There was some speculation, before Saturday night's World Championship Fighting card at the Shriner's Auditorium in Wilmington, that we might see KIMBO SLICE and SEAN GANNON in the same room for the first time since Gannon, a Boston cop, knocked out Kimbo in an unsanctioned bare-knuckle brawl. It was not to be: Gannon, a frequent attendee at WCF events, reportedly had to work that night. And Slice was present only as a spectator -- he was in town on his way to do the Jimmy Fallon show, and deflected questions about his upcoming Ultimate Fighter 10 bout, to be televised tonight.
One suspects that Kimbo's tour of such venues is part of an attempt to get
hardcore MMA fans to take a second look at Kimbo, whose meteoric rise
from street fighter to ESPN Mag cover status/network-television headliner was widely
scoffed at by fighters and the fancy alike. If image-rehab's the plan, it appears to be
working. Should you see an awful lot of Kimbo Slice photos on Facebook this week, it's because every cameraphone in the room was pointed in his direction all evening. As a visiting dignitary, he somewhat overshadowed such ringside luminaries as the Celtics' BIG BABY DAVIS (who's recently taken up a mixed-martial-arts regimen at the same Allston gym that produced JOHN "DOOMSDAY" HOWARD), Extreme's GARY CHERONE, and a bevy of UFC heavies including Howard, legendary MMA trainer MARK DELLAGROTTE, MARCUS "THE IRISH HAND GRENADE" DAVIS, and Ultimate Fighter 4 veteran and Milford native JORGE "EL CONQUISTADOR" RIVERA, who maintains a gym in Framingham and was active in several corners throughout the evening.
WCF, a regional promotion celebrating its eighth event and second anniversary, is a New England feeder to the UFC -- and, at least until former Southie resident DANA WHITE gets a statewide sanction to bring UFC to Boston, it's pretty much the next best thing. (WCF founder Joe Cavallaro and Dana White have been friends since they both worked the door at the Boston Harbor Hotel some 20 years ago; Joe Cav also manages UFC fighters including Boston native Kenny Florian.) For Saturday night's 10-bout card, I was at ringside between NECN's Chris Collins, who served as the evening's ring announcer, and the on-site physician. "A lot of promoters, what happens is a lot of them do a show or two and then go under," said Collins. "Joe Cav runs a good show. I've been to eight and never seen a fight outside the ring."
Someone came up and told Collins that the first fighter, James Boran, was worried that his name had not been properly communicated to the announcer. "He wants to be announced as 'Thumpin', Jumpin' James Boran," he said. "Not 'James Thumpin, Jumpin Moran.' " This was duly noted. "Joe Cav does a good job of matching fighters," Collins said. The process of connecting fighters with suitable opponents is more art than science, and is often more popular with fight fans that it is with the fighters themselves. Collins related the story of one WCF combatant who has a sizeable fan base and had rung up a series of victories while paired with fighters of similar experience and durability. The problem was, the fighter then decided he wanted a title shot against a top-ranked opponent. Joe Cav demurred, but the fighter would not let the issue pass and needled Cav until, in a moment of weakness, the promoter gave him a featured-bout slot. The result was a first-round knockout, not in the challenger's favor, and thereafter the fighter became a convert to the Joe Cav method of matchmaking.
Thumpin' Jumpin' James Boran turned out to be one of Rivera's boys, and Boran arrived with a flag bandanna wrapped around his face, terrorist-style. A sizeable entourage accompanied him, including a girl who threw t-shirts into the crowd, but a security guard materialized to shoo his supporters from the aisles before the fighters stepped into the ring. Boran's opponent, Jim Pittner, emerged with a smaller crew, all wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the USMMA logo: a swirling, circular take on the stars and stripes that bears a strong resemblance to Barack Obama's campaign signage. The first round was a restless draw, though Boran nearly connected with a high, loping roundhouse kick. Between rounds, a girl with silver boots and a superhumanly short skirt paraded around the ring. "That's one thing that's improved with every fight," Collins laughed. "This kid's obviously a kickboxer," he added, nodding at Boran, and opining that unless Pittner could take Boran to the ground, it could be a quick fight. Sure enough, after Boran let loose a few jabs the other fellow's corner began yelling "Shoot him! Shoot him!" The strategy worked, briefly, but both times that Boran was taken to the ground, he popped back up. At the end of two rounds the referree leaned over the ring and asked "Does it look like we're going?" A man was running around the ring to collect the scorers' cards, but the fighters were already preparing for the evenutality of overtime: when the three judges declare a tie, the fighters get a third, two-minute round. In the OT, Pittner's corner screamed for a takedown, which he got, but Boran, the kickboxer, appeared to be in the midst of establishing an arm lock at the bell. My scribbled notes reflect that Boran won the round 10-9, and that as the ring girls placed a medal around his neck, one of his seconds snapped a photo with an iPhone. (As a sidenote, it appeared that iPhones are as ubiquitous in MMA corners as vaseline and water bottles: several cornermen used them to film their man's performance, presumably for later scrutiny.) The next morning, one post on the WCF's website had Pittner as the winner, while the Herald records that Boran was among two of Rivera's crew to walk away with victories. I trust the Herald even less than I trust my own recollections, so even though we agree, I'll leave it for someone else to figure out.
