Casting Stones – The Jon Jones Situation

Amidst all of the criticism and posturing and filibustering over the last few days surrounding the cancellation of UFC 151, I found that something important emerged from the whole mess: genuine discourse.  This fiasco is about so much more than just Dana White and Jon Jones.  Here are the major players involved:

  • Jon Jones
  • Dan Henderson
  • Dana White
  • Greg Jackson
  • Chael Sonnen
  • Lyoto Machida
  • Anderson Silva
  • Vitor Belfort

That’s not even including all the other fighters on the card, the Zuffa management and employees who must have been scrambling to save the event and the millions of fans who were looking forward to watching said card.  When you think about how many people are affected by the event’s cancellation, it would be insane to think that any one person could be responsible for it but that’s not what White would have you believe.  The commissioner of the UFC has chosen to lay all of the blame on Jones and his camp.

This is, as the Chinese say, “f**ing stupid”.

I am strongly supporting Jones in this situation, but that is just my opinion and one fact is undeniable: If Jones had stepped up (or down as I see it) and agreed to fight Sonnen, we would have a night of UFC fights this weekend.  There’s no arguing that.  However, allow me to list some other facts:

  • Sonnen is coming off a loss.  The only other time a fighter received a title shot in another weight division after losing his last fight was Henderson, who at the time was carrying the PRIDE Welterweight Championship (the equivalent of the UFC Middleweight championship).
  • Jones and White both agreed that Sonnen was not going to talk his way into a title shot.  With Henderson out, White offered Sonnen a title shot despite having not fought at 205 in years.
  • Henderson’s MCL tear occurred weeks ago and he chose not to inform the UFC about it until August 23, nine days away from his scheduled fight with Jones.  The tear will require surgery and Henderson had to miss the main event.
  • Sonnen trains with Henderson and started a verbal campaign against Jones weeks ago.
  • The co-main event was originally supposed to see Jake Ellenberger face Josh Koscheck, but Koscheck was forced out with an injury.  He was replaced by Jay Hieron, who has not fought in the UFC since 2005.  He is 11-1 in his last 12 contests.  With the removal of the Light Heavyweight Championship bout, Ellenberger-Hieron would have become the de facto main event.
  • White decides to cancel UFC 151.  He states that Jones and Jackson “murdered” the event and blames them for all of the fighters not getting paid and for all of the fans wasting their money on travel and accommodations.
  • It is revealed later that Silva volunteered to fight any light heavyweight besides Jones, but the event had already been called off.
  • White announced that Jones would be fighting Machida at UFC 152 in Toronto, but Machida declines.
  • There are several rumours involving fighters in both the 185 and 205 pound division, but eventually Belfort, a former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, is awarded the opportunity to fight Jones at UFC 152.

You may have noticed that I avoided adding too many qualifiers to that list.  The information should speak for itself.  Obviously, there are certain connections that I choose to draw from these facts, but my conclusions are bound to differ from someone else’s and that’s fine.  Jones has already proven to be one of the most hated fighters in the sport based on his aloof persona, his perceived arrogance and the speed with which he’s ascended to the top.  Some of us are thrilled when we witness brilliance at such a young age, but we also live in a society where we are taught to wait our turn and when someone refuses to do that, we resent them.

This is not to say that Jones is beyond reproach.  He struggles to communicate and connect when addressing an audience.  He appears inconsistent in his philosophy (does he fight to elevate the tenets of martial arts or to elevate his brand?).  And he does make silly, insufferable mistakes (most recently being charged for driving while intoxicated a month before signing a deal with Nike).  You know who all of that reminds me of?  EVERY OTHER PERSON I KNOW IN THEIR EARLY 20S!  Like I said, youth is not an excuse but failure is also not an excuse to start piling on another human being.  It’s one thing to admonish him and insist on contrition, it’s another to claim that these actions are indicative of who he really is or who he is going to be.  He will make more mistakes, he will learn and he will grow and if you think there’s something wrong with that, then there’s no helping you.

I am glad that there is another side to this coin though because I can acknowledge that I act as an apologist for athletes far too often.  Of course I’m going to side with Jones in this scenario if only because he plays a major part in a product that I enjoy.  I don’t pretend to know anything about him personally and if it turns out he’s the biggest scumbag on the earth, I’d be disappointed but it wouldn’t affect how I feel about his performances.  However, I can completely understand why this recent transgression matters to people.  Unlike other sports where violence might be a means to an end, violence is the end in mixed martial arts and there is well deserved respect and admiration for these warriors.  Anytime a fighter steps back and says “No, I choose not to fight” it is disappointing; disturbing even.  We feel betrayed.

The truth is that being a fighter is not only a legitimate way to make a living these days, it can be extremely lucrative if you play your cards right.  Until last Friday, Jones and Jackson had played the game superbly, but there’s no question that refusal has done major damage to the champ’s Q score.  Still, from everything I’ve read online, whether it be carefully crafted columns, angry fan mail, barely legible tweets or rambling, psychotic message board posts, I take comfort in knowing that people can still develop independent and informed opinions about this debacle without feeling like they have to follow the rhetoric of Jones, Jackson, White or anybody else.  If we take anything positive away from this situation, let it be that.

HELLO JAPAN Part 4: Enoshima Island

As I contemplated taking pictures of a Japanese cemetery, I thought about how odd it would be if I saw someone walking around a Canadian graveyard snapping photos; not inappropriate, but certainly odd.  Then again, much like everything else in Japan, their cemeteries are just better than ours somehow.  I think the arrangement allows for more orderly navigation as opposed to the wide open spaces that we’re used to.  There are steps and levels and everything is more organized.  I was less worried about walking over someone’s plot than I usually am.  If there’s one area where we might have them beat it’s in variety and design, but to me those should be secondary concerns when it comes to your final resting place.  I decided against taking pictures.

*****

Well, it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe…

I really love this picture.  Obviously, you get a pretty good view of Enoshima Island and that layer of mist over top adds a lot, but as with most good photos it’s the little things that jump out at you.  The subtle reflection off the bridge, that statue on the right with the twisting strip, the fact that you can see the edge of my umbrella even though I was doing everything I could to get an angle where you couldn’t see it.  I like the couple at the centre of the picture, but then again I’m a sucker for anything that reminds me of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (probably the greatest album cover of all time).

Walking around the island was not unlike walking around Nara, just, you know…moister.  There was no wrong path, making it ideally suited to my unique (read: non-existent) sense of direction.  I would be in one place and then I’d traverse a staircase or step along a stony trail winding through the trees and then be somewhere else.  Sometimes there’d be people around and sometimes it was like I was the only one on the island.

One of the things I took great pride in during this trip was never paying to see anything.  Call me cheap, but it seems senseless to me to have to pay to look at a garden when you’re on an island rife with plant life.  You’re not short on vegetation options is what I’m saying.  The museum pictured below was another place I avoided, though I did walk up to it hoping that the statues would come to life.  Perhaps if I defeated them the curators would permit me to enter but alas, all they demanded was a few hundred yen that I refused to part with.

I came to a spot where the island split.

A gentle rain was falling and the mist from the sea was swirling about, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave.  My umbrella rested beside me, neglected.  I leaned on the railing, oblivious to the passersby, oblivious to everything really, and thought about the billions of random microscopic moments that coordinated to cause the land to be break as it did.  I thought about friends and people I hadn’t seen in a while.  To the right of the picture was a vast forest and I strained my eyes looking for any sort of activity, but all I could see was an oxymoron: the tranquil wild.

Atop a hill there was a bell for couples to ring for good luck.  You could purchase a lock and hang it on a rack and the whole ritual was meant to signify everlasting love and all that jazz.  I almost rang the bell, but realized how depressing that would be and decided against it.

Eventually you move past the landmarks and find yourself facing the raging coast.  Unfortunately, it’s fairly rigid as far as where you’re allowed to go and I was forbidden from going down to the rocks and standing at the island’s edge.  I envied the fisherman who was standing out there, braving the slippery rocks and rapid winds.

This was also one of the few times I asked someone to take a picture for me.  Usually I was too embarrassed to talk to a local in Japanese, but my other concern was that someone would run off with my phone.  We were at the end of the island so there wasn’t really anywhere one could go, plus these girls were European and kind of cute so I felt okay asking them.  She actually took two photos because she said my eyes were closed in the first one, but I think she’d just never taken a picture of a Chinese person before.

On the way back I stopped off to get something to eat in this cozy restaurant with a beautiful view of the coast.  My conservative use of the umbrella resulted in me being soaked down to my socks.  I didn’t eat at the elevated tables because I assumed I’d have to remove my shoes and it made me think about that scene from Donnie Brasco where Johnny Depp has to conceal the fact that he’s wired.

“Please, take off shoes.” “What are you kidding me?  Take off your pants, what the **** is that?”

When I asked for an English menu, the hostess signalled to a young man working there who came over and began to speak in my native tongue.  That must be a nice way to spend your summer, working at a restaurant attending to fat and lazy foreigners.  Lucky for him and other people who had to deal with me, my demands were typically short and sweet.  On this day I ordered a squid and orange juice, or as I like to call it the “iced tea of Japan”.  In many ways it was the best meal of the trip, sitting there gazing out the window at the water and giving my feet a chance to dry.

When I talk about living in a remote area, people are always telling me that I’d never survive without television or the internet or all of those other modern conveniences, but I could.  I really could.  Spend one rainy day on Enoshima Island and I bet you’d start to feel the same way.

Adventures In Officiating

There’s an umpire in my slow pitch softball league who’s always making a show out of his calls.  It is one thing to be demonstrative, but I’ve seen lots of players irked by him making a dramatic gesture when they’re called out or when they think they’ve made a great play but the runner is called safe.  We’re not allowed to wear jewelry in our league either and it’s an automatic out if you step to the plate wearing any.  In one of the games we were watching, the umpire disqualified a guy in emphatic fashion and it was not appreciated.  The two then proceeded to get into an argument, continuing on as the player went out to field his position the next inning.  This is not an uncommon occurrence with this umpire.

They say that the best referees are the ones you don’t notice.  That’s a bit trickier in the world of MMA because the referee is “the third man (apologies to Kim Winslow) in the cage” and he can be directly responsible for how a match ends.  Unlike a referee who is part of an officiating team, the MMA referee stands alone.  We see what he does; more importantly, we see what he sees.  When he makes a mistake, there’s nowhere for him to hide.  It is almost impossible not to notice a referee in combat sports, but that doesn’t mean they have to act outside of their jurisdiction.

Which brings me to Mike Beltran.

Yosemite Sam saw this guy and said, “Hey buddy, bring it down a notch.”

Most people (myself included) had never noticed Beltran before Saturday’s Strikeforce: Rousey vs. Kaufman event.  He was the official for three matches (one preliminary) and his glorious ‘stache rightfully became a sensation that’s sweeping the nation.  I applaud him for it.  The dedication and craft he puts into maintaining that bad boy must be staggering.  If only he approached his job the same way.

First of all, Beltran is what I like to call an “action ref”, the kind of guy who takes his role as the third man too literally.  He thinks he’s there to instigate the action as opposed to mediating it.  It’s customary for referees to prompt the fighters to “work” if it seems like they’re in a grappling stalemate, but the slightest clinch sent Beltran into a frenzy of clapping and hollering at the fighters to advance position.

Broadcaster Mauro Ranallo did a great job of pointing out two egregious missteps during the Ovince St. Preux/T.J. Cook bout.  In the second round, St. Preux was working for a submission from side mount and Beltran continued to demand more “work”.  Earlier in that round, Cook suffered a low blow and instead of being given the standard five minutes to recover, Beltran warned him that he would call in the doctor to check him out if he wasn’t ready to fight.  An incredulous Ranallo said “he has five minutes to recover from the low blow, what’s the referee doing?”

On a more subjective note, I felt he allowed a couple of fighters to take way too much punishment.  In the first round of the St.Preux/Cook bout, St. Preux rocked Cook with a fierce left hook that made Cook fall in frighteningly awkward fashion against the cage.  St. Preux followed up with more heavy shots and Beltran didn’t step in.  Cook would somehow survive and actually put on a hell of a fight, but there’s a good chance that he was punch drunk during the whole thing.  The fight ended in the third when St. Preux landed a straight right that landed square on Cook’s chin, knocking him dead.  It was one of the scariest KOs I’ve seen since…well, two weeks ago when Donald Cerrone beat Melvin Guillard, but this might have been worse.  I couldn’t help but think that the accumulated damage affected the severity of the finish.  I was disappointed in Ranallo when he started yelling about a “one punch KO”.  That wasn’t a one punch KO; that was a twenty punch KO and I’m not sure it should ever have reached that point.

