Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Playoff Picture Beginning to Take Shape

By Ben Fowlkes

Next weekend’s IFL event in Moline, Illinois is a somewhat momentous occasion. As the fifth show in a nine-show regular season, it marks the exact mid-point of the year. Afterwards, only four events will remain before the semi-finals, and only four teams will make it that far based on their regular season performance.

The good thing about a three-match regular season is you can get into the postseason on the strength of a couple of good nights. Then again, that’s a sword that cuts two ways.

For instance, the New York Pitbulls maintain that they weren’t as bad in 2006 as their record made them seem. Both their losses were 3-2 affairs, one of which featured a key disqualification when Delson Heleno landed an illegal kick to then-Tiger Shark fighter Dennis Hallman.

The defending champion Silverbacks may have a similar situation on their hands. They lost a very close match to the L.A. Anacondas in Houston that could have easily seen a different outcome if only the controversial lightweight bout between Chris Horodecki and Bart Palaszewski had gone differently.

This one goes beyond the usual bickering over who should have won on the judges’ scorecards. Most of the debate centers on a first-round incident where the Anacondas’ Horodecki, locked deep in a standing guillotine choke, fell through the ropes en route to an escape.

Not only did the move save Horodecki from the choke, it allowed him time to recover as he crawled slowly back into the ring just before the bell rang. The young Canadian was able to shake out the cobwebs in the time between rounds, and came out strong in rounds two and three, doing just enough to win the fight in the minds of two of the three judges.

“I don’t know how the referee didn’t stop that fight,” Palaszewski said after the match, still fuming over the decision loss.

Coach Pat Miletich echoed that sentiment, remarking, “We’re not going to complain about the judging. These guys are angry. We’re going to rectify the situation, to say the least.”

Now the Silverbacks will have their chance.

Depending on how things shake out in Moline, the first round of Palaszewski-Horodecki could go down in IFL history as a turning point that kept the 2006 champions from defending their crown.

The way the IFL Standings look at the moment, it seems probable that at least one, or perhaps even two teams will end the season with a perfect 3-0 record, instantly guaranteeing them a spot in the semi-finals. That leaves the remaining spots to be filled by 2-1 teams, of which there could conceivably be four.

In the IFL, ties of this kind are decided by overall in-match records. A team that wins 4-1 edges out one that wins by a 3-2 score, and so on. This is why, even when the team victory is secure, each match counts in the playoff picture.

A team like the Pitbulls, who currently stand at 1-0 after winning all but one match in their first team contest of the year, will be in good standing if they can win at least one of their next two matches. A team like the Sabres, who stand at 2-0 via two very close 3-2 wins, probably still need to finish undefeated in order to guarantee a spot.

Even with all the possible tiebreaker scenarios, however, a team with two losses is eliminated. That’s the reality the San Jose Razorclaws are facing after their sweep at the hands of the Anacondas in Los Angeles, and it’s what the Silverbacks will be dealing with if they can’t pull out a win over the Lions next Saturday.

If the Silverbacks do win, it still doesn’t mean they’re out of trouble. They’ll also need a victory over the Red Bears in May – a match-up where they should be the heavy favorite – and they need to win both by a significant margin.

This scenario puts a lot of pressure on each individual fighter. Fortunately for the Silverbacks, they have a depth of strong fighters to pull from, but they’ll still need big nights from their core performers.

It’s this part of the season where names like Rothwell, Markham, and Palaszewski really mean something. Big Ben has been no less than a lock for the Quad Cities since the IFL’s inception, and even up against undefeated grappler Roy Nelson, it’s hard to imagine him losing in such an important match.

Markham is back from an injury lay-off, but he wasn’t gone long enough to experience any ring rust. He should be healthy, rested, and ready to rumble.

That leaves it all up to Palaszewski, as he takes on perhaps the Lions’ best fighter in lightweight John Gunderson. Palaszewski can cement his reputation as a clutch competitor for the Silverbacks with a win here, and as he proved against Ryan Schultz in last year’s championships, all he needs is one opening to end a fight.

However this one turns out, it should produce some fireworks. When the smoke clears the IFL playoff picture should be that much clearer.

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