Overall Grade: B+/A-
This was an excellent event, though I hesitate to give the full A- rating due to some of the lackluster fights on the undercard as well as the ultra-unimpressive Palelei vs. Sanchez fight. The crowd seemed invested in the fights by the time the show went live (at least they didn't boo that often), which is noteworthy given that the Bocek vs. Evans and Lister vs. Radev fights went to decisions. That in and of itself isn't cause for boredom, but from the accounts I've read neither of those fights were particularly entertaining as they both tuned into top and bottom control skirmishes.
With respect to what one looks for in a MMA fight card, I'd suggest this card mostly delivered. There was a decent mix of grappling and striking battles, finishes via submission and TKO, an array of differing style match-ups, superstar power, and both title and divisional implications.
Before I forget: hats off to the UFC for acquiring a much better featured sponsor than malt liquor manufacturers. That being said, the tag line for the Harley Davidson/UFC relationship is beyond moronic. "The only motorcycle worthy of being in the Octagon"? I'm not sure that even means anything. In fact, I know it doesn't mean anything. But as long as they keep malt liquor references to a minimum, I'll be slightly less critical.
With my predictions I went 8/10. I incorrectly predicted the outcomes of Silva - Liddell and Palelei - Sanchez. I don't feel particularly bad, though, since I wouldn't have laid money down on the former given the odds were at a pick `em level. As far as the Palelei - Sanchez fight, well, it was what it was. We'll get to that later.
This was also a great way for the UFC to close out an excellent and tumultuous 2007. The organization and the sport itself exploded this year, but that sometimes created problems for the burgeoning MMA world, e.g. steroids, unclear title pictures, and massive amounts of upsets. Insofar as one event can aright various problems, UFC 79 certainly corrected some of those issues. The GSP vs. Hughes fight irons out the welterweight title picture, for starters, and opens up excellent opportunities for that division in 2008. While Silva lost the decision to Liddell, he didn't look to be in poor form. Now that the Liddell monkey is off of his back, he can go forward into 2008 ready to take on new challenges for American fans. There is still the Randy Couture issue to deal with as well as the mess that is the Lightweight title situation. Brock Lesnar could also prove to be a gigantic bust. But the UFC continues to position itself as the flagship organization of the sport. Provided White and Fertittas are able to steer this ship into the uncertain waters of 2007 with the acumen they displayed in 2008, there shouldn't be any issue their capable hands can't handle.
Now, onto the fights themselves.
Rich Clementi vs. Melvin Guillard: if you listened to the advice of your's truly and Sherdog's Jordan Breen, you would've laid money down on Clementi when he was +215. "No Love" looked to be in excellent physical condition and had a very aggressive ground game with excellent - if basic - transitions. It turns out, though, that's all he needed to put Guillard away. Guillard's jiu-jitsu, quite frankly, needs tons of work. He consistently makes poor choices during scrambles and transitions that cause him to essentially hand his opponents golden opportunities. He also has very poor escapes and dubious composure when opponents secure dominant or threatening positions. He doesn't handle ground adversity well and Clementi completely exploited that weakness.
During his stay in the UFC, Guillard has been submitted via triangle choke (Josh Neer), guillotine (Joe Stevenson), and now rear naked choke. That's clear evidence "The Young Assassin" has gaping holes in his MMA game. If he has any hope of staying with this organization - or fighting professionally at this level - he needs to purchase a gi immediately.
Lyoto Machida vs. Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou: it could be in somewhat dubious taste, but I told you so. MMA fans are entranced by big power fighters, but you have to exercise caution when evaluating those types of fighters. Glover Texeira proved Sokoudjou could be bullied and Machida did just that. What's interesting about Machida is that his jiu-jitsu game is in many ways similar to his stand-up game. He relies on misdirection, patience and tight fundamentals. I was very impressed to see the methodical approach he took to improve positioning and force Sokoudjou into making mistakes with pressure.
Interestingly, Machida telegraphed the head-and-arm triangle the entire fight, yet Sokoudjou couldn't stop it. Now the native from Cameroon is not only 4 - 2 in professional MMA fights, he has work to do with respect to tightening up his game. I would've thought all of the newaza Sokoudjou learned would've been enough to have a respectable guard game, but that wasn't evident last night.
Look, folks, I know you all love big power punchers like Sokoudjou and Houston Alexander, but you've got to get over yourselves a little. While those two fighters themselves are very different, the problem of MMA fans working themselves into a lather and grossly hyping the abilities of fighters affects them both.
