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Brad on the Blog: Cage Warriors 59 (Part Two)

18/09/2013

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CWFC featherweight title-holder Jim Alers and newly-crowned bantamweight champion Brett Johns celebrate their wins at the Motorpoint Arena on Saturday (Photo: Dolly Clew | Cage Warriors).

By BRAD WHARTON

UFC 3 was my introduction to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I’d seen some very primitive European MMA a couple of months before, but when the video shop guy (who was a combat sports enthusiast) told me that he had a few UFC tapes in his back-room, it changed everything. The glossy production, the colourful characters and, most of all, the tournaments.

UFC 3 was notable for many things. It had what I believe to be the biggest size differential ever in a UFC bout, when the near 600lb Manny Yarborough took on the 190lb soaking wet Keith Hackney. It was the first time Royce Gracie was made to look human in a fight. It was most notable, however, for who won it. Steve ‘Supercop’ Jennum was a police officer from Omaha, Nebraska, who would go down in history as the only man to win a UFC tournament after competing just a single time.

Ken Shamrock was through to the finals after mowing down two overmatched opponents. His opposite number, Harold Howard, (he of “If you’re coming on…come on!” fame) was fresher, having effectively been given a bye in the semis after Royce Gracie quit in the cage before the bout had officially started. Still, the karate-brawler was no match for the ahead-of-his-time Shamrock, and it seemed as though the American poster child of the UFC was a lock to pick up his first tournament title.

It was not to be. Shamrock pulled out, citing a broken hand. His adoptive father Bob later revealed that he’d simply lost the will to fight after Gracie withdrew, as revenge against the Brazilian was his sole reason for turning up. It would create a rift between father and son that lasted on and off for many years. As for the tournament, Steve Jennum, an alternate who’d been waiting patiently all night on the off-chance that someone would get hurt, stepped into the finals and won it all.

At Cage Warriors 59 in Cardiff last Saturday evening, as soon as James Pennington exited the cage after his semi-final win over Kris Edwards, we at cage-side knew something wasn’t right. A quick doctor’s check confirmed that ‘The Power Weasel’ would be unable to continue. A 21-year-old kid called Jordan Desborough, a relative unknown who’d picked up a win in the night’s reserve bout, would be thrust into the international spotlight in the tournament’s live final.

Desborough was unable to replicate the Steve Jennum story, but what transpired was something far more dramatic. He and fellow finalist Brett Johns went at it for five gruelling rounds, trading strikes, takedowns and transitions in a rollercoaster ride of a bout. The pace, while not frantic, was torrid; a real hark back to the classic tournament days.

There was little to separate the two by the bout’s end, with even the judges split on the outcome. Johns had taken the first two rounds by virtue of his relentless takedowns and top-control game; Desbrough nabbed the third and fifth on all scorecards with some takedowns of his own and sharp, accurate striking; the fourth was the closest, and could have gone either way. One judge saw it for Desborough, two for Johns.

And with that, the CWFC bantamweight title cancelled its travel plans. It would be staying in Wales, and there perhaps was not a more deserving winner than Brett Johns. Over a post-weigh-in meal the day before, the 21-year-old’s confidence was noted by all. To say that his moxy at the weigh-ins translated to the cage would be an understatement. The Swansea native came out for both of his bouts stomping, screaming and riling up his supporters, feeding off the electric energy that crackled through the Motorpoint.

Nobody told David Haggstrom the script though. The savage Swede had no intentions of giving the Welshman an easy night, and when Johns was given respite by the bell after a brutal body shot at the end of the first, it was looking like a bad night for the home fighters. Johns was not to be denied though, using his Judo base to dictate the pace, tossing his opponent to the mat with impunity and grinding out a decision victory after three hard fought rounds. His war with Desborough took his total for the evening to eight, or forty minutes of fighting.

The toll was emotional as well as physical. In all my years of being around MMA, I don’t think I’ve seen a young kid as elated with a title win as Brett Johns was that night. It was tough to see if it was just sweat or tears of joy streaking down his face as he hugged friends, family and teammates following the win, but I’ll never forget the raw emotion of what happened next.

Turning to walk into the back, Johns came face to face with CWFC matchmaker Ian Dean. He half went to hug him, half shake his hand. Then instead, he took the slightest of steps back, and bowed. “Thank you,” he said, his voice trembling with emotion. “You don’t know what this means to me”. Johns is a legitimate prospect, and a worthy champion. He’s got all the tools to go all the way, and the scariest part is that he’s just 21-years-old. With his charisma and ability, perhaps in a few years’ time, Johns could do for the popularity of Welsh MMA what Conor McGregor is doing for Irish.

Credit too to Desborough, who went from an unaired prelim to headlining an internationally televised card for a world title in just a few hours. The future is bright for the pair, and indeed the rest of the CWFC 135lbs division, which with the likes of Pennington, Haggstrom, Edwards, Brum, Mann and more, may just be the promotion’s new shark tank.   

With all the drama of the tournament, we shouldn’t forget some other stand-out performances on Saturday night. Dave Hill returned after a year off to go three tough rounds with Brian Moore in a fight that really has to be seen to do it justice. Hill is right back in the hunt with this win, and will no doubt be looking for another crack at the gold within the next 12 months.

Tommy Maguire finally made his CWFC debut and, much to the chagrin of the Welsh crowd, had all the answers for Lew Long. Racking up points with a nice jab and some digging hooks to the body in the early going, Maguire escaped a brief triangle attempt and locked up an arm-in guillotine for the tap. The winner of next month’s 155lbs tournament may well find themselves facing down ‘2 Gunz’ at some point in 2014.

Mats Nilsson made a huge statement against grizzled veteran Denniston Sutherland, surviving an early salvo to rock and eventually TKO his opponent in the second round. The win allowed vaunted grappler Nilsson to show off an extra dimension of his game, one which will no doubt put the middleweight division on high alert.

In his first ever title defence, Jim ‘The Beast’ Alers almost had Martin Svensson out of there in the first, hopping onto his back to latch on a tight rear-naked choke. The impossibly awkward Swede survived, though, and while the scorecards were lopsided, he had his moments and fought Alers every step of the way. For the affable American, fatherhood beckons. If Alers’ career trajectory continues as-is, then in five years’ time the inevitable playground argument of “My Dad could beat up your Dad” should have a foregone conclusion for the baby ‘Beast’.

Cardiff is quickly becoming my favourite Cage Warriors destination. The people, the city and the fights are inevitably top-notch every time we roll into town, and I look forward to returning in 2013. Next on the agenda is London, and a big domestic welterweight tilt as North takes on South in the form of Aaron Wilkinson versus Bola Omoyele. Oh, and another one of those tournaments we’ve been hearing so much about. And in case you hadn’t realised…

Tournaments are awesome.

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