My Come To Yeezus Meeting

There’s one big difference between Kanye West’s last and Kanye West’s latest.

The first time I listened to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I cried.  I had actual tears in my eyes.  Scratch that, when I first heard that “Can we get much higher?” bit chime in on track 1, with the distorted backup vocals…I got goose bumps.  From that first track, I knew, I just knew that I was listening to a classic.  Through all the meticulous production and bravado and befuddling lyricism, the undeniable vision of music’s greatest living artist shone through.  I wanted to call everyone I knew to talk about it and make sure they heard it.

With Yeezus, I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it.  You get the feeling the man himself recorded it with the same attitude.

*****

I know you’re tired of loving,
Of loving
With nobody to love
Nobody
Nobody

I got that overcome feeling again after my second run of Yeezus.  That understanding that true art means having no restrictions, even when your existence is constantly being shaped and defined by forces both visible and invisible.  Kanye doesn’t live in a bubble.  He’s painfully aware of everything that is said (and not said) about him.  He knows we don’t care for Kim.  He knows that following up Fantasy was impossible.  Fantasy is the definition of singular.  It stands on its own and no modern artist including Ye himself should try to approach it.  It is a masterpiece carved into stone.  Don’t f**k with it.

So what to do then?  Yeezus.  The only logical response.

What do you get for the man who has everything?  He likes to talk and dance and drink and f**k and then talk about all the dancing and drinking and f**king he’s done and will do.  He’s a dad now.  His daughter is going to listen to this record one day and she’ll be told that her impending birth was an inspiration for what daddy did here.  She’ll understand.

Look, I get it.  I wish there was a way I could listen to this album without knowing it was created by Kanye.  My fandom colours my opinion.  Art doesn’t exist in a void and we’re all going to approach something like Yeezus differently.  I wouldn’t expect everyone who’s followed his work since before The College Dropout to feel this one.  Hell, I know there are people who called it quits after Fantasy or after 808s & Heartbreak.  Kanye now isn’t Kanye then and if that changes some people’s minds, I can’t blame them.  Evolution is not inclusive.

I’m reminded of a conversation between Dante and Randall from the Kevin Smith film Clerks where they argue over whether one’s profession should determine one’s behaviour.

Kanye is a famous rapper.  That means he has to be eccentric.  He has to shake up the establishment.  He has to have the famous, generously proportioned girlfriend.  He has to party all night, live to excess, and throw his stupid, shallow lifestyle in our faces.  He has to pretend to apologize.  He has to release hip hop albums.  Doesn’t he?

Returning to 808s was predictable.  Easily Kanye’s most polarizing and least popular work, it was also the jumping off point for everything he’s done since.  I always say that Fantasy doesn’t exist without the mistakes of 808s.  It is the kind of move made by artists who feel like after all they’ve done, they still can’t win.  Kanye finds himself constantly being lumped in with every other tepid, tired act on the radio, no matter how much he innovates.  He’s popular and thus, perceived as pop.

Yeezus has no single, no album art and no radio presence.  There are no hooks.  Nothing to grab on to when s**t starts getting out of control (and boy, does it ever get out of control).  Kanye couldn’t be trying harder to say Look at me, I’m an artist.

Sometimes when I hear a great song, I get mad because I feel like I’ll never be able to create something like that.  Kanye doesn’t get mad, he gets mad busy.  He sees industrial music and electronic music and house music and says “I can do that.  Not only can I do it, but I’m going to do it even bigger and better than the people I’m listening to.  I want this.”  Of course, when you’re looking to make music like Daft Punk it helps when you can actually call up the guys from Daft Punk for pointers.

The nature of the album lends itself to abstract discussion so what substantial statements can we make about it?  It’s hard hitting.  It’s crisp, which is to say that everything sounds deliberate.  We’ve come to expect that level of perfection.  Even when he’s going for a sort of chaotic, disjointed effect, he can’t help but refine things down to the wavelength.  The ending of New Slaves is one of the most exultant, affecting things he’s ever recorded.  He knows exactly where he’s going even if he can’t control how we receive him.

Lyrically, this is Kanye at his most defensive and repulsive.  He’s not acting, he’s reacting.  His always clumsy search for metaphors and similes comes off as even more desperate than usual.  He leans heavily on the words in his samples, a dangerous practice not unlike putting together a movie soundtrack.  You’re using other people’s insights and emotions to compliment your message.  I don’t believe he succeeds as he has in the past (see: Who Will Survive In America), but whether he realizes it or not his appeal has never been about winning and losing.

There are moments on this album that break my heart.  It feels like he’s so far from being satisfied, despite the money and the family and the fame and the acclaim.  How can you be happy when you know that happiness leads to complacency?  Complacency this close to transcendence would be fatal.  They say when you’re on top there’s only way direction left to go, right?

Do people still listen to Last Call?  It’s the 12 and a ½ minute track at the end of The College Dropout.  Well, it’s a rap followed by a long monologue.  It’s brilliant.  It’s a recording from a simpler time when an eager Kanye could feel safe being honest and forthcoming.  He just goes off.  He gushes about his admiration for music industry personalities that he would eventually surpass.  He seamlessly works in a few rhymes from an unreleased song.  He vents about how ignorant people were in regards to his career, even back then.  Every time I listen to the track I think about how he we’ll never see him that open and vulnerable again.  Not after everything he’s done and had done to him.

Maybe I was wrong.  It would be easy to call Yeezus impenetrable.  There are just so many layers to it and Kanye makes it hard to navigate.  But just like Fantasy, the primal scream is so much louder than the individual elements.  Listen to him wailing on I Am A God.  It’s a sickening inversion of the drowned out vocals from Runaway, Kanye’s most obvious cry for help.  He’s not singing anymore, he’s begging for release.

That “Uh huh, honey” sampled throughout Bound 2 is so comforting, especially at the end of an album that is so often abrasive.  It makes me want to curl up next to something warm and just laugh.  It’s like at the end of a brutal action movie where they show all the characters (most of whom died during the movie) smiling over the credits while some good ol’ boy tune plays as if that makes up for all the destruction you just witnessed.  Does Kanye really think he can wrap things up that neatly?

I worry about the backlash to this album.  Not just that people won’t like it (that’s their choice), but that it will divide Kanye fans into pre-Yeezus (“Pre-zus?”) and post-Yeezus camps  Speaking for myself, I can acknowledge that I’m biased both as a devout Kanye fan and someone who takes pride in frustrating acquaintances with contrary viewpoints.  That might be what is happening here.  If I am going to be accused of elitism, I’m glad that it’s in service of a work that is important and vital and exciting.  Listening to Yeezus is a privilege and a pretty damn rewarding one at that.

The King and I

Little known fact: I declared for the NBA draft out of high school.  I’d never played a single minute for the Markham District High School Marauders, but I figured my street reputation would be enough to get me into the lottery.  On the blacktop, they called me “Shakespeare”.  I made plays.

I was chilling in my living room, watching the draft by myself with a tall glass of milk and a plate of Oreos waiting for my name to be called.

LeBron went first, as expected.  I wasn’t envious in the slightest.  I respected him and I knew our careers would be forever linked.  A lot of pressure for both of us.

‘Melo.  Man…made me wish I was going to college the way he ripped it up down at Syracuse.  I got kids to feed though.  Sorry Mom.

Bosh.  He better do Toronto right or I’ll come back home and set him straight.  I’m not gonna lie, it hurt to get passed over here.

Dwayne Wade…wait, “Dwyane”?   Somebody messed up a caption.  I vaguely recall him dropping a triple double.  In college.  Psht.  Let’s see him go down to the cage at Milliken Mills and get a triple double.  I used to get those on the regular and we usually only played up to 11.

Kirk Hinrich.  TJ Ford.  Mike “Too” Sweetney.  Damn.  I would have loved to play in New York.  I really should have made sure I got a promise before splurging on the Escalade.

Real talk: I didn’t get drafted in the first round.  Or the second.  I see a ton of foreign names pass by and I’m scratching my head.  I’m still convinced the Mavericks got confused and picked Xue Yuyang instead of me.

It is common practice for teams to call undrafted prospects right after the last round to invite them to training camp.  My phone was crypt quiet.  My Oreos remained untouched.  I just wasn’t in the mood.

The post-draft coverage was all about LeBron.  “King James”, they were already calling him.  He was enveloped by camera flashes and hands patting him about the head and shoulders.  My hoop dreams were on hold.  His were just beginning.  You go and live your life now, brother.  You live for the both of us.

*****

Everyone has to deal with expectations.  If you’re on Wall Street, you’re looking for your first million.  If you’re a lawyer, you’re counting your cases.  For LeBron, his success would only be measured in MVPs and championships.  Imagine being 15, 16 years old and knowing that anything short of being the best of the best of the best will lead to you being labelled a failure?

