MMA: Joe Lauzon

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.

UFC on Fox 7 by the numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pettis/Cerrone the subliminal main event

January, 23, 2013
1/23/13
7:10
AM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Title shots are nice, but they’re hard to come by in the UFC’s lightweight division. Anthony Pettis knows. Since coming over as the reigning WEC champion a little more than two years ago, he has lived in a world of obstructions.

There was the Frankie Edgar bottleneck situation, when every title fight extended into a classic title series. There was the Clay Guida setback (which exposed some wrestling deficiencies) and the Jeremy Stephens rebound fight (which showed he fixed some wrestling deficiencies). There was the ridiculous head kick to Joe Lauzon, which re-revved the title talk. Then there was a shoulder injury that docked him for a year.

Buzz kill.

And even now, as Pettis returns for his bout with Donald Cerrone on Saturday in Chicago, his path to a title shot looks more like a frontage road detour. Defeat his fellow WEC alum Cerrone, and the reward is to wait and see. That’s because Strikeforce’s longtime champion Gilbert Melendez has been expedited into a title tilt with Benson Henderson, which takes place in April.

Melendez gets the immediate shot, and Pettis’ world remains complicated. It’s limbo. It’s contention. It’s relevance. It’s ring rust. It’s trying to re-establish his bearings.

“It’s weird right now,” Pettis told ESPN.com's MMA Live Extra. “I’ve been promised title shots; I’ve been guaranteed title shots. So really [beating Cerrone] doesn’t put me anywhere. I’m right at the top of the top. I’ve just got to keep my performances clean and sharp and strong and a title shot will come when it comes. But right now I’m just focusing on getting back in there. It’s almost been a year.”

Let’s face it, UFC on FOX 6 is a kind of layered phenomena. You’ve got a flyweight title fight at the top between Demetrious Johnson and John Dodson, which is electric but not suited to everyone’s tastes. That’s why Quinton Jackson is in the co-main. Jackson is making his final Octagon appearance (allegedly) against the intrigue of the light heavyweight division, Glover Teixeira. Wheelhouse brawl, right? Maybe. In any case, that fight should be sad, fierce and brutal.

And it’s not even the heart of the card.
[+] EnlargeAnthony Pettis
Kari Hubert/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesWin or lose, Anthony Pettis isn't sure what the future holds after Saturday.

The heart of the card is, of course, the one in the middle. Pettis-Cerrone is the fight. Pettis always brings it. Cerrone always brings it. If Pettis wants to stand and bang, Cerrone will oblige -- “Cowboy” never shrinks from the terms. And so long as Duke Roufus’ protégé Pettis isn’t fighting a determined wrestler, he recreates Chinese “wire fu.” That’s just what he does.

So even as the implications are up in the air, so will the kicks come fight night. And that’s just about as far as Pettis is willing to look.

“For me, man, it’s just to get back in there and mix it up,” he said. “It’s been almost a year since I fought and I want to stay relevant and show people that ‘Showtime’ has skills -- that I’ve got talent. Fighting a guy like Cowboy [Cerrone] is definitely going to give me that chance. He’s a tough, tough guy, and it’s not going to take one or two shots to drop him -- it’s going to take a couple.”

Cerrone, who has won eight of nine fights, is in contention, too. He called out Pettis because Pettis was the man in his way. Each fighter sees the other as an obstacle to reach what has become a far-off kingdom: that elusive chance at a title shot in the UFC’s lightweight division.

That could be what’s at stake. But when you’re dealing in the Pettises and Cerrones of the world, the journey is just as much fun as the destination. As far as Pettis’ ongoing journey goes, the future can be shaped by a simple objective come Saturday night.

“Make a statement,” he said. “I’m tired of not getting the respect I deserve. Guys calling me overrated, ‘one kick’ this and that. I’m in my position for a reason, and I’ve got to show everybody why I’m right there at the top.”

Miller expecting fun fight with Lauzon

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
2:28
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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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
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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
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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).

Guillard can salvage 2012 with one swing

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
11:17
AM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Melvin GuillardJosh Hedges/Getty ImagesMelvin Guillard is looking to rebound from a first-round knockout loss to Donald Cerrone at UFC 150.
When Melvin Guillard stepped into the Octagon against Donald Cerrone at UFC 150 in Denver, it became a night of dubious firsts, because Guillard had never missed weight before, and he had never been knocked out.

You know how things unfolded.

The late booking between longtime buddies went down at a catchweight of 157.5 because Guillard -- fighting for the second time in a month -- couldn't shed the 20 pounds necessary without compromising his health. It was the first time he'd failed to make weight in his career, and it cost him 10 percent of his purse.

