UFC 164: “Henderson vs. Pettis II″ preliminary and main card breakdown

I wrote four different previews this week for both the Fight Night Card that happened on Wednesday and the PPV happening tonight. Didn’t even remember to spread the word about them I was so focused on cranking them out. Here’s the UFC 164 material I did for MMACanada.net:

Preliminaries

Main Card

And my picks (in bold):

Hamman v. Cedenblad
Couture v. Iaquinta
Palelei v. Krylov
Camus v. Kang
Krauss v. Lim
Gaudinot v. Elliott
Varner v. Tibau
Koch v. Poirier
Rothwell v. Vera
Mendes v. Guida
Mir v. Barnett
Henderson v. Pettis

UFC on Fox Sports 1 Recap

Sometimes you wake up and you get it in your head to write 4500 words about UFC on Fox Sports 1.  This is one of those times.  Let’s get to it.

The Preliminaries

Lightweight Bout: James Vick d. Ramsey Nijem via Submission (:58, R1)

What you need to know: Due to the live format of TUF 15, Vick was forced off of the season finale after suffering an ill-timed concussion.  He was one of the show’s more promising prospects, a big man with a thirst for knowledge.

Nijem was the runner-up of TUF 13.  He was as well known for his spontaneous shedding of clothes as he was for his wrestling.  He came into this fight with a respectable 3-2 record.

How it went down: A tall kickboxer like Vick is just asking to be taken down by someone with Nijem’s background.  Sure enough, Nijem looked to take the action to the mat right out of the gate…and he fell into a match ending guillotine choke.

What’s next for Nijem: (3-3 UFC, Lost last 2) Since 2011, Nijem has made six appearances in the UFC, only missing one fight due to injury.  The company has to respect a workhorse like that and it could be enough to keep him around even with two one-sided losses.  If so, he’ll have to beat guys like Zhang Tie Quan, Rafaello Oliveira and Mac Danzig to avoid the axe.

What’s next for Vick: (1-0 UFC, W5) First, compete in a Tyler Hansbrough lookalike contest; second, get back in the gym and capitalize on this momentum.  Look for him to face TUF: The Smashes winner Norman Parke, Grudge representative Justin Salas or Anthony Njokuani in what would be a great kickboxing exhibition.  With the quick win, don’t be surprised if Vick is a prime candidate to step-in for an injured fighter on short notice either.

Light Heavyweight Bout: Ovince St. Preux d. Cody Donovan via KO (2:07, R1)

What you need to know: Donovan surprised a lot of people by knocking out highly touted Canadian Nick Penner on short notice.  The win afforded him the opportunity to step up against St. Preux, one of Strikeforce’s emerging stars before that organization was acquired by Zuffa.

How it went down: Unlike in his first fight with Penner, Donovan actually managed to get the fight to the ground where he could work his magic.  St. Preux made sure he was unable to do anything, using his instincts and athleticism to reverse and get on top where he was able to punch out Donovan from inside his guard.

What’s next for Donovan: (1-1 UFC, L1) 205 remains a top heavy division and this loss keeps Donovan near the bottom of the pack.  Lingering around that range are Igor Pokrajac, Gian Villante and Ilir Latifi.  It would be fun to see Donovan (a BJJ black belt) welcome famed grappling instructor Robert Drysdale to the octagon.

What’s next for St. Preux: (2-0 UFC, W2) Every win matters at this level and St. Preux could climb the charts fast if he keeps this up.  Now would be a great time to pair him up with Rafael Cavalcante.  Feijão was the light heavyweight champion in Strikeforce when he and St. Preux competed there.  Coming off a loss, Feijão is still a deadly opponent who will either expose St. Preux or provide an instant shot of career adrenaline.

Featherweight Bout: Manvel Gamburyan d. Cole Miller via Unanimous Decision (30-27, 29-28 x2)

What you need to know: TUF 5 veterans collide!  In a way, Gamburyan and Miller were “lightweight pioneers” having been part of the TUF season that ushered in the return of the 155 pound division.  While neither man has ever been a headliner, they’ve both logged double digit appearances for Zuffa (including Gamburyan’s WEC work where he did face José Aldo in a main event).  They are a familiar sight to many fans who became interested in the UFC around 2007, when the organization expanded to five weight classes.  Since then, both have dropped to featherweight with Gamburyan once being world ranked and Miller struggling to find his footing.

How it went down: This is one to consider in the continuing study of judging philosophy.  Gamburyan, a master of takedowns, repeatedly grounded Miller while staying in top control.  Miller responded by striking from the bottom and attacking with submissions (that Gamburyan deftly fended off).  There was also a peculiar sequence in between the first and second rounds where Gamburyan needed extra time to recover due to some illegal elbows to the back of the head that connected just as the opening round concluded.  Miller did his best to be a good sport at the time, though he is apparently now asking for the results to be overturned due to the extended rest time.

What’s next for Miller: (8-6 UFC, L1) Is this the end of the line for Magrinho?  With a 1-3 record, he’s been a flop at featherweight.  The only validation for the move has been a submission victory over the respected Bart Palaszewski.  Should he stay on, we can expect him to face someone like Cody McKenzie, Max Holloway or Daniel Pineda.

What’s next for Gamburyan: (4-5 UFC, W2) Gamburyan’s record is deceptive as it includes his time at lightweight, a division he was not suited for.  As a featherweight, Gamburyan has a combined WEC/UFC record of 5-3, which keeps him firmly in the top 20 of the division.  A match with any of the event’s other featherweight winners makes sense and he would be an ideal test for the budding Diego Brandao.

Featherweight Bout: Diego Brandao d. Daniel Pineda via Unanimous Decision (29-28 x3)

What you need to know: Brandao remains an intriguing prospect, decimating his TUF competition long before anyone had even heard of Uriah Hall.  His natural ferocity tempered by the calming atmosphere of Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts has all the makings of a difference maker at 145.

