UFC 89 mostly turned out the way I expected, although it did feature several fighters (Hardy, Taylor, Miller, Cane) firmly establishing themselves as fighters to watch in the future. Aside from only featuring divisionally important matchups in two fights (the LHW attractions), the only complaint I would have about UFC 89 was that it featured next to no groundwork. I expected this going in, because of the matchmaking, but I’m only now wondering if the matches were made with that in mind, as a sop to the banger-friendly UK market. It’s possible Zuffa dumbed down their product to appeal to the casual brawl fans, but it’s also possible that’s simply what happens when you use that many UK-based fighters on a card.
Michael Bisping defeats Chris Leben by Decision (Unanimous) 30-27, 30-27, 29-28
Both fighters looked excellent here, each playing the same game they’ve always played, but looking sharper and more skilled at it. The biggest failure for Leben was having absolutely no gameplan. He fought the exact same way he always has, Bisping has been saying for weeks how to beat that, and then came into the fight and did exactly what he said for three rounds. The fact that Leben couldn’t anticipate Bisping’s plan and work out a way around it, or try something new in the third after getting jabbed to death for two rounds really illustrates Leben’s ceiling as a fighter, although he was dangerous from bell to bell.
The biggest question for me is, “Why did Leben stop throwing those leg kicks?” Early in the fight, he was landing them well and often, because Bisping had to stand just outside of punching range to land his counters when Leben moved in, which opened up those kicks. Furthermore, accumulating damage to the legs would not only knock Bisping out of his strategy and hurt him, it would also slow him down and make it harder for him to get out of the way of Leben’s punches. Since Bisping was barely slipping some of those haymakers, a few inches taken off each step due to a beat up leg could have made a huge difference.
One final note is that both fighters showed impressive stamina. While Leben got his nose busted early in the fight and did slow down in the third, he still had energy and was moving and punching well. Bisping looked fabulous, staying crisp and in good form throughout, which is crucial since any momentary lapse in his defensive movement or guard could have turned the tide of the fight. Leben did get frustrated/tired and lose his form, punching wildly, but that’s not really so much of a stretch from the way he goes about business when fresh.
Moving forward, I expect Leben to continue to be a gatekeeper, as well as occasionally bashing someone that’s better than him but chinny. Unless he suddenly develops much classier striking or really flexing his decent groundgame, he’s going nowhere from where he stands today.
Bisping at this point is simply not ready to deal with the elite of the middleweight division. He can beat up the guys that aren’t strikers, but if standing up with Leben is touch-and-go, then a more talented brawler like Dan Henderson will send him home in a box. Bisping simply lacks the firepower to stand with the best strikers in the division, and while his submission defense seems strong, his wrestling is so-so and he’s not that strong, so monsters like Nate Marquardt and Yushin Okami will muscle him to the ground and control him if nothing else. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter how adequate Bisping’s sub defense is, should he end up on the floor with the likes of Rousimar Palhares or Demian Maia, he’ll be in constant and immediate danger of being submitted.
So, while Bisping is a talented fighter with a long career ahead of him, incremental improvements of the sort we’ve seen so far will not be enough to make him competitive with the top dogs. He’s going to need to make a quantum change, and move up to the next level in some way.
Keith Jardine defeats Brandon Vera by Decision (Split) 29-28, 29-28, 28-29
Jardine looked extremely confident coming into this fight, which was surprising for a man coming off such a brutal and emasculating knockout. Still, he just couldn’t get past Vera’s range early in the first, walking on to sharp counters and generally getting edged out, with sharp leg kicks. When Vera landed that uppercut and sent Jardine down, it looked like the inevitable was going to occur, with Jardine yet again getting hurt, trying to fight through it, and getting finished from accumulated punches. However, in his desperation Jardine managed to get a piece of Vera and send him to the canvas momentarily, dodging a bullet. Re-watching this punch in slow-motion, it seems like it’s more of a slip and less of a knockdown, as Vera recovers immediately and the punch only glances anyway, just enough to throw Vera off balance. However, there is no doubt that Vera nearly got finished, as Jardine took the opportunity to charge him like a lineman and drive him into the fence, where he landed a really brutal uppercut to a crouching Vera that, in my opinion, is what put him on queer street. If Jardine hadn’t gotten so excited after this and flailed away a couple inches ABOVE Vera’s head, he would have sent him limp and face-first into the matt, finishing him off then and there. However, a badly hurt Vera managed to work his way to his feet just prior to the bell, and move back to his corner to recover, once he figured out where his corner was. I give this round to Jardine, 10-9.
Early in the second, Vera landed that stomp/push kick to the side of Jardine’s knee, bending it slightly further than it should have bent. Jardine started limping a bit, and spent the rest of the round basically taking runs at Vera and being countered. Jardine isn’t as rangy as Vera, and robs himself of some additional reach by throwing hooks from his shoulders instead of straight punches with his whole body. Vera was pointfighting with no sense of urgency here, but his strikes were simply crisper, more accurate, and landed more cleanly. Vera blocked or slipped almost all of Jardine’s strikes in this round, and obviously was in the drivers seat the entire round. I give this round to Vera, 10-9.
The third round was similar to the first, although Jardine became more aggressive and somewhat more effective, landing his shots better, although still not being able to string much together. Jardine’s most effective offense in the round was a series of uppercuts from belly-to-back clinch, which he held for only a few seconds, and during which he didn’t seem to hurt Vera much, despite landing cleanly. Vera again showed no sense of urgency, while Jardine aggressively pursued and looked for the finish. However, Vera did land more high-quality strikes, scoring a couple times with clean crosses. Again, while Vera didn’t hustle enough for the decision to be obvious, he did block or avoid the bulk of Jardine’s strikes. For landing more frequent and more effective offense, I would give this round and the fight to Vera 10-9 (29-28). However, since it was so close, there’s no real reason to complain overmuch about the decision, other than to say I disagree with it.
