Underrated Athletes

The Croatian Sensation

WHO: Toni Kukoc

WHAT: Underrated Basketball Player

WHY: Toni Kukoc was a Croatian basketball player who was active in the NBA from 1993 until 2006. The 6'11" Kukoc was truly an anomaly as he was an excellent perimeter shooter and also had the athleticism to play all five positions. Kukoc was a key member of the three-peat Chicago Bulls from 1996-1998. The man known as the Croatian Sensation and the Pink Panther (due to his long limbs) was also a huge international star during the first phase of his professional career. Kukoc quietly carved out a fantastic career for himself, a career that is arguably worthy of the Hall of Fame.

Prior to his NBA career, Kukoc played basketball for the Croatian team in the European League. He had quite the career in Europe and achieved numerous accolades. Kukoc was a part of three championship teams from 1989-1991 in the Euroleague. He would later go on to play in the top league in Italy and was also a champion there. The man just knew how to win plain and simple. His accomplishments in Europe are too numerous to enumerate but they did include being a three time Croatian Sportsman of the Year, the Euroleague Final Four MVP, a four time Mr. Europa Player of the Year, and numerous championships.

Kukoc was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1990 due to his reputation as being one of the top young international stars although he continued to play in Europe for a few more years. 

Kukoc was added to the Chicago Bulls active roster in 1993 to mitigate the loss of Michael Jordan, who briefly retired from basketball. He would immediately become a crucial part of the Chicago Bulls machine. Coach Phil Jackson realized the sheer athleticism and versatility Kukoc possessed and decided to use him as a lethal weapon off the bench once Michael Jordan returned.  During his Bulls tenure he averaged about 30 minutes and 15 points a game. One of his most impressive games was in 1996 against the Denver Nuggets while he was filling in for an injured Scottie Pippen. 

He and Jordan would prove to be a formidable duo en route to a Chicago victory. Kukoc finished with a final line of: 24 points, 10 assists, 4 rebounds, and 2 steals. This was typical of what Kukoc could do if he played on a regular basis. He would go on to play for the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, and Milwaukee Bucks. He had some moderate success despite his increasing age and decreasing minutes.

Kukoc was an excellent shooter which was even more amazing given his immense height and the fact that he was a few inches shy of being a living, breathing, mobile tree. There aren't that many big men with as accurate a shot as Kukoc. Kukoc was known for being Mr. Clutch and draining key three-pointers seemingly with ease. One of his most impressive shots came in a 1994 game against the Indiana Pacers. With seconds left in the game Reggie Miller hit a beautiful turnaround jumper to give the Pacers a two point lead with only .8 seconds left on the clock. In typical Reggie Miller fashion, he prematurely bows to the crowd after supposedly placing the final nail in the coffin. The Bulls were able to quickly inbound the ball to Kukoc who promptly hit an unfathomable game winning three-pointer right at the buzzer. In typical Toni Kukoc fashion he hugs his teammates and heads to the locker room without a whole deal of fanfare. Shots like these seemed pedestrian events for Kukoc. As of 2013 Kukoc is the last player to win the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award and an NBA Championship in the same year, a feat he accomplished in 1996. (Manu Ginobili almost accomplished the same but he won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award a year after winning a championship with the Spurs.) When all was said and done, Kukoc had won three NBA championships from 1996-1998, was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team in 1994, and won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award in 1996.

What made Kukoc such a good player? Perhaps it was his experience in the European circuit...or perhaps it was his odd pregame ritual. Former Chicago Bulls teammate Steve Kerr told NBA TV's Open Court the story of Kukoc's pregame preparations. Apparently, to get game ready Kukoc would eat, and eat, and eat. As Kerr states, "It's about three o'clock in the afternoon, four hours before the game. He orders this feast-salad, appetizer, huge plate of pasta, chicken, glass of red wine, a dessert like tiramisu and then he follows it up with an espresso, And I'm just in awe." I guess Popeye had spinach and Kukoc had an Italian feast. All joking aside, Kukoc was probably so successful in the NBA because he played at such an elite level in Europe for so many years. He was already battle tested and was able to draw upon his vast experiences when he entered the NBA.

