I always told myself that if I ever became a sports writer, I wouldn’t be the sort who built his reputation on mystifying readers with his amazing predictions; which is good, because there is no one in the world worse than I am at picking fights.
It has become a running joke with my friends and me that even though I watch more mixed martial arts than most I am somehow incredibly incompetent when it comes to predicting winners. Convinced that this is simply a misperception, I decided to start keeping track of my picks starting with UFC 146 (May 26, 2012). Between 146 and Saturday’s UFC 155, I have recorded the results of my predictions for 207 fights (excluding draws and one card that I missed while I was in Vegas) and the outcome was surprisingly positive: 130 correct, 77 incorrect. Some things I noticed:
I had a lot of success naming the winners of preliminary fights, which I wouldn’t have expected considering that I’m not always able to watch those matches (I refuse to join Facebook) and so I base those predictions mostly on their records, who they’ve beaten and second hand accounts from various websites. In other words, other people are smarter than I am. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been so unexpected.
Cards involving contestants from any edition of The Ultimate Fighter over the last few years usually turned out well for me. This obviously has to do with the fact that I’m the only person who still cares about that show and has any opinion whatsoever on those fighters.
I whiffed on a lot of big fights and for the most part I was only slightly more accurate than the flip of a coin when it came to the main cards. This is a problem of perception. The more I see of a fighter, the more I am able to talk myself into certain things whether they are positive or negative. I exaggerate strengths in fighters that I expect to win and I magnify weaknesses in fighters who I’m not as sure about. It gets even worse when we’re talking about my fighters who I like. For example, two of my favourite fighters, Chris Leben and Alan Belcher fought at UFC 155 and I expected both of them to walk through their competition. Did it matter to me that Leben was coming off of a long suspension that included a difficult rehabilitation for substance addiction? Or that Belcher’s opponent, Yushin Okami, had already soundly beaten him in a previous encounter? Of course not! I created a narrative in my head that these two were “due” (whatever that means) and they would “find a way” (whatever that means) to win. They both ended up performing poorly and dropping decisions.
As a writer, it is natural to ignore common sense in favour of constructing narratives (Leben’s redemption and Belcher’s understated march towards a title shot) that one might believe would be more interesting or beneficial to the UFC, but the reality is that the outcome is solely in the hands and feet of the two people who step into that cage (and the three judges outside of it). While it is fun to talk about how fighter A will kick fighter B’s ass and how they’re going to do it and then taking pride when it plays out exactly like you said it would, the truth is that the prognosticator who names every winner on the card is not that much more knowledgeable than someone who somehow manages to name every loser.
The best analysts are not the ones who can magically pick winners out of a hat, they are the ones who can convince you that their viewpoint is correct. Sure, for gambling purposes it might be good to have a friend who is able to see the future based strictly on which fighter has the dumber tattoos or the cooler walk-out music (always an important factor), but that doesn’t mean that’s someone you would consider to be knowledgeable about MMA. I also like to think that in the long run, a critical thinker like myself is going to come out ahead. Even if I don’t, I learn from my mistakes. As much as it pained me to see Leben and Belcher get out-grappled for three rounds, you’ll never see me criticizing a winning fighter’s strategy or accuse them of playing it safe or, worst of all, “cheap”. That kind of talk doesn’t help anybody. In sports, we can grow so attached to a particular team or fighter that when they lose, it’s like we’re losing with them, which means when they learn we should learn too.
Still, as I watched my favourites go down one by one (I’d also selected Joe Lauzon and Junior dos Santos to win. They did not.), I was reminded why I don’t gamble. As the saying goes, the only way to win is not to play. Instead, I casually make picks and, more importantly, focus on breaking down the fights as they happen, not before. You can see someone fight a dozen times and you can never be sure how they’re going to come out in the next one. That’s what makes the guessing game so intriguing. I won’t be cleaning up at a Vegas sports book anytime soon, but that’s not going to stop me from trying to figure out how that 50 fight kickboxing veteran is going to fare against an undefeated prospect from Brazil whose fights only exist in grainy YouTube clips. I can talk myself into anything.
In the world of pro boxing, the Mexican superstar stands alone. Julio César Chávez. Oscar De La Hoya. Juan Manuel Márquez. Even to a casual fan like me, those names resonate. They are evocative of all-out wars, flashy knockouts and national pride. They are a reminder that no matter where you come from or what language you speak, if you fight like hell there will always be people willing to shell out their hard earned dollars to watch. North America harbors all kinds of nasty stereotypes of Hispanics as gardeners, illegal immigrants and lazy associates of Speedy Gonzalez, but strap on a pair of red gloves and step into a square with another man ready to take your head off and a Mexican man transforms into a king.
