MMA: Jake Shields

Shields: Palhares 'dirty' but effective

December, 28, 2014
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Rousimar PalharesDave Mandel/Sherdog.comRousimar Palhares' tactics might polarize fans and fellow fighters, but they've also helped notch wins.
Jake Shields believes there are three key factors related to WSOF champion Rousimar Palhares' success rate with leg locks.

His technique is rock-solid, he's a physically strong welterweight and (this part tends to rile people up) he clearly intends to hurt his opponent when he goes for them.

"He fully explodes on them with the intent to do damage," Shields told "When he goes for it, he's trying to rip your knees off and cause serious damage. It's definitely something to think about if you're going to fight him."

Shields (30-7-1) is one win away from doing exactly that. The former Strikeforce champion and UFC title contender will fight Brian Foster at WSOF 17 on Jan. 17 in Las Vegas. The winner will challenge Palhares (17-6) for the 170-pound title.

A former UFC fighter, Palhares is a polarizing figure in mixed martial arts. In 2010, the New Jersey Athletic Control Board suspended the Brazilian submission specialist for holding on to a heel hook too long in a win against Tomasz Drwal.

In 2013, the UFC cut Palhares from its roster after he again refused to release a heel hook in a win over Mike Pierce.

Palhares, 34, was under the microscope again last weekend after a first-round submission via knee bar against Jon Fitch. Andy Foster, executive director of the California State Athletic Commission, expressed anger over what he saw to be a hesitancy by Palhares to release the hold.

Palhares claimed he did nothing wrong, and Fitch, who screamed in agony as he tapped to the knee bar, has reportedly not suffered serious injury. Ultimately, the CSAC decided against any disciplinary action.

Shields, a Cesar Gracie Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, says he has mixed feelings about Palhares' style. On one hand, he says the Brazilian still hangs on to submissions too long, but believes it's directly tied to how aggressively he goes for them.

"I think everyone looks at it differently," Shields said. "Obviously, he's viewed as a dirty fighter because he doesn't always let go. That's his one thing. You can't really say it's cheap to go for it if that's his only move and it's always working. You can't bash him for it. It's up to the top-level guys to find a way to stop it.

It's definitely dirty and it hurts people and he continues to do it -- but it's also why he's successful.

-- WSOF welterweight contender Jake Shields, on champion Rousimar Palhares' controversial leg-lock submission tactics

"It's definitely dirty and it hurts people and he continues to do it -- but it's also why he's successful."

Despite his wealth of experience in the grappling world, Shields, who participated in a pure jiu-jitsu match at Metamoris 5 last month, says even he would have to study up on leg-lock submissions ahead of a potential title fight against Palhares.

"I train very little of them, to be honest," Shields said. "There are not very many guys who have dangerous heel hooks like that, and in training, you do them very lightly because you're not trying to hurt each other. It's something that's hard to train for."

When asked if the threat of damage caused by one of Palhares' submissions would make him think twice about accepting the fight, Shields said no.

"For me, I've always gone out and just fought whoever," Shields said. "I've never dodged anyone, so that would be the wrong approach. But definitely, I could see other guys approaching it like that.

"A lot is on the line when you're fighting that guy. He might hurt you, and it makes you want to go out and hurt him first. Let him know if he's going to play that game, you'll play that game right back. Put a little fear in him."

Of course, the decision to fight Palhares won't even be Shields' to make unless he defeats Foster (22-6), which Shields says he's well-aware of.

"Anyone I'm fighting at this level is talented," Shields said. "I've started watching his fights, and he's a talented striker with decent submissions and decent wrestling. He's a tough, well-rounded guy."

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.

Melendez: 'This is my coming-out party'

April, 19, 2013
Gross By Josh Gross

SAN FRANCISCO -- Gilbert Melendez’s long, winding ride to the UFC concludes Saturday, not so far from where it began.

The 31-year-old Californian, a Strikeforce lightweight champion and longtime resident of top-10 lists, enters the Octagon for the first time against Benson Henderson -- making him a rare rookie title challenger inside an arena that played host to some of his greatest moments as a professional mixed martial artist. All of this will be taking place an hour’s drive from where Melendez was introduced to the sport, on a whim, while wrestling at San Francisco State.

"It doesn't hurt that the Octagon is going to be in the HP Pavilion, where I've been plenty of times,” Melendez said. “So in some ways it's unfamiliar but in some ways it's so familiar.”

This could very well describe Melendez’s presence in MMA since 2002.

