MMA: Jim Miller

Can happier Cerrone get over the hump?

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
11:02
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Donald Cerrone’s latest toy is called a Flyboard.

It basically looks like a jetpack/wakeboard hybrid connected to the back-end of a jet ski via long hoses. It can power a rider high into the air or deep underwater. Cerrone summarizes it by saying, “You ride around like Iron Man.”

Cerrone (23-6) describes the board during a phone call from inside his RV. At the time of the interview, he’s not sure exactly where in the United States he is, but knows he’s en route to Atlantic City, where he fights Jim Miller on Wednesday.

Loading into an RV and driving to a fight has become tradition for Cerrone, who says this is probably about the sixth time he’s done it.

On this trip, the group made a stop at the Anheuser-Busch brewery tour in St. Louis, Mo. While there, Cerrone’s girlfriend fell in love with Clydesdales -- which means, in the near future, Cerrone thinks he will be forced into owning a Clydesdale.

“She wants a damn Clydesdale,” he said. “We were at the Budweiser thing and she saw them. I have no idea what you do with a Clydesdale. Budweiser said they would give us one. It’s going to cost so much money.”

Between talk of expensive horses and Flyboards, Cerrone states something he’s said numerous times over the course of his career: He doesn’t care about winning a UFC title. He’d take it, of course, but he says it’s not what he fights for.
"

I think my feelings for the belt have always been the same. ... Having it would be cool, but that is not my drive

"

-- Donald Cerrone, on why title belts aren't his reason for fighting


“Who wants to ask stupid questions about fighting, let’s talk about this other stuff,” Cerrone said, half-jokingly. “I think my feelings for the belt have always been the same. I don’t really give a s---. Having it would be cool, but that is not my drive.”

Cerrone has never won a significant title in mixed martial arts. He came up short in three WEC championship fights from 2009 to 2010. He’s 10-3 in the UFC since 2011, but has never reached a UFC title fight.

If it never happens for Cerrone, he’ll still have a heck of a career to look back on. He is, without question, one of the most entertaining fighters in the sport and one of its best finishers. He’s won performance bonuses in each of his last three fights.

At the same time, though -- boy, it would be a bit of a shame to never see Cerrone at least step into the cage with a UFC title on the line. "Cowboy," 31, has flirted with greatness for years, but struggled with slow starts and ill-timed flat performances.

Leonard Garcia, Cerrone’s teammate at Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA, has spent a career watching Cerrone’s maddening inconsistency from the sidelines.

“There is nobody at Jackson’s -- I’m talking Jon Jones or any one who has walked through there, like a Georges St-Pierre -- who is as talented as ‘Cowboy,’” Garcia said.

“There have been times where I have literally lost the farm betting on him. You see a guy at Jackson’s who doesn’t lose a round in anything go out and lose to a guy he shouldn’t lose to. It’s just crazy to me.”

The key, everyone thinks, for Cerrone has finally been identified and it actually has to do with Clydesdales and Flyboards. Somewhere along the way, Cerrone, his team and his sports psychologists decided a happy "Cowboy" is a dangerous "Cowboy."

In contrast to Cerrone’s claims about lifelong lukewarm feelings towards a title, Garcia says there was a time when it was "all he talked about," and that at one point in his career he even had a place in mind to store a championship belt once he won it.

"He was all about getting a belt earlier in his career," Garcia said.

Regardless of which man's account is more accurate, they both agree that at this stage of his career, Cerrone has learned to treat fighting the same way he treats the rest of his life, which is to enjoy it.

“As far as now in my career, my mind is in a much better place,” Cerrone said. “There was a time where I was like, ‘Am I as good as these other guys?’ I doubted myself so bad. I’ll tell you though, if Jim Miller came to Jackson’s to spar, it’d be on.

“That’s the mentality I have now. I just think about going out there, kicking a-- and having fun.”

Win this week and Cerrone will be on a four-fight win streak and possibly one victory away from a UFC title shot. Lose; and his window of ever earning that opportunity continues to close.

Either way, he’ll remain one of the most popular fighters in the UFC. But a "Cowboy" title shot would be fun. And Cerrone’s all about fun.

Living up to older brother not easy in UFC

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
9:08
AM ET
Huang By Michael Huang
ESPN.com
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Sergio PettisAl Powers for ESPNWith brother and UFC champ Anthony over his shoulder, bantamweight Sergio Pettis is on the rise.
Just call it brotherly love.

Fans of UFC featherweight Clay Guida might recall a head-shaking prefight ritual between him and brother Jason Guida. Before every one of Clay's fights, in the prefight prep point, Jason would slap his younger -- and significantly smaller -- brother in the face, seemingly to prepare Clay for his fight.

Whap! Whap! Whap!

Whether this was the key to Clay's success is debatable, but he certainly has had a solid and fruitful career in the UFC, which is really what any older brother would want for his younger sibling. Clay first got into MMA because Jason was fighting on a local card in Illinois. They needed a volunteer to fill in for an injured fighter, so Clay jumped in and the rest is history.

There's always a little sibling rivalry between brothers. Younger brothers often look up to their older brothers, using them as yardsticks for their own success or motivation to succeed.

This Saturday, Sergio Pettis, the younger brother of UFC lightweight champ Anthony Pettis, faces Alex Caceres in a bantamweight bout on the undercard of UFC on Fox 10. Expect a smorgasbord of athleticism. Both young fighters are technically skilled strikers with a lot of bounce and speed. For Sergio, it can't get better having his UFC champion and world-class athlete brother to help in training.

"I've got a lot of good people around me, my coaches, training partners, and I have Anthony," Sergio Pettis said. "I can learn from his mistakes. Eventually I want us to be the first pair of brothers to have UFC belts at the same time."

And who better to give him championship advice than his champion older brother.

"Anthony's always said just have fun with it," Sergio Pettis said. "Before my first fight I was starting to get some bad thoughts and hearing too many of the comments people were making. He just said to forget all that and just have fun. So I'm much more relaxed for this fight."

[+] EnlargeNate Diaz and Nick Diaz
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesNate and Nick Diaz have become one of the UFC's more notable brother combinations with each becoming a top contender in recent years.
Mixed martial arts boasts a formidable list of brothers-in-arms. Some of the more notable sets of siblings include the Nogueiras -- Antonio Rodrigo and Antonio Rogerio -- as well as the Ruas -- Mauricio, Murilo and Marcos -- have long histories of success dating back to early PRIDE days. Likewise, the Overeems -- Alistair and Valentijn -- have enjoyed success across fight leagues, and the Millers -- Jim and Dan -- and Diazes -- Nick and Nate -- have been top contenders in the UFC for the last half decade.

Perhaps it's the fraternity of the gym or the brotherhood of combat sports that strengthens the bonds between these sets of siblings, but -- like the Guidas -- it's the older brother who usually introduces the younger brother to MMA. Likewise, Valentijn Overeem brought Alistair to a gym to learn how to defend himself.

But often it's the younger brother who outperforms the older brother. Heck, even Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings, but Peyton only has one.

While Dan Miller is a UFC veteran respected as one of the best BJJ practitioners, Jim has probably experienced more career success than Dan. He doesn't see that as a feather in his cap, however. The brothers take the wins and losses together.

