MMA: BJ Penn

Ten UFC fights we want to see this year

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Anthony Pettis David Banks/USA TODAY SportsBlessing in disguise: An untimely injury might do more good than harm to Anthony Pettis' career.

The silver lining in not getting Jose Aldo versus Anthony Pettis in 2013: We get it in 2014, instead.

Fate apparently knew what it was doing last summer, when it scrapped a scheduled featherweight title bout between the two in August due to a Pettis injury. As good as that fight would have been then, it’s matured into a blockbuster event now.

Instead of Pettis temporarily dropping to 145 as a challenger, you have Aldo moving up to make a champion/champion fight. It gives Aldo a chance to chase history, as he would become just the third UFC fighter to win titles in multiple weight classes.

All things considered -- storyline, fighting styles, mainstream appeal -- Aldo versus Pettis is the second-best fight the UFC could promote right now, in my opinion. What’s the first? And what other fantasy matchups would I love to see? See below.

(Note: This list includes only fighters currently signed to the UFC.)

10. Junior dos Santos versus Alistair Overeem, heavyweight

From a competitive standpoint, this is probably the weakest option you’ll find on this list. They are heavyweights, anything can happen, etc., but it would be real hard to pick against dos Santos in this matchup. There is a history here, though, as you might recall. The two were supposed to fight for the title in May 2012 before Overeem failed a surprise drug test. It’s one of those fights that sells itself.

9. John Dodson versus Joseph Benavidez, flyweight

Two of, if not the best finishers in the flyweight division. Dodson’s lead pipe of a straight left versus Benavidez’s club of an overhand right -- and everything else these two do well. This fight would fly under the radar as far as casual fans are concerned, but with Demetrious Johnson proving to be so far ahead of the pack, this actually might be the most compelling matchup in the division.

8. Ronda Rousey versus Cat Zingano, female bantamweight

There is no concrete timetable for Zingano's return, but unless the UFC signs Invicta FC featherweight champion Cris Justino in her absence, the title shot should be waiting for her. Obviously, Rousey must get by former U.S. Olympic wrestler Sara McMann on Feb. 22 first. This fight was (and still is) intriguing due to Zingano's athleticism and finishing ability. Her strength and explosiveness will help in scrambles with Rousey, and she only needs a short window of opportunity to change the course of a fight.
[+] EnlargeLyoto Machida, Mark Munoz
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesLyoto Machida, right, and his karate style would likely mesh well with the fan-friendly, ultra-aggressive Vitor Belfort.
7. Nick Diaz versus Robbie Lawler, welterweight

The first encounter in 2004 was just perfect. Diaz taunting Lawler to the point referee Steve Mazzagatti tells him, “no more talking.” Lawler complaining of a groin kick and Diaz accusing him of faking right in the middle of the fight. The step back counter knockout for Diaz. Little brother Nate Diaz with the bowl-cut, running into the cage afterward. How can anyone not want to see this again?

6. Renan Barao versus Dominick Cruz, bantamweight

Sorry, but I can’t seem to let this one go. As good as Barao looks right now, is he as good as Cruz was in 2012, when he first went down due to injury? You could argue either side of that. Whenever Cruz comes back, I say make this fight. Why not? He’d almost come in with low expectations on him. Everything to gain, little to lose. A “tuneup” fight would actually probably put him under more pressure.

5. Jon Jones versus Daniel Cormier, light heavyweight

Extremely marketable fight, obviously. I have a suspicion plenty of people will pick Cormier to win this matchup, but realistically, if they had to bet the farm on it, they’d change the pick to Jones. When the chips are down for reals, at 205 pounds, you don’t bet against Jones -- even though it would be real tempting to do it with Cormier.

4. Lyoto Machida versus Vitor Belfort, middleweight

Belfort’s offense versus Machida’s defense is one of the most tantalizing battles we could hope to witness in the UFC this year. Chris Weidman is the undisputed king at 185 pounds -- he wears the crown -- but in terms of just a good, old-fashioned, definition of the term “fight,” nothing is better at middleweight than Belfort versus Machida.

3. BJ Penn versus Conor McGregor, featherweight

The two losses to Frankie Edgar became personal for Penn because he despised the way he performed in them. So even though we can all think of better matchups for him than a third meeting with Edgar, he deserves a chance at that redemption. Win or lose, a matchup against the loud, cocky, talented new kid would be outstanding to watch start to finish and it would generate plenty of interest.

2. Jose Aldo versus Anthony Pettis, lightweight

Already discussed this one. Probably my favorite fight here, stylistically. In addition to having the physical tools to match Aldo (which is quite rare), Pettis has the mentality. He’s not a guy who might just “survive” Aldo -- he’ll push him, even in the first round. And that’s something we all want to see.

1. Jon Jones versus Cain Velasquez, heavyweight

This is it. The No. 1 fight the UFC can promote, currently, post-Georges St-Pierre/Anderson Silva. No other matchup could generate as much pay-per-view revenue, and with good reason. Jones is the pound-for-pound best, while Velasquez is considered the “baddest man on the planet.” Both dominant champs would have to adjust for the other. For Jones, it would be a shot at his GOAT quest -- capturing the most iconic title in mixed martial arts. It’s unlikely to happen this year, with Velasquez currently sidelined and Jones focused on light heavyweight, but as long as both keep winning, people will talk and debate this matchup.

A history of the UFC rematch

December, 24, 2013
By Andrew R. Davis
ESPN Stats & Information
Royce Gracie and Ken ShamrockNagao SusumuThe "Gracie challenge" laid the groundwork for what became the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The UFC was to crown its first ever superfight champion on April 7, 1995, at UFC 5. Royce Gracie, the three-time tournament champion against Ken Shamrock, whose only loss was to the Brazilian jiu-jitsu master at UFC 1 in just 57 seconds. The two men fought for 36 minutes, with Shamrock gaining a takedown shortly into the fight and holding top position for the remainder of the 31-minute period. A five-minute overtime settled nothing and the fight was declared a draw. Despite being in top position, Shamrock landed 10 significant strikes (98 in total). And so began the legacy of the UFC rematch.

Over its 20-year history, the UFC has had more than 100 rematches. Some bouts such as Gracie versus Shamrock have changed the course of UFC history.

Battles that Changed History

UFC 52: Couture vs. Liddell 2

[+] EnlargeChuck Liddell and Randy Couture
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesChuck Liddell, left, stopped Randy Liddell in the 1st round to win the UFC light heavyweight title in their rematch.
After coaching the first season of the Ultimate Fighter, Randy Couture versus Chuck Liddell 2 took place almost two years after their first matchup, won by Couture. Couture was poked in the eye early on, but after being checked by the doctors, the fight continued. Couture went on the offensive, but it was Liddell who would counter and knockout “The Natural” at 2:06 of the first round to win the UFC light heavyweight title. Liddell would avenge another loss in his first defense against Jeremy Horn, then defeat Couture, Renato Sobral and rival Tito Ortiz before falling to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 71. Both Liddell and Couture would be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.

UFC 65: Hughes vs. St-Pierre 2 (aka Bad Intentions)

Matt Hughes had defended his UFC Welterweight Title twice when he fought Georges St-Pierre for the second time at UFC 65. Hughes won the first matchup at UFC 50 by way of armbar, with one second remaining in the opening round. In the rematch, St-Pierre dominated, outstriking Hughes 45-10 and landing a brutal head kick and punches to dethrone the champion. Hughes would fight St-Pierre at UFC 79 and lose again, his last shot at a UFC title.

UFC 77: Silva vs. Franklin 2 (aka Hostile Territory)

[+] EnlargeAnderson Silva and Rich Franklin
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesAnderson Silva, right, destroyed Rich Franklin in their rematch, finishing him in the 2nd round to keep the UFC middleweight title.
In 2006, Anderson Silva was relatively unknown to the UFC audience when he UFC fought Rich Franklin, who was making his third title defense. Silva destroyed “Ace” in the clinch, landing 26 of 28 strikes, ending with a devastating knee at 2:59 of the first round. The rematch would take place in Franklin’s hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the result was just the same. Silva was 27 of 29 from clinch position, ending the fight with knees to the body at 1:07 of Round 2. Silva would defend the title eight more times before being knocked out by Chris Weidman at UFC 162, leading to Saturday night’s rematch.

