It's not rocket science to figure out the big winners from Saturday's UFC 126 in Las Vegas. Jon Jones emerged as a light heavyweight title contender with a victory against Ryan Bader. Anderson Silva, on the strength of a stunning front kick, was devastating in a first-round knockout of Vitor Belfort. A rusty Forrest Griffin won a unanimous decision over Rich Franklin after a long layoff, and the former light heavyweight champion should continue to progress when he hits the road to work with new trainers, as he says he'll do for his next fight.
Fans won again with an action-packed night. There were six finishes on an 11-fight card -- a pretty good counterpunch to the assembly line of knockouts and submissions seen the previous week at "Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Cyborg," and at a higher level of competition. We're seeing more fights, too. There were but two dark fights on UFC 126, and the live streaming of preliminary fights on Facebook appears to be here to stay. There is word from UFC president Dana White of a breakout success in pay-per-view buys, and the all-Brazilian main event attracted a record level of international interest.
But let's talk for a second about a few guys who helped make it happen for the fighters.
Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn: The two coaches deserve much of the credit for taking Jones to contender status by adding strategic wisdom to the fighter's freewheeling style. Jones quickly took the fight to Bader's weakest point -- his back -- and forced the wrestling standout to fight for his life against a north-south choke he probably didn't see coming. That immediately put momentum in Jones' corner and sent a clear message to Bader: I own this fight. When Jones took the fight down again in the second and applied a guillotine choke, it appeared the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 8 had about enough of being dominated and tapped.
It's laughable that just a few months ago, Jackson was at the center of controversy for producing fighters who don't finish fights. Jones was not his only student to earn a submission win at UFC 126; longtime pupil Donald Cerrone submitted Paul Kelly despite taking some heavy punches during their fight on the Spike-televised portion of the card. And last month, Melvin Guillard railroaded red-hot prospect Evan Dunham.
Jackson's fighters are winning, and they're often doing it in stunning fashion. It's a cyclical business when you run a fight team. Unfortunately, coaches, like referees or judges, often get no credit when things go right, and they get blamed when things go wrong. So let's put the "fighting safe" critique to rest, shall we?
Firas Zahabi: The longtime trainer of UFC welterweight kingpin Georges St-Pierre taught former WEC bantamweight champion Miguel Torres about the value of brains over brawn. Torres loved a good firefight in his days with the lighter-weighted promotion before two losses prompted him to regroup last year. He sought out Zahabi, who told him to pair his aggression with a solid game plan. Torres learned quickly. Instead of being overly aggressive against Antonio Banuelos on Saturday, he picked his shots and scored points with a rapid-fire jab. It wasn't the most crowd-pleasing fight, but it got the job done. And now that the former champ is in the big leagues, he needs every win he can get.
John Hackleman: A good trainer will always give it to you straight, and that's exactly what "Hack" did when his longtime student Banuelos stalled at the end of Torres' punches. Instead of massaging Banuelos' ego with useless praise between rounds, he calmly but firmly implored his fighter to forget about running low on gas and move forward with punches. In the end, nothing could talk Banuelos out of his hesitancy, and a unanimous decision went to Torres. Still, it was a far better tact than the one taken by Franklin's corner, which deluded the former middleweight champion into thinking it was a positive thing that Griffin had smothered him in the first round.
Steven Seagal? I can't bring myself to put a colon after Seagal's name because, really, are we to believe that an aging martial arts movie star famous for throws, rolls, joint locks and bone breaks is responsible for what amounts to a well-placed front kick? Not long after Silva's shocking win over Belfort, Seagal, in an interview with MMAFighting.com, claimed ownership of the "secret" strike and said he taught it to the champ. Pause for laughs. But wouldn't you know it, Silva gave the movie star props at the post-fight news conference. Have we entered the Twilight Zone, or is this some bizarre PR stunt?
Probably some of both. Credit often gets generously spread around in prizefighting. It's possible Silva really does have an interest in Seagal's Aikido background. Maybe they share a kinship through the martial arts. Or maybe Silva is just a big fan of Marked for Death.
There is no way Seagal can lay claim to what Muay Thai fighters call a "teep," or thrusting front kick. It's no secret. Silva has always been an adventurous striker, and he was a great martial artist long before he met Seagal. But hey, if the relationship inspired him to take a chance on the strike, more power to him. Whatever works, right?
Now, a few quick hits on the winners and losers from Saturday:
Anderson Silva: Now we have two kicks to buzz about. First it was Anthony Pettis and his walk-walking kick to Ben Henderson's face at WEC 53. Now it's Silva's front-kick KO of Belfort. Both allegedly were inspired by the movies. Pretty soon, we're going to have to start checking for wires above the octagon.
Jon Jones: The 23-year-old's poise and patience are impressive. He's been training in MMA for only three years and got his start watching videos on YouTube. Now he's set for a title shot at UFC 128 next month against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, a man with twice the experience, and Jones is the early favorite with oddsmakers. If that isn't a vote of confidence, what is?
Carlos Eduardo Rocha: Although he lost a split decision to Jake Ellenberger, the Brazilian showed very well against one of the toughest welterweights in the division. Rocha schooled Ellenberger on the mat in the first round, and had he managed to get top position again, he may very well have submitted the Nebraskan.
Demetrious Johnson: "Mighty Mouse" executed a lighting-fast takedown on Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto of Japan. Johnson was unafraid of the much more experienced Yamamoto and never ceded control of the bantamweight fight. He should be no more than a few paces away from a title eliminator.
Chad Mendes: The training partner to former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber took out the heavily hyped Michihiro Omigawa by unanimous decision. Omigawa had won eight of his previous nine fights to work himself back to top-10 lists. Mendes, though, proved he is one of the world's best at 145 pounds by grinding out the Japanese fighter. Did he put another nail in the coffin of Japanese MMA?
Vitor Belfort: Silva's kick was a quick end to the dreams of Belfort, who had waited for his title shot for more than a year after being sidelined with a torn labrum for much of 2010. On a positive note, it looked like his hand speed was still there, and he managed to briefly take down Silva. He just misjudged the trajectory of the kick and paid for it dearly. There are still plenty of exciting matchups for him: Chris Leben, Alan Belcher, Chael Sonnen and, of course, a rematch with Wanderlei Silva.
Rich Franklin: It's not that he looked bad against Griffin -- just undersized. Griffin controlled the fight on the mat and won crucial points in the first round. From there, Franklin was fighting at a deficit, and Griffin was just a tad bit better at putting together combinations in the pocket. Franklin doesn't lose a whole lot of ground career-wise; the UFC will always have a place for him as a utility headliner.
Ryan Bader: He had the task of taking on Jones and ended up an example of how talented "Bones" truly is. Bader still needs a lot of work on his striking and defensive wrestling before he can contend with the upper echelon of the 205-pound division.
Antonio Banuelos: The former WEC fixture looked like a fish out of water inside the octagon and didn't show up to fight Torres. He is likely to get a newcomer or lower-tier bantamweight in a must-win situation.
Gabe Ruediger: The much-maligned lightweight made a foolish choice to trade punches with kickboxing standout Paul Taylor and got knocked out. He's back to the minor leagues.