Superlek versus Panpayak: Duel of the Gunfighters

Photo via Facebook/Aodkomuaythai

It was the main event bout that Muay Thai punters have been waiting for, the long anticipated rematch between Superlek and Panpayak, two of the best gunfighters in Bangkok today.

Standing in for the OK Corral was Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, packed to its creaking wooden rafters with touts and gamblers eager to witness this head-to-head showdown.

As is often the case in Muay Thai boxing, these two 130 pound war machines have been duking it out for years and last night’s big card in Bangkok was their fourth trial by combat since September 2015. Why the constant rematches? Filthy lucre aside, there is a cultural context to re-matching pugs who have already blitzed one another. In Thailand losing face, in business, sport or both, is a big deal and Panpayak was eager to regain his. Back in February, Superlek outpointed Panpayak over five rounds in a magnificent display of knees, knuckles and shins that some ringside observers wrote of as a shock win.

Superlek

Shock or sheer bloody perspiration, the 2017 ruck at Rajadamnern was payback for Superlek losing to Panpayak on the cards in their second bruising encounter in October 2015.

But perhaps Superlek was still shagged out from their first meeting in September 2015. A beautiful display of left round kick versus knee; too close to call, it ended with a draw; one judge for Panpayak, one judge for Superlek, and one calling it dead even. It just goes to show that anything can happen in the ultra competitive sport of Muay Thai boxing.

But hang on a mo… Who are Superlek and Panpayak, the lead actors in this sporting drama, this duel of champions? Rewind selector: here’s the précis for the uninitiated out there in Fightland. Quick on the draw, Superlek’s a multiple weight champ and a stone killing terminator of Buriram vintage. Triumphing over Sangmanee last month in a peerless display of eight-limbed mugging, and on a run of big victories, he was the odds-on favorite to win against Panpayak fourth time round at Rajadamnern.

Panpayak

Panpayak, the man who would-be nemesis, ain’t no pushover. A champ from mini-flyweight to featherweight, the kid from Samut Prakarn (via Bangkok) is a tough stud with a glittering war record who has won the Sports Writers of Thailand “Fighter of the Year” competition three times in a row. He recently avenged a stunning loss by KO to Petchutong Or Kwanmuang, head kicked Sam-A Kaiyanghadaogym, Prajanchai PK. Saeenchaimuaythai, elbowed Wanchalong PK Saenchaimuaythaigym, and point robbed Jomhod Sagami and Aikmongkon Gaiyanghadao.

At the weigh-in the day before the fourth bout, there were concerns about Superlek making the 130lb limit. Panpayak was dead on but Superlek was over by 0.8lbs. After a hasty spot of roadwork, a rather drained looking Superlek made the 130lbs cap. Drama over. Or was it?

Superlek and Panpayak are two of the top pound-for-pound fighters in Muay Thai boxing, but, like seismology, the fight game is an unpredictable pseudoscience. Every winner loses and ever loser wins. Muay Thai karma or not, this main event was the big daddy and the heaving crowd in Rajadamnern Stadium were growing giddy with delight at the promise of gunfire in the ring. Who would emerge as top dog in the Bangkok alleyway?

After the reconnaissance mission in Round 1 and 2, the pace went up to breakneck speed in Round 3 and the two men began to exchange bunker-buster round knees and sweeps in a death clinch. It wasn’t a policy of mutually assured destruction. One man was going to lose; another man was going to win. Would it be Superlek in the red shorts, or Panpayak in the blue? Would it be a victory by knockout or a perfunctory decision on the cards? It was too soon to tell.

Battered by the winds of Panpayak’s limbs, Superlek rallied his senses in a last desperate bid for victory and launched a counter offensive of rabbit knees and sweeps off the clinch in Rounds 3 and 4 to even up the score. Panpayak boxed off but Superlek kept storming forward for old buddy clinches and socked Panpayak with some meaty looking round knees to the midsection. It was messy and violent and on two occasions both men crashed to the canvas like a brace of drunken hooligans in a pub fight. Panpayak, however, took the rough and tumble in his stride and retaliated with airburst round kicks and savage right hooks to regain control of the battle.

Steely shinned and lightning handed, he took Superlek to task in Round 5 and dominated the field of battle like a latter day Roman general quelling unrest in an unruly province. A beleaguered and fatigued looking Superlek was unable to respond with any meaningful effect to Panpayak’s payload of hurt. It was all going pear shaped for the golden boy from Buriram. The winning streak, the run of luck, the yellow ink tributes from the sports writers of Thailand, none of it mattered last night in the ring. This was a Muay Thai memo to remind Superlek that he had met his fighting mirror image in Panpayak. The judges gave Panpayak the win after five hard-bitten rounds. But could Superlek’s lackluster performance be to do with his problems making weight at 130llbs? Possibly: but not certainly.

