MMA: WSOF

WSOF targets title bouts for Dec. 27

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
12:11
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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LAS VEGAS -- World Series of Fighting (WSOF) is planning its second NBC Network televised card for Dec. 27 and is hopeful that the event could feature two title fights.

The promotion has targeted a welterweight title fight between Rousimar Palhares and Jon Fitch to headline the card, WSOF 16. A lightweight title bout between Justin Gaethje and Melvin Guillard will likely serve as the co-main event.

WSOF executive vice president Ali Abdel-Aziz confirmed the matchups with ESPN.com on Thursday but said bout agreements have not yet been signed. An official venue for the event has yet to be established.

WSOF made its NBC Network debut on July 5. It was the first of two scheduled cards for the network in 2014. Gaethje (12-0) claimed the 155-pound title in a second-round TKO over Nick Newell.

Palhares (16-6) won the WSOF welterweight belt in March by submitting Steve Carl via inverted heel hook just 69 seconds into the first round. The Brazilian grappler was scheduled to defend the belt in July, but he withdrew due to personal reasons.

Fitch (26-6-1) suffered a first-round submission to Josh Burkman in his WSOF debut in June 2013, but has since rebounded with wins against Marcelo Alfaya and Dennis Hallman.

A former UFC title contender, Fitch’s last 10 wins have come via decision. The UFC released him in early 2013, following a unanimous decision loss to Demian Maia.

Gaethje is 5-0 under the WSOF banner, with five knockout finishes. Fighting out of Denver, the 25-year-old has finished 11 of his 12 professional fights.

Guillard (32-13-2) made his WSOF debut in July. He defeated former Blackzilian teammate Gesias Cavalcante via TKO in the second round. A longtime UFC veteran, Guillard was released by the promotion earlier this year.

Spong blessed with great athleticism

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
5:45
PM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Tyrone SpongDave Mandel/Sherdog.comTyrone Spong has excelled in kickboxing and his goal is to do the same in MMA.

BURBANK, Calif. -- Tyrone Spong stands with a presence. He fights with one, too.

A legit 6-foot-2, Spong's height is aided by good posture. The well-proportioned 27-year-old Surinamese-Dutchman has made good use of his frame, and is reputed to be among kickboxing’s best athletes and technically superior combatants.

Spong is well aware of how he's viewed, and is comfortable saying so.

This is why he was driven to YouTube to search for videos of Bo Jackson after media comparisons caught his attention. He hadn't heard of Jackson, though it didn't take more than a few clips for Spong to understand why the iconic hybrid is universally lauded among the dominant athletes of his generation.

"It's not to sound cocky, never, because I'm a real humble guy," the light heavyweight said this week during a media lunch promoting a World Series of Fighting card Aug. 10 in Ontario, Calif. "But some guys are blessed with that ability. And I'm blessed even more."

The "King of the Ring" has lived kickboxing since he was 13 and randomly stumbled into master trainer Lucien Carbin's gym in Amsterdam. Carbin is old-school. Water breaks during an hour and a half of hard training didn’t happen. The gym was kept stifling, like a wet sauna. Condensation poured off mirrors and walls. If there wasn't enough steam in the atmosphere, Carbin would dial up the temperature and intensity.

Looking back on it, Spong says this style of training is "not right."

"But," he said, "for me as a young kid at 13 years old, starting like that in a gym, it gave me a mentality like I don't care what situation I'm in, I'm always going to work hard."

Spong split from Carbin a few years ago and now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., where he teamed up with the Blackzilians. Yet the mental fortitude forged at Carbin's remains deeply ingrained in who he is and how he conducts business.

Since he's gifted with the ability to copycat technique, Spong said his progression in MMA and boxing has come quickly.

"Sometimes," he said, "it goes automatically and I surprise myself. I pick it up so good I can probably teach it to somebody, too. That's not the hard part. You have to be able to apply it in that moment, under the pressure, and that's the hardest part."

Spong's focus this week is MMA.

For the second time as a pro, he'll enter a cage this Saturday against Californian Angel DeAnda in the main event of World Series of Fighting 4 (NBC Sports Network, 10:30 p.m. ET). Ali Abdel-Aziz, the upstart promotion's matchmaker (among other things), made Spong the headliner because it reflects his potential and the kickboxing convert is "the biggest draw on the card."

