Post UFC 87 Notes

By Nicholas Bailey (

The purpose of these post-event notes is to answer the question “what have we learned?” Fights like Emerson vs. Gamburyan aside, there’s more to the way a fight went than just who won and who lost. Fighters demonstrate strengths, weaknesses, and potential in the course of a fight, all of which are important to analyzing how they will perform in future fights, especially if you wager on MMA.

UFC 87 was a very average event, with not enough finishes for my taste, although it did showcase some excellent fighters and answer a lot of questions. It was good to see GSP really remind everyone that he’s one of the best fighters in any division in any promotion.

Jon Fitch vs. Georges St. Pierre

The biggest question GSP answered in this fight was about his mental game. At times in the past he’s looked like a tin man, fragile inside his armored suit of muscles. Going five rounds with anyone, even if you’re dominating them, is a real test of mental strength. Going five rounds with a wolverine like Jon Fitch, who is trying to find a way to win the entire 25 minutes, even if it means chewing off his own leg, requires a champion. Georges did not shy away from engaging on the feet, and reacted well even when he took shots, using his on-demand takedown ability more to break Fitch’s rhythm and keep him from getting comfortable (as he said after the fight) than out of terror at a repeat of the loss to Serra that was so often hypothesized on internet message boards.

Aside from reminding everyone that St. Pierre’s combination of pure athleticism and technical skills put him head-and-shoulders above the rest of his division in an all-around sense, he also showed that he has some real power in his strikes, with the added twist (as if the guy needed another layer in his game) of strong counter punching ability. I’d often previously thought that GSP’s striking was overrated, but the variety and frequency of the heavy shots that he hurt Fitch with should have everyone in the division but Thiago Alves wondering what they’re going to do if GSP decides to kickbox for the entire fight.

Despite needing to be re-assembled from constituent parts by a crack team of doctors after the fight, Fitch was very impressive here, and for more than just his doggedness. What amazed me was Fitch’s level of composure. Even after getting absolutely blasted, the minute the lights came back on for Fitch, he was back to trying to work a gameplan, trying a different sort of attack, and trying to control the fight. Fitch has historically been a slow starter, using the first round to warm up and feel out his opponent. Against GSP Fitch didn’t look comfortable in the standup until the 4th round, when he seemed to have a better grasp on GSP’s timing and landed some effective shots.

Despite the aforementioned clock-cleaning, Fitch also showed he’s the real deal standing. While he is no technical ballerina like Anderson Silva, and he reached too much trying to put leather on the very nimble GSP, Fitch has developed a controlled brawling striking style that I expect will be very productive for him moving forward, provided he can square away his ninja kicks. He has power in his hands and seems to have a good eye for openings, landing several good hooks to GSP’s body. Fitch’s ground work was also shown to be excellent. He controlled GSP well on the ground and even reversed positions on him, which most fighters are unable to do. I expect Fitch to begin another long win streak as soon as he gets one of those face transplants and can get into the octagon again.

To me, this was one of the best fights of the year, despite being very one-sided. Fitch’s display of heart combined with GSP’s technical excellence to put on quite a display of high-level MMA.

Heath Herring vs. Brock Lesnar

Lesnar was impressive in this fight, and while he didn’t say a lot, he said it emphatically. Lesnar is the real deal, and is taking MMA seriously. While we still need to see if he suffers the same fate as a lot of other big men and collapses when someone really stands up to him and forces the monster to deal with adversity, the way he dismantled a vet like Herring speaks volumes.

First of all, Lesnar is not Bob Sapp. While he had 30 lbs on Herring at the time of the fight, I suspect the fight would have gone much the same way if Lesnar had been 10 lbs lighter than Herring. The man may be a nightmare freakshow, but he uses his strength in the right places rather than just trying to power through everything. He rode Herring very nimbly and maintained his positions very carefully. Many fault Lesnar for not putting in hooks and taking Herring’s back, but I wonder why on Earth he would want to do that, given the amount of success he had just riding Herring and bashing away at him. Herring may not be a huge submission threat on the ground, but the man is very squirmy and difficult to control, making it all the more impressive that Lesnar was able to maintain a ride on him so perfectly while beating Heath up very badly despite Heath’s constant attempts to reverse, escape, and roll for kneebars.

