This won't be an ordinary post-event analysis. Rather than give out awards and play amateur matchmaker, I just want to tell you a story. It's got it's twists and turns, falls and redemptions, high stakes and sympathetic characters, and a gripping plot leading to a nail-biting climax. It's the story of the Great North Grand Prix, which transpired last Wednesday, March 7th.
The modern MMA era finds its roots in the tournament structure (UFC 1) and, through all the maturation and growing pains the sport has undergone, all the rule changes and style evolutions, it keeps coming back to the single-elimination, last-man-standing format. Anyone familiar with the history of MMA knows about the unforgettable Pride Grand Prix's, the business model of Bellator, and the UFC's four-man frenzy to find their inaugural flyweight champion. Even the only serious MMA movie (the vastly under-appreciated Warrior) centered around a massive tournament.
The Alaska Fighting Championship tapped into that timeless experience with an eight-man, winner-take-all throwdown for any fighter under 170 pounds. As with any tournament, the audience was in for a lot of surprises.
The first wrench was thrown in the gears before the action even started. Soldotna's Chase 'The Outlaw' Jensen was in a serious car accident driving to Anchorage for the event. His spot immediately opened up to the winner of the alternate match, which pitted dangerous veteran Josh Branham against Zach 'Snack Pack' Shelley. Shelley is a relative newcomer with a so-so record, and had shown holes in his submission defense, which just happened to be Branham's specialty. Needless to say, the deck was stacked against Shelley. The bout went exactly as you'd expect, at first. Shelley closed the distance and used his powerful wrestling to take Branham down, but Branham snaked his long arm around Shelley's neck. It looked like guillotine-o'clock at Submission Central Station, but Shelley surprised everyone by calmly passing to side control. Branham mistakenly kept hold of Shelley's neck, and 'Snack Pack' took advantage of the mental error by setting a rarely scene Von Flue choke, scoring a massive upset and punching his ticket to the tournament. Just like that we had an underdog element in the undersized wrestler.
The AFC took full advantage of the first round match-making, setting up the highest octane bouts first, stamping a guarantee on excitement right from the very beginning. While a seeded bracket might have been more fair, it would have been a lot less entertaining.
First up was the electrifying Fight of the Night, pitting stand-up aces Scott McAfee and Cody 'Peligro' Rice, arguably the second and third seeds in the tourney. Rice demonstrated his typically aggressive style, ripping off lightning fast five-punch combos and snapping kicks, while the well-traveled McAfee countered with stout uppercuts and crushing right hooks. By second round Rice was bleeding from the nose, and near the end of it he shocked everyone with a power double-leg shot, a new move never before seen by the striker. McAfee quickly reversed, and by the end of the third they were going at each other like honey badgers on crack. The crowd went wild, and Rice's face got bloodier and bloodier. McAfee came out on top of the very close decision.
Next came a highly anticipated bout between two of the most accomplished boxers in the state, Joe 'Joe Di Joe' Degroff and Cordero 'Gun 'Em Down' Gonzales. Savvy fans were eager to see how their skills would translate to an MMA bout. What transpired was a baffling display by Degroff that felt more like a dance party than a cage fight. Degroff is known as a counter-puncher, often resorting to theatrics to lure his opponent in close where he can catch him off guard, and he busted out all of his tricks against Gonzales, including wacky kung fu stances, holding his hands up, holding his hands down, sticking his mouth guard out like he was tired, and standing straight up while taunting; pretty much everything short of painting a target on his face and taking a nap in a straight jacket. Gonzales knew his opponent's M.O. and stayed away from Degroff's baits and posturing. This gave us a horribly peaceful first round. The second round was more interesting, but no less strange. Gonzales, perhaps hearing the chorus of boos, decided to take a risk and commit to a few strikes. Degroff blocked them all with his face, and then put his hands down and walked straight at Gonzales and talking about who-knows-what. I have no idea what he was doing, but it wasn't fighting. Around the middle of the second Degroff decided to get involved and shot for a double-leg takedown, which the boxer surprisingly secured. 'Gun 'Em Down' powered his way up and took Degroff's back standing, then, arching high into the air, executed a move so exciting that it made up for all of the boring tranquility that came before. His suplex soared across the cage like a rainbow from heaven. Afterwards there was some perfunctory action, but by thee end of the round Degroff was smiling, taunting, walking forward, but not fighting, much as he had done all fight. The judges mercifully saw no need for a third round, giving it to Gonzales, who actually came to fight. Degroff's performance will no doubt be remembered when it comes time to hand out this blog's year end WTF award.
