MMA: Rick Story
He wasn't crazy about it being in Stockholm because, in his words, traveling for a fight "always sucks." But for a main event, for the first time in his six-year UFC career? Done.
Then he got to thinking: Why him?
Story, 30, is 4-5 in his past nine fights. He's not highly ranked or even on a winning streak. That's when it dawned on him the UFC might be sending him half a world away to basically be dinner for an Icelandic welterweight prospect by the name of Gunnar Nelson.
"I was kind of surprised when I got the main event," Story told ESPN.com. "And then I sat and thought about it and realized Gunnar is from over there. They are trying to see if he's ready for a step up in competition. I kind of felt like, maybe I'm the sacrificial lamb for Gunnar to catapult himself into the top 10."
Nelson (13-0-1), despite praising Story's hard-nosed fighting style, acknowledged this weekend's fight at Ericsson Globe Arena represents a chance to prove himself over a well-tested opponent.
I was kind of surprised when I got the main event. And then I sat and thought about it and realized Gunnar is from [the Nordic region]. They are trying to see if he's ready for a step up in competition. I kind of felt like, maybe I'm the sacrificial lamb for Gunnar to catapult himself into the top 10.” -- Rick Story, on what he feels is a steppingstone status for Gunnar Nelson in Sweden
"The opportunity here is to fight Rick Story, who is very experienced and has fought a lot of tough guys," Nelson said. "Going against him is an opportunity to grow and also get my name out there. Climb the ladder faster. Get up there and get more money."
Story (17-8) says he isn't letting this realization, true or not, ruin his Scandinavian trip.
A 16-fight veteran of the Octagon, Story understands where he is in the 170-pound landscape. He is one of only two men to have ever gotten the better of current UFC champion Johny Hendricks, but that December 2010 win feels like it was light years ago. For the past four years, he's been a .500 fighter.
This year, however, Story made a major career change. He severed all ties with longtime coach Pat White and joined The MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona. The move was desperately needed, as Story says he and White had not seen eye-to-eye for years. The only reason he stuck with him as long as he did, Story said, was financial.
"Honestly, I outgrew him a long time ago, but I was part-owner of a business with him and I had invested quite a bit," Story said.
Story is currently trying to recoup money he says he lent to White for a fitness center in Vancouver, Washington. The legal process could drag on for an extended period of time, but Story says all contact between him and White is now made through lawyers.
It actually took his girlfriend and her mother to persuade Story to break ties with White, whom he began training with at the age of 22.
"My girlfriend and her mother are involved with psychology and they printed out a list of symptoms of psychological abuse," Story said. "I ran down the list and I was experiencing them from Pat. While I was reading it, I was like, 'I'm not a punk. I can't stay with this, now that I know it's going on.'"
Story, who was in title contention in 2011 due to a six-fight win streak, says the move to The MMA Lab has reinvigorated his career and given him confidence against opponents such as the undefeated Nelson, who trains out of Iceland and SBG Ireland, alongside featherweight phenom Conor McGregor.
"The biggest change is that I actually go into practice excited," Story said. "For a long time I hated going to practice because I didn't want to be around Pat and I knew we were doing stupid things in the camp. It's really a great thing to be away from him and, hopefully, consistency comes back for me."
Last weekend, American Top Team product Dustin Poirier was in a situation similar to Story -- as he represented what many felt to be the first real test of McGregor's career at UFC 178. McGregor passed with flying colors, knocking out Poirier inside the first round.
Story admits he watched the fight with vested interest and was impressed with McGregor's fluidity, something he expects to see in his fight against Nelson.
He understands the role he might be in -- sent to Sweden to build up the résumé of a younger, more promising prospect. Obviously, he has other thoughts for his first main event.
"As long as I can keep a pace up on him and make him work hard to try and take me down multiple times," Story said. "That's definitely going to take a toll on him.
"I'm pretty strong. Having to deal with my strength is going to wear him out. Granted, I'm sure he's comfortable grappling with bigger, stronger people. But at the same time, when those people are hitting you back, it's [a different story]."
Hendricks will need confidence, patience, discipline, intelligence, offensive and defensive grappling, stamina, feints, level changes, head movement, footwork and, maybe, some luck for good measure. A little luck never hurt anybody in a UFC title fight.
That left hand, though -- the reason you hear so much about it is because even though Hendricks (15-1) must take every tool he has into the Octagon against St-Pierre, at any moment that one left hand might be all it takes.
What is it about that left hand that makes it so dangerous and gives us reason to believe Hendricks could become just the third man to ever defeat St-Pierre (24-2), and first since 2007?
ESPN.com asked that question of Hendricks, as well as St-Pierre and five previous Hendricks opponents with firsthand knowledge of that stinging left.
Hendricks: "Realistically, [the power] comes from my legs and my butt. I walk around at 225. I have big legs and a big butt. That's where all the power comes from. And, you know, wrestling -- always being in that stance and ready to explode."
Handling Hendricks' power
T.J. Grant (lost to Hendricks via majority decision at UFC 113 in May 2010): "The thing is, he doesn't have to try to throw for power -- he just has it. He has always got his legs involved in every punch, too. That's when you murder guys, when you have your feet and hips involved in every punch. That's why Johny has so much power is all his life in wrestling. When he throws that big Popeye forearm at your head, you're going to go down."
