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When Neck Cranks Meet Giving Thanks…

5 ozWell hello there pilgrims! Though this holiday special won’t involve Charlie Brown and the Peanuts crew, it will feature my take on a different bald front-man and a slew of his peers in the Mixed Martial Arts community. Call it the crossroads between “turkey” and “Terkay” if you will. I appreciate you taking time away from all the other wondrous goings-on of the period, whether that means you’re chowing down on leftovers, avoiding “Black Friday” madness, or simply a Lions fan needing an escape after the trouncing they suffered in their annual Thanksgiving game.

Perhaps it’s as corny as the bread stuffed in your bird, but in the spirit of the season I thought it would be appropriate to write about some things in MMA I am currently thankful for. Not a wholly original concept by any means, but there are certainly things related to the sport I’m presently appreciative of and I imagine anyone reading these words feels the same way (albeit not necessarily about the same things as me). That’s why I invite you all to list some things about Mixed Martial Arts you are thankful for in the comments section. There is an inherent kinship between those who follow the sport and Thanksgiving is as good a holiday as any to verbalize exactly why we all continue to be drawn to it.

In no particular order, I am thankful for…

Bellator Fighting Championships: When it seemed as though the States were already overwhelmed with MMA promotions and any new company was doomed to fail, Bellator stepped up to the proverbial plate and hit the ball out of the park with their series of shows. Their tournament payout structure was able to attract highly skilled fighters like Eddie Alvarez, Jorge Masvidal, Wilson Reis, and Hector Lombard who in turn were able to bring light to their abilities in front of American audiences (and on ESPN). They introduced the public to a blue-chip featherweight prospect in undefeated 22-year old and eventual 145-pound champion, Joe Soto. As far as the actual action inside the ring, Bellator delivered a number of memorable bouts including a couple of “highlight of the year” candidates in Toby Imada’s Inverted Triangle-Choke and Yahir Reyes’ spinning-backfist knockout of Estevan Payan.

Head honcho Bjorn Rebney was also smart enough to focus on marketing towards the Hispanic demographic, a huge population known for both producing great fighters and showing great reverence for boxing. I attended a Bellator show in Texas earlier this year and the arena was packed with loud, excited fans. With “Season Two” poised for early 2010, and a larger media base from which to distribute their product, it appears that positive things should continue to be in store for Bellator. I expect them to make a run at signing at least a few more notable competitors, such as JZ Calvancante or the semi-available Roger Huerta, and wow fans again during the build towards crowning their next set of champions. Huerta vs. Alvarez would be absolutely spectacular in my estimation.

Continued Success of the Sport: It’s been nearly five years since the first season of the Ultimate Fighter introduced the general public to a sport they’d only previously known from media soundbytes and uninformed gossip, and Mixed Martial Arts still continues to grow stronger with every passing day since. Strikeforce delivered a solid event on network television and hopefully erased the memory of EliteXC from a few folks’ minds in the process. Bellator, mentioned above, came on strong in 2009. DREAM and World Victory Road, though suffering from a reduced interest in MMA from the Japanese public, still managed to put on some outstanding fights and showcased foreign talent like Shinya Aoki, Marius Zaromskis, Mamed Khalidov, and Marlon Sandro in the process.

As far as the UFC, while there has certainly been controversy surrounding a number of recent decisions inside and outside of the ring, it can’t be argued the company has taken any sort of dip from a financial or promotional standpoint. Seemingly unaffected by the downturn in the American economy, the UFC put on a record number of events and had no problem filling any arena along the way. Their sponsors continue to increase in prestige. They released what turned out to be an extremely popular, profitable video game with an additional title set to drop next year. They introduced audiences to live undercard bouts on Spike TV. All in all, it has been a very successful year for MMA, and as a huge fan I’m very appreciative to see its continued growth into a sport garnering national attention and perceived as a legitimate athletic endeavor rather than an excuse for “no holds barred” violence.

Strikeforce’s 2009: When things are said and done at 11:59 p.m. on December 31st, including their upcoming show in San Jose featuring Cung Le returning to the cage against Scott Smith and the promotional debuts of both Mo Lawal and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Strikeforce will have put on ten shows since April of this year. In their first three years of operation (2006-2008) they put on a total of sixteen. Scott Coker appears to be doing what his predecessors could not – sustain a nationally accepted MMA promotion unrelated to the UFC putting on regular shows with high-caliber fighters (no pun intended Nick Diaz fans).

Strikeforce isn’t relying on a one-trick pony like Kimbo Slice, and Gina Carano’s only appearance was a beatdown loss to current female champion Cristiane Santos. Rather, they have a number of exciting, top ranked competitors under contract such as “Cyborg”, Diaz, Jake Shields, Gilbert Melendez, Gegard Mousasi, and Josh Thomson. Additionally, they’ve been savvy enough to align with other promoters and bring in outside talent to make fights fans want to see.

Beyond that, the organization also compiled a roster of heavyweights rivaling the UFC’s best, including an ice-cream-loving, striped-sweater-wearing Russian by the name of Fedor Emelianenko who happens to be the best Mixed Martial Artist of all time. On a semi-related note, I recently saw Steven Spielberg’s movie “A.I.” which featured a robotic toy bear named “Teddy” and was reminded of Emelianenko. He’s by all accounts a warm-hearted, humble person – a proverbial “teddy bear” if you will – yet he appears to be an emotionless cybernetic being when inside the cage. That, plus “Fedor” means “Theodore” (aka “Teddy”) in Russian. But I digress. The point is I’m excited about where Strikeforce has been, is currently at, and will be headed in the coming months/years. And no, I haven’t been dipping into the Egg Nog for anyone who was wondering.

The Ambassadors of MMA: I’m not sure why we in the media don’t point it out more often but this sport is blessed with a number of athletes who are not only extremely skilled inside the ring but exceptional human beings outside of it. They come from a variety of backgrounds, both in fighting style and individual upbringing, yet at the end of the day they’re all terrific examples of what a Martial Artist should be. They personify qualities such as dedication, humility, compassion, and professionalism. In a world where many of those among the uninformed masses still view MMA as “human cockfighting” it’s important to note many of those who participate in it are at least equivalent, if not superior, role models to the names written on the back of jerseys worldwide.

Shane Carwin, who is not only highly educated, but maintains his job as an engineer in Colorado while training to compete at the highest level possible; who spoke about the great amount of inspiration he derived from a meeting with a fan who was also a Special Olympics participant; who has openly stated his prayers for Brock Lesnar and his family. Pat Barry, who overcame incredible odds in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and lived on relative scraps for a period of time, yet never lost his smile, his positive outlook on life, or his belief in himself. Georges St. Pierre, who is a superstar without a lust for the limelight; who is young, wealthy, famous, and good-looking but would rather be in a Gym than a Hollywood nightclub; who is possibly on his way to becoming one of the top fighters in history but would never admit that himself because of the respect his has for his peers. These are just a few of the many Mixed Martial Artists who deserve consideration for more than simply their ability to strike, grapple, or submit, and we as fans are lucky to have them around.

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