Finally, some clarity.
The belt still resides around lightweight champ Frankie Edgar’s waist following his trilogy with Gray Maynard in the main event of Saturday’s UFC 136, and finally, business can resume in the store of available contenders. The queue got shorter early in the evening when Melvin Guillard tapped to Joe Lauzon in 47 seconds flat to halt his title bid. That puts the focus squarely on the result of two upcoming bouts: Ben Henderson vs. Clay Guida, which is set as the co-main for UFC on FOX 1, and Gilbert Melendez vs. Jorge Masvidal, which headlines a yet-unannounced Strikeforce card set for Dec. 17.
The more compelling of the winners is likely to get the first crack at Edgar, who will take some much-needed recovery time as the title picture comes into focus. A small caveat: The lesser-known Masvidal won’t get the shot if he manages to upset Melendez, who’s been waging a long P.R. campaign for a crossover and has the ear of UFC president Dana White.
That should occupy Edgar for the next year, but if he’s not vacating the belt for featherweight — and I’m guessing he’s not any time soon — there’s a long list of tough guys within reach. Should be an interesting 2012.
And now, here’s a stockwatch. Buys on the list should be as surprising as a cageside sighting of Steven Seagal.
Frankie Edgar (14-1-1): With a champion’s mix of guts and skill, Edgar is the toughest guy on the Jersey shore and, maybe, inside the octagon. I wouldn’t put him at No. 2 in the pound-for-pound rankings, but No. 3 looks about right. He’s now beaten Maynard, B.J. Penn (twice), former champ Sean Sherk, Tyson Griffin, Jim Miller, and done so at a physical disadvantage that veers toward criminal in boxing. The 170-if-he’s-been-to-Buca-di-Beppo Edgar proceeds like it’s nothing. Maynard had him dead to rights on a takedown when he overextended a punch in the fourth. It was perfectly timed, and he sprawled and stuffed a guy who cuts from a minimum of 175 pounds.
About that weight: It’s not surprising that concern for Edgar’s long-term well being has underscored the second defense of his belt. When I think of the damage he took in the first round from the bigger Maynard, I remember lightweight Antonio McKee, the king of wrestling “blankets,” telling me how much time he lost when he tried, for once, to be a gunslinger and how much time he lost when his opponent cracked him. I remember welterweight Rory Markham telling me he heard cartoons when he took a stiff punch. I remember another very popular welterweight that shall go unnamed tell me he lost his sense of smell for a month after getting kicked in the head.
The point is, the brain is a fragile device, as we’re well aware in this era of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Shots like those set the timer running and punch the punchcard. How long one fighter remains unaffected is left to the mysteries of the brain. What we do know, however, is that at some point, there’s nothing left. The 29-year-old Edgar’s card has two punches, probably more. That will in all likelihood make him increasingly susceptible to brief lapses of consciousness upon contact with his jaw. Will 10 fewer pounds protect him? Maybe. It may also have absolutely no bearing. Edgar is doing more than fine at lightweight. Change is more likely to come from a blow to the ego (a loss) or financial incentive (Uncle Dana).
Jose Aldo (20-1): It’s now been about six years since Aldo has been defeated. The stakes are bigger now, of course, and you can see that in his attack. Pound-for-pound, he’s is the king of leg kicks in the octagon. But he was a little bit conservative for my taste, and no doubt because he was concerned about getting taken down by Kenny Florian. Wait until he meets his next challenger, Chad Mendes, who’s sharp on the feet with a double leg to match. For my money, that’s a huge test of his belt. Pass that, and he regains some footing on the regular old pound-for-pound list. A dominant, if unspectacular performance from the champ.
Chael Sonnen (26-11-1): Not since a fresh-faced Chael Sonnen emerged from the University of Oregon to begin a for-real career in MMA did such a gap separate his fights. The 14-month layoff between his spectacular performance against Anderson Silva at UFC 114 and his domination of Brian Stann on Saturday wasn’t his choice, of course, and an easy narrative was cued in the event of a misstep — ring rust is a killer. He didn’t help matters when he appeared tired and rundown on a conference call a week before the fight. But if you were paying attention, you saw a glint in his eyes on fight week. A readiness. Sure enough, Chael swallowed all his worry and went out and performed, dominating Brian Stann from bell-to-bell and, by God, finishing before the contracted 15 minutes. Not done yet, he booked his next fight right there with a fiery callout of Silva, who could only sit and squirm as he presented a loser leaves town match. Call it disrespectful, WWE, or whatever — this sport needs characters, and Sonnen is one.
Nam Phan (17-9): Just like the first time they fought, Phan looked the superior fighter in picking apart Leonard Garcia with tighter punches. After a decision rightly called in his favor, what’s he to gain in a third bout? He ends up looking like a loser, even though he’s the winner. Garcia even got most of the mic time after the fight. I’d like to see Phan fight Antonio Carvalho or Junior Assuncao. Let’s move on, shall we?
Joe Lauzon (21-6): Lauzon has it right. As he said after his win, his rear naked choke submission of Melvin Guillard technically isn’t as significant as his colossal upset of former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver. But it’s sure a close second. So many fans had anointed Guillard the next contender to Edgar’s crown, and no one behaved as if more than “The Young Assassin,” who was far too loose out of the gate. By the UFC’s capricious mix of hype and recent record, a title shot isn’t in store for Lauzon. However, a match with the on-a-roll Dennis Siver sounds good, or perhaps the hot-and-cold Nate Diaz.
Brian Stann (11-4): Given the kind of performance Sonnen delivered Saturday night, there isn’t much Stann could have done to avoid the fate that befell him. Wrestling is his kryptonite, and an in-shape and focused Sonnen is best MMA wrestler in the division. He isn’t particularly mobile off his back, and that ruled out an escape when an arm triangle materialized in the second round. Just a bad matchup all around. At 31, Stann still has a bit of time to shore up his defensive wrestling game, but it won’t be any time soon that we see him fighting for a title. Still, his ambassadorship of the UFC is a valuable commodity, so don’t expect him to go anywhere for a while.
