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UFC 208, Holly Holm, and Boxing

14
Feb

For well over a century, boxing was the dominant combat sport in America. John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, and their brethren captured the imagination of the American people. Sugar Ray Robinson was known throughout the land. As American heavyweights fell by the wayside, fighters in lighter weight classes like Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. stepped into the void. But in recent years, boxing has suffered from self-inflicted wounds. And with its popularity diminishing, mixed martial arts has stepped into the void.

Mixed martial arts is still a niche sport, but it has a fervent following. In the world of MMA, there’s UFC and everyone else. Last year, UFC was sold to a group of investors led by WME-IMG, who were backed by venture capital from Silver Lake, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, and Michael S. Dell. The sale price was widely reported as between 4 and 4.2 billion dollars. UFC is headquartered in Las Vegas and has almost six hundred employees with offices in London, Singapore, and Toronto.

There are A-sides and B-sides in UFC fights, but everyone is presumed to get a fair shake from the referees and judges, which isn’t always the case in boxing. In another departure from boxing, elite UFC fighters are expected to go in tough. As L. Jon Wertheim wrote in Sports Illustrated last year, “UFC has an aversion to risk aversion. There are no cagey promoters larding fighters’ records by pitting them against tomato cans. There’s no swirl of alphabet-soup sanctioning organizations crowning different champs. Fighters can’t – and don’t want to – duck each other.”

Like boxers, mixed martial artists need experience. But UFC isn’t the place to get it. Once a combatant reaches the UFC level, there are no gimme fights. Randy Couture’s record when he retired from MMA was 19 wins against 11 losses. He’s in the Hall of Fame because he went in tough from the start.

UFC’s most promising vehicle for achieving mass market acceptance was Ronda Rousey, who was on the verge of becoming a pop culture icon. Then Rousey was unexpectedly annihilated by Holly Holm in November 2015 and suffered a 48-second blow-out loss to Amanda Nunes in a December 30, 2016, comeback fight.

Rousey’s fall from grace was offset to a degree by the 2016 legalization of MMA in New York, which had been the nation’s last holdout state. UFC 205, which was contested at Madison Square Garden on November 12, drew a sellout crowd of more than 20,000 and generated a $17.7 million live gate (a record for both UFC and the Garden). A December 10 UFC card in Albany followed.

On February 11, UFC returned to New York City with UFC 208; a ten-bout card at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In the main event, Holly Holm faced off against Germaine de Randamie for the championship of the UFC’s newly-created 145-pound woman’s division. The primary supporting bout saw 41-year-old Anderson Silva return to the octagon against Derek Brunson.

Holm vs. de Randamie was a title fight and thus scheduled for five rounds. All of the other bouts were scheduled for three.

The eight-sided configuration of the arena at Barclays Center is an ideal physical setting for the UFC Octagon. UFC 208 sold out with an announced attendance of 15,628. That’s a smaller number than for boxing because the set-up for UFC shows includes four large video screens that hang from the rafters and block the view from some seats. The screens are essential to following the action from certain angles when the combatants are grappling on the canvas.

There’s constant – and loud – music that stops only for the fights.

The first bout of the evening was transmitted online at UFC Fight Pass. The next four bouts were televised on FS1 with the final five incorporated into the UFC 208 pay-per-view telecast.

Football fans don’t show up for a game in the third quarter. Baseball fans don’t arrive by design in the sixth inning. But at most major boxing events, including those contested at Barclays Center, the seats are virtually empty when the first bout starts. That’s because boxing fans have come to expect one-sided, who-cares undercard fights.

At UFC 208, the arena was close to three-quarters full by the time the first fight started. Bruce Buffer (Michael’s brother) was the ring announcer. His presence for all ten fights rather than just the two featured bouts was a signal to fans that all of the fights mattered.

In its early years, UFC was ignored by the mainstream media. So it bypassed the powers that be and developed a core fan base through the Internet. Overall, MMA media today are younger than their boxing counterparts. Few of them are classically trained, but they’re arguably more knowledgeable about their sport than the average boxing writer.

At big boxing events, members of the boxing community and media circulate and interact with one another. The physical set-up at Barclays Center for UFC 208 was such that there was little socializing or free-flow of traffic.

UFC personnel were everywhere, working in clearly defined roles. One of them, seated at the edge of the Octagon in the first row of a three-row press section, was Thomas Gerbasi.

