Dallas, Texas. It was only fitting that in a state where everything is bigger the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix would continue here. The Dallas Mavericks finally won their first title. The entire city and all its surrounding areas are still reliving that moment to the point every other song on the radio has some kind of Mavericks, “Thank you, Dirk” promo to precede the next track. The days leading into the Grand Prix though had the combat loyalists already staking claims and picking sides that even the minute leading to the fight was adrenaline-filled. As a fan of the sport, I have always found enough joy just sitting back at home or at the local sports bar watching my guys get the job done. It was not until I attended the Grand Prix, my first MMA event no less, that watching two men go at it in a high stakes brawl became an even greater experience.
There is no middle ground when it comes to weather here in Texas. After all, this is a state where you can start your morning trying to heat up your car at 19 degree weather to suddenly blast the air conditioning when it hits 85 in the afternoon. Today was hot. We are talking the local television station right next to the American Airlines Center is letting the crowd know it was 107 degrees at the time hundreds to thousands of us were waiting outside to enter to the arena. The hour from the time of my arrival just to get in the doors was mixed with the need to stay cool mixed with the bits of small talk that served little purpose but to pass time. “How was your drive?” “Who are you pulling for?” “Do you train?” Nothing more than little salt-and-pepper conversations that did its job for that hour. After getting my ticket scanned and receiving a rather uncomfortable pat-down from “Stephen” the security guard to ensure I have no weapons on me, short of my stunning calves, it was a quick lap around the floor and a quick flight of stairs to my seat.
I cannot possibly see how calm the press is that I see parading the main floor knowing there are high-profile people on site. Perhaps a mixture of excitement and immaturity caused the inner fanboy in me to break loose. “El Guapo” Bas Rutten (28-4-1) was talking to his higher-ups, Dallas Cowboys legend Michael Irvin was taking pictures, and “Bigfoot” Antonio Silva (15-2) was there looking stylish in that lavender shirt, which compliments him, I must say. After Jimmy Lennon Jr. started calling in the first bout of fighters, Brian Melancon (5-2) and Isaac Vallie-Flagg (5-2-1), to the cage, I calmed down a bit and decided to take notice to the opening bout as the rest of the crowd slowly trickled in. I can never be too harsh on smaller name fighters. They probably are not training full-time meaning there could be much more on their plate compared to today’s fighter in their attempt to really break into the sport. Most likely the fighter at this level still has that 9-to-5 job, high bills, possibly a family to support, and squeezing what little minutes they have just to train.That said, Melancon and Vallie-Flagg was exciting in shorts bursts where, while both had their moments of glory, the lack of conditioning training showed in both men. In the end, Vallie-Flagg had done enough for a Split Decision that made for a nice way to get the night going.
Nah-Shon Burrell’s (6-1) one-sided victory demonstrated that a superior wrestler will outwork a good, not great, Jiu-Jitsu artist in his match with Joe Ray (5-2). Burrell came in and dealt his damage on all planes of the fight, but to Ray’s credit, the guy can take a shot. He nearly had Burrell planted in Heel Hooks numerous times just to be rudely pounded shortly after losing the hold. I am sure you have all been with friends watching a fight or a football game on TV and in unison you all go “oooh!” when a good crack happens. Picture yourself now at this point with thousands of people in a microphoned arena going “oooh!” all at once. The resonance shakes your knees and serves to remind you, “Yes, he got hit. He got hit hard.”
At this point, I have to get a drink and set my dad in charge of camera work for the Magno Almeida (5-0) and “The Hurricane” Conor Heun (5-4) fight. I would regret missing this fight later when my dad tells me Heun broke his arm en route to his decision victory. Could I tell you how he won? Sure, if I saw the fight. As for now, I have pictures and this regret to live with. This is probably the downside to this entire story and if moments of melancholy and infinite sadness are not your thing, my bad. My. Bad. It probably would not ease the pain telling you that the battle between “JZ” Gesias Cavalcante (14-3-2) and “The Silverback” Justin Wilcox (9-3-1) ended in a No Contest after the latter suffered an inadvertent eye poke. Sure, it is a buzz kill telling this fight that had promise ended unfavorably, but an eye injury is no joke. So when push comes to shove, man up and hope the best for Justin Wilcox.
