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My thoughts on EliteXC’s Uprising card from Hawaii

I don’t always agree or completely understand the direction of some of Pro Elite’s business strategies but I have to give them credit, most of their EliteXC shows have been great, and last night was no exception.

The debut show in February wasn’t anything special but considering it was their first show, it was pretty good. The June co-promotion with Strikeforce for the Baroni vs. Shamrock main event was perhaps the second best show of the year, just behind PRIDE 33 from this past February.

Even their first ShoXC show in July was solid. The only bad shows were the August ShoXC and the Dynamite USA!! debacle in June, which really wasn’t even an EliteXC show. It was more of a cash grab when FEG threw money at Pro Elite to help co-promote, get U.S. PPV distribution, and lend talent for three matches.

The match quality on last night’s show was outstanding (there wasn’t a bad match on the show) and the production was probably the best of all their shows thus far. I also enjoyed the commentary and was completely surprised by Bill Goldberg’s showing. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’ve been highly critical of him in the past. But I have to give the man credit when it’s due. He didn’t just make a slight improvement, I thought it was drastic improvement. Maybe not a 180, but possibly a 120. He still has room to get better but the fact that he finally showed elements of progression bodes well for the future of EliteXC telecasts on Showtime and pay-per-view.

I think the presence of Stephen Quadros was a huge help to Goldberg. The two know each other well and have worked shows together before. With Quadros’ vast technical knowledge he put Goldberg in a position where he didn’t feel the need to overextend himself. Bill was more relaxed and could pick and choose his spots. I also liked how Goldberg threw questions at Quadros right as a fighter was walking into the cage. Good way to setup Stephen.

Having a veteran like Quadros helps Mauro because when you have two newer analysts in the booth with both Goldberg and Jay Glazer at the same time, it’s a lot of work and pressure for Mauro. With Quadros in there, Mauro doesn’t have to worry about how everyone else is doing and he can just focus on his role.

Goldberg did a much better job of not talking over Mauro during key points of the bout and leaving the important fight calls to Mauro. He also did a much better job with the post-fight interviews (although I think they still should hire a full-time reporter who handles post-fight interview and locker room updates, something all major promotions should do in a sport where injuries are a constant).

I think the David Dinkins Jr.-led production team did well for themselves. I’ve said it before, but I like how they open the show much better than how the UFC does. The UFC opens a show like a pro wrestling telecast while EliteXC opens the show the same way Fox or CBS would for football by showing shots of the locale where the telecast is emanating from. I also like how they show the main eventers entering the arena from the outside like NFL pre-game shows do with the starting QBs from each team walking up to the stadium in street clothes as if they’re arriving for work. They also do a better job of showing graphics previewing the entire night’s card instead of focusing heavily on just one or two matchups.

I also really like the overhead crane camera angles that they do and I think they do a much better job with crowd reaction shots than the UFC. Aside from the opening of each UFC show, you don’t really see the crowd unless they cut to a celebrity. I love seeing the crowd reaction because it adds to the feel of a big win just like when you see fans going crazy following a touchdown or a homerun.

The native Hawaiian drumming and dancing by the ring entrance way was pretty cool. It was no PRIDE staging area but I wouldn’t expect that kind of promotion to dump that much cash into a stage set up. The lit up walkway was also a nice touch. It’s like something you’d see at a club in Vegas. Overall, I think the ring entrances were better than what you see in the UFC.

My only complaints are that the corner men should come out with them (isn’t it a time honored MMA tradition to have your whole team walk out with you?) instead of already being cageside waiting for them and once again, they have to do a better job mic’ing the PA system (and mic’ing the crowd too, didn’t they learn from Baroni vs. Shamrock?). I guess Showtime’s personal preference is to have the fighter walk out music be nothing more than a backdrop while the fighters enter. Maybe it’s just me, but hearing less talk from the announcers and hearing the fighter’s music really gets me pumped.

