MMA: Demian Maia

UFC 170 a proving ground for MacDonald

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
By Mike Huang
MacDonaldRod Mar for ESPNRory MacDonald enters Saturday's contest with less hype and more pressure to prove his elite status.
Compared to previous events, there is decidedly less hype surrounding UFC welterweight contender Rory MacDonald heading into UFC 170.

Before UFC 167 in November 2013, the sport was abuzz with talk about MacDonald facing his mentor and teammate, then-UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. Riding a five-fight win streak, all the momentum and hype was heaped upon the 24-year-old MacDonald, St-Pierre and the Montreal-based Tristar fight team.

“All anyone wanted to talk about was whether I would fight Georges,” MacDonald said.

Every question was about Rory [MacDonald] and Georges [St-Pierre]. I like to keep our fighters focused on the opponent at hand, but it seemed like everyone was focused on a possible Rory-St-Pierre fight, more than the actual fight [at hand]. It was distracting.

-- Trainer Firas Zahabi, on the distractions ahead of MacDonald's fight with Robbie Lawler

“Every question was about Rory and Georges,” said Firas Zahabi, MacDonald’s trainer and Tristar head coach. “I like to keep our fighters focused on the opponent at hand, but it seemed like everyone was focused on a possible Rory-St-Pierre fight, more than the actual fight [at hand]. It was distracting.”

Indeed, people sort of forgot that MacDonald still had to fight Robbie Lawler.

An overhand right and a split decision loss later, MacDonald is probably wishing he were fighting next month at UFC 171, where Lawler will fight Johny Hendricks for the vacated welterweight title. Instead, he’s fighting Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert Demian Maia at UFC 170 -- to little fanfare. This isn’t a gimme. No one is looking past Maia, and St-Pierre is no longer champion.

Hype has followed MacDonald his entire career. As he's often dubbed the poster boy for a new breed of UFC fighter, MacDonald’s martial arts skill set has been sired with elite proficiency within multiple disciplines. Future greatness has been anointed on to MacDonald like no other young UFC fighter.

But there’s always been a tiny nagging suspicion about MacDonald. Is he really that good? What’s really his ceiling? Can he really beat elite competition?

Of course, you’ve seen this kind of microscope scrutiny applied to uber prospects of every sport -- Bryce Harper (baseball), Andrew Wiggins (basketball), Johnny Manziel (football). The key with these burgeoning young stars is whether they listen to the praise or detractors; whether they let any of the noise in.

“I understand people expect a lot from me; it’s nice to have those high expectations,” MacDonald said. “But it doesn’t really affect who I am or how I act. I’m just continuing on to try and accomplish my goals.”

And the immediate goal is to defeat Maia and get back on track toward a welterweight title shot.

But is he that good?

MacDonald says he would not have fought St-Pierre had both won their bouts at UFC 167. Though MacDonald insists he doesn’t let press coverage get the better of him, the looming thought of that quandary left MacDonald troubled and it showed against Lawler.
[+] EnlargeRory MacDonald
Sherdog.comRory MacDonald, left, didn't exactly blow the roof off of Seattle's KeyArena in a pedestrian win over Jake Ellenberger.

“It would have put me in a stressful situation and I think it played on my mind a lot,” MacDonald said. “It’s something that shouldn’t have happened. I should have been in control of that. But now that the door’s open and I don’t have to deal with that question anymore, it’s a lot more stress free.”

With that pressure now alleviated, there is something of a mandate for MacDonald to prove he can be the dominating force at 170 pounds that many in the industry expect him to be. But there’s that nagging suspicion again.

His five-fight win streak began after a TKO loss to Carlos Condit. He rebounded with a solid win over Nate Diaz, but MacDonald followed up with wins over retreads such as Mike Pyle, Che Mills and a way-past-his-prime BJ Penn. And MacDonald’s win against Jake Ellenberger was -- as UFC president Dana White called it -- “lackluster.” Then came the loss to Lawler.

Nonetheless, with MacDonald’s skill set, brutal ground-and-pound strategy and athletic potential, it’s understandable why the hype still hovers over him. He has openly admitted having lost motivation. Fighting wasn’t fun. But in a way, the loss to Lawler might have been the thing to shock MacDonald back into focus.

“Yeah, it was the wake-up call I needed,” MacDonald said.

And he doesn’t feel as though he has anything left to prove. “If I put on a good show against Demian, I think that’s a big enough of a statement to catapult me to the top,” MacDonald said.

In fact, one man who believes MacDonald deserves every bit of hype he’s garnered during his career is Maia. So much so that Maia believes that he could be in line for a title shot if he can defeat MacDonald.

“His hype is well deserved, and I think I could be close for a title shot if I beat him,” Maia said. “He’s good. Rory is a great fighter with excellent skills. Rory’s style is the future. The new MMA fighters will come much more complete than I was. When I had my first UFC fight, I was pretty raw in the stand-up. But today the young fighters are all like Rory -- very complete.”

However, ask Zahabi and he’ll tell you there’s only one member of that new generation of fighter -- MacDonald.

“He’s unique,” Zahabi said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a guy like Rory. He doesn’t remind me of anyone else necessarily. He just brings his own kind of style.”

Expect ground battle between Maia, Shields

October, 8, 2013
McNeil By Franklin McNeil

Any fighter vowing to grapple with Demian Maia inside the Octagon should be pulled aside and given a stern talking to.

In the jiu-jitsu world, Maia's skills are as good as it gets. He’s a master grappler who has won numerous world championships. Maia can submit anyone from top position or off his back.

Translation: To roll with Maia is to put one’s championship aspirations severely at risk.
[+] EnlargeDemian Maia
Ric Fogel for ESPNDemian Maia, bottom, is widely considered the best jiu-jitsu practitioner plying his trade in the Octagon.

Even former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva opted not to play around with Maia on the ground during their April 2010 title bout. Silva’s fight plan turned out to be correct as he retained his 185-pound belt with a difficult-to-watch (read: boring) unanimous decision.

Avoiding a grappling match with Maia has been the prevailing thought since the jiu-jitsu expert made his professional MMA debut in September 2001. But that longstanding prefight strategy will end Wednesday night in Barueri, Brazil as Jake Shields has tossed that mantra out the window. The former Strikeforce middleweight champion is in dire need of a win over a highly ranked contender and insists he will take down Maia and submit him in their UFC welterweight main-event showdown.

And Shields isn’t just talking smack as a way to build up the fight; he’s dead serious. This is a style matchup that Shields -- who's also a high-level submission expert -- is certain his overall jiu-jitsu skills are tailor-made to negate anything Maia tosses his way.

According to Shields, the biggest difference between his jiu-jitsu and Maia’s is inclusion of wrestling. That, Shield says, will be the deciding factor. Maia has never faced a fighter inside the Octagon who combines jiu-jitsu and wrestling quite the way Shields does.

“I have a little better wrestling,” Shields told “My style is more suited for MMA.”

This is a very dangerous fight for each man, but especially for Maia. He enters this bout ranked fifth among 170-pound fighters by Maia has yet to lose a welterweight fight, going 3-0 since joining the division in July 2012.