[+] EnlargeAngel DeAnda vs. Anthony Ruiz
Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.comAngel DeAnda's experience in MMA could be an advantage against newbie Tyrone Spong.
"Right now this is a step up for me already," Spong said. "[DeAnda] is 11-2; that's not a bad record. For me, I'm 1-0 in MMA. Let's not forget I'm a kickboxer, but I don't want to be labeled just a kickboxer. I'm building my legacy. I want to be an all-around combat sports athlete. I want to be the Bo Jackson of martial arts."

Splitting time between boxing and MMA, Spong has not abandoned kickboxing, though it's less of a priority, he said, because it's as natural as breathing -- all he needs to do is show up in shape. His next contest on Oct. 12, promoted by Glory, is a rematch against Nathan Corbett in Chicago.

"I've been doing it for so many years," he said. "At the same time you need something new to bring a spark. I found that in MMA and boxing."

Spong's commitment included, not inconsequentially, transplanting a life in Holland, where he and two sisters were raised by his mother in a tiny apartment, for Florida. With the chiseled fighter came his three children, six dogs and 15 finches (known for their aggressive tendencies, singing ability and difficulty to breed). Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, Thiago Silva, Alistair Overeem and others have helped Spong on the MMA side. For boxing, trainer Pedro Diaz took the reins.

Spong should be used to Diaz's M.O. because it's similar to Carbin's -- ritualistic 5 a.m. training sessions replaced hotter-than-hell gyms. Known for his work with Miguel Cotto, Diaz is a perfectionist. Spong is fine with this, and his first attempt at pro boxing could come later this year.

Spong envisions opportunity and enrichment in his chosen trifecta of combat sports.

"For all the sports it comes down to the athlete," he said. "Who are you? How marketable are you? How good are you? So it depends. In all of the sports you can make good money. You see even in all these sports the guys really making the money are the best guys."

World Series of Fighting signed Spong to a nonexclusive deal that allows him the freedom to pursue other things. Abdel-Aziz said because of the light heavyweight’s fighting prowess, WSOF "didn't have the right to ask Spong [72-6-1 in kickboxing] to focus only on MMA." Perhaps it wasn't the best business decision, the promoter conceded, but it's how WSOF intends to operate. But, more to the point, Spong will have space to develop his MMA game, which mostly means getting his grappling right.

"Sometimes I ask myself what do the fans want? They want me to fight Jon Jones tomorrow? Is that fair? If Jon 'Bones' was 1-0 in kickboxing, would he fight me?" Spong pondered. "I guess not. I'm the champion. So give me some time. I'm working on it."

Burkman finishes Fitch in 41 seconds

June, 15, 2013
6/15/13
1:30
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Business is picking up for World Series of Fighting, and the promotion's third event, Friday evening at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, provided a glimpse at the future of the company.

Jon Fitch, the highest-profile WSOF signee since it began promoting late last year, proved to his dismay that time and space can matter when matched against Josh Burkman. Seven years ago, the pair met in the Octagonal confines of the UFC and Fitch won by rear-naked choke. Friday, it was WSOF's decagon, and in just 41 seconds Burkman did to Fitch what B.J. Penn, Demian Maia and a host of other dangerous submission artists could not.

After scoring a pair of hooks that wobbled the longtime UFC welterweight contender, Burkman pounced on Fitch's neck. Despite a reputation for stellar defense, Fitch disregarded the threat and went for a lift. He said afterward that he was "a little overconfident with my choke defense and was going to try and slam [Burkman]. But he locked it in too tight. Mistake on my part. I should have fought the choke right away."

Burkman went to half-guard after feeling the strangle tighten.

"I didn't want to go for the choke, but I felt it was tight," he said. "So I stood up with him to get him to stand, and I felt it get really tight. I locked it when he grabbed that leg."

Referee Steve Mazzagatti didn't seem to notice that Fitch went limp, so Burkman released the hold and politely scooted away.

This marked Burkman's third appearance for the promotion, and to this point, the 10-year veteran said, WSOF had "done everything they said they were going to do."

For an upstart fight promotion company, that's about as good as it gets.

Credibility comes with delivery. "Showing more than talking," Burkman put it as he drove to Las Vegas on Tuesday from Salt Lake City, where he trains at The Pit Elevated.

With WSOF signing a three-year TV deal with the NBC Sports Network, building relationships with major venues across the U.S. and signing known commodities such as Fitch to go with talented kids such as Justin Gaethje -- an unbeaten lightweight who won by technical knockout Friday -- Burkman's optimism is genuine.