"It's not something I'm really happy about," Jim Miller said. "I want all the success in the world for Dan. He's capable of so much. But because he's the 185-pounder, I'm the one who benefits from our size difference. Fighting one of the best 185-pounders makes fighting 155-pounders easy. If it was reversed, and I was the bigger one, I'm sure he'd be doing better than me."

At 10-0, Sergio Pettis is one of the new breed of young fighters who have trained in multiple disciplines from an early age. After watching Anthony's first three fights, Sergio was bit by the MMA bug. Both have deep backgrounds in taekwondo, with Sergio starting at age three. They even owned their own dojo in Milwaukee at one point with their eldest brother.

Does he think he can eventually eclipse Anthony's success? That's a tall order considering the flash with which Anthony shot up the ranks and captured the UFC lightweight title. "Showtime" might be his brother, but Sergio isn't interested in the spotlight. Is doing better than his brother just a side effect of any success or an objective?

[+] EnlargeJim and Dan Miller
Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesHaving brother Dan, right, two divisions above him to spar against has only helped the growth of lightweight Jim Miller.
"I'm still really new to the UFC, just starting out my career," said Sergio Pettis, who had posted a 9-0 record in MMA feeder league Resurrection Fighting Alliance. "I have a lot of expectations for myself. But there's that possibility that I could be better than Anthony. I'm shooting for that!

"But right now it's about me just finding my way through the UFC and continuing to win. I want to stay active and fight four times this year. I'm still in Anthony's shadow and eventually I'm sure I'll step out from under it, but right now I'm just focused on winning as many fights as I can."

Duke Roufus, coach of the Pettis brothers, has said Sergio has the potential to be even better than Anthony. With Anthony sidelined with a knee injury, Sergio is the reigning Pettis right now. And against Caceres, fans should expect lots of leather flying.

"I know he likes to move around a lot and likes to use some flashy moves," Sergio said. "But I train with Anthony so there's plenty of flashy moves to practice against."

Perhaps for any younger brother, it might be most important to simply live up to the bar standard any older brother might set. That's a tough enough fight.

"Anyone who wants to learn how a man really holds himself with class and composure should watch my brother Dan," Jim Miller said. "I always try to live up to that."

Bendo: 'It's going to be a fun night for me'

July, 18, 2013
7/18/13
4:01
PM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Benson Henderson and Anthony PettisJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty ImagesBenson Henderson, left, has been looking forward to seeing Anthony Pettis one more time.
It's been a couple of years since Benson Henderson and his trainer, John Crouch, watched their 2010 WEC title loss to Anthony Pettis.

Henderson doesn't get "too tape happy" to begin with. He'll watch a fight once to find a feel for his opponent and be done with it. So in advance of the lightweights' Aug. 31 rematch in Milwaukee, Henderson may not even revisit the close decision and the Showtime kick. The truth is, he needs no refresher course on his only loss during 18 fights over the past six years. Lessons there to be learned, have been.

"I was able to man up and move on with my life," Henderson told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "It wasn't anything I was obsessing over. Now that we do get the chance to square off again and once I get my hands on him it's going to be a fun night for me. Let's put it that way."

The current UFC lightweight champion, seeking his fifth straight defense, is clear about where he could have done better the first time around. Outside of a few "stale moments" he classified his performance during one of the most dramatic title fights in Zuffa history as just "OK." Henderson and Crouch felt the effort in the cage that night was lackadaisical. In response, the trainer didn't ask his charge to get "mean," per se, but he wanted Henderson to be "more aggressive and try to have our way in the fight." Henderson, 27 at the time, stewed for a bit. He was quiet. Reflective. But also motivated.

"It would have been the same against anybody," said Crouch, who coaches out of The Lab in Glendale, Ariz. "He likes to compete. He hates to lose. He took it very hard."

Henderson's next appearance was his UFC debut. "As soon as we started in the UFC you could see the difference," Crouch said. "When he fought [Mark] Bocek, fought [Jim] Miller, fought [Clay] Guida, we were much more aggressive." Those wins set Henderson up for a title challenge against Frankie Edgar. All Henderson has done since is win, which considering his current status is the only thing he needs to do. Taking on Pettis is the next step. That's how Henderson and Crouch see it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

"When you've got the belt, every single person in this division wants to beat me up," Henderson said. "That's how it goes. It doesn't matter to me who my next defense is against. It's cool."

"It's the same thing for us," Crouch said. "It's going to be our fourth belt defense. We're gonna keep the belt for a while. It's just what we do."

If there's ever a good moment to fight Pettis, weeks removed from a knee injury that knocked him out of an Aug. 3 challenge of Jose Aldo, it would seem to be now. The 26-year-old challenger got the call after TJ Grant was concussed while training for his title shot. Pettis was in line for his own opportunity after the WEC win, but injuries derailed those plans and kept him out of action more than he’d like the past couple of years. In the meantime, the current champion strung together consistent performances against top-shelf competitors, including a squeaker in April over Gilbert Melendez.

"Benson has developed a whole bunch” since losing to Pettis, Crouch said. “You kind of overstate that with your own guy. I think he's better, but it's just part of the process."

Henderson has been pushed, prodded, and proven to be sharp. The challenger, spectacular yet sporadic.

The switch from Grant to Pettis is a "curveball," Henderson said, but nothing he hasn't dealt with in the past. And with five and a half weeks remaining until fight night, there's plenty of time for Henderson to properly prepare. The fact is Henderson had already cut down on the length of training camps because, Crouch said, "he works too hard and beats his body up.” Since they were just about to get in the gym to prepare for Grant, "timing is just fine," the trainer said.

Henderson sees the scenario in front of him as typical, which means there's no such thing as a perfect situation in MMA. At a minimum, Pettis is a guy with a chance, and that's all any fighter requires to pull off something special. This is how the lightweight champion processed Chris Weidman’s stunning victory over Anderson Silva: “The reason why we fight is that any given day the best can lose.”

Pettis, of course, is no long shot. Oddsmakers have pegged the challenger, who’s fighting in his hometown, as the slight favorite.

"It doesn't matter to me where it's at, who's it against, what hometown," Henderson said. "Bump all that noise. It doesn't matter to me. I'm going to beat him up. At the end of the night I'm going to get my hand raised."

Burkman's sub of Fitch earns top honors

June, 26, 2013
6/26/13
8:07
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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video Josh Burkman thought that guillotining Jon Fitch would be too risky to try.

So when he faced Fitch on June 14 at World Series of Fighting 3, Burkman made it part of his game plan to avoid using one of the first chokes learned by Brazilian jiu-jitsu white belts. He thought of it like this: Attempting to catch a guy with a reputation for being impossible to choke out and giving a guy who loves top position ... well, top position wouldn't be the best way to win their rematch.

A snapshot at the end of the fight says differently, of course. Considering the contest lasted only 41 seconds, with Burkman on the bottom and Fitch caught in a guillotine, you could say the plan went astray. Understandable, really, after seeing Fitch laid forcibly unconscious on the mat.

"A technical submission over Jon Fitch was definitely not what I was thinking how I would win this fight," Burkman said after being told his finish ranked atop ESPN.com's best submission list from the first half of 2013.
[+] EnlargeJosh Burkman and Jon Fitch
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comChoking victim: By choking out Jon Fitch, Josh Burkman proved no fighter can't be submitted.

