Triskaphobia – Why Is The UFC Afraid Of Trilogies?

I want to see Joseph Benavidez get another crack at Mighty Mouse.  That’s not a match-up that’s high in demand, but I have my reasons.  There first fight was extremely close.  The second fight ended in the most unexpected manner possible (short of Demetrious Johnson flying off the cage like Vega and decapitating Benavidez…you know what I’m saying).  A one shot kill courtesy of the champ.  Here’s how unlikely that finish was:

  • In 22 career fights spanning 7 ½ years, Benavidez had never been finished much less knocked out.  His 3 career losses had come by decision, two of which were splits in championship fights.
  • Prior to the second Benavidez fight, Johnson’s last knockout occurred on February 10, 2010 when he was still competing at the regional level.  In 11 WEC/UFC appearances, he had never recorded a single knockout.

The narrative of the rematch was clear cut: Johnson should use his uncanny speed and mobility to outpoint Benavidez, while Benavidez should wait for his opportunity to land a power punch.  There are few fighters in the lighter weight classes as adept at stopping his opponents as Benavidez.  Two minutes in, the narrative got torn up, burnt to ashes and cast out into the wind.

Johnson dropped Benavidez with a hellacious right hand that robbed the Alpha Male challenger of his senses before he’d even touched the mat.  It was the hardest, most perfect punch that Johnson had landed and probably ever will land in his life.  The guy who never knocks people out just put down the guy who never gets knocked out.  Two minutes and eight seconds was the official time.  The fastest KO in UFC flyweight history.

And yet I want to see them go at it again.

None of this is to say that Johnson’s punch was a fluke or that the first fight was some sort of robbery and that Benavidez should be the champ.  Johnson won both fights fair and square.  The result of their rematch was countless hours of training and study combined with the champ’s incredible fight night instincts.  That was no lucky punch.  But it would be a situation that would be difficult to replicate.  Were they to fight 99 more times, I wouldn’t bet on a Mighty Mouse knockout happening again.  Not just because of the stated reasons, but because of what Benavidez undoubtedly could learn from this second loss.  Make no mistake; there is always something to be learned from losing, even a shockingly abrupt setback such as this one.

The real issue for me is that the UFC (and, admittedly, most fans) has established this pattern where you get two cracks at the champ and that’s it.  Couldn’t get the job done?  Time to change weight classes, find work in another organization or retire buddy.  Even though fighters like Benavidez, Urijah Faber and even Junior dos Santos (who actually completed a trilogy) are the consensus #2 fighters in their respective weight classes, they are somehow almost completely out of the running for a title shot in the near future.

I should clarify that I understand that the UFC isn’t against trilogies; more logically, they’re against trilogies where one of the fighters has proven to be superior.  To me, that feels like they’re killing off contenders too quickly.

Imagine if Juan Manuel Márquez had never got his third and fourth fights with Manny Pacquiao?  Yes, I’m aware there are stark differences.  The Márquez/Pacquiao series took course over an eight year stretch.  Despite Pacquiao going 2-0-1, the first three fights were all open to interpretation.  And a fifth meeting between the two would do bigger box office than three (maybe more) combined Faber/Barão match-ups.  I get that.

But what if they had never booked that 4th meeting?  The boxing community would have been robbed of what was one of the sport’s most exciting and relevant moments of the year when Márquez put Pacquiao down on his face.  My point is that when you put the best with the best, only good things can happen.  I’d much rather see rematch after rematch than fighters who are not ready for the top spot being shoehorned into title matches.  At the present moment, is there anyone who thinks John Moraga is a better fighter than Joseph Benavidez?

Does it ever need to end?  If the champ keeps winning and top contender is able to hold onto his spot, how many times can you mash those action figures together?  3 times?  4?  7?  Luckily, these situations tend to sort themselves out as the talent cycle naturally creates new contenders.  Though that’s not always the case as we saw with Michael McDonald (who is already dangerously close to contender limbo), Ian McCall and Phil Davis (in his first contender fight against Rashad Evans).  Sometimes the next generation isn’t ready, so why should the UFC be in such a hurry to usher out the current one?

Allow me to discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of a few other trilogy fights where one fighter is already down two sets:

  • Urijah Faber (6-3 UFC, 8-3 WEC, 30-7) v. Renan Barão (7-0 UFC, 2-0 WEC, 32-1 [1 NC])

The most immediate and obvious choice.  Even if you believe that Barão was on his way to a decisive finish of Faber, the early stoppage was as bad as we’ve seen in a championship bout.  Faber’s lack of success in title fights is well documented, but even his most dogged detractors would have to admit that he got a raw deal here.  He looked amazing in his previous fights and he’d rightly earned another crack at UFC gold.  The continued misfortune of Dominick Cruz only made Sean Shelby’s decision easier.

