Diego Sanchez file photo: Sherdog.com
UFC 121 “Lesnar vs. Velasquez” on Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., will likely go down as the promotion’s “Show of the Year” for 2010 and probably its best since UFC 84 in May 2008.
There was so much to like about the event. The heavyweight title changed hands again. Diego Sanchez revived his career as a welterweight. Tito Ortiz passed the torch to one-time understudy Matt Hamill. And Brendan Schaub moved ever closer to becoming a Top 10 heavyweight.
Analysis follows for the five main card bouts at UFC 121.
Brendan Schaub def. Gabriel Gonzaga -- Decision (Unanimous)
What happened: Schaub did an excellent job of nullifying Gonzaga’s main strength -- ground fighting -- by keeping the fight standing and peppering the Brazilian with a versatile arsenal of strikes on the feet. “Napao” made it all too easy for the Trevor Wittman protégé, as he only attempted two half-hearted takedowns and was otherwise content to just stand and trade with the former University of Colorado football player.
In general, the bout took place at an average pace, outside of two spurts at the end of the first and third rounds. Near the end of round one, Schaub dropped Gonzaga onto his backside with a nice flurry. And Napao showed glimpses of what he could be capable of with the right game plan, as he sprawled and immediately took Schaub’s back in the dying seconds of the third.
In the end, it was a forgettable performance by the Brazilian, who failed to offer much in terms of offense, except for a couple of stout leg kicks. Meanwhile, Schaub continued to show improvement since his stint on Season 10 of “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Forecast for Schaub: With a win over a former title contender, “The Hybrid” has emerged as one of the top heavyweights in the UFC. Challenging future tests for him could include Dutch “Skyscraper” Stefan Struve, seasoned veteran Mike Russow or even 2006 Pride Fighting Championships open weight grand prix winner Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic.
Forecast for Gonzaga: A loser in three of his last four and five of his last eight fights since his spectacular knockout against Filipovic in 2007, Napao has now been relegated to gatekeeper status in the UFC heavyweight division. The returning Ben Rothwell, Patrick Barry or the undefeated Jon Madsen, who impressed on the UFC 121 undercard, could be next for him.
Matt Hamill def. Tito Ortiz -- Decision (Unanimous)
What happened: Ortiz, the former light heavyweight champion, came out of the blocks aggressive, throwing a lot more leather than fans have grown accustomed to from him. “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” made good use of his jab, while Hamill endured a slow start and looked a bit clumsy with his stand-up.
In the second stanza, Ortiz started to fade. He kept throwing shots but with little impact. Midway through the round, Hamill took him down and worked the ground-and-pound. Ortiz attempted a leglock in response, which Hamill exploited and passed to side control.
Even on two of the scorecards entering the final round, the momentum shifted in Hamill’s favor. Neither fighter did much at first, but Hamill stuffed an Ortiz takedown attempt and completed one of his own. From there, he unleashed some more ground-and-pound and beat his former mentor at his own game.
Forecast for Hamill: “The Hammer” has now won five straight fights, a controversial disqualification over Jon Jones included. Despite an abundance of credible contenders in the light heavyweight division, he has slowly crept into the title hunt. A rematch with former middleweight champion Rich Franklin, a showdown with one-time light heavyweight titleholder Forrest Griffin or a scrap against Stephan Bonnar would help him take another step closer to that goal.
Forecast for Ortiz: Without a win over anyone not named Ken Shamrock in more than four years, the former divisional ruler and promotional poster boy needs to seriously re-evaluate his career. Can the controversial Californian still compete with the best fighters in a highly competitive division? Realistically, only one more significant payday exists for him inside the Octagon: a loser-leaves-town match against archrival Chuck Liddell. UFC President Dana White has already cast a no vote on the rematch.
Diego Sanchez def. Paulo Thiago -- Decision (Unanimous)
What happened: Entering the fight, the cards seemed stacked against Sanchez, one of the original winners on “The Ultimate Fighter.” Sanchez had lost his last two bouts in disheartening fashion and was now matched up with Thiago, a ground fighter extraordinaire and bona fide stud. The 28-year-old fan favorite, however, returned to his winning ways by reuniting with former longtime coach Greg Jackson.
The first round was a back-and-forth scramble, with Thiago coming out of the blocks in better shape. After a takedown from a body lock, the Brazilian threatened twice with the brabo choke. In the second, Sanchez took over. Off of a scramble, he achieved reverse mount on Thiago. Defending two kimura attempts, the “Nightmare” landed a colossal slam and scored from the gut-wrench position as the crowd went ballistic.