UFC 100: Lesnar vs. Mir 2

By November 2008, Brock Lesnar had become the UFC heavyweight champion. But there was one man who had his number: Frank Mir. Mir defeated Lesnar by heel hook at UFC 81, and after Mir became interim champion, it set up the rematch at the UFC’s century mark event. Lesnar would control the action from the opening bell, bloodying Mir and outstriking the interim champ 47-4 in significant strikes. Lesnar would make one more title defense before health issues and losing the title led to his departure from MMA in 2011.

UFC 100 would be a night of redemption for Lesnar, much like these rematches.

Battles of Redemption

UFC 49: Belfort vs. Couture 2 (aka Unfinished Business)

Randy Couture was the UFC light heavyweight champion when he defended his title against Vitor Belfort at UFC 46 in January 2004. The end of the fight was marred in controversy when the doctor halted the bout just 49 seconds into the opening round because of a cut on Couture’s eyelid from a Belfort punch. Belfort was awarded the title because of the doctor stoppage, resulting in an immediate rematch in August. In the rematch, Couture gained two takedowns and damaged Belfort on the ground, ultimately leading to a doctor’s stoppage after the third round. Couture landed 33 of his 50 significant strikes on the grounded Belfort.

UFC 63: Hughes vs. Penn 2

UFC 46 also saw another title change in the co-main event when BJ Penn submitted Matt Hughes to win the UFC welterweight title. Penn would leave the UFC because of contractual issues, but would return in March 2006. He would again fight Hughes at UFC 63, but the result was much different. Hughes was the UFC welterweight champion, and proved why in defeating Penn by TKO stoppage in the third round. They would rematch once more in 2010 with Penn winning by KO 21 seconds into the fight.

UFC 83: Serra vs. St-Pierre 2

[+] EnlargeGeorge St-Pierre
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesAfter losing to Matt Serra at UFC 69, Georges St-Pierre stopped Serra in the rematch a year later to regain the UFC welterweight title.
There’s something about UFC upsets and guys from Long Island. Long before Weidman and Silva, there was Matt Serra. Serra won season 4 of the Ultimate Fighter, meaning he would get a crack at Georges St-Pierre and the UFC welterweight title. Serra would pull the upset, but eventually would face St-Pierre again at UFC 83. The rematch was again one-sided, this time to “GSP” as he took Serra down four times and landed 42 significant strikes to Serra’s three en route to a second round stoppage due to knees. St-Pierre would remain the UFC welterweight champion until vacating the title on Dec. 13.

UFC 148: Silva vs. Sonnen 2

The matchup against Weidman will be Silva’s third rematch in his MMA career. In his second set of rematches in 2010 and 2012, Silva fought Chael Sonnen and picked up two victories. But the first fight was three minutes away from going to Sonnen. At UFC 117, Sonnen gained takedowns in each of the first three rounds and had Silva on his back in the final round up on the cards when Silva forced a tap out with a triangle choke and armbar. Many thought Sonnen had Silva’s number when the two would rematch at UFC 148, but the Brazilian had other ideas. Sonnen landed 76 total strikes on Silva while the champion threw just two, missing both. But Silva battled in Round 2, eventually striking after a Sonnen slip and finishing the fight with knees against the cage.

All of those battles took place over time, but some rematches remain timeless for their bad blood and exciting results.

Timeless Rematches

UFC 61: Ortiz vs. Shamrock 2 (aka Bitter Rivals)

While Ronda Rousey-Miesha Tate may be the preeminent feud of today’s MMA, it all started with Ortiz and Ken Shamrock. The two fought at UFC 40 in 2002, at the time the most watched UFC PPV of all time. The fight was one-sided as Ortiz dominated Shamrock for three rounds before the fight was stopped. The rematch took place 3 1/2 later at UFC 61 after the rivalry reignited on Season 3 of the Ultimate Fighter. Ortiz, in the middle of his career, beat the aging Shamrock with strikes 68 seconds into the first round. They would rematch in October 2006, and again Ortiz pounded Shamrock into a stoppage. But the rivalry and the bad blood is what kept the feud going for almost 10 years.

UFC 66: Liddell vs. Ortiz 2

[+] EnlargeChuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesTito Ortiz, right, wasn't able to avenge his defeat to Chuck Liddell, falling again in the rematch 2 and a half years later.
Ortiz made another enemy in Liddell in 2004 when the two met at UFC 47. Liddell outlanded Ortiz in both rounds of the fight, eventually putting the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” down with strikes at 38 seconds into Round 2. The rematch would take place almost 2 1/2 years later at UFC 66 for Liddell’s light heavyweight title. Liddell’s striking was again on display, landing 49 significant strikes to 21 for Ortiz. The end came in the third round with Liddell in mount position raining strikes down on Ortiz. The two were scheduled to fight at UFC 115 after coaching Season 11 of the Ultimate Fighter, but Ortiz was injured and replaced by Rich Franklin.

UFC 71: Liddell vs. Jackson 2

In 2003, Liddell was sent to Japan by the UFC to represent the company in the PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix. Liddell would face “Rampage” Jackson in the semifinals and the winner was expected to face Wanderlei Silva in the final. Jackson would defeat Liddell by TKO due to corner stoppage in the second round. Fast forward to 2007, and Jackson became the No. 1 contender to Liddell’s UFC light heavyweight title. Once again, Jackson would catch Liddell with big punches, putting him to the mat and winning the bout 1:53 into the first round.

UFC 125: Edgar vs. Maynard 2 (aka Resolution)

The rivalry between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard began in April 2008, when Maynard beat Edgar by unanimous decision. Edgar would go on to win the UFC lightweight title from Penn in April 2010 and would defend it against Penn in August. After winning that rematch, it was time for UFC 125 and a rematch against Maynard, the only man to beat him. Edgar was knocked down three times in the opening round and Maynard looked to be on his way to another win. But Edgar battled back, outstriking Maynard 95-71 in significant strikes and earning a split decision draw. The two men would fight one more time in October 2011, but this time the clear winner was Edgar by fourth-round knockout.

This Saturday night, UFC 168 is headlined by not one, but two of these rematches. Will they be battles of redemption for the challengers, Silva and Tate? Or will Weidman and Rousey continue to cement their places as champions and put their foes out of the title picture for good? Either way, these fights will become part of the ever growing legacy of the UFC rematch.

With elbow OK, Bendo to resume training

September, 7, 2013
McNeil By Franklin McNeil

Former lightweight champion Benson Henderson suffered no structural damage to the right elbow that Anthony Pettis placed in an armbar during the first round of their title bout Aug. 31 at UFC 164 in Milwaukee.

Henderson received the diagnosis from Brian Shafer, a Phoenix-based elbow specialist who also serves as team physician for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“My elbow isn’t going to be an issue,” Henderson said Friday. “Dr. Shafer said I can resume training immediately but to take it slow and steady for a couple of weeks and do my rehab work. Of course, I am anxious to get going full speed again, but I will be smart and patient about it as well.”

Henderson was seeking to successfully defend his lightweight title for a UFC-record fourth time; he shares the record of three with BJ Penn. But Henderson’s hopes of breaking the mark were dashed when Pettis locked him in an armbar at 4:31 of the opening round.

“I felt his arm snap,” Pettis said after defeating Henderson for the second time in a title bout. “And he said, ‘Tap, tap, tap.’”

In their first meeting, on Dec. 16, 2010, Pettis beat Henderson by unanimous decision to claim the WEC 155-pound championship.

Though Pettis lifted the UFC belt from Henderson with an impressive showing, he did not leave the Octagon unscathed -- suffering a sprained right knee. It is expected that Pettis’ injury will require seven to eight weeks of rehabilitation to heal completely.

Pettis is slated to make his first UFC lightweight title defense against top contender TJ Grant. A date for the fight has not yet been set.

No love lost between Ellenberger, MacDonald

July, 22, 2013
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
Jake EllenbergerAl Powers for ESPN.comNo need reminding Jake Ellenberger to come out swinging: He's been taking shots at Rory MacDonald.

It’s hard to put a finger on, but there is something about Rory MacDonald that just rubs Jake Ellenberger the wrong way.

Maybe it has to do with MacDonald calling out certain fighters; maybe it’s the comparisons to welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre or maybe it’s the perceived lack of quality opposition on his résumé. It might be all of the above. Whatever the reason, Ellenberger doesn’t like it and plans to knock the highly touted welterweight contender down a peg Saturday night at UFC on Fox 8 in Seattle.

“He calls out BJ Penn, who’s a good friend of mine; your days of calling out guys are over,” Ellenberger told “You’re claiming to be a top-echelon guy, top five in the world, and you’re asking for who you’re going to fight -- Carlos Condit. No! That’s not how this game works.

