Whether or not it's true that Belfort's testosterone levels had been altered to his benefit, Rockhold made it so in his mind. Standing across the Octagon from "Mowhawk Vitor" (i.e. the amped up, angry, throat-slashing version of "The Phenom" Chael Sonnen has described lately), Rockhold had already accepted the reality and responsibility of the task in front of him.
"It's pretty obvious to see," Rockhold, speaking to ESPN.com in early April, said of the 36-year-old Brazilian. "People don't transform like that naturally. I don't care how much weight you're lifting. Your veins and muscles don't just completely morph and change without some outside help. TRT ... is it really just TRT?"
Think he asked himself this question in the moments prior to the cage door being closed? How about during the stare down? As he took his first steps forward? What about when he pulled himself off the canvas after a spinning heel kick slammed into his jaw? Might it pop up while he's trying to sleep tonight? Tomorrow? A month from now?
Rockhold put himself in this situation for several reasons. The easy answer is he's a fighter. They just think different. But more the the point: check the opportunity. Rockhold tied guts, determination and righteousness to ambition.
It didn't matter that his view of the world indicted Belfort as MMA's Lance Armstrong.
Rockhold thought he was good enough to win so long as he weathered Belfort's early storm. He planned to pull away down the stretch, he said. The idea was to control the former UFC champion’s automatic bursts. That obviously didn't happen, leaving Rockhold gracious in defeat. How else could he have acted? It’s worth wondering, though, based on his misgivings about Belfort’s use-exempt testosterone treatments, if that attitude will last.
During a pre-fight media tour, Rockhold thought Belfort looked "thick," "like a heavyweight." He sought random drug testing but couldn’t make it happen. So he accepted the situation for what it was.
Suspicious and distrusting, Rockhold still agreed to fight Belfort in Brazil because winning, well, that would have delivered gold at the end of the rainbow. But two and a half minutes into the fight, the Strikeforce champion went dow- hard, and his UFC debut was done in with one loud burst -- perfect for looping highlight reels from here to eternity.
The 28-year-old American ignored his distrust of various systems that are in place to keep fighters in Belfort's position honest. Rockhold accepted the score coming in. That may or may not prevent his apparent idealism from gnawing away at him. We'll see. As it is, a monstrous KO loss in your most important fight as a professional comes across as challenging enough. This is standard practice for fighters, though. It’s a rough existence, full of sky highs and crater lows.
Yet if Rockhold is going to settle on a reality in which he was brutally stopped by a guy he’s convinced possessed an unfair advantage, where does that leave him outside of having lots to digest.
It's a well-worn cliche that losses offer opportunities to improve. Setbacks expose weaknesses. Diagnosing a problem leads to plugging a hole. With hard work, gains are made. Next thing you know, bad becomes good.
Outside of experiencing another level of fast and explosive, where’s the lesson to be had for Rockhold? Something about better footwork? Or sense of distance? Recognizing spinning kicks, perhaps?
Should Rockhold stay convinced that Belfort’s TRT use isn’t above board, how will he handle the “The Phenom” touting, as he has, recent "enhancements" coming from the inside; or newfound physical strength the likes of which he’s never experienced; or an ability to push his limits and do things like spar seven seven-minute rounds against rotating partners?
Absent TRT, would Belfort be in position right now to throw KO-capable spinning wheel kicks?
This might be the kind of question that weighs on Rockhold, making bitter more likely than better in the months ahead.
That, once again, is up to Rockhold to decide.
The “old dinosaur,” as Belfort calls himself, tamed the “young lion” with a spinning wheel kick in the first round that was really more fine art than it was athletic feat. All professional sports move quickly, but none are as unforgiving as a fight. It’s one of the best characteristics of martial arts, and it was on display Saturday.
That kick, though, was tainted before Belfort ever threw it -- and you’re kidding yourself if you think otherwise. After one of the best knockouts of the year, Twitter exploded with three letters: TRT.
Belfort became so incensed at the postfight news conference by questions regarding his testosterone-replacement therapy, he refused to give answers completely.
The fact that a highlight-reel knockout would produce that sort of response is really quite sad when you think about it, and it leaves no doubt about one thing: Belfort’s next fight has to be in the United States.
Belfort is 36 years old. He complains of a naturally low level of testosterone. The newly founded athletic commission in Brazil, which oversaw its first event this year, has approved Belfort’s use of testosterone-replacement therapy.
He has not received that approval in the U.S., and according to Keith Kizer, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Belfort would likely have trouble earning a use exemption for TRT based on a positive test for anabolic steroids he submitted after a fight in 2006.
Testosterone-replacement therapy does not teach you how to land a gravity-defying spinning back kick like the one Belfort threw on Saturday. It does, however, increase a fighter’s ability to recover, among other things, while preparing for a bout.
The only way the UFC can ensure Belfort’s next performance isn’t questioned is to force him to go through the process of acquiring a therapeutic use exemption for TRT in its home base of Nevada.
That really shouldn’t be a problem for UFC president Dana White, who took a harsh stance on TRT this year. White has even said he’d like to see athletic commissions ban it entirely -- a ban he doesn’t feel the UFC should have to implement itself.
White publicly promised the UFC would "brutally" test any fighter who receives an exemption in order to prevent abuse.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. UFC vice president of regulatory affairs Marc Ratner told ESPN.com last week the UFC did not test Belfort during his recent training camp, deferring that responsibility to the Brazilian commission.
“The Brazilian commission is handling this fight and all subsequent fights in Brazil,” Ratner said. “They have tested Vitor, who is within legal limits, and will be testing him at the fights.”
Turning Belfort’s TRT exemption completely over to a Brazilian commission handling its second UFC event is a far cry from “testing the living s---“ out of him -- which is what White promised to do, verbatim, earlier this year.
There’s no guarantee Belfort would be denied an exemption in Las Vegas despite the comments made by Kizer. Should he provide medical documentation that proves his natural testosterone levels are low, he would still face the hurdle of the positive steroid test in 2006 -- but it’s possible he would be approved.
Were that to happen, fine. If the NSAC approved it and took charge of monitoring Belfort’s levels, it would be a fairly satisfactory result.
There would still be those against Belfort’s use exemption entirely, but at least it will have gone through the proper channels at that point.
The UFC needs to address this issue in Belfort’s next fight. Seeing an old dinosaur turn back the clock in front of a frenzied Brazilian crowd is terrific, but if we’re all left wondering whether Belfort is truly an inspiring story or merely a product of modern science, doesn’t it take away from the appeal of watching at all?
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Luke Rockhold rolled his eyes. This was the talented 28-year-old middleweight, six weeks ago, being sheepish.
Apparently he wasn’t crazy about the world learning that his trainer, Javier Mendez, is under medical treatment for testosterone replacement therapy.
When Mendez's use was revealed, Rockhold thought it would be embarrassing. How come? Well, no one's slammed licensed hormone therapy harder than Rockhold, and now the man in charge of preparing him to fight turns out to be on the same stuff as the embodiment of all things evil in enhanced MMA, Vitor Belfort.
Of course, no one's going to care that Mendez is using TRT. He has been retired from fighting for years and lives in the target age demographic for this sort of stuff.
Susumu Nagao for ESPNLuke Rockhold feels Vitor Belfort, above, is well above the normal testosterone limits.
Belfort's use is something altogether different. Many people care, including Rockhold, a fact he said he'd love to move beyond. But it seems the Strikeforce middleweight champion is having a hard time doing so ahead of his UFC debut. At Thursday's news conference for Zuffa's latest Brazilian adventure in the southern city of Jaragua do Sul, Rockhold dressed down the veteran former champion.
"I haven't supplemented or taken anything in any way. I know I put in more work. I know I have a bigger heart. I know I have the will that will push me through in this fight," said Rockhold, a few seats from Belfort.
This is something he's spent a lot of time thinking about.
Six weeks ago, Rockhold was already aware of how any discussion of Belfort demanded a long tangent on TRT.
"Every time," he said.
It shouldn't be a wonder considering how sharp the Santa Cruz, Calif.-born surfer’s words have been toward Belfort.
“I don't necessarily trust him. And I don't necessarily trust the system. Do I think he's cheating? Yes I do, personally.”
The basis of Rockhold’s protest comes from “jibber jabber behind the scenes” about Belfort being above the normal range for testosterone.
I don't necessarily trust him. And I don't necessarily trust the system. Do I think he's cheating? Yes I do, personally.” -- Luke Rockhold, on Vitor Belfort's usage of TRT and the UFC's drug-testing policy
“He definitely looks bigger than I've normally seen him,” Rockhold said. “If you see the comparisons versus back when he fought Anderson Silva to now [and] the Jones fight, he put on some serious muscle mass.
"It's pretty obvious to see. People don't transform like that naturally. I don't care how much weight you're lifting. Your veins and muscles don't just completely morph and change without some outside help. TRT ... is it really just TRT? I've seen guys on TRT working hard, and look nowhere near what Vitor looks like. I hate to make this the whole topic of this fight. It seems like it is. I'd like to move on beyond it, focus on the fight and what I gotta do to win.”