Gerbasi, age 48, bridges the divide between MMA and boxing. His father was a retired marine who became vice president of operations for a building maintenance company. His mother worked at myriad jobs, ranging from the day shift at a hardware store to the night shift at a home for wayward children. Gerbasi received his early education at Holy Name of Jesus Grammar School and Xavier High School in Brooklyn. He graduated from St. John’s College with a degree in athletic administration in 1990, couldn’t find a job in sports management and, for the next ten years, worked in building maintenance.

Gerbasi’s father was a boxing fan, and Tom followed his lead. He began writing for CyberBoxing.com in 1996 – “for free,” he ruefully adds. “I was freelancing and would take any job that involved writing about boxing.” His breakthrough came when the Village Voice hired (and paid him) to write articles about Patty Alcivar and Jill Matthews. That led to freelance publicity work for two more women boxers (Leah Mellinger and Nina Ahlin) and also for heavyweight hopeful Clifford Etienne.

Then Gerbasi was hired to construct Shane Mosley’s first website (“I still have a picture of the $600 check that Jack Mosley gave me”). That led to similar projects for Johnny Tapia and David Reid. Meanwhile, Team Mosley had brought in a Californian named Gary Randall to do additional graphic work for its site.

Randall and Doug Fischer had recently founded a website called House of Boxing. In May 2000, Randall called Gerbasi and asked how much he was making at his current job as a maintenance worker

“Thirty-five thousand a year,” Gerbasi told him.

“I’ll give you ten thousand more and you can work from home,” Randall offered.

Gerbasi’s responsibilities with House of Boxing included editing the recently-hired Michael Katz, writing articles of his own, and overseeing the posting of website content. “It was a nice run,” he remembers. “The Internet was taking off, and we were like kids in a candy store. We loved boxing. We were out there hustling. We weren’t jaded yet. It was a good time.”

Then House of Boxing was acquired by Worldwide Entertainment & Sports (WWES). There was financial mismanagement and WWES was careening toward bankruptcy. At that point, Gerbasi, Randall, Fischer, and Steve Kim (who was writing for House of Boxing) left the site and founded MaxBoxing.com.

Another good run followed. Randall spearheaded a membership program that offered special content to MaxBoxing visitors for five dollars a month. This was before free Internet news content was a fact of life. The membership program flourished, peaking in 2002 when Mike Tyson melted down at press conference to announce Tyson versus Lennox Lewis, bit Lewis on the leg, and engaged in a lengthy profanity-filled rant. MaxBoxing captured it all on video, which was unusual for that time.

Then the financial model soured. Free Internet video content became the norm. Membership at MaxBoxing topped out and began to decline.

In October 2005, Gerbasi got a telephone call from UFC president Dana White, who offered him a job editing the UFC website. For a while, he edited UFC.com and continued writing for MaxBoxing. Eventually, a British company acquired MaxBoxing and stopped paying the bills (most notably, money owed to Gerbasi). He left MaxBoxing in 2009. Since then, while working for UFC, he has continued writing about boxing for The Ring, Boxing Scene, and Boxing News.

Gerbasi’s editorial duties for UFC include writing and editing content for UFC.com, writing event programs, and writing the script for fighter videos that are shown in the arena and on television just before each fight. It’s central to the UFC philosophy and essential to Gerbasi’s job that he personalize the fighters.

Or viewed another way . . . Imagine being in high school. Two of the toughest guys in your class have a beef with one another and agree to meet in a parking lot after school to determine which one is tougher. That would be riveting for their classmates to watch. Why? Because the other students would know these two guys and be likely to have a rooting interest in the fight. UFC tries to build fan identification for ALL of its fighters.

“I like MMA,” Gerbasi says. “People look at MMA and say, ‘This is so violent.’ And it is violent, but there’s an art to the whole thing. Take all the nuances of boxing. Then multiply that by all the other disciplines you need to know to survive in MMA. And UFC makes an effort to be fan-friendly. Boxing should learn from UFC. Top Rank seems to think that loud music is the UFC fan experience. That’s wrong. The UFC fan experience is ten competitive fights on a card, not one or two. At a UFC show, the fights come one after another without long breaks in between. And if you don’t know who the undercard fighters are, we’ll educate you. Boxing isn’t going away. I still love boxing. But there’s a lot to be said for MMA.”

Roy Jones was once asked for his opinion of MMA and answered, “A good fight is a good fight.”

