For the second time in his career, 30-year-old Cain Velasquez heads into a fight widely regarded as mixed martial arts' top-ranked heavyweight.
After experiencing a similarly lofty status at the end of 2011, Velasquez went down when Brazilian slugger Junior dos Santos clipped him behind the ear. A year later, fully recovered from a torn knee ligament, the Mexican-American managed to avenge his only defeat in 12 professional contests, which is why, this weekend in Las Vegas, he has earned another opportunity to defend the UFC title.
Having this happen on a regular basis is the “most important thing” Velasquez believes he can accomplish in the UFC. That might sound like a modest pursuit for a man of Velasquez’s talent and intensity. But consider history first and his desire won’t appear so unambitious.
Since its creation in 1997, the UFC heavyweight title has been about as easy to contain as a marlin on a dinghy.
"When you say you want to defend the title for a long time, what does it really mean?" pondered Velasquez's trainer, Javier Mendez.
Ray Mickshaw/FOX/PictureGroupJunior dos Santos, right, made certain Cain Velasquez's first title reign was a short one.
"Remember, no one has defended the title more than twice, so if he's talking about wanting to keep defending that title, he wants to be remembered by everybody as one of the greatest, like Fedor [Emelianenko]."
A couple of years atop the division is required if Velasquez is to be sanely compared to Emelianenko. The Russian heavyweight ruled from 2003 until the summer of 2010. He never competed in the UFC and had his share of wins against overmatched competition, but that hasn’t stopped most fighters, fans and media from showering the retired Pride champion with praise as the top heavyweight of his era.
This, after all, is what happens when dominance and longevity join together.
“Look at what it's done for GSP [Georges St-Pierre]. Look at what it's done for Anderson Silva,” Mendez said. “So I think it's humongous if Cain can hold that title. It's huge for the UFC. It's huge for everybody involved. It's huge for me. It's huge for his management. Everyone wins when an individual, a champion, continues to win.”
Velasquez, a collegiate wrestler at Arizona State, exudes brute force. His style is relentlessness: a hard-edged mindset coupled with speed and a smaller man’s stamina. He calls what he does chain-fighting.
It’s an apropos description. Velasquez is a strong enough wrestler to put any heavyweight on his back, but his progression has taken him to a place where takedowns have primarily become setups for other offense. This has some of the champion’s supporters suggesting he could overtake Emelianenko in the reputation department despite having fewer than 15 fights on his ledger while never defending a major title -- everything seems to want to happen faster in MMA.
It's huge for the UFC. It's huge for everybody involved. It's huge for me. It's huge for his management. Everyone wins when an individual, a champion, continues to win.” -- Javier Mendez, on the importance of Cain Velasquez's longevity as heavyweight champion
Emelianenko built mystique in the ring. Reaching that level of success won’t have much to do with Velasquez’s ability to cut a promo or regale audiences with funny stories -- mostly because he’s uninterested in or incapable of pursuing either.
Velasquez simply aims to fight. Like so many great champions, that’s what he’s built for.
So is the way he goes about his business -- cold, calculated and vicious -- sufficient to leave an impression outside the MMA bubble? Does it matter how good Velasquez is if he’s a bore on camera and can’t offer the sort of pithy pro wrestling shlock that gets passed off for MMA promotion?
"Cain is not a Chael Sonnen,” Mendez said. “So he's not going to say those catchy lines. He's just going to take all comers, and he's going to go to war. People will respect him for the humble champion that he is. It's going to take him a little longer to get down that road because he didn't use his mouth. He used his fists. He used his fighting to speak for itself."
Perhaps Velasquez should feel fortunate that winning matters most. It did the trick for St-Pierre and Silva, Benson Henderson and Dominick Cruz, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz. UFC has benefited over the years from entrenched champions across several weight classes, even if some of them are dry as driftwood.
Heavyweight stands out as a class that should have delivered more for UFC than it has. Clearly it’s possible. Brock Lesnar moved the needle, and for a short stretch packaged the sort of mega charisma associated with the likes of Muhammad Ali (including some political controversy, albeit digs at the Canadian health care system can’t be compared with what Ali represented) and Mike Tyson’s blood-curdling, black shoes, black shorts, Brownsville intimidation.
