'Cyborg' closes in on bout against Rousey

March, 1, 2015
Mar 1
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
LOS ANGELES -- Within a span of 24 hours, Ronda Rousey and Cris Justino each delivered a positively jaw-dropping performance this weekend.

And each did so in their own, uniquely devastating way:

The calibrated efficiency of Rousey (11-0), who follows several disciplines, highlighted, of course, by Olympic-caliber judo, woven together into one flawlessly executed sequence. Human art.

And in contrast, the bull-in-a-china-shop horsepower of Justino (13-1), which is not so much like getting hit by a truck, but getting run over by it repeatedly in a very short window of time.

The weekend, with Justino defending her Invicta FC featherweight title on Friday and Rousey defending her UFC bantamweight title on Saturday, begged one question: When will these two meet?

In January, Justino, 29, signed a contract extension with Invicta FC -- which has a close business relationship with Zuffa, parent company of the UFC.

UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta told ESPN.com on Friday that Invicta FC is responsible for paying Justino's fight purses, but confirmed Zuffa executives were involved in her contract negotiations. Fertitta also stated he would "love" to make a fight between Rousey and Justino around late 2015 or early 2016. The fight would have to take place at 135 pounds, for Rousey's UFC title.

According to Justino's manager, George Prajin, the contract extension Justino signed last month has stipulations that would apply to a Rousey fight, should the case present itself.

(A Rousey fight by end of year) is our common goal, but we have to do it in a way that is beneficial to both of us.

-- Cris Justino's manager, George Prajin

"We're working hand-in-hand with the UFC," Prajin said. "[A Rousey fight by the end of the year] is our common goal, but we have to do it in a way that is beneficial to both of us."

Justino is scheduled to headline an Invicta event on July 10 in Las Vegas. That fight will take place at 145 pounds. However, Prajin said the hope is to slowly be cutting weight over the course of the year to make the 145-pound limit with ease in July.

The plan would then call for Justino to make her bantamweight debut in the Invicta cage in the fall. Prajin, who has brought in nutrition guru George Lockhart to work with Justino, estimates it could take nine months to get her to 135 pounds.

"The fight in July is definitely going to be at 145," Prajin said. "We need to do it right. She'll cut two to three pounds by summer, maybe she'll make 135 in the fall and then we fight Ronda at the end of the year. That would be OK."

UFC president Dana White has expressed doubts in Justino's ability to make 135 pounds, with good reason. He attempted to sign Justino to a Zuffa contract in early 2013, but the Brazilian fighter and her manager at the time, Tito Ortiz, stated she could never make 135 pounds. The UFC does not currently promote a 145-pound female division.
[+] EnlargeCristiane 'Cyborg' Justino
Ed Mulholland for ESPNCris Justino, left, is inching closer to a mega-bout against UFC champion Ronda Rousey.

White has been reluctant to speak positively about the possibility of a fight between the two for that reason. He has stated on numerous occasions the UFC would not book a catchweight fight, a statement Fertitta has echoed to ESPN.com.

"The thing with Cyborg is making the weight. I just don't know if she can make the weight," White said. "She fought [on Friday] and it was vicious, but she's definitely not fighting the caliber of fighters Ronda is fighting and she'd have to fight at 135 pounds."

Certain members of Justino's team agree with White's concern regarding her making the weight. Jason Parillo, Justino's boxing trainer, who saw this situation from the other angle with lightweight BJ Penn constantly wanting to move up in weight, said he prefers 145 pounds.

"It's a brutal weight cut for her," Parillo said. "Can she make 135? I don't know. I've seen her hurting making 145 and I've thought, 'Ten pounds more from here is going to be difficult.' I could sit here and say, 'F--- it, let's go down to 135 and we'll kick Ronda's a--, hooray' but that would be me being an a-----. She is the best 145-pound fighter in the world. I would prefer for her to stay at 145."

Rousey has taken shots at Justino for years, while still acknowledging she would want the mega-fight at 135 pounds. Justino was the Strikeforce featherweight champion when Rousey signed with the promotion in 2011, as a featherweight.

"Let me say this," White said. "I'm going to say it because she won't say it: She asks me all the time. She says, 'I'll fight her whenever she makes 135.' If [Justino] is going to make the weight, [Rousey] will fight her in a minute."

Edmond Tarverdyan, Rousey's head trainer, said, "Cyborg can't beat Ronda. She could train her whole life and not do anything to Ronda. We don't care about what she's doing. We're in the 135-pound division. Any day she wants to fight us, she knows where Ronda is. And Ronda demolishes her."

As has long been the case, weight remains the No. 1 hurdle to what would surely be the biggest fight in women's mixed martial arts history. Justino, who said in December she was done trying to cut to 135, says she is once again open to attempting it.

Prajin expressed optimism the fight would happen around the end of the year -- and that a general plan exists to make it happen.

"We don't want it to be a Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao situation where it takes 10 years to make, after they are both out of their primes," he said. "We want them to be at their best and for it to be considered one of the best fights in the history of the sport."

Realistic Koscheck not fighting for pay

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Josh KoscheckAl Powers for ESPNJosh Koscheck isn't eyeing titles at this point -- but he's also not competing just for the pay.

LOS ANGELES -- When it comes to discussing his inevitable retirement from mixed martial arts, Josh Koscheck is surprisingly comfortable.

No one fights forever, he says, and he's always known that. The way things look, he'll finish his career without ever holding a UFC championship, which he's made peace with.

One thing Koscheck, 37, would like to make very clear, however, is that he would never stick around just to collect a paycheck. Of course, money has long been an extremely important factor in his career -- but he wouldn't allow it to become the sole one.

So, if anyone thinks Koscheck is returning from a 15-month layoff this weekend to fight Jake Ellenberger at UFC 184 simply to make some cash, that someone would be wrong.

"Trust me, I wouldn't come back and do this for a paycheck," Koscheck told ESPN.com. "This is something I strive to do. I've had a long career. I want to finish that career on a good note, and that starts on Feb. 28 with Jake."

Koscheck, who holds a lifetime 15-8 record in the UFC and once challenged Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight title, spoke to ESPN.com about facing the end of his fighting career ahead of his fight against Ellenberger on Saturday.

ESPN.com: Can you speak a little bit about how this fight against Ellenberger came together?

Koscheck: I told the UFC to match me up. They said, "OK, you want to fight (Neil Magny)?" I won't tell anybody no. I said, "Yeah, sure. I don't know a thing about him, but I'll fight him." A couple days later, the UFC called back and said, "We scratched that. We want you to fight Jake Ellenberger." I said, "OK, cool." I don't turn fights down. I go with the flow. Whoever they put in front of me is who I'll fight.

ESPN.com: At this point in your career, you've earned the right to have a say in that, though. Why not request specific opponents?

[+] EnlargeJosh Koscheck, Mike Pierce
Rod Mar for ESPN.comJosh Koscheck's last win came over Mike Pierce at UFC 143 on Feb. 4, 2012.
Koscheck: I honestly, who do I -- do I just call someone out? Do I just talk s--- about them? I'm not a young kid anymore. I'm not going to just be like, "Hey, you're a d----- b--. I want to fight you." For me, it's just give me somebody you'd like to see me fight and I'll go out and fight them.

ESPN.com: You've said you have two fights left on your UFC contract. Do you have any kind of plan or goals for the rest of your career?

Koscheck: I feel good. My body feels good. Two fights left: this one and one more. Then, I'll sit down with (UFC president) Dana White, and hopefully, we can get something going. I'm not looking too far ahead. I don't care about belts right now. There are a lot of guys in there that deserve a title shot way before me. What I care about is getting my hand raised. It's been a long time since I got my hand raised, and I'm looking forward to that.

