Shields, Melendez and the brawl to end it all
One of the best get-out-of-jail free cards is tenure. The longer you've been around, and the more you've dug your heels into a relationship, the more leeway you have to screw up.
What happened in the closing moments of Strikeforce's second CBS telecast comes without the security of long-term placement. CBS, burned once by the bizarre behavior of EliteXC employees, found itself devoting prime-time minutes to Nick Diaz, Jake Shields and a dozen others from their Cesar Gracie team descending on Jason Miller after shoves were exchanged and egos bruised.
It was awkward, ugly and impossible to recover from.
This kind of school-yard stuff is not at all out of character for impassioned athletes who are running high on macho-bravado posturing and adrenaline. Baseball teams have swarmed one another; some get rushed with a bat. NBA players have elbowed, kicked and occasionally assaulted fans in the stands. (Never with bats, but give it time.)
Ball sports, however, have the benefit of history. We've never known a world without basketball, football or boxing, and the idea that any few individuals could sink a national pastime is never given any thought. The sports columnists will scold the offenders, the footage will get some airplay, and it's business as usual within the week. Boxing can even kill its participants (three in 2009 alone, if you're keeping track) without much fuss.
MMA does not have this luxury. As a result, scenes like this -- which, if we're being honest, are entertaining in their absurdity -- do nothing to enforce the idea this is an activity that deserves to occupy the public consciousness. Instead of offering perspective on his impressive, gutsy comeback win over Dan Henderson, Jake Shields is instead left to explain why his site of victory turned into a scene from "West Side Story."
MMA is still very much in the courtship stage of its relationship with the sports world. As of Sunday morning, it ran out of gas on a pretty major highway.
Next for Shields: A vacation and a lucrative contract.
Next for Henderson: The middleweight title, if it's vacated by Shields. He can beat just about any other middleweight in the promotion.
Next for Shinya Aoki: Out of the cage and into the tights.
The open-door policy award: The Tennessee Athletic Commission and the Bridgestone Arena security team, for allowing Jason Miller into the ring when he had no actual business being there.
The Merriam-Webster's award: Mauro Ranallo, for dropping both "halcyon" and "truculent" into his color commentary. A chimerical display of profligate if I've ever heard one.
The cold opening award: The commentary team, for delivering an extended, tiresome introductory monologue on the night's bouts without running any footage of the participants. Radio on television does not work.
The remedial reading award: Frank Shamrock, who insisted that he had discussed with Melendez the practice of punching Aoki in the throat. This would be illegal, as was Shamrock's kneeing Renzo Gracie in the head and clocking Phil Baroni with a foul shot. For a guy raised in the open-hand-slap civility of Pancrase, he's definitely got a mean streak.
Q: Is Mauro Ranallo in the wrong business?
A: I begrudge no one a living, but Ranallo's filed teeth can grow tiresome. When Aoki was finding himself utterly and inexorably lost against Melendez, Ranallo was imploring him to do something. But by that time, Aoki had seen virtually every shot of his stuffed and his striking rendered completely ineffective. What, exactly, is Aoki supposed to do?
Later, Ranallo idled in the margins of the screen as play-by-play man Gus Johnson tried to wring an explanation from Shields on the Team Gracie melee, stroking Shields' arm in an apparent attempt to muscle him out of the frame. If Johnson is leading the interview, why would Shields -- or Ranallo -- be the one to break off the conversation?
More than anything, Ranallo makes the viewer too aware of his presence. Good commentating is commentating you don't notice.
Q: The unanswerable question: Does position trump damage?
A: Kevin Randleman's corner nearly razed the Octagon when Bas Rutten was announced the winner in a 1999 title fight: Randleman had spent the majority of the fight on top, but it was Rutten who was busier with strikes from the bottom.
That dynamic replayed itself during the Lawal-Mousasi fight, with Mousasi delivering sharp, stinging blows to Lawal from off his back. Lawal, one eye swollen shut, was awarded the victory and the light heavyweight title.
Cumulative strikes delivered from the bottom are pestering, damaging and score-worthy, but -- with the exception of a well-timed up-kick to the jaw -- cannot end a fight. It must be acknowledged that the man on the bottom does not want to be there: His opponent has imposed his will, and that's a significant accomplishment.
Q: Is Bobby Lashley officially out of excuses?
Lashley, a capable and competent wrestler, is 5-0 in the sport but lacks even one performance against a ranked opponent; Lawal, 6-0 on Saturday morning, entered into a fight with top-10 ranked light heavyweight Mousasi and beat him. Fair or not, wrestlers are held to a different learning curve than other backgrounds. When is Lashley going to fight someone who can threaten him?
Q: Has Henderson's stock dropped?
A: Celebrated for his crushing of Michael Bisping in July, the 39-year-old Henderson entered the cage against Shields on Saturday looking slightly overweight and slightly amused at his spoon-fed debut against a welterweight.
For a round, it was no problem: Henderson's raw power crumbled Shields on multiple occasions, and Shields rose to his feet looking like he was full of regrets.
But he survived, and subsequent rounds saw Shields nail takedowns. By the third, he was sitting comfortably in mount and making arguments for 10-8 scoring. Shields left the ring looking like a prewrapped contender for Georges St. Pierre's welterweight title in the UFC; Henderson left looking as though his grand plans to capture multiple titles and perhaps even face Fedor Emelianenko was getting the cart a good 300 yards in front of the horse.
Henderson has lost before -- but never to a blown-up welterweight and never in such terribly one-sided fashion. On the heels of a very high-profile defection, this was a very high-profile defeat.
• Overnight numbers indicate that there are two stars for MMA on network television: Kimbo Slice and Fedor Emelianenko. Both men drew good-to-respectable viewers in their CBS fights, but without them, interest wanes. Only 2.63 million people tuned in for the two undercard title bouts Saturday. (Numbers for Henderson/Shields are TBD.) Strikeforce may come to regret not hustling Herschel Walker onto the card.
• Henderson attributed Shields' win in part to fatigue: "I just got a little tired for whatever reason," he said. The "for whatever reason" probably had something to do with going guns-out to finish Shields in the first round.
• Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker insisted he did not coerce Jason Miller into the cage to challenge Shields immediately following his victory. Miller, an aggravating presence who might amuse those who once jumped into an empty pool, shouldn't be blamed for wanting to draw attention -- the sport rewards it -- but he should've waited for interviewer Gus Johnson to finish with Shields and direct cage traffic.
• Coker also said he would reserve the right to penalize anyone involved in the mob. Considering Team Gracie's precedent for engaging in postfight drama, a good first step would to be severely limit the number of camp members (from any affiliation) allowed in the cage at any one time.