Compiling one of the most impressive outside-the-UFC résumés of any fighter in the sport, Melendez (21-2) fought at 143 pounds in Japan at a time when that meant something. Moving up to 155, “El Nino” dominated a strong contingent of contenders in Japan and the U.S. There isn’t a man he fought whom he didn’t defeat. Yet on the verge of his UFC debut -- a scenario he heavily though begrudgingly campaigned for in recent years -- Melendez is of the opinion that his numerous accomplishments don’t matter.

"This is the UFC. I'm 0-0 here,” Melendez said. “This is my coming-out party. Am I a certified fighter or not? Am I a joke or not? I could have a bad day and people would still think I'm a joke. I could lose and they'll think I'm a joke. But I have to win.

“I've stepped into rings. I've stepped in places where you can stomp on peoples’ faces and knee them in the head [on the floor]. I've been to other countries and other states with different rules. This is a different size cage, different rules, different organization, different title. So, yeah, I'm definitely walking in as a challenger."

The opportunity comes at the right time. Melendez readily admits he reached a plateau in Strikeforce, a promotion that couldn’t provide him with the kind of challenges he wanted, especially after Zuffa took control of the company in 2011.

"The politics behind Strikeforce, Showtime and UFC played with his head quite a bit,” said Gilbert Melendez Sr., a strong presence since the beginning of his son’s career.

Melendez got away with simply showing up in shape because it was his sense he was better than everyone he fought. “It hindered me not because of the talent of the people I fought, but the motivation,” he said. So his desire to improve waned as he struggled mentally with not being where he wanted to be. Among other reactions, frustration set in.

“You're Strikeforce champ, you can't be like, 'Hey, I don't want to be here anymore,' " said Jake Shields, who introduced Melendez to MMA and was similarly a Strikeforce champion before fleeing for the UFC when his contract was up. “He was getting paid, so he was happy in that sense but you could just see he didn't have any motivation. His training camps were suffering. I could see it.”

Rather than improving as a fighter, save taking the time to heal a nagging back injury, Melendez spent his days focused on his personal life, which included a fiancée, Keri Anne Taylor, and a baby girl. Melendez also opened an expansive gym in San Francisco’s warehouse district, not far from AT&T Park, where a full training camp was spent preparing for gifted UFC champion “Smooth” Henderson (18-2).

"He's on beast mode. He's ready to go,” said Nate Diaz, Melendez’s teammate and younger brother-in-arms. “I don't think there's anyone better than Gilbert in the lightweight division. This is his time.”

Diaz was the last member of Melendez’s crew to get a crack at a UFC belt, falling to Henderson on points in December.

"The thing with Gilbert is he really steps his game up for competition,” Diaz said. “When he's set to win, he wins. He does even better in fights than he does in training most of the time, and right now he's unstoppable in training. I think Henderson has his hands full."

All told, the Cesar Gracie jiu-jitsu team is 0-5 in UFC title contests -- a fact Melendez is keenly aware of but not consumed by. Their experience was built from the ground up, a distinctly Bay Area crew that molded itself into one of MMA’s most respected teams. All of that is undeniable and powerful should Melendez choose to call upon on it, though he knows on fight night, it’ll be just him and Henderson alone in the Octagon.

"Benson's a mixed martial artist,” Melendez said. “A lot of guys are Muay Thai guys that fight MMA. Or wrestlers that fight MMA. He uses all his tools. He's a good striker, good grappler, great submissions -- but he shines when he puts it all together. I'm also that guy, though. I'm not just a striker. I'm not just a wrestler. I'm not just a grappler. I'm an MMA fighter. I think we match up pretty evenly when it comes to that. He has some pretty good kicks but I think my hands are a lot better. Wrestling and grappling will be interesting.

“I've been thinking about this a long time. You want the respect. You want to brand yourself. You want to be be ranked. You want all that, but it's easy to put it aside. It doesn't matter: I got the opportunity.”

Diaz reveals an image-conscious side

March, 13, 2013
Gross By Josh Gross

Descending into the rabbit hole that is Nick Diaz.

Last week's all-time terrific conference call featuring Diaz and UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre ahead of Saturday's title fight in Montreal was revealing in many ways.

It opened a window, at least one I hadn't had a chance to peer into before.

I had no sense prior to Diaz’s back-and-forth with St-Pierre that the man coveted anything more than good times with his friends, the space to live as he pleased, the chance to be a martial artist, and the opportunity to fight -- because for the past 12 years as a pro he made it a point to express just how little anything else meant to him.

