Lets go back in time to January last year.
A fighter is signed to the WEC. Tall, rangy, athletic, and with a penchant for exhibiting excellent Muay Thai, this fighter would see his stock rise in the WEC after gathering three consecutive 'Knockout of the Night' bonuses in his debut year. All the factors added up, it seemed as though he would be destined to achieve success, and it seemed that 2010 was the year that Anthony Njokuani would eventually step up and shine.
Unfortunately for Njokuani, it is safe to say that 2010 has not been the most successful year in 'The Assassin's' career. Two consecutive losses - the most recent to a little known Polish prospect - has seen his stock plummet faster than the economy. This post will look at Anthony Njokuani's rapid ascent from 'prospect' to fringe contender in the WEC, and look at the factors that contributed to his fall from grace.
When Anthony Njokuani was signed to the WEC in January 2009 last year, he seemed to show signs that he was a potential star in the making. Njokuani had been making a name for himself in small-to-mid tiered organisations, with his dangerous Muay Thai style and habit of knocking out opponents in Kickboxing and MMA events. His flair for striking obviously caught the eye of the Zuffa officials, who aimed to introduce him to the broader audience by pairing him up with Ed Ratcliff in his promotional debut. With both fighters showing a preference for the stand up game, it was the perfect chance for Njokuani to start his WEC career with a bang.
Unfortunately for Njokuani, injuries to Ratcliff meant that he had to withdraw from the event. In his place, the WEC recruited another debutant, Benson Henderson; now the current WEC Lightweight Champion, but back then, little more than a promising prospect. Whilst facing a replacement who steps up on short notice is usually advantageous - unless that replacement happens to be Chris Leben - for Njokuani, his new opponent presented 'the worst matchup stylistically' that he could have wished for. Instead of fighting a fellow striker who would happily trade blows with him, Njokuani found himself fighting a wrestler, and if Njokuani had thought he would just go in there and knock Henderson out, he soon found out that he would be wrong. Henderson utilised his wrestling to secure takedowns in round one, and it was his wrestling that enabled him to secure a Guillotine choke in round two.
According to Njokuani, the fight with Henderson 'opened his eyes' to the various aspects of MMA. He recognised that in order to become a well-rounded fighter, he would have to work harder on his ground game and Jiu-Jitsu. The WEC obviously recognised that Njokuani had potential and they opted to give Njokuani another chance at WEC 40 against Bart Palaszewski. Although 'The Assassin' once again displayed his flaws, i.e. his lack of wrestling ability, all his ground-game shortcomings were forgotten as he demonstrated his vicious Muay Thai striking to earn his first 'Knockout of the Night' honours.
In hindsight, it was probably due to Anthony's striking prowess that resulted in fans learning little about wrestling progress. In his next match, Njokuani knocked out his opponent in the second round after a slow start, and it was not until his fourth WEC fight that fans finally got a chance to see some elements of his improved wrestling.
This is slightly ironic, because out of all his KO's of the Night, it is the Chris Horodecki one that stands out in people's minds - the jumping head kick whilst Horodecki was retreating - but in the excitement of that knockout, what might have escaped people's memories was how much Njokuani's wrestling had visibly improved in that fight. Njokuani stuffed Horodecki's takedown attempts, and at one point in the fight, managed to take Horodecki down before briefly maintaining the mount. As good as this may sound, sceptics remained unconvinced. Chris Horodecki was a striker, not a wrestler, and he only resorted to wrestling because, to paraphrase Frank Mir who was commentating the fight, "his opponent's strengths were better than his own".
Putting the wrestling debate to one side, one thing that was definitely improving for Njokuani was his status within the WEC. Following three consecutive impressive victories, Njokuani found himself conducting more interviews, being featured in more articles, and in general, being exposed more to the wider audience. As stories of his difficult childhood emerged, fans soon had another reason to respect Njokuani other than for his striking, as his rags-to-riches story allowed fans to empathise with the Nigerian-born fighter. In his own words, he confessed:
"I can feel that they're trying to put me out there...since [the WEC] put my name out there, more and more people are noticing me".