When he talks about it, the sense is he fully believes what he’s saying. This, however, didn’t stop him from agreeing to a fight with Belfort in Brazil, where a recently formed commission will oversee therapeutic use exemptions.
“I'd like to see him tested to see if he's under the normal limits because I don't think he is. I think he's far above, from what I hear,” Rockhold said.
He knows from Mendez that TRT, done modestly, significantly increases muscle endurance, decreases soreness, and simply helps a person train harder. And as a result Mendez believes he’s sending his fighter into a contest at a disadvantage.
“But again it's not his fault the way the rules are,” Mendez said in defense of Belfort. “You can't blame him for that. He's following the rules. He's by the book.”
Rockhold thinks differently, and because he’s stepping into the cage it’s his opinion that matters most. He attempted to set up random testing through the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association; thinking the process was free he instead found it to be “a stretch” because of several thousand dollars in fees and his belief that Belfort would never agree to be involved.
All of that is a distraction. No matter what Rockhold thinks of Belfort’s use, it can’t change the facts of the fight. TRT is there, like height, weight and reach on the tale of the tape. He knows this, and that’s why he wants to get beyond the TRT stuff. There are better things to focus on.
“It's a huge opportunity,” he said. “Vitor is a huge name. He's a legend of the sport. And he's a top contender in my division.”
Waiting in the wings is a title shot against the best fighter in MMA history, Anderson Silva, if the UFC middleweight champion handles Chris Weidman in July. Rockhold spoke reverentially about Silva, and said he’s excited by the champion mentioning him as a possible opponent.
“If everything works out, I'm going to beat Vitor -- I am going to beat Vitor,” he said. “And if Anderson beats Weidman then I think that fight needs to happen. There wouldn't be any reason not to make it happen. To win the belt from Anderson Silva would be the sweetest of all things. But maybe it's Weidman, but of course taking the belt from Anderson would mean a lot to me.”
Maybe even a bit more than teaching a lesson to Belfort, who Thursday spoke of his motivation and enhancement that comes from the inside, his passion for fighting, his experience of continual learning. He said when he steps in the Octagon with Rockhold it will feel like a “silent storm.”
"I've crushed all the grapes,” Belfort said, “and now I only just need to drink the wine."
This doesn’t register with Rockhold’s vision of the future. He sees himself being the best middleweight in MMA. Rather than being intimidated by the idea that Belfort might be more dangerous to his health on testosterone, Rockhold turned it into a perceived weakness.
"I believe people that need that extra push, the TRT, I think they're lacking something,” he said. “And I believe that will show in this fight. That will be a big factor."
At one point while I'm there, he grabs my shoulder and admits he killed the air conditioning earlier when no one was looking and opened the back door to allow the desert heat inside.
"Very hot in here," he says. Then he tilts his entire body back and laughs diabolically before adding, "If you don't want to sweat, stay on the couch."
Silva (35-12-1) is neither putting off nor anxiously awaiting his next UFC fight. It will come soon enough. He's staying busy between fights in the meantime.
Last month, he spent a week in Europe directing seminars alongside Jose Aldo and Mauricio Rua. He believes mixed martial arts could be fully legalized in France this year. Basically, he has a passion to pursue outside the cage.
"I'm thinking this is a transition to a new job," Silva told ESPN.com. "I'm so glad we have jobs after fighting. A lot of important fighters before would stop fighting and have nothing left. Today, you can fight and make money in a normal life."
That's not to say he's not still heavily invested in his career. He takes his workouts as serious as ever and you can hear frustration in his voice as he talks about the loss to Rich Franklin last year, after he nearly ended it in the second round.
Silva dropped Franklin late in the round and swarmed him with punches until the bell sounded. He's agitated referee Mario Yamasaki moved in to stop the fight, but then changed his mind and let the round continue. Franklin survived and eventually won by decision.
"Either go in there and stop it or don't stop it," Silva said. "If I had won that fight, that's three knockouts in a row. It changes my career."
As of Tuesday, Silva says the UFC has not contacted him regarding a highly expected fight against former middleweight and light heavyweight contender Chael Sonnen -- but his phone is on and he'll answer it when it rings.
"I'm training right now and waiting," Silva told ESPN.com. "I have a guy asking are you going to accept a challenge -- man, nobody has contacted me officially. The boss don't call me, so I'm waiting."
On a "UFC Tonight" show aired on Fuel on Tuesday, Silva was quoted as saying he wants to "suck [Sonnen's] blood." He made no mention of blood sucking to me, but appeared interested in the fight, not to mention confident.
"The probability I knock out Chael Sonnen is very big," Silva said. "Man, everybody knows his game. He is never going to take me down and I'm going to break his nose with my knee."
Pat Healy revealed Tuesday he was popped for pot after dismantling Jim Miller in Newark a couple weeks ago. So the one guy who appeared unharmed -- better yet, better off -- following the weirdest Zuffa event since the UFC's debut in Las Vegas in 2001 has crashed back to earth.
The submission win, which vaulted Healy into most top-10s at 155, was overturned, and he'll need to forfeit $130,000 in bonuses. Yeah, the same "life-changing" money the 29-year-old mauler talked so blissfully about postfight. Zuffa, it seems, will withhold those bonuses for good.
It's the promoter's decision, which may come across as curious since UFC executive Marc Ratner asked the Nevada State Athletic Commission in March to reconsider meting out hefty punishments in the wake of marijuana cases.
"Right now, I just cannot believe that a performance-enhancing drug and marijuana can be treated the same," Ratner said at the time. "It just doesn't make sense to the world anymore, and it's something that I think has to be brought up."
As is usually the case, UFC is the entity that sets the tone. Rescinding Healy's bonuses for fight and submission of the night certainly sends a clear message -- even if it contradicts what the company's head of regulatory affairs advocated for less than two months ago.
Healy said in a statement that he takes responsibility after making a poor life choice a month before the bout. So karma did its thing with him. What about the rest of us? Are we done? Has penance been paid? Or will the bad mojo surrounding Jon Jones' ill-fated booking against Chael Sonnen linger?
Hunting for answers
If next weekend's heavyweight title eliminator between former UFC champion Junior dos Santos and late bloomer Mark Hunt is scrapped, you know what I'm blaming. (Hint: see above.)
Susumu Nagao for ESPN.comThe UFC believes Mark Hunt will be able to secure a visa in time for his UFC 160 bout with Junior dos Santos.
Hunt suggested "some stupid misunderstanding" is keeping the U.S. Consulate from allowing the heavyweight entry into the country. It has been reported that a past legal issue, which Hunt said "happened a long time ago" and "should be cleared up," is responsible for the delay.
Living on the other side of the world, Hunt didn't want to arrive in Las Vegas less than a week from his bout. He's wary because the last time he fought in the desert for K-1, in 2003, he didn't have time to acclimate. Or as Hunt put it during a conference call Tuesday to promote UFC 160, "climatize." He said he's frustrated.
"At the end of the day, I want to get out of here and get to the bout with Junior," Hunt said.
UFC director of communications Dave Sholler said the promotion anticipates Hunt "making his way to the U.S. this weekend."
Cejudo will fight
Following up on a story that ran a couple weekends ago, 2008 Olympic wrestling champion Henry Cejudo will fight May 18 in an unregulated Gladiators Challenge event outside Sacramento, Calif.
Cejudo's manager, Bill McFarlane, continues to object to the opponent, Miguelito "Darkness" Marti, whose record is unverifiable, and the conduct of the promoter, Tedd Williams.
"It has been almost one month since we asked for validation and it simply is not forthcoming," McFarlane said. "Unfortunately, misrepresentations and misinformation only continues. A Gladiator Challenge representative has acknowledged substantial operational weaknesses, throughout the organization, including inadequate recordkeeping and the urgent need for immediate changes. Again, we have been promised that necessary changes will be made, and are hopeful that they will follow through on their promised changes immediately."
Williams stands by Marti, claiming the unknown would beat Cejudo's previous opponents if he fought them all -- at the same time. It's all a bit ridiculous. Marti has published several videos on YouTube, including a pro wrestling response to my story on the fight.
"So go ahead keep looking at my Facebook. Look me up on Google. You can search the ends of heaven and earth and you won't find out nothing about me," Marti cautioned. "Because you call yourself Henry 'The Messenger' Cejudo, well, I can guarantee you this: When 'Darkness' falls upon you, I'll have you questioning your faith."
Right. So this is happening on Saturday.
Bellator champ wants more drug testing
Bellator welterweight champion Ben Askren, a member of the U.S. Olympic wrestling squad that featured Cejudo, took to Twitter over the weekend to mock an article about why fighters competing in his promotion don't fail drug tests.
"Hard to fail a test when you don't take it," Askren wrote. "Only been tested once!"
Sherdog.comBen Askren has been outspoken about what he perceives to be a lack of drug testing in Bellator.
Askren has long been an outspoken critic of the state of performance-enhancing drug use in mixed martial arts. For his last bout, which happened on unregulated tribal land in Oklahoma, he agreed to a testing program conducted by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association. He believes the onus is on commissions to handle testing, but relying on that alone leaves gaping holes in how Bellator fighters are tested.
"Testing by state athletic commissions is discretionary by each commission, and Bellator is held to exactly the same standard drug-testing rules and regulations as is the UFC," said the promotion's director of public relations, Anthony Mazzuca. "Bellator conducted 11 events from January through April 2013, and each and every one of those events were fully controlled and regulated ABC-sanctioned events."
Bellator is on shaky ground trying to compare itself with the UFC when it comes to being serious about drug testing. Zuffa has come very far in this department, a major difference between its brand of MMA and everyone else's. If Bellator's relevance continues to expand under parent company Viacom's watch, its drug-testing standards will only come under more scrutiny.
The toll that Bellator's tournament format takes from fighters, with the potential for three bouts in three months, makes it an obvious place where PEDs may come into the picture. There's plenty of room for Bellator to grow here. Good job by Askren, maybe Bellator's best champion, for raising awareness.
Taken at face value, Tyson Fury's challenge of Cain Velasquez is pointless because we already know the result.
Still, even if the callout is self-serving, even if it's designed to drum up interest and a payday, you have to admit there's something admirable about a talented boxer, early in his career like Fury, loudly challenging the best heavyweight mixed martial artist to a cage fight. Maybe someday Fury will suffer through getting what he wished for, and we’ll suffer for having watched it happen, but you better believe his moxie won’t go unnoticed.
Think about the 24-year-old Brit’s task. Almost everything related to boxing in an MMA contest is altered from its sweet science roots.
Spacing. Stance. Footwork. Balance. Hand position. Timing. And, most notably, what’s OK when fighters tie up. Boxing, of course, features its share of clinching. If Fury somehow talks his way into a fight against Velasquez, he'll need to remember that MMA referees don’t usually call for breaks so quickly.
Can we agree that the only thing less likely than Chael Sonnen beating Jon Jones would be Fury stalemating Velasquez in the clinch? The cold, hard truth is Fury couldn’t do anything other than get tossed on his head or eat a knee or take an elbow or get rag-dolled to the ground.
We know this because MMA’s practice-makes-perfect evolution proved it true. Examples of grapplers fighting strikers inspired a new paradigm, one that dictates the world’s baddest man is a mixed martial artist, not a boxer, kickboxer or anything else. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is brilliant inside a ring. However, competing in a locked cage under MMA rules would carry the effect of kryptonite.
Let’s not forget the ways in which Randy Couture was kind to James Toney almost three years ago. The immediate risk-nothing takedown. Guard passing without strikes. Multiple choke attempts. It might not read this way, but you better believe “The Natural” was being nice.
For his trouble, Toney made off with a big check and not much damage to his head or ego.
Al Bello/Getty ImagesA big flop: James Toney's MMA tenure was short and didn't go over too well.
So we’re clear: If they fight, no one should expect Velasquez to be so gentlemanly with Fury. He probably won’t more than attempt like hell to end the fight, which is easy to envision. Like when "Judo" Gene LeBell submitted boxer Milo Savage. The legendary LeBell held nothing back during three plus-rounds until he choked out Savage in the first televised MMA prize fight in 1963.
Reports suggested Savage was unconscious for up to 20 minutes, which must have shocked the 39-year-old ex-contender’s handlers since they thought he was a shoo-in to score a knockout.
Thirteen years later in Tokyo, LeBell played part in perhaps the most infamous boxing-MMA spectacle, serving as referee for Muhammad Ali's match with Japanese pro wrestling icon Antonio Inoki. Held under modified rules that limited Inoki, the contest was carried back to the States via closed circuit.
Whether or not it was a legitimate bout (there’s a debate) doesn’t mean much when it comes to lasting value. The spirit of it all inspired Sylvester Stallone to include a scene in "Rocky III" featuring Balboa against a giant pro wrestler (Hulk Hogan’s “Thunderlips”) in what was portrayed as a sincere brawl.
Spectacle was reason enough for Rorion Gracie to challenge Mike Tyson to a match to the death for $100,000. This was prior to UFC 1, which succeeded well enough on its own as a vehicle in spectacle creation.
The Tyson escapade never happened, but if it had, you bet the world would have watched. As an understudy, Art Jimmerson looked silly wearing one glove while tapping to Royce Gracie. To no one’s surprise, the moment didn’t carry much weight culturally, yet the message was clear again. Boxing, your father’s combat sport, is mostly worthless against someone who doesn’t want to box.
From time to time, boxers stood up for themselves. Ray Mercer had his moment, knocking out former UFC champion Tim Sylvia. The experience, however, is primarily a lesson in futility.
Take for example the "King of the Four-Rounders," Eric “Butterbean” Esch. After 25 professional MMA bouts, he owns a plus-.500 record -- respectable despite some embarrassing efforts. But to get an accurate picture for this sideshow boxer’s adventures, all you need to do is revisit his first MMA attempt. Hovering near 400 pounds, “Butterbean” tapped when 155-pound Genki Sudo scurried around him like a squirrel before slapping on a leglock.
These are different sports.
There is more than enough evidence to support that.
But this fact hasn't stopped a young boxer from rattling his sabers to prove a point (and draw attention and a solid payday).
What might make this boxing/MMA adventure different from the rest? The commendable fact that Fury is angling to face the current MMA heavyweight champion. The boxer should be lauded for aiming so high.
And sufficiently warned.
No matter how long Daniel Cormier competes or how much he improves as a fighter, there are two mixed martial artists he is unlikely to ever face in the cage -- UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and Bellator light heavyweight contender Muhammed Lawal.
It’s unlikely to happen because Cormier will do whatever is necessary to avoid either man. He considers both his brothers, and nothing that will move Cormier to test the American Kickboxing Academy family bond -- not even a title shot.
It’s a very powerful bond, considering Cormier is extremely driven to become a UFC champion in the not-too-distant future. Every second spent in the gym training, each minute of an actual fight, Cormier takes a step closer to achieving his goal. He repeatedly envisions having his hand raised and a UFC title belt placed around his waist.
The fighter ranked No. 3 among heavyweights by ESPN.com is a win, maybe two, from being offered a title shot. But Cormier will not accept such an offer because he can’t bring himself to challenge Velasquez. And as far as Cormier is concerned there isn’t a heavyweight on the current UFC roster capable of dethroning his friend.
With Velasquez seemingly unbeatable by any heavyweight not associated with AKA, according to Cormier, the highly ranked contender is channeling his energies toward a shot at the UFC light heavyweight belt. But getting to 205 pounds is no easy task for Cormier, who currently packs 235 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame.
He is taking his time and cutting the weight “correctly.” As a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic wrestling team, Cormier attempted to cut weight rapidly by ridding his body of water. The strategy resulted in damage to his kidney; to avoid a repeat of that situation, Cormier is on a closely monitored diet.
And the results thus far are encouraging. His weight is diminishing at a moderate pace. If all continues to go positively, Cormier could compete for the 205-pound title in a little more than a year. But there is no guarantee he will ever reach the light heavyweight limit. The only thing Cormier can do is to try.
In the meantime, he wants to continue plowing through highly ranked heavyweights. And that’s where things get a bit complicated. Cormier continues to knock off heavyweight contenders, while making it clear he will not fight Velasquez for the belt. On the surface, something about this scenario doesn’t pass the smell test, and Cormier knows it. He’s aware of the criticism some are tossing in his direction: Why continue to eliminate heavyweight contenders while preparing for a future at 205 pounds? It comes down to physics and economics.
I think I can [make 205] or I wouldn't have started the dieting process. I'm smaller now than I've been [in a long time].” -- Daniel Cormier
“It’s going to take some time for me to get to 205 pounds, if that’s the route that I go,” Cormier told ESPN.com. “But in that time is it possible for me to still fight at heavyweight, while working my way down so that I can stay busy and still make money, instead of being out of the cage for an extended period of time?
“I can’t be the champion at heavyweight when Cain has the belt, and I don’t want him to lose. I can’t cut the weight from 235 pounds; I have to diet. So while I’m in the process of dieting I can fight still. That’s really all it is.
“I think I can [make 205] or I wouldn’t have started the dieting process. I’m smaller now than I’ve been [in a long time].”
It’s a difficult road for Cormier on several fronts: He must continue defeating highly rated heavyweights -- as his body gets smaller -- to remain relevant and also earn top dollar, while assuring he gets a light heavyweight title shot in the event the weight does come off. There’s also the matter of hoping Velasquez retains his belt during this weight-loss process.
