Last year was a year of upsets, and it appears the trend will continue into 2016. It took me a few days to recover from the shocking results of UFC 196 enough to write about it unemotionally. All of my expectations were blown out of the water in dramatic fashion. But such is the nature of the fight game.
There was an odd vibe surrounding this event which I can’t quite describe. It was a night of hesitant fighting until the main bout. Many of the fighters seemed a bit off their game, often being so cautious during the stand up portions of their fights that there was little back and forth action. The grappling, however, was much more eventful.
Amanda Nunes Wins Unanimous Decision Over Valentina Shevckenko
The Nunes-Shevchenko match was the only fight that piqued my interest outside of the two main events. Valentina Shevchenko’s dynamic Muay Thai striking is in keeping with her nickname “The Bullet,” and although “The Lioness” is an appropriate moniker for Amanda Nunes, I fully expected that Shevchenko’s extraordinary 12-year Kick Boxing career (56-2-0) would allow her to prevail. But such was not the case.
Both women started tentatively, with few exchanges in the first round. It was Amanda’s ground and pound in the 2nd, opening a cut over Valentina’s left eye, that changed the dynamics of the fight. Shevchenko’s MMA fights have lacked the in-your-face explosiveness seen in her Muay Thai bouts, but she finally unleashed in the third and stunned Nunes with an elbow strike to the head. But it was too little, too late, and Nunes won a unanimous decision. She continues her steady climb up the ladder and may be in title contention within the year.
Valentina Shevchenko’s fighting pedigree is undeniable. She showed a strong ground game against Sarah Kaufman and I expect her to make a strong comeback where she can display her full potential. Once she finds her stride, I predict a stellar career in MMA.
Miesha Tate Wins Over Holly Holm via Rear Naked Choke, Round 5
I must confess that I have been an ardent Holly Holm fan for over a decade, and despite the result of this fight, my high opinion of her as a fighter and role model remains undeterred. Seeing her lie unconscious on the mat, like Athena fallen from Olympus, struck me with a personal sense of grief, and it might be difficult for me to be completely objective.
That said, let me start by congratulating Miesha Tate. She’s one of the pioneers of the sport and should change her nickname from “Cupcake” to Miesha “Come From Behind” Tate. She has grasped victory from the jaws of defeat more than any female fighter I can think of. I fully expected Holly to pick her apart over the course of the fight and win by decision or late stoppage. But Miesha’s toughness and determination in pulling out a win by rear naked choke in the last moments of the fight was miraculous. She proved, once again, that her ground game is among the best in MMA. Once she has an opponent on the mat, she’s like an undulating Boa Constrictor, seeking the most vulnerable point from which to set up the kill. She doesn’t have the greatest skill-set in any single discipline, but true to the spirit of MMA, she has mastered each technique effectively enough to be a very dangerous fighter in every aspect of the game. Tate’s win over Holm, while not dominant, was unequivocal and creates another seismic shakeup throughout the Bantamweight Division.
While giving full kudos to Miesha Tate, I must also say that Holly’s unwillingness to tap out, while trying to fight her way to her feet, revealed a courage rarely seen in the octagon. As one of the most determined fighters in the game, I have no doubt that she will be back in a new and improved version very soon. Unlike the previous Bantamweight Champion, who retreated into seclusion after her loss, Holly has posted an image of the choke-out on her Instagram account, writing “This is how Saturday night ended but it's not the end for me. I am going to train hard and show that I am better than this. I am down but not out.”
While I agonize for Holly, the championship musical chairs that we’ve seen in the last six months creates a panoply of amazing match-ups. Rather than a dominant champion sitting atop the division, we have a few equally talented contenders, any of which could unseat the sitting champion. This situation creates far more enticing matches than in previous years when Ronda Rousey waltzed her way through a series of one-round stoppages. The Achilles’ Heels of the division’s top fighters have now been exposed. Cogent strategies to attack those vulnerabilities will go into every new game plan, making strategic discipline much more important than ever before.
Some have criticized Holly for fighting Miesha before the rematch with Ronda. But I would remind the critics that the practice of “playing it safe” has caused irreparable damage to boxing. Champions sitting on their titles while waiting for huge paydays to balance the risk of a loss have caused fans to flee the sport in droves. Myself included. This is not what champions are supposed to do. Champions fight. They defend the belt and take on all comers. It’s not about paydays, or risk avoidance. It’s about being a champion and displaying a champion’s heart. I applaud the UFC for encouraging their fighters to take the best matches - fights the fans want to see, regardless of the risk.
