UFC 133 is over, and we're out of the injury woods for now.
Philly's second go-around with the industry giant was saved by relief hitter Tito Ortiz, who stopped a merry-go-round of withdrawals by consenting to fight Rashad Evans.
Once, this event was headlined by Evans vs. Jon Jones and Jose Aldo vs. Chad Mendes. Rich Franklin and "Lil' Nog," too. One by one, the bouts fell. The fire drill didn't quite reach the level of UFC 108 -- also headlined by Evans -- where 10 bouts were switched or scrapped, but it came very close.
Some say rates of injury withdrawals are on the rise now that the UFC has accident-insurance coverage, and that newly emboldened fighters are cherry-picking better fights. But a missed payday seems a far greater threat to chronically present-thinking fighters than missing a date because they're worried they might lose, and besides, a few X-rays can shine the light on a faker.
There was no more waiting for Evans, that's for sure. After waiting for the hobbled Mauricio "Shogun" Rua only to get bitten himslef by the injury bug, then watching teammate Jon Jones take his spot and take the belt, you'd have had to cut off an extremity to keep him from the cage in Philly.
It was all up in the air, though, until Ortiz stepped up to the mound for the lesser-known Davis and in turn gave the event a huge boost.
Ring rust, we now know, is what you make of it. Evans didn't miss a beat in the 14 months he'd been away from competition, and Ortiz's stock leveled after this improbable submission win over Ryan Bader one month prior at UFC 132.
Ortiz is back to earth. Evans, for now, is defying gravity. It will eventually get him, as it does everyone.
And Speedos will forever be banned in the Octagon.
Rashad Evans: We've seen countless fighters lose their way following behind-the-scenes personnel changes. They start listening to this sycophant or that expert, someone gets the boot, and before you know it, the magic is gone. Losses creep into the picture. Suddenly, the person that was a mortal enemy a few years ago becomes the savior to a flagging career.
Evans is not that fighter, it seems. After a very public falling out with Greg Jackson, he's taken residence with a group of fighters disenchanted by the politics of famous facilities, and they've pieced together a world of their own in south Florida. A host of Brazilians -- Jorge Santiago, Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante, the Villefort brothers, and a few coaches and extras have gelled into a unit that, they say, gives them the individual attention they need.
Still, it had been 14 months. If there was a convenient time to point to the perils of inactivity and the changing of camps, it would be with a loss Saturday night at UFC 133. Instead, he viciously avenged a draw between them four years prior. He was no less sharp than if he'd fought one month ago, as did his bleached-blond opponent. And he certainly didn't play it safe, even though a title shot was on the line. By round two, the referee was saving Ortiz.
Not too long ago, Evans was a Jackson product. But the camp, as it turns out, doesn't make the man. He's been successful with a well-established gym and now with this upstart crew.
The belt is now around the corner for Evans, who will in September fight the winner of an upcoming fight between champ Jon Jones -- Greg Jackson's latest protege, and the root of his discontent with the trainer -- and Quinton Jackson. Whomever is next, one thing is sure: Evans is doing fine on his own.
Vitor Belfort: With a first-round knockout of Yoshihiro Akiyama, Belfort is now back to the right side of highlight reels after Anderson Silva's front kick laid him out. Whether it's the "old" Vitor or the "new," it's still a big boost for the longtime veteran. He's dangerous as ever in the first round.
What happens after that, of course, is still a big question mark. Historically, he's been felled by superior grapplers, and he hasn't really faced one of those since he fought Dan Henderson. But for now, let's enjoy this new, old, present, whatever Belfort.
Brian Ebersole: The winner of the first "modesty bonus" in UFC history, Dana White cut the Aussie transplant an extra $70,000 for putting the nearly naked, Speedo-wearing Dennis Hallman away in the first round. White's term for it: the "thanks-for-getting-those-horrifying-shorts-off-TV-as-soon-as-possible" bonus.
Rory MacDonald: Hard not to sound like a broken record with this guy, but the sky's the limit for this 22-year-old. It's a matter of variables. If he stays focused, if his training stays sharp, if he avoids injury and the traps of fame -- he could be a champion.
Veteran Mike Pyle made him work for the win, no doubt. The crafty veteran snuck in some punches and handled him on the canvas for a few moments. But as soon as MacDonald got to his feet, he owned the cage. He throttled Pyle on the mat. Then some swagger: a calm brush-off the shoulders as he walked away from the concussed Pyle.
There's an urge to gamble big with this kid. Throw him in there with Jon Fitch, provided the one-time welterweight challenger is healthy and willing. A more prudent option, you ask? Give him the winner of Chris Lytle vs. Dan Hardy or Anthony Johnson vs. Charlie Brenneman. Whatever happens, it's going to be a fun ride.
