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UFC 121 Musings

The reaction to last Saturday’s epic UFC 121 card continues, with a look at Brock Lesnar, Jake Shields, Diego Sanchez, Tito Ortiz, and much more…

Lesnar learns that size and athleticism aren’t always enough

Brock Lesnar was the bigger, stronger man when he stepped into the Octagon to defend his title against Cain Velasquez.  He was also the more explosive athlete.  I’ll even go so far as to say that, despite the result, he remains the better wrestler.  But none of that mattered.  Velasquez is the better fighter – at least he was on Saturday night.  His technique is far better, particularly in the standup realm.  His takedown defense was better, likely due to training with teammate and former Olympian Daniel Cormier.  And, he was much more effective at getting up after being taken down.

Lesnar is great at what he does.  But as we learned on Saturday night, he needs to be on top of his opponent on the ground in order to be successful against elite opponents.  Lesnar is such an athletic savant that I truly believe he will improve his standup.  Actually, I think that, much like fellow wrestler Jon Fitch, Lesnar needs to focus more on improving his confidence in his standup because his technique is far better than he showed against Velasquez.  He will also improve his ability to get up from the bottom, though in fairness to the former champ, he was badly hurt the three times we have seen him on his back.  I’m quite sure he could easily work back to his feet if he was fresh.

In short, Lesnar needs to keep improving at his current hockey-stick rate.  He should not use his purported inexperience as a crutch.  He has seven professional fights under his belt, five of which were against current or former champions.  Velasquez may have a couple of additional pro fights, but I think it is disingenuous to call him materially more experienced.  Lesnar should continue to expect greatness from himself and learn to completely trust his standup, which will only make his wrestling that much more dangerous.

Brock Lesnar will be back.  And I have a sneaking suspicion that he will return to his perch atop the heavyweight division sooner rather than later.

Expect a better Shields next time out

Jake Shields did not look very good in his UFC debut.  He did enough to justify a disputed decision win, but he did not look anything like the fighter who has been dominating the 170-pound and 185-pound world outside of the UFC for the last few years.   He did, however, look like a winner.  Shields was exhausted after the first round after admittedly suffering the adverse consequences of having to cut 20 pounds in the 24 hours leading up to the fight, according to his comments at the post-fight presser.  The act of squeezing every last bit of water out of his system left his cardio tank equally empty.  

Yet, he found a way to win, and that is why Shields is one of the very best fighters in any weight division.  Winners win.  That sounds like a cliché, but it is true.  Shields hasn’t lost since December 14, 2004.  Fifteen straight wins, regardless of the fact that 14 of them came outside of the UFC, is one of the more impressive active streaks in the game.  I’d rather win ugly than lose when a title shot is on the line.  Shields has a history of putting on entertaining fights, so one off night is no big deal.

Next up for Shields is the winner of the battle between incumbent welterweight king Georges St-Pierre and number one contender Josh Koscheck on December 11, 2010.  That means he probably won’t fight before late February, at the earliest.  Shields has plenty of time to slowly shed some of the unwanted muscle mass that he had to pack on for his middleweight run.  Cutting down to the welterweight limit will be as unpleasant for him as it always has been, but it is unlikely to adversely affect his performance come fight time.  Whoever he fights next had better be prepared for the Jake Shields who smashed Dan Henderson back in April.

Sanchez proves that cutting down to the lightest possible weight isn’t always the answer

Anyone who is familiar with Jake Shields knows that the guy who showed up on Saturday night wasn’t the same guy who has been tearing up the sport for the past five years.  Cutting down to 170 pounds proved to be too much for the current size of his physique.  Diego Sanchez experienced the same problem when he decided to head south to the 155-pound division.  He didn’t get exhausted early, like Shields.  Instead, he lost all of his trademark explosive power, particularly in the takedown realm.

Sanchez moved back up to welterweight earlier this year, and in his second fight back, I think he looked light years better than he did as a lightweight.  He looked more like the big nasty, aggressive ground-and-pound fighter who once seemed destined for a welterweight title bout.  

