It's time to go inside the venue. Anthony, Sambo Steve and Tyga head to a hallway upstairs that will serve as the locker room for them and half the fighters on the card (the locker room for the other half is a hallway downstairs). I shake Anthony's hand and wish him luck. As I leave to go to my spot at cageside, his coaches are taking turns reminding him he's ready.
Since Anthony's opponent has sold a fair number of tickets, their bout is moved to later in the card. In the meantime, other fighters do their thing. A heavyweight smothers another on the ground and earns a decision. A wiry submission wizard ties his foe in knots. A fighter lands a crushing left that earns him a TKO victory. A woman with purple hair gets out-boxed and loses a decision. A bantamweight named Julio Arce, a precision instrument honed to a keen edge and sporting an 11-0 amateur record, has his first pro bout, and he's almost surgical in the way he scores a knockout in just under two minutes. Anthony's got a ways to go before he reaches that level of experience, but when he enters the cage to take on Michael, he's moving one step closer.
Michael and Anthony are now standing across from each other, the classic stand-off, minus the sixguns but complete with cold stares and bad intentions. Michael is taller with a build like an action figure, and upon his face is a look determination that threatens to wilt those not prepared for it. With a gesture and a shout, the referee signals for them to begin.
From the outset it's clear Michael's got the edge in striking — his reach enables him to tag Anthony from a distance, his footwork enables him to maintain range, and his confidence has him firing off salvos at will, forcing Anthony to cover himself with his forearms and absorb the barrage. What Anthony does have, though, is tenacity, and it comes out in his dogged takedown attempts. The first few yield no fruit, Michael is able to protect his hips and sprawl out of trouble. But eventually the New Yorker is successful in putting his opponent on his butt, and in the waning seconds of the first round, Anthony gets Michael down against the cage, rises up and knees him in the chest (think: Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen at UFC 148). Though the crowd is certainly partisan and cheering loudly for Michael, it's hard to say who the judges will favor for Round 1; Anthony makes it a little easier for them all in the next frame.
There's more wrestling, and at one point Michael lowers his hands in anticipation of another takedown attempt and gets cracked in the jaw. Anthony can't seem to keep Michael down when he puts him there, but by virtue of his success in getting the fight horizontal — and the number of Matt Hughes-style slams he executes — he's scoring points.
By the third round, Michael has things figured out, and he's able to avoid Anthony's grasping arms and stay on top. Anthony's stuck underneath for the duration. From cageside, Sambo Steve and Tyga shout frantically for their ward to get up, but he's spent, and when the clock runs out it's clear that block of time belonged to Michael.
(In an unexpected funny moment, when Anthony is struggling to get up from below Michael, he blindly swings his arms back and accidently punches the referee in the face. The ref, Gasper Oliver, laughs about it afterwards.)
The time after the bout ends and before the judges' scorecards are read is always one of activity and emotion. While doctors rush the cage and examine the combatants, searching for outward signs of trauma and concussion, the coaches are again by their respective warrior's side, alternating between congratulating and managing expectations. And unless what transpired was anything but a brutal beatdown, there's always questions running through everyone's heads. Who did enough to win? Who took which rounds? It's an impromptu math that overtakes those standing in the cage, and it even draws in those on the other side of the fence.
At the signal, Oliver grabs the wrists of the two fighters and pulls them to the center. The announcer, an older gentleman with the kind of big white hair that would paint him as a stock villain in any number of Harry Potter flicks, reads the official scores, his voice going into the microphone in his hand and echoing throughout the union hall. It's a split decision. Anthony has won.
The rest of the card breezes by. Anthony, Sambo Steve and Tyga join me at cageside for the bouts — their jobs are done, so it's time to relax and take in the sights. A female Strikeforce veteran in the co-main event goes down in the second round, the victim of a knockout cross. A Bellator veteran in the main event gets the job done via relentless jiu-jitsu, but he has to work for it, his opponent fighting him hard every inch of the way.
And then this installment of Matrix Fights is over, and all that's left is to collect the gear and go home. Upstairs, the losing half of the main event is emotional over his defeat, and the female Strikeforce vet is shedding tears, too. But Anthony is happy. We make our way to the parking lot and join in the exodus.
Outside of Philly we stop at a Wawa for some post-fight grub, scarfing down sandwiches and gulping down drinks. Anthony gobbles up a quesadilla and an apple turnover — his victory meal — and on the ride home we trade stories, the talk trailing off us exhaustion overtakes those of us who didn't fight. It's past midnight when we get back to New York City, and one by one, Anthony drops us off. Soon it's just me and him in the car.
Still buzzing from having fought and won, Anthony shows no signs of being tired, and talks of his family, of food, of the buttermilk pie he makes and its superiority to the one his wife makes. We pass by a billiards hall. A fistfight has spilled out into the street, two shirtless men swinging their arms wildly as a dozen or so others hoot and holler around them. Anthony drives slowly through the melee, stops the car a half a block up the road, leans out his window, and watches.
I'm incredulous that he'd have any interest. After all, only a few hours before he'd fought in a cage, then watched some high-level MMA from cageside. How could he want more fighting? But maybe that's the point. It was a long day's journey just so he could have his second venture into the realm of sanctioned combat, and for Anthony — just like for any fighter — it's a constant trek. He'll have other bouts, other trips to Upstate New York and maybe Pennsylvania again and probably even New Jersey. Like all who train and slip on the gloves and step into the cage, it's up to him to decide when it truly ends.
He drops me off a few minutes later, and after I congratulate him on his win once more, Anthony continues on. His journey isn't quite over.
Jim Genia goes to fights in person so you don't have to. Follow him here.
- Sports & Recreation