Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Le Tour

It seems a bit perverse to get obsessed with the Tour de France just because I ride a bike everyday. Like if I became really interested in the socio-cultural implications of the design of change-pockets, just because I keep my money in them sometimes. It's an almost incidental connection that I could make with thousands of things. (Obviously our interests have to come from somewhere. This is just the conceit for allowing me to think aloud about why I like the race. Hello, journalistic conventions!)

So why do I get so into the Tour?

I know that what these riders do on a bike is not what I do on a bike. I cannot cycle at an average speed of 25 mph consistently for up to five hours. I do not strip the frame of my bike of non-essential components to make it as light as possible. I don't have a car following me everywhere I go to provide me with food, water, and a spare bike if mine gets a puncture at an inopportune moment.

I'm not a hardcore cyclist. I don't have a track bike, or even a road bike. I've got a Ridgeback Hybrid (ugly and inelegant, but at least it's lighter than the Dutch cruisers I rode in Amsterdam last week). I don't have any interest in doing what the Tour racers do. I don't wear lycra. I use my bike for getting from place to place. Which is what they do, too, but they make this travelling into an occupation, into the definition of their existence. But there's something about this vicarious experience that persists. It's a fundamental part of our experience with sport. We enjoy watching it because we imagine we could do it. To make a somewhat obvious point.

I ride my bike everyday. The start of the summer season combined with mounting financial pressures (insert "there's a recession?" gag here) has made me into a bit of a fascist on this front. I'll only use public transport in London now in certain drunken situations (and I have to be close to blindingly so for this to happen). Combined with watching the ITV4 highlights of the previous day of the Tour with my breakfast, this means that whenever I cycle I'm doing some imaginative recreation of yesterday's events.

When I'm having a good day on my bike (read: two breakfasts, not carrying my laptop, and none of this insane wind we've been having this week) I do a lot of over-taking. The day after Alberto Contador's attack on Stage 7, when he accelerated away from the rest of the race favourites to become the virtual maillot jaune, every time I put in a burst of speed to get round a fellow commuter, I was Contador. Lifting myself out of the saddle and powering up hill, leaving that cocky Yank, the upstart Brit, and those lookalike Luxembourgians behind.

Going round corners downhill becomes much more fun with the psychic context of the Tour. Cycling through a corner is one of the most exhilarating things you can do on a bike. Head down, the wind rushing past you, bending close the road but not quite hitting it. It's like being on a rollercoaster! Just don't do it like Jens Voigt, who skidded 50m after a high-speed crash over a bump in the road. I've wrecked a couple of pedals in the past with these antics, but that's all so far.

If I was more patriotic, I'd be Mark Cavendish whenever I stand out of the saddle to sprint through a traffic light that's about to change to red. I've got fuck-all stamina, but when it comes to raw speed, I'm one of the best you'll see trundling through the lights at Kings Cross when I probably should've just slowed down and waited.

When I'm having a bad day, going up Camden New Road and down to my lowest gear, people walking past me faster than I'm cycling, I'm Lance Armstrong's struggling 37-year-old body, just physically incapable of matching the freakish acceleration of Contador. I'm wondering why I ever got back on this bike. Why didn't I take the Tube? And I always forget my rain cape, too.

What's going to happen to me after Sunday? Start looking forward to next July, I guess. I mean, it's not like there's any other bike races going on, is there?

(Photo by Joe Shlabotnik)

Saturday, 11 July 2009

UFC 100

Our resident UFC expert Paul Morris gives us a rundown of UFC 100.

This Saturday sees the Ultimate Fighting Championship pass the century mark as the Mandalay Bay Events Centre in Las Vegas, Nevada plays host to UFC100. It’s quite staggering how far the UFC has come in the years I’ve been watching. From headbutts and groin punches to the three rounds 10-point must system to reality television to monthly PPVs, maybe UFC President Dana White’s boast of MMA being the “biggest sport in the world in ten years time” isn’t as implausible as it seems. I mean, it won’t be. There are way too many powerful detractors who still view MMA as two geezers going at it inside a cage. However Saturday’s milestone, which will unquestionably by the biggest ever grossing MMA event, is another massive step in a direction that can’t be long ignored.