And then, after staggering Cerrone very early, he took a head kick and a subsequent punch that dropped him cold. Boom. Guillard, whose chin has stood up through 44 professional MMA bouts, was knocked blotto for the first time in his career.

It was not the kind of firsts Guillard was looking for. But then again, he did take the fight on only a few weeks' notice after having gone through a big weight cut for his fight with Fabricio Camoes at UFC 148.

"What happened in Colorado was I'm sweating good and everything's going great and then about halfway through the cut my body wouldn't produce a sweat," Guillard told ESPN.com. "That was because a lot of my vital organs were shutting down, and my body was saying hell no. From a medical standpoint I could have hurt myself a lot more. It made it a little more embarrassing than anything. It was embarrassing for myself, and it was embarrassing for the sport."

The silver lining was that both Guillard and Cerrone took home $60,000 for fight of the night honors. That part was nice. The colder reality of it was that Guillard lost for the third time in four fights while Cerrone hurtled off into contention. A year ago it was Guillard who was riding a five-fight winning streak into Houston against Joe Lauzon, potentially as the No. 1 contender.

Regrets? No, Guillard just wants to see some favors returned.

"I have no regrets, but 'Cowboy' owes me a fight in New Orleans," Guillard says. "If that card ever pops up in New Orleans again, he owes me that redo in my hometown."

Needless to say, it's been a tough 2012 for Guillard, but he has a chance to end it on a high note against Jamie Varner on Saturday night at the Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale in Las Vegas.

Though Varner's coming off of a loss, too, he arrives from the other end of the spectrum, and the erstwhile WEC 155-pound champ is in the process of resurrecting his own career. He made the most of his second chance by scoring an upset victory over Edson Barboza as a fill-in back in May. And though he ended up getting choked out by Lauzon in August, it was a back-and-forth fight that won FOTN.

If you follow the fight game, you know these things are always circular, as it was Lauzon that snapped Guillard's five-fight winning streak at UFC 136. In any case, draw up the Guillard-Varner fight on paper and you will be looking at a sketch of a burning barn.

"Jamie's a good guy," Guillard says. "I've never had any animosity towards him, and I think he's a hell of a fighter. I'm honored to even fight the guy -- he's the former WEC champion, so I'm looking forward to it being knockout of the night, and maybe even fight of the night for both of us.

"Don't get me wrong, though -- he's a great guy and all, but I still plan on knocking his head off his shoulders. For me, I don't need to build fake animosity and fight a good fight. I love to fight and I love to perform, and I have an opportunity again to put on a great show before the end of the year."

Guillard, who has been training at the Blackzilians in Delmar Beach, Fla., for the past year, is due. Going back to his knockout of Dennis Siver at UFC 86, there's been a clear pattern. He got knockout of the night against Siver, went five fights, then knocked out Evan Dunham and earned knockout of the night again.

Guess what? That was five fights ago. Time for him to showcase his hands again?

"You know me, man, it's always time for that," he says. "But the big thing is, I've been doing a lot of jiu-jitsu with my team down at Blackzilians. I actually competed with the Gi and No-Gi tournaments, and I've been doing very well. I'm excited about my all-around game right now.

"And I know in the back of Jamie Varner's mind -- he's not crazy, he has a puncher's chance -- but I think the odds are always in my favor when it comes to striking. He's a dynamic striker, don't get me wrong, but when guys step in the ring with me, they don't really want to trade punches. I'm probably the hardest-hitting 155er in the class right now. I think Varner, when he gets hit with the first one, he's definitely going to try and take me down to the ground."

Probably. And it's also Guillard's chance to get back up.

Notes and Nuggets: Denver edition

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
7:27
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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DENVER -- There was an air of "next thing’s first" at the UFC 150 news conference at the Fillmore Auditorium. Though Donald Cerrone will face his friend Melvin Guillard in the co-main event on Saturday night, Cerrone used the platform on several occasions to talk about fighting Anthony Pettis.

And Guillard still wants to avenge his UFC 136 loss against Joe Lauzon, saying he was overzealous in that bout.

As far as the thoughts on fighting each other? It was all compliments. Guillard told the media he was star struck when he first trained with Cerrone, and that when the call came to fight him he had to accommodate him.

“The first thing I thought was, the least I could do is show up for [Donald], that way he can fight in his home town,” he said. Two or three others had turned the fight down [including Pettis], so Guillard wasn’t about to leave Cerrone hanging.

“Cowboy” was equally complimentary.

“It’s all about money to me and him,” Cerrone said. “We’re good friends but by no means is that going to hold us back. We’re going out to draw blood and to get some and get paid.”