Melvin Guillard (29-9-2): If the straight right lead is the most disrespectful punch in boxing, the left lead to the body has to be it for MMA. That’s what Guillard threw twice against Lauzon, and the second time, he paid for it with a left to his head — A hook? A stiff-arm with a fist? Hard to tell — that robbed him of his senses and ability to defend his neck. All but one of two of his professional losses have come in the first round, and all but one has come by submission. A clearer Achilles heel could not be found. Sure Guillard will rebound, as he always does, and continue to deliver the kind of explosive performances that make him one of the most exciting lightweights to watch. Will he ever break into the top three? It looks doubtful. There’s a common theme running through his defeats: underestimation leading to disaster. Until he can break that mental block, he’s bound to be an also-ran.
Leonard Garcia (15-8-1): His resume reads a lot like his fighting style: up, down, all over the place. Garcia always seems one loss away from being cut, one point away from a unfavorable score, and a punch away from collapse. Somehow, he always survives. He clearly lost this time to Phan. But once again, the kind of split decisions walked away a winner for his Rocky-esque performance, and how do you cut a guy who riles a crowd like that? You don’t, and the UFC won’t, at least until he goes three down.
Stipe Miocic (7-0): I want this guy’s manager. A newcomer could hardly ask for a better P.R. push in advance of a first UFC fight; he seemed to cast a small spell over the UFC broadcast booth. Division I wrestler? Check. Golden Gloves boxer? Check. Herculean physique? Almost. His actual performance was certainly solid. The durable Joey Beltran put up a good fight on the feet, and Miocic smartly scored points on the mat. Is he the next big thing? Way too early to say, and he’d tell you that himself. The heavyweight division is just thin at the moment.
Gray Maynard (10-1-1): It’s a callous truth in life and fighting: if you don’t capitalize, someone else will. Watching Gray let Frankie recover from the second-biggest beating of his life (the first being, well, in the first minute of the first round of the second time they fought — there’s a flow chart around here somewhere) and reestablish the offensive momentum that he used to even a score that should have been a blowout, was maddening, yet understandable. Up until he landed that uppercut in the fourth, and another, and finally, the goodnight lullaby, Frankie wasn’t really hurting Gray. Racking up points? Yes. But that moment was coming, and Gray was going to catch him again. The knockout would come. It was going to happen, until, of course, they woke him up. A look of sheer shock washed over his face. You’ve got to be kidding me, it said.
It might be two years before Gray gets another shot at the title, and that’s assuming the title shifts hands, or Edgar vacates the belt for featherweight. That’s also assuming “The Bully” is able to chop through one of the sport’s deepest divisions unscathed. In that light, things look grim. This is the kind of blow from which only the most special athletes recover, and we won’t really know if Gray has it in him until he returns to the cage. In the meantime, it’s a sad week in Vegas.
Kenny Florian (15-6): It’s overly harsh to say that because Florian lost his third bid for a title that he “choked” against champ Aldo. His plan, a carbon copy of that employed against B.J. Penn with a better and more persistent jab, was winning the fight — in the first round. He backed off the gas in the second and third, but on my scorecard, he won the fourth by the slimmest of margins by controlling Aldo against the fence. So that leaves us with the fifth. It’s not without irony that his cornerman was seen generously pouring water on the canvas prior to the first bell — a common tactic among fighters to increase traction on the slick surface — and traction ended up undoing him when he slipped on a kick in the final frame. Of course, it was Aldo’s skill that kept him unable to get up and ended the fight on an unfavorable note (though judges in the end gave the champ a 4-1 tally). But he could hardly plan for that slip, and there was the fight. By no means was it his best performance. However, it could have been much, much worse.
As one of a handful to usher MMA into the realm of pop culture, Florian will always have a job with the UFC. He’s intelligent, well spoken, and a great fighter. He’ll never be considered the best, and whether he can make peace with that and continue to make good money for less prestige is a question best left with his ego. My gut says he’ll continue on at lightweight or, perhaps, featherweight and continue to pick off all kinds of young bucks and old veterans. For all the pain these athletes endure, the life of sanctioned risk-taking is seductive, a power chord in the Muzak world.
Jorge Santiago (23-10): A little over a year ago, Santiago looked like he’d hit his long-delayed stride. An instant classic with Kazuo Misaki in Sengoku saw him escape danger numerous times to wage a last-minute comeback that made Fight of the Yearlists everywhere. In the UFC, Santiago is a different guy. He’s almost passive. Put him in a boxing ring with Demian Maia, he’d smoke the jiu-jitsu ace nine times out of 10. In the octagon, he’ll crumble, and did Saturday night. When the fight hit the mat, there went any semblance of a natural advantage. I can’t imagine it’s long before we see him overseas or on the dwindling B-level circuit.
Eric Schafer (12-6-2): Could be that Schafer was injured? That would explain a lack of persistent effort in getting the fight to the ground when Simpson was playing tee-ball with his gray matter. Instead, the jiu-jitsu specialist hung out and took his beating. Maybe he’s suffering from a crisis in confidence. At 2-3 in the UFC, he’s had some decent performances, but they’re overshadowed my his missteps. Back to the minors.
Steve Cantwell (7-5): Quite a spectacular fall for the former WEC light-heavyweight champion. I thought him the better technician against Mike Massenzio, but what he had in sound striking and takedown defense, he lacked in the dogged determination needed to keep his job. Massenzio simply out-hearted him, and with consecutive loss No. 4, he’s out of a job.
– Steven Marrocco