"They've done everything they said they were going to do and some," Burkman said. "They treated me really well anytime I had an issue or wanted to negotiate anything, they were more than happy and open to talking about it. As long as they treat their fighters like that, they'll continue to grow and do well."

The 32-year-old welterweight washed out of the UFC in 2008 after losing four of his last five fights in the Octagon. He said WSOF has given him a chance to fight quality opponents on a visible stage, and for that he is grateful.

"The difference is the UFC has so many guys coming in and out, wanting to be in their show, fighting for less money, that the UFC can get away with treating their undercard fighters however they want," said Burkman, who praised Zuffa as the "major league of this sport."

"I think with the WSOF, I'm in a different position," he said. "It's a small organization with less fighters. It's kind of being a bigger fish in a small pond. I can get to the top of that heap and help the organization and help myself. I think that's a unique opportunity with the WSOF that I wouldn't have necessarily had with the UFC."

Berkman, a participant of the second season of "The Ultimate Fighter," isn't alone in that regard. The current WSOF fighter roster sits at 80, according to Ali Abdel-Aziz, WSOF executive vice president and matchmaker, and will remain in that area through the end of year. The company wants to give fighters an opportunity to compete, allowing prospects such as 24-year-old Gaethje a chance to shine and grow, and veterans such as Burkman a chance at a new lease on a fighting life.

Abdel-Aziz said winning is important, but "not putting pressure on fighters benefits them and benefits us." This is all designed with fun MMA in mind, yet that's hardly a guarantee, just ask Jacob Volkmann who wrestled his way to a win over Lyle Beerbohm on the undercard.

Burkman appeared on the first three WSOF cards, winning each bout, and recently re-signed for four more contests. He said he offered suggestions from the start, and, to his delight, WSOF executives have been receptive. Championship bouts weren't a consideration in WSOF until Burkman chimed up about it earlier this year. After dropping the rematch, Fitch said he's open to a rubber match, preferably five rounds for the inaugural WSOF title. If it happens, he owes Burkman a beer.

"I think I asked the right questions in that first show and they had to give me answers," Burkman said after winning his fifth straight contest. "I was just asking them so they had an easier road with other fighters. It helped them treat fighters like they needed to be treated."

Abdel-Aziz and Burkman both suggested WSOF president Ray Sefo, a fighter turned promoter who announced he's fighting Dave Huckaba in California at WSOF 4 in August, has been instrumental in relationship building with the athletes. Sefo “gets people to listen,” Abdel-Aziz said.

The company’s vision is always focused down the road, according to Abdel-Aziz, who managed Frankie Edgar and others before joining WSOF.

Currently, their intention is to flesh out weight divisions, which at 170 pounds requires bringing in names like Fitch when they’re available -- despite knowing they could lose badly in 41 seconds -- and convincing prospects like Gaethje sign with them as opposed to UFC or Bellator.

"It's kind of cool to be part of an organization from the beginning," Burkman said. "I'll definitely take some pride in that. I'll also take a little pride in the fact that the better the fighters do, the better the organization does.”

Fitch, Burkman cross paths again

June, 14, 2013
6/14/13
12:05
PM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
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Much has changed in the seven-plus years since Jon Fitch and Josh Burkman met in the cage: both are more seasoned fighters, experienced professional ups and downs and have new outlooks on life.

But each man intends to show just how much he has changed for the better Friday night during a welterweight rematch at World Series of Fighting 3 in Las Vegas.

The first fight, which took place during a UFC event on April 6, 2006, was dominated by Fitch, who won by unanimous decision. And while Fitch is prepared to face a more improved Burkman, he expects to dominate again during Friday night’s main event.

“You can’t put anything into [the first fight],” Fitch told ESPN.com. “This is a brand-new fight against a brand-new person. We’re both much better than we were back then. Our skill sets are much more developed than they were back then.

“But my skill set has progressed further. There will be a bigger gap between us than in the first fight, with where I am in my skill set, my career and my life right now. I’m peaking as a fighter, and the next four years will be the best of my fight life.”

Fitch (24-5-1 with one no contest) is excited to make his WSOF debut. And he intends to use this opportunity to change a negative perception fight fans have of him.

Despite being a perennial top-10 welterweight, Fitch has repeatedly come under criticism for putting on non-entertaining fights. But Fitch, a skilled wrestler who has relied heavily on this discipline to remain highly competitive in the welterweight ranks, proclaims that is about to change.

