By Dave Doyle, Yahoo! Sports
September 30, 2007
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – As Daniel Puder took in his extravagant surroundings, he thought back to the low point of his professional life.
Puder is currently an undefeated heavyweight mixed martial artist, but a few years back, he was trying to make a go of it as a professional wrestler.
"I was in OVW (Ohio Valley Wrestling)," Puder said. "And we had this one town in Kentucky we went to every week, it was basically an old barn. There were the same 20 people there every time, they all looked the same, they all had maybe three teeth each, and they all had the same name. Finally one night I walked in and saw all the inbreds and thought to myself 'What am I doing with my life?' "
Puder has no such questions about life now. The Cupertino, Calif. native fought in one of the feature attractions in the first MMA show ever held at the famed Playboy Mansion on Saturday night. With host Hugh Heffner watching from the front row flanked by a pair of Playboy bunnies, Puder defeated Richard Dalton by unanimous decision in a card streamed live on Yahoo! Sports.
"Has MMA arrived or what?" Puder mused. "I haven't been in this as long as some of the veteran guys have, the guys who were around when MMA wasn’t big. But when the Mansion wants MMA events, you know we're on the map."
Saturday night’s event was the brainchild of the San Jose-based Strikeforce promotion. The MMA world is one in which promoters burn through millions of dollars without rhyme or reason in a futile attempt to compete with the industry-leading Ultimate Fighting Championship. But Strikeforce is the little promotion that could, carving out success where others have failed through simple promotional acumen.
"Strikeforce had 20 years of kickboxing promotion behind it before it even got into," said the group's biggest star, former UFC light heavyweight champion Frank Shamrock. "They understand how to market and sell an event. They don't need to go head-to-head with the UFC to make it. All it takes is a little brainpower and a lot of effort."
Strikeforce promoted the first sanctioned MMA show in the state of California in March, 2006, selling out the 19,000-seat HP Pavilion in San Jose for Shamrock's win over Cesar Gracie. The promotion drew another large crowd in San Jose in June for Shamrock's win over Phil Baroni, and in the process drew more interest and publicity than any MMA card promoted by someone other than the UFC in 2007.
Saturday night was Strikeforce's latest promotional coup. MMA promotion has been a tough sell in Southern California. UFC did not sell out in Anaheim last weekend. The IFL drew about 3,500 in their attempt to promote the Forum and the ill-fated WFA did worse. Then there was the sport’s all-time biggest bomb, the June 3 K-1 show at the Los Angeles Coliseum, in which 90,000 free tickets were handed out in order to get 15,000 to show up.
You won’t see Strikeforce resort to such foolishness. Staging MMA fights in the presence of Heffner, the Playboy Bunnies, A-list celebs and the paparazzi guaranteed the card would garner far more attention that it would otherwise, and give the show the atmosphere of being the place to be and be seen.
"You see all the people here tonight, right?" asked Shamrock. "This is why you stage an event at a place like this, to get your promotion noticed. People are talking about our show."
For much of the night, the matches were secondary to the scene, as much of the crowd displayed more interest in partaking of Heff's legendary hospitality than watching the fights. Heffner himself made a fashionably late appearance front-row appearance and took in about half the show before calling it an early night. Fighters the caliber of Andrei Arlovski, Urijah Faber and Renato “Babalu” Sobral (who announced Saturday night he has signed with Strikeforce) were largely left alone to watch the fights while fans looked to catch the attention of the celebs in attendance.
But those who paid attention to the fights had plenty to talk about afterwards.
Undefeated Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, who is ranked No. 10 in the Yahoo! Sports Top 10 pound-for-pound poll, returned to action after a nine-month layoff with a unanimous decision victory over Japan's Tetsuji Kato.
Melendez (13-0) injured his right hand in training two months ago, and aggravated the injury with a first-round uppercut that dropped Kato to the mat. Melendez ignored the pain and nearly took Kato out with a ground 'n' pound assault, but Kato withstood the onslaught.
Kato proved tough, including holding on through a second-round flurry that knocked out his mouthpiece. But Melendez had little trouble during the fight, as evidenced by the deep cut under Kato's left eye and the bruises all over his face afterwards.
"I was disappointed with my performance tonight," said Melendez, who trains at the Gracie Academy in Stockton, CA, along with Jake Shields and the Diaz brothers. "Every time I go out there I want to put my opponent away. I have to give him credit for hanging in there, but I really feel like I should have come out better than that in front of all the people here at the Mansion."
Melendez seems on a collision course with lightweight Josh "The Punk" Thomson (13-2), who won his sixth consecutive Strikeforce match. The former UFC fighter overcame a low blow from Adam Lynn and rallied to win via TKO at 4:45 of the first round.
"One of these days Gilbert and I are going to fight," said Thomson, who trains at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose. "It is going to be a lightweight fight that UFC can't put on, Pride can't put on, when we go, it will be the two best lightweights in the world and we're going to give he people action."
Puder's win over Dalton was a learning experience for the winner. Dalton's entire game plan appeared to involve attempting to pin Puder to the fence in a Greco-Roman clinch, then doing nothing with it. Puder countered with several attempted chokes, a Kimura near the end of the second round, and never really broke a sweat in the one-sided win.
"It was frustrating, but that's the type of fight you build on," said Puder. "I learned from the first round, I tried to put too much energy into the choke. After that first round I calmed down and decided to take advantage of my opportunities when I got them."
In other matches of note, former UFC fighter Joe "Diesel" Riggs dominated 41-year old veteran Eugene Jackson, then finished him with a KO at 3:56 of the first round. It was the second consecutive win for the middleweight, who at age 25 already has 37 matches under his belt (27-9 with one no-contest).
Bobby Southworth won by verbal submission over Bill Mahood at 1:15 of the first round after Mahood suffered a rib injury, in a match highlighted more by the shrill shrieks of one of Heffner's rare peacocks than any action the fight provided.
And in possibly the fight of the night, Billy Evangelista won a split decision over Clint Coronel in a lightweight slugfest.
Dave Doyle is the boxing/MMA editor for Yahoo! Sports.
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Updated on Sunday, Sep 30, 2007 5:20 am, EDT
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