Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Do they serve crow in The Netherlands? I know the Dutch eat some interesting food, with interesting names. Horsemeat is a delicacy, and how can anyone forget the famous fact about eating French fries with mayo as relayed by Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction?
Well, if crow is on the menu, vegetarian or not, I am going to have to tuck in. After many, many months of disparaging the talents and the constitution of Strikeforce’s heavyweight champion on this blog and elsewhere, Alistair Overeem returned to the American MMA scene in great style on Saturday, totally overwhelming Brett Rogers and defeating him in just over three minutes.
Rogers was never in the contest. Overeem seemed to intimidate the bigger man from the opening bell. After a short, awkward dance with the champion, Rogers repeatedly got backed into the cage. Only once did “The Grim” come forward into the center, and for his troubles, Overeeem rewarded him with an enigmatic, judo-like throw that sent his man to the canvas as though he were stuffed with feathers. From there it was a matter of the champion relentlessly keeping Rogers on the ground with downward strikes, then softening him with vicious knees before unloading with a long (perhaps overlong) volley of wild, slashing punches to the head. Veteran MMA referee, John McCarthy final rescued Rogers at 3:40.
The victory over Rogers accomplishes a small thing and a big thing. The small thing is that it obviously derails Roger’s championship dreams for the foreseeable future. The overheated, often fawning praise for his beating the late-career Andrei Arlovski (who also lost on Saturday night) and the frankly silly hype surrounding his bloodying the nose of Fedor Emelianenko in November created the aura of false contention. The promotion, hungry and desperate for a legitimate heavyweight stable, pushed Rogers into title contention far too early. Now Rogers will have to seriously recalibrate his career trajectory, and address his lacking skill set.
The big thing to come out of Saturday night is the arrival of a true dominating heavyweight champion on the MMA scene to compete with the UFC’s big boys. Zuffa can claim the lion’s share of the elite of the heavyweight world, a boast it could not make even five years ago when PRIDE was still a going concern. Right now, six of the ten heavyweight’s on Yahoo Sport’s divisional rankings are under UFC conracts. In the top five, Fedor stands alone above the UFC’s champ, Brock Lesnar, who is then followed by five UFC contenders. Prior to Saturday night, Overeem was a lowly number nine, just above Fabricio Werdum (Fedor’s next opponent) and under “Big Nog” Noguerira, who is three and two in his last five fights.
In fact, Rogers himself is ranked at number seven. It is damn strange to have a contender who has lost his most recent bout be ranked above the promotion’s division champion. But such has been the long , strange road from winning to defending champion for Overeem, who began his professional combat sports career over eleven years ago competing in K1 kickboxing and small MMA shows in the Netherlands. The Rings promotional organization gave young Alistair (then, just 19) the chance to travel the world to fight. The competition was less than elite until he entered PRIDE, where he initially dominated as a middle and light heavyweight. But his three year, twelve fight winning streak hit a brick wall known as Chuck Liddell during the PRIDE middleweight grand prix of 2003, thus dashing his hopes for his first major MMA title.
Despite the loss, Overeem remained extremely popular in Japan, which was in the throes of a mainstream love-affair with the new sport. The big Dutchman’s flashy strikes, kicks, and chokes provided great fodder for sporting culture that rewards showmanship.
His next run at the middleweight crown took him through Vitor Belfort and Igor Vovchanchyn on his way to the finals and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. However, Overeem was again denied, this time by TKO in the first round. Afterward, even by his own account, “The Demolition Man” entered a kind of professional wilderness. A handful of victories followed by an unprecedented four and five record over the span of 2006 and 2007 seemed to suggest that a once promising career was quickly imploding. Desperate shifts heavyweight then back down to light heavyweight and a return to his K1 roots in the Netherlands generated a sense of a man who was not quite sure where to go in his career.
