UFC 76 recap: Ice Age over?
2007 will be remembered as a year of upsets in UFC, and UFC 76 only continued the trend. But, despite upsets becoming more and more commonplace in the promotion, there's no denying that last night's two major upsets were still stunning and both leave the UFC light heavyweight division in turmoil.
Shogun's debut ruined by vastly improved Griffin
I've never really bought into the Forrest Griffin hype machine, especially in a strong UFC light heavyweight division. I've always believed that his popularity had more to do with timing and his role as TUF 1 champ than anything he has ever done in the Octagon. In fact, before UFC 76, Griffin's most notable performance was a close loss to a rusty and not completely healthy Tito Ortiz in 2006.
But, I have noted improvement in Griffin's game in 2007. First, he showed great poise and Octagon control in his victory over Hector Ramirez earlier this year. And last night against Mauricio Rua, Griffin showed even more weapons in his arsenal. Primarily a brawler when he entered UFC, Griffin now looks quite comfortable on the ground and how fitting was it for him to end a fight he was doing quite well in with a rear nake choke?
This is clearly a turning point in Griffin's career, and given how he has performed this year and how his game has improved, I am finally willing to say that Griffin has entered the top tier of UFC fighters. Finally, I believe his popularity and hype might actually match his game.
Rua, on the other hand, is the latest of PRIDE's superstars to struggle in their cage debuts. Rua looked considerably smaller than Griffin and had gassed by the middle of the second round. Rua never looked like he was in control of the fight, which is stunning for a fighter widely considered close to the top of the world light heavyweight rankings.
PRIDE vs. UFC
So, what does this defeat mean for Rua and all the fighters coming over from PRIDE?
I think it has become quite clear this year that fighting in UFC takes some getting used to. There are subtle but significant rules differences between PRIDE and UFC; there are very substantial tactical differences between fighting in a ring versus fighting in a cage; and PRIDE encouraged a very different style and pace of fighting than that seen in UFC.
With that said, that doesn't necessarily mean fighters in UFC are better or that fighters in PRIDE are overrated. That analysis can only be made years from now, with more data in hand to truly make such assertions. However, clearly in the current climate of MMA, rankings are fairly meaningless.
We are in such a state of flux in MMA, with the sport experiencing newfound popularity, with more and more athletes entering the sport and with the realignment of promotional power that we simply need to allow things to sort themselves out in the cage.
I believe that Mirko Cro Cop's struggles, Rua's lackluster debut, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira's near loss to Heath Herring in his debut, and Herring's own loss in his UFC debut have shown us that any fighter entering UFC should be treated as a rookie and should be made to prove himself in the cage before garnering big-money contracts. And, this includes Fedor Emelianenko. After all, why should we believe things will be any different with him?
Some fighters, like Quinton Jackson, have made the transition quite nicely but others, like Cro Cop, may never adjust to the cage or to the UFC fight game. And at this point, all bets are off as to what Wanderlei Silva will do in his debut in December.
Liddell loses again
One thing I think we can say for sure is that Chuck Liddell won't be fighting Silva in December. Liddell may have done enough to win round one last night against Keith Jardine, but after that it was all Jardine, including a knockdown of "The Iceman" in the second round. While I've called Jardine the poor man's Chuck Liddell in the past, and his herky-jerky movements are surely unconventional, "The Dean of Mean" appeared very comfortable against Liddell and not at all intimidated by a man who used to strike fear in his opponents even before stepping into the Octagon.
Is this the end of the road for Liddell? It's hard to tell. There have always been whispers about Liddell's partying and training habits. But, until his loss to Jackson, those rumors were simply dismissed as examples of Liddell being Liddell. Now that he has lost two fights in a row, I'm sure the questions will only grow louder -- does Liddell now care more about being a "rock star" and less about being a top-tier fighter? Only Liddell can answer these questions -- by performing in the cage.
Another question is, who should Liddell fight next? Clearly, he is not main event worthy anymore, and he certainly won't fight a top-tier fighter anytime soon. But, what about a rising star (albeit one that many find boring to watch) like Lyoto Machida? Machida is unbeaten in UFC and a convincing win over Liddell would certainly validate him as a top-level fighter. For Liddell, on the other hand, a win over Machida could be the beginning of his comeback.
TUF's best night yet
TUF alums have had some nice performances in the past, but the victories of Griffin and Jardine on the same night in back-to-back fights has gone a long way to legitimize the show and the fighters that come out of it. No longer can TUF be seen as providing fans with only lower-tier fighters -- instead, we now see that with some time and seasoning, TUF fighters can be just as good as those believed to be the best in the world. TUF can be a proving grounds that serves as step one in a future title holder's career. Never in the past would I have thought that a TUF fighter could possibly challenge for the light heavyweight title as early as 2008.
Thoughts on future UFC matches
Last night's outcomes have turned the light heavyweight division on its head. So, given those results, let me play Joe Silva for a moment and tell you who I'd like to see fight next (note that I would really like to see Dan Henderson drop down to middleweight and unify the middlweight title against Anderson Silva, so I haven't included Henderson in this list):
- Wanderlei Silva's debut in UFC should come against Houston Alexander
- Chuck Liddell should face Lyoto Machida next
- Shogun should face Keith Jardine next
- Quinton Jackson's next title defense should come against (gasp) Forrest Griffin