The situation reminded me of Ken Shamrock/Tito Ortiz II, where the second fight ended in what Shamrock perceived to be an early stoppage.  That match was headed down a similarly bad path.  In truth, Shamrock had even less of a case for a rematch than Faber and most would assume that Ortiz had his number no matter how many times they fought.  Still, the powers that be deigned them worthy of an immediate rematch that took place on Spike TV.  It should be noted that UFC had heavily invested in the second fight, including coaching stints on The Ultimate Fighter, so it made good sense for them to continue a feud that still had plenty of juice left.

I don’t see why Faber can’t get one more shot on one of the UFC’s many free fight cards.  It’s not like quality main events are falling from the sky.  If you recall, both Faber/Barão meetings have been the result of injuries to Cruz.  It would be nice to see them face off one more time away from the shadow of the ex-champ.

  • Anderson Silva (16-2 UFC, 33-6) v. Chris Weidman (7-0 UFC, 11-0)

From a competitive standpoint, this might be the least appealing rematch.  Make whatever excuses you want, Weidman clobbered Silva and took his belt.  The second fight was tough to watch for obvious reasons.  I haven’t viewed a replay of the finish since that night.  I don’t plan to.

So why am I listing it?  I’m a huge Weidman fan and I don’t even care about the preposterous “he’s never truly beaten a dedicated Anderson Silva before” argument.  At this stage in their careers, Weidman is the better fighter.  It’s hardly worth discussing.

No, the reason I bring this up is because it would still draw enormous bank.  Silva/Weidman I brought in approximately 500,000 buys, while the sequel reportedly cracked a million (with a healthy assist from Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey).  I think it’s fair to say that a third fight could fall somewhere in between.  That would be a boon for the UFC, who are currently struggling to convince the public that they still have plenty of viable PPV stars.  I mean, if Dana White keeps saying Rousey is the biggest star he’s ever had, it has to be true, right?  Speaking of which…

  • Miesha Tate (0-2 UFC, 13-5) v. Ronda Rousey (2-0 UFC, 8-0)

How weird is it that Tate is winless in the UFC, yet still regarded as one of the top challengers?  I’m not disputing it as we all know that you can’t take wins and losses at face value in combat sports.  It just looks funny is all.

This is almost as tough a sell as Silva/Weidman because Rousey’s wins have been so definitive.  Exciting, yes, but definitive.  I know for me, personally, I could watch these two fight a dozen times.  There is such an explosive mix of personalities and styles and a genuine animosity between the two that there is so much for fans of all pedigrees to sink their teeth into.

I am in no way suggesting that Tate get a rematch anytime soon, only that she not be ushered into the “could-a-been” category so quickly.  Let’s say she has a Belfort-esque run of dominant finishes over top ten fighters.  You don’t need much of an excuse to convince people to watch these two go at it again.  I’d hate for the UFC to put off another fight between these two just because we’ve seen it before

  • Benson Henderson (8-1 UFC, 5-1 WEC, 20-3) v. Anthony Pettis (4-1 UFC, 5-1 WEC, 17-2)

As with Tate and Rousey, these two have only had one match in the UFC so it is relatively fresh.  Other than the ninja kick, I’d wager there’s a large portion of fans who have never seen the entirety of their first meeting, which is a shame since that was a brilliant encounter.

The result of the second fight was as shocking as the Benavidez/Johnson finish.  Henderson had only been submitted once before and he’d made a habit of using his incredible smarts and flexibility to escape holds in ways nobody had seen before.  That would explain why the UFC 164 crowd was stunned to see him get caught by a lightning quick Pettis armbar.

Somehow, the 25 minutes they spent together in the WEC cage did more to cement Pettis as a champion in my eyes than the 4 minute submission in their rematch.  I felt like Pettis was the better man both times, but that it wasn’t out of the question for Henderson to someday figure out his rival.  After all, he’d done it to pretty much everybody else.

*****

So what do you all think?  Did I leave any matches out?  Am I completely crazy?  Are these fights unpalatable at this point?  Will they ever be marketable?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Welcome to the Stage of History: UFC 164 Perspective

Maybe I’m reading into things too much, but UFC 164 seemed to have an abnormal amount of compelling outcomes.  Even though the UFC hype machine would have you think differently, not every card has fights that matter in the long term.  Some might be for a number one contender spot, some are completely senseless and some are flat-out fun.  How will history look back on UFC 164?

The Big 2-0

Gleison Tibau, congratulations on your twentieth career UFC appearance!  You join the ranks of Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Frank Mir, BJ Penn and Georges St-Pierre.  At just 30 years old, you’re the youngest to ever reach this milestone.  Your reward?  The main event slot…on the preliminary card.

