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?

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