You ever see any of those basketball “mix tapes” on YouTube?  They’re a popular way of showing off high school prospects at their best: crossing cats, throwing no-look dimes, throwing down ridiculous jams (usually on opponents half a foot shorter than them).  They’ve been around forever and it’s gotten to the point where they’re completely useless as far as evaluating a prospect goes.  They just look cool.

In games 6 and 7, LeBron was a living mix tape.  If you want to know why he’s been the most promising athlete since Bo Jackson, you only needed to watch the closing minutes of game 6.  He was switching like a mad man on defence, blocking shots, penetrating at will and relentlessly pushing his team to keep competing.  Not only did all of his skills translate to the next level, he ended up developing a skill that scouts doubted he would ever have: a jump shot.

People forget that before Ray Allen’s big 3 pointer, James hit one moments before that to make the score manageable.  More amazingly, we expected him to make the shot.  Before this season, LeBron didn’t have that feared jumper like Kobe or MJ.  It was a weakness.  You could “give him that s**t”.  At this stage he takes everything.

My choice for the ideal basketball body used to be Scottie Pippen.  It’s LeBron now.

I feel sorry for anyone out there still working to poke holes in James’ game.  They’re missing out on something truly special.  These characters and moments only exist for a brief period in our lives and then they’re gone.

I’m not saying LeBron is the most loveable guy.  We don’t know him and we never will and that makes us angry.  We like a guy like Tim Duncan because we feel like we know what he’s about, but that’s not the truth.  The fans are as close to Tim Duncan as they are to Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant or Dwyane Wade or LeBron.  My relationship with LeBron begins and ends with the product he puts out on the court.  Everything else is immaterial.

The LeBron era has been a resounding success.  After the despair of the Iverson/Carter/McGrady era proved to be fool’s gold, Stern was desperate for a saviour and he couldn’t have asked for anyone better.   All of those stars were marketable, but incapable of winning enough to make it to the Finals (Iverson excluded) where the real TV money was at.  The Celtics/Lakers provided an oasis, but the NBA didn’t emerge from the wastelands until LeBron got with the Heat to produce spectacular ratings for the last three years.

I’m proud of him.  That might be the most insignificant sentiment ever offered, but I’m proud all the same.  Beyond all of the hype, the fame, his decisions, The Decision, Jay-Z and all of the hate, LeBron has responded the way the great ones always do: get better and keep winning.   Jordan never had to deal with this level of scrutiny.  Kobe did and it nearly broke him.  LeBron powers through it and while he is rarely elegant he is always effective.  At the end of the day, he’s taken care of the game and the game has taken care of him.  Beast.

The UFC Comes To Winnipeg – Part 2: Two Trees Falling In A Forest

The prevailing sentiment after the show was that this was a card on par with last July’s disappointing Calgary show.  That card was chock full of inaction, stalling and questionable decisions.  There was no punch to it (pardon the pun).  Because Calgary and Winnipeg are cities eager for UFC action, there is the sense that they are being exploited.  After all, if people will buy tickets no matter what then why should you give them anything of substance?

One thing that people shouldn’t do is compare these events with the UFC’s excursions into Brazil.  I love an exciting finish as much as the next guy, but the matchmaking for the last UFC on Fuel TV card in Fortaleza was farcical.  It wasn’t that Brazilians won every fight or even the record number of submissions.  The problem was that the fighters who ended up losing were set up as glorified jobbers.  Add in the hostile home crowd and you may as well have basted them in steak sauce and thrown them to actual wolves.  This is not to take anything away from the Brazilian fighters that night, several of whom project as future contenders.  I’d go as far to say that those Brazilians are superior to the Canadians that I saw on Saturday.

Even if they failed to elevate heart rates, the UFC 161 participants should be applauded for their gritty performances.  Not every fight is going to be a jiu-jitsu clinic or an electrifying slugfest.  There were only two true stinkers on the card with the other fights being close, compelling contests.  Decisions happen, especially with intelligent matchmaking that leads to fair competition and not pro wrestling style squash matches.

Judging, on the other hand, continues to be a sore spot and there was some definite home cooking going on.  Let’s take a closer look at each match:

Bantamweight Bout: Yves Jabouin d. Dustin Pague via Split Decision (29-28 x2, 28-29)

Music:

Pague comes out to a remix of Return of the Mack.  That’s pretty dope.

“Tiger” Jabouin counters with Techno Syndrome.


MORTAL KOMBAAAAAAAT

Tiger wins.

Analysis:

The diverse striking of Jabouin served him well.  He worked his way past Pague’s long arms, put points on the board and set up his takedowns.  It was the latter maneuver that led to trouble.  Pague has an extremely active guard and Jabouin spent much of the first round fighting off submissions attempts.  Were it not for some late ground and pound, he might have actually lost the first round.

The disparity on the ground was even more obvious in the second.  Pague worked to full mount, landed a ton of punches and threatened with a rear naked choke.  To Tiger’s credit, he never panicked even when it looked like Pague had the submission locked in.

In the third, Tiger was doing fine until he threw a crazy ass (that’s a technical term) spin kick and fell down in a heap.  Pague pounced, but couldn’t capitalize and after a scramble Jabouin was able to get back on top.  It was another close one, but I gave Tiger that one in addition to the first.

I had the good fortune of running into Pague at the airport later that night and I congratulated him on a great fight.  The funny thing is that Pague came much closer to finishing the fight than Jabouin ever did.  Jabouin was just able to score more consistently.  It’s a shame that Pague might get released after this as both men put forth a good effort.

Lightweight Bout: Mitch Clarke d. John Maguire via Unanimous Decision (29-28 x3)

Music:

Maguire promised a special entrance if he got 10,000 Twitter followers.  True to his word, he entered wearing a belly shirt whilst dancing to the ‘80s classic, Maniac.

Some things you can’t unsee, bro.

Analysis:

This was built up as a battle between two accomplished grapplers and you know what that means: mediocre kickboxing time!  Neither guy is going to sign up for a K1 tournament anytime soon, but Clarke was slightly better on the feet and that was enough to get him his first UFC win.

Bantamweight Bout: Roland Delorme d. Edwin Figueroa via Unanimous Decision (29-28 x3)

Music:

Delorme comes out to We Own It, a song from the modern cinema masterpiece “Fast and Furious 6”.  Point: Delorme.

Analysis:

I’m a huge fan of Delorme and his ground work is truly a pleasure to watch, but he took so much damage searching for submissions that I thought Figueroa might have eked this one out.  Happy to be wrong.  With the victory, Delorme is undefeated (not counting a loss to Francisco Rivera that was overturned), but he still needs more seasoning before facing top competition.  This was the third straight fight to go to a decision and the third straight win for a Canadian.  This is the point where the judging was starting to look fishy.

Welterweight Bout: Sean Pierson d. Kenny Robertson via Majority Decision (29-28 x2, 28-28)

Analysis:

Pierson looked a lot bigger than Robertson and he used his size to avoid any bad positions.  His striking has always been a strength and even though he got taken down, he had a massive advantage on the feet through the first two rounds.  In the final period, Robertson cracked Pierson with an unorthodox upward elbow but he couldn’t put him away.  It was so damaging that I would have given Robertson a 10-8 round and scored the fight a draw as one of the judges did.

In interviews leading up to the show, Pierson uttered the dreaded “R word” (retirement) and that, for me, is a red flag.  I was rooting for him, but I thought that Robertson would win.  I swear I’m not a self-hating Canuck.  It was good to see Pierson get his hand raised even if it wasn’t in the most impressive fashion.

Lightweight Bout: James Krause d. Sam Stout via Submission (4:47, R3)

Music:

Krause comes out to B.o.B. and Stout to Lil Wayne.  Why is the entrance music getting progressively less interesting?

Analysis:

Stout was the obvious pick here, with 15 UFC appearances under his belt compared to Krause’s 0.  Then again, this is why they play the games.

I couldn’t believe my eyes in the first round.  Stout was being out-struck!  Conventional wisdom suggested that Krause should be doing everything in his power to get the fight down to the mat, but it was Stout who initiated the grappling.  It was a tactic he had used in the past to “steal” close rounds.  That tactic would come back to haunt him later.

Also, Krause broke out a cartwheel kick:

Krause stayed calm, cool and collected when Stout started to build momentum in the second round.  From what I’d read and seen, Krause was more than prepared for the UFC (he’d previously competed in the WEC).  I’m not sure even his most hardcore followers could have predicted he would make such an impact in his first night out.  He was so comfortable that he threw out a jumping knee, a Superman uppercut (!) and a stepping elbow.  His corner warned him about a late takedown from Stout and when it happened, Krause was able to turn it into a guillotine submission with just seconds to go.  He would end up earning the bonus money for best fight and best submission, totalling $100,000.  Not a bad way to debut.

