Penn, Cro-Cop ride into the sunset
This is a period of great transition for mixed martial arts. Out of the shadows and into the light, as it were. Part and parcel of that is the reality that a generation of fighters who rose to prominence during this era of increased visibility and money has reached the end of the line.
To a list that features Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, which will soon include Matt Hughes and Fedor Emelianenko, we can add Mirko Filipovic and B.J. Penn. Like Liddell and Couture, Filipovic, 37, and Penn, 32, called it quits the hard way. Battered and bruised Saturday night in Las Vegas, they both recognize their physical capabilities no longer match their will to fight. They know what it is to put family ahead of personal glory. And they know that, as empowering as it can be to assert dominance over another competitor, there are things ahead of them that can be as equally fulfilling.
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The game rolls on, and we have fights and fighters to discuss. That won't change even as the players do. Not included in the grades this week are Ben Askren and Jay Hieron, who put on a competitive five- round effort in Kansas City for the Bellator welterweight championship. Askren remained unbeaten thanks to a razor-thin split decision. It was a quality win, one some might contest, and it leaves Askren in a position in which he can continue to make some noise. Other fighters of note left off the grading rolls were Brandon Vera and Eliot Marshall, who went to a somewhat controversial decision that Vera won. I had it a draw. If it had been conducted under the old Pride rules, Marshall clearly would have earned the decision. As it was, Vera likely cashed in karmic points earned after the fiasco with Thiago Silva, and things went his way -- save for a badly mangled arm.
From A to F, here's a look at fighters who competed at UFC 137:
UFC 137 grades
Continuing a run of good fortune inside the Octagon, Donald Cerrone (17-3) moved his UFC record to 4-0 and is primed for a run at the lightweight title. The 28-year-old Coloradan shut down German Dennis Siver and capped off the best year of his career with perhaps his most impressive effort. Cerrone was raptor-like, mixing precision standup with a submission attack that culminated in a rear-naked choke less than halfway through the opening round. Cerrone looks like he can compete with anyone in the division, and will almost certainly get his opportunities.
Nice way to commemorate your 50th fight, "Bartimus." Making his featherweight debut, Bart Palaszewski (36-14) put it on Tyson Griffin, overwhelming his short-limbed opponent with punches for a finish at 2:45 of Round 1. On any given night, he's a threat, but based on his overall record it's hard to envision Palaszewski threatening the upper rung of his new division. Still, he's just 28, so you never know. Based on this night, which earned him a hefty knockout bonus, the heavily tattooed fighter looked capable of doing just about anything.
In the end, things worked out as well as they could have for Nick Diaz. No need to rehash everything he went through in losing a UFC title shot. Bottom line: He fought Saturday and did extremely well in handling B.J. Penn, one of the sport's most talented fighters of the last decade. Diaz, 28, did as he always does: outwork, out-strike, out-tough the opposition. There was brilliance in his performance. He started slowly, turned up the heat and went after Penn when the moments presented themselves. In all, Diaz (26-7) connected on 239 strikes to Penn's 67. It's an amazing output, and one that shouldn't surprise anyone. This is what he does, and for his efforts the UFC once again awarded him a title shot against Georges St. Pierre. Whether he can pull off the same game plan against a stronger, faster, more athletic and professional opponent in the prime of his career is another question. One we'll debate until they step in the cage.
In truth, Roy Nelson deserves an "A" for the mountain man beard. That thing was epic. As for fighting, "Big Country" put together an above-average performance against an aged opponent who posed some danger to him (but not a whole lot). It took two-plus rounds to put away Mirko "Cro Cop," and Nelson, noticeably less flabby than on recent trips into the Octagon, employed a diverse game plan. Nelson was comfortable punching, especially with that long overhand right of his, and on the canvas he controlled position and racked up damage. Afterward, Nelson, 35, called for the winner between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos -- he deserves neither. Another win or two, then we're talking. First, I'd like to see him matched against Cheick Kongo, speaking of which
Overlooked and undervalued, Cheick Kongo assembled a professional performance against Matt Mitrione, exposing an inexperienced fighter who wasn't ready for prime time. This wasn't Kongo's best effort, but it didn't need to be. He was more than able to handle himself on the feet, as he is against almost anyone in the heavyweight division, and when the 36-year-old Frenchman began mixing in takedowns, he sealed the deal. Kongo (17-6-2) has his limitations, but more and more he's proved himself to be a hard man to put away. That's exactly what he is, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Hey, it was a win. That's the most important thing to take away from Hatsu Hioki's UFC debut. Now, it was tight, you could make an argument that George Roop deserved the decision, and you could also suggest that Hioki looks way overrated sitting in the top three of the featherweight division. I'll likely drop Hioki, 28, down to No. 3 and replace him with Chad Mendes, whom, it could easily be argued, deserves a crack at the UFC featherweight championship before the Japanese fighter. That said, Hioki (25-4-2) did what a lot of his countrymen could not. Yes, the split decision came against a guy who's alternated wins and losses inside the Octagon. But you know what? He earned it, and moreover, this was justice after the robbery against Michihiro Omigawa in 2009, which is his only defeat in his last 15 fights.
If B.J. Penn is indeed done -- and you have to take him at his word -- let the debate begin. Where does he rank among other fighters of his generation? Penn's final fight offered us a glimpse of his entire game, which at his peak was as comprehensively brilliant as it got in MMA. He was long thought of as the top lightweight of his time. I don't think that status holds up. In total, Penn was 10-3-1 at 155 pounds. He had his moments, of course, but those also included performances that call into question just how good he really was. In the end, if you love Penn, and many people do, he's an all-time great fighter. If you're prone to considering stats and records and results in big moments, then I'm not sure labeling him the best is accurate. In his final fight, this one at welterweight, Penn (16-8-2) came out strong but faded late. This was not an unfamiliar pattern for the 32- year-old Hawaiian. He had it in him to beat Nick Diaz, but he took too many punches and didn't dictate much the last two rounds. Thanks for the memories, "Prodigy." Go live the good life.
Professional effort from the likable bantamweight led to a unanimous decision against Jeff Curran. Scott Jorgensen (13-4) impressed with his wrestling and submission avoidance, though he found it necessary to apologize for his effort afterwards. Nonetheless, it was a solid win against a game competitor. Jorgensen, like most bantamweights, is stuck beneath Dominick Cruz. I didn't see anything that makes me think the 29-year-old from Boise, Idaho, was going to threaten the UFC champion in the near future.
Long gone are the halcyon days when Mirko Filipovic instilled fear in every living thing around him. Humans, animals and plants alike -- you didn't want to cross the guy. I still wouldn't recommend looking him in the eye, but he's certainly not as intimidating as he once was. Against Nelson, "Cro-Cop" (27-10-2) showed brief flashes of what made him such a threat five years ago. Having slowed down, though, having taken the sort of punishment that was dished out in his last three bouts, all losses, this is the right time to walk away for him. I don't think anyone could honestly argue otherwise.
Win some, lose some. That's George Roop for you. Going 5-5-1 since 2008, it's hard to take the 29-year-old featherweight too seriously. Yet he continues to surprise, and for that reason this is a guy who could be worth keeping around. Striking is no problem for the tall 145er, yet until he figures out a way to stay off his back or find submissions there, he'll continue to be mediocre. In total, Roop's record stands at 12-8-1. That sort of inconsistency makes his future in the UFC tenuous at best.
Nice effort from Jeff Curran, but other than being a live opponent for bantamweights in the UFC what upside is there having the 34-year-old from Island Lake, Ill., hang around the organization? Curran (33-14-1) conducts himself as a pro. He has since debuting in 1998. But that's not enough these days. I'm sure he'll continue to fight, but Curran's best left to training in his beautiful gym and helping his talented younger cousin Pat Curran continue to emerge as a featherweight threat.
Rough bit of matchmaking for Matt Mitrione here. The result was as expected: He came in ill-prepared to handle a fighter of Cheick Kongo's experience and pedigree. Now we'll see how much Mitrione (5-1) wants it. He has quite a lot of potential. His wrestling must improve. At 33, you have to question whether he has enough time to make that happen. But don't count him out yet.
It was a solid run, but Dennis Siver's luck ran out. The stout German failed to find his fifth straight win and, more important to his prospects, suffered a giant setback when he tapped to Donald Cerrone early in the first round. Siver, 32, had relied on his tremendous strength and striking prowess to elevate himself into the top 10 at 155 pounds. That's gone now, as is the notion that he's a potential title contender. In all, perhaps no fighter on the UFC 137 card lost as much as Siver, whose record fell to 19-8.
What an awful experience this was for the 27-year-old Tyson Griffin. On Friday he missed weight by three pounds, subsequently forking over 25 percent of his purse to his opponent, Bart Palaszewski. The next night, Griffin was overwhelmed by the Polish-American's punches during a decisive first-round knockout -- his fourth loss in five fights. Griffin (15-6) sought new life when he shed 10 pounds and hit the featherweight division. Now what? Perhaps a return to his roots would serve Griffin well. Get back to wrestling. Griffin is built to put people on the ground and pound on them, but like so many fighters before him, the pressure to perform changed the way he fought. Just because you can strike doesn't make you a striker, Tyson.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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