This is the type of combination that can propel a heavyweight mixed martial artist into the mainstream, yet don’t dismiss what Velasquez’s challenger, Antonio Silva, said leading up to Saturday’s contest, because there’s plenty of truth to it:
“There are no superheroes in this sport. Nobody is invincible.”
LAS VEGAS -- By now you know that Mark Hunt was basically a sort of side effect of the Zuffa/Pride deal back in 2007. Riding a two-fight losing streak at the time, he was an unwanted property that couldn’t be easily disposed of.
But even back then, he wasn’t done losing. There were all those losses in Japanese promotion Dream. First it was Alistair Overeem. Then it was Melvin Manhoef at Dynamite!! 2008. Then to Gegard Mousasi. All five of his losses were first-round finishes, either by knockout or armbar. He was 5-6 when the UFC, having failed to buy him out of the inherited contract, finally relented and threw him in the Octagon.
Know what he did then? He lost again. This time in 63 seconds to Sean McCorkle, now late of the UFC. To say his UFC beginnings were inauspicious would be an understatement. And that makes what’s going on with Hunt right now nothing short of remarkable. To be in title contention two years after sporting a 5-7 record in an organization where people generally have career winnings around 75 percent just doesn’t happen.
Yet here were are. Hunt faces Junior dos Santos Saturday night for the chance to fight for a title.
“I think it’s one of the coolest stories in sports right now,” Dana White told ESPN.com. “We didn’t want to bring him into the UFC. He was older, he was on a losing streak, so we just said, ‘We’ll buy your contract out. You don’t have to fight, we’ll just pay you.’ He said, ‘no, I want to fight in the UFC and earn my money.’ And we said no. So he got his lawyer involved, and we went back and forth, and we said, ‘Fine, OK. Let’s do it.’ Now the guy goes on this tear and he’s fighting the in the co-main event against the former heavyweight champion in the UFC.”
Good thing Hunt had legal representation out there in New Zealand. His resurgence is a story that involves brute power, heart, exhaustion, dual visas, cake, public outcry, cosmological eyes and, in all fairness, a dose of luck. For instance, he’s filling in for Alistair Overeem at UFC 160 this weekend. A timely win over dos Santos takes him one step closer to becoming the most unlikely contender the heavyweight division has ever known.
“It would make sense that the winner of this fight gets the next shot,” White said. “It’s a fun fight, and it’s an interesting fight. If you break this fight down, Mark Hunt probably has the bigger punch and the better chin. But, Junior decides to take this fight to the ground, he definitely has the better wrestling and jiu-jitsu.”
In any case, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t write off Hunt. Can he continue to buck the odds and fell dos Santos as he did Stefan Struve and Cheick Kongo? Hey, that’s why they take off their shoes. So that we can find out.
Barnett back in White’s good graces
Not long ago, when Josh Barnett submitted Nandor Guelmino to begin his “Warmaster” second phase, he fell into character when discussing his future.
“I just want to keep killing and keep killing and wading in pools of blood and guts until there’s nobody left to kill anymore,” he told MMAFighting's Ariel Helwani on that final Strikeforce card. When pressed about which promotion that sort of pillaging could fall under, he said, “It doesn’t matter, I’m a mercenary. Something will come up. Somebody will need somebody’s head taken off and they’ll call me up. In a perfect world, I’d fight everywhere.”
That obviously didn’t pan out to specification. The UFC, which has been contentious with Barnett going back many years, offered him a contract a couple of months ago that Barnett turned down. On Wednesday, upon realizing the market for marauders of Barnett’s stripe (and price tag) was tremulously weak, Barnett signed a multifight contract with Zuffa.
Now it’s a case of bygones being bygones. The last time Barnett fought in the Octagon was in 2002, at UFC 36, when he beat Randy Couture for the heavyweight title. That’s when things got ugly. He was subsequently stripped of the title when it was revealed that he tested positive for steroids.
“Josh and I have had a very interesting past,” White told ESPN.com. “He’s one of these guys who doesn’t really care about much. He’ll fight over here, he’ll fight over there. But we made an offer to him. He didn’t take the offer and went around and shopped for a while, then came back and said, ‘I want to sign with you guys.'"
