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The expectations of a being a dominant champion in a lesser promotion? The adversity of faltering in his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut? The mosquitoes of Brazil giving him unceasing diarrhea during fight week? At UFC Fight Night 144 on Saturday, Marlon Moraes taught us that there’s no misfortune he can’t overcome. What else can we learn?
In a way, the UFC’s third trip to Fortaleza, Brazil, was a tale of two cards. On the one hand, we had an undercard in which a slate of unheralded or overlooked underdogs went 6-1. On the other, we had a main card that featured several established veterans replanting their flags and announcing to the fighting world that they have plenty left to offer. Even with him talking about imminent retirement, you thought a 32-year-old Jose Aldo had nothing left to offer? Never mind his being 41 years old, you thought the greatest textbook, technical grappler in MMA history, Demian Maia, couldn’t squeeze the carotids of an opponent outside the Top 10? Apropos of this event, maybe this column won’t be so much about lessons learned but rather recent notions of which MMA fans ought to disabuse themselves.
Speaking of thoughts that we as fight fans must dismiss from our psyches: the idea that weight -- whether fighters dangerously make their mark and rehydrate or blow the task on the scale with a purse penalty -- fundamentally constitutes a major advantage inside the cage. As UFC Fight Night 144 reminded us, it’s a case-by-case, pernicious bit of deliberation; and while we’re talking about tricky case studies, how about that Johnny Walker? While we fight through our Super Bowl hangovers, let us unpack UFC Fight Night 144 and learn a thing or five:
Marlon Moraes is in Position, and Magic Has Nothing to Do With It
Many folks, myself included, felt that Moraes won the final 10 minutes of his Junes 2017 UFC debut against Raphael Assuncao despite ending up on the wrong end of a tight split decision; these things happen in MMA. All too often when a hot prospect or champion from another promotion makes the jump to the UFC as a free agent, if they don’t immediately prosper, commentators like to chalk it up to the mythical and idiotic “Octagon jitters” or some such farcical hokum. In their rematch, Moraes took barely three minutes to completely thrash and finish Assuncao, firm up his status as the No. 1 contender for T.J. Dillashaw’s bantamweight title and give a more realistic insight into fighter improvement.
Like I said, I thought Moraes won the first meeting between the two, but it’s not hard to see how he wound up losing. The former World Series of Fighting champ is a counterstriker by nature, which is fine, but perhaps muddled by being used to fighting 25-minute contests in the WSOF, he worked a slow-burning style of fight, seldom throwing punches, circling Assuncao and trying to pile up leg kicks and body work. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t curry favor with the judges. In subsequent UFC bouts, Moraes seemed to clue into the idea that if you’re going to be a counter-oriented fighter at the highest level against the best talent in the world, you need to capitalize on your opportunities, and rather than being passive, you need to seize the opportunities your opponent gives you to nth degree. This is how he registered devastating knockouts of elite talent like Aljamain Sterling and Jimmie Rivera and precisely how he got Assuncao out of the cage in such short order.
Everything about Moraes’ finishing sequence on his fellow Brazilian was masterful. He landed a sharp overhand counter right that put Assuncao on his heels, closed the distance and waited just long enough for his opponent to anticipate a left hand coming, at which point he doubled up his right hand and crashed him to the mat. Once Moraes got him there, he worked for a guillotine, and while he jumped into the choke -- a choice that often sinks fighters in a round or an entire fight if they fail and end up on bottom -- he instantly used a butterfly hook to sweep to top position. From there, he pulled off a doctorate-level badass technique by sinking the choke deeper while posting his feet on the fence for added leverage. The whole sequence seemed to beguile Assuncao, a consummate pro. Despite having his brain scrambled from the knockdown, he seemed to try to flow with Moraes’ sweep in hopes of escaping. However, Moraes’ floating cage leverage allowed him to tighten the choke and land in an even more advantageous position. Again, there’s nothing wrong with being a counterfighter, so long as you’re going to make the most of your opportunities, and Moraes showed that he has received the message loud and clear, adapting his style to exploit even the slightest mistakes from his adversaries.