PRIDE now having officially closed shop, Overeem found himself at a critical crossroads. His contract was not optioned by the UFC so he did not make the transition from ring to octagon as had his fellow PRIDE superstars like “Rampage” Jackson, Wanderlai Silva, Mirko “CroCop,” and later, “Shogun” himself. It was during this time that Overeem was offered a fight by the American kickboxing promoter, Strikeforce, to fight for their inaugural MMA heavyweight championship. This time there would be no months-long tournaments. Nor would there be a soul-crushing opponent. Strikeforce gave Overeem Paul Buenetello, an intenerate ring veteran with a 27 and 12 record. It was as close as Strikeforce could come to simply giving their title belt to Overeem. Strikeforce was hungry for a heavyweight star. Up to that time, their biggest name in the division was Tank Abbott.
Overeem dominated his man for two rounds before “The Headhunter” tapped due to a vicious knee thrown to his midsection. Thus Overeem earned his first world title.
That was November of 2007. It would be two and half years – almost to the day – before Overeem would defend the title. In that time, he toured the world again, taking money fights with punching bag opponents like James Thompson and Gary Gooridge. His one high-profile fight during this time, a long-overdue dream match with CroCop, was declared a no-contest after Overeem repeatedly nailed the Croatian in the groin with his knees.
Overeem also returned to K1 fighting with a vengeance in 2009, fighting four matches for the world grand prix tournament (he would eventually lose to Badr Hari). It was during this strange era that Overeem went through a physical transformation, gaining 30 pounds of body-builder quality muscle. Rumors of steroid use, coupled with a delay of his Strikeforce return due to a hand injury, further tarnished the already fading glory of Overeem’s “comeback.”
But then came the night of May 15, 2010. Just two days shy of his 30th birthday, Alistair Overeem entered an American MMA cage in St. Louis, Missouri and showed the world what it a comeback should look like.
It should look like you never left.
Now talk has turned predictably to Fedor, who, for many, is the uncrowned champion of all MMA. After the match with Rogers, Overeem was artlessly asked who he wanted to fight next, a question usually reserved for contenders. Overeem quickly responded “Fedor.” Beating Fedor is much bigger than any title belt, and probably bigger than any single promotion. In other words, the Strikeforce heavyweight championship makes Overeem a contender for a “shot” at the Russian, not for any title, but for his status. It would be the biggest match in Strikeforce history, and may well mean a seismic shift in the sport’s history should “Demolition Man” take out “The Last Czar.”
But for now, Alistair Overeem is the defending champion, and the glory is his alone.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Chapter IIi: The case for (and against) “Captain America.”
While Fedor was beating the best and the less of the MMA world, Randy Couture himself was reigning, for a third time, as the UFC heavyweight champion, having won the title from (guess who?) Tim Sylvia, and defending it successfully against young-lion Gabriel Gonzaga. But Couture was essentially on the crest of a wave that would come crashing down when he met the force of nature that is Brock Lesnar. The dawning of the Lesnar-era has meant a tidal shift in the UFC’s heavyweight division. With few exceptions, the UFC’s heavyweight champions have been far under the 265 pound weight limit placed on the class (the UFC has no “super-heavyweight” category, as other promotions do.), allowing many fighters to compete in two divisions. And, indeed, Couture has spent enough time in the UFC’s light-heavyweight division to win that belt a total of three times. After being steamrolled by Lesnar, Couture bolted from the heavier division, which had began to be populated by monsters the likes of Shane Carwin, Junior Dos Santos, Cain Velasquez, and an appreciably bulked-up Frank Mir. The new paradigm, underscored by the UFC’s choosing to focus on heavyweights for their 2009 season of The Ultimate Fighter, suggests that while Couture could continue to fight in the UFC ranks as a heavyweight, he would be smaller than the new breed, and while he has fought big men before, they weren’t the caliber of today’s heavyweights.
Couture has been in professional MMA long enough to have witnessed many of the sport’s major developments. Depending on where you place his ascendency, Couture is either a “late-early” or an “early-middle” generation fighter. He started his career with the UFC at the company’s thirteenth major event in 1997 and became its third heavyweight champion, beating kick boxer Maurice Smith a scant six months after his (Couture’s) debut . The move from pure Greco-Roman wrestling (Couture was a gold medalist at the Pan American games in 1991) to MMA might almost seem an afterthought considering Couture’s amateur hey-day was essentially the early part of the decade. But for an ambitious and still-young athlete like Couture, the UFC was the only viable option for a legitimate professional athletic career.