In the world of mixed martial arts, José Felipe Beltran is no king.
Beltran on knockouts:
There’s nothing left to debate. If you did that, you won. No questions asked…I think if you’re a heavyweight and you’re gonna want to make it to a big show where you start making money you gotta knock people out. Little guys can get away with being technical and artsy, but if you’re a big dude, especially if you’re a big Mexican guy, people just want to see you scrap and knock people out.
Joey Beltran, fondly referred to as “The Mexicutioner” (one of those cute nicknames that borders on absurd; can you imagine someone calling himself “The Americutioner”?), is not going to become a champion in the UFC. He’ll probably never get close to a title shot. The only title he’s ever held is the “5150 Combat League Heavyweight Title”, which he won from UFC vet Houston Alexander. And you get the feeling he would have been happy if the prize was a steak house gift certificate. He doesn’t have six-pack abs or a six-figure contract, but what he does have is four wins in the most prestigious mixed martial arts association in the world, including one of the least talked about upsets in recent history.
I’m a sucker for under-sized underdogs and when Beltran was booked to face Rolles Gracie at UFC 109, the odds against Beltran rose to as high as 15-to-1. Gracie was the heir to the world’s most illustrious fighting family. Beltran was a replacement for Mostapha al-Turk, the most ineffective heavyweight I’ve ever seen. He was outclassed in both size and stature. He wasn’t supposed to win.
In the early moments of the first round, everything was going according to plan. Gracie took the action to the mat and easily got into mount position. Victory was a foregone conclusion. You could see the headline: “The next generation of Gracie has arrived!” Dana White caught a whiff of the potential PPV dollars. Gracie/Couture! Gracie/Nogueira! Gracie/Lesnar! Now if only Beltran would stop fighting back…
To this day, I’m not sure if Gracie has no cardio or if his body went haywire that day because as Beltran fought off a choke attempt, Gracie’s energy completely dissipated. It looked like someone had shot him in the ass with a blow dart. Not only did Beltran reverse position and steal the round, but it didn’t seem like Gracie was going to make it off of the stool for the second. He probably shouldn’t have as he proceeded to execute some of the worst takedown attempts ever witnessed. After being stuffed multiple times, Gracie took a quick nap in the middle of the octagon and allowed Beltran to pound him out. It was one of the lamest stoppages I’d ever seen, but in a way also one of the best. It was a preliminary fight that aired after a weak PPV and the stunning result stuck in my head. I was focused on Gracie’s shortcomings, when I should have been celebrating Beltran’s triumph.
Beltran on the practical uses of his nickname:
I don’t want to be [disrespectful] to anybody else’s culture or any other race or anything like that, but people always will be like ‘Are you Samoan?’ ‘Cause I’m so big. ‘Are you Samoan? Are you Filipino?’ Naw man, I’m freakin’ Mexican! We got big guys too.
The other fight I want to talk about is his match with James Te-Huna. After going 3-4 as a heavyweight and being cut by the UFC, Beltran was invited back at 205. Te-Huna had knockout wins in 3 of his 4 UFC appearances so they decided to tee up The Mexicutioner’s skull for him. What ensued was a replay of the 1983 Detroit Pistons/Denver Nuggets triple overtime game, but with more head punching. The Australian slugger’s fists took on the roles of Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka for the evening, just unloading on Beltran who, in predictable fashion, answered back with his own flurries. The two broke the UFC record for a light heavyweight bout with 206 significant strikes combined. In a 3 round fight! Beltran earned his second “Fight of the Night” award and it was later discovered that Te-Huna broke his hand and foot in the first round. Even in defeat, his opponent got messed up!
Beltran on toughness:
…as far as my ability to take what’s given to me in the fights, it’s more my mindset than anything else…my willpower…and also the fact that I’m out there to do a job. Just the same way that a construction worker would build houses and a plumber would fix toilets. Joe Silva and Dana White pay me. The Fertittas pay me to go out there and fight. I’m not gonna run away when something starts to hurt. I’m gonna stand and fight.
At Friday’s weigh-ins, Beltran told Karyn Bryant that he’d decided it wasn’t in his best interests to keep getting punched so much because when he took too many punches he was losing his fights. It was an observation that was offered without irony and it succinctly summed up Beltran’s approach to his work. Appearing on his 9th UFC card, it only just occurred to him that walking into your opponent’s strikes might be counterproductive.
