MMA: Cain Velasquez
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Fabricio Werdum messed up a good storyline on Saturday.
Imagine for a second, Travis Browne crushes Werdum in the first round. Knockout. What a contender we’d have on our hands! An athletic, bearded knockout artist who has never been taken down? A man who doesn’t just defend takedowns, but drops elbows to the dome of any poor soul who attempts them? Sounds like the perfect storyline.
Yeah, that would have been exciting -- because even though Cain Velasquez has defended the UFC heavyweight title only twice, it feels like he might as well be the most dominant champion the promotion has. Seeing him challenged would be fun.
Browne, had he finished Werdum, could have been a fun sell against Velasquez. Alas, it was not meant to be. He ended up not winning one round against Werdum.
Werdum (18-5-1) clearly enjoyed rubbing the victory in his doubters’ faces. In a televised postfight show on Fox Sports, he demanded to know which analysts had picked Browne to win the fight. As it turned out, they all did.
“I said, ‘Who put money on Travis Browne?’” Werdum recounted afterward. “The guys all got [red in the face].”
In reality, Werdum versus Velasquez is the best heavyweight title fight available. The fictional challenger described above doesn’t exist (at least not yet). Browne does not yet appear capable of handling Velasquez’s pressure.
Does Werdum? It seems like we tend to overlook this cheerful Brazilian. Technically, Werdum entered the weekend as the No. 1 contender, but it was Browne who received much of the hype and the status of a 2-1 betting favorite.
Ask Werdum and he’ll tell you that too many are sleeping on his wide range of skills.
“All the guys believed Travis Browne would win,” Werdum said. “Sometimes guys say, ‘Werdum is just a jiu-jitsu guy.’ When I fought Roy Nelson I proved that [wrong] and I proved that again [tonight].”
If Werdum doesn’t get enough support ahead of his tougher fights, he’s probably partially responsible. As outstanding as he is, he’ll leave a window open here and there for doubt.
The one fight that is seared into memory (mine, at least) is Werdum’s loss to Alistair Overeem in June 2011. That was the time he literally spent 15 minutes falling to the floor and begging Overeem to come into his guard.
That night, Werdum made it blatantly obvious he didn't believe in his own standup or his takedowns. In other words, he fought like “just a jiu-jitsu guy.”
He’s grown a lot since then and it’s unfair to forever hang that loss over his head, but even in the win over Browne, Werdum didn’t go out of his way to impress.
As soon as the decision was in the bag (after the third round), Werdum let up on the gas significantly. Even then, he still won the last two rounds, but there was no urgency to put Browne away and head into the Velasquez fight off a finish.
“I think he could have finished the fight,” said UFC president Dana White. “I think he played it safe. He knew he was winning. So, it leaves questions. How much more could he have given? You know what Cain’s going to do. Cain is 100 miles per hour. He does damage and doesn't stop doing damage until he finishes you.”
Werdum didn’t have to finish Browne to keep his spot at the front of the heavyweight line. He said he played it safe to avoid taking a home run shot from a heavy-handed opponent. That is a perfectly defensible stance to take.
But as White said, it seems doubtful Velasquez would have done the same. Put a wounded animal in front of the champ and he eats in the fourth round, not coasts. In other words, Werdum did great to solidify his spot at the front of the line, but all those doubters he proved wrong on Saturday? They'll be back in November.
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.
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.
In 2013, the UFC crowned two new champions at 185 and 155 pounds. It also lost its 170-pound champion, Georges St-Pierre, to semiretirement.
In 2014, we’ll see at least two new UFC champions in the record books. Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler will contend for the vacated welterweight title, and a female strawweight champion will emerge from "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series.
Which fighters are destined to be champions come the end of 2014? I’ll tell you.
Heavyweight: Cain Velasquez
Velasquez is shelved for the foreseeable future, following surgery on a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The heavyweight champ is so tough he was actually practicing with the injury before undergoing surgery, according to teammate Daniel Cormier.
It looks as if Velasquez will face the winner of a fight between Fabricio Werdum and Travis Browne -- and if I had to guess, that will be the only time Velasquez fights in 2014. Maybe he mows through one of those guys and gets booked again immediately, which is entirely possible, but I would lean to just one Velasquez fight in the next 12 months.
Prediction: Browne knocks out Werdum in early spring, only to be a hungry Velasquez’s first meal upon his return.
Light heavyweight: Jon Jones
With the heavyweight belt tied up due to injury and no Anderson Silva superfight on the books, there’s nowhere else Jones needs to be than 205 pounds. This works twofold. With no Silva and no St-Pierre, Jones needs to go out and be the UFC’s breadwinner in 2014. Expect him to stay busy.
Relying on predetermined outcomes of fights is never a good idea in this sport, and I feel that’s a huge transgression in this division right now. Jones versus Glover Teixeira. Alexander Gustafsson versus Jimi Manuwa. Daniel Cormier versus Rashad Evans. Those fights aren’t over yet -- and don’t jump to assumptions on matchups before they are.
Prediction: Jones fights three times in 2014. He beats Teixeira and then Gustafsson more convincingly than the first meeting. Then he wins one more fight … but I’m not entirely convinced it’s against Cormier, who could lose before that.
Middleweight: Ronaldo Souza
The middleweight and welterweight divisions are about to have a really fun year. With Silva gone (for the foreseeable future, at least), the middleweight division looks entirely different.
The Spider’s buddies, Ronaldo Souza and Lyoto Machida, have nothing to prevent them from gunning for the title now. An old friend, Chael Sonnen, suddenly has a path back to a title shot. The bull's-eye on Weidman’s back is about as big as there is right now in all of mixed martial arts.
Prediction: Weidman-Belfort in Brazil. Does Weidman win that? Oh man … yes. He does. On the same night, Sonnen outpoints Wanderlei Silva and calls out Machida. But it’s Souza who earns a title bid with big wins in early 2014 and then takes the title late in the year.
Welterweight: Johny Hendricks
On the way to St-Pierre, it seems that Hendricks beat every welterweight in the division, but if he wins the belt he’ll have plenty of challengers. It starts with Robbie Lawler in March, who just might be the most terrifying man in the UFC right now. This guy was born to hurt people.
You think we hear a peep from St-Pierre in 2014? Gut reaction says no, right? He wanted time off, so he’ll take his time off. On the other hand, when you are as competitive as St-Pierre is, one month away from the cage might feel like three or four. Carlos Condit just pulled about the worst opponent he could in Tyron Woodley, a guy ranked outside the Top 10 but extremely dangerous.
Prediction: Hendricks wins the vacated belt in March, and then beats the winner of Condit-Woodley. Then Hendricks defends the title again … in a fight the UFC books in Montreal, sending front-row tickets to St-Pierre’s address every day leading up to it.
Lightweight: Jose Aldo
Anthony Pettis just needs to stay healthy. The 26-year-old Milwaukee product has been so good when healthy -- which, unfortunately, hasn’t been very often. He hopes to return to the cage by July.
In the meantime, I think Aldo’s days as the 145-champion come to an end. He is a potential star for the UFC and “two-division champion” is a title that would help his drawing power. He will get an immediate shot when he moves up. He and the UFC will argue about his vacating the featherweight belt -- and that’s finally a fight Aldo will actually lose.
Prediction: Aldo defends his featherweight title over Ricardo Lamas in February and then hangs out until Pettis is healthy, narrowly beating him in a Fight of the Year candidate in August, before going on to one title defense late in the year.
Featherweight: Chad Mendes
Aldo moving up to 155 pounds just looks like a no-brainer to me. He has wanted to do so for a long time and the UFC likely wants it to happen, too. It will look as if he’s leaving the keys to the car in the hands of Chad Mendes.
A potential wrinkle in that script is Frankie Edgar. Edgar has to feel good heading into a third meeting with BJ Penn, who hasn’t fought since December 2012. Penn is a warrior and a legend, but Edgar is a tough style matchup, especially at 145.