Wrote Barnett on his Twitter account, “The enemy has returned. I’ve signed w/ the UFC & no heavyweight is safe. They’re all due a lesson in violence from the Warmaster.”
A perfect first opponent for Barnett is Frank Mir, and there are indications that this is the direction the UFC is headed.
Grant granted a second life (and making most of it)
Usually when Gray Maynard steps in to fight as a lightweight, he’s the massive 155-pounder in the cage. That was especially true in his series with Frankie Edgar. It won’t be that way against TJ Grant, a former welterweight who has reinvented himself in the lower weight classes, going a perfect 4-0 heading into Saturday’s tilt.
Just as he was heading into his fights with Evan Dunham and Matt Wiman, Grant is understated in how he has turned things around, but he does make one key distinction. “I’m getting to fight guys my own size,” he says.
And realistically, when you look back at Grant’s opponents at 170 pounds and where they are now, that’s a big factor. Guys such as Dong Hyun Kim and the UFC’s No. 1 contender at welterweight right now, Johny Hendricks. Remember -- Grant gave Hendricks all he could handle at UFC 113 before Hendricks earned the majority decision.
“I’m glad to see Johny Hendricks doing so well,” he told ESPN.com. “We had a close fight, and it was a good fight, very entertaining. I got a lot of experience fighting at 170, and win or lose -- we all learn from losses, right? Blah blah blah. But it’s true. And if you stay humble and you have the right people talking to you and have a good mind for it, you should learn more from losses than wins, and that’s what I always try to do. Every fight is a learning experience.”
As for fighting Maynard in a title eliminator, Grant says that he has toiled a long, long time to end up in this spot.
“At this point in my career, Gray’s the toughest,” he says. “He’s tough. He’s polished and he’s a veteran. He’s not raw in any way -- he’s definitely the most talented fighter I’ve fought at this time in my career. I’m ready for it. I’ve got 25 fights to get me to this point. I’ve got all the experience I need, and all the skills I need to be successful. I’m ready to rock and roll Saturday.”
WAR, what is it good for?
Nick Diaz has plans to start up his own Stockton-based fight promotion -- the ominously titled WAR -- which has drawn anything from smirks and raised eyebrows to genuine curiosity and support over the past week.
So, what does one of the game’s more notorious promoters, Dana White, have to say about Diaz and his latest foray?
“Good luck Nick,” White says. “Obviously it looks very fun from the outside, and it looks easy like you’re printing money. It’s anything but. The fight business is a very tough business that you have to be married to 24/7, and it’s not as fun and easy as it looks.”
Though White was fairly withheld in how he addressed WAR, he did say that the door is open for Diaz if he elects to keep fighting. Diaz, of course, is right now sort of conditionally retired -- meaning he’ll only fight again if it’s against somebody that piques his interest enough, somebody like Anderson Silva or a rematch with Georges St-Pierre.
It’s not likely he’ll get either of those, but ...
“If Nick wants to fight all he’s got to do is pick up the phone and call,” White says. “He’s under contract. If the promotion thing doesn’t work out he can come back and fight.”
You remember the fallout before the fallout, though.
Junior dos Santos was scheduled to face Alistair Overeem -- the one man who could turn that gentle giant's smile into a look of constipation -- for the belt. Then the first domino fell: Overeem's test from his previous fight with Brock Lesnar came back with -- to put it gently -- spiked testosterone levels, which meant dos Santos was re-saddled with Frank Mir.
Cain Velasquez, who was supposed to fight Mir that night, was then given Antonio Silva. That meant Roy Nelson, who was supposed to take on "Bigfoot," ended up fighting Dave Herman. Mark Hunt, still for the most part a journeyman at this point, was supposed to fight Stefan Struve, yet didn't end up fighting at all because he got injured. So Struve fought Lavar Johnson -- if we're being generous enough to call what happened that night a "fight."
