MMA: Michael McDonald
McDonald (16-3) has not fought since suffering a one-sided loss to Urijah Faber in December, due to discomfort and loss of strength in his right hand. Physicians were puzzled by the problem at first, but eventually diagnosed a bone spur around a joint in his second metacarpal.
In August, McDonald underwent a procedure in Las Vegas that removed bone fragments from the area and fused parts of the metacarpal together. McDonald is scheduled to resume light pad work with the hand next week. He expects to schedule an evaluation with the performing surgeon, Dr. James W. Vahey of the Hand Center of Nevada, shortly.
"There is cartilage on the ends of bones within a joint that act like a cushion," McDonald told ESPN.com. "There was a bone spur in mine. So, instead of a cushion it was like a rock was there. They removed the bone spur and actually fused the bones together with a bone marrow transplant from my wrist. They put in a metal plate, screws -- all that good stuff.
"I'm supposed to wait another week before I start hitting with it. I'll know soon. I'm not concerned that any of this is going to stop me from fighting. I know I'll be 100 percent and it will be fixed."
A hard timetable for McDonald's return remains elusive, due to the unknown of how his hand will respond and an additional issue in his right wrist.
McDonald says he has dealt with a wrist injury for years, but it has gotten worse this year. The problem relates to the wrist's mobility, particularly in bending backwards.
To top it off, McDonald says his shoulder could probably use surgery as well, but that's an afterthought. In terms of getting back into the Octagon, it is the hand and wrist that must be addressed.
"After hand surgery, my wrist started to get worse," McDonald said. "We're going to have to explore that and see what can be done. Maybe some crazy amount of therapy can fix it, or I'll have to have surgery again.
"I have a tendon floating around in my forearm from my hand that's making my pinkie sag down, but I'm not really worried about that. I probably need shoulder surgery, but I'm not really worried about that either. My hand and wrist are messed up. That's the main problem."
At least time is on McDonald's side, as he is still two months removed from his 24th birthday. He is already 5-2 overall in the UFC and ranked the No. 6 bantamweight in the world by ESPN.com.
Moving forward, McDonald says he has started to take a completely different approach to his training regimen to avoid further injury. In his words, he plans to "break from the mold" on traditional strength and conditioning in mixed martial arts, including incorporating more heavy weight exercises.
"I guess what I've learned is I'm different," McDonald said. "I can't do what everyone else is doing. I could actually gain some weight and strengthen my muscles and bones. I'm going towards more traditional heavy lifting, which people say, 'Don't do in MMA.' It's making my joints feel great.
"The best way I can describe it is everyone is trying to strip down their race car and make it lighter -- taking away from the frame. I actually need to put more weight on my race car. What I'm moving to is completely opposite of what everyone thinks they should do in MMA."
ESPN Stats & Information
UFC interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao became the undisputed champion when Dominick Cruz vacated the title due to injury. Barao must now defend the title against the man he beat to win the interim title at UFC 149, Urijah Faber. Faber has won four in a row since the unanimous decision loss to Barao and will be making his third attempt to claim a UFC title. In the co-main event, UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo will defend the title against Ricardo Lamas, who is undefeated in four UFC fights.
Here are the numbers you need to know for the fights:
85: Number of significant strikes landed by Barao in his previous fight with Faber. Although Faber landed a higher percentage of significant strikes attempted (34 percent) than Barao (29 percent), Barao was the more active fighter as he attempted 290 significant strikes to Faber’s 178.
0: Number of times Barao has been taken down by his opponents in all six of his UFC fights. In Barao’s previous fight with Faber, he was able to defend all six of Faber’s take down attempts. In all 20 of Faber’s UFC and WEC fights he has been successful on 36 percent of his takedown attempts.
4: Barao and Faber are both 4-0 against their common opponents Cole Escovedo, Scott Jorgensen, Michael McDonald and Eddie Wineland.
2: Number of times Faber has lost by KO/TKO. Neither Faber nor Barão has been prone to being finished as Barao’s only loss came by decision and Faber has not been stopped since 2008 by Mike Brown at WEC 36.
31: Barao’s winning streak since losing his professional debut in 2005. His 31 wins include 14 by submission, seven by KO/TKO and 10 by decision.
19 minutes, 24 seconds: The average fight time for Aldo in his UFC fights. At almost 19 and a half minutes per fight Aldo’s average fight time is the longest in UFC history among fighters with at least five fights in the promotion. While Aldo has a tendency for long fights, Lamas has only been past the second round once in his four UFC fights.
90: Percentage of takedowns defended by Aldo in all five of his UFC fights. Among fighters with a minimum of five UFC fights and at least 20 takedown attempts by opponents, his 90 percent takedown defense is the best in the featherweight division and fourth best in UFC history. In all 10 of his UFC and WEC fights, Lamas has been successful on 38 percent of his takedown attempts.
72: Percentage of significant strikes defended by Aldo in his UFC fights. Among fighters with a minimum of five UFC fights and at least 350 strikes attempted by opponents his 72 percent significant strike defense is the second best in the featherweight division (Chad Mendes, 77 percent) and sixth best in UFC history.
1: Aldo and Lamas have both fought 1 common opponent, Cub Swanson. In 2009, under the WEC banner, Aldo defeated Swanson by TKO with a flying knee just eight seconds into the first round. Lamas submitted Swanson with an arm-triangle choke in the second round at UFC on FOX 1 in 2011.
Statistical support from FightMetric
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In all likelihood, Urijah Faber won’t be a serious candidate for "Fighter of the year," but he’s done something incredible these past 12 months -- and I’m not solely referring to his destruction of Michael McDonald on Saturday -- although that was nothing short of awesome.
What’s really amazing about Faber right now is that within about a year, he not only built himself back into the undisputed No. 1 contender at 135 pounds -- he’s done it in such a way that we’re actually excited about it.
Dana has paid me a great compliment by saying I'm the type of guy who believes I can beat anyone. I'm ready to fight anyone, any time. I'll fight Godzilla, King Kong, I don't care.” -- Urijah Faber
When 2013 began, Faber was coming off a previous year's campaign that saw him fight only once: a lopsided, at-times tedious five-round loss to Renan Barao for the UFC interim belt. It was his fifth loss in a title fight in a span of less than four years.