Though Cormier strongly believes Velasquez won’t suffer defeat at any time in the foreseeable future, he will accept a UFC heavyweight title shot against anyone else if the unimaginable happens. And if Cormier were to claim the heavyweight title, is a showdown with Velasquez possible?
“If I was the [heavyweight] champion and Cain decided to fight me that would be his call,” Cormier said. “I’d have nothing against him. I don’t want to fight him, because of how he treated me walking into his gym as a top heavyweight [prospect]; how he’s treated me as a friend; how he’s completely pushed my career. I don’t want to [fight him].
“But these are all hypotheticals. They [heavyweight contenders] are not going to beat him. I’m serious; they’re not going to beat him. They’re not good enough.”
With this in mind, Cormier continues his journey toward light heavyweight. He’d love to claim the belt from arguably sport’s the best fighter – UFC 205-pound champion Jon Jones. But Jones’ days at light heavyweight appear numbered. That doesn’t, however, deter Cormier.
“I still want to be a UFC champion and I’m not going to fight Cain,” Cormier said. “Jon Jones is the [light heavyweight] champion. That’s the only reason I mentioned Jon Jones.
“Even if we miss each other, with me going down and [Jones] moving up, I still have the opportunity to be the UFC champion. It’s my ultimate goal. It doesn’t matter -- outside of Mo Lawal and Cain Velasquez, I don’t care who’s standing on the other side of the cage.”
I had the opportunity to eat lunch with Weidman on the Las Vegas Strip this week. We sat directly down the street from the MGM Grand, where he and Silva will fight for the middleweight title in less than two months at UFC 162.
The biggest thing I took away from the interview is that Weidman is sincerely convinced that, basically, he’s got this. He discussed the possibility of defeating the greatest fighter of all time as though he were describing doing his laundry.
Not that he did it disrespectfully. He acknowledged the enormousness of the opportunity. He admitted that Silva is “great at everything.”
But listening to Weidman talk, you get the sense he’s never watched a Silva fight, sat back and said, “Wow,” like the rest of us. He’s snapped his fingers, pointed at the screen and said, “Right there. That’s where I’d beat him.”
“I just always saw what I could do to him,” Weidman said. “Not really weaknesses. I just always thought I had better wrestling. I thought I had the length and the athleticism to be aware on the feet and strike with my takedowns.”
“Confidence can be a hard thing to gauge in professional sports. I was fortunate enough to cover Floyd Mayweather’s welterweight title fight last week against Robert Guerrero, and I heard plenty of positive reviews on Guerrero’s confidence.
People say he's being cocky and it's bad for the sport. I look at it as he's mentally breaking that guy. He's making him think, 'This guy is so relaxed he has his hands down.' When you're in the cage and you're very structured and tense and the guy you're in with is doing that, it can blow your mind.” -- Chris Weidman on Anderson Silva's skills
When I was around Guerrero personally, though, there was something forced about it. It seemed a little too rah-rah. Guerrero never really said (calmly), “I’m ready.” It was always more of an excited, clichéd “we’re gonna beat him down” kind of thing.
Weidman’s confidence is different, tangible -- and that shouldn’t be surprising. This is the same guy who entered the Abu Dhabi World Championships in 2009 with just eight months of jiu-jitsu experience.
He faced world-renowned grappler Andre Galvao in the second round in Barcelona, Spain -- and he didn’t flinch.
“I refuse to believe in people’s hype,” Weidman said. “I go to Abu Dhabi and was matched up against Andre Galvao, and I went after him. I had a broken hand and I didn’t understand the rules, but it was a great experience.
“I was very confident I could beat Andre Galvao. He ended up beating me, but I did not beat myself in that match.”
Silva celebrated his 38th birthday in April. He’s shown no sign of slowing down, but if the Spider is in fact human, eventually he won’t be able to keep up athletically.
Throughout his career, though, and especially in recent years, he’s dominated opponents mentally. Weidman, who majored in psychology while he wrestled at Hofstra University, believes that everything Silva does in the cage has purpose.
“I think that’s the best trait he has,” Weidman said. “He’s earned a certain mystique about him where people fear him before they even get in the cage. He does a great job of making you feel like, ‘I’m that much better than you.’
“People say he’s being cocky and it’s bad for the sport. I look at it as he’s mentally breaking that guy. He’s making him think, ‘This guy is so relaxed he has his hands down.’ When you’re in the cage and you’re very structured and tense and the guy you’re in with is doing that, it can blow your mind.”
After getting to spend time with him, I’m pretty convinced Weidman’s mind is not easily blown.
That can always change in the course of a fight, but when Weidman says things like he wanted this title fight in Brazil so there would be no excuses when he won, I believe he’s being genuine.
Whether he’s able to pull it off we won’t know that until the fight. But I can tell you that on July 6, a middleweight contender is going to go after Silva with the firm belief in his mind it’s his fight to lose. You don’t always get that in a Silva fight.
Anderson Silva no-shows UFC media obligations in Los Angeles on Tuesday and gets fined $50,000 by the UFC. After returning to Brazil, the middleweight champion tells the press he was unaware of being on the hook for a media day.
I'm not alone here, right? This is a really strange sequence of events.
How could Silva, the top pound-for-pound fighter in MMA, be in the dark about a full day's worth of media events designed to get the word out about ticket sales for UFC 162? Can you imagine? I can't, but maybe I'm not trying hard enough.
Say what you will about the "Spider" lacking as a promoter and showman, the man does not have a reputation for skipping out on the media. It's true as years have past he's become less accessible, but that can just as easily be a result of the natural course of things. Silva is a star in Brazil. He has major sponsorship endorsements. The strain on his time must be severe. And hey, he never enjoyed doing interviews to begin with. How many times can he say he wants to fight his clone? He wasn't the kind of fighter who made much noise, preferring, always, to do his talking in the cage. And aren’t we thankful for that?
Still, consider his numerous achievements over the years, his time spent atop the highest peak in this sport. It shouldn't be so shocking, then, if success got to his head. Hey, I'm not saying that was the cause of what happened in L.A. I don't know what was, and Silva's management isn't talking.
Well, the fighter himself claimed no knowledge, which needs to be respected for now. But I will say I've heard more than once, even from people who know him very well, that Silva isn't above acting like a diva. He can be impossible to handle if that's where his mind's at.
Alvarez not going anywhere anytime soon
Not so long ago I wrote about a conversation between Eddie Alvarez and Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney in a production truck during an event in Atlantic City, N.J. Rebney thought it was positive, though he never suggested that any of the issues between the two were close to being resolved. A legal battle over the fate of the lightweight's career was ongoing and pleasantries probably weren't going to change that. Turns out, it didn't mean a thing. If Rebney had an inkling of hope that Alvarez would come back into the fold without a fuss, he can forget it. Alvarez went off over the weekend on his Twitter page, criticizing Bellator's majority owner, Viacom, for not playing fair.
It should be that Alvarez doesn't want to remain with Bellator. He has his reasons, and they're basically all that matter at this stage. Lawyers will determine whether Viacom and Bellator legally matched terms laid out by UFC, but that issue sounds settled to Alvarez. He doesn't think so, and probably never will based on where things stand today.
This raises a question: Why would Bellator battle over a guy like Alvarez if he has no desire to be there? If Viacom/Bellator feel the need to scratch and claw like this to keep Alvarez (who, remember, is not a champion in the organization), is this a preview of how other future UFC crossovers will be treated?
Bellator wants to promote a pay-per-view. Internally it's making moves in this direction, but there's no doubt that the pay model is tricky territory. And there isn't anyone who's watched MMA over the last few years who believes a promoter outside of the UFC can sell major numbers on pay-per-view. There's just no track record to suggest otherwise. It's no wonder why Alvarez would want to be tied to UFC when it comes to selling fights this way.
Unfortunately, this has all the earmarks of a protracted legal fight. Don't expect Alvarez to fight in the ring for a while.
On Carwin's retirement
Heavyweight Shane Carwin announced his retirement from MMA on Tuesday night, closing the book on an entertaining and fruitful journey that sputtered to a halt because of injuries.
On the "entertaining" and "fruitful" fronts, I couldn't have been more wrong about the guy. In late 2007 a talent scout/fight booker asked for my take on Carwin. The powerhouse had destroyed everyone in front of him to that point, but based on the level of opposition, that's what he should have done. So despite covering his pro debut in 2005 and seeing firsthand how destructive he could be, I found a way not to be impressed with Carwin. Because he shared a similar build and friendship with Ron Waterman, I made the mistake of conflating the two.
Turns out Carwin was nothing like Waterman, whose slow, safe style made him one of the least enjoyable heavyweights to watch in MMA.
In reality, Carwin's power turned out to be a defining trait of the heavyweight division during a period in which bigger was better. Carwin was in the class of monsters who dominated the UFC for a stretch, especially because when he laid his hands on someone, they went down, regardless if the shot was clean or not. Such was the force of Carwin's concussive power that he didn't need more than four minutes to stop any of his first 12 opponents, including Frank Mir for a UFC interim title. Then he ran into a defiant Brock Lesnar -- prompting one of the best heavyweight fights in the UFC -- and young soon-to-be-champion Junior dos Santos. Carwin hadn't returned since losing a decision to dos Santos in June 2011, enduring neck and back surgeries, as well as a knee injury along the way.