The players are (basically) the same a year later for UFC 160, yet perceptions are slightly different. Overeem again was supposed to appear on the heavyweight showcase, yet again against dos Santos. And once again, he was scotched from the card, this time due to an injury. That means Hunt, and his visa issues, rides an unlikely four-fight winning streak into a confrontation with dos Santos. The winner (likely) will get a shot at the heavyweight belt next.
As for the belt, it's back in the possession of Velasquez, who defends his title on Saturday night against a familiar name: Silva. The stakes are different this go-round, but the memory of Silva's blood covering the canvas floor at UFC 146 is still fresh. One might say too fresh.
And that's your mystery heading into UFC 160: Will history repeat itself? Which, when you think about it, opens up the broader query: Why is history repeating itself?
(Answers: Probably; and because history has a wicked sense of humor.)
What was a bottleneck situation at the top of the lightweight division is now a mile of open highway. The winner of Gray Maynard and TJ Grant will get the next shot at Benson Henderson's belt. We've seen Maynard in that penultimate spot before. But Grant? Talk about a quiet approach.
Hunt as Cinderella
Woodwork contenders II
With a relative dearth of 205-pound contenders to challenge Jon Jones, Glover Teixeira's name could go from being whispered in polite company to shouted from the mountaintops with an emphatic win over James Te-Huna. But let's take it a step further: Can you imagine if Te-Huna wins? Suddenly a second New Zealander is on your radar from UFC 160.
Return of Brian Bowles
"Where's Brian Bowles?" became MMA's game of "Where's Waldo?" in 2012. So where was he? Finding that drive, baby. Citing apathy as the reason he took some time away from the fight game, the one-time WEC bantamweight champion returns to face all 6-foot-1 and 135 pounds of George Roop.
Woodwork contenders III
Right now Khabib Nurmagomedov has one more victory in professional MMA than he does letters in his name (19 wins, 18 letters). If he beats Abel Trujillo, he'll be a sparkling 20-0. Nurmagomedov is tomorrow's bottleneck at the top of the 155-pound division.
Can things be different for Silva this time?
The more basic question: Can Silva compete this time against the relentlessly aggressive, forward-moving wrestler Velasquez who has cardio for days and a chin made of cinder block? It feels as if we're answering our own question.
Can Hunt KO dos Santos?
Dos Santos has never been knocked out. Knocking people out is what Hunt does. In a fight where the ground is designated for slips and one-way trips, a single punch from either guy ends the co-main. Can it be Hunt on the delivering end? (Smiles and shakes head approvingly.)
Is there still wonder to "Wonderboy"?
Rod Mar for ESPN.comThe jury is still out as to whether we will see more of the Stephen Thompson who ended Dan Stittgen's night with one kick.
Remember when Stephen Thompson had that hot roulette player's moment after knocking out Dan Stittgen in his UFC debut with a head kick? Matt Brown brought him down to earth in a hurry in April 2012 with a one-sided decision. This bout with Nah-Shon Burrell will tell us if it's back to "Wonderboy" or if he's a "one-hit wonder."
Is Cain the greatest heavyweight champ ever?
Take away that glancing moment in the ballyhooed first bout with dos Santos -- a bout that Velasquez should never have been fighting in the first place (knee) -- and the answer is "yup." But what are we talking about? This is the ultimate proving ground, so we'll ask him for more proof. More proof!
Does KJ Noons belong in a fight with Donald Cerrone?
The short answer is no. The correct answer is LOL. Even if you omit the Ryan Couture fight (a loss that he actually won), Noons still lost three of his previous four fights. Cerrone is coming off of that Anthony Pettis incident where his liver got rearranged. In other words: Cerrone's the proverbial hornet's nest that Noons is walking into.
WHO'S ON THE HOT SEAT?
He did beat Brad Scott in his UFC debut, but a loss to Colton Smith, just as the UFC is tightening its belt rosterwise, makes young shakers expendable. (However, if Robert Whittaker knocks out Smith like he did Luke Newman on "TUF: The Smashes"? Then it's "Watch out for the Aussie!").
Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesThe future of Jeremy Stephens' employment with the UFC likely comes down to whether he can snap a current three-fight losing streak on Saturday.
If the fact that he's opening the prelims portion of the card doesn't tip you off, the three-fight losing streak will. This move to 145 pounds is Stephens' "all-in" moment. Another loss and it's adios, "Lil' Heathen."
