Monday, February 4, 2013
Competitive fights define UFC 156
By Josh Gross ESPN.com
Expectations were ramped up over the weekend in Las Vegas, and UFC 156 delivered in more ways than one. The top of the card produced a memorable championship fight, while the rest included a series of division-jarring upsets.
Throughout the night, these things stood out to me:
• The recent additions from Strikeforce were in no way outgunned. Isaac Vallie-Flagg pressured Yves Edwards into a split decision win. Bobby Green looked as good as I've ever seen him, pulling off a shocker of a rear-naked choke against Jacob Volkmann. And Tyron Woodley was downright evil against Jay Hieron. This indicates that fighters who can scrap will do so regardless of the promotion that signs them. That's why I always pay attention to the men in the cage, not the promotional partner they are tied to. There's a lesson here for people who opt instead to believe that if a fight doesn't happen in the UFC, it doesn't matter.
• It's the same old song and dance in the officiating department. Referee Kim Winslow's standup of Green as he worked over Volkmann from top position was so wrong. Like really awful.
• The pay-per-view portion of the card was as competitive as I thought it would be. True enough, I managed a meager 1-4 on picks (only had Benavidez correct), but its was clear that Joe Silva and Sean Shelby booked incredibly close matches. Anything was possible, as we saw.
• During fight week, it was announced that UFC would implement official rankings. This is tricky territory for the UFC (dare I say unnecessary and potentially risky) and it didn't take long to see why. After Jose Aldo dispatched Frankie Edgar, Ricardo Lamas and Chan Sung Jung were immediately thought to be next in line based on what they've done recently at 145. That's fine and makes sense. But because lightweight Anthony "Showtime" Pettis texted UFC president Dana White that he could make 145, a guy who never fought at the weight and, unlike Edgar, hasn't won a UFC title, could very well be up next. I'm having a difficult time envisioning Zuffa ceding matchmaking control to these newfangled rankings.
• The first glimpse of Zuffa's marketing for UFC 157 hit TVs during the pay-per-view portion. This, of course, includes the Ronda Rousey-Liz Carmouche bout at the top, which is why it was noticeable (not in a positive way) that the promotion opted to go with something as trite as "They'll break more than your heart." I can't remember UFC ever marketing a men's fight this way. They should do better in this department.
UFC 156 grades
The man needed a signature performance, the sort that showed off his immense talent, which is exactly what he delivered in his UFC debut. Tyron Woodley, 30, plowed over Jay Hieron (23-7) with a rocket of a right hand followed by mean, angry shots on the floor that knocked the veteran out cold. With a 10-1 record, the former Missouri wrestler is just now getting his feet under him as a mixed martial artist. If that means he has found trust in his game and anger in the cage, the welterweight division will reckon with Woodley for some time to come. If he can also sort out stamina issues and remain fresh late into fights, this is a guy who could easily contend for a UFC title.
"Pezao" has been maligned as little more than an ox when, in truth, the supersized Brazilian moves well, can put strikes together and usually fights to a game plan. In waiting to the third round before going after Alistair Overeem, Antonio Silva (18-4) again proved he's an elite heavyweight capable of great things. For his efforts, the 33-year-old fighter became the 12th man to hold MMA's lineal heavyweight title. I'm don't think he'll ever be able to beat Cain Velasquez, who trounced Silva in May, but Saturday's win against Overeem may have been enough to get him a second chance.
The real deal. Demian Maia's move from middleweight to 170 has been nothing short of fantastic, which is an apt description of his decision over Jon Fitch. The 35-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu maven grappled his heart out against the willful American, and only Fitch's stellar choke defense prevented a finish. Maia (18-4) looks every bit a top-shelf welterweight, and appears a win away from his second UFC title shot.
UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo said after his unanimous decision title retention over Frankie Edgar that the bout was not the toughest test of his career. With all due respect to the silky smooth 26-year-old Brazilian, it's hard to buy that Urijah Faber made for more difficult competition than the former lightweight champion. Aldo (22-1) was brilliant during the opening 15 minutes. He pumped out a potent jab, mixed in leg kicks and adroitly defended takedowns. During the championship rounds, however, Aldo got away from his jab, stepped off the gas, and practically gave Edgar a glimpse of the fight. Still, this five-rounder delivered what I hoped it would: Aldo pushed and prodded. He came out relatively unscathed, and on my ballot moves ahead of Georges St-Pierre into the top three of the pound-for-pound list.
Frankie Edgar (15-4-1) lost his third straight fight, yet it's obvious the 31-year-old former UFC lightweight champion is more than good enough to test any fighter near his weight. He'll surely get his chance against the upper echelon of the featherweight division, which is where he's destined to remain for the foreseeable future. With a bout at 145 under his belt, a few things are now known. The speed advantage he had at 155 will be mostly dissipated. No one moves as well as Aldo does, but the division as a whole should come close to matching Edgar's quicks. He was outworked by Aldo, but never hurt, which is good news considering the way Gray Maynard treated him. The man remains elite, though he could certainly benefit from a couple of lopsided wins -- he has fought 33-plus rounds over seven fights since 2010.
Joseph Benavidez (17-3) locked in his No. 2 status behind Demetrious Johnson at 125 with a split decision win over Ian McCall. As he usually does, Benavidez, 28, brought heavy punches, mixed in scrambles and mostly dictated the action. He remains the biggest threat to Johnson.
Evan Dunham (14-3) struggled all fight with Gleison Tibau's size, but the lightweight refused to cede ground to the dense Brazilian. Though takedowns never came, Dunham's stamina and work rate were enough to wear down Tibau. The jab paid off for Dunham, but in future fights it should be grappling that carries him forward. He won't face a more difficult man to put on the floor than Tibau, which is good news for the 31-year-old fighter competing out of Las Vegas. He's a notch below top contender status. Another win or two could change that.
Ian McCall fell just short yet again. The 28-year-old Californian is a momentum fighter, and during the instances in which he put Benavidez on the defensive McCall (11-4-1) looked like a legitimate threat at 125. He instituted serious grappling exchanges that were great to watch, but it wasn't enough. McCall just can't seem to make the most of his big moments. He'll stick around because the truth is he's very good for the weight, but even with a lack of depth at the weight it should be a while before he sniffs another title shot.
Antonio Rogerio Nogueira
Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (21-5) took advantage of a comatose Rashad Evans, pumping jab after jab at the former UFC light heavyweight champion's head. His boxing, per usual, paid dividends. Yet it was in takedown defense department that "Minotoro" truly shined. At the age of 36 it's fair to say he has gotten up in years. It's also fair to indicate that he's slower than he used to be, but this was a huge win for Nogueira, who vaults up the light heavyweight standings.
Jon Fitch (24-5-1) didn't have an answer for Demian Maia. From the opening bell the 34-year-old American was put on the defensive. He mostly failed in that department, continually giving up takedowns and his back to the jiu-jitsu stud. On the other hand, Fitch did very well to deny Maia's sub attempts. He was relegated to survivor against Maia, and to that end he did just fine. But Fitch couldn't handle Maia's grappling pressure, and if he couldn't, who can?
Paging Rashad Evans. Paging the guy who won the UFC light heavyweight title with speed and power. Where are you? We know where he wasn't Saturday night: the Octagon. Evans, 33, hardly did anything during his three rounds with Nogueira save appearing befuddled and bored. Evans must find his passion again, which took a dent against Lyoto Machida and later appeared to go away entirely versus Jon Jones. "Suga" (17-3-1) is more saccharin these days. The real deal better start showing up soon or a once-promising career could fall apart.
Arrogant. That was the crux of Alistair Overeem's effort against Antonio Silva. The 33-year-old Dutch star went through the opening round with his hands at his hips. He went through the second with his hands near his thighs. Neither represents a terribly good way to go about fighting Silva's power, finesse and experience. The truth is, Overeem (36-12) got what he deserved because of his blatant disrespect for Silva. For the time being, forget any talk of him being the next guy to step in the UFC heavyweight title picture, which is in flux following Saturday's upset.