Either of these guys has the skills to beat anyone in the division. I think if Vera can get his mental game in order and really show a strong desire to win fights, he can go a lot further than Jardine. I think Jardine will continue to be plagued by hiccups where he gets knocked out cold, as his aggression and willingness to trade often let his opponents tap his chin, and his response when that happens is to throw right back at them, opening up the possibility of further strikes putting him out of the game entirely, whereas turtling, buttflopping, and running might give him a chance to recover. Jardine doesn’t have a great chin, but he’s not Kendall Grove either. He simply tends to allow himself to take more punishment than he can really endure, a fatal flaw in a division as heavy-handed as 205.
Luis Arthur Cane defeats Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou by TKO (Punches) 2nd round 4:15
Sokoudjou was actually really amazingly impressive in this fight… for the first three minutes. The guy might be a stronger starter than Alistair Overeem, the king of sizzle without the steak. It’s simply amazing how fast and hard Soko can throw his body around, which makes it all the more impressive that Cane was able to absorb it and keep coming forward aggressively. While Sokoudjou’s work rate did drop massively, he didn’t simply fall apart, and a winded Soko is still a deadly one for most fighters. Still, he’s going to need to work on that if he wants to live up to his potential. The guy is only 24 though, and has very limited fighting experience, so if he can get his training and style figured out, there’s still a lot more to expect from him.
Luis Cane was not only very tough, but showed he is a very technically savvy, sneaking quick, snappy punches through Thierry’s guard and around his strikes. Cane’s punches were extremely quick and snappy, and he has very long arms, so his reach and speed are going to give most people in the division quite a bit of trouble. His knees were timed extremely well whenever Thierry closed the distance, and he even had a very nice inline elbow attempt. With his aggressiveness, indominitable will to win, and vicious finishing power, I think he’s good enough to take out even the likes of Keith Jardine in a pure standup fight. Given that he’s a BJJ black belt; Cane could also be a multi-dimensional threat.
Chris Lytle defeats Paul Taylor by Decision (Unanimous) 29-28 29-28 30-27
It’s hard to believe Lytle was once seen as a boring and decision-happy fighter. Chris fought a very exciting, if dumb, fight here. He massively outclassed Taylor on the ground, but decided to make sure he’d always be employed (by creating a slugfest) rather than fight the smart fight. Both of these guys have incredible chins. Taylor looked fabulous here, throwing very short, fast strikes in nasty combinations. He didn’t do much footwork, pretty much just standing in front of Lytle and teeing off, which is why Lytle hit him back so hard. Paul did maintain a good crisp form throughout, which Lytle did not, to say the least.
We all know where Lytle belongs in the division, but what to make of this very exciting young Brit? Well, sad to say, but he’s in the wrong division to be a undersized, one-dimensional striker with a very poor ground game. Although Paul did show some ability to get back to his feet, he’s going nowhere divisionally important in a weight class stacked top-full of hulking top-position grapplers. Hopefully we can see some more exciting fights from him in the future though, beating up TUF also-rans or other British brawlers or something similar.
Marcus Davis defeats Paul Kelly by Submission (Guillotine Choke 2nd Round 2:16
Marcus Davis is a pretty decent fighter. I don’t think he has the talent to be a top guy in the division, but he’s the kind of guy that will always be able to give UFC washouts that extra boot out the door, while maintaining his position as a curtain-jerker for the main card, or a strong preliminary fighter.
I suspect this was not all Paul Kelly had to offer. He looked scared or nervous before the fight was underway, and turned in a terribly passive and uninspiring performance. Davis showed some great footwork, staying just outside of Kelly’s range, forcing him to reach and put himself out of position to try to get those extra few inches and make contact. This can also make fighters overextend themselves on takedowns, as was the case when Kelly drove his head so deep into that guillotine. Marcus is a pretty known commodity at this point, which could be useful for future wagering.
Shane Carwin defeats Neil Wain by TKO (Punches) 1st Round 1:31
Not a lot to be learned from this fight. Carwin is a gigantic, scary, powerful man-monster. We knew that. Wain sports a very impressive gut. I think we should see him fight Roy Nelson just for the visual spectacle, even if Roy would tear him apart for the title of king of the fatties. The one thing to take away is that Carwin can really move pretty well for a gigantic slab of muscle, and his takedown and ground control was pretty solid, even if it wasn’t exactly fluid. Big things from this guy in the future.
Jim Miller defeats David Baron by Submission (Rear Naked Choke) 3rd Round 3:19
Jim Miller looked good whenever this fight wasn’t on the feet. He has real ground skills for a wrestler, and his wrestling is pretty good. How far he goes in MMA will be determined by how much he can improve his standup or force a grappling match. As it stands, he’s at a disadvantage against anyone with even a basically competent striking game, but he’s got talent and is responding well to training as of right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got bounced to fight night Prelims or feeder shows for a while, but then made it back to the UFC with an improved and matured game.
Baron basically showed he’s one of those quirky Euro fighters that does a few things in ways that are unusual and different from the somewhat cookie-cutter American MMA style. However, that style is so prevalent because it’s extremely effective, and Baron will probably end up losing to more fighters like Jim Miller as the Baron started by submitting a lazy Mach Sakurai crests and Baron resumes his rightful place as a euro journeyman.
I have been unable to see several of the preliminary fights, and will wrap these notes up when they are available.