ESPN.com: The UFC likes to extend fighters' contracts before they expire. If the company comes to you and wants you to sign a new deal after this fight, what do you think your reaction will be?

Koscheck: Yeah, I'm always game for it. At this point, I take my life one day at a time. I'm not looking ahead or anything. I'm sure Dana and I will have the opportunity to chat about what Josh Koscheck's future looks like and whether they want to be a part of it or not. I really don't know their mindset, nor do I care. I care about the only thing I can control, which is getting my hand raised at the end of the night.

ESPN.com: How was it at first, getting back into fight training after a long layoff?

Koscheck: I didn't take a whole 15 months outside of the gym. People who are thinking, "Oh, all he did was fish and fly planes" -- that's not me. I had guys fighting in my gym and I needed to be there to train. I love the feeling of being in shape. That's in my DNA. But to answer your question, as far as training camp, yeah, it was tough. I put my body and mind through hell during a fight camp. That's what fans and people in the organization don't get to see. We beat our asses every day in the gym.

ESPN.com: Not to make this sound like you're retiring now, but when you look back on your career, are you satisfied with it?

Koscheck: I think I've done some good things in the sport. When I first came into the UFC, I didn't know anything about MMA. I was a straight wrestler. When I went on The Ultimate Fighter, I had zero training. I had taken a couple jiu-jitsu classes and got my ass kicked. Everybody, over the course of my career, has gotten to see me change from a wrestler to a complete mixed martial artist.

I didn't get to win the championship, but I've had good fights and I've beat some good guys. It's not like I fought a bunch of bums. I fought some monsters. I fought some of the best guys pound for pound in the history of the UFC. For me, at this point in my career, I'm happy to still be here and get the opportunity to get my hand raised.

ESPN.com: What is your take on other people discussing whether or not a fighter should retire? Does it anger you or do you view it as a positive, that someone cares about your long-term health?

Koscheck: I have good people around me, so if they ever say, "Hey, I think you should retire," maybe that's something I would have to consider. But ultimately, it will be my decision and I will make the decision when the time comes -- and it will be the right decision. I have good mentors in Bob Cook and DeWayne Zinkin. Those guys keep it real with me, and we have more than just a business relationship. Those guys would set me straight real quick and say, "I think you need to move on to something else."

Fedor on retirement, state of MMA

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Fedor EmelianenkoEd Mulholland for ESPNDespite his retirement, a fight against PED use in MMA is one Fedor Emelianenko is willing to take.
Fedor Emelianenko has had nearly three years to reflect on the impact his career left on mixed martial arts.

The once-unbeatable Russian heavyweight is part of a very short list of candidates recognized as potentially the greatest of all time. What does (or did) that feel like being the greatest fighter on the planet?

"No reaction," Emelianenko answered through an interpreter. "I don't pay attention to it. I had my losses and there are other top fighters out there. I don't think about it."

Emelianenko's response is not an annoyed one. In fact, he has been downright talkative during his time in New York this week. He's in the U.S. until Saturday in a show of support to his "close friend," Bellator MMA president Scott Coker.

Coker has been known to pull a rabbit out of his hat when it comes to luring iconic fighters into his cage. Might there be something more to Emelianenko's stateside presence than a mere meet-and-greet with fans at the local Bellator-sponsor Dave & Buster's?

"It's a secret," Emelianenko responds before breaking into a soft laugh. "When it comes out, you'll be the first to know."

In reality, Emelianenko, 38, sounds comfortable in retirement.

He looks comfortable as well. When asked if he remains in fighting shape despite being retired, his translator takes the liberty of answering for him: "He's in great shape."

Emelianenko says a meeting between him and Coker in Japan late last year was the first time the two had shared a room in years. The times Coker has tried to gauge his interest in an athletic return, Emelianenko says he has been firm in his response.

"I'm retired," Emelianenko said. "That's always my answer.

"I keep myself very busy. Even though I have retired, I'm very involved with the sport. I had a long, very eventful career. I have that to be thankful for. Now, I have my family and I still train in the sport. That is enough for me at the moment."

Emelianenko lives and trains out of Moscow, but says he advocates for MMA around the globe. One of his primary objectives is to introduce MMA to a new audience -- not to produce more professional fighters, but to educate the more general public on it.

He is fundamentally pleased with the direction the sport is headed worldwide, although his longest responses during a 25-minute interview were reserved for the use of performance-enhancing drugs in combat sports.

Emelianenko went undefeated in MMA for nearly a full decade -- 28 fights -- and says he took no shortcuts along the way. The recent news of another name on the short list for greatest of all time, former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, failing two drug tests saddened him.

"It's extremely sad to see an athlete of that level, with so much experience behind him and so much technique, use steroids," Emelianenko said. "When it comes to the use of steroids, it should be enforced harder and more strictly penalized. Fighters really need to be educated on what it does. Awareness of the problem should be raised."

A fight against performance-enhancing drug use is one Emelianenko is still willing to take.

He watches Bellator and UFC events on a regular basis and is looking forward to Bellator's "British Invasion" card on Friday in Uncasville, Connecticut, but says he doesn't ever compare himself now to the top of the heavyweight division.

And regarding that "secret" reason Emelianenko is stateside: "All jokes aside, my career is a full stop. I am still involved very much, but from a different angle."

Women's MMA primed for major shakeup

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto

The moment UFC 184 lost its middleweight title fight headliner between Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort, the weekend officially became all about the women.

Not that it sort of wasn't already. On Friday, all-female promotion Invicta FC will host its 11th event in Los Angeles, headlined by a featherweight title between Cris Justino and Charmaine Tweet.

The following night, Ronda Rousey will defend her UFC bantamweight title against Cat Zingano in the marquee contest of a UFC 184 pay-per-view. In the co-main event, former world champion boxer Holly Holm will make her much-anticipated UFC debut opposite Raquel Pennington.

With or without the Weidman-Belfort fight, this was set to be a major weekend for women's mixed martial arts -- it's just that without it, the weekend's focus has shifted exclusively to the female side.

"This is really a statement on where we've come from," said Invicta president Shannon Knapp, who has witnessed several landmark moments in the sport firsthand. "It's come into its own, definitely. I think a lot of people are way more familiar with female athletes than they were in the past."

Unlike previous landmark moments in the sport, women's MMA is not necessarily trying to prove anything this time. Yes, it is the first time in UFC history that females will appear in the both the main- and co-main events, so PPV buy-rates will be a post-event topic. And Invicta is coming off a somewhat transitional year in which it promoted just three total events.

At the same time, however, women's MMA is unquestionably here to stay. Currently, it is not as deep in talent as the men's side, but well-enough established to lead a weekend if the right players are involved.

These two events also figure to have a massive impact on the rest of the year in terms of the biggest female fights.

Here are a few potential scenarios this weekend and what each would mean moving forward.

Scenario: Rousey wins impressively, Justino wins impressively, Holm wins impressively
Holly HolmSteve Snowden/Getty ImagesHolly Holm still sees herself a fight away from challenging UFC women's bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey.
Outcome: To be clear, Justino (12-1) fights for Invicta. She is the Invicta 145-pound champion. That said, Invicta and the UFC have a strong business relationship, to the point that Zuffa officials (parent company of the UFC) were at the forefront of recent contract negotiations between Justino and Invicta. UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta has expressed interest in a fight between Rousey and Justino, which would be the biggest fight possible in women's MMA. Justino admitted the primary reason for re-upping her contract with Invicta was to keep the Rousey fight alive.

