Monday, July 7, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Fighting for Acceptance by David Mayeda and David Ching

Despite the explosion in popularity of mixed martial arts in the last 4 years, there have been few attempts thus far to conduct any serious analytical research on the sport. Given this dearth of in-depth analysis, the mere act of publishing Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Artists and Violence in American Society constitutes an important step in the sports history. Authors David T. Mayeda and David E. Ching have both the blessing and curse of being among the first writers out of the gate with an attempt at investigating some of the issues concerning this controversial sport, and the result is a solid but ultimately flawed effort that will hopefully facilitate further investigations. While this work grants readers access to the thoughts of many key figures in the sport, it suffers from a lack of depth and focus caused largely by the scattershot approach to the subject and a pseudo-scientific narrative conceit.

The title of this book would lead one to believe that its subject is the development of MMA from underground spectacle to mainstream phenomenon and all of the growing pains associated with its explosion in popularity. By the midpoint of the book you realize that it is actually a collection of individual essays tied together with a somewhat tenuous narrative thread. Authors Mayeda and Ching take turns addressing topics as broad and varied as the sport’s history, safety record, fighter psychology, gender issues, and the responsibility of participants to preach non-violence to society at large. Any one of these topics, if investigated singly and thoroughly, could have filled the 250 pages of this book and been the better for it.

By attempting to tackle all of these topics at once the authors have short-changed their ability to provide substantial arguments on any one subject. The chapter on MMA’s safety record perhaps comes closest to a full-bodied analysis as the authors provide actual research data on injury statistics in MMA compared to other sports. Other chapters, such as those dealing with the question of MMA’s effects on street violence, suffer drastically from a lack of statistical support. Is there a basis for concern that MMA will contribute to an increase in violence on the street? Is there much insight to be gained from a handful of interviews on this subject versus actual data to give the question the proper context? It is unfortunate that authors Mayeda and Ching pursue this topic without the proper tools of analysis while giving short shrift to very fertile topics, such as gender issues in the sport.

Given that the authors are both academics with graduate degrees, it is perhaps understandable that their work here is presented with many of the trappings of a sociological text. Chapter 3, titled “Methodological Notes and the Interviewees,” consists of 24 pages describing their methods in great detail, followed by a bio of each of the 40+ interview subjects. While the intent of this chapter is to give full disclosure of the author’s methods, there is no reason to spend 6 pages essentially saying “we sat down and interviewed people.” This level of detail regarding methodology would be more appropriate if the authors were conducting statistical or laboratory-based studies. Unfortunately for the reader, this pseudo-scientific framework is a rather thin veneer that detracts from the books’ readability.

Despite its flaws, Fighting for Acceptance is an important work in the canon of MMA literature. Authors David Mayeda and David Ching are clearly dedicated and intelligent writers who have made an earnest effort to delve into the issues arising from this young sports’ sudden popularity. Without a robust body of research to draw from it is never easy to be among the first to undertake this type of analysis. Their work hopefully marks the early stages of a continued focus on intelligent and thoughtful investigation into the sport.

Friday, June 20, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Bigger, Stronger, Faster (2008)

In Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American, director Christopher Bell explores what he believes to be a uniquely American paradox: we will do whatever it takes to be #1 but vilify those who get caught “cheating.” Cheating in this case refers to the use of steroids, a subject that should be very familiar to sports fans. In his first major film effort Bell has crafted an expansive and comprehensive look into what drives us to be winners at all costs and how our rhetoric surrounding steroids is defined by paranoia and hypocrisy.

For body-obsessed males in the 1980s the message from the media, entertainment industry and politicians was clear: eat your vegetables, work hard, and play fair and you’ll be the best. Growing up in an overweight family in Poughkeepsie, NY Chris Bell and his two brothers joined the legion of young males kneeling at the altar of Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger as they competed in multiple sports and amateur bodybuilding to build self esteem. What they quickly learned is that those at the top of their game used performance enhancers and that the ceiling was low for those that refused. In this intensely personal story, Bell takes the audience through the lives of his brothers as they each try to satisfy their need for greatness and navigate the moral dilemma of doing things clean in second place or doing things dirty and being #1.