Life inside the Octagon has been challenging for Shields, who is 3-2 (one no contest) during his time with the promotion. But a victory over Maia will get folks talking positively about him again. Maia, on the other hand, has a lot more at stake. He wants a title shot and victory in his native Brazil puts him in position to begin campaigning for it.

“A victory maybe gives me a chance to fight for the title,” Maia told “Even though Jake isn’t ranked in the top 10 right now, he was the Strikeforce champion and he’s fought for the UFC [welterweight] title.

“Everybody in the mixed martial arts community knows how tough he is and how good an athlete he is. And they know how tough of a test he is for me.”

It’s Shields' aggressive style of jiu-jitsu that makes him such a difficult test for Maia. It seems strange to envision any opponent posing a serious threat on the ground to the man recognized as the UFC's best submission artist, but even Maia acknowledges that Shields brings a unique set of grappling skills to the table.
[+] EnlargeMaia/Silva
Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty ImagesAnderson Silva, right, intelligently opted to stand with Demian Maia to easily defend his UFC middleweight title in April 2010.

“I have so many years of competing in jiu-jitsu,” Maia said. “I have so many championships; maybe this will give me the advantage. But this is MMA, it’s not just the sport of jiu-jitsu, so I can’t allow him to surprise me.

“It’s good to have an opponent who wants to do jiu-jitsu with me, but at the same time he is someone who is more skilled and experienced than most others I have fought before [in MMA]. This is a very tough fight for me, because he is a guy who won’t avoid the ground game with me.”

While jiu-jitsu is getting much of the attention leading into this fight, Shields is prepared to unveil his Plan B if the grappling game isn’t working in his favor. Every MMA bout starts on the feet, and Shields has worked vigorously to lift his standup skills. There have been times when he has looked uncomfortable throwing a simple jab inside the cage. Even his footwork has appeared amateurish, but Shields has never lost faith in his ability to improve with each sparring session.

The improvements are visible, putting Shields in a place where confidence has kicked in. Shields enters Wednesday’s night fight expecting to have an advantage in the striking department. And if needed, he intends to taunt Maia with his improved boxing.

“I want to make this a jiu-jitsu fight; we’re the best two jiu-jitsu guys at 170, but we carry a lot of good standup as well,” Shields said. “He’s good on his feet too, but I think I have a slight edge there. I do want to make this a jiu-jitsu fight, but I am willing to stand with him as well.”

Maia also has worked hard to improve his striking, but he isn’t under the illusion that area of MMA will play too big of a role Wednesday night. This will be a grappling battle; Maia and Shields expect nothing less.

“It will be the core of this fight,” Maia said. “We both know jiu-jitsu and know it will be a big part of the fight at some point. So we both must be fully prepared. We both use submissions to win fights. That’s why [jiu-jitsu] will be so important.

“The standup will happen at some point or at many points in this fight, but it will be mainly a grappling match. It’s our main weapon.”

Maia-Shields will be a grappling match with some wrestling and striking thrown in for good measure. Various high-level submission attempts will be on display, until one man eventually taps. This fight will be fun to watch, for as long as it lasts.

Burkman finishes Fitch in 41 seconds

June, 15, 2013
Gross By Josh Gross

Business is picking up for World Series of Fighting, and the promotion's third event, Friday evening at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, provided a glimpse at the future of the company.

Jon Fitch, the highest-profile WSOF signee since it began promoting late last year, proved to his dismay that time and space can matter when matched against Josh Burkman. Seven years ago, the pair met in the Octagonal confines of the UFC and Fitch won by rear-naked choke. Friday, it was WSOF's decagon, and in just 41 seconds Burkman did to Fitch what B.J. Penn, Demian Maia and a host of other dangerous submission artists could not.

After scoring a pair of hooks that wobbled the longtime UFC welterweight contender, Burkman pounced on Fitch's neck. Despite a reputation for stellar defense, Fitch disregarded the threat and went for a lift. He said afterward that he was "a little overconfident with my choke defense and was going to try and slam [Burkman]. But he locked it in too tight. Mistake on my part. I should have fought the choke right away."

Burkman went to half-guard after feeling the strangle tighten.

"I didn't want to go for the choke, but I felt it was tight," he said. "So I stood up with him to get him to stand, and I felt it get really tight. I locked it when he grabbed that leg."

Referee Steve Mazzagatti didn't seem to notice that Fitch went limp, so Burkman released the hold and politely scooted away.

This marked Burkman's third appearance for the promotion, and to this point, the 10-year veteran said, WSOF had "done everything they said they were going to do."

For an upstart fight promotion company, that's about as good as it gets.

Credibility comes with delivery. "Showing more than talking," Burkman put it as he drove to Las Vegas on Tuesday from Salt Lake City, where he trains at The Pit Elevated.

With WSOF signing a three-year TV deal with the NBC Sports Network, building relationships with major venues across the U.S. and signing known commodities such as Fitch to go with talented kids such as Justin Gaethje -- an unbeaten lightweight who won by technical knockout Friday -- Burkman's optimism is genuine.

"They've done everything they said they were going to do and some," Burkman said. "They treated me really well anytime I had an issue or wanted to negotiate anything, they were more than happy and open to talking about it. As long as they treat their fighters like that, they'll continue to grow and do well."

The 32-year-old welterweight washed out of the UFC in 2008 after losing four of his last five fights in the Octagon. He said WSOF has given him a chance to fight quality opponents on a visible stage, and for that he is grateful.

"The difference is the UFC has so many guys coming in and out, wanting to be in their show, fighting for less money, that the UFC can get away with treating their undercard fighters however they want," said Burkman, who praised Zuffa as the "major league of this sport."

"I think with the WSOF, I'm in a different position," he said. "It's a small organization with less fighters. It's kind of being a bigger fish in a small pond. I can get to the top of that heap and help the organization and help myself. I think that's a unique opportunity with the WSOF that I wouldn't have necessarily had with the UFC."

Berkman, a participant of the second season of "The Ultimate Fighter," isn't alone in that regard. The current WSOF fighter roster sits at 80, according to Ali Abdel-Aziz, WSOF executive vice president and matchmaker, and will remain in that area through the end of year. The company wants to give fighters an opportunity to compete, allowing prospects such as 24-year-old Gaethje a chance to shine and grow, and veterans such as Burkman a chance at a new lease on a fighting life.

Abdel-Aziz said winning is important, but "not putting pressure on fighters benefits them and benefits us." This is all designed with fun MMA in mind, yet that's hardly a guarantee, just ask Jacob Volkmann who wrestled his way to a win over Lyle Beerbohm on the undercard.

Burkman appeared on the first three WSOF cards, winning each bout, and recently re-signed for four more contests. He said he offered suggestions from the start, and, to his delight, WSOF executives have been receptive. Championship bouts weren't a consideration in WSOF until Burkman chimed up about it earlier this year. After dropping the rematch, Fitch said he's open to a rubber match, preferably five rounds for the inaugural WSOF title. If it happens, he owes Burkman a beer.

"I think I asked the right questions in that first show and they had to give me answers," Burkman said after winning his fifth straight contest. "I was just asking them so they had an easier road with other fighters. It helped them treat fighters like they needed to be treated."

