Feature

Feature

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Chris Weidman is the latest Long Islander looking to bring a UFC belt back to the neighborhood, and guess what? He’s all in.

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Chris Weidman hasn’t been in Ray Longo’s gym for more than a minute before somebody tries to give him money. “Oh shit, you going to Vegas?” the Long Island accent says, all but smacking his forehead. “I’ve got to get you some money before you go.”

“Yeah, I’ll be going to Vegas,” Weidman answers. Here he is, just one of the “ordinary Joes” from the neighborhood. The other ordinary Joes eat it up. They love it that one of them isn’t so ordinary. Then it dawns on Weidman what’s being discussed. “Hold up, wait, wait—I can’t just walk up and bet on myself. Give it to Ray! Give it to Ray.”

image descIt takes all kinds to make up a gym, and the fight game is rich with characters. Boxing’s greatest chroniclers realized long ago that the real subject was rarely the center of the room, but more often the periphery. It’s in the sparring partners, who happily go about being anonymously trounced. It’s the fringe players—the hanger-ons, the two-bit bookies, the local mooks who gather like remora around the shark. It’s the old-timers who look like they’ve been cut from gunnysacks, who rasp and make poignant, no-bullshit comments toward their prizefighters, the prizefighters who, by the way, define their everything.

Ray Longo’s MMA Academy in Garden City is like that. People come and go, an assorted cast of Willistons and Syossets and Levittowns, spending their daylight hours working the heavy bags. The sweat matches the accents, and there’s a warmth of affection running through the toil. “Atta boy, Dennis!—atta boy, Tommy!” Some are men, some are women. Some are barely old enough to have a driver’s permit. The conversations, in general, are a cross between cartoon wisecracks and parables. The constant rhythm of a speed bag is the soundtrack.

In that way, Longo’s is a time machine to the golden gyms of yore. Ray himself, who adorns his own office walls with pics posing next to the full galaxy of MMA stars, is an old-school character. He’s the Don and the Paesano. His co-star, Matt Serra, is a legendary character—the one who put Long Island on the map in MMA when he knocked out Georges St-Pierre. Ray’s prodigy, Hofstra’s own Weidman, is next. He’s about to take on the greatest practitioner of MMA the world has known to this point. That’s Anderson Silva, the bogeyman of the business—the consensus number one on the pound-for-pound lists from here to Albuquerque.

And none of this makes sense—this thing that Longo is about to do. He’s about to have his second kid “from right here in the neighborhood” try and knock off a perennial pound-for-pound king in the cage. “So what?” the mindset at Longo’s seems to say. So what if Silva hasn’t lost since 2006, or St-Pierre’s lost only once since 2004. That “once” is why we’re talking. Matt Serra didn’t care a lick about no icons. “Matt said he knew there was an insecure guy in there somewhere, and that he was going to find it,” Longo says. Serra found it in that first encounter with St-Pierre.

Half a decade later, it’s Weidman—who has a psychology degree from Hofstra, to go along with his All-American wrestling pedigree—drawing a bead on Silva. And should Weidman become the new UFC Middleweight Champion, Longo has a chance to go down in history for turning ordinary stories into amazing ones.

“More amazing is that both Matt and Chris had their first pro MMA fights with me,” Longo says. “It’s not like I’m inviting Jon Jones to the camp. I’ve raised them from the beginning. I’m going to say, if Weidman pulls this thing off, that’ll be hard to duplicate. Think about it, I’m not going to ask Georges St-Pierre to come over, hold mitts for him, and look like a genius.”

image descRay’s voice is laboring out of him like the last gasp from a smashed accordion. He’s battling the crud, but the crud doesn’t stop anyone in these parts. He’s here, in his cinderblock domain, drinking coffee directly under a blown-up picture of Weidman in his Hofstra singlet, throwing Penn State’s Phil Davis in competition. The 55-year-old Longo’s icy blue eyes have seen some things in his day.

“For me, to have two guys from the ground up—two neighborhood guys—that beat two of the guys considered two of the best pound-for-pound best ever? Phenomenal. I’m going to say, if that happens, nobody’s matching that. That would be a tough one to get. I’ve been really fortunate to work with these guys. I don’t want to sound like Dale Carnegie, but when I first met Chris, there was an instant rapport. Same with Matt, who I used to mentor and who now mentors me. The guy’s my best friend to this day.”

There are deep impressions in the heavy bags, which hang in a long row across the gym like a gallows. Some of them belong to Serra. Others, Weidman.

*****

Weidman has heard the criticism, too, but he’ll tell you he belongs in this title fight—even if Silva’s 16-fight win streak in the UFC predates his MMA debut by three years. Why? The 9-0 record doesn’t nearly begin to describe the entirety of his career. For starters, there were the circumstances.

“Listen, I could have probably 30 fights right now fighting all the bums,” he says. “But I only take the best guys to fight, even before the UFC—I fought all guys with winning records. If you look at most guy’s records, their first 10 or 15 fights are against guys with losing records. That means nothing to me. I fought guys who actually have a chance of doing well in this sport. My experience—I’ve wrestled at a world-class level. My jiu-jitsu, I’ve competed at a world-class level. I’m bringing in a lot more experience than 9-0 says. I’m bringing in short-notice fights where I could have easily had excuses.”

Short-notice fights were about all Weidman knew early under the Zuffa banner. He took on Alessio Sakara in his UFC debut in early 2011 with a little more than two weeks to prepare. “When I got called up for that, I wasn’t even in shape and had a broken rib,” he says. “There’s a million reasons why I should have lost that fight. Alessio was on a three-fight winning streak…he was a veteran…a devastating striker…a black belt on the ground. This is going to be a tough match for me, people said, I’ll probably lose, but then hopefully I’ll get another shot. I refused to believe that.”

image descHe won via decision. Then, Court McGee suffered a knee injury and Weidman filled in again—this time with much more than a fortnight to prepare—at UFC 131 in Vancouver. He choked out Jesse Bongfeldt in the first round and got a bonus for Submission of the Night. Then there was the Demian Maia fight, where he was asked to prove his hunger both literally and figuratively before taking center stage on live broadcast television. “He had to lose 33 pounds in 10 days,” Longo says. “He went into the sauna at one point for 10 minutes and came out and realized he didn’t shed an ounce. He was crying. It was bad.”

But Weidman, ever defiant, somehow made weight. That old wrestler’s resolve. He swore he’d never do it again, but he made it. Then he beat Maia on the scorecards, prompting the Brazilian to re-imagine himself as welterweight, where he’s now a top contender.

“It’s almost like he’s the kiss of death for these fighters,” Longo says of Weidman’s casualty list as filtered through the minds of critics. “Demian Maia? He’s really only a 170-pounder. Mark Munoz? He’s a fat, old guy. Munoz was up for the title, and now he’s a fat, old guy. Maia triangled Chael Sonnen in about 20 seconds. They’re not mentioning that. Chris has merited his title shot on his performances, which is the way it should be.”

And guess what? Should Weidman beat Silva, both Longo and Weidman are anticipating a similar chorus afterwards. Silva is past his prime. He’s old. He’s on the downturn. That’s fine. Weidman has a sense of humor, just the same as Longo and Serra, a couple of regular “ball-busters.” These guys have more fun with the fight game and its shifting perceptions than about anybody in the racket. They laugh and joke and act so exasperated all the time that UFC president Dana White keeps promising Longo & Co. a sitcom. “I’m at the point now where it’s like, get the fricking sitcom, I don’t want to do this no more,” Longo laughs. “I’m worn out.”

Leading up to July 6, though, it will be different. The hype game works out front. Weidman will inevitably hear about Silva’s aura, his mystique, his invincibility, his legacy—the streak. He’ll be cautioned about the otherworldly striking. He’ll be reminded of what happened to Forrest Griffin, whose astral body fled that night in Philly long before the physical body did. In short, there are those who will see Weidman as nothing more than Silva’s next sacrifice.

And this, too, is familiar. Back in 2010, days before he stepped in to face the ominous striker Uriah Hall—a fellow New Yorker from Spanish Town who was last season’s runner up on The Ultimate Fighter—he caught wind of similar things.

“I would get Facebook messages,” he says. “I got one particularly from this girl who went to my high school that goes to Tiger Schulmann. She writes—‘CHRIS, PLEASE BE CAREFUL. HE’S EXTEMELY DANGEROUS.’ Literally like I’m going to get killed. And I’m just like—are you fucking kidding me? I’ll punch you in the mouth, and I’ll punch him in the mouth, and I’ll punch everybody in the mouth.” He laughs. “Again, I don’t fall into the hype like that. For me, I was like, thank you, I appreciate your worrying about me. The thing is, everybody from his camp thought he was unbeatable, and he was undefeated. Everybody from my camp thought I was unbeatable.”

Here he looks at his hand, recognizing the similarities between the times.

“You know, I had my hand surgery before that fight, and they put my hip bone in there,” he says, tapping a knob below the wrist. “I was out a while. I wasn’t able to really hit hard, because my hand was hurting, but I still took it. And I ended up knocking him out. If you compare Uriah and Anderson, they are both crazy looking strikers, and nobody expected me to knock out Uriah Hall. But it happened.”

There’s no promise of a repeat in the way he states the fact. He’s just passing along a little piece of trivia. Just small talk is all.

*****

“I’m the bitch of the family,” Weidman says. His older brother, Charlie, was on his way to the NFL before a knee injury ended his career. “Athletically, I was always in the shadows, and he was always a better athlete than me growing up. He was 250 pounds, ran a 4.5 40, bench-pressed 38 times in the Combine.”

His younger sister, Colleen, at one time a collegiate volleyball player, is a sort of philanthropist who sets the bar very high for all Weidmans. “She goes on mission trips. She went to India to fight human sex trafficking. She puts herself in dangerous areas just to help other people, and she’s got a heart of gold.” Funny that she’s the one with the red hair, because here’s the middle child, Chris Weidman, headlining one of the UFC’s biggest pay-per-view cards of 2013, fighting a legend for the belt, representing the very heart of “Strong Island,” as the underachiever.

Some bitch. Weidman has a Master’s degree in physical education from Hofstra in nearby Hempstead, with an undergrad in psychology. He was a stud wrestler, too. He’s good at multitasking—which is perhaps aided by his attention deficit disorder. “Yes, I have ADD—and you have ADD,” he says, pointing to Ray, “and you” (pointing to a dude just finished training who smells like vapor lozenges) “and so do you” (pointing to me). “Everybody has ADD.”

Nor is he a picture of organization. Most of his camps have been either cramming sessions or of the “roll with the punches” variety. However, for this camp he has John Danaher involved, the Ivy Leaguer who came up under the tutelage of Serra. “He’s a student of the game,” Longo huffs. “And he’s a character. I’m never sure when he’s fucking with me.” Danaher was in Longo’s the night prior with a syllabus for Weidman leading up to Silva. An actual schedule. This is something new. “I have my Master’s degree and all that, so it kind of takes me back to getting reorganized,” Weidman says.

What you notice about Weidman is that he’s superbly confident in himself. He doesn’t put on airs. What you notice more is his casual grasp of the psychological warfare that goes on between fights. The first way you can tell this is in how he talks about Silva. It’s as if the tables are turned. It’s as though the 38-year-old Silva were the one being asked to make a statement, and he himself were the pinnacle.

“It’s going to be a big challenge for him,” Weidman says more than once. “Anderson’s getting older and has to prove himself against a young fighter who’s a bad match-up for him? That’s tough.”

When Chael Sonnen fought Silva, he disparaged the Champion so much in the weeks leading up that it only served to help hoist the pedestal. For the more anonymous Weidman, it’s different. He isn’t exactly disrespectful or in awe, and, more importantly, nor is he interested in pretending to be. Silva is just another opponent—he is a persona generic. It’s not that Weidman’s a nightmare match-up for Silva, it’s that he’s a nightmare for anybody (but, he’ll tell you, particularly for Silva).

“I think he’s faced good wrestlers before, I think he’s faced good jiu-jitsu guys before, I don’t think he’s faced a guy who has both of them together,” he says. “I’m young, I’m extremely hungry and confident. I’ve got longer reach than him—I don’t think he’s ever faced a guy with as long of reach as me. I’m a pressure fighter who never tires. He’s going to break before me. If we get into a war, I can promise you, he’ll break first. I’ve been to the grind too many times so I know where I stand with that because of the wrestling. I haven’t been able to show that yet. I haven’t had a full camp where the fight goes past the second round. I haven’t been able to show me mentally and physically breaking somebody to the point where they’re gassing and I’m still moving and aggressive, looking for submissions and knockouts.”

Anybody with a sense of Silva’s vulnerabilities sees Weidman’s wrestling as the key. The blueprint was Dan Henderson’s for a round (UFC 82), and Sonnen’s for four rounds (UFC 117). Weidman’s best chance is to string together the full five rounds. You know what’s funny, though? How we fall over ourselves to talk about Weidman’s wrestling pedigree, when he himself sees it as a loose end. “Unsatisfied,” is how he describes his collegiate wrestling career, which spans his time at Nassau Community College to Hofstra.

“I don’t think I ever reached one of my goals in wrestling. And everybody thinks it’s so good.” He shakes his head. “No, I always kind of fell short of what I wanted to do. This is my shot to finally accomplish my goal, and I think the biggest thing I changed from those wrestling days to now is my mindset. After getting my degree in psychology, I just said—you know what? I am done losing. I am absolutely done losing. The only reason I was losing any wrestling matches, for the most part, is I was beating myself. It’s so easy to beat yourself—guys do it all the time, just kind of mentally crumble. I’ve made it my goal to learn how to have a winner’s mindset. I just understand where my mind needs to be. Certain doubts that creep into your mind…it’s natural, and I know how to deal with them.”

*****

“Patrick Cote tried to fight Silva,” Longo says. “He did. Patrick is a fighter—he’s a fighter. Now he’s on the down side a little bit, but back then he was in Silva’s face. He wasn’t going anywhere. That’s a good sign.”

Somebody comes up and sticks money into Ray’s palm like he’s passing off a prison yard shiv. “Thanks,” Ray says. “You going already?” More mischievous razzing. More back and forth chuckles. Then Ray’s back to the cues to be found in Cote’s 2008 bout against Silva—things that can be picked out in helping ready Weidman for the encounter. “My job is to take a fight like that and use it. I really think I’ve got Silva figured. As a trainer, what can I make Chris believe? That’s what I mean. If I don’t have that connection, the guy’s going to be like, What do I have you for? Once that’s gone, I’m done.”

Ray has a connection to Weidman, just as he did with Serra, just as Serra does with Weidman. It’s the family. It’s Long Island, where Weidman says, “there are all these knuckleheads running around.” These are neighborhood boys. Ray is more than a coach to Weidman. He’s a sort of guardian, too.

“When he first came here, his wife threatened me,” Ray says of Weidman’s wife, Marivi, who had reservations about Chris fighting. “I was like, wow, I’ve never had that type of pressure on me. I went to his grandmother’s funeral when I first met him. And Marivi came up to me and said, ‘I’ll kill you if something happens!’ He hadn’t even had a fight yet. I was shitting in my pants. But my first observation with Chris was his wrestling—I’m going to say I’d never seen anything like it. It was different. I’d had some high school champions, but this was a different level. It’d be like if you have guys playing baseball in the neighborhood, they’re good ballplayers. Then you see a guy in the minor leagues, totally different animal. He was taking it slow at first. He was trying out for the Olympics at the time. That went south. And I told him, I really think you have a shot, but you’ve got to commit to it.”

He did, and now he does. As they say on Long Island, it’s “not for nothing.” Sometimes, it’s for everything.

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On his latest adventure, roving FIGHT! reporter T.R. Foley visits the tourist destination Lumpini Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, to watch the blood splatter and bid farewell to the epicenter of Muay Thai.

In a hotel room designed in the absence of tact, it was the watermelon-sized boxing glove pillows wrapped in gold sequins and bedazzled with the words “LIGHTS” and “OUT” that captured the tawdriness best. In third, behind the Scarface-inspired black-and-white marble walls, were glove-wearing dragons dotting the silk blanket across the bed.

