Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Big Issue: Heavyweights in MMA

This article was featured in the November 2009 Issue of Combat Magazine

51,390 people gathered at the Kyocera Dome that night in Osaka. K1-Dynamite 2006 was an exciting event that MMA fans from all over the world flocked to see. Traditionally eccentric performances from Genki Sudo and Kazushi Sakuraba whipped the crowd up into a frenzy, but one of the biggest crowd reactions all night was for another fight.

Giant Silva vs Akebono hardly had the makings of Clay Guida vs Diego Sanchez but for the few seconds that the behemoths collided, the whole arena was a sea of noise and energy. In the case of Silva and Akebono you could cynically point to a number of issues, primarily the fact that it looked like a scene from a Gozdilla movie, which promoted the interest of the ticket buying public. Traditionally the heavyweight divisions in any sport attract a lot of interest from fans and the general public alike. If you were to ask the man in the street about his favourite boxers you would expect to see vast percentages of his choices to be heavyweight fighters. Names like Tyson, Ali, Frazier and Marciano are the status quo in such debates. MMA has evolved and expanded into the mainstream consciousness and the heavyweight division and its relevance have changed almost as much as the sport has.

On November 12th 1993, when the first ever UFC made its way into the public spotlight on pay-per-view, it was immediately obvious the impact it would have on combat sports. A sport able to answer what had been previously nothing more than speculation and guess work over which fighting style was superior. Cross disciplined martial arts combat was not a new concept. “Booth Fighting” had been taking place in Brazilian circuses since the 1920’s and Helio Gracie’s legendary bout against Masahiko Kimura in 1955 had given 20,000 fans a small look at MMA in its embryonic stages.

The UFC’s approach to combat sports was so unique because of its early move away from regulated weight divisions. The idea that a true ultimate fighting champion could overcome any obstacle from a contrasting style to a 400lb weight deficit was at the heart of the gladiatorial nature of the UFC. A fighting spirit and belief that founder Rorion Gracie inherited from Helio and his legendary wars in the ring. From the chaotic beginnings of this great sport it seems that a lot of the fighters that people remember from that time overcame strength and size frequently.

The very first fight that the UFC ever aired showed Savate champion Gerard Gordeau demolish Teila Tuli in 20 seconds despite being outweighed by 190 lbs. Keith “Giant Killer” Hackney will be forever immortalized by his win over Sumo champion Emmanuel Yarborough as he overcame a colossal 400lb weight differential on his way to a TKO victory. Hackney went on to go 2-2 in the UFC, hardly a stellar record, but is still respected to this day by the MMA community for his warrior spirit and a victory in which he overcame such massive odds.

It was another Gracie who went on to influence public attitudes towards combat sports and challenge the old adage that a good big fighter would always beat a good small fighter. At 6’1 and 175lbs Royce Gracie was one of the smallest combatants in the UFC. However, what he lacked in size and strength he made up for in deadly technique.

Royce used Gracie Jiu-Jitsu to win 3 of the first 4 UFC Tournaments and his first 11 victories all came via submission. His record of 8 consecutive wins in the Octagon stood for nearly 15 years and was only recently surpassed by Anderson Silva. Gracie was living proof that superior technique could overcome size and strength. The wars that Royce had in the Octagon went on to become some of the most famous in the history of the sport and helped to both establish and immortalize the same values that Helio had fought for decades earlier.

The UFC thrived on this boundary free combat and developed both a following and a large amount of mainstream criticism following its February 1996 pay per view offering UFC 8: David vs Goliath. Senator John McCain’s now famous quote of “Human Cockfighting” and the campaign that followed forced the UFC to change by embracing stricter rules and regulations. UFC 12 took place in February 1997 and was the first event that the UFC had put on featuring weight classes. The event was split into 2 brackets, over 200lbs and under 199 lbs, and as basic a division as this was it forced the sport to change.

