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UFC 103 Musings

I know that he is a big fan of Rich Franklin—and justifiably so. Nonetheless, Vitor Belfort’s three-minute blitzkrieg of the former middleweight champion had to make Dana White sit just a bit more comfortably in his Octagonside seat on Saturday night.

By Michael DiSanto

BELFORT FILLS A GLARING HOLE AT 185 LBS

I know that he is a big fan of Rich Franklin—and justifiably so. Nonetheless, Vitor Belfort’s three-minute blitzkrieg of the former middleweight champion had to make Dana White sit just a bit more comfortably in his Octagonside seat on Saturday night.

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. Prior to UFC 103, the 185-lb division was devoid of a new and interesting challenger for its present ruler and pound-for-pound great, Anderson Silva. That isn’t to say that there were not deserving challengers. Dan Henderson, Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami are all deserving challengers. The problem, however, is that Silva has previously stopped each of them.

Granted, Silva stopped Okami by illegal upkick, which led a disqualification—the last loss on Silva’s record. The problem with Okami as the next in line is the fact that he has been on the sidelines for nearly a year recovering from injury, so there isn’t much momentum building for that matchup at the moment.

Belfort instantly filled that void with his dramatic knockout win over Franklin. Although nothing is official at this point, White stated after the event that Belfort would likely face Silva as soon as the champion recovers from minor surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow—ostensibly in February.

The bout between Belfort and Silva makes perfect sense on all levels. Belfort is a recognized commodity with a jaw-dropping highlight reel. Even casual fans remember that good-looking kid from Brazil who was knocking out all of the big guys back in the UFC’s early days. Thus, the fight is easy to sell from a marketing perspective.

From a competitive perspective, Belfort has long been regarded as one of the most talented fighters in the sport. He is one of the few guys who can match Silva in every aspect of the fight game. Questions about his mental status have plagued him throughout his career, often leading to subpar performances. All that appears to be behind him now as ‘The Phenom’ is currently enjoying the longest winning streak of his professional career. A focused, well-prepared and confident Belfort is the one guy who stands a legitimate chance of not only beating Silva but knocking him out.

The fate suffered by Franklin on Saturday night serves a reality check for anyone who believes differently.

THE SWAGGER IS GONE

The Mirko Cro Cop who stepped into the Octagon on Saturday night is not the same fighter who terrorized the PRIDE heavyweight division for nearly five years. He is no longer the same intimidating force who defeated fighters mentally long before the action actually began.

It certainly doesn’t help that his record inside the Octagon now stands at a mediocre 2-3, compared to his 18-4-2 record in PRIDE.

The most startling difference is the absence of kicks. Cro Cop’s kicks are what made him such a feared combat athlete. Opponents knew that he was coming in to win with his left leg. They still couldn’t stop him.

He knocked out half of the PRIDE heavyweight division with his left high kick. He stopped a pair of heavies, including UFC veteran Heath Herring, with a single kick to the body. And he knocked out Hidehiko Yoshida with basically nothing except leg kicks.

For some unknown reason, Cro Cop has largely abandoned his bread and butter since Gabriel Gonzaga caught a kick to the body and took him down early in the Croatian’s UFC debut. That takedown might have been the turning point of Cro Cop’s UFC career.

Before that moment, he was viewed by many as the heir apparent to the heavyweight crown. Since that takedown, Cro Cop has been extremely hesitant to let his kicks fly, and the results have been nothing shy of disastrous.

Cro Cop threw just a few haphazard kicks against Junior Dos Santos. He focused instead on throwing his hands, an obvious move to keep him in position to defend takedown attempts. He succeeded in keeping the fight on the feet. Of course, that was only a minor victory since he was outboxed all night en route to a third-round submission loss due to strikes.

Cro Cop’s current battle is not with the UFC heavyweight division; it is with himself. He needs to find that same confidence and swagger that he had in PRIDE. He needs to recommit himself to defeating opponents with kicks. Granted, he needs to set up his kicks a bit more inside the Octagon to avoid getting timed and taken down, but that is no reason to abandon his best weapon.

He also needs to get religious in training his ground game. And not his submission defense or ability to tie up opponents inside the guard. He needs to spend basically all day every day working on quickly scrambling back to his feet. That way, he can throw kicks with confidence because he can feel good about his ability to work back to his feet if someone does take him down.