During the film’s 2 hour runtime we are taken on an entertaining journey from Bell’s family life in Poughkeepsie up to the highest levels of Congress as he deftly picks apart the rhetoric that surrounds this highly controversial subject. The cast of characters provide a robust cross-section of Americans, from politicians to washed-up bodybuilders and everyone in between. What unfolds is an even-handed and refreshingly agenda-free presentation of a topic that polarizes the American public. Are steroids the next heroin, or are the dangers on par with any legal medication? Are athletes that use steroids simply villainous cheaters, or should they be allowed to use substances that allow them to push the limits of human achievement? These questions, among many others, are left to us to ponder. This film is aimed at provoking thought, not arguing for or against steroid use, and audience members will likely leave the theater with more questions than answers. You can’t really ask for more from a documentary.

Even though the sport of mixed martial arts is not directly addressed in this film, it is no less timely or relevant given the rampant steroid scandals that characterized the sport in 2007. As Bell interviews Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter that was disgraced at the 1988 Olympics for testing positive for steroids, one cannot help but think of Sean Sherk and how much he has suffered from the stigma attached to performance enhancers. Sherk held the UFC lightweight title but was eventually stripped of this honor after testing positive for nandrolone in his defense against Hermes Franca in July of 2007. Fans immediately scorned Sherk, who maintains his innocence, and what was once a promising MMA career has been damaged immeasurably. As Sherk can no doubt testify, the taint of steroid use (or alleged use) is not easily removed. Given the immense pressure put upon athletes to perform almost superhuman feats for our amusement, the fairness of these punitive circumstances warrants debate. Bell’s thesis, if nothing else, is that the use of steroids is a vastly complex moral issue that all athletes and sports fans must navigate. Bigger, Stronger, Faster is an excellent addition to the national discourse on how fairness in sports competition factors in to our cultural identity.

Jason Tiefel, editor

Tuesday, June 17, 2008 on Combat Music Radio editor Jason Tiefel was on this week's episode of Eugene Robinson's MMA radio show "Knuckle Up" on KMBT Combat Music Radio. On tap were discussions of the EliteXC shenanigans and the upcoming Affliction card. Check out Eugene and other KMBT shows at

Friday, May 30, 2008

Investigation into the Death of Sam Vasquez Concluded

Austin, TX - May 30, 2008

The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation has released their report outlining the investigation into the death of MMA competitor Sam Vasquez. The conclusion reached is that the MMA event in which Vasquez competed was conducted in accordance with all of the rules and protocols set forth in the Combative Sports Program.

Vasquez participated in the Renegades Extreme Fighting event at the Toyota Center in Houston on October 20th of last year and was immediately taken to the hospital after his contest against Vince Libardi. Upon examination it was determined that the Houston-based fighter was suffering from swelling in the brain, at which time several surgical procedures were performed to relieve the pressure. His condition began to worsen and he was placed into hospice care. He died on November 30th, 2007.

In April 2008, the autopsy report filed by the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office revealed the cause of death to be “complications of blunt trauma of head with subdural hemorrhage” and the death was ruled accidental.

Lee Parham, Business and Occupations Section Manager for the TDLR, presented his report (available at and answered questions from the media present. The report outlines the action that took place in the bout between Vasquez and Libardi, broken down by round, and the subsequent timeline of events leading from the bout stoppage to Vasquez’s arrival at the hospital. All post-fight response from event staff and medical officials on hand was found to be well within the standards set forth by the TDLR. Medical Advisory Committee member Dr. Ivan Melendez went on to describe the performance of the staff on hand as exemplary. “I don’t think you’d ever hear about someone falling off a ladder at home and being in the emergency room 14 minutes later,” said Melendez.

While the eventual death of Vasquez cannot be linked definitively to any one blow encountered in the bout, the report does describe a takedown in the first round in which he struck the back left side of his head on a cage post. Dr. Melendez did hypothesize that this blow could have been the major contributor to Vasquez’s subsequent brain swelling. In the pursuant discussion of the report Parham revealed that the TDLR will investigate implementing minimums on the thickness of cage post padding, which currently have no required specifications.

The final chapter of Sam Vasquez’s life has been closed but the repercussions will resonate in the months and years to come, not just for his family and friends but for fans of combative sports. His legacy is in illustrating that even when everything works as planned and everyone performs as they should there can still be tragic endings. Our condolences go out to all those effected by his passing.

