Thursday, November 25, 2010

More than the sum of its parts

Expectations can be a powerful force in any athletic competition. As I wrote in my blog about Roger Huerta, expectations can put a lot of pressure on a fighter and not meeting those expectations can be personally and professionally devastating. On the other side, a fighter that can come in with hype and rise to the occasion can put their career on the fast track early.

As a commentator I have learned not to put too much stock in someones accomplishments outside of MMA. A lot of fighters come in with tremendous accomplishments in related combat sports like wrestling, BJJ, or muay thai. These accolades are extremely important, not only in marketing a fighter, but in analyzing their potential strategy in the cage. Whats important to remember is that for every athlete who translates their success outside the cage into a successful MMA career (Ben Askren, BJ Penn, Mirko Cro-Cop) there is one who falls flat. Some come in with an avalanche of hype, others seem to crash without ever even appearing on the radar.

We all remember the Penns and Askrens, here are some of the others who fell through the cracks(separated by sport, cause I like to make it easy on you):

Outstanding wrestlers

Cary Kolat:
Kolat was my all-time favorite wrestler to watch. He was an undefeated, 4-time Pennsylvania HS state champion and was named Outstanding Wrestler all 4 years, no one else had ever won it more than once. At Penn State he placed 2nd and 3rd in the NCAA tournament his Freshman and Sophomore years. After transferring to Lock Haven he won 2 national titles, finishing his college career with a 111-7 record. He was an Olympian in 2000 and won 3 world cup gold medals (1998-2000). The guy was an amazing wrestler to watch, he was aggressive, fast, and technical.

His MMA career was extremely short. He had 1 fight in 2005 and was submitted in the 2nd round by Enoch "The Animal" Wilson. As far as wrestling goes its hard to beat Kolat's credentials, but considering the fact that he only had one fight, its likely he decided that he didn't want to make the commitment to MMA that he had made to wrestling.

Royce Alger:
Anyone remember his fight with Enson Inoue? Mark Coleman was so amped during the walk-out that it looked like he was accompanying the Rolling Stones. The fight didn't work out so well for Royce as he tapped to an armbar in less than 2 minutes.

When it came to his wrestling career this guy was the real deal. He wrestled under the legend Dan Gable and was a 2-time national champ for the Hawkeyes. After college he won 2 World Cup gold medals and 2 Pan-Am titles. Royce was known for his ferocity on the mat, he was versatile, aggressive, and executed Gable's "grind your opponent till he gives up" strategy perfectly. Unfortunately the work ethic he put into his wrestling training didn't exactly transfer into his MMA training. His cardio looked TERRIBLE in his KO loss to Eugene Jackson in his 2nd UFC fight and after getting floored in the 2nd round, Alger left the cage for good with a 3-2 record.

Kenny Monday:
As far as I know, and I know wrestling pretty damn well, Monday and Kevin Jackson are the only Olympic wrestling gold medalists to ever compete in MMA. As the only multiple Olympic wrestling medalist to ever enter the cage, Monday has to be considered the most decorated wrestler to ever cross-over.

He was a 4-time Oklahoma state champion and finished his HS career with an incredible 140-0-1 record. At Oklahoma State he was an NCAA Div-1 national champion. After college he was a gold-medalist at the 1988 Olympic games, a world champion in '89, and a silver medalist in Barcelona in '92.

Monday showed some serious potential in his debut against John Lewis in 1997. He displayed tremendous power, great takedowns (of course), and a naturally fierce ground and pound. Despite all of his tools, Monday only fought once. In 1997 it wasnt exactly easy to pay the bills doing MMA. With the hype that Olympian Ben Askren had going into MMA, one can only imagine what would have happened if someone with Monday's skills and credentials would have made his debut today.

Jiu-Jitsu Champions (does anyone else hate the term "Jiu-Jitsu player"?)

Saulo Ribeiro:
Few people have stayed relevant in the sport as long as Saulo Ribeiro. He received his black belt from Royler Gracie at the famous Gracie Humaita academy in 1995 (the same academy I trained in on Fight Quest). After receiving his black belt, Ribeiro went on to become one of the most decorated BJJ fighters of all time, winning 5 world championships (1997-2000, 2002, tied for 3rd all time). Unlike some BJJ standouts, Saulo has an outstanding no-gi game, wining 2 ADCC championships in 2000 and 2003.