St-Pierre: "His left is his signature move but he works on many things. He's a very complete fighter. He's probably one of the best in the division in knockout power and the reason why is he's so good you don't see it coming. The way he throws it, I believe you don't see it coming."
Martin Kampmann (lost to Hendricks via knockout at UFC 154 in November 2012): "I think the problem was I was preparing too much for the left hook and then he came straight with one. The one he got [Jon] Fitch with, he was throwing it wide, wide. With me, he came straight down the middle."
Rick Story (defeated Hendricks via unanimous decision at TUF 12 Finale in December 2010): "During the fight, when he was punching me, I thought, 'Eh, this is nothing I haven't felt before.' He's placing them. His punching power isn't seriously superior. To be able to place them you have to throw them and some people hesitate. He has got confidence in it now so he's throwing a lot more."
Josh Koscheck (lost to Hendricks via split decision at UFC on Fox in May 2012): "For me, it was no big deal. I like fighting southpaws. I prefer it. They are better for my style. When he throws the left, I throw the right. I think he has definitely got power in his hands because he has knocked out a lot of guys and the ones he hasn't have felt it because they've been knocked down, but for me it was no big deal."
Mike Pierce (lost to Hendricks via split decision at UFC 133 in August 2011): "It wasn't his straight left hand that caught me off guard. His left uppercut is kind of funky and then his coach [Marc Laimon] yelling, 'Cheeseburger, cheeseburger!' code names for combinations. He hits pretty hard but not the hardest. I got thumped pretty hard by Aaron Simpson, that was probably the hardest I've ever been hit."
Koscheck: "The game plan for Johny was to mix it up on the feet. You can hear [trainer] Bob Cook in the corner, it's crazy, he's always saying, 'Get off first! Be first!' That was pretty much our game plan -- get off first, get on him. With Hendricks, it's much easier to get off first and then get away from the big left hand."
Grant: "He has got timing. He puts his whole body behind his punches. He is accurate but a lot of times he also level changes with his head and hips and that kind of brings the guys' hands down. He 100 percent commits. He's a confident fighter. When you're confident, you don't hesitate and those milliseconds of hesitation are the difference between knocking a guy out or taking him down."
Story: "What's important for Georges is to stay out of Johny's range. What's important for Johny is to get into Georges' range. He's going to have to mix it up and get pretty creative. Georges has been doing this a long time."
Hendricks: "Whenever you're wrestling in college, you've got to do all these setups and your reaction from [outside of an opponent to inside] has to penetrate through all these distractions and get to the legs very quickly and explosively. That's what has really helped me out [in fighting]. They try to keep me at bay because I'm so short, but I use that explosiveness to close the distance."
Kampmann: "If Johny catches him on the button he'll hurt him, but St-Pierre is going to fight him smart. He's going to try to jab him from the outside the whole fight. Johny is good at closing the distance but he's going to get jabbed the whole fight. If Johny commits hard, that's how I think St-Pierre will take him down. Even though Johny is the better wrestler, I think St-Pierre can still take him down. That's how I think St-Pierre is going to fight him, but sometimes s--- don't go to plan."
Koscheck: "Johny Hendricks is a tough young fighter and I wish him the best but I think St-Pierre will outpoint him. Georges is smart. He's a game planner. He'll jab, use his wrestling at times, keep Johny at a distance and get off first. Georges is a lot faster than Johny. He'll end up winning a decision."
Pierce: "I'm definitely going for Johny Hendricks. I want to see him knock Georges St-Pierre out. In his past several fights Johny has really excelled at catching guys. St-Pierre has shown in the past he doesn't have the best chin in the world. We all saw him fall to Matt Serra and I think Hendricks has all the capabilities to do the same sort of thing and even more so."
Grant: "You can never count Georges out of any fight, but I think this is probably the most dangerous fighter he has fought just because Johny has that great wrestling pedigree. Unlike Koscheck, I feel like he's really good at making the knockout happen, whereas Koscheck wings a lot of right hands and if it doesn't land, he doesn't always have the second and third option -- I think Johny does. I give the advantage to Johny, personally."
Hendricks: "Whenever you get a guy that walks in at 190 to 195 pounds -- that's usually what I walk into the Octagon at -- and you get that moving pretty quick, he can throw a 50 percent punch and lay somebody out. It's about accuracy. You touch that jawline and anybody is going night-night."
If that sounds unpleasant, it's probably because it most likely is. The best thing Story could think of when it comes to staying in a hotel for that long?
"It's kind of nice," he mumbled unconvincingly. "All the accommodations are here as far as toilet paper and shampoo -- and stuff."
Got it. And at the top of the many general reasons one might want to avoid this situation, Story doesn't speak French. Meaning, a large fraction of the French Canadian television channels available in his room are completely worthless to him.
"I've been killing time watching Netflix," Story said. "I've been watching a lot of Netflix."
Pause. "A lot of Netflix."
In addition to streaming online movies, Story spent his time in Montreal developing his craft at Tristar Gym alongside UFC champion Georges St-Pierre. It's the first time Story (15-7), who meets Brian Ebersole at UFC 167 on Saturday in Las Vegas, has held a fight camp outside his home state of Washington.
The idea of Story temporarily joining the Tristar team was first broached in March, in a locker room the two fighters shared at UFC 158 at Bell Centre.
St-Pierre was headlining the card in a welterweight title fight against Nick Diaz. In the co-main event, Johny Hendricks was set to take on Carlos Condit. Everyone in the building knew if St-Pierre and Hendricks won, they'd fight each other next.
