Mixed Martial Arts: UFC on Fox
Title shots are nice, but they’re hard to come by in the UFC’s lightweight division. Anthony Pettis knows. Since coming over as the reigning WEC champion a little more than two years ago, he has lived in a world of obstructions.
There was the Frankie Edgar bottleneck situation, when every title fight extended into a classic title series. There was the Clay Guida setback (which exposed some wrestling deficiencies) and the Jeremy Stephens rebound fight (which showed he fixed some wrestling deficiencies). There was the ridiculous head kick to Joe Lauzon, which re-revved the title talk. Then there was a shoulder injury that docked him for a year.
And even now, as Pettis returns for his bout with Donald Cerrone on Saturday in Chicago, his path to a title shot looks more like a frontage road detour. Defeat his fellow WEC alum Cerrone, and the reward is to wait and see. That’s because Strikeforce’s longtime champion Gilbert Melendez has been expedited into a title tilt with Benson Henderson, which takes place in April.
Melendez gets the immediate shot, and Pettis’ world remains complicated. It’s limbo. It’s contention. It’s relevance. It’s ring rust. It’s trying to re-establish his bearings.
“It’s weird right now,” Pettis told ESPN.com's MMA Live Extra. “I’ve been promised title shots; I’ve been guaranteed title shots. So really [beating Cerrone] doesn’t put me anywhere. I’m right at the top of the top. I’ve just got to keep my performances clean and sharp and strong and a title shot will come when it comes. But right now I’m just focusing on getting back in there. It’s almost been a year.”
Let’s face it, UFC on FOX 6 is a kind of layered phenomena. You’ve got a flyweight title fight at the top between Demetrious Johnson and John Dodson, which is electric but not suited to everyone’s tastes. That’s why Quinton Jackson is in the co-main. Jackson is making his final Octagon appearance (allegedly) against the intrigue of the light heavyweight division, Glover Teixeira. Wheelhouse brawl, right? Maybe. In any case, that fight should be sad, fierce and brutal.
And it’s not even the heart of the card.
Kari Hubert/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesWin or lose, Anthony Pettis isn't sure what the future holds after Saturday.
The heart of the card is, of course, the one in the middle. Pettis-Cerrone is the fight. Pettis always brings it. Cerrone always brings it. If Pettis wants to stand and bang, Cerrone will oblige -- “Cowboy” never shrinks from the terms. And so long as Duke Roufus’ protégé Pettis isn’t fighting a determined wrestler, he recreates Chinese “wire fu.” That’s just what he does.
So even as the implications are up in the air, so will the kicks come fight night. And that’s just about as far as Pettis is willing to look.
“For me, man, it’s just to get back in there and mix it up,” he said. “It’s been almost a year since I fought and I want to stay relevant and show people that ‘Showtime’ has skills -- that I’ve got talent. Fighting a guy like Cowboy [Cerrone] is definitely going to give me that chance. He’s a tough, tough guy, and it’s not going to take one or two shots to drop him -- it’s going to take a couple.”
Cerrone, who has won eight of nine fights, is in contention, too. He called out Pettis because Pettis was the man in his way. Each fighter sees the other as an obstacle to reach what has become a far-off kingdom: that elusive chance at a title shot in the UFC’s lightweight division.
That could be what’s at stake. But when you’re dealing in the Pettises and Cerrones of the world, the journey is just as much fun as the destination. As far as Pettis’ ongoing journey goes, the future can be shaped by a simple objective come Saturday night.
“Make a statement,” he said. “I’m tired of not getting the respect I deserve. Guys calling me overrated, ‘one kick’ this and that. I’m in my position for a reason, and I’ve got to show everybody why I’m right there at the top.”
The fight plan is finalized, and if John Dodson executes it to the fullest Saturday night, he'll take another step toward silencing his doubters by becoming the UFC flyweight champion.
Dodson takes on titleholder Demetrious Johnson at the United Center in Chicago. The fight represents the biggest in Dodson’s professional mixed martial arts career.
Most fighters in his situation would feel some tension. They’d become a bit more agitated, less talkative or unapproachable. Not Dodson. He isn’t one to succumb to pressure; in fact, the greater the pressure, the more relaxed he becomes.
More than any fighter on UFC’s roster, in his estimation, Dodson relishes fight night. He embraces frenzy crowds, whether they’re directing cheers or jeers in his direction. Dodson is most happy during his walk toward the Octagon. So when he enters the arena Saturday night, there will be no butterflies in his belly. Expect him to be the happiest, most excited, most relaxed fellow in the building. Dodson will be fighting for the UFC flyweight title and for him, it's business as usual, but on a slightly grander scale.
“I enjoy the moment, being there, just being in that moment,” Dodson told ESPN.com. “How many people can say, ‘I’m walking out to the cage to fight for the No. 1 contendership, fighting in "The Ultimate Fighter" finale or even fighting for a world title'?
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesJohn Dodson is flying high ahead of his first UFC championship fight.
“I’m enjoying every moment I’m walking out there. It doesn’t matter if I’m going out there to win, to lose, get injured, it’s a life-changing moment for me. Everybody complains about how happy I am and that I smile too much, that I shouldn’t be that excited. But it’s like winning the lottery.”
Don’t be confused by Dodson’s happy-go-lucky pre-fight exterior. When the horn sounds to commence fighting, he will not be playing around. Dodson’s sole purpose in Chicago is to defeat Johnson. And sticking to the fight plan, which includes more than matching the champ’s speed, will be the key to achieving his desired outcome.
“I think our speed is going cancel each other’s out; that’s the way I see it,” Dodson said. "And if it doesn’t, then it’s probably going to go toward him and I’m going to have to hold him down and tickle him to death.”
That’s Dodson: Always finding humor in the situation -- but seriously ...
“I’m going to bring a lot of tools back into my arsenal,” Dodson said. “Everybody complains about never seeing me on the ground; well, they might see my jiu-jitsu.
“One thing about Demetrious Johnson is that he changes levels a lot. So if he actually gets a successful takedown on me, I can utilize my wrestling ability or I can submit him off the ground.”
And if his hand is raised after the bout, Dodson does not intend to rest on his laurels. Becoming UFC flyweight champion isn’t the end-all for him. Dodson has his career path mapped out, and claiming the 125-pound belt is just the first stop on a long road. There are two more titles to be had.
