Michael Farrow's sports blog

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…on the UFC’s contender problem

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Jon Fitch - Uninteresting but unbeatable by all but GSP

UFC 104 will be Lyoto Machida’s first defence of the UFC light heavyweight title.  After decimating Rashad Evans, it’s hardly unsurprising that he is now anointed as the future of the light heavyweight division.  How can you beat a guy you can’t hit?  It isn’t just him; Penn, St-Pierre, Silva and Lesnar all look formidable in their own way.  Some see dominant champions as a problem but, in my opinion, it’s not that big of a problem.   However, now they have these champions, they’re having trouble generating contenders.

The UFC have their own way of sorting the wheat from the chaff.  They like to see a benchmark get beaten solidly before somebody gets a title shot. If you’re a middleweight or looking to move to middleweight, your audition for a title shot right now is Nate Marquardt, Rich Franklin or Dan Henderson, the guys who seem to beat whomever they face except Anderson Silva. When they’re desperate, they’ll get two random decent guys and match them up, like they did with Patrick Côté and Ricardo Almeida, but in the main you have to beat a former title contender.

Since losing to Silva, Marquardt has fought Horn in a tune-up and then fought Leites, Kampmann, Gouveia and Maia, all of whom were being auditioned for a step-up to fight Silva. Leites won an undeserved win over Marquardt, caused by two point deductions, then beat McFedries handily and got the title shot, where he embarrassed himself. Wanderlei was auditioning against Franklin, as was Bisping against Henderson. They even auditioned Franklin and Henderson against each other but neither really did enough to convince. They want a clear challenger that people can get behind, kind of like how Kenny Florian ran through Joe Stevenson to get himself a shot at BJ Penn, abut the fighters fluffing their lines. Martin Kampmann at UFC 103 was the latest and the problem is the same in his division. In the deeper divisions, like welterweight, you have two benchmarks; one to get to the top tier and then one to get a title shot, Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch being examples in both cases.

The one guy who hasn’t fluffed his lines is Vitor Belfort.  Two years ago, his career was dead and buried but a career Indian summer fighting for Afflication, which saw him defeat Terry Martin and Matt Lindland, was extended with the win over Rich Franklin.  These weren’t decisions or controversial fights, Vitor murdered Lindland and Franklin. For better or worse, Lindland is still held up as one of the guys to beat at middleweight and he knocked “the Law” silly. Likewise, beating Franklin is held up as the sign of an elite fighter at 185. Very few have done it, only Silva and Machida have finished him inside the distance. Silva did it quicker than Vitor but only by three seconds.

The real problem is that these top tier gatekeepers – Jon Fitch, Thiago Alves, Nate Marquardt et al – have not significantly moved on since they lost to the champion.  The Marquardt problem is still the same as it was before. His punching style just isn’t right to defeat Anderson Silva, a guy who throws straight punches and can control the distance so well. Nate’s punches are arced so if he catches you, they hurt. I imagine he wouldn’t underestimate Silva’s wrestling and get caught unaware as last time but I’d still see a second round knockout unless he went super-defensive like Leites.   Similarly, Jon Fitch is still going to lose a wrestling match to GSP and he’s not the sort of guy who will go out and win amazing bouts by KO, forcing the hand of the matchmakers, he is going to be waiting awhile.

So we’re forced into Côté/Almeida or Swick/Kampmann territory, producing barely-credible challengers because credible challengers just can’t compete with the guy with the belt.

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Written by Michael Farrow

September 29, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Posted in MMA

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