And as fate would have it, there was Story -- the only man with a win over Hendricks -- scheduled to fight Quinn Mulhern on the preliminary card, sharing a locker room with the Canadian champ.
"[Tristar coach] Firas Zahabi was very persistent in getting us to come," Story said. "Pat White is my coach and he and Pat talked that night in Montreal.
"Originally, we thought it would be better if Johny beat Georges, because I'm the only one to ever beat him so it would make it easier to get a title shot sooner. Firas was so persistent, though. He kept emailing Pat, calling Pat, calling the gym."
Eventually, the deal Tristar offered was too good to pass up. In addition to the benefit of high-level sparring partners including St-Pierre, Zahabi worked a deal that covered the cost of Story's entire eight-week stay.
"I don't know exactly how the deal was worked out, but we had our hotel paid," Story said. "Pat and I have separate rooms, he's been here with me the whole time. Our food is paid for. It was like, a great deal."
As much as St-Pierre obviously wanted Story in his camp, the timing of this experience probably couldn't be better for Story as well.
That signature win over Hendricks in December 2010 is a fairly distant memory. A six-fight winning streak had him cracking top-10 lists in early 2011, but Story has endured a 2-4 skid in his past six fights. He suffered a split-decision loss to Mike Pyle in his previous performance at UFC 160 in May.
Physically, Story says, he has been fine during this stretch. It's been a mental issue. Every fighter handles a loss differently. In Story's case, for whatever reason, it was difficult to get going again once the winning streak was broken.
"I don't want this to sound the wrong way, but you walk the walk for a long time, you get knocked off course and then it's kind of hard to get back on the horse," Story said.
"I lost to [Charlie] Brenneman and then there were some fights that I wasn't completely focused on. I wasn't doing the things I needed to be doing to go into the fight with confidence. It was really cool being able to come here and do that for this training camp, with no distractions. My confidence is through the roof right now."
Confidence, a few new techniques, and all of the free travel-size shampoo bottles he can handle -- maybe Montreal wasn't so bad to Story after all.
The thing about Mike Tyson was that everybody saw him coming. From the opening bell it felt as if his opponents were fighting from check, trying to avoid the savage exchange that would end, inevitably, in a violent checkmate. He was cageside for UFC 160, and to this day his celebrity transcends the fight game. When the MGM Grand flashed him on the screen, the place filled with that same old familiar apprehension and awe.
The thing about TJ Grant is, nobody saw him coming, apart from a few Nova Scotia residents and prelim connoisseurs. Grant came into his fight with Gray Maynard as a slight underdog. He had won four fights in a row at his new weight of 155 pounds, but in a standing-room only division of elites, he was a sort of fringe. When he crashed Matt Wiman’s momentum in January, the UFC saddled him with Gray Maynard, who had to drop out of a more profiled fight with Jim Miller because of a knee injury. In the interstices, things changed. Anthony Pettis volunteered for a fight with Jose Aldo at 145 pounds, Gilbert Melendez lost to Benson Henderson and Miller fought (and lost to) Pat Healy.
Somehow, Grant’s fight with Maynard became a conditional sort of No. 1 contender bout.
And did he ever make the most of it. Grant stood toe-to-toe with the hard-hitting Maynard, and ate a heater that made his ears ring. But then he got his in. He rocked Maynard with a shot that sent him reeling. As he reeled on the fence, Grant smelled blood on the water and slammed a knee into Maynard’s head. He then pursued him with a flurry of big shots that dropped Maynard for good. The win was emphatic enough for Dana White -- on the fence about whether Grant should get the shot or not, given his perpetual prelim residence of yore -- to put Grant’s odds of fighting for the lightweight belt next at “100 percent.”
You know who else liked it? Mike Tyson. There was something in Grant’s kill-switch that rang home for him. Though Junior dos Santos’ late spinning wheel-kick knockout of Mark Hunt went in for frills, Grant’s KO of Maynard was a blood-dimmed tide. So, when White got ready to award dos Santos with a bonus check for knockout of the night, Tyson inserted that it should go to Grant. And so it did.
And so the next title shot does.
FIVE QUESTIONS ANSWERED
Can things be different for Bigfoot this time?
Of course! He lasted a full 17 seconds longer with Velasquez the second time through, but once again the referee was prying Velasquez off of him while screaming “that’s enough already!” Silva didn’t agree with the stoppage, but at that point in the fight his resistances were down to nothing.
Can Hunt KO dos Santos?
He came awfully close to proving that he could, but could never square the follow-up shot to dos Santos’ chin. To his credit, he ate a couple of harrowing shots himself, and still managed to last into the final minute of a three-round fight with a crusher like “Cigano.”
Is there still wonder to Wonderboy?
Let’s put it this way, what Stephen Thompson did to Nah-Shon Burrell was passable, but it wasn’t spectacular. Yes, he whizzed a couple of kicks by Burrell’s head (and landed a couple, too), but it was more of a grind than anything. In our basic Wikipedia sense, though, a win’s a win.
Is Cain Velasquez the greatest heavyweight champ ever?
This question was posed before the fights somewhat purposefully prematurely. Though it can be asked with a little more timeliness now, the win over Silva realistically only proves that he can guard against complacency. If he works JdS over again, like he did last time? Gentleman, start you coronations!
Does KJ Noons belong in a fight with Donald Cerrone?
