UFC 145 in Atlanta is now just hours away, so let us tick away the time with a few last questions, concerns, comments and predictions. Here are eight of them, presented in no meaningful order.
I. It must be almost fight time, because there is absolutely nothing new to say about the Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans bout. More and more, I wonder if this is the true sign of a big time fight. If the night of the event rolls around and you don’t feel completely sick of the same storylines, the same questions and same answers, then it must not be a fight that really matters. If it were, our media-saturated sports culture would have talked it to death already, as we have with Jones-Evans. The fighters know it. They couldn’t even fake it convincingly during the pre-fight press conference this week. All the talk has been "almost therapeutic" according to Jones, but there’s a reason therapy isn’t considered a spectator sport. Was it always this way? Were people this sick of hearing about the "Thrilla in Manilla" by the the time the fight finally rolled around? How about the Punic Wars? Surely by the third one even some Carthaginians must have wished they’d just burn the damn place down and get it over with already. The Jones-Evans saga of friendship and teamwork and rivalry and betrayal might have been too enticing for its own good. Like a hit pop song that drops just in time for summer, this is a story that was destined to get told over and over again, blaring out of every car stereo at every stoplight until we couldn’t stand it anymore. At least in MMA (unlike pop music) we have a built-in end point to that particular brand of madness, and we’re almost there. Nothing left to do now but shut up and wait, and at least one of those is optional.
II. A brief story about Greg Jackson, told to illustrate a point. An agent who shall remain nameless once told me a little tale about a Jackson’s MMA fighter who shall remain nameless. This fighter was offered a fight in the UFC that this agent thought was a bad idea. Not only was it a difficult style match-up, it was also one of those pairings that’s short on positives and long on negatives for one of the two fighters. The agent advised against taking it, he said, but the fighter wouldn’t hear of it. So the agent called up Jackson and told him what the UFC had in mind. Okay, Jackson said. We’ll start looking at tape and working on a game plan. Here’s where the agent asked Jackson for his honest opinion. Did he think this was a smart fight for this guy to take at this point in his career? Oh no, Jackson is said to have responded. He didn’t like the match-up at all. Seemed like a very bad idea, actually. "That’s when I realized that Greg doesn’t really worry about that side of things at all," the agent told me. In other words, he became a fight trainer because he wanted to be a fight trainer -- not because he wanted to be some sort of MMA mogul. I bring this up now because of all the emails and tweets I’ve been getting that paint Jackson as ruthless capitalist who purposely undercut Evans in favor of a more profitable relationship with Jones. I know the internet loves a conspiracy theory, but anyone who actually knows Jackson knows that he’s the rare figure in this sport who really is as honest and forthright as he appears to be. That’s why he opts to stay out of the murky waters of fighter management and career manipulation altogether. If anything, he stayed too far out of it while this Jones-Evans thing was building under his roof. The only thing you can really fault him for here is his naive belief that grown men could sort stuff out for themselves. Obviously they couldn’t, which is how we arrived at this bitter conclusion. Is that Jackson’s fault? He says it is, but I don’t know. All I can tell you is that if you think he did this on purpose, you give him far too much credit for long-term planning.
III. A moment of silence for the fighters on the undercard. Usually the top couple bouts on the main card stand at least a chance of sharing the spotlight with the main event. Not this time. Not even close. Granted, the UFC saw it coming and saved most of its secondary star power for subsequent events, which was probably the smart move. Jones and Evans are the ones selling the tickets and pay-per-views here, and we all know it. There are still plenty of interesting fights on the undercard, but good luck getting them noticed with this hype storm around the main event.