“This will be the next thing to check off my list,” said Dodson, 28, who has a pro record of 14-5. “This won’t be my last hurrah. I won’t be looking at it as “I’m the champion now, that’s it; I’m OK with it. I want to still be hungry for title fights.
I'm enjoying every moment I'm walking out there. It doesn't matter if I'm going out there to win, to lose, get injured, it's a life-changing moment for me. Everybody complains about how happy I am and that I smile too much, that I shouldn't be that excited. But it's like winning the lottery.” -- John Dodson, on his positive outlook on fight night
“If I can get the  title, and successfully defend it numerous times, I’d want to move to 135 and fight for that belt as well. I want to make sure I continue to expand my goals. I want to take the 125, 135 and 145 titles and defend them all at once.”
These are extremely lofty goals, and most fighters would not dare place such a heavy burden on their shoulders. But Dodson isn’t your ordinary mixed martial artist. Setting high standards is what keeps him hungry and motivated. He also knows that the majority of fighting observers don’t expect him to attain his goals.
Most don’t expect him the exit the cage Saturday night with the belt around his waist. And that’s fine by Dodson. He loves proving the doubters wrong. It will make his win Saturday night much sweeter.
“I will continue like I’ve been doing all along,” Dodson said. “I can make more of a statement that I’m one of the best in the division and on my way toward becoming one of the best fighters in UFC history.”
B.J. Penn retired in 2011, citing the unpresentable condition of his face after a three-round brawl with Nick Diaz. He told Joe Rogan in the postfight interview, "I've got a daughter, and another daughter on the way. I don't want to go home looking like this."
Of course, nobody believed him.
That was 18 pay-per-views ago at UFC 137 in Las Vegas. It took less than a year for the reach of obsoletion to hit Hilo. Once Penn began to fade into "was," the old fire began to burn in him again to get back to "is." So he called out upstart Rory MacDonald, the one guy in the welterweight division nobody wants to fight right now.
Is he crazy, people wondered. A lightweight masquerading as a welterweight against a middleweight masquerading as a welterweight? What's he thinking?
The truth is, we never really know what Penn is thinking. He's just B.J. being B.J., and a left-field callout is par for the course. That's why people love him. He's never been explicable.
Yet at the heart of it, the reason he circled MacDonald to end that brief retirement feels like it has less to do with MacDonald than with something broader. It was, to be perfectly cliché, the lure of greatness. What the one-time UFC lightweight and welterweight champion was trying to say on the media call a couple of weeks back is that there's nothing romantic about the past tense.
"I actually texted Dana [White] awhile back and said, 'Dana, I watch all these interviews and all these people talking, and no one says my name when they talk about the greatest fighters anymore … and I really don't like that,'" Penn said. "That was actually a big part of my motivation to come back and look strong and do a good fight here on Dec. 8. I want to be known as one of the best."
And besides, at just 33 years old, Penn shouldn't be a thing of the past. But the real question is, was he ever great to begin with?
There have been times in his career when Penn has realized his potential, yet he could never sustain it. He was just 5-5-1 in title fights in both the welter and lightweight divisions, yet he was in 11 title fights and defended the 155-pound belt three times, and never fought cans. He's had loud moments of greatness (Matt Hughes at UFC 46, Sean Sherk, Diego Sanchez, even the first Georges St-Pierre fight), just as he's had moments of extreme disappointment (usually as a welterweight).
To this day it's hard to know which it's going to be.
Maybe that's why, perhaps more than any other MMA fighter in the sport's aboveground history, Penn is so scrutinized before a fight. We love to gauge his demeanor as much as his midsection. Is Penn interested? Is he in shape? Is he motivated? Did he train hard? Is he running along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean with a large boulder cradled in his arms?
In short -- does he care?
Heading into his fight with MacDonald on Saturday night in Seattle, the indications are that Penn does care. The time away fuels this optimism. There are the visible abs. There is the "thing to prove." He's got motivation from having been forgotten. There's his ongoing rivalry with Tristar Gym and MacDonald's comments.
Those things you can read into.
But more exciting is his sincerity. When we believe Penn is sincere, it means something. It's as good as momentum. It adds to the primal literalness that Penn brings to the fight game, as if there was never such a thing as manufactured hype. It adds to the wild eyes and the lizard tongue and all the face-slapping on his walkout to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's mix of "Hawaii '78/E Ala E." It is Penn's aura, and the very embodiment of island life and the warrior spirit.
We like that version of him, the old-school Penn. MacDonald calls himself "Ares," the Greek god of war? Penn is war incarnate, son. He is conflict.
That's the B.J. Penn whom fight fans love, and the one he's trying to get back to. Not the one who is 1-4-1 in his last six fights at 170 pounds. And, if history tells us anything, the other Penn is never far away. While St-Pierre guards against complacency like an obsessionist since losing to Matt Serra, Penn has embodied complacency too often, to be sure.
Which will it be? See there, that's the thing: We don't know. But after more than a year away from the fight game, there's something about Penn that transcends his 16-8-2 record and makes you want to believe him.
And that's what returns Saturday night -- Penn's unique air of mystery.
The event was so touted and singled out that Benson Henderson and Clay Guida, a guaranteed piece of entertainment that night, was relegated to Facebook status with no chance for TV air time.
In retrospect, it seems impossible that a bout like that would get neglected. But it kicked off a new era, and the triumph didn’t belong to the new champion dos Santos alone. He was the small picture. The real triumph belonged to the UFC and to MMA in general, for breaking down the partition between niche and mainstream.
Here we are after four network TV shows, and that wild-on-paper first one remains the biggest.
Since then we’ve seen some reaches, some cautionary tales and some "must never" repeats. There was Rashad Evans against Phil Davis, a pair of wrestlers who were intent on three rounds of nihilistic frustration. There was the Jim Miller/Nate Diaz fight that barely seemed audible in communicating to crossover audiences. There was Brandon Vera/Mauricio Rua, the fight with the golden Jon Jones sweepstakes, even if merit and good sense were the compromise. The fights on that card panned out great, if only it wasn’t going head-to-head with the Olympics.
And if, you know, the stakes were more sellable.