That was a licking that Noons took at the hands of Cerrone, yet he hung around long enough to hear the judge’s scorecards tell him what we already knew -- no, he didn’t belong in that fight with “Cowboy.”
FIVE NEW QUESTIONS
Ready for the big trilogy?
Junior dos Santos took Cain Velasquez’s belt back in 2011 with such an effective, tree-felling punch that it was almost unspectacular. Velasquez responded with a five-round battery to reclaim that belt. Now, with a couple of obstacles out of their way, it’s time for dos Santos/Velasquez III. Can you dig it?
Where does Hunt go from here?
There’s no shame in the way Mark Hunt lost. There was a moment in that first round where he had dos Santos staggered and was very close to cueing the knell with a couple of bombs that just missed. What now? Could roll out Hunt versus Josh Barnett or Hunt versus Antonio Silva or, eventually, Hunt versus Roy Nelson, and there’d be no complaints.
Teixeira as contender?
With his submission of James Te Huna, Glover Teixeira is now 4-0 in the UFC, and 19-0 going back to 2005. If that doesn’t scream “Geronimo!” in the UFC’s light heavyweight division, nothing will. But with the logjam right now, Teixeira -- no fool -- requested a fight with the winner of Rashad Evans/Dan Henderson next. Sounds good to us.
Can you see the Forrest, through the trees?
In the aftermath of UFC 160, Forrest Griffin announced his retirement, and Dana White announced that he and Stephan Bonnar -- the seminal figures who socked each other into our collective consciousness back in 2005 at the original TUF finale -- would be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. (Slow clap).
Is Nurmagomedov the next big thing?
The idea of Khabib Nurmagomedov missing weight might have had Dana White hissing like Nosferatu in a beam of sunlight, but what a nihilistic thing he did to Abel Trujillo. Twenty-one takedowns is a company record. By this time next year, we might be talking about Nurmy as a threat to whoever’s holding that lightweight belt (hopefully challenging him at something other than a catchweight).
STOCK UP/STOCK DOWN
TJ Grant -- He may have looked like a woodwork contender before Maynard, but afterward he looks like a viable challenge to Benson Henderson. Nova Scotia did not shrink from the spotlight.
Donald Cerrone -- You know how you make people forget the time you got your liver kicked up through your diaphragm? By doing what Cerrone did to KJ Noons. Looks like Cowboy has another run in him.
Mike Pyle -- Before we start talking about 37-year-old Mike Pyle ossifying before our eyes, we might want to wait for the judge’s decision. Was it a generous scorecard in his split decision victory over Rick Story? Definitely. But that’s four in a row since losing to Rory MacDonald at UFC 133.
George Roop -- Got to hand it to Roop. He took his lumps early against Brian Bowles, but he’s resilient -- all 6-foot-1, buck-thirty-five of him is resilient.
Antonio Silva -- When a loss is this one-sided (again), you begin to question the sincerity of the wins to get there. For instance, what happens if Travis Browne hadn’t been hurt, or if Alistair Overeem hadn’t been cocky?
Gray Maynard -- What a tough stretch for the “Bully.” He was 11-0-1 heading into 2011, but has since gone 1-2-1. The lone victory in that was the bizarre game of pursuit he played with Guida. For now, Maynard’s title aspirations took a bigger hit than anything specific Grant hit him with.
Brian Bowles -- It had been 18 months since we last saw Bowles, and the WEC champion looked good for that first round. Then the hatch opened up, and Roop was dropping wiry dispatches on him from Tucson.
MATCHES TO MAKE
For Silva -- A battle with Mark Hunt, or a cruel encounter with Josh Barnett.
For Teixeira -- Truthfully, if Dan Henderson gets by Rashad Evans at UFC 161, a Teixeira/Hendo fight might require fire marshals and riot units.
For Velasquez -- That third and most coveted bout with Junior dos Santos, and a chance to become the UFC’s greatest heavy.
For Donald Cerrone -- How fun would a scrap be between Cowboy and Gilbert Melendez?
For Khabib Nurmagomedov -- Think he could do what he did to Abel Trujillo against Gray Maynard? Only one way to find out.
Then it became actual theater.
Diaz alternately complimented St-Pierre and spat on him, often in the same breath. St-Pierre, who is usually a picture of intense cool, came unmoored a little bit. He had trouble getting a word in edgewise as Diaz rambled on about being pampered and St-Pierre's tight shorts. By the time St-Pierre called Diaz an "uneducated fool," his dark place seemed like more than "putting American quarters in vending machines," as MMA Junkie's Dann Stupp joked on Twitter. His personal torment bubbled up to the surface for a minute for everyone to glimpse.
All of this begs the question: Is Diaz in St-Pierre's head a little bit? The answer is: of course! He can't not be. But this is all just fun with intangibles. When you think about the fight itself, it's easier to imagine St-Pierre's wrestling nullifying that "Stockton Slap" than vice versa. If Saturday night's main event goes to the ground, and St-Pierre puts the hurt on Diaz (for five rounds, or for one explosive one), the sound you'll hear might be laughter emanating from St-Pierre's dark place.
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW/STORYLINES
Jake Ellenberger as dark horse contender
The third welterweight fight on the card pairs up Jake Ellenberger with Nate Marquardt. No, a win over Marquardt won't be the same as if he had beat his original opponent, Johny Hendricks. But an emphatic victory still might launch Ellenberger into title consideration if (A) Hendricks loses to Carlos Condit, (B) St-Pierre handles Diaz and (C) the UFC thinks it's too soon to roll out Condit-St-Pierre II.
