MMA: Mma

Curran on pros, cons of Bellator tourneys

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
9:06
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Pat Curran, Patricio FreireDave Mandel/Sherdog.comBellator featherweight champ Pat Curran, left, defends his title in Friday's rematch with Patricio Freire.
When Pat Curran signed with Bellator MMA in 2010, the promotion's tournament format suited him perfectly.

He advanced through the promotion's Season 2 lightweight tournament, earning a title shot against Eddie Alvarez in April 2011. The 23-year-old Curran wasn't quite ready for that stage and it showed, as he lost a one-sided unanimous decision.

Two months later, Curran enlisted in Bellator's featherweight tournament. Once again, he rattled off three consecutive wins to earn a title shot, this time against Joe Warren. In March 2012, Curran captured the belt with a highlight-reel knockout in the third round.

At that time, Curran symbolized a win for the Bellator tournament format. A developing fighter, he was granted an opportunity to stay busy and gain cage experience. He proved his talent, winning six fights in a 16-month span, and became a recognizable champion.

Eighteen months later, however, Curran came to symbolize all that was wrong with the tournament structure.

At Bellator 106 last November, Curran lost the featherweight title to Daniel Straus via unanimous decision. At the time of the loss, he was universally considered one of the best featherweights in the world, in the same ballpark as UFC champion Jose Aldo.

Despite that, according to Bellator precedent, Curran was presumably supposed to cycle back into a tournament. In other words: A top-ranked, former champion with two prior title defenses was headed to the very back of the line.

Curran would be asked to win three consecutive fights for a chance to reclaim the belt. He'd be competing for the (relatively, when you consider his accolades) paltry sum of the tournament's $100,000 prize.

It made sense to no one, especially Curran's management. So, in late 2013, manager Brian Butler requested a meeting at the Bellator renegotiation table, even though Curran still had plenty of fights on his current contract.

"Pat had been through a couple of tournaments and he had won the title," Butler told ESPN.com. "I didn't think it was fair or reasonable that if he lost one fight, he'd then be characterized as a guy who had to go back to the beginning.

"I said to them, 'You've got to start treating your champions like true champions. Get behind them.' Bellator was more than willing to get behind Pat."

Then-Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney agreed to renegotiate Curran's deal, sign him to an extension, and give him an instant rematch against Strauss, whom Curran submitted in March to win back the featherweight title.
[+] EnlargePat Curran and Patricio Freire
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comPat Curran, right, and Patricio Freire have traded barbs leading into Friday's Bellator rematch.

The other piece in all of this, of course, was Patricio Freire.

Freire (21-2) is another example of a win for tournaments. The talented Brazilian has distinguished himself by winning two featherweight tournaments and reaching the finals of a third 145-pound event.

When Curran lost to Straus, Freire was waiting in the wings for a title shot. Bellator elected to pass him up in favor of the rematch, which didn't sit well with Freire.

This situation is one example, of many, that illustrate why Bellator tournaments (on a regular basis) have been laid to rest. As good as the tournaments were in occasionally building new stars, they were horrible handcuffs on the existing ones.

Curran (20-5), who defends his title against Freire at Bellator 123 on Friday in Uncasville, Connecticut, was surprised when Bellator replaced Rebney with former Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker in June, but doesn't mind seeing Rebney's tournaments gone.

"When I heard they got rid of the tournaments, I was little excited," Curran said. "I never want to go through another one. It's a better direction to put on superfights. Tournaments put too much on your body and anything can happen in three fights."

Curran, who defeated Freire in his first 145-pound title defense in January 2013, is honored to headline Coker's first Bellator event. Curran's initial contract in 2010 included several company-option extensions, meaning he's never come close to free agency.

When the promotion got behind him last year as a "star," rather than a "tournament fighter," however, Curran says he didn't mind signing a long-term deal. His current contract will keep him under the Bellator banner for several years.

With Coker announcing a move away from weekly cards in 2015, and a focus on big blockbuster events, Curran is even more comfortable with the path of his career.

"Scott has done a lot in this sport and he brings a ton of knowledge," Curran said. "I think he's taking us in a great direction. No complaints on my end."

On Freire, Curran said there is a bit of an emotional rivalry between the two, but it's mostly based on their competitive relationship. He edged Freire via split decision in their first meeting, in which he won the final two rounds to defend the belt.

"He really wants to get that [loss] back," Curran said. "There has been a little of social media [trash talking], but I have to put that aside and fight with no emotion."

Souza hoping he's one win from title shot

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
12:31
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
UFC middleweight Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza will enter the Octagon this weekend, just eight days shy of his 11th anniversary of his first professional fight.

In those 11 years, Souza (20-3) has failed to get his hand raised only three times. In two of his three losses, you might say Souza got his money's worth.

In his professional debut at Jungle Fight 1 in September 2003, Souza, despite strong grappling credentials, stood with fellow Brazilian Jorge Patino, tired quickly and was knocked out by a stinging right hand a little more than three minutes into the fight.

Almost exactly five years later, Souza suffered his second knockout loss, this time to Gegard Mousasi during a Dream Middleweight Grand Prix in Saitama, Japan. Souza was knocked out by a Mousasi upkick, as he uncorked what is surely one of the wildest right hands he has ever unleashed in his life.

Looking like a 10-year-old impersonating a pro-wrestling move from the top ropes, Souza launched into a crashing right hand after standing over Mousasi's guard. He was met midair by an upkick, which knocked him out cold.

Souza, 34, learned a few lessons that day -- one of which, of course, was to not launch himself wildly into the guard of a savvy fighter like Mousasi. He also simply learned a few things about Mousasi, which he might apply on Friday, when the two meet for the second time in the main event of UFC Fight Night 50 at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut.

"I cannot say it was a lucky move that beat me the first time," Souza told ESPN.com. "It was clever how he caught me. Every one of my fights I learn something and that fight taught me many things.