This drew applause. The idea of a couple of explosive friendlies going in there to duke it out and then shake hands afterward makes for a lot of fun. Guillard knows Cerrone is capable of taking him down and making it a long night, and Cerrone knows that Guillard throws anvils. Both expect it to live up to the billing, even if there isn’t exactly a gentleman’s handshake to keep the fight standing. They made it clear that this was a for mercenary kicks.
[+] EnlargeBen Henderson and Anthony Pettis
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesBenson Henderson, left, wants another crack at Anthony Pettis, but he might have to wait until Donald Cerrone gets his turn.

Clearer still is that Cerrone doesn’t like Pettis, and Guillard didn’t like his performance with Lauzon. Now Guillard and Cerrone stand in each other’s way to getting the fight they want. Pettis would be Cerrone’s reward, and Lauzon would be Guillard’s.

And Cerrone, who’s been vocal all week about Pettis ducking him, didn’t miss the chance to pour it on when the microphone was hot. When asked if he was even motivated for a title, or if he was content staying busy and making money, he said, “as far as sitting and waiting like Pettis, and hiding, I don’t want to do that, I want to keep fighting.”

Earlier, when a media member asked lightweight champion Henderson if he thought he had to beat Pettis at some point, Henderson had Cerrone in his ear.

“I think Cowboy said he has [Pettis] first,” Henderson replied. “At some point in time we’ll meet inside the cage again. Before I retire, we will dance inside the cage again.”

Maybe so, but by the end of the news conference, the people in the audience seemed far more excited by the notion of a Cerrone/Pettis showdown than they did of a Henderson/Pettis rematch.

Guillard in familiar territory

Melvin GuillardJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesFamiliar role: Melvin Guillard has played the sizable underdog before.

This isn’t the first time that Melvin Guillard has stepped up and taken a fight on fairly short notice that he was a sizeable underdog in. There was that business with Evan Dunham back in early 2011 in Texas, when Dunham was a sort of Rory MacDonald-type figure at 155 pounds.
Kenny Florian had to pull out of the main event with an injury, and Guillard signed on. He told everybody beforehand that he was going to knock Dunham out, and -- much like is happening here with Cerrone -- there were plenty of wait-and-see snickers.

Where the situation feels even more familiar, though, is in Guillard’s demeanor. He has a calm confidence about him heading into this Saturday’s fight with Cerrone that is reminiscent of that "Fight for the Troops" card.

“It does has similarities to the Evan Dunham fight,” he told ESPN.com. “Going into that Dunham fight, I was the underdog, and people thought he was the next big thing. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of critics out there who think I’m about to go down to Donald, and I just want to come right out of the gate and smack him in the mouth and see where it goes from there. I don’t care what anybody says -- I can knock a bull out if I hit it right, so I’m going to go in there swinging.”

As far as his frame of mind?

“I’m very loose,” he said. “I’m very confident in my skills. I know what I bring to the table. I know I’m a dangerous fighter, and I just want to bring the fight to Donald on Saturday.”

Bendo wants to fight everybody -- at 155 at least

Benson HendersonJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesBenson Henderson is gunning for total domination at lightweight, but welterweight is another story.

A fan asked Benson Henderson and Frankie Edgar what their thoughts on Nate Diaz was, since Diaz is waiting in the wings for the winner.

After much of the news conference was centered on fighters dodging each other, Henderson was quick and to the point.

“Nate Diaz is a tough fighter, he’s good, and he brings it every time he fights,” he said. “I said it before, and I’ll go ahead and say it again so you understand me -- I want to fight everybody in the division. I want to beat everybody. That’s it, man.”

That’s in the division. The next question was if he has ever considered competing as a welterweight.

“No, never really thought about welterweight at all,” he said. “For me, 155 is my division. I want my name to be synonymous with 155 for the next 10 years, or five years, or how much longer I fight. And at welterweight -- have you seen those guys? They’re huge. They are ginormous. I’m big for lightweight, but have you seen [Georges] St. Pierre in person? Check out Georges St. Pierre in person and tell me you want me to fight him. You want me to get beat up? Come on.”

The fights, the 'it' factor and the lost stakes

August, 6, 2012
8/06/12
6:24
AM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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UFC on Fox 4 in Los Angeles proved that interest can be drummed up in retreads, but it was our collective imagination that became the real hero of the night. Let’s face it, we were all squinting to see the title picture the way it was being drawn up by Dana White. This whole “he who does best gets the title shot” thing felt something like dramatic abandon.

When a figure finally emerged from the four-man 205-pound showcase it was Lyoto Machida, in a reduced 201-pound frame, dishing enigma on Ryan Bader. That was a good knockout.