Prediction: Mendes continues his reign of terror and earns a shot at the vacated 145-pound title against Edgar, who defeats Penn for a third time. It’s a good fight, but Mendes takes a decision and the belt.
Bantamweight: Renan Barao
It’s still officially Dominick Cruz’s division heading into 2014, but maybe only in writing. Barao is the UFC bantamweight to beat this year, and there are really only two 135-pounders up to the task -- Cruz and Urijah Faber.
The circumstances surrounding Cruz’s return -- he’s been on the shelf since October 2011 -- make him a near-impossible pick in his first fight back to beat Barao, but this is Cruz we’re talking about. His work ethic borders on obsessive. If Barao gets by Cruz, he goes immediately to a rematch against Faber, who looks like a pound-for-pound candidate again at 34.
Prediction: Unless Demetrious Johnson gets a little crazy and moves up in weight, this division is a three-horse race. Any one of them could finish 2014 as champion and it wouldn’t be a surprise.
Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson
Unlike Aldo, there isn’t much sense in Johnson moving up in weight in 2014. He can if he wants to, and I don’t think the UFC would forbid it, but he is a natural flyweight. He fought at bantamweight prior to the UFC's adding the 125-pound division and that was only two years ago. Why rush back to 135 pounds?
It makes more sense for him to chase title-defense records than the bantamweight champion. At 27, Johnson is improving between each performance -- noticeably. He may run into a couple opponents multiple times, but there are enough flyweights to keep him busy at least through 2014.
Prediction: Nobody in this division is beating Johnson right now. Nobody. You might read stories about a potential move to 135 pounds, but come December, Johnson will still be a flyweight and he’ll be up to at least six title defenses.
Female bantamweight: Ronda Rousey
Forget defending the arm bar, how about a Rousey opponent defending a takedown first? Occasionally lost in the shuffle of Rousey’s eight consecutive arm bars is her setup -- her takedowns. There might not be anyone in that division who can match her on the floor, so the conversation turns to: Can any of them stop her takedown?
Sara McMann is an interesting opponent, but how comfortable will she be on her back? McMann might be able to neutralize some of what Rousey does, but not all of it. Same with Cat Zingano, although Zingano has the finishing ability to catch Rousey with something, which might be the only way to beat her.
Prediction: Rousey dives headfirst into defending her title -- and makes it look pretty easy. She defends the belt at least three times, finishing at least two more opponents in the first round.
Female strawweight: Carla Esparza
You might think that in an atmosphere as unique as TUF, the best fighter on the show wouldn’t always emerge the winner. There are too many variables, right? The mental strain from being away from one’s family, not having normal cornermen, fighting several times within a short time span, etc.
Surprisingly, though, the best fighter of the group typically does go all the way. You look at previous seasons and, for the most part, the TUF champion has outperformed the vast majority of the average TUF contestants. Keeping that in mind, Esparza has been the best of this group heading into the show.
Prediction: Esparza enters the TUF season a favorite to win and does just that.
This time, perhaps people will take Fabricio Werdum more seriously when he steps into a cage with the universally recognized best heavyweight in mixed martial arts.
Simply put, Werdum, 36, is a much more dangerous fighter against UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez than he was when he stunned Fedor Emelianenko in 69 seconds with a triangle choke in 2010.
"Fedor fought 10 years without losing," Werdum told ESPN.com while his wife translated from Portuguese to English. "I showed the world I could do it. But it's important for me that my fans, my family, my friends and my team believe in me."
This past summer Werdum forced iconic Brazilian heavyweight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to verbally tap because of an armbar, becoming the only man to submit Pride's two heavyweight champions. The win, he and his team felt, was enough to warrant a crack at the UFC title. They waited, and Saturday night, after Velasquez trucked through Junior dos Santos to score a fifth-round technical knockout, UFC president Dana White confirmed that Werdum would get his chance.
“He's going to want to take it to the ground,” White said of Werdum during the UFC 166 pay-per-view broadcast. “It makes this fight really interesting. Stylistically, we will see who has the better stand-up, and if it goes to the ground, I think for the first time that is a dangerous, dangerous fight for Velasquez.”
Werdum and his head trainer of six years, Rafael Cordeiro, said they expect to be comfortable wherever the fight takes them.
"Fabricio worked hard for a long time," said Cordeiro, who helped develop Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio Rua and a host of other stud Brazilians. "He expected this fight. I think this fight against Cain fits very well for him."
Having twice seen Velasquez demolish dos Santos, who knocked Werdum out early in the first round of a contest in 2008, some fans may find this confidence hollow. Velasquez (13-1) has proved to be a monster in the Octagon. The UFC champion's stamina, pace, power and ability to transition between striking and grappling is in stark contrast to so many heavyweights who came before him, save at least one notable Russian.
For Werdum, it all feels understandably familiar.
When the 6-foot-4 Brazilian entered MMA in 2002, Pride in 2005 and UFC in 2007, he was known primarily as a weak-punching jiu-jitsu convert. Werdum still can't punch as concussively as dos Santos, but he may be a more threatening striker.
"I think today he's a complete fighter," Cordeiro said. "His stand-up is better than 'Cigano' at the moment because Cigano just throws punches. Fabricio today throws punches, knees, kicks. And his jiu-jitsu is amazing. I think we have a good, good chance to take this belt and win this fight.
"If the guys exchange, Fabricio has a long reach. Long arms. Long legs. We can work this, too. If the fight goes to the ground, we feel really comfortable about that. It's really hard to punch Fabricio in the face on the ground. If you try to do this, for sure, he'll submit you. He has amazing skills. We feel really confident about this fight.
"For me, it's a pleasure to work with guys like Fabricio. The guy works hard to put his life in our hands to develop his game."
Werdum watched Saturday as Velasquez "broke Cigano's strategy one more time," and chalked it up to a "perfect" fight by the UFC king, whom some suggest should rank as the sport's best big man ever. Validation of that would come with victories and time -- a defense over Werdum would give Velasquez the record for consecutive UFC heavyweight title defenses at three.
"He never got tired," Werdum said of the champion. "He never blew his power. He's very consistent fighting and grappling. He did what he wanted. When Cigano wanted to box, Cain took him down. He was always playing opposite of what Cigano thought.
"I believe that he won't change his strategy and the way he fights. For sure he'll want to stand up with me, but he'll also try to put me on the ground."
Werdum, a world champion jiu-jitsu black belt, isn't "afraid to strike with [Velasquez] because I'm not afraid to go to the ground with him. I trust my guard. I can sweep from half-guard or guard.”
Werdum expects interactions leading up to the fight to be cordial, as they were when he challenged the great Emelianenko. Werdum is mindful of the opportunity in front of him, especially as he holds down three jobs with the UFC. Fighter, first. Ambassador to Latin and South America. And a voice on the Spanish-language UFC broadcasts, which he hopes to continue after his fighting days are done.
"If I can submit Cain, it's going to be awesome," Werdum said. "I'll try. I have this in my mind. I want to break records. I want to submit Fedor, submit Minotauro, then submit Cain Velasquez. That would be awesome for my career."
Should he pull it off, Werdum would take up space in rarefied air. He wouldn't go so far as to entertain the idea that victories over Emelianenko, Nogueira and Velasquez make him the best heavyweight of his generation, though. That's up to fans and media, he said.
For now, Werdum’s focus is on more attainable things. Like shocking the world once more.
As UFC president Dana White put it a couple of weeks ago while speaking in Las Vegas, everybody is “high” after a great fight. It can be difficult to put things in perspective.
Well, we were all high in Houston after UFC 166. It was a great night of fights to witness live, capped by a dominating performance by the heavyweight champ.
So, even though I thought this on Saturday, I wanted to come down before I wrote it. And I did. I flew back to Las Vegas and did some yard work on Sunday. Watched my fantasy football teams go down in flames. Played with the dog.