American wrestlers, whether they be Greco-Roman or Freestyle competitors, have historically had only two routes for follow after their amateur careers had concluded: couching or “professional” wrestling. Not having the desire or requisite showmanship for the staged theatrics of the WWF, Couture coached for much of the 90s until a viewing of a UFC event convinced him that he could make a go in the fledgling sport. The money could supplement his training for amateur wrestling events and he would have a natural advantage over other opponents without a base in wresting. Sure enough, his first match saw him take down and choke-out a 6’3”, 300 pound Finnish bruiser named Tony Halme, himself a pro wrestling veteran, in exactly one minute. That victory was followed an hour or so later with Couture taking just over three minutes to dispatch of Steven Graham to win the heavyweight tournament. Subsequent events saw more victories in the UFC cage (including securing the heavyweight belt from Maurcie Smith) followed by a pair of losses in Japan.
The early back-to-back losses, coming after a spate of massive, dominating success, is the pattern of Couture’s career. He is that classic athlete who seems to need a goal in order to perform at the highest levels. (Couture originally trained with Team Quest MMA camp.) After the UFC stripped him of his title for fighting for a competing promotion, Couture scored two back-to-back wins in Japan before returning to take the heavyweight belt back from Kevin Randleman. with less than a month’s rest between matches. Another Japanese tournament with RINGS in 2001 was the last anyone would ever see of Couture outside the UFC. Except for a year-long legal wrangle between the promotion and it’s champion, Couture has been loyal to the UFC contract employee ever since.
This has turned out to be a blessing for Couture’s career because it has meant an essentially uninterrupted string of stable, high-caliber opponents at or near the top of the card. The vast majority of his fights have been main event, championship bouts with either Couture winning, losing, or defending a belt. His most recent matches since losing the heavyweight title to Brock Lesnar in 2008, have all been main event bouts, including a fight-of-the-night “dream match” loss to “Big Nog” Noguiera, and rather sad, dominating win over one-time UFC heavyweight rival, Mark Coleman.
Couture’s record of 18 and 10 obviously therefore does not tell the whole story of the fighter’s career. A near-40% loss rate would be a stunningly poor showing for any other competitor. and indeed, Couture has never managed to win more than four bouts in a row. From this perspective, Fedor bests Couture with a 94% win rate. But if Fedor’s critics can attack the Russian for the lack of depth on his fight resume, Couture advocates can look to a staggering list of top-flight competition to defend the argument that “The Natural” is the “greatest” mixed martial artist in the sport’s twenty-plus year history. Couture hasn’t just fought the big names, he has fought those big names in their prime.
The trilogy of fights with Chuck Liddell are considered legendary. Liddell was on the ascendency, and very often seemed to have a precognitive striking ability. Couture has also fought Vitor Belfort (three times), Jeremey Horn, Kevin Randleman, Pedro Rizzo (twice), Ricco Rodriguez, Josh Barnett, Tito Ortiz, Gabriel Gonzaga, Brock Lesnar, Brandon Vera, Noguiera. The variety and breadth of legitimate competition is staggering. From Brazilian BJJ experts, to freestyle wresters, to catch wrestlers, to dominating strikers, Couture has consistently challenged himself against the best of his contemporaries. With the exception of his first professional match, and his unfortunate decision to fight aging boxer, James Toney in the Summer of 2010, detractors cannot make the claim that Couture has ever had a soft match. Even his 2005 post-championship match against fellow “senior” fighter, Mike van Arsdale was a gamble, with van Arsdale coming to the UFC with a four-fight winning streak behind him. (Couture would win that match with a rare display of his submission skills.)
The 2008 match with Lesnar suggested there may be an upper-limit to what Couture is capable of. Although he has beaten big men in the past, he has seldom met with someone with Lesnar’s credentials as a wrestler. The enormous strength advantage coupled with uncanny speed and destructive punching ability was simply too much for Couture in 2008. Other losses never seemed to be existential defeats. MMA is very often a sport of capitalizing on opportunities as much as skill. Couture’s defeats are usually the result of mistakes rather than indicative of a problem with his skill set. But against the 6’3”, 300 pound man-monster, the margin of allowable errors seem to be non-existent.