Notwithstanding, it was a great night in Bangkok and the crowd seemed pleased with the unanimous verdict of the three Thai judges at ringside.

“I think it was an easy win for Panpayak,” said one Australian fight fan in attendance. “It was quite a good technical fight which surprised me as you would have thought that Superlek would have put more pressure on.”

Arran Sirisompan, who provided English commentary for the bout for Muaythaixtream, said much the same thing. 

“Panpayak is such a clever fighter. I thought he was in control for the majority of the fight apart from parts of the 3rd or 4th rounds when Superlek caught him with some good knees.”

On the undercard at Rajadamnern, Sangmanee, still wincing from his recent decision loss to Superlek, faced Kaimuakkao Petchyindeeacademy. There was a lot of Thai dancing going on at the end of Round 5 and Sangmanee won by split decision. Still in the running, Sangmanee is on the crank for revenge against Superlek. The duel of champions is over but the long and bloody Muay Thai war goes on and on. 

 

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De La Hoya: Canelo versus Chavez Is a Dig at Trump

Photos by Tom Hogan/Golden Boy Promotions

Cinco de Mayo is an official holiday in Mexico, celebrating General Ignacio Zaragoza’s surprising victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla 155 years ago. 

It’s become somewhat of an unofficial holiday in the United States, where Americans of Mexican descent and almost anyone besides Donald Trump can embrace Mexican culture, or whatever we pass off as such. And since it’s the first Cinco de Mayo since America’s famously anti-immigration president has taken office, Friday promises to have a bit more fervor than usual. 

But to Oscar De La Hoya, the Mexican-American boxing legend-turned promoter, it’s the celebration on Saturday, Seis de Mayo, to which Trump should really be paying attention. That’s when a sold out crowd at Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena will watch the catchweight clash between Guadalajara native and WBO world super welterweight champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., the often-criticized namesake of Mexico’s most legendary athlete in the country’s most beloved sport. 

It’s not just that De La Hoya believes Saturday’s “is this the biggest fight in the history of Mexico.” The founder of Golden Boy Promotions is talking about the economic impact of a show that sold out in eight days, has drawn thousands of tourists to Las Vegas, and will earn many millions of dollars in pay-per-view fees, international television rights, and a closed-circuit deal with Fathom Cinemas for live showings in movie theaters throughout the U.S. In fact, Mexico’s two largest networks, Televisa and TV Azteca, are carrying the same main event for the first time in history. 

“That’s how important this fight is,” De La Hoya told Fightland. 

And in case the point wasn’t made finely enough, one commercial for Canelo-Chavez Jr. depicts both fighters running through and obliterating Trump’s proposed border wall on their way to the Las Vegas Strip. 

“I strongly feel that the fact that you have two of the most popular Mexican fighters breaking through the wall and meeting in Las Vegas—it is an indirect hit to Donald Trump,” De La Hoya said. “A lot of people feel proud that two Mexican nationals can come to Las Vegas, the U.S. of A., and have such an economic impact in our society. It’s unheard of. 

“And Donald Trump’s words are unheard of,” he continued. “He stated a long while back the harsh words he had for Mexican nationals and Muslims as well. So this is an indication that not all Mexicans are bad people. Chavez and Canelo are going to have such a positive impact on our society and on America. Millions of dollars will be be generated over Cinco de Mayo weekend.”

But even without the political angle, Saturday’s fight would not have any problem capturing a massive audience. 

Brooklyn resident and diehard Mexican boxing fan Victor Lopez poses with his children behind Saul “Canelo” Alvarez after a press conference at Manhattan’s Hard Rock Cafe.

Take Victor Lopez, a 32-year-old Mexico City-born, Brooklyn-raised boxing aficionado who thinks the ad is a little over the top. For him, Saturday’s fight is a welcome distraction from current events, and a chance to see Canelo (48-1-1, 34 KOs), whom he describes as “the face of boxing in Mexico.” 

“Right now it’s Canelo,” said Lopez, who was lucky enough to have his picture taken alongside Mexico’s favorite redhead at a recent press conference in midtown Manhattan. “Canelo is the one instead of Sr.’s son… Chavez Jr. has been not very professional in the sport, and everybody has noticed that.”

