The long, dry spell with little big-league MMA action is soon coming to a close, and fans' thirst will be slaked with ten - count them, TEN - major MMA events in August (two UFC PPVs, UFC on Versus, a WEC, three Bellators, a Sengoku, a Strikeforce, a Strikeforce Challengers...and a partridge in a pear tree). As we've come to be spoiled to expect, these events feature several great matchups - but what intrigues me is that in the span of just over 2 weeks (15 days), there will be SIX major-org title fights, of which fully half - in a span of ten days - are going to be rematches. While we recently had a period which featured seven title fights in 14 days (UFC 112, Strikeforce Nashville, Aldo vs Faber), I cannot remember a time when there were so many rematches for titles in such a short period. This affords us a rare opportunity to sit back and enjoy watching the adjustments all six men (winners and losers) may have made since their last encounter.
WEC 50 starts us off on August 18th, with a bantamweight title fight rematch between Joseph Benavidez and defending champ Dominick Cruz. This - the only rematch of the three whose first chapter was NOT also for a title - is a rematch of their WEC 42 fight, a barn-burner which Cruz took via unanimous decision to hand Joseph his first loss. Going into the fight, Benavidez was a -250 favorite to win the fight. Most MMA sites, including Bloody Elbow, picked Benavidez to take the bout, mostly by decision.
The script was written for the fight: Benavidez would use his speed and superior wrestling as part of a more versatile attack than Cruz could bring to bear, taking the fight to the ground as needed. The fight, however, failed to go according to plan on multiple fronts. Cruz, who brought a three-inch reach advantage into the bout, didn't often utilize a jab to keep Benavidez at range, which allowed the scrappy Urijah Faber disciple to get in close and unleash multiple-strike flurries often iniated with a right uppercut and punctuated with a spinning backfist or level-trajectory elbow. Benavidez, for his part, arguably also didn't fight to his strengths, attempting very few if any takedowns and preferring to keep the fight standing. In fact, it was Dominick Cruz who took the fight to the canvas seemingly at will, taking down Benavidez in every round.
In the end, Cruz' takedowns and crisper boxing were the difference, garnering him a unanimous (30-27, 29-28, 29-28) victory and earning him a title shot at Brian Bowles, who starched bantamweight kingpin Miguel Torres on the same card to take the belt.
Their first fight at WEC 42 was extremely high-paced and exciting; but, with both men leaving some strengths untapped, there is ample room for strategy tweaks heading into their WEC 50 rematch, this time for the world championship. In my estimation, Benavidez should learn from both this fight and Cruz' subsequent fight against Bowles; accept that he isn't likely to win a standup battle with the quicker, more technical, longer Cruz; and focus more on his wrestling, set up with the striking. Cruz, in turn, will benefit from using his superior reach to his advantage, keeping Benavidez at the end of his punches and not letting him get into "tasmanian devil" mode up close or locking him against the fence for some Couture-style dirty boxing.
Following three short days after this surefire adrenaline overload is Strikeforce: Houston, featuring two title fights. Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal will defend the light heavyweight strap won from Gegard Mousasi, against Black House alum Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante; and multiple-time BJJ world champion Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza will take on Tim Kennedy for the Strikeforce middleweight title left vacant with the recent release of Jake Shields.
At Sengoku Raiden Championships 14 the next day, August 22nd, defending Sengoku middleweight champion Jorge Santiago will defend his title against the man he defeated for it, one-time top-10 middleweight Kazuo Misaki. The bout will be a rematch of one of my personal favorite fights of 2009, which took place at Sengoku Rebellion 2009. In that event, Misaki showcased a varied and unpredictable striking attack consisting of perhaps every strike known to man, including superman punches, flying knees, spinning back kicks, liver shots, leg kicks, you name it. Santiago was visually the aggressor, walking his man down, but spent much of the fight absorbing punishment. When Santiago did finally let his hands go for brief periods in round 2 (in which he dropped Misaki) and round 3, his length and accuracy brought success, but I still had Misaki winning each of the first three rounds. The fourth round featured the most varied action, with Misaki focusing a kicking attack on Santiago's lead leg and the action hitting the mat in the final minute, with Santiago transitioning among a couple submission attempts in a scramble before getting swept. I had Misaki winning round 4 also. Despite getting taken down by Jorge early in round five, Kazuo was still conducting the battle masterfully, patiently waiting for and then taking his opportunity to retain full guard. However, with only 2 minutes left in the fight, Santiago began to rain down strikes from the top, prompting Misaki to open the guard; Santiago quickly passed through to full mount, and when Misaki turned his back, sunk in a tight rear naked choke with hooks in. Misaki refused to tap and was unconscious within seconds, winning for Santiago the first middleweight championship of Sengoku.
As I mentioned, the fight was one of my favorites of 2009 - a simmering, mostly stand-up affair that started slowly, gathered steam in each round, and featured a thrilling last-minute reversal of fortunes leading to a fight-ending submission with 90 seconds remaining. Both men have gone 1-1 in the interval, Misaki besting Kazuhiro Nakamura but losing by thunderous TKO to Melvin Manhoef and Santiago dropping a non-title affair to Mamed Khalidov which he subsequently avenged. In their second bite at the apple, I would like to see Santiago let his hands go more. He was very restrained - to point of fault - in the first fight, but when he did choose to unload he scored reliably, his long straight shots seeming to extend for miles. I also would like to see him attack Misaki's legs in the rematch in order to slow him down and take away his mobility, one of his chief advantages in their first meeting. Misaki was a front-runner for much of the fight, and with little challenge from Santiago, his confidence grew allowing him to unleash the full range of strikes; but the couple times Santiago did push the pace, he caught Misaki and seemed to unsettle him. I'd like to see how Misaki will react to Santiago pushing the pace on him and not allowing him to get off his spinning kicks and flying punches.