No longer hindered by concerns of being released by UFC, Fitch feels free to let it all hang out in the cage. He promises to be a more aggressive striker, especially while standing.

“I’m not going to be as reserved,” said the 35-year-old Fitch, who is ranked ninth among welterweights by ESPN.com. “I’m not going to be as fearful; I didn’t have a fight in UFC where I didn’t feel my job was in jeopardy. We got threats years ago about ‘if you lose this fight you’re gone.’”

Possibly being out of work after Friday night’s fight doesn’t cross Fitch’s mind. His thoughts are solely on defeating Burkman a second time and taking the next step toward becoming WSOF’s first 170-pound champion.

Competing in WSOF has given Fitch a new lease of life and professional MMA. He remains fully driven to being a champion, but doing so with WSOF will put him in position to make history in a unique way.

“I want to be the first, I want to be the best and I want to be the most memorable,” Fitch said. “I want to grow with this organization. And I want to help build it into one of the best organizations out there.”

To reach this goal, Fitch must first settle matters with Burkman. Despite Fitch’s very high confidence level heading into this rematch, Burkman is no pushover.

With a professional record of 25-9, Burkman also dreams of being the first man to wear WSOF's welterweight title belt. His motivation to succeed Friday night, however, goes much deeper.

Burkman became a father for the first time less than a year ago. The experience has changed his priorities and his attitude about being a professional fighter.

“Being a husband and a father has definitely made me grow up and expect the best out of myself,” Burkman, 32, told ESPN.com. “Now it’s not like I’m fighting for fun, I’m doing this to provide for my family and make a better life for my wife [Brandy] and my [8-month-old] son [Legend Joshua]. And that, at the end of the day, will bring out a new animal.”

As a mature family man, Burkman avoids the one mistake that dogged him during his previous loss to Fitch – taking the opposition lightly. While both were relatively unseasoned fighters when they first met, Burkman had two fights inside the Octagon; Fitch had one. And Burkman’s performances were more impressive -- a knockout and submission to Fitch’s unanimous decision win.

Under the circumstances Burkman had no reason to concern himself with Fitch, or so he thought at the time. In 2006, Burkman didn’t conduct himself like a professional fighter -- he didn’t study tapes of opponents or control his weight between fights. He struggled often to reach the 170-pound limit and it negatively impacted his performance against Fitch.

That was then. Everything about Burkman today screams professional mixed martial artist; it is the man Fitch must overcome during their rematch Friday night.

“I underestimated Jon Fitch [in 2006],” Burkman said. “And I probably overestimated my abilities at that point in my career. I didn’t know who he was. I wasn’t quite the student of the game then that I am now.

“I’m a real mixed martial artist now. That’s what people will see from me in my next few fights. And everything I do in my life is to become better at it.”

Title implications, Guillard's dilemma, more

March, 30, 2013
3/30/13
11:27
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Dennis Siver and Andre WinnerMartin McNeil for ESPN.comDennis Siver could become the next contender to the 145-pound title with a win against Cub Swanson.

This year’s UFC over Independence Day weekend in Las Vegas is, as they tend to be, loaded.

If the lineup holds, a tremendous middleweight championship fight between Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman should get an energy-building lead-in with three important featherweight contests, and a clash at 185 between Mark Munoz and Tim Boetsch.

UFC officials on Thursday announced the addition of two compelling and important fights at 145 to go with an equally important and compelling clash between Chan Sung Jung and Ricardo Lamas.

Former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar makes his second appearance at 145 against slick Brazilian Charles Oliveira. And Dennis Siver reboots a contest with Cub Swanson, which was originally scheduled for Feb. until Siver pulled out of the bout with an injury. Swanson, instead, handled Dustin Poirier to win a unanimous decision in London.

The next featherweight contender will certainly emerge after July 6, which means about a month of waiting to see what happens between champion Jose Aldo and lightweight convert Anthony Pettis in Rio de Janeiro.

Who gets the call? That’s difficult.

We can rule out the winner between Edgar-Oliveira. “The Answer” has lost three in a row, albeit title fights to Aldo and Benson Henderson twice. And Oliveira is returning from a first-round knockout to Swanson.

So that leaves four.

Siver’s unbeaten since moving to 145 two fights ago, out-pointing Diego Nunes and Nam Phan. A win over Swanson would send a sincere message about his intentions.

