UFC 113: Rua rules, Koscheck controversy and the case for Kimbo

UFC’s pay-per-views over the winter were held back by injuries and misfortune. UFC 111 (St. Pierre-Hardy, Carwin-Mir) had terrific talent but bogged down with some inconclusive wrestling in a couple of main-card bouts. UFC 112 ended with the borefest of Anderson Silva toying with Demian Maia.

UFC 113, on the other hand, was anything but boring, living up to just about everything it promised and more:

1. Rua rules: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua was the consensus winner of the last light heavyweight title fight among fans and media. Not among the judges. This time, Rua didn’t even let the judges settle into their seats, countering a Lyoto Machida attack to land by far the cleanest, hardest shot the once-unhittable champion has taken in his UFC career.

Rua seemed to be past his prime when he first came into the cage after a distinguished career in Pride. Now he seems to be peaking. He’ll need to stay there to keep his crown in a division littered with former champions still in good form (in reverse order: Machida, Rashad Evans, Forrest Griffin, Rampage Jackson), another former Pride star (Antonio Rogerio Nogueira) and some rising stars (Jon Jones, Ryan Bader). He might even have to deal with Anderson Silva if Silva finishes clearing out the middleweight division and decides to make 205 a long-term home rather than an occasional vacation spot.

2. Koscheck controversy: Josh Koscheck had been changing his image. The brash prankster from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter had become the great UFC company man, taking the occasional risky fight on short notice and trying to stay busy. A couple of spectacular knockouts laid waste to his reputation as a “lay and pray” fighter who relied too heavily on his college wrestling background. Dana White quipped after his loss to Thiago Alves that the crowd was actually on Koscheck’s side. In interviews, he was calm and thoughtful, saying he had matured a bit since his reality-show days.

But if Koscheck is trying to avoid controversy, he’s failing. In his last fight against Anthony Johnson, he was accused of embellishing the effect of an illegal knee/eye poke and then responding with eye pokes of his own.  This time, he fell to the mat after Paul Daley threw an illegal knee.

Did the knee make contact? One replay angle shows it grazed, at most. Watching another angle, I was convinced Daley had poked Koscheck in the eye before the knee landed, but from that angle, I’m not so sure.

Koscheck won a convincing decision, and Daley killed his UFC career by sucker-punching Koscheck well after the horn, so the debate on whether Koscheck embellished the incident was just a minor academic point.

But then Koscheck taunted the Montreal crowd, saying the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to knock their beloved Canadiens out of the NHL playoffs.

The Montreal crowd, of course, was going to support Quebec’s own Georges St. Pierre in the coaching matchup of The Ultimate Fighter. But Koscheck seems happy to provide a stark contrast to St. