Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
UFC 143 delivered everything from brutal finishes to narrow decisions, with post-fight demonstrations that ranged from awesomely acrobatic to jaw-droppingly bizarre. Now that we’ve all had some time to think it over and gorge ourselves on Super Bowl snacks, it’s time to sift through the rubble for our biggest winners, losers, and everything in between.
Biggest Winner: Carlos Condit
The blood-and-guts crowd might not like how he did it, but Condit’s strategy was brilliant and disciplined. He avoided the tight exchanges against the fence that Diaz spent the whole fight working for, and he refused to be baited into a street fight. He came in with the perfect plan for negating Diaz’s offense, and unlike many of his predecessors, Condit actually stuck to it. He beat the former Strikeforce champ with nearly flawless execution of a superior, though not necessarily popular strategy. Now he’s the UFC interim champ, which means he gets a belt that’s only slightly more meaningful than the one Chael Sonnen walked around Chicago with. He also gets the ire of the fans who think any strategy that doesn’t include standing in one place and swinging from your heels is somehow unfair or undignified. If he decides to wait until GSP is healthy before he fights again, Condit will get the chance to remedy both those problems in one night. Don’t be surprised if winning over the fans proves to be a lot easier than winning the real belt.
Biggest Loser: Georges St-Pierre
I’ll admit it: this is partly because I can’t think of anyone on this excellent fight card who really deserves to be called a loser. Most of the guys who were literal losers on the night still fought hard and performed well, so let’s cut them slack and focus instead on GSP, who lost something almost as valuable as a title shot on Saturday night. When Diaz lost the decision and declared his intention to take his gloves and go home forever, St-Pierre lost a rival and a nemesis. He lost the chance to face the one person who he seemed to genuinely want to beat up. Now what? He’s supposed to fight Condit, who he has no strong feelings about either way, and who will almost certainly not flip him the bird at any point before, during, or after the fight? That’s no fun. Not for fans, and probably not for GSP, whose passion for the sport seems to be waning just a tad. Diaz provoked some of his old bully-fighting feelings. He stoked the champ’s competitive fire and made him feel like he needed to be ready to fight in a hotel elevator. Now St-Pierre has lost all that, and without ever getting a say in the matter.
Most Surprising: Fabricio Werdum
Are we sure this is the same guy whose stand-up game consisted primarily of flopping onto his back just eight months ago? Against Nelson, it was as if Werdum had been born again as a kickboxer with lethal knees. You add that to his existing jiu-jitsu skills, and suddenly you have a serious heavyweight contender. Werdum seems uncomfortable being hit, and he’s perhaps a little too quick to go to his back, but this win makes it clear that the big Brazilian is still improving. It also makes you wonder if he might still be in that heavyweight Grand Prix if he’d come into the Alistair Overeem fight with this sort of confidence in his striking game. On second thought, nevermind. It worked out better this way.
Least Impressive in Victory: Josh Koscheck
His split decision victory over Mike Pierce was a lot harder to come by than Koscheck seemed to think it would be. Pierce stalled his offense against the fence, turning the fight into a slow battle for takedowns and position. Normally that’s the kind of fight Koscheck excels in, but this one was a struggle. It was also a risk, since that decision could have easily gone the other way. Koscheck wrote a lot of it off to a lack of motivation for this fight, which is somewhat understandable. After fighting GSP and Matt Hughes, how do you get up for a fight with Mike Pierce? Then again, that’s his job. That’s what the money is for. If he can’t look within himself and find the drive necessary to put on a quality performance, maybe 20 UFC fights is just a few too many.
Most Impressive in Defeat: Roy Nelson
It wasn’t exactly a display of technical brilliance on "Big Country’s" part, but it was another demonstration of his toughness. Some of those knees from Werdum would have decapitated a normal man. Maybe it was Nelson’s magical beard that helped protect him, or maybe he just has a harder head than most. Whatever the reason, he took everything Werdum had and gave some back when he got the chance. It’s clear now that Nelson will probably never be championship material in the UFC, but how can you not want to see this guy fight? He doesn’t break, doesn’t quit, and doesn’t give opponents anything they didn’t earn. This is a man who’s making his money the hard way in the UFC. Fans will keep showing up to watch him do it for as long as he can keep it up.