He must suffer from amnesia, because the following night Beltran engaged in yet another slugfest with Igor Pokrajac. This time, he was on the right side of the judges’ scorecards, defying the old adage about having your cake and eating it too. Unlike his boxing counterparts, there is no multi-million dollar payday waiting for the Mexicutioner. The best he can hope for is a nice 5 fight contract (non-guaranteed, of course) and a few more fight night bonuses. Somehow I know that will be more than enough for him.
Special thanks to Abe760 and dojotvusa for their interviews with Joey Beltran that supplied the above quotes!
After 4 weeks of double dipping with The Ultimate Fighter 16 and The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes (the UK/Australia edition of the series), I was burnt out. Maybe I oversaturated or maybe it was too difficult to provide stimulating analysis or maybe (most likely), TUF is a flat-out horrible program to watch these days. Still, as time passed by without writing recaps I felt guilty. I was ignoring my duty and even though nobody gave a damn about it but me, I knew what had to be done: Over twenty hours of TUF programming later I emerged with a greater understanding of self and an even lesser understanding of what it means to have a life.
It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it…
I’m going to have to tack on another eight plus hours this weekend as the two shows wrap-up with the Smashes finale on Friday (Sportsnet ONE, 6 PM preliminaries, 9 PM main card) and the TUF 16 finale on Saturday. You might notice that I didn’t put the Canadian listings for the second event. The TUF 16 main card is on FX Canada, with a replay on Sportsnet at midnight so even I won’t be able to watch it live. This would normally be the part where the MMA fan complains about a major sports network choosing curling over MMA, but the fact is that curling would crush the TUF finale in the ratings and rightfully so: curling rules. Even if there wasn’t a more favourable event to broadcast, the TUF finale would fare poorly due to the malaise around the series and the main event being changed from Roy Nelson vs. Shane Carwin to Nelson vs. Matt Mitrione; an exciting match to be sure, but one lacking in intrigue.
What I really want to talk about is the potential talent emerging from these shows. TUF doesn’t produce high calibre fighters anymore. Flyweight contender John Dodson won TUF 14, but he’s been fast-tracked in a thin flyweight division (and he would have become a contender with or without the show). Before Dodson, the last two TUF participants to earn title shots were lightweights Gray Maynard and Nate Diaz. They came from TUF 5 back in 2007 and that was arguably the last great TUF class (it also included Matt Wiman, Joe Lauzon, Rob Emerson, Cole Miller and featherweight contender Manny Gamburyan). Out of the 32 contestants I’ve forced myself…*ahem*…had the pleasure to watch over the last few months, do any of them have a chance of making a dent in the UFC?
Australian ring girls Kristen and Kahili are clearly the top prospects, but they were NOT eligible for consideration.
Team Carwin (actually yellow on the show, but brown for the purposes of this article) Team Nelson Team Pearson (actually blue on the show, but red for the purposes of this article) Team Sotiropoulos
*Michael Pastou (lightweight) and James Vainikolo (welterweight) are excluded due to the fact that neither man fought on the show. Pastou was injured early; Vainikolo was a late replacement and was unable to make weight.
Luke Newman & Bola Omoyele (welterweights) – best friends, training partners and partners in crime. These two had credibility coming from the same camp as opposing coach George Sotiropoulos. All of that went out the window with their lacklustre performances, not to mention the ensuing controversy that arose from them sneaking a cell phone into the house and then letting a teammate text the result of his fight to his girlfriend! That’s a huge no-no and Dana White showed leniency in allowing them to stay and train. He punished them by ignoring them when it came time to replace an injured fighter and it was such an egregious offence that I doubt they receive a call the next time the UFC heads over to the UK or Australia.
Julian Lane (welterweight) – Lane was the most notorious member of the house, going off on a rampage at the slightest provocation.
Do not look at Mr. Lane. Do not look at him in the eye.
While he was meant to follow in the illustrious footsteps of fellow psychopaths Chris Leben and Junie Browning, Lane’s antics only served to amuse his housemates and annoy viewers. His act became so contrived that you actually wanted to see him throw a punch just so they would have an excuse to get rid of him. Based on his lame performance in the octagon, he isn’t capable of hurting anybody anyway.
