MMA: UFC New Jersey

Postmortem: Sonnen doesn't show up; and more

April, 29, 2013
4/29/13
10:34
AM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Heading into UFC 159, figuring out ways that Chael Sonnen could compete with Jon Jones required an active imagination. The leading idea on how to get it done was for Sonnen to put his chin down, stick the crown of his head into Jones’ chest and drive him through the cage floor. Once there, things would become adventurous for all parties.

It didn’t get there.

In fact, Jones turned the tables on Sonnen and shot in for a takedown of his own just a few seconds into the fight. It was Sonnen staring up at the lights, fending off oncoming elbows. He was able to get up, but Jones, out of a sense of pride and civic duty, became the kind of insistent wrestler who only Sonnen could appreciate. With half a minute to go in the first round, Sonnen’s face battered and wits scattered, Jones was pried off of the "West Linn Gangsta" in what was ultimately the most predictable stoppage in the history of ground and pound.

But in a bizarre night where Ovince St. Preux won an abrupt technical decision with an eye poke of Gian Villante, Michael Bisping won a technical decision for an eye poke of the one man whose phobia is eye pokes, Alan Belcher, and Yancy Medeiros’ thumb was rearranged into something from Picasso’s brush, it was par for the course that Jones broke his toe somewhere along the way. By the end of the night, appendages at odd angles were all but the norm.

Now we can focus on “what does it all mean,” which is one of MMA’s favorite pastimes. Let’s try to sort it out.

QUESTIONS ANSWERED

How does Sonnen compete?
Turns out our hunches were right -- he doesn’t, not when fighting a stylistic nightmare who has the wingspan of a Cessna and a chip on his shoulder.

Last time we see Jones at 205?
Because he only tied Tito Ortiz’s record of five title defenses, here’s guessing no. Lyoto Machida has been promised a rematch, and Alexander Gustafsson still has a modicum of appeal on his way up. And if Jones fights Daniel Cormier, the likeliest scenario is it happens at light heavyweight.

Can Phil Davis break through?
Davis showed improved stand-up ability from that awkward version of himself a couple of years ago. But this was a one-sided beatdown of Vinny Magalhaes, a static fighter whose own stand-up won’t swell the orchestra. Davis might be ready for a step up in competition, but he still seems light years away from challenging Jon Jones.

Is Cheick Kongo showing his 37 years?
Kongo is a dapper gentle giant outside the cage, and in his fight with Roy Nelson, he became one inside the cage, too. We didn’t see any urgency or head-hunting or even any of that rare joie de vivre. What we did see was Roy Nelson go into his windup, as if from the pitcher’s mound, and deliver a heater of an overhand right that dropped Kongo like a curtain sliding off the rod. In other words, yes, Kongo’s days appear numbered.

NEW QUESTIONS

Does Sonnen retire?
Through the last three-year odyssey in which Sonnen has captivated the world of MMA and fought for the belt three times, he made it plain that winning a championship was his singular motivation. Does he want to stick around in a grudge-match capacity to fight the Vitor Belforts and Wanderlei Silvas of the world? (Answer: Hope so. Too many delicious vendettas lingering out there for Sonnen to just walk away.)

Is Pat Healy a top-10 lightweight?
If you subscribe to the theory that divisions are essentially a Netflix queue, where you can drag a title up from the bottom and replace something already in line near the top, then yes (and I know that speaks to more than half a dozen of you). Beating Jim Miller in Miller’s native New Jersey was enough of a feat, but Healy’s pressure game is starting to look scary. At nearly 30 years old, and with 46 professional fights, Healy is just now really coming into his own.

Is Nelson a heavyweight contender?
His right hand says "yes." His surprising agility to climb the fence and do the two-handed Buddha belly rub after victories says "yes." His popularity among fans and mullet connoisseurs says "yes." And realistically, yes. Now everybody is imagining Nelson against Mark Hunt, and Nelson against Daniel Cormier, and Nelson against Alistair Overeem, and that’s a good thing.

What’s next for Michael Bisping?
In hockey patois, Bisping was clutching his stick a little tight early against Belcher, but he began to get into a groove with his striking early in the second round. It was a victory that staves off ugly circumstances and gets him rolling toward something again. Bisping has mentioned fighting in October in Manchester, and here’s thinking Cung Le would be a big draw.

THE FUTURE

For Sara McMann -- Right now it’s wide open, with the Armageddon she brought on Sheila Gaff. We know about the Olympic wrestling, but there’s something about the delight she took in the elbows she was dropping from the crucifix position that has you wondering about how she’d fare against Ronda Rousey (and that’s where McMann’s headed -- but she’ll have to stay busy with another fight or two).

For Jim Miller -- Technically, getting put to sleep isn’t a submission so much as a loss of consciousness, but losing a second time in New Jersey (the first to Nate Diaz) hurts Miller. Though he’s flirted with the idea of moving up to 170 pounds in the past, he might consider a move down to 145. Pastures are always greener in other divisions after losses like the one to Healy.

For Jon Jones -- He needs to get that toe better, but when that’s all said and done, he can officially break Tito Ortiz’s record of five light heavyweight title defenses. The dust has to settle, but the forerunners to become his next victim appear to be down to Alexander Gustafsson or Lyoto Machida (particularly if they fight each other while Jones heals to form a super-definitive, no-questions-asked No. 1 contender).

For Chael Sonnen -- The television booth, at first. But eventually Wanderlei. And Belfort. And the whole block of peeved Brazilians who are smashing their fists in their hands waiting by their phones for Joe Silva to call.

For Roy Nelson -- Daniel Cormier and great balls of fire!

Matches to make

Jon Jones versus Alexander Gustafsson -- If you're an all-or-nothing fan, Jones should heal up and wait on Anderson Silva. But more realistically, dial up the Swede.

Chael Sonnen versus Wanderlei Silva -- Sonnen's already dropping the subliminal tracks toward this fight.

Michael Bisping versus Cung Le -- The two greatest verbs in MMA are "Cung Le."

Alan Belcher versus Hector Lombard -- If 170 is too condensed for the Cuban, a run-in with Belcher at 185 might be fun.

Roy Nelson versus Daniel Cormier -- Twitter wants it. Twitter is all that matters in matchmaking.

STOCK UP/STOCK DOWN

Up
Bryan Caraway -- Only seven weeks removed from his split decision loss to Takeya Mizugaki, Caraway took out Johnny Bedford on a week’s notice with poise and strength.

Phil Davis -- He made it through the rebound portion of his career (the Wagner Prado series and now Vinny Magalhaes), and it’s right back into the kitchen fire of light heavyweight elites.

Cody McKenzie -- Hey, kudos to McKenzie for not engaging Leonard Garcia in a “Leonard Garcia” fight. His restraint was admirable.

Steven Siler -- This would have been fight of the night had Healy/Miller not turned things into Grappler’s Quest Gone Wild. Siler was too much for Kurt Holobaugh, and he weathered a big second-round storm to get the job done.

Down
Leonard Garcia -- Five losses in a row, the latest coming against a fighter who was tailor-made for getting off the schneid? Not good.

Vinny Magalhaes -- Here’s yet another lesson of “be careful what you wish for.” It was Magalhaes who called out Davis, but he had nothing for him.

Alan Belcher -- The eye poke was scary, particularly after having surgery on that same eye not all that long ago. But when you’re likely down 2-0 on the scorecards and you come out in the third with smiles instead of flurries? Not the way his corner drew it up.

UFC 159: Twist of fate in Jersey

April, 24, 2013
4/24/13
7:59
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
Archive
All the UFC 159 promos can't do away with the most basic question: How did we get here?

The first time Chael Sonnen fought Anderson Silva, the original novelty was his utter disregard for Silva's legacy. To that point people had only been reverent of the middleweight champion -- even if Dana White was still fuming that Abu Dhabi had been turned into a stage for bad performance art by him and Demian Maia.

Along came the stock contender Sonnen, a journeyman who was proud of his singlet, the flag and his real estate license. He'd just taken the pestle to top contenders Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt, so he had the credentials. And what a platform it was. Within days of that last victory, he became the game's most infatuating wisenheimer. It was hard to gauge his sincerity, though; did he truly believe he would walk through Silva, the mythological Brazilian who, in Sonnen's active imagination, could speak the King's English?

Turns out he did. And turns out he backed it up for nine-tenths of a five-round fight in Oakland. The other one-tenth, as you now know, is the marker that defines his career.

After the loss, the asterisks piled up as the rematch lolled on the horizon. By the time he made his way back from his suspension for elevated testosterone levels, and made it through mobile obstacles (Brian Stann and Michael Bisping), we were talking about Sonnen-Silva II as the biggest fight in MMA history. It was Ali-Frazier there for a minute. It was Silva's first real rival. It was all kinds of bandstands, bunting and pageantry.

Yet Sonnen lost the rematch, too, this time less spectacularly. He lost his footing throwing a spinning backfist.

But losing your footing is nothing when you've mastered the art of falling forward. Sonnen now faces Jon Jones for the light heavyweight belt on Saturday night. For six months we've debated the matchmaking, with pro wrestling fans calling the protectors of pecking orders anything from "na´ve" to "idiots." Either way, the moment has arrived to see what's what.

And unlike in either of the Silva bouts, this time Sonnen feels like a formality between Jones and bright new ventures, things like "heavyweight" and "superfights." Jones just wants to break Tito Ortiz's record for most title defenses at light heavyweight. That number is five; Jones' magic number to tie him is one.

Sonnen is the one.

And so here we are. Sonnen gets the "third time's the charm" treatment for UFC gold. Jones gets a chance to make Sonnen a footnote in history.

FIVE STORYLINES

Bisping in vulnerable spot
Michael Bisping, Wanderlei Silva
Sherdog.comIf Michael Bisping has any thoughts on finally securing a UFC title shot than his fight with Alan Belcher becomes a must-win.

In his five-year quest to fight Anderson Silva, Bisping has gotten close three times. Yet in three eliminators, he's ended up being the one eliminated three times. Should he lose to Alan Belcher to make it three losses in four fights, his middleweight title shot may go away for good. It's not a must-win for Bisping in the roster sense, but it is in the gold-plated accessory sense.

Resurgence of Roy Nelson

As one of the more popular heavyweights, Roy Nelson's mullet beefs with Dana White won't keep him from contention. A win over thunder-fisted Frenchman Cheick Kongo would make it three in a row. If he knocks out Kongo in the first round? That would be three emphatic wins in a row. At that point the jokes about Nelson's belt size will be off the hook.

Jones and history

Everything Jones does in this young sport seems to stack neatly into something historic. Now he can pad his legacy by tying Ortiz's record for 205-pound title defenses against Sonnen. He makes it all seem so perfunctory that you forget the guy is only 25 years old.

Careful what you wish for

That Vinny Magalhaes called out Phil Davis is shrouded in mystery for those of us in the fight trade. Yes he's strong and has mad grappling skills, but isn't "Mr. Wonderful" an uber-athlete whose "wrestle first" attitude is meant to nullify limb hunters? (Reading between the lines: Vinny's sense of susceptibility is stronger than our sense of conventional wisdom).

Eye on Sara McMann

Before Cat Zingano came barging into the women's bantamweight title picture from left field (read: the flatirons of Colorado), the big up-and-coming prospect to watch was Sara McMann. Why not? McMann was a silver medalist in wrestling at the 2004 summer Olympics, and is 6-0 as a pro mixed martial artist. She makes her debut against Germany's Sheila Gaff, and a win keeps the contender cupboard stocked for the winner of Rousey-Zingano.

FIVE QUESTIONS

How does Sonnen compete?
[+] EnlargeChael Sonnen
Mark Rebilas for ESPN.comIf Chael Sonnen is unable to become the first fighter to ever put Jon Jones on his back, how else will he be able to have success?

Sonnen is giving up 11 inches in reach. Sure, he can wrestle, but in 16 takedown attempts, Jones has been taken down exactly zero times. There might be an existential crisis awaiting for Sonnen in Newark. How does he compete? Can Sonnen be the maelstrom that overpowers Jones? Or, the "Chaelstrom?" Hey, you know what? The gangster from West Lynn will take off his shoes and give it a go.

Last time we see Jones at 205?

Should Jones defeat Sonnen, the question will become: What now? There aren't a lot of desirable title fights to make at 205 right now (given that a Lyoto Machida redux is the best option, and Daniel Cormier underwhelmed last weekend). Could Jones sit back and watch the Chris Weidman-Anderson Silva bout in July, with designs on a "superfight" to commemorate the UFC's 20th anniversary? Or might he bolt for the heavyweight division?

What becomes of Bisping and Belcher?

Between Belcher (12 UFC fights) and Bisping (13), that's a lot of experience in the Octagon. The winner of this bout will again cycle back towards title contention, but will either ever get over the hump? Career stakes are on the line here.

Can Davis break through?

When Davis was charging up the 205-pound ranks, he looked so raw that we kept imagining him with a couple of more years of experience. But after he got worked by Rashad Evans, our minds were no longer as blown. Of course, he spent the last year in the forgettable Wagner Prado series, but here we are a couple of years removed from those halcyon days of catching Tim Boetsch in a "Philmura." Will the Davis we see Saturday night be the one we projected we'd see a couple of years ago at this point?

Is Kongo showing his 37 years?

The answer is, no, not really. Kongo keeps chipping away, and aside from getting knocked out by Mark Hunt he hasn't lost a fight since 2009 (though it still feels like Pat Barry knocked him out before that Hail Mary heave in Pittsburgh). How good would a knockout of Nelson look? Probably enough to get him into the cage with a guy like Alistair Overeem.

WHO'S ON THE HOT SEAT

Steven Siler – Losing to Darren Elkins is one thing, but following that up with a loss to UFC newcomer Kurt Holobaugh is another. It's the way things are during a roster trim -- all deep prelimists have to get used to life on the bubble.

Nick Catone – Tough draw for Catone against James Head in a must-win fight. Yes he's back on his native Jersey soil, but his last big win was against Costa Philippou back in spring 2011. Should he lose his third in a row? Close the drapes.

[+] EnlargeNam Phan and Leonard Garcia
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comLeonard Garcia, right, is everyone's favorite fun-loving brawler. But how much longer can he keep a job should he suffer his fifth straight defeat?
Cody McKenzie – When he lets his hair down, he looks like he should be shouting "Figaro!" When he lets his hands down, he turns into a punching back (refer to the Chad Mendes fight). A loss against Leonard Garcia would make it four of five, which is short for being "made redundant."

Leonard Garcia – If you were to lift up the cushions to Garcia's couch, you'd find a lot of loose game plans that have fallen through the cracks over the years. We expect him to jettison all that hooey he learned in training when the bell rings, but problem is he keeps getting his bell rung because of it. Dana White loves himself some Garcia, but it's hard to keep around a fun-loving brawler on a five-fight losing streak.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because "Bones" Jones has out-landed his opponents 330-99 in significant strikes in title fights … because Sonnen is the latest contestant to familiarize himself with the discrepancy … because Bones throws elbows from the pitcher's mound … because Sonnen will move forward until he can't … because Bisping might feel the tattoo of Johnny Cash's face squeezing his trachea ... because it'll be a drinking game challenge to tell Jim Miller and Pat Healy apart…because Magalhaes doesn't see a muscular athlete in Davis, but a dozen miles of workable limbs and neck ... because Garcia's neck is on the line against McKenzie (and in general) ... because Nelson and Kongo have no need for judges' scorecards ... because Jones is "Angry Johnny" capable of animal's grace ... yet he can do it with precision, or he can do it with gourmet taste.

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