UFC 91 Musings
BEATING COUTURE WAS THE EASY PART
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone when Lesnar left the MGM Grand Garden Arena with the UFC Heavyweight Championship draped over his massive shoulder Saturday night. He was the quintessential fighter to beat Couture.
Lesnar’s size, strength and wrestling ability neutralized Couture’s takedowns. And it isn’t a big secret that Couture’s success inside the Octagon usually depends on takedowns. Let’s face it. ‘The Natural’ doesn’t knock out opponents on the feet. He doesn’t submit them from his back. He wins fights via ground-and-pound attack. And he had no way to get himself into that position against Lesnar, so the outcome was easy to predict.
What is difficult to predict, however, is the length of Lesnar’s championship reign.
First up to challenge the new champion will be the winner of the December 27th bout between Antonio Rodrigo ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira and Frank Mir. Both of those men are deadly ground fighters, with Mir already holding a submission win over Lesnar via leg lock. So, Lesnar will need to be very careful with his ground-and-pound attack.
The next level of challengers includes Gabriel Gonzaga and Cheick Kongo. Two guys who, unlike Couture, have the power to knock out any man with a single punch, including a giant like Lesnar. Of course, Gonzaga is also an elite jiu-jitsu black belt, which compounds the danger.
Then again, Couture was the most decorated champion in history, and Lesnar disposed of him handily.
Is Lesnar about to embark on a reign of terror over the division, or will his title run be a short-lived endeavor? I’m not sure. He has all the physical tools to be great, but he is still inexperienced as a fighter, though that is rapidly changing each time he steps into the cage. With his work ethic and raw talent, anything is possible.
WHAT IS NEXT FOR COUTURE?
As mentioned, Lesnar was the quintessential fighter to beat Couture from a matchup perspective, so the loss wasn’t surprising, and it certainly doesn’t detract from his place in the sport. Nonetheless, the loss did highlight a significant point, and it has nothing to do with Couture’s age.
At 220 lbs, ‘The Natural’ is an extremely small heavyweight.
To properly highlight the point, most of the top light heavies walk around between 220 and 230 lbs. So, Couture is fighting outside of his weight class, and that puts him at a decided physical disadvantage each time he agrees to fight a heavyweight. His wrestling skills can often neutralize those disadvantages, but they become glaringly obvious when the takedown is an unavailable weapon.
That begs the question of what should Couture do next? Should he seek a rematch with Lesnar? Should he continue campaigning as a heavyweight? Or should he drop back to the land of the light heavies and seek his third title in that division?
The answer to that question is not a simple one.
Only Couture knows if age is starting to take its toll on his performance against Lesnar. Were there times during the fight when he couldn’t do the things that he has been able to do in the past? Couture knows the answer to that question. Remember, age erodes skills overnight. It is not a gradual process, and Couture is going to experience dramatic erosion sooner rather than later.
If age is starting to hamper his performance, then he should seek an immediate rematch with Lesnar to cash out. There is no shame in a fighter cashing out on a great career, and Lesnar-Couture II is almost certainly the most lucrative fight out there for the aging ex-champion.
If, however, Couture believes that he still has some fight left in him, then he needs to ask himself one additional question. Does cutting weight at 45-years-old take too much out of him for him to compete as a light heavyweight?
If so, then he should stay at heavyweight. He probably has little chance of winning the title back as long as Lesnar reigns supreme. But there is no guarantee that Lesnar will defeat the winner of Nogueira-Mir, and Couture versus either of those guys is an extremely intriguing matchup. But I’m not sure it is in Couture’s best interest to wait until the Lesnar versus Nogueira/Mir scenario plays itself out. He needs to keep fighting, particularly at his age. But taking any sort of a tune-up or keep-busy fight presents far more risk than it is worth because his career as a blockbuster fighter may very well end with a loss to a no-name opponent.
Staying at heavyweight, therefore, doesn’t seem like the best option. Returning to light heavy may be the answer, assuming he can comfortably cut the weight.
Remember that Couture fled the 205-lb division a few years ago primarily because there was no light at the end of the championship tunnel thanks to a man named Chuck Liddell. After two vicious knockout losses to ‘The Iceman,’ Couture had no choice but to accept the fact that he had little chance to win the 205-lb title as long as Liddell reigned as champion.
