I’m about 10 times more interested in this card than I really should be, I have to say. The main event is a fight about nothing between two guys past their prime, one who may be completely done and the other who may be moving out of the weight class, and yet for historical and human drama purposes it’s immensely compelling all the same. Below that every televised fight has some intriguing aspects to it, and the untelevised stuff has some fun matchups, UFC returnees, comebacking names, etc. Just a solid card.
Format stolen from Wikipedia because open source, fool.
* Heavyweight bout: Randy Couture vs. Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira
Rumors. Like Kelly Pavlik’s possible drinking issues which got blown up by Dan Rafael in his chat last Friday, they will tend to out in time- even the best camps aren’t really airtight, not with an army of reporters and gambling touts sniffing around constantly, and not when camps often have their own reasons for leaking, say, an injury before a fight. There’s rumors that, healthy or not, Big Nog has been getting whacked in training for this one- not reacting well to punches and not getting out of the way of them, looking more like the version which fought Frank Mir than was hoped for. Is that true? I have no clue. But true or not it speaks to the basic question that will be answered in this fight: is Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira a shot fighter?
Despite his advancing age, you essentially know what you’re getting with Randy Couture: solid standup, great wrestling, excellent athleticism for a 46 year old (and probably average for fighters in general), a decent chin and good but not great cardio, and a positive genius for gameplanning. A guy who knows every trick and is prepared for every eventuality. Like his boxing equivalent Bernard Hopkins, Couture has entered a zone where he’s basically proved that he’s just not ever really going to “get old”; year by year he’ll get slightly less effective and eventually be unable to compete with top guys, but it’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever just fall off the table one day. His clinch-based game’s not essentially based on pure athleticism, so time erodes it less than some other styles. None of this is true of Nogueira, sadly, and if nothing else this fight ought to establish to a new generation of MMA fans the truth of the old boxing saying that ring age and chronological age aren’t the same, indeed aren’t much more than loosely linked. As Mike Coughlin put it on his 5 Star Radio podcast, the 13 year age gap between these two means that Randy is technically old enough to be Big Nog’s FATHER, but you’d never know that to watch them fight or look at them these days.
What does “shot” mean? It’s worthwhile to define the term, since it gets thrown around a lot. There’s no hard and fast rule to it, but when I use it I intend to refer to a fighter who, through accumulated abuse, the passage of time, or some unknown reason has had a marked and severe decline in both their general athletic ability and in particular their capacity to handle strikes. Sometimes it’s simply an effect of a fighter getting old and time taking its due; more often it’s an essentially neurological phenomenon with a variety of associated manifestations including slurred speech, odd blinking patterns, stiff and locked legs during fights, etc. To give an example, Forrest Griffin was destroyed in his last fight, but he’s in no way shot; he just got beaten by a vastly superior fighter. Chuck Liddell however, sadly, is shot; his speech patterns are not quite what they were, and most obviously his ability to take a punch isn’t half of what it was three years ago. To further clarify, take someone like Mark Coleman- is he shot? I would say no, not close actually. The evolution of MMA has in many respects passed him by and he’s failed to diversify his game which has hurt his effectiveness, but he can still take a punch and throw a takedown and compete with solid fighters at his weight. “Shot” really has little to do with skills; it’s an essentially physical and athletic phenomenon.
Which brings us back to Nog. The man’s skills are not in question, and I have no doubt that as a trainer or in a BJJ exhibition he retains all his knowledge, skills and guile; the question is, does he have the athletic potential anymore to utilize those skills effectively in a competitive match? Being unable to avoid and thus getting dropped repeatedly with jabs and flicking strikes by Frank Mir suggests not, but the bottom line is that, rumors notwithstanding, we just won’t know until the fight starts. But all of my instincts say that Nog in done, to be honest; there’s too many reports from too many people, some reputable (Oliver Kopp of Tough Talk podcast, for example) who’ve met Nog of late and said that he seems neurologically damaged for me to ignore them. No doubt the infection he was recovering from when he fought Mir slowed him and made him look worse than he actually is (was?), but the reality is that he’s looked progressively worse in each of his three UFC fights and looked far below even low-level UFC quality against Mir. Even if he’s 50% better than he was that night he’s still running on empty at the title contender’s level, and Couture in particular is a bad matchup for him: Randy’s a decent grappler especially defensively, he’s a far superior wrestler and can keep it standing if he wants, and unless Nog looks like a totally different fighter Couture will likely get the better of the standup as well- he’s an accurate puncher and Nog has zero head movement at this point. Nog’s always going to be dangerous on the ground but if he can’t get it there any more I don’t know who he can beat, and even if it gets there for a second Couture is too smart to linger the way Sylvia did.
