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Sunday, October 25, 2009

UFC 104 Highlights

Lyoto Machida, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s unbeaten light heavyweight champion, had the look of a loser in the waning moments of Saturday.

His lip was split, bruises dotted his face and he walked very gingerly on his right leg. More telling, a frown creased his face throughout the entire postfight news conference, 45 minutes after his bout with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua had ended at the Staples Center.

UFC president Dana White, who promised a rematch as soon as he could make it, felt Rua had won. Undercard fighters Joe Stevenson and Anthony Johnson agreed. The majority of the media scored it for Rua.

And though Machida’s body language said he felt the same way, the three men who were paid to render the decision disagreed.

Judges Nelson “Doc” Hamilton, Cecil Peoples and Marcos Rosales each scored the fight 48-47 for Machida, who improved to 16-0 in the most difficult bout of his career. Hamilton gave Machida Rounds 2, 3 and 4. Peoples and Rosales each gave Machida the first three rounds.

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That was all he needed to become the first man since Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in 2007 to successfully defend the UFC’s light heavyweight belt.

“I would have liked to have performed better,” Machida said glumly, “but it’s not always possible.”

But while the majority opinion seemed to be that Rua deserved to win the title – Yahoo! Sports also had it 48-47 for Rua, giving him Rounds 1, 4 and 5 – this verdict was hardly an outrage.

Many in the crowd of around 16,000 let Hamilton, Rosales and Peoples know how they felt. Internet message boards lit up immediately with howls of protests.

The men who should be facing the wrath of those who felt Rua had won should not be Hamilton, Peoples and Rosales, who rendered their opinions in a very technical, taut affair. Rather, Rua supporters should be angry at his corner men, who continually told him he was well ahead.

Rua said he didn’t press the action in the final two rounds because his corner had told him he was in control. If that’s true, it’s that advice that cost him the fight. And it’s always the worst kind of advice to give a fighter in any match, but particularly a technical fight like Machida-Rua.

And while many disagree with the judges, their decision is at least defensible. White blasted them for their scoring, but he and many of the angry fans didn’t take time to consider that the judges weren’t drinking beer and eating popcorn and slapping five with their friends or doing any of the things that fans do as they watch a bout. Their concentration was on the cage and the action inside it for all five minutes of every round.

Fans, who are distracted by other things, tend to look away from the action for a split second or two several times in a fight, whether it be to talk to a friend, grab a snack or gesticulate after a big blow. When a bout is as close as Machida-Rua was, that’s often the difference between scoring the round correctly and getting it wrong.

“It was a matter of each round being won on maybe one or two little things,” Hamilton said following the fight. “There was no sustained action by anybody in that fight. There were no combinations thrown. It was always one punch, one kick. So you look at it and say, ‘What was effective in that fight? What was effective in that round?’ Based on that, somebody wins the round.”

Those advocating a Rua victory point to the fact that Machida appeared to take far more damage in the bout. Rua’s kicks were tenderizing Machida’s leg and the welts on his face gave away, perhaps for the first time, what he does for a living.

Hamilton, though, said it’s hard to judge a fight on damage sustained in a bout like Machida-Rua.

“They’re assuming he’s hurt,” Hamilton said. “You don’t really know, though, do you?”

This was a fight that was there for Rua to win and he simply didn’t win it. Had the decision gone Rua’s way, Machida couldn’t have complained, because there was little to choose from in many of the rounds. It was a very close fight and a case could be made for either man in most of the rounds.

Rua (18-4) was hurting Machida with kicks – Machida said the large welt on the left side of his midsection wasn’t causing him pain, but he conceded at the postfight news conference his right leg was giving him problems – and he seemed to control the tempo.

Machida said after the bout he hadn’t been busted up as badly since his sixth professional mixed martial arts bout. But Rua, who was trailing on all three scorecards after three rounds, didn’t pick up the pace because he was told he was in command of the bout.

“I feel I was able to use my strategy well in the fight to do a good fight,” Rua said. “My corner was telling me I was winning the fight and that is why I didn’t press the action so much in the final rounds. I felt I was winning. Everyone who has spoken to me has told me they felt I won the fight.”

He could have won the fight. And he probably should have won the fight.

But he only has himself and his own people to blame. Had they sent him out with a sense of urgency for the fourth and fifth rounds, history might have been different on Saturday. Rua managed to shatter some of the Machida Myth with his performance, but he didn’t leave with the belt around his waist.

As outraged as many are at the call, the culprits aren’t Messrs. Hamilton, Peoples and Rosales.

Rather, the bad guys in this scenario are Rua’s friends, partners and coaches who were all too willing to pat him on the back and cheerlead rather than to encourage him and go and finish a fight he had within his grasp.Even though Cain Velasquez had controlled 95 percent or more of his four previous Ultimate Fighting Championship fights, there was still a good deal of skepticism about where he stood in the UFC heavyweight division heading into his match against Ben Rothwell on Saturday night.

