Winners, losers from UFC 134
Count on Forrest Griffin to deliver the sound bite that best sums up UFC 134:
"Fighting's popular in Brazil," he quipped. "Who'd have thought?"
We thought we knew. We thought Brazilians liked fighting because, you know, blood is hotter south of the equator, and the cities are crowded, and it's the cradle of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and all. In particular, they like mixed-martial-arts fighting down there, the kind birthed in part by a family with a serious chip on its shoulder and a penchant for throwing down. And the fighters from there were some of the best at it, too, although also some of the flakiest and frustratingly hard to teach.
We just didn't know how much. We didn't know a reported 350,000 souls would try to squeeze into a 16,000-seat arena. We didn't know a rainy day on Copacabana beach would turn into an impromptu Carnival for an open workout. We didn't know that when the show got underway, fans in said arena would would match the energy output of the loudest of soccer games without a vuvuzela in sight.
If the vestibular systems of UFC executives were askew, it was from all the shouting at Rio de Janeiro's HSBC Arena, the dizzying combat artistry of Anderson Silva, who starched yet another challenger to his crown in Yushin Okami, and the surreal notion that perhaps 30 million people watched the event. Eat your heart out, Spike TV.
So yes, fighting is popular in Brazil. And from the sound of it, the promotion is just scratching the surface. More events are planned for Brazil, and the 100,000-seat Sambadrome in Manaus is targeted for a show next year.
Domestically, there remain questions as to whether the UFC can expand its footprint, and the promotion's draw on FOX will answer those. But internationally, the potential growth curve is explosive, and places such as Brazil illuminate that in bright green and yellow.
Maybe I'm just late to that party, but it sure looked like that as they were scraping Yushin Okami off the canvas. Chael Sonnen is the last unanswered question. It's not Brian Stann, Mark Munoz, Alan Belcher, Rousimar Palhares, or the rest lapping at the champ's feet. Silva battled a broken rib and won by the skin of his teeth when they fought at UFC 117, and the intersection of Sonnen's double-leg skills and sharper-than-you'd-think boxing and his unencumbered body is, for me, his final hurdle at 185 pounds.
Sonnen, of course, has to get past Stann at UFC 136. If he does, and Silva wins the rematch, it's time to move up, move down, fight Georges St-Pierre or think about retirement.
Rua was obliterated by the champ after a 10-month layoff at UFC 128. He admitted errors in his preparation (these things apparently still happen 10 years in the the game). He might have been a little rusty against the worst guy to have rust. So he got back into the gym, retooled his camp, and hooked up with longtime trainer Rafael Cordero. He trained in the states with a number of UFC vets and hungry newcomers alike.
The result was what you saw Saturday. The best parts of Rua: a tactical, aggressive finisher. When Griffin tumbled to the mat, he pounced, and the anvils he calls hammerfists did the rest. So he was telling the truth, or the planets aligned, or both. On its face, though, his rebirth wasn't a convenient narrative; he corrected his problems, and his performance improved.
Of course, Griffin didn't give Rua much of a fight. But there's no doubt he was firing on all cylinders.
Not many clamor to see the deposed champ rematch Jones so soon, and a rubber match with Lyoto Machida is premature (and not even on the radar, if rumors of Machida vs. prospect Phil Davis prove true). So "Shogun" may have to wait this situation out and see how the division unfolds.
You can't blame us. A knockout loss, 19 months on the bench, three surgeries -- these were stats in support of imminent retirement, not a sudden resurgence. Yet Nogueira surged. All those years weren't a hindrance -- they were an advantage against an opponent who, despite some impressive victories, was relatively green.
Lesson No. 1 from Nogueira to grasshopper Schaub: move your head when the punches start flying. Don't, and you find yourself at the end of a thundering left that puts you face-first on the canvas.
Does Schaub have what it takes to be a future champion? Perhaps. His boxing is a work in progress, as we've seen. He isn't a particularly phenomenal wrestler or a jiu-jitsu wizard. At 28, he's got time to improve these skills, and he's in a division whose depth makes way for second chances. In a few years, he could be ready again. But now's too early.
The plan, at least in the first five minutes, was clear: lean on Silva, beat him up from the clinch, draw blood from his arms, take him down. Do not stand in front of him. A few parts of that plan worked for Sonnen, and all of it worked for Okami -- until everything went wrong.
Was it the kick Silva snuck in at the end of the first round? The shot hit Okami flush in the back of the head. Was it the angry outburst of strikes from a hyped-up champ in the second frame? That prompted a brief, no-no firefight. Whatever it was, the challenger gravely lost his step. He was confused, tentative, and most importantly, rooted. That couldn't have played more perfectly into Silva's hand. Okami handed him a quick-draw gunfight, a fight he'll always win.
That's it for "Thunder." He's swam upstream of popular opinion for quite some time, and this opportunity came as second fiddle to Sonnen's inevitable rematch. He'll fight on in the wilderness of the middleweight division, and he'll probably keep winning. But as long as Silva is champ, he'll be an also-ran.
In a remarkably candid snapshot of his mental state, Griffin posted a guest blog entry for Yahoo! Sports in which he admitted to feeling stagnant for three years. That's a long time to be standing still in a fast-moving game. He admitted to fighting, at least in part, for a paycheck. A new training camp was on the horizon. So whether his mind was in Las Vegas with his wife or not, Griffin looked clumsy and awkward in there with Rua. As with Rashad Evans, and before that, Keith Jardine, he was completely unable to stop an onslaught of punches once on his back and went helplessly into the night when the Brazilian dropped hammerfists. He'll always have a job, sure, but his chances at getting a title back seem slim.