UFC 98 Musings

Michael DiSanto, UFC - If anyone told me prior to Saturday that UFC 98’s main event would end with a dramatic, thunderous knockout, I would have wagered my house that Rashad Evans would be the one left standing when the dust settled.

Good thing I wasn’t in Las Vegas over the weekend.
By Michael DiSanto

MACHIDA CAN’T BE IGNORED ANYMORE

If anyone told me prior to Saturday that UFC 98’s main event would end with a dramatic, thunderous knockout, I would have wagered my house that Rashad Evans would be the one left standing when the dust settled.

Good thing I wasn’t in Las Vegas over the weekend.

Lyoto Machida sent yet another shot heard around the proverbial mixed martial arts world with his second-round blitzkrieg of Evans, keeping intact his perfect career record and increasing his UFC win streak to seven fights.

Machida’s perfect career to date is quite impressive. The fact that he hasn’t lost a single round on the judges’ cards through seven UFC bouts is downright amazing. But the scariest part is that the Brazilian seems to be getting better each time he steps into the cage.

Think about it for a moment. Machida’s UFC career began with unanimous decision wins over Sam Hoger, David Heath and Kazuhiro Nakamura. ‘The Dragon’ was near flawless in those victories, yet fans knocked him for not displaying enough of a killer instinct due to his defense-first karate style.

Those criticisms are now a thing of the past after scoring dramatic stoppage wins in three of his last four fights, culminating in a career-best performance at UFC 98. The question now is whether Machida can do what the last two 205-lb titlists could not: successfully defend the crown.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a guy who has yet to lose a single round of UFC competition will successfully defend his title at least once. But conventional wisdom rarely, if ever, applies in the world’s most unpredictable sport. And Machida’s first defense will likely come against former champion Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, undoubtedly the toughest test of the new champion’s professional career.

Those questions will be answered soon enough. For now, it’s time for Machida and his fans to savor the accomplishment. Lyoto Machida has arrived. He cannot be ignored any longer and now officially stands as the very best light heavyweight in the world – for the moment, at least.

HUGHES ADDS ANOTHER RECORD TO HIS HALL OF FAME APPLICATION

To call Matt Hughes’ UFC career illustrious would be an understatement.

Among his various career accomplishments, the Midwestern farm boy held three notable Octagon records heading into UFC 98: most consecutive successful title defenses (tied with Tito Ortiz and Anderson Silva at 5), most total successful title defenses (seven across two separate reigns) and most championship fights (13).

Hughes’ win over Matt Serra on Saturday night placed his name alongside yet another UFC records: it was his 16th win inside the Octagon, tying him with Chuck Liddell for the most career UFC wins.

There is no question that the 35-year-old former champion is in the twilight of his amazing career. He isn’t the same explosive takedown artist that he was during his heyday, which forces him to fight on the feet more than he would otherwise like. Yet, fans should soak up the moment each time Hughes enters the Octagon, because this guy is a surefire first-time UFC Hall of Fame Inductee. No other outcome does his career justice, and UFC head honcho Dana White will appropriately award Hughes with that honor as soon as the former two-time welterweight champion retires.

WELCOME TO THE BIG TIME, FRANKIE

The last time Frankie Edgar faced a dominant wrestler – Gray Maynard - he was taken down repeatedly and controlled on the ground en route to a unanimous decision loss.

He faced another dominant wrestler at UFC 98 in former champion Sean Sherk. This time, however, Edgar made the most of his biggest test to date, scoring an emphatic unanimous decision.

Edgar’s win places him in an exclusive fraternity of guys who were able to defeat the ‘Muscle Shark.’ The entirety of the group consists of Edgar, current champions Georges St-Pierre and BJ Penn, and former champion and guaranteed future Hall of Fame inductee Matt Hughes. Talk about elite colleagues.

Edgar used crisp boxing, excellent footwork and great scrambling on the ground to catapult himself into instant title contention in the ultra-deep lightweight division. Great job, Frankie.

LOSS HIGHLIGHTS GAME PLAN PROBLEMS WITH “NEW” SHERK

Saturday’s loss highlights three problems with the new and improved Sean Sherk’s game plan, one ostensibly created out of a desire to put on fan-friendly bouts: abandoned wrestling, no straight punches and no head movement.

With nearly 40 professional fights under his belt and a mere four losses, Sherk has one of the most impressive career records of anyone competing inside the Octagon. The overwhelming majority of that success was earned with dominant wrestling and amazing ground-and-pound attacks. Why he opted to completely turn his back on what made him one of the best lightweights in the world is unfathomable. Sherk surely watched Gray Maynard dominate Edgar with takedowns and ground control. There is no reason to believe that Sherk would have been any less successful had he opted to follow the same game plan.

Standing and kickboxing with opponents is not his bread and butter. That isn’t what made him a champion. Sherk needs to get back to his wrestling roots in future fights.

Fighting mostly on the feet is not part of Sherk’s recipe for success. One of the main reasons is that he throws virtually all of his punches with an arc – left hooks, overhand rights, uppercuts, etc. He rarely throws a straight, stiff jab, and I cannot recall the last time he threw a right hand straight down the pipe.

This isn’t an indictment of looping punches. Chuck Liddell made millions throwing what his trainer deems “whipping” shots. Those shots are fine, provided the fighter throwing them has long limbs.

