From The Clinch: WEC 31: Faber vs. Curran

From The Clinch: WEC 31: Faber vs. Curran

–Live from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.

–Your hosts are Todd Harris and Frank Mir.

–To open the show, we get a hype package featuring all of the fighters squaring off tonight, and the Filho/Sonnen staredown actually looks like they could start making out at any second. If you look closely, you can see Chael moving in closer and turning his head ever so slightly.

Doug ‘Rhino’ Marshall vs. Ariel Gandulla: This is for the newly-created WEC light-heavyweight title, which Marshall laid claim to by knocking out some guy named Justin McElfresh back in May. We get a pre-match he said/he said vignette where Gandulla claims that he’ll win easily, while Marshall claims that he’s not just looking for the KO, he’s looking for the KD: Knocked Dead. Both guys are absolutely huge for 205 pounds–Marshall looks like he just got out of prison, while Gandulla’s a former Cuban judo champ and national team wrestler and looks every bit the part.

Round 1: Both men circle to start, as Marshall keeps his hips back, ready to sprawl at a moment’s notice. Finally, after about 30 seconds, Marshall gets bored, rushes forward, and throws a flying knee at Gandulla, but Gandulla calmly catches him in mid-air and slams him to the mat hard. Marshall immediately tightens up his guard very high on Gandulla’s back and tries for a triangle; in trouble, Gandulla tries to punch his way out, so Marshall swings his left leg over Gandulla’s face and switches right into an armbar! Rolling over onto his stomach, Marshall cranks away with the armbar fully extended, and Gandulla taps in very short order. In fact, Steve Mazzagatti doesn’t see Gandulla tap right away, so Gandulla gets to spend an extra few seconds in that armbar, which I’m sure must have been loads of fun.

The Verdict: Okay, so Marshall’s a big, scary-looking guy with powerful hands and passable jiu-jitsu, but this match didn’t show much as to what he can do. Still, judging from the announcers’ surprise, this was the last way that anyone expected the fight to end. As for Gandulla, maybe Cuba’s national wrestling program isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, or maybe Miami just needs better MMA trainers.

Charlie Valencia vs. Ian McCall: In his pre-fight photo, McCall looks like a jacked version of that emo kid from your local bookstore (you know the one), while Valencia’s 10 years older (and presumably 10 years wiser) than McCall.

Round 1: McCall comes out with a leg kick that Valencia checks as both fighters stay just outside of each other’s range…right until Valencia clips McCall right on the chin with a nasty straight right, knocking him down. McCall gets right back to his feet and clinches until spinning loose but then eats another nasty right hand from Valencia, so he switches tactics and tries to jab away from the outside. This works for about thirty seconds until McCall again throws caution to the wind, comes inside, misses a short right hook, and walks right into a wicked right hook that knocks him flat onto all fours. Valencia then proceeds to top that by taking McCall’s back, picking him up off the ground, and suplexing him right onto the back of his head! He then pops back to his feet and drops punches on the prone McCall, who tries to get back to his feet but leaves his neck wide open. Valencia quickly grabs a guillotine and falls back into guard, and McCall taps.

The Verdict: Proof that you don’t send an emo kid to do a man’s job, really. Valencia was really the only fighter who looked dangerous throughout the fight: McCall left his chin up and didn’t change angles or levels, practically begging for the big counterpunches, and Valencia was all too happy to oblige him. On the other hand, the sight gag of the 6’5", 270-pound Mir interviewing the 5’3", 135-pound Valencia was definitely worth sitting through the fight for.

Paulo Filho vs. Chael Sonnen: And now we see whether the performance justifies the hype. Filho eviscerated Joe Doerksen for the belt back in August, and now he’s lined up against former standout wrestler, Republican state legislature candidate, and Team Quest O.G. Sonnen, who’s immediately overshadowed by Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland in his corner. At 6’1", Sonnen definitely looks a lot skinnier at 185, whereas Filho’s definitely a stocky little fellow. I should mention that Filho ought to have a pretty wide fan base, since his trademark sleeveless short-sleeve button-up would look right at home in any trailer park around the world.

