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.

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

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

There are always a hundred reasons not to do something.

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benson Henderson

            Yeah, I think he’s ready.

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have a good memory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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