“If you’re the best in the world you take any fight that UFC offers and prove that you’re the best in the world. That’s how your training partner Georges St-Pierre does it, that’s why he’s the best in the world.

“For people to be saying that Rory MacDonald is the next GSP is absolutely ridiculous. He’s got a very tough fight on his hands; that’s for sure. I’m more than ready, more than excited.”

MacDonald is ranked sixth among welterweights by Ellenberger sits at No. 4.

But being the higher-ranked fighter doesn’t soothe Ellenberger’s feelings toward MacDonald. He just doesn’t care much for the 23-year-old, who is currently on a four-fight win streak.

When Ellenberger compares his professional record to MacDonald’s he shakes his head in disbelief. How could anyone reasonably put MacDonald in his league, Ellenberger seems to say to himself.

Going down the list of opponents on his ledger, Ellenberger comes across Jay Hieron, Pat Healy, Rick Story, John Howard, Jake Shields, Diego Sanchez and Nathan Marquardt.

For people to be saying that Rory MacDonald is the next Georges St-Pierre is absolutely ridiculous. He's got a very tough fight on his hands; that's for sure. I'm more than ready, more than excited

-- Jake Ellenberger

Ellenberger and MacDonald have faced Condit and Mike Pyle. But the only other highly recognizable opponents MacDonald can claim are Penn and Nate Diaz, each of whom are natural lightweights.

As far as Ellenberger is concerned MacDonald has not accomplished enough in UFC to warrant the hype surrounding him. It was enough to make Ellenberger take to Twitter in June and ask, "Which round is Rory going to melt?"

That wasn’t the first time Ellenberger had taken a shot at MacDonald’s worthiness as a high-ranking 170-pound contender -- he revealed his position during interviews to promote the bout. Each time MacDonald dismissed the verbal jabs as a small talk, not worthy of a response.

There comes a point when even the usually quiet, mild-mannered MacDonald can no longer brush off the verbal assaults anymore. And when Ellenberger took matters to Twitter, MacDonald concluded taking it lying down anymore.

So MacDonald turned on his computer, signed into his Twitter account and responded to Ellenberger’s latest insult. MacDonald said that Ellenberger talks too much, questioned his ability to take a shot on the chin and promised to shut him up in the cage.

Ellenberger succeeded: He touched a nerve inside MacDonald, something no other fighter had been able to do. MacDonald’s reaction caught Ellenberger by surprise.

It took a few minutes to figure out his next psychological tactic against MacDonald. But Ellenberger eventually concluded his work was done -- he had gotten in MacDonald’s head, gotten him riled up. He’d achieved his goal.

“I didn’t expect him to respond, but he did exactly what I was hoping he would -- take it personal,” Ellenberger said. “For me it was for laughs, but either way, whether I said something or not, we’re still going to fight.

“It’s funny because it’s really not his personality. Everybody I know who knows him says he’s very quiet, very much to himself, very introverted. I was so happy that he kind of came out. I love it; I’m glad he said something.”

But if Ellenberger’s intent was to reveal a side of MacDonald that had not been seen before, he succeeded on that front as well. Engaging in prefight trash talk isn’t MacDonald’s style; he’s known to always keep his cool. But that wasn’t the case in June.

MacDonald admits to being caught off guard by Ellenberger’s taunting. He considers responding to Ellenberger’s taunts on Twitter a minor setback and promises it won’t happen again. But MacDonald added that some good did come out of the experience.

“Yeah, he had a lot to say about me. I didn’t see it coming,” MacDonald told “I heard what he had to say about me in a couple of interviews and on Twitter posts, but it really doesn’t change my mind as to the fight.

“I’m going to go in there and win this fight like any other, in devastating fashion. His words are just going to put more pressure on him and make it a bit of a harder fall from grace.

“It was kind of fun going back and forth on Twitter when you’re going through training camp and everything is kind of boring. But it won’t change anything on fight night. I’m still going to go in there and kick his ass.”

Desire to be champ again fueling Edgar

July, 2, 2013
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
Frankie EdgarRic Fogel for ESPNFormer UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar is hoping to snap a current three-fight losing skid.
It is being said that this is do-or-die time for Frankie Edgar, a must-win situation for his mixed martial arts career. Edgar, however, would beg to differ -- somewhat.

Currently riding a three-fight losing skid (all title bouts), Edgar is in serious need of a win. He will seek to right the ship Saturday night against crafty Charles Oliveira at UFC 162 in Las Vegas.

Is Edgar in a must-win situation? Sure. Is there weight on his shoulders? Yes. Is he feeling the pressure? No doubt. It all adds up to a sense of urgency.

But this sense of urgency is no different than what Edgar experiences before every bout. There was a sense of urgency on July 10, 2005, when he made his professional debut during an Underground Combat League fight in the Bronx, N.Y.

It was no different when Edgar faced Hermes Franca on July 19, 2008, at UFC Fight Night 14. Edgar stepped into the cage that evening for the first time with a blemish on his record -- Gray Maynard outmuscled him three months earlier en route to a unanimous decision.
[+] EnlargeEdgar/Maynard
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comThe last time Frankie Edgar had his hand raised was on Oct. 8, 2011 after pummeling Gray Maynard.

Then there were the title bouts: two wins against legendary BJ Penn, a draw with and knockout of Maynard, and the current losing streak -- two very close lightweight affairs against Benson Henderson and one, the most recent setback, to featherweight champion Jose Aldo.

Whether a title is on the line or not, the sense of urgency Edgar feels remains the same.

This prefight adrenaline rush comes from Edgar’s unwavering desire to become or remain a champion. And the only way to achieve this goal is to win the fight immediately in front of him. Nothing else -- what took place before or what might happen afterward -- matters.

“Your next fight is always the most important, so for me everything is on the line,” Edgar told “I’m very competitive and I want to win no matter what’s on the line.

“The fight’s on the line and that’s just as important to me as a title. I want to win this fight just as much as I want to win a title.”

Expect Edgar (15-4-1) to perform at his usual high level: precision striking, pinpoint takedowns, nonstop head movement and solid footwork. A three-fight losing skid has done nothing to diminish Edgar’s confidence, skills or work ethic.

This training camp has been as smooth as any before it. Edgar is feeling great heading into fight week. And with this camp being his second for a 145-pound contest, the weight cut proved easier – not that Edgar expressed having too much trouble making weight for his initial featherweight bout against Aldo.

“I’m a little more familiar on how to get my body down to featherweight,” Edgar said. “But I’m not cutting much weight at all.

“It doesn’t feel much different fighting at featherweight than it did at lightweight. I’m just a little stricter about what I’m putting in my body. Being it’s my second time doing this makes it a little easier.”

He's a dangerous opponent, long, rangy, with a diverse striking game and slick, slick submission game. There are no easy fights in UFC and I'm prepared [for Saturday].

-- Frankie Edgar, on his UFC 162 opponent Charles Oliveira

Edgar was a diminutive lightweight; he’s an average-sized featherweight. Which begs the question, is a bantamweight title shot in his future? Edgar isn’t ready to make any promises, nor will he rule anything out. The same goes for a return to lightweight.

Edgar is keeping all options on the table. The only nonnegotiable issue is becoming champion again. It’s his driving force, the thing that prevents him from taking this nontitle bout Saturday night lightly, the reason Oliveira (16-3) will get the best Edgar imaginable.

Oliveira has won only two of his six most recent fights. His name won’t be found on any top-10 featherweight lists. But the former lightweight, who failed to make weight in his most recent fight, is a skilled fighter.

“He’s a dangerous opponent, long, rangy, with a diverse striking game and slick, slick submission game,” Edgar said of Oliveira. “There are no easy fights in UFC and I’m prepared.

“I’ve fought the best in my last seven fights, they were all title fights. I will be ready for Charles.”

A victory will shut the door on the most difficult stretch of Edgar’s professional career to date. It also could open the discussion about a possible rematch with Aldo.
[+] EnlargeFrankie Edgar
Ric Fogel for ESPNFrankie Edgar, right, isn't ruling out a rematch with Jose Aldo -- or even a possible move down to bantamweight.

Edgar, who is ranked 10th among all mixed martial artists by, suffered a unanimous decision loss Feb. 2 to Aldo at UFC 156. But Edgar gave the No. 4-ranked fighter all he could handle during the encounter. Nearly every round was closely contested.

