MMA: Phil Davis
Johnson (16-4) is scheduled to face Phil Davis in a high-profile 205-pound matchup at UFC 172 in Baltimore on Saturday. It will mark Johnson’s first appearance in the Octagon since the UFC cut him in January 2012 for repeatedly missing weight.
He missed the 171-pound limit twice as a welterweight in 2007 and 2009. In what was supposed to be his middleweight debut at UFC 142, Johnson weighed in heavy again, which put a co-main event fight against Vitor Belfort in jeopardy.
After he missed weight for another middleweight bout outside the UFC, Johnson made a permanent move to light heavyweight. And no matter what happens from here on out, that’s where he’ll stay.
“If anybody brings up 186 pounds to me, I look at them cross-eyed,” Johnson said. “Honestly, I start feeling sick when I get to 204 pounds. My body won’t allow it. It’s most likely a mental thing but I don’t even want to think about it.”
Although Johnson says he’s finished with hard weight cutting personally, he does hold opinions on recent suggestions for reform on the process.
Last month, the Association of Ringside Physicians issued a statement on potential weigh-cutting reform in combat sports. One suggestion was to establish a “lowest allowed fighting weight for competitors through body composition and hydration assessment.”
If anybody brings up 186 pounds to me, I look at them cross-eyed. Honestly, I start feeling sick when I get to 204 pounds."
-- Anthony Johnson, on his feelings about a return to middleweight
Despite an admission that he probably “knocked on death’s door” several times while cutting to 171 pounds, Johnson is not in favor of a regulatory body telling a professional athlete what weight class he or she can compete in.
“I think that’s just insane,” Johnson said. “Nobody can tell you what you can and can’t do.
“You know your body and if you believe you can reach the weight class you’re set [to fight in], then do it. I don’t think anybody should put limits on what you believe you can do.”
Other advocates for weight-cutting reform have suggested same-day weigh-ins, which would theoretically force athletes to compete closer to their natural weight. The major draw back would be the potential of more dehydrated fighters in the cage, which makes the brain more susceptible to damage.
Still, others have called for weigh-ins to occur well ahead of a bout, which would add more time between a dehydrated phase at weigh-in and an actual fight.
In addition to his stance on the ARP suggestions, Johnson is against same-day weigh-ins, but ultimately says he doesn’t have a say in the matter, as he’s committed to 205 pounds.
As he puts it, “I don’t think losing too much weight is healthy at all, but look who’s talking. I used to lose 40-to-50 pounds.”
As far as how the move up in weight suits him, Johnson says he feels at home in the weight class, even though his fight against Davis will be a major step up in competition. He’s 3-0 currently as a light heavyweight.
“I’m confident I’ve already figured out fighting at this weight,” Johnson said. “To me, weight is weight. It doesn’t matter to me at this point. Just me who you give me and I’ll see what they’ve got.”
Johnson and Davis have only interacted once, according to Johnson -- when the two shared a locker room at a UFC Fight Night event in March 2011 in Seattle. Johnson was fighting at welterweight at the time, but wasn’t dwarfed by Davis’ size.
“When I was fighting at 170 I thought everybody was big,” Johnson said. “At the same time, I don’t see guys as being too big for me as long as I can see them eye-to-eye. I thought he was big, but he wasn’t too big.
“There was only one person that was just too big for me and that was Andrei Arlovski [Johnson defeated Arlovski via decision last year as a heavyweight]. He was too big.”
White, who was just about to wrap up a media session, suddenly sat forward in his chair. Clearly, he had something to say on this one.
“I like Phil and I don’t want to throw Phil under the bus,” White said, “but Phil needs to get over that mental hump.
“I’ve got guys breathing down my neck for fights, like, ‘I want this fight. I want that fight.’ Phil Davis is like, ‘Eh. I’ll hang out around No. 4 here.’ He’s not that guy that comes across to me like, ‘I f---ing want it. I want to be the best in the world.’”
Davis (12-1) spoke to several media outlets that same day, including ESPN.com, but his best opportunity to answer White’s claim came on Monday during a global media call. He certainly didn’t waste the airtime.
A former Division I NCAA wrestling champion at Penn State, Davis went to work on light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who also happened to be on Monday’s call. He barely uttered a word about Johnson (16-4).
Some of it was strong (calling Jones “Sweetheart”). Some of it was not (saying Jones got hit in the eye so much in his last fight he almost “turned into a pirate”).
The best moment came when Jones, who played along for the most part, asked Davis which rounds Alexander Gustafsson won in their narrow title fight in September.
Davis: I thought he won all the ones where he put those hot hands all over your forehead.
Jones: Oh man. That’s not nice, Phil.
The realest thing that came out of Davis’ mouth on the call? Probably the first thing he said, when he basically warned everyone listening he was about to go off and -- if you read between the lines -- admitted he’s maybe not too happy about it.
“I try to let my fighting do the talking, but I’m going to have to let my talking do the talking for a little bit,” Davis said. “If you want Phil Davis calling and your texting your phone every day, telling you he wants to fight Jon Jones, that’s fine.
“I thought that just winning would get that done, but that’s not necessarily true.”
It’s pretty obvious Davis read White’s message to him loud and clear: Get people interested. As many fighters before Davis have learned, it’s not always strictly about wins and losses. Sometimes you have to talk.
This is why Davis is practicing his stand-up routine, interrupting one reporter on Monday’s call to ask Jones how he would overcome his fear of fighting (did he buy a night light?).
A win, however, is still the most crucial piece to Davis’ title aspirations -- which he does have, regardless of what White says. Secretly, he understands he’s facing a dangerous opponent in Johnson, who has four knockouts in his last five fights.
Davis has been in a similar position to this before. In 2012, a 5-0 start in the UFC had him closing in on a title shot -- until he lost badly to Rashad Evans via unanimous decision. To this day, Davis says he can’t bring himself to watch that fight.
“I watched halfway through the first round and turned it off,” Davis told ESPN.com. “I couldn’t even watch. I was so pissed. I still haven’t seen it.
