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UFC 102 Musings

Michael DiSanto, UFC - The first word that comes to mind the morning after UFC 102 is WOW.

The televised portion of the fight card, while not stacked with championship bouts, was as entertaining as any in recent memory. In fact, it had a little something for everyone.
By Michael DiSanto

The first word that comes to mind the morning after UFC 102 is WOW.

The televised portion of the fight card, while not stacked with championship bouts, was as entertaining as any in recent memory. In fact, it had a little something for everyone.

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s win over Randy Couture was an amazing back-and-forth war, satisfying the desires of fans looking for highly competitive fights between marquee combatants. That fight will go down as one of the better headliners of the year.

Thiago Silva, Nathan Marquardt and Todd Duffee each delivered out thunderous first-round knockouts, satiating fans hungry for displays of fistic finality. Duffee took it one step further, stopping Tim Hague in a scant seven seconds to set a new record for fastest knockout. Thus, fans who tuned with the hopes of witnessing history left ended the telecast with a smile from ear to ear.

Jake Rosholt pleased Brazilian Jiu Jitsu purists by surviving multiple big shots from Chris Leben to win in come-from-behind fashion with a third-round submission thanks to an arm triangle. It was a perfect example of how BJJ can turn the tides of a fight in the blink of an eye.

Evan Dunham and Marcus Aurelio gave fans a hotly contested bout that they can debate ad infinitum. Who really won that one? Even the judges couldn’t agree.

Lastly, Ed Herman showed why fighters are a different breed of athlete, refusing to quit at the end of the first round after suffering a major knee injury. Instead, he grit his teeth and fought until his knee completely gave out—maybe not the brightest decision, albeit one that displayed amazing heart and determination. Fans tired of professional athletes sitting on the sidelines with little more than hang nails will be talking about Herman for quite some time.

With that said, UFC 102 was much more than just a collection of fan-friendly bouts. Many of the fights were significant matchups that answered significant questions.

MINOTAURO HAS PLENTY OF TREAD LEFT ON THOSE TIRES

At the tender, young age of 33, ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira is a shot fighter. The grueling wars that made him a legend fighting while fighting in PRIDE have taken such a toll on the former champion that he is now just a shell of his former self. Couture would take full advantage of that, using the fragile Brazilian to springboard back into title contention while Minotauro still had name value as an opponent.

That was the party line for many of the pundits in the wake of Minotauro’s second round technical knockout loss to Frank Mir at UFC 92—the first stoppage loss of his brilliant fighting career. The oddsmakers drank the Kool Aid by the gallons in the weeks leading up to the bout, installing Minotauro as a two-to-one underdog, despite the fact that he presented a matchup nightmare for Couture.

The only problem is that someone forgot to tell Minotauro that he was supposed to be nothing more than Couture’s fall guy at UFC 102. As a result, he put on a dominant performance, bettering Couture in every aspect of the game en route to a clear unanimous decision victory. Minotauro now sports the distinction of being the only man to ever defeat Couture in a UFC bout decided on the judges’ cards.

Shot fighter? Hardly.

Granted, Minotauro did look a little more vulnerable on the feet than normal, appearing a fraction of a second slower with his punches. Some of that is due to Couture’s awkward boxing style. Nobody, other than Chuck Liddell, has looked great on the feet against Couture because he is difficult to time with punches due to his herky-jerky step-slide dirty boxing, which causes opponents to hesitate just a bit before pulling the trigger.

On the ground, however, Minotauro remains a man among boys. When is the last time someone completely dominated Couture on the ground? It hasn’t happened in the New Millennium until UFC 102.

The fact remains that Minotauro has a lot of tread on those durable commercial tires. He poses an intriguing matchup for heavyweight kingpin Brock Lesnar because of his ability to weather violent storms and still find a way to work his BJJ game. Lesnar would undoubtedly want to keep the fight standing against a submission wizard like Nogueira. If the fight went to the ground, whether due to a Lesnar takedown or Nogueira pulling guard, then things could become very interesting very quickly.

Lesnar is expected to next face fellow heavy-handed wrestler Shane Carwin in the fall. If that turns out to be the case, look for Nogueira to return before the end of the year against another top contender in a possible title eliminator.

WHAT IS NEXT FOR COUTURE?

Couture fans shouldn’t fret. ‘The Natural’ isn’t contemplating retirement following his loss at UFC 102, barring some sudden change in circumstances. The UFC opened the door for Couture to return by inking the Hall of Famer to a new six-fight, 28-month contract on Saturday.

So, the question isn’t whether Couture will return, but when and against whom?

