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/


Basketbrawl VIII: Rockets Red Menace

September 21, 2011

An uncomfortable incident occurred on Chinese hardwood recently, and I’m not talking about the ping-pong trick.  A friendly between the Bayi Rockets of the Chinese professional basketball league and the Georgetown Hoyas erupted into a melee.  It is was much worse than the ‘Malice at the Palace’ in terms of punches landed and players attacking each other, and the same in terms of crowd reaction and on-court official reaction.  The event was covered in the news cycle, but seems to have been lost, possibly dropped behind the great firewall by those engaging bumblers at the Washington Post.

One month later, unanswered questions linger like the disappointed memories of a goodwill trip turned borderline international incident.  The most interesting pair are: When is the next goodwill tour of China by an NCAA basketball team (surely other sports are more civilized)?  What were the ramifications for the players and officials involved?

To begin answering the former question, we must acknowledge that the Bari Rockets are not just a team in the CBA, they are the team.  They feature first ever Chinese NBA player Wang Zhizhi, and they are the Yankees, the Man U, the Canadiens, of Chinese hoops.  They are also sponsored by the army, as in ‘Bayi’ refers to the army, rather than where they play.  This article contains an account of the full trip, including the incident, and in fact seems to be the most extensive account on the net, but it does not answer our question.  While it purports to deal with the question about future goodwill tours, it is written from the perspective of someone in the Georgetown delegation, writing in something called ‘the Diplomat,’ so the incentives are all pointing directly towards the conciliatory tone in which the author does not actually mention any players feelings about the event (bait-and-switching with the ‘overall trip’ and the reconciliation afterword to fake the impression that he has).

Those feelings, and the way they proliferate throughout the NCAA may affect the number of goodwill tours in the future.  Those who do not recognizing this may also not be realizing that as the exchange rate changes, and flight costs rise, destinations like South America, Eastern Europe or even Nigeria will become more attractive.  Those areas already offer more teams playing at an appropriate level, where Bayi are the Chinese hoops fans’ only hope for a victory over the visiting Americans.

The latter question, about the suspensions and fines which would have been assumed, delivered, and feverishly reported had it been an NBA altercation, is equally difficult to answer.  This article gives an interesting glimpse into the Chinese social and institutional reaction and method.  It does not, however, answer the question: did anybody get suspended?  Reports of Georgetown coach John Thompson being yelled at for unknown reasons, and even more so these two statements on the Georgetown website, suggest that the Hoya’s view the whole thing as some kind of inexplicable nightmare which is best simply forgotten.  The Chinese reaction may suggest that they view it the same way, but the lack of information allows any sort of wild speculation.

Time will answer the first question for us, but it may never be known if there was any punishment meted out to the Chinese players or not.  The punishment for the Hoyas involved, apparently, will be left at that delivered on the court during the incident itself.  In light, however, of any real news on the NBA labor front (unsubstantiated and obviously false Chris Sheridan rumors notwithstanding), why has there been so little in print about it?  Perhaps international politics, fistfights and basketball are not as exciting, even in combination, as Ron Artest’s name . . . nah!


Fight Night: Toronto’s Debut

May 1, 2011

We managed to get tickets from scalpers* right before the main card. We ran up the ramp all the way to the nosebleeds, getting closer to the heat created by 55,000 people yelling at the top of their lungs. Immediate reactions to Toronto’s first ever UFC fight night:

Steve: This is crazy.

Ryan: Woah.

Me: I haven’t seen the Sky Dome like this since Wrestlemania 6, when the Ultimate Warrior beat Hulk Hogan for the heavyweight title.

The highlight of the night was when all six Jumbotrons took a closeup shot of Canadian Mark Hominick’s face and the crowd saw a giant baseball sized welt emerge from his head in high definition. We first reacted in disgust, then hearing how disgusted we all were, we laughed together. We did that each time they showed the bump. The cameraman zoomed in closer and continued to press our buttons.

As the fight continued, Jose Aldo continued to punch the baseball trapped inside Hominick’s forehead and Steve yelled out, “If that thing pops, it’s going to hit us all the way up here.” This gave the meatheads in the 500 section of the Sky Dome a good chuckle.

Despite the crowd’s insensitivity, we were electric when we had to be. In the fifth round of this Featherweight championship title fight, Hominick mounted the champ and began to punch him in the face. Both fighters were gassed but the crowd willed the Canadian to rise from his wounds. The electricity channeled itself into the arms of Hominick as he found the strength in his punished and beaten body to pound his opponent for the remainder of the fight. He wouldn’t allow Aldo to get up until the final bell. Despite losing the fight in a decision, Hominick fought hard for us.

