There were far more twists and turns in the buildup to UFC 137 than what transpired on fight night Saturday in Las Vegas, but plenty of fallout to digest.
Nick Diaz stole the sideshow and the big show by getting docked a fight with Georges St-Pierre only to storm back as a replacement headliner and deliver an electrifying victory over future Hall of Famer B.J. Penn. Penn retired in the cage after the fight, ashamed at the beatdown he took. St-Pierre, kept from Carlos Condit by a bad hamstring and knee, apparently flew into a rage when Diaz called him out post-fight and demanded a fight with Diaz post-haste. Condit got the shaft. Another legend, Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, probably retired from fighting after a two-decade career. Diaz showed up very late to the press conference.
OK, so that was expected.
Nevertheless, the owner of the "Stockton Slap" got what he wanted, and you could kind of say he did it his way. The hammer of logic threatens to fall on Diaz at any moment -- a post-fight rant on his destitute existence was met with disbelief by UFC president Dana White. But he's etched out a place, um, high in the welterweight division, and you can expect a rich buildup to his expected meeting with St-Pierre on Super Bowl weekend. And by rich buildup, I mean drama.
And now, a stockwatch:
Nick Diaz (26-7): Don't watch a Nick Diaz fight before bed -- this I learned for the last time on Saturday night. He is a Trenta of Starbucks that will leave you buzzing long after your head hits the pillow. Is there anyone else who could rejigger the UFC's welterweight division in such a way? The guy flames out before the biggest fight of his life, somehow makes it back onto the card, gets the main event, blows away one of the best mixed martial artists in the world, then shoves aside another (Carlos Condit) after enraging the champ. Unbelievable. You'll hear no griping from me about Diaz getting the next crack at St-Pierre. The UFC has potential box office dynamite. Why not light the fuse? St-Pierre's withdrawal cost them millions. Get it back on Super Bowl weekend with one of the sport's most compelling characters -- in and out of the cage -- going against one of the most dominant champs in the sport.
B.J. Penn (16-8-2): Winning, in this case, is so secondary to effort put forth. Although overmatched, Penn withstood Diaz's onslaught as best he possibly could and in doing so saved what was, for the most part, a pedestrian evening of fights. Retire? I'm not buying it just yet. Penn is an emotional guy. Perhaps less than Diaz, but still, he's prone to rash declarations in the haze of elation or disappointment. When the immediate wounds heal, he'll see there's still work to do. Roadblocks exist to the lightweight and welterweight titles, sure, but Jon Fitch is not going anywhere, and that's a fight he wanted much more than Diaz. A handshake retirement can't be it. But if it is, Saturday's performance takes no votes away from a place in the Hall of Fame. Penn lived "just scrap" to the fullest.
Donald Cerrone (17-3): With a first-round submission of Dennis Siver, that's win No. 6 for "Cowboy," who is hell on wheels for anyone that chooses to trade punches with him. Per the usual post-event gushing, there's a strong push to put him in there with top five guys, but he needs time to shore up his ground game before he rides for a belt. Sources tell me that Cerrone is targeted to meet Nate Diaz at UFC 141, which is a wise move in elongating his appeal before he runs into steeper challenges.
Bart Palaszewski (36-14): At lightweight, where he's spent the bulk of his career, Palaszewski's inconsistence has cost him serious consideration as someone who could win a belt. Featherweight, where he debuted Saturday with a thunderous knockout of the fast-falling Tyson Griffin, seems to suit him at the moment. At 28, he has 50 fights to his name, and that's a lot of miles and not a lot of time to become Mr. Wrestling. Nice, though, to see a talented fighter triumph after so many years of struggle on the smaller circuits of the sport.
Hatsu Hioki (25-4-2): So fades the curse of J-MMA. The stutter-steps of Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto and Takanori Gomi had hard core fans writing the eulogy for the Japanese fight scene. Hioki, who built serious momentum overseas in the past three years, felt so incensed at his country's flagging reputation, he declared thrice now that J-MMA is alive and well after outpointing George Roop. Of the fight, Hioki availed himself reasonably well and displayed some great ground chops in controlling the long and lanky fighter on the mat. It was far from an eye-opening performance, but not bad at all considering some of the missteps we've seen from highly hyped octagon newcomers.
