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BOSTON – An octagon's worth of observations after an eventful UFC 118 at the TD Garden:
1. Boxing takes a hit: From a pure fighting standpoint, Randy Couture vs. James Toney taught us nothing we didn't already learn back when Royce Gracie rolled over boxer Art Jimmerson at UFC 1 in 1993. But those who think this fight doesn't hurt boxing perception-wise are kidding themselves. From promoters to fighters to media, those in the boxing game have spent years scoffing at MMA and attempting to dismiss it, often going so far as to claim a boxer could step into the cage with nothing more than his boxing skills and beat anyone in MMA. So what does it say when a man with a claim to a heavyweight boxing title shows up flabby and listless, and then gets rag-dolled by a man closer to 50 than 40? Hardcore fans of both sports understand that Couture would lose to Toney in a boxing ring. But to the casual fan watching at a sports bar Saturday night whose dollars make the difference between a modest-selling fight in both sports and a blockbuster, boxing on Saturday night looked like a sport down for the count.
2. Couture reaches a crossroads: Couture has been called "too old" seemingly since he fought and defeated the then-20-year old Vitor Belfort back at UFC 15. Now 47, the five-time former champion has been given a couple lay-ups in his past two fights, first getting the declining Mark Coleman and then fighting Toney. But the last time Couture fought a top-shelf, in-his-prime fighter, in November against Brandon Vera, he walked away with a unanimous decision win. So Couture has a decision to make: Does he want to continue with "special attraction"-type matches, or is he ready for another crack at an elite foe? Given his track record, "The Natural" should be able to call his shots, and if he wants to test himself against one of 205's best and see if he still has it, then UFC president Dana White should make the match.
3. Penn's station: Reporters have wasted more cyber-ink on whether B.J. Penn will live up to his potential than perhaps any other in-ring subject in MMA over the past several years. Maybe it's time to simply accept Penn is what he is, rather than what others want him to be. Penn is a fearless fighter who loves to challenge himself and is capable of utter brilliance. He's also capable of putting up a stinker from time to time. Still, with his body of work as one of only two fighters to hold multiple UFC weight class titles, and his ability to remain in MMA's frontline mix for a decade while others have come and gone, if it were up to me, Penn would be in the UFC Hall of Fame. If nothing else, after his second straight loss to Frankie Edgar, he has earned the right to take as long as he wants to decide which direction to next take his career.
4. Stand-up guy: Edgar, meanwhile, could be on the cusp of an MMA style shift. His blazing speed, unpredictable hand and foot movement, and ability to dart in and out of range and score points en route to a decision victory might not make him the world's flashiest fighter, but it sure has made the Toms River, N.J. native effective. It's similar to the method Dominick Cruz has employed as WEC bantamweight champion. And while this style hasn't yet been given a catchy nickname, success breeds imitators, so if this keeps up, this over-the-top, stick-and-move, point-scoring standup game could be the next wave in MMA's evolution.
5. A division in transition: Edgar has also solidified his hold on the gold while the lightweight division is in transition. Penn won't be getting another title shot anytime soon. Nor will Kenny Florian. Tyson Griffin has stalled and former champ Sean Sherk is a non-factor. Instead, guys like Edgar, Gray Maynard, Evan Dunham, WEC champ Ben Henderson, Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez and perhaps Bellator champ Eddie Alvarez make up the new breed at 155 pounds. While they lack Penn's star power, it will be interesting to see how this gaggle of fresh faces pans out – and whether the ultra-competitive White can go the distance and sign the top-level guys not under his umbrella.
6. Harsh reality: White, at the post-fight news conference, called Kenny Florian a "choker." That's a bit harsh, but the cold facts are that Florian simply hasn't been able to produce in his biggest career fights. When the stakes have been highest – in The Ultimate Fighter 1 finale against Diego Sanchez; in lightweight title shots against Sherk and Penn; and Saturday night, in his hometown against Maynard with a title shot on the line – Florian has simply come out flat. He's 0-4 in those fights, and in the course of 13 rounds arguably went 1-12, perhaps taking the second round against Sherk. It's a tough thing to say about a guy who has been such a hard worker and a thoughtful, articulate ambassador for the sport, but he has been given ample opportunity to crack the UFC's championship level and simply hasn't done so.
7. Rising to the challenge: Nate Diaz's punk attitude makes him a difficult guy to support, but you've got to admire the guy's heart and fire once the cage door is locked. The Stockton, Calif., native dropped three fights out of four at lightweight, two of them split decisions (to Maynard and Clay Guida). While that would send most scurrying back to smaller promotions, the TUF 5 champ instead decided he wanted to bump up to 170. The idea seemed a head-scratcher, but since then he has gone out and rolled over two solid welterweights in Rory Markham and Marcus Davis. Diaz now says he wants to float between the two divisions, and I say, as long as he keeps bringing the heat in the Octagon, let him fight wherever he wants.
8. And finally … Two years ago, the UFC took their road show to Minneapolis in August. The card featured former U. of Minnesota wrestler Brock Lesnar, a fighter with Minneapolis ties in Roger Huerta, and a Georges St. Pierre title defense, and came up a couple thousand seats shy of a sellout at the Target Center. Last August, the company went to Portland, Ore., with local legend Couture headlining and a bunch of local fighters on the card, and also came up well short of a sellout. Saturday, the Boston debut, which on paper seemed as if it should be an instant sellout, was just short of a full house, with a crowd of 15,575. Sure, the economy's a factor, but the trend here seems to indicate that indoor events in cold-weather cities in the dead of summer are going to be a tough draw unless you put together a blockbuster event.
- Randy Couture
- James Toney