Three of Japan’s biggest attractions of the last decade competed in Australia Saturday, and while two of them earned wins, none of them looked familiar.
Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, once the most feared striker in the sport, appeared sluggish against late replacement Anthony Perosh, a 216-pound jiu-jitsu practitioner thrown into the fight because of his geographic convenience. Despite being pitted against someone unlikely to damage him standing, Filipovic took two rounds to deliver enough punishment to warrant a stoppage.
While that fight said little about the Croatian’s current value as a UFC heavyweight, Cain Velasquez could not have been more vocal, nudging his record to a perfect 8-0 after a quick, flawless destruction of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Once considered unflappable, Nogueira has been knocked down (or out) in three of his four UFC bouts, leading to a belief that his tenure in Japan has created a body suffering far more than just his 33 years on the planet.
Wanderlei Silva looked the most impressive of the three, but virtually by default: despite a promise he had returned to his “old style,” Silva spent most of his three rounds against Michael Bisping tentative and content to stay out of any real exchanges. It was a quality win -- Bisping, despite the fan venom he draws with his mouth, is a good fighter -- but it was not a performance that will be remembered for very long.
The fighter who is aging but still vaguely effectual is a hard role to entertain: in the case of Filipovic and Silva, the desire is there, and residual skills will see them through some fights, but their chances to excel at a high level are slim. They’re in a fugue state: declining, but too stubborn and passionate to pursue retirement. They complete the motions because it’s all they know.
(It’s Nogueira who stands to lose the most from this attitude: getting derailed by Velasquez is acceptable, but taking multiple punches before you can react to even one -- long after Velasquez has backed out of the pocket -- is not.)
There are certainly interesting fights left for all three, particularly if matchmakers are inclined to defer to their age and ring wear. But the expectation that any of them have a legendary performance left is a case of nostalgia trumping common sense.
Next for Velasquez: If Brock Lesnar is too tied up with Frank Mir and Shane Carwin, he may want to consider a fight with Junior dos Santos to completely resolve their claims as a number-one contender.
Next for Nogueira: Tylenol; maybe Stefan Struve.
Next for Silva: Yoshihiro Akiyama, who would help satisfy the Silva vs. Judo story that fans enjoyed in his two fights with Hidehiko Yoshida.
Next for Bisping: A catch-his-breath fight with Alan Belcher; if he wants to go all out, Nate Marquardt.
The Throwback Award The Australian crowd, for giving due respect to attending pioneer Royce Gracie. (Why isn’t Royce fighting James Toney? Have you ever seen a circus with only one elephant?)
Gut Check Award Perosh, for taking the Filipovic fight on only a few days’ notice despite having the wrong frame, style, and experience. That’s the real test of a real fighter, and he passed.
The Leaky Faucet Award Stephan Bonnar, for absorbing a head butt courtesy of Krzysztof Soszynski and becoming an instant anemic.
The Influencing-Early-Betting-Line Award Quinton Jackson, for showing up as a super-heavyweight to corner Michael Bisping, a solid endorsement for studio on-set catering. (He has roughly 90 days to get back down to 205 to face Rashad Evans.)
Misappropriated Nickname Award Keith “The Dean of Mean” Jardine, who appears to be neither in charge of a scholastic institution or particularly inclined to aggressive or effective behavior in a prizefight.
Grappling-Desiac Award George Sotiropoulos/Joe Stevenson, who put on a mat clinic that would’ve converted Badr Hari.
Is it time to worry about Sotiropoulos?
Easy money gravitated toward Stevenson Saturday, a technically and physically strong athlete who was expected to use both against a rising Sotiropoulos. But the Australian/Greek stayed out of trouble for virtually the entire fight, compressing Stevenson into fits of ground scrambles and backpedaling on the stand-up. Sotiropoulos is morphing into a bigger, stronger Kenny Florian -- and physical pressure was one of the things holding Florian back during two title bids. Sotiropoulos’ next 18 months are going to be interesting.
Does Wanderlei belong at middleweight?
Silva looked good in his 185-pound debut against Michael Bisping, particularly with his ability to shoot up after a takedown. But if he has little intention of fighting Anderson Silva, as he claims, is there value in putting him the class, or will we continue to experience a series of friends-don’t-fight-friends hustle?
Should opponents worry more about Velasquez’s stand-up than his ground?
Velasquez supporters likely looked toward a ground stoppage or decision in cheering for a victory about Antonio Nogueira Saturday, but the AKA fighter instead displayed crisp, expedient punches that had a 205er’s speed. The question now becomes whether Velasquez is really that gifted on the feet, or whether the stoic Nogueira made him look better than he is. (Junior dos Santos could answer that question.)
Is Jardine out?
Jardine dropped three straight with a KO loss to Ryan Bader: in addition to having a spastic, awkward style, Jardine has not installed himself as a fan favorite. His career has been one of the most uneven in the promotion: big wins over Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin, ugly losses to Houston Alexander, Wanderlei Silva, and now Bader.
Gameness and a quality affiliation with Greg Jackson might buy Jardine one more shot in the ring. Fans paying $45 for an event might prefer it be off-air.
Chris Lyle won a deserved $50,000 for Submission of the Night Saturday, a little-seen kneebar over Brian Foster; Sotiropoulos and Stevenson split $100,000 for Fight of the Night…17,831 fans stuffed themselves into the Acer Arena in Australia, which officials claimed was a venue record for sports: the Acer has previously hosted upwards of 25,000 fans for a Britney spears engagement. There’s no accounting for taste…Bisping indicated to media that he felt he won the first two rounds against Wanderlei Silva: judges disagreed. Bisping is probably best off to withhold comment until he watches the fight himself…The Sydney Morning Herald continued drumming dissidence with Sunday’s none-too-subtle incrimination of the event, quoting the head of the Australian Medical Association that it “is simply not a sport.” Rugby? Now that’s some good clean fun.