With a bit of analysis, getting these in before the show.
Brockules vs. Frank Merr
The defining feature here is the advantage a world-class wrestler has over most opponents: the ability to determine the level at which the fight proceeds. If Brock wants to stand, they stand; if Brock wants to roll, they roll. Mir can compete with Brock on either level and from nearly any position, but he can’t make Brock go where he wants him to with any degree of regularity. In a 3 round fight perhaps Mir could get Brock where he wanted him once or twice, perhaps suckering him to the ground by playing possum, Noguiera-style, or perhaps scoring a lucky takedown which Brock would not expect. Maybe that steals Mir a round. In a 5 rounder, if it goes long (which I don’t expect, but for sake of argument), while Mir might be able to win a round or threaten here and there by such means, it’s not a winning strategy as time will allow Brock’s superiority to tell. So the major question is: what does Brock want to do?
I think he wants to stand, for several reasons: I don’t believe he respects Mir’s striking as much you might expect, since he’s well aware of the difficulties Noguiera had going into his fight with Mir and in his own first fight with Mir he clobbered him quickly on the feet; Brock’s coming off of a KO victory himself; and there are reports (per Dave Meltzer, for instance) that Brock’s been working in training on what you might call the Randy Couture Fight, a lot of ugly grinding Graeco-style clinchwork and dirty boxing against the cage. That’s the strategy which almost certainly works best for Brock, and I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t know it. He can force that style of fight by bull-rushing Mir, it allows him to impose a probable strength advantage, it lets him lean on Mir and wear him down while preserving his own gas tank, it minimizes the chances of getting caught in a submission, and it allows Brock to negate Mir’s advantages in the standup which are mostly quickness and greater technical fluidity. There’s no guarantees in MMA, but this is probably the approach which maximizes Brock’s chances to win and it’s also probably the one which is hardest for Mir to answer. If Brock takes Mir down, there’s a million things he can try off of his back, even if Brock’s submission defense has improved; standing outside of the clinch Mir is quicker and more varied in what he can offer and could potentially win rounds simply with movement and variety, point-striking and moving away. Brock could still win either of those styles of fights since he’s becoming smarter and more disciplined with his ground-and-pound and leaves fewer openings to be caught with a submission, and his ridiculous gorilla arms make it harder to move and stay on the outside against him than most other plodding boxers, but the Randy Couture Fight is the higher percentage play.
Prediction here is that this looks somewhat like Couture-Lesnar. Brock mauls him against the cage for a round and a half, lets the clinch go, and just wallops a tired Mir with a giant right hand as he plods back to the center of the cage. Lesnar KO2 Mir (Straight right—>GnP, TKO.)
Georges St. Pierre vs. Thiago Alves
From a purely sporting perspective this is the best fight on the card and has a real chance to be a classic. The basic dynamic is clear: Alves is the best striker in the division while GSP is simply The Best in the division, the most complete fighter in the sport today with essentially no clearly exploitable weaknesses at this point in time. Mentally he appears stronger now than ever before; his chin, while not perfect, is still very good; his cardio is inhuman and was showed off to best effect in going 5 hard against Jon Fitch and 4 in dominant fashion against BJ Penn, after which he looked as though he could have gone 10; he out-wrestles top level wrestlers, out-strikes excellent strikers, clowns jiu-jitsu world champions on the ground; and at 28 he appears to be only now entering his athletic prime which is a truly terrifying thought. Throw in that he’s out of the Greg Jackson camp and has Jackson’s gameplanning skills to call on, and it’s hard to see who beats him or how. And yet, Alves is the kind of fighter who, just for a second, gives you pause: his Muay Thai striking is not just the best in the division outside of GSP, it’s flagrantly so; he’s a preposterously huge man for the division, so much so that he’s both missed weight and been busted for an illegal diuretic at various times trying to make 171; he’s got a fantastic sprawl which makes his standup as effective as it can be; and he hasn’t lost in nearly three years, bringing all the confidence in the world into this fight. MMA is about finding ways to win, and it’s tempting to look at Alves and think- here’s a man who, if not as well-rounded as GSP, is at least his equal and probably better than him in one area and may well have the skills necessary to force the fight into that zone. Since no one out there now is going to be as great in all areas as GSP, the idea to beat him is to find someone better in one area who can make that the fight.