Better yet, the whole main card scored the same. Every fight delivered. A good night of fights like that makes things, if not totally justifiable, at least somewhat rose-tinted. And that beats disaster, if you know what I mean, which is where things left off after the UFC 149 pay-per-view bust.

What a difference a couple of weeks makes. In Calgary, stakes were being tinkered with, too. Hector Lombard was vying for a possible title shot with Anderson Silva. The interim bantamweight title was up for grabs in the main event between Urijah Faber and Renan Barao. Things “mattered.”

But for all the dangling carrots, something went missing -- and that was enjoyability. Guys didn’t “bring it” -- and everyone should know the center of the fight world is all about the “it” -- which had people asking for refunds and complaining about the watered-down product.

Not on Saturday night. As DeMarques Johnson’s premonition of a 100 percent chance of a knockout came through via the sudden hands of Mike Swick, this thing was off to a roaring start. Joe Lauzon, who is incapable of a boring fight, withstood heavy shots by Jamie Varner and, when the opportunity presented itself, came on like an incubus to finish him in the third. It’s what Lauzon, who has made nearly a half a million dollars in bonus money in his career, does better than anybody. The UFC on Fox Twitter feed called it possibly the “best fight we’ve ever had.”

These were undercard table-setters like we haven’t seen on the Fox shows.

And the co-main event raised the bar for the finale. Machida forced Bader’s aggression then punished it, downing him with a counter right. It was vintage “Dragon.” Machida was once again the abstractionist, doing things with body geometry.

Yet the main event was a crescendo. Here was Vera resurfacing, making it a war, looking like old Vera, the one we thought we lost. Here was Rua proving that his Dan Henderson and Mark Coleman fights were no flukes, that he can make any fight -- good or bad -- a battle of epic attrition. Rua just about did away with Vera twice in the second round with sallies, but Vera both times responded with big elbows and defiance.

Suddenly it was a storyline of Vera’s heart in the poetic sense, not the cardiovascular one. And fights are always more fun when they get like that. When fights transfer “will,” the meaning of the transaction comes back into play.

Better still, when fights go down like they did on Saturday night, the question of what’s on the line can be answered like this: "Who cares?" The moment transcends the stakes. The “it” factor is all that matters. Guys on Saturday night brought “it.”

This was the first Fox card that really delivered far more than it promised. From top to bottom on the main card, every fight delivered the goods. For whatever hung in the balance of the outcomes, it didn’t matter to real time. And you know what? That’s the kind of drama that you want on live television, especially in a sport still trying to communicate with the casual viewer.

Title contention novel for veteran Lauzon

February, 24, 2012
2/24/12
11:59
AM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Joe Lauzon Ed Mulholland/ESPN.comJoe Lauzon might be the man in the right place at the right time if he gets by Anthony Pettis.
How fast do things change in the UFC’s lightweight division? As quickly as the weather changes in Colorado.

Since Frankie Edgar became the champion nearly two years ago, the road to the title has been a course of trip wires, booby hatches and rabbit holes. People have a tendency to disappear as fast as they show up in the title picture.

Former WEC titlist Anthony Pettis is one who knows all about it. He was next in line a year ago after crossing into the UFC. Then he wasn’t. Now he is again.

At least -- possibly.

And the same goes for Joe Lauzon, who is Pettis’ opponent at UFC 144 this weekend in Saitama, Japan. Lauzon might be the unlikeliest of title contenders we’ve seen since Dan Hardy’s meteoric flash through the welterweights.

Difference being, Lauzon -- a former IT guy -- has been hovering in the gray middle of the division ever since knocking out Jens Pulver at UFC 63. That was five and a half years ago. Lauzon is the quietest contender to have ever been so long in the making.

Yet there he is. For once in his career, Lauzon is in focus in the title picture. If he beats Pettis, that would be a truly compelling argument for his cause -- especially after Lauzon's defeat of Melvin Guillard. Remember that, as of October, Guillard was right there at the top of the division too -- as the most feared striker in the 155-pound division riding a five-fight winning streak. That night, Lauzon proved fighting acumen overcomes brute strength. Couple that with a win over a far more well-rounded Anthony Pettis, and Lauzon becomes hard to ignore.

What’s strange is that Lauzon has never exactly been about title contention (though he is happy to find himself in it). When I spoke to him after he submitted Guillard at UFC 136, he said he was happy to be in the $18,000/$18,000 range, rather than a higher pay bracket of, say, $30,000/$30,000.
[+] EnlargeAnthony Pettis & Clay Guida
Ric Fogel for ESPN.comAnthony Pettis knows exactly what it feels like to go from next in line to back of the line.

