February 12, 2013

O’KASICK | Don’t Call It A Comeback

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It’s back to fisticuffs and strangleholds. Let’s talk journeymen and pound-for-pound badasses.

After eight months of research in East Africa, I have reentered Big Red country, and so Fight Life in Ithaca makes its return to the Sun. You can still have Sex on Thursdays with Morgan Bookheimer and the gang, but now you must first earn those coital escapades via bare-knuckle Hump Day brawls with me.

While I have been away, the local fight scene has exploded with kicking-good stories and hooks of intrigue. The most prominent development came in September 2012 with the launch of Gladius Fights, which bills itself as New York’s only professional mixed martial arts promotion. It takes its name from the short sword wielded by Roman foot soldiers and is the brainchild of Ithaca’s Ryan Ciotoli, who also runs Ultimate Athletics and manages the pack of pro fighters in Team Bombsquad.

To avoid censure from the New York State Athletic Commission, the promotion holds its professional bouts on Native American reservations and amateur competitions statewide. Note that New York remains one of only four states in the nation that has yet to legally sanction pro MMA — a blood-boiling issue this column will eventually take on. In upping the ante for high-profile MMA in New York State, Gladius Fights seems to have struck the big digitus medius in the direction of Albany.

In other news, Team Bombsquad has had more scoops than one reporter could cover in a season.

Its biggest loss came with the vanishing act of Rene “The Brazilian Bomber” Nazare, a standout fighter and now former Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor at Ultimate Athletics. After suffering three consecutive losses in Bellator Fighting Championships, Nazare journeyed to his home country and simply never came back. The scuttlebutt on the street has everything from immigration issues to a defeated spirit that prevented Nazare’s return. Whatever the case, we wish Nazare well and may he return to victory. As his worthy BJJ master replacement, MMA veteran and black belt, Matt Lee, is set to report for duty to Ultimate Athletics in March.

The Bombsquad might have lost one BJJ bruiser to Brazil, but it gained a featherweight phenom from Dagestan. That’s right, Dagestan. Shahbulat Shamhalaev, aka Shah, made the jump to Ithaca from the Russian republic when he entered the Bellator World Featherweight Championship tournament. After scoring two first-round TKO victories, Shah now faces Rad Martinez Feb. 21 in the finals, with the winner earning a $100,000 contract and shot at the Bellator Featherweight titleholder. Look for a feature on Shah in the next edition of Fight Life in Ithaca.

Fight Life in Africa

We’re only getting started.But allow me to digress.  I just spent perhaps the most extraordinary eight months of my life in Tanzania, studying community-based conservation strategies among Maasai villages in the Serengeti ecosystem. I have been traveling to the Motherland, in fact, for more than a decade, but this last research safari might have superseded them all.

The wilderness of East Africa feels like home. The shrill barks of hyenas at night have become my lullabies. So what is the one thing, besides friends and family, that I miss most about the US of A when I’m out there? You guessed it. Training in martial arts.

MMA is in its upstart stages across the continent, with rising potential in South Africa. While many old-school martial arts groups exist in cities, I lead the transient life of a researcher in Tanzania, spending most of my time in the wild. Thus, I subsist on a day at a boxing gym here, training with a judo team there, and the blue moon evening of grappling with CIA-types when I am so lucky to cross their paths.

I never had the chance to test a mata leão choke — or “killing the lion” as translated from Portuguese — on an actual ferocious feline. I once tried to scrap with a baboon who swiped my lunchbox, but I couldn’t catch the wily bastard.

Years ago, I discovered my primary form of training in the field when I realized that trees could serve as ample punching bags. When a Tanzanian friend once asked me what I did for exercise in the wild, I responded in Swahili, “Ninapiga miti” (I hit trees). His guffaws carried on for five minutes. I later learned that “to hit trees” in Swahili is slang for seriously heated sexual intercourse.

The jokes and jibes from research assistants and camp staff will never end: “Hey rafiki (friend), have you already hit some trees this morning?” “You seem tense, maybe you should go piga miti and relax.”

Moving on, my lone competitive venture came when I took on local Maasai warriors in their traditional form of grappling (see the blog: Greco-Maasai Wrestling with Warriors). Note that if the Maasai received proper training in the arts, they would likely return to their glory days of the 18th and 19th centuries when they laid conquest down the Great Rift Valley — only now they could conquer in the cage.

But let’s bring it back to Ithaca.

In what will likely be my final semester at Cornell, I will write up to 225 pages once the thesis and all the term papers, projects, and reports are factored in. Believe it or not, composing Fight Life in Ithaca for the Sun and practicing my meager martial arts skills will not only significantly improve my chances of reaching the graduation finish line come May but will also become a serious safeguard to my sanity.

So for the next three months, if it doesn’t involve writing or fighting, I ain’t interested.

Original Author: J.D. O’Kasick