MMA: Demetrious Johnson

Team Alpha Male gunning for first title

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
8:00
AM ET
Huang By Michael Huang
ESPN.com
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Urijah Faber has spent his life building. He’s been building his body, his wrestling and MMA skills and career, his Alpha Male fight team and residential houses in his hometown of Sacramento.

However, what Faber and Team Alpha Male really have built over the past year is momentum.

Consider what Team Alpha Male’s core of Faber, featherweight Chad Mendes and flyweight Joseph Benavidez accomplished in 2013:

Mendes went 3-0 in 2013, with convincing knockout/TKO wins over Darren Elkins and Clay Guida, as well as a unanimous decision over a game Nik Lentz at UFC on Fox 9 in December while battling a sinus and upper respiratory infection.

Benavidez headed into his flyweight title bout with UFC champ Demetrious Johnson at UFC on Fox 9 also 3-0 in 2013. Though he was knocked out by Johnson, he had already defeated Ian McCall in a unanimous decision and knocked out Darren Uyenoyama and Jussier Formiga earlier in the year.

Faber went 4-0 in 2013, with impressive wins against Ivan Menjivar, Scott Jorgensen, Iuri Alcantara and culminating in his submission of highly rated Michael McDonald at UFC on Fox 9.

Add in the fact that 26-year-old bantamweight Chris Holdsworth emerged the winner of Season 18 of "The Ultimate Fighter," and it’s easy to see why the Team Alpha Male gym often has many unfamiliar faces training there these days -- the team’s popularity and success is drawing fans and wanna-be training partners from all over the world.

[+] EnlargeDemetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez
Al Powers for ESPNJoseph Benavidez, right, is one of the three Team Alpha Male fighters who could win a title in 2014.
And yet, with all of the team’s success over the past year, a UFC title still eludes them. Indeed, between Benavidez, Faber and Mendes, the trio is 0-5 in UFC title bouts. However, that could change Feb. 1 at UFC 169 when Faber will battle interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao, to whom Faber lost at UFC 149 in 2012. Faber replaces former champ Dominick Cruz, who could not fight due to injury and vacated the title.

In fact, five of Faber’s six losses have been in championship bouts dating back to the WEC. One could look at that in a glass half-empty or half-full perspective. What Faber won’t stand is talk that he gets title shots because he’s marketable.

“It really irks me when I hear that,” Faber said. “What does that mean? Plenty of guys are marketable. But people forget I’ve been fighting a long time, when this sport was just getting started ... You last that long because you win.”

Now heading into 2014, Team Alpha Male’s best chances for that first UFC title rest on its leader and founder’s shoulders. But Faber and his teammates keep their feet firmly on the ground, and not just because they’re wrestlers.

“We obviously go into every fight thinking that it’s very winnable,” Benavidez said. “Sure, right now it’s our ‘best chance’ simply because we haven’t won one yet. We look at it as a brand-new opportunity every time one of us gets a shot. It says a lot about the team -- not many teams have that many guys going for titles.

“I don’t really believe in fate or anything like that,” Benavidez added. “But when you’re dealing with fighting the best in the world, it comes down to fractions of seconds and inches. And the fact of the matter is it can just be a difficult task. It’s just something we haven’t done yet. Any other given night we believe we’re the best fighters in the world, but those particular nights it just hasn’t happened for us.”

However, considering the roll Team Alpha Male is on, that time could come soon. And it all starts with a Bang.

Help wanted

[+] EnlargeJoseph Benavidez
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesCoach Duane Ludwig, right, has been a great addition to Team Alpha Male.
No doubt Team Alpha Male’s success rests with its core group of pro fighters, but they’ve largely done it on their own, without a head coach-type figure. Enter longtime UFC welterweight Duane “Bang” Ludwig.

“When I first started the team, guys weren’t making much money and I wanted to keep as much of it in the fighters’ pockets [as possible], so we didn’t hire a coach,” Faber said. “But since we brought Duane in, I think all the guys can see a big difference in the way practices are run and the progress they’re making because of Duane’s influence.”

In 2012, Faber said he knew it had come time to install some sort of head coach. His short list included Ludwig and former UFC featherweight Mark Hominick. In the end, Faber chose Ludwig because he felt the 170-pound Ludwig could also help Team Alpha Male develop fighters beyond 155 pounds. By December 2012 he was named head coach and in 2013 the results have been obvious.

“It was basically what we needed,” Mendes said. “Before it was just all of us working together and helping each other out, and sharing techniques, searching for what was right. And we didn’t have it. But having Duane come in, who’s been in the UFC for a long time has been great. He came in and grabbed the team and said this is the Bang system and we’re going to implement it. But what was cool was he knew a lot of what we were doing was working well, but just some things needed to be added or switched up. Fine-tuned. And that’s what he did.

“That head coach figure is important for me as someone I can believe in and trust to tell me what I’m doing right or wrong, what’s working or not,” Mendes added.


[+] EnlargeChad Mendes
Ross Dettman for ESPNChad Mendes went 3-0 last year and would love to avenge in 2014 the only loss of his career against Jose Aldo.
However, Faber’s leadership is the focal point of Team Alpha Male. He’s shaped the team and its philosophy often at his own expense -- even allowing fighters to live at one of the several houses he owns in Sacramento. But he’s also aware enough to recognize that when his team grumbled for more structure and a head coach, he had to go get one. And he has tried to help equip members of his team with the same tools that made him successful.

Faber provides sports psychology and life coaching sessions for Alpha Male teammates, as well as marketing and career advice. It is a tight-knit team enjoying a pinnacle of success right now.

“I had the greatest support system a person could have in my family. But some guys never had that,” Faber said. “So I’m trying to give them those same tools and that same support that I got.”

With his latest title shot approaching this week, he will rely on that support. And like everything else he does with Team Alpha Male, if he wins the title, he’ll share it with them.

Weidman runs away with FOTY honors

January, 4, 2014
Jan 4
8:45
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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So yeah, ESPN Fighter of the Year is not a close race in 2013. It’s Chris Weidman by a landslide.
[+] EnlargeChris Weidman, Anderson Silva
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesBack-to-back wins over Anderson Silva made Chris Weidman an easy choice for fighter of the year honors.

Even Weidman, who isn’t one to pat himself on the back or pause to admire his own work, knows a fighter of the year when he sees one. His year speaks for itself.

“I did beat the greatest of all time, twice,” Weidman told ESPN.com. “I think that’s pretty good. Other guys had more fights than me but I fought as much as I could and I only had big fights. They were some of the biggest fights of the year.”

It was acceptable to doubt Weidman after his first win over Silva in July. As it turned out, it was wrong to do so, but at least it made sense at the time. Silva did clown in their first fight. It was hard to put that fight in perspective.

To still doubt him now, after a repeat performance, is silly. He dominated Silva in the rematch -- more so than in the first. He knocked him down, landed elbows from the top and turned the champ’s greatest weapon against him when he checked that kick.

“He fought the greatest twice and beat him twice,” said Weidman’s coach and former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra. “Dude can’t catch a break. He beats him the first time and it’s ‘Oh, Anderson was joking around.’

“This time, they’re calling it a freak thing. No. He checked the kick. He did the right move. I think he should get more credit. I think he’s being picked on.”

According to FightMetric, Weidman landed 36 significant strikes over the course of the two fights, compared to 22 by Silva. He scored 50 percent of his takedowns and attempted three submission attempts to Silva’s zero. He won all four rounds.

That’s not luck. That’s your new UFC middleweight champion and landslide winner for fighter of the year.

No 2: UFC middleweight Vitor Belfort, 3-0

When he’s not discussing his place in the jungle or carving figures into what’s become the best hair in MMA, Belfort proved he is still an elite fighter in 2013.

No. 3: UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, 3-0

Mighty Mouse defended his title three times and still found time to see the birth of his first child AND undergo shoulder surgery. That barely seems possible.

No. 4: UFC bantamweight Urijah Faber, 4-0

Faber doesn’t seem like a guy who takes fuel from doubters, but it can’t be all coincidence he put together a monster year at a time when so many counted him out.

No. 5: UFC welterweight Robbie Lawler, 3-0

Maybe Lawler would cherish a UFC title. Or maybe he could really care less about one. It’s hard to tell with ol’ Robbie. What we do know is he was one of the most entertaining fighters to watch in 2013, which he capped off with an upset win.

