WELCOME BACK, NICK
Nick Diaz certainly knows how to return to the limelight. His win over BJ Penn on Saturday night was the single most impressive performance of his career by leaps and bounds. Not only did he put his ethereal fighting skills on display in front of millions of fans, proving that he deserves to be regarded as one of the very best in the sport, pound for pound. He also showed tremendous heart and courage by surviving a very rocky first round, one that left him bloodied and swollen as he walked back to his corner regroup for the rest of the fight.
I almost always watch the fights with my brother, Tony. I turned to him after the first round and remarked that Diaz was getting a rude reminder that the UFC is on a whole different level than any other mixed martial arts promotion in the world. His response surprised me a bit, but it was absolutely insightful.
“Penn can’t keep this up for three rounds,” he said. “The pressure will get to him. Mark my words.”
Diaz didn’t really do anything differently in the second and third rounds, other than remind “The Prodigy” that he could keep up his pace of crisp, non-stop punching for as long as he wanted. The pressure of having to deal with a Diaz hammering away with an unyielding attack is both mentally and physically exhausting. Penn learned that the hard, painful way.
Nobody, not even former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida, has ever handed Penn a loss like that. He has never been dominated on his feet in his entire career. Machida outpointed him, but at no point in their fight did Penn seem out of his league. Frankie Edgar also outpointed him on the feet, but again, it wasn’t a brutal beating by any stretch of the imagination.
Penn looked like he got jumped by half a dozen baseball bat-wielding gang members after the fight. That is what Diaz can do to a fighter with his two fists. Sure, he has knees, elbows and kicks in his arsenal, too, but Diaz overwhelmingly prefers to box, and he put on a virtuoso boxing performance against Penn on Saturday night, one that put the entire division on notice that Diaz is the real deal.
This was the single most impressive return to the UFC since Penn returned to dethrone Matt Hughes for the 170-pound championship after his absence from the organization.
Actually, I will take it one step further. Considering the hype and what was at stake, that was the best fight that I’ve seen this year—period.
GSP-DIAZ IN FEBRUARY AN EVEN BIGGER EVENT NOW
Say what you will about Diaz’s bad boy persona. Getting into Penn’s face during the weigh-ins. Yelling “I won that s**t” over and over again after pounding Penn into retirement. And proclaiming that Georges St-Pierre pulled out of his fight with Carlos Condit because he is scared, not injured. All those are polarizing moments for a fighter. I’m sure volumes of UFC fans, particularly those who follow the promotion, not necessarily the sport as a whole, and thus haven’t been watching Diaz over the past five years, developed a very real distaste for the Stockton native at UFC 137. Others probably grew to love the sport’s biggest rebel. But everyone now knows with absolute certainty that Diaz is one bad dude, and he has a very legitimate shot at dethroning GSP.
GSP-Diaz was supposed to be the main event at UFC 137. But after Diaz’s amazing performance against Penn, as well as his venom-laden comments about GSP after the fight and the champion’s equal desire to face his toughest test, convinced UFC President Dana White to drop another surprise on the fans. White announced at the post-fight presser that Carlos Condit, the man who was supposed to take Diaz’s place as GSP’s next opponent, will step aside so that GSP and Diaz can settle their score on Super Bowl weekend.
Mark my words. GSP-Diaz, the remix, will sell out in record time, and the hype surrounding the fight is so much greater now. The lore of Nick Diaz is far, far bigger. And GSP-Diaz just became a bigger, more intriguing fight. Period.
MAKE ROOM IN THE HALL OF FAME, IF THIS IS TRULY THE END
Penn announced to the world moments after his loss to Diaz that he was hanging up the gloves. The words weren’t a surprise. It is far more damaging to a fighter’s psyche to suffer a sustained, three-round beating than to lose by quick, brutal knockout. The latter can be explained by a mistake. The former makes one question whether he still belongs in the sport.
I’m sure Penn’s words were largely driven by the emotion of the moment. He never dreamed the fight would unfold the way it did—more precisely, the way the second and third round went. Again, nobody has ever battered him like that.
Still, Penn has often talked about retirement, causing critics to question if his heart is still in the game. It is a legitimate question. At 32, Penn is financially secure. Plus, his comment about not wanting to let his children see him on the wrong end of a beating strums the heartstrings of every father.
It would not surprise me at all, if this truly is the end for Penn. For what it is worth, I think he should retire if he no longer has the fire burning white hot in his belly. But if that fire returns, Penn should return. He is, and will always be, one of the greatest fighters to ever step in the Octagon. It has been a privilege and an honor to watch him compete, since he debuted in the UFC back in 2001.
I have not seen any deterioration in his skills. Fans must not forget that this is the same man who fought Jon Fitch to a draw back in February. I firmly believe that Penn deserved the nod that night. There was no way the third round was a 10-8 round. None whatsoever. I digress.
Penn’s problem isn’t deteriorating skills. His size is his biggest enemy at 170 pounds. It is tough fighting bigger, stronger guys. I think he should return to action and drop back down to 155. Eliminate Edgar from the picture and Penn likely regains the title he held with such dominance.