It should be noted that in 2010 a U.S. Attorney in Mobile, Ala., connected Carwin to an illegal anabolic steroid ring, a situation he has not fully addressed.
The first time I saw Anderson Silva in action live was the week he fought Forrest Griffin at UFC 101 in August 2009.
I had seen him on tape previously, but it’s different in person. You see the fluidity of his motion firsthand and hear the crack of his punches -- and subconsciously cradle your own ribs as he throws knees from the Thai clinch.
I felt all of that while just watching him hit the heavy bag, by the way.
As far as the fight went, well, it was maybe the most tailor-made matchup I’ve ever seen for Silva’s skill set, but still. It was awesome.
That was nearly four years ago. Back then, there wasn't a great pool of talent to challenge Silva for the middleweight title, and he wasn’t interested in fighting for the 205-pound belt because his buddy Lyoto Machida was wearing it. The feeling was Silva would just hang on to that 185-pound strap, which he did.
What has changed? The main thing hasn’t. Sitting here, writing this today, I still say there is no middleweight in the UFC who beats Silva if the two fight tomorrow.
Looking ahead, though, Silva celebrated his 38th birthday last month. If UFC president Dana White was correct in comments made last month in New York, Silva has signed a new deal that keeps him around another 10 fights.
If Silva (33-4) enters the Octagon another 10 times, even if a superfight against Jon Jones never happens, that’s a lot of fights. Could a middleweight beat him?
With that, let’s get into our third installment of "Contenders and Pretenders." The question: Who will become the first middleweight other than Silva to hold the UFC title since Rich Franklin in 2006?
The Honorable Mentions: Alan Belcher, Tim Boetsch, Tim Kennedy, Hector Lombard, Mark Munoz, Yushin Okami, Costa Philippou
Lombard may be the honorable mention of the honorable mentions. If he could consistently fight the always confusing Rousimar Palhares, he might rattle off 18 knockouts in a row. A move to welterweight might help, but the problem is that he’s a bit of a one-trick pony -- along with most of the middles on this list.
Belcher is the pound-for-pound champ of “jumping into the camera with a crazy, happy look on your face for future promo reels.” He has perfected it. Skills-wise, he’s a bit one-dimensional like Lombard. We saw that in the Michael Bisping fight, with no adjustments round to round. It will forever be difficult to forget the frightened cat look Okami wore in the cage with Silva in 2011. Kennedy struggles when he can’t outgrapple his opponent. Boetsch is the definition of solid, but he lacks athleticism. Philippou would have lost to Boetsch if it weren’t for early injuries. Munoz, although 35, has the most upside of this group, but the clock is ticking.
The Reality Star: Uriah Hall
Take a second before blasting me for even mentioning Hall. Let’s make this argument in baby steps, because I feel I’m already close to losing you.
Even though Kelvin Gastelum upset Hall in the TUF Finale, we still walked away from this season thinking Hall has the most potential in terms of winning a title. With his potential, unlimited resources await him. He seems loyal to his East Coast team, but if he wants to travel and practice his craft, any gym or trainer will welcome him with open arms.
He’s got nothing but time. Let’s say he fights four times between now and December 2014. The UFC feeds him a couple stand-up fights and allows him to progress. Is it crazy to think Silva would still hold the belt by December 2014? No. That Hall would work into title contention in that same amount of time (19 months)? No. That Hall, turning 30, could actually stand with Silva, who would be pushing 40, by then? No.
The Old Lion and The Count: Vitor Belfort, Michael Bisping
Let’s keep this simple. Discussions on these two could take up a lot of room, but the topic of the day is the middleweight title and who holds it next. I don’t see either of these guys, as talented as they are, as the answer. Maybe if Silva loses to a guy like Chris Weidman and then Belfort or Bisping get their shot, they could hold the belt. But if Silva is still there when these two arrive, it’s a nightmare matchup.
Belfort is a stationary, (at times) inactive target, and questions about his gas tank remain. Bisping probably can’t outwrestle Silva for five rounds and doesn’t have enough power to scare you on the feet.
Right Place, Right Time: Luke Rockhold
Rockhold really didn’t get any favors in his first UFC fight. Vitor Belfort? On TRT? In Brazil? The reigning Strikeforce champ has taken it in stride, and should he win, it really sets him up.
If Silva defeats Weidman in July, Rockhold looks like the No. 1 contender. He would either get Silva next or (maybe even better) take one more fight while Silva deals with the superfight business. Here’s the potential scenario: Rockhold, in his third UFC fight, gets Silva fresh off a megafight that’s been years in the making. If that were to happen, it would be a potential letdown spot for Silva and a great opportunity for Rockhold.
Right Place, Wrong Time: Chris Weidman
In many ways, Weidman feels like the UFC middleweight to finally beat Silva -- but the timing is off.
Weidman will be battling the effects of a year off when he fights Silva in July. Not the end of the world, but to a fighter still developing and heading into the biggest fight of his life, that layoff works against him.
He has earned the No. 1 contender tag, but he hasn’t had that one performance yet, the one where fans in the arena and at home are looking at each other saying, “Yeah, this is the guy.” Jon Jones didn’t have a long résumé when he fought for the title, but he had those performances. Weidman did what he had to in tough circumstances against Demian Maia. He caught Munoz with the elbow. He’s done enough to get here and get us thinking, but he hasn’t Jon Jones’d it along the way.
At 28, the chances of Weidman holding UFC gold during his career are very good. Does he do it now, against Silva? I don’t think he does, and it will take him some time to get back in that position.
The Teammate: Ronaldo Souza
It’s risky to put Souza atop this list, for many reasons. First off, he and Silva are teammates and may shoot down the idea of a fight between them. Second, and less concerning, he’s never fought in the UFC. Sometimes, martial artists find the going rather difficult in the Octagon, but I’m not worried too much about that with Souza. Last, he’s 33 -- not old, but if he refuses to fight Silva and waits for a vacated belt, time will work against him.
Souza is made of champion material. The fact he and Silva are teammates is truly awful, because their styles would make for a terrific fight. Souza’s stand-up is improving, and he’s dedicating himself heavily to wrestling. The athleticism and fearlessness is there to create a dynamic takedown artist, and we know how brilliant he is once his opponent is on the mat.
The final word on this is that even as Silva approaches 40 and the middleweight division adds depth, it’s difficult to find the next champion at 185 pounds. I don’t know if Silva will retire with the belt around his waist, especially if he signed a 10-fight deal, but I kind of feel the same way I did the first time I saw him live in Philadelphia. I can't point to any middleweight who is beating this guy.
But stepping into his fourth fight after three months as a pro, Cejudo’s manager is threatening to pull the 2008 gold medalist from a Gladiator Challenge fight May 18 outside Sacramento, Calif., against little-known Miguelito “Darkness” Marti -- unless the promoter provides clear proof of Marti’s history.
“His record, as conveyed by Gladiator Challenge, changes as much as a parent changes a baby's wet diaper,” said Cejudo’s representative, Bill McFarlane, who contacted ESPN.com to express numerous concerns about the contest.
Marti was the matchup proposed on April 20 by Gladiator Challenge founder and COO Tedd Williams when featherweight Kevin Montejano, whose name appears opposite Cejudo’s on the event poster, had problems trying to make a catch weight of 128 pounds.
Williams told McFarlane that Marti’s record was 3-2, but the official online record keepers for MMA offered no proof. Type “Miguelito Marti Darkness” into Google and you’ll see three videos. He goes after it during a Pepsi dance off. A training session pops up and it looks like he has some idea what he’s doing. And then there’s an XARM contest during a Gladiator Challenge event (XARM, the brainchild of UFC co-creator Art Davie, pits competitors who are linked as if arm wrestling, all the while being allowed to punch, kick and submit the other man). Prior to having one of his arms tied to his opponent’s, Marti was announced as 7-2 in MMA.
“Marti's record continues to evolve and that is not normal and should not be the case,” McFarlane wrote in an email.
Jose de Orta/Sherdog.comHenry Cejudo, top, is already learning of the politics that come into play outside the cage.
Cejudo’s manager went back to Williams “for clarification on Marti given the lack of information on Sherdog.com and mixedmartialarts.com, and the XARM exhibition inconsistency.”
The next time they spoke, Williams said Marti’s 3-2 record was in XARM and Marti had no MMA fights. Then Williams “came back with an email saying his real MMA record was 4-2.”
Williams, a retired UFC veteran, told ESPN.com that as far as he knows, Marti’s record stands at 4-2, and that “one or two” bouts should have been reported to MMA’s official record keepers, “but I can’t find them on Sherdog, so I don’t know.” Williams suggested the sport’s unregulated past makes it impossible to keep accurate ledgers.
