LFA 51’s Paul Elizondo: Flyweights are undervalued, but need to make themselves household names

NOTE: Originally published via MMA Today on 27/9/18 It’s hard out there for a flyweight. The frenetic pace and myriad scrambles synonymous with the men’s 125-pound class haven’t translated to headliners or box office receipts in this corner of the market, which could be as easily attributed to a lack of initiative from flyweight competitors in drumming up interest as the UFC’s apparent reluctance to do so itself. So says one of the division’s own, at least. Speaking with MMA Today ahead of his professional debut at Friday’s LFA 51, Paul Elizondo deemed his weight class worthy of the accolades and riches that have long proved elusive, but urged his fellow flyweights to take matters into their own hands if they’re to share a marquee – and pocket substantial cabbage – with their hard-hitting, albeit geriatric, heavyweight counterparts. “I don’t think the flyweights are (appreciated), and they have a responsibility as well to make themselves a household name,” Elizondo said. “When it comes to highlight reels and stuff, the heavier you are, the more gravity you have working for you, and heavyweights only need to touch somebody one time on the chin and they get put to sleep. “To be honest, the flyweights don’t get that much credit, but they should because we have way more longevity. Our cardio is what allows us to stay in the fight when we do get cracked, and most of those fights, those guys just don’t stop.” True to Elizondo’s assessment, one would have a rough go of unearthing an Ngannou vs. Lewis-esque stinker from any flyweight film archive, but that hasn’t kept MMA’s preeminent promoters from repeatedly relegating its pint-sized fighters to middling slots on the average card, even with ex-divisional UFC champ and luminary Demetrious Johnson in the fold. Despite owning the UFC’s record for title defenses with 11 (most of them one-sided), the recently deposed Johnson’s drawing power has never held a candle to his abilities. UFC 191, capped by his rematch with John Dodson, pulled a paltry 115,000 pay-per-views. Johnson hasn’t entered the brass’ good graces or headlined a bill that wasn’t on free TV since, and most recently saw his air of infallibility – and what little clout that came with it – revoked by Henry Cejudo as UFC 227’s second fiddle last month. The way Elizondo sees it, the powers that be might have bungled their investment at 125 pounds, but his colleagues aren’t doing themselves many favors in letting the fighting and only the fighting – however enthralling – do the talking. “I believe it has a lot to do with marketing. There is a fine line between competing and getting respect, but at the same time, it is the fight game, and if you don’t want to sell a fight and just be a good competitor, you’ll be a Demetrious Johnson with 12 titles and no one knows who (you are). I’m not saying no one knows who he is, but it took him 12 title fights just to be a co-main event on a (pay-per-view) card. It does have a lot to do with them. “We’ll see what happens with Cejudo being the champ now. He’s got Olympic gold, so he knows a little bit about marketing. He’s already challenging (bantamweight champion) TJ (Dillashaw), so he’s already making some noise. I’m excited for it. Personality has a lot to do (with) this business. It’s turning more into entertainment than a sport.” The sport’s purists may bitterly agree with Elizondo’s assessment of MMA’s state of affairs. UFC president Dana White himself, a man in the business of grooming bankable bruisers (in theory, at least), called for the fighters within his purview to build themselves into stars earlier this year. As a young upstart competing in an unheralded division, Elizondo aims to mitigate the trials that have plagued Johnson and Co. by – oddly enough – heeding White’s divisive words. “Not at all because no one’s ever going to hand you anything. It’s the flyweights who aren’t working. If people don’t see you working, they’re not going to be behind you. Going back to the Conor (McGregor) thing, everyone’s hating on his jock, they all say he got it handed to him, but he was putting out footage and marketing before the UFC did it themselves, and little did they know, he can also fight. So it definitely helped. As long as you want me to put on a show, I think everyone will be fine.” Elizondo makes his first walk to the cage as a professional on Friday at Selland Arena in his native Fresno against Freddy Mendez, one of six scalps he collected on the amateur circuit.  

Skyzoo – Music For My Friends Album Review

Purists have rightfully lamented the lack of identity in New York hip-hop in recent years. Luckily, Skyzoo doesn’t need to, as they say, “bring New York back”. He already embodies it.