Anyway, the point of this column is that for about a year now me and my mate Moore have been routinely betting on each UFC card (PPV and TV events). Of a 10-11 fight card, we’ll pick winners for several fights (usually 7 as a minimum) and place a £10 accumulator. While we’re not raking in huge money, our winnings certainly outweigh our losses. At times we’ve been lucky and at other times we’ve been very unlucky (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive Josh Koscheck for losing to Paulo Thiago). It genuinely adds to the viewing experience and helps us learn more about this most unpredictable, exciting, devastating and intelligent of sports.

Now I’m by no means an expert. Far from it. But I have a healthy interest in MMA and this column (if you want to call it that) is just a small extension of what I’d discuss with Moore when deciding fights and outcomes. So what I’m going to do is note down a few thoughts on each fight plus a prediction of the winner (Ed. I actually got a little carried away with the first 3 bouts). There’s no doubt I’ll have reconsider my picks after speaking at length with Moore, but what you’ll essentially read is my gut.

Let’s start at the top…

UFC Heavyweight Championship – unification bout: Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir

Despite being almost 18 months since they last fought, the problems that face each fighter pretty much remain the same. Can Mir’s exceptional jiu-jitsu combat Lesnar’s furious ground-and-pound? Can Lesnar’s dynamic wrestling negate Mir’s submission talents? Both were impressive in their last outing, in particularly Mir who showed much improved stand-up to dominate and stop the unstoppable ‘Minotauro’ Nogueria. Lesnar has fists the size of a Coventry head and while not exactly smooth on his feet, his power means he can change a fight with the merest (that’s not intentional) of blows.

I can see there being a round of feeling out before Lesnar’s unable to control the gung-ho nutbag inside of him as he dumps Frank on his back. From there I think it’s a question of how much has Brock evolved as a mixed martial artist. If it’s a lot then I see him overpowering Mir and methodically raining down forearms and hammerfists until the ref steps in. However, if the word “methodical” remains absent from Lesnar’s vocabulary, he’ll no doubt present Mir with enough of an opportunity to grab a limb to take home with him.

While the value’s with Mir, I’m optimistic Brock has grown sufficiently enough to subdue Frank’s ground game and finish what he started a year and a half ago. Lesnar TKO in the 2nd.

UFC Welterweight Championship: Georges ‘Rush’ St Pierre vs. Thiago ‘Pitbull’ Alves

GSP is about as good as it gets right now. His dismantling of both Jon Fitch and BJ Penn (in spite of the “greased up” allegations) proved that he has the ‘big game’ temperament to go along with probably the most well rounded skill set in MMA. Thiago Alves rightfully earned his shot with 7 straight wins, the last two being the brutal TKO of Matt Hughes and a surprisingly mature and accomplished unanimous decision over Josh Koscheck. In the Koscheck fight Alves displayed excellent takedown defence against one of the division’s best wrestlers, something he’ll have to demonstrate again if he’s to stand any chance against the whirlwind that is GSP.

Alves’ power is undisputable (he’ll probably enter the fight at close to 200lbs) and he’ll no doubt have the edge standing. A slight question still hovers over how good GSP’s chin really is and Alves looks like the perfect opponent to test it. GSP, however, will test Alves at every turn. While having all the ability in the word, the one significant advantage GSP has over Alves is stamina. Alves has documented problems with weight cutting and this, plus the frenzied pace GSP will set, could put the ‘Pitbull’ in a world he’s never been to.

Alves has a chance if he can keep this thing on its feet and utilise his devastating leg kicks to set up the big finish. For that to happen though, GSP will have to have an off day and I honestly can’t see it happening. I fancy GSP to stay elusive and seize one of the many opportunities Alves will hand him to take it downtown. From there GSP will be relentless in his attack, tying Alves in knots with his superior ground game and forcing the tap out. GSP submission in the 2nd.

