A Different Kind of Champion

September 25, 2011

They say that you aren’t really a champion until you defend your title. The light-heavyweight division of the UFC has seen several different champions in the past few years. Since 2007, all but two fighters lost their championships immediately after winning it, a testament to the strength of competition in this weight class. UFC 135 featured yet another fresh champion, Jon “Bones” Jones, defend his title against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Rampage is one of the former champions that didn’t lose his title immediately after winning it.

Steve and I had basically taken the summer off from watching the UFC (and to be honest, so did the UFC, based on the fight cards they produced). As a rule, we don’t miss fights that involve Jon Jones. I like to compare our enthusiasm for watching the 24-year-old Jones emerge as a champion to what people must’ve felt watching a young Cassius Clay or Mike Tyson. Winners come and go, but there’s a feeling that we haven’t seen someone win like this before.

One of the earlier matches involved two heavyweights who were completely gassed by the second round. Both fighters had troubles lifting their arms up in the air, just to throw a punch. After Steve and I stopped laughing, it occurred to us that the training leading up to this fight was critical. They were in the mile-high city where the air was thinner. This was a title shot, which meant instead of three rounds it would be five. Endurance would matter. Steve mentioned that Rampage Jackson’s training facility was reminiscent of the Russian’s from Rocky IV. If you recall the training montage, the Russian had a technologically superior program while Rocky roamed the Russian wilderness to workout with wood, snow, a trainer who would not stop chanting “no pain,” all the while being spied on by the KGB, as they tried to crack the code of the relentless American spirit in vain.

Jones is a young champion and defending championships takes maturity and experience. He had never faced someone with the power of Rampage Jackson. Our anticipation peaked moments before the main event, during the stare down when Rampage scowled and growled into Jon Jones’ eyes without so much as blinking. Jones simply stared at the ground, solemn and quiet.

The bell rang and Jones started the fight on his hands and knees. He crawled towards Rampage, staying on the ground, swiping with his ten-inch reach advantage at Jackson’s legs, trying to pull him down. The move didn’t work but it was telling. Rampage, a self-proclaimed pit bull, was pensive during a moment when his opponent sat vulnerable on his hands and knees. Despite how young and unproven Jones was as a champion, he clearly demanded respect. Beyond that, nobody could make sense of why Jones would do that.

Most of the fighting was done standing up, which was to Rampage’s advantage. But Jones set the pace with a full arsenal of  lanky leg kicks, swinging elbows, jabs, hooks, and flying crosses. Jones rarely had to come near Rampage to land these kicks and punches because of an unearthly reach advantage. When Rampage gathered himself, he came at Jones with vicious swings. Jones got more comfortable dodging the bag of bricks. He was seeing the punches in slow motion. By the end of the first round, Jones realized he could leave himself vulnerable and trust his reaction to get his head out of the way.

Jones won each of the first three rounds standing up, and like all of his fights, took his opponent down whenever he felt like it. But if Jones was going to finish Rampage, it was happening on the mat.

If this were boxing, Rampage would have to get close to Jones and punch the daylights out of him to win. But unlike boxing, the threat of the takedown changes how you strike someone. If you miss your punch or kick, you’re left momentarily off-balance. Your opponent can take you down, which opens you up to a variety of chokes and submission holds. Even when you’re down, getting up the wrong way can leave you open to arm/leg/neck locks that lead to submission. Reaction time is a big part of all fighting. But in UFC, it’s also about how fast your mind races against your opponents. It’s a chess match involving your body.

It was clear in the fourth round exactly how uncomfortable Rampage was on the ground. Jones took him down. Having been in this position before, Rampage didn’t want to be on his back (in the previous round he took several elbows to the face lying on his back). But in avoiding one form of pain, he let Jones get him in a headlock. Looking back, the fight was over as soon as Jones got this hold. But Jones took his time to get the submission out of Rampage. He methodically fastened the airtight headlock around the neck. Jones then wrapped his legs around Rampage to secure leverage. He had Rampage in a choke hold and was wrapped around him completely, without a hint of hurry. We simply watched for Jones to yank a little on the lever and Rampage Jackson tapped instantly to acknowledge his submission.

