One of the interesting things about fight sports, such as mixed martial arts or boxing, is that, because the athletes compete relatively infrequently (3 times a year, as opposed to every week for other sports teams) each bout has some kind of story attached. Why does a fight matter? Where have these guys come from, and what can they achieve by winning? Obviously I'm not at all connected to the industry, and so am unable to secure interviews or the like - my commentary is therefore less about the fighter's personal stories, than about their public and professional profiles. I've written up a story about the main event of next Wednesday's WEC event, a second-tier organisation that I'm always interested in.
WEC: MARSHALL vs STANN 26th March 2008
World Extreme Cagefighting has almost become synonymous with the lighter weight classes in the U.S., because it is the most prominent American organisation to feature featherweight and bantamweight divisions. Its main stars - Urijah Faber, Jens Pulver, Miguel Torres et al - are fighting in these lower divisions. Since the WEC is also owned by Zuffa (the company that run the UFC), the logic goes that they send any and all major talent in the higher divisons (WEC has weight classes up to light-heavyweight) to their flagship promotion. Yet, on the next WEC card, we've got an interesting main event fight between two second-tier light-heavyweights - both of whom have made almost their entire MMA careers in the WEC. We've also got a fight between two personalities so opposed on paper that you probably couldn't write a better pro-wrestling angle.
Legend has it that the then-untrained WEC Light Heavyweight champion Doug 'The Rhino' Marshall (7-2) was at a WEC show in 2003 with his father, who felt that he was being too cocky and effectively told him to put up or shut up - inspiring Marshall to join a BJJ school the following Monday. He's now primarily labelled as a Muay Thai fighter You could understand if somebody, on seeing Marshall for the first time (particularly in his first few fights at heavyweight) thought that he had foregone the training and just climbed into the cage that night. The guy just looks like a brawler - an image that not even the WEC commentators can get over, as every time he attempts a submission in a fight (which shouldn't be surprising, considering his submission wrestling roots) they act like something completely unprecedented is happening. Before anyone has even seen Marshall fight, this image leads commentators to describe him as things like the 'anti poster-boy'.
Yet, unless we're all in denial about this sport, Doug Marshall really should be a poster boy for the WEC. He has, as a fighter, developed exclusively in this single promotion, and this long-standing has earned him the title of one of the most popular homegrown fighters. After his father's (boozy, probably) challenge, Marshall rapidly moved to pro-MMA in the very same year, and blitzed through the rookie competition offered to him on WEC undercards in the heavyweight division (back when WEC had one of those): Anthony Fuller (Oct 2003, 0-0), Lavar Johnson (Jan 2004, 0-0), Anthony Arria (May 2004, 1-0) and Carlos Garcia (Oct 2004, 4-4). Although the records of these fighters aren't too impressive (which is understandable as Marshall was only a newbie himself then), you have to stop and gawp at the fact that not one of these fights entered the second round. Four fights in to this career, Marshall was 4-0, , and was now regularly headlining WEC fight cards.
And then he fought James Irvin - already a UFC veteran with a 7-1 professional record, and the WEC Heavyweight Championship - in the main event at WEC 15, a nationally televised event on 19th May 2005. This was, by a large distance, the biggest test yet for the hugely popular 4-0 Marshall; he had barely fought anyone with a winning record, let alone a UFC vet at the top of the WEC heavyweight division. Watch the fight (warning it's NOT pretty)- it takes place in Lemore, California, and both fighters are Californian-based (Marshall from Visalia, Irvin from Sacramento). Yet the crowd not only like Marshall more - they like him so much that they actively boo fellow home-grown (and champion!) Irvin. In the fight though, Marshall looked outclassed - Irvin's slick stand-up and Muay Thai clinch made Marshall look like a drunk dude who had simply picked the wrong fight on the wrong evening. He had poor to non-existent stand-up defense, and was rocked several times by Irvin. The fight was a little more even on the ground (for the 90 seconds or so in the first round it was down there), and Marshall gives some good elbow shots and body blows inside Irvin's guard, and also manages a nice armbar escape (almost taking Irvin's back in the process). The fight lasts until 30 seconds or so in the second round, when Irvin lands a flush knee from the clinch and drops Marshall out cold. Following this Marshall took some time out, but made an ill-advised, nightmare comeback attempt at 195lbs in March 2006 (he weighted 234lbs for the Irvin fight) against WEC and Pancrase veteran Tim McKenzie (8-3) (the fight is here). He was clocked by an inadvertant kick to the groin after 30 seconds (so bad that it leaves the announcers spectulating that the fight will be over), and is loses in just 3 and a half minutes.
Popularity is a good thing though. Popularity can earn you a title shot, even if your record over your last two fights is 0-2. So it's fortunate that Marshall was so darn popular - because I can see little other reason why he would've been granted a shot at the WEC Light Heavyweight champion (and veteran of The Ultimate Fighter 1) Lodune Sincaid (9-3) in August 2006 (fight is here). This being said, Marshall completely dominated the then-champion Sincaid - early in the second round, he hits a four-shot combo (including a body strike) that puts Sincaid down and ends the fight. And from then on, it's been for Marshall like it was when he first began in the sport - his opponents simply can't get him out of the first round. He KO'ed Justin McElfresh (5-1) in just over 2 minutes in May 2007, and submitted a roided up Ariel Gandulla (4-0) with an armbar in less than a minute in December 2007.
