Triskaphobia – Why Is The UFC Afraid Of Trilogies?

I want to see Joseph Benavidez get another crack at Mighty Mouse.  That’s not a match-up that’s high in demand, but I have my reasons.  There first fight was extremely close.  The second fight ended in the most unexpected manner possible (short of Demetrious Johnson flying off the cage like Vega and decapitating Benavidez…you know what I’m saying).  A one shot kill courtesy of the champ.  Here’s how unlikely that finish was:

  • In 22 career fights spanning 7 ½ years, Benavidez had never been finished much less knocked out.  His 3 career losses had come by decision, two of which were splits in championship fights.
  • Prior to the second Benavidez fight, Johnson’s last knockout occurred on February 10, 2010 when he was still competing at the regional level.  In 11 WEC/UFC appearances, he had never recorded a single knockout.

The narrative of the rematch was clear cut: Johnson should use his uncanny speed and mobility to outpoint Benavidez, while Benavidez should wait for his opportunity to land a power punch.  There are few fighters in the lighter weight classes as adept at stopping his opponents as Benavidez.  Two minutes in, the narrative got torn up, burnt to ashes and cast out into the wind.

Johnson dropped Benavidez with a hellacious right hand that robbed the Alpha Male challenger of his senses before he’d even touched the mat.  It was the hardest, most perfect punch that Johnson had landed and probably ever will land in his life.  The guy who never knocks people out just put down the guy who never gets knocked out.  Two minutes and eight seconds was the official time.  The fastest KO in UFC flyweight history.

And yet I want to see them go at it again.

None of this is to say that Johnson’s punch was a fluke or that the first fight was some sort of robbery and that Benavidez should be the champ.  Johnson won both fights fair and square.  The result of their rematch was countless hours of training and study combined with the champ’s incredible fight night instincts.  That was no lucky punch.  But it would be a situation that would be difficult to replicate.  Were they to fight 99 more times, I wouldn’t bet on a Mighty Mouse knockout happening again.  Not just because of the stated reasons, but because of what Benavidez undoubtedly could learn from this second loss.  Make no mistake; there is always something to be learned from losing, even a shockingly abrupt setback such as this one.

The real issue for me is that the UFC (and, admittedly, most fans) has established this pattern where you get two cracks at the champ and that’s it.  Couldn’t get the job done?  Time to change weight classes, find work in another organization or retire buddy.  Even though fighters like Benavidez, Urijah Faber and even Junior dos Santos (who actually completed a trilogy) are the consensus #2 fighters in their respective weight classes, they are somehow almost completely out of the running for a title shot in the near future.

I should clarify that I understand that the UFC isn’t against trilogies; more logically, they’re against trilogies where one of the fighters has proven to be superior.  To me, that feels like they’re killing off contenders too quickly.

Imagine if Juan Manuel Márquez had never got his third and fourth fights with Manny Pacquiao?  Yes, I’m aware there are stark differences.  The Márquez/Pacquiao series took course over an eight year stretch.  Despite Pacquiao going 2-0-1, the first three fights were all open to interpretation.  And a fifth meeting between the two would do bigger box office than three (maybe more) combined Faber/Barão match-ups.  I get that.

But what if they had never booked that 4th meeting?  The boxing community would have been robbed of what was one of the sport’s most exciting and relevant moments of the year when Márquez put Pacquiao down on his face.  My point is that when you put the best with the best, only good things can happen.  I’d much rather see rematch after rematch than fighters who are not ready for the top spot being shoehorned into title matches.  At the present moment, is there anyone who thinks John Moraga is a better fighter than Joseph Benavidez?

Does it ever need to end?  If the champ keeps winning and top contender is able to hold onto his spot, how many times can you mash those action figures together?  3 times?  4?  7?  Luckily, these situations tend to sort themselves out as the talent cycle naturally creates new contenders.  Though that’s not always the case as we saw with Michael McDonald (who is already dangerously close to contender limbo), Ian McCall and Phil Davis (in his first contender fight against Rashad Evans).  Sometimes the next generation isn’t ready, so why should the UFC be in such a hurry to usher out the current one?

Allow me to discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of a few other trilogy fights where one fighter is already down two sets:

  • Urijah Faber (6-3 UFC, 8-3 WEC, 30-7) v. Renan Barão (7-0 UFC, 2-0 WEC, 32-1 [1 NC])

The most immediate and obvious choice.  Even if you believe that Barão was on his way to a decisive finish of Faber, the early stoppage was as bad as we’ve seen in a championship bout.  Faber’s lack of success in title fights is well documented, but even his most dogged detractors would have to admit that he got a raw deal here.  He looked amazing in his previous fights and he’d rightly earned another crack at UFC gold.  The continued misfortune of Dominick Cruz only made Sean Shelby’s decision easier.

The situation reminded me of Ken Shamrock/Tito Ortiz II, where the second fight ended in what Shamrock perceived to be an early stoppage.  That match was headed down a similarly bad path.  In truth, Shamrock had even less of a case for a rematch than Faber and most would assume that Ortiz had his number no matter how many times they fought.  Still, the powers that be deigned them worthy of an immediate rematch that took place on Spike TV.  It should be noted that UFC had heavily invested in the second fight, including coaching stints on The Ultimate Fighter, so it made good sense for them to continue a feud that still had plenty of juice left.

I don’t see why Faber can’t get one more shot on one of the UFC’s many free fight cards.  It’s not like quality main events are falling from the sky.  If you recall, both Faber/Barão meetings have been the result of injuries to Cruz.  It would be nice to see them face off one more time away from the shadow of the ex-champ.

  • Anderson Silva (16-2 UFC, 33-6) v. Chris Weidman (7-0 UFC, 11-0)

From a competitive standpoint, this might be the least appealing rematch.  Make whatever excuses you want, Weidman clobbered Silva and took his belt.  The second fight was tough to watch for obvious reasons.  I haven’t viewed a replay of the finish since that night.  I don’t plan to.

So why am I listing it?  I’m a huge Weidman fan and I don’t even care about the preposterous “he’s never truly beaten a dedicated Anderson Silva before” argument.  At this stage in their careers, Weidman is the better fighter.  It’s hardly worth discussing.

No, the reason I bring this up is because it would still draw enormous bank.  Silva/Weidman I brought in approximately 500,000 buys, while the sequel reportedly cracked a million (with a healthy assist from Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey).  I think it’s fair to say that a third fight could fall somewhere in between.  That would be a boon for the UFC, who are currently struggling to convince the public that they still have plenty of viable PPV stars.  I mean, if Dana White keeps saying Rousey is the biggest star he’s ever had, it has to be true, right?  Speaking of which…

  • Miesha Tate (0-2 UFC, 13-5) v. Ronda Rousey (2-0 UFC, 8-0)

How weird is it that Tate is winless in the UFC, yet still regarded as one of the top challengers?  I’m not disputing it as we all know that you can’t take wins and losses at face value in combat sports.  It just looks funny is all.

This is almost as tough a sell as Silva/Weidman because Rousey’s wins have been so definitive.  Exciting, yes, but definitive.  I know for me, personally, I could watch these two fight a dozen times.  There is such an explosive mix of personalities and styles and a genuine animosity between the two that there is so much for fans of all pedigrees to sink their teeth into.

I am in no way suggesting that Tate get a rematch anytime soon, only that she not be ushered into the “could-a-been” category so quickly.  Let’s say she has a Belfort-esque run of dominant finishes over top ten fighters.  You don’t need much of an excuse to convince people to watch these two go at it again.  I’d hate for the UFC to put off another fight between these two just because we’ve seen it before

  • Benson Henderson (8-1 UFC, 5-1 WEC, 20-3) v. Anthony Pettis (4-1 UFC, 5-1 WEC, 17-2)

As with Tate and Rousey, these two have only had one match in the UFC so it is relatively fresh.  Other than the ninja kick, I’d wager there’s a large portion of fans who have never seen the entirety of their first meeting, which is a shame since that was a brilliant encounter.

The result of the second fight was as shocking as the Benavidez/Johnson finish.  Henderson had only been submitted once before and he’d made a habit of using his incredible smarts and flexibility to escape holds in ways nobody had seen before.  That would explain why the UFC 164 crowd was stunned to see him get caught by a lightning quick Pettis armbar.

Somehow, the 25 minutes they spent together in the WEC cage did more to cement Pettis as a champion in my eyes than the 4 minute submission in their rematch.  I felt like Pettis was the better man both times, but that it wasn’t out of the question for Henderson to someday figure out his rival.  After all, he’d done it to pretty much everybody else.

*****

So what do you all think?  Did I leave any matches out?  Am I completely crazy?  Are these fights unpalatable at this point?  Will they ever be marketable?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

José Aldo – The Pound For Pound Best?

Rankings in general are essentially pointless, more fodder for conversation than any sort of tangible reward for a fighter.  A high ranking won’t knock your opponent down or force a tap out.  A high ranking won’t necessarily put food on the table.  The most banal list of them all might be the pound-for-pound entries.

Comparing fighters of different weight classes is about as effective as comparing baseball players of different eras.  It’s fun to do, but there are so many discrepancies and factors that are impossible to account for that you can’t conclusively prove anything.  Would Babe Ruth have been as great a player in the 80s?  90s?  Today?

Yet this matters to people.  Maybe it’s lingering sentiment from the “Bloodsport” days (weight classes? *psht*) or our natural inclination towards romanticizing sports, but we are obsessed with determining who is the true, best, best, bestest fighter in the whole wide world.  Making things more difficult is the varying criteria people use: quality of opponents, finishing rate, “dominance”.  The most bizarre to me is the demand to see these fighters change weight classes to battle each other.  That defeats the purpose of pound-for-pound, doesn’t it?  As you can see, I consider it to be a hypothetical argument more than anything else.

To clear up any confusion, I want to make it clear that I think pound-for-pound rankings are silly.  However, please allow me to use the format to espouse the virtues of a man who might not be getting enough credit.  I ask a question.

Are we certain that José Aldo isn’t the best fighter in the world?

*****

Jon JonesAnderson SilvaGeorges St-Pierre.

These three men, in some order, have all had a claim on the Iron Throne of MMA for the last few years.  Even after Silva was knocked out by Chris Weidman, there are still outlets refusing to drop him from this triumvirate.  That’s the unconquerable stature Jones, Silva and St-Pierre have established for themselves.  They’ve been impossible to beat.  They’ve taken out fellow champions.  They’ve cleared out their respective divisions.  Asked to continually perform at the highest level against elite competition, their combined UFC record is 46-4.