“I can barely compare who I was in 2012 to the fighter I am now. It’s just so much different. It’s going to take at least two Rashad Evans in the cage at the same time to beat me right now.”
At the request of his boss, Davis is turning up the chatter ahead of his fight in Baltimore. So far, he’s seemed only halfway comfortable with it. It’s still the actual fight on Saturday where Davis will be most comfortable.
When it comes to former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida, the elephant in the room also happens to be the best thing about him: his style.
On one hand, that ultra-conservative, point-based style is what carried him to UFC royalty in 2009. Machida has won 83 percent of his professional bouts because of it.
On the other, however, that same style is to blame for half of the total losses in his career.
Machida (19-4), who makes his middleweight debut against Mark Munoz this weekend at UFC Fight Night 30, believes he has really only lost twice -- to Mauricio Rua in 2010 and Jon Jones in 2011.
The other two, decision losses to Quinton Jackson and Phil Davis, Machida will very matter-of-factly tell you he won.
"To be honest, I just think I lost twice in my career," Machida told ESPN.com. "I didn’t lose to Quinton Jackson and I didn’t lose to Phil Davis."
Here's where the elephant in the room comes in. Anyone who watched those fights against Jackson and Davis will tell you that, at the very least, Machida had his opportunity to win but absolutely refused to pull the trigger.
As UFC president Dana White summed it up last week in Houston, "[Machida] is too conservative. You go out against these guys and that elusive, run-away style is never going to win."
So, what is Machida's reaction to that? The idea that this style, which he has utilized his entire life and won him a UFC title, is actually the reason he lost both those fights? Somewhat surprisingly, he agrees.
"Yeah, for sure," said Machida, when asked if he thought a lack of aggression cost him.
"I have to listen to my fans and to the critics. The fans, the media, everybody talks about it. I have to improve. I have to be more aggressive. I will try, for sure. On Saturday, we will see."
About midway through his UFC career, which began when he signed with the promotion in 2007, Machida's offensive output plummeted.
In his first seven fights in the Octagon, culminating in a 205-pound title fight in 2009, Machida produced a 7-0 record and landed 313 strikes in 83 total minutes. In the eight fights since, he has gone 4-4 and landed 180 strikes in 95 minutes.
His strikes landed per minute have dropped from 3.76 in those first seven fights to 1.88 in the eight most recent. You can blame that, to an extent, on facing better competition -- but Machida actually blames it on repetition.
There's a lot of video out there to break down Machida's style at this point. He says there is a chance opponents have picked up his tendencies.
"Maybe everybody studied my game," Machida said. "Maybe I was predictable after I won the belt. I've stayed less aggressive and the guys I'm fighting have studied and improved their game more than me."
Well, one way for Machida to be unpredictable in this new weight class is to be aggressive. It appeared he wanted to be more active in his most recent fight against Davis, but old habits die hard and he landed only 27 total strikes in 15 minutes.
Towering expectations still rest on Machida's shoulders. He's still the No. 5-ranked light heavyweight, according to ESPN.com. He's approximately a 3.5-1 favorite over Munoz (13-3), despite never having fought at 185 pounds before.
He is still, undoubtedly, a world-class martial artist -- but we can’t ignore, forever, the fact Machida is batting just .500 in the Octagon since winning the belt. He says his style has finally altered. We’ll see Saturday if he's telling the truth.
"I trained like that for this camp," Machida said. "I have tried to be more aggressive. I have tried to throw a lot punches and kicks -- move forward. Let’s see."
Stream-of-consciousness-style thoughts on Jon Jones versus Alexander Gustafsson, followed by a light heavyweight edition of Pretenders and Contenders. Let’s go.
I scored the title fight in favor of Gustafsson 48-47. I gave him the first three rounds, Jones the final two.
After the fight, I posted on Twitter that Jones was being packed in a stretcher for the hospital, while Gustafsson was good enough to conduct interviews. Many followers jumped on that as an opportunity to point out Gustafsson had been robbed, since Jones was in far worse shape. I get it, but that’s not how you score a fight.
Even though I had it for Gustafsson, I’m happy Jones won -- if I’m allowed to say that. The most conclusive rounds of the bout, I thought, were the fourth and fifth for Jones, which also happen to be the “championship” rounds. Jones basically refused to lose when it really mattered.
The best moments were in the fourth round. That has to be Round of the Year. I remember seeing, literally, blood from Jones’ facial cut flying in the air when Gustafsson hit him. Midway through the round, it almost looked like Jones was about to go down. The crowd was going nuts.
Then Jones looked at the clock. And maybe I’m totally wrong on this, but I bet if you asked him about it today he might not even remember doing it. It was just built in -- the way some ninja spy might subconsciously, without knowing it, remember the exits of a building or something. Busted up, swollen, exhausted -- something inside Jones said “Look at the clock; OK, 90 seconds left in a must-win round, throw the spinning elbow, stay on him.” I don’t want to get too dramatic, but come on. That’s crazy.
I haven’t watched it a second time, but sitting here days later, I’m willing to say that was the best fight in UFC history -- surpassing Mauricio Rua versus Dan Henderson and Frankie Edgar versus Gray Maynard II.
I also see it as the one that solidifies Jones as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He sort of inherited the spot (in my eyes) after Anderson Silva lost to Chris Weidman, but he really owned it here. Had Silva knocked out Weidman in the first round this year, I think I would still rank Jones ahead of him after the Gustafsson fight. He went to the brink of defeat against a very good opponent who basically forced him to fight his fight, and still left with his arms raised.
We knew about his skills, but now that we know about his heart, it’s virtually impossible to pick against him. But let’s look at the division real close and see.
Really talented fighters with no chance: Ryan Bader, Rashad Evans, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Rua. All four have long roads to even get to Jones. Three of them have already lost to him. Rua appears to me, at 31, pretty much done when it comes to winning elite-level fights. A hard realization, but a realization nevertheless. Bader has plenty of career left, but there’s really no reason to think a second fight against Jones would go any different than the first. On Evans, I know he was the only title contender to go the distance before Gustafsson did, but that grudge match was every bit as one-sided as the fights Jones has finished and Evans hasn’t looked great since.
