|ESPN.com: Mixed Martial Arts||[Print without images]|
UFC 129 will be remembered for many reasons, not the least among them pressure-filled performances from some of the world's top mixed martial artists.
Don't miss a moment of the latest MMA coverage from around the world. Follow us on Twitter and stay informed. Join »
With so much of the pre-event focus centered on UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre's defense against Jake Shields, Randy Couture's impending retirement and the return of featherweight Jose Aldo, other efforts -- good and bad -- could easily be overlooked. Not here, though.
From A to F, UFC 129 offered highs, lows and plenty in between:
Twenty-second knockouts are worth an "A" and that's why Vladimir Matyushenko, 40, earns the evening's highest marks. Little was expected from his fight against Jason Brilz, but Matyushenko took care of that from the outset by connecting with a right hand that put his younger opponent down. This was Matyushenko's second quick win since Jon Jones completely overwhelmed him in August. Perhaps "The Janitor" has another run in him, though I tend to doubt that. What Matyushenko (26-5) does possess, however, is the ability to fight for several more years. I could easily see him competing at the age of 45 as he picks up the mantle for Randy Couture.
MMA includes "martial arts" for a reason, and Lyoto Machida offered a great reminder of that when the 32-year-old former UFC light heavyweight champion unfurled a knockout-of-the-night jumping crane kick that dropped Randy Couture to the canvas. Machida's ability to incorporate techniques that were generally dismissed as unusable in a professional fighting context is one of the reasons that he inspired so much excitement in 2009, when the Brazilian ruled the UFC's long-standing marquee division. On Saturday, Machida had the unenviable task of sending Couture off to retirement. He was on point from the opening bell, peppering Couture with punches, knees and kicks until the "Karate Kid" inspired finish stunned audiences everywhere. This was a huge victory for Machida, who breathes new life into a career that scuffled some in 2010.
Returning to the cage after a scary injury to his neck forced him to miss a January title defense, 24-year-old Jose Aldo appeared to labor more than he has in the past. Things did not flow as easily as they had before. Sure, he displayed some explosiveness against Mark Hominick, but Aldo (19-1) also appeared to wear down as the five-round fight played out, especially at the end when he had no response on the bottom as Hominick unleashed punches. Aldo's kicks were as strong as ever, but he appeared less fluid with his punches, almost looking as if he was pushing his right hand instead of firing it out there like a viper. It's too soon to say what Aldo's career will look like moving forward, but there has to be some concern that he may not regain the form that so quickly propelled him into the top 5 pound-for-pound fighters in MMA.
Rebounding from a loss to Carlos Condit in '10, 21-year-old Rory MacDonald (11-1) took it to Nate Diaz during a well-orchestrated three-round performance. Whether it was on the feet or the floor, MacDonald fought like the top-tier prospect most project him to be. Most notable was his ability to toss Diaz around the Octagon. The young Canadian is surely hoping to follow in the footsteps of his country's greatest star, Georges St. Pierre. He'll have plenty of time to sort himself out as a fighter, and his effort against Diaz won't do anything to diminish the long-term potential and expectations of MacDonald's budding career.
Georges St. Pierre
When the bar is set to "perfect," any hiccup along the way has the potential to look like a huge misstep. Yes, Georges St. Pierre, 29, earned another unanimous decision against a top contender. His victory over Jake Shields was a surprise to no one. But the way it played out -- the early eye poke from Shields/GSP's concern with his inability to see -- in front of a massive audience of the champion's countrymen and all the extra pressure that entails made this a win worth remembering. St. Pierre, as he seems to always do, dictated how the fight unfolded, even as he coped with the drama of limited depth perception and the uncertainty that comes with not being able to see correctly. St. Pierre (22-2) is a timing/distance/feel fighter, and he was able to maintain some semblance of control by mixing up striking and grappling like a true mixed martial artist. No "A" for St. Pierre this time around, but he was impressive despite his consecutive round-winning streak coming to an end.
