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League of Extraordinary Journeymen: Middleweights of UFC Salt Lake City

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Connor Ruebusch and Phil Mackenzie take a look back at several months of bloody brilliant UFC middleweight action, and preview the middleweight bouts scheduled to take place at UFC Fight Night: Rodriguez vs Caceres.

Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back, friends, to the League of Extraordinary Journeymen. It's been a few months since we last took an in-depth look at the middleweight division, and some remarkable things have occurred in the interim. Michael Bisping is the middleweight champion, Chris Camozzi is riding a three-fight winning streak, and Tom Watson is carefully plotting the regional dominance that will someday see him back in the UFC.

Before we talk about any upcoming middleweight action, let's take a look at what went before.

RECAP

Phil: The first thing we have to address is our shameful lack of attention to the UFC's most thrillingly middling division in the last few months. Admittedly the schedule has been beyond hectic, but we missed some beautiful moments. Ferreira- Bamgbose, Whittaker-Natal, Camozzi-Natal . . . but I think there are two fights which captured the joy of 185 more than any other.

Connor: The fact that you named Camozzi-Natal as a fight that happened "in the last few months" is either the most subtle joke ever crafted--and if so I apologize for stepping all over it--or the only evidence our doubters need to prove that this division ain't worth squat. Either way, it's perfect.

Phil: Dammit, I mean . . . Camozzi versus . . . whatsisface. You know. The guy! Fuck you.

Anyway, as we've mentioned before, this division is the delineator between the tough guys which largely populate the upper divisions and the more talented athletes at welter and below. We get to see what happens on the athletic and technical shoreline where the two meet.

No fights showed the possibilities of these more than Bisping-Rockhold and Kelly-Carlos Jr. Bisping-Rockhold was the big surprising victory: middleweight's ultimate hard-working gatekeeper smashing one of its greatest athletes. Daniel Kelly's win came on a much smaller scale, but it still felt significant. It reminded me of Vitor Belfort-Randy Couture, a kind of dialogue where one fighter came in with all the physical gifts and advantages and the older, more seasoned one convinced him that they didn't exist, through sheer force of will.

    For Antonio Carlos Junior, a loss to Daniel Kelly was bitter, like so much salt and vinegar. Photo by Matt Roberts | USA Today Sports

Someone once described and demonstrated a kick to me, one which he had seen an inebriated chap land to another drunk in one of London's esteemed fast food establishments late one night. He described it reverently as The Ladbroke Grove Chip Shop Kick. It looked a lot like the majestic blow that Daniel Kelly used to start his final barrage.

Connor: Part of the reason I love doing this series is that it allows me the chance to understand why middleweight is the way it is. And I still don't think I understand it. I don't understand how Dan Kelly can be the guy who gets starched by Sam Alvey, and yet simultaneously be the one to halt one of the division's best prospects.

I mean, prospect losses happen in every division. There are fighters more fully developed than Antonio Carlos Junior who suffer shocking, sudden defeats to older, more experienced, but less athletic fighters. I'm thinking, for example, of guys like Matt Lopez, who was choked out by Rani Yahya in his UFC debut just a few weeks ago.

But . . . like, Rani Yahya is pretty good. He only seems lackluster in comparison to his division, because bantamweight is a scary place with a disturbingly large volume of tiny knockout artists. And it makes sense that a fighter like Yahya, a limited but virtuosic grappler, would be the one to stop Lopez's roll, considering that Lopez is himself an aggressive and far less experienced grappler.

Dan Kelly, though? Dan Kelly isn't even an experienced MMA fighter. He's a judoka with less than four years of consistent MMA experience. Yahya may have some well-known problems, but he has almost three times as many fights, and nearly four times as many years under his belt in this sport. And it wasn't even like Kelly's vaunted judo was the thing that really carried him against Carlos. He knocked him out, with the kind of kick that, as you said Phil, feels more at home on the greasy floor of a late-night chip shop than the hallowed canvas of the Octagon.

I mean, do you think that toughness just matters more at middleweight? Is there some secret reason that allows stiff old men to knock out superior athletes in this division, but nowhere else? I want to understand, Phil. Help me to understand.

Phil: I can't explain magic. But I'll try. Partly I feel it's just variance in action- the margins of success between a good athlete and an average one don't guarantee that the average guys lose all the time . . . but the chance of consistent survival drops dramatically the more good athletes there are in a population (say, welterweight) and athleticism becomes more of a necessity. With less good athletes the everymen in the division get more of a probabilistic crack at the occasional crazy upset. This is the "every dog has his day" type of theory- if, say, Bisping fights great athletes over and over, eventually he beats one. The margins aren't that big.

Another big factor here though is just how much dog there is in the individual though. Like I said, I think that fight was a dialogue, one which went a bit like this:

Carlos Jr: "I am better than you."
Kelly: "No you're not."
Carlos Jr: "Yes I am."
Kelly: "NO YOU'RE NOT."
Carlos Jr: " . . . I'm not . . .?"
*LGCS Kick*

. . . and that was that. Pure cussedness. In the right circumstances, better than athleticism.

