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“What I Learned Watching …”, Vol. 1

July 11, 2011

From time to time I will share thoughts about sports events and other television shows that I watched on television or the internet, ranging from the popular to the peculiar and the obscure, with the goal of conveying what I learned watching that program unfold. While most of the lessons I take won’t be Earth-shattering, I suspect some will be surprising, while others reaffirming what I already know. Without further ado …

What I Learned Watching …

The USA 2(5):2(3) Brazil Women’s World Cup Quarterfinal – Never, ever, EVER count out Abby Wambach until the final whistle has blown.

Certainly a lesson that Brazil learned today as well.

Despite what I wrote in this space a few days ago, let me say that I was not surprised at all by this game.  I was not surprised that Brazil came out a bit lackluster, gifting the US their first goal with an autogol 75 seconds into the match.  I was not surprised that after the first 20 minutes, Brazil got things going and was for almost all intents and purposes except the final score, the better team out there.  I was not surprised that for the first 121 minutes of the match the US continued to show a lack of poise on the ball in the midfield, playing too directly and giving up possession too easily and too often – maybe it’s just not in the cards to expect or want otherwise.  I was not surprised Marta showed the class of both her talent (high) and sportsmanship (low), tying the match on a questionably retaken penalty kick – Referee Jacqui Melksham awarding the retake for “encroachment” by an yet-to-be-identified-by-FIFA US player as goalkeeper Hope Solo saved Brazil’s first attempt – coming from an even more questionable red card given to US defender Rachel Buehler on what was at best a 50/50 challenge on Marta, then putting Brazil ahead two minutes into extra time with a crafty chip to the only spot Solo couldn’t reach (despite the fact that Brazil was offsides in the buildup to the goal, but was not called for it), all the while leading her team in whining exercises and complaining to the refs about all slights, slings and arrows thrown her way, real and imagined, becoming the Villain of this Movie, whistled and booed by the mostly German-turned-pro-US crowd once she was yellow carded near the end of the 1st Half.  I was not surprised at the low quality of officiating for that matter, between the missed calls detailed above by both Melksham and her crew, and otherwise allowing the game to become chippy and petulant.

I was not surprised that the US not only showed fight, determination and resilience after going one player down, but actually played much better after the red card; After all, while we Americans don’t corner the market on such qualities, we consider it part of our national DNA, and expect our athletes to exhibit this in spades. Much has already been made about this game exemplifying this American spirit, and while that reeks of jingoism to me, maybe the Nike ad is right, and “Pressure Makes Us (the US team).”

Most of all, while the tying goal was a shock, I was not surprised that it was Abby Wambach who came through for the US when they needed her most.  The wily vet had frustrated Brazil’s backline from start to finish, getting under the skin of every player in a day-glo yellow shirt who complained that she went down from challenges too easily while in actuality taking the brunt of each encounter – in fact it was Wambach whom Marta was screaming at to get up and her subsequent protests to Melksham that earned her yellow card.  Her initial pressure precipitated the autogol, and in the 122nd minute when a fat lady somewhere was performing warm-up scales, Wambach headed in the equalizing goal off the type of chance she had struggled to finish earlier in the tournament, scoring in her third consecutive World Cup Quarterfinal game.  Absolutely, positively, unflinchingly, clutch.

Combine all this with the fact that the US has the best goalkeeper in the world, and the deciding penalty kicks were fait accompli, Solo providing the exclamation point by saving the attempt from the Brazilian defender responsible for the own-goal and finding not only redemption but some justification for the fiasco surrounding the 2007 World Cup loss to Brazil.  On a day when most, including this observer, thought Brazil was going to samba through the US and sashay down a gilded path (read: a Germany-free path, the hosts and two-time defending Champs having been eliminated by Japan in the role of uncooperative patsy) to their first Women’s World Cup title, it was steely American resolve – and a bit of jazz-style improvisation on the tying goal – that won out.