The third fight that Beltran oversaw was between Jacaré Souza and Derek Brunson.  Jacaré landed a spectacular counter right that planted Brunson on his face.  It was such a clean hit that Jacaré didn’t even follow up, he was so sure the ref would call it.  With Beltran taking his sweet time, Jacaré connected with another right that put Brunson down again.  Still no stoppage.  Jacaré jumped on top of Brunson and attacked again before stopping himself for a third time, all but doing Beltran’s job for him.  In his defence, this all happened in a span of about 10 seconds, but if the fighter (who is locked into destroying his opponent) has the sense of mind to stop himself three times, how can the referee not be held accountable?  “The referee, a little slow…” Ranallo would remark generously.

On the flipside, Herb Dean, one of MMA’s most respected officials, made a dubious stoppage during the preliminaries awarding a TKO victory to Adlan Amagov.  It was made doubly dubious by the fact that the finish was set up by an illegal downward kick to the knee by Amagov that momentarily incapacitated Keith Berry.  Berry and Dean would have a civil discussion afterwards, where Dean explained that Berry’s attempts to communicate with him while being punched on the ground only made it confusing and more difficult for him to let the fight continue.  While the stoppage was certainly early, Berry himself said that his knee did pop out when it was kicked (whether the kick was legal or not, that should be grounds to end a fight) and it’s hard for Dean to interpret verbal exchanges in the middle of the action.  I’ll take a million early stoppages to avoid damaging the long term health of our fighters or worse: that one late stoppage that ends a fighter’s life.

Rocky Mountain Heartbreak: A Lamentation of UFC 150

It was even closer than the last time.  In a rematch that few demanded, “Smooth” Ben Henderson was able to hold on and retain his belt against Frankie Edgar.  I should probably mention that I was in that minority looking forward to this bout; more importantly, I was looking forward to Edgar taking back his belt.

*****

Featherweight Bout: Nik Lentz d. Eiji Mitsuoka via TKO (1:35, R1)

What you need to know: Lentz was quietly rising up the ranks of the lightweight division, going undefeated in his first 7 UFC contests.  His first few fights were uneventful, wrestling intensive contests that failed to build fan support and while he was beginning to shed the dreadful “lay and pray” label (including a “Fight of the Night” against Evan Dunham), he was also starting to lose fights.  He’s made the transition to 145 where his smothering top game should serve him well.

Mitsuoka made his debut at UFC 144 in his home country of Japan as a replacement for George Sotiropoulos.  He shocked the crowd when he floored Takanori Gomi in the first round, but Gomi recovered and eventually finished Mitsuoka in the second.  Mitsuoka is also looking to reinvent himself as a featherweight.

How it went down: The younger, more explosive Lentz put on a wrestling clinic, slamming Mitsuoka at will before taking the back and delivering enough strikes to force the referee stoppage.

What’s next for Mitsuoka: (0-2 UFC, Lost last 2) A trip back to Japan and possibly retirement.  Two fights in the UFC would be a fine way to end a career.

What’s next for Lentz: (6-2-1 [1 NC] UFC, Won last 1) You never want to overreact when someone changes classes and defeats a middling opponent, but Lentz looks revitalized at featherweight.  He would make a fine test for fellow UFC 150 winners Dennis Bermudez or Max Holloway, but I’d rather they stuck him with people closer to his experience level.  A fight with Nam Phan would answer a lot of questions about both fighters’ prospects.

Bantamweight Bout: Chico Camus d. Dustin Pague via Unanimous Decision (30-27, 29-28 x2)

What you need to know: “King” Camus is well known in the northwest region, having done most of his damage for Gladiators Cage Fighting and the North American Fighting Championship in Wisconsin.  He is making his UFC debut.

Pague, a semi-finalist on TUF 14, is fighting for the third time in three months.  His first UFC win was aided by some clueless officiating.  While Pague worked for a rear naked choke, his opponent Jared Papazian used his feet to push off the cage to prevent Pague from locking it in.  The referee warned him to stop, eventually removing Papazian’s feet forcefully.  Pague completed the submission shortly after.  Here’s the problem: It is completely legal to have your feet on the cage.  With that dubious win under his belt, Pague fought on short notice two weeks later and lost a decision to Ken Stone.

How it went down: The dreaded altitude of Colorado seemed to affect Pague as Camus held him down for fifteen minutes.  He may have taken the first round with some aggressive submission attempts for the bottom, but those efforts drained him and there wasn’t much he could do as Camus showed good control from the top.

What’s next for Pague: (1-3 UFC, L2) I don’t want it to sound like I dislike Pague as he actually seems a decent fellow and I admire him for fighting as much as possible especially since he doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear on him yet.  He just needs to know his limitations.  He’s now in that unfortunate category of guys fighting for their jobs, which could see him meeting up with Kid Yamamoto or Byron Bloodworth.  I’d like to see him face TUF: Brazil contestant Hugo Wolverine, who is dropping to 135.

What’s next for Camus: (1-0 UFC, W4) The Roufusport representative didn’t blow anybody away in his debut, but he picked up the W which is what matters most.  He’s a grinder who has gone to a decision in his last 5 fights, so an opponent who pushes him out of his comfort zone might be best for him.  Johnny Eduardo, Johnny Bedford or a debuting Azamat Gashimov could do the trick.

Bantamweight Bout: Erik Perez d. Ken Stone via KO (:17, R1)

What you need to know: Perez, 22, is a top prospect under the tutelage of Greg Jackson.  He defeated John Albert with an arm bar in June, but there was no indication of submission and the referee’s bizarre call marred what should have been a strong debut.  This is his second chance to make a first impression.

Stone has been part of some incredible highlights in his Zuffa career, usually on the wrong end.  Eddie Wineland slammed him senseless and Scott Jorgensen pummeled him from inside his guard, creating legitimate concerns for Stone’s well being.  He was victorious in his last two UFC appearances against Donny Walker and Pague.

How it went down: Add another knockout to the Stone highlight reel!  Perez landed a Liddell-esque counter left that caused Stone to face plant.  “El Goyito” then dove in for the kill, landing several unanswered punches that left Stone limp.  After Herb Dean broke it up, Stone actually recovered and frantically grabbed at Perez even as Dean had him in a waist lock.  There were actually boos in the arena!  I’m not a doctor, but here’s how I know someone is out:

1)      After taking a shot to the chin, you fall face down on all fours like you’re looking for a contact lens.

2)      Your head is bouncing off the mat while you lose control of your extremities.

What’s next for Stone: (2-2 UFC, L1) A long talk with his neurologist.  There’s no doubting Stone’s ability, but when you’ve suffered three vicious knockouts in two years you have to start looking after yourself.  I don’t care to consider potential opponents because I honestly would like to see him take a year off from combat sports if that’s an option for him.

What’s next for Perez: (2-0 UFC, W7) A moment to bask in his 17 second knockout, the fastest in the history of the Zuffa bantamweight division.  Once things settle down, he can get back to work at Jackson’s preparing for possible matchups with Camus, the gifted Bryan Caraway or the resurgent Francisco Rivera.

Middleweight Bout: Michael Kuiper d. Jared Hamman via TKO (2:16, R2)

What you need to know: Kuiper was outworked by Rafael Natal in his UFC debut.  The decision loss was the first in the Dutch judoka’s career.

Hamman was riding high off of a TKO win over C.B. Dollaway before being stopped by Costa Philippou last December.  He’s become known for his wide open kickboxing stance, exposed chin and inhuman capability for withstanding punishment.  I’ve seen him referred to as “The American Zombie”.

How it went down: For me, this was the worst kind of exciting fight; the kind where you’re glued to the screen because of the possibility that someone might get seriously hurt.  This had all the appeal of a car wreck.  Hamman started out strong, but at some point he suffered a leg injury and Kuiper was all over him during the first round.  You could clearly hear Hamman tell his corner that he had blown his knee but he is inexplicably allowed to continue.

Kuiper continued landing sledge hammer fists on Hamman’s chin to start the second round.  The scary thing is that Hamman’s expression never changes during the whole ordeal.  One shot buckled Hamman’s knees and he fell flat on his back.  I would have called the fight right there.  Referee Adam Martinez allows it to go on for another few minutes, in which Hamman takes more head shots.  The fight was eventually called off, but I was disgusted by Martinez’ lack of assertiveness and Hamman’s corner for not throwing in the towel.  A loss can be harmful to one’s career, but the risk of severe injury should have taken priority here.

What’s next for Hamman: (2-4 UFC, L2) More consideration for his health.  We love fighters like Hamman because we know he’s going to put entertainment over technique and that’s great, but everyone involved needs to start thinking about how this could affect him.  Like Stone, I think it would be insensitive to consider future bookings until we at least find out the condition of Hamman’s knee.

What’s next for Kuiper: (1-1 UFC, W1) Maybe Natal was just a bad fit stylistically because Kuiper looked like a killer here.  It’s unfortunate that he’s not a wrestler because he’d be fantastic implementing more sprawl and brawl tactics.  He’d be a good early challenge for TUF: Brazil winner Cezar Mutante, or the matchmakers could push him up the rankings with fights against Nick Ring or Andrew Craig.

Featherweight Bout: Dennis Bermudez d. Tommy Hayden via Submission (4:43, R1)

What you need to know: Bermudez was the TUF 14 runner-up, losing a thrilling contest against Diego Brandao.  He shocked everyone by rocking Brandao in the stand-up before some sloppy groundwork lead to him tapping out to an arm bar.  His next fight against Pablo Garza looked more like a WWE match as he repeatedly picked up and drove “The Scarecrow” through the mat.  After earning the decision, he broke out a Tyrone Biggums impression, telling Joe Rogan that fear was not a factor for him.  Rogan was not amused.

Like Camus, Hayden made a name for himself in the northwest going undefeated in 8 contests.  He was given a rude awakening when he was matched up with Fabrício Camões, one of the best BJJ practitioners in the world.  Camões was able to get the fight to the mat where he submitted Hayden inside of a round.  On an unrelated note, Hayden’s nickname is “Wildcard” and I was kind of hoping he would win and say this.

How it went down: Bermudez’ striking is still a work in progress and he mostly used it to set up his shots.  Hayden read one attempt perfectly and nearly ended the fight with a huge knee.  Bermudez would later say that all he could remember was going for a takedown and then Hayden was suddenly on his back choking him.  When Hayden transitioned to an arm bar, Bermudez showed off his unreal strength and powered out of it.  They started to grapple again and Bermudez was able to lock in a standing guillotine that ended the fight.

What’s next for Hayden: (0-2 UFC, L2) Despite his best efforts, it’s back to the minors with two first round defeats.

What’s next for Bermudez: (2-1 UFC, W2) You’ve got to love the enthusiasm he shows.  Every time he gets interviewed, he’s like a little kid.  I can see how that would annoy some people, but I find it immensely endearing and I think the fans are starting to get behind him.  If the UFC brings him along slowly, they could have a star on their hands.  Holloway, Steven Siler and Matt Grice are all legit, but beatable fighters.

Featherweight Bout: Max Holloway d. Justin Lawrence via TKO (4:49, R2)

What you need to know: Holloway is a dynamic striker who has drawn favourable comparisons to Anthony Pettis.  At 20 years old, he is the UFC’s youngest competitor and this is already his 3rd appearance inside the octagon.  I am officially depressed now.

Lawrence looked to be the breakout star of TUF 15.  He has an outstanding kickboxing pedigree, boasting over 150 amateur victories.  His cocky attitude rubbed a lot of the other cast members the wrong way and his heart was questioned when he was finished by eventual winner Michael Chiesa in a sudden victory round.  The hype train got back on track at The Ultimate Fighter 15 Finale, where he dusted off John Cofer with head kick to end a back and forth battle.  Lawrence himself is only 22, turning this bout into a glimpse at the future of the featherweight division.

How it went down: Lawrence is like a little Cung Le in that he’s compact and powerful.  He threw a variety of spinning kicks that Holloway was able to avoid.  Holloway showed crisp counterstriking skills, picking his spots and landing short punches whenever Lawrence got close.  He opened Lawrence up at one point, but also looked bad landing some awkward kicks below the belt.

