Greetings, friends. Long time no see. While you've been waiting for more MMA action (and suffering through a thoroughly one-sided beating by Pacquiao over Clottey), I've been occupied first with some stuff on the home front and then a ten-day trip to Bermuda with Habitat for Humanity.
I won't go into the personal drama (you can read some more about it here, which I promise is one of my old columns and not a link to the LiveJournal I kept in high school – shameful) but I'd like to report that Bermuda was almost criminally wonderful. (In our defense, we tried to change the trip to Haiti after the terrible earthquake there, but were told that they couldn't accommodate us in to help. So Bermuda it was. If you're going to do volunteer manual labor for a week, I strongly recommend doing it someplace where it's always 70 degrees and the water is bluer than a Smurfville mosh pit.)
But the takeaway point: I'm here now. For you. With cupcakes. Metaphorical fight analysis cupcakes.
And not a moment too soon, as we're in the height of MMA's version of March Madness. UFC is giving us three excellent cards in the next ten days, and they kick off with an interesting little get-together that marks the UFC's first appearance on Versus.
It's hard not to wonder what the Zuffa mothership's foray onto WEC's home turf means for the sister federation, especially with WEC's pivotal first pay-per-view approaching fast in April. The encroachment tends to make me believe Zuffa is hedging its bets by expanding the audience for UFC in the event the buyrate for Faber vs. Aldo comes in below expectations. Regardless, DirecTV and Versus have settled their beef in time to get the night of fights out to dish subscribers as well. That's a happy bit of news for Dana White and company, who have given this card more hype and attention than their typical televised Fight Night offerings.
Lou Thesz would be proud of Jon Jones' super suplexes.
Perhaps wanting to make sure that Versus fans get a show, the UFC has scheduled a night of sluggers with KO power and any one of the fights on the main card could end in a flash knockout. (We'll credit Clay Guida on the undercard as well, who may get his fight snuck into the televised portion after his original match against Sean Sherk was cancelled. Guida's workrate reputation seems to guarantee he'll be first in line.) James Irvin and Alessio Sakara are first up, and while the name value doesn't scream "meaningful fight" — neither man is a serious contender to Anderson Silva at 185, and indeed Irvin is coming off an embarrassingly one-sided loss to The Spider in the 205 division — the style of both fighters is "stand and trade hard." While it might not be a wonderfully technical fight, it does strongly suggest that the UFC is looking to lead off the card with fireworks. Given the subpar UFC records of both fighters, I'd expect that the loser may have fought his last in the Octagon. That could add to a sense of urgency that both fighters keep ratcheted up anyway.
A similar matchup in the main card's second fight pits bruising Cheick Kongo against aging Paul Buentello. Buentello, 36, claims that he's added a wrestling component to his game, but don't expect it to matter. Kongo is clearly a second-tier fighter, but Buentello is third. Expect Cheick to deal with Buentello handily, probably by KO.
The card gets far more interesting with the night's final two matches featuring a pair of rising stars. Junior "Cigano" dos Santos has blasted a path through the UFC's heavyweight division so far, with four wins all coming by stoppage. And it's not slouches he's beaten, either: he's got Gilbert Yvel, Mirko Cro Cop and Fabricio Verdum on his resume. The resilient Brazilian Gabriel Gonzaga stands in his way this time, and if dos Santos can score an impressive victory here he has to be mentioned in the same breath with Carwin, Velasquez, and the rest of the packed house at the top of the 265 mountain. Cigano is aggressive and hits like a tank; if you haven't seen his previous matches, catch him here. His next fight ought to be much bigger.
Finally, the main event pits two fighters who looked impressive in their previous fights but who both also took home a loss. Previous hot prospect Brandon Vera dropped a decision to Randy Couture in a fight where many thought the Truth had the Natural outpointed; however, the judges disagreed. Meanwhile, heavily-hyped Jon "Bones" Jones had his undefeated streak snapped when, in the midst of what looked to be a dismantling of Matt Hamill, Jones was disqualified for throwing illegal 12-6 (downward) elbows to the head.
If you don't think Jones is the real deal — and I do — a win over Brandon Vera should go a long way towards convincing you. I hate Vera as anything other than an effective sleep aid, but he should provide a good test for the aggressive, unorthodox Jones. It's strange to think of a clash of styles in MMA as anything other a classic striker/grappler battle, and while Jones has some very effective wrestling it's just as likely this one will stay on the feet. Jones loves pushing the action with wild, high-power strikes like back elbows while Vera relies on range, range and more range to set up Muay Thai counterattacks. Will Vera's boring but effective style stifle Bones? I doubt it. Jon Jones is athletic enough to close on Vera and will likely force Vera to play for the finish, which is not his strength.
It's hard for me not to be biased with my general loathing of Vera's style, but the fact remains that he's a powerful fighter who ought to present a stern test for the 22-year-old Jones. But it's time for Vera to pass the torch of The Next Big Thing in UFC. I think Jones intends to beat it out of his hands.