"One of them was that [upkick] that I need to be aware of. Also, Mousasi is a clever fighter and he needs to be the only thing on my mind right now."

Whether this second meeting between Souza and Mousasi produces the UFC's next 185-pound title challenger or not (president Dana White hinted it might not right away), there's no mistaking its inevitable impact on the middleweight division.

Mousasi (35-4-2) is looking to further prove himself in the weight class after a quick submission victory over Mark Munoz in the first round of a bout in May.

Souza looks like a legitimate threat to the title. He is riding a six-fight winning streak into the bout, including five finishes. The Rio de Janeiro-based fighter says there is no disputing he should fight for the UFC belt pending a win on Friday.

"If I win this fight, there is no doubt I deserve that," Souza said. "I am next. You look at the UFC rankings and I'm next."

Last week in Sacramento, California, however, White told ESPN.com that Souza likely would have to fight again before getting a title shot, as the promotion's middleweight title fight between Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort on Dec. 6 is three months away.

"[Souza] is definitely right there, but I'm not saying [he's next in line with a win]," White said. "It's possible. The problem with saying he'll get a title shot is that there's already a fight set, so he'd probably have to fight again before he gets a title shot."

Souza said his full focus is on getting past Mousasi on Friday, but that he's ready to fight the Weidman-Belfort winner next.

"I think it's fair Vitor is getting a chance, he deserves it," Souza said. "I'm happy he is cleared with the [Nevada State Athletic Commission]. Weidman is the favorite. It's really hard to take the belt from a confident champion and I see Weidman winning by points or some time in the third or fourth round."

Joe Soto gets opportunity of his career

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
11:07
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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SACRAMENTO -- Joe Soto wasn't ready when he got the call that the UFC needed him to step in for Renan Barao against TJ Dillashaw for the bantamweight title on 24 hours' notice.

Like, literally, he wasn't ready. He was stark naked, lying on the floor of his hotel bathroom.

"I had just got done making 136 pounds for my [original] fight," Soto said. "My team told me, 'Dude, the UFC is trying to call you. Better answer before you get cut.'

"The matchmakers said they wanted me to go down to the lobby, that it was an emergency. I run downstairs and they said, 'Barao is injured, you want to take the fight? You want to fight Dillashaw?' I said, 'Yeah, I'll fight him.'"

[+] EnlargeT.J. Dillashaw, Joe Soto
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesFormer Bellator champion Joe Soto, right, will fight for a title in his UFC debut on Saturday against TJ Dillashaw at UFC 177.
Soto (15-2) was already scheduled to fight Anthony Birchak in the second fight of UFC 177, which takes place on Saturday at Sleep Train Arena. He was one of only two 135-pound fighters scheduled to appear on the card other than the main event -- in other words, he was right place, right time.

Hours before the official UFC 177 weigh-in, Barao (32-2) fainted while attempting to cut to 135 pounds. The Brazilian was immediately taken to the hospital and withdrew from the title fight.

Soto agreed to step in without hesitation, prompting a wave of "Who is Joe Soto?" pieces and posts on websites and social media.

The 27-year-old has accumulated a solid resume since his professional debut in 2006. He won the inaugural Bellator MMA featherweight title in 2009, but surrendered it in his first attempted defense to Joe Warren in September 2010.

A former All-American NJCAA collegiate wrestler, Soto is currently on a six-fight win streak and has finished 13 of his 15 career wins.

"It's still surreal a little bit, but I'm a professional," Soto said. "I've been doing this for a long time -- 17 fights, a lot of title fights. I've been in this position before.

"Not this crazy of a position, but this position. When I first got to Bellator, they didn't think I was going to win a title and I did. So, I've won titles where I was not expected to win. Nothing this crazy, though. This never happens."

UFC president Dana White said replacing Barao with Soto was a relatively easy call, even though the former Bellator and Tachi Palace Fights champion has never fought in the UFC before.

"He was the guy with the most experience, he has a great record and he has held a title before," White said. "He was the right guy for the job."

According to Dillashaw (10-2), the two have trained with each other previously, as recently as six weeks ago. Soto fought Terrion Ware at a TPF event on Aug. 7 and attended pro practice at Dillashaw's Team Alpha Male several times in preparation.

Duane Ludwig, Dillashaw's head coach, said he had seen Soto fight before and was in the process of breaking his style down.

"I watched his fight with Joe Warren," Ludwig said. "It's a completely different fight [than Barao], but nobody can beat TJ. His style, timing, accuracy power, thought process -- nobody can beat him right now, period."

That will be the consensus thought heading into Saturday's main event, but if Soto is looking for inspiration, he needs to look no further than across the cage. Dillashaw dominated Barao three months ago in a title fight at UFC 173 in Las Vegas, despite being an overwhelming underdog.

The upset was so significant, the UFC's marketing team employed the slogan, "Never Trust the Odds" ahead of the Barao, Dillashaw rematch. That slogan still applies with Soto.

"Greatness is right there," Soto said. "It's mental. You just have to believe. Look at Dillashaw. He beat Barao. Nobody thought he was going to win, so, don't trust the odds."

UFC released Bonnar to sign with Bellator

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
10:22
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Stephan Bonnar Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesStephan Bonnar's signing with Bellator MMA could open the door for a showdown against Tito Ortiz.
SACRAMENTO -- UFC president Dana White confirmed on Friday that he granted the release of Stephan Bonnar so the light heavyweight could sign with Bellator MMA.

On Wednesday, Bellator announced Bonnar (15-8) had signed a multifight deal and hinted his first opponent could be former UFC champion Tito Ortiz.

Bonnar has not fought since he suffered a first-round TKO loss to Anderson Silva at UFC 153 in October 2012. After the fight, Bonnar tested positive for drostanolone, an anabolic steroid. He was suspended by the UFC for one year.