Over the next few years the UFC introduced more and more rulings and regulations to help the sport gain more mainstream acceptance and try and ensure survival. Fighters were now required to wear padded gloves, a number of more dangerous strikes were banned, 5 minute rounds were introduced and UFC abandoned the tournament format in favour of single matches in properly categorised weight divisions. The heavyweight champions of this era have gone on to become hall of famers and icons and both Mark Coleman and Randy Couture are still contracted in active competition with the UFC to this day.

As the UFC was changing and moving away from the anything goes attitude that had gained it so much popularity and notoriety in seemingly equal amounts, a new promotion in Japan was preparing to put on its first show. Pride Fighting Championships was conceived in 1997 with the sole purpose of promoting the match between Japanese Pro Wrestling legend Nobuhiko Takada and purported champion of Brazilian Vale Tudo Rickson Gracie. 47,000 fans made it to the Tokyo Dome that night to see Rickson defeat Takada but it was clear from the energy that night that this was the start of a special promotion.

Pride continued to hold events and just as the sport of MMA was moving towards its most regulated incarnation in early 2000, an event was announced that would once again ignite the debate that the UFC had originally sought the answer to. At the start of the new millennium Pride FC began with the preliminary rounds of Pride 2000 Open Weight Grand Prix. This event captivated worldwide audiences and, once again, the mixed martial arts world was hit with a tidal wave of questions and arguments about superior styles, weight advantages and fighting spirit. The Japanese Bushido culture accommodated this form of combat perfectly and the Pride OWGP became one of the most talked about Mixed Martial Arts events of all time. It was a former UFC Heavyweight Champion Mark “The Hammer” Coleman who went on to win the tournament and cement his legendary reputation in Japan. In a match perhaps just as famous for the post fight celebrations, Coleman was able to administer his trademark ground and pound to Igor Vovchanchyn and become Pride’s first ever OWGP Champion.

This victory sparked a renewed interest in Heavyweight MMA in Japan and Pride FC went on to create a Heavyweight division and crowned Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira as champion in November 2001 as he defeated Heath Herring. The UFC was emerging from a period that very nearly saw the company go out of business as struggling SEG Sports could not secure home video releases for the events which were drawing only 5,000 live fans. By the time that Zuffa had intervened in 2001 to buy out the struggling promotion Pride FC had taken heavyweight mixed martial arts to the next level.

Over the next few years the UFC struggled with losses that totalled $34,000,000 and it looked for fighters with marketable personalities to help sell pay per views. The feud between veteran fighter and pro wrestling personality Ken Shamrock and the ever controversial Tito Ortiz was the biggest fight that the UFC could offer at that time. Pride however was going from strength to strength and had the most formidable heavyweight division in the world. Global MMA fans were drawn to the Pride because its heavyweights were the best from all over the world. In September 2003 Tim Sylvia battled Gan McGee for the Heavyweight title at UFC 44, just 3 months before 67,500 people saw Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira submit the undefeated Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic for the Interim Pride Heavyweight belt. The contrast in quality was there for all to see and the informed MMA community quickly flocked to Pride FC as its ranks of the world’s best fighters grew and grew. Anyone who had to suffer the Tim Sylvia title fights in the UFC was aware of the lack of talent that in their heavyweight division. Pride had Fedor Emelianenko, Mirko Filipovic, Sergei Kharitonov, Mark Hunt, Josh Barnett, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and many more. The UFC, by stark contrast, had Tim Sylvia vs Jeff Monson. Fans were once again enamoured with heavyweight fighters within MMA. The invincible aura, that the likes of Mike Tyson had all those years ago, now surrounded a new generation of heavyweight fighters. The Pride FC Heavyweight division of this period is largely considered the deepest and most talent rich heavyweight division in modern MMA history.