Can Couture beat Brock Lesnar? (Or Shane Carwin, or Cain Velasquez?) It remains to be seen. As is often noted, many have gone broke betting again Couture’s ability to comeback from defeat. And Lesnar, despite his impressive skills, is far from a perfect fighter. Couture, after all, did give Lesnar some problems in the first round of their match. But Couture is known as “Captain America,” not Superman. Age and wear are cruel adversaries of ambition.
Which brings me to the final question… what more does Randy Couture want? He’s had the most title reigns (six times) and is the first to hold belts in two weight divisions. He, along with Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Forrest Griffin, helped to launch the very notion of a mainstream professional MMA bout through their charisma and promotional acumen. He is arguably the most respected fighter in MMA history and one of the most recognizable faces of the sport. His skills seem undiminished and there still remains a variety of intriguing matches, especially at light-heavyweight. Rashad Evans, “Rampage” Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Wanderlai Silva, CroCop, Dan Henderson, and perhaps even a run at the current champion, “Shogun” Rua, all worthy main-event level matches. All, in some form or another are “dream” matches on the cards of many long-time fans.
But the upcoming bout with James Toney has all the makings of a sad spectacle. The 41 year old multi-time world boxing champion (he is the current IBA world champion) is a devastating boxer, and perhaps one of the very best of all time. But he has never trained in MMA. Has no ground game. No ground defense. Has never kicked before. Has never dealt with a cage. In truth, Toney would lose badly against Kimbo Slice, a recent UFC brawler who learned MMA from the ground up over the course of three years. His first MMA fight was against another boxer, Ray Mercer, who he choked out in the first 72 seconds of their match. Kimbo is not Randy Couture, and James Toney is not Ray Mercer (who, by the way, knocked out Tim Sylvia in 9 seconds at their match. I don’t know what this says about Mercer, but it says a lot about Sylvia. Is he the Kevin Bacon of combat sports?). While it is possible that Dana White may know something about Toney that the rest of the MMA fan community doesn’t, conventional wisdom and common sense suggest that the Couture/Toney match will be the most embarrassing moment in MMA in 2010, a year that has already seen its share of cringe-worthy in-ring nonsense. Win or lose, Couture has little to gain except a lucrative pay-day.
One blemish on an amazing career. Hopefully, he can recover from it.
Friday, May 07, 2010
Chapter II: The case for (and against) “The Last Emperor.”
Two heavyweight fighters who are routinely set up benchmarks for the title of “the best of all time” in MMA, are Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko. Both camps have legitimate arguments to make, and we again return to our Ali versus Stribling comparison, in other words, we need to look beyond the official record and take a more nuanced view of the comparison.
Fedor has been fighting professionally for over ten years and possesses a record (as of this writing) of 32 wins, one loss, and one no-contest. The single loss, against an otherwise undistinguished Japanese fighter, is considered by most MMA experts to be a technicality rather than a genuine loss. (The match was declared for Fedor’s opponent after an illegal elbow strike made Fedor’s advancing to the next round of the tournament impossible). To watch his matches is to watch a coiled spring waiting to be released. Cool to the point of looking slightly stupid, Fedor launches into his attacks in a manner that looks like a controlled berserker rage. Wild, looping punches thrown from awkward lunges nearly always find a home on his opponent’s jaw. But what makes Fedor plausibly the greatest fighter is his ability to seamlessly shift from his sloppy, but effective striking game, to a dogged and precise ground assault that combines equal parts judo, BJJ, and his native sambo. (Fedor is, incidentally, a champion in both judo and sambo. Sports he competes in, in his own words, as a “hobby.”) He has taken punishment, including a brutal bloodying at the hands of his most recent opponent, Brett Rogers, but Fedor has never really been in enough danger of losing a match to make anyone consider wagering against him. He seems to have a way of making his opponents panic. It is fascinating to see seasoned veteran fighters like Andrei Arlovski become overly excited when they manage to get a punch or kick in on Fedor. It is the pugilistic equivalent of juggling a hot potato.
