Archive for the ‘UFC’ Category

Chael Sonnen: Bad guy or great promoter?

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

By Matt Larkin

Guest Writer

Dana White recently made a bold statement about UFC middleweight contender and wrestling dynamo Chael Sonnen. White claimed he’s “never seen anyone who can talk like this guy can since Muhammad Ali. Seriously. Since Muhammad Ali – the stuff that just comes right off the top of his head, and is hilarious. And you don’t know what’s real and what’s not real.”

I don’t want to join the Sonnen/Ali debate at the moment. Instead, I’d like to latch on to the end of White’s comment. We don’t know what’s real and what’s not real. That’s what interests me so much about Chael Sonnen. As much as he’s developed a villain persona – it’s hard not to when you’re busted for banned substances and money laundering – I wonder how much of his brash personality is the real Chael.

In fact, I’d go as far as staking a claim that Sonnen is not the bad boy he builds himself up to be and is instead simply one of the sport’s hardest-working promoters. It’s true that he says utterly shocking things – about the Nogueira brothers and the nation of Brazil, for example. And he’s made his share of bizarre and often disrespectful talk-show appearances. But consider these pieces of evidence that it may be an act:

1.  He never trash talks about his friends. Look at Brian Stann and Mark Munoz, Sonnen’s most recent conquest and his upcoming opponent. Sonnen has personal relationships with both and made a point of not only saying nothing bad about them, but singing their praises (in Stann’s case).

2. He showed a nice- guy side at UFC 136 with an 11-year-old boy. The boy’s father published a heartfelt defense of Sonnen, chronicling how Sonnen took his son behind the scenes of an event, introduced him to fighters, signed autographs, posed for photos and took him to the section where the fighters sit as spectators. The story is actually backed up with video evidence (in a blog in which Sonnen is inadvertently seen and heard with the boy in the background). What’s most interesting about it is that the UFC made no attempt to publicize it, almost as if it didn’t want news of Sonnen being benevolent to get out and tarnish his villainous image.

3. He has reportedly turned down the latest opportunity to coach The Ultimate Fighter. Why would Sonnen, the mouth of all mouths, refuse the ultimate chance to have the spotlight to himself? My theory: because he’s actually a nice guy. He’d be exposed as a good coach and be seen genuinely helping fighters.

The evidence is circumstantial at best – but I believe Sonnen is a normal guy behind the scenes who simply plays the bad guy, just as a WWE wrestler does. If he was truly a villain, we wouldn’t find contradictory examples of him being a nice guy. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Dana White and the UFC were in on it.

Whether he’s for real or not – I say keep up the good work, Chael. At least in MMA, there isn’t a better mouth today.

The Return of Cris ‘Cyborg’ Santos

Friday, December 16th, 2011

By Matt Larkin

Guest Writer

The casual MMA fan probably doesn’t know about the Strikeforce event happening Saturday, December 17, and for fairly good reason: regardless of what the UFC says, it’s clear Strikeforce is the “B” promotion under Zuffa now and that the talent pool is slowly being bled dry.

Diehards, though, will likely tune in to catch Gilbert Melendez defend his lightweight championship in what could be his final fight before he’s called up to the big leagues.

Me? I’m reasonably excited about Melendez. But the bout doesn’t mean much. I suspect he’ll beat Jorge Masvidal and, even if he doesn’t, he’s likely coming over to contend among the UFC’s best 155-pounders either way. Melendez versus Gray Maynard, Clay Guida, Melvin Guillard, Anthony Pettis or Jim Miller? For a right to face the winner of Frankie Edgar and Ben Henderson? Set it up, Dana and Joe.

For Saturday, I’m much more excited to see women’s champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos return to the cage after an 18-month layoff. Her bout isn’t exciting in the sense that there’s much suspense about her winning or losing, as she has proven worlds above her competition in the past. But it will be very interesting to see just how far her competition has come.