“Marti's a good fighter,” said the promoter. “He's that undercard type fight that they asked for.
“The guy is tough and small. It's hard to find those kind of guys. Obviously he's much more of an upright fighter, but he's a stud on the feet.”
After McFarlane voiced concerns, Williams said Gladiator Challenge offered up 35-year-old Stephen Abas, a 2004 silver medal winning wrestler from the U.S. He’s 2-0 in MMA but hasn’t fought since 2010.
“Stephen Abas really wants to fight [Cejudo] badly,” Williams said. “They refused.
“It would be a compelling fight, a gold medalist versus a silver medalist, they've competed before and Henry's beat him in wrestling. It's a great story.”
McFarlane, a self-described politically savvy and connected ex-venture capitalist, “brought up all kinds of stuff” about Abas outside the cage, Williams said, “and none of it matters.”
McFarlane confirmed that Abas was offered up as an opponent. He said there wasn’t nearly enough time for either man to prepare properly, but didn’t rule out a fight down the road. However, he declined to address his conversation about Abas with Williams.
"It's inevitable, I see those two fighting one another,” said the promoter, who believes McFarlane is “fabricating reasons why they don't want to fight” Abas.
In February, a multi-fight deal between Cejudo and the 13-year-old California-based promotion was announced. The idea was for Cejudo to cut his teeth off the beaten track, gain experience without much media attention -- though McFarlane said ESPN and Fox are doing pieces on the politically engaged fighter -- and for six fights at least, build on his skills prior to moving onto bigger and better things.
At some point soon, Cejudo’s competition will improve. His first three fights, including two inside Arizona’s World Fighting Federation, resulted in opening-round wins against opponents offering a combined and verified 6-19 record.
Gladiator Challenge conducts 90 percent of its events on tribal lands, Williams said. Urijah Faber, Quinton Jackson, Rashad Evans, Travis Browne and Robbie Peralta all did the sovereign nation circuit, and since MMA isn’t under federal legislation like boxing, many fights go unregulated and unreported.
California State Athletic Commission executive director Andy Foster doesn’t wake up nights thinking about it, but "any time we have unregulated events happening, it's a problem."
Foster, an affable Georgian who took over the struggling commission late last year, held several discussions with Williams about bringing the cash-strapped regulator onto tribal lands for Gladiator Challenge events. If this happens it would elicit new fees for the promoter, create new standards for the commission, such as allowing more than 20 bouts on one card (a regular practice for Gladiator Challenge that could cost the state additional money to oversee), and require a wider range of medical examinations for the fighters.
Foster also mentioned one of the key reasons for regulation is to ensure proper matchups.
Besides four guaranteed fights plus the option of two more, Cejudo and McFarlane knew what they signed up for with Gladiator Challenge. According McFarlane, Williams promised the promotion’s new owner, billionaire Bruce Kopitar, would deliver “higher production value, there would be larger venues, and there would be sanctioned fights.”
"He knew what he was getting into when he signed the contract,” Williams countered. “He knew where he was fighting, these casinos and under what terms. Why it's an issue now, this is the first time I'm hearing it."
Williams said he has plans for his promotion, and wants to “modernize MMA,” but wouldn’t expound. It’s yet to happen, McFarlane noted. And while he isn’t sorry Cejudo signed the deal, he’s not far off.
"It was a mistake to rely on those representations,” McFarlane said. “The first fight was very poorly organized. This fight will be the same thing.”
McFarlane didn’t like that fighters could use their own gloves, or that hand wrapping wasn’t being closely watched. He has concerns over the level of medical testing that is required of combantants. This was expressed to Williams, the manager said.
“Had the CSAC been involved in lieu of Gladiator Challenge pretending to be the CSAC stand-in, the vetting process would have been done and there would be no uncertainty” about Marti or Cejudo’s participation on the 18th, McFarlane said.
With half the year already mapped out, Cejudo’s schedule is mostly locked in. On one side of the event poster for May 18, Cejudo is pictured with the gold medal draped around his neck, his right hand over his heart. The name of the event is “American Dream.” He’ll take a break from fighting during a two- to three-month trip to Brazil this summer.
Cejudo is quite clearly a significant selling point for the unregulated card. If the situation with his opponent can’t be ironed out, and Cejudo is pulled from the fight, Williams made it sound like a bump in the road could quickly become a roadblock.
"Of course if they end up pulling out, we have a long-term, multifight contract with them,” Williams said. “I'd hate to have to see this thing get put in court, and him not fight at all, you know?"
When Jake Ellenberger and Rory MacDonald step into the Octagon on July 27 in Seattle for the co-main event at UFC on Fox 8, it will be very easy to tell them apart. They’re cut from two very different cloths.
“We’re two different species,” Ellenberger recently told ESPN.com. “He’s a Cro-Magnon; I’m a Neanderthal. We have different bone density, power, pure instinct, savagery.
“He’d be better at painting caves; I’d be better at killing mastodons.”
There is, however, a tie that binds them. Both are highly-ranked contenders in the UFC’s welterweight division.
Ellenberger is ranked fourth by ESPN.com; MacDonald sits at No. 6. UFC.com places Ellenberger fourth, while MacDonald occupies the three-spot.
“The winner of their showdown is likely to land a 170-pound title shot if champion Georges St-Pierre and top contender Johny Hendricks settle their issues in the foreseeable future. But if a St-Pierre-Hendricks fight doesn’t materialize, Ellenberger envisions participating in a welterweight title eliminator.
Everybody in UFC is tough. But I've been building up, especially in my last fight. I have a new boxing coach [Carlos Ruffo] who focuses on my strengths and what I need to do to get better.” -- Jake Ellenberger on his improved boxing skills
“If [St-Pierre] and Hendricks doesn’t happen next, then I think Hendricks and me are going to decide who’s going to be the next No. 1 contender,” Ellenberger said.
In either case, Ellenberger knows his title shot isn’t far away. And when it arrives, he plans to be more than ready to secure the gold.
Since a second-round TKO loss to Martin Kampmann in June 2012 (a bout Ellenberger was in control of before a knee took him down and snapped his six-fight win streak), he has rebounded with two victories in a row. The Kampmann loss still stings, but Ellenberger doesn’t dwell on it.
Instead, that loss serves as motivation. Ellenberger has always worked to improve his fighting techniques. But the man who dons the Octagon these days is a complete fighter.
Because Ellenberger is a physically strong, highly skilled wrestler, no one has controlled him on the ground. But he is now equally dangerous standing.
Ellenberger has settled in as a proficient boxer. His skills in that discipline were on full display during his most recent fight, a first-round knockout of former Strikeforce welterweight champion Nate Marquardt at UFC 158 in March.
“My whole time in UFC has been about working my way up,” Ellenberger said. “It’s the hardest sport to be consistent at. But I’m focused on the big picture.
“Everybody in UFC is tough. But I’ve been building up, especially in my last fight. I have a new boxing coach [Carlos Ruffo] who focuses on my strengths and what I need to do to get better.
“I’m also in Las Vegas from time to time. Actually I’m there quite a bit; I only live about four hours from Vegas. And when I’m there I’m working with [renowned boxing trainer] Jeff Mayweather.”
Not a single stone has gone unturned in Ellenberger’s boxing development -- footwork, head movement, rolling with punches, jabs, you name it. And through it all, Ellenberger has not compromised his wrestling in the least.
Ellenberger has combined wrestling and boxing in a way that has onlookers shaking their heads. By the way, his jiu-jitsu, especially defensively, hasn’t suffered, either. He can accurately be labeled a full-fledged mixed martial artist.
So when Ellenberger speaks of being the Neanderthal to MacDonald’s Cro-Magnon, it’s not a slight at his opponent; it’s the description that best describes the action that will take place on fight night.
“I feel great about the fight,” Ellenberger said. “[MacDonald] is a guy who really motivated me to work harder.”
Ellenberger intends to be the more dominant man inside the cage in Seattle. He intends to put a vicious beating on MacDonald: Whether it’s on the ground or standing doesn’t matter.
When the result is announced, Ellenberger will lift his hands briefly if he wins -- a friendly acknowledgement to the fans -- then turn his attention to claiming the title. Ellenberger is all about becoming UFC welterweight champion. He won’t accept anything less.
The timing is perfect for Ellenberger to realize his goal: His skills are at peak levels, and his confidence couldn’t be stronger. Everything is in place, even his willingness to savagely pummel an opponent inside the cage -- and he possesses the tools to do just that, if need be.
Maybe Ellenberger’s description of himself as a Neanderthal isn’t too far off. But let’s be clear on one thing: Ellenberger remains a highly intelligent fighter. No one is going to catch him by surprise with a knee anymore -- he’s too smart to fall for that again.
“The timing is perfect for me,” Ellenberger said. “I’m in a good place mentally and physically. I couldn't be better.”
Seven years ago, Mike Tyson did what prizefighters are rarely willing or able to do: recognize when their time is up.