Henderson was solid in his UFC debut. Bringing all the characteristics that made him someone to reckon with in the WEC, Henderson avoided submissions and made the most of his strength, spirit and athleticism while out-pointing Mark Bocek. The win was extremely important for the former WEC lightweight champion, not only as an example of what he's capable of against established lightweight talent, but as an indicator for the type of success a handful of WEC imports could have in the UFC. Henderson (13-2) showed again how difficult he is to handle. The 27-year-old from Glendale, Ariz., looked just comfortable enough inside the Octagon, and though he and Bocek fell short of fight-of-the-night expectations, Henderson produced more than enough offense to earn a clean sweep on the judges' cards.
If it wasn't for a late rally, Mark Hominick's attempt to win the UFC featherweight title would have registered a lesser grade. For four rounds against Jose Aldo, Hominick, who ranks among the nicest, most accommodating fighters in MMA, whose wife is essentially ready to give birth, took heavy low kicks, jabs, right hands, uppercuts, hooks, you name it. Based on his appearance after the fight, Hominick was easily handled by Aldo for 20 minutes. But the 28-year-old fighter refused to quit, even as a tennis ball-sized hematoma was raised on his forehead. Hominick (20-9) somehow dominated Round 5 by forcing Aldo to his back and ground-and-pounding his way to the final bell. The rally wasn't enough to alter the outcome, but it certainly helped lift the spirit of a massive crowd at the Rogers Centre.
Saturday's effort in the main event at UFC 129 might have been the only shot at greatness for Jake Shields. If that's the case, he picked a terrible time to be average. In the end, though, that's what he was. Shields' limited striking game, more specifically his inability to put any kind of significant dent into this opponent, became his only offensive path. The highly-touted grappler never had an opportunity to test his skills against St. Pierre's because the champion simply wouldn't let him. Shields benefited from an injury to St. Pierre's eye that happened in Round 2, because prior to that the challenger had a difficult time handling GSP's mix of speed, power, finesse and athleticism. It's no great surprise that Shields (26-5-1) went the distance against St. Pierre, in part because everyone goes the distance with him these days. It was surprising, however, that Shields, 32, didn't bring the kind of intensity that marked many of his previous efforts -- and it cost him.
Ginger-haired grappler Mark Bocek struggled with Henderson when it came to measuring up to the former WEC champion's speed, power and flexibility. Henderson, like the physical Jim Miller, is the kind of fighter Bocek (9-4) struggles against. The 29-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt was being discussed for a future contendership, but two losses in three fights makes that unlikely.
Diaz, still just 26, dropped his fifth fight since 2008 to a younger, stronger, more athletic fighter. The defeat highlighted once again that Diaz, whether he's fighting at 155 or 170, does not look like any kind of contender in the UFC. Some fans might enjoy his aggressiveness and in-your-face style, but that will only take him so far. Unless Diaz (13-7) figures out how to handle more powerful opponents, which he'd face with regularity at welterweight, many more decision losses are in his future. His camp is making it sound like a return to lightweight is likely. He's better off there.
Win, lose or draw, Randy Couture said it was his intention to be done with fighting after the challenge of Machida. Many questioned his sincerity, but in the wake of a brutal, teeth-rattling knockout, his 11th loss in 30 fights, the idea that he would continue makes little sense. Couture, 47, put on many, many A-level performances throughout his 14-year career -- though you wonder how a 19-11 fighter will be viewed two decades from now -- but this one is obviously not among them. Couture was repeatedly beaten to the punch and he couldn't get inside, where his clinch and dirty boxing kept him competitive far longer than it should have. Lesson to fighters: If the great Randy Couture can't do this forever, neither can you. It feels harsh to hand Couture a "D" in his final fight. So let's leave thinking about his career as a whole. Among the sport's great representatives, Couture stands out as one of the best. He made a career of participating in big-money and attention fights. He challenged the sport's promotional authority and had the guts and foresight to not cede control of his image and earning potential. Taken as a whole, Couture earns an A- for an important career that will be fondly remembered.
Jason Brilz performed beyond expectations in a split-decision loss to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira 11 months ago. It was a different story Saturday in Toronto when he failed to meet them at all versus Matyushenko. Being on the wrong end of 20-second knockouts are, for these purposes, almost always F-worthy. Such is the case with the 35-year-old Brilz (18-4-1), whose stock took a big hit over the weekend.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.