Welcome, friends, to the League of Extraordinary Journeymen, a series wherein Connor Ruebusch and Phil Mackenzie's crippling MMA dependencies compel them to discuss the UFC's enigmatic middleweight division. It's bound to get a little weird.
Last week was UFC Pittsburgh, and the event saw three valiant middleweights score first round KOs. In unrelated news, three other middleweights were knocked out in the first round. Advancing through this division can be like climbing a mountain of custard, but these gentlemen did their best.
UFC PITTSBURGH RECAP
Phil: Man. I officially picked Derek Brunson to win by decision in the BE staff picks, but the way he thumped Roan Carneiro was way more what you might expect from the Anglerfish. Similarly, Chris Camozzi wrecked poor, decrepit Joe Riggs, who looked badly hurt from a jab. We talked about how these guys are far more badass than anyone watching might rightly expect... so how about bland old Chris Camozzi having broken his opponent's limbs with strikes in 2 out his last 4 bouts?
Connor: Yes, that was simultaneously proof of just how dangerous a journeyman has to be to hang in the UFC, and just how far Joe Riggs' body has decayed. Riggs was never the most durable guy on the planet, but he has a surprising scarcity of knockout losses on his record given the aggressiveness of his style. Dangerous as Camozzi is compared to the average man, he is just a journeyman by UFC standards. I have to conclude that a dude who gets his bones broken by Chris Camozzi probably doesn't belong at this level..
Phil: I guess our one disagreement in picking was the deeply meaningful bout between Daniel Sarafian and Oluwale Bamgbose, where Bamgbose was either going to immediately dust Sarafian or get ground out. You win this round, Connor.
Connor: As much as I'd like to claim that I saw it coming all along, I was pretty damn nervous after picking Bamgbose. By fight night, I was starting to feel pretty certain that Sarafian was tough enough to outlast "The Holy War Angel" and work him on the ground. And while I'm happy to have been right, I'm not exactly comforted that Bamgbose scored yet another first round KO. I mean, we learned nothing about his long-term prospects in that fight. Has he gotten over his gastank issues? Has he learned from the Uriah Hall fight?
That's middleweight, baby.
But time marches on, and so do we. Let's take a look at the four middleweight bouts scheduled to take place at UFC London.
Bradley Scott (10-3) vs Krzysztof Jotko (16-1)
Phil: Jotko ends up lower in the card order than the man he beat last time out, to the surprise of absolutely no-one, what with being a Pole fighting in England and all. I was quietly fairly impressed, though. He did a solid job of keeping a longer, taller and slower opponent off-balance via darting in and out and opportunistic takedowns.
Jotko had the problem in his last fight that Scott has now- he was the de facto executioner for a member of Josh Samman's season of TUF, and beat a guy who seemed just a crucial step away from being a solid fighter. In Tor Troeng's case, he looked like his prime years had been short and had already passed away. Dylan Andrews has just never quite had the durability.
Krzysztof Jotko is a middleweight. Photo by Per Haljestam|USA Today Sports
Connor: Speaking of Dylan Andrews, his career is an oh-so typical tale of middleweight misfortune. Superb athletes are so very rare at 185, and yet it seems the few that do crop up always have some tragic flaw. Uriah Hall is a head case. Ricardo Abreu just doesn't understand striking. And Dylan Andrews, who is fast and strong and a dynamite puncher, was too fragile to hang in the UFC.
It was Brad Scott's durability that let him beat Andrews. "The Villain" managed to drop him twice with blistering right-handed blows, but Scott kept pushing his pace, adjusted his clinch tactics, and broke Andrews down. Overall it was a very impressive performance that allowed Scott to show off the uniqueness of his skillset. He is a sort of archetypal British boxer, but with the cage-grinding, front-choking sensibilities of John Crouch's MMA Lab, where he trains part-time.
Durability is always helpful, but I think it will be Scott's intelligent boxing and relentless pace that proves most useful against Jotko.
Phil: Let's annoy Zane by going on a tangent about the MMA Lab. I like it. It's a good gym, and is specifically one of those ones (typified by Jackson-Wink) where the production of individual skillsets aren't the best- Lab products don't tend to be individually great strikers, wrestlers or grapplers- but all the interstitial areas are very well accounted for, and the fighters tend to be extremely "fight-ready."
