SHOULD THE DRAW INSPIRE OR DISCOURAGE PENN AT WELTERWEIGHT?
On Saturday night, BJ Penn did something that no other UFC fighter, other than Georges St-Pierre, has been able to do. He entered the cage with Jon Fitch and walked away without suffering a loss. That is a major accomplishment for the former champion, in and of itself.
Say what you will about Fitch’s style, his all-business demeanor or his inability to finish opponents. Those are only relevant to the marketing side of the business. All that matters from a competitive standpoint is winning. And this guy is one of the very best winners that we have in the UFC, period. It took the round of Fitch’s life, one where he landed more than 100 ground strikes without taking a single one in return, in order to squeak out a majority draw against Penn.
Still, the fact remains that the former champion is now 2-3-1 in six UFC welterweight bouts, having defeated no man other than Matt Hughes. There is no doubt that Penn is keenly aware of his struggles at 170 pounds. The question is whether the draw with Fitch should encourage Penn to make welterweight his home or serve as a clear sign that it is time to return to lightweight?
I’ve got to admit that I’m torn on that one.
Penn looked tremendous in the first two rounds. He shocked everyone, Fitch and his corner included, with his ability to take down the perennial contender. I’m not putting any stock into Fitch not training his counter wrestling during camp. That had nothing to do with it. Penn is one of the best fighters to ever enter the sport. That is why he took down Fitch.
The problem, however, is that the takedown attempts, both successful and unsuccessful, and time spent defending takedowns, completely depleted his gas tank over the course of two rounds. Penn was in great shape. But pushing and pulling against a guy who is almost 20 percent heavier takes its toll.
The first two rounds of the fight told me two things. First, Penn can compete with anyone at welterweight for the first two rounds. Second, Penn had better end the fight during those two rounds, if he is fighting a big welter with a great wrestling base, such as Fitch, Georges St-Pierre, Jake Shields or even Hughes. Otherwise, he is in major trouble.
One could argue that Penn should merely dominate the first two rounds, like he did against Fitch, and then get on his bicycle and stay away during the third round. Forget, for a moment, about the ire that such a game plan would draw from the fans. It is only an effective strategy for non-title affairs. It doesn’t work at all in a five round title fight.
So, what does that mean for Penn, a guy who is in the sport to continue achieving greatness, rather than a guy who fights for a paycheck? It probably means that life as a welterweight is a tough road to hoe. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it is a much tougher prospect than returning to lightweight and taking on Gray Maynard for the title, if he is able to defeat Frankie Edgar in their upcoming scrap.
Then again, if anyone would have told me that Penn would take down Fitch in each of the first two rounds, I would have asked them if they were recently released from the crazy ward. And it would have taken me at least 10 minutes to get that answer out because I would have been laughing so hard at such a silly comment. Penn is in the sport to prove that his doubters are idiots. That is why I am convinced that his next fight will be a rematch with Fitch, and he will remain focused on competing against bigger, stronger guys, rather than returning to a world that he knows he can dominate.
FITCH SHOWS CHAMPIONSHIP METTLE, DESPITE THE OUTCOME
Many Fitch fans are probably pretty disappointed in their guy right about now. He was so dominant in the final round that it is tough to understand why he didn’t get even more aggressive in search of a stoppage. He needed to posture up and throw meaningful punches, not slapping arm punches that annoyed Penn more than hurt him.
I’m not among those. I think Fitch’s performance in the final round represents a turning point in his career. I know he didn’t score a stoppage, which runs his dubious streak of fighting to the final bell to an almost unheard of nine fights. What it did, though, is prove that he has the DNA to be great. He has the sort of competitive fire that you can’t teach. And he knows how to perform when everything is on the line.
“Crazy Bob” Cook knew his fighter was down on the cards as his fighter searched for answers before the start of the third round. Cook knew that Fitch needed to dominate the final round if he had any chance of escaping a devastating loss, one that would surely derail Fitch’s championship hopes for the near term. The affable trainer didn’t pull any punches when he delivered the message. If Fitch had any delusions in his mind that he was winning, or possibly even tied, on the judges’ cards after two rounds, Cook erased those thoughts with some well-timed honesty.
Lots of fighters receive that same clear direction heading into the final round of a fight. Few take it to heart. And those who do typically can’t find a way to right the ship. Fitch isn’t just another fighter. He is a championship-level fighter, one who probably would have won and successfully defended the title by now had GSP opted to go into hockey, rather than MMA.
Fitch’s ability to accept reality, listen to his corner and act upon those words is something that will serve him well the next time he fights for a title—and believe me, there will be a next time.
BISPING GIVES RIVERA A TASTE OF HIS OWN MEDICINE
Trash talking 101: Never open your mouth, unless you are willing to accept the consequences of your words. Jorge Rivera needs to accept that reality of the game.