Although he announced his retirement shortly after the loss, Bonnar had remained under UFC contract until now. White cut him loose so he could sign with Bellator.

"I wish him the best," White said. "What he told me is that he wants to beat the s--- out of Tito, and I'm always down for that. So, I released him."

White gave the comment tongue in cheek. The UFC executive has had a long, rocky history with Ortiz (17-11-1), whom he once managed.

Bonnar was inducted into the UFC's Hall of Fame last year, along with Forrest Griffin. He is best known for his 2005 back-and-forth fight against Griffin in The Ultimate Fighter 1 Finale.

Bellator officials have not made an official announcement on a fight between Bonnar and Ortiz.

White: Barao won't get title fight after this

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
10:12
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
SACRAMENTO -- Renan Barao's path to reclaiming the UFC bantamweight title he lost to TJ Dillashaw earlier this year got significantly longer on Friday.

Barao (32-2) was forced to withdraw from his title rematch against Dillashaw this weekend at UFC 177, when he fainted while attempting to cut weight on Friday. UFC newcomer Joe Soto replaced Barao in the pay-per-view main event.

UFC president Dana White said that kind of thing is, "going to happen" occasionally in mixed martial arts, but said Barao would not keep his place in line at 135 pounds.

"He won't get a title fight after this," White told ESPN.com.

Naturally, Dillashaw and his camp agreed with that sentiment. The 28-year-old had already stated he didn't feel like Barao deserved an immediate rematch, considering how dominant of a performance Dillashaw had in the first fight.

An agitated Dillashaw said on Friday he felt the failed weight cut was partially due to the fact he "mentally broke" the Brazilian at UFC 173 in May.

"He hasn't missed weight in any of his fights," Dillashaw said. "I think I mentally broke him and he didn't want to fight me. His coaches wanted the fight more than he did. He should have just done this a couple weeks ago."

Duane Ludwig, Dillashaw's head coach, echoed those statements.

"Renan Barao lost his place in line, for sure," Ludwig said. "I don't know the circumstances about him passing out, but I saw him in the hotel lobby around 11 [a.m. on Friday] and he looked fine.

"I was talking to [Barao coach] Andre Pederneiras and Barao was looking right at us, alert to our conversation, and he looked fine to me. For him to pass out a half hour later is weird."

Ovince Saint Preux a rare MMA transplant

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
9:15
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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The most significant moment of Ovince St. Preux's professional mixed martial arts career arguably occurred about 12 years before it started.

Before he played linebacker and defensive end at the University of Tennessee in 2001 (and well before he was a UFC light heavyweight), St. Preux was persuaded to join his high school wrestling program by the team's head coach.

OSP did it partially because he found he was good at it (he was a state runner-up in Class 1A) but also just because, "it would be a good base for football."

Had St. Preux (16-5) never been a high school wrestler, he would most likely not be fighting Ryan Bader at Saturday's UFC Fight Night 47 in Bangor, Maine. Obviously, OSP had a natural affinity to MMA, but his familiarity with wrestling was crucial.

"A lot of football guys could probably [fight], but if you don't have a wrestling base, it's going to be real hard," St. Preux told ESPN.com. "The hardest thing to pick up in MMA is wrestling. If you're not somewhat of a natural, you're going to be in trouble."

Generally speaking, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for the sport of MMA to see a few more guys like OSP fall into its lap. He is a former collegiate athlete who successfully transitioned into MMA in a heavier weight class.

The average age of the UFC ranked light heavyweight is 32-years-old. Heavyweights are even older, with an average age of 34. Not one top-10 UFC heavyweight is under the age of 30, and up-and-coming prospects are few and far between.

St. Preux is certainly a phenomenal athlete. He was a standout defensive lineman in high school, and was eventually moved to linebacker in college due to his physical makeup. His speed and explosiveness is unmistakable when he fights.

After attempts at a career in the NFL came up short (he was in contact with the Buffalo Bills and St. Louis Rams at one point), St. Preux effectively retired as a competitive athlete, but went to an MMA facility as a way to stay in shape.

[+] EnlargeSaint Preux/Krylov
Ed Mulholland for ESPNAfter his college football career at the University of Tennessee came to a close, Ovince St. Preux transitioned successfully to MMA.
It didn't take long for St. Preux's abilities to get recognized. His athleticism was off the charts, and he demonstrated a high fight IQ. As he describes it, MMA came pretty easy and he found that opportunities weren't hard to come by.

Within two years of his pro debut, he had signed a contract with Strikeforce.

"It wasn't difficult at all," St. Preux said. "I wasn't a world class wrestler, but I know defense and I have strong hips. I'm an athlete. You show me something during the day, I can pull it off by that night.

"There are a lot of fast and explosive guys on the football field. You get a quarter of them in MMA and there's no telling what's going to happen. Imagine if you ever give someone like [San Diego Chargers linebacker] Dwight Freeney just a little bit of wrestling and striking. What would happen?"

And yet, it doesn't happen very often.

St. Preux remains the exception, not the rule, concerning collegiate athletes finding success in professional MMA. St. Preux has seen both sides of it.

He trains out of Knoxville, Tennessee and remains close to the UT football program. He has had several players approach him in recent years about the possibility of following in his footsteps. He invites every single one that does to the gym.

Typically, the same thing happens every time. Athletically, the football players show a ton of promise -- but they don't like getting hit.

"The first thing that comes out of their mouth is the first thing that came out of my mouth when I started and that's, 'I don't want to get hit,'" St. Preux said. "I don't like getting hit to this day, I just now know I can take it.

"You're seeing what great athletes can do in this sport, though. The UFC is evolving. Athletes are picking up moves in a day that used to take people three weeks to learn. You've got guys who can jump across the ring now."

Whether an influx of those athletes, at least from the collegiate realm, ever truly hit MMA is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, St. Preux will continue to set the standard for it and look to break into the division's rankings for the first time in his career.