Abdel-Aziz and Burkman both suggested WSOF president Ray Sefo, a fighter turned promoter who announced he's fighting Dave Huckaba in California at WSOF 4 in August, has been instrumental in relationship building with the athletes. Sefo “gets people to listen,” Abdel-Aziz said.

The company’s vision is always focused down the road, according to Abdel-Aziz, who managed Frankie Edgar and others before joining WSOF.

Currently, their intention is to flesh out weight divisions, which at 170 pounds requires bringing in names like Fitch when they’re available -- despite knowing they could lose badly in 41 seconds -- and convincing prospects like Gaethje sign with them as opposed to UFC or Bellator.

"It's kind of cool to be part of an organization from the beginning," Burkman said. "I'll definitely take some pride in that. I'll also take a little pride in the fact that the better the fighters do, the better the organization does.”

UFC 159: Twist of fate in Jersey

April, 24, 2013
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
All the UFC 159 promos can't do away with the most basic question: How did we get here?

The first time Chael Sonnen fought Anderson Silva, the original novelty was his utter disregard for Silva's legacy. To that point people had only been reverent of the middleweight champion -- even if Dana White was still fuming that Abu Dhabi had been turned into a stage for bad performance art by him and Demian Maia.

Along came the stock contender Sonnen, a journeyman who was proud of his singlet, the flag and his real estate license. He'd just taken the pestle to top contenders Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt, so he had the credentials. And what a platform it was. Within days of that last victory, he became the game's most infatuating wisenheimer. It was hard to gauge his sincerity, though; did he truly believe he would walk through Silva, the mythological Brazilian who, in Sonnen's active imagination, could speak the King's English?

Turns out he did. And turns out he backed it up for nine-tenths of a five-round fight in Oakland. The other one-tenth, as you now know, is the marker that defines his career.

After the loss, the asterisks piled up as the rematch lolled on the horizon. By the time he made his way back from his suspension for elevated testosterone levels, and made it through mobile obstacles (Brian Stann and Michael Bisping), we were talking about Sonnen-Silva II as the biggest fight in MMA history. It was Ali-Frazier there for a minute. It was Silva's first real rival. It was all kinds of bandstands, bunting and pageantry.

Yet Sonnen lost the rematch, too, this time less spectacularly. He lost his footing throwing a spinning backfist.

But losing your footing is nothing when you've mastered the art of falling forward. Sonnen now faces Jon Jones for the light heavyweight belt on Saturday night. For six months we've debated the matchmaking, with pro wrestling fans calling the protectors of pecking orders anything from "naïve" to "idiots." Either way, the moment has arrived to see what's what.

And unlike in either of the Silva bouts, this time Sonnen feels like a formality between Jones and bright new ventures, things like "heavyweight" and "superfights." Jones just wants to break Tito Ortiz's record for most title defenses at light heavyweight. That number is five; Jones' magic number to tie him is one.

Sonnen is the one.

And so here we are. Sonnen gets the "third time's the charm" treatment for UFC gold. Jones gets a chance to make Sonnen a footnote in history.


Bisping in vulnerable spot
Michael Bisping, Wanderlei Silva
Sherdog.comIf Michael Bisping has any thoughts on finally securing a UFC title shot than his fight with Alan Belcher becomes a must-win.

In his five-year quest to fight Anderson Silva, Bisping has gotten close three times. Yet in three eliminators, he's ended up being the one eliminated three times. Should he lose to Alan Belcher to make it three losses in four fights, his middleweight title shot may go away for good. It's not a must-win for Bisping in the roster sense, but it is in the gold-plated accessory sense.

Resurgence of Roy Nelson

As one of the more popular heavyweights, Roy Nelson's mullet beefs with Dana White won't keep him from contention. A win over thunder-fisted Frenchman Cheick Kongo would make it three in a row. If he knocks out Kongo in the first round? That would be three emphatic wins in a row. At that point the jokes about Nelson's belt size will be off the hook.

Jones and history

Everything Jones does in this young sport seems to stack neatly into something historic. Now he can pad his legacy by tying Ortiz's record for 205-pound title defenses against Sonnen. He makes it all seem so perfunctory that you forget the guy is only 25 years old.

Careful what you wish for

That Vinny Magalhaes called out Phil Davis is shrouded in mystery for those of us in the fight trade. Yes he's strong and has mad grappling skills, but isn't "Mr. Wonderful" an uber-athlete whose "wrestle first" attitude is meant to nullify limb hunters? (Reading between the lines: Vinny's sense of susceptibility is stronger than our sense of conventional wisdom).

Eye on Sara McMann

Before Cat Zingano came barging into the women's bantamweight title picture from left field (read: the flatirons of Colorado), the big up-and-coming prospect to watch was Sara McMann. Why not? McMann was a silver medalist in wrestling at the 2004 summer Olympics, and is 6-0 as a pro mixed martial artist. She makes her debut against Germany's Sheila Gaff, and a win keeps the contender cupboard stocked for the winner of Rousey-Zingano.


How does Sonnen compete?
[+] EnlargeChael Sonnen
Mark Rebilas for ESPN.comIf Chael Sonnen is unable to become the first fighter to ever put Jon Jones on his back, how else will he be able to have success?

Sonnen is giving up 11 inches in reach. Sure, he can wrestle, but in 16 takedown attempts, Jones has been taken down exactly zero times. There might be an existential crisis awaiting for Sonnen in Newark. How does he compete? Can Sonnen be the maelstrom that overpowers Jones? Or, the "Chaelstrom?" Hey, you know what? The gangster from West Lynn will take off his shoes and give it a go.

Last time we see Jones at 205?

Should Jones defeat Sonnen, the question will become: What now? There aren't a lot of desirable title fights to make at 205 right now (given that a Lyoto Machida redux is the best option, and Daniel Cormier underwhelmed last weekend). Could Jones sit back and watch the Chris Weidman-Anderson Silva bout in July, with designs on a "superfight" to commemorate the UFC's 20th anniversary? Or might he bolt for the heavyweight division?

What becomes of Bisping and Belcher?

Between Belcher (12 UFC fights) and Bisping (13), that's a lot of experience in the Octagon. The winner of this bout will again cycle back towards title contention, but will either ever get over the hump? Career stakes are on the line here.

Can Davis break through?

When Davis was charging up the 205-pound ranks, he looked so raw that we kept imagining him with a couple of more years of experience. But after he got worked by Rashad Evans, our minds were no longer as blown. Of course, he spent the last year in the forgettable Wagner Prado series, but here we are a couple of years removed from those halcyon days of catching Tim Boetsch in a "Philmura." Will the Davis we see Saturday night be the one we projected we'd see a couple of years ago at this point?

Is Kongo showing his 37 years?

The answer is, no, not really. Kongo keeps chipping away, and aside from getting knocked out by Mark Hunt he hasn't lost a fight since 2009 (though it still feels like Pat Barry knocked him out before that Hail Mary heave in Pittsburgh). How good would a knockout of Nelson look? Probably enough to get him into the cage with a guy like Alistair Overeem.


Steven Siler – Losing to Darren Elkins is one thing, but following that up with a loss to UFC newcomer Kurt Holobaugh is another. It's the way things are during a roster trim -- all deep prelimists have to get used to life on the bubble.