When he looked back on it a couple of weeks later, after the controversy surrounding referee Steve Mazzagatti's (in)actions subsided, the consequences of the victory hit home for Burkman.

"A win over Jon Fitch, in the way that I did it, helps me believe in myself and this comeback," he said. "I think my best years are ahead of me. I've been saying that for about a year and a half."

The 32-year-old Burkman won his fifth straight match and eight of nine since 2009, when he parted ways with the UFC after three years fighting in the Octagon.

One contest before signing on for the second season of "The Ultimate Fighter," Burkman was strangled cold by Jeremy Horn. “It happens in our sport,” Burkman said. However, the finish was controversial at the time because Horn spit on Burkman immediately afterward -- a reminder that when you’re out, there’s no such thing as defense.

Getting choked cold isn't easily forgotten, never mind the indignity that comes with being spit upon. Burkman responded by making the ins and outs of guillotines a strength. Eight years after the Horn loss, just a week before meeting Fitch in the main event of WSOF3, Burkman was in the gym training a couple of guys seeking insight into finishing guillotines. They particularly wanted to work on tightening up the hold at the finish.

This proved fortuitous. "So the lesson there is help others because it helps yourself," Burkman said with a laugh while driving home to Utah after a family vacation.

He may not have wanted to submit Fitch the way he was about to, but Burkman recognized the end of the fight when he saw it. The instant the determination was made to go to his back, Burkman knew he could finish the fight.

"I felt him make one last-ditch effort to get out of it, and when he did that, right after he got done, I tightened it and I felt him go limp," Burkman said. "I knew he was out. I double-checked. For me, I just wanted to let everyone know the fight was over because I knew that nobody knew yet -- especially if the referee is still standing up over you."

The point of a submission choke is to prevent sufficient blood from reaching the brain, which induces it to shut down critical functions. Referees are supposed be aware of this and watch closely, because the longer a brain goes without blood, the likelier it is to be traumatized. Mazzagatti didn't move to separate the welterweights, so Burkman released, rolled Fitch off him and stood with a loud exhale.

"I don't think there's anything quite like a knockout,” Burkman said. “But there's something about this choke that's the highlight of my career. I was glad the referee didn't step in and I was able to get up and celebrate the way I wanted to. As a fighter and mixed martial artist, you're trying to prove you can stop a guy, that your style of fighting is better than theirs. And any time you can put another person out cold, then you have definitively proved you were the better man on that day."


The next best:

No. 2: Kenny Robertson SUB1 via kneebar Brock Jardine: UFC 157 (Feb. 23). Officially it's listed as a kneebar, but this needs updating. Robertson nearly snapped off Jardine's hamstring with this unique finish.

No. 3: Ronda Rousey SUB1 via armbar Liz Carmouche: UFC 157 (Feb. 23). Ho-hum, another armbar for Rousey? No, not if you consider how deftly she negotiated her way to the arm. This was a pure finish for the UFC champion.

No. 4: Pat Healy SUB2 via rear-naked choke Jim Miller: UFC 159 (April 27). Although a postfight drug test for marijuana overturned the result, Healy beat the hell out of Miller before finishing him with an angry hand-to-hand rear-naked choke.

No. 5: Fabricio Werdum SUB2 via armbar Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: UFC on Fuel 10 (June 8). Circumstances matter more than skill sometimes, and Werdum's verbal armbar submission over Nogueira in Brazil certainly qualifies.

Lightweight contenders and pretenders

May, 29, 2013
5/29/13
7:19
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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The UFC lightweight division is the deep end of the pool. It’s nondebatable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That somebody that you used to know: Nate Diaz

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

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

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

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

The head case: Donald Cerrone

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

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

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

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

The future champ: Anthony Pettis

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

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

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

Postmortem: Sonnen doesn't show up; and more

April, 29, 2013
4/29/13
10:34
AM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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video
Heading into UFC 159, figuring out ways that Chael Sonnen could compete with Jon Jones required an active imagination. The leading idea on how to get it done was for Sonnen to put his chin down, stick the crown of his head into Jones’ chest and drive him through the cage floor. Once there, things would become adventurous for all parties.

It didn’t get there.

In fact, Jones turned the tables on Sonnen and shot in for a takedown of his own just a few seconds into the fight. It was Sonnen staring up at the lights, fending off oncoming elbows. He was able to get up, but Jones, out of a sense of pride and civic duty, became the kind of insistent wrestler who only Sonnen could appreciate. With half a minute to go in the first round, Sonnen’s face battered and wits scattered, Jones was pried off of the "West Linn Gangsta" in what was ultimately the most predictable stoppage in the history of ground and pound.

But in a bizarre night where Ovince St. Preux won an abrupt technical decision with an eye poke of Gian Villante, Michael Bisping won a technical decision for an eye poke of the one man whose phobia is eye pokes, Alan Belcher, and Yancy Medeiros’ thumb was rearranged into something from Picasso’s brush, it was par for the course that Jones broke his toe somewhere along the way. By the end of the night, appendages at odd angles were all but the norm.

Now we can focus on “what does it all mean,” which is one of MMA’s favorite pastimes. Let’s try to sort it out.

QUESTIONS ANSWERED

How does Sonnen compete?
Turns out our hunches were right -- he doesn’t, not when fighting a stylistic nightmare who has the wingspan of a Cessna and a chip on his shoulder.

Last time we see Jones at 205?
Because he only tied Tito Ortiz’s record of five title defenses, here’s guessing no. Lyoto Machida has been promised a rematch, and Alexander Gustafsson still has a modicum of appeal on his way up. And if Jones fights Daniel Cormier, the likeliest scenario is it happens at light heavyweight.

Can Phil Davis break through?
Davis showed improved stand-up ability from that awkward version of himself a couple of years ago. But this was a one-sided beatdown of Vinny Magalhaes, a static fighter whose own stand-up won’t swell the orchestra. Davis might be ready for a step up in competition, but he still seems light years away from challenging Jon Jones.

Is Cheick Kongo showing his 37 years?
Kongo is a dapper gentle giant outside the cage, and in his fight with Roy Nelson, he became one inside the cage, too. We didn’t see any urgency or head-hunting or even any of that rare joie de vivre. What we did see was Roy Nelson go into his windup, as if from the pitcher’s mound, and deliver a heater of an overhand right that dropped Kongo like a curtain sliding off the rod. In other words, yes, Kongo’s days appear numbered.

NEW QUESTIONS

Does Sonnen retire?
Through the last three-year odyssey in which Sonnen has captivated the world of MMA and fought for the belt three times, he made it plain that winning a championship was his singular motivation. Does he want to stick around in a grudge-match capacity to fight the Vitor Belforts and Wanderlei Silvas of the world? (Answer: Hope so. Too many delicious vendettas lingering out there for Sonnen to just walk away.)

Is Pat Healy a top-10 lightweight?
If you subscribe to the theory that divisions are essentially a Netflix queue, where you can drag a title up from the bottom and replace something already in line near the top, then yes (and I know that speaks to more than half a dozen of you). Beating Jim Miller in Miller’s native New Jersey was enough of a feat, but Healy’s pressure game is starting to look scary. At nearly 30 years old, and with 46 professional fights, Healy is just now really coming into his own.