And so as the year drew to a close, Anthony Njokuani had risen from being a 'nobody' to become one of the 'must-watch' fighters in the WEC. Both his relaxed demeanour outside the cage, and his aggressive striking style inside had won him many supporters and plaudits. The script was set: Anthony Njokuani was destined to earn himself a title fight in 2010.
For Njokuani, the first obstacle in his path to 2010 glory was in the form of Shane Roller, a decorated wrestler holding 3-time All-American honours at Oklahoma University. To his fans, this was the perfect match to jud ge whether Njokuani had kept to his promise and improved upon other areas of his game. Unfortunately for 'The Assassin', Roller's wrestling-orientated strategy was too much: Roller wasted no time in shooting for the takedown, and once he had Njokuani down, worked diligently to keep him there before securing the win via a Rear Naked Choke.
Although he had been out-grappled with relative ease, there were some positives that could be taken from the Roller fight. Anthony had shown slight improvements with his wrestling; he managed to stand up after Roller's first takedown, and he worked hard to defend Roller's repeated attempts although in the end, Roller's skill in wrestling prevailed. Another factor was Roller's wrestling credentials; it would be unlikely that Anthony would have to face anyone else in the WEC with the wrestling accolades of Shane Roller - only Kamal Shalorus can boast better credentials - so perhaps it is more fair to say that Roller's wrestling was impressive rather than Njokuani's wrestling was poor.
Whilst the most faithful supporters hoped that Njokuani would keep improving on his wrestling as he tried to work his way back to contention, some fans were unconvinced and doubted whether Njokuani would ever possess the wrestling required to reach the pinnacle of the sport. Then, a couple hours after the match, Njokuani posted this now-infamous message out of the blue:
Roller wants to come out and say that was easy. I don't think so. Let me be in the right state of mind and will see if its easy fag. Be a man and stand. We're here to fight, not make love.
For the supporters of the hard-hitting Nigerian striker, the message came as both a shock and a disappointment. It showed that Njokuani did not seem to fully understand the 'mixed' aspect of Mixed Martial Arts, and his remark hinted that Njokuani would never himself fully embrace the ground game. Secondly, in the heat of the moment, Anthony used a derogatory homosexual term which would open the floodgates to discussions about homosexuality in MMA. Lastly, by insulting his opponent after the match via Twitter, Njokuani presented himself as a sore loser with a juvenile mentality.
Although Njokuani apologised immediately after the incident, the damage was already done. Aside drawing negativity from fans, the message also seemed to negatively effect his standing with the WEC. Once a main event draw, Njokuani was relegated down to the preliminary events , and furthermore, he was given an unknown Polish debutant as his opponent. Basically, 'The Assassin' was in a situation where he had little to gain - if he had lost, his relevancy in the title ladder would take a huge fall, but even if he had won, his opponent's virtual anonymity meant that he would still have a long journey back to the top.
Regardless of the stature of his opponent, it was the outcome of the fight that mattered for Njokuani as he needed to re-enter the win column in order to progress back into title contention. However, on the night of the fight, his opponent had other ideas. Maciej Jewtuszki shocked the audience as he came back from an early knockdown to wobble Njokuani with a spinning back elbow, before following up to knockout his dazed opponent with a series of strikes. For his efforts on his promotional debut, Jewtuszki earned himself the 'Knockout of the Night' bonus which for Njokuani, must have felt like rubbing salt into a wound.
So where does Njokuani stand now? With two consecutive losses, the road back to the top will be tough for Anthony. With one thoughtless Tweet he had managed to ostracise many of the fans that he had gained during his successful streak in 2009. Other factors, including his dubious ground game, and his age means that it is difficult to truly predict whether he'll ever develop the 'well-roundedness' to ever challenge for the WEC belt. Perhaps an exciting fight, against Ed Ratcliff or Kamal Shalorus can help Njokuani regain some of those who defected, or maybe he will demonstrate his wrestling in his next match to show that he has what it takes to compete in high level MMA.
For a fighter who was just last year regarded as a prospect, Njokuani now faces the possibility of losing his job if he doesn't win in his next match.
What a difference a year makes.
(Image via www.fighters.com)