Nick Catone – Tough draw for Catone against James Head in a must-win fight. Yes he's back on his native Jersey soil, but his last big win was against Costa Philippou back in spring 2011. Should he lose his third in a row? Close the drapes.

[+] EnlargeNam Phan and Leonard Garcia
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comLeonard Garcia, right, is everyone's favorite fun-loving brawler. But how much longer can he keep a job should he suffer his fifth straight defeat?
Cody McKenzie – When he lets his hair down, he looks like he should be shouting "Figaro!" When he lets his hands down, he turns into a punching back (refer to the Chad Mendes fight). A loss against Leonard Garcia would make it four of five, which is short for being "made redundant."

Leonard Garcia – If you were to lift up the cushions to Garcia's couch, you'd find a lot of loose game plans that have fallen through the cracks over the years. We expect him to jettison all that hooey he learned in training when the bell rings, but problem is he keeps getting his bell rung because of it. Dana White loves himself some Garcia, but it's hard to keep around a fun-loving brawler on a five-fight losing streak.


Because "Bones" Jones has out-landed his opponents 330-99 in significant strikes in title fights … because Sonnen is the latest contestant to familiarize himself with the discrepancy … because Bones throws elbows from the pitcher's mound … because Sonnen will move forward until he can't … because Bisping might feel the tattoo of Johnny Cash's face squeezing his trachea ... because it'll be a drinking game challenge to tell Jim Miller and Pat Healy apart…because Magalhaes doesn't see a muscular athlete in Davis, but a dozen miles of workable limbs and neck ... because Garcia's neck is on the line against McKenzie (and in general) ... because Nelson and Kongo have no need for judges' scorecards ... because Jones is "Angry Johnny" capable of animal's grace ... yet he can do it with precision, or he can do it with gourmet taste.

UFC 158 rife with welterweight intrigue

March, 12, 2013
Dundas By Chad Dundas

In Georges St-Pierre and Nick Diaz, the welterweight division has found its odd couple.

They despise each other, and we love it.

Headed into their clash for St-Pierre’s 170-pound title at UFC 158, we quite simply can’t get enough of it, thrilling in that singular way the fight business can at each and every cross word between them. They are perfect together, a headline-stealing machine, as GSP’s straight-laced French Canadian patience slowly unravels in front of the hypnotic skew of Planet Diaz.

It’s no wonder the other four fighters involved in last week’s prefight conference call couldn’t get a word in edgewise. This is a beef for the ages.

Yet even as the great Diaz-St-Pierre feud of 2013 gobbles up all the attention, two of UFC 158’s additional welterweight bouts -- Carlos Condit versus Johny Hendricks and Nate Marquardt versus Jake Ellenberger -- will arguably do just as much on Saturday night to plot the course of the division.

One need look no further than the show’s co-main event, where, as long as Hendricks can take care of business against Condit, it will be difficult to deny him the next available crack at the gold. Of course, that’s exactly what we all thought after Hendricks starched Martin Kampmann in 46 seconds in November and what we thought when he edged Josh Koscheck by split decision six months before that, too.

The story of Hendricks’ UFC career to date has certainly been one of delayed expectations. The guy is so overqualified to be the No. 1 contender, it’s astonishing to behold his 11-1 combined UFC/WEC record, his five straight wins, his nine stoppages in 15 career fights and realize he’s still waiting for his chance. By all rights it should probably be Hendricks fighting for title this weekend, were Diaz-GSP not worth its weight in pay-per-view gold.

The very fact that Hendricks is already so deserving of a championship opportunity is the most nerve-wracking thing about his upcoming fight with Condit. MMA can be a fickle mistress, after all, and if a guy is going to get the rug pulled out from under him in this sport it typically happens just as his fingers are about to close around the brass ring. Long story short: A Condit victory is certainly very possible here, and a loss by Hendricks could potentially be the most chaotic outcome of all.
[+] EnlargeJohny Hendricks
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesJohny Hendricks has about as much to gain as he stands to lose against Carlos Condit.

It would certainly put guys like Demian Maia, Martin Kampmann and Rory MacDonald back in play for No. 1 contender status.

It would also probably do good things for the fortunes of Ellenberger, who could scrawl his own name near the top of the queue if he comes out on top against Marquardt. Ellenberger’s solid wrestling and heavy hands make him nearly as compelling a matchup for St-Pierre as Hendricks, if -- and this is a big one -- he came into their fight prepared to go five full rounds without slowing down.

Perhaps the biggest wild card of all is St-Pierre himself. Assuming he beats Diaz, will he stick around in the welterweight division long enough to fight Hendricks or Ellenberger or anybody else? Or will the champ finally concede to the pressure to head up to middleweight for a big-money superfight against Anderson Silva, leaving this fresh crop of challengers to fight it out among themselves?

Whatever happens, we should at least have a better idea where we’re headed after Saturday.

Unless Diaz wins, in which case all bets are off.

Weidman getting title shot is the right call

March, 7, 2013
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall

On July 11, 2012, Chris Weidman defeated top middleweight contender Mark Munoz without so much as absorbing a single significant strike in six and a half minutes of fight time. It was a headlining spot, and he made the most of it. The “Strong Island” native slipped a punch and landed a ridiculous elbow in the second round, and won via TKO seconds later.

And that’s how you make a statement.

That same night, with a perfect 5-0 record in the UFC (9-0 overall), he called out the champion, Anderson Silva, who four days earlier defeated Chael Sonnen with a TKO of his own.

“I want Anderson Silva,” Weidman said, in the most polite callout in the history of callouts. “Every time I’ve had a full training camp, I’ve gotten a finish. Give me a full training camp, and I’d love a shot at the man, Anderson Silva. I really think I could do pretty good. So give me a shot, please.”

Just 239 days later, Silva-Weidman has finally been made. Weidman will get a full training camp, and so will Silva. The clash of styles and experience is on. And after all that time, and through all that haze and speculation, the question becomes: What took so long to make this fight?

It’s complicated. Depending on whom you listen to, it was either because Weidman was too green, too threatening, too unknown, too audacious, or too ... eh. It was because of Weidman’s shoulder injury, and that little Stephan Bonnar thing that Silva handled in October. It was Silva’s contract being up. It was because Silva wanted Georges St-Pierre (unrequited), and then wanted Cung Le (fun fantasy), and then wanted Luke Rockhold (posturing?).

Officially, Silva’s camp said Weidman was too low profile. They wanted big fights, with big-name opponents and equal-sized pay-per-view dollars. Unofficially, Weidman’s camp thought that excuse looked like timidity. Weidman, with his All-American wrestling pedigree from his days at Hofstra University, looked like a nightmare matchup for Silva. In seven rounds of Sonnen-Silva, Sonnen won five by wrestling before making critical errors.

Weidman, at 28 years old, is a fluid submission grappler with better stand-up skills than Sonnen. He’s not likely to try a spinning backfist against Silva. There’s been a lot of optimism at the Ray Longo-Matt Serra Fight Team that a title could soon return to Long Island, if the fight would only be made.

Two-thirds of a year later, the UFC made the right call by booking it. In that time, Weidman’s intrigue has become a lot of fans' intrigue. And given his skill set, he does present interesting challenges to Silva. He beat Munoz, who at the time was a top contender. He beat Demian Maia before that, who’d had a title shot in 2010. Those are fine credentials.

