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I wrote a column when the year started titled “Nine reasons to be excited about MMA in 2009.” One of the things I was excited about was the return of tournament formats. I’m happy to say I was right but I don’t need to say it to make you believe me – I could just post Bellator Fighting Championship clips, namely, Toby Imada’s “backpack of doom” as my Sherdog.com colleague Jake Rossen describes it over Jorge Masvidal in the lightweight tournament semi-finals and Yahir Reyes‘ spinning back fist knockout on Estevan Payan.

Imada’s win is the best kind – an upset and a major addition to the highlight reel. A veteran of over a decade, he’s always come up short against would-be top talents. He entered the tournament as an after thought to an expected Eddie Alvarez-Masvidal final. Instead, he’ll meet Alvarez, Sherdog.com’s no. 3 lightweight in the world.

Reyes, too, is enjoying newfound notoriety as is his finals opponent Joe Soto, who defeated Wilson Reis in an upset. In fact, the only tournament favorites left are Alvarez, Lyman Good, and Hector Lombard. That’s the beauty of the tournament: it makes stars.

Bellator’s format of crowning champions through the tournament then crowning the number one contender through the same rigorous schedule the champion had to go through is a non-stop great story line. A tournament is an emotional roller coaster for fans as much as it is for fighters. It’s why the UFC’s first stars and Pride fighters are remembered fondly.

The week-to-week format is hard to keep up with and can be difficult when building fights, but it provides consistency and is doing well on ESPN Deportes for a reason. If it moves to ESPN2 with an English broadcast as rumors have suggested, expect a boom.

Bellator is developing their identity by sticking to their own set of core values rather than reacting to the UFC. They made a great move as an organization by refusing to give in to Quebec’s combat sports governing body, who had a problem with their circular cage. Matchmaker Matt Stansell refused to budge. Rightfully so, the type of fight area defines an MMA organization–Octagon for UFC, white ring for Pride. Identity is major problem for fledgling MMA promotions, so Stansell and company did right by refusing to sacrifice their visual recognition with fans.

With Japanese MMA organizations picking next round match-ups on the fly, Bellator’s bracket style is welcome. Sengoku is in the midst of an excellent featherweight tournament that is sport fighting at its best. Dream’s “Super Hulk” tournament seems poised to ruin tournaments for everyone everywhere, but as I said before, call me crazy, I think its an excuse to draw in viewers, who will eventually see top-10 fighters Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou and Gegard Mousasi in the finals on the way to becoming Japanese mega-stars. Even if it turns into a sideshow like many expect, there will still be Bellator–and that’s saying something considering how fast so-called major promotions come and go.

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“Each of the Five Points is a finger,” said Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in the film Gangs of New York. “When I close my hand it becomes a fist. And, if I wish, I can turn it against you.”

Twenty-two of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s mixed martial artists will enter the MEN Arena in Manchester, England on Nov. 14 for UFC 105 Couture vs. Vera, make fists, and turn them against each other. Here are five points to watch for on Saturday night.

“The Natural” Shift?

Brandon Vera squandered his breakthrough opportunity when his management iced him for a year when he was considered the number one contender for the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight strap in 2006. In Couture, he gets a UFC Hall of Famer who has been competitive at the elite level despite back-to-back losses and the one-year layoff that preceded it. A win catapults Vera back into title talks, while Couture remains in the Octagon intent on “solving the equation,” as he puts it.

Both last competed at UFC 102 on Aug. 29 – Couture dropped a unanimous decision to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Vera took a plodding decision over Krzysztof Soszynski. Nogueira sent Couture to the mat multiple times with his strikes, but “Captain America” stayed tough. Meanwhile, Vera served up few meaningful strikes against “The Polish Experiment,” spending most of the bout clinch fighting.

Against Couture, “The Truth” will have to take advantage of his youth, speed, and striking against the grizzled ring general Couture, who will control a fight with his clinch if given the opportunity.

Soszynski found moderate success with clinching and dirty boxing against Vera, and nobody does that better than Couture. Vera must stay off his back and punish Couture when range changes to win. Otherwise, Couture will grind him into the mat. Win or lose, its up to Vera to thrill fans to up his stock since he has not had an emphatic finish in three years.