The athlete: Phil Davis. Davis is more than just an athlete, but I call him this because it’s still his best quality -- at least in a fight against Jones. The problem is, he won’t outwrestle Jones for five rounds. It won’t happen. Jones is a good enough wrestler with good enough intelligence to not let that kind of game plan beat him. You hear this sometimes about great fighters; it’s not really a game plan that will necessarily beat them. You have to be capable of beating them in every area on that one given night. Gustafsson almost did that. Davis, even on his best night, can’t be better than Jones.
The old man and the right hand: Dan Henderson. I would not count Henderson out completely in a Jones fight for three reasons. It’s possible he could defend the takedowns, at least early. He’s crafty at getting inside. His right hand can kill a mule. But yes, I will admit it’s a long, long, looooong shot. It’s going to be very difficult for him to get to Jones and if he did, Jones could probably wear him out pretty quickly, take the right hand out of the equation, and finish him before the end of the second round.
The Olympian: Daniel Cormier. Everyone seems to be putting all eggs in the Daniel Cormier basket, completely ignoring the fact that (A) we don’t know whether he can make the weight; (B) we don’t know what he’ll look like if he can make the weight. You can also add in (C) we don’t know whether he’ll beat Roy Nelson. As much as the UFC’s “Height and Reach” marketing ploy was poked fun at heading into UFC 165, truth is, we saw that having size sure doesn’t hurt in a fight against Jones. Cormier is 5-foot-11, with a 72.5 reach. He’s the only real hope at holding Jones down, but he’s at a huge disadvantage on the feet.
The only two, but the best two: Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira. Everyone basically acted like the hardest part was over for Jones at 205 pounds. He beat all the former champs, after all. What challenge could the lesser-known Swede and Brazilian possibly pose? After the whole Silva-Weidman fiasco we really should have known better. Confident, hungry, well-rounded challengers can’t be dismissed. These two have never held the belt, like most of the other men Jones already fought. They are in their athletic primes. They are true light heavyweights. As awesome as Jones has been, he’s never really shown one-punch knockout power. These two are big and athletic enough to stay upright, take a Jones elbow and respond with effective offense. Jones really is impossible to pick against right now, but if you’re willing to do it at 205 pounds, these are your only options.
CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- Alexander Gustafsson and his team have no problem praising Jon Jones.
They have no problem declaring that they’ll beat the UFC champion, either.
Something special likely needs to happen for the 26-year-old Swede to topple Jones on Saturday in Toronto during the main event for UFC 165.
The American light heavyweight star is as talented a mixed martial artist as there's ever been, which is partly the reason why Jones is on the verge of breaking the record for most consecutive title defenses in the division with six.
Still, Gustafsson, the first Nordic fighter to get a crack at a UFC belt, is convinced it’ll be his night, which alone could give him an edge over some of Jones’s previous challengers.
I wanted him to face the guy he lost to and see that he doesn't have to run away from that loss, but embrace it.” -- Alexander Gustafsson's head coach, Andreas Michael, on Gustafsson's loss to Phil Davis
“When I see other fighters [against Jones], no disrespect to anyone, but I don't think they're there to win. They're more there to survive than anything else,” said Andreas Michael, Gustafsson’s head coach for the past eight years.
Mauricio Rua. Quinton Jackson. Lyoto Machida. Rashad Evans. Vitor Belfort. Chael Sonnen. These, so far, are the men offed by Jones (18-1) during his time atop the 205-pound class. All but the apprehensive Evans were finished before the fifth round. The rest, it could be argued, were on the downside of their careers, or fighting out of their weight class.
This is why Gustafsson expects to do more than just show up on fight night. As the story goes, Gustafsson is the same age as Jones.
Gustafsson’s reactions and speed on the feet could be better than Jones’s. Gustafsson is as tall as Jones. And most importantly, Gustafsson is stepping into a cage against the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in mixed martial arts with winning on his mind and in his soul.
"Whatever he throws -- whatever he brings to the table -- I have a defense and an answer for it," Gustafsson said eight days before the fight.
A significant underdog, his hands hardened by rounds and rounds of abuse, Gustafsson speaks from a foundation of well-earned convictions.
Three years ago, after tapping to Phil Davis early in Abu Dhabi at UFC 112, he was little more than a lanky European prospect with a killer instinct who couldn't handle wrestlers. “The Mauler” and his team immediately took steps. Michael struck up a conversation with Davis's trainer, Eric Del Fierro, and a few drinks later Gustafsson was invited to train in San Diego at Alliance MMA.
"What was funny about Alex is he was so mad," Del Fierro remembered. "Hours after the fight he was so mad. I see certain things in guys and I know they have it. I've been doing it over 14 years and you know they have it."
If Del Fierro thought Gustafsson had the right stuff, Michael was sure of it. That's why he pushed Gustafsson to change. Michael himself focused more on MMA than coaching boxing in Sweden.
"I followed the road that was best for the people who cared the most about me,” Michael said.
That path could have led them to England and the Wolfslair team, which included Quinton Jackson and Cheick Kongo.
But, for several reasons, San Diego was the right decision.
"For me it was an obvious choice because I wanted him to face his demons," Michael said. "I wanted him to face the guy he lost to and see that he doesn't have to run away from that loss, but embrace it."
A couple months after losing to Davis, Gustafsson called Del Fierro to talk about heading to the U.S. for his next camp. Within a week of making good on that, Gustafsson was "terrorizing people and being competitive," Del Fierro said. Michael saw Gustafsson's confidence skyrocket. Working with Davis, sparring with top talent, and facing the growing demands of a UFC fighter in America all aided his development.
This is why he felt at ease during a week-long media tour over the summer to hype myriad UFC title fights featuring myriad UFC stars over the final half of 2013. Sitting on stage with Jones and other champions, Gustafsson said he felt comfortable, as if he was “here to stay.”
