Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Cameroon's Sokoudjou goes for another KO

By Eddie Malone

A former winner at the U.S. Open Judo Championships, newcomer Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou pulled off one of the biggest upsets in PRIDE history when he knocked out Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at PRIDE 33 in February.

The fight lasted just 23 seconds, a left hook and a right upper cut sending the Brazilian contender, considered next in line for a title shot, to the canvas.

The win thrust the unknown Cameroon native into the mixed martial arts spotlight. Before his PRIDE debut, Sokoudjou had been a trainer partner of Dan Henderson at Team Quest South in Murrieta, California. He'd fought just three times in MMA in small promotions like San Diego's Total Combat and Portland's Sportfight. After the biggest win of his short career, Sokoudjou admitted that he's had to make some adjustments.

"I'm a goofball. I like to joke around. Now everybody takes me serious. I'm just being careful of what I say and do. Training has been harder now because of what I did," he said a few days before leaving for Japan. He faces yet another MMA superstar this weekend at PRIDE 34: Kamikaze in Tokyo. His opponent, Brazilian Top Team member Ricardo Arona, has beaten Wanderlei Silva and competed for the middleweight title, and with his physical strength and smothering jiu-jitsu he'll pose a unique threat to the Cameroon native.

At one time, Sokoudjou believed his destination was the Olympics, not the PRIDE ring. His childhood routine in Cameroon consisted of practicing judo, getting into trouble, and being disciplined by his mother for getting into trouble. Sokoudjou moved to the United States six years ago on his judo coach's recommendation. In his native country, he wasn't getting the training he needed to compete at an Olympic level. The idea was to train in the States and then head back home to try out for the Olympics.

Several twists of fate intervened, one of which was his introduction to Henderson a couple of years ago. Henderson, the current PRIDE middleweight and welterweight champion, was at the time preparing for a fight with judo specialist Kazuhiro Nakamura. Sokoudjou was brought in to help with judo preparation. In the process, he got hooked on MMA.

Sokoudjou admitted that the transition to MMA hasn't been easy. "I thought it would be easy, but it was really hard for me to kind of understand that judo and mixed martial arts are two different things," he said. "I thought, ‘I know judo so I can go ahead and judo everybody.'"

A TKO loss to Glover Teixeira last October made him realize that MMA was a different beast. Now he understands that all of the disciplines are important and that a fighter has to learn to put them all together.

For his training partner and mentor, Sokoudjou has nothing but words of praise. "He (Henderson) is the guy who never gets hurt. He's the guy who never gets tired. He's the guy I'd like to be," he said. "I've been with him for two years. I've never seen him complain about anything. Me, I'm a big baby. I complain about every single thing every single day."

As for his next storied opponent, Sokoudjou is well aware of Arona's strengths and he's been working in the gym to counteract them. "He's a good jiu-jitsu guy, a decent wrestler. I've been working on those things. Of course, I'm not going to jiu-jitsu a jiu-jitsu master. I have a strategy for him," he said, reluctant to reveal anything else.

The Team Quest fighter has mixed feelings about the recent acquisition of PRIDE by the owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. On the one hand he believes "it'll be a beautiful thing to see some PRIDE fighters fighting some UFC fighters." For a long time, fans have wanted to see which organization had the better fighters, he said.

On the other hand, he loves the PRIDE product and would hate to see it changed. In particular, he would hate to lose some of PRIDE's rules. While PRIDE president Dana White has sent out mixed signals about future PRIDE rules, there's a strong chance the company could switch over to the unified rules favored by U.S. state athletic commissions. Unified rules, adopted by the UFC and most North American promotions, allow elbows but disallow soccer kicks, stomps, and knees to the head of a grounded opponent.

Sokoudjou believes that such changes would be tantamount to "killing the spirit of PRIDE. That's what makes PRIDE what it is. All the extra kind of craziness."

While other fighters openly proclaim an assault on all championship title belts, Sokoudjou is more modest about his goals in the sport. Drawing on his humorous side, he said that all he wants to do is "beat people up, make lots of money, and go party all the time."

"I'd love to say I'm going to get a bunch of belts. Lots of people out there have a bunch of belts, but they suck," he added. "My goal is to put on a good show and make sure everyone who comes and watches me fight is always satisfied."

He's a humble and modest guy with a knack for self-deprecation. But if he beats a second world-class fighter in as many matches, Sokoudjou will be considered a prodigy in the sport. He'll have no choice but to take himself seriously.


No comments: