Featuring Carlos Newton, Jose Landi-Jons, Matt Hughes, Dave Menne and Karimula Barkalaev, Shidokan Jitsu’s “Warriors War” offered up what was without a doubt one of the best middleweight tournaments ever held. It was sponsored by Naif Al-Sabah, Sheikh of Kuwait, and took place on Feb. 8, 2001.
Menne emerged as the winner, but the event was also defined by a complete lack of organization. This resulted in a never-before-seen alliance between Americans, Brazilians and Canadians, who pushed back against a Russian-Kuwaiti fight-rigging scheme that only fizzled out because of the integrity of referee John McCarthy.
Where are the Travel Tickets, Scale?
As a reporter covering vale tudo events in Brazil in the 1990s, disorganization had ceased to come as a shock. In my travels through northern and northeastern Brazil, I had witnessed chairs and cans being thrown into the ring. I’d seen a promoter save a tournament by getting a coconut salesman from the beach to fight one hour before the show. With all of that baggage, I never imagined that an event in Kuwait, sponsored by the petrodollars of the local Sheikh, could leave me aghast. However, to my surprise, the Kuwaiti team put together by Al-Sabah shattered all boundaries when it came to disorganization.
An Ultimate Fighting Championship and Pride Fighting Championships fan, Al-Sabah decided to hold his own Arab version of the world’s greatest events. The international success of the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships, held since 1998 by his United Arab Emirates neighbor Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed, served as proper motivation. To draw some of the best fighters in the world at the time, Al-Sabah offered $60,000 to the tournament champion -- a sum far above the average fight purse at the time. The roster of fighting guests included Brazilians Landi-Jons and Ricardo Liborio, Americans Hughes and Menne, Canadian Newton, Barkalaev, Spanish fighter Dersu Lerma and Kuwaiti Khaled Mubarak. Apart from the tournament, Amaury Bitetti was booked to fight another Russian. Regrettably, Liborio suffered an injury weeks before the event, leaving “Pele” as the only Brazilian in the tournament.
Invited to cover the event as a representative of the Tatame, Cinturon Negro and Kakutougi Tsushin publications, I showed up at the airport to board the same flight as Landi-Jons and Rudimar Fedrigo. Our problems started right during the boarding process. Realizing that the promotion had not sent us tickets, we chose to take the Sheikh at his word and paid for the trip out of our own pockets. Since all we had were tickets at promotional fares for the next day -- all our credit cards could handle -- I offered room in my Copacabana studio apartment for “Pele” and Fedrigo to sleep in.
Arriving in Kuwait on the day of the weigh-in, we found out that the 13-person American contingent also received no tickets and had to cover its own expenses. “Since we bought our tickets on the day of trip, it cost us five grand. The guy who sat next to me planned in advance, and his ticket cost all of 800 dollars,” said Bruce Buffer, who had also been invited by the Sheikh to announce the show.
The outrage over the lack of organization was only just beginning. Shortly after arriving, as we gathered for breakfast, Bebeo Duarte, Arthur Mariano and Marcelo “Tetel” Andrade -- who had come along with Bitetti -- informed us that the Sheikh’s favorite fighter, Barkalaev, weighed 202 pounds and there would be no weigh-in. The rumors were confirmed minutes later at a general meeting. Following a meeting led by McCarthy, event organizer Wallid Al Merie thanked everyone for their presence. As he was about to wrap up, Pat Miletich, Hughes’ trainer, stepped in and asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Our contracts state that the fighters must weigh in at 185 pounds. So where’s the scale?” The answer was a doozy.
“Actually, fighters only need to weigh 185 pounds for the first fight,” Al Merie said. “Starting with the second round of the tournament, they can weigh 198 pounds.”
Duarte could not hold back his laughter, which sparked a reaction from the brazen organizer. “Do not disrespect the fighters, if you please,” Al Merie said before being interrupted by Newton, who rose to the Brazilian’s defense.
