MMA: Robbie Lawler
LAS VEGAS -- Jake Ellenberger is a genuinely respectful guy, so don’t mistake the following for some form of trash talk. It’s just one man’s opinion.
And in Ellenberger’s opinion, simply put, Johny Hendricks is no Georges St-Pierre.
To dethrone St-Pierre, a UFC welterweight would have had to combine a special effort on a special kind of night. Beating Hendricks? Get Ellenberger a cage, 4-ounce gloves and a referee and he’ll accomplish that one for you before suppertime.
“He’s not like a GSP, where it’s going to take something, you know, some crazy plan to beat him,” Ellenberger told ESPN.com.
“To beat GSP, everything would have to be pinpoint and precise. With Johny, if you can threaten him with your power and dictate the pace, he’s definitely beatable.”
To beat [Georges St-Pierre], everything would have to be pinpoint and precise. With Johny [Hendricks], if you can threaten him with your power and dictate the pace, he's definitely beatable." -- Jake Ellenberger, on what it would make to dethrone welterweight champion Johny Hendricks
Ellenberger (29-7) would love the opportunity to prove those statements accurate. A win over Robbie Lawler at UFC 173 next month would bring him closer to it.
Last month, Hendricks (16-2) became the first welterweight other than St-Pierre to hold the official UFC title since 2006. St-Pierre (25-2) vacated the title late last year for personal reasons, following nine consecutive defenses.
Ellenberger doesn’t see that kind of run at the top in Hendricks’ future, especially if Ellenberger is able to reach him. The two were scheduled to fight at UFC 158 in March 2013, but Hendricks eventually shifted to a fight against Carlos Condit instead.
That switch never sat well with Ellenberger, and he’s said as much publicly. It’s not a personal thing with Hendricks anymore, but it’s obviously still a fight he wants.
“I’ve been training with a guy who is exactly like Johny, but better, for years,” said Ellenberger, referring to training partner and UFC middleweight Mark Munoz.
“I’m excited for the day that Johny and I meet.”
For that day to come, Ellenberger knows he has to improve on his last performance -- a slow, unanimous decision loss to Rory MacDonald in July.
The fight was largely dictated by MacDonald’s jab, which Ellenberger could not get inside. According to FightMetric, he was outstruck in that bout 46-to-19.
Since the loss, Ellenberger says he’s narrowed his training somewhat, with a focus on learning specific skills as opposed to simply showing up to “wrestling day.”
“I’ve grown more in the last year than I have the last six years,” Ellenberger said. “Every day is like we’re going to work this specific skill set with this angle against a southpaw. My life has been a little more structured.”
Originally scheduled to fight Tarec Saffiedine at UFC 172, Ellenberger says he’s not necessarily more “up” to fight Lawler, but in some ways it’s a better fight for him.
Lawler (22-10) was on the other side of last month’s vacant welterweight title fight, as he lost a unanimous decision to Hendricks at UFC 171. A win over Lawler would mean more in the divisional rankings than one against Saffiedine.
Additionally, Ellenberger believes he’s at his best when there is an element of danger in a fight. It doesn’t get more dangerous than the heavy-hitting Lawler.
“Look at my fight with Nate Marquardt, a guy who was dangerous, and then look at my fight with Rory,” Ellenberger said. “Rory isn’t real threatening. I look at a guy like Rory and think, ‘OK, he’s not going to hurt me.’ Maybe I overlooked him.
“Having that sense of urgency is a motivator to me.”
Fresh off signing a new eight-fight deal with the UFC, Ellenberger, 29, is set to enter potentially the brightest stretch of his career.
As good as Hendricks is, Ellenberger just doesn’t see him holding the belt long term. The division is very much there for the taking in his eyes.
“I don’t see Johny being the champion a year from now,” he said. “There are so many good guys. There are big opportunities for anyone in the top 10. I’m not putting a lot of thought into it because I’m focused on this fight, but it’s an exciting time.”
Koscheck (17-8) hasn’t fought since a first-round TKO loss to Tyron Woodley at UFC 167 in November. After the event, UFC president Dana White said Koscheck sent him a text that “sounded a little bit like retirement.”
A 23-fight veteran in the UFC, Koscheck is not considering retirement, but he says he has turned down two fight offers from the UFC since his last loss.
“I’ve been training my whole life,” Koscheck told ESPN.com. “I’ve never had a break. I feel like I need to get away and take some time off and enjoy life.
“At this point, I’m still coming back. I have two more fights on my contract, and I plan on fighting those out and seeing if I want to continue. I’m obligated to two more fights with the UFC.
“I’ve been called twice for fights, and I told the UFC, ‘no.’ I’m not ready yet.”
In terms of when he could be ready, Koscheck said he would likely get back into fight workouts at the end of the month. The California-based welterweight has remained a regular in the gym but sets a higher standard when it comes to fight preparations.
“A lot of fighters have no clue what it takes to get ready for a fight -- the dedication it takes,” Koscheck said. “That kind of preparation can take a toll on your body.
“Probably at the end of this month, I’ll start focusing more on getting back into fight shape.”
Koscheck, 36, is on a three-fight losing streak. Prior to the skid, he had never suffered back-to-back losses in his professional career. He fought twice in 2013 and was finished in the first round in each.
Preparation has never been a problem for the former collegiate wrestler, but Koscheck admits he underestimated the speed of his last performance. He was caught on camera expressing as much to Woodley after that loss in November.
“Woodley was very, very fast, and he closed the distance on me well,” Koscheck said. “You know, when you do everything right for so long and you have a bad day at the office, it makes you think about things. You wonder, ‘What the hell? Is there more out there? Is there something better I can be putting that much energy into?'”
The welterweight contender was at his American Top Team-affiliated gym in St. Louis on Monday morning working. Not working out, but working.
Following the biggest win of his career, a second-round TKO over Carlos Condit last weekend, Woodley (13-2) is not content to sit around and hope for a UFC title shot. He made full media rounds, voluntarily, on Monday to plead his case.
He felt inclined to do so, partially because it seems as though many observers aren’t willing to give him full credit for the win. The fight ended when Condit suffered a knee injury, which appeared to initially occur during a Woodley takedown.
Woodley can’t comprehend why the victory is being tagged with an asterisk.
“I went out there and took the fight to him,” Woodley told ESPN.com. “I beat him up.
“I went back and watched film and was like, ‘What are people talking about?’ He was coming back? Where? Show me where he had me in a bad position. Show me where he had me on the ropes or hurt. He was on his back, remember that?”
Woodley said he was guaranteed a title shot with a win over Condit. If need be, he is willing to sit and wait for it against newly crowned Johny Hendricks.
Asked how he would feel about an official No. 1 contender’s fight, Woodley responded, “That’s the fight I was just in.”
“I want the people to hear why I believe I’m next in line,” Woodley said. “I think once fans and media hear everybody’s story and lay them out across the table, mine should stick out more than the rest.”
Woodley on Robbie Lawler: There was no controversy. One of the judges scored it like an idiot, but everybody, including Robbie, thought it was 2-2 going into the final round. I think he eased up on the gas in the last 90 seconds. I’m bummed for the kid, but it was clear cut. No controversy. Maybe he wins one fight and he’s right back there.
On Hector Lombard: He had a great performance over Jake Shields. Granted, he beat Nate Marquardt, but I think Nate Marquardt was softened up for him by Tarec Saffiedine and Jake Ellenberger. I think he’s on his way out. He got a victory over Shields, but Shields is ranked No. 6. I think Carlos Condit was ranked No. 2. Based on merit and marketability, I’m ahead of Hector.
