Friday, June 25, 2010

The MMA Files - Part 6 - The Greatest MMA Fighters of All Time (11 – 15)

11. Anderson Silva – Why only #11? Isn’t “The Spider” considered by many (Dana White) to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world? Is he not on a four year winning streak? Has he not won, held and defended the title during most of that time? Has he not also fought successfully in the light heavyweight division? All of this is true. Silva is an impressive fighter and athlete. He may be too good for the current crop in the UFC’s middleweight division, a division which, if the truth is to be told, has never been robust, being, as it is, a transitional division between the considerably more popular welterweight and light-heavyweight divisions. Since winning the belt from Rich Franklin - an amazing performance showing a virtuosity not seen before or since in the sport - Silva has seldom been properly challenged The one plausible challenger, Dan Henderson, who bolted the promotion last year to compete in Strikeforce, gave Silva his most crucial test in 2008 in a unification match with Hendo’s PRIDE welterweight title. The first round showed chinks in Silva’s armor. Henderson took him down and controlled the UFC champion. It was a bad round for Silva and one of the few he has lost. Then, Henderson gave up his back to Silva in the second round and tapped to a rear-naked choke. The rest of the ride for Silva at 185 has been an easy one. No one possesses Silva’s very specific skill set. A black belt in BJJ, Judo, and Taekwondo; a master of the Brazilian fighting style of capoeira; a professional-level muay thai kickboxer, and a technical Queensbury boxer, it is difficult to imagine a fighter with more formal training in so many diverse martial disciplines. The Henderson bout was to be his biggest test, theoretically, only because Silva lacks a wrestling base. There was danger in Silva being overwhelmed by Henderson’s power. Likewise, in Silva’s bout against Travis Lutter, Silva looked compromised by Lutter’s ability manage the Brazilian’s offense. (Lutter style is a rough-and-ready form of BJJ that integrates elements of muay thai and Greco-roman wrestling.) But these are the only times in recent memory that Silva has really been tested. Frankly, the UFC has not been able to locate a viable opponent for Silva and has had to allow former victims to climb the ladder to try again. Franklin lost the second time around, and now the trio of Nate Marquart, Chael Sonnen, and Demian Maia have elbowed each other for position. Marquart has beaten Maia, Sonnen has beaten Marquart. Maia has been Sonnen. Due to scheduling issues, Maia got first crack at Silva. He didn’t make much of it. Silva clowned with the BJJ master for five rounds before taking a decision. Indeed, Silva’s recent victories have been known more for his antics than this athleticism. The Thales Leites and Patrick Cote bouts were embarrassments ending with the crowd booing Silva’s bored performance, his shuck-and-jive dances, and his unwillingness to engage. His match against Maia raised UFC president Dana White ire enough to threaten to move his next champion defense to the undercard. The argument being that a champion has to perform as a champion. White is correct. If Silva really is that good; if he really is the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, then he needs to come out and do what Fedor does every match, regardless of the level of competition he is given: he needs to win decisively. If he is bored of the fight, then end it early, if he can. Put the blame squarely on promotion. Make them find better opponents. He is clearly an artist when it comes to destructive offensive volleys. His two fights with Franklin prove this beyond doubt. And his dispatch of Henderson, one of the very best of all time, proves how well-rounded he is. But he needs to bring that level of intensity to every match. Until he does, he can never really be considered in the same league as Henderson, Fedor, or even GSP, the fighter whose name is chanted at the end of several of Silva’s recent fights.