As you can probably guess, I greatly prefer Sanchez at welterweight over lightweight.  He is one of those guys who needs to have fully fueled muscles in order to perform at his best.  Other fighters have cutting weight down to a science, and they are able to get down to their minimum weight without materially impacting their performance.  I don’t think Sanchez is one of those guys.  

Sanchez mentioned before and after the fight that he may return to lightweight.  I wouldn’t do that.  I would instead focus on adding another five to eight pounds and focusing solely on the welterweight division.  Sanchez was carrying an uncharacteristic amount of bad weight around his belly, which is a clear sign that he could lean out a bit more.  The Sanchez of old was a bigger, nastier version.  I want to see that guy back and see what he can do in the welterweight division.

Is the Tito Ortiz era officially over?

Tito Ortiz hasn’t won a fight in more than four years.  Throw away his two wins over a past his prime Ken Shamrock and Ortiz hasn’t won decisively in six years.  He is a far cry from the guy who ruled the UFC 205-pound division for more than three years, setting the standard for 205-pound consecutive successful title defenses that still remains untouched to this day.

Major surgeries to his knee, back and neck have largely sapped the explosive power and limitless cardiovascular conditioning that made Ortiz the dominant fighter that fans either loved or loved to hate.  Either way, he was on everyone’s radar screen.

Ortiz looked great in the opening round of his loss to Matt Hamill.  He looked like a tiring fighter in the next two rounds, something that we would have never witnessed during the peak of his career.  Ortiz claimed before the fight that he is now healthy for the first time in years.  To his credit, he did not back off from that statement in his post-fight comments, something he has done repeatedly after recent losses.  That is the part that gives me some optimism for Ortiz.  If he really is healthy, then I agree with his post-fight comment that he needs to find a college wrestling team and get back to his wrestling roots.

Ortiz is a well rounded fighter, but his game begins and ends with his wrestling base and his cardio.  The rest of his game is predicated by those two things.  If he can get back to a point where he is taking down most opponents and not getting tired, then I believe he will start winning again because Ortiz’s ground-and-pound is as good as it gets.

If he cannot recapture the explosive strength that made him a master of the double leg, then I think his future fights will look a lot like what we saw against Hamill.

Schaub steps into the spotlight

Gabriel Gonzaga might be going through a tough stretch of his career after losing five of his last eight fights.  But people should not confuse that with the notion that he is light lunch inside the Octagon.  This guy is a full meal, as Chris Tuchscherer, Josh Hendricks and Justin McCully each learned the hard way.  Brendan Schaub’s clear unanimous decision over Gonzaga was a major statement for the reality show alumnus.   Anyone who handles Gonzaga like Schaub did on Saturday night is a legitimate contender in the heavyweight division.  I don’t know what Dana White and crew have in mind for Schaub’s next fight.  All I know is that he won’t be sneaking up on anybody anymore.  Schaub is now a very real player in the land of the giants.

McGee keeps on keepin’ on

I continually underestimate Court McGee.   Despite the fact that his head trainer, John Hackleman, told me the last time that we spoke that I should really watch out for McGee going forward, his name never pops into my head when I’m taking a mental survey of the UFC middleweight division.  I know he is around, but I typically don’t associate him with the top guys, partly due to his relative inexperience against top-level guys and the regional nature of his career prior to winning TUF.

The fact of the matter, though, is that McGee is a very tough guy who is just now coming into his own.  It’s not the fact that he beat Ryan Jensen that has me convinced.  It is the way that he beat him.  Many probably saw the first two rounds like I did:  McGee was either down 0-2 or he was tied 1-1.  Either way, he needed to win the third round if he wanted to win the fight.  He didn’t just win the round, he choked out his opponent, eliminating the judges and any potential perception issues out of the equation.

Then again, it doesn’t shock me that McGee survived adversity to win.  That is his life story in a nutshell.  This guy is a resilient human being, and that will serve him well in his quest to navigate his way into contender status over the next year or so.