It would feel a little merciless of the UFC to cut him, particularly because it'd be on the heels of a likely loss to Cerrone, but Noons needs a good showing to remind everyone of the guy who beat Nick Diaz in 2007. A fifth loss in six fights, though, is either a red flag or a white one, depending on how you squint.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Velasquez might as well dig his hooves in the mat before he charges at Silva as if Silva were a red cape ... because "Bigfoot" has fists the size of pet carriers, yet his gloves weigh 4 ounces, just like everybody else's ... because if you put dos Santos' and Hunt's combined knockouts on a highlight reel, it'd run longer than the average romantic comedy ... because Grant versus Maynard is dog-eared for fight of the night ... because "Cowboy" Cerrone is mad, and Noons, by stepping in with him, is saying "come hither" ... because Grant fights like Ulysses S. Grant ... because Te-Huna and Teixeira will require smelling salts ... because Dennis Bermudez was already in one fight of the year candidate (against Matt Grice) and Max Holloway is a gamer ... because Mike Pyle can make it four in a row against Rick Story ... because what could be more fun than watching Hunt try to stuff his foot into a glass slipper?
ESPN Stats & Information
In the co-main-event, former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos will try to get back into title contention as he takes on Mark Hunt. In addition, Gray Maynard and TJ Grant will fight to determine the No. 1 contender for the UFC lightweight title.
Here are the numbers you need to know for Saturday's fights:
22: The number of combined victories by (T)KO for Silva and Velasquez, which includes Velasquez's first-round TKO of Silva at UFC 146.
28: The number of significant strikes landed by Velasquez in their first meeting, of which all 28 occurred on the ground. By comparison, Silva was able to land only one significant strike the entire fight. Velasquez was successful in his only takedown attempt while Silva did not attempt to take down Velasquez.
2: The number of times Velasquez, an All-American wrestler from Arizona State, has been taken down in 17 attempts by his opponents in his 12 fights.
0: The number of submissions attempted in the first Velasquez-Silva fight. In fact, Velasquez has not even attempted a submission in his past six fights, while Silva has not attempted one in his past four.
6.37: Velasquez's strikes landed per minute, along with his 4.76 strike differential in UFC fights, are the best in the promotion. The only other heavyweight to rank in the top 10 in both categories is dos Santos, whose 5.51 strikes landed per minute and 2.73 strike differential rank sixth and fourth, respectively.
4: Hunt's winning streak is the longest among UFC heavyweights and of those four wins, three have come by way of knockout.
6: Submission losses for Hunt in his career. Dos Santos has never attempted a submission in any of his UFC fights.
85: Percentage of takedowns defended by Hunt in UFC fights -- the best in the heavyweight division and seventh best in the UFC among those with a minimum five UFC fights and at least 20 takedown attempts by opponents. Dos Santos has three takedowns in five attempts in his UFC fights and has defended 74 percent of his opponents' attempts.
3.17: Significant strikes absorbed by Grant per minute in his UFC fights. Maynard has landed 2.05 significant strikes per minute in his UFC fights.
86.4: Percentage of takedowns defended by Maynard -- the best in the UFC lightweight division and fifth best in the UFC among those with a minimum five UFC fights and at least 20 takedown attempts by opponents. Grant, meanwhile, has defended 37 percent of takedowns attempted by opponents in his UFC fights and in his three losses in the UFC has been taken down a combined 18 times. Maynard, an All-American wrestler from Michigan State, has a 48 percent takedown accuracy and at least one takedown in seven of his nine UFC wins.
It’s a second opportunity for Cain Velasquez -- a do-over, so to speak. For the second time as a pro, Velasquez seeks the first successful defense of his UFC heavyweight title.
Velasquez lost the title to Junior dos Santos in November 2011, but reclaimed it from him 13 months later at UFC 155.
He puts his belt up for grabs Saturday night at UFC 160 in Las Vegas against Antonio ‘Bigfoot’ Silva. This will be their second meeting in a one-year span, but Velasquez’s first title defense since recapturing it.