Choose your path. Walk it. What comes, comes. That’s what Diaz did.

In some ways that has yielded tremendous success. Take the title shot with St-Pierre. Fans had an expectation to see him fight GSP, and Zuffa is in business to capitalize off of stuff like that. No problem. He may not “deserve it” in the sporting definition of the phrase, not coming off a loss against Carlos Condit. And certainly not in place of Johny Hendricks. But he scored the fight because he developed a following over the years for exciting action and unpredictability.

Yet, the unpredictability that produced Diaz’s counter-culture following also ensured endorsement deals and the like won’t come his way. Even if he beats St-Pierre to claim the title, it’s hard to imagine that changes. Opportunities in and out of the sport have been limited solely by him. That fact has prompted many of Diaz’s fans, other fighters, his promoters and even his closest allies to call into question his ability to think and act in the ways society expects people in his position to think and act. Which is totally fine. Everyone has the right to self-determination. Attitudes, however, have consequences.

"Nobody knows who I am,” Diaz lamented during the teleconference. “I mean, I guess, everybody does, but as far as like your mainstream magazines and your Nike, adidas and all your good stuff, I'm left out of that.”

Whose fault is that?

I can say I've tried to get some access to him and cover him more closely since joining ESPN, only to be turned down by his trainer Cesar Gracie, who said he did so after asking his fighter. Outside of the veteran trainer, who also was highly influential over Nate Diaz, Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields to name a few, Diaz never had use for handlers, or public relations people, or a social media marketing campaign, or anything that coincides with brand building. And, ironically enough, that became his brand. He only had his hands, which were balled up in fists or assembled in such a way as to send a pointed message.
[+] EnlargeNick Diaz
Kari Hubert/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesNick Diaz' penchant for rubbing people the wrong way hasn't exactly attracted a legion of sponsors.

Now the man is ogling recognition and red carpets and pampering? Now he wants everything that requires consistently diligent work and, dare I say it, playing the game? I believe that’s what he said, though sometimes it can be difficult to decipher, and he’s prone to contradictions. Well, that’s not how life normally works, especially not when reputations are hardened like bunkers.

“I'd like to be known as someone who kept it real … I just don't like that I'm made out to be this evil person that needs to be down or you know, that needs to be like conquered,” Diaz said.

Fair enough. Diaz isn’t remotely evil or ill-intentioned. He's said to be a great friend to the people who know him that way. But he has been controversial and, at times, socially odd and a major pain for people who would like to rely on him.

Some fans love Diaz for being this way. His rants against fighters with painted toenails and Las Vegas and the people it attracts are infamous. The fakers, the lowlifes, the people who refuse to remain who they are in the face of celebrity and the like. Those are things he has slammed -- the anti-“fake” part of him he alluded to last week.

Less and less these days people seem willing to sacrifice money, or fame, or celebrity for keeping it real. Diaz was that guy. Perhaps as he approaches 30, that’s changing. MMA has come to accept that Diaz doesn’t give a damn, mostly because he led us to believe that’s how he preferred it.

Last week’s window into his soul somehow suggested otherwise.

Nick Diaz, image-conscious kid from the streets of Stockton, Calif. That’ll take some getting used to.

Winnipeg's gain; Jones-Silva most coveted

March, 6, 2013
Gross By Josh Gross
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 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.


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. 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.

Unlikely contenders emerging in the UFC

June, 5, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Six months ago at UFC 139, Martin Kampmann was getting by Rick Story to stay relevant in the UFC. In fact, after having lost two bouts in a row to Jake Shields and Diego Sanchez, Kampmann might have needed that victory over Story just to stay employed by the UFC.

That was six months ago, which is an eternity in MMA.

Today, Kampmann is in the penultimate spot to a title fight in the UFC’s welterweight division. There were so many top-name fighters in this weight class that Kampmann barely registered in the fall of last year: champion Georges St. Pierre, Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz, B.J. Penn, Johny Hendricks, Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Rory MacDonald, Shields, Sanchez and Jake Ellenberger. While this cluster of contenders turned on each other, Kampmann -- with his back against the wall -- silently erased Story from the list, then did the same to Thiago Alves in March.

Now Kampmann has done so to Ellenberger, and just like that, Kampmann is a player once again in a division that had long since disregarded him. Ellenberger, with his six-fight winning streak, was the tide-turner for Kampmann, and it looks like he’ll fight Hendricks in a title eliminator next.

