Criminal Justice in America Grants Immunity to ‘Unregulated’ Fights to the Death
When something bad happens, almost never is it an accident. Somewhere, somehow, some way, someone broke the rules. Rules of the road patrol the frontier between safe and sorry.
Whether roads are paved with good intentions – give or take – that’s not exactly why we go to the fights. Guaranteed something bad will happen, where rules can be broken with impunity. This was the proximate cause of what killed 24 year old ring rookie Dennis Munson, Jr. If you’ve got a thin skin, don’t watch “Death in the Ring”.
“No one is investigating Munson's death. The state says it has no authority to investigate the death or the actions of those in charge that night because it was an unregulated event.” (“Milwaukee kickboxer Dennis Munson Jr.'s death follows cascade of errors by fight officials” by John Diedrich in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on November 15, 2014)
Unlike roads that are paved with good intentions, Milwaukee District Attorney John T. Chilsom’s misunderstanding of his job description also patrols a frontier: between regulation of commerce and auditioning for poster boy in the Criminal Justice Hall of Shame. (See “District Attorney Analysis of Why Criminal Charges Not Filed in Dennis Munson Jr. Death” in Combat Sports Law on November 19, 2014.) This is turning out to be one sorry stretch for District Attorneys going off the radar, like Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.
A career French diplomat told me a long time ago what makes America unique is its national identification with the rule of law. In our consent to be governed under the U.S. Constitution, we’ve organized around the moral imperative of justice for all. It is a guiding principle. Justice cannot and should not be beholden to legislative discretion in the regulation of commerce, including sports like kickboxing in Wisconsin or anywhere else.
District Attorneys do not need regulatory permission slips from their state legislatures to go after willful negligence, reckless indifference or wrongful death │ whenever or wherever. Just because it’s not regulated doesn’t mean someone couldn’t run ropes around a raised square of canvas and trick up some gladiators. (See “New York’s real-life fight club” by Dina Abdel-Haq in Salon on July 6, 2013.) Our consent to be governed by the rule of law in America makes bogus the copping of a prosecutorial plea to “Civilization and Its Discontents”. Fights to the death should be subject to the rule of law │ with or without regulatory mandates. Justice denied is contempt for our consent to be governed by moral imperatives.
Rage without the Cage
Within the legal lexicon, rules that are definitional hoard meaning in specificity. They abhor ambiguity. There is no such thing, thus, as almost or a little bit pregnant. Either she is or she’s not. Neither does Muay Thai surrender its integrity to fashion’s passion for all those sexy tricks. Stand Up in the cage is not the same as Muay Thai, just because some talking head with a microphone says so.
The first time I personally witnessed “MMA Creep” was at a Fairtex United States Muay Thai Federation show in the Santa Clara Convention Center on June 13, 2009. At the rules meeting, CSAC’s Danny “Bam Bam” Stell actually admonished officials to be vigilant for rule infractions coming off a World Combat Sports show two weeks earlier, where Muay Thai had alternated with MMA at the Kezar Pavillion in San Francisco. Phanuwat ‘Coke’ Chunhawat hadn’t yet mellowed out and caught a DQ at that World Combat Sports show, if you can believe it, for trying too hard.
Sure enough Erik Luna (American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose) would do a ground & pound on Clifton Gross (Sitan Arizona). Instead of laying a DQ on Erik, CSAC’s ref went through the formality of a count on the way to awarding Luna a KO. Even though the ref knew better – or should’ve from the rules meeting – he still made the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) complicit in a flagrant rules violation. (“California Dreaming Conjures Visions of a Muay Thai Paradise” in the Winter of 2009 edition of Muay Thaimes®, Vol. III, No. 4.)
“Swarm and Storm”
It is thus that Pedro Gonzalez (Redline Fight Sports in Boston, Massachusetts) comes into Lion Fight XIX ranked #1 in his weight bracket with a 10-5-0 record on New England’s Pro MMA circuit. Coveting a UFC spinoff blockbuster, “MMA Creep” now seems to be giving this self-defined Muay Thai promotion a case of mission creep. “Part of the genius of Lion Fight’s matchmaking”, according to the promotion’s own branding campaign, “is scheduling MMA converts against Muay Thai traditionalists.”
If this proposition seems to be a little off message, it’s probably because the “converts” they’re really after are MMA’s fans. Neither Pedro nor his team mate Matt Doherty – a rookie on New England’s Pro MMA circuit – have any discernible intention of converting their Stand Up in the cage to Muay Thai. “I have short term goals and long term goals”, Doherty declares in an Extreme MMA News interview heading into his Muay Thai gig at Foxwoods. “I have just signed a 6 Fight deal with CES up at Twin Rivers Casino and joined the CES family…So my goal at the moment is to train my ass off, help my team become monsters and have myself take the CES division to a whole new level…My all-time goal is to make a big promotion like the UFC.”
