Duane Finley’s thoughts on the UFC’s return to Japan
As our brothers and sisters in the American MMA media begin to make their way back Stateside, it’s time for another installment of the old water cooler.
Following a card like UFC 144, there will surely be enough debate, chatter and good old-fashioned argument over the changing of the lightweight title and what will happen in the aftermath. There were some memorable moments laced throughout the card, and for as many highlights as the UFC’s long-awaited return to Japan produced, it also pushed a few questions to the forefront.
Let’s jump in and get dirty MXC style.
First and foremost, congratulations to the new UFC lightweight champion. Henderson once again came out and proved he is one of the best fighters in the division and outpointed Frankie Edgar on the judges' cards. I actually had it scored the other way for this fight, and upon a second viewing, my mind hasn’t changed. But I’m a writer, not a judge, and Henderson deserves his props. Coming into the fight, it was assumed Henderson would use his size to grind Edgar out, but this wasn’t the case. In fact, despite being the smaller fighter, Edgar was able to power Henderson down on several occasions. What Henderson did effectively was to keep the pressure on Edgar, forcing him to back up the entire fight. If you’ve seen Frankie Edgar in action since the first BJ Penn affair, then you understand everyone comes after him. But Henderson was able to do so while scoring points and taking minimal damage. The back-and-forth exchanges were even, but a perfectly timed upkick that made Edgar take a seat and a solid guillotine attempt, were two of the bigger moments in the fight.
When the judges' cards were read, it was a unanimous decision for Henderson. The former WEC, now UFC, lightweight champion has been on a stone-cold tear since coming over to the bigger organization, and having the strap around his waist is a grand accomplishment. The best part about watching his ascension through the ranks comes in the fact the UFC gave him a very difficult route to travel. When your climb to the top involves wins over Mark Bocek, Jim Miller and Clay Guida, it is safe to say you’ve earned your spot. On Saturday night, he pushed through and accomplished his goal of becoming the top dog in one of the UFC’s most competitive divisions. As for what comes next, those waters are still murky at this moment. With Edgar asking for an immediate rematch and Anthony Pettis jockeying for the shot, it will be interesting to see which direction the UFC goes. In my humble opinion I believe Pettis still to be one fight away from contention and see the May showdown between Jim Miller and Nate Diaz as the legitimate No. 1 contender bout. Then again, I’m just a writer.
Coming into this fight, there was talk if Edgar would run out of his miracle moments. While he’s pulled off some fantastic displays of heart, it doesn't negate the fact he’s a great fighter. He uses movement and speed in a way only a handful of other fighters are capable of, and with his opponents always coming after him, that movement serves its purpose. Against Henderson, it worked flawlessly for the first two rounds. Edgar was able to avoid trouble, keep Henderson from getting a hold of him, and scored with solid shots as he moved in and out. He had some difficulty keeping Henderson’s jab off of his face, but Edgar gave more than he got in the opening frames. Where things seemed to take a turn was the upkick. Edgar was skating on “Funny Street” after the kick landed and the visible damage it caused made things over the next two rounds appear to be worse than they were. When the scores were announced, Edgar’s run as the lightweight champion had come to an end and he shook his head in disappointment. Following the battle, he voiced his opinion stating he believed he’d won the fight and asked for an immediate rematch with Henderson for the title.
If there is anyone who deserves an immediate rematch, it’s Edgar. Since his reign began in Abu Dhabi, Edgar has been thrown directly back into the fire after tough fights with Penn and Gray Maynard. This time it was Edgar who came up just shy of victory, and I believe the UFC shouldn’t drop him down into the shuffle of 155 before allowing him another crack at the title. The division is moving right along at a solid pace and a rematch doesn’t disrupt that.
What I don’t want to see happen is Edgar dropping down to 145 pounds to face current champion Jose Aldo. It is not that I don’t want to ever see this fight, just not at this time. Superfights are great when you pit champion against champion, but Edgar visiting the featherweight waters to fight Aldo right now could serve to be disastrous. If the scenario played out where Edgar is bested by Henderson and thwarted by Jose Aldo, where does that leave Edgar? He has an established enough name to be a solid draw, but two losses would drop his stock considerably. Give Frankie the immediate rematch and allow him the opportunity he granted to his past two opponents in Penn and Maynard. If he truly is the Rocky Balboa of MMA, let’s put another sequel on the list just like old Rocko would do.
Make no mistake about it, Anthony Pettis straight up wrecked shop against Joe Lauzon. The fight ended in perfectly timed brutality and young Pettis once again proved he’s nobody to stand with. While I have no problem giving credit where credit is due, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the victory over Lauzon earning “Showtime” a title shot. Of his three fights in the UFC, he was outwrestled by Guida, struggled with the wrestling of Jeremy Stephens before turning the corner and gave Lauzon the “shin to chin” treatment. He is getting better with every fight and this is the exact reason I believe he should have one more fight before stepping to a championship bout.