And through all of that, the same sort of nagging thing came up every time I thought about the UFC 166 main event: What was Junior dos Santos doing?
To be perfectly crystal clear here: I am not taking anything away from Cain Velasquez's performance. He is a violent, emotionless machine turned up to its highest setting in the cage.
White believes Velasquez is the greatest heavyweight in the world, capable of defending the UFC belt more than twice (the current record for consecutive defenses) -- a belt, he says, that has been “always up for grabs.” I agree with him.
But this entire heavyweight trilogy was built on the idea that Velasquez and dos Santos were, at least to an extent, evenly matched. Now that we’ve seen 10 consecutive one-sided rounds for Velasquez, it obviously doesn’t feel like that anymore, and my first question is: Why?
The answer I consistently come to is Velasquez was willing to adjust. The common theme in combat sports is the best part of having a rival is that it forces you to grow. Velasquez grew during this trilogy; dos Santos didn’t.
Here’s the column I wrote after dos Santos knocked out Velasquez in their first meeting. The topic I chose that night was about the look in Velasquez’s eye that told me he’d get better.
Read his quote after that loss: “I didn’t pressure enough. The game plan was to pressure. I waited far back too long. I was playing dos Santos’ game. It was my fault.”
Another common saying in combat sports is that you learn more from a loss than a win. Why does it feel as if Velasquez learned more from a 64-second loss to dos Santos, than dos Santos learned in a 25-minute beating in their second fight?
Here’s what Javier Mendez, Velasquez’s head trainer, told me two days before the third fight went down at Toyota Center.
“Junior is hungry; he’s better,” Mendez said. “He’s going to be prepared for this one. Ask Cain, he’ll tell you. We’re expecting a new and improved Junior. More motivation and better tricks. If his camp is as good as I think they are, they’re going to be better at everything.”
And here’s what Velasquez said: “I think his biggest adjustment would have to be his pace. He won’t be backing up. He’s going to be more aggressive. I think that’s what we’re looking at, is him being more aggressive.”
I should be crystal clear about another thing here: Dos Santos is the No. 2 heavyweight in the world. That’s better than No. 3, No. 4 and all the rest of them. He showed incredible heart last weekend (and in the previous Velasquez fight, for that matter). He still knocks out 80 to 90 percent of the division on any night.
Velasquez is unique, though, and dos Santos didn’t treat him that way. My opinion is dos Santos actually fought better in the second fight than he did in the third. If he made any adjustments, someone tell me, what were they?
At UFC 155, dos Santos absorbed 210 total strikes, according to FightMetric. Seriously, 210 heavyweight strikes. Many of those were on the feet. In between rounds, dos Santos’ corner told him he had to keep his hands up.
I asked dos Santos if he would keep his hands up in the third fight, or continue holding them at his waist, as he’s preferred to do his entire career.
“No, I don’t plan to keep my hands up,” dos Santos said. “I like to keep my hands a little low. That’s my way to fight. When the guy attacks me, I can see the moves better.”
That’s true. When a slower guy, or a guy who doesn’t throw multiple punches at a time like Velasquez, attacks, maybe dos Santos can see it coming better. But this was Velasquez. It’s strange that in the second fight, the corner yelled at him to get his hands up, but didn’t train him to do so from the start for the third fight.
He was taken down 11 times in the second fight and only twice in the third, so one might say: “There you go, he improved his wrestling.”
Velasquez attempted 20 fewer takedowns in Houston than he did in Las Vegas, though. Realistically, a better way to look at that statistic is that Velasquez learned he didn’t necessarily need to take dos Santos down to win the fight. He was actually able to control him better with an underhook against the fence than top position.
Even in the first round on Saturday, dos Santos showed no urgency to get away from the fence. He backed himself into it at times. Part of that was Velasquez cutting off the cage (and no doubt, Velasquez tires out an opponent quickly, which makes it harder to get away from him), but the point is, dos Santos knew all of this.
It’s possible that even if dos Santos had made adjustments, Velasquez still would have beaten him -- but we don’t really know, because dos Santos was the same guy every time.
After Velasquez dominated the middle fight, dos Santos had excuses. As far as excuses go, they were A-plus. Most observers will ignore any self-pitying comments, but having muscle fibers in your bloodstream and going through a divorce -- OK, that does sound rather difficult to fight through.
It appears, however, dos Santos believed in those excuses too much. Maybe he thought that showing up and being the same old dos Santos was more than enough to knock Velasquez out a second time. Hopefully, he’s learned better.
Cormier defeated Roy Nelson by unanimous decision over three rounds -- all three judges had it 30-27 -- and proved that being lighter has its benefits. Though Cormier weighed in at 224 pounds, the lightest of his professional career, he lost none of his physical strength.
He lifted Nelson and tossed him to the ground one minute into the opening round. And when Cormier had Nelson down, he had no trouble keeping him there.
In addition to maintaining his physical edge, Cormier’s hand and foot speed increased. He landed solid combinations and kicks throughout the fight. And he had little difficulty avoiding most of Nelson’s powerful overhand rights.
“I tried a couple of takedowns,” Cormier said after improving to 13-0. “But I wanted to stand with him to show him that I can take a punch.
“I’m going to be at 205 in my next fight. There’s a guy on my mind. He can’t get away from me for long.”
It’s no secret the guy Cormier is referring to is light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Cormier is moving to 205 pounds to become champion -- and with his longtime friend and training partner Cain Velasquez holding the heavyweight crown, there is no chance of him capturing that belt.
Cormier has said over and over that he will never fight Velasquez. And he believes Velasquez will retain the belt for a very long time.
After the overwhelming performance Velasquez put on during the main event against former titleholder Junior dos Santos, there is no reason to believe he will be dethroned in the foreseeable future.
As amazing as it might seem, Cormier could very well be a better fighter at light heavyweight. But before we start talking title shot, he needs a fight or two in the new division to earn it.
Despite his solid victory in the UFC 166 co-main event, Cormier didn’t leave fans salivating to see him face Jones. Part of the reason might be that he never seriously hurt Nelson, nor did he show any sign that neutralizing Jones’ significant reach edge won’t prove difficult.
There are still questions, however, that Cormier needs to answer before a 205-pound title shot is offered to him. Will the hand speed he demonstrated against Nelson and other heavyweights be an advantage against smaller, quicker opponents?
Cormier believes his hand and foot speed is comparable to those of any light heavyweight. And there is no doubt he will be as strong, if not stronger, than any man standing across the cage from him.
But Cormier will have to fight at least twice to prove he is the man most equipped to defeat Jones or anyone else holding the light heavyweight belt when his turn arrives. He is still in need of a dominating victory inside the Octagon.
HOUSTON -- As everyone knows, any great real-life sports moment can be summed up by an equally great sports-movie quote.
For this weekend’s UFC heavyweight trilogy fight between defending champion Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, the quote has to come from Will Ferrell’s NASCAR classic, "Talladega Nights."
“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” It becomes a rule of thumb for Ferrell’s character, Ricky Bobby -- the last thing his father says before running out of his adolescent life.
Saturday’s heavyweight title fight features, without question, the most dominant big men in mixed martial arts today. They are 1-1 against each other and a combined 18-0 against the rest of the division, including 15 finishes.
As talented as they both are, only one will leave the Toyota Center as champion. The other, the one who takes second, might feel like he finished last.
“I think the casual fan will remember the last fight between them and forget the ones before,” said Javier Mendez, Velasquez’s head coach.
“From my observation, [in trilogies], the guy who wins the last fight is the winner. Muhammad Ali was the winner [over Joe Frazier]. Arturo Gatti was the winner [over Micky Ward]. The casual fan only remembers the last fight.”
So much is at stake at UFC 166, well beyond the normal stuff that comes with every title fight. History won’t be made on Saturday; it will actually be rewritten.
