The Blurst of Times

A familiar subject for this post. After my preview and instinctual
thoughts on Pride 33, here is the finished article I have penned for the Total MMA newsletter. These thoughts are hopefully a tad more organised than the previous ones, and I have even made a pretty picture for this one! Anyway.

* * *
As far as slow deaths of empires go, this stage of Pride’s was relatively enjoyable. In terms of recent MMA shows, this was one no MMA fan is likely to forget. I realise that, to some extent, the context of the DSE financial mire is impossible to totally ignore. That said, with every man and his three-legged dog postulating and theorising about how much money DSE has, who wants to buy it and whether ‘this! Is the last show!’ every time they put one on, I am personally more than a tad tired of people who do not know pretending they do. Besides, what we do know for sure is what happened at Pride 33, however hard it was to believe at first. So let us just focus out beady little eyes and minds on that then.

Obviously, everybody reading must know the results by now so, as is usually the case with these articles, I won’t bore you with play by play. It’s always more fun to watch anyway. Instead, I will focus more on what the results might mean to the promotion, the particular fighters and, to be quite honest, what they meant to me.

On a card that seemed to have more upsets than anything else, it was with less a sigh of relief than a gale, that I watched the respective returns to winning ways by my two favourite pale fighters: Joachim ‘Hellboy’ Hansen and Sergei Kharitonov. Then again, on this night defined by underdogs, their wins were not quick demolitions.

Hansen had it pretty easy against Jason Ireland, who never gave up despite being totally outgunned. Well, that’s a bit of a lie: the scream he unleashed when Hansen cranked on his arm midway through the third round could be construed as giving up. Anyway, he put up a hell of a fight against an elite international lightweight, and surviving into the third round is something to applaud. Here’s hoping Pride holds onto him because he would make a fine addition to this summer’s lightweight tournament (if they’re still around – oo-er).

For his part, Hansen was the consummate demolition machine we al know he can be. His Thai boxing was impressive, as he used the clinch not just to hurl those devastating knees into Ireland’s face, but also to throw his prey to the ground. And when on the canvas, Hansen impressed still further. Obviously fired up by his recent quick submission loss to Shinya Aoki, though respectable on the ground for a while (his defence against Uno was vastly more impressive than when he tapped to ‘Shaolin’ Ribeiro – but Ribeiro is a complete beast at the weight), he was all over Ireland. It seemed as though his winning arm bar was a message sent to all his rivals, accompanied as it was by his insistence that the referee check for the submission.

Less one sided was Kharitonov’s much-needed victory. His run of unfortunate results against Aleks Emelianenko and Alistair Overeem (opposition not to be sniffed at, although Overeem seems to have caught the under-achievement bug of late) suggested this fight was do or die. A third consecutive loss, against an MMA non-star, could have spelled doom for the young Russian.

As was predictable (though I admittedly sold him short), Russow cut a powerful figure in the ring, all big right hands and tenacious in takedown attempts. It was in light of this that Kharitonov’s eventual submission win impressed. Sergei was under fire, mounted with worrying ease (though by a good wrestler), but his early takedown trip-counter and fight-ending submission evinced a heartening level of grace under fire. As with Ireland, the large and aggressive Russow is a fighter I would like to see again in MMA competition.

Another fight that followed the betting line (presumably: I’m about as far from a betting man as you can get after being stung by the B.J Penn vs. Georges St. Pierre bout) was between middleweight GP champion Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua and Alistair Overeem.

The Dutchman, like Kharitonov, had been on something of a slide. Actually, after the sudden (apparently injury-based) stoppage he suffered after having the upper hand against Rogerio Nogueira and subsequent tap to Arona getting his back, it might be more pertinent to suggest he’s on rather a major slide. Perhaps like one of those gigantic water slides you get, where you steam halfway around town and think it’s never going to end, before you are finally deposited, gasping, into a pool of your own fear.

It is safe to say that Overeem had not recently been battling to his immense potential, that’s for sure. Bafflingly, the same had recently been whispered in some quarters about ‘Shogun’. Not by me, but whispered nonetheless. There was talk that he had not dispatched Cryille Diabate with sufficient venom, as though a stoppage via stamping your opponent’s face into the blood-stained canvas halfway through the opening stanza were insufficient. He tapped the tough Kevin Randleman in what was essentially one (lengthy) sequence. Most recently, ‘Shogun’ enjoyed a clear decision victory over a much-improved Kazuhiro Nakamura – a legitimate threat to anybody at 205.

If any doubt about young Rua remained, one would hope it was dismissed at Pride 33. Credit to Overeem for opening the bout in a strong, aggressive, and heartening manner, but ‘Shogun’ proved why he is a force of nature by securing a quick victory with one of the most pinpoint-accurate ground and pound shots I have witnessed. Like some sort of Bizarro Superman he flew, with his arm outstretched, directly to Overeem’s jaw. It was a shot of such beauty that there could have been no doubt the fight was over there and then. It is perhaps fortunate for Overeem that numerous other Pride middleweights met brutal ends on this night.