Of course, the event commentators once again feigned surprise that he executed a submission hold. That's the stereotype of Marshall - the huge dude who just knows how to hit hard, and little else. And that is the fighter that was exposed by James Irvin back in May 2005. But the Marshall who has fought Sincaid, McElfresh and Gandulla has displayed better rounded stand-up - his footwork looks pretty good, he throws combinations to keep his opponent guessing (and keep them fearing those hooks, he's got power in both hands) and - despite what people may think - he is no slouch on the ground either. It's not surprising to read that Marshall started training Muay Thai and conditioning with Mike Popp before the Sincaid fight - a man who he has publicly credited with playing a large part in his recent success. When you read Marshall say things like he regrets some of his tattoos (he has apparently covered over the more explicit ones on his back), and watch his last three fights in the cage, it really makes you think that he's kept the best parts of being a brawler, but now mixed them up with tactics, training and skill. Which makes me think that much of the negative rhetoric surrounding Marshall is frankly unfair.
Challenger Brian 'All-American' Stann (5-0), on the other hand, just screams 'POSTER BOY', in the sense that most MMA commentators mean when they deploy the phrase. He is a genuine veteran of the U.S army, having served multiple tours in Iraq and been awarded the Silver Star for 'extraordinary heroism' in combat. He has an incredibly square jaw, respectable buzzcut and, in all his interviews, he respectfully foregrounds the importance and bravery of his fellow Marines (in a post-fight interview with Sherdog he stated that, "I'm sure a lot of it [his popularity] is because I'm a Marine and I have no issue with that. Anything that attracts attention to my Marines and the Marine Corp in a positive light, I'm all about.") This gives writers all manner of substance to create hero narratives - the 'getting to know you' pieces that make people want to see the guy fight. This has become such a feature of Stann's persona in MMA that a 'don't talk about his war background' backlash has already begun. Regardless of your position on this issue, you can't really deny that Stann projects an image inverted to Marshall's - he looks like Action Man compared to Marshall's Doctor X.
His job as an army captain was instrumental in the formation of his MMA career though, as Stann's first introduction to martial arts was on a military training course in 2004. He didn't quite have the same quickfire entrance in professional MMA as Marshall, as it was 2 years before he made his pro-debut - in January 2006, at an Oregon Sportfight show against future IFL fighter Aaron Stark (0-1). The WEC (perhaps sensing that they could be onto a marketing winner) quickly snapped Stann up to a contract - and his first fight in the promotion was five months later in June 2006, against Miguel Cosio (0-1). Stann took just 16 seconds to drop Cosio - landing several flush straight punches.
Before you can accuse any promotion of mothering him, Stann's next fight was against legit challenger Steve Cantwell (3-0). In the battle of undefeated newcomers, Stann won in just 41 seconds - dropping Cantwell with a right hand, and finishing him off with a couple of shots to the ground. The media began to take notice - Stann was written about in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Tapout Magazine, and was profiled on MTV News - all of which took stock of, and emphasised, his military background. There aren't many other guys with a 3-0 record who can boast such visibility - but Stann fits into a bigger picture, a characteristic that is required to make these new mixed martial artists immediately interesting to casual observers. He has been (and still is) involved in a major international conflict, something that grabs more headlines than sport, so by extension he makes sport look more important.
Fortunately, before the eyes of both the hardcore MMA world and those casual observers interested in an actual All-American legend become concrete, Stann has looked to be more than just hype and an easily told story - that much just earnt him a slot on the televised broadcast. His next victim was Craig Zellner (4-1), who again was overwhelmed on the feet by Stann. That fight lasted until 4:57 of the first - the longest anyone had fought with Stann so far (or since). This earnt Stann a slot on the next WEC telecast (essentially setting him up as a challenger) - where he fought Jeremiah Billington (10-1, although the quality of his downed opponents was regularly thought to be suspect). Again, Stann's striking power was the difference in this fight - he destroyed Billington on the feet, and when Billington tried to compensate by wrestling Stann to the ground, Stann retained a dominant position and was able to ground and pound a victory in just 3:07 of the first round.
And so, with Marshall vs Stann in March 2008, we have a fight much similar to Irvin vs Marshall in May 2005. A hugely popular, undefeated newcomer (Marshall's record then was 4-0, Stann's now is 5-0) challenges for a WEC title held by a champion who will likely be villified by comparison. For Doug 'The Rhino' Marshall, he will find himself in the opposite position to that he held in 2005 - his popularity hasn't dissipated as such, but he just doesn't fit with the zeitgeist as well as Stann (who does so phenomenally). It's a time where fans are trying to legitimise MMA into popular sports culture - and most people see fighters like the 'All-American' Stann, rather than the shaven-headed, heavily tattooed Marshall, as the most effective vehicles for this goal. If Stann does manage to beat Marshall, his position as 'future star' will be solidified, and his fight record will pick up its first 'name' victim. If Marshall gets past Stann, then the 'haters' (as Marshall likes to refer to his critics) will just have to put up with the fact that The Rhino is a much-improved, devastating striker who is a little more versatile than he is given credit for. One or two more defences like this one, and there will be nowhere for Marshall to go other than a shot at the upper echelons of the division in the UFC. It's not a top-tier main event, but it does have interesting ramifications for the futures of both athletes.
Seeing as both guys are primarily strikers nowadays, and when they win they tend to win quickly - you can expect to see a fast-paced stand-up exchange that will see one guy on the mat before the end of the first round. Stann's quick-fire strikes are more technical than Marshall's huge looping punches but, as we've seen, Marshall has developed the ability in his last few fights to mix it up with combinations and body shots. It's ironic that Marshall will probably have the most successful ride in this fight if he takes Stann down, and manages to control his position - but that's not likely to happen, not with two fighters eager to impress a crowd who want to see the viscerality of a stand-up brawl. We don't know how Stann's chin will hold up against a striker who hits as hard as Marshall - we know from the Irvin fight that Marshall can take a fair amount of direct attacks. The only certain thing is that: at no point should you leave the television for any period of time (no matter how quiet the action seems to be), because a finish could come so quickly that you WILL end up watching the finish on an instant replay.