This weekend brings Brock Lesnar back to the octagon and more likely, the concept of mixed-martial arts back to Ultimate Fighting Championship as well.
While there were enough exceptions, last week’s event from London felt more like watching amateur boxers mixing it up, rather than watching professionals ply their skills and talents in an effort to win a fight.
Case in point? Watching Michael Bisping, an accomplished wrestler, taking on Yoshihiro Akiyama, a black belt in Judo, trade punches in the ring was a frustrating display of one-dimensionality. Even in the beginnings of the modern era, a fighter coming into the ring to simply try to out punch an opponent would be quickly disposed of by a talented practitioner of a dedicated skill set.
Is MMA devolving? Well, if the vast majority of fights turn into slugfests, it’s not a positive development. While Chris “Lights out” Lytle knocking out Dan Hardy was exciting, far too many fights last week turned into poorly executed slugfests and at the time when trying something different, as in trying to use martial arts skills honed by years of practice and fighting experience would be welcome, too many guys resorted to more punches, and worse, tying up the opponent.
If MMA continues down this route - with guys too tentative to get taken down and too concerned about a vocal minority of fans who cannot comprehend that wrestling, judo, karate and various other skill sets are what make the dynamics of intriguing fights - boxing has a great opportunity to steal back fans, and professional wrestling has a great opportunity to create its own excitement in a squared circle.
But this weekend’s big fight may just put professional wrestling back into the octagon, as wrestling will be on display, or at least heavily influence this fight.
The heaveyweaight champion is Lesnar, the biggest draw in MMA history, looking to break one million pay-per-view buys again this year. Lesnar is an NCAA Division I wrestling champion, having won that title in 2000 as a student athlete at the University of Minnesota. His challenger is Cain Velasquez, out of Arizona State University, who is an accomplished wrestler with seventy-seven wins and two losses in the NCAA Division I semifinals.
Wrestling will be key, not just because of the high level of technical skills of the two combatants, but also because of the size mismatch. This isn’t a fight that either man will want to lose in a standing slugfest. Lesnar may have superior strength and speed, but punching from the stand-up position is not his most optimal position. Shane Carwin proved that in July. Velasquez may have better conditioning and most experts believe he can out-box Lesnar, but those experts also believe that he lacks the “heavy hands” that would allow him to knock down, or knock out, the champion.
Lesnar is likely going to avoid being out-pointed in stand up and Velasquez will be more interested in testing Lesnar’s technical skills. The ASU standout was wrestling at a high level in 2005 and 2006 and that half-decade may mean a significant advantage, keeping in mind that Lesnar has plied his talents in the much demanding sport of professional wrestling, then tried professional football and has been more focused on expanding his skill set to submissions and striking rather than returning to his more natural wrestling talents.
But the very interesting connection between Velasquez and Lesnar is this: the arch-nemesis of Velasquez is a training partner of Lesnar. That man, who is the heavyweight champion for the MMA promotion known as the Bellator Fighting Championships, is Cole Konrad. Those seven fights and two prominent losses in the semifinals of 2005 and 2006 may just provide significant strategic information for this fight.
UFC 121 is scheduled for tonight, the PPV starting at 10 p.m. and the preliminaries an hour earlier. The event is being held at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. As well as through cable providers, the fight is also available at various movie theaters.
There are two other significant fights on the show, plus two other interesting fights, not counting the prelims.
A significant fight is at the welterweight level, featuring UFC newcomer Jake Shields, coming off a win against Dan Henderson in Strikeforce and also having vacated the Strikeforce welterweight championship. Shields takes on Martin Kampmann as both look forward to a shot at Anderson Silva. Shields is a Gracie student, a master of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but has a reputation for rather boring, grind the opponent down fights.
The other high-profile fight pits student/coach, as TUF participant Matt Hamill takes on his former coach, Tito Ortiz.
This is the sort of fight the UFC books: veterans with a name taking on guys who can benefit immensely from a win over a high-profile fighter. The formula comes into play at UFC 121 with light heavyweights Ortiz/Hamill as well as with Brendan Schaub taking on Gabriel Gonzaga at the heavyweight class.
In either case, a win by the “aging” veteran would position them for another big payday. But a win by the younger fighter establishes them in the pecking order.
Hamill has a great story as a deaf fighter, with two losses: one very arguable against Bisping, the other against Rich Franklin. He also has a rather cheap win against rising star Jon Jones when Jones struck Hamill repeatedly with elbows to the head from a mounted position and was immediately disqualified.
Ortiz has the infamy of a storied career. He has returned from a significant back injury and if he can win another fight or two and Chuck Liddell is allowed to fight again, a much anticipated and big payday could be in store.
Brendan Schaub is a powerhouse with a loss to Roy Nelson earlier this year and matched up against journeyman Gabriel Gonzaga, he faces one more challenge and one more opportunity to establish his career. Gonzaga may be looking for one more run at a title shot, but he needs a few more wins to get back on the radar.
The fight of the night bet would be on Diego Sanchez and Paulo Thiago. Both guys are hungry, looking for a win and know their backs are against the wall. Sanchez was surprisingly taken apart by John Hathaway, but Hathaway lost last weekend. Thiago is one more superlative Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist, technically sound but with a style that doesn’t always result in a excitement, but has potential for that sort of counter-move and unexpected development.
Sanchez is a dynamic fighter and BJJ specialists often do best when on the defensive, which tells me this is the fight with the most potential.
On the preliminary fights, the two that will most likely see air time will feature Court McGee and Tom Lawlor. Lawlor gets the opportunity to test his skills against veteran Canadian Patrick Cote. Lawlor is coming off of two losses after a significant win against C.B. Dollaway. A loss here may be the end of his current run in the UFC.
McGee has an amazing story, having survived a drug addiction and after being touted as the likely winner of last year’s “The Ultimate Fighter,” he had an early, controversial loss and then returned to win it all. While Ryan Jensen doesn’t have the high profile career, he’s one more veteran taking on a younger fighter with tremendous potential.
Which is the story of the undercard of UFC 121, but the main event will be a professional wrestling match with the biggest, baddest man on the planet looking to prove that he’s the greatest champion in the sport.
Joe Babinsack covers combat sports for Allied News and can be reached at email@example.com.