Last year,  I was actually impressed with Strikeforce for holding Santos back, not forcing the issue and handing her another cupcake opponent. Her last fight was among the most disturbing I’ve ever seen. She brutalized Jan Finney so badly that the crowd booed her for being too mean. The referee begged Finney, “Fight back, Jan.” It was an embarrassment for women’s MMA. It reminded me of the horrifically lopsided scores for Canada and USA over hapless opponents in women’s Olympic hockey; those teams outscored opponents 41-2 in the 2010 preliminary rounds. The shellackings left pundits suggesting the game go an Olympic hiatus until the competition caught up.

Saturday will tell us a lot. If Hiroko Yamanaka at least gives Cyborg a strong fight, it will help women’s MMA two-fold. First, it will tell other contenders they don’t have to be afraid to challenge Cyborg anymore. Secondly – though this is a highly under-the- radar notion – a great fight between the two women could serve as an audition for the UFC. I haven’t heard the slightest peep about women in the UFC but, hey, the Strikeforce women’s division is under the same ownership umbrella now. Maybe a strong showing would put dollar signs in Dana White’s eyes.

Unfortunately, I expect Cyborg Santos to annihilate Yamanaka. The champ weighs the same as Jose Aldo and once power-bombed 200-plus-pounder Tito Ortiz during a BJJ training session. But my fingers are crossed. If Yamanaka puts up a real fight, she’ll show us there’s hope for women’s MMA yet.

I’m certainly rooting for it. As Cyborg and Gina Carano showed us in one unforgettable round when they clashed in summer of 2009, women’s MMA can be every bit as exciting to watch as the men’s game.

Fingers crossed for Saturday.

Is Jon Jones the world’s top pound-for-pound fighter?

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

By Matt Larkin

Guest Writer

That may have been Jon Jones’ most impressive showing in the Octagon yet. This is a recording.

“Bones,” the UFC’s light heavyweight champ, was proven human for a few brief moments by challenger and Karate master Lyoto Machida last Saturday at UFC 140 in Toronto. To me, that made Jones’ performance even more staggering. He took a hard shot or two, realized he was in a fight, adjusted and proceeded to embarrass one of the world’s best fighters. He needed a single elbow to turn The Dragon’s forehead into a bloody mess. The image of him dropping the unconscious Machida to the canvas after a standing guillotine choke will be replayed for years.

After the victory, buzz among MMA pundits suggested Jones deserved to vault Georges St-Pierre in the world pound-for-pound rankings. To me, that isn’t even an interesting topic to debate anymore. GSP has fought four times in the last 36 months, winning only by decision. Jones has annihilated four opponents in the last 10 months. Three of Jones’ conquests – Machida, Shogun Rua and Rampage Jackson – have been UFC champions before. None of St-Pierre’s last four opponents has.

To me, Jones is clearly the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter on Earth. The more interesting question is where he ranks relative to Anderson Silva. “The Spider” deserves the unofficial title of greatest mixed martial artist of all time, but comparing his last four fights to Jones’ last four makes the waters murky. Silva was lackluster against Demian Maia and was 110 seconds away from losing to Chael Sonnen.

Then again, Silva humiliated his last two opponents, Vitor Belfort and Yushin Okami, using his Muay Thai. He’s also won 15 straight fights. If you count Jones “loss” to Matt Hamill, he’s actually walked through 16 straight opponents, but Silva still has the more impressive overall body of work.

The Spider still probably deserves No. 1 status – but we’re bordering on a 1A/1B situation here.

Was Henderson vs. Rua really the ‘fight of the century’?

Friday, November 25th, 2011

By Matt Larkin

Guest Writer

Well, that was the war we all knew it would be.

Dan Henderson versus Mauricio “Shogun” Rua was a match 10 years in the making and an extremely difficult one to call. Both guys possessed tremendous knockout power, both had beaten the best in the business and both were masters of their respective disciplines – Henderson Greco-Roman wrestling and Rua Muay Thai.

So it was no surprise the two star 205-pounders put on an epic show. Both guys took such horrific beatings that they were posing together for photos in the hospital after the fight. The UFC handed both of them six-month medical suspensions. Henderson got the decision but it easily could have gone the either way in such a back-and-forth bout. I personally scored it a draw (the first three rounds at 10-9 for “Hendo,” the fourth round 10-9 for Shogun and the final round 10-8).

