Fortunes changed for five at UFC 166

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
There were a number of questions that came out of Saturday night's UFC 166 from the Toyota Center in Houston.
The key ones involved how far you are willing to go with the superlatives.

Was Diego Sanchez vs. Gilbert Melendez the best fight in UFC history? Was the show the best overall event in UFC history?

And now that he's gone 13-1, only losing maybe one minute of a round in his entire career, the minute he was knocked out in during his first fight with Junior Dos Santos, exactly where does Cain Velasquez now stand with the historical best?

The subject of greatest fight in UFC history is now four weeks old since people were talking about the Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson fight in that light after UFC 165. Today, that fight is no longer even the favorite when it comes to the 2013 awards.

An excited Joe Rogan, when Sanchez vs. Melendez ended, said it was the greatest fight he had ever seen. The last time I recall him saying that was April 24, 2010, when Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung, the Korean Zombie, had the American version of Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama at a World Extreme Cagefighting show in Sacramento, Calif.

There is no answer, because whether you say Frye vs. Takayama, Garcia vs. Zombie, Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar, Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler, Dan Henderson vs. Shogun Rua, Rampage Jackson vs. Wanderlei Silva's 2004 fight, or Sanchez vs. Clay Guida, it's all a matter of taste. The only solid answer is that Nov. 19, 2011, was the greatest night for fights because you had both Alvarez vs. Chandler and Henderson vs. Rua, on different shows, both on the same night.

But Saturday's fight belongs on that list. It was a great action fight, similar in many ways to Melendez's two wars with Josh Thomson, but with a few key differences. Sanchez's reactions, while his face looked like hamburger meat, and his ability to bring the 17,238 fans to a frenzy, was one. Another was Sanchez's corner after round two, telling him he was fighting a great fight, but that he had lost both rounds and needed a knockout. Sanchez had a cut so deep and long above his left eye that it could have been stopped. And then as the two were playing rock'em sock'em robots, he put Melendez on the deck and nearly won the fight late in round three.

Sanchez, smartly, was proclaiming the fight a draw and asking for a five-round rematch when it was over. At some point, that fight should happen, but for Melendez, it shouldn't be now. Melendez was busy calling himself the uncrowned champion since many believe he beat then-lightweight champion Benson Henderson in his last fight. Either he or TJ Grant are likely to face the winner of the Dec. 14 title match with Anthony Pettis defending against Melendez's career-rival, Thomson, and that title has to be the tunnel-vision goal for Melendez's career right now.

For best show, there really are so many, particularly if you think about the heyday of Pride, as well as shows from Strikeforce and WEC. I can go back to UFC 5 in Casper, Wyoming, the night Tank Abbott debuted and fought Oleg Taktarov. By today's standards, it was primitive, but at the time, there was something raw and unpredictable and viscerally thrilling to it all. From a skill level, 18 years is like 180 years today.

But in recent years, the two UFC shows that stood out were UFC 116, on July 3, 2010 in Las Vegas, and UFC 139, on Nov. 19, 2011 in San Jose, Calif.

The former was headlined by Brock Lesnar's come-from-behind win over Shane Carwin in the greatest heavyweight title comeback ever; and Chris Leben vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama, a forgotten classic that may belong in the conversation for best fights in UFC history.

The latter had the Dan Henderson vs. Rua main event, in everyone's conversation for best fight ever, plus a Wanderlei Silva vs. Cung Le fight.

But those two shows, and this one, also had strong undercards. Everyone expected Melendez vs. Sanchez to be great, even though it had to exceed anyone's imagination. If you saw the second Velasquez vs. Dos Santos fight, how the third went shouldn't have been too big of a surprise.

But Saturday had a combination of great finishes, and four fights that could have been fights of the night on most shows. Not only the heavyweight title match, and the obvious Melendez vs. Sanchez, but also C.B. Dollaway vs. Tim Boetsch and Sarah Kaufman vs. Jessica Eye. All were thrillers and all in different ways.

As for the final question, about Velasquez. This win solidified him as the greatest heavyweight in UFC history, and with Fedor Emelianenko, one of the two greatest in MMA history.

Velasquez still has to stand the test of time which made Emelianenko, Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva the sport's three all-time greatest. But Velasquez in 14 fights, except for one hiccup with Dos Santos, has completely overwhelmed and hurt opponents in a way that even St-Pierre and Silva didn't.

Silva had the spectacular finishes and uncanny reflexes, and St-Pierre is a physical freak with explosive takedowns and a controlling top game, traits Velasquez can't match.

But Velasquez brings something different to the table. He never stops, and uses conditioning, which may not be as spectacular as reflexes or explosiveness, but in many ways fits his personality as someone who quietly does his job. The fact he does this weighing 240 pounds make him a freak in ways most people don't think of.

With the exception of his one loss, his domination of every minute of every round is something even St-Pierre, the master of control, can't claim. And quietly, he's a great finisher.

Velasquez has 9 finishes in 12 UFC fights. His 11 finishes in 14 career fights, at 79 percent, beats all of the greatest champions of the modern era. Anderson Silva has 14 finishes in 17 UFC fights and 26 of 38 overall (68 percent). Jose Aldo is 9 of 13 in UFC & WEC and 16 of 24 overall (67 percent). Jon Jones is 9 of 14 in UFC and 15 of 20 overall (75 percent).