Jason Tiefel, editor

Sunday, April 13, 2008

YAMMA Pit Fighting – It’s Got Electrolytes!

by Jason Tiefel, Editor

The much-anticipated inaugural event for YAMMA Pit fighting, brainchild of (in)famous MMA pioneer Bob Meyrowitz, was held in Atlantic City, NJ this weekend. When I say much-anticipated I mean for all of the wrong reasons. Many hardcore MMA fans were practically salivating at the potential hilarity that might ensue once this mysterious new fighting arena was unleashed on the world. Would this event rival be the ironically hysterical three ring circus that was K-1 Dynamite! USA? Would Butterbean roll down the incline of the YAMMA like a gravy-filled egg? Would Pat Smith say he’s been working on his ground game “just a little bit” in his post fight interview? The possibility for schadenfreude-tastic ridicule seemed limitless.

What transpired was actually the worst-case scenario for Meyrowitz: YAMMA was neither relevant to the MMA landscape nor was it ridiculous enough to entertain. What fans received was an 8 man heavyweight tournament with very little action of note and a few “Masters Series” bouts that failed to garner even the slightest bit of nostalgia in this longtime fan’s heart. To the fans that have discovered the sport in the last 5 years or so, this card was a veritable “Who’s That?” of mixed martial arts, featuring relatively unknown fighters comingled with once-great fighters like Mark Kerr and Ricco Rodriguez. It was an odd collection to say the least.

The ultimate irony of this experiment is the YAMMA itself: the event and the fighting area were designed to force exciting fights by eliminating clinching and pinning against the cage. The incline of the YAMMA, coupled with the absurd single 5 minute round bout structure, ultimately favored wrestlers that take opponents down and control from top position. Once fighters clinched and approached the incline, the elevation of the opponent’s legs made takedowns much easier. In the heavyweight tournament, the short bout time allowed Travis Wiuff to repeatedly take his opponents down and simply control for 5 minutes. Unsurprisingly, Wiuff won all of his fights by decision.

In an interview with, Meyrowitz stated that they plan on their next event in June and that it will take several events to figure out the riddle of the YAMMA. With their first event in the bag the questions still linger as to how viable this promotion is and if it has a place in the current MMA landscape. The marketing and production was certainly an attempt at a throwback to the early days of MMA as spectacle, but this event fell far short of inspiring anything other than a desire to know who they think their audience is.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

TDLR Rule Change too costly for amateur MMA in Texas?

by Jason Tiefel, Editor

Effective March 1, 2008 the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation passed an administrative rule change that requires amateur MMA organizations to provide increased medical coverage and death benefits to fighters. The previous requirements of $20,000 medical coverage and $50,000 death benefit are now raised to $50,000 and $100,000, respectively. While it would seem that a more robust program for medical coverage would only benefit the safety of the fighters and foster the growth of the sport, it comes at a cost that leaves some promoters questioning the viability of amateur MMA in Texas.

This motion, proposed in October of 2007, was initially tabled largely due to objections from Texas Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Association president Chip Thornsburg. “My original argument was that this measure was prohibitively expensive for amateur organizations,” states Thornsburg. “The increase in operating cost is going to be around $2000 or more. When you’re talking about $20 tickets for an amateur event, that’s another 100 people you have to get just to cover the increased cost. When some amateur events average around 500 people attending, that is a significant gap to cover.” This sentiment was echoed by some on the TXMMA.COM message board in a topic titled “Amateur MMA on life support in TX.”

While promoters are often maligned wholesale by hardcore MMA fans as merely profit seeking off of the blood and sweat of fighters, there are economic realities that are brought to bear anytime an event is put together. Amateur organizations like TAMMA are typically non-profit groups that are essential to the vitality and growth of MMA. A promoter having the ability to manage costs and hold events gives fighters the avenues for displaying their skills and developing as athletes. According to Thornsburg, TAMMA events have produced bottom lines that range from $3400 profit to $2700 losses. Given these erratic figures, a 200-300% increase in operating costs is an understandable concern.