Connor: Yes, absolutely, though I will say: I think Crouch and Co. have a particular knack for cage-fighting. Every one of the Lab's notable fighters--from Benson Henderson to Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger to Mike De la Torre to Bradley Scott--are adept at what you might call "wall n' maul."
Jotko is maybe the more typically weird middleweight in this fight, though. Scott is absolutely massive, to the point that he could very feasibly fight at light heavyweight. His dimensions are almost identical to those of Sean O'Connell, for example. Jotko, on the other hand, is an oddball. He's fast, but not explosively powerful; he's creative, but lacks fundamentals; he's a good out-fighter and a good wrestler, but can't keep the peanut butter and chocolate from getting mixed up, even when it would suit him to keep them separate.
I see this being a very, very close fight. Jotko keeps a pace, but Scott pushes a pace. Scott is hittable, but Jotko is clinchable. Jotko can be surprising, but Scott is predictably tough. I dunno.
It's a good fight, in any case.
Scott Askham (13-2) vs Chris Dempsey (11-3)
Phil: Megatom Ultrawatson!
Connor: Indeed! And now that Original Flavor Tom WatsonTM is no longer in the UFC, Megatom Ultrawatson has to carry the Coal Pit Muay Thai torch all by himself. Askham is a really interesting prospect. He's huge, of course, with long limbs and a long torso. Despite his length, however, he's not very good at range. Jotko managed to best Askham by, perhaps counterintuitively, fighting from long range. Askham didn't seem to realize that he could just stick his legs and arms out there and score points. Instead, he opted to fling himself through open space, leading with shift punches and stepping kicks, and ended up getting taken down and countered over and over.
Askham is no good as a long fighter, but as a tall fighter he is a force to be reckoned with. Given an opponent who tries to aggressively close the distance, Askham has all kinds of punishing, upward-arcing strikes that make full use of his 6'3" frame. He loves to stand at mid-range and launch a teep straight through his opponent's skull, but uppercuts and knees are probably his most damaging strikes. The uppercut with which he sent Antonio dos Santos Jr. to the floor? One of the prettiest uppercut counters I've ever seen. Just brutal. Truly a coal-hearted move.
Phil: Askham shows us the difficulties in out-fighting, specifically out-fighting that relies on some kind of pace. It's a consistent trend not just in MW but in MMA as a whole that tall fighters are mediocre effective range strikers, but great in the clinch. I think this is because holding a sliver of range (what our friend James Stapleton aka "aguy2", aka "u/mma_boxing_wrestling" aka aka "HittingAnalysisWriterPersonWhoWritesAboutHitting" and probably a dozen other heinously generic names, aptly refers to as "critical distance") is one of the more difficult things to do. The slice of range can be collapsed with a countered strike or just bad footwork, and tall people need to do things like balancing the advantages of a lowered base (better jab / less vulnerable to overhands) with a raised one (easier footwork / less vulnerable to leg kicks). Mostly in amongst this complexity they just decide- screw this, I'ma grab this midget and lean on the top of his head then beat him up. MMA.
Askham is big and phenomenally strong but slow. Slooooow. His best asset (the Blue Collar Scrapper meta-ability to keep a pace and crush people over time) will likely never get maximized because he'll just never get the opportunity to fight five rounds as he did against Max Nunes.
I feel like we're giving short shrift to poor Chris Dempsey here, though. Is he really that anonymous, by the standards of the most anonymous division around?
Connor: Chris who? Oh--Askham's opponent! Yeah, maybe. He's certainly not bad. I mean, we've already covered how UFC journeymen are typically well beyond the average MMA fighter in terms of skill. But is he really that good? If Derek Brunson is the sneaky predator who uses mimicry to lull his prey into a false sense of security, then Chris Dempsey is a non-venomous snake that maybe kinda looks like a viper. "I'll bite you, I swear!" he seems to say as he barrels forward, happily punching his way into close range and shooting for takedowns. But then he eats a hard shot and you realize, "Hey, this is no coral snake!" And then he's down and out.
Chris "The Milk Snake" Dempsey? Uh . . . maybe not.
Phil: Also: what the HELL are these two looking at in the promo picture.
Partly scared, partly grossed out, morbidly fascinated.
