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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

…discounting all logical variables is also an option.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One punch!  ONE PUNCH!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hurm.

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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