders, start building to a signature event where the two meet. Sure, you took massive losses on the build-up events in 2009 and 2010, but surely Overeem/Fedor would be your promotion’s payday, right? Overnight you would become Burger King to the UFC’s McDonald’s. It was all going to plan. Fedor came and destroyed Brett Rogers. Mr. Rogers then provided Alistair Overeem with his soft defense. No one really watched these bouts, mind you. The ratings were modest to say the least. But what was important was to show that Strikeforce could put on world-class events… even if they had to recycle bodies. Curiously, the match that most would assume would be forthcoming, Overeem/Fedor, was not in the offing. Timing meant that Fedor would fight once more before “The Big One.” No bother. Here’s another body. Here’s Fabricio Werdum. A ring veteran who had just been cut from the UFC. Naturally, Fedor would walk through him, right?

Not so fast, comrade
, says the ghost of Helio Gracie from BJJ Valhalla.

Naturally, we were all surprised. So if you’re Strikeforce, what do you do? Do you give Werdum his title shot? To give Fedor a rematch? Do you say “screw it” and give Fedor a title shot anyway? Obviously, Strikeforce doesn’t care about little things like legitimate contention. Overeem won his belt from a 25 and 10 journeyman and the vanished off the scene for three years. Brett Rogers was rewarded for his loss to Fedor with a title shot. (Who else were they going to give it to other than Fedor? Tank Abbott?) Overeem may simmer for another season, waiting for the outcome of Fedor/Werdum 2 because what is important to Strikeforce is creating that BIG payday; that singular event that will carry them over into legitimate competitiveness with the UFC. But even after Saturday’s historic bout, it is doubtful whether many American fans are any more familiar with the name “Fedor” than they were on Friday. And if that’s the case, Strikeforce, the brand, certainly can’t piggy-back off that lack of impact. It can’t build from the assumption that they have a star on their hands. A win for Fedor would have deepened the mystique and enlarged the enigma, but it may not have done much beyond that in the eyes of the casual MMA fans, who, after all, repesent where the real money is.

5. Outcome may cement Brock Lesnar as #1 heavyweight in world (proving he beats Carwin): If nothing else, Fedor’s loss to Werdum will mean that the Russian will likely fall out of the Top 10 overall rankings. Having not won a major promotion title since PRIDE’s closure, Fedor has been the “uncrowned champion” exclusively by virtue of his winning streak. (He does hold a nominal world title under the all-but-defunct World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts sanctioning body, but he is rarely advertised as thus.) Given the dearth of legitimate heavyweight contenders in the MMA in general, the question remains who, if anyone, will take the place of Fedor as the world’s number one heavyweight? There are not a lot of names to choose from. Like the middleweight division (specifically in the UFC) the heavyweight division has had a hard time securing consistent talent. The 265 pound cut-off point for the UFC means that so-called super-heavyweights need not apply, and many fighters have traditionally hovered around the low-end of the scale nearer 205. Thus, viewers have witnessed popular fighters (Randy Couture, Rashad Evans) dropping down to the pack the light-heavyweight division over the years; often leaving the title belt in the hands of less elite, but more legitimately “heavy” fighters like Tim Sylvia and Ricco Rodriguez. (Which, in turn meant that the heavyweight champions would often fight “contenders” like Justin Eilers and Gan Mcgee.) But the scene does seem to be changing, and not just in the UFC. While the Zuffa-owned promotion has grown the division in the past year with heavy promotion of the weight class through their flag-ship program The Ultimate Fighter, the rank-and-file also consists of new talent drawn from more conventional recruiting streams. The new pool consists of “legit” heavies like Cain Velasquez, Junior Dos Santos, and of course Shane Carwin. Meanwhile, long time heavyweight competitor and former champion, Frank Mir, recently bulked-up in preparation for his bout against Carwin (which he evidently assumed was a warm-up for Lesnar, given how devastatingly he lost) suggests that fighters in this division have to make a difficult choice to either bulk up or cut and be large sub-205 competitors. And indeed, Mir has recently contemplated a move down to that division. Regardless of who wins on July 3, the bout cements the new direction of the UFC’s heavyweight division. It will mean smaller heavyweights (those who are 220 and lighter) will struggle to compete against these highly athletic and almost inhumanly powerful men. The division will then become singular and possibly exclusive. Providing the UFC can continue to attract (literally) big talent, it may further affirm the promotion’s dominance in the sport. For his part, Fedor may or may not be able to sustain a consistent winning record in the super-sized heavyweight division of the UFC. Even during his undisputed years of dominance from 2000 to 2005, he seldom fought big heavyweights. When he did fight monsters, they have often been of the “freak show” variety, such as Zuluhinio and Hong Man Choi. Hardly elite fighters. He may find himself staring across the ring at other PRIDE alumni like Mirko CroCop and “Big Nog” Nogueira, lighter heavyweights who haven’t quite found breakthrough success in their new home.