Why? Two reasons.

One, Lauzon is a smart long-term planner who has earned seven end-of-the-night bonuses. He estimates he’s made $365,000 in bonus money in his career so far. Not shabby. And part of how he did that plays into the second reason: On the lower scale pay bracket, he gets the occasional Curt Warburton. He has never lost two in a row in the UFC, and if you look at his opponents after a loss, you’ll get an idea why. After losing to Kenny Florian, he fought Kyle Bradley -- a significant dip in quality of opposition. After dropping a tough bout with Sam Stout, Lauzon drew Gabe Ruediger -- in Lauzon's hometown of Boston. After George Sotiropoulos tapped him with a Kimura, he got Warburton.

If he’s in a higher pay bracket, he gets monsters. Every time. And he is well aware of the fact.

Yet a head of steam is a head of steam. Should Lauzon beat Pettis, he will be the forerunner for a shot at the title with three wins in a row. The only hitch might be if the UFC decides to wait on Nate Diaz/Jim Miller in May. Diaz is coming off a victory over a top-ranked Donald Cerrone, while Miller piled on Guillard after dropping a fight to Benson Henderson. Arguably, the winner of that fight has a pretty righteous claim to a title shot, too. Both the Diaz and Miller camps are prepping for the UFC on FOX 3 card as if it’s a title eliminator. As well they should.
[+] EnlargeJoe Lauzon
Jon Kopaloff/Getty ImagesEasy nights out in the cage have been few and far between for Joe Lauzon.

But everybody knows matchmaking is half about schedule alignments, and that’s why the winner of Lauzon/Pettis has a trump card: timing. They fight on the same card as Edgar/Henderson, meaning meshing schedules could play a factor. Diaz/Miller is more than two months off. People who follow the fight game want immediacy. If the Pettis/Lauzon fight ends emphatically either way, there’s a good chance that the winner looks like the top contender.

If it’s Lauzon? That makes for a fun case. Here would be a guy we never saw coming -- yet who was always there.

In that way, his rise in the ranks would feel just as stealthy as his jiu-jitsu.

Grapplers are the Guillard antidote

January, 21, 2012
1/21/12
3:04
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Feel-good stories in MMA are hard to sustain, and even harder to get off the ground. As quick and cobbled as the story of the Blackzilians is being put together as a sort of wrecking crew/adoption agency, old tendencies are returning to its fighters.

This isn’t a happy trend.

One week ago, Anthony Johnson failed to make weight (by a country mile) in Rio de Janeiro at UFC 142, marking the third time in two different weight classes he’s showed up to the scale way over. He was cut for the third strike after losing to Vitor Belfort. Now Melvin Guillard, who recently relocated to Florida full-time to train with the Blackzilians, gets submitted in a round by Jim Miller.

If any of this looks familiar it’s because he was tapped by Joe Lauzon in his previous fight at UFC 136, which was thought to be something of a winking aberration. Turns out it wasn’t, and it never really was. The fact is that nine of Guillard’s 10 losses have come via submission. The other fight he lost (against Jake Short in 2004) was a decision. Guillard has never been knocked out, but he dangles neck and limb out there to be snatched while pursuing knockouts.
[+] EnlargeAnthony Johnson
AP Photo/Felipe DanaMelvin Guillard's loss -- coupled with Anthony Johnson's defeat to Vitor Belfort -- made it one bad week for the Blackzilians.

His fixation is leaving him vulnerable. For as much as it’s fun to watch Guillard’s aggression, it plays out like roulette.

Yet the case of Guillard is interesting, because so many people -- coaches, fans, honchos at Zuffa -- see him as a fighter that’s a few tweaks from being a champion. He has the quicks and athleticism to rival any lightweight, and arguably the strongest hands in the division. There’s no doubting his explosiveness. In fact, he had Miller in trouble early by landing some big shots. Then again, lapses in judgment have always hindered him, both in and out of the cage. And those lapses in judgment in the cage put him in all kinds of hot water against smart grapplers, the kind who feast on mistakes.

Lauzon told me that he was leery of four offensive moves that Guillard presented, and he had them easily memorized before their fight. He saw all of them in the 47 seconds they stood across from each other. As for the defensive side of the equation? No worries at all -- Guillard trends offensively. He trusts his offense enough to override any specific holes in his submission defense.

And at this point that sort of thinking is the problem unless he’s fighting somebody who accommodates him by not playing jiu-jitsu.

