Friday, 27 April 2012

Overeem's Overture

Alistair Overeem is a beast; a physical specimen; a tall, dark, charming Dutchman with almost 15 years of professional MMA and kickboxing experience. During the heyday of Pride Fighting Championships (mid-2000s), a baby-faced Overeem went to war with Chuck Liddell, Vitor Belfort,  and Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua.  In 2010, he won the K-1 World Grand Prix - the biggest kickboxing tournament in the world - becoming the first professional fighter to simultaneously hold titles in major kickboxing and MMA organizations. He joined the UFC in late 2011 and in December of that year he single-handedly (or, single-footedly) retired Brock Lesnar with a kick to the liver that would disintegrate the internal organs of most normal human beings.

For the past several years, Overeem's meteoric rise in the K-1 and MMA circuits has been dogged by his equal rise in weight and muscle mass. While he began his career fighting at Light-Heavyweight (205lbs), in 2007 he made a concerted effort to move to Heavyweight (265lbs maximum).  Since 2007, his lean, lanky 6'4 frame has bulged to a nearly cartoonish stature. He now tips the scales at approximately 260lbs, his shoulders are as wide as a Cadillac's grille, his biceps look like medicine balls, and his neck is a registered missing person in nine countries.

Alistair himself claims to be a clean fighter, and credits his ridiculous growth spurt to a steady diet of hard work, diligence, and horse meat - a high-protein, low fat delicacy in Holland. However, in a world where high level athletes are regularly busted for using over-the-counter and prescription steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), rumours have plagued every one of his fights in the past three years. These rumours persist, despite the fact that he continually passes all pre- and post-fight drug tests.

The Ball Drops

In March 2012, after a press conference promoting and upcoming title fight between Alistair Overeem and HW Champion Junior Dos Santos, the Nevada State Athletic Commission approached all six attending fighters and requested a random drug test.  The supposed 'randomness' of this test was instantly questioned by MMA fans. Overeem had agreed to submit to a random, non-licensing test, but this was far enough removed from a major event that any fighters juicing between fights wouldn't have begun their pre-fight flushing to get rid of any traces of steroids and beaver hormones.

A week later, in what many agree was one of the least surprising announcements in MMA history, the NSAC revealed the results of the tinkle-tests: five of the six fighters passed with flying colours, their pee a pristine specimen. The sixth, however, didn't fare so well. An average guy walks around with a Testosterone-Epitestosterone ratio of 1:1. That's considered normal hormone levels in an adult male. The NSAC takes into account that professional athletes operate on another level and put an extreme level of stress on their bodies, which from time to time can throw their hormones out of whack; because of this, they allow a T/E limit of up to 6:1. Overeem, it turns out, registered a testosterone level of 14:1, more than twice as high as the allowable limit in Nevada, and 14x the average guy on the street.

Turns out Overeem not only looks like Superman: apparently, he's got Superman in Kryptonite shackles in his basement, and regularly harvests his blood during training camps.

That Doctor is a Silly Goose

While most MMA bloggers and keyboard warriors went into a "Told ya so!" offensive frenzy, the two most important people involved in the debacle - Overeem and UFC president Dana White - remained uncharacteristically quiet.  White, known for his lack of internal censor and no-bullshit style, said he was "pissed", but refused to go into details; Overeem, meanwhile, put his money on silence. A smart move from a legal standpoint, but in the court of public opinion a cloak of silence may as well be a sandwich board that reads "Guilty, BEOTCH!" spray-painted in neon green.

On April 24th, nearly a month after the not-so-random pre-fight test, Overeem was given an opportunity to tell his side of the story in front of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Based on the live updates provided by numerous on-hand MMA journalists, what transpired resembles a bad SNL skit than a structured hearing.

According to Overeem, he had been nursing a nagging rib injury. His doctor administered an anti-inflammatory injection to ease the discomfort and lessen swelling. This is a normal, legal practice that many fighters and athletes in general take advantage of when training. On this day, however, the doctor must have been feeling a little mischievous because he decided to lace the injection with testosterone - best pre-April Fools' joke ever?

Overeem claims the doctor didn't tell him what was else was in the syringe. A damning accusation, one might think. Not so, or at least not when you're Dr. Hector Molina - who, it turns out is the real-life amalgamation of Dr. Nick Riviera and Dr. Leo Spaceman.  Molina, instead of defending his professional integrity and his personal dignity, says he "doesn't remember" if he told Overeem what was being injected into his body. And Overeem, the naive, fresh-faced rookie that he is - he only has 48 professional fights, afterall - didn't bother to ask if there was anything that might affect his ability to be licensed for an upcoming fight.

Despite the absurdity of his "Aw, shucks, how was I supposed to know, mister?" defense, the Commission was not only lenient with Overeem, but down right complimentary. They commended a well-argued defense, said they respect him as a fighter and a champion, and, perhaps most surprising, issued a 9-month suspension instead of the normal 1-year duration. 