It was a legendary bloodbath and a great way to showcase the new five-round format for non-title main events. But for me, the praise stops there. Some pundits and fans have resorted to hyperbole, labelling it the “greatest MMA fight of all time.”

That’s where I jump off the bandwagon. Though it was a fantastic battle and certainly one of the 2011’s best, I don’t consider it the best fight we’ve ever seen. I believe it was missing a few crucial elements necessary to elevate it to the all-time pantheon. To illustrate what I mean, I’ll refer to some of the bouts I do consider the best ever.

Did it feature a remarkable comeback?

No. It almost did. Shogun was inches away from being stopped midway through the fight, woozy from blood loss and turtling as Henderson rained down punches. That he rallied to utterly dominate Hendo in the later rounds constituted an absolutely remarkable comeback. But there was just one problem: he didn’t complete it. Shogun still lost.

One of my picks for the greatest fights of all time, Matt Hughes versus Frank Trigg II, featured the complete comeback. So did Frankie Edgar versus Gray Maynard III.

Did it feature non-stop action?

The kneejerk reaction is to say “Yes, are you kidding? It was all-out carnage.” Yes and no. Both fighters gave it their all – but to the point where they were exhausted and “zombified” by the final round. Hendo had nothing in the tank. It was rather anti-climactic.

For a non-stop tilt in which both guys kept swinging for five full rounds, give me Leonard Garcia versus Chan-Sung Jung any day of the week.

Was justice served?

Can a fight truly be one of the best ever if so many people believe the other guy won? From what I’ve heard and read, the judges were just about the only ones to score it in Hendo’s favor.

If you want a war on par with Henderson versus Rua, but where the right guy wins in the end, watch Forrest Griffin versus Stephan Bonnar I. It certainly wasn’t an easy decision but the case for Griffin’s win was very strong.

Based on the above questions, I believe Henderson /Rua fails the “greatest of all time” test. But don’t get me wrong; it was still a fantastic fight that deserves to be celebrated.

Who Can Beat Junior Dos Santos?

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

By Matt Larkin

Guest Writer

All that hype for the UFC’s big heavyweight title fight on FOX – and the landmark MMA moment was over almost as quickly as it started. Challenger Junior Dos Santos floored champion Cain Velasquez with a right hand a little more than a minute into their bout. Now that “Cigano” reigns supreme as the world’s undisputed top heavyweight, it’s time to ask: can anyone beat him?

The winner of Brock Lesnar and Alistair Overeem will get the next shot but I don’t think either has the goods to beat the champ. Lesnar is just too uncomfortable being punched. His wrestling won’t matter because Dos Santos’ boxing is too quick and powerful. I think he would hurt Lesnar before Lesnar could score a takedown. Overeem is arguably the closest to JDS’ equal in the striking game but he’s slower and has faced highly inferior competition during his hot streak.

Who does that leave? Josh Barnett would be an interesting challenger if he came over from Strikeforce. But, again, if big guys like Velasquez and Shane Carwin couldn’t take Dos Santos down, can Barnett do it? Though he has power, he also wouldn’t hold a candle to Dos Santos’ boxing in the standup game. Same goes for promising Strikeforce wrestler Daniel Cormier.

The winner of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Frank Mir’s fight on December 10 will rise significantly in the heavyweight rankings. We can forget about a Big Nog/Dos Santos fight. They train together and the Black House guys are adamant about never fighting each other. Mir’s skill set makes him an intriguing contender. His boxing has improved significantly in recent years and he’s obviously a master submission artist. But, again, can he get Dos Santos to the ground?

A sleeper pick could be Cheick Kongo. He has the size, chin and striking accuracy to go toe-to-toe with champ. We can forget Fabricio Werdum, Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson for now, as Dos Santos destroyed all three already.

