Opining in the Octagon, September 2015: Holly “Hype-Check” Holm vs. Ronda Rousey

OI’m a big MMA fan, so occasionally (at least once per month) I’ll give you all my opinion on a big story in the UFC or Mixed Martial Arts world. And you’ll read it. Because I said so.

September 2015: Can Holly Holm be the Hype-Check challenger for the merciless juggernaut that is Ronda Rousey?

I think she has a chance. There’s a precedent for this in the UFC, when a dominant champion seems to be tearing through a weight-class only to get hype-checked by a seemingly innocuous challenger:

  1. Matt Serra knocked out George St. Pierre (who used to be a fighter, I swear it) at UFC 69 to win the welterweight title. Serra was just supposed to be another can for the GSP train to eat and discard, but the french-canadian champ looked like he was going through the motions, and a shot to the chin put him down, and put the belt around a chubby, undersized Long Island native’s waist. St. Pierre would get the belt back, and pummel Serra in their rematch at UFC 83, but Serra is still the only loss he suffered while holding the welterweight title.

    mmx7qc

    Even he couldn’t believe it happened. And he was there.

  2. This one wasn’t for a title, but when Mauricio “Shogun” Rua made the move to the UFC from Pride FC, he was supposed to roll through the light heavyweight division and get  a shot at then-champion Rampage Jackson. The problem was he had to go through Forrest Griffin to get there. Griffin made a statement for all UFC fighters, and started his own climb to the top of the division by slapping on a rear naked choke at the end of the third round. Rua looked unprepared to take on the hard-charging Griffin, and got stung for his overconfidence. His UFC career never quite matched the success he had in Pride.

    images

    The beginning of the end for Shogun Rua.

  3. Back in March, Anthony Pettis had a lot going for him: He was the first UFC athlete on a Wheaties box, won the lightweight title by being the only person on the planet (at the time) who could beat Benson Henderson, and had defended the title against a game Gilbert Melendez three months earlier. Then he ran into Rafael Dos Anjos, who pushed him around the cage for 25 minutes, busted his eye, and won a unanimous decision to take the lightweight title. Pettis didn’t look cocky, but he did look human. Time will tell if this was a hype-check, or a changing of the guard.

    DALLAS, TX - MARCH 14:  Rafael dos Anjos, top fights with Anthony Pettis in the Lightweight Title bout during the UFC 185 event at American Airlines Center on March 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

    The theme for the fight. Busted eye came later.

Ronda Rousey may have more going on than any of the aforementioned upsetees (It’s a term). She’s thinking about starring in her own autobiographical movie, is waging a futile but entertaining war of words with Floyd Mayweather, and can’t get away from the speculation about a super-fight with Cyborg Justino in the future. Rather than throw Miesha Tate back into the meat grinder to see if she can last 60 seconds this time, the UFC decided to make Holly Holm, a relative MMA unknown, the next victim while we all wait for Cyborg to figure out the right diet plan to make 135 lbs.082115-UFC-Ronda-Holm-PI-SW.vadapt.620.high.0

But, in my humble opinion, Holm isn’t just another victim, to paraphrase a pro wrestling legend. She’s a hunter herself, just with different stripes. She might be the most decorated boxer and kick-boxer in the UFC (man or woman) and is undeniably the female fighter with the best boxing pedigree in the sport. Her boxing record of 33 wins (9 KOs, 23 decisions), 2 losses, and 3 draws is incredible on its own, and coupled with 18 championships in 3 weight classes, its downright stellar. She also won an amateur kickboxing title in 2001, and has a litany of other awards for her boxing achievements.hi-res-b80dad6585ea1ade385842a3175670c8_crop_north

Her young MMA career is less extensive but just as impressive, with 9 wins (6 KOs, 3 decisions) and no losses spread across several different promotions, with two decision wins against UFC competition.

Wow. Two UFC fights. And both were decisions. Why in the hell do I think this woman, impressive as she is, can survive against the most dominant athlete in the world?d01_jd_05apr_holm2-640x430

It’s the reading between the lines of each win, adding up the sum of her career, and seeing her fighting style that has me (and several others with way more knowledge than me) smelling an upset. Holm is dangerous with her hands and her feet, as some of her MMA knockouts came from head kicks, leg kicks, and body kicks. She’s also patient, as evidenced by the decision-heavy boxing record. If she was a berserker-rage type boxer, Rousey would chew her up, lock in an armbar, and spit her out, probably in less than a minute. But Holly Holm is a stalker, content to pick and chose her strikes, keeping her range extended with her feet, and then moving in for the kill when she smells blood.0039_workout_Ronda_Rousey.0.0