For many, Chavez Jr.’s 2015 loss to Poland’s Andrzej Fonfara typified a career that has suffered for his lack of discipline. He’s struggled to make weight on occasion (should he weigh more than 164.5 pounds at Friday’s weigh-in, he’d be penalized $1 million), and Chavez Jr. (50-2-1, 32 KOs) was once suspended nine months and fined $900K by the Nevada State Athletic Commission after testing positive for marijuana. 

“He never represented Mexico,” Canelo said through a translator on HBO. “He was never a dignified representative of Mexico. He was on a path to become one, but he reached a point where he simply couldn’t give any more because he wasn’t. He never was.”

De La Hoya, Canelo’s promoter, agrees with that assessment somewhat. 

But now that Chavez Jr. is 31, De La Hoya explained, he’s becoming more professional. Hiring Ignacio Beristáin, who once trained De Lay Hoya, is a step in the right direction. But the biggest change has been physical. 

“Chavez is in tremendous shape,” De La Hoya said. “No problem with the weight. He’ll come in looking incredible and feeling incredible.”

And it’s not like Chavez has been unimpressive. Over his last eight fights, he’s landed 41 percent of his punches compared to just 26.7 percent for his opponents—that’s a +14.3 percent differential, which ranks fifth among all boxers according to CompuBox.

Canelo, meanwhile, connected on 35 percent of his shots over his last eight fights while limiting opponents to 24.5 percent (+10.3, 13th overall).

In fact, De La Hoya thinks Chavez Jr. might be somewhat underrated, given the intense scrutiny that comes with being the son of a legend. 

“I would hate to be in Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.’s shoes right now at this moment because the pressure that he must be feeling is like no other,” De Lay Hoya added. 

But Canelo is facing his own pressure. 

Following his easy knockouts of Liam Smith and Amir Khan, both of whom weighed in under 155 pounds, Mexican boxing fans have grown impatient for a matchup with unified middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin. 

De La Hoya currently has a hold date in September for a fight between the two—a bout that would solidify 2017 as the best year in boxing’s recent history—but first, Canelo has to win, and that prospect is complicated considerably by Chavez Jr.’s 6-foot-1 frame. 

Obviously, as Mexico’s biggest boxing star, Canelo is expected to take risks as he did in 2013, when, at 23, he lost a majority decision to the legendary Floyd Mayweather Jr. 

Now that the 26-year-old phenom is eyeing a potential matchup with the larger Golovkin, facing a true super middleweight who has fought as high as light heavyweight seems appropriately difficult. 

“He fought Mayweather and he fought [Miguel] Cotto,” Chavez Jr. told HBO, “but sometimes he’s fought little guys.”

Canelo may have the power of a light heavyweight or even cruiserweight, but he’s only 5-foot-9, and by the time the two step into the ring, Chavez Jr. could have a considerable weight advantage.

And as much as De La Hoya would like to start booking a lucrative showdown with Triple-G, Saturday is anything but a sure thing for his fighter. 

“In the history of the sport, since I’ve been involved at least, a good big man has never lost to a good little man,” De La Hoya said. “And that’s a big concern. Chavez Jr. is a big guy. If he can take Canelo’s punch and Chavez Jr. keeps coming at him and tires him out, what’s gonna happen in the later rounds? What’s gonna happen if Canelo cannot move him? What’s gonna happen if Canelo can’t hurt him?”

And if fight fans are still looking for a reason to fork over $59.99 for HBO PPV’s standard definition ($69.99 hi-def), De La Hoya doesn’t hesitate to point to the great Mexican rivalries like the four Rafael Marquez-Israel Vazquez epics and the Erik Morales-Marco Antonio Barrera trilogy.

It might be a generalization, but it certainly isn’t a negative one. 

“When have you seen a boring fight amongst two Mexicans?” he asked. “Never.”

 

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Good Riddance to the Wrestling Singlet

Photos by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This week, after the National Federation of State High School Associations Wrestling Rules Committee announced that it would allow high school wrestlers the option of wearing shorts and a short-sleeved compression shirt instead of a singlet next season, the Orlando Sentinel asked high school coaches around the state of Florida for their thoughts on the uniform change. Their answers ran the gamut. Some embraced the shorts-and-shirt combo with enthusiasm. Some were ambivalent or skeptical of its impact on strained budgets. And some dismissed it, professing a fondness for the singlet and the athletic tradition it embodies.  

That last sentiment has some currency: I’ve also read a variety of wrestlers on my Facebook feed say that if you’re hung up about wearing the singlet, then you probably won’t make a good wrestler—as if the singlet embodies wrestling itself. With all due respect, especially since my high school didn’t have a wrestling team and I suck at wrestling, you are wrong. Instead of actually honoring tradition, romanticizing the singlet is just nostalgia for an incidental, inconsequential, and not particularly old article of clothing while diminishing the transformative power of the sport for kids who would benefit the most: the kids who are too shy to wear it.