How do Aldo’s accomplishments stack up?  First, a quick rundown of his significant victories.

(*records are as they were when the fighter fought Aldo, not the fighter’s current record)

  • since June, 2009
    • Cub Swanson(13-2, borderline top 10, title eliminator)
      • TKO, :08 R1
  • Mike Brown(22-4, WEC featherweight champion)
    • TKO, 1:20 R2
  • Urijah Faber(23-3, top 3, considered the best featherweight of all time up to that point)
    • UD (49-45 x2, 50-45)
  • Manny Gamburyan(11-4, 3-0 as a featherweight, top 5)
    • KO, 1:32 R2
  • Mark Hominick(20-8, top 10)
    • UD (48-45, 48-46, 49-46)
  • Kenny Florian(14-5, top 10 lightweight/featherweight)
    • UD (49-46 x3)
  • Chad Mendes(11-0, clear-cut no. 2 featherweight)
    • KO, 4:59 R1
  • Frankie Edgar(15-3-1, former lightweight champion)
    • UD (49-46 x2, 48-47)
  • Chan Sung Jung(13-2, top 10)
    • TKO, 2:00 R4

After signing with the WEC, Aldo recorded KO/TKO victories in his first four assignments: Alexandre Franca Nogueira, Jonathan Brookins, Rolando Perez and Chris Mickle.  Combined record (at the time they fought Aldo, excluding draws): 51-19.  The matchmakers tuned up Aldo with the perfect mix of veterans and up and comers.  His response was overwhelmingly violent.  You can check off “dismissed inferior competition” on our imaginary pound-for-pound survey.

His first true test was Cub Swanson.  Swanson’s only loss at featherweight had come at the hands of MMA legend Jens Pulver, so he was a logical opponent for Aldo to fight for the right to challenge the then-WEC featherweight champion Mike Brown.  Everyone remembers how the Aldo/Swanson match turned out.

That’s one Swanson would like to have back.  As remarkable as this finish was at the time, what makes it even more impressive is that Swanson has remained one of the best fighters at 145.  More than just a highlight reel stoppage, the Swanson victory is an important notch on Aldo’s belt.

The opposite of the Swanson situation is Brown, who went on to have mixed results after losing to Aldo.  Still, at the time he was the undisputed top featherweight and Aldo capped off a meteoric rise with a definitive finish of the reigning champion.

“Definitive” is the key word here.  Jones, Silva and St-Pierre all made sure there was no doubt who the new king of the division would be when they defeated their respective opponents.  Jones blasted Shogun Rua, Silva embarrassed Rich Franklin twice and St-Pierre won a best of three series against Matt Hughes with a pair of submission victories.  It’s also worth mentioning that Shogun, Franklin and Hughes were themselves considered unbeatable for a significant stretch of their careers.

Brown doesn’t quite stack up to those names, but he had just beaten Urijah Faber for a second time and a lengthy run was a possibility.  Also, the featherweight division was still in its infancy so it would be impossible for anyone in the WEC to match the notoriety of the aforementioned fighters.

Even after losing to Brown twice, Faber was still thought of as the best featherweight of all time.  Without him, the WEC wouldn’t have grown at the rate it did and it would have taken much longer for the UFC to integrate the featherweights and the bantamweights.

With six WEC appearances under his belt, there were still a lot of question marks surrounding Aldo’s game.  He’d always been the aggressor.  Could he handle Faber’s non-stop pressure and wrestling?

An analysis of that encounter informs Aldo’s future dominance.  For one, he was much bigger than Faber.  Second, he showed no fear of Faber’s wrestling, getting the better of the grappling exchanges time and time again.  Of course, that was helped by the reinforcement of his lethal leg kicks.  By the time the fight was over, the skin on Faber’s leg had gone through all the colours of the rainbow.

In the wake of so many quick finishes, a one-sided decision win turned out to be the best thing for Aldo’s reputation.  He showed he could go into the championship rounds and control an extremely dangerous and durable opponent.  There was plenty of substance to go along with the style.

The next two challengers, Manny Gamburyan and Mark Hominick have been lost in the shuffle, especially Gamburyan who was Aldo’s last opponent in the WEC.  Scoff if you will, but Gamburyan was undefeated as a featherweight and he’d earned his shot by knocking Brown out cold.  He even took the first round from Aldo before the champ adapted in the second and scored another TKO victory.  For the sake of comparison, Gamburyan is like Nate Marquardt to Silva or Rampage Jackson to Jones.  Maybe they didn’t have the best shot of winning, but there was good reason to place them opposite the champ.

Hominick is remembered more favourably based on the strength of his performance.  The Ontario native was 4-0 since coming back under the Zuffa umbrella in 2010.  He had put on two memorable fights against Yves Jabouin and Leonard Garcia.  In his return to the UFC, he knocked out George Roop in a title eliminator.  Hominick was a top 10 featherweight no matter how you slice it.

Fighting in his home province, the Ontario native drew strength from the crowd as Aldo faded.  He gave his all in the championship rounds, battering Aldo from inside the Brazilian’s guard.  The massive hematoma on his head and his pounding fists are the enduring images from that bout.  What people seem to forget is that Aldo had handily won the first three rounds.  Even in the end, he never allowed himself to be put in a position where Hominick could realistically end the fight.

Gamburyan and Hominick are the kinds of lightly regarded challengers that often prove dangerous.  They keep a champion sharp.  They’re not expected to move PPV buys; the UFC has other ways to do that.

Kenny Florian and Frankie Edgar were both put on the fast track to a meeting with Aldo.  Florian had one win at 145; Edgar, zero.

Florian is well-liked and reliable.  You can understand why the UFC wanted to see gold around his waist.  An impressive run at 155 came to a sudden halt at the hands of BJ Penn and after a suffocating decision loss to Gray Maynard, Florian decided to move down to featherweight.  A hard fought victory over Aldo’s Nova União teammate Diego Nunes was enough to set up what should have been a marquee matchup.

The ever evolving Aldo completely neutralized Florian en route to an unremarkable decision.  That said, Aldo becomes firmly entrenched in the top five of the pound-for-pound rankings after this fight.  Florian was a top five lightweight for two years and presumably a top five featherweight as well (he retired after this fight, so it’s unclear if he would have continued to succeed at 145).  That Aldo dispatched him with such ease was enough to cause fans to consider the possibilities.  Should he move up in weight?  Could he be the first dual champion?

Before we got a preview of his chances at 155, Aldo would have to deal with the one thing missing from his resume: a young, hungry challenger who appeared equally unflappable.  Chad Mendes fit the bill (though he was two years Aldo’s senior, he was less experienced), sporting a sterling 11-0 record.  His outstanding wrestling allowed him to beat the likes of Javier Vazquez, Michihiro Omigawa and Rani Yahya without losing a round.  If he could ground Aldo, all bets were off.

The first round was a feeling out period that Mendes tried to steal with a late takedown.  He ducked right into an Aldo knee and he was hurt too badly to recover.  The stoppage came with one second remaining in the first round.

Mendes was clearly the second best featherweight going into that title fight and he’s only gotten better.  None of his last three opponents have made it past the two minute mark against him.  The way Mendes has bounced back only makes his abrupt termination by Aldo even more compelling.  He seems destined for a rematch somewhere down the line.  It is a rivalry that could do wonders for both men’s legacies.

Moving on to another fast track challenger, we have Edgar who shouldn’t have received such an early title shot.  He was riding (the opposite of riding?  Falling off his horse?) a two fight losing streak stemming from back-to-back five rounders with Ben Henderson.  Even more curious, Edgar was never a PPV draw so it’s unclear why they felt the need to hotshot what was essentially a superfight.

The results were predictable.  Even though Edgar had dropped a weight class, Aldo still towered over him.  Edgar’s vaunted speed served him well enough, but Aldo is the most vicious and quickest striker at 145.  When the scorecards were settled, Aldo could now count another former world champion amongst his triumphs.

Lastly, we have the Chan Sung Jung.  The Korean Zombie’s road to Aldo was a mixture of excellence and good timing.  When Aldo’s original UFC 163 dance partner Anthony Pettis suffered an injury, Jung had positioned himself as a suitable replacement with three tough wins over Garcia, Hominick and Dustin Poirier.  Depending how highly you think of Hominick and Poirier, Jung would be as high as #4 in the rankings (the top 3 would rightfully be Aldo, Mendes and Ricardo Lamas).

The fight itself was a dud.  Jung’s camp aimed to drag the fight into the later rounds before turning up the intensity, a plan that was derailed by a freak shoulder dislocation that left Jung vulnerable to a fight ending flurry.  It did look like Jung was building momentum, but Aldo was up three rounds to zip and it would have been a steep uphill battle regardless.

Aldo himself would later reveal that he had broken his foot in the first round (explaining the dearth of leg kicks).  He had to change his approach on the fly, showing off some nice wrestling to keep Jung from finding any sort of rhythm.  The highlight of the fight was Aldo snatching Jung out of the air as the Zombie went for a flying knee and planting him on the mat.

That sort of perseverance and versatility is what it takes to be considered the best.  Thank about St-Pierre jabbing Josh Koscheck to death.  Silva breaking out his jiu-jitsu to submit Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen.  Jones…doing something different in pretty much every fight.

Fedor Emelianenko, oft cited as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time, spent much of his career as a submission machine before becoming a knockout artist at the tail end.  He was fearless in both matching his opponent’s strengths and exploiting their weaknesses.  Adapt or die.  Aldo has proven he can adapt as well as anyone.

*****

There isn’t much else you can ask Aldo to do to further his position in the pound-for-pound rankings.  Look at that list of opponents again.  There isn’t a single fight that could be perceived as “easy”.  Jones and Silva have both engaged in amusing mismatches (Jones with bulked up middleweights, Silva with his excursions at 205).  Only GSP can claim a lineup of foes as formidable as Aldo, but his lack of finishes has proven frustrating for fans and pundits alike.  In the last decade, professional boxing made the move to recognize its lighter fighters as the true pound-for-pound kings.  Should Aldo continue to demolish the competition (say beating Anthony Pettis and then tackling the lightweight division), the MMA world might have to crown a new king.

*****

While I was working on this post, some additional reading helped me to reinforce my ideas.  Check them out!

Is Aldo One of the Best of All Time?

