Nam Phan file photo | Sherdog.com
Sherdog’s Robbery of the Year
By Tristen Critchfield
“This man just fought his heart out, and he’s not a judge” -- UFC color analyst Joe Rogan
Leonard Garcia fights with an unparalleled sense of urgency each time he steps into the cage, but his trademark style (read: throwing big looping punches at every opportunity, cardio and accuracy be damned) seems to confound mixed martial arts judges.
In 2010 alone, all three of his fights featured scorecards that raised eyebrows in the MMA community. His split decision triumph over Chan Sung Jung at WEC 48 drew boos when it was announced. While few would dispute the fact that Mark Hominick got the best of Garcia at WEC 51, one judge curiously saw the fight 29-28 in favor of the Lubbock, Texas, native, making their bout a closer-than-expected split verdict.
The most egregious scoring error, however, might have come at “The Ultimate Fighter 12” Finale in December, when, to the surprise of Garcia, his corner and virtually everyone else in attendance at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, the “Bad Boy” was awarded an early Christmas gift against Nam Phan.
The unsatisfying resolution was par for the course in 2010. Fights like B.J. Penn-Frankie Edgar 1, Sean Sherk-Evan Dunham and Quinton Jackson-Lyoto Machida have transformed the adage “don’t leave it in the hands of the judges” into gospel.
In the minds of many, Garcia-Phan was simply the icing on the cake. The backlash following Garcia’s controversial split decision win included a cascade of bulls--t chants from the fans in the immediate aftermath, a flood of hate mail directed at the Nevada State Athletic Commission and some vitriol from Rogan on the MMA Underground forum.
Such an overwhelming negative reaction helps make the first-ever televised featherweight bout in UFC history Sherdog.com’s “Robbery of the Year” for 2010.
“After every card, there’s usually someone complaining about someone getting robbed -- the Machida-Jackson fight that happened a few weeks before this fight. It happened with [Randy] Couture and [Brandon] Vera [at UFC 105]. It happened with a lot of fights,” said NSAC Executive Director Keith Kizer. “To me, it just shows really good, competitive matches being made. Not that the judges don’t make mistakes; of course they do. It’s amazing how every other fight’s a robbery, according to some fan or another.”
The judges who oversaw the action for Garcia-Phan were Adelaide Byrd, Tony Weeks and Junichiro Kamijo. Two of the three would see a very different fight than the majority of viewers.
The first round began with Garcia firing away in typical fashion, looking for a finish with powerful hooks and overhands. In what would be a recurring theme, most of the Texan’s efforts whiffed or glanced off Phan’s gloves and arms.
“That’s like a style for rock throwing. It’s not like a punching style. It’s so strange,” Rogan quipped.
The Vietnamese-American was more efficient in the opening frame, landing effective body shots and combinations while pressing forward. Garcia fatigued quickly and moved backward instead of circling in the round’s later stages, something trainer Greg Jackson pointed out in the corner once the bell sounded. What looked like a 10-9 round for Phan was given to Garcia by Byrd and Weeks.
According to Garcia, the weeks leading up to the fight provided enough uncertainty to affect the Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts product’s training. As the airing of Season 12 of “The Ultimate Fighter” was coming to a close, Garcia agreed to face Tyler Toner at the finale. Toner, who trains at Denver’s Grudge Training Center, was moved to a bout against Ian Loveland on just a week-and-a-half’s notice. Garcia, meanwhile, looked to be without an opponent.
“We weren’t getting ready for anything. We thought we weren’t going to fight until February,” he said. “They called me six days before Thanksgiving and told me, ‘No, you’re definitely fighting. We just can’t tell you who it’s against.’ It was kind of a crazy situation. Going into a big card like the UFC not knowing who you’re gonna fight is something you’re not used to. It definitely weighed on me a little bit.”
The lack of conditioning, as Garcia himself would admit, continued affect him, as well.
Early in second round, Garcia pressed forward, landing punches, leg kicks and even scoring a rare double-leg takedown. Once Phan returned to his feet, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 12 semi-finalist took over, connecting with an uppercut that had Garcia reeling against the fence. Phan continued to batter his opponent with punches before flooring Garcia with a spectacular side kick to the ribcage. From there, the karate black belt attempted to lock in a rear-naked choke, but Garcia survived as the round expired.
Coming in, Garcia had only been finished once in 21 professional appearances, and Phan’s inability to do so in his most dominant round eventually proved to be his undoing.
“You can’t get careless,” Phan said. “I shouldn’t have left it in the hands of the judges. It’s a lot harder to finish someone than you think. I hit him with some good shots.”
The bout’s final round was also its closest. An exhausted Garcia continued to swing away. A cut opened up on Phan’s head early, but the Sengoku veteran said Garcia rarely landed anything significant.
“That was from him hitting me, hitting my glove and my knuckles hitting my head. That caused a cut,” he said.
Garcia also attempted another takedown, something he would later credit for swaying the scorecards in his favor. Phan, though slightly less aggressive than in earlier rounds, continued to mount a solid offense using jabs and body shots. As time expired, the reactions of the fighters were a study in contrasts: Garcia, looking weary, headed to his corner with eyes downcast, while Phan, looking fresh, raised his arms in what he assumed was inevitable triumph.
Those who watched that night already know Phan’s cruel reality. Byrd and Weeks scored the bout 29-28 for Garcia, while Kamijo scored it 30-27 for Phan. After the head-scratching scores were announced, Phan turned toward his coaches with arms spread and palms up in an expression of utter disbelief.
“I don’t see how Leonard beat me any of the rounds,” Phan said. “I watched it again, and it was like he threw a lot, but [even] cosmetically [when] you throw a lot of punches, you’ve still got to hit the guy.”
On the opposite side of referee Herb Dean, Garcia let out a yell, recognizing that fortune had smiled upon him.
“I wasn’t happy with my performance. Nobody likes to win a fight like that. It was a bittersweet thing, and it felt like I had a lot of questions to answer,” he said.
A few feet to Garcia’s left, Jackson momentarily looked as shocked as Phan.
“Some people thought that Leonard was more aggressive the first and third rounds, but I wanted Leonard to do more to win the fight,” Jackson said.
Ultimately, swinging for the fences proved to be the right strategy, and one Garcia plans on continuing to utilize.
“I’ve worked my style into a judge-favoring position. It makes sense to me not to ever sit back, not to ever wait on the guy to do something. I always try to push forward, and I always try to finish the fight with punches,” Garcia said.
For most everyone else, the logic of those sitting cage-side does not seem so clear.