FIGHT PICKS – UFC 172: Barao VS. Dillashaw

Who are these guys?

Remember when UFC 173 was earmarked for a Chris Weidman Vitor Belfort showdown?  Then, remember when Nevada put an end to TRT and the clock started for when the UFC would have to find a replacement for Vitor who everyone knew would bow out due to the NSAC’s ruling? Then, do you remember this:

Chris Weidman versus Lyoto Machida became the main event fight fans needed, but not the one the MMA gods thought they deserved, as Weidman also bowed out of the fight electing to get knee surgery.  Then, the mad dash for who could fill the PPV’s shoes started. With the majority of the UFC’s champs out due to injury, who could shoulder the expectations of a PPV in a year where PPV buys have seen a dip?  Joe Silva looked down the line at the UFC roster, pointed a wee finder in the direction of Renan Barao and said, “You’re up.”  Barao’s response:

Make no mistake, this is a challenge for Renan Barao on two fronts.  First, he takes on a salty competitor in TJ Dillashaw who has the wrestling base and pace to make a long night for the champ (who lately doesn’t like to see his fights go past the first few rounds).  More than that, however, Barao is being given the keys to a PPV main event (this time, without a brand name competitor a la Urijah Faber) and is responsible for delivering the goods and bringing in the buys.

Barao is a beast  at 135. Despite the fact he was referred to as the interim champ for almost a year before the term “interim” was rightfully excised, Barao has put on some pretty quality finishes in a division that, while thin, is made up of legit threats.  He’s also put on some quality celebratory dances. His record at 32-1-1 is undeniable, and his skills have been called ruthless, calculating, and vicious.

Yet, he is likely the least known of the UFC’s pantheon of champions.  The chatter leading up to fight week has centered mostly on the UFC’s inability to market Barao on the basis of his record and skills, that they simply don’t translate to the casual MMA fan.  The promotion believes that Barao’s bonafides speak for themselves, and in theory, they should, especially in sports.  Unfortunately, talent doesn’t always equal popularity, and popularity doesn’t guarantee talent. I can’t name you one Katy Perry song, but I know who she is thanks in part to her team of publicists, agents, and marketing coordinators.  How is it then that Barao, who is clearly talented, doesn’t have the notoriety of his fellow champions, especially considering how long it’s been since he last lost a fight?

The fact is, Barao is a killer in the cage.  He’s not a superstar.  And, he shouldn’t have to be. He just needs to keep winning.  The fans will find him.  Because of the way he’s been ending fights his last few outings, I think after this weekend, he’ll be easy to spot. He’ll be the guy with the raised hand… and, probably, doing that dance.

Also Starring…

Aside from an intriguing main, the co-main has a come-hither feel with Daniel Cormier getting the competition he finally deserves at 205 in Dan Henderson.  Make no mistake: this is the fallback to the main for a reason.  Hendo is a legend.  He could have stopped fighting in 2011 after his war with Shogun, and his place in the MMA books would have been more than secured.  But Hendo loves the competition, even if it’s clear the competition is getting away from him.  I don’t want to count Hendo out.  I’ve said as much before.

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Unfortunately, Daniel Cormier is simply the present and future of this sport.  He’s good on his feet, he has phenomenal defense, and his ground work is obviously exceptional.  So many people balked at the notion of DC getting an immediate title shot at 205 simply because he had never fought at 205 (completely oblivious to his maulings of Josh Barnett, Frank Mir, Roy Nelson, and Bigfoot Silva at 265).  Well, DC critics, after Saturday, there won’t be much of an argument left to stand on.

Whenever two Olympic-caliber wrestlers get together, rest assured they will do anything but wrestle and look  try to out-strike each other.  I see DC being too fast for Hendo and too smart to get lured into a brawl.  DC should be able to dismantle Hendo’s H-Bomb; however, he should be wary of the same spinning back fist that sent Wanderlei to the canvas in Pride.

It’s Clobbering Time!

As if the main and co-mains weren’t enough to get fight fans bobbing in their seats, the Robbie Lawler/Jake Ellenberger matchup is simply a fight fan’s dream and nightmare wrapped up in one.  Lawler and Ellenberger are battle-tested, tough, crowd pleasing, and more than anything else, extremely likeable.  It’s so hard to route against either man. It’s like watching The Thing battle The Hulk.

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Lawler is coming in with a quick turnaround after losing to welterweight champ Johny Hendricks in March.  That short layoff and the fact that Lawler was so close to winning the title could give him the edge he needs. It could influence his pacing, and if he can keep Ellenberger at the end of his jab and turn this into a 15-minute fight, he has a chance, as Ellenberger has shown that when the fights go the distance, he has a tougher time getting the win

All things being equal, however, I see Ellenberger as a small step faster than Lawler and dictating the pace early.  The faster Ellenberger fights, the more dangerous he is.  Also, the fact that he’s used to taking on bigger opponents at 170, like Nate Marquardt and Jake Shields, shows he has the power to brawl with bigger guys like Lawler.

