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UFC Fight Night Musings

Michael DiSanto, UFC - Few expected UFC newcomer Denis Stojnic to conquer heavyweight golden boy Cain Velasquez on Saturday night, partly because he was an unknown commodity in the domestic mixed martial arts community. But he was far more dangerous of an opponent than most realized.

By Michael DiSanto

VELASQUEZ SHINES, DESPITE HIS PERSONAL CRITICISMS

Few expected UFC newcomer Denis Stojnic to conquer heavyweight golden boy Cain Velasquez on Saturday night, partly because he was an unknown commodity in the domestic mixed martial arts community. But he was far more dangerous of an opponent than most realized.

Not only is Stojnic a sambo black belt, he is a member of the fearsome Golden Glory kickboxing team. The latter means that he hones his striking skill with a full stable of murderous strikers, including Alistair Overeem and Semmy Schilt, while the former means that he is well versed in throws and submissions, particularly leg locks.

Of course, Velasquez isn’t fast becoming a heavyweight cult hero for nothing. The hot UFC prospect is a two-time Division I All American wrestler from Arizona State University that is learning his way around the Octagon under the expert tutelage of American Kickboxing Academy trainers Javier Mendez (a former world champion kickboxer) and Dave Camarillo (a renowned Jiu Jitsu black belt and skilled Judoka). But Velasquez has only been training submission defense for a few scant years, so takedowns would be risky against a sambo black belt like Stojnic. Thus, most fight cognoscenti expected the former wrestler to come out and try and outbox the Golden Glory kickboxer.

Velasquez did just that, fighting behind a surprisingly effective left jab, hard right hands and constant head movement. Stojnic was game to exchange on the feet. More than once, he countered Velasquez’s combinations with accurate power punches.

It was at those moments that Team Velasquez had to be holding their collective breath. Nobody really knows whether the athletic heavyweight has a sturdy chin because it had never before been tested inside the Octagon. And few could predict how he would respond to hard shots from a skilled kickboxer.

Velasquez didn’t wilt when Stojnic landed hard shots. He didn’t back up. He fought back like many Mexican warriors who thrilled boxing fans with memorable fights. He temporarily threw caution to the wind, planted his feet and made sure that Stojnic knew that he was not going to be intimidated on the feet or anywhere else. In other words, he lived up to the large tattoo displayed boldly across his upper chest that reads ‘Brown Pride,’ one heck of a statement for a fighter considering the fearless mentality of all the great Latino warriors who have competed in combat sports over the years.

That sort of fighting spirit is what separates Velasquez from many other accomplished amateur wrestlers turned novice mixed martial artists who test their mettle In the Octagon. Mix that spirit with his awe-inspiring work ethic and fans now know why MMA insiders are so high on Velasquez’s future in the heavyweight division.

Velasquez himself was disappointed in his performance because he was unable to stop Stojnic in spectacular fashion. I’m on the other side of that coin. Velasquez’s performance was unbelievably impressive on a number of levels, not the least of which is the hockey stick development of his standup skills. If Velasquez continues working hard to improve his overall skills, then the sky is the limit for this guy.

The big question now is whether the UFC and his management will continue bringing him along slowly for the remainder of 2009 or whether it is time for him to step up against more experienced competition.

NEER CONTINUES TO HUNT DOWN TUF ELITE

Josh Neer calls himself ‘The Dentist.’ A more accurate moniker would be ‘The TUF Hunter.’

The Iowa native has faced TUF alumni in six of his last seven UFC bouts, scoring wins against four of them, including TUF winners Joe Stevenson at Ultimate Fight Night 4 back in 2006 and Mac Danzig last Saturday. And his split decision loss to TUF 5 winner Nate Diaz easily could have gone either way.

The win over Danzig, a fighter considered by many to be an up-and-coming contender in the 155-lb division, puts Neer in the mix for a marquee matchup against one of the big names in the division. Of course, whether he can compete with the lightweight elite remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, Neer is a must-see fighter, a throwback like gladiator cut from the same cloth as former boxing titlist (and universally recognized blood-and-guts champion) Arturo Gatti. His focus seems to sharpen once he starts bleeding. He fires his punches with just a little more malice after he has been hurt. And his guerilla warfare attitude grows with each passing second on the fight clock.

As a result, Neer is never out of a fight until he is either left unconscious on the mat or caught in an inescapable submission hold. And fans love guys like that, boos in Tampa notwithstanding.

Maybe ‘The Dentist’ should forget looking for a fight against a top contender and search out another reality show alumnus so he can keep on his successful run of TUF hunting.