To me, the best – and perhaps the only – bet to beat Dos Santos is the man who just lost to him. Cain Velasquez didn’t even attempt a takedown on Dos Santos and got knocked out before he could get a feel for the big Brazilian. I chalk it up to ring rust. Velasquez hadn’t fought for more than a year after having shoulder surgery. If he can work his way back to No. 1 contendership, he should be better prepared next time to use his outstanding wrestling and give Dos Santos a proper test.

But if Velasquez can’t return to beat Dos Santos one day, I’m not sure anyone can.

Will the UFC’s first FOX venture change MMA?

Monday, November 7th, 2011

By Matt Larkin

Guest Writer

With the UFC’s first major network-TV event arriving this Saturday night, it’s worth revisiting the ramifications of such a venture. Does Saturday mark the dawn of a new era in mixed martial arts or is the significance overhyped? Will Velasquez vs. Dos Santos enthral millions of viewers or fall on its face?

To get sense of what Saturday means, let’s look at two factors: media exposure and fight quality.

At this point, it would be a shock if Saturday’s heavyweight title bout didn’t end up as the highest-rated free-TV MMA event ever. It may not feel like FOX has gone overboard with promotion, opting for plugs during NFL telecasts, ads sprinkled throughout primetime and the odd studio interview  But we can’t underestimate how many more eyeballs watch FOX than watch Spike TV – or pay-per-view, for that matter. Even the UFC Primetime preview show, which first aired on a lazy Sunday afternoon, drew record ratings for the UFC.

So it’s safe to say that, at least in terms of exposure, Saturday’s card is extremely significant for MMA. However, that doesn’t mean the first UFC on Fox telecast is guaranteed to explode the sport into widespread popularity.

To me, fight quality is just as important as the viewership itself. If you’re an MMA purist, you may hate it when a newbie fan gets bored by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, and other forms of grappling. However, even if it’s unfair, it’s a simple truth that the ground game takes longer for a new fan to learn. A wild striking affair is more likely to first-timers over. So, for example, if Velasquez takes Dos Santos down and lays on top of him for five rounds, the result could be disastrous for the UFC. The same people who didn’t give the sport a chance before will turn off their TV believing their skepticism was validated.

The good news is that we’re fairly likely to see a great fight on Saturday. Velasquez a is world-class wrester who remains very active on the ground and Dos Santos is a world-class boxer with great hand speed and power. Both guys finish opponents more often than not. So it’s fair to expect fireworks.

However, a thrilling fight isn’t guaranteed – and neither is a widespread explosion in MMA popularity. If the stars align and we’re treated to an epic heavyweight war, the Earth might move, but the UFC is probably better off expecting incremental gains for now.

The top three wrestlers in MMA today

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

By Matt Larkin

Guest Writer

After debating with some friends over whether or not Georges St-Pierre is MMA’s best wrestler, it got me wondering: who would be my picks for the top three active practitioners in every MMA discipline? I’ll start with wrestling.

1. Chael Sonnen

Is he MMA’s most experienced wrestler? He’s a former Greco-Roman national champion and was dominant wrestling at the University of Oregon. His takedowns are explosive and he regularly manhandles bigger guys on the ground. Just ask Nate Marquardt and Brian Stann.

2. Georges St-Pierre

If the Canadian Olympic team wants you to try out, you know you’re a pretty good wrestler. Georges St-Pierre has transitioned smoothly from a Karate practitioner to a guy who relies more on boxing and especially wrestling to win fights. Unlike Sonnen, he works hard to pass once he’s on top and in an opponent’s guard, but Sonnen gets my No. 1 spot because of his experience edge in pure wrestling.

3. Cain Velasquez

Because the weight range is so wide, we see bigger size discrepancies at heavyweight than in any other division. That’s what makes Cain Velasquez particularly impressive. He is one of the smallest heavyweights in the UFC yet the undefeated champion has embarrassed guys who are not only bigger, but comfortable on the ground. He absolutely had his way with the hulking Ben Rothwell, for example. Even when the gargantuan Brock Lesnar took Velasquez down, the champ managed to do what no one else has done against Lesnar; get back up.

Velasquez rounds out the top three because he’s living proof that technique is more important than size and strength. In fact, that theme is prevalent among all three of these choices. What do you think, fight fans? Keeping in mind that I’m not factoring in retired fighters like Randy Couture, have I omitted someone better?