The rise of Darren Elkins
The rise of Chris Camozzi
The middleweight division has gone on a long time without a Chris Camozzi to come along and mess things up. But guess what? If Camozzi gets by Nick Ring on Saturday night, he's suddenly riding a four-fight winning streak and begins to encroach on top-10 radars.
St-Pierre, Diaz as rivals
Rivalries consist of more than heated arguments and rising dander, don't they? The headlining fight between Diaz and St-Pierre is being loosely dubbed a "rivalry," even though this is their first meeting. Yes, they were booked to fight each other in 2011 before Diaz's insubordination became a thing. But a rivalry? If Diaz pulls off the upset Saturday night, then we've got a rivalry. Forget rematch -- that would open the floodgates to a trilogy.
Diaz's long layoff
Diaz will have gone 405 days between fights, which is the longest layoff of his career. Just how this will affect him remains to be seen. The longest he went before that was 314 days between his first pro MMA bout and his second, back in 2001-02. How did he respond to that gulf? By decisioning Chris Lytle. Of course, that was eons ago, when he was barely 18 years old and things like metabolites were still tucked away in their lexicons.
Can Diaz get back up?
Can St-Pierre get a finish?
It has been four years since St-Pierre finished a fight, and that was at UFC 94 against B.J. Penn. Even in that one, it wasn't overly dramatic -- Penn simply didn't answer the fifth-round bell after a steady mauling. A statistic such as that can lead to "pressure," and St-Pierre can't help but feel it. Chances are, when the fight feels comfortable enough, he'll look for the finish.
Is Hendricks next with a win?
We've been asking this same question since last year when the tulips came up in the spring and Hendricks was fighting Koscheck -- does a win get Hendricks a title shot? The answer is, of course -- maybe. Hendricks not only beat Koscheck, he salted Martin Kampmann next for good measure -- and yet here he is again opening for St-Pierre's big act. Unless the roof falls in on the Bell Centre, a win over Condit should get him that evasive title shot.
Can Diaz win a decision in Montreal?
Diaz doesn't particularly like judges, because he suspects they don't like him (see: UFC 143). But let's make something clear: If his fight with St-Pierre, a native son of Quebec, goes to the gavels, his chances of victory share a percentage with the world's most popular milk (2%). Not necessarily because of hometown favoritism (though there's that), but because can you imagine St-Pierre getting outpointed?
If Marquardt-Ellenberger goes past the first round, then what?
Your guess is good as mine. As Brett Okamoto pointed out, Ellenberger likes to throw punches with such all-or-nothing force early in fights that he's running on fumes toward the end. Then again, Marquardt has had some trouble with determined wrestlers (such as Yushin Okami and Chael Sonnen), and if patient dictation of the will is Ellenberger's tact, this thing becomes a crapshoot.
WHO’S ON THE HOT SEAT
Reuben Duran -- See above, only reversed.
Rick Story -- Remember when he dominated Thiago Alves and was calling out Fitch and Koscheck? Distant memory. Losing to Strikeforce immigrant Quinn Mulhern would make it four losses in five fights, which is a roundabout way of saying "curtains."
Patrick Cote -- Since coming back to the UFC, he lost very unspectacularly to Cung Le and then was the victim of a series of illegal back-of-the-head blows from Alessio Sakara last time the UFC visited Montreal (remember that inexplicable brainlock?). Play the dramatic doom music: Cote is walking the plank against Bobby Voelker this weekend.
Mike Ricci -- That knockout of Neil Magny during TUF 16 was fun, but if he drops to 0-2 in the UFC by losing to Colin Fletcher, it's hard to justify his roster spot.
Colin Fletcher -- The mask. Won't. Save him.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it's a welterweight bonanza that features the best 170-pound fighter ever (St-Pierre) ... because St-Pierre has good reason to abandon "safe" in his attempt to punish Diaz ... because Diaz doesn't do "safe," and fights off his back like a fire hose that got away from its handler ... because with Hendricks, the word "southpaw" barely describes the brute force in that left hand … because Ellenberger leaves behind his aura each time he throws a first-round punch … because that's Marquardt's chin he's aiming at … because Carlos Condit is due for a finish after going 0-for-2 in 2012 in that department … because St-Pierre's dark place becomes, for one night only, a popular destination.
That was six months ago, which is an eternity in MMA.
Today, Kampmann is in the penultimate spot to a title fight in the UFC’s welterweight division. There were so many top-name fighters in this weight class that Kampmann barely registered in the fall of last year: champion Georges St. Pierre, Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz, B.J. Penn, Johny Hendricks, Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Rory MacDonald, Shields, Sanchez and Jake Ellenberger. While this cluster of contenders turned on each other, Kampmann -- with his back against the wall -- silently erased Story from the list, then did the same to Thiago Alves in March.
Now Kampmann has done so to Ellenberger, and just like that, Kampmann is a player once again in a division that had long since disregarded him. Ellenberger, with his six-fight winning streak, was the tide-turner for Kampmann, and it looks like he’ll fight Hendricks in a title eliminator next.
To reiterate, the “Hitman” -- left for scraps back when he lost a pair of close fights -- is a bout away from St. Pierre’s belt a little over a year later. That’s how fast the landscape changes in a game of ultimate attrition. That’s how fast careers can reshape and come roaring back to life in the UFC.