These decorative missteps might seem like the trappings of a rundown one-star motel in Las Vegas, but this monument to the gaudy is actually the Bangkok W, the newest—and for the moment, hottest—hotel in Thailand.

As the country’s tourism industry continues to boom, it is hotels like the W that now greet visitors to Thailand. For almost 30 years, since the movie Bloodsport first turned Farangs (white people) on to Muay Thai, every tourist—backpackers on Koh San Road to hotel-goers on Sukhumvit—wants to visit Lumpini Stadium, the blood-soaked Thai boxing ring in downtown Bangkok. But now, after countless fights and more than 40,0000 events, the tourists, who pushed the stadium from quixotic sideshow to main event, have inadvertently helped prompt its shuddering.

*****

Personal journeys into the face-smashing underworld of the Muay Thai are by now as ubiquitous and formulaic as an episode of American Idol. Although the esteemed managing editor of this magazine asked, nay begged, me to absorb the kidney-lacerating blows of a Thai shin, I declined. Call it tight scheduling, the lack of adequate healthcare options, or the companionship of old friends, but I felt immune to his journalistic guilt trip. My goal was to watch the fights, not have my midsection tenderized by a random Thai teenager.

Muay Thai, with an unabashed lust for spilt plasma, is predictably popular among the throngs of British boys backpacking through Thailand to drink Chang beer and purchase flesh. They’ve read the tales and seen the movies, and they want to either throw hands or watch the carnage from the arm of a Thai girlfriend.

Dolts aside, there has been a growing concern among sports conservationists that the corrupting influence of money might have a negative impact on Lumpini and the sport of Thai boxing. The fear was that as the crowds graduated from poor backpackers to high-class vacationers, the needs of the fan would change so significantly that it would prompt fights featuring foreigners, increased ticket prices, and eventually doom Lumpini itself. By demolishing their most popular landmark, Thai boxers would, in essence, lose a part of their history and identity.

In 2012, that fear became a reality when Lumpini sold its land to developers and moved the stadium 20 miles from the center of town. Ironic, since it’s now far away from the backpackers whose money and willingness to share tales built the name and stadium to the level of recognition it now enjoys.

Like a National Park, popularity leveraged correctly can ensure preservation. However, when done in a manner that prioritizes outsized financial benefit, that same popularity can bastardize the very thing it wishes to safeguard. Lumpini, primed by the general financial boom in southeast Asia and the spike of MMA outfits, became it’s own enemy.
Despite my misgivings about the cultural impact of Lumpini’s destruction, my appetite for fisticuffs was piqued by the kitschy décor of the W, and I decided to attend this relic of traditional combat sports to see what, if anything, it still offered the casual fight fan.

*****

There are nine fights on the night’s marquee, highlighted by a young Thai boxer whose camp name is “Bansawan Sport Center,” a mouthful that, for the sake of brevity, is reconciled down to “SportsCenter.” Another fighter has the given name “Extra,” and quickly joins SportsCenter in becoming the chosen fighters for the night. Although excited by the names—and the impending spectacle—the marquee also includes the event’s first stench of corrupted capitalism and British boyism. The headliner is a traveling Brazilian and, of course, an eager-to-impress Englishman.

Lumpini’s ticketing process is as tourist-fucking as an operation can get. The local Thais who show up to bet the fights are charged 200 Bahts, or about $7, while the visitors are given the white-guy rate of 1,500 Bahts, or $50. That rate, as with sex, drugs, and t-shirts is expected to be bargained down, and as I take up the case. I feel the hard bottom closing in.

“No, this is impossible. No. Impossible,” says the first “tour” operator standing outside the ticket window. “You pay full-price. 1,200 is best offer. Best for you.”

My friends, an expatriated duo living in Asia with foreign girlfriends, insist on not being exploited and demand the Thai rate. Some pronouncements are made, the word “bullshit” is tossed around with ease, but we finally pay the 1,200 Bahts ($40) each for the VIP tickets. The tickets include a standard-issue “This Is Muay Thai” guidebook and a piece of paper with the names of each fighter, an underwhelming delivery when selling “VIP” anything.

The hallway leading to the ring is lined with paintings of Thai boxers making a series of perfect shin-to-face, shin-to-ribs, shin-to-thigh connections. Some of the photos are staged in fields or by rivers, an easing aesthetic probably meant to balance the violence of seeing a man taking toes to the jaw line.

Lumpini, built in 1956, doesn’t have air conditioning, and the 50-plus years of sweat gives the room the overwhelming scent of jockstraps baking in the sun. That odor is spread democratically by 200 household variety fans whirling overhead, accompanied by a few eye-level oscillating fans last seen on the back of swamp boats.

Our seats, folding chairs set 20 feet from the base of the cage, are plastic. There are two other sides dedicated to such VIPs that are filled mostly with Japanese tourists, Chinese girls, and the Brits—including one with a well-dressed Thai hooker sitting nearby.

The most interesting, vocal, and rowdy crowd is to our right—Thai men with knapsacks and fanny packs who paid the Thai rate to bet on the fights. After the first round (scouting round), these murse-carrying dozens turn into a hand-waving crowd that looks like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

We sit and order five Changs to help us cool down and acclimate to the scene. First up: SportsCenter.

*****

Weighing 110 pounds, Thai fighters might look like your 12-year-old brother after the flu, but these leg-whippers can generate enough force with their hips to split open a coconut with their big toe. We love SportsCenter, and as he launches his first combination, it’s clear he’s a highlight reel of femur-splintering power. His armbands dance with each punch, and his shorts—shiny with polyester shine and the glistening mixture of blood, water, and sweat—make him appear like some type of ass-kicking deity.

SportsCenter uses a repeated right leg kick to back up his opponent and locks him into the corner, launching knee after knee to the body. His opponent gradually withers and drops his head, forcing the referee to stop the fight.

SportsCenter does a quick Way Khru Ram (traditional dance seen before—and sometimes after—Muay Thai fights) in recognition of his victory, then heads to the corner and gives one last knees-to-chest, head-to-floor prayer.

A few more fights pass all with the same single-set mentality of violence. Punch, kick, elbow.

Getting tagged? Stand there and take the abuse. Thai boxing is as much a combat sport as a pissing contest, with fighters winning points with the crowd and trainers by proving they can take a punch or kick. The sport of eight limbs is about blocking emotion. Break the mold, and you risk showing weakness.

Extra is up. Another innocent-faced Thai kid with a whipping kick and powerful jabs. The gamblers stream down from the stands and pile into the corners of their preferred fighter. Since the fights typically end on the scorecard, the gamblers accentuate each connection with a hip-thrust and loud, in-unison “Yeaaohh!

(Thwap!)…Yeaaohh!
(Thwap!)…Yeaaohh!
(Thwap!)…Yeaaohh!

Extra is taking abuse through three rounds, but turns it up in the fourth and fifth to win the decision, making his supporters, both technical and financial, exceedingly happy. As he exits, a Thai bettor with sun-scorched skin slips him several thousand Bahts, a nice supplemental bounty for the typically impoverished fighters.

*****

The Englishman and the Brazilian are the ninth fight on the card, but as they enter the ring and do their respective traditional dances, Lumpini clears of Thais. The photographers leave, and the gamblers who remain sit back, drink juice boxes, and smoke cigarettes. It seems few people care about Whitey’s Vision Quest.

The Brazilian pushes the Englishman around the ring for three rounds. By the fourth, when it becomes obvious that the Brit is outmatched, his corner yells for to him to “Kick! Kick! Kick!” as though he wasn’t already attempting this cornerstone of Muay Thai.

Accumulating damage and with a knockout nearing, the Englishman plods forward. He covers up to avoid haymakers, but otherwise seems content to stand upright, bleeding and catching the Brazilian’s jabs with his jaw. The crowd that remains cheers the abuse and revels in the blood.

The fifth round starts and there is a back-and-forth exchange that favors the Brit. Emboldened, he marches directly into the sharp corner of the Brazilian’s hard-thrown elbow. The blow morphs the Brits pointy nose into the loopy side of a question mark. I break character and yelp in triumphant approval.

The Brazilian is announced the winner and dances his Way Khru Ram. As my friends and I make our way to the street to hail a taxi, we run into some of the 8 o’clock revelers. They’re burned, wearing tank tops, and waddling like frat boys into the arena. “Good times, Mates?”

I can’t muster the energy to match their douchery.

“Worth every Baht, brother,” I say. “All 1,500.”

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More than 100 years before the UFC and Invicta FC made women’s MMA chic, the streets of London were filled with a tough troupe of women who knew how to crack bones and close airways.

At this moment, the circumstances that brought the woman to this point don’t matter. She could be old or young, rich or poor, married or otherwise. A man is closing in on her—she’s in trouble.

In darkness or in broad daylight, down an alleyway or on a busy street, he’s interested in money, her body, or her life. Whether he’s simply drunk, a malcontent, raging husband, or even a peace officer, he aims to make her a victim.

On comes the grab of a wrist, the squeeze of shoulders, or grab of her throat. With adrenaline singeing her synapses, she’s faced with a choice: freeze or fight back. She chooses the latter.

*****

image descIn 1910, a woman named Edith Margaret Garrud sketched a fictional scenario of an attempted assault in an article penned for British magazine Health & Strength, which was among the first to lend pages to the emerging practice of martial arts. She was 38 years old, married, and a member of London’s upper class. She also was quite familiar with physical confrontation. Seven years prior, she had opened a school in the city’s East End that taught women not only how to prevail physically over unruly men, but also to fight a police force bent on silencing them.

Before Garrud, and more than a century before the age of cardio-kickboxing and stun-gun Tupperware parties, the idea of women’s self-defense had been tied to the fashion of the day, where parasols and 12-inch hatpins were used to fend off attackers. The idea of women physically asserting themselves through “antagonistics,” as they were then called, was a novel idea.

In other words, we were a long way from Ronda Rousey. Garrud, and her protagonist, were the exception. She wrote:

A lady, who is quite on the petite side, is returning home along a lonely country road. It is growing dark, but the lady saunters carelessly, enjoying the fragrant, health-giving summer breezes, and dangling over her arm her satchel containing her money—several pounds in silver, a diamond ring, and various other little treasures that possess perhaps only a sentimental value.

Suddenly, from behind a hedge, a rascally hooligan rushes forward. He is powerful, he is unscrupulous, he is a thief. He has cast avaricious eyes upon that satchel, which he has reason to believe contains valuables. Anyhow, he means to try his luck. But not so fast, my friend; not so fast! It is not so easy as it seems.

Rather than scream or wilt away, the lady rebuffs him with a wrist lock. Attacking again, he tries to garrote her and is thrown head over heels. Enraged, he draws a knife and is arm-locked, tripped, and tied into a pretzel for approaching authorities.

Her weapon for turning the tables? “Jiujitsu,” which Garrud had learned several years prior from a man named Edward William Barton-Wright, who’d traveled to the Far East in 1895 and come back to trademark a particular blend of jiu-jitsu, English boxing, French savate, catch wrestling, and stick fighting. Dubbed “Bartitsu,” the creation was the first to popularize martial arts in Western culture.

image descLike Garrud, Barton-Wright saw the benefit of promoting the art through the media. And like the Gracies some 30 years later in Brazil, he also was keen on testing it through live competition. In addition to publishing several instructional articles in Pearson’s Magazine, he used the best platform at the time—variety shows throughout London, where he would issue challenges to audience members. Wrestlers often shared the bill at the shows and were all too happy to step up, only to be dispatched by his young Japanese Jiu-Jitsu instructors in submission wrestling matches.

Had Barton-Wright heeded the social mores of the time, Garrud might never have learned the hybrid martial art. His school, which opened in 1899, invited women to train alongside men. She followed her husband, a “physical culture” instructor, to classes and later took lessons from one of the school’s Japanese Jiu-Jitsu instructors. Eventually, she began to teach women’s and children’s classes.

“Today, we would take it for granted,” says Tony Wolf, who’s studied 20th century martial arts for almost a decade. “If a woman wanted to learn martial arts, they would go to a martial arts school. But that’s building on 100 years of increasing acceptance of women being involved in athletic activities. Back then, it was almost a political statement for a woman because it would have been seen as something exclusively for men.”

But for Garrud, and for many upper- and middle-class women in London, it was a necessary step toward empowerment.

In late 1913, after she had spent several years mastering jiu-jitsu, she would make an even bigger statement. When legislators passed a draconian law popularly called The Cat and Mouse Act, which allowed police officers to capture suffragette leaders, she taught her skills to a band of women tasked to guard them from harm. Called “Jiu-jitsu Suffragettes,” they waged a campaign of civil disobedience on the streets of London and fought in bloody riots against baton-wielding police officers. Politicians who fought against suffrage on several occasions found their houses stoned or burned to the ground (although great care was taken to avoid loss of life). Often after their exploits, the bodyguards found safe harbor at Garrud’s school.

Famously, Punch Magazine printed a cartoon that showed police officers cowering as a woman stands at the ready, having tossed a few of them over a fence during a protest. The caption reads: “The Suffragette Who Knew Jiu-Jitsu.”

image desc“The suffragettes and bodyguards were fighting a battle on two levels,” Wolf says. “They were fighting street fights against the police when they had to, and there was a war of propaganda going on at the time. The image of these jiu-jitsu trained bodyguard of women was very colorful and romantic, and that was useful to the movement, because it got them back on the front pages.”

The bodyguards didn’t always win their fights, of course. The police were merciless with their weapons.

Garrud, who wasn’t allowed to protests, lest she hurt a hapless constable, became a colorful figurehead of the movement. London’s The Daily Mirror ran a photo of her hip-tossing a cop that had questioned jiu-jitsu’s effectiveness (the guy might have been old school—according to several reports, police already had incorporated the Japanese grappling art into training).

“Woman is exposed to many perils nowadays, because so many who call themselves men are not worthy of that exalted title, and it is her duty to learn how to defend herself,” she wrote in Strength & Health. “Because jiu-jitsu has over and over again been proved to be the most effective means, in moments of emergency, for repelling the attack of a ruffian.”

Bartitsu would quickly fade from the public’s consciousness when Barton-Wright closed his school in 1902, having overestimated the number of elites who wanted to study the martial art. Jiu-jitsu and judo, however, continued to grow in popularity and made their way stateside. In 1904, Yamashita Yoshitsugu introduced the latter to U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, whose varied interests included the antagonistics of wrestling and boxing. His interest spurred other diplomats and their wives to study grappling, and more schools opened to meet the demand for the exotic art.

“In the United States, people were very keen on testing it, and there was a sense of nationalism,” says Wolf. “People wanted to see how well jiu-jitsu would fare against an American wrestler.”

World War I diminished the growing martial arts movement (although soldiers learned jiu-jitsu as part of hand-to-hand combat training). Eclectic Asian-European fighting styles, however, survived under various different names in both England and the U.S. Garrud left her school in 1925, seven years after women were first allowed to vote, and moved out of the public eye. By then, several detailed jiu-jitsu books had been published, including The Fine Art of Jiu-Jitsu, written by another high-society woman, Emily Watts, who had trained with the women’s martial arts icon.

image descThe clothes of the attacker (and the quality of the pictorials) would change over time, but women would continue to face the same scenarios Garrud wrote about. The techniques they used to defend themselves grew more sophisticated, as did the technology at their disposal. A self-defense industry sprouted as martial arts again came into vogue in the 1970s, and women’s competitions became more and more popular. They were, and are, an integral part of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s rise.

Today, hatpins are scarcely needed to subdue the unruly man—the elbows and knees of Muay Thai and Krav Maga dovetail nicely with joint-locks and chokeholds.

Thanks to the “steampunk” movement and the recent movie remake of Sherlock Holmes, Bartitsu has undergone a revival as martial-arts historians have unearthed Barton-Wright’s original articles. As it turns out, Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, worked at Pearson’s when Barton-Wright published his first articles. Garrud, who died in 1971, might smile at Rousey’s ferocious armbar and women’s emergence in the UFC—not because they managed to break into an realm preserved for men, but because when they did, just about everyone wondered why they hadn’t arrived sooner.