If Cro Cop recommits to what made him famous, he can return to his old form and begin terrorizing anyone not named Brock Lesnar. If, on the other hand, he continues focusing solely on defending takedowns and throwing hands, then I think he will remain a non-factor in the heavyweight division.

IF YOU DON’T KNOW, YOU’D BETTER ASK SOMEBODY

Josh Koscheck long ago earned a place among the UFC welterweight elite. Some people forgot that fact when he suffered a shocking knockout loss at the hands of Paulo Thiago thanks to a lottery-winning punch thrown at UFC 95. Kos served up vivid reminder of his spot on the food chain by bludgeoning his way to an 85-second victory over former title challenger Frank Trigg.

Kos has future champion written all over him. I said that a few years ago, and I’m sticking with it. I believe that if he can seamlessly blend his wrestling and striking, something he hasn’t quite mastered yet, he would pose a matchup nightmare for current kingpin Georges St-Pierre or anyone else in the division.

DALEY DAZZLES IN WIN; ALVES MATCHUP WOULD BE DIVINE

Hello, world! Paul Daley certainly knows how to debut in style; that is for sure. The English striker came in and did just what he predicted—knocking out one of the welterweight division’s toughest competitors in a single round. It was a spectacular introduction to UFC fans.

Dispatching a top contender is a great way to quickly jump into the welterweight mix. But fans need to temper their expectations a bit in the short term. Daley continues to be a work in progress on the ground, so it remains to be seen how he will fare against some of the division’s ground-and-pound artists or BJJ players. Now that he is competing against the best of the best, my guess is that the focus in training on developing his anti-wrestling and submission defense will shift into overdrive.

In the meantime, he will be a monster for anyone in the division who wants to stand and trade with him. Of course, that raises the obvious question of who is, indeed, the most dangerous striker in the welterweight division. Daley certainly stands near the front of the queue, as does Muay Thai wrecking machine Thiago Alves.

I’m not sure who would win in a bout between those two amazing strikers. Alves is far better as an all-around fighter, but I don’t see him trying to take down anyone, including Daley. Actually, I think Alves-Daley would be an odds on favorite to challenge for Thomas Gerbasi’s Highly Unofficial Fight of the Year Award.

Joe Silva, please make it happen.

GRIFFIN CONTINUES TO STAKE CLAIM

Tyson Griffin is one bad dude. The lightweight looked to be at the absolute top of his game in becoming the first man to stop former title challenger Hermes Franca in a UFC bout. I guess that we should have expected such a performance because Griffin is one of the few fighters in the division who has continued to improve each and every time he steps into the Octagon.

The former amateur wrestler showed that his transition to a mixed martial artist is now complete. Sure, he will continue to improve, but he will no longer be referred to as a wrestler who loves to stand and bang. His standup game was reminiscent someone with a deep amateur striking background, with ever-changing combinations and an excellent mix of punches, feints and leg kicks. That is a testament to his tremendous athleticism and determined work ethic.

The win brings Griffin’s UFC record to 7-2, including wins in six of his last seven bouts. He is making a very strong argument in support of a title challenge. Diego Sanchez is the bigger name from a marketing standpoint, but few, if any, lightweights have done more to earn a shot at BJ Penn’s title than Griffin.

WHAT’S UP WITH THE HAIR?

Hermes, you’re killing me. You are absolutely killing me.

I know that it is the rage among athletes to compete with crazy hairdos. From fake blondes to Mohawks, lots of guys like to make statements with their banging salads. I know. At 37, I’m getting old, so I probably don’t “get it.” Still, it is tough watching a guy compete in the Octagon with what appeared to be a ball of cotton candy on his head.

Franca is a heck of a fighter, no doubt about that. I have no idea why he showed up four pounds overweight and in what appeared to be questionable shape and form. My guess is that he either suffered an injury or came down with a significant physical illness during camp that prevented him from completing his normal training routine.

Whatever the case, he definitely had too much time on his hands in the days and weeks leading up to the bout if he decided to dye his hair a mixture of pink, light blue, blond and lord knows what other colors.

Stale salad notwithstanding, I expect Franca to return to the Octagon with a much better performance next time out. Whether he fixes that awful ‘do is a different question altogether.



 

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