24 years of blood, sweat, and tears have brought the Toronto Raptors to the NBA Finals and a chance to deliver a championship against the favoured defending champions Golden State Warriors. Sound familiar?
For long time Canadian fight fans, it should.
Carlos Newton should always be remembered as the first Canadian UFC champion, defeating Pat Militech at UFC 31 in 2001. But he would lose the belt six months later to Matt Hughes at UFC 34.
It was the story of another Canadian, Georges St-Pierre that draws on some close parallels with the Raptors road to glory.
Remember GSP’s devastating submission title loss to his idol, Matt Hughes at UFC 50 in 2004. Matt Hughes was the LeBron James and the Golden State Warriors of the welterweight division at the time. After the fight, a sombre GSP – at 23 years old – admitted he made mistakes and had too much respect for Hughes in the octagon.
“Rush” was second best at 170 pounds.
In the NBA, that might earn you a conference championship. In the UFC, it might earn you a pat on the back before a kick in the butt by your trainer.
It would take another five fights and just under two years, including squeaking by another sure fire Hall-of-Famer in B.J. Penn to earn another crack at the belt and Hughes at UFC 65 in November 2006.
It’s worth noting that MMA was still officially banned in most provinces of Canada at the time. The province of Quebec hosted its first UFC 83 event in April 2008. British Columbia jumped onboard in 2010, hosting UFC 115. Ontario followed suit in 2011, hosting UFC 129.
Imagine if basketball was banned in all provinces except Ontario. Would there be a Steve Nash or a Canadian basketball program for Canadians to be proud of today?
In the rematch, GSP drew on his experience to shut down Hughes’ grappling and then stunned him with a head kick to shock the world and win his first welterweight crown. It remains a high water mark for Canadian MMA.
The win introduced GSP to the world and although he shockingly lost the belt by underestimating Matt Sera at UFC 79, and then regained it at UFC 83, he would go on to defend the belt nine consecutive times, earning the respect of fans around the world and transcending the sport.
Like St-Pierre, the Raptors cannot stand around and admire the Warriors in the Finals. Too much respect and the Warriors will run them off the court.
The Warriors need to get introduced to “We the North,” from the get-go.
Through players like Damon Stoudamire, Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, Demar Derozan, Kyle Lowry, and now Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors eventually transcended basketball from a popularity standpoint to now being on the cusp of all-time greatness.
Can Raptors bring it home in their first attempt against a formidable defending NBA champion?
If I were coach Nick Nurse, I would play GSP’s UFC 50 and UFC 65 fights for the team in the film room. Hell, bring in GSP himself for a locker room pep talk or two.
Because the Raptors are in a dogfight for the NBA championship.