Against wrestlers (Shane Roller, Evan Dunham, Waylon Lowe), Guillard does fine. Against guys who like to stand and bang (Jeremy Stephens, Dennis Siver), he’s right at home. But against submission specialists (Nate Diaz, Joe Lauzon, Jim Miller), guys who can force mistakes or at the very least pounce on them, he gets caught.

After the Miller choke, ESPN.com’s Brett Okamoto suggested Guillard needed to be locked in a room with some black belts for a year, then he’d return a champion. Whether that’s true or not, it couldn’t hurt.

But the mistakes are the thing. Against Miller it was an ill-timed flying knee that allowed the grappler to get things to the ground. From there it was clinical -- just as Miller went to mount, Guillard scrambled and gave up his back. Seconds later, he was tapping.
[+] EnlargeNate Diaz
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comFriday was hardly the first time Melvin Guillard's poor submission defense was exposed.

This has become a recurring theme for Guillard, who for just a little while at Greg Jackson’s Academy in Albuquerque seemed to have found a balance in his game that might be described best as “smart aggressiveness.” The thing that Jackson and striking coach Mike Winkeljohn were working on with Guillard was ultimately judgment, with a broader focus on his maturity. He was riding a five-fight winning streak when he left Jackson’s for Boca Raton midway through training for Lauzon. Up until then, he was beating wrestlers and boxers.

Since then he’s 0-2 against jiu-jitsu aces. Losing the way he did long before he got to Jackson’s.

Would it have mattered if he’d stayed in New Mexico? Who knows. But Guillard is a work in progress, and it’s been a pretty lousy week for the Blackzilians.

Our 'alt' picks for Submission of the year

December, 27, 2011
12/27/11
12:43
PM ET
By Chad Dundas and Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
Editor’s note: Next week, the ESPN MMA page will roll out its official end-of-the year awards. With winners in each of the most popular categories seemingly pretty clear cut, however, ESPN staffers Chuck Mindenhall and Chad Dundas will take the final week of 2011 to offer up a few “alternative” choices.

The 2011 Submission of the year award should end up being the exclusive property of Chan Sung Jung.

Unless we miss our guess, Jung will get a near unanimous nod for SOTY after he essentially discovered the Loch Ness Monster of MMA concession holds by hooking up a twister -- a twister! -- on Leonard Garcia at a UFC Fight Night event in March. The 24-year-old “Korean Zombie” deserves the honor, too, after snapping his own two-fight losing streak and becoming the first fighter ever to use the spine-bending submission to finish a bout inside the Octagon.

Garcia tapped one second before the end of the second round, pigs flew and, somewhere, Eddie Bravo’s physical being dissolved into pure energy and advanced to a higher plane of existence.

So, yeah, pretty mind-blowing.

Not that there weren’t a lot of other great submissions this year as well. Here’s our picks for a couple “alternative” tap outs that could fly under the radar during this year’s MMA awards.

Chuck Mindenhall's pick: Tito Ortiz guillotines Ryan Bader at UFC 132, July 2, 2011 in Las Vegas.
OritzDonald Miralle/Getty ImagesSubmitted for your approval: Tito Ortiz had the last laugh by proving his detractors wrong.

Heading into his fight with Bader, Ortiz hadn’t beaten anybody since Frank Shamrock back in 2006. This is known as a drought. In that way, he was an heirloom that sat funny on the UFC’s mantle. And that night at UFC 132, Ortiz walked into the cage as a 5-to-1 underdog who had wiggled into one last fight through uncommon pleading.

So imagine the surprise when he dropped the younger, faster Bader with a right hand. Just like that, a resurgence of everything Ortiz “was” came flooding back. Next thing Bader (and everybody) knew, Ortiz was transitioning into a guillotine choke. And in another incredulous moment he rocked his head back and winced with the choke on so tight that Bader’s neck was striated red and white. The list of improbables grew. It couldn’t be happening. Yet it was. Everybody waited for the tap. Chuck Liddell -- Ortiz’s rival for so many years -- was squirming on his front row seat swinging his arms around like a DJ on invisible decks. Bader strained against becoming “that guy.” Too bad. He was, he tapped, and Ortiz held on a brief moment longer -- to savor it, maybe -- before jumping up and doing his gravedigger dance. It was a flash of nostalgia that fell over the scene. Ortiz was back. All his haters felt their hearts thawing out for a moment. All his apologists smited their chests.

How can that not stand out as one of the best submissions of 2011?

Chad Dundas’ pick: Joe Lauzon chokes Melvin Guillard at UFC 136, Oct. 8, 2011, in Houston.
Lauzon/GuillardNick Laham/Getty ImagesAll choked up: Melvin Guillard didn't take his hometown loss lightly.