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For UFC featherweight Cub Swanson, his clash with Denis Siver at UFC 162 in July means more than fists, shins, and shedding blood. This fight, like every fight in his career, is the result of a perfect balance he’s found in his life—a lifetime of juggling extremes.

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Cub Swanson had nightmares about this one for years. He’d been in a lot of close calls in his young life. He’d seen people get shot. He’d seen friends arrested and beaten by cops. He’d seen it all, but for some reason, this one stuck.

Swanson is standing up now, casually walking around his Tru MMA gym in Indio, CA, reenacting the scariest moment of his life. His voice is eerily calm and composed despite the chaos he’s describing.

He was 19 years old at the time he received a phone call from a good friend who was looking for backup to watch over his house. Threats had been made. Swanson’s loyalty outweighed his common sense, so he made his way over. It was just his friend and his friend’s dad sitting on the front porch, casually on guard.

“The first truck that pulls up was kind of speeding up toward the house,” says Swanson. “They just rolled right up onto the grass.

Before the truck pulled up, my buddy’s brother showed up and he ran up to the car and all you heard was BOOM! We were shocked and stood up. They opened up all four doors of the truck and got out. We stood up, and my buddy was here [pointing to his left] and his dad was here [pointing to his right.] They had magazines on the table like they were reading, but they had guns underneath them. I didn’t know that. So they picked them up and just started shooting. I was standing in between them. I was like, ‘I don’t have a gun, why am I standing here?’ I ran to the garage door and I tried to turn it but it was locked. I could hear bullets and people running around. The first thing that popped in my head was, ‘They’re dead, and now I’m trapped.’ I looked at the house next door, and I just ran across the line of fire as fast as I could because I knew I was trapped the other way. No one even got shot. Everybody was just shooting scared.”

Despite bringing fists to a gunfight, the future UFC featherweight contender managed to escape the terrifying scene unscathed. Swanson knew his life had to change. Cub Swanson the punk kid and troublemaker came to an end. Cub Swanson the professional fighter and community hero was soon forged.

*****

Palm Springs, CA, nestled in the Coachella Valley two hours east of Los Angeles, brings about visions of palm trees and golf courses. The desert town, with its warm weather and Indian casinos, houses a massive retirement community. Think Florida for Los Angelinos who hate the humidity of the South.

Cub Swanson knows a much different Palm Springs. When asked about his childhood, he says, “That’s a hard question,” with a nod of his head that seems to say, “Not question again.”

image descAt three months old, Swanson lost his father to cancer. His mother was left to care for Cub and his two older brothers Steve and Aaron. The responsibility, combined with anguish, pushed her to drug abuse and left her life spiraling out of control.

“She was just a mess,” Swanson says.

Not wanting to subject her children to a potentially damaging home life, she sent her three boys to live with their aunt and uncle when Cub was three years old. “I was a little sheltered,” Swanson says. “We were home schooled. We went to church about four times a week. I wasn’t allowed to watch PG-13 movies. We had the Brady life. Real sheltered. That was all I knew.”

The sheltered childhood served as a blessing and a curse. Steve lived with his foster parents when he was seven, but he’d had enough by the time he was 12 and moved back in with his mother. Six years later, Cub and Aaron followed when their mother recovered from her troubles and his foster parents went through a divorce. Without his aunt and uncle filtering out the less savory aspects of life in the Coachella Valley, he started to find trouble—or trouble started to find him.

Without watchful eyes looking over them, the three Swanson boys jumped feet first into life at Cathedral City High School. High school is tough enough for teens, but for a young Cub Swanson, who really only knew life within the confines of a sheltered home or the walls of a church, high school life appeared about as foreign to him as Mars. Social awkwardness led to acting out.

“I felt like being a tough kid was easier than standing on my own two feet and focusing on school and stuff like that,” he says. “In the fight game, all of us are kind of extremists. If I was going to be a bad kid, I wanted to be the baddest kid.”

He went on “probably 100 beer runs” during his high school years. “I got to the point where I would just grab stuff and walk out the front and just say, ‘What are they gonna do?’”

His first tattoo came at 17 years old, “the worst one,” he admits, pointing to a tribal band on his left arm. His trademark palm trees on his stomach and “SoCal” on his chest soon followed. Drugs and parties were the norm. Fist fights and brushes with the law simply came with the territory. Even gunfights were often met with a shrug. Cub remembers one specific instance when he was 16 years old.

“I was at a party. Everyone was drunk, but I was sober. And these fucking idiots had a beef with somebody and jumped over the back wall of the backyard and stuck their hand over and unloaded like 20-something shots. They shot four girls and two guys. I was just standing there, and everyone got down from the shooting, but I’ve been to so many parties where people shoot in the air. So I was just standing there like they were shooting in the air, no biggie.”

Cub’s hijinks eventually caught up with him, and he served one year in Indio Juvenile Hall. “In juvenile hall, people would step up to you to intimidate you. I’d have to step up to them, otherwise I’d be labeled as weak—then you’re in trouble.”

Swanson served his time and went back to his ways. He willfully admits he’s stubborn. Learning from others’ mistakes has never been his specialty, and learning the hard way tends to be the only way to learn at all. Eventually, he started to get it.

At 19 years old, he found a Joe Moreira Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu affiliate school near his home and gave it a whirl. Grappling became his new addiction, and he trained for hours and hours every day. He was always a good athlete, but he couldn’t handle the “team” part of team sports. It was too frustrating relying on others. The solidarity of combat sports meant only Cub decided how well Cub did, instead of relying on the quarterback to get him the ball in the end zone.

The lifestyle he’d grown accustomed to didn’t jive with the rigors of training. Fighting off a training partner trying to choke you unconscious is hard enough. Fighting a hangover at the same time is pure hell.

*****

Back at Tru MMA, the 10-year MMA veteran remembers how badly he needed an outlet. Idle hands are the devil’s plaything, and he credits jiu-jitsu for keeping his hands busy and his body too tired to find mischief.

Cub Swanson is efficient at everything he does. He hates to waste time or money. He drives fast. He can finish a Subway sandwich in less time than it takes to make it. He doesn’t have a lawn because of the high water bill. He drained his pool because of the electric bill. He has the money, just no desire to spend it on anything but the essentials.

He’ll splurge sometimes. His 60-inch LCD television in his living room is a glaring exception, and it is a beauty. It makes the Sony PlayStation 3 sitting beneath it look like a sunglasses case. But he shopped for weeks to find the right deal. His explanation for the purchase is almost apologetic. The rest of the house is a cross between a massive man cave, a fraternity house, and fighter dorms. Cub’s two brothers and one other roommate live with him. Steve Swanson is a fighter on the rise, with a 10-1 professional record. The only things on the walls in the living room are fight posters from all of Cub’s fights. There is even a couch in the kitchen for fighters staying in town to train. Not one inch goes to waste. But his house wasn’t always that way.

Swanson is recounting how and why he made the decision to start turning his life around. He talks about bullets whizzing by his head with the same tone and demeanor he just used an hour earlier to order a sandwich. He’s calm and matter-of-fact about the realities of life and death. He’s uncomfortably comfortable with the subject matter.

A decade ago, he came home from work one day to a house full of his brothers and friends. Alcohol and marijuana littered the living room. The Los Angeles Lakers were playing on the TV. A normal night for Cub meant watching basketball and partaking in some unsavory elements. But now he had an outlet for his all-or-nothing mentality, and it wasn’t sitting in that living room.

“I’ve always been honest, and I really don’t care,” he says. “You probably don’t want to write about it, but I had an ounce of cocaine in my top drawer, I had weed on the table, I had alcohol in the fridge, and I used to do it all. The minute I wanted to fight for a living, I stopped. I was addicted to it, and I just stopped. I never cared to do it again. I’ve been clean for 10 years—never touched speed, coke, acid. I used to be like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’”

Coming home that day was the final straw. Swanson’s two lives finally intersected—the one who partied with no focus, and the other who found direction through MMA. He was determined to never let them come this close again. All his years of flirting with trouble—the law, drugs, and even death—all of a sudden felt real.

*****

After spending a day with Cub Swanson, you quickly learn how fighting engulfs every facet of his life. You can hear the wheels turning in his head when he describes tactics, psychology, training, and technique. And it’s paying dividends.

image descThe WEC veteran is now 4-1 in his UFC career. He lost by second-round submission in his UFC debut to current contender Ricardo Lamas in a fight he had in hand. He bounced back in 2012 with three straight knockout wins over three highly touted featherweights—George Roop, Ross Pearson, and Charles Oliveira. In February, he picked up his fourth consecutive win against scrappy Dustin Poirier.

Swanson splits his time training in the Coachella Valley and Greg Jackson’s gym in Albuquerque, NM. While Indio may not seem like a fight town to some, it’s quietly become a hotspot for boxing. He attended training sessions in high school with undefeated welterweight boxer Timothy Bradley, who beat Manny Pacquiao last year. Swanson trains with Bradley and a host of championship-level boxers at the Indio Boys & Girls Club.

Swanson’s manager Kami Samdari remembers visiting that gym for the first time. “There’s a ragged ring in the middle, duct-taped heavy bags, there’s a rooster outside, mariachi music playing, and you go inside and these guys are just doing work. That has brought Cub’s hands up to a totally different level,” he says.

Swanson now benefits from some of the finest training environments in MMA, but it didn’t start out this way. He moved to Orange County, CA, at 19 years old after he realized he wasn’t growing as a fighter—he could already beat up all of his training partners. It was a big step for the young kid who rarely ventured outside of the valley.

“I gave my job a month’s notice, and I told everybody I was moving to Orange County to pursue it,” says Swanson. “I did that because I knew I couldn’t back out—because I would walk around with people asking me why I didn’t move, and I would feel like an idiot.”

With the help of Samdari, Swanson scraped out a living doing odd jobs and fighting. His first fight didn’t go so well. A decade ago, MMA management was the Wild West. Fighter development amounted to a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, for an unsanctioned debut.

“His first fight, he got in there in the old Total Combat show,” says Samdari with a laugh. “He rushed the guy, they bumped knees. Cub grabbed his knee and they fell to the ground. The other guy jumped on top of him and choked him.”

It lasted 23 seconds.

But Swanson bounced back and reeled off 11-straight wins, including back-to-back wins in the WEC. His career was finally that, a career. The WEC was growing as the leading promotion for fighters in lighter weight classes. Even though Swanson had his fair share of losses, including an eight-second KO to future UFC Champion Jose Aldo, he was accomplishing what he’d set out to do. He’d earned a new level of respect from his peers and cemented himself as a true fighter. In January 2011, when the UFC absorbed the WEC and most of its fighters, Swanson had just defeated Mackens Semerzier at WEC 52 in a Fight of the Night performance. He’d soon be receiving paychecks with the letters “UFC” on the top. The tough kid from the streets of Palm Springs would be fighting in the biggest promotion in the world.

*****

If you spend enough time with Cub Swanson, you’ll hear him refer to “the surgery.” While training for his UFC debut, a training partner kneed him in the face during sparring at Jackson’s MMA. An oral surgeon and a plastic surgeon spent four hours putting Swanson’s face back together. A metal plate here, a screw there. You can feel—to the touch—the screw in his forehead connecting a metal plate to his skull. The running joke is that his cornermen carry a Phillips head screwdriver with them to his fights in case they have to screw the plate back in. Both his hands also have plates and screws, the result of multiple breaks caused by power punches thrown with four-ounce gloves. He calls himself “Wolverine.”

image descThis injury was the lowest of the low for Cub Swanson in his professional career. With the UFC Octagon calling, he was laid up recovering in a hospital bed. Sitting next to him, his mother and stepmother were pleading for Cub to quit taking knees to the face for money and find something, anything else.

“Seeing them cry and the immediate effects I saw—I never had to deal with it directly in my face,” says Swanson. “I really questioned myself if I was ready to go on and possibly risk more damage. When I really thought about it, I had way more potential than what I’d shown. I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t want to end on that note. I can do better. That was my attitude.”

At any point, in any fight or training session, an injury can end a career. Every fighter knows it, but rarely does a fighter admit it. A fighter’s best commodity is his body. But that commodity must run through the rigors of violence to prepare for even more violence on fight night. Swanson knows this well.

“When I’m being interviewed by the media about injuries and I’m near other fighters and I talk about broken faces or career-ending injuries, you can see other fighters look away. They don’t want to think about it, and you can’t. In a way, you have to be ignorant to it.”

Swanson recovered from his surgeries, of course (he took three days off and was back in the boxing gym working the speed bag with his jaw still wired shut). As his star continues to rise, he’s determined to make sure he brings as many up with him as he can. He’s starting a youth wrestling club so kids have something constructive to do after school. Every three months, he speaks at the same juvenile hall he was once incarcerated in. Now, he’s speaking to them as a success story.

He tells them the simple message, “I was right there. I can do it. So can you.” His nephew received a gunshot to his femur in 2012. It was a walk-up call. It’s one thing to read bad news in a newspaper or hear it from friends, but when a member of your family nearly becomes a statistic, you do more than raise an eyebrow.

“I don’t necessarily love the responsibility, but I accept it as much as I can,” he says. “I am in the public eye—to an extent—and I have the power to influence. Why not make a positive influence?”

He admits it’s tough, even a little overwhelming. He grew up with bullets, blood, and drugs, but he learned the difference between right and wrong in the confines of the first home he ever knew. “My life has been two different ends of the spectrum,” he says. “On one side, I lived in the streets. Sold drugs. Did drugs. Hung out with crazy people. On the other end, I went to church and was the sweetest little kid.” He, like so many others, is a product of his environment, the good and the bad. In order to change the next generation of products, he’s doing his best to change their environment.

It’s too early to tell if his work will make a difference with the kids, but the community already feels the change. The Swanson brothers’ reputation was pure trouble. Now, the cops ask him for favors.

“He’s always wanted to give back,” Samdari says. “He went from being chased by the cops to where cops in Palm Springs now come train with him. He’s gone 180 degrees, and he really feels like he wants to be a symbol for the other kids to turn their lives around.”

*****

Pure and simple, the 29-year-old is kicking ass. Greg Jackson credits his four-fight winning streak on simply figuring out his style.

“Sometimes, with MMA fighters, it takes a little longer because you don’t have that long amateur career to figure stuff out,” says Jackson. “I think he just figured it out, he turned the corner, we’re all on the same sheet of music, and so he’s doing great things now.”

The irony is, the better he gets, the more he realizes how much more he can learn. It’s circular logic. The greatest wisdom comes in knowing what you don’t know. In Cub’s case, he discovers two holes in his game every time he closes one up. The holes he discovers are smaller than the holes he just filled, but being 100 percent satisfied in his abilities as a fighter is a self-destructive act. There is no end game, just continued improvement.

After leading the life he did, it’s hard to be intimidated by a 5’7” German. Albeit, that German is Denis Siver, and he’s trying to kick Swanson’s head into the seventh row of their pay-per-view opening fight at UFC 162. He’s seen it all. He’s seen friends get shot, and he’s taken a policeman’s nightstick to the dome. It all helped construct the man he is today.

“I know that nobody else has gone through what I had to go through,” says Swanson. “I can be beat down, but I will never be broken. I know that I can be a smarter fighter. I don’t have to be the toughest. Using my toughness, my athletic ability, and my intelligence is going to make a me better fighter.”

He knows the discipline of a strict religious household bound by moral code. He learned toughness, street savvy, and consequences soon after. That gives him the context most people will never have. Fighting is a balancing act for a fighter. He must manage his life like a professional—getting to practice, making weight, and preparing for battle. But he must also tap into his fight or flight, and shut off the more logical part of his brain that says, Don’t go get in that cage. You could get hurt.

That’s a lesson you don’t learn in books or in any classroom. It equipped him to become a fighter in the truest sense of the word. He can juggle the extremes of fighting in a cage. In the cage, he is in both a fight and chess match—trying to work through both circumstances in perfect harmony. That’s a lesson that took the stubborn-headed Cub Swanson 29 years to understand. But it’s a lesson that some people never learn.