Yet for all those free shows -- shows that turned the media into ratings weathervanes -- none had the full artillery that we know the UFC is capable of. That changes in December for the fifth show. Whether it’s been put together on pressure to deliver after these so-so showings or otherwise, the fifth Fox card is a rare showcase of excitement, relevance and meaningful stakes.
It’s the kind of card that brings back the “ultimate proving ground” notion. The card, barring injury, controversy and fluke interventions, has it all.
There’s a belt on the line, as Henderson defends the 155-pound title against Nate Diaz. There’s a No. 1 contender fight between Alexander Gustafsson and Mauricio Rua. And then there’s Rory MacDonald and B.J. Penn, a scrap so fun to think about in nature that people speculated it might be the headliner for the show. The event is so stacked that it’s third on the depth chart.
When you break down these three fights -- and the UFC is working on a fourth fight, let’s not forget -- it looks like a blowout show. The idea of Henderson encountering the younger brother of “Stalkton” is enough by itself. Any Diaz brings polarity to the cage -- a Diaz fight is a talked about fight. And here is younger brother Nathan challenging the flying confidence of bigger/stronger/more athletic Henderson, who is setting out to break all of Anderson Silva’s records.
That’s a great stage for a title fight.
The others are showcases. The young Swede Gustafsson needs to beat a “Shogun” caliber opponent to warrant a title shot. Well, that’s what he gets. And if his name weren’t being bandied about as the last big intriguing fight for Jon Jones at light heavyweight, maybe this thing doesn’t attract. But his name does have that glint to it, and if he beats Rua, we can then begin comparing his long reach with Jones’ without adding the “he’s still green” asterisk.
Likewise, if Rua wins his stake for a title shot is no longer in question. He’ll have earned the right to fight again for the belt.
The last fight is classic, and you can thank all 38 of those stitches over MacDonald’s eye for jumping it from a pay-per-view to a free fight. Penn and MacDonald has the two ships passing in the night vibe. There’s Penn and his Hall of Fame resume coming out of “retirement” against the 23-year old MacDonald, who is so serious that he changed his nickname from the juvenile-sounding “Waterboy” to “Ares,” the Greek god of war.
Know why that one is fun? Because there’s a sense that MacDonald is moving closer and closer into his mentor/training partner Georges St. Pierre’s space. St. Pierre will have already fought Carlos Condit a couple of weeks earlier. If he defends the welterweight belt, and MacDonald shows up and blasts Penn as so many suspect he will, the inevitable conflict takes on added drama. Drama’s half the game.
In MacDonald and Gustafsson there is the future. In Penn and Rua, there are storied careers. In Diaz/Henderson, there is high voltage entertainment with a title on the line.
That’s a fun night of fights, worthy of a big pay-per-view event. But it’s free, and that’s telling. What exactly does it tell us? That the ultimate proving ground on Dec. 8 extends beyond the fighters. It extends to the UFC itself.
And the UFC is loading up to meet the challenge.
When a figure finally emerged from the four-man 205-pound showcase it was Lyoto Machida, in a reduced 201-pound frame, dishing enigma on Ryan Bader. That was a good knockout.
Better yet, the whole main card scored the same. Every fight delivered. A good night of fights like that makes things, if not totally justifiable, at least somewhat rose-tinted. And that beats disaster, if you know what I mean, which is where things left off after the UFC 149 pay-per-view bust.
What a difference a couple of weeks makes. In Calgary, stakes were being tinkered with, too. Hector Lombard was vying for a possible title shot with Anderson Silva. The interim bantamweight title was up for grabs in the main event between Urijah Faber and Renan Barao. Things “mattered.”
But for all the dangling carrots, something went missing -- and that was enjoyability. Guys didn’t “bring it” -- and everyone should know the center of the fight world is all about the “it” -- which had people asking for refunds and complaining about the watered-down product.
Not on Saturday night. As DeMarques Johnson’s premonition of a 100 percent chance of a knockout came through via the sudden hands of Mike Swick, this thing was off to a roaring start. Joe Lauzon, who is incapable of a boring fight, withstood heavy shots by Jamie Varner and, when the opportunity presented itself, came on like an incubus to finish him in the third. It’s what Lauzon, who has made nearly a half a million dollars in bonus money in his career, does better than anybody. The UFC on Fox Twitter feed called it possibly the “best fight we’ve ever had.”
These were undercard table-setters like we haven’t seen on the Fox shows.
And the co-main event raised the bar for the finale. Machida forced Bader’s aggression then punished it, downing him with a counter right. It was vintage “Dragon.” Machida was once again the abstractionist, doing things with body geometry.
Yet the main event was a crescendo. Here was Vera resurfacing, making it a war, looking like old Vera, the one we thought we lost. Here was Rua proving that his Dan Henderson and Mark Coleman fights were no flukes, that he can make any fight -- good or bad -- a battle of epic attrition. Rua just about did away with Vera twice in the second round with sallies, but Vera both times responded with big elbows and defiance.
Suddenly it was a storyline of Vera’s heart in the poetic sense, not the cardiovascular one. And fights are always more fun when they get like that. When fights transfer “will,” the meaning of the transaction comes back into play.
Better still, when fights go down like they did on Saturday night, the question of what’s on the line can be answered like this: "Who cares?" The moment transcends the stakes. The “it” factor is all that matters. Guys on Saturday night brought “it.”
This was the first Fox card that really delivered far more than it promised. From top to bottom on the main card, every fight delivered the goods. For whatever hung in the balance of the outcomes, it didn’t matter to real time. And you know what? That’s the kind of drama that you want on live television, especially in a sport still trying to communicate with the casual viewer.
No, it’s not April 1. After Dana White said it, he didn’t laugh or follow up with “I almost had you that time!” In fact, he seemed peeved to answer such a question about these stakes. He then ran down a highlight reel of Rua’s feats to remind us that this is a wrecking machine with a rich, violent history we’re talking about, not some schlub.
Rua, coming off a loss -- though an epic one to Dan Henderson in a close, ridiculous fight at UFC 139 -- could get a rematch with Jones with a win. Or a rematch with Henderson, should events shake out that way. What does this mean?
A lot of things, not the least of which is this -- if you’re watching UFC 151, and you’re a fan of linear competitiveness and intrigue, you might now be persuaded to root for Henderson against Jones. Why? Because it would be 10 times more exciting to have Henderson/Rua II on the horizon than Jones/Rua II. One was five rounds of heart and perseverance; the other was a one-sided beatdown with very little promise of being anything but the second time through.
