Rick Story (file photo) showed he is not just a wrestler at UFC 130. | (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Trainers are, by their nature, optimistic. When extolling the virtues of their fighter and his or her prospects in an upcoming match, they tend to overstate the positives and downplay the negatives -- which is expected, as it is their job.
Looking back on my interview with welterweight Rick Story and his trainer, Pat White, the 170-pound contender did exactly as predicted. When I asked White what Story would do when or if the dangerous Thiago Alves nailed him at UFC 130 on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the trainer replied with this:
“When a tough wrestler gets in trouble, he’ll want to go straight to wrestling immediately,” said White, who trains Story and the Brave Legion team based out of Vancouver, Wash. “Our guys, they will [fight] back, even though they have a wrestling background. Rick’s gonna fire right back.”
White also added that Story had a great chin and could take whatever came his way. Story did just that, particularly in a tough third round where Alves finally seemed to have him dialed in. Story’s chin is exceptional, and, as White predicted, he did not back down and shoot for the leg when drilled. He fired right back, giving as good as he got.
As a result, Story’s decision win elevates him into the upper tier of welterweights. What he has going for him is that rest of the top contenders -- Jake Shields, Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck -- have all dropped one-sided decisions to champion Georges St. Pierre. As such, that trio is in a curious position, promotionally speaking. None of them would pose a very marketable defense for GSP; the gap between the champion and these challengers was considerable.
With fellow wrestler-slugger Jake Ellenberger and former WEC champion Carlos Condit also representing the newer blood in the welterweight division, the UFC finds itself in an interesting spot. Essentially, it has to build guys who have not yet fought GSP and get them in a position where it becomes a marketable match. In all likelihood, they will have to beat at least one part of the aforementioned trio to warrant a shot.
That is where the problem lies, because Ellenberger and Story would probably be slight to moderate underdogs against any of the three. As a cohort, their styles and bouts are more exciting than The Big Three’s; Ellenberger and Story have aggressive approaches and the much-needed “new blood” storyline. Condit takes on Dong Hyun Kim on July 2 at UFC 132. Condit has his hands full there with a rough style matchup; if he does not show improved takedown defense he will be in for a long night. However, if he can get past Kim, he will remain in the conversation.
Koscheck is out until later this year recovering from injuries to his eye sustained in his failed December title shot. Meanwhile, Fitch is on the shelf after injuring himself training for his rematch with B.J. Penn and has subsequently undergone shoulder surgery. He will be out for at least three to five more months.
It remains anyone’s guess who the UFC matches up with Shields next, but I would like to see him take on Story or Ellenberger.
If Shields wins, you get him in an exciting fight. Story and Ellenberger are very aggressive, and their styles would play into his, much like Dan Henderson and Paul Daley did.
Another part of the new blood contingent is Anthony Johnson. He probably has the best overall skill set of any existing welterweight to beat GSP, given his size, numbing power and reach, but he is still a wild card in the stamina department. We will find out a lot more when he takes on former middleweight title contender Nate Marquardt in the UFC Live 4 main event on June 26 at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
At this point, it is not about building a contender that would be less than a 4-to-1 longshot to best St. Pierre but merely one that presents a plausible enough challenge to induce enough fans to want to see it. This is one offshoot of dominant title reigns like the ones currently being enjoyed by GSP and Anderson Silva; they are such prohibitive favorites that a title bout involving them does not provide enough circumstance by itself to sell a card.
GSP may very well be the victim of his own success, but in the meantime, performances like Story’s at UFC 130 will go a long way toward helping that perception solidify around a top contender. Story did not just get a win; he took it to a dangerous, very tough contender and showed a boatload of intensity and desire in getting it, no matter what the cost.
Story looks like the kind of guy that would rather have his head taken off trying to win than give up and lose by decision. That is something noticeably absent in challengers to GSP’s throne of late.
Jason Probst can be reached at [email protected] or at www.twitter.com/jasonprobst.