Don’t get me wrong, the rematch between Pettis and Henderson is as intriguing as they come. The first fight was a battle and Henderson would have the chance to redeem himself, but when you put Pettis’ body of work in the UFC next to someone like Jim Miller, it just doesn’t compare. The best thing possibly working in Anthony Pettis’ favor in this title conversation is timing. While the lightweight division is one of the most competitive under the UFC banner, a recent flurry of contender fallouts has created a space open at the top of the heap. Three months ago, names like Cerrone and Guillard were hovering around contention, but after suffering losses and falling back into the shuffle, there is suddenly room at the top for a new contender. Whether the next shot goes to Pettis or if he is forced to take another fight, I’m simply happy to watch him compete. Ben Fowlkes nailed it in a recent column where he described how we in the MMA media are privileged to watch most of these fights for free, but there are still those fighters who we would pay to watch. Anthony Pettis is quickly becoming one of the fighters in that category for me, and while I don’t completely agree he should be next in line for a title shot, I won’t kick and scream if the UFC grants it to him.
Regardless of how the critics rate the current status of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson’s career, Ryan Bader deserves accolades for notching the biggest win of his career this past weekend. In the days leading up to the fight, Bader’s camp was vocal about this being the new and improved version of the former TUF winner, and after the smoke cleared on Saturday, I would have to say I agree with them. Bader fought an intelligent fight from start to finish. Save for the one big slam, the former ASU standout controlled the action from bell to bell. The biggest difference I noticed in his performance was Bader’s ability to seemingly get over the fear factor that has haunted him since the fight with Jon Jones. As soon as the action got underway against Jones, it was clear Bader’s confidence to win the fight wasn’t there. He was jumpy on his feet and genuinely appeared to be scared of what Jones could and was going to do to him. Talking to fighters for a living, it should be made clear most fighters enter the Octagon with a certain degree of fear leading their way, but once the door is locked, things begin to settle down and training takes over.
Against Rampage, Bader looked as if this was no longer a factor. He knew he was in the Octagon with someone who could knock him out at any time, but believed in his abilities enough to have the confidence to put them to work. He was able to put Jackson on his back at will and for a fighter who I’ve heard described as having some of the best takedown defense in the division, this is a solid accomplishment for Bader. The win comes at the perfect time for Bader, as he was in serious jeopardy of falling off the contender charts. With the success he had against Rampage, he is now one of the few 205ers on the upswing.
With Phil Davis, Tito Ortiz, Forrest Griffin, Shogun Rua and Lyoto Machida all coming off losses, Bader could find himself in the No. 4 spot at light heavyweight. Another interesting scenario that could be created should all parties be willing would be a matchup with Dan Henderson. While Jones and Rashad Evans are going to settle their long-awaited dispute in April, Bader could be the missing piece of the puzzle the UFC has been looking for when dealing with Henderson. Maybe I’m ahead of myself with this one, but with few other options on the table at this point, I figured I’d throw it out there.
The version of the Japanese superstar who fought Bart Palaszweski is the fighter we all expected to see when he signed with the UFC. After a questionable performance against George Roop, it was unclear whether or not the curse of Japanese fighters coming into the UFC would continue, but Hioki looked amazing on Saturday night. From the jab that dropped Palaszewski to the absolute dominance he displayed in his ground game, Hioki proved he is one of the top fighters in the featherweight division.
Following the victory, he said he would like at least one more fight before facing Jose Aldo, and if this does turn out to be the case, I believe the bout will come with Erik Koch. Dustin Poirier and Chan Sung Jung are locked into a fight later this year, which leaves Koch as the odd man out. Depending on whether or not the UFC can find a suitable opponent for Aldo, Hioki may be allotted the requested amount of time and activity, but if the timeline doesn’t add up, I can definitely see an Aldo vs. Hioki fight coming this summer when the UFC is rumored to be heading back to Brazil. How Hioki would handle the Aldo puzzle is anyone’s guess, but at least for the time being he’s proved the hype surrounding him was real and he’s fixed to do some damage in the featherweight division.
When sharing my thoughts on Mark Hunt, I’m going to approach it in the same fashion he uses when doing post-fight interviews. Mark Hunt brings the fight, has the power to end scuffles and knocked Cheick Kongo out of his senses and any hopes of future contention. I know the UFC hates to book fighters coming off losses against those coming off wins, but Mark Hunt vs. Roy Nelson would be a draw any way you slice it and I hope it’s a fight they put together.