Frank doesn’t seem to think that Filho can take Sonnen down, but also thinks that Sonnen would be better off keeping the fight on his feet here. Having said that, I feel like I should also note that Harris (usually a college football guy) is doing a terrific job of calling the action so far, keeping the idle chatter to a minimum and giving the infinitely more knowledgeable Frank plenty of room to expand on anything unusual or particularly complicated.

Round 1: Both fighters circle as Sonnen, a southpaw, stings Filho right away with a couple of straight lefts. Filho takes the middle of the octagon and squeezes Sonnen towards the fence, but Sonnen stuns him with a nasty straight left, gets a rear waistlock, and slams him down onto his back, almost dropping him right on his head. Filho’s very groggy on the mat as Sonnen yells at the referee that Filho’s unconscious, but then climbs into side control and tries to work a D’Arce choke. Filho manages to climb back to his feet, so Sonnen releases the choke and then makes the nearly fatal mistake of shooting for a takedown from distance without using punches or kicks to set it up. Filho immediately grabs a guillotine and drops back into guard, but Sonnen evenutally gets his head loose and starts working in Filho’s guard, dropping the occasional punch or elbow. Out of nowhere, Filho slaps on an armbar and almost gets it fully extended, but Sonnen gets to his feet and gets loose, kicking Filho in the legs as the round ends.

Kind of an inauspicious first round for the so-called "best middleweight in the world," as he took a lot of punches from a guy not particularly well-known for his striking.

Round 2: Both men trade punches and then clinch: Filho gets a bodylock, but Sonnen balances out of three separate takedown attempts, then puts Filho against the cage and plasters him with a couple of lefts. Both men go back to circling and trading, but Sonnen takes Filho down as Frank audibly wonders why Sonnen would put a guy who almost submitted him less than two minutes ago in position to give it another try. Everything goes pretty well at first as Sonnen puts Filho up against the cage and starts dropping fists and elbows, while Filho finds that he can’t shrimp away. With his main escape blocked, Filho sits up a little and tries for a kimura which Sonnen punches his way out of, so Filho slides his guard up Sonnen’s back and starts in on a triangle. Sonnen starts to posture up, so Filho grabs his arm yet again and slides into another armbar! Sonnen screams in pain as Filho wrenches the hell out of his arm and shoulder, and the referee stops the fight, even though Sonnen never taps.

The Verdict: The ending here definitely falls into a gray area, as Sonnen’s arm was getting brutalized and he was screaming in pain, but he never technically submitted. I think that the referee was looking to avoid another Mir/Sylvia situation, where one fighter ends up getting a limb snapped because he won’t tap to someone with vastly superior leverage and a bulldog grip, and framed in those terms, you can definitely understand why he stopped the fight.

Having said that, would everyone please stop all of this ridiculous "Paulo Filho should fight Anderson Silva" nonsense? If Filho had fought anyone with stopping power and takedown defense (and that extends to Silva, Rich Franklin, Robbie Lawler, or even guys like Mike Swick and Drew McFedries), he would have been in deep, deep trouble. Yeah, Sonnen’s takedown defense and wrestling skill probably took Filho out of his usual gameplan, but his sheer willingness to eat punches without making his opponent do likewise does not bode well for him here in the North American MMA scene. Yes, the armbar was a terrific submission, but it was at the end of a very lackluster performance. Maybe I caught him on an off day, but color me unimpressed.

As for Sonnen, this is the second time I’ve seen him snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against a tough Brazilian by avoidable submission, which means that he either needs to sharpen up his standup, work harder on submission defense, or just stop fighting Brazilians.