In this scenario, Justino would attempt to drop to 135 pounds by summer. Doubts remain on her ability to do so, but an effort would certainly be made.

Jason Parillo, Justino's boxing coach, said, "I think it's more of an even fight at 145 pounds -- because of the difficulty of Cyborg making 135, compared to the comfort Ronda would have making 145. Obviously, I'm "Cyborg's" coach, but it's a more fair fight at 145. What I've told Cris is, 'just be the best fighter in the world at 145. If this other girl that fights at 135, people say she's the best fighter in the world, that's fine. You stay here and if it comes together it comes together.' That's me giving a s--- about my fighters, but it's not always up to me."

"I want to see Cris Cyborg and Ronda Rousey like no other," Knapp said. "Everybody has talked about it. I'm ready to see it happen. It's really exciting to see this unfold in such a way, and this weekend puts us that much closer to making it happen."

In the meantime, while Justino takes a test fight at 135 pounds, Rousey would likely book another title defense. Holm (7-0), even if she looks spectacular Saturday, told ESPN.com that she does not believe she would fight Rousey next -- but also said she wouldn't turn it down.

"I don't think Rousey would be next," Holm said. "I think there would be a lot of pressure and questions behind it, but I think if we're on a fast track, maybe one more fight and then that. I think that would be the soonest but that's just me talking. It's not impossible."

Brazilian bantamweight Bethe Correia would also be a potential candidate for Rousey in this scenario. Rousey has previously expressed interest in fighting her.

Scenario: Zingano wins
Cat ZinganoJosh Hedges/Getty ImagesA win by Cat Zingano over Ronda Rousey would send shock waves through multiple divisions in women's MMA.
Outcome: Immediate rematch for Rousey (10-0). Not only would a rematch sell very well, Rousey has earned the competitive right to an immediate rematch should she ever forfeit her title.

Zingano (9-0), who was supposed to fight Rousey in late 2013 but suffered a serious knee injury, is more than a 6-to-1 betting underdog in the fight.

"I absolutely believe everything happens when it's supposed to," Zingano said. "Whether it's wrapped with a pretty bow or not, that's life. This fight is a long time coming and I'm grateful for the opportunity. I feel like I'm a little more hardened -- that something indefinable is pushing me a little harder now."

In this scenario, Justino would still likely try to cut to 135 pounds, with the hope of fighting the eventual winner of the rematch.

Scenario: Rousey wins, Justino loses
Charmaine TweetDave Mandel for SherdogCan Charmaine Tweet do the unthinkable and come between a Ronda Rousey-Cris Justino megafight?
Outcome: Even if she were to lose on Friday, Justino could very well choose to drop to 135. Knapp has hinted at a possible Invicta event in July in Las Vegas, which would coincide with a blockbuster UFC 189 pay-per-view. If Justino were to cut the weight and win a 135-pound fight in that setting, a loss to Tweet would be forgiven and interest in a Rousey fight would ratchet back up.

"I'm very excited now because I've signed a contract with Invicta," Justino said. "The last meeting I had with the UFC, they showed me a lot of respect. Everything bad that happened between me and the UFC, it's a business and it's behind us. I'm focused on my next fight with Charmaine Tweet, that's the first step, but I think after that, the UFC wants the fight with Rousey. We will work to make this happen."

Mir: 'Realistically, I might get cut from UFC'

February, 21, 2015
Feb 21
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Frank MirEd Mulholland/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesHeavyweight Frank Mir, left, looks to snap a four-fight win streak in the Octagon.
When Frank Mir used to visualize a fight, he kept it pretty simple.

He used to picture generic stuff, regardless of who he was fighting -- a slipped jab, a single-leg takedown, an armbar. His visualizations almost always ended in an armbar.

As Mir (16-9) prepares to face Antonio Silva at Sunday's UFC Fight Night card in Porto Alegre, Brazil, he says the biggest thing that has changed over the course of his career is his ability to visualize. He sees the finer details now.

"Everything used to be very vague," Mir told ESPN.com. "Now, I've been in the Octagon so many times, I can see the crowd. I can see the referee. I see the opponent's face. I'm more in tune with all that."

Win or lose on Sunday, one thing Mir is not visualizing is a retirement party.

The 35-year-old former champion has lost four consecutive bouts dating back to May 2012. In those four fights, Mir has fought nine total rounds and failed to win a single one of them.

He admitted to contemplating retirement after his most recent loss, via unanimous decision to Alistair Overeem almost exactly one year ago. But since then, Mir says he has re-evaluated his career and assessed what he felt were the primary issues.

He's ready to fight for the foreseeable future, even if things go poorly this weekend.

"Even if, for whatever reason, I'm unsuccessful on Sunday and the UFC were to release me, unless I were to see some kind of way I could compensate my family, I would still fight," Mir said. "I would just have to find different organizations.

"I've been fighting UFC fighters. I've had no easy fights as of late. If I'm not successful on Sunday, I would never retire from fighting. But realistically, I might get cut from the UFC."

Of course, Mir, who fights out of Las Vegas, isn't planning on losing to Silva or parting ways wit the UFC, where he has competed since 2001.

He believes one of the key contributing factors to his recent rough patch is not listening to his own body.

Within one month after losing to Junior dos Santos via second-round knockout in 2012, the first loss in his four-fight skid, Mir says he had underwent elbow and shoulder to deal with pre-existing injuries.

He estimates he had six surgeries in a span of three or four years -- and yet that whole time, he says he continued to train with the same intensity he did early in his career.

He got on testosterone-replacement-therapy (TRT) in 2012, but was forced off the treatment last year when it was banned from combat sports in Nevada. This weekend will mark his first performance since weaning off TRT, but Mir says it won't be an issue.

He is confident he eliminated the problem that forced him to get on TRT to begin with -- overtraining.

"I was training way too hard," Mir said. "Now, Ive reached a higher level. I'm much more proficient, instead of the last few fights where I was going in so banged up and injured. There were a few times I didn't even train.

"I think when I fought Josh Barnett, for three weeks I didn't even train because I had a pinched nerve in my hip. I would just shadow box in Vegas."

Although Silva (18-6-1) is on a skid of his own -- winless in his last three appearances -- the Brazilian is a comfortable 3-to-1 favorite on Sunday. Not to mention eager to get himself back into the win column.

"Independent of where Frank is or how many losses he has, he's a great fighter with a great name," Silva said. "I'm going to fight him as seriously as I would fight any other big fight. Last year was a tough year but I've put it behind me."

Skelly on weight cut, 'I'm broke' comment

February, 21, 2015
Feb 21
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Chas Skelly, Jim AlersJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesUFC featherweight Chas Skelly overcame a brutal weight cut to get past Jim Alers on Feb. 14.
When Chas Skelly inked his last bout agreement in mid-January, he knew what he was signing up for.

Skelly says he'll never forget getting on the scale that day to check his weight and seeing 185.5 flash back at him. Skelly, a featherweight, needed to drop 39.5 pounds in less than one month.

"I knew it was going to be tough from the time I accepted the fight," Skelly told ESPN.com. "When I accepted I was 185.5 -- I remember it clearly. It has been a nightmare I can't get out of my head."

Skelly (14-1) eventually did make weight, barely. He went on to defeat Jim Alers (13-2) via TKO in the second round at a UFC Fight Night on Feb. 14.

The 29-year-old former collegiate wrestler opts to cut the majority of his weight the night prior to an official weigh-in. It's not unusual for Skelly to wake up on weigh-in day with just one pound to cut.

Last week, however, Skelly's body did not respond well to the final cut. He says he was at a 24 Hour Fitness, sitting in a hot tub, until 3:30 a.m. Friday morning. He grabbed four hours of sleep, woke up and started cutting again at the host hotel in Broomfield, Colorado.

