The Ultimate Fighter
As it turned out, Cro Cop entered treacherous waters the moment he
stepped into the Octagon with Mir, whether on the feet or on the ground.
Mir didn’t need to get the action to the ground in order to win.
MIR BEATS CRO COP AT HIS OWN GAME
Former two-time UFC Heavyweight Champion Frank Mir was the rightful favorite heading into Saturday night’s main event against former PRIDE superstar Mirko Cro Cop, though few imagined the muscular submission savant scoring a spectacular knockout on the feet near the conclusion of a three-round kickboxing-only affair.
The win highlights Mir’s growth as a mixed martial artist over his storied UFC career. This is the same guy who just a few short years ago seemed extremely uncomfortable exchanging on the feet with skilled strikers. Today, he is unafraid to stand with anyone in the heavyweight division. The transformation has been nothing short of remarkable.
Those closely following Mir’s career probably could have seen this coming, particularly in hindsight. In his last four fights, Mir has shown hockey-stick improvement in his kickboxing, with an equal, if not greater improvement, in his confidence levels surrounding those skills.
It all started when he became the first man in history to score a knockout win over legendary PRIDE champion Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira. He followed that up by consistently getting the better of reigning champion Brock Lesnar for the brief moments that the fight unfolded on the feet. Mir then scored a first round knockdown en route to an easy submission win over world class kickboxer Cheick Kongo. And, of course, the pinnacle of his striking career occurred on Saturday night, when he crumbled Cro Cop to the canvas with a perfectly timed Muay Thai knee after slipping a wild overhand left from his foe. That sequence was as fluid of a moment as Mir has ever displayed during his standup game, and it will likely propel him to even greater confidence levels, which will only lead to better and better standup performances.
But this is a Monday morning quarterback article, so I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the one glaring hole in Mir’s game that continues to plague him – wrestling. Mir tried on multiple occasions to take down Cro Cop. He never came close. Granted, Cro Cop has a very good sprawl, and his double underhooks are very difficult to get past in the clinch up against the cage. Thus, it isn’t a shock that Mir didn’t score a takedown. I am surprised, however, that he never attempted to pull guard, either. There appeared to be two or three occasions when he could have easily pulled guard and brought the Croatian into treacherous waters.
As it turned out, Cro Cop entered treacherous waters the moment he stepped into the Octagon with Mir, whether on the feet or on the ground. Mir didn’t need to get the action to the ground in order to win.
If the Las Vegas resident can figure out a way to improve his takedowns along the same hockey-stick curve as his standup, he could very well return to the top of the heavyweight mountain before too long.
CRO COP CONTINUES HIS UFC STRUGGLES
I’ve written it before, and I’ll write it yet again. Mirko Cro Cop will never be the same fighter who struck fear in the hearts of opponents in PRIDE and K-1 until he begins utilizing kicks as a major part of his game plan. His loss to Mir shines a vivid spotlight on that fact.
Not to be too critical, but Cro Cop is only an average boxer – he has big power in his left hand, but he is only average in terms of his overall boxing skills. Let’s face it, his hands aren’t what earned him untold riches in Japan. His hands aren’t what won him the 2006 PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix. And his hands certainly aren’t what other heavyweights feared when he entered the arena.
Cro Cop is first and foremost a leg-based striker, and that isn’t going to change at this late stage in his career. Trying to transform him into a boxer is like trying to turn Shaquille O’Neal into a point guard or Randy Johnson into a finesse pitcher. It’s just not going to happen.
If I were training the Croatian, I would implore him to return to his roots. When this guy uses his legs with the same frequency that other strikers use their hands, he is darn near unbeatable. That may sound silly because one-dimensional fighters rarely succeed in the UFC. The point, though, is that Cro Cop is far from one-dimensional. He is a skilled fighter whose entire game depends on his kicks.
Without that weapon, he is a good, but not great, heavyweight. Again, Saturday night proved that as he was completely outclassed on the feet by a guy who wouldn’t have dared to try and stand with him five years ago. On Saturday night, Cro Cop threw somewhere in the neighborhood of three or four left kicks, all in the second round (if my memory serves), and each of them was thrown with sort of a frantic, hurried manner, rather than sitting down and uncorking a confident bomb. Of course, he ended up getting knocked out, something that was almost unthinkable during his PRIDE career.
If I had to point to the root of Cro Cop’s decision to abandon his kicks, it would have to be his April 2007 loss to Gabriel Gonzaga. The Croatian was making his second UFC start fresh off a five-fight knockout streak in PRIDE (yes, I’m taking literary license and counting a submission due to strikes as a KO). He looked every bit as confident in his kicks during the opening seconds against Gonzaga, firing a few without reservation and laced with bad intentions. But then, Gonzaga caught a high kick and used it as a vehicle to take the fight to the ground and began grinding away with some brutal ground and pound.
By the time Cro Cop made it back to his feet toward the end of the round, he was exhausted and physically battered. Gonzaga capitalized on his wounded foe by landing a high kick of his own, which led to one of the most shocking knockouts in UFC history – a timeless highlight-reel moment that will forever replay itself in Cro Cop’s mind.