As OSP's rarity attests, athleticism alone doesn't equate a pro fighting career.

"You have to be a very determined person to say, 'Hey, I haven't done combat sports but I'm going to start from scratch at 21-years-old," said St. Preux's opponent, Bader. "He had a little wrestling, but obviously he's dedicated and [has] taken nicely to it.

"It's a daunting realization to say, 'My football career is over. I'm going to try be the best in the world in combat sports.' That's why you don't see a lot of people doing it. It requires dedication and it's a gamble."

McGregor rips Poirier's chin, predicts KO

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
12:50
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
videoUFC featherweight Conor McGregor tends to target opponents with his words before targeting them with punches -- and with Dustin Poirier, he's aiming for the chin.

During a UFC Q&A in Los Angeles on Tuesday, McGregor (15-2) repeatedly spoke of Poirier's inability to take a punch, although Poirier, 25, has never been knocked out.

The two will meet in a high-profile 145-pound contest at UFC 178 on Sept. 27 in Las Vegas. McGregor has predicted a first-round knockout.

"All you've got to do is look at Dustin's last couple fights," McGregor said. "In his last contest [against Akira Corassani] he fought a [UFC reality show] reject. Nobody gave a s--- and he got wobbled 40 times. His chin is deteriorating.

"Every single contest he [gets knocked down]. A gust of wind and he does the chicken dance. Coming up against me, that's not going to be good. I'm going to crack him with a jab and he's going to wobble. It's going to be a first-round knockout, mark my words."

As fight fans have witnessed early in McGregor's UFC career, he can be persuasive. At one point during Tuesday's session, which both fighters were present for, he even had Poirier admitting he was right in some respects.

Poirier (16-3) was briefly dropped in each of his previous two fights -- against Corassani and Diego Brandao. He was never in danger of being finished, however, and eventually won both fights via knockout.

"Diego got me off-balance," Poirier admitted to McGregor. "Akira got me with a good shot, I'll be honest. But this fight, I'm going to be cool, calm and calculated, and I'm going to take you out."

McGregor is on an 11-fight win streak. He is 3-0 in the Octagon, with two knockouts. In his only fight to go the distance, against Max Holloway last August, he tore his ACL and was forced to sit out for nearly a year.

[+] EnlargeConor McGregor
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesUnbeaten in the UFC, featherweight Conor McGregor predicts an early knockout against Dustin Poirier at UFC 178 on Sept. 27 in Las Vegas.
He returned to the cage last month to headline a UFC Fight Night event in his native Dublin, Ireland. The event sold out within hours. McGregor, after predicting a first-round finish, took out Brandao via TKO in a little more than four minutes.

"[Poirier's] weakness is obviously his chin," McGregor said. "Don't get me wrong. I like the kid. He's a quiet, little hillbilly from the back of nowhere. I'm sure he grew up in the circus or the fair. His cousin is probably named 'Cletus' or something.

"He's a nice kid, but his chin is going to be cracked and it's going to be cracked early. I don't hit like these [other] people. He says I don't have experience at this level. He's main-evented one UFC event and lost. I main-evented my hometown and it was one of the best UFC events in history and I stopped the guy in one round."

Poirier, who fights out of Lafayette, Louisiana, told ESPN.com he's not getting too caught up in McGregor's pre-fight criticisms.

"Whatever he says or does or thinks doesn't affect me," Poirier said. "This talk has nothing to do with what's going to happen in the fight, and I believe that. There's nothing to be won over here, this is just press."

Anderson Silva: Good as new?

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
6:31
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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videoWhen Anderson Silva steps into the Octagon to fight Nick Diaz at UFC 183 on Jan. 31 in Las Vegas, it will, in one significant way, be as if he never suffered a leg injury.

As we all know, Silva, 39, fractured the tibia and fibula bones in his left leg during a TKO loss to Chris Weidman in December. Replays produced a lasting image: Silva's leg literally bending in a way it's not intended, as Weidman checked a leg kick.

It was a gruesome injury, but let's pretend for a moment it never happened. Let's pretend Silva finished the fight, but lost to Weidman and then announced his retirement. He sits out seven months, but then decides he wants back in and is booked to January.

As crazy as it sounds, this scenario would have left Silva in the exact same state he's currently in, medically speaking.

"I think that's a fair statement," said Dr. Timothy Trainor, consulting physician to the Nevada State Athletic Commission and a practicing orthopedic surgeon. "Assuming that bone has healed fine, that is safe to say.

"To be honest, the injury [Silva] had is probably a better injury to have than an ACL tear. Once you've put that rod in, it almost always heals without major incident. I'm not surprised at all that he's back within a year; absolutely not."

It is highly unlikely Silva's leg will ever break again, especially now that there is a titanium rod inserted into the bones. Typically, Trainor says if a re-break does occur, it is caused by something truly traumatic, such as a car accident. In other words, Silva should be fine throwing leg kicks.

Of course, this is not to downplay the significance of Silva's injury. Psychologically, Silva (33-6), who is widely considered to be the greatest fighter of all time, will have to deal with a range of potential mental hurdles to be successful again.

[+] EnlargeChris Weidman and Anderson Silva
Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesAnderson Silva fractured the tibia and fibula bones in his left leg during his December loss to Chris Weidman in their rematch at UFC 168.
Physiologically, however, there is no reason to doubt Silva will be at a disadvantage. He will be 10 weeks removed from his 40th birthday by the day of the fight, which is past a professional athlete's prime, but his age shouldn't have affected his recovery.

"His age, you know, would he have healed a little easier if he was 25? Maybe, but not necessarily," Trainor said. "He's a very healthy guy. I wouldn't be concerned about his age coming back from this type of injury."

According to Silva's manager, Ed Soares, the Brazilian is still undergoing physical rehabilitation on the leg to restore muscle. Despite that, he is not limiting his activity in the gym and sparred with UFC middleweight Lyoto Machida this week.

