Welcome, friends, to the League of Extraordinary Journeymen, a brand-new series wherein MMA addicts Connor Ruebusch and Phil Mackenzie rap about the UFC's enigmatic middleweight division. It's bound to get a little weird.
Phil: The distribution of skill and athleticism in the UFC is determined by nothing so much as physical realities. One of these is the average size of a modern human: at the top of the bell curve there are more people, and thus more and better athletes. This area encompasses the divisions from featherweight to welterweight, and means that they're packed with athletic talent.
Another reality is that as people get bigger, elements like power and (in MMA) the offensive value of top control increase. Decreasing athleticism from one physical end of the UFC and decreasing power from the other intersect in one particular division, making a valley that collects a unique assemblage of weird sediment. It's a place where the athletes aren't great, but they don't tend to have shocking natural power either; one where crafty ten-year vets and retired hockey players fight alongside guys that you swear you've seen go up against each other multiple times before... even if you haven't.
It's middleweight, baby!
Connor: Speaking of bell curves, I suspect that the people reading this article (yeah, you) can be charted in a similar fashion.
If you know little about MMA, you might respond positively, if at all, to the notion of a series of articles about mid-tier middleweights. "Middle Weight?" you might say. "Yeah, that's probably a division. They would write about that, sure." The more you know about MMA, however, the less likely you are to hold this opinion. If you're a fan with casual to moderate interest in the sport, you're probably thinking, "A series about middleweights? And they're not going to talk about Anderson Silva, Chris Weidman, or Luke Rockhold? But the rest of the division sucks!"
That attitude tends to carry on until one reaches the perverted madness known as "hardcore fandom." When you watch fights as much as Phil and I do, middleweight starts to have a strange appeal. And that's because middleweight is a magical place where middle aged men, one-dimensional grapplers, powerless kickboxers, and all other manner of weird journeyman congregate. It is a division where nearly all of the fighters are good, but very few of them are great.
The result is a lot of entertaining matchups. They might be epic brawls, a la Ed Herman vs Trevor Smith, or they might be the combat equivalent of funny-bad B-movies, like Chris Camozzi vs Nick Ring. But no matter the individual flavors, if you really love this sport there is something downright captivating about the mid-tier of this mid-tier division.
And if you have yet to catch middleweight fever, stay tuned. We might just be able to sell you on the weirdest division in all of MMA.
To that end, let's take a look at three middleweight bouts scheduled to take place at UFC Pittsburgh.
Daniel Sarafian vs Oluwale Bamgbose
Phil: This is a real puzzler of a fight.
Connor: God, I would love it if that was the end of your analysis.
Phil: THIS IS A REAL PUZZLER OF A... seriously though, this is hard to call. I called it the Northcutt-Barberena of 185. The question it asks is one of the central pillars of middleweight magic, namely: what's the real power of averageness? Daniel Sarafian is a very, very average fighter. He's athletically OK, he's not a great wrestler, striker or sub grappler, and he's generally underwhelmed in his time in the UFC. The Holy War Angel totally outclasses him in terms of pure athleticism and a natural gift for fighting... but this fight is still hard as shit to actually pick, because MMA is really difficult, and because even middleweight journeymen are damn good at it.
Connor: Bamgbose is a wonderful fit for this division, though I fear the UFC doesn't really know what to do with him. Sarafian is absolutely a tough matchup, and the fascinating thing about that is the fact that the Brazilian isn't particularly good at anything--except maybe half guard?
Daniel Sarafian is proof that the middle of the road is still a dangerous place. Photo by Jason Silva|USA Today Sports
Phil: Exactly. Bamgbose may just completely waste him out of the gate... but what if he doesn't? Again, Northcutt has been illustrative because he showed us just how big the gaps can be in an gifted prospect; how there's a huge chance Oluwale just stumbles into some fatal position. He's a rare physical force for the division, but also uncommonly raw.
Connor: Yes. And Bamgbose certainly suffers from one of middleweight's most pervasive problems. He is powerful and quick and surprisingly technical--but boy does he run out of gas quick. We usually have to ask questions about fighters who have never made it out of the first round. Bamgbose fits that description, but he's accomplished the impressive feat of tuckering himself out in the first five minutes of a few of his fights. It could be a problem of nerves, and experience could fix that.
