Novaes Upsets Awad, Ketolainen Retains Title in Finland

By Markus Wikholm and Heikki Hujala Nov 12, 2007
SEINÄJOKI, Finland, Nov. 10 -- A wise man once said the only sports that matter are the ones fought in the squared circle.

The ring is the arena of choice for a plethora of MMA promotions, and by the same custom most MMA events in Finland are fought between the ropes. Still, there is also another structure where MMA bouts are staged, one exclusive to mixed martial arts and thus closely linked to the whole conception of MMA: the brutal-looking cage.

In Finland one promotion has chosen the cage as its environment for MMA action. Aptly named "The Cage," in its three years of existence the organization has quickly become a fan favorite. Every card offers even and high-quality matchups, the production values on-site are always top-notch and every event is videotaped for distribution via DVD or the Internet.

Additionally, Nordic Fight Sports, the promoting body of The Cage, is well connected by being part of the international Word Wide Cage Network. Earlier this year NFS co-promoted an event in Finland with the Japanese ZST organization and also works closely with the Finnish Mixed Martial Arts Federation.

This weekend The Cage held its eighth installment, called "Botnia Punishment," for which the octagonal cage was shipped to Seinäjoki, Finland. The show was packed with an afternoon of amateur MMA competition followed by the evening's The Cage event, which showcased a smaller-than-planned number of eight professional MMA bouts due to some traveling issues with the international talent.

The main event was not hampered. Mattias Awad of Sweden and European Top Team representative Jonatas Novaes waged an intense bout at 80 kg (176 pounds). A BJJ purple belt, Awad is a genuine veteran of the Scandinavian scene and entered this match following two wins in the European Vale-Tudo GP in 2005.

Originally from Brazil, Novaes, a BJJ black belt, now hails from Switzerland. In this bout he was not only cornered by the ETT men but also by his former teammate and a familiar face in Finnish MMA, Lucio Linhares (Pictures). With a talent-filled corner and seeming extremely impatient to fight, it was clear that even though he was less experienced in MMA, Novaes was ready to put up a fight against the Swede.

The first round started with Awad instantly closing the distance and working to trip Novaes to the ground. In an impressive feat of balance and grappling ability, Novaes reversed the attempt mid-flight with a trip of his own and landed in Awad's guard.

For a while the Brazilian worked to pass, but the guard of the Swedish purple belt was a solid one. Novaes followed his corner's advice and stood up from the guard, then proceeded to deliver kicks to his downed opponent's thighs. With red welts instantly appearing, Novaes mixed things up occasionally by dropping back inside Awad's guard with big swinging punches. Awad kept his composure well, and he managed to sweep the Brazilian, only to be rewarded with another explosive counter-sweep that seemed to return Awad to his back. But this time it was the Swede's turn to showcase his countering skills with a quick scramble and a single-leg take down. Inside Novaes' guard, Awad inched his way against the cage and started to work for some ground-and-pound until the round was over.

In the second and final five-minute round, Awad was again quick in attempting to close the distance. Yet this time it was Novaes who used the forward motion against Awad and shot for a takedown. For a long time the two men were in a stalemate with exchanges of passes, bottom submission attempts and what can only be described as horizontal boxing with nothing substantial done.

Near the end of the round, Awad scrambled back to his feet and tried a new approach: striking with Novaes. However, the lightning-fast Brazilian quickly caught Awad's leg kick, and the final seconds of the round were again spent with Novaes on top.

While the pace did slow in the second round, the intensity and feeling that the first mistake would lead to a finish lived through the fight. A third round between these two talented fighters would have been interesting to see.

Nevertheless, the judges awarded the fight to Novaes, who had come into the matchup as the clear underdog. The two professionals congratulated each other for the close chess match, and Novaes donned the Brazilian flag while his corner celebrated what was a technically impressive fight and a huge win.

The co-main event was an interesting one too, since it was fought for the only professional MMA title in Finland. A year ago Finn Jani Ketolainen, from MMA Imatra, won a four-man tournament and was awarded the 70-kg (154-pound) "Botnia Punishment" championship belt. The undefeated champ retained his belt Saturday with a unanimous decision over previously undefeated Finn Joni Salovaara, of Riihimäen Heracles, in a closely fought war.