After the fight, Joe Rogan asked Jon Jones about the unorthodox start from the crawling position. Apparently, Jones had had an idea the night before to fake a takedown of one leg, then switch to the other, something he was exceptional at. The kid came into the first defense of his championship with a trick play to try and end the fight almost immediately. He wasn’t concerned about the risk of Rampage giving him one swift kick or punch across the face as he knelt before his opponent to open the match.

This is a different kind of champion. Like Anderson Silva and George St. Pierre, Jones is technically brilliant and explosive. But no other champion in the UFC would start a title fight by taking such a risk. Jones has all the focus, drive and talent of a champion but shows no fear of losing what he’s already got.

–When he’s not watching grown men fight, Umar Saeed covers the endless battle between money and people on his website: www.umarsaeed.ca/

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Good News/ Bad news Pt. 2: How Caron Butler saved the big leagues. (assists: M. Recchi, T. Thomas) 6:14

June 23, 2011

Big league team owners are people too.  They are wealthy people, who have business empires to run and pensions to fund, but people none the less.  They are also competitive, although they are not necessarily sportsmen.  Therefore, they are prone to making the decision to take their ball and go home, if they feel slighted.  And that is how Caron Butler saved the big leagues.  Still not clear?

The good news is that the numbers are in, and people love their pro sports on tv!  Wait; is that good news?  The ratings for the NBA finals are up.  Way up.  The same for the NHL.  The numbers can be sliced and diced any which way, but it is good for both the NHL and NBA that two larger markets long absent from the finals had teams competing in the last game (though some more than others), and compelling storylines abound in both cases, keeping the teams on front pages, putting ‘Burrows’ and ‘Barea’ on lips that had never known them before.  At the expiration of the collective bargaining agreements of both leagues, the pie to be divvied up is growing, so perhaps both sides in both negotiations will be in a mood more conducive to deals than they would otherwise be.  Each sport also has had a potentially disturbing trend rising, both having ramifications on the relationship between salary-cap and financial regulations in general, and the ability of teams to compete.

In the NHL, contracts with bizarre lengths of duration have been proliferating, and Roberto Luongo’s is a prime example.  The slap on the wrists of the New Jersey Devils for this goes part of the way towards addressing this silly trend, but the total collapse under pressure of a trio of stars, one of whom possesses this team-finance-strangling deals, will do even more.  It will hold forth the Boston model of building patiently through the draft and US College signings and annually fleecing the Toronto Maple Leafs, rather than just throwing the most money at the biggest names.  In the NBA, a trio of players tried to decide the trophy by collaborating.  They failed, and now the clock is on Chris Bosh’s knees and ankles.  If they had won, it would not only have signaled the possible beginning of a dynasty, but also virtually guaranteed the construction of at least one or two more ‘superfriends’ teams, all in ‘major markets’ where the promise of the most sponsorship money is found.  Remembering that the Knicks and Lakers, the Mavs and Bulls were already not going to be the ‘hard line’ teams in the CBA negotiation, teams like Utah and Portland would be faced with an easier decision to cancel games if they felt their chances of winning the title had been foreclosed on already.  This may seem unrealistically petty, until you consider that the average playoff series nets each team several million in revenue, while most of their costs remain fixed.  NBA teams that don’t get out of the first round must have unusual circumstances to turn a profit each year.

Why does it matter that the Heat lost?  Because the NBA’s middle markets were on the brink of joining the smallest markets in an epic fit of whining, as they became all too painfully aware that their chances of winning it all had been reduced to nil for the foreseeable future.  But the Heat didn’t win, and as his team won Caron Butler in a suite was the most cut-too fan of all.  He’s also a two-time all star, younger than a couple of the lynchpins, and relatively capable of defending Dwayne Wade or LeBron James.  More so than say Jason Terry, or Dirk.

So there Caron Butler will be, next year, for 82 games, the third or fourth leader on the defending champions: preserver of labour peace.  Instead of heading into the offseason and labour negotiations filled with bitterness and acrimony, NBA and NHL ‘communities’ will move forward with more positive questions in mind:  Can Dallas repeat with a healthy Butler?  How many games does Rask start in net for Boston next year?  Is Mark Recchi a hall of famer?  We love the big leagues.