Brian Foster swung lead uppercuts furiously. No good. He went for a spinning heel kick but was caught and taken to the ground. He escapes and lets his opponent, Joao Zeferino, stand back up. They exchange again and this time Zeferino counters Foster after a right as he backs all the way back to the cage. It doesn’t look good for Foster. Zeferino gets Foster down but Foster reverses and lands a big shot that hurts Zeferino. Ground-and-pound punches and Foster celebrates but no referee stoppage. Foster lands a couple more punches and the referee finally waves it off. He’s done it. Brian Foster has won the tournament.
Amidst the chaos of injuries, terrible refereeing (particularly in the finals) and an unexpected rematch where Foster lost to Zeferino earlier in the quarterfinals, World Series of Fighting’s eight-man Lightweight tournament at WSOF 25 began and concluded on Saturday night.
The Granite City, Illinois fighter joined the likes of MMA legends Royce Gracie and Dan Severn and recent UFC returnee, Roan “Jucao” Carneiro as part of the short list of fighters who’ve won one-night tournaments of that size.
Foster now minted himself as the official No. 1 contender to three-time defending WSOF lightweight champion and human wrecking machine Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje at a later date, expected to be around the spring of 2016. Foster went through quite a bit in three fights only to secure a matchup with a fighter capable of putting him through more in one. But at least Foster earned himself quite the high point of his MMA career.
The tournament really was a logical next step for a promotion that’s made very interesting choices, such as signing the disreputable Rousimar Palhares and making Jon Fitch and Yushin Okami headline over not one, but two championship fights.
The quarterfinals saw plenty of fast-paced action that yielded three first-round finishes. Zeferino submitted Foster with a heel hook. Former UFC lightweight Mike Ricci abruptly ended Joe Condon’s night with a head kick. Former two-time title challenger and tournament favorite Luis Palomino blitzed and finished Rich Patishnock. And Russian prospect Islam Mamedov gave longtime journeyman Jorge Patino a brutal beating the fight came close to being stopped in the first.
As the ugly side of the one-night tournament would show, both Mamedov and Ricci were unable to continue due to a knee and hip injury, respectively. Patino, who was all but beaten to a pulp by Mamedov, and Foster were elected as the replacement fighters. Thankfully for Patino, his semifinal bout wouldn’t last long as Zeferino submitted him quickly with a heel hook. Foster, on the other hand, took a back-and-forth affair with Palomino and finished him with ground and pound in the late second round to set up the rematch.
Following six fights, there were already two confirmed injuries and Patino and Palomino were worse for wear and probably on their way to being medically suspended for at least three months apiece, if they’re fortunate. It’s a violent sport and injuries happen all the time but one-night tournaments are not sanctioned in a great deal of states for a myriad of safety reasons, the most notable being a higher risk to Second Impact Syndrome.
“Fighters have sufficient risks fighting once in a night and fighting more often sets them up for Second Impact Syndrome,” explains Dr. Margaret Goodman, a former ringside physician and neurosurgeon and now the current president of the Volunteer Anti-Doping Agency (VADA) in correspondence to MMA Fighting.
“SIS is a known, often-deadly condition where an athlete suffers what seems to be mild trauma — and may even be asymptomatic for a concussion — but experiences a second impact minutes to hours or perhaps a day or so later. The second impact may also be minor, but it results in a cascade of changes within the brain, producing rapid brain cell death.”
WSOF in conjunction with the Arizona Boxing and MMA Commission have created additional rules and safety precautions such as disallowing elbows until the finals and increasing the on-site physicians from two to three.
It may be an outdated format for the sport of mixed martial arts but one-night tournaments was what built MMA dating as far back as the first UFC events. WSOF executive vice-president Ali Abdel-Aziz firmly believed that the fighters who went through the rigors of the event would come out better and more appreciated even if they didn’t win it all and he and Ray Sefo wanted to create that platform today.
After Saturday it’s hard to gauge if Foster really propelled himself to star status. WSOF 25 was a top trending topic on Twitter for portions of the night, though the network ratings are still to be collected. It’s not every night a fighter gets to win a tournament he had just lost in the opening round thanks in part to luck (or more specifically to injuries). But the back-and-forth finish and all but one fight ending in a finish made the tournament very action-packed and dramatic.
The refereeing left much to be desired. In the final bout, referee Chris Tognoni in the first round stopped the fight due to an inadvertent kick to a downed opponent but failed to restart the fight from the right position. Then in the final moments of the fight, Tognoni was slow to calling off the fight when Foster was already celebrating in victory having recognized Zeferino’s prone state first.
A fantastic night of fights coming from the tournament that had its expected share of injuries and an unexpected unlikely twist of a rematch and redemption narrative for Brian Foster being born out of it.
The tournament was everything it could possibly have been in only the unique way WSOF could have been.