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LAS VEGAS – An Octagon's worth of observations after a UFC 116 that will be long remembered:
1. Brock Lesnar is the world's best heavyweight: The UFC champion's detractors have been on his case from the moment he entered the company. First, he was "just a pro wrestler," despite his pedigree as an NCAA wrestling champion. When he won the title from Randy Couture in just his fourth pro fight, all of the sudden Couture was "too old." When Lesnar beat Frank Mir and avenged his only loss, all of the sudden Mir was "overrated." Lesnar's five pro wins now include two over former UFC champs and a comeback victory for the ages over the sport's heaviest hitter. Fedor Emelianenko tapped away the No. 1 heavyweight slot last week. Cain Velasquez, Lesnar's next opponent, is impressive and boasts a solid record, but he does not have Lesnar's quality of opposition to his credit. So until someone takes the belt off his waist, Lesnar is the world's undisputed best at 265.
2. Questions answered: Before Saturday night, we knew Lesnar could get the job done as a front-runner. But we didn't know whether he'd sink or swim when he hit deep waters. Lesnar conclusively answered the question of whether he has a chin by taking all the sledgehammer-throwing Carwin could dish out. Then he kept his composure while Carwin punched his way into fatigue. And the relative smoothness with which he transitioned into position after taking Carwin down in the second round and applied the arm triangle suggests that he's a fast learner and that he'll likely keep getting better. Add that all up and you've got not only a statement performance, but the most memorable come-from-behind victory in a UFC title fight since Matt Hughes took out Frank Trigg at UFC 52.
3. Back to the drawing board: Let's not write off Shane Carwin. His first-round onslaught would have finished nearly anyone in the game. Carwin now knows that to get to the top, he's going to have to find a way to come up with a Plan B when his strikes alone don't get the job done. The great ones find a way to rebound from adversity, and while it's too soon to call Carwin "great," don't rule out the idea that he can still get there. A fight with the loser of the upcoming Junior dos Santos-Roy Nelson fight might make sense as a next foe.
4. Double play: Speaking of going back to the drawing board, Carwin needs to look no further than Chris Leben as an example of how a fighter can grow and improve. Leben has long been labeled a head case, a wild middleweight with knockout power and not much else. But Leben won Saturday for the second time in two weeks – the fastest turnaround since the days of the UFC's one-night tournaments – in a victory over Yoshihiro Akiyama that was as much due to poise, skill and smarts as it was heart. Leben might have actually been winning the third round regardless of his submission, as he scored early and often from the bottom position after an Akiyama takedown. But judges rarely see ground fighting that way, so Leben left nothing to chance and seized the opening for a finish. It's a testament to just how far he's come along as a mixed martial artist.
5. Bonnar's big win: Stephan Bonnar will always be a pivotal figure in the history of the UFC, simply for his valiant effort in losing to Forrest Griffin in the finals of the first "The Ultimate Fighter" tournament in 2005, the match that put the modern UFC on the map. It made him both a fan favorite and a favorite of UFC president Dana White, who has given him a longer leash than others who go through trouble in the Octagon. On Saturday night, Bonnar added a signature victory to his legacy. Bonnar showed heart and resilience in his second-round TKO of Krzysztof Soszynski, and in the process he demonstrated why White was right to let him keep his job as long as he wants it.
6. Aussie with upside: Some guys get put on the fast track to stardom, like Jon Jones. Some force their way into the picture by starting at the bottom and beating everyone until they can no longer be ignored, like Jon Fitch. George Sotiropoulos falls into the latter category. The former TUF 6 contestant has won six straight fights since leaving the show, the latest his convincing decision over Kurt Pellegrino. That victory comes on the heels of winning one of 2010's best fights over Joe Stevenson in February. A step up in competition is in order for the Australian.
7. Like a hurricane: Gerald "Hurricane" Harris, meanwhile, deserves a step up in spotlight. His wins have been primarily for the benefit of the paid live spectators, as he's worked the preliminary cards in his three UFC fights. But all three have been spectacular finishes, none better than his win over Dave Branch at UFC 116. Harris stopped Branch with the most impressive knockout slam since Quinton Jackson's PRIDE win over Ricardo Arona. And he earned bonus points for sportsmanship in recognizing Branch was out and not following up before referee Herb Dean was able to step in. A slot on a live SpikeTV main card seems a next logical spot in Harris' progression.
8. And finally … Remember Sept. 19? That was the night that Floyd Mayweather returned from his retirement and crushed the UFC's head-to-head Rich Franklin-Vitor Belfort fight. Boxing's press corps, in its eternal attempt to pretend the calendar still reads 1971, rushed to declare boxing's comeback and the UFC's downfall based on one night's results. Does anyone care to revisit? Since then, the one boxing match needed to build momentum fell apart. Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao could still get made and will still be a monster fight if it does, but it lost that special "once in a generation" vibe it had a year ago. The UFC, for its part, went through a rough stretch filled with headliner injuries and issues. But it has rebounded with back-to-back months with fights that captured the general public's attention – Lesnar-Carwin followed Jackson vs. Rashad Evans – in the manner in which boxing used to. This isn't meant to disparage boxing, but simply to note that it's time to bury, once and for all, the foolish notion that mixed martial arts is some sort of fad that is going away. Not only that, but given how the UFC continues to thrive on a month-in, month-out basis on pay-per-view while boxing has largely retrenched except for the biggest fights, it is also fair to say MMA is no longer boxing's kid brother in the combat sports business.