The Ultimate Fighter 20, Episode 10: No talk, just fight

Previously on The Ultimate Fighter …

Hey! Do you remember Jessica Penne? Yes, she’s a pretty good fighter. MMARising puts her 12th in the global pound-for-pound rankings. She’s seeded fourth in the tournament on The Ultimate Fighter.

Oh, you didn’t remember she’s on the show? Well, she is. No, really. And she’s fighting fifth seed Aisling Daly, another fighter you might have known before the show but haven’t seen as much this season except to learn about her battle with depression and her love of her Irish training partners.

In other words, we have actual grown-ups fighting this week. People who aren’t fussing with each other over stupid things. That was last week.

This being a reality show, they have to drum up something. So we talk with Justine Kish, who rooms with Daly but is good friends with Penne. She interprets Daly’s lack of an outgoing personality as hatred. We hadn’t seen Kish in quite a while — she was injured and had to withdraw from the competition.

Penne isn’t drawn into anything. She wants to direct her energy toward the fight. You can almost hear the producers crying.

So let’s try some actual fight-related talk. Penne isn’t big on game-planning, but she’s concerned about Daly’s unorthodox style. Got that?

But first, it’s our product placement for Harley-Davidson. Coach Anthony Pettis gives a nice speech about the “Harley-Davidson lifestyle.” Felice Herrig tells us she frequently rides on the back of a Harley-Davidson and was enjoying a chance to actually go “vroom, vroom” herself. I cannot comment on that.

Just before Pettis says “lifestyle” for the 30th time, we see Kish trying to get Penne to lighten up and enjoy herself.

I’m glad I’m not on this show. My confessional would run something like this: “Yeah, how am I supposed to fit my kids on this? And all the gear for soccer practice? Where are the speakers? And why is it so freaking loud? Yeah, I’m going outside to wait for the van.”

As promised, we’re going to see the man Daly calls “the notorious Conor McGregor,” the Irishman who fights pretty well at featherweight and talks even better. He shows up in a dapper vest and tie, as if someone told him people dress up in Vegas. (He is at least going to a press event to sell his bout with Dustin Poirier.) He pulls off the surprise pretty well. Daly is just puttering around the dressing room and starting to walk toward the door when McGregor suddenly pops in. Daly nearly takes him down with a big hug, and they drool together over the UFC belt in the hall.

Daly brings McGregor in to meet the team. Most of them seem unimpressed. But Daly introduces her friends, including Alex the Never Seen on Camera. She admits it might be a bit childish not to introduce the ones who aren’t really her buddies — “Didn’t want anybody getting some love from Conor if they didn’t deserve it.”

We’ve just hit the point in the season where everyone has the thousand-yard stare. They’re physically and emotionally drained. It’s like watching people wait at an airport during a flight delay.

Penne wants her alone time, but Kish won’t have it. She wants to play ping-pong. Penne wants to keep doing her jigsaw puzzle. Kish wants to do something two people can do. She has never seen my family do jigsaw puzzles.

Legendary cutman Stitch Duran pops up for a cameo, wrapping Daly’s hands and asking if she’s primarily a boxer. She says she’s more well-rounded.

Pettis, who has been pretty good about not playing favorites, offers a quick analysis: The fight favors Jessica early, Aish later. Given that we’re only 26 minutes into this episode and already walking to the cage, we may be seeing the “Aish later” part of that assessment.

Tale of the tape: You wouldn’t guess it, but Penne is five years older (31 to 26). She’s also a couple of inches taller with a reach advantage.

After 40 seconds of tentative jabbing and stepping around, Penne gets an eye poke. Referee Herb Dean stops the action and consults with Penne, who’s blinking a lot but seems ready to resume quickly.

In the fight recap later, Anthony Pettis thinks the eye poke slowed down Penne, who kept going for a takedown but couldn’t get it. Daly wound up getting a couple of takedowns herself but opted not to take the fight to the ground. That may have been the difference in a first round with a few clinches and some fierce exchanges.

Round 2: Daly throws hard straight rights. Another clinch, but Daly gets the underhooks and again tosses Penne to the ground and lets her up. They clinch again, and the cageside microphones pick up some heavy breathing from both fighters. It’s an intense fight.

Penne finally gets her takedown late in the round, sneaking her leg past Daly’s to trip her. Daly defends well, but the round ends with Penne on Daly’s back, landing punches. That’s enough to win the round and force us to …

Round 3: And it’s all Penne. Daly goes for the clinch but gets tripped. Penne’s on top again with a lot of time to work. Daly shoes some creativity from the bottom, even going for a leg submission at one point, but Penne keeps top control and lands some punches. Penne, to her credit, remains aggressive and works her way to side control. She slides up and locks an arm around Daly’s neck, never really threatening the choke but leaving herself free to pound away.

Penne finally gives up the position, and they stand again. Realistically, Daly’s only chance at this point is a big KO, but she opts to clinch again. At the horn, they both raise their hands, but there’s no way this fight goes to Daly.

Fight recap: Pettis says it’s one of the best fights of the season. Melendez is impressed as well. The decision, of course, goes to Penne.

In Penne’s dressing room, the coaches hail Daly’s toughness. Penne jokingly complains that she’s not getting any praise.

Penne faces the winner of the Esparza-Torres fight. Gotta like Penne in that one.

The next episode promises both of the remaining quarterfinals, including Calderwood-Namajunas. That’s an impressive fight card.

The final word on the Soccer Culture Wars, more or less

This post is not a reversal of my retirement from the Soccer Culture Wars. I would see it as encouragement to others to join me in retirement.

We’ll need to be clear — the Wars include some reasonable debate topics, especially those related to Jurgen Klinsmann, someone I would see as an underachiever at this point in his reign as U.S. Soccer national team coach and semi-official overseer of all things. But they also include promotion/relegation discussions that devolved into personal attacks around 2009 or so, and there they remain.

