After four events on the FOX network, the UFC finally delivered the full night of non-stop action that we’ve all been waiting for. All it took was a couple former champions and a few desperate struggles for relevance, plus a feel-good comeback to warm the dark corners of your cynical heart.
With UFC on FOX 4 in the books, the time has come to examine the biggest winners, losers, and everything in between after a memorable night in Los Angeles.
Biggest Winner: Lyoto Machida
Once again, "The Dragon" reminds us why we loved those old karate movies, and it wasn’t just the awesome soundtracks. When practiced by someone who uses distance and timing as effectively as Machida does, karate is every bit the lethal art that those strip mall senseis used to tell us it was. What makes him so dangerously frustrating to opponents is not just his movement or his counter-striking, but his terrible patience. He was clearly outpointing Ryan Bader as he picked him apart with impunity from the outside, yet he was in no hurry to do much else. He waited until Bader had no choice but to come to him, then he made him pay with a perfectly timed counter right hand. That performance, plus what Dana White describes as an aggressive lobbying campaign behind closed doors, was enough to earn him the next crack at the UFC light heavyweight title. The fact that he just fought for the title in December apparently doesn’t deter White, but will fans be as eager to see him get another go, especially if Jon Jones successfully defends his belt against Dan Henderson? It’s true that Machida outperformed other challengers by actually winning a round against Jones, but it’s also true that he got beat up and choked out in the very next round. Is there any reason to think a second meeting would turn out any better for him? I doubt it, but maybe it’s not even worth arguing about until after Jones and Hendo settle their business.
Biggest Loser: Ryan Bader
You want to see fighters willing to go out on their shield? Well, there it is. It might not have been the best tactical decision to charge in face-first against a superior counter-striker, but it looked as though Bader had had enough of being gradually outpointed from a distance and was determined to make something happen. He succeeded, in a way. It’s hard to blame Bader for going all kamikaze there in the second. The way things were looking, he could have fought ten rounds against Machida and barely laid a glove on him. It’s easy to second-guess him for not attempting a takedown instead of a bum rush, but that’s the trouble with facing a guy who can beat you from a distance and avoid all attempts to engage on anyone’s terms but his own. Eventually he forces you to do something dumb in the hopes of doing anything at all. The loss halts Bader’s brief winning streak and knocks him back into the faceless pack at light heavyweight. A wrestler with a big right hand is still going to be a problem for plenty of guys in the division. It’s just not going to make you a UFC champion in this era of MMA.
Least Satisfying: Phil Davis
Eight months ago he was the undefeated wunderkind, fighting in the main event on FOX, one win away from a title shot. Now, after losing a decision to Rashad Evans, he’s relegated to the FUEL TV portion of the card, where he pokes a Brazilian newcomer in the eye and has to settle for a no contest after 90 seconds of cage time. We saw so little of Davis in this prelim bout that there was nothing of any substance to analyze (though Evans certainly gave it a go from his comfy spot as a commentator). He’ll have to wait a couple more months for another shot at Wagner Prado, which means more time to slip from the public consciousness. This is where bad luck and bad timing meets MMA growing pains. The decision loss to Evans? That might have been a necessary learning experience for Davis. Somehow, it knocked him down from network TV main eventer to cable TV prelim fighter, and his use of the open, pawing left hand against Prado left him with an unsatisfying no contest and a longer wait before he finds out what his future holds. It is a bummer of a decline that is only partially of his own making, but it’s got to be depressing nonetheless.
Best Career Comeback: Mike Swick
After more than 900 days out of action he returns to brawl it out with DaMarques Johnson, and the result is a brutal second-round KO that immediately puts Swick back on the map. He has reason to be encouraged by more than just the finish, too. He hung tough through some hard times in the first round, and still managed to shake off whatever ring rust he might have had to bring it strong in the second. It was a great win for one of MMA’s true good guys. Call it a testament to Swick’s resiliency and strength of spirit, but also call it a triumph of hard training. Swick said before this bout that he thought the hard sparring at AKA would mitigate the effects of the long layoff. At first it sounded like the kind of thing you tell yourself in an attempt to soothe some frayed nerves, but he certainly didn’t look like a fighter who was out of practice. Now let’s just hope he can stay healthy without training his way into the ER.
Most Impressive in Defeat: Brandon Vera
Watching him battle back from one onslaught after another against "Shogun" Rua, I found myself wondering, where has this guy been? This guy who willed himself back into the fight at several points, who seemed to be clinging to consciousness with sheer stubbornness at times, why haven’t we seen him before now? Physically, this Vera didn’t look so different. It’s just that, where the old Vera might have folded up and accepted defeat once the tide turned against him, this one never seemed to lose faith in his ability to win the fight. That’s new for him. You look at Vera’s career, and you don’t see too many come-from-behind victories. Maybe you still don’t, since he did lose this one in the end, but he proved something about his character as a fighter that we had reason to doubt before now. Is it possible that, after all his struggles and failed resurrections, he really is a changed man now? I’m not sure, but I know I’ll be eager to find out the next time he steps in the cage.
Most Grueling Win: Mauricio Rua
"Shogun" is now nine fights into his career with the UFC, and one thing has become clear: if he doesn’t knock his opponent out in the first round, get ready for a long, brutal night. No other light heavyweight has put his body through the ringer the way Rua has lately. He won a slobberknocker against Vera, and before that went to war with Hendo in what was basically the best fight in the history of unarmed hostilities. Even his decision loss to Machida and his TKO loss to Jones were demonstrations of his willingness to take all sorts of punishment for the sake of a paycheck. That approach makes for some exciting nights, and it’s earned him a reputation as a fighter who guarantees some memorable suffering, even if it’s his own. At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder what he’s doing to his career with these battles. Rua will be 31 in the fall, at right about the same time that he reaches a full decade in the MMA business. A lot of fighters whose styles involve such eager sacrifice of one’s body start to show the effects at right about this point. Rua has never fought like a man who’s thinking about how he’s going to feel in the morning. It might be too late to start now.
Most Entertaining: Joe Lauzon and Jamie Varner
When you look at a card that includes "Shogun" Rua, most of us probably wouldn’t peg Lauzon and Varner as favorites for the Fight of the Night bonus. While Lauzon has a ton of bonuses to his name, including four FotN’s, this is the first time he’s been on the winning end of it. That he and Varner, who not so long ago appeared to be a lost cause, would combine for such a wonderfully competitive fight, well, that’s the best kind of surprise for fight fans. These two proved why they deserved a place on a network TV card. The fight went everywhere, included a little bit of everything, and could have served as a useful primer for anyone who had never seen MMA before and wanted to know why it was so popular with the young people these days. ‘Oh, so they beat each other up on the feet, then wrestle around a little bit, then get back up, then go back down and try to choke each other?’ Yeah, pretty much. And it’s awesome. Now get ready to spend every Saturday night from now until judgment day watching it.