12. Urijah Faber -
The mainstreaming of MMA has necessitated a degree of pop sensationalism in the United States. The marketing end of the business, specifically in the Zuffa-owned properties of the UFC and WEC, has seen fit to push a handful of fighters as “heartthrobs.” George St. Pierre’s wild popularity is not simply a function of his remarkable athleticism, but also his clean-cut, model-caliber good looks, as evidenced by his beefcake appearances on the covers of magazines like Men’s Fitness. Likewise, Urijah Faber, the longtime “face” of World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) has similarly been promoted for his “fer shur, dude,” surfer-boy exoticness. To be sure, the guy has the looks and charisma to make help make the WEC a viable player in MMA world. Faber entered the WEC, winning the promotion’s featherweight title in 2006. He held that belt for over two-and-a-half years. Crucial years for the Northern California-based WEC as Zuffa began to establish its new acquisition as an elite bastion of lighter-weight fighters. (WEC dissolved its divisions above Lightweight.) The reconciliation thinned the ranks enough that already popular fighters could truly shine out. Faber was one of these personalities. It is also interesting to note that at the time of his winning the WEC belt, Faber held title belts in two other promotions, King of the Cage, and Gladiator’s Challenge. Retaining the belts may have been a shrewd hedging of bets for young Faber. After all, with PRIDE no longer a contender, and the UFC not recognizing fighters lighter than BJ Penn, the road to MMA success for an ambitious, 145 pound fighter is less than certain, especially amidst the turbulence of the sport’s development. The Zuffa purchase must have made the choice of dropping the other two belts and concentrating on his WEC duties a great deal easier. The gamble, so far, has paid off. Faber was the WEC longest reigning featherweight champion and arguably the face of the promotion then and now. But beyond simply being a pretty face, Faber is a standout athlete in a weight division known for long, fast-paced, matches. While preferring to stand and strike, Faber is a highly decorated wrestler and he packs every inch of his 5’6” frame with thick, stocky muscle, making him the biggest and perhaps strongest man in his division. Though quick and aggressive and obviously successful, Faber’s game is fairly straightforward. He likes to soften up his opponent with kicks and punches and then move in for a choke submission, the rear-naked choke being his preferred means of dispatch. This has meant a lot of shooting in, a lot of takedowns, and a lot of contact. Thus, when both Mike Brown and Jose Aldo defeated Faber, they did so by keeping their distance, at least initially. In the case of his loss to Aldo, over the course of five rounds, the Brazilian stayed just on Faber periphery, launching frequent leg strikes against Faber’s left thigh, resulting in a near-mutilation of Faber’s leg, and thus undermining his ability to shoot in or to kick. This loss, coupled with his two losses to Mike Brown, generated a sense of Faber as a fighter who had reached his plateau. Faber/Brown I demonstrated that Faber was vulnerable. Then, after a what amounted to a warm-up match against Faber’s favorite punching bag, Jens Pulver, “The Kid” returned to face Brown again. This time the two went the distance. The former champion left the ring with two broken hands. The heart of the still-young surfer boy was never in doubt. But what remains unknown is whether or not Faber, who has averaged nearly four fights a year since starting his professional career in 2003, can adjust his now-predictable fight plan and become a fighter who can really compete against the new elite in Mike Brown and Jose Aldo. His recent announcement of returning to bantamweight suggests new horizons, but it also signals a retreat of sorts. The current champion, Domick Cruz, is someone Faber has fought and defeated in the past. The possibility of starting a new run in familiar territory may feel like a sure bet for Faber, but whether the new title comes with the adoption of new skills remains to be seen. But Faber is assured a future hall of fame induction. For the better part of the first decade of the 21st century, he was the face of the WEC, and therefore the face of sub-lightweight MMA.

