Surveying the Middleweight Mountain - Part II
In Part I of the middleweight breakdown, we looked at the champion, Anderson Silva, and the top threats to his crown. But who is closing in on acceptance into that world-class group? Read on to find out.
THE NEXT LEVEL OF CONTENDERS
Patrick Cote: Cote is a bit of a mystery. Through the end of 2006, the French-Canadian was perfect as a professional fighter—sort of. He was perfectly good outside of the UFC, sporting a spotless record, and he was perfectly bad inside the Octagon, suffering a loss in each of his first four UFC bouts. Then something changed. After losing to Travis Lutter in the finale of the fourth season of The Ultimate Fighter, Cote went on a tear through the middleweight division, racking up four wins in the UFC and one more in Canada under the TKO promotion against future UFC participant Jason Day. The wins culminated in a 185-lb title shot against Anderson Silva at UFC 90. The result of that bout was an effort that Cote would like to forever erase from his memory, as the two fighters danced a feint-filled waltz, rarely throwing a punch until a lingering injury finally caught up with the challenger, causing his knee to give out due to a torn ligament. Cote has been on the sideline ever since, hoping to heal his balky knee and return to the UFC as the aggressive, iron-chinned striker that fans grew to love over the past few years.
Thales Leites: Like Cote, Leites would certainly like to forget his last trip to the Octagon—an uneventful five-round unanimous decision loss to Silva in the ground expert’s first title challenge. Leites is better than that, and he knows it, which probably makes watching the tape of that fight as difficult for him as it was for fans watching at the arena or via pay-per-view television. He won’t have to wait long to try and wash the bitter taste of the Silva fight out of his mouth. Leites will face former Italian boxing champion and American Top Team representative Alessio Sakara at UFC 101 on August 8. This bout presents the perfect opportunity for Leites to either jump back into the 185-lb limelight or get pounded into oblivion. Sakara won’t last more than a few minutes on the ground with the ace submission artist. Similarly, Leites won’t find much success standing and striking with his Italian foe. This is the classic clash of styles, one that should end with a spectacular finish inside the distance.
Alan Belcher: Belcher is one tough southerner. The Jonesboro, Arkansas native fighting by way of Biloxi, Mississippi had a tough first year in the UFC, dropping two out of three fights. Since that time, Belcher ran off four wins in five tries, including impressive back-to-back wins over Ed Herman and Denis Kang, the latter by submission in Kang’s UFC debut. That run of success came to an end at UFC 100 when Belcher dropped a disputed decision to Japanese superstar Yoshihiro Akiyama. No matter, the loss did nothing to derail Belcher’s momentum because the fight—a back-and-forth slugfest—was one of the most exciting bouts of the night, one that many (including this writer) thought he won.
Denis Kang: Talk about a long road to glory. It took Denis Kang almost 11 years and more than a few dozen fights to finally earn his way into the UFC. Unfortunately, his debut unfolded with less than satisfactory results for the American Top Team star, as he succumbed to Belcher via guillotine choke 24 seconds before the end of the second round. Kang bounced back in his next fight with a solid, if not one-sided, unanimous decision victory over Xavier Foupa-Pokam back in April to bring his Octagon record to an even 1-1. This guy is the consummate mixed martial artist with almost an equal number of submission and knockout victories to his credit. That is one of the reasons why he landed in the UFC with tremendous fanfare and lofty expectations. With two fights under his belt, the early Octagon jitters are gone. He has had ample time to adjust to competing inside a cage, as opposed to a ring. Thus, the time is now for Kang to launch a full frontal assault on the 185-lb elite. Can he do it? Will he live up to the tremendous hype? The remainder of 2009 will be a pivotal for the thirty-something fighter.
Wilson Gouveia: Wilson Gouveia had a golden opportunity to shortcut the traditional path to title contention when he faced perennial contender Nathan Marquardt at UFC 95 in February. Gouveia came up short in that bout, losing by technical knockout late in the third round. The win propelled Marquardt back into title contention and sent Gouveia back to the drawing board as he fell behind the division’s marquee names in the challenger line. The American Top Team star must now earn a title shot the hard way, by beating a string of tough-as-nails veterans as he positions himself for another marquee matchup sometime down the road. That road to glory starts with a bout against highlight-reel knockout artist James Irvin at UFC 102 on August 29. Gouveia is without a doubt a better all-around fighter. But he doesn’t have near the concussive knockout power as his opponent. Gouveia will therefore need to proceed with extreme caution and, if he wants to truly maximize his odds of winning, really focus on getting the fight to the ground early and keeping it there. If he is foolish enough to stand toe-to-toe with Irvin, he may very well find himself mired in his first consecutive fight losing streak of his three-year UFC career.
