Storylines That Emerged From UFC 123

By Jason Probst Nov 22, 2010
Lyoto Machida file photo:

With a main event that produced marginal action and resulted in a split decision the winner candidly said he was not sure he deserved, UFC 123 “Rampage vs. Machida” will go down in the history books as a mostly forgettable exercise.

The marquee bout between former light heavyweight champions Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Lyoto Machida did not resolve much, the co-main event and undercard produced some interesting storylines on Saturday at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich.

The Prodigy: Version 2.0

After two failed attempts to win the UFC lightweight title, his shocking welterweight championship win over Matt Hughes at UFC 46 and his subsequent departure from the UFC for two years, B.J. Penn finally seemed to get his act together.

As a lightweight in his second run in the organization, he decimated quality competition in Joe Stevenson, Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez. At 155, a motivated and in-shape Penn seemed unbeatable. Then, he came up flat against the speedy Frankie Edgar, losing a close decision in their first encounter in April. If there was any controversy over who deserved the duke in that one, Edgar squashed it by whitewashing him in a far more one-sided rematch in August.

Rising back again to 170 pounds -- where he had been beaten down in a game, one-sided effort against welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre in January 2009 -- he faced Matt Hughes in what seemed a strange crossroads bout for the man once believed to be the best fighter in the world. Hughes had enjoyed something of renewed career trajectory, as well, putting together three wins in succession. Their rubber match was expected to answer at least one of the questions surrounding both legends: Who had the most left?

Penn was his old self in this one, as he brought out the blazing guns that delivered quick stoppages of Din Thomas and Caol Uno during his initial ascent in 2001. Drilling Hughes with a big right hand in the opening moments, Penn pounced, suddenly resurrecting himself as a viable contender, possibly in two divisions. Where was that sense of urgency against Edgar? The mysteries continue. It could simply be that Edgar’s speed flummoxed Penn, so much so that he could not get off.

Still, it was encouraging to see Penn look like his old self, at least for the 21 seconds the rubber match with Hughes lasted. Given his athleticism, brilliant grappling and striking skills, he remains an interesting matchup for any 170-pounder. Jon Fitch comes first at UFC 127 in February. Long-term, Penn probably should return to lightweight, where he will not be readily outmuscled by the smaller guys who populate the division. This just goes to show you that fighters are only as good as their last fight. In Penn’s case, it was pretty good.

Decisions to Make

One man’s opportunity is another’s obstacle, and with Penn’s quick knockout, Hughes suffered the kind of defeat that necessitates a hard look. Was it merely a cause of getting caught or something more ominous? As Hughes’ career trajectory has trailed off in recent years, ironically, his dedication to training and stand-up were more apparent than ever.

File Photo

Matt Hughes
As a champion, he would often put in a week or so of training before showing up for some last-minute prep and blowing away a challenger. My personal favorite AWOL Hughes story came from his manager, Monte Cox, who explained his absence from a training camp while preparing to defend the welterweight title against a maniacally motivated Sean Sherk. Hughes’ excuse? “I had to help my brother put on a roof.”

Hughes’ knockout loss to the overweight and eminently dangerous Thiago Alves was no really evidence of a decline in his skills. No, it was more about the level of competition being far better than it was in previous foes.

However, with this defeat, Hughes enters potential Chuck Liddell territory. What does the UFC do with an ex-champion and box office powerhouse who wants to keep fighting, yet risks unsightly losses and potential long-term damage to his well-being? It is a difficult question for the UFC to answer, because rival promotions searching for big-name fighters could easily capitalize by signing stars like Liddell and Hughes.

The only viable option is to keep matching them against tough competition to see if they can remain relevant, or hope they absorb enough losses to where a rival organization would recoup little by signing them once the UFC refuses to give them fights.

Here’s hoping Hughes makes the right decision. Part of the natural life cycle of fighting involves finding oneself becoming a quarter-mile runner among sprinters, and the improvement curve in MMA today is steeper than ever. It would be interesting to see Hughes compete against the young bucks, but it would be better to see the former champion retire without having to endure a Liddell-like string of defeats.

The last thing any old-school fan wants to hear is some douchebag in an Affliction T-shirt talking about how Hughes can no longer cut it; he was one of the original greats who helped carry the sport in its darkest days.

Barboza: Second Coming of Jose Aldo?

With the WEC’s cast of talented lightweights headed to the UFC, the division does not lack depth. The presence of champions Benson Henderson and Frankie Edgar and challengers Anthony Pettis and Gray Maynard means the UFC has a ridiculously long posse of guys waiting in the wings. UFC matchmaker Joe Silva must love his job right about now.

With that said, Edson Mendes Barboza Jr.’s destruction of Mike Lullo was breathtaking stuff. His use of whipping leg kicks showed an innate mastery of the geometry of striking, as he seized on perfect angles and timing to literally kick Lullo into submission.

When the end came in the third round, it was like seeing a matador gore a hapless bull that finally gave up. Barboza is definitely a fighter to watch, and the fun part is there are so many tough fighters in the lightweight division that we will not have to wait long to see what he is made of. So far, he reminds one of current UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, with his long frame and the freakish torque he generates on his shots.

The Real ‘Fight of the Night’

While their lightweight showdown produced some solid action, it was a little surprising to George Sotiropoulos and Joe Lauzon win “Fight of the Night” honors, matching $80,000 bonuses included.

Lauzon came out aggressive in the opening round and Sotiropoulos rebounded from a slow start to score an excellent submission, but the middleweight fight between Mark Munoz and Aaron Simpson was the best bout on the card. Theirs was a rollicking two-way affair, featuring some exceptional wrestling technique between two outstanding grapplers.

It may be the kind of subtle stuff that only college wrestling and MMA aficionados notice, but Munoz-Simpson represents the kind of extended tactical battle that should have been rewarded by the “Fight of the Night” tag.

A Wild Man Cometh

One cannot help but love Brian Foster’s style. The game welterweight is an excellent athlete, with an uncanny ability to escape bad situations and rally back to seize the momentum. In his submission victory over Matt Brown -- who is as fun to watch as anyone, given his aggression and all-in style -- Foster ran into some bad spots and simply willed himself out of them.

Foster is a potent finisher. Witness his knockout of the durable Brock Larson at UFC 106. He will remain a fun, wild card-style guy to watch in the welterweight division, and he will be a dangerous foe as long as he still has an angle to play. As MMA becomes an increasingly tactical game, predicated in some cases towards winning rounds with takedowns, advantageous positions and grinding out fights on points, the presence of someone like Foster serves as a fresh reminder that this is, after all is said and done, a combat sport. And he comes to finish.
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