Aldo has expressed interest in moving to lightweight after his Aug. 3 title defense against Chan Sung Jung at UFC 163 in Rio de Janeiro. Nothing is definitive at this time, but it appears Aldo is on his way out the featherweight door.

A rematch with Aldo isn’t currently at the top of Edgar’s priority list -- Oliveira occupies that spot, but it’s somewhere in the back of his mind. Whether Aldo competes at featherweight or lightweight, it doesn’t matter to Edgar, as long as a title is on the line.

“My goal is always to be the champion,” Edgar said. “I really haven’t thought about what might happen in this division or the lightweight division as things change. I’m just worried about getting back to my winning ways and put myself in position to fight for a title.

“I’d love to fight Aldo again for the title, but we’ll see what happens.”

Lightweight contenders and pretenders

May, 29, 2013
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto

The UFC lightweight division is the deep end of the pool. It’s nondebatable.

According to the new rankings, a well-rounded talent like Jim Miller no longer cracks the Top 10. Same for Nate Diaz -- and he fought for the title six months ago. Athletic knockout artist Melvin Guillard is facing potential unemployment.

With as loaded as the division is, it’s pretty unbelievable Benson Henderson has already tied BJ Penn's record for all-time wins in a UFC lightweight title fight. Breaking that record in his next fight against TJ Grant is far from a given.

In 2011, I wrote a similar column to this, laying out the qualities it would take to beat Frankie Edgar. I ultimately said Henderson was the guy. I feel about 75 percent correct today. Edgar won that rematch, but you know. Spilled milk.

Question now is, who beats Henderson -- if anyone? Here are the lightweight contenders and pretenders, revisited.

The best of the rest: Mark Bocek, Guillard, Joe Lauzon, Miller, Ross Pearson.

These guys deserve to be in the conversation, but stars would really have to align for them to go all the way. Miller is terrific, but the evidence is there: When he runs into big, athletic lightweights he can’t push around, he struggles. I’d love to see him take his style to the featherweight division, which could use a mean, durable, bearded former lightweight willing to wear a farmer’s tan around. But Miller has long resisted the idea. We know Guillard is good for a handful of knockouts and an equal number of face palms Pearson could still develop, but he’s been beaten at his own game twice in his past five fights. Never a good sign.

That somebody that you used to know: Nate Diaz

Someone should probably stage an intervention for Diaz. Going back to his title fight against Henderson in December (not that long ago!), Diaz has tanked in back-to-back fights, talked about a return to welterweight (makes sense, given his vulnerability to bigger, stronger opponents) and been suspended for using a gay slur in a tweet (which he then said he wasn’t sorry about). How confident are you right now the Diazes aren’t at least thinking about a future WAR MMA card headlined by Nate? Not very, right?

The fantasy keeper league: Edson Barboza, Rafael Dos Anjos, Rustam Khabilov, Jorge Masvidal, Khabib Nurmagomedov

Every one of these guys is under 30 years old. Say you set up a fantasy keeper MMA league, where wins are worth one point and title wins are worth three. What order are you drafting these guys in? Tough call.

Barboza, Khabilov and Nurmagomedov are the Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson of the UFC lightweights. Of the three, there’s something I really like about Khabilov. Even without the first-round finishes, you can just tell this guy does everything well and he’s on opponents from start to finish. Barboza has made that weird jump from slightly overrated to underrated, thanks to a TKO loss to Jamie Varner. It seemed like everybody wanted to talk about this guy, despite the fact he barely, barely squeaked by Anthony Njokuani and Ross Pearson. Now, I don’t think we’re talking about him enough. It’s tough to pick a future champion in this very young group, but I like Khabilov’s chances the best, then probably Barboza.

The head case: Donald Cerrone

It’s possible nobody beats Cerrone when it comes to looking awesome in a win and then fairly terrible in a loss. Cerrone referenced a sports psychologist after his latest win over KJ Noons -- if you’re unaware, that’s been going on for a while now. When he’s on, he’s similar to other Greg Jackson fighters Jon Jones and Cub Swanson. He mixes it up, he reacts, he doesn’t think. Other times, it’s like he’s trying to solve for “x” out there and he seizes up.

At this point, I admit I’m skeptical of Cerrone ever holding the belt. He doesn’t fight particularly well in the big moments and quite frankly, he’s never been that guy who expresses a burning desire to be a champion anyway. Worth mentioning though, I thought he beat Henderson at WEC 43 in 2009. As far as controversial Henderson decisions go, that’s right up there.

The threats: Grant, Pat Healy, Gray Maynard, Gilbert Melendez, Josh Thomson

These guys are somewhat close to a title shot (with the exemption of Maynard, but I’m not willing to count him out). Thomson is going to make a lot of noise. He’s not afraid to ask for things right now because at 34, his window at a title is smaller than it used to be. Melendez will be around. He’s well-rounded, consistent, mentally tough and we know he can go five rounds, let alone three. I like Grant a lot. He’s got the power to hurt Henderson and change the fight. As good as Healy is, and I like the welterweight-to-lightweight move right now, he’s not quite as good as Grant, so if Grant falls to Henderson, it’d be tough to pick Healy over him. Interesting that these are some of the bigger guys at 155. Did small ball pack up and leave with Edgar?

The future champ: Anthony Pettis

What just happened? Pettis had been waiting around for a title shot forever. For various reasons, mostly Edgar rematches, it never happened.

So in a move to speed up his title hopes, he called Dana White and asked to drop to 145. He fights Jose Aldo on Aug. 3. It’s possible (not official) Henderson will defend the lightweight title against Grant 14 days later in Boston on Aug. 17. So basically, Pettis agreed to drop to a weight class he’s never fought in to earn a title shot just two weeks sooner, and the UFC signed off on it. Seems like we all could have handled that better.

Anyway, win or lose, I don’t think Pettis is long for 145 pounds. He has always seen 155 as his division and he’s confident he has Henderson’s number. I’ve always believed Henderson’s claim he got caught up in the moment of the last WEC fight ever and strayed from his game plan against Pettis. I think that’s real. I just don’t think it matters. Even if Henderson goes into a rematch with a strategy more reliant on his size and pressure, Pettis beats him. Bold prediction time: Pettis is your UFC lightweight champion at some point in the next 12-18 months.

Penn returns with something left to prove

December, 7, 2012
Gross By Josh Gross

Along the way, BJ Penn committed himself to doing only what he wanted. If it wasn't fun, it wasn't worth his time.

To the delight of many people over the past 11 years, that sometimes meant walking into a cage to fight.

So the 33-year-old former UFC welterweight and lightweight champion's decision to end a brief retirement, get off the couch and accept a bout with hotshot Canadian welterweight Rory MacDonald wasn't a surprise. Penn can be impulsive, and time is not on his side; he sought an itch and scratched it.

Oh, he wanted to return. He wanted to put young MacDonald in his place and take another crack at a Tristar Gym fighter. Penn also missed being mentioned in rarefied terms. He wanted that again -- a vain, revealing and honest admission. The same could be said over his concerns about legacy, which, to be fair, are hardly new.

Yet none of these things pushed boundaries, a Penn specialty. What did? Random amped-up drug testing administered by a group unaffiliated with the UFC. Via the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, Penn and MacDonald are the first fighters in mixed martial arts to undergo urine and blood testing for substances including EPO, human growth hormone and synthetic testosterone. On Wednesday, VADA tested Penn for the third time.

"If I was gonna make a comeback I wanted to make it as safe as I can,” the Hawaiian said last week in the run-up to Saturday’s UFC on Fox 5 event in Seattle. “I’m not saying Rory MacDonald is using steroids. That’s all it is. I’m protecting myself.”

Penn surely didn’t return to the UFC to be tested for drugs, but he wasn’t going to do so without being tested as rigorously as he wanted.

In a nutshell, whether it works out or not, this is how Penn has handled his career.

He angled to make it to the Octagon. He is among a select few fighters who can say he began his career there.

He pushed to fight for a UFC title and did in his fourth contest. Penn, however, wasn't ready for the moment.

He obtained a shot against Matt Hughes at 170 pounds. This time he shocked the world in his debut at the weight and captured the belt.

He coveted a contract with the UFC that allowed him to fight for Japan’s K-1 promotion. That didn’t happen, and it led to a contentious departure from the UFC and an odd sequence of matches that hurt the way his legacy is viewed. He wanted to fight at middleweight and light heavyweight, and he did. And he looked chubby and sluggish, infuriating as it was for fans who love him, away from the Octagon in the midst of his prime.