Soares told ESPN.com that Silva was in high spirits Tuesday when the Diaz fight was announced. Black House MMA posted photos of Silva training Tuesday, in which he appeared in shape. Soares estimated Silva's current weight to be 205 pounds.

Silva's comeback to professional fighting has been one of the most intriguing stories to follow in 2014. Dr. Steven Sanders, the surgeon who operated on Silva, said the fighter asked, "When can I train?" right before undergoing emergency surgery on the night of the injury. That's fantastic stuff.

With a Jan. 31 fight now announced, the question on Silva will turn from, "Can he come back?" to "Can he be the same?" Amazingly, from a medical standpoint at least, he can.

Failed test leads to title shot for Belfort

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
7:30
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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videoLAS VEGAS -- Vitor Belfort will fight for a UFC title in 2014.

That sentence alone is enough to infuriate parts of the mixed martial arts world. Belfort, 37, is a polarizing figure. He was brilliant in 2013, with three highlight-reel knockout victories -- but all came under a cloud of suspicion due to his use of testosterone-replacement-therapy (TRT) in Brazil.

Earlier this year, when the UFC booked Belfort to a fight in Las Vegas, which would place him under the Nevada State Athletic Commission's jurisdiction for the first time since 2011, he didn't make it. An NSAC ban on TRT and a technically failed drug test on Feb. 7 erased Belfort from a May 24 card.

On Wednesday, however, Belfort stormed back. The NSAC voted in favor of licensing him to fight middleweight champion Chris Weidman at UFC 181 on Dec. 6 in Las Vegas. The event figures to be one of the biggest of the year.

Some were disgusted with the NSAC following the news. How could it allow a fighter to fail a drug test within its state and return to a title fight?

Fair question, but let's not forget the UFC has played a significant role in this.

In essence, the UFC created the "Belfort situation" last year by allowing him to fight in Brazil three times -- with TRT -- even though it was common knowledge he probably would not have received an exemption for it in Nevada.

The reason the NSAC would have likely turned down Belfort's request to use TRT was that he tested positive for anabolic steroids in 2006. Steroid use can shut down an athlete's ability to produce testosterone naturally.

The NSAC effectively announced whether or not it felt Belfort was eligible to use TRT when it banned the treatment from combat sports altogether in February. The fact Belfort was expected to apply for a use exemption the following month was likely a catalyst in the NSAC's decision to do so.

Throughout 2013, UFC president Dana White argued with any media scrutinization of Belfort. He would eventually fight in Las Vegas, White said, and if he isn't allowed to use TRT there, so be it. He'll compete without it.

[+] EnlargeVitor Belfort
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesThe UFC allowed Vitor Belfort to fight three times in 2013 while using TRT in his native Brazil, with all three bouts ending by knockout.
White's promise did not come to pass initially. After the NSAC banned TRT, Belfort was removed from the title fight that was scheduled in May. The main reason he was removed, however, was linked to a random NSAC drug test in February.

Here is where the NSAC comes in.

The NSAC elected to test Belfort randomly on Feb. 7 in Las Vegas -- a great initiative. More random testing is better. Everyone agrees on that. The results that came back technically constituted as a failed test, but probably not enough to suspend Belfort, who was an unlicensed fighter at the time.

His testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio was elevated, which is normal for a TRT patient. His serum testosterone level in the blood was also elevated, which is not normal and potentially equates to an athletic advantage.

A TRT patient should be able to maintain "normal" testosterone levels. Still, NSAC consulting physician Timothy Trainor said the results the NSAC had were not enough to conclude Belfort was "abusing" TRT. It is possible, although convenient if you're Belfort, that a doctor could unintentionally (and temporarily) spike levels.

Basically what this means is: Could the NSAC have suspended Belfort? It probably could have. Its case against him, however, was not especially strong. Its decision to license Belfort is debatable, but not shameful.

The UFC's stance on Belfort has always been clear. Within minutes of the NSAC's ruling, the company had announced his spot on the Dec. 6 title fight.

The UFC could have taken a stand on this. After months of having Belfort's back, officials could have said, "You kind of burned us, Vitor. We defended you on this and then in basically the first test Nevada orders of you, your testosterone is high. You don't come back to a title fight after that."

That was never going to happen, though. The UFC was always going to book the fight and even went so far, albeit very briefly, as to tease it might take place in Brazil.

How wrong it is of the UFC to still promote this fight is up to the individual. It's certainly not the first time a professional sports league, organization or franchise will have chosen business over perhaps a higher moral standard.

The majority of fans won't boycott the UFC 181 pay-per-view; in fact it should sell very well. And the champ himself, Weidman, has said all along he wanted to fight Belfort next.

Maybe all is well that ends well, but if you're unhappy about Belfort cashing in at the end of 2014, given everything that has happened, direct your anger toward the UFC -- because it definitely played a part in creating this.

'Cyborg' focused on bantamweight debut

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
9:30
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Invicta Fighting Championships featherweight champion Cris "Cyborg" Justino plans to make her 135-pound debut in December, according to her lawyer George Prajin.

Justino (12-1) has long said she would cut to bantamweight by the end of this year, but originally claimed she would fight one more time at featherweight. She has not competed in mixed martial arts since July 2013.

[+] EnlargeCris Justino-Marloes Coenen
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comCris "Cyborg" Justino is committed to dropping down in weight in order to make a fight against UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.
On Thursday, Invicta FC announced a live event on Sept. 6 in Kansas City, Mo. Justino was expected to fight on that card, but decided that doing so might compromise her ability to make 135 pounds by December.

Justino is committed to making the weight to book a potential fight against UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey in early 2015.

"We anticipated fighting three times this year in MMA and now she hasn't fought in almost a year," Prajin said. "We really had to think about it. If she fought in September, it was going to be hard to get down to 135 by December.