The singlet wasn’t born in ancient Greece or even turn-of-the-20th-century Iowa: the NCAA only mandated the uniform in the 1960s after decades of wrestlers competing shirtless. There’s no technical advantage to the singlet over the two-piece uniform—you might argue that a uniform providing even a little more coverage could only reduce an athlete’s exposure to the petri dish of a wrestling mat. Instead, the singlet simply flatters people with builds that would look good in any uniform, and forces people with imperfections to confront them immediately or avoid the sport entirely.

Changing the uniform isn’t going to be the silver bullet to save wrestling in America, but the sport needs all the help it can get. Even successful college programs are on the chopping block—click here to support the recently cut wrestling program at Boise State University—and the sport was famously almost axed from the Olympics. In part, that reflects declining participation: statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations show the number of high school wrestlers across the country fell by 7.9 percent between 2011 and 2016.

The NFHSA specifically said the uniform change—one of 11 approved rule changes—was made “in the hopes of increasing boys and girls participation in the sport,” reinforcing anecdotes from coaches who say the singlet turns off would-be wrestlers. “We recruit 260-pound football players to wrestle and they get in that singlet for the first time…and they don’t want to do it,” Danny Stuck, head coach at Jeffersonville High School in Indiana, told USA Wrestling last September. Since wrestling is a sport primarily aimed at males, it’s worth remembering that body image issues are pervasive among boys. Regardless of gender, if you don’t recall having body-image issues during puberty or in high school—when many wrestlers first step on the mat—then you’re either lucky or really good at self-editing your memories.

Anyway, why is being comfortable in what’s basically a 1920s bathing suit the litmus test for whether someone would make a good wrestler? Besides being stupidly presumptuous, don’t you think the old-time grapplers who wrestled shirtless thought the people who wore singlets back then were coddled little cowards?

Former wrestlers are just as vulnerable to telling stories of high school glory days as Al Bundy, but the reality is most wrestlers never win state championships or earn scholarships or a spot on the Olympic team. The greater value of wrestling—as well as participatory sports in general and martial arts in particular—is for the individual: it has the capacity to turn shy, neurotic kids into confident young adults. The demands of training are a vehicle to help a kid work past body-image issues and teenage hang-ups, instilling skills and character traits they lacked on the first day. Instead of shutting these kids out because they’re too modest to wear a revealing uniform, allowing for an outfit that doesn’t impact the sport itself in any discernible way—except, perhaps, making a piece of marketable clothing that fans might actually want to buy—can only remove barriers of entry to a life-changing sport.

It’s not that wrestling should contort itself to baby everyone along the way. It’s the same for Brazilian jiu-jitsu or any other combative sport: fight sports are uniquely hard, physical pastimes that place greater demands on your threshold for physical suffering and personal sacrifice the further you go in them, and their specialness owes to so many people shrinking away. Training shouldn’t always be fun and the sport should make you want to quit sometimes. But it shouldn’t make you want to avoid trying in the first place just because the coach stubbornly clings to a ridiculous outfit. 

 

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Good Riddance to the Wrestling Singlet

Photos by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This week, after the National Federation of State High School Associations Wrestling Rules Committee announced that it would allow high school wrestlers the option of wearing shorts and a short-sleeved compression shirt instead of a singlet next season, the Orlando Sentinel asked high school coaches around the state of Florida for their thoughts on the uniform change. Their answers ran the gamut. Some embraced the shorts-and-shirt combo with enthusiasm. Some were ambivalent or skeptical of its impact on strained budgets. And some dismissed it, professing a fondness for the singlet and the athletic tradition it embodies.  

That last sentiment has some currency: I’ve also read a variety of wrestlers on my Facebook feed say that if you’re hung up about wearing the singlet, then you probably won’t make a good wrestler—as if the singlet embodies wrestling itself. With all due respect, especially since my high school didn’t have a wrestling team and I suck at wrestling, you are wrong. Instead of actually honoring tradition, romanticizing the singlet is just nostalgia for an incidental, inconsequential, and not particularly old article of clothing while diminishing the transformative power of the sport for kids who would benefit the most: the kids who are too shy to wear it.

The singlet wasn’t born in ancient Greece or even turn-of-the-20th-century Iowa: the NCAA only mandated the uniform in the 1960s after decades of wrestlers competing shirtless. There’s no technical advantage to the singlet over the two-piece uniform—you might argue that a uniform providing even a little more coverage could only reduce an athlete’s exposure to the petri dish of a wrestling mat. Instead, the singlet simply flatters people with builds that would look good in any uniform, and forces people with imperfections to confront them immediately or avoid the sport entirely.