The fight that was most clearly an upset was the near-instantaneous knockout visited upon Antonio Rogerio Nogueira by Pride debutant Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou. And that is pretty much all there is to it, as well. Rogerio, who went the distance in 2005 with ‘Shogun’, withstanding massive shots in the process; who is a celebrated boxer in his homeland… was knocked out cold by the erstwhile African Judo champion. And kudos to the Cameroonian, for he beat one of the very best in the world, a man who was at one time rumoured to be challenging for the gold on this very show.

While it may be a tad premature to be sticking Sokoudjou in any top ten list quite yet, his achievement was massive in its stature, and in the gasps of disbelief flying out, along with near-infinite beer, chips and whatever else, of the mouths of the worldwide MMA cognoscenti. Oh, to think how many monocles must have fallen from surprised eyes at the moment that left hand connected.

‘Hands connecting’ was the story of the two main events of this card, and we’re not talking hippified Coke commercials where everyone links up for a sing-song.

Anybody thinking Pride lightweight champ Takanori Gomi was in for an easy night against Nick Diaz was obviously not looking at the big picture. As I predicted, Diaz caught Gomi with some good early shots, and the Japanese fighter returned the favour. Infinite credit where it is due (that being directed, like a laser, in the direction of Diaz), Nick Diaz did not, as I ventured he might, ‘smug his way to a decision loss’.

Obviously fired up both by lost fights that were eminently winnable (this would be where I mention Joe Riggs), and by the magnitude of this event, the Diaz of Pride 33 was a cocky, compelling combination of the Diaz we saw at UFCs 44 and 47. The audience was fortunate to bear witness to the hungry Diaz that so memorably smacked Robbie Lawler six ways from Sunday in 2004 (echoed, brilliantly, in his taunting ‘hands up’ posture: Gomi was as unable to provide an answer as Lawler), but also the vaunted ‘submission specialist’ of 2003 that so impressed in his UFC debut against Jeremy Jackson.

Make no mistake: this non-title bout was a war. Both men suffered damage, and looked in trouble. But it was after the best-possible Bonnar vs. Griffin movement that the true class of a mixed martial artist showed through. Standing and banging will only get you so far in this game (unless you happen to do it as well as, say, Chuck Liddell), and an either tired or punch-drunk Gomi was unable to provide an answer for the Cesar Gracie-trained submission skills of Diaz. The limb length that had afforded him an advantage on the feet played, too, into the endgame as Diaz positioned his lower leg under Gomi’s throat and pulled down. The subsequent stoppage was mere formality.

Gomi was not dominated in this fight. Even in his staggered phase, he managed to throw a damaging knee to Diaz’s body, but the Stockton native was just too much for him. This was really a case of one of the world’s best welterweights beating one of the world’s best lightweights. Prior to the fight, the larger, well-rounded Diaz’s chances seemed too good to be true. In hindsight, though, they were simply too good to be ignored.

Pre-fight size difference played less of a role than anticipated in the marquee fight: champion vs. champion, Silva vs. Henderson. My preview made mention of Henderson’s ability to control through his wrestling, his hard punches, and of Silva’s issues with dominant wrestlers. What I had under-estimated was Henderson’s tenacity, and his ability to wrestle bigger men than himself with success. The easy victory over Vitor Belfort should have acted as sufficient warning, but in that case it was not to easy to determine how much of that was Henderson being great, or Belfort under-achieving.

Admittedly, the Silva who showed up to defend his title in Las Vegas seemed slightly smaller than the jacked wrecking machine of the last few years; perhaps the size difference was not so great in the land of substance tests (not saying Silva is a user, but he was lacking some of his Japanese bulk). Whatever the case, Henderson showed up to fight, and was not to be denied.

The stand-up portions of the battle saw the Team Quest great connect with some grand shots, but it is not as though Silva had not been in his fair share of brawls. The fight seemed to have been sucked out of the Brazilian on the ground. We saw it in that brace of battles with Arona, and we saw it again at Pride 33: Silva is not comfortable when faced with an effective MMA-trained wrestler.

It seems that, rather than bang it out and hope for the best, perhaps Silva would do well to go back to the drawing board and devise a way of dealing with this very definite flaw in his game, or the same fate will befall him again and again. Henderson eventually reached his destination of the middleweight title with a left hand, but his excellent wrestling certainly helped him on the bulk of the journey.

Now he is back to looking like the fighting machine he really is, perhaps he should rematch Kazuo Misaki, who lost a clear decision to Renaissance Man Frank Trigg, while the iron is hot. Holding two belts, he certainly won’t starve for a fight anytime soon. Indeed, perhaps perennial Chuteboxe bridesmaid (I would like to make it very clear I am using the term metaphorically here. Metaphorically) Mauricio ‘Shogun’ can finally have his shot at gold now the belt has been wrested from around the waist of his mentor Silva.

Yes, with two iconic Pride champions tasting bitter, though not totally surprising, stoppage losses, and other big names taking the fall, these are interesting times indeed for Pride FC. I suppose the state of their situation depends on whether one views the glass half-empty or half-full. While it may be true that some of the promotion’s biggest names have lost in dramatic fashion, it is without doubt that the likes of Henderson, Diaz, Trigg and Sokoudjo have seen their stars rise massively within the ranks of the troubled Japanese promotion. And perhaps, in some final dramatic irony, a set of strong American (and African!) figureheads are precisely what the company needs as it sets its sights on coasts far from Japan.

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