Welterweight Bout: Jake Shields d. Tyron Woodley via Split Decision (29-28 x2, 30-27)

Music:

Shields comes out to Seven Nation Army, the only time you’ll see the crowd excited for him.  Woodley wins me over by coming out to Started From The Bottom.

Analysis:

Let me just refer to my notes here…

  • Round 1: Zzzzz…10-9 Shields
  • Round 2: Zzzzz…10-9 Shields
  • Round 3: Zzzzz…oh, spinning back fist!  Zzzzz…10-9 Shields

I thought this fight had reasonable star power, but I somehow forgot that both men have a reputation for grueling, grind it out victories.  Woodley fooled us all with a decent showing against Nate Marquardt (though it should say something that what I remember most is Woodley getting brutally knocked out) and an awesome finish of Jay Hieron.

Shields…is Shields.

Even though I think Shields won every round with pitter patter strikes and leg kicks that would best be described as “gentle”, he also failed 18 takedown attempts.  18!  The fact that Woodley was even less effective should tell you everything you need to know about this fight (I “LOL’d” at the announcement of the 30-27 score for Woodley and I hate typing LOL).

To quote the Winnipeg faithful: “Boo.”

Heavyweight Bout: Shawn Jordan d. Pat Barry via TKO (:59, R1)

Music:

Jordan comes out to Johnny Cash’s rendition of Hurt.  That’s kind of a bummer.

Analysis:

I’m comfortable absolving Jordan of his sins for the Cheick Kongo fight in Calgary after witnessing this demolition of Barry.  The “striker vs. grappler” storyline never materialized as Jordan came forward with some straight punches down the middle that stunned Barry.  Pinned against the cage, Barry ate at least a dozen unanswered shots before the referee was forced to stop the fight.  It was the quickest loss of Barry’s career.  The only thing more impressive was Jordan’s picture perfect celebratory back flip.

Women’s Bantamweight Bout: Alexis Davis d. Rosi Sexton via Unanimous Decision (29-28 x2, 29-27)

Music:

Davis comes out to It’s Tricky, which never fails to put a smile on my face.  She seems super excited.  Can you blame her?

Analysis:

The first round was the definition of mixed martial arts.  Davis, a gifted jiu-jitsu practitioner, was super aggressive in looking to finish with a triangle choke.  Sexton fought it off while raining down punches square in Davis’ face.  Looking at the scores now, I suspect Davis was rewarded the first round for essentially being on the offensive the whole time, but I saw Sexton doing most of the damage.

For me, this should have been the second draw of the night.  I had Sexton taking the first and third, with Davis nearly finishing the fight in the second (I gave her a 10-8).  Herb Dean seemed to be doing his best Steve Mazzagatti impression, letting Davis pound away on Sexton from mount.  In his defence, Davis needed more “oomph” behind her punches to force a definitive stoppage.  Sexton came in with a “never say die” reputation and she lived up to it.  Davis who has all the makings of a contender.

Light Heavyweight Bout: Ryan Jimmo d. Igor Pokrajac via Unanimous Decision (30-27 x3)

Analysis:

See Woodley/Shields above.

Okay, I’ll do my best here.

The most entertaining part of this bout was Yves Lavigne frantically resetting the action, desperate to avoid a repeat of the snoozer he had officiated earlier in the evening.  Donnie Yen couldn’t have produced any action with these two.

I don’t blame Jimmo entirely, since Pokrajac was completely helpless as Jimmo secured double underhooks and picked him up and planted him against the fence.  Still, it would have been nice to see Jimmo do something to try and finish.  He apologized afterwards for putting on a bad fight, but he’s had a bad reputation for stalling and boring audiences since his days as a Maximum Fighting Championship title holder.

To quote the Winnipeg faithful: “LET’S GO JETS!  LET’S GO JETS!  LET’S GO JETS!”

Heavyweight Bout: Stipe Miocic d. Roy Nelson via Unanimous Decision (30-27 x3)

Music:

Big Country comes out to We Will Rock You.  But of course.

Analysis:

Based on the audience’s boisterous approval, I’d swear that Nelson was born and raised in the Prairies.  It’s a shame that he couldn’t match their enthusiasm.

Nelson’s highlight reel preceding the fight told you everything you needed to know about Miocic’s gameplan: Stay away from that overhand right and box, don’t brawl.  The crowd was waiting for Big Country all night and he was needed more than ever after the Jimmo/Pokrajac tranquilizer.  The bloodthirsty denizens all expected him to go out there and dust Miocic just like he had everyone else in his last three fights, but Miocic never fell into that trap.  He danced around, using immaculate footwork to set up combinations that Nelson walked right into.  In person, it looked like Miocic was landing 4 out of every 5 punches.  If Nelson were human, he wouldn’t have made it past the first three minutes.  Miocic was juking and jiving like Manny Pacquiao.

The UFC put Nelson in a strange position here, booking him as a late addition to bolster an injury ravaged card.  That decision coincided with this being the last fight on Nelson’s current contract.  He’s a proven draw with a contentious relationship with management so a return is by no means guaranteed.  I think he’ll come back, but it’s possible that you won’t see him rubbing his belly atop the octagon for a while.

Light Heavyweight Bout: Rashad Evans d. Dan Henderson via Split Decision (29-28 x2, 28-29)

Music:

That’s right.

Step Into A World is BACK!  My friend Paolo always says Evans hasn’t been the same since he stopped using this music, so now that it’s back I’m feeling even more confident about picking him to win.

Analysis:

If two legends fight in Manitoba and they’re both closer to retirement than a shot at Jon Jones…does anybody hear it?

Don’t get me wrong, the crowd at the MTS Centre was heavily invested.  Based on their reaction, you’d think Suga and Hendo were battling over UFC gold.  Yet one cannot ignore how the loss of two major fights (Eddie Wineland/Renan Barão, Antônio Rogério Nogueira/Shogun Rua) relegated this to “default” main event status.  We weren’t even going to get five rounds out of them.

By the time the lights dimmed, I couldn’t help but get caught up in it.  Between the two of them, they’d done it all.  The Olympics.  PRIDE.  Strikeforce.  The Ultimate FighterWanderlei SilvaChuck LiddellFedor EmelianenkoForrest Griffin.  Shogun.  Rampage Jackson.  And now, Winnipeg.

The fight itself was forgettable.  Like Nelson, Henderson has become too dependent on one weapon: his mythical right hand, the “H-bomb”.  For fighters like Lyoto Machida and Evans, it’s child’s play to stay out of the way of your strengths while attacking your weaknesses.  It wasn’t exactly vintage Suga, but he looked much improved from his last couple of contests.  He didn’t seem afraid to come forward and pull the trigger, though he doesn’t pack the heat that he once did.  Both men scored knockdowns, but it was Evans who consistently avoided the big shots.  There was a look of sheer joy on his face after the split decision win, though the pro-Hendo crowd was disappointed.

Regardless of the outcome, I know I’ll never forget seeing this match.  Having not grown up with boxing, I can only listen and learn about the mystique and the aura associated with the greatest of pugilists like Ali, Frazier, and Robinson.  Even from the nosebleeds, I got some sense of what that was like when Evans and Henderson strode down to the cage.  Fifty years from now, we’ll remember them.

*****

In addition to meeting Pague at the airport, I also saw Michael Johnson on my flight and recently retired Mark Hominick at another gate.  I’m not a fan boy by any means, so it never occurred to me to ask for pictures or autographs or any of that jazz.  That wasn’t what was cool about it.  It was more important to me that I felt like I was walking in their world.  There were no microphones, no cage, no arena.  Just a group of people on their way home.  I’m an outsider looking in, one step closer to kicking that door down.

The UFC Comes To Winnipeg – Part 1: Of Beards And Latex

A week before UFC 161 in Winnipeg I still wasn’t sure if I was going to go.  In general, I prefer to watch sporting events on television.  Modern technology has made home (or bar) viewing even better than being there, unless you’re not rocking some first class seats or a luxury box.  I’d never seen a UFC event live.  I’d seen some Canadian promotions and Bellator when it came to Windsor, but not the UFC.  Maybe I could wait until they came back to Toronto.  It didn’t make sense to fly to Winnipeg for a day or two, did it?

There are always a hundred reasons not to do something.

*****

I did my best to sleep in the cab, at the airport and on the plane.  With no plans to stay at a hotel, I’d have to get my rest where I could.  It was going to be a long day.