Should a No. 1 contender “wait” if the champion is injured?

Friday, October 21st, 2011

By Matt Larkin

Guest Writer

UFC 137 just won’t be the same. The headliner, welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, sprained his knee while training this week and is out of commission for at least a month and probably longer. The main event has been postponed.

But note that I didn’t used the term “cancelled.” Top 170-pound contender, Carlos Condit, will await GSP’s recovery and still challenge him for the belt. Wrestling master Josh Koscheck offered to step in and battle Condit on short notice but Condit declined, stating that he “had nothing to gain” from fighting someone below him on the ladder.

At first glance, the logic seems sound. After all, if Condit only has one guy ahead of him in the divisional rankings, fighting – and losing – to anyone below him can only hurt his career. But I wonder if good things always come to those who wait. Waiting for a shot guarantees that you still get to battle for the belt but it also means you sit on the shelf for a long period of time and can become rusty and/or lose your hunger. Worse yet, a long layoff could hinder your body’s ability to respond under extreme stress. Just ask Rashad Evans.

“Suga” earned a No. 1 contender match against Muay Thai specialist Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in 2010 but decided to wait a full year for his title shot after Shogun blew out his knee. After not fighting for a year, Evans’ rusty body failed him leading up to the winter 2011 fight. He injured himself and lost the title shot; Jon Jones got it instead.

Evans finally returned to the cage after more than a year off to beat Tito Ortiz this summer but he injured himself again, losing another title shot (this time against Jon Jones). I have to wonder: if Evans hadn’t waited for Shogun and instead had maintained his normal fighting schedule, would he have gotten hurt as easily? He waited a year for a title shot and that wait has grown to two years and counting.

If GSP’s layoff turns out to be long and Condit waits many months for the fight, he could suffer from ring rust or increase his risk of injury, as Evans may have done.

Someone in Condit’s position might point to lightweight Melvin Guillard. “The Young Assassin” reportedly had a chance to wait for the winner of Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard, decided to keep fighting and stay fresh, and lost to Joe Lauzon. Bye-bye title shot.

To me, however, that loss just showed that Guillard wasn’t a true No. 1 challenger. If you really think you’re the second-best in your weight class, shouldn’t you have no problem beating anyone below you? If Condit were to, say, risk his title shot to battle someone like Jon Fitch while GSP recovered, the risk would be huge, but the gain would be a lot bigger than he might believe. Beating Fitch would greatly increase Condit’s confidence, put a scare in the champ and keep Condit’s skills sharper heading into a GSP fight.

It’s hard to really blame any contender who wants to wait out a champ – after all, who knows when he or she might get another shot? – but the decision is more complicated than it may seem.

Why losing to Carlos Condit might help Georges St-Pierre’s legacy

Friday, October 14th, 2011

By Matt Larkin

Guest Writer

Make no mistake: swapping Carlos Condit in for Nick Diaz as Georges St-Pierre’s next challenger for the UFC welterweight title was not a lucky break for the champ.

In fact, I’d argue that Condit may give GSP his toughest test in years – at least since the Thiago Alves fight (on paper, as he ended up dominating Alves).

Condit embodies what mixed martial arts is all about. He’s the total package, displaying knockout power, solid BJJ and submission skills, excellent fitness and, most of all, a true killer instinct. It’s the latter trait that should have the champ sweating. Appropriately nicknamed the Natural Born Killer, Condit (27-5) is as good a finisher as anyone in the sport. Of his 27 victories, 26 have come via stoppage, 13 by knockout and 13 by submission. He has a granite jaw and has battled back to win some real wars.

Though overcoming St-Pierre’s wrestling will still be a challenge for the wiry Condit, he clearly poses a major threat to St-Pierre because he’s truly willing to go for broke and he attacks from any position in the cage, including on his back. That nasty edge is the one skill GSP lacks nowadays and it makes me wonder if losing this fight would be better for St-Pierre’s career.