Rousey has been improving her striking game, evidenced by two very quick TKOs in her last three fights. Against Correia her striking looked good but still technically a bit shaky. Hands were dropped, people. I saw. If she gets Holm on the ground, it’s probably a done deal. But Judo (Rousey’s main discipline), especially in a sans-gi, skin-heavy environment like the UFC, does require getting up-close and personal to a clinch position before initiating a throw. Holm has the experience and skill to keep Ronda out of range, and the striking finesse to punish her if she does get in close. And The Preacher’s Daughter (Holm’s rather wordy nickname) is not someone Rousey wants to stand with.index

With some headlines and articles intimating fans are getting bored with shelling out the money for a Pya-Per-View then watching Ronda Rousey win in less than a minute, and professional athletes like Lolo Jones stating they could make the magic 60-second mark, you might be tempted to turn away from UFC 193 in two months. Hell, if the fight lasts 14 seconds, you can catch nearly the whole thing on ESPN the next week. This fight, at the very least, will be worth the money. It won’t be over in 30 seconds. It won’t be over in the first round. These are my bold predictions.

At least I can’t be wrong for two months.

Signing off.

Advertisements

How Low: Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, and the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team

us-soccer-1100x556

I get World Cup fever. I wish I could say I didn’t, but every four years, just like the Olympics, I fiend to start wearing red white and blue and watch a game I might give 3 minutes to if nothing else was on TV. Or if I didn’t have a good book to read. If I had to guess at a reason, playing sports was something that dominated my youth. Never for money, or really a hope of a scholarship, just fun and competition. Pitting yourself, brains and brawn, against another human, and betting that the time you put in practicing, sweating, and bleeding made you better than they are. That was fun. That was sport. And yes, when the World Cup and Olympics roll around there’s definitely money and panache involved, but to see athletes competing for their flag first and everything else (supposedly) second makes it matter more. To me, at least. And oddly enough, I first caught the fever back in 1999 watching MIa Hamm lead the ladies to a World Cup title. Since then, I’ve watched the women’s cup with just as much fervor as the men’s (and no, it wasn’t because Brandi Chastain took her shirt off to celebrate. Pervs.).

After watching game one this year, I’m encouraged by the play (at least in the second half), but terribly discouraged, to the point of boiling fury, about the storylines. First, the entire Hope Solo saga, and how it seems the other women, coaches, staff, etc. have to tip toe through a mine field of awkward questions and stone-walling on account of one member of the team. Yes, she is an important part of that team. The game Monday night would’ve been a damn sight different if a less-extraordinary athlete stood between the posts for the US. But the litany of internet articles and headlines should be devoted to the incredible accomplishments of the entire team, not the shortcomings of one (admittedly) highly-visible part of that team. Yet positive never sells.

Everyone should thank ESPN for holding onto the details of Solo’s arrest until the day of the United States’ first game of the competition. Never mind that this might be the curtain call on the grandest stage for one of the greatest athletes to ever compete in any sport. Forget that the United States, that juggernaut of athletic prowess, is finally among the favorites to win an international competition for the first time since the summer of 2012. Nope. Let’s make it about one player, and their domestic violence arrest.

But the blame doesn’t rest with the media. I’d say its a 80/20 split with Solo herself bearing and the way the entire situation was handled bearing the greater burden. During a year where domestic violence became a hot-button issue for the NFL, the mightiest and most visible of the professional sport behemoths, the governing body of the U.S. women’s team failed to act decisively. When we finally saw pro football players held accountable for their acts (at least in terms of domestic violence) by the league they play for, Hope Solo’s transgressions were swept under the rug and ignored. Heap this on top of her penchant for colorful commentary, her lash-out at Brandi Chastain, her criticism of her coach and replacement after she was benched in 2007, it all adds up to a negative image. The arrest details, while embarrassing, don’t really shock me. She’s clearly not a nice person. Neither is Michael Jordan, but millions still idolized him. It’s the entirety of the package that gets wearisome, and you can see it in the eyes of her teammates as well. This is not someone they want to rally around to help her through a hard time. She’s a commodity they value for her play, but if she suddenly retired, I doubt they’d spit on her if she were on fire. Harsh, but probably true.

Yet there she is, front and center. The U.S. team (not the players, obviously) made their bed, and now they must sleep in it. Warnings to reporters to keep questions focused “on the field” awkwardly short and terse responses from players, it’s all a bad look for the sport. She is a spectacular athlete, and makes the team better, but is it worth it? Prior to Monday’s game, I bet the answers would’ve been mixed. Post-three potential game-changing saves, I bet it’s unanimous. And that’s the rub. She’s good. Potentially game-making good. But is winning worth it?