Pride’s demise however, was as spectacular as its genesis. By 2006 they had not only lost the television deal to Fuji Network but the president of the parent company of Pride, Dream Stage Entertainment, had committed suicide in bizarre circumstances. The UFC by comparison was riding the crest of a new wave of popularity and interest in MMA that had been started by their fledgling reality television show “The Ultimate Fighter”. The UFC went on to buy out Pride in March 2007 and quickly went about bolstering their ranks with the talent that they were able to negotiate with. Pride mainstays Heath Herring, Mirko Fillipovic and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira soon signed on the dotted line and began renewing the fans interest in the more stoic ranks of the UFC.

The renaissance in the UFC heavyweight division was effectively rekindled by the man who had established it many years ago. Hall of Famer Randy “The Natural” Couture had recently retired after suffering two tough knockout losses at light heavyweight at the hands of Chuck “The Iceman” Lidell. Couture was inspired to come out of retirement and challenge Tim Sylvia for the title after watching Sylvia’s series of lacklustre performances in defending his belt. In one of the most memorable heavyweight encounters of recent years Couture systematically dominated Sylvia from bell to bell to become a three time heavyweight champion at the age of 43. Despite legal issues that stalled Couture’s career for 12 months the heavyweight division continued to grow in profile and excitement until Dana White made one of his trademark announcements that would change the face of the UFC heavyweight division forever.

Rumours had been flying around the MMA world about one man for some time but when the camera panned to Joe Rogan at UFC 77 conducting a special interview it was plain for all to see. Brock Lesnar was a former NCAA wrestling champion but was known to the world for his work in the WWE. He had recently made the transition to MMA destroying Min Soo Kim in 69 seconds for K1 Dynamite and his profile and his freakish size and athletic ability made him a much sought after commodity. Lesnar is a gigantic athlete who cuts down from 300lbs to make the 265lb heavyweight limit yet displays explosive athleticism for a man his size. After a controversial loss to former heavyweight champ Frank Mir at UFC 81 Lesnar went on a rampage. He destroyed Heath Herring, brutally knocked out Randy Couture to win the heavyweight title and mauled Frank Mir in a rematch for the undisputed heavyweight championship at UFC 100.

Brock Lesnar had ushered in the era of the super heavyweight in mixed martial arts. UFC 100 recorded more than 1.6 million pay per view buys and broke the UFC’s own record for live gate receipts. The heavyweight division in the UFC is now healthier than it has ever been and heavyweight MMA is in a similar position. The latest season of The Ultimate Fighter features an all heavyweight cast for the first time in its history and there is more interest in other promotions such as Strikeforce and Dream as they both continue to expand. The invincible Pride Heavyweight Champion Fedor Emelianenko has not yet committed to the UFC due to management issues, but even this doesn’t seem able to stop the momentum that heavyweight MMA has at the moment.

There truly are great heavyweights fighting all over the world and the UFC, and other organizations, are committed to putting on great fights in this division. Today’s giant heavyweights are a world away from the lumbering behemoths that first competed in MMA. The smaller heavyweights now don’t necessarily have the huge speed advantage that they once had as the levels of athleticism evolve with the sport. Fighters who had fought at the bottom end of the weight bracket immediately began to re-evaluate the cut to light heavyweight. Fighters like Brandon Vera, Randy Couture and Mark Coleman have all realised that in this era of in MMA, size really does matter.

By Ben Cartlidge 2009

Paul Daley: From the Rough House to the Penthouse

This article was featured in the November 2009 Issue of Fighters Magazine

It’s been quite a week for Paul “Semtex” Daley. His 151 second demolition of highly rated UFC welterweight prospect Martin “Hit man” Kampmann served notice to division of his intentions. More and more UK fighters are making their way into the UFC and, following on from the last season of the Ultimate Fighter, it is clear that the UK is producing better fighters now than ever before. Daley (22-8-2) has a professional career that spans 6 years and has seen him rack up 18 of his victories by either knockout or tko. Despite his great reputation from fighting in a number of organizations he still went into his last fight as a big underdog.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Paul would be star struck by the win but it was just another day at the office for the Nottingham native.