It is roughly 8:40pm CT and an announcement was made stating that the main card would start off in 20 minutes just to sync with the Showtime time slot. In moments such as these, you get to know your temporary neighbors a little bit better whether you choose to or not. Along with my dad, I sat surrounded by a group of casual observers to the sport whose personalities and views on MMA differed greatly. There were the casual observers to the sport whose usual calls involved breaking apart the grappling aspect of the game in exchange for stand-up. Needless to say, I heard “knock his ass out” enough to span the next ten cards. The diehard fans were giving their own play-by-play of every attempt one made when trying to pass guard. My personal favorite in the area: the “I know-the-game” guy. This is the overeager fellow who chugs on his plastic cup of $12 Bud Light, dropping names of various gyms he has trained at, the black belt in some obscure art he earned, and fighters who would destroy any fighter despite any weight discrepancy. I am sorry guy but while “Ken-Flo” Kenny Florian (14-5) is a great fighter, he will never, NEVER, blast through “The Spider” Anderson Silva (28-4). Turd.
The main card finally comes around with “The Python” Valentijn Overeem (27-22)and “The Grave Digger” Chad Griggs (9-1) to open it up. This fight I was heavily interested in. For one, it has an Overeem whose name is synonymous with “Uber”, “Ultra”, and “facking big”. Second, Chad Griggs has the best mutton chops of any fighter to step into the cage which requires a man of great confidence to bear. Why else do you think I don’t sport them? Anyways in the short two minutes of action, I was really surprised at how well Griggs handled himself against V.Overeem by getting the clinch and taking him to the mat. Even more impressive was how Griggs quickly ground-and-pounded out the older Overeem into submission. This fight shows how promising Griggs is in the sport despite a wild, guns blazing approach that have done others in. Clearly the word, “decision”, is not in his vocabulary.
As much as I try to stay neutral when it comes to most fights, my heart dropped when “The Snowman” Jeff Monson (37-12) came up short on his decision loss to Daniel Cormier (7-0). Cormier won the fight convincingly. He threw clean combinations and heavy shots that Monson could not seem to find an answer to. “The Snowman” just seemed out of the fight to begin with. My yells of “just scrap” were overridden with frustration-driven profanity that if my mom were to hear me speak, I’d get my ass whipped for saying it.” Back on point, Daniel Cormier keeps his well-earned undefeated streak alive. I would personally love to see Griggs and Cormier go at it. Cormier has the wrestling but his stand-up is definitely there. Griggs has the heavy hands and sheer drive that obviously proves trouble for anybody. It would be a fun match I think.
It is at this point my dad now leaves to get our round of sodas and I meet a girl. Let me set things straight, it was not “Conviction” Gina Carano (7-1). Gina’s been avoiding my calls, my texts, and basically being immature like Amanda Seigham from seventh period biology in high school (screw you, Amanda). This girl was cute, smart, and had very good points about why Japanese rules should be applied here in the States. What a dream! I thought we had made a connection until she walked a few rows down to where her boyfriend or husband was, just like seventh period biology again (screw you again, Amanda).
In what was easily the most exciting fight of the night, “Gamebred” Jorge Masvidal (20-6) completely outworked and bloodied KJ Noons (9-4). I like Noons, but those bad habits of dropping his hands when moving his head and punching along with a one-sided game seemed to have caught up to him. Masvidal’s counter-striking along with a well-versed offense just kept Noons hanging on for virtually all three rounds. I remember getting accidentally slapped in the face, by my dad no less, when we rose from our seats after Masvidal landed a knee to Noon’s head, nearly finishing him in the first round. I have no argument against Masvidal taking on “El Nino” Gilbert Melendez (19-2). The three-round fight was nothing but inventory for highlight reels for time to come. As for the opposition, Noons is tough and a fight like this definitely helps tighten his game up for the next fight.
