Word Association: UFC December to Remember

It was originally my intention to write a Word Association article for UFC 194, but the event took place during a crazy two week period that saw four different UFC events. First there was a Fight Pass event headlined by Rose Namajunas and Paige VanZant, followed by the TUF finale headline by Frankie Edgar and Chad Mendes, UFC 194, and the next week we saw UFC on Fox headlined by a Lightweight Title fight between Rafael dos Anjos and Donald Cerrone.

Writing an article on just UFC 194 would have done an injustice to all of the other important events during this period, but I also wanted to write something that was concise and to the point. I will first summarize some of the events of the last few weeks, then touch on the main ones for Word Association.

UFC 194 saw the much anticipated bout between “Soldier of God” Yoel Romero and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, which saw Romero winning a somewhat controversial decision after a blatant fence grab that did not result in the loss of a point. While it may not have been the barn burner that some were hoping for, the fight was entertaining, and a five round rematch would certainly be welcomed.

Grappling nerds were eager in anticipation of Damian Maia vs. Gunnar Nelson. At UFC 194, they either saw Maia turning back the clock or Nelson hitting his ceiling, depending on how you look at it. The tweet of the night came from Patrick Wyman.

 

The weekend also featured a TUF finale headlined by Chad Mendes and Frankie Edgar. This card, like most TUF finales, was widely considered a drawn out and unwatchable affair, with the exception of the main event and the bout between Tony Ferguson and Edson Barboza (which won Fight of the Night honors, and many felt went under the radar).

Finally, there was the Fight Pass event on Thursday evening. This event featured Michael Chiesa, who most notably won his season of The Ultimate Fighter, despite his father dying while he was an active contestant on the show. He even submitted the ever promising Al Iaquinta in the finals. While he has stumbled a few times since, you’d think they would throw marketing muscle behind him given his compelling back story. Chiesa even noted the lack of coverage he received when compared to Sage Northcutt.

The following weekend saw another UFC on Fox card with a fairly eventful under card. Charles Oliveira and Nate Marquardt turned things around with significant stoppage victories, Sarah Kaufman (sadly) lost again, Polish strawweight Karolina Kowaliewicz made her UFC debut in a decision win over Randa Markos, and Nik Lentz called out BJ Penn’s “retired ass.”

All of this happened in the last few weeks, and I forgot to mention that Tim Means did this to poor John Howard.


 

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Conor McGregor – Made

After a 13 second KO victory over Jose Aldo (arguably the greatest featherweight of all time) Conor McGregor is now made. This is not to say that he was not already a star for the UFC. During his rise to fame, he has proven himself to be both marketable and an absolute workhorse when it comes to media appearances and fight promotion. This is not to say that McGregor was not well established as one of the division’s most talented fighters (he knocked out Chad Mendes, one of the guys who was supposed to beat him). What this means is that prior to UFC 194, Conor McGregor had all of the ingredients of a mega star, except for one…a signature win. Of course he had an entire catalog of impressive knockout finishes, but he did not have that clip (think Anderson Silva kicking Vito Belfort in the face). Now he has one.

The fact that McGregor pulled off such a spectacular win at a moment when that many eyes were on him will likely cement him as a bullet proof PPV attraction for years to come. Even if he loses his next fight, people will stop to remember him as the guy who knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds, and they will probably open their wallets to watch him fight again.

So now comes the discussion about what comes next. Many are asking whether a rematch with Aldo would be marketable given the long media campaign that went into this last fight. Maybe the smarter move is to put McGregor against a fresh face. People are asking if the more marketable opponent would be against Frankie Edgar, RDA, or even Nate Diaz. People are lamenting the possible loss of a McGregor/Cerrone fight at lightweight. These are all worthwhile questions, but they miss the point…

It doesn’t matter. You can book Conor McGregor against anyone on the UFC roster right now and it will still draw money. You can put him in there against a cardboard cutout of Forrest Griffin and still generate some form of mainstream attention.

Not only does McGregor bring a lot of casual fans (as in fans who would not normally watch a UFC event), but he also has the full attention of a growing army of detractors. There is a large portion of the MMA audience that resents McGregor and the casual fans who support him. They consider themselves to represent the “real MMA fans”, and insist that being a McGregor fan is like wearing a pink New England Patriots hat while living in Minnesota. This is, of course, ridiculous. McGregor is an exciting and charismatic fighter, and is fully deserving of all of his new found success. Most credible MMA journalists seem to agree that having McGregor around is good for the sport. Still, it seems that no matter how many fights McGregor wins, nor how many eyeballs he brings to the sport, he will always have his fair share of “haters.”

Fortunately for him, haters still have to pay to watch the fight. The more high profile he gets, the more people will want to see him get cut down to size. The more arrogant he seems, the more money he will make in the long run. Vince McMahon wishes he could book someone this well. The fact that his recent wins have left some viewers with unanswered questions only adds to the intrigue of his next fight (or rematches in the future). What if Mendes had a full camp? Was the Aldo knock out a fluke?

McGregor has not committed to any realistic plan as of yet. That is unless you consider moving up to win the Lightweight title in April and then defending the Featherweight title in July realistic. This seem like an absurd notion, but so did the idea of him knocking out the greatest featherweight fighter of all time within 13 seconds. Regardless of what McGregor actually ends up doing next, he will be paid handsomely, and isn’t that what this is really all about?


 

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Jose Aldo – Mileage

While Jose Aldo may only be 29 years old, he is a fighter with a ton of accumulated mileage. Lost in all the talk of Aldo’s decade of dominance is the fact that he has a storied history of dropping out of title fights due to injury. Do not mistake this as an attempt to discredit Aldo’s accomplishments. Aldo is, without question, the greatest featherweight in MMA history. If Conor McGregor fought the Jose Aldo of 2010, things very likely would have turned out differently. However, the hypothetical is not reality. Much like Larry Holmes fought a shop worn Muhammad Ali, McGregor fought an Aldo who is likely past his prime.

Aldo may well mount a comeback, but I do not see it happening. This seems especially true when you look at the fact that he took part in two wars with Chad Mendes (one of which went five rounds), and then both Mendes and Aldo were knocked out quickly in the same weekend. Fluke? Maybe. Mileage? Almost certainly.


 

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Chris Weidman – Transitional?

The ill advised spinning kick was probably the most salient moment of the fight, and one that signified a clear change in momentum. Weidman was never able to fully recover after the blunder, and the fight probably should have been stopped a round earlier than it actually was.

The truth is, Weidman’s cardio led to his downfall. While he mounted some significant offense early in the fight, possibly winning the first round, Rockhold picked him apart with kicks to the body. These kicks seem to have taken everything out of Weidman’s gas tank. Even prior to that crazy spinning kick, Weidman was struggling to keep pace with the highly athletic Rockhold. I could be wrong here, but if these two fight each other again, I do not see things going any differently. Weidman’s cardio has come into question before, but he has never had an opponent who was able to exploit this weakness.

So what does this mean for Weidman’s legacy? In the weeks leading up to the fight, Rockhold claimed that Weidman’s title reign was a product of good timing, and that his resume had been inflated with victories over legends past their prime. This bold statement may seem out of place, given the fact that one of those legends did this to Rockhold (TRT or not, Luke was KTFO). It is tough to argue, however, that there is not at least a sliver of truth to Rockhold’s argument.

So was Chris Weidman, the man who ended Anderson Silva’s reign at the top, for real? Was he just a transitional champion? Only time will tell.


 

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Luke Rockhold – Vindication

There is no disputing the fact that Rockhold’s stock had dropped prior to 2015, but he has come back in a huge way over the last eight months. To call this a career resurgence for Rockhold is unfair, given the fact that Rockhold’s stock should never had fallen so far in the first place. Apart from one big loss to Vitor Belfort, the only things holding Rockhold back over the last few years were some ill-timed injuries and the death of Strikeforce. Rockhold never even lost the Strikeforce Middleweight title. A decisive title win over Weidman is vindication for Rockhold. It is his way of telling us that we should have never forgotten about him in the first place.


 

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Frankie Edgar – No Respect

How does someone knock the living hell out of Chad Mendes and not dominate the MMA headlines that weekend? How does someone dominate Cub Swanson and Uriah Faber, after disposing of BJ Penn for what feels like the billionth time, and not get an immediate title shot? Frankie Edgar, a future Hall of Famer, seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time ever since that controversial decision loss to Benson Henderson.

He is arguably one of the best to ever compete at lightweight or featherweight, but this has never really translated to marketability. Edgar has routinely drawn 200-300,000 buys when he is one of the marquee fighters. For some perspective, Brock Lesnar and GSP would draw over one million. Unfortunately for Edgar, he seems to be the guy that hardcore fans love and respect, but will never be the face of the UFC. When Conor McGregor was given a title shot, many rightly pointed out that Edgar was more deserving of the shot, if the decision was made on merit alone. In the fight business, no decision is ever made on merit alone. This is why Edgar continues to get no respect.