Only, I don’t buy it. It’s essentially the idea we heard about in the BJ Penn fight the second time around- that while GSP could take anyone down, he would find himself in trouble once he ended up in BJ Penn’s guard which was a whole different world than taking down someone like Josh Koscheck. Then GSP passed that guard and beat 5 kinds of shit out of Baby Jay. GSP does this sort of thing- he appears to be so generally great at everything that, in conjunction with excellent coaching, he has the ability to develop shockingly quickly in certain areas if he puts his mind to it in connection with a specific fight. We saw it when he trained his wrestling to out-wrestle wrestlers, than his BJJ to pass Penn’s guard. I don’t exactly expect him to out-strike Alves (though with a better jab and greater quickness I honestly don’t dismiss the possibility), I do expect that if he wants this fight to go to the ground it will go there eventually. Alves has a very good sprawl but it’s not impossible to take him down, and GSP is as good a wrestler and a better athlete than anyone else out there at 170. If Matt Hughes can get Alves down, GSP can, especially since GSP is a good enough striker to at least compete on the feet which makes his take down attempts harder to anticipate and harder to stop. He may also be the only man in the division quick enough to catch an Alves leg kick for a single leg. Of note as well is something Mike Coughlin brought up on his podcast, that Alves seems to have trouble with being forced backwards and more difficulty stopping clinch-based takedowns than shots. If that’s true, Greg Jackson will have noticed it.
Once they’re down Alves is deeply screwed as you might expect from a huge welterweight who was once tapped by Spencer Fisher. His BJJ is not in the same universe as BJ Penn’s and Penn’s availed him nothing, and the size difference matters less off his back than anywhere else. GSP is almost impossible to sweep, his ground and pound is brutal, he might be a better BJJ practitioner than Alves (so far as I can tell he’s a couple of belt ranks ahead, which may or may not mean something) and Alves tends to flop around a bit on the ground from what I’ve seen, trying many things but also leaving himself open a lot for submissions or passing attempts rather than closing down and looking to stand up or for a stand up. Most importantly this is where the cardio issue will really come out. GSP especially from top position can fight essentially forever- we know for a fact that he can go 5 hard rounds at a world class level. Alves on the bottom and taking damage for any serious length of time is a very good bet to gas, as are almost all fighters who cut the insane amount of weight he does. Once he’s gassed, he’s dead, and GSP can finish him anyway he wants to.
To win this fight Alves needs everything to go right. He has to stuff the takedowns of the best wrestler in the division, KO a guy with a very good chin who’s learned from hard experience how to survive when buzzed, and hope he can do it all before he runs out of gas and without GSP and Greg Jackson having come up with a solution for him. GSP only needs to do what he’s been doing recently- take guys down, out-wrestle them, and pound them stupid. I’ve reached the point where I refuse to bet against GSP until someone actually beats him by being better (as opposed to catching him with a flukey shot), and on this one I’m sticking with the majority and making the trendy submission pick. GSP Sub4 Alves (Gassed helplessness—>armbar).
Michael Bisping vs. HENDO
Maybe the simplest fight on the card, and one of the hardest to pick. I could write a bunch on this, but the bottom line is: what does Hollywood Hendo have left? In his prime he destroys Bisping and picks his teeth with the splinters, but for my money at least he looked more than a step slower last time out against Rich Franklin. If he’s really slowed, Bisping could just dance around him controlling range and point-striking him while Hendo lumbers after, trying to find a home for that big right hand he falls in love with. If Hendo is even 80% of what he was in his prime and decides to make this a wrestling match, he’s still much better than Bisping and could totally control the majority of the match with Randy Couture Fight against the cage and mauling Bisping from top position. Will he? Search me. Oddly, even though I’m totally rooting for Hendo in this one, my instincts say Bisping- with judging the way it is, a younger flashier guy who throws many more strikes is rarely a bad bet (see: the Matt Hamill fight). And yet…I’m going with my head and the opinions of most others on this one. Hendo’s a smart guy, he’s seen everything there is to see and he doesn’t get rattled, and if Bisping wins the first round and Hendo can’t land that right I think he reverts to wrestling mode and grinds Bisping into the cage and mat to win the last two and take the ugly decision. Hendo dec. Bisping (29-28). The only thing I’m confident on here is that this one’s going all 3 rounds.
Jon Fitch vs. Paulo Thiago “Not Alves”
There’s officially too fucking many Thiagos in this promotion, though this fight may help sort that out.