Over time, Fedor has picked up a smattering of MMA accolades. Notably, he was the last PRIDE world heavyweight champion, a belt he held for four years until the promotion was closed in 2007. Recently, he won the WAMMA world heavyweight belt, a non-promotion-specific championship awarded by a group attempting to create a unified sanctioning body for MMA. (A handful of second-tier promotions recognize the WAMMA belt. It is otherwise considered a bit of an embarrassment in the MMA community. Often, the title is not mentioned in the promotional materials for Fedor’s bouts. ) But detractors are quick to point out that Fedor is not a “real” world champion at this point in his career. Even within Strikeforce, the promotion he is currently contracted through, he has not faced heavyweight champion, Alistair Overeem, and nor does his management have much interest in the match-up. Fedor mangager Vadim Finkelstein argues that his man is “beyond title belts,” saying that his legacy has already been cemented.
Which brings up the more existential slander made against the big Russian: that he has won a lot of matches, but has seldom faced “real” competition.
A cursory glance at Fedor’s list of opponents works to both dispel and support this criticism. Over the years he has met an odd mixture of top talent, marginal journeymen, gatekeepers, and circus attractions. Early victories over now-legends Arona and Sobral are less interesting if one takes into account the relative inexperience of both Brazilians at that stage of their career. Success with wins over the cream of Japan’s piroresu or pro wrestling elite may support an argument that Fedor dodged legitimate martial artists while in the PRIDE and RING organizations, however it should be understood that the culture of professional wrestling in Japan demands very real, and very potent skill sets beyond acrobatic theatrics. In fact, Fedor has never been in so much danger as when he faced Kazuyuki Fujita in 2003, a veteran of New Japan Pro Wrestling. The big wrestler floored the Russian with a powerful right hook before being submitted with via a rear-naked choke.
But keeping in mind that an active, high-level MMA combatant like Fedor can realistically only fight two or three matches in a calendar year, it is difficult to defend contracts that have him fighting the likes of professional opponents like Heath Herring and Gary Goodrich. Tough as they might be, they are not the caliber of fighter who should be facing a man who is touted as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
Even harder to defend are Fedor’s excursions into “freak show” territory. Two matches in particular, a 2005 fight against 400 pound Brazilian chancer Zuluzinho that ended in less than 30 seconds with Fedor hammer-fisting his man into TKO, and 2007 match against a 7’2” Korean kickboxer (which took 2 minutes for Fedor to win) are blemishes rather than victories. Strategically, these “easy” matches seem to be scheduled as Fedor’s second match of the year, and usually come after a Spring time match against a genuinely tough opponent. In the case of Zuluzinho, the fight came after after a grueling 3 round decision victory over Mirko “CroCop,” while the Korean fiasco followed a tough first round win over Olympic wrestling medalist, Matt Lindland.
Perhaps it is like the artiste actor who alternates those small, indie films with big budget blockbusters. To be sure, Japan has made Fedor a lot of money for less than two minutes of in-ring work against side show attractions.
Compounding the matter is Fedor’s inability to reach agreement with the UFC to fight under its banner. Years of negotiations have thus far resulted in little more than hard feelings and tense words from all parties. The sticking point seems to be Fedor’s demand that his own promotional group, M-1 Global, be given equal standing alongside the UFC. UFC president Dana White has rightly refused this demand which eventually led upstart promotion, Strikeforce, to make their own offer. The resulting contract has Fedor’s matches as joint promotions between Strikeforce and M-1 Global. Thus far, Fedor has only fought a single bout with Strikeforce, a modestly successful prime-time main event on CBS against impressive developing talent, Brett Rogers. Since then, the two promotions have stalled in talks over (wait for it!) promotional exposure for M-1 Global. M-1 complains that their M-1 logo was not sufficiently promoted alongside the Strikeforce banner. The stall has meant that not only is Fedor’s next Strikeforce match not against the promotion’s nominal world champion (Overeem) but that he may be fighting anyone soon.
(Quick update: A match between Fedor and submission specialist Fabricio Werdum, is scheduled for June of this year. Incidentally, Werdum holds a victory over Fedor’s brother Aleksandr.)
