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UFC 116 Musings

Who can remember the last time a fight card included no less than five come-from-behind wins and a razor-close split decision?

Literally, that is the only word that I can come up with to describe
UFC 116. Sure, there is typically at least one spectacular fight with
an amazing finish. But who can remember the last time a fight card
included no less than five come-from-behind wins and a razor-close
split decision? I certainly can’t.
Let’s get right to it.
Lesnar is a baby in our sport. With only five professional fights under
his belt heading into UFC 116, his severely limited database of
experience left many pundits wondering how he would deal with true
adversity when he found himself on the wrong end of a physical beating.
Lesnar answered that question with an exclamation point against
Shane Carwin. I don’t think anybody outside of Team Lesnar would have
argued too vehemently with referee Josh Rosenthal if he had stopped the
action in the first round when Carwin was landing unanswered blows to
the champion’s dome during a vicious ground-and-pound attack. But he
didn’t intervene because Lesnar moved just enough to show that he was
attempting to intelligently defend.
Still, it was obvious from the fight’s initial salvo that Lesnar was
a fish out of water compared to Carwin in the standup realm. Thus, many
probably thought that the outcome of the fight was a mere formality
when the first round finally came to a close.
That obviously was not the case, as Lesnar had plenty left in the
tank. Indeed, the champion was able to finish Carwin just over two
minutes into the next round.
Lesnar’s ability to weather such a savage storm was impressive, but
it was far from the most impressive part of his performance. I was more
blown away by his continued evolution as a mixed martial artist, and
his confidence in training to trust in his ever-improving skills as he
searched for an end to the fight.
Lesnar had Carwin mounted early in the second round. Someone with
Lesnar’s size, strength and ground control typically would not give up
such a dominant position in search of a submission. After all, moving
from mount to side control almost always opens the door for the downed
fighter to work back to his feet, which in this case, meant opening the
door for a knockout.
Lesnar didn’t care. When he secured the early stages of an arm
triangle, he knew that the technique called for him to jump from mount
to side control in order to finish the hold. The champion didn’t
hesitate. He immediately gave up the most dominant ground position
available in order to try a submission that he had never before used in
actual competition. The decision was obviously a good one because
Carwin was tapping just a few seconds later, bringing to an end the
most difficult challenge of Lesnar’s nascent career.
What makes the end of the fight even more impressive is that Lesnar
looked lost from a submission standpoint in his previous four wins,
never before coming anywhere close to sinking a fight-ending hold. His
expert handling of Carwin on the ground is a vivid reminder of what
happens when an athlete like Lesnar completely dedicates himself to the
world’s greatest sport. The learning curve for elite-level mixed
martial arts is unbelievably steep. Yet, Lesnar has climbed the curve
at a rate rarely, if ever, seen pace. That is scary enough. But, alas,
the scarier notion is that Lesnar will continue his hockey-stick
improvement, so the guy who steps into the Octagon for his next title
defense will be noticeably better than the one who showed up in Las
Vegas, Nevada for UFC 116.
That is great news for the fans and a daunting reality for the heavyweight division’s number one contender, Cain Velasquez.
With that said, nobody is unbeatable. The world received a reminder
of that fact last week. So, I’m not about to label Lesnar as the
greatest of all time or the unquestioned champion who will rule until
he decides to walk away from the sport. Both of those statements may
turn out to be true, but the champion has a long way to go before
anyone waxes such opinions with true validity.
Nonetheless, Brock Lesnar proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he
is the baddest man on the planet by surviving unbelievable adversity
before executing a highly technical maneuver to score a career defining
win over one savage dude. Nobody can put forward an argument with any
semblance of credibility that anyone other than Lesnar is the best
heavyweight in the world at the moment.
Not bad for a guy who has just six professional fights under his belt.
President Dana White confirmed on Saturday that undefeated contender
Cain Velasquez will be next up for Lesnar. Velasquez was in the crowd
at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, so he got to witness Lesnar’s continued
evolution as a fighter up close. I doubt he was overly encouraged by
what he witnessed.
Velasquez is basically a more athletic, albeit smaller, version of
Carwin. He moves better on his feet, has more fluid combinations in his
striking game and is a much more explosive wrestler. Oh yes, he also
has a vastly deeper gas tank. All that will serve him well against a
behemoth like Lesnar. Yet, his lack of truly destructive power in his
hands and much lighter frame may prove to be hurdles that are too great
to overcome.
If Velasquez wants to derail the Lesnar express, he will need to use
lots of movement on the feet to avoid the takedown, utilize leg kicks
to wear down the massive champion and, of course, let his hands go with
ever changing combinations. He will likely open and remain the underdog
at betting parlors. But again, nobody is unbeatable, including Lesnar.
looked like a monster through the initial three-quarters of the opening
round. He landed an attention-demanding punch almost out of the gate.
Stuffed Lesnar’s first couple of takedown attempts. And sent the
champion crumbling to the canvas with an uppercut followed by a furious
two-fisted assault.
The entire world knew that Carwin was a fast starter, so the
beginning of the fight was nothing surprising. The big question was
whether he would be able to continue his deadly fistic assault if
Lesnar was able to survive more than four minutes.