What Matt Doherty and Pedro Gonzalez are doing for the Lion Fight brand at Foxwoods, thus, pales next to how they’ve been doing it. Pairing “Muay Thai traditionalists” with “swarm and storm” sets a transparent stage for rage without the cage. “I love to just stand and strike with somebody that will do that with me,” Matt tells his fans. “You don’t always get to do that in MMA.” Pedro is equally candid. “I don’t really throw anything traditional”. Why should he, if Foxwoods refs don’t seem to mind grope-a-dope?Rungrat Sasiprapa (Sasiprapa Gym in Bangkok │ Kingdom of Thailand) vs. Pedro Gonzalez (Redline Fight Sports │ North Shore Muay Thai in Boston, Massachusetts) Full Rules Muay Thai │ 143 lbs. │ 5x3.
It takes only one round for Rungrat Sasiprapa to figure out he’s been conscripted into a brawl with indeterminate rules. If the ref is going to let Pedro’s storm surge converge, two can tango to “Dirty Dancing”. Rungrat goes Lethwei with a head butt. “Swarm and storm” spills into a Bangkok blood bucket.
Maybe Rungrat figures this is what “traditionalist” means in American scripting. Referee Tom Sconzo doesn’t think so and penalizes him a point. It’s the point where Rungrat realizes he better not leave this one to the judges. Mister #1 ranked on New England’s Pro MMA circuit seems also to realize, at this point, his rising tide escorts a monster monsoon.
Let’s pause here to mend some cracks in this lamest of media’s due diligence fences. “Diversification, a popular practice in the business world, is now spreading like wildfire among pro fighters eager to test themselves in a variety of different martial arts competitions.” Beware of forcing facts to fit a theory. Diversification is actually an investment strategy. In managing a successful business, the smart money puts its focus on core competencies, if you really want to go there.
With 15 professional cage fights, Pedro Gonzalez was way overmatched against 1-0-0 Nick Chasteen (Best Muay Thai in Tempe, Arizona) at Lion Fight’s Foxwoods premier on May the 23rd. Lion Fight XVII then comp’d the Boston bludgeoner even more of a mismatch for the pro debut of Tim Amorin (Rami’s Legendary Gym in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on August the 1st. Just so much of a diversification case can be made for this kind of match making, before it defaults to bullying. Taking it to a 19 year old with 5x more OJT in a 50-24-1 professional record, Pedro is about to find out how the bait feels in bottom fishing.
Thais are a proud people, and Muay Thai is their national sport. An offended national pride demands to be avenged. This could explain why Rungrat abstains from an easy win, which would also risk sending “MMA Creep” the wrong message. Even Pedro knows that he’s blood in the water after the head butt. Never mind the proxy pundits, who can’t possibly hear what’s not broadcast on the AXS-tv sound track or see with their own eyes the severity of a cut.
Rungrat proceeds instead to school not just Pedro, but all of the heretics outnumbering us, in the efficacy of a martial art that’s been twelve hundred years in the making. “Scholars believe that all South East Asian Indochinese kickboxing styles originate from what is thought to be the migrated Indian kingdom of Funan just prior to the creation of the Khmer Empire; consequentially Kun Khmer, Muay Thai, Lethwei and Tomoi all share similar stances and techniques.” Mastering the space between them, Rungrat validates how artful clinching prevails over mindless muscularity. “The clinch is used to wear down the opponent. In the clinch, opponents battle for dominant position for short range strikes by way of elbows and knees.”
Where Stand Up in the cage dilutes style and technique out of having to hedge against a take-down, Rungrat mixes finesse with ferocity in the Muay Thai clinch. Torpedoes impersonating knees detonate their war heads on Pedro’s torso. The Thai fires them in fusillades. They do grievous bodily harm. Rungrat renders the #1 ranked mixed martial artist on New England’s pro circuit incapable of remaining erect.
Not only isn’t Muay Thai the same as Stand Up in the cage, “a jack of all trades is master of none”. Referee Tom Sconzo calls a cease fire at 2:42 of Round 4 in this triumph of core competencies over diversification’s risk │ reward tradeoff. Then it’s the fat lady’s turn to sing.
Winner: Rungrat Sasiprapa by TKO
Let No Good Deed Go Unpunished
Notwithstanding robust demand for mixing martial arts, popular sentiment is a notoriously perishable commodity. On the metric of product life cycles, Muay Thai’s spans more than a millennium. Who doesn’t buy survival of the fittest in such staying power, there’s a message in this media: new isn’t necessarily improved.
