Before Saturday's UFC on FOX show in San Jose, Calif., there was a lot of talk about it looking like the best card of the year. It was not only a show filled with top fighters, but the way they were matched up, it looked like there would be a number of exciting fights.
That's often a jinx. Often, when expectations are set so high, even a good show becomes a letdown. But that didn't happen. The night was filled with so much action, a show that lasted six-and-a-half hours seemed to fly by. The eight knockout finishes tied the all-time UFC record set at UFC 92. But even that show couldn't match the finishes Saturday, as virtually every knockout would have been spectacular enough to win the best knockout bonus on most usual cards.
Plus, we had a UFC first, a champion proposing moments after a successful title defense. Because of concern of getting the 10 p.m. local newscasts started, the network broadcast felt rushed, lacking in the usual personality profiles and post-fight interviews. Several markets, including Boston and Shreveport, Louisiana, did the unthinkable, cutting off the show the minute the Benson Henderson vs. Gilbert Melendez
lightweight title fight ended, not even waiting for the result of a close fight to be announced.
Still, when 2013 ends, the event will likely be under strong consideration for the year's best show.
The card was also built around eight matches, including all four of the FOX fights, that pitted fighters coming from Strikeforce into UFC after the folding of the former company in January.
It made for a fitting story since it was held at the HP Pavilion, not only the home base of Strikeforce for virtually its entire run, but the building owned by the former Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment (now Sharks Sports and Entertainment), the co-owners of Strikeforce until selling it to Zuffa (the parent company of UFC) in early 2011.
There was an underlying theme to those fights, and that was a question regarding Strikeforce legitimacy as an organization. The former Strikeforce fighters took four of the eight fights, and were on the wrong side of the two decisions that were debated heavily afterwards.
In particular, fights with Strikeforce's
lightweight champion, Melendez, facing UFC champion Henderson, and Strikeforce's longtime No. 2 lightweight, Josh Thomson
, facing Nate Diaz
, made a strong statement about not only where the two ex-Strikeforce stars belong in the ratings today, but also where they've belonged for the past seven years. During their dominant years in Strikeforce, and in their fights with each other, they were not just good fighters battling for a secondary title. They were clearly two fighters right at the top of the division who were right up there with UFC's best.
No matter who you think should have gotten the decision in the main event, Melendez (21-3), after nearly a year layoff due to shoulder problems, walked into the UFC and proved to be every bit the equal of UFC's champion in its deepest weight division. Thomson (20-5, 1 no contest) finished Diaz, something 16 previous UFC fighters including major names like Henderson, Gray Maynard, Rory MacDonald
, Jim Miller
, Donald Cerrone
and Dong Hyun Kim
couldn't come close to doing. The performance was strong enough that Thomson would have to be considered one of the top lightweight title contenders, and drove home the point that he's been greatly underrated for the bulk of his career.
The show had a number of serious career and even life ramifications for its headliners, so let's look at Fortunes Changed for Five.
FRANK MIR -
Mir's career in UFC now spans a dozen years, but the former two-time heavyweight champion faces serious questions. Mir left his home base of Las Vegas to train at Greg Jackson's
camp in Albuquerque in his latest attempt to reinvent himself as a fighter. But at 34, even though he looked as impressive physically as ever, and claimed to have been in his best shape, he got very little offense in during a three-round loss to Daniel Cormier
Cormier fought a smart strategic fight in working mostly a clinch game, avoiding distance as much as possible, and avoiding the ground almost like the plague, removing Mir's strengths.
Mir (16-7) can likely hang around UFC for a few more years should he choose. He has a strong name, is one of the best in the company at promoting fights, and toils in a division that lacks depth. But this loss, coming on the heels of a loss to Junior Dos Santos, where he also got little offense in, seems to indicate that Mir's weaknesses when it comes to speed and cardio compared to the elite in the division will make it difficult for him against the top-tier.
JOSH THOMSON -
It's very rare that a 34-year-old fighter can almost rewrite the perception of his entire career in one night. Thomson did that on Saturday by being a step ahead of Diaz, and finishing him so brutally that brother Nick Diaz
threw in the towel.
Diaz was coming off a title match with Benson Henderson, and was ranked No. 4 in arguably the division with the most depth in the UFC.
With Anthony Pettis
moving to featherweight, Thomson should probably be ranked underneath only Melendez, who he has fought evenly with through three previous fights, and Gray Maynard
, one of his main training partners.
It was announced that Henderson's next title defense would be against the winner of the May 25 fight between Maynard and T.J. Grant
. If Thomson and Melendez win their next fight, realistically, one or the other would seem to have the best claim for the following title shot.
MATT BROWN - With five straight wins, four by knockout, including two in a row on FOX, it appears to be time to take Brown seriously. Brown (19-11) has long been considered an exciting journeyman fighter. He's yet to have a top 10 level win. But he seems to have shored up his submission defense weakness that plagued him in 2010 and 2011, where he lost four of five times.
What we're left with is an aggressive fighter who hits hard and has an iron chin. Brown finished Jordan Mein
in the second round on Saturday after the two battled in one of the best rounds in recent memory.
As shown by his being slotted twice in FOX openers, the company has faith in Brown to deliver the right kind of a fight to start off a network show. After Saturday's win, Brown made noises about being a title contender, a role which few had believed him capable of reaching. But he's done enough to where he should at least be matched with a contender-level opponent next.
JOSEPH BENAVIDEZ -
Benavidez really represents himself and two other Team Alpha Male fighters, Chad Mendes
and T.J. Dillashaw
, who all scored knockout wins on Saturday.
Benavidez (18-3) came into the fight as the No. 2 flyweight in the world behind champion Demetrious Johnson
, and scored a one-sided win over No. 7 ranked Darren Uyenoyama
. Uyenoyama was finished at 4:50 of the second round, with the key blow being a wicked body punch.
What was talked about as a key change for all three was the addition of Duane "Bang" Ludwig
as the new coach at the Sacramento, Calif.-based camp. All three fighters seemed to have improved their technical striking, which led to openings for knockouts.
Benavidez after the fight challenged the winner of the upcoming title fight with champion Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson and John Moraga.
"Probably by the end of the year," Benavidez said when asked when he'd like a title match. "Even after the last fight, I could have made a claim for a title shot. I think I made it vocal I wanted to improve and it worked out perfectly."
Mendes (14-1), who also came into the fight ranked No. 2, in his case as a featherweight, needed just 1:08 to finish Darren Elkins
with a punch to the temple. He also issued a challenge to the winner of the upcoming Jose Aldo vs. Anthony Pettis fight, which is scheduled for Aug 3.
BENSON HENDERSON - Henderson (19-2) overcame a hostile crowd to win his seventh straight decision. For the third time in his career, Henderson got the nod in a fight many thought he had lost, following his almost legendary 2009 win over Donald Cerrone and his second win over Frankie Edgar last August.
Henderson spent the days before the fight talking about how, in the big picture, fighting is not that important. Now 29, he spoke of retiring at 33. His position in the sport didn't change much on Saturday. But when it comes to life, that's a different story.
Henderson chose a unique place to pop the question. He got down on one knee in the middle of the cage, had a ring, and asked girlfriend Maria Magana, herself a high-level jiu-jitsu competitor on the Arizona scene, for her hand in marriage on network television. The live crowd booed him, still mad that he got the close decision over the local favorite. But since she accepted, his fortunes no doubt are changing greatly.