Saturday's UFC on FOX 12 had a lot to offer. There was a very good main event between top welterweight contenders, the debut of two first-rate prospects and numerous fighters coming of age. Yet, some of the fights didn't quite live up to the billing and the ratings were once again unspectacular.
It's time to separate the winners from the losers, the good from the bad and the signal from the noise.
Biggest Progression: Dennis Bermudez
Maybe Conor McGregor could beat Bermudez. Maybe if the two fight, he will. Or maybe he won't. What I feel comfortable arguing is no matter who you'd favor in their potential bout, it's hardly some lock McGregor walks away with it.
I have to eat a little crow. I wasn't ready to bury Clay Guida on Saturday. Yes, everyone knows he's got limited offense, but the data suggested Bermudez, while clearly a talented competitor, didn't have the offensive wrestling to bring the rest of his attacks to life. It turns out the data wasn't very helpful. Bermudez did whatever he wanted to against Guida, when he wanted to and how. Whether he was striking at distance, trying to come out on top during scrambles, using cage control to corner Guida, forcefully taking the back or myriad other things, it was the Dennis Bermudez Show from beginning to end.
For a fighter once regarded as an athletic type, but with limited abilities and so-so decision making, Bermudez's transformation is nothing short of remarkable. I don't know how far he'll go or how much better he can get, but he's good enough now to give anyone in the division problems. That's as true for Cub Swanson as it is Conor McGregor, even if 'The Menace' lacks the promotional hype.
Worst Match-Up for Everyone: Anthony Johnson
Opinions are likely to vary here, but I'm torn on Johnson. Part of me won't let go of the idea he's still who he was: a guy who can feast on the weak or even good fighters, but those with limited offense. Another part of me couldn't possibly deny Johnson is something new, a fighter with near limitless potential who just needed to figure out who he was to really let his offense breathe. What I can say for sure is the latter impression is clearly taking over the former. Old habits die hard. So do old ideas. Ultimately, though, both can be replaced, which is precisely what Johnson must be doing to every skeptic or critic that's left. His rout of Phil Davis was an eye opener. His demolition of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira was frightening in its effortlessness. I still can't shake the idea at some point Johnson's going to hit a similar wall at light heavyweight that he hit at welter and middleweight. But maybe that's just temporary. If the Blackzilian can keep this momentum going, there won't be a naysayer on the planet who can credibly argue Johnson's transformation is as real as it is complete.
Best Photo: The Impending Doom of Robbie Lawler
What a frightening photo. It's misleading, too, bereft of context. We know their fight was close and Brown was never pushed to the precipice of defeat. This photo, however, looks as if Brown and Lawler are in a fight to the death. Worse, it almost appears as if Brown is bracing for impact as Lawler's Grim Reaper scythe of a left hand is about to close the show. Photography in MMA is great, in no small part because they tell you everything and nothing at the same time.
Check out all of Esther Lin's awesome UFC on FOX 12 photos here.
Most Deserving of a Break: Bobby Green
I'm sympathetic to the idea Green's bout with Josh Thomson was close. I also gather those with allegiances to Thomson are understandably fed up with 'The Punk' coming up on the wrong end of close decisions. Believe me, your frustration isn't misplaced. But for crying out loud, the bout was close. Are we all really rolling around in panicked sweats at night over the injustice done to Thomson? Is the state of the sport in peril after this decision? Not really, no. In fact, for once, the universe did Green a solid. If there's a more deserving candidate of karmic justice than Green in MMA, it's not clear who that might be. I'm not suggesting there's been some major backlash to Green's victory, but pockets of discontent are visible. And I get it. The discontent is real. But let's just accept the outcome and move on. The decision is defensible and the winner is more than due his fair share of a lucky coin flip.
"Failure" to Live Up to the Hype Award: Robbie Lawler vs. Matt Brown
This isn't really criticism. It was actually a very good fight. I don't think either competitor could've done much differently or owes the audience anything. And while promoters are prone to hyperbole, if the UFC was going to pick a fight upon which to promise greatness in advance, this was probably it.
Still the contest wasn't what people suggested it was likely going to be. I left basically satisfied with what was offered, but underwhelmed a touch relative to expectations. In some sense, though, maybe this is a good thing. Part of what I expected was predicated on Brown not fighting as well as he did. I knew he was resilient and had improved in basically all phases of the game, but his mastery of both control positions and inside elbow attacks inside the clinch was something to behold. Lawler demonstrated maturity with his game plan, using his notorious punching power to great effect, but never quite relying on it either when he was hurt or in command.
It's my own selfishness and fixed sense of who Lawler and Brown are that fed my misplaced anticipation. I can't complain about the fight they turned in. But I'd also be disingenuous if I stated I wasn't expecting greater momentum swings and a feeling of electricity at its conclusion. I'm more than satisfied with what was turned in. I just didn't believe those two fighters working against one another were capable of that kind of refined ability.
Least Appreciated Aspect of Card: Debut of Legitimate Prospects
While not entirely true, on some level the 'stackedness' of a card is relative. I thought UFC on FOX 12 was a respectable card, but not particularly stacked. What I did find admirable about outside of the main card, however, was the call-up of two major prospects: Brian Ortega and Joanna Jędrzejczyk. Ortega's experience is limited and he understandably relies on the more developed portions of his skill set for the time being, but shows flashes of brilliance everywhere. Jędrzejczyk is a testament to the remarkable job in talent recruitment and development Cage Warriors is doing abroad. In either case, both fighters underscore two realities about the modern feeder league phenomenon. First, those organizations are better at attracting or finding top-level prospects with the promise of tough but appropriate matchmaking for their development. Second, while the number of regional shows has declined, the ones who've managed to persevere have done so in no small part due to their push to remain visible. Fighters can now use the regional circuit not merely as a stepping stone to put together a resume of questionable worth, but to build themselves technically and as popular attractions. The UFC is the real launching point of anything substantive, but fighters no longer have to wait until they get to the big show before their career truly gets started.
Wanting More Award: Jorge Masvidal
I know there's more there than meets the eye. Dana White is fond of saying MMA fighters all have different 'stories', meaning diverse backgrounds to their lives. Masvidal's path to the present involves a fairly familiar narrative: tough kid in fights on the street takes training seriously and turns himself into something. But that's not quite right either. Masvidal didn't just fight in petty disputes in his neighborhood. He competed in backyard fights as part of the YouTube generation in the same 'circuit' run by many of the same people who helped Kimbo Slice get his unofficial start. The timing of these bouts somewhat overlaps with the early days of his training, but it didn't lead to much stardom. In fact, Masvidal's current status of can-do technician is a reputation over time and mostly of late. He always had ability, but fatal flaws, too. It's only relatively recent that Masvidal is paraded as a figure of elite, well-rounded skill among his divisional peers.
The problem is Masvidal doesn't share much of himself. He's a quiet kid, from what we can tell, anyway. He isn't a boisterous self-promoter. Still, I always get the sense if he'd share more of himself, he could go much further than his development has already taken him. And as a fluent Spanish speaker on the roster at a time when the UFC is pushing hard into Latin America, there is no time like the present for Masvidal to tell us a little bit more about who is, where he comes from, where he's been and how he got here.
For a fighter who grew up in one of MMA's most unique regional scenes, and crossed into its underground cousin at various points, we don't hear a lot from a guy with a lot to say.