6. Loss may send Fedor into retirement: Aging, active, and often injured. This has been Fedor’s life since 2005. Broken hands, injured ankles, and the multiple lacerations are the hallmark of someone who has been in the fight game for over a decade. To be sure, the competition prior to coming to Strikeforce has been prescribed to present Fedor with plausible competition, but without over-taxing his skills. His first fight in Strikeforce against Brett Rogers, though still quick work for the Russian, did bloody Fedor’s face more than he has been in recent memory. The catastrophic, even rookie-level mistake made during the Werdum fight further suggests a dwindling of his powers. A retirement bid at this point might prudent, but it also may be premature. If Fedor can mount a training camp that significantly improves his already formidable skill set, he could legitimately make a run at the UFC belt. We need to keep in mind that the Werdum submission was an error, not an existential fault, like Chuck Liddell softened chin of recent years. And speaking of knock-outs, it should also be noted that Fedor has never been knocked out. The current crop of UFC heavyweights (with the exception of Mir) are not submission specialists. It stands to reason that Fedor would have more than a mere puncher’s chance against Lesnar or Carwin. So while it is true that that he may be nearer the end of this career than the middle, a retirement path would be better plotted out in years rather than months.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The MMA Files - Part 7 - The Greatest MMA Fighters of All Time (16 – 20)

16. Kenzu Sakaraba – Be known for one thing, but be the best at that one thing. “Saku” was good at two things, being challenging to Wanderlai Silva when “The Axe Murderer” was at his deadliest, and defeating Gracie family members in decisively the ring. Sakuraba’s record against the clan is 4 and 2, although even those two defeats must seem disappointing to the Gracie’s as they were both decision victories against a TKO and a submission for the Japanese heavyweight. A definitive defeat of their nemesis would resolve a long-standing goal in the Gracie family history, which is to prove Gracie BJJ as superior to other fighting styles. Whereas a loss to Matt Hughes may be written off as a man beating another man, rather than a show of stylistic superiority (Hughes defeated Royce by utilizing a variety of techniques) Sakuraba remains the one fighter who continues to essentially fight the same catch-wrestling game year after year. So, despite a checkered won loss record (especially in recent years), Sakuraba continues to hold the unofficial title of “Gracie Hunter,” the mongoose to the Gracie’s cobra. The quality that makes Sakuraba such a problem for BJJ practioners (and something of an easy target for muay thai specialist like Wanderlai Silva) is his total lack of regard for his own safety. We could call it supreme courage, or we can call it recklessness, but there is nothing shy or withdrawing about his ring work. He loves nothing more than to have a skilled ground specialists, like Vitor Belfort, on his back and figure out ways of getting into his man’s guard. Watching Sakuraba parry, somersault, and sometimes slam his body onto his prone opponent, risking vicious up kicks and submission attempts, is like watching a man dive into fire. The Belfort fight is especially illustrative of this strategy. For the majority of the first round, Sakuraba had Belfort on his back, all the while standing over him, looking for opportunities to engage on the ground but being careful to avoid the powerful, and often game-ending up kicks from the much bigger and more powerful Brazilian. But he did much more than bide his time. Sakuraba continually punished Belfort’s legs with sharp, digging kicks to the side of the thigh. Within minutes, the leg took on a deep purple hue. Sakuraba was just starting work on the left leg when Belfort left his guard momentarily open. The somewhat lanky Japanese fighter immediately pounced on his man, delivering a sustained salvo of punches to the face before