Pineda made an immediate impact with first round submissions in his first two UFC fights and he opened a lot of eyes in a close decision loss to former featherweight kingpin Mike Brown.  That momentum was deadened by a KO loss to Antonio Carvalho.  Taking out Brandao would go a long way towards getting people talking again.

How it went down: In what is quickly becoming the blueprint for every Brandao fight, the Brazilian brought the fury early and survived late.  As critical as that sounds, it is also a compliment.  The competition in this division gets tougher and tougher and blowouts are hard to come by.  On this occasion, Brandao had to use takedowns to snuff out a spirited comeback by Pineda.  He landed several in the third round en route to a unanimous win.

What’s next for Pineda: (3-3 UFC, L1) Pineda needs to prove that he’s more than a building block for the careers of others.  The key to that is finding consistency.  He has looked brilliant at times (a spectacular kimura in his last fight earned him a Submission of the Night bonus) and flat at others (the Carvalho KO is still a head scratcher).  Aside from the other featherweights in tonight’s losers’ circle, Robbie Peralta (when he returns from a suspension) would provide an interesting clash of styles for Pineda.

What’s next for Brandao: (4-1 UFC, W3) A top 20 opponent.  I currently have him ranked just outside that range.  His record dictates a step-up, which doesn’t give him much time to shore up those glaring weaknesses.  I like the Gamburyan match-up, but I could also see him fighting Akira Corassani somewhere down the road, an exciting bout that never materialized during their time in the TUF house.

Featherweight Bout: Steve Siler d. Mike Brown via KO (:50, R1)

What you need to know: Brown has been working hard to rehab his career since a brutal stretch saw him lose three of five bouts after dropping the WEC title to José Aldo.  There’s no nice way to put it: he’s getting up there in age and young guns like Siler are lining up to add him to their resume.

Siler has been quietly making a name for himself, losing only once in his first five UFC appearances.  A number of decisions have failed to leave much of an imprint on the casual fan and he needs a flashy finish to propel him to a higher ranking.

How it went down: Siler got his flashy finish.  After rocking Brown with a huge right, Siler bounced his head off of the mat a couple of times before Yves Lavigne stepped in.  Brown protested, but the stoppage was a good one for his sake.

What’s next for Brown: (2-4 UFC, L1) With all due respect to Brown, retirement has to be a consideration.  In his first 26 fights, Brown had never suffered a loss via knockout; in his last 9 he’s been knocked out 3 times and they were all nasty.  There’s no questioning that Brown is still highly skilled and motivated, but the body and chin aren’t cooperating.  If he sticks around, all that awaits him are more youthful, hungry challengers like the winner of the Charles Oliveira/Hacran Dias fight in October.

What’s next for Siler: (5-1 UFC, W2) This is exactly the kind of win that turns someone from card filler into a contender.  Not only is Brown a relatively big name, Siler was able to dust him off in under a minute.  He’s got no choice but to be ready for a potentially career changing match-up.  Gamburyan makes a lot of sense, or he could be lined up for Conor McGregor (who still needs some seasoning himself).  Outside of the card, a match-up with the streaking Dennis Bermudez would further reveal their potential.

Featherweight Bout: Conor McGregor d. Max Holloway via Unanimous Decision (30-27 x2, 30-26)

What you need to know: McGregor is the key to a potential UFC expansion into Ireland.  Luckily for the UFC, he’s also one tough, talented and talkative son of a gun.  His obliteration of Marcus Brimage backed up his credentials as Europe’s best prospect and Dana White has been happy to push him full force.

Holloway is getting the MMA world’s version of on-the-job training, having fought five times in the UFC at the tender age of 21.  Statistically, he is one of the most active and effective strikers in the featherweight division.

How it went down: Depending on your level of expectations, this was either a tremendous letdown or a validation of McGregor’s skills.  I’m not sure what people were expecting since Holloway is no push-over and difficult to finish (it has only happened once in nine previous contests).  Both men had their moments, but McGregor was able to stay aggressive while consistently outscoring Holloway.  For anyone seeing McGregor for the first time, his hybrid karate stance should have been enough to stick in their minds.  He expressed disappointment in his own performance despite winning a clear-cut decision.

What’s next for Holloway: (3-3 UFC, L2) If the timing were different, it could be the Holloway getting the red carpet treatment afforded to McGregor; alas, the young Hawaiian is still searching for a marketable identity.  For now, he’s fortunate to be able to show off his educated striking in the octagon until it’s his turn to board the UFC hype train.  Daniel Pineda would be a logical opponent, but I’d love to see him matched up with someone like Maximo Blanco or TUF: Brazil runner-up Pepey.

What’s next for McGregor: (2-0 UFC, W10) Impressive though he is, it still feels too soon to put McGregor up against a top 10 opponent.  Gamburyan, Siler or Brandao would all be suitable, though they definitely can’t match the buzz that McGregor has going for him right now.  Thinking outside the box, it would be interesting to see how he would fare against a grappling specialist like Rani Yahya or Nik Lentz.

Bantamweight Bout: Michael McDonald d. Brad Pickett via Submission (3:43, R2)

What you need to know: Fresh off his first defeat in almost four years at the hands of interim bantamweight champion Renan Barão, McDonald was forced to deal with an unfamiliar reality.  Renowned not just for his punching power but his poise, it remained to be seen how strongly he would bounce back after being reminded of his fallibility.

Pickett has been one of the best 135ers for some time, though he’s also had the misfortune of being cast as a stepping stone.  Scott Jorgensen, Barão and Eddie Wineland have all gone on to title fights immediately after defeating Pickett.

How it went down: In addition to being well rounded, Pickett has got to be one of the most determined, strong-willed individuals on the roster.  McDonald’s knockouts of Alex Soto and Miguel Torres exposed the dynamite in his hands.  He had a short fuse on Saturday, doing his best to detonate Pickett’s skull.  The man would not stay down.  Afterwards, McDonald said he feared he’d mysteriously lost his knockout power.  Rather than punch himself out, McDonald stayed patient even as Pickett found a second wind.  Defending from the guard, McDonald waited until exactly the right moment before executing a flawless triangle choke to win the match.