We haven’t seen kicks thrown in any meaningful quantities since that time. If Cro Cop wants to someday fulfill his dream of becoming a UFC champion, he needs to forget the loss to Gonzaga. He needs to stop fearing getting taken down if someone catches a kick – that risk has existed throughout his career, by the way, and it never stopped him in PRIDE. And he needs to get back to using his kicks as his primary weapon—mixing up low kicks, body kicks and high kicks so that it is difficult to catch a leg and take him down.
After all, when a guy possesses one of the most dangerous weapons in the history of the sport, it is criminal not to use it with regularity.
BADER PUTS HIMSELF IN CONTENTION
I’m not sure that most fans watching last Saturday night really appreciate how big it was for Ryan Bader to defeat Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. I’m not sure Bader realizes it, either.
The man called “Lil’ Nog” stands among the best light heavies in the world, and has for more than a half-dozen years. Most UFC fans probably don’t realize that because they haven’t had much exposure to the well-rounded mixed martial artist until he finally made his UFC debut 10 months ago. But that doesn’t change the fact that Nogueira has been competing at the highest level overseas for the better part of a decade, scoring clear wins elite fighters like Dan Henderson, the only man to simultaneously hold world championships in two PRIDE weight divisions, and exciting heavyweight Alistair Overeem. And he was by no means on the downside of his long, illustrious career heading into Saturday night, as evidenced by the seven-fight winning streak that bolstered his 19-3 professional record.
Make that 19-4 after he ran into the 205-lb freight train nicknamed “Darth” Bader.
Bader’s workmanlike victory over such a skilled opponent underscores the fact that this kid is a very real life contender in the UFC light heavyweight division. No, he isn’t yet ready to step into the cage against the ultra elite like reigning champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua or former champions Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Rashad Evans or Lyoto Machida. The operative word in the immediately preceding sentence is “yet.” The use of that particular adverb suggests that Bader may well be ready to compete with the division’s alpha dogs with a little more seasoning.
Maybe a test with that very next level of elite competition, which is only a micro-step behind the alpha dogs, would be the perfect way to go. In my mind, that means a bout with former champions Forrest Griffin or Rich Franklin, or possibly a contest against perennial contenders Thiago Silva or Brandon Vera.
I’m not sure what I would push for if I were managing Bader’s career. Whatever UFC President Dana White has in store next for Bader, I’m quite sure that the collegiate wrestling star, who epitomizes the “anyone, anytime, anywhere” mantra, will not shy away from the challenge.
LYTLE CONTINUES CASHING BIG CHECKS
Chris Lytle’s spirited three-round slugfest with former conqueror Matt Serra earned the Indiana native yet another win, this one in front of an ecstatic hometown crowd. Lytle has rapidly evolved into one of the most exciting fighters in the sport, across all divisions, thanks to a go-for-broke style that favors crowd-thrilling action over methodical, play-it-safe game plans. That is a stark contrast from the conservative fighter who lost back-to-back fights to Matt Hughes and Serra following his stint on The Ultimate Fighter: The Comeback.
While his rebirth as a risk-taking, fan-friendly fighter isn’t necessarily the best way to guarantee success, Lytle has found a way to make it work. The win over Serra was his fourth in a row, and his record since changing his style is an impressive 8-3. Most notably, however, is the fact that Lytle is getting consistent work because he always puts on a great show. Combine that with his ever-growing bank account thanks to an extra six figures in bonus money over the last few years, and other fighters who work less frequently and also bring home far less bacon might want to sit up and take notice of the welterweight contender’s recent run of success.
CONTROVERSY ASIDE, NEITHER MAN TAKES A STEP BACKWARDS
The fans didn't agree with the result, but that wasn't the fault of either fighter on Saturday night as former 155-lb ruler Sean Sherk edged out a disputed decision over top contender Evan Dunham. The bout was almost certainly decided by a slicing left elbow that Sherk landed toward the end of the first round -- a round that Sherk easily won an all the cards. The strike opened up a severe gash above Dunham's right eye that bled profusely for the remainder of the bout. Despite the fact that Dunham found his groove in the second stanza and arguably opened a can of whuppin in the third, the continued bleeding must have played a factor in the lone judge who scored every round for Sherk.
I agree that Dunham was more active in the second and third round. I definitely agree that he controlled the pace of the fight with effective aggressiveness in the third. But the fact remains that the second round was still closer than either man probably preferred. Mix that with the constant flow of blood, and it isn't surprising that Sherk came away with the win. For the record, I scored the fight 29-28 for Dunham, though I'm not among those who are in an uproar about the decision. Dunham, who suffered his first professional loss in a dozen bouts, knew he had taken a beating in the first round. He should have known that the blood would be a difficult hurdle to overcome throughout the fight. Thus, he should have taken a few more chances, particularly in the third round, to try and end the fight. After all, if we have learned anything in mixed martial arts, it is that the judges are unpredictable and often don't see the fight in the same way that the rest of us see it.
Despite the loss, Dunham's status as a stud prospect and legitimate title contender doesn't change one bit. The kid survived big-time adversity against one of the best lightweights in the history of the game and arguably deserved the decision. He proved to me that he can compete with anyone and is a possible future champion. For his part, Sherk reestablished himself near the top of the 155-lb heap. Beating a guy like Dunham, controversial or not, makes a dramatic statement. Either one of these guys could rightfully claim the number one contender spot with a win against a fellow top contender in their next bout.