Look: I’ve never tuned into a UFC show just to see Tibau.  Neither have you.  But twenty octagon appearances is rarified air and the company should always find a way to celebrate these workhorses and get them onto the main card.  Melvin Guillard suffered the same ignominious fate and he’s actually been the last fight of the night before.  Again, I’m not saying you need to put any effort into building it up, just quietly give him the opening slot and make sure your announcers mention it.  Your average professional fighter might get five UFC appearances if he’s lucky.  Twenty is a big deal.  Let’s treat it that way.

Leaders of the New Generation

One reason Dustin Poirier and Erik Koch continue to benefit from positive hype despite their recent setbacks is that they’re so darn young and so darn good.  If this were boxing, you’d never see these two fighters matched up this early in their careers.  That’s the beauty of MMA: nobody is protected.  If you want that number one spot, go get it.

In defeating Koch, Poirier separated himself further from the other young prospects at 145.  He showed great resilience and maturity, escaping submissions and making sure to pace himself so that he could survive Koch’s comeback in the third round.  It would have been easy for Poirier to gas himself out early on searching for a finish that might never come.  He kept his wits about him and picked his shots wisely.  It’s only a matter of time until he starts knocking off bigger names on his way to the top.

The End of an (V)Era

I had to do it.

Anyone who saw Brandon Vera’s early returns in the UFC would have been convinced that this was a superstar in the making.  He was flashy and fun and he said all the right things.  Most memorably, he boasted that he would win both the light heavyweight and heavyweight titles.  This did not come to fruition.  He did headline three non-PPV cards, which shows that the company had faith in his ability to draw an audience.

During his walkout for the Ben Rothwell fight, he looked lost and not at all enthusiastic about his return to heavyweight.  On some level, it was an acknowledgment that his lofty goals were done for.  He moved back up in weight because moving back up got him another fight.

The size difference between Vera and Big Ben was shocking.  Vera still looked like he was fighting at 205.  He showed flashes of his past brilliance, arguably winning the first two rounds with some deft movement and counter kicks.  Then Ben turned it on, shuffling like LMFAO before putting Vera down for the count.

The sight of Vera crumpled down on the mat was disheartening and worse, all too familiar in the latter part of his career.  In sixteen UFC appearances (including one no-contest), Vera did not even fight for the title, much less win one.  That’s still a fine career and only disappointing when held up to the hype generated by the fans, the media and himself.

Making a Statement

Chad Mendes finds himself on the same path once travelled by former welterweight contender Jon Fitch.  He is far and away the second best featherweight in the world, but he can’t seem to shake off the notion that a rematch with José Aldo would be as one-sided as their first encounter.  So what is a guy to do?

How about become the first person to defeat Clay Guida via strikes?  Guida inserted himself into the top ten of the division with a controversial split decision win against Hatsu Hioki.  In forty three career fights, he had never been knocked out.  Tyson Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Takanori Gomi, Anthony Pettis, Gray Maynard…these are just some of the names that tried to separate Guida from his consciousness and failed.  Ten years after Guida’s first professional fight, Mendes blessed him with a new experience.

On top of that, nobody (the champ included) has won four straight fights in the UFC’s featherweight division via KO or TKO.  If you’re looking for historical impact, Mendes delivered in spades.  That rematch could still be a long time coming.  When it comes, there won’t be a single person who can say Mendes isn’t ready for it.

Apparently, You Can Go Home Again

It was awkward seeing Josh Barnett, one of MMA’s most well-spoken and affable personalities, welcomed back with such open arms.  During the post-fight conference, nobody even thought to mention why he had to forfeit the UFC heavyweight title all those years go.

Look, I don’t want to be a buzzkill, but this has to be setting some sort of precedent, doesn’t it?  The UFC hasn’t been interested in doing business with Barnett until recently and it would be ridiculous to suggest it had nothing to do with his previous steroid use.  I’m not sure what message it sends when you give him such a high profile spot on a fight card and then get right back to hyping him as a contender considering Dana White’s recent crusade against PEDs and TRT.

I’m a big Barnett fan and I’m more than happy to welcome him back.  I’m also not the commissioner of the UFC.  They better pray The Warmaster can stay clean, otherwise this will go down as another blemish on the sport’s tempestuous relationship with PEDs.

Showtime

The lightweight title has proven difficult to defend; not surprising considering the depth of talent within the division over the last few years.  Benson Henderson had been hanging on by a thread and many would argue that he failed to definitively protect his championship against both Frankie Edgar and Gilbert Melendez.  You can only tread that thin line for so long before someone catches up to you.  Many predicted it would be Anthony Pettis.  I would never have predicted a first round submission.