One week later, Skelly says his skin has still not returned to normal from the excessive amount of time he spent in the hot tub. "It's like leather," he said.

Skelly eventually came in at 145.75 pounds. He made weight, but three other fighters on the card did not. In fact, within the last two UFC cards, five total athletes have failed to come in on weight.

"For me, it's a pride thing," Skelly said. "I feel like I owe it to my opponent to make weight. They're putting themselves through the same thing.

"And if you miss weight and then do something awesome, you don't get a $50,000 [fight night] bonus. That's what I'm doing this for, is the money. I'm fighting to get a paycheck. If there is an opportunity for me to make an extra $50,000, I'm going to put myself in a position to get it."

Immediately after the knockout, Skelly looked into UFC cameras and stated, "I need a bonus, I'm broke."

When asked to expand on it, Skelly said he was half-joking, half-trying to draw attention to himself in an effort to win money.

Skelly is a member of Team Takedown, a unique mixed martial arts management team that invests early in fighters' careers, hoping to get a substantial return in the event they reach an elite level. Former UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks is the team's most prominent athlete.

"I was just joking, I'm that kind of person," said Skelly, on his post-fight comment. "I joke around a lot. I'm not struggling financially.

"Nothing is guaranteed and [Team Takedown] adds a little bit of stability to an unstable career. I've been on the team for three years. I've only be in the UFC one year. So, basically for two years they were supporting and investing in me with no guarantee I was going to make any money."

Skelly suffered an ankle injury early on in the win against Alers. He doesn't believe the injury to be serious but admitted he will likely require an X-ray in the coming week.

Looking ahead, the Texas native is committed to not ballooning up to 185 pounds again between fights (although this last time was partially due to a broken foot injury he suffered late last year). And as always, he will continue hunting UFC fight night bonuses, even though his last effort came up short.

"I feel like outside the UFC, I just wanted to win. I took the best possible route to a win every time," Skelly said. "I come to the UFC and I want people to like me. I want people to want to watch me fight. That's my goal. I want people to see my name on a card and think, 'I have to watch this guy, because it's always exciting.'"

Bendo provides break from PED discussion

February, 16, 2015
Feb 16
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Never have the angel wings tattooed prominently on Ben Henderson's back been more fitting than they were on Saturday in Broomfield, Colo.

The former champ felt like a gift from the skies.

If you've been paying any sort of attention to the sport this year, you know. Mixed martial arts has disappointed in 2015.

The fights themselves have been great -- but the news after them has not. We're living in a time when arguably the greatest fighter ever (Anderson Silva) just tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), and arguably the second-greatest fighter ever (Georges St-Pierre) is refusing to return to the cage despite being healthy, because he's convinced too many of his potential opponents are on PEDs.

Heck, after defeating Brandon Thatch in truly impressive fashion,, Henderson called out Rory MacDonald -- who just this week lost a scheduled fight against Hector Lombard because Lombard tested positive for (you guessed it) PEDs.

Sad, right?

So it's safe to say the MMA world was in need of a pick-me-up. For a while, it didn't look good. Bellator MMA promoted a relatively weak card on Friday, headlined by a middleweight in Melvin Manhoef who should almost certainly not be subjected to blows to the head anymore.

Then the UFC got its turn the next day in Colorado, where a lackluster-looking event on paper turned out to be more or less lackluster in the cage.

That was, until the main event. As Henderson, a former lightweight champion, walked to the cage, social media expressed its concern over his well-being. Surely Thatch (11-2), who weighs 25 to 30 pounds more than Henderson between fights, was about to inflict severe bodily harm to him.

This was about to be a miscalculation by Henderson -- a wrongly placed effort to try to forget a controversial decision loss to Donald Cerrone just four weeks previously.

But then Henderson went out and served a much-needed reminder of how great MMA can be, even in the midst of a seemingly full-blown drug scandal.

The only wrong Henderson has ever been convicted of is fighting with a toothpick in his mouth (which, amazingly, he did once again on Saturday). He showed technique can still beat the odds.
[+] EnlargeBenson Henderson
Ed Mulholland for ESPNBenson Henderson proved he can compete at a higher weight class -- and provided fight fans with something to talk about other than PED scandals.

Unless there is an adverse finding by the Colorado State Boxing Commission in Henderson's fight-night drug test, it was a perfect, much-needed night -- for Henderson, yeah; but just as much for the sport.

Henderson (22-5) has remained noncommittal on whether he will continue to fight at 170 pounds or drop back down to 155.

Quite frankly, it's an easy call in my mind. Henderson played the role of a smaller fighter to a T against Thatch and it was incredibly fun to watch -- but his chances of long-term success as a welterweight aren't extremely high.

For as many things Henderson had going against him (size disadvantage, short notice, fight at altitude), Thatch was equally put on the spot, switching to the first five-round scheduled fight of his career.

Henderson has said he'd like to walk around at "180 pounds or so" as a welterweight, which would still leave him at least 20 pounds shy of the bigger guys in that weight class.

Even in the midst of praising Henderson's performance and saying he'd be "cool" with him staying at welterweight on Saturday, UFC president Dana White couldn't help taking a realistic look at his potential future in that division.

"You know me, I'm not a big fan of small guys moving up to bigger weight classes," White said. "But how can you deny him after what he did tonight? He looked unbelievable tonight.

"Obviously, you start looking at other guys he matches up with and a fight against Rory -- Rory has a lot of good wrestling, too. Rory is really good at using his reach."

The discussion of Henderson's future, though, is a great one to have. If he wants to play the role of David against another Goliath, by all means, champ. By all means.

It's been nice, even if it doesn't last, to discuss weight classes and toothpicks -- instead of PEDs.

Jones' trainer impressed with Johnson

February, 10, 2015
Feb 10
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Johnson, GustafssonMartin McNeil for ESPNTrainer Greg Jackson has a great deal of respect for the punching power of Anthony Johnson.
Greg Jackson has had a firsthand look at the punching power of Anthony Johnson.

Jackson was in Andrei Arlvoski's corner for a heavyweight fight against Johnson nearly two years ago in Atlantic City. The bout headlined a World Series of Fighting card in March 2013.

Johnson (19-4) dropped Arlovski twice with right hands at the end of the first round. The punches broke Arlovski's jaw in two places, although he managed to finish the three-round fight. Johnson won by decision.

As Jackson prepares UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones for a title defense against Johnson, he says he's training him for the hardest-hitting opponent of his career.

"[Daniel] Cormier was knocking people around left and right, too, but as far as raw power, I don't think anybody hits harder in the division than Johnson."

According to Jackson, Jones has not officially started camp for Johnson. The UFC has not announced a date for the fight, but current expectations are that it could headline an event in May.

Jones, 27, recently relocated to Albuquerque, N.M., to dedicate himself full time at Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA. Jackson said Jones has been hitting mitts but won't get fully back into hard training until later this month.

Jackson said he had no preference for Jones between fighting Johnson or Alexander Gustafsson next. The two contenders fought on Jan. 24 in Sweden, with Johnson scoring a quick first-round TKO.

"We've cornered against Johnson before, and he is such an impressive dude," Jackson said. "His punch, good Lord, that thing hits hard. He is going to be a real challenge. That's a loaded gun that can go off at any time.

"I'm good with whoever they put in front of Jon. I don't have any preferences. I'm not like, 'Oh, I wish you could fight so-and-so, because it hardly ever works out that way. Whoever they put in front of me, that's who I have to solve."