The first is the easier of the two questions to address. Couture hasn’t been the most active fighter over the years, typically fighting once or twice per year, depending on his schedule and other factors. Thus, it would be somewhat out of character for him to turn around and fight again before Christmas. Nevertheless, at 46 years young, one would think that he hears the sands draining out of his fighting hourglass, so he will want to maximize his opportunities in the short term. A fight sometime between Christmas and the end of the first quarter of 2010 seems likely.

The more difficult question is against whom. Couture has repeatedly stated that he only wants interesting fights at this point in his career. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, it is extremely difficult for a Hall of Fame fighter with a secure legacy to find the motivation to log the requisite miles of roadwork and hours of sparring to properly prepare for a fight, unless the matchup gets his juices flowing. With all due respect to guys like Heath Herring or Keith Jardine, those bouts won’t get Couture’s juices flowing because wins don’t further propel his already amazing career. Second, the risk of losing to anyone other than the very best is too great for Couture to bear at this late stage. Losses in title bouts or to elite opponents do not necessarily affect his marketability. A loss to an up and comer like Duffee, for example, crushes him at the box office.

So, expect to see Couture return in a headlining bout against a top name. Whether that is at heavyweight or light heavyweight remains to be seen. There are plenty of intriguing matchups at both weights.

A long awaited bout against Mirko Cro Cop would be a bit hit among casual and hardcore fans, assuming the Croatian takes care of business in his upcoming bout with Junior Dos Santos. A win over Cro Cop would instantly put Couture back into the heavyweight mix.

A fight with Mir is another interesting possibility. Both men are former champions. Both are coming off losses and desperately want to put themselves back into contention by defeating a top opponent. The fight is very interesting from a style perspective because Mir possesses one of the best, if not the best, offensive guards in the game; yet, he has been stopped more than once by ground and pound. Unlike Minotauro, who suffered a second round TKO loss to Mir, Couture has the skills to take down Mir, which brings into play a ground-and-pound victory.

For my money, the most interesting matchup is Cain Velasquez. A bout with Velasquez would be the classic bout between an aging champion and a guy on the verge of superstardom. A win over Couture would propel Velasquez to another level, both in terms of his marketability and his personal confidence. A win over Velasquez would be a resounding statement by Couture that he remains a threat to win the title.

Of those three possible opponents, Velasquez is the least likely because he presents more risk than reward for Couture. Regardless, that would be one heck of a fight.

If he opts to drop back down to light heavyweight, there are several huge potential bouts for Couture. The first one that comes to mind is a fight against the winner of the upcoming title fight between reigning 205-lb champion Lyoto Machida and top challenger Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua. Couture is an expert at five-round fights. He knows how to drag guys into deep waters without the benefit of a life preserver. Both men are far more explosive and could easily score quick knockouts against a plodding Couture. But if he is able to take them down and grind away for three rounds, it is well within the realm of possibilities that Couture could stop either man in the championship rounds or hang on to win a decision.

Similarly, a bout against Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, assuming he defeats Rashad Evans later this year, which is far, far from a certainty, would be a massive box office hit. Rampage is an absolute monster at light heavy, but he doesn’t have the best guard in the world, so he could be susceptible to Couture’s ground and pound, assuming that the former three-time heavyweight champion is able to take the action to the ground. For Couture, standing and striking with Rampage is about as wise as trying to hand feed a wild grizzly bear.

A fight with Evans is probably somewhat less attractive to Couture. Evans’ speed and wrestling ability present big matchup problems for Couture. He is just as dangerous on the feet as Rampage and is probably a bit more difficult to take down. Though unlike Rampage, Evans is not yet a bona fide superstar, so there isn’t the same upside for Couture. This matchup, therefore, probably wouldn’t happen, unless it was for a title.

One other possible matchup is a box office bonanza against reigning pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva. Couture’s ability to take the action to the ground and keep it there could present serious matchup problems for Silva. Only two men have found any semblance of success against Silva since he joined the UFC. Both Dan Henderson and Travis Lutter enjoyed tremendous success in the opening rounds of their respective fights with the champion by taking him down and keeping him there. There is no reason to think that Couture couldn’t do the same thing.

For what it’s worth, Silva is the option that I think makes the most sense for Couture. A win over the reigning middleweight champion in a 205-lb special attraction bout would inject more adrenalin into Couture’s career than any other non-title matchup. A loss to the best fighter in the world certainly doesn’t hurt him any more than losing to anyone else, so the risk profile is acceptable. I guarantee that the matchup would sufficiently motivate the Hall of Famer, so it meets Couture’s requirement of being an interesting matchup.