Is Nelson a heavyweight contender?
His right hand says "yes." His surprising agility to climb the fence and do the two-handed Buddha belly rub after victories says "yes." His popularity among fans and mullet connoisseurs says "yes." And realistically, yes. Now everybody is imagining Nelson against Mark Hunt, and Nelson against Daniel Cormier, and Nelson against Alistair Overeem, and that’s a good thing.

What’s next for Michael Bisping?
In hockey patois, Bisping was clutching his stick a little tight early against Belcher, but he began to get into a groove with his striking early in the second round. It was a victory that staves off ugly circumstances and gets him rolling toward something again. Bisping has mentioned fighting in October in Manchester, and here’s thinking Cung Le would be a big draw.

THE FUTURE

For Sara McMann -- Right now it’s wide open, with the Armageddon she brought on Sheila Gaff. We know about the Olympic wrestling, but there’s something about the delight she took in the elbows she was dropping from the crucifix position that has you wondering about how she’d fare against Ronda Rousey (and that’s where McMann’s headed -- but she’ll have to stay busy with another fight or two).

For Jim Miller -- Technically, getting put to sleep isn’t a submission so much as a loss of consciousness, but losing a second time in New Jersey (the first to Nate Diaz) hurts Miller. Though he’s flirted with the idea of moving up to 170 pounds in the past, he might consider a move down to 145. Pastures are always greener in other divisions after losses like the one to Healy.

For Jon Jones -- He needs to get that toe better, but when that’s all said and done, he can officially break Tito Ortiz’s record of five light heavyweight title defenses. The dust has to settle, but the forerunners to become his next victim appear to be down to Alexander Gustafsson or Lyoto Machida (particularly if they fight each other while Jones heals to form a super-definitive, no-questions-asked No. 1 contender).

For Chael Sonnen -- The television booth, at first. But eventually Wanderlei. And Belfort. And the whole block of peeved Brazilians who are smashing their fists in their hands waiting by their phones for Joe Silva to call.

For Roy Nelson -- Daniel Cormier and great balls of fire!

Matches to make

Jon Jones versus Alexander Gustafsson -- If you're an all-or-nothing fan, Jones should heal up and wait on Anderson Silva. But more realistically, dial up the Swede.

Chael Sonnen versus Wanderlei Silva -- Sonnen's already dropping the subliminal tracks toward this fight.

Michael Bisping versus Cung Le -- The two greatest verbs in MMA are "Cung Le."

Alan Belcher versus Hector Lombard -- If 170 is too condensed for the Cuban, a run-in with Belcher at 185 might be fun.

Roy Nelson versus Daniel Cormier -- Twitter wants it. Twitter is all that matters in matchmaking.

STOCK UP/STOCK DOWN

Up
Bryan Caraway -- Only seven weeks removed from his split decision loss to Takeya Mizugaki, Caraway took out Johnny Bedford on a week’s notice with poise and strength.

Phil Davis -- He made it through the rebound portion of his career (the Wagner Prado series and now Vinny Magalhaes), and it’s right back into the kitchen fire of light heavyweight elites.

Cody McKenzie -- Hey, kudos to McKenzie for not engaging Leonard Garcia in a “Leonard Garcia” fight. His restraint was admirable.

Steven Siler -- This would have been fight of the night had Healy/Miller not turned things into Grappler’s Quest Gone Wild. Siler was too much for Kurt Holobaugh, and he weathered a big second-round storm to get the job done.

Down
Leonard Garcia -- Five losses in a row, the latest coming against a fighter who was tailor-made for getting off the schneid? Not good.

Vinny Magalhaes -- Here’s yet another lesson of “be careful what you wish for.” It was Magalhaes who called out Davis, but he had nothing for him.

Alan Belcher -- The eye poke was scary, particularly after having surgery on that same eye not all that long ago. But when you’re likely down 2-0 on the scorecards and you come out in the third with smiles instead of flurries? Not the way his corner drew it up.

UFC 159: Twist of fate in Jersey

April, 24, 2013
4/24/13
7:59
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
Archive
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.

FIVE STORYLINES

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.

FIVE QUESTIONS

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.

WHO'S ON THE HOT SEAT

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.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

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.

Miller expecting fun fight with Lauzon

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
2:28
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
Archive
LAS VEGAS -- It's been a long 2012 for Jim Miller, who lost to Nate Diaz in May and was resolved to the idea that he would have to wait to fight again until 2013.

But as has been the case all year with the UFC, one man's misfortune becomes another man's opportunity. Gray Maynard, who was expected to fight Joe Lauzon at UFC 155, had to drop out with a knee injury. Enter Miller, who'd been in a holding pattern since Cinco de Mayo.

That's a long time to contemplate tapping for the first time in a seven-year career to a guillotine choke.

Must have been a difficult seven months, right?

"For me it's actually pretty easy," Miller told ESPN.com. "I know what I'm capable of. I know that I could have beat either of those guys that beat me on that night had things gone my way. I've had to deal with other things in the past that were out of my control, and you gain a sense of maturity with that, and I know when that door closes it's just me and my opponent. A lot can go right, and a lot can go wrong. I'm just looking to fight to my abilities."

It's not like Miller's recent skid was against slouches, either. He lost a title eliminator to eventual champion Benson Henderson while suffering from a kidney infection and mononucleosis. That decision snapped a seven-fight winning streak. His loss to Diaz in a big headlining spot stung, but sandwiched in between was a submission victory over Melvin Guillard.

In other words, a fairly normal stretch by any other fighter's standards is a novel experience for Miller. Losing isn't something he's used to (his only other losses in seven years are to Frankie Edgar and Maynard). And then again, neither is waiting around.

Maybe that's why Miller says he's "fired up and giddy" heading into Saturday's bout with Lauzon. Being giddy is something you don't loosely associate with a blue-collar grinder like New Jersey's Miller. But the prospect of facing Lauzon, who takes home more end-of-the-night bonus money than everybody not named Anderson Silva, is a fun temptation.

"[Lauzon's] a very aggressive fighter, and he comes forward," Miller said. "He's obviously very dangerous with his strikes, and he hits hard. So [for me] it's just fight clean, and not give him those opportunities to do what he excels at. I'm good in the scrambles myself. It's kind of just not getting going too much where he might pull out and advantage, but do what I am good at doing, and just take the fight to him. He's very aggressive, and he's always attacking. I try to do the same things when the fight hits the mat."

As for Lauzon's ability to capitalize on mistakes?

"It's different than most guys because most guys have that little voice that says 'I might end up in a bad spot.' But [Lauzon] really doesn't care about that, because he's going to string another sub off of it," Miller said. "So it's difficult, and you've got to be careful, and if you're worried about a triangle the next thing you know you're in an armbar type of deal, and also every time you attack you leave yourself open for counters and passes and that kind of stuff. I just got to be sharp, let it all go and have some fun in there."

The "fun" Miller's forecasting extends to his coach, Mike Constantino, who can't help noticing the similarities in the styles.