The second fight lasted less than three minutes: a quiet Asian kid called Joel Ty swung around the ring with a stocky opponent named Lev Kamenetski, as each of their corners screamed for them to throw knees. Kamenetski landed the better knees, and eventually did in Ty with fists. When the referree stopped the bout, Ty's cornermen protested but not too much. Their bloodied fighter slunk out of the ring, turning back down the aisle when he remembered he'd forgotten his sneakers underneath the stairs.
It was during this fight that I noticed the ring itself: unlike the MMA cages you see on pay-per-view, this one had ropes, as at a boxing match. In the clinches, Ty and Kamenetski seemed about to tumble into our laps. Collins warned me to keep an eye out -- "There's five ropes, but they still come through." To this advice I owe my Blackberry and my health: two minutes into the next bout, we were alert enough to narrowly avoid being crushed by the bodies of Brent Reed and Aniss Alhajjajy as they careened off the mat and onto the scorer's table. Reed, a redheaded striker, hurt his right elbow in the fall, and was given time to recover. Alhajjajy looked genuinely anguished, even grief-stricken -- the same way
a co-worker would worry about a mate on the factory floor who'd lost a finger in the assembly line. For a time it appeared Reed would be unable to continue. But he showed what the old English bare-knuckle fancy referred to as prime gluttony -- an appetite for punishment -- and by the end of the first round Reed, gimpy elbow and all, had come close to establishing a choke on Alhajjajy. In the second round they went through the ropes again, and this time the referree brought them to the center of the ring, allowing Alhajjajy to maintain his positional advantage: a mount that led quickly to Reed being choked out. Afterwards Alhajjajy embraced Reed warmly. A less sentimental wag in the audience took one look at the hug and yelled, "Atta girl!"
Another of Rivera's boys, a lithe, skinny kid nicknamed "Spider" Saul Almeida, attracted the attention of the MMA Insider cameras with his clinical decisioning of a tattoo'd, muscular opponent called Kevin Corrigan. Rivera, in the corner, screamed himself nearly hoarse, as Saul -- or as Rivera pronounced it, Sa-oooooooool!-- appeared on the verge of choking out the bigger fellow. There is a shot in the video above where Almeida is riding Corrigan like a junior pony -- legs hooked inextricably under the other's belly -- and beating him about the ears like a rented mule. At points, Saul would look up from the pretzel of limbs he'd created out of his opponent and glance wide-eyed at his mentor, as if to say, "Like this?" Provided the young man continues his studies, we dare say he's one to keep an eye out for.
This match, and the one that followed it, seemed tailored to teach the audience a lesson about the impossibility of predicting MMA outcomes on the physical attributes of the combatants. To look at them both, you would've given an advantage to a grappler called Eddie Felix, a stout, beefy kid who looked like he could take a punch and couldn't wait to throw a few. He never got the chance: his slimmer opponent, Noah Weisman, quickly gained Felix's back and softened him up with a pair of heavy knees to the body. Felix responded with glancing haymakers, but Noah came back with a rapid series of extraordinarily painful knees to the gut, and Felix sunk like a stone. (Up close, you could see the effect of the blows on Eddie's face -- a close cousin of the oof the boxers get on the old Atari Punch-Out.) The fight records will show that with 30 seconds left in the round, Weisman swung round and closed the deal with a rear-naked choke. But several minutes after the end of the fight, as the adrenaline wore off, Felix was doubled over in his corner. "Those knees are gonna hurt tomorrow," the ringside doc said -- meaning, that is, the ones Felix would still be feeling in his stomach. One of the judges shook his head: "They're hurting him plenty now."
In the final bout before the intermission, John Ortolani faced off against a mohawked brawler called Travis Lerche. Ortolani trapped Lerche in a corner and, without fear of upkicks from his opponent, simply pushed the other man's legs out of the way and knocked him senseless.
