Saturday's UFC 155 was an eventful show that went from one extreme to the other.
The show started with strong action in the Facebook prelims. The FX portion was fine. There were a lot of strong expectations for both the Jamie Varner vs. Melvin Guillard fight as well as Brad Pickett vs. Eddie Wineland. While there was nothing wrong with either fight, and it's still a surprise the latter fight got a lot of boos live, neither quite lived up to expectations.
The pay-per-view was the ultimate mixed bag. Derek Brunson's win over Chris Leben was really bad and also sad. Leben has been a company fixture since it started on television and was talking all week that he had turned his life around. He said this was a new Chris Leben. In the cage, he was very different from any fight in the past, looking slow, tiring early and his future in the company has to be in question. Dana White said he hated the fight, and Brunson, in his UFC debut, beating a name fighter didn't endear himself to the boss. White noted he thought Brunson, who looked at the clock several times, was like a 14-year-old waiting for school to end.
Yushin Okami's win over Alan Belcher in a battle of serious middleweight contenders was booed heavily. On paper, it was a big win for Okami, the second time he's beaten Belcher. But to the UFC fan base, he did himself no favors in a match where he mostly controlled Belcher on the ground. Costa Philippou's win over Tim Boetsch didn't get the crowd going until a strong reaction to the Philippou winning via ref stoppage. By this point, after decisions in five of the previous six fights, the crowd was simply begging for a finish.
But by the end of the night, there was no way you could consider it a bad show, because the two big fights delivered. Jim Miller's decision win over Joe Lauzon may have been Miller's most impressive performance to date. Lauzon showed tremendous heart in not only staying in the fight despite losing copious amounts of blood from three different cuts that combined needed 40 stitches to close. But he nearly won with a scissors takedown into an attempted heel hook in the last minute, which Miller admitted was close. This was one of the better fights of the year.
As for Cain Velasquez's title win over Junior Dos Santos, it was an amazing performance by both men. Had it happened a year ago on UFC's debut on FOX, the momentum of the last year could have been very different.
Velasquez defined the word relentless, setting a pace like in no heavyweight title fight in history. Dos Santos took a terrible beating, but was fighting every takedown, stopping more Velasquez takedowns in some rounds than probably all of Velasquez's prior opponents combined had done over the course of his entire career. He stayed alive until the end, even after taking a terrible beating over the first two rounds in particular.
At the end of the day, it was almost a perfect main event for the company.
As good as Velasquez is as a fighter, he's never been strong at selling fights. But there are performances, and this was the classic example, where doing ones talking in the ring really exists. Velasquez is particularly valuable to the company in building a fan base with fast-growing Hispanic demographic in the U.S., as well as exporting the UFC brand to Mexico, where, in theory, it should have a strong chance of success given that country's longtime affinity for boxing and professional wrestling.
But he lost a tremendous amount of steam in his defeat last year. To a casual fan, who didn't know his reputation within the fight world, he was a guy knocked out in a minute in a fight that more people saw on television than any U.S. fight in history. There was the stigma of false hype he had to overcome, plus, a loss here would have been devastating for his career.
While dos Santos did lose an aura of invincibility that he came into the fight with, he showed a new side, heart and no quitting under adversity, that should make him more popular. It was a lot better way of losing than the way Velasquez went down in the first fight.
When it comes to classic heavyweight title fights, historically the ones people have always looked at were the first Randy Couture vs. Pedro Rizzo UFC heavyweight title fight in 2001; and the 2005 showdown between Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko Cro Cop for the Pride belt in Japan when they were considered two of the big three in the world at the time. This should be put in that category, even though it was the most one-sided of what now should be categorized as the three.
Our look at five men whose careers changed based on Saturday night's show:
CAIN VELASQUEZ - You can't help but lead off with the third two-time champion in UFC history. Velasquez (11-1) joined Couture (a three-time heavyweight champion) and Tim Sylvia, although you can put an asterisk next to Frank Mir due to his second title being an interim belt. When he came out of Arizona State University, Velasquez was spoken of in reverence by fighters as this freak of nature, particularly his cardio. Herschel Walker, a sports legend, who sparred with him regularly in his foray into MMA, raved about him as being the best conditioned big man he had ever seen in any sport. But the last fight left him with a lot of skeptics. This fight answered questions as far as his stand-up game, conditioning and unbreakable will to stick to the game plan, even when Dos Santos was thwarting his takedown attempts early. Still, he is human, and admitted when the fight was over, that he was exhausted at the end.