Next, a date with plucky France in the Semis on Wednesday (7/13), and if they get past that as I expect, a potential US rematch with Sweden for the World Cup title could make several circles full, not only for Swedish born US coach Pia Sundhage, not only for the veterans of the last two US World Cup squads that went home empty as favorites, but for a generation of women athletes inspired by the exploits of the 1999 Women’s World Cup Champions.

The Wladimir Klitschko-David Haye Heavyweight Title Fight aka “The Hamburg Flop” – If interest in Boxing in general and the Heavyweight Division in particular wasn’t on life support in the United States before this flop of a fight, it had to have flat-lined afterwards.

I was going to write a full round-by-round diary about the alphabet-soup World Heavyweight Championship boxing match, held the previous weekend (7/2) on a rainy night in a Hamburg, Germany soccer stadium.  I’d taken copious notes, jotting down some thoughts about the popular decline of Heavyweight boxing and scoring the bout as it progressed, but in the immediate aftermath I decided it would be a tedious waste of time.  Reviewing my notes brought the realization that I was more entertained by HBO’s announcing team of Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, Roy Jones, Jr. and Harold Letterman, than the actual fight itself.

More on the broadcast in a minute, but first, A quick digression: Classic fights usually have a clever nickname, coined beforehand to help with promotion and only lasting as tribute if the fight lived up to the hype, or once in a while a name emerges afterwards.  “Rumble In The Jungle” (Foreman-Ali) and “Thrilla in Manila” (Ali-Frazier III) were creations of the furtive mind of promoter Don King (Only In America!), while one fight that posthumously earned a great name was “Stone & Sugar” between Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard that later became known as the “No Mas” fight when Roberto Duran wouldn’t leave his stool for the 8th round, allegedly uttering the phrase “No Mas” to the referee.

Often cited as one of the greatest fights in boxing history for it’s eight minutes of brutal, non-stop action and a benchmark for how entertaining a fight can/should be, Hagler-Hearns was presciently called “The War” beforehand by promoter Bob Arum.  In a bit of irony the promoters for Klitschko-Haye also tried to call this fight “The War”, and while there certainly was an entertaining war of words beforehand between Haye the Lippy Brit (not his real nickname, which is “Hayemaker”, just what I call him) and “Dr. Steelhammer” Klitschko (no, it’s not a porn name, that’s his nickname) doing his best Borat-meets-Ivan Drago impression, there were only a few of what could charitably be called skirmishes inside the ring, which after seven rounds had me calling for “No Mas” (Unfortunately the fight lasted all 12 rounds).

What started out as two dancing bears pawing at each other turned into a plodding flop fest, with Haye by my count going to the canvas 11 times, many of them blatant attempts to draw referee intervention.  Haye succeeded twice, drawing a warning for Klitscko with his 5th fall and getting a point deducted from Klitschko with his 6th flop (not that it made a difference in the final judging, as Klitscko took a unanimous decision, winning at least 8 rounds on all three scorecards), calling to mind the great flopping works of Vlade Divac and Manu Ginobili, and making the fact that Haye wore and English National Soccer jersey to the ring a bit of foreshadowing. Haye also failed once, in effect having a point deducted from him when the referee counted his 10th flop as an official knockdown and gave him a standing eight count, something the entire broadcasting crew correctly identified as the flop it was while they commended the referee for his decision.

