MMA: UFC 136
That’s why company brand names found themselves shoulder-to-shoulder in the sauna. Kenny Florian, Tyson Griffin, Ross Pearson, Manny Gamburyan ... even skinny Darren Elkins wrung his muscles of moisture to make it. As for the accordion-thick kickboxer, Dennis Siver? Just know that the threat is still there.
Yet for the most part, these days a drop to featherweight feels more like a demotion than an exodus. Either that, or the more people became familiar with Jose Aldo, the more the alternative path to glory presents itself as an unhealthy one. However you cut it up, the 145-pound division isn't salvation anymore. And that’s why Dustin Poirier had better be ready for the title gig if he beats Chan Sung Jung in May (and vice-versa), and Hatsu Hioki had better start smiting his chest after wins. None of the big guns in the lightweight division want anything to do with the featherweight strap right now.
In the past couple of weeks we’ve seen it. First the chants of Frankie Edgar to drop to 145 pounds became loud when Dana White got to nudging things along. When Edgar refused to budge and was reluctantly granted a rematch against Benson Henderson, the focus switched to the odd man out of the lightweight title picture, Anthony Pettis. Here is a lean, dynamic striker that suddenly could be thrust into a default title shot against a lean, dynamic striker who surfs (both crowds and waves).
Not really. Though there was some mild flirtation from Pettis’s camp that he’d be open to the idea, upon reflection the final word was “no.” Pettis tweeted that he was staying at 155 pounds where there was a lot of unfinished business.
Of course, in the two aforementioned scenarios the common link is Henderson. Edgar lost a close decision and was asking for some return love for his open-mindedness toward rematches throughout his time as champion. His case was so strong that the UFC relented. Pettis is the last guy to defeat Henderson, and he didn’t just beat him -- he posterized him with that Matrix kick at the WEC finale. Though his chance at a title shot at 155 pounds could be a couple of fights off and a year down the road, he wants to pursue what he started. Good for him.
But you do have to wonder why one belt looks that much more desirable than the other. Yes, the lightweight division is deeper, has bigger fights and is uber-competitive -- but there’s no waiting line to Aldo. Pettis, who has a very stylish fashion sense, is a very select shopper when it comes to accessories, too. Winning just any belt won’t do for somebody -- the reigning WEC lightweight champion, no less -- who’s had his heart set on a specific one for so long. People have been quick to understand his decision. Don’t rush to conclusions. You don’t just jump around divisions. That sort of thing.
There are, however, guys who have and who’ve done it well. B.J. Penn has held gold in two weight classes, and Dan Henderson stands at the ready to fight in any of three weight divisions. Nothing they did was irreversible, nothing was ever deemed permanent. They just happened to be at cusp weights that could go either way, much like Edgar and Pettis. Greatness is rarely so specific, anyway -- why not pursue a collection of hardware? Isn’t this what Jon Jones is talking about when talking of an eventual move to heavyweight?
Pettis likely has his reasons (having Henderson’s number is chief among them), but a lightweight title shot might be a dangling carrot forever just out of his reach. Right now the UFC is saying that the winner of Nate Diaz/Jim Miller will fight the winner of Edgar/Henderson, the latter of which is being discussed for August. That makes his road to a title a very long, detouring one with no guarantee of an end.
And that he’s willing to take it instead of clashing with Aldo tells you that the featherweight division isn't as enticing. Either that, or Aldo has gained a little invincibility.
Since Frankie Edgar became the champion nearly two years ago, the road to the title has been a course of trip wires, booby hatches and rabbit holes. People have a tendency to disappear as fast as they show up in the title picture.
Former WEC titlist Anthony Pettis is one who knows all about it. He was next in line a year ago after crossing into the UFC. Then he wasn’t. Now he is again.
At least -- possibly.
And the same goes for Joe Lauzon, who is Pettis’ opponent at UFC 144 this weekend in Saitama, Japan. Lauzon might be the unlikeliest of title contenders we’ve seen since Dan Hardy’s meteoric flash through the welterweights.
Difference being, Lauzon -- a former IT guy -- has been hovering in the gray middle of the division ever since knocking out Jens Pulver at UFC 63. That was five and a half years ago. Lauzon is the quietest contender to have ever been so long in the making.
Yet there he is. For once in his career, Lauzon is in focus in the title picture. If he beats Pettis, that would be a truly compelling argument for his cause -- especially after Lauzon's defeat of Melvin Guillard. Remember that, as of October, Guillard was right there at the top of the division too -- as the most feared striker in the 155-pound division riding a five-fight winning streak. That night, Lauzon proved fighting acumen overcomes brute strength. Couple that with a win over a far more well-rounded Anthony Pettis, and Lauzon becomes hard to ignore.
What’s strange is that Lauzon has never exactly been about title contention (though he is happy to find himself in it). When I spoke to him after he submitted Guillard at UFC 136, he said he was happy to be in the $18,000/$18,000 range, rather than a higher pay bracket of, say, $30,000/$30,000.
Why? Two reasons.
One, Lauzon is a smart long-term planner who has earned seven end-of-the-night bonuses. He estimates he’s made $365,000 in bonus money in his career so far. Not shabby. And part of how he did that plays into the second reason: On the lower scale pay bracket, he gets the occasional Curt Warburton. He has never lost two in a row in the UFC, and if you look at his opponents after a loss, you’ll get an idea why. After losing to Kenny Florian, he fought Kyle Bradley -- a significant dip in quality of opposition. After dropping a tough bout with Sam Stout, Lauzon drew Gabe Ruediger -- in Lauzon's hometown of Boston. After George Sotiropoulos tapped him with a Kimura, he got Warburton.
If he’s in a higher pay bracket, he gets monsters. Every time. And he is well aware of the fact.
Yet a head of steam is a head of steam. Should Lauzon beat Pettis, he will be the forerunner for a shot at the title with three wins in a row. The only hitch might be if the UFC decides to wait on Nate Diaz/Jim Miller in May. Diaz is coming off a victory over a top-ranked Donald Cerrone, while Miller piled on Guillard after dropping a fight to Benson Henderson. Arguably, the winner of that fight has a pretty righteous claim to a title shot, too. Both the Diaz and Miller camps are prepping for the UFC on FOX 3 card as if it’s a title eliminator. As well they should.
But everybody knows matchmaking is half about schedule alignments, and that’s why the winner of Lauzon/Pettis has a trump card: timing. They fight on the same card as Edgar/Henderson, meaning meshing schedules could play a factor. Diaz/Miller is more than two months off. People who follow the fight game want immediacy. If the Pettis/Lauzon fight ends emphatically either way, there’s a good chance that the winner looks like the top contender.
If it’s Lauzon? That makes for a fun case. Here would be a guy we never saw coming -- yet who was always there.
In that way, his rise in the ranks would feel just as stealthy as his jiu-jitsu.
Feel-good stories in MMA are hard to sustain, and even harder to get off the ground. As quick and cobbled as the story of the Blackzilians is being put together as a sort of wrecking crew/adoption agency, old tendencies are returning to its fighters.
This isn’t a happy trend.
One week ago, Anthony Johnson failed to make weight (by a country mile) in Rio de Janeiro at UFC 142, marking the third time in two different weight classes he’s showed up to the scale way over. He was cut for the third strike after losing to Vitor Belfort. Now Melvin Guillard, who recently relocated to Florida full-time to train with the Blackzilians, gets submitted in a round by Jim Miller.
If any of this looks familiar it’s because he was tapped by Joe Lauzon in his previous fight at UFC 136, which was thought to be something of a winking aberration. Turns out it wasn’t, and it never really was. The fact is that nine of Guillard’s 10 losses have come via submission. The other fight he lost (against Jake Short in 2004) was a decision. Guillard has never been knocked out, but he dangles neck and limb out there to be snatched while pursuing knockouts.
His fixation is leaving him vulnerable. For as much as it’s fun to watch Guillard’s aggression, it plays out like roulette.
Yet the case of Guillard is interesting, because so many people -- coaches, fans, honchos at Zuffa -- see him as a fighter that’s a few tweaks from being a champion. He has the quicks and athleticism to rival any lightweight, and arguably the strongest hands in the division. There’s no doubting his explosiveness. In fact, he had Miller in trouble early by landing some big shots. Then again, lapses in judgment have always hindered him, both in and out of the cage. And those lapses in judgment in the cage put him in all kinds of hot water against smart grapplers, the kind who feast on mistakes.
Lauzon told me that he was leery of four offensive moves that Guillard presented, and he had them easily memorized before their fight. He saw all of them in the 47 seconds they stood across from each other. As for the defensive side of the equation? No worries at all -- Guillard trends offensively. He trusts his offense enough to override any specific holes in his submission defense.
And at this point that sort of thinking is the problem unless he’s fighting somebody who accommodates him by not playing jiu-jitsu.
Against wrestlers (Shane Roller, Evan Dunham, Waylon Lowe), Guillard does fine. Against guys who like to stand and bang (Jeremy Stephens, Dennis Siver), he’s right at home. But against submission specialists (Nate Diaz, Joe Lauzon, Jim Miller), guys who can force mistakes or at the very least pounce on them, he gets caught.
After the Miller choke, ESPN.com’s Brett Okamoto suggested Guillard needed to be locked in a room with some black belts for a year, then he’d return a champion. Whether that’s true or not, it couldn’t hurt.
But the mistakes are the thing. Against Miller it was an ill-timed flying knee that allowed the grappler to get things to the ground. From there it was clinical -- just as Miller went to mount, Guillard scrambled and gave up his back. Seconds later, he was tapping.
This has become a recurring theme for Guillard, who for just a little while at Greg Jackson’s Academy in Albuquerque seemed to have found a balance in his game that might be described best as “smart aggressiveness.” The thing that Jackson and striking coach Mike Winkeljohn were working on with Guillard was ultimately judgment, with a broader focus on his maturity. He was riding a five-fight winning streak when he left Jackson’s for Boca Raton midway through training for Lauzon. Up until then, he was beating wrestlers and boxers.
Since then he’s 0-2 against jiu-jitsu aces. Losing the way he did long before he got to Jackson’s.
Would it have mattered if he’d stayed in New Mexico? Who knows. But Guillard is a work in progress, and it’s been a pretty lousy week for the Blackzilians.
Last time it was Melvin Guillard, who wanted to stay busy while the title picture sorted itself out. It took Lauzon 47 seconds to explain why that was a mistake.
Now it’s Anthony Pettis, another antsy fighter, who kept busy despite establishing himself as the clear No. 1 contender while Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard held the division hostage.
We all saw what happened there. Clay Guida took all those Duke Roufusian dynamics and ground them into a fine powder -- so much so that Pettis returned against Jeremy Stephens with an added wrinkle in his game (wrestling). He won the fight through toil, bumming out frill seekers the way that Miguel Torres did by using his reach and jab in decisioning the shorter Antonio Banuelos.
That’s the rub against being a fighter where everyone has grown to expect the unexpected -- the only thing that can possibly feel surprising is disappointment.
And it’s one of the reasons why Pettis now casts an eye towards Lauzon, who rarely sees finish lines. In 27 pro fights, Lauzon has went to the judges' scorecards once, and that was against Sam Stout at UFC 108 while still not fully recovered from ACL surgery (he lost). Lauzon has taken home nine end of the night bonuses; hitching on to a fight against him means potential for a big payday. After two dull bouts (by inflated standards), Pettis looks at Lauzon and sees electricity. He sees a comer that he can convert into a highlight reel victory.
Best of all, he sees meshing schedules for February.
Yet, it’s a bit of trickery what Lauzon does. He’s a cusp top-10 lightweight coming off a big win who doesn’t do any one thing particularly well; he can’t box, can’t wrestle, and his jiu-jitsu is best described as quite a bit better than decent. He’s not a polished anything. As such, he can’t help but be the most enticing thing on the menu to ravenous appetites.
There’s always somebody casting their druthers his way.
But the danger in handpicking Lauzon is that all those mediocre elements add up to something very hard to deal with, as he proved against Pulver in 2006, and recently against Guillard at UFC 136. He’ll use hodgepodge to hurt you, then turn into an incubus to carry the thing through. Nobody pounces quicker that Lauzon, even if he says that moment always feels like it’s in agonizingly slow motion. Pettis may not have the same vulnerability to submissions that Guillard does, but -- right into Lauzon’s wheelhouse -- seems to have similar notions. It’s either a perfect set-up for a spike for Pettis, or (yet another) perfect trap.
Either way, that’s a good fight.
And judging from how eagerly Lauzon accepted the challenge, he thinks so too.
In the immediate aftermath of Chael Sonnen’s win at UFC 136, however, the rhetoric coming from Anderson Silva’s camp has been nearly as weird and nonsensical as the stuff we typically expect from Sonnen. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if Silva and his people are just giving the crazy-talking Oregon grappler a taste of his own medicine.
The 185-pound champion hasn’t had a lot to say thus far about Sonnen’s newly rescinded challenge for a loser-leaves-town rematch during Super Bowl weekend, except to cover his mouth and giggle at the audacity of it. Meanwhile, Silva has dispatched manager Ed Soares to tell anyone who will listen that they’re not all that interested in giving Sonnen another shot at the title. At least not right now.
“I think Chael’s delusional, man ...,” Soares told HDNet’s Inside MMA recently. “Take a number and get to the back of the line. You had your opportunity.”
What to make of this strategy? Of course, it’s just gamesmanship. I mean, we all hope it is.
To actually deny Sonnen’s status as No. 1 contender would be to exhibit a disconnect with reality befitting Sonnen himself. Even after his 14-month absence from the cage for his various personal and professional transgressions, he remains the second-ranked middleweight in the world and his bout with Brian Stann 12 days ago in Houston was roundly considered a title eliminator going in.
After easily cruising to victory over Stann, a second fight between Sonnen and Silva is now being referred to as “the biggest rematch in MMA history.” It’s the middleweight match-up fans want most for Silva and would be the hottest-selling 185-pound match the UFC could make between now and, well, eternity. It would give “The Spider” another shot at his nemesis, the opponent who gave him the stiffest test of his UFC career and the guy Silva’s camp has implied would get smoked the second time around, provided everybody involved has normal testosterone levels and healthy ribs.
And now the champ doesn’t want to do it? Yeah, right.
When Soares dismisses Sonnen as a realistic foe and insinuates that Silva would rather take a comparatively much easier, much lower-profile fight against Michael Bisping -- as he did this week -- they’re clearly just messing with Sonnen as much as Sonnen is trying to mess with them. It stands to reason that nothing would irritate a guy like Sonnen more than being ignored and -- that’s exactly what the champion has done so far.
But as much as he sometimes acts like one, Sonnen is not a schoolyard bully. You can’t just ignore him until he goes away. Silva’s camp knows that, and they also know it’s only a matter of time before the UFC greenlights second bout between the two fighters. When that happens, Silva will take it and take it gladly.
Otherwise, we might start thinking Sonnen is the sane one in this scenario.
To say interest was piqued by Sonnen’s pro wrestling-style ultimatum and the champion’s goofy on-screen response would be a vast understatement. At the postfight news conference on Saturday, UFC President Dana White had to fend off reporters from Dallas, Houston and Brazil, who all seemed to be openly campaigning to have gargantuan sports stadiums in their areas host Sonnen versus Silva II.
White, whose news conference demeanor can often best be described as exasperated, repeated at least twice that if this fight goes down in early February on Super Bowl weekend -- as both Sonnen and the company seem to want it to -- it’ll be in Las Vegas, for the simple reason that’s where the UFC always does its Super Bowl weekend shows. If the fight goes down, White said a couple of times. If.
The truth is, it’s far from signed at this point and as much as a Silva-Sonnen rematch probably deserves to happen in the UFC’s hometown and the fight capital of the world, there are still some hurdles that need to be cleared before it can happen at all. And if it doesn't, what's the next best option for Silva, Sonnen and the UFC?
The first trick will be just getting Sonnen licensed in Nevada. Though White said this week he doesn’t anticipate a problem, we still don’t really know how that state will handle Sonnen after he and Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Director Keith Kizer publicly beefed last year. For that matter, we're not really sure if Sonnen has continued on with the controversial testosterone replacement therapy he said he needed to safely compete in MMA after his suspension in California in 2010. We also don’t know if he applied for a therapeutic use exemption for last weekend’s fight in Texas, or if he would apply for one in Nevada for a potential bout against Silva. How the NSAC responds to such a request could obviously greatly affect the timing and placement of this fight.
The second issue may well be the champion’s health. Last we heard, the status of Silva’s injured shoulder allegedly prevented matchmakers from signing him up for another high-profile rematch against Dan Henderson before the end of the year. In order to get in a full eight-week training camp to meet Sonnen on Feb. 4, Silva would have to be ready to resume MMA activities by the second week in December. At this point, it would be pure speculation to say whether or not that can happen on schedule.
If it can’t, any number of dominoes could fall. We keep hearing that timing is an important part of the equation in making these fights. If Silva’s injury pushes the timeline back, would the UFC hold Sonnen out to fight him? Or would Sonnen have to take a fight in the interim? That was the case with No. 1 contenders in other weight classes like Rashad Evans, Chad Mendes and Anthony Pettis and there is no reason to believe Sonnen would be treated any differently besides, you know, the obvious financial ones.
That's where Henderson comes in. The former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion is still hanging around the outskirts of the Silva-Sonnen feud and he might be the true wildcard in this situation. We know the 205-pound title picture was recently scrambled by another injury to Evans and we know Hendo badly wants another shot at "The Spider." If Silva can't go or Sonnen can't get cleared, could Henderson be the odds-on favorite to step in for one of them, after he fights Mauricio Rua at UFC 139 on Nov. 19?
Clearly, part of Sonnen’s strategy in so vehemently calling out Silva was to create a situation where Henderson seemed second best as a challenger. Mission accomplished there, but if the UFC can’t clear the obstacles to making Silva-Sonnen II happen on schedule, there's a decent possibility either he or Silva ends up fighting Henderson instead. After that, all bets are off.
Both vantages are technically correct -- and his coaches probably spend time on each side. Garcia will always be Garcia, and as such will always be fun/hard to watch (depending on how nuanced your eyes might be).
Yet he isn't much to watch from a technical aspect. In fact, Garcia’s style transcends wins and losses and, over the years, he’s grown pretty familiar with each.
This was the case again on Saturday night. Garcia took a shot behind the right ear early and said afterward that one of his legs felt six inches longer than the other. If his body was telling him he was hurt, his brain took it as something more like “time to eliminate Nam Phan from existence.”
The switch was hit. Caution went to the wind, and Garcia started moving forward, all great guns and bomb’s away.
Garcia and Phan stood toe-to-toe, with Phan winning the greater bulk of the exchanges. In the loosest, most overused context possible, this became war. How it made you feel became a question of why you watch fighting.
Afterward, upon losing his fifth fight in nine bouts, people grumbled that Garcia will never learn to fight smart. That’s true, but it depends on how you define smart because, maybe, all he does is fight smart.
He cashed in another $75,000 for putting on the fight on the night on a stacked card, the fourth time he’s done that in six fights. His fight against the Chan Sung Jung was fight of the year. This loose, let-them-fly style seems like an incredibly smart way to go about business, not to mention lucrative and memorable. It’s a chapter from Chris Lytle without the niggling details that come with technical skill sets as fallbacks. In fact, Garcia’s style transcends wins and, over the years, he’s grown pretty familiar with each.
After the fight, when somebody asked Dana White if Garcia was on the bubble with these losses stacking up around him, White asked for a show of hands on who would want to see such a drastic measure. Nobody raised their hands. Poor Eric Schafer, who found himself on the wrong end of a unanimous decision to Aaron Simpson, wasn’t afforded this kind of democracy. Garcia isn’t going to be cut. And he promises he’ll be more technical next time through.
We’d be fools to believe it. And it’s to the point that he’d be a fool to enact it.
In a sport where it is often said that anything can happen, it was as honest and candid an outpouring of emotion as you will ever see. He had certainly earned it.
Edgar had just pulled off yet another improbable comeback, bouncing back from a perilous first round against Gray Maynard on Saturday at UFC 136 to craft a fourth-round TKO victory, retaining his lightweight title and likely calling to a close the feud and the trilogy of fights that had come to largely define his career up to this point.
“It’s a weight lifted off my shoulders,” Edgar said at the postfight media conference. “After every fight, when you've been thinking about someone for that long, it’s weight off your shoulders. Obviously it's that much more when I’ve been thinking about this guy for the last 10 months.”
There were indeed 10 months’ worth of frustration in that triumphant postfight scream. There were hundreds of hours of training in it, too, not to mention countless questions about Maynard, who Edgar admitted had become something like his nemesis after they fought to a draw at UFC 125 in January.
Maybe in there somewhere was even a career’s worth of being underestimated, short-changed and discounted by his many doubters. Edgar was bloodied and battered, his left eye blackened and rapidly closing, but he was still the champion.
In the beginning, it was uncanny how much the pair’s third bout resembled their second one. Maynard once again dominated the first round, dropping Edgar with an uppercut, then again with a straight right and again with a knee during a stanza at least one judge scored 10-8.
Somehow -- again -- Edgar weathered the storm and sprinted back to take Rounds 2 and 3, when his movement inside the cage appeared to frustrate and freeze Maynard. In the later three rounds, the challenger wasn’t able to find a home for his power shots.
As they went to the fourth round, the fight was tied on at least one of the scorecards and it was hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu building around cageside. This time, however, the judges were not needed. With just over a minute remaining in the fourth, Edgar stunned Maynard with a short uppercut during a scramble, dropped him to the canvas with a barrage of right hands and then finished with his left once Maynard hit the mat.
Perhaps the most remarkable performance yet in Edgar’s extraordinary career, it was good enough to have UFC president Dana White claiming afterward that he considers the undersized lightweight champion to be the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, behind only middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
Edgar doesn’t know about all that. He’s just happy to have Maynard off his mind for the foreseeable future.
“I just think it puts some closure on it,” Edgar said. “Obviously the last fight ended in a draw, so it didn’t have a definitive winner. This one, I ended it with a bang. It’s good to go home and be done with it.”
Sonnen had just treated Brian Stann, the middleweight division’s most up-and-coming name, as nothing more than a turnstile. He walked right through him. And as he walked away from the scene without any outward celebration, the first words off his lips were, “Anderson Silva, you suck.”
The big reveal was something most people already suspected -- that Stann was incidental to Sonnen’s mission. Forget concepts of ring rust after 14 months of turmoil and all the asterisks he brought in. He wasn’t going to be stopped tonight. And beating Stann was never his goal.
Getting back to Silva was.
You could see the change on Silva’s face during the postfight call-out, which changed from happy to “here we go again.” It also included a loaded ultimatum -- should Silva lose, Sonnen proposed, he should leave the division. Yet should Silva beat him, he would leave the UFC.
This part of things is only the Chael dressing, the other part of the job he’s good at -- selling the fight. In fact, Sonnen is unparalleled at this, and when he drops the words “Super Bowl Weekend,” it takes on the "event" feel. He’s the master of planting seeds. And Sonnen’s words resonate as comical, audacious -- but what he’s saying makes people want it.
Sonnen is selling Silva’s comeuppance.
And that’s where it gets good. There’s a very real belief that vengeance is on the horizon, and that Sonnen will back up everything he says. He came within a couple of minutes of finishing a one-sided beatdown of Silva at UFC 117, and after that fight he said he felt his guts had been torn out. He’s carried that hollow feeling this far, and he’ll carry it back to Silva for that rematch. The sense of unfinished business is strong; the play at closure carries the drama. The fact that he is the only fighter to make Silva look pedestrian also speaks volumes.
But the chip on Sonnen’s shoulder has become an over-burdensome weight, and he’s articulate enough to tell you about it. Love him or hate him, doesn’t matter -- the thing is, we can’t take our eyes off him.
Everybody wants to know what it’s like to have Edgar on the brainstem for a full calendar year. At this point, is he tired of thinking about him? Does he want to just get the thing over with already? Does he get lost in the “what if’s” about leaving that first round onslaught unfinished?
Is the swirl of surmounting pressures tolling him these nine months later?
Frankly, Maynard is more tired of this classic sort of intrigue than he is of the man he’ll square off with in a trilogy fight on Saturday night for the 155-pound strap.
“For me all this stuff isn’t new,” he told ESPN.com from his hotel room on Thursday evening. “Just dealing with the guy you always have to compete against. I’ve done it in college. I’ve done it in high school. I had trilogies in college. I had trilogies all over. And I can still understand that it’s a new sport, but for me, I’ve been competing from the time I was three. It’s just a little bit of a change for the sport.”
It isn’t so much that Maynard has fought Edgar twice as it is the set of circumstances and travails he’s found himself against once in the cage with him.
In the first fight in Broomfield, Colo., in 2008, Maynard broke his hand in the opening round but was still able to outlast Edgar for all three rounds in a unanimous decision. That’s gritty stuff, but people really only remember the second fight -- the one where he caught Edgar with an uppercut and then blitzed him for the next few minutes to keep things teetering on the verge of a stoppage. Maynard went so hard for the coup de grce that he dumped his adrenaline with 20 minutes to go and a million minds unhip to his sinking dread.
When his legs barely answered the second-round bell, he felt a pang of terror.
“Yeah, it was terrifying. I didn’t know how I was going to fight the rest of the way -- it was a gut check,” he said. And to illustrate the feeling of what he went through, had to overcome, and what he’ll do differently as the Roman Numerals get longer in the series, he rolls out Brock Lesnar as an exhibit.
“Ok, here’s the whole comparison,” he says. “What I did before, it would be like [Shane] Carwin and Brock. If I have [Edgar] hurt again, it’ll be like Cain Velasquez and Brock. More calculated, slower, picking it apart.”
Shane Carwin notoriously made lactic acidosis a part of MMA vernacular at UFC 116. Very similarly to Maynard, he had Lesnar on the ropes for the whole first round. But he hanged himself in the process -- in the second round he had nothing for Lesnar and got submitted. Velasquez hurt Lesnar with a first-round shot at UFC 123 and went about his finish with unsettling poise and awareness. How he reacts to the wounded animal was the biggest tweak Maynard made in his training camp.
Edgar, all heart and Adam’s apple, came back in January from the 10-8 first to force a draw with the “Bully.” Yet the most underplayed part of the second Maynard/Edgar bout wasn’t just that Edgar rebounded but that Maynard found a way to survive. When the unreasonable feeling came over him that he had nothing left, he had to dig deep to find something. Anything.
“The whole point of growing in a career, or to build an athlete, is have him in the smaller shows, the smaller fights, so that all the bad stuff happens early,” he says. “For me, it happened in a championship fight. That’s a learning experience ... You look at Dan Henderson with Jake Shields, same thing. I pushed through it.
“By no means do I want people to think I am making excuses. I fought off my guts. I was on pure guts. It was a gut check. I’ve had some gut checks in both fights [with Edgar]. I try to make a big deal about. I don’t know how he felt. I can’t say, ‘man, if I didn’t blow it all out in the first round I’d have smoked him the whole fight.’ Who knows.”
It’s all part of the game, but stories come from the game within the game. Maynard and Edgar have been in each other’s crosshairs all year long. A bottleneck situation has occurred behind them at 155 as they sort it out. This has been an action-based series; the level of talking back and forth has never reached any real pitch. It’s an improbable set-up -- Maynard has gone 1-0-1 against Edgar despite so many adversities, and the undersized Edgar carries around the belt in spite of logic.
Just who feels better after what happened in the last encounter depends on how you crook your head.
“I feel good that, for a long time he was the cardio king,” Maynard says. “But for the first fight, he broke. I felt him break. In the next one, obviously he didn’t break, but I think he felt me pull back in Round 2. That sparked him up. If he thinks that’s how he’s going to beat me, that’s not how it goes.
So what does he expect?
“You know, he’s a tough kid, but I expect him to do a point fight,” he says. “I don’t expect him to come in there looking to bang with me. I expect a lot of inside, outside, a lot of trying to do the leg kicks, score points. You look back at his tapes, and they’re all pretty equal. The [Sean] Sherk fight, the [Matt] Veach fight, the Hermes Franca fight. They are all pretty much carbon copies. I don’t know how he’ll change it up, but he does a good job at what he does.”
It’s a long time to contemplate the fact. But it’s not just Edgar and the fight he’s contemplating, there’s also the big picture.
“For me, I’m starting to know -- everything happens, some of it might be good and some of it bad, but as long as you’re above the grass and not below it you’re doing alright,” he says. “There’s always tomorrow. And I don’t want to come across as ‘whatever happens, happens,’ but for me, as you get older, and you know a bit more, it’s about the gift of life. That’s the most important thing. As long as I’m breathing.”
A lot of media find the normally terse 33-year-old challenger sort of hard to pry through, but that’s Maynard. He appreciates the situation he’s in. In fact, he recognizes what’s unraveling right now as the golden moments of his life, the centerpiece of his rocking chair stories.
So if you think that he’s tired of thinking about Edgar, you’re probably half-right. To hear Maynard tell it, though, he’s clinging to that image with both hands, and this time he won’t let go.
Caught in the middle, however, is exactly how it must feel sometimes for the people on the edges of the Jon Jones-Rashad Evans feud. Ever since Evans divorced himself from Greg Jackson’s New Mexico-based training camp earlier this year to make a new professional home in Florida, guys like Guillard -- who’s trained at Jackson’s MMA since January 2010 and counts both guys as close friends -- must be treading pretty lightly around the two former teammates.
Maybe that’s why Guillard felt the need to explain himself this week when asked about his decision to do some of the prep work for his UFC 136 fight against Joe Lauzon at Evans’ Imperial Athletics in Boca Raton, Fla., instead of with Jones and the normal crew at Jackson’s.
“Yes, I’m still training in Albuquerque; yes I’m still affiliated with Jackson’s,” Guillard said. “But I have to make decisions in my career that are going to help Melvin. I don’t care about the egos or whatever Rashad and Jon got going on. They’re both my good friends. Rashad’s like my brother since Season 2 of 'The Ultimate Fighter.' I’ll never turn my back on either one of those guys. I just hope they can sort their stuff out and get their stuff together.”
The always upbeat “Young Assassin” feels very confident about the work he was able to put in at Imperial, which has established an immediate foothold at the top-level of MMA with fighters like Evans, Antonio Silva, Jorge Santiago, Anthony Johnson, Michael Johnson and Gesias Cavalcante. Still, any insinuation his time there shows him picking sides in the Evans-Jones beef is off-the-mark and misses the point, Guillard asserted.
“I’m there for me,” he said. “Right now, it’s kind of sad to say, but I have to be selfish to a certain extent. I have to get my title. Those guys have already tasted success, they know what it feels like to be a champion and have Dana put that belt around their waist. I haven’t tasted that yet, so right now I think I have a good formula for success and I’m going to stick to it.”
Reasons for his allegiance to the New Mexico camp run deep. Guillard has largely credited Team Jackson for his career hitting its stride these past couple of years. After an inconsistent start that saw him go 3-3 in the Octagon from 2005-07, and test positive for cocaine and get briefly booted from the UFC after back-to-back losses to Joe Stevenson and Rich Clementi, Guillard appears to finally be living up to his much-talked-about potential.
He’s 5-0 since moving his camp to Albuquerque and is believed to be on the cusp of top-contender status in the competitive lightweight division. Guillard himself says he’s never been more convinced of his readiness and UFC President Dana White recently lauded his surge up the 155-pound ladder, saying in typically blunt fashion: “I always thought he was the biggest waste of talent and he really turned that around and I’m happy to see it.”
Some might see that as something of a backhanded compliment, but Guillard just calls it realistic.
“Dana made those comments because he cares,” he said. “If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t have said anything. If he didn’t care, I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in. At that time, when I got in trouble and fell into that black hole, the UFC could have booted me a long time ago. There’s so much talent [at lightweight], why they chose to keep me is they saw something in me. Right now, I just use that as motivation. I know I have the owner and CEO of the company in my corner and that’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
News broke this week that Jones and Evans will have to wait even longer to settle their longstanding differences, as Evans’ injured hand shuffled him out of an expected shot at light heavyweight gold and shuffled Lyoto Machida in. While the majority of the MMA world sees that as somewhat quizzical matchmaking, it’s probably good news for Guillard, who won’t have to worry about the distraction or the sticky situation it could put him in to have his two friends and training partners preparing to fight each other.
For now, he can focus on Lauzon and the bigger challenges that will surely result from a win. He can got on asserting that he doesn’t have a stake in the Jones-Evans fight and that the training he gets alongside one in New Mexico and the other in Florida gives him the best of both worlds. As Guillard said this week, for the moment he’s only worrying about himself.
“I feel like a champ right now,” he said.
The rooms at the downtown Houston Hilton -- where the UFC has descended en masse prior to this weekend’s show across the street at Toyota Center -- are nice enough, but spend a few days in one trying to cut weight and keep your head on straight and it’s easy to image that you quickly run short on entertainment options.
There are 39 free channels on the TV, a complimentary newspaper left outside your door in the morning and, if you feel like shelling out a small fee, there’s the Internet.
That last one is probably how Lauzon found out about the things Melvin Guillard has been saying about him leading up to their lightweight bout on Saturday.
“I’ve seen a lot more interviews with him over the last couple of days,” Lauzon says. “It doesn’t bother me. I really wasn’t paying attention at all until now; I’m sitting in the hotel room, so I’m looking and seeing what he’s saying a little bit more. But whatever -- I’m not sweating it.”
What Guillard is saying -- or at least what he said to the media on Wednesday during UFC 136’s open workouts -- is that Lauzon will only present problems for him if Guillard allows it; that Lauzon is too small to fight in the 155-pound division and that after he beats Lauzon on Saturday, people might want to start calling him “the jiu-jitsu killer” because of all the great BJJ guys he’s defeated recently.
Of course, Guillard is also saying other things. He gives respect to Lauzon for “even taking the fight,” while admitting to reporters that Lauzon is “tough” and “crafty” and even though he’s small, he can’t be underestimated.
“I believe in the little guy,” Guillard says. “I’ve knocked a lot of big people out in my time.”
Still, it’s the negative stuff Lauzon seems to like best.
“It’s nice to be overlooked a little bit,” he says. “I keep hearing Melvin talking about how he’s definitely going to fight for the title next time and who he’s going to fight next and how he’s going to knock me out and all this other stuff. We’ve still got to fight on Saturday. He can talk a lot, but on Saturday night we’re still getting locked in the cage and we’ll see who the better man is.”
Lauzon is nothing if not a realist. He likely knows full well that he comes into this fight as a 3-1 underdog. He knows that Guillard cruises in on a five-fight win streak and is largely regarded as being just one or two more away from that shot at the title. Lauzon, on the other hand, is just 4-3 in the Octagon since 2008 and concedes he’s nowhere near as close to top contender status as Guillard is right now.
He also won’t go as far as to guarantee a win as Guillard has, instead saying he’s ultimately more interested in putting on a good show for the fans and perhaps picking up his ninth performance-based bonus in 11 appearances.
Still, given some time to sit around in his hotel room and think about it, Lauzon has some things to say too, when asked the right questions.
“Personally, I think I’m the worst matchup for Melvin Guillard,” he says. “His biggest weakness seems to be submissions. He’s been a lot better lately, but at the same time I’ve submitted a lot of guys, a lot of really good guys, too.”
A quick look inside the Toyota Center ...Location: Houston
Opened: October 2003
Cost: 202 million
Seating Capacity: 19,000
Architect: Morris Architects
For mixed martial arts enthusiasts, the Toyota Center in Houston will be forever linked to one of their sport’s greatest upsets. It was there on a Saturday night in April 2007 that “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 4 winner Matt Serra shocked the world at UFC 69, stopped Georges St. Pierre on first-round punches and captured the welterweight championship.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to the arena for the first time since that landmark moment when UFC 136 “Edgar vs. Maynard 3” touches down in Space City on Saturday with a pair of five-round title fights. In the main event, lightweight champion Frankie Edgar puts his 155-pound crown on the line against the unbeaten Gray Maynard in a rematch of their epic New Year’s Day encounter. Meanwhile, featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo defends his belt against two-time lightweight title contender Kenny Florian in the co-headliner.
A 750,000-square-foot facility designed by Morris Architects, the Toyota Center opened in 2003 at a cost of $202 million. It required 45,000 cubic yards of concrete, 3,040 tons of structural steel, 350,000 masonry blocks, 650,000 square feet of drywall and the expertise of an estimated 2,500 workers to construct. Toyota agreed to pay $100 million for naming rights to the arena, which serves as the home venue for the NBA’s Houston Rockets and the American Hockey League’s Houston Aeros.
A 40-by-32-foot video system, which includes four main replay screens and eight other full-color displays, hangs from the arena’s ceiling and touts the highest-resolution display of any North American sports facility. The Toyota Center features the Red and White Bistro on the Lower Suites level, complete with hardwood floors, a sparkling display kitchen and views of the event. The facility also has two food courts on the main concourse and another on the upper concourse.
The WWE Supershow (Oct. 25), Guns N’ Roses (Nov. 4), Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Dec. 23) and the Harlem Globetrotters (Jan. 28-29) will follow the UFC into the Toyota Center.