No doubt: Johnson the best flyweight

December, 15, 2013
12/15/13
7:33
AM ET
Huang By Michael Huang
ESPN.com
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If any questions still lingered about whether Demetrious Johnson is the best flyweight fighter in the world, his right fist answered every one of them unequivocally Saturday night in his first-round demolition of Joseph Benavidez at UFC on Fox 9 in Sacramento, Calif.

Johnson planted a solid right on Benavidez’s jaw, dropping Benavidez cold to the canvas. The knockout marked the second consecutive finish for Johnson, who submitted John Moraga at UFC on Fox 8 with an arm bar.

Johnson’s two finishes stonewall the run of seven straight decisions he posted en route to winning the UFC’s flyweight belt and in defense of it. Not only has Johnson perhaps proved himself a champion to his critics, but also champions a weight class that has perhaps thirsted for respect.

“Those people who said they hate the flyweight division don’t know [expletive] about fighting,” said UFC President Dana White shortly after Johnson’s first title defense, at UFC on Fox 6 in Chicago. “It’s not a deep division, they’re fighting the same guys. ... These guys know how to fight.”

Johnson has cleaned out the division, with wins over all the top challengers, including Benavidez twice, Moraga, John Dodson and Ian McCall. And with the impressive knockout win over Benavidez, it should leave little doubt about who’s the clear-cut best flyweight in the world.

However, Johnson’s rise through the pound-for-pound rankings has been slow, perhaps for the very reasons White detailed, as well as Johnson’s inability to finish fights until recently. Dare we say overlooked? And why shouldn’t Johnson be in the discussion for the top pound-for-pound fighter in MMA?

Against Benevidez, Johnson’s technique was exquisite, as it was against Moraga and Dodson. If Johnson seemed hesitant early against Dodson, he was dominant against Moraga and precise against Benavidez. His boxing was crisp and flawless, earning him "Knockout of the night" honors. Against Moraga, Johnson relied on his grappling, earning "Submission of the night" honors. Under trainer Matt Hume at AMC Pankration in Kirkland, Wash., Johnson has become a dangerously efficient fighter.

The scary thing that is Johnson, 27, continues to get better. He also seems to be settling into his position as a UFC champion. In a year in which the UFC has seem a seismic shift in titleholders -- Anderson Silva and Benson Henderson both losing titles, Georges St-Pierre vacating after a controversial win, and Jon Jones looking absolutely human against Alexander Gustafsson -- Johnson and perhaps heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez offer the most stability atop their respective divisions.

The flyweight might be the lightest class in the UFC, but it doesn’t mean its members should be taken lightly. After Johnson’s latest win, his inclusion in the pound-for-pound discussion was all but assured, and the legitimacy of the flyweight division cemented. Johnson is already ranked eighth in ESPN's pound-for-pound rankings.

“You know, if people want to see me as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, that’s totally fine,” Johnson said during the postfight new conference. “My job is to go back to the gym and keep on improving, keep on showcasing my skill set with finishes and knockouts.”

Johnson’s climb into those rankings might have been slow, but considering his dominance over the flyweight division, his ousting from it might take equally as long. The only question that remains is whether Johnson, with a 3-0 record including two title defenses and two finishes in 2013, will win "Fighter of the year" honors?

“There’s no doubt he should be in the running for that,” White said.

And with all those wins coming in front of non-pay-per-view national audiences, rest assured Johnson will no longer be overlooked.

Look before you boo the flyweights

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
6:23
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Let me tell you a few things about a UFC crowd.

Guaranteed, if you attend a UFC event, you will, at some point, hear someone yell, “Sweep the leg, Johnny.”

It’s inevitable. Now that I actually think about it, it’s downright stunning how automatic that phrase is at a live UFC show. Every. Single. Time.

If a fighter gets accidentally kicked in the groin, the arena will boo. I’ve never fully understood if they’re booing the guy who threw the kick, the guy who got kicked or just the situation in general. When the replay is shown, they collectively go, “Ohhhhh.”

And for the most part, UFC crowds boo flyweight fights. It’s a trend that might, hopefully, be dying. A Las Vegas crowd surprised me last month by not booing a flyweight chess match between Ali Bagautinov and Timothy Elliott at UFC 167.

It still exists, though. I can distinctly remember the Houston crowd booing John Dodson, one of the most electric fighters in the division, at UFC 166 -- and he scored a first-round knockout in that fight. A crowd in Minneapolis booed him last year in a second-round TKO win over Jussier Formiga.

And I will never forget the aftermath of the first flyweight title fight in UFC history, which involved the promotion’s president, Dana White, standing at the podium during a news conference in Toronto, literally telling potential pay-per-view customers to never purchase his product again if they didn’t enjoy it.
[+] EnlargeJohnson-Benavidez
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comDemetrious Johnson, top, is unapologetic when it comes to his fighting style.

“Let me tell you what,” White said, following Demetrious Johnson’s decision victory over Joseph Benavidez in September 2012. “If you didn’t like that flyweight fight, please, I’m begging you, don’t ever buy another UFC pay-per-view again.”

White, of course, then called the flyweight haters “morons” who “don’t like fighting.”

Johnson and Benavidez, who meet for a second time this weekend at a UFC on Fox event in Sacramento, Calif., have been asked about a billion times if the boos bother them. Their answer is basically, “not really.”

The champion, Johnson, took a defiant stance similar to White’s when asked a while back what he would say to persuade a fan to get on board with the division.

“I’m not going to try and sell it. I’m not a mouthpiece,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to sell a girl either, like, ‘Baby, I’m going to take care of you.’ That’s not the type of person I am. You don’t watch flyweights? Maybe you should watch something else.”

Like last weekend’s heavyweight fight between Mark Hunt and Antonio Silva. According to Fightmetric, the two combined to land exactly 200 total strikes in the five-round bout -- 200 heavyweight strikes.

It won Fight of the Night honors in Brisbane, Australia, and has already been slotted in as a surefire fight of the year candidate.

While Johnson (18-2-1) might admire the heart of Silva and Hunt, truth be told, the 27-year-old champion would probably tell you that, ultimately, that fight was awful.

“When I see fighters whose style is just to brawl, fans will say, ‘Man, did you see that fight?’ I say, ‘Yeah, those guys are idiots,’” Johnson said.

Johnson says he “brawled” one time, against Brad Pickett at a World Extreme Cagefighting pay-per-view event in April 2010. The reason he did it was because the WEC was offering UFC-like bonus money -- $65,000 for Fight of the Night.

When I see fighters whose style is just to brawl, fans will say, Man, did you see that fight? I say, Yeah, those guys are idiots

-- Demetrious Johnson, on his style of fighting compared to brawlers

He ended up suffering a unanimous decision loss and went immediately to the hospital. A barnburner lightweight bout between Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung took Fight of the Night. Johnson made a disclosed amount of $3,000.

“I went to the hospital and heard Chan Sung Jung and Leonard Garcia got Fight of the Night and was like, ‘Wow, really?’” Johnson said.

“[Trainer] Matt Hume tells me too, let’s say I would stand in the pocket with somebody and get hit and think it looks super cool. He’d tell me, ‘Actually, that was pretty stupid.’”

Appreciating flyweights probably comes down to knowing what to look for. The transitions are lightning fast. Recognizing a leg kick, throwing a counter right hand, then closing on an ensuing takedown all takes about one second at 125 pounds.

The constant movement with few heavy strikes landed can be tiresome and look repetitive to a UFC crowd, but the way Johnson controlled range against Benavidez in their first fight can be as much, if not more, fun to watch as two guys standing flat-footed in the center of the cage throwing haymakers.

A paying fan at a live sports event can pretty much boo or cheer anything he or she wants to. I agree with that, even if what you want to do is loudly recite lines from "The Karate Kid."

But to those who will overlook the flyweight rematch between Johnson and Benavidez (19-3) due to what they remember as a “boring” first fight, I would only encourage you to look closer at it this time and see if you’re missing something.

“Any big guy would love to fight like a small guy,” Benavidez says. “They would love to move as fast as we do and throw as much output. You get a big guy who fights like a small guy, and they just whoop everyone’s butt.”

Slowly, steadily, flyweights gain traction

July, 28, 2013
7/28/13
9:47
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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The worst idea coming out of UFC's eighth card on Fox is Demetrious Johnson already ran out of 125-pound guys to fight.