His latest LP, Music For My Friends, is an ode to everything that molds us: our environment, our era, the company we keep. In Skyzoo’s case, the album is a peek into the formative years of an 80s Brooklyn baby, during which innocence was tainted, but not altogether lost, and nature took a backseat to nurture. The 16-track opus only reinforces the notion that for better or for worse, we are all products of our respective habitats.

In depicting the elements of the Skyzoo equation, the MC tells tales of relentless pursuit of money, happiness and everything in between. If “Luxury” and the “erroneously” titled “Suicide Doors” are any indication, luxury is the endgame, as it once was for Sky’s neighborhood elders, a teenage pipe dream, but one within reach nonetheless. While “The Moments That Matter” preaches living in the now, “Money Makes Us Happy” delves into carpe diem‘s inevitable ceiling and the duplicitous nature of the paper chase. As for the means of materializing their street dreams, Sky and his crew know fully well that slinging dope is a dangerously easy fix. On the Jadakiss-assisted “See a Key (Ki’)”, Skyzoo almost innocently flirts with that temptation and on “Asking Bodie For a Package”, details the road to succumbing to it. Sadly, the youthful recklessness and childlike abandon that fueled Sky’s adolescence also spawned some casualties, with the wordsmith paying homage to them on “Things I Should’ve Told My Friends”. Lyrically, the Brooklynite’s rhyme scheme is complex and the wordplay singularly cryptic. But for all the evidence of lyrical mastery, Music For My Friends is best summarized by one no-frills bar on “All Day, Always”: “All the shit we saw is what we all became.”

The nostalgia in Skyzoo’s lyrics is mostly echoed by the production, but never more so than on MarcNfinit’s horn-laced “Suicide Doors” and soul-sampling “The Experience”. Longtime collaborator !llmind contributes four tracks, all of which, in serving the LP’s focus, veer away from the “boom trap” sound that made his name. On “Money Makes Us Happy”, The Rvlt.’s piano and drum loops add a blissful, yet regretful tone to Skyzoo, Black Thought and Bilal’s musings. In short, the album’s sound is reminiscent of a bygone era, as it should be, but remains far from dated. Echos of New York are heard primarily through samples, but are sometimes absent, meaning the beats occasionally fail the LP’s primary vision. Therefore, the album isn’t “bringing New York back”, but it still satiates both old and new hip-hop heads.

Ultimately, Music For My Friends is audible evidence of the cloth from which Skyzoo and his running mates are cut. Nostalgia abounds, but regret is seldom heard. In essence, Sky’s childhood stories of hustling, chasing dreams and toying with disaster only epitomize the notion that we are what we come from.

Grade: 8/10

Gems: Suicide Doors, See a Key (Ki’) ft. Jadakiss, Money Makes Us Happy ft. Black Thought & Bilal, Civilized Leisure ft. Mozaic, The Experience, Asking Bodie For a Package ft. Skarr Akbar

Malik B & Mr. Green – Unpredictable Album Review

As an original member of Philadelphia hip-hop group The Roots, Malik B often performed in the shadow of one the genre’s greatest MCs, Black Thought. In the 15-plus years between leaving the group and the release of his full-length debut, Unpredictable, the “Illadelph” native has figured “it” out, both as a wordsmith and a self-aware, albeit imperfect man.

The term “grown man rap” often gets thrown around when referring to rappers who’ve stood the test of time. Their first few releases, driven by unabashed braggadocio, a voracious appetite for peer validation and loads of raw talent slowly, but surely get swapped for technically sound and introspective rhymes. Malik B has reached that stage…without the discography. With New Jersey beatsmith Mr. Green rounding out the partnership, Unpredictable has all the fundamentals of a solid hip-hop opus in spades.