Re-packaging doesn’t so much win converts as maintain brand loyalty within a consumer cohort. So packaging Stand Up in the cage with a Muay Thai wrapper probably prolongs the UFC’s shelf life more than win converts to Lion Fight’s brand, unless there’s a unique selling proposition. Showcasing ‘The Soul in the Savagery’ makes a stronger case for appealing to converts, while also maintaining brand loyalty among Lion Fight’s core consumer cohort.
Having to push tickets through the narrow distribution channel of local gym membership – in order to monetize match making through pay to play – takes some of the edge off Lion Fight’s mission creep. Only Scott Kent would go large, by the same token, for the likes of Chajmaa Bellekhal, Caley Reece and Fabio Pinca to feature in a Foxwoods show.Sean Kearney (Iron City Muay Thai in Vancouver, British Columbia │ Canada) vs. Jo Nattawut (Bangkok Boxing in Atlanta, Georga) Full Rules Muay Thai │ 161 lbs. │ 5x3.
In the spirit of letting no good deed go unpunished, Fabio Pinca pulls out of his Lion Fight Super Lightweight title defense a day before the show, because he doesn’t feel 100%. Having just passed his medical, though, Fab Fabio presents no clinical symptoms that the doc can find.
Risk without reward leaves Lion Fight CEO Scott Kent’s bank account worse for the wear from Team Pinca’s airfare, liability insurance premiums, binders, licensing fees, labs and medical exam. Never mind blowing off the fans, who’ve not only bought show tickets but also toughed out the New England Turnpike. If you detect some editorial je ne sais quoi from moi [high school French for WTF?] I’ve seen Kevin Ross report to work at Lion Fight IX with borderline pneumonia.
Jo Nattawut substitutes for Fab Fabio on less than a day’s notice. Picture him packing a bag and jumping in the cab right after hanging up the phone with Scott, then snatching Khunpon Dechkampu on the way to Atlanta’s Hartsfield–Jackson International Airport. Winning every round on all of the scorecards, either Jo’s mug belongs on a Wheaties box or Fab Fabio probably didn’t need 100% in the first place to successfully defend his Lion Fight title against Sean Kearney.
Winner: Jo Nattawut by Unanimous DecisionChajmaa Bellekhal (Hemmers Gym in Breda │ The Netherlands) vs. Jeri Sitzes (Budo-Kai Fight Game Gym in Springfield, Missouri) Full Rules Muay Thai │ 124 lbs. │ 5x3.
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions!” [Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5] Caley Reece (Riddlers Gym in Perth, Australia) parachutes out of the emergency exit ahead of Fab Fabio, making for twin title defense cancellations on short notice. With only ten days to get ready for a main event, former NABF champ and WCL veteran Jeri Sitzes postpones a scheduled wedding date – which probably precipitates an even tougher fight – necessitating a focus on her own core competencies.
Let’s pause here again for another due diligence digression. Muay Thai is itself a mix of martial arts. Descending from unarmed combat on the battlefield – through Muay Chaiya, Muay Korat, Muay Tasao, Muay Jerng and eventually Muay Boran – it combines knee, leg and elbow strikes with clinch grappling and conventional Marquis of Queensberry boxing. From the molecules of its DNA, thus, there is no one size fits all in either the practice or judging of Muay Thai.
Western judges are apprenticed to score on a hierarchy of strikes for pretty much the same reason drill sergeants go through the numbers with boot camp newbies to instill military literacy. For all of Muay Thai’s complexity, though, there is no victory in battle without someone getting beaten. Kru Tony Moore, who founded the British Thai Boxing Council, articulates it like this: “Points are awarded for the power, hitting a target area and technical ability of the technique.”
Recognizing that such determinations leave a lot of room for subjective “judgment”, there is nothing subjective about Chajmaa Bellekhal's broken nose and eye socket. Two of the judges seem to miss this completely, one of whom gives the Dutch star all five rounds.
Because flawed judgment exacts a toll on all human enterprise, Quality Control helps to fix what needs fixing. So management earns its keep by evaluating job performance against applicable professional standards. Maybe a judge needs more schooling. Just like the athletic performances they’ve been hired to judge, it's also possible that some just can’t measure up. If the stewards of our sport don’t own up to accountability, the fans will do it for │ to them. Except for having to wear a winter coat, Scott Kent probably feels like he never left NSAC’s jurisdiction. Although Chajmaa Bellekhal gets the decision, Jeri Sitzes wins their fight.
Winner: Chajmaa Bellekhal by Split Decision
The last time an American scored rock star in a weight bracket that really matters on Thailand’s hit parade was never. Nowhere near front runner in America’s race to the top would I have expected to see an alumnus of the NYC circuit, owing to full rules Muay Thai having been remedial at the time Ognjen Topic matriculated in this most parochial of schools. A school yearbook – if we can imagine such an ancestor to the New Jersey Martial Arts Hall of Fame – would’ve singled out the promising local prospect as best “Stylist” in his class.