For a fighter whose career involved a run of nearly six years without a loss, finding himself on a two-fight skid had to be a difficult situation. Compile this scenario with the tragic loss of his father/mentor/manager and the waters become dark and deep. When the UFC announced Shields would be facing Yoshihiro Akiyama in Akiyama's welterweight debut in Japan, Shields finally had something to focus his attention on. While the fight wasn’t a flawless technical performance, it was gritty and Shields did enough to get the job done. There are still obvious issues with Shields' striking, keeping his hands up and not being so jittery on his feet, but the improvement and work he’s put in continues to show. Picking up the win in Japan was exactly what Shields needed, and if he can put a few together, he will be right back in the hunt.
The welterweight division is in flux for the first time in over three years, and a lot depends on what will happen with the current interim situation. If Carlos Condit sticks to his guns and waits for Georges St-Pierre, it could be a minute before Shields is presented with a solid opportunity to advance up the ladder. But should Condit take the fight with Jake Ellenberger, this could open the door for Shields to get a high-profile fight in the next few months. Personally, I would love to see Jake Shields vs. Rory MacDonald materialize, but this would only be possible if MacDonald is able to best Che Mills in April.
When you are nicknamed “The Barbarian,” you better perform like one and since dropping to the middleweight division, Boetsch has lived up to the moniker. Drawing a beast the likes of Yushin Okami in Japan was no easy task and throughout the first two rounds it didn’t appear to be one Boetsch was going to be able to handle. All bets were off when he came out in the final frame and much to the surprise of all, Okami included, Boetsch scored an impressive come-from-behind TKO. It is undoubtedly the biggest win of his career and the victory will open some interesting doors in the months to come.
One interesting point I want to expand on is something that has been on my mind for awhile now. In my last water cooler following the Omaha card, I commented on Diego Sanchez’s ability to lay it all on the line despite being battered for the opening two rounds. As is most often the case in MMA, a fighter will get the business for the first two rounds, and when he comes out in the third and should be ready to go for broke, he typically comes out tentative and never pulls the trigger. Granted, it is easier said than done to walk into more of what you’ve had put on you in the first 10 minutes, but much like Sanchez, Boetsch knew if he was going to win, it was going to take a finish. He had the moxie to buckle down and go for broke and it paid huge dividends in the end. While it remains to be seen just how much damage Boetsch can do at 185 pounds, beating a top contender like Okami will definitely put his stock into the next bracket.
The “Where do we go from here?” Bunch
Typically I reserve this column as a place to distribute accolades to the fighters who had impressive performances on fight night. But this card in Japan was so intriguing with a cluster of fighters who had their backs against the wall. It wouldn’t be right not to address these issues.
Joe Lauzon: Before the Melvin Guillard fight, the knock on Lauzon was that he would smash anyone outside of the Top 10, but when it came to the big fights, Lauzon would fold. His performance in Houston seemed to finally put the muzzle on that criticism, but after getting knocked out in Japan, it is right back on the table. There is no doubt Lauzon possesses the talent to give the majority of competition at 155 fits, but the glimmer of championship gold may have dipped over the horizon for the final time. I personally hate the term “gatekeeper” in the sport of mixed martial arts, but there is a solid chance Lauzon has been handed those very keys following his performance at UFC 144. Does Joe deserve a chance to prove he’s not ready to man the post? I absolutely think so but when you consider the shark tank he is currently swimming in, there is a good chance this is where he ends up.
Cheick Kongo: It wasn’t all too long ago Kongo’s name was amongst those considered to be have a legitimate chance of claiming the UFC heavyweight title. But after losing to Cain Velasquez, Frank Mir and ending up in a draw with Travis Browne, Kongo appeared to be on the down turn. In a surprising twist, he snatched victory in the final desperate moments of the Barry fight and then went on to hand Matt Mitrione the first loss of his career. It seemed if Kongo had once again found that groove which put him on the radar initially, but Saturday night that moment was squashed in quick fashion against Mark Hunt. Kongo is known for his striking ability and while he is still powerful and in great condition, the on/off button on his chin has possibly been flipped a few too many times. Barry had him tumbling around as if he was on roller skates and it took one left from Hunt to cut his legs out. There are still interesting matchups the UFC could find for Kongo, but with the increasingly competitive nature of a revamped heavyweight division, it’s difficult to picture where Kongo currently resides.
That wraps up my water cooler Japanese edition for the week. It was an awesome night of fights and an event where hand-to-hand combat brought out both the best and worst in some of the UFC’s high profile stars. While I might not have made the gazillion-hour flight to Japan to watch the action live, the Hibachi style Japanese dinner we lit up has me feeling the equivalency of jetlag. As I prepare to go about my day and further ponder the thoughts I am left trying to decide which song is a more suitable fit to throw in a Kid Yamamoto twist. It comes down to 80s rock staple “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and the Simon and Garfunkel gem “Mrs. Robinson.” Regardless of which I decide to pick, these are the troubles that plague my head, not yours, and you are all better off for it.
Until next week my good friends ...