In regard to Jones' positive drug test ahead of his title defense against Cormier at UFC 182 on Jan. 3, Jackson said he is not worried about his star pupil's immediate future and believes he has dealt with the matter correctly.

Jones has said he underwent a 24-hour evaluation at a drug-treatment facility shortly after news of the positive drug test and has taken on outpatient therapy. He has denied any serious drug addiction.

"He is definitely a grown man," Jackson said. "I can give my advice to him as a friend and say, 'If you're going to party, make sure you don't repeat your past mistakes,' but I'm not going to follow him around or anything. I'm not a baby-sitter.

"I don't [have any concerns about Jones]. He's doing the right things to get control of the mistakes he made. I'm not worried about him."

Ben Henderson on judging, moving to 170

February, 10, 2015
Feb 10
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Ben Henderson jokes that the best method he has ever heard of for scoring a fight would involve a judging system so easy that a 6-year-old could do it.

In fact, that is the system: let a 6-year-old do it.

"The way someone once worded it to me is we should line up two guys at the end of a fight and set them in front of a 6-year-old kid," Henderson told ESPN.com. "Say, 'Hey kid, who do you think got beat up more?' Whoever the kid points to loses."

Henderson (21-5) -- who fights Brandon Thatch in a welterweight bout at Saturday's UFC Fight Night card in Broomfield, Colorado -- is only kidding, of course.

The former lightweight champion appreciates all of the finer ways to score points in combat sports -- even if he's not entirely sure how they ultimately get tallied up.

Nearly half of Henderson's 26 professional fights have gone the distance. Out of those 12 times, 10 have gone in Henderson's favor. Two haven't. He can't tell you, definitively, why some did or didn't.

The 31-year-old has made it clear he is not complaining about his unanimous decision loss last month to Donald Cerrone in Boston, but ask Henderson if he thinks he won that fight, and he will say he did.

"I felt it was going pretty darn good," said Henderson of the fight. "He's a stand-up fighter. That's his good area. Obviously, I was wrong, but I felt it was going pretty well standing with him. I thought I was getting the upper hand. I never felt the need to change things up because I was losing the fight: 'Oh, I have to take him down now.' No. I felt great standing with him.

"For me, I don't know. Whatever the rules are, I want to know. What is the criteria? If you have to hit a guy 10 times in his left pectoral muscle -- if that's the game -- then I can play that game. Whatever it is, I feel I'm good enough to get the job done."

Henderson says he actually has made an effort to get a better understanding of scoring, but it hasn't been easy. In certain jurisdictions, he has requested a chance to speak to judges about what they look for in a fight, but it hasn't happened.

In Boston, for instance, Henderson was told it hadn't yet been decided exactly who would score his fight. He said there was another instance when he asked for the names of his judges and he was told, either by a commission or UFC official, "Don't worry about it."

A prefight meeting between all scheduled judges on a card and the participating fighters could be beneficial, Henderson said. Controversial decisions would still happen, but at least scoring criteria might be better identified.

"It wouldn't be a bad idea to maybe have all the fighters speak to all the judges before a fight," Henderson said. "Talk to judges so we can get a clear idea of, 'OK, they are heavily influenced by this.'

"Ultimately, I think you have to go and fight your fight. The judges are going to do what they do. Judges aren't bad guys. They're doing their jobs to the best of their ability."

Henderson approaches this weekend's fight amidst the rockiest patch of his professional career. Fighting out of Glendale, Arizona, Henderson forfeited the 155-pound title to Anthony Pettis in August 2013. He rebounded initially with two wins against Josh Thomson and Rustam Khabilov, but is now coming off back-to-back losses to Rafael dos Anjos and Cerrone.

Saturday will mark Henderson's UFC debut at 170 pounds. He has considered such a move for years, but says he does not plan on it being permanent for now.

Henderson walks around between fights at approximately 175 pounds, while Thatch (11-1) cuts down from 200 pounds to make the welterweight limit.

"I do know that 170 is not a permanent move," Henderson said. "I'll probably be headed back to 155, depending on how it goes. It's all open. I'm going to go with the flow.

"I think I've always been known to fight anyone, anytime, anywhere. When you're defending the belt, you can't do that. I would hit up [UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva and say, 'I know this guy is hurt. Are you guys looking for a replacement?' He would text back and say, 'You can't do that. You have to defend your belt.' Right now, I'll take it any way I can get it -- short notice or planned out schedule, sounds good to me. I'm just happy to fight."

Silva's positive test; protocol behind it

February, 4, 2015
Feb 4
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
videoFor the second time in less than one month, the mixed martial arts community is left with the question: How was a UFC fighter allowed to compete after he failed a drug test?

The Nevada State Athletic Commission revealed on Tuesday that Anderson Silva had tested positive for two steroids, drostanolone and androstane, prior to defeating Nick Diaz via unanimous decision on Jan. 31 in Las Vegas.

Last month, the NSAC revealed that UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones had tested positive for traces of cocaine prior to a title fight against Daniel Cormier at UFC 182 on Jan. 3 in Las Vegas. Jones was allowed to still compete, as cocaine is not technically a banned substance "out-of-competition" in the state of Nevada. He defeated Cormier via unanimous decision.

In Silva's case, the NSAC has stated it did not receive the results of the test, which was administered on Jan. 9, until Feb. 3 -- three days after Silva (34-6) competed in the Octagon.
[+] EnlargeSilva vs Diaz
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesThe NSAC would have been forced to cancel Anderson Silva's bout against Nick Diaz, had the Commission received his results prior to UFC 183.

Had the commission received those results prior to the fight, NSAC chairman Francisco Aguilar told ESPN.com he would have been forced to cancel the non-title middleweight fight, which drew a $4.5 million live gate at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

According to Silva's lab report, the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL) in Salt Lake City received his sample on Jan. 12. Urine samples are allowed to be transferred by mail, which is a potential explanation for the delay in the lab's receipt.

Dr. Daniel Eichner, executive director of SMRTL, made it very clear to ESPN.com that the lab never deals with specific names regarding samples. Each sample is identified by number only -- meaning, the SMRTL would not put a rush on any sample analysis based on the magnitude of any event.

The fact that Silva's sample was tied to a multimillion-dollar event in Las Vegas is irrelevant and unknown, as far as the lab is concerned.

"Blood and urine samples have unique sample ID numbers, and we never see a name," Eichner said. "We see a number. We then screen those biological samples for any prohibited substances and if we see something, we then confirm that. Sometimes it may be more than one substance.

"We have a confirmation process to make sure that what we've seen is absolutely prohibited and absolutely confirmed. Sometimes that can take time."

Eichner, who has been the executive director at SMRTL since October 2011, could not speak on any specific case, only in generalities. According to Eichner, the SMRTL lab processes approximately 30,000 samples per year.

The World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited lab -- one of 32 in the world -- differs from a drugs of abuse lab, which can turn out results very quickly. Due to the necessary confirmation process and data entry, Eichner says certain samples can take time to analyze.

In Silva's case, from the time the lab received the sample to reporting the results, it took 22 days.

"We're totally different than a drugs of abuse lab," Eichner said. "If you look at a place like QUEST, they can get a sample in that day and get it on an instrument that night. That's not realistic in the kind of work we do. We do much different work with much different instruments. If you're comparing the turnaround time in the WADA community to the drugs of abuse community, you're not doing a fair comparison.

"One thing I will never apologize for is sending an adverse finding to one of our clients that may take a little bit longer than we would have liked. We will never send a report before it was ready and sometimes they can take longer, depending on the substances we are trying to confirm."

According to NSAC executive director Bob Bennett, he has spoken with Eichner regarding a quicker turnaround on NSAC administered tests. Bennett said that beyond unique circumstances, his expectation is to receive results in seven business days.