He desired the UFC welterweight title once more and re-signed with the promotion, though the belt never returned.

He aimed at the UFC lightweight title, the one that eluded him in his fourth fight. This played out the way he hoped when he ran through Jens Pulver.

Because fighting at lightweight, where he appeared dominant, wasn’t challenging enough, Penn eyed a rematch with Georges St-Pierre at 170. He suffered through a rough TKO after 20 minutes. All for an itch he wanted to scratch.
[+] EnlargeTBD
AP Photo/Eric JamisonBJ Penn bit off more than he could chew in a rematch with Georges St-Pierre.

Penn has come off like a happy warrior leading up to Saturday’s card.

He restocked his camp with old faces, tailored, like always, just the way he wants. One Penn associate described the fighter as being "so relaxed and confident. He hasn’t been like this in a while. I’m feeling good about it."

The Prodigy maintains a unique place among fighters. Admittedly not much of a stick-and-ball athlete, Penn was preternaturally talented for MMA. Speed, flexibility, balance, technique -- he possessed it all, yet on the eve of bout No. 27, scuffling at 1-3-1 since 2010, this is a man lamenting that his name is missing from discussions of the best, a man craving a lasting, meaningful legacy.

MacDonald, nearly a head taller than the Hawaiian, suggested thinking like that could get Penn hurt.

"He said he's fighting to get his legacy back," MacDonald said. "I don't know if it's true or not, if it's his motivation or not. But if that is true, if you're fighting for someone's opinion, for some status, it's the wrong reason to fight."

Penn, it so happens, wants his opponents to chirp. Last week he claimed it was wonderful that MacDonald called him fat, among other things. Said Penn: "I couldn't ask for more."

Looking directly at MacDonald during the final pre-fight news conference in Seattle on Thursday, Penn reiterated the point. He wanted to tell the young fighter that he better be ready to live up to his words.

So he did.

"I’m a glass half-empty kind of guy," Penn said. "I don’t want to be known as being good back in the day. I want to be one of the best. I still think I have something left to accomplish."

Move to Montreal paying dividends for MacDonald

December, 5, 2012
McNeil By Franklin McNeil

If the opportunity for a rematch with Carlos Condit presents itself, fast-rising welterweight contender Rory MacDonald will leap at it.

MacDonald wants that rematch, and isn’t shy about expressing his sentiment: Condit is the only fighter to beat him inside the Octagon. But don’t take MacDonald’s openness about wanting a rematch with Condit as evidence that he’s failing to focus on matters at hand. He has a fight Saturday night in Seattle with BJ Penn. And MacDonald is 100 percent determined to walk away from the cage that evening victorious.

The only reason he has mentioned Condit’s name over the past several weeks is that people have regularly requested his thoughts on the former UFC 170-pound interim titleholder.

And it is not part of MacDonald’s makeup to avoid answering questions truthfully.

“I answered those questions honestly,” MacDonald told “I would like to fight Carlos next; that’s my honest answer.

“I completely understand what’s in front of me Saturday night. That is 100 percent my focus: BJ Penn on Dec. 8. I’m just honest with myself and honest with everybody in the media asking me questions. I don’t want to give half-truths or beat around the bush when asked a question.”

Honestly, MacDonald (13-1) knows no other way to communicate. It’s an essential part of his character and has played a major part in his development as a mixed martial artist. MacDonald is just 23 years old, but his age should not be considered when measuring his maturity level. One month before his 21st birthday, MacDonald relocated from Kelowna, British Columbia, to Montreal in 2010.

He traveled across Canada to begin full-time training at TriStar gym. The decision to move was easy for MacDonald; it was made a few days after his first professional loss.

“If you watch that fight, you can see the intensity in my face,” MacDonald said of his first meeting with Condit, a third-round TKO on June 12, 2010, at UFC 112. “And I fought that way. It’s not my style and I paid for it that night. He beat the [crap] out of me.”

As a result of that loss, MacDonald -- being honest -- concluded he needed to make a major change in order to take his career to the next level.

“I’ve had a lot of experiences and I’ve learned from every one of them,” MacDonald said. “That’s made me the person I am today.

“Moving to Montreal was the biggest experience.”

While that decision was easy, MacDonald had been making tough decisions for several years. From the age of 16 he’d been living on his own. He’s an independent thinker, though wise enough to listen to and accept any point of view that might prove beneficial. This formula has served MacDonald well thus far as a professional fighter.

Having one of the best trainers in mixed martial arts, Firas Zahabi, in his corner, and several top fighters for sparring partners -- including UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre -- have helped MacDonald improve in all areas of fighting.

Being honest, an independent thinker, mature beyond his years, confident and physically talented has placed MacDonald on the cusp of MMA greatness. Defeating Condit in a rematch would go a long way toward achieving the high expectations many have for MacDonald, but first he must take care of business Saturday night.

Penn is the most determined he’s been in many years. The former UFC lightweight/welterweight champion is motivated to again have his name mentioned as an all-time MMA great.

And Penn isn’t just offering lip service to promote the bout. He’s in the best shape ever for a 170-pound fight.

“It’s good for him that he respected me enough that he actually worked a little bit and got himself in shape, because he’s going to need it,” MacDonald said.

“At the end of the day I can’t control what type of shape BJ is going to be in or what level of skill he possesses. I can only control myself. If I start worrying or stressing about things I can’t control that’s just going to be a damper or weight on my shoulders that I feel I don’t need.”

That’s just MacDonald being honest again. And it’s another reason why the odds favor him leaving the cage Saturday night with his hand raised.

Condit, who is coming off a unanimous-decision loss to St-Pierre at UFC 154 on Nov. 17, might want to pay close attention to MacDonald on Saturday. The two could be back in the cage for a rematch sometime in 2013.

And next time around, MacDonald won’t be overwhelmed by the moment or an inexperienced fighter inside the Octagon.

Matt Brown eyes fight-of-the-night bonus

December, 3, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Matt Brown is the protagonist in an adventure tale that’s still being told. His is a story with so many highs and lows, so many ebbs and flows that he can describe for you the gutter (in sincere detail) while sketching a general idea of the penthouse (his very own silo, maybe).

The plot is a continuously rolling thing that boils down to the essence of all human drama -- just stay alive. Only his story intersects with the fight game.

Toward the end of 2011, Brown lost a fight to Seth Baczynski, his fourth loss in five UFC bouts. All of the losses were of the submission variety. For a guy who’d already overcome so much in life -- addiction, overdosing on heroin, losing his father, a stint on “The Ultimate Fighter 7” -- it looked as if Brown was perhaps mortal after all.

But you don’t get a nickname like “The Immortal” unless you are ruthlessly resilient. To the UFC’s credit, it did not cut the Ohio native Brown, a blue-collar scrapper in the welterweight division. Instead, it threw him in the Octagon with another TUF alum in Chris Cope, and that was the beginning of Brown’s latest resurrection. He’s won all three of his bouts this year heading into his Dec. 8 fight with a similarly resilient Mike Swick.

From life on the bubble to an inspirational tale is heartwarming stuff, right? Not if you’ve never been into tidy Hallmark sentiments.

“I don’t really think about it,” Brown told “I’ve learned just [to] take it one fight at a time, to not worry about the past or the future, and just worry about what you’ve got to do today to be the best you can.”

A boring, staid statement like that in the hands of other men might test your immune system toward clichés.

But Brown is sincere. If you’ve listened to him talk at any point in his four years in the UFC, you know that he doesn’t get too high on the highs, nor too low on the lows. It truly is a “one foot in front of the other” proposition. He’s not eyeing the 170-pound belt, because he doesn’t do horizons. He doesn’t do animosity, trash talk or social media eavesdropping, either. In fact, between training with Robert Drysdale and Mark Meacher out in Las Vegas and his camp back in Ohio, he barely kept up with what was going on with the outside world.

For example, asked how it felt to hear the recently victorious John Hathaway calling out the winner of the match between him and Swick -- to be in a position where guys are trying to get to him, rather than the other way around -- Brown suppressed a yawn.

“I don’t care. I don’t pay attention to that stuff,” he says. Then it dawned on him, and he added: “I thought [Hathaway] and Matt Riddle had a little beef or something? I thought he was going to end up fighting Riddle.”

In other words, Dan Hardy (who had the beef with Riddle) and Hathaway are interchangeable to a guy who doesn’t put much thought into anything other than what’s in front of him. And right now that’s a nationally televised bout with Swick, who came back from a stomach ailment that sidelined him for 2½ years to knock out DaMarques Johnson in August.
[+] EnlargeMatt Brown and Luis Ramos
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comThough technically sound, Matt Brown has no qualms about mixing it up in all-out brawls.

