Sunday, October 22, 2006

Pride’s Real Deal Aptly Named

LAS VEGAS - In 2006, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has had a rapid, incredible ascent in which it has become synonymous with mixed martial arts in the United States. At the same time, its primary competitor for the label of top MMA promotion in the world lay mostly dormant to the American public. On Saturday, at the aptly named “Real Deal,” that giant awoke and announced its presence in a major way. The Pride Fighting Championships came to America, and it is a lot closer to challenging UFC’s U.S. market share than most of us could have imagined going in.

Pride Real Deal was the best produced MMA show to ever take place in the United States by a wide margin. The stage, lighting, video packages, music and presentation made the show feel major league to the point its competitors by extension felt minor league. Even the show’s remarkable $20 program was a cut above. Kenny Florian was in the semi-main event of UFC’s last show, while Pride had better fighters in this show’s opener.

Both fans and critics of this show are likely going to miss the significance of this show. Pride fans who expect Pride to compete with UFC in the immediate future don’t understand just how far apart the organizations still are in this country. UFC has an enormous head start, and it has almost all of the fighters that casual fight fans in this country perceive to be stars. Pride is going to need a quality television slot and backing to make stars of its own and challenge UFC. UFC’s recent success for Shamrock-Ortiz may backfire in opening more executives’ minds to running MMA. That could inadvertently get Pride a good TV deal on a major cable network. If that does not happen, Pride will not be able to challenge UFC.

On the other hand, some hardcore fight fans have criticized this show for uneven matchups, when that at this point in time is almost irrelevant. It is the presentation and production of Pride that will grab fans’ attention, not close matchups for the hardcore fan. At this point, the masses don’t even know most of the fighters in Pride and uneven matchups are a way to introduce fans to new stars in an impressive way. There is no payoff without a build, and Pride would be foolish to get too far ahead of itself this early in the game. The goal of Pride right now is star building, and they showed a tremendous ability to do so in the top matches of this show.

Pride Real Deal was close to a sellout, if not a complete sellout at the Thomas and Mack Center. There were scattered empty seats in the lower bowl of people who did not show up. There was a large contingent of Japanese fans at the show, as well as fans from Russia, Poland, Brazil and elsewhere. The media was also international in scope.

The crowd was also the most educated and respectful crowd in American MMA history. There were boos only twice once the show started: once during an extended clinch in the Nastula-Barnett fight and some scattered boos for Phil Baroni’s entrance. The latter booing was ironically likely more directed at American boorishness. The crowd reacted in a huge way to subtle movements on the ground, and cheered loudly for most every competitor on the show. There was basically nothing in the way of “U.S.A.” chants, and Nobuhiko Takada was greeted respectfully and cheered without so much as scattered catcalls as he delivered an extended speech in broken English.

The show had an authentic Pride feel, with the same Japanese ring announcer, crazy American ring announcer, and ring girls. They announced the rules prior to the fights, and the crowd lustily booed the announcement of no kicking a downed opponent or stomping. They then reacted to the members of the Nevada State Athletic Commission like El Tirantes in Mexico City or Earl Hebner in Montreal. The referees got a better reaction, including a huge pop for Pride head official Yuji Shimada. Following a great video introduction, the fighters were introduced on the stage. Fedor Emelianenko got an amazing reaction and standing ovation from the crowd.

Robbie Lawler defeated Joey Villasenor in the opener. Lawler hit a high kick that did not connect fully, but followed it with a flying knee that did. He continued with hard punches on the ground and the referee quickly stopped the fight 22 seconds in. This was an important fight for the charismatic and exciting Lawler who badly needs to string together a series of wins. He beat a high quality opponent in this one.

Kazuhiro Nakamura defeated Travis Galbraith. Galbraith was brought in to lose, but he made a good showing. In the first round, they traded early. Nakamura caught him with a punch and used some ground and pound. Galbraith went for a heel hook and took top position. Nakamura stood up, but Galbraith took him back down. They again got back to their feet, and Nakamura used a nice judo throw at the end of the round. In the second, Nakamura scored a takedown, but again they got back to their feet. Nakamura hit a knee standing, and followed that with punches until it was stopped. Nakamura got a nice ovation after the match.

Phil Baroni beat Yosuke Nishijima. Baroni got a mixed reaction. He took Nishijima down immediately. He used some ground and pound and gained side control. He then applied the kimura for a stoppage about three minutes in. Nishijima told the press after the fight that he did not tap out, and was devastated by the loss. He had trained hard on the ground and thought he would be able to defend submissions better than he did.