What’s next for Pickett: (3-3 UFC, L1) Keep on truckin’, as they say.  Pickett has already fought the majority of the top ten, making his next booking tricky.  I’d like to see him face Brian Bowles when he returns or this evening’s Urijah Faber victim, Iuri Alcantara.

What’s next for McDonald: (5-1 UFC, W1) This sensational win isn’t enough to get him a rematch just yet, but he maintained his status as one of the five best bantamweights.  The most compelling match-up would be a meeting with his friend Faber.  Another possibility would be the TJ Dillashaw/Raphael Assunçao winner.

The Main Card

Lightweight Bout: Michael Johnson d. Joe Lauzon (30-27 x2, 30-25)

What you need to know: Lauzon is the consummate TV fighter; in the days when the UFC didn’t have a glut of free programming, Lauzon was called upon to spice up or even headline a card.  He has the kind of game that can convince people to someday shell out real money for the PPVs.  Aside from winning fights, his current goal appears to be avoiding prolonged battles that have been good for his bank account (matches with Jim Miller and Jamie Varner scored him back to back Fight of the Night bonuses totalling $115,000) and terrible for his long term health.

Johnson is a promising athlete who has grown by leaps and bounds since his stint on TUF 12.  He put together a three fight win streak capped off by an explosive KO of Danny Castillo, but came into this fight on a losing streak including a submission loss to unheralded Reza Madadi in his last appearance.  They couldn’t have picked a worse opponent for him, due to his propensity for tap outs (6 of Johnson’s 8 career losses have come by way of submission) and the fact that Lauzon would have a raucous Boston crowd supporting him.

How it went down: Johnson rose to the occasion and Lauzon fell flat on his face.  As a fan of Lauzon, I’m inclined to believe that he had some lingering injury or illness that affected his performance.  Nothing has been reported, so all the credit has to go to Johnson for putting all of his tools together and manhandling Lauzon.

What’s next for Lauzon: (9-6 UFC, L2) At the prime age of 29, Lauzon finds himself firmly in the veteran’s circle.  Potential opponents residing there are Gray Maynard and Evan Dunham who are both recovering from losses.  I, personally, would love to see him finally face Nate Diaz, a dream match that has been teased since their time in the TUF house.

What’s next for Johnson: (5-4 UFC, W1) “The Menace” is tough to rank and even tougher to book due his schizophrenic win-loss record (seriously, check out who he’s beaten and who has beaten him.  Is he a top 20 lightweight?  Top 30?).  Josh Thomson might be too a stern test.  I wouldn’t mind seeing him get the Gleison Tibau/Jamie Varner winner.

Middleweight Bout: John Howard d. Uriah Hall via Split Decision (30-27, 29-28, 28-29)

What you need to know: Two opponents were pulled due to injuries before they settled on Howard, a former UFC welterweight who had found a new groove at 185 since being released back in 2011.  He was fighting on short notice, undersized and eager to stand and bang, which sounded like the perfect recipe for Hall to bounce back after looking dull in losing the TUF 17 championship

How it went down: Yuck.  This one didn’t go down easy, did it?  Neither Howard nor Hall should be particularly proud of what transpired here, though at least Howard can comfort himself with a nice win bonus and the promise of another UFC booking.  Hall has no such guarantee.  I’m all for fighters having fun and being good sportsmen, but seeing these two high five each other over and over again after uneventful striking exchanges was borderline appalling.  Perhaps they were caught up in the moment.  Either way, Howard outworked Hall who (once again) failed to pull the trigger.

What’s next for Hall: (0-2 UFC, L2) A lot of time to think.  Hall is a gifted striker, nobody can deny that, but the sport of MMA has come so far that physicality and talent isn’t enough.  Just like every major sport, psychology is a huge part of an athlete’s performance.  All of those petty conflicts that were highlighted on TUF 17 that I’d figured was manufactured reality show drama are actually seriously affecting his career.  The UFC shouldn’t give up on him so soon as he still has a star quality that you can’t buy or teach.  You watch him enter the ring and fight for thirty seconds and you want to know more about him.  I say throw him in there with other mystifying talents like Lorenz Larkin, Tom Watson or heck, Chris Leben, and let them sort themselves out.

What’s next for Howard: (5-3 UFC, W3) Talk about taking advantage of an opportunity, eh?  Seeing him standing across from Hall, you have to believe Howard is considering a move back down to 170 even if he enjoys not having to cut weight.  Should he stay where he is, he’d be a fun match-up for Cezar Ferreira, Thales Leites or C.B. Dollaway.

Welterweight Bout: Matt Brown d. Mike Pyle via KO (:29, R1)

What you need to know: Sometimes a match just makes itself.  Brown and Pyle have been walking the same path; two proven finishers on white hot streaks only missing a win over a top name to put themselves into legitimate contention.  Joe Silva could have crunched the numbers and consulted his brain trust to figure out how to properly keep both guys in the mix; instead, he threw two starving dogs in the cage to fight over the proverbial steak.

How it went down: To the surprise of absolutely no one, Brown and Pyle came charging out of the gate.  Brown was first.  A series of strikes left Pyle open for a knee right up the middle that put him on his butt.  Ground and pound.  Fight over.

What’s next for Pyle: (8-4 UFC, L1) At 37, this loss all but eliminates any chance of Pyle ever fighting for the title.  That doesn’t mean he can’t continue to be a valuable member of the roster.  His laid back personality and aggressive style have been a hit with the fans and there are still big ticket fights in his future.  A rematch with Jake Ellenberger could work.  He could also get the Carlos Condit/Martin Kampmann loser or Josh Koscheck.

