MMA has not been 'the fastest growing sport in the world' for some time, but that doesn't mean it is not storming forwards at a rate of knots. Sherdog's Fight Finder recorded 39 professional shows scheduled for Friday and Saturday across the world, Japan's penchant for holding fights on Sundays brought the weekend's total to 42. With that many fights, we have a fair bit to talk about.
The UFC's own helping this weekend was a lukewarm card headlined by Glover Teixeira versus Rashad Evans following the loss of Nurmagomedov vs Ferguson. Evans' long, narrow stance saw him struggle with lateral movement and back onto the cage in the early going of the first round. Every time Evans wanted to circle he had to square up and come out of his stance—exactly the footing he was in when he got caught as Teixeira lunged in behind the same overhand to left hook. Teixeira ate a counter after the overhand and still connected the left hook to put Evans down as Evans pumped out a straight in an attempt to continue hitting Teixeira from the most disadvantageous position in the striking game. Trading with your back to the fence and your feet level is never going to be a winning proposition unless your opponent does something very wrong, as Teixeira found out against Jon Jones in every infighting exchange.
An uppercut in the scramble put Evans out and saw Teixeira awarded the victory. Not a whole heap of stuff to tell you about this fight. Same old Teixeira against what is sadly becoming a familiar Evans. Everyone knows what Teixeira is going to do, he hasn't changed a thing in his striking repertoire since before he fought Marvin Eastman, but an important point to remember is that the difference between 'predictable' and 'reliable' is whether the other guy is actually doing anything to nullify it.
In the co-main event Khabib Nurmagomedov brutalized late replacement, Darrel Horcher as expected. It is good to see that even in this loss Horcher has received nothing but praise for gamely hanging on, and at no point showing a hint of quitting even while deep in a mounted crucifix and eating elbows. All while in against a guy who is not only leagues ahead of him as a grappler, but who is also at a very different point in his career. Perhaps of note is the cut on the back of Horcher's head—you don't get those from your head bouncing off the mat so a few of the elbows that Nurmy was dropping must have gone astray without the referee noticing.
The fighter who showed the most improvement on the card was probably Rose Namajunas. This made the second bout in a row where she got away from (though didn't completely abandon) the jumping, spinning, flashy stuff which draws eyes but gets her into trouble more often than not. Instead she made use of crisper, flowing boxing to accentuate her long frame at straw-weight. The occasional rear leg side kick which she introduced on The Ultimate Fighter was also nice to see.
It was also good to see Cub Swanson pick up a victory. One of my favorite fighters for a very long time, Swanson is at a crossroads in his career. He has gotten by on being creative and wild—but when you're swinging unpredictable uppercuts and running hooks all the time, they aren't unpredictable any more, they're the reliable norm. When Swanson got in against Frankie Edgar, his wide swings led him into counter punches and takedowns, and he struggled to even get close enough to the longer, crisper Max Holloway. As he slows down with age, Swanson will have to learn to start setting his shots up again, using safer leads to achieve this, and combination work to land the big blows. And from round two onwards, he accomplished this against Hacran Dias—though there are still the signs that he is not quite as quick as he is used to being, as he gets clipped and caught in a crouch after his leads.
Always fun to see was the Swanson low kick, thrown just below the knee so that it connects against either the calf or the shin and breaks the balance. In the second round this knocked out Dias' lead leg and anchored him to the floor for the long left hook. This time the long left hook worked because Dias' hands were out of position because he was knocked off balance, and he had no means to get away because his stance had been compromised. There were a number of other occasions where Swanson had nowhere near the same luck throwing long left hooks against Dias' guard.
Notice the long left hook to left round kick, one of Swanson's weirdest and most interesting combinations. Here's a couple from his bout with Ricardo Lamas:
In Turin the WCW of MMA, Bellator was holding its first international event this weekend. The general production of this event was hard to stomach as constant reference was made to the Roman Empire, gladiatorial combat, and being in the shadow of history's greatest arena: the Colosseum of Rome despite being about four hundred miles away. It was like being transported back to that god awful gladiator opening that the UFC dragged its feet on getting rid of because someone at the company thought it was cool. Bellator 152 was made worse by Scott Coker writing himself into the script as the savior of MMA (while ignoring the part where he almost got Dada 5000 killed on live TV). The co-main event saw Brian Rogers take on Italy's own Alessio Sakara.
