Emanuel Newton threw Bellator a serious curveball. | Photo: D. Mandel/Sherdog.com
Upset of the Year
By Tristen Critchfield
Forget, for a moment, what you saw in November, when the supposed underdog pulled off the improbable once again, this time over the course of a much larger 25-minute sample size.
When you look back on 2013 and realize that Emanuel Newton defeated Muhammed Lawal twice in the same calendar year, it does not feel like anything out of the ordinary, especially after watching Newton get the better of “King Mo” for five rounds at Bellator 106. After that, it is easy to simply say that “The Hardcore Kid” is the better fighter. Two separate fights, two very different methods, one basic result.
However, back in the spring of 2012, when Viacom inked Lawal to be a crossover MMA/sports entertainment star with both Bellator MMA and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, nobody -- regardless of what kind of spin promotion executives would later apply -- expected him to lose to a veteran journeyman who was best known for leaving it all in the mosh pit.
After all, this was “King Mo,” a man who went from an All-American wrestling career at Oklahoma State University to winning the light heavyweight crown in Strikeforce, the world’s second-largest MMA organization at the time. Sure, a failed drug test followed by an ill-conceived remark to a Nevada athletic commissioner resulted in his Zuffa release, but for all intents and purposes, Lawal was regarded as UFC-quality. Remember, he beat Gegard Mousasi, an underrated but top 10-worthy talent, for the Strikeforce strap in his seventh professional appearance.
“King Mo is an incredible athlete and a great addition to the Bellator family. He immediately adds prominence and star power to our light heavyweight division,” Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said.
Most new Bellator signees do not have conference calls devoted to their future endeavors, nor are they the subject of a Spike TV special. If one is the focus of such an intense marketing campaign, anything short of complete domination is a disappointment. Lawal had been wearing a crown during his walk to the cage for years; his status as Bellator’s uncrowned champion was expected to be remedied in short order.
“I don’t know that there’s another MMA fighter out there that’s going to get this kind of exposure,” Spike TV president Kevin Kay said during Lawal’s introductory conference call. “I’m sure of it, actually.”
Lawal was supremely confident.
“I get to knock people out in the cage and hit people with chairs in the ring,” he said. “Both ways, I’m winning.”
Those are hardly the words of someone worried about Bellator’s light heavyweight field. Lawal did as expected in his 205-pound quarterfinal bout, knocking out the unheralded Przemyslaw Mysiala in the first round at Bellator 86. The win set up a semifinal meeting with Newton, a former Lawal training partner, at Bellator 90 on Feb. 21.
While by no means a household name, Newton had built a respectable resume over the course of a career that began in 2003 -- some five years before Lawal made his pro debut. While not known as a knockout artist, he had proven himself durable, versatile and creative. Still, he lacked the sizzle that “King Mo” provided and had largely flown under the radar during his Bellator tenure. The Reign MMA representative’s experience held little sway with oddsmakers, as Lawal was established as a heavy -- as high as -1400 in some cases -- betting favorite.
Newton did not care about the expectations surrounding his more celebrated opponent, and he needed less than three minutes to put a screeching halt to Lawal’s considerable hype.
Lawal, who spent some of his camp at the famed Mayweather Boxing Club, was content to keep his lead hand low and wait for countering opportunities as the bout began. While Lawal’s amateur wrestling background made for a strong base entering MMA, it was the knockout ability that surfaced early in his career that helped him quickly move from project to prospect. In the end, Lawal’s confidence in his hands and reflexes may have led to his downfall, although even the most defensive-minded fighter could not have been prepared for what was to come.
The two light heavyweights traded shots in close quarters, with Newton holding his own during the exchanges. When Newton whiffed on an overhand right, Lawal attempted to counter with a right hook -- which turned out to be a disastrous mistake. Newton responded with a spinning back fist that knocked the Strikeforce veteran out cold on his feet.