IV. As long as we’re on the subject of the undercard, take a gander over at Rory MacDonald, who some oddsmakers have pegged as a 6-1 favorite over Che Mills. You might remember Mills from his 40-second TKO of Chris Cope in his Octagon debut back at UFC 138. An impressive showing, certainly, but against a guy who seemed to exist in the UFC only to give others an opportunity for an impressive showing. Now he takes on MacDonald, who seemed to be on his way up the ranks after wins over Nate Diaz and Mike Pyle. Now he gets Mills, who’s an exciting talent, but not necessarily a logical next step after wins over two established UFC fighters like Diaz and Pyle. That creates a tricky situation for MacDonald. Up until now he’s been the up-and-comer trying to knock off contenders one at a time, but this opponent will be trying to get a little of MacDonald’s hype to rub off on him. You don’t gain much that you didn’t already have if you win a fight like that, but you sure do lose a lot if you find yourself on the wrong end of an upset. On paper it looks like a showcase fight for MacDonald, and maybe it is. There are just a lot of ways for that to go wrong, and only one way for it to go right.
V. How confident is Brendan Schaub in his ability to take one and give one back after his loss to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira? In this match-up against Ben Rothwell, Schaub is probably the quicker, more athletic fighter. But the same was true against Big Nog, at least until Schaub got clipped on the chin. What Rothwell brings to the table is power. He can take a lot of punishment, and while his skills tend to diminish the more he gets worn down and beaten up on, he rarely goes away easily. Schaub, meanwhile, has been knocked cold a couple of times in his much shorter career. That’s not to say his chin is suspect, but you do have to wonder how good he’s feeling about his own ability to withstand a blow. If he’s hesitant to exchange with Rothwell, look for it to cost him in a hurry. It he comes out firing, at least we’ll know his confidence is solid. He just has to hope his chin is too.
VI. Toughest fight to call? Without a doubt, it’s Miguel Torres vs. Michael McDonald. Experience vs. youth. Veteran savvy vs. raw talent. McDonald has a full head of steam after his quick KO of Alex Soto, but he’s never faced anyone with the ability or the big fight experience of Torres. Is McDonald really as good as advertised? Does Torres‘ decade-plus in the fight game really count for as much as he thinks? These two questions are equally difficult to answer, which explains why this fight -- at least according to oddsmakers -- is the closest match-up on the card. Beware, you riverboat gamblers. Anyone who tells you he knows exactly what’s going to happen here is either lying to you or to himself.
VII. We’re about to find out just how much wonder Stephen Thompson really has in his bag of tricks. The matchmaking here feels like something out of a Patrick Swayze movie. The lifelong martial artist who’s all fancy kicks and Pokemon moves takes on the snarling hard-ass who looks like he might only swap out his chewing tobacco for his mouthpiece when the referee makes him. Brown has been joking all week about the Thompson mystique, as if he’s some sort of ninja who might materialize next to you in an elevator. It’s fun to play with that notion, but how much truth is there to the idea of Thompson as a karate whiz kid? He scored a superb knockout in his UFC debut, but just as with his kickboxing career, it’s tough to tell what role the quality of his opponent played. Brown is a tough fighter -- not to mention a desperate one at this point in his career -- but he’s also someone who makes his share of mistakes. If Thompson can make it out of the first two minutes, Brown is bound to give him some type of opening. You just wonder what it will look like, and if "Wonderboy" can make it count for something.
VIII. One last thing about Jones-Evans, then I swear I’ll let it go. For the past 13 months of his life, Jones has ended every triumph with Evans staring him in the face, often literally. His former teammate has hovered in the air above the greatest nights in Jones’ young career like a storm cloud that just won’t pass. It’s been a source of frustration and aggravation for Jones, but all he could do was wait. If he is victorious against Evans on Saturday night, and if he does so in a fashion that effectively puts the matter to rest once and for all, what then? How will he feel when he turns from this one and sees no more Evans staring back at him? Will he be relieved that it’s finally over, and he’s once again alone at the top? Or will he feel something else, like the emptiness that comes with the end of a challenge he didn’t realize he depended on so much until it was no longer there? Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe I should take my own advice on this one, and shut up and wait. Matter of fact, yeah. Let’s do that instead.