After some tentative feeling-out, the experienced wrestler Ketolainen stepped in for a clinch and got a big hip toss that resulted in Salovaara being instantly mounted. The challenger quickly gave his back in trying to escape, but the champion caught him in a back mount and a rear-naked choke attempt.

Salovaara showed why he was worthy of challenging for the title by having Ketolainen on his back for many minutes and fighting off his rear-naked choke attempts. Both men stayed very active in the dangerous position with Salovaara pulling every trick in the book in trying to escape the back mount and Ketolainen showing fortitude in nullifying these attempts and keeping his position. Eventually, near the end of the round, the slow and steady work of Salovaara paid off, and he reversed Ketolainen, ending up inside the guard of the champion when the bell rang.

The big siege had taken its toll on both men. Ketolainen in particular looked tired during the break, as he slumped in his chair. However, the titleholder and the man aiming at the belt both regrouped and started another intense round.

Salovaara took the center of the cage and worked his standup, landing an impressive high kick that was partially blocked by Ketolainen, who still slipped under the power of the kick. Salovaara first made use of the slip by dropping inside Ketolainen's guard but soon decided that standing up was his best approach. For a while the fighters traded punches, and Salovaara varied high and low kicks until Ketolainen shot in for a single leg.

Salovaara showed impressive takedown defense in balancing himself and refusing to be taken down. Driven against the cage, he was already halfway down but used the cage to stand back up, reverse Ketolainen against the cage and then change roles in attempting to take Ketolainen down. When his opponent was trying to create distance and escape the squeeze of the cage, Salovaara showed explosiveness in jumping to a standing back mount.

With the challenger attempting a back choke, Ketolainen stayed composed and standing. Salovaara tried to drag Ketolainen to the mat but eventually came down on the bottom, securing only a half-guard. Ketolainen had barely gotten accustomed to being down when Salovaara performed a picture-perfect sweep from the half-guard.

The reversal didn't provide any payback as Ketolainen scrambled up and delivered one more double leg that planted Salovaara on the ground. Now having a good base inside the guard of Salovaara, Ketolainen started to take over with steady and systematic ground-and-pound. Once more Salovaara fought back, and he performed another beautiful sweep right at the end of the round.

The entertained audience in Seinäjoki gave a huge ovation for the even tit-for-tat warfare, which definitely was a worthy title fight. Fans were also vocal about the 3-0 decision that gave the nod to the champion Ketolainen.

The crowd might have been even louder when hometown favorite Jarkko Latomäki came back from a series of losses. He put on an MMA clinic against the accomplished French Thai boxer and European Top Team member Olivier Elisabeth, who was undefeated in MMA coming into this bout at under 73 kg (160 pounds).

Both men seemed extremely composed and focused at the first bell. Latomäki instantly showed respect for the muay Thai skills of Elisabeth by delivering a fast and deep shot that put the Frenchman down against the cage. Fighting off a guillotine attempt, Latomäki calmly got his head out and soon passed to half-guard and started to deliver blows.

Equally calm, Elisabeth created some distance and scrambled up, only for the Finn to use the close quarters for a few knee shots, then in the same fluid motion drop for another successful double leg. Systematically, Latomäki worked his way forward on the ground. He moved from guard to side mount and then took the back of Elisabeth, who was attempting to stand up.

The Frenchman managed to shake the Finn off, but once Latomäki was back on his feet, he again bounced Elisabeth against the cage and slammed him down hard. The crowd gave a tremendous ovation upon impact, and the round closed with the man from France uncomfortably stacked against the cage.

The beginning of round two made it clear that Latomäki was not wrong about Elisabeth's standup, as the Frenchman unleashed two great leg kicks that visibly hurt him and made a slapping sound that could be heard over the loud support of the audience. Sticking with the game plan, Latomäki again delivered a furious double leg, drove Elisabeth to the cage and slammed him down. Latomäki eventually got side mount and started to knee the body and punch the head, moving between side mount and the crucifix position.

