UFC 189 Co-Main Event & Undercard Preview

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Given the relentless hype for the main event, it’s been easy to forget that there is actually an undercard to UFC 189 on Saturday but that undercard would probably be amongst the best PPV cards of the year even if both Conor McGregor and Chad Mendes suddenly got injured.

The co-main event itself is a fight worthy of headlining any MMA card as Robbie Lawler (25-10, 1NC) looks to make the first defence of his UFC Welterweight title against Rory MacDonald (18-2).

Robbie Lawler’s career would make an excellent movie trilogy, all the way from the youthful prodigy through his journeyman years in the wilderness to his triumphant UFC return and title victory.

6-1 since returning to the UFC and dropping back down to Welterweight, Lawler seems to have reached a point in his career where natural talents, coaching, experience and a maturity have moulded him into a complete martial artist where his always dangerous striking is fully in accord with his grappling game, cardio and mentality.

By contrast, Rory MacDonald has seemed like the heir apparent to the welterweight throne for years. A protégé of former champion Georges St-Pierre, it seemed that MacDonald was always the new big thing at 170lbs even as losses to elite fighters Carlos Condit (losing to a late KO after dominating the fight for three rounds) and Lawler (via split decision) checked his progress towards the seemingly inevitable title shot.

Nonetheless, MacDonald rebounded from both losses by becoming a more dangerous, more complete martial artists and in the five years since first tasting defeat in that fight against Condit.

Now, one of the sports most beloved and skilled veterans faces off with one of the preeminent examples of a modern, well rounded, cerebral and above all, professional MMA fighter with the belt on the line. What more could you ask for?

Well, a promoter would ask for one of them to be a bit mouthier and turn a credible sporting contest into a bit more of a media sensation, but a certain Irishman seems to have pegged the market in that field. In any case, for true fans of mixed martial arts as a sport, this is as credible a title matchwith as compelling a sporting narrative as any you are likely to find.

The main card is filled out with a few excellent fights, all of which could be expected to headline a Fight Pass card in their own right. Firstly, a featherweight contest between two guys who are no stranger to ‘of the night’ bonuses and had been on the outer edge of title contention before some recent losses in the shape of Dennis Bermudez (14-4) and Jeremy Stephens (23-11). A win for either man really places them back in the mix.

Next we have two rising welterweight prospects who met defeat in their last bout against experienced opposition as the exciting Brandon Thatch (11-2) meets smooth Icelander, Gunnar Nelson (13-1-1) looking to recover from losses to Benson Henderson and Rick Story respectively. Both are highly regarded by UFC brass, the media and the fans so the winner here could find themselves a win or two from a title shot.

Opening the main card, Brad Pickett (24-10) returns to 135lbs following a disappointing 1-3 run at Flyweight and is rewarded with the dubious honour of facing undefeated prospect Thomas Almeida (18-0). Pickett would be the biggest scalp of Almedia’s career to date, while a win over the impressive youngster would immediately rehabilitate Pickett to his former spot in the top ten of the bantamweight rankings.

The preliminary card also has it’s share of great fights as ‘Immortal’ Matt Brown (19-13) faces the surging Tim Means (24-6-1) and with a hefty 28 knockout wins between them I don’t think anyone is expecting a dull fight…

We’ve also got former Cage Warriors champion Cathal Pendred (17-2-1) looking to impress after a lukewarm start to his UFC career when he faces the ever-game veteran John Howard (22-11) and Neil Seery (15-10)continues his UFC fairytale against Louis Smolka (8-1) knowing that a win would likely place him in title contention given the shallow waters in the flyweight division.

For once this is a card which actually seems worth staying up late for so let’s hope it lives up to the hype.

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UFC 189 Main Event Preview: Conor McGregor vs. Chad Mendes

UFC 189 Main Event Preview: Conor McGregor vs. Chad Mendes

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Subtitle:  A Hell of a Plan B

Like most MMA fans, I was eagerly awaiting the scheduled collision between Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor, with the extended promotional campaigning combining with the excitement at the meeting of one of the greatest mixed martial artists of our time and the fastest rising star in the sport.

Then Aldo got injured and the UFC had to look for a replacement. My immediate preference would have been for Frankie Edgar to get the call, firstly as he’s one of the biggest stars in the lighter weight classes.   Secondly as he has only lost to Aldo once and has put a top notch 5-0 streak together since, he makes a more compelling potential interim champion than the eventually chosen Chad Mendes who has twice lost to the champion, with the most recent encounter coming less than a year ago.

Howevr, the more I think about it, the more I’m liking the McGregor-Mendes matchup.