Riding high, Swanson has won four straight against George Roop, Ross Pearson, Oliveira and Poirier. Adding Siver to that list would be impressive.

Jung’s taken three straight against Leonard Garcia, Mark Hominick and Dustin Poirier. Putting Lamas in that cast sends a clear signal the fan favorite “Korean Zombie” is ready for a title shot.

Lamas, meanwhile, steps in on a four-fight win streak, toppling Matt Grice, Swanson, Hatsu Hioki and Erik Koch. A fifth over Jung makes him the top contender in my book.

Guillard in no man's land

What's to become of Melvin Guillard?

The inconsistent lightweight announced on Twitter this week that he was leaving Florida-based Blackzilians to return to Greg Jackson's camp in New Mexico. But there's a snag. The Jackson crew was unaware of Guillard's pending return since two months ago, MMAjunkie.com reported this week, gym leaders voted that they didn't want him around after he angered them with comments after moving to Blackzilians in 2009. Add to that the report that Guillard, 29, faces two assault charges from separate incidents in Albuquerque in 2010.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Guillard
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comUnwelcome: Melvin Guillard won't be allowed back to Greg Jackson's facilities.
While he's still represented by Authentic Sports Management, which cobbled together the Blackzilian squad, he won't be trained by the camp that features Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, Alistair Overeem, Anthony Johnson, Eddie Alvarez and a host of others.

"Melvin said he felt it was time for him to go back to Jackson's," ASM founder Glenn Robinson told SI.com "We only want what's best for Melvin, so I spoke to the coaches, and they agreed it was a good chance for him to make a change that he probably needed. We support the decision."

Absent safe harbor in New Mexico, it's unclear where Guillard (30-12-2) will receive the training he needs. He's lost four of five fights in the UFC, and was finished in three of them by Donald Cerrone, Jim Miller and Joe Lauzon.

Je ne parle pas Francais

In the wake of the weigh-in mess in Montreal, Association of Boxing Commission president Tim Lueckenhoff told ESPN.com he asked the Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux, also known as the Quebec Boxing Commission, for a copy of their rules to "verify if .9 [pounds] is allowed over the contract weight."

Lueckenhoff, who serves as the head of the Missouri Office of Athletics, received a copy of Quebec's rules, but he still couldn't find an answer.

"They sent me their rules in French, which did not help much," Lueckenhoff said Friday. After following up, the commission claimed "their rule was not specifically clear on whether .9 could be allowed or not."

"I'm certain in the future," he said, "they will have a legal opinion on the allowance of .9 on title fights."

Incidentally, in Missouri, fighters in title bouts aren't allowed to weigh-in above their contract weight, as they aren’t virtually everywhere else.

Prior to receiving Quebec's rules, Lueckenhoff said he told the commission to also provide them to the media if able. Otherwise, release the details of what happened leading up to the weigh-in for UFC 158 between Georges St-Pierre and Nick Diaz, "and if a mistake was made, admit it. Make sure it does not happen again, and move on."

A spokesperson for the Quebec Boxing Commission did not reply to ESPN.com when asked about Lueckenhoff's comments.

WSOF waiting on title fights

Don't expect to see any "world title" fights from the World Series of Fighting in the near future. I always shrug my shoulders and make face when promoters, big and small, use the phrase. There aren't any "world titles" in MMA, only promotional belts, though if you happen to be in the UFC most fans and media won't see a difference. But in Bellator and anywhere else, no, it's not a world title no matter how many times you say it is.

"A title fight has to mean something to the promotion," Ali Abdel-Aziz told MMAFighting.com on Wednesday. The promotion's senior executive vice president and matchmaker, who like RFA president Ed Soares is also a manager of fighters, including Frankie Edgar, said WSOF "will make sure that when they get title shots they will have earned it."

Don't misunderstand, title fights will come. They'll surely be billed as "world titles" just the same as everyone else. But it's smart to delay, wait for fighters to emerge from the fray, for prospects to mature before going there. So kudos to WSOF, just two shows into its venture, for realizing that throwing belts on the line isn't the smartest way to go at the moment.

Does World Series of Fighting need titles?

March, 25, 2013
3/25/13
12:34
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Jon Fitch wasn’t good enough for the UFC, but he’s (apparently) worthy of an automatic title bid in the World Series of Fighting.

In MMA, perception is everything. Not that Josh Burkman, who knocked out Aaron Simpson at WSOF 2 on Saturday to “earn” his own shot, is a fan of the idea.

