Fortunes changed for five in MMA's biggest weekend of year

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

With three major shows in two days, it was a weekend of both the happy and the sad watching fights. Reality struck Nick Newell and B.J. Penn, Chris Weidman was tested like never before, and Ronda Rousey showed that her ability may have exceeded her hype.

Emotions ran the gamut the past few days in what was the biggest weekend of the year for MMA in the United States.

We got one of the fastest championship fights in UFC history followed immediately by one of the year's best fights on Saturday.

But as far as the main events on the first show that kicked off the weekend, and the fight that ended the weekend, both stung you like a jab between the eyes about how cruel fighting can also be.

B.J. Penn is one of the most popular fighters in UFC history. He's the only fighter under 170 pounds who ever established himself as a major pay-per-view draw. He held UFC titles in two different weight classes, and was one of the building blocks of the company's success.

Everyone gets old in fighting, just not at the same rate. Penn was 31 when he made his final title defense of his lightweight title against Diego Sanchez, which was really the last night, past a quick win over a past-his-prime Matt Hughes, where he truly looked like the B.J. Penn everyone wants to remember.

Nearly five years later, he came to find out if that fighter still existed, and teased himself with the idea of being the first man to win UFC titles in three weight classes. He realized quickly that it wasn't going to happen. In the process, he looked like he was completely out of his league and didn't belong anymore. And there was no fooling or sugar coating. This wasn't losing to physically larger men like Georges St-Pierre, Nick Diaz or Rory MacDonald. This was against a smaller man who he was no longer competitive with in Frankie Edgar.

Edgar joined World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje in scoring devastating wins and having mixed emotions about it.

Gaethje retained his title with a second-round stoppage of Nick Newell. Newell, born with a left arm that ends right past the elbow, had compiled 11 wins in a row to make him arguably the most heartwarming story in the sport.
Gaethje vs. Newell was among the biggest potential fights the WSOF could put on, so it made sense to have it headline its first NBC special. Well, until a few minutes into the fight when Gaethje took over. Newell's toughness resulted in him taking a one-sided beating late in the first and throughout the second round. It wasn't fun to watch if you had seen Newell before and know he's not a sideshow gimmick. But on NBC, a lot of people saw him the first time, and to them, it can't reflect MMA well as a sport to see a guy with one arm being given a terrible beating because he'd never quit.

Chris Weidman on Saturday night removed the ghost of the unusual finishes of his two wins over Anderson Silva. The endings of both matches allowed some people to dismiss him as being the rightful UFC middleweight champion as a fluke, a lucky punch and a weird leg break. But Weidman scored as non-fluke of a win as possible in winning four of five rounds over Lyoto Machida, an opponent who has historically been a nightmare for wrestlers.
Weidman vs. Machida would rank with the Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler fight (March 15 in Dallas) and the Matt Brown vs. Erick Silva fight (May 10 in Cincinnati) as UFC's best matches this year.  This fight didn't have the all-out action of the other two, starting slowly as a typical Machida fight. But the drama in the last two rounds couldn't be matched. Weidman had taken the first three rounds and it looked like the fight was almost in the bag.

Machida came alive in the fourth and Weidman barely survived the round.

Going into the fifth, the feeling was that Weidman was tired and was the verge of being finished, and the question was more could he survive the round to retain the title with the lead he had built up. It was a test Weidman had never faced in his pro career. And he responded well. He didn't play stall the clock, but instead, gutted it out and went back on the attack. He was winning the round standing, and when he scored a takedown, the Mandalay Bay Events Center exploded, feeling he had probably clinched the round and was keeping the title. But he didn't ride time out, and instead got Machida's back and flattened him out to set up a choke.

But that wasn't it. Machida got up with 27 seconds left, and started landing big punches. Like with the end of the fourth, the question seemed whether Machida could finish before the round ended. But after surviving a flurry, Weidman in the closing ticks of the clock, waved Machida in, like the closing scene of a Rocky movie.

Saturday night's show was UFC's biggest of what has been, thus far, its weakest year from a pay-per-view standout, since it exploded when getting on television in the first place. When the show was first announced, it looked to be a monster. It wasn't going to beat UFC 168, which hovered near the 1 million buy threshold, the last time Weidman and Ronda Rousey headlined. Machida isn't Anderson Silva as a draw, and Alexis Davis was just an opponent for Rousey, as compared to the far-more popular Miesha Tate with a build off Ultimate Fighter.

