Chad Mendes file photo: Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com
With its second-to-last show now behind us, the WEC approaches its merger with UFC in good stead. Bringing two new weight classes and champs with it at 145 and 135 pounds, WEC 52 showed that the little guys are exciting.
It was also a smashing success for Team Alpha Male, as members Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes and Joseph Benavidez each scored impressive wins against tough competition. So, as we move toward mergerville, let’s take a look at five prospective matchups that make sense after tonight’s action.
Urijah Faber vs. Dominick Cruz
This one comes with a caveat -- Cruz must successfully defend his belt against Scott Jorgenson Dec. 16 at the final WEC show. If he’s able to, it sets up the perfect kind of debut bantamweight title bout to take place on the big stage of the UFC: a grudge rematch.
With a new champion in Cruz, who’s shown constant improvement, against the guy that beat him in Faber, who’s dropping down into the weight class, that’s an easily marketable fight. Cruz didn’t necessarily do too badly in his first bout with Faber, and it was more a case of inexperience running into a veteran fighter (with a vicious choke, to boot). He’ll be itching to get some payback and Faber will be champing at the bit to take a belt. A blind man could sell this one.
If Jorgenson beats Cruz, that presents an interesting question -- do you give Cruz an immediate rematch or put him in against Faber? Faber is the bigger name and a great first-time showcase attraction as the UFC debuts the 135-pound division.
Chad Mendes vs. the winner of Jose Aldo-Josh Grispi
The 145-pound division is heavily booked at the top echelon, with Aldo-Grispi slotted for the Jan. 1 UFC 125 show, and Mike Thomas Brown-Diego Nunes as well.
A big question with the merger will be how one organization keeps so many top fighters busy, preferably getting three fights a year (this isn’t boxing -- yet, we hope). Mendes looked very composed with improved standup in his dominant decision win over Javier Vasquez. He used just enough ground-and-pound to score points while stifling Javi’s slick techniques from the bottom, and looked comfortable on the feet. He may also have the best template, style-wise, to take out the Aldo-Grispi winner. We can only hope that he doesn’t have to wait several months to get another fight.
If he takes on Aldo, that’s the kind of matchup where he’ll look to finish the business Faber couldn’t, despite a grueling five-round effort at doing so. Aldo’s blend of tactical smarts, whip-fast strikes and an uncanny ability to uncork shots with precise timing make him the featherweight division’s version of Anderson Silva. Mendes is probably the closest thing the 145 pounders have to Chael Sonnen, and that’s someone who can take Aldo down and control him. Of course, you have to get close enough, first.
If Grispi beats Aldo, it’s one hell of an achievement for the “The Fluke,” who turned 22 last month and is one of the game’s brightest talents under 25. Grispi has a ton of ability and he’s only going to get better from here on out -- if he beats Aldo, he’ll probably be glad to get Mendes next, who’ll certainly be shooting for his legs. Either way, Mendes should get the next title shot.
If you want to give him a “keep busy” match, we’d opt for Raphael Assuncao, who decisioned L.C. Davis tonight, while losing competitive matches to Nunes (split decision) and Faber (third-round submission). Assuncao has the right style to give Mendes a very good chance to win while showcasing his improving skill set. Some people don’t like “keep busy” matches, citing that a guy like Mendes could lose and spoil a title shot, but that’s counterintuitive. If you’re good enough to get the next title shot, you should be good enough to take on anyone else to keep active, lest you probably didn’t deserve it in the first place.
Of course, fights like Michael Bentt-Tommy Morrison always make me look bad when I espouse this theory. But I digress…
Joseph Benavidez vs. Brian Bowles
With a trademark whirlwind showing in submitting Wagney Fabiano tonight with a guillotine, Benavidez is in a curious position. He’s lost two decisions to the bantamweight champ, Cruz, with teammate/buddy Faber likely the next in line (assuming Cruz gets past Jorgenson). Benavidez’ wrestling and dynamic combinations make him eminently fun to watch, and pitting him against Bowles is a natural contrast.
Bowles shocked the MMA world with his stoppage of then-champ Miguel Torres in Aug. 2009, then lost the title in his first defense against Cruz. An injury pulled him out of a scheduled bout tonight against Fabiano, with Benavidez replacing him.
What makes Bowles-Benavidez compelling is that Bowles would likely be a tough style for Benavidez. Brian is a very good wrestler and while he isn’t as quick on the feet, he hits pretty hard and might be able to hold his own in the scrambles Benavidez creates with his attack. Plus, both of them need an impressive win against a name opponent to campaign for another title shot.
When I first interviewed Benavidez in a Sherdog “Prospect Watch” piece 18 months ago, I asked him his thoughts on the possibility of facing Faber at some point in the future. Joseph said he thought it would be cool to turn the situation into a positive, possibly even training at the same gym. It would make for a great storyline and definitely some fascinating pre-fight buildup. But until then, a match with Bowles is a good one, because the style contrast answers good questions about both.
Cub Swanson vs. Erik Koch
Swanson has never looked better than he did tonight, taking a back-and-forth battle with Mackens Semerzier to a split decision win. MMA is a game where new moves immediately become part of the arsenal of those daring enough to imitate them (witness Faber’s jump-knee against Jeff Curran…it seems like everyone started trying it after him). Swanson’s contribution tonight was a sweet fake front kick-to-spinning-backfist.
He also dug in well-timed body shots and transitioned between strikes and grappling with seamless ease. Swanson only loses to the best, and tonight was an inspired win against a very tough Semerzier, who could have gotten the decision as well without too many people complaining. It was the kind of extended tactical fight that wins fans while pleasing purists.
Koch looked fantastic in a 96-second appearance, with a one-and-done head kick against late sub Francisco Rivera. He’s also proven durable, losing a decision to the imposing Mendes and going 3-1 overall in the WEC. He’s 22, which means, along with Grispi, Aldo and Mendes, there’s a lot of talent to roll into the UFC, and this doesn’t even include all the other great featherweights in other organizations, overseas, and guys that are just coming up. Koch-Swanson would be a solid 145-pound match to further sort out the pecking order of the division.
Demetrious Johnson vs. Michael McDonald
Johnson had a tough first round against Damacio Page, then rebounded to win via choke, though the jury’s out on how much a shin to the groin took out of Page in the second round, who looked noticeably weakened. That aside, Johnson has a style that reminds you of Benavidez. He’s squirrelly, slippery, and consistently beats you by getting there first. The 135-pound division is crowded right now, with the Faber/Cruz/Jorgenson/Benavidez quarter, plus Miguel Torres taking on Antonio Banuelos Feb. 5 at UFC 126.
McDonald was impressive tonight in taking out 11-3 Clint Godfrey via first-round armbar. At just 19 years young, he has an 11-1 record, with his only loss to the very respectable Cole Escovedo (the first WEC featherweight champ back in the day, but, of course, you already knew that, didn’t you?). McDonald avenged that loss to Escovedo via KO in July, and he and Johnson would be an exciting clash of young prospects with a lot of talent on both ends.
While it’s always good to let young fighters develop, sometimes there’s nothing quite like two young guns going at it against the best guy they’ve ever faced. Which is very likely what Johnson-McDonald would be. Also, it allows for some down-the-road contender to be built once the top-heavy bantams get sorted out over the next 18 months.