Notes from New Year’s Weekend

By Jake Rossen Jan 2, 2007
If “finish strong” is a mandate that can be applied to the closing moments of a fight, it also holds true for the industry itself. 2006 was a banner year for the sport of mixed martial arts, and its multi-platform finales on New Year’s weekend held the momentum.

With so much happening across the map in a span of 48 hours, it’s impossible to fix the focus on just one attraction. Out of the two dozen-plus bouts and millions of dollars raked in, multiple answers about rankings, reputations, and legacies were satiated.

Better yet, those answers raised even more questions heading into 2007.

Does anyone stop Liddell?

I am an admitted ageist. Anytime an athlete can circumvent the rigors of decaying physiology and deliver performances that would be the envy of any 20-year-old, I’m as amazed as I am entertained.

Randy Couture (Pictures) held the torch for a while, but now it appears the newest avatar for defying Father Time is Chuck Liddell (Pictures). At 37, instead of showing the wear and tear that inevitably comes with a decade in the sport, the UFC’s box office champion looks more dangerous than ever. So dangerous that it’s easy to forget how intimidating a foe Tito Ortiz (Pictures) truly is, how his wrestling — the backbone discipline of this sport — is normally too intense for the majority of his competition.

Forgiving his tapout due to exhaustion more than the patty-cake strikes delivered by Frank Shamrock (Pictures) in 1999, Ortiz has never been stopped in his career — except for each time he’s fought Liddell.

There is much discussion about Liddell being this generation’s Tyson, a cagey beast whose reputation has opponents beat long before they ever enter the ring. No one in the sport is untouchable, and I do fear Liddell has precious little time left to flaunt his skills. But unless Quinton Jackson (Pictures) comes in refusing to make even a single mistake, it’s very difficult to imagine anyone on the radar dethroning him.

Regrettably, Jackson’s preference to get some Octagon time in leaves the UFC with few options when it comes time for the champ to accept another test. Forrest Griffin (Pictures)’s loss to Keith Jardine (Pictures) smothers any plans the promotion may have had for a marquee fight, but that’s just as well: Griffin, for all his heart and work ethic, would be throttled.

Of their current employees, only Rashad Evans (Pictures) stands out as a deserving and potentially competitive contender. His wrestling is more ferocious than Liddell has seen in some time; it’ll be a better scrap than most think.

If you’re still not a believer in the Iceman, consider one other fact: Of the five world titles up for grabs in the UFC, only Liddell’s failed to change hands in 2006.

Mirko ‘Who Cop’?

Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic (Pictures) was the spectre of the UFC Saturday, mentioned multiple times but never seen, presumably due to the UFC being either unwilling or unable to secure rights to his PRIDE reel.

Commentator Mike Goldberg made curious mention of Filipovic being “able to make 205,” which would seem to earmark him for the very real possibility of holding two titles simultaneously.

Should Liddell beat Evans and Jackson in ’07, there’s virtually nothing left for him in that division. If Filipovic does what he’s expected to do — hurt people very badly — a bout between the two would break box office records.

It’s unfortunate that plans for The Ultimate Fighter 5 were solidified before their acquisitions, as both Filipovic and Jackson are in dire need of some repeated exposure on U.S. television. It wouldn’t surprise me to see one or both of them on a subsequent installment.

I do, however, lament Joe Silva’s decision to slot Eddie Sanchez in against Filipovic. I’d prefer a bout that would push “Cro Cop” a little more. Paul Buentello (Pictures) would have proven very interesting.

Perhaps the blame lies with Filipovic himself, in need of a warm-up or two to acclimate to the Octagon. Whatever the case, I hope his second opponent is a legitimate threat to his chin.

Coach Miletich

There isn’t yet an award for Coach of the Year in this still-coagulating sport, but if there were, honors for ’06 would have to go to Pat Miletich (Pictures).

Granted, he dropped his comeback bout to a newly resuscitated Renzo Gracie (Pictures) (more on that later), but it’s his work behind the mitts that’s helped shape the 2006 combat year.

In addition to coaching his Silverbacks to two consecutive IFL World Team Championship titles, he helped UFC champions Tim Sylvia (Pictures) and Matt Hughes (Pictures) regain and retain their belts, respectively. Granted, Hughes fell short against Georges St. Pierre (Pictures), but the cumulative winning record of Miletich’s products is undeniably impressive.

If there’s a better place on the planet to refine a craftsman’s approach to the fight game, no one in Iowa has heard of it.

Gracie’s legacy

On the subject of elder statesmen in the game: did anyone expect resurgence from one of the most controversial (and celebrated) legacies of all time?

Not only did Roger Gracie (Pictures) debut with a submission win over the imposing Ron Waterman (Pictures), but Renzo Gracie (Pictures) has come off a dismal PRIDE run to rack up two consecutive victories, both against respected opposition. The latter came courtesy of Carlos Newton (Pictures), who failed to hustle enough to impressed judges at Friday’s International Fight League event in Connecticut.

