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UFC 191 Post-fight Patterns- DJ and the UFC ecosystem

Discussing one of the many reasons why The Wire is better than The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, and where some of the people who fought at UFC 191 sit in the UFC's increasingly complex microcosm

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

After a brief PFP hiatus, we're back, and following another DJ blowout and a card where most of the surprising action was on the prelims, what patterns could be seen?

The UFC has over 500 fighters. It runs approximately one event per week. It has filmed over 30 total seasons of the Ultimate Fighter, a show which now has to look up through a deep, dark mineshaft to catch a glint of light through the bottom of the barrel hundreds of meters above it. The UFC is no longer anything as simple as an end-point showcase for MMA careers or the top of the metaphorical heap which fighters strive towards, but it is instead its own living and breathing ecosystem.

One of the conceits which made HBO's The Wire The Greatest TV Show Ever Made And Easily Superior To Both Breaking Bad And The Sopranos was its presentation of cyclical history. Characters tended to grow into or away from roles and moved into ones that others had vacated, like hermit crabs into new shells. Dukie to Bubbles, Michael to Omar, and the runthrough of the homicide cops from Greggs to McNulty to Freamon. It emphasized a view of the show's Baltimore as something beyond just a stage, but as a microcosm for the world at large.

As in David Simon's fictionalized city, people don't simply move towards the top of the UFC and then slide back down, but instead have more complicated paths and niches they inhabit. Often they achieve stability as action fighters, or gatekeepers, or tests to see who belongs in the organization. These roles are often inherited from others or mirrored across divisions.


Andrade/Pennington was an example of a fight between two fighters who are both better than people give them credit for, who both make technical improvements and then have a close, well-contested fight which no-one cares about. For more exaggerated (and admittedly higher-level examples) of this, see Rafael dos Anjos/Gleison Tibau; Matt Brown/John Howard; Frankie Saenz/Sirwan Kakai; and Bigfoot Silva/Fabricio Werdum.

Like a lot of the fighters above, I feel like there was a small but widespread flaw in how Pennington was viewed: as a one note come-forward brawler who had Leonard Garcia'd her way to split decisions against Holm and Andrade. I didn't necessarily think it was quite true, particularly on rewatch: I gave Pennington the swing round (the second) for counterpunching moving backwards on a wildly swinging Andrade, and then catching the Brazilian in a guillotine towards the close of the frame- if someone was Garcia'ing the judges, it was Andrade.

In similar ways, Tibau was long thought of as someone who just dropped people on their heads, despite settling into a recent incarnation as an energy-conserving clinch-and-box fighter as early as 2011. People missed that Matt Brown was more than a brawler, and that RDA and Werdum were solid kickboxers. Frankie Saenz will likely be a puzzlingly large underdog against Urijah Faber.

I thought both Pennington and Andrade looked much better, with each throwing much more crisp, chambered strikes in a division often characterized by arm punching, but Pennington's (marginally) improved takedown defense and clinch game were in effect, and her ability to use her larger frame to get leverage for hard knees increasingly emphasized that Andrade is basically a 125er.

Pennington's problems actually came when Andrade toned down her aggression and forced her to lead, reinforcing a suspicion that I have that it is actually easier to counter than it is to (safely) lead in MMA. This was demonstrated in the predictably depressing clinch-paw-stare match between Mir and Arlovski.

Is Pennington going to be the next champion? No, but like Leslie Smith she's establishing herself as a fun, upper-mid level action fighter; something like a Matt Brown for women's 135. If the division is to survive past Rousey, it will need people like that, to establish its own small ecosystem.

Cerroning ain't easy

Paul Felder represents one of a trio of lightweights who are close to being direct inheritors of more established players in the division. While this second generation are often not as young as you'd expect (MMA being an environ where relationships between age and experience are... fluid) they still live in the shadow of those earlier fighters as an RDA Rip-off, a Budget Bendo, and a Cut-price Cerrone, so to speak.