On Saturday, the UFC hosted a “block party” at cityplace.  It wasn’t so much a party as it was a collection of merchandise and snack booths and a small tent where fans could attempt a few feats of strength and agility.  It was actually kind of lame.  After a lap around the area, I made my way to the stage and waited for the Q&A session with TJ Grant.  I’m not going to pretend I’m a longtime fan of his.  Like most people, I hopped on the bandwagon after his war with Evan Dunham.  He’s the only person who can claim a first round finish of Gray Maynard and he’s now the number one contender to the lightweight title.

I was disappointed when I saw how well groomed his facial hair was.  He had a mean hockey playoff beard going for a while there and I assumed that he wasn’t going to shave it until he won the belt.  There goes one of my questions.

When it was time for fan interaction, nobody stepped up so I did and I gave him the softest of softballs (response in bold):

What does it mean to you to be the first Canadian to challenge for the lightweight title?

You know, to get to fight for the title, it really hasn’t even sunk in yet.  It’s just one of those things man.  Seize opportunities.  I promise I’m going to put everything into it and I’m gonna do my best.  It’s really like a dream come true.

It wasn’t exactly an exclusive interview, but it was a start.

Grant came off as modest and humble (so, Canadian) and nothing he said was particularly earth shattering.  He told us about his diet, his fondness for Johnny Cash and encouraged young kids to say their prayers and eat their vitamins.  His words regarding the rigors of training stuck with me:

There’s gonna be times where you don’t feel like you’re getting better but you will.  You’ve just gotta push through it.  Just be consistent.

“Showdown” Joe was hosting the session and he got on Grant about his reckless behavior during the Maynard fight.  Grant was eating heavy shots, but kept coming forward.  Showdown asked the crowd if he thought that Grant was crazy and nobody agreed.

“It was all part of the plan”, Grant said.

For some reason, Anthony Pettis kept getting brought up.  It was Grant himself who initially evoked the former WEC champion, stating “I don’t do fancy kicks off the cage or anything like that, but I can guarantee when I get out there I’m going to put that guy in a serious dogfight.”  Later, a fan asked if Pettis might steal Grant’s spot since Pettis recently had to bow out of a promised featherweight title shot.  Grant says Ariel Helwani had asked him about that, but Showdown assured everyone the contract is signed.  Considering the UFC’s injudicious handling of title fights recently, I hope he’s right.

One of the most common questions a fighter can get is “If you could fight anyone, past or present, who would it be?”  It’s always a fun question.  The answer reveals a lot about the fighter: their influences, their motivation, their ego.  Without hesitation, Grant offered his response:

Benson Henderson

            Yeah, I think he’s ready.

*****

The second session I attended featured Sarah Kaufman and Jordan Mein.  With all due respect to Grant, Kaufman and Mein were a lot more lively.  Showdown goes out of his way to put over Mein as the future at 170 because “Georges St-Pierre can’t fight forever.”  Without missing a beat, Mein added “He’s gettin’ old.”  Seeing Mein was a treat for me since I’d seen him fight in Orillia.  I made sure to mention it when I stepped up to ask a question:

I was lucky enough to see Jordan live at the first MMA event in Ontario when he main evented against a man who was victorious last night, Josh Burkman, and he beat him soundly.  I think everybody knew that he was a future UFC fighter (after going through Strikeforce as well).  My question is: you cut a pretty crazy pace in your career.  I think you’re only 24, 25 years old and you have almost 30 fights…more than that?

(Mein says that he’s 23 and he’s had 36 fights)

Have you ever considered taking any sort of break?  Has that even entered your mind or is it just like a job, like you do it normally?

Well, my last fight I got a fractured orbital and a fractured nose so I’m taking about six months off.  Maybe a little less, maybe five.

Ouch!  I was glad to hear that he was taking some time off, though obviously not under those circumstances.

After Kaufman answered questions about why women’s fights are so exciting (ability to push the pace and conditioning level) and if she’d been offered the chance to replace Cat Zingano as a coach on TUF (she hadn’t), I got my chance to ask her about something that had been bothering me for a long time:

I hate to bring up Rousey again, but in the build-up to the Rousey fight they had you guys film a video.  I don’t know if you remember this.  This was probably a long time ago now.

I have a good memory.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Sarah and Ronda were in full bodysuits.  It was a very well done video, but I remember thinking it was a bit much and they would never do something like that for the male fighters.  I’m wondering what your thoughts were on that.

You know…I don’t love being in latex, first off.  Especially white latex.  I’m already a little bit ghost-like and it doesn’t really do much for my complexion.  I just think they were trying to come up with something different for the promos.  They promo everyone a little bit differently and they kind of want to promo her like the hardcore, bad reputation blonde bombshell.  I think they kind of came up with her idea and then were like, “Oh yeah, we can be like superheroes and you can be in a white one!”  That’s kind of how it was.  It didn’t turn out that great because they ended up getting the suits from a sex store so we had like zippered crotches and stuff.  So they didn’t end up using as much footage as they wanted to and they couldn’t actually do anything with it.

With that, I felt vindicated in my decision to make the trip to Winnipeg.  The next man up asked if they let her keep the suit.  She declined, but kept the boots.

Kaufman and Mein both came from the dark ages of MMA to now making a decent living in the sport.  Kaufman recounted how she fought on an illegal card.  After the show, someone threw a rock through the back of her car.  Mein says he fought in Australia once and there was no testing whatsoever.  Maybe this is why they were in such good spirits the whole time.

The topic of dream matches came up again and Kaufman chose BJ Penn: “He’s amazing and he would kill me.”  Someone yells out “Struve!”, but Kaufman says he’s too tall.

Mein called out Brock Lesnar.  Sadly, I kind of like Mein’s chances in that one.  Manitoba native Joe Doerkson is suggested and Showdown tells everyone to be careful because he might be lurking in the audience somewhere.

They both shared amusing stories about being hurt or knocked out during training.  Mein says his uncle dropped him with a liver shot, while Kaufman explained how strange it can be to lose consciousness:

I’ve actually only ever been choked out in demonstrations, so never when rolling.  My coach was putting on a triangle and was talking and all of a sudden I woke up and I’m drooling, I’m shaking…The first thing I thought, just kind of look up and you have like the best sleep ever for 10 seconds or 3 seconds then you wake up feeling really rested and it’s awesome but then you kind of look around and you have no idea why people are staring at you.  For the entire class, looking at me as if I had died.

Showdown said he can’t afford to be knocked out because he knows someone will take a video of it.  I have to compliment Showdown for his expert moderation of the Q&A sessions.  There are times when people don’t know what to ask so it falls on him to keep the conversation going without completely taking over.  He was able to express his thoughts on MMA judging and the state of legislation in Canada while keeping the fighters front and centre.  As the crowd warmed to the guests (or just got drunk enough to stick their faces in front of the mic), he knew when to back off.  As someone who wants to be involved in sports journalism and maybe even broadcasting someday, I was admiring how he plied his trade as much as anything else I saw or heard that day.

The UFC Lightweight Rankings (24-11): The Jungle Out There

The bottom half of the top 24 is best described as cluttered.  You’ll find that most of these names have crossed paths with each other, with no one being able to emerge at the top of the pile.  These men are proof that there is no such thing as an easy fight in the UFC.  One slip and you go from being a contender back into the wild, an outer circle of animals scraping and clawing at each other for a prime piece of meat.

My guidelines (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 on par with ten straight and only one win in the UFC
  • I place a heavy emphasis on success in your division; if you’re a top 10 featherweight and you move up to lightweight you are not automatically a top 10 lightweight.  However, based on past performances it is possible to make educated guesses on who a fighter could beat in their new division
  • 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.  That said, you beat someone and you take their spot, even if it’s a fluke: a win is a win
  • 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)
  • 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

_________________________________________________________________________

The Lightweight Rankings

24. John Makdessi (4-2 UFC, 11-2, W2) (Tristar Gym)

This placement comes with considerable observer’s bias.  I saw Makdessi in Winnipeg when he took out Lindsey Hawkes, his second last fight before signing with the UFC.  He won his first two fights in the UFC, including this stunning backfist KO of Kyle Watson in front of over 50,000 Torontonians (it would have won “Knockout of the Night” if Lyoto Machida hadn’t kicked Randy Couture’s face off of his face later that evening):

His first loss came against a super-sized Dennis Hallman (who had failed to make weight).  Makdessi would miss the mark himself in his next bout, likely a combination of poor cutting and an attempt to add bulk.  He put in a lame performance and lost a unanimous decision to Anthony Njokuani.  Some suggested a drop to featherweight for the compact Makdessi, but he has since won two straight against fellow strikers Sam Stout and Daron Cruickshank.  Nobody can question his stand-up credentials, but “The Bull” needs to sharpen up that takedown defence to rise any further in this division.

