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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Advertisements

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.

Do Style Points Count More Than a Record? – The UFC Releases Jake Shields

2010: "He's mine..."; 2014" "He's all yours..."

2010: “He’s mine…”; 2014:” “He’s all yours…”

What a difference four years makes.

News this morning that one-time UFC contender and former Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields has been released by the promotion sent pugilist pundits from the MMA hemisphere of the combat sports world running for their Twitter accounts to voice their immediate reactions.

It’s a tough pill to swallow given that when Jake Shields in on his game, as when he fought Dan Henderson or Mike Pyle in Strikeforce,  his is one of the most smothering and constrictive styles to counter.  However, when Shields isn’t firing on all cylinders, like in the case of his fights against GSP or Hector Lombard, he bears the brunt of criticism from fans and promoters that his style is “boring”.

I’m not convinced that Shields’ lack of style points is the result of his release.  It’s hard to argue that, though, given the fact that other fighters with longer losing streaks and more “exciting” styles have been kept on board for a longer duration (Pat Barry, Leonard Garcia, and Dan Hardy come to mind).

Before his fight against Lombard, Shields hoped to use a spectacular win over Lombard to help him in negotiating a new deal with the UFC, as he only had one fight after UFC 171 left on his contract.  With Shields’ most recent loss, one that was so completely one-sided in Lombard’s favor, does it stand to reason that his UFC 171 performance was enough to leave a really bad taste in the promotion’s mouth, one it would use when it came time to re-negotiate for a new contract?  Or, in the case of Shields just completely cut ties? Perhaps.   Perhaps there’s more than just the surface “boring” accusations, though.

Consider Shields’ time in the promotion outside of his record.  Shields’ wins over Tyron Woodley and Demian Maia are solid wins on paper, but both were split decisions and far from as dominating and comprehensive as his wins over opponents like Dan Henderson and Yoshihiro Akiyama.  Add to the mix the dominating loses to GSP and Jake Ellenberger and a win over Ed Herman that was overturned due to a failed drug test, and suddenly the UFC seems to have a pretty big negotiating stick.  Or at least, it has plausible deniability regarding his release as being a case of the borings.   After all, what if Shields had been consistently as dominate over his UFC opponents as he was over Dan Henderson in Strikeforce or as he was over Akiyama?  Would that change how fans and the promotion view Shields?

When Jake Shields signed with the UFC in 2010, he used big wins over Hendo and Robbie Lawler as leverage to get a very favorable contract.  Could it be that now, at the end of that contract, the UFC felt the juice simply wasn’t worth the squeeze?   It’s all speculative as the fight world hears from Jake Shields, and he’s staying quiet for the moment.

The outrage from MMA analysts over Shields’ release seems more directed at the UFC’s promoter and his penchant for fighters who just bang, bro.  I understand it.  I see the hypocrisy in keeping around fighters on a losing streak and rewarding them, but objectively, I don’t know if this is the only reason Jake Shields found himself on the outs with the UFC.

Here’s the rub: while Jake Shields’ record may not matter to the UFC, the UFC shine may be just what catches the eye of Bellator or the WSOF, with Shields’ winning record coming in a close second (I say Bellator though Bjorn Rebney has a bias against styles like Shields’). Everyone gets used in this situation.  Did the UFC use Jake Shields to help put Strikeforce on its back and to help give GSP’s title reign legitimacy by having GSP fight a top-10 contender?  Yes.  Will Jake Shields use his run in the UFC to help him get a new deal outside of the promotion? Absolutely.

Shields & Lombard stare down before UFC 171

Shields & Lombard stare down before UFC 171

Furthermore, if all of the cosmic tumblers fall into place and Shields signs with someone like the WSOF and ends up running the table (a difficult task considering Palhares, Fitch, and Burkman are all studs at 170), Shields will be right back where this all started, on the arm of Dana White and with a larger price tag for the UFC to pay. It’s cyclical.  Just ask Dan Henderson.

It’s a shame that fight fans will not get to see Shields apply his brand of combat against the likes of Aidan Amagov, Matt Brown, Dong Hyun Kim, or Kelvin Gastelum in the Octagon just yet.  However, it also doesn’t mean he won’t ever be seen inside of the UFC again either.  Fight fans and pundits could take a page from the Jake Shields book of game planning—be patient because persistence and wins cannot be denied.