For the UFC, this has to be considered a blessing.  This is their best shot at turning the 155 pound title into a drawing belt again.  As gifted as both Edgar and Henderson are, for some reason they failed to connect with the fans on a massive level.  BJ Penn had a unique look and skillset and he knew how to sell a match.  There was a big-time fight feel whenever he was in the spotlight.  Pettis has the potential to live up to the “Showtime” moniker.

Henderson had hoped to not only break Penn’s record of four straight lightweight title defences, but also to surpass Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre as one of the most dominant champions of all time.  It had to be painful to have those plans derailed by Pettis, the second time he’d dropped a title to his rival.  What was supposed to be a shot at redemption turned into a case of history repeating.

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

The Bigger They Are

If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything…it’s that you can kill anybody.

It was billed as one of the most intriguing title contests in recent memory and to say that Chris Weidman/Anderson Silva lived up to the hype would be an understatement.  That is not to say it was a great fight, it was a rather bizarre affair and an inarguably disappointing performance from Silva.  I give all the credit in the world to Weidman who I see as someone who will have several successful title defenses, but to say that Silva’s behaviour had nothing to do with the title changing hands would make me look more foolish than the man himself.  I’d even go as far to say that a Silva in his prime might have actually been able to get away with that kind of chicanery.

As I stressed in my main card preview, there were just too many factors working against Silva and in Weidman’s favour to view this as another routine defense for Silva.  So much of what I was reading and hearing revolved around Weidman’s virtues, with the arguments for Silva mostly comprised of He’s Anderson Silva!  Two or three years ago, that argument might have held weight.  In the here and now, we’re reminded of the harsh reality of professional sports.

If Silva, arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, can lose…then who might be next?

*****

The UFC has taken a lot of deserved criticism for their recent handling of title matches.  Jon Jones has had to defend his belt against two middleweights.  Georges St-Pierre talked the matchmakers into granting him his (highly profitable) grudge match with Nick Diaz, who was coming off a loss and a year-long drug suspension.  José Aldo faced Frankie Edgar, who was 1-3-1 in his last 5 fights.  There were perfectly valid reasons (injuries, intrigue, incompetence) for making those match-ups, but none of them involved the challenger legitimately earning their spot.

With all that nonsense out of the way, there is now at least some semblance of a meritocracy.  Antonio Silva was granted a second shot at Cain Velasquez based on the fact that he knocked out Alistair Overeem, the presumed number one contender.  It didn’t go well for Big Foot, but the logic was sound.  The UFC wanted to set up a rematch between Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey, but Cat Zingano ruined their plans with a 3rd round comeback finish (due to a Zingano injury, Tate would later get the title shot anyway along with a juicy TUF coaching spot opposite Rousey).  Those are a couple of minor examples where the UFC did right by its winners.  Four more upcoming match-ups not only feature the worthiest of challengers but the possibility that a group of nigh invincible champions will fall.

In order of least likely to most likely to see a title change:

Light Heavyweight Title Bout: Alexander Gustafsson (7-1 UFC, 15-1) v. Jon Jones (Jon Jones (12-1 UFC, 18-1)

September 21, 2013 – UFC 165

How Gustafsson got here:

…by growing up.  Gustafsson’s only career loss came against Phil Davis in a fight that he was winning until he decided to take it to the ground.  Davis, a stronger grappler, was able to reverse the situation and sink in a match ending anaconda choke.  Since then, Gustafsson has fought a lot smarter, dominating when he’s supposed to and playing to his strengths to overcome the likes of Thiago Silva and Shogun Rua.  The victory over Shogun was a signature win and enough to cement Gustafsson as the number one contender, something many fans and critics had been clamoring for.

The match-up will also do wonders for dispelling the notion that Jones is only getting by on his physical gifts and that he is only capable of beating fighters who are past their prime.  Neither criticism is particularly valid, but a win over Gustafsson should be hater-proof.

Why Gustafsson could win:

I’m honestly not sure he can.  The only reason I added this match is because my uncle was working hard to convince me that the Swede is a live underdog.  I’m not seeing it.

If I had to make an argument for Gustafsson, it would go beyond just the fact that he can match the champ’s reach.  With every fight, Gustafsson gets better and better at using his range to score points and keep his opponents off balance.  When you can sweep the scorecards against Shogun, the most aggressive light heavyweight around, you have to be doing something right.

Another department that Gustafsson has improved in is his takedown defence and controlling scrambles.  They will have to stress this in his training as Jones has a good shot and an array of throws with which to set up his merciless ground and pound.  His best chance remains on the feet.

Let’s not forget that Jones had trouble with Lyoto Machida in the first round of their match.  If Gustafsson can do a reasonable job of emulating Machida’s tactics, an upset could be in order.