23. Bobby Green (1-0 UFC, 20-5, W5) (Pinnacle Jiu-Jitsu)

Green is one of the best lightweights you’ve never heard of.  He entered the UFC with a wealth of experience against quality competition (Green made his bones with the respected King of the Cage promotion) and got hot at just the right time, winning all 4 of his Strikeforce fights.  His first UFC assignment was Jacob Volkmann, a gritty fighter better known for his controversial political comments than the fact that he’d gone 6-1 at lightweight.  Volkmann took the first round, but Green showed his poise by outwrestling the wrestler and wearing him down en route to a third round submission.  In my eyes, that upset vaults Green ahead of some more famous names.

22. Danny Castillo (5-2 UFC, 5-3 WEC, 15-5, W1) (Team Alpha Male)

It’s hard to talk about any member of Team Alpha Male without using the word “douche”, but…oh, too late.  In all seriousness, Castillo might not be the most popular fighter but he deserves respect for not having a single easy fight since 2008.  Donald Cerrone, Ricardo Lamas, Anthony Pettis, Dustin Poirier, Joe Stevenson, Jacob Volkmann, Anthony Njokuani, Michael Johnson and Paul Sass are just a few of the names Castillo has gone to war with.  Strikers, wrestlers, brawlers, jiu-jitsu experts…you name it, he’s had to deal with it.  His smothering style has garnered 5 WEC and 5 UFC wins.  He’s not the biggest crowd pleaser so there’s the sense he’s one poor outing away from being cut, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that he is one of the company’s most consistent performers.

21. Ross Pearson (7-3 UFC, 15-6, W2) (Alliance MMA)

You’ve got to have guts to claim the nickname of a fighter who is a hundred times more famous than you will ever be, but the way Pearson has been knocking people out lately he can certainly boast to be “realer than ‘Real Deal’ Holyfield”.  I mean, he wouldn’t, but he could.

After flirting with featherweight, Pearson returned to the more comfortable 155 pound threshold allowing him to focus on training and technique rather than gaming the system.  Even though Pearson gave up poundage in his last two fights against George Sotiropoulos and Ryan Couture, he stifled their takedown attempts and finished them both.  The affable Englishmen is due for a big fight, hopefully back on our side of the pond where he hasn’t fought in a year.

20. Edson Barboza (5-1 UFC, 11-1, W1) (The Armory)

Count me among those who bought into the hype.  Barboza was ball lightning ever since he chose to take his prodigious Muay Thai skills onto the MMA stage.  His first UFC fight against Mike Lullo seems like a gross mismatch in hindsight, ending in a TKO via leg kicks.  Lullo tried to tough it out, but he was literally a one legged man in an ass kicking contest after Barboza was done with him.

His next three fights all earned “Fight of the Night” awards and more importantly, he triumphed against higher ranked opponents (Anthony Njokuani, Ross Pearson and Terry Etim).  His spinning wheel kick KO of Etim will go down in history as not only one of the most aesthetically pleasing finishes of all time, but as the first MMA maneuver to be nominated for a “Play of the Year” ESPY.

Unfortunately, Barboza would lose by TKO in stunning fashion to replacement fighter and ex-WEC champ Jamie Varner.  It’s hard to look at that loss without thinking that Barboza may have been overlooking his opponent, which is not to take away from Varner who did everything he needed to do to win.  Any athlete will tell you that losses are meant to make you stronger and Barboza got back on the right track in his very next fight, putting away Lucas Martins inside of a round.  Maybe we’ll look at that Varner loss as a blip on the radar some day.

19. Thiago Tavares (7-5-1 UFC, 17-5-1, L1) (Brazilian Top Team)

Tavares was once the next big thing at 155.  That was 6 years ago.

Just 22 years old when he had his first fight in the octagon, Tavares put up back-to-back wins against Naoyuki Kotani and Jason Black, two fighters with much more experience than him.  A “Fight of the Night” loss to Tyson Griffin only bolstered the reputations of both men.  A phenomenal athlete well-versed in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Tavares could be counted on to be exciting but he was struggling to get his hand raised.  Another strong run was snuffed out by a shocking KO at the hands of Shane Roller, a man not exactly known for his deadly fists.  Two wins later, Tavares was stopped again by rising star Khabib Nurmagomedov.

I look at Tavares as an example of how an athlete’s age can be viewed so differently relative to us normal folks.  He kind of reminds me of Darius Miles, one of my favourite basketball players as a youngster.  Miles was a thrilling prospect with phenomenal physical attributes and charisma to spare, but he was never able to make it happen on the court.  I’d tell my friends, Look, the guy is only 24…he’s still developing.  Then it was 25…26…27…and it came to a point where he’d been in the league for almost ten years and you realized that we’d seen everything Miles had to offer.  Tavares is only 28 years old, in the midst of what we would normally view as his prime and yet he’s discussed as a fighter whose opportunity has come and gone.  Funny that.

18. Melvin Guillard (11-8 UFC, 30-12-2 [1 NC], L2) (Grudge Training Center)

Speaking of wasted potential…

We MMA fans tend to be harsh on ol’ Melvin.  Maybe we’re envious of his natural gifts and annoyed that he hasn’t made the most of them.  With his skill and agility, Guillard just looks like a guy who could have pursued any athletic endeavour.  You can see him twisting for an acrobatic lay-up or rising high in the air to bring down an errant spiral or driving a fastball out of a stadium.  He’s smooth.  He’s big for the division and yet extraordinarily light on his feet.  He’s fun to watch.

So why is he down here at 18?

Guillard’s susceptibility to submission holds became a sad gag based on the fact that his first 3 UFC losses came by some variation of a choke hold (Josh Neer via triangle, Joe Stevenson via guillotine, Rich Clementi via rear naked).  In fact, every time he seems to be building momentum, a superior fighter finds a way to get him down and get that tap out.  Since 2008, Guillard has had a 3 fight win streak and a 5 fight win streak snapped by submission losses (to Nate Diaz and Joe Lauzon, respectively).  The latter streak had Guillard firmly in the top 10 for the first time in his career, but he was widely mocked after the Lauzon loss for his perceived arrogance.  With 4 losses in his last 5 fights, Guillard is at a dangerous point in his career where the results are starting to match his fading reputation.

17. Myles Jury (3-0 UFC, 12-0, W12) (The Arena/Alliance MMA/Victory MMA)

A little too high perhaps for a fighter who is only 24 years old.  Jury is benefitting from the fact that I’ve only seen his strengths and none of his weaknesses (barring an odd loss to Al Iaquinta on TUF 15, which does not count on his professional record).  Jury actually had two cracks at the TUF championship, having missed out on TUF 13 due to an injury.  He was one of the most eagerly anticipated contestants, having entered the show with a flawless record against 9 opponents, none of whom made it past the 3 minute mark against Jury.

Now that he’s officially on the roster, Jury has looked unstoppable.  Incredibly, his best win came in the only fight in his career that went the distance.  He took Michael Johnson down and kept him there, beating a skilled wrestler as his own game.  A perfect 3-0 start in the UFC and a buzz generated by social media hustle has Jury on track for a top 15 opponent.  He’s the future of the lightweight division.

16. Matt Wiman (9-5 UFC, 15-7, L1) (Skrap Pack)

Even after 7 years in the UFC, Wiman is not one of the first names to come up when discussing the best lightweights in the world.  He’s never beaten a top 10 opponent, he’s not known for his explosive finishes and he’s never won more than 4 UFC fights in a row.  What Wiman has done is put in the work to challenge anyone they put across the cage from him, usually in entertaining fashion (3 straight “Fight of the Night” awards at one point).  He’s nearly impossible to put away.  His recent TKO loss to TJ Grant was only the 2nd time he’d been finished his career and the 1st in over 6 years.

He loses points for abandoning the “Handsome” nickname though.

15. Jamie Varner (3-2 UFC, 4-3-1 WEC, 21-7-1, W1) (Arizona Combat Sports/MMA Lab)

Two years ago, if you’d said that Varner would be back amongst the best of the best lightweights…well, he’d probably have been the only one to believe it.