The album’s lyrical content is a mixed bag befitting its title. Clocking in at under 40 minutes, several of the LP’s 13 tracks are evidence of Malik B’s quest for self-improvement and/or enlightenment, spiritual or otherwise. If the first few bars on “We Gonna Make It” are any indication, the man has done a lot of soul searching: “It ain’t no stressin’ no more, ’cause God blessin’ me/I got the secret to success, it’s a recipe.” Moreover, while “Crown of Thorns” acts as the MC’s account of hardships past, the self-explanatory “Fake Friends” brings Malik’s path to self-acceptance full circle. But in a genre as competitive as hip-hop, even the “grown man” rappers can’t abandon self-agrandization altogether. Simply put, machismo never takes a back seat in hip-hop, hence muscle-flexing tracks like “Dolla Bill”, “Definition”, “Rips in the Paper” and “Rhyme Exercise”. Between the delicate, but harmonious balance of humility and ego lies one of Unpredictable‘s thematic (and sonic) gems, “Devil”, where Malik B details the catch-22’s and psychological toll in navigating a seedy Philadelphia underworld.

As for the production, the LP’s master on the boards, Mr. Green, does more than merely set the stage for Malik B’s musings. He raises it. The sampler Green flaunts on the cover art is a proud claim of a student of “boom bap”, a 90’s sound characterized by looped drum breaks, re-purposed samples and scratch hooks. Unpredictable is somewhat reminiscent of that golden-era sound, most notably on “Dolla Bill” and “Tyrants”. In short, Mr. Green, like his contemporaries Marco Polo and Apollo Brown, is applying the old-school’s production style to 21st-century hip-hop.

All art-snobbery momentarily aside, the merit of a hip-hop album lies in its rhymes and beats. Even though Malik B wasted most of a Mr. Green banger by following a killer verse with three minutes of Jamaican Patois on “Tyrants”, the LP succeeds on both of those fronts. That being said, the duo, as much of a peas-and-carrots pairing as they may be, are not reinventing the wheel so much as bringing it back temporarily. Nevertheless, boom bap, like any sound that’s attained “classic” status, never gets old, making Unpredictable 40 minutes well spent.

Grade: 7.5/10

Gems: Dolla Bill, Metal is Out ft. Benefit, Devil, Definition, Rips in the Paper, Rhyme Exercise, Dark Streets ft. R.A. the Rugged Man & Amalie Bruun

MMA Fighter’s Resurgence Clouded by Controversial Treatment

In a few months’ time, 37 year-old Vitor Belfort will have the chance to end a decade-long drought without a UFC championship. However, at the center of his late ascension into peak form lies a practice shrouded in controversy: testosterone replacement therapy.

The Nevada State Athletic Commission banned the use of testosterone replacement therapy in February. While far from being the only fighter to undergo the treatment, the ban affected Belfort more than anybody, if only temporarily. Originally scheduled to fight Chris Weidman for the middleweight title in the state three months later, Belfort had to be replaced with fellow Brazilian Lyoto Machida. He has now ended the treatment, hence his renewed opportunity. But a case like Belfort’s is only a small part of a much grander discussion.

Even with its recent ban, testosterone replacement therapy is as enigmatic as it is controversial.  Colloquially known as TRT, it is typically used to treat male hypogonadism, a disorder characterized by diminished functioning of the testes. As men near middle-age, their testosterone levels may decrease, resulting in fatigue and loss of muscle mass. The treatment reverses that loss while decreasing body fat. According to physician and podcast host Dr. Steve, if treating pathologically low testosterone levels, then theoretically, the athlete is granted no advantage when performing. Then why the motion from the NSAC?

Even if sometimes practiced for legitimate medical reasons, TRT is still perceived by many in the mixed martial arts community to be cheating. In a March 2013 interview, UFC president Dana White, a staunch opponent of the treatment, said “If you have to use TRT, you’re probably too old to be fighting…The guys that do that, that are on TRT, their training camp is a lot easier…The bangs, the injuries, all the (expletive) that goes on, they’re recovering ten times faster than the guy who’s not doing it.”

UFC Light Heavyweight champion Jon Jones fought Chael Sonnen in April of 2013. Sonnen had been granted an exemption for TRT by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, of which Jones was openly critical: “I think Chael Sonnen made tons of money when he was a young guy, and now he’s an older guy. And now just to be able to take a drug and super-enhance yourself back to where you were in your 20′s is bull.” Jones defeated Sonnen by first-round TKO.