the round ended. The second round was more of the same initially with Belfort taking to the ground, but this time Sakuraba resented the posture and took his anger out on the already heavily damaged right thigh of Belfort. A flurry of kicks were launched in advance of the referee standing two fighters up. Then Sakuraba showed that he was more than a mere puroesu washout by overwhelming Belfort with two highly accurate spinning back kicks to the abdomen. You see, Saku had remembered that he had managed to get off to good downward punches to Belfort’s midsection earlier in round 1. The follow-up is always on Sakuraba’s mind: What damage can I inflict now? The leg, yes, but what about his belly? I haven’t paid a return visit yet. The rest of the round featured a totally clueless Belfort taking to his back on four occasions and Sakuraba, each time, finding more opportunities to torture him. (The usually polite and sedate Japanese crowd, actually booed these antics from Belfort!) As the round closed, Sakuraba, in an attempt to keep the energy level high, flung himself on two occasions, onto Belfort, trying to chop into his head with the heel of his foot. The decision was unanimous for Sakuraba. I am focusing on this early match because Vitor Belfort is one of the very best fighters of all time, and he could not solve the puzzle. By 2001, Sakuraba seemed to have become the fighter to embody the myth of the nearly unbeatable opponent. But the remarkable thing about mixed martial arts, is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be a totally complete fighter. Each individual discipline has its distinct learning curve and no fighter can realistically achieve mastery of more than a half-dozen during his or her professional career. Therefore, when confronting an experienced practitioner of a fighting style unknown or novel to him, a fighter will be vulnerable. Royce and the other Gracie’s who have met Sakuraba, had little practical experience with catch wrestling at the master level because in most parts of the world, the style is associated with professional wrestling and therefore used more for its theatricality than it’s martial purpose. However, in Japan, professional wrestling, despite its outcomes being predetermined, is taken seriously as a combat style. Thanks largely to the efforts of the legendary Antonio Inoki via the historical intervention of “the god of professional wrestling” Karl Gotch, pro wrestling in Japan has established itself as sport of two worlds, that of kabuki-like theater, and that of the legitimate athletic contest. Catch wrestling and shoot wrestling absorbs and modifies elements of what can be generically referred to as “grappling,” or submission styles of martial arts. The variations are numerous and include judo, traditional jujitsu, BJJ, Tae Kwon Do, and many others. It is wrong to assume that a practioner of one is able to adapt to any other style. Clearly, the problem confronting the Gracie family (as was the case as well with Royce’s match against Matt Hughes) is a degree of arrogance or over-confidence in their mono-style of fighting against a style that already incorporates other disciplines. On top of this, Sakuraba has routinely worked powerful kicks into his game and has enough Greco-Roman savvy to take most of his opponents down at will. Combined with his freakish athleticism, it is perhaps easy to see why he has been such a thorn in the side of the Gracie’s and so many other fighters. But Sakuraba has never fought outside of the closed-system of Japanese promotions. With the exception of handful of early matches against Wanderlai Silva, CroCop, and Rampage Jackson (he lost to all but Jackson, who was a very new fighter at the time) Saku has never really fought the modern elites of his sport. He shows no interest in the UFC (despite winning the promotion’s Japan tournament early in his career) and at the age of 40, it is clear that he is in the nadir of his active career. His loyalties to piroresu and his homeland may have made him a legend in some quarters, but he may ultimately be remembered exclusively by MMA fanatics.