The headline fights were stacked at the end of a long evening, and we might as well get them out of the way now: Mike Campbell, a favorite son who'd gone onto the big-league WEC but had been dismissed on account of losing two consecutive fights, was back on the circuit to re-establish his credentials. By the time Campbell came through the aisle under a spotlight it was approaching midnight. "Make it quick!" Collins joked to Campbell as he passed him on the way into the ring. (Campbell's opponent, Mike Medrano, would later complain that the fight had gone a little too quick.) Medrano tagged Campbell with a kick and bloodied his brow, but once again a knee proved the equalizer -- in this case Campbell's, flying, into Medrano's chest. The table thus turned, Campbell floored Medrano with a flurry of punches and the referree called for a TKO at 3:30 of the first round. Medrano, having failed to convince Campbell of his superiority, turned his powers of persuasion on the ref, who listened with compassion but no sympathy.
The co-headlining bout may as well have functioned as comic relief, though I doubt John Benoit found it funny. Benoit, well-known to WCF audiences, was matched against Connecticut's Hitalo Machado. Ten seconds into the bout, Machado accidentally kicked Benoit in the nuts. As is the custom, Benoit was allowed to pull himself together for a few minutes -- and as is also the custom, the girls in the audience hooted when he reached into his drawers to reposition his cup. After a significant delay, during which his corner offered to send in the ring physician, Benoit stepped forward to meet Machado. . . only to have Machado kick him in the groin again. The referee took a point away, but it was too late: the bout was beginning to remind us of an episode of America's Funniest Home Videos. Machado then knocked Benoit out in two minutes flat, setting off a howl of boos from the audience -- although afterwards, on the canvas, Machado and his seconds apologized profusely to Benoit's camp.
Just after the intermission, and long before the headliners appeared, Josh Key and Luis "Rockstar" Felix had a ferocious battle whose finale (Felix had to be carried out of the ring, and left the building on a stretcher after complaining of a severe headache) was almost as spectacular as its content. I had a feeling it would be vicious when Key came out to Weezy and Felix marched down the aisle to Jay-Z: a rivalry on wax preceding the one in the ring. Early in the first round the clinched fighters came at us through the ropes -- we were beginning to get the hang of dodging bodies -- and Key came up off my notes clutching his ribs. (I assume it was the table, and not the notes, that caused the damage, though you never know.) Shortly after the restart, however, he executed a move that even the assembled luminaries at ringside professed not to have seen outside of the WWE: Key picked up Felix and threw him backwards over the shoulder, with Felix landing head-and-shoulders-first. Before the end of the round they went through the ropes yet again, and when they resumed, Felix got trapped in the hostile corner, deflecting Felix's knees with his elbows. They both looked exhausted before the bell tolled, which was advantageous for Felix: if Key had had any juice left, the duel might have ended earlier. As it was, at the end of the round Key had gained the back and was throwing fists at Felix's skull. This drew a warning from the referree for hitting to the back of the head, and Key, looking tired and frustrated, raised up both fists and hammered down in unison on Felix's midsection -- evidently another pugilistic innovation.
The second round was only slightly less charged. Key threw kicks low, then high. The fighters fell to the ground and stalemated, with Felix working on top. When the referree admonished the two to keep moving, Felix's corner shouted instructions: "Step over his mount next time he bucks! Now! Now! Now!" Felix followed those instructions to the letter, but Key clung to his chest in the guard. Felix's cornermen were telling their man to keep his knee down just as Key, perhaps hearing them, swung and reversed levels. Back on their feet, Key connected with a jarring, unbelievable knee, and Luis sunk. But at the bell the judges called it a draw -- Key may have had a slight edge, but there was no one in the audience or the ring who wanted to see the fight end. Before the OT was announced, Key sat down next to Felix and kissed him on the head.
"You got two more minutes, guy," the referree called to Luis's corner as the seconds pulled out the stool. In fact, he had much less. The OT was lopsided in Key's favor -- Felix appeared to have nothing left in the tank, which did nothing to diminish the keen, brave two rounds he'd fought. The fight ended only after they'd thrown each other around the ring and Key came to rest on top of Felix's chest, with an unobstructed punching lane to his opponent's head. He rained punishment on his adversary until the referree mercifully stepped in and waved off the carnage. Afterwards, Felix's corner brought the stool to him halfway across the ring -- and when it became apparent he couldn't make it out under his own power, it was Jorge Rivera who hoisted the fighter on his shoulders and carried him safely through the ropes. Felix was transported to Winchester hospital by ambulance, for observation; according to the WCF website, he was released without further complications.