The Prince of Persia

Poor Kamal Shalorus! Once the raucous Arco Arena crowd at last Sunday’s World Extreme Cagefighting matches figured out the “Prince of Persia” was Iranian, the boos rained down as if Shalorus was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself. Not that the Iranian native was looking for sympathy. In fact, Shalorus, who wrestled for Great Britain in the 2004 summer Olympics and currently teaches grappling at the American Combat Association, seemed to relish his role as the Axis of Evil’s sole representative at Arco, needling the decidedly partisan mob into a frenzy.

It’s called showmanship, and it’s one of the elements that makes mixed martial arts the most exciting sport on the planet. As the sixth fight on a card featuring hometown hero Urijah Faber, Shalorus was obviously aware most of the people in the crowd, excluding the two Iranian-American teenagers who happened to be sitting next to me, were not on hand to see him. So he played the bad guy to great effect and, always a sucker for the underdog, I couldn’t help but root for him.

I used to think showmanship was all ultimate fighting was about. When I’d encounter the sport while channel surfing—it’s a staple on both Spike TV and Versus—it reminded me of professional wrestling in the 1970s, when it was not unknown for a competitor to use a nail hidden in his tights to gouge out an opponent’s eyes. The difference, as I learned after watching Faber’s failed attempt to regain his WEC featherweight crown from Mike Brown at Arco last summer, is that the blood and guts being spilled inside the octagon are very, very real.

That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn by anyone who witnessed Faber, with a broken right hand, a dislocated left thumb and the heart of a true champion, battle the larger, stronger Brown the full five rounds last June. Faber lost by unanimous decision, but the WEC won thousands of new fans that night, including myself.

Faber gave the crowd their money’s worth and more, displaying frightening skills as both a striker and a wrestler before choking the clearly overmatched Raphael Assuncao into submission near the end of the scheduled three-round match. The roof nearly blew off the arena. Faber is to mixed martial arts what Sugar Ray Leonard was to boxing, a showman and fighter extraordinaire.

Nevertheless, the best bout of the night was between Shalorus and Dave Jansen. Jansen had won his previous 12 bouts, but the Prince of Persia proceeded to put on an Olympic freestyle-wrestling clinic for three rounds, taking Jansen to the mat time and time again. When it was over, the mob was yelling for Jansen, but the judges granted Shalorus the unanimous decision.

“Go Iran!” I brayed, much to the embarrassed delight of my young seatmates, who were understandably keeping their affiliations close to the vest.