All this looks to Fedor’s critics as a simple matter of a fighter with an inflated winning streak dodging legitimate challengers in two promotions. However, such an argument fails to take into account the fact that Fedor has fought, and soundly beaten many of the best of the middle-generation heavyweights in their prime. Keep in mind that during the early to mid 2000s, the UFC did not possess a very deep or very stable heavyweight division. Thus, a comparatively small heavyweight like Randy Couture, and a lumbering, one-trick journeyman like Tim Silvia could actually dominate the division for years. Heavyweight fighters went to where the money was circa 2000 to 2006, and that was the PRIDE organization. While it is easy to cherry-pick the Zuluzinho and Hong Man Choi matches for anti-Fedor derision, the majority of his contests have been against elite fighters like Kevin Randleman, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira (three times!), Mark Coleman,and CroCop. Fedor defeated these legendary fighters – who, with the exception of CroCop, have all been UFC champions - soundly and in a variety of ways. In the case of Randleman, Fedor survived a devastating suplex to submit the NCAA champion with a kimura, a short encounter that has become an internet sensation. Since these matches, these opponents have collectively struggled to maintain competitive legitimacy (especially CroCop) while Fedor has continued to develop as a fighter. While his recent match-ups have lacked the ethos of his PRIDE days, tarring him as a “dodger” is simply not justifiable.
The real crisis is the loss of opportunities that come with the long lags between negotiations. With the exception of the matches with Nogueira and CroCop, Fedor has not yet really satisfied the “dream match” fantasies of MMA fans. When Zuffa purchased PRIDE in 2007, there were fabulous claims being made about the box office potential of Chuck Liddell/Fedor match. Fedor could come down in weight to meet Liddell (of they could do a catchweight scenario), or indeed any of the great light heavyweights in that stacked division in the UFC. But the match-up that had been touted as the dream-of-dreams was, undoubtedly, Randy Couture versus Fedor. As recently as 2008, Fedor, after his quick dispatch of Tim Sylvia for the inaugural WAMMA belt, said that he desired to fight Couture.
Though only in his early 30s, Fedor has taken on a lot of damage in his ten years as a professional fighter. MMA is not a sport that rewards long careers. Unlike boxing, American football, and other hard contact sports, MMA distributes the pain and injury over a wider canvas. So, unlike a boxer who has begun to slur his speech due to a ten year career of having his cranium as a target, the mixed martial artist can endure longer, but with the potential for carrying more long-term damage to more places on his body. Joints and soft-tissues could subject the seasoned fighter to daily tortures while he is, ostensibly, still “healthy” enough to fight. As extraordinary a fighter as Fedor might be, his in-ring strategy has usually included taking bumps from his opponents on the way towards (seemingly) inevitable victory. Broken hands, lacerations, cracked ribs, hyper-extended ligaments, and contused kidneys and liver are just a few of the items on Fedor’s resume of woe. ( Is it any wonder, then that Fedor has striven to end his matches as quickly as possible? Indeed, a third of Fedor’s 33 matches have ended in the first round, many within the first two minutes.) Fedor is a great fighter, but he is not immortal. His body is still made of meat, bone and muscle. Eventually the wear will catch up to him and he simply will not be able to compete at an elite level. It is a fact of life in all combat sports, and one which may not be immediately obvious to a successful fighter who has fought only six rounds in five years. The clock is ticking on his ever meeting the top-level heavyweight fighters of this generation of mixed martial artists. If a move isn’t made within the next twenty-four months, how can he possibly secure a true claim to be “the greatest?”
Wednesday, May 05, 2010
Chapter I: (…but first, some history). Generational Evolution.
A professional sport that is in still in its developmental stage like MMA is perhaps too new to have a ranking of “greatest fighter” just yet. We are only now, for example, seeing true mixed martial artists winning matches against what we might refer to as “hybrid fighters.” It is a generational shift. The first generation of UFC combatants were strictly discipline (or lack thereof) representatives. Royce Gracie was the Brazilian Ju-Jitsu fighter. Ken Shamrock was the catch wrestler. Patrick Smith was a kickboxer. David “Tank” Abbott was… well, a brawler. And in between you have savate practitioners, sumo wrestlers, judokas, Greco-roman wrestlers, and the occasional samboiste. Very few, if any of these early fighters demonstrated a range of talents beyond their discipline. A boxer could put a man down with one punch, but if a BJJ expert got a hold of him on the ground, it was all over. Likewise, chancers like Tank Abbott, who actually managed to win the occasional match, would often have the advantage of guile in the face of technically superior opponents.