Burkman thinks Fitch needs to beat somebody within the promotion before he can barge into the place and think about titles. Fitch, who was 14-3-1 in the UFC and will debut in June, has the greatest credentials never to be taken seriously. He has never known the red carpet treatment, either, so why should he now? Remember when he was about to fly off to join the cast of the original “Ultimate Fighter,” only to be told -- while sitting on the tarmac -- that he didn’t make the cut?

Life hasn’t always been pretty for Fitch. This is why he’s always gnashing his teeth.

Of course, Burkman may be forecasting here. He may be thinking about the task of trying to get up from under Fitch’s onslaught of elbows. He may be thinking of the futile nature of simply “trying to stand back up” against Jon Fitch. Of the 14 wins Fitch scored in the UFC, 14 opponents were saddled with the project of staying off their backs against Fitch heading in. Fourteen found themselves on their backs come fight night anyway.

Burkman may sense something inevitable.

But Burkman won’t ultimately decide who fights for the inaugural welterweight belt at WSOF. The decision will be up to WSOF president, Ray Sefo. If Sefo says Fitch, then it’s Fitch. If he says it’s Burkman versus Fitch, Burkman should just be happy his name isn’t Abercrombie. Imagine the confusion that those posters would generate?
[+] EnlargeJosh Burkman
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comJosh Burkman, left, should be more concerned about intriguing fights than a World Series of Fighting belt.

You know what would be novel, though? Have Burkman against Fitch just for the heck of it. Don’t make it about glorified accessories like the other clubs. Don’t create world titles. Just have the best guys go toe-to-toe. Tear down partitions, and put on “intrigue fights.” Have Burkman and Fitch fight just because it’s logical, at this point in time, to have them fight.

Imagine an MMA utopia that goes about business without the tyranny of gold-played belts. Where guys are free to roam weight classes in pursuit of the best, most ridiculous scenarios. Like former welterweight Anthony Johnson against former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski, perpetuated.

Bizarre = fun.

If Quinton Jackson joins the ranks, or Josh Barnett -- or whoever, as there will be plenty -- the idea should be that they join a pool of possibilities. Rather than former UFC fighters coming over to resurrect themselves as contenders and/or champions in a different setting, they enter the salt mines, baby.

Or something like that.

WSOF has a chance to build itself any way it wants. Why not do fan-friendly fights that are strictly about fan friendliness? Have people fight -- not desperately, but happily -- for simple relevance. The alphas will always stand out anyway. Who knows, it might be a lure, too. Those who hate structure can come to the Wild West, where fantasy matchmaking happens. The WSOF could make it about the best names that couldn’t get at each other in the UFC (or elsewhere) coming together under their own banner. Anthony Johnson wants to fight “Rampage?” All too easily arranged. Marlon Moraes against, say, Bibiano Fernandes? Roll it out. Tyrone Spong against just about anybody from 205 pounds on up?

Here’s a league of pure hospitality.

It’s a thought. And, really, it’s not a very original thought, as I’ve seen MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani and others tweet similar ideas about a titleless landscape.

Ultimately there’s nothing that says you have to have belts at the top of every weight class. Belts exist for a reason. They mean money. It’s a game of thrones. We like belts and speculating on the hierarchy of contenders and to have belts hanging over all proceedings like surveillance cameras. But the UFC does that already. So did Strikeforce (mostly) and so does Bellator (periodically). To do that, you have to fill in weight classes and harvest talent. That’s hard to do in the current landscape, not to mention tedious. That line of thinking “competes” with the UFC.

So make it about putting on the best available fights just for the sake of putting on the best available fights. If Josh Burkman doesn’t think Jon Fitch deserve a title shot, fine -- remove the politics from the equation. Get rid of the notion of belts. That’s so un-UFC. Would you have cared more if Arlovski/Johnson was for the heavyweight title? Probably not. They are, very consciously, UFC retreads (Arlovski even wore a UFC glove).

But that an unthinkable pairing should come together at WSOF gave it a fresh coat of intrigue. And you know what? That sort of matchmaking doesn’t need titles.

Johnson excited for heavyweight debut

March, 21, 2013
3/21/13
7:41
PM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
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TBDDave Mandel/www.sherdog.comNo stranger to moving up in weight, Anthony Johnson will make his heavyweight debut at WSOF 2.
It sometimes seems like decades ago when Anthony Johnson was one or two wins shy of a UFC welterweight title shot. But it's been just a year and a half since he last tipped the scale at 170 pounds.

