I SHOOK UP THE WORLD; I SHOOK UP THE WORLD…WELL, NOT REALLY
Very few people thought Frankie Edgar had a significant chance of snatching the UFC lightweight championship from the kung fu grip of the greatest lightweight fighter in the history of the sport.
But that is precisely what the seven-to-one underdog did in front of 11,000-plus on a hot spring night in Abu Dhabi.
It was an upset reminiscent, though not as emphatic, of Matt Serra’s coup de grace nearly three years ago to the date. And it is yet another vivid reminder that anything can happen on any given night inside the Octagon.
Indeed, upsets are so common that I’m a bit surprised that anyone is truly taken aback by any result in mixed martial arts. Guys don’t win 20 consecutive fights like they do in boxing because of the tremendous parity among competitors and the almost limitless ways in which a fight can unfold.
Saturday’s result was certainly unexpected. I don’t want to give the impression that I gave Edgar any significant chance to win, because I certainly didn’t. But those who read The Blueprint: Penn-Edgar know that I always acknowledge the possibility of a game-changing result, and Edgar’s win certainly qualifies as game changing.
Winning a title is one thing. Defending is something altogether different. The latter is what separates titlists from true champions.
It would probably shock most people to learn that 33 different fighters across five weight classes (interim title holders, superfight winners and tournament champions excluded) since Mark Coleman defeated Dan Severn to win the inaugural heavyweight title on February 7, 1997.
That means that a new champion is crowned for the first time every five months, on average. Toss in repeat champions and a championship changes hands every four months, on average—not a dramatic change, but one that highlights a very significant point: nearly two-thirds successfully defended their championship at least once.
Will Edgar be one of those guys?
Interestingly, history is on his side. All three men who held the lightweight belt before Edgar successfully defended it at least once. Sean Sherk successfully defended his title once before it was stripped by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Jens Pulver was successful in two defenses before his title was stripped by Zuffa due to a contract dispute. Penn successfully defended the belt three times.
I’m not sure if Edgar will successfully defend the title. Then again, I wasn’t sure he would win it, either. He surprised me once; there is no reason why he won’t surprise me again.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR PENN?
I know that a lot of people are probably questioning whether Penn took Edgar lightly heading into Saturday’s title fight. He admittedly seemed lethargic during the fight, though I’m not one who believes that Penn took this fight any more lightly than others before it.
I do, however, think it is safe to assume that Penn’s interest in the division has largely waned over the last year. Despite the loss, I don’t think Penn sees the division as full of guys who can push him to the limit each and every night, which is the sort of challenge that a guy like Penn needs to stay sharp.
It seems likely to me that Penn will ask for an immediate rematch to avenge the loss and will then vacate the division. He has been talking about returning to 170 lbs for quite some time. I think it is substantially certain that he will do just that later this year.
THE GOOD, BAD AND THE UGLY: ANDERSON SILVA
For my money, the main event was the most surprising fight of the night—by a gargantuan margin.
Again, I’m a big believer that anything can happen in the Octagon. Yet, if someone told me that Anderson Silva was going to run away from Demian Maia for nearly a full round, I would have asked if they had received permission to leave the insane asylum.
Silva jumping on his moped wasn’t the only first for the champion. He also set two new UFC records. Thus, there was a little bit of everything—good, bad and ugly.
Let’s start with the positives.
Silva continues to both set and extend UFC records. Saturday’s win added to his growing legacy of greatness.
Maia was his eleventh consecutive win, adding one more to the record he took from Royce Gracie and Jon Fitch in August of last year. The closest threats to catch him are Lyoto Machida, who currently sits at eight, and both Gray Maynard and Georges St-Pierre sit at seven. Cain Velasquez has won six in a row. Nobody else is within five wins. Silva may be able to remove GSP from the equation if a rumored matchup between the pound-for-pound rulers materializes in the future.
In addition to extending his record for consecutive wins, Silva established a new standard of greatness for consecutive successful title defenses. He was tied with Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz with five consecutive successful defenses coming into UFC 112. He now stands alone with six. Keep in mind that he also has three non-title wins during that stretch—two in special attractions at light heavy and one at middleweight when Travis Lutter failed to make weight, which altered the proposed championship bout to a three-round non-title affair.
Say what you will about his effort in Abu Dhabi, but fans must recognize that Silva remains as close to unbeatable as any fighter we have in the UFC.