In the second round, Lawrence continued to be the aggressor and while he was definitely scoring, Holloway kept finding ways to counter and draw blood.  Near the end of the round, Holloway landed a sick body blow and Lawrence crumpled.  Holloway didn’t miss a beat and followed up with punches for the TKO.

What’s next for Lawrence: (1-1 UFC, L1) Brazilian veteran Milton Vieira, TUF 11 alum and mustache enthusiast Cody McKenzie, or TUF: Brazil runner-up Pepey.

What’s next for Holloway: (2-1 UFC, W2) As mentioned above, a fight with Bermudez makes sense but he’s not quite as far along in his development.  I’d like to see him take on Marcos Vinicius, the winner of the Joey Gambino/Diego Brandao fight, or the winner of the Andy Ogle/Akira Corassani fight.

Middleweight Bout: Yushin Okami d. Buddy Roberts (3:05, R2)

What you need to know: Okami is on a two fight skid for the first time in his career and this was a must win for him to stay near the top of the division.  His original opponent was Luiz Cané, but he was replaced by newcomer Roberts, whose opponent also dropped out.  In only his second UFC fight, Roberts has the opportunity to fly up the middleweight ladder if he can find a way to beat Okami.

How it went down: Roberts did not find a way to beat Okami.  The first thing I have to note is that Roberts is a huge middleweight, which is saying something because Okami himself is a big dude.  Regardless, this turned out to be the mismatch everyone expected as Roberts was unable to do anything once Okami got the fight to the ground.  It was close to being called in the first round as Okami managed to secure a back mount and repeatedly score against a defenceless Roberts.  In the second, Okami established a nearly identical position and the referee had no choice but to wave it off.

What’s next for Roberts: (1-1 UFC, L1) A return to his regularly scheduled programming.  He was never meant to face a fighter like Okami this early in his career.  I’d like to see him face Clifford Starks (whenever he returns from injury), Riki Fukuda or Karlos Vemola.

What’s next for Okami: (11-4 UFC, W1) Seriously, just look at those UFC records.  How was that a fair matchup?  Okami will likely fight the winner of the UFC 153 bout between Chris Camozzi (Roberts’ original opponent) and Cané, though it would also make sense to have him face Jake Shields in a rematch of a 2006 contest that Shields won.

Middleweight Bout: Jake Shields d. Ed Herman via Unanimous Decision (30-27 x2, 29-28)

What you need to know: I’m being kind when I say that your average Jake Shields fight is not exactly “must-see tv”.  Even before he joined the UFC, he wasn’t famous for flashy knockouts or submissions.  Under Zuffa employment, he’s become even more reviled.  He eked out a split decision win over Martin Kampmann, looked unspectacular in his title bout with Georges St-Pierre and was finished for only the second time in his career by Jake Ellenberger.  On Saturday, he returned to the division he once ruled in Strikeforce.

Herman has been on a roll since returning from a knee injury, finishing his last three opponents.  Shields represents the biggest test of his career, but they match up well and it looks like it will come down to whose striking is, er, less awful.

How it went down: Add another knockout to the Shields highlight reel!  Naw, just kidding.  It was a plodding fight.  Herman inexplicably decided to clinch with Shields, allowing Shields to trip him to the mat in every round and out grapple him.  Shields is an inadequate striker without an effective shot, so why Herman would walk right up his alley is anyone’s guess.  The Cesar Gracie representative showed why he’s a master of top control, completely neutralizing all of Herman’s attempts to fight back.  It was a win, but hardly an auspicious return to the division for Shields.

What’s next for Herman: (7-6 UFC, L1) I really thought that Herman was due for a breakthrough, but Shields is a tough customer and there’s no shame in this loss.  A win over Rousimar Palhares (who was scratched from this card), C.B. Dollaway or Costa Philippou could go a long way towards getting his momentum back.

What’s next for Shields: (3-2 UFC, W2) Okami, but other top 10 options include Mark Muñoz or the winner of the Vitor Belfort/Alan Belcher contest.

*Catchweight Bout (157.5): Donald Cerrone d. Melvin Guillard via KO (1:16, R1)

*Guillard missed weight and had to forfeit 20% of his purse

What you need to know: Cerrone and Guillard actually formed a friendship during Guillard’s time training with Greg Jackson and this match was put together hastily to accommodate Cerrone.  A grateful Cerrone promised a war and Guillard was happy to comply.

How it went down: Remind me never to become friends with Cerrone, because that apparently gives him permission to punch the F out of you.  Neither fighter had ever been knocked out before, so when Cerrone was rocked early that was already surprising.  When he recovered and wobbled Guillard with a glancing kick to the head, everyone at the bar I was in started to freak out.  Then Cerrone followed up with the hardest punch in human history or as my friend William and I called it, “What would have happened if Jermaine O’Neal had successfully punched that fat guy during the Malice at the Palace”.  Guillard went down like he’d been shot, which all things considered, would probably have hurt less.

What’s next for Guillard: (11-7 UFC, L1) I used to be a fan of this basketball player named Darius Miles.  Every year, he’d show marginal improvement and I’d tell all of my friends, “He’s only 21, give him time!”  The next year it would be, “He’s only 22, give him time!”  Then “He’s only 23…” and so on and so forth.  Well, it eventually got to a point where he was he was 27, he’d been in the league for almost a decade and he was still a spot starter.  It was at that point that I gave up on Darius Miles ever being an All-Star.

Guillard is always on the cusp of greatness, but he’s always seemed unable to develop in some key areas (submission defence being one of them).  I guess what I’m saying is he’s only 29, but we might have to accept that this is the best Guillard we’re going to get.  Luckily, the lightweight division is still rife with fresh match-ups for him, including Takanori Gomi, Sam Stout or the winner of the Dennis Hallman/Thiago Tavares bout at UFC 151.

What’s next for Cerrone: (6-1 UFC, W2) Cerrone has been calling out Anthony Pettis and I can’t think of a better opponent than that.

Lightweight Championship Bout: Ben Henderson d. Frankie Edgar via Split Decision (48-47 x2, 46-49)

What you need to know: Edgar is probably my favourite fighter in the UFC.  Even though I felt Henderson won the first fight, it was hardly one-sided and if there’s one thing we should take from Edgar’s title defences it’s that he only gets better with rematches.  His first win over BJ Penn was disputed (even I’m not sure how he won that one) but in their second meeting he gave Penn a whuppin’.  He lost his first meeting with Gray Maynard back in 2008 and then he survived their second encounter with the title on the line.  In their third meeting, he withstood the Maynard onslaught again before knocking the larger man out in the 4th round.  The way I saw it, Henderson didn’t have a chance.

How it went down: The first round was all Henderson.  He killed Edgar with body kicks in the first match and those long legs looked to be the difference again.  Edgar caught the kicks every time, but after they’d connected, which is kind of like catching the blade of a sword after your head has been chopped off.  In this fight, Henderson went down low and Edgar’s calf was turning bright pink.  The last two kicks dropped him and he had to shoot out of desperation, but Henderson shrugged it off.  10-9 Henderson, for sure.

As the second round started, I was getting dreadful flashbacks to the José Aldo/Urijah Faber fight, where Aldo just disintegrated Faber’s legs limiting his mobility.  If Henderson kept it up, the fight was all his.  Sure enough, Henderson landed another big low kick and normally this is where I would cover my eyes, but I had faith.  Edgar slipped a punch and landed a solid overhand right that had Henderson backpedalling.  He shot in to slow down the action and Edgar stopped him, controlling the head.  “My boy’s got this round!” I shouted.  A guillotine choke was easily defended by Henderson, but Edgar definitely won that one.  10-9 Edgar.

The next three rounds were impossible to call.  Henderson started throwing head kicks and I keep thinking that if Edgar were a couple of inches taller he might be dead by now.  Edgar looked good whenever he was able to get his combinations off, but Henderson used his range well and his jab landed consistently.  There was a riveting moment in the 4th round when Edgar tripped Henderson to the mat.  You could hear rumblings in the crowd as Edgar contemplated whether to dive in and risk an up kick like in the first fight.  Henderson got tired of waiting and launched a capoeira kick from his back that actually landed pretty cleanly.  It might have even won him the round.  Both fighters were in top form, exchanging the role of the aggressor and trading blows.  It was extremely difficult for either fighter to land anything dramatic.  I scored the fight 48-47 for Edgar, but I’m biased.  Henderson ended up winning a split decision and I have to admit that Edgar never quite got off.

Afterwards, Edgar threw his hat down in frustration and you could see he was almost in tears.  It wasn’t a graceful reaction, but he was emotional.  Both men felt they’d won the fight.  Edgar knows it’s going to be a long climb back to the top of the mountain, so you can’t blame him for showing his frustration.  He’s never taken a night off inside that cage.  Considering the physical advantages his opponents usually have, he can’t afford to.  When you put that much time, effort and dedication into something and it doesn’t go your way, you’d have to be inhuman not to be upset.  My heart broke for him.

What’s next for Edgar: (9-3-1 UFC, L2) A drop to featherweight if Edgar’s critics have their way.  By any standards, Edgar has had a phenomenal run at lightweight and I would like to see him stay there.  I actually consider fighting at his natural weight to be good thing, due to him not having to deal with the taxing physiological issues that other fighters put themselves through when cutting massive amounts of weight.  As the detrimental effects of weight cutting become more apparent, you’ll see fighters competing a lot closer to their natural weight; in that sense, Edgar is ahead of his time.  Edgar should relax until 2013, at which time he could face Jim Miller (yes, another rematch), Guillard or Jamie Varner (another former WEC champion).

What’s next for Henderson: (5-0 UFC, W5) A hotly anticipated meeting with #1 contender, Nate Diaz.

The UFC Middleweight Rankings (20 – 1): Tim Boetsch Is The Third Best Middleweight In The World

Once again, some general criteria and notes:

  • I place a heavy emphasis on success in UFC contests; I consider two straight in the UFC to be more valuable than ten straight with only one win in the UFC
  • I place a heavy emphasis on success in your division; if you’re a top 10 light heavyweight and you drop down to middleweight and lose your first fight, you ARE NOT A TOP 10 MIDDLEWEIGHT
  • To achieve top 10 status, you need to beat a top 10 opponent or dominate several top 20 opponents.  A top 10 ranking is a huge achievement for any fighter and it must be earned properly
  • Subjectivity is a necessary evil.  When you get closer to the top of the rankings, it becomes much harder to separate individuals and this is where opinion and analysis can cause rankings to differ greatly
  • Fighter’s records are listed as UFC record first (as well as post-Zuffa WEC record if applicable), overall record second (NC = No Contest), current overall winning/losing streak 3rd (W = winning streak, L = losing streak, D = draw)

Three top 20 middleweights will be featured on Saturday’s UFC 150 card.  Let’s see where they’re at now and how much a big win could affect their careers.

_________________________________________________________________________

The Middleweight Rankings

20. C.B. Dollaway (6-4 UFC, 12-4, W1) (Power MMA Team)

“The Doberman” is one of the last fighters to take that Ultimate Fighter push and really run with it.  He became known for his brash attitude (and the introduction of the Peruvian necktie to the octagon) and backed it up with a solid 5-1 run.  Two vicious knockout losses to Mark Muñoz and Jared Hamman seemed to have left him shell-shocked as he was criticized for utilizing a lay-and-pray strategy against Jason “Mayhem” Miller.  Regardless, he won the fight but now faces the difficult task of winning back the fans.  He’s currently recovering from a hand injury.

19. Jared Hamman (2-3 UFC, 13-4, L1) (Grudge Training Center)

That 2-3 (1-1 as a middleweight) record and recent loss might not look great, but Hamman owns a TKO victory over Dollaway who you might have noticed sits just one spot lower.  When you beat someone definitively like that, you take their spot. See?  Rankings are easy.  Just for clarification, Tom Lawlor (21) actually choked out Dollaway, but that was three years ago and the impact of wins and losses can diminish over time so that’s why these three gentlemen are where they are.  Injuries and family crises have kept Hamman from fighting with any regularity and a win over Michael Kuiper (40) will go a long way towards figuring out his proper place in the rankings.

18. Ronny Markes (2-0 UFC, 13-1, W6) (Nova União)

In the same boat as Hamman, I have Markes ranked this highly because he took Aaron Simpson’s spot when he beat him back in February via split decision.  His last three pre-UFC opponents had a combined record of 30-8, including former top middleweight Paulo Filho.  I’m probably giving him more credit than he deserves for the Simpson win and his association with Nova União, but I can’t be sure until he steps back into the cage.  He’s been nursing a hand injury for some time now.  I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt based on his gaudy record and the resilience he displayed in his last fight.

17. Francis Carmont (3-0 UFC, 19-7, W8) (Tristar Gym)

You’re going have some expectations training alongside GSP and Carmont has done well so far in his three UFC appearances.  He’s shown an excellent ability to control fights with his takedowns, while constantly pressuring and looking for submissions.  Five of the eight wins on his current streak have come via way of tap out (including his last two).  At age 30, Carmont is in his prime but the matchmakers have chosen to bring him along slowly, which will undoubtedly pay off for both Carmont and the UFC in the future.  Don’t be surprised to see him in the main event of a free TV card sooner rather than later.

16. Constantinos Philippou (4-1 UFC, 11-2 [1 NC], W4) (Serra-Longo Fight Team)

Philippou had an erratic start to his UFC career before settling into a convincing four fight win streak.  When I heard “Costa” was going to be part of the TUF 11 cast I had him pegged as a potential favourite.  He didn’t even make it into the house, falling to an arm bar by Joseph Henle in the elimination round.  The UFC then asked him to replace Dan Miller to face Nick Catone, which he did losing by decision.  His next opponent was shuffled again as Riki Fukuda turned into Rafael Natal who then turned into Jorge Rivera when Rivera’s original opponent, Alessio Sakara, suffered an injury.  After all that, Costa got his first UFC victory with a split decision win over Rivera.

His boxing based style definitely reflects the Ray Longo portion of the Serra-Longo Fight Team more so than the grappling acumen of Matt Serra.  So far Costa has chosen to stand and bang and none of his last four opponents have been able to keep up with him.  Steady booking has allowed him to prepare better and have more productive training camps.  His ground game is still in question and it will need to be tested before Philippou can move up in the rankings.

15. Ed Herman (7-5 UFC, 20-8, W3) (Trials MMA and Fitness/Team Quest)

It’s now or never for “Short Fuse” as he’s set for the biggest fight of his career against former Strikeforce Middleweight kingpin Jake Shields.  It’s no secret that Herman is looking to wrestle, but that doesn’t mean he plays it safe.  Of his 7 UFC victories, only one has gone to a decision.  He’s finished his last three opponents including a 48 second TKO of Tim Credeur.  His last loss was the result of a knee injury and he’s been outstanding since his return.  Along with fellow middleweight Michael Bisping (and Matt Hamill who recently declared he’s coming out of retirement), Herman is the only contestant left from season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter, a season he was favoured to win.  He might finally be moving towards bigger and better things.

14. Wanderlei Silva (4-7 UFC, 34-12-1 [1 NC], L1) (Wand Fight Team)

Always a tricky guy to rank as his only significant win at middleweight was against Michael Bisping.  The Cung Le fight was thrilling, but Le is such an unknown property at this point that it’s difficult to evaluate the value of beating him.  At the same time, Silva fights name opponents and only looked bad losing to Chris Leben.  Then again, I consider Leben to be the greatest fighter of all time, so that’s not going to hurt Wandy a lot in my personal rankings.

His two losses to Rich Franklin compounded what everyone else already knew: the game has passed Silva by.  His kamikaze PRIDE style has been lost in translation ever since he joined the UFC and it’s been a challenge for him to learn new tricks.  I thoroughly enjoyed his second meeting with Franklin, a classy contest that was a fine study of two veterans proving that they still have what it takes to compete at this level, but Wandy was clearly out-pointed for the majority of that bout.  His high position in my rankings is probably motivated by fondness, but I’m also waiting for someone to step up and take his spot.  “The Axe Murderer” doesn’t do hand outs.

13. Rich Franklin (15-5 UFC, 29-6 [1 NC], W1) (Team Extreme)

With one main event win, Franklin finds himself in the thick of the division again.  When you consider his previous achievements at middleweight, putting Franklin at number 13 makes sense.  He was forced to vacate the division when it was clear he couldn’t topple Anderson Silva, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the tools to beat any 185’er.  He’s got top notch kickboxing, solid cardio and enough experience to compensate for any style.  He only has two losses at middleweight (he fought Vitor Belfort at catchweight) and they’re both to the current champion.  Silva has mentioned he’d be willing to give Franklin another shot someday, which I have absolutely no interest in.  I appreciate everything he’s done though and look forward to his fight with Cung Le in Macau.

12. Chris Leben (12-7 UFC, 22-8, L1) (Icon Fitness MMA)

You may have noticed me referring to Leben as the greatest fighter of all time.  This is not an exaggeration.  We all know that Silva has been ducking Leben ever since they first met all the way back at UFC Ultimate Fight Night 5 in 2006.  I’ve heard people use the words “dominated” and “embarrassed” and “knocked out in under a minute” to describe what happened to Leben that night but I would put it another way: “lucky”.  Sure, Silva has gone on to obliterate just about everyone in his path but what does that really tell us?  Leben has the most wins in the UFC without receiving a title shot (tied with Bisping) and he did the company a favour by taking that fight with Silva back then, so why no rematch?  The Spider is scared!

*deep breath*

I really like Chris Leben.  I actually caught the Silva fight years after it happened.  My first experience with Leben was at UFC 82 when he knocked out Alessio Sakara.  I knew nothing about MMA at the time so when I saw Leben walking through punches while hurling haymakers like a mad man I was like, “This guy is unbeatable”.  To this day I still feel like he’s got a puncher’s chance against anyone and I’ve even overlooked his two suspensions for banned substances including the one he’s on now.  That’s love right there.  The number 12 placement isn’t that strange when you consider his wins over Simpson and Wanderlei and his two losses against Brian Stann and Mark Muñoz who I both rank higher than him.   I will begrudgingly concede that his best days might be behind him though.

11. Rousimar Palhares (7-3 UFC, 14-4, L1) (Brazilian Top Team)

“Toquinho” is such a frustrating fighter as he’s perpetually on the outside looking in.  He’s failed twice to advance his career following the standard UFC formula of winning three or four fights and then stepping up.  His first attempt ended with him getting knocked out by Nate Marquardt as he stopped defending himself to protest his opponent’s alleged greasing, an accusation that even he would later admit was wrong.  He strung together three more one-sided wins before meeting up with Alan Belcher, who surprised everyone by knocking Palhares out in the first round.  Toquinho has everything it takes to be a huge star for the UFC, with terrifying submission skills that harkens back to the days of Royce Gracie.  Nobody finishes with leg locks as frequently as this guy.  Sadly, his frequent mental lapses might prevent him from ever reaching the upper echelon of the division.

10. Brian Stann (6-3 UFC, 12-4, W1) (Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts/Warrior Legion MMA)

I can see the appeal of Stann: Handsome, well-spoken, ex-Navy, all around good guy.  He also passes the eye test as far as his performances go.  He’s finished all four of his middleweight opponents, including Chris Leben and former Sengoku Middleweight champ Jorge Santiago.  He’s a good fighter, but I’ve seen a lot of talk about how he’s one win away from a title shot and that’s where I’m having trouble.  All of the guys he’s beaten are brawlers and the one grappler he faced (Chael Sonnen) made him look like an amateur.  I’m not blaming Stann.  You can only fight who they match you up with and he’s obviously done well with that.  What I fail to see is why he’s consistently ranked higher than this next fighter…

9. Alan Belcher (9-4 UFC, 18-6, W4) (Roufusport)

Since a disappointing loss to Jason Day, Belcher has gone 6-1 inside the octagon.  His lone misstep was dropping a controversial split decision to Yoshihiro Akiyama.  He submitted high priced import Denis Kang, knocked out Wilson Gouveia, delivered the first Pedigree in UFC history to Patrick Côté, forced Jason MacDonald to tap to strikes and went to the ground to pound out Rousimar Palhares.  The Palhares win was stunning because everyone assumed Belcher’s only chance was to keep the action on the feet.  Palhares pulled guard as soon as Belcher got close and rather than back away and reset, Belcher jumped right into deep waters.  He was nearly submitted, but managed to get free and blasted Palhares with punches until the ref stopped the fight.  He’s a legitimate threat to anybody in the division because he has no conscience and I actually love his chances against Anderson Silva should that fight ever materialize.  It looks like the matchmakers feel the same way as he’s set to face Vitor Belfort in what should prove to be the most difficult test of his career.  A win vaults him to the top of the contenders list.

8. Michael Bisping (12-4 UFC, 22-4, L1) (Wolfslair Academy)

Another fighter who seems like he’s always just short of the top 5, Bisping has performed so consistently over the last couple of years that it’s impossible to deny how far he’s developed as a fighter.  He might never have one punch knockout power, but the volume of strikes he dishes out was more than enough to stop Jorge Rivera and Jason Miller.  He followed those wins with a strong performance against Chael Sonnen, a fight many thought he won.  Add in the fact that he’s one of the most recognizable fighters (reviled in the US, beloved in the UK) on the roster and you can see why it seems like “The Count” is perennially one win away from a shot at the title.  His next bout with Brian Stann will undoubtedly be billed as “good vs. evil”, but since the fight is happening in Toronto we’ll probably end up booing both of them.

7. Vitor Belfort (10-5 UFC, 21-9, W2) (Xtreme Couture/TapouT Training Centre)

There was a period there where I couldn’t stand Belfort.  I didn’t like that he was given a shot at the title after only one fight back in the UFC (at catchweight no less).  Watching him get finished with a front kick to the face was both hilarious and vindicating as it proved (to me at least) that he wasn’t a deserving contender.  Don’t get me wrong, when Belfort is on top of his game there’s not a more dangerous finisher in MMA.  His last four victories have all come within the first round.

Still, you could make an argument that I’ve got Belfort too high as he’s never beaten a top 10 middleweight.  Even if you want to count that Franklin catchweight fight, “Ace” had already lost his lofty ranking by then.  The other names are Matt Lindland (out of the UFC), Yoshihiro Akiyama (his third loss in a row) and Anthony Johnson (who missed weight and was in no shape to fight).  All three of those guys are no longer part of the UFC’s 185 pound division.  His “strength of schedule” is really not that much better than Stann’s.  I will make a subjective call here and give Belfort the 7-spot because even though his opponents haven’t been world class, he’s dispatched them in short order.  At the very least, he’s taken care of business.

6. Mark Muñoz (7-3 UFC, 2-0 WEC, 12-3, L1) (Reign MMA)

Before getting crushed by Chris Weidman, Muñoz was on a remarkable win streak, defeating four top 20 opponents within the span of a year.  Included in that run was a contentious decision victory over Demian Maia, who was top 3 at the time.  Muñoz then brutalized Leben in the UFC’s first scheduled five round non-title fight (though it ended in the second).  Were it not for the megabucks match-up between Silva and Sonnen, Muñoz might have found himself headlining a PPV alongside The Spider.

After Matt Hamill welcomed him to the UFC with a thunderous head kick KO, “The Filipino Wrecking Machine” made the decision to drop to middleweight.  His only losses have been to Weidman and Yushin Okami (another close fight).  Muñoz needs to work on his surprisingly poor takedown defence as both of his losses were set up by his opponents controlling the tempo of the fight with well timed shots.  He’s blessed with heavy hands and has proven he can run with the big dogs.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he one day fights for that belt, though it might be after Silva retires.

5. Yushin Okami (10-4 UFC, 26-7, L2) (Wajutsu Keishukai Tokyo)

It’s tempting to drop Okami down this list after two knockout losses (and I’ve seen many rankings do just that), but when one of those comes at the hands of the champ and the other in a fight he was winning until the last round, how much should that hurt his stock?  The loss to Silva was predictable, but that’s a credit to Silva not an indictment of Okami.  Tim Boetsch is a lot better than people think (as I will elaborate further on below), undefeated as a middleweight and as powerful as anyone in the division.  He got caught by some unorthodox punches in the clinch and went down.  It happens.

Before this slump, Okami had compiled an awesome 10-2 record with his only losses coming against Franklin (#2 at the time) and Sonnen (who was soon to be #2).  Neither man was able to finish Okami.  He holds wins over Belcher, Mike Swick, Evan Tanner, Muñoz and Marquardt.  The problem with Okami is that he fails the eye test as there really isn’t one fight or moment in his career that jumps out at you.  It wasn’t like the fans were calling for him to fight Silva.  He just kept winning so there was really no other option.  People even scoffed when Dana White said he was the best Japanese fighter ever in the UFC.  The funny thing is he wasn’t wrong.