13. Mirko Filipovic – A career that never quite lived up to its potential, that is the unfortunate story of Mirko “CroCop.” But it isn’t the only story. The heavyweight kickboxer made a seemingly seamless transition into MMA in 2001 and quickly ran through the competition, essentially bludgeoning his way into PRIDE title contention with strikes and his famous, highlight reel head kicks. By 2003, PRIDE was touting CroCop as their uncrowned champion, even making a rather embarrassing plea for anyone to step up and challenge the big Croatian. A match with luncha libre legend, Dos Caras, Jr. ended in 45 seconds with the masked wrestler falling to CroCop’s mighty left kick. Afterward, it was “Big Nog” for the PRIDE heavyweight belt. Nogueira was, at the time, already a ring veteran, having held the belt before being defeated by Fedor the previous year. It was a highly anticipated bout and one that nearly ended in the first round. After controlling the bout on the feet, CroCop landed a glancing head kick. A shot which, had it come earlier in the round, would have meant the end of the match. But in the second round, “Minotauro” regained control of the action and submitted CroCop with an arm bar. He would go 9 and 1 in his next ten matches, losing to Kevin Randleman and then avenging the loss a few month later with a guillotine choke in a rare show of his submission skills. He eventually worked his way into title contention again, this time in a dream match with Fedor. CroCop found success early in the match, breaking Fedor’s nose and delivering devastating kicks to the body. However, after weathering the initial onslaught, the Russian took his man to the ground and peppered him with brutal body shots. Fedor ended up taking the decision, though it was hardly the blowout of the year that fans were hoping for. A subsequent loss to fellow K-1 fighter Mark Hunt must have been dejecting, and indeed, a “now or never” fever seemed to come over the former Croatian anti-terrorism specialist. He entered a brutal, four-month long open-weight tournament which culminated in a one-night elimination putting him up against two of PRIDE premier fighters, PRIDE middleweight champion, Wanderlai Silva, and King of Pancrase champion, Josh Barnett. The two opponents were essentially unintentional “gifts” for CroCop. Silva, who was subbing for an injured Fedor, had just come off of a hard-fought victory against Kazyuki Fujita. The smaller Silva, visibly tired and banged up from the Fujita bout, was laid out by a CroCop kick just a few minutes into the first round. Meanwhile, Josh Barnett had gone the distance for a split decision victory over Nogueira. The much fresher CroCop, who had already defeated Barnett twice before, beat down “The Baby-Faced Assassin” to win the TKO and the first and (thus far) only MMA title of his career. Of course, it is a tournament championship, not a contested belt, and it was a long time ago. But it was his win, and obviously spurred him along to seek a bigger prize. And with PRIDE closing down, the biggest prize in MMA became the UFC heavyweight title. In 2006, Dana White announced the signing of CroCop to a six fight deal, obviously with an eye towards the dream title fight with then-champion, Randy Couture. But these ambitions were derailed by, of all things, a monster kick from newcomer Gabriel Gonzaga. The young Brazilian sent CroCop to the ground, rendering him unconscious. To add insult to injury, the collapse also damaged his ankle and detached ligaments in CroCop’s knee. The loss was followed by a decision defeat to another young fighter, Cheick Kongo. The lackluster performance seemed an indication that something was essentially wrong with former PRIDE headliner. Speculation was rampant. Maybe he was having a hard time adjusting to the cage environment (PRIDE and K-1 matches are in conventional boxing rings). Maybe his skills had not evolved beyond his potent striking abilities. Maybe he was too arrogant, taking his opponents too lightly. Maybe he was distracted by his government duties back home. Maybe his training camp was to blame. Maybe he really wasn’t that great of a fighter after all. It was during this time that other former PRIDE fighters were also struggling in their new UFC home. Dan Henderson lost both of his title unification matches and Wanderlai Silva also went on a losing streak. But the CroCop situation was particularly confusing to fans who remember the dynamic excitement he brought to his PRIDE fights. He left the UFC for a year to retool his game and to earn some money in Japan. He fought two matches for DREAM, including a sadly anti-climatic bout against Alistair Overeem that ended with the Dutch fighter being disqualified for delivering repeated knees to CroCop’s groin. His return to the UFC the next year resulted in a very mixed bag of results. He defeated journeyman Mustapha Al Turq but had nearly blinded him by poking him in his eyes. He was brutalized by Junior Dos Santos before verbally submitting to strikes in the third round. Recently he fought novice Australian fighter, Anthony Perosh who had signed on to meet CroCop after the original opponent, ring veteran and former IFL champion Ben Rothwell had to withdraw. CroCop dominated the young Aussie and ended the fight in the second round via TKO. In June of 2010 he fought Pat Berry in a touch-and-go match where he got pasted in the first round but rallied back in the second and third rounds before submitting Berry with a choke. His first submission victory since the PRIDE days. He looked like the Mirko of old to some, but he has a long way to go before he can truly call himself a contender again.