Now we’re thinking about a second time through, and that’s the better scenario in play.
The other scenario is one best left to the mystics -- what if it’s Vera?
Here’s where coils and springs come flying out of the system works. Not that long ago, Vera was cut after losing to Thiago Silva. Then he was brought back when the loss was deemed a no contest after Silva got popped by the Nevada State Athletic Commission for masking illegal substances with (inhuman) urine he bought online. And because of that, Vera was granted a reprieve. He beat Eliot Marshall unspectacularly, and was supposed to fight James Te Huna next in a fight perfectly matching his caliber, but a series of injuries and circumstances landed him this new opportunity.
Now, if you are one of the people complaining about Vera ending up in a big headlining spot to begin with, this added magnitude will gnaw at the core of your ability to reason. Vera was part of Jones’ faceless march, part of that “just a matter of time” stint when he was clubbing Vladimir Matyushenko and Matt Hamill (and before you point to the official loss here, we all saw what happened). How does he get promised anything other than another fight with a win over Rua?
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesIt's hard to imagine anyone clamoring to see Jon Jones do this to Brandon Vera again.
Vera’s wins since defeating Frank Mir back at UFC 65 include Reese Andy, Mike Patt, Krzysztof Soszynski and Eliot Marshall. Three of those guys -- as well as Marshall -- are no longer in the UFC. Soszynski is contemplating retirement. For as much as Rua’s casualty list can gussy up for company, Vera’s requires a search engine to figure out who these guys are.
For that matter, Rua is currently ranked in the top five on ESPN’s top ten power rankings at light heavyweight. As for Vera, we’d have to roll out a top 30 for his name to appear right now. Yet should he spring the upset on “Shogun,” he’ll be rapping his knuckles on the belt-holder’s door.
That’s a tough sell.
And none of this makes Glover Teixeira feel any better. Not only does Rua say “no thanks” to a fight with him on this weekend’s card, indirectly citing unworthiness, but turns out the fight would have been a title eliminator. At least Teixeira can take out that frustration on Quinton Jackson at UFC 153.
The rest of us will just have to hope that these proclamations are the UFC’s way of adding incentive to this weekend’s fights in Los Angeles. Coming off a fizzler at UFC 149 in Calgary, maybe the idea is to urge excitement along.
But if a chance at the belt is the case, it comes at the cost of the bigger picture. If the UFC is keeping its word on this, one night’s added intrigue just made the future a little less exciting. It’s how you handle opportunities, yes, but Jones already completely overwhelmed both guys, so it feels like a no-win situation to realign them.
If it’s Rua, it’s too soon. If it’s Vera, it’s too much of a stretch of the imagination.
And if it is indeed Jones waiting at the other end for either, we’ll be asked to believe that second chances make for competitiveness. But it’s hard, especially when the reaction to this news seems to be that Rua/Jones II, for all its warts, is far less baffling than Vera/Jones II.
UPDATE: MMA Junkie reports that Dana White had a change of heart and opened the title eliminator up to a four-man pool between Vera/Rua and Ryan Bader/Lyoto Machida.
Fan dissension prompted the change.
"I put together the fights that fans want to see," White told MMA Junkie. "The fans didn't like the Rua and Vera choice, so here it is: The guy that wins most impressively on Saturday night out of the co-main event and the main event will get the shot at the winner of Jon Jones vs. Dan Henderson."
It will be a year before we know the answer to that important question. In the meantime, Cruz's division apparently must march forward, which means Zuffa booked an interim bantamweight title fight between Urijah Faber and a to-be-determined opponent.
As is usually the case, the creation of a belt and a stand-in champion isn't needed. It's especially less so considering Faber fights on July 7, when most of the prefight coverage is expected to zero in on Silva-Sonnen 2. A healthy Cruz against his rival Faber, both off the reality show, wouldn't have generated a ton of interest considering the circumstances. So why push a fake belt? I don't get it.
At best, Faber versus TBD is a worthy No. 1 contender fight. And that's not so terrible. There are bouts at 135 pounds for Faber that line up to be terrific contests.
Renan Barao, ranked third at 135, is the obvious choice. Zuffa can break up his match against Ivan Menjivar, serendipitously scheduled for July 7, and it wouldn't upset too many people. If not the Brazilian, then an argument can be made to slot in 21-year-old Michael McDonald. I think that's the wrong way to go for the youngster, but it would be a fight with intriguing possibilities.
No matter how it pans out, hopefully Cruz makes a full recovery. It would be a shame to see someone who’s worked so hard, has so much potential, and hasn’t yet cashed in, take a knock that permanently changed the way he fights.
Is Koch ready?
Two weeks after what promises to be an epic UFC event in Las Vegas, Erik Koch’s title challenge July 21 in Calgary against featherweight champion Jose Aldo will feel small; maybe like it’s not even happening.
Depending on the outcome, of course, the 23-year-old Koch may wish it hadn’t. Then again, he wouldn’t be the first kid to come out of nowhere and pull off something many of us felt was impossible. And let’s be real here, there are few things in MMA more difficult to do than defeating Jose Aldo.
I thought it interesting that Hatsu Hioki, who based on his résumé is as ready to fight Aldo as any fighter in the world, has decided to take his time. Rather than jump at the chance to fight Aldo, Hioki meets Ricardo Lamas in a preliminary bout in June. The decision confused me, and it left the door open for Koch.
The first thing to notice when looking at Koch’s record, which is nowhere as good as Hioki’s, is his level of competition. He’s fought scrappy guys that helped make him look good. That’s not Aldo. Aldo is an offensive machine. I have the feeling Koch is in big trouble here.
Ratings ebb and flow
Somewhere between a heavyweight championship attraction and a card filled with scrappers is the truth when it comes to UFC ratings on Fox.
The number of households that tuned into Saturday’s network event, headlined by Nate Diaz and Jim Miller, plummeted compared to the previous two fight nights, but attempting to extrapolate what that means for future cards is risky business.
The May 5 card averaged 2.4 million viewers, a drop off of more than 50 percent from the first offering in November (5.7 million viewers), and this January (4.7 million). There were plenty of things to do Saturday, including a bevy of sports-watching options, not the least of which was Floyd Mayweather fighting Miguel Cotto on pay-per-view.