"Lauzon likes to set things up with speed and accuracy from the scramble -- but I constantly instill the guys with scramble ability, and winning the scramble. And as you know with Jim's fights, he's a scrambler-based, too," Constantino said. "I just think this thing's going to be like a dust-up -- like a cartoon -- all over the cage.

"I agree with what Joe has been saying, that the first one to make a mistake will obviously lose, but somebody might graze somebody with a strike to set up the submission and that could be the difference in the fight."

So a frenetically paced fight that will be contested on virtual eggshells, with the first one to make a mistake losing? For a competitor like Miller, the opportunity was too good to pass up, and giddiness comes with the territory.

UFC 155: Notes and Nuggets from Vegas

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
5:53
AM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
Archive


LAS VEGAS -- There’s a theory among heavyweights that Junior dos Santos is vulnerable on the ground. It’s only a theory because nobody he faces is able to take the fight there. Dos Santos’ ground game remains a mystery because he has proved himself to be particularly invulnerable to wrestlers.

Yet wrestlers, as everybody knows, are stubborn optimists.

That’s where Cain Velasquez is heading into his rematch Saturday night at UFC 155 -- in the “retest phase” of a popular theory. The last time the former champion fought dos Santos he was dropped in 64 seconds in a nationally televised bout and coughed up his belt. It wasn’t the showing Velasquez wanted. And yet the asterisks hit the floor just as immediately as he did.

Velasquez, usually a raging bull -- like the one that nearly exsanguinated Antonio Silva in May -- had an injured knee coming into that fight. It was thought to be an ACL, and ACLs are necessary to execute singlet-minded game plans. (Or so you might think: Dana White told the media that Ricco Rodriguez once fought without the benefit of his anterior cruciate ligament ... but that's an exception).

Realistically, the subplot of UFC 155’s main event boils down this: Would a healthy Velasquez have gone so gently into that good night, or was that first fight a fluke? At the end of 2012 dos Santos finds himself in the business of putting such flukes into reproduction, while Velasquez tries to become the first man in the UFC to make dos Santos fight from his back.

“I’d definitely like to test it out,” he told ESPN.com with a sheepish grin.

And if that doesn’t work, Velasquez -- who trains with a similarly immovable object in Daniel Cormier at AKA -- will just have to improvise.

“I’ve seen the fight go so many ways in my head,” Velasquez said. “A TKO, a knockout, a submission, a five-round, grueling, back-and-forth kind of thing ... I’m going to take it however I can get it.”

Theoretically, there’s a way to beat dos Santos in there somewhere. It's Velasquez’s task to provide the blueprint.

Lauzon and the 'calculated risk'
Joe Lauzon was expecting to face Gray Maynard at UFC 155. Yet Maynard injured his knee and morphed into Jim Miller (par for 2012, injury-wise). What does the switch ultimately mean? For those looking closely, it means a battle of excellent, will-dictating scramblers is now on the docket for Saturday.

Lauzon -- one of the game’s great opportunists in capitalizing on mistakes -- now fights a guy who rarely makes them. If it sounds like a mean game of the old kinetic chess, it very well could be. An aggressive, cerebral grappler such as Lauzon -- who often sees things unfold in the cage in what he calls slow motion -- against a subtle, hard-nosed grappler such as Miller.

Miller is more of a thwarter; Lauzon a pouncer. Neither lets mistakes pass unpunished. And yet Miller has always been more of a quiet taker, while Lauzon’s style of grappling has earned him more end-of-the-night bonus money than anybody other than Anderson Silva.

Why is that?

“I think I’m not afraid to lose, that’s the big thing,” he told ESPN.com. “A lot of guys will be in position, but they won’t go for something because they’re worried about losing. But if I’m in that position, I’ll go for things. I think it really helps to set up my submissions with a lot of punches.”

Dos Santos doesn’t see 'rematch'

At the UFC 155 prefight news conference, the word “rematch” was obviously hot on media lips -- even if the first match between Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez was a 64-second piece of anticlimactic history.

People are enamored with rematches, no matter the context. There’s a romance to the idea of rivalry.

Yet, even though Saturday’s main event is technically a rematch, the current champion, dos Santos, distinguished the difference of perspectives between himself and the challenger.

“I think it’s more a rematch for Cain Velasquez than it is for me,” he said. “For me it’s another fight, and every fight -- I take my next fight as my toughest fight ever. So I get very well prepared for all my fights, [and] I that’s how I am now. I am 100 percent [ready] to go there and keep my belt.”

Can any UFC 155 LW fight for the belt?

December, 22, 2012
12/22/12
7:03
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
If the current landscape of UFC champions is any indicator of the future, 30 might be the new 40 in mixed martial arts.

The average age of today’s UFC titleholder is just under 29 years old. That number drops significantly if you remove old man Anderson Silva, 37, from the equation.

Keep in mind that’s how old these guys are right now. If you look at the average age of each champ when he won the title, it drops to an even 26.

That’s right, 26 years old. That doesn’t mean the 30-somethings on the UFC roster can’t or won’t win a belt, but it might mean we probably shouldn’t refer to any fighter 26-and-older as a “prospect.”

The reason I bring it up is because four lightweights are scheduled to compete at UFC 155 who are under the age of 30. All have shown flashes of elite-level talent, but none have fought for a UFC title.

Melvin Guillard, Jamie Varner, Jim Miller and Joe Lauzon -- they definitely have time. You could argue none have peaked yet. Still, considering the trend of younger UFC champs, the best time for them to start a title run is probably now.

Do any of them have a title run in them? Let’s discuss their chances.

Melvin Guillard, 29, record 30-11-2
Melvin GuillardRic Fogel for ESPN.comMelvin Guillard, facing, has all the tools to be a major player in the UFC's lightweight ranks.

We’re all pretty familiar with Guillard’s strengths and weaknesses, so I’ll spare you any talk about his athleticism. He is 1-3 in his past four fights -- a train wreck compared to the five-fight win streak that preceded it.

It’s worth noting how the losses went, though. In the NFL, you hear stats about how a team is 4-8 but hasn’t suffered a loss by more than a touchdown. That’s kind of Guillard during this skid. He was never dominated. He is reckless, which cost him against Lauzon (he basically ran into a counter left) and Miller (taken down off an ill-advised flying knee). Against Donald Cerrone, Guillard's lack of confidence in that fight was obvious, but he still nearly pulled it off when Cerrone got off to a bad start.

Guillard’s problems are all mental. Yes, he needs to improve his submission defense, but more importantly, he needs to settle down and fight smart. Aggression is part of what makes him successful, but against better competition, you can’t sprint around the cage throwing haymakers and expect to win consistently.

It is interesting that of the four lightweights I'm talking about, Guillard is probably the most naturally talented, but by the end of the year, he might be 0-3 against the field.

Joe Lauzon, 28, record 22-7
Joe LauzonAP Photo/Gregory PayanJoe Lauzon's crafty jiu-jitsu game will always make him a force to be reckoned with -- if not necessarily a titleholder.

There’s a lot to like about Lauzon, but of the four, his chances of winning it all are undoubtedly the worst. Historically, submission specialists just don’t become UFC champions. Champs have a ground game, but you don’t see many of them rely on it as much as Lauzon would have to. Frank Mir is probably the best example, and he won the belt eight years ago with wins over Tank Abbott, Wes Sims and Tim Sylvia.

