After two rare weekends off, the UFC returns to pay per view this Saturday night with UFC 137 from the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, it’s the sixth event of the year that’s had a main event fight scrapped or altered due to injury. Even so, what remains should make for a solid pay per view show.
In last week’s column, we covered the fact that welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre was forced to pull out from the event due to knee and hamstring injuries. He was scheduled to defend his title against top contender Carlos Condit. Luckily, St-Pierre’s injuries won’t sideline him for long. The latest buzz from the rumor mill suggests this fight will take place on Super Bowl weekend. But in the meantime, UFC 137 loses what would have been a spectacular main event. The beneficiaries of St-Pierre’s misfortune are BJ Penn and Nick Diaz. Penn vs. Diaz was originally scheduled as the co-feature, but now, the legendary Hawaiian and the bad boy from Stockton find themselves headlining. It’s a fight that doesn’t have the high stakes of a GSP vs. Condit title fight, but it’s a bout that’s almost certain to entertain.
BJ Penn, nicknamed “The Prodigy,” has been a staple in the sport of MMA since his pro debut back at UFC 31 in 2001. But he made an impact in the fight world even before his MMA debut. He earned his nickname in 2000 by becoming the first non-Brazilian to win a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world championship in the black belt division. He did so after only three years of training. He went on to win UFC championships at both welterweight and lightweight, earning the status of legend among fight fans. During his lightweight title reign, he appeared unbeatable, before dropping two straight championship fights to current belt-holder Frankie Edgar. Those losses prompted him to move back up to welterweight. After a knockout victory over Matt Hughes and a majority draw with the very tough Jon Fitch, Penn says he finally feels comfortable again at 170 lbs. Penn told AOL’s Ariel Helwani that during his training camp for the Hughes fight, his welterweight sparring partners would out-muscle him easily. Now, he feels stronger than ever. Strength may be the key to victory against Nick Diaz.
Diaz, a former Strikeforce champion (who didn’t lose the belt, but vacated it) has won ten straight fights. But none of those ten opponents possessed the overall skill set of BJ Penn. On paper, Diaz’ biggest weakness is his wrestling, and that’s something his head coach Cesar Gracie readily admits. During his Strikeforce title run, he never faced a competent wrestler. Penn may not come from an amateur wrestling background, but his wrestling chops could be formidable enough to give Diaz fits. In Penn’s draw with Jon Fitch, a former collegiate wrestling team captain, Penn managed to take Fitch down at will during the first two rounds. His success on his takedowns took everyone by surprise, especially Fitch. Penn has always shown tremendous takedown defense, and now it’s apparent that his offensive wrestling is improving leaps and bounds. In the standup, Penn is a lethal counter puncher, employing textbook head movement and foot work. But Penn considers his opponent, Diaz, to be the best boxer in MMA. Diaz throws a long, crisp jab, and accurate straight punches at a high volume. His high work rate is tiring even to watch, and Penn may struggle to get inside his 74 inch reach.
Nick Diaz’ boxing prowess nearly prompted him to take a hiatus from the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. Earlier this year, Diaz’ plan was to accept a high paying boxing match with veteran Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy. Diaz was under contract with Strikeforce at the time, but the UFC swooped in and offered him a lucrative deal and a title shot against Georges St-Pierre. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse at the time, but one he now regrets. Diaz was pulled from the title fight as punishment for no-showing a pair of mandatory press events. He was inserted into a co-feature fight with Penn, and as it turns out, he finds himself in the UFC 137 main event after all. Even though fate was ultimately on Nick’s side, he second guesses his decision to turn down the Lacy fight, citing the claim that it would have paid him more than his UFC bout with Penn. “If I had my chance to do it over again, I would go back to the boxing contract. It would have paid me more money, and I would have took my punches win or lose, and just do my job, fight and get paid.” Even for someone who appears to enjoy fighting with the childish delight of a kid on Christmas morning, Diaz’ first love is still the almighty dollar. A win over Penn would likely prompt the UFC to grant him a title shot in 2012, and a chance to finally realize the rich pay day he’s been searching for.
The key to victory for Nick Diaz may come from his superior cardio. Despite BJ Penn’s legendary status, he has a reputation for fading in the late rounds. Diaz, on the other hand, competes in triathlons when he’s not training for a fight. His cardio is legendary, and his high energy style could take a heavy toll on “The Prodigy.” The apparent gap in cardio is the reason Diaz and his head coach Cesar Gracie have been lobbying for two extra rounds. Although most non-title fights are scheduled for three five minute rounds, the UFC recently implemented a policy for every main event fight to be five rounds, whether or not a title is on the line. However, as this fight was originally scheduled for the under card, not the main event, it’s only scheduled for three. An upgrade to five rounds would require a revision to each fighter’s contract, and that’s something Penn is not willing to agree to without a significant pay increase. Such a demand might seem petty to some, but one must realize the fact that Penn’s training camp has been specifically tailored to prepare for a three round fight, not five. Based on prior performances by Penn in both three and five round bouts, it’s apparent that he approaches each scenario differently. A three round fight usually sees Penn come out active and aggressive in the early seconds, while a five rounder sees him conserve his energy and pick his shots early, before wearing down opponents later on. A late switch to five rounds would clearly favor Nick Diaz on paper, as his approach doesn’t vary nearly as much. Since cardio has never been an issue for him, Diaz always looks to set a fast pace early for any fight, whether three rounds or five. Unfortunately for Diaz, it appears the upgrade to five rounds will not take place. At the time of this column’s publication, the bout is still scheduled for three rounds.
