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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Fight Night 26

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Of all people, it was Brock Lesnar who made one of the most salient points about MMA a few years back.

When the discussion came about somebody beating somebody else, and how it showed one fighter was better than the other, he noted that a win doesn’t prove absolutes like that. He noted fighting was a sport of quarter-inches. The punch, knee or kick lands in the right spot, just misses the spot, or doesn’t land at all is often just one of those things.

Lesnar knew from first-hand experience. One of his biggest wins, over Shane Carwin with another ref, could have been a loss that destroyed his career as a headliner. Instead, he left the cage that night the biggest star he ever was.

Today, Alistair Overeem is an overrated bust in many people’s eyes, another in the realm of Japanese superstars built on tomato cans who got exposed in the regulated UFC environment. And it’s hard to argue that.

But he could just as easily have been the guy people were clamoring for to face the winner of the Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos match next in the next great heavyweight showdown. If the ref was a little more trigger happy, or Travis Browne wasn’t so damn tough, Overeem’s early attacks of vicious knees to the body would have resulted in an early stoppage win. It didn’t happen, and like with many fights, instead of a quick and impressive stoppage, a fighter got tired, and the result went the other way.

Saturday night’s debut of UFC on Fox Sports 1 was a night of upsets Steven Siler put himself on the map and maybe finished the career of former featherweight champion Mike Brown, Michael Johnson handing home town star Joe Lauzon a one-sided defeat. John Howard may have permanently ended the hype train of Uriah Hall. There was Travis Browne and Overeem, and in the main event, Chael Sonnen beat Mauricio "Shogun" Rua via first round submission.

Fortunes on this show not only changed for a number of fighters, but even seemingly, the city of Boston. Dana White went from hinting all week that due to a myriad of hoops they had to jump through and negativity from the local City Council, that Boston was a nice place for him to visit, but not a particularly great place to hold a fight. But he was singing a completely different tune after the show.

They had almost a pay-per-view sized crowd and gate for a television shoot, and one that was enthusiastic from start to finish. The UFC was clearly thrilled with the show, awarding five performance bonuses instead of the usual three.

In particular, it was the crowd reaction when he came out that nearly christened Ireland’s Conor McGregor as UFC’s newest superstar.

For this event, limiting this to five isn’t easy because in the end, this show was pivotal for the vast majority of those competing.

ALISTAIR OVEREEM - Even more than Chael Sonnen, nobody’s fortunes changed as much as the fighter who many had pegged a few years ago as the best heavyweight in the world.

Losing to Travis Browne (15-1-1) takes Overeem out of any possible contention for a long time, even in a heavyweight division that lacks depth. At 33, with major stamina issues in a division where there are a number of heavyweights who are strong for the distance, Overeem is in the role of a guy who may look great for a few minutes, but if the opponent lasts, he’s in trouble. Ironically, that was the same book on Overeem as a light heavyweight in Pride, going back to another era of fighting, when he had similar style losses to the likes of Shogun Rua and Chuck Liddell.

Bottom line is Overeem (36-13, 1 no contest) may be dangerous for anyone early with his knees to the body that nearly paralyzed Browne. But as long as no ribs are broken and the fighter knows the score, mentally they may be able to ride out that part of the fight.

With his high salary and a 1-2 UFC record with both losses via knockout, Overeem’s position in UFC is even questionable. He still has a great look, something of a name, and the division lacks depth. But he came in with a great contract, based on the idea he would at least challenge for the heavyweight title and draw big numbers on pay-per-view. Neither of those things are likely to happen now.

So his future in UFC may depend as much on his willingness to fight with different terms for a new contract, or whatever feeling as to what he’d be worth to Bellator.

But his match on Saturday showed that the difference between feast and famine in the heavyweight championship picture can be measured in inches and seconds.

MAURICIO "SHOGUN" RUA - Unlike with Overeem, Rua at no point came close to finishing the smaller Chael Sonnen, a fighter most would have figured a prime Rua would have eaten for lunch.

Only 31, there can no longer be a debate as to whether Rua, one of the greatest fighters of the past decade, is still top tier talent. He’s not. The quickness isn’t there. He’s had issues with stamina in recent years, and this fight didn’t even go long enough to truly test that aspect.

In a relatively young sport, with a lot of trial and error when it comes to training methods, Rua will go down as example "A" about the type of training done in his youth in the vaunted Chute Boxe academy in Curatiba, Brazil.
Fighters like Rua (21-8), his now-retired brother Murilo, and Wanderlei Silva, legend would have it, would spar constantly all out, in full fight mode, having brutal wars that nobody would see. Rua improved greatly with that training and was one of the most well-rounded fighters in the world by his early 20s.

