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Even though UFC 133 was riddled with injuries, like so many other events that have shaky prospects it proved in the end to be one of the more entertaining events in recent memory.
The finalized main event of Rashad Evans and Tito Ortiz had only been solidified two weeks prior and had metamorphosed from an earlier bout that was supposed to be Evans’ long-awaited title shot against former teammate and current UFC Light Heavyweight champion, Jon Jones. A hand injury that was supposed to keep Jones out until later in the year (but healed up in time for him to accept a fight for next month against Quinton Jackson) cancelled that bout. Jones was replaced with Penn State wrestling standout and rising star Phil Davis, who himself got injured three weeks out of the event and was replaced by Tito Ortiz, who took the fight just six weeks removed from his upset of former contender Ryan Bader.
Got all that? No? Okay, well, bear with me anyway.
A rundown of the event is after the jump.
The evening opened with a welterweight bout pitting Rafael (Brazilian and pronounced “hah-fie-el”) Natal against Paul Bradley. Bradley went by “The Gentleman,” one of the stranger monikers in MMA given the fact that he was actually kicked off the UFC’s reality competition show on Spike TV, “The Ultimate Fighter,” due to a flare-up of herpes. Bradley is a waspy fighter who seemingly excels at nothing other than having a large physique who can cut weight. It showed, as he succumbed to a far superior tactician in Natal.
The second bout featured a former champion in the 145-pound featherweight division, Mike Brown, taking on another former “Ultimate Fighter” cast-off in Nam Phan. Phan is a fiery and competitive fighter, but ultimately succumbed to Brown’s experience and tenacity. Brown, who had been on a terrible losing skid since dropping his Featherweight title to Jose Aldo and joining the UFC as part of its absorption of WEC (another league acquired by Zuffa that featured primarily lighter weight classes), won not only the fight but a stay of execution. A loss would have meant three straight, which means all but automatic dismissal from the organization.
While the two previous bouts had provided some entertaining fare considering their low placement on the card, the third contest pitting Johnny Hendricks against Mike Pierce failed to incite as much enthusiasm and elicited boos from the late-arriving Philly fans. Hendricks, a wild slugger with a beard that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that of a Guantanamo detainee, won the fight in a split decision.
The final non-televised bout featured Nick Pace facing Ivan Menjivar in one of the more surreal crowd moments of the evening. Sitting across from us, a fan decked in a sponsor’s garb and wearing horn-rimmed glasses that did not appear to contain any actual lenses dispensed fighting advice in a falsetto screach to Pace for the entirety of the fight. He became very emotional at times and did not let up, even when people around us started actively rooting for Menjivar due to their annoyance with his incessant screeching. Pace lost the fight and the fan stormed off and wasn’t seen for a good ten minutes. No indication was given that he was a teammate or friend of Pace. Very strange indeed, but that was nothing compared to what went down below us during the main event. More on that later.
The live Spike TV transmission started with Chad “Money” Mendes taking on Rani Yahya, who has one of the best names in all of sports until you realize that the proper pronunciation (unfortunately not acknowledged by the UFC) is actually “HA-nee Ya-ya,” at which point it becomes THE best name in all of sports. Unfortunately, Mendes is just too damn good, as evidenced by his unbeaten record. He’s most likely next in line for the UFC’s Featherweight Champion, another Brazilian by the name of Jose Aldo who drew early comparisons to fellow phenom Anderson Silva but looked all too human in his last outing. Mendes is undefeated in the sport and could be a tough test for Aldo when and if that fight happens.
The second televised fight featured legally deaf fighter Matt Hamill taking on young Swede Alexander Gustafsson. Hamill’s a longtime favorite of fans, having overcome a handicap to become the only deaf fighter ever in the history of the UFC and achieve some measure of success in two weight divisions. In the last couple years he had moved up a rung in competition and found some difficulty adjusting. Saturday night was no different, as he faced the young prospect Gustafsson, a tall Swede who is one of a number of European kickboxers making the transition to MMA. It was an ugly fight. Hamill, like so many others on the cards, was a last minute replacement, and as such it didn’t seem like they’d taken much time in scouting Gustafsson and vice-versa. The result was an unsound, jagged boxing match. Especially frustrating was watching Gustafsson, the eventual winner despite the fact that he didn’t seem to know how to throw a straight jab. For someone with that sort of potential and especially the reach advantage he’ll have at 205 pounds, that’s almost criminal. The next day, Hamill announced his retirement from the sport, citing nagging injuries that had accumulated going all the way back to his days wrestling in Middle and High School.
After that disappointing affair, it was time for the pay-per-view to begin.
The pay-per-view broadcast started off with a welterweight contest featuring two diametrically positioned fighters: the twenty-two-year-old Rory MacDonald, who has scored some impressive wins and whose only loss came in a shockingly competitive bout with top five welterweight Carlos Condit, and aging veteran Mike Pyle. Pyle is an entertaining fighter, but he’s essentially done as a competitor and is now just fighting to stay on television and continue receiving a paycheck. MacDonald, who was only ten years old when Pyle made his pro debut, shocked the crowd by dominating the first few minutes on his feet, then taking it to the ground and finishing Pyle with punches four minutes into the first round.