"If we're going to do this, we need to do it now. We don't know how long Ronda is going to be in the sport. She might pack up tomorrow and go do movies. Cris wants this fight. She doesn't want to miss the opportunity."

Prajin said the team has enlisted "weight cutting guru" Tony Aponte to help Justino make 135 pounds. The Brazilian currently struggles to make 145 pounds.

According to Prajin, Justino is walking "a little heavy" right now, due to not having a fight booked. She competed in a professional muay Thai bout in March, which she lost via unanimous decision to Jorina Baars.

"She was doing really well and then with the unknown of when she was going to fight, she kind of slacked off a little bit. We hired Tony Aponte, who has helped people cut weight for a long time."

Justino is planning a multi-week trip to Thailand in the coming month to train her muay Thai skills. Invicta FC has not yet announced a December card, but Prajin said that timetable is fairly reliable.

"That's pretty solid," Prajin said. "I don't know the exact date but we're assuming Ronda will be fighting around that time. Cris will fight on Fight Pass one or two weeks prior."

Khabilov seeks validation in Albuquerque

June, 5, 2014
Jun 5
3:37
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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In 2010, Dagestani lightweight Rustam Khabilov traveled halfway around the world to ask a very specific man a very specific question.

The man was martial arts guru Greg Jackson. The question: Am I good enough?

"The first time I came to the United States, I walked into Greg Jackson's gym to see if I could continue my pro career," Khabilov said, through an interpreter. "I wanted to know his opinion -- what he thought of me and if I had potential for the future."

Four years later, Khabilov (17-1) is still with Jackson in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Suffice it to say Jackson saw potential for the future.

"Honestly, that first conversation is only between me and Greg," Khabilov said. "The only thing I can say is that he has always believed in me."

Khabilov will look to answer another question this weekend in New Mexico when he meets former UFC lightweight champion Ben Henderson in the main event of UFC Fight Night 42 at Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque.

Regarding whether Khabilov is capable of fighting professionally, that has been answered -- he is 3-0 in the Octagon thus far. The question this time: Just how good is he? A win over Henderson (20-3), who defended the UFC title three times before losing it to Anthony Pettis last year, would say a lot.

"I think he has a combination of being able to handle himself outside the cage, talent, he's a good athlete and very coachable," Jackson said. "All of those elements it takes to win. If he deals well with pressure, he'll have the ingredients to be a champion."

[+] EnlargeRustam Khabilov
Al Bello/Getty ImagesRustam Khabilov, who defeated Yancy Medeiros in April, has caught the sport's attention with his powerful takedowns.
To hear Khabilov tell it, Jackson is largely responsible for where he's at today and it goes beyond the advice the head trainer feeds him between rounds.

Khabilov valued Jackson's assessment of his talent because in Russia, the trainer's name had become synonymous with winning. Khabilov read about the work Jackson did with UFC champions Georges St-Pierre and Rashad Evans.

If anyone was capable of saying if he could make it in the sport long term, it was Jackson. But Khabilov didn't expect him to invest so heavily in seeing it happen.

Upon arriving in the U.S. and hitting it off with Jackson-Winkeljohn, Khabilov turned his attention to signing with the UFC. He was undefeated, but says his management at the time made little progress with the world's largest fight promotion.

Khabilov says he was relatively broke and couldn't afford to stay in Albuquerque. He started to plan a permanent move back to Russia, where he would hopefully be able to cram 10 fights onto his resume in a relatively short time period.

Jackson stepped in and made arrangements to keep Khabilov in the States.

"Greg Jackson is like a brother to me," Khabilov said. "At one point in my career, I went through a hard time. Greg helped me out not only with training. He invited me to his house to say at his place. I love this man.

"He said, 'If you need anything -- home, money, food -- I'll do everything for you. You're not going anywhere.' After that, I fired my old manager and hired a new one and we've been moving really good."

Khabilov signed with the UFC in 2012 and quickly caught the sport's attention with his powerful takedowns. He knocked out Vinc Pichel after suplexing him to the floor in his UFC debut and then injured Yancy Medeiros during a takedown attempt.

That grappling ability, which Khabilov picked up alongside world-class wrestlers in Dagestan, will surely be tested this weekend. Henderson is a former NAIA collegiate All-American wrestler and one of the more physical lightweights in the UFC.

Khabilov, for one, likes the matchup. He should, as he was the one who requested the fight. Is he good enough to beat Henderson? So far, that kind of question has been met by a positive response for Khabilov.

"I'll try to finish this fight every single second," Khabilov said. "I don't want to leave it to the judges.

"We're going to check whose wrestling is better in this fight. I'm really excited about it. Ben Henderson is one of the best in the division and in the world."

Jackson: Courage not a problem for Jones

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
8:53
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Jon JonesNick Laham/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesGreg Jackson, left, believes Jon Jones' interest in Daniel Cormier has more to do with his own legacy.
Greg Jackson is not familiar with the exact reasons Jon Jones has for wanting to fight Daniel Cormier, rather than Alexander Gustafsson, in his next UFC title defense.

Jackson, Jones' longtime head trainer, is fairly certain, however, that "being scared" isn't one of them.

Jones (20-1) is reportedly scheduled to meet with UFC officials this week to discuss terms for his next light heavyweight title defense. The promotion is looking to book Jones to a rematch against Gustafsson, possibly on Aug. 30 in Las Vegas.

On Monday, UFC president Dana White revealed Jones has asked to fight Cormier in his next bout. Jones basically confirmed as much in an Instagram post on Tuesday.

Jones' preference has prompted accusations that he is "ducking" Gustafsson, whom he narrowly defeated via unanimous decision at UFC 165 in September. Jackson doesn't see it that way.

"Everybody is looking for a chink in his armor and they are desperate for it," Jackson told ESPN.com. "They are desperate, like, 'Please let us find something wrong with the guy.'