The Ultimate Streak Busters

The Ramifications of One Wayward Fist

Paul Daley made name for himself knocking out numerous challengers in explosive fashion (hence the nickname “Semtex”).  Yet it is one punch you won’t find in any CompuStrike stats that permanently changed the course of his career.

*****

May 8, 2010

What are you kidding me? – referee Dan Miragliotta

Wow!  That…that was terrible. – Joe Rogan

*****

Rewind.

Readymade stars like Daley don’t come along too often: Brash and cocky.  Young, but experienced.  A striker and a finisher.  Massive.  British.  The Anthony Johnson of the eastern hemisphere.  Even the UFC didn’t know what they had on their hands, originally planning to have him debut on the preliminary card of UFC 103 against Brian Foster.  It was a match thrown together to have something to broadcast on the UK version of ESPN.

The truly meaningful welterweight clash was on the main card: a meeting between Mike Swick and Martin Kampmann with a no. 1 contender spot up for grabs.

Then Swick got hurt.  Enter Semtex.

The short notice didn’t matter.  The fact that Kampmann was undefeated since dropping to welterweight didn’t matter.  The fact that the no. 1 contender prize was now off the table didn’t matter.  There was no way someone with Daley’s attitude was going to pass up on this opportunity.

The well rounded Kampmann should have eaten up the relatively one-dimensional Daley, but he looked unprepared.  Perhaps he was caught off-guard by the sheer musculature of the swollen Daley.  The reverse of the “camera adds ten pounds” adage.  Two minutes into the fight, Kampmann was caught against the cage and Daley unloaded on him.  The fight was soon waved off.  Kampmann never left his feet; his senses had long left him.

I was a viewer who was seeing Daley for the first time.  It only took three minutes of action to know what you were watching a fighter who was going to make headlines for years to come.

Four months later, it was Daley who would be dealing with a replacement.  The Kampmann win put him on the fast track to a title shot.  If he could get past Carlos Condit, the UFC might have an excuse to fly Georges St-Pierre over to England for a massive crossover fight.  Condit got hurt and was replaced by Dustin Hazelett, he of the decidedly non-Daley-esque build.

It was common knowledge that Daley’s ground game was lacking.  Hazelett was responsible for some of the UFC’s most picturesque submissions.  The door was open for Hazelett to put himself on the map just as Daley had against Kampmann.  I’m still convinced that if he’d managed to lock Daley up with this rolling attack in the opening moments of the match…

…he would have won the match right there.

(Watch that gif a few times.  Daley swats at Hazelett like he’s a swarm of angry cartoon bees formed into the shape of a bearded MMA fighter.  Hazelett’s bashful “well, it was worth a shot” gesture afterwards is also delightful)

The opening gambit had failed meaning that Hazelett was going to have to stand with the dangerous Daley.  It went about as well as you’d expect.  Another quick win for Daley.  So far his opponents had lasted about as long as a Danny Brown track.

For Daley’s next fight, the gauntlet was thrown down.  Beat Josh Koscheck and you’ve got your title shot.  Do yourself and everyone a favour by shutting that loudmouth up.  Lead the British invasion into unforeseen territory.

Daley had dealt with grapplers before, but the truth was that he’d always struggled against the elite.  He’d been submitted by the likes of Pat Healy, Satoru Kitaoka and Jake Shields and Koscheck’s wrestling was on par if not superior to those three men.  Grappler vs. striker was underselling this clash of styles.  This was going to be like watching JJ Watt tackling a Molina brother.

Takedown after takedown after takedown ensued.  Daley knew exactly what Koscheck wanted to do and there was still no way he could defend himself.  Worst of all, from his perch atop Daley, Koscheck was free to lean in and talk as much trash as he wanted.  After 15 minutes, two things were clear: Koscheck had won all three rounds and Daley was incensed.  Dan Miragliotta let Daley cross the cage for what he assumed would be a handshake and/or a hug (though he wisely stayed right next to Daley the whole time).  The sucker punch that followed actually got Koscheck right on the chin, though we can all be thankful that he seemed cognizant enough to move his head or that Daley knew to pull his punch.  Either way, the results could have been far, far worse.

You can’t blame Daley for being frustrated.  In less than a year, he had gone from fighting in the minor leagues to the precipice of a big money main event.  Not only was that taken away from him, he was made to look foolish.  At the very least, he believed he was robbed of a “real” fight.  If he could have landed one punch, one good punch, everything would have been different.  So he went for it.

Look, after Koscheck’s usual shenanigans (not only the borderline lay-and-pray tactics, but Koscheck’s acting that had convinced the ref of a fake foul, quickly becoming a Kos specialty), we all wanted to punch that goofy hair off of his head.  But you can’t do that.  If there’s one thing you can’t do in that cage, it’s to attack your opponent before or after the match.  You’re getting paid good money to work within the time given; why risk going to jail for nothing?

One argument I keep seeing in favour of Daley is that others have been forgiven for graver infractions.  Rampage Jackson got bailed out of jail by Dana White himself after going all CJ from San AndreasChris Leben and Stephan Bonnar failed multiple drug tests (Bonnar wisely retired after his most recent one).  Josh Barnett, considered by most to be radioactive, was just resigned.  Let’s go one by one.

In the case of Rampage, the man was still a draw.  Above all things, it was a business decision.  Sure, White and Rampage have a close (albeit tumultuous) relationship, but if Rampage couldn’t draw a dime anymore you better believe that White would have wished him the best in his future endeavours after springing him.  Rampage made money, so Rampage stayed.

In the case of Leben and Bonnar, they benefited even more White’s affection.  For the longest time, former cast members of the original Ultimate Fighter were near untouchable.  They’d done so much for the business and they always put on exciting fights and blah blah blah…Leben and Bonnar are Dana’s boys, so they stayed.

In the case of Barnett, he is a heavyweight and a skilled one at that.  He is a rare commodity who is a viable option to challenge for the title at some point in the future.  He was also cutting wrestling promos way before Chael Sonnen.  Barnett is too good to have floating around out there, so Barnett is here to stay.

One more important factor is that all of these missteps were outside of the octagon.  Out of sight, out of mind as it were.  That is not to say that one can break whatever rules they want as long as it’s not being broadcast by the UFC, but that their errors were not so serious as to permanently tarnish the reputation of the company they work for.  If anything, there was the hope that being contrite and having the discipline needed to prepare for a professional fight would help these men exorcise their demons.  Daley made the mistake of bringing his demons into the cage with him and revealing them in the ugliest possible way.

I say again, can you imagine what would have happened if Daley had actually nailed Koscheck with that punch?  Knocked him out?  I’ve seen my fair share of sucker punches in boxing and the results are always horrific.  I doubt Daley could have hurt Koscheck that badly, but if that incident had been any worse it would have been a black mark on the business as opposed to just a footnote.  Regardless, at least one person is never going to forget that night: Daley himself.

Since being released, Daley has seen mixed results.  His size has proven to be both an asset and a detriment as he’s missed weight four times (including the Hazelett fight) in fifteen fights (in fairness, he has not missed weight since 2011).  In those fifteen contests, he is 12-3.  Gaudy as the raw numbers are, the three losses tell the story: Nick Diaz (five of the most exciting minutes in Strikeforce history), Tyron Woodley and Kazuo Misaki.  Diaz and Woodley are currently in the UFC (it would be more accurate to say that Diaz is likely floating around in space somewhere, but you know what I mean) and Misaki had been facing UFC-level competition for years before retiring last March.  If Daley can’t beat these guys, what is the incentive for White to take a risk on him?

The company line according to White is that they’ve had no contact with Daley (he was just released by Bellator and recently made it public on Twitter that he’d like to come back).  He’s become a journeyman with lingering legal issues that may or may not be responsible for his recent Visa woes.  Recent interviews would suggest that Daley has matured, but the risk is still too high and the reward too low to take a chance on the British banger.  Even if White keeps certain fighters in the UFC for the wrong reasons, he’s keeping Daley out for the right ones.

The Bigger They Are

If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything…it’s that you can kill anybody.

It was billed as one of the most intriguing title contests in recent memory and to say that Chris Weidman/Anderson Silva lived up to the hype would be an understatement.  That is not to say it was a great fight, it was a rather bizarre affair and an inarguably disappointing performance from Silva.  I give all the credit in the world to Weidman who I see as someone who will have several successful title defenses, but to say that Silva’s behaviour had nothing to do with the title changing hands would make me look more foolish than the man himself.  I’d even go as far to say that a Silva in his prime might have actually been able to get away with that kind of chicanery.

As I stressed in my main card preview, there were just too many factors working against Silva and in Weidman’s favour to view this as another routine defense for Silva.  So much of what I was reading and hearing revolved around Weidman’s virtues, with the arguments for Silva mostly comprised of He’s Anderson Silva!  Two or three years ago, that argument might have held weight.  In the here and now, we’re reminded of the harsh reality of professional sports.

If Silva, arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, can lose…then who might be next?

*****

The UFC has taken a lot of deserved criticism for their recent handling of title matches.  Jon Jones has had to defend his belt against two middleweights.  Georges St-Pierre talked the matchmakers into granting him his (highly profitable) grudge match with Nick Diaz, who was coming off a loss and a year-long drug suspension.  José Aldo faced Frankie Edgar, who was 1-3-1 in his last 5 fights.  There were perfectly valid reasons (injuries, intrigue, incompetence) for making those match-ups, but none of them involved the challenger legitimately earning their spot.

With all that nonsense out of the way, there is now at least some semblance of a meritocracy.  Antonio Silva was granted a second shot at Cain Velasquez based on the fact that he knocked out Alistair Overeem, the presumed number one contender.  It didn’t go well for Big Foot, but the logic was sound.  The UFC wanted to set up a rematch between Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey, but Cat Zingano ruined their plans with a 3rd round comeback finish (due to a Zingano injury, Tate would later get the title shot anyway along with a juicy TUF coaching spot opposite Rousey).  Those are a couple of minor examples where the UFC did right by its winners.  Four more upcoming match-ups not only feature the worthiest of challengers but the possibility that a group of nigh invincible champions will fall.