4. Chris Weidman (5-0 UFC, 9-0, W9) (Serra-Longo Fight Team)

I know what you’re thinking.  Only #4?  The man who will one day topple Silva?  Take it from someone who worships at the altar of Serra-Longo: he’s ranked right where he should be.

I firmly believe that Weidman is the most intriguing challenger to Silva’s reign since Dan Henderson (UFC 82, March, 2008).  I’m not counting Sonnen because he wasn’t viewed as having any chance the first time they met.  From what we’ve seen so far, Weidman is a superb athlete with creative stand-up and unstoppable takedowns.  By all accounts he’s a jiu-jitsu prodigy, having famously gone the distance with the esteemed André Galvão at the 2009 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championship.  He’s backed that up in the cage, outworking Maia and recording first round submissions of Jesse Bongfeldt and Tom Lawlor.  His most recent win, a spine tingling standing elbow KO of Muñoz electrified the MMA world and prompted talks of an immediate title shot.  Understandably, Silva’s management team has been reluctant to grant it.

As for why Weidman isn’t in the top three, it’s simple.  His biggest wins came against Maia (on his way out of the division) and Muñoz.  Muñoz beat Maia to take a top 3 slot, then lost that top 3 slot to Okami.  Okami retained that position even after losing to Silva, but had to concede it when he was defeated by this man…

3. Tim Boetsch (7-3 UFC, 16-4, W4) (AMC Pankration)

…that’s right, the third best middleweight in the world: Tim “The Barbarian” Boetsch.  I’m going to jump right into the positives before this whole thing derails completely.  Boetsch dropped down to 185 last May and made an immediate impact tossing former TUF 3 winner Kendall Grove around the cage like a ragdoll.  He followed that up with another solid performance against Nick Ring before being matched up with Okami in what many perceived would be a nice bounce back fight for “Thunder”.  Okami won the first two rounds, but by the end of the night it was his head bouncing back from Boetsch’s uppercuts shortly before collapsing to the mat.  With that, Boetsch earned himself top 10 status and his reward was a marquee match-up with Hector Lombard, who hadn’t lost a fight in forever.  The ensuing match was unforgivably lifeless and from my perspective, Lombard eked out the decision.  As it turns out, Boetsch’s aggression and seemingly ineffectual strikes were enough to earn him the split decision and just like that he beat the odds again.

Look, we all saw that fight.  Neither man fought anywhere near their best and even though Boetsch got his hand raised, it would be absurd to say he’s suddenly deserving of a title shot.  But this is where objectivity and wins and losses have to stand for something.  Is he 4-0 at middleweight?  Yes.  Did he knock out the former number one contender?  Yes.  Did he end a 25 fight unbeaten streak?  Yes.  Just looking at the results, there’s nobody I’ve ranked lower than Boetsch who has had a more impressive run at 185 over the last 12 months.  Nobody.  This #3 ranking might be laughably high, but I don’t see how anyone could place him outside of the top 5 at this point.

2. Chael Sonnen (6-5 UFC, 27-12-1, L1) (Team Quest)

There’s been so much written about Sonnen that it is literally impossible to say anything interesting about him so I’m going to talk about Batman and The Dark Knight Rises instead.  SPOILERS AHEAD

*****

At the end of the movie, Batman totally murders Talia.  He’s hovering in the air with the Batwing or whatever and he launches rockets straight at the cab of the vehicle.  We clearly see the driver slump over forcing Talia to take the wheel and then she crashes and dies shortly after.  Don’t tell me he was just trying to take out the truck.  When you shoot rockets at a truck, you’re probably going to kill the people driving it!  Now you might say it’s a fitting end to the series because he was also responsible for the death of her father, but one of the major points of the second film is that Batman doesn’t kill anymore.  Ras’ death was regrettable, the kind of mistake a young, impulsive Batman would make.  You want proof?  He spares the Joker!  The fact that he lets the Joker live tells you that he doesn’t consider any life to be expendable, even one dedicated to chaos and the misery of others.  Not to mention him turning the line about “having my permission to die” on Bane.  You can chalk it up to him just sounding like a total badass, but to me it was juvenile and petty.

When he goes to fly the bomb away at the end, the whole thing gets so maudlin.  He’s got, like, minutes to spare and he has to take the time to get some sugar from Catwoman.  Don’t get me wrong, if Anne Hathaway was standing in front of me dressed in that outfit I’d probably want to sneak in a kiss before getting blowed up, but since we know Bats fakes his death at the end wasn’t that entirely inappropriate?  His final moments with Commisioner Gordon are just brutal.  He has to give this unbelievably forced line about giving a coat to a boy so that he knows the world isn’t over or some garbage and then we’re given a flashback of the scene in question just in case we were too stupid to remember the events of the first film.  Then Gordon has to say, “Bruce Wayne?” to drive the point home further.  WE GET IT!

It’s a good movie, I’m just sayin’.

1. Anderson Silva (15-0 UFC, 30-4, W16) (Black House/Chute Box Academy/Team Nogueira)

The champ.  The boss.  Rick Ross.  Numero uno.  You would think because there’s nothing to say about Sonnen that I might give Silva the same treatment, but no; that’s the beauty of Anderson Silva.  You can’t say enough about his success, his style, his dominance, his mystique.  I’ve vacillated between calling him the best ever and someone who has taken advantage of a weak division.  The truth is somewhere in between, as it always is.

From an objective viewpoint, Silva’s challengers have been less than spectacular:

  • Travis Lutter – A good fighter, but he earned the shot by winning TUF 4.  He also missed weight so this actually didn’t even turn out to be a title fight.
  • Nate Marquardt – I’ll always wonder how Marquardt would have fared against Silva in a rematch.  His biggest wins actually came after losing the title fight, as he took out Martin Kampmann, Gouveia and Maia.  This was a fine win, but I think most people would agree that a more experienced Marquardt would have been a stiffer test.
  • Rich Franklin – I actually think the second victory over Franklin was just as important as the first as it confirmed Silva’s abilities, but this was also the first indicator of the division’s lack of depth.
  • Dan Henderson – The biggest win of Silva’s career.  PRIDE was still viewed as the superior brand even after being purchased by Zuffa and Henderson was a respected champion.  Silva had had some problems with Lutter’s wrestling and it was thought that if Henderson could implement a similar strategy, he might come out on top.  Sure enough, he took the first round but Silva, as only Silva can, locked in on Hendo in the second and hurt him on the feet before securing a rear naked choke.  In my opinion, this was the peak of Silva’s dominance.  This was over four years ago.
  • Patrick Côté and Thales Leites – If anyone can remember how either of these two got title shots you’re truly a more knowledgeable fan than I.  I just looked at both of their records and I still have no idea what happened there.  It was in these two contests that we saw the emergence of “Evil Anderson”, a man so unimpressed by his competition that he refused to engage them.  I don’t entirely blame Silva here as Côté and Leites were totally unprepared for a fighter of his calibre and the onus was on them to make something happen.  They never did and what we got were two of the worst title fights in UFC history.
  • Demian Maia – Before his loss to Marquardt, there was a lot of buzz around Maia possibly dethroning the champ some day.  His Brazilian jiu-jitsu mastery meant he had one skill that nobody, even Silva, could possibly match.  Of course, he also had no way of getting Silva to the ground so it was a moot point.  It didn’t help that he was replacing Belfort, so there was really no way to hype the fight properly.  Evil Anderson reared his head again and Dana White threatened to fire him if he ever did anything like that again.
  • Chael Sonnen – Again, Sonnen wasn’t viewed as much of a challenger and Silva was expected to walk through him, which is what made the resulting contest so thrilling.  I’m willing to concede that Sonnen is a lot better than we gave him credit for, at least as far as having a style that could neutralize Silva so both victories are huge notches in the champion’s belt.
  • Vitor Belfort – I’ve already discussed how I’ve felt Belfort was undeserving of this match, but none of that seemed to matter in the wake of Silva kicking his face off of his face.
  • Yushin Okami – Okami was absolutely a worthy challenger, he just didn’t look like it after Silva was done with him.

So other than Franklin, Henderson and Sonnen, you’d be hard pressed to find an opponent who could realistically challenge Silva.  On the flipside, that might be because he’s made them all look so bad.  It’s the same problem that many superior athletes face.  Michael Jordan…Tiger Woods…Roger Federer…is their excellence a result of inferior competition or is the competition inferior as a result of their excellence?  I know I’m going to sound like a broken record, but the truth really does lie somewhere in between.

He has displayed a level of striking that is currently unmatched in MMA.  His ground game has been the perfect foil for suffocating wrestlers.  More than anything, he’s always got that mental edge, that confidence only found in elite athletes.  A lot of fighters talk a good game, but you can see it when Silva starts to shuck and jive and target his “lasers” (as Joe Rogan puts it) that the thought of defeat is utterly remote; that anything other than the complete annihilation of the man standing across from him is an impossibility.  More than anything that is why, for almost six years, Anderson Silva has been the UFC middleweight champion.

_________________________________________________________________________

If you’d told me three months ago that I’d be looking forward to writing about the UFC middleweight division, I would have scoffed.  Anderson Silva is the best, what else is there to say?  Now, with the emergence of Boetsch and Weidman, Belcher and Bisping finally fulfilling their considerable promise and exciting prospects like Mutante, Craig, Carmont and Philippou starting to bloom it looks like the division has some life after all.  Outside of Silva and Sonnen it might not have the box office appeal of the two heaviest divisions, but at the same time it also isn’t as top heavy.  Whether Silva is finally beaten or simply retires, there’s the sense that division is ready for a changing of the guard and as a fan that is undeniably exciting.

HELLO JAPAN Part 3: Kyoto, Nara & Lake Biwa

At Hikone Port, stray cats wait in anticipation for the undesirable catch of the night fishermen.  It’s almost ten o’clock and I know I should be back in Kyoto but I felt compelled to see Lake Biwa.  Even in the darkness I find myself in awe looking over the vast waters.  It was scary at first because what’s normally a vibrant tourist attraction during the day was now completely deserted.  I wandered along the dock until I spotted a fishing party.  I kept my distance, like a zoologist not wanting to disturb the local fauna, and sat down a few feet away from them.  I made sure to turn down my music and tried to be as still as possible, petrified at the thought of interfering with their work.  After a while, I chilled out and watched them go to work.  It was slow going, but by the end it seemed as if everyone got their fill, even the strays.

Just sittin’ on the dock of the bay…er, lake, wastin’ time.

*****

It would be understandable if my brother was frustrated by my disdain for schedules.  Every day he’d ask me what I wanted to do and when I couldn’t come up with an answer he’d throw out some suggestions and I’d nod my head and do what he said.  Or I wouldn’t.  We were checking out some prospective locations and one place that stuck out to me was Nara Park.  We hastily arranged for me to spend a few days in Kyoto and its surrounding areas.

One could spend days exploring Kyoto itself, I imagine.  The train station alone is an absolute marvel of design.  I don’t know the first thing about architecture, but I feel like the amount of times I blasphemed whilst shaking my head in disbelief should provide some gauge of how impressive it is.  That combination of expressions occurred no less than a dozen times.

This stairway was responsible for at least half of them.

That stairway captures so much of what I enjoy about Japan.  There’s great expression and beauty in everything they do, but never at the cost of convenience.  My mind would race as I pictured myself walking up towards some mythical kingdom but at the same time if I felt like going to the washroom or picking up a pair of loafers all I had to do was take a left on the 7th floor.  There was an entire floor dedicated to eateries, one of which required me to use a mortar and pestle.  I have no idea how to use a mortar and pestle.

See that bowl of sauce in front of the orange juice?  All me, baby.

This is why my meals usually consist of a foot-long ham Subway sandwich.  I did my best to ground up the ingredients, but I wasn’t sure if I should go fast or slow, hard or fast, circular or jackhammer (get your mind out of the gutter).  I kept peaking over self-consciously at the guy next to me, like Mr. Bean doing a calculus exam.

At the top of the stairs was “Happy Terrace”, an ideal place for tourists to meditate on their journeys, for locals to enjoy their coffee breaks and for young lovers to suck face with each other at night.

