goes down in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday night, and there are no shortage of questions, concerns, and even one hopelessly implausible conspiracy theory to sort through as we ponder the UFC's return to Brazil.
I. Jose Aldo has yet to finish a fight as UFC featherweight champion, but does it matter?
Sure, his rise through the WEC was filled with jumping knee knockouts and other finishes that required more than one look at the instant replay just to believe what we'd seen, but the competition is a lot stiffer once you're the champ. When you're fighting the Kenny Florians of the world rather than the Cub Swansons, finishes can be harder to come by. The trouble is, the fanbase is not exactly patient with its champs these days. Just ask Georges St. Pierre. Already people are looking at Aldo's consecutive decision wins as UFC champ and wondering if he's too content to let the judges sort things out for him. Is that fair? Not really. But this isn't a fair sport, particular where public perception is concerned. In Brazil, where Anderson Silva is like the fighting Elvis, Aldo has yet to reach star status. But even if the crowd in Rio shows up more to see Vitor Belfort than to see him, Aldo could still capitalize. All he has to do is give them a performance to remember. Easier said than done against a guy like Mendes. II. Is hometown advantage overrated in MMA?
We know from experience that the Brazilians make for a vocal, enthusiastic, and extremely partisan crowd, but how much does it matter in a sport like this? Foreign fighters didn't fare well the last time the UFC was in Rio (they went 1-7, in fact), but look at the match-ups. The only truly surprising Brazilian win on that card was Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira's knockout of Brendan Schaub. The other fights, well, if they didn't favor Brazilians, they also didn't stack the deck against them. No fighter I've talked to has admitted to being intimidated or distracted by a negative crowd response, but then again, that's not the sort of thing most fighters would admit to even if it were true. I've seen crowds clearly influence judges' decisions in the past. I've also seen them silenced in a heartbeat by a vicious knockout. It's nice to have the crowd in your corner, but they make for a better hype man than a shield.
III. Is Chad Mendes ready to be a UFC champion?
When I spoke to him for this week's Sports Illustrated piece
(just go read it so I can stop plugging it), Mendes talked a lot about his experiences in the 2008 NCAA wrestling finals. He blazed through his senior season at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with an undefeated record and was the top seed going into the tournament. It was, in other words, not unlike his perfect 11-0 MMA career so far. But in college Mendes lost on points to the sixth seed, Ohio State's J Jaggers, in the finals. After chasing a national championship since he knew what one was, Mendes came within a takedown or two of getting it, only to fall just short. "It's something I still think about," he said. The difference here is that very few people outside of the Alpha Male squad expect him to win. He's fighting a dominant champ, and doing it in the other guy's backyard. A lot of people might look at his wrestling-heavy decisions in his two UFC bouts and see a guy who's not quite championship material, but maybe that complete lack of pressure helps some guys. When no one thinks you can win, sometimes it becomes a lot harder to lose.
IV. A moment of silence for all the great fights that could have been on this card.
No offense to Carlo Prater, but I would have much rather seen Erick Silva against Siyar Bahadurzada. And not only was Paulo Thiago-Mike Pyle a good scrap on paper, but also one that would have greatly pleased a local crowd that treated Thiago like a superstar the last time he fought in Rio. And lastly, let's not forget Stanislav Nedkov, who was the lone foreigner to beat a Brazilian at UFC 134. The official word was that "visa problems" scratched Nedkov from this one. Uh-huh. Look, I'm not saying there was a vast conspiracy at the highest levels of the Brazilian government to keep the undefeated Bulgarian out of their country at all costs after his TKO win over Luiz Cane, but I'm not not
saying it either...
V. Let's take a minute to thank the Brazilians for being such good sports about the late start time for this event.
In order for the UFC to stick to its preferred 10 p.m. ET pay-per-view start time and still go live, the local crowd will be showing up for a main card that doesn't begin until 1 a.m. local time. As our own Ariel Helwani pointed out this week
, that means they could be waiting until 3:30 a.m. for the main event to get started. Unless you party like Lindsay Lohan, that's normally about the time when a fun late night turns into an arduous one. If there's any crowd that can roll with that, it's the passionate 'cariocas' who jammed the HSBC Arena to the rafters just five months ago. At UFC 134, they kept the joint jumping from the first fight to the last. Then again, that one started a couple hours earlier. Let's hope they can maintain the same level of enthusiasm for this event, though perhaps without the beer-throwing this time.
VI. A new challenge, but the same old questions for Vitor Belfort.
No one doubts his ferocity in the first round. It's what happens after that that's been his big problem. "The Phenom" is 20-9 in his 15-year career, but just 4-5 in fights that have gone the distance. Anthony Johnson is a durable fighter who is at home on his feet, but clearly doesn't mind grinding out a victory when he needs to, as we saw in the Dan Hardy fight. He's never been knocked out in an MMA bout, so there's a very good chance he could take this one into the deep waters and test Belfort's ability to pull out a win in the later rounds. If Belfort's ever going to reverse that trend and write a new narrative for himself, he'd better do it soon. As he alluded to this week, he might not have much time left on the clock. And no one wants to be remembered as the guy who was a lion in the first minute and a kitty cat in the 15th. VII. Goodbye Spike TV; hello FX.
As much as I applaud the UFC's efforts to get as many fights as possible seen by as many fans as possible, streaming so many of the prelims on Facebook was a model that had its limitations. On Spike TV, the UFC only got an hour to squeeze in a couple prelims, leaving the rest for the internet. But in the brave new world of the FOX deal there are two full hours of prelim fights on FX, leaving only one fight to the Facebook hinterlands. It's a welcome change for those of us who prefer to watch fights on the TV rather than the laptop. It's also good news for the lower tier of UFC fighters. Instead of confusing the hell out of their grandparents by trying to explain Facebook to them, they can just give them a channel and a time and be done with it. Now that's progress.
VIII. Seriously, Rousimar Palhares, can you get through this one without anything weird happening?
I touched on it in my betting odds breakdown
, but "Toquinho" has shown a penchant for mental lapses in his UFC career. Some have cost him dearly, while others have just come close. In a match-up that seems tailored to his particular set of skills, it'd be great to have his performance between the horns be the one and only story for a change.
IX. Here's a free tip: make sure you're in your seat for the Gabriel Gonzaga-Ednaldo Oliveira fight.
It's flying under the radar on the prelims, but this is a heavyweight tilt that you don't want to miss. Not only is it Gonzaga's return to the UFC, but it's also the debut for Junior dos Santos' unbeaten sparring partner. Word around the campfire is that JDS asked the UFC to take a look at Oliveira and got the usual 'Send us a tape, but no promises' response from matchmaker Joe Silva. He must have seen something that he liked, because here's the 27-year-old Brazilian, ready to take a big step up in competition. The interesting thing is, Gonzaga's been in a similar situation before. He was the one who served as the UFC welcoming committee for Brock Lesnar's sparring partner, Chris Tuchscherer, at UFC 102 in Portland. It wasn't such a kind welcome, honestly. The bout was halted early after a brutal "inadvertent" groin kick by Gonzaga that left Tuchsherer writing in pain on the mat for several minutes. Immediately upon the restart, the cold-hearted Gonzaga looked low and kicked high. Tuchscherer, understandably, went to protect his aching man parts and left his head wide open. A shrewd move by Gonzaga, though perhaps not the most sporting one. Something to think about if you're Oliveira.