Does anyone else think Lauzon won’t lose much sleep over this, though? His style will probably never earn him win gold, but it has seen him win eight "Fight Night" bonuses in his last eight fights -- five submissions of the night and three fights of the night. That’s crazy. That’s $445,000 in disclosed bonus money. Compare that to flying to Japan to get his head kicked by Anthony Pettis at UFC 144, where he probably made around $24,000. At some point, wouldn’t you say, “You know, Donald Cerrone sounds fun, but I think I’d rather shoulderlock Curt Warburton again”?

Jim Miller, 29, record 21-4
Jim MillerDavid Dermer/Getty ImagesJim Miller, left, will have to work on his finesse if he wants to deal with the bigger fighters at 155.

He is undersized for the division, but if Frankie Edgar could do it, Miller can do it, right? Well, Miller has a different style than Edgar, and it’s one that doesn’t translate as well into fighting bigger guys.

Miller fights as if he is the bigger man. He doesn’t dance on his toes. He plods forward. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it shouldn’t surprise you that all his UFC losses came to bigger guys with more horsepower: Nate Diaz, Benson Henderson and Gray Maynard.

A wild card to win the belt, Miller has the pound-for-pound skills, toughness and intelligence to become a champ. What it will ultimately depend on is whether he can modify his game when he runs into those bad matchups. It will go against the way he typically fights, but you can’t outbully a Maynard or Henderson, so Miller will have to develop more of a finesse game.

Jamie Varner, 28, record (20-7-1)
Jamie VarnerGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireA more mature Jamie Varner, bottom, could possibly make a run for the UFC lightweight title.

The source of what remains one of my all-time favorite MMA quotes: “I caught the top of his hard head, and next thing I know, my hand’s broke, my foot’s broke, and I’m getting kicked in the nuts -- a lot.”

Those were Varner’s words following a split draw to Kamal Shalorus at WEC 49 in June 2010. Shalorus seemed to target Varner’s jewels the entire fight with kicks and had a point deducted in the second round (and could have easily been deducted again in the third). Varner broke his hand and foot but outfought Shalorus in the eyes of just about everyone watching only to end up with a draw.

I reflect on that fight because it was the sort of humbling experience Varner actually needed. He won the WEC belt at age 23, and while there were never rumors of him not training, his swagger grew to a level that appeared to be self-damaging. The Shalorus draw was followed by back-to-back losses that ended with Varner not signing with the UFC after the WEC dissolved.

After he knocked out Edson Barboza at UFC 146, Varner turned to reporters on press row and said, “I’m back.” Physically speaking, I don’t think he was ever really gone, but he is in a good spot mentally -- confident, but not to the point he thinks a fight is over before it starts.

Varner is well-rounded and an underrated wrestler and can be difficult to hit cleanly. His toughest matchups will be against athletic lightweights with good submission skills who aren’t easily outwrestled (Pettis, Diaz).

Guida gunning for finish versus Maynard

June, 21, 2012
6/21/12
6:32
AM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
Archive
As has been the case with all of his fights, lightweight contender Clay Guida approaches Friday night’s showdown against Gray Maynard determined, focused and confident. Guida knows Maynard is a very tough out. And like Guida, the 10-1-1 Maynard enters their UFC on FX 4 encounter having lost his most recent bout. Neither contender can afford a second straight setback in the crowded 155-pound division. They meet in a five-round main event at Revel Casino in Atlantic City.

Despite the high stakes, Guida is as calm as ever. Under similar circumstances, most fighters would struggle to get their nerves under control.

That just isn’t the case with Guida. He could not be in a more peaceful state of mind days before what is possibly the most important mixed martial arts contest of his professional career. For one, Guida has no doubt that his hand -- not Maynard’s -- will be raised when the five-rounder concludes -- if it lasts that long.

Then there is the matter of what’s happening in Guida’s non-UFC world. Things are so good in Guida’s personal life that training camp has been a virtual breeze. That’s what happens when a fighter isn’t experiencing personal distractions -- especially those of a financial nature.

“I have a couple of good business things going on outside of mixed martial arts,” Guida told ESPN.com. “I have a very successful gym [Clay Guida’s MMAStop Fitness in Crest Hill, Ill.].

“There are good people looking over my gym back home. I’ve made some good investments with people I grew up with, and good financial advisors. This makes it easy for me, knowing that I can train every day to become a better fighter and get closer to my dream, which is to become the lightweight champion.”

Guida is extremely happy with the growth of his gym. It doesn’t hurt that several high-profile fighters and trainers have taken time to visit and offer instructions to wide-eyed youngsters. UFC interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit is slated to conduct a seminar there on June 30, and he's just the latest in a line of mixed martial arts' celebrities to grace the gym with their presence.

Former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, trainer Greg Jackson, lightweight contender Donald Cerrone, retired light heavyweight Matt Hamill and UFC bantamweight titleholder Dominick Cruz are some of the fighters who’ve conducted seminars at the gym.

The fighters, however, aren’t simply offering specific mixed martial arts instructions. Guida is quick to point out that he isn’t running your standard MMA facility.

“It’s a family fitness center,” Guida said. “It’s not necessarily a mixed martial arts or fight gym. It’s targeted toward families and kids, who want to try kickboxing, wrestling, jujitsu and personal training, things like that.

“It helps them build a healthy lifestyle.”

And maintaining a healthy lifestyle isn’t limited to nonprofessionals. Guida (29-12) is the biggest beneficiary of practicing what he preaches. While many big-name fighters have been hit by the injury bug recently, Guida has taken extra precaution to reduce the odds that he will join the list.

Being in the best physical condition possible for his bout with Maynard is a very high priority for Guida, and it's a delicate balancing act.
[+] EnlargeClay Guida
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com Balancing act: Clay Guida has managed to go all out during training while also avoiding injuries.

“It’s about pulling back the reins,” said Guida, who still trains at Team Jackson-Winkeljohn in Albuquerque, N.M. “We train hard, but we’re also very smart about our training. We’re not trying to knock each other out in the gym. But at the same time we are going at it 100 percent and trying to give each other the best workout we can.

“It’s just about being careful. But when you lighten up in practice, sometimes that’s when you get hurt. And when you lighten up, you’re not getting the most out of your training session. So it’s 50-50; anything can happen.”

Everything has been clicking for Guida during this training camp. His weight is on point, his timing couldn’t be better and his confidence level is off the charts.


It’s not enough to win against Maynard; Guida wants to deliver a strong message as well: that he is as deserving of a lightweight title shot as anyone in the division.

“Finishing Gray Maynard puts me right back to being the No. 1 contender," Guida said. "It puts me right there."

“I know they said Nate [Diaz] is getting the title shot. Nate has beaten three guys in a row -- one of my teammates [Donald Cerrone], Takanori Gomi and Jim Miller, [but] who did he beat before that? Before I lost to [Benson] Henderson, which was a very close fight, people say it could have gone either way, I won four in a row -- three submissions, and I beat two former world champions on the way.

“Gray Maynard hadn’t lost in two or three years. But a finish over Gray is what I’m looking for.”

Unlikely contenders emerging in the UFC

June, 5, 2012
6/05/12
6:00
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Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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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.

