LAS VEGAS -- Magic Johnson and Larry Bird lifted the NBA to new heights in the 1980s. Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran created a new generation of boxing fans around the same time through their interlocking battles. And, as much as fans of small-market teams like to grouse about it, baseball television ratings are never higher than when the Red Sox and Yankees are going toe-to-toe.
Nothing quite lifts a sport like a dynamic rivalry. We've already seen this in the UFC, as Chuck Liddell's battles with Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz played a key role in resurrecting MMA in North America.
The UFC is filled with dominant champions. Anderson Silva has been middleweight kingpin six years, Georges St-Pierre more than four, and Jose Aldo Jr. for three. Not counting interim belts and a flyweight title created from scratch, there have been four title changes over the past two years. Two of them have been Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos trading the heavyweight title back and forth.
Velasquez and dos Santos are the clear-cut numbers one and two in their division. If you matched them 10 times, you very well could get five quick dos Santos knockouts and five fights in which Velasquez mauls dos Santos.
Granted, this might not seem the best time to make such an argument, given the way Velasquez manhandled dos Santos Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. But on Nov. 13, 2011, which was the day after dos Santos won the title, who would have thought that Velasquez would come back and run over dos Santos? Both Velasquez-dos Santos bouts serve as a reminder never to judge a fighter off their worst career moments.
It's going to take some time for dos Santos to heal from Saturday night's beating, which means Velasquez will likely take another title defense in the interim.
But make no mistake, when the time's right, the UFC has its biggest trilogy fight in a long time on its hands. Velasquez-dos Santos III would be a big fight here and would be a stadium show in Mexico or Brazil. And in the long run, having one bona fide, belt-trading rivalry might be a healthier thing for the sport from a competitive aspect than having yet another champion who mows down one opponent after another.
UFC 155 quotes
"It got easier a bit as the fight went on because the pace of the fight tired him out. It was the pace. That wrestling pace, carrying someone's body around for that long. I t's tough, man. I've been doing this my whole life, and it's a thing you have to do for so long. Mentally, it gets you so strong." -- Velasquez, on wrestling's benefits.
"I knew he was setting it up. He was starting to set it up on the opposite side of the cage. I was exhausted. It was a beautiful setup. It was a beautiful move. I admired it while it was happening, but he was going to have to break it. I know there was under a minute." -- Jim Miller, who admitted Joe Lauzon's late heel hook was tight.
"I think I made a mistake putting [Chris Leben] on the pay-per-view. He's had problems for awhile and he's had a lot of time off. He looked slow tonight. I wasn't crazy about that fight. That wasn't my favorite fight of the night, that's for damn sure. The other kid [Derek Brunson] was looking at the clock like a 14-year-old waiting for school to get out the entire fight. Looking at the clock. You're in the UFC your first time. I wasn't very impressed. Chris Leben loves to fight. No doubt about that. The biggest challenge with Chris Leben is battling his demons. We tried to help him as much as we can. I love the kid. I'm sure he'll be back." -- White on Leben-Brunson.
"Goldie's out for awhile, and I don't know when he'll be back. Next question. That's it." -- White on play-by-play announcer Mike Goldberg. Jon Anik handled announcing duties in his place Saturday night.
To main event referee Herb Dean. Dean let Junior dos Santos continue in the first round while Cain Velasquez poured it on. Others might have pulled the trigger in that situation, but Dean understood what the fighter in front of him could endure and let it go. It might seem a bit much to award Dean the "good call" award for a simple act of competence, but on a night when so much else went wrong on the judging and officiating end, it served as a reminder a good referee can make all the difference.
It was another one of those "Nevada nights," where Nevada Athletic Commission officials take center stage for the wrong reasons. Kim Winslow watched an overmatched Byron Bloodworth take far too much of a beating at the hands of Erik Perez before stopping their fight. Judge Mark Smith presumably took a 10-minute power nap during the two rounds he scored for Brad Pickett in his loss to Eddie Wineland.
But nothing was more mystifying than Adalaide Byrd's 30-27 score for Melvin Guillard in a fight the other two judges had 30-27 for Jamie Varner. It sent White off on one of his epic officiating rants afterwards. "You could never watch a fight in your f--- life and not score that 30-27," White said. "I mean, Cain Velasquez had to sweat it at the end when they called that decision."
Stock up: Jim Miller and Joe Lauzon
I know I'm not exactly going out a limb here, but sometimes obvious choices are obvious for a reason. Miller and Lauzon quite simply saved the show, which was heading the way of UFC 149 before they stepped into the Octagon. Fifteen minutes of blood, guts, and heart will make anyone forget whatever came beforehand. Miller fought like someone who knew he needed a victory to stay relevant. He achieved his goal with his gritty victory. For Lauzon, the bout was considered a referendum on whether he was going to become a title contender. But as it turns out, it doesn't matter. Lauzon finishes 2012 as part of two of the year's three best fights, adding the Miller bout to his win over Jamie Varner (Chan Sung Jung's win over Dustin Poirier the other). As long as Joe Lauzon keeps fighting like Joe Lauzon, there's no way his stock can go down, win or lose.
Stock down: Middleweight contenders
It was just last summer the middleweight division was considered the UFC's hottest for up-and-coming contenders. But last night set the division back, well, if not to the days of Thales Leites and Patrick Cote, then certainly several steps. The two guys on UFC 155 considered closest to a shot at Silva's title, Alan Belcher and Tim Boetsch, both suffered terrible losses. And neither of the respective victors, Yushin Okami and Costa Philippou, did much to state their own case. Philippou at least finished his fight, but the tide didn't turn until a nasty, accidental eye poke. White summed up his feeling at this point of the PPV by saying "I wanted to throw a chair into the Octagon." So this leaves Michael Bisping in the catbird seat, earning a title shot with a win over Vitor Belfort next month. And it puts Chris Weidman in a pretty good spot whenever he's able to return, too. But as for middleweight being the new lightweight in terms of depth, yeah, not so much.
Point to ponder
After a tumultuous year, the UFC finally seems to have gotten its groove back. Starting with St-Pierre's return last month, the UFC finished 2012 with a string of memorable moments, from GSP's win over Carlos Condit, to Johny Hendricks' knockout of Martin Kampmann, to the loaded UFC on FOX 5, to back-to-back nights of memorable finishes in the TUF Finales, to last night's co-main event. The shows delivered even with the usual string of fallouts occurring along the way. That bodes well for an early 2013 schedule which already includes Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar, Ronda Rousey's debut, Dan Henderson vs. Lyoto Machida, the welterweight tripleheader topped by GSP vs. Nick Diaz, the return of Alistair Overeem, Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen, and more. It's entirely possible December will go down as the point the UFC once again turned a corner.
Fight I Want to See Next: Velasquez vs. Daniel Cormier
Sure, I'll go ahead and stir this pot. All indications are Cormier will go down to 205 and avoid the collision course with his teammate. But wouldn't this fight be fun? Stylistically, they're near mirror images. Unfortunately, it looks like the only people who will ever get to see this one are those privileged enough to watch them spar at the American Kickboxing Academy gym. But one can always dream.
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