Perhaps the most significant fight of the night came next, where tournament favorite and welterweight champion 'Naptime' Nic Herron-Webb hooked 'em up with Gary 'The Samoan Sensation' D'Hue. D'Hue is somebody who used to be somebody, but a long layoff and some embarrassing losses meant he hadn't been regarded as a real threat to any belt in several years. His versed ground game was all that made this match-up with the young champion intriguing.
D'Hue was not intimidated, though, and came out swinging. For the first round the underdog both beat Herron-Webb to the punch and countered effectively, then circled away quickly to avoid the champion's dangerous clinch. Herron-Webb did land a powerful leg kick in the first round, but that was about all he could muster. It would turn out to be the leg-kick that ended D'Hue's night, but more on that later. Anyone there could see that 'Naptime' was out of sorts, and D'Hue was taking full advantage of it. For the second round Herron-Webb changed tactics, as he was clearly getting zapped in the striking department. He moved to cage'n'pray, clinching D'Hue against the fence and fighting for the takedown. D'Hue showed his resilience and stayed upright, trading slicer knees and fighting for hand position. He tried to get his back off the cage several times, but Herron-Webb kept him stuck there like glue. Near the end of the round the champion got hold of his neck and landed some nasty knees to the head, followed by a late takedown and choke attempt, but D'Hue's jui-jitsu came into play as he regained guard and the round ended. Split one round apiece, they were headed for sudden victory. At this point D'Hue had already done more than anyone expected of him. He'd rattled the champion and survived longer than many of challengers. But he was not done, he refused to give up. He landed a few leg kicks and fought off Herron-Webb's takedown attempts. Knowing he was behind with a minute left, Herron-Webb went for a desperate hip toss, which is where D'Hue pulled his most shocking move, doing something that hardly anyone has been able to do to 'Naptime'. Expertly countering, he reversed the toss and took Herron-Webb down! Herron-Webb briefly threatened with a kimura, but D'Hue secured his position and, on the strength of the takedown, one the round and the match. The huge upset had the crowd on fire.
“I feel amazing. He's the welterweight champion, what else can you say?” a smiling D'Hue said in his post fight interview. Promoter Sarah Lorimer awarded him a Fighter of the Night bonus for his efforts.
Finally, natural featherweight Shelley was back. Already one fight in, he took on a fresh Harry 'Viper' Caudle. While Caudle wisely tried to control the distance with jabs and kicks, Shelley was able to close in and secure the takedown, tapping out Caudle with a textbook kimura that dislocated his shoulder.
"I was feeling good until that kimura," Caudle later half-joked.
Summing up, the opening round saw McAfee win a razor-thin thriller with Rice, Gonzales sit through what I'm assuming was a ballroom dance with smacktalk with Degroff, D'Hue score the biggest upset in years over Herron-Webb, and the undersized Shelley get through not one, but two opponents. In other words, it was fight fan heaven as the first intermission started.
"That's why tournament's are exciting!" gushed an anonymous audience member.
As if the upsets and action didn't provide enough drama, it was time for Tournament's old adversary, Injury, to rear its hideous head.