While his BJJ career has been marked by its consistency, his MMA career was anything but. He only competed 3 times over the span of 6 years. His most famous fight was a 22 second blowout loss to Yuki Kondo in 2000. After submitting Jason Ireland in 2002, Saulo focused on his BJJ and coaching career with an MMA record of 2-1.

Marcelo Garcia:
Anyone who has seen Marcelo Garcia roll knows he has the best no-gi game of all time. His style is aggressive, fluid, and MAN does he know how to finish. He has won 2 ADCC championships and one 2nd place. On his way to those medals he submitted a stunning 21 out of 28 opponents in both the 76kg and absolute divisions and at the PSL event in LA he submitted Jake Shields (the first time Shields had ever been submitted in a BJJ competition). Its not like his gi-game sucks, he is a 4-time world champion and has been the dominant force in the division since 2003. The guys doesn't just win against the best, he makes it look easy. He demolished outstanding grapplers like "Shaolin" Ribeiro, Kron Gracie,"Xande" Ribeiro, and Shinya Aoki with an unmatched combination of skill and speed.

In his sole MMA fight, Garcia discovered the difficulty of sinking in the near-naked with MMA gloves on. Despite being attached to Dae Won Kim's back for almost the entire first round, Garcia was unable to sink the choke that had doomed so many of his opponents in BJJ. After Kim made it to the 2nd round he managed to expose Garcia's GROSSLY under-developed standup and ended the fight by opening up a nasty cut just 20 seconds into the round.

Fernando "Terere" Augusto:
Might as well follow up Marcello Garcia with the last man to beat him in the BJJ World Championships at his weight class. Terere didn't just beat Garcia in the finals of the Mundials in 2003, he SCHOOLED him. He countered Garcia's vaunted sweeps, passed his guard, and tapped him with a triangle. As far as traditional BJJ goes, Terere is the best I have ever seen with my own eyes. His match with Jacare in the open division at the Pan-Ams in 2004 was awesome, was an honor just to be there.

He earned world championships at every belt level, one a year from 1997 to 2000, defeating BJ Penn in the brown belt semi-finals in 1999. In 2004 actually competed at heavyweight, losing to Fabricio Verdum in the finals ON POINTS. There is simply nothing the guy cant do when it comes to classic BJJ. His style is as creative as it is technical.

What Terere never really displayed was that outstanding no-gi game that is essential to a successful MMA transition. It's not that his game was bad, its that he was FAR more accomplished in BJJ than in submission grappling. His only MMA fight was a split decision loss to Gleison Tibau in 2000. Given his questionable behavior over the past few years, I think we'll be lucky to see him again as a force in BJJ, let alone MMA.


In Thailand, this guy is a household name. He was a Rajadamnern Stadium champion and is legendary for his kicks and clinch game. He started training at age 8 and has an amazing 137-27-5 record in Muay Thai. I had the pleasure of training alongside Malaipet at North Hollywood Muay Thai and believe me when I say that the guy is LEGIT. Pros came in there and he smilingly took them to school. I was ringside when he defeated the Dutch national champion in Almera, Holland. Few people can take or give or take punishment like Malaipet.

His 3-3 MMA record is the result of his questionable cross-training. No one in their right mind would ever trade with Malaipet, but he simply never put the effort into the ground elements of his game. As his former BJJ coach Shawn Williams told me "the guy is lazy". The days when a guy could walk into the cage with one skill and be successful are long gone, a lesson Malaipet has painfully learned.

Mark Hunt:
This is one guy who was certainly on the radar. He was the K-1 World Grand Prix champion in 2001 and compiled a pro record of 43-13-2 He was a standout on the K-1 scene and was known for his stalking, gutsy style and his iron head (the kick Mirko laid on his head in their 2002 fight would have killed a rhino, yet Hunt got up and kept fighting). He had serious KO power and always won the crowd over with his willingness to stand in front of his opponent and trade.