Connor: I think they're watching a replay of Weidman vs Rockhold. "Shit, is that what we're supposed to compete with?" Don't worry, boys. Those aren't real middleweights.
But yeah, Askham just has one of those faces. I'll see your UFC-branded promotional material and raise you one Severe MMA video thumbnail.
Phil: He is 27 years old.
Gegard Mousasi (37-6-2) vs Thales Leites (25-5)
Phil: Well, you were talking about how rare elite athletes are at this weight class, and thus we have Gegard Mousasi. The Moose. The Young Vagabond. The Dreamcatcher. What is up with Gegard Mousasi? I think we can largely discount the Hall loss, that was a fluke a low-percentage outcome, but Mousasi has still never quite "clicked" for whatever reason.
My theory is that he's not quite the right kind of bastard. I mean, he is a bastard, and that he genuinely enjoys hurting people, just not in the right way. Kind of in the "pulling wings off flies" way, rather than a healthy, robust and competitive bastard-ness. If that makes any sense. He can get rattled and thrown off his game, and in general reflects a more morose version of the bully mentality, where he doesn't tend to mount comebacks much in his fights.
Connor: Since we've mentioned him a few times already, let's compare Moose to Derek Brunson. Mousasi can pretty much compete with all of the same guys as Brunson, but in similar matchups he just hasn't had the same kind of--for lack of a better term--"fuck you" attitude. Mousasi kind of lets his opponents decide what happens. He's tough everywhere, but he can be lackadaisical in terms of control. Brunson, on the other hand, doesn't let anyone do anything to him. If you hit him, he pays you back. If you shoot for a takedown, he puts you on your back. And if you try to play guard, he turns you into hamburger.
I just don't know that Mousasi has that much hate in him. At the end of the day, I think he's willing to forgive himself a slip-up or two. As long as his PS4 doesn't get stolen again (http://mmajunkie.com/2014/11/why-do-criminals-keep-targeting-ufc-fighter-gegard-mousasi) he'll be alright. That's not a bad quality in a person, but it doesn't seem to breed elite fighters.
Phil: Thales Leites is cool. I had no idea what to expect when he came back to the UFC, apart from not much, but he's an ass-kicker nowadays. I think we both agree that he certainly can trouble Mousasi: Gegard's been gotten to by pressure and top position grapplers, but I think this is also one of the one's where there's a defined ceiling. Gegard is in a specific tier just below the top 4, and Leites is in the tier just below that. Middleweight is pretty stratified (hence the endless journeyman matchups) and people rarely break in and out of where they "belong."
Connor: He is cool! For the record, I'm a little baffled by the betting lines in this fight, especially since the local bettors witnessed a very impressive display of what Thales Leites can do when he went five tooth-and-nail rounds with Bisping last July. I mean, I kind of agree with your sentiment, and I will end up picking Mousasi here, but Leites is a very live dog.
Gegard Mousasi is not even impressed by his own performance. Photo by Jason Silva|USA Today Sports
However, I think this bout will ultimately serve as a reminder of the real quality of MMA striking. I can look at Thales Leites and say, "Wow, he's so much better on the feet than he used to be," and that is true. I can easily trick myself into thinking that he is a very good kickboxer, however, and that just isn't the case. The improvements that stand out are of the most basic variety. He throws the hook after the right hand. He hits the body now and then. He counters the jab, or tries to. These aren't shining accolades by any standards other than those of the UFC middleweight division.
Mousasi could still lose this one by just not trying enough, but as far as tools are concerned he has far more. A great jab, and a feinting game to back it up. Head movement and lateral footwork. Combination punching, and occasional flashes of Dutch-style kickboxing. Leites hits harder and is maybe more consistent, but I expect Moose to just kinda out-skill him.
Anderson Silva (33-6, 1 NC) vs Michael Bisping (27-7)
Connor: And so we come to the main event, a meeting at the crossroads of two great and very different careers. I can't help but feel a little emotional regarding this fight, probably because I don't know how much longer we'll see either of these fellas in the Octagon. Michael Bisping will turn 37 the day after this fight. Anderson Silva will turn 41 in less than two months.