MARQUARDT’S WIN RAISES QUESTIONS, THOUGH THERE IS A SIMPLE SOLUTION

All it took was one punch for Marquardt to remind the world that there is a legitimate question as to who is the most deserving of the next shot at Silva’s middleweight belt. His win over previously undefeated contender Demian Maia was equally significant to Hendo’s spectacular knockout win over Michael Bisping at UFC 100.

It is impossible for me to definitively state whether Hendo or Marquardt is more deserving of the next shot at UFC gold. Both have been dominant against excellent competition since suffering a clear loss to Silva. Both are coming off possibly the most impressive performances of their UFC careers. And both are undoubtedly among the very best middleweights in the world.

So, how do you resolve the question? It is simple. Have the two top contenders face off in a true title eliminator.

Think about that fight for a moment. Marquardt versus Henderson is probably the most interesting matchup in the middleweight division, including bouts involving the champion. It is a true pick’em, in my opinion, because their respective skills perfectly match up.

For example, both men prefer to stand and strike. Yet, Marquardt has cleaner standup technique and a bit more speed. Then again, Bisping enjoyed those advantages against Hendo, and we all know what happened to him thanks to Hendo’s granite chin and jaw-dropping one-punch knockout power.

Hendo is a far superior wrestler, so he would likely determine whether the action unfolded on the feet or on the ground. His advantage in wrestling, however, is tempered by Marquardt’s black belt in BJJ. Hendo is susceptible to submissions when he gets a bit careless on the ground, as evidenced by his submission losses to other BJJ black belts, including Silva and the Nogueira brothers.

There are two keys to making Marquardt versus Henderson come to life. The first lies with former light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort. ‘The Phenom’ is back and is expected to make a run at Silva’s middleweight title. Belfort is a true fighting superstar, both here and in his native Brazil. If he is able to put on a dominant performance against former middleweight champion Rich Franklin in their upcoming 195-lb catchweight bout, then an immediate return bout against Silva becomes a very likely possibility. After all, Dana White publicly mentioned Belfort as a possible future challenger a few weeks ago. A master marketer, White likes to strike when the iron is hot when putting together title bouts, and the iron will be white hot if Belfort looks like a beast against Franklin.

The second key lies with the champion himself. Absent Belfort emerging as the next in line, Silva would need to either take an extended break from competition or otherwise stay at 205 lbs for his next matchup in order to give Marquardt and Hendo time to settle their debate.

Whatever happens, the middleweight division just got a lot more interesting.

THIAGO SILVA REMAINS RELEVANT IN THE UFC’S GLAMOUR DIVISION

It is impossible to predict how a fighter will react to his first loss. Let alone when that loss is by brutal knockout. Some guys wilt away, their confidence permanently shattered.

Thiago Silva is not one of those guys.

His first-round stoppage of Jardine put the world on notice that the knockout loss to Machida was nothing more than a bump in the road. He was just as ferocious at UFC 102 as he was in previous bouts.

The once-beaten 205-lb contender remains one of the top fighters in the division. A couple more wins and he could very well find himself back near the top of the light heavyweight heap.

VERA TAKES CARE OF BUSINESS, BUT DOESN’T MAKE THE SOUGHT AFTER STATEMENT

Brandon Vera is one of the most talented fighters in the sport. Ask anyone who has trained with him. His kickboxing skills border on ridiculous. His Greco Roman wrestling is world class. And he has a deep submission arsenal. Yet, he has struggled to really put those skills together and perform up to his ability as a light heavyweight. His last bout against a woefully overmatched Michael Patt was a huge step in the right direction for ‘The Truth.’ His win over Krzysztof Soszynski at UFC 102 was not.

Vera gave the fans an honest, workmanlike performance against Soszynski. But it fell well short of making the statement that Vera was openly searching for according to his pre-fight interviews. He may very well be a champion in the making, though workmanlike efforts aren’t going to strike any fear in the hearts of the division’s big dogs.

One of the finest performances of his career came in his knockout win over Mir at UFC 65. That bout made the heavyweight division stand up and take notice of the San Diego-based fighter. Vera admitted afterward that he was very fearful of his opponent heading into UFC 65, which made him compete with a focus and purpose rarely seen in the 31-year-old since. It stands to reason, therefore, that Vera needs to step up his level of competition at 205 lbs in order to regain that sort of focus. Bouts against top contender Thiago Silva or former champions Forrest Griffin or Tito Ortiz immediately come to mind as the sort of matchups that would both present him with a tremendous challenge and also give him the opportunity to stake his claim among the division’s elite.

At the end of the day, a win is a win. If Vera keeps winning, he will eventually find his way to a title shot. But again, if he wants to strike fear in the hearts of future opponents, he needs to step up his effort in future fights.
Sunday, October 26
2AM
GMT
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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