The UFC should regard the 2.4 million number as a baseline, the minimum number of viewers that will tune in to a Fox card. Considering the disappointment (and some have called it that) of Junior dos Santos’s early knockout against Cain Velasquez, and the decision-heavy second offering headlined by a five-round snoozer between Rashad Evans and Phil Davis, if people tuned in to watch a card without any star power and/or title fights they’re likely the most passionate watchers out of the casual group.
UFC’s third event on Fox was its most typical: just a solid lineup of action and good MMA. Had the evening gone another way, then there might be something to really worry about for Zuffa. But the bottom line is fighters performed and viewers likely felt as if the experience was worth doing again on Aug. 4.
Weekend viewing options
Zuffa is off until a Tuesday night fight card featuring Dustin Poirier and Chan Sung Jung, but that only opens the space up for multiple promoters. (By the way, with Hioki bowing out, the winner of this fight would have been my pick to face Aldo at UFC 149.)
May 10: Former Bellator featherweight champion Joe Soto has dropped to 135 and will fight for a respected regional title when he takes on Chad George at Tachi Palace Fights 13. The card streams on Sherdog.com
May 11: Speaking of ratings, Bellator and MTV2 earned an increase with the return of Michael Chandler on Friday. That’s a great sign for the lightweight titleholder. This week, Bellator heads to Atlantic City. Featherweights Marlon Sandro and Daniel Straus fight for the fight to get next crack at the 145-pound title after Patricio Freire. Should be a competitive fight.
On HDNet, Legacy Fighting Championship 11 from Houston features a mix of prospects and veterans. If you caught my podcast this week, you heard the interview with Chad Robichaux. The decorated special forces veteran, making his flyweight debut against Joseph Sandoval, has formed a non-profit -- Mighty Oaks Foundation -- to aid military personal stricken with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
For instance, if you’d tuned in and saw Maia gassing though parts of the second round and the entirety of the third, you might have thought it was he who had to cut 31 pounds in 11 days to make weight. You might have also suspected that Maia’s only chance of beating Weidman was a simple puncher’s. After all, he was winging that left with hopes of a homerun.
Maia looked like a one-dimensional fighter, whose single dimension wasn’t all that imposing.
Now, if you are anything more than the casual fan, the performance against Weidman begged the question that’s been looming since the 21-second knockout at the hands of Nate Marquardt in 2009 -- what happened to the Maia of old? Who is this imposter that walks out to “Vida Bandida?” Wasn’t Maia the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner in the game, who for a while there people began referring to as Royce Gracie 2.0?
Maybe the hackers who have plagued the UFC all week have greater reach than we know. Maybe they have the ability to hack into UFC fighters now, and redirect them from world-class jiu-jitsu players into vague kickboxers. Or maybe Maia was hurt, or sick, or confused. It’s possible he was disenchanted that Michael Bisping became Chris Weidman. It must be something, but the former No. 1 contender has gone from being 5-0 in the UFC with five ridiculously fluid submissions to 9-4 in the UFC with five ridiculously fluid submissions.
It started by getting knocked out by Marquardt in Portland at UFC 102, and since then in seven fights he’s gone the distance seven times. In all of them we’ve been applauding the slow evolution of his stand-up. Somewhere along the way Maia took criticism of his stand-up to heart, and became obsessed with doing something about it. This seemed obvious. When he surprised Mark Munoz a couple of times at UFC 131, we began to think him more than capable on the feet. And he is.
But the problem is Maia has forgotten who he is. A timely reminder on Fox would have been a welcoming relief, but the nonpareil jitz master has changed focus.
It used to be that if you went to the floor with Maia it became a matter of time until you tapped. Chael Sonnen, Ed Herman, Jason MacDonald, Nate Quarry -- these guys caught hell for mistakes, for over-aggressiveness, for simply finding themselves on the ground. If Maia was on his back, he would sweep. He was mean in a scramble. He was quick to snatch limbs. If he got your back, it was a matter of time. Maia made guys feel paranoid about being on the ground. He wasn’t just good at triangles, he was a Bermuda triangle, where contenders -- wrestlers, boxers and otherwise -- disappeared.
Now Maia’s jiu-jitsu has gone AWOL, and it’s curious. Even the threat of it has vanished.
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images Is it possible that Nate Marquardt knocked the jiu-jitsu out of Demian Maia?
Against the wrestler Weidman, Maia was officially 0-7 on takedowns, but they all played out as half commitments. Truth is, it didn’t look like he really wanted to go to the ground. Weidman, also a solid BJJ player, wasn’t afraid to take it there, and did so a couple of times late in rounds. For a jiu-jitsu superior like Maia, who had uncanny Octagon control in his arsenal at one point in the career, it’s become OK to allow opponents to dictate terms. Which is not OK for sustaining a career.
Weidman did it. And so did Munoz. Against Jorge Santiago at UFC 136, Maia had things in his realm but settled on ground-and-pound. Maia at 34 looks less wise than the one who fought at 30. This is not an ideal trajectory.
What happened to the quiet contortionist that capitalized on every misstep? In those first five UFC fights, Maia took home "submission of the night" honors four times. That’s a lot of extra cash. Since then he has not been awarded a single end of the night bonus. If his stand-up has improved, that’s great; but all new elements should be working toward the one element that made him special -- his jiu-jitsu. Otherwise, the admission seems to be that either people have caught up to him, or that jiu-jitsu and Maia are no longer on speaking terms, or that he doesn’t trust jiu-jitsu to get the job done anymore.
Whatever the case with Maia is, it’s mysterious. And you get the feeling that if he doesn’t rediscover his roots soon, he’ll be done in the UFC.
The penultimate stage to the middleweight title ended up being closer than expected, but Sonnen prevailed on the judge’s scorecards (30-27, 29-28, 29-28), and it looks like he’s headed to Sao Paulo for his long-awaited rematch with Anderson Silva. But it wasn’t the same dominant Sonnen we’ve seen against Yushin Okami, Nate Marquardt, Brian Stann and through nine-tenths of the Silva fight. This time he was challenged against the game British fighter, who came in with near stumblebum odds as a 4-to-1 underdog.