Excuses are a dime a dozen in the fight game, but dos Santos and Velasquez each has good ones when it comes to their first two meetings.
When dos Santos (16-2) starched Velasquez with a right hand just 64 seconds into the first fight in 2011, Velasquez was secretly nursing a serious knee injury.
When Velasquez (12-1) -- as UFC president Dana White put it Thursday -- “destroyed” dos Santos in a five-round rematch last year, the Brazilian was finalizing a divorce and dealing with rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal condition caused by overtraining.
There’s no real way of knowing how much those circumstances played into the first two results, but that doesn’t matter. Perception beats reality every day in combat sports. Saturday’s winner will have “proved” his loss to the other was a fluke.
It’s why Mexican boxer Juan Manuel Marquez turned down a massive payday this year to fight Manny Pacquiao again. Who cares if he retires 1-2-1 against Pacquiao? Marquez will feel forever vindicated by the crushing knockout he scored in the rivalry’s finale last year.
It should be mentioned that Saturday might not even be this rivalry’s finale. Mendez has confidently predicted a fourth (and perhaps even fifth) fight, as has dos Santos.
Of course, a fourth fight isn’t guaranteed, and by the time the UFC wanted to promote one, the heavyweights could be well past their respective primes anyway.
“I think it will be settled for a while,” Velasquez said. “I won’t say we won’t fight in five years or so. That’s a possibility. But it will be settled for a while.”
Both Velasquez and dos Santos, when asked to identify the greatest heavyweight martial artist of all time, named former Pride champion Fedor Emelianenko. The Russian heavyweight once went 28 consecutive fights without a loss.
Even in the UFC’s heavyweight division, where no champion has consecutively defended the belt more than twice, Velasquez and dos Santos are viewed as talented enough to produce a long winning streak.
Only one of them, however, can do it with a belt around his waist. And as Reese Bobby said, “If you ain’t first …”
“It’s really hard to ignore how huge this fight is,” Mendez said. “This is the biggest trilogy in the history of the UFC, and it may very well be the biggest trilogy of all MMA.”
HOUSTON -- Several fighters on the UFC 166 main card Saturday night have a lot to lose. But none has more at stake than Daniel Cormier.
Sure, a strong case can be made for main-event participants Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos -- there is the matter of the heavyweight title being up for grabs. But even the loser is expected to remain high on the contender list.
Cormier, on the other hand, has no room for error. He not only needs to beat Roy Nelson in the co-main event, but must do so in impressive fashion. Anything less and Cormier, who plans to begin competing at light heavyweight after the bout, will be forced to make major changes to his master plan.
Despite being ranked No. 3 among heavyweights by ESPN.com, Cormier is opting to leave the division because he wants to become a UFC champion. And he vows never to fight Velasquez -- a close friend and training partner.
So Cormier is heading to 205 pounds to realize his title dream. But at 34, time isn’t on his side.
An upset loss to Nelson will greatly diminish his chances of landing a title shot anytime soon. Even a lackluster performance Saturday night could do harm to his title bid.
"This is the most important fight of my career," Cormier told ESPN.com. "I know the Josh Barnett fight was important because I needed to win that [Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix] tournament. But in terms of importance, in terms of keeping my momentum, keeping things rolling in the right direction, this is the one.
"I’ve got to find a way to get through Roy Nelson in impressive fashion, so that I can take the momentum that I’ve built over the past four years and take it with me down to the lower weight division.
"If I don’t do what I’m supposed to do Saturday night, everything was for nothing. It’s back to the drawing board and revamping my plan."
MAYWEATHER’S RETURN GIVES NELSON BOOST
Nelson looks fit and trim heading into his heavyweight showdown with Cormier. But in this case, the looks are definitely deceiving.
The weight loss isn’t the result of physical changes Nelson made, but the stress he felt during camp because of concerns over the health of his trainer, Jeff Mayweather.
"I was more concerned about Jeff Mayweather and the people in my camp," Nelson said. "This has been the crappiest camp that I have ever had. It is what it is.
"When I get depressed I don’t eat. I lost Jeff about two weeks into camp; he was in the hospital. I just tried to make do with what I’ve got."
Mayweather has fully recovered from the rapid heartbeat he experienced after consuming an energy drink. And Nelson couldn’t be happier. He has regained his appetite, which could mean the return of his usual round figure.
"About two days ago [Monday] was the first time that Jeff was back, so I’m eating again," Nelson said. "Maybe I will be 280 pounds and cut weight to make 265."
MELENDEZ TO BEGIN BID FOR TITLE SHOT
No. 2-ranked lightweight and former Strikeforce titleholder Gilbert Melendez is a heavy favorite to beat highly aggressive Diego Sanchez.
"There is no pecking order in this division right now," Melendez said. "The No. 10 guy can be the champ any day of the week; the No. 1 guy can lose any day of the week."
Melendez, however, makes it clear that he has no intention of falling victim to Sanchez. He not only expects to have his hand raised afterward, but plans to use this bout as a springboard to start his title-shot campaign.
"It definitely comes down to my performance and what the fans want to see," Melendez said. "If I do well I will definitely be campaigning for that shot."
DODSON NO LONGER GIVING SECOND CHANCES
Flyweight contender John Dodson can still see those punches that either dropped or wobbled Demetrious Johnson during their title bout in January. The images are perfectly clear.
How could they not be? Dodson spent a lot of time during the early rounds of that fight admiring his work. Rather than put the finishing touches on his potential masterpiece, Dodson opted to watch the champion recover.
That proved to be a huge mistake. Johnson would rebound, eventually take control of the fight and retain his title. What took place during that fight remains firm in Dodson’s mind.
He was in position several times to lift the belt from Johnson, but failed to capitalize. Dodson blames no one but himself and says he has learned his lesson. Never again will the man in the cage with him -- starting with Saturday night’s opponent, Darrell Montague -- be let off the hook.
"I have to make sure that I go out there and not watch my handiwork," Dodson told ESPN.com. "I watched me hit him, I watched him fall and then I watched my chance to win the title slip through my fingers. I can no longer allow that to happen."
As talented a fighter as Junior dos Santos has proved to be inside the Octagon, there was always a noticeable defect in his game: He was predictable.
It was no secret that the minute dos Santos stepped inside the cage, punches would start flying. And for a long time, there was nothing his opponents could do about it. They’d just take their beatings like men and collect hefty paychecks for their efforts.
“There was nothing any heavyweight could do to prevent dos Santos from using his fast hands, footwork and power to dismantle them. A dos Santos knockout victory had become commonplace. He was so successful at employing this approach that there was no incentive on his part to change it. Besides, toting that UFC heavyweight title belt around served as a constant reminder that he was doing things correctly.
I was too predictable in the cage. Everybody knew that I was coming in there to knock them out. I always relied on my boxing skills and avoiding the takedown.” -- Junior dos Santos, on what went wrong in his second bout against Cain Velasquez
Comfortable with the relative ease in which he was winning UFC bouts, dos Santos prepared for each fight by following the same training camp routine -- hit the pads, spar, and fine-tune his footwork, his head movement and his takedown defense.
Going to the ground in a mixed martial arts fight was an absolute no-no for dos Santos. His prefight strategy never changed: Keep it standing and everything would turn out just fine.
Then he signed to fight Cain Velasquez a second time. Dos Santos entered that fight extremely confident; he had overwhelmed Velasquez in their first meeting -- winning by first-round knockout in November 2011 to capture the UFC title belt.
But the rematch, in December 2012, proved to be very different. Velasquez attacked dos Santos nonstop for five rounds. He hit dos Santos repeatedly in the face with powerful right hands, followed by lefts to the body.
When the final horn sounded, dos Santos was unrecognizable. His face was badly swollen and bloodied. Dos Santos had taken a massive beating in losing his title belt by a lopsided unanimous decision and returned home to ponder what went wrong.