Eddy Ellis (welterweight), Nic Herron-Webb (welterweight), Patrick Iodice (lightweight) and Valentino Petrescu (welterweight) – all four lost in the first round and none of them showed enough to warrant a second look. Ellis is too vanilla, Herron-Webb is too douche-y, Iodice is too young and Petrescu is too much of a carny.
Ben Wall (lightweight) – he got lots of face time during the season, both for his charming nickname (“Foxpiss”) and his rapidly ballooning weight. After losing early, Wall was liberated and he proceeded to eat half the house. Completely oblivious to the possibility that he might be needed to replace an injured fighter, Wall just wanted to eat. Regardless, nobody will be able to take away the “fat man” championship that he won as the fighter to gain the most weight during the show. On the final day, he weighed in at 198 pounds. He fights at 155.
Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You
Xavier Lucas (welterweight) – better known as simply “X”, Lucas was one of the most beloved cast members in the house. An injury to a teammate allowed him to fight twice, but he fell short both times. With his easy-going personality and eagerness to scrap, Lucas is on the short-list of fighters the UFC will look to when booking their next Australian card.
Matt Secor (welterweight) – I’m probably overrating his chances here, but I thought Secor stood out on the show with his superior trash talking. Anyone who engaged in a war of words with him usually ended up getting “ether’d”. A smart mouth doesn’t guarantee results in the cage (often the opposite), but Secor did enough in a split decision loss to stay on the UFC’s radar.
Dom Waters (welterweight) – Waters had the misfortune of facing off with Mike Ricci in the quarterfinals and he wasn’t ready for that challenge just yet. He had one of the best showings getting into the house and he has a marketable look (read: he’s big and black and he looks like Jay Pharoah from SNL).
Cameron Diffley (welterweight) – I’m putting Diffley here because of his accomplishments as a jiu-jitsu trainer. I imagine he has some connections that could get him back to the big show sooner rather than later as long as he’s willing to put the necessary work in.
Win And You’re In
Brendan Loughnane/Mike Wilkinson (lightweights), Benny Alloway/Manny Rodriguez (welterweights) & Neil Magny/Jon Manley (welterweights) – the TUF finales traditionally fill out the preliminaries with contestants from the show, but for whatever reason the majority of the cast will not be participating in this weekend’s events. The Smashes finale has some big names (Mike Pierce, Chad Mendes) along with Loughnane, Wilkinson, Alloway and Rodriguez who all made it to the semi-finals. The TUF 16 card doesn’t include a single fighter from the show outside of the two finalists, emphasizing just how weak this particular class was (though Magny and Manley have been booked for UFC 157 in February).
For all six men, a win gets them another fight and a loss sends them back to the minors. The opportunity is especially sweet for Wilkinson and Rodriguez who were removed from the tournament due to injury.
A Change Of Scenery, Perhaps?
Sam Alvey (welterweight) – Alvey had a solid resume going into the show and was one of the favourites to win it especially after delivering a massive KO to get into the house. Unfortunately, the cut to 170 took a lot out of him and he was upset in the first round. He said he’d like to return to middleweight and he’s the kind of fighter who should be prepared if called in on short-notice.
Grant Blackler and Richie Vaculik (lightweights) – Australia must have a shortage of talented lightweights, because Blackler and “Vas” were thrown to the wolves in this competition. Blackler is undefeated at featherweight and Vas is actually one of the top bantamweights in Australia, so neither guy could get off against the supersized 155ers that Team UK trotted out. Both men have promising careers in the UFC at their natural weight classes, particularly Vas who showed solid striking and footwork in the semi-finals against finalist Colin “Freakshow” Fletcher.
So You’ve Made It To The Quarter-Finals…
Bristol Marunde, Igor Araujo, Michael Hill and Joey Rivera (welterweights) – none of these guys lit the world on fire with their performances, but they did enough to eke out a victory and that has to stand for something, doesn’t it? The good thing is they all have a hook: Marunde is “the bleeder” (after every fight it looked like he’d stuck his face in a wood chipper); Araujo is “the homicidal maniac” (for threatening to murder his opponents in the streets); Hill is “the homeless guy” (for refusing to wear a shirt like Vaughn from Community); and Rivera is “Tantric” (for his words of wisdom that I am shamelessly posting again):
You’re not supposed to have sex before you fight, but having sex with my wife, it makes me feel proud. I don’t always finish and I’m just doing it for her to make sure that she’s being taken care of properly. Before I fight I try not to have, um, ejaculation…so I can keep my spiritual energy, keep it all in there.
The next wedding I go to that’s going in the guest book.