But really, it's all about simple deduction -- there’s nobody else at 185 pounds who deserves it more.

Le was a Silva pipe dream. Hector Lombard hasn’t panned out. Tim Boetsch got done in by Costas Philippou (Weidman's teammate who replaced him on the UFC 155 card after a shoulder injury forced Weidman out of the event). It’s too soon for a Silva-Vitor Belfort rematch. Rockhold was willing, but his merit (and star power) didn’t trump Weidman's. Yushin Okami? No way -- not again. Michael Bisping, who was supposed to get the shot, lost in the penultimate spot against Belfort. St-Pierre didn’t want to mess around with his weight, among other concerns. Jon Jones is booked with Sonnen in April, and he has his own contenders at 205 pounds to deal with after that.

That leaves Weidman, who realistically felt like the guy all along. If a superfight wasn’t going to materialize for Silva, the UFC needed to take the next legitimate contender within the weight class. That was, and remains, Chris Weidman.

He’s healthy, and he’s ready. Silva needs an opponent. Boom. The pecking order wins out. Rev up the hype machine.

It might have taken a long time for everyone to get on the same page, but the bottom line is everybody finally did. Come July 6 in Las Vegas, almost a year to the day since Silva’s record 10th title defense at UFC 148, it’s on.

The whole thing feels so old-fashioned. Weidman gets his wish. And it’s for all of us to see what he’s able to do with it.

Unfortunately for Fitch, styles make plights

February, 21, 2013
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Jon Fitch and Erick SilvaJosh Hedges/Getty ImagesNow with WSOF, Jon Fitch promises to be a more aggressive and exciting fighter.

What does it say when Jon Fitch -- one of the winningest welterweights ever to roll off the assembly line -- gets cut by the UFC? Primarily that the UFC doesn’t necessarily view winning “by any means” as an avenue for sustained success.

Not in 2013, anyway. Not with television deals and an influx of Strikeforce talent and so many cards bursting at the seams with so many bouts.

Success is multifaceted and involved and actually very simple. The idea is this: Entertain us. Success is powerful fists and hospital visits and charisma and whatever it is Cub Swanson does -- all supported with a few wins.

Fitch doesn’t do pageantry, and he doesn’t do brawls. He shows up disheveled and ready to roll. In fact, he became his own verb in his seven years with the UFC. To be “fitched” was a real and particularly unenviable thing for those who signed on to fight him. It was a form of nihilistic wrestling into ground-and-pound. Fitch “fitched” such commodities as Thiago Alves, Ben Saunders and Mike Pierce. He rained ice picks on Paulo Thiago's steel chin, before getting classically “out-fitched” by Demian Maia.

He has always been about endurance, and that’s the problem. Fitch is the dictator with the snarl, the original “grinder.” Chris Wilson, who knew the score heading into his UFC 82 bout with Fitch, once said to me with a certain kind of sly reverence: “What’s he going to do? Summon the wind?” No. Fitch summons something more physical. At his vintage best, he dishes up 15 minutes of utterly hopeless futility.

And that futility, unfortunately, extends to the spectator -- which is why today he’s holding a pink slip with a UFC record of 14-3-1. It’s not that he’s breaking the bank to get $65,000 in show money, or that he had that whole flare-up back in the day with the UFC over video game rights (though these could be factors). It’s that he dominates people in forgettable fashion. He shuts down judo players, slick jiu-jitsu artists, dynamic strikers and kickboxers with industrial cold. Now he’s gone (as you and I know) because of it, and we’re left theorizing if he and Ben Askren are destined to nullify each other for five rounds in Bellator.

[+] EnlargeJon Fitch
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsJon Fitch's ho-hum performance against Demian Maia was the last straw for the UFC.

Fitch, along with such veterans as Vladimir Matyushenko, Mike Russow, Josh Grispi, Che Mills, Paul Sass and others were cut from the UFC in a roster dump. Jacob Volkmann was on that list, too, despite winning six of his last eight bouts as a lightweight. His problem? He bears a Fitch-like resemblance to you know who.

Other than Fitch, these cuts aren’t so much unexpected as they are declaratory. The message is get busy thrilling, or get busy Bellatoring. Be something that everybody wants to watch, or be someplace else. If you’re not captivating, then you’re a problem elite. You are Jon Fitch, the perennial contender who of late has ironically A) begun to lose while B) fighting more excitingly.

That’s why, all things considered, the timing is a bit strange. Fitch goes 1-2 in his past three fights, and it becomes a good opportunity for the UFC to part ways. But look at those three fights. There was the knockout he received at the hands of Johny Hendricks (which was memorable, particularly as Fitch tried to single-leg referee Steve Mazaggatti as he came to). Then there was the Erick Silva barnburner in Brazil, where he appeared rejuvenated and determined to put on a show. That won "fight of the night" honors. And finally the Maia bout, which was a letdown. He was outclassed by a Velcro version of his former self. But before that he was 13-1-1, which screams out for the Hall of Fame.

Did he deserve to be cut? No. The spirit of mixed martial arts is (presumably) to present a gamut of styles in the cage, to see whose is best. Fitch has been solid for a long time. In fact, he’s been dominant. His style trumps most others. But he’s so good at one-sided full-length fights that we have him dialed in as aggravatingly predictable.

Obviously, the UFC is frustrated with him as well, to the point his name has now taken on a new meaning. “Fitch” in adjective form has become just another word for expendable.

Maia renews emphasis on submissions

January, 30, 2013
Gross By Josh Gross
Eight months after the first loss of his mixed martial arts career, Demian Maia stood across the Octagon from the sport's best fighter with a UFC title hanging in the balance.

Winning his first 11 contests, including five consecutive UFC bouts by submission, had everything to do with Maia’s reputation as one of the top middleweight prospects at the time. Yet so definitive was a 21-second KO loss to Nate Marquardt in 2009 that ousting Maia from the title picture could have been justified easily.

Then a shot against Anderson Silva materialized out of nothing when Maia, who rebounded from the Marquardt fight with a sloppy decision over unranked Dan Miller, was tabbed to replace an injured Vitor Belfort -- mostly because there wasn't anyone else.

Like so many fighters before and after him, Maia failed to do a thing against the iconic middleweight champion. Splitting four fights over the next two years, including a lopsided decision loss to Chris Weidman in January 2010, Maia was propelled to shed 15 pounds and begin anew at welterweight.

“I needed to be reborn,” Maia said over the phone from his hotel room at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, where he’ll meet Jon Fitch on Saturday during the pay-per-view portion of UFC 156. "I felt when I was hitting guys or going for a takedown at 185, sometimes it was like hitting a wall. Now in this weight division, it's more fair for me."

Seeking his third victory at 170 pounds, the 35-year-old Brazilian would step considerably closer to another title opportunity if he bests Fitch in what should be a compelling clash between two of the most effective grapplers in the UFC.

Said Maia of his American foe: "He's able to mentally break his opponents because his will is big. There are other wrestlers with big wills, but I think he has one of the biggest wills. So you need to be aware because he comes to break you."

Fitch, 34, claimed he’s excited to challenge the “monster” Maia after seeing him dismantle Rick Story in Brazil last October. "I was surprised at how big he was down in Rio," Fitch said. The pair picked up wins at UFC 153, and Maia mentioned how eager he is to test himself against a battle-hardened opponent.