Quick hits: Faber, Koch and ratings

May, 10, 2012
5/10/12
5:45
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Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Urijah Faber Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesWith the rubber match on hold, the best Urijah Faber can do now is fight for an interim title.
If your first thought after learning that Dominick Cruz tore an anterior cruciate ligament was anything like mine, then you've wondered whether or not a fighter who made his name off speed and movement is in danger of stumbling back to the pack.

It will be a year before we know the answer to that important question. In the meantime, Cruz's division apparently must march forward, which means Zuffa booked an interim bantamweight title fight between Urijah Faber and a to-be-determined opponent.

As is usually the case, the creation of a belt and a stand-in champion isn't needed. It's especially less so considering Faber fights on July 7, when most of the prefight coverage is expected to zero in on Silva-Sonnen 2. A healthy Cruz against his rival Faber, both off the reality show, wouldn't have generated a ton of interest considering the circumstances. So why push a fake belt? I don't get it.

At best, Faber versus TBD is a worthy No. 1 contender fight. And that's not so terrible. There are bouts at 135 pounds for Faber that line up to be terrific contests.

Renan Barao, ranked third at 135, is the obvious choice. Zuffa can break up his match against Ivan Menjivar, serendipitously scheduled for July 7, and it wouldn't upset too many people. If not the Brazilian, then an argument can be made to slot in 21-year-old Michael McDonald. I think that's the wrong way to go for the youngster, but it would be a fight with intriguing possibilities.

No matter how it pans out, hopefully Cruz makes a full recovery. It would be a shame to see someone who’s worked so hard, has so much potential, and hasn’t yet cashed in, take a knock that permanently changed the way he fights.

Is Koch ready?

Erik KochJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesCall to harms: Erik Koch had better bring everything and then some when he meets Jose Aldo.

Two weeks after what promises to be an epic UFC event in Las Vegas, Erik Koch’s title challenge July 21 in Calgary against featherweight champion Jose Aldo will feel small; maybe like it’s not even happening.

Depending on the outcome, of course, the 23-year-old Koch may wish it hadn’t. Then again, he wouldn’t be the first kid to come out of nowhere and pull off something many of us felt was impossible. And let’s be real here, there are few things in MMA more difficult to do than defeating Jose Aldo.

I thought it interesting that Hatsu Hioki, who based on his résumé is as ready to fight Aldo as any fighter in the world, has decided to take his time. Rather than jump at the chance to fight Aldo, Hioki meets Ricardo Lamas in a preliminary bout in June. The decision confused me, and it left the door open for Koch.

The first thing to notice when looking at Koch’s record, which is nowhere as good as Hioki’s, is his level of competition. He’s fought scrappy guys that helped make him look good. That’s not Aldo. Aldo is an offensive machine. I have the feeling Koch is in big trouble here.

Ratings ebb and flow

Nate DiazEd Mulholland for ESPN.comThe UFC's latest offering on network TV provided solid action -- if not great viewing numbers.

Somewhere between a heavyweight championship attraction and a card filled with scrappers is the truth when it comes to UFC ratings on Fox.

The number of households that tuned into Saturday’s network event, headlined by Nate Diaz and Jim Miller, plummeted compared to the previous two fight nights, but attempting to extrapolate what that means for future cards is risky business.

The May 5 card averaged 2.4 million viewers, a drop off of more than 50 percent from the first offering in November (5.7 million viewers), and this January (4.7 million). There were plenty of things to do Saturday, including a bevy of sports-watching options, not the least of which was Floyd Mayweather fighting Miguel Cotto on pay-per-view.

The UFC should regard the 2.4 million number as a baseline, the minimum number of viewers that will tune in to a Fox card. Considering the disappointment (and some have called it that) of Junior dos Santos’s early knockout against Cain Velasquez, and the decision-heavy second offering headlined by a five-round snoozer between Rashad Evans and Phil Davis, if people tuned in to watch a card without any star power and/or title fights they’re likely the most passionate watchers out of the casual group.

UFC’s third event on Fox was its most typical: just a solid lineup of action and good MMA. Had the evening gone another way, then there might be something to really worry about for Zuffa. But the bottom line is fighters performed and viewers likely felt as if the experience was worth doing again on Aug. 4.

Weekend viewing options



Zuffa is off until a Tuesday night fight card featuring Dustin Poirier and Chan Sung Jung, but that only opens the space up for multiple promoters. (By the way, with Hioki bowing out, the winner of this fight would have been my pick to face Aldo at UFC 149.)

May 10: Former Bellator featherweight champion Joe Soto has dropped to 135 and will fight for a respected regional title when he takes on Chad George at Tachi Palace Fights 13. The card streams on Sherdog.com

May 11: Speaking of ratings, Bellator and MTV2 earned an increase with the return of Michael Chandler on Friday. That’s a great sign for the lightweight titleholder. This week, Bellator heads to Atlantic City. Featherweights Marlon Sandro and Daniel Straus fight for the fight to get next crack at the 145-pound title after Patricio Freire. Should be a competitive fight.

On HDNet, Legacy Fighting Championship 11 from Houston features a mix of prospects and veterans. If you caught my podcast this week, you heard the interview with Chad Robichaux. The decorated special forces veteran, making his flyweight debut against Joseph Sandoval, has formed a non-profit -- Mighty Oaks Foundation -- to aid military personal stricken with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The 'other' Diaz makes most of his platform

May, 6, 2012
5/06/12
12:17
AM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When Nate Diaz bolted the 155-pound division 2½ years ago, he had lost three of four fights and was in need of a change. He tried to kick-start his career as a welterweight; and yet, after four fights there, he went 2-2.

For as promising as his UFC career started -- going 5-0 after winning Season 5 of "The Ultimate Fighter" -- people weren’t talking about Diaz after his one-sided beatdown at UFC 129 against Rory MacDonald at UFC 129.

Nick Diaz’s little brother had essentially plateaued.

Yet on Saturday night, in just his third fight in his reimagining as a lightweight, Diaz is now in pole position for a title shot in what might be the promotion’s most competitive division. His second-round submission of New Jersey native Jim Miller put an exclamation mark on his latest run. Diaz tapped out the hometown hero with a guillotine choke -- on national television, no less.

To put that in perspective, consider this: Nobody -- not Gray Maynard, not Frankie Edgar, not Benson Henderson -- has ever stopped Miller (now 10-3 in the UFC).

“I just trained hard for the fight, and I just went in there and fought hard and it went good,” said a terse Diaz at the postfight news conference.

Indeed he did. Saturday was the night that Nate Diaz truly arrived. And talk about a turn of events -- who would have thought six months ago that, when discussing a Diaz in a title fight, it would be Nate instead of Nick.

But that’s where we’re at. Since returning to lightweight, Nate Diaz finished Takanori Gomi, landed a record number of strikes against Donald Cerrone and now became the first fighter to finish Miller. What’s up with the resurgence?
[+] EnlargeNate Diaz
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comNate Diaz, left, has been on a tear since returning to the lightweight ranks.

To hear him say it, it’s all about pushing the right buttons in training.