Welterweight Finish Line

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Mike Swick believes Dan Hardy has plenty of potential but is not yet at his level. “The Outlaw” is one of the UFC’s top 170-pound prospects and has made his name as a skilled counter-striker. Stepping up against Swick, a “Quick” fighter originally slated to face Martin Kampmann in a title eliminator at UFC 103, Hardy has his chance to cut in line to face Georges St. Pierre.

The Brit will have the support of his home country against Swick. He’ll need all the infectious energy he can get in a bout that promises to be a stand-up war. Hardy must employ kicks as his main offensive arsenal to cut through Swick’s speed. His typical counterpunching style doesn’t suit him well against the American Kickboxing Academy representative’s combinations. Whoever gets off first takes the bout after an initial feeling out period.

Bisping Bounces Back?

Michael Bisping’s rude awakening at the hands of Dan Henderson this July has sent him back to familiar territory, where he meets Pride veteran Denis Kang center cage in Manchester.

Kang’s up-down career has followed him into the UFC. Technical advantages are often thrown by the wayside when the American Top Team fighter is put under pressure or tires. Bispsing’s specialty is a steady stream of attack, so Kang finally makes the break through of mental resilience or Bisping has another Union Jack performance.

UK TUF Winners Fly Their Flag

“The Ultimate Fighter” season nine winners lightweight Ross Pearson and welterweight James Wilks meet Aaron Riley and Matt Brown respectively. Both Brits are seemingly being matched with their American counterparts. Perason stands in against a rough-and-tumble fighter from the sound of the bell and Wilks takes on a veteran finding his in-ring identity later in his career.

For Pearson, a clinch game is key to avoid a slugfest with one of the division’s specialists en route to a successful post-reality show debut. Wilks must challenge Brown on the mat with a tenacious, technical game to force the game fighter into a muscle memory black hole. Riley and Brown have the same objective: strike with the refined aggression that’s revived their careers.

Young Lightweights To Steal Show?

The rangy Terry Etim has developed a fan base with his aggressive stand-up and sleek submissions in preliminary bouts on UK cards. The Brit welcomes top American lightweight prospect Shannon Gugerty into Manchester with a stern style clash. While Etim has a nice selection of submissions in his repetoir, Gugerty’s a new generation grappler under Dean Lister that doesn’t allow a second to think and even less time to flinch.

Gugerty doesn’t have the option to stay standing. Etim does. Victory in the wrestling department means victory in the fight as the young lightweights thrill.

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In this FIGHT! exclusive, UFC welterweight Chris Lytle talks about the differences between his career before and after TUF 4. Lytle faces Kevin Burns on June 20 at the Ultimate Fighter: US vs. UK Finale.

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Shorts over tights - a fashion faux pas in any rulebook.
(Shorts over tights - a fashion faux pas in any rulebook.)

Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White has said several times that in ten years, mixed martial arts will rank with soccer (or football, depending on where you’re reading this) as one of the world’s most popular sports worldwide. I happen to agree…in principle.

White’s reasoning is sound: while some rules take some explaining, the basic principles of MMA transcend language and culture; all sports are proxies for the most basic form of competition, fighting; nearly every culture boasts an indigenous fighting art; like soccer, there are few barriers to entry for someone wanting to take up MMA. There is but one stumbling block in MMA’s path and that is the lack of consistency worldwide.

Put a whistle around your neck and drop a white-and-black-checkered ball in the middle of a pack of kids anywhere in the world and it’s likely that a soccer game will break out. It’s also likely that all the players will understand the basic rules of the game, from ball handling to scores to fouls. It’s true of all of the world’s popular sports.

No matter where you play, the rules of basketball, hockey, cricket, and rugby are consistent. Of course there are idiosyncrasies like international basketball’s polygonal lane, but that will be changed to a National Basketball Association-style rectangle in 2012. The international ice hockey rink is 13 feet wider than the National Hockey League’s sheet but the game itself is the same.