The loss of the Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva hurt greatly. That was the match that would have gave this show the aura of a can't-miss event over the final few days with Sonnen's expected verbal antics and Silva's likely intense and passionate responses. In fact, it wasn't until the final days before UFC 175 that you really felt how much losing Sonnen vs. Silva, and later Sonnen vs. Vitor Belfort, impacted the late buzz.

The other issue was in running the two shows together. Had there been one show this weekend, with Penn vs. Edgar on the pay-per-view, and the TUF finals on FS 1, that would have freed Urijah Faber vs. Alex Caceres to be on the pay-per-view and you'd have an incredibly deep lineup of star power, and it would have had that feel of the show that you didn't want to miss. The loss of Sonnen vs. Silva wouldn't have hurt nearly as much at that point.
The drama, and emotional sadness of Penn's farewell wouldn't have been tempered by being on a secondary show that many fans probably skipped watching due to the big show being the night before.  It wasn't fun, but it should have been on the big stage.

Penn is a name that still resonates big with fans, in a third from the top position would have given UFC 175 that extra that would have convinced a casual audience that it's the night to check out UFC.

But needing to split up the attractions for two weekend shows didn't allow it.

This is the most important pay-per-view number in a long time. The lower pay-per-view numbers up to this point in 2014 have been expected. There hasn't been anything resembling a monster show since UFC 168. Most shows did about what they would be expected to do.

But this was a double title match show with Machida coming in as a real threat to Weidman. If such a show does 425,000 buys or less, it's a sign that UFC's pay-per-view business has weakened. Boxing's numbers have been down since the Mayweather-Alvarez fight, where every big show since has been a disappointment. With the exception of UFC 168, so has UFC during the same time period.

At 425,000 to 500,000, the show would do about what it should given lower expectations, since the loss of Sonnen vs. Silva took away a key component. If it beats 500,000, it will counter the idea that PPV is a fading business, and it would show fans will buy big UFC shows, but it's the lineups and main events this year that are the reasons for lower numbers.

Women's bantamweight champion Rousey came one tick from setting a record for the fastest finish in a title match, as her 16 second win just missed the 15-second record set by Andrei Arlovski. was on Oct. 7, 2005, for a heavyweight title defense, a one-punch knockout over Paul Buentello. It tied the second-place mark set by Frank Shamrock when he armbarred Kevin Jackson on Dec. 21, 1997, in the match to determine the first light heavyweight champion, although it was called middleweight at the time.

It gives Rousey two of the ten fastest title fight finishes in UFC history, coming on the heels of her win over Sara McMann on Feb. 22, which went 1:06.

Two wins in that little time in title matches would seem to make her a favorite for Fighter of the Year. The timing should help her cause in her ESPY nominations for Fighter of the Year and Best Female Athlete. It is interesting that UFC has not promoted the latter and tried to mobilize its fan base. Those awards are popularity contests since they are chosen by fans, but a win in either category would give her tremendous exposure outside the traditional UFC audience. No UFC fighter has ever won an ESPY, and because of his high profile name, Floyd Mayweather Jr. will probably win the fighter award. But Rousey has a shot in the female athlete category.

Let's look at how fortunes Changed for five of the weekend stars:

B.J. PENN - At 35, his loss gave closure to his career. As he noted after, he can leave with no regrets, never wondering if perhaps he could have won a third title and that his prior big losses came because he was giving up too much size. A 16-10-2 record on the surface doesn't sound like a Hall of Fame career mark, but for those who followed Penn's career from the start, he was an all-time great and there would be little if any debate regarding him for any MMA Hall of Fame.

He came in with hype like no other, from being the first American to win a world championship in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Few fighters ever got the kind of reputation in the gym as Penn. In 2001, Zuffa signed him with no pro fights, to what was a big money contract based on the time frame and lack of revenue the sport was generating. Penn responded with three straight first-round wins and the belief he'd dominate the lightweight division for years.

Things didn't turn out like that. He lost to Jens Pulver by decision in a fight where he didn't listen to his corner. In his second title opportunity, he drew with Caol Uno in a fight he probably should have won, for the vacant title. It was the same Uno he'd previously finished in 11 seconds.