Jens Pulver vs. Cub Swanson: We see footage of Jens’s UFC and PRIDE knockouts, as well as Swanson brutalizing Micah Miller in his previous fight. Cub reiterates his belief that Jens faked his injury in order to have time to prepare, while Jens has nefarious plans for Cub’s face. Frank, of course, makes the obligatory mention of Jens being undefeated at his natural weight of 145.

Round 1: Cub shoots in right away and grabs a leg, but Jens shows Penn-esque takedown defense and does the standing split to balance out. Cub tries again, but Jens sprawls and flattens out, turning a front facelock into a guillotine choke. Cub tries to roll to his back to escape, but Jens immediately turns it into a north/south choke and then switches into side control, changing the choke into a weird cross between a D’Arce and an anaconda/forearm choke, and Cub has no choice but to tap.

The Verdict: Talk about old dogs and new tricks, right? Tell me you never thought you’d see the day when Jens Pulver would win what was essentially a grappling match. The announcers, the live audience, the people watching at home, myself, and probably Cub Swanson most of all are in complete and utter shock. Everyone’s jaw is on the floor not only because Jens won by submission, but because he so thoroughly dominated a guy whose calling card was his grappling and jiu-jitsu. Ever gracious in both victory and defeat, Jens thanks literally everyone in the building and calls out Urijah Faber.

In the post-fight, he mentions that he was tired of being one-dimensional and centered his training around improving his grappling and submission skills, and boy, did it show tonight. I was already fully prepared to write Jens’s professional epitaph tonight ("class act," "heart of a champion," "first UFC lightweight champion," and all of the other nauseating cliches) against a younger, stronger, and presumably hungrier opponent, but Jens may still literally have a lot of fight left in him.

Marcos Galvao vs. Brian Bowles: Bowles is out of the Singer brothers’ Hardcore Gym down in Athens, which also produced Forrest Griffin, while Galvao is making his WEC debut.

Round 1: Bowles comes right out swinging, landing some punches from flurries and backing Galvao off. Bowles gets in close and grabs a clinch alongside the cage, then promptly catches Galvao a little south of the border with a knee. The ref calls time, and Galvao lands a leg kick on the restart but eats the back end of a left/right combination. Bowles presses forward with two sharp flurries to Galvao’s face: the way that Galvao flails around every time he gets hit makes me think that no one spent time teaching him to slip punches, parry, or, you know, cover up. Both fighters clinch and then break off, then circle and trade jabs. Back in another clinch, Bowles fires off a couple of knees and then clubs him with a huge right hand to break the clinch; Galvao shoots in for a single-leg, but Bowles grabs a guillotine. Galvao works his head free, but Bowles gets to his feet and almost eats an illegal kick on the way up as the round runs out.

Round 2: Galvao comes out shooting, and Bowles sprawls and pulls Galvao into a clinch, but nothing comes of it. Galvao whiffs on a nasty head kick, and Bowles smashes him with both halves of a left/right combination, knocking him down. Bowles looks to finish but has to step out of a kneebar and footlock, then thinks better of it and backs away. As soon as Galvao gets back to his feet, Bowles blitzes him with punches until knocking him out with a big right hook.

The Verdict: Some really mean Thai guy needs to cripple Galvao’s brother so that he’ll be forced to go into the jungle to find the most legendary trainer there is. Then, after rigorous kicking of trees and some token romance, he can come back and fight the Thai dude in the ‘ancient style,’ where they crush up some beer bottles and wrap each other’s hands in broken glass.

Or he could just train nothing but Muay Thai and western-style boxing for about a year, because I’ve seen guys who’ve only been boxing for a couple of weeks with better defense and head movement.

As for Bowles, he looks like Lil’ Forrest, doesn’t he? Good stamina and punches in bunches. Even so, it was hard to judge his skills when he was fighting someone who was basically a stationary target.