The very thought of Faber (30-6) in another title fight made some mixed martial arts fans sick to the stomach. It had become clear he couldn’t win the big one anymore, having lost five consecutive title fights across two weight classes.
The craziness of this resurgence story starts right there, with the fact Faber didn’t care. After that many heartbreaking defeats, nobody would have blamed him had he come out flat his next couple fights -- in fact, we probably expected him to.
Instead, here we are in December 2013 and the idea of Faber fighting for a title doesn’t even feel all that repetitive. It doesn’t feel like an undeserved gift based on his popularity. The man has never looked better.
“A lot of people have said [the UFC] is just looking for excuses to give Urijah Faber a title shot,” said UFC president Dana White. “You can’t deny it now. You can hate. You can dislike. You can do whatever you want, but you can’t deny him.
“Faber is in like this Vitor [Belfort] zone. The older he gets, the better he gets.”
White didn’t officially call Faber the No. 1 contender on Saturday, but it’s hard to see a scenario unfold in which he wouldn’t be.
Dominick Cruz will return from injury for the first time since October 2011 against Barao at UFC 169 in February. Faber is a marketable next opponent for the winner, regardless of who it is.
He has no hesitation in raising his hand for that opportunity, either. It’s not as if he’s felt out of his league in these title losses. A cracked rib hindered him against Barao. He broke his hand against Mike Brown. He still thinks he did enough to beat Cruz.
“Dana has paid me a great compliment by saying I’m the type of guy who believes I can beat anyone,” Faber said. “I’m ready to fight anyone, any time. I’ll fight Godzilla, King Kong, I don’t care. I’m a little bit delusional about it, even.
“My losses have been to Jose Aldo, Barao, I lost to Cruz when I thought I beat him, Mike Brown with a broken hand -- what do you guys want from me?”
One sort-of-interesting part about this whole thing is that Faber doesn’t seem to see it. In his mind, he was just going out and winning fights. He expected to win all four of his fights this year, and in the manner in which he did it.
He dismisses talk about fans not wanting to see him fight for a title or his inability to win the big one as merely “people looking for stuff to talk about.” And in some respect he’s probably right: We do love our storylines in this sport.
Still, Faber’s insanely fast return to legitimate title contender was one of the most impressive things to happen in the UFC this year. For all the hate he’s taken along the way, it needed to be pointed out.
Chris Weidman versus Anderson Silva is a fighting fan's Christmas. Georges St-Pierre versus Johny Hendricks is Thanksgiving. And Cain Velasquez versus Junior dos Santos III will feel like a second birthday to us all this year.
Chael Sonnen versus Mauricio Rua this weekend at TD Garden in Boston sort of feels like Flag Day in comparison.
But that said, there's a lot to like about Flag Day. Top to bottom, this is one of the stronger UFC cards fans will witness this year. Some events are structured around one fight and one fight only. Boston, on the other hand, features plenty to watch for.
The legend of Conor McGregor
We are all getting way too carried away about McGregor -- but it's impossible not to. Simplest way to put it: When McGregor fights, you want to watch, and when he talks, you want to listen. It's not just that he's entertaining; he has this contagious passion about what he does. During a recent visit to Las Vegas, McGregor said he was so excited he stayed up shadowboxing in his hotel room until 5 a.m. He's in a hurry to be at the top, and Max Holloway wants to slow him down.
The curious case of Uriah Hall
You hear all the time how important the mental aspect is in martial arts. Hall has shown he has the physical tools, and on the surface, nothing seems out of sorts for him mentally. But that loss to Kelvin Gastelum in The Ultimate Fighter Finale was awkward. His team said he liked Gastelum too much to hurt him. Many of those watching called it cockiness. Neither is really an acceptable excuse for a fighter as talented as Hall. Expectations are high for him against John Howard.
The resurgence of Mike Brown
Brown hasn't really been under the spotlight for years, but for longtime martial arts observers he'll always be a name that jumps off the page. Two wins over Urijah Faber in the WEC put him on the map, but truth is Brown was just one of those guys who was always fun to watch. Something went wrong along the way, and the now 37-year-old endured a 2-4 stretch amid rumors of distractions in his personal life. He's back on a two-fight win streak coming into this fight against Steve Siler.
Since 2011, Matt Brown and Mike Pyle are a combined 11-2 in the Octagon, yet you won't find them on any top 10 welterweight rankings. Neither is willing to make a big point of that publicly, but there's no question both are getting a little anxious. After his last win, Brown said, "Just because a bunch of media people don't believe I'm good enough for a title shot doesn't mean it's true." Pyle, winner of four in a row, is itching to sign a fight against a top-10 opponent.
That Faber guy is back again
You can almost see the bile form in Faber's throat when forced to answer the same questions over and over leading up to these nontitle fights. "How much you got left in the tank, champ?" "Getting close to another title shot, Urijah, what's that feel like?" "Is the belt still the goal, buddy?" We should all come to this understanding that Faber feels great, he's excited to fight, and he wants a title shot, but the UFC won't give him one yet so he needs to keep winning. This fight against Yuri Alcantara might not feel big, but it's big for Faber. Any loss is a major setback.
What does Alistair Overeem look like?
He was Superman against Brock Lesnar and Clark Kent against Antonio Silva. No stranger to performance-enhancing drug accusations, Overeem is in a critical spot. He didn't look the same in February, his first appearance since producing a high testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio in Nevada last year. He told ESPN.com he would never apply for testosterone-replacement therapy, despite tests that showed low levels after his last fight. There are a lot of variables floating around. Can Overeem be Superman again in the midst of them?
Browne passes the eye test. He moves. He has heavyweight knockout power. His grappling is underrated. He seems like he's in shape, and his only loss came after his hamstring busted in the opening minute of a fight. Overeem -- whether he's at his best or not -- is going to test him, though. If Browne is spectacular, he could be the biggest winner of the entire night.
Is 'Shogun' still elite?
Rua is slowing down. It never really felt as though he was going to lose to Brandon Vera last August, but we were sort of expecting a windmill dunk and got a weak layup instead. Then in December, it seemed like he was operating on fumes against a physical Alexander Gustafsson. Three of the last five men Shogun has defeated are now retired. How worried should we be about this?
Is the self-proclaimed 'Gangster' going to lose three in a row?