"I've never heard him say, 'I'll never fight Gustafsson again. I'm scared.' I've never seen that from him at all. I don't really think courage is a problem for Jon Jones. He goes up against the best guys in the division."

As for Jones' reasoning for wanting Cormier (15-0), Jackson speculated it might have something to do with elevating his legacy. Cormier represents a new challenge.

Jones, 26, often talks about leaving a mark in the sport.

"It might be a career move," Jackson said. "He already beat Gustafsson. Maybe he's looking for a challenge and doesn't feel that Gustafsson is the challenge everybody else thinks he is. I honestly don't know, but it could be that Cormier would escalate his greatness more than someone he has already beaten."

A rematch between Jones and Gustafsson (16-2) has seemed inevitable since the first meeting, but according to Jackson, he and Jones have spoken very little about it.

The UFC has taken a hard stance recently that Gustafsson would be next for Jones, but Jackson said he rarely discusses or strategizes for a fight before it's announced.

"That's kind of how a fan would think about the sport," Jackson said. "I'm a fan, too, but I don't have that luxury. If I'm in a camp for [Glover] Teixeira and I'm talking about Gustafsson, that doesn't make any sense. I don't say that, 'This fight is inevitable,' because I don't know. I have no idea. There are things I thought for sure would happen that didn't come to pass and the other way around.

"If we fight Cormier, he's super tough. Gustafsson is super tough. Wherever the coin lands on that, it doesn't really matter to me."



Henderson looking for final shot at UFC title

May, 22, 2014
May 22
3:48
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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LAS VEGAS -- The average age of the current UFC champions is 27 years, 10 months. Dan Henderson, who wants one final crack at a UFC belt, will turn 44 in August.

Those numbers aren't promising, but they could be worse. He could be turning 45.

Henderson (30-11) is considered one of the best mixed martial artists of all time -- a distinction that will remain in place regardless of what happens Saturday, when he faces undefeated light heavyweight Daniel Cormier at UFC 173 in Las Vegas.

The big knock on Henderson going into this fight is attached to his age. He's simply too old, man. Not too old to still win a fight here and there, but certainly too old to mix it up with Cormier, who is eight years younger. This can't end well for him.

Things didn't end well for him in November, when he was lifted off his feet by a left hook from Vitor Belfort and finished moments later with a head kick. He rebounded from the loss with a comeback TKO win over Mauricio Rua in March, but was nearly knocked out again in the first two rounds of that fight.

It's the lasting images of those two fights that seem to have many concerned about Henderson's health this weekend. For his part, Henderson says, that's fighting.

"There has been a few fights where that has happened to me," Henderson told ESPN.com. "Obviously, not quite as bad as the Vitor fight but real similar, where I got rocked and had to recover and ended up winning the fight. It wasn't anything new.

"Having it happen back-to-back in big settings where everybody is watching, I think that's why people are talking about it. Am I as quick as I used to be? Probably not. But I don't know. It's hard for me to tell. I don't feel old."

It seems incredible to think that Henderson began fighting professionally in 1997, first fought for the UFC in 1998, has won 30 fights during that time but never won a UFC title. It truly is the last empty space on his MMA bingo card.

And whether he feels old or not, Henderson acknowledges this could be his final run at that achievement. He says he won't lose sleep (at least not "too much sleep") if it never happens, but it'd be icing on the cake. And who eats cake without icing?

"I won't ever say 'never,' but, you know, there's not too many opportunities left for me to get that title belt," Henderson said.

UFC president Dana White has said the winner of Saturday's fight will be next in line to challenge for the 205-pound title.

[+] EnlargeDan Henderson
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comAt 43, Dan Henderson isn't shaken by the long odds against him on Saturday against Daniel Cormier at UFC 173.
A former champion in Pride and Strikeforce, Henderson has flirted with the UFC belt on several occasions, but never brought it home. He lost to Quinton Jackson in a light heavyweight title bout in September 2007, a fight he'd take back if he could.

Henderson had fought almost exclusively in a ring before that title fight and says he didn't acclimate himself enough to the cage beforehand. Six months later, he lost to Anderson Silva via submission in a bid for the UFC's middleweight title.

The one that might hurt the most, though, is UFC 151 in September 2012. Henderson was scheduled to fight Jon Jones in the main event of that card, but withdrew with a knee injury. He lost a non-title bout to Lyoto Machida in his return.

The Jones matchup was one Henderson badly wanted, as he bluntly stated ahead of the fight that Jones, 25 at the time, would only get better with age. Although he still believes he can beat Jones now, he's not as ripe for the picking as he was in 2012.

"I said that three or four years ago, that here is a guy who lacks experience and I'd rather fight him now rather than later," Henderson said. "I think he got offended when I said it, but it was absolutely true.

"He became champ at a young age with not many fights. I would have liked to fight him then, but it is what it is. I still think I can beat him."

To prove it, Henderson will have to find a way to beat an opponent who is a 9-1 favorite over him this weekend. To Henderson, those odds are just numbers. They mean little. Just like the number 43.

Glover Teixeira improving with age

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
10:51
AM ET
Huang By Michael Huang
ESPN.com
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Yes, Glover Teixeira is 34 years old.

At a time when UFC fighters generally begin their decent into physical and skill-set mediocrity, Teixeira has only now risen to his peak.

Teixeira (22-2) hasn’t lost since 2005 and is 5-0 since coming to the UFC in 2012. In his last fight, against Ryan Bader in September, Teixeira dismantled Bader via first-round TKO. However, against UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones at UFC 172 on Saturday, Teixeira gives away 8 inches of reach and about eight years in age to the 26-year-old Jones.

But consider age a state of mind. Just don’t call Teixeira old. Sure, it took him a while just to get to the UFC, but with the quick work he made of his opponents, a title shot in the UFC never seemed far off.