More like “Horny” Terrace.

In what you’ll notice is a recurring trend, I took the time to sit down and do absolutely nothing.  I didn’t think about anything.  I didn’t talk to anyone.  I didn’t listen to music or read anything.  I just closed my eyes and waited.  I waited and waited and waited.  Then it was time to go.

I equipped myself with a guidebook that contained no less than 20 different routes for exploring the old city.  Naturally, I ignored them.  The nearest temple wasn’t too far from where I was staying anyway.  Which temple was that, you might ask?  I have absolutely no idea.  Call me ignorant, but the names of the landmarks I visited didn’t seem all that important to me for some reason.  I walked around and took pictures and after some time they all started to blend together.

It’s that temple…you know the one.

You had to take your shoes off before walking around, which I was fine with.  I even removed my socks so I could feel the ancient wood on my feet.  It was a rich, fulfilling experience to walk around those magnificent temples.  I envy the people who live in that area who can come and visit whenever they want; though I’m sure I would take them for granted as I would a church in Ontario.  I stopped to watch a man prepare the shrine, performing all sorts of subtle, seemingly inconsequential procedures though I’m certain every action is rife with meaning.  My spirituality is, at best, “confused”, but I knelt down there for a while and connected with my personal gods.

*****

Breakfast at Kyoto Station the next day.  Delicious.

It was hot as hell the day I visited Nara.  Neither side of the street was offering any shade.  It was like the sun was peaking at the end of the main street, scorching and laughing at anyone foolish enough to traverse that path.  I tried to flip my arms periodically to even out the tan, a trick I learned in my country club days, but it didn’t help much.  There were a couple of nice looking fountains along the way and were I a more impulsive creature, I surely would have stripped naked and jumped in.

Not pictured: Hobo sleeping on the left.

Eventually I ended up at a marketplace that, like so much of Japan, was crowded but clean.  I knew I was close to Nara Park, but I was shocked when I turned a corner and went from this…

No deer.

…to this…

Deer.

I’ve never even been to a petting zoo before so to be close to an animal that’s not a dog or cat or duck was surreal.  I expected someone to come and wrangle (is that what you do with deer?) the poor thing and bring it back to its cage but there it was, left to its own devices.  It never crossed onto the pavement.  I don’t see why it would want to, but it was neat to see that there was this inherent understanding of the boundary between our world and its own.  As it turns out, my furry friend here was just the tip of the iceberg.

This seems insanely dangerous to me.

The heart of Nara Park was occupied by tourists, school students and, of course, more deer.  I couldn’t see any sort of officials or security; in fact, from what I could discern the only employees were the old women who sold the cookies for feeding the deer.  Even they weren’t that helpful, sticking to their duties of selling cookies, cleaning up poop and occasionally herding the deer away from them.  They definitely didn’t give a crap when a deer started to nibble on my shirt forcing me to frantically scatter the cookies I’d just purchased.

Not pictured: The deer who tried to EAT ME.

My favourite thing during the whole trip was the sign that warned visitors of the deer’s aggressive behaviour.  It looked more like instructions for the deer on how to attack and how much each maneuver was worth.  A knockdown has got to be worth at least five deer cookies.

I imagine this is similar to how the New Orleans’ Saints bounty system worked.

Nara suited my style of travel to a tee.  You didn’t need to know where you were going because anywhere you went there were new wonders to be discovered: Holy shrines, authentic tea houses, shimmering ponds…endless avenues of escape.  I was overwhelmed and needed to rest, finding a quaint shelter with a stream running through it.

As a staunch advocate for public napping, I could not recommend a better spot than this.

Revitalized I continued my trek before coming across an open field that just…

…froze me where I stood.  I felt so small and insignificant.  Unlike the deer by the marketplace, I didn’t want to respect the boundary between nature and man.  I could have run into the woods and never come back.

No joke, Bambie was my favourite movie as a child.

*****

Hikone Castle would definitely be closed by the time I got there and I would be wandering around in the middle of the night in a town I knew nothing about.  I didn’t care.  I wanted to see the lake.  I stared out the window, thinking about Nara and paths taken and not taken.  There is an infinite amount of space that the average person will never see.  That’s not something to be sad about, it’s to be celebrated.  To know that no matter how long you live or how far you go, there is always something new and wondrous off in the horizon.  For anyone to experience even a fraction of this magnificently imperfect world is truly a miracle.

Not pictured: The tracks of my tears.

Redemption: In Appreciation of UFC on Fox 4: Shogun vs. Vera

Wow.  Wow.  Wowie wow wow.  As an aspiring writer, it’s usually not a good thing to be at a loss for words, but there isn’t much more you can say about Saturday night’s UFC on Fox card.  It delivered thrilling back and forth battles, some brilliant highlight reel KOs and a main event that, while grueling, was also surprising in how competitive it was.  I honestly feel that this was the perfect night of fights for casual and hardcore fans alike.  It was the best card of the year and the strongest since UFC 141: Lesnar vs. Overeem (which featured a breakout showing by Jimy Hettes, Jon Fitch getting knocked out in seven seconds by Johny Hendricks, a dominating performance by Nate Diaz over Donald Cerrone and the end of Brock Lesnar at the hands of Alistair Overeem).

This card also served to wash away bitter taste of UFC 149, a card that was rightfully panned by every media source out there.  I can’t tell you how many articles I read that started with some variation of “UFC 149 was not the most exciting card, but…” When I found myself writing almost the exact same thing in my own review, I just gave up and scrapped it.  Not to mention the fact that recollecting that event was horribly depressing.  Let us instead look back on the joyous occasion that was UFC on Fox 4: Shogun vs. Vera.

*****

Welterweight Bout: Mike Swick d. DaMarques Johnson via KO (1:20, R2)

What you need to know: Swick is returning after a two and a half year layoff, having battled injuries and a serious stomach condition.  Prior to that break, Swick was on the verge of a title shot before dropping two straight to future contender Dan Hardy and Paulo Thiago (who was white hot at the time).  There were a lot of questions about whether or not he would still have the explosiveness that earned him the nickname “Quick”.

Johnson was the TUF 9 runner-up and he’s managed a respectable 4-4 record.  He’s a happy go lucky character who hasn’t had a fight go to a decision since entering the UFC.  That do or die attitude has done a lot to endear him to the matchmakers and the fans.  Two notable pre-fight moments: The opening video referring to him as an “emerging force” (sure…) and Johnson himself mystifyingly stating that he has a 50% chance to win the fight.  I like to think that the fighters have some influence on the results but…

…discounting all logical variables is also an option.

How it went down: Quick came close to living up to his moniker, blasting Johnson in the early going before being taken down.  Johnson showed great composure in avoiding a finishing shot and when he took the action to the ground he fought hard for a D’Arce choke.  Swick survived to the bell.  As a Swick fan I feared the worst as his conditioning had to be an issue after not fighting for 18 months.  If Johnson fought a conservative fight, there was a good chance he could take another round but his crowd pleasing style proved to be his undoing.  A sloppy kick was caught by Swick who executed a nice trip.  On the way down, Johnson was nailed clean in the mush and he was pretty much out before the follow-up punches sealed a Knockout of the Night award for Swick.

What’s next for Johnson: (4-5 UFC, Lost last 2) As mentioned above, Johnson is an ideal candidate to entertain fans so don’t expect this loss to hurt him too much.  He’s never going to contend for a title, but it doesn’t seem like he cares so why should we?  The good times should continue to roll against the likes of Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, Chris Clements or Rich Attonito.

What’s next for Swick: (10-3 UFC, Won last 1) Let me just say that it got a little dusty in the Lee house when Swick started asking if the fans remembered him and then saying how much he appreciated them.  For someone who had such a fast start to his career, he’s never developed an ego or asked for anything that he didn’t earn.  If seeing him come back last night didn’t stir up any emotions for you, I can’t help you.  Sherdog.com made the wise suggestion that they ease him back into the welterweight scene by facing the winner of the Che Mills-Duane Ludwig fight, but I could also see him paired up with Matt Brown or Aaron Simpson.

Lightweight Bout: Joe Lauzon d. Jamie Varner via Submission (2:24, R3)

What you need to know: This was Lauzon’s 13th UFC appearance.  He’d won 9 bonuses in his career (5 Submission of the Night honours, 3 Fight of the Night honours, 1 Knockout of the Night honour).  Despite all of that success, in his last 10 fights he’s been unable to string together more than two wins.  One of the few fighters who can legitimately claim to never being in a boring fight, none of his 21 victories have come by way of decision and all of his Fight of the Night awards were earned in losses.

Varner is a former WEC Lightweight Champion and he looked like the next big thing before a controversial fight with Donald Cerrone.  It was a close fight and Varner looked to be ahead on points going into the fifth round.  Cerrone went for broke and looked like he was close to finishing Varner before landing an illegal knee.  Varner claimed he couldn’t continue, putting the result in the hands of the judges who awarded him the contest.  Fans were displeased and the ill will seemed to jinx him as he went winless in his next four contests, getting cut just as the WEC merged with the UFC.  He won three of four on the regional circuit before getting the emergency call up to face Edson Barboza, where he was expected to get smashed.  The seasoned veteran overwhelmed Barboza, knocking him out in the first round and rejuvenating his career.

How it went down: Fight of the year candidate.  I can’t recall the last time I’d seen such a hard hitting lightweight contest.  They looked more like light heavyweights.  There was no scrounging for points, these two were looking to take each other’s heads off.  Remember what I just said about Lauzon never being in a boring fight?  Varner was all too happy to test that reputation and the two went back and forth, with both men scoring knockdowns and going for submissions.  Ten months ago, Varner was losing on the regional circuit to a gay porn actor.  You think he ever thought he’d be fighting on national television again?  He had no hope and you know what they say about that…

Even though he’d eventually threaten to murder your family to get you to throw a fight, Wilson Fisk would be an outstanding corner man.  Suck it, Greg Jackson!

Even when it looked like they were gassed, both fighters found a second wind and continued to exchange heavy blows and combinations into the third round.  The end came when Varner landed a power double takedown, but Lauzon turned it into a scramble that ended with him locking on a triangle choke.  It wasn’t the prettiest submission, but Varner was exhausted and it was either tap or nap.  The two men would be awarded the Fight of the Night awarded, with Lauzon also getting a Submission of the Night bonus bringing his award total to 11.

What’s next for Varner: (2-2 UFC, L1) A quick note about Varner’s record there, he went 1-1 in the UFC six years ago before transferring to the WEC.

This loss does little to hurt Varner’s stock as he put in an amazing performance in defeat.  He’s got heavy hands and a lot of experience.  Now that he appears to have his head on straight, he’s a legitimate contender in the lightweight division at only 27 years old.  He could use a well-deserved break after taking two short notice fights or he can get right back into the thick of things with opponents like Terry Etim (the man he replaced in this fight), TUF 13 winner Tony Ferguson or the monstrous Gleison Tibau.

What’s next for Lauzon: (9-4 UFC, W1) I already consider Lauzon to be a top ten lightweight, but there aren’t a lot of big name matches that make sense for him right now.  He’ll have to settle for winning more awards, I suppose.  A meeting with Rafael dos Anjos or the Evan Dunham-TJ Grant winner makes a lot of sense, but I would love to see him take on the undefeated Paul Sass in what would be a grappling contest for the ages.

Light Heavyweight Bout: Lyoto Machida d. Ryan Bader via KO (1:32, R2)

What you need to know: This was the first of the two light heavyweight showcases meant to help the matchmakers decide who would get the next shot at the title.  The current champion, Jon Jones, had already decimated all four men in the co-main and main event and if he gets past Dan Henderson at UFC 151, any rematch will be tough to sell.  Still, Machida had the most respectable showing against Jones and he has the kind of style that can challenge any fighter.

Bader, who at times has looked like the next Henderson with his wrestling background and devastating right hand, did not fare so well against Jones looking completely overmatched before being submitted in the second round.  He followed that with an embarrassing loss to Tito Ortiz before bouncing back with wins against Jason Brilz and Rampage Jackson.  Bader is a legitimate top ten fighter, but it’s difficult to reach the upper echelon of this top heavy division.

How it went down: Round one was vintage Machida as he used his karate to consistently avoid and score against the befuddled Bader.  Bader’s striking improves with every fight, but Machida made him look like a practitioner of Boxercise.  The worst part about fighting Machida is that you know he’s looking to counter and you feel like you’re the aggressor, but at the same time you’re still losing the fight.  In this case, Machida repeatedly scored with kicks to the leg and body that Bader had no answer for.  It wasn’t a dominating first round, but Bader was behind.