The Fallout

In the time leading up to the April 24th hearing, the UFC 146 heavyweight main event was in limbo. Dana White seemed to be holding onto his last thread of hope that Overeem would magically circumvent the NSAC regulations and be licensed to fight Dos Santos despite all the supposed 'evidence' that the Dutch striker was 'jacked to the gills' (I think that's the medical term).  Just days before the hearing, however, White either lost hope or regained rational thought because he replaced Overeem with perennial heavyweight contender and professional limb-snapper Frank Mir.

Notably, though not surprisingly, White hasn't cut Overeem from the UFC altogether. There's still a dollar to be made on Overeem's name when he's served his suspension, so White will happily keep the fighter in purgatory until the NSAC reinstates his license. He's definitely pissed from the perspective of a businessman: having a 6'4, well-spoken, chiseled monster with weaponized granite in his fists is a cash cow White and the UFC wanted to milk for years to come; more notably, however, is that he seems genuinely disappointed and betrayed by Alistair. The UFC president is a smart cat, so he no doubt had the same PED concerns prior to signing him in 2011. Nevertheless, he took Overeem at his word, put pen to paper and made a mutually beneficial deal in spite the persisting rumours. 

The Road Ahead

Even though justice has been served with Overeem's suspension, the whole situation is a zero-sum event. It's a strike against Overeem and it calls into question just how 'clean' he's been since moving to heavyweight. On top of that, it seems to validate MMA fans' worst fears: these super-athletes who put their personal health on the line to entertain us on a Saturday night are stacking the deck with illegal chemical supplements. We are left to wonder how many fighters are legitimately clean versus who simply tests clean or squeezes through the cracks in the system.

The failed test and subsequent suspension is not only an inconvenience to White and a financial black hole for Overeem, it's also become a catalyst for the larger issue of substance use and abuse in MMA. Public and professional demand for UFC-issued random drug screening has never been louder. While some have projected the cost of such a program would run the UFC a couple of million per year - not unrealistic considering their global value as a brand hovers around one billion dollars - White believes it would be financially and logistically unfeasible.  He remains open to Olympic-style testing as implemented by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), but is non-committal at best.

Ironically, most have ignored the silver lining of this whole story. Six fighters were tested following the UFC 146 press conference in March. None of them, as far as we know, had any previous knowledge of the test. Yet only one fighter was busted for being outside the limits of NSAC's rules and regulations. That means five of the six main card fighters were legitimately clean.

MMA is still a growing sport. The efforts of the UFC over the past ten years have slowly been chipping away at long-held public misconceptions and helped legitimize the sport on a global scale. The use of PEDs only fights against the work of people like Dana White and Marc Ratner. In a sport where highly trained athletes attempt to punch, kick, choke, break a limb, or otherwise incapacitate other elite athletes, one in six is still too many to be fighting with an unfair, unregulated advantage. But every time we catch that one in six, we can only hope it makes it that much harder for the next one to slip through systemic loopholes.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Jones vs. Evans: Worth the Hype?

In the final days leading up to UFC 145: Jones vs. Evans, even the most hardcore of MMA fans had just about had it with the months and months (and months) of pre-fight hype surrounding the frenemy status of light-heavyweight headliners, Champion Jon Jones and number one contender Rashad Evans.

The story was an easy sell: Evans, a veteran UFC fighter, winner of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, former world champion, and number one contender, playing mentor to the up-and-coming Jones who, despite still being in the infancy of his career, is already being heralded as the new breed of MMA fighter. Through a series of serendipitous events, including number one contender fights, and over a year's worth of injury & re-injury to Rashad, Jones is offered the opportunity to replace an injured Evans in a fight against then-champion Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua for the light-heavyweight title.

Jones, in one of the most dominant performances of any UFC fighter ever, put on a striking clinic against Rua, causing a ref stoppage - and simultaneous tap-out due to strikes - in less than two rounds. He was crowned the youngest champion in UFC history and in the subsequent post-fight interview was brought face-to-face (literally) with his best friend, trusted training partner, mentor, and next challenger for the light-heavyweight championship.

Cue the smack-talking.

Jones and Evans wasted no time in starting a very public beef, pointing the finger, calling out coaches, mythologizing past sparring sessions, and questioning the others' professional and personal integrity.
This went beyond most pre-fight banter. It came from somewhere deep inside their psyche. Both felt betrayed. This time, it really was personal.