In MMA he started out well, winning 5 of his first 6 fights, including wins over Wanderlei Silva and a PRIME Mirko Cro-Cop. His last 6 fights have been a different story, he has lost all of them, including a brutal 18 second KO at the hands of Melvin Manhoef. The bad combination, in my opinion, was the "Pride Effect" of guys getting thrown into the deep end of the pool in their first fights and Hunts inabililty to keep his ground skills in the same league as his standup skills. Also, his plodding style makes him child's play to take down, and in a division submission specialists like Fedor and Josh Barnett thats a recipe for disaster.

Ramon Dekkers:
Have to include this one. As far as kickboxing legends go, he is one of the best. This guy competed in Muay Thai before it was really an international sport. He played by their rules, in their country and, against all odds, he won. He started training in Muay Thai at 16 in Holland and was a Dutch national champion by 18. He was an 8-time Muay Thai world champion and was the first forigner to be named "Muay Thai Fighter of the Year". This guy was ferocious, technical, and hit like a guy twice his size. Dekkers actually beat Duane Ludwig in a K-1 show with only one arm (he had torn a ligament in his shoulder) and knocked him down in every round. With a record of 186-30-2, Dekkers is considered by many to be the greatest Dutch kickboxer of all time. With company like Rob Kaman, Remy Bonjasky, and Ernesto Hoost, thats an amazing compliment.

Dekkers just made the transition to MMA too late. By the time he faced Genki Sudo in K-1 in 2005 he was already 35 and supposedly retired. Add in the fact that he had no ground training and only had a few days notice, he really didn't have a prayer. A one-dimensional kickboxer taking on an experienced MMA submission specialist only really makes sense in Japan (ok, ok, Toney-Couture aside) and Dekkers was quickly submitted in the 1st round. I guess a guy with 218 Muay Thai fights has earned a quick pay-day fight once his competitive days are over.

I know the examples I have listed are something of a mixed bag and that each fighter had their own reasons for not making a significant impact in MMA. It just helps to keep in mind that not every athlete with a solid background in fighting sports will live up to the hype in the cage. MMA has transitioned from "style-vs-style" to a unique sport of its own, the athletes who recognize that and train accordingly will always have an advantage...

1 comment:

  1. This is a really great article. Another related combat sport that has a lot of its world class athletes cross over to MMA is Judo. The Japanese MMA scene is filled with Judokas who have competed at the world class level but some of them have a really difficult time transitioning.

    About 5 weeks ago at Sengoku 15, we had Hiroshi Izumi who was a Silver Medalist at the 2004 Olympic Games and a Gold Medalist at the World Championships. He fought James Zikic, a solid opponent who went on to make Izumi look extremely mediocre for the better part of 15 minutes. Izumi got the decision win, but everyone but those judges thought Zikic beat him.

    Then of course there is Doon-Sik Yoon, world class judoka but while he is a trooper he is 5-7 in MMA. Then, most famously, there is Pawel Nastula who is one of the greatest Judokas ever and a 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist with 312 consecutive victories to his incredible resume. But like you mentioned in your post, the "Pride Effect" had him fighting Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira - arguably the second greatest heavyweight in MMA history in his first fight. Then later fighting Aleksander Emelianenko and Josh Barnett in under a year after that, which is such a tough road for a 35 year old guy who was new to MMA. So he's only 2-4 in MMA competition.

    Your wrestling comparisons brought back a bad online memory. I remember a few years ago there was a buzz online about Kurt Angle coming into MMA since he had mentioned in many interviews that he was interested in trying it out (obviously it never happened and he was probably just saying that to get his name out there). On a lot of online forums, it got really ridiculous as a lot of people assumed that he would just come in and clean house because he won an Olympic Gold Medal in 1996. A lot of people conveniently ignored the fact that he had not competed in a legitimate sport since 1996, had no submission/striking knowledge and that Angle had some brutal spinal damage from the Olympic trials and of his time on the professional wrestling circuit. Sorry I'm just rambling on now, but I liked this blogpost a lot.