Chris Leben: He may not be ranked among the division’s true elite, but few, if any, fighters can challenge Chris Leben in the blood-and-guts category. He is not afraid to go punch-for-punch, chin-for-chin (to borrow a phrase from my good friend Phil Baroni) with anyone, no matter what the result is at the end of the night. You can’t teach that sort of heart, survival instinct and love of combat. A man is either born with those qualities ingrained in his DNA or he isn’t. Leben’s DNA profile reads “real fighter.” With that said, an excess of fan-friendly wars makes for a short career. The mileage begins to accumulate. Cast-iron jaws eventually become brittle. Reflexes start to slow. Taking a ton of punishment accelerates the deterioration of a fighter—there is no argument to the contrary. If Leben wants to become a serious contender in the 185-lb division, he needs to greatly improve his defense, expand his offensive game to include takedowns so that he can utilize his vastly underrated ground game, and generally find ways to absorb less punishment on a nightly basis. If he doesn’t, he could find himself in the salvage yard in the next few years, despite his young age of 28 years old. Nevertheless, this is a guy who I will pay good money to watch fight anyone, anytime, anywhere. Why? Because he is going to bring a rather full lunch pail and give the fans full value for their hard-earned dollar each time he steps into the Octagon. Next up for the former Team Quest star is a bout with rising young prospect Jake Rosholt at UFC 102 in his former home of Portland, Oregon.
Kendall Grove: Here is a guy who literally gets no respect—at least, not the respect that he deserves. There are a lot of UFC mainstays out there with more modest UFC records, far more sleepy fighting styles, and certainly less potential. Yet, fans routinely call for his banishment from the promotion each time he is involved in a close bout. Thus, it seems as if Grove has been fighting for his UFC survival from the first time he lost inside the Octagon. His bout against Ricardo Almeida at UFC 101 is no different, as many members of the media have dubbed it a “loser leaves town” bout. I’ve received no less than two dozen emails asking that very question in the last few weeks. Is that the case? I have no clue. One must ask Dana White for guidance on that one. MMA certainly is a “what have you done for me lately” sport, so it would behoove Grove to put on a career-defining performance against Almeida, regardless of whether or not his feet are truly hovering over the fire. To do that he absolutely must keep the fight on the feet. Going to the ground with Almeida is about as smart as trying to hug a wild Grizzly bear—a truly terrible idea.
Alessio Sakara: After what will be an 11-month hiatus from the sport, Sakara is finally set to return to the Octagon on August 8 at UFC 101. As mentioned above, he will face BJJ expert Thales Leites in a classic clash of styles. Sakara, unlike Leites, is a very skilled striker. Whether he is a boxer-turned-mixed-martial-artist or vice versa is immaterial. The fact remains that he has had more than a handful of professional boxing matches, losing only once. He took the better part of the last year away from the sport to get closer to his boxing roots, scoring wins in two pro boxing matches in his native Rome, Italy. I think that was a great idea because Sakara actually started to look sloppy on the feet in his last few bouts. Thus, I expect ‘Legionarius’ to come out looking to take off Leites’ head with punches on August 8. Don’t be surprised if he does just that if he can avoid the takedown. As for his long-term prospects in the middleweight division, he still has a ways to go transitioning between striker and ground fighter to truly challenge the division’s elite. He picked the right team to learn the ground game, as the American Top Team is one of the best schools in the world. At 27 years old (he turns 28 a month after his bout with Leites), Sakara remains a relative baby in the sport with plenty of time refine his game and work his way into contention.
Ricardo Almeida: There aren’t many fighters who can take a 45-month break from competitive MMA and return to the Octagon with a first-round submission win. Then again, Ricardo Almeida isn’t just any middleweight fighter. The Gracie Jiu-Jitsu superstar is a big, strong submission wizard with a good jaw and serviceable standup skills. Since returning to the sport back February of last year, Almeida is 2-1, with his only loss coming in a disputed decision against Patrick Cote in a middleweight title eliminator. Almeida rebounded from that loss with a solid decision win over Matt Horwich back in April. Nevertheless, his inability to finish Horwich has many media members asking questions about his UFC future. He has the perfect opportunity to answer those questions against Grove, who is an in-your-face fighter. A win propels Almeida back up to second tier contender status. A loss and…well…who knows?