Urijah Faber vs. Jeff Curran: The announcers talk up Curran’s overall well-roundedness and are painting him as Faber’s toughest title defense, which I wholeheartedly agree with. And speaking as one of those guys who thinks of Faber as a bit of a pretty boy, let me be the first to say that he’s got two of the most mangled ears I’ve ever seen. I mean, those babies are on par with Dan Henderson’s. And look: Mario Yamasaki’s the ref, so you can be sure that someone’ll take an unnecessary beating before the fight gets stopped.

Round 1: Both men exchange push kicks (interesting choice of an opener, I’ll give them that) to start, then clinch. Curran pulls out a nice little trip takedown to get Faber onto his back, then immediately passes his guard right into full mount; Faber, on the other hand, manages to shrimp out and get Curran back into his guard, and then goes for a sweep. Curran sits down to block the sweep, so Faber gives up his back and Curran takes it. Curran gets both hooks in and starts working for a rear naked choke, but Faber keeps rolling and grabbing Curran’s wrists to control his hands. Finally, with 1:30 left in the round, Faber gets to his feet with Curran still clamped to his back and then does a forward roll, slamming Curran’s head into the mat on the way down.

Curran doesn’t break his grip, but the move loosens him up just enough enough for Faber to finally roll over, take top position in Curran’s guard, and pass right away into half-guard. From there, he postures up and bashes Curran with an elbow, then stands up and kicks Curran in the hamstrings until the round ends.

Again, this was more of a grappling match than anything else, with Faber more than happy to give up his back and handfight until he could create enough space and go on the attack. Still, I was more than a little surprised to see Curran controlling most of the round.

Round 2: Faber shoots–eating a left hook from Curran on the way in–and manages to get Curran to the mat, but Curran grabs a bodylock and stands back up. Faber mashes him with a nasty elbow in the clinch, but Curran eventually gets him to his back. Even there, Faber blasts Curran’s face with elbows from the bottom, opening up a huge gash on the bridge of Curran’s nose. Curran tries to take Faber’s back, but Faber rolls over into top position and stings Curran with the occasional elbow and punch for about thirty seconds, then gets to his feet and kicks Curran in the legs. Curran pops to his feet quickly and shoots, but Faber snatches a guillotine choke, falls back into guard, and cranks away from a very bizarre angle; in the end, Curran tries like mad to pull his head out, but eventually has to tap.

The Verdict: Faber’s interesting to watch because he combines Clay Guida-like stamina with terrific finishing instincts, allowing him to keep up an insane pace, dominate scrambles, and pounce on even slightly tired opponents, which is what happened here. Curran made a great game of it, but eventually he just barely slowed down, which gave Faber the opening he needed. It may never happen, but I’m definitely psyched about the possibility of Faber vs. ‘Kid’ Yamamoto or even Faber vs. Jens.

The Inside Pulse
Let me start by saying that I enjoyed this card, but I did have one glaring issue with it. A fighter’s really only as good as his opponent, and with the exception of the Filho/Sonnen and Faber/Curran fights, the gulf in quality between the more experienced fighters (Marshall, Valencia, and Pulver) and their far less-experienced opponents (Gandulla, McCall, and Swanson) was pretty wide. Combine those three blowouts with Galvao’s spectacular lack of striking skill and you don’t get particularly even fights.

To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have a problem with that if Zuffa wasn’t trying to promote the WEC as being on par their big brother across town. Unless you’re a freak like BJ Penn, any fighter with less than six professional fights probably isn’t ready for prime time, let alone a national television audience. Again, this wouldn’t bother me if the WEC was promising to let us “see the stars of tomorrow today” or promoting itself as the minor league or alternative to the UFC that it is, but they haven’t really taken that slant yet.

The one division that did look as good as advertised was the featherweights, and I’m definitely interested to see Faber/Jens ASAP.

With all of the decisive finishes, though, this was certainly an exciting card, and certainly delivered on that basic level. Hopefully, it’s a sign of more good things to come from the WEC in the future.

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