Whether you like Sonnen or not, this is a man who does not avoid tough fights. He has gone from Silva to Jon Jones to a light heavyweight contest against a former champion in Rua. Sonnen is undersized for this division -- a fact made obvious by his decision to return to middleweight regardless of what happens in Boston. Sonnen can survive a loss if it comes to it, but a proposed fight against Vitor Belfort can't.
Is Michael McDonald the third-best bantamweight in the world?
Both ESPN.com and UFC rankings still have McDonald trailing Faber. Both fight on this Boston card. No doubt, a certain contingent of MMA fans would rank McDonald ahead of Faber heading into this weekend, but it's close. If the 22-year-old runs through Brad Pickett, it will be difficult not to bump him up.
WHO'S ON THE HOT SEAT?
Seems like a lifetime ago that Gamburyan fought his way to a WEC title shot against Jose Aldo. Fighting Gamburyan is like fighting an angry fire hydrant; he's compact and seemingly made of metal. He also has a long history with the UFC, although a 1-3 record in his last four fights is tough to look past.
Might as well discuss Gamburyan's opponent as well. These two know each other well from their days on the TUF 5 reality set on Team Jens Pulver. Now, Miller needs a win just as badly as his former teammate, having gone 1-2 since his drop to featherweight last year.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there's still more to 2013 than a middleweight rematch, even though it doesn't feel like it sometimes … because over the course of his career, Shogun is 6-for-6 when it comes to knocking out opponents following a loss … because two of the most explosive heavyweights are incredibly hungry going into the same fight … because Brown and Pyle are fighting each other with the exact same chip on their respective shoulders … because McGregor might be the most fun athlete the UFC has on its roster.
Though the Brazilian didn't at first appear as sharp or explosive as he had in his previous UFC fights, perhaps in part to McDonald's speed and skills, Barao turned up the heat when he saw the chance, defending his belt like a true champion and sinking in a bonus-winning arm-triangle choke in the fourth round.
"I'm a BJJ black belt. I know I have a good ground game and I knew he was feeling the pain," Barao said, explaining why he refused to give up on the choke even though his opponent seemed to be fine.
"I learned the difference between where I am now and where I want to be," McDonald said. "Today, Barao was the better martial artist," said McDonald.
While McDonald clearly proved he belongs at the top of the division, troubling the interim champ a few times with his power, it was Barao who really made a statement at Wembley Arena.
Showing a versatile skill set and an ability to evolve his strategy as the fight progressed, Barao's win streak extended to an impressive 20 victories. His submission over McDonald acted as both a proclamation to the rest of the division as well as a sharp reminder for the still injured Dominick Cruz.
"Dominick is terrified right now," UFC president Dana White said. "All you guys have been reporting that I said he's going to have to retire and that is not what I said so I've been having to explain to him what's going on. We're hoping that Dominick will be ready for the summer so he can face Barao. That's the plan."
Barao is a tough fight for anyone, especially as he continues to add to his already impressive set of skills, but it's an even tougher fight for Cruz returning from such a long layoff. There's no doubt it'll be a fantastic clash of styles, but against a fighter as determined as Barao has been to maintain his championship gold, Cruz's return to the Octagon will be a big ask.
Swanson happy just to entertain the fans
Cub Swanson once again showed an aggression and passion for his work against Dustin Poirier as he fought his way to a well-earned unanimous decision. Sporting a pair of shades to the post-fight press conference, Swanson revealed that it's all about the fights at this point in his career.
"After my injury I realized all this could go away and be over just like that," Swanson said. "I'm not messing around anymore. Every fight I fight like it's my last.”
While many are thinking Swanson's gritty victory over Poirier likely places him near the top of the title shot pile, the Team Jackson fighter wasn't fazed by the prospect.
"I am just happy to entertain the crowd," Swanson said. "I don't care where I am in terms of the title right now. I just want to go in and give the best performances I can and be the best fighter I can be."
It's an admirable principle for Swanson, but in terms of Joe Silva's matchmaking and the fans' desire to see Jose Aldo constantly tested, Swanson's hard work and aggressive instincts definitely have him on the radar as a potential challenger.
A tough night for the Brits
It was not the best night for the British fans and their native fighters. Well, all except one.
While the hugely popular Paul Sass and Terry Etim struggled to mount much offense in their respective bouts -- both losing by unanimous decision for their second straight defeat -- Tom Watson stood up and stamped his mark on the middleweight division.
Displaying a fantastic strategy against Stanislav Nedkov, Watson took control early on in the fight. Though he was nearly stopped at the end of the first round, his reply brought the crowd to their feet. He shrugged off Nedkov's ground and pound and came out in the second with a renewed vigour, employing a brutal clinch game to take the victory deep in the second round.
"People who fight him are scared of him," Watson said. "I wanted to push the pace and show him that I'm not scared.”
After a display that earned him two bonuses, Watson then set about calling out TRT users in his post-fight interview, explaining that he felt too many fighters were using it unfairly.
"You can't put TRT on your chin or in your heart," Watson said. "I've got a big heart and I'm happy to fight any one these guys."
While Watson's opinions chimed with White's thoughts on TRT, it was the British middleweight's rugged and tough performance that earned him the plaudits from the fans and the UFC itself. Watson laid out a marker for the rest of the up-and-coming 185ers.
Bonuses, Bits and Bobs
The UFC once again broke records in the UK, taking an impressive $1.3 million on the gate and seeing 10,349 die-hard fans pack Wembley Arena.
Watson took home honors for both fight and knockout of the night, earning him $100,000 in bonuses. Barao took home $50,000 for submission of the night.
Though there were only two finishes on the entire card, White said that "if the fans are happy, I'm happy. And the fans seemed happy tonight."
As usual, White fielded plenty of questions about more events, including both Brazil and the British Isles.
"Brazil is the hottest market right now, Lorenzo [Fertitta] will be spending a lot of time down there working on setting up the infrastructure," White said, before answering similar enquiries about the UK. "I keep telling you, Garry Cook is the man. He is buttoning up the TV deal here and we're looking at setting up a three-year plan for venues all over the country."
Clearly the UFC expansion is not slowing down anytime soon.
“I train hard. Each fight is the most important fight and I am here to do my best,” Barao said during the final news conference to promote Saturday’s UFC on Fuel 7 card at Wembley Arena. “I don’t feel that I have an advantage having been in a five-round fight before; I’m just focused on doing my job and defending my title.