On Rory MacDonald: He lost to Robbie Lawler. He lost to Carlos Condit, who I just beat. He had the opportunity to fight for the world title against Georges St-Pierre and didn’t take it. I was prepared to fly out and meet with Robbie Lawler [had he won the title], have lunch with him and talk about it. I was prepared to fight not just my training partner, but my friend. I wanted to see him win the title. The willingness to honor my contract as a fighter in the fight business and be willing to fight a teammate under world title circumstances puts me in a better position than him.
On Nick Diaz: He’s never beat a wrestler. If he does get a title shot, I think Johny Hendricks will own him. He hasn’t won a fight since 2011. He had the opportunity to fight Carlos Condit, and thank God he didn’t because I got a chance to go in and do what he couldn’t do, which was beat Carlos Condit. He wants to sit back and watch the drama and then jump back in. This is not like a girl jumping double Dutch rope, step in when you feel like it. This is the fight business. You’re either in it or you’re not, and he’s been out of it.
In the final seconds of the break between the fourth and fifth rounds of his title fight against Georges St-Pierre in November, it looked like Johny Hendricks started singing to himself.
It was impossible to miss. His cornermen had been ushered away, St-Pierre stood across the cage and Hendricks, while pacing, began wiggling his head and mouthing words to himself with an almost sarcastic look on his face.
“Hendricks looks relaxed,” said UFC commentator Joe Rogan on the live broadcast. “Look at him. He’s bobbing his head back and forth. Looks like he’s singing to himself. What is he doing?”
Turns out, Hendricks (15-2), who faces Robbie Lawler for the welterweight title at UFC 171 this weekend in Dallas, was singing to himself -- but that wasn’t all. Imagine 100 little Johny Hendricks in his head telling him 100 different things at once.
"I was telling myself, 'You won it. You won it,'" Hendricks told ESPN.com. "'Do not get knocked out. Do not get submitted.' Those were the things I was telling myself.
"Then a song popped in my head and I said, 'Enjoy this moment. It’s the last round against someone many people say is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.'"
Did that mindset -- enjoy the moment, don’t get finished -- cost him the fight? Some said it did, as Hendricks surrendered two takedowns in the fifth and threw only 21 total punches, which made it by far his least active round.
All three judges awarded the final five minutes to St-Pierre.
Hendricks, however, said he would handle the final round exactly the same way if given a second chance. Things tend to get complicated by the fifth round of a UFC title fight against an all-time great. Hendricks believes he handled it as best he could.
“I still thought the fifth round was tough to score,” Hendricks said. “The reason I told myself not to get finished was when I stood up for the fifth round, my knee sort of buckled. I think he kicked a nerve when I checked one of his kicks earlier in the fight and that nerve spazzed out on me.
“I thought to myself, 'OK, if I throw a hard punch and my knee goes out on me, that won’t look great. How do I do this? How do I do that?' I was telling myself all these things in a short, brief period. 'How do I keep this fight on my side?'"
That doesn’t mean Hendricks took nothing away from his narrow loss to St-Pierre at UFC 167. He goes into that and more below.
“ESPN.com: Immediately after the loss to St-Pierre, you said, "This will never happen again." How much has that fight changed your approach moving forward?
I walk around at 220. I would be at 185 pounds right now if I weren't 5-foot-9.” -- Johny Hendricks, on the possibility of moving to middleweight
Hendricks: You don’t want to change [a lot]. What you want to do is prepare for something like that. I went in there saying, 'There’s no way this guy is beating me.' I sort of got away from what got me there. In this fight, I had to tell myself, 'There are ways Robbie can beat you. What are those ways? How do I beat them?'
ESPN.com: You think because you felt so in control during the fight you might not have realized the moments when it appeared he was scoring on you?
Hendricks: No. The first takedown he got I was like, "Son of a b----. You’ve got to be kidding me. The thing I told everybody wouldn’t happen, happened in the first 10 seconds. You’re an idiot." On the feet, the way that I parry and block stuff, I think it hurts me in that if you rewatch them, they don’t land but it looks like they do in real time. What judges are looking at, it’s hard to tell. Someone throws a punch, bam, did that hit? The way I move my head and parry, it didn’t touch me. But those are things I have to be more cautious of and say, 'OK, that might have looked like it landed, I have to throw something back.'
ESPN.com: That fight was a good example for anyone who wants to make a case for a half-point scoring system. The rounds you won were more decisive. Are you in favor of that system or is that not the answer?
Hendricks: Realistically, I don’t know. I have no clue. I’ve said it from the start that I would hate to be a judge. There are times I will watch a fight and say a guy clearly lost and then go back and rewatch it and still think he lost but say, well, what did they score? I don’t know how to do it. I’m glad I don’t have to do it.
ESPN.com: You mentioned in a recent interview the possibility of moving to 185 pounds. Is this something you’ve actually considered or was it just conversation?
Hendricks: It’s something I have considered. I walk around at 220. I would be at 185 pounds right now if I weren't 5-foot-9. The good Lord didn’t bless me with a lot of height. That’s the only reason I'm at 170. I’m getting older and I know the body and one day it’s going to be hard to get to 170. Everybody I’m facing has a 76-inch reach and is 6-foot anyway. The average at middleweight is 6-foot-1, 6-foot-2. I’m already fighting taller guys.
ESPN.com: You think fighting at 170 keeps you honest, though, in terms of forcing you to get in shape in addition to fighting smaller guys?
Hendricks: If I can make 185 feel like 178 [that’s the goal]. Let’s say two years from now, I’m 32, I’ve defended the belt four or five times and I want to move up? I’d put on six pounds of muscle. The way my body works, I could still walk around at the same weight, but just put on muscle weight.
Before UFC 167 in November 2013, the sport was abuzz with talk about MacDonald facing his mentor and teammate, then-UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. Riding a five-fight win streak, all the momentum and hype was heaped upon the 24-year-old MacDonald, St-Pierre and the Montreal-based Tristar fight team.
“All anyone wanted to talk about was whether I would fight Georges,” MacDonald said.
Every question was about Rory [MacDonald] and Georges [St-Pierre]. I like to keep our fighters focused on the opponent at hand, but it seemed like everyone was focused on a possible Rory-St-Pierre fight, more than the actual fight [at hand]. It was distracting.” -- Trainer Firas Zahabi, on the distractions ahead of MacDonald's fight with Robbie Lawler
“Every question was about Rory and Georges,” said Firas Zahabi, MacDonald’s trainer and Tristar head coach. “I like to keep our fighters focused on the opponent at hand, but it seemed like everyone was focused on a possible Rory-St-Pierre fight, more than the actual fight [at hand]. It was distracting.”
Indeed, people sort of forgot that MacDonald still had to fight Robbie Lawler.
An overhand right and a split decision loss later, MacDonald is probably wishing he were fighting next month at UFC 171, where Lawler will fight Johny Hendricks for the vacated welterweight title. Instead, he’s fighting Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert Demian Maia at UFC 170 -- to little fanfare. This isn’t a gimme. No one is looking past Maia, and St-Pierre is no longer champion.
Hype has followed MacDonald his entire career. As he's often dubbed the poster boy for a new breed of UFC fighter, MacDonald’s martial arts skill set has been sired with elite proficiency within multiple disciplines. Future greatness has been anointed on to MacDonald like no other young UFC fighter.
