Best of Abu Dhabi:
Part Two

Kouru Uno
Jean Jacques Machado
(1999 66 to 77 kg class finals)

Here we have two of the MMA world's finest-but in very different contexts. Kouru Uno quietly racked up a near perfect record in Japan's Shooto organization from 1997 to 1999; where his exceptional all-around skills, notably his freestyle wrestling background, won him the Shooto welterweight title. He thus opened the eyes of thousands of nonbelievers, who thought Japanese grappling meant A) judo, B) sumo; or C) the kind of wrestlers who whisper in their opponent's ear to tell them which move to do next. He's only recently stepped out of the shadow of the more charismatic and flashy (but slightly less skilled) Rumina Sato, the cover boy who got the headlines despite never winning the same welterweight title. That aside, Uno has wonderful submission skills but he's got to be considered the underdog here. Jean Jacques Machado is a legendary pure Brazilian jiu-jitsu stylist who's racked up dozens of titles and even successfully ventured into SAMBO (I swear I've heard of that style, somewhere…) where he won Pan-American and US titles. He was exposed to be lacking the standup skills so necessary when facing a good wrestler in MMA when he lost by TKO to Frank Trigg in Japan Vale Tudo 1998; but that won't hurt him much here--- nor will Uno's brilliantly precise striking from within an opponent's guard. We don't get a graphic for their respective heights and weights but I'd estimate Machado at 5'10" and at the 169 lbs. limit. Shooto web sites list Uno at 5'8" (he was actually turned away from the Pancrase dojo for being too short) and 154 lbs., but I'm guessing he cuts around ten pounds and Machado does the Gracie diet (eat papayas all the way to the weigh in).

Machado falls to guard and looks for a guillotine front choke. Uno darts from Machado's grasp and suddenly springs over his legs to clear Machado's guard for a second, but Machado repositions his guard almost immediately and entangles Uno's arm in a triangle. Uno does a pretty somersault forward to escape but Machado releases the grip and floats over to side mount, then full mount. Uno bridges but Jean Jacques seizes his arm and rolls into jujigatame. Kouru quickly flails his way out and looks to keep Machado on his back, but Machado slips a leg under him and wheels him in a perfect elevator sweep. Machado gracefully follows Uno on his trip to the mat to take his back. The words "grappling bliss" come to mind here. Just under five minutes into this jiu-jitsu seminar, Machado locks on the rear naked choke that Sato couldn't finish in his legendary 1999 fight with Uno (Uno ended up winning with the same hold in that amazing fight), and we've got a winner. That's about as good a one-sided and five-minute-long match can be.

Kareem Barkalev
Ricardo Arona
(2000 88 to 98kg. quarterfinals)

Barkalev is listed as a wrestler from the Ukraine, and wears the type of Nike shorts that your average white thirtyish Joe wears playing basketball after work. In fact, that's a pretty good description of his slender physical appearance--- just add a constant sneer. Regardless, he's an MMA veteran in the countries of the former Soviet Union with wins over the likes of Gilbert Yvel. Kareem made his MMA debut on the world stage in February's Warrior War I tournament, beating Team Chute Boxe standout Jose "Pele" Landi-Jons by stoppage. At this point, however, he was best known as a trainer for the Abu Dhabi Combat Club. Ricardo Arona, of the Brazilian Top Team, earned his black belt early in 2000, and went on to huge success in Abu Dhabi and the Brazilian jiu-jitsu Mundials, as well as a few fights in RINGS. He contrasts the pasty white Barkalev's vanilla appearance with his glamorous physiognomy: caramel skin, knotted muscles, bald head, and black vale tudo trunks.