Now, it’s time to move to the bad.
It is crystal clear after Saturday’s fight that Silva has no idea how to deal with a counterstriker. Silva is an extreme counterstriker. He is expert at capitalizing on an opponent’s mistake with fight-ending salvos. He is not, by contrast, comfortable forcing the action.
Fans have made a lot about Silva’s perceived aggressiveness in the first two rounds. I disagree. His aggression was limited to feints and taunts. He repeatedly came within striking distance of his foe but refused to pull the trigger. He threw just enough jabs and straight left hands to bloody and batter his foe, though he certainly did not try to bring the action to a sudden conclusion.
His attacks through the first two rounds reminded me a lot of Mike Tyson’s 1987 title fight against Tyrell Biggs. Tyson had a healthy dislike for Biggs, who had defeated Tyson in the amateurs and then lit into the undisputed heavyweight champion with venomous trash talking in the weeks leading up to their title fight. Tyson battered Biggs mercilessly with lone power punches, though the savage combinations that made him one of the most feared heavyweights in history were noticeably absent. Tyson admitted afterward that he carried Biggs for several rounds so that he could inflict additional punishment in an attempt to prove a point.
Silva claimed to be doing the same thing with Maia, who apparently made comments that pulled at the core of the champion’s pride. I’m willing to buy into that theory to a degree, but I think the bigger factor in the first three rounds was Maia’s refusal to attack with reckless aggression, something that Silva deals with better than anyone in the world. If Silva truly wants to go down in history as the best to ever step into the cage, he needs to learn how to take the lead, otherwise all of his fights against counterstrikers run the risk of being lackluster engagements.
Of course, let’s not forget about the ugly.
First and foremost, I cannot believe that I witnessed Silva running circles around the ring in the final round. Maia was attacking with punches, and Silva wanted nothing to do with him. Keep in mind that Silva’s standup skills are exponentially superior to those of Maia. Had he planted his feet and gone to war, the fight would have ended with a spectacular knockout. Yet, he chose to run. And I’m not exaggerating either. Toward the end of the round, referee Dan Miragliotta actually paused the action and warned the champion that if he continued his antics, he would lose a point. That has only happened a handful of times in the history of the UFC, and the fact that it happened due to Silva’s unwillingness to engage with a fighter not know for his striking is probably the most stunning turn of events that I’ve ever witnessed in the Octagon.
Only Silva knows why he was running. Of course, I have a theory.
The champion admitted afterward that Maia surprised him with his punches. I’m going to take that one step further. I think that Maia hurt him on several occasions with left crosses on the button.
I can think of three distinct moments when Maia landed beautiful left hands squarely on Silva’s jaw. I also remember the look on Silva’s face when those punches connected. He was surprised. If he wasn’t comfortably ahead on points, maybe he would have engaged at that moment. But again, that is not his temperament.
Thus, he remained passive, which allowed Maia to land a few more punches. Silva is lucky that he was facing Maia because the challenger lacks any real juice in his punches. I’ll say it now and will not back down from the statement: had he faced his original opponent and allowed those shots to land, he would have been knocked out with the first one.
That’s right, I said it. Vitor Belfort would have beaten Silva if he were the one throwing those left hands. Belfort, like Silva, is a counterstriker. He greatly prefers to react to an opponent’s attack than to initiate the action, though he will cautiously press forward if there is no other choice.
The difference between Belfort and Maia is that Belfort has knockout power in his punches. The best thing that happened to Silva’s legacy was Belfort pulling out of the fight due to an injured shoulder that required surgical repair. The problem, though, is that Belfort will be ready to go later this summer, and he poses the most significant threat for Silva in the division, bar none. Go back and watch Belfort’s middleweight bouts. He is absolutely destroying guys at this weight, and there is no reason to think that he won’t destroy Silva if the champion doesn’t figure out how to deal with counterstrikers.
Was Saturday night the first sign of weakness in man previously perceived to be unbeatable? Will he actually suffer his first UFC loss in his next bout? Will that bout be at middleweight against Belfort, at welterweight or middleweight against GSP or at a weight north of middleweight against a monstrous opponent? Will Silva respond to this effort by giving the fans a career-defining effort next time out? I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but I am waiting with baited breath to see what happens because I’m sure Dana White has something in store for the champion in his next fight. That much I’m sure of.