Soa Palelei vs. Eddie Sanchez: not a whole lot to say here. Palelei was supposed to have been lighter on his feet with the weight loss, but I didn't see any evidence of that. It could've been an over extension of his capabilities in our pre-fight assessments or it could've been Octagon jitters. Regardless, he didn't even come close to fighting for the finish last night.
Sanchez put on a respectable if somewhat sloppy performance. Clearly he has some degree of talent, but whether its enough to mount any sort of career as a perennial UFC heavyweight contender is still very much within question.
Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva: fantastic fight. I was also very relieved to see neither fighter knocked out. The health effects notwithstanding, I didn't need to see one of them sustain any further psychological damage as a consequence of a brutal beating. Obviously Silva did more work in trying to remain conscious under the barrage of Liddell's fists, but the point remains the same.
Is Chuck Liddell back? It's a little early to tell, but he looked significantly improved last night. For starters, he actually looked a lot fitter for this bout than he did when facing Keith Jardine. Second, he completely dictated angles, timing, and location of the fight. Wanderlei wisely didn't rush in, but that in turn caused him to back off enough such that Liddell was able to reset himself through the contest. Third, his use of the takedown proved to be part of a brilliant gameplan. They were an excellent source of points in the judges eyes, they clearly caught Silva by surprise, and they saved him when he needed a little energy towards the end of the fight. Excellent performance by The Iceman.
As for Silva, I thought he looked very competitive. His cardio didn't fail him, which one supposes is bound to happen when training with a snorkel. The problems of Silva were what we thought they were: there was a style mismatch. Aside from being significantly shorter than Liddell, Silva's looping windmill punches with his back against the fence didn't do much for his offense. Liddell likes to force his opponents' back to the fence by cutting angles and throwing long punches. Silva should not have fought with his back against the fence so many times as this allowed Chuck to throw specifically timed and targeted punches at will. Silva also should've thrown significantly more kicks to the legs and body of Liddell. Jardine really surprised everyone with that strategy, but clearly it works well against Liddell - as aforementioned, a fighter who likes to reset himself continually through the fight to maximize his chance of landing the heavy right hand.
Silva will have a promising 2008. He gave Chuck Liddell a hell of a fight and there are numerous competitors now in the UFC light heavyweight division that he matches up well with. It was a tough comeback fight for the Brazilian, but he performed admirably and demonstrated he has a lot left to give fans of the sport.
Georges St. Pierre vs. Matt Hughes: Georges St. Pierre is the best welterweight fighter on the planet. My god, how good is this man going to become? Go back and watch the fight again. It's hard to believe someone can absolutely manhandle Matt Hughes with wrestling and superior grappling to the extent GSP did. He honestly made Hughes look like a 6-month white belt with rudimentary wrestling skills. Hughes had his guard passed regularly, got controlled with 3-point pressure attacks, couldn't launch any offense within his guard, and had virtually no answer for GSP ground and pound. I say Hughes should fight Matt Serra at some point in 2008 and then retire. Based on his pre-fight preparation and what we saw last evening, I'd say the love of competition is waning in his mind. He already knows he'll never be the champion again, so only love of the game can keep him around. But MMA is a taxing enterprise and without the strongest devotion to the game, the rigors of a fighter's life can lean heavily on you.
As for GSP, his wrestling is phenomenal. So is his striking as are his submissions. That was the same kimura he finished Dave Strasser with, only Strasser never bucked his hips to turn into the kimura. GSP's quick adaptation and switch to the arm bar - and actually clearing the head with his legs - really impressed me. When he is on, I don't think there is anyone in the world at that weight class who can stop him. Jon Fitch is often suggested as someone who could give GSP a run for his money, but I don't think even Fitch has much of a chance. Jucao even took Fitch down and at this point, it's probably safe to say GSP is a better wrestler. We already know he's a much better striker, so even if submissions don't come into play due to Fitch being "untapable", GSP has more than enough tools in the kit to stop the AKA product.
I also enjoyed GSP's classy attitude post fight. He always thanks the crowd, but more importantly, he gave Matt Serra the credit he deserved as the real champion. GSP is so dangerous not solely because of his physical gifts, but because of his humble attitude and sharp mindstate. He positions himself as one who constantly needs to improve and achieve more rather than basking in the glory of his success. Even after wining the Interim Welterweight belt, he told himself and the crowd that was just the beginning of what he needed to do. GSP has all the tools for success, so the only person who can stop him is himself. From what I've seen, I don't think that's going to be a problem anymore.