He had trained the way he always did: The sparring sessions were as intense as usual, and his punching power and speed weren’t lacking. There was no reason for dos Santos to believe he would be overmatched by a man he had dominated one year earlier.
But he was overmatched, and, looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened to dos Santos. It was the long overdue wake-up call he needed.
That beating has remained fresh in dos Santos’ mind ever since. It’s as if the rematch happened yesterday. Dos Santos has watched the fight over and over and remembers every detail of the beating he received. And it will be visible in his mind Saturday night when he faces Velasquez a third time at UFC 166 in Houston.
Most fighters would try desperately to erase such a nightmarish experience, but not dos Santos. The former UFC titleholder embraced the outcome of that second meeting and has used it to change his ways.
“You learn more when you lose a fight,” dos Santos told ESPN.com. “I learned a lot from that loss to Cain Velasquez. It was really bad to see myself in that position, getting beat for five rounds. That was very bad for me; I didn’t like it. I won’t let that happen again.
“I was too predictable in the cage. Everybody knew that I was coming in there to knock them out. I always relied on my boxing skills and avoiding the takedown. But one of the things I and my team learned is that we have to use all of our weapons all the time to win a fight.”
Boxing will remain an important part of dos Santos’ fight plan; it remains his greatest advantage inside the Octagon. But he intends to also employ wrestling, jujitsu and Muay Thai -- if need be. That, however, is all the information he is willing to divulge.
Dos Santos is no stranger to wrestling, jujitsu or Muay Thai, he has just failed to use them regularly in his UFC fights. There was not much need for them previously. Velasquez taught him that those disciplines are just as important -- and dos Santos got the message.
“I have more experience now,” dos Santos said. “I learned a lot from my other fights. Now I’m better prepared for my fights, and mentally I am ready.
“I’m feeling very good about this fight. I’ve worked very hard on my strategy, my stand-up skills, my ground skills, all my skills, everything. I’ve trained in every area, all my skills. It’s very important for this moment.
“That fight taught me a lot, especially about my training. I did a lot of things wrong in that fight. I made a lot of mistakes, and I paid the price for that.
“I watched that second fight with Cain a lot. I couldn’t do a lot of things in that fight. I was giving him a lot of space. I can’t let that happen again, I have to put more pressure on him.”
Although dos Santos expects to reclaim the title, he will never return to being the fighter he was before that rematch with Velasquez. At 29 years old, he says he is still growing as a mixed martial artist -- physically and mentally. With each camp, he learns new techniques in all disciplines, including boxing.
Dos Santos changes a little every day. His body continues to grow and get stronger. He is mentally more mature; dos Santos has a better understanding of the fight game now. He is more well-rounded today than he was a year ago.
The former heavyweight champion has developed into a mixed martial artist. He isn’t predictable anymore.
ESPN Stats & Information
A trilogy is defined as a series of three novels, movies, etc. that are closely related and involve the same characters or themes.
On Saturday, UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez completes his series of three bouts with Junior dos Santos in Houston. The third battle sold out in less than three days and could set the Toyota Center record for highest-grossing event, already held by the UFC.
The event also will mark the 10th trilogy completed solely inside the UFC Octagon. Depending on how the fight goes, it could take its place among some other notable UFC trilogies.
Randy Couture versus Chuck Liddell (UFC 43, UFC 52, UFC 57)
Randy Couture already had won two UFC heavyweight titles when he stepped down in weight to challenge Chuck Liddell for the interim light heavyweight title at UFC 43 in June 2003. Liddell was 11-1 and coming off a brutal head-kick knockout of Renato Sobral. Couture landed four of five takedowns and outstruck Liddell 46-22 in significant strikes to win the title by third-round TKO. The two men met again in April 2005 at UFC 52 after both served as coaches on the debut season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Liddell won the rematch, knocking out Couture 2:06 into the first round to win the undisputed light heavyweight title. Their third matchup took place at UFC 57 in February 2006 with Liddell still champion at 205 pounds. Liddell controlled the fight, landing 18 head strikes, including the final blows to a downed Couture to win by TKO in the second round and retain the title. Both men were eventually inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame (Couture in 2006, Liddell in 2009).
Georges St-Pierre versus Matt Hughes (UFC 50, UFC 65, UFC 79)
Another Hall of Famer, Matt Hughes, was involved in two trilogies inside the UFC Octagon. Hughes landed on the losing end of both at 1-2, and while his trilogy with BJ Penn was memorable, it’s his rivalry with Georges St-Pierre for the UFC welterweight title that is remembered. At UFC 50 in October 2004, former champion Hughes faced a young 24-year-old from Canada in St-Pierre for the welterweight title. With 1:14 left in the first round, Hughes gained his second takedown of the fight and eventually secured an arm bar on St-Pierre, forcing a tapout with one second remaining to become a two-time UFC welterweight champion. Hughes made two defenses of the title before meeting St-Pierre again at UFC 65 in November 2006. St-Pierre outstruck the champion 45-10 and landed a devastating head kick and punches to win the title by TKO in the second round. December 2007 was the final battle at UFC 79. Hughes and GSP once again fought for a vacant interim title, as undisputed champion Matt Serra was out because of injury. St-Pierre landed three takedowns and finished Hughes via arm bar in the second round. That fight remains St-Pierre’s second UFC victory by submission in 20 fights. Hughes was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2010, before finishing his second trilogy with Penn and retiring in 2011.
Frankie Edgar versus Gray Maynard (Ultimate Fight Night 13, UFC 125, UFC 136)
At UFC Fight Night 13 in 2008, two undefeated lightweight prospects took to the Octagon in Frankie Edgar (9-0) and Gray Maynard (4-0, 1 NC). Maynard used his Michigan State wrestling background to score nine takedowns on "The Answer," winning 30-27 on all scorecards. Fast-forward to New Year’s Day 2011 and Edgar was the reigning and defending UFC lightweight champion. Maynard was still undefeated and the No. 1 contender to Edgar’s title when they fought at UFC 125. Edgar was knocked down three times in the first round and on the verge of losing to Maynard again, this time for the title. But the New Jersey product fought back valiantly, outstriking Maynard 85-46 for the remaining four rounds to earn a split decision draw. The third fight was inevitable and took place at UFC 136 seven months later. Maynard was again the aggressor, outstriking Edgar 24-11 in the first round and earning another knockdown against the champ. As with the second fight, Maynard slowed and Edgar battled back. In the fourth round, Edgar landed 21 significant strikes to 5 for Maynard and finished "The Bully" with punches to the head. The fight was stopped at 3:54 of the round with Edgar winning by TKO and retaining his UFC lightweight title. Edgar moved to featherweight in February 2013 and Maynard will face Nate Diaz at "The Ultimate Fighter 18" finale in November of this year. While it is their third fight, the first on the "The Ultimate Fighter" is not considered an official bout.
Ken Shamrock versus Tito Ortiz (UFC 40, UFC 61, “UFC Fight Night: The Final Chapter”)
Vendetta. Bitter Rivals. The Final Chapter. Those were the titles of the trilogy fights between Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz and did they ever fit the descriptions. After 1999 victories over Lion’s Den fighters Jerry Bohlander and Guy Mezger, Ortiz berated the Shamrock camp with taunts and T-shirts, enraging the "World’s Most Dangerous Man." Shamrock also was in the middle of a pro wrestling career, but made his Octagon return at UFC 40 in November 2002 to challenge Ortiz for the UFC light heavyweight title. In what was arguably one of the pivotal moments in UFC history, Ortiz dominated the former UFC Superfight champion in significant strikes 74-12, and takedowns 3-0. The fight was stopped in the third round by Shamrock’s corner, and Ortiz retained his title. Shamrock would be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame the following year, but his career was not over. The two crossed paths again in 2006, not as opponents in the cage, but rather coaches on Season 3 of "The Ultimate Fighter." Verbal spats arose and the two men again faced off at UFC 61 in July 2006. Shamrock started strong, but Ortiz secured a takedown and landed elbows in the guard. Referee Herb Dean controversially stopped the fight at the 1:18 mark, giving Ortiz his second victory over Shamrock. The third fight was in October 2006 at UFC Fight Night: The Final Chapter. Ortiz landed a takedown 40 seconds into the fight and finished Shamrock with strikes 2:23 into the fight. Ortiz would be involved in one more trilogy during his UFC career, losing the final two bouts of his trilogy with Forrest Griffin. The third fight ended his UFC career on the same weekend he became the eighth fighter inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.