Kukoc got lost in the all consuming Jordan/Pippen shadow (as anyone would) but he did carve out quite an impressive basketball career in his own way. A career that I believe is impressive enough to be enshrined in The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as soon as 2014, his first year of eligibility. I would liken Kukoc's situation to that of a 2011 Ichiro Suzuki. Would an Ichiro with 2,428 hits (in the US) be worthy of the Baseball Hall of Fame at that point? Probably just shy of it, but when you also take into account his career in Japan (.353 batting average, seven Golden Glove Awards, over 1200 hits) he was already a lock at that point. Ichiro may even make it based on his US career alone as he has an outside chance to reach 3,000 hits over the next two seasons (the Hall of Fame's magic number for better or worse). Kukoc had a solid NBA career but was probably not the dominant superstar voters look for. When you combine his storied international career with all of his NBA achievements, he becomes a player that is on an entirely different level. 

Coach Phil Jackson had the ultimate faith in a young Kukoc when he chose him to make the final shot in a pivotal game against the New York Knicks during the 1994 NBA Playoffs. The Bulls were down two games to none and were tied 102-102 with 1.8 seconds left. Scottie Pippen was the superstar on the team since Michael Jordan had briefly retired from basketball to pursue a baseball career. (His baseball stats were not as bad as I remembered, he had 30 stolen bases and drove in 51 runs.) Pippen was allegedly upset that the coach had designed the final play for the rookie Kukoc. With the precision of Apollo's bow, Kukoc hit his target and drained a 20 foot jumper for the win. (The Bulls would later go on to lose the series to the Knicks.) As Jackson stated to the LA Times regarding Pippen, "He asked out of the play. I left him off the floor. That's as much as I'll talk about that and we have a practice tomorrow at 11."

The most noble part of Kukoc's game was that he was the consummate teammate. He truly understood what it meant to be a team player. He had no problem coming off the bench or being moved all around the court. It was never about making himself look better, but making his team look better. My favorite quote from Kukoc was when he said the following, "One score makes happy ONE player, one assist makes happy TWO." That really says all you need to know about the team first mindset that Kukoc abided by.

Toni Kukoc was a vital cog of the three-peat Chicago Bulls championship teams from 1996 through 1998. A brilliant international career combined with a solid NBA career should help this silent assassin become immortalized in the NBA Hall of Fame.

CHECK THESE OUT: Chicago Bulls ('93-'00), Philadelphia 76ers ('99-'00, '00-'01), Atlanta Hawks ('00-'01, '01-02), Milwaukee Bucks ('02-'06)

Article by Chris Ramirez

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All aboard the Ukraine Freight Train express

WHO: Igor Vovchanchyn

WHAT: Underrated MMA Fighter

WHY: Igor "Ice Cold" Vovchanchyn was a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter active from 1995 to 2005. The Ukrainian fighter was one of the top heavyweights in the world during his heyday and legendary fighters such as Fedor Emelianenko have patterned their punching style after Vovchanchyn's. Vovchanchyn retired right before MMA was on the cusp of a huge explosion in its popularity and he missed out on the opportunity for worldwide recognition as one of the most feared heavyweights of his time.

Vovchanchyn began his combat career in kickboxing and amassed a staggering (allegedly, since it is difficult to find accurate records that are in English) 62-2 record with one of those losses being suffered at the hands of legendary kickboxer Ernesto Hoost. Vovchanchyn was able to make a seamless transition from kickboxing to MMA. He fought the top MMA fighters of his time, and never ducked fights in order to make his fight resume appear more impressive. Vovchanchyn was fearless and faced elite fighters such as Heath Herring, Mirko Cro Cop (duck!), Mark Coleman, Alistair Overeem, and Quinton Jackson without hesitation. He has had impressive wins over Kazushi Sakuraba, Mark Kerr (twice, when he was an unstoppable beast), Gary Goodridge (twice, when he was in his prime), and Gilbert Yvel . Vovchanchyn also had an impressive run of thirty-two straight MMA wins. His thirty-third win was changed to a no contest due to a rules technicality. He responded to that minor bump in the road by rattling off four straight wins. Vovchanchyn finished his MMA career with a record of 58-10, quite impressive considering some of the fighters he faced. 