Now, this is the UFC in 2019, so there’s no telling when or if Moraes will get his well-earned title shot against Dillashaw, especially with the bantamweight champion coming off of his upset loss to Henry Cejudo, as he tried and failed to maraud down to 125 pounds in the hopes of finding two-division glory. Nonetheless, even with WME-IMG Endeavor’s fanatical fixation on superfights, the promotion still needs to recognize how it got into the dance in the first place. Over a decade ago, when the UFC-versus-Pride Fighting Championships debate was at the forefront of MMA discourse, the champions and apologists of the Octagon always pointed out that the UFC was more legitimately “sporting” because the best fighters who beat top talent and worked their way to a title shot were rewarded, regardless of name value. Things have changed, no doubt, but there’s really no good argument against having Dillashaw-Moraes lined up by Memorial Day at the earliest and Independence Day at the latest.
The bantamweight division is starting to bubble in terms of contenders, and the promotion needs to keep the weight class on track. Beyond that, Moraes figuring out how to be appropriately aggressive with his countering style makes him the most intriguing and potentially dangerous challenger to Dillashaw’s 135-pound title, especially given the champion’s history of being thwarted on counter shots when he gets a little too lax and voluminous with his striking. No, it won’t sell hundreds of thousands of pay-per-views or induce people to sign up for ESPN Plus, but it’s still the only sensible match to make and will get the most die-hard fanbase lathered up, which is something the UFC still needs to take stock of in 2019.
Don’t Call it a Comeback, Jose Aldo Has Been Here for Years
I’m not speaking to all of you when I say this, because I know Aldo has some diehard fans and there are plenty of savvy fight folks who heeded my advice and dumped whatever money they had in their wallets on the former champion at +125 against Renato Carneiro. They can now buy themselves a new leaf blower or take their significant other out for an extra fancy dinner; you’re welcome. However, if you were one of those delusional sorts who doubted the greatest featherweight of all-time, my question is simple: Why?
Betting on MMA can be a disappointing and flabbergasting pursuit -- more on that in a minute -- but Aldo opening as a -120 favorite and getting bet down to a +125 underdog by fight time? In all honesty, betting sharps in MMA are not only well-informed, but in my own experience, they taught me a thing or two about fighters themselves, about how to bet and how to make money. To be plain, they’re not dummies. With that being said, I can only imagine this is one that either slipped through the cracks or was an overreaction to a classic prospect-versus-faded legend setup that blurred their gambling vision. I hate to give myself a Barry Horowitz-style pat on the back in any situation, but especially one like this, where the outcome seemed so obvious and the betting money was out there for anyone just willing to feel froggy and take a jump.
Going back to Moraes’ tweak in his own style, Aldo has undergone the same transformation at this stage of his career. When he had entrenched himself as the featherweight king of the world, the Nova Uniao product clearly gamed and strategized for 25-minute affairs and sought to control distance, range and defense by working his jab and leg kicks while staying out of range of his opponents, only going for the finish when he landed a countershot that spilled blood in the water. However, the 15-minute, non-champion Aldo -- keep in mind, he was supposed to be the main event of this card but was adamant he wanted a three-round fight -- is a hybrid. The opening round against “Moicano” was a feeling-out period reminiscent of his championship defenses, but the minute he landed a hard counter right in the second round, he went into full savage mode with cuffing hooks and clinch knees, cowering Carneiro against the fence and garnering the stoppage. Sure, he has been fighting since he was a teenager and has more miles on his body than your average fighter at 32 years old, but did you really think one of the greatest fighters ever just lost it all overnight?
Here’s the deal: Aldo got coldcocked by Conor McGregor and run over twice by Max Holloway, the worst style matchup you could ever imagine for him. Does that invalidate him as an elite fighter, after all he’s shown you in the last 12 years? I’d hope not. No, ol’ “Scarface” isn’t the high-flying dynamo he was back in 2008, but that’s not the totality of what makes him a legend. Aldo has always blended his otherworldly athleticism with shrewd strategy at the behest of one of the best trainers in MMA history: Andre Pederneiras. This late-form Aldo recognizes that in a three-round, 15-minute affair with no title at stake, he can open up the minute he sees the slightest sign of weakness and between Carneiro and Jeremy Stephens, it has paid rich dividends.