But something occurs to me: maybe middleweight is just a horribly unforgiving place for a prospect to develop. None of Bamgbose's prospective opponents can match him for athletic prowess, but they sure are crafty. It seems easy to pick a shining talent like Bamgbose against fighters like Ed Herman and Trevor Smith, never mind Daniel Sarafian--but then you start to remember the rare depth of the average middleweight record. It's just a bunch of good if unremarkable guys constantly fine-tuning themselves against one another, and in the case of fighters like Herman and Rafael Natal, tangible improvements are not uncommon.
What's a fresh fish like Bamgbose to do?
Phil: Honestly, if I'm his trainer I'm telling him to fight conservative. Just get cage time in, don't gas yourself out, and maybe even actively avoid trying to get spectacular KOs (although perhaps not, given the monetary benefits they bring). If he blows Sarafian out of the water, he may well get boosted into a tier of fighters that he's just completely unprepared for.
Joe Riggs vs Chris Camozzi
Connor: Of all the fighters featured here, none embodies the weirdness of middleweight MMA better than Joe Riggs.
Beginning his professional career nearly 15 years ago, Riggs compiled a 13-3-1 record as a heavyweight before making his light heavyweight debut. Less than four months after that he tested the waters at middleweight, and he moved to welterweight a short year and a half later, just after winning the WEC middleweight title. "Diesel" has hopped between divisions ever since, three times fighting at catchweights between 170 and 185 pounds, and once competing at light heavyweight against opponent-with-a-capital-O Aaron Brink.
His schedule has often been hectic, and much of it has taken place outside of the UFC, on the regional circuit. Through all of this Riggs has won 41 of his 58 fights. That's about a 71% winning rate, remarkably consistent despite the marked inconsistency of Riggs' long career.
Phil: If Middleweight is the crossroads, then Riggs is that dusty wanderer with a pack on his shoulder. He puts the "journey" into journeyman. He's fought everywhere and everyone, from pre-Zuffa WEC to Strikeforce to the Rumble on the Rock tournaments in Hawaii (RotR itself notable for being one of those nodes that links up disparate bits of the MMA landscape). The sojourns across weight classes that he made were more common back then, so he's got a weird and awesome collection of names on his ledger: he's someone who fought both Cabbage Correia and Matt Hughes. I'm still tickled that he's the Fight Master.
Joe Riggs has fought everywhere and everyone. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea|USA Today Sports
That he's only 33 is both impressive and just a little bit concerning, because he wears those 58 fights like a palimpsest of regional MMA history. His recent UFC bouts are yardsticks for how far sneaky veteran guile can take you in the face of physical deterioration.
Given the stratification of middleweight, sometimes journeymen get bouts way above their pay grade. One of the killers (normally Jacare for whatever reason) needs a fight, so someone steps up. Chris Camozzi has done this. Chris Camozzi has done this twice. I respect that an awful lot. It's one thing to take a bout against a top contender and convince yourself that you're ready for it, and it's quite another to have experienced exactly what that's like and to go back in there, on six days notice no less. Yes, I know he did it because it represented a road back into the UFC, but it's impressive nonetheless.
Camozzi also illustrates what a terrifying badass you have to be to qualify as a "journeyman" fighter in the UFC. He's one of the (nominally) low-power kickboxers in the division, but in his brief time outside the UFC he broke someone's goddamn leg with a kick.
Connor: That gulf between the UFC and non-UFC echelons of MMA has been on my mind a lot lately, ever since I discussed the majesty that is Kimbo Slice vs Dada 5000 on the latest episode of Heavy Hands. You see, in attempting to analyze the "technical abilities" of two backyard brawlers, I suddenly realized just how good professional fighters really are. Kimbo Slice is worse than nearly every elite heavyweight out there, but he's still better than Dada. And Dada is still worlds better than your average dude (take his dominant victory over a man apparently named "Dude" as evidence)
Camozzi and Riggs are the same way, except significantly better. The gap between a guy like Camozzi and an average regional fighter is, as Phil points out, very wide indeed. It feels weird to say that, too, because my love for the middleweight division is more than a little ironic. If I just wanted to see the best of the best competing with one another, I'd skip the vast majority of middleweight matchups, but I tune in for the strange comedy of a few average-looking guys--who are secretly anything but--duking it out.
Derek Brunson vs Roan Carneiro
Connor: You know what I love about this fight? Derek Brunson is probably the one guy at middleweight right now, other than perhaps Robert Whittaker, who stands a very real chance of breaking through into the top-tier. Brunson is definitely still a mid-tier middleweight, but there are four or five guys ranked ahead of him whom I would absolutely pick him to beat.