MMA? Not so much. Fighting in the UFC? No shoes, no shirt, no service. Fighting in Saitama, Japan? You can wear wrestling shoes and/or a gi if you’d like. Hell, you can wear snazzy spandex pants or a luchador’s mask if the mood strikes you. Of course, in both places it’s illegal to grab the fence…oh wait, most Japanese fights take place in a five-rope ring, not a cage. The most famous difference between American and Japanese MMA, though, is kicks and stomps to a downed opponent. Or at least it used to be. Once a favored technique of the Chute Boxe stable during PRIDE FC’s run, an accidental soccer kick from Jason “Mayhem” Miller recently soured Miller’s DREAM middleweight championship bout with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, which was ruled a no contest.

The adoption of globally unified rules would seem like less of a pipe dream if American states and promoters could get on the same page. The UFC hems closely to the Mixed Martial Arts Unified Rules of Conduct, a regulatory manual developed by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board in 2000, but each state is free to adopt whatever rules or make whatever allowances it wishes to. And promoters are free to add prohibitions to the Unified Rules if they see fit, like when the International Fight League prohibited elbow strikes on the ground. Long-running Indiana promotion Hook ‘n’ Shoot prohibits elbows as well, the reasoning being that elbows create a lot of blood but don’t end fights, creating a needlessly gory spectacle. Some commissions/promotions will allow guys to wear wrestling shoes as long as they don’t throw kicks. And Affliction, like the IFL before it, stages its fights in a large five-rope ring.

It’s going to be hard to develop a broad global base for the sport when the casual fan doesn’t know what rules matches are being held under and frankly, without a credible international governing body like FIFA in place to address these issues, it’s unlikely they will be resolved.

MMA can be one of the most popular sports in the world. It should be. It will be. Just as soon as we get one set of rules and regulations enforced consistently around the globe.

Do you think that there should be a universally accepted rulebook for MMA or do you like the differences between promotions?

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He’s no Genki Sudo but Akihiro Gono knows how to leave a lasting impression. The welterweight sensation has the ability to dazzle the crowd with a slick submission or a devastating knockout, but if for some reason he can’t finish a fight, at least his over-the-top entrances will be implanted in people’s memories.

Gono will face Dan Hornbuckle at Sengoku Ninth Battle on Aug. 2.


The Stereotypical Akihiro Gono Entrance

The adrenaline starts pumping in the arena as “Bounce With Me” by DJ Ozma hits the speakers. Everyone anticipates the arrival of Akihiro Gono. But Gono ‘the fighter’ doesn’t step out from behind the curtain. Instead it’s him as his alter ego DJ Gozma, and he is clad in a blonde wig and a white suit good enough to earn him an invite to one of Diddy’s parties in the Hamptons. With his crew behind him in matching black tracksuits, Gono, errr, Gozma looks as if he is about to rip someone’s head off. Once he and his crew walk halfway down the ramp, something unexpectedly happens – they lip synch and dance far more extravagantly than Ashlee Simpson did on SNL.

Pride Bushido 12 (vs. Gegard Mousasi)

This seems like the regular Gono entrance, but there are two differences with this one. Gono’s wig is red and his entourage are decked out in white full body suits. What ensues after is the futuristic version of West Side Story: Gono pushes these guys off the ramp before performing a synchronized dance sequence. Then when he hits the ring, he fulfills every Japanese girl and Perez Hilton’s fantasy: he strips down to his zebra striped tights.

UFC 89 (vs. Dan Hardy)

Gono traded in the suit jacket and blonde wig for a Sprawl t-shirt and a brown hairpiece during this event. He seemed a little angrier this time around – either due to the change in uniform or because he had wanted to dance sooner. But once he got to dancing, he was a happy man and his enthusiasm caused one of the pre-fight walk security members to get in on the action. Gono was so happy that after he striped down to his zebra-striped shorts, he put on a pair of Sprawl shorts (whether Dana White or Sprawl made him is a different story). The downside to this? The kick to the nuts from Dan Hardy and the body check from Dan Miragliotta that almost knocked out Gono.

UFC 94 Weigh In

Grand entrances aren’t the only thing Gono weaves his creativity into. The night before UFC 94, Gono stepped onto the scales wearing a monstrous black fro. It didn’t necessarily strike fear in the heart of Jon Fitch however. It only made Fitch want to wear it during the pre-fight stare down.