All this adds up to more humility from Maia at this stage of his career. Fruits of labor, the long road traveled, is what he’s getting at. When he entered the UFC in 2007, Maia “knew almost nothing about standing up” to fight. Days away from meeting Fitch, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion can confidently claim his striking, wrestling, submission and transition games are as good as they’ve ever been.

Competing at his natural weight (around 185 pounds on fight night) also has helped, as has a renewed emphasis on submissions.
[+] EnlargeJon Fitch
Matthew Williams/ESPNThe closest Jon Fitch, top, came to succumbing to a submission in recent years was against Diego Sanchez in 2007.

“Now that I learned I'm able to do well with boxing, I was able to train more jiu-jitsu again,” he said. “I've come back to my grappling.”

Tasked with taking on “He Who Never Taps,” Maia’s MMA submission credentials would hit new heights if he can strangle or entangle Fitch. The closest the former No. 1 welterweight contender came to tapping in the Octagon was during a Diego Sanchez triangle attempt almost six years ago.

“I didn't panic so much as worry against Sanchez,” Fitch said. “It was late in the fight and I was stuck against the fence, in a position where I couldn't defend properly -- he already had the angle. But he didn't have it on tight and I just postured out."

Maia, of course, presents a higher plane of Brazilian jiu-jitsu than Sanchez (or anyone else Fitch has fought, for that matter). And he’ll step into the cage feeling as if he is doing so for “something bigger than myself,” namely the grappling art that has molded him as a person and athlete over many years.

"My dream is to take the fight down in the first minute and submit Fitch,” Maia said. “That's my dream and I hope it comes true."

If that happens, which would be unexpected even in light of his immense grappling ability, Maia would solidify his status as a top-five welterweight, and would appear a win (or two at the most) away from locking up a shot at the welterweight belt.

"The last time I didn't realize how hard it was to get there, and how big it was," Maia said. "If I get another chance [at fighting for a UFC belt], I understand what it means to be there.

"First, I need to win this fight."

Five good substitutes for Belfort at UFC 147

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

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

Business as usual.

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

Keep your phones turned on, opportunistic UFC middleweights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No? No, probably not.

But a guy can dream.

Maia out of frying pan at 185, into fire at 170

March, 15, 2012
Dundas By Chad Dundas
Demian Maia, Chael SonnenAP Photo/Tom HeveziDemian Maia's last big win came against Chael Sonnen, left, in 2009.
The path from middleweight to welterweight has been a treacherous one as of late.

In recent months, a number of highly regarded fighters -- Jake Shields, Yoshihiro Akiyama and Nate Marquardt all spring immediately to mind -- have attempted the cut from 185 to 170 pounds and for very disparate reasons, none have hit the jackpot like we assumed they might.

At this point, any one of those guys could probably tell Demian Maia a few cautionary tales.

While the individual experiences of Shields, Akiyama and Marquardt don’t pertain specifically to Maia, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist should be warned after announcing on Twitter this week he’ll move from middle to welter: No matter who you are -- a champion in his prime, a high-dollar international free agent or a former top five stalwart -- this particular jump is far from a sure thing.
[+] EnlargeDemian Maia
Martin McNeil for ESPN.comDemian Maia's standup has improved over the years, but he's still not seeing the results on his ledger.

Not that Maia really has any other choice. He’s essentially found himself chased out of the 185-pound division after going 1-2 in his last three fights. His recent loss to Chris Weidman knocked him out of the middleweight power rankings and, though he once challenged Anderson Silva for the title, he hasn’t beaten a top-tier opponent since his submission victory over Chael Sonnen at UFC 95 back in 2009.

Oddly, Maia’s mediocre 4-4 mark during the last three years has coincided with a noticeable professional evolution. He’s received near unilateral praise for the obvious improvements he’s made in his standup game. He’s certainly more dangerous now than when he dropped fights to Silva at UFC 112 and to Marquardt at UFC 102, but so far, the proof hasn’t shown up where it counts the most: his win-loss record.

Now, eight months shy of turning 35, Maia seeks the instant coat of paint and spit shine that dropping a weight division can provide. It's true, when a former top contender steps down a class we have a tendency to look at him with fresh eyes.

The trouble is, he’ll enter a welterweight division that has never been more competitive and which boasts a current crop of contenders to rival even the shark tank of the lightweight ranks. Does the prospect of running up against guys like Jake Ellenberger, Nick Diaz or Johny Hendricks make 170 pounds seem preferable to 185?
[+] EnlargeGeorges St. Pierre vs Jake Shields
Ric Fogel for ESPN.comMoving down to welterweight doesn't guarantee results. Just ask Jake Shields.

Probably not. In fact, it might even be worse for him. The whole division is effectively on hold until Georges St. Pierre returns from knee surgery and with Carlos Condit, Diaz and Ellenberger already in the pole position, it’ll be a long wait in very dangerous territory before Maia even has a chance to earn himself a shot at welterweight gold.

If anything, this is probably a lateral move, and one he pretty much had to make. Moving down is just what you do when you feel like you’ve warn out your welcome in the place where you started. For most guys, like Akiyama, it’s just way of buying yourself a couple more fights.

Win one or two, then lose one, mumble something about how the weight cut takes too much out of you and move back up. Such is the cycle of life in MMA.

Word to the wise, though: Be careful. Lately, the move from welterweight to middleweight hasn't been a safe bet, either. Just ask Anthony Johnson.

The Maia of old goes MIA

January, 31, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Since we’re in the business of musing over the clay perceptions of casual fans, you have to wonder how lay viewers took in the Demian Maia/Chris Weidman fight that opened a national television broadcast on Saturday night.

For instance, if you’d tuned in and saw Maia gassing though parts of the second round and the entirety of the third, you might have thought it was he who had to cut 31 pounds in 11 days to make weight. You might have also suspected that Maia’s only chance of beating Weidman was a simple puncher’s. After all, he was winging that left with hopes of a homerun.

Maia looked like a one-dimensional fighter, whose single dimension wasn’t all that imposing.

Now, if you are anything more than the casual fan, the performance against Weidman begged the question that’s been looming since the 21-second knockout at the hands of Nate Marquardt in 2009 -- what happened to the Maia of old? Who is this imposter that walks out to “Vida Bandida?” Wasn’t Maia the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner in the game, who for a while there people began referring to as Royce Gracie 2.0?

Maybe the hackers who have plagued the UFC all week have greater reach than we know. Maybe they have the ability to hack into UFC fighters now, and redirect them from world-class jiu-jitsu players into vague kickboxers. Or maybe Maia was hurt, or sick, or confused. It’s possible he was disenchanted that Michael Bisping became Chris Weidman. It must be something, but the former No. 1 contender has gone from being 5-0 in the UFC with five ridiculously fluid submissions to 9-4 in the UFC with five ridiculously fluid submissions.

It started by getting knocked out by Marquardt in Portland at UFC 102, and since then in seven fights he’s gone the distance seven times. In all of them we’ve been applauding the slow evolution of his stand-up. Somewhere along the way Maia took criticism of his stand-up to heart, and became obsessed with doing something about it. This seemed obvious. When he surprised Mark Munoz a couple of times at UFC 131, we began to think him more than capable on the feet. And he is.