In his Bellator debut the Italian kickboxer's famously shaky chin seemed a non-factor as he walked Rogers to the fence and went low and high with wide rights. Sakara also snuck in hard right elbows as he broke from clinches and some good inside low kicks. After a couple of right straights, a wide right circumvented Roger's guard and Sakara dived in with a right straight like he wanted to take Rogers' head clean off. The knockout was awarded two minutes into the second round. He had a tough run in the UFC, but Sakara's skills on the feet are solid and his power is respectable. Certainly he gave the Italian crowd something to be happy about—they seemed to be in a near riotous mood as he picked up the knockout.
The main event was a pedestrian bout between Patricky Freire and Kevin Souza. Souza was a last minute replacement but did an alright job of throwing a rangy flicker jab into Freire's face throughout. The bout was uneventful and, most puzzlingly, only booked for three rounds. The decision for Freire felt unconvincing and a bit of a let down following the cracking showing from Sakara.
While Coker may be in equal parts Eric Bischoff and P. T. Barnum, he at least uses the occasional freak show bout to top off a card of legitimate fights. Japan's Rizin proudly markets itself as the successor to PRIDE, by letting many of the old timers from that promotion which has been defunct for a decade suffer horrific beatings. Last time it was the aged legend, Kazushi Sakuraba getting the snot knocked out of him by the still world class Shinya Aoki. This time it was forty-five year old and likely already considerably brain damaged Kazayuki Fujita suffering the sixth knockout loss of his career at forty-five years old.
As someone who loved PRIDE and prefers the ring in the stand up portion of bouts because of the ninety degree corners and their effects on ringcraft, Rizin reminded me of why the ring is so inappropriate for MMA. If you wanted to argue the benefits of the cage to any of the Australians who voted to allow MMA but only in a ring, take them a video of Rizin. Gabi Garcia's opponent got mounted early on and, because her feet were draped over the bottom rope, rather than being able to shrimp, buck and fight, she was either tangled up in the ropes or having her feet fondled by three Japanese referees in latex gloves as Garcia continued to work from the top.
Then Albrektsson and Nemkov spent a furious bout of grappling rolling through the ropes one after the other. At one point in the final minute a takedown attempt saw them run through the ropes and tumble to the floor outside. Both came up clutching their heads and surprised that they were expected to get back in the ring and fight. It was almost fortunate that they fell down the ring steps, any other place along the ropes would have seen them fall straight to the floor.
I have seen it pointed out that there was more falling through the ropes on this card than in almost a decade of PRIDE FC. The reasons are seem twofold. Firstly the ring was extremely poorly set up for MMA. The ropes seemed extremely loose and were not taped together well—separating when any weight was put against them. The second reason is that every fighter in MMA now trains to compete in a cage: cage wrestling and wall walking is a huge part of any professional camp. Most of the fighters grabbed the ropes at some point in the course of a scramble just because they are there, obstructing the action. The ring is pretty much worthless in mixed martial arts except for the purposes of nostalgia.
The sole positive memory given by the ring came in the tag team grappling match which pitted Kazushi Sakuraba and Hideo Tokoro against Wanderlei Silva and Kiyoshi Tamura. When Sakuraba gave Silva his back from the standing position—as has been his career long habit—he immediately stuck his head under the top rope. Placing the top rope between his upper back and Silva's to make snatching up a quick choke or an effective seatbelt from the back almost impossible. From here Sakuraba typically works for his kimura. Against Royce Gracie large portions of their 90 minute match were spent with Sakuraba's head underneath the bottom rope.
And as much as I hate to say it, the nostalgia did hit me. Seeing old enemies Sakuraba and Silva grapple a friendly match was fun. Silva slapping on a double collar tie and faking a knee, only to have Sakuraba give a 'not this time' finger wag to a good chuckle was heart warming. Not to mention that there were some decently talented up and comers on this card, including the great shootboxer, RENA who is finally making her transition to a sport which can give her some notoriety after excelling for so long in one that nobody really follows. That being said, old men getting hurt for a quick pay day is not entertaining. Fedor beating up nobodies is not entertaining. Rizin has some work to do to avoid being just another flash in the pan like DREAM—which had the benefit of a great many more top level fighters than Rizin has access to.
The weekend's absolute best fight, however, did take place in a ring. I would go so far as to say it is my front-runner for best technical fight of 2016 so far. That was the spectacular five round back-and-forth tilt between Nieky Holzken and Yoann Kongolo at Glory 29 in Denmark. Through five rounds both men piled on combinations of smarting strikes to set up bigger blows. Even midway through a heated exchange, four rounds deep into a title contest, both were setting traps—exposing the liver, breaking the stance, getting back in position to teep their opponent off balance. The fight was so damn good that I am going to pull a bait and switch on you. It deserves an article of its own. Find it, watch it, and get back here tomorrow to study at least a dozen new combinations you never even thought of.