Why Gustafsson could lose:

As much as people talk about Jones never facing someone built like him, the same could be said for Gustafsson.  Does anyone think Gustafsson would have been able to pick apart Thiago Silva and Shogun so efficiently without those freakish limbs?  If all things are equal body-wise, I’m not sure there’s any area skill-wise that Gustafsson can claim an advantage.  Jones is faster, more explosive, more creative with his strikes and a monster on the ground.  Gustafsson should be able to go the distance, but expect Jones to take all five rounds.

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

August 3, 2013 – UFC 163

How Zombie got here:

…as much as anything, we’re the ones who have put Jung in this spot.  The Korean Zombie became an instant sensation in his WEC debut against Leonard Garcia.  I remember showing that fight to everyone I knew, not caring if this was a legit new star or an oddity.  Thankfully, he’s turned out to be the former and his distinct, exciting style carried over to the UFC where he found the wins to match the adulation.  A submission win in a rematch with Garcia removed any doubt that he was the better fighter.  He followed that up with an astonishing 7 second knockout of Mark Hominick (who had previously fought Aldo) and by coming out on top in another fight of the year candidate against Dustin Poirier.

When Anthony Pettis suffered an injury, there were two possible replacements for UFC 163: Ricardo Lamas and Zombie.  Despite his last three wins all coming against top ranked featherweights, Lamas remains relatively unknown.  The UFC sees dollar signs with the Jung-Aldo match so the Zombie gets to feast.

Why Zombie could win:

If he lives up to his moniker, there’s a chance he could outpace Aldo.  People often point to a difficult weight cut as to why Aldo faded in the Hominick fight.  What they forget is how Hominick stayed aggressive and even though he lost the majority of the rounds, it wasn’t as one-sided as the scores suggested.  Zombie doesn’t have Hominick’s consistency; rather, I expect his scrappy and unpredictable nature to work to his advantage.

There’s also the issue of Jung’s resiliency.  He’s only been finished once in his career (a picture perfect head shot courtesy of George Roop).  That stat is made even more incredible by the fact that he regularly engages in all-out wars that are undoubtedly shortening his lifespan.  Aldo is no stranger to decisions, having gone the full five rounds with Hominick, Kenny Florian and Frankie Edgar.  Neither Florian nor Edgar known for their risk-taking, so it should be interesting to see how Aldo reacts to an opponent who has no regard for his own well-being.

Why Zombie could lose:

As mentioned above, the UFC couldn’t wait for an excuse to put Zombie in the cage with Aldo.  He’s an international property and he’s got a cool gimmick that has caught on like wildfire in North America.  You could easily make an argument that his popularity exceeds his credentials.

It’s always fun to look at results and say that one guy is finishing his opponents while the other guy is winning by decision, but that doesn’t tell the story of Aldo’s dominance at 145.  Facing a murderer’s row of opponents (Urijah Faber, Hominick, Florian, Chad Mendes, Edgar), Aldo has rarely been in danger.  A lack of finishes speaks to how high the level of competition is when you reach Aldo’s level.  He’s soundly beaten elite strikers, elite jiu-jitsu practitioners and elite wrestlers.  That’s not a good sign for Zombie, who is more of a jack of all trades.

Welterweight Title Bout: Johny Hendricks (10-1 UFC, 15-1) v. Georges St-Pierre (18-2 UFC, 24-2)

November 16, 2013 – UFC 167

How Hendricks got here:

…by smashing just about everyone who got in his way.  Nobody on this list has been waiting longer or had a stronger claim to a title shot than Hendricks, who was egregiously passed over as a challenger in favour of Nick Diaz.  While the Stockton bad boy was losing to Carlos Condit and getting lifted, Hendricks was tearing through the division.  From March 2011 to March 2013, Hendricks had one of the most impressive runs in welterweight history.  A riveting win over Condit capped off a six-fight streak that displayed Hendricks’ guts (close split decision wins against Mike Pierce and Josh Koscheck) and sheer supremacy (finishing Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann in less than one total minute).  Bigg Rigg might not have the name recognition or a squeaky clean look, but the UFC couldn’t ignore his results any longer.

Why Hendricks could win:

Anyone who has seen a St-Pierre title fight is familiar with the image of the champ scoring a takedown, establishing top position and neutralizing his victim for 25 minutes.  That’s how you defend your title in the toughest division in the UFC.

It’s hard to imagine Hendricks suffering the same treatment.  He’s lived up to the hype of being a 2-time national champion wrestling for Oklahoma State University.  That background has forged him into a mini-Iceman, able to control where the fight goes and set his opponents up for his infamous left hand.  A dream scenario sees GSP relying on a takedown heavy gameplan that Hendricks is able to stifle until the champ makes a rare mistake that leads to him getting laid out.