UFC 94 (vs. Jon Fitch)

Everyone thought Gono was going to strut his way to the Octagon wearing a monstrous black fro. After all, he wore it during the weigh-ins. Instead the Japanese welterweight fooled us all by putting himself and his dancers in dresses that are usually reserved for the prostitutes soliciting handjobs in New York’s Meat District. Though Gono lost the fight, the only thing the MMA Community will remember is this sensational drag show. The video is shoddy, but the memory remains – for better or for worse.

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(Props to TBO.com.)
(Props to TBO.com.)

You already recognize some of names and faces from the upcoming season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” but there’s a lot you probably still don’t know about this group of 16 heavyweight warriors. Each weekday between now and the Sept. 16 premiere of “The Ultimate Fighter Heavyweights,” FIGHT! will introduce two cast members leading up to the introduction of our TUF bloggers.

Marcus Jones
Age: 35
Height: 6’6”
Weight: 260 lbs
Hometown: Jacksonville, NC
Trains: Tampa, FL with Gracie Tampa
MMA Record: 4-1

A product of North Carolina, Marcus Jones enters The Ultimate Fighter house with an impressive athletic pedigree. A three-sport star at Southwest Onslow High School, Jones earned several accolades including Gatorade All-American for football, All-Conference for basketball and was a two-time state champ in discus.

Jones elected to stay in state and enrolled at the University of North Carolina where he became a standout defensive end for the Tar Heels. An elite pass rusher, Jones was a four-time letterman, an All-American and the 1995 ACC Defensive Player of the Year during his UNC career.

In 1996, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose Jones with the 22nd pick in the NFL draft. During his eight seasons he totaled 24 career sacks, including 13 during the 2000 season, placing him eighth in the league. After six seasons with the Bucs, Jones moved over to the Buffalo Bills where injuries forced him out of the league.

A life-long fan of mixed martial arts, Jones turned to the sport following retirement and began training with the renowned team Gracie Tampa and “The Ultimate Fighter” alums Brandon Sene, Shame Primm and Matt Arroyo. A natural athlete with powerful hands, the 35-year-old Jones is looking to improve his overall game while in the house. Check out this Cage Potato Q&A to learn more about how exactly Jones got into MMA.

Learn more about the cast of “The Ultimate Fighter Heavyweights.”

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tapout
(Dan “Punkass” Caldwell, Charles “Mask” Lewis, Tim “Skyscrape” Katz)

It’s hard to imagine but some of the TapouT Crew’s shenanigans are too silly for television. On the road taping their show for Versus, Tim “Skyscrape” Katz, Dan “Punkass” Caldwell, and the late Charles “Mask” Lewis, stopped at WEC bantamweight Jeff Curran’s Illinois gym.

Choosing from “three shopping carts full of fireworks,” Katz and Caldwell stuck bottle rockets as thick a “a roll of quarters” in their sleeves when entering Team Curran’s facility. Lewis asked Nate Mohr to hit the heavy bag louder to cover up noise as he distracted Curran and crew.

“All of a sudden–it was one of those fireworks, one of those bottle rockets, that when they go off they go bwoooooo throughout the room,” said Katz. “And when they blow up, its flying colors, like those Disneyland Fireworks. I knew it was coming, so I just kinda put my shoulders up and ducked my head.”

“I see it shoot past me and all of a sudden it explodes. And there’s bright colors all over the gym. I look up and Bart Palaszewski is jumping up and down on one foot, holding his other foot. It hit him in the toe,” he said,

The IFL and WEC veteran was wearing sandals and fell to the mat as the gym filled with smoke.

“He had a fight coming up in like a week and I thought, ‘Oh god, we just took him out of this fight. So the first thing I started thinking was start laughing, keep laughing so no one gets mad.”

Palaszewski was unharmed, and the TapouT Crew laughed it off – just another day at the office.

Go here to read the first installment of Skyscrape: Memory Lane.

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xkl_logo

The Ontario-based Xtreme Kombat League has brought on Al Low as Director of Governmental Affairs and Fight Promotions. Low has served as Chairman of Michigan’s Boxing Commission and Unarmed Combat Commission for the last eight years.

