The morning after he wagered his hopes on the Indian Casino Roulette Wheel of Fate — and lost — Chris Horodecki sat silently in the center of the Octogon, drinking from a gallon of water and trying to avoid the glances of the patrons around him, some who recognized him as the formerly undefeated IFL lightweight star, some who were just wondering what in hell happened to that boy’s eye? The Octogon, in this case, was the name of the restaurant connected to the Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa in Groton, CT, where most of the fighters slept after competing in the World Grand Prix at the Mohegan Sun Arena, a much flashier joint 20 minutes away. The restaurant’s name was more than a little ironic. On a night when most fight fans were focused on UFC 79’s marquee matchups, and most other sports fans were glued to the Pats/Giants NFL simulcast, the IFL’s hungry, scrappy fighters were doing their best to carve out their own place in the MMA universe. And even in their own budget-friendly, off-the-strip hotel, they couldn’t escape the ubiquity of the Eight-Sided-Shape.
Not to say that the Mystic Marriott wasn’t welcoming. There were a couple of signs in the lobby plugging the event. Unfortunately, they were a bit outdated:
Shad Lierley, of course, was Horodecki’s second scheduled opponent for the championship match-up, after Waggney Fabiano dropped to featherweight, before Lierley was injured and replaced by John Gunderson, and before Gunderson himself was injured and replaced by Ryan Schultz, who nobody was giving a chance to win the fight. I imagine Horodecki walking past the sign on the way to breakfast the morning after and cursing those motherfuckers who couldn’t stay healthy. Because only a true underdog like Schultz could have come away with the kind of fluke victory he had last night. That’s the way life works. You cover all your bets, and the ball lands on green double-zero. Chaos rules.
For me, the story started at 9:30 p.m., when I settled into my seat at the Arena – section 108, Row M, Seat 5, the absolute highest row among the half-populated nosebleed seats, next to a guy who wouldn’t stop farting (I’m talking about the guy in seat 4 – you know who you are). At that point, Marcello Salazar, Brett Cooper and Tim Kennedy had already won their preliminary matches, and unbeknownst to me, Roy Nelson had already become the IFL’s heavyweight champion. Why they kept his match against Antoine Jaoude off the televised card is anyone’s guess. Maybe they thought the other four fights would last longer. After all, Horodecki takes almost all of his fights to decision. As it turned out, only one of the four fights broadcast live on HDNet made it to the second frame, Horodecki was a vegetable within three minutes, and the entire evening was wrapped up before 11 p.m. It had taken twice that long to drive to Uncasville from Manhattan.
The home viewers might have been able to hear the announcer hype up the first fight between L.C. Davis and Waggney Fabiano, but the sound wasn’t getting out to the crowd, prompting the guy two rows down from me (who sported a full Tank Abbott beard) to shout “Let’s gooooooo!” and the guy next to me to shout “Fuckin’ Patriots!” The loudspeakers kicked in just as the announcer delivered the phrase that I’m guessing he’s hoping to trademark and get rich off of, Michael Buffer-style. His version: “I just have to know…Can, You, FEEL It?” It didn’t seem like anyone in audience was feeling it quite yet; maybe the prelims were snoozers. Though photography was prohibited for ticket-holders (I just turned off my flash and figured no security personnel would make the trek up to row M to bother me), strategically placed strobes started going off around the arena to simulate waves of flashbulbs. To be frank, I didn’t appreciate the ruse.
The featherweight bout went to the ground quickly, and was stopped just as quickly so that the fighters could be moved to the center of the ring; the crowd booed as if they’d never seen an IFL event before, in which these re-positionings are, unfortunately, standard operating procedure. Fabiano threatened early with ground-and-pound after getting the mount, but Davis managed to get to his feet, where he clinched with Fabiano against the ropes before being taken down again. While trying to push Fabiano off of him to get back upright, Davis gave up his arm on a silver platter, and Fabiano executed a quick armbar submission at 3:38 into round 1. After the loss, Davis was inconsolable, staying on the mat and sobbing, which sucked some of the air of triumph from Fabiano’s win. When Davis got to his feet, Pat Miletich talked him down from the ledge, and Carlos Newton and Renzo Gracie took center ring to wave at the audience.
Eerily motionless in their seats, most of the chatter among the attendees revolved around the Giants and the Patriots. Sensing the anxiety, the announcer got on the mic and announced that at halftime, the Giants were leading 21-16. The crowd went wild.
Next was the welterweight bout between Xtreme Couture’s Jay Hieron and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu acolyte Delson Heleno. This was my view:
You can’t really tell at this distance, but see the screen at the lower-right corner of the picture? That’s someone at the press table watching the football game. Brutal.
Heleno and Hieron spent the first minute of their fight measuring each other out. This was bad — there was no action. “Let’s GO!” someone shouted. The guy next to me (the Patriots fan, not the farter) leaned over and said “Fifty dollah seats, heah,” shaking his head. Another charming New England accent shouted “Hit ‘im! I gotta dollah on you!”
