March was a very busy month for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. With three events spread over a mere 10 days, fans got a serious dose of elite mixed martial arts as one of the more brutal winters in recent memory finally turned into spring. And those cards answered a lot of lingering questions hanging over the heads of several UFC stars and prospects.
I TOLD YOU SO
I’m not one to gloat. Actually, plenty of my friends might take umbrage with that statement. Whatever the case, I’m about to gloat for a second. Check out the words I wrote about Jon Jones early last year:
This kid is the type of athlete that leaves most fighters green with envy. You know the type. He is the guy you grew up with who was good at every sport he played, whether or not he practiced much. Think I’m being a bit hyperbolic? Chew on this for a moment: Jones is a former junior college national champion wrestler who hired his first striking coach prior to his fight with Stephan Bonnar at UFC 94, yet he outclassed the former golden gloves champion on the feet with crisp, straight punches, flashy spinning elbows and solid kicks. Think about that for a moment. Bonnar is one heck of a striker, and he was undressed on the feet by Jones, not to mention getting thrown around in the wrestling realm. At 21 years young, Jones has limitless potential. The only criticism of the undefeated fighter’s UFC career to date is that he appeared to fade a bit in the final round. That raises questions about the effectiveness of his training regimen, something that can be corrected very easily. If Jones continues working hard, then this kid has a scary future, one that could see him competing in the Octagon for the next 10-15 years.
That was a ton of hype for a guy who was a sparse 2-0 in the UFC at the time. Not only did he live up to those words, he surpassed them with his first-round technical knockout win over top contender Brandon Vera.
Vera claimed that he was going to test whether Jones liked to get hit. He was going to test whether Jones could survive a dogfight. He was going to see if Jones could handle the pressure of fighting his first A-list opponent.
Jones didn’t have to answer the first two questions because Vera never made solid contact. But he certainly answered the third one by throwing Vera around like a rag doll during the first three minutes of their fight. OK, he didn’t really throw him around, but he easily took down the highly skilled Greco-Roman wrestler multiple times and then ended the fight with the single-most devastating elbow strike that I have ever witnessed.
The tendency with a guy like Jones is to rush him to a title shot after headlining win. I’m not sure that is the best next step for a guy who is still honing his craft, despite the fact that he is improving on a hockey-stick curve. Fight with a few more contenders, even if he suffers a loss during that stretch, is just what the doctor ordered as Jones continues to add to his foundation of skills and experience before challenging for a championship.
I’ve said it before that Jon Jones will wear UFC gold one day. I’m sticking by those words.
CARWIN IS NOT ONLY FOR REAL; HE IS A MAJOR THREAT TO LESNAR’S REIGN
Shane Carwin is an animal—period.
Not the mangy kind that needs to be housebroken and cleaned up. Rather, the scary kind that gives future opponents cold sweats in the middle of the night.
Twelve professional fights. Twelve wins in the first round. Four UFC fights. Four first-round knockouts.
Carwin is the closest thing to a young Mike Tyson that the UFC has ever seen. Maybe we should start calling him “Kid Dynamite.” Whatever the case, reigning heavyweight boss of bosses Brock Lesnar better have been paying close attention to Carwin’s complete destruction of a bulked-up Frank Mir because one thing was made crystal clear in that fight—this guy’s punches travel with the force that would make a grizzly bear take notice.
Carwin knocked out Mir with arm punches thrown with his non-dominant hand. Think about that for a minute. He didn’t wind up and land a big overhand right. Those weren’t short left hooks delivered with perfect torque. They were left uppercuts thrown with his shoulders and feet square to the target.
Folks, that is a frightening thought for anyone who dares to exchange punches with this guy inside the cage. If I was in charge of preparing the champion for his upcoming bout with Carwin, I would focus exclusively on techniques designed to get the fight to the ground immediately at the start of each round. The world has no idea if Carwin can fight from his back. Lesnar needs to ask him that question when they lock horns or he just might find himself in the same position that Mir experienced on March 27.
DOS SANTOS ISN’T FAR BEHIND
Junior dos Santos wasn’t listed among the division’s Preferiti in our heavyweight survey several weeks ago. His first-round knockout win over Gabriel Gonzaga was every bit as brutal as the one Carwin delivered to Mir, though dos Santos did it with a properly thrown punch that took advantage of his hips and legs.
Like Carwin, dos Santos is undefeated in the UFC, stopping all five of his foes with strikes. Only Mirko “Cro Cop” lasted beyond the first round. The other four fell within four minutes.
The stain on dos Santos’ professional career is a 2007 loss to a relatively unknown Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt via armbar. That raises the question whether he can get past someone like Mir, who arguably has the most lethal submission game of all heavyweights worldwide.
UFC boss Dana White commented recently that dos Santos is in the heavyweight title picture. The only heavies who can claim preferential status at this point are Carwin and Cain Velasquez. Maybe it is time to find out if he indeed has shored up the hole in his game exposed back in 2007 by matching him up with Mir later this summer.
WHY DIDN’T MIR USE HIS NEWLY ADDED BULK?
Mir made a big deal over the last several months about his decision to transform his physique from 250 lbs of mostly muscle to what appeared to be 265 lbs of pure iron on March 27. His obsession with facing Lesnar for a third time caused him to add the extra bulk and strength in order to compete with the division’s physical monsters.