With a 22-2 record and having avenged his only two losses, GSP has surpassed Matt Hughes as the greatest 170-punder ever to compete in MMA. He’s at worst the No. 3 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. But if he continues to fight the way he has his last few times in the cage, he’ll tarnish his legacy.

St-Pierre has begun fighting not to lose. It was particularly evident in his most recent title defenses against Josh Koscheck and Jake Shields, when he was clearly the superior striker but seemed afraid to fully engage. This conservative style has sent many a fan leaping off the GSP bandwagon.

GSP fights cautiously because he has little to gain and everything to lose when defending his title. If we ever want to see the GSP we fell in love with again, he may be better off losing the belt.

Falling to Condit would mean that GSP would have to change his game the next time out and win more decisively to gain top contender status and challenge for the belt again. He would have to battle in a way that didn’t leave the fight to the judges. He’d have to bust out all the athletic, dynamic strikes and takedowns that he used to, when he was the welterweight version of Jon Jones. Losing the belt would also open up a chance for GSP to challenge Anderson Silva at 185 pounds.

If St-Pierre keeps winning, he’ll forever be viewed as a dominant champion, but also as a boring one who didn’t take chances. He said he wants to be known as the best fighter of all-time. To do that, he may need to be humbled first. If Condit breaks GSP down, the legend may build himself back up better than ever.

UFC 136’s fallen contenders: What’s next?

Monday, October 10th, 2011

By Matt Larkin

Guest Writer

UFC 136 was a phenomenal mixed martial arts card. In fact, some people are calling last Saturday’s event the best in UFC history. While we saw two champions defend their titles and at least one other fighter earn No. 1 contendership status, several other top contenders saw their hopes dashed. What’s next for the fallen stars of UFC 136? Let’s have a look at four fighters’ whose fates have greatly changed after Saturday.

Gray Maynard (155 pounds)

Gray Maynard had his second shot at the UFC lightweight title against Frankie Edgar and, boy, did he blow it. Their third bout opened exactly like their second, with Maynard hurting Edgar badly and almost finishing him. Maynard looked like an evolved man at first, conserving his energy, but sat back too much, threw nothing but haymakers and let Edgar back into the fight before the little guy knocked him out.

The defeat was Maynard’s first ever as a pro, so his future remains bright. The lightweight division, however, is the most stacked in the sport. It looks like the winner of Ben Henderson and Clay Guida will get Edgar next (unless Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez swoops in), so I’d give Maynard someone hanging around the top five.

Recommended fight: Anthony Pettis

Kenny Florian (145 pounds)

Kenny, Kenny, Kenny. He just can’t win the big one. The perennial bridesmaid at least gave a solid effort against Muay Thai master Jose Aldo but I wonder if he’ll ever be a champ. At bigger weight classes, Florian got pushed around. At featherweight, he has to cut so much weight to fight there that he loses muscle and can’t use his size advantage. Aldo was the stronger man on Saturday.

I honestly wonder if Ken-Flo would be better off retiring and becoming a commentator. If he doesn’t, though, he should consider jumping back into the lightweight fray against a lower-tier top-10 guy.

Recommended fight: Nate Diaz

Brian Stann (185 pounds)

After tearing through his first three middleweight opponents, knockout artist Brian Stann had no answer for his friend Chael Sonnen’s wrestling. With his striking and marketability as a decorated U.S. Marine, Stann will still land another big fight next. Demian Maia would make sense after winning has last bout. So would Yushin Okami. But the idea of Stann battling Vitor Belfort in a striking war is just too fun. Do it, Dana!

Recommended fight: Vitor Belfort

Melvin Guillard (155 pounds)

Like Gray Maynard, Guillard is tremendously talented but, like Gray Maynard, Guillard makes too many mental blunders. He was too confident and fired up against Joe Lauzon on Saturday and got caught with a punch before Lauzon tapped him out. The Young Assassin’s ceiling remains high if he can mature.

Instead of giving Guillard a striker to run through, I’d test him right away and see if he can learn from his mistake. Someone like Jim Miller, a BJJ expert who is a threat to submit him, would make sense.

Recommended fight: Jim Miller