–Kenny Rice

One of the most memorably violent hits in sports history did not take place in a cage or ring. It happened at home plate a block away from where the Strikeforce Grand Prix Heavyweight Semi-Finals will take place Saturday night.

Pete Rose collided with catcher Ray Fosse in the bottom of the 12th inning to score the winning run for the National League in the Baseball All Star game July 14, 1970 at a two week old–and since demolished–Riverfront Stadium. It was a stunning, indelibly etched example of a tough Cincinnati guy rising to the occasion in a major sports moment. Who else but the kid who grew up along the banks of the Ohio River, a fixture with the Reds, would risk his body in an exhibition game?

The Queen City might conjure images of the Reds, professional baseball’s oldest franchise; or the 1980’s hit sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati”; or for film buffs the hometown of Steven Spielberg; perhaps foodies delight in that wonderfully caloric concoction of spaghetti with chili and onions smothering it; and maybe for those of us old enough to remember, two Bengals’ teams that made Super Bowl appearances.

But Cincinnati is a town of big hitters. Even it’s about hitting a ball with a bat as revered native son Rose did a record 4,256 times in his major league career, fittingly breaking Ty Cobb’s mark with hit number 4,192 on September 11, 1985 in his hometown. And if you want to start a fight in Cincy, just walk into a neighborhood establishment and say you don’t think Pete belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Long before anyone heard of Rose, the biggest hitter was doing it with gloved fists. Georgia born but Cincinnati raised¬† Ezzard Charles took the world heavyweight crown from Joe Louis in 1950, when boxing reigned supreme and that belt was the most coveted prize in all of sports. In 1954 Charles became the trivia answer to the only man to go the 15 round distance with the unbeaten Rocky Marciano. Months later in a rematch he lost to the Rock via an eighth round KO that Ring Magazine dubbed “Fight of the Year.”
They will never make fighters like “The Cincinnati Cobra” and his generation again. He finished with 93 wins, 52 by knockout, in 119 fights.

In the late 1970’s through the 1980’s “The Hawk” swooped down on the boxing world with a vengeance. Aaron Pryor became the world’s best light welterweight, the Associated Press would name him “Junior Lightweight Fighter of the Century,” after a career of 11 title defenses, a 39-1 record with 35 victories by way of knockout. His triology of bouts with Alexis Arguello rank among the greatest sets in combative sports history. Their first encounter in 1982, a 14th round TKO win for Pryor was widely considered “The Fight of the Decade.” Pryor, after battling a series of personal problems is a minister who still makes Cincinnati home. His Hall of Fame career makes him one of the greatest fighters pound for pound to ever step through the ropes.

A city well regarded for Golden Gloves tournaments and talented young fighters, including two time Olympian Rau’shee Warren who is trying to make the 2012 team, is a barometer for the change in the fighting game. Most local gyms are seeing fighters with fewer ounces in their gloves, working on their kicks and take downs more than their punches.

Emphatically showing the change in the Cincinnati, and the U.S. fight culture is the school teacher turned UFC Middleweight champ, Rich Franklin. When he took the belt from Evan Tanner June 5, 2005 it ushered in a new phase of big hitters from the city. Franklin had two successful title defenses and created a stir along the Ohio for the growing popularity of MMA.  He fought in his hometown in 2007 losing in his attempt, as with everyone else, at taking the championship from Anderson Silva.

As Josh Barnett and Sergei Kharitonov, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Daniel Cormier get ready to tangle to see who moves to the championship round, they should know they’ll be watched by an audience accustomed to hard charging athletes. It’s the first Strikeforce show in Cincinnati but not the first time this city has watched big hitters in action.


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