In his days as WEC champion, it seemed like the more Varner won the harder he was to love.  Nobody remembers his title bouts with Rob McCullough or Marcus Hicks; for me, the first I’d heard of Varner was his controversial defence against Donald Cerrone.  Leading on the scorecards but clearly fading in the championship rounds, Varner took an illegal knee from Cerrone and was unable to continue.  As a result, the fight was cut short and went to the judges who ruled in Varner’s favour.  Fair or not, Varner was heavily criticized for “milking” the foul (and potentially getting seriously hurt) and he essentially turned heel.  When he lost the title to Ben Henderson, he became another chapter in Henderson’s rise and the WEC history books.  He couldn’t catch a break, going winless in 4 fights before being released.

Varner went 3-1 in the minors and while it wasn’t surprising to see the UFC call him up as a late replacement against Edson Barboza, it was assumed he’d do the job and Barboza would move on to bigger fish.  Faster than you can say “Never tell me the odds”, Varner swarmed Barboza and handed the youngster his first defeat.  He followed that up with a “Fight of the Year” candidate against Joe Lauzon (a 3rd round submission loss) and a split decision win over Melvin Guillard.  Considered by some to be washed up two years ago, the best of Varner might be yet to come.

14. Gleison Tibau (12-7 UFC, 26-9, W1) (American Top Team)

13. Evan Dunham (7-4 UFC, 14-4, L1) (Xtreme Couture)

Tibau has beaten Rafael dos Anjos.  Dos Anjos has beaten Dunham.  Dunham has beaten Tibau.  None of the three men were able to finish the other.  All three fights were close decisions.  Clearly the best guy is…wait…um…

The attitude of “what have you done for me lately” is symptomatic of our culture.  That said, it’s really the only way to sort out these three veterans who are so close together in terms of skill level and merit.  Tibau’s win over dos Anjos occurred back in 2011, Dunham beat Tibau in February and dos Anjos just beat Dunham a month ago.  If I were Leonard Shelby these rankings look different, but my brain is mostly functional so dos Anjos gets the edge here.

*****

Five Tibau musings:

  • Tibau is tied with Chris Leben and Melvin Guillard for the dubious record of most UFC appearances without a title shot.
  • He’s taller than Thiago Alves, looks more muscular and somehow he’s made 155 comfortably for years (minus a couple of misfires) while Alves struggles to cut to 170.  It’s like an optical illusion.
  • The tattoo on his left arm is one of the best in MMA, though for the life of me I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what it is.
  • Has never had a nickname and he doesn’t need one because his name is Gleison Tibau.  If I was told that Gleison Tibau was Portuguese for “hulking monster man”, I’d believe it.

*****

Call me someone who believes in momentum.  When Dunham was an up and comer, he had all the makings of a future contender: great striking, a steady demeanour, youth.  In his first taste of main card action, he submitted Efrain Escudero with a gorgeous armbar.  He would go on to defeat Tyson Griffin, thrusting him to the top of the division and a meeting with former world champion Sean Sherk.

Dunham outworked Sherk for the majority of the bout, but he lost a split decision due to Sherk scoring some key takedowns and opening up a glaring cut on Dunham’s face.  It was a bum deal and the next loss would be even more costly.

January 22, 2011, UFC: Fight For The Troops 2.  A win over a high profile opponent like Kenny Florian would erase the Sherk loss and elevate Dunham to a whole new level, but Florian would be injured and replaced by Melvin Guillard.  I firmly believe that if Dunham and Guillard fought ten times, Dunham would win nine.  On that particular evening Guillard arguably looked better than he ever has and he finished Dunham with some wicked knees to the head.  Dunham wouldn’t fight again for 8 months.

When he returned, he was matched up with Shamar Bailey, a far cry from Sherk, Florian and Guillard.  Dunham dominated that match and then forced a doctor stoppage of Nik Lentz.  He also has a win over Gleison Tibau sandwiched in between losses to current #1 contender TJ Grant and Rafael dos Anjos.  If there’s any doubt that lightweight is the most perilous mountain to climb, one need only look at Dunham who has faced nothing but top twenty competition and despite having great success, still falls short of the top ten.

12. Khabib Nurmagomedov (4-0 UFC, 20-0, W20) (Red Fury Fight Team)

The Russians are coming…the Russians are coming…the Russians…ARE HERE!

Along with Rustam Khabilov and a wave of fighters over in Bellator, the former Soviet Union is cranking out a legion of talented fighters determined to conquer our lands and burn our blue jeans.  Or maybe they’re just here to win cage matches.

Fedor Emelianenko laid down the blueprint for implementing Sambo into MMA, snagging submission after submission before becoming a knockout artist in the latter stages of his career.  I’m not saying any of these guys will be the next Fedor, but if they can operate with the same ruthless efficiency that he became known for, it might not be long before we see a Russian with UFC gold around their waist.

Nurmagomedov has a lot of rough edges, but he makes up for it by putting in work.  In only his second UFC fight, he was pitted against Gleison Tibau.  It was a mature performance for the 24 year old, who stayed aggressive while never forcing anything.  The decision was somewhat surprising, but in review it was clear that Nurmagomedov simply won by coming forward at all times and scoring points.

“The Eagle’s” other wins weren’t nearly as close.  Kamal Shalorus got choked out.  Thiago Tavares was taken down and pounded into oblivion.  Outsized Abel Trujillo was taken down a UFC record 21 times in 15 minutes.  If he can tighten up his striking, the sky is the limit for this kid and even that might be aiming too low.

11. Rafael dos Anjos (8-4 UFC, 19-6, W4) (Evolve MMA)

(see #14 and #13 for further explanation)

Winning four straight fights in the lightweight division is nearly impossible these days, but that’s just what dos Anjos has done.  He started off his career as a “just a BJJ guy”, but you wouldn’t know that from his recent fights.  He’s seamlessly integrated Muay Thai into his arsenal and it’s allowed him to match skills with anybody.  His last three wins have come against Anthony Njokuani (striking expert), Mark Bocek (BJJ expert) and Evan Dunham (all around skills, similar to dos Anjos).  He’s scheduled to fight Donald Cerrone in August, with a possible title shot on the line.

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Look how many of these veterans have logged double digit UFC appearances.  Look at the shiny records of these newcomers.  Pound for pound, most of the aforementioned names could compete for a top spot in any other division.  The 155 class is that good.  What does it take to be the best of the best?  To be continued in the final installment.

UFC 161 “Evans vs. Henderson″ preliminary and main card breakdown

Barring any last minute surprises, I will be heading to glamorous Winnipeg, Manitoba to attend my first UFC event.  I’m a firm believer in watching sporting events in the comfort of your own home or with friends at a bar somewhere, but somehow this feels important.  Something I have to do.

I’ve broken down the preliminaries and main card for MMACanada:

Preliminaries

Main Card

I’ll wait until the day of the card to make my picks, so look out for them on my twitter account @AlexanderKLee.  Go forth and watch violence, my friends!

The UFC Lightweight Rankings (46-25): The Middle Of The Pack

Taking on the UFC’s deepest division is no easy task and I apologize for the delay.  There has been one card (UFC 160) since my last update and thankfully, nothing happened to radically alter my impending rankings.  I do have a couple of minor notes:

  • John Cholish (1-2 UFC, 8-3, L2) retired after his loss to Gleison Tibau and he would have fallen into this range, so everyone from last week gets bumped up one spot (for those of you keeping score at home, that means we’re starting at #46 this time around).  He had to choose between his passion and his career on Wall Street and I’m glad he chose the latter.  I look forward to the day when the average fighter can declare martial arts as their primary source of income.
  • KJ Noons (0-1 UFC, 11-7, L3) debuted and lost to Donald Cerrone.  I placed him at #58.
  • I also forgot to mention the ageless Spencer Fisher (9-8 UFC, 24-9, L3) who teased retirement before agreeing to fight Yves Edwards in June.  He’s a recognizable name, but he’s lost 5 of his last 6 fights so I’d probably place him at #55.

My guidelines (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 on par with ten straight and only one win in the UFC
  • I place a heavy emphasis on success in your division; if you’re a top 10 featherweight and you move up to lightweight you are not automatically a top 10 lightweight.  However, based on past performances it is possible to make educated guesses on who a fighter could beat in their new division
  • 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.  That said, you beat someone and you take their spot, even if it’s a fluke: a win is a win
  • 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)
  • 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

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The Lightweight Rankings

46. Abel Trujillo (1-1 UFC, 10-5, L1) (Blackzilians)

Trujillo certainly passes the look test, doesn’t he?  With the face of a convict, he lived up to the nickname “Killa” in dispatching vaunted college wrestler Marcus LeVesseur last December.  He showed an aptitude for stuffing takedowns, but struggled in his next outing against Khabib Nurmagomedov’s clinch-based Sambo style.  Early in his career, Trujillo had a reputation for sparring too hard and getting himself into trouble.  That mindset could prove to be a boon in the UFC.