It’s somewhat unfair to bring it up, but St-Pierre’s ability to take a punch has been in question since his last loss to Matt Serra.  Since then, you can count on one hand the number of times he’s actually been rocked but people still insist that he’s always one solid punch away from losing the strap.  If there’s any credence to that theory, Hendricks is surely the one to prove it.

Why Hendricks could lose:

Hendricks’ only career loss was to Rick Story and surprisingly it was a match in which he was out-grappled.  While that loss clearly made him a better fighter, it’s worth noting that he is not unfamiliar with being put in bad positions.

On paper, Hendricks presents a lot of the same problems as Josh Koscheck, who boasted that he had the advantage as long as he could keep the fight standing against St-Pierre in their rematch.  St-Pierre was able to pick Koscheck apart with stiff jabs and was never in any real danger for the duration of their bout.  There is no evidence that Hendricks is uniquely equipped to deal with the latter.  Against a similarly gifted striker in Condit, Hendricks relied on his chin to absorb damage so he could get in close and attack.  He didn’t shut Condit down, he was able to land more consistently and land harder.  Getting St-Pierre to engage in a firefight like that is a near-impossibility.  Even with 25 minutes to work with, Hendricks will have to avoid getting desperate and focus on winning rounds if he cannot finish St-Pierre.

Lightweight Title Bout: TJ Grant (8-3 UFC, 21-5) v. Ben Henderson (7-0 UFC, 5-1 WEC, 18-2)

August 31, 2013 – UFC 164

How Grant got here:

…he went on a diet.  Fighting at 170, Grant had a respectable 3-3 record in the UFC, but there was no indication that he’d be challenging GSP anytime soon.  Changing weight classes is a popular move for fighters who appear to be stuck in a rut and it’s hard to name anyone who has made it work out better than Grant.  This wasn’t a big name moving down in the hopes of getting an immediate title shot.  No, Grant made the decision to jump into the increasingly deep lightweight waters.  The results speak for themselves: Five straight wins including a first round TKO of Gray Maynard, the only person to ever dispatch him that early.  He’s an exciting fighter and a proven finisher, leaving fans starving to see him test Henderson who has been criticized for being too safe.

Why Grant could win:

To understand why Henderson always seems to go to decisions, you have to look at his last few fights.  As great as Clay Guida, Edgar and Gilbert Melendez are, none of them are known for their finishing prowess (there was also Nate Diaz, but Henderson had an overwhelming physical advantage that he won’t have with the sizeable Grant).  If you know that your opponent doesn’t have the tools with which to put you away, it affords you certain luxuries.  Luxuries that Henderson won’t have against Grant.

This is not to say that Grant is necessarily better than the aforementioned names, only more likely to look for a finish.  The Maynard fight stands as proof.  Canadian MMA aficionado “Showdown” Joe Ferraro expressed his dismay at seeing his friend Grant willingly trade punches with Maynard.  One mistake and the fight easily could have gone the other way, but it is Grant’s temerity that has got him this far.  Don’t expect him to change his approach now that he’s this close to being the best in the world.

Why Grant could lose:

It’s a hard thing to quantify, but Henderson definitely seems to have the same gift as St-Pierre for attacking an opponent’s weaknesses.  This is likely why both men are maligned as “point fighters”.  I’ve never been a fan of using that term in a derogatory fashion because the last time I checked scoring points was how you won games.  Henderson wins games.

To draw another St-Pierre comparison, Henderson is unparalleled as an athlete in the lightweight division.  He’s incredibly strong and agile and he has an unlimited gas tank.  Grant has assured everyone that he normally trains for five round fights, but it’s an entirely different beast once you actually reach those championship periods.  Fighting Henderson can be a frustrating experience and Grant’s mental strength is going to be as important as his physical ones.  The last thing Grant wants is to go to the scorecards with Henderson, who has shown a knack for pulling out close decisions.

*****

As fun as it is to say, upsets are not contagious and the fall of Silva has no metaphysical impact on the rest of the title holders.  However, for the first time in a while you get the feeling that it wouldn’t be a surprise if the titles did change hands.  It remains to be seen if MMA will be like every other sport, with competitors being inextricably attached to each other in their respective eras: Spouting off names like Liddell-Ortiz-Couture or Minotauro-Cro Cop-Fedor or Silva-St-Pierre-Jones can conjure up unmistakeable images and provide timestamps for the most important events in this young sport.  Perhaps one of Gustafsson, Zombie, Hendricks or Grant will be the first to take their place in the world that’s coming.