Changing the uniform isn’t going to be the silver bullet to save wrestling in America, but the sport needs all the help it can get. Even successful college programs are on the chopping block—click here to support the recently cut wrestling program at Boise State University—and the sport was famously almost axed from the Olympics. In part, that reflects declining participation: statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations show the number of high school wrestlers across the country fell by 7.9 percent between 2011 and 2016.

The NFHSA specifically said the uniform change—one of 11 approved rule changes—was made “in the hopes of increasing boys and girls participation in the sport,” reinforcing anecdotes from coaches who say the singlet turns off would-be wrestlers. “We recruit 260-pound football players to wrestle and they get in that singlet for the first time…and they don’t want to do it,” Danny Stuck, head coach at Jeffersonville High School in Indiana, told USA Wrestling last September. Since wrestling is a sport primarily aimed at males, it’s worth remembering that body image issues are pervasive among boys. Regardless of gender, if you don’t recall having body-image issues during puberty or in high school—when many wrestlers first step on the mat—then you’re either lucky or really good at self-editing your memories.

Anyway, why is being comfortable in what’s basically a 1920s bathing suit the litmus test for whether someone would make a good wrestler? Besides being stupidly presumptuous, don’t you think the old-time grapplers who wrestled shirtless thought the people who wore singlets back then were coddled little cowards?

Former wrestlers are just as vulnerable to telling stories of high school glory days as Al Bundy, but the reality is most wrestlers never win state championships or earn scholarships or a spot on the Olympic team. The greater value of wrestling—as well as participatory sports in general and martial arts in particular—is for the individual: it has the capacity to turn shy, neurotic kids into confident young adults. The demands of training are a vehicle to help a kid work past body-image issues and teenage hang-ups, instilling skills and character traits they lacked on the first day. Instead of shutting these kids out because they’re too modest to wear a revealing uniform, allowing for an outfit that doesn’t impact the sport itself in any discernible way—except, perhaps, making a piece of marketable clothing that fans might actually want to buy—can only remove barriers of entry to a life-changing sport.

It’s not that wrestling should contort itself to baby everyone along the way. It’s the same for Brazilian jiu-jitsu or any other combative sport: fight sports are uniquely hard, physical pastimes that place greater demands on your threshold for physical suffering and personal sacrifice the further you go in them, and their specialness owes to so many people shrinking away. Training shouldn’t always be fun and the sport should make you want to quit sometimes. But it shouldn’t make you want to avoid trying in the first place just because the coach stubbornly clings to a ridiculous outfit. 

 

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Tyson Fury: The Elephant Outside the Room

Photo by Rolf Vennenbernd/EPA

Blockbuster fights, in both boxing and MMA worlds, rarely live up to the expected hype and hyperbole spouted in the lead-up. Anthony Joshua vs. Wladimir Klitschko was one of the few exceptions: back-and-forth knockdowns, devastating combinations and gutsy, embattled grit was on display for all to see in a heavyweight championship bout which saw Joshua pick up an 11th-round TKO win after finally tasting adversity in his flourishing career.

After such an enthralling fight and its subsequent fallout—and despite his best vocal efforts—it’s easy to overlook the man who was the previous proud owner of the WBA and IBO world titles fought over by Joshua and Klitschko: Tyson Fury.

Fury had won those two titles, along with the WBO and Joshua’s IBF championship, against Klitschko in a comprehensive decision victory as 2015 came to a close. But, citing mental health issues and an alleged failed drug test for cocaine, Fury’s scheduled rematch against Klitschko was cancelled in 2016 and the “Gypsy King” relinquished his belts and had his boxing license suspended by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC).

Losing his world heavyweight titles, only for long-running rivals such as Joshua to snaffle them up in his absence, and his ability to box—as well as ballooning up in weight to 350lbs—Fury admittedly had a “nightmare” of a year in 2016 like so many others.

Despite all of this, Fury was never out of the picture during the lead-up to Joshua and Klitschko thanks to his history with both men and innate ability to get under the skin of his pugilistic colleagues—even prodding “AJ” enough to prompt an insulting Twitter retort which is wholly uncharacteristic of the usually ice-cool Briton.

Fury successfully managed to manoeuvre a sizeable portion of the attention garnered by Joshua and Klitschko unto himself. Fury didn’t accept Joshua’s generous offer of ringside seats, but his inexplicable absence from London’s Wembley Stadium snatched further fight focus, leading Joshua to call out his British rival in another move not generally befitting his charming, unconfrontational demeanour.