While Kampmann is being talked about as a picture of perseverance, he also serves as a reminder that losses don’t necessarily spell the end. This isn’t the BCS.
And if any of this sounds familiar, it’s because we just saw Nate Diaz do basically the same thing at 155 pounds. When Diaz came back to lightweight after losing two in a row at 170 pounds, he was buried behind a full bank of elite names in the UFC’s most stacked division. He too was on the cusp of losing all relevancy. Yet he breezed through Takanori Gomi, then landed 260 strikes on Donald Cerrone en route to a decision, and finally submitted Jim Miller earlier this year, becoming the first ever to do so.
In Diaz’s case, Cerrone was the tide-turner; Miller, the exclamation mark. In Kampmann’s case, the only thing left to do is to punctuate Hendricks.
Now Diaz finds himself in position to fight the winner of Frankie Edgar/Benson Henderson, if he chooses to wait. Essentially, momentum is his to do with as he pleases -- and momentum is a funny thing. It’s hard to pinpoint its origins, but somewhere Diaz found momentum when nobody was paying him any attention. Eight months ago, if you said Nate Diaz would be fighting for a UFC belt before his older brother Nick, people would have suspected you were smoking something.
Kampmann is no different.
And all of this underscores the thing everybody knows -- crazy things happen in MMA. Guys get hurt. Guys get suspended. Guys get derailed by guys nobody sees coming while divisions are hijacked with unforeseen circumstances. People appear, people disappear and -- in the cases of Kampmann and Diaz -- people reappear.
In that way, it’s a good thing hype is interchangeable. There are new fighters rushing the flagpole each time we attempt to make sense of a division’s hierarchy. That’s why trying to figure out what’s going to happen six months from now is next to impossible.
And yet looking back the other way, it doesn’t make what Kampmann and Diaz have been able to do any less improbable.
It took Brenneman just a bit more than 24 hours to vault himself into the welterweight conversation in June, when he stepped in on short notice for the ousted Nate Marquardt and upset Rick Story via unanimous decision at UFC Live 5. Suddenly, Story was out of the immediate title picture and out of favor, while Brenneman was in. Just another victory or two against increasingly difficult opponents and the Holidaysburg, Penn., native would be knocking on the door of the top 10 and within striking distance of a shot at 170-pound gold against Georges St. Pierre.
Saturday night in Washington, D.C., it took just two minutes, 49 seconds for all that momentum to clatter off the rails. Brenneman looked out of his depth against the mammoth Anthony Johnson, as Johnson returned from six months of inactivity to cruise to a first round high-kick KO victory.
There has been some grumbling about the stoppage, as Brenneman was still clearly conscious when referee Mario Yamasaki called a halt to the action after witnessing him crumple to the canvas at the end of Johnson’s foot. The stoppage may well have only saved Brenneman more punishment, however, as he already appeared stunned by a hard shot from Johnson during a scramble and accepted the final blow with his hands down near his waist as he attempted to find his balance.
Regardless of the nature of the stoppage, there can be little debate about the rest of the fight. Brenneman just wasn’t able to muster much offense, as Johnson easily fended off his increasingly desperate-looking takedown attempts and bullied the smaller man on the ground, pushing his head into the mat and punishing him with alternating shots to the body and the head.
In the wake of the loss, Brenneman’s status as a welterweight contender will no doubt be a topic of some debate. Surely, there will be those who think he was over-hyped after he trumped Story in a bout where neither guy had much time at all to prepare for the specifics. There will be others who will contend that Brenneman simply fell victim to a nightmarish matchup against the bigger, more powerful opponent, who seemed to have the fight won as soon as he foiled Brenneman’s wrestling. The truth is likely somewhere in between.
Certainly, Brenneman’s career is far from derailed. Even with the defeat, he has still won nine of his last 11, is just 30 years old and trains with one of the sport’s most highly regarded camps, New Jersey’s AMA Fight Club. One loss to Johnson on what will likely prove to be one of the UFC’s least-watched shows of 2011 won’t make or break him.
Brenneman now simply finds himself in the same, unenviable position he forced on Story four months ago. He’s no longer one of the welterweight division’s hottest tickets. For a time he’ll be out of sight and out of mind for many fans. Like Story, it’ll take a few more wins to get the momentum back on his side.
At the time, when I asked him if this would be universal for altered main events that are put together on short notice, he stated simply, “no exceptions.” That seemed like a pretty straightforward way to think -- save for the fact that there’s been nothing but pretty exceptional things happening for the last few months to card headliners, making for a complicated case-by-case basis of five-round main events.
In short, it’s hard to imagine five-round headlining spots being universal, given the recent trend of altered main events.
Imagine if the UFC had enacted this frill-based privilege before UFC 130. That was the card where Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard became Matt Hamill versus Quinton Jackson on a few weeks' notice. Forget that the world would have been subjected to two more rounds of a blasÚ match-up, the bigger problem is that Hamill and Jackson would have had to alter their camps to train for five rounds rather than three. Similarly, when Shane Carwin stepped in late for Brock Lesnar at UFC 131, he would have had more to think about than just Junior dos Santos. Would it have played a hand in his decision to take the fight? Probably not. But he had been training for a three-round fight with John Olav-Einemo up until then, and it’s a pretty sizable shift in thinking for a guy whose main concern for the last year was gassing out.
