Octagon Observations: UFC 121 aftermath
ANAHIEM, Calif. – An Octagon's worth of observations after a memorable UFC 121 at the Honda Center:
1. Branching out: Cain Velasquez's victory over Brock Lesnar could be a watershed moment in the UFC's attempt to grow mixed martial arts fan base. The company heavily marketed Velasquez's Mexican heritage in the run-up to the fight. The fruits of this push were evident in the Honda Center crowd's vociferous reaction to Velasquez's victory. For sheer volume, the intensity level was matched only by Georges St. Pierre's 2008 title victory over Matt Serra in his hometown of Montreal. With Oscar De La Hoya retired from boxing, the Marquez brothers heading to the back end of their magnificent careers and no obvious successor on the horizon, there is an opportunity for the UFC to make Velasquez the marquee player among Latino combat sports figures. What Velasquez lacks in charisma he makes up for with his heart and his courage as a heavyweight who is smaller that most of his foes – a trait that cuts across all ethnicities and creeds.
2. Brock's next step: Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Lesnar's career is how the MMA world has watched him develop under an intense spotlight. Each fight leads to a new set of questions about how the former champion, who only has seven fights under his belt, will respond. The question this time: What will be his reaction to getting his tail kicked for the first time? Lesnar marches to the beat of his own drummer and for all we know, he could end up deciding he's made enough money and it is time to move on. But here's guessing that a trilogy fight with Frank Mir, who Lesnar legitimately despises, is enough to get the former champ's competitive juices flowing again.
[Related: Questions about Lesnar’s fighting future]
3. Title worthy? So Jake Shields comes into the UFC, looks listless in claiming a split-decision victory over Martin Kampmann that many felt Kampmann won … and UFC president Dana White says he's going ahead with his plan to give Shields a UFC welterweight title shot. Good luck selling that one, Dana.
4. Where does Diego go? Diego Sanchez appears to have made the right career move in returning to his roots with Greg Jackson's camp, as his exciting win over Paulo Thiago at UFC 121 attests. Now, hopefully Jackson will get Sanchez to focus on committing to a single weight class. Sanchez has spoken of fighting at both 170 pounds and 155, but jumping between weight classes is more suited for a veteran who doesn't figure into championship plans. Sanchez is still young enough to make another run at a championship, and the sooner he picks a path, the faster he'll move forward.
5. The Tito show: Here's the UFC's dilemma with Tito Ortiz: Do you give the former UFC light heavyweight champion another fight or two to try to find his rhythm, or do you cut ties now, before his performance drops off a cliff? Ortiz has remained competitive in each of his past five fights, going to a decision in four of them. But he's 0-4-1 in that stretch after his loss to Matt Hamill on Saturday, and his level of opposition has decreased with each successive fight. Ortiz has been valiant in battling through a series of injuries, but time is not on his side. The UFC may be better off releasing the former champ before his performances turn embarrassing.
6. Going, going, Gonzaga: Brendan Schaub notched the biggest win of his career Saturday night with his decision victory over Gabriel Gonzaga. But the match underscored how Gonzaga has become one of MMA's biggest cases of squandered potential. Gonzaga possessed all the tools to become a great one, and he appeared well on his way after his legendary head-kick knockout of Mirko Cro Cop in 2007. But Gonzaga never left his small Western Massachusetts camp, never was pushed in the gym by elite heavyweights and never quite made it to the top. With three losses in his last four fights, Gonzaga is walking on thin ice.
7. Losing a step: Longtime fans consider it heresy to critique referee John McCarthy, ever, for any reason. But the icon of the sport had a bad night at UFC 121. In Tom Lawlor's victory over Patrick Cote, McCarthy was the only person in the building who missed an egregious foul, as Cote blatantly grabbed the fence and used it to gain the leverage to get out of a Lawlor submission attempt. Then, in the Ortiz-Hamill fight, McCarthy was too slow in getting between Hamill and Ortiz at the end of Round 1. Hamill is deaf and can't hear the horn to signal the end of the round; because McCarthy was late, Ortiz ate a punch to the head after the round ended. McCarthy's place as a pivotal figure in MMA history is secure, but just like fighters, referees pass their peaks as well. Saturday night may have shown that McCarthy is losing a step.
8. Stout-hearted: If you buy a ticket to a UFC event and Sam Stout is on the card, it is a fair bet that you'll get 15 minutes of good-to-great standup action. All seven of his UFC bouts in the past three years have gone the distance. Most of those fights have been back-and-forth standup slugfests, and he's come away with Fight of the Night honors five times. His latest win came Saturday night, when was slightly better than Paul Taylor in a split-decision victory. The UFC seems content to keep Stout in an entertaining lower-card slot, but with three wins in his past four fights, it's time to give the London, Ontario, native a crack at a high-level lightweight.
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