An Upsetting Trend?

By Jake Rossen May 8, 2007
Eulogies were written for Buster Douglas before he ever stepped off the plane in Tokyo in 1990. A mid-card athlete with several KO losses on his record against mediocre competition, his résumé didn't seem to hint he could be a threat to America's bogeyman, the in-prime and seemingly indefatigable Mike Tyson.

Ten rounds later, a concussed Tyson was scrambling for his mouthpiece and getting consoled by an uncomfortably emotional referee, who seemed to be hugging the dazed ex-champ more to alleviate his own shock than Tyson's.

As a 42-1 betting prospect, Douglas was likely the most successful underdog in the history of the combat sports, an industry that is far less hospitable to underachievers than other pro outlets.

No one seemed to bat an eye when the raggy Chicago Bulls swept the defending champs Miami Heat in a recent NBA playoff series; the Yankees can fall victim to Major League Baseball's worst team multiple times in a season.

But in fighting -- where "styles make fights" and weaknesses can be easily exploited both on paper and in the ring -- odds-on losers aren't expected to bankrupt the sportsbooks. Yet the early part of 2007 has already played host to a series of shockers: rookie Sokoudjou's KO's over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (Pictures) and Ricardo Arona (Pictures); Randy Couture (Pictures) defying Physiology 101 against Tim Sylvia (Pictures); Matt Serra (Pictures)'s shocking victory over Georges St. Pierre (Pictures); Gabriel Gonzaga (Pictures) force-feeding Mirko Cro Cop his foot.

In the latter two examples, the underdogs actually beat their opponents at their own game, with Gonzaga going so far as to ace Cro Cop with his own trademark high kick.

It's a bizarre trend, one that has fans fretting that tenured attractions are blowing big box office returns by getting steamrolled against less charismatic, less established athletes.

Serra, for example, has usurped a pre-digested attraction between GSP and Matt Hughes (Pictures); the UFC felt compelled to start a fresh narrative on the sixth season of The Ultimate Fighter, with the two Matts sparring verbally as head coaches.

In an ever-evolving sport, the catalyst for the recent shockers isn't that difficult to figure out: the grapplers that were forced to adapt to the sprawl ‘n brawl tactic of established strikers are now credible stand-up artists in their own right. Serra has been training with kickboxer Ray Longo for nearly a decade now. A perceived "grappler," he held his own against B.J. Penn (Pictures), nearly KO'd the durable Karo Parisyan (Pictures), and -- for his big finale -- felled GSP on the feet.

Serra, like Gonzaga and other crossbred athletes, cannot be considered single-discipline martial artists who "dabble" in other styles in order to provide a proper defense. They're part of a morphing contingent that are true mixed martial artists, at a disadvantage nowhere in the ring.

Striking, like grappling, is an art that takes years to develop and become proficient in. Because Serra and others were introduced as grapplers, that stigma remains; fans tend to neglect the fact that as their careers advance, so do their other abilities.

Is it good for the bottom line? Historians often point to the "indestructible" veneer of top-ranked athletes as a way for fans to experience catharsis -- the sense that, so long as Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) remains unbeaten, all is well with the world. Your job may suck, your wife may be a nag, but Saturday's pay-per-view should see Chuck Liddell (Pictures) score another knockout.

It's comfort food for the sport's soul.

With so many ways to lose, MMA seems a poor choice to hang such expectations on. If you're good -- really good -- you can probably go a couple years without a loss. If you're riding a 25-0 streak, you're either made of adamantium or padding your record with fights in Iowa county fairs.

Even undisputed champ Emelianenko isn't exempt from reality. The heavyweight contingent is notoriously diluted, and the Russian doesn't help matters any when some of his sporadic performances come against such marshmallow opposition as Zulu, Jr. and a far-outsized Matt Lindland (Pictures).

Emelianenko's number will be up eventually. Even so, Buster Douglas is likely to remain the gold standard of the sports upset, especially when compared to the relative infancy of the free-fight industry.

Because grapplers are still typed as one-dimensional, and strikers doubly so, perceived "upsets" are likely to continue all year long, though whether or not they ever actually held the same dubious chances as Douglas are a matter of opinion.

Which means that even if bodogFIGHT enlists Danny Bonaduce as Fedor's next opponent, you shouldn't divert any mortgage payments.

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