So the past couple of weeks have seen a confluence of SCW activity that I hope will actually bring about an end to things.

My retirement — not that I had been particularly active for some time — was based in part on conversations that reminded me how irrelevant these conversations really are. And then, as if soccer wanted to spite me one more time, a couple of well-intentioned people took such topics seriously.

It’s coincidence, of course — Sean Reid has been working on the book Love Thy Soccer for years and had no plans to publish it at the same time that Howler magazine published Kevin Koczwara’s piece on Ted Westervelt, the man who believes we can get pro/rel in this country if we just get on Twitter at scream at anyone perceived to be part of the status quo. It’s just bad timing for those of us who are resolving to ignore Ted and his circle of demons once and for all.

Let’s be clear — Love Thy Soccer is a book worth reading. It’s an expansive five-year survey of the good and bad of American soccer. I haven’t made it through the whole book yet, but what I’ve read is terrific except for the flaw of taking Westervelt seriously. There’s a chapter on promotion/relegation that relies heavily on Westervelt and brings up one person (Phil Schoen) to give the “con” argument. If you want to do a real pro/rel discussion, it needs to look a bit more like John Oliver’s climate change “representative debate,” in which he brought out 96 people to join Bill Nye against three climate-change deniers, thereby representing the actual scientific consensus on the matter:

Howler’s decision to do a Westervelt profile is a difficult one, and I wish editor George Quraishi would be a little less dismissive of those who disagree with it. That said, I think it turned out pretty well. I know Dan Loney was quite annoyed with his unwanted role in the story, and Loney decided to subject Koczwara and Quraishi to a constant barrage of Twitter harassment to see how they liked being on the receiving end of such nonsense as Westervelt and company perpetuate. But I view it the same way I would view a story on the woman marrying Charles Manson — I don’t expect to sympathize with her, but there could be some value in knowing what drives her to such action — in other words, asking what the hell is wrong with her.

And Koczwara is a terrific writer. Until I searched his name, I didn’t even realize he had written a piece about hockey enforcers that I loved six months ago. Loney’s objection notwithstanding, I think he did a good job handling this sensitive story, neither piling on with cheap shots nor letting Westervelt appear more sympathethic than he deserves to be.

But there is a danger in giving fringe voices a mainstream platform. Just look at cable news, where Ann Coulter and James Carville take turns poisoning our political system. Or other aspects of our postmodern media, where climate-change deniers and even creationists are often on equal footing with the “side” that actually has the plurality of facts.

Some people who are new to all this might not realize how far on the fringe these people are. But thankfully, they decided to demonstrate it on Twitter yesterday:

Wow. That’s quite a statement, isn’t it? It’s curious (um, wasn’t pro/rel invented by a bunch of white dudes in England?) and inflammatory.

And some people, by all available evidence not “white,” had fun with it …

(By way of disclaimer, Francis used to work for MLS.)

Comedy aside, this is still a rather serious allegation. Perhaps Kleiban would care to explain?

I’m not sure whether he’s referring to me, Brown or someone else. I’d ask him to tell us which person he’s addressing and why he thinks that person is “disingenuous,” but he has apparently taken the position that his points are too brilliant to explain.

And the larger point here is that Westervelt and company were eager to jump onto this non-discussion.

(A comment from Pothunting appears to have been deleted.)

Then, subtly, the position started to change. Oh, we’re not really talking about pro/rel, even though it was explicitly mentioned in Kleiban’s tweet. It’s about the U.S. power structure, leaving Brown wrestling with the accusations of the absurd.

And it continues this morning:

That would be the same Soccer Morning that gave Westervelt a chance to call in and demonstrate that he’s a reasonable person, incidentally.

Here’s the thing: This is not unusual. This has been happening for YEARS. This is why most people in soccer — writers, administrators, etc. — no longer engage with these people. Read the Howler story for more on that.

The argument goes as follows: Anyone who points out the realities about pro/rel in the USA is one or more of the following:

  1. An upholder of the status quo and therefore an apologist for everything that’s wrong with U.S. Soccer — failure to win the CONCACAF Champions League, “pay to play” travel soccer (which, in the real world, MLS is trying to address), etc.
  2. A paid spokesman of MLS and the shadow conspiracy behind it that seeks to make money off soccer without making it better.
  3. Nonexistent. I’ve actually met Dan Loney, as have other people, but we’re all not trustworthy, apparently. In comparison, the Obama birther conspiracists seem sane. At least they admit Obama exists. (I do wish Howler hadn’t said “puppet” in the headline on the Westervelt piece — most people on Ted’s hit list have visible real names, while his “allies” include a few anonymous accounts.)

For the record, I’ll go through these allegations about myself. I don’t think anyone disputes my existence — I’ve led a rather public life with bylines in many major news organizations. I wrote a few fantasy columns for previous MLSNet management more than 10 years ago, and my book was written with MLS’s cooperation but no backing from the league. (I didn’t even let a guy pay for my lunch.) Currently, I have no season credential to cover MLS, and I haven’t been paid to write about the league for years.

My main project these days is a book on youth soccer. And that book will challenge the status quo on several fronts. Then again, it will also challenge soccer coaches with a God complex who think they have the answers to everything and refuse to hear evidence to the contrary.

If promotion/relegation happened in the next 5-10 years, it would surely be a net gain for me financially. I could write a sequel to Long-Range Goals and show how things have changed. I could probably sell a few freelance stories.