All too often in MMA, we conflate the idea of a once-proud champion getting knocked off the throne with the idea that said fighter is now spoiled goods and no longer fit to compete amongst the elite. We use phrases like “There’s no shame in losing to Conor McGregor or Max Holloway.” You’re damn right there’s no shame. McGregor and Holloway, if vastly different in their paths, are living legends in this game. McGregor caught Aldo cold in 13 seconds, and being there live, I had to run past the drunken rivalry that went with it to get back to the UFC 194 media room. Holloway, one of the five best fighters on the planet, has the precise poison for Aldo’s style, with his indefatigable chin and penchant for ratcheting up his striking volume round over round. In the fight game, you can be knocked off the throne, but that doesn’t mean that you have nothing left to offer.
On a personal and psychological level, Aldo has been infamously difficult to access. His words and actions don’t always act in congruence, and we never know quite what to expect. If, true to his words, he wants to retire at the end of his UFC contract, he will still go down as the greatest 145-pounder ever, at least until Holloway humiliates a few more challengers. However, if “Scarface” is just playing hardball for a little more money or ability to call his own booking shots, he is more than capable of furthering his legacy in a mouth-watering, thrilling capacity. If I told you that Aldo-Justin Gaethje at 155 pounds was the co-main event of the UFC’s year-end card in 2019 or even 2020, would you not feel an itch to remove your clothing? That’s what I thought. The possibilities are endless and the ball is in Aldo’s court, which is a privilege he’s more than earned, whether he wants to kick up his feet on the couch or tape up his fists to scrap.
Demian Maia: A Living Instructional Whose Pages Don’t Yellow
Walk with me for a moment. If you’re combining a grappling athlete’s accomplishments in the gi and no-gi in a rash guard, plus MMA profundity, who is the greatest best grappler in history? For my money, it comes down to two men across those three criteria: Maia and Fabricio Werdum. If we examine a bit further, we have to concede that Werdum is not only a plus athlete but that he also competed in the heavyweight division, where his competition was a little less skilled in a technical capacity, whether in jiu-jitsu or MMA. More than that, a lot of Werdum’s MMA success came on the back of not just out-skilling heavyweight brawlers but the fact that he is a physically enormous man who developed his own powerful-if-janky striking technique under Rafael Cordeiro.
Maia never got to enjoy those genetic traits, and he’s never been able to blossom into the kind of striker that could take down Mark Hunt. His entire prizefighting career has been predicated on being the smartest and shrewdest technician in the submission game. It’s a gift and a curse. It’s the same reason why he looked hapless against Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman in his three fights before UFC Fight Night 144, but it’s the same reason he made an example out of a quality fighter in Lyman Good in under three minutes.
Headed into his bout with Good, Maia had failed on 49 consecutive takedown attempts, which was by far the longest string of blown takedowns in UFC history. How long did it take him to plant Good on the mat? Literally seconds. There’s no fighter, active or retired, whose style makes you exclaim “There’s levels to this s---!” more than Maia, and with good reason.
Consider how Maia instantly took Good’s back and how he broke him down. How often do we see MMA fighters get overexcited and squeeze the blood out of their own limbs in pursuit of a rear-naked choke? Not Maia. With effortless flex, he threatened the choke while chaining from side-to-side, threatening with different grips while putting Good in constant peril and exerting the least amount of physical effort possible. Watching Maia on Good’s back was like chess versus checkers, and he had his opponent in “check” from the get-go.
Maia is a complicated UFC roster fighter, and we have to reconcile that fact because he is so one-dimensional. To be straightforward: Maia is only 41 years old, and all of the contests in which he has looked horrible have come against elite-level wrestlers whose styles are articulated to make him look terrible. The measure of a 170-pound virtuoso is not whether or not he can overcome Covington’s wrestling but whether or not he can teach all of us how to be a better savvy grappler with the most modest of technical wherewithal.
Consider this an interpolation of Occam’s Razor; the most obvious solution is that those who understand require no explanation necessary and that for those who are confounded, no explanation will ever do. Just live and let live. Let’s just tape our grappling bouts and figure out how to up our game, shall we?