One thing to consider: at no point in the entire fight did Heath manage to put Lesnar into his guard. While Heath has a very poor and porous guard, it is impressive for someone with Lesnar’s level of experience to already be able to achieve that kind of positional dominance. Herring is an extremely difficult guy to stop and protects himself well on the ground. The fact is, between the fact that Lesnar took mount easily multiple times, the generally poor level of grappling ability in the heavyweight division, Lesnar’s enormous ham fists, and his apparent love for putting his massive bulk into knees that crush his opponent’s body, he’s going to send most any heavyweight out of the ring on a stretcher in short order. Think the Cain Velasquez vs. Jake O’Brien fight, only more brutish.

Jason McDonald vs. Demian Maia

First of all, it must be said that MacDonald’s gameplan of grappling with the most decorated grappler in the division was a poor one. Still, it let us learn a lot. Maia landed some good trips and was otherwise able to force a ground fight, which is really going to determine whether he lives or dies in a fight. Importantly, he was also able to sweep a very competent grappler in MacDonald and avoid damage off his back, while getting pinned and being ineffective off your back has been the undoing of many a submission specialist in MMA (I’m looking at you, Marcus Aurelio).

While Maia’s striking was rudimentary, he was able to hurt MacDonald on the feet a bit, so maybe he’ll avoid the other traditional grappler’s failing of having completely impotent striking. Maia was also able to work effective ground and pound from dominant positions, which will pay dividends in softening up hard-to-submit fighters, although Maia really sent the message in this fight that he has the BJJ in MMA skills to threaten anyone, anytime. Maia may need to work on maintaining a top-level professional level of conditioning, since he did seem to slow significantly in the third round (shortly before he finished the fight).

MacDonald didn’t really teach us anything new in this fight—he went into it a relatively one-dimensional (if excellent) grappler and did nothing to change my mind on that.

Jon Jones vs. Andre Gusmao

Jones dominated this fight by throwing a huge variety of strikes and never giving Gusmao any breathing room. Jones flashed some tight Greco throws and trips, but the fight was mostly about his striking. Gusmao’s only moments of effectiveness in the fight came before Jones started his attack, when he was able to bully a little and strike a bit from the clinch. Some new, undefeated guys like Gusmao just can’t deal with the first opponent they have that doesn’t crumble and that they have to struggle with and force their will upon. Gusmao may also have just wilted under the bright lights. Only time will tell whether fighting for survival and letting his opponent walk away with the fight is what we can expect from Gusmao in the future, or if he just didn’t have it that night.

Jones performed far above the level I had expected from someone that’s only been training for MMA for 9 months. He had an excellent variety of strikes, and really appears to be a natural fighter—someone who, like a BJ Penn or Joachim Hansen, fundamentally understands combat and will use attacks in positions they have never seen in practice, simply because it ‘clicks’ in their head that they can further hurt their opponent by doing that (compare this to someone like a Josh Koscheck, who, while being an excellent top-level fighter, seems to simply be executing athletic moves he’s learned by rote, at least when it comes to the standup). Jones also is already using a lot of misdirection and feinting to set up powerful strikes; if he can improve his techniques here, he’ll have a lot of KO’s on his record. Jones wasn’t afraid to get hit, he was very intelligent with his clinching, using it to control the pace and dictate when and how striking exchanges happened, and he was able to beat on a strong, athletic opponent who was never out of the fight, for the full three rounds. Jones also showed good scrambling ability in the little amount of time he was in non-dominant positions on the ground, quickly reversing the position or escaping to the feet. All of that, together with his natural striking talents, could bring Jones great success in MMA.

Of course, no performance by such a neophyte could be expected to be perfect, and Jon was far from it. Whenever he was in a dominant position on the ground, Jones left far too much space, allowing Gusmao to create scrambles and get back to his feet and avoid damage. Jones striking also fell apart any time he threw more than single shots. Jones’ striking looked like it was developed on a punching dummy. His first shots were always fairly clean and strong, but any time he had to follow them up with a second attack, or got into multiple-strike exchanges with Gusmao, he lost all semblance of defensive posture and accuracy, simply winging shots around and never returning his arms to a guard position. When creating distance, Jones also moved straight back while leaning away, which was just enough to escape Gusmao’s punches and is not a terrible tactic when he has that much height to protect his chin, but will be exploited by a more proficient striker. I’m excited to see more from him.