No, Lauzon didn’t bust out some kind of previously unseen Argentinean Cravat hold to tap Guillard, but the moxie and nose for the upset he showed at UFC 136 will make his one of the first submissions of 2011 that I tell my grandkids about. Because I assume one of my grandkids’ primary interests will be obscure MMA submissions of the past.

Guillard rolled into their bout as a significant favorite after winning five straight fights in the Octagon. He also came to Houston with a ton of confidence, telling reporters prefight that Lauzon wasn’t big enough to compete at 155 pounds and that the 27-year-old Massachusetts native could only be dangerous if Guillard “let him.”

To all of this, Lauzon just sort of shrugged and said he felt like “The Young Assassin” was underestimating him, especially after Guillard turned up at the UFC fan expo to sign autographs and meet fans the day before their fight. Submissions, Lauzon noted, were his biggest strength and traditionally Guillard’s primary weakness, so he figured if he could get the fight to the mat, he’d have a chance.

He figured right.

Guillard came out blasting from the opening bell, fighting as though it never occurred to him that Lauzon could hurt him. He landed some solid shots, but left himself open for a counter left that sent him skidding to the canvas. When Lauzon pounced on the prone Guillard, it was as if the air sucked out of the Toyota Center in a collective “uh-oh.”

From there, it was academic. Lauzon transitioned to the back and applied a rear-naked choke that forced Guillard to tap just 47 seconds into the first. With it, Lauzon ended any hope of Guillard claiming an immediate lightweight title shot and instead launched himself into contention, as he’ll likely take on Anthony Pettis at UFC 144 in February.

Previously: Our picks for alternative Fight of the year.

Up next: Alternative KO of the year.

UFC 144 main card lacks Japanese content

November, 28, 2011
11/28/11
1:12
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
Archive
Edgar/JacksonSusumu Nagao Look for Frankie Edgar, left, and Quinton Jackson to steal the show at UFC 144.
When the UFC went to Rio de Janeiro in August, it was a spiritual homecoming. A lot of time had passed since the salad days of 1998, and a grown-up UFC was crashing back triumphantly to the land that bore its earliest fruits.

That meant UFC 134 -- more commonly referred to as UFC Rio -- became a celebration of Gracie genealogy, of the Nogueira’s, of assorted Silva’s, of Chute Boxe, of the entire neglected culture of limb origamists everywhere who were so instrumental in changing the way people approached fighting. There were a dozen bouts on the card. Only one fight didn’t have a Brazilian in it, an out-of-place clash between Yves Jabouin (French-Canadian) and Ian Loveland (American). Smartly, that was the first prelim of the night, designed to play out while people found their seats.

Otherwise, it was Brazilian pandemonium. In a Brazil against the world scenario, a Brazilian had his hand raised in 10 of the remaining 11 bouts. It was all about Brazil and its best fighters. The Cariocas were whipped into a frenzy that night.

UFC 144 is official for Feb. 26 at the Saitama Super Arena, and it’s been simplified to UFC Japan. This, too, is a homecoming of sorts to the native roots. As Lorenzo Fertitta talked about the old recipes in a press release, saying, “Japan is the spiritual home of martial arts -- the world has learned from the Japanese many aspects of how to compete in hand-to-hand combat with respect and honor.” This parlays nicely with the UFC Rio vibe, which courted a similar muse. If there’s a difference, it’s this -- Japan may be a spiritual home of martial arts, but not its best practitioners. There are scant few Japanese fighters on UFC Japan’s main card.
[+] EnlargeAkiyama
Al Bello/Getty ImagesYoshihiro Akiyama is the only Japanese fighter who will appear on UFC 144's main card.

In fact, there’s only one: Yoshihiro Akiyama. And he’s on there because he’s fighting a big name in Jake Shields in a new weight class (170 pounds) after losing three in a row as a middleweight. This is a curiosity bout for a man in search of lost mojo.

Otherwise, UFC Japan’s main card is all about the imports. Why? Because it has to be. Frankie Edgar from Jersey, against Colorado's own Ben Henderson for the lightweight belt. Pride star Quinton Jackson returns to Japan to fight wrestler Ryan Bader, who jumped at the opportunity to fight in Japan (just as he did in 2010 when the opportunity to do battle with Keith Jardine in Sydney arose). A re-imagined Mark Hunt takes on Frenchman Cheick Kongo in a heavyweight fight. Americans Anthony Pettis and Joe Lauzon round out the card in a lightweight bout.