If the IFL ring has been acting as the Fountain of Youth for the most ambitious member of that family, it remains to be seen what the result will be when he faces Frank Shamrock (Pictures) in an old-school dream bout on Showtime’s Feb. fight card.

Common wisdom says Shamrock’s crisper stand-up will be the deciding factor, but there’s a hunger in Renzo’s eyes that even the stuffed shirt on 60 Minutes took notice of — a hunger that seems all but absent in Shamrock’s recent appearances.

It’s also well worth noting the alleged retirement of Royler Gracie (Pictures) following his decision loss to Hideo Tokoro (Pictures) at K-1. Next to cousin Renzo, Royler was the most audacious of all the Gracies, accepting challenges against Genki Sudo (Pictures) and "Kid" Yamamoto (Pictures), despite his own battles with middle age. Most impressively, he sacrificed a substantial weight disadvantage to Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures) back when Saku was at the top of the Japanese food chain. And he very nearly went the full 30 minutes before a referee ignobly declared a submission hold too dangerous for him to remain in.

Royler should be remembered for his fighter’s heart, which he proudly displayed for our own edification. Belts are immaterial: he was a true champion of the sport.

Sakuraba’s latest letdown

So Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures) claims Yoshihiro Akiyama (Pictures) was “greased up” during their K-1 Dynamite!! New Year’s Eve bout in Osaka.

Fact or fiction, the weathered Sakuraba that entered the ring was a far cry from the cocky, posturing superstar that helped make PRIDE a national phenomenon in Japan in the early part of the decade.

Nearing 40, Saku was a sluggish mass of scar tissue and rusty ligaments; it seemed inevitable he would fall victim to the hyper-athletic Akiyama’s attack.

After doctors fretted over a blood circulation condition in the fall, receiving dozens of punches to the brain doesn’t seem like a proper follow-up treatment. It’s well understood that Saku has little quit in him, which is why I encourage Japanese promotions to take responsibility for their talent. Enough is enough.

A dent in Fedor’s armor

For a few brief minutes, Mark Hunt (Pictures) made Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) look very human. Controlling him on the ground and even attempting arm-locks, the K-1 veteran seemed to frustrate the champion with his tenacity, even escaping what looked to be certain defeat courtesy of an armbar.

But in the end, Fedor needed only a small window of opportunity to finalize his evening, cranking a shoulder lock on Hunt that seemed to be full of vengeful subtext.

“This,” the Russian seemed to be saying, “is how you bring the hurt.”

It was an impressive victory, both for the patience shown and for the genuine toughness of his opponent. Up next for Fedor is a bout with Jeff Monson (Pictures) in bodogFIGHT, but I sincerely hope Josh Barnett (Pictures)’s loss to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pictures) hasn’t smothered the possibility of a Barnett-Fedor meeting in 2007. Nog-Fedor IV would be insufferably rote.

Griffin

Most ardent MMA followers knew that Forrest Griffin (Pictures) had his hands full with Keith Jardine (Pictures). Some considered a decision loss a very real possibility. Few expected a TKO, including Griffin himself.

Admittedly, the sight of a devastated Griffin collapsing in the corner and sobbing isn’t a weekend highlight. But while some have chided the fighter for being too emotionally invested, I think the image perfectly encapsulates what most of us love about the sport: the passion the athletes exhibit in their pursuit to be the best.

This is clearly not a paycheck for Griffin, but a way of life. I can’t remember the last time I saw a boxer cry after a loss.

Even though some of the bigger names are earning millions of dollars, MMA as a whole still seems blissfully naïve when it comes to the idea of fighters being in it “for the money.” Liddell and Ortiz entered the sport when a $500 paycheck was not uncommon, even for them. That the veterans are finally reaping the rewards of their tenure is a groovy thing — which may be why Griffin felt shattered.

Had he won, the UFC may have been able to make a legitimate case for Griffin contesting Liddell, even though the odds would clearly be skewed against him. That kind of event would’ve netted Griffin a substantial payday, one that now appears to be put on hold.

I don’t chastise Griffin for his display. I applaud him for it.

Briefly

Things I Wish I Could Un-See: the visage of Takada’s gyrating, oiled-up buttocks as he pounded a drum during the opening ceremonies of PRIDE “Shockwave” 2006. …

James Thompson (Pictures) scored what could be considered an upset over Hidehiko Yoshida (Pictures), laying leather that eventually broke down the de facto light heavyweight. The bout was a strong argument for the strict adherence to weight classes. Thompson wasn’t the better fighter, just the bigger one. …

Gilbert Melendez (Pictures) seems primed for a bout with Takanori Gomi (Pictures) in the coming year, gutting out a tough fight with Tatsuya Kawajiri (Pictures). …

If PRIDE Bushido is truly a thing of the past, the one upside is that the premium PRIDE cards are going to be dense, stacked deep with talent. …

No mic time for the dynamic Quinton Jackson (Pictures) at UFC 66? What a strange induction.

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