The feature fight had Montreal’s George St. Pierre defend his Welterweight title against Jake Shields. This column has previously featured other champions such as Jon Jones and Anderson Silva. GSP ranks among them as a dominant force in his weight class. He rarely loses a round, let alone a fight. But there’s something distinctly Canadian about him as a fighter that separates him from other champions – he’s boring.

GSP is technically and strategically superb. He doesn’t take risks and he always wins. But his conservative style leaves his fans antsy. We want him to end the fight, rather than time to lapse and judges to make decisions. We want something definitive.

The crowd entertained itself with a few different chants while he fought. There was the one that you hear at Jays games, when there’s two strikes on a hitter, the crowd starts a slow clap that speeds up before it evaporates. Another sign of their boredom was the Olay-Olay chant usually heard at hockey games (but originally a soccer thing). Of course, being in the meathead section of Dome, a fight broke out during the GSP bout behind us. Everyone in our section was torn between watching GSP and the scuffle. Steve yelled behind us, “Can you guys just hold off for two more rounds please?”

Boring or not, GSP is our champion. Ryan noted how apologetic he is after he beats his opponent. Truly Canadian. Occasionally, he’s even sorry about his fights being boring. Once the final bell rang and GSP was declared the winner by decision, we walked out with the herd of meatheads and Steve said, “You know, even when he wins, it feels like a loss.”

*A note on scalping:

Steve and I had been tracking ticket prices since they had gone on sale. Given that they had sold out almost immediately, we presumed that scalpers had hoarded the tickets. Soon, these tickets would go on sale online in a secondary market.

Sure enough, places like Stubhub had thousands of UFC tickets for exorbitant prices. After some in-depth analysis which consisted of us basically justifying not buying those tickets at those prices, we concluded that on the night of the fight we would go with money in our pockets and find a way to get in. Again, we were right, there was a ton of tickets available for sale on the street corner.

However, while Steve and I have plenty of scalping experience, we had never scalped a ticket to a main event like this before. This was the equivalent of game 7 in the playoffs, a “must-see,” if you will. We were dealing with a sophisticated street organization.

If you had a ticket to scalp, they were on you. It was imperative that they controlled the supply, and from what we could see, they used intimidation to lowball you an offer. Scalping is their job, and the streets were their store, and chances were you being a good Canadian boy didn’t care to spend all your time making your money back.

By controlling the supply, despite having a surplus of tickets, they could control the prices. We didn’t bother negotiating. In fact, when we purchased the tickets it became obvious that one man was in control of the entire operation. Our scalper took us to him. He had papers to organize all the money and tickets floating around.

If someone controls the supply that means there is no possibility of negotiation. In fact, if you try the walk-away technique and then come back, basically telling them you were bluffing, then they can raise the price on you. They knew people came from all over Ontario and the States to watch this – and you were going to get a ticket from them, one way or another. I wanted to talk to the guy who appeared to be spearheading the entire operation but these weren’t the right circumstances.

Do you have any insights on this? Experiences? Thoughts? I’m truly interested. This secondary market is not a free market of buyers and sellers. How can they control such enormous blocks of tickets when the demand is so high? What’s the missing link? My goal is to determine how we can free this market, so we can go back to paying normal prices for events we want to go to.

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


Jon Jones is Batman

March 23, 2011

On the way to the bar, Steve briefed me on the much anticipated feature fight for UFC 128: Jon Jones versus Shogun Rua. Shogun was the reigning light-heavyweight champion. No opponent had ever knocked him down. Steve had seen some sports-science show, where they recorded Shogun as having the hardest kick in the UFC, using all sorts of special cameras and gadgetry. Shogun is in his prime.

Jon Jones was 12 years old when his sister died. He got two tattoos in her memory, one with her name written in Chinese. When his mother found out, she immediately took him to the local Chinese restaurant and asked the lady there what the tattoo said. “Peaceful warrior.”

Jones had great expectations beyond high school, where he was the State champ in Greco Roman wrestling. On his way to College, he knocked up his girlfriend. He had to get a job to raise his new family. He then took the advice of a friend and tried out mixed martial arts. Jones has only thirteen fights under his belt, is 23 years of age, and he’s already got a shot at the title.

Through 13 bouts, no opponent had been able to take Jones down to the mat, let alone knock him down. His record was 12-1 going into this fight; the lone loss coming from a disqualification for beating his opponent up without care for the rules.

