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.

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.

Light As A Feather – UFC 156 Post Mortem

In life, merely wanting something, no matter how badly, is rarely enough to make that thing attainable.

*****

The José Aldo/Frankie Edgar featherweight title fight on Saturday engaged me in all the right ways.  Aldo, a true juggernaut at 145, took the first two rounds handily, chopping away at Edgar with merciless leg kicks.  As Edgar visibly buckled, I yelled up at the television monitor in the bar, “Get in there Mazzagatti!  Save this man’s career!”  My friends laughed as I peeked out from between my fingers.  Edgar’s biggest fan can’t stand to see him getting slaughtered, even though that happens in every fight he’s in (even the ones he wins!).

Somehow, someway, the leg kicks stopped coming and the challenger was able to start landing consistently.  Aldo’s jab, which had been on point for ten minutes, was missing by inches and Edgar was clearly pressing the action.  He started to dictate the pace and the location of the exchanges.

“I’m dyin’!”  I texted to my Uncle Pang.  “Frankie got round 3 though!”  My rooting interests influenced my score, but at least it seemed like the tide was turning.

Aldo dropped the 4th for sure, with Edgar out-striking him and landing a trademark slam that brought me out of my seat (as if the impact travelled all the way from the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino up to a Boston Pizza in Markham).  In truth, the slam didn’t do much and Aldo was back on his feet in seconds, but one day when I’m telling my grandkids about it I’ll talk about how the champion nearly broke every bone in his body as he was dropped from what must have been 12 feet in the air.  A slight embellishment.

Edgar grew stronger with every round, but Aldo reminded everyone why he’s the best featherweight in the world.  It’s all well and good when you’re stringing together highlight reel knockout after highlight reel knockout, but what do you have left when you’re dragged into the proverbial deep waters?  Edgar hurried to the finish line, but Aldo met him stride for stride utilizing his flawless technique.  That counter jab tightened up, slowing Edgar down every time he began to pour on the pressure.  His breathtaking footwork nullified any takedown attempts.  He soundly won the 5th, giving him no less than three (likely four) of the five rounds needed to take the fight.

How about that Aldo?  Before the fight, my friends kept telling me that he was faster than Edgar and I refused to admit it.  “Maybe as fast,” I would say, but I wouldn’t concede the point.  Then it unfolded before my very eyes.  Every time Edgar fired a leg kick or ducked in for an overhand right, he’d be met by two or three strikes in return.  Some he dodged, most he didn’t.  Amazingly, the numbers will show that Edgar landed more strikes over the course of the last three rounds, but I wasn’t convinced that he did enough to make up for the deficit in rounds 1 and 2.  The match was arguably the best performance of Aldo’s career and an early fight of the year candidate for me personally.

*****

Unlike the last time Edgar lost a close fight, I wasn’t nearly as heartbroken.  That had a lot to do with Antonio Silva’s thrilling upset of Alistair Overrated…*ahem*, Overeem.

There exists a contingent of fans who have touted Overeem as the uncrowned heavyweight king for years, constantly berating others with their theories that he would *snicker* “destroy” the likes of Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez.  Obviously, this is message board fodder that I shouldn’t give too much credence but there’s no arguing that “The Reem” (ugh) carried a mystique that was easy to latch onto.  He hadn’t lost a fight in over five years and he finished the majority of his opponents in the first round, but I won’t waste my time dispelling the myth of his invincibility even though I could do it in one paragraph.  Besides, nothing I write would be more convincing than the argument presented by the majestic “Big Foot” Silva.

Up until Silva won, it had been one of the most utterly unsatisfying fights I’d ever witnessed.  I cannot stand Overeem.  Even discounting the steroid allegations (a topic for another day), he’s done an outstanding job of buying into his own hype over the last few years despite never beating a single top ten opponent until he took a lacklustre decision against Fabricio Werdum.  I’ll admit that he had me fooled when he conquered Brock Lesnar, but in retrospect Lesnar had one foot out the door and all Overeem had to do was show up.  That said, it was expected that Overeem would walk through Silva and for ten miserable minutes I saw just that.  Then…it happened.

To Alistair’s credit, he handily won the first two rounds.  I wouldn’t even say that he made a mistake by not putting Silva away earlier because Silva is a tough out and I don’t think that Overeem was playing around…at least until the final frame.  With a two point lead on the cards, “The Reem” (UGH!) must have figured that he could afford to have some fun with the lumbering Pezão.  His hands dropped and there was the opening that Silva needed.  He rocked him with a punch behind the ear, then a head kick and finally a series of punches that deadened Overeem against the cage.  You could tell Herb Dean wanted to step in, but it was one of those awful situations where the fighter’s body hasn’t given up the ghost yet.  By the time he did, it was too late; not only was Overeem completely out of it but Big Foot had a taste for blood.  Much like a mogwai, you never feed Big Foot after midnight (or around 11 PM EST in this case).