“Well, I had trouble with my visa and I was stuck in Brazil, so I couldn’t get into the UFC,” Teixeira said. “But some things happen for a reason. So during that time I was able to get more experience. It worked out good for me in the end.”

Indeed, that experience will have to take him far against Jones, who says he was renewed and invigorated in this fight camp after what he viewed as his lackluster performance against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165 in September. Gustafsson went the distance with Jones, who broke a toe in the process. Jones said he had the “worst camp of his career” in preparing for Gustafsson, but the champ said he's completely prepared this time.

Teixeira doesn’t seem to care. And why should he? Teixeira hasn’t lost in nine years. He only knows how to win.
[+] EnlargeGlover Teixeira
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comTraining with the likes of King Mo Lawal has helped prepare Glover Teixeira for what's to come against Jon Jones.

He admits he had some butterflies before his first UFC fight against Kyle Kingsbury at UFC 146; it was a happy nervous that he was finally fighting in the UFC. Now, against Jones, there might be some of that in fighting for a title. But it’s not because of Jones.

Teixeira attributes this to the support he’s received at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla. He’s sparring with champions and All-Americans every day. So to him, Jones is just another guy.

“At ATT, I have great coaches and training partners. Muay Thai, jiu-jitsu champions, K-1 champions. They also brought John Hackleman down to train with, and Steve Mocco is one of the best wrestlers in U.S. history. I trained with him for my last three fights. King Mo [Muhammed Lawal] was there for half the camp. There’s so much talent and experience to learn from. Jones is the champ and he is great, but right now he’s just another guy in front of me.”

Teixeira’s wins in the UFC have dispelled the notion that his competition outside the league was substandard. There was some lack of name recognition, both from his previous opponents and for himself. Mauricio Rua reportedly declined to fight Teixeira for UFC 149, citing Teixeira’s then-lack of ranking within the light heavyweight division. UFC boss Dana White was not happy. But Teixeira couldn’t be mad at his fellow countryman.

“I don’t think what he did was cool, but I don’t like, how do you say it -- holding a grudge,” Teixeira said. “That was only a year and a half ago, maybe. And now I’m fighting for the title. So what do I have to be mad about?”

And you can bet Rua would take a fight with Teixeira now.

It is this easygoing, nice-guy demeanor that makes it seem as if Teixeira is still flying under the radar. Certainly, after he got to the UFC, it didn’t take long for him to run through anyone the UFC put in front of him. And calling Jones “just another guy” doesn’t come off as bravado. Rather, it seems simply more like a serendipitous perspective. Whatever comes his way, he’ll take it on. He doesn’t overly self-promote despite a healthy 57,000 Twitter followers. There just isn’t a lot of show.

“I’ll fight anyone who the UFC asks me to fight,” Teixeira said. “It doesn’t matter; I’m just glad to be fighting in the UFC and I want that belt.”

He’ll have to figure out a way to close the distance between him and Jones (that is, Jones' massive reach advantage). To be sure, Teixeira’s chin has yet to be tested.

But he’s confident in both phases of his game: “Since I came to the UFC, I’ve improved everything in my game. My wrestling, my striking and having more overall experience. My coaches have made a good strategy for me so now it’s time for me to do it in the Octagon and take that belt.”

Sounds like Teixeira is just getting started. Not bad for an "old" guy.

Clay Guida: I'm a dangerous fight right now

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
6:22
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
Clay GuidaEd Mulholland for ESPN.comDespite his recent losing skid, Clay Guida is poised to bounce back Friday against Tatsuya Kawajiri.
As far as losing skids go, this latest one is nothing new to UFC featherweight Clay Guida.

Guida (30-14), who is 1-3 in his last four fights, will look for a big win at 145 pounds this week when he meets Tatsuya Kawajiri at UFC Fight Night 39 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

It's the third time in Guida's 11-year professional career that he has managed one win over a four-fight stretch. The first two didn't derail him, and neither, he says, will this one.

"I've been on a skid and then ripped off three or four wins over tough opposition in a big way," Guida told ESPN.com. "Right now is a dangerous time for anyone I fight -- I'll leave it at that."

It's not as if Guida has been uncompetitive. He lost a back-and-forth lightweight bout to former champion Ben Henderson in November 2011. Seven months later, he dropped a split-decision loss in Atlantic City, N.J., to Gray Maynard in a fight he believes he won.

"When a guy is swearing at you and flipping you off in the middle of the cage, that guy isn't winning," said Guida, describing the fourth round of that lightweight fight. "Those bonehead judges in New Jersey need to find new jobs."

[+] EnlargeGray Maynard
Ed Mulholland for ESPNClay Guida, left, feels he did enough to earn the nod against Gray Maynard.
Following a split-decision win over Hatsu Hioki in his January 2013 featherweight debut, Guida suffered the first TKO loss of his career to Chad Mendes in August.

At the time, Guida didn't forcefully protest the stoppage of that fight, but he says he was far from finished when referee Yves Lavigne ended things in the third round. Guida absorbed a few heavy right hands but was working to stand up when it was called.

"I was talking to Yves Lavigne like we were having breakfast," Guida said. "I said, 'Dude, what are you doing? You've seen me dropped before.' I was back up running around the cage.

"It didn't make any sense to get mad about it. It's not like they could have restarted the clock. I'm an adult. Getting mad, I don't think solves things."

Ultimately, Guida understands losing streaks are part of the sport at the highest level, which is why he's not too concerned about shaking things up in this current skid. And he welcomed the chance to fight a name like Kawajiri in Abu Dhabi.

"You look at the competition I've fought and you're bound to come up a little short in some fights, unfortunately," Guida said. "You change minor details and make tweaks your coaching staff wants. You have to believe in the system and what got you here, and what got me here was having fun and leaving it all out there.

"Kawajiri is going to be on my long list of a winning record, or however you want to say it. He's not going to win. I'm going out to show this guy what a true 145-er is all about."

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