Heavyweights flourish once again
Across weight divisions, fighters shined this month. Still, it was the heavyweight division that represented the major attraction, with six of the top 10 listed in ESPN.com's rankings stepping in the cage over the past couple of weeks. Many more prospects, contenders and journeymen showed up as well, positioning May among the busiest periods for big-boy MMA in the sport's history.
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UFC 146 on Saturday showcased 10 heavyweights on the main card in a first-of-its-kind attraction for Zuffa. (Remember way back, when every fight was essentially a heavyweight bout?) Considering all the injuries and mishaps that shaped the Memorial Day weekend event, it's impressive that Joe Silva could salvage five acceptable fights. Not so long ago, that would have been impossible.
Sifting through the rubble, there are clear winners and losers over this stretch.
Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez remain at the top of the heap.
They're joined by Strikeforce grand prix winner Daniel Cormier with the wind at their backs. Meanwhile, Josh Barnett's fate is unknown after he fell on points to Cormier. A win would have secured his future. Losing, by definition, does not, especially in light of his history with Dana White. Some fans will want Barnett in the UFC, and he's already begun to lobby for a spot.
Time will tell how that plays out. For now, let's get to grades for UFC 146.
UFC 146 grades
Junior dos Santos
The man called his shot. Can't do much better than that, right? Dos Santos, 27, easily fended off Frank Mir's grappling attempts, established striking distance, and buried punch after punch into the former UFC champion's face until the inevitable stoppage in Round 2. Dos Santos' first title defense was tactical and dispassionate. Had he wanted to, it seemed, the current heavyweight king could have dispatched Mir in a matter of minutes. But, like he said leading up to the championship contest, a knockout was ordained for the second and that's exactly how it happened.
Hardy, aka "The Hitman," lived up to his nom de guerre with a beautiful left hook that flattened Duane Ludwig. The win, Hardy's first in five fights, secures the 30-year-old Englishman's place in the UFC for the time being. Still, despite the impressive result, there wasn't much to glean in the way of Hardy's alleged improvement. So long as he can swing it out on the feet, Hardy has a shot to look good. Otherwise, he's destined to falter against better opposition, of which there is plenty. The best news for Hardy (24-10) is this: The majority of fans like the guy.
Smart. In a word, that describes Struve's plan against one-dimensional Lavar Johnson. Why allow Johnson a chance to land a punch when it's much easier to go to the ground and submit him? Struve, 24, did just that, pulling guard before finding an armbar from the bottom in 65 seconds. The tall Dutchman improved his record to 24-5 and is now established as somewhere between gatekeeper and contender.
Fifty-one seconds was all Nelson (17-10) needed to finish athletic but odd Dave Herman. "Big Country" wasn't in against the division's elite, and when that happens he can look like an offensively dangerous heavyweight. Perhaps a bout against Antonio Silva would have been more competitive and telling, but the Overeem shuffle changed that one, too. Nelson, 35, walks a line between contender and measuring stick better than most, and his personality and resilience ensure he'll be around the UFC for a while. Next up? How about a rematch of Nelson's exciting 2007 split-decision loss to Ben Rothwell? It would make a lot of sense.
Bloodletting. Velasquez's gory stoppage against "Pezao" made a statement. If there was any doubt whether the 29-year-old one-and-done UFC champ remains a destroyer, that's been answered. You've probably heard this before, but it's worth repeating: Ground-and-pound is the best way to win an MMA bout, and it's hard to find many guys who match Velasquez's agility, power and technique from the top. Velasquez's trainer, Javier Mendez, believes his charge and dos Santos are destined to fight several times over their careers. It's not so difficult to picture him regaining the belt later this year.
Prefight talk about Varner's chances against Edson Barboza bordered on the downright disrespectful. For instance, I worried Barboza might -- pause for effect -- hurt the 27-year-old lightweight. Failing to recognize the former WEC champion's determination and ability to make a moment proved foolish. Varner was tremendous in every possible way in the 3:23 he needed to dismantle a hyped unbeaten prospect. Only time and matchups will tell if Varner (20-6) did more than put it all together on one fun night in Las Vegas.
