MRDA Championships 2011: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

Step aside, ladies. This looks like a job for a man. Lots of men. Lots of men…on roller skates.

It’s time for the first-ever Men’s Roller Derby Association Championships.

Okay, it’s actually the second time the guys have duked it out for the big prize. But this is the first under newly-created MRDA sanctioning.  Aa lot has changed in the one year between the MDC championships then and the MRDA championships now, however. Namely, there are now 18 fully-sanctioned MRDA leagues, with another 19 or so men’s leagues from four countries expressing interest in joining in the fun down the road. That’s putting men’s derby on the same growth vector the women’s game used to launch itself forward a few years ago. It seems there’s a bright future for both genders when it comes to playing roller derby.

But the future will have to wait until the present has past. Here and now, the top six MRDA teams will meet this Saturday, October 26, in Old Bethpage, N.Y. for seven championship games on two tracks in one derby-filled day to determine which team will take home the coveted Athletic Cup Trophy. Our preview will look to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Also, seeing as that this Saturday’s games may be the first time a lot of derby folk will be tuning in to see the men’s game, I’ll also highlight some things to look out for that you may not normally or often see in WFTDA play…for better and for worse. (But mostly for better.) So consider this a comprehensive preview to all things men’s derby, as it exists at this moment in time.

The Championship Contenders

(1) St. Louis, (2) New York, (3) Magic City

While the “top” six teams in the national MRDA rankings are present at championships, much like their WFTDA sisters, there are the top three teams in the country…and then there’s (almost) everyone else.

The St. Louis Gatekeepers are undefeated (5-0) in MRDA play this year, with their biggest game—the biggest game—coming in May at Spring Roll against the New York Shock Exchange, a 158-138 victory that gave NYSE their first defeat ever in their four-year history. Giant killers can’t escape recognition once the deed is done, and there’s no way for the ‘Keepers to slip under the radar if they want to win it all on Saturday. Keep an eye out for ace St. Louis jammer Magnum P.I.M.P., who can not only burn rubber with the star when it counts, but can also frustrate announcers with his multi-syllabic, un-shortenable derby name.

If I had a mustache like that, I would be a P.I.M.P., too. (The car would also help with that…a bit.)

Coming in as the #2 seed, New York also has a legit shot at defending their Athletic Cup.  With the exception of the loss to St. Louis and a scare against Puget Sound, the Shock Exchange have pretty much obliterated all other comers, in much the same way Gotham has pulverized anyone fool-hearty enough to try their luck against them in the WFTDA this year.

Gotham and New York have much in common, actually, genders notwithstanding: Both had a long legacy winning streak broken, but have the potential to be perennial winners for years to come; many NYSE skaters are involved with the Gotham Girls in managerial or other supporting roles; and both have skaters that look amazing while naked. (Well, at least one of them does.) I don’t know if I would like to see an NYSE jammer like Jonathan R in the buff, but if New York wants to rock some bodies and win it all, he and the rest of their jammer core had better be ready for a (*ahem*) stiff challenge in their opening game.

Magic City is the team to watch out for this Saturday. The team is loaded with professional jam skaters and natural athletes from top to bottom, and their name is befitting of what they’re capable of out on the track. Magic City is the only other undefeated team in the MRDA, going 4-0 this year, including an eye-opening run at Spring Roll.

Their only weakness may be that they don’t have all that much derby experience, seeing as they only organized as a derby league 18 months ago. Still, for them to leap up near the top of the rankings in that short of a time means that these guys may be for real…and the only reason they aren’t ranked higher than third may very well be because they haven’t yet played St. Louis or New York.

Guess which two teams Magic City will need to go through if they want to win it all this weekend?

Nothing to See Here, Please Move Along

At this point in its existence, modern men’s roller derby is like a samurai sword.

Back in olden days, those that carried one were bigger, faster and stronger.  Men share these same testosterone-fueled attributes. This is made apparent anytime two men’s teams take the track at the same time, as you’ll see bigger hits, faster jammers, and stronger blocking then the vast majority of female players are physically capable of.

The problem with carrying a sharp sword, however, is that if you’re experienced in wielding it you may be just as much as a danger to yourself than you are to those around you.

Force = Mass × Velocity. Crank up the mass, turn up the velocity and add some gravity into the equation to get a potential mess. (Photo credit: Darren Mayhem/flickr)

In the vast majority of men’s games I’ve been able to watch online, I’ve observed that while there are a lot of phenomenal skaters playing in MRDA, a good deal of them aren’t quite up to the skill level necessary to deal with the faster speeds and bigger hits. During Spring Roll alone, I observed a lot of low-block and back-block penalties, awkward falls, huge skater pile-ups, and a few injuries that required some walking-off on the part of the skaters who were a bit too cavalier with what they could try getting away with.

Much of this can be attributed to the lack of total competitive derby experience among all MRDA skaters. Some also say that the WFTDA-regulation flat track—originally designed for women, obviously—is too small for the larger bodies men carry around, requiring blockers to throw their weight around a bit more to free up some space for themselves and their jammers. While individual skaters and top teams are the exception, for the most part much of men’s derby is a bit sloppier than you may be used to seeing in top-flight WFTDA play.