USE EXTREME CAUTION
Drew McFedries: I’ll admit it. I have a soft spot for devastating knockout guys. Anyone who read my UFC 98 post-mortem knows that I think McFedries would be a great next opponent for Anderson Silva, if the champion decides to return to the middleweight division after tangling with Forrest Griffin at UFC 101. No, he doesn’t deserve the bout from a purist standpoint. He needed a win in his last bout just to even his UFC record at 4-4. I don’t care because it would be one heck of a scrap for as long as it lasted. I don’t care that each of his four UFC losses occurred in the first round because his four wins also occurred in the first round. Yes, you read that correctly. No UFC bout involving McFedries has lasted one full round. Not once in eight fights. That makes for good television. I also don’t care that McFedries is only 1-2 in his last three bouts because the way he attacked Xavier Foupa-Pokam at the opening bell of their UFC 98 bout resembled a starving pit bull attacking a blood-soaked steak. It brought everyone watching, whether in the stands or sitting on in a living room, to the edge of their seats. Look, I know the fight won’t happen. But it never hurts to dream. Resurrecting the cancelled bout with fellow slugger James Irvin is the next best option, though Irvin is slated to face Gouveia at UFC 102, so I guess we’ll have to wait for that matchup, as well.
James Irvin: For my money, Irvin is the most confusing fighter in the middleweight division. I can offer no rational explanation how a guy who blows out Houston Alexander with literally one punch (tying a UFC record for fastest knockout) loses a unanimous decision to Lodune Sincaid in the WEC. How does one make sense of that? The long and the short of it is that Irvin is one of the most devastating strikers in the UFC, across all weight divisions, but his wrestling and ground game leave something to be desired. That is why his UFC records stands at a modest 4-4. Regardless, Irvin is a notable competitor because he has competed in three different weight classes during those eight fights. Though he is listed as a member of the middleweight division, I believe that 205 lbs is his best weight because he sheds too much muscle, particularly in his lower body, when he drops all the way to 185 lbs. The weight loss seems to both sap his power and make it more difficult for him to defend takedowns in the clinch. No matter. Irvin is always one punch away from delivering a three-day headache to anyone. If he lands squarely on Gouveia’s jaw at UFC 101, it’s good night. Guaranteed.
Tom Lawlor: Is there a better nickname in the division? Ok, “The Axe Murderer” tops them all, but 'Filthy' Tom Lawlor is a close second. The former light heavyweight competitor on TUF Season 8 is now competing in the deep waters of the middleweight division, and the start to his middleweight career couldn’t have gone any better. Facing highly touted prospect CB Dollaway, a TUF finalist one season earlier, in his first UFC middleweight bout, Lawlor put on the best performance of his short MMA career, scoring a submission win due to guillotine choke in just 55 seconds. Toss in the fact that Dollaway is an Arizona Combat Club teammate of Ryan Bader, the man who knocked Lawlor out on the third episode of TUF Season 8, and the victory over Dollaway had to be that much sweeter. The win improved Lawlor’s UFC record to a perfect 2-0 and makes him the clear top prospect in the division. Who knows what is next for the former Team Mir competitor. My guess is that 20-something Lawlor will be brought along slowly for his next few fights as he acclimates to the 185-lb landscape.
CB Dollaway: I’ll admit it. I thought Dollaway was going to walk through Amir Sadollah in the finals of TUF Season 7. That obviously didn’t happen. Nevertheless, Dollaway seems to have as much, if not more, upside in the UFC’s middleweight division than his first professional conqueror. He seems to have the right recipe for success—a tremendous amateur wrestling background, a training team full of tough fighters, and an aptitude for learning the craft. But potential only count for so much. Results are what really matter. A first-round submission loss to former 205-lb competitor Tom Lawlor at UFC 100 served as a second painful lesson in the Octagon. At this point, needs to ratchet up his training and right the ship. A 2-3 UFC record isn’t the end of the world for a solid prospect like Dollaway, but he is in desperate need of a win in his next outing.
It is a sound endorsement of the depth of the UFC middleweight division when I can’t squeeze guys like Nate Quarry, Nick Catone, Dan Miller, Rousimar Palhares, Ed Herman, Chael Sonnen, Jorge Rivera and others into my division summary without approaching 5,000 words. But such is life in one of the toughest weight classes in the sport.