In order of least likely to most likely to see a title change:

Light Heavyweight Title Bout: Alexander Gustafsson (7-1 UFC, 15-1) v. Jon Jones (Jon Jones (12-1 UFC, 18-1)

September 21, 2013 – UFC 165

How Gustafsson got here:

…by growing up.  Gustafsson’s only career loss came against Phil Davis in a fight that he was winning until he decided to take it to the ground.  Davis, a stronger grappler, was able to reverse the situation and sink in a match ending anaconda choke.  Since then, Gustafsson has fought a lot smarter, dominating when he’s supposed to and playing to his strengths to overcome the likes of Thiago Silva and Shogun Rua.  The victory over Shogun was a signature win and enough to cement Gustafsson as the number one contender, something many fans and critics had been clamoring for.

The match-up will also do wonders for dispelling the notion that Jones is only getting by on his physical gifts and that he is only capable of beating fighters who are past their prime.  Neither criticism is particularly valid, but a win over Gustafsson should be hater-proof.

Why Gustafsson could win:

I’m honestly not sure he can.  The only reason I added this match is because my uncle was working hard to convince me that the Swede is a live underdog.  I’m not seeing it.

If I had to make an argument for Gustafsson, it would go beyond just the fact that he can match the champ’s reach.  With every fight, Gustafsson gets better and better at using his range to score points and keep his opponents off balance.  When you can sweep the scorecards against Shogun, the most aggressive light heavyweight around, you have to be doing something right.

Another department that Gustafsson has improved in is his takedown defence and controlling scrambles.  They will have to stress this in his training as Jones has a good shot and an array of throws with which to set up his merciless ground and pound.  His best chance remains on the feet.

Let’s not forget that Jones had trouble with Lyoto Machida in the first round of their match.  If Gustafsson can do a reasonable job of emulating Machida’s tactics, an upset could be in order.

Why Gustafsson could lose:

As much as people talk about Jones never facing someone built like him, the same could be said for Gustafsson.  Does anyone think Gustafsson would have been able to pick apart Thiago Silva and Shogun so efficiently without those freakish limbs?  If all things are equal body-wise, I’m not sure there’s any area skill-wise that Gustafsson can claim an advantage.  Jones is faster, more explosive, more creative with his strikes and a monster on the ground.  Gustafsson should be able to go the distance, but expect Jones to take all five rounds.

Featherweight Title Bout: Chan Sung Jung (3-0 UFC, 0-2 WEC, 13-3) v. José Aldo (4-0 UFC, 8-0 WEC, 22-1)

August 3, 2013 – UFC 163

How Zombie got here:

…as much as anything, we’re the ones who have put Jung in this spot.  The Korean Zombie became an instant sensation in his WEC debut against Leonard Garcia.  I remember showing that fight to everyone I knew, not caring if this was a legit new star or an oddity.  Thankfully, he’s turned out to be the former and his distinct, exciting style carried over to the UFC where he found the wins to match the adulation.  A submission win in a rematch with Garcia removed any doubt that he was the better fighter.  He followed that up with an astonishing 7 second knockout of Mark Hominick (who had previously fought Aldo) and by coming out on top in another fight of the year candidate against Dustin Poirier.

When Anthony Pettis suffered an injury, there were two possible replacements for UFC 163: Ricardo Lamas and Zombie.  Despite his last three wins all coming against top ranked featherweights, Lamas remains relatively unknown.  The UFC sees dollar signs with the Jung-Aldo match so the Zombie gets to feast.

Why Zombie could win:

If he lives up to his moniker, there’s a chance he could outpace Aldo.  People often point to a difficult weight cut as to why Aldo faded in the Hominick fight.  What they forget is how Hominick stayed aggressive and even though he lost the majority of the rounds, it wasn’t as one-sided as the scores suggested.  Zombie doesn’t have Hominick’s consistency; rather, I expect his scrappy and unpredictable nature to work to his advantage.

There’s also the issue of Jung’s resiliency.  He’s only been finished once in his career (a picture perfect head shot courtesy of George Roop).  That stat is made even more incredible by the fact that he regularly engages in all-out wars that are undoubtedly shortening his lifespan.  Aldo is no stranger to decisions, having gone the full five rounds with Hominick, Kenny Florian and Frankie Edgar.  Neither Florian nor Edgar known for their risk-taking, so it should be interesting to see how Aldo reacts to an opponent who has no regard for his own well-being.

Why Zombie could lose:

As mentioned above, the UFC couldn’t wait for an excuse to put Zombie in the cage with Aldo.  He’s an international property and he’s got a cool gimmick that has caught on like wildfire in North America.  You could easily make an argument that his popularity exceeds his credentials.

It’s always fun to look at results and say that one guy is finishing his opponents while the other guy is winning by decision, but that doesn’t tell the story of Aldo’s dominance at 145.  Facing a murderer’s row of opponents (Urijah Faber, Hominick, Florian, Chad Mendes, Edgar), Aldo has rarely been in danger.  A lack of finishes speaks to how high the level of competition is when you reach Aldo’s level.  He’s soundly beaten elite strikers, elite jiu-jitsu practitioners and elite wrestlers.  That’s not a good sign for Zombie, who is more of a jack of all trades.

Welterweight Title Bout: Johny Hendricks (10-1 UFC, 15-1) v. Georges St-Pierre (18-2 UFC, 24-2)

November 16, 2013 – UFC 167

How Hendricks got here:

…by smashing just about everyone who got in his way.  Nobody on this list has been waiting longer or had a stronger claim to a title shot than Hendricks, who was egregiously passed over as a challenger in favour of Nick Diaz.  While the Stockton bad boy was losing to Carlos Condit and getting lifted, Hendricks was tearing through the division.  From March 2011 to March 2013, Hendricks had one of the most impressive runs in welterweight history.  A riveting win over Condit capped off a six-fight streak that displayed Hendricks’ guts (close split decision wins against Mike Pierce and Josh Koscheck) and sheer supremacy (finishing Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann in less than one total minute).  Bigg Rigg might not have the name recognition or a squeaky clean look, but the UFC couldn’t ignore his results any longer.

Why Hendricks could win:

Anyone who has seen a St-Pierre title fight is familiar with the image of the champ scoring a takedown, establishing top position and neutralizing his victim for 25 minutes.  That’s how you defend your title in the toughest division in the UFC.

It’s hard to imagine Hendricks suffering the same treatment.  He’s lived up to the hype of being a 2-time national champion wrestling for Oklahoma State University.  That background has forged him into a mini-Iceman, able to control where the fight goes and set his opponents up for his infamous left hand.  A dream scenario sees GSP relying on a takedown heavy gameplan that Hendricks is able to stifle until the champ makes a rare mistake that leads to him getting laid out.

It’s somewhat unfair to bring it up, but St-Pierre’s ability to take a punch has been in question since his last loss to Matt Serra.  Since then, you can count on one hand the number of times he’s actually been rocked but people still insist that he’s always one solid punch away from losing the strap.  If there’s any credence to that theory, Hendricks is surely the one to prove it.

Why Hendricks could lose:

Hendricks’ only career loss was to Rick Story and surprisingly it was a match in which he was out-grappled.  While that loss clearly made him a better fighter, it’s worth noting that he is not unfamiliar with being put in bad positions.

On paper, Hendricks presents a lot of the same problems as Josh Koscheck, who boasted that he had the advantage as long as he could keep the fight standing against St-Pierre in their rematch.  St-Pierre was able to pick Koscheck apart with stiff jabs and was never in any real danger for the duration of their bout.  There is no evidence that Hendricks is uniquely equipped to deal with the latter.  Against a similarly gifted striker in Condit, Hendricks relied on his chin to absorb damage so he could get in close and attack.  He didn’t shut Condit down, he was able to land more consistently and land harder.  Getting St-Pierre to engage in a firefight like that is a near-impossibility.  Even with 25 minutes to work with, Hendricks will have to avoid getting desperate and focus on winning rounds if he cannot finish St-Pierre.

Lightweight Title Bout: TJ Grant (8-3 UFC, 21-5) v. Ben Henderson (7-0 UFC, 5-1 WEC, 18-2)

August 31, 2013 – UFC 164

How Grant got here:

…he went on a diet.  Fighting at 170, Grant had a respectable 3-3 record in the UFC, but there was no indication that he’d be challenging GSP anytime soon.  Changing weight classes is a popular move for fighters who appear to be stuck in a rut and it’s hard to name anyone who has made it work out better than Grant.  This wasn’t a big name moving down in the hopes of getting an immediate title shot.  No, Grant made the decision to jump into the increasingly deep lightweight waters.  The results speak for themselves: Five straight wins including a first round TKO of Gray Maynard, the only person to ever dispatch him that early.  He’s an exciting fighter and a proven finisher, leaving fans starving to see him test Henderson who has been criticized for being too safe.

Why Grant could win:

To understand why Henderson always seems to go to decisions, you have to look at his last few fights.  As great as Clay Guida, Edgar and Gilbert Melendez are, none of them are known for their finishing prowess (there was also Nate Diaz, but Henderson had an overwhelming physical advantage that he won’t have with the sizeable Grant).  If you know that your opponent doesn’t have the tools with which to put you away, it affords you certain luxuries.  Luxuries that Henderson won’t have against Grant.

This is not to say that Grant is necessarily better than the aforementioned names, only more likely to look for a finish.  The Maynard fight stands as proof.  Canadian MMA aficionado “Showdown” Joe Ferraro expressed his dismay at seeing his friend Grant willingly trade punches with Maynard.  One mistake and the fight easily could have gone the other way, but it is Grant’s temerity that has got him this far.  Don’t expect him to change his approach now that he’s this close to being the best in the world.

Why Grant could lose:

It’s a hard thing to quantify, but Henderson definitely seems to have the same gift as St-Pierre for attacking an opponent’s weaknesses.  This is likely why both men are maligned as “point fighters”.  I’ve never been a fan of using that term in a derogatory fashion because the last time I checked scoring points was how you won games.  Henderson wins games.

To draw another St-Pierre comparison, Henderson is unparalleled as an athlete in the lightweight division.  He’s incredibly strong and agile and he has an unlimited gas tank.  Grant has assured everyone that he normally trains for five round fights, but it’s an entirely different beast once you actually reach those championship periods.  Fighting Henderson can be a frustrating experience and Grant’s mental strength is going to be as important as his physical ones.  The last thing Grant wants is to go to the scorecards with Henderson, who has shown a knack for pulling out close decisions.