During the tour Gustafsson realized he’s not a "really big fan" of Jon Jones the person. Gustafsson said Jones looks down on people and can come off as arrogant. This is not the Swede's style, though none of that matters because he’s “not here to make best friends." No, Gustafsson wants Jones’s belt, which thus far has been a poor move for light heavyweight contenders.
"He's always dictating what's happening," Cruz said of his fellow UFC champion. "Alex is the first person that can make him deal with that."
"I've been working my ass off,” said Gustafsson, who broke personal best records in sprinting and conditioning drills this camp. “If we're at distance. If we're in the clinch. If he's on top of me. If I'm on top of him. It doesn't matter. It's a fight and I'm going to feel comfortable and I'm ready to work my ass off for five rounds to get a win."
The consensus among his supporters: speed and pace will make that possible.
Cruz, Del Fierro, Michael and Gustafsson all think Jones can get caught with strikes. Considering the champion carried a punching and kicking advantage in his last 26 rounds dating back to a 2009 fight with Stephan Bonnar, that's suggesting a lot. Too much, perhaps, but this is where they feel Jones can be had, especially in light of his recent comments about boxing the Klitschko brothers, who just so happened to lend Gustafsson support in the form of sparring partners.
Michael called out Jones, saying if he wanted to stand with Wladimir or Vitali, he “shouldn’t be scared of a farm boy from Sweden” and start with Gustafsson.
“We're not out for the paycheck,” Michael said. “We're not out there to survive five rounds. We're out to win. We're training to win. It's a different type of level. A different type of mentality. When you're training to win that means you're going to take what the other guy has, not just to survive. That's the attitude Alex is going in with.
“He wants to win, and he's gonna win."
ESPN Stats & Information
Here are the numbers you need to know for the fights:
92: The percentage of takedowns Aldo has defended in his WEC and UFC career. In 12 career fights spanning the two organizations, opponents are 5-for-66 in takedown attempts against the featherweight champion. Aldo defended 9 of 11 takedown attempts in his last fight against Frankie Edgar. In three UFC fights, Jung is 5-for-6 in takedown attempts (83 percent).
1: Both Aldo and Jung have finished a UFC fight with one second remaining in a round. Aldo ended his UFC 142 fight with Chad Mendes in the final second of Round 1, one of just 10 times that has happened in UFC history. Jung submitted Leonard Garcia with arguably the most unusual hold in UFC history, the twister, at 4:59 of the second round at UFC Fight Night 24. It was the only ending at exactly 9 minutes, 59 seconds of a UFC fight until Saturday when Jorge Masvidal accomplished the same feat with a D’Arce choke against Michael Chiesa at UFC on Fox 8.
8: Jung has eight submission victories in his career, including five by choke. The twister victory against Garcia won multiple awards for submission of the year in 2011. Jung won his last fight against Dustin Poirier at UFC on Fuel TV 3 by D’Arce choke, which was a candidate for 2012 submission of the year. Aldo has never faced a submission attempt in 12 WEC/UFC fights.
7: Aldo is one of seven undisputed titleholders from Brazil in UFC history, along with Vitor Belfort, Murilo Bustamante, Junior dos Santos, Machida, Mauricio Rua and Anderson Silva. Aldo is the only Brazilian to currently hold undisputed gold after Silva's loss to Chris Weidman at UFC 162. (Renan Barao holds the UFC interim bantamweight title.)
4.6: Significant strikes landed per minute by Jung. "The Korean Zombie" landed 89 significant strikes in his WEC debut against Garcia, a fight nominated for 2010 fight of the year. That total is just above the 74 he landed in four rounds against Poirier. Jung is known to get hit as well, absorbing 3.8 significant strikes per minute, including a head-kick loss to George Roop in 2010. Aldo lands 3.5 significant strikes per minute.
7: Seconds needed for Jung to knock out Mark Hominick at UFC 140, tied for the fastest official knockout in UFC history. Jung needed just six strikes to finish Hominick. Aldo's fastest win is eight seconds, a knockout against Cub Swanson at WEC 41 in 2009.
3: Consecutive wins for Jung in the UFC after two losses in the WEC. Those losses were both on WEC cards where Aldo was defending his featherweight title. Aldo has won 15 consecutive fights, with his lone defeat coming in 2005. Four of Aldo's wins since becoming WEC/UFC champion have been by decision. In 16 fights before winning the WEC/UFC title, Aldo had three decision wins.
6: Jung is the sixth fighter from Asia to fight for a UFC title belt. The previous fighters (Yuki Kondo, Yushin Okami, Hayato Sakurai, Caol Uno and Kenichi Yamamoto) went 0-5-1. Yamamoto (UFC 23) and Kazushi Sakuraba (UFC Ultimate Japan) are the only fighters from Asia to win a UFC tournament championship. Jung is the first Korean fighter to challenge for a UFC title.
11: Knockdowns landed for Machida in his UFC career, tied for fourth most all-time. In the light heavyweight division, Machida is second to UFC Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell, who has 14. Davis has not been knocked down in nine UFC fights.
74: Davis' significant strike defense percentage, fourth highest in UFC history. "Mr. Wonderful" is one of the most difficult fighters to hit, absorbing just 53 significant strikes in his seven UFC wins. In his loss against Rashad Evans, Davis was hit with just 38 percent of significant strikes. Machida is one of the best strikers in UFC history, landing 57 percent of his significant strikes, which is seventh best all-time.
Under normal circumstances, a win Saturday at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, would seal the deal for a title shot. But in the back of their minds, Machida and Davis know there is another fighter -- someone not even in the top 10 of the 205-pound rankings -- hatching a plan to push them aside.
And neither Machida nor Davis likes it one bit.
Highly ranked heavyweight contender Daniel Cormier told ESPN.com on July 22 he intends to make his light heavyweight debut early next year and wants it to be in a title bout -- whether or not current champion Jon Jones is still wearing the belt.