That remarkable leg kick suffered by D'Hue in the first round aggravated an old knee injury. D'Hue revealed later that during the second and third rounds he could barely stand. This was a bittersweet revelation. On one hand, such a spectacular upset being accomplished one legged deserves a rock ballad written about it (get on that Internet!). On the other hand, a few minutes after the bout he could not even make his way to around the arena without leaning on someone. He was unfortunately forced to withdraw.
"I'm really proud of myself, but I'm really upset I couldn't continue," D'Hue said later, his bad knee wrapped in ice.
With alternate Shelley already activated, Lorimer decided to give D'Hue's spot to the losing fighter who performed the best. The obvious choice was Rice, but, as it turns out fighting is dangerous, and Rice was also out of commission.
"Broken nose. Coach said no," Rice lamented. "I wanted to [fight], I don't give a f*** about my nose!"
And that's how Herron-Webb lucked his way back into the tournament. Somewhere in the background Degroff jumped up and down and questioned why he and 'Naptime' weren't fighting for the slot. Nobody felt an explanation was necessary.
Given an unlikely second chance, Herron-Webb came out for his fight with Gonzales like a man possessed. He knew that this kind of miracle coming his way meant that somewhere a child's sick puppy wasn't going to get better, and by gum, he wasn't going to let that pooch die for nothing!
He quickly shot a double-leg like he'd been fired out of a cannon, grounding Gonzales and securing mount and pouring all this self-loathing at losing his first fight into his nightmare hammerfists. Gonzales managed to get his feet on the cage and pushed off, sliding himself and Herron-Webb a quarter of the way across the cage! Just when it looked like he'd escape out the backdoor, Herron-Webb latched onto his arm and, with a twitch of this feet, flipped Gonzales over into a fight-ending armbar. Whatever strange that had been clouding the champs functions appeared fully exorcised with the finesse submission.
The last bout pitted WEC and Bellator veteran McAfee, widely considered the second seed in the tourney, against the darkest of dark horses, alternate turned underdog, 'Snack Pack' Shelley. On paper McAfee had all the advantages, including size and experience, but he had been through a war in the first round. Although Shelley had already fought twice, both of those fights were over quickly, and Shelley absorbed a minimum of damage. Add to that the fact that both victories were very solid submissions, and you'd have to admit that there were questions in the air of whether Shelley could take this whole thing. That's how it would work in the movies, right?
Alas, life cannot always imitate art. McAfee anticipated Shelley's level-change almost before Shelley thought it. His recent wrestling work with four-time state champ David Weiss showed as he expertly sprawled. He easily latched up the fight-ending guillotine.
Lorimer would award the maneuver Submission of the Night, although I was far more impressed with Shelley's Von Flue or Herron-Webb's armbar.
Regardless, the finals were set. McAfee would face Herron-Webb in the bout that everyone expected at the beginning of the night, then was sure wouldn't happen, then was pretty sure about again. Tournaments, man ... twists and turns ...
A BRIEF TABLEAU
Suddenly everyone remembered, oh, right, there's a title fight tonight, too!
With longtime powerhouse Doug Evans healing his knee, his last victim and new teammate Maurice 'The AK Kid' Mitchell faced submission specialist Jordan 'Albino Gumby' Thickstun for the interim featherweight belt.
I expected this fight to be much more competitive than it turned out. Mitchell, after sitting a year on the shelf, blew all his pent-up energy straight out his fists. Mitchell had always fought like an egg-beater from hell, but this was a new level of intensity for him. Thickstun attempted over and over to pull guard and work his dangerous submission game, fishing for leg locks or working rubber guard, but Mitchell made him pay each time with thunderous pounding from the top. Somewhere along the line Thickstun received a cut under his left eye.
Between the second and third round ring doctor Konstantine Bunde examined him and, determining he was too damaged to go on, called off the fight. Thickstun was visibly upset.
"I didn't want the fight stopped. I felt it hit me and nothing hurt. The thing that cut me, I didn't even feel," he explained.
Mitchell also wanted the fight to continue.
"The end did not satisfy me to be honest," he said. "I felt like I just got in a grove and would only get better the longer the fight went on."