DANZIG STILL TRYING TO FIND HIS WAY IN THE LIGHTWEIGHT DIVISION

Mac Danzig was a household name among hardcore mixed martial arts fans long before he taped his first episode of TUF. He spent years building his individual brand by competing and winning in smaller promotions and corresponding with fans on popular message boards. So, expectations were palpable when the first episode of TUF 6 finally aired in September 19, 2007.

Danzig lived up to the hype by winning the 16-man welterweight tournament, often beating naturally larger men. His waltz through the amorphous TUF brackets and later announcement that he would be dropping to his natural division, 155 lbs, for his UFC career served to heighten the expectations following Danzig.

Yet, his 1-2 record in the UFC lightweight division must have his fans scratching their heads as they wonder what is going on. The answer is that nothing is going on. Danzig is a gritty, well rounded competitor who is cutting his teeth the hard way in the ultra-deep lightweight division.

Losses to Clay Guida and Josh Neer are nothing to be ashamed of. Danzig was a game competitor in both fights, but Guida’s wrestling and Neer’s unyielding toughness proved to be too much for the tactician at this point in his young UFC career. Expect Danzig to continue improving in the face of his recent losses. He didn’t win TUF 6 by accident. Danzig is the real deal, though he needs to step up his game now that he is a UFC regular. I think he’ll do just that for the remainder of 2009.

JOHNSON CONTINUES TO IMPRESS

Nobody can deny Anthony Johnson’s talent. The six-foot-two welterweight is a former champion junior college wrestler who uses his wrestling to keep the fight on the feet so that he can showcase his explosive striking skills. Yet, the two question marks hanging over him after five trips to the Octagon are whether he can truly hang with elite-level welters and the depth of his submission game.

Johnson didn’t answer either of those questions on Saturday night, but he did thrill the fans with yet another exciting knockout victory, stopping Luigi Fioravanti with strikes at the 4:39 mark of the opening round. The win might as well be his fourth-consecutive win. The lone loss during his current four-fight stretch was a freak occurrence loss to Kevin Burns back in July. Johnson was clearly winning the entertaining bout until Burns inadvertently poked him in the eye. The referee did not notice the obvious infraction, thus when Johnson was unable to continue, the bout was incorrectly ruled a technical knockout.

Johnson avenged the loss five months later with a savage knockout and followed it up tonight with an even more impressive technical knockout win. Yet, Johnson said afterward that he was dissatisfied with his performance, suggesting that he felt tight during the bout. That is a scary thought because he was extremely impressive against Fioravanti.

What is next for the 24-year-old gladiator remains to be seen, but he is rapidly becoming one of the more promising prospects in the UFC.

IT’S TIME FOR A TRANSFORMATION

Luigi Fioravanti. What a great Italian name. In fact, his forename is the perfect name for a UFC fighter of Italian descent—it means “famous warrior”.

With a somewhat spotty UFC record, Fioravanti may want to consider a physical transformation if he wants to live up to the translation of his forename. The Florida resident looks like he carries about 10 extra lbs of bad weight on his frame. If he was able to drop that weight and get down under 10% body fat when in fighting shape, then he could either add 10 lbs of muscle and continue competing in the welterweight division as a much stronger combatant or cut to lightweight, where he would be absolutely huge.

DID CLEMENTI BRING TOO MUCH ‘FIGHT’ BACK?

Rich ‘No Love’ Clementi continued his recent struggles, suffering a first-round submission loss to Gleison Tibau via guillotine choke. The loss is Clementi’s second in a row after racking up four consecutive wins inside the Octagon.

In the weeks leading up to the bout, Clementi talked openly about wanting to focus more on fighting once the bell sounded, rather than focusing on game plans and getting too caught up with pre-planned techniques. That didn’t work against the bigger, stronger Tibau.

Clementi is a tough guy, the kind that can hold his own in any back alley situation—there is no doubt about it. His love for combative competition and willingness to fight just about anyone at any time has resulted in Clementi building one of the longest resumes in the UFC lightweight division with more than 50 professional fights. All that experience, plus his years as an instructor have turned him into a refined technician and a cerebral fighter able to breakdown his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and develop a game plan to use his strengths to exploit those weaknesses.

Whether his loss to Tibau can be chalked up to Clementi not spending enough time breaking down film is a question that only the Louisiana resident and his team can answer. Just going out there and fighting works in lesser mixed martial arts leagues. But the UFC is the best of the best. Its combatants are highly trained athletes, many of whom prepare several hours a day for weeks, if not months, on specific ways to defeat their particular opponent. As Clementi tries to refine his approach to preparing for a fight, he would be well served to keep that notion in the back of his head.

Then again, I’m not telling the cagey veteran anything that he doesn’t already know.