I don’t think that’s the proper way to rehydrate.
Colton Smith (welterweight) – I’m listing this last grouping in order of potential. We begin with military man Colton Smith. Smith made it clear that his plan was to take opponents down and pound them out on the ground, which he did with great success. Unfortunately, his stand-up was terrible and he didn’t come close to finishing any of his opponents. Good enough to compete on the show, but not good enough to be memorable, Smith epitomized the efforts of the cast this year. He’s already discussed a drop to lightweight, but I don’t see him sticking around long.
Straight chillin’ UK style.
Norman Parke (lightweight) – only 25 years old, Parke had the most experience of the Smashes crew and he showed it, looking calm and composed and using his size to his advantage. Parke is young, well-rounded and has the right attitude but I didn’t see enough to tout him as anything more than a project. Still, could be a sleeper.
Whittaker (right) showing off the Matrix move.
Robert Whittaker (welterweight) – out of the 32 TUF participants this year, nobody showed more power than Whittaker. Another young gunner at 21, Whittaker’s naiveté is almost a blessing in disguise as he throws hard strikes from all kinds of unorthodox angles. More importantly, when he hits he hits hard as evidenced by the two first round knockouts that landed him in the finals. Like Parke, it’s too early to be making any bold proclamations, but he has those heavy hands that some fighters are lucky to be born with.
This is how you create a spike in the female demographic.
Colin Fletcher (lightweight) – were this based solely on whom I think will become the most popular fighter, “Freakshow” would win by a landslide. With his penchant for bizarre pranks and spontaneous nudity, Fletcher would have stood out even if he never threw a single punch. Luckily, it turns out he can scrap and he turned out to be one of the more level-headed members of the house, refusing to become embroiled in any silly drama. His best bit was when he pretended to be a replacement fighter for Team Australia named “Russell Bandingo”, a transformation that involved slapping on a blonde wig and “tanning” his face with a marker. Not racist at all.
Yes, he looks like Tobey Maguire. Please don’t hold that against him.
Mike Ricci (welterweight) – like Smith, Ricci is likely to drop down to a more comfortable weight of 155 when all is said and done; unlike Smith, Ricci looks poised to become a name in the UFC. However, it can’t be stressed enough just how bad the competition was on this show. Ricci took out Waters and Magny to get to the finals, neither of whom is near his usual level of competition. The Canadian’s performance and demeanour were eerily similar to TUF 6’s Mac Danzig, who also ran through overmatched competition. Danzig has become a reliable mid-carder, but hasn’t come close to matching his tournament dominance. Expect Ricci to follow a similar arc.
I was going to nickname him “Savernake” because he kind of looks like Forrest and Savernake is a forest in Wiltshire and Scott trains in Wiltshire and…ah, forget it.
Brad Scott (welterweight) – now this guy is a sleeper! With his scrunched up face and monotone voice, Scott drifted through the house, writing in his diary and taking care of his business in the cage. His diary nearly got him in trouble with the others (though even this situation didn’t cause too much distress), but he persevered and worked his way to the finals with two gutty performances. His opponent, Whittaker, is the more exciting and explosive but Scott is too cerebral to allow himself to get caught up in a brawl. Like his American doppelganger Forrest Griffin, Scott is more likely to grind it out than go for a highlight reel finish and while that might not get the heart racing, it should lead to a consistent and meaningful career.
Looking to boost stagnant ratings, the UFC matchmakers loaded last Saturday’s card with renowned veterans (BJ Penn and Shogun Rua) and rising stars (Rory MacDonald, Alexander Gustafsson and UFC Lightweight Champion Ben Henderson). The result was the second straight show on FOX that delivered great action while at the same time furthering the narrative of a new breed of fighters. With the young guns (despite being older than his opponent, I include Henderson in this group because of his relative anonymity) putting on impressive showings, the UFC has to be satisfied that these guys did everything in their power to put themselves on the map and improve their own drawing power. Let’s take a closer look at the action:
Welterweight Bout: Matt Brown d. Mike Swick via KO (2:31, R2)
What you need to know: Brown and Swick were looking to find their way back onto PPV, with both of their previous fights being on free TV (FX and Fox, respectively). The always competitive Brown had established an unlikely 3 fight winning streak that came after he was on the verge of being released. Swick took a huge step on the comeback road by knocking out DaMarques Johnson in his last bout and the UFC looked to him to get this card off to a similar start.
