Fighters overcame more than just foes
We'll get to the nuts and bolts of fighters' performances, but first, how about taking a moment to praise some of men who fought Saturday?
There are others, of course, and I don't want to dismiss anyone's circumstances in life, but I can't name everyone. So Shields, Martinez, McGee, Baker and Belcher.
Shields lost his father two weeks ago.
Martinez has endeavored to keep his alive for years.
McGee "ruined" his life with drugs, yet he's still here, stronger than ever.
Baker fought last year -- three weeks after the remission of his leukemia -- and won, which is all he's done since.
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All fighters have a reason or two for doing what they do in life. No matter what the truth is for these guys, you quickly sense how meaningful MMA is to them when they're willing to go through what they go through to do it. Great competitors sacrifice everything to win. Is that the same thing that drives fighters to fight? The fight sports are different, are they not? They have to be. They require something unique in person's DNA, I think. Not better or worse, just unique.
It's no coincidence that the fighter-to-compelling human interest story ratio is about 1-1.
Before tackling how the UFC guys fared, Baker and the Bellator boys get their due.
Baker, 25, stopped Jared Hess -- the protagonist in quite a story himself -- in the opening round of Bellator's new middleweight tournament. Baker-Hess was the best fight on any card Saturday night. All heart. Baker (16-2) gets an A-minus for the Round 3 stoppage. The Californian fights Vitor Vianna (a C for Saturday's effort) in the semifinals, Oct. 15 in Atlantic City. And Alexander Shlemenko (B-plus) takes on Brian Rogers (B-plus).
As for the UFC clan, here's how they fared in New Orleans:
UFN 25 grades
Before the weekend, I wrote that Jake Ellenberger doesn't deserve first crack at the UFC welterweight title even with a win over Jake Shields. The argument stands because 170 is such a strong division, but if Ellenberger is put in that spot ahead of similarly credentialed fighters, who, after the 26-year-old Nebraskan's decisive stomping Saturday, could disagree? It lasted just 53 seconds, yet Ellenberger showed much more than a finishing touch. The ease with which he deflected Shields' two sincere takedown attempts suggests this is a guy equipped to compete at the highest level for the next few years. There are several fights UFC could make for Ellenberger (26-5), but slotting him in against the winner between Jon Fitch and Johny Hendricks would be my choice.
Alan Belcher looked great in his return to the Octagon after having career-threatening eye surgery. The 27-year-old middleweight was clinical in his dismantling of Jason MacDonald, particularly on the ground, as Belcher slammed the Canadian journeyman with punches and elbows. Belcher (17-6) poses a physical presence at 185 that's worth mentioning, but it's his attitude -- highlighted by the perseverance he showed over the last year or so -- that should make him confident he can work his way into the top 10 at middleweight. Give him Ed Herman or, just the same, the next man on the rung.
Court McGee has a lot of Keith Jardine in him. A different look. An awkward effectiveness. He's not all that technical but will still land a heavy shot, especially long, loopy ones. And, most important for the sake of this comparison, McGee (14-1) will not fade in fights. He keeps coming. Always. That pressure was the difference against Korean Dongi Yang. McGee -- 26, winner of "The Ultimate Fighter 11," a John Hackleman product and admitted ex-heroin addict --is securing an opportunity at fighting up in the middleweight division. So far, so good.
Evan Dunham put in a professional performance against Shamar Bailey (14-2), earning a sweeping unanimous decision. The lightweight can relax now. His two-fight losing streak is done, his job is secure, his confidence is restored. Dunham's focus has to shift from dealing with defeat for the first (undeserved) and second (painful) time to determining whether he can actually compete at the top. The 29-year-old lightweight has more than enough fight in him, but questions remain about his speed and power. Dunham loses points for an inability to hurt Bailey despite all the punches he landed.
Sucked into a slow affair, Erik Koch was not penalized by the judges, because the featherweight struck when he could and was accurate when he did. There are issues in his game, and if Jonathan Brookins was a stronger wrestler, we would have seen him do what Chad Mendes already accomplished on Koch (13-1). But remember, he's just 22, which means Koch is off to a strong start to his career.
He tried. Jonathan Brookins walked into his fight with a plan in mind, and he tried. It was a noble effort on the part of the TUF 12 winner, but with all his attempt at control, Brookins (12-4) basically forgot to attack. That lack of offense cost him a decision he might have won with just a bit more effort there. The 26-year-old Floridian seems like an average prospect as best.
Dongi Yang, 26, is a southpaw with some power and a solid grappling base. How good a mixed martial artist that makes the South Korean hasn't been decided. The decision loss to McGee puts Yang (10-2) on unstable footing inside the UFC middleweight ranks, but it hasn't stripped him of his prospect tag just yet. "The Ox," as it were, could be one of these guys who sticks around the UFC for a while.
One has to feel terrible for Jake Shields, who fought just three weeks after losing his father, Jack. The 32-year-old Californian, coming off the biggest fight of his career -- a unanimous-decision loss to titlist Georges St. Pierre -- was too much of a competitor to back out against Jake Elleberger. Maybe he should have. Not only was Shields stopped for the first time in his career, he faces a winless reality in the UFC, and will begin hearing cat calls from doubters who say everything he accomplished before joining the UFC means nothing. Maybe Shields (26-6-1) should consider returning to 185, as the weight cut to 170 is doing him no favors.
Jason MacDonald (7-8 starting in 2007 and 25-15 overall) has reached "warm body" status. He's capable of submitting mid-level or worse opposition, but that's the extent of it. The UFC needs known faces to match with up-and-coming fighters, and MacDonald serves that role, alongside others in the promotion. But for how long?
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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