In addition to the overhead crane shots, I liked how the cage was mic’d. You could really hear the punches and grunts during the Joey Villasenor vs. Riki Fukuda match when the ground and pound was going on. I really felt that added to the match. For some reason though, I felt the sound on the punches from the cage became lower and lower as the show progressed.

Before I forget, the pacing of the matches was awesome. The timing was great. I almost felt like maybe they should have slowed things down a bit but I’m not going to complain about non-stop action.

There are only a few negatives from the show that I can point out.

First, they desperately need a ringside scorer. I think it was a mistake that the UFC cut Eddie Bravo and I think that aspect was really needed during Showtime’s telecast (and for that matter, how much was it needed for Bisping vs. Hamill? If ever there was a time…). I realize Quadros knows his stuff and was keeping score but it’s real hard to focus solely on scoring when you also have to analyze a fighter for a national television audience. And as much as I dig Quadros, I can’t believe he gave that third round to Mike Aina? Did anyone else out there feel Nick Diaz completely owned that round or was it just me?

But we had two decisions that were not obvious with the Fukuda vs. Villasenor and Diaz vs. Aina matches and it was like Mauro was commentating blind because we had absolutely no perspective on who was ahead and who needed to step it up. Yes, the TV scorer is not official but it gives you some inkling of what’s going down and adds to the drama a bit. It really makes you focus on the fact that it’s a close contest. Without any sort of talk of potential scoring, it’s just like the match ends and then you realize it’s in the judges hands. The ending of Villasenor vs. Fukuda was somewhat anti-climatic as a result.

I also don’t like the sequencing of promos before a fight. They show a video package and then introduce one fighter. Then they show another video package and introduce the second fighter. It’s just a real momentum killer. The ring entrances of the fighters should be back-to-back with no interruption. It needs to be seamless. Combine the video package like the UFC does.

I also think the production value of the packages themselves need to improve. They need to do a better job conceptually when it comes to the fighter one-on-ones because what they’re doing now comes off low-budget. I realize they can’t do those one-on-ones until they arrive at the event location but there are plenty of gyms in Hawaii. Instead of a basic black background, interview them in a gym, inside the cage, in the basement of the arena, anything different than what they’re doing now.

Also, I’m still not digging the post-match festivities (re: awards presentations). It’s just corny. I realize they are trying to re-create what PRIDE used to do but it just falls short and comes off as just a way to get Pro Elite’s myriad executives on camera. It just comes off awkward and seems weird that you’re presenting a guy who is bruised and battered with nothing more than a small little plaque that a kid gets at his annual Little League banquet. It you’re going to present a fighter with something then have Gary Shaw come into the cage and announce that a fighter is getting a bonus check for his performance. And if you want to highlight the presence of Jaydee Penn from ROTR and T.J. Thompson for Icon, then cut to them in the crowd between matches and have Mauro educate the viewer who each guy is and how significant it is that the two rival promoters came together for the event.

And again, I really don’t like Shaw being in the ring after every fight congratulating the fighter. It comes off as self-indulgent. I’ve said it before but Gary said EliteXC would be about the fighters and not the promoters, which was a direct shot at Dana White. Well, Gary is in there after every match hob nobbing with the fighters and their corner people. It’s a bit hypocritical on his part and unnecessary. I think it’s great that Gary wants to show his appreciation to the fighters for all the sacrifices they made but he can do that off-camera in the locker room. When he does that stuff it comes off as so Don King. The only time Gary should be in the cage is to put the belt on a fighter.

A better utilization of Shaw would be a quick sit down state of EliteXC interview. Dana White used to do this on the UFC PPVs and I really enjoyed it because he’d either break some news, set the record straight on some bogus rumor, or give you some insight into the future direction of the company (like when he first announced the concept for TUF and that they had a deal with SpikeTV or when he broke the news that they weren’t going back to Japan after all because Japanese promoters didn’t like the main events they were proposing). There is a lot you could have asked Shaw to address such as all the recent acquisitions. You could have also asked about the next show (which will be in November and we learned that by a simple graphic on the screen, it comes off as a bigger deal with an exec like Shaw presenting it as if he’s breaking some news). You could even do some throwaway questions like “Is there a chance we might see Gomi vs. Diaz II in EliteXC?” or “What free agent talents is EliteXC talking to? Is Josh Barnett a possibility?”