It's not just numbers, either. The signs of deterioration are there. Anderson hasn't officially won a bout since October of 2012, when he beat Stephan Bonnar at light heavyweight. The knockout was one of Anderson's most artful, but for perspective, Bonnar's next fight was a loss to Tito Ortiz. In 2014. After the two crushing losses to Chris Weidman, even Anderson seemed to realize that he couldn't be MMA's Roy Jones any longer. His bout with Nick Diaz saw Anderson utilizing his older, more traditional Muay Thai style. Hands up.
Michael Bisping always seems to end up in a tight spot. Photo by Steve Flynn|USA Today Sports
And Bisping, who has always been known for his exceptional cardio, was looking pretty ragged by the fourth round of his fight with Thales Leites. No doubt Leites' leg kicks and body work had some effect, but I have never before seen "The Count" waiting for his stool with hands on knees.
It is a testament to both of these men's skill that, despite the obvious effects of age and wear they have successfully adapted. Bisping was tired and beaten up, but he still managed to take the fifth round from Leites. He is technically better than ever before, with more tools and the knowledge to use them. Silva adjusted his style after the first Weidman loss. And is it outside the realm of possibility that he would have troubled Weidman in the rematch if not for the broken leg?
Phil: I think, sadly, the answer is that it is outside the realm of possibility aside from an outrageous fluke or moment of utter brilliance. More meaningful than the leg break is the moment when Anderson grabs for a collar tie and Weidman just punches over the top and knocks him down. Similarly, more significant than the stand-up in the Diaz fight was the way that Nick (as the smaller, skinnier fighter, and the one without the power of Thai sex juice) came off better in virtually every clinch exchange. These are those heartbreaker moments when a fighter reaches for a tool they've always had, and it's not there any more; a fighter losing durability, speed and even the ability to muscle opponents around. What's left is mostly craft, cunning, and a decent amount of punching power.
I think the difference we're seeing between these two is that Silva's athleticism was prodigious, and the loss of it is jarring, both for Anderson and for anyone watching him. For Bisping, a decline has less of an effect because... well, there wasn't such a quantity of pure physicality there in the first place.
What makes this fight particularly bittersweet is that even if Bisping gets the win, I think we know the window has passed. It'd be the greatest success of a career which somewhat resembles Rich Franklin's: solid, consistent, and without that standout victory to tie it all together. I don't think this fight can even be that win. It's a very hard, very dangerous shot at a consolation prize.
VERY MEANINGFUL PICKS
Bradley Scott via light heavyweightness
Scott Askham via premature old man strength
Gegard Mousasi via remember that time he beat up Musashi?
Anderson Silva via nostalgia KO (and terrifying ground and pound)
Krzysztof Jotko by being very slightly faster
Scott Askham via the power of Coal Pit Muai Thai
Gegard Mousasi via ehhhhhhh just being kinda better you know but not really trying all that much
Anderson Silva via the old lion being too tricky
When discussing fights in this way, a connecting theme emerges. Think of these as our closing thoughts.
The throughline for UFC London's middleweights is . . .
Connor: Phil, why don't you take this one.
Phil: I'm going to go for "depth." I don't think this is a selection of fights which favours the specialists, and I think the people who win will be doing it because they've got a deeper bag of tricks. Scott and Jotko is basically a mirror match in this regard- both pretty well-rounded, but one of them's stronger and one of them's faster. Askham and the Moose both have far more developed, diverse games than their opponents, and Silva in particular has always been a protean fighter- we've seen him puckish, pissed off, conservative, clowning, disinterested. All of these things are in him. Bisping has just always been... Bisping. Regular as clockwork. Right down to getting dropped around the 4-7 minute mark.
Connor: Good one. This card also gives us a glimpse at the depth of the middleweight division. As you pointed out earlier, it is a strangely stratified division. There are a dozen lightweights outside the top ten who could get a big win tomorrow and break through. That isn't the case at middleweight. Regardless, the division does have a lot of very interesting characters with very different styles and very different levels of skill. Dempsey loses to Askham loses to Jotko loses to Leites loses to Bisping loses to Silva loses to Weidman loses to Rockhold. This division goes down for leagues and leagues, and you never know what you might find amid the depths.
Just don't go near the Anglerfish.
For a more in-depth, technical analysis of Anderson Silva vs Michael Bisping, check out this week's episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.