What’s next for Brown: (11-5 UFC, W6) Brown wants that match with Georges St-Pierre so bad he can taste it.  He’s been calling him out non-stop for the last few days, doing everything he can to drum up interest.  If this were the WWE, he would have already attacked GSP backstage and filled his luxury sports car with cement.  Don’t expect that match to materialize, though Brown is at the front of the line should Johny Hendricks or a future contender be forced to bow out due to an injury.  That’s not a bad place to be.  In the meantime, he’ll have to settle for Rory MacDonald or Robbie Lawler (who are in talks to face each other at UFC 167 in November).

Bantamweight Bout: Urijah Faber d. Iuri Alcantara via Unanimous Decision (30-27, 30-26 x2)

What you need to know: I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware of Faber’s record of never losing non-title fights.  Critics may scoff at his repeated failed challenges for UFC gold, but has there been a time in the last few years where he wasn’t one of the three best fighters in his division?  Alcantara is a low-profile opponent compared to Faber’s usual rogues gallery, representing a high risk situation for the former WEC champ.

How it went down: One aspect of his game that Alcantara takes immense pride in is that he rarely ends up on the wrong end of a scramble.  He and Faber locked up right away and Alcantara’s boast almost proved prophetic.  Alcantara quickly took the back and for two minutes it looked like he might shock the world.  The experience of Faber was evident, he kept his composure until he could reverse position and work from Alcantara’s guard.  That was the story for the rest of the match as Faber used masterful top control to earn a comfortable decision win.

What’s next for Alcantara: (3-2 [1 NC], L1) Don’t let the fact that Alcantara spent the better part of the fifteen minute duration on his back fool you.  He’s a dangerous fighter.  He only has 2 losses in his last 16 contests (to Faber and Hacran Dias who had a record of 20-1-1 at the time).  The top of the rankings is still within reach.  Beating the aforementioned Brad Pickett or Scott Jorgensen would keep Alcantara in the thick of things.

What’s next for Faber: (5-2, W3) Michael McDonald, right?

Heavyweight Bout: Travis Browne d. Alistair Overeem via KO (4:08, R1)

What you need to know: With Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos taking care of unfinished business, the onus is now on the rest of the heavyweight division to position themselves for a marquee match when the dust settles.

Overeem had been touted as the uncrowned king for years, despite doing a whole lot of nothing until he won a rematch against Fabricio Werdum in a snoozer.  His first round finish of Brock Lesnar was legit, though it’s telling that Lesnar was mentally absent and retired from MMA soon after.  Coming in noticeably smaller against Antonio Silva, he won the first two rounds before paying the ultimate price for his lollygagging in the third: Big Foot pounding his face in.  I don’t like Overeem.

Browne is somewhat of an enigma, alternating between terrifying and perplexing.  A first round TKO of James McSweeney followed by a draw against Cheick Kongo.  The most vicious Superman punch of all time to destroy Stefan Struve followed by a stinker of a win over Rob Broughton.  He overwhelmed Chad Griggs and then suffered an unfortunate injury that hampered his performance against Antonio Silva.  His last win against Gabriel Gonzaga came as a result of some fishy looking elbows.  What Travis Browne would show up on Saturday night?

How it went down: Looking slightly less monstrous these days, Overeem reminded everyone that first and foremost he’s an elite kickboxer.  He bullied Browne against the cage and brutalized him with knees to the body.  This must have lead to some unpleasant trips to the washroom for Browne afterwards.  As Browne faded, Overeem started throwing hands that were just off the mark.  Unable to land the telling blow, Overeem gassed out.  How do I know this?  He couldn’t raise his arms up to properly defend against Browne’s front kick assault.  A big foot (see what I did there?) finally made it right through the uprights, dazing the K1 Grand Prix winner and leaving him helpless to stop Browne from finishing.

What’s next for Overeem: (1-2 UFC, L2) Heavyweight draws like Overeem are a rare commodity.  He shouldn’t be too worried about his job security, even though he’s a big ticket item (around $300,000 to $400,000 per fight) that isn’t earning his keep at the moment.  It would be quite a sight to see him face someone like Stefan Struve or, on the opposite end of the ruler, Mark Hunt (a rematch from 2008).

What’s next for Browne: (6-1-1 UFC, W2) Like Matt Brown, Travis Browne has placed himself in a plum spot should the UFC need an emergency title challenger.  Just break the glass and he’ll be ready to go.  The most popular suggestions I’ve seen are that he face the winner of August’s Frank Mir/Josh Barnett contest or October’s Roy Nelson/Daniel Cormier contest.

Light Heavyweight Bout: Chael Sonnen d. Shogun Rua via Submission (4:47, R1)

What you need to know: By hook or by crook, Sonnen manages to stay in the spotlight.  How do you lose two straight fights and still end up in the main event of one of the most important cards of the year?  Chael Sonnen, that’s how.

It wasn’t the opponent Shogun wanted, but after a back injury took out Antônio Rogério Nogueira, it was what he got.  On the surface, it was easy to say that Shogun had not faced an opponent with such a wrestling heavy attack since Mark Coleman (Dan Henderson and Jon Jones are fine grapplers in their own right who are just as likely to strike as they are to shoot).  He shouldn’t have been worried about Sonnen’s propensity for fast starts since Shogun himself was famous for blitzing foes.

How it went down: Sonnen scored a takedown right away.  Shogun recovered and got one of his own.  Sonnen regained control.  Shogun powered up sloppily.  Sonnen submits Shogun with a guillotine choke.  Shogun had not been submitted in almost six years.

I…did not see that one coming.

What’s next for Shogun: (5-6 UFC, L2) The first losing streak of his career apparently.  I’d go as far as to say that this loss was almost as shocking as when he was tapped by Forrest Griffin.  Before Bones came along, Shogun was arguably the greatest light heavyweight of all time.  Can that title go to a fighter with a losing record in the UFC?  I don’t want to see Shogun retire, but there are few match-ups that make sense for him at the moment because most of the 205ers in the losers circle are far below him in prestige.  Two enticing rematches do appeal to me: Shogun/Lyoto Machida III (should Machida stay at light heavyweight) or even better, Shogun/Henderson II.