Though the third round was clearly Sonnen’s, through much of the first two stanzas it was Bisping who outstruck Sonnen on the feet and took turns controlling the action against the fence. He thwarted many of Sonnen’s double-leg takedown attempts, and when he did get taken down, he was able to use the cage to get back up. He worked Sonnen well in the clinch and scored with dirty boxing. But Sonnen did enough with the takedowns in the eyes of the judges to nudge things his way. In fact, one judge even gave Sonnen the second round, which played out pretty convincingly in Bisping’s favor.
“The only round I knew I had was the third,” Sonnen said at the postfight news conference. “I thought I might have had one of the first two, but I didn’t know [for sure] I had it. I heard 30-27; I knew that went for me. But I didn’t hear unanimous decision. If I’d heard unanimous I would have breathed deep right then.
"I thought it was a split decision. And that was my goal -- to win a controversial split decision.”
That last part, of course, was a joke on his part. But when asked if he knew the fight was close going into the third and that prompted him to fight with a sense of urgency, Sonnen said he didn’t have his bearings enough to fully know.
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comMichael Bisping, left, gave Chael Sonnen all he could handle in Rounds 1 and 2.
“Yeah, I knew we were in the middle of a close fight,” he said. “I went in there to win the third round -- I had a sense of urgency for sure. I think we both did. I think we both knew we were in the middle of a hard fight. But you’ve got to understand, [Bisping] hit me so hard in the first round, I wasn’t positive when we were in the third. I was just glad when it was over.”
In the toil, Sonnen may have lost a little steam for a rematch that has been could go down as one of the biggest in UFC history. Had he walked through Bisping as he did Stann at UFC 136, the collision course with Silva would look like just that -- a collision course. But doubt will inevitably creep back into the equation with him looking more vulnerable than he has in a couple of years.
But the rematch with Silva seems destined to happen nearly two full years after the first went down at UFC 117 in Oakland. Instead of 17,425 people cheering him on, there will be 100,000 people expecting his comeuppance in Brazil. When asked about the fight in Sao Paulo, Sonnen made it clear he won’t balk at the opportunity.
“It sounds like you’re concerned for my safety,” he said. “But in fairness, ladies and gentleman, you might want to pick up your local newspaper. Chicago isn’t exactly a haven for civility at all times -- I don’t know if I’m completely safe on the streets around here. And secondly, if those blowhards with their blow darts want to come at me, they can send anybody they want -- but don’t send anybody you want back.”
Might have been harder than people expected, but he got the job done. Now get ready for an inundation of Sonnen in both hemispheres.
The most up-to-date picture looks like this: The winner of Chael Sonnen and Michael Bisping will fight for the middleweight title in June (tentatively). That fight will happen in Sao Paulo -- even if Bisping pulls the upset, leaving British fans plenty of time to acquire their Brazilian visas. This will all happen unless the winner suffers a significant injury, or Anderson Silva doesn’t recover in time from the bursitis ailment that has sidelined him. Sonnen’s safety in Sao Paulo isn’t even an issue, whether it’s in front of 100,000 ticked off partisans or not. If things don’t go exactly as planned, Dan Henderson lurks in the same vague way he has been lurking for months now.
In the light heavyweight division, the winner of Phil Davis and Rashad Evans gets an immediate crack at Jon Jones. Unless it’s Davis, and Davis doesn’t win emphatically. Then it could be Henderson -- but, according to White, “we’ll see what happens.”
Davis’ wrestling style at Penn State belongs in a Hefty bag (according to Evans) and Evans is on drugs (according to Davis). It’s up in the air at which card the winner will challenge Jones, but Montreal might still be in the running. Or maybe Atlanta in April.
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesMusic to his ears: Michael Bisping is one large hurdle away from a title shot.
And that’s where things stand heading into the big UFC on Fox 2 event this weekend. A lot at stake, and a lot depends on a lot. In other words, things are exactly where things stood before the news conference. Three of the four guys are guaranteed title shots, while Davis -- who’s still green enough not to care -- will need to raise some eyebrows in victory to procure his. It’s up to him to outdo the one-armed Kimura that did in Tim Boetsch.
But in the re-emphasis of hypothetical outcomes, White did make it clear that Brazil is where Silva would be defending his title. There have been a lot of inquiries as to whether or not the UFC would consider holding the 185-pound title fight in England should Bisping win. It won’t. Whether it’s Bisping or Sonnen, they will be made into interlopers come June in a fight that’s expected to draw the biggest crowd ever assembled for a UFC event. They are fighting for the chance to become sacrifices, which is exhilarating.
Otherwise, it looks like this -- Evans is on drugs, Davis’ wrestling is trash, Bisping knows where Sonnen can stick that fake belt and, speaking of Sonnen, don’t believe a word that he says because, according to Dana White, “Chael is nuts.” That much he was perfectly clear on. And whatever all this tells us, whether it’s informative or new, it sets the table for a big night of fights with a lot of unfiltered characters.
That’s part of what makes this sport interesting, and why it bursting in on a million conservative homes is fun to think about. We just can’t predict how things will play out.
Since then the “Count” has been the “Bully” in Joe Silva’s matchmaking. Jason Miller, Jorge Rivera, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Dan Miller and Denis Kang were all long shots to beat Bisping. Ditto Wanderlei Silva, who managed to spring the upset. For the last three years, Bisping has grown used to being the mark, not the marksman. He’s been batting down the grabbing hands of opportunists on his climb, rather than clutching at the ankles of the guys above him.
That changes in Chicago. Against Chael Sonnen -- who fell to Bisping when Mark Munoz had to pull out of his scheduled fight with bone spurs in his elbow -- he is a 4-to-1 underdog.
This is unusual terrain for Bisping. And it’s an incredible line for a guy who has won four in a row (finishing his last two). In fact, it’s the kind of line that says two things: 1) For the last three years Bisping has had a cushy schedule for a guy who considers himself “title ready,” and B) we now view Sonnen as a tyrant. In the time it’s taken Bisping to make his way up the rungs enough for a bigger challenge, Sonnen has transformed from a journeyman to a contender, from an afterthought to a showman, and from cusp prelimer to PPV headliner. He contradicts himself ruthlessly in the media, but he keeps beating guys (coldly, methodically) and came close to cashing in Silva, too. The Sonnen case is one for 18th century exorcists.
Or maybe Malcolm Gladwell.