Most in Need of a Bigger Fight: Renan Barao
Every time we see him he looks more and more like a top contender at bantamweight. After smashing Brad Pickett, this was supposed to be the fight that would test his takedown defense against a quality wrestler. Unfortunately for Scott Jorgensen, it didn’t turn out to be much of a test at all. Barao cruised to win and looked great doing it, so what’s next? 135-pound champ Dominick Cruz still has business with Urijah Faber, so a title shot isn’t in the cards just yet. Maybe the best Barao can do is keep on keeping on against whoever the UFC can convince to step in there with him. After his last two performances, you can bet there aren’t a whole lot of bantamweights volunteering for the job.
Most in Need of an Attitude Adjustment: Nick Diaz
It’s understandable to be angry about a decision like that. It was a close fight, the kind that both guys will go to their graves thinking they deserved to win, and you knew as they stood there waiting for the call that someone was going home in a huff. But when the call doesn’t go your way, how you react tells us a lot about your character. Diaz didn’t just whine and complain about the decision, which would have been somewhat justifiable under the circumstances. Instead, he whined, complained, and then quit, right on the spot. Time will tell if that decision sticks (I’m betting he’ll be back before the year is out), but regardless, it’s an incredibly immature way to react. That’s how an eight-year-old reacts when you beat him at a video game. It’s not how a grown man and a professional athlete should react. But Diaz’s post-fight remarks, as bizarre as they were, were perfectly consistent with how he’s handled adversity throughout his career. Whenever something goes wrong, there’s always someone else to blame. Nothing that happens to Nick Diaz is ever Nick Diaz’s fault. He’s always at the mercy of powerful forces outside his control, and those forces are engaged in a constant effort to bring him down. If anything, the opposite is true. Diaz thinks he doesn’t "need this [expletive]"? The people around him -- from the UFC to his obsessively loyal fans to his own team -- have put up with more [expletive] from him than they would from anyone else, and all because he’s a great fighter. If he wants to pay them back by quitting when things don’t go his way, that’s up to him. But he might quickly find that people are a lot less eager to put up with the same [expletive] from a retired, self-pitying fighter who refuses to take responsibility for his own actions and reactions.
Most Exciting Newcomer: Stephen Thompson
Our own Mike Chiappetta tried to tell you that this guy was worth keeping an eye on, but you wouldn’t listen. Not until he knocked out Dan Stittgen with an unbelievable head kick and then followed it up with a post-fight celebration worthy of a Tekken character. Time will tell if he can pull off moves like that against tougher competition, but when you follow up a bonus-worthy knockout by sticking the landing in your celebratory acrobatics, you’ve got reason to be satisfied with your UFC debut.
Most Controversial: Herb Dean’s two-point deduction
Let me get this straight: you accidentally kick a guy in the groin once, that’s a warning. You kick him twice, you lose one point for each damaged testicle? I’m not sure I understand why referee Herb Dean decided to take two points from Alex Caceres after the second low blow to Edwin Figueroa. Was it because the second one seemed especially egregious? Or because it made a sound like a racquetball exploding? Dean didn’t seem convinced that Caceres was doing it on purpose, so what explains the extra point deduction? When we start asking these questions, we quickly get into a discussion about what should and shouldn’t be at the referee’s discretion. At the moment, MMA has an almost comically vague approach to fouls. The first time you commit one, we tell you to knock it off. Unless it results in the end of the fight, in which case you’re disqualified. If it doesn’t end the fight, and if you continue to commit the same foul, then maybe you’ll lose a point. Maybe you’ll lose two. Maybe you’ll just get several more warnings, but maybe the tone of those warnings will get very, very serious. If you commit one foul and then commit a different one later on, the whole system of escalating warnings generally starts all over again. Under the current system, too much is left up to an individual referee to decide on the spot. It’s like asking a football referee whether that hold was really deserving of a ten-yard penalty, or whether we could let them off with seven, just this once. Especially in a sport where contests might last the full allotted time or might be over in ten seconds, there’s too much incentive to go ahead and commit a foul and hope that it doesn’t cost you. Most of the time it doesn’t. Jose Aldo grabs the fence to avoid a Chad Mendes takedown (and nobody has ever, in the history of MMA, accidentally grabbed the fence) and the verbal warning is rendered meaningless when he scores a knockout moments later. Caceres accidentally kicks a guy in the pills twice (a painful foul, but not necessarily an intentional one) and it ends up costing him two points. You never know for sure what the third man in the cage will do. Not until he’s done it, and then it’s too late.
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