Francis Carmont (17-7): A bit of a slow start for the training partner of Georges St-Pierre, but not a bad debut. Carmont absolutely worked Chris Camozzi against the fence and showed no signs of intimidation inside the octagon. He got a little showy for my taste at times, but I'm interested to see what else he's got.
Cheick Kongo (17-6-2): Excessive caution isn't much for fighting, and Kongo, a guy with triple the experience of Matt Mitrione, eked out a win that should have been cake. In the end, his leg kicks and control on the mat did the job, but Kongo's role as a gatekeeper seems etched in stone after 15 fights inside the octagon. He doesn't have the wrestling to stop the top guys, and he'll beat the bulk of newer talent. Where to go, then? I'd like to see a fight against Stefan Struve, merely because it's a more dynamic matchup than one with the smothering Roy Nelson.
Matt Mitrione (5-1): It should tell you where Mitrione is at in his evolution as a mixed martial artist when a striking specialist such as Kongo is able to tool him on the mat. It's there that Mitrione's run as an unblemished heavyweight prospect ended, though two judges had him losing every round. His reckoning was overdue. At 33, Mitrione's chances at nabbing a belt look slim. Why not take some time off to improve and welcome the currently injured Shane Carwin back in mid-2012?
Roy Nelson (16-6): Credit goes to Nelson for trimming some of the sideshow from his belly and getting down to business inside the octagon. The owner of one of the hardest heads in the business, he gets extra props for taking a cemetery-worthy kick from Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, not to mention the barrage of punches he took against the fence at the midway point of the three-rounder. After retiring the former PRIDE champion via third-round TKO, he wants a title shot. Should he get it? Other than his mastery of the mounted crucifix, I don't see much in his game that makes him a competitive (re)match for Junior Dos Santos, nor champ Cain Velasquez. Because the division is so thin, he just might get another crack at the belt, but his prickly past with Dana White tells me it will be later than sooner.
Ramsey Nijem (5-2): Some great ground work from the runner-up of "The Ultimate Fighter 13," but as UFC commentator Joe Rogan pointed out, Nijem needs some small tweaks in his ground game before he starts putting away better fighters. It probably wouldn't be bad to diversify his striking attack, either. Right now, it's swarm and shoot for the takedown. He gets a pass at this point for being pretty green in the game. Still, a dominate performance against the hard-to-kill Danny Downes.
Tyson Griffin (15-6): Four years ago, Griffin looked like the future of the lightweight division. The past 16 months, however, have not been kind. The setbacks are understandable, yet still unfortunate: Evan Dunham had his number in the gym and leveraged that into a win at UFC 115; Takanori Gomi beat him to the punch; Nik Lentz played the blanket; and in his third loss in four outings, newly minted Bart Palaszewski was simply the better striker. Griffin may have one shot, at best, to prove he can still hang in the UFC. Extenuating circumstances only play so long.
Brandon Vera (12-5): Somehow, Vera managed to pull out a unanimous decision over Eliot Marshall, despite the fact that Marshall edged Vera in the first and most certainly won the third. Let's put that aside for a minute and get real: Vera isn't pulling the trigger. His striking is cautious, and he spends a lot more time controlling than doing damage. Where is this new Brandon Vera (or really, the old Brandon Vera) that he's promised fans for years now? Taken as a whole, his career is a cautionary tale of too much, too soon. A talented, young muay Thai specialist, Vera got caught up in his own hype nearly a half-decade ago. It's a rare person who wins back lost momentum. Vera can't, it seems. For comedic value alone, there is scarcely a better interview today in MMA than Downes. The Duke Roufus product has a razor-sharp wit and gets all the little absurdities of life in the fight game. You want him to win. Heck, you want to high-five him and buy him a beer. Sad, then, to see him struggle so mightily inside the Zuffa cage. Nijem toyed with him like a schoolyard bully when they hit the mat. It may be time for him to take a long look at that part of his game, and rebuild momentum on the local circuit.