Sherk does not. The former lightweight champ has a modest 67-inch reach. Thus, he needs to get extremely close to his opponent in order to land those shots, since the arc of the strikes results in them covering much less distance than one thrown down the middle. As a result, guys like Edgar can establish the distance with good, crisp jabs and one-two combinations and Sherk is left coming up short with his counters.

The second big hole in Sherk’s standup game is his lack of head movement. He basically walks in with a peek-a-boo stance, ala Mike Tyson. Though unlike Tyson, Sherk doesn’t bob and weave while coming in. Edgar, therefore, was able to use his jab as a range finder and follow it up with good, hard right hands because he knew that Sherk’s head would still be where the jab found it.

Sherk is an extremely explosive athlete with more than his fair share of fast-twitch muscle fiber. His work ethic is beyond reproach. If he works on straightening out his punches and moving his head, he can be a very effective standup fighter. But remember, this is mixed martial arts, not kickboxing, so Sherk needs to seamlessly blend his new preference for striking with his deep wrestling background. Keeping his wrestling as a major part of his attack will make his standup that much more effective because opponents will need to spend much of their attention on anticipating and defending takedowns, rather than slipping and countering punches.

SONNEN ENDS OCTAGON WOES WITH IMPRESSIVE EFFORT

I hope Sherk was watching Chael Sonnen systematically dismantle Dan Miller with dominant wrestling and brutal ground and pound. The Team Quest standout put on a ground-and-pound clinic, foregoing guard pass attempts and the resulting scramble risks in favor of battering his foe from within the guard. It was near flawless execution of game plan perfectly suited to take advantage of Sonnen’s strengths.

The win broke a streak of Octagon misfortune for Sonnen, who was submitted in three of his four previous UFC bouts. That is a major breakthrough for a middleweight who is far better than his 2-3 UFC record suggests.

I do, however, want to know what Matt Lindland was thinking, because his off-the-wall advice could have cost his fighter the bout. Lindland has an amazing fight IQ, which makes it all the more curious why he advised his charge to box on the outside each of the last two rounds. Granted, Sonnen was rapidly tiring during the fight, and it is oftentimes easy to catch one’s second wind while sticking and moving on the feet. I’ll further concede that Miller’s most likely method of victory was a submission from his back, something he tried repeatedly throughout the fight.

Nonetheless, Sonnen was never in any great danger of succumbing to a submission during the bout, aside from the opening guillotine attempt. So, why did Lindland want his man to keep the fight on the feet? In the final stanza, Miller landed a brutal one-two combination that sent Sonnen reeling backward. That was the most tense moment of the bout for Sonnen fans, an unnecessary one in my opinion. I’m sure there was a sound method to Lindland’s madness in advising Sonnen to fight on the feet in the last round, though I’d be curious to know his reasoning.

MCFEDRIES RETURNS WITH YET ANOTHER EXPLOSIVE EFFORT

Fans thirsting for explosive knockouts were undoubtedly foaming at the mouth with anticipation when Zuffa announced that Drew McFedries would face James Irvin at UFC 98. After all, that proposed bout was a standup fan’s dream—two aggressive strikers with less than zero interest in takedowns squaring off in a fight that could only end with one of them leaving the cage firmly impaled on his sword.

An unfortunate injury to Irvin derailed the bout, at least for the short term, but McFedries was lucky enough to find a perfect foil in Xavier Foupa-Pokam, an experienced, skilled kickboxer in his own right, to remind pundits and fans of his relevance in the middleweight division. He promised a devastating knockout in the days leading up to the fight, and it only took him 37 seconds to make good on that promise.

This is going to sound crazy, far crazier than Lindland’s third-round advice to Sonnen. I’ll acknowledge that before writing words that will certainly result in dozens of venomous emails in my inbox.

If Anderson Silva is successful against Forrest Griffin at UFC 101 and decides to defend his middleweight title rather than continuing to campaign at light heavy, I’d put him in the Octagon against McFedries.

Yes, I know. McFedries has not earned the right to challenge for the title. He has not experienced enough success inside the Octagon to justify that bout. His overall professional record doesn’t scream No. 1 contender.

Guess what? I don’t care. Sometimes fights are about the fans and the matchup, not the sport. Silva-McFedries is the perfect violent stew.

Silva is the undisputed pound-for-pound king who performs at his very best when someone brings the fight to him on the feet. He a fighting savant who fires perfectly placed counters with such awe-inspiring power that few fighters dare attack him on the feet.

McFedries would do just that.

The Bettendorf, Iowa native only knows one speed—100%. He only knows how to fight one way—throwing caution to the wind with full frontal attacks. And he can match any middleweight in the world in terms of striking power.

A bout between Silva and McFedries screams collateral damage. It can’t possibly make it out of the first round. It would absolutely end with a timeless knockout.

There are a million reasons why the fight won’t happen any time soon. The obvious one is that McFedries hasn’t yet earned a title shot. He needs to first tear through a handful of top contenders before considering a bout with Silva, and McFedries’ 8-5 career record so far suggests that such a run is unlikely anytime soon.

From Silva’s perspective, the fight makes no sense because the risk far surpasses the reward. He gains nothing from beating a “middle of the pack” guy like McFedries, yet his legacy suffers greatly from a loss.

From the UFC’s perspective, the fight probably isn’t a major box office draw because McFedries isn’t a household name. So, it would be a curious business decision to headline a pay-per-view event with such a matchup.

Again, who cares because it would be one hell of a fight.

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