45. Fabrício Camões (1-2-1 UFC, 14-7-1, L1) (Gracie Humaita/Black House)

The legend of “Morango” begins at age 17, when he went 27 minutes with Anderson Silva in a bare knuckle Vale Tudo tournament.  His initial run in the UFC (2009-2010) was not nearly as eventful, with a draw against Japanese superstar Caol Uno and a loss to Kurt Pellegrino.  After submitting Tommy Hayden, he was booked as a bounce back fight for a struggling Melvin Guillard.  Camões got the fight to the floor where he wanted it, but Guillard used excellent ground and pound to win a unanimous decision.  Morango has performed well against top competition even if the results leave something to be desired.

44. Daron Cruickshank (2-1 UFC, 12-3, L1) (Mash Fight Team)

“The Detroit Superstar” seems dead set on proving that a wrestling background does not mean you’re a boring fighter.  In his 3 UFC appearances, Cruickshank has shown that he’s just as likely to shoot for a takedown as he is to throw a highlight reel kick (Henry Martinez learned this the hard way).

He fell to the more seasoned John Makdessi in his latest appearance, but Cruickshank is proving to be a tough out in the lightweight division.

 

43. Ramsey Nijem (3-2 UFC, 7-3, L1) (The Pit Elevated Fight Team)

During TUF 13, Nijem established himself as the class act of the house, shedding his clothes at the drop of the hat for the amusement of the cast.  His antics earned him the esteemed title of “Stripper Ramsey”.  Nijem is only 25 and his wrestling base has yielded some positive early returns, but his stand-up needs a lot of work.  Both of his losses in the UFC have occurred as a result of him being knocked out cold by superior boxers.

42. Renee Forte (1-1 UFC, 8-2, W1) (Dragon Fight/Nova União)

Who?  Okay, this is where my rankings start to show their cracks.  Forte flamed out in the first round of TUF: Brazil 1 and he was submitted in his UFC debut by Serginho.  Somehow got another fight and he was served up on a platter to Terry Etim who was looking to make a statement in his native England.  What should have been an easy win for Etim instead lead to his release and Forte’s surprising resurgence.  He only recently moved down to lightweight where he clearly should have been all along (Forte is only 5’7”).  If anything, the upset reminded me of a rule I keep forgetting: Never count out anyone from the TUF: Brazil 1 cast.

41. Tim Means (2-1 UFC, 18-4-1, L1) (Fit NHB)

Mixed martial artists spend their whole lives trying to break into the UFC.  For Means, the opportunity has lead to chaos.  He entered the UFC on an 8-0-1 run and cruised through his first two outings against Bernardo Magalhaes and Justin Salas.  Then things got weird.  Means was booked to face Abel Trujillo at UFC 151, which became the only UFC event to be cancelled (as a result of the Jon Jones incident).  The fight was rescheduled for December, but Means suffered a freak accident on the day of the weigh-ins slipping in the sauna and concussing himself.  On the plus side, the injury didn’t hurt his standing and he received an appointment with a top opponent; on the minus side, it was Strikeforce lightweight contender Jorge Masvidal who he ended up losing to in a good, close fight.

Means is a tall lightweight with a diverse skill set and he’s also got the life experience that suggests a loss will only make him stronger.  An ex-convict, Means credits his time in prison as being formative, if regrettable.  Proper perspective mixed with God-given talent can take you far in life and Means is proof of that.

40. Francisco Trinaldo (3-1 UFC, 13-2, W2) (Constrictor Team/Brazilian Top Team)

MASSARANDUBA!  The big brother of the TUF: Brazil 1 house, Massa bulked up to 185 pounds to be a part of the show and it was a good thing too.  He was a calming presence in what was often a riotous (but loveable) environment.  Massa has been one of the most popular names on the Brazilian circuit for years and was once touted as a top prospect.  Poverty has held him back, but now that he’s in the UFC he’s making up for lost time.

His battle with Gleison Tibau was like the lightweight version of Godzilla vs. King Kong, and even though it didn’t end in Massa’s favour it shows that the hype around him was warranted.  Better late than never, right?  Don’t sleep on Massaranduba.

39. Rustam Khabilov (2-0 UFC, 16-1, W5) (Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts)

I’m almost definitely underrating Khabilov here, who has looked sensational in his 2 UFC fights.  However, his 16-1 record reveals several wins came against fighters with questionable credentials (in Khabilov’s 13th career fight, he fought Nazir Kadyzhev who was 0-1).  I’m taking his European career with a grain of salt.

What can’t be questioned are his performances inside the octagon.  I already highlighted the absurd suplexes he used to finish Vinc Pichel in the last installment of these rankings and he showed off his Sambo skills again against Yancy Medeiros.  The fight ended with an unfortunate thumb injury, though that injury happened because Medeiros was defending against Khabilov’s relentless takedowns.  I hate to see prospects get thrown into the fire too quickly, but don’t be surprised if the matchmakers give him a top 20 opponent in the near future.  Khabilov fights like a contender.

WARNING: Somebody is getting dropped on their head.

38. Anthony Njokuani (3-3 UFC, 4-3 WEC, 16-7 [1 NC], W1) (Janjira Muay Thai)

In 2009, 3 straight “Knockout of the Night” awards in the WEC put Njokuani on the map.  Defeating well travelled Bart Palaszewski raised some eyebrows, but it was his head kick KO of Chris Horodecki that gave Njokuani his first taste of that crucial internet fame:

Centuries from now, scholars will still be trying to decipher what Horodecki was doing here.

Njokuani’s title aspirations hit a brick wall in his next fight against Shane Roller when he reminded everyone that he has no grappling skills whatsoever.  The next loss was even more discouraging as he was finished by strikes for the first (and only) time in his career by relative unknown Maciej Jewtuszko.  Since being brought over to the UFC, Njokuani has alternated wins and losses.  With the exception of an oddly toothless bout with John Makdessi (a fight that Njokuani won), he always manages to keep things interesting.  He’s currently back in the win column, having punched out fellow knockout artist Roger Bowling in April.

37. Mike Chiesa (2-0 UFC, 9-0, W9) (Sikjitsu)

It was classic reality show fodder, but you’d have to be made of stone to not appreciate the rise of Chiesa.  Along with his best friend Sam Sicilia, Chiesa was the heart of the season.  His father passed away days after Chiesa won a fight to get into the house and it was touching to see everyone rally behind him.  In the quarterfinals, he was pegged as an underdog against Team Cruz golden boy Justin Lawrence.  The fight memorably went into the sudden-victory round, where Chiesa was able to outlast and stop Lawrence.  He faced similar odds in the tournament finale against Al Iaquinta, but Chiesa was able to snag a rear naked choke submission that earned him the TUF 15 title.  It was a performance propelled by the memory of his father.  After submitting Anton Kuivanen to improve to 9-0 in his career, Chiesa gets a huge step-up in competition at UFC on Fox 8 against Jorge Masvidal.

36. Mac Danzig (5-6 UFC, 21-10-1, L1) (PKG)

I’ll always have a soft spot for “Little Mac”, who I thought was going to be a future world champion after seeing him tear through the competition on TUF 6.  There was only one problem: The cast of TUF 6 was awful.  Prior to competing on the show, Danzig was the long reigning “King of the Cage” champion so it would have been shocking if he’d done anything other than take care of business against those knuckleheads.

Once he was matched up with real UFC competition, Danzig wasn’t quite as effective.  He actually has a losing record and were it not for a flash KO of Joe Stevenson, it’s unlikely he would still be on the Zuffa payroll.  Still, Danzig stands as evidence that even an average UFC fighter is still amongst the elite in the world.  He may have fallen short of my expectations, but he’s hung with the best of ‘em, TUF contract or no.  Next on the docket: Melvin Guillard.

35. Tony Ferguson (3-1 UFC, 13-3, L1) (DeathClutch)

Ferguson made a fool of himself on TUF 13 when he made light of a fellow contestant’s custody issues during a drunken rant.  It was an ugly and stupid thing to do and thanks to the wonders of television, it’s something he’ll have to live with forever (that is, if anyone watched TUF anymore).  That seemed to be an isolated incident and since then, Ferguson has been able to change the conversation.  He knocked out all of his opponent’s to win TUF 13 and then beat two guys (Aaron Riley and Yves Edwards) with a combined record of 71-29-2.  His six fight unbeaten streak (not counting TUF) was stopped by a decision loss to Michael Johnson.

One thing Ferguson has going for him is that he has an exceptional skill to fall back on as he develops in other areas.  He’s a good wrestler, which has helped him to control where the fight goes and a fantastic boxer with solid punching power.  I’d wager to say that he’s one of the 10 best boxers in the lightweight division.  Diversity is always important, but Ferguson’s pugilistic skills are what make him one of the most promising TUF winners in some time.