But how can a champion clean out a division if its foundation hasn't even set?

Flyweight is “not like 145 or 155, where you can have 10 fights, win nine of them, and still not be anywhere close to a title shot," seventh-ranked Darrell Montague told ESPN.com earlier in the week.

Montague is the only competitor ranked in the top 10 not featured among the 15 flyweights currently signed to fight in the UFC.

"Maybe my first fight could be against one of their top guys," said “The Mongoose." "I win that, then the next one is for the belt. Who knows?"

John Moraga put himself in position to pull it off. So can the 25-year-old Montague. Same with 19-year-old Sergio Pettis. And 26-year-old Olympic wrestling champion Henry Cejudo. Or, perhaps, a kid we haven’t heard of before. This is why it’s silly to say Johnson has done the yeoman’s work of clearing out a weight class after only two title defenses.

"There's quite a few flyweights out there because it's not a weight they have a ton of options of where they can go,” said Ed Soares, speaking on behalf of the Resurrection Fighting Alliance, a feeder organization for the UFC that promotes flyweights because the UFC does. “So, we're definitely trying to build up lighter weights and hopefully get them up into the UFC."

Many people expect Pettis to rise to Johnson’s level over the next year. Montague, currently paving parking lots for a living, got an offer on Tuesday to fight in Japan -- he’s considering it but doesn’t sound crazy about fighting just to fight. Cejudo has all the hallmarks of a bankable star, so long as he doesn’t embrace a safety-first style.

Throw in guys working their way through the UFC ranks, like hard-hitting John Lineker or green-haired Louis Gaudinot. Plus the guys we already know, like Joseph Benavidez.
[+] EnlargeDemetrious Johnson
Rod Mar/ESPNDemetrious Johnson, top, is proving to be a tough champ to dethrone -- but not exactly a titlist who resonates with the masses.

Simply put, there’s more than enough available 125-pound talent to threaten for the belt on a regular basis. And considering how impressive a champion Johnson has been so far (try "very”), chances are he’ll be in position to take challenger flak for some time to come. At the moment, though, expecting him to match the dominance of established titleholders isn’t fair. The weight class he fronts isn’t mature enough. Moraga went from the first bout on Facebook to a championship main event on network television. Unknown to widespread.

This says a ton about the unpredictable mobility of flyweights, and why prospects might not be in a tremendous hurry to hit the UFC.

Several fighters that might give Johnson a run for his money aren’t on the table yet because (1) the curbed 125-pound UFC roster is tough to crack, or (2) they're simply not prepared.

Fretting over talent is the wrong way to think about this. Instead, the true battle will hinge on whether or not fans dare to care about the smallest fighters on the UFC roster. Until the answer is a chest-thumping “yes,” flyweights will struggle to receive the attention they need to flourish.

“No one really paid attention to 125 until the UFC brought them in,” said Soares. “[The UFC is] the biggest, they're the best, so as soon as they decide to do something, everyone pays more attention to it. That goes for everything. Not only flyweights, but when they brought women in. They're the leaders. As soon as they start doing something, everyone is going to pay attention."

Flyweight men and bantamweight women made their UFC debuts nearly a year apart, and their respective impacts on the promotion’s business couldn’t be more different.

Ronda Rousey is the most media-requested fighter on the roster and women have energized the UFC. Meanwhile, a hometown title defense for Johnson -- the only fighter to wear the promotion’s flyweight belt -- was overshadowed coming into the event by a welterweight co-main between Rory MacDonald and Jake Ellenberger.

No surprise then that as women and the UFC bask in Rousey’s glow, flyweight during the Johnson era has been slow to catch on. The UFC entered female MMA because of Rousey’s magnetism. There wasn’t an equivalent for men at 125, which is why the promotion held a four-fighter tournament to crown a champ. Out of that jumble emerged a bantamweight convert, “Mighty Mouse,” a heck of a competitor who’s yet to connect with the audience -- proving again it takes more than being a terrific mixed martial artist to become a UFC star.

Foregoing a showman at the top of the weight means flyweight could take longer to develop than its supporters want. But don’t make the mistake of pinning a slow response on the fighters' diminutive size.

After all, many of boxing’s most influential and entertaining stars over the years waged war at 126 pounds.

UFC on Fox 8 primer: Frenetic flyweights

July, 24, 2013
7/24/13
2:26
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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videoOn the one hand, another nationally televised flyweight title fight is just crazy enough to work at Saturday's UFC on Fox 8 card in Seattle.

After all, if frenetic back-and-forth action is what we want in a main event, this is the formula -- even if the guys fighting in it, challenger John Moraga and 125-pound champion Demetrious Johnson, are lighter than most sophomores in high school.

But then again, everybody loves a headliner consisting of two loaf-fisted heavyweight monstrosities trying to take each other's heads off. Given these perhaps outdated but still popular appetites, it's risky to trot out the remora instead of the sharks, is it not?

Not that these are the only factors.

By now you know that nobody knows who Moraga is, and that's why so many people are dishing the CliffsNotes. We need to learn of the fly on the fly. The 5-foot-3 Johnson is better known, but not to the dreaded "casual fans," the ones presumably being tempted toward their television sets. So what we're talking about by making two fairly anonymous fighters the main attraction on a big, widely seen card is that technique, athleticism, skill and speed -- colliding like two angry hummingbirds in a jar -- are more than enough.

The truth is, it might be. Particularly if each has his moments putting the other in trouble. The question then becomes: Does any of this change Johnson's approach? Johnson is holding the flyweight belt in part because he fights smart (a euphemism for "boring" in the minds of some people). He hasn't been involved in a fight that didn't go the distance since 2010, when he fought Damacio Page in the WEC. If he fights tactically against Moraga -- which by all rights he should and Moraga expects -- doesn't he make the least of the coveted spot?

That's all left for Saturday night. Drama is sometimes in the smaller details, and those are on display this weekend in Seattle.

FIVE STORYLINES

The introduction of Moraga

Though the flyweights carry an onus of not being able to finish fights, Moraga crushes onuses like a cold monkey wrench. In two UFC bouts, both at 125 pounds, he has finished the guy in front of him. Should he do to Johnson what he did to Ulysses Gomez (that is, knock him out), here's guessing that everybody knows exactly who Moraga is come Sunday morning.

[+] EnlargeRory MacDonald, Che Mills
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comA victory over Jake Ellenberger on Saturday would put Rory MacDonald into imminent welterweight contention.
Flyweights in the floodlights

Aesthetically, the flyweights are fun to watch and almost impossible to truly behold with the naked eye. They require remote controls and liberal use of the slow-motion button. But do we ultimately value that? Should Moraga-Johnson underwhelm, this could be the last flyweight tilt (title or no) we see headlining a big card for a long time.

MacDonald as legit contender

Who has Rory MacDonald fought, cynics want to know. After all, Che Mills isn't in the UFC anymore and Nate Diaz is more of a natural lightweight (as is BJ Penn). As for Mike Pyle? He's awfully long in the tooth. But remember, MacDonald did have Carlos Condit on the ropes until the final seconds. And if he beats Jake Ellenberger, who has won eight of nine, MacDonald puts his name into imminent welterweight contention.

Ellenberger's chance to make statement

Say that Ellenberger goes in and savagely puts MacDonald away in the first round, as he's known to do. What then? The guess is that such an outcome sets up a fight between Ellenberger and Demian Maia as a true No. 1 contender bout while Georges St-Pierre-Johny Hendricks plays out in November.

Lawler's resurgence

It's crazy, but the last time Robbie Lawler won consecutive fights was all the way back in 2007. He traded wins and losses for four years in Strikeforce, coughing up a bit of his mystique. But the upset victory over Josh Koscheck in February put a little wind back in his sail, and should he beat Bobby Voelker on Saturday, he'll essentially have a clean slate.

FIVE QUESTIONS

Can 'Mighty Mouse' finish a fight?

Truth is, Johnson looks better each time we see him in the cage. He looked good against Ian McCall the first time and better against him the second time. Johnson looked great against Joseph Benavidez. Ditto John Dodson. The knock is that Johnson is a points fighter who does just enough. Does that end against Moraga?

Can Ellenberger win a decision over MacDonald?