Cormier knows he will ruffle the feathers of more than a few light heavyweight contenders if his plan comes to fruition, but he couldn't care less. If he defeats hard-hitting Roy Nelson in October at UFC 166, which is expected, it is goodbye heavyweight and hello 205 with the likelihood of an immediate title fight.
"What I will be asking to do at the beginning of next year is something that is going to make a lot of people mad," Cormier said. "I'm going to ask to cut the line at 205."
Despite being the likely choice to get the winner of the third fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, Cormier has already made up his mind to turn that offer down. He will never fight Velasquez, who is a close friend and training partner. And Cormier has no doubt that Velasquez will be UFC heavyweight champion for a very long time.
It's heartwarming that Cormier (12-0) is willing to abandon a shot at the heavyweight title and attempt to cut lots of weight rather than fight a very special friend. But Machida and Davis aren't feeling the love. In fact, neither will stand quietly and let Cormier push them aside.
"I believe there's a ranking and it should be followed. There are a lot of guys in line right now in this weight class [waiting] to fight for a title," Machida said. "I've been waiting in line, there's Glover Teixeira, there's Phil Davis; so there are a lot of guys in there, in the mix.
"If [Cormier] is going to move down to 205, he needs to put a couple of fights in or at least get a significant win in a big fight. I don't think it is right for him to just come in and cut the line. He's going to have to show he deserves that title shot."
Being bypassed in favor of Gustafsson makes Machida a little antsy. He believes, however, that an impressive win over Davis, who is ranked seventh among light heavyweights by ESPN.com, will strengthen his case for another shot at Jones, who submitted Machida in the second round at UFC 140.
Davis is equally determined to make his case Saturday night for a title shot. He has lost just once as a professional, when former 205-pound titleholder Rashad Evans earned a unanimous decision against him in January 2012.
A highly skilled wrestler, Davis has significantly improved his stand-up skills. He is 2-0 with one no-contest since the loss to Evans.
A signature win over Machida could catapult Davis to the top of the 205-pound rankings. And he is not in the mood to simply let Cormier cut in front of him. Davis intends to upset Machida on Saturday in eye-opening fashion, thus ending all talk of Cormier getting an immediate light heavyweight title shot.
"What it really comes down to is being able to sell the fight and being able to perform [well]," Davis said. "After this fight, I think fans are going to be begging for me to fight for the title. It's as simple as that."
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.
Bisping in vulnerable spot
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.
How does Sonnen compete?
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.
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.
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.
Mauricio Rua, Lyoto Machida, Ryan Bader and (inexplicably) Brandon Vera will enter the Octagon in the proverbial mix.
Rua is an all-time great, and coming off a war to end all wars against Dan Henderson, who could find much to complain about if he’s next to be slotted in?
Machida, also a former UFC champion, gave Jones the hardest time so far, making good on the audacity to throw punches -- until he was choked unconscious in Round 2 of their December bout.
Bader was totally outclassed when he tangled with Jones a year and a half ago, but he's since improved.
As for Vera, well, no one expects him to be the fighter who emerges from the rubble. If he does, it will truly be an incredible story -- a real-life "Rocky" story. (There’s a reason these sorts of things are brought to life on the big screen.)
So, these are the options for UFC at the moment. An “impressive” performance is all that separates one of these men from a chance at fighting for the UFC light heavyweight title.
The last time 205-pounders were so prominently featured during a UFC on Fox event, Phil Davis and Rashad Evans competed in a hum-drum 25-minute affair. The January contest ended with Davis's first defeat in mixed martial arts while Evans earned the right to challenge Jones, who easily retained his belt. Almost suddenly, the division appeared barren.
This is a major reason why UFC has been forced to tout recycled fighters against a young champion who already handled each of them.
There are, however, two light heavyweights on the card that haven’t had the misfortune of facing Jones. (Yet.) And for all the reasons mentioned above, that makes the fight between the aforementioned Davis and UFC newcomer Wagner Prado more than mildly intriguing.
Davis didn't attend Thursday's news conference at the JW Marriott (he’s not fighting on the main card this time so he didn’t have to be
there) and he later declined to discuss his fight, which airs on Fuel TV rather than Fox. Prado, meanwhile, spent his afternoon at the elegant hotel anonymously soaking in the festivities while catching a glimpse of what it’s like to fight for the UFC.
Until he took a couple minutes to answer questions (via a translator) with a tape recorder in his face, hardly anyone recognized Prado for what he was. Maybe that’s because Prado is listed at 6-foot-4 when in fact he's closer to 6-1. Or perhaps the 25-year-old Team Nogueira product freely walked around because few people in the building had actually seen him fight before. Whatever the case may be, Prado (8-0 with seven stoppages) claimed to be both excited and calm on the eve of his Octagon debut.
"I'm from Team Nogueira and train with guys at a high level and do well against them," Prado said. "That's why I feel I'm home here."
The heavy hitter has built up his record against less than stellar opposition, which, after doing the math, hold more losses than wins. Against Davis, he faces a considerable uptick in competition.
Among the many differences Prado will come to know about fighters at the regional level in Brazil compared to those in the UFC, the ability to wrestle will probably be the most obvious. He hasn't fought a wrestler yet, let alone one of Davis’s caliber, and he’s aware of this.
“They've all tried to take me down,” Prado said of his opponents. “And in training and sparring we concentrated on guys trying to take me down as well."
With that, he cracked a smile.
Prado, a southpaw training partner of Junior dos Santos among others, is predictably sticking with the Brazilians this weekend. Like everyone else, he has Rua over Vera. He was equally confident that Machida would beat Bader. Of the two, Shogun will earn the title shot, he predicted.
As for his "in the mix" prospects, Prado claimed he won’t “look that far into the future.”
“I'm just focused on Saturday,” he said.
With that, he posed for a couple of photos.
For the last few years, visa problems have kept him out of the UFC. Before he defeated Kyle Kingsbury at UFC 146 to point a sudden “I’m coming” finger at Jon Jones, the last time he’d fought in the States was back in 2008 when he punched out Buckley Acosta.