And no, I wouldn’t be selling out any principles in doing so. My position on promotion/relegation is actually one that can’t be wrong as such. Here it is:

  1. It would be cool. (Debatable)
  2. It is not feasible right now at the top divisions because the game’s investors have already taken on a lot of risk and are not in a position to take more at this time. (Only slightly debatable — and if it turns out investors are able to take that risk at some point, it’s still true because of the qualifiers “right now” and “at this time.”)
  3. It’s already in place in many amateur leagues (fact) and could be used in other lower divisions (speculative).
  4. It would not be a panacea for everything that ails the U.S. soccer talent pool. (Probably the most contentious part of my position, but it’s well-supported.)
  5. I hope we see it down the road, in part because it would be a symptom (not the cause) of a strong domestic game.

(The full recap would be here, here and here.)

So three things could happen in the next, say, 20 years:

  1. Pro/rel does not come to the USA’s top divisions. I was right.
  2. A major pro/rel attempt is made, but it fails. Also right.
  3. Pro/rel comes to the top divisions and works. Right again.

Maybe it’s not the bravest position, but I don’t care. I don’t have any interest in crusading one way or the other and winning a pointless debate on Twitter that won’t move the needle on pro/rel’s feasibility one bit. On pro/rel, I’m just a reporter.

I think there’s a place in this country for fans to tell U.S. Soccer they’d like to see pro/rel. I did an interview recently with a grad student writing a thesis in which he tries to overcome the actual factors against pro/rel (they’re mostly financial and logistical) and come up with a system that works. The advice I’d have for such people is this:

You’re going to be judged by the company you keep.

This is real. It’s why people who have had an interest in lower-division soccer sometimes have trouble taking the NASL seriously. (It’s also amusing to see the pro/rel folks talking up the NASL’s strength and setting themselves up as fountains of historical knowledge while forgetting how many USL/A-League teams have made great runs in the Open Cup. One day, an NASL team will win the Open Cup — just as the Rochester Rhinos did in 1999. recognizes the Rhinos, but it doesn’t fit the “NASL = newfound second-division strength” narrative of the pro/rel zealots, nor does the fact that the USL actually dabbled in pro/rel and found that it didn’t magically make everything better.)

So there you have it. When it comes to the Soccer Culture Wars, the pro/rel zealots aren’t leading some sort of movement. They’re just typical Twitter trolls, spewing hate to feel better about themselves. For those who are new to this discussion, you had a chance yesterday to see their true colors — false accusations of everything from payola to racism. We know who they are.

And that’s why I have no interest in continuing to participate. We can talk about the real issues in U.S. soccer — the upcoming MLS collective-bargaining talks, whether Klinsmann is a mad genius or simply mad, what the NWSL needs to survive and thrive past the crucial third year, and why youth soccer has devolved into an arms race of parents who think they need to invest massive quantities of time, money and gas to their kids can realize their potential.

Peace out.

The Ultimate Fighter 20, Episode 9: Mean girls

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? The last season of The Ultimate Fighter I recapped in full was Season 16. Remember Shane Carwin?

But I’m inspired. Season 20 — all women, all contenders, a title belt on the line — is terrific. The fights are more intriguing that what you’ll see on some UFC pay-per-views these days. I can’t wait to see Rose Namajunas take on Joanne Calderwood. Not because of their staredown. Because they’re great fighters with good personalities.

Even the reality aspects of Season 20 have been better than many past seasons. Sure, the house has divided into cliques — as it always does. (So please don’t assume this is some female trait on display in the TUF house for the first time.) The producers have given us a bit of misdirection on the supposed house villain, Heather Clark. After a couple of episodes of teammates ganging up on her, the careful viewer started to notice that she wasn’t actually doing anything worthy of such scorn. By the time we learned she was definitely not faking her knee injury, Angela Magana and other Clark tormenters had become the villains.

Luke Thomas and Kid Nate are a little down on the lack of coaches’ interaction in this season. I have no problem with the lack of a coaching rivalry. My respect for both coaches has grown. Anthony Pettis is thoughtful and empathetic. Gilbert Melendez is doing his best to mediate intrateam disputes.

So here we go — back in the recappers’ chair. It’s Episode 9.

(Have I mentioned that I love the new theme song? I do. Good subtle touches like the ride cymbal building up to the final guitar riff. Quality.)

Rose Namajunas laments that she’s the only fighter left from Team Melendez. That’s actually a good situation in some ways.

And, hey — there’s alcohol! I had just been thinking that we hadn’t seen much drinking this season. That leads to Bec Rawlings, drowning her sorrows after elimination, having a slumber party with Magana and a couple of the other Rude Girls. Tecia Torres, awakened in her upper bunk, decided to take her pillow elsewhere. And … that’s it? In a lot of seasons, that sort of thing ends with furniture being destroyed. This time, it ends with Torres and Magana agreeing to switch bunks and rooms without incident.

Over to Team Pettis, which has seven quarterfinalists. Lots of teammate vs. teammate situations, and Pettis follows TUF precedent by backing out of cornering against someone he has been coaching.

But this is where the conflict shifts …

We’ve heard very little from Randa Markos since she upset Tecia Torres (who wound up reinstated to the tournament and winning) in Week 1. She’s fighting Felice Herrig, who always finds the camera.

The team decides to split into mini-teams, each only taking one session per day, so fighters aren’t training with their next opponents. Torres is a little reluctant to drop the two-a-days, but at this stage, it seems like it’s just as well.

And now, Dana White’s favorite part of the season, the Coaches’ Challenge. As we’ve seen in all the ads, it’s a trivia competition hosted by the golden-voiced Bruce Buffer. White explains that they moved away from a physical challenge to rest Pettis’ knee.

Round 1: 10 fighters have coached and competed. Name two. Melendez buzzes in — Rashad Evans and Forrest Griffin.

Next: Which fighter won a championship title but did not win his season of TUF? Pettis guesses wrong.

Felice Herrig has little faith in Pettis, but he redeems himself a bit by coming up with the year of the first UFC event (1993). He ends up with 900 points to Melendez’s 1,800.