To reiterate, the “Hitman” -- left for scraps back when he lost a pair of close fights -- is a bout away from St. Pierre’s belt a little over a year later. That’s how fast the landscape changes in a game of ultimate attrition. That’s how fast careers can reshape and come roaring back to life in the UFC.
[+] EnlargeMartin Kampmann
Rod Mar for ESPN.comNot too long ago, we were ready to write off Martin Kampmann.

While Kampmann is being talked about as a picture of perseverance, he also serves as a reminder that losses don’t necessarily spell the end. This isn’t the BCS.

And if any of this sounds familiar, it’s because we just saw Nate Diaz do basically the same thing at 155 pounds. When Diaz came back to lightweight after losing two in a row at 170 pounds, he was buried behind a full bank of elite names in the UFC’s most stacked division. He too was on the cusp of losing all relevancy. Yet he breezed through Takanori Gomi, then landed 260 strikes on Donald Cerrone en route to a decision, and finally submitted Jim Miller earlier this year, becoming the first ever to do so.

In Diaz’s case, Cerrone was the tide-turner; Miller, the exclamation mark. In Kampmann’s case, the only thing left to do is to punctuate Hendricks.
[+] EnlargeNate Diaz
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comNate Diaz, left, has been on a tear since returning to the lightweight ranks.

Now Diaz finds himself in position to fight the winner of Frankie Edgar/Benson Henderson, if he chooses to wait. Essentially, momentum is his to do with as he pleases -- and momentum is a funny thing. It’s hard to pinpoint its origins, but somewhere Diaz found momentum when nobody was paying him any attention. Eight months ago, if you said Nate Diaz would be fighting for a UFC belt before his older brother Nick, people would have suspected you were smoking something.

Kampmann is no different.

And all of this underscores the thing everybody knows -- crazy things happen in MMA. Guys get hurt. Guys get suspended. Guys get derailed by guys nobody sees coming while divisions are hijacked with unforeseen circumstances. People appear, people disappear and -- in the cases of Kampmann and Diaz -- people reappear.

In that way, it’s a good thing hype is interchangeable. There are new fighters rushing the flagpole each time we attempt to make sense of a division’s hierarchy. That’s why trying to figure out what’s going to happen six months from now is next to impossible.

And yet looking back the other way, it doesn’t make what Kampmann and Diaz have been able to do any less improbable.

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.

Johnson, Belcher both feel-good stories

May, 6, 2012
Gross By Josh Gross
Lavar JohnsonEd Mulholland for ESPN.comLavar Johnson, whose story was told many times over during fight week, came through on fight night.
Mixed martial arts is filled to the brim with great stories. Not the least of which is the amazing tale of the sport itself.

During the course of this fight week, UFC’s third on network TV, we were often reminded of two of its most harrowing: Lavar Johnson taking three bullets in a drive-by and Alan Belcher's battle with blindness.

When it comes to opportunities, Johnson and Belcher have to rank among the UFC's most grateful combatants.

With Johnson, it's easy to grasp why. He was the victim of horrific street violence that left his life (never mind his career as a heavyweight fighter) in peril. To survive and rebuild must have been empowering, which you can see in an attitude that led him, improbably enough, to open the Fox-televised UFC card. Johnson is fighting like he has nothing to lose, knocking dudes stiff, and for that he's moving toward the something-to-lose category. It will be interesting to see how the mid-tier heavyweight handles added pressure of success.

Belcher, though. The sport dinged him bad, nearly taking his sight. To cope with the emotions and thoughts that must come with that, the surgery and eventual recovery, to put it all on the line again by fighting dangerous beasts like Rousimar Palhares, I'm not sure there are many people who can comprehend what that requires.

Alan Belcher amazed on Saturday, and only in part because of his history.
[+] EnlargeBelchar/Palhares
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comAlan Belcher, left, faced a tense moment or two on the ground before stopping Rousimar Palhares.

The 28-year-old out of Biloxi, Miss., turned the tables on Palhares, attacking the Brazilian at his considerable strength. Leg locks, dare I say, are a dangerous game if played against “Toquinho,” but Belcher was obviously well prepared and defended the twisting, turning, bone-breaking attacks as well as he could.

Belcher wasn’t supposed to win -- not according to the mythology built up around the Brazilian. Palhares tore people limb by limb, OK? But, you know, Belcher wasn’t even supposed to be fighting, either. And there he was, slamming elbows and punches into the head of a stumpy middleweight stuck on his back.

UFC’s third card on Fox was its best since finding the brighter spotlight of prime-time network TV. After a too-short title fight followed by an all-decision card, Saturday’s effort -- highlighted by Johnson’s knockout, Belcher’s referee stoppage and Nate Diaz’s coming out party -- was a true example of mixed martial arts as spectator sport.