The Heaviest Don’t Carry Any Fundamental Advantage
UFC Fight Night 144 had two fighters misfire on the scales. Magomed Bibulatov came in at 127 pounds, just a pound off of the flyweight limit, while strawweight Sarah Frota went all-out and clocked in at 123 pounds, blowing weight by seven pounds. It goes without saying that fighters should be on point, regardless of circumstance, but when they aren’t, does it actually confer any real advantage? No, not really.
Take a look at this list since the summer of 2013, chronicling fighters that have missed weight heading into UFC contests. The fighters who miss weight are barely above .500, and if you realize that the record-setting John Lineker -- the only man to ever miss weight five times under UFC employ -- has missed weight three times in that time span, it’s actually under .500. My point: While we need to hold prizefighters under scrutiny for not doing their duty to make weight, we also need to recognize that fighters that miss weight are essentially a 50-50 proposition and, in all realness, tend to win the fights we had them winning before their weight issues.
What Rogerio Bontorin dealt with against Bibulatov was slight, but Livinha Souza’s issues against Frota left her fighting a woman almost two weight classes larger than her. Still, she worked a smart game plan against her much bigger opponent and figured out how to maximize her game against a woman who would be a comfy flyweight; Souza could easily make atomweight. I’m not saying that weight plays no role in MMA contests. It all depends on how the athlete cutting weight feels in and out of the sauna and what game plan he or she plans to utilize. No doubt, sometimes outweighing your opponent by 15 to 20 pounds can constitute a major advantage if your strategy happens to dovetail with said advantages, but more often than not, missing weight is an indiscretion that actually precludes fighters from attacking their opponent the way they want to. In the era of early weigh-ins, we’re going to have even more of these inconvenient weight botches. With that said, if we look at the track record, the better fighter almost always gets his or her hand raised at the end of the day and walks away with an extra 15 to 40 percent of their opponent’s purse.
Johnny Walker is a Problem, In More Ways Than One
Becoming a breakout star in MMA is an unusual calibration. More often than not, it’s not about whether you’re actually a great fighter, imminent title contender or future superstar but simply whether you get placed in the right place at the right time to thrill fans. Brazil’s Walker is definitely a lucky beneficiary of those conditions right now. The Brazilian is now 3-0 in the UFC despite being in the promotion for under six months, but he has put his stamp on the minds of fans with his devil-may-care style and all-around wackiness. I submit this is both a gift and a curse.
MMA folks have quickly taken to making jokes, comparing Walker to your dad’s favorite brand of whiskey, but the fact is that Walker isn’t so much considered a sip of Johnnie Walker blue label as he is shotgunning a tall can of Four Loko. He has quickly wormed his way into MMA fans’ hearts with his back-to-back scintillating knockouts of Khalil Rountree and Justin Ledet, but the methodology behind said stoppages should still leave us feeling iffy. Walker is a 6-foot-5 light heavyweight who throws caution to the wind, lunging into the pocket with flying strikes and winging punches that leave his chin unprotected; all three of his career losses are largely due to this reckless disregard for defense. Yet to this point, his gangly, unpredictable and potent offense has brought him success, and his over-the-top personality has served as the punctuation mark necessary to launch him from being just another guy on a UFC undercard to a magnetic fighter fans want to see on main cards.
However, even in a 15-second stoppage of Ledet, we quickly saw how Walker’s joie de vivre can potentially go wrong. When we look back through the history books, we’ll only remember his nifty backfist knockdown and coffin-nail ground-and-pound to seal the deal, but he was two inches away from getting himself disqualified with his ridiculous attempted soccer kick that just whizzed past Ledet’s face. There was absolutely no rationality behind throwing a strike that easily could have invalidated his victory, yet it makes his knockout all the more charming, in a way. The same impulse that seems like it will inevitably lead him to ruin -- and has before -- is exactly the same impulse that has so quickly made him a fan favorite. I struggle to think that Walker, with his porous defense and spastic offense, is going to be a viable 205-pound contender, but if nothing else, he is a great case study in how a fighter can warm themselves to fans in a hurry with a curious blend of theatrics, in and out of the cage.