Sherdog’s Upset of the Year
By Jordan Breen ([email protected])
After being rescheduling and relocated, October's WEC 43 in San Antonio wound up being one of the year's best cards. True to form for such a notoriously wild sport, what was supposed to be a simple, perfunctory tune-up bout turned into 2009's "Upset of the Year."
Heading into the latter stages of '09, a year dominated by featherweight action, Wagnney Fabiano was positioned as a challenger-in-waiting for the WEC featherweight crown. A consensus top-five fighter in the division, Fabiano's fate was thought to rest on the outcome of November's Mike Thomas Brown-Jose Aldo bout. If his Nova Uniao teammate Aldo won, Fabiano was likely bound for 135 pounds. However, should then-incumbent Brown have won, Fabiano was ready to play the role of challenger.
But first, the standout grappler had a routine showcase bout scheduled against unbeaten and unknown Midwesterner Erik Koch. When Koch was injured, he was replaced by the equally anonymous Mackens Semerzier, an unbeaten former Marine from Virginia and a training partner of Miguel Torres. To casual and hardcore onlookers alike, the opponent switch appeared to make absolutely no difference.
Early, the bout looked the way it was anticipated to look. Forty seconds in, Fabiano shot a double-leg takedown and pushed Semerzier to the fence. Semerzier got double underhooks, but Fabiano switched to a single and finished the takedown. The Nova Uniao product quickly got to half guard. It was all as expected.
Suddenly, it wasn't quite so easy. Fabiano was stuck in Semerzier's half guard and couldn't seem to free his right foot. Semerzier then used a single butterfly hook to push Fabiano to his feet. As Fabiano dove back into Semerzier's guard, the little-known Virginian upkicked and flailed his legs while controlling Fabiano's right leg with his left hand. Fabiano fought to stack and pass under Semerzier's crazy-legged volleys, but couldn't.
Desperate, the Brazilian drove into Semerzier's guard and tried to pin his left leg down behind the knee. As Fabiano continued to underhook his far right leg, Semerzier quickly threw it across the back of the Brazilian's neck. Fabiano stood up quick to defend, but Semerzier tightened up the triangle. From there, it was textbook jiu-jitsu: arm across the face, pull the head down, hook the leg. Fabiano fell to the seat of his pants, helpless. The former IFL champion was forced to tap out. It took just two minutes and 14 seconds.
Tactics and strategy are still young arts in MMA. The sport is still replete with high-level competitors who admit, and in some cases brag, about their lack of fight-specific preparedness. "I know nothing about him" and "I'm going to fight my fight" are common braindead maxims of the sport. The 29-year-old Semerzier is more studious than your average prospect. Perhaps it's a byproduct of his day job, where he teaches combative tactics training for law enforcement and special operations units at the Linxx Academy in Virginia Beach. Maybe it's owing to his wrestling days, where he would draw stick figures and diagram the techniques he learned that day.
"I think I'm a student of the game. I'm always thinking about fighting. Every night I watch two or three fights every night before I go to bed," says Semerzier. "As a combatives instructor, people are always asking me questions, so I'm always thinking to make sure I have an answer."
Some answers require less thought. Two weeks out from WEC 43, Semerzier was at home watching, of all things, “America's Dumbest Criminals,” when his phone rang. On the other end, his compatriot Miguel Torres asked him if he was interested in stepping in for the injured Koch to take on Fabiano.
"I felt like I could win. I really believe in my training and what I bring to the table, what I can do. I didn't think I'd win the way that I won, but I knew it was a possibility," says Semerzier, who had been hoping to fight locally on Oct. 3 despite a rash of opponents dropping out.
However, being opportunistic is not enough. Plenty of unknown fighters play the role of showcase opponent "properly" and are succinctly smashed. Fearlessness alone is not enough to produce an upset, especially one born out of attacking an opponent at their strength.
"Good technique is good technique," Semerzier tells. "If a white belt has a black belt in the right position, it doesn't matter. An armbar isn't just an armbar, a triangle isn't just a triangle; there's a correct way to do it. If you train to do it right every time, you'll get the submission every time."
It's hard to afford Semerzier's handiwork a place in the pantheon of great MMA upsets. The year's upset contenders were far from "perfect": Semerzier-Fabiano, Thiago-Koscheck, Warren-Yamamoto and others are predicated on the fact that the winners in question were unknown quantities, as opposed to mediocre-or-worse fighters who defied the odds. In this respect, it may come down to an objective measure: Fabiano was as big as a -850 favorite heading into the bout, making him the biggest betting favorite to go down in 2009.
However, what makes Semerzier-Fabiano the "Upset of the Year" is that it symbolizes 2009, a year marked by an extraordinary amount of action in the featherweight division on both sides of the Pacific. While Sengoku and Dream centered their '09 output on featherweight tournaments to crown champions, WEC continued to be the hardcore fan's heaven, prominently featuring the 145-pounders. It is just now that the world's best featherweights are getting the opportunity to fight one another on an international level and be at least relatively well compensated. A whole slate of the division's notables -- Jose Aldo, Michihiro Omigawa, Masanori Kanehara, Bibiano Fernandes -- were among the year's best fighters. 2009 belonged to the featherweights.
"What I like is that it makes my name immortal," says Semerzier. "Fifty years from now, people are going to remember the featherweights of today, laying the groundwork when this division really got started."
The featherweight division is still brilliance-in-chrysalis. It is just now that the best athletes capable of fighting at 145 are doing so, thus there is a state of flux. We're amidst a learning process about who the top featherweights in the world truly are, as we finally see the best fight the best. As that happens, we're bound for more shocks and more upsets from the Mackens Semerziers of the world.
"It's an upset, but that's because no one knew who I was at the time," says Semerzier. "It'd be different if I was going into the fight now."
And he's right. Three months after his upset, Semerzier returned to the cage at WEC 46. This time he had a role reversal, as tough Lithuanian ex-pat Deividas Taurosevicius took home a unanimous decision over "Mack da Menace," authoring a mild upset of his own.
"He came out with a better game plan. With his experience, he knew how to control the position and time of the fight," Semerzier says, reflecting on his first career loss. "That was the fastest 15 minutes of my life. When I was on the bottom, I heard the 'clap clap clap' with 10 seconds left, and thought, 'Where'd the hell did the time go?' So, I'm still learning."
So are we.