UFC on Fox 5 Main Card Thoughts

Looking to boost stagnant ratings, the UFC matchmakers loaded last Saturday’s card with renowned veterans (BJ Penn and Shogun Rua) and rising stars (Rory MacDonald, Alexander Gustafsson and UFC Lightweight Champion Ben Henderson).  The result was the second straight show on FOX that delivered great action while at the same time furthering the narrative of a new breed of fighters.  With the young guns (despite being older than his opponent, I include Henderson in this group because of his relative anonymity) putting on impressive showings, the UFC has to be satisfied that these guys did everything in their power to put themselves on the map and improve their own drawing power.  Let’s take a closer look at the action:

Welterweight Bout: Matt Brown d. Mike Swick via KO (2:31, R2)

What you need to know: Brown and Swick were looking to find their way back onto PPV, with both of their previous fights being on free TV (FX and Fox, respectively).  The always competitive Brown had established an unlikely 3 fight winning streak that came after he was on the verge of being released.  Swick took a huge step on the comeback road by knocking out DaMarques Johnson in his last bout and the UFC looked to him to get this card off to a similar start.

How it went down: It certainly had a similar start, though not the way Swick was hoping for.  Brown was the sharper fighter from the beginning, prompting Swick to take the fight to the ground where he was expected to have an advantage.  However, Brown immediately threatened with a D’arce choke and a triangle choke, causing Swick to turn a sickly shade of purple.  It’s a testament to his jiu-jitsu that he didn’t panic and escaped the round, but Brown had clearly hurt him.  We’d find out how badly in the middle of the second round when Brown came forward with a stinging combo that put Swick down on the mat for good.

What’s next for Swick: (10-4 UFC, L1) It’s unclear exactly what was wrong with Swick on this night.  Maybe Brown is just the better fighter.  Regardless, this brutal KO should dull any talk of him returning to the contender’s circle anytime soon.  He remains a talented fighter and would match up well with Aaron Simpson, Josh Neer or Paulo Thiago (who defeated Swick in 2010).

What’s next for Brown: (9-5 UFC, W4) With arguably the biggest victory of his career, “The Immortal” is on the cusp of the top 20, something that seemed inconceivable not too long ago.  Should the UFC decide it’s time for him to step up, then John Hathaway, white-hot Afghani product Siyar Bahadurzada, or the winner of the December 15 James Head/Mike Pyle fight await.

Welterweight Bout: Rory MacDonald d. BJ Penn via Unanimous Decision (30-27, 30-26 x2)

What you need to know: This fight was meant to take place in September at UFC 152, but MacDonald suffered a cut that put the encounter off.  MacDonald had challenged Penn on Twitter and Penn made the ballsy choice of accepting, even though he knew he’d be facing off with a younger, larger opponent.  The storyline going in was that this was Penn’s last chance to cement his legacy and MacDonald’s first chance to prove himself against a big name welterweight.  Both fighters also agreed to undergo intensive testing by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, which was really a bigger deal for MacDonald as the only thing Penn would test positive for is an excess of adobo.

Is it in you?

How it went down: Penn came into the fight focused and rededicated to his training and the results looked good early, but MacDonald shrugged off his overhand punches and out-landed Penn in the first round from range and in the clinch.  MacDonald did severe damage to the body in the second round and probably could have finished the fight, though he chose to stay cautious.  As he cruised to a win, MacDonald fancily shuffled his hands and feet and the apparent showboating enraged the pro-Penn crowd.  Hate it or love it, MacDonald showed some serious star power.

What’s next for Penn: (12-8-2 UFC, L2) Penn’s last two losses have been tough to watch and it might be time to hang ‘em up.  Should he stick around, I’d suggest a division change rather than any potential welterweight opponents.  If he’s going to make one last run at anything, it should be at 155 where his size won’t be an issue.

What’s next for MacDonald: (5-1 UFC, W4) The BC native is difficult to book as he has said repeatedly that he will not fight his good friend Georges St-Pierre, who just happens to be the king of the welterweights.  After the win, MacDonald called out Carlos Condit, and the UFC has obliged by tentatively announcing the fight for UFC 158 in March.  I’d much rather see him face a new top ten opponent like Jake Ellenberger or *gulp* Johny Hendricks who would test MacDonald’s quickly evolving repertoire.  The Hendricks fight would be particularly intriguing, as GSP denied Hendricks a title shot so it’s only fitting that his best friend pay for his insolence!

*ahem*

Light Heavyweight Bout: Alexander Gustafsson d. Shogun Rua via UD (30-27 x2, 30-26)

What you need to know: I’ve written before about the great divide between the top 5 light heavyweights (Jon Jones, Dan Henderson, Rashad Evans, Shogun, Lyoto Machida) and the rest of the field.  As successful as Gustafsson has been, he’d never faced a top ten opponent much less a fighter like Shogun who was arguably the greatest light heavyweight of all time before Bones came along.  I expected Gustafsson to live up to the hype.

