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Friday, May 18, 2012
Crossing over ... and loving it

By Dan Rafael
ESPN.com

Jung vs Poirier
Grappling, armbars and chokes, oh my! How's a dyed-in-the-wool boxing writer supposed to keep up?

FAIRFAX, Va. -- No, I didn't go to the Dark Side, as some of my Twitter followers have suggested. No, I haven't turned my back on boxing. And no, I'm not a traitor.

All I did was go to a UFC card. And you know what? I had a blast.

Contrary to what some small-minded folks on both sides of the ridiculous boxing-versus-MMA argument would have you believe, I'm here to tell you that the sports can peacefully co-exist and that fans of one sport can and certainly should be able to enjoy the other.

I saw Dongi Yang get kicked in the groin. That's an eye-opener to watch in person. Then I saw something familiar to boxing fans: The crowd booing a questionable decision. Yup. Happens in both sports.

I'm not about to give up my passion for boxing -- and no, I'm not switching beats, as some MMA fans have advised -- but I have to admit that I enjoyed my first live MMA experience.

I live just a few minutes from the Patriot Center, located on the campus of George Mason University, which hosted "UFC on Fuel TV 3" on Tuesday night.

I was free because I no longer had to get ready for a Wednesday trip to Las Vegas, which went down the drain when the Lamont Peterson-Amir Khan rematch was canceled. I decided I'd check out the UFC card.

I've been to countless boxing events but never to an MMA card. As a boxing guy, I thought it would be interesting to go. UFC officials were happy to have me, and I'm glad I went -- even if my Twitter pal and UFC president Dana White picked my first card to miss his first one in 11 years. He was having minor surgery. I told him he was just ducking me.

Admittedly, I've never been even a casual MMA fan, although I certainly have never had anything against it. I've watched a little bit here and there on television, never with all that much interest. But going live is a different ballgame. The folks at UFC put on a great show, one that was a lot better in person than what I've seen on TV. Most boxing promoters could learn a thing or two from the way UFC handles the in-arena experience for fans.

There were six large screens strategically placed around the arena for fans to watch the television broadcast and replays. It was a fast-moving show with few lulls between fights (unlike many boxing events), and a lot of loud music.

I arrived in time for the fourth bout on the 12-fight card headlined by featherweight Chan Sung Jung -- better known as "The Korean Zombie," my new favorite MMA fighter -- facing Dustin Poirier.

One thing I'm getting used to is that the weight limits in MMA and boxing are entirely different. Featherweights are 126 pounds in boxing. I soon came to realize they are 145 pounds in UFC. (By the way, another thing I like about UFC is that there are only eight divisions, not the bloated 17 boxing has.)

As I was walking toward the arena, the first thing I saw was a guy wearing a "Korean Zombie" shirt. I knew I was in the right place.

I picked up my credential and press kit and made my way to -- dare I say it? -- cageside, where I was seated next to ESPN.com MMA writer and friend Franklin McNeil, who used to cover boxing. He promised to help me through the night. Sitting next to me on the other side was writer Gary Thomas from prommanow.com, who was also kind enough to answer my rookie questions.

The first fight I saw was lightweight T.J. Grant's three-round shutout decision over Carlo Prater. What I noticed as I was getting settled in was that the place was already quite crowded and the atmosphere was excellent during the early part of the undercard -- still a couple of hours before the Fuel TV broadcast was set to begin.

That doesn't happen in boxing. In fact, most boxing cards I've been to are absolutely dead in the arena in the hours before the main event.

The next fight was lightweight Cody McKenzie against Marcus LeVesseur. McKenzie sent the crowd into a frenzy when he applied a guillotine choke and LeVesseur tapped out in the first round. Afterward, UFC broadcaster (and my pal from his days around boxing) Jon Anik interviewed McKenzie. When Anik asked him to describe some of what had happened, McKenzie said, "I just fight." Then he added something that made me feel like he was speaking for me: "I don't really know what was going on."

In the next bout, middleweight Brad Tavares' three-round decision against Dongi Yang, I saw something I don't see at boxing matches given the difference in gloves: The fighters accidentally poked each other in the eyes. At one point, one of them got kicked and touched his glove to the mat. For a moment, I was waiting for the referee to call a knockdown. Then I realized, Whoops, wrong sport.

I saw Yang get kicked in the groin. That's an eye-opener to watch in person. Then I saw something familiar to boxing fans: The crowd booing a questionable decision. Yup. Happens in both sports.

Now it was time for the Fuel TV telecast. The energy in the Patriot Center was tremendous as middleweight Tom Lawlor, on his 29th birthday, scored a 50-second knockout of Jason McDonald.

Next up was a tremendous back-and-forth fight between lightweights Igor Pokrajac and Fabio Maldonado. I had the pleasure of watching this bout sitting at the Octagon apron with UFC big boss Lorenzo Fertitta, whom I hadn't seen in years, since his days on the Nevada State Athletic Commission. We had a good discussion about a variety of topics while watching an excellent fight. I have huge respect for what Fertitta has done with UFC, taking it from a near-bankrupt promotion and building it into a mainstream force.

Lorenzo Fertitta
UFC chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta has the same question as every other boxing fan: When are Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. going to fight already?

Like White, Fertitta is a boxing fan. I can't go anywhere without being asked the same question I've been asked for years. On this night, it was Fertitta who asked it: Why aren't Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. fighting each other? I wish I had an answer for him that made sense. If they were in the UFC -- where the best always fight the best -- they'd probably be getting set for their third fight already.

The bouts moved at a quick pace, but one thing I'm not a fan of is when the fighters go to the ground. That aspect of a fight just isn't entertaining to me, even though I know it's part of the strategy for fighters who are better versed in wrestling than punching.

By 10:30 p.m., it was time for the main event -- "Korean Zombie" time. Naturally, Jung walked into The Cranberries' "Zombie," and the crowd went wild. I sure don't know the intricacies of MMA, but I do know when a fight is good. This was a good fight. Plenty of action, takedowns, clean kicks, chants of "USA! USA! USA!" in favor of Poirier and even some blood from Poirier's scalp.

One thing I noticed is that neither guy could throw a decent jab to save his life. In boxing, a weak jab would be easily countered by a competent boxer, and these fighters would get drilled.

In the second round, it looked like Zombie was about to win when he got Poirier in an arm bar. Franklin turned to me and said, "Poirier's gonna tap." Two seconds later, he exclaimed, "He got out of it!"

Zombie finally got Poirier out of there in the fourth round (of a five-rounder) when he hit him with a knee to the face, got him down on the mat and applied something called a D'arce choke. Don't ask me. All I know is, it was a helluva fight and the crowd of 4,592 (which generated a gate of $343,175) -- impressive for a rainy Tuesday night in Fairfax -- was chanting, "Zombie! Zombie! Zombie!"

It was a great way to end a fun night. Fighting is fighting, and I like watching fighting -- mostly with boxing gloves, mind you. But this was good, too.