Liddell is no longer the UFC champion. It is now Forrest Griffin’s division. Griffin defends his title next month against Rashad Evans, so the timing is perfect. The winner of that fight will likely be ready to step back into the Octagon somewhere around March or April, the perfect time for Couture to return to the ring and plenty of time to properly market the matchup.
Couture matches up well, on paper at least, against both Grififn and Evans. He should be able to take down either man, which is necessary for Couture to be successful. Both men pose very real danger for him. Griffin’s nonstop attacking style and seemingly unbreakable fighting spirit could wear down Couture, and Evans has the explosive power to knock him out with a single punch. Thus, Couture should be properly motivated in training.
Couture was noncommittal about his future after the loss. My guess is that he will make a decision as to what is next sometime before the end of the year, though I am very confident we haven’t seen the last of Couture just yet.
MAYBE HE SHOULDN’T WAIT ANY LONGER
At some point, I’m going to stop underestimating Kenny Florian.
It’s easy to do. The former collegiate soccer player isn’t physically imposing. He doesn’t have a menacing look. He actually looks more like an accountant than a professional fighter.
But the fact remains that Florian truly is an elite mixed martial artist. He is a masterful tactician with well rounded skills and a competitive fire burning inside of him that cannot be extinguished. Stopping Joe Stevenson in less than a round erases any doubt that this guy is the clear No. 1 contender at 155 lbs.
After his win over Roger Huerta at UFC 87, I wrote in my post-mortem that Florian’s management should sit back and wait for Penn to return to the welterweight division before letting their fighter take his second bite at the championship apple. I also suggested, not so subtly, that Penn giving up the belt to compete full-time as a welterweight was the only way Florian would win the lightweight title.
Penn will indeed face Georges St-Pierre next, so Florian has no choice but to wait. And it is plausible that Penn, who hates cutting weight, may seek to campaign full-time at welterweight if he takes the 170-lb strap from GSP in January.
If Penn opts to continue defending his lightweight belt, Florian should definitely be his next fight. I’m not convinced that he can beat Penn, but I wasn’t convinced he could beat Stevenson, either.
MAIA CONTINUES LIVING UP TO THE HYPE
Note to UFC middleweights: do not, under any circumstances, go to the ground with Demian Maia.
The guy has a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu resume that is second to none. He is undefeated as a professional mixed martial artist. All of his wins inside the Octagon have come by way of submission.
What more needs to be said?
Nate Quarry obviously didn’t get that memo prior to his one-sided loss at UFC 87. When Maia shot for the takedown, Quarry initially defended well, and Maia tried to pull guard. Quarry faced a very simple choice at that moment: retreat back to his feet or look to grind out a little ground and pound.
He chose the latter, and seconds later, he found himself swept, mounted and facing certain defeat.
Quarry tried valiantly to defend. But there was no doubt about the eventual outcome, and 2:13 into the fight, Quarry found himself tapping.
Fighters like to talk about how many BJJ black belts quickly devolve into blue belts when getting punched in the face. Maia isn’t one of them. Ground-and-pound should not be part of anyone’s game plan against this guy, unless they are looking for a quick way out of the fight.
Maia mentioned after the fight that he would like to face Michael Bisping in his next bout. That is one heck of a matchup. Bisping’s standup skills are light years ahead of Maia, so he might be able to hand the Brazilian his first loss if he keeps the fight on the feet. If, however, the fight hits the ground, even for the briefest period of time, Bisping may well find himself as Maia’s fifth UFC submission victim.
BROWN STELLAR ON SHORT NOTICE
Two weeks ago, Matt Brown received a call asking if he was available to face Ryan Thomas. Brown isn’t one to turn down fights, but two weeks isn’t a lot of time to prepare, particularly when the first task is dropping 25 lbs to make weight.
It was obvious after the fight that Brown, who normally has tremendous cardiovascular conditioning, was exhausted. He was badly out of breath during the post-fight interview with Joe Rogan. But that was to be expected without the benefits of a full fight camp and proper time to get down to his fighting weight. He knew he was going to head into the cage with less than a full tank of gas.
But Brown didn’t hesitate. He took the fight, and today he is basking in the glory of victory after scoring a tactical second-round submission win over Thomas.
Brown is far better than his seven-loss record suggests. Saturday’s performance inside the Octagon proves that beyond a shadow of a doubt.