Johnson knocked out Charlie Brenneman in the first round of a UFC event on Oct. 1, 2011. It would be his final appearance at welterweight.

Departing the weight class in which he found much success, however, did not come as a surprise. Johnson struggled on several occasions to make the required weight limit.

As his body continued to mature, Johnson often walked around at 220 pounds -- sometimes heavier. Attempts to shed more than 50 pounds for a welterweight bout began taking a toll on his body and Johnson pulled out of at least two 170-pound fights with knee injuries.

His body was developing so rapidly that Johnson couldn't even make weight for a nontitle middleweight showdown in Januray against Vitor Belfort and tipped the scale at a whopping 197 pounds. The nontitle middleweight limit is 186 pounds.

A sluggish Johnson lost to Belfort by first-round submission and was released by UFC shortly thereafter. But what could have been a dismal period in his professional fighting life proved to be a blessing.

With the welterweight and middleweight divisions no longer an option, the Dublin, Ga., native, now 29, found comfort at light heavyweight.

There was never a reason to knock Johnson's ability inside the cage -- he's a highly skilled wrestler with above-average punching power and speed. And since moving up in weight, Johnson has proven to be a beast inside the cage by winning all four of his post-UFC bouts, including three knockout victories at light heavyweight -- a division he has proven he clearly belongs.

But one area in which a yellow flag could be raised is Johnson's unwavering desire to fight anyone, at any weight, at any time. Whenever Johnson is offered a fight, he eagerly accepts and concerns himself with making weight later.

On Saturday night at Revel Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., Johnson will again venture into difficult territory when he meets hard-hitting Andrei Arlovski in the main-event at World Series of Fighting 2.

It will be Johnson's first foray into the heavyweight ranks and despite being an underdog, he isn't worried. Arlovski is a difficult opponent, but with a solid training camp behind him, Johnson is confident an upset is in order.

"No matter what, I feel I always get the most out of my training," Johnson said Tuesday during a media call to promote the bout. "So, I can fight at light heavyweight or heavyweight and do what I have to do to win. It doesn't really matter to me."

Johnson expects to enter the cage on fight night weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of 235 pounds. It will represent, by far, the most weight he's ever carried on his 6-foot-2 frame for a fight.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Johnson
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesFor the first time in his MMA career, Anthony Johnson will not have to worry about issues making weight when he faces Andrei Arlovski on Saturday.
Conventional wisdom says the additional weight will result in Johnson relinquishing speed, power and elusiveness. But he begs to differ.

"Everything is still there -- the speed and the power," Johnson said. "I'm still an athlete. I don't feel I'm sacrificing anything, except height. I believe Andrei is bigger than me and a little heavier than me. But that's it."

After a two-year period that saw him suffer through four straight losses, the 6-4, 245-pound Arlovski has regained his form. The former UFC heavyweight champion has defeated four of his five most recent opponents, with the lone blemish being a no contest against Tim Sylvia at ONE FC 5 in Aug. 2012.

If ever there was a time not to fight Arlovski, it's right now. His confidence is at an all-time high due to the training he's received under Albuquerque, N.M.-based trainer Greg Jackson.

"Greg Jackson gave me hope after four losses," Arlovski said. "Some people told me I lost it, but he told me to come to Albuquerque and he gave me hope."

Lack of confidence is never an issue for Johnson. He steps into the cage Saturday with no doubts or reservations. Besides, Johnson knows he's in a no-lose situation.

He doesn't turn down fights, which is exactly why he's here. WSOF president Ray Sefo and senior executive vice president Ali Abdel-Aziz asked him to move up in weight for the good of the card and he agreed.

"Unless my man Ray Sefo and Ali ask me to take another fight at heavyweight, this is probably my one and only fight at heavyweight right now," Johnson said. "[Light heavyweight] is still where I want to be -- it's still my home. We'll see. Hopefully this is a good show. But for me and Andrei Arlovski, maybe win, lose or draw they might want to see a rematch and I might have to fight at heavyweight again."

One thing is for certain, Johnson's days of struggling to cut to 170 and 185 pounds are in the past. He will not drop that low again. And as a result, he is a better fighter who might just raise a few heavyweight eyebrows on Saturday.

