UFC 92 Musings
But Evans is a homerun hitter, not a guy who became famous by racking up a ton of singles and doubles.
SWEET AS SUGAR
Rashad Evans desperately wanted to hear Bruce Buffer utter those words after his title fight against Forrest Griffin. Yet after two full rounds, it seemed more likely that he would succumb to a well-prepared, focused Griffin, as he found himself on the wrong end of brutal leg kicks and good combinations from the champion.
But Evans is a homerun hitter, not a guy who became famous by racking up a ton of singles and doubles. He knew that all he needed was one big right hand, and he could forever alter the future of the UFC light heavyweight division.
Early in the third round, he received the opportunity he was looking for, as the former TUF heavyweight winner caught a leg kick and landed his vaunted right hand on the button. The end came moments later with ‘Sugar’ separating the champion from consciousness with vicious ground and pound to swipe light heavyweight gold.
The win was an extremely impressive performance for the still unbeaten mixed martial artist. But this is when things get real. Challengers are always hungry. They work hard when trying to achieve a long-time goal. Life as a champion, however, is much different. Evans no longer has winning UFC gold as a motivating factor. Instead, he must find motivation as he prepares to defend his belt, something that many UFC champions fail to do successfully.
Something tells me that Greg Jackson and crew will keep the new champion properly grounded, so poor preparation won’t be the reason for an early downfall as champion. As a result, he is as poised as any recent champion to embark on a dominant reign, though I have a feeling that Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson will have something to say about that in the not-so-distant future.
GRIFFIN EXPERIENCES TOUGH REALITY AS UFC CHAMPION
What is the current record for the most consecutive successful UFC title defenses?
Most would guess a number approaching or exceeding 10. The reality is that the record is half of that.
Tito Ortiz and Matt Hughes currently share the record for most consecutive successful title defenses at a rather modest five. Chuck Liddell and Anderson Silva are next with four (though Silva’s number would be five but for the fact that Travis Lutter’s failure to make weight at UFC 67 changed that bout to a non-title fight).
To highlight the point, UFC legend Randy Couture is the most decorated champion in mixed martial arts history, but his personal record for successfully defending any championship stands at a paltry two.
What does that mean? It means that losses are a fact of life for UFC champions. Griffin’s failure to successfully defend his title should not in any way tarnish his brief reign as champion. He earned the right to be called champion by gutting out a hard-fought unanimous decision win over Rampage earlier this year, and that is something that nobody can take away from him, particularly not the boo birds who will undoubtedly flock together in the coming days and weeks to criticize the affable mixed martial artist.
RAMPAGE AVENGES LOSS, SETS UP POSSIBLE TITLE FIGHT
It is no secret that I thought Wanderlei Silva held a tremendous mental advantage heading into his third, and possibly final, fight with Rampage Jackson. It seemed logical that the former PRIDE 205-lb champion would follow his two previous knockout wins with a third.
And while the fight certainly ended by knockout, it wasn’t Silva who dished out the carnage. It was Rampage.
And the perfect counter left hook sent a reminder to the rest of the division, including new champion Evans: forget what’s happened in the past, the guy is among the best in the world, if not THE best in the world, at 205 lbs.
His win over Silva improves his UFC record to 4-1, and there are many who can argue that his lone loss, a controversial split decision dropped to Griffin, was a bad call. Thus, he could very well be undefeated since his ascent to the biggest MMA stage in the world.
Curiously enough, Rampage did not seem poised for a career-best performance in the moments leading up to the fight. He seemed distracted, if not down right nervous, as he walked to the Octagon at UFC 92. Gone were his trademark howls. Gone was his trademark steel stare. Instead, he looked around at the fans and stopped to give daps to more than one onlooker.
As he entered the cage, I remarked that he looked like he had already lost the fight mentally. But once the referee signaled for the action to begin, the former champion took the center of the ring with the aggressiveness of a man on a mission, and at that point, I did a complete 180 and accepted something that my wife had been saying for weeks—Rampage would not be denied when faced with the biggest fight of his career.
With the win, Rampage stands alone as the logical first in line for Evans. After all, his bout with Griffin could have gone either way on the cards, so nobody can claim that he has the title definitively taken from him. Both Rampage and Evans are homerun hitters, so it makes for an exciting fight. The difference, however, is that Rampage carries pure one-punch knockout power in both hands, whereas Evans has only really demonstrated that sort of power with his right. That could be the difference if the two meet up, though we will have plenty of time to break down that potential matchup, if it in fact materializes.
MIR SETS UP INTRIGUING REMATCH WITH CAREER-BEST PERFORMANCE
There is no doubt that the Frank Mir who entered the Octagon on Saturday night was the best prepared, most finely conditioned version of Frank Mir that the world has ever seen.
There is absolutely no argument to the contrary.
Mir is a guy who regularly underestimates his opponents due to his undeniable self-confidence in his own fighting talents. But facing a legend in the sport like Antonio Rodrigo ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira, Mir found himself in an unfamiliar situation. For the first time, he did not believe that he was the more talented fighter heading into the bout. He admitted after the fight that if pressed, he would have bet on Nogueira to win the fight.