In 2012, Sonnen insisted he needed testosterone replacement not only to compete, but to live. In December of 2013, Sonnen claimed that were he to end the treatment, he would have the testosterone levels of a 93 year-old man. Testosterone levels can indeed shift drastically if treatment is terminated. Karen Louise Herbst, an endocrinologist at the University of Arizona, reviewed Sonnen’s medical history and concluded that he did indeed need TRT to continue competing professionally.  Herbst also said Sonnen’s use of testosterone, dating back to 2008, has likely made him permanently hypogonadal. The mystery is whether Sonnen needed to undergo treatment in the first place, with Herbst stating that it was unclear whether a definitive diagnosis of hypogonadism had been made when he began. If he or any athlete did begin using TRT with normally functional testes, then performance could indeed be enhanced, according to Dr. Steve.

An 18-year veteran, Vitor Belfort, known as “The Phenom”, came up in an era where mixed martial artists, ironically, had a specialty, whether it be wrestling, boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, etc. Belfort was a knockout artist, as his 17 wins thereby would indicate. Despite training with Carlson Gracie, under whom he earned his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, he rarely showed fans that side of his repertoire, instead settling fights with his fists. In short, Belfort’s style was exciting, but somewhat predictable, until TRT. The three wins that earned him his upcoming title shot all ended in head kick knockouts, a facet previously absent from his arsenal. The wins earned him bonuses from the UFC, with the promotion anointing his win over Luke Rockhold 2013’s Knockout of the Year. Belfort was under TRT during that span.

Joe Rogan, a UFC employee since 1997, has trained in disciplines ranging from Tae Kwon Do to 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu. In his discussion with former UFC champion Matt Serra on his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, Belfort’s TRT use was brought up. “TRT Vitor…when we go down over eras of the greatest, most impressive fighters, there’s going to be a part of me that is sad that TRT Vitor has to come down to an end. It’s a part of me that’s very sad,” Rogan said. With the NSAC banning TRT and Belfort thus ending the treatment, Rogan remained unsure as to whether Belfort’s testosterone levels could naturally return to the normal range. “The question is, can he at this point in time, get to a point where he’s so healthy he can actually fight, not just get to a point where he can walk around, or get to a point where can have levels high enough so he can sustain a training camp?”

Vitor Belfort, Chael Sonnen and Dan Henderson have competed at an elite level while undergoing TRT. Their ages are 37, 37 and 44, respectively. Belfort previously tested positive for elevated testosterone levels in 2006, resulting in a nine-month suspension by the NSAC. When discussing his use of TRT in the past, Henderson said “I’ve been on it for six years, I’d be getting sick and laying on the couch more without it.” Shortly before being suspended, Belfort fought Henderson, losing a three-round decision. They fought again in November of 2013, with “TRT Vitor” becoming the first and only fighter to knock Henderson out in 42 career fights.

When comparing “pre-TRT Vitor” to “TRT Vitor”, the latter looks like the far superior fighter. At an age where most professional athletes retire from their respective sports, Belfort is handily disposing of top-level competition. But with Herbst confirming that Chael Sonnen has developed a dependency on the treatment, the question is whether Belfort will be able to reclaim his newfound form without it.

In May of this year, the fighter himself said he feels “like an animal” sans the treatment. He went on to say that he will be at a disadvantage in future fights. “My hormone stays at 200 today and the normal range is from 300 to 800. (TRT) raised my levels to a normal range according to the commission. My hormone was at the same level of my opponents’, so they are in advantage now,” Belfort said. Belfort passed his last random drug test. Between his and Dr. Steve’s statements, Belfort did not have an advantage in his last three victories. But to the trained eyes of Joe Rogan, Dana White and Jon Jones, testosterone replacement therapy does much more than level the playing field.

Belfort will fight Chris Weidman for the middleweight title on February 28th at UFC 184 in Los Angeles.

The photo at the top shows Vitor Belfort during his stint on TRT (left) and before said stint (right) Below is a video of Vitor Belfort (on TRT) defeating Luke Rockhold, as well as an ESPN post-fight discussion:

In this video, Dana White defends his stance on TRT. The physiology of the treatment is also explained by endocrinologist Dr. Margaret Wierman:

Apollo Brown & Ras Kass – Blasphemy Album Review

The general consensus among hip-hop fans is that while Ras Kass remains a solid lyricist, the West Coast MC’s body of work has been somewhat tarnished by sub-par production. Blasphemy, the fruit of his recent partnership with Detroit beatsmith Apollo Brown, has broken the chain of dysfunction.