The “sudden victory” round is like Final Jeopardy — wager, then answer. The question: How many successful title defenses does Anderson Silva have? Each coach answers “9.” It’s 10. They bet wisely — Pettis bet it all, as he had to, and Melendez bet nothing. Melendez wins. Pettis finally gives the producer-friendly “Well, that’s all Gilbert’s going to win” spiel.

We’re abruptly back to the next fight, where Markos talks about her underrated striking. But Aisling Daly thinks she needs to take this fight to the ground. Then it’s cliche time — Markos really wants it, she works hard, this is her chance, etc.

But Markos wants to go back to two-a-day training. She doesn’t care if Herrig is watching her. Conflict time!

The Pettis coaching staff asks Herrig, No. 1 seed Carla Esparza and whoever else is in the room if they would reconsider the split training sessions. Herrig is so livid that her hair suddenly sprouts a few more colors as she gives her confessional about how the team voted but the other girls went “behind their backs” to the coaches to complain. The “behind the back” talk would’ve been when the other fighters were in the session that the Herrig crew didn’t attend. That’s kind of like saying the Sales team went behind the backs of the Marketing team by discussing something in the Sales meeting.

The Pettis coach who was trying to sort things out is identified. He’s Scott Cushman, one of the focal points of an investigative report about the death of a fighter he was coaching. Not the best timing, though I’d have a few more pointed questions for the referee and doctors than I would for the coach.

Another coach tries to sell the “they don’t want to watch you train; they just want to cut weight and work out” angle. Esparza calls them cowards for talking with coaches in … again, in their training session. Does this mean Esparza is a coward for calling the other fighters cowards when they were cowardly not there to be accused of being cowards?

Herrig continues that line of thought in the sauna with a very frustrated assistant coach who looks a little like Jake Shields but clearly isn’t. Shields is helping Melendez, though I’m not sure he has been identified once.

Back at the house, a few fighters are in the hot tub talking about the situation. Herrig, her hair pulled so tightly into twin buns that it now qualifies as Kevlar, struts out to complain that they didn’t mention it at the team meeting. She calls them “cowards” … then quickly races back into the house. That’s called “undercutting your point.”

Markos, in confessional, laughs it off as extra motivation.

The next day, the Pettis van is crowded. Esparza and Herrig gang up on Markos, who wants no part of the discussion. Esparza and Herrig conclude that Markos is the rudest person they’ve ever met. She’s Canadian! She can’t be rude! Back from commercial break, Herrig does a mean impression of Markos for Esparza’s amusement.

At this point, it seems only fair to get Herrig’s postshow thoughts on this whole mess, even though I’ve accidentally spoiled the outcome of the fight. Here’s what she says about Markos:

Back to game-planning — Herrig thinks Markos will get tired after missing a couple of takedowns. Jessica Penne, another fighter who hasn’t gotten a ton of screen time, thinks Herrig will win — oh, we’re suddenly back to Herrig. Earlier, she said she prefers to fight when she’s not mad at her opponent, but now she says she fights better when she’s mad.

And back to the house, where Herrig and Esparza do a patty-cake game repeating Markos’ “Don’t talk to me” line. Markos, stretching by herself in the house, mutters “(bleep) bitches.”

At long last, 44 minutes into the episode, we have the weigh-in. Esparza says the fight will be easy because Markos hasn’t been nice, which is impressive logic.

Now we get the Scottish voice of reason, Joanne Calderwood. In her lilting Celtic voice, with subtitles, she says Randa’s mentally stronger than Felice and more focused. “Randa’s going to take it to the ground, and I think that’ll be it.”

The staredown is entertaining. Herrig again trots out the “Don’t talk to me” line. Then she blows a bubble, which Markos impressively swats away. That’s accurate striking.

Back in the house, Calderwood looks very comfortable on her bunk bed as she chats with Markos. They strip away the subtitles as Calderwood says Herrig looks like a (bleep) clown. Markos goes to confessional and says it just shows Herrig is weak.

Let’s get a word from Calderwood:

Herrig says Markos was quivering and cowering. I don’t think those words mean what she thinks they mean. Markos looked quite intense.

One last reminder that Herrig doesn’t like Markos before they finally walk to the cage. “The anger that I bring into the cage does help me a lot,” Herrig says before listing all the nasty things she’s going to do.

We get back from the ad break at the 53-minute mark, so we know this’ll be a short fight. Herrig has a three-inch reach advantage even though they’re the same height. Dana White isn’t there, so we once again have the ref giving the “two five-minute rounds” speech.

Herrig throws a few punches from distance, but she can’t stop Markos from coming in and clinching 20 seconds in. Herrig gets Markos against the cage, but Markos reverses it and starts going for the trip. At 1:15, she gets it, but Herrig manages to end up on top of her. They stand again, and Markos throws a knee against the cage. That’s a rare strike attempt from Markos. The grappler then gets her arms around Herrig’s head and throws her to the mat, landing on top in side control. Markos pulls a slick armbar. Herrig taps.

They don’t shake hands. Markos says she should’ve pulled harder to break her arm.

“That should shut her up, right?” Markos says to a couple of people in the Team Pettis bleachers. Esparza: “Maybe if you weren’t such a bitch, she’d shut up.” Markos: “Don’t worry, you’re next.” Esparza: “Oh my god, I wish you were my next fight. I can’t wait to fight you.”

They’re on opposite sides of the draw, and I don’t see Markos beating the Namajunas-Calderwood winner. At this point, with Esparza’s head somewhere other than fighting and training, I don’t see her getting past Tecia Torres, much less the Aisling Daly-Jessica Penne winner.

Herrig and Esparza didn’t come across well in that episode, to put it mildly. But in fairness, remember what Rich Franklin called “The Edit Monster.” Six weeks get distilled down to a few hours of footage. Maybe Markos secretly switched the coffee in the house to decaf. Maybe she forced Herrig and Esparza to listen to Caress of Steel, by far the worst Rush album. We don’t know.