"The NSAC is constantly making strides to improve our policies and procedures," Bennett said. "It's a very unfortunate situation that our out-of-competition testing took place on (Jan. 9) and I just received the results yesterday. Typically, it doesn't take three weeks. Obviously, that's unacceptable.

"Dr. Eichner and I have come to an agreement that in the future, I'll get these results in seven working days. Barring extreme circumstances, I should get them in seven days."

Silva and his team have already inquired about testing the 'B' sample from Silva's positive test. Silva was also tested out-of-competition on Jan. 19 and again on the night of the fight. Those results are unavailable at this time.

"They wanted the 'B' sample to be analyzed by a second lab," Bennett told ESPN.com. "We can't accommodate them because that's not keeping with WADA standards, but we did inform them that should they want to have the 'B' sample done, they are welcome to fly to Salt Lake City, observe the 'B' sample to make sure it wasn't tampered with and wait there until the results come in."

Bennett said he relayed Silva's team its options on Tuesday and has not heard back yet. In light of the results, UFC president Dana White promised to support Silva, and that he would get his due process. He also said the fighter will continue his role as coach of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil as the process plays out.

“We fully support the [NSAC]’s out-of-competition drug testing program, which we have financed when requested over the past two years," White said. "Testing of this nature is important to help keep the sport clean. [Dr. Daniel Eichner] at the laboratory in Salt Lake City has now explained the timing of Anderson’s test results and why the Commission and the UFC did not receive the results until Feb. 3, after the fight.

“Once all the results have been made public and the Nevada State Athletic Commission has rendered its decision, we will respect the process and move forward accordingly.”

Zahabi: St-Pierre ready to resume sparring

February, 3, 2015
Feb 3
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Firas Zahabi, longtime head trainer to former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, still does not know whether the Canadian will ever fight again.

If St-Pierre does return, however, Zahabi will have no reservations regarding his two surgically repaired knees.

The problem was faulty mechanics, bad posture, tight muscles, bad range of motion. [Kelly Starrett] teaches more mobility, not by stretching, but by mobility exercises, using the principles of alignment. I wish I had learned this when I first started doing sports.

-- Trainer Firas Zahabi, on enlisting the services of physical therapist Starrett to correct the issues that have led to Georges St-Pierre's ACL injuries

Nearly one year after suffering the second ACL tear of his career, St-Pierre (25-2) is training every day, according to Zahabi. Earlier this month, St-Pierre posted a video to social media that shows him somersaulting into a forward flip in a gymnastics facility. He sticks the landing, in case you're wondering.

The 33-year-old Canadian tore his left ACL in March, three months after he vacated the 170-pound title to take an indefinite leave of absence. In 2011, he tore his right ACL but made a successful return with three title defenses.

Zahabi said the second recovery from ACL surgery has gone extraordinarily well, far better than the first. He has enlisted the help of "mobility guru" Kelly Starrett, a physical therapist out of San Francisco.

"He's helping us get to the root of our problem," Zahabi said. "The problem was faulty mechanics, bad posture, tight muscles, bad range of motion. He teaches more mobility, not by stretching, but by mobility exercises, using the principles of alignment. I wish I had learned this when I first started doing sports."

In addition to overseeing St-Pierre's recovery, Zahabi has another star pupil, Rory MacDonald, scheduled for a high-profile bout against Hector Lombard at UFC 186 in April in Montreal.

MacDonald (18-2) had been promised a title shot at the event, but the UFC pulled the offer after Robbie Lawler and Johny Hendricks fought to a close split decision in December.

Zahabi recently spoke to ESPN.com on both St-Pierre's and MacDonald's respective situations.

ESPN.com: What is the latest on St-Pierre's recovery from ACL surgery, and what are the next steps for him?

Zahabi: He's doing amazing. We're training on a regular basis. Not fight training -- training for fun. He should be starting sparring in February. We're not going to rush it. We're going to see how it goes. The first injury, we had the [Carlos] Condit fight come up; the Montreal card was around the corner; we rushed it. We were really on the fence about coming back so quickly. We ended up doing it and we won three fights, but in my opinion, it was too fast. His body wasn't ready yet. Those fights were good, but they were a little messy. This time around, I want him to be 100 percent healthy, performing well -- and then he can decide if he wants to come back.

I think if we had a fight date it would be too stressful on him. He's been burning the candle on both ends for a long time. The man has the world record for most minutes in the Octagon. I think he needs a breather. And I hope he comes back. Listen, I'm the one guy who hopes he comes back more than anyone else. I love GSP as a fan. I know he loves fighting. But let's see how his body holds up. He's 33 years old now.

ESPN.com: Why do you want to see him return so much, as opposed to guaranteeing retirement on top, coming off a win?

Zahabi: The best times in my life were running GSP's camps. It was a great adventure. I really believe he can come back and win. He and Rory -- I believe in my fighters. I think they are the best in the world, and I want to prove it. I'm not thinking they're going to have a setback. I believe they will move forward. I would love to see Georges get his hand raised again. It's an amazing feeling.

ESPN.com: Is he anxious to start sparring again?

Zahabi: He's been doing this since he was six. I don't think he's anxious. Sparring is like riding a bike -- you haven't done it in a year -- so what? You get back on the bike and you ride. It's no big deal. Fighting is another thing. We're talking about millimeters there -- but just sparring? That will be no big deal for him. It will be his millionth round when he comes back to spar.
[+] EnlargeGSP
Al Powers for ESPNTrainer Firas Zahabi wants nothing more than to see his charge, Georges St-Pierre, return to the Octagon from a long layoff due to injury with his hand raised.
ESPN.com: Is he watching UFC fights during this time off or is he taking a clean break?

Zahabi: He tunes in. We talk about the fights, sure. He's a UFC fighter. We all watch the fights, regardless of whether our guys are on it or not.

ESPN.com: When he sees a title fight between Lawler and Hendricks, does a part of him still say, 'That's my belt?'

Zahabi: Georges never really cared about the belt. Don't get me wrong; he cared when he won it but for him, it was about beating the guy. That's what it was about. He never spoke to me about the belt, he always spoke to me about the guy he was fighting. 'I've got to beat this guy. If he does this, I'll do that.' I think that's what made him so successful. He always looked at the task ahead and let the rest take care of itself. I've learned that a lot from Georges. Focus on what you can control and I think that's what Rory is doing right now. So he lost a title fight. He didn't cry or whine. All we're talking about right now is Lombard and that gives me confidence.

ESPN.com: Are you more or less confident in St-Pierre's return to the Octagon than you were six months ago?
[+] EnlargeMacDonald
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesTrainer Firas Zahabi believes Rory MacDonald has done his part to earn a coveted UFC welterweight title shot.
Zahabi: I feel the same. I hate to give you a boring answer, but I believe he has a lot of competitive juices in him. Once he gets back to sparring and in the flow of things, the bug is going to bite him again. Is he going to do it? Yes or no. But I'm sure of one thing: the bug is going to bit him. He's a competitive human being and you can't just turn that off. He's in phenomenal shape. His physical conditioning is ridiculously good right now.

ESPN.com: What was your take on the UFC pulling back the offer of MacDonald's title shot?

Zahabi: I think the UFC is doing what's best for the fans and I'm OK with that -- but I believe what's best for the fans is to see Rory fight. They want to see Rory fight the champion. It hurts when it happens. I was upset. Not that I was going to cry or anything, but I was like, 'Wow, We've got to go into another fight before the title.' That's life. I think Rory has to petition the fans for a title shot. At the end of the day, the UFC was going to do what fans want. Fans pay for the fights, they but the ticket. Fighters want to get paid, thy have to give fans what they want. Fans drive this sport, that's the bottom line. We have to get the fans on our side.

