Thursday, February 16, 2012
UFC hits it big with smaller card
By Josh Gross ESPN.com
Not sure how you feel about it, fight fans, but I could get used to quality midweek MMA cards. The UFC's first foray on Fuel TV went well Wednesday, highlighted by a terrific main event between determined welterweights.
The Omaha, Neb., event was packaged much like last month's debut for the UFC on FX: a mix of young prospects, familiar names and a relevant, potentially exciting headliner. Though it was seen in far fewer households, Jake Ellenberger versus Diego Sanchez and the undercard that proceeded it was, as will happen, better than FX's first attempt.
In person, per ESPN's Brett Okamoto, the compacted feel of the crowd and venue was excellent. That passion of a smaller venue, drawn primarily to watch Ellenberger, one of Omaha's own, translated very well on television. Not that this is some sort of news flash, but the UFC would be smart to take advantage of this formula for future Fuel or FX cards. Doing a ballroom show or two wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. One of the most exciting cards I ever covered in person was UFC 37.5, which happened to be Zuffa's first live televised fight on Fox Sports headlined by Chuck Liddell and Vitor Belfor at, of all places, a ballroom in the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Done right, that setup always works.
While Ellenberger locked down big plans for 2012 with his points win (we just don't know who, what, where or when yet), the event provided renewal for Stefan Struve, T.J. Dillashaw and Jonathan Brookins. Unfortunately for Dave Herman, Walel Watson and Vagner Rocha, the opposite rang true.
These smaller UFC events have become proving grounds for UFC-signed fighters, and that's a good thing.
From A- to D, here's how things shaped up Wednesday night.
UFC on Fuel grades
It was as one-sided a fight as you'll see without a finish, thus the not-quite-perfect mark. T.J. Dillashaw, 26, ran roughshod through Walel Watson (9-4), who had no answer for a quicker, more powerful grappler. Rebounding off his quick TUF 14 loss to John Dodson, Dillashaw, who spent time training in Southern California with Mark Munoz's camp and Muay Thai trainer Rafael Cordeiro, swarmed from the opening bell to rack up a huge points lead heading into the third round. To Watson's credit, he never quit and flirted, briefly, with a storybook comeback. Dillashaw (5-1) was not to be denied, however, in a statement win for the bantamweight.
Jake Ellenberger had everything stacked in his favor when he stepped in against Diego Sanchez in the evening's main event. Fighting in front of his hometown crowd, Ellenberger came out looking a bit stiff, like he wanted to land the perfect punch to please family and friends. Yet that tension didn't stop him from taking the first two rounds and a comfortable lead into the final period. Sanchez, to his credit, was undeterred and went after Ellenberger (27-5). The savvy Nebraskan stood up to Sanchez's challenge, and though he ceded ground late in the fight, the bout was clearly his. Ellenberger, 26, could be on the shelf for the foreseeable future. Carlos Condit is waiting for Georges St. Pierre, and the only other suitable opponent would be the winner between Johny Hendricks and Josh Koscheck. Ellenberger took care of business, and for the most part he was impressive in doing so.
Aided by experience and poise, Ivan Menjivar (24-8) recovered from a rough start against John Albert (7-2) to find a finish at 3:45 of Round 1. The 29-year-old, Montreal-based "Pride of El Salvador" is a dynamic fighter -- always has been. At 135 pounds, he should be competitive against all but perhaps the cream of the crop, which is where his last three wins might dictate his next foe comes from. This was a wild one-round bout that had a little bit of everything.
Stefan Struve claimed a couple reasons for his measured effort against Dave Herman. Jet lag and playing off Herman's compromised cardio later in fights were two of them. Whatever it was, it worked. Struve (23-5), who almost always fights smaller than the advantage provided by his 6-foot-11 frame, started slow. But by Round 2, the soon-to-be 24-year-old Dutchman picked up the pace, found his range and unloaded on a defenseless opponent. Herman is so underskilled -- especially on the ground, where the bout ended -- it's difficult to gauge Struve's effectiveness. Regardless, this makes four wins in five fights for Struve against mostly mediocre opposition.
Relentless. That's the best description for 30-year-old Diego Sanchez, who endured two rounds of trouble against Ellenberger before nearly pulling off a shocking, come-from-behind upset. Sanchez (23-5) can vacillate over which division suits him best (I still think it's welterweight; he loses too much dropping down to 155 pounds), but it may not matter. He's good enough to give anyone a fight, just not at the level he needs to be to win those top-contender bouts. This is Sanchez's conundrum. Statistics suggest he's a less effective wrestler than most people make him out to be, and if he can't fight from the top he's not going to win many bouts that matter.
How much can one glean from a 43-second fight? Well, enough. Despite technical deficiencies -- Stipe Miocic is too easily hit and will pay a price against a heavier-handed striker -- the Ohio-based heavyweight remained unbeaten in eight fights, plastering Brit Phil De Fries (8-1). Still, he took care of business and did so quickly. It's unclear how far Miocic will go in the UFC heavyweight division, but he'll have his chance.
Tweet of the night goes to Ronny Markes, who published that his fight-day weight was near 216 pounds. This from a man who just the day before weighed 185. That's an Anthony Johnson-level weight gain. Markes was as big as a bull compared to Simpson, and his size paid off in clinch situations. The Brazilian fighter is only 23 and he can improve a lot. Considering the results of his first go at 185 pounds, expect Markes (13-1) to stick around the division for a while. Eventually his body will force him back to light heavyweight, but for the time being he's an intriguing addition to Anderson Silva's weight class.
Aaron Simpson, 37, could have walked out of the cage a split decision winner and no one would have thought anything of it. That's how tight his fight against Markes was. But instead of taking his fourth straight, Simpson (11-3) sits in a crowded middleweight field, unable to separate himself from the pack. Simpson is no less dangerous now than he was coming into the bout -- he showed this with a stiff uppercut that parked Markes on the canvas -- however, the wrestler may not be able to overcome his late entry into MMA. Age and time constraints will prevent Simpson from reaching the promised land. That said, he's a tough out for most middleweights.
Athletic heavyweights are a rare commodity, and here we have one who is either unable or uninterested in making good on his gifts. Dave Herman, 27, cobbled together an impressive record based on relatively weak opposition. He could get away with having minimal skill against most of his opponents, but even the tiniest step up means he's exposed, which is what happened against Struve. There's hope yet for Herman (21-3) but he has to commit himself to joining a top camp, working hard, remaining focused and learning how to actually fight. Otherwise, his oddities will trump anything he accomplishes in MMA.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.