Sass is an assassin on the canvas, where he webbed Jacob Volkmann into a painful triangle-armbar finish. Now 13-0 (12 wins by submission), the 23-year-old Englishman looks like a potential lightweight star for the UFC, but that's contingent on this kind of result against a higher class of fighter. Volkmann is strong and technical and usually smart, but against Sass he was simply out-gunned. Joe Silva already matched Sass against Evan Dunham, but injury kept them apart. That's a fight I'd like to see made again.
Like I wrote, ground-and-pound, when done well, rules all. After taking a round of punishing kicks from Shane Del Rosario, Miocic went to the floor, where he exposed the Californian's weak game and hammered home a finish at 3:14 of Round 2. Miocic (9-0) is solidly put together, and capable of taking a few to give a few. With each passing contest in the Octagon, the 29-year-old from Ohio gains confidence to match his improving skill set. Saturday's win is an important one.
Elkins, 28, waded through early trouble, won the second and third periods against Diego Brandao, and claimed a unanimous decision. The scrappy wrestler took a beating in the first round, but he stuck around long enough for Brandao to wilt. Since moving to featherweight, the 14-2 Indianan is unbeaten in three fights, all points wins.
Starting fast and closing slow is a bad combination against the level of opposition Brandao (14-8) is set to fight in the UFC. He was unyielding in the opening round; however, that wasn't good enough. There's a lot to like about the 24-year-old TUF 14 winner, but none of it matters if he can't at least match his opponent's will in the cage.
Shane Del Rosario
Even though he took a thumping and was thoroughly exposed as incapable of fighting from his back, I thought Del Rosario (11-1) looked pretty decent against Miocic. The first loss of his career comes after a 15-month layoff due to serious injuries stemming from a car accident, so the 28-year-old striker gets some leeway in terms of how his performance should be viewed. This isn't a guy who will go the distance very often, which is just about at the top of the list of things UFC brass wants out of its fighters.
Judges gave Dollaway (12-4) a comfortable decision, but he didn't make many fans in the process. The 28-year-old middleweight controlled Miller, and that was about it. He did so after surviving a couple of dangerous sequences that had him stumbling about the cage. The bout was just generally awkward.
Miller's window to do something in the UFC may have shut for good. "Mayhem," 31, was released after an apparent backstage incident following his loss to Dollaway. It's wrong to call him old, but at the same time, Miller (23-9) has fought professionally since he was supposed to be in high school. He hasn't looked good against a serviceable opponent in a couple of years.
This wasn't much of a contest. Mir (16-6) had no response for the champion, and was hit so hard in the first round he literally didn't know where he was. Mir's "Mandalay Bay" reference to Nevada's ringside physician between Rounds 1 and 2 was noteworthy for a few reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he was taking a beating at the MGM Grand. Where does Mir go from here? Hard to say. He's not elite, yet he's better than most. Does the UFC risk putting rising prospects against him? Can the right matchups make him a contender once more? Or does the former champ decide, at the age of 33, to go into broadcasting full-time?
The beating Silva (16-4) took was far worse than the one he dished out against Fedor Emelianenko. Cut early on the bridge of the nose, blood flowed in a sickening stream from his face, pooling around the 32-year-old Brazilian's eyes and forming a red slick on the canvas. This was gross stuff. Silva's missing response from the bottom cost him dearly in his UFC debut.
The most stunning result from UFC 146 saw Barboza lose for the first time. The lightweight striker went at Varner's legs with kicks, but he took shots to the head in response. And as Varner upped the pressure, Barboza did not deliver an appropriate answer. Some have pointed out that Varner grabbed the cage while finishing Barboza, and replays suggest that's true, but the 26-year-old Brazilian had been hurt and was on his way out regardless. This is one loss that could be edifying. Barboza (10-1) remains a quality prospect, one with a few lessons to learn.
This is why 34-year-old Johnson (17-6) can't be a serious contender: He lost to a guy that pulled guard. When does that ever work? Johnson's lack of a ground game, especially on the submission end, will always cost him. He's not going to close that gap much, and so this will be a familiar pattern.
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