Elisabeth defended well against the onslaught, and in the crucifix he saw an opening, powering a sweep on Latomäki. Prepared for ending up on his back, Latomäki followed the motion and instantly had a clean triangle locked. The submission was in deep, and the surprised Elisabeth was soon unconscious at 4:13 of the second round.

At 84 kg (185 pounds), Tommi Haapanen from Vaasa, Finland, stepped in as a late addition against Andrejs Kaesovs of Latvia.

While Haapanen was clearly bigger, Kaesovs backed him up with clear and crisp Muay Thai, using fast one-two combos and leg kicks. With Haapanen moving back, the Latvian shot in for a takedown but was reversed for his efforts. Kaesovs had a slick and flexible guard, but Haapanen punched his way out of armbar attempts with some big strikes. Working against the cage, Kaesovs not only got back up but also secured a tight-looking guillotine. Haapanen eventually popped his head out of the choke and quickly slammed Kaesovs back on the ground, where he pounded on him.

The pace eventually slowed, and the referee stood the fighters. Kaesovs seemed in trouble. Gassed and bleeding from the bridge of his nose, he had lost all composure and missed some wild swinging punches. Haapanen, on the other hand, seemed to get his distance and timing in check and started to vary leg kicks, crosses and jabs, connecting often. He then easily sprawled and stacked Kaesovs, spending the rest of the round dropping elbows to his ribs.

The second round was all Haapanen, who circled and mixed leg kicks with hand combinations en route to a unanimous decision.

In 93-kg (205-pound) action, the monster from GB Gym Helsinki, Jevgeni Smirnov, needed no more than 24 seconds to put away Lithuanian Ramanovskij Sbigniev. Sbigniev attempted a takedown, but Smirnov stuffed it and spun around for an attempt at a combination of a rear-naked choke and an old-school favorite from playgrounds around the world -- the headlock.

Sbigniev jumped to the mat in an attempt to slam the head of Smirnov to the mat, and he actually achieved that goal. Unfortunately for the Lithuanian, though, the rear-naked choke from Smirnov did not loosen, and Sbigniev was quickly unconscious.

The bout between Finland's Ville Räsänen of MMA Imatra and Rachim Nassoudi, another European Top Team representative from France, could be summed in one word: scramble. The end came at the final minute of round one, when Räsänen, ending up in side mount after a takedown, unleashed some punishment. Nassoudi eventually turned his back, and Räsänen secured the rear-naked choke and the win in the 77-kg (170-pound) bout.

A match between promising fighters Tuomo Turkia of MMA Lappeenranta and Juha-Pekka Vainikainen of Espoon Kehähait had been in the making for a long time. On Saturday the two finally met in a 72-kg (158-pound) bout and put on a high-paced performance worth the wait.

Right off the bell, the fighters exchanged some quick one-twos with neither man backing up, and quickly thereafter Turkia shot for a takedown. Vainikainen showed impressive sprawling skills in stuffing the attempt. Once Turkia backed up, Vainikainen landed flush with a tremendous cross that both stunned and cut his opponent.

Another double-leg attempt from the troubled Turkia paid off, and Vainikainen was put on his back. Vainikainen instantly popped his hips in an attempt at an armbar, and then he transitioned to a deep triangle choke for the tapout at 2:49 of the first round.

Lastly, Finn Mikko Broman met lanky Lithuanian Edvardas Norkeliunas. Norkeliunas, who used his long reach to back Broman up, initially dominated the first round. Soon, however, the Lithuanian found himself on his back when an attempt at a flying knee was awarded with a big slam by Broman. Norkeliunas' long legs were in good use on the ground too. He used a tight high guard and served up multiple submission attempts from the bottom. For the rest of round one, Broman fought off the attempts, kept his position and inflicted constant damage.

Norkeliunas looked more confident in his striking in the second round as he circled and tried to clinch with his opponent for some knees. Broman was now clearly gassed, but the Lithuanian did not land anything big in the round. In the end, Broman won the decision.
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