Just as with previous collaborations with veterans OC and Guilty Simpson, Brown’s soul-sampled sounds have proven a perfect canvas for a wordsmith of Ras Kass’ caliber. As far as subject matter is concerned, Blasphemy is a well-rounded portrait of a self-aware and (obviously) imperfect man. Ras Kass sheds light on his own shortcomings and vices in addition to outing the hypocrisy and blasphemy of his environment.

Excluding the intro, there isn’t a hip-hop fan who won’t find at least a few pearls throughout the LP’s fourteen tracks. To begin with, the pair hit the ground running on “How to Kill God”, Ras Kass’ calculated denunciation of the proclaimed tenets of organized religion and the modus operandi of the Western world’s leaders. “H20”, featuring an always welcome verse from Pharaohe Monch, sees the Watts native delve into bittersweet introspection over angelic production.  The album’s second single, “Humble Pi”, serves as the duo’s lesson in humility, as a lack of mainstream success has kept Ras grounded, unlike hip-hop’s A-list titans.

A running (and fitting) theme on Blasphemy is that of human vice, beginning with “Please Don’t Let Me”, a track with some wise words for those who tend to flirt with disaster. Furthermore, with cuts like “Strawberry” and “Francine”, it’s evident that Ras Kass’ preferred poison is promiscuity, especially on the latter, in which he masterfully recounts a menage-a-trois with fatal consequences. A thematic outlier and stand-out track on the album is “48 Laws Pt.1”, a new and abridged take on Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. While they’ll certainly resonate with young upstarts in the music industry, the MC’s revised rules are words even the average stiff could live by, mantras that can ably preserve one’s integrity and well-being.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper hip-hop album without a dose of unadulterated braggadocio. Hip-hop heads need not fret, “Giraffe Pussy” and “Drunk Irish”, both featuring some of rap’s top spitters, will aptly satisfy their need for what is colloquially known as “rappity-rap”. Moreover, on “Animal Sacrifice”, Ras Kass venomously sets the record straight on what constitutes a true MC.

The LP’s final track, “Bon Voyage”, pays tribute to the lost, among them hip-hop’s many late greats, a finale befitting such a reflective album.

Blasphemy comes out on October 28th.

Grade: 8.5/10

Gems: How to Kill God, H20 ft. Pharaohe Monch & Rakaa Iriscience, Giraffe Pussy ft. Royce da 5’9”, Bishop Lamont & Xzibit, Animal Sacrifice, Humble Pi, 48 Laws Pt.1, Francine

See also: Ras Kass – Soul on Ice (1996), OC & Apollo Brown – Trophies (2012), Guilty Simpson & Apollo Brown – Dice Game (2012)

Slaine – The King of Everything Else Album Review

Boston-bred MC Slaine has never been shy about his drug- and alcohol-fueled adventures. His latest opus, The King of Everything Else, is a full-length account of those adventures.

The LP is nothing if not cathartic, and for good reason. From the album’s opening track, “No Handouts”, it is made clear that Slaine has a lot of emotional baggage, the probable root cause of years of drug and alcohol abuse. Indeed, brutally honest tales of sex, drugs, and firewater are abundant on The King of Everything Else. Lyrically, the MC’s wordplay is sharp, his storytelling detailed and, at times, darkly comical. The production, for the most part, has an air of orchestrated recklessness, a perfect match for Slaine’s heavy-hearted rhymes. Early standouts include “Dot Ave”, a portrait of the complacency and intoxicated limbo that plagues those hailing from Boston’s Dorchester Avenue, and “Pissed it all Away”, where Slaine predicts his decline into irrelevance, the product of his constant debauchery. On “The Years”, Slaine recounts the years-long cycle that begins with the childhood dream of playing pro baseball. His aspirations quickly shift to being an MC, prompting a move to New York before his addictions inevitably land him back in Boston, fearing for his life. The tale ends with him avoiding a potentially fatal conflict and a reinvigorated desire to hone his craft. Another gem is the Statik Selektah-produced “Our Moment”, which depicts a tumultuous relationship of Slaine’s, one that hits both extremes of the emotional spectrum, but very little in between.