But Bisping has always been Bisping. And to become something other than Bisping he’ll need to beat Sonnen, who also happens to be the guy he can take his cues from. Sonnen stood as a lofty underdog against Yushin Okami at UFC 104 and Nate Marquardt at UFC 109. Heading into that stretch he scored a workman-like decision over Dan Miller, and before then had lost to Demian Maia (triangle choke). So what did he do? The only thing he could. He laid the pestle down on top-ranked Okami in a fight many thought he didn’t deserve, then ransacked Marquardt for three straight rounds to the point that he suddenly looked like a real impediment for Anderson Silva.
Out of nowhere, Sonnen beat two top-end guys who were trying their damndest to get back to Silva. This time it’s Sonnen who is trying to get back to Silva (even if he says otherwise), and it’s Bisping’s chance to spoil that return trip. In other words, here’s Bisping’s chance to become Sonnen. Win it, and he’ll assuredly be an underdog in his next fight, too. That’s the goal -- Sao Paulo against longer odds still.
Yet lose, and it could be another three years before Bisping’s an underdog again, and that’s no kind of consolation.
Strange, because on the surface it’s such a non-story: Minor celebrity walks attention-seeking MMA fighter to the Octagon for high-profile bout. Big deal. Makes sense.
After all, Punk (real name: Phil Brooks) is a noted MMA enthusiast and Sonnen’s Jan. 28 title eliminator against Mark Munoz will go down in the WWE star’s hometown of Chicago, where he enjoys enormous popularity. If involving Brooks in such a shoestring way brings a few more eyeballs to the UFC’s next show on Fox and by extension to Sonnen, then it’s pretty easy to see why both fight company and fighter would want him there.
However, the uproar the news caused among some fans also seemed totally fitting -- and, honestly, a little tired at this point -- since hating professional wrestling remains one of the American MMA community’s favorite pastimes.
In truth, this kind of celebrity intrusion is actually commonplace in our sport and Brooks’ part in Sonnen’s entrance would be a complete nonissue, were he anything other than a pro wrestler.
Nobody cared when actor Kevin James cornered Jason Miller during his bout at the TUF 14 finale in December. Few even blink anymore when a 39-year-old Shaquille O’Neal routinely implies he wants to fight in the Octagon. One of MMA’s most beloved and most respected analysts is a stand-up comedian and former sitcom actor, yet many fans have come to take Joe Rogan’s word as gospel.
But professional wrestling’s current “it” performer plans to walk from the locker room with an MMA fighter? My, how typically controversial.
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI The world didn't exactly stand still when Brock Lesnar joined the UFC ranks.
If the well-documented online consensus is anything to go on, most MMA fans either despise pro wrestling’s “fakeness” or care so little about “sports entertainment” that they feel compelled to remind the rest of us about it every single time the topic comes up. As everyone knows, the best way to prove you don’t care about something is to take the time to type out a message about it and then hit “Post” in order to share that indifference with the world.
Exactly why some MMA fans harbor such disdain for pro wrestling, and why they delight so much in shouting it to the world is another matter entirely. Certainly, there is a fair amount of crossover between the two fan bases. A good chunk of current MMA fans were likely once pro wrestling fans and perhaps now they’re embarrassed about it -- though I’m not sure why.
Additionally, many fans keep MMA close to their hearts and have come to feel protective of it after years of defending it against mainstream ignorance. Those people would now be loath to see MMA lumped in with anything the larger population considers “fake.” On the other hand, it’s been so long since pro wrestling held itself up as anything resembling unscripted competition that it’s hard to see how the two would ever be confused, or how wrestling could be any kind of impediment to MMA’s growing popularity. Certainly the biggest threats to MMA's continued march toward acceptance come from within, not from WWE.
In any case, none of that fully explains the intensity of the dislike, which at this point occasionally borders on neurosis. It's weird, it’s ugly and most everybody would probably be better off if we could all agree that the world is big enough for both real fighting and the scripted variety.
By now we should know that the sky will not fall if the occasional pro wrestler like Brock Lesnar, Bobby Lashley or Dave Bautista tries his hand at MMA. Nor will the world come to a screeching halt if a professional wrestler wants to lead an MMA fighter to the cage later this month.
So long as Brooks stays on the outside of the chain link, his presence will likely do more good than harm.
In November, Sonnen quite purposefully made a stir when he walked off the set of TSN’s “Off the Record” after a contentious (and possibly staged, at least on the fighter’s part) interview with host Michael Landsberg. From the looks of the outtakes from Sonnen’s upcoming do-over on the show, he and Landsberg get along fine this time, but the middleweight contender doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to make any number of outlandish statements on his own.
Chief among them: that he’s “done” chasing a rematch with 185-pound kingpin Anderson Silva and that, if he defeats Mark Munoz next month in their title eliminator, he’ll ask UFC brass for a bout with champions like Junior dos Santos, Jon Jones or Georges St. Pierre instead.
“I’m going to become the No. 1 contender on Jan. 28, but despite what you might think, I’m not going to use that voucher to fight Anderson Silva,” Sonnen says. “I’ll be looking at dos Santos, Jones and possibly St. Pierre. I will take that voucher to Dana White and I will pick one of those three guys. My time with Anderson is done.”
Obviously this sounds like just more theater from Sonnen. If he defeats Munoz to once again become the middleweight division’s top contender, there is little possibility the UFC passes on the chance for a second big money bout with Silva. The company is reportedly already eyeing a June fight for the champion in Brazil and it just doesn’t make much sense to have that be against anyone other than Sonnen.
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuWould Chael Sonnen really pass up a rematch with Anderson Silva?
The idea of the former Oregon wrestler moving up (or, laughably, down) in weight to take on one of the UFC’s other champions is admittedly intriguing, but it remains unclear how that would fit into the UFC’s upcoming calendar, even if the organization would let him do it. Dos Santos is fresh off a knee injury and already scheduled to take on the winner of Brock Lesnar’s UFC 141 fight with Alistair Overeem, there is no shortage of 205-pound challenges afoot for Jones and St. Pierre’s own blown ACL could keep him out for the duration of 2012.
No, whether he likes it or not, it appears Sonnen’s path back to a middleweight title bout remains set if he can slip by another powerful wrestler in Munoz at the UFC’s second live broadcast on network television. It’s probably Silva or bust, so long as the 36-year-old champion can get his shoulder in working order in time.