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//Photos by Landry Major

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The small island nation of Singapore might not be well known within the MMA community, but if EvolveMMA owner Chatri Sityodtong has his way, the former British colony will soon become synonymous with liver kicks and championship belts.

Four years ago, Kru Saknarong lived on a dirt floor in the Team Sityodtong training camp in Pattaya, Thailand. He was earning $300 per month and sharing a living space with his wife and the fighters he trained. He had no net worth.

Today, the lead instructor for the EvolveMMA Fight Team stands inside a glass-enclosed workout facility in Singapore, a few feet from a full-service juice bar, well-equipped locker rooms, and a retail shop selling pink boxing gloves. The 46-year-old Saknarong, who looks a decade younger with his pudgy, round face and soft eyes, is trying to ignore the distractions of Asian pop music and ambient conversations.

A timer buzzes, and Saknarong walks over to a handful of the trainers and levies a series of subdued directives in his native Thai. The trainers set free with a series of feints and footwork meant to get their exhausted, panting fighters to move. The fighters launch into complicated and unique patterns of punch-kick-knee-elbow connections that are equal parts choreography and randomized motion. Each connection is forceful, technical, and repeated until considered perfect, and always accompanied by a chorus of liver-splitting shin strikes and distinctive Thai yelps, “Yaow! Okaaaayy! Auwwf.”

Saknarong reviews the room, now awash in the chaotic violence of Muay Thai, glances at his stopwatch, and flashes a grin.

*****

Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD) is the lower Manhattan of Singapore, a capital of finance with high-price residential complexes abutting restaurants with $35 crab cake appetizers. The island-nation, which was run by the British Empire until full independence in 1965, is one of the wealthiest countries in Asia, but due to its diminutive land mass (about the size of Chicago) and relative economic and social stability, it’s a country ignored by the American press until some teenager gets flogged for spray painting cars.

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Singapore is small, but with 5 million people, it’s one of the world’s most densely populated countries. The country thrives from the economic impact of almost one million expats, with more than 1.5 million Singaporean residents rumored to be millionaires. Singapore has no peer within Asia—there are few temples (unless you consider banks as the temples of Capitalism), bubble gum is outlawed, and the streets are cleaner than a stainless-steel kitchen. Health care is $100-a-month for expats, but the rent would make a Manhattanite squeal with a sense of camaraderie.

Chatri Sityodtong knew Singapore’s unique position within Asia would be vital to launching his mixed martial arts company. He wanted an Asian-focused fight team whose brand could be utilized in consumer gyms, clothing, and in an online martial arts training academy. The Thai-born businessman grew up in Bangkok and trained at the legendary Sityodtong camp as a child, which is where he earned his last name. Toward the end of high school, his parents shipped him off to America, where he eventually ended up attending Tufts, earning a Harvard MBA, and enjoying a successful 15-year career in finance.

Once Chatri earned enough money in finance, he started thinking about what was possible. He wanted to be back in Asia, where he could enjoy the food and culture of his childhood, but not the frustrations of a life in Bangkok. “It was too polluted in Bangkok, too inefficient,” he says. “It takes three hours to go three blocks.” Chatri wanted a city that combined the luxury of the West with the familiarities of Asian culture—he wanted Singapore.

“Singapore is the perfect city for Evolve,” Chatri says from inside the lounge of his EvolveMMA studio in the CBD. “I moved here because I wanted to live here, and the reasons I find it attractive—efficient government, cleanliness, culture, and weather—are what’s also attracting our staff and fighters. I don’t think I could have started this gym in Delhi or Bangkok. I don’t think it would have gotten the same response.”

Over the past four years, Chatri has methodically interviewed and hired a staff of nearly 80 employees, including several Muay Thai trainers who, like Saknarong, were highly accomplished trainers living their post-competition years living in squalor. Chatri’s hiring spree included business-side employees, like an operations managers and PR executive, and the fight team, which includes 20-plus Muay Thai world champions, half a dozen Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, and a legitimate MMA and wrestling coach, Heath Sims, the former brains behind Dan Henderson’s training camps.

image desc“I never thought I’d live out here,” says Sims, a 2000 Olympian for the United States in Greco-Roman wrestling. “But once I got out here, saw what Chatri was able to do—not just for me, but for the fighters we’d get—I wanted to be a part of something like that. It also doesn’t hurt that you’re so close to so many cool places to visit.”

According to Sims and the rest of the EvolveMMA coaching staff, the lure of Singapore was more than just Chatri’s personality, clean streets, and the chance to gallivant around Asia. For many who struggled with finances and lived hand-to-mouth, Evolve was the first chance in their life to work a lucrative and sustainable job that rewarded hard work with a chance to create personal wealth.

“This is the best money I’ve ever made,” says Sims. “These other guys, the Brazilians and the Thai coaches, this is a hundred times more than they’d ever make. We work our butts off, we train a lot of people and have class commitments, but we’re all making it happen.”
Chatri isn’t running a charity. The main facility in the CBD runs 150 classes a week, while another location teaches more than 100. All classes are taught by the trainers who are involved in the fight training, which carry with it the responsibility to be on time for every class and run it in the manner set out by Chatri and the head trainers. There are more than 2,000 students, and each has goals, expectations, and follow-ups that are built into their membership program. It’s a full-on process that generates an estimated $8-10 million a year in revenue for the school and has created a passionate following in the city, meaning it’s not uncommon to see dainty Singaporean girls kicking off their Louboutins in favor of an hour-long Muay Thai class taught by a Lumpinee Boxing Stadium Champion.

“It’s the most expensive gym I’ve ever heard of,” says Jake DeBerry, an American expat who works for an international consultancy. “But I’m learning Muay Thai from legitimate Van Damme-killing badasses, not washed up karate instructors from Toledo.”

But the real focus is the fight team that includes Shinya Aoki and Rafael dos Anjos, among other regional stars and up-and-comers. Many of the fighters double as coaches during the week, and in addition to training, they are expected to teach classes throughout the week, including privates, which generate anywhere from $100- to $250-an-hour.

“If you aren’t watching out for the people in your life, what does money matter?” says Chatri. “Fighting, and life, whatever, is all about who you’ve helped. That’s what I learned from a young age and what I bring forward in my work with Evolve. We could make more money by charging higher percentages on privates or not paying them as much money or not providing them apartments, but that’s not what we’re about.”

Chatri’s mix of business savvy and altruistic assistance to friends in need is heavily reliant on the teachings of Kru Yodtong Senanan, who established the Sityodtong camp 50 years ago in Pattaya, Thailand. Chatri, who has a black belt in Muay Thai, says the man and the sport taught him work ethic and the importance of being a dependable friend. “Everything I have in the world, I owe to Kru Yodtong Senanan,” says Chatri. “He was absolutely selfless.”

Kru Yodtong Senanan died in February, and Chatri, along with seven of the trainers he’d hired from his camp, attended the funeral.

“There were thousands of people at the gathering because he touched so many lives,” says Chatri. “I grew up in Muay Thai and know what a life in martial arts can provide for people. The gym is called Evolve because that’s what I want my students to do. I want them all to improve themselves and their lives.”

But he’s also honest about just what he’s done and the impact it will have on his business and the fight team. “If any camp in America had just one of these guys, they’d have the best Muay Thai gym in the States,” says Chatri. “We have twenty.”

*****

Amid the flutter of kicks and aggressive grunting of the EvolveMMA fight team is the bobbing yellow headgear of Japanese MMA legend Shinya Aoki.

A legend in Asia and well-known among American fight fans for his smothering ground game, Japan’s most popular fighter has a well-deserved reputation for doing little more than slap boxing in the cage. Although he has massive hands and size-12 feet, after 10 years in the cage, the judo black belt was best known for his wacky socks, slick submission game, and absolute inability to knock out an opponent.

image descAoki’s reputation improved dramatically at Dream 18, when the then-new Evolve recruit broke the orbital bone of former UFC fighter Antonio McKee with an overhand right. The punch was directly accredited to his training in Singapore and his work with the cadre of Muay Thai world champions—none of whom are as acclaimed, feared, and fantastically brilliant as Namsaknoi, who is nicknamed the “Michael Jordan of Muay Thai” for his 285 wins (15 losses). The Thai native is also lauded for having one of the longest reigns of any Lumpinee Muay Thai World Champion in history.

“I use to be afraid to stand up and strike, but now I work with the trainers and my striking is okay,” says Aoki. “I am no longer afraid of striking. I enjoy it very much. I still can’t believe I knocked someone out.”

Now, Aoki attacks his striking responsibility with sincerity and force. Namsaknoi stands in front of the wiry fighter and demands heftier kicks. It’s an awkward and dynamic pairing because Namsaknoi is as fluid on his feet as Aoki is bungling. Each kick Aoki whips at Namsaknoi is less effective than the previous, but Namsaknoi coaxes Aoki to work on mixing in his elbow with low-leg strikes and knees to the ribs. Aoki is struggling, but he continues on, strike by strike.

Aoki’s wife and newborn son didn’t join him in Singapore. The Japanese fighter takes a Samurai approach to combat. For training camps, he chooses to live alone, free of distractions that make him “weak and too nice.” Training alone and staying focused on combat is an important part of Aoki’s training regiment that was missing in Japan. “Nothing is more important than to be ready for the fight, and I think my family knows this, and that’s why they stay in Japan.”

Chatri’s setup makes focusing easier for Aoki. In addition to being fluent in Japanese and giving him a place to live and train, Chatri is also Aoki’s manager. It’s a free service that Chatri willingly undertakes. It’s a simplicity that Aoki needed. Until EvolveMMA, Aoki composed piecemeal training camps—striking practice here, jiu-jitsu there, wrestling almost never. It was a camp structure that forced him to travel as often as he trained.

“I know that I don’t have to do that for any of the guys,” says Chatri. “I realize I could be making more money, but I also know it helps Shinya to focus to have all these guys in one place. I also know that making him better helps Evolve to grow.”

Evolve isn’t just growing as a business, their fighters are winning in the cage. In April, several members of Evolve’s fight team competed in OneFC 8, hosted in Singapore and headlined by the championship fight between Aoki and Lightweight Champion Kotetsu Boku. Aoki, whose ease in the stand-up was evident from the beginning, moved the fight to the ground and submitted Boku in the second.

“My wrestling and BJJ, they are getting better,” Aoki says. “We have the best BJJ in the world, and now, because of Coach Sims, I can get my opponents to the mat much easier. I am the best I’ve ever been.”

Aoki won the lightweight belt via second-round submission, but his win wasn’t the only one for EvolveMMA. Former NCAA Division I national qualifier Jake Butler, who moved to Singapore to pursue a career in MMA after a successful career on Wall Street, also secured a first-round knockout, improving his professional MMA record to 2-0. The Princeton graduate was originally brought in by Chatri as an answer to the gym’s lack of wrestlers, but now with the help of Saknarong and Namsaknoi, Butler has added striking to his formidable ground game and takedown attacks.

Next up for EvolveMMA is Rafael dos Anjos’ fight against Evan Dunham at UFC on FX 8 on May 18. The Brazilian is riding a three-fight win streak largely because he’s spent his training camps in Singapore and intermixing world-class BJJ with the striking prowess of the gym’s two-dozen Muay Thai champions.

“All of our fighters are headed in a different direction, but they are all making money and are able to focus on their training,” says Chatri. “That’s what we’ve done here—we’ve created a family that all makes money from their own work ethic. I put the pieces in place, and I try to make sure that everything is working for them, but I don’t make their money or win their fights. That’s them. They do the work.”

image descSaknarong takes pleasure in leading his stable of coaches and developing his fighters into champions. He nods as he watches Aoki land a final combination of leg kicks and straight jabs. The buzzer sounds and the fighters break to get water. Saknarong peels away from his fighters and grabs the railing by the edge of the mat space. “You know, I own four houses, and I rent them out for money,” he says, looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows. In front of Saknarong is the city’s impressive skyline, and off to the side, Aoki is talking to Namsoknoi about the techniques covered in practice. Saknarong notes the moment by sweeping his hand across the room.

“Four years ago,” he says through a smile. “I had nothing. But now I’m here, and I have everything.”

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Photos By Paul Thatcher

image descFor years, people have claimed Gilbert “El Niño” Melendez to be the best lightweight in the world that isn’t in the UFC. Finally, he will get a chance to prove it.

It’s lazy Sunday at the Melendez household on a sunny day in the Frisco suburb of Daly City, California, and face-punching can wait until tomorrow. The night before, women debuted in the UFC and Oscar coverage starts in a few hours. But for man of the house Gilbert Melendez, it’s time to shut out external stimuli. He’s made it through another week of punishing training, with eight more to go until he fights for the UFC Lightweight Title. This morning, he watched Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche on his laptop and skipped the rest.

“I fought all week,” says Melendez. “I watch the fights, and I start thinking I might fight. Too much anxiety, too much energy spent.”

He says this shortly after he trudges into his high-ceilinged living room in jeans and a t-shirt, sporting baggy eyes and a bruise over his nose. His black hair is short and unkempt—forget fighting, he wants breakfast. A run is what he’s supposed to do, according to his schedule, but a massage is what he’s getting.

“When I start doing two-a-days, you get your body in this zombie tough-mode,” he says. “But one day off a week, I never feel like I’m recovered.”

Adorable though she is, the little bundle of joy bouncing around the townhouse isn’t helping matters. Two-year-old Leylakay Valentina Melendez has her dad’s curls and breaks the morning quiet with a Gene Krupa imitation on her kiddie drum set. She’s outgrown her crib and taken to climbing into bed at dawn with daddy and mommy, Gilbert’s fiancé Keri Taylor. It’s cutting into valuable recovery time, so today’s task is to buy a new bed she can invade.

“Go Frankie, go!” she blurts during a discussion involving one particular Edgar.

“She’s a daddy fan,” says daddy. “You’re not going to print that, right?”

image descEight days prior to challenging champ Benson Henderson at UFC on FOX 7, which will take place less than an hour’s drive from his doorstep at San Jose’s HP Pavilion, Gilbert Melendez will turn 31 years old. Gone are his days of fighting and chasing tail in a San Francisco frat house beside his best friend, UFC welterweight Jake Shields. He’s a father now, with a 7,500-square-foot gym and a wedding to plan. And, lest he forget, a title shot. In other words, he’s a long way from Santa Ana, California, where he avoided local gangs and was voted homecoming king.

“I feel like an adult,” he says. “My 20s were fun, but I started to hit that 30-year-old point when I was 28. More bills, more thinking about the future. It’s more about juggling at this point in life.”

He agrees he’s come a long way—look at all this domesticity, right? But for all he’s accomplished, winning belts in the WEC, Shooto, and Strikeforce, he knows there are miles to go before his recognition catches up with his skill. He’s an indie artist up against the major label act (though he’s a well-paid independent, guaranteed $175,000 if he takes the belt). But to Johnny Casual Fan, he might as well be a flyweight.

“It doesn’t matter what I’ve done elsewhere,” says Melendez. “The guy who’s 0-4 in the UFC has more credibility than me. Not that I really care, but for branding purposes, if I can’t put UFC outside my gym, I can never brand myself the same to the common person. Someone that’s a peer of mine will know, but a little kid with a mommy trying to sign up for the gym or the person in the bar, it’s, ‘Hope you make it to the UFC.’”

In December, he finally made it. He was sitting in his Toyota Tundra before practice when his lawyer called with the offer to fight Henderson. There had been rumors of a looming opportunity, and they had pushed for the fight. Only a few months earlier, he had looked into a video camera and huffed that he would never migrate to the UFC—contractual jiu-jitsu between Showtime and Zuffa wouldn’t allow it.

The lawyer heard silence and a deep breath, and eventually a “Yes.” Melendez’s mind was racing. Practice was good that day.

“You’re like, you got what you asked for, motherfucker,” he says. “Now it’s time. Let’s do it. You think you’re going to be happy and emotional, but I’ll be a little bit happier and emotional when I win. I’ve anticipated being here. This is all something I envisioned, even though I had my ups and downs and doubts. But it’s not finished. It finishes off with me being the UFC Lightweight Champion. That, or it’s a fucking nightmare.”