Emelianenko had 27 finishes in his 40 career fights (68 percent).

As far as greatest ever, to me, you can only be fairly compared with your era. Some people will short-circuit over this because the worship of Fedor Emelianenko is like a religion and people hate to hear that there is no God, but this Cain Velasquez beats any Fedor Emelianenko eight times out of ten. Emelianenko's takedown defense was nowhere near that of Dos Santos, nor was his stand-up as good or as versatile. His footwork wasn't close to as good, and Dos Santos as a physically bigger and quicker athlete.

Emelianenko did hit hard and could win. He had a submission game but he's not submitting Velasquez, and he's not outworking him to win rounds, nor could he match his conditioning. Realistically, he lost to Dan Henderson and Bigfoot Silva and there is no way, even at his best, he could have gotten past Junior Dos Santos, other than the same puncher's chance.

Emelianenko did fatten his record on a number of circus opponents, but that's what Pride was, essentially Japanese pro wrestling without the fights being fixed. You can't knock him for his era or his surroundings. All you can do is beat what is in front of you. Emelianenko did so from 2000 to 2009. Not many of his opponents could have survived in today's UFC, but he did beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira twice, who was clearly the No. 2 heavyweight of his era, and his win over Mirko Cro Cop was the great heavyweight fight of its era..

So as an all-around fighter and who would win head-to-head, I'd go with Velasquez. As the greatest heavyweight of all-time, Velasquez needs a few more years maintaining his position to earn that mantle. As far as the greatest heavyweight in UFC history, Saturday night ended any debate. He is, with an exclamation point. And time will tell where he stands as far as the greatest champion in the history of the organization.

Among the top stars of UFC 166, Fortunes really didn't change so much as they were exciting chapters en route to a bigger story.

CAIN VELASQUEZ - As noted above, he has clearly established himself as the best heavyweight of his era like nobody since Emelianenko in his prime. His likely next opponent, Fabricio Werdum (17-5-1), is a great legacy fight because he's never faced a submission fighter at the level of Werdum. His strategy of taking his foes down and mauling them would be dangerous, given how Werdum has had lightning-quick submissions on Emelianenko and Nogueira. Werdum's stand-up is greatly improved. Werdum is 36, a number that isn't necessarily a death-knell for a fighter, but one that does bring questions with it.

But as strong as the heavyweight division is, after that fight, if Jon Jones is still light heavyweight champion, that may be the direction to go.

JUNIOR DOS SANTOS - If not for the presence of Velasquez, we would likely be writing all the same things about Dos Santos. He's an incredible fighter, strong stand-up, great takedown defense and heart and guts like nobody's business. He is the Joe Frazier of the era, just without anywhere near the same level of spotlight. He's probably an all-time great who just came along at the same time as someone who beats him most of the time, even when he's at his best.

His career path is tough. No matter what he does, it's likely to be a few years before he faces Velasquez again. His only hope is to keep winning, be patient, and if Velasquez falls, he'll be the guy who can pick up the pieces.

DANIEL CORMIER - Cormier went to 13-0, and he's also a fighter who has never lost a round in his career. He weighed in at 224 pounds, which is about what most light heavyweights these days fight at. He made it clear his next fight is at light heavyweight. In that division, he won't have the speed advantage as a light heavyweight that he had on all his heavyweight foes But if anything, his wrestling and clinch game should be stronger.

GILBERT MELENDEZ - Now 22-3, the Sanchez win because it should end up so memorable, helps his name value as a contender. Melendez has been of the world's best lightweight fighters since at least 2006. He spent years making money, but being on the wrong side of politics to ever prove he was truly No. 1 until April 20.

He's proven to be good in all areas of the game with excellent conditioning . But as this fight, and the Thomson fights have shown, he can be lured into a brawl. Melendez had Saturday's fight won and was clearly the faster and more skilled fighter of the two. but in standing there, trying to give the fans the show of a lifetime, he nearly lost the fight.

With all due respect to Grant, Melendez should get the next title fight. If he wasn't already, he made himself the stronger name with this performance. He's had a better career. And he has a level of durability, having never been finished in years of main events.

DIEGO SANCHEZ - Sanchez is the last man standing from the first season of the Ultimate Fighter. While Forest Griffin was always called the first Ultimate Fighter winner - technically. Sanchez beat Kenny Florian earlier the same night to win at 185 pounds.

Now down two weight classes, Sanchez, at 32, is likely to never win a UFC title. But he may end up with the legacy as the guy who has had many of the most exciting fights of the era. He's picked up six fight of the night bonuses in his last nine outings, as is likely to finish 2013 as the first man ever to win fight of the year three times, 2006 vs. Karo Parisyan; 2009 vs. Clay Guida; and 2013 vs. Melendez.

Even with the loss, he comes off as a significantly bigger star. He's in a division deep when it comes to top level fighters, and he should be able to headline a television card with anyone from Benson Henderson on down, or be in a No. 2 or No. 3 spot on any pay-per-view show. The question becomes, no matter how much he tries to say he's in his prime, how much the kind of beatings he took in this fight, and the Martin Kampmann fight, have taken off his back end.

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