Velasquez and dos Santos will fight for the third time this Saturday to finish the 11th trilogy in UFC history. Will this be the last? Unlikely. Here are some potential UFC trilogies for each division you may see in the coming years.
Heavyweight: Frank Mir versus Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (2 fights): Mir needs to beat Alistair Overeem or he might face a release after fighting in the UFC since 2001. Nogueira is at the tail end of his career and Mir was the first man to make "Big Nog" submit in his MMA career.
Light heavyweight: Lyoto Machida versus Mauricio Rua (2 fights): This would require one fighter to move weight classes, most likely Machida back to 205. They split the first two over the title and a third battle could certainly go either way.
Middleweight: Anderson Silva versus Chris Weidman (1 fight, 1 upcoming): If Weidman wins at UFC 168, there won’t be a third fight. But if "The Spider" is victorious, you’d have to think either Weidman gets an immediate rematch or can work his way back to the title before Silva's contract runs out.
Welterweight: Carlos Condit versus Martin Kampmann (2 fights): While Condit certainly looked sharp against "The Hitman" in earning a TKO victory, Kampmann will always be lurking in the welterweight picture. He’d have to pull off two or three wins in a row somewhere along the line if he's to face "The Natural Born Killer" again.
Lightweight: Nate Diaz versus Gray Maynard (1 fight, 1 upcoming): Matt Wiman and Mac Danzig have fought twice, but Wiman won both, which essentially puts that out. Technically this will be the third fight of Diaz versus Maynard (they fought on TUF 5), but officially two on their fight records. Still, a Diaz win at the TUF 18 finale could make a third official fight very interesting.
Featherweight: Cub Swanson versus Dustin Poirier (1 fight): The odds gets a little longer starting at 145 because of the recent UFC addition, but these two should be in the division for a while. Swanson is currently ranked sixth and defeated eighth-ranked Poirier by unanimous decision in February.
Bantamweight: Michael McDonald versus Sergio Pettis (0 fights): With Jose Aldo probably moving to lightweight and Renan Barao to featherweight, bantamweight trilogies look bleak. Michael McDonald is 22 and Sergio Pettis is 20 ,so with success, they’ll be around a while. The question is if the younger Pettis’ future is at 135 pounds or 125.
Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson versus Joseph Benavidez (1 fight, 1 upcoming): By year's end, these men will have fought twice. If Benavidez wins the rematch at the TUF 18 finale, expect these two to finish the rivalry in mid to late 2014.
Women’s bantamweight: Ronda Rousey versus Sara McMann (0 fights): Rousey-Tate would be the obvious choice because they will have fought twice by year's end, but Tate has to win at UFC 168. Many see McMann's wrestling as the key to beating Rousey. Whoever beats the No. 1-ranked women’s fighter certainly would have to face "Rowdy" Ronda again.
ESPN Stats & Information
UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez will face No. 1 contender Junior dos Santos on Saturday for the third time in the past two years. The fighters have split the first two matchups.
In the co-main event, third-ranked Daniel Cormier fights at heavyweight for possibly the final time when he takes on Roy Nelson.
Here are the numbers you need to know for the fights:
8: Velasquez has eight UFC victories by KO/TKO, most by any heavyweight in company history. The 8 KO/TKO wins are tied for fifth all-time. Tied for second on the heavyweight list is dos Santos with seven.
11: In their last fight, Velasquez secured 11 takedowns on dos Santos, a career high for the former All-American from Arizona State. Before that fight, opponents had taken down dos Santos twice in 17 attempts (88 percent defense). Velasquez lands an average of 6.5 takedowns per 15 minutes.
5: Both fighters land over 5 significant strikes per minute in UFC fights. Velasquez is first with 6.50 significant strikes per minute while dos Santos is 7th at 5.46 significant strikes per minute. They are 1st and 3rd respectively in the UFC heavyweight division all-time (Stipe Miocic 5.48).
3: There have been three title fights in UFC history to take place in Houston. Champions Frankie Edgar and Jose Aldo retained their titles at UFC 136. The biggest upset in UFC history also occurred in Houston as Matt Serra defeated Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight title at UFC 69.
4: Of the 15 men who have held a version of the UFC heavyweight title, four have defended the title two consecutive times. Randy Couture defeated Pedro Rizzo twice in 2001. Andrei Arlovski defended an interim title against Justin Eilers and then the undisputed title against Paul Buentello in 2005. Tim Sylvia defeated Arlovski for the title, and then defended against him and Jeff Monson in 2006. Brock Lesnar defended his undisputed title against interim champions Frank Mir in 2009 and Shane Carwin in 2010.
10: Velasquez vs. dos Santos III will be the 10th trilogy in UFC history. Of the previous 9 to be completed, only one has taken place within the UFC heavyweight division (Sylvia vs Arlovski). As Velasquez did against dos Santos, Sylvia lost the first fight and his interim title at UFC 51, but then won it back at UFC 59 in the second matchup. In the final installment less than three months later, Sylvia was victorious again at UFC 61.
26: Cormier has landed an average of 26 more significant strikes in each of his nine UFC/Strikeforce fights over his career. In his last fight, he outlanded Frank Mir 59-24 en route to a unanimous decision victory. Cormier has never been outstruck in any of those nine fights. Nelson was outstruck in his last fight by Stipe Miocic 106-23.
4: Knockout of the Night awards for Nelson, tied for second most all-time and 1st among heavyweights. All four of those victories were in the first round as well as nine of his 12 career KO/TKO wins. Cormier has five victories by KO/TKO, three of which occurred in the first round.
The French heavyweight, however, isn’t unlike any other martial artist. He covets the opportunity to prove himself as the best fighter of his weight class. And in seven years and 18 fights with the UFC, he never got that chance in the form of a title fight.
Kongo, 38, will make his Bellator Fighting Championships debut on Friday when he meets Mark Godbeer in a heavyweight tournament semifinal matchup at Bellator 102 in Visalia, Calif.
It’s real simple now for Kongo -- more so than ever before. If he wins his next three fights, a championship belt will go around his waist. It’s a good feeling to have.
“It feels different,” Kongo told ESPN.com. “I have complete confidence in what I’m going to bring to this new promotion. It’s a really good chance for me to show what I’ve got. Three fights and I can be the champion. That’s what pushes me.”
It’s obvious that Kongo (18-8-2) has no desire to publicly criticize the UFC’s treatment of him. Several former UFC fighters have done so in 2013, including Quinton Jackson and Tito Ortiz, both of whom also signed with Bellator.
Any divorce of a seven-year marriage, however, is likely to include some share of resentment. In Kongo’s case, it’s based around that UFC title shot that eluded him.
“I don’t want to look like someone who is (complaining),” Kongo said. “Of course, I wasn’t happy because I didn’t get the shot. I deserved to fight for the belt. It was always just keep fighting, keep fighting, keep fighting. I wasn’t really pushed or promoted as a challenger.”
I have complete confidence in what I'm going to bring to this new promotion. It's a really good chance for me to show what I've got. Three fights and I can be the champion. That's what pushes me.” -- Cheick Kongo, on renewed vigor as a Bellator fighter
The closest Kongo came to a championship fight was 2009. He compiled a 5-1 run starting in 2007, with the only loss coming via split decision to Heath Herring.