None of that matters now. What matters is Teixeira’s arrived, and we saw it in his dismantling of Kingsbury in just under two minutes. Those in the know knew. Those who didn’t were quickly alerted to what the cult was saying, which was this: Teixeira is a power player who arrives on the UFC 205-pound landscape like a man ready to build condominiums all over it.
And that’s good, because the 32-year old Teixeira brings life to a division where prospects are down. He’s won 16 fights in a row. His last loss was in 2005 to Ed Herman. It’s not that he’s nickel and diming guys, either. Fifteen of his victories during that stretch have come via finishes. He’s not top 10 right now in part because Ricco Rodriguez and Marvin Eastman (the guys he’s beaten) are not Ryan Bader and Phil Davis (the guys he’s hurdling).
More importantly, Glover just isn’t that known to UFC-centric Americans.
As for the Brazilians? Well, they know him. They know him plenty.
And to listen to Dana White, knowing him means to steer clear of him. That’s what happened this past week when fellow Brazilian Mauricio Rua turned down a headlining fight with Teixeira when Thiago Silva was forced out of their scheduled bout with a back injury. When offered Teixeira as a replacement, Rua politely said, “no thanks.”
That sounded like “you must be out of your mind to think I’d fight that guy” to the UFC.
When the UFC threatened to cut Rua if he didn’t conform to the idea, he said he’d rather get canned than mingle with the “Baker.” This was not the expected response. Of course, all of this was how White relayed it to the media. Translations may differ on how things went down.
Since then, muttering has gone on with both sides since, but the bottom line is this: Rua didn’t want to fight Teixeira and he had his reasons. Those reasons, if we’re to be bludgeoned by strong hints, are that Rua wants no part of Teixeira. Either way, turning down fights is not what the UFC wants out of big name former champions who have drawers full of big digit deposit slips.
The compromise was Brandon Vera, a name of utter bewilderment to MMA fans. How does Rua, coming off the fight of the year against Dan Henderson at UFC 139 (a fight that some thought he won), get paired with Vera, who was coming off a lackluster victory over Eliot Marshall? Why, if Rua was only interested in fighting top-10 fighters, did he turn down Teixeira but accept Vera? Was he ducking Teixeira, as was insinuated? Or is this a tactical move, a simple case of Vera is the easier opponent? Why did the UFC accommodate Rua with Vera when the ultimatum wasn’t met? Are UFC matchmakers so hog-tied right now that when fighters dare the promotion to cut them that they are the first to blink?
This last question gets complicated when you look at the case of Quinton Jackson.
But the answer to some of this might be simple. Rua, like Jackson, is the old guard who likes sticking to the old guard. Jackson wanted to fight Rua, Rua wanted to fight Jackson. Vera is old guard. Tito Ortiz, Forrest Griffin, Dan Henderson -- they are old guard, too. They have established names. The UFC’s light heavyweight division -- perhaps more than any other -- is by and large a cast of past glories. Jon Jones has obviously helped render the situation. He effectively eased people into the past tense. He could do the same to Henderson on Sept. 1.
The thing is that Rua wants marquee fights in the twilight of his career. The UFC wants to introduce Teixeira into that space of marquee names. Teixeira is actually older than Rua. But it’s hard to crash a party that’s been raging on without him for so long. Rua, a little over a year ago, was the life of that party. Teixeira, around the same time, was beating somebody named Simao Melo in Shooto. It’s easy to see both sides.
So was it an issue of fear, lack of merit, motivation, desperation, name recognition or simply a matter of shrewd logistics that prompted Rua to say no to Teixeira?
The short answer is: Probably.
But beginning Saturday in Stockholm, the UFC gets back to its furious pace. Over the next several weeks, there will be UFCs to keep us busy, all of them stubbornly numbered in pay-per-views, in FOX, FX and Fuel shows -- not to mention the occasional Strikeforce event. As such there will be a lot of debuts from guys like Yoislandy Izquierdo and Sweden’s own Magnus Cedenblad. The producers of Starz’s Spartacus could never have invented such fitting names for its crop of warriors.
Here’s a look at five things to keep an eye out for at UFC on Fuel TV 2, and some storylines that might (or might not) be of immense interest to you.
Gustafsson’s handling of the spotlight
It’s not only a homecoming for Alexander Gustafsson, but it’s his first main event on a card specifically designed with him in mind. And it’s his first time fighting as a true cusp contender from both a marketing standpoint as well as from the general notion that he’s part of what’s left out there for Jon Jones at 205 pounds. That’s a lot of pressure for the 25-year-old from Arboga, Sweden. But it’s the kind of pressure that comes with sustained success in a league founded more or less on attrition.
Gustafsson will be fighting Thiago Silva, who was originally supposed to be Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Which is the more imposing foe? Probably Silva, who has only lost twice in his career, and each of those were against former champions (Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida). Silva would be a huge notch for Gustafsson, enough of one to rev up the title talk. And coming in, it’s hard to find much wrong in the Swede’s game since losing to Phil Davis at UFC 112. It’s not that he beat four guys in a row, but he finished them all, twice by TKO (Vladimir Matyushenko and Matt Hamill), and twice by rear-naked chokes (James Te Huna and Cyrille Diabate).
If he adds Silva to that casualty list, it means the “Mauler” has truly arrived.
Silva’s potential ring rust and mental state
In a time when commission findings get more headlines than the fighters themselves, we must remember that Thiago Silva was the original bizarre. After his UFC 125 drubbing of Brandon Vera, the Nevada State Athletic Commission suspended Silva when it was discovered that his prefight urine sample turned up “inconsistent with human urine.” He tried to mask banned substances by submitting urine that he ordered online. This didn’t work out. To his credit, Silva admitted right away to his course of folly and took his punishment, which included a yearlong suspension.