“You’re the ones disrespecting us,” Newton said. “You can’t change weight classes on the day of the event. I don’t make 20 million like Ronaldo. If I’m injured tomorrow, who will take care of my expenses? This is ridiculous.”
Faced with the threat of a mutiny, Al Merie acquiesced to the pressure and a scale was finally brought in. As expected, Barkalaev -- well-known to Brazilian fans after his controversial match with Ricardo Arona in the 2000 ADCC semifinals -- tipped the scales at 202 pounds. With Landi-Jons weighing in at 194 pounds, Hughes at 191 and Newton at 189, the fighters and organization eventually reached an agreement.
When I figured all possible surprises were out of the way, they came up to tell me I had been selected to serve as one of the judges for the fights. As I laughed, Fedrigo answered for me: “Only if I get to take the pictures.” Given the impossibility of my handling both roles at once, the organizers asked McCarthy’s wife, Elaine, to join former kickboxing champion Peter Cunningham and Hollywood star Richard Norton on the judging panel. Despite all of the stumbles, we all chose to give them a vote of confidence for the good of the sport. Promoter Monte Cox echoed our sentiments: “The growth of MMA in the Middle East will be good for all of us.”
‘Judged By American Movie Stars’
Menne opened the tournament in a barnburner against Newton. Inside the first minute, as Menne went for a head kick, the Canadian dropped under his legs, took his back with a body lock and slammed him to the mat. The American managed to escape, but Newton took him down two more times. After the first takedown, he nearly ended the fight with an arm lock. After the second, Newton advanced to mount. However, in the closing seconds, Menne knocked down “The Ronin” with a head kick. This should have pushed the fight into overtime, but the judges named Menne the winner instead, leaving Newton outraged.
“If it went to overtime, I would’ve beaten him,” he said. “I had a lot more energy left. Unfortunately, the fight was judged by American movie stars.”
In the other bracket, the favored Barkalaev, who was a local icon due to teaching sambo in Abu Dhabi, played it close to the vest in his decision win over lanky Spanish opponent Lerma. He was clearly saving his strength for the semifinal against the winner of the most anticipated fight of the opening round: “Pele” vs. Hughes.
The animosity between the two fighters had already been noted to the organizers, who gave them rooms on different floors. Since I was roomed with Landi-Jons and Fedrigo, I actually helped a member of the organizing committee translate a request from the Sheikh: “Please make sure that nothing happens between the Brazilians and Americans.” Despite that, Hughes and Landi-Jons almost threw down when they met unexpectedly in the elevator.
Thankfully, the fight waited until they reached the cage. Hughes got started by taking down the Brazilian, shoving him against the fence and opening up with his ground-and-pound for nearly three minutes. However, when it appeared the American would secure an easy unanimous decision, “Pele” exploded out of the position, scrambled to his feet and waited for the wrestler’s next takedown attempt, at which point he landed a pinpoint knee to Hughes’ head. He was already out as he fell.
In the semifinals, Menne earned a decision over Russian Shamir Maromegob, a well-rested alternate for Spaniard Antonio Tello, who had in turn replaced Liborio. Tello suffered an injury in his first fight and could not continue in the tournament. Menne engaged in a firefight with Tello, advancing to the final in tatters after 20 minutes of intense fighting.
In the other semifinal, Landi-Jons was not as fortunate against Barkalaev. Aware of the Brazilian’s striking prowess, the Russian quickly clinched and hit an uchi mata. From that point, Barkalaev thoroughly dominated the fight, as he passed the Landi-Jons guard, mounted and rained down hard shots. “Pele” yielded his back and tried to stand, but that only made his situation worse. Under a barrage of punches, the Brazilian dropped back to his knees. With “Pele” defenseless, McCarthy was forced to stop the fight.