Vovchanchyn's fighting discipline is kickboxing and he is an excellent striker. He relies mostly on devastating combinations of punches. He is great on his feet and is known for his very strong hands which have led to many knockouts. Vovchanchyn was only 5'8" and fought many bigger and stronger opponents. He fought mostly at the heavyweight level yet remained fearless against these bigger opponents because he had adapted some special techniques into his fight game. Vovchanchyn was a progenitor of the sprawl and brawl style which was perhaps made most famous by Chuck Liddell. Vovchanchyn had extremely thick tree trunk like legs which made it very difficult for opponents to take him down. He often tired out his opponents by constantly resisting their takedowns. He is capable on the ground (seven submission wins via choke or heel hook) but usually wanted to just keep things standing up as he is not an expert in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. His punching style was very deliberate and incorporated retreating punches and Russian hook punches. When Igor throws a hook, he throws it in almost a downward arc. His thumb is pointed towards the ground as he punches and he lowers his head while arcing toward his opponent like an uncoiling snake. This style of punching allows him to lower his body and protect his own chin while maximizing his effective range. Former MMA fighter Fedor Emelianenko had patterned his punching style after Vovchanchyn's with remarkable results. Even when Vovchanchyn appeared to be throwing wild punches he had surprising control and composure.

Vovchanchyn fought mostly in Russia, Ukraine, and Japan and was a force in these countries for many years. Many of his biggest fights were in Pride Fighting Championships (Pride FC) in Japan. The Pride shows were exciting circus-like spectacles and drew huge audiences (over 70,000 people were at a live show once). Pride had many DVD releases in the US which showcased Igor Vovchanchyn, but they never sold well (I do know of two people that bought them, that is a start). In addition to fighting mostly overseas, Vovchanchyn also had an understated charisma. He always seemed quite serious and focused. Those that did see him fight in Pride FC also saw much more charismatic fighters such as Kazushi Sakuraba and Heath Herring. Vovchanchyn did have that mysterious woman known as Olga (known as Olga to the same two fans as before) who always seemed like a WWE-esque valet, but she only added to his mystery and did not enhance his charisma. Some of the more colorful personalities in MMA, such as Bas Rutten, have had longevity due to their ability to switch over to commentary. 

If there is anything we can say Vovchanchyn was severely lacking in, it was timing. Vovchanchyn rose to prominence during the era right before MMA exploded in popularity. Even though he was fighting the top fighters of his generation his fights were never as widely viewed as current bouts. MMA is enjoying a renaissance due to increased marketing and lucrative TV deals secured by the UFC and other promotions. This has led to new national exposure, which has in turn led to MMA being sanctioned in more states, although it still remains incomprehensibly banned in New York City (boo!). Who knows how big a star he would be if he came along a few years later. Would his understated charisma hold him back? Maybe, maybe not. Timing was also a reason why Vovchanchyn's career may have ended when it did as well. He was always a great striker with a good sprawl but as MMA has evolved, so to have the fighters. Cross training is so much more prevalent and fighters today tend to be more well rounded. Vovchanchyn had a decent ground game and has won some fights by submission but there are so many more dangerous cross discipline threats today.

