At Bellator 96 in June, that most infamous of MMA fighters re-entered the cage after a layoff of almost two years: none other than the man known as War Machine (and formerly, Jon Koppenhaver) who returns to the cage Friday at Bellator 99.
“War,” as Matt Serra affectionately called him in his days on The Ultimate Fighter 5, was fighting Blas Avena, a middle-of-the-road MMA pro. Me, I was tuning in to see familiar faces like Renato “Babalu” Sobral and rising stars like Vitali Minakov. Here, well, I just didn’t expect much. War had become known for leaving MMA for pornography, sharing bizarre information on social media, getting locked up for assault, and basically, just about anything but being a good fighter.
But, I’ll admit I was pleasantly surprised. Here’s an excerpt of my wrap-up at MMA Frenzy:
I expected a lot of forward movement and combination punching from War, but War Machine showed – get this — good hips. Whoa. Maybe some of you who follow his other career opportunities are more aware of this than I. But yeah, the guy moved well, positioning into a butterfly guard nicely following an Avena takedown, and later slicing through Avena’s guard following a takedown of his own. The strikes from a front side crucifix (the “Ivan Salaverry” position) earned the first round TKO, but the groundwork which led to it is what caught my attention.
In my defense, it’s easy to forget that War is a talented guy. For most fans, his behavior has totally overshadowed his ability.
It’s a shame. I’ve always wanted to like the guy. He had a tough time on The Ultimate Fighter, but hey, he’s young and seemed to be dealt a very difficult hand. He was trying to bounce back… and bounce back he did at the TUF finale in 2007 vs. Jared Rollins: earning “Fight of the Night” honors in a gritty performance which ended in a late KO victory. He had a good team behind him too, including one of my all-time favorite grapplers in Baret Yoshida.
Then, everything fell apart. My hope was that this athlete would learn from the probation sentence he was handed in 2008. But he’d commit several more assaults, spend time in prison, share bizarre information on social media which cost him jobs, and on and on.
Here’s the thing. Fans actually don’t mind “a little crazy.” When Anderson Silva implies he learned the front kick he used to knock out Vitor Belfort in 2011 from Steven Seagal, we know it’s a little crazy. When BJ Penn slapped himself in the face and licked blood off his gloves after stopping Diego Sanchez in 2009, we barely noticed. On commentary, Joe Rogan actually dubbed Penn “the greatest lightweight in the history of our sport” at that moment. Why? Because that’s what was important to note right then.
But War? Everything seems to go to the ugliest extreme.
Sure, War isn’t on the level of those legends, but he can be a pretty good fighter. That’s what I saw in June. That’s what I hope to see again Friday.
So, call me crazy — but I’m still hopeful for the guy.