A mercurial figure of the ‘80s and ‘90s who often courted as much trouble outside the ring as he did inside of it, Tyson walked away from boxing after consecutive losses, telling spectators he refused to disgrace the sport with subpar performances.
“Based on his past indiscretions, many expected him to implode. Retirement, however, had a strange effect on Tyson: Instead of feeling cast adrift, he appeared ecstatic at the prospect of leaving the fight business behind. Cameos in "The Hangover" films and viral videos turned public perception around; removed from the mindset of having to try to tear a man down with his fists, there was little trace of the savage behavior that made him famous.
That'd be an awesome fight from the fans' standpoint. All the fans want to see two invincible fighters from two different weight divisions. It would be very interesting.” -- Mike Tyson on a possible Jon Jones-Anderson Silva matchup.
The story of that transformation is part of "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth," a one-man stage show Tyson is currently touring. As he prepares for his final dates in Atlanta, Newark, New York and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Tyson -- an unabashed fight fan who recently appeared on "The Ultimate Fighter" -- spoke with ESPN.com about the past, present and future of mixed martial arts.
Jake Rossen: You’ve been touring the show for a few months now. When you started, was the idea of public speaking more nerve-wracking than fighting?
Tyson: Absolutely. I’m not the most didactic guy when it comes to my linguistics skills. Spike [Lee, the show’s director] hired a voice coach, a speech teacher, so I could pronounce the words in a proper fashion. I still sometimes garble my G's and R's, though.
They’re ready to film this for television, it’s gotten so good. Spike has hinted at it. Though I might talk too much and then he’ll say, "Hell, no, we’re not going to do it now."
Rossen: You were one of the first boxers to acknowledge mixed martial arts as a legitimate combat sport. Do you remember when you first watched the UFC?
Tyson: My friends were all at my house one day, and we see these guys promoting these cage fights, right? When everybody was over, people were normally inebriated, so we said, “We’re putting this on. We’re gonna watch this!” Next thing you know, we’re watching Ken Shamrock and someone fight. Bang! I’m saying, “This is real, man. This is on!”
We started watching it every time we got the chance. We’ve been following the guys since [Royce] Gracie, Shamrock, [Dan] Severn. It just kept evolving and evolving.
Rossen: At those early shows, sometimes people in the crowd would hold up signs saying, “Tyson vs. Gracie.” What would you think when you saw that?
Tyson: Yeah! That was so awesome. I love all kinds of fighting. To say I only love two guys putting on gloves and only punching, I would be a moron to say that.
Rossen: Did you ever seriously consider an offer to fight MMA when you were active as an athlete?
Tyson: Not really, because by the time it took off, I was already doing boxing. This is something you have to start when you’re 12 or 13. It has to be a passion. That’s the problem with boxing: There’s no passion. People want to be record producers, rappers. In MMA, you see that passion. Georges St-Pierre, this is all he wants to do. That’s why he’s so successful.
Tyson: It doesn’t matter. If I hit him with a good punch, OK, but if he gets hold of me and in a position I’m not familiar with, I’m not going to win the fight. I would have to be equipped with grappling skills as well. Gracie changed the whole game around. To be involved in this kind of fight, you have to know that style right off the bat.
Everyone learned his style of fighting. Everything we have now is because of the Gracies taking it to the next level. Their name isn’t on it, but that’s what it is. It’s Gracie Fighting.
Rossen: Have you ever grappled?
Tyson: Never in my life, no. Unless I had a street fight where I had to grab someone and slam them. [Laughs]
Rossen: There’s always talk MMA is set to “replace” boxing. Do you think the two will continue to coexist?
Tyson: I think there’s room for both [MMA] and boxing, but boxing just has too many black eyes. It doesn’t have a good image. In MMA, even though people are fighting, they have a good image. Very few of them get into tragic troubles where they’re beating people up and stuff.
Rossen: Do you see Jon Jones versus Anderson Silva as MMA’s version of Manny Pacquiao versus Floyd Mayweather Jr.?
Tyson: That’d be an awesome fight from the fans’ standpoint. All the fans want to see two invincible fighters from two different weight divisions. It would be very interesting.
Rossen: As a fighter, though, when you have a lucrative win streak going, do you think it makes either of those guys reluctant to do it?
Tyson: The essence of fighting is this: to push yourself to the limit. Say you get defeated. Do you push yourself to another limit to overcome that defeat? This is what fighting is about. That’s why it’s such a metaphor for life. Even though you’re going to lose and you know you’re going to lose, you still have to fight and fight to win.
Rossen: Are you more of a boxing or MMA fan now?
Tyson: I love MMA and love boxing, but I’m always watching the MMA stuff. With boxing, you don’t know if the guy’s going to get a [good] decision, you know? In UFC, there’s the Ultimate Fighter house -- you cultivate the fighters spiritually, work with them, it’s a team effort. In boxing, it’s like, “The hell with you.” The fighters dislike everybody. The MMA fighters are killing each other and they’re friends!
Rossen: You seem to have a good relationship with the UFC. Would you ever consider doing commentary for them if asked?
Tyson: Absolutely. I would also work in boxing if I could get a chance to clean it up, get it organized and government-operated. It has to be. Look at all the atrocities that have happened in the history of boxing.
Rossen: You’ve spoken before about being a huge fan of Fedor Emelianenko. Is there one fighter in the UFC you love to watch compete?
Tyson: It has to be Jon Jones. But I like Anderson Silva, too. And Cain Velasquez! He showed what a champion is. He took a humiliating defeat, came back focused and beat Junior dos Santos [in the rematch].
I look at MMA totally differently from how the fans look at it. I look at people overcoming adversities. Most guys being knocked out the way Cain was would’ve lost all of their spirit. He could’ve come back for a payday and gotten knocked out in one round. Instead, he examined his loss and changed the outcome.
Rossen: There are some parallels there to your own life. You have a charity now, Mike Tyson Cares. What gave you that initiative?
Tyson: My wife and I were piggybacking on other established charities. We were so happy we were able to put smiles on so many faces, get medication into hospitals, get people educated. We’ve gotten 7,000 homeless kids medical supplies, school supplies, by piggybacking with these other organizations. It gave us great satisfaction.
I just want to continue to be of service, continue to help people, and do good things in life. I want to have moral achievements more than tangible, physical ones.
At some point during Jon Jones’ fifth UFC title defense (which nearly cost him a big toe) Saturday, a reader posted a great question to the ESPN.com live chat.
“Is it weird,” he wrote, “that I rank Anderson Silva pound-for-pound above Jon Jones, but think he would lose if they fought?”
In a word: yes. That’s weird. It basically goes against the definition of what a pound-for-pound list is.
The list exists because all fighters don’t weigh the same and thus can’t fight each other. A pound-for-pound list (to me anyway) is a way of saying, “OK, if they were all in the same division, this is how they would line up.”
Even weirder then, is that so many agree with the reader. In the latest installment of ESPN.com rankings, five of six staff members voted Silva ahead of Jones pound-for-pound -- yet five of the same six predicted Jones would win if they fought.
Rankings are a guilty pleasure in martial arts. Everyone -- media, fans and fighters -- downplays them as insignificant but is typically aware of who’s where. Even UFC welterweight Nick Diaz, the last person you would envision sitting at a computer looking up rankings, recently referenced Georges St-Pierre’s pound-for-pound mark before they fought.
The case for Silva as pound-for-pound champ looks like this: He’s 16-0 in the UFC. He has been perfect for years in a sport where perfection is seemingly unattainable. Skills-wise, regardless of weight class, he has no equal.
Case for Jones: Silva’s case sounds more like we’re talking greatest fighter of all time. In the here and now, Jones’ wins in the past three years stack up favorably to Silva’s and if the two fought, Jones would be the significant favorite.
Here’s what is great about this entire discussion: It exists. And it might be an important catalyst in making the Silva-Jones fight -- should Silva defeat Chris Weidman at UFC 162 this summer.
It was disappointing when both UFC champs initially scoffed at the idea of fighting each other in 2012. Both said they respected each other too much, didn’t want to get in the way of each other’s greatness. Jones didn’t want to be “the guy to beat him.”
Al Powers for ESPN.comAnderson Silva has been as close to perfect as one can get since joining the UFC.
Those comments stood directly against Jones’ dream of becoming the greatest ever. Silva, who once expressed interest in everything from the 170-pound title to a test at heavyweight, could arguably cement his legacy over Jones with a win against him.
In one short year, we’re made to believe circumstances have changed. UFC president Dana White said immediately after Jones’ win last weekend, Silva called him to talk about a future opponent. Most assumed he was referring to Jones.
If that’s true, it’s an interesting (and welcome) development in the super fight saga. As much interest as there has been and still is in a Silva-St-Pierre fight, it has always been clear St-Pierre doesn’t want to move up. The entire idea feels somewhat forced.