His presence may have not been felt in the stadium, but Fury was intently watching on Saturday night, offering both a message of congratulations to Joshua and a back-handed compliment to boot. He later accepted Joshua’s callout, tweeting: “Challenge accepted. We will give the world the biggest fight in a 500 years. I will play with u. You are a boxers dream. [sic]”

It doesn’t take much, but Fury is clearly emboldened by the trouble Klitschko posed for Joshua. It wasn’t pretty, but Fury left the ring relatively unscathed in his victory over the Ukrainian—ending Klitschko’s decade of heavyweight dominance in the process. Equally, Joshua is by far the biggest fight Fury could hope for at this stage.

+ + +

Fury had good reason to not be in attendance on Saturday night. Now self-styled as Tyson “2 Fast” Fury—a clear jab at both Joshua in reference to his cleaner performance against Klitschko—Fury has embarked on his first training camp since 2016, joining fellow traveller Billie Joe Saunders in Marbella, Spain, posting footage of his progress and keeping fans informed of his weight loss.

In this age of constant misinformation, Fury already claimed he would be returning to the ring this month, but the BBBofC quickly dismissed any ideas of this back in March. A week ago, before what went down in London, Fury said he was targeting a comeback fight on 8th July in an undercard bout as Saunders takes on Georgian Avtandil Khurtsidze for the former’s WBO middleweight title in the main event. Like before, the BBBofC would expect Fury to appear before the board before being given permission to fight and have the suspension of his boxing license lifted. A hearing has now been scheduled for next week.

Just a week on and still nowhere near his optimal fighting weight without a full training camp dedicated to him in its entirety, Fury—rightly or wrongly—smells blood and wants Joshua as soon as possible and without a warm-up fight in between. “Styles do make fights, but I am sure I can beat AJ with one arm tied behind my back,” Fury told Sky Sports. “I don’t even need a warm-up if he wants this. I have been out of the ring as long as Klitschko but the difference is, I am not 41, I am 28.

“There’s only one fight out there, the biggest fight in the world and everyone knows that. It is the heavyweights, it is me and AJ, no one else. It is the only one the world wants to see and I am here, I am the lineal champion, I am still No. 1 in the world and everybody knows that. We all saw [his career] had a life and death situation against Klitschko, but Klitschko couldn’t land a glove on me.

“There can only ever be one heavyweight, especially in our part of the world, and it’s me. It definitely isn’t a pumped-up heavyweight, I can tell you that.”

It’s unclear what is next for Joshua with a Klitschko rematch and names such as Kubrat Pulev—his IBF mandatory challenger—Luis Ortiz, Joseph Parker and Deontay Wilder in the offing alongside Fury. AJ’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, says Joshua is “desperate” for the Fury fight, but how unlikely it was thanks to Fury’s “terrible” physical condition at present. But then it’s hard to decipher whether Hearn is just taking a shot at Fury as there’s certainly no love lost between the two.

No matter Joshua’s next opponent, his next fight will be big business in the United Kingdom and beyond as the world stood up and took notice of his stirring Klitschko victory. But with both Joshua and Fury thinking they’d easily beat the other, their history of words and markedly different victories over Klitschko, there is no doubting Fury is the most attractive proposition as Joshua’s next title defence.

Fury may not be classically media trained nor the most eloquent with his penchant for offence, but he certainly has the natural nous to keep his name relevant in the world of boxing. 

 

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The Tactical Guide to UFC 211: Maia versus Masvidal

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Demian Maia should probably not be in the fight he has taken at UFC 211. His sterling run of performances should have been more than enough to earn him a title shot in the welterweight division by now and yet Maia gambles the streak of wins it took him three years to acquire against the talented Jorge Masvidal this weekend. Having watched Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza go from jogging on spot atop the UFC’s middleweight division to just a forty year old contender with no chance of getting a shot at the middleweight belt, it is quite clear that this could all go pear shaped for Demian Maia too.

Consistency is hard to come by in combat sports, when matched against elite competition everyone loses eventually whether there is a shiny belt on the line or not. Where Demian Maia has had an impressive run of consistency, Jorge Masvidal seems to have overcome his hot-and-cold fights of the last few years to start a decent streak of his own. Masvidal has always been able to put on a tough fight against anyone you could care to name—his last loss that wasn’t a split decision came in 2013—but he has dropped decisions based on his failure to push the advantage and occasional Bobby Greene like moments of ‘that didn’t hurt’ defence with little to follow it up. A great all around fighter, Masvidal finally turned heads by stopping Donald Cerrone with strikes in January.

Masvidal’s takedown defence has always been something to admire. He maintained the third highest rate of success defending takedown attempts of any fighter in Strikeforce and he has done a great job against them through most of his UFC career. Masvidal’s near 80% success rate against takedowns, combined with his dangerous striking is what makes him such a tough ask for Demian Maia who, while a great offensive takedown artist in his own right, is not a multidimensional threat on the feet.

Masvidal’s takedown defence has held up against wrestlers as tenacious and experienced as Benson Henderson and Rustam Khabilov. Against both, Masvidal was able to stuff shots, use the fence to hold himself up when necessary, and turn his opponent onto the fence when he desired to break away. Against both he was comfortable enough to pursue his own takedowns and succeed despite having none of the accolades of his opponents in grappling sports.

Masvidal is also a fighter who makes excellent use of ‘sneaker’ strikes on the break. Each time he disengaged from Benson Henderson an elbow was shooting through from one angle or another in hopes of cutting Henderson open or knocking him out if he chased to maintain the clinch. Against the big middleweight Cezar Ferreira, Masvidal did an excellent job of breaking his hips off line and angling out to achieve the double collar tie along the fence. A short elbow wobbled Ferriera and a right hand put him to the mat for the finish.

Masvidal’s knees to the body from the clinch against Donald Cerrone were an effective deterrent too.

Rustam Khabilov and Benson Henderson might both be takedown artists but are very different fighters to Maia stylistically. Rustam Khabilov fights with his back to the fence, going after his opponent’s hips when they attack and then attempting to complete the takedown into space. Starting with his back almost to the fence, Khabilov makes sure that he is shooting into as much empty space as possible and that the opponent will not hit the fence prematurely and use it to hold himself up as he fights for grips. The fence is rarely a part of Khabilov’s offensive gameplan.

 Khabilov’s most successful moments of grappling came from grabbing a single and running Masvidal to the fence though. Khabilov was able to shuck his way to a back bodylock and threaten to take Masvidal’s back. This is where the match up with Maia becomes an interesting one.

Demian Maia does not set up his shots terribly well. In fact you can probably count on one hand the number of times he has boxed into his takedowns. What Maia generally does well is time his takedowns as his opponent stepping towards him, or pressure the opponent to the point where if he ducks in for a leg he can be fairly certain that he can push them to the fence even if he cannot complete the single leg takedown.

What saves Maia from being a one note grappler hopelessly failing on shot after shot is that he has options for initiating the grappling. Grabbing the single, hitting the fence and immediately finishing the takedown as he did against Condit is ideal, but he is just as happy to dive underneath his man and pull them on top of him. Something that Maia has demonstrated through his career is that opponents who defend his single leg attempts perfectly on the feet will have much more trouble if he first goes to his back, then comes up on the single leg simply based on the distance that exists when wrestling on the feet. So confident is Maia that he actually dragged Matt Brown into a quarter guard / three-quarter mount at one point and still came up on his single leg to sweep.

Maia’s best work during his recent run has often come against the fence. In competitive jiu jitsu and no gi grappling there are no barriers and so fence wrestling and wall walking have largely been an MMA exclusive exercise and can put the most accomplished pure grapplers and experienced mixed martial artists on level footing where they might not be out in the middle of the mat. In recent fights Demian Maia has used the expectation of the opponent making space and attempting to get up along the fence to take the back. Sequences like this one, where Maia allows Matt Brown to push away and scramble up from butterfly guard, are fairly commonplace in Maia’s bouts. In fact, the third part of BJJ Scout’s excellent study on Maia’s passing gives a couple of examples in the opening seconds.

Where the strategy of many strong cage wrestlers or takedown artists might be to force their method and hope to grind through the stalemates, the theme of Maia’s recent career has been movement. Flowing with the go, as Rickson Gracie might put it. He doesn’t generally hold on to an idea for dear life and will rock back and forth testing his options. It is when he is floating over his opponent’s guard or tripoded over the opponent against the fence that he can create movement and then those years of experience and beautiful transitions can actually come into play. This focus on activity is probably for the best against Masvidal. Whenever Benson Henderson hung out on Masvidal’s hips along the fence, he was fed an unpleasant diet of those not-quite-downward elbows to the side of his dome.

One understated aspect of Maia’s game is his use of strikes to improve position on the ground. While Maia battered Gunnar Nelson black and blue, more often his opponents don’t look much worse for wear. However Carlos Condit has mentioned that the one strike Maia landed in their bout shook his head up—a nice right hand which Maia then established the cross face from in half guard—and Matt Brown had hand fought well with Maia for two and a half rounds when Maia cocked back his right hand and Brown reached for it before realizing that his neck was open.

