Mitrione moving toward contendership
Parity, thy name is mixed martial arts. A busy weekend helped sort through the increasingly competitive featherweight division, while reminding us that even when you think a fight is over in this sport, it's not.
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From A to D, here are grades for the first event of Bellator's summer series, as well as returns on what was a memorable trip to Pittsburgh for the UFC.
UFC Live 4/Bellator 46 report card
Of the 14 fighters listed here, eight made weight at the featherweight limit. Three, including Pat Curran, competed at 145 for the first time. Coming off a mundane loss to Eddie Alvarez at lightweight, Curran was an afterthought next to better-known UFC converts. But based on the weekend, Curran, 23, may have reason to be most pleased. He was strong, fast and, most important, aggressive in needing less than a round to catch a slick -- and ironic -- submission: one Peruvian Necktie for Peruvian fighter Luis Palomino (16-7).
At a minimum, we know this about the 32-year-old former pro football player: He fights with the poise of a quality veteran. Matt Mitrione dominated the bout before punching out Christian Morecraft; it was Mitrione's fourth stoppage in five fights. More notable than the finish was Mitrione's demeanor: He was calm and fought not to force a stoppage. He was aware enough to know that it was coming eventually. Fellow Hoosier Dave Herman might pose a difficult challenge.
In the span of 159 seconds, Cheick Kongo (16-6-2) was basically knocked out twice by Pat Barry. So how in the world does he score an A-minus? If you saw the fight, you know. If not, suffice to say it was Barry who wound up flat on the canvas after perhaps the most stunning finish in UFC history. People tend to overreact in the immediate wake of an ending like the one we saw in Sunday's main event -- I certainly gushed about it on Twitter -- but this one is automatic for "comeback of the year" honors, and will be in discussion for the best round and best knockout of 2011, as well. Stunning turn of events for the 36-year-old French heavyweight. In more ways than one, a resurrection.
You can look at Charlie Brenneman's lopsided upset victory over Rick Story a couple of ways. Since this is Brenneman's spot, let's focus on the positives. "The Spaniard," 30, deserves credit for being the better grappler against Story. Brenneman (14-2) never lost sight of what could win him the fight, and smartly avoided getting sucked into a slugfest against a guy with an iron chin. This wasn't the most improbable short-notice upset we've seen, but definitely qualifies as the best moment of Brenneman's career.
Englishman Ronnie Mann took his first Stateside victory in style with one of the top finishing combinations of the weekend, a knockout-inducing left hook off an uppercut in the opening round. At the age of 24, Mann (20-2-1) is just stepping into the prime of his career. Future success will be dictated by his ability to stay off his back, and he showed some of that against the nondescript Adam Schindler (9-2). Mann's next test is a compelling one: July 23 against the previously mentioned Pat Curran.
If you didn't watch Bellator on Saturday, you missed several dynamic performances in the opening round of its latest featherweight tournament. Included in that group is the Argentine Nazareno Malegarie, whose aggressive ground game culminated in a neck-straining, third-round guillotine against the largely untested Jacob Devree (10-2). As in the case of Matt Mitrione, Malegarie (20-1) stands out because of his attitude. I'm looking forward to seeing him fight Brazilian Marlon Sandro next month.
Marlon Sandro offered a pro performance against his countryman, Genair da Silva (10-4). Sandro, ranked No. 5 by ESPN.com at 145 pounds, moved very well in his first fight since losing to Hatsu Hioki. When Sandro (18-2) wasn't slipping punches, he used quality footwork to bound in and out of range. He scored a knockdown in the opening round but failed to finish before the closing bell, resulting in a split decision win in the 34-year-old's first U.S.-promoted bout.
I have no idea how to grade Pat Barry, who went from a knockout winner to knockout loser in a blink. As it were, for participating in an extraordinary contest, as short as it was, even if he doesn't remember the finish, Barry (6-3) gets a B. Why? Well, forgetting for a moment the two punches that put him away -- and had he not brought Kongo back to life with punches --Barry was dominant. Barry, 31, won't do much in the heavyweight division, yet he always seems to play a part in something memorable. His effort was yet another reminder that anything at anytime can and does happen in MMA.
Of all the lightweight converts,Tyson Griffin stepped into the cage with the toughest test and passed. He didn't look great against Manny Gamburyan, but that should be expected. The point is, Griffin (15-5) had to have a win after three straight losses at 155 and appeared to get stronger as the fight played out. His leg-kicking turned out to be a big advantage, and it could prove to be a significant weapon for the 27-year-old Californian as he works his way through the featherweight field.
After three straight wins to start his campaign at 145 pounds, Manny Gamburyan (11-6) is back to re-evaluating his spot in the division following a unanimous decision loss to Griffin. Gamburyan has a 4-4 record since 2008, and the 30-year-old Armenian-American has to find some consistency on the winning end or he'll quickly get swallowed up by a frightening pool of talent. If Gamburyan is unable to grapple, he'll find himself in trouble more often than not.
It was just too much. On the flip side of Brenneman's grappling dominance was the sluggish Story (13-4). As the fight went down Sunday, it looked as if Story, 26, couldn't find the stuff that propelled him past Thiago Alves a month ago. Whether that's attributable to fighting a fast wrestler, a change in opponents on one-day notice, or simply expecting too much of himself after a hard-fought win in May, Story, for all his brutishness, couldn't muscle his way to a win this time.
And the march continues. Javier Vazquez, 35, is making what amounts to his final charge at a big-time title, name recognition and a payday. The opinionated Cuban-American moved his record to 16-5, with the added benefit of having never been stopped, by outpointing Joe Stevenson. Hardly the most dynamic win of Vazquez's career, it ranks among his most valuable on the heels of a decision loss to Chad Mendes (not that there's any shame in that). Vazquez is angling for a fight against Kenny Florian.
Joe Stevenson gets credit for trying, but it sure seems like he doesn't have it anymore. Not quite 30 years old, Stevenson's featherweight debut did not motivate him to action. He essentially stood in front of Vazquez, shucked and jived, but did little else. If he sticks around the UFC, and because the company feels a sense of loyalty to him it wouldn't be a total shock if he did, Stevenson (31-14 overall and a lowly 3-7 since 2008) has to come up with something new. And quick.
Positives to take away from Christian Morecraft's second-round knockout loss against Matt Mitrione: It didn't happen in the first round. That's actually a compliment. If nothing else, Morecraft (7-2) is a tough 24-year-old with spirit; however, his skills are weak and he's not much of an athlete. From what I've seen of him, it's hard to imagine Morecraft turning things around and rising to the rank of contender in the UFC.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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