“I saw that Mo dropped his hands a lot and [was] coming with big haymakers, so I figured I’d duck under it,” Newton said.
As “King Mo’s” unconscious body fell to the floor, Newton left nothing to chance, as he nearly applied a rear-naked choke to his already sleeping foe before referee Jason Herzog intervened. In pictures, this gave the impression that Newton is gently cradling Lawal, a pseudo-tender moment after a brutal finish.
Suddenly, Bellator was promoting a light heavyweight tournament final between Newton and Mikhail Zayats that was supposed to be Lawal-Renato “Babalu” Sobral. The so-called toughest tournament in sports would not allow for pre-determined outcomes. No regrets, Rebney said, when looking back on how things played out.
“I just think he got caught right on the button with a spinning back fist that nobody saw coming. I don’t think Emanuel planned to throw it until he turned and saw the opening,” Rebney said. “I just think he got caught. Look, it can happen to anybody, but do I think we’ll see it again anytime soon? No, I don’t. I don’t think he was ill-prepared. He was in incredible shape. I just think he got caught by a really good, really talented fighter.”
Newton would prove his boss right again at Bellator 106. He is a really good, really talented fighter, and he has two victories over Lawal to prove it, the first of which was as shocking as the move that set it all up.
2. Josh Burkman vs. Jon Fitch
For several years, Fitch was the best welterweight in the world not named Georges St. Pierre. From the time the former Purdue Boilermaker debuted in the Octagon with a unanimous verdict over Brock Larson at UFC Fight Night 2 until a three-round triumph over Thiago Alves at UFC 117 almost five years later, GSP was the only man able to thwart Fitch’s grind-it-out attack.
The American Kickboxing Academy product’s list of victims included Burkman, who would eventually be released by the UFC in 2008 after compiling a 5-5 mark with the promotion.
Eventually, Fitch’s momentum would grind to a halt. Following the win over Alves, Fitch won just once in his next five outings. That, along with the lack of a crowd-pleasing style and salary issues, led to his exit from the UFC.
Fitch instantly became one of the World Series of Fighting’s highest-profile signings a few weeks later when he inked a four-fight deal with the fledgling organization. Meanwhile, Burkman was thriving outside the Octagon, winning seven of eight fights -- two in the WSOF -- since his final UFC appearance. With that, the promotion’s two highest-profile welterweights were booked to square off on June 14 in Las Vegas. While Fitch had been scuffling a bit, his losses had come against top-notch competition. As a result, the former UFC mainstay was the heaviest favorite on the card.
Burkman made sure Fitch received a rude welcome to the decagon. He floored the 35-year-old Fort Wayne, Ind., native with a short right hook and quickly moved to secure a guillotine choke. Before Mario Yamasaki could step in, Burkman released his unconscious foe, a spectacular walk-off submission if ever there was one. It was the first time Fitch been submitted in a fight since 2002.
“I got a little overconfident in my choke defense,” he said. “He locked it in too tight. It was a mistake on my part. I should have fought the choke right away.”
3. Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald
For many, MacDonald was the heir apparent, the fighter who would eventually succeed Georges St. Pierre atop the welterweight heap. An athletic Tristar Gym product with a skilled jab and solid wrestling, he certainly had the pedigree.
Heading into UFC 167 on Nov. 16, the heavy-handed Lawler was given little hope of slowing down the young Canadian. While “Ruthless” had put together a modest two-fight winning streak in the UFC since making the move from middleweight to welterweight, he was still viewed as a product of a bygone era.
If Lawler could not put MacDonald to sleep, his options were limited. That did not stop the nostalgic from hoping for a Lawler victory, however, because the conservative MacDonald had barely moved the needle in a lackluster victory over Jake Ellenberger, another hard puncher, in July.
Still, popular opinion had MacDonald being too technical to fall into Lawler’s trap. As it turned out, Lawler proved to be more balanced than anyone had imagined. He kept his foe at bay with leg kicks early, avoided spending too much time on his back throughout and clinched the fight by flooring “Ares” in the final frame.