“It sunk in straight away; I expected nothing less than the outcome from the fight, so there was on surprise for me”

Daley looked to push the pace from the opening bell and landed a number of thunderous left hooks which clearly rattled Kampmann. Paul and his team clearly had done their homework on Kampmann as he was able to methodically pick the Dane apart with a series of crisp strikes.

“Kampmann always trades a bit in his fights before going the clinch so I knew I had to capitalise on this weakness. He’s a class striker, but he doesn’t compare KO power like I do”

Daley’s victory certainly throws a spanner in the works for the UFC. Martin Kampmann was due to fight Mike Swick for a shot at George St Pierre but following Swick’s injury and the demise of Affliction MMA, Daley was signed by the UFC and thrown on to a main card bout. Daley himself has already acknowledged that the UFC’s welterweight division is “100% without a doubt” the strongest in the world. Few could argue this point as the UFC has never struggled to find talent at 170lbs, a minefield of a division with George St Pierre at the end of it.

At the press conference after UFC 103 all the talk was of Daley fighting at the next UK event which is UFC 105 in November, potentially against Mike Swick. This would translate into another huge fight for Daley but how does he view the prospect of fighting a top contender like Swick in the UK?

“I would like that fight but I would like more time between fights. I find motivation from the fight itself, not the location, but it would be nice to have a cheering UK crowd behind me. Swick has faster hands and is taller and more unorthodox but I think Kampmann was more dangerous as a fighter than him.”

Daley has been present on the MMA scene now for many years, but is the latest in a long line of UK talent making a name for himself in the biggest show in the world. The UK MMA scene may not be on the same level as other nations such as America and Brazil but as Daley himself said “We’re still a way away, but we’re moving very fast in the right direction.” We have seen a big increase in the number of talented British fighters entering the UFC and Daley’s performance served to once again highlight this. British representation in the UFC is no longer seen as Michael Bisping + special guests.

The likes of Dan Hardy, Ross Pearson, Andre Winner, James Wilks and Paul Daley are all very credible and dangerous fighters in their respective divisions.

The UFC welterweight division, however, has never been stronger and Daley was quick to identify “Fitch, Koscheck ,Alves, Condit and Swick” as top contenders for the George St Pierre’s title. It may be too early to talk about GSP but if Daley could win in similarly impressive fashion against a fighter of Swick’s calibre it would move him several places closer to title contention. Paul, however, is certainly not in awe of St Pierre and views his “KO power, athleticism and takedown defence” as keys to his success.

At this point however talks of title shots and UFC gold are nothing more than speculation. Paul has made a great start to his UFC career and introduced the biggest audience in the world to his skills and the power he possesses at this weight. After spending years fighting in a lot of the smaller shows what does it mean for Daley to finally make such a big impression with the largest organization in the world?

“I’m excited. The UFC is the world’s best organization. I love the fans, it’s awesome.”

While Daley looks forward to his next conquest, like most fighters, he still contemplates past battles. His bout against highly rated welterweight Jake Shields on the last Elite XC offering was easily one of the toughest tests that Shields has faced at this weight. Daley presents a difficult task for any would be opponents but who would he be most interesting in fighting?

“Out of my losses Jake Shields, Jean Silva and Nick Thompson. I’m not sure who I’d fight if I could fight anyone. Nick Diaz is a bad ass, I’d like to fight him”

Daley sits in a very good position with the UFC at the moment. He won the fight that nobody expected him to win and more to the point he did it in emphatic fashion. His victory against such a top contender like Martin Kampmann has also catapulted him straight into the mix at welterweight and ensured that the UFC will have to give him quality opposition in the future. His exciting style has already proven a hit with fans who knew him from his previous fights and he served notice to the UFC and all of its audience of his intentions. Paul himself is philosophical about his victory and knows that the real tests are still to come. So what does the future hold for Paul Daley? His answer was as emphatic and as direct as his last fight. “More wins, More Knockouts and a UFC Championship belt!”

By Ben Cartlidge 2009

Evan Tanner: Always believe in the power of one.

This article was featured in the November 2009 Issue of Fighters Magazine.