What’s next for Sonnen: (7-6 UFC, W1) Another title shot!  Whooooo!  Nah.  His post-match callout of Wanderlei Silva was classic.  Dana, Joe, whoever, let’s make this one happen, please.

UFC on Fox Sports 1: “Shogun vs. Sonnen″ preliminary and main card breakdown

The UFC is pulling out all the stops for its first card on the brand new Fox Sports 1 (complete coverage available on Sportsnet 360 starting at 5 PM EST).  The talent arrayed here blows away many of the PPVs they’ve put together this year, which I guess is kind of a backhanded compliment.  Regardless, it’s free so glue yourself to the couch and soak in over 5 hours of MMA action.  That’s what I’ll be doing anyway.

Here are my breakdowns for MMACanada.net:

Preliminaries

Main Card

Fun fact: with the exception of the Matt Brown/Mike Pyle fight, every match includes at least one fighter who has been in the main event of another card (and Brown or Pyle could find themselves headlining with a win here).  That’s how you stack ‘em up.

Some of the links I referred to in the articles appear to have been lost in translation, but I recommend taking a look at them.

Conor McGregor: The Future of the Featherweight Division?

The “Doomsday” Clock

Uriah Hall: An In-depth Look Part 1

Yuri Alcantara interview for MMACarnivale

And here are my picks, just for funsies:

Nijem v. Vick
Donovan v. St. Preux
Gamburyan v. Miller
Brandao v. Pineda
Brown v. Siler
McGregor v. Holloway
Pickett v. McDonald
Lauzon v. Johnson
Hall v. Howard
Brown v. Pyle
Faber v. Alcantara
Overeem v. Browne
Shogun v. Sonnen

José Aldo – The Pound For Pound Best?

Rankings in general are essentially pointless, more fodder for conversation than any sort of tangible reward for a fighter.  A high ranking won’t knock your opponent down or force a tap out.  A high ranking won’t necessarily put food on the table.  The most banal list of them all might be the pound-for-pound entries.

Comparing fighters of different weight classes is about as effective as comparing baseball players of different eras.  It’s fun to do, but there are so many discrepancies and factors that are impossible to account for that you can’t conclusively prove anything.  Would Babe Ruth have been as great a player in the 80s?  90s?  Today?

Yet this matters to people.  Maybe it’s lingering sentiment from the “Bloodsport” days (weight classes? *psht*) or our natural inclination towards romanticizing sports, but we are obsessed with determining who is the true, best, best, bestest fighter in the whole wide world.  Making things more difficult is the varying criteria people use: quality of opponents, finishing rate, “dominance”.  The most bizarre to me is the demand to see these fighters change weight classes to battle each other.  That defeats the purpose of pound-for-pound, doesn’t it?  As you can see, I consider it to be a hypothetical argument more than anything else.

To clear up any confusion, I want to make it clear that I think pound-for-pound rankings are silly.  However, please allow me to use the format to espouse the virtues of a man who might not be getting enough credit.  I ask a question.

Are we certain that José Aldo isn’t the best fighter in the world?

*****

Jon JonesAnderson SilvaGeorges St-Pierre.

These three men, in some order, have all had a claim on the Iron Throne of MMA for the last few years.  Even after Silva was knocked out by Chris Weidman, there are still outlets refusing to drop him from this triumvirate.  That’s the unconquerable stature Jones, Silva and St-Pierre have established for themselves.  They’ve been impossible to beat.  They’ve taken out fellow champions.  They’ve cleared out their respective divisions.  Asked to continually perform at the highest level against elite competition, their combined UFC record is 46-4.

How do Aldo’s accomplishments stack up?  First, a quick rundown of his significant victories.

(*records are as they were when the fighter fought Aldo, not the fighter’s current record)

  • since June, 2009
    • Cub Swanson(13-2, borderline top 10, title eliminator)
      • TKO, :08 R1
  • Mike Brown(22-4, WEC featherweight champion)
    • TKO, 1:20 R2
  • Urijah Faber(23-3, top 3, considered the best featherweight of all time up to that point)
    • UD (49-45 x2, 50-45)
  • Manny Gamburyan(11-4, 3-0 as a featherweight, top 5)
    • KO, 1:32 R2
  • Mark Hominick(20-8, top 10)
    • UD (48-45, 48-46, 49-46)
  • Kenny Florian(14-5, top 10 lightweight/featherweight)
    • UD (49-46 x3)
  • Chad Mendes(11-0, clear-cut no. 2 featherweight)
    • KO, 4:59 R1
  • Frankie Edgar(15-3-1, former lightweight champion)
    • UD (49-46 x2, 48-47)
  • Chan Sung Jung(13-2, top 10)
    • TKO, 2:00 R4

After signing with the WEC, Aldo recorded KO/TKO victories in his first four assignments: Alexandre Franca Nogueira, Jonathan Brookins, Rolando Perez and Chris Mickle.  Combined record (at the time they fought Aldo, excluding draws): 51-19.  The matchmakers tuned up Aldo with the perfect mix of veterans and up and comers.  His response was overwhelmingly violent.  You can check off “dismissed inferior competition” on our imaginary pound-for-pound survey.

His first true test was Cub Swanson.  Swanson’s only loss at featherweight had come at the hands of MMA legend Jens Pulver, so he was a logical opponent for Aldo to fight for the right to challenge the then-WEC featherweight champion Mike Brown.  Everyone remembers how the Aldo/Swanson match turned out.

That’s one Swanson would like to have back.  As remarkable as this finish was at the time, what makes it even more impressive is that Swanson has remained one of the best fighters at 145.  More than just a highlight reel stoppage, the Swanson victory is an important notch on Aldo’s belt.

The opposite of the Swanson situation is Brown, who went on to have mixed results after losing to Aldo.  Still, at the time he was the undisputed top featherweight and Aldo capped off a meteoric rise with a definitive finish of the reigning champion.

