Let the Debate Begin: Fury From Down Under

UFC’s first trip down under will certainly not be their last.

For a moment, forget about the show, and realize that this was not only a packed house in Sydney, it was packed way, way, way in advance. One of the quickest sell-outs in UFC history and possibly MMA history saw the Australian people more than a little amped for the first UFC show in their country. Luckily, they wouldn’t be disappointed.

The show itself was a case study in brutality as there were several big knockouts, some controversy, a potentially career making performance, and the one really close fight that some are still trying to figure out the winner to. The common factor in all of these facts was that there was plenty of action, and the majority of it was of the striking variety.

Knockouts were the name of the game a few Saturday’s ago as Cain Velasquez became legit by being the first man to take out Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira with one punch. While the ref didn’t stop the fight until Cain landed a few more shots and it was ruled a TKO, anyone watching could see that Big Nog was done the moment that right hand connected with his chin and lower jaw. For Nogueira, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise and it didn’t come as one to me; I could see from the opening moments of the fight that this was going to be the end result. And in case some of you don’t quite understand what I mean, I’m going to explain: Nogueira’s career has been made for the most part on his ability to take great amounts of punishment, but be able to come back and eventually get a submission on his opponent; up until the Mir fight in December ’08, that strategy did not mean standing and trading with your opponent.  The fact that Nogueira has taken as much punishment as he has over his career is more a credit to the opponents he’s faced than him voluntarily being a punching bag. If you compare Nogueira’s strategy in the Velasquez fight and the Couture fight to his strategy in, say, the third Herring fight or the fight against Sylvia, the plan was never to just stand and trade. Even with Sylvia outboxing Nogueira for two whole rounds in their title fight in ’08, Nogueira was always looking for the take down or was trying to counterbox with Sylvia– Nogueira’s prime way of punching for his whole career up until that point. My guess is that the Mir fight influenced Nogueira too much in a negative way. After being decimated by an opponent not named Fedor for the first time in your career will definitely make you rethink things (look at Wanderlei after Cro Cop kicked his head off or Liddell when Rampage smashed him for a second time), but Nogueira obviously overreacted if he thought the key to success in UFC’s heavyweight division is to become a bomb dropper. That kind of strategy did work in the Couture fight—something that may have negatively influenced Nogueira even more—without people having the proper perspective as to why it worked. Just like Nogueira, Couture is a man who can take great punishment without wilting, but also like Nogueira, he is a ground fighter more than anything and uses boxing as a tool in his arsenal. Is Nogueira done? No, despite what a lot of forum posters wanted to think in the moments following the Velasquez fight. Yes he’s lost two of his last three, but with the Mir fight he was banged up going in—not to take anything away from Mir’s performance that night—and this was a case of Nogueira getting beaten by a younger, quicker fighter by playing to that younger fighter’s strong point. Is Velasquez for real? Of course. The Congo win got people’s attention, the Rothwell win made him not just another punchy heavyweight, and this win gives Velasquez a real bargaining point to say that he deserves a heavyweight title shot; that and he’s fought almost twice as many fights as Lesnar.

While it may have given people more reasons to think he should retire than continue to fight, at least Mirko Cro Cop got to really beat the snot out of someone one last time in his storied MMA career. Instead of Ben Rothwell, who had to pull out around 48 hours from fight time, Cro Cop fought Sydney native Anthony Perosh. The fight was a mostly boring two rounder that saw little bits of thunder as Cro Cop literally spent the entire fight stalking Perosh around the cage before striking with some really brutal looking blows, and stopping Perosh anything he tried to shoot for the takedown on Cro Cop while adding some open shots to the face for good measure. Perosh showed some guts (or maybe stupidity) by continuing on for the final 45 seconds of round two after Cro Cop opened up a really deep and nasty cut about Perosh’s right eye with an elbow. Perosh ate more punches, took some more punishment, and the doctor’s finally stopped it after round two, forty-five seconds after Perosh was told that the doctor couldn’t close the cut right then and there. While that kind of a performance could rekindle people’s positive feelings for Cro Cop, it wasn’t quite what we saw. Cro Cop’s opponent was two years older than Cro Cop with a 10-5 record (0-2 in UFC) coming in, Cro Cop’s movement and motivation in the cage did seem to be focused, but if you watch this fight with the following words in your head from a Cro Cop interview after the Dos Santos loss, you might be able to understand why I believe (five months after the interview) that the words still ring true no matter how much Cro Cop may want to fight it:

“I don’t feel the hunger anymore. I started playing it safe, I’m not ready to take risks….I want a normal life. I’m entering a cage and thinking about fishing in Privlaka. You can’t win that way.”