On a big night for combat sports, when UFC action led into Floyd Mayweather out-pointing Miguel Cotto and pocketing a record $32 million in guaranteed money, Belcher’s win -- his fourth straight -- feels worth singling out. The streak, halved by the retina detachment in 2010, puts him in position to compete at the upper reaches of UFC’s middleweight division.

Palhares, amazingly enough, wasn’t ranked coming into tonight. So where does that leave Belcher in a deep, competitive field?

I think he’d beat Hector Lombard, Bellator’s former champion and Zuffa’s newest signee, who has a similar chance to breakthrough on Fox when he fights Brian Stann in Los Angeles in August. Can’t say I feel so confident in Belcher if he’s matched against Stann. Belcher versus the winner between Ed Herman and Jake Shields makes sense. Perhaps Tim Boetsch or Michael Bisping, who meet this July. Whatever Zuffa tasks him with next, Belcher will eagerly answer the call.

After all, he didn’t come back from the brink of disaster for nothing.

Five potential foes for Hector Lombard

April, 27, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Hector LombardDave Mandel/Sherdog.comWelcome to the big leagues: Hector Lombard won't get any soft touches in the UFC.
The one thing that any successful fighter heading into the UFC will hear is this: He’s overrated. He hasn’t faced any real competition. Somebody’s about to come crashing down to earth. Somebody is about to get exposed.

That "somebody" this time happens to be Hector Lombard, the popular Bellator middleweight champion who has rattled off 20 victories in a row, including eight as the company’s flagship. Lombard is a menace at 185 pounds and is sculpted like a Frank Frazetta overlord, but the big gripe against him is he’s beating guys named Falaniko Vitale and Herbert Goodman instead of cats like Mark Munoz and Rousimar Palhares.

All that changes, now that Lombard makes his way to the UFC. Instead of facing UFC castoffs like Jay Silva and Joe Doerksen, the 34-year old American Top Team fighter will face UFC regulars. It’s a completely different vantage point. Lombard’s new assignment is to covert guys into UFC castoffs rather than feast on what’s left of their good names.

Here’s a quick look at five guys who would make for mean welcoming parties for “Shango.”

Brian Stann
Back when Jorge Santiago had built up a new head of stream in Sengoku, he became a popular dark horse pick against Brian Stann at UFC 130. What did Stann do? He punched the daylights out of him. And wouldn’t you know that just as Lombard brings his 25-fight unbeaten streak into the UFC, Stann is coming off a big victory over Alessio Sakara and needs an upgrade in opponent, just as all the bigger names are occupied?

Enter Hector Lombard. The great thing about this fight is both guys like to bang on the feet. Lombard is a precision striker who carries a lot of power. He likes to fight guys that get right up in his wheelhouse and tempt him into uncoiling. That’s Stann, who makes it his duty to oblige brawlers. (And just as often, shut them down).

Jake Shields
Shields has bounced back and forth between 170 and 185 pounds, and after a fairly subpar run in the UFC’s welterweight division, it looks like he’ll bulk back up. Bottom line is, he wasn't losing to slouches, either -- Georges St. Pierre and Jake Ellenberger (under trying circumstances, dealing with the passing of his father) never looked like easy outs.

But the last time we saw Shields as a middleweight he looked ... if not great, then totally resilient. He beat up Jason Miller for five rounds, and then improbably defended the Strikeforce belt against Dan Henderson in a fight he had his wits scrambled in the first round. Not to name drop, but Shields was the last guy to defeat Henderson, who is now set to fight Jon Jones for the 205-pound title. Think he wouldn’t like to punch some holes in Lombard’s lore? And for those desperate for storylines or loose patriotism, it’d be the battle of the Americas -- American Jiu-Jitsu versus American Top Team.

Luke Rockhold
Hey, while we’re restocking the UFC’s middleweight division with valuable intrigues, why not bring Strikeforce middleweight champion Luke Rockhold into the UFC fold to face Lombard? It’s not the likeliest scenario, but Rockhold has just come into his own at a time when Strikeforce has become a weekend skeleton crew. Think he likes the idea of challenges named Keith Jardine or, maybe at some point, Bristol Marunde?