14. Bas Rutten –
Rutten is the nicest, most violent man you will ever want to meet. Unlike most “hard” men, Rutten isn’t “intense” or melodramatic. In interviews he is funny, self-effacing, and happy to be the life of the party. In the cage, or more characteristically for his career, the ring, “El Guapo” is fully invested in causing focused, throbbing, devastating pain. Like the pro wrestlers of old, he is known for a single finishing move, the liver strike. A life-time of teetotaling and clean living will not prepare the organ for the battering it will take after Rutten’s fist or foot finds its way there. The move has gone on to become a favorite among fighters as diverse as Rich Franklin and Cung Le. But the big Dutchman is also just as happy to choke, grab a joint hold, or otherwise bludgeon his way to a TKO his way to victory. He was never one to leave it in the hands of the judges. Of his 33 career matches, only four ever went to a decision. It is a testament to his focus and his willingness to do what needs to be done to finish. Of course, many new MMA fans will not know Bas Rutten the fighter. If they know him at all, it is from his long career as color commentator for PRIDE events; more recently, as a coach and commentator for the short-lived International Fight League, as well as the current host of the excellent MMA Insider program on HDNet. Other than a brief return to game in 2006 to make quick work of journeyman Ruben Villareal, Rutten has been retired from MMA since 1999. His final match was a decision victory over Kevin Randleman for the UFC heavyweight title. Afterward, his ambitions not quite satisfied, Butten dropped down to the UFC’s middleweight (now lightweight) division to contest for that title as well. But then everything went wrong: a blown-out ACL, torn biceps, and injured neck, all suffered during training. The injuries were so bad that Rutten was ordered to retire from the sport altogether. The imagination staggers to imagine what the UFC, and mixed martial arts in general, would have looked like in the US had this dynamic , charismatic, and skilled fighter been able to follow through with his plans. His presence may have provided the catalyst to launch MMA into the mainstream years before it would. Instead, it remained for Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Forrest Griffin to come along later to begin the process. It is a shame that so much of Rutten’s career is obscured by poor promotion of the Pancrase product outside of Japan. (A “best of” show currently rotates a single episode on the ImaginAsia cable channel is, sadly, short on Rutten footage.) Rutten was the most dominate of the foreign competitors in Japan at the time, and though the style of fighting was more ground-based, (looking more like Japanese “strong style” pro wrestling), “El Guapo’s” presence in the promotion represents a vital link between two eras of MMA. Sadly, now that the sport’s popularity is waning in Japan, it is unlikely that anything like a UFC-style DVD retrospective will ever see the light of day. Thus it remains for curious fight fans to seek out grainy footage on-line if they want to see one of the great transitional fighters in MMA history in his prime.

15. Royce Gracie –
Far beyond the “no list of this sort would be complete without…” sentiment, including Royce Gracie in a list of the best mixed martial artists of all time is simply a recognition of the contributions his family in general, and Royce in particular, have made to the sport. Indeed, it is fair to say that without the Gracie’s efforts in establishing the UFC as a going concern, there would not be an MMA scene as we know it today. The pre-history of MMA, of course, is long, having its ancient origins in Greek pankration matches, and a more modern birthing in Brazils famous vale tudo (no-holds bared) events. The semi-religious, cult-like appeal of specific forms of martial arts has naturally led to rivalries which inevitably led to “style-versus-style” matches. In Brazil, the jujitsu practiced by the Gracie clan dominated over more indigenous styles like Capioera and luta livre. But these bouts, usually occurring in clandestine circles, seldom received the mass viewership and respect that the family so desired. It wasn’t just a point of pride for them, however. Gracie jujitsu had become a burgeoning franchise in the United States where it had to compete alongside more recognized styles like karate, kung fu, and Queensbury boxing. The UFC presented the Gracie’s an opportunity to forward BJJ on a national stage. And, indeed, the Gracie name shined very brightly for several years as the pay-per view buy rates increased, and ranks at the Gracie schools expanded, thanks in large part to the in-cage efforts