17. Rich Franklin –
Rich “Ace” Franklin recently ended the professional career of Chuck Liddell in a fast and furious match that for all intents and purposes was the equivalent of a “loser leaves town” retirement match. Franklin had gone 20 and 1 in his career before winning the UFC’s middleweight championship. He defended it twice and held the belt for 16 months before receiving one of the most savage beat-downs in MMA history at the hands (and feet) of Anderson Silva. The division being was it was (and remains) – lacking depth due to the heavy competition at welterweight and light-heavyweight – Franklin did not have to wait long for a rematch. Two victories later (including a hard-fought contest against the underrated Yushin Okami) and Franklin would meet Silva again. A year later, but the result was essentially the same. In fact, Franklin actually looked a little worse this time around. Since then, Franklin has been something of an oddity in the UFC. He is a solid, pure middleweight, and would probably be the champion in the division were it not for Anderson Silva. But he clearly can’t beat the man. Two devastating loses support this argument. But he can beat just about everyone else. Light heavyweight does not seem to suit him as well. He struggled with Matt Hamill before stopping him the third round of their match. And though competitive against Dan Henderson, he lost the decision. But still, Franklin is too good to simply take on a journeyman or “gatekeeper” status like Keith Jardine or Joe Stevenson. So what to do? The UFC’s matchmaker, Joe Silva had put Franklin in two “catchweight” matches, meaning that both fighters agreed to meet at a given weight. This was first done to accommodate Wanderlai Silva, who was dropping down to middleweight after an unsuccessful run at light heavyweight. Wanderlai tends to either destroy his opponents or bring out the best in them, and thus was the case with his match against Franklin. The two fought a three round war that saw Franklin taking the decision and the both of them winning “Fight of the Night” honors. Silva opted to return to the catchweight well once more with Franklin in his bought with the returning Vitor Belfort. This time, it seemed the spirit of “The Spider” ran through “The Phenom” as Belfort straight-up beat the hell out of him, taking a TKO victory. The Belfort match’s results aside, it did suggest that Franklin really was an all-around “go-to” fighter for non-title main event fights. He is an exciting, multi-layered fighter, good looking, and, in his own way, quietly charismatic. So what if he can’t beat Brazilians? (He’s 1 and 4 against that tribe. Lyoto Machida was his first loss.) He is still a viable commodity, and, perhaps more importantly, a loyal worker. Thus, when Tito Ortiz pulled out of the main event of UFC 115, and Dana White fired him from coaching duties on The Ultimate Fighter, White had one call to make, and that was his to his “ace” in the hole. It was a short temp position. Just two weeks with his team and then a month before his fight with Liddell. Win or lose, Liddell had the status of a legend and millions in the bank. For Franklin, the stakes were somewhat higher. He is a better, more well-rounded fighter than Liddell, but nowhere near as famous. Franklin still needed to fight competitively, even if it meant doing “odd jobs” for the UFC and biding his time before Anderson Silva loses his belt or retires so he can reclaim the middleweight title. A loss to Liddell may not have meant the end, but probably portended a return to the undercard. Thus, the night of the event, both fighters came out to fight, Liddell looking to win or die trying for the sake of glory, and Franklin to keep himself viable. Liddell broke Franklin’s arm early on in the first round, which meant that he may have had to concede the rest of the match unless he finished Liddell before the end of the round. The focused desperation paid off. Liddell was flat on his back and unconscious from a well-timed Franklin punch, a state Liddell has unfortunately become familiar with in recent years. Franklin, battered and broken, showed more than titles can change hands in the MMA cage.