What better way to prove Brunson's potential than by pitting him against a stereotypically limited middleweight grappler in Roan Carneiro. How well would say Carneiro fits into your "BJJ guys with suspect cardio" paradigm, Phil?
Phil: Pretty damn well. However... I have a quiet suspicion that Carneiro might also be pretty underrated. I know Mark Munoz was on his way out when he fought Jucao (which means "Big dude", I think, just to keep that theme going) but Carneiro butchered him, in a way that Mark Munoz does not historically get beaten. Still, I'd be surprised if he can beat Mr Brunson.
Connor: Ah, Mr. Brunson.The other thing I really like about Derek is his mean streak. The guy has a real "fuck you" attitude that sets him apart from the rest of his division. Middleweight is the kind of place where two blue collar guys swing away for fifteen minutes and then hug it out before the winner takes the mic to quietly thank God
and his sponsors and then leaves. Brunson doesn't play that way. If he feels his opponent is a real threat, he'll give him the worst night of his life, like when he blanketed Lorenz Larkin for fifteen straight minutes.
A coldblooded killer lurks beneath Derek Brunson's unassuming exterior. Photo by Joshua Lindsey|USA Today Sports
But when Brunson doesn't respect what his opponent brings to the table? He goes absolutely nuts. He fights as if offended by the matchmaking. "Who's Brian Houston?" Kicks the dude's head off. "Ed Herman? For real?" Smashes Herman in thirty seconds. "Sam Alvey? This ain't the MFC." Recklessly batters the famously durable Alvey and hands him the first KO loss of his seven-year career.
Phil: You know, I sometimes wonder whether he's a real middleweight's middleweight at all. He's more like one of those predators which uses aggressive mimicry to hunt its prey. Derek Brunson. Good ol' Derek. You couldn't get a more middle-of-the-road, blue collar, average-looking, stand-up fella. Then when an appropriately vulnerable victim comes along, he explodes out of his disguise and tears it to bits. Derek "The Anglerfish" Brunson.
VERY MEANINGFUL PICKS
Connor: Oluwale Bamgbose via the lingering hope of something better
Chris Camozzi via young, healthy body (...ew)
Derek Brunson via ungentlemanly conduct
Phil: Daniel Sarafian via the overwhelming power of averageness
Chris Camozzi via battling for the honour of the remaining Powerless Volume Punchers
Derek Brunson via oh hey, who's that? Is that Derek Brunson? Good ol' Derek Brunsaaaarrrggddbllarrglarrggh
When discussing fights in this way, a connecting theme tends to emerge. Let's talk about it. Think of these as our closing thoughts.
The throughline for UFC Pittsburgh's middleweights is . . .
Connor: I'm gonna go with "misfits." Each of the three fights discussed here include a fighter who, for one reason or another, has only recently returned to the middleweight division. Roan Carneiro was a welterweight for years before his submission win over Mark Munoz catapulted him into the top fifteen at 185. Daniel Sarafian lost twice at middleweight before moving to welterweight, but now he's back after a single loss at the lighter weight. And Joe Riggs is so fond of jumping from one weight class to the other that he was fighting--and winning--as a light heavyweight as recently as May of 2012. Yet here he is, once again, where he belongs.
All of this serves to emphasize the feeling that middleweight is MMA's Island of Lost Toys. We all thought that Anderson Silva was the one scaring everyone away, but it's been almost three years since the Spider was deposed and 185 is still a weird wasteland. It turns out fighters just don't want to be here.
Phil: It's something that they fight against, but eventually I think every regular joe and blue-collar oddity knows where their home is. You can't tell me that Zak Cummings and George Sullivan don't dream, deep down, of the beautiful generic lands of 185. I believe in my heart that Cathal Pendred would still be fighting if he was in the division where he belonged, and who among us doesn't miss the Irish Bland Grenade? (note to readers, this is a rhetorical question)
Connor: Cathal Pendred vs John Howard was truly the greatest middleweight fight in welterweight history. And I still miss "Filthy" Tom Lawlor. If our feeling is correct, his time at light heavyweight will be short lived. Middleweight calls.
For MMA analysis with more of a technical bent, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. On this week's episode: KIMBO SLICE VS DADA 5000, RAAAGGH.