“[Swick] presents a lot of challenges. He’s got fast hands, he’s an explosive guy,” Browns said. “He’s got a pretty solid punch that will hurt you pretty good. And he seems to have a good ground game. So yeah, all around, he’s pretty solid. He’ll give you a lot of problems on all aspects.”

Anybody who’s paid attention to Brown’s career knows that he’s technical, but he’s willing to brawl as well. He does brawl, because to him it’s never anything other than a fight. A Brown scrap is always a combination of technique, savagery, instinct and attrition. His in-cage gravitas makes it that much more intense.

Swick is much the same way.

What’s the hunch? That as they kick off the big UFC on FOX 5 card, you can’t help but think this one could be a showstopper. That, even though it is fourth billing to Nate Diaz versus Benson Henderson, Alexander Gustafsson versus Mauricio Rua and BJ Penn versus Rory MacDonald, that it could sneak off with some end-of-the-night bonus money.

You’d think that, but history suggests otherwise. For all of the careening in Brown’s career, there’s one thing he hasn’t accomplished in 13 fights -- he’s never been awarded an end-of-the-night bonus in anything. That’s almost hard to believe when you think about it, but it’s true.

“I always think I’ve got fight of the night,” he says. “Then I don’t get it.”

Maybe Saturday night, Brown uses this theme to begin a new chapter to his incomplete adventure tale.

Jumping weight classes is trending

November, 29, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
AldoEd Mulholland for ESPN.comJose Aldo is just the latest fighter considering a move to another weight class.

Now that Frankie Edgar has finally been persuaded to fight in the UFC’s featherweight division, we can get on with other fresher transplantations.

Next up: Jose Aldo, to lightweight.

Go figure. Edgar goes down to fight for Aldo’s belt; Aldo goes up, so long as he defends that belt in a satisfactory manner against Edgar on Feb. 2. They’re gauging things whichever way you look at it -- just two ships passing in the night.

(Or, you know, two high-powered motorboats).

And if Aldo defends that belt, expect Edgar to return to 155 pounds, too. He’s really just dipping his toe in the water. And if Aldo loses at lightweight, he’ll whittle his form back down to 145 pounds. And even if he wins at lightweight, he may get greedy and become an exotic collector of belts.

Greatness is not above hoarding.

Why all the division jumping? Because, for one thing, disappearing from a familiar weight class and appearing in a foreign one means reinvention. It means fresh challenges for fighters, and intriguing, previously only imagined match-ups for fight fans. It’s rethinking divisional rankings and visible abs. Most of all, it means something new, and in the fight game new is always appreciated.

Everybody likes to have a reset button, and these days more and more fighters are using it. Why not? It’s usually a smart play, especially as the UFC grows along with our fascination in matchmaking. Some careers need kick-starts, and others just need a little spice.

Others being Anderson Silva, who does it because, so far as most of us can tell, he’s bored. Now he’s talking about cutting down to something in the range of 178 pounds for a catchweight fight with Georges St-Pierre (a fighter whose hands go clammy when he contemplates playing fast and loose with weight fluctuations). For Nik Lentz, it’s to make a name he couldn’t make at lightweight. For Demetrious Johnson, it’s because he was tired of fighting 135-pound monsters. Ditto Chris Cariaso.

It goes on.

Former middleweight Demian Maia went from one of the slickest practitioners of human origami ever to enter the Octagon (circa 2007-09) before turning into a nondescript kickboxer who lost a lot. What did he do? He began by dropping down to 170 pounds, and in the process he remembered the jiu-jitsu that Fabio Gurgel spent all that time teaching him. Reinvention? More like repentance. He’s remembering his roots while on a diet of apples and tuna.

[+] EnlargeGeorge St. Pierre
AP Photo/Eric JamisonThese days, welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre's reluctance to move up or down in weight is an exception to the rule.
Tim Boetsch went from the first-ever victim of a Phil Davis “Philmura” to a middleweight contender. He has rattled off four wins in a row at 185 pounds. Nate Diaz has similarly re-reinvented himself by going back down to lightweight, and is now fighting for the 155-pound title against Benson Henderson on Dec. 8. B.J. Penn and Dan Henderson will appear in whatever weight class they need to, no questions asked. Kenny Florian tried four weight classes, and came up a bridesmaid in most. Chael Sonnen? He falls forward into title shots when he goes to light heavyweight. Same can’t be said for Rich Franklin.

Clay Guida goes down. Jon Jones, one day soon, will go up. We love the idea of that.

And Anthony Johnson? He has yet to find the weight class that can contain him. Maybe 205 pounds is right where he needs to be -- but if you’ve seen him walking around the Blackzilians gym in Delmar Beach, Fla., hulking like a linebacker and dwarfing guys such as Rashad Evans, you wouldn’t be so sure.

So what does it all mean? That Mike Dolce is in business, and that Georges St-Pierre is the new minority. He is at least a little reluctant to fight Anderson Silva because he’s (A) not desperate, (B) not bored or (C) not entirely masochistic. He is just dominant. At 170 pounds. Right where he knows he’s greatest.

If he declines to fight Anderson Silva at anything other than 170 pounds, he’ll not only be blameless in the ordeal, he’ll stand as a kind of traditionalist. He won’t just be defending his belt as a stubborn champion, he’ll become the defender of the weight classes.

And with so much movement between divisions, right now that in itself might feel like something new.

UFCoF5 the blowout we’ve been waiting for

August, 15, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
PennRyan Pierse/Getty ImagesYou know you're getting a stacked card when B.J. Penn isn't even in the co-main event.
The first UFC on Fox was a “bonus” that we had never asked for, nor did we complain when we got it (or, at least until Cain Velasquez made the work too easy that night for Junior dos Santos). That was the table-setter for the seven-year relationship between the UFC and Fox -- a heavyweight championship fight, broadcast as a privilege to fans as a red carpet, prime time affair.

The event was so touted and singled out that Benson Henderson and Clay Guida, a guaranteed piece of entertainment that night, was relegated to Facebook status with no chance for TV air time.

In retrospect, it seems impossible that a bout like that would get neglected. But it kicked off a new era, and the triumph didn’t belong to the new champion dos Santos alone. He was the small picture. The real triumph belonged to the UFC and to MMA in general, for breaking down the partition between niche and mainstream.

Here we are after four network TV shows, and that wild-on-paper first one remains the biggest.

Since then we’ve seen some reaches, some cautionary tales and some "must never" repeats. There was Rashad Evans against Phil Davis, a pair of wrestlers who were intent on three rounds of nihilistic frustration. There was the Jim Miller/Nate Diaz fight that barely seemed audible in communicating to crossover audiences. There was Brandon Vera/Mauricio Rua, the fight with the golden Jon Jones sweepstakes, even if merit and good sense were the compromise. The fights on that card panned out great, if only it wasn’t going head-to-head with the Olympics.

And if, you know, the stakes were more sellable.

Yet for all those free shows -- shows that turned the media into ratings weathervanes -- none had the full artillery that we know the UFC is capable of. That changes in December for the fifth show. Whether it’s been put together on pressure to deliver after these so-so showings or otherwise, the fifth Fox card is a rare showcase of excitement, relevance and meaningful stakes.

It’s the kind of card that brings back the “ultimate proving ground” notion. The card, barring injury, controversy and fluke interventions, has it all.

There’s a belt on the line, as Henderson defends the 155-pound title against Nate Diaz. There’s a No. 1 contender fight between Alexander Gustafsson and Mauricio Rua. And then there’s Rory MacDonald and B.J. Penn, a scrap so fun to think about in nature that people speculated it might be the headliner for the show. The event is so stacked that it’s third on the depth chart.

When you break down these three fights -- and the UFC is working on a fourth fight, let’s not forget -- it looks like a blowout show. The idea of Henderson encountering the younger brother of “Stalkton” is enough by itself. Any Diaz brings polarity to the cage -- a Diaz fight is a talked about fight. And here is younger brother Nathan challenging the flying confidence of bigger/stronger/more athletic Henderson, who is setting out to break all of Anderson Silva’s records.

That’s a great stage for a title fight.

The others are showcases. The young Swede Gustafsson needs to beat a “Shogun” caliber opponent to warrant a title shot. Well, that’s what he gets. And if his name weren’t being bandied about as the last big intriguing fight for Jon Jones at light heavyweight, maybe this thing doesn’t attract. But his name does have that glint to it, and if he beats Rua, we can then begin comparing his long reach with Jones’ without adding the “he’s still green” asterisk.