But he followed with wins over a prime Takanori Gomi when many considered them the two best lightweights in the world. He moved up a weight class, and finished Matt Hughes, one of the most dominant champions in history. But he then left UFC for a bigger money offer from K-1 in Japan, and didn't return for two years.

When he came back, he lost a split decision to Georges St-Pierre, who would go on to become the greatest welterweight ever. In 2001, it was considered a formality that Penn would be lightweight champion, but he didn't actually win the title until Jan. 19, 2008, when he beat Joe Stevenson to take the vacated title. At that point his popularity exploded, particularly when his second fight with St-Pierre, as a true superfight battle of champions on Jan. 31, 2009, become one of UFC's biggest fights ever until that point in time.

It was Penn's willingness to embrace the old martial arts mantra that size wasn't an issue, and it was all about skill and heart, that made him the most popular lightweight ever. And there were days, like the first Hughes fight, where he proved that to be the case. He was a guy who willingly fought Machida in an open weight fight in Japan, which Machida weighed in at 225 pounds for, losing via decision. He used to call Dana White up and ask for a crack at the heavyweight title when Arlovski was champion.

Even in the modern and most competitive era, from 2010 to 2012, he fought at welterweight, giving away 20 or more pounds in most of his fights. With the benefit of hindsight, that was crazy. But it left the unanswered question that if he fought guys of his own size, could he still make a run for the title. And today, nobody could mistake the answer to the question.

CHRIS WEIDMAN - Now 12-0, Weidman survived against a man many thought to be his toughest stylistic match-up. He showed a heart when things were tough that had never been tested. But he also showed vulnerability.

Middleweight is a division loaded with depth. Vitor Belfort (24-10) is the likely next opponent. Weidman, after the show, talked about perhaps wanting to fight again on Jan. 3, which would be in Las Vegas. Belfort still has to deal with the commission over a failed drug test for high levels of testosterone in February. If it had been a first offense, generally that would mean a nine-month suspension. Technically he can't be suspended, not having a Nevada license. But now he needs to get a license and now has a second offense in the state.

When Weidman faces Belfort, a lot of the talk will be whether Belfort, who will be 38 at the time, can be close to the fighter off testosterone as the killer he was in 2013. If you throw away the TRT question, and such treatment was legal at the time, although whether it should have been is a very different issue, Belfort is clearly the top contender. Last year, he knocked out Dan Henderson, Luke Rockhold and Michael Bisping, all with spectacular high kicks.

If Belfort falls through, Weidman's likely opponent would be the winner of an upcoming Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza (20-3) vs. Gegard Mousasi (35-4-2) fight. Since there are question marks with Belfort, Souza, should he beat Mousasi, may be Weidman's toughest test.

An intriguing opponent is also Yoel Romero (8-1), whose wrestling pedigree as an Olympic silver medalist far exceeds Weidman. But Romero is probably a few wins away from a title shot and has never beaten a top ten opponent. At 37, time is not his ally.

RONDA ROUSEY - Since the start of her career, Rousey had been referred to as a one-trick pony, the master of the armbar, a move that none of her opponents had been able to avoid. The story was that the first time someone with an armbar defense came along, Rousey would be in for a fight.

But this year, Rousey has two straight instant TKO's over very legitimate contenders. She is farther ahead of the pack in her division than any UFC champion.

Even though she's the company's most talked-about fighter, that does raise questions. There will always be opponents, but will the public buy Rousey vs. opponents they believe have no chance and won't last a round on pay-per-view? They said the same thing about Mike Tyson, and he always drew, but Rousey is not Tyson.

Cat Zingano (8-0) is the logical next contender for Rousey. Rousey also indicated, after taking care of injuries to her right hand and right knee, that she's looking at Jan. 3 for her next fight. Zingano did beat Miesha Tate to earn a title shot, before her world fell apart with her husband committing suicide and two major knee surgeries.

But the names everyone talks about with Rousey are Cris Cyborg Justino (12-1, 1 no contest) and Gina Carano (7-1). Either fight would garner attention at a level that no woman's MMA fight, and for that matter, no woman's combat sport fight, ever has.

Each has its different story. Carano was the woman's star from 2007 to 2009, and is responsible for women's MMA being in the spotlight. But she hasn't fought since 2009, and when she did, it was usually at 140 or 145 pounds, the former being a weight she had difficulty making.