What I predict is that Lawler/Ellenberger will win Fight of the Night honors, hands down.  However because of the competitors involved, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of these guys pocket a performance of the night bonus as well.

As always, feel free to come back to ridicule my picks as I am proven wrong.

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WAR OF THE WORDS: BEST MMA QUOTES – DAY 7

“I’m right here in this octagon fighting for the freedom of mixed martial arts.” – Tito Ortiz

You just knew Tito had to make an appearance on this list.  The question is which of Ortiz’s many notable quotables would find its way onto the list. I thought about including the gem he uttered during his stint on Donald Trump’s on The Apprentice when he said of his Punishment Athletics clothing line, “I run a multi-billion dollar company.” Of course, any of his quotes from his work as a commentator for Affliction could also be memorable, like when he interviewed Renato Babalu Sobral in a post-fight interview, saying:

Here we are with Seraldo Babalu, you did an awesome job, saw why you’re a black belt in jiu-jitsu, getting an awesome submission there, I want to tell me what you see, let’s go ahead and see by the fight, what you saw, in the ring.

Honestly, I could likely fill up a top-ten list of ridiculous Tito Ortiz quotes and a list of top-twenty if I included the many excuses for losses. One, however, sticks out among most of Tito’s words of wisdom. In a UFC 51 post fight speech that included call-outs to both Chuck Liddell and Ken Shamrock, Tito started out by thanking the troops… and then comparing their fight to his own, saying, “…I was like fighting for one reason: I was fighting for our United States troops…they are fighting for our freedom… I’m right here in this octagon fighting for the freedom of mixed martial arts.” To prove it, Tito’s camp all wore camouflage Punishment Athletic shirts, and Tito ran into the audience waving a two-sided flag with Mexico on one side and the United States on the other. ‘Merica!

In retrospect, it’s easy to poke fun at Tito for not being the most articulate person on a microphone, and to compare a sports fight to that of a service person in active combat is a real stretch. However, Tito was a part of that original silver-aged MMA vanguard, and he was, to use his own metaphor, on the front-lines for a great deal of it. I respect him for that, but that’s what also makes it difficult to watch Tito the Showman cast a shadow over Tito the Fighter.

However, I think no one can sum up Tito Ortiz better than Tito Ortiz. Just this past Saturday in Bellator’s inaugural PPV event, and after a rare win, Tito added another infamous quote to the gospel of Tito Ortiz when he said in the post-fight press conference, “God put me on this earth to be a tool.”

We should all allow Tito Ortiz the last word regarding himself.

WAR OF THE WORDS: BEST MMA QUOTES – DAY 6

“I spent the night at the bar; he spent the night at the hospital.”—BJ Penn

BJ Penn

MMA legend BJ Penn; photo via Adam S

Back in 2006 before “superfight” was a buzzword, BJ Penn was in the middle of carving out his fighting legacy as a pioneer and legend of the sport, and Georges St-Pierre was still in the infancy of his legacy. At the time, Penn was the first fighter in the UFC to have won two different belts in two different weight divisions—lightweight and welterweight. He was considered one of the pound-for-pound best, given his proclivity for taking on any opponent at any weight class. GSP was still working his way up, but fans knew there was something special about him, and the thought of GSP and BJ Penn fighting each other had most fight fans eager with antici… pation.

At UFC 58, Penn and GSP were set to face off in a number one-contender matchup, with the winner receiving the opportunity to face off against then welterweight champion Matt Hughes. Penn had already beaten Hughes once as a lightweight moving up a weight class and taking the title from Hughes.  The three-round welterweight fight saw GSP apply what would become his signature style—keeping opponents at the end of his jab and kicks, racking up points with takedowns and ground attacks, and clinching against the cage to tire his opponents. Penn, however, was able to counter and do some damage on the inside and, early on, broke GSP’s face, bloodying up his nose, and swelling his eye.

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Despite the obvious damage, GSP did enough to control the fight’s pace, control the location of the fight, and control BJ and was awarded the split decision.  Later, Penn, who was disappointed with the judges’ verdict, alluded to the fact that the damage he had done to GSP’s face was more than enough to earn him the win. Penn was quoted as saying, “I spent the night at the bar; he spent the night at the hospital.”