Conor ‘Notorious’ McGregor (17-2, 5-0 UFC) was celebrated in Europe before ever being called up to the UFC, winning the Cage Warriors championships at both Featherweight and Lightweight to earn his call up.

Since coming to the UFC, his exciting style and personality have catapulted him up the rankings with a 5-0 UFC streak including four TKO finishes and with the one decision victory came with McGregor injured and against a fighter who has since gone 6-0 to stand close behind the Irishman in the rankings – Max Holloway. That’s a fight I’d like to see again…

McGregor’s fighting style is based around movement and angles, using a wide variety of kicks and punches to disorient his opponent before finding an opening and swarming in to earn the TKO. McGregor also displayed high level grappling skills in his bout with Holloway and in his CWFC tenure showed a Donald Cerrone like ability to translate striking dominance into a submission victory.

On the other hand, McGregor is unproven against a top level wrestler, with the likes of Darren Elkins, Tatsuya Kawajiri and Clay Guida all bypassed en route to title contention. McGregor is also willing to take a punch in pursuit of his opening and has been tagged and dropped several times in his UFC tenure (especially in his recent bout against Dennis Siver) even if he has quickly recovered and gone on to win.

Both of these potential flaws in McGregor’s arsenal are likely to be questioned by his opponent on Saturday.

Chad ‘Money’ Mendes (17-2, 8-2 UFC) started his MMA career with credentials as an All American wrestler and his initial 11-0 streak was characterized by decision victories where those wrestling skills earned the win, especially once swimming in the deeper waters of the WEC & UFC.

That led to his first challenge at Jose Aldo’s title which was lost via a highlight reel head kick knockout in the first round.

Undaunted, Mendes sought to improve his skills and the addition of Duane Ludwig as coach at Team Alpha Male had a profound affect on Mendes’ striking skills, with the power which had always informed his wrestling now turned towards knockouts and complemented by a wider variety of strikes and combinations.

The new, improved Mendes went on a 5-0 streak including four knockouts – most impressively against the tough-as-nails duo of Darren Elkins and Clay Guida – to earn a second title shot.

That title shot saw him press Aldo more than any challenger before, losing out to a decision in what proved to be the Fight of the Year for 2014 and while Mendes dropped to 0-2 against the champion and with a third title shot seeming contingent on Aldo losing the belt, he won a lot of fans in the process.

Bouncing straight back, Mendes rebounded by knocking out Ricardo Lamas – another grappler who had lost a decision to Aldo – in the first round. At that point, it was expected that Mendes would go back into the mix at featherweight, looking to face top ten fighters such as Frankie Edgar, Max Holloway or Charles Oliveira while the Aldo-McGregor showpiece went ahead as planned.

However, the injury bug and UFC brass had other plans and Mendes now finds himself close to championship gold faster than he could possibly have hoped as the decision was read out in Aldo’s favour last October.

Mendes’ main strength is his wrestling which combines a wide array of takedowns with positional sense, strength and excellent level changing to make him capable of taking down or smothering any opponent. Over the past few years this has been augmented with a dangerous striking game, with high level boxing augmented by tactical use of leg kicks and tuned to take advantage of his natural wrestling talents.

Mendes now uses the level change that was once all about the takedown to close distance for striking and force his opponent to drop their guard and if he secures the takedown his ground & pound is more effective than ever.

On the face of things, we have a striker vs. grappler matchup here, but both men possess well rounded mixed martial arts games so it’s not simply a case of McGregor getting a TKO win or decision if he keeps the fight standing or Mendes getting the win if he can get McGregor down.

I would not be surprised to see Mendes score a TKO victory or (less likely) McGregor submitting Mendes from the bottom, or even a tightly contested five round split decision…

The stakes here are huge. A win for McGregor could finally elevate the Featherweight division to the box office realms enjoyed by heavier weight classes and justify the UFC’s investment in him, while also silencing the critics who doubt his top class credentials.

A win for Mendes would be a vindication of all McGregor’s naysayers and a personal triumph for the Team Alpha Male fighter, booking a third bout with Aldo with more momentum and star power in his corner than ever before.

However it pans out and despite the late change of opponent, this is THE big fight of the summer and I can’t wait.

Time To Take A Stand Against PEDS

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There is something very wrong with our sport.

We’ve all known it for a while but by and large we’ve taken each failed PED test as an isolated incident, shaken our heads about cheats and tried not to think too hard about it.

We can’t do that anymore. With Jon Fitch, Hector Lombard and most shockingly of all… Anderson Silva, the Greatest of All Time failing drug tests, it’s clear that cheating is endemic in MMA and the sport as a whole has to do something drastic about it now, or else risk it’s very future.

