Friday, 11 April 2014

Delving Deep: UFC Fight Night 39

First things first - what are we calling this thing?

UFC Fight Night 39? UFC Fight Night: Nogueira vs. Nelson? UFC Fight Night Abu Dhabi? I've even seen just UFC Abu Dhabi. As you can see from the title, I've gone with the numerical approach. Numbers are logical and chronological. Things tend to get squirly when we name events and I know that none of us want to go back to the days of UFC: The Ultimate Ultimate.

Whatever we call it, it's happening this Friday. Crept on you didn't it.

A full 19 days will have passed between this and the last UFC event. An eternity in the UFC's current model of mass production. Despite this dearth in action, and with nothing else to focus on, the anticipation and excitement for this event has almost been non-existent. 

Perhaps it is an out of sight out of mind kind of problem. This will be the UFC's second international show in a row. The next one is even in Canada, if that counts. It's natural, then, that an event happening in the Middle East on a Friday - and only being shown on the internet - isn't getting the same coverage as a typical North American event on a Saturday night.

The logistics aren't the whole problem though, not for hardcore fans anyway - they'd know about it whatever the situation. The location of the fights are irrelevant, it is the quality of them that gets the fans talking. This is where UFC Fight Night 39 comes unstuck.

The card is perfectly fine, it's just lacking a certain something. 

Uniquely, the reason this card is lacking, as I put it, has little to do with the personnel involved. Nogueira is a genuine legend of the sport and Nelson and Guida are well known veterans with recognizable names. The prelims even feature fighters like Thales Leites and Rani Yahya. Not too shabby for a Fight Pass card. Chris Camozzi was another but Andrew Craig withdrew from their bout due to illness.

UFC Fight Night 39, therefore, is in a peculiar position. The level of the combatants involved is perfectly acceptable, it's just lacking that added extra ingredient.

There is no narrative. There is no number one contender bout, nobody is making a run towards a title, there isn't a highly-touted prospect making a debut, there isn't even a rivalry or any bad blood. This event is completely inconsequential. Come Monday morning, the MMA landscape will be exactly how it was the previous Monday.

The main event of Nogueira vs. Nelson pits two aging big-name fighters against one another. Both are coming off losses and are fighting to retain any scrap of relevancy they might have in the heavyweight division. They are gatekeepers now, fodder for whichever heavyweight prospect the UFC wants to push. This fight and it's result will have no impact on the division, it is just going to be two 37-year-olds going at it until one removes the other from their consciousness.

They probably won't be going 5 rounds and nor do we want them to. That would not be a pretty sight. These men are already lacking in mobility - Nogueira because of his substantial wear and tear and Nelson due to his insistence on training in his living room.

What they do have, however, is excellent grappling and effective striking. Their striking is largely confined to their boxing and whilst Nogueira is the better of the two technically, and more varied in his attack, Nelson unquestionably has the edge in power. This is likely to be a stand-up affair and the combination of Nelson's power, chin and Nogueira's disregard for defence suggests that a Nelson TKO victory is the likely outcome.

Time-filling, convenient, inconsequential fun. 

It's the kind of show that you'll watch if you've got nothing better to do or maybe you'll get round to it over the weekend when you have some free time. Nobody is clearing their schedule for this one. But, hey, that's the beauty of Fight Pass.

Friday, 14 February 2014

UFC Fight Night 36: Deciding Who's Next

Chris Weidman won his title from a Brazilian, his first defense will be against a Brazilian and UFN 36 will likely present him with his next challenger - and you guessed it, it'll probably be a Brazilian.

Behind Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort in the UFC middleweight rankings sit Jacare Souza (#3) and Lyoto Machida (#4). All four are from the nation famed for big butts, beaches and football (soccer for you Americans). 

At UFN 36, Souza will fight Francis Carmont in the co-main event and Machida will take top billing against Gegard Mousasi. It could, essentially, be described as a four-man tournament to determine the next challenger for the middleweight belt.

It isn't technically a tournament but, if it was, it would be obvious who the UFC wants in the final. Souza and Machida are the clear favourites in their respective bouts, no surprise considering the location of the fights. It is practically UFC policy to all but ensure a hometown win when in Brazil. The baying crowd almost demands it.

The UFC have implemented the tactic of a themed card before - creating a main card that focuses on a specific division. UFC 146 and UFC 158 being obvious examples.

Personally, I like it when they do this. It gives the event an added dimension and provides some extra narrative for the viewer. At UFC 158, for example, a champion defended his belt moments after a number one contender for that very same belt was decided. Questions are answered instead of raised. We don't have to wait for the outcome of fights taking place weeks or maybe months apart to discover the immediate future of a division. Everything gets tied up in a nice little bow.

Whilst there are only two middleweight fights on the main card of UFN 36, they both have direct title implications.