WSOF taking it one step at a time

October, 23, 2012
10/23/12
11:45
AM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Andrei ArlovskiSherdog.comAndrei Arlovski is just one of several well-known fighters participating in WSOF's debut event.
On Nov. 3, the date originally slated to be Daniel Cormier’s big Oklahoma homecoming in Strikeforce against Frank Mir, the World Series of Fighting will host its inaugural show in Las Vegas. Strikeforce was canceled in the wake of injuries. That leaves WSOF, which will appear on NBC Sports Network, as MMA’s Saturday night showcase.

A bit of serendipity, right?

It certainly can’t hurt.

The WSOF is a fledging promotion that 41-year-old kickboxer/MMA fighter Ray Sefo is presiding over. You might be familiar with some of the names Sefo & Co. have been gathering to fill up its roster. UFC retreads, mostly -- but retreads with some miles left on them.

There’s former WEC champion Miguel Torres, who was cut abruptly for mysterious disciplinary reasons. There’s the no-longer-shrinkable Anthony Johnson fighting at 205 pounds. There’s the fanged Andrei Arlovski, a requisite Gracie (Gregor) and upstarts like Tyrone Spong. On the undercard? Gerald Harris, Josh Burkman and JZ Cavalcante. Even Waylon Lowe will be in the building come Nov. 3.

Not a bad first roll, really.

“The goal for us is to provide another stage,” Sefo, who was doing a media tour through New York, told ESPN.com. “There’s so much talent, so many fighters out there who don’t have a stage to go to. Obviously the mecca of MMA is the UFC. Our goal is to start slowly and then hopefully be as good or as big as the UFC. Obviously that takes a lot of time and you have to crawl before you walk.”

If it looks like a lot of eggs in one basket, it is. WSOF is loading the first card to gauge things. Having spoken to people within the company, they’re already blueprinting a January card, and there’s a tentative goal of doing 10 cards. By card three? That’s when they’ll start talking title fights, Sefo says. But that’s just projection, and in this racket, projection can barely raise an eyebrow.

The New Zealander Sefo knows that, and the idea is to take things slow, build up, and get better along the way. That’s why, in a way, the WSOF will launch itself happily as a “fallback” option for guys trickling out of the UFC. They will begin as security.

But this isn’t Affliction. They aren’t trying to go head-to-head with the UFC. In fact, Sefo and the WSOF backers are fantastic admirers of what Zuffa has done over the years. It’s to be an alternative. And it was created, in part, on fighter empathy.

... our goal is to make sure that the fighters are looked after. When the fighters are happy where they're at, they're going to come back every single time.

-- WSOF president Ray Sefo, on the treatment of his fighters

“This is a rough sport we’re in, and it takes a lot of discipline, a lot of dedication, a lot of time away from families,” Sefo said. “So being a fighter -- and I have experienced this myself with K-1 owing me so much money, as well as seeing it with other fighters -- our goal is to make sure that the fighters are looked after. When the fighters are happy where they’re at, they’re going to come back every single time.”

Sefo could be a spokesman for fighters being taken advantage of. In fact, by spearheading WSOF, he sort of already is. Sefo recently told MMAFighting that he was owed $800,000 of back pay by K-1. How’s that for a catalyst to action? In fact, some might say that WSOF is being overly generous with its pay. Gerald Harris, for instance, will make more in his first appearance with the promotion than he did in any of his UFC fights. And each fighter is signed to three- or four-fight deals.

As for the production of the event? Sefo says that here he takes his cues from the UFC, which operates as a well-oiled machine come fight night.

“I don’t think there’s much difference at all,” he says. “Everything they do, they do it right and they do it big. They are an inspiration for us, to make sure we take the right steps, one step at a time and we do things right.

“But I don’t think there’s much difference at all [in terms of production]. Being a new company, for us, the next two to three shows is a learning process.”

The first one will take place at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino, and will be a cheap ticket for locals looking to catch the vibe live. “With the economy the way it is these days, we want to put a ticket out there that everyone can afford -- and everybody can afford a $20 ticket,” Sefo says.

Beyond that, the feeling with WSOF is “let’s see how the first one goes and not get too far ahead of ourselves.” Not that there isn’t optimism.

“Everybody that we’ve got on the card is excited,” Sefo says. “I’m really excited to see everybody come out and perform. It’s such a good card that there’s no one particular fight that stands out as a favorite. We’re very blessed with the card that we have.

“It’s baby steps. Take one step at a time and see where it goes.”

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