Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
You could not look back at UFC 156, held Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas without saying the repercussions coming out of the event were monumental.
A number of career paths of major stars changed. The results affected millions of dollars in future revenue, both for some of the losers and even for the promotion.
The show featured three upsets in the top five fights, and a main event where the decision was being debated after the event. Even though there are elimination matches for title shots on nearly every UFC show, it is rare for so many title pictures to change as much in one night.
When Antonio 'Bigfoot' Silva started teeing off on a tired Alistair Overeem in the third round, finishing him in as devastating a fashion as is possible, the fortunes not only changed for Silva, and Overeem, but for the UFC heavyweight division.
But Overeem was hardly alone. Three of UFC's most successful fighters of the current era - Rashad Evans, Frankie Edgar and Jon Fitch - lost matches at a time when it could be argued they all could least afford them.
In the case of Fitch, his loss to Demian Maia was probably the most devastating of the three for his career. He was completely dominated for three rounds by Maia's ground game. He's a few weeks from his 35th birthday, and at welterweight, UFC's second deepest division. With so much talent in the division, the odds of Fitch ever getting that elusive second championship shot decreased greatly.
It was also a show where undercard fighters like Bobby Green and Tyron Woodley debuted from Strikeforce and made major statements. Green, a lightweight, scored a submission on Jacob Volkmann. While underrated by most, Volkmann, a former All-American wrestler from the University of Minnesota, had gone 6-1 in that division in UFC competition.
Woodley, a welterweight, had a 36-second knockout of Jay Hieron, rebounding from his only career loss to Nate Marquardt on July 14. But Woodley is only the latest All-American wrestler with knockout power in a division that includes Johny Hendricks and Jake Ellenberger as two of its top contenders.
Jose Aldo Jr., the featherweight champion and show headliner, scored what has to be considered the biggest name win of his career. In getting a unanimous decision over former lightweight champion Edgar, he answered any questions as to whether he belongs in the top four of pound-for-pound rankings and any critics who may have said his division dominance was more based on the competition level at featherweight.
Joseph Benavidez moved himself into the top contender position for flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson with a close decision win over Ian McCall. The only holdback for a title shot is that Johnson just beat Benavidez on Sept. 21, and did so in strong enough fashion that there was no real clamor for a rematch.
Yet Fitch, Green, Woodley, Aldo and Benavidez, all of who would be on the list of the five whose fortunes changed the most after a normal show, are on the outside looking in.
ALISTAIR OVEREEM - You can count on one hand, and probably have some fingers left over, the list of UFC fighters more potentially marketable than Overeem. If you could build a heavyweight champion from scratch, he'd probably physically look like the Dutch "Demolition Man," and have many of his traits. Size, muscularity, knockout power in his hands, perhaps the most devastating knees in the sport, strong takedown defense and even submission ability.
But even though Overeem (36-12, 1 no contest) hadn't lost a fight since 2007, controversy follows him everywhere. How does a fighter with a 25-11 record suddenly gain so much size without gaining any body fat, and become seemingly unbeatable? Between the unavoidable PED assumptions, seemingly confirmed by his test for elevated levels of testosterone last year, and issues with the talent level of most of his victims over the past five years, there were loads of questions.
Still, the only chink in his armor was that he looked very beatable in the third round of his 2011 fight with Fabricio Werdum. The book on him is that if you can get him out of the early rounds, his cardio carrying all that size would become an issue. But then he destroyed Brock Lesnar on Dec. 30, 2011, like it was child's play. It wasn't the win alone that was so impressive, but how easily Overeem was able to stop takedowns and completely neutralize the physical strength of a guy who had taken down people with top-tier wrestling credentials like Randy Couture, Cain Velasquez and Shane Carwin.
Still, there were enough questions and prior losses on Overeem's record that nobody ever conceded the heavyweight belt to him, not when Junior Dos Santos was champion nor Velasquez. But it was expected Overeem getting a shot at the title could be one of the big title fights of the year. People, perhaps Overeem himself, were looking past Silva to a showdown with Velasquez in a few months time that would be one of 2013's signature fights.
Now it's out the window and there is no replacement fight anywhere close to as marketable. Plus, the aura of this living Hercules with fighting skill is also in question. Now the same questions from 2006, when he was a very talented light heavyweight who lost four times in a row, are back. In those days, Overeem was considered a front runner. He was great early on, but if put in a bad situation and a tough fight, would usually tire and lose to the top talent. And in this case, Silva really mounted no serious offense in the fight until the close of the second round, at which point the conditioning came into play.
Heavyweight isn't that deep a division to where Overeem couldn't pick up two strong wins in 2013 and find himself with a title match in 2014. As far as the Overeem of mythical proportions that could have been sold as one of the great fighter of our time, whether ever true or not, it's going to be far more difficult to convince the public that person exists.
It also greatly changes the heavyweight division. The division goes from one with a huge heavyweight title fight on the horizon and two other potential big ones later in the year (former champion Junior Dos Santos or Fabricio Werdum, provided each won their next bout), to one where a decision on the next contender is going to have to be made looking at a series of very flawed scenarios.