Sanchez clearly had the higher energy level of the two heading into round three. After defending another kimura, he took Thiago’s back and started pounding and mounting. The Constrictor Team standout managed to free himself from the precarious position but was simply too tired to do anything with his newfound freedom. A strong finish from Sanchez capped off an amazing comeback in one of the best fights of the year.
Forecast for Sanchez: Toying with the idea of returning to the lightweight division prior to the victory, there does not seem to be the need for Sanchez to do so in what may have been his signature performance inside the Octagon. If he stays at welterweight, plenty of intriguing fights exist for him -- Martin Kampmann, Mike Swick and Mike Pyle come to mind. If he decides to shift back to 155 pounds, potential barnburners with Sean Sherk and Kurt Pellegrino might be in Sanchez’s future. Plus, the possibility of a rematch with Kenny Florian always exists.
Forecast for Thiago: After starting strong in his UFC campaign -- a knockout of Josh Koscheck, a submission against Swick and a decision over Jacob Volkmann -- Thiago now stands at .500 after consecutive losses. Starring in the “Fight of the Night” ensures Thiago a spot in the Octagon. Might a bout against Mike Pierce, John Hathaway or Daniel Roberts come next?
Jake Shields def. Martin Kampmann -- Decision (Split)
What happened: Despite getting the W, Shields’ performance did little to help unravel the post Georges St. Pierre-Koscheck title picture. The fight against Kampmann went exactly as advertised, as the Dane put up a considerable fight and worked Shields to the point of exhaustion. Still, the Shields brand of American jiu-jitsu proved far too much for the technically and tactically inferior “Hitman.” Even though it became increasingly more difficult for Shields to take down Kampmann, he did so in the first two rounds, effortlessly passed his guard and mounted him once the fight hit the mat.
There, the Cesar Gracie protégé returned to a familiar rut, as he did not make enough of an effort to damage Kampmann, let alone finish him. Instead, Shields was content to control his foe and advance position. Kampmann did an excellent job of escaping three mounts and landed some effective strikes on his feet.
In the end, the Dane made what many saw as a tactical error by trying to finish Shields on the mat in the third round, instead of attempting to take out the visibly tired Californian on the feet. Shields laughed off Kampmann’s brabo choke attempt, a similar maneuver to those with which he has finished fights in the past. Shields countered, swept the Xtreme Couture rep, took his back and rode out the clock.
Forecast for Shields: Entering his UFC debut, it seemed clear that Shields would have to finish the world-ranked Kampmann in decisive fashion in order to qualify for an immediate title shot. His performance may force him to face at least one more top contender before getting a crack at UFC gold, though White indicated Shields was still in line following UFC 121. If he does not meet the St. Pierre-Koscheck winner next, chances are considerable that he will draw Koscheck’s teammate, Jon Fitch.
Forecast for Kampmann: More often than not, losses hurt the reputation of a fighter. That was not the case with Kampmann here. The Dane acquitted himself extremely well against a world-class ground fighter who had easily submitted Mike Pyle, Nick Thompson, Paul Daley and Robbie Lawler in recent outings. A fight long speculated could materialize next: an inner-European clash between Kampmann and Dan Hardy.
Cain Velasquez def. Brock Lesnar -- TKO (Punches) 4:12 R1
What happened: That was an impressive and decisive performance from Velasquez, the new UFC heavyweight champion. As expected, he had to weather the early storm from a bull-rushing Lesnar, who put the challenger on his back with a quick takedown. The defending champion failed to hold down Velasquez, however, and after being punched in the face by the well-prepared American Kickboxing Academy fighter, Lesnar seemed to panick.
It did not take long before the former World Wrestling Entertainment superstar found himself in the same position he was in against Shane Carwin at UFC 116. Velasquez was smart and did not give in to the temptation to pounce on his grounded foe with reckless abandon. Instead, he picked his shots. Lesnar briefly returned to his feet, but after another knockdown and savage ground-and-pound, prudent referee Herb Dean stepped in to rescue the bloodied champion.
Forecast for Velasquez: The first Mexican-American heavyweight champion in UFC history will receive his first test from Brazilian banger Junior dos Santos. Velasquez and “Cigano” could fight one another as soon as UFC 127.
Forecast for Lesnar: Three fights make sense for the company’s biggest pay-per-view attraction moving forward: a fresh opponent in former Pride heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, a third and decisive clash with Frank Mir or a second meeting with the ageless Randy Couture.
Contact Tim Leidecker at www.facebook.com/Rossonero1 or follow him on twitter @Rossonero1.