December 28, 2010

With the last few days of the year blowing by like the gusty snowfall that's piled up in the whiteout Northeast, it's time to clean out the mailbag in preparation for 2011. The new year will waste no time in bringing the action, as Saturday night's UFC 125 has a bunch of promising matchups. But if my e-mail in box is any indication, fans aren't quite ready to move on from the deeds and misdeeds of 2010.

The recent story of mine that generated the most bytes with bite was my pre-Christmas gift guide, a playful collection of suggested gifts and MMA-based recipients I thought fitting for this season of giving. I actually expected a little backlash for suggesting that embattled referee Steve Mazzagatti deserved compassion and for taking a you-catch-more-bees-with-honey-than-you-do-with-vinegar approach to Bob Reilly, the New York State Assemblyman who has found his 15 minutes of fame in being the main impediment to his state sanctioning MMA. But no, neither of those offerings raised anyone's hackles. Clearly, readers are the compassionate type.

Except when I don't show the same compassion, apparently. That's the message I take from the feedback I received after daring to suggest that blowhard middleweight Chael Sonnen be gifted with a mute button -- not that he should shut up always and forever, but just that he might want to learn when enough is enough. Actually, it wasn't my ranting about Chael's talkativeness that drew the most acerbic responses. It was this passing reference to the onetime Oregon candidate for state representative's politics: "And like many of his fellow Republican politicians, he's been known to filibuster for all the wrong reasons."

Which drew this retort:

Your column was interesting, but why when talking about Chael Sonnen must you say some silly Republican remark? Yes, I know he ran for office as a Republican. Maybe you should ask your friendly Democrat from New York, Bob Reilly.--Larry, Astoria, N.Y.

I guess I should have been less polite in my comment about Reilly's ignorance, because I also received this:

Could you name a few of the Republicans who filibustered? And what did they filibuster? And why were they the "wrong" reasons? Do you decide? Or was this just a typical liberal cheap shot? Would you have written this about a Democrat? Do you remember Robert Byrd, a Democrat, filibustering the Civil Rights Act?--Will, Venice, Calif.

I won't take Will up on his challenge to name the Republicans who've filibustered, because if I started listing them we wouldn't have any room left to talk mixed martial arts. Suffice to say the obstructionist GOP filibustered or threatened a filibuster an unprecedented number of times in the 110th Congress (112 cloture votes), then broke that record in the 111th, most recently to try to block a bill aimed at providing heath care to the first responders to the 9/11 attack. How radical. But yeah, Will was justified in reaching across the aisle to unearth the embarrassing 1964 filibuster by Byrd, who was not only a Democrat but in his younger days a KKK leader. What's more, the late Senator's home state, West Virginia, is one of the few to still not allow MMA. Coincidence?

Setting politics aside, another reader thought my criticism of Sonnen was misguided because it should have targeted not the guy's soliloquies but his supplements.

I enjoyed the Christmas article you wrote, and agreed with most everything you said, except: "As it turned out, that scenario [that the Anderson Silva fight would be pure dominance] was on the mark, except it was Sonnen doing the dominating for 4 3/5 rounds. So now we know what Chael is capable of." You forgot to mention that we know what Chael is capable of ON STEROIDS. His high testosterone levels postfight gave way to a one-year ban, which I believe has been overturned to only six months (what a joke).--Sean, Knightdale, N.C.

I see Sean's point, but considering the cloudy circumstances of Sonnen's positive test -- was he on testosterone therapy or was he "juicing," and does it even matter? -- I thought a more appropriate thing to poke fun at would be the guy's churlish crowing. I mean, we may be divided on whether Sonnen intentionally cheated, but we can all agree that we've heard enough drivel from him, right?

Not according to one reader, who basically shushed me so he could hear Sonnen talk some more.

People love Chael Sonnen, and when he talks, it's priceless. Stop being a pessimistic pain and realize people like hearing him talk.--Jon, Queens, N.Y.

Pessimistic pain? Ouch. That's it, I'm done with this topic.

On to an MMA-related complaint where we surely can find a consensus: that the rules of the sport are confusing and seemingly arbitrary.