Connor: Middleweight is the division of dogs. Wild dogs that roam the streets at night, fighting each other often enough that when a wolf comes around, they have a better chance than the other divisions' dogs of taking him by the throat. That's why I love this division so much, damnit. It's a place where journeymen truly get to shine. Normally, you need a nuanced understanding of the fight game to truly appreciate a journeyman's role in the sport. But at middleweight, the dogs get their days.

So let's talk briefly about BIsping-Rockhold, since it's been mentioned a few times already. Bisping is, to me, the middleweight. The "non-athlete-who-works-hard" is a played-out narrative at this point, but Bisping really does seem to embody it. People have tried to rationalize his victory at UFC 199 by claiming that Rockhold fought stupid, or took too many risks. Luke himself tried to make this explanation fit. But I think the truth is that Michael Bisping was simply good enough to beat Luke Rockhold. It made total sense for Rockhold to fight the way he did, and Bisping beat him anyway. No, he might not have done it nine times out of 10, but he did it once, and he earned it.

Ultimately, I find that narrative to be much more satisfying.

    Michael Bisping is a UFC champion. Yes he is. Photo by Jake Roth | USA Today Sports

Phil: I don't really buy the "Rockhold not trying" narrative either. Speed, power and size can go a long way to papering over flaws, but it doesn't mean those flaws aren't there. It just means that they're harder for slower, weaker and smaller athletes to capitalize on. The fatal error is to assume that great athletes are somehow immune to the guidelines which constrain lesser talents; that style matchups don't affect them; that when they lose it's due to hubris and not due to inbuilt problems in their style and approach.

In this and the Silva fight, I felt that we saw some elements of Bisping's style (keeping his feet under him and not overcommitting) which directly contributed to a rep as "Pillow Hands Bisping" actually generating knockdowns against some of the best competition he'd fought- in part because Silva and Rockhold had evolved styles to beat wrestlers, or power punchers. They had two or three-layer defenses to beat one or two-shot offenses, which left them heavily compromised and out of position if those layers were bypassed.

The idea of Bisping stubbornly tinkering with his style down in the guts of the division and it showing its benefits right at the top is kind of rad. Not just for the heartening story, but because it shows us that the old fragmented axioms that Bisping fights by haven't survived by accident- while he's improved, he fights in approximately the same way he did when he first joined the UFC, and his basic style hasn't dated over the years. "Keep your feet under you" and "don't overcommit" are much, much older than the UFC, or modern MMA for that matter.

Connor: And it would be shameful to ignore the very real improvements that Bisping has made as a fighter. (Shameless plug incoming) When I watched his fight with Dan Henderson at UFC 100 for my Heavy Hands Classic Commentary (/shameless plug), I was struck by how much worse he used to be. The basic strategic principles that still define his game were there then--take angles, stay balanced and ready to counter or defend, put out volume--but the technique has drastically improved.

So anyway, let's talk about the middleweight fights taking place this weekend at UFC Mormontown. First up . . .

THE FIGHTS

Trevor Smith (13-6, 1 KO, 9 submissions) vs Gigli (7-0, 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes)

Connor: The UFC has kind of a bad record with prospect matchmaking (recall the Matt Lopez fight I mentioned above), but this is a debut I can get behind. Joe Gigliotti is very young and very raw, but Trevor Smith is exactly the kind of veteran he can beat.

Nothing against Smith, of course. He's a good, well-rounded fighter. He grinds in the clinch, scrambles well, and presses the action in his own, unvarying kind of way. The kind of fighter this division is built upon, really. But Smith tends to struggle with big, powerful athletes. He got blown up by Caio Magalhaes, wrecked by Thales Leites, and even went to a split decision against Brian Houston, a good athlete who is nonetheless 0-4 since fighting Smith.

Then again . . . Alexandre Moreno retired after losing to Smith. Tor Troeng lost again and subsequently retired. Dan Miller hasn't competed since . . . oh my God, is Trevor Smith out here destroying people's careers?

No, no . . . no, the most likely outcome is that Gigliotti smashes Trevor with something big in the first few seconds. He's an overwhelmer, and Smith rarely gets out of second gear. And if Gigliotti doesn't get the quick win, he still has a solid chance of outgrappling Smith, and learning a few things about fighting tough veterans in the process.

I think.

Phil: I have a weird vision of Gigliotti; an irresistible image of him getting head kicked at some point and going straight out and I'm not sure why it is. The defense-last style, the short stature, the square, waddling posture . . . I don't know. But I'll honestly be surprised if he makes it through his UFC career without getting punted upside the head.

Like you said, I think he's as powerful and all-offense as Caio Magalhaes so I expect him to just blow through Smith; taking offensive positions and continuing to work from there. The main issues are the typical ones. Namely, defense and cardio traditionally take a hit when someone makes their UFC debut. Proportionally Gigliotti's defense can't really get that much worse, and it's not like he exactly carefully measures distance anyway. So instead the concern is that he blows his normally good gas tank. If he does, and this becomes a sludgy fight where he's slowly worn away over the second and third rounds by a resurgent Smith . . . well, there's no more middleweight way to join this division in the UFC.