The first meeting, at UFC 146 in May 2012, was a one-sided affair; Velasquez pummeled Silva en route to a first-round TKO. The fight was so lopsided that it would be unreasonable to fault Velasquez if he were to take a peek over Silva’s shoulder toward a potential rubber match with dos Santos.
But Velasquez would never consider such prefight behavior. The mention of dos Santos these days often brings a sigh, a shake of the head and slight roll of the eyes from Velasquez -- evidence that he is irritated by such a suggestion.
Velasquez didn’t reach the mountaintop of his profession by taking anything or anyone for granted. He is a professional fighter in every sense, and Silva is someone Velasquez isn’t about to take lightly.
“I have all my energy -- my focus is on ‘Bigfoot,’” Velasquez told ESPN.com. “It’s all about him; I’m going to fight him. It’s the type of thing: Whatever happens after that happens after that.
“I don’t like to look forward, to look past somebody and think, ‘Well, I’ll win this fight and this fight is going to happen.’ I can’t do that. I just think about the task at hand, and that’s ‘Bigfoot.’”
You can almost hear the snickers when Velasquez utters these words. Anyone who witnessed the first encounter will find it difficult to imagine Silva offering anything different Saturday night.
Silva is a large, plodding, hard-hitting puncher. He is not going to outmaneuver the opposition, especially something as comfortable on his feet as Velasquez. But Silva has been in the cage with Velasquez and believes if he can get his hands on the champion first, the outcome might be quite different. If nothing else, Silva is confident.
“I like when people underestimate me,” Silva said recently during a media call to promote the bout. "It’s nice because I get to go out there and [prove] them wrong.
“There are no superheroes in this sport; nobody is invincible. I’ve been putting in a lot of hard work the past nine weeks. I’ve been preparing myself, and I’m very confident I’m going to have my arm raised on May 25.”
Silva is correct: Too often he has been underestimated. And those who did so paid a hefty price. Just ask former top UFC heavyweight contender and ex-Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem, whose overconfidence against Silva resulted in a third-round knockout Feb. 2 at UFC 156.
But Silva faces a major obstacle Saturday night: Velasquez does not underestimate him -- never has; never will. What happened last year is out of sight and out of mind.
Velasquez already has felt Silva’s power. And though Velasquez had no trouble dismantling Silva during their initial encounter, he left the cage with a greater sense of respect for him. Silva won’t have the luxury of being underestimated Saturday night.
“In the first fight, I didn’t overlook him, and I’m not going to overlook him now,” Velasquez said. “He’s very dangerous. I’m not following in the footsteps of others who’ve made that mistake. I’m taking this fight very seriously.
“The last few guys have overlooked him and let him play around on the feet. One thing you can’t do is stay in front of him. You have to be quicker than him the whole time.”
Silva isn’t receiving special treatment; Velasquez approaches every opponent in this manner. He has to. Despite the high-level skill Velasquez has demonstrated inside the cage, he is far from a finished product.
There are aspects of his game, including wrestling, that he believes need additional fine-tuning. If he is to successfully defend his title Saturday night, the holes that crop up in his game from time to time must be plugged immediately.
“There is always room for improvement,” Velasquez said. “And I’m always working to improve. I’m not all the way there yet.
“I know how level the playing field is with everybody in this division, with the small gloves. One little mistake can cost you. When you go out there you want to be sharp, you want everything to go right for you.
“I want to keep [the title]. I have to go out there and perform to keep it. This is the most important thing to me right now, to stay here as champion.”
Velasquez’s refusal to take anything or any opponent, especially Silva, for granted is the reason he will successfully defend his heavyweight title for the first time at UFC 160.
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 "Mohawk 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 staredown? 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 down hard, and his UFC debut was done 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 him 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.
'GROSS POINT BLANK'
Play Podcast TJ Grant talks about Gray Maynard, having a baby a month out from the most important fight of his career, and training in Nova Scotia
Play Podcast Pat Healy discusses his UFC 159 win, his status at lightweight, and how he's turned things around since his last time on Gross Point Blank
Play Podcast Franklin McNeil and Brett Okamoto join Josh Gross and look back at UFC on Fox 7 as well as preview UFC 159
Play Podcast ESPN