Finally the two headlining events and two remaining Grand Prix quarter-final matches begin when the promos of “The Babyfaced Assassin” Josh Barnett (22-5) and “The Grim” Brett Rogers came up (11-3). I was surprised to see a moment of unity where the general area around me collectively cheered for Rogers where a lot of people have written him off for his then, two losses. Of course that means Barnett was booed upon as yells of “Pass the test!” and “Fuck you ‘roids” blasted my ear violently. Barnett has a history of illicit substances by the way, thus the comments. What substances? Well if a test is involved, surely one can imagine. You have to hand it to Rogers. For a guy who had no ground game against Barnett he was able to hang on enough until the second round before getting submitted with an Arm-Triangle. I thought that brief exchange of a simple jab-cross combination would work fine for Rogers since he’s the taller guy but after choosing to clinch out of panic, Barnett took it from there. Kudos to both guys. I certainly hope Rogers keeps fighting even if it means he has to drop a level in competition. There is no shame losing to three champions and for a guy who worked from a dead-end job changing tires to professionally fighting for a living, I respect him. Barnett is now set to face “The Russian Mercenary” Sergei Kharitonov (17-4) in the semi-finals of the Heavyweight Grand Prix. Kharitonov has the heavy hands for sure, but I am not too keen of his ground game to be honest. It might end up another “striker versus grappler” fight but unlike Rogers, I believe Kharitonov can definitely keep the fight standing.
The fight between “Vai Cavalo” Fabricio Werdum (14-5-1) and “Demolition Man” Alistair Overeem (32-12) was a chess match between a world-class grappler and a world-class striker. If one’s knowledge of the sport had depth, they would have gotten it but for those looking for a knockout or easily-applied submission, probably not. Throughout the match Werdum kept pulling guard and Overeem would refuse to engage. The few moments Werdum had that chance to do work, he did not achieve much besides a few hip-escapes and opportunities for a possible Triangle before Overeem easily stepped off. This should not spare Overeem from any slack. For a K-1 champion, the kickboxer did not swing with the intentions to maim as the world expected. The match went to a decision where Overeem advances in the Grand Prix to face Antonio Silva.
I have no problem saying Overeem won, but I am bothered a bit by the Unanimous Decision. I felt Werdum’s insistence to pull guard was an act of aggression and although he managed to land a few times out of many, he should have been given credit for attempting to do so. After all, if wrestlers who constantly shoot for a takedown only to be stuffed can still win points, why not the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu guys? If anything I would have said Split Decision for either guy. Overeem definitely landed the harder shots and Werdum outstruck him with the straighter, quicker punches. Then again, this is why I am not a judge and still here sending Dana White tweets asking if I can be the guy who keeps Arianny’s seat warm in between round transitions. The fighters were disappointed in their performance from what I heard after. Most of the general populace were booing. I felt fine with this fight even though I looked silly wearing the shirt of a man who just lost. Who cares? They get paid to fight and win and every approach to fighting is different. In this case, the differences were evident.
For my first professional MMA event it definitely was quite a blast. The shock of every punch seems to vibrate through the arena, sharing space with champions and legends is electrifying but most importantly, the fights become more intimate. If your fighter wins, you win. Lose and you become as heartbroken as them. One can say it is religious in a sense where communion is granted by knuckle sandwiches and the Apocalypse can happen if a mistake is made. Would I go again? For sure. I could go on and on about the events that went on but it is late, and I have typed well beyond my comfort level. That said, here’s the customary picture of me as close to the cage in the cliched pose most people would do in such situations. If your eye is real keen, you can see Ariel Helwani’s head.