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 CONTINUES TO PUSH THE ENVELOPE OF GREATNESS
Brock 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.
EARLY THOUGHTS: LESNAR VERSUS VELASQUEZ
UFC 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.
CARWIN LIKELY LEARNED A THING OR TWO FROM THE LOSS
Carwin 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 tank.
LEBEN DOUBLES DOWN AND COMES UP WITH BLACKJACK
Everybody 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.
COULD AKIYAMA CUT TO WELTERWEIGHT?
One 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.