And though McDonald dismissed the relevance of competing for the interim title -- Dominick Cruz, who is still recovering from knee surgery, possesses the bantamweight title -- Barao was determined to defend his belt.
“He [McDonald] has his own [thoughts of the significance of their bout]," Barao said. “He can think what he likes. I’m happy to be the champion and I am glad to be here and to do my job.”
Training out of Nova Uniao Team alongside Jose Aldo, many have made connections between the two fighters as well as their undefeated runs in the UFC. However, Barao is keen to stress that he is part of an evolving and growing gym of fighters and that he is a champion in his own right.
“Aldo is not the only guy I work with,” Barao said. “The whole team and all my coaches have helped me prepare for McDonald. We have a strong style at Nova Uniao. We are all trying to develop our own way of fighting, to stay relaxed in the cage and do our best.”
Both McDonald and Barao have stated the necessity to remain calm and in control once inside the Octagon, and with both packing big power, great submission skills and an equal number of UFC wins, the fight for the title promises to be action-packed.
McDonald: ‘It’s mind over matter’
Speaking like a man far more mature than his 22 years suggest, McDonald discussed the importance of studying his opponent and considering his strategy.
“I don’t care about the belt. This is like any other fight for me,” McDonald said. “I’ve been here [in the cage] 16 times before and I have to treat this fight like any other. I’ve been looking at Barao’s skill set and working out what I would do against him and the strategies I can employ. I’m not thinking about the belt or what it would mean to be the youngest UFC champ. If I do look at it, the time [to do so] is after.”
McDonald’s relaxed demeanor during the news conference echoed his thoughts on the fight and his overall approach to MMA.
“Barao is a great fighter. He is probably a better athlete than a martial artist. We have different weapons. My weapons are strong. I have my mind and the understanding of my body.
“Fighting is simple. It’s about not getting hit and hitting your opponent hard. My strength is built from the arduous repetitions and the dedication I have given to the details, the efficiency of fighting. It is those small details that will help me. On Saturday the battle will be between his athleticism and my technicality.”
Swanson, Poirier happy to be where they are
With the recent introduction of official UFC rankings, many fighters can now see where they stand within their respective divisions -- at least, in the eyes of the voting media. For Cub Swanson, ranked No. 6 at featherweight, and Dustin Poirier, who is No. 7, it remains a question, more important, of earning the wins and waiting for the chance to fight for the title.
“I think the rankings are pretty accurate,” Poirier said. “I was higher before my loss to the Korean Zombie [Chan Sung Jung], but seventh is reasonable. Obviously that’ll change after the weekend.”
Though Swanson has a previous loss to Jose Aldo, his current win streak could put him in contention soon.
“I got a clean slate when I joined the UFC,” Swanson said. “I’m fighting smarter and tougher now.
“I am just really enjoying fighting right now. My goal is to be the best I can be. I want to end my career knowing that I was the best martial artist I could be. I fight for the UFC and that is a dream for most athletes.”
Diabate considers retirement?
Light heavyweight veteran Cyril Diabate was considering retiring from combat sports until his recent win streak.
“I’ve been fighting for 22 years; I won’t lie, I had been thinking about retirement and motivation was definitely becoming a factor,” Diabate said. “It’s been a battle, but right now it’s not an issue."
With back-to-back victories, his last an impressive submission win over Chad Griggs, Diabate will face a very different challenge when he takes on hometown favorite Jimi Manuwa on Saturday.
“I’m used to this,” Diabate said. “I’m expecting to get booed when I walk to the Octagon. There’s a long rivalry between France and England but I am looking for the win. Jimi is powerful but I am technical. I know that whatever happens, it will be exciting.”
Riddle will refuse to fight if Goddard is officiating
Aside from all the questions about Brit bashing, being spat on in Manchester and whether he needs extra security in the United Kingdom, Matt Riddle voiced his serious concerns about referee Marc Goddard.
Goddard, a former fighter himself and one of the most respected refs in Britain, came under heavy fire from the welterweight during the news conference.
“I don’t feel safe having him [Goddard] in the cage with me. I don’t think he is educated enough to be refereeing in the UFC,” Riddle said.
Not safe? Uneducated?
“I’ve seen him ref tons of fights and guys will be working and he’ll just stand them up from side-control or mid-ground-and-pound,” Riddle explained. “It’s MMA, you know? I mean, I like stand-ups if there’s no action. It changes the game and that’s great.
“Goddard just seems to play to the crowd. He stood me up against Osipczak after a few seconds but when the tables were turned and Osipczak was on top he just let it go. He seems to be biased toward the UK fighters and he allows the crowd to sway his judgement and, to me, that seems like he’s looking for an ego boost -- and it is dangerous. Standing a guy up after he’s scored a takedown and he is a dominant position is just wrong. It might be the fighter’s last effort and the ref knows -- he is looking right at you.“
Riddle stated that he would actually refuse to fight if Goddard was appointed to ref his bout against Che Mills.
“It is my legal right as a fighter to do that. The guy is either uneducated as a ref or he is disrespecting the rules of the sport.”
Dana holds court in London
UFC president Dana White was greeted with a plethora of questions upon taking to the podium -- not least the state of the bantamweight title and Dominick Cruz’s injuries.
“Cruz has had the worst luck,” White said. “He is set to come back and all I can say is that I hope he comes back soon. Another injury would mean that he’s been out for nearly three years. If he got another serious injury you’d have to think that he should retire.
“When we have the interim titles, we all want that guy to face the champ. In MMA you have to beat the guy who beat the guy to be the champ. I’d hate to have to strip Dominick of the title. I’d hate to say that and right now we’re just hoping for him to come back and face whoever has the interim title.”
On another championship belt-related note -- text messages don’t get you title fights.
“Listen, text messages don’t get you fights,” White said after numerous questions were fielded by Cub Swanson and Dustin Poirier. Both men had been asked about how much they were doing to make themselves heard in the title mix, but for White it still comes down to wins.
“Anthony Pettis put in a big performance against [Donald] 'Cowboy' Cerrone and that earned him the shot.”
With the UFC hosting an event in the UK so early in the year, and with a title bout heading up the card, thoughts were already turning to the implications that this might have for White’s plans in Britain.
“This card is stacked,” the UFC president said. “We could have had all the guys fighting up here for the news conference today. There are so many great fights on the card and so many of them are all close to earning a shot at the belt.