The original goal of mixed martial arts (in the sense that we know it. There have always been style-versus style events promoted as gimmicks or special exhibitions) was to test style-against-style and settle long-standing arguments. The Gracie family in particular had a vested interest in these early fights because the no-holds barred, bare-knuckle style suited their claim that Brazilian Ju-Jitsu was the most effective martial arts style. Time and again fighters not trained in BJJ would end up dominating the smaller Gracie (usually Royce) initially only to be wind up submitting to a joint lock or by being put to sleep by a choke hold. Because of the open-weight nature of these early bouts, Gracie would often be seen submitting a much larger man, such as Greco-Roman champion Dan Severn, who after keeping Gracie in a compromising position for most the match, ended up being submitted in a triangle choke. The secret seems to the Gracie ability to simply let the other man exhaust his big weapons and allow him to begin to feel overly confident. This in turn would cause him to leave a an opening to the seemingly indefatigable Gracie, who, having conserved amble energy during his “rest” would easily lock his man up in an agonizing pretzel of bone and muscle.
PICTURE: a visual representation of the five micro-generations of professional mixed martial artist. From right to left: Generation 1: Royce Gracie, Don Frye, Ken Shamrock, Mark Coleman, Randy Couture; Generation 2: Fedor, Tito Ortiz, Wanderlai Silva, Antonio Nogueira, CroCop; Generation 3: Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson, BJ Penn, Matt Hughes, Quintin Jackson; Generation 4: Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Urijah Faber, George St. Pierre, Anderson Silva; Generation 5: Lyoto Machida, Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin, Brett Rogers, Aldo Reyes, Cain Velasquez
It is with the next, or middle generation of MMA fighters that we begin to see something like hybrid fighting. Mark Coleman, Tito Ortiz, Fedor Emelianenko, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Kevin Randleman, and many, many other fighters who got their start in the late 90s and early 2000s, were capable and comfortable in a variety of positions. A striker like Chuck Liddell could compete on the ground (and more importantly, defend takedowns), and Fedor, arguably the best samboiste in the world, has a record of wins that balances out dynamic submissions and jaw-shattering knockouts. What these fighters were and are capable of doing is switching between styles in-match. The proportional proficiency in any one style may be suspect (Couture rarely tries for submissions; Liddell is better at defending against the ground than dominating the position, and the rap on Fedor is that he can’t box properly) but the ability to turn on a dime and become Greco-Roman one moment, then transition to a judo or BJJ position, depending on the circumstance, is the hallmark of this generation. These now-seasoned fighters grew into the sport from the perspective of developing an arsenal, rather than focusing exclusively on a native discipline.
A key match during this era was the 2006 catch-weight bout between Royce Gracie and then-long-reigning UFC welterweight champion, Matt Hughes. The match was billed as old-school vs. new-school and, in truth, showcased a number of changes in the sport since its debut a decade previous. Hughes, a masterful Greco-roman wrestler, easily took Gracie to the ground and essentially kept him there at will. Hughes kept busy, not letting Gracie really settle into his usual game plan. At one point, Hughes landed a remarkable arm bar, a BJJ signature hold, that probably would have broken Gracie’s arm had Hughes not relinquished it. Hughes then mounted the veteran and ground-and-pounded Gracie to the point where the referee had to intervene and stop the match.
The reason this match is important is not so much for its symbolic value, (“changing of the guard,” and all that) but for the range of techniques Hughes employed to win the match. He transitioned from wrestling, to grappling, and finally to ground strikes effortlessly. The fighters of this middle generation dominated the mid-to-late 2000s and a handful of the first generation have continued to contend as well, adjusting their game and becoming more versatile. (In fact, Hughes recently defeated Royce’s cousin, Renzo, brutally dominating nearly every second of the three-round affair.)