* * * * *

Melendez was born on April 12, 1982, in Santa Ana. His father, Gilbert Melendez, Sr., was from Tijuana, Mexico. Although also Mexican, his mother didn’t learn to speak Spanish until they got married. They spoke English in the house and raised him and his two sisters as Americans. To this day, he’s fluent enough only to get out of trouble—in East L.A.

image descMelendez Sr. believed in discipline and might smack his son if he came home too late from a friend’s house. But he also pushed Gilbert to make something of himself when his high school wrestling career ended without a state championship.

“He wanted me to be my own man and go figure things out,” Melendez says. “I just remember one day when my application for Cal State Fullerton first came in, he opened the trash and trashed it. He said, ‘You’re a fool if you want to stay here for college. Go somewhere else.’ San Francisco seemed like the place to go.”

Soon, 20-year-old Melendez found himself at San Francisco State, where he joined the school’s wrestling squad. He had declared a major in liberal studies and thought of becoming a teacher. But that plan went out the window when he met Shields, who joined the team his sophomore year. A fast-talking vegan with a gift for picking up girls, Shields introduced him to BJJ black belt Cesar Gracie and San Francisco nightlife.

Something clicked on those mats at Gracie’s gym in Pleasant Hill, which offered plenty of time for reflection on the hour-long drive there and back. Somewhere along the line, Melendez decided to push himself toward kickboxing…and then MMA.

“I knew that I had talent,” he says.

His first two fights were held in a rodeo barn during a four-man tournament on an Indian reservation in Northern California. There was manure on the floor, no athletic commission, and he finished both of his opponents. Afterward, he called up Gilbert Sr., who gave his blessing, not knowing his son had already dropped out three months earlier as a sophomore.

Melendez went on to the pre-Zuffa WEC, where he stopped three opponents to win the promotion’s lightweight belt. Shields and Melendez became acquainted with Diaz brothers Nick and Nate, and the foundation for a renowned (and notorious) fight team was forged.

“It was a great time,” Shields says. “We were young and trying to make it and having a good time. We didn’t get into too much trouble. We were too busy fighting in the cage and chasing girls.”

image descThe party went on until 2007, when the UFC bought PRIDE—the first time Melendez’s career took a right turn by the industry leader. He went back to Strikeforce, where he had captured the lightweight title in 2006. But on June 27, 2008, talented lightweight Josh Thomson took it in a bout where he appeared flat and outgunned in exchanges. Six months prior, he had lost a decision to standout Mitsuhiro Ishida in Japan.

Melendez realized he was losing a step. He started taking fighting seriously, not cutting corners, showing up for every practice, and hitting every pad with vengeance. He met Keri, and the wild nights dwindled. Sixteen months later, he had avenged both losses and recaptured the Strikeforce Lightweight Title.

“A lot of those misfortunes happened, and good things came out of it,” he says. “I lost to Josh, but it was the best thing to help me decide that this is my career. With the ups come the downs, but I wanted to focus on the positive things.”

* * * * *

At the moment, Gilbert is standing in the middle of one of those positive things. El Niño Training Center has grown from a cramped mat room with a claustrophobic loft to one of those cavernous places profiled on Inside MMA. He used Craigslist to find the place, which is nestled beside a busy road in an industrial section of San Francisco’s SOMA (South of Market) district. A leathered man he calls “Swarm” arrives with Baby, his aging pit bull, who’s getting royal treatment from his babysitter.

image desc“I’ve been on a portion control diet,” Swarm says. “I eat half of it, then I feed the rest to Baby. I’ve lost 18 pounds.”

These days, Melendez’s scale registers 170 pounds in the a.m. Within two weeks, he’ll come to rest at 166, and then he’ll start his cut down to 155 pounds. As deprivation goes, it’s a small ordeal compared to the 20-pound drops you hear of so often these days, which has lead some to conclude he’d be better suited at featherweight. He did fight in Shooto at 143 pounds, and he considered dropping when Nate Diaz fought Henderson for the title. But his teammate lost a one-sided decision, and he has no plans to take a run at Jose Aldo’s belt if he’s unsuccessful on April 20.

“I’m going to fucking win,” Melendez says. “I’m going to look strong, big, and they’re not going to say that. Am I taller than him? I’m a little taller than him.”

If it were a contest of height, there would be a new champ. He measures 5-foot-10, which is actually an inch taller than Henderson. So he’s right—by no means is he a small lightweight. He’s got long arms and skinny legs. He just wears it deceptively, as Henderson’s long torso makes him seem taller inside the cage.

“I watch his tape,” he says. “He’s really slick. We might get into a scramble, and the fucker might do a backflip and land the best choke in the world. That’s the kind of guy he could be. But am I, like, scared of his striking? I’m scared of him maybe kicking out my ankle and maybe hurting my leg—those things are on your mind. But am I scared of, ‘C’mon, hit me?’ Not at all. I don’t think he’s the Anderson or GSP or Jon Jones of the lightweight division. I think at 155, that torch can be passed quick. But it would be nice to be the guy who does it. It’s going to be good TV.”

All this talk about Henderson has made him antsy to shadowbox. 

* * * * *

The noodles are served in a steaming heap at the Vietnamese joint Gilbert and Keri swear by, but it’s the whole shrimp slathered in this brown, sweet-smelling sauce that awakens salivary glands. Eating them whole with the shells on is a sure way to incite a riot in your stomach, Gilbert says. He’s gotten the pho, imploring the waitress to bring a plate’s worth of limes, which he squirts every which way.

image descBy the time Benson Henderson won the undisputed WEC Lightweight Title in 2010, Melendez already was ranked among the top-10 lightweights in the world. While his UFC counterparts enjoyed the recognition brought by booming business and an overpowered marketing machine, he quietly built a 10-2 record both abroad and domestically, beating Clay Guida, Tetsuya Kawajiri, Shinya Aoki, and Josh Thomson. He won his last seven bouts under the Strikeforce banner, and, during a second run as Champ, defended his belt four times.

Ben Henderson, of course, is no longer a B-level king. He’s at the top of the rankings after tearing through the UFC’s lightweight division following the loss of his WEC belt to Anthony Pettis, who is expected to meet the winner of the April 20 bout. But while most hardcore fans take no issue with Melendez’s title shot, not everybody sees him as a contender. Keri, who’s not yet learned to refrain from trolling the Internet for articles about her husband, rants about a writer who recently made the argument that he’s neither popular nor accomplished enough to fight Henderson.

“The funny thing is, he tried to get a job at the gym,” she says. “Maybe it didn’t work out and he held a grudge, because he came in and he was the biggest fan of Gilbert.”

A constant presence at her fiancé’s fights, she face-palmed a heckler after he beat Thomson last May. A former Muay Thai champion, she thought better of using her fists. But the couple still had a heart-to-heart about keeping emotions in check. As Melendez’s star rises, critics are bound to multiply.

Nevertheless, the smear job presents a good opportunity for the fighter to sell the fight. Why does he deserve the opportunity?

“My record and accomplishments speak for themselves,” Melendez says. “I think from a business standpoint, Champion vs. Champion is a good thing. Why risk me losing to someone like Gray Maynard? With that said, timing wise, I think I’m there. I’m debatably the number one guy in the world. I’m kind of a mystery man right now, but look at my record. I’ve only lost twice. I avenged both those losses. Every fight, I’ve pretty much dominated. When I’m watching Kenny Florian fight Sean Sherk, I was ready. When I see Joe Stevenson fighting for the title—that should have been me. When I see Roger Huerta fighting Kenny Florian to get the shot, I was ready then. I’ve been ready for all those years. UFC guys have been there for a couple.” 

* * * * *

The Rolls Royce of beds is some sort of magical melding of memory foam, innersprings, and probably a few unicorn pelts. It is not what the Melendez family needs, yet it’s too tempting to pass up. We’re at a mattress store near the condo, and Gilbert and Keri hop on for a test run. In a few seconds, he’s fighting the urge to snooze. A Tempur-Pedic mattress is just the kind of swag a discretionary bonus might buy, especially now that he’s eligible for them in the UFC. Then he gets a look at the price tag: $8,000.

“Whoa! Let’s see the shitty one,” he says.

image descAlong with a few smacks, Gilbert Melendez Sr. gave him many lessons on frugality—and enterprise. He’s one of the few fighters to have monthly sponsorships in an abysmal market—three of them, in fact. His gym is making money, and he and Keri are always on the lookout for new branding opportunities. But a bed the cost of a Kia Rio is a little too rich right now. They settle on a full-size that costs a little more than a grand. After his Octagon debut and wedding, they plan to buy a house.

“I’ve always put myself in a good place,” he says. “I’m ready whether I win or lose, which helps me perform even better. I feel like I’ve set things up well in my life. I’ve just got to go out there and do it.”

Driving back home, Gilberts talks about a jiu-jitsu tournament that’s being attended by a few of his students. Somewhere between the gym and the restaurant and a stop for coffee, he’s gotten a text informing him that Henderson is in the audience. It’s impossible not to conjure a daydream about Melendez and his Cesar Gracie teammates swarming around the Champ, as they once did to another fighter on national television. Would mean mugs be displayed? Sure. Would fists start to fly? Maybe. Would homies be scared? Never.

Even though it never would have happened, it would have made for great TV.

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FIGHT! Magazine’s T.R. Foley traveled to India to investigate the semi-monastic life of the Indian Pahalwans and experience their unique mixture of spirituality and aggression.

image desc

You would be surprised how many armed soldiers show up to a wrestling match in India. Standing atop guard towers, sitting in vehicles, and monitoring exits, Indian soldiers don’t have the bulk or fine tailoring of their American counterparts, but they do carry Belgian-made AK-47s.

The wrestling match is hosted by a local committee of ascending politicians who want to earn the favor—and votes—of the unemployed population in this area of north Delhi. There is a large bandstand at one end of the field, with cream and orange couches for the committee and their invited dignitaries. Many of the highest-ranking officials wear long white gowns. Orange flags are posted on 20-foot poles around the large, circular competition space. On the left hand side of the festival grounds are 300-feet of gold-dyed linens meant to block the view of the parking lot of a Radisson Blu. On the right side, there’s a drainage pond the size of a football field being used largely as a bathroom.

image descMy new friend Deepak Prasad has brought me here. An accountant with an absolute, all-consuming passion for India’s traditional wrestling style called “kushti,” Deepak has arranged for me to compete in a dangal (a traditional Indian wrestling festival). I agree, and though I expected a few dozen bored spectators to be in attendance, there are more than 3,000 fans crowding rope lines, smoking clove cigarettes, and chatting in Hindi.

The committee members hosting the event once belonged to a social caste formerly referred to as the “untouchables”—a fact Deepak refuses to discuss because of the stiff penalties that mentioning caste can bring someone in India (as many as seven years in jail). However, only a few decades ago, these organizers were street-level workers with little wealth outside generational, family-held property. Now, thanks to the hottest real estate market in the world, their formerly humble dwellings in desirable parts of Delhi are fetching tens of millions in sales and hundreds of thousands in rent. To pay for some of the area’s top wrestlers, committee members have to be wealthy. Dangals consistently pay out more than $10,000 in prizes to winning wrestlers of all ages, with the champion of the headlining bout typically earning more than $2,000.

Deepak ushers me past the growing circle of fans, and asks me to take off my shoes. He tugs on my wrist and brings me to an official in the middle of the wrestling area. The announcer takes my left hand, a customary gesture in India, and begins his Bruce Buffer-like introduction in Hindi.

I hear three words: “Tim! Chicago! Pahalwan!”

In an instant, a parade of challengers duck rope lines and sprint toward me with their hands extended. They’re kicking off their shoes and grappling with each other to increase their position and reach me first. I shake hands with the first wrestler to break into my personal space, a gesture I’d hoped would disperse the crowd, but actually means I’ve agreed to wrestle. Deepak would later tell me that the committee had offered 6,000 rupees ($120) to anyone who could beat the American. Apparently I looked like an easy mark.

Quarter, a successful international freestyle wrestler with a face that resembles the frying pan-to-the-nose look of all wrestlers, has won the race to shake my hand. He is 30 pounds lighter than me but immensely confident, a combination that leaves me concerned about what else I don’t know about the rules and techniques of kushti.

As the wrestlers disperse, the referee helps me out of the circle. The crowd suddenly begins pushing the rope line, hollering semi-English cordialities my direction: “American! Hey! You wrestle! Okay. Good luck.”

The armed guards, who moments before were content to sit and watch, now stand with guns placed firmly against their chests.

I’d be wrestling in 20 minutes.

*****

Two days earlier, I was in a wrestling pit with Jitu Pahalwan, the 17-year-old son of Deepak’s best friend, Rajinder. Jitu is proportioned like an action figure and is one of India’s most promising freestyle wrestlers. Like a Hindu Popeye, the dark-skinned bruiser has 18-inch biceps, eight pack abs, and concrete pillars for thighs. Adding to the young, agile, brutal aesthetic of his body, the high school junior also has a 10-inch scar across the right side of his face and jaw, the consequence of a childhood accident involving a bike and a piece of sheet metal.

image desc

Deepak, Rajinder, and I met Jitu at the Guru Badri akhara, deep in the vegetable market of Old Delhi. The akhara was hidden from street view by a row of stalls selling picked cabbages, mustard leaves, spices, and hemp sacks stiffened with cashews and almonds. Akharas house local youths—some who live in slums and others who were orphaned by their parents and have nowhere else to turn. Like the organizers of the dangal, some of the boys in the akhara would’ve once been considered “untouchable.”

“First you will wrestle Jitu, and then you will wrestle Akash,” said Deepak from the side of the wrestling pit. “You are good wrestler, so I give you the two best to compete with.”

I was a D-1 All-American wrestler in college, but as I’ve found with wrestling in China, Mongolia, and Vietnam, traditional styles have new and often quirky rules that prevent immediate success. Kushti is simple ground wrestling, but with no points. The only way to win is by placing your opponent’s back flat on the dirt. Wrestling is the skill, but Kushti is the “game,” and that means takedowns that once worked on a slick surfaced wrestling mat are slowed in the dirt. Super-ducks don’t play, and rolling across your own back to put your opponent in danger (Google: “Funky Ben Askren”) results in a loss.

Rules differ, but Kushti wrestling is about more than techniques—the heart of the sport lies in a wrestler’s observation of a chaste lifestyle and in the celebration and respect of the Hindu god Hanuman. No meat, alcohol, movies, or sex. Many wrestlers only eat a diet of almonds and milk, which in India is considered “pure veg,” while others like Jitu will supplement that diet with as many as a dozen eggs per day. Meat, sex, and booze are a trio of powerful temptations for a 16-year-old to ignore, but when asked about their draw, Jitu just flexes his cartoonish biceps and says, “No. Stay strong!”

image descBefore we wrestled, Jitu sanctified the wrestling pit—a 20-by-20-foot pile of brown dirt mounded two-feet high—by burning incense and tossing loose dirt over the smoke as he walks in circles. For wrestlers, once the dirt is sanctified, it becomes “mitti,” the Hindi word for mud. The wrestlers before him mixed in ghee, marigolds, and a scented oil to ensure the dirt maintains a pleasant fragrance. While you and I think of dirt as dirty, the Indian wrestler considers it a blessed surface.

Deepak found a langot for me to wear—a Speedo-like cotton cloth that wraps through the crotch like a diaper and ties off below the belly button. Having never wrapped and tightened one, I needed Deepak’s assistance, a humbling experience since it required being mostly naked in front of two-dozen Indian wrestlers I’d met only 10 minutes prior. The langot felt too small, too revealing, so Deepak also handed me a jonghai, a tough cotton overall in the shape of a Speedo that had been made popular in recent years by self-conscious Indian boys.

Jitu headed to the end of the pit and bowed to a statue of Lord Hanuman, the chosen Hindu deity of wrestlers enclosed behind a steel cage and adorned with candles, wreaths, and burning incense. Hanuman is an ape-faced human who was originally celebrated by wrestlers for his celibacy, but who is now charged with delivering them strength before their matches. One translation of the name “hanuman” is “broken jaw,” a coincidence that wasn’t lost on me as I prepared myself to wrestle Jitu.