*****

As fun as it is to say, upsets are not contagious and the fall of Silva has no metaphysical impact on the rest of the title holders.  However, for the first time in a while you get the feeling that it wouldn’t be a surprise if the titles did change hands.  It remains to be seen if MMA will be like every other sport, with competitors being inextricably attached to each other in their respective eras: Spouting off names like Liddell-Ortiz-Couture or Minotauro-Cro Cop-Fedor or Silva-St-Pierre-Jones can conjure up unmistakeable images and provide timestamps for the most important events in this young sport.  Perhaps one of Gustafsson, Zombie, Hendricks or Grant will be the first to take their place in the world that’s coming.

PoS: A Guide to Critiquing Man of Steel or Why Man of Steel is Objectively Awful

How many times has this happened to you?  You’re having a perfectly civil conversation with friends, family, co-workers, whomever and then this happens:

“Have you guys all seen that new Superman movie?  It’s great!”

Everyone nods their head and starts to talk about the movie in an overly excited tone.  Favourite scenes and lines are bandied back and forth.  Someone brags about how they’ve seen it three times.  The whole gang is into it, but one person refuses to join in on the revelry:

You.

Suddenly you find yourself barraged with ill informed opinions.  You want to point out the flaws in the film, but you don’t want to be the turd in the punch bowl.  On the other hand, if you hear one more word of praise heaped upon this cinematic atrocity you’re certain that your brain is going to shrivel up and die.  You could always just walk away, but what happens next time?  And the time after that?  And heaven help you when the sequel rolls around.

No.  For your sake and the sake of your friends’ souls, it falls on you to be the voice of reason.  You must lead the innocent unremarkables out of the desert of mediocrity into the land of good taste and critical thinking.  Here is a guide to facing some of the film’s most common defences:

 

*SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS*

 

It’s just a dumb superhero movie.  Don’t think about it too much and you’ll enjoy it.

I went into this movie knowing that it would be a violent response to the aggravatingly contemplative Superman Returns.  If big, dumb fun was the solution then I was all for it.  So why is MoS trying so hard to philosophize?

Action needs context, there’s no arguing that.  Even a simpleton needs more than just two hours of explosions to be satisfied.  There needs to be emotional investment in the characters so that when the stakes are raised we care about the outcome.  The filmmakers certainly make an effort, but the clumsy script betrays whatever finer points they were trying to make.  To put it succinctly, the characters in this movie are assholes.

Pa Kent just cannot catch a break these days.  In Returns, Superman returns to Earth to find out that Jonathan has died of a heart attack (off-screen no less!).  It’s a bummer, but not a deal breaker because it’s handled with a good deal of subtlety and it adds some depth to the Superman character because he’s punished for being selfish (he’s returning from a self-imposed exile spent searching for the remains of Krypton) and it’s the sort of real world problem that he probably couldn’t have done anything about anyway.  Death is a part of life and all that.

In MoS, the word of the day is “fear mongering” and it’s established early on that humanity is cowardly and stupid and not to be trusted.  An early heroic act sees young Clark Kent save a bus full of his peers (including a bullying Pete Ross) from plummeting into a lake.  This is a nice scene that shows Clark’s willingness to put the preservation of life above his privacy, something that is of value to him.  Instead of being validated, he is made to feel ashamed.  He asks his father if he should have let them drown and Pa’s response is this:

“Maybe.”

Taken in context, Pa is telling Clark that his secret could not only be dangerous to himself but to the world in general because they’re not equipped to cope with the tangible existence of a higher being.  That’s a consistent theme throughout the movie and there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s the execution that’s the problem.  I’m not going to play fan fiction writer and suggest how this message could have been delivered better, but there’s no way you can argue that Superman’s dad telling him to let a bunch of kids die is in any way acceptable.

Half-assed morality is only part of the problem.  I like my popcorn movies to be brisk affairs and MoS clocks in at a wholly unnecessary 143 minutes.  The length wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t for scads of exposition that is made worse by the fact that there is a whole chunk dedicated to the events on Krypton that we already saw in the first 15 minutes of the movie.  It’s inexcusable. If you don’t want me to think, then shut your characters up and get to the punching.  You can’t have it both ways.

 

Of course, it’s always possible they could take the opposite stance…

 

This isn’t just another dumb superhero movie.  This is a more realistic take on Superman for a modern audience.

I’m tired of the argument that heroes who are arrogant, petulant and petty are more realistic or more human than heroes that are traditionally virtuous.  Aren’t kindness, understanding and compassion human characteristics as well?  I’m not saying he can’t be flawed; only that being flawed doesn’t necessarily make Superman more interesting.

One scene has Clark working in a bar and having to deal with an unruly customer.  The goon pours a drink over Clark’s head, this despite the fact that Clark looks to be about twice his size.  Alcohol makes brave men of us all.  Predictably, Clark takes the high road and walks away.  This tells us that he’s an upstanding guy who is above using his gifts to deal with minor insults.

Moments later, the goon leaves the bar and sees his truck skewered by multiple trees.  This tells that us Superman is a massive dick.

Clark would have been better off just flicking the goon with his finger and knocking him out for an evening.  Heck, maybe a good knock on the noggin would have made him reconsider some life decisions.  Instead, he destroys the guy’s truck, likely ruining his livelihood and driving him to more drinking and an early grave.  High road, bitches!

It’s the sort of scene that’s played for a cheap laugh (and believe me, the majority of the audience I saw it with seemed to like it) that ends up damaging the movie’s credibility.  Clark looks bad and he blatantly abuses his powers in a public fashion.  In case you forgot, not wanting to reveal his powers is the whole reason he hasn’t become Superman yet.  Even though nobody saw him do it, he doesn’t even bother to make it look like an accident (the truck looks like a damn pincushion) meaning at the very least he’s fostering the idea that the town is housing some sort of alien/supernatural threat.  What a way to honour his father’s sacrifice, eh?

Did I mention that this is a movie where Superman watches his father die?   Superman watches Pa Kent die.  I paid money to see this happen.  What is meant to be one of the movie’s most powerful sequences is at first shocking, then hilarious.  An incoming disaster is preceded by a blunt conflict between Jonathan and Clark (paraphrase: “you’re not even my dad, dad!”) that surely will not go unresolved…oh no a twister.

A hasty roadside evacuation leads to Jonathan having to go back to the vehicle to retrieve the family dog, telling Clark to…wait a minute…why didn’t he just send Clark to go get the dog instead?  Even without his powers, he’s clearly younger, faster and stronger and he could have done the task without any issue.  Then again, if the writers had done that then they couldn’t have given us a hackneyed scene of Pa peacefully gesturing to his son not to do anything as he’s about to be pulverized by a tornado.

The writers intend to show that Clark has no choice but to accept his father’s wishes because it is what he has been preaching to his son all along.  By letting him die (and preserving his secret), it proves that he trusts him.  This is just the first instance of the writers presenting contrived “no-win, hard decision” scenarios that only exist because they say so.  Much like the “Maybe” line above, there are solutions to these problems but the filmmakers chose to indulge in their morality play in the most ham-fisted fashion possible.

This is one of the laziest scripts I’ve seen in some time.  The expository nature of the writing carries over to the dialogue, with characters that don’t talk like any human beings I’ve ever met.  Henry Cavill is a good Superman and overall the whole cast puts in a good effort (kudos to supporting players Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni and Henry Lennix) but they’re being asked to turn chicken shit into chicken salad.  The humans in this movie are presented as useless without Superman around to save them.

Superman himself is just as badly developed.  What does he value?  Privacy?  Human life?  Pootie?  It seems to change from scene to scene.  The most insulting thing about him is that he doesn’t become Superman until he’s all but forced into it.  This was a problem shared by the long-running Smallville series, though at least they had the excuse that the show would have been finished if he’d donned the cape too early.  In MoS, Clark only reveals himself to the world when the problem specifically involves him.

Think about this for a second.  If the DC Universe is at least somewhat like our own, that means there have been countless tragedies and crises around the world that he could have helped with but it wasn’t until he is called out by Zod (“Superman…come out to plaaaaay-aaaaay!”) that he steps up to the plate.  Again, I know that this is supposed to express the magnitude of the situation, but to me it creates a Superman of obligation, not altruism.

Wasn’t it cool to see all that stuff on Krypton?

No.   No, it wasn’t.

(Disclaimer: this is definitely more of a fan boy gripe.)

I don’t care about Jor-El.  His involvement with Superman should begin and end with his putting Kal-El in the rocket ship.  There’s a reason that the best possible depiction of Superman’s origin is one page long:

My friends told me they thought the opening was akin to what you might see in the Star Wars prequels.  There was a lot of CG, a lot of noise and a lot of nonsense just for the sake of filling up a screen.  In theory, this introduction serves the purpose of creating early tension, establishing that Clark’s existence will be rooted in conflict and letting Russell Crowe redeem his bad ass rep after his “singing” in last year’s Les Miserables.  I was bored.  It goes on for too long and lessens the tragedy of Krypton exploding.  The majority of Kryptonians that we see are either brutes or dull aristocrats.  The destruction means nothing to us.

Having Jor-El show up as a powerful entity from an ancient ship to talk to Clark is even worse.  Gone is the tragedy of never knowing his real parents and feeling isolated.  Apparently there’s an app for that.  (The fact that Jor-El had a strong presence in the original Superman films does validate the idea.  It was stupid and boring then too.)

What is the point of seeing a character sacrifice himself if he’s able to magically reappear later in the film when it’s convenient?  He saves Lois Lane from her prison (that just happens to be in the same room as an important device that she has the key to and I can’t believe I just typed that) and then guides her through a tutorial stage telling her where to shoot while also knocking off enemies for her.

Jor-El: the literal deus ex machina.

Didn’t you notice Superman is kind of like Jesus Christ?  Layers!

Jor-El: “You can save them…you can save them all.”

*falls backwards into space with his limbs straightened, arms out and legs together*

Um…I guess I do now.

The ending, where Superman is forced to kill Zod to save innocent civilians, is necessary and powerful.

First, let me point out this excellent piece by Mark Waid, who eloquently describes why some of us squirmed through the climactic battle of the film.

As a former Superman writer, Waid is obviously approaching the film from the perspective of a person with vast knowledge and fondness for the character.  Whether he realizes it or not, he also managed to deconstruct the fundamental problems with the story in general, Superman or no.  If you have any knowledge of Superman, you should be able to understand how seeing him snap someone’s neck under any circumstances is horrible.  They created a Superman movie that I can’t take a child too.  Congratulations, you fucked up.

But what if you know nothing about Superman?  Even if we pretend that this is your first exposure to this character, it’s still a pathetic scene and I’ll explain why.