You ask people how Ellenberger wins his fight against MacDonald and they'll say via knockout. But what happens if MacDonald stays disciplined and is there all night? Can Ellenberger eke out a win on points? He did fade against Martin Kampmann and Diego Sanchez, and neither is as big and strong as MacDonald.

[+] EnlargeStephens/Guillard
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comFew UFC fighters are more in love with their own power than Melvin Guillard, right. But is he one loss away from being unemployed?
Which Melvin Guillard shows up?

Realistically, there's only one Guillard, and that's the same one who will show up in Seattle. He switched training camps (yet again) to Denver, where he's been training with Trevor Wittman. Thing is, he loves his power and trusts it to trump everything he'll encounter. Against Mac Danzig, who has gone 3-6 in his last nine fights, Guillard will once again sink or swim by his infatuation.

How does Carmouche rebound?

Fate is funny. For a few seconds at UFC 157, it looked like Liz Carmouche was about to defeat not just Ronda Rousey but the very reason for women's MMA in the UFC. It was a tense few moments when she had Rousey's back, but in the end, Carmouche went down gallantly. Facing Jessica Andrade, Carmouche -- the biggest favorite on the card -- has to guard against the spiral.

Will MacDonald come around to GSP?

This question is premature, which makes it the kind of question we love to ask. Yet should MacDonald beat Ellenberger, St-Pierre take care of Hendricks in November and the two be asked to fight each other thereafter, we have arrived at the next Jon Jones-Rashad Evans (and the hunch is MacDonald won't protest for long).

WHO'S ON THE HOT SEAT?

John Albert -- He has lost three fights in a row since beating Dustin Pague in his UFC debut. A loss to Yaotzin Meza is almost a guaranteed pink slip. But if Albert wins? Yahtzee! The "Prince" lives to see another day.

Aaron Riley -- Riley is only 32 years old but has been in 44 fights. He's been around the block a few times. In his last fight against Tony Ferguson, in 2011, he suffered a broken jaw. Should he lose to Justin Salas, if he doesn't hang up the gloves himself, the next pair he wears might not say "UFC" on them.

Trevor Smith -- The Strikeforce immigrant takes on an angry Ed Herman, who, in a fit of optimism, made a cameo appearance in Strikeforce against Ronaldo Souza and lost badly. Tough draw for Smith. Herman's relevance is at stake.

Melvin Guillard -- Yes, there's a Leonard Garcia thing going on here. Guillard always comes to fight, does so on short notice and lets the chips fall where they may. Dana White likes him. But he needs a win badly. Very badly. Then the UFC won't be forced to make any hard decisions on him.

Mac Danzig -- See Guillard.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because the flyweights have one speed, which is blue blur ... because Johnson is one of the most underrated fighters to ever carry such mastery to the cage ... because Moraga swings for the fences and is fighting for his late cousin Jay ... because there's not one, but two women's fights, and Julie Kedzie versus Germaine de Randamie will have your grandmother spitting out her tea ... because Danny Castillo does love himself a brawl ... and for that matter so does Michael Chiesa ... and Jorge Masvidal ... because Herman can't afford to lose to Smith, and when a "Short Fuse" meets "Hot Sauce," the thing gets flammable ... because MacDonald is fighting Ellenberger, and it won't cost you a dime.

John Moraga talks UFC, money

July, 23, 2013
7/23/13
2:08
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
video John Moraga didn’t get into mixed martial arts for fame and quite frankly, he really didn’t get into it to satisfy any real hunger for competition, either.

Moraga started training to fight in 2009 with one thing in mind: Money.

“I didn’t get into this sport to be on posters or be a household name,” Moraga told ESPN.com. “Money. Let my kids grow up with everything I didn’t have.”

That’s not to say Moraga (13-1), who faces Demetrious Johnson for the UFC flyweight title this weekend at a UFC on Fox event in Seattle, doesn’t enjoy what he does. A former collegiate wrestler, Moraga is a lifetime competitor.

But the reason he trains multiple times a day and makes sacrifices in his lifestyle so he can weigh 125 pounds before a fight is to provide for his two sons.

“When my girlfriend got pregnant, that’s when I decided to get in the gym and see what I could make of it," he said. "There wasn’t much opportunity when I started, but I had faith that I would have an opportunity to make a living out of it. It’s worked out.”

Money has been a major talking point in the UFC in 2013, with several former and current fighters publicly criticizing the promotion’s current pay structure.

Moraga is an interesting case study in the discussion. Since signing with the UFC in mid-2012, the 29-year-old has fought twice, both times on the undercard.

His most recent performance, a submission win over Chris Cariaso at UFC 155 in December, was the opening fight of the event. Most of the Las Vegas crowd didn’t show up to see it. The UFC paid Moraga a salary of $22,000, according to Nevada.

Had Moraga lost, he would have made just $11,000. Half of the salary came from a win bonus, which is included in the majority of UFC contracts. Also, he would have been 1-1 in the UFC. Fighters who fall to 1-2 are routinely cut from the UFC roster.

That may seem, in Moraga’s word, “cutthroat” -- but so far, he has made the UFC pay system work for him. Shortly after his first UFC win, a first-round knockout over Ulysses Gomez, the company sent him a discretionary bonus in the mail.

When he submitted Cariaso at UFC 155, Moraga also was the recipient of a $65,000 “Submission of the Night” bonus. Just two fights into his deal, he’s in a position to win a UFC belt and possibly headline a pay-per-view event in the future.

Moraga’s view on UFC pay is that the company forces him to earn his money. If he performs to its expectations, they take care of him.

“I feel the UFC wants exciting fighters. If you go out and put on an exciting fight, if you put enough effort out there, then they’ll take care of you," he said. "I think they let their fighters earn their money, and I’m cool with that.”

Moraga is in a terrific spot now, but acknowledges things could have gone south just as easily.

[+] EnlargeJohn Moraga
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comJohn Moraga, left, got a submission win over Chris Cariaso in his most recent fight.
In that UFC debut, the one where he knocked out Gomez and was awarded an extra check, Moraga was originally scheduled to fight Ian McCall. McCall, ranked the No. 3 flyweight in the world at the time, withdrew with injury.

Moraga’s guaranteed paycheck for that debut was only $9,000, with a $9,000 win bonus. Obviously, he would have gone into the bout against McCall with confidence, but it clearly would have been a much tougher fight than the one he ended up with.

Prior to McCall’s injury, Moraga was looking at a situation in which he was scheduled to face the No. 3 fighter in his division, potentially for a mere $9,000 -- and on top of that, a potential loss in his promotional debut.

“It’s definitely a gamble,” Moraga said of being an undercard fighter. “That’s what we sign up for. But that’s how I saw it. I saw [my undercard fights] as a little amount of money to get me on my feet and I saw it as an opportunity.

“I was supposed to fight Ian McCall. That’s a little different than your average UFC debut. At the same time, I knew I just had to prove myself.”

Moraga admits to not knowing “what the UFC makes” per event or “how much it costs to keep business going.”

Those two issues have long been arguing points in the UFC fighter pay discussion. Disgruntled fighters have complained about UFC revenue split, as the company refuses to release figures to the media on the subject. The UFC responds that it absorbs its own production costs and spends millions of dollars on advertising and promoting the sport, which opens sponsorship opportunities for its fighters.

From a personal sense, Moraga doesn’t have the time to inmmerse himself in that discussion. In his mind, if he continues to perform and fight in an entertaining style, the money will come.

That’s far more than he can say regarding other times in his career. When Moraga first started off, he says his pay was based on the number of tickets he was able to sell to friends and family, many of whom didn’t have the funds to help him out.

“I made like, ticket-sale money,” Moraga said. “Selling tickets was hard. Everyone I know is from the hood. They were like, '30 dollars? Tell me how it went, player.'

“I think the most I was ever paid for one of my fights [before the UFC] was $1,000, maybe $1,200. Before that, it was $400 here, $600 there.”

Moraga was also involved in the well-known Nemesis Fighting MMA promotion, which produced bounced checks to fighters after an event in 2010.

Moraga suffered the only loss of his pro career at that event to fellow UFC flyweight John Dodson, but was supposed to collect his largest payday. He collected nothing.

“I didn’t get paid for that fight,” Moraga said. “It was supposed to be online PPV. It ended up being a total scam of a show.”

Of course, Moraga has no concern of that happening in the UFC and now, as was the case when he first started training, he’s optimistic regarding his financial future.