Even if Shaw doesn’t give definitive info it’s still interesting if he says something like “Gomi vs. Diaz is not something in the immediate future but obviously it’s something that could be possible down the line” or “We’re not currently in talks with Barnett but he’s the caliber of fighter that we’d love to have in EliteXC.”For a brand new promotion, something like this is really needed because it helps give the viewer more education about the direction of the company and sends the message that they’re going to be around for awhile. When the UFC was struggling before the Spike TV deal those Dana updates always left me feeling more upbeat about the company.

I also wanted to elaborate more on how having an arena correspondent could really enhance the show (because the correspondent could be the guy asking Shaw the questions). Showtime is already covering EliteXC like a mainstream sporting event from their intros to the way they allow Mauro to acknowledge other promotions. I’d like to see quick cutaways to the locker room that delve into storylines. Jay Glazer wasn’t on the show because of his NFL duties for Fox Sports (I’ve been told Jay will be back when his NFL commitments don’t interfere). But let’s use Jay as an example in this case. Right before the Carano vs. Evinger match you could have Mauro go “For a quick update on the condition of Gina Carano, let’s go to Jay Glazer who is standing by in the locker room.” And then he responds with “Mauro, it’s no secret that Gina Carano had trouble making weight yesterday and nearly passed out on the scales. There was some thought that Tonya Evinger would have a sizable advantage coming into this bout as a result but I was able to speak with Gina when she arrived at the arena today and she appeared to be in much better spirits. She was able to re-hydrate all through last night and indicated she has enough energy to go three, three minute rounds if need be tonight. Mauro, Bill, and Stephen, back to you.”

And another thing I would have liked to have seen was them going back to the locker room to address the Robbie Lawler leaving MFS situation. Right before the main event it would have been nice if they threw it back to the arena correspondent who would say, “Guys, this will be the first match in X amount of years in which Robbie Lawler has not been cornered by former UFC champion and legendary fight trainer Pat Miletich from the Miletich Fighting Systems. Lawler recently joined Matt Hughes in leaving MFS to start a new gym and fight team in the St. Louis area. In place of Miletich and the MFS label, Lawler will be cornered by long-time friend and former UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes and will represent Hughes’ new fight team, the H.I.T. Squad. Will the change in camps have an impact on tonight’s outcome? We’ll have to watch and see.” Hey, it would even be cool if they could grab Hughes for some last minute words. If you can’t get Hughes because he has to be at the cage, pre-tape the segment and show it as if it’s live.

Also, a real journalist serving as an arena correspondent could be used for the post-fight interviews and ask probing questions. It’s not just EliteXC, but it seems like all post-fight MMA interviews are a waste of time. It’s all softball stuff. I’d like to see some probing questions like Larry Merchant does on HBO or how Jim Gray used to do for the NBA and baseball. You know Jim Gray would have been all over Nick Diaz and the fact that he was coming off the marijuana suspension. Goldberg completely softballed him. Did he even ask if he took Aina lightly? I can’t remember. That’s how meaningless post-fight MMA interviews are. And again, it’s not limited to EliteXC. Joe Rogan does a great job on color commentary for the UFC but aside from the Sobral post-fight, when has he ever really stirred the pot during a post-fight? Also, Golberg towering over fighters creates the same problem with Frank Mir towering over guys in the WEC. A guy really looks like a bad ass when he’s next to a senior citizen like Merchant. Next to Goldberg or Mir? Not so much.

Another thing, tease more future matchups. I love the brief talk about Gomi vs. Diaz II and when Goldberg hyped it. I would have loved to have seen them speculate what might be next for Robbie Lawler and have them name drop Frank Shamrock as a possibility. Get us excited for the future and build towards the next show. Get the people talking! Hey, people started talking about Baroni vs. Shamrock and a heated rivalry was built over the Internet. I think it would be much easier to build rivalries over TV. Take a page from pro wrestling.

