CFA 12 Reflections: The Quashing of Controversy, The Importance of Urgency and The Relevance of Unorthodoxy PLUS A Bonus Interview With CFA CEO/Founder Jorge de la Noval
e are now a few days removed from the fantastic fights put on by the competitors at CFA 12: Sampo vs Thao, where three new champions were given belts, a controversial figure in the sport had her first taste of defeat and, in the main event, a reigning champion defended his belt against an unorthodox striker whose unique techniques presented many puzzles. Between then and now, I’ve had some time to think about certain aspects of the event and I figured they merited their own space.
Below, I will touch on three particular things which struck me after Saturday’s fights. I’ve also included, at the end, an exclusive interview I conducted with CFA CEO/Founder Jorge de la Noval at the weigh-ins the day before, and his stances on the issues I’ll be exploring are worth a look.
The Quashing of Controversy — Ashlee Evans-Smith vs. Fallon Fox
By now the story has been told thousands of times over with a multitude of opinions on the matter. Fallon Fox, a competitor in the CFA women’s featherweight championship tournament, came out early this year as transgender. The announcement created a shockwave amongst the MMA community, and it didn’t take long for everyone to throw their two cents in, whether it was UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione’s tirade of intolerance or Evans-Smith herself, saying that she belonged in her own division. Everyone seemed to have a position on the matter.
And rightfully so. This was not a question of lifestyle choices, religious beliefs or adherence to any predetermined rule sets. It was a new issue, wrought with questions that had to date (and to my knowledge) never been asked before: Does a male-to-female transgender fighter have an unfair advantage over naturally-born women in her weight class after undergoing extensive hormonal treatment and being cleared by the regional boxing commission? Is the physiological difference so drastically disparate that it creates a chasm of inequity in strength and durability? Should there be some sort of statute of limitations regarding how soon a transgender fighter can compete after undergoing their transformative operation? Was seven years long enough for Fox? Is a separate division called for in such a case?
Much to Fox’s detriment, all of those questioned were answered definitively on Saturday night. From the opening bell, Ashlee Evans-Smith established that there was no evident divide between her and her opponent’s power, technique and resilience. To the elation of the attending crowd (who were emphatically pro-Evans-Smith – or, it could be argued, anti-Fox), Evans-Smith beat her from one side of the cage to the other. A brutal knee from Fox put Evans-Smith on wobbly legs for a short spell, but, for all shapes and purposes, the rest of the fight unarguably belonged to her. Confusion at the end of the second round momentarily had everyone in the BankUnited Center (Evans-Smith included) enraptured, believing the ref had called the fight when in fact he had just not heard the bell. The dejection Fox must have felt hearing the crowd erupt in adoring applause for Evans-Smith must have been crushing. That Evans-Smith managed to end the fight the very next round in the exact same way she had the previous one must have been even further demoralizing for Fox, who just wanted to make a living doing what she loved.
Did age play a role? Evans-Smith is only 26 while Fox is perhaps past her prime at 37 years old, so maybe. Fox did appear to tire early on, and stamina is something that diminishes with age. But let’s back up for a moment and remember that going into this fight – going into this tournament altogether – it was argued Fox held a completely unfair advantage above all of her fellow competitors. That was proven to not be the case on Saturday. She was soundly defeated for the whole world to see. Fox, while fighting, must have heard the jeers from the crowd such as, “Kick its ass, Ashlee!” I, for one, think that it’s time to end such things. Fallon Fox is a human being, she is beatable and she deserves a chance, like everyone else, to pursue her passion in the sport she loves. It did take her losing to prove this point, but now that the point has been proven it is time to move on.
The Importance of Urgency — Torrance Taylor vs. Yosdenis Cedeno
Going into this fight, Taylor appeared to have several things going in his favor. He is younger (26 to Cedeno’s 28), has had more pro fights (and more title fight experience) and, though Cedeno is an inch taller, Taylor enjoyed a reach advantage both in the arms and legs. As I mentioned in a previous article, both men were on five-fight win streaks with 3 (T)KOs apiece going into the bout, which was for the CFA lightweight belt.
With the exception of the final round in which Taylor finally managed to land some effective strikes, Cedeno fared marginally better on the feet and equally as well once it hit the mat. Though it was declared a split decision victory for Cedeno, I can’t rationalize how it could be so close a call. It was hardly a once-sided walloping, but Cedeno did deserve a 48-47 unanimous decision, as he clearly won the first three rounds. Taylor just didn’t come out strong enough. You could say the same for Cedeno, I guess, but once he won that first round, it was Taylor playing catch-up.