Just to refresh everyone’s memory, Superman and Zod have been pounding the crap out of each other for about 10 minutes when they land in a building littered with civilians.  A group gets cornered and Zod aims his heat vision at them, only stopped by Superman grabbing him from behind.  He continues to try and blast them, his beam moving towards them slowly like a Bond villain death ray (if he can see them, shouldn’t he be able to shoot them with his heat vision?  Does Zach Snyder understand how eyeballs work?).  Left with NO OTHER CHOICE (*dun dun dun!*), Superman snaps his neck then releases a primal scream from the guilt of having taken life.

The problem is that up until this point, we have no understanding that this interpretation of Superman doesn’t kill.  That’s kind of a big deal.  If you don’t establish that someone doesn’t kill, then why should he (or we) care when he does?  In every action scene with Zod, there is no evidence that he’s holding back whatsoever.  As he punches Zod through the air like he’s performing an Air Combo, he deliberately smashes him through building after building.  How can this be interpreted as anything other than lethal force?

Unless you want me to believe that the last area they end up in is the only part of the city that’s still populated, Superman is involved in a fight that directly causes the deaths of thousands of people.  I don’t care how “unrealistic” it is to have him saving people while he’s in the middle of a fight.  You’re a professional screenwriter!  Present a Superman worth rooting for, not one that adheres to the flimsy logic of your movie.  His make-out session with Lois in the middle of a ruined city that is in need of IMMEDIATE SUPERMAN-Y ASSISTANCE is the final nail in this cynical coffin for me.  Snyder and writer David Goyer are telling the audience that unless it’s convenient for him (as in the boat and bus saving incidents), this Superman does not care about human life.

I have a huge problem with Superman killing anyone, but I actually would have had less of a problem with it and he just shrugged it off.  At least that would have been consistent with what he’d been doing the rest of the movie.

Are there any positives?  Of course and it’s good to know what they are just to show that you are not a “hater”, which is a likely accusation.  To avoid having to strike someone about the face and neck, please refer to these quick notes:

  • I’m not sure it’s possible to depict a wide-scale battle between two high level metahumans any better.  As gratuitous and grotesque as I found the action, that’s exactly what would happen if Kryptonians existed in real life and they fought in the middle of a major metropolitan city.  The visual effects and a lot of the practical costumes and sets were phenomenal.  MoS is a shoo-in to garner some technical honours at the next Academy Awards.
  • Strong performances from the female cast members.  Amy Adams and Diane Lane were a pleasure to watch as always and Antje Traue brought a cool sense of menace to the role of Faora.  I’m not one to root for the villain, but seeing Faora kick some butt did put a grin on my face.
  • The scene where Superman flies up to destroy a world engine over the Indian Ocean is strong.  It’s a great visual and an example of how his appeal is not only based on his extraordinary powers, but his determination.  It’s a simple message that would have served the movie better than the majority of the dialogue.
  • It’s probably a bad thing, but Zod was one of the more sympathetic characters in the film.  The movie informs us that the Kryptonian system is based around genetic predetermination.  When we find out that Zod is engineered to care about nothing more than the preservation of the Kryptonian race, it’s hard not to feel for the guy.  It helps that humanity doesn’t seem worth saving in this movie.
  • It’s nearly impossible to tell from this script, but I feel that Henry Cavill fit the role of Superman.  I look forward to seeing what he can do with the character given better material to work with.

That’s all the nice things I can think to say and it took me a lot longer to come up with those than anything else I wrote.  I could point out how Superman could not be more distant and alien.  Or how having Clark get a job at The Daily Planet is completely inexplicable (guess that fishing boat experience paid off).  Or that insipid closing flashback of Pa watching a young Clark playing in the field with a cape on.  What hero could possibly inspire that imagery when there is no such thing as Superman yet?!?

*deep breath*

This is a sad, cynical movie that thinks today’s moviegoers are sad, cynical people.  Judging by the general reception and box office receipts, they might be right.  I refuse to believe that.  There is a lot of misplaced optimism surrounding this movie, maybe because in our hearts we want to see Superman succeed on the big screen.  We can do better than this.  We have to do better than this.

I want a Superman to whom heroism is an honour, not a burden.  I want a Superman that’s bright and colourful and full of wonder, not one that’s been sapped of all life and drenched in dull blues.  I want a Superman that’s Superman, not Batman.

This isn’t about arguing with your friends or telling them how to have a good time.  I just feel it’s important for us to have a higher standard when it comes to our entertainment, even when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare.  I’ve always believed that people are a lot smarter than they give themselves credit for; unfortunately, that belief isn’t shared by the creators of Man of Steel or their Superman.

My Come To Yeezus Meeting

There’s one big difference between Kanye West’s last and Kanye West’s latest.

The first time I listened to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I cried.  I had actual tears in my eyes.  Scratch that, when I first heard that “Can we get much higher?” bit chime in on track 1, with the distorted backup vocals…I got goose bumps.  From that first track, I knew, I just knew that I was listening to a classic.  Through all the meticulous production and bravado and befuddling lyricism, the undeniable vision of music’s greatest living artist shone through.  I wanted to call everyone I knew to talk about it and make sure they heard it.

With Yeezus, I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it.  You get the feeling the man himself recorded it with the same attitude.

*****

I know you’re tired of loving,
Of loving
With nobody to love
Nobody
Nobody

I got that overcome feeling again after my second run of Yeezus.  That understanding that true art means having no restrictions, even when your existence is constantly being shaped and defined by forces both visible and invisible.  Kanye doesn’t live in a bubble.  He’s painfully aware of everything that is said (and not said) about him.  He knows we don’t care for Kim.  He knows that following up Fantasy was impossible.  Fantasy is the definition of singular.  It stands on its own and no modern artist including Ye himself should try to approach it.  It is a masterpiece carved into stone.  Don’t f**k with it.

So what to do then?  Yeezus.  The only logical response.

What do you get for the man who has everything?  He likes to talk and dance and drink and f**k and then talk about all the dancing and drinking and f**king he’s done and will do.  He’s a dad now.  His daughter is going to listen to this record one day and she’ll be told that her impending birth was an inspiration for what daddy did here.  She’ll understand.

Look, I get it.  I wish there was a way I could listen to this album without knowing it was created by Kanye.  My fandom colours my opinion.  Art doesn’t exist in a void and we’re all going to approach something like Yeezus differently.  I wouldn’t expect everyone who’s followed his work since before The College Dropout to feel this one.  Hell, I know there are people who called it quits after Fantasy or after 808s & Heartbreak.  Kanye now isn’t Kanye then and if that changes some people’s minds, I can’t blame them.  Evolution is not inclusive.

I’m reminded of a conversation between Dante and Randall from the Kevin Smith film Clerks where they argue over whether one’s profession should determine one’s behaviour.

Kanye is a famous rapper.  That means he has to be eccentric.  He has to shake up the establishment.  He has to have the famous, generously proportioned girlfriend.  He has to party all night, live to excess, and throw his stupid, shallow lifestyle in our faces.  He has to pretend to apologize.  He has to release hip hop albums.  Doesn’t he?

Returning to 808s was predictable.  Easily Kanye’s most polarizing and least popular work, it was also the jumping off point for everything he’s done since.  I always say that Fantasy doesn’t exist without the mistakes of 808s.  It is the kind of move made by artists who feel like after all they’ve done, they still can’t win.  Kanye finds himself constantly being lumped in with every other tepid, tired act on the radio, no matter how much he innovates.  He’s popular and thus, perceived as pop.

Yeezus has no single, no album art and no radio presence.  There are no hooks.  Nothing to grab on to when s**t starts getting out of control (and boy, does it ever get out of control).  Kanye couldn’t be trying harder to say Look at me, I’m an artist.

Sometimes when I hear a great song, I get mad because I feel like I’ll never be able to create something like that.  Kanye doesn’t get mad, he gets mad busy.  He sees industrial music and electronic music and house music and says “I can do that.  Not only can I do it, but I’m going to do it even bigger and better than the people I’m listening to.  I want this.”  Of course, when you’re looking to make music like Daft Punk it helps when you can actually call up the guys from Daft Punk for pointers.

The nature of the album lends itself to abstract discussion so what substantial statements can we make about it?  It’s hard hitting.  It’s crisp, which is to say that everything sounds deliberate.  We’ve come to expect that level of perfection.  Even when he’s going for a sort of chaotic, disjointed effect, he can’t help but refine things down to the wavelength.  The ending of New Slaves is one of the most exultant, affecting things he’s ever recorded.  He knows exactly where he’s going even if he can’t control how we receive him.

Lyrically, this is Kanye at his most defensive and repulsive.  He’s not acting, he’s reacting.  His always clumsy search for metaphors and similes comes off as even more desperate than usual.  He leans heavily on the words in his samples, a dangerous practice not unlike putting together a movie soundtrack.  You’re using other people’s insights and emotions to compliment your message.  I don’t believe he succeeds as he has in the past (see: Who Will Survive In America), but whether he realizes it or not his appeal has never been about winning and losing.

There are moments on this album that break my heart.  It feels like he’s so far from being satisfied, despite the money and the family and the fame and the acclaim.  How can you be happy when you know that happiness leads to complacency?  Complacency this close to transcendence would be fatal.  They say when you’re on top there’s only way direction left to go, right?

Do people still listen to Last Call?  It’s the 12 and a ½ minute track at the end of The College Dropout.  Well, it’s a rap followed by a long monologue.  It’s brilliant.  It’s a recording from a simpler time when an eager Kanye could feel safe being honest and forthcoming.  He just goes off.  He gushes about his admiration for music industry personalities that he would eventually surpass.  He seamlessly works in a few rhymes from an unreleased song.  He vents about how ignorant people were in regards to his career, even back then.  Every time I listen to the track I think about how he we’ll never see him that open and vulnerable again.  Not after everything he’s done and had done to him.

Maybe I was wrong.  It would be easy to call Yeezus impenetrable.  There are just so many layers to it and Kanye makes it hard to navigate.  But just like Fantasy, the primal scream is so much louder than the individual elements.  Listen to him wailing on I Am A God.  It’s a sickening inversion of the drowned out vocals from Runaway, Kanye’s most obvious cry for help.  He’s not singing anymore, he’s begging for release.