Regarding his upcoming fight against Johnson, Moraga says he views it as life and death. In his mind, it may be his only chance ever at real, life-changing money.

In the current UFC pay structure, that mindset probably has a lot to do with Moraga’s success so far.

“I take it as survival,” Moraga said. “I see it as my one chance. That’s how I have to see it. Who knows what can happen? I might never get this chance again if I don’t make the most of it.”

Financial security a motivator for Johnson

July, 19, 2013
7/19/13
2:32
PM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
Archive
Demetrious JohnsonDave Mandel/Sherdog.comUnderestimating his opponents is a mistake flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson won't make.
In the days before his 11th middleweight title defense, Anderson Silva spoke repeatedly of the monetary wealth he'd amassed during his UFC championship reign.

Holding the 185-pound belt for nearly seven years put Silva in position to become a multimillionaire -- his children will never know the economic struggles he experienced as a youth in Curitiba, Brazil. During each pre-UFC 162 interview, Silva smiled while struggling to find words to adequately describe his joy of being financially secure.

Silva is set for life monetarily. His belly is full and, as a result, it's possible he has lost some of the drive that made him a champion.

As we know, he would lose his middleweight title at UFC 162 when Chris Weidman knocked him out in the second round. And while Silva's presumed lack of hunger can't be singled out as the sole reason he lost, it was a contributing factor.

Silva's loss was monumental, sending shockwaves throughout the fighting world. It also put every single UFC champion on notice: Let your guard down and the same will likely happen to you.

Flyweight titleholder Demetrious Johnson was among those who got the message. He watched intensely as Silva dropped his hands, got touched on the chin by a Weidman left hook and fell to the canvas.

As Silva was getting pounded out, Johnson shook his head before immediately turning his attention back to July 27. That's when he puts his title on the line against John Moraga at UFC on Fox 8 in Seattle.

Johnson is a very talented fighter, just like Silva. But unlike the former middleweight champion, Johnson remains extremely hungry.

In order to satisfy his cravings, Johnson needs to make money and lots of it. And the best way to continue putting food on his table and keeping a roof over the head of his family -- Johnson's wife, Destiny, gave birth to the couple's first child [a boy] on Friday -- is to win fights.

He's in no mood to lose a fight inside the Octagon anytime soon.

"It is what it is. Anderson Silva played that game and it happened," Johnson told ESPN.com. "For me, I'm always motivated -- not only to keep the belt but to win my fights. I got into this sport to become champion and now I am a champion and now I'm on a mission to put money away for the rest of my life so I don't have to work anymore.

[+] EnlargeJohn Moraga
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comJohn Moraga, left, poses a serious threat to Demetrious Johnson's flyweight title reign when the two meet on July 27 in Seattle.
"That's where my head's at. In order to do that I have to train my butt off and, hopefully, go out there and win this fight. And stack my money up. I want to be champion for a long time, but the belt doesn't mean the world to me. It just means the world to me not to lose."

Johnson views Moraga as the latest of many obstacles he must overcome to achieve his long-term goal of financial security. He expects to retain his title, but isn't underestimating his challenger as Moraga is too talented to be overlooked.

"One of the things he brings that other fighters I've faced didn't is finishes in the flyweight division," Johnson said. "John Moraga is a tough opponent and he has a good set of skills. He brings good things to the table, but I've been fighting for pretty much a long time."

A major key to Johnson's success is being honest with himself. While most fighters refuse to admit looking beyond the bout in front of them, Johnson has no such inhibitions. He isn't shy when it comes to discussing future title defenses.

"I ask myself this all the time: If I get past John Moraga, who is next for [me]?" Johnson said. "My goal is that anybody who's in the UFC flyweight division must have a loss from me on their resume."

Thus far, Johnson (17-2-1) is off to a solid start. He has victories over several of the best UFC flyweights in UFC -- Ian McCall, Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson, who by the way, is the only fighter to hand Moraga a professional loss.

After a tough go of it during the opening two rounds on Jan. 26 in Chicago, Johnson rebounded to beat Dodson by unanimous decision and retain his title. It was Johnson's first title defense.

Dodson beat Moraga by unanimous decision in December 2010. But don't put too much stock in that fight when attempting to handicap Moraga's upcoming showdown with Johnson. Moraga has taken his skills to a higher level since falling to Dodson.

He's looked especially impressive in his two Octagon appearances -- knocking out Ulysses Gomez in the first round last August in his UFC debut, and submitting Chris Cariaso in the third round at UFC 155.

Moraga is 13-1, and ESPN.com currently ranks him fifth among flyweights. Whether standing or on the ground, Moraga poses a serious threat to Johnson -- and his goal of achieving financial wealth.

2013: Year of the contender/belt swapping?

July, 18, 2013
7/18/13
12:12
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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video

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?
[+] EnlargeJohny Hendricks
Jonathan Ferrey/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesAfter witnessing Anderson Silva fall, Johny Hendricks dethroning Georges St-Pierre isn't exactly a stretch of the imagination.

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?"

UFC on Fox 7 by the numbers

April, 16, 2013
4/16/13
3:17
PM ET
By Andrew R. Davis
ESPN Stats & Information
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UFC on Fox 7 will air on free network television from the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., Saturday night. In the main event, UFC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson will defend his title against the debuting #1 contender Gilbert Melendez, who was the final Strikeforce lightweight champion. In the co-main events, Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Daniel Cormier will face former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir and Nate Diaz faces another UFC debutant in former Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh Thomson. Here are the numbers you need to know for Saturday’s fights:

6: UFC decisions to start his career for Henderson, second among active UFC fighters behind flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. Henderson is the only fighter to start his UFC career with at least five consecutive decisions won.

Most UFC Decisions to Start Career, Active Fighters
Demetrious Johnson 7
Benson Henderson 6*
Diego Nunes 6
Nam Phan 6
*Won all decisions

10: Consecutive title fights for Melendez, who held the Strikeforce title from April 2009 to January 2013 when the organization was dissolved into the UFC. Melendez won four fights by decision and three by KO/TKO. His notable wins include rival Josh Thomson (twice) and DREAM lightweight champion Shinya Aoki.

11: Wins by KO or TKO for Melendez, four under the Strikeforce banner. Henderson has been knocked down three times in his UFC/WEC career, most notably the jumping kick off the cage from Anthony Pettis at WEC 53.

9: This will be the ninth time Melendez will fight inside the HP Pavilion, the proverbial stomping grounds of Strikeforce. He is 7-1 in previous fights at the “Shark Tank,” losing the Strikeforce lightweight championship to Thomson in 2008.

21: Takedowns for Henderson in six UFC fights (3.5 per fight). Melendez has a 71 percent takedown defense but allowed a combined 13 takedowns in his two career losses (seven to Mitsuhiro Ishida, six to Thomson).

3.6: Strikes landed per minute by Melendez. During his seven-fight win streak, Melendez has outstruck his opponents 482-272 (plus-210) in significant strikes. Henderson absorbs 1.5 significant strikes per minute and only 30 in his last win over Melendez teammate Nate Diaz.

8: Mir has an eight-inch reach advantage over Cormier (79 inches to 71). That’s nothing new to Cormier, as he’s beaten Antonio Silva (82), Devin Cole (79.5) and Josh Barnett (78).

6: All six of Mir’s career losses have come by way of KO or TKO. The former UFC heavyweight champion has never lost back-to-back fights in his career. Seven of Cormier’s 11 career wins have come via strikes (five KO/TKO, two submissions due to strikes).

8: Submission wins by Mir inside the UFC Octagon, tied for second most all time. Cormier has faced only one submission attempt in his Strikeforce career (Barnett).

Most UFC Wins by Submission
Royce Gracie 11
Frank Mir 8
Nate Diaz 8
Kenny Florian 8

3: This is Mir’s first camp with Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, N.M. If he wins, Mir would be the third UFC heavyweight from Jackson’s to win in this calendar year, joining Shawn Jordan (UFC on Fox 6) and Travis Browne (TUF 17 finale).

5: Of his eight submission wins inside the UFC Octagon, five have earned Nate Diaz a UFC submission of the night bonus (second all time). Thomson has never been submitted in 25 professional fights and also has nine submission victories of his own (four in Strikeforce).