Where’s Yushin Okami, the man Dana White called “the best fighter to ever come out of Japan” ahead of his fight with Anderson Silva in Rio? He’s on the prelims against revivalist Tim Boetsch. Okami headlines a fight in Rio as a stranger in a strange land (read: as prey for Anderson Silva), yet can’t crack the main card in his native Japan. It doesn’t help that there’s a very real chance of a stylistic stalemate in this one, but the point is this -- the best fighter to come out of Japan doesn’t exactly carry the importance that the imports do.

Same goes for the “Iron Broom” Hatsu Hioki, who underwhelmed in his debut victory against George Roop. He’s on the prelims, even if it is a No. 1 contender spot he’s fighting for against Bart Palaszewski. Ditto the “Fireball Kid,” Takanori Gomi (1-3 in his last four), Norifumi Yamamoto (1-4 in his last five), Riki Fukuda (coming off a loss to Nick Ring) and Takeya Mizugaki (who has traded wins and losses in his last eight bouts). All of these guys had successful careers in Japan that haven’t yet translated to the Octagon. In fact, some of them wouldn’t be on the roster if there wasn’t going to be such a thing as UFC Japan, so there’s no room for quibbling about placement.

Unlike with UFC Rio, UFC Japan won’t (and can’t) be painted as "Japan Against the World." It’s more like the world coming to Japan for an exciting visit. If the UFC dotted the main card with the best Japanese fighters -- which taken as a collective, would look like wholesale mediocrity -- it wouldn’t be fit for pay-per-view. And, as Dana White reminds everyone whenever possible, this is pay-per-view business.

Therefore, Frankie Edgar and Quinton Jackson will fetch the PPV buck as the UFC forays into Asia, and the local fighters will try and change a few notions in the relative quiet of their own backyard.

Careful what you wish for, Mr. Pettis

October, 24, 2011
10/24/11
4:14
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
Archive
Joe LauzonEd Mulholland for ESPN.comJoe Lauzon is the last person you want to see standing across from you if you are trying to stay busy.
Going back to the Jens Pulver bout five years ago at UFC 63, Joe Lauzon has been a human bull’s-eye for name brand lightweights in need of a fight.

Last time it was Melvin Guillard, who wanted to stay busy while the title picture sorted itself out. It took Lauzon 47 seconds to explain why that was a mistake.

Now it’s Anthony Pettis, another antsy fighter, who kept busy despite establishing himself as the clear No. 1 contender while Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard held the division hostage.

We all saw what happened there. Clay Guida took all those Duke Roufusian dynamics and ground them into a fine powder -- so much so that Pettis returned against Jeremy Stephens with an added wrinkle in his game (wrestling). He won the fight through toil, bumming out frill seekers the way that Miguel Torres did by using his reach and jab in decisioning the shorter Antonio Banuelos.

That’s the rub against being a fighter where everyone has grown to expect the unexpected -- the only thing that can possibly feel surprising is disappointment.

And it’s one of the reasons why Pettis now casts an eye towards Lauzon, who rarely sees finish lines. In 27 pro fights, Lauzon has went to the judges' scorecards once, and that was against Sam Stout at UFC 108 while still not fully recovered from ACL surgery (he lost). Lauzon has taken home nine end of the night bonuses; hitching on to a fight against him means potential for a big payday. After two dull bouts (by inflated standards), Pettis looks at Lauzon and sees electricity. He sees a comer that he can convert into a highlight reel victory.
[+] EnlargeClay Guida and Anthony Pettis
Marc Sanchez/Icon SMIAnthony Pettis' last "stay busy" bout didn't go over so well.

Best of all, he sees meshing schedules for February.

Yet, it’s a bit of trickery what Lauzon does. He’s a cusp top-10 lightweight coming off a big win who doesn’t do any one thing particularly well; he can’t box, can’t wrestle, and his jiu-jitsu is best described as quite a bit better than decent. He’s not a polished anything. As such, he can’t help but be the most enticing thing on the menu to ravenous appetites.

There’s always somebody casting their druthers his way.

But the danger in handpicking Lauzon is that all those mediocre elements add up to something very hard to deal with, as he proved against Pulver in 2006, and recently against Guillard at UFC 136. He’ll use hodgepodge to hurt you, then turn into an incubus to carry the thing through. Nobody pounces quicker that Lauzon, even if he says that moment always feels like it’s in agonizingly slow motion. Pettis may not have the same vulnerability to submissions that Guillard does, but -- right into Lauzon’s wheelhouse -- seems to have similar notions. It’s either a perfect set-up for a spike for Pettis, or (yet another) perfect trap.

Either way, that’s a good fight.

And judging from how eagerly Lauzon accepted the challenge, he thinks so too.
Anthony Pettis and Joe Lauzon appear to be set for a February tussle after Pettis agreed on Friday to wait for the lightweight. More »

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