As previously mentioned, Souza and Machida are next in line. Both are former champions - we all remember the Machida era - who have looked spectacular so far at middleweight in the UFC. 

Three fights, three wins and three first round finishes. Amongst there victims are Mark Munoz and Yushin Okami. The boys from Brazil have made their point, they are serious contenders at 185.

Whether by grand design or pure chance, the timelines of these fighters, at the top of the middleweight division, seem to mesh rather nicely.

Weidman vs. Belfort has been scheduled to main event UFC 173 on May 24, a little over 3 months after UFN 36. Should Souza and Machida come through their bouts victorious, as expected, a number one contender bout could take place around a similar time. The winners would then be able to meet later in the year.

It is also a possibility that a number one contender fight won't be necessary. A particularly emphatic win in Jaraguá do Sul may be all that's needed for one of the Brazilians to jump straight into a title fight. We all know how impulsive the UFC - mainly Dana - can be.

Despite Souza's higher ranking, however, it is Machida who is the more likely to get a title shot off the back of UFN 36. A win over Carmont is commendable but it isn't exactly the type of win that thrusts you into the spotlight. Machida, on the other hand, is facing a man who has only lost one of his last one of his last 23 fights. Being the former light heavyweight champion helps too.

If Weidman is going to extend his tenure as UFC middleweight champion, he will have to face, and defeat, a murderer's row of Brazilians. First there were his two unique fights with Anderson Silva - the arguable GOAT. Next up he has the ever improving and increasingly muscular Vitor Belfort to contend with. After which, either Souza or Machida will be there waiting in the wings for the victor. UFN 36 may decide who that man will be.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Urijah Faber: Best of the Rest

If Urijah Faber manages to pull off the upset against Renan Barao, on Feb 1, he will be adorned with UFC gold. If he fails, however, he may be the recipient of another crown - the best fighter in UFC history to have never won a title.

This unwanted and unfortunate honour has a few potential candidates, Kenny Florian and Dan Henderson perhaps being the most noteworthy. Faber is slightly unique though, he can't quite win a world title but he is head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. 

He is the best of the rest.

Faber has had 36 professional fights - 30 wins and 6 losses. All six of his losses came in title fights. In fact, he is 0-5 in his last five opportunities to become a world champion. Never though has he lost a non-title fight, those he usually wins comprehensively. 

He occupies an unusual space in the MMA landscape, mere yards below the champions but a mile above everyone else. The Team Alpha Male leader is trapped in no-man's-land.

It must be a frustrating position to be in, akin to finishing in fourth place at the Olympics. Good, just not good enough for something shiny. 

His last successful title bout was a defence of his WEC featherweight championship against Jens Pulver. Yeah, it was that long ago. Since then Faber is 9-5. All nine wins were obtained in non-title fights and all five losses came when challenging for a belt - the story of Faber's career.

Of those nine victories, seven were finished inside the distance - all by submission. The two bouts that did go the distance were unanimous decisions. This highlights Faber's dominance - when not competing for a championship. He has strong boxing, wrestling and wicked chokes. There are no holes in his game which is why he is only ever beaten by pure class.

He may reign over the rest of the division but the fact that he has lost his last five title fights suggests that, maybe, he just isn't at the level needed to be a UFC champion.

That might not be the whole story though.

Perhaps he is merely a victim of circumstance. Unlucky that the champions in his way have been as elite as it gets. Dominick Cruz and Renan Barao, the men at the top of the bantamweight division, are unbeaten in the UFC and hold a combined record of 8-0. 

UFC 169 will be Faber's third attempt for the UFC bantamweight title. Considering he is 0-2 in his previous endeavours, it seems rather likely that this will be his last opportunity to take home the bantamweight strap.

That, however, was the consensus after his last failed attempt - a loss to Dominick Cruz - and yet here we are. His popularity and dominance over the remainder of the division continues to supersede his age and poor track record in title fights. So this may not be Faber's last chance after all, if he continues to be the best of the rest.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Chris Weidman: Breaking Free of Anderson Silva

Chris Weidman has now beaten Anderson Silva, the man universally regarded as the greatest of all time, twice. First, to win the UFC middleweight title and then to retain it. So one week on, Weidman has been soaking up the plaudits. Right? Well, not quite.

I know Weidman has a world championship belt and functional limbs but he, too, can be considered rather unfortunate following his duels with Silva.

Bear with me.

Weidman's victories, life changing career-propelling wins, can both conceivably be called flukes. If not flukes, then certainly the results of freak occurrences.

The manner in which his wins were obtained is inescapable. Naysayers will always be able to point to their fluky nature. In many ways, the magnitude of his accomplishments have been diminished and by no fault of his own. 

In the lead up to those defining moments, Weidman was dominating but Silva toyed in the first and then toiled in the second. As a result, everyone was robbed of a conventional result. Most importantly, Chris Weidman was robbed. He was robbed of a definitive win over the greatest of all time, twice.  