Not all promoters of amateur events are predicting ill effects from this change. Steve Armstrong, President of TAMI Amateur Combative Sports Promotion, Inc. remains positive. “Truthfully, $2000 is a lot of money to come up with for amateur organizations, but this will separate the men from the boys. There are a lot of promoters out there that don’t do right by the fighters. You’ll have to be even more committed now to put on an event. Guys like Chip and me have been doing this for awhile and we’ll find a way to adapt and move on with this.”

This measure puts Texas in a unique position when it comes to insurance requirements. The Nevada State Athletic Commission, considered to be one of the most well established and robust regulatory entities for combative sports, has a similar requirement of $50,000 medical coverage but requires no death benefit (NAC 467.149). Taking this kind of step leaves one to wonder as to the timing and reasoning behind this decision. Part of Thornsburg’s argument against the measure centered on the subtle but important differences in TAMMA’s rule set, namely the use of heavier gloves and the prohibiting of elbows and reinforced knees to the head. These factors should reduce the amount of injuries sustained in competition, so some see this step as perhaps a bit premature given the infancy of the sport.

At first glance one could speculate that the tragic passing of Sam Vasquez last year has created an overly reactionary climate in our state regulatory commission. Greg Alvarez, program manager for the TDLR’s combative sports program, dismisses any connection between increased insurance requirements and the death of Sam Vasquez. “The beginnings of this rule amendment date back to August of 2007, well before Sam Vasquez’s tragic passing. At the TDLR our primary concern is the health and safety of the fighters, and we strive for consistency in how events are regulated. This change puts the numbers for amateur events in line with those of the professional organizations.”

When asked about the objections of TAMMA and the effects of this measure on an amateur organization’s ability to put on shows, Alvarez is optimistic. “There are several companies that will offer $100K death benefits, and the TDLR has set no minimum requirements for the deductibles. An organization looking to keep operating cost down has the ability to choose a plan with higher deductibles, which will significantly reduce the cost of the insurance policy. The deductible is the biggest factor in policy cost, and we have not set restrictions on that.”

As fans and participants of combative sports, we all face the challenge of finding the right balance between what is best for the fighters’ health and safety and what is economically feasible. It would be difficult to find anyone that would disagree with giving fighters the best coverage money can buy, but this is a “perfect world” scenario. Real world constraints require that promoters manage cost and turn profit on their events to be able to continue giving fighters the opportunity to develop. No doubt Texas has taken an important step in developing a more robust program to protect fighters, and only time will tell if there will be any tangential effects that hinder the growth of amateur MMA in Texas.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Shalorus Captures King of Kombat Welterweight Title

By Jason Tiefel, Editor

Austin, TX, April 5 – World Class Cage Fighting hosted their third fight card, one that was full of action and first round finishes.

In the main event, Kamal Shalorus captured the King of Kombat welterweight title in a quick domination of Oklahoma’s Jeff Davis. The difference in strength and explosiveness was clear from the outset, as Relson Gracie student Shalorus backed Davis up with several quick combinations. A missed kick from Team Elite’s Davis gave Shalorus the opportunity to take the fight to the ground, where he proceeded to drop several punishing shots from top position. The referee decided to save Davis from further punishment and called a stop to the bout at 1:06 in the first.

In the only heavyweight bout of the night (or superheavyweight, as the WCCF prefers to call it) Austin’s Mathew Thompson lost a plodding split decision to Amarillo’s experienced Chris Guillen. Rounds 1 and 2 played out in a similar fashion, with Guillen putting Thompson on his back early while the South Austin Gym fighter worked for submissions from the bottom. Thompson was able to take round 3 by taking Guillen’s back, landing some strikes, and eventually rolling for a heel hook/kneebar. Time ran out on the Austin fighter and Guillen was awarded a 29-28 victory on two of the judges’ score cards.

In somewhat of an upset, veteran fighter Brandon McDowell succumbed to strikes from Grappler’s Lair fighter Patrick Miller at 4:13 in the first round. McDowell scored a takedown early in the round but was reversed by Miller, who was able to maintain top position throughout the fight. Miller, a US Army soldier who just returned from Iraq, landed several hard shots to the left side of McDowell’s head, forcing him to tapout. As McDowell rose, the source of his demise became clear: his left ear, exhibiting the typical cauliflower effect found in many fighters, had swollen to 2-3 times its normal size.

