(Round 1. Rounds 2 & 3 are after the jump.)
Maybe you missed it, but Sanchez/Guida and Lytle/Burns weren’t the only good fights on TV this weekend. At Friday night’s Strikeforce Challengers event Jorge Gurgel and Connor Heun slugged it out for three rounds in a bout that seemed mediocre on paper but wound up being the highlight of the Showtime broadcast.
If you pay attention early on, two things become very apparent: 1) Pat Miletich is the best fighter-turned-color man/technical analyst that there is, and 2) Gurgel is still committed to being the ground guy who chooses to stand and bang in an effort to entertain fans and “please promoters,” as Stephen Quadros puts it. That’s at least in part of what got him bounced from the UFC (okay, really it was losing fights, but that was a symptom and not the disease) and yet here it results in him having the fight of the night. It makes me wonder, is Gurgel, for better or worse, a fighter crafted by the sensibilities of fans and promoters? And if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?
If you’ve ever attended a live MMA event you’ve probably noticed that the most vocal crowd members are rarely there because they’re hoping to see jiu-jitsu at its best. Even in the modern age of MMA where casual fans tend to be fairly well-educated about the ground game, a good portion of the ticket-buying public is still there for the knockouts and the beer. Not that there’s anything wrong with either.
But Gurgel has become a fighter who basically plays away from his own strengths, often to his detriment. Fans and promoters want stand-up action and he gives it to them, even when it would be a better idea not to. He’s a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt who hasn’t submitted anyone in an MMA fight in over four years. Some of that is due to the increased quality of competition that he’s faced. But some of it, like the decision loss to Aaron Riley in his last UFC bout, is attributable to his single-minded focus on trying to be a kickboxer.
That seems problematic for those of us who don’t want to see MMA gradually become kickboxing with small gloves. For years we’ve been telling detractors that the great thing about the sport is the variety of techniques and skill sets in play, though at the same time it’s the "Ultimate Knockouts" DVD’s on display at Best Buy. It’s easy to see why and how it happens that a guy like Gurgel changes his style. Over the years he’s become a pretty exciting striker. The fight with Heun was almost validation for the losses he suffered against guys he should have beaten.
Then again, Heun’s not known as a great stand-up fighter himself. So has Gurgel turned himself into the kind of fighter who can put on an impressive striking display against the Connor Heun’s of the world, while also becoming the kind of guy who gameplans his way into a “Fight of the Night” defeat against the Aaron Riley’s?
Maybe so. But in sacrificing a few wins in order to produce more exciting fights, which is also what guys like Chris Lytle and, at least in recent years, Wanderlei Silva have done, he’s managed to keep himself somewhat relevant. He’s given people what he thinks they want, and he’s been both rewarded and criticized for it. But whatever he’s become, it’s hard not to think that we’re the ones who are partially responsible for it. For better or worse.