Scenes from the next: It’s Harley-Davidson plug time. And Conor McGregor visits his pal Daly. The fighters don’t appear to have anything nasty to say to each other. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of facing her,” Penne says. I think I’ll watch anyway.

Update: The fighters went on TUF Talk, and Esparza, unfortunately, doubled down. Markos pointed out that it’s all there on the show for people to see. Esparza could’ve claimed that the editing made her seem worse that she was. But Esparza seems to think the episode made her look OK. Oops.

Unsolicited advice for the UFC

When a UFC fight card coincides with a Bellator fight card, the choice should be obvious. And yet it’s not.

The UFC has the talent — by my quick count, 83 of the 90 top-10 fighters in the Sherdog rankings. At USA TODAY/MMA Junkie, which ranks 15 per class but only ranks men (come on, guys!), it’s 101 out of 120, and no non-UFC fighter ranks higher than seventh.

But Bellator, now under the leadership of Strikeforce founder Scott Coker, is going in a new direction that cleverly stakes out a couple of niches. If you don’t believe me, listen to Kid Nate and Luke Thomas in the return of their Tete-A-Tete segment.

This weekend’s Bellator card drew an average of 1.2 million viewers, peaking at 2 million (probably not coincidentally after the UFC pay-per-view card ended). UFC 180’s prelims drew an average of 624,000, peaking at 771,000. World Series of Fighting should have picked another weekend. (I haven’t seen estimates for the UFC PPV audience — it’s not an apples to apples comparison, anyway, because a PPV “buy” usually represents multiple viewers, and you have to figure in people who went out to see it at a local viewing spot. Plus, you know, you have to pay for it.)

It was a strange UFC pay-per-view card. For one thing, the prelims were mostly fighters from The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, plus one women’s fight that promised (and delivered) a lot of action. The TUF season had generated very little buzz — the foreign installments aren’t really promoted in the USA.

The main card opened with a battle of sheer journeymen, Edgar Garcia and Hector Urbina. Then came Augusto Montano, a Mexican prospect making his UFC debut, for a predictable demolition of Chris Heatherly, who somehow managed to lose his only prior UFC fight by omoplata.

Only the last three fights looked like typical pay-per-view fare. Top-1o featherweights Ricardo Lamas and Dennis Bermudez were a combined 12-2 in the UFC coming into this bout. Welterweight Kelvin Gastelum, a surprise winner on The Ultimate Fighter 19 months ago, continued his rapid rise with a first-round finish of former contender Jake Ellenberger. Then Fabricio Werdum won the UFC interim heavyweight belt in a thriller against Mark Hunt, a compelling substitute for champion Cain Velasquez.

It’s not that the UFC is just coasting on its brand name. This was supposed to be the UFC’s big breakthrough in Mexico, and despite losing Mexican-American Velasquez to injury, it probably did the trick. As is the case with a lot of UFC cards, several fighters had to pull out with injuries, including Velasquez, Mexican star Erik Perez and both sides of an appealing bout between veterans Diego Sanchez and Joe Lauzon. At one time, the card was solid: Velasquez-Werdum (title bout), Gastelum-Ellenberger, Lamas-Bermudez, Sanchez-Lauzon, Perez-Marcus Brimage.

This is all part of the UFC going global. In 2009, the year of UFC 100, the UFC did 15 cards in the USA, two in Britain, one in Ireland, one in Germany and one in Canada. The Germany card was the first held in a country that didn’t speak (mostly) English since 2000. In 2014, the UFC has been to Brazil six times, with a seventh scheduled. It’s been to Macau twice. Three ties to Canada. Also to Singapore, Britain, United Arab Emirates, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Japan, Sweden, Australia, and now Mexico. These cards tend to have a bit of local flavor. And why not?

Bellator, despite a healthy dose of international talent on the roster, has only left the USA to go to Ontario. And Coker is putting together clever cards such as the one that drew a couple million viewers over the weekend.

The main event — Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar — was a circus. Most fans surely watched out of morbid curiosity, and what they saw looked like this:

But if you tuned in ahead of the graybeards riding on the last few waves of their UFC glory days, you saw a few interesting bouts:

  • Interim lightweight champion Will Brooks outlasting former champion Michael Chandler
  • Joe Schilling knocking out Melvin Manhoef in a battle of kickboxers
  • Bellator veteran Mike Richman taking apart well-regarded UFC veteran Nam Phan
  • Light heavyweight motormouth, former Strikeforce champion and former college wrestling star King Mo (Muhammad Lawal) getting a TKO win over late fill-in Joe Vedepo

So Coker mixed a couple of “fun” bouts (Ortiz-Bonnar, Schilling-Manhoef) with a title fight and a couple of bouts with guys we’ve heard of.

Bellator isn’t out to take the No. 1 spot away from the UFC. But in its brief history, MMA has been better off with a solid No. 2. With Coker in charge, Bellator should have that position locked down for a while, at least in North America.

But even if Bellator isn’t a direct threat to the UFC, this weekend was a reminder that a lot of things aren’t quite right in UFC land. A couple of pay-per-view cards this year have drawn fewer than 200,000 buys. The Ultimate Fighter is no longer a ratings juggernaut. Standard & Poor’s says UFC parent Zuffa may see its profit drop 40 percent from 2013.

It’s not exactly time to panic. The UFC is going global, and that’s going to be costly and difficult. It’s still surely a good idea in the long run.

The U.S. audience, though, has the right to feel a little neglected when we’re seeing the likes of Heatherly, Hans Stringer and other fighters we don’t know on a pay-per-view card.

And the UFC quite rightly avoids “circus” bouts most of the time. Randy Couture’s demolition of boxer James Toney was a rare exception. The UFC is supposed to be about the best fighters gradually climbing the ladder to the top of the ranks. No reason it shouldn’t stick to its guns on that front.