And this headline, the laughable “redemption tour” for Hope Solo, over-shadows the very real farewell tour for Abby Wambach. Just how good is the heart and soul of the U.S. team? Once-in-a-lifetime good. She’s scored 182 international team goals. To put that in perspective, let’s roll call: Lionel Messi has 45, Cristiano Ronaldo 52, the immortal Pele 77. The closest man to Wambach? Ali Daei (ever heard of him?) from Iran with 109. The closest woman? Mia Hamm with 158. She needs one more goal to tie for most World Cup goals in Women’s history, and just three to tie the highest-scoring World Cup man. She’s blue-collar, hard-working, and from Western New York. What’s not to love? Yet she plays third-fiddle to the Hope Solo circus and the Alex Morgan show. I don’t dislike Morgan, but when the Bulls went to the finals in ’91, Jordan got the press and all the endorsements, not B.J. Armstrong (another young offensive specialist who came off the bench and occasionally started. I pray at least one person gets that reference.). What’s the difference? B.J. wasn’t prettier than Michael.

Between the Solo act and the struggle to be respectable and still marketable, this year’s women’s team has plenty of off-the-field adversity to face. But they are brilliant when they’re on the field, and all the distractions go away. I know we can’t ignore the media hijinks, the inevitable she’s-hot-she’s-not commentary in the background, and even the slowly settling dust of the FIFA scandal (which apparently saw the worst of the chauvinists, responsible for comments like “maybe more people would watch if they wore tighter shorts” get their just rewards). I’m not saying we have to. Let’s just try to focus on what’s important: these ladies have worked exhaustively to get here, and are representing the United States with a very real chance at international success. So turn off the internet (unless you’re streaming) and just enjoy the purity of the sport, and let all the static fade into background noise.

If You Don’t Get It I Can’t Explain It To You Vol. 2: The UFC

UFC_logo__USE_

Why would you watch sweaty shirtless men and occasionally some sweaty workout-clothed women hit each other and roll around on a mat? Unless you’re by yourself with the lights dimmed and the romantic music on, what’s the appeal? If you don’t get it, I can’t explain it to you. But I’ll try:
I was actually living in UFC-mecca, aka Las Vegas, Nevada, when this sport started entering the public consciousness in a big way, so I might be a little more sensitive to the UFC than most folks. Also, there’s a west coast bias to UFC Fandom due to most of the Live PPV events taking place late in the evening (9-10pm EST) and often not staging the best fights until midnight. That can make it less accessible to those of us here on the East Coast. I’d love to say I watched all the really old Ultimate Fighting Championships, where they basically put a bunch of angry people who could fight in a ring, didn’t make any rules (regular groin-punching was common), and let them go at it. But I wasn’t.
I started getting into it in 2004, when the reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) went on the air, and I was hooked. That first season told the story of these men putting their lives on hold and struggling to get a UFC contract. It culminated in, to me, the best and most important fight in the history of the UFC, Stephen Bonnar vs. Forest Griffin to win the show, a UFC contract, and a new Range Rover. If you want to understand why I like the UFC, watch that first season (TUF kind of goes off the rails after that, and isn’t as fun) and the final show. Bonnar and Griffin, two of the funniest most likable blokes in the house, go out in the finale and put on a show. They could’ve tried to be technical with takedowns, submissions, etc. but instead, they decided to stand and punch each other for 15 minutes. It was so epic that Dana White and the UFC decided to give both men UFC contracts afterwards.

103013-UFC-Bloody-fights-TV-G6_20131030212653448_600_400
And that’s kind of the appeal of the UFC in a nutshell. Some of the fights can be overly technical, and even somewhat boring. Only the most educated of fans can appreciate the nuances of the chess match of Jiu-Jitsu that involves leverage, bluffs, feints, and position. To most folks it looks like two sweaty dudes rolling around on a mat while people watch and yell (some folks have used the term “homo-erotic” and I sadly can’t say its inaccurate). Even then there’s the dreaded “lay and pray” tactic that involves a wrestler essentially tackling and laying on top of an opponent till the time runs out. Even educated fans hate that.