“We never gave up on the UK. Believe me, we’re going to get it done.”
"[Too] bad I can only watch," he lamented.
With the UFC bantamweight champion a couple weeks away from being cleared to jog, Cruz's recovery from a pair of ACL surgeries since May of last year is noticeably far from complete.
"I wanted to start sparring the day I got out of surgery,” he said. “It's just one of those things where you have to bide your time and be patient."
Cruz (19-1) last stepped into the cage on Oct. 1, 2011, when he bested Demetrious Johnson on points. Since then there's been a shuffle at the weight. Johnson and Joseph Benavidez dropped to 125. Older threats like Miguel Torres disappeared in place of new ones like Michael McDonald (15-1). And Renan Barao (29-1) stepped up after Cruz was injured, winning an interim title against Urijah Faber.
"Hopefully this summer the kid is back," UFC president Dana White said. "He's going to have to get back to training. If he gets hurt again like that I don't know what to do."
So far Cruz claims to be able to keep his mind sharp by wearing several hats -- learning what he could; improving where he could. His top priority, of course, remains fighting, and the 27-year-old bantamweight is "ready to have my life back. That's what I do. That's what I love. That's the life I chose."
Perhaps he's mentally ready, but we know for sure his body isn't. So McDonald and Barao will tangle Saturday in London at UFC on Fuel TV 7 with the Brazilian's interim belt up for grabs. White said it's his intention to put the winner in with Cruz if all goes well with his recovery. The Octagon has hosted some tremendous bantamweight bouts while Cruz was sidelined, and 135 is delivering quality contests outside the UFC as well, such as Thursday's Bellator MMA title fight between Eduardo Dantas and Marcos Galvao.
"I tip my hat to them," Cruz said of his fellow bantamweights. "Keep doing work, because everyone is trying to do the same thing, and that's be the best. Good luck to 35ers, but when I come back, I'm going to have to whoop you."
Cruz said while it feels like "I'm watching the division continue to go on" in my absence, he doesn't carry a sense of living in purgatory.
Lacking a timetable for his return (doctors "have no clue and neither do I," he said) the UFC champion has spent much of his time watching film, working as he will this Saturday as an analyst for Fuel TV, and serving as a coach and corner for teammates at Alliance MMA.
A "cornerman for everyone on my team," Cruz declared himself.
Based upon on a breakdown of Saturday’s main event from London, that could go for both bantamweights, too.
Cruz believes Barao will retain the interim belt because of experience, confidence and, most notably, his defense. If McDonald has a shot, said Cruz, it will come if he can force Barao to move backward, take away range-finding straight punches and mix in takedowns.
Cruz is a natural -- perfectly willing to drop a lengthy, insightful breakdown of a fight and its participants when asked. While some champions don't pay attention to kids coming up the ranks, or even emerging top contenders, Cruz said he's infatuated with knowing all he can about mixed martial artists moving up behind him.
"I'm curious about the division from the very beginning," Cruz said. "What's the main thing that's happening in the sport right now? I feel like it's evolving. What does the sport evolve from? The sport evolves from the guys that are new to the division, new to the UFC period. Those guys are the future of the sport.
"Why wouldn't you be watching those guys to see what new stuff is being brought to the cage? Experienced champion or not, you gotta be watching these new guys coming in because they're bringing new tools that people haven't seen. That's why they're in UFC. They're going to bring different dynamics to the sport. You have to keep an eye out for that stuff."
Joining Barao and McDonald at the top of the heap, Cruz tabbed Eddie Wineland as a serious threat at 135. Considering the champion's extended absence, chances are the gap between himself and men vying for the title will close enough so that ESPN.com's No. 5 ranked pound-for-pound fighter won't make it look so one-sided all the time.
Those two weeks until Cruz gets a chance to run again can't go by fast enough. Then it's on through the next barrier until finally he'll be healthy enough to fight again.
"When I come back, I'll be ready to jump right back into it," Cruz promised.
Until then, he'll keep his raptorlike vision smartly trained on the bantamweights. They've been worth watching.
It’s a lot of “ifs,” and a few asterisks -- but it’s possible, and the scenario isn’t all that hard to fathom.
Jon Jones was 23 years and 8 months old when he defeated Mauricio Rua for the light heavyweight belt. If Mayday gets a fight with bantamweight interim titleholder Renan Barao in December -- which is the month McDonald has circled for his return -- he could usurp Jones’ feat of becoming the youngest fighter to be a UFC champion. By a full year and a half, no less.
Yeah, yeah -- even if it’s a placeholder belt that is mostly illusion, while the genuine article remains off-limits until Dominick Cruz returns from his ACL injury.
But first things first. The only jones McDonald is dealing with is the one to crush a heavy bag without wincing.
“I’m dying to start punching something again,” McDonald told ESPN.com this week. “I was going to get permission to start punching again about a month ago, but my doctor wanted to go a more conservative and safe kind of route. Just to make sure it was 100 percent. But I feel great. It’s hard for me to go into the gym and watch everyone else train, and just grapple, and not being able to spar with the guys.”
McDonald has been rehabbing his hand, which for the past couple of years has been nagging him. After defeating Miguel Torres at UFC 145 in April, a fight in which his fists did plenty of the work, the hand wasn’t healing properly for him to begin training again. So rather than perpetuate the situation, he decided to call the UFC and let them know what was going on.
So, what exactly was going on?
“I don’t know the correct terminology, but there’s almost like a protective film over the back of your hand,” he says. “What I did, was I hit somebody in the gym and it split right down the middle between my ring and my middle finger [on the right hand]. And every time I make a fist, that protective film rolls over and exposes my bone. So my bone was unprotected, and I was punching literally with nothing protecting my bone by skin, and the tendon was rolling over, so the whole thing was screwed up but I was punching with it for about two years. After Miguel Torres, it just wasn’t going down at the rate I wanted it to, and I wasn’t able to punch.”
I'm dying to start punching something again. ... It's hard for me to go into the gym and watch everyone else train, and just grapple, and not being able to spar with the guys.” -- Michael McDonald, who is itching to return to training
It was off to surgery for McDonald, but as of the middle of next week, he should be cleared to punch again. And that means able to train, and available to be booked by the UFC’s smaller division matchmaker, Sean Shelby.