In perhaps the most competitive bout of the night, Grappler’s Domain fighter Duece King defeated Death Row MMA’s Lane Yarbrough via unanimous decision. Yarbrough came out strong in the first, attempting a flying knee that missed and quickly taking Deuce’s back. Duece then grabbed his opponent’s head and flipped him to the mat. After several minutes of groundwork, the fighters returned to the feet where Duece landed the better of the strikes. Yarbrough was able to rally late in the round, slamming his opponent to the mat and taking his back. He worked for a rear naked choke that never came as the first stanza came to a close.

Round 2 belonged to Duece as he landed heavy strikes that kept his opponent on the defensive. He landed a stiff left jab that dropped Yarbrough, but after a sloppy armbar attempt by Duece his opponent was able to recover. Yarbrough began to look gassed as he continued to take punishment on the feet for the duration of the second.

Yarbrough regrouped and was more methodical in round 3, where he picked his shots and landed several high kicks and solid body shots, but it was too little too late. Duece did not offer much in this round, but had already pulled far enough ahead on the judges’ scorecards to be granted a 29-28 unanimous decision.

Duece’s post-fight interview setup a future bout with well-established local fighter Nick “the Ghost” Gonzalez. There has been trash talking back and forth between these two for a while and Gonzalez took the opportunity to enter the cage and challenge Duece. This fight is currently scheduled for the June King of Kombat show and should be a barn-burner.

Relson Gracie Academy’s Ryan Larson needed only 1:03 to dispatch his opponent, the tough Maxwell Smith out of Denver. Smith tossed Larson to the canvas only to find himself on the business end of a well-executed triangle choke. Larson improves his record to 4-0 and establishes himself as a solid local prospect.

Oklahoma’s Jared Hess may be a talented wrestler, but he showcased some solid striking skills in his defeat of Chief Flores. These two came to bang and threw some heavy leather at the starting bell. Hess landed a stiff left jab and some solid knees from the clinch before taking his opponent to the mat. The ref stepped in at the sight of blood and halted the bout to give the doctor a chance to evaluate Flores. The bout continued but Flores again found himself on the bottom of Hess, who delivered enough damage from the top for the ref to stop the fight at 1:52 in the first.

If there was a theme to tonight’s card, it was that Relson Gracie students know how to apply a triangle choke. The academy’s Randy Vera submitted San Antonio’s Adrian Sanchez by applying a very quick triangle that forced his opponent to tap at 1:58 in the first.

Corpus Christi’s Conan Cano submitted his opponent Ryan Carranza by armbar in just 42 seconds, giving the Austin crowd yet another quick finish. Carranza, fighting out of Solidarity MMA in San Marcos, was a late replacement for Chidi Njokunani (whose name was still on the event schedules handed out at the event).

No fight card is complete without some controversy, and tonight’s came courtesy of Dallas’ Ralph Calvillo. His opponent, Selma’s Chris Kuntschik, came out swinging and attempted a double leg takedown that was stuffed by Calvillo. The Dallas fighter applied a standing guillotine choke and Kuntschik dropped to guard, which only served to make the choke tighter. He was able to weather the storm and regain the standing position, but a heated exchange resulted in an accidental thumb in the eye that sent him doubled over against the cage. The ref did not see the infraction and Calvillo swarmed his opponent with punches until the bout was stopped at 1:49 in the first. In response to his opponent’s protests, Calvillo (the self proclaimed “most hated man in Texas MMA”) called for a rematch, so look for these two to meet again in upcoming events.

Grappler’s Domain fighter Garrette Bennette kicked the night off with a dominating performance over Waco’s Louis Sims Jr. Sims’ only moment came with an early right hand that did not seem to faze Bennette as he took his opponent down with a transition from a single to a double leg takedown. Bennette’s attempt at a kimura from half guard did not result in a submission, but he was able to use it to transition to mount. From there he landed enough strikes to force his opponent to tap at 2:51 of round one.

With this event, WCCF is quickly establishing a reputation for putting on quality fight cards. The show had solid production values, a good turnout and all of the athletes were impressive in both victory and defeat. No doubt the Relson Gracie Academy made the strongest showing, with all three of their fighters ending their bouts quickly. New champions were crowned and fans got to experience how great the local MMA scene in Texas has become.