Couture takes a 3 round decision 30-27, in a fight which ends up being kind of sad. There’s a chance, albeit not a good one, that this could be Big Nog’s last fight- the man’s just taken an awful lot of pounding over the years and at a certain point letting him go out there to receive more, especially if he’s not truly competitive at the top anymore, is just cruel. If Nogueira looks shot against a man 13 years his senior, that’s a powerful statement about the combined effect of all those wars.
* Light Heavyweight bout: Keith Jardine vs. Thiago Silva
Let’s be up front about this: I really, really don’t buy Thiago Silva as a top guy yet. Like at all. He’s only 26 right now and has time to develop to that point, but as of right now that’s a hope for the future and the Jardine fight is at best the first step in that process. Silva’s UFC fights so far have been: a win over James “Remember Him?” Irvin, he of the 4-4 (counting a DQ win) UFC record and drug/injury issues; a win over Tomasz Drwal, a solid guy but not a top fighter; a win over Houston Alexander which started Alexander’s current 3 fight losing streak; a win over Antonio Mendes who is currently mired in a 4 fight losing streak including the Silva fight; and a loss to Lyoto Machida in one-sided fashion in his first real step-up fight. This is, let’s be clear, NOT a record to be ashamed of, or material for a “Thiago Silva sucks” argument; what it is, however, is the record of a guy who’s clearly established himself as better than journeymen, but has not yet established himself as able to compete with top ranked contenders in a deep division.
Keith Jardine, meanwhile, is…Keith Jardine, a random-result generator who’s made a solid career out of metronomically alternating winning and losing, beating people he really shouldn’t beat (Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin) and losing to people he really shouldn’t lose to (Stephan Bonner, late-career Wanderlei Silva, Houston Alexander), having a long series of close fights and close decisions punctuated by a pair of spectacular quick TKO losses. It’s a record as weird as the style of the man it’s attached to, which includes a 2-1 mark against former 205 champions for a fighter who’s never even gotten a title shot.
This one should be a standup contest (on the ground I suspect they negate each other), and there’s a lot of factors at work there. Can Silva come back from a brutal first career KO loss? Can he solve Jardine’s odd style well enough to land a killer shot? Can Jardine’s chin hold up against a guy who can really crack? And here’s another one for you: can Jardine hit hard enough to make Silva flinch? For a guy known as a striker, Jardine’s actually got precisely one KO win in 3 1/2 years and 10 fights in the UFC, and that came 2 1/2 years and 6 fights ago. I have this recurring image in thinking of this fight of Silva coming out at 500 MPH and basically Wanderlei’ing Jardine- it’s the kind of plan Silva would fight to, it’s arguably the logical thing for a guy coming off a bad KO loss to do, and anyone who’s watched Jardine knows that he’s susceptible to the quick blitz but that his survival skills improve as the fight wears on. That said, the longer the fight goes, the better it likely is for Jardine whose assets as a striker tend to tell over time as leg kick damage piles up and frustration takes its toll- and it’s probably worth noting that it’s been over 3 years since Silva saw a third round, so his cardio is a bit of a question mark.
A tough fight to call. This feels like the sort of fight which Jardine loses, but he’s got Greg Jackson helping him gameplan for a fairly predictable fighter, so… Jardine, decision, 29-28ish. Whatever you do please don’t put money on this one, and bear in mind that The Dean is one of my oddball favorite fighters which may be influencing my pick.
* Middleweight bout: Chris Leben vs. Jake Rosholt
Nope, I’m not buying Jake Rosholt just yet. His wrestling base is, obviously, fucking outstanding as a 3 time D1 national champion, but the rest of his game is years behind and it’s almost certainly too soon for him to be in the UFC right now. I understand why he is given financial and contractual considerations and the folding of WEC’s higher weight classes, but having him in now is going to result in him losing to some guys who 3 years from now he’ll tear the heads off of and I suspect Chris Leben is one of them. Rosholt’s submission defense is sketchy as he lost his last fight to a guillotine choke as his coaches audibly screamed at him to “watch the guillotine!”, but perhaps more importantly for this fight is that if you go back to Rosholt vs. Nissen Osterneck, you’ll notice that Rosholt has very, very little in the way of standing strike defense either. In that fight he made a habit of wading through a flurry of strikes from Osterneck (who had little power) to throw one or two back or go for the takedown, and if he tries that against Leben they’ll be picking his teeth out of seats in Row F. Rosholt can win this of course if he’s improved his head movement and uses that movement for no other purpose than to get the takedown, and maybe losing last time out will drive him towards that kind of no-nonsense gameplan.