Which leads me to the other thing I learned, that Larry Merchant has emerged as the Crown Prince of the Curmudgeonly Arts.  I enjoy a good curmudgeon.  I come from a long line of curmudgeons myself.  Picking his spots, Merchant delivered more verbal jabs during the fight than either fight delivered actual jabs, with Lampley (I call him “Lamps”) and Jones serving as perfect foils. Right before the fight started, Merchant stated that “David Haye had blown his horn … will he charge?” and offered that the weather in Hamburg that evening (inside the open air stadium) was fit “mainly for walruses.” Merchant answered his own question halfway through the fight, expressing the realization many had likely reached by saying “Haye is a better salesman than a fighter.” The crew’s best exchange of the night came at the beginning of the 8th round, right after I said “No Mas” and mentally checked out on the actual fight, with Merchant opining in his slow, drawn-out articulation that “Haye talked big, maybe he dreamed big, but he ain’t fighting big.” Lamps and Jones then explain that Haye never thought he’d win rounds, that he wasn’t looking to win a decision but rather land his ‘Hayemakers’ and win the fight that way, causing Merchant to exclaim, “He’s looking to land one punch Roy, and win the Heavyweight Championship of the World? THAT’S IT? That’s the whole plan? … Well it ain’t a good plan!” and in response to Roy’s mumbled but affirmative reply, said “He’s wasting my time!”

Turns out though Merchant was only warming up, as after another Haye flop and a quick history lesson from Merchant on two successful little vs. big boxer strategies (I’m sure Michael Spinks appreciated the shout out for his victory over Larry Holmes more than his broadcast partner Jones liked Merchant’s omission of his win over John Ruiz, even quizzing him about it afterwards) and how Haye’s strategy was “neither”, Merchant told Lamps to “Wake me up when the fight starts!” As the 10th round finished Merchant apparently also wanted the fight to end sooner than it would, calling Haye’s performance “humiliating,” stating Haye had “three minutes” to prove he’s not a “Lucky Loser” (when in fact he had six minutes, two rounds left in the 12 round fight), while observing the vast soccer stadium had become a “flop house” and wondering aloud if Haye would ever show “what is he made of?”  Merchant then noted that Haye was actually the betting favorite in British sports books, and proclaimed that those who bet on Haye to knockout Klitschko were betting that Haye would “take some chances in the ring too,” further declaring as the last round began that some British middleweight fighter I’ve never heard of would have “put up a better fight” against Klitschko.  Once the fight mercifully ended, Merchant pointedly asked “Why is Haye raising his hand? Is he just happy that this mess is over with?”, and even had the cojones to ask Haye in the post-fight interview if Haye was “more sound than fury?”  (To his credit, Haye acceded the idea and said that while he was hampered by a broken toe suffered three weeks before the fight, he gave his best, that Klitschko was a great fighter and he thanked the American audience for watching).

It really was a virtuoso performance by Merchant, as the plaintive boredom and accumulating disgust emanating through the microphone headset was palpable. In the age of hometown/home team sports broadcasters, rarely do you hear neutral observers in the broadcasting booth recognize the same farce you’re experiencing with such candor and abandon, and as such Merchant was a blast of fresh cold air on a hot summer day.

So in the inimitable style of the man himself, I leave my accounting of this event with the following:  Larry Merchant, Andy Rooney ain’t got nothing, on you.

The World Series of Poker $50,000 Poker Players Championship –  Try not to go all-in on a flush draw unless you’re sure you’re the favorite, if you can help it.  Also, most poker players are really boring when they are talking about poker.

ESPN3.com broadcast this event from the WSOP on Wednesday (7/6), streaming the final table unedited on a five-minute delay. Mercurial “Poker Brat” Phil Hellmuth, the 1989 WSOP Main Event Champion was seeking a record 12th WSOP Event Title, making the final table against what is annually the most loaded and toughest poker tournament.  This event has the highest buy-in at the WSOP ($50,000), limiting the field mostly to professionals and really wealthy amateurs, and instead of playing just one poker game, such as a variation of Texas Hold ‘Em, Seven Card Stud or Omaha, rotates the field through eight different games until arriving at No-Limit Hold ‘Em for the final table. Among poker professionals and lifers it’s the most coveted tournament bracelet (winners of each even receive not only 1st Place cash money but a precious metaled and jeweled bracelet that tends to vary in gaudiness in direct relations to the prestige of each event).