Igor Vovchanchyn has had many memorable fights over his lengthy career. One of his most impressive knockouts was against Francisco Bueno. Bueno may have been bueno before the fight but he was certainly no bueno after. Vovchanchyn unleashed a furious combination of punches which caused Bueno to do a Ric Flair-esque face-plant to the canvas.
Vovchanchyn had a much anticipated fight against Gilbert Yvel at Pride FC 14. Due to their fighting disciplines, someone was going to be knocked out. The match ended in surprising fashion when Vovchanchyn choked out Muay Thai expert Yvel for the victory. Pride FC 15 saw a brutal stand up war between Masaaki Satake and Vovchanchyn. Vovchanchyn picked him apart for three rounds but Satake refused to go down and somehow kept absorbing the punishment. Vovchanchyn busted out another surprising submission win when he submitted Valentijn Overeem via heel hook at Pride FC 18. Some of his biggest fights have been against championship college wrestler Mark Kerr back when he was an unstoppable beast. Vovchanchyn fought Kerr twice and their first fight ended after Vovchanchyn delivered a series of devastating knees to a downed Kerr. Vovchanchyn was proclaimed the winner that night but the match was later ruled a no contest due to a newly enacted rule change. This fight is concrete proof as to why knees to downed opponents are banned. Just brutal. The outcome of their second fight was less controversial as Vovchanchyn won via unanimous decision. Vovchanchyn has also been proficient in excelling at tournament style fights where he often fought two or three fights in one night. Some of his early fights have been in IFC and IAFC where he won several tournament titles. He had an impressive showing in the Pride Grand Prix Tournament 2000. He won several contests and made it all the way to the finals before losing to a fresher Mark Coleman. Coleman had fought one less fight during the night due to an injured opponent throwing in the towel after two seconds.

Vovchanchyn is now retired from MMA due to a multitude of injuries. He has had screws placed in his elbows and has broken his hands on numerous occasions. Vovchanchyn now trains other fighters, a similar career path taken by many other retired MMA fighters. He is also in the restaurant business and owns a club/cafe called Champion in Kharkov Ukraine. Champion was started in 2001 and is still in existence, quite an accomplishment in the volatile restaurant industry. It is said that fellow MMA fighter Vladimir "the Janitor" Matyushenko can be seen sweeping up the floors after hours on weekends. The club sounds like a great place based on this actual word for word review, "Personally, I love this club, a good guard responsible, beautiful cute waitresses who find a way out of any situation, prospective bartenders and very good DJ. ALL VERY PRETTY- IF ANYONE IS IN THEM". If that is not a ringing endorsement, then I don't know what is. In September of 2013 it was announced that Igor Vovchanchyn will be a director in WKF Ukraine, the World Kickboking Federation. 

Igor Vovchanchyn was one of the top heavyweight fighters of his generation. His career never gets the recognition it could have because he retired just prior to the MMA explosion in popularity and increased national media coverage. Mr. Vovchanchyn remains active in the sport today as a trainer while also running his own club/cafe in Ukraine. To Mr. Vovchanchyn, in all of your future endeavors, "Udachy" (fortune/good luck) and congratulations on a stellar career.

CHECK THESE OUT: IFC Caged Combat: Kombat in Kiev, Pride FC: 7, Pride FC: 8, Pride FC: Grand Prix 2000, 
Pride FC: Clash of the Titans, Pride FC: 15, Pride FC: 18, Pride FC: Bad Blood, Pride FC: Cold Fury 

Article by CJ Ramirez

WHO: Curtis Martin

WHAT: Underrated Football Player

WHY: Curtis Martin was a running back who played for the New England Patriots and New York Jets from 1995 until 2005. The rookie dubbed "Boy Wonder" by Bill Parcells became one of the most consistent running backs over the span of eleven years. He quietly carved out a wonderful career culminating with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.

Curtis Martin has been overlooked by many people for a number of reasons. First, he quietly put up Hall of Fame numbers over a lengthy (for a running back) eleven year career. He rarely put up dominant league-leading seasons but he did put up consistent seasons of 1,000 plus yards. In fact, since his rookie year he put up ten straight 1,000 yard rushing seasons. He was Mr. Consistency, not Mr. Flashy. He only lead the league in rushing yards one time in his career. His career reminds me of that of Hank Aaron who has been criticized by some as never really being a dominant player, who put up monster seasons, and was more of a compiler who only achieved all-time stats because he merely "played a long time". Well, there is something to be said about a player that can stay healthy and have a lengthy career. How many times have there been hotshot prospects proclaimed as "the next big thing" only to flame out after a few years? It takes dedication, training, and yes, even a bit of luck to play at a consistent level for a long time and both Martin and Aaron excelled at this.