With champion Dominick Cruz still out with a bum knee, and Urijah Faber coming off a loss to Renan Barao, and Barao in limbo holding the interim title waiting to find out how this all plays out ... well, McDonald and Barao might dovetail nicely into a title fight.
Should that happen, McDonald -- who is 15-1 in MMA, and began fighting when he was 16 years old -- would have a chance at history.
“It has crossed my mind, but it’s not something I dwell on,” he says. “Me, I just focus on what matters. A lot of people will say this is what I’m going to do, that I’m going to be the champ, and they say I’m the greatest, and they say all these things that really don’t matter. The only thing that truly matters in my opinion is just ability as a martial artist -- who’s a better martial artist is going to win.
“I think that’s the only thing that matters, and I try and keep my mind centered on that. It does cross my mind, ‘Oh, these are the possibilities.’ It is possible if everything goes as planned, I could be the youngest champion. Things like that do cross my mind, but I can’t dwell on them, because it would just take my mind away from what really matters, and what really matters is just being the best martial artist I can be.”
McDonald threatening to win the belt at 21 years old is one thing, even if he’s only indulging glorified speculation just to be polite. But the surprising thing is that this 21-year-old is powered by a sense of Zen-like bearings, and he comes off as honest, direct, non-sanctimonious, practical and, of all things, wise. Having two brothers who compete in MMA -- younger brother Brad McDonald, and older brother Jason Smitley -- helps him stay rooted in the gym.
Yet there’s more to it. If McDonald has the big picture in his mind, he doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses when looking it over. He doesn’t comb the rankings. He doesn’t even keep up with what’s happening in the bantamweight division, nor any of the divisions.
“To put it very bluntly, I really don’t care,” he says. “I learn everything about my career through other people. My friends will tell me, ‘Dude, you’re in the paper,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’ I didn’t talk to anybody. I don’t keep up with anything that happens. I just stick to myself.”
Just what's sticking to oneself does depend on the person. But for McDonald, he’s become a priority man at a tender age. In fact, he’s got his priorities straight before priorities would seem to have time to mature into an order. It’s simplistic, really.
“My love is in training, in the gym, in martial arts,” he says. “That’s my love. Fighting as a job is a very hard thing to do. And I’ve had times where I’ve questioned whether I wanted to do it, I’ve had times where I didn’t want to do it.
“But I’ve never once questioned whether I wanted to be a martial artist. There’s things about being a fighter as a job that I don’t exactly like. Sometimes I don’t want to have to get up and put on a happy face and meet people and be really jolly when I just had a really bad day. There’s things about being a fighter that are very difficult. Missing out on holidays ... not being able to eat food on Thanksgiving. These seem small, but they wear on you.
“Being a fighter is not where my love is. Being a fighter’s my job. But my love is being in the martial arts, and I’m going to be doing martial arts until the day that I die. When it comes to the aspects of being a fighter and the fight game, I’m a fan of fighting, but I’m not a fanatic of fighting.”
So let’s rephrase this: There’s a chance -- if the cards fall in his favor, and his hand is healthy enough to chin-hunt, and UFC matchmakers throw him a bone -- that McDonald could become the youngest martial artist to ever be champion in the UFC.
It’s an important distinction for a young guy on the verge of something so distinctive.
Today, both are being speculated in title talks. That was April.
May has not been so kind for prospects and buzz names in the UFC. First it was featherweight Dustin Poirier, who was made a centerpiece for his UFC on Fuel fight with Chan Sung Jung. He was being groomed as the next in line for the Erik Koch/Jose Aldo winner, and was riding the wave of intrigue when the “Korean Zombie” happened. Who was this Jung, and where did he spring from? This version was light years removed from the stumblebum who traded with Leonard Garcia for three rounds back in the WEC.
The fight game is full of surprises. Suddenly, it’s Jung closing in on a title crack instead of Poirier, who is forced to treat the whole thing as a set back.
And he wasn’t the only fresh batch to be thrown out. At UFC 146 in Las Vegas, two more prospects went down.
There was 24-year old Diego Brandao, whom many people were talking about the first big talent to come off the “Ultimate Fighter” series in years, who lost to a resilient Darren Elkins. Extract the Brandao of the first round and spread it over three, and there’s the star in wonder. But, as everybody knows, fights have moods. Elkins came roaring back. Brandao succumbed.
And then there was Edson Barboza, who scored what might be the knockout of the year against Terry Etim at UFC 142 with that spinning wheel kick. He lost to an opportunistic replacement in Jamie Varner in his follow-up.
Of all of the upsets to occur in May, this one stands out as the true thud. With Poirier, you knew Jung would be tough, and Brandao is still green enough to trip. But Barboza? He was undefeated and fierce and fighting a guy who was largely thought to be washed up and recycled out of necessity. He was fighting the replacement. Nobody saw Varner coming. Not many believed in Varner’s second coming the first time through.
But Varner became to Barboza what Charlie Brenneman was to Rick Story a year ago, back when Brenneman took the fight on late notice when Nate Marquardt was plucked for high testosterone levels. He became a monkey wrench. Story was on pace for a title shot in the welterweight division and was calling out guys like Jon Fitch after dominating Thiago Alves. When Brenneman was dealt in just 24 hours before the fight, it felt like he was nothing more than a warm body being stuck in there to salvage the card.
On Saturday, Varner was thrown in there for the injured Evan Dunham -- and Varner made the most of it. Dunham has seen this stuff before. Remember when Kenny Florian got hurt, and Melvin Guillard stepped in to face Dunham? Same thing. Guillard heard the buzz coming off of Dunham’s name, and muted it. It happened to Guillard later against Joe Lauzon. Lauzon did it to Jens Pulver back in the day.
Fighters have been linked by travesty forever.
If these outcomes tell us anything it’s that A.) there’s no such thing as a warm body in the UFC, and B.) the greatest motivation heading into a fight is to be counted out of it. It’s what makes MMA fun. You can’t pencil people into the title picture without using your eraser.
Now Varner is back. Elkins is mean. Jung is a contender. And those other guys, the ones they beat? It’s back to their relative obscurities and rededications.
This is a sport where gimmies are hard to come by.
Cruz tore his anterior cruciate ligament Thursday while prepping for his July 7 title fight with Urijah Faber, and now 2012 will pass by without the UFC bantamweight champion ever stepping into the octagon.