He didn’t really close the distance, performance-wise, until the last couple of rounds, and winning two out of five rounds doesn’t get you a win. It’s that simple. Once you’re behind on points so far that you cannot secure a win without a finish – or if there exists even the least bit of doubt that you may lose the fight on points – you need to go in for the kill at all costs (see Jon Fitch/BJ Penn, Tim Boetch/Yushin Okami or, if you want to go all crazy-like, Ryo Chonan/Anderson Silva).
This is where the problem lays, and it’s an issue that CFA’s CEO Jorge de la Noval tried to address with his policy change on fighter purses (which he describes in detail in the exclusive interview below). That Taylor’s last recorded loss was in ceding a split decision to Glenn Brown for the UMMAXX belt indicates he is no stranger to this matter. Was it the length of the fight itself that led to him having such a slow start? Was he trying to pace himself? Once the fight hit the mat (a place where Taylor chose to take the fight on multiple occasions), he did not attempt a single submission, nor did he open up with any significant strikes while there. In comparison, he performed slightly better while standing, but nothing he did merited a 10-8 round on any scorecard.
Fighters don’t need to come out guns a-ablazin’. They become too predictable as a result, and a brawling style is synonymous with low fight IQ. But when you’re three rounds behind you either need to have the wherewithal to understand your predicament and go for broke or at least have people in your corner who will inform you of your predicament. From there, you need to have the gumption to apply that information in the cage, sometimes at the risk of losing decisively yourself. In the fifth frame, while separated on the feet, Taylor attempted a strike and moved directly into clench position, transitioning it into a takedown attempt. Though it won him the round, it lost him the fight. When a match is that close, one cannot afford to leave it up to another person’s perception of how well you did. It’s an age-old adage that has lost none of its relevance.
The Relevance of Unorthodoxy – Josh Sampo vs. Sam Thao
Among the most beautiful aspects of MMA is its continued evolution. Since the Gracies introduced their particularly effective brand of jiu-jitsu to the world at the first Ultimate Fighting Championship – forcing fighters of every other imaginable discipline to learn the graceful art or ensure a loss when the fight inevitably hit the mat – “vale tudo” fighters have had to change with the times and incorporate new techniques into their skill sets or be left behind. As with life, in mixed martial arts there is no such thing as standing still.
Currently, there are a certain set of prerequisite disciplines which every fighter must have in his or her arsenal. Each fighter needs a striking base (such as boxing, karate and kickboxing), a ground game (almost uniformly jiu-jitsu, however there are submissions used in folk wrestling, sambo and judo) and, in what has emerged as the most important facet, a transitional base (usually folk or greco-roman wrestling, though sambo, judo and even sumo have been used). Fighters now, more than ever before, must congeal these disciplines into a single, smoothly-operational union often referred to as a “style” or “game.”
There exist specialists who defy this rule of thumb, however. Names like Lyoto Machida (karate), Ben Askren (wrestling) and Demian Maia (jiu-jitsu) come to mind when discussing specialists who are so incredibly good at one aspect of their overall “game” that it consequently eclipses the prominent style of their opponent. They become unidirectional and often predictable, but if they’re really good it often still doesn’t matter, because more than anything else they approach the fight game – through their ability to excel at one particular area – in an unorthodox fashion.
On Saturday night, Sam Thao performed valiantly against a consensus top-15 flyweight in Josh Sampo. Sampo, whose wrestling base, crisp striking, granite chin and bottomless gas tank allowed him to outperform Thao in four of the five rounds, was caught off guard early on by Thao’s oddly-angled strikes, including (but not limited to) a perfectly-placed axe kick and spinning techniques which landed almost every time on the defending champion. Against a slightly less durable opponent, who knows what would have happened?
Thao, who competed as a wrestler in high school, is a lifelong Tae Kwon Do practitioner and he put his skills on display to the best of his ability Saturday night. Some of the unorthodox techniques seemed oddly unnecessary, like the spinning back kicks to Sampo’s legs while standing over him. There is a fine line between effective and ineffective unorthodoxy, and Thao arguably showed equal amounts in CFA 12’s main event. Though the 49-46 unanimous decision loss indicates a lopsided defeat, the fight always remained competitive. If I were in Thao’s camp coming back with him to Wisconsin, I’d try to convey to the young contender that, though unconventional technique is a boon when applied strategically and for functional means, it sometimes leaves openings that a refined competitor like Sampo will exploit at an increasing rate as the night progresses.