Another reason that he may have been overlooked was that he played during an era where there were a multitude of solid running backs. His contemporaries (give or take a few years) included Marshall Faulk, Jerome Bettis, Emmitt Smith, Priest Holmes, Fred Taylor, Terrell Davis, Tiki Barber, and Eddie George just to name a few. Two of them are already in the Hall of Fame (Faulk and Smith), one will almost certainly get in (Bettis), and face it, most of them just have cooler sounding names than Curtis. That's some heavy competition right there based on talent alone. Martin also was not the most vocal player and was always known as a quiet guy. However, he was also known as a quiet leader who was praised by his teammates for being a great locker room presence. In many cases his actions on the field did most of the talking. I remember hearing stories that on numerous occasions he would remove himself from goal line situations so his backups (in particular LaMont Jordan) could get the touchdown. That my friends is a true team player who leads by example. Many of his peers were much more colorful characters that garnered a greater deal of media attention.

Martin was never covered widely by the media but his accomplishments on the field spoke volumes. He started his career in impressive fashion by winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 1995. He was the oldest player to win a rushing title at the age of 31 with 1,697 yards (there's that longevity thing again!). He was a five time Pro-Bowl selection, and five time All-Pro. He is fourth all-time in rushing yards with 14,101. His 100 career touchdowns are 20th all-time and his 90 rushing touchdowns are twelfth all-time. Not bad for a man who said he never wanted to play football as a kid.

Curtis Martin's final season was 2005 and he got off to another solid start. After twelve games played he had amassed 735 yards. He was well on his way to another 1,000 yard season. In fact, if he did reach 1,000 yards in 2005 he would have been the only player in NFL history to start their career with 11 consecutive 1,000 yard rushing seasons. However, Mr. Consistency would never get that chance. Martin played through a leg injury that he suffered in the early season against the rival Miami Dolphins. He was still able to put up solid numbers and help his team for a time but the injury continued to worsen and he had to eventually have surgery, causing him to miss the rest of the year. In 2006 he was placed on the PUP list while rehabbing his knee but he unfortunately developed a debilitating bone condition that forced him to retire. He would never play another game on the football field, the place that had been his home for the last eleven years.

The New York Jets have missed the stalwart Curtis Martin who was a leader in the locker room and consistent performer on the field. After his departure in 2006 the Jets traded for Thomas Jones as their primary running back. Jones provided some excellent production over three years but was already at an advanced age when he was acquired. Despite his performance he was released due to  his escalating salary and age. After Jones' departure, a combination of LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene were utilized. Greene in particular had a few nice years but again he only lasted a short time as the number one running back. Running backs that perform at a consistently high level for a decade don't grow on trees and the Jets search for the next Curtis Martin goes on.

Martin's inspired Hall of Fame speech was the perfect way to sum up the man he is. His closing remarks in particular were spot-on, "At my eulogy, I don't want my daughter or whoever it may be giving my eulogy to talk about how many yards I gained or touchdowns I scored. I want my daughter to be able to talk about the man that Curtis Martin was. How when she was growing up, she looked for a man who was like her father. That he was a man of integrity, a man of strong character, and a God fearing man. That's what I want. Then at the end of the day, she could say, oh yeah, and he was a pretty good football player. Thank you all." No Curtis, thank you.

CHECK THESE OUT: New England Patriots from 1995 to 1997, New York Jets from 1998 to 2005

Article by CJ Ramirez

WHO: Martin Prado

WHAT: Underrated Baseball Player

WHY: Martin Prado is an infielder/outfielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Prado has quietly established himself as one of the most versatile players in all of major league baseball. His gritty style of play, affable personality, and ability to come up with big hits have endeared him to teammates and fans alike.