He was booked as a late replacement at UFC 99 in a fight against eventual champion Cain Velasquez. Not a bad opportunity, except there was a problem -- Kongo says he was injured.
The contest resulted in a unanimous decision win for Velasquez. The momentum that had built toward that all-important title fight was fractured -- then erased completely in a submission loss to Frank Mir six months later.
Kongo doesn’t believe in sour grapes. He says he’s always moved on quickly from setbacks in his career and in the Velasquez case, he accepted the fight. But yeah, losing that potential title shot in a fight he wasn’t healthy in, it left a sour taste.
“I was injured when I fought Cain Velasquez,” Kongo said. “The UFC knew it but you know, everybody was excited about the fight. Nobody was asking me, ‘What’s going on? What happened?’ I’m not the guy to go scream, ‘Hey, this happened.’
“I took the fight and I lost. That’s it -- end of story. These guys come to you and say, ‘Yeah, come on. You’re supposed to be a fighter. Take the fight.’ You never know what to do because people go crazy. But I don’t want to blame somebody. In the end, I was the last one to make that decision.”
There were other instances, too. Kongo revealed he fought with a dislocated shoulder after a lackluster performance against Shawn Jordan and he says his left hand was broken heading into his most recent fight, a knockout loss to Roy Nelson.
All that is water under the bridge, though. One thing Kongo hasn’t lost through the ups and downs is his confidence -- and it’s unwavering heading into his Bellator debut.
He’s been pegged a 5-to-1 favorite over Godbeer in the heavyweight tournament semifinal. He’s promised everyone will see why when the fight starts.
“I think at this time, I don’t have anything to prove except to myself to be the best,” Kongo said. “And I am the best. That’s what I’m going to prove in this tournament. It’s not even about proving, it’s about showing. I have to show them.”
Earlier this month, UFC president Dana White revealed that Werdum requested a fight with Cormier. It was a bout UFC officials were seriously considering. Fortunately, they opted instead to have Cormier fight Roy Nelson on Oct. 19 at UFC 166 in Houston.
Here’s the deal, Cormier would have accepted the fight against Werdum; he loves being in high-profile bouts. But it’s highly likely Cormier would have beaten Werdum, and that’s when things would have gotten messy on the heavyweight contender landscape.
You see, Cormier will fight anyone UFC officials place in front of him, other than his close friend and training partner, heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. Cormier is a vicious human being inside the Octagon, but a considerate person outside of it. He doesn’t want to do harm to the promotion in any way. And knocking off Werdum would have resulted in lots of uncertainty at heavyweight.
The possibility of Cormier beating Werdum and the problems it would have created wasn’t lost on mixed martial arts fans. And they let Cormier know it.
“I’d kind of gotten a negative reaction from the general public about that,” Cormier told ESPN.com. “They were all like, ‘Well, you’re leaving the division, why would you guys fight in an eliminator? What if you win?' "
“I am leaving the division. But I like being in big fights. I imagine that [Werdum’s] the only guy with a real strong case for a title shot right now, outside of myself. Under normal circumstances, a title eliminator between us would be logical. But being that I’m trying to get down to the next weight division, it’s not as cut and dry as it would normally be."
“I would have taken the fight if UFC had offered it to me. I will fight anybody who’s winning, anyone but Cain. So if they would have offered me the fight with Werdum in an eliminator, I would have accepted it and I would have beaten him and not taken the title shot. It would have really kind of jacked things up a little bit.”
The potential for disaster, however, has been averted. There will be no title eliminator, and Cormier is okay with that. In addition to performing against top-caliber opponents, Cormier is motivated to put on solid performances. He gets to satisfy both in his final heavyweight fight.
Nelson has name recognition and almost always puts on exciting fights. He rarely ever takes a backward step. He’s the guy Cormier wanted to fight all along.
The two have been targeting one another since early June when Nelson claimed that Cormier turned down an offer to fight him at UFC 161 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Cormier took offense to Nelson’s allegation.
An excited Cormier told ESPN.com he couldn’t be happier. Things couldn’t be better in his pro fighting career at this time: He gets to settle matters with Nelson, look impressive doing so and make a solid case to fight for the light heavyweight title shot early in 2014.
Cormier is hell-bent on becoming the next 205-pound champion, whether Jon Jones still holds the belt when he arrives in the division or not. However, Cormier predicts Jones will defeat Alexander Gustafsson on Sept. 21 at UFC 165 in Toronto.
“I have the skills to win that fight [against Jones],” Cormier said. “But I have to get through [Nelson] first. I have to fight a fight that will strengthen my case."
“Because what I will be asking to do at the beginning of next year is something that is going to make a lot of people mad. I’m going to ask to cut the line at 205. So I have to have a fight [at UFC 166] where I am impressive. And show that my body of work warrants a title shot, even though it’s my first time fighting in that weight division.”
If Cormier looks impressive in beating Nelson and lands a title shot in his light heavyweight debut, there will be very few complaints from the masses. A Jones-Cormier title bout is sure to generate lots of excitement.
One question I get just about every week on the Friday chat was some variation of this: Which UFC champion will fall first?
For the past year, it’s been easy to imagine that none of the current champions would ever lose again, given the state of the matchmaking. Not with Ronda Rousey fighting Liz Carmouche, and Georges St-Pierre fighting Nick Diaz, and Jon Jones fighting Chael Sonnen, and Anderson Silva fighting Stephan Bonnar with no belt in the balance, and Dominick Cruz not fighting at all.
With landslide favorites in these matchups, the answer was always Junior dos Santos. Heavyweights have never been good at holding on to the belt. Then it became Cain Velasquez, when he beat Dos Santos. That is, until Velasquez was resaddled with Antonio Silva, whose odds the second time were longer than his gangly reach. When that happened, the question of who would fall first came back around to its usual futility.
The real question was: Who would get Matt Serra’d first?
For the past year, it wasn’t that the UFC champions were being catered to and protected, so much as the matchmaking lacked imagination. Or the matchmaking had too much imagination, because it required the open-mindedness of our disposable income. There was not enough genuine threat, due to circumstances (injuries), limitations (shallow heavyweight division) and cash-out gimmickry (Sonnen). Aside from a few exceptions -- Gilbert Melendez versus Benson Henderson, say, or any Demetrious Johnson fight -- for a long time we had main events that looked and felt more like potboilers.
Just activity for the sake of activity, with low-flame drama.
Yet here we are in mid-2013, and a champion has fallen. Anderson Silva, the longest-tenured, most unthinkable of the titleholders with his 16-0 record in the UFC, lost to Chris Weidman spectacularly at UFC 162. There’d be no such thing as “eras” if they went on forever. Now the Silva era hinges on the rematch in December. How are those for stakes?
If that wasn't novel enough, after a long dry spell of pretenders getting shots on whims and shaking limbs, suddenly it looks as if Silva could be just the first domino to fall. Most of the title fights slated to take place in the second half of 2013 pits a challenger who looks and feels like an actual threat to the throne. Suddenly we can imagine a world where Johny Hendricks is posing for magazine articles with the belt slung over his shoulder, know what I mean?
Think about this: By the end of 2013, we might have recast our pantheon of UFC champions. Hendricks is a legitimate threat to St-Pierre. So is the barely talked about John Moraga over flyweight champion Johnson. Dos Santos could reclaim his title against Velasquez, just the same as Silva could reclaim his belt against Weidman. These fights are booked and happening (pending health).
Rousey will be the odds-on favorite to beat Miesha Tate, just as Jose Aldo will loom large over Chan Sung Jung -- but Anthony Pettis beat Benson Henderson once, what’s to say he can’t to it again at the end of August? Especially in his hometown of Milwaukee?
Romanticists might point to Alexander Gustafsson as a viable challenge to Jon Jones, but that one is more wait and see. Yet Gustafsson feels like Ares in there against Jones after fostering our collective beliefs for so long over Sonnen’s chances.