It’s fun to imagine a Rockhold/Lombard scrap. You’ve got two guys who aren’t afraid to fight in the pocket, each with a durable chin and sadistic intentions. It has “back-and-forth war” written all over it, a great UFC debut for both ... but it looks like Rockhold will get that long-awaited battle with Stikeforce contender Tim Kennedy, thus rendering this flight of fancy moot. Truth be told, we’re merely throwing Rockhold’s name out there in the off chance that matchmakers Sean Shelby and Joe Silva are combing the Internet for suggestions.

Ronaldo Souza
Again, we’re dealing in Strikeforce property (read: ultimately Zuffa’s), but Souza hates the pace of fighting once every six to eight months. And if the promotion does make Kennedy versus Rockhold, that means Jacare is going to be fighting some unmentionable. If the UFC brought Souza over to face Lombard, you’ve got the strutting fisticuffs that languished in Bellator for too long against the tall-grass predator with the aggressive, limb snatching jiu-jitsu. What better?

And how would that be for a red carpet rollout for both guys into the Octagon?

Ed Herman
You laugh. I can see you laughing. But let me put Herman’s name into perspective. For one thing, he has been completely rejuvenated since coming back from his knee injury and setbacks, having won three fights in a row. For another, “Short Fuse” is a finisher just like Lombard. In every one of those fights he dusted his hands of the opponent, beginning with Tim Credeur (whom he TKO’d in 48 seconds) and ending with Clifford Starks (second round rear-naked choke).

The guy he beat in-between? Why that was Kyle Noke (via first round heel hook), the same guy who took Lombard to a draw back in 2007. Herman is creeping up on the pack in the middleweight class, and Lombard is a big step up in opposition. Here’s the rub, though: So is Herman a big step up in competition for Lombard. Either Lombard could treat Herman as an appetizer to the main course, or he could, for the first time ever, find himself with a nostril full of smelling salts.

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.

Welterweight contenders and pretenders

March, 5, 2012
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
Carlos ConditRod Mar for ESPN.comCarlos Condit is one of several 170-pound fighters counting the days to GSP's return.
Is it wrong to kind of like a George St. Pierre-less welterweight division?

Not that we don’t want him back in November, but these last few months have been kind of fun, yeah? For starters, the St. Pierre injury story is great in itself. No fighter has been able to legitimately challenge him in years. Can a knee injury do it?

Because to be honest, the novelty of St. Pierre ho-hummingly dominating opponents one five-round fight after another had started to wear off. It was still an impressive run, absolutely, but -- come on. In sports, we’re supposed to get drama. We like two-minute drills. We like half-court prayers. We like a man on third, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, down by one.
[+] EnlargeThiago Alves and Martin Kampmann
Mark Kolbe/Getty ImagesThiago Alves and Martin Kampmann are fringe players in the vastly deep welterweight division.

What’s been kind of nice about St. Pierre being out to start 2012 is that it’s allowed us to envision a welterweight division without such a dominant champ. And what that vision looks like are razor-thin title fights and a serious group of contenders who would trade the belt back and forth between themselves for years.

From a business standpoint, you don’t mind the St. Pierre model. A dominant champ entices casual fans to watch and see what the fuss is about. Hardcore fans will tune in as well, if for no other reason to make absolutely sure they are watching when he loses.

But from a sports fan perspective, I think most would admit they’re ready to see what “St. Pierre in trouble” looks like again. The eye injury he suffered during the Jake Shields win was certainly adversity he had to overcome, but it’s not like the outcome of that fight was ever in question.

So, here’s the question: Can any of these welterweights we’re getting excited about during St. Pierre’s absence actually beat him when he comes back? As I did in October with the lightweights, let’s sort out which of these guys has the best shot at being the one to end St. Pierre’s reign.

The “if stars align and everything imaginable goes your way then maybe ... but still probably not” Group: Dan Hardy, Diego Sanchez, John Hathaway, Rick Story, Dong Hyun Kim.

Go on, laugh at Hardy even being included on this list. Hey, he’s about as long as a long shot can be. But if the organization is willing to hang on to him after four fairly miserable outings, then what’s to say they wouldn’t reward him with a title shot quickly if he were to get hot again?

Sanchez is interesting because if I’m a UFC welterweight I say to myself, “Man, I should call out Diego. I’m pretty sure I can beat him and he’s a big name to add to my résumé.” The only problem is I do that, then I get to the third round of the fight and Sanchez is still coming forward, spewing blood from the nose I’m pretty sure I broke with my knee in the first round and, suddenly, I’m scared. Not sure of what exactly, but definitely scared. This will happen in the next two years: A rising prospect calls out Sanchez and loses.

The “Any way we could combine these two?”: Thiago Alves, Martin Kampmann.