My unsolicited advice goes back to the roots, a topic about which I wrote a book. Don’t look for it in bookstores. Or Amazon. Maybe in the cloud. I wrote about The Ultimate Fighter, and I think that’s where the UFC needs to get back to building its fighters.

The current season of The Ultimate Fighter is the best in years. That’s because the fighters already have a bit of a name, and they’re looking for a breakthrough.

The basic problem with The Ultimate Fighter is that the talent pool is tapped out. The UFC has so many good fighters under contract that it’s highly unlikely that a new fighter is going to have much of an impact. The days of Forrest Griffin winning the UFC belt a couple of years after winning the TUF title are gone. Gastelum may actually be the biggest success story of recent seasons …

… except when the UFC is building a new weight class. This season, they’re doing just that. And the winner won’t just be in the UFC — she’ll be the champion.

So fans like me can’t wait to see the next bouts. Aisling Daly vs. Jessica Penne? That’s quality. Rose Namajunas vs. Joanne Calderwood? That’s PPV-worthy.

TUF 14 had new weight classes — bantamweight and featherweight. TUF 18 had a few good fight veterans in the women’s bantamweight class, though Ronda Rousey’s diva attitude made it nearly unwatchable.

The problem is when TUF goes back to scouring the depths of the talent pool.  TUF 16 champion Colton Smith lost his next three fights. A couple of good fighters have come through — Gastelum has gone from the No. 13 draft pick on TUF 17 to a legit top-10 guy. But too many of the fighters are fleeting memories.

Back up to the basic problem: The UFC has too many fighters and not enough “names.” That’s where TUF comes in.

It’s time to put existing UFC fighters on TUF.

I’m not talking a replay of the “Comeback” season, in which guys who had been in the UFC got a second chance and fought for a title shot (which Matt Serra shockingly converted, beating Georges St. Pierre in an upset for the ages). But take some of the unknown guys who have had a couple of UFC fights and put them on the show. Offer up a headlining spot on a free Fight Night card as a reward.

We’ll get to know more fighters that actually have a chance of sticking around in the UFC. There’s no point in watching TUF if it’s pretty clear only a couple of the cast members are going to be around long enough to know their names.

That’s the simple fix. The other is to keep guys from getting hurt and wrecking PPV cards. That’s beyond a simple blogger’s ability to fix.


The delusion of Adrian Peterson’s defense (w/Hope Solo note)

Adrian Peterson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, just issued one of the most specious arguments ever uttered on cable television. And that’s saying something.

Hardin complained that the NFL was trying to punish Peterson beyond what the legal system already did. There’s “no precedent” for such a thing, Hardin said.

I’m sure that statement came as a surprise to:

– Any employee ever fired for flunking a drug test.

– Any employee ever fired for verbally accosting a co-worker. (I actually got a job that way. Someone totally flipped out and got fired, and I moved into his position.)

– Richard Nixon. Legal system? Pardoned. His presidency? Finished.

A few more good examples:

It boggles my mind that lawyers, like political pundits and politicians themselves, think they can make such absurd statements and get away with it.

Why did I mention Hope Solo in the headline? Because her case could end up with a similar question of the courts’ authority and her employers’ authority.

Let’s be clear: We’re not comparing Peterson’s actions with whatever Solo did. As a parent, I’m far more concerned with what Peterson did that what is alleged and not yet even proved against Solo.

But in terms of the process, there’s a similarity in this sense: An athlete can absolutely get one punishment from the legal system and another from an employer.

When Solo finally ends up in court for something beyond a preliminary hearing, we’re going to get something more than just a verdict. We’ll get details that will be examined and cross-examined.

So would there be “precedent” for Solo facing no substantial punishment from the courts and still being suspended for a couple of games by U.S. Soccer? Absolutely.

Would that happen? Probably not. But that’s just how I think U.S. Soccer will act. Not a decision based on “precedent.”

Dear Soccer …

With apologies to Lori Lindsey

It’s not me. It’s you.

Don’t look surprised. I really don’t know how you could have thought I was in the mood to endure any more of your cruelty.

You remember a couple of weeks ago. The indoor soccer game in which one team outshot the opposition by something like 40-20 and lost 10-9. Then an outdoor scrimmage (thanks to your cousin, Nature, for the lovely fall day) in which a bunch of players suddenly figured out the joy of passing, making beautiful runs and playing as a team. Yeah — they lost 3-0. Simple goalkeeping errors.

Great. Really nice job teaching our kids that their dedication to learning will pay off. We know, we know — we’re supposed to pay more attention to the “development” of these players than winning. But could you toss these kids a bone at some point?

You certainly didn’t do it in the tournament this weekend. A bunch of big kids stomping their way through the smaller kids who thought they had signed up for soccer, not wrestling. Parents cheering on the carnage. Refs ignoring it.

You don’t reward coaches, either. We can go to every class for every certificate, and for what? So we can “develop” our players by having them play properly and then watch them lose to the coach who showed up at game time and asked how many players we’re using. (Seriously, this happened to me at All-Stars one season.)

And it’s not as if you’re rewarding older players, either. Look at the team I covered — the Washington Spirit. Caroline Miller was a humble rookie with immense talent who wasn’t content to rest on her college honors. She’s been in so many walking boots in the last 18 months that the orthopedic industry ought to be offering her an endorsement deal. Michael Jordan had Air Jordans. She should get Ground Millers. We’re not even going to talk about Colleen Williams getting injured on her return to New Jersey and then getting re-injured on trial with her home-state club.

And now Diana Matheson, the only player who responded to my postseason interview request. Really, soccer? Are you kidding me?