It’s worth noting that the interview those quotes came from did have Mirko say what all Cro Cop fans had waited to hear him say for three years: that he probably should’ve quit after winning the ’06 Grand Prix. And while that would’ve been the best time, this could also be a really good time as at least the last memories we would have of Mirko Cro Cop would be of him blasting some chump and not being made to look like one.

Ryan Bader and George Sotiropoulos turned in tremendous performances that might etch their names into the hierarchy of their respective divisions. Bader KO’d Keith Jardine in one of the rare instances where I’ve seen a flying knee used (inadvertently or not) as a distraction as Bader’s flying knee didn’t seem to be a powerful strike, but got Jardine so out of proportion against the cage that he was wide open for the knockout punch Bader delivered seconds later. At 11-0, Bader has to be at least on the radar within the light heavyweight division. The only noteworthy unbeaten in that division is its champion Lyoto Machida, so an unbeaten record and a knockout win against a noteworthy member of that division (remember Jardine may not have the best record, but he has fought the majority of the big names in the division) is something that should give Bader an even bigger opportunity with his next fight. George Sotiropoulos put his name into the lightweight title hunt and then some with a masterful performance against Joe Stevenson that saw Sotiropoulos employ all of the things needed to take down B.J. Penn: a very strong and effective ground game combined with the ability to land punches when you need to. It is no secret that even ground fighters can be worn out on the ground and if you look at Penn’s last two losses—to GSP in January ’09 and to Matt Hughes in September ’06—the combination of those two things did spell doom for The Prodigy. Stevenson never for one moment really had an edge in this fight as Sotiropoulos was on a mission in his home country. And maybe it was that kind of motivation that propelled him as Sotiropoulos never seemed to slow down; not just figuratively as his tank never seemed to get past F.

The night’s controversy was two-parted with one being a legit controversy and another being yet another example with the flaws of the ten-point must system.

The Stephan Bonnar/Krzysztof Soszynski fight was halted just over a minute into the final round when a bad cut (not as bad as Perosh’s, but pretty bad) above Bonnar’s right eye caused the fight to be stopped and Soszynski declared the winner. The controversy here lies in the fact that the cut was likely caused by an accidental headbutt; if that’s the case, then the fight should’ve been declared a no-contest. Either way, we’ll likely get a rematch because of the ending and the fact that neither fighter has anything in particular lined up on the strength of this fight, one that was a lot better and more brutal than anyone was likely expecting.

The other bit of controversy surrounds Wanderlei Silva’s close unanimous decision win over Michael Bisping. The controversy here is that Bisping still believes he won the fight, and he might be correct. Shogun/Machida was not a hard fight to score despite Cecil Peoples’ thoughts to the contrary, and Couture/Vera was not as controversial a decision as initially indicated, but this fight was legitimately close and incredibly tough to call. The first and third rounds were virtually split down the middle with Bisping likely winning round one in my book because of better control of the ground, but it was Wanderlei’s final flurry that likely won him the fight due to the third round being the slowest and most even looking of the rounds. Maybe this is the new Wanderlei Silva that we are seeing. The days where Wandi could throw bombs with anybody and win went bye-bye the moment Rampage connected and got his revenge on The Axe Murderer.

However, if you look at how Silva/Franklin and Silva/Bisping went, there are plenty of similarities: controversy with how the judges scored it, the fight itself was back and forth, the fight was exciting and the fight was every bit as close as the judge’s scorecards indicated despite unanimous decisions in both fights. Like Mirko Cro Cop, Wanderlei Silva’s body is a lot older than he is. So, with the aura of carnage and the ability to make that a reality now fully gone, Wanderlei has basically become just another fighter, but one with a reputation of the fighter he used to be. The fact that his reputation has lived on despite Silva no longer being that fighter is likely to be because of how Silva has performed in UFC (without looking at wins and losses). Unlike Cro Cop, Silva has not had that one devastating loss that has gotten people to think that maybe it’s time for this guy to retire; the Rampage knockout was a bad one, but fans forgave Wandi for that considering it was a fitting end to the trilogy. But if you look at the losses to Liddell and Franklin along with Wandi’s brutally brilliant win against Jardine what you get is a fighter content with being a fighter (even if he’s not dominant like he once was) who will give the people their money’s worth even if that means having the fight of the night in a losing effort. The fact that Silva’s reputation has persevered through the most unsuccessful run of his career tells me that this is a guy people will want to see until he retires.

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