Chris Camozzi (24-10) vs Thales Leites (25-6)

Connor: Remember before when I said that Trevor Smith is the kind of fighter this division is built upon? I lied. Chris Camozzi is the backbone of 185. He is middleweight.

Many of you already know of my betrothal to Chris, a skilled fighter and a gentle lover, so please excuse any bias in this analysis . . . but he's gonna beat Leites. Bear with me. Yes, Thales Leites had a dramatic career comeback upon his UFC return. He beat Tom Watson and Ed Herman, two middleweight mainstays, and then destroyed Trevor Smith and Francis Carmont before successfully going to war with Tim Boetsch--and that's not an accomplishment many fighters can boast.

But the improved striking with which these victories were marked has kind of revealed itself to be . . . not so improved? Since losing two straight to Mike Bisping and Gegard Mousasi, it seems that confidence was really the basis of Leites' newfound kickboxing prowess. Being a big, athletic guy, he had his moments against Bisping, but ultimately ran out of ideas. And then he was absolutely flummoxed by the jab of Gegard Mousasi. His answers to these two masters of distance control was to throw big hook cross combinations, and when that didn't work, he threw those combinations harder.

Chris Camozzi is no Bisipng or Mousasi, but he can jab. And between jabs, he kicks. A lot. It seems crazy that Camozzi is responsible for more low kicks than any other fighter in the division apart from Bisping, but it's true. I think that kind of cautious, long-range, pecking style is anathema to Leites, who lacks the craft to outstrike a disciplined kickboxer, and lacks the wrestling to ply his jiu jitsu game.

Phil: For someone who purportedly loves Chris Camozzi more than anyone else, I fail to see where your long-running fantasy epic starring him is.

Connor: I love him too much to exploit the glories of his career for mere narrative impact, Phil. Our love is a deep, quiet thing. A river that surges beneath the surface.

    Chris Camozzi: what a guy. Photo by Joshua Dahl | USA Today Sports

Seriously, don't question my feelings for Chris Camozzi. Don't you dare.

Phil: Your love is jealous and small and hides him away. I'm sharing his exploits with the world.

Connor: We'll talk about this later.

Phil: Anyway, away from our catfight and back to our razor-edged technical insight . . . this is a fight between two men who both got bumped from the UFC for just being too damn middleweight. Both cuts were tough and debatably unfair: most people had Camozzi beating Natal (and to be fair, most didn't care either). Leites lost a split to Sakara after losing to the greatest middleweight ever. They weren't cut for their wins and losses so much as they were cut for being boring.

Both men have showed that they are much improved in their second stints. Leites came back with a lot more physical presence; with a more effectively aggressive game. In a more intangible way, he seemed to be having much more fun with the sport. Camozzi's improvements were in his offensive and defensive wrestling and in his power.

I think it was good for both of them to get out of the proverbial shark tank (or perhaps "dog pound") of the UFC and get some confidence in their offensive capabilities on the regional scene.

Whilst as horrifically biased as you are, I too slightly favour Camozzi. In some ways I feel like Leites is just too . . . nice. His newfound aggression feels fragile. When things aren't going his way he lacks an innate viciousness; the rage that fuels a comeback. He'll compete but lacks the vital ability to wrench the mental gears. The Mousasi fight is illustrative not just of getting stuck on the end of the Moose's strikes, but of the way Leites clearly went into survival mode towards the end. Camozzi is the lesser athlete in many important ways, but he's tough as all get-out and there's rarely any indication that he's thinking of checking out in a fight.

VERY MEANINGFUL PICKS

Connor: Joe Gigliotti by mob-style execution
Chris Camozzi by the kind of romantic heroism all too rare in our modern age

Phil: Boring unanimity!
Joe Gigliotti by waddle-punch into muscle-sub
Chris Camozzi by redeeming the injustice of the Natal and Santos fights

TODAY'S THEME

In discussions like this, a throughline tends to emerge, a cosmetic or thematic similarity that connects the otherwise disparate fights. As is traditional, we will identify today's theme, and in so doing put a neat little bow on yet another celebration of middleweight mediocrity.

Phil: Willpower?

Connor: Yeah, I feel that.

Phil: One of the things about being a true middleweight's middleweight is that you're likely to lose, and potentially many times. The fighters we looked at today have lost brutal stoppages or tiring, dispiriting grinds; the kind of losses where people shit on them for getting blown out of the water or for being straight-up boring.

That didn't stop them, though. Daniel Kelly came back from getting posterized to break a hyped-up prospect's will like a pretzel cheese Twistie. Bisping owns one of MMA's most impressive lowlight reels, but he kept at it until he added a UFC champion to his highlights. Getting bumped from the UFC didn't discourage Leites or Camozzi.

Connor: I'm not sure I want to know what a cheese Twistie is. Having already been told about Bovril and roast beef flavored Monster Munch, I don't have high hopes. British food is too weird.

But like these fine fighters, you brave Brits persevere. Whether Brexit or a child's snack bafflingly made to taste like pickled onion, you press on. Bravo to you, and bravo to the middleweights.

Just don't question my feelings for Chris Camozzi ever again.

Phil: Twisties are Australian. and Monster Munch is delicious.