So I’m on break at work and I see a discussion about the World Cup match between Uruguay and the Netherlands. On Twitter, I happen to follow Claudio Castagnoli, one-half of the Ring Of Honor World Tag-Team Champions and an avid soccer fan. This day and age, that sort of thing can be a great and entertaining source of information to follow live, especially for an event like the World Cup. Claudio made a remark about how a Pele kick” brought about a penalty and a yellow card, so, I figured...“What the hell?” Tying in the wrestling angle as well, I replied to Claudio about the irony.
What I didn’t expect was for Claudio to answer back.
Holy. Crap. This is a guy who not only happens to produce some work inside of a wrestling ring that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, but has traveled worldwide to build a pretty nice fanbase in doing so. And he actually took the time out to respond.
THAT’S why Twitter, for all the flak it catches, can be very cool. To have someone at whatever level of fame that you’re a fan of respond directly to you in seconds flat is damn cool no matter who you are.
Anyway, on with our regularly scheduled program...
It took me a good while to finally get in to MMA. It’s becoming all the rage now, and I’ll probably be accused of “jumping on the bandwagon”, but there are reasons (the title of this piece notwithstanding) that I’ve come around. First, some history...
I’ve definitely been aware of MMA (and the UFC in particular) since the early-mid 90s. I’d heard about it and tried liking it that long ago, but it actually bored me. Over the span of a decade, I’d tried again and again to see the appeal, but I simply couldn’t. And the reason lies in the fact that I can describe every fight I’d seen in that time (which were, admittedly, a couple handfuls, but the fact remains):
...and that was it. After seeing that exact same fight with different people involved each time for ten years, I had no interest in seeing the same thing over and over again. Is that a fair representation of what MMA was? Not really; it’s probably just what I happened to see each time. I’d kinda followed the sport by reading about it when something caught my attention and, once in a blue moon, seeing a fight that held some interest (more on that in the first bout of UFC 116), but I still wasn’t completely sold.
Fast forward to July 3, 2010. UFC 116 was on the lips of the planet because Brock Lesnar was returning to the Octagon to face the undefeated Shane Carwin for the Undisputed World Title. Being a diehard wrestling fan and all about some Brock when he was in WWE, I decided to give in and give it another chance. Whether the stars were aligned just right or I happened to see what I needed to see...either way, it finally happened..
I already know people will hate my guts because of the notion that “Lesnar got me in to UFC because he was a rassler,” and I’m cognizant enough of what I read to realize that they hate Lesnar because of that, so I realize I’m facing an uphill battle already. At least, I would be if I cared about that sort of thing - or if it were actually true. But the fact that Lesnar was a rassler and that’s why I got in to it...while that’s part of the story, it’s only a small part.
I saw the fight at UFC 100 against Frank Mir. I’d also read about how Mir verbally denigrated Lesnar’s chances to the point where he really pissed Lesnar off. This is a guy that, not only keeps freezers (plural) of meat from animals that he shot and killed himself, but that gets flat-out scary when he’s angry. He also gets motivated like you wouldn’t believe, which led him to pounding Mir in to ground chuck and keeping his title. Lesnar also loves to be hated. While he doesn’t feel the need to constantly play the heel, per se, Lesnar is a guy that will feed off of negative emotions and turn spite in to a weapon. Once again, ask Frank Mir - and the fans that Lesnar rubbed the wrong way after the fight when he rubbed that win in all of their faces.
It was Lesnar’s toughness, motivation, and fearlessness at turning the sport on its ear by becoming one of its greats that started getting my attention. Hell, if Lesnar had never even met Vince McMahon, that kind of attitude - and the charisma and determination he showed in beinga huge success despite becoming the poster child for everything that’s “wrong” with MMA - would have won me over.
Now, Lesnar was coming off of a year out of the game. Divertuiculitis (which I’ve had, and it’s not even remotely close to fun, trust me) had taken the Champ down and, after a long recovery and many questions about his health and his ability to get back in the cage, the stage was set for UFC 116’s main event.
But first, there were several other bouts to get to. Figuring I was already investing this time, effort, and money in to watching for what may well could have been a 30-second fight, I had the perfect opportunity to give the UFC - and MMA as a whole, really - another chance and take in the whole show. Right off the bat, I was rewarded with seeing Seth Petruzelli nearly getting his arm broken.