Then again, men’s derby now is pretty much in the same spot now that women’s derby was back around 2007 or so. If you compare the top 10 WFTDA teams of four years ago to the top 10 teams of today, the amount of improvement is immense and obvious. Trying to compare the men’s game of today to the women’s game of today is hard to do for that reason, among others.

But the thing about the men is that many of them are referees and coaches for WFTDA teams, so they really know their stuff when it comes to playing the game, even if they may not quite be  there when it comes to applying it to its fullest potential. However, a side-effect of this default knowledge is that they are likely to pioneer a lot of the slow-start and slow-derby strategies in general that has become a point of debate in the WFTDA. I saw some crazy tactics during the MRDA games at Spring Roll a few months ago, and I expect a lot of weird shit happening during the starts of a lot of jams on Saturday.

I don’t think we’ll see non-jams, however, since men are also something else: Arrogant, proud, and fearless. This has its advantages, as I’ll explain a bit later.

The Championship Pretenders

(4) Puget Sound, (5) Pioneer Valley, (6) Dallas

Puget Sound, like their derby sisters at Oly, are pretty good at skating. In fact, Puget and Oly often scrimmage together and against each other. While I’m not sure how close or competitive these inter-gender games are, but there’s no doubt they help both teams be as good as they are.

Puget’s 3-2 record is somewhat deceptive, since they only had one really bad game this year against St. Louis…their likely opponent in the semifinals. That 201-78 loss at Spring Roll was more of a coming out party for the new #1 men’s team, though, as Puget never got a chance to show their stuff after a slow start. Their game against New York later that day was where they got a chance to do just that; even though they ultimately fell to NYSE, 125-118, the last jam of the game demonstrated why no team should take the likes of one Quadzilla lightly.

Is your team ahead by 25 points going into the last jam? Quadzilla is amused at your pathetic excuse for a lead.

Quad is bar-none the best skater I have ever seen play roller derby…so far. I only needed to see his last jam against New York, where he damn-near single-handedly erased a huge lead in a minute (never mind a full jam) before a penalty against him erased all hope for a last-jam miracle comeback. He’s that fucking good.

Still, derby is a team sport, and there need to be four other skaters out there to help him do the job. Unless Puget can find something in the tank and give St. Louis a better fight in their (likely) semifinal matchup, the best Puget will be able to do on Saturday is win the bronze medal. Not bad, but not the best.

Pioneer Valley (2-3) and Dallas (2-2) wish they could say that about themselves. As the only teams at MRDA championships without a winning record, they’ll be hoping to steal a win to finish their 2011 campaigns on a positive note.

The O.G. men’s derby team has the best shot of an opening round upset. Pioneer Valley got close to beating Puget Sound earlier this year, ultimately losing by the score of 127-102. If they pull off the upset, they’ll still need to get through two of the top three teams in the MRDA—that’s not happening this year.

Dallas, this year’s “we’re just happy to be here” team, may be the one going home empty-handed. Their only two victories were over teams below them in the MRDA rankings, and they weren’t particularly strong victories at that. Two of their losses were blowouts at the hands of New York and Magic City. Unless Dallas can out-magic Magic City in their opener, expect the Deception to land in the 5th place game.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

Remember how I said men’s derby was like a samurai sword? When one is wielded by someone who knows what they’re doing, the result is absolutely spectacular.

Just take a look at this highlight clip of what Magic City’s skaters are capable of doing, and you can see why they like to call themselves “derby ninjas:”

The thing about men is that because they are bigger, faster, and stronger, they can do things that look impossible. Really good WFTDA jammers can jump the apex. Really good MRDA jammers can leap the apex, with a few feet to spare. If guys throw their weight around and hit someone hard, often times the guy they hit will be up on their feet so quickly, you wouldn’t know they got knocked down if you blinked.

And a lot of jammers are fast. Damn fast.

When you take some of these attributes and combine them with your typical male attributes—the aforementioned arrogance and pride—you’re going to see a lot of things in men’s play that you would not normally see in women’s play.

For instance, there is going to be a lot of jammer-on-jammer action. When both jammers clear the pack near each other, you’re going to see them engage each other. I see a lot of WFTDA jammers call off the jam immediately when their opposite number is hot on the heels, as if they’re afraid of getting passed or don’t trust their blockers stop them from scoring.

The guys don’t do that, because they’re not afraid to fight for territorial dominance outside the engagement zone. (As a guy, I can speak from experience, and also from seeing all of those nature TV shows on PBS.)  Even if a jam will ultimately with an early call-off and a 0-0 score, two jammers will have no reservations in skating around to see what develops, or engaging each other in an attempt to fell the other jammer and try to make something happen.

Because of this, among other things, men’s derby (at least to me) is just a hell of a lot more fun to watch, because there’s no fear in players engaging other players, or jammers engaging other jammers. Even during blowouts in MRDA games, I’ve noticed myself having fun watching the action…because there is actually action happening at all times. Call my opinion biased, if you want. But I know what I like. Maybe you’ll like it too, yeah?

You can see nothing happening this Saturday, as the 2011 MRDA Championships – Big Apple Beatdown takes place in Old Bethpage, N.Y. The first game is scheduled bright and early at 10 a.m. Live streaming coverage will be provided by Derby News Network and will include a bonus women’s game between Long Island and Jersey Shore.