He faced one of those monsters in Carwin. The new interim heavyweight champ has size and strength advantages over most heavies similar to those enjoyed by Lesnar. Thus, he was the perfect test for Mir, and the former champion had the perfect opportunity to combine his new strength with his already polished technical skills when the pair locked up in a clinch against the cage early in the opening round.
Instead of trying to work his way back to the more dominant outside position, Mir either chose to rest with his back against the cage or was otherwise unable to free himself from that position. The one time that he did pin Carwin’s back to the cage the Grudge MMA star merely turned him with little effort and switched the position, raising questions as to the benefits of the extra muscle.
To be fair to Mir, it is going to take some time for him to adjust to this physique. His mind will have to adjust his natural thought processes to think like the bigger, stronger man inside the Octagon. He will need time to alter his clinch game to take advantage of his extra bulk. He will certainly have that time following the loss to Carwin, as his much desired rubber match with Lesnar is on the backburner for the time being.
GOMI CONTINUES THE RUN OF LACKLUSTER PRIDE DEBUTS
Since Zuffa acquired PRIDE Fighting Championships a few years ago, many former stars from the Land of the Rising Sun have ported their fistic business stateside to the UFC. Takanori Gomi is the most recent among them, but it was far from a successful debut.
Gomi looked exhausted to me at the end of the first round. I’m quite sure he got himself into excellent fighting shape. He certainly knows how to pace himself to go the distance, though the pace set on Wednesday night was far from a barnburner. Nevertheless, he was sucking wind big time in the second and third rounds and ultimately lost the fight, which had nothing to do with being winded and everything to do with being defeated by a better fighter that night.
Still, Gomi’s less-than-stellar performance resurrects a question that I’ve been asking for quite some time: why do so many former PRIDE stars struggle when they first step foot in the Octagon?
Think I’m being dramatic because this is UFC.com? Au contraire mon fraire. I’ll cite examples.
Marcio “Shogun” Rua, who was regarded by many as the best 205-lb fighter in the world when he signed with the UFC, got beaten from pillar to post before eventually succumbing to a rear naked choke courtesy of Forrest Griffin in his Octagon debut. For that matter, he didn’t look much better in his next bout, running out of gas very early and barely hanging on to score a third-round knockout over Mark Coleman. Shogun finally returned to his dominant ways in his third and fourth bouts, scoring a knockout of Chuck Liddell and then losing a close five round decision to current champion Lyoto Machida.
Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira was certainly one of the top two or three heavyweights in Japan when the former PRIDE heavyweight champion signed with the UFC. He was almost knocked out by Heath Herring, a man he had summarily defeated twice previously, in his UFC debut. Minotauro won that night, but it opened a Pandora’s box of questions. Of course, he quickly quieted his critics by submitting Tim Sylvia for the interim heavyweight championship in his next bout.
Cro Cop has also struggled to adjust to life in the Octagon versus the PRIDE ring. The Croatian superstar made a successful debut, stopping Eddie Sanchez in the first round. But he followed that up with a first round knockout loss to Gabriel Gonzaga and a thorough thrashing from Cheick Kongo in his next two fights.
Dan Henderson was the sport’s first simultaneous two-division champion, holding both the PRIDE 183-lb and 205-lb titles and enjoying a stretch where he had won 10 of 12 PRIDE fights when he signed with the UFC. White didn’t waste any time testing Hendo’s mettle, giving him a title shot against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson when he returned to the Octagon after a nine-year hiatus to compete overseas. Hendo suffered a unanimous decision loss that night. He also lost his next bout by second-round submission to current pound-for-pound demigod Anderson Silva and arguably lost two fights later in a disputed decision win over Rich Franklin.
Ryo Chonan lost three of his four UFC bouts after finding success in PRIDE. Kazuhiro Nakamura lost both of his UFC bouts. And the list goes on.
Fighting in the UFC, where crowds are boisterous throughout a fight, versus fighting in PRIDE, where fans largely sit and watch with a respectful hushed tone, are two very different monsters. Fighting in an eight-sided cage versus a ring also presents different challenges. And, most importantly, fighting the best of the best night in and night out is tough for anyone.
Whether Gomi will ever again reach the pinnacle of the sport he enjoyed as the PRIDE lightweight champion remains to be seen. Then again, losing to Florian is nothing to be ashamed of because he certainly isn’t alone in that regard.
SPEAKING OF KENFLO…
What in the world is matchmaker extraordinaire Joe Silva going to do with this guy? He has twice unsuccessfully challenged for the UFC lightweight championship. But those are his only two Octagon losses south of 185-lbs. KenFlo has beaten a who’s who of the list of contenders, including spoiling the long-awaited debut of “The Fireball Kid.”
Penn’s domination of Florian was so complete back in August 2008 that it is tough to imagine him receiving a second shot at the champion any time soon. With that said, if he keeps knocking off top contenders, there may not be anyone left.
If I were Silva, I would match Florian with Gray Maynard next. Maynard is a dominant wrestler, and that is the style that gave him trouble against Diego Sanchez and Sean Sherk. He simply had no answer for their ground-and-pound attack. Could Maynard do the same thing?
If Penn vacates the belt to seek life back in the welterweight division or suffers a shocking defeat to Frankie Edgar later this month, it would make sense to involve Florian in the next title bout. If he has proven anything in the last few years, it is that he is the very best 155-lb fighter who isn’t wearing a belt at the moment.