I’d pick him to kick Overeem’s ass too.

In a moment that must have been ten times as terrifying in person, Dean had to do everything in his power to hold back Silva who looked like he was going in for seconds.  We were this close to seeing the octagon’s first fatality.

I was so elated to see Overeem lose that I didn’t even notice the rest of the bar cheering with me.  Seeing the arrogant Dutchman humbled struck a chord with the people and it restored my faith; not only in my fellow man, but in the mixed martial arts universe’s ability to mete out its own unique form of justice.

*****

Other thoughts:

  • There was some chatter afterwards about Edgar dropping another 10 pounds to compete in the bantamweight division.  I’m all for this idea, but please, no more rushed title opportunities.
  • Antônio Rogério Nogueira’s uninspiring win over Rashad Evans leaves the light heavyweight division muddled even further.  Maybe there’s something to this Chael Sonnen thing after all…
  • Three Strikeforce imports made their debuts (Isaac Vallie-Flagg, Bobby Green and Tyron Woodley) and all found success.  Woodley had a magnificent KO of Bellator tournament champion Jay Hieron, Green submitted highly ranked Jacob Volkmann (6-1 at lightweight) and Vallie-Flagg earned a close decision win over veteran Yves Edwards.  Vallie-Flagg is one to watch as he is now unbeaten in 12 fights (including 1 draw) and he hasn’t lost in over five years.  All three are fine additions to the UFC roster.
  • Demian Maia put in work on Saturday.  The last time I saw Jon Fitch manhandled like that was in the first two rounds of the BJ Penn fight.  Maia made his bones on flashy submissions, but he’s also shown an ability to grind out wins while at the same time making his opponents look foolish (see: Dan Miller, Mario Miranda, Kendall Grove and Jorge Santiago).  That’s a tactic that Fitch himself usually employs, so to see the shoe on the other foot was fascinating.  Arguably the greatest Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter that MMA has ever seen, Maia has cemented himself as a top 5 welterweight.  With Maia and Johny Hendricks waiting in the wings, you have to think that Georges St-Pierre is starting to feel the heat.

Light As A Feather: Why Frankie Edgar NEEDS To Beat José Aldo

Frankie Edgar needs to win on Saturday.  I want him to win because he’s one of my favourite fighters of all time, but it’s also imperative that he find a way to take the Featherweight Championship from José Aldo for the sake of his career.  If Edgar loses, that will be his third straight loss in a title fight and in this “what have you done for us lately?” world, that will trump the four encounters where he walked away with a title in hand.  Is that fair?  Maybe not, but the reality is that no matter how long you’ve been on top of the mountain, it is a long, long fall when you get knocked off.

There’s a reason that some fighters fade away after losing or falling short of a championship.  It takes a unique mixture of focus, dedication and luck to become the best of the best and when those elements are working in your favour, you are nothing less than invincible.  When you finally lose (and everybody loses), the effect on the psyche must be devastating.  You can change up your training and intensify your workouts and continue to have great success, but at the forefront of your mind is that there is one guy out there who you know and (everyone else knows) is better than you.  If Edgar is denied for a third time, will it be even possible for him to ascend up the rankings again?  More importantly, will anyone care to find out?  It’s no secret that Edgar isn’t a big draw and it doesn’t help that each of his championship feuds had their share of controversy:

BJ Penn (UFC 112, UFC 118)

When Edgar was awarded a title shot, I was vindicated but also pessimistic.  I figured that he should be happy to be there and I was already preparing rhetoric about how there’s no shame in being beat by a legend.  After all, Penn was coming off of two flawless performances where he made top contenders Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez look silly.  Edgar had no chance.

My friends and I joked that Penn might have spent too much time in Abu Dhabi chilling at the beach with his family because he definitely was not in immaculate shape.  Still, he seemed to be countering well and avoiding takedowns and while it wasn’t exactly vintage Penn, none of us saw enough from Edgar to think that he had pulled off the upset.  However, it was Edgar who won via unanimous decision.  It was a heavily debated result compounded by judge Douglas Crosby’s ludicrous 50-45 score in favour of Edgar.  You could certainly make a case for the challenger, but that was a polarizing score and it turned a lot of people against Edgar.  Dana White booked an immediate rematch and Edgar was dominant the second time, but the damage may already have been done.

