LAS VEGAS – Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Rampage Jackson and Urijah Faber, four of the most talented fighters in mixed martial arts, gathered to watch the fights at WEC 29 at the Hard Rock Hotel on Sunday.
And what they saw was perhaps a man who surpassed all of them in natural ability and technical proficiency.
Undefeated Paulo Filho, the WEC's new middleweight champion, not only disposed of Canadian Joe Doerksen in the first round to claim the vacant belt, he may have established a new standard of excellence for 185-pounders.
Perhaps the most accomplished jiu-jitsu expert among MMA fighters, Filho used his hands to stop the veteran Doerksen at 4:07 of the first round.
Former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir, who was ringside doing color commentary on the cable broadcast on Versus, had no doubt who would win a matchup between Filho and UFC champion Anderson Silva.
"I don't think Silva would be able to knock out Paulo, because he's built like a truck and looks like a mini-Mike Tyson," Mir said. "He's a strong, powerful athlete. So they would hit the ground and if they hit the ground, I just couldn't see how Anderson would be able to compete with Paulo.
"Paulo's a world champion in jiu-jitsu. Think of this: The guy that (Filho) arm barred to win the (jiu-jitsu) title is the second-best black belt in the world. And I don't think Anderson, in all due respect to him, is that kind of a jiu-jitsu guy."
Filho, 29, has a tattoo of Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, on his left arm. He said he admired the way Tyson overcame his humble beginnings to become one of the most famous athletes in the world.
Filho did a little impersonation of Tyson on Sunday, ripping off a combination in which he torqued his body like he was throwing a discus. The impact sent Doerksen's head spinning.
"Joe came prepared to defend the takedown, so I had to let my hands go and finish the fight that way," Filho said after winning his 15th MMA bout without a loss.
A challenge for Filho to become a star in North America is to win without turning off a crowd which largely eschews ground fighting. Even in high-quality ground fights, American crowds will tend to boo, preferring the blood and welts that come from kicks and punches.
Though Filho proved Sunday he's dangerous while on his feet, there are plenty of fighters who could slug with him on even terms.
It's his groundwork which makes him special, but it's also the part of his game that may make it difficult for him to become a ticket seller here.
"American fans maybe don't understand the ground game, but hopefully, I can help change that," Filho said. "I want to keep fighting and be the best I can to impress the fans here and keep them happy."
The fans were plenty happy on Sunday, given the way Filho attacked Doerksen. Mir, who was perhaps the best big man in jiu-jitsu in MMA, said if anyone is able to help educate American fans on the nuances of ground fighting, it will be Filho.
Filho isn't passive on the ground like many jiu-jitsu fighters and aggressively moves to find a position to gain a submission.
There are some who call themselves ground fighters who do little more than lay and pray, getting on top of an opponent and pinning him down without doing anything to finish the bout.
That's hardly Filho's style. And, Mir said, he'll try to end a fight regardless of who is across from him.
"He'd easily submit just about anybody I know of, in any weight class, once the fight hits the ground," said Mir, who traveled to Brazil several years ago to learn from Filho. "Obviously, everybody's game is still evolving, but he is so, so good on the ground. He's tremendous.
"He could be better on his feet. … If there is an area that he could be beaten, it would be that area. But as far as on the ground, I don't see anyone submitting him and you're not going to pound him out. You have to stay away from the ground and right now, he's probably the best fighter in the world when it comes to fighting on the ground." But Filho's goal is to take it a step further.
His goal is to be the best fighter in the world.
And that's going to require honing the skills in other areas, but Mir pointed out that once you're great in one area, you can learn other skills.
One middleweight who has a well-rounded game is Silva, a fellow Brazilian and his close friend.
Silva has dominated the UFC since he joined it, knocking out Chris Leben, winning the title in devastating fashion from Rich Franklin, submitting black belt Travis Lutter and then pounding out Nate Marquardt.
Filho would rather take on someone else for supremacy at 185 pounds, but said he'd do it if that's what it takes to be recognized as the world's finest middleweight.
"And after, we could go out and have a dinner and eat some pizza and talk about it," Filho said.
Judging by what happened on Sunday, that conversation would probably be about another Filho victory.
For more on WEC 29, check out Kevin Iole's blog from the Hard Rock.
- Paulo Filho
- Anderson Silva