“I’m truly impressed with the level of commitment that this exciting new league is showing to both developing the sport and the long-term careers of the athletes, and am delighted to be part of what I believe will prove to be the future of MMA, not only in North America, but right around the world,” Low was quoted in a press release.

Low is known in the boxing community for his three decades of promoting experience and as the one-time manager of former WBC Continental Americas heavyweight champion Leon Spinks.

Go here to learn more about the XKL.

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What happens when Japanese journalists ask questions in English to a Lithuanian man who speaks it as a second language? Not much, as you’ll see above. Marius Zaromskis will fight in DREAM.10’s welterweight grand prix seminfinal. The card will be broadcast live on HDNet at midnight, July 19 PST and 3 a.m. ET, July 20. The show will be replayed at 10 p.m. ET on Fri., July 24. To get a better sense of the fighter, watch the videos below for Zaromskis’ cosplay at DREAM.8 and the London Shootfighter’s highlight reel, which includes some gnarly spinning axe kicks and flying knees.

Zaromskis as Akuma.

The insanity starts at the 2:00 mark.

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It’s ironic that I’m writing this commentary on the impact, or lack thereof, Bellator Fighting Championship has had on the MMA scene. I wrote a feature on the company for the April issue of Fight! Magazine, which focused on their infrastructure and ideology. I spoke at great length with CEO Bjorn Rebney and matchmaker Matt Stansell. I even chopped it up with Jon Anik for a few minutes last week and was slated to speak with Jason Chambers from “Human Weapon” (and that sure as hell isn’t like my human weapon – giggity).

In any event, the whole staff at Bellator are some of the nicest and most professional folks in the business. They’re a class act. They really are. So does Bear care about Bellator Fighting Championship? Definitely. Just not enough to order ESPN Deportes (The Ocho?) to watch it.

I don’t get it on my DirecTV and I’m not going to shell out however much extra it is a month to get it. Since I, and most folks, probably, go out almost every Saturday night I would be missing it anyways. And if I am watching MMA on Saturday night, it’s usually a live UFC or Strikeforce event.

Even if I were at home or at a bar, look what season Bellator airs during – the NBA and NHL playoffs. If I’m at a bar, what am I more inclined to watch? A championship sporting event that is happening right now, or a show that is pre-taped 36 hours in advance (and re-aired on the Internet for free on Wednesdays)?

As an MMA journalist with a social life, the bottom line is Bellator doesn’t have anything spectacular enough to keep me from going out and sitting at home on Saturday Night. Sure there are some exciting fights, but I know Eddie Alvarez is going to stomp his way to the lightweight tournament championship. Yeah, Hector Lombard is a beast. Wilson Reis and Joe Soto had a solid throw down. And yeah, that Jorge Masvidal submission loss was surprising, and wicked cool to see. Then again, I saw that clip on YouTube the next day.

Fortunately, the Internet has kept folks like myself in the loop. I’ve seen a few broadcasts of Bellator FC on Wednesday nights and it’s cool. The show has good production and some dope fights. It’s like a jazzier looking version of the ShoMMA series. But once again, Bellator airs tape delayed on an ESPN channel you probably don’t have on a night you probably won’t be home to watch it.

I know whoever wins the tournament will get $150,000 and the distinction of being called champion. But we all know these champions in four different weight classes (featherweight, lightweight, welterweight and middleweight) won’t be the best fighters in the world. That title belong to Michael Thomas Brown, BJ Penn, GSP and Anderson Silva.

Nonetheless, Bellator (when it is on) produces some quality action and it’s still better than watching Kalib Starnes moping moon walking around in the cage.

The good news is that there are plans for a second season, but when that happens is unknown. There are also rumblings that ESPN 2 might carry the show on its next go-around, but that remains to be seen.

Although Bellator is still a young project, it has the potential to be massive. If they had a Thursday or Friday night type gig going on with ESPN 2 and it happened during the summer on a weekly basis, it could be gigantic. The fight organization already has that destination programming thing pimpin’. If they could just graduate to a more visible ESPN network and change to a night when people aren’t going out to party, they’d definitely pull in more viewers and their company could grow.

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