Jon Jones is Batman. On the day of the fight, Jones got out of Newark and went to a park in Paterson city to meditate when his coaches saw a burglary in progress. The thief was running with some lady’s GPS when Jones chased him down and put him in a leg lock until the police arrived.

From the opening bell, Jones came at Shogun with reverse elbows, spin-kicks, and a wide variety of moves that he clearly picked up from video games, but can get away with it because of his incredible explosiveness and a seven foot wingspan. He’s a hurricane full of fists, elbows and heels. Not only was Shogun worried about avoiding the blows, but trying to get into a wrestling match with Jones was obviously a bad idea.

When the ref stopped the fight in the third round because Jones was pounding the dead horse that was now the former champ, Steve turned to me amidst the cheers and said, “I don’t think Jones took a single punch.” After the fight, Rashad Evans was there to shake Jones’ hand. Evans is a friend of Jones’, they’ve trained together in the past, and he’s first in line for a title shot against the new champ of the light heavyweights. Evans didn’t look too excited about it.

Steve doesn’t seen anyone in the light-heavyweight class that could put a dent in Batman’s amour, and makes an interesting point that by the time Jones reaches his athletic peak, he’ll be a heavyweight.

What we’re witnessing with Jon Jones is reminiscent of what Mike Tyson did when he became the youngest heavyweight champ in boxing history. Tyson dominated the most prestigious weight class during the early eighties. He went 37-0 before losing to Buster Douglas, after which his career and personal life spiraled downward.

But Jon “Bones” Jones is the son of a preacher man. He is the peaceful warrior and the unmasked avenger. And for the next few years, he’s going to be the hottest fighting ticket in town.

 

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


Brain damage.

February 19, 2011

When the New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins collectively lost their minds all over the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum ice last Friday night, they set up a media frenzy.  After the announcement of suspensions and comments from Penguins owner Mario the Magnificent, the story was lead news on CBC and actually reported in Pittsburgh sports pages!  Hopefully some rational discussion and decision will come of this great accumulation of nonsense.

To wit:

This is a guy who’s paychecks Mario signs, so he’s not only being hypocritical, some would say that he’s the wolf in sheep’s clothes.  That, however, would be both unfair and beside the point.  Mario’s reaction is an institutional reaction, because hockey ‘scores’ that were not settled by the referees but were deemed sufficiently egregious — usually meaning dangerous – have always been addressed by the players according to a code.  Some players may hold it dearer than others, some may even deny it, and I make no claim to know its finer points, but it is verifiably true.

So, bringing Matt Cooke back, please watch this clip of Don Cherry also reacting institutionally.  This was a very popular Coaches’ Corner segment, and his finger-wagging story is the kind of thing that has beautified him in some circles, but this is also an institutional response.  Nothing is gained.  I believe all is explained, and the Friday night incident was as predictable as the Leafs trading for youth in February.  To emphasize that point, if you follow NHL hockey closely, and you knew they were playing Friday, either you knew that was going to happen or you are a moron.

So what gives?  Why?  Both to Lemieux and Cherry: why?  Why do you have Matt Cooke?  At least Burke both gets the best fighters and acknowledges why he’s doing it.  Colton Orr hasn’t ended any careers lately.  One of Lemieux’ goons is the Ulf Samuelsson of his – oh!  See how that works everybody!*  What should happen is that both Lemieux and Cherry should team up and apply pressure on the league to give out meaningful suspensions.

The league’s response was also predictable, and the reaction from the league’s goons, and subsequent counter-reaction from their victims’ team’s fighters and goons, is equally predictable.  In that sense, Mario is right.  In the more meaningful sense, Mario is wrong in the sense that people trying to navigate by clouds are wrong.  You may be momentarily pointed in the right direction.  You cannot get where you are trying to go that way.

*for those too young to recall, Ulf Samuelsson was ostensibly a Lemieux bodyguard a la Semenko, but without fighting prowess.

The Sportsvssports suspension system:

Multi-time offender auto 1 game or 2x

Minimum penalty

Attempt to injure –            10

Head shot-                        1

Leaving feet-                     1

Injurious elbow,                1 with no swinging motion

kick, or high stick              3 with swinging motion

leaving bench                   10

sucker punch                     5

from behind                       2 if questionable.  5 if clear

All penalties are cumulative, so Cooke on Tyutin carries a minimum of 30 games, as opposed to the 4 he actually got.