In the second, Bader came out more aggressive but as we’ve seen countless times, that plays right into the hands of “The Dragon”.  Eventually he had no choice but to lunge at Machida in the hopes of landing something significant.  What happened next, well…perhaps this classic panel would explain it best:

One punch!  ONE PUNCH!

With one punch, Machida reminded us why the light heavyweight division is in the state it’s in right now.  As good as fighters like Bader, Phil Davis and Alexander Gustafsson are, they’re in the bottom half of the top ten.  The top five (Jones, Henderson, Rua, Machida, Evans) are light years ahead of them and we’ve seen what happens when these groups mix.  Evans tooled Davis for five rounds and Machida flattened Bader with a single blow.  People can complain about title contenders being recycled, but until we see results how can we consider any of these neophytes to be a legitimate threat?

What’s next for Bader: (7-3 UFC, L1) The question with Bader is can he develop fast enough to compete with the level of opponents that he now has to face to improve his ranking?  He looked stellar going undefeated in his first five UFC fights, but top guys like Jones and Machida showed him how far he truly is from the top.  For his next fight, Brandon Vera is the most logical booking, but other options include fellow TUF 8 contestant Krzysztof Soszynski (should he return) or the loser of the Wagner Prado-Phil Davis rematch.

What’s next for Machida: (10-3 UFC, W1) A title shot, apparently.  Dana White declared Machida to be the most impressive light heavyweight of the night so he’s either got a rematch with Jones or a marquee bout with Henderson.  I’d especially love to see him up against Hendo, but I also support the popular suggestion that Machida and Shogun Rua coach the next season of TUF: Brazil setting up a trilogy bout and truly establishing a worthy contender.  Not sure what the champ is going to do with all that free time though.

Light Heavyweight Bout: Shogun Rua d. Brandon Vera via TKO (4:09, R4)

What you need to know: The second potential title eliminator, Shogun and Vera were originally slotted as the only potential contenders before fan uproar caused Dana White to change his mind.  This is Shogun’s first fight since his war with Henderson last November and it remains to be seen if those two fighters suffer the same fate as Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva, whose chins were never quite the same after their encounter.  Shogun has been wildly inconsistent in the octagon, looking like a PRIDE era force of nature one moment and then unfocused and out of shape the next.

Vera was once a marketing dream for the organization.  He was memorably quoted as saying that he would one day hold the heavyweight and light heavyweight titles at the same time.  Add in the fact that he’s a proud Filipino and it looked like he could be an international sensation.  A contract dispute cost him the only title shot he was ever offered and when he dropped to light heavyweight the result was a dull thud.  He was released after a one-sided loss to Thiago Silva that later became a no-contest when it was revealed that Silva had been injecting steroids into his spine.

Hurm.

The UFC gave him a makeup fight against Eliot Marshall, which he won to keep his job.  After Shogun refused to fight Glover Teixeira, Vera was asked to step in and that’s how he found himself one win away from an extraordinarily unlikely title shot.

How it went down: As hard as Goldberg and Rogan tried to sell this fight, it gave me horrible memories of Shogun’s fight with Mark Coleman.  We saw two gassed out veterans just hanging in there, struggling to mount any effective offence.  On one hand it was thrilling, because there was that element of “anything could happen” and I was surprised that Vera even made it out of the first round.  On the other hand, I could only imagine how it looked to the casual viewer: “These are supposed to be two elite fighters?”  I take nothing away from either man as far as heart and determination goes, but I won’t disrespect them either by saying that this was the best they have to offer because it wasn’t even close.  Seeing Shogun fall so flat is even more disappointing, fuelling rumours that he overlooks opponents and doesn’t take his training seriously (though age and knee surgeries have also taken their toll).

Vera certainly deserves credit for doing exactly what he said he would do.  He stood and traded with Shogun, often getting the better of him and forcing the PRIDE star to utilize his underrated takedowns.  The ground fighting seemed to drain both competitors and the second and third rounds were just painful to watch.  Vera started to land combinations including some stinging leg kicks and both men had success in the clinch with knees and short elbows.  Again, I could see how this fight might be viewed as exciting, but it just looked so sloppy and desperate at times.  The end came in the fourth when Shogun was able to summon his reserves and land some brutal shots to put Vera down.  Vera was inexplicably futzing with his mouthpiece when the telling blows landed.

What’s next for Vera: (8-6 UFC, L1) Not another top ranked opponent.  While he’s regained some measure of marketability, he needs to be built back up the right way.  Even if he never fights for the title, the guts he showed tonight could definitely lead to another main event some day.  My only question is whether this aggression we saw tonight was a result of having nothing to lose or if it marks the return of the dynamic fighter he once was.  It’s a big drop off, but matches with Joey Beltran, Anthony Perosh or a rematch with Thiago Silva would help the UFC gauge just how much Vera has left.

What’s next for Shogun: (5-4 UFC, W1) Aside from the aforementioned TUF: Brazil matchup with Machida, I’d still like to see him eventually fight Teixeira, who he dismissed as not being established enough.  I think that’s a crock and you fight who the boss tells you to fight, but that’s just me.  Another option is fast rising Alexander Gustafsson, who Dana White has promised a big match and I don’t think he could do any better than Shogun.

*****

The ratings came in and apparently they were about in the same range as the last UFC on FOX card, which sounds disappointing considering the names that were booked (Shogun, Vera and Machida have all headlined PPVs).  Some of this can be blamed on the Olympics and viewers who were turned off by Maynard and Guida on the last FOX show, but it was still watched by over two million people.  More importantly, the card has to be considered a resounding success as far as pleasing loyal fans and bringing in new ones.  The positive effects will become apparent in the future as people share highlights and buzz about the awesome action that they saw.  Everyone involved should be proud of themselves from the producers who created some outstanding video packages (Ving Rhames in da’ house!) to the fighters who gave their all.  Any doubts about the UFC’s viability as a mainstream act are quickly fading.

The UFC Middleweight Rankings (43 – 21): Dissecting Hector

Rankings are stupid.  Unlike other professional sports, we can’t just slot fighters into standings according to their win-loss record.  Quality of competition and quality of performance matter.  When we see a fighter execute a spectacular knockout or submission, it matters.  Streaks matter.  You might have a fighter with ten wins and three or four losses get passed over for a title shot in favour of another who is on a four fight win streak.  MMA is not a sport where the numbers provide definitive answers.

Now that we’ve established the inherent worthlessness of rankings, allow me to introduce you to my rankings.  More specifically, these are UFC rankings, so don’t expect to see Gilbert Melendez or Pat Curran or Luke Rockhold or anybody not in the UFC right now.  There is a lot of talent outside of the UFC, but it goes without saying that the organization houses the best of the best barring a few exceptions.  For the sake of transparency, here are some basic rules (which I promise to follow unless I don’t):

  • I place a heavy emphasis on success in UFC contests; I consider two straight in the UFC to be more valuable than ten straight with only one win in the UFC
  • I place a heavy emphasis on success in your division; if you’re a top 10 light heavyweight and you drop down to middleweight and lose your first fight, you ARE NOT A TOP 10 MIDDLEWEIGHT
  • To achieve top 10 status, you need to beat a top 10 opponent or dominate several top 20 opponents.  A top 10 ranking is a huge achievement for any fighter and it must be earned properly
  • Subjectivity is a necessary evil.  When you get closer to the top of the rankings, it becomes much harder to separate individuals and this is where opinion and analysis can cause rankings to differ greatly

All of that may seem like common sense, but I’ve seen plenty of head shaking rankings that give too much weight to streaks against mediocre competition (Shinya Aoki, I’m looking at you).  A couple more notes for clarification:

  • Fighter’s records are listed as UFC record first (as well as post-Zuffa WEC record if applicable), overall record second (NC = No Contest), current overall winning/losing streak 3rd (W = winning streak, L = losing streak, D = draw)
  • For fighters with less than three UFC appearances, I might refer to their last three non-UFC fights for reference; in these situations the combined record is meant to reflect their records at the time they fought the fighter in question

With no middleweight fights on this Saturday’s Fox card, now is as good a time as any for an overview of the division, while familiarizing ourselves with some lesser known fighters.

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Unranked

Luiz Cané (4-4 UFC, 11-4-1, L1) (The Armory) – transitioning from light heavyweight

“Banha” was a hot prospect a few years ago after winning three straight against veteran Jason Lambert, the mercurial Sokoudjou and former WEC Light Heavyweight champ Steve Cantwell.  A gifted boxer, Cané was stopped by a debuting Antônio Rogério Nogueira at UFC 106 and he would go on to lose by TKO in two of his next three appearances.  If his punching power transitions to middleweight with him, Cané could make a serious impact at 185.  He’s set to fight Chris Camozzi at UFC 153 in October.

Tim Credeur (3-2 UFC, 12-4, L2) (Gladiators Academy) – inactive since June 2011

Various maladies have prevented Credeur from gaining any momentum as he’s fought only three times in three years.  After making it to the TUF 7 semi-finals, Credeur won his first three fights in the UFC before faltering against Nate Quarry and Ed Herman.  He’s not exactly a spring chicken at 35 and with the UFC acquiring so much talent these days it’s going to be tough for Credeur to re-establish himself.

Daniel Sarafian (0-0 UFC, 7-2, W4) (American Top Team) – yet to debut

The rightful heir to the TUF: Brazil crown, Sarafian fought his way to the middleweight finals before suffering an injury.  He was considered by many to be the favourite to win the tournament after submitting Renee Forte in the quarterfinals and knocking out Serginho with a spectacular flying knee in the semis.  There has been some talk of booking him against the man he was supposed to face in the finals, eventual winner Cezar Mutante.

Jake Shields (2-2 UFC, 27-6-1, W1) (Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu) – transitioning from welterweight

After a disappointing run at welterweight, Shields is returning to the middleweight division, a class that he once ruled in Strikeforce.  Despite the size he’ll be giving up, I actually like this move for Shields not only because of his previous success, but because I’m an advocate for less extreme weight cuts.  Shields might find himself more comfortable and with some extra gas in the tank without having to endure the grueling dehydration that seems to take its toll on so many fighters.  I expect him to return to the top 10, but I hope the UFC isn’t considering rushing him into the title picture.  They’re not doing him any favours as he’s been matched up with a resurgent Ed “Short Fuse” Herman.

Tom Watson (0-0 UFC, 15-4, W3) (Tristar Gym) – yet to debut

Currently the biggest British name outside of the UFC, “Kong” has won a couple of titles overseas including the BAMMA World Middleweight Championship.  He owns victories over fellow Briton John Maguire (currently 2-0 in the UFC’s welterweight division) and UFC veteran Matt Horwich.  I actually missed my chance to see him in person when he cancelled an appearance at Casino Rama last year.  He’s set to make his debut against Brad Tavares.

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The Middleweight Rankings

42. Caio Magalhaes (0-1 UFC, 5-1, L1) (Dragon Fight/Nova União)

Magalhaes earns the dubious honour of being ranked last due to his relative inexperience and a loss to another unheralded newcomer, Buddy Roberts.  His last three non-UFC opponents had a combined record of 12-6.  He’s only 24 years old and far from a finished product.

41. Magnus Cedenblad (0-1 UFC, 10-4, L1) (Pancrase Gym)

Just missing out on the bottom spot, Cedenblad ranks slightly higher than Magalhaes due to a stronger non-UFC resume (last three combined: 19-6) and for losing to a more hyped opponent, Francis Carmont.  Considering how good Carmont has looked, there’s no shame in losing to someone like that in your first UFC fight.

40. Michael Kuiper (0-1 UFC, 11-1, L1) (Team Perfect/Gracie Barra Netherlands)

Kuiper’s last three non-UFC opponents were no great shakes (combined: 12-15), but he was on an 11 fight win steak where only one opponent was able to make it past the second round.  He fell a bit flat against Rafael Natal, who was making his third octagon appearance.  Still, he gets points for going the distance.  His next fight will be against Jared Hamman at UFC 150 in August.