At one point, when those fighters were dominating in Japan, that training looked like state-of-the-art, only it was so brutal, few would want do to it.

But over the past two-and-a-half years, he’s lost four of six fights. Granted, his loss to Dan Henderson was one of the best fights in history and that easily could have been a draw. His previous losses were all to top-ten level competition. But it’s one thing to lose a decision to Alexander Gustafsson in a competitive fight where there were at least glimpses of the fighter who was a former UFC champion. This time, the glimpses of that guy were nowhere to be found.

CHAEL SONNEN - On the flip side, Sonnen earned himself at least one, if not more, high-profile fights by handing Rua the kind of a loss that he had never suffered before.

If Sonnen (29-13-1) had suffered a third straight loss, as many expected, there would have been a major risk-reward question about his future. It probably wouldn’t have been the end. Sonnen had actually done a great job of worst-case scenario insurance this past week, spending most of it talking up a prospective future match with Wanderlei Silva, instead of his impending match with Rua.

Even if he had lost, he probably could have gotten one last television main event or pay-per-view high main card fight out of it. And with the win, that still may be what he’s looking at, but now he’s back being talked about as top tier. The question is still whether Sonnen looking so impressive is because of how badly Rua had fallen, or if Sonnen was that good.

He had said during the week, win or lose, he was moving back to 185 pounds. But he’s also Chael Sonnen, meaning the rule of thumb is no matter what he says publicly, you should take it for its entertainment value alone. Still, it would appear he has more viable fights at middleweight, where he may still be top five in the world, as opposed to light heavyweight, where the jury is still out here he would stand.

Either Vitor Belfort or Wanderlei Silva would seem to make the most sense now. Sonnen has already talked about wanting to be on the Dec. 28 show in Las Vegas, which already has Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva for the middleweight title and Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate for the women’s bantamweight title. Adding Sonnen would seem to insure this being the company’s biggest event since UFC 100.

But with so many shows, either fight would be expected to deliver whatever a good television rating is for an FS 1 or FOX show as well, and it may be more valuable to the company there. Plus, scoring a big win as a middleweight on the same show as a title match is the fastest way to get the public talking about you in a high profile match.

MATT BROWN - It was less than two years ago, when 30-year-old Matt Brown was a 12-11 fighter, and had lost four of his previous five fights. He wasn’t cut largely because he was an action fighter who was a high percentage bet to deliver on television.

But a title contender? Please. Brown’s career up through the end of 2011 was that of an undercard journeyman who had a little bit of popularity and because of it, like with Dan Hardy and Leonard Garcia, would get every conceivable break before being let go.

Since then, he’s gone 6-0, with five knockouts, and Saturday night, was calling out Georges St-Pierre. With the last three wins on high profile television cards, two on FOX and this one, people are seeing him as somebody completely different from even a year ago.

The challenge to St-Pierre is clearly premature. But the good thing is the welterweight division is loaded with depth. While a lot of these guys are booked for a future fight, there is a long list of viable opponents that he can get over the next fight or two, including Jake Ellenberger, Demian Maia, Rory MacDonald, Robbie Lawler, Carlos Condit, Martin Kampmann, Nick Diaz, Jake Shields, Tyron Woodley, Josh Koscheck and Nate Marquardt.

A win in his next two fights should make it where that title challenge is met with a lot

CONOR MCGREGOR - Featherweight McGregor (14-2) has that hard to explain but easy to see quality of a superstar, something UFC desperately needs more of in the lighter weight divisions.

Granted, a good Irish fighter in Boston is going to have some appeal, and the UFC hyped him hard for a guy with only one fight in the organization.

Did he live up to it? Well, he won, but after the fight, acted as though he considered it a loss.

The reality was somewhere in the middle. McGregor said that his knee went out in the second round, and he no longer felt comfortable standing. He was well-rounded enough to take Max Holloway down, and win every round in a fight where the outcome wasn’t really in question.

The crowd in Boston still loved him when it was over, but it was certainly not as enthusiastic as when he came out.

I’d call this more of a holding pattern. His momentum was cooled slightly, but if the McGregor who took out Marcus Brimage returns next time out, he’s right back where he was. But he’s going to need that more impressive of a win to get the kind of focus he got going into this fight.