Most Submission of the Night Bonuses
Joe Lauzon 6
Nate Diaz 5
Terry Etim 4

208: Diaz landed 30 significant strikes in his title fight against Benson Henderson, 208 fewer than his victory over Donald Cerrone in two fewer rounds. Thomson will be tough to hit as well; he absorbs 1.8 strikes per minute, but did absorb 3.0 per minute in his last loss to Melendez.

Winnipeg's gain; Jones-Silva most coveted

March, 6, 2013
3/06/13
5:56
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Mauricio Rua, Antonio Rodrigo NogueiraSherdog.comA bout between Mauricio Rua, left, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira could steal the show in Winnipeg.

Winnipeg, hello.

For the first time, UFC announced Tuesday, it will roll into the Canadian province of Manitoba, bringing all the makings of a quality card. On Wednesday ESPN.com reported that interim UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao will fight tough Eddie Wineland in the main event. With Dan Henderson meeting Rashad Evans and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua rematching a spectacular Pride contest against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Zuffa will have no problem filling the MTS Centre on June 15. Also, Tyron Woodley is slated to fight Jake Shields at welterweight, which should draw some intrigue considering Woodley's impressive UFC debut.

Winnipeg is the fifth Canadian city to welcome the UFC, and it should probably tip its cap to westerly neighbor Vancouver. Or, more precisely, the Vancouver City Council. Last year around this time, UFC president Dana White said the Octagon wouldn't head back to Vancouver until 2014 at the earliest. In addition to the fact that the council let a two-year trial period for MMA expire, the reality of promoting the sport in Vancouver, even though UFC made money for its two events there, was ridiculous because of indemnification and insurance costs. The powers that be didn't want UFC in town, which they made clear.

Fair to say, as UFC's head for Canada Tom Wright did, Vancouver seemed to think UFC supporters might act a lot like Canucks fans.

Whoops.

Well, Winnipeg's gain.

Barao's summer booking against Wineland signals that bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz is nowhere near being ready to return to the cage. Cruz's trainer, Eric Del Fierro, confirmed as much. In the champ's place, Barao has been an admirable temp. Wineland's speed and power could present challenges for the defensive-minded Brazilian. It's a solid fight.

Even with a title bout on the card, Henderson-Evans may carry the most intrigue. Both men are coming off less than impressive losses. Evans was convincingly worse, and he has a lot to answer for. Is the man mentally broken after Jon Jones? There are people who know him that think he is. Based on Evans' performance -- lack thereof, really -- against Nogueira, something has to give. Henderson is definitely the wrong guy to be timid against, though the 42-year-old wrestler might finally be old. Henderson wasn't sharp or active against Lyoto Machida, but that could have been a symptom of the Brazilian's quickness and countering ability. Henderson matches up well with Evans and I'd peg him the early favorite.

Building up Rua's second fight with Nogueira should be as easy as cutting highlights of the first contest. It was that good. Shogun was at the top of his game in 2005, a year in which he went 5-0 and defeated Quinton Jackson, Nogueira, Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona. Of that group, only Nogueira managed to go the distance. This was just a war of attrition, an incredible contest.

Expectations will be high.

Injury bug bites Bellator



It’s official: Bellator has caught the injury bug.

Last week it was Daniel Straus’ hand. This week, Douglas Lima’s. Bellator moved Lima’s welterweight tournament final bout against Ben Saunders off a March 21 event in Maine (the card features lightweights Marcin Held and Dave Jansen after that bout was postponed because of injury after originally being slated for this Thursday) and should have it lined up for sometime this summer. Since Ben Askren already has a waiting contender in unbeaten 22-year-old Andrey Koreshkov, the news about Lima isn’t such a big deal.

It just goes to show, however, that Bellator’s good luck streak with injuries and tournaments was bound to hit a rough patch. So it has.

As for Thursday at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, Calif., Bellator offers semifinal bouts at 185 and 145.

The featherweights are where it’s at.

Marlon Sandro takes on Magomedrasul Khasbulaev (everyone just calls him “Frodo”). And on the other side of the bracket, Alexandre Bezerra fights Mike Richman, which should be the best contest on the card.

Middleweights fighting Thursday don’t do much for me. Veteran Doug Marshall meets 9-0 Russian Sultan Aliev. And Brett Cooper should go to war with Dan Cramer.

Still, compared to Bellator 92’s off-TV undercard, the middleweights are world class. Spike.com streams Bellator prelims, and let’s just say up front this set isn’t worth your time. Most of the fighters are local and not very good. Or, worse yet, long washed up if they were decent to begin with. But if guys such as Cleber Luciano and Shad Smith sell tickets, hey, alright.

Fight you most want to see

Jon Jones & Anderson SilvaRic Fogel for ESPN.comA clash between fellow UFC champions Jon Jones, left, and Anderson Silva is a fight fan's dream bout.


SportsNation is asking fans to rank the best fight MMA can make right now .

After a day’s worth of voting, Jon Jones against Anderson Silva is ahead by a wide margin. No surprise, really. Silva versus Georges St-Pierre is second. And Cain Velasquez taking on Jones currently ranks third.

Topping my group was Silva-GSP. I guess I’m just tired of all the talk. It’s been four years since this was first discussed and if GSP beats Nick Diaz on March 16 and if Silva handles Chris Weidman in July, it really needs to happen.

Silva-Jones, second as I ranked 'em, requires no embellishment. It’s a surefire spectacle. But as tremendous as it would be for the fighters, fans and UFC, Jones has work remaining at 205 before he needs to concern himself with Silva.

No. 3 on my list: St-Pierre against Johny Hendricks. I love this at 170. If Hendricks and the UFC champion take care of business in Montreal in less than two weeks, I think fans will be clamoring for this contest. They should, but SportsNation suggests it’s the sixth most appealing fight behind Jones-Daniel Cormier, Benson Henderson-Jose Aldo and the three previously mentioned.

Curious was the lack of interest in Dominick Cruz against Renan Barao at 135. Maybe Cruz has been on the shelf too long? I don’t know. I like that fight a lot. Barao has been top notch, and possesses everything he needs to beat Cruz. Least interesting to me, for a variety of reasons, is GSP and Rory MacDonald.

Zuffa, make ‘em happen.

UFC offenders have little room to operate

February, 27, 2013
2/27/13
4:23
PM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Matt RiddleRic Fogel for ESPN.comWelterweight Matt Riddle, right, saw his second failed drug test lead to his release from the UFC.
I'm not going to defend Matt Riddle, who seems intent on messing up a good thing after being popped a second time for pot in three fights.

The massive welterweight will likely lose another hard-earned win to marijuana, meaning rather than riding a four-fight win streak and a record of 9-3 into the upper echelon of the division, the 27-year-old is 7-3 (2 NC) and a free agent after having his contract terminated by the UFC.

We can argue all day whether or not testing for weed and classifying it a performance enhancer (or a Schedule 1 drug alongside the likes of heroin) makes sense. But forget that for now. Bottom line is Riddle, a self-described medical marijuana user who hasn't fought outside the Octagon as a pro, couldn't stay clean based on UFC's testing in London.

As a result, he fell prey to bad timing (with all of these cuts) and UFC's inconsistency in matters such as these. The timing issue, well, that's life. Arbitrary lines in the sand from UFC? Well, I guess that's life, too. But at least that's something that can be improved upon, and based on a statement the promotion put out Wednesday, it may have already.

"The UFC organization is exercising its right to terminate Riddle for breach of his obligations under his Promotional Agreement as well as the UFC Fighter Conduct Policy," according to a statement published on the UFC web site. "The UFC organization has a strict, consistent policy against the use of any illegal and/or performance-enhancing drugs, stimulants or masking agents."

I have long advocated for something similar when it comes to steroid users in the Octagon. Hey, even if a cut is sure to happen after two steroid-related episodes, it would send an urgently needed message: Use this stuff anywhere but here. Instead, UFC has selected who to stick by and who to dump, which basically makes it impossible for fighters to draw any conclusions.

Maybe that day is done. Maybe the takeaway from Zuffa's response to Riddle is that screw-ups, even screw-ups that might win -- dare I say screw-ups who are also great fighters -- don't have much room to operate in the UFC right now.

We'll see how the next one is handled. But heads up to Dave Herman (twice popped for pot offenses in the UFC), Nick Diaz (pot and press conferences), Jon Jones (the DWI), Chris Leben (steroids and drugs and DUIs), Jeremy Stephens (alleged to have participated in the beating of a man in a parking lot) and the rest.