After the bout, I asked Barkalaev if he wanted to face Landi-Jons’ training partner, Wanderlei Silva, who competed in his weight class. The three-time Dagestani kickboxing champion surprised me by answering that he was not familiar with Silva and had come to the event eager to face Arona in a rematch. His great dream was to visit Brazil.
“Due to that slap I answered at the ADCC, I had a very unpleasant experience,” Barkalaev said. “They had me locked up and blindfolded for a week and only allowed me to see when they put me on a plane and deported me to my country. I’d love a rematch with Arona under these rules.”
United Behind Menne
In the tournament final, the promoters met with the consequences of their incompetence. Unlike the Sheikh and his subjects, who held Barkalaev as an idol, all of the foreigners involved in the event’s organization and refereeing were outraged at the manipulation employed to crown the Russian as champion.
Obviously, if he slipped up even once, the Sheikh’s favorite fighter would pay the price. That was precisely what happened. When Menne stepped into the cage, all of the foreign fighters and supporting crews cheered the American with all their might.
The American got off to a better start and took down the Russian. However, Barkalaev defended well and attempted a dangerous leg lock, which the American fought off. Next, Barkalaev moved on top, passed the guard, mounted and teed off much like he had done in the “Pele” fight. In turn, Menne escaped and returned to his feet. After an impressive striking exchange, Menne took down the Russian again and applied his ground-and-pound.
Once again, Barkalaev surprised us by recovering, standing, taking down Menne and mounting him in the final minute. While Barkalaev punched, Menne tried to buck him off, leading the Russian to grab the cage. McCarthy warned him, but Barkalaev committed the same infraction and was deducted a point. The penalty would determine the winner of the $60,000. When the fight ended, Barkalaev rose to celebrate, while McCarthy reminded the judges of the deduction. To the outrage of the local crowd, Menne was named the winner by unanimous decision. Al Merie argued with McCarthy, who offered a blunt response: “You brought me in to make sure the rules were followed, and that’s what I did.”
Barkalaev was livid.
“This is preposterous,” he said while still in the cage. “An international event can’t have a referee and three judges all from the same country.”
In the end, Menne received his check and a title belt directly from the Sheikh.
“Not even I expected to win a tournament with guys like Hughes, Newton, ‘Pele’ and Barkalaev,” he said.
Despite a heavily bruised face, Menne followed through on his commitment to fight again two weeks later in Rings. Though far from his ideal condition, he put up a good fight against the much heavier Hiromitsu Kanehara at the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Arena in Tokyo, only to succumb to punches in the third round.
Shortly after “Warriors War,” the Sheikh held a dinner atop a tower in the country’s most luxurious restaurant. He took the opportunity to apologize to everyone for the lack of organization and handed out gifts to each of us, one by one.
Since Fedrigo, Landi-Jons, Bitetti, Mariano and I had all bought promotional tickets that forced us to spend seven days in Kuwait, we became hostages to the lack of organization of the Sheikh’s staff. We were forgotten in the hotel as soon as the event concluded. For three days, we were stuck in a foreign country, waiting on the goodwill of the Sheikh’s secretary. Our one stroke of luck was meeting the friendly Muhamad Ali, who, despite sharing the famous boxer’s name, was actually the greatest judo champion in the history of Kuwait. A vale tudo fan, Ali also owned a karting track near the hotel and rescued us from our boredom by offering us his karts for the rest of the day. When all was said and done, even though Bitetti and “Pele” had totaled two of his cars with their stunts, Ali helped us leave the country.
While Bitetti and Mariano made their way back through London, Fedrigo, “Pele” and I left Kuwait and headed to Frankfurt, Germany. When it came time for our connecting flight to Brazil, we were informed at the Varig booth that we would have to pay an additional $800 because of the promotional nature of our tickets. When no Brazilian “jeitinho” could get them to cut us a break, we opted for a better -- and cheaper -- decision to avoid spending two days in the dull German city. For $180, we rented a car and drove to Paris, where we spent 24 hours and closed the book on this historic blunder in style.