One of the fights at UFC 137 I was most looking forward to was Matt Mitrione vs. Cheick Kongo, more to gauge the evolution of the former than the latter.
Unfortunately for all involved, we were treated to 15 minutes of sluggish action mainly controlled by Kongo and punctuated by a dominant third round on the mat. For a co-main event, neither man did much to justify their high placement on the card.
In his first career loss, Mitrione (5-1) looked extremely tentative and displayed none of the swagger he had shown against Christian Morecraft months earlier. Kongo's style seemed to take him out of his game plan as he was complaining to his corner before the third round about Kongo running away from him.
The question now is whether Mitrione can rebound and against whom. Is he simply the best of a crop of lower-tier heavyweights or was this defeat just the dose of adversity he needed to reach the next stage of his career? As one of the more charismatic fighters in the UFC and based on his five fights up to this point, I'd like to think he's earned another shot against a Kongo-level opponent. Perhaps the moment was simply too big or Kongo was the right guy on the right night to beat him.
Doing a scan over the roster leads me to a few interesting pairings. Ben Rothwell and Rob Broughton are both coming off losses, but what about Mark Hunt? He's won two in a row, but that might make for a fun slugfest. Any of the three would make sense as all three have more experience than Mitrione but not enough to make it one-sided.
If MMA is truly a young man's sport, the 33-year-old needs a big performance in his next fight. Depending on what happens with Strikeforce, the division might get a lot more crowded in a few more months, making it tougher to get where he wants to go.
Kongo Unimpressive In Victory
Usually, the benefit of an undefeated fighter losing is that his opponent gains a bit of momentum and some rub from doing what no one else was able to do. Kongo frustratingly did neither in his win over Mitrione.
Earlier in the week, I had heard a media member observe that Kongo was frustrating in that he has all the physical tools but his inconsistency negated them. That was again the case Saturday as Kongo won but did nothing to stand out in doing so.
The 36-year-old has been in the UFC for over five years and now has the longest undefeated streak of his 15-fight Octagon career (3-0-1). But there's no groundswell of fans demanding that he enter the title picture because in two previous big opportunities, he lost to Cain Velasquez and Frank Mir. One of his wins was nearly a loss to someone that has only two victories in three years (Pat Barry), while another came over someone cut by the UFC (Paul Buentello).
As far as who's next, Stefan Struve, Mike Russow or even Roy Nelson might make sense for the early part of 2012. The most important person in the UFC will be hoping that the end result will be a bit more fan-pleasing than this effort.
Figuring Out "The Truth"
I've never understood the push of Brandon Vera and to me, he has always been a frustrating fighter to watch. Maybe it's all the ho-hum decisions that are happening while listening to Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan explain how great he is, but I've never quite got the appeal.
When he was cut following his loss to Thiago Silva earlier this year, I thought it was a positive move. We've seen tons of examples of fighters doing their best on smaller stages with new attitudes just to be considered for a return engagement in the UFC. When the loss was changed to a no-contest following Silva's suspension for using a tainted urine sample, Vera was granted a stay of execution and another shot to prove he belonged in the world's largest MMA organization.
Then we got Saturday. Vera talked the talk in the weeks leading up, saying he was going to finish Eliot Marshall. That never came close to happening and Marshall nearly finished Vera himself in the third round. Vera did enough with cage grappling and control on the ground to earn the decision, showing some toughness in the final round by not tapping to a Marshall armbar and reportedly getting his arm broken in the process.
But up to that point, I didn't get any sense of urgency from Vera. I didn't see a fighter who was looking to show the UFC they made a mistake in initially cutting him. Instead, I saw the same Vera I've seen the past few years: just getting by and not doing anything to stand out. When it comes to second chances, you have to make the most of them. Vera's got a great opportunity to build up his career again in the dim spotlight of UFC undercards, so that when his next loss comes, it won't be an easy decision to let him go.
It's time for "The Truth" to step up.