18. Ken Shamrock
– Ken Shamrock is a steroid apologist; a punchy has-been; a big-mouth shit talker who can’t cash the proverbial checks; a litigious cry-baby, and a fighter who in the past ten years has amassed a record of 4 and 8. His last victory was against a now-deceased, morbidly obese kid who went 6 and 10 in his own brief career. Yes, Shamrock is a man to pity, despise, and ridicule. But it is only half the story. Maybe it’s none of the story, really. Ken (aka “Wayne”) Shamrock was the face of mixed martial arts from 1993 to his main-even loss to Tito Oritz in 2002. He was arguably the sport’s biggest draw in America, perhaps largely due to his long stint in the WWF as “the World’s Most Dangerous Man.” It is undeniable that Shamrock was instrumental in attracting maturing pro wrestling fans to MMA, arguably the legitimate version of the sport. Indeed, Shamrock’s colorful interviews and active promotion of his MMA bouts looked much more like pro wrestling “heat” than true grudges. His skills in the ring tended to focus on the shoot-style, favoring excruciating leg, knee, and ankle locks. This approach made him a feared competitor in the Japanese Pancrase organization where striking was minimized in favor of catch-style techniques. He had less success in the UFC, especially in the mid-2000s as he faced a young group of fighters trained in Greco-roman wrestling and boxing. Ortiz never looked better as when he took Shamrock to school over the course of a rather sad, and excessive trilogy of matches. The decade in general wasn’t kind to Ken. It was a decade that saw him losing at a 50% rate and seldom looking competitive. Why he continues to carry on is a question only he can answer. There is a lot of darkness, abuse, and abandonment in his early life, and he have never gotten along with his brother, the more well-rounded and consistent fighter, Frank Shamrock. By this stage he has lost so many matches in Podunk venues that the “legend” status begins to look tarnished. But Ken Shamrock should not be forgotten, nor should his reputation be tarnished by his recent masochisms. He is one of a handful of individuals who can truly claim to have built a new sport from whole cloth.

19. Forrest Griffin - Where is Forrest Griffin now? Once the face of the new generation, the group of Ultimate Fighter alumni who would take over the world of MMA from the old guard represented by Liddell and Ortiz. His match with Stephan Bonnar is considered the greatest fight in the history of the sport. He won the light heavyweight title from a ferocious Quinton Jackson, and holds the distinction of putting “Shogun” Rua to sleep via rear-naked choke. All the while, Forrest maintained a self-effacing, “aw shucks” attitude almost totally unknown in the sport. (He shrugged in disbelief when Dana White strapped the belt to his waist after his decision victory over Jackson.) He’s never disparaged another fighter for the sake of heat, and, by all accounts, has no tattoos. And yet he was for several years, arguably be most popular fighter in the UFC after Chuck Liddell. He suffered a weirdly devastating loss to Keith Jardine – never a harbinger of good things to come – before his championship run. Being a title-holder was short lived. Given the stacked nature of the division (then and now) there wouldn’t be the “easy” defense. Half-a-year after beating Jackson, Forrest met fellow-TUF alum Rashad Evans. Evans, perhaps the best boxer/wrestler combo in the sport, got a TKO off of Forrest in the third round. Ordinarily, you might expect a defeated champion to take on someone sub-Top 5 in his division, but he agreed to a main event-status bout against middleweight champion, Anderson Silva, who was looking to further establish himself at light heavyweight. (Truth to be told, Griffin was originally slated to meet the dangerous but manageable Thiago Silva, but Dana White wanted to bring Anderson up after the middleweight champ essentially cleaned out his division.) Griffin was humiliated by Silva who simply out-classed him at every turn. After being knocked down three times in course of a single round, Griffin attempted to mount an offence by attacking Silva with a flurry of punches… none of which landed. While backing off, Griffin was floored by a right from Silva. The punch knocked Griffin out. Later, when he came to his senses, a distraught Griffin ran from the cage and left the building before the ring announcer made his announcement. Overnight, Forrest Griffin went from being the working-class hero of mixed martial arts, to being the avatar of scorn. It was questionable whether he could comeback after not only losing the title, but also his honor. Perhaps the only way to redeem his reputation was to put him in front of a fighter who is even more disliked, and who has disappointed more fight fans than Griffin himself. Thus was the premise of Griffin/Oritz II. Ortiz had taken a close decision from Griffin in their first bout in 2006. The second time around, Griffin out pointed Ortiz with superior striking and took the decision. The real story, though, is the crowd’s reaction to Griffin’s entrance. Wearing black and white trunks (shades of Rocky) and coming out to the strains of “Tubthumper” (“I get knocked down/But I get up again”), Griffin must have had a sense that symbols were important. This was humility wrapped up in determination. As he often says of himself “I’m just a dog.” An animal that can whimper one moment, then bite the neck of grizzly bear the next.