This match gets weird. Barkalev is, in a word, dirty-he pulls at Arona's neck and slaps down on the back of his head and upper back on attempts to clinch. On the second such slapping, Arona returns fire with a smack of his own between Barkalev's shoulder blades and Kareem goes nuts, going for a Thai front thrust kick (teep) and a wild right hook. Whoa, wrong sport there buddy. Refs run onto the mat as Arona backs away and we go to black out. We come back, and Barkalev flips someone off, and go to black out again. Nice editing. Finally we come back and the two have remembered what sport they are participating in and shake hands. Alrighty then. They do a lot of pacing about in near clinches with Kareem doing most of the backing off. The five minute whistle sounds to begin the scoring period. Now I'm starting to forget which sport this is, too…finally Barkalev tries a throw as Arona gets an underhook, but it fails. A weak shot by Kareem is shrugged off, but he looks for another throw on the clinch, and again fails. At about the eight minute mark Barkalev is taken to the mat by a Arona rush, but he takes the fall as a freestyle wrestler might (stomach to the mat to avoid back exposure) and is able to somersault gracefully out of harm's way. Back to their feet they go, and Arona slips down for a single leg takedown attempt, but Barkalev gingerly tip toes out of bounds. Several minutes later Arona gets a bear hug and crashes to the mat, but both guys land on their sides and immediately disengage. Not sure how they'll score that. Incidentally, Arona has been out-wrestling the supposed wrestler, who has used alert groundwork (usually the Brazilian jiu-jitsu trademark) to keep him from getting anywhere.

Time runs out, and Ricardo raises his arms in victory. I have him up 2-0 on the first takedown, but I'm not sure about it. The score could be 4-0 if you count the second takedown… The screen goes black, and the word "OVERTIME" appears. They didn't score either takedown. Well, starting with the 2001 tournament all scoring is clearly announced as it happens so these irritating occurrences of confusion won't be repeated, but that's little consolation for Ricardo Arona. To his credit, we see no whining as Ricardo shoots in and wrestles Barkalev down but appears to possibly step out of bounds about halfway into the takedown. The ref doesn't stop the action until Arona's on top though. The refs and scorer's table argue and we go to black again. This sucks. Barkalev complains for no apparent reason as we go on, clutching his groin. He disengages at one point to spit at someone (or something) off the mat. Is this the "Worst of Abu Dhabi" DVD? Finally, after more stalling, Arona again sends Barkalev crashing to the mat. This time Barkalev's back bounces off the canvas--- no controversy. Arona immediately looks to follow up as Barkalev appears to give his back again but Barkalev does a beautiful somersault out of harm's way. He repeats the roll in one fluid motion as Arona frantically tries to chase around his back again. Arona dives forward as Barkalev regains his footing but he's sidestepped. That was an impossibly gorgeous sequence which words don't do justice, other than to say that Barklev's defensive skills and Arona's blinding speed are astounding. Of course, we stall the rest of the way through. Well, can't win them all. Speaking of, the winner is announced as Ricardo Arona, and rightfully so (finally!). Barkalev apparently made a total idiot of himself during those sudden blackouts, and lost his job for spitting and profanity at the Brazilian contingent in attendace. Arona went on to win the tournament, a feat which he repeated this year, when he also won the Absolute division.

Rumina Sato
Tito Ortiz
(2000 Absolute division quarterfinals)

Tito "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" Ortiz was considered the surprise of the 2000 tournament when he made it all the way to the finals in his own weight class and had a strong showing in the absolute division. He's another skilled wrestler with good all-around skills, but it's a testament to the dynamic nature of MMA that a man originally noted as a basically a Tank Abbott protégé submits Mike Van Arsdale with a heel hook. Rumina is the Shooto glamour boy, who brought the words flying armbar (a spectacular, sudden leap into the air off a clinch to catch the opponent in a jujigatame) into the MMA vocabulary in an eight second win over Charles "I'll never tap" Taylor. His great all around skills place him just a notch below Uno and the welterweight division's super elite, but at 15-4-1 he's pretty damn close. It's also noteworthy that Sato was considered the favorite for this match, despite giving up fifty pounds and four inches to the 6'2" and 198 lb. Ortiz, but as we saw in part one's Rodriguez/Sakurai match, quick submissions can beat anyone. Today of course we would call Ortiz the obvious choice to win, but this was LAST YEAR… when we were only, like, SEVEN years removed from Royce Gracie's MMA success, or something.

