One month after MayMac, mixed martial arts and its practitioners are ours again, for better or worse. That means one-hitter quitters and rarely seen chokes, but it also means wall-and-stall and clinches that go on to the point of awkwardness. It’s all ours again to either celebrate or bemoan, with little notice from the outside sports world for the foreseeable future.
Friday and Saturday were those kinds of nights, cards with some allure to those of us who can’t help but take a peek at fisticuffs occurring within the outer reaches of our peripheral vision, with nominal appeal to anyone else with working weekend plans. The fights we saw both nights were good enough. Entertaining in spots, occasionally thrilling, with a snoozer or two along the way. In other words, normal. But both the UFC and Bellator left the weekend with something they desperately need: new building blocks. Gokhan Saki for the UFC and Aaron Pico for Bellator, both with matching left hook, first-round knockouts.
To be clear, these results don’t mean either man is destined for greatness in the cage. Even in winning, both showed they have work ahead of them.
On Friday, against Henrique da Silva, Saki looked briefly in danger of running out of gas as the round ended, with da Silva landing a series of knees and elbows from the clinch before Saki uncorked a right hand/left hook combo that closed the show.
There are valid criticisms to be made of both, but they are for now outweighed by the result, and by the positive momentum they each generated in a night.
Saki is a welcome breath of fresh air in a UFC light heavyweight division that has been disrupted and disoriented over the last few months, from former champion Jon Jones being stripped of the belt, to Anthony Johnson’s surprise retirement, to the rapid aging of the division.
Saki himself is soon to turn 34, putting the ceiling of his upside in some doubt, but to be blunt, there are few fighters in the division who can match him in a straight firefight. If his takedown defense holds up in the future as it did against da Silva (who failed to take him down a single time), how far might he go? And what if he faces opponents that choose to engage him in his strength? Is it really crazy to think he could out-gun No. 4 Jimi Manuwa or No. 1 Alexander Gustafsson, who both rely heavily on their striking? I don’t think so.
On the other hand, dogged wrestlers like No. 10 Patrick Cummins or No. 7 Corey Anderson might actually be worse matchups than those higher-ranked names, simply because of their grinding styles. For Saki, a lot will depend on how the UFC schedules him. If they do it right, they have a human highlight reel on their hands, and that’s never bad for business.
Pico is a very different story. An anticipated prodigy who turns 21 years old this week, he is a long-term investment for Bellator. Like Saki, he’s far from a finished product, but unlike Saki he has plenty of time to make adjustments and improvements.
Before he ever arrived, he faced the heavy weight of expectations. Three years ago, when he was barely 17, his coach publicly called him “the greatest MMA prospect I’ve ever seen.” Pico promptly got blasted in his June pro debut, but for a fighter so young and so promising, that was never going to be the end of the story. Now, his hellacious left hook allows him to reboot.
There are few featherweights on Earth who have true one-punch knockout power, and Pico has now put himself on that list. Couple that with his amateur wrestling and boxing credentials, and there is real reason to be optimistic that Pico’s career is worth watching closely as it develops in the coming months and years.
Bellator has heavily gambled on him, and on Saturday night, he made Scott Coker and management look good. They would do well to move him up slowly and carefully; to groom him toward stardom before worrying about getting a belt around his waist. After all, if MayMac taught us anything, it’s that the former means a lot more than the latter when it comes to business.
Fans tune in to watch stars, and over a 24-hour span, we saw the early stages of two new ones. On a weekend that seemed like nothing special, Saki and Pico took big forward steps in proving they were special indeed. On two otherwise ordinary nights, in the long shadow of a boxing mega-show that’s dulled mostly everything in its path, we could do a lot worse.