Bunde was adamant, however. "[Thickstun] complained of blurry vision and was not able to track with his left eye."
Bunde went on to list several serious injuries that could cause those symptoms, including a concussion and nerve damage.
Mitchell walked home with a shiny new belt, while Thickstun went to the back of the line to nurse his eyeball and think up a new gameplan.
To his credit, Thickstun remained game throughout the torture. He never stopped fishing for that leglock or failed to throw a surprising head kick when back on his feet. Mitchell was, simply, too much to handle. When a fighter has advantages in both range AND workrate, they are a supremely difficult mountain to overcome.
"I think me storming outta the gate like that was part of my ring rust actually," Mitchell said, adding, "but I have been working hard of submission defense and wrestling a lot at Anchorage Brazilian Jui-Jitsu."
Congratulations to the new interim champion.
And so the cream rose to the top. Both McAfee and Herron-Webb had a bumpy road, either in the way of difficult fights or actually being eliminated.
The normally cool-tempered Herron-Webb wore a mask of concentrated fury as he strode up the causeway to the cage.
"Nic is scary right now," remarked Thomas Ide, his teammate.
For all the emotion and exhaustion that comes at the end of a tournament, both finalists maintained composure when the bell started, cautiously measuring their attacks and showing each other's skills utmost respect. The most significant moment of the first round came when Herron-Webb faked a flying knee and McAfee covered up his center, opening himself up to a few stout hooks. But the round was close, too close, and both fighters clinched for the round stealing takedown in the final seconds. Both came up empty, and the round went to Herron-Webb.
Fairbanks' best product took control at the halfway mark of the second round. McAfee began connecting with his trademark double-right hand combination, beating 'Naptime' to the punch and fighting off the wrestler's takedown attempts.
The score stood even at the end of two. Of course! Drama demanded that the final fight of the evening go to a sudden victory round.
McAfee continued to use his speed to knock Herron-Webb around before the champion could move out of the way, or else easily smacking 'Naptime's face whenever he moved in. McAfee found a home for his double-right again and again. It looked like McAfee was cruising to victory, when Herron-Webb finally figured out the timing of his dreaded double-right combo. He ducked underneath and power-tackled McAfee to the floor. The WEC vet scrambled to his feet, but Herron-Webb had a hold of him and wasn't letting go. He took McAfee's back standing and dragged him back to the ground, eventually getting full hooks in and unloading from the top until the match ended.
“Once I got the takedown I knew I had him. I'd have to die to let him out,” Herron-Webb said after the fight.
The finishing display unanimously secured the victory and the tournament for Herron-Webb.
"I'm so glad I could come back and not disappoint you guys," Herron-Webb said later. "I was mortified after the judges said D'Hue won ... my head wasn't in it."
He was also surprised that he even got the opportunity for the final third round.
"I felt [McAfee] had beaten me for the first two rounds," he said.
The win seemed particularly significant to Herron-Webb, as he said his performance meant that, "I can hang with guys who have been in the WEC. I'm at that level. I can come out and compete with those guys."
McAfee, for his part, was the model of humility.
"I'm happy to have gotten a chance to fight all these great fighters. Second place isn't fun because I hate losing, but it was still a honor to get to compete in this thing," he said.
So, what's the verdict on this tournament thing?
"I thought it was a complete success," long-time ring announcer Kevin Avellar said. "Every fight was a main event caliber fight."
"Of course it was a success," Lorimer agreed confidently when asked. "It was a night of surprises. I definitely didn't expect the results of any of it. My predictions went out the window."
Lorimer added that she would tweak the alternate system for the next planned tournament, another eight man winner-take-all $5,000 affair, this time for heavier fighters. The event is scheduled for April 11th.
The hero of the story returned from death to emerge triumphant, a universal and timeless theme repeated in myths and fables the world over. And, on Wednesday, March 7th, for a young champion at the Sullivan Arena.