Unless you’re Ben Askren.

UFC 175 Will Kill Any Chances of Seeing Hendo & Cormier Star in a Buddy Cop Film

48_Hours

The great Chuck Mindenhall has a nice piece on the immediate reaction to the announcement of Hendo/Cormier at UFC 175. Go read it. Do it.

Mindenhall spends a lot of time discussing the adverse reaction to the fight in terms of people believing Dan Henderson could get hurt (due to age and no TRT, mostly).  When discussing Hendo, his age will always be a red herring, and the history of TRT will always be the first arrow in the quiver that his critics reach for.

I’ve said it before that people count out Hendo to their own detriment.  However, I’m not convinced the reaction to the announcement has to with Hendo’s age as much as it has to do with his last showing against Shogun and the damage he has accumulated.


For two rounds, Shogun made Hendo look bad.  Like horizontal-stripes-on-a-fat-man bad.  Yes, he rallied back and floored Shogun, and that deserves all the accolades and acclaim he’s received since the fight.  However, some would stop short of saying that performance warrants the title-fight carrot dangling in front of the stick that is Hendo/Cormier.

Critics will argue that Cormier doesn’t deserve that kind of incentive either considering his only fight at 205 was against a former barista.  Everyone should tread lightly, though.  Inviting comparisons against previous opponents is tricky business, and Hendo’s resume speaks for itself.  Cormier’s list of fights is nothing to sneeze at either.  In terms of immediacy, in terms of the present competition, rewarding Cormier makes sense.  At heavyweight, he consistently fought bigger opponents, and his learning curve has been a lot steeper than Hendo’s. By the same token, Hendo is not unfamiliar to fighting within three different weight classes depending on the intrigue of his opponent.   The more you begin to peel away the layers, the more you might notice that Cormier just may have the other half of the amulet Dan Henderson has worn since his career began.  They have similar credentials in just about every area except one: mileage.  Hendo has been doing this longer, has seen more damage, and has had a plethora of injuries.  It’s the mileage that makes people wary of Hendo fighting Cormier.  It’s the mileage that that takes the “paper parity” and sets it under a parakeet cage.

Embed from Getty Images
Objectively, the fight is fine.  I’ll be honest, though, I don’t like the fight from a personal perspective.  It’s not a safety issue for Hendo that makes me wince thinking about Cormier and Hendo locking horns.  It’s an issue that both Hendo and Cormier represent the good guys—the salty veteran; the rookie with an ocean of potential. They are the Riggs and Murtaugh of the 205 class.  They should be stopping  diplomatic villains, not trying to knock each other senseless.

Because at the end of the day, that’s what they will attempt.  That’s what scary.  They will turn off any admiration they have for each other.  They will bury any good will they might have for each other.  They will throw everything they have at each other in order to get the win, especially with a chance for the title on the line.  The fight fan in me respects and admires them for that.  I won’t watch the fight through my hands as Mindenhall suggests, but I’m sure I’ll look similar to this as I watch the battle of the Dans:

UFC FIGHT NIGHT 38 – Hendo/Shogun: The Afterglow

What a stubborn old man.

As I mentioned on Thursday’s column, don’t call it a comeback.  Seriously, don’t call it that.  It was a great win, and Dan Henderson showed a great deal of composure and heart after getting floored twice by Shogun.  But by now, everyone should know, Dan Henderson has heart and composure.

Henderson picked up his first win since his last win, and it just so happened to be against Shogun Rua again.  And just to add a little drama to night’s proceedings, he was rocked twice early before mounting a comeback, and turning Shogun Rua’s nose into a cubist’s nightmare.

I am relieved this matchup ended early as it did.  I love watching Shogun and Hendo, and I hate that either has to lose, but to see either have to endure a second war that mirrored Henderson/Shogun 1 would have been hard to watch.   As it stands, this is pretty brutal, but at least it was quick by their standards:

Somewhere as Rich Frankin’s juice machine whirred, Franklin felt a disturbance in the Force.

