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 entrée 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.

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