But again, if this is, indeed, the end, the world needs to take a moment to celebrate just how great BJ Penn is as a fighter. Remember that he is one of only two men (Randy Couture being the other) to win titles in two different UFC weight classes. He also did the perceived impossible when he moved up from lightweight to dethrone Matt Hughes, a man viewed at the time as being the single most unbeatable fighter in the UFC. He nearly beat Machida in a heavyweight bout. And he has two Gracies (Renzo and Rodrigo) on his list of victims.
Baby Jay Penn is a surefire Hall of Famer. The only question is when will Dana White open up the books and straighten this guy out by adding his name alongside the other true legends of the sport.
That was a Donnie Brasco reference, for those keeping score at home.
UFC FANS WILL NEVER QUITE UNDERSTAND
The majority of UFC fans probably never watched Pride Fighting Championships. Those fans will never fully understand the legend of Mirko Cro Cop. No chance. All they see is the fighter who entered the Octagon and had his aura of invincibility stripped thanks to a violent knockout loss to Gabriel Gonzaga in his second UFC bout. Cro Cop was never the same again. His loss to Roy Nelson on Saturday night highlights that fact.
Today’s version of Cro Cop is hesitant to pull the trigger with his fists. And he simply refuses to throw kicks. I don’t know why. Nobody knows why. Cro Cop probably doesn’t even know why.
None of that matters, though. Twenty years from now, nobody will care about Cro Cop’s UFC career, which has now come to an end, after three consecutive knockout losses. He will be remembered instead for his days in PRIDE, where he was the single-most feared striker in the history of the Japanese fighting promotion.
Cro Cop might be the most fearsome striker in the history of mixed martial arts. That is how I will remember him.
Cro Cop is a former K-1 star who scored wins over elite kickboxing greats like Jerome LeBanner, Mike Bernardo, Musashi, Peter Aerts, Mark Hunt, and Remy Bonjasky before transitioning to MMA.
Over the next five years, Cro Cop developed a cult-like following due to his ability to seemingly beat opponents with little more than his left leg. Sure, he could knock out opponents with his straight left hand. Yes, he had a good right hook. And he certainly knew how to slam his right shin into his opponent’s legs and body. But it was his left leg that really struck fear in the hearts of opponents.
Cro Cop had a famous saying. “Right leg hospital; left leg cemetery.” It was pretty accurate. Cro Cop scored highlight-reel knockout after highlight-reel knockout using his left leg. Most of the time, he destroyed an opponent’s head with it. Less often, he would hammer it into an opponent’s midsection. He regularly battered opponent’s legs with his left shin, too.
Nobody really had an answer to his standup skills, until he ran into fellow future all-time great Fedor Emelianenko. Cro Cop was viewed as an apex predator on the feet, and he lived up to the hype by scoring brutal knockout wins over Josh Barnett, Wanderlei Silva, Hidehiko Yoshida, Mark Coleman, and Heath Herring, among others.
The Croatian entered the UFC fresh off his PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix win. Everyone expected him to walk through the heavyweight division and destroy then-heavyweight champion Randy Couture. It wasn’t to be. Cro Cop faced Gonzaga in a title eliminator in his second UFC bout. Gonzaga scored a takedown by catching one of Cro Cop’s first kicks. The punishment he unloaded over the next couple of minutes on the ground forever changed Cro Cop as a fighter. It was as if he never wanted to be in that position again.
Cro Cop experienced up-and-down success from that point forward, finishing his UFC career with a 4-6 record. But again, none of that matters. The guy is a legend in Japan for a reason. As we say goodbye to that legend, I encourage UFC fans to seek out his PRIDE fights in the UFC library or on DVD. Trust me, it will be a treat.
BIGGEST COMPLIMENT I CAN POSSIBLY GIVE MITRIONE
Matt Mitrione lost to Cheick Kongo. I get that. But he is far from a loser in my mind.
Kongo is supposed to a top-of-the-food-chain striker. Yet, he wanted nothing to do with Mitrione on the feet. Nothing at all. Kongo will probably take umbrage with that statement, pointing to the fact that he was merely exploiting the weakest part of Mitrione’s game.
Hogwash. He got hit a few times by the monstrous former NFL lineman and wanted nothing to do with those punches. Period.
It was obvious midway through the first round that Kongo was facing a serious deficit in speed and athleticism against his bigger, stronger foe. Kongo kept waiting to counter what he thought would be wild strikes from the relative newcomer to the sport. Those openings really never materialized. Mitrione instead used excellent head movement and good combinations to score on the feet during most exchanges. All he needed to do was throw with more frequency, and I really believe that he would have gotten Kongo out of there.
The problem, of course, is that he didn’t. He was himself a bit wary of Kongo’s power and reputation. Fair enough. This was the first time that Mitrione had ever faced a true A-list opponent. Freezing up a bit was understandable. His inactivity allowed Kongo to land good shots in the second round and ultimately take the fight to the floor in the third, sealing Mitrione’s fate.
I fully believe that Mitrione will grow tremendously as a fighter from this loss. He definitely knows what he needs to work on more than anything else – getting up off his back when the fight hits the canvas. That is a glaring hole in his game, one that will prevent him from taking his career to the next level. With his amazing athleticism, I have a feeling that Mitrione will figure it out soon.
UFC 137 Musings
UFC 137 is in the books...Michael DiSanto breaks down the card, with thoughts on Diaz, Penn, Cro Cop and more...
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