ap-ufc-157-mixed-martial-arts-4_3
UFC is the closest thing we have to legal, condoned bloodsport in the modern world. That can be a turn-off to some people, and in the last decade Dana White (CEO) has strived to make it as accessible, regulated, and mass-appealing as he could. And overall he’s succeeded. UFC has supplanted boxing as America’s #1 combat sport. He’s turned what was a laughable stable of thugs and uncontrolled violence into a pulse-pounding, controlled competition between two highly-skilled athletes. His biggest draw, a female fighter named Ronda Rousey, is in blockbuster movies and on Sports Illustrated covers. The sanctioning and control removes some of the guilt viewers feel at watching two grown men strive to hurt each other, and that ingrained desire to watch violence that we all have, but may not want to acknowledge, can be exercised in a healthy way.
For the most part, the competitors are college-educated and diverse, and generally disciplined and well-behaved. One of the tenets of all the martial arts that can form the basis or a component of their training is self-discipline. With a few notable exceptions (War Machine, Thiago Silva, Rampage Jackson, and most recently John Jones) the UFC stable is full of potential role-models, I’d even say more so than an NFL Roster. These athletes weren’t babied or sheltered from consequences and reality the way many prodigies in other sports are, and the very vast majority have earned their way into national prominence through hard work and dedication. Yes, they try and hurt each other for a living. No, that doesn’t mean they’re bad people.

ultimate-fighting-championship-lidell-jackson-TR9451
The UFC may not be for everyone, but I encourage everyone to at least give it a try. They have plenty of events on cable channels and every few months on broadcast TV (Fox). You might be surprised to find that internal bloodlust likes to be sated once in a while. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it. Millions of people have, and we’re ok. Mostly ok.
Signing off.

Save Us Rex

rexa

There’s a new face of the Buffalo Bills. It’s jovial, jowly, and gets red and sweaty whenever someone takes off their shoes. Rex Ryan, the highly-quotable former king of NYC, takes his talents out west (about 350 miles to the west) to ring in a new era for the Buffalo Bills. The new owners, Terry Pegula and (apparently) his wife are definitely dedicated. To keeping the Bills in Buffalo? We’ll see. To making splashy personnel moves? Definitely.

There were other options out there for Buffalo. They interviewed a slew of coordinators from both sides of the ball. The deep, dark, sentimental part of me that still can’t let go off the 1990’s success was rooting for Frank Reich, a name any Bills fan would recognize. He’s currently the Offensive Coordinator in San Diego, and lord knows it would take a lot to get anyone to move anywhere from San Diego. Unless they offered a billion dollars and a harem of supermodels, I’d have to say, “You know what? I’ll live here where it’s pleasant, 70 degrees every day, and continue to make my slightly-less millions of dollars. But thanks for the offer.”

Oh would it have been glorious. Hiring Frank Reich, the steady, dependable back-up everyone in Buffalo sometimes secretly wanted to replace Jim Kelly. He engineered that magnificent comeback against Houston all those years ago. He was the steady-handed second-stringer an entire city knew they could count on. The Homeric  poetry of having him return as the head coach, and leading his old team on to glory the way we all know he should have 25 years ago. I had a little bit of football wood. I can’t lie.

Yet the Bills, in an uncharacteristic move, managed to grab the sexiest name (and all the headlines) off of the Head Coach name from the unemployment line. After a decade of “under-the-radar” guys, capped off by hiring a Syracuse coach with a mediocre college record, we may finally have a real coach. He’s led teams to the playoffs this century, is apparently a defensive genius, and puts Buffalo in the headline section of the ESPN app before the season even starts. Maybe he can bring some swagger to an oh-so-swagger-less team. Perhaps he can make an already strong defense into something historic (as he’s already claiming).

What the team needs, however, is a quarterback, and here’s where Reich may have been the better choice. Strong defense? Check. Talented skill players? Check. What’s the one thing missing from the Seattle-style formula for success? A functional quarterback. Kyle Orton was plugged in halfway through the season and we went 9-7. If someone can come in and fix EJ Manuel, we’re a shoe-in, right? Or maybe we go grab a young free agent or someone’s back-up and develop them, right? Or maybe we hire the defensive guy who strung along Mark “Butt-Fumble” Sanchez and managed to turn him into…a butt-fumbler. Now that sounds like a Buffalo move.

2014 was a season of hope for us hapless Bills fans. They finished over .500 for the first time in…way too long. They had Playoff relevance into week 14 (until we blew it by losing to the Raiders in typical Buffalo fashion), a defense that put the screws to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers late in the season, and an offense that managed not to lose more games than it won. Doug Marrone, the aforementioned mediocre college coach, miraculously had the team on the right track. And then he walked away from the team, the same way our 2014 vagabond quarterback did.

After years of hating your guts, and mocking you and your team, and saying oh well at least we aren’t the Jets…I have to cheer for you. I have to like your superior smile and irritating mannerisms. I have to feel positive about a move my team made that makes me feel slimy and in need of a long shower. I have three words for you, Rex Ryan. On behalf of all Bills fans. Three words, that, six months ago, I would only have said within the confines of a straitjacket inside of a round, padded room:

Save Us Rex.

article-bills-0111

Ick…Time for that shower.

Signing off.