I describe Hellmuth’s game as “Death Of A Thousand Paper Cuts”: Heady, crafty, often conservative yet geared towards optimizing good cards and reads on opponents with opportunistic aggression. Among the other legends and rising stars at the final table included Brian Rast, already a bracelet winner at this series and someone who many observers believe is the best no-limit hold ‘em player going right now (and that includes Hellmuth), and cash game player Mihn “Ming” Ly, who has won millions of dollars at high-stakes games in Las Vegas and has made 12 WSOP Event final tables but has no bracelets to show for it.

In fact, it was those three players who outlasted the rest of the table. Hellmuth at times looked every bit of the dominating hold ‘em player he can be when his head is screwed on right, eliminating 4th place finisher Owais Ahmed with a river Ace and sending Ming Ly home bracelet-less yet again in 3rd, while at other times backing up his reputation as someone who doesn’t handle bad beats well, as in a harbinger of Hellmuth’s ultimate doom, losing a huge hand to Rast before the last break that sent him off to dinner muttering to himself.  By and large though, Hellmuth was on his best behavior, often engaging in friendly (if boring) poker conversation with other players, avoiding the usual pompous self-affirmations (like my favorite “I can dodge bullets, baby!”) and even when things didn’t go his way, it was never the full Hellmuth eruption many have come to loathe or love, rather showing some unfamiliar restraint.

As the heads-up battle with Rast began, Hellmuth quickly stormed to a 5-to-1 chip lead with a series of steady pressure and brilliant reads, then even faster it all went kablooey on him.  In the last 10 hands of the tournament, Hellmuth went all-in with three flush draws against Rast’s favored hands, and lost all three hands, the last one ending the tournament and leaving Hellmuth to watch someone else win a bracelet he thought was his.

Even the live post-tournament interview with Hellmuth went against type, dejected but honest, self-effacing and decidedly non-bratty.  He analyzed his key losing hands, swore he wasn’t taking anything for granted when he had the 5:1 chip lead, and was seemingly upbeat despite earning his third second-place finish at this World Series. You could tell he wanted to hit out at his critics (and they are legion), mentioning them in the collective sense several times, but he stopped short of a defiant tone, tempered by not only his failure to win this tournament, but by the fact he was currently No. 1 in the WSOP Player of the Year Standings, with only the WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas and the seven events at WSOP Europe in Cannes, France in October remaining.  So he has that going for him, which is nice.

The FIFA U-17 Mens’s World Cup Semifinals and Final – Brazil doesn’t win every major soccer competition, it just seems that way.  (See above for further confirmation)

Uruguay beat Brazil 3-0 in the their semifinal match last Thursday before losing to host Mexico 2-0 for the title yesterday (7/10). Mexico had come from behind to make the final with two absolutely ridiculous goals, beating Germany 3-2. El Tricolor dominated a Uruguayan team clearly hungover from celebrating the conquering of their bitter border rivals, scoring in 31st and 90th+ minutes, and while worthy champions Mexico truly benefited from being the home team the entire tournament, especially in front of 117,000 fans in Estadio Azteca for the final.  Brazil also lost to Germany 4-3 in the 3rd place Game, an institution long forgotten by American Sports, but still utilized in the World’s Game where a larger emphasis is placed on participation instead of the Lombardi-esque “Winning is the Only Thing” mentality.

Looking back on the 21st Century to date, Brazil has won the 2002 World Cup, both the 2003 U-17 and U-20 World Cups, the 2005 and 2009 Confederations Cups, the 2004 & 2007 Copa América (South America’s Regional championship), and still no Women’s World Cups.  Which, if you consider that the U-17 & U-20 World Cup is held every two years, the Copa América is being held for the fourth time since 2000, and the fact that Brazil is favored to win every tournament they enter, bar none, seven titles out of the 25 major tournaments held since 2000 isn’t the hit rate one might expect, even if it is impressive on it’s own merits for every other soccer nation.

