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.
Anderson Silva: What can you say about the guy? Assessments of his otherworldly abilities and standalone talent are turning from the type of gushing you'd expect following a highlight-reel performance to an immutable law of the middleweight division. With so many clips and 14 bodies in his wake, it may be time to admit: A healthy Silva can't be beaten.
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.
Mauricio Rua: It's rare that an athlete's public narrative matches with his private one. But in this case, "Shogun" showed the world that he's not defined by past ruts when paired a second time with Forrest Griffin. When he's focused and fluid, there are few not named Jon Jones that can match him.
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.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: We all wrote off "Big Nog." Time had taken its toll over a decade of thrilling comebacks. He'd been in too many wars, taken too many shots in search of an armbar. Even his countrymen weren't sold on his comeback, Nogueira lamented after stopping young buck Brendan Schaub.
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.
Edson Barboza: If there's a more promising striker than Barboza, it's at the top of the lightweight division. Were it not for the persistence and toughness of The Ultimate Fighter 9 winner Ross Pearson, the Brazilian might have given "Big Nog" a run for his money on the "Knockout of the Night" bonus. As it was, Barboza's lightning-fast switch kicks and hooks to the body made Pearson's night only slightly more pleasant than a root canal. In the end, he took home the decision, and with three consecutive wins, he's one fight away from a marquee name. One suggestion? Fellow bruiser Donald Cerrone, who's also on a three-fight UFC win streak. They're both young, exciting, and hungry to break through. Questions remain about how Barboza is equipped to deal with some of the wrestler/boxers of the division's upper tier, but for now, things are looking up.
Brendan Schaub: Back to earth for the once-ascendant prospect. Nogueira was supposed to be the next, and perhaps final, stop on his road to the title. Instead, it was a splash of cold water on the dreamers that disregarded the Brazilian's extensive resume and ability to overcome adversity. (We somehow forgot this despite the fact that a young Nogueira got run over by a truck and survived -- but that's another matter.) Schaub's game didn't show the polish that might have earmarked him for a future title shot. In truth, he seemed a little overwhelmed by the moment.
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.
Ross Pearson: The Brit wins UFC 134 award for "Making the best out of a bad situation." Down almost a half-foot in reach against a striker with all the darting speed of a garter snake, Pearson managed to take angles and score points early on the inside. He flagged later on -- it's hard to keep charging a guy that digs a shin into your ribs or punches you in the liver. But he kept coming, and rightfully earned his share of a $100,000 "Fight of the Night" bonus.
Rousimar Palhares: I don't know if there's a middleweight that's as simultaneously adept and inept than Palhares, and much of it seems to stem from his relationship to the third man in the cage, not to mention his utter lack of English skills. Nearly a year ago, he importuned the referee to intervene when Nate Marquardt slid out of a leglock in the first round -- he believed somehow that the action could miraculously be stopped for an on-the-spot investigation -- and it cost him a face full of punches and a TKO loss. This time, he acted as his own referee. No sooner did he plaster Dan Miller with punches than he celebrated victory -- without ever receiving a wave-off from referee Herb Dean. Then when the bout was restarted, he consistently and flagrantly grabbed the fence despite several warnings. By the end of the bizarre fight, Palhares was gassed -- no doubt the result of his premature celebration -- and had Miller not spent so much time getting ragdolled, he may have been able to turn the tide.
Yushin Okami: I can only imagine the look of ecstasy on Chael Sonnen's face when Yushin Okami stuffed Anderson Silva up against the cage in the first round. I can also imagine the look of horror on Team Quest boxing coach Clayton Hires' face when Okami froze in front of the champ in the second round, another victim of the Medusa.
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.
Forrest Griffin: So the perpetually sarcastic light-heavyweight was not at all himself during his fight with Rua, and likely for reasons entirely out of his control. On the other side of the equator, his wife's due date was moved up nine days. He was communicating with her before he walked to the octagon. You can see, then, why he might be out of sorts and generally not in a good headspace for caged competition. However, you could also see a physical manifestation of the listlessness he spoke of prior to the fight.
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.
Dan Miller: With back-to-back losses and a 5-5 record inside the octagon, there's not much more that can be done for Miller. He's certainly a talented middleweight, and he's overcome supremely difficult personal struggles in the midst of his octagon career. But there's no escaping the fact that he can't hang against the division's top fighters. You can give him newcomers all day and he'll win, but his glass ceiling lies somewhere in the middle.
David Mitchell: For all the smiling he did, Mitchell clearly had the time of his life against Paulo Thiago. Could he have interrupted his glee to stop takedowns? Maybe throw a few combinations? Turn on the gas in the final round? Apparently not. He threw his arms up in celebration at the conclusion of the fight like he won. But in reality, he looked woefully outmatched, and he's one fight from bye-bye.