Middleweight: ‘Hollywood’ Dan ‘Hendo’ Henderson vs. Michael ‘The Count’ Bisping

While this may very well be the most boring match on the main card, it’ll no doubt be the most anxious I’ll be all night (unless I’ve got 300 bones riding on an unseen prelim). For all his arrogance, hyperbole, lack of name opponents, the assumption he’s Dana’s ‘boy’, I’m a fan of Michael Bisping. Partly because he’s British, partly because of his awesome deadpan delivery of “you’re living in a dream world” on the third season of The Ultimate Fighter, but also partly because I think he’s a decent, intelligent mixed martial artist. Across from him is Dan Henderson; a man with an incomparable CV of opponents and as much experience as anyone still fighting today.

Henderson has the superior wrestling, ground-and-pound and power to go along with his granite chin. Bisping is a technically better striker who will look to utilise punches, knees and kicks to always be scoring. Both will prefer it kept standing but both will have entirely different approaches. Henderson will want drag Bisping into a brawl whereas Bisping will want to frustrate Henderson into making a mistake by picking at him and staying elusive. This combination makes for a potentially dull fight which is why I fully expect Henderson to shoot for the takedown once he realises Bisping is going to anything but stand there and exchange. The one real advantage I feel Bisping has is in stamina as Henderson has noticeably tired in all four of his UFC fights.

It’s tough to call this one and the safe money would be for Henderson to wrestle his way to a decision. However, despite the first round in the Anderson Silva fight, Henderson has far from impressed me in his second UFC run and looks nothing like the fighter who wore two belts in Pride. Maybe I’m blinded by hope but I feel Bisping has enough to keep Henderson at bay and grind out the judges favour.
Bisping split decision (29-28).

Welterweight: Jon Fitch vs. Paulo Thiago

Jon Fitch is an uncomplicated wrestler who continually comes forward and pushes the pace. Prior to the GSP defeat, Fitch had amassed an 8-0 record that was built on him overwhelming and dominating fighters with this no-nonsense style. Paulo Thiago is coming in off the back of an unlikely TKO of Fitch’s teammate Josh Koscheck. Despite that result shattering my acca dreams, Thaigo looked anything but convincing. He was never given the opportunity to show off his jiu-jitsu and looked decidedly out of his depth until that one-in-a-million haymaker.

I don’t expect Fitch to have too many problems with Thaigo. The fight will undoubtedly end up in the mat and while the Brazilian may feel comfortable there, I don’t believe he’ll be able to stop the onslaught Fitch will have for him.
Fitch TKO in the 1st.

Middleweight: Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Alan ‘The Talent’ Belcher

I don’t really know too much about Akiyama. I’ve seen a couple of his more recent fights in Japan, and while he looked decent, I’m not entirely sure if he’s deserving of the acclaim heaped upon him by much of the MMA community. That being said, Belcher has never looked like having the necessary to take that step up to the next level. Fundamentally a kickboxer, Belcher will utilise his accomplished striking to stay away from Akiyama’s clinch. If he gets caught, Akiyama will take him down the hard way with one of his bad-ass judo throws. If it ends up there, it won’t belong before Belcher has to give it up.

Bottom line is Belcher isn’t good enough to keep this thing standing for three rounds, possibly even one. It’ll inevitably find its way to the floor and that’ll be enough to see Akiyama victorious in his UFC debut. Akiyama submission in the 1st.

Light Heavyweight: Mark ‘The Hammer’ Coleman vs. ‘The American Psycho’ Stephan Bonner

After the farce that was his last fight, Coleman shouldn’t really be anywhere near an Octagon. Watching him despairingly stumble through three rounds as ‘Shogun’ awkwardly tried to finish him was one hell of an embarrassing sight. There won’t be a repeat of that this time. Bonnar is technically proficient enough to finish this fight standing while Coleman’s gas tank remains the same. Even if Coleman is able to evoke the wrestling monster from yesteryear, Bonnar’s grappling will get him back to his feet or find an opening to for a submission.