But there is no heavyweight that could have kept up with his pace. In reality, except for the punch by dos Santos in their first fight, Velasquez has been dominant in every fight he's been in. But Alistair Overeem, the name most talked about as his next opponent, poses different dangers than dos Santos. He has better kicks and knees and is far more dangerous in the clinch, where Velasquez spent much of the fight roughing Dos Santos up in.
Overeem still has to get licensed and then beat Antonio Silva on Feb. 2 in Las Vegas before talk of a title shot can be considered serious. Dana White was almost openly salivating at the prospect of putting on the third Velasquez vs. dos Santos fight, noting it could be a gigantic show in the U.S., Mexico or Brazil.
JUNIOR DOS SANTOS - While the fights were altogether different, the roles of Velasquez and dos Santos (15-2) are reversed from what they have been since Nov. 12, 2011, after their first meeting.
It was dos Santos, who until Saturday was in control in virtually every minute of every UFC fight to date, who spent 25 minutes largely on the defensive. Velasquez had to wait a long time to fully answer that his hype wasn't false. Dos Santos really doesn't have that question to answer. His list of victims was more impressive than Velasquez's, with Fabricio Werdum, Stefan Struve, Gabriel Gonzaga, Gilbert Yvel, Mirko Cro Cop, Roy Nelson, Frank Mir, Velasquez and Shane Carwin not even able to get him in any jeopardy, never able to even win a round, in compiling the fourth longest winning streak in company history.
But now, he has to go back to the drawing bpard and figure out the answer to the puzzle of a healthy Velasquez. Like it was for Velasquez going in, his back will be against the wall because a second loss could remove him from the title picture for some time.
COSTA PHILIPPOU - A late replacement for injured teammate Chris Weidman, Philippou (12-2, 1 no contest) took a giant step up since opponent Tim Boetsch was 4-0 as a middleweight and had his hand raised over top contenders Hector Lombard and Yushin Okami. Philippou is 5-1 in the UFC now, but his lone loss, to wrestler Nick Catone in his debut, was at 195 pounds. This win took him from just a guy on the card most people don't think about to a name in the middleweight discussion. It was quick career advancement, but it also means his quality of opposition will likely be top-ten level guys going forward.
EDDIE WINELAND - The first WEC bantamweight champion (20-8-1) seems like an older fighter because his name has bounced around for so long, but he's only 28. He became the first man ever to finish Scott Jorgensen in a fight, and followed by a clear win over Pickett. From talk with those in UFC before the fight, had Pickett won, he was being earmarked for the winner of the Feb. 16 interim bantamweight title fight between champion Renan Barao (29-1) and Michael McDonald (15-1) in London on Fuel. Wineland is not as much a sure thing. Before those two wins were losses via decision to both Joseph Benavidez and Urijah Faber. It's likely no decision will be made until after the Feb. 23 battle between Faber (26-6) and Ivan Menjivar (25-9). Should Menjivar win, it would be his fourth victory in his last five fights, and a Faber win would be a higher profile win.
Faber is the biggest star in the division, but he's had four title shots, losing them all in the past three-and-a-half years. There would be a huge backlash, even with an impressive win over Menjivar, for him to get a shot this soon. Then again, UFC has often done what it perceives as the right business move at the time even when knowing there will be a backlash. Raphael Assuncao (18-4) has won three in a row, but his wins are not as impressive as Wineland's, and his last was in a boring fight with Mike Easton on Dec. 8. He's also currently sidelined with a broken arm.
ERIK PEREZ - There's no debating the breakout star of the show was the native of Monterrey, Mexico who came to Albuquerque with almost no money in his pocket to chase his dream by training with Greg Jackson. With his big smile, his attempts to answer questions in English even though just learning the language, and his masked gimmick, he went from just a prelim bantamweight to a media and fan favorite. Perez (13-4), who just turned 23, is 3-0 in UFC, all first-round stoppages. But he's untested. Stars in markets the company is targeting are all well and good, but to really be a difference maker, you have to be able to hang with the top echelon. Perez is likely to be brought along carefully, but with he and Velasquez both winning, it's sparked far more talk about expanding into Mexico than there has been in quite some time.