That said; that fights at UFC 208 were disappointing. The UFC highlight action promos that fans see on television and online are just that – highlight action clips. Seven of the evening’s first eight fights went the distance. The exception was bout number eight, when Tim Boetsch decided at the 3:41 mark of round one that it would be wiser to tap out than have his left arm ripped from its socket by Jacare Souza.

To paraphrase Roy Jones, “A slow fight is a slow fight.” During UFC 208, the crowd was often quiet and there were boos from time to time. Five minutes (the length of a UFC round) is long time for a fighter who gets in trouble early. Five minutes is also a long time for fans when nothing much is happening.

Also, championship boxing at its best offers exciting sustained action at a high level and an ebb and flow for the duration of a fight. In MMA, the action is more likely to come in short bursts without the same building drama.

The ninth bout of the evening – the “co-main event” – saw Anderson Silva take on Derek Brunson. Silva is MMA royalty. Between 2006 and 2012, he was triumphant in 16 consecutive outings. But Silva entered the Octagon at Barclays Center winless in his last five UFC contests (a 2015 decision victory over Nick Diaz having been changed to “no contest” after Silva tested positive for illegal PEDs).

In Silva’s prime, he was a devastating counterstriker. He’s still a formidable presence, and Brunson seemed intimidated to the point of being reluctant to lead. There was drama in the fact that this was Anderson Silva but not much more. Silva prevailed on the judges’ scorecards by a 30-27, 29-28, 29-28 margin.

Then it was time for Holm vs. de Randamie.

Holm, age 35, is more vibrant and physically imposing in person than she appears to be on television. She began her professional combat sports career as a kickboxer. Then she turned to the sweet science and fashioned a 33-2-3 (9 KOs) record as a professional boxer.

She’s a fighter at heart. In 2011, Holm suffered a brutal beating in a seven-round knockout loss to Anne Sophie Mathis. She figured out what she did wrong and, six months later, fought Mathis again, winning a clear-cut unanimous decision.

“I had to shut out a lot of negativity,” Holm said later about the Mathis fights. “A lot of friends told me I was crazy to fight her again. I told them, ‘That’s why you’re not doing this and I am.’ Could she have knocked me out again? Yes. But I would have had to live with it until the day I died if I didn’t try.”

Holm turned to MMA in 2011 and had her first fight under the UFC banner on February 28, 2015. Eight-and-a-half months later, she was in Australia to fight Ronda Rousey.

“People were asking me, ‘How long do you think you’re going to last against her?’ Holm recalls. “And I was like, ‘I’m not going all the way to Australia to participate. I’m going there to win.’”

Holm stunned the combat sports world by knocking Rousey out in the second round. Asked on media day (three days before fighting de Randamie) about the fringe benefits that flowed from that conquest, Holly answered, “I love John Elway. Who gets to meet John Elway [now general manager of the Denver Broncos] and talk to him during a game? I did.”

But Holm was unable to capitalize financially on beating Rousey the way she might have.

Rousey was packaged as a sex symbol. With the right make-up and clothing, Holm, who has attractive features and long blonde hair that stretches far below her waist, looks as much the model as Rousey. But she was packaged differently.

Holm also had a different view of the world and her place in it. “Do you feel like a star?” she was asked.

“No,” she answered. “I just feel like Holly.

And more significantly, Holm’s championship reign was short. Four months after beating Rousey, she lost her spot on top of the hill by submission to Miesha Tate. Then, on July 23 , 2016, Holm extended her losing streak to two fights when she dropped a unanimous five-round decision to Valentina Shevchenko.

“I know I’m coming off two losses in a row,” Holm acknowledged on media day. “It’s a sore spot in my heart. It’s sour. I was prepared. I just didn’t perform well on those nights.”

That said; Holm was in danger of moving from being a major story in mixed martial arts to a footnote. On media day, more than one writer suggested that she might be remembered as “the Buster Douglas of MMA.” And Holm herself seemed anxious.

“It’s the biggest high of your life when you win,” she said. “I’m always chasing that. But sometimes I hate it, this hurt in your gut. You have this day that’s getting closer and closer. When I was waitressing, I had this dream sometimes that I was serving drinks and all I had on was my bra. Then I’d wake up and say, ‘Thank God, that wasn’t real.’ Now I have this dream that I have a fight coming up. I wake up and it’s fight day. It’s real.”

Holm was favored to beat the 32-year-old de Randamie. Germaine was 46-and-0 with 30 knockouts as a Muay Thai kickboxer and is a strong puncher. But after transitioning to MMA in 2008, she’d suffered three losses in nine fights, including a first round knockout defeat at the hands of Amanda Nunes.

