Signal to Noise: UFC 171's best and worst
From MMAFighting.com (By Luke Thomas on Mar 18 2014, 2:00p):
UFC 171 had a lot to offer on the good and bad side. Sure, there was insanely indefensible scorecards in close bouts, but the crowd was enormous, the fights mostly delivered, a new champion was crowned in an instant classic main event and there's still plenty more welterweight action to chew on.
It's time to separate the winners from the losers, the good from the bad and the signal from the noise.
Best Fight: Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler
I've been trying to put my finger on what I liked about this fight so much. Partly it's the basic construct: two elite fighters in a bout of significance with enough time to and space, i.e. five rounds, it let the action and drama breathe. That's a necessary condition of it's greatness, but not sufficient. It was more than that. The bout was contested at close striking quarters for almost its entirety, thereby giving the audience a constant feeling of everything being on the precipice of sudden, violent change. But perhaps more than that, it was just nice to see two high-level welterweights compete in such as way that was as technical as it was blood and guts. Everything both did revolved around years of preparation and skill development, yet was exacted in this cauldron of mutually-assured destruction. This is what fighting is supposed to look like, or at least, this is a great example of what high-level fighting can look like. This is the sort of fighting that pulls in fans, creates allegiances and inspires as much loyalty as it does action.
It's also something that is regrettably rarer these days, both by UFC matchmaking and fighter choices. For my buck as a consumer, this is what I look for in upper echelon mixed martial arts. I want something that can't really be replicated anywhere else. On Saturday night, fans were treated to welterweight action of a variety and level that couldn't possibly have existed anywhere else in the world. It's that exclusivity that makes it special.
This Guy Gets It Award: Tyron Woodley
It's difficult to walk away after speaking with or hearing Woodley speak and not think the guy is ultra impressive. Here is a fighter who gathers that lobbying for better opportunities consists not merely in what happens during fights, but before and after. Moreover, he does so with an appropriate understanding of how matchmaking works, which talking points and messaging matter, why certain fighters are popular and where he fits into the entire scheme. I can't remember the last time I saw a fighter effortlessly navigate the space of contendership while making sure they touched on every area of need and sensitivity along the way to get what they want. It's comforting to see a fighter understand and make use of all the resources at their disposal to lay claim to what they believe is theirs for the taking.
Most Pressing Problem That Didn't Get Solved: Welterweight contendership
I don't have a strong opinion about what to do with the welterweight division moving forward. I know many others do. I saw all sorts of permutations floated as the way to move forward. Some want Tyron Woodley to get the title shot. Others believe Woodley should fight Hector Lombard. Some want to see a rematch of Saturday's main event (the worst imaginable idea). Others have Nick Diaz getting pushed to the front of the queue despite losing two in a row. There's also Rory MacDonald floating out in space.
The point is the UFC had the right idea to flesh out the division and use UFC 171 as the starting point. The problem is the results are somewhat inconclusive and therefore open to interpretation. My only issue is the certainty of which path to take. Some suggestions make more sense than others based on historical UFC precedent or what's commercially viable. But the truth is we're in this predicament because there is no one clear path. A lot of possibilities are available. Those that stand out to you the most are likely those that most fit your own set of preferences and prejudices.
Best Prospect to Gain Momentum: Justin Scoggins
Let's just state this plainly: Justin Scoggins is the next big thing at flyweight. There's all sorts of talk about pitting the champion in Demetrious Johnson against Brad Pickett because he's an exciting fighter who holds a win over Johnson from a previous weight class, but I'm not buying it. Johnson has matured into an almost indescribably better fighter. I gather Johnson needs contenders and Pickett is sellable in that role, but it's not a very competitive affair, at least on paper.
The truth is also that Scoggins needs time to mature. He'll benefit from tougher competition and opposition that force him to use all of his many resources to achieve. But what a force to be reckoned with Scoggins is. He possesses enough offense and prioritizes urgency such that he attacks from basically any and all positions. He can strike, clinch, wrestle, submit on top or bottom and push the pace. He's young, but he's not fearless, at least not in the reckless way. He makes defense just enough a part of his game to keep him out of trouble. He needs more development fights before he's ready for Johnson, but if I were the champ, I'd be keeping a close eye on Scoggins' progression.
Sobering Reminder Award: Nikita Krylov Fights in the UFC, Ben Askren Doesn't
I simply have no tolerance for bad MMA, especially at the elite level. That's even more true on a card filled with incredibly talented fighters in bouts of significance at the highest level of the game. That Krylov, who went out from a choke that is only possible to execute when one is asleep at the wheel or possessive of rudimentary jiu-jitsu skills, fights in the UFC and Ben Askren doesn't boggles the mind.
If the UFC doesn't want to do business with Askren, it's their right. It's also our right as consumers of the product to say quality control in the aggregate is fine, but that doesn't absolve the UFC from it in all specific applications of it either. There are limits the UFC should never sink past and Krylov is so far below it, the whole thing would be comical were it not otherwise distressing.
Most Deserving of Something More: Dennis Bermudez
Bermudez was something of a Diego Sanchez when he entered the UFC, which is to say he found success with some measure of technique, but a significant portion of his winning ways was attributable to ferocity. Seven fights later and on a six-fight win streak, his trademark barbarism is still there, but is now married with experience, timing, strategy and focus. In short, he's become a better fighter. Has he sacrificed some of the animalistic attempts at mauling? Sure, but only the portions that already needed to be edited. And, of course, his evolution is happening in real time. It's far from over especially if he wants to truly challenge the elite of the featherweight division.
Yet, that's precisely where he finds himself. He's essentially surfed at the same general level of competition in his six-fight win streak, only now he's beginning to dispatch his opposition with greater ease. He's earned the right to ply his wares in the tougher market of the top 10. I'd also say he deserves to be more prominently featured on a main card.
Olympic judoka Travis Stevens has said grapplers should learn how to win before jumping to the next level of competition. In other words, make sure you're winning consistently at the level you currently occupy before stepping up a level and giving yourself credit for a greater challenge despite yielding no honors. Bermudez has done just that. He's learned how to win at his current level of featherweight challenges. It's time for a promotion.
Where I Erred Award: Kevin Gastelum and Myles Jury
It's a funny thing. When I'm wrong about a fighter, I'm really wrong about a fighter, but the good news is my embarrassing assessments or predictions ends up putting me much more time touch with their abilities over time. For now, though, I have to cop to the fact that I slightly underrated Jury and continue to badly underestimate Gastelum.
Jury's performance is noteworthy not merely because it was successful, but because it was consistently offensive throughout the course of Sanchez's attacks. Sure, there was evasion, tactical movements and an application of larger strategy, but no running. He didn't burn out the clock. Jury maintained a steady pace of attacks Sanchez simply couldn't handle en route to a beautifully-earned decision victory. Against a veteran like Sanchez whose pressure forces lesser or less experienced fighters to make mistake,s Jury certainly performed ably.
As for Gastelum, I wonder when I'm going to stop being wrong about him. Whether it's his grit or technical improvements, each fight he's showing he's so much more than I give him credit. Perhaps I have such blinders on from indescribable fatigue from 'The Ultimate Fighter' that I can't fathom someone with actual ability being a product of the show. In fairness, I thought Story won the bout and the 30-27 scorecard in favor of Gastelum is totally indefensible, but that's not the point. The point is Gastelum is already a talent with tremendous upside and still in his early 20s. The sky is the limit.