You look at (UFC featherweight) Conor McGregor; people say he hasn't won enough fights. One, he fights unbelievably. Two, fans want to see him fight Jose Aldo.

ESPN.com: Does that affect your approach to MacDonald's fight against Lombard? The title shot will go to either MacDonald or possibly Hendricks, who fights Matt Brown in March.

Zahabi: That goes without saying. They are going to take the guy who is more impressive. I've been living in the sport for a long time. It's not a shocker to me. If someone goes in there and does something incredible in one of these two fights and the fans are moved, that's the guy who is going to get the title shot. It's not an easy life to balance that in a fight. In the end, you have to grow thick skin. On fight night, people ask me what's going to happen, I don't know. Nobody knows.

Mein just 'wants to hurt' Alves

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Mike Pyle, Jordan MeinAl Powers for ESPNRising welterweight Jordan Mein, right, squares off with Thiago Alves on Saturday at UFC 183.
LAS VEGAS -- Name this mixed martial artist: Young phenom out of Northwestern Canada who turned into a legitimate UFC welterweight. New-breed fighter, trained all disciplines at a young age, and is a potential future titleholder.

The popular answer would probably be Rory MacDonald. An equally correct response, however, would be Jordan Mein.

Mein (29-9) is poised for a breakout year in 2015, beginning with a main-card matchup against Thiago Alves (20-9) at UFC 183 on Saturday inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Mein, 25, is somewhat used to comparisons in the media between him and MacDonald (18-2). They are the exact same age and have followed a similar career arc.

By fate, Mein actually made his professional debut against MacDonald when they were both 16 years old, living about a nine-hour drive apart from each other. MacDonald won via submission.

"Oh yeah, lots," said Mein, on whether he's still asked about fighting MacDonald in 2006. "He was a rising young guy and so was I. My dad heard about him and said, 'Let's bring him to Lethbridge, [Alberta] to fight in Rumble in the Cage. It was at the Enmax Centre. I lost in front of all my family and friends and I was just crushed, but it was a good experience for me."

With MacDonald closing in on a potential UFC title shot early this year, one might think Mein would be eager to do the same. Same age, similar background -- an 'if-he-can-do-it-why-can't-I-do-it?' sort of feeling.

Such is not the case for Mein, however, who is coming off a 2-0 campaign in 2014 -- including a 72-second knockout over veteran Mike Pyle.

"I've never really been like I have to get a streak of five quick wins together," Mein said. "I really just want to hurt the guy I'm fighting. I really want those [UFC fight night] bonuses.

"I'd rather put it all on the table than sit back and play the points game, which gets you wins and that's important in certain parts of your career. But I think [Alves and I] are both coming off a win. Why not go out and put it all out there? In the past, I've thought about just winning and scoring points but after the fight, I wasn't satisfied. It's very relieving to let it all out there, win or lose."

Mein continues to train in Lethbridge, under the guidance of his father and longtime head trainer, Lee Mein. Lee opened the Canadian Martial Arts Centre in the basement of their family home when Jordan was six years old. He grew up on the mats, studying movement and training techniques.

From a very young age, fighting in the UFC felt like an attainable goal for Mein. He was constantly around fighters who had done it. It wasn't a pipe dream that felt light years away. It was a tangible thing that existed right in front of him. He fought his first kickboxing match at age 11, within the Rumble in the Cage promotions Lee founded.

Lee, 47, will be in his son's corner this weekend, after being absent during Jordan's last fight in August. Lee was arrested the day before the fight and charged with sexual battery. The charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor and Lee received a 90-day deferred sentence.

Saturday represents a major fight for the son-father duo, as Mein has set a goal to continue appearing in UFC co-main events or, at worst, main cards. An exciting win over a former title challenger in Alves would certainly help his chances in doing so.

"Like I said after my last fight, I want to stay in that co-main slot," Mein said. "I don't think a win over Alves does much for me in the rankings, but I think the UFC would look at me beating a name, and beating him impressively, as a reason to put me back in that co-main event slot. That's where I want to be."

Expect CM Punk's foe to be 'competitive'

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta doesn't know who CM Punk, Phil Brooks, will fight in his professional mixed martial arts debut -- but he promises it will be someone "competitive."

The UFC signed the longtime professional wrestler to a contract late last year, despite the fact Brooks has zero professional MMA experience.

The 36-year-old is preparing for his Octagon debut at Roufusport in Milwaukee, although no date has been announced. Brooks expects to compete at middleweight. Fertitta said the bout will likely fill a pay-per-view co-main event.

I think it has to be somebody with some level of credentials. It's not just going to be some guy off the street. It's going to be somebody who is a professional mixed martial artist -- certainly somebody who MMA media will recognize and know.

-- UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, on CM Punk's (Phil Brooks) debut MMA opponent

Speculation has run rampant regarding who Brooks will face in his debut. Several UFC fighters have already requested that chance, prompting some to wonder whether an athletic commission would even sanction such a matchup.

Others to publicly campaign for the bout include former major league baseball player Jose Canseco and actor Jason David Frank, who is best known for his portrayal of the "Green Power Ranger."

Fertitta recently told ESPN.com he will lean heavily on UFC matchmaker Joe Silva in terms of booking Brooks' first professional fight, but he offered his thoughts on the type of opponent he envisions for Brooks.

"I think it has to be somebody with some level of credentials," Fertitta told ESPN.com. "It's not just going to be some guy off the street. It's going to be somebody who is a professional mixed martial artist -- certainly somebody who MMA media will recognize and know."

When asked if the UFC will go outside of its current roster to find the right fit for Brooks, Fertitta responded, "most likely."

"But I'm going to defer to Joe Silva," Fertitta said. "We'll let him bring two to three names to the table and we'll figure it out from there. But I guarantee you it will be a competitive guy."

Shortly after the UFC deal was announced, Brooks, who has trained in karate and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, told ESPN.com he was confident the promotion wouldn't go too hard on him to start, but said he was willing to fight anyone.

"They will give me a fight that makes sense -- unless this thing is a big rib on me and they have me fight Anderson Silva right away," Brooks said. "I could tell you what the outcome of that fight would be.

"Only time will tell, but if I had to guess who's standing across the Octagon from me, it's probably a young kid with around the same experience as myself."

In terms of the logic behind signing a professional wrestler to his MMA debut inside the UFC cage, Fertitta said he expected some resistance to it but considers it to be fighter development -- something the UFC has done since its beginning.

"We knew there was going to be backlash," Fertitta said. "At the end of the day, we did our research and we talked to the people he's trained with. We're going to find out what he can bring to the table. We're confident he has the skills to fight. We don't know exactly what level yet. Sometimes, you've got to invest in what we call 'fighter development.' We've done it before and guys have developed into very competitive fighters, and we've done it where guys have not."

UFC CEO interested in signing 'Cyborg'

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Cristiane JustinoDave Mandel/Sherdog.comRepresentatives for Cris "Cyborg" Justino have been in negotiations with UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta.
Cris "Cyborg" Justino is currently involved in contract negotiations with Zuffa, parent company of the UFC, members of both sides have confirmed to ESPN.com.

Justino (12-1) is the current featherweight champion of all-female promotion Invicta FC, which has strong business ties to Zuffa and airs on UFC's Fight Pass. Justino has one fight remaining on her Invicta FC contract.