Gray Maynard (UFC 125, UFC 136)

Hoo boy.  In their first meeting back at UFC Fight Night 13, the bigger Maynard’s wrestling was too much for Edgar who hadn’t mastered his stick-and-move style just yet.  Edgar was the underdog in the rematch and he was obliterated in the first round.  We use the phrase “survival mode” a lot in combat sports and that was a prime example as Edgar looked more like a gymnast than a martial artist, tumbling around the ring to get away from the relentless challenger.  However, over the next four rounds he took the fight to Maynard, including an explosive slam in the second that instantly became one of my favourite sports memories.  That one move epitomized what it means to defy expectations and battle back from adversity.

Many fans thought that the fight could have been stopped in that first round (and championship bias may have played a part in Edgar being allowed to continue).  At the very least, you could have made a strong argument for a 10-7 round that would have lead to Maynard winning a majority decision (the result was a split draw).  This warranted another rematch and like the second Penn fight, Edgar left no doubt who the better man was finishing Maynard in the 4th round; but again, there were skeptics who still believed he didn’t deserve the title.

Benson Henderson (UFC 144, UFC 150)

Henderson presented a unique threat to Edgar, who was favoured for the first time since becoming the Lightweight Champion.  The white hot WEC import matched the size of Maynard with the never ending cardio (one of Maynard’s perceived shortcomings) necessary to keep up with Edgar.  The two engaged in a thrilling back-and-forth battle that hinged on a careless mistake by Edgar that resulted in him taking a full force up-kick from one of Hendersons’ titanium thick legs.  He wasn’t the same after that strike and Henderson capitalized, beating Edgar to the punch on multiple occasions and getting up quickly after takedowns.  It was a close fight, but Henderson’s win was widely accepted.

The uproar came over Edgar “whining” his way into another rematch; fans grumbled, completely ignoring the fact that Edgar made a humble request:

I’m not trying to shoot anybody out of anything they deserve, but I had to do two immediate rematches, so what’s fair? – Edgar in regards to Anthony Pettis originally being favoured for a title match

Not only was Edgar gracious in accepting those prior rematches, but the Edgar/Henderson fight was awesome and it’s unclear why people didn’t want to see it again.  White ended up changing his mind, rewarding Edgar for his hard work and paving the way for another entertaining bout.  Edgar/Henderson II was even closer than the first fight and ironically, Edgar seemed to win the crowd in a rematch that he narrowly lost.  A long suggested drop down to 145 was the next logical step.  He’d now be dealing with faster opposition, but he’d also no longer be dancing with giants.

The move makes perfect sense, but placing him opposite the champion Aldo when he hasn’t had a single fight at featherweight in his career…not so much.  In fairness, there were a series of injuries that prevented long time contender Erik Koch from getting his originally scheduled shot on two separate occasions and the division has been in turmoil as several top ranked fighters have taken each other out (Koch himself just suffered a brutal setback at the hands of Ricardo Lamas).  I can’t tell you who should have got the shot instead, but there had to be a better solution than pulling the trigger on Aldo/Edgar.

An Edgar loss would likely mean that this will be the last time he gets a shot at UFC gold.  One way of looking at it is that if he’s not ready now then he’ll never be ready, but we’ve all seen how fighters can adjust and evolve especially when changing weight classes.  The match doesn’t even make sense from a business standpoint as an Edgar coming off of even one big win (perhaps over someone like Dennis Siver or Chan Sung Jung) would make an Aldo/Edgar collision far more compelling than an Edgar coming off of two straight losses.  The decision seems short sighted and it reeks of instant gratification.

I’ve got a horse in this race and I’ve written before about how personal bias can get in the way of making reasonable fight picks.  This situation is no different.  I’m invested in the image of Edgar using his technique and guile to avoid any big Aldo shots and outpoint him or string together a combination that staggers the champion leading to an exciting TKO finish; I’m wilfully expelling thoughts of Aldo matching Edgar step for step and inevitably connecting with one of his trademark kill shots.

It’s now or never.  Penn, Randy Couture and Kenny Florian are a few of the names that spring to mind when discussing fighters who had years between title shots and while Edgar’s credentials are on par with these names, he’s never enjoyed the same recognition.  If Edgar loses, there won’t be too many fans in his corner lobbying for him to get another shot; realistically, he’ll be moved all the way to the back of the line with another loss.  An Aldo/Edgar meeting is one that I’d anticipated in the past and hoped for in the future, but am dreading in the present.  Victory is the only option for Edgar this Saturday, because the alternative is a dreary, slow climb back up to the top that few fighters manage to complete.