On September 2nd, the 6th of the championship matches will occur for Bellator's featherweight crown as season one winner Joe Soto will defend his title against Joe Warren; but, prior to that, the rematch that most fans are doubtless most eagerly awaiting is former UFC lightweight champion BJ Penn rematching Frankie Edgar, the man who took his title, at UFC 118 on August 28th.
Penn, of course, looked like an unstoppable wrecking machine at lightweight coming into his fourth title defense against Edgar at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi. Penn hadn't lost a fight at lightweight in eight years and had demolished Jens Pulver, Joe Stevenson, Kenny Florian, and Diego Sanchez en route to the title fight with Edgar. Edgar in turn was 11-1, having lost only via decision to top contender Gray Maynard two years prior.
Going into the fight, Penn was a prohibitive favorite ... a -700 favorite in fact. The thinking from most fans was similar to what it was for Penn vs. Sanchez at UFC 107: there was nothing that Frankie Edgar could do that Penn couldn't do better. It was only a matter of time till Penn caught Edgar with something or took him down and strangled him. But, as the saying goes, this is why they play the game.
The result was a thrilling 5-round war, almost entirely conducted on the feet, which joined the recent Forrest Griffin vs. Quinton Jackson UFC 86 title fight as one of the closest title fights the UFC has ever had. Frankie used an unprecedented amount of movement for 25 minutes, mixing up kicks, punches, takedown attempts, circling around, head movement, etc - never giving Penn the same look for more than a couple seconds and constantly mixing up his movement. Many fans seemed to feel that Edgar was more active with strikes attempted and landed, while Penn landed the more consequential shots, although Fight Metric actually has Penn landing both more strikes, and more effective strikes, especially to the head. In the later rounds, BJ's corner instructed him to take Edgar down, seemingly a sign that they felt their man was not getting the better of the standup.
As with the linked Griffin/Jackson fight, a survey of online response to Penn/Edgar reveals the razor-thin nature of the bout. MMA Junkie scored the fight 48-47 in favor of Edgar. Sherdog had their usual three live scorers, all three of whom scored the fight for Penn with scores of 49-47, 48-47, and 49-46. Their play by play characterized the official judges' scoring of 50-45, 48-47, 49-46 in favor of Edgar as "shocking". MMA Frenzy scored the fight 48-47 for Frankie Edgar but noted "nearly every round could go either way, as could the decision." The Bleacher Report sees the fight 48-47 for Penn but also notes that particularly round 4 was tough to call. MMA Mania scored the fight as 48-47 in favor of BJ Penn but noted "this will be a razor close decision". Fight Metric declared Penn the 49-47 winner under 10-point must as well as the "FightMetric" system winner.
As with the razor-thin Griffin/Jackson fight, much internet discussion and emotional debate followed the judges' unanimous decision awarding the fight - and the lightweight title - to Frankie Edgar. Penn was very ambivalent about the fight and its result in the days following the tilt; but he recently ratcheted up the heat & light on a rematch with his declaration:
I can't wait to see you in the ring Frankie, trying to get out of the [rematch] when [the first fight] was a fight like that...you didn't win all five rounds...and it just makes me dislike you, can't wait to see you in the ring, August 28th.
This fight being both the most high-profile of the three rematches covered here, as well as the rematch whose first installment was closest (by a wide margin), it is at once the most intriguing in terms of changes that can be made by both fighters and yet also potentially hardest to predict what will be different. Edgar, for his part, fought an absolutely perfect fight the first time out. Whether the judges were correct to give him the victory or not, he fought a brilliant fight, utilizing ceaseless movement to keep Penn guessing, pot-shotting him with a variety of strikes, and adding takedown attempts - sometimes as part of a striking combination and sometimes as a traditional wrestling shot. I struggle to see what Frankie can do better or differently, not on account of winning the fight, but on account of having the perfect gameplan and executing it beautifully. If anything, he might avoid trying to tie up with Penn, as when they did, Penn would often land a few cat-quick (but powerful) strikes; and in this second fight Penn might use such opportunities to take Edgar down.
From BJ's perspective, I would certainly not hesitate to take the fight to ground if I was being outstruck. BJ, of course, has one of the best ground games in the sport, although his sense of pride in being a complete fighter - the fighter that once wore the "Just Scrap" shirt to the cage - led him, in my opinion, to keep the fight on the feet against Edgar more than he should have. Penn has never been a classic takedown artist in a freestyle wrestling sense, but he has size and strength on Edgar and, if he can initiate a clinch, should be able to take him to ground. Once there, while Edgar's ground game is solid, he will be in massive trouble if Penn obtains the top position on him. In the rematch Penn should consider feeling Edgar out on the feet for a couple rounds, but look to utilize a takedown where possible. He should learn from fighters like Georges St-Pierre, Mo Lawal, etc - that is, he should endeavor to take every fight to the location where he holds the biggest advantage. Against Diego Sanchez, Pulver, Florian (although I believe Florian was a little under-whelming in that fight) - heck, against most lightweights - staying on the feet is fine for Penn. But the first fight should show him that at a minimum, Frankie can utilize movement and quickness to keep the fight very close to call. I think the disdain for Edgar that Penn showed in the linked video would cause him to yearn to dish out a beatdown, but I would think he would be just as satisfied with taking Edgar's back and choking him out, a-la the Jens Pulver rematch.
While strategy tweaks and adjustments for these battles have yet to play themselves out on fight night, they will certainly be revealed in the fullness of time; but what is certain is that we are in for some terrific title-fight rematches in the next few weeks. I can't wait.