When 10 top contenders can’t beat you, ACL’s are around to remind us that there is such a thing as destructibility. Look at Georges St. Pierre, who suffered the exact same fate. It’s all eggshells before fight night, because injuries remain stubbornly indiscriminate (and prefight drug screenings have a way of coming back hot).
The big difference between Cruz and St. Pierre? St. Pierre’s injury took Carlos Condit with him.
In Faber’s case, he’ll still be dealt a fresh new face, likely in the form of Brazilian Renan Barao or the 21-year old Michael McDonald. Neither one of them provide a gussied-up, trilogy-fight storyline, but both stand a fantastic chance of dialing Faber’s mystique back for good -- which is to say, both have the power to derail Faber’s trilogy fight with Cruz forever.
In a game centered on hype, situations change at far greater speeds than belts. Very likely, whoever wins the rejiggered UFC 148 bout will have the placeholder belt and will wait out Cruz’s timetable for recovery to unify things.
And this is where things fall into a familiar sludge.
How many titlists and top contenders can be on the shelf at once? How many actual and theoretical belts can we introduce without it becoming charades? Whatever the case, matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby are becoming fluent in the laws of attrition. Taking a look at the tops of the UFC’s weight classes right now -- with all the conditions, exceptions, suspensions and voluntary sabbaticals -- most are a total mess.
St. Pierre will fight only once this year (hopefully), and Anderson Silva possibly the same (but hopefully not). Junior dos Santos is fighting in his first title defense in a few weeks (knock on wood), yet the top contender he was supposed to face -- Alistair Overeem -- is suspended. Likewise, Nick Diaz is suspended at welterweight.
Circumstantially, the latest contenders are putting themselves on hiatus, too. Nate Diaz says he’ll wait out Frankie Edgar/Benson Henderson, a fight that’ll likely take place in September. That means the earliest we see No. 1 contender Diaz again is in December. It’s even rockier for Johny Hendricks at welterweight. If he waits out the tentative November showdown between Condit and St. Pierre, he won’t surface again this year.
Title fights in 2012 are becoming scarce. Out of eight weight classes, we’ve had three in five months, and are on pace for maybe 14. Even the flyweight coronation was postponed due to a bumbled math job in Australia. Big fights are being made, and big fights are falling through. It’s the nature of the fight game to roll with the punches, but what a collision course of rotten luck.
What can you do? To use the most common refrain in MMA right now, it is what it is. The UFC can’t issue a memorandum that says, “tread light before the fight.” With Cruz out for the next nine months, it means opportunity for either Barao or McDonald. And the UFC has always been very good at branding optimism and opportunism above all else.
As for this year they have to, because that's what's for sale.
Evans could never mount a consistent attack and lost by judges’ scores of 49-46, 49-46 and 50-45. ESPN.com scored the fight 50-45 for Jones.
The victory ends, or at least tempers, a long-running feud between the former sparring partners.
While Jones (16-1) successfully defended his belt for the third time, he displayed more caution against Evans than in previous title bouts. His cautious approach might be contributed to having faced Evans often in camp.
“I did a lot of things tonight that weren’t planned,” Jones said. “My striking was looking a little elementary. I didn’t want to make mistakes.
“But who I beat was very important to me.
“It felt completely different fighting [Evans]. Tonight I threw a lot of elbows. Those are the things you would never do to a training partner.”
The elbows, especially in the second round, slowed Evans’ attack. They also left swelling above the former light heavyweight champion’s right eye.
After suffering the injury, Evans spent much of the fight protecting that right side of his face. Evans also failed to take Jones to the canvas.
The lone time Jones was on his back came in the fifth round when he pulled guard. But that occurred with seconds remaining in the bout.
“He was pretty crafty and pretty tricky,” Evans said. "He threw some things he didn’t throw in practice, but there were some things he did better in practice than he did tonight.”
Evans suffered just the second loss of his career. He is 17-2-1 overall.
MacDonald finished Mills in impressive fashion
If Rory MacDonald was to be taken seriously as a welterweight contender, he needed to pass a presumed stiff test in Che Mills.
MacDonald passed the test with flying colors.
He dominated Mills in the first round, taking him to the ground quickly and landing hard punches. When the horn sounded to end the round, Mills’ face was bruised, cut and bloody.
By the start of the second, there was little doubt MacDonald would come out victorious.
He quickly took Mills back to the ground and again landed punches. Mills was on his back and had no strategy to reverse his misfortune.
And MacDonald (14-1) wasn’t about to help him find an answer. Once he got Mills’ back, MacDonald aggressively landed punches that forced referee Mario Yamasaki to step in at the 2:20 mark.
“Che was a great opponent,” MacDonald said. “I took this fight very serious. I’m very happy with the way the fight went.”
Mills fell to 14-5 with one no-contest.
Rothwell stops Schaub by TKO in Round 1
During a vicious exchange, Rothwell landed a left hook to the head that rendered Schaub unconscious at 1:10 of the first round.
“I worked very, very hard,” Rothwell said. “I changed my workout. I’m not backing down. I know my chin can take some shots.”
Rothwell improved to 32-8. He is 2-2 inside the Octagon competition.
Schaub, who not long ago was one of the fastest rising heavyweights in the UFC, has dropped two in a row. He is now 8-3 overall.
McDonald knocks out ex-champ Torres
The road back to the top of the bantamweight division became a lot more bumpy for former WEC champion Miguel Torres.
Michael McDonald landed a hard right uppercut in Round 1 that sent Torres to the canvas. Torres was asleep before hitting the ground.
The fight would end at the 3:18 mark, dropping Torres to 40-5.
While Torres’ professional record still looks impressive on paper, it's deceiving: Four of his five losses came in Torres’ seven most recent fights.
“I was paying attention to his range,” McDonald said. “I wanted to make sure he didn’t get his jab off.”
McDonald improves to 15-1. He has won eight fights in a row.
Hominick drops third fight in a row
Former top featherweight contender Mark Hominick continues to struggle to find his groove.
For the second straight fight, Hominick failed to rebound from his UFC 129 unanimous decision loss to champion Jose Aldo.
Eddie Yagin registered knockdowns in the first and second rounds to edge Hominick by split decision.
Two judges scored it 29-28 for Yagin, who improved to 16-5-1. The third judge and ESPN.com had Hominick winning 29-28.
Hominick (20-11) ate right hands from Yagin during most of the bout. And in the first two rounds he was dropped by Yagin right hands.
