Judge John Floyd knows that Chuck Norris has never told a lie. Once Chuck Norris says something, it's the truth.
"Knockouts, not tap-outs!"
Is it possible that Chuck Norris is actually as cool as people jokingly make him out to be? If he works out a few tiny bugs in his unique new competitive martial arts league, he may have a case.
Facts of the Case
In each episode of World Combat League: Season One, two teams of six professional martial arts fighters face off in 12 one-on-one matches, each fighter having just three minutes to score a knockout or do as much damage to his or her opponent (within the confines of the rules) as possible. The team that has earned the most points from the three judges at the end of all 12 rounds wins. To keep things exciting, there is no grappling or ground fighting allowed, and fighters can be penalized (which means points for the opposing team) for stalling or being too timid.
I have to confess that the first time I read the title World Combat League: Season One, I snickered out loud. Envisioning something akin to a low-rent marriage of the XFL and American Gladiators, I giddily volunteered to review the first season on DVD. What I failed to remember was that before he starred in a lot of bad movies with really cool titles (A Force of One, Good Guys Wear Black, Silent Rage, An Eye For An Eye, and The Octagon, to name a few), started hawking exercise equipment with Christie Brinkley, and became a pop culture punch line, Norris was a six-time world karate champion and a serious, passionate advocate of the fighting arts. With apologies to Chuck, I'm pleased to say that I was completely wrong in my assumptions about his latest endeavor. The World Combat League is a great combination of the team sport concept and good, old-fashioned full-contact kickboxing.
For starters, the fighters signed to the WCL are accomplished athletes. Names like Raymond Daniels, Jeri Sitzes, Thomas Longacre, Kelly Leo, and Kevin Engel may not be immediately recognizable to the average viewer, but fans of organized fighting sports will know them and many of their league peers. Once these folks step into the ring, it's clear that this isn't a barroom "Toughman" contest, but rather a well-structured and strictly officiated sporting event. The quality of the personnel involved combined with the fast-paced format makes each WCL fight enjoyable to watch.
The rules are designed to avoid slow matches fought in a heap on the canvas or won by fighters who spend most of their time in a defensive posture. The WCL ring is just that—a padded ring with no ropes or cage to back into for support. The outside edge of this arena is out of bounds, and any fighter deliberately moving into it to evade an opponent's attack is penalized. A fighter in this red area also cannot score any points, no matter how effectively his or her counterattacks land, while the attacker still in the ring proper continues to be awarded points for solid kicks, punches, and knees until the referee steps in to move the action back inside. Any fight fan will tell you that there is nothing more disappointing than watching a much-hyped bout that ends up being a lot of clinching, bobbing, and weaving, without much actual striking. The WCL simply won't allow that kind of contest. If a fighter grabs and holds his or her opponent, the opponent and their team are awarded a point. If a fighter dances around too much without mounting any offense or backs straight away from an aggressive opponent without attempting to counter, they get a penalty and their opponent gets rewarded on the scorecard. This "No Passivity" rule is a brilliant innovation, one that truly sets this league apart from all other televised combat sports. The WCL promises fights, and fights are what you get in every episode.
When he developed the concept, Norris obviously understood the value of teams in promoting a sport to the masses. By giving each squad uniform colors and geographic affiliation, the WCL appeals to fans in a way that UFC and other fighting promotions simply cannot. Because the final tally of all six fighters' bouts makes up the overall team's final score, the league also overcomes a problem that has long plagued fight promoters—boring "undercard" matches. In this organization, every skirmish counts, and the least talented or accomplished combatant on a team can still be the one who leads the squad to victory.
Of course, any new sports venture is going to suffer some growing pains, and the WCL is no exception. The initial season is plagued by franchise and personnel shifts, with the Las Vegas Gators becoming the Oklahoma Destroyers after just one event, and another group of "Destroyers" from Denver being disbanded completely and their roster disbursed to other clubs. Former kickboxing champion Derek Panza goes from being a fighter for the New York Clash to its coach, while multi-form champ and former UFC star Guy Mezger transitions from coach to color commentator in mid-season. None of these moves would be quite as jarring if the television broadcast team would just acknowledge them, but so much emphasis is given to explaining the rules and commenting on the individual fights that no air time is dedicated to such league-wide matters. In fact, at no time during Season One are the league and conference standings even mentioned by the announcers or displayed on-screen, a rookie mistake that undermines some of the value of the promotion's innovative structure. It's difficult to get fans excited over a newly crowned champion if they have never really been given the sense that the victory was the result of a grueling season's worth of hard work. Even the 20-minute "Introduction to the World Combat League" lead-in doesn't provide any background material on the franchises or an overview of the league's inaugural campaign. A bit of background on the individual fighters and their coaches would also have lent more weight to the proceedings for those viewers not well-versed in the world of competitive martial arts.
Action movie enthusiasts will be pleased to see Don "The Dragon" Wilson doing ringside interviews in one episode, while those sharing my initial misgivings about the program will be grateful that Norris himself appears only in the show's opening titles and as a spectator in the crowd during some of the events. The only "bonus" feature on the DVD is the option to watch the fights individually, including those that were edited into highlight reels for time reasons in the television episodes.
World Combat League is a clever combination of the regional appeal of major team sports like baseball, football, and basketball, and the exploding popularity of combat-related sporting events. Its first season is exciting and rich with crowd-pleasing knockouts. With a few minor tweaks, this league could easily grow into a very lucrative, global sports empire.
Though the DVD presentation is a bit threadbare, this is a must-own for any
fan of boxing and/or full-contact martial arts. 20 years from now, when 3.5
billion people gather in front of their holographic monitors on WCL Championship
Saturday, won't it be nice to be able to say you were there with Chuck when it
all began? Not guilty.
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