After one of those incomprehensible verdicts at the Friday Night Fights in New York City, NJMT’s Kru Ray Cruz commiserated with me. “Exactly what standards should I teach to my students, Bob?” That’s when I got on the WKA’s case to clean up its act in my home town. [LOL] Ray’s lament would turn out to be déjà vû in the wake of an unapologetically home town bias in NSAC’s balloting at Lion Fight 2 in Primm, Nevada. (“Blood Oath Stirs an American Awakening” in the Summer of 2011 edition of Muay Thaimes®, Vol. V, No. 2.) That’s when I went on the warpath for common core standards in this sport’s stewardship.
The standards Kru Ray Cruz prizes so highly – along with Ognjen Topic’s testing positive for “traditionalist” in the Thai style – flow like twin tributaries into a metaphoric river delta of values, beliefs, traditions and practices that cradle Thailand’s living civilization. NJMT’s two spirit guides – Ray Cruz and Joe Bumanlag – precede their star student to Thailand in the late 90’s to apprentice at the Saktaywan Muay Thai Camp under Lumpini and Rajadamnern stadiums’ top ten ranked Thanosak Sor. Plantalae and Ajarn Pra Sit Thang Dong. In such an analogue for a purposeful dynamic, the promising local prospect’s career development traces a pilgrimage as perpetual as spiritual growth always having to chase a moving target.
Compare New England cage convert Matt Doherty’s candid confessional with this “Pilgrim’s Progress” towards his own date with destiny. “I recently spent seven months in Thailand training. I had five fights, winning two of them, but the experience raised my game a lot…You have to put a lot of effort into something to get a lot out of it. Muay Thai showed me that…I decided that Muay Thai was something that I was going to go after full time. So I’m focused on Muay Thai now as my career.”Rungravee Sasiprapa (Sasiprapa Gym in Bangkok │ Kingdom of Thailand) vs. Ognjen Topic (North Jersey Muay Thai in Lodi, New Jersey) Full Rules Muay Thai │ 132 lbs. │ 5x3.
Consistent with the Matt Lucas characterization of an “angry troll”, Rungravee Sasiprapa comps unworthy challengers the first two rounds to flail till they fail. Who doesn’t jump all over a tax holiday? Ognjen Topic also jumps all over Rungravee for a commanding lead on the score cards │ with the possible exception of one judge, who might be flipping coins or wandering in the wilderness. What Sherpa steward scales the slippery slope of notoriously perishable popular sentiment with a chain fashioned indifferently out of weak links?
When the time comes for Rungravee to recover lost ground in his cat and mouse game, a theme that’s been consistent throughout this entire show takes precedence: “Thou art not alone in proving foresight may be vain. The best laid schemes of mice and men do often go awry and leave us nought but grief and pain for promised joy.” [Robert Burns, 1786] Mice don’t have a great track record with cats in a stick and move groove.
Rungravee’s fearsome reputation – in the “angry troll” impersonation – keys off being able to lure quarry into his strength. The lure’s key, thus, is catching them off guard. Never underestimate the mind game, where technical prowess mints coin of the realm.
Exposure to Bosnia’s Serbian-Croatian killing fields likely informs Ognjen Topic how “protect yourself at all times” plays into surviving lethal cross fire │ or not. It just as likely kindles his resolve to learn from experience. “When I first fought a Thai, Neungsiam,” Ognjen remembers that “I was afraid of losing the fight based on experience and that’s exactly what happened. I gave him way too much respect in that fight. I couldn’t really pull the trigger and do my thing. After that fight I told myself I would never do that again.” Neungsiam’s gain proves to be Rungravee’s pain.
About midway through Round 4, Rungravee seems to concede the inevitability of defeat. Dangling both arms by his sides and turning his back, he begins walking towards his corner. How much should something like this influence judgment on a scale of would you change any plans noticing a funnel cloud outside your window? What happens next tells the story.
For the first time, Rungravee has managed to come up with a move to throw Ognjen Topic off his game. He’s wide open for a sucker punch. Maybe a couple of seconds tick off the clock. Rungravee does another 180°. Call it a momentary lapse. He flashes a grin and sticks out his tongue. Then he continues to take his lumps. Case closed.
Winner: Ognjen Topic by Unanimous Decision
“All’s well that ends well”. The impersonator of an “angry troll” shows that he’s human after all. The Jersey Jedi is at one with the Force. America has a new rock star. It’s time for Scott Kent and Ognjen Topic to begin thinking about Jompitchit Chuwattana and Genji Umeno.