Review: Bellator’s “Fight Master”

For those who don’t know, I’ve written a book on The Ultimate Fighter. It is not yet published.

So with Bellator bringing “reality” MMA back to Spike, I simply had to check it out.

The first word that sprang to mind: Awkward.

It’s awkward in the sense that they’re trying so hard not to be The Ultimate Fighter. Bellator commentator Jimmy Smith welcomed the fighters to the cage with roughly the same speech Dana White always gives — two five-minute rounds, if we don’t have a winner, we go to sudden vic … I mean … overtime! Yeah! Overtime!

It’s awkward in the sense that the winning fighters stand in front of four coaches, sitting in chairs like the judges on The Voice, and (A) get fawned over or (B) get tepid congratulations. After these brief conversations, akin to speed-dating, the fighters pick their coaches.

It’s awkward in the sense that the coaches include the top coach in MMA (Greg Jackson), a legendary fighter who made a solid transition to coaching (Randy Couture), a legendary fighter better known for commentary than coaching (Frank Shamrock) … and Joe Warren, a former world champion wrestler who has had an erratic MMA career so far.

And it’s awkward in the sense that we’ve seen all this before. One guy was an alcoholic but has stayed sober since he turned to MMA. One guy is a self-professed geek who does this for his kid. One guy has a lot of experience, and they allude to it without saying outright that he has already fought in Bellator. One guy got in a lot of trouble in college but found God, who told him to build a gym. One guy is a brash blonde from Kentucky who’s adept at trash talk but has a wicked temper … OK, I’m kidding. Junie Browning is not on this show, as far as I know.

All that said, it’s not a bad hour of MMA programming.

The first winning fighter, Tim “Ginga Ninja” Welch, stood out. He came across as confident but amiable, proud of his Irish-Native American heritage. And he looked sharp in recording a quick knockout. All four coaches were impressed, with Shamrock trying to play up the shared Native American ties. Welch still chose the guru, Greg Jackson.

The next winner, Eric Scallon, opened on a sour note by punching when his opponent tried to touch gloves. Christopher Curtis responded with a big flurry of punches and knees, then spent the rest of the fight fending off takedown attempts.

Some coaches were open with their indifference. Jackson said Couture or Warren would be better fits. Shamrock asked the dazed Scallon if he was scared to get hit. Warren saved his lamentations for a confessional, away from Scallon’s eyes and ears. Bad move — Scallon chose Warren.

The third fight was a good one. Brendan Tierney is one of the more interesting characters introduced, a former ballet dancer who looks at fights as “active problem-solving.” He has long legs and creative submission work, along with some good knees. But Nick Barnes is a better striker, especially on the ground. He won and chose Shamrock.

The fourth winner, AJ Matthews, confesses that Shamrock fought before he was interested in MMA. Ouch. He chose Couture.

Last up was the veteran, Chris Lozano, in a fight that really should’ve been stopped. Josh Quayhagen, he who built the gym as instructed by God, was a bloody mess.

I have a lot of positives, a lot to look at. Just not the mirror right now,” quipped Quayhagen.

Shamrock pulled an interesting gambit. In confessional, he said Lozano was his man. But face-to-face, he told Lozano to pick Jackson, with whom the veteran had already worked. Somehow, it worked — Lozano thanked Jackson for their previous time together but said he’d like to learn from “two great minds,” picking Shamrock.

Next week on The Ultimate Fighter, chaos erupts in the house … oh, no, I’m sorry — a few more fights, with winners picking their coaches.

I’m not going to be recapping each week, but it’s a show worth checking out while the MMA community awaits Ronda Rousey’s TUF exploits.

How old is too old to fight?

Jordan Breen raises a question along those lines on Twitter today, linking to video of a dreadful performance by MMA/kickboxing veteran Gary Goodridge and wondering how promoters can keep trotting him out into the ring.

The fight’s horrible — opponent Catalin Morosanu seems to enjoy landing shots at will through the first round but later seems reticent to hurt the poor guy any more than he already has. You can almost hear Howard Cosell vowing to quit covering the sport.

In other recent Senior League fighting, Ken Shamrock keeps competing on ever-smaller stages, and Jake Rossen asks at ESPN how long he can go before commissions step in and say no.

In boxing, the current WBF world champion is 48-year-old Evander Holyfield, who defeated fellow 40something Frans Botha for the belt. He’ll defend it against Sherman Williams, who is apparently not a paint.

A few fighters can be productive after 40. Randy Couture has been a viable MMA fighter, most recently proving that James Toney is not. George Foreman cleanly knocked out Michael Moorer in his mid-40s to become a champion again. Yet both benefited from periods of inactivity — Couture still has fewer than 30 fights on his record, and Foreman was out of the sport for roughly 10 years before returning. (In the Hollywood universe, Rocky Balboa had quite a few years to recover from all those Clubber and Drago neck-twisting power shots.)

Hard and fast rules clearly won’t cut it. The real danger is head trauma, and MMA fans are less likely to worry over 47-year-old Couture than they would over 40-year-old Chuck Liddell, who has been knocked out cold in two of his last three fights. Goodridge has been knocked out too many times in his career, but Shamrock’s issues are different — he’s simply being outclassed in most of his fights.

And that’s the problem. We can’t simply tell fighters to stay out of the cage or ring simply because we’re tired of watching them tap out against unknowns. All we can do is skip those fights as paying customers or journalists. It’s clear that the audience for Ken Shamrock’s fights — substantial four or five years ago — has dried up, and that may force him to quit fighting at last.

For Goodridge and others who might circle the globe looking for a country willing to rubber-stamp their pass into a ring, it’s up to their friends, family and fellow fighters. And ultimately, the man himself.

Randy Couture, Kimbo Slice … and lacrosse? Closer than you think

The NLL (National Lacrosse League) is a lot like hockey with carpet instead of ice and a different type of stick. And like NHL players, NLL players occasionally drop the gloves and throw their fists in fights governed by codes both unofficial and official — in the NLL’s case, written in exquisite detail (see the rules in PDF). Sometimes, those fights get so out of hand that they migrate from the lacrosse blogosphere to Deadspin.

Everyone involved was punished, though the “game misconduct” penalties might not mean much with all of this happening so late in the game. The Boston Blazers-Philadelphia Wings box score duly notes it all.

Also noted in the box score – this approach seems to be working. Attendance for this game in Philly was 11,241.  That’s not an outlier — last year’s league average was a shade over 10K, squarely between indoor and outdoor soccer, not too far off arena football. The league survived a labor impasse a couple of years ago, maybe not too surprising since some of the players spend more time on airplanes than they do playing and practicing. (See my 2007 interview with goaltender/Ontario teacher Anthony Cosmo.)

In an era of media hand-wringing over anything and everything, it’s surprising no one has made a fuss over lacrosse fights. Hockey fighting rarely leads to injury — fighters can’t get much leverage on their punches while they’re standing on ice. Lacrosse fights are basically bare-knuckle brawls on an unforgiving surface. Listen to the commentary in this clip, and you’ll hear someone giving a shoutout to backyard brawler-turned-UFC fighter Kimbo Slice:

A “Kimbo Slice uppercut” would be something like what you’ll see at the 1:24 mark here:

Given all this, should we be surprised that UFC legend Randy Couture has taken an interest in lacrosse and had a few fighters, er, lacrosse players training at his gym?