Question on strikes to the back of the head: We saw it recently in WEC 53, and we've seen it done by Gerald Harris, Rampage Jackson, Matt Hughes -- I am talking about the power slam where the back of the opponent's head slams down on the canvas and he is knocked out. Shouldn't that be considered an illegal move? Whether you directly strike someone in the back of the head with your fists or feet/shin, or do it indirectly by slamming someone, I think it should be illegal. You are using the ground as a weapon, striking a part of the body that is not allowed to be struck. Does this make sense, or am I crazy?--John, Chicago

You're crazy, John. But not as crazy as this guy:

Why, if you can't hold the cage, can you run up it and kick someone in the face?--Mike, Easthampton, Mass.

What? You want to take away from me one of the most thrilling moments in my nearly two decades of watching MMA? That Anthony Pettis kick in the main event of the WEC's final fight card left me as stunned as it left Benson Henderson (except my jaw didn't hurt as much). Illegal? Never!

Actually, both Mike and John (just kidding with that "crazy" remark, buddy) do bring to light a couple of the many perplexing areas of sports rules. This is an issue not just in MMA. Consider the NFL, where you cannot lay a finger on a quarterback's helmet but can sack him by slamming him to the ground, snapping back his head and leaving him with a concussion. Where's the consistency, in terms of protecting the athlete? It's challenging to make safety rules in physical sports like football or especially MMA, where temporarily weakening an opponent is part of the game. No athlete wants to see another carried off on a stretcher, but just the same, an NFL safety hits a receiver hard to force a fumble or at least make the guy think twice about stretching out for a pass next time he runs across the middle of the field. And a mixed martial artist slams an opponent in hopes of either an instant KO or seizing an advantage for some ground-and-pound. Where is the line between competitiveness and unnecessary damage?

The problem is, you could make a case for practically any strike in MMA being dangerous, and some legal blows are more damaging than illegal ones. Georges St-Pierre peppered Josh Koscheck's right eye with jabs for five rounds, breaking an orbital bone and turning him into a Cyclops, and the fight went on, as it should have. But one GSP finger poke to that same area would have resulted in a referee's timeout, with Kos being given a few moments to clear his vision. A standing fighter with one hand touching the mat is considered down and cannot be kneed or kicked in the head, but a guy can legally lock an opponent's neck in a Muay Thai plumb and pull his head down toward a nasty knee strike, as Anderson Silva repeatedly did to Rich Franklin in their brutal first meeting.

Regarding the specific reader questions, I don't see Pettis's use of the cage as a safety issue. I liken it to the way Randy Couture presses an opponent against the fence for some dirty boxing, which is simply using the cage as a natural barrier. That's different from using the particular material of the barrier (the chain links) to your advantage. It's a paper-thin difference, but I'm OK with the rules as they are. As for being slammed to the mat, the back of your head hitting first, I agree with John that this is at least as dangerous as being rabbit punched. Yet it's a legal move, as long as you don't piledrive the guy head-first. I believe the distinction that rule-makers see is that in many cases a slam is a defensive maneuver to escape a submission attempt, and the fighter being slammed can counter by releasing his hold. That's not the case in every slam, though, and I don't know that the need to escape a sub warrants such a potentially damaging tactic. Why, then, shouldn't a guy in a guillotine be allowed to use eye gouges or groin strikes to escape? It's all so arbitrary. I'm sure the majority of MMA fans would hate to see more moves deemed illegal. But that'd be better than seeing a fighter permanently damaged.

And speaking of permanent damage ...

I believe MMA fighting promotes violence to our kids. This is not what martial arts are about. Cage fighting is no different than dog fighting!--Kent, Newton, Miss.

Typically, I brush aside such comments. But lately I've found myself talking about mixed martial arts with friends who are devoted sports fans but have never given MMA much thought. And they always steer our conversation toward the blood and brutality we tend to see in highlight reels. So as this sport surges into the mainstream, its ruggedness is a legitimate issue. And my response is always the same: Don't watch highlights on SportsCenter and think you get what MMA is all about. Take in a full evening of fights, and chances are you'll see, along with a few moments of viciousness, some world-class grappling and lots of other sophisticated techniques on display. Give the sport a real chance.

Reading between the lines of Kent's note, he seems to be a fan (and perhaps a student) of the martial arts, perhaps a purist who doesn't like seeing them mixed in full-contact competition. And his "dog fighting" comment tells me he likely hasn't given MMA the fair shake I just talking about. Which brings up a larger point of curiosity, as my wife pointed out when I showed her his e-mail. "If this person feels that way about MMA," she said, "why would he be reading your stories?" I suggested to her that perhaps Kent was simply enchanted by my informative and entertaining prose. "Yeah, right," she said, trying to sound earnest. "That must be it."

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