39. Jason MacDonald (6-8 UFC, 25-16, L2) (Pure Fitness/Gracie Barra Calgary)

MacDonald deserves all the credit in the world for coming back from a severe leg injury, hut he’s been punched out in his last two bouts and has fought over forty times professionally.  I wrote after his last fight that I thought it might be a good time for “The Athlete” to retire and I didn’t intend any disrespect.  The fighter knows better than any of us how their body operates, but we’ve seen time and time again how pride can affect one’s decision making.  As a fan, I’d love to see MacDonald retire and continue his work as an ambassador for MMA in Canada.

38. Hector Lombard (0-1 UFC, 31-3-1 [1 NC], L1) (American Top Team)

And this is where my rankings lose all credibility, right?  Only five entries in!  Allow me to explain how I can rank a fighter who has lost once (and dubiously) in his last 26 fights this low.  Let’s start by taking a look at Lombard’s significant wins and their records at the time:

  • James Te-Huna (6-3)
  • Brian Ebersole (39-13-1 [1 NC])
  • Jared Hess (8-0-1)
  • Kalib Starnes (9-3-1)
  • Jay Silva (5-3)
  • Alexander Schlemenko (37-6)
  • Joe Doerksen (46-14)
  • Falaniko Vitale (29-9)
  • Trevor Prangley (23-8-1)

By any measure, those are quality opponents.  They all have impressive records and/or have fought for a major American promotion.  The problem is that none of them were close to being top 20, with the exception of Schlemenko (who has also never beaten a top 20 fighter).  Any win streak by a professional fighter is notable because there are so many things that can go wrong in an MMA bout, but you can’t claim a top spot unless you beat someone higher than you or someone else loses and drops.  Lombard has been enormously succesful, but that doesn’t mean he gets to leapfrog fighters who actually have a win in the UFC.

If you want to go by the eye test, it’s even harder to justify this low ranking because when Lombard is on, he is unstoppable.  He’s authored several mind blowing finishes in the last few years, including a six second KO of Jay Silva.  The thing is, if you did a YouTube search of anyone on the current UFC roster, you’d find plenty of highlight reel KOs and submissions.  That’s how you get into the UFC in the first place.  Again, while Lombard has done it against better competition, the UFC is where the best of the best meet and frankly, Lombard sucked against Tim Boetsch.

The funny thing is, I think Boetsch actually lost that fight.  While Boetsch was aggressive, I felt like Lombard was able to land every time he came in and avoid significant damage.  The numbers show that Boetsch out-struck him so it’s not an absolute robbery, especially when Lombard maddeningly refused to push the action when he was able to connect.  I don’t want to criticize Lombard too much, because he’d look pretty stupid getting knocked out by running into that big right of Boetsch, but it’s hard not to think that he succumbed to the pressure of the big show.  Both guys looked terrible, but Lombard had a lot more to prove and he failed miserably.

37. Buddy Roberts (1-0 UFC, 12-2, W6) (Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts)

Roberts’ fought some good competition before his UFC debut (combined record of last three non-UFC opponents: 44-30), specifically former King of the Cage standout Tony Lopez.  He’s slated to face top 10 middleweight Yushin Okami at UFC 150, an opportunity that materialized when both of their opponents had to bow out due to injury.  An upset there would propel Roberts into the top 20.  He also vaguely reminds me of Sloth from The Goonies, which probably isn’t a nice thing to say.

36. Thiago Perpetuo (1-0 UFC, 9-1-1, W5) (Furacão Fight Team)

“Bodão” was one of the most passionate and emotional fighters from the TUF: Brazil cast and that’s saying something.  He lived up to that reputation by collapsing in tears after a hellacious third round TKO of Leonardo Mafra.  Bodão is going to struggle against wrestlers, but look for him to become a fan favourite if he keeps up those kinds of performances.

35. Cezar Ferreira (1-0 UFC, 5-2, W1) (Xtreme Couture)

Groomed as Vitor Belfort’s protégé, Cezar “Mutante” was expected to cruise through the TUF: Brazil competition and he didn’t disappoint.  Despite a lacklustre performance in the finale, Mutante did enough to secure the contract.  With such a broad talent pool to choose from, it was hoped that the Brazilian edition of TUF would be the first one in years to produce a legitimate title contender.  With his physical gifts and well rounded game, Mutante might just fit the bill.

34. Clifford Starks (1-1 UFC, 8-1, L1) (Arizona Combat Sports)

Starks had an impressive seven fight winning streak before signing with the UFC, but the combined record of his last three minor league opponents was 8-7. His strong wrestling background allowed him to run through his first eight opponents but he was exposed badly and submitted by Ed Herman.  He’s going to have to show vast improvement in his next bout.

33. Riki Fukuda (1-2 UFC, 18-6, L1) (Grabaka)

Having only been stopped once in his six losses, Fukuda has proven to be nearly impossible to finish.  He has power, but his limited striking makes things difficult for him when he’s unable to implement his grappling game.  Even when he does score takedowns it doesn’t always pay off as he did just that against Nick Ring, but still came out on the wrong end of a ludicrous decision.  A memorable brawl with Steve Cantwell and his appeal to the Japanese market are helping him stick, but he needs to string together some wins to remain relevant

32. Patrick Côté (4-8 UFC, 17-8, L1) (BTT Canada)

I actually didn’t think Côté looked too bad against Cung Le.  There’s a misconception that Le surprised him with his trips, but grappling is an essential part of Sanshou and Le was able to mix up his attack well.  I’m definitely giving Côté extra credit for his previous run in the UFC and even if you don’t think he ever deserved a title shot, he got one and that has to mean something.  I wouldn’t fault anyone for ranking Côté closer to the bottom of the division.

31. Karlos Vemola (2-3 UFC, 9-3, L1) (London Shootfighters)

Vemola is another guy who is tough to rank as he’s only had two fights at middleweight in the UFC after debuting at heavyweight and fighting twice at light heavyweight.  He experienced a sizeable jump in competition going from Mike Massenzio to Francis Carmont.  You might be asking why Vemola is ten spots higher than Cedenblad despite losing to Carmont in almost the exact same time and fashion (2nd round submission).  Vemola has a win at middleweight, Cedenblad doesn’t.  Bodão and Mutante coming off wins but are too new and Côté needs to start rebuilding his record before we can figure out where he’s at.  Vemola gets this spot for now, just outside the top 30.

30. Rafael Natal (2-2-1 UFC, 14-4-1, L1) (Gracie Fusion)

I had a Wimbledon joke all set up here, but Rafa got upset in the 2nd round this year so you can forget about it.

Natal, like many of these lower tier competitors, is difficult to quantify.  He came in with some fanfare having knocked out Travis Lutter inside of a round, but was unimpressive in his first two octagon bouts going 0-1-1.  Two untelevised decision victories did little to recapture the initial intrigue and his most memorable moment has been getting taken out by a buzzer beating head kick from Andrew Craig at UFC on Fuel TV: Muñoz vs. Weidman.  Still, Natal gets points for his five octagon appearances, despite his uneven results.

29. Alessio Sakara (6-6 UFC [1 NC], 15-9 [1 NC], L2) (American Top Team)

Like MacDonald, “Legionarius” is approaching the end of his career.  I rank Sakara higher because he was on a tidy three fight win streak before losing to two top ranked fighters, Chris Weidman and Brian Stann.  I also love watching him fight and I feel that he still has more than enough left to challenge both rising stars and other veterans looking to bang.

28. Court McGee (3-2 UFC, 13-4, L2) (The Pit Elevated Fight Team)

As much as I respect McGee for the personal demons he’s overcome, I find him utterly boring.  I’ve seen the Ring decision referred to as a robbery, but McGee was throwing wildly and barely landing until the final round.  You could give McGee points for volume, but it’s that kind of mindset that has lead to guys like Leonard Garcia winning unjust decisions.  Ring won that fight.

McGee is a like Fukuda in that he’s super resilient, but seems to lack the style necessary to finish fights or blow away the judges.  His consistent aggression was a welcome change of pace, but until he refines at least one aspect of his game he’s going to remain stuck in the middle of the pack

27. Nick Ring (3-1 UFC, 13-1, W1) (Tristar Gym)

Of course, I can’t place Ring much higher since he didn’t exactly blow the doors off either.  Ring did just enough to win, but the whole fight was exactly the sort of scene that is turning away both casual and hardcore fans.  I’m firmly against the notion that “finishes equal good fights”, but when it doesn’t even look like either guy is trying to finish then they leave themselves open to all kinds of criticism.  Ring has a nice 3-1 record, only dropping a decision to Tim Boetsch, but (I know I’m sounding like a broken record) he needs to do more to distinguish himself in this division.

26. Andrew Craig (2-0 UFC, 8-0, W8) (Team Tooke)

This is why I have my own rankings.  Craig isn’t on the radar of most fans, but even ignoring the mystique of the undefeated fighter (something I need to learn to do) he’s looked fantastic scoring an upset win over Kyle Noke and knocking out Rafael Natal.  His last three non-UFC conquests had a combined record of 33-10, including WEC and Bellator vet Eric Schambari.  Craig is legit.

25. Cung Le (1-1 UFC, 8-2, W1) (American Kickboxing Academy/Cung Le’s Universal Strength Headquarters)

I want to rank Le higher here, I really do, but he just hasn’t done enough inside the octagon.  His biggest win was against Frank Shamrock and that was over four years ago.  The thing with Le is that his style is so unique and exciting that when he’s at his best, you could picture him standing and trading with anybody, even Anderson Silva (a fight that would draw big numbers).  It’s great that he has acting opportunities outside of MMA, but we can only imagine how many awesome match-ups we could have seen if he’d dedicated himself to competition.  Fortunately, the UFC is going to give him the opportunity to cash some fat checks as he’s already 40 years old and the time is now for him to face some big names

24. Nick Catone (3-3 UFC, 9-3, L1) (Team Renzo Gracie)

Catone impressed early on his UFC career, going back and forth with Mark Muñoz in his third UFC appearance before losing a split decision.  He rewarded Zuffa’s faith in him by winning his next two before being busted open by Chris Camozzi at UFC on FX: Maynard vs. Guida, prompting a doctor stoppage.  Catone is a reliable fighter and he’s earned this relatively high ranking with his consistent performances inside the cage.  In six appearances, Catone has never made it out of the preliminaries, but he’s an ideal candidate to fill an undercard spot on a free TV event.

23. Brad Tavares (3-1 UFC, 8-1, W1) (Xtreme Couture)

Only 24 years old, Tavares is an exciting striker with lots of potential who broke out from the mostly abysmal TUF 11 cast.  His only loss was to Aaron Simpson, who grounded Tavares with his wrestling.  Elite wrestlers could be a problem for him, but the middleweight division has a dearth of those and as Tavares’ takedown defence improves, look for him to continue to rise.  He’s one to watch.  For his next fight, the UFC has given him the unenviable task of welcoming top British fighter, Tom “Kong” Watson at UFC on Fuel TV: Struve vs. Miocic in September.

22. Chris Camozzi (4-2 UFC, 17-5, W2) (factoryX Muay Thai)

Another young gun who struggles with wrestlers, Camozzi was a favourite of Tito Ortiz on TUF 11 but he had to withdraw from the competition after suffering a fractured jaw.  This is actually his second stint with the organization and he’s on a decent two fight win streak including a stoppage of Nick Catone.  He next faces Luiz Cané in what should be a stand-up war.

21. Tom Lawlor (4-3 UFC, 8-4 [1 NC], W1) (Team Aggression/Lauzon MMA)

Lawlor is one of those guys who makes you wonder just how good he’d be if he took this MMA thing more seriously; but then again, what would be the fun in that?  He goes for a broke every time which leads to the highest of highs (choking C.B. Dollaway unconscious, knocking out Jason MacDonald in under a minute) and the lowest of lows (gassing out against Aaron Simpson, getting put to sleep by Chris Weidman).  Not to mention the fun loving personality he displays both at the weigh-ins and on fight night.  If I based my rankings on entertainment value alone, Lawlor would easily be top five.  That said, he’s booked to face Francis Carmont at UFC 154 in November and an upset win would boost his career more than any impression.  Well, unless he showed up wearing a Bane mask or something.

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That does it for the bottom half of the middleweight division.  As you can see, there isn’t always a lot to say about these fighters which is why you don’t see a lot of comprehensive rankings.  It might be a waste of time too, since being ranked this low means they’re always one or two losses away from being released.  Next week I hope to wrap up with the top 20, but if it goes too long I’ll make a third part for the top 10.  I’m just going to assume I’m forgiven for the Lombard entry.