UFC CEO Lorenzo Feritta told ESPN.com he has been in negotiations with Justino's representatives the past two weeks. The potential deal, which has not been signed, would keep Justino, 29, under the Invicta FC banner -- while also keeping alive a potential megafight against UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey in the Octagon.

"We certainly have an interest in Cyborg fighting for us," Fertitta said. "We feel that down the road, there is a possibility of a big fight between her and Ronda, but there are still a lot of things that need to happen.

"She needs to prove she can get down to 135 pounds before we would take the risk of making that fight happen. Obviously, if she came over and didn't make the weight, it would be a disaster."

George Prajin, Justino's manager, confirmed ongoing negotiations with Zuffa, but stressed his current focus is to get Justino back in the cage as soon as possible. The Brazilian champion has not competed in professional mixed martial arts since she won the inaugural Invicta FC title in a TKO win against Marloes Coenen in July 2013.

"One thing I can say is that Lorenzo and Zuffa have been very professional during these negotiations," Prajin said. "And they have been respectful to Chris, which is probably what's actually keeping us at the table."

A potential fight between Rousey (10-0) and Justino, widely considered the top two female fighters in the world, has tantalized the sport for years.

The two appeared to be on a collision course earlier in their respective careers, when Rousey competed at 145 pounds under the Strikeforce banner. Justino held the Strikeforce title from 2009 to 2011.

Circumstances never came together, however. In late 2011, Justino received a one-year suspension after testing positive for steroids immediately after a knockout win against Hiroko Yamanaka. In mid-2012, Rousey dropped to the 135-pound bantamweight division, where she won the Strikeforce title in a submission win over Miesha Tate.

The biggest issue, among several at this point, is weight. Rousey has settled into the 135-pound division with four UFC title defenses. Justino has started previous attempts to cut to 135 pounds, but struggled. A recent ankle injury prompted Justino to abandon the cut at this time. Her next fight will take place at 145 pounds.

Fertitta said the UFC has not softened its stance on booking a Rousey-Justino fight at a catchweight. Justino would have to prove she could make 135 pounds before entering the Octagon. Currently, the UFC does not promote a female featherweight division.

"I feel fairly positive if Cyborg can get to 135 pounds, we will be able to make that fight," Fertitta said. "[The Rousey fight] has to happen at 135 pounds."

Prajin said he did not wish to discuss Justino's potential cut to 135 pounds at this time. He did acknowledge that any pending deal with Zuffa would keep a Rousey fight alive.

"A deal would give Cris the freedom to shine at 145 pounds, while also keeping the opportunity open to fight in the UFC," Prajin said. "We're not fortune-tellers. We just have to let things happen. At this time, all we're concerned with is her fighting as soon as possible. We'll see what happens from there. Cris is a 145-pound champion. Ronda is a 135-pound champion. A lot of things have to happen in order to see that fight."

Bendo coach on loss, possible move to 170

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
If you haven't heard, Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone defeated Benson Henderson via unanimous decision in a UFC lightweight contest on Sunday in Boston. All three judges scored the bout for Cerrone 29-28.

Henderson's trainer, John Crouch, didn't agree with them. When the fight ended, Crouch had it three rounds to zero in favor of his guy. Plenty of media members (and fans) also scored the fight for Henderson (21-5).

Crouch, however, isn't going to argue with those who thought Cerrone won. It all depends, he says, on what one looks for in a fight. And unfortunately in mixed martial arts, there is not a 100 percent, clearly defined way to judge a fight.

"I'm not complaining," Crouch told ESPN.com. "Ben has been in close fights before and people have disagreed with it. It happens. Until we can agree what is worth what -- what the values are of certain things -- there's no way to fix the system. We don't know what to tell the judges to judge. They're just going by what they think."

Until we can agree what is worth what -- what the values are of certain things -- there's no way to fix the system. We don't know what to tell the judges to judge. They're just going by what they think.

-- Trainer John Crouch, on MMA scoring, and what he feels was a questionable loss by Benson Henderson to Donald Cerrone

In a social media post on Tuesday, Henderson, like Crouch, also took the high road on the decision and strongly hinted at a potential move to welterweight. Crouch spoke more about the decision and Henderson's comments to ESPN.

ESPN.com: Walk us through your thought process as the fight progressed, in terms of the scoring.

Crouch: I thought we had every round. I was actually really surprised by the decision. I saw some other people thought Cerrone had won, so I guess it was just that close of a fight. I thought we had done more.

ESPN.com: Were you happy with Henderson's overall performance? Was it the kind of fight you wanted going in?

Crouch: I thought it was good. We had planned on trying to break Cowboy's rhythm and that's what happened the whole fight. Those little kicks, changing levels -- Cowboy really thought we were going to try to take him down and I wanted Ben to at least try, whether we got it or not I didn't care. I thought [Henderson] felt comfortable the whole time.

ESPN.com: Do you get outraged about a decision like this or is it just one of those things, "Didn't go our way tonight?"

Crouch: It's frustrating because you don't know what's worth what. People want to say Ben lost the second round because of a takedown. Well, the takedown lasted 20 seconds and Donald didn't do anything. Ben popped right back up. Is that any more dominant than 20 seconds of Ben kicking his leg up and not letting him do his thing, which is what happened the whole fight? Donald felt off-balance because of us. It wasn't because he had a bad day. If you HAVE to hit a takedown to win, then that's what we'll do -- but nobody knows. It's personal opinion.

The problem is that it's not like football. What were the Seattle Seahawks earlier this year, 6-4? Everybody said they were terrible and they'd never make the Super Bowl. You don't get that chance in MMA. And now, with the Reebok [UFC partnership], Ben loses this split decision so he's not ranked No. 5 anymore. He's ranked No. 7. Well, his money just dropped from that. His next fight, his money just dropped and it's not a decision people agree on. If somebody thought he lost the fight that's their right, but these decisions are so important and I'm sorry to get long-winded but the fighters don't make any damn money as it is. Five people make good money. Ben was a world champion and he didn't make real good money. He made good money, but not the kind of money you'd think he'd make for being the best in the world at what you do, in a business that's making billions of dollars.

Fighters have to take the Reebok deal, right? There's no choice. That's not fair. That kind of thing should go through a player's representative. That doesn't happen in our sport. If you don't like it, then don't fight in the UFC. Well, come on. Where are fighters supposed to go?

ESPN.com: In a post on Tuesday, Henderson hinted at moving to welterweight (where he would then be re-ranked, regarding the Reebok deal comments). Have the two of you discussed this move and is it official?

Crouch: I didn't see the post, but I think Ben has been thinking about 170 for a long time. There are good matchups right now for him there. Cerrone is going to fight Khabib [Nurmagomedov] for a title shot -- that's great and well-deserved, by the way. But now what does that do for us? We have to fight Eddie Alvarez? Eddie is No. 10. Cowboy beat him up. We have to fight Gilbert Melendez? We already beat Gilbert. We've beat everybody. Do we have to jump down to fight someone at No. 13? It's frustrating. We're in a weird spot and it's not a happy spot for me.

ESPN.com: I've seen you mention before that his walk (non-fighting) weight is only around 175 pounds. You don't think the size difference at welterweight will be too much?

Crouch: Well, he's tired of cutting weight. I do think that's the base of it. But who knows? We'll see what matchups look like, talk with the powers that be and come up with something good. We've had 170-pounders in the gym, big ones, and Ben has held his own. He's very fast and at 170 he'd be super fast. He's strong. His cardio is better than most at 170 pounds. I don't feel bad about it at all. I've seen him with 170-pounders. Ultimately, I would love for him to get his belt back. I thought he beat Cowboy and he wanted that fight with Khabib. But we didn't and so here we are. We'll let it lay for a few; talk about it in a week or so.