But over the last couple of weeks the proposition of five-round main events has gotten stickier still. If there were truly no exceptions, the UFC Live on Versus card in Pittsburgh would have been that much more complex. Anthony Johnson versus Nate Marquardt on plenty of notice became Nate Marquardt versus Rick Story on relatively short notice which became Rick Story versus Charlie Brenneman on virtually no notice. How easy is it to prepare for an extra couple of rounds if you’re Brenneman, who was only hoping for the off chance of a hypothetical three? Even for a fighter who is physically ready, the mental adjustment is significant.
And then this stuff with UFC 133 began happening. Would Tito Ortiz have still have taken the fight against Rashad Evans if it were a five-rounder? Ortiz is stepping in for Phil Davis on a little three week’s after spending a day in contemplation about whether to accept it or not. Would he have been as willing if the fight with Evans -- whom he fought to a full 15-minute draw at UFC 73 -- was a set-in-stone five-round fight? Maybe, but it’s that much more to ask.
The bottom line is, if we are to take this recent string of events at face value, for the UFC to make all main event bouts five-rounders without exception it will have to convince its roster to be ready for 25 minutes of fighting at all times. Either that or it will have to make some exceptions, and have five-round main events operate on a case-by-case basis.
Maybe then Lyoto Machida could argue for Anderson Silva money on the premise that he’d be working time and a half.
Rarely does the promotion put as much stock in one fight as it did for UFC on Versus 4 on Sunday night at Consol Energy Center.
Arguably the most important fighter on the card was former middleweight contender Nate Marquardt, who was scheduled to make his UFC welterweight debut against Rick Story. But Marquardt failed his prefight medical examination and was not cleared to participate on the card by the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission.
That forced UFC president Dana White to look elsewhere for a main event. In stepped heavyweights Cheick Kongo and Pat Barry. The heavy hitters entered the cage promising to inflict bodily harm on one another and they delivered on their promises to throw power shots. Kongo would stop Barry at 2:39 of the opening round to earn "Knockout of the night" honors.
An aggressive Joe Lauzon needed less than a round to grab "Submission of the Night," applying a kimura on fellow lightweight Curt Warburton at the 1:58 mark.
"Fight of the Night" went to lightweights Charles Oliveira and Nik Lentz. The win went to Oliveira, who finished the contest with a rear-naked choke at 1:48 of Round 2. Oliveira’s win might not stand, however, as the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission plans to review the fight after it appeared that Oliveira landed an illegal knee moments before putting the finishing touch on Lenz.
Kongo, Lauzon, Oliveira and Lenz each walked away with an additional $50,000 for their performances.
Overall, it was a decent night for UFC. The announced attendance was 7,792, while the gate generated $562,310.
As for Marquardt, his future as a mixed martial artist is in limbo.
“He’s on indefinite suspension,” PSAC executive director Greg Sirb told ESPN.com. “And that will apply throughout the country.
“He cannot fight until he gives us medical clearance for his medical records. When the clearance comes in we will take him off suspension. And it is a medical issue.”
Sirb would not reveal the nature of Marquardt’s medical condition.
Charlie Brenneman was officially orphaned from tonight’s card after arriving in Pittsburgh on Tuesday when his original opponent -- TJ Grant -- had to pull out of their scheduled prelim bout with an injury. So, he spent this week still trying to make weight in order to collect his purse money for showing, clinging to a tightly held hope that the fluky nature of things would even out and he’d get the call on a welterweight-saturated card to fight anyway.
And guess what? The pendulum swung, and the flukes evened out. Welterweight debutante Nate Marquardt wasn’t cleared by the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission to fight in the headlining spot against Rick Story, and the call went to the man waiting in the wings.
Re-enter, the “Spaniard.”
“This week has been an emotional circus,” he told ESPN.com shortly after weigh-ins. “High to high, low to low. When Grant pulled out when I got here, I was completely devastated, depressed, everything. There are so many factors that why I felt horrible. And then hearing that there might be a chance, I thought, well there might, but I really didn’t have any faith in it. Now it came through and it’s like a dream come true.”
Brenneman will now fight on tonight’s nationally televised co-main event on Versus against one of the UFC’s most dogged fighters in Story, who is on a torrid six-fight winning streak in the promotion. The caliber of opponent has changed pretty drastically, and with only 24 hours for a cram session on Story’s propensities, Brenneman was relieved, excited, honored and -- perhaps most tellingly of his time at AMA Fight Club with Jim Miller -- even keeled.
“It’s not really going to be a crash course,” he said. “I’ve watched [Story’s] fights a lot, and I’m a fan of the sport. I like his style. I’ve seen probably four of his six fights. I have my game plan. My teammate Jim Miller has the attitude that a fight’s a fight, and I’m going to do my thing. And I have that attitude, and that’s what I’m taking in to the cage.”
It helps that the pressure on the bout belongs to Story alone. Story had jumped in to face Nate Marquardt on only a month’s notice when original opponent Anthony Johnson went down with an injury. In his build towards a title shot, Marquardt was to be a springboard for Story to make his case. With the mysterious events surrounding Marquardt and his sudden firing from the UFC, now he’s fighting a relatively unknown Brenneman, who’s most impressive win to date was against Amilcar Alves in January.