There was some personal investment in the next bout, as one of its competitors is a training partner of Gabe, our friend that accompanied (and drove) us to Philly. Costa Philippou, a native of Cyprus, trains at Ray Longo’s gym with Gabe and former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra. It was a heart-wrenching affair for me, because of all the opponents he could have been facing, that night he was taking on Jorge Rivera. Rivera is the perennial comeback kid. Likable, self-deprecating, and the sort of veteran you want to have around your sport, Rivera shows no shortage of heart in his fights and seems to genuinely give a little bit back to the sport every time he’s out there just by virtue of his attendance. He’s also a dedicated family man, and the sort of guy you want representing MMA in the mainstream.
In August of 2008, Rivera lost his oldest daughter Janessa to leukemia (please see comments). She was only 17-years-old. The pain of their loss kept him out of the sport for nearly a year. Having just nieces and nephews, I can’t even fathom the loss of a first born. Janessa is memorialized by a likeness tattooed on her father’s left pectoral, permanently embedded near the fighter’s heart.
But it was Costa’s night. Going against a fighter as smart and well-rounded as Rivera is no easy task, particularly for someone who’s only been in the sport three years, but he showed good composure on the ground. Rivera, naturally, made everything a struggle and fought anything and everything the much younger Cyprian could put up.
It went to the judge’s scorecards, where Costa won the bout via split decision. The decision reflected how I personally scored the bout, but with no shortage of hesitancy. Rivera walked off, defeated for the second consecutive time. This fight, too, was a late addition, as both competitors were in separate contests against opponents that had to pull out just weeks from the event. One can hope that this is weighed down the line should Rivera find himself in the dreaded position of having dropped three in a row, which all but guarantees a cut in most cases. The way that most of you reading this feel about a player like Jorge Posada of the New York Yankees and his current career troubles is how I feel in regards to Rivera. The guy has been nothing but a boon the sport. Despite never having won a championship or even getting a title shot, the UFC would be worse off without him around. That’s projecting, though, and perhaps doing so unfairly. Jorge Rivera has proven many things over the course of the last decade, all of them consistently boiling down to one word: resiliency. I’m not a gambling man, but even if I were, I’d never bet against him regardless of the odds or the circumstances.
Speaking of veterans, two more faced off in the next welterweight contest. Brian Ebersole, famous for having fought over forty fights before getting his first shot at the UFC (and also for shaving a disconcerting up arrow into his chest) faced off against Dennis Hallmann. Hallmann had, in recent weeks, caught the ire of several people including myself for his statements in support of the controversial Testosterone Replacement Therapy that has run rampant through the sport and become a way for fighters to bypass conventional drug testing for steroids and other PEDs, many of which are not detectable themselves but are detected through sudden spikes or drops in hormone levels. Hallmann’s claim that he and others should be allowed to use and abuse the Therapy because they medically require it in order to remain competitive against much younger competition is as absurd as it is arrogant. He came out to his fight wearing speedos, which drew groans from the crowd when camera shots on the ground caught him at an unseemly and revealing angle. More disturbing to me, though, was the fact that he literally had track marks running up and down his arms. Ebersole quickly dispatched of him in brutal fashion, almost as if he was enacting a punishment on our behalf for Hallmann’s outright defiance of sportsmanship and common decency. After the event, in lieu of a “Submission of the Night” bonus (since there were none on the card), Dana White gave Ebersole a secondary “Knockout of the Night” bonus and joked that he was giving it to him for getting Hallmann’s shorts off television as quickly as possible. White committed to the joke, going so far as to make it so that the bonus itself was officially listed in the records as a bonus “For Getting Those Shorts Off Television As Quickly As Possible.”
In the co-main event of the evening, former UFC Light Heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort made quick work of Yoshihiro Akiyama. Fans stateside had given Akiyama the nickname “Sexyama” due to his impeccably groomed appearance and use of Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye” as his entrance theme. Tonight he used the song again, accompanied by graphics placed throughout the arena of pink flower petals slowly descending over images of the Japanese fighter.
Vitor, who had spent much of his career at Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight, made a very rough transition to Middleweight (185) two years ago. He was put on a path to face Middleweight champion Anderson Silva. The fact that he received the title shot as a fulfilled prophecy of marketing and management rather than earning it showed against Silva, who made quick work of the man nicknamed “Phenom” for his early rise to stardom. Here he was making his return against Akiyama, a man who is a favorite of fans for his reckless and tough style, which is a trait common in many Japanese fighters. He also has a critical failing that is also common in Japanese fighters: an unwillingness to cut weight. Akiyama should easily be a Welterweight fighting at 170. Instead, he has gone into every single fight in the UFC at 185 (actually weighing in anywhere from 180-184) and has been severely undersized. In particular, tonight he was facing a different Vitor Belfort than we’ve seen in recent years who looked better physically than he has in years. Unlike against Silva, Belfort looked slimmer, refreshed, and hydrated. 185 was not an easy transition for him, but it looks like he’s finally lost a bit of muscle mass and developed some consistency in weight and cardio training. It’s good news for fans of the old Vitor, and very bad news for everyone else in the Middleweight division.