They deal with it all with class, grace and good humor. Not me. Because I see through you now. All these promises of rewarding our patience — the supposed joy we’ll feel when those 385-minute goal droughts end. When our local club finally puts it together. When our kids’ games are decided by brilliant plays rather than defensive mishaps.

You are just disappointing me at every level. I’ve finally retired from the brutal indoor league in which I play because I’ve seen how long it takes my aging body to heal. No, I still can’t bend my middle finger all the way. But I can gesture with it.

Then Liverpool, my son’s pick for his favorite club, signs one of his favorite players in Mario Balotelli. How’s that working out? Huh? It’s as if you want my kids to pick up lacrosse instead. Go Chesapeake Baystix or whatever.

And shall we talk about the way this sport is governed? At the youth level, parents are driving themselves crazy and spending themselves broke just to make sure their kids are on the best Elite Developmental Champions Premier Club Sandwich whatever. Then they might have a chance of playing for their high school teams.

At the international level? Can’t even think about it.

Even the people who follow soccer are getting difficult. A Twitter troll features prominently in a new book and magazine article. Even as I type, I’m sure there are people on Twitter chortling about things I didn’t say, paychecks I didn’t receive, conspiracies that don’t exist, and things that don’t matter but still drive people to slander.

I’ve had it. I can’t watch any more. I certainly can’t play any more. I can hardly write any more. I may need to switch to something more lucrative like collecting pennies off the interstate.

Coaching? Do you really think I’m going to head out there again and face a bunch of eager young kids who are just one step, one realization away from learning how to move the ball around the field, support each other and get ever closer to the beautiful experience of getting that ball to nestle in the net so sweetly …

Sigh …

OK, fine. When does the spring season start? And who’s in the first EPL game on Saturday?

‘Enduring Spirit’ epilogue: Thoughts from Diana Matheson

Here’s proof, once again, that soccer karma doesn’t exist:

Through the Spirit office, I asked several players (not all, so don’t go accusing people) a few follow-up questions about the 2014 season, thinking I would publish a short epilogue to the tale of their 2013 season, Enduring Spirit. The epilogue didn’t come to pass, and I wound up passing along what I had gathered in a blog post providing a snapshot of the team at a late-season practice.

The one player who responded was Diana Matheson. And now she’s hurt. Again — no such thing as soccer karma.

She responded before she was injured, which just goes to show how negligent I’ve been in posting her comments. I figured the least I could do was go ahead and post them here with apologies for being so late. I really appreciate her taking the time she did here and over the past two seasons with the Spirit, and I think all women’s soccer fans are rooting for her to recuperate in time for the World Cup.

Enjoy …

1. What was different this season compared to last year? (Besides the record!)

This season had a very different feel in almost every way. We knew from the beginning that we were a team that could compete with any other team in the league and we put higher expectations on ourselves. We had a more experienced group and every player brought their own professionalism to the club.

2. Were practices different with more veterans and few rookies on the roster?

I think training was overall at a higher level than last year. I think that speaks to a different group of players and also the fact that Mark had us for the whole year.

3. Who was the most improved player on the team from 2013 to 2014?

I’m not sure who the most improved player is, but the most unsung player on the team both seasons for me has been Tori Huster. She does the job in any position she’s asked to play.

4. Did you feel in 2013 that defenses were focused on shutting you down, figuring that you didn’t have much help on offense? Was it different in 2014 when Jodie Taylor established herself as a goal-scorer?

It was a lot of fun playing with players like Jodie Taylor this year. I think we had a good connection on the field and we worked well together. It’s always good to have many people scoring goals, which we were glad to have this year.

5. Did Rapinoe foul Toni Pressley when she swiped the ball for the winning goal in the semifinal?

Don’t know.

6. I know your living arrangement changed this year. Where were you?

I was in a townhouse with Robyn, Danesha and Jodie. Robyn and I both missed Ingleside at King Farm and we went to visit our friends a few times for lunch or dinner throughout the season. It was nice to be in a more independent living situation with our peers as well!

Why I hate legal writing

I decided to check in on the lawsuit against Eddie Radwanski, Siri Mullinix and many others connected to the Clemson women’s soccer program. Here’s what I found:

Original complaint

Paragraph 3: Explains that Eddie Radwanski is the women’s soccer coach at Clemson, which is in Pickens County, S.C.

Response by one defendant

Paragraph 3: In slightly more than 100 words, the defendant admits that Clemson exists, can hire people, and employs Radwanski as a soccer coach.

Original complaint


Response by the same defendant


If that paragraph were written any differently, would Mullinix suddenly be transported through space and time to coach a different team? Or would she start to fade out like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future?

Tripping back through soccer-chatting archives

Seems fitting that a new-ish soccer site would launch by paying tribute to the early days of online soccer-gabbing.

That’s exactly what Jason Davis, Trevor Hayward and a new site called Backheel did. And they were nice enough to include my thoughts, along with those of several others who were part of the wild roller-coaster of sharing soccer information and discussion on this newfangled thing called the Internet.

Bruce McGuire, the man behind the DuNord blog and its terrific daily news wrap, has long called soccer “the sport of the Internet.” And there’s no doubt the Internet gave soccer a huge boost. (I’ve covered two sports that thrived in new media — soccer and MMA. Coincidentally, Bruce is also a fan of both.)

The old North American Soccer mailing list was full of lively and occasionally pointed discussions. But it was also a clearinghouse for information you weren’t likely to get elsewhere. If you wanted a report on an A-League game, you weren’t likely to find one unless the local paper had (A) an interest in covering its local team and (B) a fully functional website. Thanks to NAS, you’d have one waiting in your inbox with a subject line like “NAS Carolina-Rochester (R) – another brawl breaks out.”

From there, people branched out. They formed independent news sites, trying to fill the void in coverage on events like the U.S. Open Cup. They flocked to BigSoccer, where a lot of us spent our Saturday mornings giving each other updates on European games with U.S. players. (Hey, Joe-Max is getting in the game for Everton!) Some of us working at smaller papers got jobs at bigger papers and started sneaking more and more soccer coverage onto the websites.