How it went down: It certainly had a similar start, though not the way Swick was hoping for. Brown was the sharper fighter from the beginning, prompting Swick to take the fight to the ground where he was expected to have an advantage. However, Brown immediately threatened with a D’arce choke and a triangle choke, causing Swick to turn a sickly shade of purple. It’s a testament to his jiu-jitsu that he didn’t panic and escaped the round, but Brown had clearly hurt him. We’d find out how badly in the middle of the second round when Brown came forward with a stinging combo that put Swick down on the mat for good.
What’s next for Swick: (10-4 UFC, L1) It’s unclear exactly what was wrong with Swick on this night. Maybe Brown is just the better fighter. Regardless, this brutal KO should dull any talk of him returning to the contender’s circle anytime soon. He remains a talented fighter and would match up well with Aaron Simpson, Josh Neer or Paulo Thiago (who defeated Swick in 2010).
What’s next for Brown: (9-5 UFC, W4) With arguably the biggest victory of his career, “The Immortal” is on the cusp of the top 20, something that seemed inconceivable not too long ago. Should the UFC decide it’s time for him to step up, then John Hathaway, white-hot Afghani product Siyar Bahadurzada, or the winner of the December 15 James Head/Mike Pyle fight await.
Welterweight Bout: Rory MacDonald d. BJ Penn via Unanimous Decision (30-27, 30-26 x2)
What you need to know: This fight was meant to take place in September at UFC 152, but MacDonald suffered a cut that put the encounter off. MacDonald had challenged Penn on Twitter and Penn made the ballsy choice of accepting, even though he knew he’d be facing off with a younger, larger opponent. The storyline going in was that this was Penn’s last chance to cement his legacy and MacDonald’s first chance to prove himself against a big name welterweight. Both fighters also agreed to undergo intensive testing by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, which was really a bigger deal for MacDonald as the only thing Penn would test positive for is an excess of adobo.
Is it in you?
How it went down: Penn came into the fight focused and rededicated to his training and the results looked good early, but MacDonald shrugged off his overhand punches and out-landed Penn in the first round from range and in the clinch. MacDonald did severe damage to the body in the second round and probably could have finished the fight, though he chose to stay cautious. As he cruised to a win, MacDonald fancily shuffled his hands and feet and the apparent showboating enraged the pro-Penn crowd. Hate it or love it, MacDonald showed some serious star power.
What’s next for Penn: (12-8-2 UFC, L2) Penn’s last two losses have been tough to watch and it might be time to hang ‘em up. Should he stick around, I’d suggest a division change rather than any potential welterweight opponents. If he’s going to make one last run at anything, it should be at 155 where his size won’t be an issue.
What’s next for MacDonald: (5-1 UFC, W4) The BC native is difficult to book as he has said repeatedly that he will not fight his good friend Georges St-Pierre, who just happens to be the king of the welterweights. After the win, MacDonald called out Carlos Condit, and the UFC has obliged by tentatively announcing the fight for UFC 158 in March. I’d much rather see him face a new top ten opponent like Jake Ellenberger or *gulp* Johny Hendricks who would test MacDonald’s quickly evolving repertoire. The Hendricks fight would be particularly intriguing, as GSP denied Hendricks a title shot so it’s only fitting that his best friend pay for his insolence!
Light Heavyweight Bout: Alexander Gustafsson d. Shogun Rua via UD (30-27 x2, 30-26)
What you need to know: I’ve written before about the great divide between the top 5 light heavyweights (Jon Jones, Dan Henderson, Rashad Evans,Shogun, Lyoto Machida) and the rest of the field. As successful as Gustafsson has been, he’d never faced a top ten opponent much less a fighter like Shogun who was arguably the greatest light heavyweight of all time before Bones came along. I expected Gustafsson to live up to the hype.
How it went down: In his best performance inside the octagon yet, Gustafsson out-struck one of the deadliest strikes alive. Shogun didn’t embarrass himself by any means, breaking out the crowd-pleasing style that has won him many fights and millions of fans. He also absorbed an enormous amount of punishment, something I didn’t think he’d be capable of doing after his war with Hendo last November. If anything, this fight only reinforced the notion that years of wars have taken their toll on veterans like Shogun, Hendo and Penn and while the mentality and skills are still present, the body is no longer willing. That is to take nothing away from Gustafsson, who answered the challenge with gusto, eating shots and blistering the former Pride champion from all angles. I’d wager to say that the Gustafsson we saw on Saturday would have challenged even the best version of Shogun.