Like any good performer, Sonnen just understands the importance of keeping his audience’s attention. And even if his way is less accurate, it's still a lot more fun.
“The bottom line is, I’m done with the guy,” Sonnen persists. “He and I have no business. He’s cold product. He’s like jheri curls and Pepsi Clear, OK? He’s yesterday’s news. I destroyed this guy back when he was tough [and] that was years ago. He’s so far over the hill and past his prime it’s not worth talking about.”
His win over Bowles had earned him another opportunity to become UFC bantamweight champion and the chance to settle a longstanding grudge with Dominick Cruz, but the most marketable and business savvy fighter in the company’s lightest weight class was thinking bigger.
“Let me and Dom coach ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’” Faber told Dana White at the postfight news conference, after the UFC president had finished answering a question about the significance of the reality show’s next season. “We need some fans.”
White -- who’d already been forced to reveal more than he probably planned while deflecting questions about the company’s future intentions for Anderson Silva, upcoming shows on Fox and various other fight bookings -- could only turn and give the gathered crowd of reporters a sort of exasperated, but knowing shrug.
“There you go,” White said. It wasn't quite a wink and a nudge, but it was good enough.
Truth is, this decision had probably been made long before Faber publicly put his boss on the spot. The former WEC featherweight champ’s coaching spot on TUF 15 was likely solidified the moment he wrapped his arms around the neck of the already battered and defeated Bowles early in the second round of their fight. It’d already been decided because, frankly, having Cruz and Faber coach the biggest and arguably most important season of “The Ultimate Fighter” is a no-brainer.
What you have here is synergy of the highest order. Two of the sport’s most compelling personalities involved in the 135-pound class’ first real blood feud just as TUF attempts to reshape and revitalize itself for a vastly increased audience on the FX Network? That decision makes itself.
Rod Mar for ESPN.comSubmitting Brian Bowles, bottom, is paying dividends for Urijah Faber.
“This is for the UFC title, but it’s a personal vendetta,” Faber said. “We’re 1-1 now; it’s a trilogy and it’s to find out who is the man for the rest of our lives. That’s important to me.”
There can be little doubt that Faber and Cruz are the two best fighters in the bantamweight division right now. Cruz has already defeated much of the top 10 and Faber erased any lingering questions about his fitness as a repeat challenger with the way he handled Bowles at 139. Faber has also proven totally incapable of making peace with his razor-thin decision loss to Cruz at UFC 132 and the two have real, organic beef that dates back to the salad days of the WEC.
Not to mention, Faber is absolutely right. These two do need some fans.
For years, featherweights and bantamweights have been the most consistently exciting fighters in the sport, but have yet to really make an impression on casual MMA viewers. If the company is looking for a duo to give armchair fans a crash course in what the lighter-weight classes are all about, you couldn’t ask for better than Faber and Cruz. You also couldn't ask for a better format than having them coach TUF.
Honestly, this is a decision that should have been made sooner, but now we should all be glad it wasn’t.
The two were rumored to be on the short list to coach the show last season, before the UFC went outside the box and tabbed Strikeforce’s Jason Miller to appear opposite Michael Bisping. Caught at the tail end of the fight company’s relationship with SpikeTV, the season didn’t get much promotion to speak of and netted decent ratings only because both Bisping and Miller came in a known commodities. Unfortunately, their fight -- which peaked at 3.4 million viewers -- was a flop after Miller gassed out midway through the second round.
Cruz and Faber won’t have that problem, nor will they likely have to worry about drawing a crowd as White himself estimated that each episode of TUF on FX could draw around three million viewers. If he’s right, that means great things for the resulting battle between the coaches and great exposure for the bantamweight class as a whole.
There is no telling how much TUF will benefit from its new “live” format, but from where I’m sitting, this kind of reboot could be exactly what the flagging franchise needs.
Now, it’ll also profit from having exactly the right coaches at exactly the right time.
As a flurry of fight bookings bring the UFC’s plans for early 2012 into focus this week, ESPN.com’s Brett Okamoto reports the highest profile slot of all will fall to Davis and Evans, who are expected to headline the fight company’s first “official” live show on network television on Jan. 28.
For a couple of guys who’ve recently seen their plans sidetracked by injury, this could be the big break they need.
Of course, to reap the benefits, they’ll have to show up at the United Center in Chicago in one piece. The way things have been going for Evans, Davis and for the 205-pound division at large, that may be the biggest trick of all.
The pair was originally supposed to meet as a stand-in main event at UFC 133 in August, after champion Jon Jones bowed out with an injured hand. Fewer than four weeks before the show was set to go on however, Davis also withdrew after hurting his knee. Evans then ran roughshod over late replacement Tito Ortiz and appeared to finally earn his second opportunity at the title, only to have it snatched away and given to Lyoto Machida when it was revealed he’d injured his thumb in the process.
Leading up to their previous bout, the 9-0 Davis had been insistent a win over Evans would make him the No. 1 contender, but while they’ve been out licking their wounds, things have gotten a lot less clear cut. Dan Henderson’s victory over Mauricio Rua at UFC 139 now has some looking at him as the next in line to face the winner of Jones versus Machida.
For either Evans or Davis to leapfrog Hendo in the constantly shifting light heavyweight queue, they’ll need to do something great. Luckily for them, a stellar performance in front of a worldwide television audience might just fit the bill.
After the promotion’s initial “teaser” show on the Fox network peaked at around 8.8 million viewers earlier this month -- over 10 once you consider DVRs and whatnot, the company says -- even more people are no doubt expected to tune in for the UFC’s first full-length show. That obviously means big things for Evans and Davis, who stand to benefit from a complete slate of televised fights leading into theirs, not to mention the fact their bout will likely go longer than 64 seconds.
Both guys have personalities that will be easy to promote and their stand-out collegiate backgrounds make them exactly the kind of fighters the UFC should be trying to spotlight for a mainstream audience. Put all of that together and it appears likely that Evans versus Davis ends up being one of the most-watched fights in UFC history.
With one good performance, Evans stands to bust out of the doghouse he's been in since sitting out 10 months during 2010-11, waiting for a title shot that never materialized. Meanwhile, Davis could go from under-the-radar rookie to household name and either fighter could earn a big money pay-per-view fight against Jones in the process.
The ball is teed up for a homerun here. These guys just have to show up healthy enough to swing the bat.