of Royce. This early success is attributed to several factors. For one, many of Royce’s early opponents had little or no experience dealing with ground fighting techniques of any sort. In the west (then as now) the stand-up game is valued over the ground game. Energy is put into strikes. Greco-Roman wrestling, at least in the early days of the UFC, tended to focus on getting the man down in order to batter him (so-called “ground-and-pound”). Wrestlers by their nature are loath to be on their back, whereas a BJJ practioner prefers the guard. From there, he has a variety of options for applying painful submission locks and eye-closing chokes. It is no wonder, then, that Royce’s first matches in the UFC were against fighters from stand-up disciplines (with a young Ken Shamrock, a shoot-wrestler, being a notable exception). He dispatched these opponents methodically, and helped to create an aura invincibility for BJJ in general and Royce in particular. With the exception of a loss due to a no-show during a tournament, and a draw with Shamrock after a 36 minute, non-judged match, Royce was essentially undefeated in the UFC. At this point, Royce took a five-year break from competition, returning in 2000 to fight for PRIDE in Japan. In a return to the old rivalry between jujitsu and wrestling (specifically, catch wrestling, a submission-based fighting system), the Gracie family targeted Kazushi Sakuraba, a Japanese fighter who had taken out several BJJ practioners, including Vitor Belfort and Royler Gracie, Royce’s brother. The new rivalry culminated in a tournament that saw Royce winning a decision against “Saku’s” stablemate, Takada before taking on the man himself in a grueling, 90 minute bout. (Royce had negotiated special rules for his match with Sakuraba: unlimited rounds, and wins only from knockout or submission.) The now-famous match was an epic and highly entertaining affair that saw the two men essentially stage the equivalent of a “real” professional wrestling bout. Kicks, punches, tumbles, slams, and submissions attempt flew at a pace seldom seen in any match, then or now. However, in the end, Sakuraba prevented most of the ground challenges from Royce and instead concentrated on breaking down the Brazilian’s body with leg kicks and punches from standing position. Then Royler, with ascent from his brother, threw in the towel at the “sixth” round, giving Royce the first real loss of his career. His next match was with Hidehiko Yoshida, a gold medalist in Judo. The bout was again a “special rules” match wherein the participants would only use their respective disciplines. Yoshida won a controversial victory by “gi-choke” which prompted Royce’s abandonment of the uniform in his future MMA bouts. (A subsequent rematch with Yoshida ended in a time-limit draw.) After a spectacle match against the 400 pound former sumo wrestler Akebono (Royce won via omoplata) Royce took one more match in Japan - another draw – before returning to the UFC for a special catch-weight match against Matt Hughes. Hughes, then in his prime as the UFC’s welterweight champion, represented the “new breed” of mixed martial artist. Hughes, though a dynamic Greco-roman wrestler, possesses one of the most well-rounded skill sets in the sport. The match itself was something of an embarrassment for the Gracie clan. Royce was never any threat to Hughes who used his power, his wrestling, and yes, his own jujitsu, to manhandle the smaller fighter. While it is often said that a smaller man can beat a bigger, stronger opponent, the fact is that Hughes was not just the bigger guy, he was also the better fighter. At one point, Royce’s arm was in a deep armbar and very close to breaking. But Hughes, knowing that Gracies never tap, opted to switch to an offensive stance that would take the choice out of his hands: he mounted and bludgeoned Royce with a volley of strikes to the head. The referee had no choice but to stop the carnage. Afterward, Royce, though disappointed, did make a good point. Hughes had had to integrate BJJ into his training, whether as a weapon or to defend against a ground attack. It may have been a kind of spiritual victory, but the fact of the matter is that the game had changed, and no amount of last-minute muay thai training was going to help Royce measure up to Hughes or anyone else of his class. - Despite winning a controversial decision in a 2007 rematch with an also-aging Sakuraba, Royce is essentially retired at this point. But the Gracie family seems to have enough fecundity to produce generation after generation of new fighters. His nephew, Roger Gracie, has gone on a three-fight win streak, recently submitting former UFC champion, Kevin Randleman.

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