Former champions and Philly natives Wilson Reis and Tara LaRosa made their local debuts Friday night in Locked in the Cage 1 (LC1)- a promotion that was a step up for Philadelphia’s local Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) scene. But is it something we should bother getting used to?
Last August, as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 101 unleashed BJ Penn and Anderson Silva on a sold out Wachovia Center, UFC President Dana White told me he wanted to be back in Philly within a year. Fair enough, but the burning question was beyond White- when was Philadelphia going to establish its own respectable and self-sustaining MMA competitions?
It didn’t look promising; of the known promoters, most were out-of-towers with big files. Local vets of the fight game would knock down name after name- ‘he’s a scumbag’ or ‘he’s connected to that celebrity boxing fiasco’ and ‘that guy never paid his fighters,’ etc.
Needless to say, on my drive out to the show, I wasn’t expecting a night at the big joint with the UFC’s mix of talent, glitz and grit.
LC1 took place in Alexander Hall, a banquet room at the end of an alleyway-sized street. I had to check the zip code of the East Falls address to confirm that this was still technically Philadelphia.
No surprises so far, since UFC 101, the city’s most notable fight took place at the Airport Ramada Inn between Rodney King and an PA police officer with a ‘shoot now, ask questions later’ attitude.
Once inside (the complex is much nicer then the street leading to it), LC1 was everything a local fight should be: it had amateur fights to serve as a proving ground for those who can compete as well as those with something less to prove. Jack Duncan doesn’t yet know what group he falls into, but the young teacher/counselor at Glenn Mills (a school for court adjudicated male delinquents) said MMA helps him break though to his students, many of whom hail from Kensington and North Philly. He earned his first win on a unanimous decision.
On the Pro-side, Team Balance’s Timmy Williams debuted against Jamall Johnson. The 185 pounders splashed around before ending up on the ground with Johnson on Williams’ back. Williams showed poise and worked out before reversing positions and leaving Johnson faded with a rear naked choke(see below).
Wilson Reis was next up and while he hasn’t yet returned to the form of a year ago when crisp takedowns lead to suffocating jiu-jitsu, he still had too much grappling savvy for Dwayne Shelton. In addition, his striking game continued to show improvement, this time in the form of ground and pound. Shelton matched up well and probably earned himself some future work by forcing Reis from many transitions he would normally breeze through. The grappling chess match didn't turn off the crowd, who seemed well-versed in the science and didn’t boo or yell for a standup. By the end, Shelton was withering and Reis finished out the third round by standing in his opponent's guard and drawing blood with big strikes, ensuring the unanimous decision.
Tara LaRosa continued to roll along with her 15th straight win over Valerie Coolbaugh. After LaRosa took an early shot to the face, things went to the ground where the girls were involved in some pretty brutal face mugging against the fence before LaRosa moved things away form the cage and went to work. A couple seconds later LaRosa was on the back sinking in a rear naked choke for the win.
Afterwards, things cleared out in an orderly fashion and both Reis and LaRosa were milling around- accessible to their fans. LaRosa said from the fighters standpoint, she was surprised to say there were no complaints. “Not all promotions run this nice,” she said immediately following her fight, “they really had their stuff together… everyone was pretty organized and I would do it again soon.”
This was no fight schlub squeezed into an airport hotel; not to say it wasn’t rough around the edges. The sound system was garbage, even up close, and the ring announcer was barely audible from the back row of the seating area. The website and the fight program had a few careless mistakes and one fighter was a no show, leaving his opponent Taum Pham with nothing to do but apologize to the crowd.
But a few loose ends are par for the course. The event was a success both in its execution and its draw- which Fran Evans put at over 1,500 spectators. He insist that the event was a financial success as well although other promoters have doubted this claim. They say in private that LC1 sacrificed profit for notoriety- that, in reality, the event existed, not to make money but, only to launch the promoters on the scene with a bang. This wouldn’t diminish the success but would call into question the sustainability of the promoters. Regardless, the only people who know insist this assertion is wrong. “We didn’t make a killing but everyone was happy,” Evans said on Monday, “We wouldn’t have done it to loose money and get the name out there.”
Evans, a 2003 graduate of North Catholic High School in Philadelphia (he is only 25), is already on to the next show along with his partner Tara Galvin, who previously produced a fight at The Arena (a prestigious South Philly fight venue). Evans said he expects to match the talent of his LC1 card- however- he admits preferring more pro fights and less star power. In spite of this acknowledgment and his admission that Reis and LaRosa are tough gets because of their popularity, he expressed interest in bringing either or both back for the next event.
On the heels of this show, things look promising for the local MMA scene. But Philadelphians know better then to get their hopes up. We will sit and wait to see what more comes from the combination of Extreme Force and Bentley Promotions (if they combine- hopefully- they will chose a more timeless name then the obvious and enormously corny Extreme Bentley).
Check back for updates and headsup on this and other local developments.