That “Uh huh, honey” sampled throughout Bound 2 is so comforting, especially at the end of an album that is so often abrasive.  It makes me want to curl up next to something warm and just laugh.  It’s like at the end of a brutal action movie where they show all the characters (most of whom died during the movie) smiling over the credits while some good ol’ boy tune plays as if that makes up for all the destruction you just witnessed.  Does Kanye really think he can wrap things up that neatly?

I worry about the backlash to this album.  Not just that people won’t like it (that’s their choice), but that it will divide Kanye fans into pre-Yeezus (“Pre-zus?”) and post-Yeezus camps  Speaking for myself, I can acknowledge that I’m biased both as a devout Kanye fan and someone who takes pride in frustrating acquaintances with contrary viewpoints.  That might be what is happening here.  If I am going to be accused of elitism, I’m glad that it’s in service of a work that is important and vital and exciting.  Listening to Yeezus is a privilege and a pretty damn rewarding one at that.

The King and I

Little known fact: I declared for the NBA draft out of high school.  I’d never played a single minute for the Markham District High School Marauders, but I figured my street reputation would be enough to get me into the lottery.  On the blacktop, they called me “Shakespeare”.  I made plays.

I was chilling in my living room, watching the draft by myself with a tall glass of milk and a plate of Oreos waiting for my name to be called.

LeBron went first, as expected.  I wasn’t envious in the slightest.  I respected him and I knew our careers would be forever linked.  A lot of pressure for both of us.

‘Melo.  Man…made me wish I was going to college the way he ripped it up down at Syracuse.  I got kids to feed though.  Sorry Mom.

Bosh.  He better do Toronto right or I’ll come back home and set him straight.  I’m not gonna lie, it hurt to get passed over here.

Dwayne Wade…wait, “Dwyane”?   Somebody messed up a caption.  I vaguely recall him dropping a triple double.  In college.  Psht.  Let’s see him go down to the cage at Milliken Mills and get a triple double.  I used to get those on the regular and we usually only played up to 11.

Kirk Hinrich.  TJ Ford.  Mike “Too” Sweetney.  Damn.  I would have loved to play in New York.  I really should have made sure I got a promise before splurging on the Escalade.

Real talk: I didn’t get drafted in the first round.  Or the second.  I see a ton of foreign names pass by and I’m scratching my head.  I’m still convinced the Mavericks got confused and picked Xue Yuyang instead of me.

It is common practice for teams to call undrafted prospects right after the last round to invite them to training camp.  My phone was crypt quiet.  My Oreos remained untouched.  I just wasn’t in the mood.

The post-draft coverage was all about LeBron.  “King James”, they were already calling him.  He was enveloped by camera flashes and hands patting him about the head and shoulders.  My hoop dreams were on hold.  His were just beginning.  You go and live your life now, brother.  You live for the both of us.

*****

Everyone has to deal with expectations.  If you’re on Wall Street, you’re looking for your first million.  If you’re a lawyer, you’re counting your cases.  For LeBron, his success would only be measured in MVPs and championships.  Imagine being 15, 16 years old and knowing that anything short of being the best of the best of the best will lead to you being labelled a failure?

You ever see any of those basketball “mix tapes” on YouTube?  They’re a popular way of showing off high school prospects at their best: crossing cats, throwing no-look dimes, throwing down ridiculous jams (usually on opponents half a foot shorter than them).  They’ve been around forever and it’s gotten to the point where they’re completely useless as far as evaluating a prospect goes.  They just look cool.

In games 6 and 7, LeBron was a living mix tape.  If you want to know why he’s been the most promising athlete since Bo Jackson, you only needed to watch the closing minutes of game 6.  He was switching like a mad man on defence, blocking shots, penetrating at will and relentlessly pushing his team to keep competing.  Not only did all of his skills translate to the next level, he ended up developing a skill that scouts doubted he would ever have: a jump shot.

People forget that before Ray Allen’s big 3 pointer, James hit one moments before that to make the score manageable.  More amazingly, we expected him to make the shot.  Before this season, LeBron didn’t have that feared jumper like Kobe or MJ.  It was a weakness.  You could “give him that s**t”.  At this stage he takes everything.

My choice for the ideal basketball body used to be Scottie Pippen.  It’s LeBron now.

I feel sorry for anyone out there still working to poke holes in James’ game.  They’re missing out on something truly special.  These characters and moments only exist for a brief period in our lives and then they’re gone.

I’m not saying LeBron is the most loveable guy.  We don’t know him and we never will and that makes us angry.  We like a guy like Tim Duncan because we feel like we know what he’s about, but that’s not the truth.  The fans are as close to Tim Duncan as they are to Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant or Dwyane Wade or LeBron.  My relationship with LeBron begins and ends with the product he puts out on the court.  Everything else is immaterial.

The LeBron era has been a resounding success.  After the despair of the Iverson/Carter/McGrady era proved to be fool’s gold, Stern was desperate for a saviour and he couldn’t have asked for anyone better.   All of those stars were marketable, but incapable of winning enough to make it to the Finals (Iverson excluded) where the real TV money was at.  The Celtics/Lakers provided an oasis, but the NBA didn’t emerge from the wastelands until LeBron got with the Heat to produce spectacular ratings for the last three years.

I’m proud of him.  That might be the most insignificant sentiment ever offered, but I’m proud all the same.  Beyond all of the hype, the fame, his decisions, The Decision, Jay-Z and all of the hate, LeBron has responded the way the great ones always do: get better and keep winning.   Jordan never had to deal with this level of scrutiny.  Kobe did and it nearly broke him.  LeBron powers through it and while he is rarely elegant he is always effective.  At the end of the day, he’s taken care of the game and the game has taken care of him.  Beast.

How (Not) To Pick A Fight II: The Lure Of The Unknown

I went a passable 8-5 on my picks this weekend, though that number is both better and worse than it sounds:

(my picks in bold)

UFC on FX 8

Martins d. Larsen
Formiga d. Cariaso
Lineker d. Gashimov
Maldonado d. Hollett
Alcantara d. Santos
Thiago d. Prazeres
Tibau d. Cholish
Massaranduba d. Rio
Lentz d. Dias
Natal d. Zeferino
Dos Anjos d. Dunham
Souza d. Camozzi
Belfort d. Rockhold

On one hand, I was 7-2 after the preliminaries and that’s where I make my bones.  Picking main card fights should be easy since we usually know so much more about the participants, but scouring for information on newer fighters and making legitimate educated guesses takes time and effort.  It’s something a fan can take pride in.

On the other hand, this means I went 1-3 on the “easy” main card picks.  The Rafael dos Anjos/Evan Dunham tilt was as close as expected and really could have gone either way on the scorecards, so I don’t feel too badly about that.  Where I have some regrets is with the João Zeferino and Luke Rockhold losses.  In both cases, I went with the lesser known fighters and in both cases their relative anonymity swayed my decision.  Why is that?

The last time I wrote about my problems with picking fights, I cited two factors that trip me up: personal bias and a desire to see certain storylines play out.  The latter played into my Rockhold pick as I wanted to see the “young lion” triumph over the “rejuvenated” (read: cheating) veteran, but there was more to it than that.  With Michel Prazeres (who also carried the always enticing “mystique of the undefeated fighter”), Zeferino and Rockhold, I simply went with the fighter that was fresher.  I’ve seen less of their fights and consequently, less of their flaws.

I talked myself into Paulo Thiago being on his way out and the UFC selecting Prazeres to be the one to hand him the pink slip.  Even though I’ve seen Thiago at his best, all that was stuck in my mind were his recent failures: getting outworked by Diego Sanchez, out-struck by Martin Kampmann, and outwrestled by Dong Hyun Kim.  Not to mention getting dropped in under a minute by Siyar Bahadurzada.  My entire pick was based on Thiago’s shortcomings, not Prazeres’ strengths.  Sure, I’d looked up a few of his fights, but that is about as accurate as a high school basketball prospect’s “mix tape”.  You don’t know how that kid will pan out in the NBA and I didn’t know how Prazeres would fare in the UFC.  I made an uneducated guess.

Zeferino was the same thing.  I watched enough footage of him to know that he can put one foot in front of the other and that was enough for me because what I’d seen of Rafael Natal didn’t impress me.  I ignored the size advantage of Natal and the fact that he battles with UFC competition, the top 1% of mixed martial artists in the entire world.  It was a good competitive fight and Zeferino didn’t embarrass himself by any stretch, but that fight made the newcomers 0-2.

(If you’re wondering why this rule doesn’t apply to Jacaré Souza, the fact is that even though this was his first UFC fight, he’s still a better known commodity than Chris Camozzi based both on his international success and his Strikeforce experience.  Jacaré has been fighting UFC calibre competition for the majority of his career so he was the logical pick no matter how you slice it.)

In the case of Rockhold, you could argue that he’s had plenty of mainstream exposure so picking him was reasonable, but personally I was picking against Belfort more than I was supporting Rockhold.  Having fought for several major promotions since 1996, fans have had convenient access to 90% of Belfort’s matches, which is nearly unheard of (only Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Frank Mir and a handful of Ultimate Fighter contestants have enjoyed similar exposure).  As it is, there’s the sense that we’ve seen everything The Phenom has to offer.  A fighter like Rockhold, a proven champion who is still fresh to the MMA scene, should be just the guy to use a legend like Belfort as a stepping stone.  Rockhold has a career rife with possibilities; Belfort is an old dog.

Then again, that old dog’s tricks include spinning heel kicks apparently.

It’s tempting to pick unknowns to topple UFC veterans because when it happens, I feel smart.  Like I was in on some secret all along that everyone else is just figuring out.  The problem is that that temptation often flies in the face of good sense.  There’s a reason that fighters like Natal and Thiago keep getting their number called.  None of this is to say that veterans should always be picked over neophytes, only that data needs to be viewed objectively and not selectively.  New fighters have weaknesses just like old ones.  I, for one, will steer myself away from making certain picks just to look “cool”.  Nobody likes an MMA hipster.

The Bitterness of Bret Hart

I’ll never forgive Shawn, or Hunter, for killing the business that so many of us gave our lives for. – Bret Hart, “Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling”

Bret Hart’s derogatory remarks about Triple H have come and gone, with most fans writing them off as “out of touch” at best and “delusional” at worst.  As someone who was a massive Bret mark growing up and also a Triple H detractor, I have to say…those fans are not wrong.  I’ll always respect Bret’s honesty, but whether he thinks he’s telling the truth or not, his comments aren’t coming from a place of rational objectivity.  That’s especially true when dealing with one Hunter Hearst Helmsley, a Hart nemesis long before his involvement in Montreal.  However, this isn’t just about his relationship with Triple H.  It’s also about his relationship with Vince McMahon.