But the problem is Maia has forgotten who he is. A timely reminder on Fox would have been a welcoming relief, but the nonpareil jitz master has changed focus.

It used to be that if you went to the floor with Maia it became a matter of time until you tapped. Chael Sonnen, Ed Herman, Jason MacDonald, Nate Quarry -- these guys caught hell for mistakes, for over-aggressiveness, for simply finding themselves on the ground. If Maia was on his back, he would sweep. He was mean in a scramble. He was quick to snatch limbs. If he got your back, it was a matter of time. Maia made guys feel paranoid about being on the ground. He wasn’t just good at triangles, he was a Bermuda triangle, where contenders -- wrestlers, boxers and otherwise -- disappeared.

Now Maia’s jiu-jitsu has gone AWOL, and it’s curious. Even the threat of it has vanished.
[+] EnlargeNate Marquardt and Demian Maia
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images Is it possible that Nate Marquardt knocked the jiu-jitsu out of Demian Maia?

Against the wrestler Weidman, Maia was officially 0-7 on takedowns, but they all played out as half commitments. Truth is, it didn’t look like he really wanted to go to the ground. Weidman, also a solid BJJ player, wasn’t afraid to take it there, and did so a couple of times late in rounds. For a jiu-jitsu superior like Maia, who had uncanny Octagon control in his arsenal at one point in the career, it’s become OK to allow opponents to dictate terms. Which is not OK for sustaining a career.

Weidman did it. And so did Munoz. Against Jorge Santiago at UFC 136, Maia had things in his realm but settled on ground-and-pound. Maia at 34 looks less wise than the one who fought at 30. This is not an ideal trajectory.

What happened to the quiet contortionist that capitalized on every misstep? In those first five UFC fights, Maia took home "submission of the night" honors four times. That’s a lot of extra cash. Since then he has not been awarded a single end of the night bonus. If his stand-up has improved, that’s great; but all new elements should be working toward the one element that made him special -- his jiu-jitsu. Otherwise, the admission seems to be that either people have caught up to him, or that jiu-jitsu and Maia are no longer on speaking terms, or that he doesn’t trust jiu-jitsu to get the job done anymore.

Whatever the case with Maia is, it’s mysterious. And you get the feeling that if he doesn’t rediscover his roots soon, he’ll be done in the UFC.

In defeat, Bisping was still most impressive

January, 30, 2012
Dundas By Chad Dundas
Amid all of the fallout this week from the tepid results of the UFC’s second live show on network television -- where many of the criticisms are warranted and many are not -- it’s somehow fitting that the event’s most impressive performance came from a guy who didn’t even win his fight.

Arguably only Michael Bisping emerged from Saturday night’s largely underwhelming UFC on Fox 2 main card looking better than when he entered. By dropping a tight decision loss to top middleweight contender Chael Sonnen, Bisping actually improved his stock while many of the other the marquee names could merely tread water or -- in some cases -- took steps backward in the eyes of hardcore fans and MMA-centric media types.

Naturally, like most everything in the fight game, this had more to do with our own expectations than anything else.

As more than a 3-to-1 underdog headed into the fight, most observers thought Bisping would get crushed by Sonnen. We’d just seen the former Oregon wrestler tear through what seemed like a bigger, perhaps more dangerous version of Bisping in Brian Stann at UFC 136 and, on paper, we didn’t see any way the Brit could ward off Sonnen’s smothering takedowns and top control over three rounds.

In the end, Bisping didn’t pull off an upset, but he sure did a lot better than we anticipated.

While he couldn’t totally prevent Sonnen from taking him to mat, Bisping didn’t look out of his league, either. He proved surprisingly capable at using the fence to quickly get back to his feet and in the standup exchanges, he touched up his hard-charging opponent with crisp, if ultimately ineffectual punches.

Perhaps most shocking was the way Bisping afforded himself in the clinch. He held his own when Sonnen tried to muscle in close to him and even controlled some of the action when they locked up against the chain link -- though not as much as the UFC broadcast team would have you believe, especially in the first round.
[+] EnlargeBisping/Sonnen
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comMichael Bisping, left, proved Saturday he didn't cross the Atlantic solely to pick up a paycheck.

Heck, some observers even thought Bisping won the bout, though a second viewing of the fight confirms that a 29-28 verdict in favor of Sonnen was probably the right one. In the end, the American eked out Rounds 2 and 3, though in total the fight was far closer than his unanimous decision win might otherwise let on. That one judge scored it 30-27 for Sonnen even seems unconscionable, as Bisping clearly controlled the second stanza.

All told, it was a great performance from a guy who has been dogged by skeptics and naysayers ever since winning Season 3 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show back in 2006. Even in defeat, Bisping moved up two slots on the middleweight Power Rankings -- from No. 8 to No. 6 -- and now appears well positioned to take on another high-caliber opponent in his next fight.

Perhaps a returning Mark Munoz (No. 4) might even make sense for him, after the man originally slated to meet Sonnen at this event returns from a minor elbow injury. If not Munoz, then maybe the winner of fifth-ranked Yushin Okami’s upcoming UFC 144 tangle with Tim Boetsch or newly minted Top 10er Chris Weidman, who debuted at No. 9 this week after turning in Saturday night’s second-best showing by defeating Demian Maia on short notice.

We are often told there is no such thing as a good loss, but Bisping puts that adage to the test this week. While he overachieved, Sonnen, Maia, Rashad Evans and Phil Davis -- much like the overall UFC broadcast itself -- didn’t quite live up to our expectations.

Reworked event lacks sting of original card

January, 26, 2012
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Chris WeidmanJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesA retooled UFC on Fox 2 event might be a win for Chris Weidman, but it isn't for fight fans.
As good as the UFC on Fox 2 lineup still is, especially considering it’s free, make no mistake -- it’s not as good as the original.

Let’s start with the co-main. Due to an injured right elbow, a surging Mark Munoz was forced to withdraw from his top contender bout against Chael Sonnen. In his place steps Michael Bisping -- a worthy replacement, having won five of his last six.

The focus, considering it’s Sonnen and Bisping, was immediately on the epic trash talk that was bound to follow. Nobody knew exactly who would say what, but we assumed it would be the stuff of legends.

As it turns out, though, the talk between these two never really got going -- certainly not to the amount it would have had this fight been promoted for months. What we are left with now is an unfortunately lopsided matchup, at least on paper. Whereas a fight between Munoz and Sonnen featured a lot of unanswered questions, the reworked one features a five-to-one favorite in Sonnen.

I feel obligated to state the mandatory line, “It’s MMA and anything can happen." Yes, it is possible Bisping stuns Sonnen in Chicago. But besides a puncher’s chance, there just aren’t many areas where Bisping can win this fight. Munoz, on the other hand, would have been a legitimate challenge to Sonnen -- not just a body to throw in the cage to keep him busy as he waits for the champ.

Bisping moving to the co-main left his first dance partner, Demian Maia, in search of a new opponent. On just 11 days notice, that man turns out to be budding prospect Chris Weidman who was then, somewhat surprisingly, marked as the favorite.