How it went down: In his best performance inside the octagon yet, Gustafsson out-struck one of the deadliest strikes alive.  Shogun didn’t embarrass himself by any means, breaking out the crowd-pleasing style that has won him many fights and millions of fans.  He also absorbed an enormous amount of punishment, something I didn’t think he’d be capable of doing after his war with Hendo last November.  If anything, this fight only reinforced the notion that years of wars have taken their toll on veterans like Shogun, Hendo and Penn and while the mentality and skills are still present, the body is no longer willing.  That is to take nothing away from Gustafsson, who answered the challenge with gusto, eating shots and blistering the former Pride champion from all angles.  I’d wager to say that the Gustafsson we saw on Saturday would have challenged even the best version of Shogun.

What’s next for Rua: (5-5 UFC, L1) Only 31 years old, it would seem foolish to suggest that Shogun is anywhere near retirement, but keep in mind that he’s been battling high level competition for over 10 years now.  I’d be happy to see him fight until he’s 40, but I’d also be happy to see him walk away while he’s still in good shape.  Still, when he’s on his game he’s still capable of handling the majority of the division.  UFC on Fox 6 in January features four tough light heavyweights (Rampage Jackson, Glover Teixeira, Ryan Bader, Vladimir Matyushenko) and I wouldn’t mind seeing any of them step into the cage with Shogun.

What’s next for Gustafsson: (7-1 UFC, W6) Frankly, Gustfasson is more than ready for a title shot.  From a physical standpoint alone, he presents a challenge to Jones that no other fighter can offer.  Should dubious number one contender Chael Sonnen be scratched from his title fight with Jones (something that is happening with alarming regularity to Ultimate Fighter coaches), Gustafsson is the obvious choice to take that spot.  Otherwise, the winner of the February bout between Machida and Henderson should be in the Swede’s sights.

Lightweight Championship Bout: Ben Henderson d. Nate Diaz via UD (50-45 x2, 50-43)

What you need to know: Henderson survived two close scrapes with Frankie Edgar to win and keep the UFC lightweight crown, which considering the depth of the division, might be the most prestigious title in all of mixed martial arts.  Diaz, after messing around at 170, worked on making a more comfortable drop back to 155 and the results were unbelievable.  First, he submitted lightweight legend Takanori Gomi inside of a round then he manhandled Donald Cerrone, who had been undefeated in the UFC up to that point.  He earned a title shot by defeating the gritty Jim Miller, becoming the only fighter to finish him.  Known for having deadly boxing and jiu-jitsu, Diaz looked poised to provide the toughest fight of Henderson’s career.

How it went down: I badly underestimated Henderson’s game planning and aggression.  As expected, used leg kicks to neutralize Diaz’ range advantage.  One look at their legs and you can see why the attack was SUPER EFFECTIVE!

Seriously, you could fit two of Diaz’ toothpick legs into Henderson’s thigh.

Even more impressive was how Henderson followed up those kicks with hard punches, including a hook in the first round that caught Diaz flush in the face.  Diaz would later say that his vision was blurry for the rest of the fight.  Henderson went low in a variety of ways, targeting Diaz’ calves and even punching the leg instead of kicking.  The timing was perfect and just when Diaz thought he’d figured it out, the champ went up top again and scored with head shots.  Multiple takedowns lead to Henderson abusing Diaz with ground and pound, though the Stockton bad boy was hardly helpless off of his back.  He was relentless in hunting for leg submissions, but Henderson lived up to the “Bendo” nickname, even executing a split to reposition himself.

I’ve never seen either of the Diaz brothers tired before, but I could swear that Nate’s breathing looked laboured going into the final round while Henderson continued to bounce up and down, light as a feather.  The highlight of the fight was Diaz taunting Henderson to bring it on, a classic Diaz manoeuvre, before getting clocked by another punch from the champ that planted him on his ass.  It was a position he would be familiar with for the majority of the fight.

What’s next for Diaz: (11-6 UFC, L1) Diaz has nothing to be ashamed of as he was just outworked by a champion in his prime.  A rematch with Gray Maynard would not be out of the question somewhere down the line, as Diaz was never satisfied with that result but the most exciting matchup would be Joe Lauzon.  Diaz and Lauzon were cast members on TUF 5 and seemed destined to cross paths, but the fight never materialized.  It will make sense for both of them should Lauzon get past Miller later this month.

What’s next for Henderson: (6-0 UFC, W6) Another Edgar fight!  I kid, of course.  Even I, the biggest Edgar fan in Canada wouldn’t be interested in seeing that anytime soon.  The top tier of the lightweight division have been feasting on each other so there isn’t a clear-cut number one contender right now.  Lauzon is an option here if he defeats Miller decisively, though the fight that everyone wants to see is a rematch with Anthony Pettis, the last man to defeat Henderson.  If Pettis wins his next fight against Cerrone, it’s a done deal.

Rocky Mountain Heartbreak: A Lamentation of UFC 150

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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