It’s a common misconception among MMA fans (and quite a few fighters and MMA writers) that somehow physical damage counts or is evidence of a win.  It’s not hard to see why that perception exists. The physical proof is hard to argue against. It’s hard to look at a fighter that appears as if he/she has come out of a wood chipper, let a lone imagine he/she was the victor in a fight.  The natural assumption is that the opponent who inflicted said damage (especially if the opponent appears unscathed) must have won.  If you were to look at both Penn and GSP after their fight, you’d think that the damage would speak to the real winner.  You’d also be dead wrong. Damage is not a criterion by which a fight is judged in the UFC.  When BJ Penn let his feelings about the damage he inflicted on GSP known, it inadvertently helped to perpetuate the assumption that somehow damage counts.

While this was the thought in 2006—that damage wins fights—things haven’t really changed over the last eight years. Recently, welterweight champion Johny Hendricks used damage as a measuring stick to argue that he deserved a win over—you guessed it—Georges St-Pierre. At UFC 167, Hendricks battered GSP and turned his face into a broken and bumpy mess, yet GSP did enough in the judges eyes to squeak out a controversial decision win.

GSP at the UFC 167 post-fight presser.

In a post-fight interview with UFC.com’s Megan Olivi, Hendricks was adamant that the damage he inflicted on GSP, and the fact that he himself had nary a scratch, was proof enough he won the fight. “Do I look like I got into a fight?” Hendricks said. It also didn’t help matters that the UFC’s president also used damage as the benchmark for what he believed was a Hendricks win. “It’s about damage; this is a fight; it’s whoever inflicts the most damage,” said Dana White in the UFC 167 post-fight press conference, demonstrating his own lack of knowledge about the sport he promotes.

Of course damage cuts both ways, and at UFC 171 when Hendricks fought Robbie Lawler in another controversial win, this time for the vacant welterweight championship, Hendricks came out of the fight doing his own GSP-damaged impression.

Hendricks at the UFC 171 post-fight presser; photo via Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

That night, the cries of damage as a standard for winning were being hurled back at Hendricks, who looked every bit the part of a man who had been molly-wopped (even if he wasn’t feeling that way), by the same fans who believed the damage he wreaked against GSP should have been used against him. The worm had turned.  Even GSP, talking to Arel Helwani on the MMA Hour, weighed in with his own thoughts about damage as it related to the Hendricks and Lawler fight:

I believe Lawler, the rounds that he won, it was more decisively, and he did more damage on the face, but sometimes that doesn’t mean anything. Lawler had a lot of damage too, but you couldn’t see the damage on the legs. Damage on the face sometimes is superficial, so that’s one of the reasons I think Hendricks won the fight. 

In 2006, BJ vocalized what many fight fans (and some fighters) still believe—damage counts or at least, it should count. It’s not surprising this rallying cry came from BJ Penn considering the amount of damage he inflicted on his opponents through the years (hello Diego Sanchez and Joe Stevenson); however, it simply doesn’t matter insofar as the judging of a fight goes. Damage can be an ugly thing in the cage, but like all blemishes, it’s subjective.  Some fighters simply wear damage better than others.

WAR OF THE WORDS: BEST MMA QUOTES – DAY 5

“Sometimes these things happen in MMA.”—Gus Johnson

Being an MMA commentator is an utterly thankless job.  For every fight fan who praises Michael Schiavello’s enthusiasm during a fight or Joe Rogan’s rapport with fighters in post-fight interviews, there are droves of critics who decry Mike Goldberg’s responsibility to plug the next UFC event mid-fight or Mauro Ranallo’s attempts to give a live fight more context and illustration.

And fighters-turned commentators don’t get any latitude either. Guys like Pat Militech, Brian Stann, Kenny Florian, and Bas Rutten offer a unique perspective but get lambasted by fight fans who perceive their insights as attacks on and personal biases against the viewer’s favorite fighter. Even the fighters sometimes fail to give the commentators the credit they deserve.  From Josh Barnett taking offense at Kenny Florian or Rampage Jackson coming down on Rich Franklin for stating the obvious, MMA commentators seem to bear the brunt of criticism from all directions. and this is likely before they even get production notes from producers.  It’s a lose-lose situation, but it does speak volumes that the number of commentators, especially in the UFC, is so few.  It’s a challenging job that not just anyone can fill.

A good commentator is one that complements the action so the audience barely notices the contribution as being a part of the broadcast. So when a commentator draws attention to himself or herself in spite of the action, it makes the commentating task that much harder. It’s also a trap that every commentator falls into, at one time or another, directly or indirectly.  But when veteran sports commentator Gus Johnson jumped into the bear trap during the CBS broadcast of Strikeforce: Nashville, MMA fan reactions were vitriolic.

In the main event, Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields dominated Dan Henderson with a gutty performance after Shields was rocked early.  Looking back, Johnson teed-up Shields perfectly. Johnson set the scene, talking about how the perception was that Strikeforce had expected Shields to lose by bringing in Henderson, and Shields was more than ready to respond with his thoughts.

Then, the wheels came off.