ANTONIO SILVA - For the second time in his career, Silva (18-4) was put in a position to be a giant stepping stone to build a legendary fight. The first time was Feb. 12, 2011, when he was expected to lose to Fedor Emelianenko, to set up an Emelianenko vs. Overeem fight in Strikeforce. Now, in stopping his second myth of his career, he finds himself in a unique position. Normally a fighter scoring the kind of win he did would have fans clamoring for him to get a title shot.
The problem is that between his two wins over legends were two fights where he was destroyed in the first round, once by current champion Velasquez, and the other by Daniel Cormier. Without those losses, Dana White would likely have been at the press conference Saturday night pumping Velasquez vs. Silva as one of the biggest heavyweight fights of all-time. But instead, all White would do is say that he wouldn't be opposed to Silva getting a title shot.
You have to look no farther than Velasquez and Dos Santos to see that a fast destruction when top heavyweights go at it is far from an absolute predictor of what happens in a rematch. Still, Velasquez vs. Silva fight was on May 26, and Silva was left looking like the victim of a slasher movie. Unlike Velasquez, who could draw from the Latin community in the U.S., Silva is Brazilian, a country where UFC is the most popular, but one where it can't derive the level of single-event revenue since it's not a pay-per-view country.
Still, there are only a few realistic alternatives, unless you want Velasquez to sit on the sidelines until the fall. And given UFC's schedule, such a decision makes no sense.
The next contender really has to come down to either Silva, giving Dos Santos (15-2) a title shot right away, or waiting another month for the winner of a Stefan Struve (25-5) vs. Mark Hunt (8-7) battle in Saitama, Japan.
It's early for Dos Santos to get another shot. With Struve, you have a guy who is 7-feet tall with real ground skill, but also has never beaten a top-tier heavyweight. If Hunt wins, it'll be his fourth in a row. While he's a colorful knockout artist with an iron jaw, he's also 38, sub par on the ground, and his win/loss record hardly reads like a title contender.
The other names in the mix are Cormier (11-0), who fights next on April 20 against Frank Mir, and Werdum (16-5-1), who faces Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira on June 8 in Brazil. Velasquez and Cormier are training partners and Velasquez has outright said he will never fight him, even if Dana White this past week was suggesting otherwise. Waiting for Werdum would force the next title shot, hoped for by late May into September, and Werdum could always lose, meaning the wait isn't even a lock you'll come out with a great top contender.
RASHAD EVANS - Evans, who White called one of the company's big five proven pay-per-view draws, was expected to beat Antonio Rogerio Nogueira on Saturday. There was lots of talk of him possibly dropping to middleweight and facing Anderson Silva next.
Instead, Evans (22-3-1) had the most lackluster performance of his career. He already showed no answers when it came to a fight with current light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. White jumped all over the idea that Evans had even mentioned the word retirement in a recent interview, outwardly wondering whether this performance indicates the necessary hunger isn't there.
Evans will get a fight, likely against a fairly big name next, and likely as soon as he would want it. In that sense, his plight is similar to his teammate Overeem. It wasn't just the loss, but the performance in the loss, that took him from a guy who was likely to be in one of the year's big fights, to someone that nobody is thinking about at that level today.
FRANKIE EDGAR - Close decisions seem to be a way of life for Edgar, who got the benefit of judges in some, and not in others. Edgar now has 14 UFC fights, 11 of which went to the judges. He won seven, and many of the wins, and three of the four losses, were all hotly debated when they were over.
White spoke strongly after the show that he didn't want Edgar moving back to lightweight, even though many, perhaps the majority, believed he beat current Benson Henderson in their last encounter. He felt that constantly fighting bigger guys, even though he has been successful at it, would lead to the shortening of his career. The lesson of pioneer great Kazushi Sakuraba. White conceded the Aldo fight was close, but didn't think an immediate rematch was warranted.
Edgar (15-4-1), is now probably the best fighter right now in UFC history to lose three consecutive fights. That means for the first time since 2009, his next fight is not likely to be a title match.
His options are to stay at 145, where there is a long list of very good fighters he can face. A few wins and he could easily be in the title picture, or he could drop again to 135. The reality is, when Edgar was fighting at 155, his 158-pound walk around weight was about the same as some of the bigger 135 pounders, such as current champion Dominick Cruz.
DEMIAN MAIA - It wasn't that Maia beat Jon Fitch on Saturday night, but just how impressively he shut Fitch down at every aspect of Fitch's strengths. Maia's proficiency as a pure grappler is second to none in UFC. His on-paper credentials can match anyone on the UFC roster, perhaps with the exception of Roger Gracie, and Maia is far superior as an all-around MMA fighter.
Fitch, a good wrestler, was taken down at will. Every attempt by Fitch to get out of trouble was blocked. While Maia couldn't submit Fitch, nobody else has been able to either. Maia (18-4), is now 3-0 as a welterweight, coming off first-round submissions over Dong Hyun Kim and Rick Story.
In another division, someone with those kind of wins in a row, looking the way he's looked, would be looking at a title shot right now. But welterweight is loaded. The obvious direction for Maia would be to face the winner of the March 16 fight with Carlos Condit vs. Rory MacDonald in Montreal. A win there could very legitimately get him a title shot.
No matter who is the champion, if they can't stop Maia from taking them down, and the Fitch fight showed that being a very good wrestler isn't enough, there is nobody in the division who will be favored against him in a straight ground battle. But, if they can stop his takedowns and keep it standing, the advantage would switch to most of the top guys in the division.
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