The nature of the wins caused the aftermath, on each occasion, to be focused on Silva's shortcomings. The adulation, the praise, it has all been diluted for Weidman.

Which is unfortunate because it can be argued, and argued convincingly, that both wins were as a result of Weidman's competence as a fighter. Perhaps each occasion was merely a case of his skill and preparation being presented with an opportunity. Nevertheless, there will always be an asterisk beside those wins.

As fight fans, we want decisive answers. We dislike what ifs and maybes. It is why we yearned to see Mayweather vs. Pacquiao and why questionable decisions urk us so much. We need closure.

This is something we didn't get and likely never will from Weidman fighting Silva.

So not only does Weidman have to follow Silva's historic reign as middleweight champion, he has to do it with a monkey on his back.

Weidman will have to face a murderers row straight away. Fighters like Vitor Belfort, Lyoto Machida, Jacare Souza and Gegard Mousasi are waiting in the wings.

Luckily, and I use the term lightly, Belfort is up next for Weidman. I say lucky because Weidman needs a guy like Belfort next. He has been on an absolute tear and will provide an excellent litmus test for the champion. 

Following the bizarre nature of the Silva fights, this bout will be pivotal. If Weidman wins then he will have proven himself to the doubters and if he loses many will consider the Silva fights to be flukes.

As Jon Jones has shown, it only takes a couple of years and a string of big wins to forge a legacy. Weidman now has this opportunity and he has to take it if he is to break free and leave the shadow of Anderson Silva.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Benson Henderson: The Hunt for Recognition and Redemption

Benson Henderson
Benson Henderson currently occupies an unusual space, he has reached the pinnacle of his profession, winning and retaining a world title, but he is not yet a star. At UFC 164, he will be fighting for recognition, something that has so far eluded his tenure as champion, and, because of the opponent, redemption.

As a lightweight in the UFC, Henderson is 7-0 and 4-0 in title fights. That is an impressive feat. The manner of many of his victories, however, has been less so. In seven fights, he has failed to finish a single opponent and two of his three title defenses have been split decisions. 

Henderson is the king of his division but he has just been eeking by his opponents. He has not yet achieved that career-defining win. Until that happens, he will remain in the mid to low region of the pound-for-pound rankings and will continue to be an uncelebrated champion.

He is the king of his division, he just has to encapsulate that into a single performance. Destroy the next best guy in the division. The king needs to unquestionably be the king. So far, Henderson has beaten everyone he has needed to at lightweight, just never in spectacular fashion. This is why he is currently treading water as a champion who is not yet a star, still chasing recognition.

In his 13 fights within the WEC and UFC, only one man has beaten Henderson. That man is Anthony Pettis. It was at the last ever WEC event, WEC 53, and Henderson was attempting to defend his lightweight title in his home state of Arizona. 

As if losing his title in his home state wasn't bad enough, Henderson was victim to perhaps the most jaw dropping moment in MMA history. In the final minute of the final round, Pettis pulled off the kick heard around the world. The 'Showtime Kick' is one of the sport's greatest highlight reels and Henderson is the recipient. 

Redemption is a powerful motivational tool though and Henderson has said that he is looking forward to erasing "that Pettis stain on my soul". 

At UFC 164, Henderson will get the chance to kill two birds with one stone. If he beats Pettis, and retains his belt, he will avenge his only loss in the last six years. If he beats him decisively, he can silence the naysayers. Recognition and redemption will be his.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Condit and Kampmann: Fighting for Relevancy at UFC Fight Night 27

UFC Fight Night 27
The main event at UFC Fight Night 27 will pit two perennial welterweight contenders against each other in a fight for relevancy. In terms of title contention, one man will be fighting to stay relevant and the other will be fighting to become relevant.

Carlos Condit and Martin Kampmann will fight each other for the second time next Wednesday (Aug. 28) on Fox Sports 1 in Indianapolis, Indiana. In their first bout Kampmann defeated Condit via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28), it was Condit's promotional debut and only Kampmann's second fight as a welterweight in the UFC. Now, however, they are both seasoned campaigners in the division with UFC gold on their minds.

Since their first meeting, and despite losing, it is Condit who has had more success. Following that split decision loss in 2009, Condit has gone 5-2 in the UFC. It was a run that included a five fight winning streak that only came to an end when he faced Georges St-Pierre, unsuccessfully, for the UFC welterweight championship. He is currently the number two ranked welterweight in the UFC and his last six fights have produced five post-fight bonuses and an interim title.

Kampmann, on the other hand, is 5-4 since he fought Condit and two of those losses were via TKO in the first round. His path has not been laden with gold nor has it come even come close. Instead, he has spent his 11 fight spell as a welterweight in the UFC stuck in the lower half of the top 10. He is currently ranked at number six in the UFC's official rankings.