The end result was a split decision triumph for the American Top Team standout, who debuted in the UFC with a raucous verdict over Aaron Riley in 2002.
Just one bout removed from a failed title bid against reigning light heavyweight king Jon Jones, Evans was expected to bounce back in emphatic fashion against Nogueira on the UFC’s traditional Super Bowl Weekend card on Feb. 2. Speed kills, as they say, and Evans had it in spades, especially when compared to “Minotoro.”
What followed was a puzzlingly uninspired performance from the Blackzilians representative. Nogueira, who was anywhere from a +395 to a +495 underdog, was hardly overwhelming, but he was nonetheless able to pull the trigger on a more consistent basis than Evans.
The Brazilian connected with his right jab and left cross enough to outland the former 205-pound titlist 40 to 22 in significant strikes. Evans, meanwhile, failed to reach double figures in strikes landed in any of the three frames and took down Nogueira just once over the course of 15 minutes.
Nogueira emerged with a unanimous decision, sweeping the scorecards by identical 29-28 counts. For many, however, it was not so much what the former Pride Fighting Championships standout did but what Evans did not do. Lose back-to-back fights for the first time as a professional, and people are bound to start asking questions.
Evans would later blame a tumultuous year for his in-cage struggles. A split with his longtime camp, family issues and an overall lack of passion were all factors, he told ESPN.com.
“I must admit I did get to a point where I wasn’t having fun and went through the motions,” Evans said. “When I started fighting, I enjoyed every part of it. I enjoyed training so much, I enjoyed learning, but lately it had gotten to the point where it was something that I had to do; it’d become somewhat monotonous.”
That missing fire proved to be quite costly.
5. Larue Burley vs. Bubba Jenkins
The signing of Jenkins, a two-time NCAA All-American and 2011 national champion wrestler, was a coup for Bellator MMA. The promotion had built a foundation on homegrown talents such as Michael Chandler and Eduardo Dantas and many believed Jenkins was cut from the same cloth.
Jenkins had tantalized in his first three professional appearances, scoring first-round submissions each time out -- twice with Tachi Palace Fights and once with Resurrection Fighting Alliance. He did not disappoint in his Bellator debut, either, stopping Mike Barreras via TKO in the second round in July.
“Bubba is a talent,” American Top Team coach Ricardo Liborio said. “Bubba is the complete package. He’s one of those guys that are not just naturally talented, naturally gifted, but this kid is sharp. He can talk. He loves the cameras. He behaves very well. He’s a very interesting character. He’s one of those guys that you’re going to love him or you’re going to hate him, but you’re going to know who he is.”
It appeared that “The Highlight Kid” had plenty of star power. It was just a matter of building him up at a gradual pace. Burley, on the other hand, was an unknown commodity heading into Bellator 100 on Sept. 20, and really, that was just fine. Jenkins was the one getting the push.
In the past, Jenkins’ lack of polish was overcome by his ability to overwhelm foes through sheer athleticism. Even in losing the opening round, Burley established that he was a physical match for Jenkins by getting to his feet again and again after being taken down. The American Top Team product began to show signs of fatigue in the second, and Burley made him pay with a barrage of hooks and uppercuts and a flying knee as time expired.
By the final frame, Jenkins had nothing left in the tank. His shots lacked zip, and Burley began looking toward the referee for a stoppage as he fired off left hands early in the period. Jenkins was finally able to get his man down, but Burley quickly swept to top position. From there, Jenkins surrendered his back and absorbed ground-and-pound and knees until the fight was halted at the 3:40 mark.
“Larue Burley was brought into Bellator MMA to lose tonight,” tweeted Aaron Simpson, a training partner of Burley’s with Power MMA Team in Arizona. “He chose to prove them wrong. So happy for him. Fought with all his heart.”
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