By the end of 2013, our pound-for-pound lists may become a weekly Etch-a-Sketch. This is how it was drawn up in the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- to stake the best fighters in the world against the people who the matchmakers think could beat them. That’s how this thing works best. Champions, after all, are made to be vulnerable.
And it’s refreshing to look over a slate of upcoming fights and genuinely have no idea how things are going to go. It’s better, when asked a question like "which UFC champion will fall first," to counter with: "A better question is -- which one will still be champion this time next year?"
Unbeaten Chris Weidman did what some thought to have been the unthinkable by knocking out middleweight champion Anderson Silva on Saturday at UFC 162 in Las Vegas.
Weidman, 29, caught Silva, who had defended his title a UFC-record 11 times, leaning back with a short left hook and finished the job on the ground to score a stunning second-round knockout.
The Baldwin, N.Y., native and former two-time Division I All-American wrestler at Hofstra University visited ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., Thursday and took some time to answer our questions:
What did you do to celebrate after getting home from Saturday’s victory in Las Vegas?
I didn’t get to celebrate yet when I got home from Vegas -- it was right into media stuff for the UFC. I was in Vegas until Monday, but I got back early Tuesday morning and tried to get some sleep, which did not happen. It’s just been rock 'n' roll with the media. I can’t wait to get home and just lie down in my bed, hang out with the family and let it absorb a little bit.
Going back to your initial takedown of Anderson Silva in the first round, was that something you practiced countless hours specifically for him, or was it just muscle memory in the moment?
Yeah, muscle memory. It just happened. That specific takedown and the way I finished it, I don’t think I’ve done that once in sparring. I’ve wrestled my whole life and done that takedown a million times, but never in sparring [for this fight.] It was just natural feel.
Was there any one of Silva’s antics inside the Octagon that irritated you the most?
Just the excessiveness of it. I was just like, yo, you’re not punching me and I don’t know, like, bro … I mean if you could do all that, punch me in the face. I actually let him punch me in the face; there was one time where I just said, "hit me." He punched me [Weidman points to his chin] and I said, "hit me again." He punched me, and then I could hear my coaches yelling, “Wideman! Stop! Stop!” I’m like, all right, and I circled out. I was just like, bro, what are you doing? I’m laughing inside and saying, I’m winning the fight. It got to the point where I wanted to hit him, so it motivated me to put my hands on him.
Silva has long been considered the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in MMA. But who do you now consider to be No. 1 in the world?
I’m not a big rankings guy, to be honest with you. But I would say Georges St-Pierre or Jon Jones. One of those two, I think.
You debuted this week on our ESPN.com P4P list at No. 5 with Silva right ahead of you at No. 4. Do you feel like you have to beat him another time to disprove all the naysayers?
I expected that when I took this fight. I said I would beat him and that after I finish him, we’re going to have an immediate rematch at Madison Square Garden. That was the only part that I got wrong, the Madison Square Garden. So we are having a rematch and I understood that, no matter what I did to him. I did the impossible and knocked him out and there’s more naysayers than anything. But if I would have submitted him it probably would have been worse. No matter what I did out there, if I had decisioned him, no matter what I did, he’s known as the greatest of all time and people think that he’s unbeatable and are shocked that anyone could actually beat him. So they are going to come up with excuses.
You have probably already heard a lot of excuses since Saturday not giving you a lot of credit. So how motivated are you for a rematch?
I’m very motivated. I’m motivated without that. I get to fight him again, and I want to put on an even better performance.
Stone Cold Steve Austin. I thought that was cool. He direct messaged me on Twitter. First he wished me good luck. I had never met him before. But I thought that was pretty cool. He thinks I’m a badass apparently. So, I’m a big fan of his now.
We’ve read that your home was severely damaged during Hurricane Sandy and about the nonprofit work you have done to help rebuild the area. Tell us about that and about how you and your family have recovered?
We are about nine months out from Hurricane Sandy. The house is still not back to 100 percent. It’s still a mess. But we have recovered -- we are on the second floor. We are good and are happy with where we are at. Obviously this fight has helped us a lot. We might be moving out and getting a new house, we’ll see. As far as nonprofit, I worked with Theo Rossi from “Sons Of Anarachy” and [Dallas Cowboys running back] DeMarco Murray. It’s something Theo Rossi started called Staten Strong that I just kind of jumped on because I was affected. We work together to get some money together and help people. But honestly the biggest thing I did right after Hurricane Sandy was me and my wife set up a point where people could bring food and batteries and cleaning supplies. We had it through my social media where everyone brought it to our local church and we passed it out to different charities and helped a lot of people.
There are a lot of great nicknames, of course, in MMA. You are known as The All-American. How did you get that name?
When I started and first got to the MMA gym the guys would start and say, “You’re like the All-American kid.” It was because, I don’t know, I go to church every Sunday, I got married young and I’ve always been an All-American in college having gone All-American all four years [two years each at Nassau Community College and Hofstra]. They just started calling me it and that was really it.
Let’s talk about some other fighters in your division not named Anderson Silva whom you could potentially fight. We’ll start with Vitor Belfort. What are your thoughts about him?
Tough guy. I would say he’s the No. 1 contender right now. If I wasn’t fighting Anderson Silva in a rematch, I’d probably be fighting him.
What do you think about all of the controversy surrounding him about testosterone-replacement therapy, and what are your thoughts on TRT in general?
I don’t like it, to be honest with you. If your testosterone is low, man, that’s God telling you that you have low testosterone, and if you can’t train the right way or whatever it is, it’s time to retire and do something else. It’s a little unfair that you could be 38 years old and he definitely has higher testosterone than me. [Note: Belfort is actually 36.] I’m 29 and have decently low testosterone, but I would never take testosterone because you are stuck on that thing for your whole life. I would never want to be on TRT. And I feel fine, [having low testosterone] doesn’t bother me. So I can’t imagine these guys that are using it for performance reasons. I don’t like it, and I know California banned it recently although other commissions allow it. I don’t like it.
What are your thoughts on Michael Bisping?
Another tough guy. I would love to fight Bisping, to be honest with you. That would be a great fight for me.
How about Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza?
Really good jiu-jitsu, good standup. He’s another tough guy, I think. All of these guys would be great challenges, and I would really love to entertain them.
Of all the other fighters out there, who is the one you admire the most and why?
I really like Cain Velasquez. I like his pace that he puts on; he is mentally and physically breaking everybody he goes with. He’s just tenacious and relentless. I like Anderson Silva, too. I like his style. He’s very relaxed.
If Silva had won the fight against you, there was talk about possible superfights for Silva against either Jon Jones or Georges St-Pierre. Now that for the time being that’s not going to happen, would you ever consider a fight against either of those two guys?
Definitely not against GSP. First off, I would never call out someone who was a lot smaller than me. I’ve trained with him before, and he’s just a smaller guy. I’m not the type of guy who is going to be like, Hey, you want to fight? I’ve got Anderson Silva on my mind, but if the fans wanted to see that fight [against Jones] and the UFC wanted it to happen, I’m 1000 percent in. I asked to fight Jon Jones on 10 days’ notice back when Dan Henderson got hurt. But I wasn’t a big enough name at that point, so they were like, no.
With your wrestling background, what are your thoughts about the current state of Olympic wrestling?
It’s crazy that it’s even in question and up for voting. But it is, so it’s sad. I think wrestling is the one of the greatest sports there are. It’s the ultimate combat sport, and I just think it needs to be in the Olympics. I think the Olympics was made from wrestling and that it’s a staple. There just needs to be a lot of attention brought to it to keep it there.
Your goal has always been to be champion. Now that you have reached the pinnacle of your profession, how have you readjusted your goals?
My ultimate goal was always that I want to be known as one of the greatest of all time. The first step was obviously to be UFC champion. I did that, and now it’s time to take one fight at a time and really just set myself apart from the group. That’s my goal.