Jon Fitch once appeared on the TV show “Mythbusters”; now he gets a chance to bust the myth that there’s more to Paulo Thiago than a lucky punch, a questionable stoppage, and Josh Koscheck’s recent habit of falling in love with his standup to excess. Thiago was losing that fight handily before he nailed Koscheck, that contest was in fact his only previous fight outside of Brazil, he’s never had to perform on a stage like this before, UFC didn’t even offer him a lasting contract before the Koscheck fight which tells you what they expected out of him, and now he’s got the world-class Jon Fitch in front of him for this fight. Mike Coughlin’s comment on this was “Fitch should run right over him”, and I’m not really coming up with any obvious reason to disagree with that- Thiago has a fine ground game but Fitch’s wrestling will likely make that a non-factor, and the odds on two consecutive lucky punches aren’t great. Fitch remains a fantastic fighter who would probably be a champion if it wasn’t for the presence of GSP; if Alves happens to get lucky on the evening, Fitch will probably get a second chance to become one anyway. Fitch Dec. Thiago (Probably 30-27)
Akiyama Yoshihiro vs. Alan “Bad Nickname” Belcher
This is one I don’t feel comfortable analyzing too much, since I’m not nearly as familiar with Akiyama as I should be. The matchmaking is interesting: the last time the UFC had a Korean-heritage middleweight from a Japanese promotion who they appeared to want to showcase Belcher also got the call as his debut opponent, and that didn’t work out so well for Denis Kang. There’s questions about whether Akiyama is damaged goods stemming from a nasty KO loss (later changed to NC) to Kazuo Misaki about a year and a half ago, and Akiyama hasn’t been in tough since then. If nothing else the Belcher fight will probably let us know whether Akiyama can answer those questions and have a meaningful career in the UFC starting at age 33. Belcher’s a sturdy, honest test.
On the hunch that the transition from Japan to the UFC is always rough and Belcher is underrated, I’ll take him. Belcher KO2 Akiyama (Knee—>ref stop, TKO). I have a suspicion Akiyama may want to put on a show and thus keep it standing, leaving himself more vulnerable to what Belcher’s best at.
Bonnar vs. Coleman: Coleman will gas during introductions and hold on with heart the way he does, then get beaten into retirement shortly thereafter. Bonnar KO2 Coleman (Heart attack—>GnP, TKO).
Miller vs. Danzig: Miller, if there’s any justice or taste in the world; I’ll say 30-27 decision. Cows and chickens are about the only fans of Danzig, who’s lost his last 2 and is 2-4 in his last 6 entering this one, being finished by Mach Sakurai and Josh Neer and losing decisions to Clays Guida and French. Ultimate Fighter or not, he’s probably getting cut if he loses this one.
O’Brien vs. Jones: Martian Manhunter takes it, a 2 rounds to 1 decision. Outworks him early, gasses late, holds on against a non-finisher.
Kim vs. Grant: Kim’s undefeated and clearly talented, but he’s also sloppy as fuck at times and facing a guy with 12 submission wins. I’ll take him despite that, but I’m not hugely confident about it. Let’s say decision 30-27.
Dollaway vs. Lawlor: Dollaway. He’s got holes, but Lawlor’s not the guy to exploit them. Let’s say he taps him, powers up his special bar and goes for his Peruvian Necktie finisher (Up, Up, Left, B button).
Grice vs. Gugerty: Grice, just outwrestles him. Decision, probably 3-0.
And finally: 1.3 million total buys for this one, the all-time non-boxing record.
I don’t write much about MMA here as I’m still very much in the process of compiling a meaningful knowledge base on the sport which will hopefully make what I have to say actually worth reading; but that said, I think I’m about at the point where I feel comfortable with throwing a few thoughts out there.
– The major thing I took away from the evening was that it’s shows like this as much as any which build the popularity of the sport and convert people like me- a long time boxing fan- into MMA fans. At this point MMA is probably at least equally as appealing to me as boxing, and possibly more so. Boxing still retains its ability to put on amazing big shows for atmosphere and sometimes quality, shows which feel more like Big Events than almost anything else in sports this side of one-offs like the super bowl or Champions League/FA Cup finals. MMA however (and this includes UFC, Affliction, Elite XC when they existed and according to what I read at least some of DREAM/Sengoku) has a vast advantage in putting together non-Big Event shows which nevertheless are very, very good all the way through. Boxing on HBO or Showtime for free will usually give you two, sometimes three notable and good fights; on PPV, you get maybe two very good fights and a squash or two. An off-brand unpromoted no-buys UFC like this had 4 interesting and competitive fights on the main card plus one freak show match that was supposed to be a squash (more on that below), which as far as I’m concerned is a lot more value for money. It’s hard work to find an actively bad top promotion MMA card these days, despite the whining of online MMA fans. You can pretty much impulse buy any given UFC card these days and enjoy it, and while it’s true that there are too many shows from a promotional standpoint, from a fan’s perspective it’s not a killer yet because the shows are at least a lot of fun like this one if they’re n0t of the importance of UFC 91 or 92.