As he entered the pit to wrestle, Jitu touched the sanctified dirt and then his chest in recognition of the gods and in respect to the akhara’s guru, or coach (Jitu belongs to the Shyam Lal Akhara, named after his grandfather). Deepak gave me some final pre-match coaching as I stepped into the cold, soft dirt of the pit. “You have to shake hands and apply your strengths,” he added, “maybe immediately,” and descended into a childish chuckle.

image descJitu pulled my head down with his right arm and dug in his left for a controlling underhook. I tried to pressure down, but Jitu used that pressure to help him snap my face down into the mitti. It was an aggressive start that ignited an exchange of takedowns and ill-intentioned cross-faces. Near the end of our first go, Jitu grabbed my jonghai to help him earn a fall and what would have been a victory if we’d been in real competition. Like any maneuver in combat sports, it takes feeling a new technique to understand the pressure, and I’d just felt part of what made Kushti a unique wrestling game.

After 15 minutes of non-stop wrestling, Deepak pulled me aside and asked for me to “rest for some time,” before he sent out Akash, a much meaner but less talented version of Jitu. Another 15 minutes of hi-crotches, spin behinds, and failed cradle attempts left my lungs burning. I was mouth breathing, but the tenderfoot duo of Jitu and Akash headed to the side and began a 30-minute calisthenics routine. I debated lying flat on my back in the mitti, but felt confident it was disrespectful and would have made me seem weak.

The akhara’s wrestlers took pity on my circumstance and brought me a post-match badam, a drink made of sweet milk, almonds, sugar, and cardamom. I sat cross-legged on the edge of the wrestling pit and captured a few generous sips and moments of peace as the akharas wrestlers continued with their curious stares. After a traditional and mandatory 10-minute cool down, the akhara’s houseboys brought a large bucket of hot water. I filled a plastic drinking cup and poured it lazily over my head and gently rubbed the dirt from my hair and arms. Deepak loathed my inefficiency and used his hands on my back, shoulders, and abs like a surgeon debriding a burn victim. It took 10 cups of water and a bar of soap, but I left the akhara that day feeling as clean as when I’d entered, though substantially more tired and equally humbled.

*****

With a quick bow of their heads the referees signal they’re ready. My opponent and I reach down, grab a few fingers full of mitti, and touch them to our hearts.

Announcements begin over the loudspeaker and the organizers grab my wrists and raise them to the sky. “Tim! Chicago! Pahalwan!”

Drums begin to beat rapidly. We both grab a handful of mitti and shake hands. With prompting from the emcee, the crowd begins an excited cheer. Some begin to chuckle.

image descThe match lasted six minutes and gave the crowd plenty to cheer. Quarter showed courage on his feet. He set up a nice hi-crotch and defended a threatening leg cradle with ease. Three minutes into the match, he managed to reach back from bottom and hook my elbow, hitting a “fat-man’s roll,” which put me to my back for the win. However, the whistle had already been blown and the action happened off the pit. The Indian fans made sure to note this to the referees, waving their fingers in the air side-to-side. In the end, I was too big for Quarter to take down, and too flexible to bait into another risky roll. Quarter stood too tall after a tie-up, and I hit an inside trip on the edge of the wrestling surface, lock in a wrist-and-half, and placed both his shoulders flat in the dirt. The Indian fans threw their arms in the air and began shouting. The drums began beating, and an announcer immediately pulled me to my feet and raised my arms.

Pinning a smaller wrestler and in the traditional setting might seem unsporting, but it would be more injurious and insulting to not compete with all my ability. Anytime I’ve competed in a similar setting outside the United States, fans from other countries have never booed me for winning or cheered me in a loss. Just like we welcome wrestlers from Japan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Japan into our NCAA tournament, so too do the Indians in their traditional wrestling tournaments.

Fans crossed the rope line and raised my arms. They were joined by dignitaries, politicians, and police, who laid wreaths of brown-tinted marigolds and dandelions around my neck. The flowers smelled sweet, but the more tender gestures came from the crowd. Although I was aware of being used by the local committee as a piece of propaganda, the enjoyment of the fans felt genuine.

“Now, you must walk around and shake hands with all the fans,” Deepak said. “They will want to pay you money and take a photo with you.”

image descMore than 50 fans gave me money. Some were Muslim, others Hindu. There were rich men with 1,000 rupee notes and the very poor men with 10 rupee notes. There wasn’t an option to decline the money. It was a gesture of thanks that I couldn’t refuse.

The news cameras were a bit shocking. They’d heard I’d shown up to wrestle in a small dangal hosted by what had traditionally been considered a lower class. Like good journalists, they wanted to know, “Why?”

My answers ended up being broadcast the entire night across four major news channels. It was embarrassing, but some Hindi friends I’d made in town made me watch. I asked them why there was such a strong response, as all I’d done was enter a wrestling match. “Most Americans come here to buy property, start call centers, or talk about yoga,” he said. “Indians aren’t used to people celebrating their tough side.”

*****

Pahalwans don’t accept cash for good deeds, so to pay back my new friends for their hospitality, I take Deepak, Rajinder, and Jitu to the Taj Mahal, the center of tourism hell. We pull up in our taxi and are greeted by abused camels, juvenile pickpockets, and 15,000 tourists working their way around the entrance in the hopes someone will take a photo of them tugging on the dome of the great Mosque.

As unpleasant as it is to be hassled, it’s equally encouraging to have Jitu by my side, protecting me from pickpockets and overly assertive salesmen. Already large enough to scare me—much less a 12-year-old pickpocket—Jitu is puffing out his chest and feinting violence against those who hassle us. Only seven days before, we shared our first unfamiliar handshake. But through wrestling, we now enjoyed a type of loyalty—a realization much more beautiful than any mosque.

We stroll through the grounds for a few hours and take photos, leaving around 5 p.m. The mobs of memorabilia salesmen hawking Indiana Jones whips and buggie rides greet us on our exit. With a hint of Delhi Belly creeping through my body, a 6 a.m. flight the next morning, and a four-hour ride home staring me down, I’m turning into a cranky infant. No, I don’t want a marble elephant, I think to myself with each persistent salesman. I just want to get back to the apartment, pack my shit, and go home.

Amidst my moaning internal dialogue, Deepak begins talking up a 10-year-old snow globe salesman who claims that just over the hill is a traditional akhara. Better still, he says, the wrestlers are preparing to practice.

image descWe follow the boy through a thicket and over a small hill. On the way, we catch a view of the Taj Mahal that makes the tourist trap suddenly feel like a Mayan temple peeking out of the forest. The sun is beginning its long descent, and the white marble tiles of the mosque are beginning to fleck orange. Only moments before, I’d been declining photos and now I was snapping away on my own camera to capture this new angle.

Snowglobe leads us on a trail past a few lounging bovine, before stepping into a small town with 10 earthen and clay structures. To our right is a large well, workout room, and a cage for Hanuman. Monkeys are running over our heads, watching us from the roof of the weight room as we make our way in for greetings.

As though they’d been expecting our arrival, gurus and wrestlers emerge from around corners and small rooms already dressed in red langots and jonghai. The periwinkle-colored akhara in the shadow of the Taj Mahal with traditional wrestlers milling about in preparation for the day’s practice makes for a stunning view. Deepak has been to the Taj three dozen times and yet never knew this akhara existed—now he’s standing by my side with an explorer’s grin, snapping photos of everyone and everything. We mill about for 10 minutes as Rajinder takes down the names and email addresses of the gurus, and I ask some of the younger wrestlers to pose for portraits and explain the history of the akhara.

Murli Baba, a Muslim who’d held influence over the area surrounding the great mosque, established the Guru Kalwa akhara in 1857 as part of a small village that supported the workings inside the great mosque. Today, just outside the walls of the akhara, there is still a tent community, set up by camel riders and their beasts of burden as a place to rest and eat between shifts pestering tourists. The entire atmosphere was reminiscent of an early 20th-century circus—if an elephant had waddled in and stood on a stool, nobody would have been alarmed.

We share cordialities, but soon exit. The sun is setting, and by the time we reach the top of the small hill, the dome of the Taj Mahal is pinkish in hue. As we stand on the hill and take in the sites, it becomes apparent that this is the most idealistic and quixotic wrestling scene I have ever see. I could make it to another dozen countries, compete in another hundred tournaments, but perhaps nothing could ever beat this—a centuries-old akhara preparing for a sunset practice in the shadow of the Taj Mahal.

“I have to wrestle,” I tell Deepak.

I turn and jog down the hill and jump over the wall of the city. Greeting me is a very large and intimidating Pahalwan named Anoop, repping pull-ups in the doorframe of the small, dark weight room.

“Humph. Humph. Hu-hu-humph!” I look to him, make eye contact with Snowglobe, and ask if this monster would like to wrestle. Like Quarter and Jitu, Anoop agrees without hesitation.

One of the boys fetches a red langot, and after a few poor attempts to tie it firmly across my lower belly, Rajinder readjusts the knot and pulls hard enough to pinch my skin. Another boy begins blessing the pit with incense, leaving the remainder to burn at the edge of the pit with the smoke blowing downwind, across the pit and toward the mosque.

Anoop and I line up in front of the wrestling pit—facing the Taj Mahal—and begin our pre-match warm-up. He spins his arms a few times and reps out some deep squats. I reach my hands over my head to stretch my lats then kick my leg across my chest to help crack and loosen my back. In front of me is the pinkish dome of the mosque through the trees. Then a camel meanders by in a huff. To my side, some boys giggle and pull out their cell phone cameras. Jitu keeps an eye on my clothes.

Anoop and I stroll to the edge of the pit, touch the dirt, and bring our hands to our hearts. Once we are in the center, I give it a last deep-knee bend and take a final look at the Taj.

I breath deep and Anoop grabs a palm full of mitti and looks me in the eyes. I grab some mitti, step forward, and like centuries of Pahalwans before us, we shake hands and begin to wrestle.

MMA In India

Combined with India’s rich history in the combat arts, the global phenomenon that is modern Mixed Martial Arts has made the country’s billion person population a prime target for the growth of the sport. While the UFC has plans to expand into India in the near future, one organization is already there. Founded in late 2011 by Sanjay Dutt and Raj Kundra, The Super Fight League can be seen on Indian ESPN Star Sports starting this month.

With a reality TV show, a growing fighter roster, and a recent partnership with the Women’s MMA organization Invicta FC, expect The Super Fight League to play a big part in introducing MMA to the country with the second largest population in the world.

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If you’re Luke Rockhold, and your new promotion has fighting’s pound-for-pound best at the top of the division, it boils down to this—the best way out is always through.

“I’m promising right now, if I beat Anderson Silva, I would fight Jon Jones,” says Luke Rockhold. It’s not the first thing he says, it’s the last. It doesn’t sound audacious or unreasonable, he’s just answering a question. It’s a good endnote, too, and he knows it.

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What is he really saying? His 6-foot-3 frame isn’t ducking anybody. Just give him these chances. He points this out in a variety of ways in a 90-minute conversation at a little fish shop in Newport Beach that serves the freshest fish that you’ll ever hope to eat, a man who envisions himself clobbering the whole pantheon of greats before it’s all said and done.

He doesn’t notice the three-top that keeps sneaking glances at him throughout our conversation—three gorgeous prototypical Southern California blonde women in yoga pants. They are passing fond at a man they have no idea is the last-and-forever Strikeforce Middleweight Champion. Adonis pays them no attention.

Adonis? Wait, hold up, hold up—who the hell is Luke Rockhold, and how did we get here?
Let’s start with who he isn’t. Rockhold isn’t quite average, even in his own vertical family. He is a mere 6-foot-3. He has one brother who is 6-foot-3 and a half, and another, Nate, who’s 6-foot-5. “They said I wasn’t a part of the family because I was so small,” Rockhold says. Meanwhile, his father, former pro basketball player Steve Rockhold, is 6-foot-8. He played against the likes of Dr. J back in the halcyon 1970s, in a summer league with the Golden State Warriors, and later in Europe. He was a “full-bodied 6-foot-8,” a thick-cut center, who played far bigger than he was.

Growing up in Santa Cruz, the Rockholds surfed. Luke’s brother Matt does it professionally. As for Luke? He can surf, brah, better than most. He’s got a fantastic beach-bum demeanor and a tan. This jibes well with the ladies. But his calling was for something other than the tubular life.

“I just never committed myself to surfing,” he says. “I was always wrestling, and I would surf in the offseason. Surfing on a professional level, you have to commit to it at a young age. My brother started really young. I skateboarded a little, but I didn’t really pick up surfing until 6th or 7th grade. Matt was maybe 8 years old when he started.”

Instead, what Rockhold did was trade dukes with unfriendly perps. “I grew up getting into a lot of fights, protecting our territory in high school and at parties,” he says. “Guys would come and crash our parties, and I had to slap ‘em up a little bit.” Not only did his older brothers make him fluent in the art of roughhousing, but Rockhold dabbled in karate very young, then judo (first grade) before wrestling (junior high and high school). He fell in and out of these worlds throughout childhood, but, as he says, “I wanted to do my thing—surf, travel, and chase girls—so I quit wrestling.”

In high school, he found the salvation of so many wayward souls—jiu-jitsu. He began training BJJ full-time after graduation. He took to it and got good at its geometry—so good that he began winning tournaments. He got good enough that he wondered if he could go pro. Then, an old desire came over him that went back to the grainy VHS days of Royce Gracie and Dan Severn, the protagonists in those early freak show UFCs. What if he made a go at becoming a professional prizefighter?

Suddenly, Rockhold’s waywardness had a new direction.

“It kind of became a reality when I realized how good I was at jiu-jitsu on a world-class level, training with these guys,” he says. “I won quite a few tournaments, and I was training with the best guys. I knew I could compete.”

Urged on by his friend Bobby Southworth, he landed at the doorstep of AKA—the famed American Kickboxing Academy, home of the trinity of brotherly welterweights (Fitch, Koscheck, and Swick).

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“I went in, and they were like, ‘Are you ready? Do you have a mouthpiece? Do you have gear?’ And I was like, ‘Nope,’” Rockhold says. “And they said, ‘Well, go get one.’ So I ran down to Play It Again Sports and got a mouthpiece for $2, went to the sushi joint across the street to get hot water and threw it in my mouth. They started latching pads on me and threw me in the ring with a couple of guys.”

Then, like so much in Rockhold’s life, things turned cinematically unreal.

“They threw me in there with Christian Wellisch first round,” says Rockhold. He was messing around, and I ended up head kicking him. He was trying to take me down, and I spun him around and took his back and choked him. He was right in the middle of his training camp for a big fight, and everyone was like, ‘Whoa.’ Then I got in there with Mike Swick and Bobby Southworth right after that. I was struggling, but I made it through the three rounds, and coach Javier Mendez asked me to join the team.”

From there, he marched—marched through Josh Neal in his Strikeforce debut, and then through names that were Greek to everyone (Nik Theotikos and Cory Devela) and those that were familiar like Jesse Taylor. Next was Paul Bradley, who took a nasty knee and had to relearn to breathe. Then, after a mammoth 18-month layoff due to a lingering shoulder injury, he marched through Ronalda “Jacare” Souza to win the belt. That was in Cincinnati, in Rockhold’s ninth professional bout. It was a razor-close, five-round decision, but Rockhold had arrived.

What he wasn’t anymore was a challenger. He was the Champion. And that night in September 2011 changed the MMA landscape.

“Suddenly you had Ebony and Ivory taking over the world,” the 28-year-old Rockhold says. “Now, me and Daniel Cormier are going to show you how it’s done.”

* * * *

Ivory is dumping three kinds of hot sauce into his Cajun ahi burrito at the Bear Flag Fish Company. He’s in Southern California to help Dan Henderson train for Lyoto Machida, and to “get a change of scenery.” He sits with his blue eyes fixed through the back of my skull. Since that night in September, when he busted into human consciousness along with his AKA teammate Cormier, he has destroyed stalwart Keith Jardine—“It really kind of pissed me off, the thought of Jardine trying to take my belt”—and batted challenger Tim Kennedy (after overcoming a blinding headache beforehand). He was supposed to fight hard-hitting Lorenz Larkin next, but the bout fell through because of Rockhold’s lingering shoulder injury. Of course, a short time later Strikeforce—inevitably, finally, mercifully—came to an end.