If so he’ll be a different fighter than the one I’ve seen so far, and for that reason I’ll take Leben. 2nd round KO, big left hand.
* Middleweight bout: Nate Marquardt vs. Demian Maia
Up or down? Demian Maia fights are always easy to analyze because the dynamic is always the same: Maia is better than anyone else in MMA for grappling at 185 pounds, so if they roll he will win eventually. Standing his striking is not nearly as bad as it’s sometimes said to be but he’s no more than average which puts him behind most if not all major middleweight contenders; and let’s be honest, every strike Maia throws is essentially a feint designed to put someone in a position to be taken down. Marquardt will be by far his biggest challenge so far, a gigantic middleweight moose of a man who’s solid in all areas and has only been submitted twice in competition- once a decade ago, and again 5 1/2 years ago. I suspect Marquardt will have a pronounced strength advantage in this one which will probably prove most useful in keeping the fight standing… if Marquardt wants to go that route. He SHOULD win this; but part of me can’t get away from the image of Maia pulling guard, Marquardt lingering a bit too long, and then comes the triangle.
In fact, let’s go with that- Maia, triangle from the bottom, 2nd round.
* Light Heavyweight bout: Brandon Vera vs. Krzysztof Soszynski
Continuing this card’s theme of “guys who aren’t as good as they seem like they should be”, here’s Brandon Vera in another win-or-go-home fight. In theory Vera has greater technical striking skills, a longer reach, probably more ways he can win… but at the end of the day, it’s a fight, and I just think Krzysztof is a stronger guy who wants it more. I watched Vera vs. Keith Jardine last night and was struck by two things: first, it’s not nearly as bad a fight as I remember it being, and second- Vera really is just an incredibly passive guy at times when facing an aggressive opponent. Jardine fought most of that fight with a bum knee and couldn’t throw his usual leg kicks, but he kept the pressure on Vera which seemed to remove all semblance of a game plan for him from the equation. Vera got in some decent counter shots here and there, but for the most part he moved little and waited for Jardine to do something first, and thus ended up actually losing to an essentially one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest through being outworked. I can something very similar happening against Krzysztof- a lot of clinch work, a lot of dirty striking, a lot of the Polish Experiment getting in and out with one lunging shot at a time, picking his spots. I just don’t trust Vera to beat a man who’s really trying to beat him at this point, even though Vera clearly has the better skills and more natural talent of the two. Vera finds ways to lose.
Krzysztof Soszynski (which I learned to spell in the course of writing this!), 3 round decision, 29-28.
* Middleweight bout: Ed Herman vs. Aaron Simpson
Simpson, eh? Let’s go with Herman, a more well-rounded and established fighter.
* Heavyweight bout: Gabriel Gonzaga vs. Chris Tuchscherer
The Brazilian Cave-thing is just much, much better than a guy who’s best known as Brock’s pal and a victim of YAMMA Pit Fighting. GNP, round 2.
* Heavyweight bout: Justin McCully vs. Mike Russow
Coin flip. Let’s go with McCully- more experienced.
* Heavyweight bout: Tim Hague vs. Todd Duffee
Not hugely impressed with Hague, no defense to speak of; let’s take Duffee. KO, early 2nd?
* Middleweight bout: Nick Catone vs. Mark Muñoz
Munoz should be the much better wrestler, and after getting Cro-kicked into oblivion by Matt Hamill last time out I imagine Munoz will probably be in the mood to take this one down. Throw in that he’s probably the larger and stronger man coming down from 205, and Munoz should ride out a fairly easy decision here.
* Lightweight bout: Marcus Aurelio vs. Evan Dunham
Wouldn’t put money on a 36 year old coming in on short notice, so let’s take Dunham.
And there we are. Looking forward to this one- I expect this to be one of those cards where the quality sneaks up on you. Should be newsworthy, at any rate.
Back with the second installment of these.
5. BJ Penn converts to Juan Manuel Marquez.
Similarities: Technically excellent and physically unimposing fighters who’ve fought their careers out slightly in the shadow of an important rival, in Penn’s case GSP and in Marquez’s, Pacquiao. Both as a result have something of a public reputation as whiners. Both are far from imposing physical specimens, and thus rely on a perfection of technique to achieve results- both are amazingly accurate strikers, and Penn adds his famous jiu jitsu while Marquez is the more varied puncher. Both are probably first-ballot hall of famers who’ve somehow always seemed a half-step behind the top 2 or 3 P4P guys in their eras.