Well, it’s been 16 months since the Vera fight, and through a beneficial set of circumstances he ends up in a main event. The UFC tried to set up a rematch with Vera. When Vera was a no-go, the UFC tried to stick Silva in there against a tough but not-so-glamorous Igor Pokrajac. Then they needed a viable opponent for Gustafsson when Lil Nog went down. Enter Silva, who is still a top-10 light heavy in the UFC. Yet you have to wonder if the time away from the cage, the mental taxation, the travel, the fact that he’s fighting a rising star in a rising star’s homeland, and the oppositional musical chairs will hinder him in some way.
If none of that matters, it means Silva right where he left off before those ongoing back issues led to some monstrously bad decision-making.
Dennis Siver as a featherweight
He was no slouch as a lightweight, but German fighter Dennis Siver wanted to try his hand as a 145-pounder after losing his footing in the 155-pound title race to Donald Cerrone. His first opponent as a feather? Diego Nunes. And if you remember, when Kenny Florian made his much-ballyhooed drop to 145 pounds, he was greeted by Nunes in his new weight class, too.
As a symbol, Nunes has helped more people lose weight than trainer Mike Dolce.
How will the weight cut play a role for Siver? It remains to be seen, but the kickboxer was knocking off some pretty tough guys as a smallish 155er -- guys like Matt Wiman, Spencer Fisher and George Sotiropoulos. In other words, he’s a wily vet.
Brian Stann getting his brawl back on
The bane of Brian Stann’s existence so far as a professional mixed martial artist is wrestling. He was dominated on the ground by Phil Davis and, after dropping down to 185 pounds, ran into Chael Sonnen at UFC 136 and suffered the same fate. It’s been a long six months since then.
Yet lucky for Stann, Alessio Sakara -- the free-swinging Legionarius -- would just assume gather up all the singlets and have a bonfire. He was recently outwrestled by Chris Weidman, and it left a bad taste in his mouth for no other reason than it wasn’t his kind of fight. That is to say, it wasn’t a brawl. In fact, going back to his 2006 bout with Drew McFedries, any Sakara fight in which there was a finish has always come by KO or TKO. He was on the wrong end of those nearly as often as he wasn’t.
Think this thing is tailor-made for Stann? Could be. But there are plenty of people in Italy thinking the exact same for Sakara.
Damacio Page on the plank
This might be the fight of the night -- two tightly wound bantamweights coming off of losses, each of whom brings it every time. Between Brad Pickett and Damacio Page, Page is the one on the slipperier slope, having lost back-to-back fights to Brian Bowles and Demetrious Johnson. In both of those he was choked out via guillotine.
That’s not likely to happen against Pickett, whose nickname is “One Punch.” If Page loses here, it’ll likely be by decision or because he got caught. With Greg Jackson in his corner and some intangibles (read: survival mode), it might set up a perfect storm to revisit the Page of 2009, the one who fought a grand total of 1 minutes, 20 seconds in finishing off Will Campuzano (via rear-naked choke) and Marcos Galvao (via punches).
Either way, this looks like the great unsung fight that could steal the show.
Sorry, my apologies for using one of mainstream sport’s more insipid buzzwords here, but there really is no other way to describe the talented 25-year-old Swede. A few days out from his fight with Thiago Silva at UFC on Fuel 2, Gustafsson has already been issued a ticket to the top of the light heavyweight division.
Now all he has to do is cash it in.
As ESPN.com’s Chuck Mindenhall expertly illuminates, there is a lot riding on this fight. In a sport where we often write the postscript before the action has actually happened, people are expecting big things from Gustafsson. With Rashad Evans at the plate and Dan Henderson on deck, he’s already speculated to be in the hole for Jon Jones.
Never mind the fact that this weekend marks his first ever main event for the UFC.
Never mind that the kid has never been out of the second round, or that the signature win of his career so far is a 9-minute TKO over a version of Matt Hamill who already had one foot out the cage door.
Never mind that we have no idea how he’d fare in the kind of five-round war of attrition it could take to wrest the title from Jones, a champion so young and dominant that he’s forced us to take this long lens view of the light heavyweight ranks in the first place, eager as we are to see what the future holds for him.
Barring the emergence of a breakout presence on the order of Jones himself, it’s Gustafsson or bust for the 205-pound division. Despite a UFC 112 loss to Phil Davis, he’s been judged by most to be further along in his development (to be the most ready for Jones, you might say) after Davis’ unanimous decision loss to Evans in January.
This is no one’s fault, obviously. Gustafsson is simply possessing of the kind of size (he’s listed at 6-foot-5), athleticism and finishing ability that naturally spark the imagination. He’s simply established himself as the most interesting and exciting young light heavyweight not named Jon Jones and that makes him the object of our great expectations.
The flipside of those expectations, of course, is that anything less than claiming that title shot will be judged as a personal failure for Gustafsson. If he slips up and loses to Silva this weekend, not only will he be found wanting by the scores of pundits who’ve already put him in line for that opportunity, but the 205-pound division might well lose its dominant and marketable champion to the heavyweight ranks before the end of this year.
Does all that add up to unneeded and unfair pressure for a kid who is already making his maiden voyage at the top of a card by headlining the first ever UFC show in his home country?
It sure does. Then again, to get to where he’s going, Gustafsson might as well make peace with the fact that his most difficult task won't be simply defeating his opponents, but living up to the hype.
We saw how things turned out. Rashad Evans beat Phil Davis to finally punch his ticket to Jon Jones, and Chael Sonnen escaped Michael Bisping to set up what might become the biggest event in MMA history with Anderson Silva. For as perfect as those match-ups look for finality to long-fostered acrimony, this left 41-year-old Dan Henderson in the lurch.
At least as far symbolic belts are concerned.
Contrary to popular belief, though, Henderson isn’t necessarily interested in waiting to see how Jones-Evans plays out to firm up his shot. He says if there’s an opponent that makes sense, he’d like to fight sooner rather than later. Waiting isn’t his style.
“That was never what I said or anything,” Henderson told ESPN.com. “I don’t know who said that, but it wasn’t me. My thoughts were I was waiting to see what happened with Rashad [Evans] and Phil Davis. That was the only thing I was going to wait for.”