Now, he’s in the UFC, at long last.

What a strange odyssey to get here. The partition has come down between Rockhold and the best in the world, just as he’s coming into his own. It’s almost poetic. The feeling among lively Strikeforce fighters in 2012 was that they were trapped, and that didn’t feel like poetry to Rockhold.

“It wasn’t the greatest time to be with Strikeforce, constantly speculating on when it was going to end, and whether there would be a crossover fight,” he says. “They were running out of competition, and we were constantly talking about rematches. There just weren’t a lot of qualified guys. I couldn’t really get myself to that next level in the rankings. I want to be the best and to fight the best, and it was just frustrating. It sucked. I loved being with Strikeforce, but since the UFC bought it, everyone was wondering constantly when it was going to end. At this point, given the circumstances, I’m glad it’s over. I’m in a great position to fight the best in the world.”

That begins with the old lion himself, the ageless Vitor “The Phenom” Belfort, at UFC on FX 8 on May 18 in Brazil. When the Phenom’s name is mentioned, Rockhold gets an ornery little smile.

“I think my first fight in the UFC against someone like Vitor Belfort will introduce me to the UFC fans and will be my coming out party,” he says. “After that, as long as everything goes well—I perform well and get the win—this will be the perfect opportunity.”

If Rockhold had it his way, they’d lower him into the cauldron of an arena in Brazil, where Belfort is adored, and Belfort can be aided by testosterone and whatever else. “Doesn’t matter,” he says. Rockhold likes the notion of all the cards being stacked against him. He’s a typical lunatic. Or, is he? Maybe he just understands his hard wiring. He came through against Jacare when people doubted him (or didn’t even know who he was), and he says he learned a few things in the process.

“Experience always helps—just knowing you can do it,” he says. “Until the Jacare fight, I had nothing but first-round finishes, and then going five rounds was like, ‘What the hell?’ I felt pretty good, you always feel a little worn, but I knew I was really prepared with my cardio. I was getting through five-round wars in the gym with different training partners. That’s the benefit of AKA. We always spar so hard, and there are so many top guys. I can put in full rounds of fighting. I get butterflies in the training because we have so many good guys, and they’re all so dangerous. Anything can happen. That translates to the fights. It makes you more prepared for the fight. It shakes the rust off and prepares you for the real deal.”

The statement he could make against Belfort would be twofold. For one, UFC-centrics would find out who he is. And two, big things potentially dangle in the balance—things like Anderson Silva. Silva’s been in the media dropping Rockhold’s name as a challenge he’d welcome. Rockhold, like Rusty James in the movie Rumblefish, has three simple words for the longest tenured UFC Champion.
“I ain’t hiding.”

* * * *

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There’s a scenario that Rockhold has thought about, which is as fantastic as it is uncomplicatedly realistic. AKA, at some point in the near future, could be saturated with world champions. Cain Velasquez is already the UFC Heavyweight Champion. Daniel Cormier looks like a certain sort of wrecking ball if he moves down to 205 pounds to challenge Jon Jones. Rockhold? Well, he’s the Champion of a bygone promotion, but he has his sights set on Silva. Gray Maynard, the latest arrival in Santa Cruz, is a mean match-up for Benson Henderson. Should things shake out, 2013 could be the year of AKA.

“I think we could really make a statement,” he says. “Imagine, we’d have the 155-pound belt, the 185-pound fight, the heavyweight belt, Cormier drops down to 205 pounds…” It requires perfect set-ups that are purely imaginative at this point. But then again, it’s hardly out of the question.

But consider Rockhold, who is 10-1 as a professional mixed martial artist, and his relative lack of trepidation for the man standing opposite him on fight night. Surfer cool? Maybe. But it derives from eight weeks of nihilistic sparring and hell from his work with the big boys.

“I’m training with heavyweights,” he says. “I’m training with the baddest man on the planet in Cain Velasquez. I’ve been in there so many times with Cain and with Cormier, with King Mo [Muhammad Lawal]. Who at 185 pounds is going to compare to sparring with Cain? With Cormier? You’re not going to face anything like that. I fear no man.”
This extends to lanky, world-class strikers with 16-0 records in the UFC like Silva. Rockhold doesn’t look the part. His ears are free of vegetation. He doesn’t bulge and twitch with pectoral muscle. His skin doesn’t appear to be a form of burlap or thick leathery hide. He has only 11 fights into a career and doesn’t have a biography of scars on his face.

And yet, here he is, playing music to matchmakers’ ears.

“I’ve always wanted to fight Anderson,” he says. “He’s a great fighter. He’s amazing—he always finds a way to win. He doesn’t give up until the bitter end, and he’s always going to be attacking. That’s something to admire for sure. Now, something I don’t admire about him is he’s kind of trying to secure his legacy and avoiding certain fights. At this point, he’s kind of picking fights. I think when you’re the Champion, you fight the number one contender or who they put in your way. I’d like to see him fight Chris Weidman of course. As much as I want to be the one to take his belt, I think Weidman poses a good chance—Anderson’s equally there to beat him. It’s a good time for Anderson to fight him. It could taint his legacy to avoid Weidman at this point—no, wait, let me rethink that. I don’t think it would. He’s had too many title defenses. But certain people will remember it, and it’s always good to silence the naysayers.”

Yes, but does Rockhold prefer to dip his toe in the water with Belfort, and get past the famous (sometimes illusory) Octagon jitters first?

“My preference?” he says with a laugh. “I’d like to fight Anderson right now. Black House is just down the street, right? Let’s go. Right after my Bear Flag burrito.”

* * * *

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It’s a good time to be Luke Rockhold. He’s in the UFC, where there are more challenges than he’ll likely ever get through. He travels up and down the Californian coast in a surfer’s attitude of leisure. He has a meeting with a new sponsor sometime later on. What to do until then? Surf? Golf maybe? Sure.

“I love playing golf,” he says. “Always been a fan of golf. Totally different from fighting. Peaceful, cool, takes a lot of patience. I love the sport, and love the game. I’m pretty decent at it, too. Probably a 12 handicap right now? I’ve shot in the 70s a couple of times. It’s hard when you’re training. My goal is not to be the best golfer, it’s to be the best fighter—but it’s always nice to hit something that’s not going to hit you back.”

As for his Strikeforce belt—the coveted piece of memorabilia that so much blood was spilled over? It’s sitting in his little white Toyota truck in the parking lot.
“I don’t carry it around with me,” he says. “But, randomly I have it with me today. I never have it with me. This guy is doing a deal with my truck. He’s going to pimp out my truck, give me some new rims, and then we’re going to do a little photo shoot with it. That’s the only reason I have it with me, I promise.”

Sure, sure. If you believe that, you’ll never actually catch him driving around with both his belts, either, if he ends up winning the UFC title someday. Or, all three, if he decides to move up to light heavyweight at some point in the future. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Those are goals. Those types of things are a little farther up the PCH Highway. Those still belong to the golden afternoon, which right now feels like it’s all his.

“I could definitely see myself at 205 pounds someday, though,” he says. “Trying to fight up there. I think I’d match up well with Jon Jones. I think anything’s possible. My goal right now is to beat Anderson Silva and take his belt.” And if those elusive superfights fall under his power to accept?

“I’m promising right now, if I beat Anderson, I would fight Jon Jones.” That’s not the first thing Rockhold says, it’s the last. And you know what? For this surfer-like fighter with the bright future, it doesn’t feel like such a pipedream.

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One of the most successful MMA promotions closed its cage doors for the final time after Strikeforce: Marquardt vs. Saffiedine on January 12, 2013. Since its inception in front of a record-setting crowd on March 10, 2006, the San Jose-based promotion played a major role in defining MMA’s landscape by signing some of the biggest and best fighters in the world. After UFC parent company Zuffa bought Scott Coker’s show in 2011, one-by-one, the UFC began stripping the deep roster. Strikeforce staples Nick Diaz, Cung Le, and Alistair Overeem were lured away from the six-sided cage by the glitz and glamour of MMA’s top promotion. The cupboards are not completely bare, however. Here is the next—and final—influx of talent that’s invading the Octagon. Let the games begin.

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Gilbert Melendez

Age: 30
Record: 21-2
Best Wins: Josh Thomson (2x), Tatsuya Kawajiri (2x), Shinya Aoki, Clay Guida
Next Fight: Benson Henderson, UFC on Fox 7: 4/20/13

The Strikeforce Lightweight Champion deserves the benefit of fighting in the UFC more than any other fighter. The top-five lightweight has spent the bulk of his career playing second fiddle to UFC lightweights, with the general public admonishing his “Strikeforce” status as inferior. The Cesar Gracie protégé has watched teammates Jake Shields, Nick Diaz, and Nate Diaz flourish under the Zuffa regime, and he is eager to earn the only accolade missing from the group of Bay Area badasses—UFC gold. He’ll get his chance in April.

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Luke Rockhold

Age: 28
Record: 10-1
Best Wins: Tim Kennedy, Keith Jardine, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza
Next Fight: Vitor Belfort, UFC on FX 8: 5/18/12

The final Strikeforce Middleweight Champion really got his career rolling in 2011 after a stint of injuries delayed his potential. Another AKA product, Rockhold showed off his high-level kickboxing and takedown defense by winning the belt from world champion grappler Jacare Souza. The middleweight division in Strikeforce was arguably their deepest, with the 28-year-old ruling the roost. With the UFC desperate for challengers against reigning champion Anderson Silva, don’t be surprised if the California surfer boy is pushed to the front of the pack.

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Tarec Saffiedine

Age: 26
Record: 14-3
Best Wins: Nate Marquardt, Roger Bowling, Scott Smith
Next Fight: TBD

Every member on this list was a shoo-in for a UFC contract, except for Saffiedine. He scored his golden ticket by battering UFC veteran Nate Marquardt for the Strikeforce Welterweight Title. He would have likely been left off the UFC roster if not for the biggest win of his young career. The Team Quest staple is one of the rare Strikeforce imports to work his way through the Challengers Series all the way up to championship status. Other big name fighters received immediate title shots with their Strikeforce contracts. Saffiedine did it the hard way. His kickboxing-centric style of fighting will be a welcome addition to a wrestling-heavy division. Looking at you Georges St-Pierre.

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Josh Thomson

Age: 34
Record: 19-5-1
Best Wins: KJ Noons, Gesias “JZ” Cavalcante, Pat Healy, Gilbert Melendez
Next Fight: Nate Diaz, UFC on Fox 7: 4/20/13

The “other” lightweight staple of Strikeforce will re-enter the UFC after nearly nine years. Thomson was on the receiving end of a highlight-reel head kick courtesy of Yves Edwards in 2004 and is eager to remove that image from UFC fans’ brains. The American Kickboxing Academy veteran brings a wealth of experience to the UFC lightweight division and a well-rounded game bolstered by his kickboxing, D-I wrestling experience, and BJJ black belt. Still no word on whether that pink patch of hair on his head is making the move as well.

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Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza

Age: 33
Record: 17-3-1
Best Wins: Ed Herman, Robbie Lawler, Tim Kennedy, Matt Lindland
Next Fight: Costa Philippou, UFC on FX 8: 5/18/13

“Jacare” may be not only the best grappler in MMA, he may be the best grappler in the world. The two-time champion and four-time finalist of the prestigious ADCC World Championships recently added powerful striking to his arsenal of submissions and underrated takedowns. The former Strikeforce Champion possesses the prototypical wrestling/submission game that experts believe may be the best way to defeat the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world—Anderson Silva. Since they’ve spent time training together, we’ll either get the best stylistic world middleweight championship fight ever or another friends-fighting-friends episode.

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Tim Kennedy

Age: 33
Record: 15-4
Best Wins: Robbie Lawler, Melvin Manhoef, Trevor Prangley
Next Fight: TBD

Look out Brian Stann, there are TWO American war heroes in the UFC middleweight division now. The U.S. Army sniper helped fill out the star-studded weight class with his combination of wrestling, grappling, and fresh-out-of-boot-camp cardio. After two failed bids for Strikeforce gold, the Greg Jackson-trained fighter will get a chance to sharpen his tools inside the Octagon. The Staff Sergeant made a career of chasing big fights. In the UFC, big fights will likely chase him.

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Daniel Cormier

Age: 33
Record: 11-0
Best Wins: Josh Barnett, Antonio “Big Foot” Silva
Next Fight: Frank Mir, UFC on Fox 7: 4/20/13

No other fighter will have more eyeballs on him when making the move from Strikeforce. The wrestling Olympian is one of the few heavyweights spoken in the same breath as Alistair Overeem, Junior dos Santos, and teammate Cain Velasquez. After his date with former champion Frank Mir, the Oklahoma State Cowboy has his sights dead set on UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones. The man hasn’t even fought in the UFC yet and he already has two weight classes on notice.

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Josh Barnett

Age: 35
Record: 32-6
Best Wins: Hidehiko Yoshida, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mark Hunt, Randy Couture
Next Fight: TBD

Will the prodigal son return? After more than a decade away from the UFC, Dana White stated that the hatchet is all but buried and negotiations are underway to bring the former UFC Champion back into the fold. His submission savvy makes him a unique opponent for anyone at the weight class. The catch wrestler brings more experience than any other Strikeforce fighter and is a welcome addition to an ever-improving heavyweight division.

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Gegard Mousasi

Age: 27
Record: 33-3-2
Best Wins: Mark Hunt, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Hector Lombard
Next Fight: Alexander Gustafsson, UFC on Fuel TV 9: 4/6/13

The Iranian-born Armenian, fighting out of the Netherlands, has lost only once in his last 22 fights. Perhaps no other fighter in history racked up as many international wins by 27 years old as “The Dreamcatcher” has, having fought all over Europe, Japan, and North America. The motivation, not the talent, of this young fighter will be the variable in his UFC success, as the former Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion has flashed looks of disinterest during bouts.

Lorenz Larkin

Age: 26
Record: 13-0-1
Best Wins: Robbie Lawler, Gian Villante
Next Fight: Francis Carmont, UFC on FOX 7: 4/20/13

The Southern California product brings an exciting Muay Thai style of kickboxing to the cage and showed composure and creativity in his middleweight debut against veteran Robbie Lawler. Technically undefeated since his loss to King Mo was overturned due to a failed PED test, he would make a great match-up against other noted brawlers like Chris Leben or Tim Boetsch. First up for Larkin will be hard hitting Francis Carmont.

Honorable Mentions

Pat Healy
The journeyman-turned-contender is riding a six-fight win streak and nearly scored a title fight against Gilbert Melendez before everything in Strikeforce went to hell. He’ll face Jim Miller at UFC 159 on April 27.

Roger Gracie
Roger will become the fourth member of the Gracie clan to fight in the UFC, joining family members Royce, Renzo, and Rolles.

Nate Marquardt
A loss to Saffiedine slowed his momentum, but another UFC castaway has been promised a home back in the UFC by bossman Dana White—this time at welterweight.

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2012 was full of breakout fighters, crazy knockouts, debilitating submissions, shocking upsets, and one special fighter who earned our Fighter of the Year moniker. In case you need any help figuring out who the best were, Maverick, our panel of judges has figured it out for you. Here are MMA’s Top Guns of 2012. No help needed from the Iceman.

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FIGHTER OF THE YEAR – BENSON HENDERSON

Smooth Year

In one of the UFC’s deepest divisions, Benson Henderson emerged as not only the UFC Lightweight Champion, but perhaps as an “era champion” who’s in the early stages of greatness…and in 2012, he’s FIGHT! Magazine’s Fighter of the Year.

The year 2012 was an embattled one for the UFC, particularly for its champions. In most cases, injuries were the story. Jose Aldo fought only once, as did Georges St-Pierre. Junior dos Santos fought twice, and ceded his belt at the end to Cain Velasquez. Anderson Silva defended his title once and beat Stephan Bonnar in a patchwork bout, while Jon Jones—so prolific in 2011—made only a couple of appearances. Dominick Cruz and his ACL, curse the luck, didn’t fight at all.