Tate’s post-fight suggestion that Holly fulfill her rematch with Ronda, while she takes on a top contender, is an interesting idea. The winners of those two clashes could then meet for the title. This could be a huge double bill for UFC 200. However, it’s been suggested that Rousey won’t be ready for a rematch before the Fall of 2016, and waiting for Ronda would require the entire division to sit on their hands for the next several months. Holding up the parade for the availability of one fighter is not good for the division, or the sport. If there’s not an immediate Tate-Holm rematch, then I’d like to see them each face a top contender in UFC 200.
It will be interesting to see how the UFC markets the competition between this triad of champions, and whether somebody like Cat Zingano can coax her way into the title picture. Her previous win over Tate and her serendipitous loss to Rousey make her an ideal ingredient in the Bantamweight recipe.
Let’s play with a few scenarios.
Let’s suppose Miesha decides to fight Ronda for a third time before rematching Holly. Rousey could be prepared for a fight with Tate - whom she’s defeated twice - much sooner than she could for a Holm rematch. Let’s say Ronda regains the title. Once she has, Ronda would have no obligation to do a Holm-Rousey rematch. In fact, I think she’d avoid it at all costs. I don’t think she wants any part of Holly Holm unless it’s the only path to the title. Tate’s success against Holm is not a strategic roadmap for Rousey. Their transitions to the clinch are not remotely the same.
To push a rematch, Holly might be required to think outside the box and challenge Cyborg at 140 pounds. If Holly wins, the public outcry for a rematch with Ronda would be too enormous to ignore. This may be Holly’s only path back to the title, unless Tate beats Rousey and grants Holm a rematch. There are so many possibilities in this new landscape.
Nate Diaz Wins Over Conor McGregor via Rear Naked Choke, Round 2
After all the trash talk and hype, the fight to replace McGregor-Dos Anjos was a fight between a rugged veteran and the newest star to ascend the UFC hierarchy. Nate Diaz, along with his brother Nick, have been mainstays of UFC fight nights for a long time, and one of them finally got that huge payday they’ve sought.
McGregor underestimated what it would take to KO a larger man and expended too much energy in the first round. Once the fight went to the ground, Diaz’s rangy body and superior grappling skills were simply too much for the Irish slugger.
Conor McGregor’s meteoric rise wasn’t necessarily thwarted by his surprising loss on March 5, but his trajectory was certainly deflected. The Notorious One’s charismatic stardom remains relatively untarnished after this loss and may actually generate more interest in certain match-ups that were previously considered walk-overs. Conor’s promotional skills are so much more advanced than the other top UFC talent that he could probably generate interest in a street brawl with bag lady. Win or lose, MeGregor’s one-punch power and smooth-talking persona will generate huge pay-per-view events for the foreseeable future.
All indications are that McGregor will go back to Featherweight to fight either Frankie Edgar, or a rematch with José Aldo. Both are exciting fights. But don’t be surprised if Conor moves up in weight again. Holding two or more belts simultaneously is the prize McGregor seeks. That’s the stuff of legacy.
Charles Long was raised in rural Western Pennsylvania where his grandfather was Chief of County Detectives, a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a wire editor for the Butler Eagle, and had his own talk radio show. Charles was awakened to the world of pugilism before he could ride a bicycle. A great love for the sport of boxing grew out of these early experiences. "There are many Darwinian lessons to be learned from boxing and other sports that can help you succeed in a competitive world. I would sometimes stop rehearsal to watch an important fight on a tiny “Watchman” that traveled with me wherever I went". After retirement while living in Miami, Charles followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and became a sports writer covering boxing in South Florida. Long's really honed his writing skills after working in south Florida as a boxing sports writer. It forced him to embrace the old actor’s axiom that “less is more,” and he developed a terse, crisp style that melded nicely with his lofty, sardonic prose. Charles performed with world famous opera companies and sang alongside opera’s greatest stars. Charles is the author of Adventures in the Scream Trade - Scenes from an Operatic Life. In the process he illustrates why the word “opera,” which means “works” in Latin, truly denotes a labor of love for so many who have given their all to the art.