It’s clear that we can’t rely on all the promotions to do it because drug testing is expensive and can cost you your star attraction, both of which can sink a lesser company. We can’t rely on the many governing bodies to do it, because as we’ve seen so often, they are directly beholden to the promotions for their funding and you don’t bite the hand that feeds.

So, is an international governing body the answer?

No. For one thing, such a body would be almost impossible to create in a meaningful fashion. For another, it’s been shown that international governing bodies tend to be far from corruption and bias free (yes FIFA and the IOC, I’m looking at you.)

In a sport which is dominated by one brand, it falls to the UFC to put their money where their mouth is and take a stand. They need to institute a broad ranging, transparent, out-of-competition testing regime, probably using one of the major independent anti-doping organisations like VADA or WADA where their fighters can be tested at any time.

These test results would be released to UFC officials and the public simultaneously, with set punishments for each drug infraction. A failure for PEDS should result in a ban of no less than a year and immediate stripping of any titles, while a failure for other drugs like painkillers or recreational drugs should receive a lesser, if still considerable penalty which includes mandatory rehabilitation treatment.

If the UFC – as the highest paying, most prestigious organization in the world – makes a stand against cheating, that you will be caught and your career will suffer considerable harm, then the use of performance enhancing drugs in the sport will diminish and at the very least, the sport will be seen to at least be trying to self police and keep itself clean.

Fighters with aspirations of UFC careers will be discouraged from juicing and promotion seeking to emulate the banner-brand’s sheen of respectability will follow suit insofar as they can.

If the UFC’s announcement today is anything less than something this far reaching, then the prospects for the sport as a whole are not pleasant.

MMA needs to be seen to be a clean, fair sport in order to maintain (let alone increase) it’s tenuous hold on mainstream acceptance. Any shirking from the contest ahead, against the sport’s inner demons could spell the end for MMA as a legitimate sport.

Silva vs. Diaz: A Super Fight…

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Saturday’s collision between Anderson ‘the Spider’ Silva (33-6) and Nick Diaz (26-9) in the headliner of UFC 183 might not qualify as a Superfight (neither man is a champion and both are coming off a brace of losses) but the star power and enigmatic nature of both men, combined with so many unknowable factors make this a fight to get excited about.

A year and a half ago, Silva was the no.1 pound for pound fighter in the world and the consensus Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) but a knockout loss to Chris Weidman and a broken leg in the rematch dimmed his star and led to over a year on the shelf.

Now that he has returned, we can only wonder if Anderson can be close to the near-mystical figure he once presented in the Octagon. Will the first back-to-back losses of his career, a horrific injury and lengthy spell on the sidelines have diminished his skills, his passion?

It’s also worth remembering that Silva turns 40 in April, which is a truly impressive vintage for an elite level fighter, especially coming up against one of the most renowned cardio machines in the sport.

Diaz has long been considered one of the best Welterweights in the world, but frustrating decision losses in title matches to Carlos Condit and Georges St-Pierre and his typically difficult relations with the UFC management have led to almost 22 months in the wilderness.  However, as Nick is eight years Anderson’s junior and does triathlons for fun, I don’t think we can read too much into that period of self imposed exile.

It is rare that a fight between two competitors on a combined 0-4 run and 35 months worth of inactivity attracts such attention, but in this instance we have a pair of the most popular, divisive and mercurial talents in MMA.  Interestingly, right up until Anderson’s second leg break, this would be considered a drastic mismatch (indeed, many still see it that way) albeit one likely to provide a fun fight whereas now, it seems a little fairer…

Diaz gives up height, reach and weight to Silva and has never possessed the same aura against regularly top class opposition or displayed the same creativity in terms of striking prowess. However, with Anderson ageing and coming off a serious injury, Diaz’ confidence, relentless pressure, endless cardio and top notch boxing could be a nightmare for the returning ‘Spider.’

So much relies on how Silva’s mind and body have recovered from the reverses of the past few years and if either let him down, we could easily see Diaz swarm him and pick up a career defining victory. Nontheless, most will be assuming that Silva will pull off some implausibly creative knockout, as we’ve seen so often in the past…

Either way, we find ourselves with a truly compelling contest between two legends of the sport – and despite the exponential increase in the number of UFC cards and bouts, that’s not something we can say all that often.

Expect middle fingers from Diaz, hands down taunting from both men and a stark contrast between intensity and Zen-like calm.

Oh, and expect the unexpected. This is not one to miss.