It happens sometimes that UFC matchmaker Joe Silva puts together a card both fans and media are quick to prejudge. It also happens that these events, on occasion, are among the organization's most exciting. That hope lingered Saturday night as UFC made its debut in Indiana without a championship up for grabs or a main event -- altered in August when Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was replaced by Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic to fight Frank Mir -- that held much importance.
There were intriguing story lines to be sure. Ryan Bader faced his first true test at 205 pounds against the younger Nogueira brother. Rising Evan Dunham went to war with an almost forgotten Sean Sherk. But in the end much of the evening's action was sloppy and slow, or fast and wild. Outside of Sherk-Dunham, there was simply not enough high-class MMA, not enough, at least, for a card costing $55 to watch in HD. That happens sometimes too, of course. And when it does, we're reminded that not every fight can be the fight of the night -- even if UFC president Dana White screamed they "could" be during the Spike TV portion, which, in fact, delivered the best action of UFC 119.
Until Frank Mir (14-5) stuffed his right knee into Mirko Filipovic's jaw with a minute to go in the last minute of the final pay-per-view fight, all of which lasted until the distance save the main event, there seemed to be a very odd pacing about this one. Didn't feel like much of a fight. Didn't look like much of a fight.
"Cro Cop" (27-8-2) seemed focused in countering. But when he had a chance, which wasn't often, not much happened. Mir, again showing how far behind he is in the wrestling department, couldn't get to the Croatian kickboxer's legs. There wasn't any ground work to speak of, though that was fine with Mir, who made a fair point afterwards that he won without using his strength. I won't argue it, but let's not forget he did this against someone far removed from his best work in the sport.
If there was one intriguing aspect about the fight coming in, it was for diehards still clinging to their Pride posters. There was some retouching of the mind to make it happen. UFC and Pride mainstays never had a chance to fight in the middle part of the decade. Maybe this would be kinda like what that should have been. But it wasn't to be.
Before the knee in the 15th minute, I had the fight ready to score at 29-29. First to Mir. A 10-10 tie in the 2nd. And the third to Filipovic. But, alas, there wasn't any need to see the judges' tallies -- each had Mir up 20-18 -- because in this sport, all it takes is one lethal strike.
2. Bader can hang.
Ryan Bader wasn't sure how good he was until he stepped in the cage with veteran Keith Jardine in February. He needed a couple minutes to sense that he belonged in the cage against someone with the experience of Jardine. There wasn't any hesitation tonight either, even though the puzzle in front of him was far more difficult.
Antonio Rogerio Nogueira offered the next logical step in Bader's quest to determine just how good a mixed martial artist he can become. At the moment, he's a powerful wrestler with a solid right hand. To be more than that, to be a contender or a champion, he'll need do what he can to be fit enough to fight hard for 15 minutes, and diversify his game. And if he gets there, it will be the experience of three-round fights like against Nogueira that will lay the foundation.
3. How does Bader beat Jones?
If we don't answer this now, we'll be forced to later. For a long time I've liked the idea of seeing these two top UFC light heavyweight prospects face off. The winner moves to the next level. The loser regroups for a second trip. Makes sense.
Because Bader, 27, may not have finished Nogueira (19-4) or look overly impressive except in the first round when he unloaded inside the Brazilian's guard, there will be detractors. I'm not among them. I saw a maturing fighter deal well with a much better fighter than Jon Jones has ever faced. Jones gets mentioned, of course, because it's presumed he was set to fight the Bader-Nogueira winner.
I'd make Jones, sill just 23 years old, a favorite over Bader (12-0). He has more tools at his disposal and is gifted for this sort of thing. But Bader won't make it easy, nor will he come in on a silver platter like Vladimir Matyushenko. Bader must wrestle better than he did tonight. He didn't set much up, relying mostly on Nogueira to set up takedowns for him off a kick or moving forward without discipline. If he can do that versus Jones (11-1), he'll have a shot.
4. Dunham deserved to win.
Lightweight Evan Dunham isn't undefeated anymore because Glenn Trowbridge of Nevada and Cecil Peoples of California continue prove they're inept MMA judges. Both men saw the evening's best fight 29-28 for Sherk (34-4-1) -- which is a hard score to come by considering he was very nearly submitted more than once, repeatedly struck in the head by punches, and failed to rack up any effective offense outside of the opening round.
Dunham will be treated as a winner after this one. At least he will be by me, and I imagine the UFC, which should keep him right in the mix. Dunham (11-1) was badly cut above his right eye in the first and suffered a second above his left eye later in the fight. Still, he had more than enough spirit to rally. Or so I thought.
5. Sherk is still a threat.
For the first time in several years, it was clear, even though he shouldn't have won, the former UFC lightweight champion -- who lost his belt and failed to regain it after testing positive for steroids in 2007 -- could wrestle again. If his neck holds up under the strain, Sherk, 37, is someone who could get in the way of young fighters like Dunham. Despite being out of action for almost a year and a half because of injuries, he undoubtedly remains dangerous at 155 pounds.