I think last weekend’s fight summed up both fighters pretty well. Kampmann is a gamer with tremendous will but he lacks elite-type athleticism. Alves is the opposite -- he might be the best athlete in the division but he’s vulnerable to mental lapses.

It’s not a terrible idea to go for a takedown in the final minute of a fight you’re winning to remove the flash KO threat, but in these circumstances (Kampmann has five submission wins in the UFC against one TKO) it was bad judgment. And the worst part is, fair or not, we’ve sort of come to expect this from Alves. For the record, though, of these two, I still give Alves a better shot overall at ever holding the belt.

The potential feel-good story of the century: Jake Shields.

If this were Hollywood, wouldn’t you lay everything you’ve got on Shields having a monster year in 2012 and claiming the belt in 2013? In the movie world, St. Pierre would be made out as a way more sinister foe in their first fight and maybe, after the loss to Ellenberger, movie Shields would go on some month-long drinking/partying binge that threatens to end his fighting career. But by the time the credits rolled, he’d be pointing up to the sky with a title belt around his waist.

It could happen. We know the guy is talented. He’s 33 and hasn’t taken a ton of damage despite a lengthy career. And I still think, for whatever reason, we caught Shields on an off night at UFC 129.

The blazing hot prospect and the simmering hot prospect: Rory MacDonald, Erick Silva.

Some of you will no doubt have MacDonald higher on your list, but I can’t quite pull the trigger on a 22-year-old whose biggest win is arguably over string bean Nate Diaz. Don’t get me wrong, I love MacDonald as a future titleholder, just not sure if you can rank him higher than these other guys right now.

Silva, same thing. He certainly looks the part, but so far both opponents he’s fought in the UFC took the fight on short notice and both came within friendly confines of his home country.

The old faithfuls: Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch.

These guys have been here for years and they’ll continue to be here through at least 2013. Fitch’s loss to Johny Hendricks could mean nothing. It was 12 seconds. He was facing some serious ring rust. If you think it’s the last we’ve seen of him, it’s probably because you just don’t like him and it’s clouding your judgment.

Koscheck gets the opportunity to avenge his friend’s loss against Hendricks in May. It’s a surprising fight to me because you’re risking a possible No. 1 contender to a guy who, as long as St. Pierre has the belt, can’t really be a No. 1 contender. Koscheck is high on this list because of his skills but frankly, a lot of things outside his control need to happen if he’s ever going to win the welterweight title.

The "highly" unlikely: Nick Diaz.

He’s probably getting a one-year suspension. If that’s the case, he can’t fight until February 2013. What kind of fight does he pull when he gets back? There will still be a lot of interest in a St. Pierre fight, even if St. Pierre isn’t even holding the belt, but do you really like his chances in that fight after such a long layoff? I don’t. So, would he get a “tune-up” fight first? Even if he did, it would be against a legitimate guy with a real chance at beating him. If that happens, he probably needs to win two more fights to get a title shot. Sorry, but there are just enough unknowns right now that I no longer love Diaz’s chances. He still claims a high spot on this list though because when he comes back, a matchup against St. Pierre is so marketable the UFC will so its best to put it together.

The favorites: Carlos Condit, Jake Ellenberger, Johny Hendricks.

In that order. Condit sits at the top thanks mainly to the intangibles on his side. He’s getting the next opportunity to do it -- at least that’s what it looks like. St. Pierre will be dealing with a very long layoff and he’ll be competing for the first time on his reconstructed knee. Stylistically, he faces an uphill battle in my opinion but not an insurmountable one. If he can stay on his feet, he’ll hit St. Pierre. He’ll get taken down but he’s terrific at escapes and he’s very tough mentally. He won’t be intimidated and he’ll keep working even if things don’t go well early.

Ellenberger is actually my favorite to get it done from a stylistic standpoint. I think he’s the most athletically gifted of the three and I like his standup a little over Hendricks’, although they both clearly hit hard. It would be good if he was a little bigger, but St. Pierre isn’t a huge welterweight either. He’d be very dangerous in a fight against the champ, especially early in the fight.

Hendricks is right there as well. He has the game changer in the left hand and, although St. Pierre would frustrate him a bit in the speed aspect, he’s not an easy opponent to control.

When it’s all said and done though, I guess this is all for naught because it’s very difficult to see anyone unseating St. Pierre. My guess is he makes this whole knee-injury, layoff ordeal look easy. That is, after all, the St. Pierre we’ve come to know.