 

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 11: (L-R) Conor McGregor and Chad Mendes congratulate each other after their UFC interim featherweight title fight during the UFC 189 event inside MGM Grand Garden Arena on July 11, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Chad Mendes – Gatekeeper

There can be no excuses about not having a full training camp this time. It might be fair to say that his war with Aldo may have taken years off his career (I mentioned earlier that both participants in that fight were knocked out in the same weekend). This does not change the fact that Mendes always seems to lose the fights that he needs to win in order to break through to the next tier. While he only has four losses on his record, they are to Aldo (twice), Edgar, and McGregor. No other opponent who Mendes has faced comes anywhere near those three in terms of talent, stature, or resume.

Has Mendes hit his ceiling? Is he the guy who beats the very good fighters but always loses to the great ones? Is he the gatekeeper on the featherweight division? All signs, for now, point to yes.


 

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Rafael dos Anjos- Conor Beware

It isn’t just the fact that dos Anjos keeps putting away these strikers, but the manner in which he is doing so. Nine months after completely derailing the Anthony Pettis hype train (that Wheaties cover looks a little silly now, doesn’t it?), dos Anjos steamrolled Donald Cerrone in merciless fashion. With the help of Master Rafael Cordeiro, one of the best coaches in the game, dos Anjos seems to be improving with every fight as of late.

Here is why this is a problem for Conor McGregor. First of all, Conor McGregor’s take down defense is virtually nonexistent (as we saw in the Chad Mendes fight). This does not bode well against someone like dos Anjos, who has been rag dolling opponents as of late. Second, there is the fact that McGregor has not shown an ability to get off his back once his opponent is in his guard. He accepts the position too easily, and seems content to shell up and wait for some kind of stand-up from the referee. He was able to get away with this when fighting a take down-rinse-repeat fighter like Chad Mendes. Against someone with smothering top control, he might not be so lucky. Suffice to say, this is a bad match-up stylistically for McGregor.

Remember how I said McGregor is bullet proof as a draw, even if he loses his next fight? I should have added one caveat: getting the ever living shit kicked out of him by dos Anjos may hurt his drawing power a little. Losing a competitive fight may not be the worst thing in the world, but I’m skeptical that McGregor would be able to mount any kind of effective offense (I also did not think he would knock out Aldo in 13 seconds, so what do I know?).

It does not help matters that dos Anjos is the least marketable champion in recent memory. He is, as far as anyone can tell, a hard worker and good human being, but his personality seems to be as nonexistent as McGregor’s take down defense. Remember how I said you could book McGregor in a fight against anyone and it would draw money? That’s true, but the fact that this is a horrible style match up for McGregor and dos Anjos is largely unknown outside of hardcore MMA fans and may come across as boring to the casual viewer ay not bode well. The entire selling point of the fight would be the title belt itself. This may be enough to sell some tickets, but it seems like a bad deal for McGregor.


 

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Donald Cerrone – Keep On

If there ever was a fighter whose career could withstand a loss, it’s “Cowboy” Cerrone. After all, it is his carefree attitude that has won him so many fans in the first place. He has become a cult hero among MMA fans, and he is probably the only fighter that anyone believes when they say that they will fight “anyone, anytime, anywhere.” This is the man who agreed to fight Benson Henderson mere weeks after fighting Myles Jury last January. This is the same guy who can be seen at press conferences sitting behind a string of empty Budweiser bottles. This is the guy who drove to this most recent event in his RV (which broke down on the way to the event). Before being offered a shot at the Lightweight Title, Cerrone had little interest in title belts to begin with. While the loss may sting his pride a little, in the long run it will do little to slow his career. As long as he is healthy, Donald Cerrone is here to stay.


 

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Nate Diaz – Never Change

After a long layoff, due largely to Diaz insisting on being paid what he is actually worth in terms of public interest, Diaz returned with a career highlight performance. He didn’t just win the fight, he put on a boxing clinic. It is rare that you can look at a performance and say that one fighter “styled on” the other, but this certainly was the case here. Of course, the fight was not without the signature Diaz-style smack talk. In fact, Diaz was actually warned by the official for talking too much to his opponent (is this actually against the rules?).

When interviewed after the fight, Diaz called out Conor McGregor, delivering this gem of an interview.

Of course Joe Rogan had to cut the interview short, although he seemed to be enjoying it. So let’s just come right out and say it: if you do not like Nate and his brother Nick Diaz, this sport is probably not for you. Despite what the UFC, Fox, and Reebok think the future of MMA should look like, the Diaz Brothers are everything that is exciting, compelling, and fun about cage fighting.