But there’s always been a tiny nagging suspicion about MacDonald. Is he really that good? What’s really his ceiling? Can he really beat elite competition?
Of course, you’ve seen this kind of microscope scrutiny applied to uber prospects of every sport -- Bryce Harper (baseball), Andrew Wiggins (basketball), Johnny Manziel (football). The key with these burgeoning young stars is whether they listen to the praise or detractors; whether they let any of the noise in.
“I understand people expect a lot from me; it’s nice to have those high expectations,” MacDonald said. “But it doesn’t really affect who I am or how I act. I’m just continuing on to try and accomplish my goals.”
And the immediate goal is to defeat Maia and get back on track toward a welterweight title shot.
But is he that good?
MacDonald says he would not have fought St-Pierre had both won their bouts at UFC 167. Though MacDonald insists he doesn’t let press coverage get the better of him, the looming thought of that quandary left MacDonald troubled and it showed against Lawler.
“It would have put me in a stressful situation and I think it played on my mind a lot,” MacDonald said. “It’s something that shouldn’t have happened. I should have been in control of that. But now that the door’s open and I don’t have to deal with that question anymore, it’s a lot more stress free.”
With that pressure now alleviated, there is something of a mandate for MacDonald to prove he can be the dominating force at 170 pounds that many in the industry expect him to be. But there’s that nagging suspicion again.
His five-fight win streak began after a TKO loss to Carlos Condit. He rebounded with a solid win over Nate Diaz, but MacDonald followed up with wins over retreads such as Mike Pyle, Che Mills and a way-past-his-prime BJ Penn. And MacDonald’s win against Jake Ellenberger was -- as UFC president Dana White called it -- “lackluster.” Then came the loss to Lawler.
Nonetheless, with MacDonald’s skill set, brutal ground-and-pound strategy and athletic potential, it’s understandable why the hype still hovers over him. He has openly admitted having lost motivation. Fighting wasn’t fun. But in a way, the loss to Lawler might have been the thing to shock MacDonald back into focus.
“Yeah, it was the wake-up call I needed,” MacDonald said.
And he doesn’t feel as though he has anything left to prove. “If I put on a good show against Demian, I think that’s a big enough of a statement to catapult me to the top,” MacDonald said.
In fact, one man who believes MacDonald deserves every bit of hype he’s garnered during his career is Maia. So much so that Maia believes that he could be in line for a title shot if he can defeat MacDonald.
“His hype is well deserved, and I think I could be close for a title shot if I beat him,” Maia said. “He’s good. Rory is a great fighter with excellent skills. Rory’s style is the future. The new MMA fighters will come much more complete than I was. When I had my first UFC fight, I was pretty raw in the stand-up. But today the young fighters are all like Rory -- very complete.”
However, ask Zahabi and he’ll tell you there’s only one member of that new generation of fighter -- MacDonald.
“He’s unique,” Zahabi said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a guy like Rory. He doesn’t remind me of anyone else necessarily. He just brings his own kind of style.”
The silver lining in not getting Jose Aldo versus Anthony Pettis in 2013: We get it in 2014, instead.
Fate apparently knew what it was doing last summer, when it scrapped a scheduled featherweight title bout between the two in August due to a Pettis injury. As good as that fight would have been then, it’s matured into a blockbuster event now.
Instead of Pettis temporarily dropping to 145 as a challenger, you have Aldo moving up to make a champion/champion fight. It gives Aldo a chance to chase history, as he would become just the third UFC fighter to win titles in multiple weight classes.
All things considered -- storyline, fighting styles, mainstream appeal -- Aldo versus Pettis is the second-best fight the UFC could promote right now, in my opinion. What’s the first? And what other fantasy matchups would I love to see? See below.
(Note: This list includes only fighters currently signed to the UFC.)
10. Junior dos Santos versus Alistair Overeem, heavyweight
From a competitive standpoint, this is probably the weakest option you’ll find on this list. They are heavyweights, anything can happen, etc., but it would be real hard to pick against dos Santos in this matchup. There is a history here, though, as you might recall. The two were supposed to fight for the title in May 2012 before Overeem failed a surprise drug test. It’s one of those fights that sells itself.
9. John Dodson versus Joseph Benavidez, flyweight
Two of, if not the best finishers in the flyweight division. Dodson’s lead pipe of a straight left versus Benavidez’s club of an overhand right -- and everything else these two do well. This fight would fly under the radar as far as casual fans are concerned, but with Demetrious Johnson proving to be so far ahead of the pack, this actually might be the most compelling matchup in the division.
8. Ronda Rousey versus Cat Zingano, female bantamweight
There is no concrete timetable for Zingano's return, but unless the UFC signs Invicta FC featherweight champion Cris Justino in her absence, the title shot should be waiting for her. Obviously, Rousey must get by former U.S. Olympic wrestler Sara McMann on Feb. 22 first. This fight was (and still is) intriguing due to Zingano's athleticism and finishing ability. Her strength and explosiveness will help in scrambles with Rousey, and she only needs a short window of opportunity to change the course of a fight.
The first encounter in 2004 was just perfect. Diaz taunting Lawler to the point referee Steve Mazzagatti tells him, “no more talking.” Lawler complaining of a groin kick and Diaz accusing him of faking right in the middle of the fight. The step back counter knockout for Diaz. Little brother Nate Diaz with the bowl-cut, running into the cage afterward. How can anyone not want to see this again?
6. Renan Barao versus Dominick Cruz, bantamweight
Sorry, but I can’t seem to let this one go. As good as Barao looks right now, is he as good as Cruz was in 2012, when he first went down due to injury? You could argue either side of that. Whenever Cruz comes back, I say make this fight. Why not? He’d almost come in with low expectations on him. Everything to gain, little to lose. A “tuneup” fight would actually probably put him under more pressure.
5. Jon Jones versus Daniel Cormier, light heavyweight
Extremely marketable fight, obviously. I have a suspicion plenty of people will pick Cormier to win this matchup, but realistically, if they had to bet the farm on it, they’d change the pick to Jones. When the chips are down for reals, at 205 pounds, you don’t bet against Jones -- even though it would be real tempting to do it with Cormier.
4. Lyoto Machida versus Vitor Belfort, middleweight
Belfort’s offense versus Machida’s defense is one of the most tantalizing battles we could hope to witness in the UFC this year. Chris Weidman is the undisputed king at 185 pounds -- he wears the crown -- but in terms of just a good, old-fashioned, definition of the term “fight,” nothing is better at middleweight than Belfort versus Machida.
3. BJ Penn versus Conor McGregor, featherweight
The two losses to Frankie Edgar became personal for Penn because he despised the way he performed in them. So even though we can all think of better matchups for him than a third meeting with Edgar, he deserves a chance at that redemption. Win or lose, a matchup against the loud, cocky, talented new kid would be outstanding to watch start to finish and it would generate plenty of interest.
2. Jose Aldo versus Anthony Pettis, lightweight
Already discussed this one. Probably my favorite fight here, stylistically. In addition to having the physical tools to match Aldo (which is quite rare), Pettis has the mentality. He’s not a guy who might just “survive” Aldo -- he’ll push him, even in the first round. And that’s something we all want to see.
1. Jon Jones versus Cain Velasquez, heavyweight
This is it. The No. 1 fight the UFC can promote, currently, post-Georges St-Pierre/Anderson Silva. No other matchup could generate as much pay-per-view revenue, and with good reason. Jones is the pound-for-pound best, while Velasquez is considered the “baddest man on the planet.” Both dominant champs would have to adjust for the other. For Jones, it would be a shot at his GOAT quest -- capturing the most iconic title in mixed martial arts. It’s unlikely to happen this year, with Velasquez currently sidelined and Jones focused on light heavyweight, but as long as both keep winning, people will talk and debate this matchup.
Even Weidman, who isn’t one to pat himself on the back or pause to admire his own work, knows a fighter of the year when he sees one. His year speaks for itself.
“I did beat the greatest of all time, twice,” Weidman told ESPN.com. “I think that’s pretty good. Other guys had more fights than me but I fought as much as I could and I only had big fights. They were some of the biggest fights of the year.”
It was acceptable to doubt Weidman after his first win over Silva in July. As it turned out, it was wrong to do so, but at least it made sense at the time. Silva did clown in their first fight. It was hard to put that fight in perspective.
To still doubt him now, after a repeat performance, is silly. He dominated Silva in the rematch -- more so than in the first. He knocked him down, landed elbows from the top and turned the champ’s greatest weapon against him when he checked that kick.
“He fought the greatest twice and beat him twice,” said Weidman’s coach and former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra. “Dude can’t catch a break. He beats him the first time and it’s ‘Oh, Anderson was joking around.’
“This time, they’re calling it a freak thing. No. He checked the kick. He did the right move. I think he should get more credit. I think he’s being picked on.”
According to FightMetric, Weidman landed 36 significant strikes over the course of the two fights, compared to 22 by Silva. He scored 50 percent of his takedowns and attempted three submission attempts to Silva’s zero. He won all four rounds.
That’s not luck. That’s your new UFC middleweight champion and landslide winner for fighter of the year.
No 2: UFC middleweight Vitor Belfort, 3-0
When he’s not discussing his place in the jungle or carving figures into what’s become the best hair in MMA, Belfort proved he is still an elite fighter in 2013.
No. 3: UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, 3-0
Mighty Mouse defended his title three times and still found time to see the birth of his first child AND undergo shoulder surgery. That barely seems possible.
No. 4: UFC bantamweight Urijah Faber, 4-0
Faber doesn’t seem like a guy who takes fuel from doubters, but it can’t be all coincidence he put together a monster year at a time when so many counted him out.
No. 5: UFC welterweight Robbie Lawler, 3-0
Maybe Lawler would cherish a UFC title. Or maybe he could really care less about one. It’s hard to tell with ol’ Robbie. What we do know is he was one of the most entertaining fighters to watch in 2013, which he capped off with an upset win.
In 2013, the UFC crowned two new champions at 185 and 155 pounds. It also lost its 170-pound champion, Georges St-Pierre, to semiretirement.
In 2014, we’ll see at least two new UFC champions in the record books. Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler will contend for the vacated welterweight title, and a female strawweight champion will emerge from "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series.
Which fighters are destined to be champions come the end of 2014? I’ll tell you.
Heavyweight: Cain Velasquez
Velasquez is shelved for the foreseeable future, following surgery on a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The heavyweight champ is so tough he was actually practicing with the injury before undergoing surgery, according to teammate Daniel Cormier.
It looks as if Velasquez will face the winner of a fight between Fabricio Werdum and Travis Browne -- and if I had to guess, that will be the only time Velasquez fights in 2014. Maybe he mows through one of those guys and gets booked again immediately, which is entirely possible, but I would lean to just one Velasquez fight in the next 12 months.
Prediction: Browne knocks out Werdum in early spring, only to be a hungry Velasquez’s first meal upon his return.
Light heavyweight: Jon Jones
With the heavyweight belt tied up due to injury and no Anderson Silva superfight on the books, there’s nowhere else Jones needs to be than 205 pounds. This works twofold. With no Silva and no St-Pierre, Jones needs to go out and be the UFC’s breadwinner in 2014. Expect him to stay busy.
Relying on predetermined outcomes of fights is never a good idea in this sport, and I feel that’s a huge transgression in this division right now. Jones versus Glover Teixeira. Alexander Gustafsson versus Jimi Manuwa. Daniel Cormier versus Rashad Evans. Those fights aren’t over yet -- and don’t jump to assumptions on matchups before they are.
Prediction: Jones fights three times in 2014. He beats Teixeira and then Gustafsson more convincingly than the first meeting. Then he wins one more fight … but I’m not entirely convinced it’s against Cormier, who could lose before that.
Middleweight: Ronaldo Souza
The middleweight and welterweight divisions are about to have a really fun year. With Silva gone (for the foreseeable future, at least), the middleweight division looks entirely different.
The Spider’s buddies, Ronaldo Souza and Lyoto Machida, have nothing to prevent them from gunning for the title now. An old friend, Chael Sonnen, suddenly has a path back to a title shot. The bull's-eye on Weidman’s back is about as big as there is right now in all of mixed martial arts.
Prediction: Weidman-Belfort in Brazil. Does Weidman win that? Oh man … yes. He does. On the same night, Sonnen outpoints Wanderlei Silva and calls out Machida. But it’s Souza who earns a title bid with big wins in early 2014 and then takes the title late in the year.
Welterweight: Johny Hendricks
On the way to St-Pierre, it seems that Hendricks beat every welterweight in the division, but if he wins the belt he’ll have plenty of challengers. It starts with Robbie Lawler in March, who just might be the most terrifying man in the UFC right now. This guy was born to hurt people.
You think we hear a peep from St-Pierre in 2014? Gut reaction says no, right? He wanted time off, so he’ll take his time off. On the other hand, when you are as competitive as St-Pierre is, one month away from the cage might feel like three or four. Carlos Condit just pulled about the worst opponent he could in Tyron Woodley, a guy ranked outside the Top 10 but extremely dangerous.
Prediction: Hendricks wins the vacated belt in March, and then beats the winner of Condit-Woodley. Then Hendricks defends the title again … in a fight the UFC books in Montreal, sending front-row tickets to St-Pierre’s address every day leading up to it.
Lightweight: Jose Aldo
Anthony Pettis just needs to stay healthy. The 26-year-old Milwaukee product has been so good when healthy -- which, unfortunately, hasn’t been very often. He hopes to return to the cage by July.
In the meantime, I think Aldo’s days as the 145-champion come to an end. He is a potential star for the UFC and “two-division champion” is a title that would help his drawing power. He will get an immediate shot when he moves up. He and the UFC will argue about his vacating the featherweight belt -- and that’s finally a fight Aldo will actually lose.
Prediction: Aldo defends his featherweight title over Ricardo Lamas in February and then hangs out until Pettis is healthy, narrowly beating him in a Fight of the Year candidate in August, before going on to one title defense late in the year.
Featherweight: Chad Mendes
Aldo moving up to 155 pounds just looks like a no-brainer to me. He has wanted to do so for a long time and the UFC likely wants it to happen, too. It will look as if he’s leaving the keys to the car in the hands of Chad Mendes.
A potential wrinkle in that script is Frankie Edgar. Edgar has to feel good heading into a third meeting with BJ Penn, who hasn’t fought since December 2012. Penn is a warrior and a legend, but Edgar is a tough style matchup, especially at 145.
Prediction: Mendes continues his reign of terror and earns a shot at the vacated 145-pound title against Edgar, who defeats Penn for a third time. It’s a good fight, but Mendes takes a decision and the belt.
Bantamweight: Renan Barao
It’s still officially Dominick Cruz’s division heading into 2014, but maybe only in writing. Barao is the UFC bantamweight to beat this year, and there are really only two 135-pounders up to the task -- Cruz and Urijah Faber.
The circumstances surrounding Cruz’s return -- he’s been on the shelf since October 2011 -- make him a near-impossible pick in his first fight back to beat Barao, but this is Cruz we’re talking about. His work ethic borders on obsessive. If Barao gets by Cruz, he goes immediately to a rematch against Faber, who looks like a pound-for-pound candidate again at 34.
Prediction: Unless Demetrious Johnson gets a little crazy and moves up in weight, this division is a three-horse race. Any one of them could finish 2014 as champion and it wouldn’t be a surprise.
Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson
Unlike Aldo, there isn’t much sense in Johnson moving up in weight in 2014. He can if he wants to, and I don’t think the UFC would forbid it, but he is a natural flyweight. He fought at bantamweight prior to the UFC's adding the 125-pound division and that was only two years ago. Why rush back to 135 pounds?
It makes more sense for him to chase title-defense records than the bantamweight champion. At 27, Johnson is improving between each performance -- noticeably. He may run into a couple opponents multiple times, but there are enough flyweights to keep him busy at least through 2014.
Prediction: Nobody in this division is beating Johnson right now. Nobody. You might read stories about a potential move to 135 pounds, but come December, Johnson will still be a flyweight and he’ll be up to at least six title defenses.
Female bantamweight: Ronda Rousey
Forget defending the arm bar, how about a Rousey opponent defending a takedown first? Occasionally lost in the shuffle of Rousey’s eight consecutive arm bars is her setup -- her takedowns. There might not be anyone in that division who can match her on the floor, so the conversation turns to: Can any of them stop her takedown?
Sara McMann is an interesting opponent, but how comfortable will she be on her back? McMann might be able to neutralize some of what Rousey does, but not all of it. Same with Cat Zingano, although Zingano has the finishing ability to catch Rousey with something, which might be the only way to beat her.
Prediction: Rousey dives headfirst into defending her title -- and makes it look pretty easy. She defends the belt at least three times, finishing at least two more opponents in the first round.
Female strawweight: Carla Esparza
You might think that in an atmosphere as unique as TUF, the best fighter on the show wouldn’t always emerge the winner. There are too many variables, right? The mental strain from being away from one’s family, not having normal cornermen, fighting several times within a short time span, etc.
Surprisingly, though, the best fighter of the group typically does go all the way. You look at previous seasons and, for the most part, the TUF champion has outperformed the vast majority of the average TUF contestants. Keeping that in mind, Esparza has been the best of this group heading into the show.
Prediction: Esparza enters the TUF season a favorite to win and does just that.
After all, if frenetic back-and-forth action is what we want in a main event, this is the formula -- even if the guys fighting in it, challenger John Moraga and 125-pound champion Demetrious Johnson, are lighter than most sophomores in high school.
But then again, everybody loves a headliner consisting of two loaf-fisted heavyweight monstrosities trying to take each other's heads off. Given these perhaps outdated but still popular appetites, it's risky to trot out the remora instead of the sharks, is it not?
Not that these are the only factors.
By now you know that nobody knows who Moraga is, and that's why so many people are dishing the CliffsNotes. We need to learn of the fly on the fly. The 5-foot-3 Johnson is better known, but not to the dreaded "casual fans," the ones presumably being tempted toward their television sets. So what we're talking about by making two fairly anonymous fighters the main attraction on a big, widely seen card is that technique, athleticism, skill and speed -- colliding like two angry hummingbirds in a jar -- are more than enough.
The truth is, it might be. Particularly if each has his moments putting the other in trouble. The question then becomes: Does any of this change Johnson's approach? Johnson is holding the flyweight belt in part because he fights smart (a euphemism for "boring" in the minds of some people). He hasn't been involved in a fight that didn't go the distance since 2010, when he fought Damacio Page in the WEC. If he fights tactically against Moraga -- which by all rights he should and Moraga expects -- doesn't he make the least of the coveted spot?
That's all left for Saturday night. Drama is sometimes in the smaller details, and those are on display this weekend in Seattle.
The introduction of Moraga
Though the flyweights carry an onus of not being able to finish fights, Moraga crushes onuses like a cold monkey wrench. In two UFC bouts, both at 125 pounds, he has finished the guy in front of him. Should he do to Johnson what he did to Ulysses Gomez (that is, knock him out), here's guessing that everybody knows exactly who Moraga is come Sunday morning.
Aesthetically, the flyweights are fun to watch and almost impossible to truly behold with the naked eye. They require remote controls and liberal use of the slow-motion button. But do we ultimately value that? Should Moraga-Johnson underwhelm, this could be the last flyweight tilt (title or no) we see headlining a big card for a long time.
MacDonald as legit contender
Who has Rory MacDonald fought, cynics want to know. After all, Che Mills isn't in the UFC anymore and Nate Diaz is more of a natural lightweight (as is BJ Penn). As for Mike Pyle? He's awfully long in the tooth. But remember, MacDonald did have Carlos Condit on the ropes until the final seconds. And if he beats Jake Ellenberger, who has won eight of nine, MacDonald puts his name into imminent welterweight contention.
Ellenberger's chance to make statement
Say that Ellenberger goes in and savagely puts MacDonald away in the first round, as he's known to do. What then? The guess is that such an outcome sets up a fight between Ellenberger and Demian Maia as a true No. 1 contender bout while Georges St-Pierre-Johny Hendricks plays out in November.
It's crazy, but the last time Robbie Lawler won consecutive fights was all the way back in 2007. He traded wins and losses for four years in Strikeforce, coughing up a bit of his mystique. But the upset victory over Josh Koscheck in February put a little wind back in his sail, and should he beat Bobby Voelker on Saturday, he'll essentially have a clean slate.
Can 'Mighty Mouse' finish a fight?
Truth is, Johnson looks better each time we see him in the cage. He looked good against Ian McCall the first time and better against him the second time. Johnson looked great against Joseph Benavidez. Ditto John Dodson. The knock is that Johnson is a points fighter who does just enough. Does that end against Moraga?
Can Ellenberger win a decision over MacDonald?
You ask people how Ellenberger wins his fight against MacDonald and they'll say via knockout. But what happens if MacDonald stays disciplined and is there all night? Can Ellenberger eke out a win on points? He did fade against Martin Kampmann and Diego Sanchez, and neither is as big and strong as MacDonald.
Realistically, there's only one Guillard, and that's the same one who will show up in Seattle. He switched training camps (yet again) to Denver, where he's been training with Trevor Wittman. Thing is, he loves his power and trusts it to trump everything he'll encounter. Against Mac Danzig, who has gone 3-6 in his last nine fights, Guillard will once again sink or swim by his infatuation.
How does Carmouche rebound?
Fate is funny. For a few seconds at UFC 157, it looked like Liz Carmouche was about to defeat not just Ronda Rousey but the very reason for women's MMA in the UFC. It was a tense few moments when she had Rousey's back, but in the end, Carmouche went down gallantly. Facing Jessica Andrade, Carmouche -- the biggest favorite on the card -- has to guard against the spiral.
Will MacDonald come around to GSP?
This question is premature, which makes it the kind of question we love to ask. Yet should MacDonald beat Ellenberger, St-Pierre take care of Hendricks in November and the two be asked to fight each other thereafter, we have arrived at the next Jon Jones-Rashad Evans (and the hunch is MacDonald won't protest for long).
WHO'S ON THE HOT SEAT?
John Albert -- He has lost three fights in a row since beating Dustin Pague in his UFC debut. A loss to Yaotzin Meza is almost a guaranteed pink slip. But if Albert wins? Yahtzee! The "Prince" lives to see another day.
Aaron Riley -- Riley is only 32 years old but has been in 44 fights. He's been around the block a few times. In his last fight against Tony Ferguson, in 2011, he suffered a broken jaw. Should he lose to Justin Salas, if he doesn't hang up the gloves himself, the next pair he wears might not say "UFC" on them.
Trevor Smith -- The Strikeforce immigrant takes on an angry Ed Herman, who, in a fit of optimism, made a cameo appearance in Strikeforce against Ronaldo Souza and lost badly. Tough draw for Smith. Herman's relevance is at stake.
Melvin Guillard -- Yes, there's a Leonard Garcia thing going on here. Guillard always comes to fight, does so on short notice and lets the chips fall where they may. Dana White likes him. But he needs a win badly. Very badly. Then the UFC won't be forced to make any hard decisions on him.
Mac Danzig -- See Guillard.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the flyweights have one speed, which is blue blur ... because Johnson is one of the most underrated fighters to ever carry such mastery to the cage ... because Moraga swings for the fences and is fighting for his late cousin Jay ... because there's not one, but two women's fights, and Julie Kedzie versus Germaine de Randamie will have your grandmother spitting out her tea ... because Danny Castillo does love himself a brawl ... and for that matter so does Michael Chiesa ... and Jorge Masvidal ... because Herman can't afford to lose to Smith, and when a "Short Fuse" meets "Hot Sauce," the thing gets flammable ... because MacDonald is fighting Ellenberger, and it won't cost you a dime.
LAS VEGAS -- Well. That proved nothing.
As expected, Strikeforce middleweight champion Luke Rockhold ran through Keith Jardine Saturday, posting a first-round TKO victory in his first title defense.
This is what happens when a legitimate contender in the prime of his career faces a tough, yet technically lacking veteran entering the twilight of his. Jardine had never fought as a middleweight until Saturday. The matchup was flawed from the beginning.
Immediately after the fight, Rockhold (9-1) begged for better competition, asking Zuffa, parent company to Strikeforce and the UFC, for a shot at UFC talent.
“I like fighting and I like getting paid, but I love competition,” said Rockhold, on the televised broadcast. “Right now all the best guys are in the UFC. Those are the guys I want.”
Rockhold’s frustration is warranted, as are his comments. He’s wrong though, in suggesting there are no challenges left for him in Strikeforce. That might hold true for lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez -- but Rockhold isn’t there yet.
True, the win over Jardine didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. But Rockhold’s next fight in 2012 will.
And it sounds like he knows that. Once the emotion of the fight with Jardine wore off, Rockhold admitted that Strikeforce middleweight Tim Kennedy (14-3) is a well-deserving challenger to his belt.
He also said a rematch against Ronaldo Souza (14-3) would be of interest to him. Rockhold defeated Souza in a tight, but unanimous five-round decision in September.
“Tim Kennedy is the most valid challenger right now,” Rockhold said. “I’d more than welcome that fight. Tim poses a lot of problems. He’s a great wrestler and jiu-jitsu guy, but he lacks in the standup realm.”
That he still has challenges at Strikeforce doesn’t change the fact Rockhold is deserving of a shot against UFC talent. At this point in his career, he’s demonstrated enough skill to hang with the likes of a Chael Sonnen, Mark Munoz and Vitor Belfort.
Fair or not, however, those fights are unlikely to materialize. Regardless of how many times Rockhold challenges a UFC contender to enter the Strikeforce hexagon, it’s not happening right now.
“These fighters want to test themselves and prove they are No. 1,” said Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker. “But Tim is going to be back shortly. Robbie [Lawler] is in the mix. We’ll have a lot of fights for Luke moving forward.”
Rockhold was terrific Saturday. He established his range immediately, which isn’t necessarily easy against a durable brawler like Jardine. He controlled the pace of the fight, which is one of his greatest strengths and he finished it decisively.
Should he be fighting in the UFC? That case can be made. But has he, after Saturday, cleaned out the Strikeforce middleweight division? Not yet.
“If that’s the plan, that’s the plan,” Rockhold said. “I’ll make the most of what we’ve got here.
“I want to fight the guys who earn their shot.”
In that regard, maybe it’s fitting that the future of several of this weekend’s competitors appears inexorably tied to the prospects of Strikeforce itself. With the fate of fighters like Fedor Emelianenko, Dan Henderson and Paul Daley -- not to mention the entire women’s division -- looking more and more unstable as Strikeforce trends closer to an assumed eventual absorption into UFC, it goes without saying that a lot could be on the line Saturday.
Here’s a glance at who has the most to gain and the most to lose at Strikeforce: Fedor versus Henderson:
Most to gain:
1. Miesha Tate: As noted earlier this week, Tate appears to have all the makings of a breakout star in a Strikeforce women’s division hurt by the absence of its two biggest stars -- Gina Carano and Cristiane Santos. To fulfill that promise, she’ll have to beat Marloes Coenen for the 135-pound title. Tate and Coenen have said they hope their performance goes a long way to showing Zuffa brass that female MMA can be a valuable future part of the company. That, along with an opponent whose submission ability could pose a threat to Tate’s takedown-oriented style, seems like a lot to heap on a 24-year-old who hasn’t fought in almost a year. It’ll be pretty impressive if she can pull it off.
2. Tyron Woodley: Imagine how Woodley’s career might have been different had he not reportedly been one of the final cuts prior to filming season nine of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Instead, James Wilks won that season’s welterweight crown and has since put up an underwhelming 2-2 record in the Octagon. Meanwhile, Woodley has had to build his reputation without a ton of help, netting six straight victories in Strikeforce dating to June 2009. With the welterweight championship vacant after Nick Diaz became the first to cross (back) over to the UFC, a win over Daley could do double-duty -- providing his career its first real signature moment while also putting him on the doorstep of a title shot.
3. Dan Henderson: Henderson could just as easily fall into the “most to lose” category if things get ugly for him against Emelianenko. Especially considering those troubling reports that Zuffa might cut him loose from his bloated contract if he doesn't come out on top. Still, the rewards might outweigh the risks for Hendo against a former heavyweight great considered by most to be in rapid decline. Even with our doubts about Fedor’s future in the sport, moving up a weight class and capturing a win over him would still look great on Henderson’s already extensive resume. Considering the victory would give him three in a row after back-to-back knockouts over Renato Sobral and Rafael Cavalcante, it would also put a good bit of distance between him and his loss to Jake Shields in April 2010, when it looked like Henderson didn’t really want to fight any longer than five minutes.
Most to lose:
1. Fedor Emelianenko: It won’t be unexpected if Fedor loses to Henderson, then retires, but it’ll still be sad. After going nearly 10 years and 28 fights without a loss, Emelianenko built an almost mythic reputation in a sport where he is still arguably the greatest all time. Without overstatement, if this weekend is the last time we see him in the cage, it’ll mark the end of an era in the hearts and minds of longtime fans. Just goes to show, the adage is true: Time, too much ice cream and a complete refusal to ever alter your approach even as the rest of your industry passes you by will make a fool out of all of us.
2. Paul Daley: Daley is 8-2 in his past 10 fights, but you still get the feeling Zuffa is just waiting around to fire the guy, don't you? Since severely limiting his career options by punching Josh Koscheck after the bell at UFC 113, each of the 28-year-old Daley’s moves takes on added significance. The fight against Woodley could mean the difference between a shot at the Strikeforce 170-pound title and having the only thing in his future to look forward to be an as-yet unscheduled BAMMA main event against Nate Marquardt. If those are Daley’s options, he better hope he’s got the wherewithal to choose the former.
3. Robbie Lawler and Scott Smith (tie): It seems like a lifetime since a rematch between these two drew an estimated 2.6 million viewers to EliteXC’s second show on CBS almost exactly three years ago. Lawler won the doomed company’s middleweight strap that night but has since gone 2-3 and faces what amounts to a must-win against the very tough Tim Kennedy on Saturday. Likewise, Smith has lost three of his past four and conceded this week he likely won’t have a job with Strikeforce if he can’t get past 24-year-old prospect Tarec Saffiedine. It'd be a shame to see these guys hit the unemployment line, but that could be the reality if either suffers another loss.
“Yeah, we talked, but it really came down to [the fact that] I don’t have the name to push that show to the level it needed to,” Kennedy told ESPN.com. “I have like 7,000 followers on Twitter. Jason Miller has 120,000. His name is much more recognizable internationally. A lot more different realms than just MMA. Yeah, everybody in MMA knows who I am. But he kind of goes .. across, um, some lines for his notoriety. I’m trying to say that nicely.”
Kennedy didn’t get the televised coaching job. Nor did he get another crack at Strikeforce’s 185-pound strapholder Ronaldo Souza after manhandling Melvin Manhoef in March. Nor did he get a crossover fight against top-flight UFC fighters, which piqued his interest when Zuffa snapped up Strikeforce in March.
But he did get a ridiculously heavy-handed silver lining in Robbie Lawler for the July 30 card in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Kennedy is looking at Lawler as the gateway to better opportunities. If he beats him convincingly, he foresees at very least another chance at the middleweight title -- and in the abstract, bigger fights down the road with the UFC’s brand names.
“The potential for these super-fights for the level of competitiveness in the 185-pound weight class right now is out of this room,” he says about possible crossover fights with Zuffa’s other half. “It’s exciting. There are match-ups I really want to be a part of. Again, I have to go out there and win this fight and put on a good showing so that those can be considered.”
“As far as a title shot, I sure hope so, but I don’t know. I’m not the matchmaker, I’m not part of the promotion -- I’m just a fighter. So, I’m going to go out there and do the best thing that I can, which is to finish everybody that I fight. Everybody I beat, I finish. I can’t remember the last time I beat somebody in a decision -- I think it was 1998 or something. I think I have 13 finishes. I’ve got to finish this guy. I can’t go to a decision and be calling out the champ when I can barely get by the guy who just lost to him. I definitely need to make a statement.”
As luck would have it, the last time Kennedy won via decision was against none other than Jason Miller, at an Extreme Challenge event in 2003. Lawler has had one fight go to the judges in that time frame, and that was against Ronaldo Souza in June '10. Souza beat Kennedy via decision in August 2010 – the only other time he’s went the distance in a professional MMA bout. In other words, fights against anybody not named Souza usually result in a finish for both guys, and Kennedy likes the fact.
“Stylistically I think it plays into my strengths,” he says. “Everybody underestimates his wrestling. His wrestling credentials are far superior to mine -- the level of competition that he wrestled [in college]. He’s much more of an accomplished wrestler than I have ever been. So, I hear ignorant people say “you know, Tim’s just going to try and take him down,” and I’m like -- are you insane? Robbie’s a really, really good wrestler. It’s really hard. Like, if I don’t score takedowns, the guy’s going to murder me.
“It’s not going to be that easy. It’s going to be a back-and-forth battle, we’re going to work in the clinch, we’re going to be throwing big punches … so, it’s definitely going to be a fight.”
And very likely an early night for at least half of the competition.
Among Mike Goldberg's usual duties -- sponsor plugs, broadcast generalship, tanning -- is reciting the standard "rules of the Octagon" narration over a graphic, which states points will be awarded "based on striking, grappling, aggression and Octagon control." At 10 seconds in length, this will never be mistaken for an instructional video, but it's become very obvious that Nevada judges in attendance Saturday haven't even bothered watching that much.
After handling Leonard Garcia for three rounds, pushing Garcia backward, landing punches while Garcia whiffed in open-mouthed "offense" and even taking a round with a conceivable 10-8 work effort, two judges ignored Nam Phan and scored the bout 29-28 Garcia. (The third saw it 30-27 Phan, cementing his status as human with two functioning corneas.) It stands next to New Coke, "The Phantom Menace" and the Hula burger as one of the worst decisions of all time.
In typically boorish bureaucratic fashion, these judges will never be asked to explain their scorecards, will never be asked to provide evidence of their competency and will probably not be reprimanded in any meaningfully way -- all expected outcomes of virtually every other botched job on the planet.
Nothing can suffocate the enthusiasm of fans more quickly than something purported to be "As Real as it Gets" burdened by the inexplicable presence of officials who use a fictitious set of standards to oversee fights. Athletic commissions are assumed to be competent; as we saw with Chael Sonnen's hearing Thursday, some members can't even tell the difference between a mixed martial artist and a boxer. At this point, it's becoming impossible to tell the difference between a fight judge and a brick.
Next for Phan: Several drinks; head-shaking; more drinks.
Next for Garcia: Providing a green energy source with his punches.
The look at me award: The anonymous spectator at the Palms who kept screaming out lines from "The Karate Kid" during the Johny Hendricks/Rick Story fight. This was funny in 1995. Briefly. The moment has passed.
The Mr. Rogan goes to Washington award: Joe Rogan, for publicly taking the Nevada commission to task for their ridiculously apathetic attitude toward the state of judging in MMA.
Verbal vomit award: Mauro Ranallo, for his use of "fistic fireworks" and claiming Henderson "has rung more bells than a monk in a monastery." Ranallo could be calling the action between Superman and Muhammad Ali on a space station and it would still feel like too much.
The James Lipton award: Lawler, for growing a beard that would make Fidel Castro (and his many decoys) proud.
New questions: UFC/Strikeforce
Who can take commissions to task?
Accountability is what keeps most of us competent. If there's no one who can audit our behavior, we might begin to behave in a manner that keeps life easy without sweating the consequences. No one in sports is held less accountable than a fight judge -- appointed by the commission, sometimes out of cozy cronyism, and spared any process that could call into question their competency. As Saturday's Phan/Garcia fight proved, several of these people might need help making sure their chairs are facing the right direction.
Many commissions, like Nevada's, have members appointed by the state's governor; once those appointments are in place, upper levels of government pay them little attention. You could appeal to the department of state business that typically has ties with the commission, but you again deal with parties of lopsided interest. Hitting them all where it hurts -- the wallet -- would only injure promotions who count on revenue from busy regions. What's it going to take? Fighters picketing the offices?
Between the weekend's judging in Las Vegas and Thursday's chaotic Sonnen hearing before the California board, MMA's supervisors have never looked less impressive. The commissions are crafted to keep fighting sports honest. Who keeps the commissions honest?
Is Henderson still a threat?
Henderson, 40 years old and looking every bit the nail-studded club he was 10 years ago, snuffed out Renato "Babalu" Sobral quickly Saturday, which brought up talk of a title bout with "Feijao." It was also enough to dim the memory of a poor performance against Jake Shields last April; a weary Henderson, after dropping Shields early, was ground out over five rounds.