That amount of self-doubt drove Mir to prepare like never before, and that was vividly apparent the moment he stepped on the scales. Rather than showing up with his normal portly midsection, Mir tipped the scales at a trim, muscular 251 lbs, evidence that he had either paid more attention to his diet or worked harder in the gym than any time in recent memory. We now know that it was the latter, and the result was a complete fighting machine that handed Minotauro a one-sided beating.
The Frank Mir who showed up on Saturday night is a handful for any heavyweight in the world. His strikes were crisp and accurate. He threw punches in bunches, finishing traditional one-two combinations with a clean-up right uppercut, the punch that seemed to be the difference in the fight.
But more than anything else, Mir defeated Minotauro with his mind. After scoring two knockdowns in the opening round, the accomplished black belt refused to play the ground game with Minotauro. Instead, he motioned the respected boxer to rise back to his feet.
At the time, I thought that was a big mistake, because Minotauro, who has trained for years with the Cuban National Boxing Team, has proven how foolish it is to give him any chance to recover. Mir didn’t care. He continued bludgeoning the interim champion with every salvo, and at 1:54 of the second round, did something that no man has ever before done – he stopped Minotauro inside the distance.
The win sets up the fight that fans and pundits alike wanted to see: Lesnar-Mir. In their first fight, Lesnar was well on his way to winning by ground and pound before the referee called for a pause in the action to take away a point for questionable blows to the back of the head. The break gave Mir enough time to gather his wits and find a way to win. Without it, I am certain he would have been stopped early in the first round.
That small morsel of controversy makes the rematch even more mouth watering. Mir stands as the only man to ever defeat Lesnar, but the win has the shadow of an asterisk casting down over it. Mir can erase that asterisk in the rematch, while at the same time regaining the championship that he never lost in the Octagon.
Before Saturday night, I had no confidence that Mir would be able to do either. Now, I am not so sure.
The question, however, is whether Mir will find sufficient motivation to train for Lesnar with the same focus and commitment that drove him during training for the Minotauro fight. Will his first round leg-lock victory leave him overconfident and underprepared—remember that Mir has admitted to being less than committed when he viewed an opponent as an easy win?
If Mir prepares for Lesnar the way he did for Minotauro, then their unification bout will be one heck of a war, one that Mir could (if not should) win based on the matchup. If not, he could very easily find himself on the wrong end of a bludgeoning worse than the one he dished out to Minotauro.
AGGRESSION IS THE KEY TO KONGO’S UFC FUTURE
Cheick Kongo knows that he is on the short list of potential heavyweight title challengers. While that is certainly a motivating factor that drives a fighter to properly prepare for each and every fight, it can also be a hindrance once the action gets underway when fighters fight not to lose, instead of fighting to win.
Kongo appeared to be a man fighting not to lose when he faced Heath Herring back in March. He was too content to counter punch, letting Herring dictate the pace of the fight. The end result was a disappointing split decision loss.
On Saturday night, Kongo again appeared to be a little hesitant to pull the trigger early in his bout with Mostapha Al Turk. He easily won the opening round, but it was clear (at least, it seemed clear to me) that he was the far superior striker, yet he refused to press the action against Al Turk early in the opening round.
Nevertheless, the Parisian fighter seemed to undergo a metamorphosis after what seemed to be a “tit for tat” low blow in the second half of the opening stanza. After Al Turk took a few seconds to gather himself, Kongo attacked like a hungry lion, completely overwhelming his overmatched foe with brutal punches that sent him crashing to the canvas and then a follow-up ground-and-pound attack that quickly halted the bout.
If Kongo fights with that sort of aggression against every opponent, then he is even money to beat anyone in the division. Granted, he isn’t the most skilled ground fighter in the world, so he needs to be mindful of defending takedowns when facing talented wrestlers or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners. But sometimes the best defense is an effective offense, and an aggressive, attacking Kongo is a dangerous fighter. If he is, in fact, next in line to face the winner of Lesnar-Mir, then he needs to find a way to stay mindful of sprawling while still setting the pace of the action with his fists.
MINOTAURO NEEDS TO GET BACK INTO THE SADDLE RIGHT AWAY
Minotauro Nogueira is a guy who keeps his skills sharp by fighting at regular intervals. During his PRIDE career, the Brazilian kept himself busy to the tune of five fights per year in both 2004 and 2006. His one complaint about serving as a coach for TUF was that his fighting career was put on hold for almost 11 months—far too long by his standards.
I don’t think that the loss to Mir had anything to do with ring rust or Minotauro’s cage absence. Mir beat him with superior athleticism and a tremendous gameplan. But Minotauro is better than what he displayed on Saturday night. Sure, he has been in countless ring wars, suffering more damage in his 30-plus career wins than fellow countryman Wanderlei Silva. All the damage suffered during his career accumulates and eventually takes its toll, but I don’t see Minotauro as being on the downside of his career just yet. I think he can still be a serious factor in the UFC heavyweight division.
Thus, Minotauro needs to take a brief rest to recharge the batteries and then jump right back into the ring in the first quarter of 2009 to really know what he has left in the gas tank.