Friday, March 30, 2007

Belcher hopes to snare “Da Spyder” in his own web

By Jason Probst

You’re Alan Belcher. And you weren’t good enough, then or now. That’s what most fans are going to remember about you if the conventional wisdom plays out as expected.

You weren’t the caliber of fighter to be selected for third season cast of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show, having been passed over in the tryout. And you certainly weren’t the kind of guy to knock off the winner of that season’s 185-pound division, Kendall “Da Spyder” Grove, which is the task at hand April 7th at UFC 69.

But with a nickname of “The Talent,” it figures that Belcher will have something to say about that.

“You really didn’t get to show much. You go in and introduce yourself, then go and grapple for like three minutes,” recalled Belcher of the tryout for TUF. “It was a couple grappling matches, and you hit the mitts. I made it to the interview at the end, but I really didn’t get to show my skills. And I was like 1-1 at the time.”

He’s since built a record of 9-2, including two appearances in the UFC, dropping a decision to Yushin Okami at UFC 62 in August while filling in as a late sub for David Terrell. Then, Belcher notched his first UFC win with an impressive third-round stoppage of Jorge Santiago at UFC Fight Night in December.

Big for a middleweight, he walks around between 205 and 210 pounds, and hadn’t fought at 185 before the reality show tryout– the grim spectacle of Kenny Stevens trying to cut weight and failing on season two may have worked against Belcher as well.

“I hadn’t made 185 before that. I told them I could make 185, but I think with Kenny Stevens, with that deal they didn’t want to have anything to (worry about),” Belcher added. He’s since settled in at the weight and plans to stay there for the time being. At 6-2, he’ll be giving away three or four inches to the lanky Grove, but the 22 year-old Biloxi boy figures that’s just more target to aim at.

“I want this fight to be like (Anderson) Silva versus (Chris) Leben,” Belcher said. There’s “no doubt about it” he’s looking to prove that he belongs there with the other alums of the reality show. Ranging from first-season winner Diego Sanchez to Matt Serra, who challenges welterweight boss Georges St-Pierre on the UFC 69 main event, being on the show is one heck of a way to jump-start a career.

So is destroying one of those guys.

There is a thin line of demarcation between getting exposure before millions and falling just short, with the accompanying vast gulf in sponsorship money, purses and budding celebrity that snowballs with each outing. You can make up a lot of the gap in a few minutes, as Silva did against Leben. Call it the ultimate party-crashing. And Belcher feels that the stars are lined up correctly for a breakout performance against Grove.

“I know to myself I’m better than probably all those guys on both weight classes on the show. Really the thing with Kendall is, he chose to fight me. That’s really my motivation for this fight,” Belcher said. “When (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva calls these guys up, he says would you rather fight this guy or this guy. I really want to knock him out and make an example of Kendall. He’s a good fighter. He has a lot of heart. That’s the main thing. He’s gonna bring conditioning and he fights at a fast pace.”

Rich Clementi, veteran of TUF 4, is a mentor to Belcher and the two are training together a couple days a week as Belcher makes the trip into nearby Slidell, Louisiana to work with him.

“What’s neat about Alan Belcher is he’s helped my own ability,” said Clementi. “He’s getting ready to be the next big thing. It’s cool to have another guy that’s at that point. I’m really excited for him to fight Kendall Grove. It’s just way he fights. He’s tough to take down, he likes to stand up, and he’s a funny kid. He’s just a funny, likeable guy, with a heart of gold. You can’t not love this kid. He’s got some great showmanship.”

That flair includes Belcher’s out-of-the-box escape from a painful body triangle during his big-show debut against Okami. It’s the same kind of crushing hold that Ivan Salaverry introduced to mainstream fans in tapping Tony “The Freak” Fryklund – if you haven’t been caught in one, trying wedging yourself in between two industrial-sized vice grips and having somebody crank ‘em together. It’s white-hot pain while your breath is vacuumed out of you, with your foe’s legs compressing the lower back in horrific fashion. And it makes a mere kick to the liver feel like a weekend in Maui.

Instead, Belcher propelled himself down to the mat, slamming Okami off and escaping a very bad situation. He lost the decision, but showed the kind of fire fans appreciate.

“I told Spike TV I was out there (at the tryout) and after they watched him fight (Santiago), I was like ‘this is the guy you passed up on the last season,’” Clementi said.

As mixed martial arts creeps into the midpoint of its second decade on the world stage, the backgrounds that spawn fighters are changing. More and more, these athletes represent a commingling of multiple arts instead of the single-discipline competitors with varying amounts of catchup cross-training, and they started in MMA earlier than their predecessors. Belcher began competing in the sport’s amateur ranks at 15, and is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, studying under noted black belt Helio Soneca.

Belcher is training several different places for this match. In addition to the trip to work with Clementi, he’s prepping at his own gym, and running stadium stairs. Thinking of Grove, and the collective roar of the crowd when the plot turns on its head, and he’s just delivered a crushing bomb to turn the fight his way.
But even Belcher, for all his confidence, knows that it goes both directions. He’s seen a lot more of Grove than Grove has of him, given “The Spider” being a regular entrant on UFC cards in addition to three matches he had to win on the reality show. But he knows that you never know what a guy’s gonna bring, until you know. Sometimes reality sets in with a corner man pressing an ice pack against your head, or a ringside physician telling you to stay down, that everything’s over.

The sport is evolving at a rate where even a half-dozen matches with a year or two of training can take your game to the next level – but it can also happen for the guy you were favored to beat, or even already did. Just ask Matt Hughes.

“It’s really hard for someone to say ‘he’s this good because he fought like this.’ A lot of guys are getting good. I fought for a few years, but when I really got to the next level, I knew I had to start training different,” said Belcher, who cut his teeth in small shows, including a decision loss to UFC veteran Marvin Eastman in just his second pro bout. “I started mixing it up and training with the best. My jiu-jitsu’s come a long way.

Grove, a relentless grinder-type, uses his height and reach effectively, whether standing up or on the ground, where he can resemble a python, entangling and stifling opponents while setting up attacks. If there’s one place Belcher would prefer not to be, it’s on the ground, with Grove on top of him. But he says that he isn’t afraid to hit the deck against “The Spider.” Not a chance.

“A lotta people don’t give me credit for my jiu-jitsu, and that’s ok. People have seen me get taken down and get my guard passed. Everybody is getting better between each fight but I’m gonna show it this time, that’s for sure,” Belcher said. “My first fight (Okami) was short notice, and the (Santiago) fight I was coming off a real bad shoulder injury. I only trained a few weeks for Santiago too. I couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t even hitting the mitts. This time, though, people are gonna see, I’m gonna be like George St-Pierre. Explosive standup. That’s who I’m gonna be. My standup is already ten times what that guy’s is,” he added. “That’s the kind of fighter I am. I think if I win in a really dominating fashion it will open a lot of people’s eyes.”

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