Jones vs. Gusmao is also interesting from a meta-game perspective, since it represents another example of the UFC’s expanding borders. Five years ago, both of these guys would need 5 or 6 more fights in King of the Cage or other smaller promotions before the UFC gave them a look, but now Zuffa is getting their hooks into talent even earlier in the game and developing them itself. This is beneficial to Zuffa because not only can they lock hot prospects into long-term small-money contracts like they do with TUF (Keith Jardine pocketed a cool ten thousand dollars to be mugged by Wanderlei Silva in his 8th post-TUF fight for UFC) but that’s also one less talented fighter available to be a hero in another promotion.

Luke Cummo vs. Tamdan McCrory

Luke Cummo came into this fight having fasted since the weigh-ins. That seems dumb to me, but I am not a sports nutritionist. Really though, there’s not a lot to say about Cummo for the foreseeable future. He has very traditional technical Muay Thai, which I find appealing to watch, but the fact is that he’s bringing a knife to a gun fight by not being able to wrestle in the division most stacked with dominant top-position grappler/wrestler hybrid monsters. Unless he changes weight classes or dramatically improves his guard game or wrestling, he’s going nowhere.

Tamdan looked excellent in this fight, coming at Cummo aggressively with GnP and submission attempts and showing some real quality in his pounding. Still the question is: what is he going to do against Fitch, Koscheck, Diego Sanchez, GSP, or Matt Hughes? In any case, he’s an exciting fighter and I look forward to his next match.

Chris Wilson vs. Steve Bruno

Wilson’s coming out party was the first round of his fight with Jon Fitch. Although he ended up losing that fight, he served notice that he would be a tough opponent for anyone. In this fight he absolutely walked over Steve Bruno. Bruno had nothing to offer except gameness and spent the majority of three rounds simply fighting to survive, shooting weak desperation takedowns from way outside Wilson’s range when he wasn’t crashing to the canvas in a heap from one strike or another. Bruno deserves credit for taking a beating like a man, but I’d like to see him in a fight where he isn’t so outclassed.

Wilson fought very intelligently, setting up his strikes with misdirection and landing most of them very cleanly and accurately. He fought a very veteran fight, pacing himself and only exploding into action when opportunities opened up, but being relentlessly aggressive as long as that opportunity was open. While he threw a wide and exciting variety of strikes, I was most impressed with his uppercut, and the way he would use his wrestling to threaten takedowns, causing Bruno to clear his hips and open himself up for the uppercut. Furthermore, given how many of those shots sent Bruno to the canvas, Wilson either has phenomenal ability to damage with his strikes (through a combination of power and accurate timing/placement) or Bruno has a terrible chin. Given that Wilson hurt Fitch as well, I’d say it has more to do with Wilson than his opponent.

Quick Shots

Not a lot to say about either of these fights: Ben Saunders basically did whatever he wanted to a badly overmatched Ryan Thomas, showing an exciting variety of submission and standup attacks. It’ll be good to see him against a tougher opponent.

Manny Gamburyan fell victim to the Jason Lambert curse of wading in throwing haymakers from his waist—a bad idea vs. someone that punches hard.

Cheick Kongo can punch hard. We knew this. He continues to fight dumb, clinching and working for takedowns when he wants no part of the ground. Reminds me of Alistair Overeem vs. Shogun I. Kongo needs to get his gameplans in order.

Roger Huerta just never got his footwork squared away and came at Kenny Florian with superman punch combos a million times the exact same way, while Kenny just made Huerta do all the work and then punished him for it. Florian isn’t much of a finisher, despite his claims, unless he can really badly overwhelm his opponents. He doesn’t have slick dangerous submission offense, and none of his strikes are very hard, so he’s going to have a hard time getting top level fighters to respect what he brings to the table and engage on his terms.

What Do You Think of This Fight/Event?