Sure, he was a very good wrestler and had taken down and controlled everyone he faced, but at 238 pounds, no larger than some of the biggest light heavyweights, doubts lingered as to what would happen when he would face a big striker who had the size to give him problems.

And there was also the question of whether he could deliver the kind of performance that would make people take notice, as opposed to just grappling his way to victory against the top-level opponents.

After Velasquez’s performance at Staples Center, the new question is whether anyone is going to find a way to stop his relentless onslaught of wrestling to get foes down and the pacing of his punches on the ground once he gets them there.

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Velasquez took an opponent who cuts to make the 265-pound weight limit and manhandled him in a manner that had to convince skeptics that he belongs in the mix with the top heavyweights in the sport, winning via referee stoppage at 0:58 of the second round.

Rothwell, making his UFC debut after being the top heavyweight of the International Fight League, came in with 13 wins in his previous 14 matches and was considered Velasquez’s biggest test to date. But he had no answers, spending the entire fight basically in survival mode before a controversial stoppage by referee Steve Mazzagatti.

Velasquez (7-0) was controlling Rothwell on the ground early in the second, and as Rothwell tried to stand, he took six quick punches flush in the face as he was getting up, so Mazzagatti waved off the fight.

The crowd booed the stoppage, but Rothwell had taken a beating from the opening seconds of the fight by a combination of wrestling and conditioning the likes of which may have never been seen in MMA’s heavyweight division.

In a sense, one could say the stoppage was merciful because there were times in the first round Mazzagatti could have called it off with little controversy as Rothwell was eating punch after punch.

Still, while praising Velasquez’s performance and labeling him a legitimate contender, UFC president Dana White did have some words for Mazzagatti.

“You know what I think of Mazzagatti,” White said after the show at the news conference. “I don’t think he should be allowed to even watch MMA, let alone referee in it.”

The fight was like a cat-and-mouse game, except the mouse was the one playing the game. Whenever the 6-foot-5 Rothwell (30-7) seemed to get out of a relentless barrage of punches on the ground and get to his feet to where he’d theoretically fare better, it turned out to be a tease.

Velasquez would grab him and put him right back where he was. When he would lock his hands around Rothwell, despite giving up at least 30 pounds, he was not just taking Rothwell down but also physically launching and slamming him at will.

“When I was wrestling as a heavyweight, I would face guys who were 285 and 290 pounds,” said Velasquez, who was a two-time All-American wrestler at Arizona State. “So it’s not new. This is my weight class and I don’t think about moving down.”

Most likely, this was a good test. Because if he wants the UFC heavyweight championship, there is a good chance he’s going to be in there with guys who are bigger and stronger than he is. The current champion, Brock Lesnar, is the physically strongest fighter on the UFC roster, and a better credentialed wrestler, who, like Rothwell, cuts to make the 265-pound heavyweight limit. Lesnar’s next title defense is against Shane Carwin, an NCAA Division II national champion who is near Lesnar’s size.

Where Velasquez appears to have the edge on his bigger foes would be in wrestling technique as well as absolutely freakish conditioning for a heavyweight.

“I think he’s awesome,” White said. “Ben Rothwell came in wanting this fight. He thought being in the UFC was his destiny. He had a game plan, he had size and he had experience.”

Velasquez had no problems with Rothwell’s size. When he stood with him, he moved enough to never take a big shot, closing the major hole in his game that he had with Cheick Kongo back at UFC 99. In his previous fight, he was stunned with punches at the beginning of every round, shook them off, took Kongo down and mauled him for the remainder of each round.

“I knew I had to get better,” Velasquez said. “I came into this sport to be the champion, so I want the shot against the Lesnar-Carwin winner. It’s up to UFC when that happens.”

Former PRIDE champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who won a decision over Randy Couture on Aug. 29, is the only person in the way of Velasquez getting the next title shot. Nogueira seemed to be the next in line, but Velasquez looking so impressive here at least puts him in the discussion.

Almost as important is that this seemed to be the fight to solidify Velasquez as a genuine star. He came into the Staples Center cage as arguably the most popular fighter on the show, with the only rival being main eventer and light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida.

Velasquez’s backers, most notably trainer Javier Mendez, for years had pushed Velasquez’s marketing potential if he made it to the top because he’s a genuine Mexican heavyweight with championship potential. That ethnic group has been so important in the success of boxing.

The UFC has been attempting to tap into the Mexican audience, both in the U.S. and in Mexico itself. The first attempt, with lightweight Roger Huerta, never quite hit. Velasquez is quiet, which can often work against a fighter in being a star, but ultimately, if he continues to dominate opponents, that in the long run will overcome any shyness.

In the past, Velasquez had been a fighter highly touted by insiders, largely based on his gym reputation, but most of the fans had not yet recognized him as someone that was going places.

On this night, there was a strong Latino presence in the crowd, with chants of “Mexico, Mexico,” which may have been a first at a UFC event. But unlike boxing, this was not a heavily Latino audience, and Velasquez’s appeal crossed over based on the strength of his performance.

Thoughts ??

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