So Olympian Matt Lindland (Pictures) — for my money, the best middleweight in the game — has confirmed he’s inked a bout with vaunted heavyweight king Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) to top a spring bodogFIGHT card.
Lindland, who normally doesn’t breach the low 190s in body weight, will be forced to deal with a good 20-30 pound weight deficit. And unlike most Davids, his Goliath has the skill set to match his bulk.
During his motivational speech in Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin had a pithy term for Lindland’s brand of ambition — “Brass. Balls.” That a true middleweight would dare take on a true heavyweight, let alone the division’s top dog, is the definition of gamer.
The prospect got me thinking about other mixed martial artists who have stepped in against considerable physical or logistical obstacles. Win or lose, we never saw them sweat. Call their courage morbidly inspiring or just plain crazy; either way, they put their pair on public display.
My top 10 fighters that got their Rocky Balboa on:
10) Kiyoshi Tamura (Pictures)
The former RINGS athlete enjoyed considerable success in that arena, where striking on the ground wasn’t permitted. When he made his PRIDE debut in 2002, the slight 190-pounder had no reservations about facing mauler Wanderlei Silva (Pictures), despite the fact that he had yet to be cracked good on the mat. (If you can’t guess what happened next, there’s always the Fight Finder)
Perhaps Silva knocked out Tamura’s remaining sense. His next bout was opposite 375-pound behemoth Bob Sapp (Pictures), who threw technique out the window and simply overpowered the Japanese fighter for a quick TKO. Undeterred, Tamura later accepted a fight with marquee heavyweight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pictures), losing via armbar.
For Tamura to consistently give up size and strength to credible threats, especially on the heels of a storied career in the less threatening rules of RINGS, takes real guts.
Facing Bob Sapp (Pictures) when you weigh less than one of his thighs is just plain tough.
9) Genki Sudo (Pictures)
The charismatic Sudo, renowned for his elaborate entrances and in-ring showmanship, acquiesced to K-1’s penchant for mismatches when he agreed to oppose Eric Esch (Pictures) in a 2003 bout.
Casual fans will better know Esch as “Butterbean,” the bulbous club boxer who appears as though he’s just swallowed a refrigerator. Butter tips the scales upward of 400 pounds, giving himself 200-odd pounds of leverage against the lightweight Sudo.
It was a technical mismatch: Sudo’s ground technique was effective against the clueless Esch, who tapped early in the second round to a heelhook. But the craniums of 150-pound fighters simply aren’t meant to withstand the force Esch — a noted power puncher — is capable of generating.
In a fight where even a single clean strike could’ve had Sudo’s brains on the canvas, he came to the ring dancing.
8) Nobuhiko Takada (Pictures)
“Courage” isn’t what usually comes to mind when fans discuss Takada, a pro wrestler-turned-fighter with dubious victories and some truly awful performances. (Against Mirko Filipovic (Pictures), Takada was content to spend most of the fight flopping to the mat: the bout was so plodding it was left off U.S. DVDs.)
But how else can you describe someone who clearly had precious few skills to contend with the opposition he agreed to face? Takada entering the ring against killers like Mark Kerr (Pictures) and Igor Vovchanchyn (Pictures) is akin to sanctioned homicide. Did Takada know his flimsy abilities would be no match for theirs? If he did, he’s more of a man than most.
If he didn’t, well … ignorance is bliss. Until the stitches.
7) Wanderlei Silva (Pictures)
Few fighters dominating their weight class are ever too eager to test fate under different circumstances. PRIDE champion Silva, who’s been a title holder for six years running, doesn’t seem cognizant of “the rules.” He simply fights.
In the winter of 2004, Silva agreed to face formidable heavyweight Mark Hunt (Pictures) on just a few days’ notice. Though he lost a decision, the bout was competitive. This past summer, he entered PRIDE’s open-weight bracket and put the big hurt on Kazuyuki Fujita (Pictures). That led to a rematch with Mirko “Cro Cop.”
Much has been made about Silva actually weighing more than Filipovic come fight time. It made little difference: “Cro Cop” had the naturally bigger frame and was vastly more experienced than Silva in the division. Couple that with crisper striking and nothing looked good for the champ on paper.
He was indeed pummeled, victim to another patented “Cro Cop” high kick. But Silva’s willingness to risk his legacy by escalating his challenges is something the historians should make a point to remember.
6) Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures)
I recognize the hypocrisy: this space is normally reserved for rants against the ailing Sakuraba’s apparent death wish and the promoters who act as enablers.
But I’ve never denied Saku’s relentless mettle. Time and again, he’s shirked weight class restrictions to put on a show for his Japanese loyalists. Rare is the athlete who will be snapped in half by Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) on not one but two occasions, and then nod in agreement to a third bout. (A fourth meeting was rumored two years ago. In apparent proof of a higher power, Saku injured himself.)
Though his bout with killer Mirko “Cro Cop” deserves mention, one night in particular stands as testament to Saku’s steel nerves. After going a marathon 90 minutes with Royce Gracie (Pictures) — a bout that was certainly a cardio drain — Saku marched to the ring an hour later to face power puncher Igor Vovchanchyn (Pictures).
Not the Igor of now, the wilting, increasingly archaic pug; but the Igor of old, a fireplug of a man who was a tournament favorite and reputed to be one of the most vicious fighters in the game. Saku not only met his stare, he went an entire round before finally begging off. Amazing.