Lesnar did, indeed, survive longer than four minutes, expertly
defending Carwin’s ground-and-pound attack by offering timely
resistance and then tightly covering up while the challenger expended
valuable energy hammering away. As the round came to a close, it was
obvious that Carwin’s gas light was on. He was running dangerously low
on fuel and, as a result, was unable to offer the same defense to
Lesnar’s takedowns in round two, which ultimately led to his downfall.
I’m certainly not suggesting that Lesnar’s victory is solely
attributable to Carwin’s noticeable slowdown in round two. The champion
has the ability to conquer any man at any time. But the Carwin who
started round two was a very different fighter than the one who started
round one—actually, I’m of the opinion that Carwin began to fade right
around the 3:30 mark in the round.
It is obvious to everyone that Carwin needs to more efficiently use
his cardiovascular reserves if he is going to live up to his immense
potential and not only win UFC gold but also dominate the division for
a prolonged period of time. He might be known as the Energizer Bunny in
training, but training is a very different beast than an actual fight.
I rarely disagree with UFC commentator Joe Rogan. I think he is the
best in the business, bar none. Yet, I viewed Carwin very differently
than he did prior to the fight. He did not appear to be loose and
relaxed in my opinion. The lack of affect and, at times, strained
smiles, suggested to me that Carwin was very nervous in the hours
leading up to his bout. I’m not being critical of Carwin. Pre-fight
nerves are completely normal for a guy’s first main event, let alone
his first shot at a championship (no, I don’t count interim title bouts
as true championship fights).
The point, though, is that Carwin probably felt differently on
Saturday than he has in any previous fight. As a result, my guess is
that he had a tough time controlling his adrenaline spikes when he
landed his first big punch and again when he found himself on top of
Lesnar pounding away. If that is the case, then Carwin’s gas tank
shouldn’t be a problem going forward.
Controlling one’s emotions and adrenaline are critical to
maintaining a steady consumption of cardiovascular reserves. I believe
that Carwin burned through his reserves more rapidly than he does in
the training room. Some of that occurred before the fight when he was
resting back stage. The majority occurred after he hurt Lesnar because
he punched with reckless abandon, rather than calculated aggression.
Both of those situations can be chalked up to nerves, in my opinion.
Again, none of this is meant to be overly critical of the
challenger. He performed tremendously in the biggest fight of his life,
even though he came up short. I expect Carwin to grow from the
experience and come back a better fighter, not necessarily in terms of
his skills but in terms of his ability to more efficiently use his gas
knows that Chris Leben is a fighter’s fighter. A lot of guys talk about
their willingness to fight anyone, anytime, anywhere. Leben is one of
only a select few who truly lives by that mantra.
After an up-and-down four years that saw the former Team Quest star
lose more fights than he won, Leben gave his career a much needed shot
of adrenaline when he scored a dramatic second-round technical knockout
win over star prospect Aaron Simpson at the TUF11 Finale. Nobody would
have faulted him for taking a few weeks to enjoy that victory and then
carefully mapping out the best way for him to leverage that victory in
an effort to get himself into title contention.
Instead, Leben agreed to turn around and fight one of the best
middleweights in the world just 14 days later. It was a risky move by
anyone’s standard. A loss, particularly if it were one-sided, would all
but erase the momentum created by the Simpson win. And a loss was a
very real possibility.
The risks of fighting on such short turnaround were evident early in
the first round. Leben appeared to tire faster than I recall from any
of his past fights. That was to be expected. Despite the fact that he
was in great shape for the Simpson fight, there needs to be some
downtime to rest and recuperate from the long, arduous training camp
before preparing to peak for another fight. Leben eschewed that
downtime and returned to action without ever fully recovering from his
previous training camp.
It was a massive gamble, but Leben made it pay off by maintaining
constant, though calculated, pressure on Yoshihiro Akiyama throughout
the fight, which ultimately led to the Japanese superstar running
equally low on gas by the time the second round was in full swing. At
that point, the fight was nothing more than a battle of wills, and I’ll
take Leben every day of the week in those situations.
By scoring an emphatic submission win over Akiyama, Leben not only
dramatically padded his bank account (he took home a cool $161,000 for
winning the fight and earning a $75,000 Fight of the Night bonus), he
also instantly made himself relevant in the UFC title picture.
of the things that I’ve noticed in each of Akiyama’s last few fights is
that he did not appear to cut much weight the day of weigh-ins. That is
obvious because his physique looks exactly the same on the scales as it
does when he enters the Octagon the next day. It was also obvious to me
because he appeared to be the much smaller man against both Leben and
his previous UFC opponent, Alan Belcher.
Leben and Belcher are big middleweights, but they are by no means
the biggest guys in the division. If Akiyama is giving up 10 to 15 lbs
come fight time, he is going to have a tough time climbing the 185-lb
ladder. There is such parity in the UFC that size and strength
differentials are often enough to decide the outcome of a fight.
Akiyama is a great fighter, but I don’t think it is the best game plan
to constantly fight bigger guys.
I think Akiyama would be better served trying to cut down to
welterweight, where he would, for the most part, be fighting guys his
own size.