“If you can make your voice heard, you can stand up for these things, you can speak out on these things and people are going to listen. You can affect change and you can make things happen, you can improve the world and make it a better place. That’s my motivation behind fighting.”

Evan Tanner was truly one of MMA’s more spiritual fighters but it did not make him any less a fearful competitor. Tanner established a fierce reputation within the sport for his heart, discipline and his ruthless style. He compiled a very impressive 32-8 professional record, won the USFW Heavyweight title by defeating Heath Herring and also held the UFC Middleweight belt in 2005 with a dominating performance over the dangerous David Terrell. Tanner was also the first ever American to win the Pancrase Neo-Blood event in Tokyo, Japan.

Evan Tanner was born on February 11th 1971 in Amarillo, Texas and even as a young child showed a great deal of athletic prowess. It wasn’t until 1989, when Tanner won the Texas State Wrestling Championships, that he became aware of his physical gifts. Tanner dropped out of college after a year as he felt he was not receiving the kind of knowledge that he was searching so hard for. Evan made a big decision at this point to travel the country and live and work in a number of environments. It was these first voyages that shaped Tanner’s mind set and established his love of exploring his surroundings and seeking adventure.

Tanner’s first steps into mixed martial arts came on 12th April 1997 for the Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation. It was friends who convinced Evan that he should compete in this tournament and they were right to encourage him as he defeated 3 fighters in one night, finishing with a rear naked choke over future UFC title contender Paul Buentello. Tanner realised that his overall skill set needed to improve if he was to grow as a fighter, so he acquired a series of Gracie instructional videos and began teaching himself the submission game.

As Tanner’s wins became more frequent and impressive so did the offers from fight promoters. During the summer of 1998 Evan travelled to Japan to fight in the Pancrase Neo Blood tournament and promptly became the first ever American to be victorious. As Tanner’s reputation continued to grow and he continued to defend his USWF belt, it was only a matter of time before he attracted the attention of the UFC.

Evan Tanner first entered the now famous octagon, before the Zuffa era, in January 1999 for UFC 18: Road to the Heavyweight Title. Tanner defeated Darrel Gholar by rear naked choke and was asked back for the following event in which he made short work of Valeri Ignatov, stopping him with elbows in the first round. Following on from this Evan loyally stuck with the struggling USWF and defended his belt on 4 occasions in Amarillo but it was clear that his star was rising in the sport.

After a return to the UFC near the end of 2000 that saw him defeat Lance Gibson by strikes, Tanner was given a title shot at champion Tito Ortiz. In one of the shortest title fights in UFC history, Ortiz slammed Tanner to the mat and clashed heads with him as they hit the canvas. Tanner was knocked out cold from the impact and Tito Ortiz was declared the winner by KO (slam). This was one of the first title matches that the UFC had staged since the buyout from the Zuffa and as the MMA landscape changed around him Tanner looked to further evolve as a fighter.

Over the next few years Tanner became a mainstay with the UFC as he dropped from light heavyweight to middleweight and chalked up a very impressive 7-1 record since the Tito Ortiz loss. In what can be seen as Tanner’s golden years he went on to score victories over Robbie Lawler and Phil Baroni on two separate occasions. Evan was, at this point, training exclusively with Randy Couture and Matt Lindland at Team Quest in Oregon. Tanner became a fearsome competitor during this time, using his wrestling skills to maul his opponents in the clinch and unloading with vicious strikes from the top whenever he gained dominant positions. It was this style and determination that gained him another title shot in the UFC, this time at 185lbs, in February 2005 against dangerous prospect David Terrell.

Tanner had left Team Quest at this point and was training alone for this fight. In one of the most memorable title bouts in recent years, Tanner survived the initial onslaught from Terrell and fought out of a deep guillotine choke to remain in half guard and pound out his adversary with devastating punches and elbows. Evan was the champion and for him it was not about recognition or fame but for the experience, for the adventure. This philosophy was the way Tanner lived his life from beginning to end.