Tito Ortiz: We can all relax now. The commercials have aired. The hyperbole has been dispensed, and UFC 133 is in the books. Let's admit our initial hunch: Tito is not back. He caught some good luck against Ryan Bader one month ago and beat back retirement. He is not a different person. He is, however, a former champion and will remain so until he chooses to exit the Octagon, or, more likely, is forced from his perch. The speed and athleticism that separates him from today's top fighters is too great a gap. Save for a few glitches in the matrix, that's what happens when you're in the game seven years longer than your opponent. That's seven more years of nagging injuries and day-in-day-out training and cellular breakdown. If you couldn't see time's mark on Ortiz, the difference in speed between he and Evans, you are looking through rose-colored glasses.
Ortiz is still a competitive fighter. He'll show well against mid-tier guys and stomp the new kids. But there's only a few fighters in the division that match the output of the Evanses, Jones, Ruas and Davises of the world. He's not in that league anymore. And in that case, it's a matter of what remains to be leveraged with is name, and how long he can reasonably hang out on the main card at the salary he commands. In the multiple injuries that befell UFC 133, the promotion got a perfect chance to make us believe, probably against our better judgement, that this could be it, that Tito could be back.
In reality, it's just back in line.
Yoshihiro Akiyama: It would be criminal to cut loose a fighter who so consistently brings excitement to the Octagon, though it would certainly be understandable if the UFC made that decision after three consecutive losses. You can't exactly keep around a guy who's chief selling point is a tongue-in-cheek, somewhat silly nickname, no matter how much he endears when sidestepping a journalist's question to announce, "I am 'Sexyama,'" as he did at the pre-event presser.
But you can rebuild him at a lower level, or at a different weight class. The guy hasn't really done the weight-cutting thing yet -- he looked like a blown-up welterweight against the shredded Belfort. He should get a second chance (or fifth, really) there. Or there's the short-term option: Wanderlei Silva in a loser-leaves-town match. That's a fight that was supposed to happen, and I don't think there's any doubt it'd be one for ages.
Chad Mendes: Facing as dangerous a submission specialist as Rani Yahya, it's of little surprise that "Money" Mendes played it conservatively en route to a decision. There's another possible reason: a broken hand. The standout wrestler's swollen mitt was on display after the fight, and if serious, it may keep him out long enough so that another featherweight steps ahead for the winner of Jose Aldo vs. Kenny Florian in October. Mendes chose not to wait when a banged-up champ passed on UFC 133. That gamble could cost him big, though I don't suppose he's on the Rashad Evans Advice Hotline yet.
Johny Hendricks: It may not have been must-see-TV, but Hendricks passed a huge test in outpointing the tough-as-nails Pierce, who entered at 4-1 with his only loss coming to Jon Fitch. Now, where to go? Hendricks fell short against Rick Story, who graduated to a big fight with an ill-fated fight against Nate Marquardt. Charlie Brenneman came in and handed it to Story, and Hendricks starched Brenneman this past August.
Does Hendricks deserve a big step up? Yes, but more likely, he'll fight a few more mid-tier guys to prove his worth as a Fight Night headliner. Suggestions: Matt Brown, the winner of John Hathaway vs. Pascal Krauss, or Claude Patrick.
Mike Brown: Something is off with the former WEC featherweight champ. Brown pounded Nam Phan's noggin for much of round one, only to limp through the remaining 10 minutes and squeak ahead with a few takedowns. Two years ago, he would have destroyed Phan. But Saturday, he faltered, and it nearly cost him a third consecutive loss. Clearly, things need to change in Brown's camp if he's to survive in the UFC for long.
Jorge Rivera: The fire just isn't there. You could see it at the weigh-ins, an empty stare that indicated someone going through the motions, someone not invested heart and soul into a fight. You could see it in the cage; he was flat against a fighter with less than half his experience. Rivera plainly said UFC 133 might be his last appearance, and with a lackluster decision loss to the unheralded Constantinos Philippou, I suspect it is.
Matt Hamill: Stepping in for an injured Vladimir Matyushenko, Hamill was clearly looking to redeem his lopsided loss to Quinton Jackson when he fought prospect Alexander Gustaffson on short notice. Instead, he lost, and damaged his standing while endangering his job. It's now back-to-back fights where "The Hammer" has been picked apart on his feet and unable to get things to the mat. Going forward, it's going to take more than walking opponents down and blocking punches with his face. He's a good wrestler with heavy hands and insane strength -- three great features when you use them right. If you don't, say goodbye.
Paul Bradley: He'll probably get another opportunity given the fact that he took a fight with Rafael Natal on short notice. But even that wasn't a sparkling endorsement. He let the Brazilian rack up points on the standup and had extreme difficulty getting the fight to the ground. Combined with some less-than-crisp standup, he's looking more like a regional standout more than a big-show talent.