Slaine’s long history of using drugs is a running theme on The King of Everything Else. In fact, one could argue that the album is overly saturated with his dope-fueled shenanigans. In the rapper’s defense, he’s shed light on some of addiction’s many facets. On “Bobby Be Real”, Slaine plays Dr. Jekyll to the doped up “Bobby’s” Mr. Hyde, with Tech N9ne and Madchild aiding in the storytelling. “Dopehead”, featuring Special Teamz cohort Jaysaun, is a portrait of the typical junkie/tweaker, from the raggedy appearance to the never-ending quest for the next fix. The next stop on the drug train is “Come Back Down”, where Slaine, Checkmark and Vinnie Paz look for a permanent oasis from their many hardships, opting to keep desperately chasing that ever-elusive high. Finally, on “Gettin’ High”, produced by La Coka Nostra’s DJ Lethal, Slaine and West Coast MC Demrick each narrate their introduction to their respective poisons of choice.

When considering Slaine’s recent sobriety, The King of Everything Else seems like the ultimate purging of his demons. Underneath the trifecta of vices that is booze, drugs and pussy, the LP is his effort to rid himself of his tempestuous past. With all the soul-baring tales he’s told, if this album doesn’t do it, nothing will.

Grade: 8/10

Gems: No Handouts, Bobby Be Real ft. Tech N9ne & Madchild, Pissed it All Away, The Years, Hip Hop Dummy ft. Apathy & Bishop Lamont, Our Moment, Defiance ft. Rite Hook, Gettin’ High ft. Demrick

Dilated Peoples – Directors of Photography Album Review

While Dilated Peoples were on an eight-year group hiatus, Evidence, Rakaa Iriscience and DJ Babu didn’t remain idle in their solo careers. With their long-awaited fifth album, Directors of Photography, it appears as though their time apart has served them well.

Contrary to their previous efforts, the production was kept mostly in house, a change befitting the album’s title. Evidence and Babu admirably handle the bulk of the duties this time, namely on bangers like “Trouble” and “Hallelujah”. While the number of guest producers is kept to a handful, those enlisted are some of hip-hop’s best. Long-time collaborator The Alchemist sets the stage for Rakaa and Evidence on “Cut my Teeth”, where both MCs recount the many lessons learned from growing up in the Mid-City and Venice areas of Los Angeles, respectively. On the album’s first single, “Good as Gone”, produced by the almighty DJ Premier, Dilated silences the critics and doubters, the inevitable bi-products of their longevity in hip-hop. With “Let Your Thoughts Fly Away”, the group does just that, providing listeners with a mental oasis over a Diamond D beat slightly reminiscent of Mos Def’s “Kalifornia”. But of all the LP’s featured beatsmiths, it’s Seattle’s Jake One that steals the show with “Show me the Way”, in which Dilated treasures not just the success they’ve accrued, but the decades-long grind preceding it.

Lyrically, Rakaa and Evidence have reached a stage affectionately known as “grown man rap.” The days of straight braggadocio are not altogether gone, but the MCs have clearly taken a more personal approach to this album. On a handful of tracks, Dilated waxes poetic about lessons learned (“Cut my Teeth”), living life to the fullest (“Show me the Way”) and enjoying hard-earned success while still wanting more (“The Bigger Picture”). If Directors of Photography has any flaws, it’s that it leaves its audience wanting to know more about said directors. The group takes the listener on a journey unlike those of their previous albums while leaving many questions unanswered. In short, Dilated Peoples, even while artfully venturing into new lyrical territory, are not ready to bare their souls just yet.

In summation, Directors of Photography shows no ill effects of the trio’s long layoff. Five albums into a stellar career, the group is as hungry as they were on their 2000 debut, The Platform. Combining that drive with eight years’ worth of maturation, Dilated Peoples have crafted one of this year’s best LPs.

Grade: 9/10

Gems: Cut My Teeth, Show me the Way ft. Aloe Blacc, Let Your Thoughts Fly Away, Century of the Self ft. Catero, Opinions May Vary ft. Gangrene, Trouble, Hallelujah ft. Fashawn, Rapsody, Domo Genesis, Vinnie Paz & Action Bronson