At first thought, it's got the dream match magic, the type of fight that will get people who usually don't follow MMA talking. That's at first thought.

The problem is the more you think. Carano hasn't fought in five years and would be a ridiculous underdog in such a fight, perhaps the biggest in modern UFC title match history. It will be the age-old battle. From a sports standpoint, and rightfully so, there is no logical way to justify Carano walking in and getting a title shot.

Yet, to expand interest of women's MMA, and to put the spotlight on Rousey and build her star power like never before, this is the most logical match. Look no farther than Matt Hughes vs. Royce Gracie to see that formula in action, and how that fight expanded the UFC pay-per-view audience and turned Hughes into a far bigger money player for the rest of his career.

Justino is a different issue. Justino is the only woman in the sport that would create an intrigue leading up to the match as to the outcome. She's also not under contract to UFC and has never made 135 pounds. There was a discussion with Dana White at the post-fight media scrum on Sunday, as he claimed Cyborg was given the same contract offer as Rousey more than a year ago when they tried to make this fight for last February.

And there's also the steroid issue, There's always been the question as to how much of Justino's success is related to PEDs, given her failed test and competition female bodybuilder physique. PEDs are a competitive advantage for men, but far more so for women. Given the aggressive stance Nevada has taken of late, if that becomes the Jan. 3 match, one would suspect Justino will be tested heavily, but that needs to happen in whatever state the match takes place in.

The fact is, Justino needs this fight because she has no opponents and no platform anywhere close to as big, and will waste her prime years if this fight isn't made. Rousey doesn't need Justino to be a star or to be in the spotlight. But if she never faces her, there will always be that question mark regarding her career.

LYOTO MACHIDA - Machida (21-5) appeared, even in losing, to increase his popularity due to the nature of the fight.
What comes next is more difficult. Unlike when Alexander Gustafsson lost a great fight to Jon Jones, this fight had no judging controversy. But Machida did come closer to sealing the deal with Weidman in round four than Gustafsson ever did to Jones.

Machida probably needs a series of wins to get back into the title mix. But whoever the top contenders are for Weidman, whether it be Belfort, Souza, Rockhold, Tim Kennedy or Romero, it makes no sense to book them right now against Machida. He's already beaten Mousasi and Mark Munoz. So then you would probably be looking at either Michael Bisping (24-6), if he beats Cung Le on Aug. 23, or the improving C.B. Dollaway (15-5), both fighters Machida would be heavily favored against.

But at 36, age is going to be working against him.

URIJAH FABER - Faber's streak of never having lost a non-title match in his career continued Saturday when he finished Alex Caceres in the third round of a fight he appeared to be on the verge of a decision win in.

Faber (31-7) is in a unique position with training partner T.J. Dillashaw as bantamweight champion. He's made it clear he doesn't want that fight, but it's also the most marketable fight in the division. He did a door open that if UFC and Dillashaw wanted the fight, he wouldn't completely rule it out, but was clearly negative when it was brought up.
There has been talk of Faber vs. Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto (18-6, 1 no contest) for the Sept. 21 show in Saitama, Japan. There was a time that was an insider dream match, when Faber was the WEC featherweight champion and Yamamoto was a mainstream superstar in Japan.

Today that fight looks like an easy win for Faber. Yamamoto, 37, was never the same after knee and elbow surgery, and hasn't had anything close to a meaningful since finishing Rani Yahya in 2007. He's 0-3 in UFC, and has been one of the company's higher profile busts in history. But the show is geared for the Japanese audience and Yamamoto is easily the biggest and most well-known fighter on that show in the country it is taking place.

The fight is seven years late as far as a dream match-up goes. UFC has two choices with Yamamoto, which is do that match now, and with the likely end result, that could be it for Yamamoto. Or they could try and give Yamamoto an easy opponent. But they last booked him with Vaughan Lee, and that didn't work out well for him, being armbarred in the first round.

If not Yamamoto, the logical opponent would be the returning Dominick Cruz (19-1), who has targeted September for a return. The two have split previous bouts, and a third match was about to happen in 2012 when Cruz blew out his knee. The timing would work out to go to that card in September. But if they want Cruz to get a tune-up fight, a Faber vs. Yamamoto fight and targeting Faber vs  Cruz as next would make sense as a direction.

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