“Definitive” is the key word here.  Jones, Silva and St-Pierre all made sure there was no doubt who the new king of the division would be when they defeated their respective opponents.  Jones blasted Shogun Rua, Silva embarrassed Rich Franklin twice and St-Pierre won a best of three series against Matt Hughes with a pair of submission victories.  It’s also worth mentioning that Shogun, Franklin and Hughes were themselves considered unbeatable for a significant stretch of their careers.

Brown doesn’t quite stack up to those names, but he had just beaten Urijah Faber for a second time and a lengthy run was a possibility.  Also, the featherweight division was still in its infancy so it would be impossible for anyone in the WEC to match the notoriety of the aforementioned fighters.

Even after losing to Brown twice, Faber was still thought of as the best featherweight of all time.  Without him, the WEC wouldn’t have grown at the rate it did and it would have taken much longer for the UFC to integrate the featherweights and the bantamweights.

With six WEC appearances under his belt, there were still a lot of question marks surrounding Aldo’s game.  He’d always been the aggressor.  Could he handle Faber’s non-stop pressure and wrestling?

An analysis of that encounter informs Aldo’s future dominance.  For one, he was much bigger than Faber.  Second, he showed no fear of Faber’s wrestling, getting the better of the grappling exchanges time and time again.  Of course, that was helped by the reinforcement of his lethal leg kicks.  By the time the fight was over, the skin on Faber’s leg had gone through all the colours of the rainbow.

In the wake of so many quick finishes, a one-sided decision win turned out to be the best thing for Aldo’s reputation.  He showed he could go into the championship rounds and control an extremely dangerous and durable opponent.  There was plenty of substance to go along with the style.

The next two challengers, Manny Gamburyan and Mark Hominick have been lost in the shuffle, especially Gamburyan who was Aldo’s last opponent in the WEC.  Scoff if you will, but Gamburyan was undefeated as a featherweight and he’d earned his shot by knocking Brown out cold.  He even took the first round from Aldo before the champ adapted in the second and scored another TKO victory.  For the sake of comparison, Gamburyan is like Nate Marquardt to Silva or Rampage Jackson to Jones.  Maybe they didn’t have the best shot of winning, but there was good reason to place them opposite the champ.

Hominick is remembered more favourably based on the strength of his performance.  The Ontario native was 4-0 since coming back under the Zuffa umbrella in 2010.  He had put on two memorable fights against Yves Jabouin and Leonard Garcia.  In his return to the UFC, he knocked out George Roop in a title eliminator.  Hominick was a top 10 featherweight no matter how you slice it.

Fighting in his home province, the Ontario native drew strength from the crowd as Aldo faded.  He gave his all in the championship rounds, battering Aldo from inside the Brazilian’s guard.  The massive hematoma on his head and his pounding fists are the enduring images from that bout.  What people seem to forget is that Aldo had handily won the first three rounds.  Even in the end, he never allowed himself to be put in a position where Hominick could realistically end the fight.

Gamburyan and Hominick are the kinds of lightly regarded challengers that often prove dangerous.  They keep a champion sharp.  They’re not expected to move PPV buys; the UFC has other ways to do that.

Kenny Florian and Frankie Edgar were both put on the fast track to a meeting with Aldo.  Florian had one win at 145; Edgar, zero.

Florian is well-liked and reliable.  You can understand why the UFC wanted to see gold around his waist.  An impressive run at 155 came to a sudden halt at the hands of BJ Penn and after a suffocating decision loss to Gray Maynard, Florian decided to move down to featherweight.  A hard fought victory over Aldo’s Nova União teammate Diego Nunes was enough to set up what should have been a marquee matchup.

The ever evolving Aldo completely neutralized Florian en route to an unremarkable decision.  That said, Aldo becomes firmly entrenched in the top five of the pound-for-pound rankings after this fight.  Florian was a top five lightweight for two years and presumably a top five featherweight as well (he retired after this fight, so it’s unclear if he would have continued to succeed at 145).  That Aldo dispatched him with such ease was enough to cause fans to consider the possibilities.  Should he move up in weight?  Could he be the first dual champion?

Before we got a preview of his chances at 155, Aldo would have to deal with the one thing missing from his resume: a young, hungry challenger who appeared equally unflappable.  Chad Mendes fit the bill (though he was two years Aldo’s senior, he was less experienced), sporting a sterling 11-0 record.  His outstanding wrestling allowed him to beat the likes of Javier Vazquez, Michihiro Omigawa and Rani Yahya without losing a round.  If he could ground Aldo, all bets were off.

The first round was a feeling out period that Mendes tried to steal with a late takedown.  He ducked right into an Aldo knee and he was hurt too badly to recover.  The stoppage came with one second remaining in the first round.

Mendes was clearly the second best featherweight going into that title fight and he’s only gotten better.  None of his last three opponents have made it past the two minute mark against him.  The way Mendes has bounced back only makes his abrupt termination by Aldo even more compelling.  He seems destined for a rematch somewhere down the line.  It is a rivalry that could do wonders for both men’s legacies.

Moving on to another fast track challenger, we have Edgar who shouldn’t have received such an early title shot.  He was riding (the opposite of riding?  Falling off his horse?) a two fight losing streak stemming from back-to-back five rounders with Ben Henderson.  Even more curious, Edgar was never a PPV draw so it’s unclear why they felt the need to hotshot what was essentially a superfight.

The results were predictable.  Even though Edgar had dropped a weight class, Aldo still towered over him.  Edgar’s vaunted speed served him well enough, but Aldo is the most vicious and quickest striker at 145.  When the scorecards were settled, Aldo could now count another former world champion amongst his triumphs.

Lastly, we have the Chan Sung Jung.  The Korean Zombie’s road to Aldo was a mixture of excellence and good timing.  When Aldo’s original UFC 163 dance partner Anthony Pettis suffered an injury, Jung had positioned himself as a suitable replacement with three tough wins over Garcia, Hominick and Dustin Poirier.  Depending how highly you think of Hominick and Poirier, Jung would be as high as #4 in the rankings (the top 3 would rightfully be Aldo, Mendes and Ricardo Lamas).