Yeah, that sounds a little mean. There’s no way to sugarcoat it, though - if there’s a guy I want to see get his ass kicked in this particular realm, it’s Seth Petruzellu. The problem I have with Petruzelli goes back to the EliteXC fight with Kimbo Slice. Not because I was all about some Kimbo; he was cool for a minute until it was clear he was in over his head when it came to the actual art of combat. (Although any guy willing to parlay that image of badassery in to a role in a Nickelodeon TV movie earns a little credit for maybe not taking himself as seriously as others did.) I’ve no heat with Petruzelli for beating Slice in under 30 seconds, it’s what the fool did afterward. His very first interview after that fight was with a morning radio show right here in Orlando where he admitted (starting at 1:50:14) to the fact that he was paid not to shoot on Kimbo so he could basically be fed to him. That comment began an investigation by - and, soon enough - in to - EliteXC that ultimately led to the promotion shutting its doors for good. Reader’s Digest Condensed Version: By being an idiot not keeping his yap shut, Petruzelli started the ball rolling on the end of a viable MMA promotion. Good job, genius - was it really necessary to talk about how the fix was in while putting yourself over?
So, Petruzelli lost. And I was happy. But that’s not to take anything at all away from his opponent, Ricardo Romero. Making his UFC debut, Romero put on a clinic and, for the first time in over 15 years since I had become aware of UFC, opened my eyes to the idea of using any sort of strategy to win one of these fights. The art of fighting had finally become apparent when Romero let Petruzelli throw several bombs, took every one of them so that Petruzelli would tire himself out (and that was AFTER Romero had his jaw broken), and then went after the exerted arm (that had to be at least a little sore after throwing eight minutes worth of punches) and bent it damn-near backwards to win the fight.
In that moment, the possibilities of UFC were wide open. The presentation already harkened back to a time when pro wrestling, from a standpoint of a quality product if not so much popularity, was at its best. Two guys have an issue - even one as simple as both of them wanting to make their way up the ladder and having to go through the other guy to do it. Exploit that issue, hype it up to the point where I can’t wait to see these guys go at it, turn them loose and give me a realistic, believable 1-on-1 contest that I’m satisfied to have seen and felt was worth the time and money I spent to see it. That, before the word “entertainment” became involved and the action was almost a hindrance to telling some sort of story, was what made pro wrestling great. That is what UFC has harnessed, modified, remastered, and presented to a public that is hungry for it. My hat’s off to them for the presentation - always has been in that respect - but it was great to know that the product itself had actually come to the point where it matched the hype surrounding it.
I saw more examples of this as the show went on. I saw Gerald Harris wear Dave Branch down far enough that he could knock Branch out cold with a spinebuster slam that Arn Anderson would be proud of. I saw Stephen Bonnar go all out in the names of redemption and survival, bleeding like a shotgun victim after a relentless onslaught by Krzyzstof Soszynski only to finally exploit an opening by a frustrated Soszynski and save his career. I saw a hungry - check that, famished Chris Leben step in the place of established superstar Wanderlei Silva two weeks after his last fight and make Yoshihiro Akiyama give up after being hit harder than any man should be able to take because he saw his opportunity to grab the proverbial brass ring and subsequently challenge Wanderlei to cement his place in history. I was thoroughly enthralled by many examples of MMA at its best, and all that was before the fight that led me herein the first place!
Brock Lesnar was set to claim his title - or attempt to - against a man that was 12-0, had never had a fight go past the first round because he set land speed records beating his opponents senseless, and was so nearly physically identical to Lesnar he could have been a clone. Because dyed-in-the-wool MMA fans hated Lesnar `(because, God forbid, a ”fake” fighter had learned the discipline and shown the will and heart it took to get there in the first place), no one really reacted to the fact that this was a man who had no business even stepping in the cage in the first place because of a seriousness illness. The feel-good story of a tried-and-true comeback was largely ignored, but that suited Lesnar just fine. He wasn’t going in to kiss babies and be the “good guy”. Nor, as viewers learned, did he ever set out to be the stereotypical pro wrestling “villain” that his post-UFC 100 interview portrayed. Lesnar, then, simply had a problem with how inferior Mir treated him and set about the task of making him eat his words in the form of a 4XL glove. This time, Lesnar had no ill will toward Carwin or anyone else.
Mission accomplished. Lesnar hung in there during Carwin’s opening salvos. He absorbed and, when necessary, evaded Carwin’s best shots to tire him out. But this wasn’t as simple as a “wear-him-out-and-finish-him-off” fight - Lesnar surprised Carwin and everyone else by going for - and then getting - a submission win. Afterward, Lesnar’s humility was on display in a radically different post-fight interview from the one he gave at UFC 100. Lesnar didn’t want to be the “heel” or throw in people’s faces that he was a “rassler” that made good because the fans didn’t want him to. Lesnar simply, and graciously, wanted his spot at the top back and to prove he was worthy of being there. It seemed that Lesnar had learned a lot in his time away from the Octagon...
...and he’s not alone. I was at a point of being a fan of Lesnar’s, but not MMA, to the point that if Lesnar wasn’t involved, I wasn’t interested. I do have to thank him, though, for getting me interested on a full-time basis - and leading the way to many other competitors that have much to offer themselves. Brock Lesnar may have brought me here, but it’s guys like Stephen Bonnar, Chris Leben, Gerald Harris, and (you damn betcha) Ricardo Romero that have convinced me to stick around a while.