Self-promotion machine Jason Mayhem Miller had just interrupted Jake Shields’s victory interview with Johnson when the extras from Shields’s camp, including Gilbert Melendez and Nate and Nick Diaz, took umbrage and began to throw punches at Miller. The production cut to a shot of an empty arena from the prelims, briefly, to distract the audience. However, when the live broadcast returned, the melee intensified, and Johnson, wisely, exited the swarm like a thief in the night.  The disgust from the crowd and Mauro Renallo was audible. And then Johnson added to the ridiculousness in the cage saying, “Sometimes these things happen in MMA.”

Fight pundits and critics took aim at Gus Johnson for his response.  These things happen in MMA? Thanks a lot Gus! We’re trying to get on national TV here!

The dirty little secret that no one likes to mention is that yes, these things do happen. Maybe not as frequently in MMA as the connotation suggests  (though even recently Johnny Bedford and Rani Yaha engaged in a post-fight kerfuffle). They happen in MMA (and they seem to happen with frequency when the Diaz brothers are in the cage). They happen in the NBA. Hell, they happen in the NFL after practically every play where there’s a holding penalty. Johnson just happened to acknowledge this on a live mic instead of trying to spin out of it.  But the connotation was out there, and fight fans to this day still cry foul.

The criticisms about Johnson’s calls that night and his knowledge of the sport aside, the simple fact is there was really no way for Gus Johnson to steer the brawl in Memphis into an acceptable landing. It wasn’t Johnson’s fault the fight took place to begin with. And to his credit, he attempted to right the ship and interview Jake Shields once the cage had cleared. Still, Johnson’s quote lives on in infamy partly because of the time and place and the infancy of the sport.  In a piece by SI’s Loretta Hunt, Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker says of the brawl in Nashville, “It’s was a national event and letting that situation happen was an embarrassment.” At the end of the day, the brawl was embarrassing. Gus Johnson’s call simply ended up complementing that embarrassment.

What is the Value of Bellator’s Belts?

The urban legend for years in MMA’s silver age was that Frank Shamrock had carved his initials into the back of the UFC’s middleweight championship belt. Shamrock was so dominant in the then 205-pound middleweight division that he felt confident enough to claim it with his own initials so that as the belt passed from champion to champion each new champion would know that the alpha point of that belt began with FJS—Frank Juarez Shamrock.

Whether or not it’s true, it instantly gives an already heavy UFC belt a nice shot of mystique to add to its prestige.

The UFC belts are of course the more well-known, but it doesn’t mean they are the best even if they represent the best. From an aesthetic point of view, the grand prix tournament belts from Pride FC are pretty much the gold standard for most MMA fans. However, whatever the strap from whatever the promotion, the belt itself symbolizes, at least it should symbolize, the zenith.  So, what does it say that two of Bellator’s most well-known fighters seem a little disenfranchised with Bellator’s titles?

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While appearing on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Hour on Monday, Eddie Alvarez, who had to withdraw from Bellator’s inaugural PPV due to a concussion said of his opponent Michael Chandler, “He’s angry because I beat him and I’m the champion, and he has to fight for a sh—y belt that adds up to nothing. He can say whatever he wants to say.” The shifty belt Alvarez is referring to is the interim title that Bellator is creating while Alvarez recovers from his injury. However, out of context, one could read that as an indictment on Bellator’s belts in general.

Of course, the backstory involving Alvarez, his free agency status, and this being his last fight on his Bellator contract makes it less surprising that there is some bitterness on Alvarez’s part.  Still, to go public about his feelings on the eve of his promotion’s first outing into the PPV model seems like bad timing.  In fact, Alvarez came out today and apologized for the comments.

Of course, Alvarez isn’t the only fighter on the Bellator roster who seems to have an aversion to Bellator’s belts.  Rampage Jackson, who now headlines Bellator’s inaugural PPV card with King Mo Lawal, went on record recently as saying he, too, isn’t looking forward to fighting for a Bellator belt. “I really don’t care for the belt,” Rampage said.  Granted, his disinterest may be guided by the fact that he is training partners with the Emanuel Newton, Bellator’s light-heavyweight champion, but it’s still odd that a top name like Rampage isn’t keen on fighting for the championship.

It seems to me that the amount of work a fighter puts in, regardless of promotion, should be rewarded, but what does it say about Bellator if the fighters themselves don’t find any value in the ultimate reward—the belt?

It’s been widely speculated that Bellator pays its fighters well, and considering the deep pockets from its Viacom umbrella, it’s a wonder why more fighters aren’t flocking to Bellator or even considering it once they part ways with the UFC.  However, if the issues Zoila Frausto Gurgel or Patricio Freire have with Bellator are any indication, perhaps it’s no surprise that the very fighters under the Bellator banner would rather stay away from belts they feel stand for very little.