Dos Anjos' Beneil Dariush is having the most success; Henderson's Scott Holtzman is the most recent addition, and made the most of a softball match with Anthony Christodolou. Lastly, Cerrone's Paul Felder has been struggling, and dropped two competitive but clear decisions to Edson Barboza and Ross Pearson.

His recent loss had a number of factors. Partially it was because Pearson put on the striking performance of his life, feinting to disguise his sometimes-overused head slips, jabbing, hooking and working short right hands to the body of his much taller opponent. Partially it's because Felder seems to fight angry, and not always to his own benefit. An innate machismo seems to translate itself into needing to immediately prove his dominance in whatever area of striking he's challenged- he tried to kick back against Barboza, then he tried to box against Pearson. Partially, as Bleacher Report's Pat Wyman has pointed out, it's because he perhaps tried to mimic his progenitor Donald Cerrone a bit too much, and took too many fights too fast.

Whatever the case, there'll always be a place for fighters like Felder. He's big, athletic, violent and stupidly hard to hurt. However, even with those advantages it's a reiteration of just how many gifts you need to break into the upper echelons of 155, where those like the original Cerrone camp out, and particularly if you have as little experience as Felder. Lightweight is just an astoundingly good division, where even top 20ish fighters like Pearson are skilled specialist or multidimensional threats.

Where does DJ belong?

Another fight, another dominant Mighty Mouse performance, another collection of people wondering why he doesn't sell or conversely pointing out why he does. I already wrote about this once, and I'm not sure that I can elaborate much more on what I stated before:

  • Size has a little bit to do with it but not nearly as much as people think it does.
  • Fighting style has even less to do with it, as the biggest selling boxer and MMArtist of all time are or were both objectively more boring fighters than Johnson.
  • Personality has a bit of an effect, but GSP and Mayweather aren't charismatic either.

Instead, that nebulous thing "popularity" is largely built from elements which are, well, stupid. Or at least simplistic. Primarily, it's built from people getting mad at each other, and from stories. Sometimes these are short and immediately compelling, like Street Fighter Kimbo, Pro Wrestler Brock, Feminist Icon Rousey or Mouthy Irish Guy Conor.

Longer stories need time and investment. Jon Jones and Anderson Silva were two of the most objectively exciting fighters ever, and it took them a long time to significantly draw, even despite their "size" and the fact that they were fighting people who were much, much better known to the viewing public than Chris Cariaso and Kyoji Horiguchi are. If Jon Jones had been busting up on opponents with that degree of anonymity, there'd be significant complaints about how he didn't draw either.

However, as I've said, I've covered a lot of this ground, and it gets very boring to discuss this purported failing, so how about the fight itself? Well, Johnson's performance was fantastic: he hemmed Dodson in with feints and round kicks, and then alternately split his guard with a straight up the middle or came around it with leaping hook or overhand. Against a version of the Magician who was no longer allowing him to transition from double legs into the double collar tie, he instead worked Dodson's freakish balance against him and pinned him up against the cage with single legs and attacked with elbows. He is increasingly a compendium of MMA techniques from the basic to the esoteric, like the Tristar defensive elbow frame on the retreat and the Jon Jones spinning elbow from the clinch. In the brief moments where Dodson reversed his takedowns or flung him to the mat, it struck me even more clearly than it did the first time they fought that the challenger is probably the superior athlete of the two, making Johnson's crushing and tactically clinical victory even more impressive

I liked it, but convincing other people to like the flyweight champion is, in and of itself, pretty dull. I'm pretty sure the Mouse makes a comfortable living, and will continue to do so as he carries on dominating his opponents. Tell yourself that you are a special hipster flower for enjoying his fights; or tell yourself that you think he's boring or uninteresting for reasons which are probably a little dishonest. In the end, who cares? The UFC is a big, healthy ecosystem. It has room for stars like McGregor and Rousey, it has room for the middle of the pack, and it certainly has room for less popular champs as well, whether DJ stays at this level where he pulls basement PPV numbers or not.

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