I can’t see anything other than a Bonnar victory. He might break a couple of knuckles on Coleman‘s head in the process but he’ll eventually throw one too many right hands that will fell this crazy old bastard. And to think, Coleman was once in line to face Brock Lesnar. That could have been serious. Bonnar TKO in the 2nd.

Lightweight: Mac Danzig vs. Jim Miller

This is likely to be a close fight that will see both go at full pelt for the entire 15 minutes. Danzig will prefer to keep it standing with the crisper, cleaner striking while Miller’s wrestling advantage means he’ll probably want to get this to the floor quick sharp. If Danzig can avoid the takedown and connect sufficiently, he can really take Miller out of his game. If Miller can get it to the ground he can dominate from the top and inflict a third straight loss for the former Ultimate Fighter winner.

Miller’s one dimensional yet effective top game rightly him favourite. But I like Danzig to stay away from the takedown and keep busy on his feet as he causes enough damage on his way to taking a majority decision. Danzig majority decision.

Light Heavyweight: Jonny ‘Bones’ Jones vs. Jake O’Brien

Boasting easily my favourite name in MMA today, Jonny ‘Bones’ Jones did actually look like the real deal in his last fight against Stephan Bonnar. He is an untamed ball of energy with extravagant striking and explosive wrestling. O’Brien is an orthodox wrestler who is moving down from Heavyweight. His only prominent win came against Heath Herring but that was more to do with Herring’s inadequacies than O’Brien’s ability.

I’m not sure what the cut will be like for O’Brien, but I suspect it will only facilitate the inevitable. I see Jonny ‘Bones’ Jones overwhelming O’Brien with his powerful offence and making short work the Irish-American. Jonny ‘Bones’ Jones TKO in the 1st.

Welterweight: Dong Hyun ‘Stun Gun’ Kim vs. T.J Grant

In his last two fights, Kim has been on either end of two split decision (the second of which was overturned into a no contest). He showed he is a game competitor as well as an excellent grappler. Unknown Grant made an impressive against Ryo Chonan when he also got the better of a split decision victory. He displayed decent all round skills to trouble the Japanese fighter both on the feet and ground.

This all points to an evenly contested 15 minute war and I can’t see anything but. I’m going to take Kim over Grant because I’m a sucker for a judoka. I think he’ll consistently score with trips and throws and keep plenty busy in top position.
Kim majority decision.

Middleweight: ‘The Doberman’ CB Dollaway vs. Tom ‘The Filthy Mauler’ Lawlor

These are two excellent wrestlers who’ll rely on versatile striking to set up the foreseeable takedown. Unfortunately for Lawlor, I think CB has the advantage in both areas. Lawlor has the requisite ‘puncher’s chance’ but I think CB and his heir lip will make short work of ‘The Filthy Mauler’ (good nickname though) once it hits the ground. Dollaway submission in the 1st.

Lightweight: Matt ‘The Real One’ Grice vs. Shannon Gugerty

I’m not going to pretend to know too much about these two. I remember seeing Grice get caught in a crowd-pleasing triangle by Terry Etim at UFC70 and similarly Gugerty to Spencer Fisher in his last outing. Of the two though, Gugerty looked the much more accomplished, and was fairing well against ‘The King’ before he was stopped. I expect this to be tight but favour Gugerty due to his proficient jiu-jitsu and Grice’s bull-headed approach. Gugerty submission in the 3rd.

It’s a very tight card so I couldn’t even tell you now how many or whom will go into our accumulator. A lot will depend on how much Moore’s opinions differ from mine and what the value is on a lot of the fighters. The favourites are really short priced and there isn’t the usual value in the underdogs to risk it. My selections would give you an 11-fold of ridiculous proportions (which I might have a cheeky quid on), but I would recommend that. There’s always going to be a surprising result or decision, it’s a case of being lucky enough to pick where there’ll occur.