I don’t know where Shogun goes from here.  Aside from back-to-back losses to Alexander Gustafsson and Chael Sonnen, and back-to-back wins against Chuck Liddell and Mark Coleman, Shogun manages to exchange a win for a loss each time he steps into the cage. While he’s not the most consistent fighter, he is still an exciting fighter and a draw.  He’s clearly on the fringes of the light heavy division, but he can bring out the best in his opponents.  I’d love to see Shogun/Little Nog 2 come to fruition, but with Lil’ Nog’s inability to stay healthy, it seems seeing Shogun fight Fabio Maldonado, Ryan Bader, Rich Franklin, or even Feijão could help to clear up where Shogun is headed: fun, fan-friendly fights or farewell fights.

With Hendo, things seem even blurrier.  Yes, he is 43. Yes, he will not undergo TRT anymore. Yes, he ended Shogun in spectacular fashion.  But he still fought a sloppy and slow first two rounds before moving the placement of Shogun’s nose by 3 inches.  If the 205-pound division has taught MMA fans anything, it’s that there is Jon Jones, and there is everyone else.  Watching him react to instead of putting together combos for Shogun, Hendo doesn’t look up to speed for the elite of the 205. But if there’s anything you can assume about a guy as old and as battle-tested as Hendo, it’s that he’s a survivor.  Because their second fight meant so much to Hendo and because they both came up through Pride, I would love to see Wanderlei Silva and Hendo part III, but if he gets an opponent ranked in the top five at 205, I bet we’ll be back to talking about TRT and age.

“OF THE NIGHT” PERFORMANCES

CB Dollaway withstood a wild flailing attack by Cezar Ferreira and put the Brazilian away early, racking up another win south of the equator and providing some unintentional  comedy for the fans:

It doesn’t sound good to say you wanted to give your wife a KO for her birthday.  In all seriousness, CB is ready for primetime.  He needs a top 10 opponent. Someone like Tim Kennedy, Uriah Hall or Costas Philippou could provide fans the chance to see the next step in the Doberman’s outstanding progression.

In addition, to CB Dolloway, Fabio Maldonado showed once again why the uglier the fight gets, the more you can count on two things: zombie comparisons and the look of confusion on his opponent’s faces.    Yes, he needs to work on his takedown defense.  Yes, he could benefit greatly from a better gas tank.  However, his opponents need to work on their striking defense. They also need to work on the realization that they are in for a zombie apocalypse night of fighting when they sign on to meet Maldonado.  Maldonado was controlled handily in round one, with Gian Villante tying him up and holding him down repeatedly.  Maldonado’s zombie metaphor description only snowballed, however, when his head was split open in the second and rather than falling to Villante, Maldonado found a home for his jab.  Villante could offer little more than a look of astonishment as Maldonado kept moving forward and forward and forward, using his jab to set up some monster body shots that slowed Villante significantly. Maldonado proved once again, he’s a guy that’s impossible to ignore and almost impossible to hurt.  And more than that, he’s changed the perception everywhere about the connotation of the name Fabio.

A couple of questions that I was left with after the night concluded:

  • Is heat the great equalizer? Dana White tweeted at one point in the evening that the temperature in the arena was 93 degrees with 86% humidity.  Why is that?  Why are these venues being booked?  Is it because of the UFC’s affiliation with the GLOBO TV network and the Brazilian market?  It seems a little dangerous that the fighters, especially those who have to cut significant weight, could run a higher risk of dehydrating by fighting in a venue like that. If nothing else, give the commentating team a break next time and let them go old school Andy Sipowicz with their attire. Better yet, if they are in South America, guayaberas all around.
  • Will Chope, who? After word of Will Chope’s past came out yesterday regarding his previous assault on his ex-wife which led to his discharge from the Air Force, Chope was not only scratched from the card, but was cut from the roster and the company.  With Diego Brandao opponent-less, the UFC paid Brandao his show and win purse.  However, it leaves a lot of questions that the UFC has yet to provide and answer for.  Did they know about Chope’s past?  Did Chope disclose the incident to UFC brass prior to being hired?  Does the UFC delve as deep as it should into the background of the fighters it signs?  Like I said, a lot of questions, but the one thing that does seem to ring true:  all it takes is one night of exciting finishes to start a brand new news cycle and move away from the Will Chope news of the morning and afternoon.  Good thing for Zuffa and Chope, I suppose.