There’s always something interesting to talk about after a UFC event, and there were some good performances in Poland. Another Cage Warriors standout in Stevie Ray making a very impressive debut: the Scot battered Marcin Bandel to a TKO stoppage, re-emphasizing what an excellent source of MMA talent the currently-dormant promotion is. A pair of intriguing strawweights in Albu and Moroz made their debuts, picking up a dominant decision and a shocker stoppage respectively. Leon Edwards knocked out Seth Baczynski in eight seconds.
But let’s talk boredom.
Despite these moments, the card was awful for the most part, featuring sisyphean tracts of fighters jockeying for position near the fence, followed by some “let’s work, guys”, and separation, and then the fighters inevitably going back to working near the fence. It was fortunately saved from crossing over into soul-killingly bad by not being on cable.
The main event can be looked at in two separate ways, neither of which is invalid. Either you can look on it as a stirring re-ignition of the legend of Cro Cop, a particularly unlikely revenge for of one of the greatest upsets in UFC history 8 years after the fact, and an example of how we often write fighters off too early. Alternatively you can look at it as being a contest between a man who is old and diminished and one who is skilled yet fragile, where Fighter A outlasted Fighter B.
A Piece of Steak
Again, neither view is invalid, and the truth probably lies somewhere between the two. If you look at Cro Cop’s time spent outside the UFC, and in his kickboxing fights in particular, there is something particularly notable about them: they’re boring, by and large. They shared a tonal similarity with Andrei Arlovski’s fights outside of the UFC (another resurgent heavyweight), in that they tended to be grinding and methodical and slow.
Even before the fight, I was thinking of Jack London’s “A Piece of Steak.” It’s a classic turn-of-the-century short story about Tom King, an ageing bare-knuckle brawler who steps in for a fight where he’s outmatched by a far younger and fresher fighter. The old boxer’s strategy becomes centered around cunning inactivity. He simply absorbs and deflects his opponent’s offense and waits for his moment.
The first round was all Sandel’s, and he had the house yelling with the rapidity of his whirlwind rushes. He overwhelmed King with avalanches of punches, and King did nothing. He never struck once, contenting himself with covering up, blocking and ducking and clinching to avoid punishment. He occasionally feinted, shook his head when the weight of a punch landed, and moved stolidly about, never leaping or springing or wasting an ounce of strength. Sandel must foam the froth of Youth away before discreet Age could dare to retaliate. All King’s movements were slow and methodical, and his heavy-lidded, slow-moving eyes gave him the appearance of being half asleep or dazed. Yet they were eyes that saw everything, that had been trained to see everything through all his twenty years and odd in the ring. They were eyes that did not blink or waver before an impending blow, but that coolly saw and measured distance.
Cro Cop, like Arlovski, and like many other fighters who get experience on circuits where athleticism and physicality are in short supply, has gained that veteran’s understanding of how to parcel out effort. This isn’t just a physical necessity for many fighters, but it becomes inherently part of their mental approach to fighting as well. The aggressive pride (no pun intended) of youth goes away, and is replaced by a more calculating, weathered determination.
Barring Oleksiy Oliynik’s unique fight-ending sequence in one of his few MMA fights he’s taken since leaving the UFC, Mirko’s bouts have been masterclasses in winning ugly, and he’s learned a veteran’s slipperiness for avoiding being finished. His fight against Gonzaga wasn’t any kind of efficient defensive mastery- he was mounted twice, and that’s normally a recipe for disaster against big, strong, blackbelts. Still, he didn’t panic, or throw himself out of position, or leave himself open to getting pounded out as he might have done when he was younger. These are the kind of small victories that sometimes add up to big ones.
For Filipovic and Arlovski there’s still a fine line to be walked between measuring out portions of effort and simply hoarding it, between waiting for the moment and ossifying into a defensive stupor. For a lot of the fight with Gonzaga, Cro Cop was on his bicycle and refused to throw. Arlovski was lucky to escape his unspeakably turgid fight with Brendan Schaub with a win.
But both men can still crack. Arlovski blew away Bigfoot Silva, and in the third round of the main event on Saturday, Filipovic suddenly came to life. He looked as shocked as anyone watching did as he suddenly realized that he had his opponent hurt, and he exploded into life and rained down elbows on Gonzaga.
It was when he planned to attack (“”I knew I needed to stay away from him in the first and second rounds. It sounds smart but that was our strategy. It was a must-win situation for me.”), and the third is the veteran’s time. A younger fighter might panic after dropping the first round and throw caution to the wind. Conversely, making a move in the fourth makes the fight unwinnable on the scorecards. Of course, the third round is when Tom King in “A Piece of Steak” makes his move:
The third round began as usual, one-sided, with Sandel doing all the leading, and delivering all the punishment. A half-minute had passed when Sandel, over-confident, left an opening. King’s eyes and right arm flashed in the same instant. It was his first real blow–a hook, with the twisted arch of the arm to make it rigid, and with all the weight of the half- pivoted body behind it. It was like a sleepy-seeming lion suddenly thrusting out a lightning paw. Sandel, caught on the side of the jaw, was felled like a bullock. The audience gasped and murmured awe-stricken applause.
Was Cro Cop-Gonzaga a good fight? Not particularly, but Gonzaga fought well, mixing up his striking and takedowns. He remains fragile, and continued his trend of not winning fights that go past ten minutes which was only broken in the last ten years by Parker Porter and Kevin Jordan.
For his part Cro Cop proved that there’s some life in the old dog yet, and went some way towards saving what may have gone down in the record books as a legendarily terrible card otherwise. Just temper any enthusiasm, and remember that if you tune in to watch him again, don’t be surprised if it’s really boring.
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