Butterbean set to shake up MMA

MURRAY GREIG -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:37 AM ET

In the surreal world of 380-pound Eric Esch, anything, it seems, is possible.

At a temple in Beijing's Forbidden City, he was mobbed by women who thought he was a white Buddah.

The 35,000 fans who paid to watch him fight on a K-1 card at Japan's Nagoya Dome gave him the kind of ovation usually reserved for sumo royalty.

His appearance caused a major traffic jam outside the Wembley Conference Centre in the heart of staid old London.

And when Esch fought in Queensland, Australia, local media hailed it as "the sporting event of the decade."

And all of this happened to the 39-year-old father of three in just the past few years.

DEFECTION?

Yup, there can be little doubt that the Alabama behemoth known as "Butterbean" is the most famous boxer to defect to mixed martial arts (MMA).

Or is it really a defection?

"I think it's more a case of wanting to be where the action is," says the personable Esch, whose record in the sweet science is an impressive 77-7-4 (58 KOs).

"For me, it's all about the rush, the action. That's what fighting in the cage is all about. No runnin' and hidin'. No little bitty pitty-pat jabs and feelin' each other out.

"It's high-intensity, high- adrenalin action. And that's what the folks come to see."

On Dec. 28, when he climbs into the cage at the Shaw Conference Centre to face Edmonton's Nick Penner in the main event on First Blood, The Fight Club's debut card, Esch will try to notch his 12th MMA win against four losses.

"I still consider myself primarily a boxer ... that's what people know me for, and boxing is what's given me an opportunity to travel the world and meet so many wonderful folks," he says.

"But MMA is something I knew I wanted to try as soon as I saw it.

"Hey, I'm a four-round fighter, tops. MMA is tailor-made for a guy like me who just likes to get in there and hit.

"I don't go in for the ground game much. Same with the kicks. That stuff's not real practical when you're as big as I am. I like to punch. And as a trained boxer, I punch better than anybody in the cage. That's my calling card."

As a boxer, Butterbean is the undisputed "King of the Four-Rounders," with 17 of his 58 knockouts coming in the first round.

In his only foray beyond four, he went 10 heats with Larry Holmes in 2002, and even managed to drop the former world heavyweight champion with a left hook in the dying seconds before losing a unanimous decision.

"As a boxer, the first thing I found out about MMA was that very few of these guys can punch -- but they're all great athletes.

"And because most of 'em have some kind of wrestling backround or training in jiu-jitsu or karate, they learned a long time ago that there's more than one way to win a fight.

"My way, as a boxer with a knockout punch, probably isn't their way. I can almost guarantee that with every guy I fight. But that's what makes it so interesting, for the fighters and for the fans.

"Ever since I've come to MMA, I've seen how the crowds embrace the honesty of what happens in the cage. And with promoters like The Fight Club, who are dedicated to elevating the integrity of the sport, that's only gonna get bigger and better."

FOUR SHOWS BOOKED

The Fight Club, a subsidiary of Edmonton-based KO Boxing, has already booked the Shaw for four MMA shows in 2008, and is looking at other venues as well.

"Our ultimate goal is to raise the profile and integrity of the sport to where it will be on equal footing with the more established combat sports," said promoter Mark Sinclair.

"The fact that our first show is also featuring Canada's first officially sanctioned national championship cage match, a welterweight showdown between Jonathan Goulet and Jason MacKay, underlines our commitment.

"The Canadian Boxing Federation is now sanctioning MMA and providing impartial national rankings, so the days of every wannabe promoter dreaming up his own 'world' title matches are hopefully behind us.

"That kind of thing -- bogus titles, cards stacked with guys you've never heard of -- only serves to muddle the MMA pool and hurts the credibility of the sport."

That all sounds good to Butterbean -- as does TFC's pledge to pay MMA fighters better purses.

"It's a start ... but there's a long way to go before the pay is as good as boxing," he says.

"As long as they don't make me do all that ground training, I'm gonna have fun doin' this.

"Just don't ask me to roll around on the floor. That ain't my style."


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