Likewise, if Rua wins his stake for a title shot is no longer in question. He’ll have earned the right to fight again for the belt.

The last fight is classic, and you can thank all 38 of those stitches over MacDonald’s eye for jumping it from a pay-per-view to a free fight. Penn and MacDonald has the two ships passing in the night vibe. There’s Penn and his Hall of Fame resume coming out of “retirement” against the 23-year old MacDonald, who is so serious that he changed his nickname from the juvenile-sounding “Waterboy” to “Ares,” the Greek god of war.

Know why that one is fun? Because there’s a sense that MacDonald is moving closer and closer into his mentor/training partner Georges St. Pierre’s space. St. Pierre will have already fought Carlos Condit a couple of weeks earlier. If he defends the welterweight belt, and MacDonald shows up and blasts Penn as so many suspect he will, the inevitable conflict takes on added drama. Drama’s half the game.

In MacDonald and Gustafsson there is the future. In Penn and Rua, there are storied careers. In Diaz/Henderson, there is high voltage entertainment with a title on the line.

That’s a fun night of fights, worthy of a big pay-per-view event. But it’s free, and that’s telling. What exactly does it tell us? That the ultimate proving ground on Dec. 8 extends beyond the fighters. It extends to the UFC itself.

And the UFC is loading up to meet the challenge.

Five good substitutes for Belfort at UFC 147

May, 30, 2012
Dundas By Chad Dundas
SilvaRod Mar for ESPN.comCome one, come all: Wanderlei Silva is now welcoming all comers.

Apologies in advance for the cliché, but there is simply no better way to describe the fallout from Vitor Belfort’s broken hand than by using one of our favorites …

Business as usual.

Another injury, another fight card tossed haphazardly into chaos. It’s sort of become a disturbing trend for the UFC over the last couple of years. At this instant we can only assume matchmakers are scrambling back to their bunkers to find somebody, anybody to fight Wanderlei Silva at UFC 147.

Keep your phones turned on, opportunistic UFC middleweights.

This time, Belfort’s injury scrapped not only the fight company’s planned main event for its June 23 show in Brazil, but at best indefinitely postponed a fight that was meant to cap the inaugural international season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” on which both Silva and Belfort were opposing coaches.

In the wake of the injury -- and despite the fact he should have been a prohibitive underdog in this bout -- Silva has accused Belfort of being something between a coward and an incompetent. He insists he’s still fighting, though his opponent is currently listed as the dreaded “To Be Announced.”

To that end, here are five suggestions for good replacements to fill Belfort’s shoes, ranging from the very likely to the admittedly very fanciful:

Michael Bisping.
[+] EnlargeWanderlei Silva and Michael Bising
Mark Nolan/Getty ImagesWanderlei Silva's brawl with Michael Bisping was an enticing affair worthy of a rematch.

I’m not a betting man (at least that’s what I keep telling my wife), but if I were I’d be willing to lay good money that we ultimately see Bisping injected into this bout. From the start, it felt strange that the UFC followed up his spirited January loss to Chael Sonnen by handing him a meeting with Tim Boetsch at UFC 149 in July. Boetsch may be riding a three-fight win streak, but Silva just makes more sense for the Brit right now, especially if matchmakers want “The Axe Murderer” to retain his slot in UFC 147’s main event. Bisping lost to Wanderlei via unanimous decision at UFC 110 and it’s been eating him up ever since. No doubt he’d jump at the chance to swap Boetsch for Silva, even if it meant a truncated training camp.

Especially when you consider that among the crop of other likely candidates, Mark Munoz is already expected to take on Chris Weidman in July (a cool fight we’d all hate to see scrapped) and Yoshihiro Akiyama is injured, Bisping is the odds on favorite to take this fight.

Demian Maia.
[+] EnlargeDemian Maia
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comDemian Maia, right, would keep the UFC 147 main event an all-Brazilian affair.

Despite losing to Weidman in January, Maia still has a few things going for him if the organization wants him to fight at UFC 147: First, he’s Brazilian and the UFC traditionally loves to stock its international shows with local products. Second, he’d make for a credible, but potentially beatable opponent for Silva, just in case the UFC is interested in keeping Wanderlei in the win column until Belfort is healed up. Well, more beatable than candidates like, say, Hector Lombard or Brian Stann. Third, Maia’s already training for a fight against Dong Hyun Kim 14 days later at UFC 148. Wouldn't take much shuffling to get him on here, if Bisping is unavailable or unwilling.

Alan Belcher.
[+] EnlargeAlan Belcher
Joe Camporeale/US PresswireAlan Belcher, top, looks the type to answer the call to fight Wanderlei Silva on a moment's notice.

“The Talent” appeared to emerge relatively unscathed from his victory over Rousimar Palhares earlier this month and while he’s currently riding a streak of four consecutive victories, he seems like the kind of dude who’d let it ride and jump at the chance for a short-notice fight against a name as big as Silva. He’d also give promoters, fans and Wanderlei himself the kind of stand-up war we’re hoping for from this bout. So long as he’s physically able, the fight makes sense.

Jake Shields. Shields has decided to return to middleweight after a disappointing 2-2 run through the welterweight ranks and is slated to take on Ed Herman at UFC 150 in early August. On the other hand, there'd be no use use facing someone as dangerous and comparatively unheralded as “Short Fuse," if Shields could jump the line into a fight against a much bigger and much more vulnerable fish. His status as the former Strikeforce champ means the company could probably still pass this matchup off as the main event and his underwhelming performances since coming to the UFC in 2010 could make Shields look like an attractive opponent to Silva, too.

Ronaldo Souza.
[+] EnlargeRonaldo Souza
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesRonaldo Souza would be a worthy fill-in for his injured countryman Vitor Belfort.

Sure, it’s a reach, but it’s not like “Jacare” has anything else going on. We haven’t heard one word from him (also a former Strikeforce titlist) since he defeated Bristol Marunde in March. For all we know, he’d be a serious draw in his home country and it would add some considerable intrigue to the 185 pound division if he could come in and defeat Silva in his UFC debut. To do it though, he’d have to get past Wanderlei’s bad intentions and get him on the ground.

Wildcard pick: BJ Penn. No, this won’t happen, but it sure would be a hoot. The former UFC welterweight and lightweight champ fought in middleweight and even open weight affairs during the 22 months he spent wandering the earth while on the outs with the UFC in 2004-06. Hey, we’re doing this thing in Brazil anyway, so why not make it a good, old fashioned vale tudo-style affair pitting the smaller, but more talented grappler against a larger, but fading wildman?

No? No, probably not.

But a guy can dream.

Is Edgar the greatest 155-er of all time?

February, 21, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall

For the first time since he became the UFC’s lightweight champion, Frankie Edgar is the betting favorite heading into a fight. From the Vegas perspective, the time of feel-good flukes is over -- this time, Edgar is getting love where he normally just gets overlooked.

And when you glance at the tape, why not? Edgar has gone 3-0-1 against two guys in the past two years. But the guys he’s beaten weren’t just guys. They were oppressors of the 155-pound division: Gray Maynard, who entered the cage a behemoth next to Edgar, at least 15 pounds heavier; and B.J. Penn, who left the cage with no future in the division and no answer for the man who had plenty.

Edgar batted back two fast-encroaching forces of momentum, and he did it twice apiece. For the past couple of years, Edgar has been making guys redundant.

And that’s the kind of drama that feels too good to be true.

Now Edgar is getting set to face Benson Henderson: a dynamic, athletic, comet-shrieking member of the division who, as an underdog, becomes a tempting choice to dethrone the pride of New Jersey. This is how it goes. Most people who are taking Edgar are speaking in universals, saying things like, “I’ll never bet against Edgar again.” These people are letting you know they have learned their lesson. They believe now. In what, exactly? That Edgar’s own belief is a near tangible. That Edgar won’t lose -- because he can’t.

Yet there are still cynics who can’t fathom how a natural featherweight, who doesn’t cut but two loaves of bread to make 155 pounds, can continue beating guys the way he does. How can you take brute punishment against Maynard and come back, twice, in an eerie loop of sequences? How can you beat Penn with flickering jabs, fancy footwork and impossible determination ... twice?

Nobody ordinary can do this. But Edgar does. Edgar is cut from the same cloth as the iron-chinned post-war boxers who made heart the overriding component. For everyone who backs the latest head of steam, be cautious: Edgar is where momentum goes to die.