They both have three opponents in common and, interestingly, they share the same results. They both lost to Jake Shields, beat JakeEllenberger and they were both beaten by number one contender Johny Hendricks in their last outing. So MMA math is especially useless here.

Condit has worn both UFC and WEC gold and is still under 30, he is firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of the welterweight division. This territory, occupied by a small number of elite fighters, is one that Condit is fighting to remain in and Kampmann is fighting to break into. Kampmann has always been on the outside looking in, a couple of big wins are usually followed by a loss and his progression up the rankings stalls.

After dropping back to back fights, Condit's back is up against the wall, a win is pretty much a necessity if he has any intention of remaining relevant in the title picture. Kampmann, however, is at a crossroads. A win thrusts him into the title picture and a loss condemns him as a perennial 5-10 ranked welterweight, completely irrelevant as a title threat.

This headline fight is intriguingly poised, it is a rare non-title fight with real consequences. They will both, under different circumstances, be fighting for relevancy. 

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Last Chance Saloon for Shogun and Sonnen

Shogun vs. Sonnen

The main event at UFC Fight Night 26 is Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua vs Chael Sonnen. They are both in the twilight of their careers and they are both coming into this fight off a loss, two in Sonnen's case. To continue being someone who matters, a win on Saturday night is pretty much a necessity. 

Since defeating Chuck Liddell in the first round in 2009, Shogun has traded wins and losses in the UFC. His overall record in the company is 6-6. Sonnen's record in the UFC, in two separate stints, is strikingly similar at 5-5. A combined record of 11-11 is not something you would expect from participants in the headline bout of a UFC card. However, their records are more of a testament to the level of competition they have faced rather than a knock on their talent or lack thereof. 

Interestingly, despite seeming very similar, their records in the UFC, upon closer examination, can be quite contrasting. Both are .500 fighters whose losses came against only the best. Their wins, however, are quite different. The five victories in Shogun's UFC career were against opponents who are 7-16 over the last four years. Sonnen's victories in the UFC came against opponents who, conversely, are 29-17 in the last four years.

Other than his title winning effort against Lyoto Machida, Shogun's wins in the UFC have come against Mark Coleman, Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin and Brandon Vera. All of whom were aging fighters past their prime by the time Shogun met them in the octagon. Sonnen's wins, on the other hand, were against legitimate contenders. Fighters like Yushin Okami, Nate Marquardt, Brian Stann and Michael Bisping.

This, perhaps, partly explains why Sonnen is currently the favorite despite the fact that he has never won in the UFC as a light heavyweight and Shogun is the former UFC light heavyweight champion. There are, of course, other factors that determine Sonnen's status as favorite. Neither wrestling nor cardio is Shogun's strong suit but Sonnen excels in both. A troublesome combination for Shogun, especially in a five round fight.

These two fighters are battling to swim against the current. They are in the autumn of their careers and title opportunities are moving further and further away. The loser will almost certainly never be thought of as a contender again.  

Since he lost his title, Shogun has twice lost to fellow contenders and is now firmly behind in the pecking order. Alexander Gustaffson will be the next man to face Jon Jones then there is Glover Teixeira, Daniel Cormier and Phil Davis waiting in the wings. Sonnen has lost all three of his title fights in the UFC. In fact, his last two fights were defeats in title bouts, in two different divisions. Both men are in desperate need of a win if they are to remain relevant.

Sonnen, however, is in a slightly better position than Shogun. He recently announced that he has signed a new five-fight contract with the UFC and will be moving back down to middleweight following the fight with Shogun. The consequences of a Sonnen loss, therefore, have been greatly diminished now he is leaving the light heavyweight division behind. Whereas Shogun is in danger of falling out of the top ten should he be defeated on Saturday night. 

Luckily for Sonnen, Anderson Silva lost his belt and the middleweight division has opened up for him. Sonnen was likely to never get another shot at Silva and the middleweight title again. But now Chris Weidman is the champion, fighters like Sonnen and Belfort are back in the running for a shot at the belt (providing Weidman retains his belt at UFC 168). 

Also, Sonnen has been, rather vocally, targeting Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva lately. So there are, at least, some interesting potential match-ups in his future. The same can't really be said for Shogun. A loss would be devastating. Rather than making runs at the title, he would instead, should his career continue, take on the role as gatekeeper for entry into the upper echelon of the division. A depressing duty for a legendary fighter to undertake. There is just something so sad about witnessing the gradual decline of a former champion, the transformation from a lion into just the guy in a lion's suit.

The outcome of the main event at UFC Fight Night 26 will very likely reinvigorate the career of the victor whilst killing the career of the defeated. One man's prospects may be sunnier than the others but both men, to some extent, are in the last chance saloon.