I love this matchup but hate how we’re getting it. I get it. Injuries are a part of the sport and sometimes guys have to take a chance and fight on short notice or adjust to a new opponent. That doesn’t mean I like it in a fight of this magnitude.
[+] EnlargeMark Munoz, Chris Leben
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesLosing Mark Munoz might be a shot to the gut for UFC on Fox 2.

These are two of the top guys in the division. There’s no question they deserve to fight one another, but look at the outside variables that potentially affect this outcome. Less than two weeks for Weidman to cut weight and prepare for the toughest opponent of his career. Drastic style-change for Maia, drawing a powerful wrestler with submission skills after training exclusively for an elite boxer.

At the end of the fight, part of me will wonder if the outcome would have been the same had the two prepared properly for one another. I can live with that, but again, in a fight that will go a long way in terms of sorting out the division, I’d rather not have to.

The fact the UFC was able to move things around and still produce a high-quality card in a short amount of time speaks to the depth of its roster and the professionalism of its athletes to adjust to circumstances. I still love this card. But to say it’s actually better than the original? Come on, son.

Bisping in unusual terrain as underdog

January, 24, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Michael BispingEd Mulholland for ESPN.comWill Michael Bisping's Octagon experience kick into high gear come fight time?
It’s been a long while since Michael Bisping was an underdog heading into a fight. In fact, the last time was back in 2009 when he fought Dan Henderson at UFC 100. On that occasion, with all the tensions of the “Ultimate Fighter 9” still playing in the shallows of public perception, the Brit showed up as a 2-to-1 dog. And even then there were a lot of people that thought Vegas was sleeping on Bisping a little bit. (By the time Henderson’s right hand sent Bisping into the twitches, the line was long forgotten).

Since then the “Count” has been the “Bully” in Joe Silva’s matchmaking. Jason Miller, Jorge Rivera, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Dan Miller and Denis Kang were all long shots to beat Bisping. Ditto Wanderlei Silva, who managed to spring the upset. For the last three years, Bisping has grown used to being the mark, not the marksman. He’s been batting down the grabbing hands of opportunists on his climb, rather than clutching at the ankles of the guys above him.

That changes in Chicago. Against Chael Sonnen -- who fell to Bisping when Mark Munoz had to pull out of his scheduled fight with bone spurs in his elbow -- he is a 4-to-1 underdog.

This is unusual terrain for Bisping. And it’s an incredible line for a guy who has won four in a row (finishing his last two). In fact, it’s the kind of line that says two things: 1) For the last three years Bisping has had a cushy schedule for a guy who considers himself “title ready,” and B) we now view Sonnen as a tyrant. In the time it’s taken Bisping to make his way up the rungs enough for a bigger challenge, Sonnen has transformed from a journeyman to a contender, from an afterthought to a showman, and from cusp prelimer to PPV headliner. He contradicts himself ruthlessly in the media, but he keeps beating guys (coldly, methodically) and came close to cashing in Silva, too. The Sonnen case is one for 18th century exorcists.

Or maybe Malcolm Gladwell.

But Bisping has always been Bisping. And to become something other than Bisping he’ll need to beat Sonnen, who also happens to be the guy he can take his cues from. Sonnen stood as a lofty underdog against Yushin Okami at UFC 104 and Nate Marquardt at UFC 109. Heading into that stretch he scored a workman-like decision over Dan Miller, and before then had lost to Demian Maia (triangle choke). So what did he do? The only thing he could. He laid the pestle down on top-ranked Okami in a fight many thought he didn’t deserve, then ransacked Marquardt for three straight rounds to the point that he suddenly looked like a real impediment for Anderson Silva.

Out of nowhere, Sonnen beat two top-end guys who were trying their damndest to get back to Silva. This time it’s Sonnen who is trying to get back to Silva (even if he says otherwise), and it’s Bisping’s chance to spoil that return trip. In other words, here’s Bisping’s chance to become Sonnen. Win it, and he’ll assuredly be an underdog in his next fight, too. That’s the goal -- Sao Paulo against longer odds still.

Yet lose, and it could be another three years before Bisping’s an underdog again, and that’s no kind of consolation.

So far, so good for replacement Weidman

January, 20, 2012
Dundas By Chad Dundas
Chris WeidmanJosh Hedges/Zuffa/UFC/Getty ImagesChris Weidman is not-so-quietly making a name for himself as a breakout star.
So far, short notice has been very good to Chris Weidman.

If Weidman seems willing to roll the dice this week -- risking at least some of his stock as one of the middleweight division’s hottest prospects by agreeing to fight Demian Maia eight days from now at UFC on Fox 2 -- it may be because he’s already been so successful as a substitute.

Including the Maia bout, the two-time All-American wrestler from Hofstra University has been a replacement in three of his first four UFC appearances and to date, it’s all come up aces.

Weidman out-pointed Alessio Sakara on just two weeks’ warning in his promotional debut last March, then choked Jesse Bongfeldt at UFC 131 after taking the fight two months out when Court McGee fell to a knee injury. With a full camp under his belt for Tom Lawlor, Weidman took just 2:07 to render him unconscious via slick D’arce choke at UFC 139, pretty thoroughly establishing himself as a handful for anyone in the weight class, and under any time frame.

Now comes Maia,’s No. 7-ranked middleweight and submission specialist who Weidman agreed to fight live on network television next weekend after Michael Bisping unexpectedly got called up to the co-main event.

If it’s a risk, it’s clearly one the undefeated Serra-Longo fight team product thinks is worth it, and maybe he's right.

After all, Weidman is carrying on a fairly grand tradition of last minute replacements in the Octagon. It’s been a good strategic move in the past, considering the organization’s preference for fighters with an “anytime, anywhere” mentality and its photographic memory of the people who have done it favors (and, conversely, the people who have not).
[+] EnlargeChris Weidman
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesOn call: Chris Weidman has been in the last-minute replacement position before.

A win over Maia would obviously put Weidman’s career on an even faster track, pushing him into contention for a top 10 ranking and future consideration for a fight against a contender on the order of Rousimar Palhares, Yushin Okami (who fights Tim Boetsch next month) or even Mark Munoz, when he returns from his arm injury.

Even if he comes up short, you have to believe Weidman has a fair amount of political capital built up after being so willing to answer the phone whenever UFC matchmakers call. At least within the company -- and barring a disaster -- he’s likely to retain much of his stature.

Then again, the notion that Weidman is in a no-lose situation here isn’t altogether accurate, either. Though he opened as the betting favorite once the card was reshuffled, Maia represents a significant step up in competition for him. With that comes great opportunity, but also clear risks.

Considering the circumstances, most of us will be willing to grant Weidman at least a partial pass if he loses to Maia, but some damage will still be done. As a guy whose coaches trumpeted him as a future champion before he even arrived in the Octagon, any defeat is going to have a cooling effect.

After winning three those aforementioned fights in increasingly impressive fashion during his first year with the UFC, Weidman should be a leading candidate for a breakout fighter of the year award in 2012 and that view of him would likely be dashed if he doesn’t keep winning.

Gone too would be his unblemished record. He’d need a solid performance the next time out to maintain his momentum as an up-and-comer, let alone his status as a guy nobody in the middleweight division wants to fight on short notice.