Martin Prado's ascent to the major leagues began with the Atlanta Braves. Prado was a decent minor leaguer but was never highly touted. He had a decent glove, the ability to hit for a high average, and showed some pop as well. Prado profiled mostly as a utility guy and right-handed bat off the bench, and his versatility did nothing to dispel this notion. He in fact, did reach the major leagues as a utility player in 2006. An injury to starting second baseman Kelly Johnson in 2009 forced Prado into everyday duty and he excelled. He was hitting so well that the team was forced to find a place on the diamond for him.

And find a place for him they did! Prado has established himself as a rare breed of player who is able to play all over the diamond. A good example is his 2012 season where he played five different positions. He played at first base four times, at second base ten times, at third base twenty-five times, in left field one-hundred and nineteen times, and even thirteen games at shortstop. Those games at shortstop were particularly impressive given that he hadn't played the position, for more than one game a season, since seven minor league games in 2003. He wasn't just a statue there, and he was able to make some slick plays. Prado amassed a positive defensive WAR in 2012 between the five positions. He is a rarity in that not only can he play multiple positions, he can play them well. The other player that comes to mind is Ben Zobrist who played seven positions in 2009. I bet Prado could even play catcher in a pinch too. And who knows, he looks eerily similar to former catcher/current DH Victor Martinez. Makes you wonder!

Prado is one of those players who as the old cliche goes, "is always getting his uniform dirty". He plays the game with plenty of passion and heart. He is always taking the extra base, or diving for a ball. He is the quintessential team first player. He will run through walls for his team and that is a big reason why he is beloved. Fans love Martin Prado for this enthusiastic style of play. He is affectionately referred to by many fans as Nitram Odarp (Martin Prado spelled backwards) or simply Superman. Fans will remember one of his coolest moments which took place against the New York Mets. Prado put a ball in play and as he tossed his bat aside, the bat stood perfectly upright. Teammates also appreciate the style of Martin Prado and he is a revered clubhouse guy. He is unselfish, bunts runners over, and does not complain when asked to move positions, thus accommodating his teammates. On numerous occasions he has fired up his team by his enthusiastic play a la Jose Reyes.

You learn a great deal about a player from the way that others talk about him. When Prado was traded for the unstoppable beast known as Justin Upton, his teammates were still sad to see him go despite getting a potential franchise player back in return. General Manager of the Braves Frank Wren called losing Prado the hardest part of the trade. Legendary Hank Aaron described Prado as being one of his favorites and praised his versatility. Pitcher Brandon Beachy said that it was sad to see everyone's favorite teammate go. Perhaps pitcher Kris Medlen put it best when he described the trade as being bittersweet and that, "everybody has a man crush on that guy".

Martin Prado is not just a versatile player and great teammate, he is also one heck of a hitter. Prado is a doubles machine and has hit forty-two doubles twice in his brief career. He has hit double digit home runs four times with his high being fifteen. I remember his former manager Bobby Cox saying that he believes Prado will hit twenty home runs one day. His chances of reaching this peak are better than ever, now that he plays at homer happy Chase field, and his 2013 campaign is off to a solid start. He has solid on base skills and can even swipe a bag now and then. He is truly a fascinating player to watch hit and I just love his approach at the plate. He does not go up to the plate looking to pull the ball for a homerun every time. He has a nice level swing and can drive the ball to all fields. Prado is especially tough to strike out. He shortens his already compact swing with two strikes and has a number of two strike hits because of this. His signature move is hitting the ball to the opposite field with two strikes, and a runner in scoring position, driving in a run. At times it appears as if he can do this at will. His ability to limit his strikeouts and hit with two strikes is invaluable to a lineup full of mashers. He helps balance out these type of lineups and makes pitchers throw more pitches. Prado's solid hitting and smooth defense eventually landed him a spot on the 2010 All Star Team.

The unheralded athlete Martin Prado has established himself as a solid all around baseball player. His unselfish play, versatility, and passion have endeared him to fans and teammates alike. His former Braves teammate and current Diamondbacks teammate Eric Hinske hyperbolically referred to him as the best player in baseball. While he is certainly not the best player, he should be everyone's favorite player. 

CHECK THESE OUT: Atlanta Braves from 2006 to 2012, Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013

Article by CJ Ramirez
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