The fight itself was a dud.  Jung’s camp aimed to drag the fight into the later rounds before turning up the intensity, a plan that was derailed by a freak shoulder dislocation that left Jung vulnerable to a fight ending flurry.  It did look like Jung was building momentum, but Aldo was up three rounds to zip and it would have been a steep uphill battle regardless.

Aldo himself would later reveal that he had broken his foot in the first round (explaining the dearth of leg kicks).  He had to change his approach on the fly, showing off some nice wrestling to keep Jung from finding any sort of rhythm.  The highlight of the fight was Aldo snatching Jung out of the air as the Zombie went for a flying knee and planting him on the mat.

That sort of perseverance and versatility is what it takes to be considered the best.  Thank about St-Pierre jabbing Josh Koscheck to death.  Silva breaking out his jiu-jitsu to submit Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen.  Jones…doing something different in pretty much every fight.

Fedor Emelianenko, oft cited as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time, spent much of his career as a submission machine before becoming a knockout artist at the tail end.  He was fearless in both matching his opponent’s strengths and exploiting their weaknesses.  Adapt or die.  Aldo has proven he can adapt as well as anyone.

*****

There isn’t much else you can ask Aldo to do to further his position in the pound-for-pound rankings.  Look at that list of opponents again.  There isn’t a single fight that could be perceived as “easy”.  Jones and Silva have both engaged in amusing mismatches (Jones with bulked up middleweights, Silva with his excursions at 205).  Only GSP can claim a lineup of foes as formidable as Aldo, but his lack of finishes has proven frustrating for fans and pundits alike.  In the last decade, professional boxing made the move to recognize its lighter fighters as the true pound-for-pound kings.  Should Aldo continue to demolish the competition (say beating Anthony Pettis and then tackling the lightweight division), the MMA world might have to crown a new king.

*****

While I was working on this post, some additional reading helped me to reinforce my ideas.  Check them out!

Is Aldo One of the Best of All Time?

The Ultimate Streak Busters

UFC 163 Main Card Preview

UFC 163 airs live on PPV, Saturday, August 3, 2013 beginning at 10 PM (EST).  Preliminary action begins on Facebook starting at 6 PM (EST), with coverage continuing on Sportsnet 360 at 8 PM (EST).

Flyweight Bout: John Lineker (2-1 UFC, 21-6) v. Jose Maria Tome (0-0 UFC, 33-3)

John DodsonJohn Moraga…could John Lineker be the next John to challenge for the flyweight title?

Okay, that’s not exactly the most exciting narrative (and it sounds vaguely inappropriate) but it’s not too early to start hyping up Lineker’s chances.  Like Moraga, he’s quietly amassed an impressive list of conquests including perennial top 5 flyweight Yasuhiro Urushitani; unfortunately, also like Moraga, he’s never fought on the main card before (both his wins occurred on the Facebook portion of the preliminaries).   He’s a ferocious stand-up fighter and he’ll have a willing partner in Jose Maria.

Beware Tome’s gaudy statistics.  Here are the records of his last five opponents (at the time of their meeting): 8-8, 2-1, 4-1, 0-0 (!), 3-3.  He has won 16 straight fights (not including 1 no-contest) against opponents with a combined record of 24-17.  That includes 7 fighters who had zero wins when they met Tome.  Suffice to say, Tome’s resume is slightly embellished.

That said, when you’re an up and comer on the Brazilian scene your only job is to shut up and fight.  Tome has done his job, running through the lacklustre talent placed in front of him and he’s been rewarded with a plum opening slot on a UFC PPV (replacing an injured Phil Harris).  The flyweights might not be marquee headliners, but they’re perfect for whetting the appetites of what should already be a ravenous audience.

Middleweight Bout: Thales Leites (5-3 UFC, 20-4) v. Tom Watson (1-1 UFC, 16-5)

Hi, I’m Thales Leites.  You might remember me from such mixed martial arts contests as “My Opponent Beat Himself” (Nate Marquardt), “This Gets You a Title Shot?” (Drew McFedries) and “The Worst Middleweight Title Fight in UFC History” (Anderson Silva).

(That’s not even mentioning the appalling Alessio Sakara fight that got Leites booted from the company after just challenging for the title.)

There’s no denying Leites’ jiu-jitsu acumen or his 6-1 record since being released (including wins over fellow UFC castoffs Dean Lister, Jesse Taylor, Jeremy Horn and Matt Horwich).  He’s earned another crack at the big time.  Still, considering his history of atrocious efforts, his placement on the main card is mystifying to say the least.

There will be a lot of pressure on Watson to make this fight watchable, not to mention having to deal with a Brazilian crowd that will be praying for Leites to rip one of his limbs from his body.  The Englishman fell flat in his debut against Brad Tavares, but he looked more like the high profile signing he is when he wore out Stanislav Nedkov in his second outing in the octagon.  Having won several titles in the UK, Watson has made it no secret that he hopes to contend for a UFC title sooner rather than later.  A win over a former title challenger could go a long way towards making that goal a reality.

Middleweight Bout: Cezar Ferreira (1-0 UFC, 5-2) v. Thiago Santos (0-0 UFC, 8-1)

For Ferreira (better known as Cezar Mutante), having the distinction of being the first winner of the Brazilian edition of The Ultimate Fighter should have given him instant credibility; instead, his victory was tarnished by his opponent getting injured (all but killing any interest in the tournament final) and then he himself was derailed by an injury.  Over a year later, the Vitor Belfort protégé finally gets to remind people why he’s such a big deal.

Standing in his way is Santos, a participant on TUF: Brazil 2.  Santos will be jumping up from welterweight, likely a temporary move to accommodate his replacing Mutante’s original opponent, Clint Hester.  “Marreta” fell to eventual TUF: Brazil 2 champion Leo Santos, so a win over Mutante would be redemption in a round-about way.  Beating a champion is as good as being the champion, right?

