When Roger Bowling and Bobby Voelker go into the cage for the main event of Friday night's Strikeforce Challengers show in Las Vegas, they will finish off the first trilogy to play out completely on premium cable television.
Unlike in boxing, which is filled with classic trilogies, MMA hasn't had many. UFC has had a few, including Andrei Arlovski vs. Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title, Matt Hughes vs. B.J. Penn, Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock and Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell, which in all but one occasion, played out on entirely on pay-per-view. Perhaps the most brutal was in Japan, with Wanderlei Silva beat Quinton Jackson twice in two tremendous fights, both won by Silva, before Jackson won the third and final fight by early knockout in UFC.
Bowling and Voelker, who are mainly known for their first two fights, have all the makings of a memorable grudge match. They've split their first two matchups, which were main events on Showtime. Bowling came in as the hot prospect, having won his first seven pro fights quickly by stoppage. Voelker was the durable veteran with 28 pro fights under his belt, and he'd only been stopped twice. He was expected to be Bowling's toughest test on the way up, but he didn't figure to have the speed, strength or athletic ability to stop Bowling's rise.
Their first fight, on May 21, 2010, in Portland, Ore., had an ending that left both men bitter, with Bowling winning when the fight was stopped due to a Voelker eye gouge, which to this day, Voelker claims he didn't do. In the rematch, on Oct. 22 in Fresno, Bowling's undefeated streak ended as Voelker finished him in 3:58 of the second round.
But even with the heat from the first encounter and the finale being a match both men want, this is not a grudge match, as they are friends outside the cage.
"I know Roger, we've hung out and he's a fun guy, but we know this is our job," said Voelker (23-7). "Before and after the fight we're friendly. In that cage, we're trying to take each other out."
When the two have been in the same city, like for Zuffa's recent fighters summit in Las Vegas, they've hung out as friends, though they have avoided the subject of that first match.
"We've never really talked about it," said Voelker. "What I think happened is he'd never been out of the first round [technically he had one fight go 14 seconds into the second round]. Him going into the third round took him by surprise. Cardio was an issue. He saw I was slowly coming back, then the so-called accidental eye gouge happened and the fight was over."
Bowling had won the first two rounds, but Voelker came back in the third and it appeared Bowling was hanging on with his strength and stamina zapped. There was 3:22 left in the fight when the eye gouge occurred.
Bowling wanted to continue but couldn't open his eye. When the doctors saw that, the fight was stopped. The gouge was ruled accidental, so instead of being ruled a no-contest, they went to the cards and Bowling won the first two rounds, which gave him the decision. Voelker claims there was no eye gouge in the first place, but a legal blow that hit the eye and thus, it should have been ruled a clean stoppage when Bowling couldn't continue, which led to the rematch.
"In my opinion, I didn't eye gouge him," said Voelker. "I didn't accidentally do anything to him. I cross faced him with my palm. I didn't feel it was in the eye, and even if it was in the eye, it's would have been a legal punch. It should have been the end of the fight if it was a legal shot. If it's my finger, that's a different story. But that's my opinion and everyone else had a different opinion."
"I hit him with everything, I dropped him a couple of times," said Bowling about the first fight. "I hit him with hooks, uppercuts – nothing would stop him. In the middle of the third, the referee was breaking us, he had his glove and it scratched my eye. The lights were so bright I couldn't get my eye to recover.
"I was kind of arguing with the doctor," Bowling continued. "They kept telling me to open my eye. I could have pulled it open, but I couldn't physically open it. My eye was watered and it wouldn't open. After a few minutes, they called it. But I could fight. When people have an eye that swells shut, they still fight. He had a cut over his eye and blood was draining into the eye and he kept going. I didn't want to the fight to be stopped. It [the win] was bittersweet, that's why I took the rematch so quick."
In hindsight, that didn't work out well for Bowling, who can give a laundry list of what went wrong both before and during the fight, including suffering a fractured leg early in the second fight, but he takes the entire experience regarding his lone loss as a positive.
"I needed my butt kicked like that because I didn't think he could beat me," said Bowling. "I can't say I had the best training camp. I could have trained harder.
"I had an injury and I was expecting the injury to recover faster than it did, but no excuses, Bobby came in and beat me up that night," Bowling said. "I don't want to take anything from him. He won. Now I'm healthy. I trained hard. That's the only thing that needed to be different. If I'm 100 percent, he can't beat me."
Voelker has a different view of the second fight.
"I did feel like I had the mental edge over him in the second fight," he said. "He gave me everything he had and couldn't take me out. I think that played out in his mind and he had to overcome the idea that when you can't put someone out, what do you do then? I think I had the mental advantage. Technique and style-wise, he had the advantage. He was quicker and he was stronger.
"But I had the cardio and I had the heart. I've got that again for this fight. I'm even better for this fight, which gives me more confidence."
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