Okay, I guess this is the part now where I should talk about the fights, right?

Joey Villasenor vs. Riki Fukuda via split decision – This was by far the match of the night. It offered a lot of great back and forth action and I was really, really impressed with Fukuda. The guy has a tremendous chin and absorbed a ton of damage. He showed a lot of great skills and his dirty boxing was great. He had nice head and shoulder movement and kept his chin tucked like a pro boxer would. You can tell Fukuda lives in the gym and is working hard. He’s only going to get better. Kudos to Luke Thomas from who predicted a Fukuda upset. It didn’t happen but the bottom line is Luke knew this match was going to be a lot closer than most pundits (such as myself) anticipated.

Fukuda did his best to cut off the distance between he and Villasenor but Villasenor still had enough room to throw a lot of high kicks. It seemed like that Fukuda was getting hit in the head by Villasenor’s feet instead of the shin. If the shin had been landing I’m not sure if Fukuda would have been able to absorb them. That’s the first thing I learned when I transitioned from Longfist Kung Fu to Muay Thai — you kick with your shins and not your feet. It didn’t take me long to understand why. I agree with the decision and I think it was a solid win for Villasenor because Fukuda is no joke and is a real prospect. My concern though is that because Fukuda isn’t a household name the win might not help Villasenor with the mainstream because it might come off as Villasenor being unable to finish a lesser opponent, when in reality, that is nowhere near the case. I wouldn’t mind seeing Fukuda vs. Seth Kleinbeck on a future ShoXC card.

Jake Shields via first round TKO over Renato “Charuto” Verissimo – I was really disappointed in Charuto’s performance. I’m a huge fan of his and he’s just a super cool guy. I predicted an upset here as well and wow, do I feel like an ass now. Shields just steamrolled him. He’s now finished four opponents in a row. They need to market this kid better. He’s articulate so he should be out there doing more interviews. They should also be pushing him as one of the most underrated fighters in the game and start name-dropping him in the same sentence as Matt Hughes, Georges St. Pierre, Karo Parisyan, and Jon Fitch. He belongs in that class. EliteXC also needs to get on the ball and extend his contract (he now only has one fight left on his deal) and start getting him some tougher competition. I want to see Shields in a war and not squash matches. He’d be a good representative as a EliteXC welterweight champion but who is he going to fight for the title against and if he wins, who will he defend it against? EXC needs to go out and get some established WW’s and also put more focus on the 170 lbs. class on their ShoXC shows. They focus more on the 135 lbs. and 145 lbs. weight classes on those shows but have done nothing to build out their 170 lbs. and 205 lbs. divisions. One more thing, I loved the cigar references by Mauro. Especially when talking about Charuto losing and saying “No cigar.”

Gina Carano via first-round submission over Tonya Evinger - I have to give Carano a lot of credit, her ground game has definitely improved. I was shocked like most people when she tapped Evinger. I thought that was pretty awesome. But let’s keep things in perspective because Evinger is not a top challenger right now. She has a ton of potential because she’s tough, has an amazing wrestling background, and can box a little, but she needs more time to develop. It didn’t look like she had much Jiu-Jitsu to complement her wrestling and we don’t know if she is a versatile striker. I think she was rushed to that spot. I also agree with the critics out there who feel EliteXC has a Gina Carano division and a not a true women’s division. I’d love to know who the three new female fighters Shaw teased as trying to get under contract (hey, he could have announced that during the show during my proposed “State of EliteXC address” segment idea). I’d also love to know why Shayna Baszler didn’t get the slot to fight Carano after she beat Jan Finney on the ShoXC undercard when Evinger got it instead. Did Baszler fight too well, or something?

But Gina winning via submission was great for her, great for EliteXC, great for women’s MMA, and great for the sport. I hope her ground game continues to catch up with her striking because I’d love to see EliteXC build to a match between Tara LaRosa and Carano down the line. That’s the biggest money matchup that women’s MMA has to offer right now and it needs to happen for the advancement of women’s MMA. It shouldn’t happen anytime soon but I think in 12-16 months it would be pretty competitive. They should start building to it now by having the two mouth off about each other in the press.

