BALTIMORE – Is it the most stacked card in UFC history, as some well-known hyperbolists are suggesting? That depends on your value system, but there are some compelling tones to UFC 172 which play with the imagination a little bit.
For instance, the idea of the pretty underrated Luke Rockhold fighting the severely underrated Tim Boetsch is enjoyable, and so is the idea of Andre "Touchy" Fili becoming a household name.
But the real stuff is at the top. Anthony Johnson, the man who invented the catchweight division in his first stint in the UFC, is making his return after two-and-a-half years freelancing elsewhere. Not only is he shredded at light heavyweight and more at home in the bigger frame, but there’s an accountability to him that wasn’t there before. In fact, "Rumble" can now half-laugh at those midnight sauna sessions back when he routinely reduced himself by 45 pounds like a yogi.
Since UFC 142 (when he showed up a full dozen pounds over for his fight with Vitor Belfort), Johnson has been knocking out people in Titan and WSOF to remake his case. How different is he from the stubborn hulk who broke all the scales? Physically you can still run a mallet across his abs and make music, but the attitude is much improved. One might even say he appears humbler. Quieter. Dangerously quiet.
In other words, Johnson, at 30 years old, is finally right where everyone thought he should be a couple of years ago.
These are all fun things. But the main reason Johnson’s back is because Phil Davis needed an opponent…and Phil Davis is of course where heavy-handed punchers go to be squashed. To borrow a word Dana White likes to casually misuse, Davis is "literally" an abyss. He’s a broad-shouldered wrestler with a freakish ability to make things miserable for just about everybody, from the guy standing in front of him on up to the ushers in the nosebleeds.
It’s the damndest thing, really.
Since he "Philmura’d" Tim Boetch magnificently at UFC 123, Davis’s been sort of nondescriptly, you know, mostly just kind of winning. There was the Antonio Rogerio Nogueira decision, but people mostly remember him biting off more than he could chew against Rashad Evans in his only loss. After that there was the Wagner Prado series, a one-sided decision over Vinny Magalhaes and a "win" over Lyoto Machida (forever dressed in quotes just like that). None of those fights would be what you’d consider great or even imaginative, and that’s why he ended up in a sort of no man’s land at 205 pounds.
So what happens when these two meet? History tells us that UFC 172’s co-main event will either be full of eye-popping explosives (if Johnson has his way!), or will droop with the heaviness of Salvador Dali’s melting clocks (should Davis have his).
Yet even if the hit-or-miss aspect of that fight becomes the drama, the Glover Teixeira-Jon Jones main event is can’t miss.
We all know by now that A) Jones has a seven-foot wingspan and that B) science hasn’t yet caught up to what that fully means. Only Alexander Gustafsson could rival Jones in that sort of gangliness, and he came very close to taking Jones’ belt back in September. How’s that for a blue print? Long limbs and the ability to use them with precision is one way to come close to beating Jones...or to at least compete with him.
Actually beating Jones? That’s another story.
One running theory for more earthbound fighters like Glover Teixeira to beat Jones goes like this: Get inside his range and hit him hard. Even Teixeira’s one-time training partner Chuck Liddell said this week that if he were fighting Jones -- in his prime, of course, not now but in his prime -- he’d wade through that artisan array of strikes and knock him out. You can’t help but admire the simplicity of that game plan; MMA may evolve, but Chuck’s idea on how to get things done doesn’t need to.
But here’s the problem: If Jones at range is dangerous, Jones in close is deadly. It’s that inside stuff where Jones truly excels. When he’s not using the oblique kicks and pushkicks and strafing jabs to create improvisational space, he’s using his elbows and knees when people stray into the pocket. To be close to Jones is to become a bulls-eye to mute horrors (remember that poor Stephan Bonnar was the pioneer who discovered this). With everyone fixated on his reach, Jones has become a kind of master in the pocket after years of training with Mike Winkeljohn. He is a full assault of sharp spinning elbows, forearms, shins, fists and knees. Can’t stand outside with him, but can’t stand inside.
And sometimes he just throws or trips you to the ground and rains punches and elbows until mercy intervenes. Sound beatable?
That’s what the 34-year old Teixeira -- a pretty well put together challenger who stands a modest 6-foot-1 and has won 20 fights in a row -- finds himself up against. The good news is that Teixeira doesn’t mind getting hit if it means he can land some stuff of his own. If anybody likes to gamble with his fists, it’s Teixeira; we’ve seen him batted around pretty good by the likes of Ryan Bader and Fabio Maldonado, and yet he still ended up knocking them out. It’s a lot of craftiness and viciousness and well-timed counters that Teixeira does. He’s an old-fashioned finisher.
Will all that stand up to Jones tonight at the Baltimore Arena? Hey, that’s why they take off their shoes, just so we can see. If he finds a way to get it done, even if UFC 172 isn’t actually the most stacked card in UFC history, it’ll go down as one of the most historic.