Eddie Bravo has often pointed out that Maia’s basic reverse half guard pass—sliding his trapped knee through so that he is mounted with only the ankle trapped, sometimes called three-quarter mount—is considerably more useful in MMA than in grappling competition. In pure grappling the opponent will attempt to elbow escape or otherwise push the knee back to guard; in MMA the striking position is almost identical to the mount and any opponent who doesn’t have their hands up by their head is going to get blasted.

Hypothetical Gameplans

This fight seems like an obvious one on paper—it should come down to whether Masvidal can stop the takedowns and what he can do in between Maia’s attempts. Masvidal’s boxing has generally been pretty conservative and accurate and his jab is one of the most useful you will see in MMA. Against Donald Cerrone, Masvidal was straight shooting with his jab and used a raising of the lead leg interspersed with the occasional front kick to get himself into range and wedge his way down the middle of Cerrone’s guard. We discussed this at length in Masvidal vs Cerrone: Controlling the Inside Line.

The idea of Maia abandoning his almost purely grappling based gameplan for this fight seems a little far fetched but were he looking for chances to strike at Masvidal to open up the grappling a little more a couple of the latter’s habits might be exploitable. Firstly Masvidal fights with rather a high guard for an MMA fighter. He is slick and hard to hit in the head—Gilbert Melendez edged out Masvidal in strikes landed by 118 to 100, but Melendez threw five hundred strikes over five rounds to land at just a twenty percent connection rate. Yet a couple of opponents including Benson Henderson and Rustam Khabilov have found some success slotting in body shots amid quick flurries. Level changing to jab or throw straights at the body has the bonus of looking similar to a level change for a takedown and can also hide sneaky overhands nicely.

Use of the southpaw left straight to the body could open up some options for Maia on the feet—making his level changes a two part threat and possibly setting up shots to the head later on. Masvidal is one of the best examples in MMA of effective parrying, catching and countering kicks but Maia hasn’t thrown them that often since that painful knockout loss to Nate Marquardt, so if Maia isn’t shooting expect only a little boxing.

Masvidal parrying Donald Cerrone’s favourite left high kick.

Jorge Masvidal can be a great technician to watch but can also give opponents too many opportunities to grab a hold of him and slow the fight down even if they cannot get him off his feet. In a fight perceived as ‘striker versus grappler’, time not spent out in the open hurts the striker. Against Khabilov, Masvidal kept jumping in with knee strikes and allowing Khabilov to tie up. His tendency to throw the right low kick without set up also allowed Jake Ellenberger and Khabilov to counter with big punches or pursue a takedown while Masvidal was on one leg. As Maia is a southpaw the angles won’t be quite the same, and given Maia’s love of the single leg takedown and desire to fight on the ground, Masvidal may well eschew low kicks altogether.

If Masvidal can stop the takedowns it would be good to see him play the long game rather than looking for a quick knockout. Sticking to the jab and the occasional stiffer counter punch. Hitting the body with his hands when available and always being ready to deal with a lunging Maia reach for his lead leg. Maia is a fighter who works for the full fight but it is far less tiring for him to keep moving and advancing when he his on top of his opponent or on their back than when he is pursuing the takedown, When he fell short in the third round against Matt Brown his fatigue saw him clipped with Brown’s only real strikes of the contest.

It will be interesting to see how cage position and Masvidal’s control over it plays out in this contest. Typically against a strong takedown artist a fighter wants to stay away from the fence to avoid being forced into a grappling engagement. But the fence can also be an ally in defending takedowns and returning to the feet once taken down. Much of Maia’s best work in recent years has come against the fence, but will Masvidal be able to get off his back in the centre of the cage with nothing to build up against?

Having considered it from a few different angles, it is hard to think of this fight as anything but a single round of “Masvidal stay on his feet?” and then the rest of the fight playing out the same. For Masvidal you would expect, short of Maia diving onto a hard counter in the early, the long fight should be preferred. Rory MacDonald had a tough time with Maia early in their bout but was able to keep returning to the feet and putting in body work which combined with Maia’s furious pace to tire the Brazilian.

It is interesting to reflect that most top flight fighters have had a hard loss or two where they were finished or completely outclassed but neither Masvidal nor Maia has suffered a one sided loss in years. The last time Maia looked uncompetitive was against Anderson Silva in 2010, and you will be hard pressed to recall the time that Masvidal was truly outclassed. They are two of the best in the game despite the losses on their records and on Saturday they are fighting for the chance, it seems, at a title shot. Both deserve their time in the limelight, it is just a shame that one has to lose. 

 

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