Oh yeah, some people had an issue with the 25 centimeter line from Mauro, but my wife and I laughed our asses off. What’s the big deal? First, it was Evinger herself who went to the gutter in the first place with the makeout line (which was brilliant on her part, by the way). All Mauro did was drop a spontaneous one-liner. I felt it was pretty witty and not something that was totally low brow and obvious. I really don’t get the criticism about Mauro. The guy can’t win. He had a ton of fans when he was with PRIDE but had some critics as well. The critics said he was overly technical, too stiff, and didn’t show enough personality. Well, he’s showing personality now on Showtime and interjectiing humor and when he does he gets crap for it? Like I said, the guy can’t win. I was a huge Mauro fan from his PRIDE days but I think he’s light years better on Showtime now. Much more relaxed.

Nick Diaz over Mike Aina by split decision - You all know I’m a Diaz mark by now and I scored this his fight 10-9 Aina in the first, 10-10 tie in the second, and 10-9 Diaz in the third. If my math is correct, that’s a 29-29 draw. But it was so close it could go either way. I think Diaz started off slow because he knew little about Aina and wanted to feel him out in the first. Well, I think he learned that Aina has some explosive hands (I told you guys about this kid!). Diaz’s face looked pretty jacked, but when doesn’t it following a fight? He always absorbs a lot of punishment in his fights and I’d love to see him work on his defensive standup. Diaz stepped it up in the second and third but fought a methodical fight. I just don’t always understand the methodical approach for him because Nick doesn’t always make the best tactical decisions. Quadros nailed it when he said Nick should have gotten the fight to the ground much sooner. Had he done so, the fight might have been finished much earlier. I mean, he had that armbar going at the end of the fight. I think maybe Nick just enjoys standing too much and likes to stand and trade. I also think Nick needs to work on his wrestling. His Jiu-Jitsu takedowns aren’t going to get it done. Sweeps and trips are great and all but there’s nothing like a sweet single leg or double leg to help you put your world class BJJ skills to good use.

For Aina’s part, he fought a good tactical fight. I was really impressed how he handled himself after that knockdown at the start of the second round. He went in to try and finish when Diaz was on his back but when he saw he wasn’t going to be able to land big shots while standing, he backed off and allowed Diaz to get back to his feet. He knew better than to pursue matters further and go into Diaz’s guard. Smart thinking because Diaz could have triangled him or maybe even pull off the gogoplata again. I’m surprised the announcers didn’t point that out.

A lot of people will be critical of Diaz but I don’t think he fought any differently than he has in most of his fights. He’s never been the type of guy who in spite of his immense skill normally comes out and completely dominates the opposition. When Diaz fights, it’s usually a back and forth war. Overall, I think Diaz fought a lot better than most people gave him credit for and I think people are failing to give Aina the credit he deserved. He’s much better than his 9-6-1 record would indicate. I like how Goldberg pumped the kid up after the fight about earning himself a future with EliteXC. I’d like to see more of him because he has a ton of heart. He showed no fear against Diaz. Before I forget, I thought it was a great match. A close second to Fukuda vs. Villasenor.

They also need to promote Diaz better. He should be on of their biggest stars. I have an issue with EliteXC shoving Krazy Horse down our thoughts but not going overboard when it comes to promoting Diaz. I know they might be concerned about the marijuana issue but the kid has a political stance and isn’t trying to glamorize it. He’s not a criminal and he delivers in all of his fights. Krazy Horse on the other hand has been convicted of some pretty heinous stuff and comes up short in a lot of his fights.

