Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Evolution of Fighters

Like all skills, learning to fight is a constant work-in-progress. As we age, our minds and bodies change, and we often change our fighting styles with them. Sometimes the change is for the better, as we've seen Anderson Silva go from a ferocious Thai clinch-boxer to an evasive and accurate counter-striker. Sometimes the change is for the worse, which is especially apparent as we watch Mirko Cro-cop begin to feel his age, or when we see Karo Parisyan succumb to drug addiction. Fighters are still human, and carry all the transitive baggage that comes with it.

Tonight we saw the next stage in the evolution of two of the most feared strikers in the UFC, Kimbo Slice, the infamous street brawler, and Houston Alexander, the one-punch knockout artist. They were billed as essentially the same type of fighter, aggressive and dangerous beasts that would explode on the bell, clashing in the middle of the cage in a kill-or-be-killed slugfest. This was not the case, much to the disappointment of many fans. However, I was very pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong.

Houston began his career with the UFC two years ago, making a big splash as he ran through Keith Jardine and Alessio Sakara with highlight-reel knockouts. However, as he faced stronger competition, he didn't measure up, hitting a three fight losing streak that almost lost him his UFC contract. In an unheard-of show of grace, Houston was allowed to fight in a smaller organization after a year of just training. He scored an amazing TKO victory in Adrenaline MMA 4, displaying a discipline never seen before from him, as well as adding devastating leg kicks to his arsenal. Coming into the Kimbo fight, knowing that Slice has a bad left knee, he strategically attacked the lead leg with low kicks, keeping the pace slow to wear on his opponent. Perhaps he displayed a little too much caution in this fight; there were times I felt like he should have capitalized more on Kimbo's weakness, but it was still an impressive performance from Houston. While not perfect, he has found the next piece of the puzzle in his fighting style, and now simply needs to combine it with the dynamic aggression that made him famous.

Kimbo, on the other hand, found his fame as videos of his backyard brawls spread across the internet, creating a fanbase unlike any that has ever been seen in the sport. Three of the four most-watched events in MMA history have starred Slice, making him possibly the biggest draw in the entire sport. Many dedicated fans have criticized his lack of grappling technique and experience, his one-dimensional fighting style, and his street-fighter status. Still, as he's made himself into a legitimate combatant, the surprises continue to pile up. From his humble and earnest personality revealed in the Ultimate Fighter reality show, even more fans flocked to his side. And now, after displaying some serious grappling skills in his fight with Houston, I expect many dedicated fans to begrudgingly admit his competency as well, much as how people came around about Brock Lesnar after his victories over Randy Couture and Frank Mir. Kimbo isn't quite there yet, but it's definitely a much better start than when he debuted on EliteXC.

I know the UFC will be handing on to Kimbo Slice. Even if he loses his next three fights, I imagine that he will still have enough pulling power to make them immense amounts of money each time he fights. If he continues to improve and win, this will only increase his popularity and cash-cow status. Houston Alexander, on the other hand, may be on thin ice. I can only hope the UFC recognizes Alexander's potential, and allows him to develop into the amazing fighter I know he's capable of becoming.

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