– Speaking of that “squash match”, what on earth happened in Coleman vs. Shogun? Shogun is apparently being pushed to the main event of UFC 97 against Chuck Liddell following this, and he had better step his game up 100% because otherwise even the ultra-faded version of Chuck is going to kill him with fiery death. He looked awful tonight, and I want to give him the benefit of the doubt given that he hadn’t fought in forever and was coming off some horrible knee injuries; but the fact that he was facing such a nothing opponent- and Coleman was shot and done tonight, make no mistake- who gassed out inside of the first round, and Rua still couldn’t get much working for him, has to be very discouraging about his future prospects. Shogun himself gassed out much more quickly than might have been hoped for and that, combined with his less-than-previous physique makes you wonder whether he’s entirely healthy and able to train at his peak ability yet. His standup was solid though not devastating, and while he was quite accurate and able to hit Coleman any time he wanted after fatigue dropped Coleman’s hands, he wasn’t able until the final 30 seconds or so to keep up a consistent flurry. His knee to the head of Coleman when the latter was on his knees and had been for a good 10 seconds was also a bit discouraging if you were looking for signs of a smooth PRIDE-to-UFC transition for Rua.
Coleman was too tired to try many shots during the fight and was maybe 30% power on most of the ones he did try, but he got Shogun down on occasion and was able to reverse him on the ground with some consistency. Rua wasn’t able to cinch in many of his tries at leg locks and the like, and the one he did get well- called as an omo plata shoulder lock by Joe Rogan- he appeared too tired to apply effective pressure with. It was ugly stuff all around from Shogun, most of it pointing to conditioning issues. It would be madness to write off a 27 year old with the skills he possesses, but if he can’t reach a point athletically where he can effectively put those skills to work than he’s in a lot of trouble. By putting him into a main event with his next fight, UFC is essentially letting him sink or swim: if he wins, he’s certainly not in a title challenger position yet, but he’ll have his first major competitive win in the UFC and be in a position where he can begin to work his way into the imaginations of casual fans and force that opportunity; if he loses, he’s 1-2 in the UFC and will likely be viewed as damaged goods- another PRIDE washout who couldn’t adapt. I would bet that he gets cut at that point.
– Confirming tonight’s “do cardio or die” theme earlier was a strange Denis Kang/Alan Belcher fight in which Kang was vastly better at standup in accuracy and power, vastly better at wrestling in getting takedowns and maintaining position, at least equal in BJJ, and yet got choked out in brutal fashion in the second round. Why? Because he gassed out and did a half-ass jacknife double that he didn’t follow through on and ran himself directly into a guillotine. Do your roadwork, kids.
– Franklin/Hendo was a fun fight in that it was obvious how skilled both guys were and the decision could have easily gone either way. I had Hendo winning 29-28 which was my pick beforehand, though I thought Hendo would get a bit more done in the standup. Honestly, the right guy probably won for the sake of business, and this should let Franklin stay at 205 which is a lot better for him. It also shouldn’t hurt him in fans’ eyes at all- this was a coin-toss on paper and in the cage, and there’s no shame in losing that kind of fight to a legend.
– The other news coming out of the show was that UFC 96’s main event was announced: Rampage Jackson against Keith Jardine. I’m not seeing a lot of enthusiasm for this one out there in Internet MMA land, but I actually think it’s an interesting style match. Jackson’s been keeping fights standing of late and while he’s clearly got the power to vaporize Jardine early in the fight the way Houston Alexander and Wanderlei Silva did, if Jardine can get through that perennial danger period for him he’s got the low kick game to give Rampage the same look Forrest Griffen gave him. If Rampage can handle that, it speaks very well of his development as a fighter; if he can’t…well, anyone who was hoping for Evans/Machida at UFC 100 may get their wish. More on that one closer to the event time.
All in all, a solid thumbs-up show.
Meanwhile, boxing was starting to get its 2009 season off to a real start with Luis Collazo facing Andre Berto for the seminternational combowithfries regional heritage title or some such doodad. I had this one 6 rounds to 6 with Collazo a winner based on a point deduction, but I’m certainly not going to argue with either of the judges who had 114-113 cards for Berto. The guy with the 116-111 should be disbarred from his occupation.