The UFC, quite rightfully, ran with it, giving both fighters any and every opportunity to open up on the other in commercials, after subsequent wins, during press conferences, at little league softball appearances, in cameos appearances on Top Chef... It was a bitchy, year-long buffet, and the MMA community ate it up. Unfortunately, like all buffets, you eventually lean back in your chair, stomach bulging over your belt, staring in self-loathing disgust at the unending minefield of sushi bars, salad stations, and silver trays of chicken-fried rice. We had ingested a steady diet of MMA beef for thirteen months. We were bloated. We were groggy. Even the two fighters were clearly done with rehashing the same tired storylines. And yet we still had to wait for the main course.

On Saturday night, all the drama and all the hype finally culminated in the main event of UFC 145.

The fight was by and large what many people expected: Jones used his almost criminal reach advantage and ever-improving striking to pick apart Evans from the outside, shucked off a few negligible takedown attempts, and generally imposed his will for five rounds. In fact, the most surprising aspect of the fight is the very fact that it went the distance. Evans deserves all the respect in the world not only for going 25 minutes with a seemingly untouchable champion, but also for keeping pace, landing shots, and even momentarily rocking Jones midway through the fight. "Bones", however, retained the title with a mostly dominant performance, and in the process forced critics to cross "Conditioning" off of a dwindling list of possible chinks in the champion's armour.

It was a solid fight. It was an entertaining fight. But was it a classic fight? An historic event? Not really. If anything, fans may look back on UFC 145 as Jones' least dominant performance to date. And when it was over, you didn't really know what to say.

Despite a solid undercard that included a fight of the night performance by Mark Hominick and Edie Yagin, a couple of crushing knockouts by Michael MacDonald and Ben Rothwell, and the continuing evolution of Rory "Ares" MacDonald - who himself is fighting on a similar Jones-like MMA trajectory - the event was completely dominated by the pre-fight hype of the headlining fighters. You found yourself impressed by vicious ground and pound, cheering for skull-crushing knockouts, and confused by non-existent ground games, but somehow always preoccupied with the looming behemoth that was the main event.

I imagine it's similar to people who 'save themselves' until they're married: the relationship builds, the wedding is planned, there's suspense and tension and excitement, but when it finally happens, you're left wondering if it was really worth all the hype. Should you maybe have just gotten it over with that first night, after you checked out Mr. & Mrs. Smith, then hung out together at your apartment for a couple of hours, but didn't think to take advantage of your roommate being gone for the weekend?

It's difficult to pinpoint what caused this feeling of disappointment, but it most likely hinges on the lack of a climactic ending to the fight. A moderately competitive, five-round affair will rarely stand out as much as a highlight reel knockout or crippling submission. We didn't even get the emotional release of a post-fight embrace between champion and challenger, burying the hatchet in a show of mutual respect that could only be earned through 25 minutes of physically draining competition.

In the end, the most satisfying part of UFC 145 is that the MMA community as a whole can now definitively put the Jones-Evans grudge behind us. It's closes this chapter of the fighters' careers, so they can move on to the next challenge: For Evans, it's back to the drawing board as returns to the heady mix that is the UFC's Light-Heavyweight division; for Jones, it will be a title defense against the always dangerous Dan Henderson.

And for the fans, we sit back and wait patiently for the next all-beef buffet.

Along the Dotted Line

Here it is. A blog. If I was from Boston, it would be a blaaahg. But, for better or worse, I'm not; so, for the time being, it's a blog. A HoddBlog, to be exact. If I'm gonna enter the blogosphere and take part in what is essentially a digital vanity project, I may as well stamp my identity on every visible open space - Must. Assert. Dominance.

In all fairness, this isn't my first blog-type thing. It is, however, my first real attempt at blogging as an adult. Last time around was nearly a decade ago. Ten goddamn years. I had never had sex. I spent an impractical amount of time cutting Slipknot posters from Hit Parade magazine and swapping them with my metalhead bretheren. I was heading into my first year of university via a transfer year at a community college that was essentially an extra year of high school - but somehow with even less responsibility than high school and better cafeteria food.

Nowadays, I don't honestly know if Slipknot is still a band - though I listen to Stone Sour, the lead singer's completely bad-ass, long-term side project; I've got two university degrees that are probably lodged between a couple of comicbooks in a box somewhere; and I abandoned that first blog about a year later because I moved into student residence and realized I could spend my night's eating criminally cheap pizza, drinking with people I barely knew, and talking nonsense, instead of scouring the internet for hours and ranting about the nonsense I found on a little known website that was probably still called an 'online journal'.

Otherwise, not much has changed.  I'm still a smart ass; I still love staying up late, having a couple of beer with friends, and having long, meandering conversations with good people until the early morning light breaks. And even though I abandoned that primordial, ancestral blog ten years ago, in a weird way, I feel like I've been writing it in my head ever since. 

This isn't a beginning so much as a relauch; the continuation of a cancelled TV show after a short hiatus; an underground tunnel that burrows into the soil of one country and emerges on the other side of the border in a foreign, unknown, but strangely liberating land.

Mom was right. I should've brought a jacket.