Grading the UFC 126 fighters
It's uncommon for fight cards to produce one perfect grade. UFC 126 managed two thanks to the brilliant efforts of Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. Otherwise, the latest report card offers a mixed bag after dissecting results from an important Saturday in Las Vegas.
From A-plus to D-minus, the evening's report card:
UFC 126 report card
There are fairly wide gaps between "very good," "great" and "the best." Anderson Silva is far and away the best middleweight in the world -- he has been for over five years. As dominant as Georges St. Pierre has become, it's safe once again to call Silva the best pound-for-pound fighter in MMA. After questionable performances that offered more theatrics than fighting, Silva reminded us Saturday of his abilities to improvise and devastate. The 35-year-old gets perfect marks for pulling off a front-kick KO to the face.
What a night. Jon Jones calmly dismantled previously unbeaten Ryan Bader. Watching him treat dangerous prospects, aged veterans and journeymen all the same way, it shouldn't be a surprise that when Jones challenges Mauricio Rua for the UFC light heavyweight championship March 19, "Bones" would have earned the opportunity after only 35 months as a professional.
Chad Mendes is a force to reckon with in the featherweight division. While the wrestler has shown an ill-intentioned right hand and the willingness to throw it, he remains a straight-ahead, no-frills ground-and-pounder. You don't see much guard passing from him, but expect those nuances to come the more time he puts in. Ten fights, 10 wins for the 25-year-old powerhouse. Because he doesn't finish (five of his past six went the distance), don't expect a Jon Jones fast track to the UFC featherweight title.
Why Demetrious Johnson's resounding win over "Kid" Yamamoto came as a surprise to people I have no idea. He did exactly what was expected of him by outworking -- more specifically, out-wrestling -- the Japanese veteran. Mighty Mouse's future would come at 125 pounds if the UFC chose to adopt the division, but for now he's competing at bantamweight and will need to rely on his blinding speed and perfect timing on takedowns to carry him through.
Making his UFC debut, Donald Cerrone represented the WEC lightweight class well against an average-at-best opponent in Paul Kelly. He forced mistakes and found a submission, as he should have. Joining Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis, Cerrone is one of three WEC-housed lightweights now in the UFC likeliest to make a dent. It's hard to say what we learned about in regard to that during Cerrone's fight against Kelly, except that he took care of business the way he should have.
Miguel Torres fought with intelligence against Antonio Banuelos. The lanky bantamweight stayed behind a crisp jab, landing it repeatedly on a shorter opponent whose offense consists mainly of looping power punches. This was technical and tactical stuff from Torres, though some will find fault with the fact that the bout went the distance and wasn't a war. Not me, though.
Returning to the UFC after a 15-month absence, Forrest Griffin proved he remains capable of smothering and outworking opponents, even those as savvy as Rich Franklin. The 31-year-old former UFC light heavyweight champion took full advantage of his supersized frame by locking Franklin down and taking him to the canvas as he pleased. The win adds a massive boost to Griffin's promotional prospects in the UFC.
Jake Ellenberger earns a slightly-better-than average grade for surviving a panicky opening round against Carlos Eduardo Rocha and doing just enough to earn a split-decision win. I'm not as high on Ellenberger as others are, but he does have a wealth of experience and that surely helped him against the Brazilian. There are better wrestlers and strikers than Ellenberger in the UFC, and he needs a much better effort than the one he put forth against Rocha to beat 'em.
Michihiro Omigawa met the worst possible stylistic matchup available to him in Mendes and hung in there pretty well. Riding a hot streak back into the UFC, the Japanese featherweight counter-grappled effectively enough against Mendes. But that was about it. There was no semblance of a striking attack, and he was left to fend off the wrestler for 15 minutes. Still, Omigawa deserves another shot against UFC featherweight competition.
Carlos Eduardo Rocha
What could have been. Rocha was amazing in the first five minutes against Ellenberger. His positional dominance on the floor led to stellar transitions and submission attempts. But that was that. Rocha slowed down and didn't grapple with Ellenberger the rest of the way. He seemed unsure of himself on the feet. There's potential here, particularly on the floor, but Rocha has a way to go.
Good things rarely come when Vitor Belfort waits, and his fight with Silva was no exception. Knocked out in 3:25 of Round 1, the 34-year-old Brazilian -- currently in his 14th year as a pro fighter -- probably squandered his last shot at a major championship. He landed nine of 13 strikes and appeared fast in the short exchanges he shared with Silva. But his defense and vision were atrocious -- what else could you call it when a rear-leg kick aimed down the middle wasn't even seen?
A tough night for former UFC middleweight champion Franklin. He's alternated wins and losses over the past three years, and appears stuck between weight divisions. Can you see Franklin being competitive against any good light heavyweight grappler? Can he make 185? I don't think so. Want something positive to take away from his fight with Griffin? Franklin didn't take enough damage (or land enough punches with brittle hands) to wind up in the hospital.
"D" is for desperate, as that's how Bader looked after succumbing to an early, easy takedown by Jones. He earns a "plus" grading because -- let's be real here -- Jones makes everyone look terrible. Bader, 27, is a more traditional prospect than the man he lost to. This isn't the end of the line, not close, even if Bader looked far more ordinary Saturday than he has before. Losses can be invaluable learning experiences, and with the right approach, this "L" will stand for just that in Bader's case.
As inconsistent and rudimentary as he is as a fighter, Paul Kelly isn't long for the UFC. Tough guy. Solid striker. That was the description of the lightweight at the start of his UFC stint in 2008 and it remains so today.
A "Kid" in name only. Fans expecting Norifumi Yamamoto to make a statement in his UFC debut probably weren't thinking of "slow," "predictable" or "old." But that's where the 33-year-old fighter -- one of Japan's best-known -- stands at this stage of his career. Five years ago, he would have had a chance against anyone in the world at 135 pounds. Today he doesn't possess that explosiveness that marked so many of his victories in a previous life. Kid doesn't put together combinations. He just doesn't have it.
Here's a guy who could benefit from fighting at 125 pounds, because he can't hack it at 135. Banuelos is thoroughly predictable -- looping overhand right, looping left hook, jump in, jump out, haymakers -- and was once again exposed by a basic game plan. That Banuelos failed to adjust over the course of 15 minutes is an indictment of his game and his corner. He avoids an "F" for surviving to the closing bell against Torres.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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