And this was itself a branch of, which had compiled a simple and comprehensive archive of global results that’s still up on the web in its 1995-HTML glory.

We also had a wonderful sense of serendipity. Look at the topics covered on a typical day in 1995: A-League results and tables (including one in 3-1-0 format, which the league wasn’t using), analysis of the U.S. U-23 midfield, a rant on the USISL Boston Storm (with Preston Burpo!), a request to find a bar showing Copa America in Philly, Mexican coaching rumors, etc. Another day has discussion of the as-yet-unnamed New York/New Jersey and Washington MLS teams, the news that Preki had won the CISL’s MVP award, a look ahead to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, a CISL recap (Dallas Sidekicks drew a league-record 16,427 fans), and this age-old complaint: “If MLS thinks they can sell soccer on artificial turf they are dreaming in technicolor!”

I might be overromanticizing the sense of community we had in those days. We were surely a fractious bunch. We argued about the direction MLS would take and what would happen to the A-League and other then-USL divisions.  But there was a sense that we were all in this together and that a rising tide would lift all boats.

And what I’m not overromanticizing is what a lifeline this was. I could go to Soccernet, which was literally a father-and-son operation at the outset, and check the latest standings in Europe. That, plus the still-indispensable Soccer America, gave me some sense of the context for the broadcast I would hear when I aimed my shortwave radio’s antenna out the window to listen to the BBC.

It’s easy to take everything for granted now. We wake up on the weekends, flip on the TV and listen to Rebecca Lowe hosting NBC’s uber-professional coverage of the Premier League. We have our pick of sites for live scores and lineups. We can dissect games in real time on Twitter. Feedly can scour all of our favorite news sources for the latest stories.

So that community has fractured a bit. Now the East Coasters all hate the smug Cascadians who think they invented soccer supporter culture. MLS isn’t progressing quickly enough for some tastes, and the arguments lead to accusations of self-interest rarely seen this side of the Koch brothers. Everyone thinks he’s the only person in the world who pays attention to the Open Cup and everyone else is out to silence it.

Such things come with progress. And that’s good. MLS would look quite ridiculous playing by the same allocation rules it had in 1996, not to mention the shootout. Lower-division soccer collapsed but is finding its roots again. And the world’s best players are on U.S. TVs almost as often as Spongebob.

The past was fun. The present and future are even better.

The never-ending quest for youth soccer talent

Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel has a must-read piece for anyone interested in U.S. soccer development: Alianza soccer program exposes overlooked Latino youth to elite training opportunities.

The details are worth reading, but for purposes of continuing without plagiarism, here’s the gist of it: A program called Alianza de Futbol is finding young Hispanic players in the USA who may not have had an opportunity to play elite youth ball.

In reading it, I thought of two people who nearly fell through the cracks:

– Andy Najar. Coincidentally, Tenorio wrote about his high school team adjusting to losing him to D.C. United. After moving from Honduras to Alexandria, Va., he was “discovered” playing pickup soccer at school.

– Clint Dempsey. He played a lot of pickup soccer and only made it big in club soccer when his family started making the lengthy drives to get him to Dallas.

No, Dempsey isn’t Hispanic, as far as I know. So this isn’t simply a question of ethnicity.

And Dempsey’s story may be more emblematic of the basic problem with U.S. youth development: This is a really, really big country. You’re not likely to have elite clubs everywhere. The next great soccer player could be in North Dakota, his or her parents drawn northward by the energy boom. He or she could be busing tables in New Mexico. Or in the inner city, geographically close to large clubs but financially and socially miles away. They could even be in a comfortable suburb but unable to make the time commitment to a major travel club because both parents are working and can’t drive them all over creation to practice and play 3-5 days/nights a week.

It’s not as if U.S. Soccer isn’t making an effort to find them. From Tenorio’s story:

The Alianza showcases are similar to the larger scale efforts of U.S. soccer to reach some of the same communities. U.S. soccer stages several hundred free “training centers” per year in cities across the country to identify players outside of its academy structure.

That’s good. It’ll never be enough.

And that’s one reason why I think soccer people need to pay a bit more attention to high school soccer. Not everyone can make the time and money commitment to play club soccer. High school soccer just extends the time a student spends on school grounds, which is actually a good thing for parents who are often scrambling to get kids home in mid-afternoon.

Another factor in scouting youth: As much as we don’t like to admit it, good athletes can sometimes pick up soccer skills in a hurry. I see kids in my U11 rec league who are new to soccer but have quickly progressed past players who have been in “travel” since they were 9. Some of those kids will play travel; some won’t. But we may see them at tryouts for the high school team.

And you see it among older players. When I took my E license class, one of the other students was a young Hispanic guy who drew attention with a 40-yard blast off a crossbar and his ability to leap for a header and snap his body like a salmon twisting in midair. Did he play in college? Sort of. He played basketball.

Stereotyping, as a lot of well-intentioned but arrogant coaches and pundits so often do, doesn’t help the search for talent. (No, coach — your inner-city program, as nice as it may be, is not the sole force pushing a revolution in the U.S. talent pool.) The next great player could be kicking around on a dirt field in the exurbs. Or playing basketball. So the pool has to be vast, broad and diverse — and not just along ethnic lines.

Where does this leave the Development Academy, which comes off as a bureaucratic ogre in Tenorio’s piece on Alianza? As much as Jurgen Klinsmann and company may try, it will never, ever be the only path to elite soccer.

As long as we remember that, the Academy will be fine. Just remember to keep those players humble so they don’t freak out when some kid from the streets of Nacogdoches, Alexandria or Rogers (Arkansas, home of the player in Tenorio’s lead) turns out to be their equal in the talent pool.