Since he’s the money in this contest and ended up with the decision, it’s probably appropriate to talk about Berto first; but to understand the fight, Collazo is really where to start. The interesting thing to me about this fight was that the entire course of the action was predicated on what Collazo was doing at any given point in time. While Berto was better at range he was unable for most of the fight to maintain that range; and inside, especially after having a point deducted for holding, he was totally unable to match Collazo who outworked him whenever he chose to do so, nearly matched him for power and was far more accurate. The only reason Berto was in a position to take this decision, rightly or wrongly, was that Collazo gave away far too many rounds by mugging for the judges and doing a dime-store Roy Jones impersonation. He really has no one to blame for this result but himself. For his sake I hope he gets a rematch as both fighters discussed after this one, and fights 12 full rounds next time.
On to Berto. This was really not a good night for him in some ways, excellent in others. He came in with insane amounts of buzz on him from some in the media (Max Kellerman in particular has fallen in love with him, as he tends to do with speed guys) despite his obvious flaws, and this fight essentially demonstrated two things: first, that the hype right now is ridiculously premature; and second, in fairness, that the day may come when it’s actually quite appropriate. The physical tools are there as always for Berto- he’s lightning quick and has excellent power, and while his chin is still a major question, right now it’s fair to say better a question than the wrong answer. Defensively, he’s got a world to go on the inside at least. He fought the first few rounds with a gameplan of holding like John Ruiz whenever the fight drew in close, and once he had a point deducted and was told to knock it off he demonstrated both the same improved defense at range which he debuted in the Steve Forbes fight, and an inability to get out of the way of anything inside- shoeshine shots to the belly, brutal uppercuts, a left cross thrown in the same manner as an orthodox hook, etc. His inside offense wasn’t much better, as he rarely used his excellent uppercut and mostly threw, aside from some solid hooks to the body, a lot of slapping shots that Collazo easily ducked under. Berto can be outworked by someone who he can’t hurt, and right now he appears to be a one-speed one-gameplan fighter with little ability to adjust as the fight wore on. By the 9th and 10th Kellerman had tears in his voice over this performance.
But Berto also demonstrated one hugely important quality which cannot be taught, which almost all great fighters have, and which he had never been called on to demonstrate before: the will to win. This is more than a cliche; think of all the great young fighters blessed with amazing speed and power, who when faced with their first real test against a fighter who would not fade, would not quit, could not be easily knocked out and was trying to win the fight, simply closed up shop and let themselves be beat. Zab Judah, talented as he is, is virtually the prototype of this kind of fighter though far from the only example. Tonight we found out that Berto isn’t one as he was outboxed, out-skilled, out-thought and out-gamplanned tonight, was cut, had a point deducted, was hurt in the first round- and was never discouraged. Whether you believe he won this fight or not, you must admire and respect the way he continued to give maximum effort every round and tried to win the fight even after being taken into deep waters he’d never visited before, out of his comfort zone. In my view, Collazo won; even if you believe he lost, it was because he took too many rounds off; but Berto did everything you could hope for out of a fighter by going 12 hard rounds and putting himself in position to take advantage of Collazo’s lapses. When Berto’s skills catch up to his heart and athletic gifts, he’s really going to be the terror the hype says he already is.
A side note: early in this fight the referee deducted a point from Berto for holding. This man is my hero. I had said to Sean, literally not more than 30 or 40 seconds previously, that one of the biggest ways to help boxing would be for referees to actually enforce the rules against excessive holding, which Berto was clearly engaged in. The HBO crew in full shill mode later was trying to say it was unreasonable to have docked a point because Berto was holding as a result of being hurt, but he had been doing it continually since the opening bell and stopped doing it after the deduction, which made it obvious that it was a tactical call on his part and not a necessity as a result of being hurt. Instead of having a decent fight with a lot of hugging, we ended up with a very good fight fought fairly, and I give a substantial portion of the credit for that to the referee. Without his decision fighting at close range would have been effectively removed from the equation in violation of the rules and the intent behind them, Berto would have likely won by a larger margin as a result of breaking those rules, fans would have had a boring fight, no one’s reputation would have been much enhanced, neither guy would have a potential payday in a rematch, and I as a fan would have walked away thinking “gee, UFC was excellent this afternoon, but boxing kind of sucked tonight.” One decision changed all that. I salute you, referee.