“To change the world it takes little actions, little actions every single day. It’s hard for people to see that the small change that they make in their lives can change the world but it can, believe me”

Tanner would go on to lose his title in a rematch with Rich Franklin and in that, lose the opportunity to be a coach on The Ultimate Fighter. Looking at Tanner’s lifestyle and his unique approach it wasn’t hard to see what that would have meant to him. It was a chance to try and change the world for the better and to use his profile to help as many people as possible. Tanner followed this fight with a close loss to upcoming David Loiseau but was able to get back on the winning track once again with a submission victory over Justin Levens at UFC 59.

Tanner then chose this time to take another hiatus from the sport concentrating more on exploring and also setting up a mixed martial arts training camp for disadvantaged athletes near his home in Gresham, Oregon. Tanner’s MMA foundation, however, never got the chance to materialize as a bad experience he had with one of the fighters persuaded him to take a break from this endeavour. It was during this time that Tanner started to turn to alcohol and he publicly kept a blog on the Internet for all his fans to see. Tanner poured his emotions into this blog every week and fans became upset to see their champion withering away before their eyes.

Tanner turned the corner in mid 2007 and was able to begin seriously training again and make his return to the UFC. He accepted no corporate sponsors for his return stating instead that he would start “Team Tanner”, a self funded move to repay his fans for all their support. The return to active competition was not as easy as Tanner had envisaged. The sport had evolved in his absence and he suffered back to back losses to Yushin Okami and Hawaiian Kendal Grove. It was at this time that Tanner looked to re-evaluate his position in the sport and once again, during a period of reflection, he stumbled on his next adventure.

Tanner began excitedly updating his blog about his latest challenge. He was going to explore the treacherous deserts of Southern California. He talked about it on his blog with such energy and he had taken all the necessary precautions for such a trip.

“Today, I ran to the store to pick up a few things, and with the lonesome, quiet desert thoughts on my mind, I couldn't help but be struck with their brutally stark contrast to my current surroundings, the amazing congestion in which we exist day to day.. I want to go to these places, the quiet, timeless, ageless places, and sit, letting silence and solitude be my teachers.”

Evan Tanner’s body was found by a marine helicopter on September 8th 2008. Tanner had intended to refill his water bottles at a spring which had run dry; his motorcycle had run out of gas. He had communicated with friends prior to his death informing them of his situation and saying that he would walk back to camp, during the later hours of the evening. Tanner’s body was found at that spot where he had sat down to rest, the temperatures had soared to 118 degrees and he had died from heat exhaustion.

The mixed martial arts world mourned the loss of the fallen warrior. Evan Tanner was truly a people’s champion, his unique perspective on life and his selfless and dedicated approach won him fans both in and outside of the cage. Evan Tanner will always be a personal hero of mine and always be one of the main reasons that I write and that I continue to follow the sport. Ironic perhaps that Tanner had no time for heroes, but saw us all as equals.

"I don't like to use the word hero. I would rather use the word respect. There are those for whom I have respect. To me that is something more than what "hero" means. I have respect for anyone who stands up strong for his ideals and principals. I have respect for anyone who has the strength to walk with integrity and live in truth and honesty. I have respect for those who have a big enough heart to show kindness to all those around them. I have respect for those who can laugh at themselves, and understand it is those around us that give life meaning."

By Ben Cartlidge 2009

Updates are incoming.

Hey ho.

So lots of craziness happening over the last couple of months, hence I haven't kept any kind of record of all in the world of MMA. I've had to move round quite a bit and have a new job and bleh etc. Now things seem to be a tad more settled and a tad less ridiculous.

Over the next couple of days I'll be uploading ALL the articles I have written that have been published and including profiles, interviews and the like.

Also make sure you check out Sky Channel 281 LA Muscle for Night of the Gladiators 3 to hear commentary from me and the most dangerous man this side of anywhere David Lethaby. I'm half way through a write up at the moment which is proving easy as it was an amazing event with some fantastic fights.

Anyhow time to get, take care all.