Despite tasting hard right hands, Hominick found his rhythm in the third and punished Yagin with still left jabs and hard right hands.
But that knockdown in the closely contested second round proved too much for Hominick to overcome.
Bocek takes down Alessio
The fight was scored 30-27, 29-28 and 30-27. ESPN.com had Bocek winning 29-28.
Bocek came into the bout as the superior ground fighter and wasted little time proving it. He took Alessio to the ground early in the first round and punished him with hard left elbows.
But while Bocek had the advantage on the ground, Alessio was better standing. And in the second he caught Bocek repeatedly with left-right combinations.
Bocek (11-4) would get Alessio on the ground briefly, but they stood for most of the round.
Alessio, a former welterweight, slips to 34-15.
Browne submits Griggs in first
Taking on hard-hitting Travis Browne is proving to be a difficult task. Chad Griggs became the latest heavyweight to learn this lesson.
Browne improved to 13-0-1 with a first-round submission of Griggs. The loss was just the second for Griggs as a pro.
Browne entered the fight determined to make a statement. He was disappointed after his most recent outing -- a unanimous decision over Rob Broughton.
During that fight at UFC 135 in Denver’s high altitude, Browne was sluggish as he gasped for air. But cardio never became a factor for Browne in Atlanta.
He landed a hard left knee that stunned Griggs. Browne than took his opponent to the ground, where he applied an arm triangle that forced Griggs to tap at 2:29.
“I belong here,” Browne said. “UFC heavyweights, watch out baby.”
Griggs fell to 11-2.
Brown hands Thompson his first pro loss
For the first time in his professional mixed martial arts career, Stephen Thompson suffered a loss.
Veteran Matt Brown used his experience and superior ground skills to punish Thompson for three rounds during their welterweight bout.
The judges scored the fight 30-27, 29-27 and 30-27 for Thompson. ESPN.com scored it 30-27 for Brown.
Brown’s experience would prove especially beneficial in the second round.
With Thompson finally able to get his striking game untracked, a wobbly Brown (14-11) landed a hard right hand. The punch put Thompson on his back.
On the ground, Brown landed an elbow that opened a cut on Thompson’s forehead.
Both fighters were exhausted entering the third, but Brown was able to take Thompson to the ground and punish him.
Brown would get Thompson (6-1) in a mounted triangle, where he began landing several left hands.
Longer Njokuani shuts out Makdessi
In a 158-pound catchweight bout, Anthony Njokuani landed kicks to the head and body of John Makdessi en route to a unanimous decision.
All three judges, as well as ESPN.com, scored the fight 30-27.
Njokuani (15-6, one no contest) stunned Makdessi with a hard left hook on the chin. He would utilize a 7½-inch reach advantage to land most of his strikes and stay out of harm’s way.
Makdessi, despite not finding a solution to Njokuani’s reach, continued to press the action throughout the fight. But entering the third round his left leg was showing the damage done from absorbing numerous kicks.
Makdessi’s left leg was badly bruised.
The fight, originally slated for 155 pounds, became a catchweight bout when Makdessi (9-2) came in two pounds over the lightweight limit during Friday’s weigh-ins.
Danzig ignores injured ankle to beat Escudero
In the battle of former TUF winners, lightweight Mac Danzig overcame a badly swollen right ankle to earn a unanimous decision over Efrain Escudero.
The judges scored the fight 30-27, 30-27 and 29-28. ESPN.com scored the fight 30-27 for Danzig.
Danzig controlled the standup with his jab and an occasional left hook. But Escudero nearly finished him in the first round with a right ankle hook.
Danzig, however, escaped the submission attempt and despite swelling to his ankle fought hard in the second and third rounds.
The damaged ankle did not prevent Danzig from applying pressure on Escudero, who could not find a rhythm in any of the three rounds.
Danzig, the Season 6 "Ultimate Fighter" winner at welterweight, improved to 21-9-1. Escudero, a TUF Season 8 lightweight champion, slipped to 18-5.
Clements punishes Wisniewski with strikes
Chris Clements landed hard strikes in the second and third rounds to earn a split decision in his UFC debut over fellow welterweight Keith Wisniewski.
Clements persuaded two judges who gave him scores of 29-28 and 30-27. The third judge favored Wisniewski 29-28. ESPN.com scored the fight for Clements 29-28.
After a close first round, in which Clements (11-4) was taken to the ground, he picked up his striking attack in the second and third. He hit Wisniewski with hard punches, elbows and spinning back kicks.
Wisniewski (28-14-1) absorbed the punishment and fought hard, but the accumulation of strikes began to wear him down late in the third round.
Brimage holds off Blanco
Despite tasting several front kicks in the second round, Marcus Brimage refused to back down in the third and secured a split decision over Maximo Blanco in a featherweight bout.
Two judges scored the fight for Brimage 30-27 and 29-28, while the third had it 29-28 for Blanco. ESPN.com scored it for Brimage 29-28.
Brimage (5-1) was the more aggressive fighter in Round 1, landing hard punches. But after tasting several front kicks on the chin, he fought more cautiously in the second.
Seemingly aware that the third round would likely decide the outcome, Brimage picked up the pace. He remained somewhat cautious of Blanco’s kicks, but took the risks and came forward.
Blanco, who made his featherweight debut after competing previously at lightweight, falls to 8-4-1 with one no-contest. He has lost two fights in a row.
Experiencing a brief exile from UFC was difficult for Miguel Torres. Fortunately, that chapter of his life is over.
Torres has been reinstated, and he's eager to get his bantamweight career back on the positive track with a victory April 21 over Michael McDonald at UFC 145 in Atlanta.
“I’m so happy to be back in the UFC and that they’ve given me such a game opponent like Michael McDonald,” Torres said. “Preparing for this fight, I only have one thought in mind, and that’s to finish my opponent at UFC 145 and show the world I am back.”
Staying mentally focused during training camp is just one hurdle Torres (39-4) must overcome. While the former WEC 135-pound champion has a more impressive résumé, McDonald isn’t someone to take lightly.
With only one loss in 15 pro fights, McDonald is currently riding a seven-fight win streak. He also has won each of his four bouts under the Zuffa banner.
Torres was released from UFC’s roster in December following an inappropriate tweet on his personal Twitter account. He was reinstated later in the month after performing community service, issuing apologies and meeting with UFC president Dana White.