Then came the main event of the evening.
It had taken some twists and turns, but in the last week the heat and anticipation had built for the ad-hoc encounter between Rashad Evans and Tito Ortiz. Due to several injuries and false starts, Evans had taken a fourteen month lay-off while waiting for his promised shot at the Light Heavyweight Championship even longer. Although in its initial incarnation this was supposed to be that opportunity, in the eyes of many fans the time off meant that Evans still had to prove that he could hang at the top of the division. A year is a long time in MMA, which is a rapidly evolving sport, without even taking into account ring rust. Ortiz, on the other hand, found himself in a no-lose situation. He’s a living legend who went over five years without a win in the sport, but a recent encounter with a young (former) top 5 Light Heavyweight ended in a stunning submission win for Ortiz. He, like Vitor, looked like a man reborn.
Evans, though, wouldn’t be denied. He put a scare into Tito early on the feet and repeated the highlight slam from their previous encounter in 2007, which ended in a rare unanimous draw after three rounds.
Then, in my peripheral vision, I saw what I thought was the stream of a full, large beer being tossed towards the Octagon. I looked down to the floor level and saw security approaching several fans. They tried escorting one of them out, but in a scene that is stereotypically Philly, a fight broke out that nearly turned into a riot. It thankfully fell out of my line of sight, and I returned to watching the fight. Two minutes later, one of the perpetrators was sat down in front of us, his head being wrapped by an EMT while a police officer waited to escort him first to the hospital, then to jail.
Before continuing with the fight, I do want to say this: I think I love Philly and its crowds. The best and worst thing about them is their enthusiasm and passion. Thing is, I had a wonderful time with everyone around me. To my right, I had a group of four friendly guys, three of which had questions about the sport that they’d occasionally pose to me. Whereas I’ve found that people going into it tend to want to joke about it, they treated it as a serious curiosity and became fans by the end of the night. Behind me, another group and I would converse about fights, usually without anything other than a lean and with no eye contact. We also bonded with a young couple in front of us, shaking hands at the end of the night and telling each other to drive safe. Next to them, a guy had lost his wallet that I spotted and pointed out to him, but only after everybody else around him – complete strangers – did everything they could to assist. That is, literally, everyone around me, and they couldn’t have been any more pleasant. It was really a pleasure to be around them and it was the best, and I do mean this, the BEST live sporting event I ever attended in terms of camaraderie of my immediate neighbors. The problem, though, is that Philly is one of those cities that always has three bad fans that completely ruin the experience through their insistence on acting like the worst possible human beings. Trust me, though, when I say it is far from the norm and should not be a blight on that city or its fans. Philly, you’re just PHINE in my book!
Ergh. Sorry. Anyway, back to the fighting IN the Octagon.
The second round of the main event was a repeat of the first. Tito did what he could, but Evans is curiously and woefully underrated despite his ranking in teh sport. What’s truly amazing about him is his wrestling. Evans is, essentially, a 185 fighter competing at 205. Fans seem to forget this, though, because he talks like a man two feet taller than he is. But it’s not just trash talk and hyperbole. It’s confidence and a self-assured nature that comes with being someone like Rashad Evans. His superior grappling and particularly his innate ability to find perfect balance and positioning once he has his opponent on the ground is what makes him the fighter he is. Late in the second round, Evans finally got Ortiz in a position where all was lost. Tito held on valiantly and for as long as he could, but the fight was stopped with only twelve seconds remaining in the round.
We took our leave, and the rest of our evening’s escapades are detailed here (spoiler alert: we had Philly cheese steaks and drove home).
This was my first live MMA event of any kind, and it could have gone better. I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that I didn’t think at numerous points during the evening what a shame it is that we can’t have this in New York due to power plays, ignorance, and misunderstandings that certain State legislators have about the sport. In the meantime, though, I’m happy to make that drive, because the sport and especially the fans make it worth the extra effort.
Your loss, New York.
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- Fight Test: local union rep talks of opposition to MMA in New Yorktimesunion.com
- Addressing concerns of Senator Liz Krueger and others who oppose the legalization of MMAtimesunion.com
- An open letter to Sheldon Silver and the New York State Assembly on MMAtimesunion.com
- Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye…
- Listen to me LIVE as guest co-host of Alternative to Sleeping tonight at 10pm!
- Realtors: “WAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH” George Hearst III: “NONONOO SSSSHHH IT’S OKAY, it’s okay…here. Here’s a pacifier.” Kristi: “#oops.”
- Open Mic web series premiere tonight @ Lark Tavern
- Trust Me, You’re Going to Want to See This