That’s why this feeling that Edgar has more to prove than Henderson at UFC 144 in Japan is literally backward, and yet partially true. Edgar has proved himself as a champion and as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters going. Now Edgar could be working on proving that he’s the greatest lightweight champion ever. If that sounds like a stretch of the imagination, then we’re right in Edgar’s wheelhouse.
[+] EnlargeBJ Penn
AP Photo/Gregory PayanFrankie Edgar, right, has been upending the odds by upsetting one favorite after another.

Think about it: A victory over Henderson would be enough to tip him over into that rarefied space. At least, conversationally. In the short history of MMA, who would have had a better run? Penn was tremendous for the three years between 2007-2010. He defended the belt three times with a cameo superfight at welterweight with Georges St. Pierre. Then he ran into Frankie Edgar, the little impasse that could.

Takanori Gomi was a force for a long while in Pride, but the competition he faced wasn’t like Edgar’s. Jens Pulver defended his belt twice, but he has been in a career free fall since 2006.

There are other mentionables, but none as pronounced as Edgar, who has a chance to defy logic on an even larger scale come Saturday.

And wouldn’t that be just like him to do it? A guy with no business fighting in MMA’s most competitive division has a real chance of becoming its ultimate kingpin.

Diaz done with fighting? Not bloody likely

February, 6, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
DiazRod Mar for ESPN.comWalking away: Is it possible we've seen the last of Nick Diaz?
There were those who thought that Nick Diaz beat Carlos Condit at UFC 143, pointing to his constant pursuit as evidence. Diaz stalked, mocked and talked. He was "Stalkton." He was exactly who we thought he was.

Problem was, Condit wasn’t.

Condit went into the nastiest kind of retreat, one that stuck and ducked and moved and circled and landed leg kicks and counter shots with isolated ease. Isolated? Wait -- wasn’t Condit supposed to stand in front of Diaz and trade, looking for that big curtain closer? Weren’t chins supposed to come into question? Wasn’t Condit supposed to be tailor-made for the high-volume striking assault that Diaz is known for?

Condit had a mute button for the volume. He was either brilliant, or he was a high stakes version of Kalib Starnes, depending on your bias. In all circles, it was clear that he consciously avoided a brawl. And this is where feelings got hurt. In the end, Condit wasn’t about meeting bloodthirsty expectations so much as winning the fight, and he executed his game plan brilliantly. Good for (or shame on) him. Now he’s the interim welterweight champion, and don’t expect apologies from Albuquerque.

Yet for all the scorecard dissection that ensued, nobody was as disappointed or disillusioned as Diaz, who sort of retired right after. A totally impromptu retirement -- just a hundred seconds after a stubborn war he could never incite.

“I don’t need this s---,” he said to Joe Rogan.

He said he’d continue to help train his brother, Nate, but as for him and the whole pack of incompetent judges and all the pressure-filled, bustling hate? Devil take it. He doesn’t need the racket.

Which we all of course took with a grain of salt.

Nobody really thinks that the 28-year-old Diaz is walking. He does need the racket. All the dude has done since his earliest memories is mean mug whoever gets in his grill, and fight. He went so far as to balance out the street menace early by funneling it into jiu-jitsu in his formative years. These days, he is as much Cesar Gracie as Cesar Gracie. Diaz is known for his fiendish work ethic, and he trains compulsively. It’s what he does. It’s how he copes, and how he vents. We like it because we see such focused discipline coming out of unknown wilds. Maybe more than anybody, this game is Diaz’s lifeblood.

Only it’s not a game to Diaz, it’s fighting -- and that’s why judge’s scorecards become absurd to such a literalist.
[+] EnlargeNick Diaz and Carlos Condit
Rod Mar for ESPN.comIt's hard to imagine a competitor like Nick Diaz going out on a loss.

This last distinction is why he’ll return to the cage before long. The old Dana White proverb to “never leave it in the hands of the judges” will resonate in him and work as kindling. Losing that way won’t sit well in the 209. White senses it, just like you and I. In fact, White was already dangling Josh Koscheck out there as a possible next opponent in the postfight news conference. Emotions got the better of Diaz, who has never filtered the urge to say what’s on his mind like typical professionals.

It helps that there are possibilities all over the place. Realistically, with Georges St. Pierre on the shelf until something like November, a rematch with Condit isn’t out of the question. Neither is fighting a Johny Hendricks or a Jon Fitch or a Rory MacDonald to avenge his brother’s loss. Or maybe Jake Ellenberger, who would love nothing better than to stand and trade heat with Diaz. How about rematch with Diego Sanchez, who knows the buttons to push to get Diaz’s chest puffing back out?

There will be suitors, some of them equipped with the kinds of mouths that will get to Diaz.

But that’s all window dressing. The thing is, Diaz doesn’t have it in him to quit, and there’s still too much left unresolved and just too many reasons for him to walk away.

And for those who have paid attention to Diaz’s competitiveness over the years, the biggest might be this -- he simply can’t.

Strikeforce imports doing just fine in UFC

February, 3, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Cung Le attempted to beat Wanderlei Silva at UFC 139 with an unlikely game plan -- that of fighting like Cung Le.

It nearly worked. Le tried to kick Silva’s liver through his spine, but in the end he was downed with a barrage of strikes that left his nose in crescent form. The scrap was good enough to be a candidate for "fight of the year" but was unfortunate enough to be only the third-most exciting bout of the night. That was the same evening Michael Chandler won a back-and-forth battle with lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez in Bellator, and Dan Henderson outlasted Mauricio Rua in a five-round grind.

But the immediate reports back seem to be that Strikeforce fighters like Le are faring pretty well in the UFC. These were supposed to be the B models, slogging it out in a nice regional show. They weren’t supposed to be able to compete with the elite of the world. At least that’s what we heard from carnival barkers whenever somebody had the audacity to compare a Strikeforce fighter with a UFC fighter.

Yet, since the Zuffa purchase of Strikeforce and the great integration, it looks like Strikeforce had its share of equals and betters. This weekend Nick Diaz will fight for the interim welterweight belt against Carlos Condit after belting B.J. Penn at UFC 137. Win it, and he gets his long-awaited shot at Georges St. Pierre. Meanwhile, Fabricio Werdum takes on Roy Nelson in a fight with very loose title connections in the heavyweight division. Should Diaz and Werdum win -- and Vegas thinks they should -- it will continue a trend that makes Scott Coker look vindicated for something deep inside that could use some vindication. It also diversifies things for matchmaker Joe Silva.

Last weekend, Lavar Johnson scored a knockout of the night against Joey Beltran in Johnson's UFC debut. Former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Henderson came back and beat Rua and is now patiently waiting in line for the Jon Jones-Rashad Evans winner. Strikeforce titlist and linear champion Alistair Overeem kicked Brock Lesnar into retirement, and next faces Junior dos Santos for the UFC heavyweight strap. Other Strikeforce fighters (not named Gilbert Melendez) are making their way from the hexagon to the Octagon, too. In fact, just about anybody who’s anybody in the clearance of Strikeforce heavyweights will soon be in the UFC: Antonio Silva, Chad Griggs, Daniel Cormier, Josh Barnett, et al.

The floodgates are open.
[+] EnlargeBrock Lesnar, Alistair Overeem
Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesAlistair Overeem came roaring out of the gates in his UFC debut.

Granted, some of the Strikeforce fighters coming over are UFC retreads. But in the early returns the worst you can say is that Jake Shields, who jumped ship to the UFC before the acquisition, hasn’t lived up to billing. Most Strikeforce fighters are having a happier time of it than when the UFC/Pride partition came down, and the Pride fighters faltered. Same with the WEC, given the potential of Condit and Ben Henderson. Yet most of the WEC’s talent competed in the bantamweight and featherweight divisions, which didn’t exist in the UFC until the beginning of 2011, so it’s hard to make a full spectrum comparison.

But think about it -- in mid-to-late 2012, as many as three reigning Strikeforce champions could be wearing UFC gold (Diaz, Henderson and Overeem). If Melendez was ever released from exile, he could challenge for the lightweight belt, too.

What does it all mean? Maybe nothing. Or maybe it’s something that we’ve always suspected and debated about. While the best fighters in the world are generally thought to be in the UFC at all times, there are fighters dying for the chance to be brought in for no other reason than to prove them wrong.

And knowing just how short the fight society’s attention span can be, the UFC is only too happy to be wrong when they do.