“I’m getting matchups with top contenders at lightweight, and that’s a little motivating,” he told ESPN.com. “It’s hard to stay motivated and fight somebody that nobody knows, who you’re kind of more popular than. I don’t mean to sound like I’m all popular, but sometimes it’s hard when everybody expects you to win. I like fighting a top contender and being counted out.

“I feel it in training,” he said. “[Miller] is supposed to beat me? We’ll see.”

The Stockton native will likely be an underdog in his next fight, too. It was announced tonight that the new No. 1 contender in the 155-pound division will wait out the Edgar/Henderson bout to face the winner, even if the fight takes place very late in 2012.

“He’s going to wait for the title shot,” Dana White said. When asked about waiting, Diaz simply replied, “I’m down for whatever, but [waiting] sounded great to me.”

And, just like it was for Henderson, beating Miller was the way to a title shot. Miller said the game plan was to pressure Diaz and make move backward while staying out of his range.

Easier said than done. Miller couldn’t get anything going in the first round and got caught in a scramble that led to him tapping in the second. Afterward, Miller doffed his cap to Diaz’s superior game plan.

“He fought a beautiful fight, and he had my number,” Miller said of Diaz.

Diaz has had everybody’s number that he’s faced since returning to lightweight. Perhaps he said it best himself in the postfight news conference.

“Yeah, he’s tough,” he said. “It was him or me, and I’m glad it went the way it did. Guess I got lucky, just my time to shine, I guess.”

Notes and Nuggets from New York City

May, 4, 2012
5/04/12
6:14
AM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Johny HendricksEd Mulholland for ESPN.comEven with a possible title shot looming, Johny Hendricks can't afford to look too far ahead.
NEW YORK -- For as stacked as the UFC 146 card appears for Memorial Day weekend, it’s really two title fights (Urijah Faber/Dominick Cruz and Chael Sonnen/Anderson Silva) and a pack of glitzy non-consequential match-ups (Cung Le/Rich Franklin and Forrest Griffin/Tito Ortiz).

Not so for New Jersey and this weekend’s free UFC on FOX 3 card. No belts will change hands, but situations are in play. Complicated situations. Theoretical ones. Titles dangling in the balance, right there for some and just out of reach for others. And there is, of course, much obfuscation.

For example: If Nate Diaz capitalizes on his broadcast television main event and downs Jim Miller, he is essentially guaranteed a title shot at 155 pounds. However, with Benson Henderson and Frankie Edgar fighting for the title in August, that shot might come in a wintry month like December. That’s a long time to wait for a guy who A.) fights for money, B.) likes fighting and C.) has a nice head of momentum. When asked if he’d wait in that situation at Thursday’s news conference, Diaz said simply, “I have a fight on Saturday.”

This drew a New York cheer. Diaz, for all his volume in punching, is a man of few words.

If Jim Miller beats Diaz, on the other hand, he isn’t guaranteed anything. Rather, he is guaranteed to be cheering for Frankie Edgar at UFC 150 when Edgar fights Henderson, because in that case Miller would potentially get to fight Edgar (his erstwhile training partner/friend).

Got it?

Here’s what Miller had to say when asked if he’s confused by Diaz getting a title shot with a win (even though he’s 3-3 in his last six lightweight bouts) while he (10-2 as a lightweight in the UFC) won’t necessarily:

“You know, honestly, it doesn’t matter to me right now. I’ve got a fight in two days, and that’s where my focus is. From doing that [10-2 record] and having that seven-win stretch and dealing with the rematches in this division, it really cemented that things change -- and things happen. So I’m not going to sit here and try and predict what’ll happen with a win or with a loss. I’m just focused on the fight itself, and after that, then it’s time to speculate about the next fight.”

If he won’t speculate, we sure will, and we’ll add a name to the mix: Anthony Pettis.

Pettis, who is a quasi-No. 1 contender, will be coming back to full health some time in the summer. Logic would say that the winner of Diaz/Miller will end up fighting Pettis to establish a true No. 1 contender, while Henderson/Edgar II plays out.

Meanwhile, the co-main event has its own wild set of conditions. Should Johny Hendricks beat Josh Koscheck, he is the No. 1 contender for a title fight. Problem is, once again, that Georges St. Pierre and Carlos Condit are likely fighting in November to settle up the permanent and interim belts. There’s no way that Hendricks will want to wait for that to play out for a spring 2013 title fight.

Yet if Koscheck wins, he will have to pull for Condit to beat St. Pierre to have a word in the title conversation.

Confused? You should be. If we learned anything from the final prefight news conference, it’s this -- the UFC doesn’t want repetition. Koscheck/St. Pierre and Henderson/Miller happened too soon ago to happen again. The UFC craves new blood.

It’s the most complicated contender-type card that ever was, and it’s going down Saturday night in New Jersey.

First UFC "super fight" in January?
Cowboys StadiumAP Photo/Tony GutierrezCowboys Stadium could be hosting a UFC mega-card as early as January.

In the post news conference scrum, a media member asked Dana White about a potential fight card at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, a venue which can hold 100,000 people.

White said all that flirtation about holding an event there was not only real, but is a serious possibility. He also alluded to a big January card that could potentially be so massive.

“We’re always looking for a potential big fight,” White said. “We’ve always wanted to do a fight, and we’ve been talking to [Jerry] Jones and his crew about doing a fight down in Dallas Cowboys Stadium, but we need a fight big enough to do it. The last fight that I was going to try and make there was Brock [Lesnar] and Fedor [Emelianenko].”

There is potentially a fight out there that’s big enough.

Running through the timelines of “super fight” candidates for a place like Dallas Cowboys Stadium, or a second event at the Rogers Centre in Toronto (or at the old, reliable stand-by in Las Vegas), one could envision a Jon Jones/Anderson Silva match-up at least being discussed.

Think about it. If Jones beats Dan Henderson in September, that would be four months ahead of January -- perfect for the turn around. Anderson Silva fights in July. Should be beat Chael Sonnen for his record 10th title defense, there would be only one way to raise the ante -- and it wouldn’t be to take on Mark Munoz or Hector Lombard.

It would be to fight Jones, who’d have tidied his own division up just in time. Is that what the UFC has in mind?

“I don’t know,” White said. “We’ll see what happens. We’ll see what we end up putting together.”

New York state of mind
Dana WhiteEd Mulholland for ESPN.comExpect something special from Dana White & Co. when MMA finally gets sanctioned in New York.

By now, everyone knows about the MMA ban in New York, even as we make our way through open-minded 2012. This is why the UFC dangles its product just across the Hudson River -- to reinforce that all notions of “human cockfighting” are antiquated and hyperbolic. Whether the sport hasn’t been sanctioned in the Empire State is about “gangsters” in the Culinary Union (as Dana White says) or something less ominous, it depends on whom you talk to.

But when MMA does finally get legalized in New York, the UFC plans on doing it big.

“When we finally do break through and do a big event here, I think the event at Madison Square Garden that we do will be huge, and it’s be a great time to pull off a Fan Expo here in New York,” White said. “I think it would be huge.”

In the meantime, those in New York who want to catch MMA in a live setting must go underground. Or, underwater. For MMA, there’s light at the end of the Lincoln Tunnel, across the way in East Rutherford, N.J., where the UFC will once again mock New York with the one thing it doesn’t have.

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