 

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Paige VanZant – Exposed

Despite the fact that VanZant was promised $40,000 just for showing up (Rose was promised $27,000), VanZant was beaten up and bloodied in a one-sided affair. The broadcast team seemed intent on selling Paige’s toughness, and she seemed durable, but it almost came across as a desperate attempt to salvage any marketability that VanZant still had after enduring such a high profile beating. Dana White and the UFC brass clearly believed that VanZant had the potential to be a big draw, despite her lack of experience and severely limited skill set. VanZant’s promised salary for the event was substantially higher than Namajunas, despite Namajunas being the more tested fighter. It was not just the UFC who saw something in VanZant, as she was among the first fighters to receive an individual deal with Reebok, which left many of the more established female fighters on the UFC roster feeling somewhat jilted.

There are many who will likely celebrate VanZant’s loss, as her rise to semi-stardom has gained her many detractors. The sad thing about the inevitable Paige VanZant backlash is the fact that none of this is really her fault. She does not decided who the UFC decides to market and who they do not. She is a competitive young woman who is taking advantage of the opportunities given to her. Unfortunately for her, despite her conventional good looks, she has all of the charisma of a brick wall. Not only this, but she is completely over matched in a division that is full of talented women. If you think the beat down she received against Rose was bad, can you imagine what Featherweight Champion (the single most dangerous at that weight class) Joanna Jedrzejczyk would do to her?

Despite the humiliation of one the company’s chosen ones, Dana White was still grinning from ear to ear after the fight. Why is that? This fight is the re-emergence of Rose Namajunas.


 

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Rose Namajunas- Improved

The high profile win over Paige VanZant on the main event of the Fight Pass card was huge for Namajunas. In previous fights, she has been prone to fighting emotionally, giving away the natural athleticism that gives her an advantage and instead being dragged into wild brawls. In this fight, “Thug Rose” maintained her composure and bullied VanZant in both the stand-up battle (Paige used her range to perfection, picking VZ apart from a distance) and on the ground (holding VanZant down and effortlessly floating from position to position).

Namajunas is only 23, and the future looks to be very bright if she is able to keep up this pace of growth. We would be wise to taper our expectations though. Do not forgot that Namajunas just dominated an untested prospect. Rose has two losses on her record, to both Carla Esparza and Tecia Torres. There is a chasm of difference between Esparza and Torres (top contenders) and cannon fodder like Angela Hill and PVZ. Will Namajunas be able to exercise her new found composure when dragged into deeper waters, or will she find that old habits die hard?

So why was Dana White smiling after the fight? Perhaps it was because a young fighter who he has spoken highly of in the past had just delivered an impressive performance on a big stage. His hope is that all of the interest that the UFC generated in PVZ would “rub off” on the woman who squashed her. This is something that professional wrestling promoters did for nearly a century, and it usually worked. Create a star in Wrestler A, hide their weaknesses while the public gains interest, sell tickets to see Wrestler A fight Wrestler B, and when Wrestler B wins, you have created a star.

White had already called Namajunas “the next Ronda” when she was competing on The Ultimate Fighter, which probably says a lot more about him (“we need another blonde chick!”) then it does about her. This does not change the fact that Thug Rose is an athletic and talented young woman with an interesting back story and an entertaining fighting style. She’s an easy fighter to root for, as everything about her seems far more genuine than PVZ.

However, while her future is likely bright, I still shudder to think of what Joanna Jedrzejczyk would do to her.


 

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Sage Northcutt – Ex Machina

If we are going to have a Sage Northcutt discussion, we should set aside the questionable officiating that led to his victory. Pfister was brought in specifically to showcase Northcutt, and we has going to lose that fight. Sage Northcutt is a promising fighter, and to deny that is to hate simply for the sake of hating. With that established, let us discuss that bizarre post-fight interview.

Note that about 30 seconds into that video, Northcutt thanks “Mr. White”, clumsily plugs UFC Fight Pass, and then tells the audience to Google a bible verse. I don’t mean to pick on the kid, but I’m not the first person to say that Northcutt is creepily inhuman. It is as if Dana White developed him in a test tube, but gave him all of the traits that Mr. White thinks this imaginary mainstream audience he’s looking for will like. It seems like only a matter of time before we see Northcutt sitting on the set of Sportscenter and telling us all how “awesome” the Reebok deal is. Maybe he will get up at a press conference and insist that the fighters do not need to unionize because Mr. White and Mr. Fertitta have always been “way nice and super cool” to him.

Again, I don’t mean to pick on the kid, and it’s completely possible that he is a sincerely good human being. I just find him a little alienating and unsettling, and think that he’s probably just naive enough to unwittingly become the mouthpiece of a promotion that is morally bankrupt. Maybe I just need to Google John 3:16.


 

1907514_1083815424978254_5819057157408723426_n  Alex co-hosts The Lowbrow Podcast, follow them @lowbrowpodcast

Chad Mendes photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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