Maybe your time has come.

Injury bug attacks flyweights, too

Urijah FaberRic Fogel for ESPNAn injury to Demetrious Johnson allowed Urijah Faber a chance to take over an April 13 main event.
If you were under the impression that flyweights were immune to the injury bug, it's best to just forget that.

Demetrious Johnson won't fight John Moraga at The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale after it was learned the UFC 125-pound champ, Johnson, had been injured. With no reason to keep Moraga on the card, UFC churned out an interesting bantamweight contest that should pique some interest.

Urijah Faber, fresh off an impressive win over Ivan Menjivar, takes on his old pal Scott Jorgensen in the new main event on April 13 in Las Vegas.

"[Two] buds punching each other!" chimed in Faber on Twitter.

"Crazy, I wouldn't be fighting if he [hadn't] talked me into [it] in college!" tweeted Jorgensen.

With the recent roster trimming, the ability for friends and training partners to avoid fighting one another is likely to dwindle. It will be interesting to see how things play out if guys like Faber and Jorgensen aren't willing to step in the cage. More will be, but not all. Those that refuse could pay a heavy price.

As for the fight, give me Faber, but it won't be easy. Also, beating Jorgensen wouldn't be enough, I don't think, for fans to demand "The California Kid" receives yet another title shot. Though it would move him down that path.

Shamhalaev deserving of Bellator title shot

Shahbulat ShamhalaevKeith Mills/Sherdog.comShahbulat Shamhalev benefitted from an injury to Daniel Straus to gain a shot at Pat Curran's title.
Injuries, obviously, aren't restricted to the UFC. On Tuesday, Bellator lost its next featherweight title fight when it was revealed Daniel Straus injured a hand while training to fight 145-pound champion Pat Curran.

The tournament format that delivered Straus also produced Shahbulat Shamhalaev after the 29-year-old Russian knocked out Rad Martinez in the second round last Thursday. Shamhalaev appears to be a legit contender to Curran's title and I'm glad Bellator slotted him into the fight, which they did Wednesday.

Shamhalaev wrapped an especially grueling tournament thanks to two postponements. There was some concern he wouldn't have time to put in a proper camp, which he obviously deserves after bowling through last season's 145 field. But the heavy-handed featherweight agreed to take the bout. That's good news because another option for Bellator was a rematch between Curran and Patricio "Pitbull" Freire. While their five-round fight on Jan. 17 was good, it wasn't memorable enough for fans to clamor for an immediate rematch. Not from what I've seen, anyhow.

Curran-Shamhalaev should make for a high-paced, well-contested title contest, which despite Curran's ability, could result in another Russian staking his turf in Bellator. I wouldn't put it past Shamhalaev as featherweight ranks among Bellator's best weight classes.

If there's a debate to be had about that, the light heavyweight division would not find many supporters. Thursday at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, Christian M'Pumbu defends his light heavyweight belt against Atilla Vegh.

More interesting, perhaps, is the next leg of the 155-pound tournament, which includes top prospect Will Brooks. Saad Awad will try to rip his head off. Also, David Rickels appears to have gained an advantage on the field by fighting alternate Jason Fischer, whom "The Caveman" out-pointed in November.

Brooks is the guy to beat, especially after Alexander Sarnavskiy was injured.

Benavidez in no rush for second title shot

January, 28, 2013
1/28/13
3:00
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Joseph Benavidez and Demetrius JohnsonAl Bello/Getty ImagesJoseph Benavidez never managed to find his footing while fighting for the UFC flyweight title.

LAS VEGAS -- Prior to the inaugural flyweight championship bout at UFC 152 in Toronto in September 2012, Joseph Benavidez obviously envisioned himself winning -- but his imagination didn’t stop there.

In his hotel room the night before, he showed off the suit and tie he would wear, as champion, to the postfight news conference. He had arranged to meet his family at the Sacramento airport the day after the fight where he would deplane, of course, with the belt on his waist. Local camera crews were expected.

It’s not that he lacked respect for his opponent in that fight, Demetrious Johnson. He had just dreamed of those scenes for so long -- they felt like they were already real.

For years he’d waited to compete not only in the UFC, but also at his ideal weight of 125 pounds. He’d hung a photo of the belt on his mantel to save a spot for the real thing. Everything had finally come together in September. It was his time.

Those were Benavidez’s expectations. Reality did not accommodate. Benavidez and his camp admit he fought, perhaps due to the pressure he put on himself, a little stiff. He dropped a split decision to Johnson in a performance he’s watched only once since and won’t watch again any time soon.

“It was really hard coming to the realization of that fight and that opportunity I had waited so long for was gone and it didn’t happen like I wanted it to,” Benavidez told ESPN.com.

“Even coming back from Canada, I had my two brothers who I haven’t seen in five years and my mom meeting me at the airport. We had the worst luck on my flight back. We got stuck in San Francisco where we had to rent a car and drive back. We didn’t have any of our bags. So, we’re sitting in a rental car, in traffic; I’m heartbroken. It was like, ‘Wow, this isn’t how I pictured it.’ ”

Johnson and Benavidez are two different fighters in the cage. The week of UFC 152, it was clear they were operating in very different ways outside of it as well.

Even coming back from Canada, I had my two brothers who I haven't seen in five years and my mom meeting me at the airport. We had the worst luck on my flight back. We got stuck in San Francisco where we had to rent a car and drive back [to Sacramento]. We didn't have any of our bags. So, we're sitting in a rental car, in traffic; I'm heartbroken. It was like, 'Wow, this isn't how I pictured it.

-- Joseph Benavidez, on the long trip back from Toronto after an unsuccessful title bid

The eventual champ, Johnson, appeared calm during the week -- loose. Benavidez cracked a joke here and there, but he and his camp admit he was different leading up to the fight.

Basically, it seemed like one guy was enjoying himself. The other couldn’t.

“He was tense,” said Jimmy Gifford, Benavidez’s boxing coach. “He had been tweeting ‘flyweight champion, 2012,’ all year; it meant everything to him.

“I wasn’t worried about him before the fight, but I knew he was a little different. Fight week, he wasn’t himself. He was just a mean kid, rather than the fun, outgoing Joe. He had a scowl on his face.”

The story is a bit of a downer, and gets downright depressing when you read the poem Benavidez penned in the days following the loss. In it, he wrote phrases described himself as "dead inside," and added, “To feel self worth, that’s all you crave.”

There is room for a happy ending, though. When the rental car finally got him to the Sacramento airport, it turned out his family, girlfriend and teammates still loved him despite the loss. It’s given him a new outlook on any future title fight and his upcoming bout against Ian McCall at UFC 156 this weekend in Las Vegas. Never again will he treat a contest as though it’s life and death.

“Once I saw my family, it made me realize that I’m still lucky,” Benavidez said. “That was a big learning experience. Not just [Demetrious] hit me with this punch -- that basic stuff. I learned things in general.

“I’m one of two people in the world who fought for the inaugural title. I’m in a small percentage of people that get to do what they love to do for a living. I’m lucky.”

Benavidez says he’s in no rush to get back to the title, although a win over McCall might solidify his spot as the No. 1 contender, despite his loss to Johnson was just four months ago.

Actually, if given the option, he might even prefer getting at least two fights in before taking another shot at the belt, but he’ll leave that decision to the UFC. Right now, he’s focused on improving and reminding himself to enjoy it. If he does that, there’s still hope everything he had imagined would happen in September isn’t dead yet.

“Talent-wise, he’s right there at the top,” Gifford said. “All the everyday things I see him do -- I know he’s the best. I said to him in the gym the other day after his workout, ‘You were only off by one year, bro. You said 2012, you’ll get the belt in 2013.' ”

Notes and nuggets from Chicago

January, 25, 2013
1/25/13
7:44
AM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
Archive

CHICAGO -- Winning a UFC title is every fighter’s goal. For the few who are able to accomplish this feat, the celebration doesn’t truly begin until they make their first successful title defense.

UFC bantamweight titleholder Demetrious Johnson will attempt to solidify his position as a true champion Saturday night when he meets top contender John Dodson. The two will battle at United Center in Chicago.

In addition to defending his title, Johnson wants to put on an entertaining fight. Putting on a fan-friendly performance is something Johnson also relishes. And it’s something Johnson thought was being accomplished in September when he held off Joseph Benavidez to claim the 125-pound belt.