Kampmann's recent career full of 'what ifs'

February, 29, 2012
Dundas By Chad Dundas
Martin KampmannJosh Hedges/Getty ImagesWhen it comes to breaking through, Friday might be the light at the end of the tunnel for Martin Kampmann.
Science fiction writers could probably spend entire careers offering alternate histories for Martin Kampmann.

Example: What if Kampmann hadn’t come out on the losing end of a razor thin decision against Jake Shields at UFC 121?

What if the judges had sided with the vocal majority who thought he should’ve gotten the nod over Diego Sanchez in March 2011 in their bloody, hard-fought cable TV main event?

What if Kampmann’s unanimous decision win over Rick Story three months back -- originally announced as a split verdict, like maybe the judges had considered taking that one from him, too -- had been the cherry on top of a five-fight win-streak instead of a two-bout slump buster?

No long meditation on the butterfly effect is needed to know that if any of the above had come to pass, well, Kampmann probably wouldn’t be taking on Thiago Alves on Friday in a fight that feels like a stretch as a main event, even for one of the UFC’s new live shows on FX. On a Friday night, no less.

If Stephen King can crank out 800-plus pages speculating about a couple of guys going back in time to try to stop the Kennedy assassination, we can take a couple of sentences to acknowledge what Kampmann has learned the hard way during the last year and a half: That the line between contender status and just being middle-of-the-pack in the UFC welterweight division is slim, and the margin for error essentially nonexistent.

If Kampmann had defeated Shields and/or Sanchez (some people believe he rightfully did both) maybe he would have been fighting Georges St. Pierre in late spring or early summer of last year. Or maybe he would have met up with Jake Ellenberger in a No. 1 contender bout in late 2011 or early 2012. Heck, given Kampmann’s 2009 win over Carlos Condit, maybe it would have been him in the cage against Nick Diaz fighting for the interim 170-pound title at UFC 143, instead of “The Natural Born Killer.”

Or maybe not. This is all speculative, of course. It's possible things could have gone off the rails for Kampmann in a thousand other ways. Perhaps his UFC 103 loss to Paul Daley -- arguably his only real misstep of the last few years -- would still have been enough to hold him back.

Whatever the case, instead of finding himself considering the intricacies of the welterweight title picture right now, Kampmann’s current reality is Friday's bout with Alves, where the stakes are, at best, uncertain.
[+] EnlargePaul Daley and Martin Kampmann
Tim Heitman for ESPN.comWhat if Martin Kampmann, right, hadn't lost to Paul Daley way back at UFC 103?

Alves is just 2-3 during his last five appearances and his only two wins since October 2008 came as the middle leg of John Howard’s three-fight losing streak and over a debuting unknown in Papy Abedi. He’s already been to the mountain top, fighting St. Pierre at UFC 100, and came out on the wrong end of a terribly lopsided decision loss. A return trip is starting to feel more and more unlikely.

At this point, the book is out on Alves, who starts like a house of fire and then fades late when his opponents can impose their game plans on him. The only real juice in this fight is the stylistic matchup -- both guys like to bang and Kampmann doesn’t fit the blueprint of the wrestle-first fighters like Story, GSP and Jon Fitch who’ve given Alves all sorts of trouble.

What does it all mean when a 1-2 fighter takes on a 2-3 fighter on cable TV on a night the public isn’t used to seeing fights and just 24 hours before a far more hyped-up women’s bantamweight title bout hits the airwaves? Nobody knows. It’s just one both guys know they don’t want to lose, that’s all.

Losses, we all know, are bad. Even losses that maybe should have been wins. Just ask Martin Kampmann.

Because he’s a professional fighter, Kampmann would likely blame himself for his recent rough turns of fate. He’d probably tell you it was his fault for “leaving it in the hands of the judges.”

Really, though, he’s not to blame, and that makes it hard not to wonder "what if."

While we’re engaging in fantasy, perhaps we could also indulge one where the fighters in our sport in 2012 don’t have to fear “leaving it” in the purview of the judges. Maybe there’s an alternate universe out there somewhere where the rules are better and the judges can be counted on to do a decent job.
Jake Shields insists Nick Diaz will not walk away from MMA, despite his temporary suspension dished out by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. More »

Shields: 'Akiyama won't submit me'

February, 21, 2012
By Ben Blackmore
Jake Shields is willing to put his reputation on the line at UFC 144 this weekend, predicting Yoshihiro Akiyama is unlikely to have the necessary talent to submit him. More »

Strikeforce imports doing just fine in UFC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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