20. Takanori Gomi –
The past several years have not been kind to “The Fireball Kid.” Once considered the lightweight version of Fedor – in other words, an almost unstoppable champion – Gomi has gone from a ten year record of 23 wins, 3 losses, and 1 no-contest, to going 2 and 3 in his last five matches. His last loss, against Kenny Florian, must have been particularly frustrating for the 31 year old Japanese superstar. Despite being touted by some as a “dream match” between arguably the #3 and #4 lightweights in the world turned out to be a route for Florian who put on nothing short of a striking clinic for two rounds before choking Gomi out in the third. In other words, Florian out-Gomied Gomi. What happened? One issue may be the level of Gomi’s competition over time. He has not consistently fought elite, division-ranked fighters. In the world of the PRIDE promotion, matches were often made to either highlight a standout’s prowess, or to generate sensation. To some degree, the same charge has been made against Fedor, who also fought extensively in PRIDE and who, like Gomi, was a dominate champion. (Gomi was PRIDE’s first and last lightweight champion.) This critique does not stand up to scrutiny when it’s applied to Fedor. He has soundly defeated the toughest competition of the mid-2000s. But with Gomi, the slander may stick. He was five years into his MMA career before he fought a truly elite fighter in Joachim Hansen. Gomi lost that match, his first loss in the sport, as well as his next match against BJ Penn. He joined PRIDE at that point and thereafter went on a two year, ten-fight winning streak. Of those bouts, three can be described as “standouts” : his six-second knockout of Ralph Gracie via knee strike; his one-punch knockout of a prime Jens Pulver, and his winning of the PRIDE belt from “Mach” Sakurai. On the basis of those victories alone, Gomi should be remembered by MMA history. However, his subsequent career has been an inconsistent one, both in terms of the quality of his opponents, and his performances in the ring. By the time PRIDE had shuttered, many still believed Gomi to be the natural a #2 lightweight in the world behind BJ Penn, and assumed that with Zuffa’s purchase of PRIDE, a “dream” unification match would be forthcoming. But the match never materialized as Gomi carried on in Japan under the auspices of an upstart MMA organization known as World Victory Road. WVR follows much the same philosophy about matchmaking as PRIDE, the difference being that due to a dramatic fall off in the popularity of MMA in Japan in recent years, they cannot attract the biggest names in the sport. Thus, Gomi fought mid-level journeymen competitors, going 2 and 2 while neither advancing his career, nor developing his game. After one more bout for the SHOOTO organization, Gomi finally signed with the UFC. In interviews, “The Fireball Kid” sounded positively sanguine about his chances in the world’s most successful MMA promotion. He had his eyes squarely on BJ Penn and the Lightweight Championship, as though both were his by birthright. But then he met Florian, and was put through a major schooling. Next up is a bout with scrappy tough guy, Joe Stevenson, a gate-keeper of the sort that Gomi should blow through. But then what? A flood of WEC lightweights may be inundating the UFC in the next year as Zuffa consolidates the redundancies between the two promotions. Any one of that current crop of elite 155s would rival anyone Gomi has fought in the past five years. Still relatively young, there is much Gomi still to do in the sport. The question is, does the “kid” have the will to “grow up” and earn his spot at the top again?