Interview with Championship Fighting Alliance (CFA) CEO/Founder Jorge de la Noval
The day before the fights occurred, the fighters weighed in and faced off. In my previous article on the weight-ins I was able to speak with many of the fighters regarding their upcoming bouts. I was also able to pull CFA president Jorge de la Noval aside and get his thoughts on a variety of matters, from the Fallon Fox controversy to why he got into the MMA business.
Do you think this is going to be the biggest one [CFA event] yet, with four titles on the line?
Jesse, this is – I expect fireworks from this card. I don’t know if it’s going to be the biggest as far as crowd. As far as the fight card, man it’s such a well-matched fight card. From the first fight of the night all the way to the last fight of the night, I don’t expect anything else but fireworks. I mean, these are guys where you call them last-minute, they’re always training and they’re ready to go. They’re passionate about what they’re doing. It’s not… man, they’re hungry. They want to prove a point.
Now, to clarify, there’s four titles on the line…
There had been some confusion. It said five some places. There’s four specifically, right, and then there’s the co-main event with Escudero and Palomino.
Yes. There used to be, at the beginning, five, which is why there’s confusion. But our champion – our featherweight champion Sean Soriano got a staph infection, so we had to scratch that fight. So there were five fights in the beginning, plus the Palomino fight.
What made you get into martial arts? What passion did you find in it, how can you define it?
I started karate when I was eight years old. I’m a black belt in karate under master Carlos Quintero, from Venezuela, and I opened my first American Top Team in 2008 with my partner Conan Silveira. I started training jiu-jitsu, I got hooked on the sport and I saw these guys didn’t have a place to fight. You know, most of the guys we were training at the time, they didn’t have a place to fight, so I decided to go into promotion.
To clarify, are you still currently involved with American Top Team?
No. I’m not involved with any of the gyms. I sold my school and I’m just a promoter.
Is that because of perhaps a conflict of interest that you saw down the road and, being an overseer of gym down here – a particular team – and then also running an organization that it was wearing too many hats?
I’m good at what I’m doing now, and I wanted to move on. I’ve never been a coach or a trainer, you know, I had to depend on somebody else to do that end of the business. I decided to move on and become a promoter.
On the topic of Fallon Fox – she is a controversial figure obviously – it isn’t that surprising, necessarily, but at the same time do you really feel that by taking a stand and saying, “Yes, she is invited to fight in our organization,” that you’re kind of opening doors for future things like that, for future fighters who have that going on? For that sort of thing. It is a unique circumstance.
Jesse, we don’t discriminate, man. At CFA, we don’t discriminate. I don’t care if you’re black, blue purple, an avatar; If you are certified as a fighter by the Florida State Boxing Commission you are going to have an opportunity to fight in CFA. We got actually – two weeks ago – we got a guy that’s missing an eye that wants to fight in CFA. His record’s 18-5, if I’m not mistaken. When I called the Commission, they said, “Jorge, that’s not even in the books. We don’t have anything.” I mean, the guy’s missing an eye. He has… yes, he’s missing an eye. And you know what? He’s going to be fighting on our next card, ‘cause we open the doors for everybody. I don’t care what your nationality is, what your preferences are, I don’t care. We promote fights, and as long as you’re considered a fighter we’re going to give you an opportunity.
I’ve also read that you’re going to be implementing fight bonuses this time around to ensure that fighters really do go for the finish. Did you feel that was necessary?
It is necessary. The sport has evolved so much that it’s becoming too technical. Obviously – if I can just throw out numbers – if I make $20,000 to show and $20,000 to win the fight, I can win the fight many ways: by scoring points and by running around the whole time, you know, and that will get you the decision and win the fight. I don’t want to do that anymore. I will give you the $20,000 show money, but then I’ll split… I’ll give you $10,000 [to win] and $10,000 if you finish the fight. That’s how we’re going to do it.
So it’s not necessarily… It’s a deviation from the regular payment.
It’s a deviation. There’s no rules, to be honest with you. It’s all negotiation. But every other organization usually does it like that: show money, win bonus. And I don’t want to do that anymore. You want to win your money, win your money. Win the crowd, you know, fight. Don’t just win by points. This is not an amateur league.
As far as next events going on, are there any announcements that you’d like to make?
We’re actually in negotiations now to do our next event, CFA 13, January 10th.
And do you have a location set in mind? Is it the BankUnited Center?
It’s the BankUnited Center, yeah.
You guys have a good relationship with them.
Yes, we have a great relationship there.
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