A few minutes in, Sato darts around, and appears to lock up for the flying armbar off a clinch, but fails to lock Ortiz's arm up, so instead falls to look for the leg. Tito stumbles back to a corner of the mat, eventually falling out of bounds, but slips Sato's leglock and rises smiling, as if to say "you almost got me!". Not much else happens as Sato ducks and moves, but hell, I don't blame him for being careful. Tito eventually gets a takedown. The whistle sounds to indicate the beginning of the period in which scoring is tallied, and Sato keeps Tito at bay in the guard, but eventually is bulled into North-South position (aka 69, when the opponent, back to the mat, is mounted at an opposite direction). Tito snares Sato's neck and starts squeezing, clearing the smaller man's arms and getting to the carotid artery for the choke, and Sato passes out after a brief struggle. That really wasn't terribly compelling. Tito shows good skills here, but again there's a little lack of action and, honestly, there's nothing terribly memorable about choking someone fifty pounds lighter than you. Considering Tito's usual post match antics, you might expect him to follow the choke-out by donning a T-shirt with the words "I choke children for their lunch money" or something similarly witty emblazoned on the front, but thankfully he spares us. The two competitors shake hands and we move on. Tito would go on to fall to Sean Alvarez in the semis.

Mark Robinson
Ricardo Morais
(2000 99 kg. and up quarterfinals)

This match is in MONSTER VISION!!! Also a trainer at the Abu Dhabi, Ricardo "The Mutant" Morais is 6'8" and 270 lbs of ripped muscle, and I'll happily steal Mike Naimark's comparison to the late Rick Rude to describe his freaking flawless frame. A South African now training at Atlanta's Obake gym (former home to Goldberg), Mark Robinson is 6'0" and 300 lbs. and a former amateur sumo champion. You just don't see guys this big in submission matches, so even if it's not the finest match I've ever seen, it's a fun way to end the "Best of" DVD. But more on that later…

The match is nothing terribly special, but I liked it. We have yet another slow, "feeling out" process to start. Five minutes in, Arona goes for double leg but they fall out of bounds. "The Mutant" almost gets the former rikishi on the second try, but he gets flattened by a superb Robinson sprawl. Arona fights his way to guard, and Robinson looks to float over to North-South, but Arona re-postions nicely. The flexibility and agility of both of these giants is remarkable. It occurs to me that I am watching another interesting match up with several nice sequences but too much stalling. Unfortunately this is the case with almost all the matches on this DVD. Morais rolls his torso up from guard and snares Robinson's leg into a heel hook. They fall out of bounds, but when they are restarted, they keep the same position. Robinson argues that Morais has improved position, but I can't tell. On the restart, Morais changes his grip completely to get the tap with a kneebar.

In sum:

From my perspective, this isn't really the "Best of" the Abu Dhabi tournaments. It's more a grab bag of what the Abu Dhabi can offer. On one hand, it's reasonably priced at and offers a real diversity in terms of competition. But I'm willing to wager you can spend the same money to get better overall match quality by simply ordering the 2001 under 65 kg. DVD. Why, you ask? Well, Yoshida and Gracie tear it up again, the scoring problems that sometimes get in the way of enjoying these matches are fixed, and I understand that the stalling which plagues this disc isn't tolerated anymore. On the other hand, you wouldn't see the monsters, the crazy absolute division matches, or the bizarre happenings of the Arona/Barkalev match. There's several excellent matches here.

My big problem with this disc is its brevity. It clocks in at about an hour and a half, which is at least a half hour too short. The individual tournament videos run twice as long.

Bottom line:

If you're interested in checking out this style of competition, it's a good intro. But I think the true "Best of Abu Dhabi" is yet to come.

Send any comments, concerns, or smart remarks my way.

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©2001 by the author