In any case, title fights were at a premium in 2012.

Yet in the UFC’s divisional powerhouse, lightweight Benson Henderson won the belt from one of the game’s pound-for-pound best in Frankie Edgar, defended it in a rematch, and put an exclamation mark on 2012 against a reinvigorated Nate Diaz. The first two bouts were very close—the last was totally dominant.

It was three title fights—three showcases of athleticism, and 15 rounds of strength, agility, prowess, and inexhaustible cardio. Benson is a recipe for success: two tree stump thighs and furiously whipping legs; one cool, super-focused head with Medusa-esque locks and a toothpick casually lolling to the side of his mouth. That tells you everything you need to know about “Smooth”—here’s a man who can go hard for five rounds and barely break a sweat. He is one of the best-conditioned fighters in the game. And the best part? The Champ is coming into his own…right before our eyes.

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That’s why Henderson is FIGHT! Magazine’s 2012 Fighter of the Year, becoming only the fourth fighter in 64 issues to grace this cover twice (joining Dan Henderson, Jon Jones, and Urijah Faber). This was his breakout moment.

So, how does the man himself assess his big year?

“It was okay, you know,” Henderson says. “It wasn’t terrible. I don’t think it was the worst year ever—it was decent. I won a belt and all that stuff, which is cool. It’s nice. But I think the second Edgar fight, as close as it was, left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, and in my mouth.”

Greatness is rarely without some form of controversy—particularly in the fight game, which can deal in the gray area of human judgment. For Henderson, that Edgar rematch at UFC 150 was too close for comfort. It was narrow and right down to the wire, but Henderson was awarded the split decision.

“In the NBA, if somebody hits a game-winner with 0.7 seconds left the crowd goes crazy,” he says. “In the NFL, if somebody scores a touchdown with time running out—a 70-yard run—the crowd goes crazy. Soccer is the same way. In the UFC, and in MMA, it’s not good to have close decisions. What’s exciting for the NBA and NFL is not so exciting for the UFC.”

As Henderson heads into 2013, he has revised definitive goals he’d like to uphold. The first would be to avoid the judges’ scorecards altogether. His last seven bouts, going back to the infamous Anthony Pettis kick at WEC 53—which he says, “people remind me of every day”—have gone the distance. Given that streak, along with the asterisk from the Edgar fight still fresh on his mind, it’s something he’ll look to change.

“Yeah, one of my goals would be to end all my fights,” he says. “I definitely feel as if I’ll win. I will always be fully prepared, and I feel very confident about getting my hand raised against any opponent. But, as far as the manner of the win, I would like to have no decisions in 2013—I’d definitely like to finish all my opponents. But me saying that is not me changing up my fighting style. I’m not going to fight differently. It’s just me continuing to do everything I have done in the past and staying on my feet and staying after it. Not looking for the knockout, but if a knockout presents itself, being good enough to take the knockout, or to take any submission that they give me. But I don’t want any decisions in 2013. I’m coming to end everybody.”

It’s a scary thought, but the Bendo we’ve seen to this point is still very much a work in progress. At 29 years old, he’s only been training MMA for six years. He doesn’t sugarcoat things, particularly in the stand-up game, where he says, “I know I can get a lot better, and I will get a lot better.” For all his success, this still makes him a story of untold potential.

And yet, he has a northbound mentality that is only starting to register with his fan base (as well as his detractors). Henderson has openly stated that he is chasing Anderson Silva’s records—wherever Silva leaves off in the UFC record books for wins and title defenses is where Henderson projects himself to be at the end of the day. And not just be—he wants to one-up the greatest MMA practitioner of all time.

Ambitious? Sure. Particularly with guys like Anthony Pettis, Gilbert Melendez, Gray Maynard, and Donald Cerrone on the docket dead ahead. But Henderson is wired in ways that are mysterious. He’s a fine blend of humility (which comes from upbringing) and cockiness (which comes with the territory in fighting). That sort of duplicity confuses people.

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“For whatever reason, it rubs people the wrong way when you set a lofty, long-term goal [like breaking Anderson Silva’s records],” he says. “I don’t know their reason why, but there are a lot of people out there who get upset, like you’re talking smack personally to them by setting a lofty and pretty high goal. For me, yeah, my goal is definitely to put Anderson Silva at No. 2 in all the record books for consecutive wins in the UFC, most title defenses, all that stuff. He’s amazing. He’s the best fighter on the planet pound-for-pound right now period. He’s No. 1 in all the record books. I want to beat that. I want to be better than that.”
We’ll better gauge how lofty that goal is in 2013, when he grows accustomed to life as the target. But coming in, the single most admirable trait of Henderson is his ability to let his fighting do the talking. If 2012 was a tale of “what could have been” if not for injuries, it was also a story of “talk.” People talking their way into title fights, titleholders talking their way into fighting specific challengers.

Henderson is an action man. He wants to fight them all, in no particular order, and he therefore buttons his lip.

“I’m not going to prove to anybody that I’m the best fighter on the planet, or prove I’m the best 155-pounder in the UFC—I’m not going to prove any of that, to anybody, by talking,” he says. “But what I will do, I’ll do it inside the cage. I’ll make sure you guys watch. That’s the point I was trying to get across. The media loves those guys that keep talking—talk more, talk more. I’m not the best talker. I’m not very eloquent. I’m not very articulate. But, my job is not to talk a whole lot, and say I’m the best fighter. What I will do is show you what I’ve got inside the Octagon.”

Well said, Bendo. Well said.

KO OF THE YEAR – EDSON BARBOZA DEF TERRY ETIM VIA SPINNING WHEEL KICK – UFC 142: 1.14.12

If you’ve ever seen Edson Barboza fight, you know the man is a kicking fool. His leg-kick destruction of Mike Lullo at UFC 123 in 2010 was a case study in lower extremity obliteration. Seriously, how many times have you seen a TKO via leg kicks to an opponent’s thighs? If Jose Aldo’s leg-kicking beatdown of Urijah Faber’s thighs at WEC 28 in 2010 was a work of art, then consider Barboza on the verge of cutting off his left ear and moving to the south of France—he’s a master of the craft, which brings us to his main card bout with Terry Etim at UFC 142.

Heading into the third and final round, Barboza probably figured he was ahead on the scorecards in the back-and-forth affair. He had already landed a slew of impressive spinning back kicks and switch kicks to the body. However, leg-kick art is interpretive, and he didn’t want to take any chances with uncultured judges.

With four minutes remaining, Mike Goldberg went into infomercial mode and began slinging UFC Firsts, a series of DVDs that included the first head kick knockout, first submission, first fighter with 10 consecutive wins, etcetera. Probably sensing that Goldberg was putting viewers to sleep, Barboza decided to unleash a full-throttled outside leg kick. He bounced, recomposed his hips, and hop-stepped into a monstrous spinning wheel kick to Etim’s head. The Brit’s body seized from the knockout, and with a frozen face and arms rigid to his side, Etim was felled like an oak (albeit a 155-pound oak).

UFC commentator Joe Rogan immediately commented that Barboza’s whirling dervish was the first KO via spinning wheel kick in UFC history. Barboza didn’t just momentarily paralyze Etim, he progressed the sport of MMA forward another foot in the right direction. It was a position later validated by the kick’s inclusion in SportsCenter’s Top Plays and an ESPY nomination for Play of the Year.

If Barboza ever challenges you to a shin-kicking contest like one of those wankers who stuffs straw into his pant legs and locks into a pre-teen slow-dance hold, offer him all the money in your wallet and take off running.

Honorable Mentions

Jose Aldo DEF. Chad Mendes – UFC 142 : 1/14/12
Stephen Thompson DEF. Dan Stittgen – UFC 143 : 2/4/12
Anthony Pettis DEF. Joe Lauzon – UFC 144 : 2/26/12
Pat Curran DEF. Joe Warren – Bellator 60 : 3/9/12

SUBMISSION OF THE YEAR – CHARLES OLIVEIRA DEF. ERIC WISELY VIA CALF SLICER – UFC ON FOX 2: 1.28.12

Calf Slicer? It sounds like the newest sandwich on Subway’s five-dollar footlong menu. Enjoy a tasty Calf Slicer with hot au jus sauce for a limited time only. Delicious, right? Not so much.
When the calf slicer made its Octagon debut at UFC on Fox 2, announcer Joe Rogan, an unabashed lover of all things jiu-jitsu, was left without his normally descriptive color commentary as Charles Oliveira slipped from a knee bar into the rarest of rare submission. Most fans (including Rogan) were concentrating on the fact that Oliveira had Wisely’s back, not the spaghetti knot of arms and legs. However, the excruciating look of pain on Wisely’s face, and the fact that he tapped seconds later, made it clear that Oliveira was doing something Draconian.

Calf slicers aren’t allowed in many BJJ competitions, and the only time they’re used in practice rooms is to enforce street justice against another jiu-jitsu student who might be misbehaving. That Oliveira had intended to place his leg between Wisely’s thigh and calf and secure the compression lock seemed preposterous, until the video was replayed and you could see him deliberately putting everything into position.

Oliveira earned a $60,000 Submission of the Night bonus courtesy of Dana White, but the real bonus was for MMA fans, who got a glimpse of a rare submission, proving that there are still plenty of surprises left to be sprung in the cage.

Honorable Mentions

Ronda Rousey submits Meisha Tate via Armbar – Strikeforce: 3/3/12
Nate Diaz submits Jim Miller via Guillotine Choke – UFC on Fox 3: 5/5/12
Chan-Sung Jung submits Dustin Poirier via D’arce Choke – UFC on Fuel TV 3: 5/15/12
Marcin Held submits Rich Clementi via Toe Hold – Bellator 81: 11/16/12

FIGHT OF THE YEAR – CHAN SUNG JUNG vs. DUSTIN POIRIER – UFC ON FUEL TV 3: 5.15.12

When Chan-Sung Jung and Dustin Poirier met inside the Octagon in May 2012 for their scheduled five-rounder, many pundits suspected the matchup between the two brawlers would produce a Fight of the Night performance. Not only did the scrap earn that designation, but now you can replace “Night” with “Year.”

Chang-Sun Jung doesn’t look like a zombie, but with a forward-marching style that seems to absorb any punishment, the South Korean sure as hell reminds fans of their favorite bad guys from shows like The Walking Dead. Zombies, who lack a beating heart or cognitive brain function, don’t have a choice in the matter—they’re simple flesh-consumers. Jung has both brain and heart, which means every time he eats a jab or takes a foot to the face he acknowledges the strike, but instead of heel-toeing in retreat, he plods toward the pain.

Dustin Poirier is no zombie killer, but the Louisiana native and Fightland documentary star is filled with Bayou courage and showmanship. When the two met in the Octagon at UFC on FX 3 in Fairfax, Virginia, the pace of the Korean Zombie and the unstoppable desire of Poirier clashed for the year’s most entertaining fight.

The Korean Zombie dominated much of the first two rounds, putting Poirier on his back several times. Poirier’s Cajun veracity kicked in at times, leading him to earn sweeps and takedowns, but as the second frame closed, Jung was rotating between an elbow-twisting armbar and a vise-grip-tight triangle. It wasn’t until the third round that Poirier stood his ground, kept his feet, and peppered the Korean Zombie from a distance. Injured and exhausted, Jung slogged toward Poirier, eating three jabs in the hopes of landing a single uppercut. As the round ended, Jung’s face seemed to morph into an extra on Zombieland.

The fight ended in the fourth when Jung was able to land an uppercut that forced Poirier to reach for a single-leg takedown, but Jung left him crawling on the canvas. With the brain of a human and the soullessness of his nickname, Jung locked in a d’arce choke and sent Louisiana’s finest home with his first UFC loss—and a lesson in how not to kill a Zombie.

Honorable Mentions

Demetrious Johnson DEF. Ian McCall 1 – UFC on FX 2: 3.3.12
Martin Kampmann DEF. Thiago Alves – UFC on FX 2: 3.3.12
Joe Lauzon DEF. Jamie Varner – UFC on Fox 4: 8.4.12
Jon Fitch DEF. Erick Silva – UFC 153: 10.23.12

UPSET OF THE YEAR – JAMIE VARNER DEF. EDSON BARBOZA VIA TKO – UFC 146: 5.26.12

MMA cannon fodder: a fighter regarded as expendable in the face of enemy fire.

That was Jamie Varner’s expected role at UFC 146 against Edson Barboza. Varner, who was serving as a late-notice replacement for an injured Evan Dunham, spent 2011 fighting for regional promotions XFC, XFO, and Titan FC after being released from the WEC in 2010. On the other hand, Barboza was on the hype train, enjoying a perfect 10-0 record on the heels of his KO of the Year destruction of Terry Etim via spinning wheel kick.

Sportsbooks listed Varner as a +460 underdog, while Barboza came in as the -540 favorite. That’s an odds spread of 1,000. If those metrics are confusing, just keep in mind that Varner was expected to lose…and lose in dramatic, painful fashion. The only problem was that Jamie Varner wasn’t listening.

Barboza opened the action with three leg kicks and a head kick before Varner caught a leg and scored a takedown. But that didn’t last, and the Brazilian got back to his feet to continue his kicking assault. The Las Vegas crowd, which had a heavy Brazilian contingency that came to watch the main event of Junior dos Santos vs. Frank Mir, began chanting “BAR-BO-ZA, BAR-BO-ZA…”

Varner must not have liked what he heard. He went into swarm mode, closing the distance with two straight rights and a thudding body-head combo before staggering Barboza with a right hook and a barrage of shots against the cage. Barboza braved the onslaught valiantly, but Varner landed another huge right hand that felled the Brazilian before hammer fisting his way to a TKO at 3:23 of the first round.

“I just wanted to come out here and put on a good performance,” said Varner in his post-fight interview to Joe Rogan. “I didn’t care if I won or lost. I wanted to come out here and fight for the fans.”

Varner put on a great fight for the fans, especially the ones who bet on him.

Other Upsets of the Year

Jamie Varner (+450) defeats Edson Barboza (-540)
Eddie Yagin (+423) defeats Mark Hominick (-480)
Steven Siler (+410) defeats Cole Miller (-460)
Cung Le (+400) defeats Rich Franklin (-450)

BREAKOUT FIGHTER OF THE YEAR – RONDA ROUSEY

In the complex and competitive world of mixed martial arts, no athlete has been able to traverse to the top echelon of the sport as swiftly and efficiently as Ronda Rousey. In just one short year, Rousey has enthralled us with her slick and devastating armbar submissions, her dynamic art of trash-talking, and the ability to become the new face of women’s MMA.

With just four professional fights totaling 138 seconds of cage time in 2011, Rousey poised herself for a big 2012 with a step up in competition. When Rousey challenged Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Champion Miesha Tate for the title on March 3, 2012, she gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “You fight like a girl.” In the end, which happened at 4:27 of the first round, it was Rousey who took the title (and almost Tate’s arm) with another unforgettable armbar submission.

Five months later in her first title defense, Rousey called on her superb armbar skills once again to take out former Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Champion Sarah Kaufmann in 54 seconds. After the win, Rousey wasted no time in calling out former Strikeforce Women’s Featherweight Champion Cris Cyborg, brashly calling her “Cyroid,” in reference to Cyborg’s recent failed drug test.

In 2012, Rousey became a media sensation by posing artistically nude in ESPN The Magazine: The Body Issue, letting her brash opinions fly on social media, and championing the cause for legalizing MMA in New York. In short, she has truly become the new face of women’s MMA, making fans out of unlikely viewers—even Dana White, who once said there just wasn’t enough talent to host a women’s division in the UFC.

Rounding out her stellar breakthrough year, Rousey did something few thought would happen for at least decade…if ever. She became the first woman to sign with the UFC, and thus, its first UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion. In her UFC debut on February 23, she will become the first woman to headline a UFC pay-per-view event alongside opponent Liz Carmouche.

Breakout, breakthrough, break your arm… Rousey did it
all in 2012.

Honorable Mentions

Pat Curran
Alexander Gustafsson
Cub Swanson
Glover Teixeira

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