But it's worth noting that most of Henderson's career-best performances came at 185 pounds, where his imposing wrestling and bullet-forward strikes were a threat. At 205, he's dropped decisions to Quinton Jackson, was submitted by Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and had a difficult time with Rich Franklin. Capturing a title in that division shouldn't be a foregone conclusion.
Is Brookins going to survive?
Brookins won the 12th season of "The Ultimate Fighter" on Saturday, but only after a very rocky start: Michael Johnson controlled the pace in the first round, only to fall off the cliff in the lat
ter two. It was a sturdy performance, but not the kind that makes anyone optimistic for Brookins' chances in one of the deepest divisions of the sport. He'll need very small, very incremental steps.
Should Matt Lindland hang it up?
Matt Lindland had one of the all-time poor game plans during the Strikeforce program, settling into the pocket with the younger, faster and more violent Lawler. Bad things were anticipated, and bad things happened: Lawler landed a right hook and one punctuating ground strike that put Lindland out cold. (Lawler even straightened out the stiffness in his legs, which is a little like a serial killer helping police with a body bag.)
Much is being made over Lindland's current fight IQ, but two big knockouts -- Vitor Belfort did the same thing to him in January 2009 -- over a two-year period isn't as harsh a run as other fighters have suffered. Bad matchups are bad matchups; Lawler was awful for him. It doesn't necessarily mean he's no longer fit for duty.
• After making Scott Smith look like an amateur, Paul Daley told the St. Louis crowd he was interested in a fight with K.J. Noons. It's easy to see why -- both are disinterested in wrestling -- but Noons doesn't have a lot of business as a 170-pound fighter. Daley against Nick Diaz is far more interesting.
• More from the bad strategy department: After knocking down Silva and then getting nowhere with hammerfists, Kyle might have been best served by allowing Silva to struggle back to his feet and trying to capitalize on his pre-rung bell.
• To help ease the pain of a ridiculous decision loss, Phan split a $60,000 "Fight of the Night" bonus with Garcia. Leonard's heart is impressive, but his method -- swinging in comically overcommitted offense -- is a poor representation of technique. I'm not sure it deserves acknowledgement.
• Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker told MMAJunkie.com that he's optimistic a deal will be reached with Fedor Emelianenko soon. How negotiations can drag out for this long after Emelianenko lost much of his mythical status in a spring loss to Fabricio Werdum is beyond me, particularly when he brings little additional revenue to North American box office or ratings. He's a great fighter, but not a deity. Enough already.
Saturday marks the first time the UFC and Strikeforce have aired live programming opposite one another, but there's really not much to be made of that: Showtime airs in only a fraction of the homes Spike does, making any real comparison of viewership a mess of semantics, demographics and relative numbers. Dave versus Jay is a pretty fair ratings match; this one requires a lot of handicapping.
If anything can be figured out, it'll be based largely on the drawing power of promotional names, not athletes: Strikeforce lost a draw in Herschel Walker last week, while the UFC is dealing primarily with ungroomed "Ultimate Fighter" participants and a well-liked headliner in Stephan Bonnar. The Strikeforce card has more intriguing and rankings-relevant bouts, but its top draw -- Dan Henderson rematching Renato "Babalu" Sobral -- may be a somewhat muted affair. Unless Sobral can catch Henderson in something, there's not a lot of breaking news to anticipate.
What's really remarkable Saturday: Fredson Paixao and Pablo Garza will mark the first time featherweights have competed under the UFC banner; Will Campuzano and Nick Pace introduce bantamweights the same night. Athletes who work every bit as hard as the rest and who helped bolster an entire company have earned the platform the UFC provides. More than anything, we'll probably remember the event as the night they finally got what they deserved.
When: Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on Spike ("TUF 12" Finale); 10 p.m. ET on Showtime (Strikeforce)
Why you should watch: Because Demian Maia against Kendall Grove is a nice puzzle of Maia's jiu-jitsu against Grove's rubber limbs; because Paul Daley against Scott Smith is one of the sport's few money-back guarantees of a knockout; because fights taken on short notice -- as in the case of Mike Kyle's bout with Antonio Silva -- usually mean explosive, strategy-free action; and because Bonnar is rarely in a boring fight.
Fight of the night: Daley-Smith, for as long as it lasts.
Hype quote of the show: "Even some of my closest friends, when I told them who I was fighting, they were like 'oh Maia, oooohhh,' ... it kinda p---es me off, and what a lot of people don't know is that I asked for this fight." -- Grove, on making life harder on himself, to UFC.com
Can 'The Ultimate Fighter' still create stars?
The first season of Spike's "Ultimate Fighter" was initially seen as a free pass into UFC contention. "Regular" fighters had to come up the hard way, while the reality stars got there faster; winners weren't celebrated so much as resented.
If the show was planned as stunt work, it worked better than anyone could've expected: Forrest Griffin, Chris Leben, Josh Koscheck and others went on to become champions or contenders. But in its 12th season, the show might finally be arriving full circle -- as a vehicle for prime-time programming over actual recruiting. Recent winner Efrain Escudero was cut; Ross Pearson had a good run interrupted by Cole Miller; and no contestant since Season 3 winner Michael Bisping has approached a level that impacts box office revenue. The winner of Saturday's Michael Johnson/Jonathan Brookins bout might discover that they haven't necessarily earned relevance -- just the chance at it.
Can Matt Lindland still create problems?
It was only a few years ago that some observers lobbied the conspiracy theory that UFC brass were so nervous smothering wrestler Matt Lindland would beat marketable Rich Franklin that they found a reason to oust him from the promotion. Lindland reportedly wore a sponsor shirt that was not allowed, and was subsequently fired. Truth to the explanation? Who knows.
The 40-year-old has struggled since, dropping fights to Vitor Belfort and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza. Beating Robbie Lawler on Saturday might reintroduce the idea that Lindland is no particular picnic for anyone he fights.
Is Daley the new go-to villain?
The moment he struck Josh Koscheck after the bell during a May UFC event, Daley became the poster child for impropriety. (He was fired the same night.) Fans have good memories: When Sean Sherk was alleged to have tested positive for banned substances, he returned to boos. Whether Daley plays that up or tries to be contrite is something the audience might wind up helping him decide.
Red ink: Henderson versus Sobral
Think you can get a handle on Saturday's Strikeforce rematch between Sobral and Henderson by watching their February 2000 fight? Forget it: So much time has passed that the footage is irrelevant. An overweight Sobral scored with leg kicks and even took Henderson down. But under Rings rules, no one was able to strike to the head on the ground. With both men exhausted from prior fights the same night, it's not much more help than camcorder footage from a tough sparring session.
The only thing unlikely to change is Henderson's ability to muscle Sobral around in the clinch: He hasn't gotten any less dangerous there or elsewhere, while Sobral has had a hot-and-cold career in the years since. A second win over Sobral is not going to be one of the more notable marks on Henderson's résumé, but following a loss to Jake Shields in the spring, it's a fair test of what the 40-year-old former Pride champion has left.
Wild card: Were Henderson's problems against Shields attributable to a hard weight cut -- as he claims -- or simply a war-torn body finally showing its age?
Who wins: Henderson tends to struggle more as a light heavyweight, but Sobral probably isn't looking at many chances to win outside of a submission during a scramble. The Big Right Hand, the pace and the clinch work are all still enough to put away just about anybody in the sport. Henderson by decision.