Also, Holm (who fought Rousey at 135 pounds) had fought as a boxer at weights ranging from 138 to 151 pounds. It was generally believed that the 145-pound weight limit would suit her. And she’d fought better UFC competition than de Randamie had fought.

Then came the fight. de Randamie was the early aggressor and won the first three rounds, landing the harder, more-damaging blows. Every punch she threw came with bad intentions. Holm, by contrast, kept circling away. And many of her assaults – kicks and punches – seemed to be of the “stay away from me” variety.

At the close the second round and again after the third, de Randamie landed a punch after the horn sounded. The first of these illegal blows shook Holm and seemed to call for a one-point deduction. But referee Todd Anderson let the infractions pass. In the fourth and fifth rounds, Holm tried to take the fight to the matt to neutralize de Randamie’s punching power but de Randamie stayed on her feet. The crowd booed sporadically throughout. All three judges scored the fight 48-47 in de Randamie’s favor.

Dana White represents UFC’s economic interests. But he’s also an advocate for the fans. When the show was over, White acknowledged, “Not one of our better events. I always feel that, if we come into a place, you’re going to have at least a few good fights that are going to get you up out of your seat. We didn’t have any of those. I was hoping that the main event would deliver and erase most of the rest of the night. That didn’t happen. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a bad show. It happens.”

White then unloaded on Todd Anderson and the New York State Athletic Commission (which, in recent years, has been plagued by incompetence and corruption).

“I feel like the ref from New York shouldn’t be reffing a main event fight,” White said. “They don’t have enough experience. He should not have been in there. But again, we don’t make those decisions. The commission does. That was a bad decision by them. If that guy takes a point for hitting after the bell, it’s a draw. Everybody was blowing me up on the phone. ‘What’s wrong with this ref?’ and ‘What’s wrong with this ref? What’s wrong with this ref is, he doesn’t have big fight experience. None of these guys do in this state yet. They should have had one of the experienced MMA refs in there reffing that main event.”

Meanwhile, although Gerbasi now works for UFC, boxing still owns a piece of his heart. That was clear shortly before UFC 208 when he reminisced about what he calls “my first and only sanctioned amateur fight.”

“It was on February 5, 1997, in the novice division of the New York Daily News Golden Gloves,” Gerbasi recalled. “The same tournament that produced Sugar Ray Robinson and Riddick Bowe. If there had been a novice novice division, I would have been in it.”

Gerbasi was 28 years old at the time, six feet tall, 217 pounds (down from 235 when he began training).

“It started on a whim,” he recounted. “I was writing for CyberBoxing and said to myself, ‘Let me see what this is like.’ I’d been in the gym for less than three months before the fight, and I didn’t have what you’d call a Spartan training ethic. I’d been stung a few times in sparring but had never been hurt. I figured, if I get hit, I’ll fight through it and come on strong at the end. Looking back on it all, it was pretty stupid.”

“The opponent was a guy named Disel ‘Truck’ Means,” Gerbasi continued. “The fight was at Blessed Sacrament Church in Brooklyn. All the fighters were in one room before we went out to fight. I can’t see without my glasses. All I could see was shapes. When I looked across the room at the guy I was fighting, his arms looked as thick as my legs. My trainer came over and told me, ‘Your opponent looks slow.” I was slow too. I had no speed, no power, and as it turned out, no chin.”

“I remember touching gloves,” Gerbasi said, concluding his saga. “The next thing I remember is being in an ambulance with two guys telling me, ‘Don’t worry. You’ll be okay.’ Later on, I learned that the referee gave me a standing eight count and then I got knocked down face first like John Tate against Mike Weaver. It was over in 63 seconds. If you’re being kind, you’ll write ‘one minute three seconds.’ It sounds longer that way.”

So . . . Does Gerbasi have misgivings about his fistic adventure?

“Not at all,” he says. “Over the years, that night has come up in conversations I’ve had with some of the greatest fighters in the world. It’s not a sore topic with me. I don’t regret doing it. Years ago, I was in Atlantic City and met Roberto Duran. Duran was my idol when I was young. His son translated for us. I told him about my fight. He laughed a kind of wicked laugh and hugged me.” To a man, when I talk about it with fighters, they tell me, ‘Hey, you got in there. You did it.’”

 

 

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His most recent book – A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – was published recently by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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