34. Mark Bocek (7-5 UFC, 11-5, L1) (Tristar Gym)

A company man through and through, Bocek has fought the majority of his career in the UFC and competed against some of the best including Frankie Edgar, Jim Miller and Ben Henderson.  In his hometown of Toronto, Ontario, he became the first man to defeat Nik Lentz in the UFC.  A lack of advanced striking has held Bocek back from ascending to the upper echelon, but he remains one of MMA’s most respected BJJ trainers and he’ll have a home in the UFC long after he’s retired from competition.

33. George Sotiropoulos (7-3 UFC, 14-5, L3) (American Top Team)

Sotiropoulos’ decline has been inexplicable.  Skepticism was understandable after he started off his UFC career 4-0 against TUF castoffs.  He silenced his critics with wins over Joe Stevenson, Kurt Pellegrino and Joe Lauzon, establishing himself as a fringe contender.  His striking leaves something to be desired, but the Geelongite had been imposing his will on everyone he faced with his absurdly slick jiu-jitsu.

He suffered his first setback when he was outworked by Dennis Siver in a loss that should have served as a valuable learning tool.  Then disaster struck.  Against Rafael dos Anjos, Sotiropoulos was relaxed almost to the point of being sloppy and he paid for it:

When you make a mistake during those close exchanges, you get more than your feelings hurt.  That dos Anjos hook numbed Sotiropoulos’ senses and put him on his first losing streak.

A year off to rest and coach TUF: The Smashes seemed like just the thing for Sotiropoulos.  The fact that he’d be up against British rival Ross Pearson was added motivation.  Sotiropoulos had been portrayed as being somewhat standoffish and arrogant during his own time as a contestant (TUF 6) and that seemed to carry over to Smashes as there was a clear good/evil dynamic presented on the show.  When Pearson battered him from corner to corner at the Smashes finale, the crowd roared; for Sotiropoulos it was just another disappointment.

32. Michael Johnson (4-4 UFC, 12-8, L2) (Blackzilians)

Johnson is a difficult prospect to evaluate.  He’s kept busy (8 UFC fights in 2 ½ years), which is always a good thing but the results have been all over the place.  His near finish and eventual loss to Jonathan Brookins in the TUF 12 finals acts as a microcosm of his UFC stint so far.  He bounced back with a TKO of Edward Faaloloto, then was submitted in 3 minutes by Paul Sass.  “The Menace’s” quickness was too much for Shane Roller and afterwards, Johnson would head down South to become a full time Blackzilian.  A solid win over Tony Ferguson and a KO of Danny Castillo had fans buzzing.  Back to back losses to Myles Jury and Reza Madadi quieted them.  Blessed with enviable athletic gifts, Johnson is still working on putting it all together.

31. Reza Madadi (2-1 UFC, 13-3, W1) (Hilti NHB)

April 2013: Madadi defeats Michael Johnson with a beautiful D’Arce choke and wins a “Submission of the Night” award.  He delivers a memorable post-fight interview that shows off his quirky personality.  It is a star making moment.

May 2013: Madadi is arrested for his alleged involvement in a heist straight out of a Guy Ritchie movie.  The trial is pending.

30. Yves Edwards (10-7 UFC, 42-19-1, L1) (American Top Team)

A lifetime of memorable battles against the best of the best has made Edwards one of the most revered men in the business.  Name almost any major promotion in the world and the “Thugjitsu Master” has touched gloves there.  After a 4 year UFC hiatus, Edwards returned in 2010 and defeated John Gunderson to kick off a 4-3 stretch.  A true innovator, Edwards remains vital going into his 63rd fight against Spencer Fisher in July.

29. Sam Stout (8-7 UFC, 19-8-1, W1) (Team Tompkins)

You can’t talk about Stout without talking about Shawn Tompkins.  Stout’s trainer, brother-in-law, and best friend, Tompkins tragically passed away two years ago at the age of 37.  Just a couple of months prior, Stout had knocked out Yves Edwards in brutal fashion and he was ready to make a serious run at a title shot.  Without Tompkins, Stout has gone 2-2 in his last 4 fights.  Personally, I’m rooting for the guy.  He’s always delivered when the UFC has called his number and it would be nice to see him get a big win.

28. Takanori Gomi (3-4 UFC, 34-9 [1 NC], L1) (Kugayama Rascal)

Seeing Gomi drop a close decision (I thought Gomi was robbed) to Diego Sanchez makes it difficult to reconcile the current version of “The Fireball Kid” with the beast that was nearly unbeatable in his prime.  Competing mostly for Shooto and PRIDE, Gomi began his career a ridiculous 24-2 including wins over Rumina Sato, Jens Pulver and Hayato Sakurai.  It is his collection of first round knockouts from early 2004-late 2005 that had him neck and neck with BJ Penn for the title of top lightweight (though Penn had defeated Gomi in a 2003 contest).  There are many who would argue that Gomi is the top lightweight of all time.  I wouldn’t go that far, especially since his work in the UFC has been wildly inconsistent, but there might not even be a 155 pound division in the UFC if it weren’t for his success.

27. Isaac Vallie-Flagg (1-0 UFC, 14-3-1, W5) (Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts)

Who again?  Fighting on Strikeforce preliminaries isn’t a great way to make a name for yourself and it doesn’t help when your last 3 wins have all come by split decision.  What does help is when two of your wins are against Japanese star Gesias Cavalcante and Yves Edwards.  Even more impressive, Vallie-Flagg had the flu when he fought Edwards.  You might not have heard of him until now (I vaguely recognized the name when he debuted because, come on, that’s a pretty cool name) but those big wins combined with the fact that he hasn’t lost a fight in over 5 years earns him a nice spot in my rankings.

26. Jorge Masvidal (1-0 UFC, 24-7, W2) (American Top Team)

You might be noticing a trend with these Strikeforce fighters.  All of them have been facing strong competition for years so they were fair game when it came to booking their first UFC matches.  It is a no-lose situation: If the UFC guy wins, he can add another legit name to his resume; if the Strikeforce guy wins, then he’s proven he’s worth the investment.  Masvidal (nicknamed “Gamebred” for his street fighting experience) is already earning his keep.  He outpointed streaking Tim Means and now he’s doing the company a solid by stepping in on short notice to face Michael Chiesa.

25. Diego Sanchez (13-5 UFC, 24-5, W1) (Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts)

#25 seems like the perfect spot for Sanchez, who remains as enigmatic as when we first saw him during that fateful first season of TUF.  Let’s take a glance at his career, shall we?

  • on TUF, Sanchez established himself early on as both a favourite to win the competition and as a complete psychopath.  He meditated in the rain to channel its power and also expressed a fear of extraterrestrials during a moment of intoxication
  • he ran through the competition, annihilating an overmatched Josh Rafferty, beating Josh Koscheck so badly that Koscheck vomited after, and smoking Kenny Florian to become the first Ultimate Fighter winner
  • Sanchez flourished, winning his next 5 fights including thrillers against Nick Diaz and Karo Parisyan
  • a positive test for marijuana and a loss to Koscheck derailed his title hopes and he chose to leave Greg Jackson to be closer to his family.  The timing was suspicious as fellow welterweight contender Georges St-Pierre joined Jackson around this same period
  • Sanchez lost his next fight to Jon Fitch, but bounced back with two finishes of middling competition
  • a drop to lightweight pays immediate dividends: two “Fight of the Night” performances (including his unforgettable clash with Clay Guida) and the first title shot of his career
  • changed his whole mindset by employing the positive teachings of Tony Robbins
  • got straight whupped by BJ Penn
  • changed his nickname from “The Nightmare” to “The Dream”
  • made an unsuccessful return to welterweight against John Hathaway
  • went 2-1 back at 170 (with an unjust split decision victory over Martin Kampmann)
  • after declaring he was done with 155, Sanchez dropped down to 155 for a chance to face Takanori Gomi in Japan.  He stole another decision

In Sanchez, the UFC got everything they could have wanted and more out of a reality TV show winner.  He’s a good fighter, a man of idiosyncrasies and he was a huge part of establishing their presence on national television when major network exposure was a pipedream.  He recently called out champ Ben Henderson, something he has no business doing.  Would you expect anything less from The Dream at this point?

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The middle of the pack shook out as expected, a mixture of new blood taking advantage of an opportunity and veterans out to prove they still have something left in the tank.  A few of these guys only need to go on a run to get a shot at the title and that run is likely to start with said veterans.  This is where the boys get separated from the men or more accurately, where the best break out and forge their own path.  But let’s save that for the next installment.