I don’t know why anyone was surprised when Bisping got in his face at the end of the first round and asked him how he liked the beating that was underway. Similarly, I don’t know why anyone expected “The Count” to do anything other than demand an apology after stopping him with strikes, a fitting end to a fight with such pre-bout vitriol.
Bisping is one of the more emotional fighters in the UFC. Everybody knows that. Rivera knew that his aggressive videos and venom-laden banter would strike a deep chord inside “The Count.” That is why he did it. He wanted Bisping to fight recklessly due to emotion, rather than with controlled, focused aggression and anger. Things didn’t quite unfold like Rivera hoped. The loss is what it is—and for the record, I do not believe that the illegal knee was thrown with malice aforethought. That was probably a moment where Bisping’s emotions got the best of him, mixed with just a simple mistake.
Now, I don’t condone Bisping’s actions directed at Rivera’s corner. There is a line that needs to be drawn no matter how crazy the pre-fight trash talk gets. Brock Lesnar walked right up to that line when he bludgeoned Frank Mir in their rematch after listening to similar barbs in the weeks leading up to the fight. Bisping crossed it when he spit into the air, but all of his other actions, in my opinion, were within the realm of reasonable. And they were pretty much exactly what I expected based on the way Bisping has historically responded to trash talking.
Fighters must win and lose with class, but the definition of class also depends on the situation. These guys are human, and humans act out of emotion. When a guy chooses to take a non-emotional situation and turn it into a schoolyard battle of words, he needs to expect his opponent to react harshly, even after the fight.
I don’t think these two will be exchanging Christmas cards any time soon, and you know what, that is OK. I enjoyed the fight. I’m sure everyone else outside of Team Rivera did, too.
WHAT WERE YOU THINKING, EBERSOLE?
A manscaped arrow? Seriously?
I know eliminating body hair is the rage these days. Finely trimmed goatees. Hairless torsos. Shaved forearms. I get it. But an arrow in the middle of your chest?
Brian Ebersole, my man, that is just plain weird.
In fact, the arrow caused me to make a snap judgment on the UFC debutant. I instantly discarded his chances against a talented, grizzled veteran like Lytle. When Ebersole opened up with a cartwheel kick, a strike that has absolutely no chance of scoring against someone of Lytle’s skill level, I began to laugh about what I assumed would be a one-sided thumping.
Of course, I was wrong.
By the time the fight was over, I started to understand that there is a method to Ebersole’s insanity. He isn’t just an eccentric guy. He is a very smart, effective mixed martial artist. His herky-jerky movements, unorthodox strikes and seemingly pointless feints were all designed to frustrate and possibly even annoy his opponent. It worked. Lytle seemed less comfortable in that fight than any previous ones that come to mind. He unnecessarily loaded up on his punches, winding up from Indianapolis before letting them fly in the Land Down Under. Ebersole saw most of them coming from a mile away and moved to a safe distance, and over the course of a couple of rounds, Lytle had worn himself out, both mentally and physically, from his lack of success.
It was a brilliant strategy. Well done, Mr. Arrow.
HUNT BRINGS CAREER BACK FROM THE DEAD
The last time Mark Hunt experienced getting his hand raised in a mixed martial arts bout was May 5, 2006. Six consecutive losses later, Hunt, who once defeated Mirko Cro Cop and Wanderlei Silva in back-to-back bouts when the two were at the peak of their greatness, found himself fighting a fellow artificial blond in a fight to save his career.
Hunt’s second round knockout of Chris Tuchscherer was, for my money, at least, the most entertaining bout of the night. Tuchscherer showed amazing heart when he refused to take the easy way out after suffering one of the worst cuts in recent memory above his left eye. The cut absolutely affected his vision. He didn’t care, opting to fight on anyway.
The bout’s ending reminded everyone why Hunt is a legitimate fan favorite. After missing with a left hook fired with seriously bad intentions, the former world champion kickboxer followed with a short right hand seemingly thrown with nothing but his arm.
The punch landed squarely, instantly short-circuiting Tuchscherer and bringing the fight to a close. Hunt reacted to the shot by walking away with his hand raised a full second or two before the referee actually stopped the fight. It was reminiscent of an Alex Rodriguez home run, when the Yankee superstar and future Hall of Famer calmly tosses the bat aside and begins his celebration trot long before the ball leaves the yard. True home run hitters, like Rodriguez and Hunt, know when they have delivered the coup de grace. There is no need for someone else to actually acknowledge it.
If Hunt is paired correctly, he certainly has several more interesting fights left in him. I’d love to see him against Cro Cop in a rematch of their entertaining 2005 PRIDE bout, or against Brendan Schaub, Junior dos Santos, or any other heavyweight slugger who dares stand and trade with him. Any time that happens, a Fight of the Night or Knockout of the Night bonus is likely to follow, just like the one that put some extra cash in Hunt’s pocket on Saturday night.