Randy Couture is a prime example of a multi-generational MMA combatant. While still primarily a rather stiff Greco-roman wrestler with a penchant for dirty boxing, over the past several years Couture has added improved strikes and kicks to his game and has even been known to utilize a choke hold. This has been enough for him to collect belts in multiple weight divisions in the UFC. But more on Couture later…
The generation currently coming into its prime in the new decade is the first generation to truly adopt MMA as a specific mode of combat unto itself. The difference between a fighter like Hughes and the new generation’s George St. Pierre is the fluidity of the movements and the integration of techniques without really having to transition between them. Hughes adjusts whereas St. Pierre combines. In other words, St. Pierre is not responding to something that isn’t working by employing a different fighting style for the moment, he is using the momentum of each move to set up the potential for the next one. It is like an ultra complex series of flow charts: If he shoots in for take down, he is thinking of a fork in the road: either my man will go to the ground or he will defend; either way he is going backwards; either way I am moving forward. Looking at GSP’s wins, what is striking is the variety of ways that he has won over the years: punches, elbows, chokes, kimuras, armbars, knees, and a host of judge’s decisions which on their own suggest a strategic dominance as well as an athletic one.
Along with GSP’s athleticism, we may also note a difference in the way the very notion of martial artist has manifested itself in this new generation . Fighters like GSP, Anderson Silva and B.J. Penn almost seem to swim through their matches. Silva especially is adept at making the match seem like dance of violence. If you watch any of his better matches, particularly his destruction of Rich Franklin for the UFC middleweight bet, you will get a sense of a fighter who appears to have choreographed the match from bell to bell. His final flurry against Franklin - a series of body blows followed by a vicious muy thai knee strike to the head which then led to powerful head kick and a final volley of punches - was as close as anyone has ever come to making bodily harm look beautiful. Franklin, a remarkable fighter in his own right, looked positively helpless against Silva. Indeed, their subsequent rematch proved no less convincing of Silva’s powers. He has in fact, seldom looked to be in substantial trouble. His dominance over the second generation of fighters and those in the middle portion of his generation of fighter (such as his rather embarrassingly lack-luster defeat of Patrick Cote, and the strangely one-sided affair against fan favorite, Forrest Griffin) suggests that he is the watermark for excellence in the sport at this time. The question remains whether someone really of his cohort - like GSP or Lyoto Machida – would meet at one another’s weight class. Recent events suggest he may never get that chance, as Silva has devolved in past several matches into unrepentant clowning and showboating.
We might term this era of MMA the “GSP Generation,” to stand just in front of the “Chuck Liddell Generation.” But we might just as easily call this the “Penn Years,” or “The Forrest Griffin Years” or “The Time of Silva,” or even “The Time of Faber.” There are too many claims to be made, all of them justified. Much depends on the legacy these individual fighters leave for themselves as they consider the direction their careers should take going forward. GSP continues to dominate the welterweight division with style, class, and overwhelming athleticism, but there are still dragons to slay and ambitions to fulfill – including a serious desire to join the Canadian Olympic wrestling team in London in 2012. For Penn, the recent loss to upstart Frankie Edgar resulted in an almost immediate scheduling of a rematch. But even if he wins (and the odds are that he very well might) what more is there him to prove at 155? Another run at GSP for the welterweight belt? Silva has talked about retiring from MMA to pursue boxing. And he may indeed be bored. Having never taken a lot of damage, “The Spider” could make a go at light heavyweight. A division he has so far dominated with lopsided wins over James Irvin and Forrest Griffin. But his recent wins have done nothing to improve his standing among fight fans and promoters. Dana White has gone so far as to threaten to place Silva in the undercard, whether he’s champion or not. And speaking of Griffin, the working class hero and baby-faced star of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter , and one-half of the fight that many claim to be THE watershed bout in UFC, if not MMA history when he fought Stephan Bonnar, there are still doubts about his true ambitions in the sport. After a brief tenure as light heavyweight champion, Griffin has gone one-and-three in his recent bouts. A fan favorite, Griffin may be content with his legacy as it stands.
Whoever history smiles on from the post-Liddell generation of fighters, what is clear is that for these men, the book is still being written. For now, we should take the broadest view possible if we are going to locate that elusive “greatest” fighter. So in the next two chapters I will be discussing several fighters who may fulfill the criteria. I will begin with the man who tops most lists… Fedor “The Last Emperor” Emelianenko.