The onset of the Attitude Era was unkind to Bret.  In-ring expertise and compelling angles were beginning to take a backseat to vulgarity and shocks that were completely unrelated to his traditional view of professional wrestling.  Bret’s anti-America gimmick might have been controversial, but it was still rooted in the basic tenants of good versus evil.  Even better for him, the angle allowed him to keep getting cheers in Canada and abroad, something he cherished.  It was a refreshing change of character for Bret, while still being good for his ego.

Leading the charge into a wild, unconventional, often juvenile frontier were Shawn Michaels and Hunter Hearst Helmsley, the infamous D-Generation X.  In Michaels, Hart had a natural rival and while the two men clearly despised each other they always respected each other in the ring.  Helmsley, on the other hand, was perceived by Bret as a lackey, a tag along, a sidekick that was riding Shawn’s coattails.  Hunter used his relationship with Shawn and his own increasing backstage power to influence booking, which more often than not conflicted with the Hitman’s own ideas.  The Bret/Shawn feud might have been grabbing all the headlines, but Hunter, who’d avoided the erratic behaviour and drug abuse that coloured Shawn’s early career, was waiting in the wings all along waiting for his opportunity.

While Bret’s career was floundering in WCW (for reasons beyond his control), Triple H was rising through the ranks and improving in every aspect of his game.  By 2000, Triple H would be in his first Wrestlemania main event, becoming the first heel to ever escape the big show with the world title.  At the end of that year, Bret would be released from his WCW contract.  In March of 2002, another Wrestlemania ended with Triple H as the champion; three months later, Bret would suffer a stroke.

Triple H eventually became the heir to Vince McMahon both personally and professionally, a role that Bret once envisioned for himself:

Vince said he had a better deal for me than WCW.  He wanted me to sign for twenty years, for a total of $10.5 million…to be on standby as that Babe Ruth of the company Vince was always looking for.  It was a satisfying feeling hearing him say, “I’ll never give you a reason to ever want to leave.”

WCW was offering almost as much for only three years, but when it got down to it I couldn’t leave Vince, or our history together.

These days, it is Triple H who now finds himself occupying that “Babe Ruth” role.  Add in the fact that Vince was like a secondary father figure to Bret and that has to be a bitter pill to swallow.

When Bret had his stroke, he was in his early 40s, around the same age that Triple H was when he was putting on classics with Undertaker at consecutive Wrestlemanias.  Can you imagine what that must feel like?  To see someone you dislike remaining relevant, wrestling great matches and having what could have been yours?  Even the most humble and respectful person would struggle with that scenario.  Everything that Triple H does is coloured by Bret’s emotions.  That kind of hate will blind you.

I am in no way defending Bret’s comments.  I consider the man an inspiration not only because of his wrestling career, but because of the challenges he’s overcome and the principals that he lives by.  Unfortunately, those principals occasionally manifest themselves in negative fashion, as evidenced by his criticism of Triple H.  Right or wrong, what positive outcome could there be to tearing down someone who plays a major role in a company you’re affiliated with?  I would love to see Bret contributing ideas behind closed doors, not airing out public grievances.  Bret has always been a man of great pride and he seems to think that working with Triple H is impossible; then again, we once said the same thing about Shawn Michaels.

All I ask from anyone judging his comments is to look at things from his perspective; skewed as it is.  The life that Triple H has (PPV headliner, respected executive, McMahon family member) was supposed to be his and it was taken away prematurely.  Worse, it ended up in the hands of an enemy.  I hope for Bret’s sake that as new fans become educated about him and his legacy, he continues to move on from past regrets and missed opportunities.  The old wounds may linger, but they only get worse when can’t leave them alone.

Light As A Feather: Why Frankie Edgar NEEDS To Beat José Aldo

Frankie Edgar needs to win on Saturday.  I want him to win because he’s one of my favourite fighters of all time, but it’s also imperative that he find a way to take the Featherweight Championship from José Aldo for the sake of his career.  If Edgar loses, that will be his third straight loss in a title fight and in this “what have you done for us lately?” world, that will trump the four encounters where he walked away with a title in hand.  Is that fair?  Maybe not, but the reality is that no matter how long you’ve been on top of the mountain, it is a long, long fall when you get knocked off.

There’s a reason that some fighters fade away after losing or falling short of a championship.  It takes a unique mixture of focus, dedication and luck to become the best of the best and when those elements are working in your favour, you are nothing less than invincible.  When you finally lose (and everybody loses), the effect on the psyche must be devastating.  You can change up your training and intensify your workouts and continue to have great success, but at the forefront of your mind is that there is one guy out there who you know and (everyone else knows) is better than you.  If Edgar is denied for a third time, will it be even possible for him to ascend up the rankings again?  More importantly, will anyone care to find out?  It’s no secret that Edgar isn’t a big draw and it doesn’t help that each of his championship feuds had their share of controversy:

BJ Penn (UFC 112, UFC 118)

When Edgar was awarded a title shot, I was vindicated but also pessimistic.  I figured that he should be happy to be there and I was already preparing rhetoric about how there’s no shame in being beat by a legend.  After all, Penn was coming off of two flawless performances where he made top contenders Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez look silly.  Edgar had no chance.

My friends and I joked that Penn might have spent too much time in Abu Dhabi chilling at the beach with his family because he definitely was not in immaculate shape.  Still, he seemed to be countering well and avoiding takedowns and while it wasn’t exactly vintage Penn, none of us saw enough from Edgar to think that he had pulled off the upset.  However, it was Edgar who won via unanimous decision.  It was a heavily debated result compounded by judge Douglas Crosby’s ludicrous 50-45 score in favour of Edgar.  You could certainly make a case for the challenger, but that was a polarizing score and it turned a lot of people against Edgar.  Dana White booked an immediate rematch and Edgar was dominant the second time, but the damage may already have been done.

Gray Maynard (UFC 125, UFC 136)

Hoo boy.  In their first meeting back at UFC Fight Night 13, the bigger Maynard’s wrestling was too much for Edgar who hadn’t mastered his stick-and-move style just yet.  Edgar was the underdog in the rematch and he was obliterated in the first round.  We use the phrase “survival mode” a lot in combat sports and that was a prime example as Edgar looked more like a gymnast than a martial artist, tumbling around the ring to get away from the relentless challenger.  However, over the next four rounds he took the fight to Maynard, including an explosive slam in the second that instantly became one of my favourite sports memories.  That one move epitomized what it means to defy expectations and battle back from adversity.

Many fans thought that the fight could have been stopped in that first round (and championship bias may have played a part in Edgar being allowed to continue).  At the very least, you could have made a strong argument for a 10-7 round that would have lead to Maynard winning a majority decision (the result was a split draw).  This warranted another rematch and like the second Penn fight, Edgar left no doubt who the better man was finishing Maynard in the 4th round; but again, there were skeptics who still believed he didn’t deserve the title.

Benson Henderson (UFC 144, UFC 150)

Henderson presented a unique threat to Edgar, who was favoured for the first time since becoming the Lightweight Champion.  The white hot WEC import matched the size of Maynard with the never ending cardio (one of Maynard’s perceived shortcomings) necessary to keep up with Edgar.  The two engaged in a thrilling back-and-forth battle that hinged on a careless mistake by Edgar that resulted in him taking a full force up-kick from one of Hendersons’ titanium thick legs.  He wasn’t the same after that strike and Henderson capitalized, beating Edgar to the punch on multiple occasions and getting up quickly after takedowns.  It was a close fight, but Henderson’s win was widely accepted.

The uproar came over Edgar “whining” his way into another rematch; fans grumbled, completely ignoring the fact that Edgar made a humble request:

I’m not trying to shoot anybody out of anything they deserve, but I had to do two immediate rematches, so what’s fair? – Edgar in regards to Anthony Pettis originally being favoured for a title match

Not only was Edgar gracious in accepting those prior rematches, but the Edgar/Henderson fight was awesome and it’s unclear why people didn’t want to see it again.  White ended up changing his mind, rewarding Edgar for his hard work and paving the way for another entertaining bout.  Edgar/Henderson II was even closer than the first fight and ironically, Edgar seemed to win the crowd in a rematch that he narrowly lost.  A long suggested drop down to 145 was the next logical step.  He’d now be dealing with faster opposition, but he’d also no longer be dancing with giants.

The move makes perfect sense, but placing him opposite the champion Aldo when he hasn’t had a single fight at featherweight in his career…not so much.  In fairness, there were a series of injuries that prevented long time contender Erik Koch from getting his originally scheduled shot on two separate occasions and the division has been in turmoil as several top ranked fighters have taken each other out (Koch himself just suffered a brutal setback at the hands of Ricardo Lamas).  I can’t tell you who should have got the shot instead, but there had to be a better solution than pulling the trigger on Aldo/Edgar.

An Edgar loss would likely mean that this will be the last time he gets a shot at UFC gold.  One way of looking at it is that if he’s not ready now then he’ll never be ready, but we’ve all seen how fighters can adjust and evolve especially when changing weight classes.  The match doesn’t even make sense from a business standpoint as an Edgar coming off of even one big win (perhaps over someone like Dennis Siver or Chan Sung Jung) would make an Aldo/Edgar collision far more compelling than an Edgar coming off of two straight losses.  The decision seems short sighted and it reeks of instant gratification.

I’ve got a horse in this race and I’ve written before about how personal bias can get in the way of making reasonable fight picks.  This situation is no different.  I’m invested in the image of Edgar using his technique and guile to avoid any big Aldo shots and outpoint him or string together a combination that staggers the champion leading to an exciting TKO finish; I’m wilfully expelling thoughts of Aldo matching Edgar step for step and inevitably connecting with one of his trademark kill shots.

It’s now or never.  Penn, Randy Couture and Kenny Florian are a few of the names that spring to mind when discussing fighters who had years between title shots and while Edgar’s credentials are on par with these names, he’s never enjoyed the same recognition.  If Edgar loses, there won’t be too many fans in his corner lobbying for him to get another shot; realistically, he’ll be moved all the way to the back of the line with another loss.  An Aldo/Edgar meeting is one that I’d anticipated in the past and hoped for in the future, but am dreading in the present.  Victory is the only option for Edgar this Saturday, because the alternative is a dreary, slow climb back up to the top that few fighters manage to complete.