The person who said that was Dana White himself, who told media that Henderson was in a position where it “looks like he’ll wait for Jon Jones.” That would be fine and good for Henderson, if the UFC could promise a quick turnaround after the Jones-Evans fight in Atlanta on April 21. Problem is, guarantees like that aren’t realistic given the hazards of the fight game.
“Obviously you can’t guarantee that nobody gets hurt,” Henderson says. “I don’t know what the plan is, but I’d fight whoever it is they think would be a good match-up. The problem is there’s really nobody right now who fits the bill for a title contention fight, that would make sense to fight me. I don’t know. Maybe I’d fight at a different weight class. I don’t know if they see anybody at heavyweight that would make sense? But I would prefer to fight someone in April or May.”
That was never what I said or anything. I don't know who said that, but it wasn't me. My thoughts were I was waiting to see what happened with Rashad [Evans] and Phil Davis. That was the only thing I was going to wait for."” -- Dan Henderson
Henderson turned down a title eliminator with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira that would have been the headlining bout for the now-scrapped Montreal card. He did that because he was waiting to see what would happen with Evans-Davis. Now with Evans having won and Nogueira booked to fight Alexander Gustafsson in Sweden on April 14, Henderson is left without a dance partner.
And that opens up a range of possibilities. One of them is fighting at heavyweight. Though he had to drink a gallon of water to make weight in his final Strikeforce bout with Fedor Emelianenko in July, fighting bigger guys has never spooked Henderson. In fact, it can’t help but intrigue him.
“For sure it does,” he says. “Who do the fans want me to fight at heavyweight? I’d have to think about that. I don’t know who at heavyweight would even make sense. The heavyweights that are in title contention right now wouldn’t want to fight me. I don’t know who is out there, but I did let the UFC know I’d be open to that as well.”
There is one fight that could be on the horizon that Henderson would strongly consider, and yet again it’s circumstantial. If Quinton Jackson were to beat Ryan Bader at UFC 144 on Feb. 26, he says that a rematch of their 2007 UFC title tilt would be fun.
“I would entertain that fight, sure; it’s a big fight,” he says. “I mean, that’s only one win he’d be coming off of. But again, it depends on the circumstances and I don’t know what they’re talking about in terms of the turnaround after Jones/Evans. Still, the Quinton Jackson/Bader fight is two months before Jones/Evans.”
Whatever the route, as long as it leads to a title shot -- preferably in his natural 205-pound weight class -- Hendo is all for it. If you’ve followed Hendo throughout his career, you know that he loves the idea of conquering indestructible forces. He’s made a career of it. And it’s no different if he gets his wish and finds himself standing across from Jon Jones in 2012.
“I think he’s definitely shown some inexperience,” he says of Jones. “He makes up for it with a lot of athleticism and just unorthodox striking. He definitely -- like anybody -- has holes in his game, and I just think that my style would match up real well with him.”
But first things first: Hendo will have to navigate through the set of circumstances that are right now preventing it.
Experience played a vital role in the matchup, as the fighter suffered a fairly one-sided defeat -- the first and only loss of his career to date. Can you name him?
Bet you’re thinking Phil Davis and you are correct -- kind of. There are actually two UFC fighters that fit this exact description. Davis and 135-pound champ Dominick Cruz.
Cruz sailed through the first nine fights of his career, as Davis did, before running into WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber in 2007. It took Faber just 98 seconds to submit Cruz in that fight. Compare his story with what Davis just went though in a five-round decision loss to Rashad Evans and, well, it’s downright eerie.
“It’s definitely parallel to what happened with Dominick,” said Eric Del Fierro, head trainer at Alliance MMA. “He had nine fights and was undefeated when he fought Urijah. He lost.
“Now, see what he’s done. It’s part of the growing process sometimes.”
Davis (9-1) was one of the hottest prospects in MMA heading into Saturday’s UFC on Fox 2 event. After watching him muster very little offense during the course of the 25-minute fight, there are certainly those now saying we overestimated him.
But what did we really learn about Davis from his first loss? That he isn’t the high-ceiling prospect everyone thought he was? Or that he simply just did not have the experience level to compete with a former UFC champion?
Having gone through the exact same situation, Cruz saw the latter.
“My assessment of this fight was experience,” Cruz said. “This was Phil’s first five-round fight. I remember a very similar situation for myself. I was 9-0 and thrown into a big show. It was a learning experience and it opened my eyes.
“It wasn’t that he got completely owned out there. He lost the critical situations, where you know you can’t give up a takedown in the last 30 seconds of a round when the standup has been close.”
Davis’ boxing coach, Adrian Melendrez, says he learned a few things about Davis in the fight. As someone who works with him on a daily basis, it had nothing to do with where Davis is at regarding technical aspects of his game.
What Melendrez saw was Davis didn’t shy away from the high-pressure atmosphere of a major fight on network television. He noticed Davis was still trying to win in the final round, despite getting shut out in the previous four.
“Things weren’t going his way, but he wanted to win every round,” Melendrez said. “That toughness -- you don’t know if a guy has it until you see him in that situation.”
Four years after falling for the first time to Faber at WEC 26, Cruz avenged the loss with a five-round decision win for the bantamweight title at UFC 132.
Cruz says the taste of defeat, though, lingers in his mouth to this day. He admits he still thinks about the loss sometimes early in the morning, which drives him to wake up and run for miles.
Will last weekend’s experience do the same for Davis? No one knows for sure, but Cruz and the rest of his team certainly think so. As unspectacular of a weekend as it was for Davis, he's still come in a long way in a short period of time, and will only learn from the loss.
“It had been almost a year since he fought [Antonio Rogerio] Nogueira and his first fight back is a five-rounder against Rashad. That’s no easy task,” Melendrez said.
“He’s got a long career ahead of him. He has that competitor spirit where you want to win, but almost more importantly, you never want to lose again. I’m still 100 percent confident a UFC title will happen for him.”