I also leaned that snot-nosed punks are the same the world over.  As to be expected with teenagers, the players I watched were capable of both the spectacular and the spectacularly dumb, and the most alarming thing I see is how they ape their adult soccer heroes in all the bad behavioral aspects, from flopping to time wasting to arguing with referees and many other things you shouldn’t see teenagers do in front of adult supervision.  Meaning that it’s good to know that generating entitled prodigy of overbearing parents and coaches isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon.

… “Rocco’s Dinner Party” – Professional chefs are an arrogant bunch, especially when you shove a TV camera in front of them.

Despite the facts that I dislike most “reality” TV, that I usually abhor all food competition shows other than Iron Chef (both Japan and America work for me), and that I think Rocco DiSpirito can be smug and needlessly ball-breaking, I really enjoy this new summer offering on Bravo.  To quickly sum up: Rocco “invites” three culinary professionals from various corners of the gastronomic career spectrum to his stylish New York City “loft” to compete for $20,000.  The competition is two-phase, first preparing what each contestant considers to be their signature dish for Rocco’s tasting approval, from which he sends one contestant home and has the other two prepare competing themed dinner party experiences, complete with décor (as helped by New York event planner Jes Gordon. Who? Exactly.) and multi-course dinners that must be prepared in four hours and executed within one hour. Rocco also “invites” a series of C-list celebrities, food industry luminaries, actors, models, media executives and fashion auteurs – the personalities Bravo has made a living off of over ht past decade – to attend these mini-suarés and help him decide which contestant threw the better dinner party.

To date four episodes have aired, and in spite of the short series duration, some patterns have emerged. There is always a professional restaurant chef among the contestants who thinks waaaaaay too much of their own ability and their food while relentlessly bagging on other competitors and their abilities, which provides ample opportunity for comeuppance.  There’s always the contestant with a boulder-sized chip on their shoulder, whether they be caterers with no formal culinary education or the aspiring high school culinary arts teacher that actually won his competition over an accomplished restaurant chef.  There’s always some sort of “twist” thrown at the competitors that strain to appear spontaneous and unscripted when the opposite is quite obvious, whether a guest offers one of their own spice seasoning products (specifically, Bravo veteran Padma Lakshmi) and Rocco asks them to prepare an amuse bouche in five minutes using the spice, or after the contestants have started preparing their dinners, Rocco coming into the kitchen and telling them one of the guests is a strict vegetarian or has other dietary restrictions that nullify half of their menus. Rocco always likes to test each competitors patience and tolerance with an obnoxious mix of condescension, arrogance, teasing and ridicule, like the time he said one contestant’s blending of an avocado into a sauce was “tragic” – something I’m certain many cooks, chefs and home gastronomes versed in Latin cuisine, found as laughable as I did.

Lastly, the reveal of dinner party attendees as they arrive is always the best part of the show, replete with D.L Hughley, Joey Fatone and Chazz Palminteri sightings and crossover appearances by other Bravo personalities that, as a non-avid Bravo show viewer, neither do not  nor care to recognize.  I always find the collection of people to be awkward, forced, and cutesy with regard to the theme of the dinner party – like inviting the owner of a nouveau “speakeasy” themed restaurant (Marcus Samuelsson) to a speakeasy-themed party, or an all-Italian guest list for a traditional Italian family style dinner – and frankly, most of whom project as people I would never invite to a small dinner party anyway.  All of which to Bravo’s credit makes for some quality entertainment from both an intentional and unintentional comedy perspective.

My only fear is that entitled faux-sophisticates who throw regular dinner parties and bridezillas on a budget will now think it’s OK to ask 3 (or more) chefs to prepare their signature dish at their expense at the customer’s kitchen before choosing one to work the actual event, making an already ultra-competitive trade even more cutthroat.  Then again, I cater my own parties, and only invite people I like, so maybe I also learned that watching “Rocco’s Dinner Party” fulfills my personal need for schadenfreude on a weekly basis.

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From → Random, Soccer, Sports

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