In other words, Brenneman stands everything to gain from a victory, and Story everything to lose in defeat. And if there’s a certainty going in to this makeshift bout, it’s that Story’s knowledge of Brenneman is probably less than the other way around.
Yet with only a day to acquaint themselves with each other, you can throw all that out the window. Story’s ready to fight, so is Brenneman, and that’s where things are. It’s been a crazy trip to Pittsburgh for everyone -- with the fight cancellation and President Obama having stayed at the hotel and rampant “furries” running around the Steel City -- and at this point Brenneman is hoping it’s all not a crazy hallucination.
“It’s an unbelievable chance,” he said. “I just joked that I’m going to wake up with cotton mouth and it’s Saturday morning. But this is a fast track to the big time, and I’m in this business to get into the big time.
“I guarantee when the fight starts, Story’s going to come running across the ring and I’m going to come running across the ring. I saw what he did to Dustin Hazelett with Hazelett backing up to the cage. I’m going to put it right back in his face. It’s going to be a p---ing contest. It’s going to be a dogfight.”
And you half-expect it to be as surreal as the week leading up to it.
Now comes Nate Marquardt; the longtime middleweight contender makes his welterweight debut June 26 in Pittsburgh. Marquardt is set to face fast-rising Rick Story, who agreed to fill in for the injured Anthony Johnson.
But unlike Stann and Florian, both of whom thought long and hard before taking the plunge, Marquardt had no reservations about moving down a weight class. It was time to make the move because his body told him so.
“For me it was about how I felt for my last fight,” Marquardt said on Tuesday during a UFC conference call. “For my last fight [a unanimous decision in March over Dan Miller at UFC 128] I was very light, and I felt the best I’d felt in years.
“It [170 pounds] is more of a natural weight for me. My body operates best with less weight on. It’s about performance, and I feel I will perform better at a lighter weight -- regardless if I’m fighting at 185 or 170.”
While the decision to drop down came easy for Marquardt, his goal is no different from that of Florian’s or Stann’s. He wants no shortcuts in his new division but fully expects to catapult to the top of the welterweight rankings. And it starts by putting the brakes on Story, who enters the fight riding a six-bout win streak.
“I guess [a win] would put me at the top,” said Marquardt, who is 31-10-2. “Rick is as very tough guy. He just beat [Thiago] Alves who is a former world title contender. I’m just excited for the opportunity.”
Marquardt is feeling very good about his decision to compete at 170 pounds. And why not? His cardio is as good as ever; he's huge for the division, and he’s had a full training camp to shake any cobwebs that might hinder his effort. Marquardt expects to put on one of his best performances as a pro.
Then there is the issue of his opponent. Story has raised many eyebrows of late.
He handled Alves will little difficulty on May 28 at UFC 131 en route to a unanimous decision victory. Alves is a huge welterweight, who was expected to control Story standing. But Story not only held his own on the feet, he battled Alves strength for strength while grappling against the cage. No matter how big the opponent, and Marquardt will likely have a decided size advantage, Story refuses to get pushed around.
Story (13-3-0) is so confident in his abilities that he didn’t hesitate to take this fight on short notice. A fast turnaround is right up Story’s alley.
“We requested a fight quick, maybe not so quick,” Story said. “But with the opportunity of Anthony Johnson dropping out, I like fighting frequently, so we jumped all over the opportunity to fill in for Anthony Johnson.”
But at the end of the day, Story is right on the money when he describes the June 26 fight as “opportunity.”
“I look at it as opportunity,” said Story, on a conference call Tuesday. “I don’t look at it as a risk. If they came at me with another one of the top guys at 170 in the same time frame, I would have accepted it.”
My question is: What exactly is Story risking in this fight?
Despite a brilliant performance against Thiago Alves in late May, he wasn’t in a position to sit and wait for a title shot. He tried calling out fellow welterweight Jon Fitch, who dismissed him as one might absently wave away a pesky fly.
Story wanted to keep busy and really, minus the short notice, this is a near-perfect scenario for him.
By stepping in for the injured Anthony Johnson, Story gets to co-headline an event; something which likely wouldn’t have happened otherwise. He faces a high-profile opponent in Marquardt, who’s already being looked at as a potential threat to the title, despite the fact he’s dropping below 185 pounds for the first time in six years.
Admittedly, four weeks is a shorter break from the Octagon than Story had in mind after he decisioned Alves. But would it not have been just as big of a “risk” to take time off and fight another top 170-pounder, possibly one with less name-recognition than Marquardt in a non-headlining fight?
“We requested for a fight quick -- maybe not so quick,” Story said. “But with Anthony Johnson dropping out we jumped on that opportunity.
“I just look at is as, in the division, if you’re fighting anywhere at the top, you’re going to have your hands full.”
While on the surface it might seem as though Story is assuming a lot of risk in this fight, my take on it is the guy seems a perfect fit for the role given the situation.
Clearly, he likes to compete. In 2008, while trying to make a name for himself and break into the UFC, Story fought six times -- twice within the span of 41 days. On one of those occasions, he bested Jake Ellenberger in a unanimous decision, one of the more impressive wins on his resume.
I get why it’s being looked at as a gutsy move for Story and agree that it is -- but really, it could turn out to be one of the biggest breaks of his career.
“I’d have to win maybe one more fight if it’s a decision win,” said Story, on whether or not beating Marquardt would give him a title shot. “If it’s a finish, I don’t know. A finish over an opponent like Nate would put me in a position where I deserve the shot even more.”