Mutante will have a considerable size advantage while Santos can look forward to having a more visible cheering section (the arena is close to where Santos lives).  The latter could be important as we’ve seen how the passion of the Brazilian fans can spur on their warriors (the last card in Fortaleza saw a Brazilian’s hand raised in each of the twelve contests) and any momentum could sway the match.  Still, this should be a showcase bout for Mutante who has the backing and pedigree to be a future star.

Light Heavyweight Bout: Lyoto Machida (11-3 UFC, 19-3) v. Phil Davis (7-1 UFC, 11-1)

Machida might have taken a round from Jon Jones when they met back in December of 2011, but the only thing most observers remember is Machida’s body lying limp against the cage as he was choked out.  Fair or not, that image has been the biggest obstacle the Dragon has faced in his quest for a rematch (and his own seeming reluctance).  Well, that and a habit of putting on…“methodical performances”.

That trend could possibly continue against Davis, a dangerous grappler with an improving striking game.  The question is whether the striking has improved enough to force Machida out of his comfort zone.  Machida has made mincemeat out of wrestlers turned mixed martial artists, including Rashad Evans, Randy Couture and Ryan Bader.  Only former Olympian Dan Henderson had any sort of success against him and even Hendo looked completely befuddled as to how to solve the Dragon’s riddle.

Davis is a superior athlete to any of the aforementioned names and he’s also got youth on his side.  Other than Evans and arguably Shogun Rua, Machida hasn’t faced anyone with the explosiveness of Davis.  It’s not a bodybuilding contest or a track meet, but next level athleticism can cover up your shortcomings even if you’re facing someone as brilliant as Machida.  The big question is how much Davis has improved since his own meeting with Evans.  He struggled mightily against the former light heavyweight champion, getting swept on the scorecards en route to his only loss to date.

In his last appearance, Davis out-struck Vinny Magalhães for three rounds, which was an encouraging display…until you realize that he was out-striking Vinny Magalhães.  Going from Magalhães to Machida is like getting called up to the majors after dominating your co-ed softball league.  It will be an adjustment.

There are no guarantees that Davis will be able to get the fight to the ground either.  Machida’s takedown defence is immaculate.  Few fighters have been able to put him on his back, much less keep him there.  It will take every ounce of speed and concentration to take advantage of an opening, assuming Machida even allows for one.

Stylistically, this is a nightmare for Davis but from a physical standpoint, the action trends strongly in his favour.  More and more, MMA is becoming a young man’s game and this should be a classic case of a fighter in his prime stepping over a presumably declining opponent on his way to the top.  But there’s never been a fighter like Machida before, whose technique and precision transcends common wisdom.  That elusive rematch has never been closer.

Featherweight Championship Bout: José Aldo (4-0 UFC, 8-0 WEC, 22-1) v. Chan Sung Jung (3-0 UFC, 0-2 WEC, 13-3)

Full disclosure: I’m heavily biased towards The Korean Zombie.  Just like everyone else, I hopped on the bandwagon after the Leonard Garcia fight and never looked book.

My bias actually makes me cautious when it comes to picking his fights.  At first, I didn’t know enough about him to know whether there was any substance behind the crowd pleasing style.  With every fight, I became less skeptical:

  • George Roop: after Roop reminded us that a head shot (or kick) is the only way to keep down a zombie, I thought that Jung’s 15 minutes were up.
  • Leonard Garcia II: I viewed his twister submission victory over Garcia as a trifle; after all, he’d essentially beaten Garcia before so this didn’t prove anything.
  • Mark Hominick: it’s telling that on a card where Jon Jones was defending his title and Antônio Rogério Nogueira was facing an aging Tito Ortiz, Hominick was considered the safest bet of UFC 140.  His crisp kickboxing would be too much for the Zombie to overcome…or so we thought.  For a fleeting moment, Hominick seemed more concerned with getting a Knockout or Fight of the Night award and he threw an odd, looping punch.  Jung landed a flawless counter, following up with several punches that robbed Hominick of his consciousness.  It was tied for the fastest knockout in UFC history.
  • Dustin Poirier: surely, Jung had just caught Hominick on a bad night, right?  That flash KO was indicative of the fickle nature of the sport, not any sort of validation of Jung’s talents, right?  When two hungry contenders collide, the results can be telling.  For Jung, you couldn’t have booked a more perfect display for his talents.  He looked more focused on the feet, got the better of Poirier in their scrambles and best of all, pulled out a submission victory after a grueling, high octane fight.

After all that, I was pleasantly surprised by the confirmation that Jung was the real deal.  If he could make it this far, who is to say he can’t go all the way?

José Aldo, for one.

Funny thing about zombies: They’re slow.  Aldo is fast.  Real fast.  He might have the fastest hands and feet at 145.  Considering he just beat Frankie Edgar, that’s saying something.  The other thing about that Edgar fight was that it answered a lot of questions about his conditioning.  The weight cut is clearly getting harder for him as he gets older, but it didn’t show one bit in his last title defence against one of the most active fighters in all of MMA.  It was a good and close fight.  In the end, Aldo rightfully had his hand raised.

Aldo also hits as hard as any other featherweight.  Heck, he hits harder than most light heavyweights.  His stand-up game is both diverse and devastating.  I’ve read arguments that Jung might have the ground chops to squeak out a submission, but people seem to forget how good Aldo’s jiu-jitsu is.  In his first WEC title defence against Urijah Faber, he dominated the Alpha Male leader on the floor.  If anything, the grappling might actually favour the champion.

The Korean Zombie has more than a puncher’s chance.  He’s at his best when he fights smart and uses (not abuses) his now legendary durability to maneuver himself into positions where he can finish.  He might be the most unpredictable challenger that Aldo has yet faced.  He finds ways to do damage and work for submissions that most fighters wouldn’t even think of.  If he can find a way to make Aldo lose his composure, his chances increase exponentially.

You could make an argument that Aldo is already the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world based on the level of competition he’s had to deal with over the last four years and the panache with which he triumphs.  We shouldn’t be surprised that Jung is such a heavy underdog; on the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if he manages to pull this off either.