What’s next for Rua: (5-5 UFC, L1) Only 31 years old, it would seem foolish to suggest that Shogun is anywhere near retirement, but keep in mind that he’s been battling high level competition for over 10 years now. I’d be happy to see him fight until he’s 40, but I’d also be happy to see him walk away while he’s still in good shape. Still, when he’s on his game he’s still capable of handling the majority of the division. UFC on Fox 6 in January features four tough light heavyweights (Rampage Jackson, Glover Teixeira, Ryan Bader, Vladimir Matyushenko) and I wouldn’t mind seeing any of them step into the cage with Shogun.
What’s next for Gustafsson: (7-1 UFC, W6) Frankly, Gustfasson is more than ready for a title shot. From a physical standpoint alone, he presents a challenge to Jones that no other fighter can offer. Should dubious number one contender Chael Sonnen be scratched from his title fight with Jones (something that is happening with alarming regularity to Ultimate Fighter coaches), Gustafsson is the obvious choice to take that spot. Otherwise, the winner of the February bout between Machida and Henderson should be in the Swede’s sights.
Lightweight Championship Bout: Ben Henderson d. Nate Diaz via UD (50-45 x2, 50-43)
What you need to know: Henderson survived two close scrapes with Frankie Edgar to win and keep the UFC lightweight crown, which considering the depth of the division, might be the most prestigious title in all of mixed martial arts. Diaz, after messing around at 170, worked on making a more comfortable drop back to 155 and the results were unbelievable. First, he submitted lightweight legend Takanori Gomi inside of a round then he manhandled Donald Cerrone, who had been undefeated in the UFC up to that point. He earned a title shot by defeating the gritty Jim Miller, becoming the only fighter to finish him. Known for having deadly boxing and jiu-jitsu, Diaz looked poised to provide the toughest fight of Henderson’s career.
How it went down: I badly underestimated Henderson’s game planning and aggression. As expected, used leg kicks to neutralize Diaz’ range advantage. One look at their legs and you can see why the attack was SUPER EFFECTIVE!
Seriously, you could fit two of Diaz’ toothpick legs into Henderson’s thigh.
Even more impressive was how Henderson followed up those kicks with hard punches, including a hook in the first round that caught Diaz flush in the face. Diaz would later say that his vision was blurry for the rest of the fight. Henderson went low in a variety of ways, targeting Diaz’ calves and even punching the leg instead of kicking. The timing was perfect and just when Diaz thought he’d figured it out, the champ went up top again and scored with head shots. Multiple takedowns lead to Henderson abusing Diaz with ground and pound, though the Stockton bad boy was hardly helpless off of his back. He was relentless in hunting for leg submissions, but Henderson lived up to the “Bendo” nickname, even executing a split to reposition himself.
I’ve never seen either of the Diaz brothers tired before, but I could swear that Nate’s breathing looked laboured going into the final round while Henderson continued to bounce up and down, light as a feather. The highlight of the fight was Diaz taunting Henderson to bring it on, a classic Diaz manoeuvre, before getting clocked by another punch from the champ that planted him on his ass. It was a position he would be familiar with for the majority of the fight.
What’s next for Diaz: (11-6 UFC, L1) Diaz has nothing to be ashamed of as he was just outworked by a champion in his prime. A rematch with Gray Maynard would not be out of the question somewhere down the line, as Diaz was never satisfied with that result but the most exciting matchup would be Joe Lauzon. Diaz and Lauzon were cast members on TUF 5 and seemed destined to cross paths, but the fight never materialized. It will make sense for both of them should Lauzon get past Miller later this month.
What’s next for Henderson: (6-0 UFC, W6) Another Edgar fight! I kid, of course. Even I, the biggest Edgar fan in Canada wouldn’t be interested in seeing that anytime soon. The top tier of the lightweight division have been feasting on each other so there isn’t a clear-cut number one contender right now. Lauzon is an option here if he defeats Miller decisively, though the fight that everyone wants to see is a rematch with Anthony Pettis, the last man to defeat Henderson. If Pettis wins his next fight against Cerrone, it’s a done deal.
For those wondering how the UFC is going to utilize Ronda Rousey, one must only look into sports entertainment history to see how a similarly singular attraction was handled: I speak, of course, of André René Roussimoff aka André the Giant.