Dan Henderson beat Vitor Belfort in a rather dull decision. Henderson got a strong reaction coming out. He scored a takedown early, and after a scramble for position Belfort ended up on top. Belfort went for a heel hook and they stood back up. They both scored some punches and Henderson got another late takedown. This was a close round and the best of the fight. Round 2 was clearly Henderson’s. Belfort pulled guard, and Henderson used some effective ground and pound and some not so effective ground and pound. In the third round, Henderson got a takedown and there was slow ground and pound. Belfort took the top and scored some punches at the end of the round but it was too late. Henderson won a judges’ decision 30-27, 30-27, 30-26.

Butterbean beat Sean O’Haire. Luckily, this fight did not go long. A lot of people took this as an early intermission. O’Haire closed in for a takedown, but Butterbean rocked him with punches from a close distance. O’Haire dropped to one knee and Butterbean continued with punches until it was stopped. Butterbean got a big reaction to his promo after the match.

The show then had a long intermission. This was likely a bad idea for a PPV, but it worked fine live. It helped concessions and merchandise. By the end of the show merchandising was almost completely wiped out. Most of the merchandise stands were closed and the little remaining product was moved to one lone concession stand. That only had a few t-shirts, hands and other smaller items. The Pride girls were introduced in the ring, and Nobuhiko Takada came out to speak to the audience. He said Pride is here to stay, and announced a follow-up date in February. He brought out Hayato Sakurai, Hidehiko Yoshida and Kazuyuki Fujita who said hello to the American fans.

Josh Barnett defeated Pawel Nastula. Nastula looked really good in defeat, which is the story of his career. There was a long clinch in the first round, and Nastula eventually got the takedown. Barnett was able to stand, but Nastula got another takedown. Barnett caught Nastula in an ankle lock at the end of the first round. Nastula was saved by the end of the round, but Barnett apparently found a weakness in Nastula’s game. In the second round there was another clinch. They exchanged on their feet, where Nastula surprisingly caught Barnett with a hard punch. He then took Barnett down. Nastula went for an arm bar, but Barnett escaped and Nastula caught him with the ankle lock a second time for the tap. Nastula got a nice reaction after the crowd, and Barnett put him over in his post fight comments. Barnett has real potential to get over in the United States.

Wanderlei Silva was introduced, and got a superstar reaction. He called out Chuck Liddell. He said Liddell doesn’t want to fight him. This was your typical grandstand pro wrestling challenge. The story of this was the crowd reaction. Just a few months ago in the same city at UFC 61 when this fight was announced it got very little reaction. But on this show, the crowd reacted really big to this.

Mauricio Shogun beat Kevin Randleman. Shogun was also really popular with the crowd. Randleman had his typical intensity. He scored a takedown immediately. Shogun got the heel hook and Randleman didn’t defend it properly. Shogun cranked it and probably did major damage to Randleman. However, Randleman just lay there, screaming in pain and refusing to submit. Shogun transitioned into a knee bar and had that at a nasty angle, and finally Randleman submitted. This was an unbelievably gutsy performance by Randleman, who even limped out in the main event to second Mark Coleman.

Fedor Emelianenko beat Mark Coleman. They ran a really good video package prior to the match, that portrayed Coleman as this family man underdog going against the Soviet menace Fedor. It didn’t work entirely, as the crowd loved Fedor and preferred him to Coleman. Fedor got another standing ovation. In the first round, Fedor blocked Coleman’s takedowns and punished him standing. Fedor went for a guillotine choke but Coleman got out. Coleman finally got a takedown but Fedor stood right back up. Fedor hit some nasty punches, but Coleman kept going for the takedowns. Coleman’s face was badly busted up, but they let him continue.

In the second round Coleman went for the takedown again and got it, but Fedor quickly caught him with an arm bar just like in the first fight. After the fight Coleman was in tears and tried to tell his young daughters that he was okay. These poor traumatized girls came in the ring and hugged him. He brought them over to Fedor, but they seemed scared of him in spite of his friendly smile.


Blogger 17Haze said...

Thanks for the report Todd! I have yet to get a PRIDE PPV but it sounds like I need to jump on board. I'm going to try and make it to Vegas for their February show.

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Tyson said...

Pride is the Superbowl of Mixed Martial Arts. The WWE of the wrestling business. UFC does not hold a candle. How could PRIDE not get a tv deal? Only if Mike Tyson didn't say he wanted to fight a woman the week before the PRIDE special at which he was announced as being part of the company.

7:17 AM  

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