Diaz should be marketed as a counter-culture anti-hero. Embrace his outspoken nature and who gives a crap if he feels pot should be legal? You know, I can’t relate to some of his stances because I’m a 30-year guy with a wife, a kid, and a mortgage. I’m pretty far removed from the drug culture. But we all know a lot of MMA’s fanbase is the 18-24 male demographic and a lot of those guys are pot smokers themselves. How many dudes out there were hanging last night getting high while watching the show? A lot of people identify with Diaz — a 20-something kid who is scraping by to get himself established financially and has issues with authority and the system. He’s a rebel with a cause. You spring Krazy Horse out of jail for a fight yet you have reservations about putting the full court promotional press behind Diaz because he smokes a little weed?

Why wasn’t he doing more interviews last week? Why wasn’t he on the conference call (and if he failed to call in, someone should have been on his ass about it)? Why wasn’t he booked for a show like Scott Ferrall, The Bubba the Love Sponge Show, or Fight Network Radio? Talking about weed publicly could come back to haunt him with the commission but if he’s playing it smart now and not testing positive then how’s it going to be an issue?

Robbie Lawler vs. Murilo “Ninja” Rua - I was surprised how these guys felt each other out to start. I thought it would be rock ‘em sock ‘em robots with fireworks early. This is not the same Robbie Lawler we saw in the UFC. He’s a much more controlled fighter and doesn’t take the stupid risks he used to. I was really impressed with his performance and I’d rank him as the third best middleweight in the UFC.

While I was impressed with Lawler, I was really disappointed in Ninja. I felt he kind of quit. He showed heart in absorbing Lawler’s big left hands but he realized he needed to get the fight to the ground. But when he he realized he couldn’t get Lawler on the mat, he had a look of defeat in his eyes. It was almost like he was resigned to losing. That’s not what you want to see from a champion. And Lawler, you could almost see him grinning when he realized Rua couldn’t take him down. It almost seemed like he knew he had it won and all he had to do was wait it out for his opening. The old Robbie Lawler might have tried to force the issue and took an unnecessary risk and got himself caught in a careless submission. It’s kind of like a hitter in baseball. The old Lawler would have swung at an outside breaking ball when he was behind in the count 0-2 and gone down swinging. The current Lawler would sit there, work the count so he could get ahead, and wait for a fastball down the center of the plate. A Robbie Lawler with poise and patience is a deadly Robbie Lawler.

EliteXC has a major score on their hands with Lawler because he’s not just a top ten middleweight, but a top five middleweight. My only question is, what’s next for this guy? He’s already beaten Joey Villasenor. Ninja didn’t show enough for a rematch. Niko Vitale was lost to K-1 and Strikeforce. I’d love to see Lawler vs. Frank Shamrock but I think Shamrock knows better than to take that match. Personally, I think Shamrock could take the match and still survive even if he lost. If he lost to Lawler I think that the anticipated Shamrock vs. Cung Le showdown would still have a lot of box office potential. Heck, a Shamrock loss might actually make the matchup appear closer on paper because in some aspects, it seems lopsided right now considering how much experience Frank has on Cung.

I’d also love to see Lawler vs. Phil Baroni. There’s no reason for it to happen now but I think it would be a fun match. I would think Baroni needs to come off suspension first and win a fight or two before he’s in any sort of title picture. He’s also under contract to Strikeforce and not EliteXC. But Lawler vs. Baroni with the plotline of who is the harder puncher at 185 lbs. would be a great marketing angle.

Looking long-term, maybe you could even do Diaz vs. Lawler II because Diaz holds a win over him from the UFC. Diaz told me he’d be willing to fight 185 lbs. and he has never been shy about telling people he’ll fight anyone.

In general, the fact that there really aren’t obvious next opponents for last night’s winners really underscores the fact that EliteXC needs to get busy and start building out their roster. Granted, they now have access to a lot of fighters through their recent acquisitions but a lot of those fighters are not established and it will take a lot of time and money to build them up as stars before they can be considered marquee draws. And right now, I don’t think EliteXC is doing the best job they could be doing when it comes to building new stars. I have a lot of ideas on how they could do a better job in that regard but that’s another diatribe for another time (and besides, that would be like providing free consulting). They’re spending tons of money buying up fight promotions but I think they need to be investing more money into established talent.

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