Differences: Penn has a sort of perpetual fog of disappointment around him, a sense that he’s not getting the most out of his career whether through lack of conditioning, or lack of improvement, or insistence in fighting at weights which don’t suit him. Marquez by contrast has probably accomplished now more than had been expected of him early in his career, and there’s really no fight you can point to and say conclusively that Marquez beat himself in through lack of preparation. Penn has fought all over the place weight-wise and sought out the big fights, while Marquez has seemed content at times to hang around at one weight and fight scrubs instead of seeking out career-defining superfights. Oddly enough though, when he does have those fights Marquez has shown the heart of a lion in coming back from adversity (recovering from 3 first-round knockdowns against Pacquiao, for instance) in a way which Penn never really has.
6. Randy Couture converts to Bernard Hopkins.
Similarities: The inspiration for this list and the most obvious comparison, it’s two old men who’ve won multiple titles in multiples weight classes and succeeded far past the age of 40, beating up younger men despite being counted out and written off again and again. Both are possessed of brilliant insight into their respective sports and have demonstrated it as excellent TV analysts, both retain far more of their youthful quickness and endurance at this age than they have any right to, both hit harder than they’re expected to and can be counted on for one unexpected knockdown in a thrilling decision victory (vs. Tarver, vs. Sylvia, etc.), both are really good wrestlers, both have a remarkable understanding of positioning and timing, both have a knack for suckering opponents into fighting their fight. Both (if Hopkins vs. Adamek is made) are likely to win their next fight despite being older than things like weather and the moon. Both have fought just about everyone with a nametag in their weight range at one time or another. Both have retired on occasion, and neither has ever meant it. Both have headlined huge shows, and both are regarded as one of, if not the, foremost fighters of their era.
Differences: One’s Sub-Zero, the other’s Scorpion; they’re palette swaps of each other for all intents and purposes, with biography the only serious difference. Couture was a military man and amateur wrestler who was obviously great from the start (“The Natural”), winning the UFC heavyweight title in his 4th pro fight. Hopkins was a criminal who did prison time (5 years), and who lost his pro debut before dropping down in weight and becoming what he became. If you want to really look for something, Couture is more beloved while Hopkins is more respected; Couture has also won more total titles, while Hopkins dominated middleweight in a way Couture never quite did at any weight class.
Fun Fact: in all the furor over this horrible pro wrestler invading UFC, it’s fun to remember that Randy Couture’s first UFC opponent was this guy.
A few other quicker ones, which are more provisional:
7. Cain Valasquez converts to Jorge Linares
Similarities: Both are fantastic young prospects with awesome reputations and a strong measure of early pro success, marred by one crucial flaw. In Linares’ case, he can’t stay healthy enough to fight consistently; in Velasquez’s, he’s got a chin about which people are starting to ask serious questions after Cheick Kongo cracked it twice. Neither guy is so far exactly a killer KO artist either.
Differences: A vast weight difference, and most importantly simply that each guy is early enough in their career that we don’t really know what they’ll become.
8. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua converts to Miguel Cotto
Similarities: Both have been dominant fighters in their division and at times considered the best regardless of who held the actual titles, and both are defined as fighters by their offense. Both had serious setbacks due to physical injury, Cotto from the illegal and disgraceful beating he received from Antonio Margarito’s loaded gloves, Shogun from a long series of knee problems which kept him out for over a year. Both may be walking into a buzzsaw next time out against Manny Pacquiao and Lyoto Machida, though there are people who are picking both men as underdogs. Both have records with very few goobers, derelicts, butt-scratchers and humanoids on them. Both had a good win last time out, but with real questions attached- Cotto about his durability, Rua as to whether the guy he beat was any good any more.
Differences: Rua has a much better and longer track record against top, top, top opposition; however that record is also suspect for a reason Cotto’s can’t be, given the switch from PRIDE rules to UFC.
9. John Duddy and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. convert to Kimbo Slice
Similarities: Vaguely ethnic drawing cards whose fame has come from means other than actual in-ring accomplishments, and who owe the careers they have to shrewd promotion and matchmaking. None are really any good, and all either are likely to or already have folded against the first serious opposition they faced.
Differences: Kimbo’s a lot more famous than those other too goofs, and he’s also shown a resilience as an attraction which they haven’t by getting himself on TUF. Heard anything about Duddy recently since the Billy Lyell fight? Me neither.