In the 70s and 80s, André the Giant was one of the WWWF/WWF’s most popular performers, both due to his one-of-a-kind physique, in-ring charisma and the fact that he was billed as never being cleanly defeated for 15 years. This was in the days of “kayfabe”, when the general public was unaware of the scripted nature of professional wrestling so the only way to realistically book a 7”4’, 500+ lb. monster was to have him always win. And the people loved him for it. Were this to happen today, fans would probably become sick of the giant act in about three months, but back then they ate it up. Arenas would sell out in anticipation of catching a glimpse of the “8th Wonder of the World”.
Fast forward to 2012 and we find Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey in a unique position. She made headlines a few weeks ago becoming the first female fighter to officially be signed to the UFC. She has been so dominant in her young career that her defeat is nearly inconceivable. She is an unrelenting warrior that is constantly pressing forward, not stopping until she has secured the signature arm bar that has finished all of her opponents inside of a round. Despite this inevitability, she has proven to be a top draw and a media darling.
A fully developed quartet of women’s divisions (115, 125, 135, 145) could be an incredible asset for the UFC, but it will take a considerable amount of time and patience for that tree to bear fruit: not only due to the close-mindedness that comes with any idea that is new and different or the apathy associated with the majority of professional sports involving women, but mainly for the fact that the pool of female fighters is shallow especially in regards to marketability. Sex still does and always will sell, as evidenced by the fact that the majority of MMA fans can only name two female fighters: Ronda Rousey and Gina Carano (who’s appeal has transformed her into a budding action star). While it certainly helps a male fighter to be able to hype himself (see one Chael P. Sonnen), a string of exciting wins can be just as beneficial; a female fighter on the other hand, can’t just be a good fighter. She has to be pretty too.
Luckily for the UFC, Rousey fits the bill to a tee. While 135 is arguably the most stacked women’s division (including former Rousey foes Miesha Tate and Sarah Kaufman and other luminaries like veteran Marloes Coenen and up and comers Sara McMann and Alexis Davis), it unquestionably revolves around Rousey. She talks the most trash and she gets the magazine covers. She encourages having sex before a fight. She wins. It could take years to build a proper division, but for the time being the signing of Rousey is already a big win for the promotion.
Use her like André. Hype her up as the unstoppable force that she is. A champion is usually only as good as her opponents, but in Rousey’s case it doesn’t matter who she is fighting. People will tune in, buy PPVs and purchase tickets to see her get in there, take care of business and flash that winning smile. She can carry a co-main event on PPV already. Give her a TV main event on Fox and then, having had time to establish a reasonably suitable challenger, test her out as a headliner on a PPV in Las Vegas or California (her home state). There’s a lot of work to be done to establish women’s MMA, but Rousey is a draw now and the money is there for the taking.
To break out some broad numbers, the two Strikeforce events that Rousey headlined drew 431,000 first-run viewers (versus Tate) and 529,000 first-run viewers (versus Kaufman). They were the two most watched Strikeforce events in 2012 (of an admittedly small sample size of five). In comparison to the UFC’s free television programming, the last two Fox cards draw around 2.4 million, the FX cards draw a little over one million and the FUEL TV cards hover around 200,000 (though FUEL is the least subscribed to channel amongst those listed). Take into account the fact that the UFC marketing machine will be even more effective at promoting Rousey’s appearances and the general lack of awareness amongst casual fans regarding the Strikeforce brand and it’s not outlandish to believe that Rousey could have a considerable impact on PPV sales. I think she’s worth 100,000 buys on her own, easily.
The other possibility to have Rousey and another female fighter (Tate is a possibility, though Carano or Cris Cyborg would be ideal) coach an all-women season of The Ultimate Fighter. Dana White has entertained this idea, though he wants to retain a male cast. That notion is so asinine it defies all logic. Not only would a cast of women be a breath of fresh air, but it would serve the dual purpose of immediately bolstering a new division (possibly two if they go with split weight classes). The idea is such a no-brainer from both a ratings and division building standpoint that it is infuriating that White and the producers of TUF would even consider any other possibility. Unless that other possibility is anything like my “Paradise Hotel” idea.
Just as André packed houses and dominated during his time despite never officially being the champion, Rousey should be allowed to do her thing without necessarily being the face of a “legitimate division”. There may come a time when someone comes along to make their claim as the top female fighter (much like Hogan eventually did in his second go around with the giant), but for now there is no need for a rival. André made a name for himself by wrestling in Battle Royals (a match where twenty or thirty wrestlers are in the ring at once) and always being the last man standing. As long as Rousey is the last woman standing in the middle of that ring, the UFC can sit back and count the money.
Regrettably, André passed away decades before the debut of the ESPN Body issue.