Johnson put on a stand-up fighting display. He demonstrated textbook footwork, head movement and striking en route to a split decision. But throughout the five-round title bout many fans in attendance at UFC 152 booed.

The booing continued when Johnson was declared the winner, and Johnson learned that being liked by fans is something he has no control over.

“You can never predict how fans will see you because there are some fans out there who just love my style: How I’m just a humble guy, but I have great technique, I have great footwork, the cardio, I have great confidence and I love video games,” Johnson told ESPN.com.

“On the other side of the board, there are guys who hate everything about me. They don’t care what I do, they hope I lose; they hate my ears, the way I look. So my job is to just go out there and perform the best I can.”

Teixeira seeks KO against Jackson



Not many fighters have entered the UFC with as much hype as Glover Teixeira. And in his first two Octagon appearances, Teixeira has not disappointed. On Saturday, he faces the stiffest test of his pro career, and fans will find out if the hype is warranted when Teixeira faces former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.

Teixeira believes he will defeat Jackson, who fights in the UFC for the last time Saturday. But he also believes victory won’t be enough to prevent his stock from tumbling if he struggles. So Teixeira is determined to end Jackson’s UFC career early.

“My motivation is to be a champion, just like he was. I’m hungry,” Teixeira told ESPN.com. “I want this. This is a big fight for me, the biggest of my career.

“Rampage is a tough guy, he’s hard to put away. But that is the key. You go into a fight, that’s why people love fights, because of the knockouts and the submissions. I’m going in there to finish the fight. And it does matter to me how I win.”

Cerrone to clash with sharper, more mature Pettis



It has been nearly one year since lightweight contender Anthony Pettis has fought inside the Octagon. That’s a long layoff for any fighter, except Pettis.

The former WEC champion says when he steps in the cage Saturday night to face Donald Cerrone, he will be as sharp as ever. Cage rust is never an issue for Pettis.

“I don’t think there is ring rust when it comes to fighting,” Pettis said. “A fight’s a fight. If I have to fight somebody tomorrow, I’ve got to be ready to fight.

“This is my job. This is what I’ve been training for; this is what I’ve been doing for a long time. I’ve kind of grown up with fighting, so I don’t think ring rust is going to be a problem.”

Pettis is also better prepared to deal with any unexpected situations -- inside or outside the cage. He takes all his responsibilities much more seriously these days.

“I’ve matured a lot,” Pettis said. “I’ve got a daughter [1-year-old Aria] now; I’ve matured a lot with decisions outside of my training -- what time I go to bed, what I’m eating, what I’m putting in my body.

“I’ve really matured in every aspect of my life. I’ve just matured as a man.”

Quick hits



• Former lightweight contender Clay Guida makes his featherweight debut with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Despite what he says, the outcome of his June bout with Gray Maynard and the criticism that followed still sting. “My striking was pinpoint; I out-struck Gray. I out-grappled Gray,” Guida said. “Go down the list, I beat him everywhere, except in the judges’ eyes. But I’m beyond that now. And Hatsu Hioki is going to pay for it Saturday night.”

• Jackson talks often about no longer being happy in UFC and looks forward to leaving the promotion after Saturday night’s bout against Teixeira. But Jackson won’t be all smiles when it’s over. “I will miss a lot of things. I will miss Burt Watson backstage. He’s funny; he’s cool to hang around,” Jackson told ESPN.com. “Honestly, if you are on Dana’s good side, he’s one of the coolest guys. Lorenzo Fertitta’s always been cool with me; and Frank [Fertitta]. I will miss the good fans. When you’re walking back to the locker room, when you win, the fans are cheering you on. There are a lot of things about the UFC that I will miss.”

• Dana White would love to have Eddie Alvarez on the UFC roster. And he is willing to pay handsomely for Alvarez’s services. Now White is challenging Bellator to do the same. “This kid isn’t their world champion and his contract is up,” White told ESPN.com. “Everybody talks about Bellator like they’re some poor little company. Viacom owns Bellator! Bellator like you used to know it is over. Viacom sits on $5 billion in cash. Pay the kid! Pay the kid the exact monetary offer we made to him, and you will deserve the right to have him.”

Dodson welcomes pressure before big bout

January, 22, 2013
1/22/13
3:13
PM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
Archive

The fight plan is finalized, and if John Dodson executes it to the fullest Saturday night, he'll take another step toward silencing his doubters by becoming the UFC flyweight champion.

Dodson takes on titleholder Demetrious Johnson at the United Center in Chicago. The fight represents the biggest in Dodson’s professional mixed martial arts career.



Most fighters in his situation would feel some tension. They’d become a bit more agitated, less talkative or unapproachable. Not Dodson. He isn’t one to succumb to pressure; in fact, the greater the pressure, the more relaxed he becomes.

More than any fighter on UFC’s roster, in his estimation, Dodson relishes fight night. He embraces frenzy crowds, whether they’re directing cheers or jeers in his direction. Dodson is most happy during his walk toward the Octagon. So when he enters the arena Saturday night, there will be no butterflies in his belly. Expect him to be the happiest, most excited, most relaxed fellow in the building. Dodson will be fighting for the UFC flyweight title and for him, it's business as usual, but on a slightly grander scale.

“I enjoy the moment, being there, just being in that moment,” Dodson told ESPN.com. “How many people can say, ‘I’m walking out to the cage to fight for the No. 1 contendership, fighting in "The Ultimate Fighter" finale or even fighting for a world title'?
[+] EnlargeDodson
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesJohn Dodson is flying high ahead of his first UFC championship fight.

“I’m enjoying every moment I’m walking out there. It doesn’t matter if I’m going out there to win, to lose, get injured, it’s a life-changing moment for me. Everybody complains about how happy I am and that I smile too much, that I shouldn’t be that excited. But it’s like winning the lottery.”

Don’t be confused by Dodson’s happy-go-lucky pre-fight exterior. When the horn sounds to commence fighting, he will not be playing around. Dodson’s sole purpose in Chicago is to defeat Johnson. And sticking to the fight plan, which includes more than matching the champ’s speed, will be the key to achieving his desired outcome.

“I think our speed is going cancel each other’s out; that’s the way I see it,” Dodson said. "And if it doesn’t, then it’s probably going to go toward him and I’m going to have to hold him down and tickle him to death.”

That’s Dodson: Always finding humor in the situation -- but seriously ...

“I’m going to bring a lot of tools back into my arsenal,” Dodson said. “Everybody complains about never seeing me on the ground; well, they might see my jiu-jitsu.

“One thing about Demetrious Johnson is that he changes levels a lot. So if he actually gets a successful takedown on me, I can utilize my wrestling ability or I can submit him off the ground.”

And if his hand is raised after the bout, Dodson does not intend to rest on his laurels. Becoming UFC flyweight champion isn’t the end-all for him. Dodson has his career path mapped out, and claiming the 125-pound belt is just the first stop on a long road. There are two more titles to be had.

“This will be the next thing to check off my list,” said Dodson, 28, who has a pro record of 14-5. “This won’t be my last hurrah. I won’t be looking at it as “I’m the champion now, that’s it; I’m OK with it. I want to still be hungry for title fights.

I'm enjoying every moment I'm walking out there. It doesn't matter if I'm going out there to win, to lose, get injured, it's a life-changing moment for me. Everybody complains about how happy I am and that I smile too much, that I shouldn't be that excited. But it's like winning the lottery.

-- John Dodson, on his positive outlook on fight night


“If I can get the [125] title, and successfully defend it numerous times, I’d want to move to 135 and fight for that belt as well. I want to make sure I continue to expand my goals. I want to take the 125, 135 and 145 titles and defend them all at once.”

These are extremely lofty goals, and most fighters would not dare place such a heavy burden on their shoulders. But Dodson isn’t your ordinary mixed martial artist. Setting high standards is what keeps him hungry and motivated. He also knows that the majority of fighting observers don’t expect him to attain his goals.

Most don’t expect him the exit the cage Saturday night with the belt around his waist. And that’s fine by Dodson. He loves proving the doubters wrong. It will make his win Saturday night much sweeter.

“I will continue like I’ve been doing all along,” Dodson said. “I can make more of a statement that I’m one of the best in the division and on my way toward becoming one of the best fighters in UFC history.”

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