Hieron eventually found his distance, rocking Delson Heleno with a string of punches that first made Heleno wince in pain and then crumple to the ground, where he desperately tried to stave off an assault from above as time ran out in the first round. Technically, Heleno was saved by the bell, but the fight was over and Hieron knew it; he threw his arms up in victory as Heleno spit out his mouthpiece and rolled onto his stomach. A replay showed that he was waving his arms in submission in the final second. One well-meaning sweetheart of a ring girl dutifully walked around the ring with her “Round 2″ card, as doctors swarmed the fallen fighter. Heleno was conscious, but clearly in agony. It turned out that he had simply broken his finger. (Pussy.) To make sure the show kept to schedule they resorted to this:
Not sure if it was the safest move, but Heleno was fireman-carried out of the arena, to respectful applause.
The score of the football game was announced again — the Giants had tacked on another touchdown and seemed to be en route to spoil the Patriots’ perfect season. A diehard Giants fan sitting near me was psyched because he went for the longshot and bet money on the game. My heart goes out to that poor bastard.
Middleweights Matt Horwich and Benji Radach were introduced on the screens next. Horwich is a Team Quest fighter who recently took home a silver medal at the World Wrestling Games in Turkey. Radach hails from American Top Team in Florida, and practices a style he calls “Smash Fu.”
Horwich’s grappling style is confoundingly awkward. Like Clay Guida, he likes to shoot straight down at his opponents’ legs, and often ends up on his own knees as a result. Radach made him pay for this at one point with a hard rabbit punch that the referee didn’t seem to notice. Dazed, Horwich clinched with Radach on the ropes until they were separated. Horwich managed to land some good kicks before falling to his knees again, then standing back up and clinching with Radach against the turnbuckle until the bell rang.
Radach looked to finish the fight early in the second, nailing Horwich with punches that sent him to the mat. Trying to avoid being mounted, Horwich upkicked Radach, creating the space he needed to get to his feet. This was the crazy part: Horwich, who had never knocked out an opponent with punches before in his career, delivered a sharp standing kick to Radach’s head then delivered a shocking punch combination that had Radach out before he hit the canvas. Horwich frantically pounded away at Radach’s head until the ref called the TKO at the 1:58 mark. Unlike the previous fighters who suffered defeats that night, Radach was clear-headed enough to talk to his opponent after the match. (I’m re-watching the broadcast at home now, and their post-fight conversation is the most awesomely-awkward moment of the entire night. I’ll do my best to get a video of it up soon. Horwich is such a space-case that he doesn’t realize his attempts at consoling Radach are making Radach feel a thousand times worse.)
And then they start hyping up the Schultz/Horodecki fight, which I figured would be the main event. The farter next to me is on the phone, telling someone that the last fight is about to start, and he’ll “be there right after.” I didn’t want to accept it at the time, but it was then that I started to realize that HDNet was presenting a scant four fights in the main card, with the heavyweight title fight not making the cut. Poor Big Country. No respect.
Well, you know how this one went. Schultz got the better of a few early punch exchanges before taking Horodecki down at the 3:04 mark. The fighters were immediately put back into the center of the ring, and after a few moments of clinching and positioning, Schultz began to rain punches down on Horodecki, who looked nothing like the unbeatable poster-boy fighter of previous fights. Schultz abused him at will, with punches loaded with purpose and furious anger. In a desperate attempt to get out, Horodecki rolled, briefly giving Schultz his back. But instead of working for a choke, Schultz trapped one of Horodecki’s arms under him and unloaded an battery of explosive haymakers into Horodecki’s completely unguarded face. The punches were enormous, monstrous. It was all a blur, much like this picture:
As the ref stopped the match and the doctors jogged over to Horodecki’s limp form, Schultz could do nothing but scream in shock. The crowd was just as surprised as he was; some stayed in their seats, while the rest quietly filed out in disgust. By the time the official announcement was made, the Mohegan Sun Arena was a ghost town:
Ryan Schultz, the IFL’s new, beyond-unlikely lightweight champion, had his hand raised one minute and 20 seconds before the broadcast could reach the 90-minute mark. And that was pretty much it. An Arena employee asked me to leave so she could start cleaning the area. If there were any press conferences or official afterparties that night, I didn’t hear about them. I turned some dollars into chips, lost them in record time at a roulette table, took some photos of the Native American-themed surroundings, watched the Giants blow their lead into a demoralizing loss, and took a cab back to the Mystic.
And of course in the morning, I saw Chris Horodecki eating breakfast in the Octogon. If I was a more committed journalist, or one who lacked social skills, I would have just sat down at his table and started talking. But I could tell he was in no mood to do an interview with a stranger who edits an obscure MMA blog; who knows if he was even speaking to friends yet. At that moment, he was still getting his head around his first loss and all the attached psychic significance. His wounds still looked fresh. So I left him alone, I didn’t even ask to get a picture with him, and anyway, my phone started to ring and my ride was waiting.