UFC 137’s co-main event will feature rising heavyweight star Matt Mitrione taking on French kickboxer Chieck Kongo. Mitrione, a former NFL player with brief stints on the Giants and Vikings, is still an MMA neophyte at 5-0. But he’s shown significant improvement in every fight. His athleticism has allowed him to learn quickly, and his lethal striking game may soon have him on the fast track to be “in the mix” for a heavyweight title shot in the not so distant future. Mitrione’s powerful hands and effective footwork have led to two straight knockout victories. In Kongo, he will meet his toughest test to date. If fights were won based on looks alone, Kongo would be the world’s undisputed heavyweight champion. He’s as physically impressive and imposing as they come, but his actual skills have only brought him mixed results in the octagon (a UFC record of 9-4-1). However, Kongo tends to thrive when the fight stays standing, and that’s likely to be the case against Mitrione. Even so, the biggest advantage in the bout might lie with Mitrione’s quick, accurate punches, effective low kicks, and his “dirty boxing” from the clinch. Kongo will likely come out victorious only if he keeps Mitrione at a distance, and sets his own pace in the fight. But of course, in any heavyweight bout, one punch can change everything. All in all, Cheick Kongo will provide a good measuring stick for assessing what level Mitrione is actually on. There’s some concern that his current value is inflated slightly, due to his inexperience, but a win over Kongo would go a long way towards silencing his critics.
In the remaining pay per view bouts on UFC 137, Mirko Cro Cop meets Roy Nelson at heavyweight, Scott Jorgensen battles Jeff Curran in a bantamweight bout, and Hatsu Hioki makes his UFC debut in a featherweight fight with George Roop.
Cro Cop and Nelson are likely fighting for their respective jobs. Each come off two straight losses, with three straight typically resulting in a UFC release. Cro Cop’s situation appears far more dire, however, as the former Pride FC legend has lost three of his past five bouts overall, and hasn’t looked particularly impressive even in his victories. His lethal knockout power is now but a distant memory. A man once known for decapitating opponents (figuratively speaking, of course) with high kicks, now appears lucky just to survive three full rounds. Meanwhile, Nelson’s two consecutive losses have come against elite level opponents in Frank Mir and Junior dos Santos, and he survived to a decision against both.
The underlying stakes of Hatsu Hioki vs. George Roop are worth noting. Hioki is making his UFC debut, and comes over from Japan with high expectations. The former Sengoku champion is considered the number two featherweight in the world by most publications, second only to UFC champ Jose Aldo. A win over Roop would likely result in Hioki challenging Aldo for the title in his native Japan, when the UFC visits the historic Saitama Super Arena for a pay per view show in February.
And remember, before the pay per view fights begin at 9:00pm EST, Spike TV will air a pair of preliminary fights at 8:00: Donald Cerrone vs Denis Siver, and Tyson Griffin vs Bart Palaszewski. And prior to the Spike fights, you can watch the remaining prelims streaming live on Facebook. You just have to “like” the UFC’s Facebook page.
Also on Saturday night, Bellator Season 5 continues with a welterweight title fight and the semifinal round of the heavyweight tournament. Welterweight champion Ben Askren, a former Olympian in freestyle wrestling, will defend his title for the first time. His challenger is MMA staple Jay Hieron. The UFC, Strikeforce, and IFL veteran will provide Askren with his toughest test to date. Hieron will be easily the most dangerous striker that Askren has met in his undefeated (8-0) MMA career. But Hieron’s striking will only be a factor if he can stay standing long enough to use it. So far, nobody’s shown any ability to defend Askren’s takedowns, and his top control is nothing short of smothering. With that in mind, Askren is taking the necessary steps to vastly improve his previously non-existent striking game. He’s begun training full time in Milwaukee with famed kickboxing coach Duke Roufus, a step that will surely make him more dangerous on the feet. It will be interesting to see if Askren is willing to put his newfound striking skills on display, rather than immediately put the fight on the ground.
In the first heavyweight tournament semifinal bout, Thiago Santos will take on previous tournament finalist Neil Grove. Grove may be the favorite by many to win this tournament, despite the fact that he’s only a semifinalist due to injury. Grove lost a close split decision to Mike Hayes in the quarterfinals, but an injury to Hayes prompted Bellator to re-insert Grove into the field. Thiago Santos, nicknamed “Big Monster,” earned his spot in the semis with a first round submission win over Josh Burns.
In the other semifinal, and co-main event of the evening, Eric Prindle meets Ron Sparks. Don’t blink, or you might miss a quick KO finish. Prindle holds five victories by knockout in nine pro fights, with Sparks finishing six of his eight fights by some form of KO. In his quarterfinal win, Sparks stayed true to his reputation by finishing Mark Halota by first round knockout. Prindle, on the other hand, advanced to the semis with a unanimous decision win over Abe Wagner.
The eventual winner of the Season 5 heavyweight tournament earns a title shot against Bellator heavyweight champion Cole Konrad.
Bellator 56 starts at 9:00pm EST Live on MTV 2 and EPIX HD.