That’s not the case with Jones. Even though Jones hasn’t surpassed Silva on most pound-for-pound lists, the fact is he has gotten close despite having a fraction of the fights. Eventually, he will pass Silva.
Unless, of course, Silva seizes an opportunity to put this whole debate to rest and takes on Jones in the cage. Hopefully, that’s what that phone call was all about.
St-Pierre (24-2) holds the record for total UFC wins (along with Matt Hughes) at 18 and is second in title defenses with eight. He ranks No. 1 in the UFC in career takedowns, takedown accuracy and total strikes.
From August 2007 to April 2011, St-Pierre won a record 33 consecutive rounds.
Prior to his recent title defense over Nick Diaz at UFC 158, St-Pierre's former manager Stephane Patry penned a column for a Canadian website that outlined St-Pierre's plan of two more fights -- a title defense against Johny Hendricks and a "super fight" against Anderson Silva -- and then retirement.
Whether or not that comes to fruition, ESPN.com decided to speak with some of the brightest minds in the sport on what has fueled St-Pierre's historic career, what it will take to disrupt his success and whether or not he's still at his peak.
"We kind of always knew he would eventually become a champion ... "
Pat Miletich, former UFC champion, longtime trainer, analyst: I used to go up to Tristar Gym years and years ago because my wife is from Montreal. I would teach a bit here and there when those guys were younger. Georges was always very respectful. He actually came into one of my seminars and sat in and watched when I was teaching up there at different spots in Montreal. We kind of always knew he would eventually become a champion. It was just something you could tell. Before Matt [Hughes] even fought him the first time, Matt and I both publicly said in interviews, "Georges is going to be the world champ. Just not yet."
Matt Hume, trainer, matchmaker, ambassador: The moment I recognized he was a very special martial artist was when he did Abu Dhabi (Submission Wrestling championships). He went against a guy named Otto Olsen. Otto Olsen, the first time he did Abu Dhabi, he went all the way to the finals against Marcelo Garcia with only six months training. Otto was great. He got really good at head control and started destroying people. The next Abu Dhabi, his first match was against Georges St-Pierre, who wasn't known as a great grappler, and he beat Otto that day. He shot a double on him, which is something he's very well known for now and escaped what a lot of people call the D'Arce now. Georges' posture on his shots was perfect and his explosiveness and awareness of where his head was when he got to the ground. That was the moment that told me this guy really gets out of his element. He really learns.
Matt Hughes, former UFC champion, went 1-2 in three fights against St-Pierre: Usually when I tie up with somebody, I feel I'm stronger than the other person and with Georges, I can't say I was stronger than him. I'm a big welterweight. I probably cut more weight than Georges does, which you think would give me a strength advantage but I didn't feel I had that advantage against Georges.
Miletich: After the first time Matt fought him and beat him, I asked Matt, "He's pretty strong isn't he?" We were walking through the tunnel back to the locker room and he looked at me and said, "You're damn right he's strong."
Hughes: I don't think he's a great wrestler. I think if you put him on a wrestling mat against Josh Koscheck, Josh would beat him up. What Georges does so well is mixes everything up and camouflages his takedowns with his striking. When you're out there against Georges, you don't know if he's going to kick, punch, close the distance and gets his hands on you or take a shot. He's pretty one-dimensional on the ground. You don't see him going for many submissions. He is really there to keep people down. But he's effective at his striking. He likes to stand up in people's guard and that gives him power in his punches. But his No. 1 thing is to keep people down.
Marc Laimon, grappling coach, trains Hendricks: One of my black belts and I were talking about this and he was saying St-Pierre kind of reminds him of a guy who pushes to half-guard, does enough to get the advantage to win and stalls the rest of the match. Against Nick Diaz, for somebody to talk so much trash, I didn't see that killer instinct. I saw a guy win and stay busy and active and do enough to win, but not a scary, killer, bloodthirsty guy wanting to kill you. I see a pro athlete doing his job very well.
Mark Munoz, UFC middleweight, NCAA wrestling champion: Pure wrestling is a totally different sport than MMA wrestling. In MMA wrestling, you can't shoot to your knees anymore. If you shoot to your knees, you're being stopped because there's too much distance to cover when you change levels. You've just got to explode and run through them in a power double and that's what Georges St-Pierre does. He is such a gifted athlete at first-step explosion and he's got long arms.
Hughes: He does everything pretty well. His lead strike, I believe, is his left leg. Usually, it's people's rear leg but I figured out real quick his left leg in the front of his stance is what he has all his power with.
Hume (on St-Pierre's intimidation factor): It's not the same extent as [an Anderson Silva.] Anderson put Rich Franklin's nose on the other side of his face and what he did to Forrest Griffin, making him miss the punches and dropping him with the jab -- it's the striking aspects, getting the bones broke in your face from an unprotected knee bone, those things scare people. I think with Georges, people don't look at him the same way as Anderson. They see it more as, "I don't know how to beat this guy." Not so much, "This guy is really going to hurt me bad."
Laimon: He still does things very well. The timing on his double leg is impeccable. He's still very fun to watch but when he was going for the title and he murdered [Frank] Trigg and murdered Hughes -- oh man. That guy is a killer and I don't see that guy anymore.
"What's going to beat Georges, is a hit ... "
Munoz: The guy that beats St-Pierre is the guy that is able to counter the jab. Able to circle, have good footwork, and counter while moving his feet. Not countering in front of him, because that's where GSP is able to capitalize -- when he jabs or throws punches, the other guy counter punches and then he drops down and shoots.
Miletich: You have to take him out of his comfort zone. It's not like there are a lot of guys out there who are going to take him down and submit him, but a guy who can actually take Georges down and make him nervous on his back a little bit is certainly going to help. In terms of striking, guys that use feints and fakes very well and they've got to be able to do that better than him. When somebody is throwing feints and fakes at you, they're trying to make you guess on what's real and what's not. When you're not able to do that (as good as St-Pierre), he is sticking you with the jab. Then he's able to progressively chips away at you because he feints the jab and throws the cross. Then feints the cross and throws the hook. It goes a lot deeper than that, but a guy who can do that better than Georges and throw it back in his face and has the power to hurt him standing, plus the technique to take him down, is pretty much what it's going to take.
Hughes: That's a very easy question for me to answer. What's going to beat Georges is a hit. You can tell it in the way he fights. He does not want to get hit. You see what happens when he gets hit. Any big hit is going to hurt Georges. My speculation would be that Georges has been hit in practice and he don't like it. This is all my speculation -- that he's been hit, knows his body doesn't like it and he's not going to get hit anymore.
"Johny is a different breed of cat ..."
Munoz: St-Pierre is not going to want it to be a brawl. He's going to want to execute that jab, circle around him, stop shots, drag behind him and take his back. I don't think he's going to be able to hold Johny down. Everybody who wrestled him [in college] had trouble holding him down. What you're going to see Johny do is knee slide -- which is, shoot his knee forward and stand up to his feet. He's not going to stay turtled up. He's going to hand fight, look for wrist control and get up.
Hughes: Being the best wrestler doesn't mean that Georges can't take him down. He disguises things so well that he can get in on somebody by throwing punches, but Georges is going to have to work for it. He's going to have to spend more energy and that's a good thing in a fight -- to make somebody spend energy and take punishment along the way. I think if you look at who Georges has fought, Johny is a bad matchup compared to everybody else.
Laimon: I really think I've got a guy who matches up very well with him and is going to present problems. Johny is a different breed of cat. He operates on a different frequency. He's hungry and I think Georges is ripe for the picking. I think Johny Hendricks is coming into his prime and I see St-Pierre as an unbelievable LaDainian Tomlinson-type guy who is kind of at the [New York] Jets now. He was so dominant, the premiere guy, but if you look recently ... how many guys defend his takedowns? How many guys have been able to get back to his feet? Every time I see Georges, his face is busted up. These guys are putting their hands on him. Georges is hittable and being hittable against a guy like Johny Hendricks isn't good.
"I actually think the [Silva] fight will be pretty close ..."
Hume: Anybody who stands with Anderson is risking what he does to everybody. Anderson has been taken down. He's been mounted. He has been armbarred, but he has survived those things. He has a great ground game, too. Georges has great takedowns. He knows how to put people at their weakness. If you're going to try and fight Anderson at his weakness, it's going to have to be on his back.
Munoz: I think it's a bad matchup for Georges. Anderson is a big 185-pounder. I wouldn't say St-Pierre is a big welterweight. I've seen Anderson upwards of 215 pounds. At the same time, St-Pierre has double leg takedowns, which Anderson has trouble defending at times. I would give Anderson the nod because of his movement on his feet, elusiveness and precise punching.
Miletich: Georges is not going to win that standup fight at all. Anderson will shut down his feints. The victory is going to lie in Georges' ability to take down Anderson, which I think he certainly can. He could take him down and control him all five rounds because he's strong enough to do it. Anderson's takedown defense has gotten better over the years, but I still think Georges could take him down.
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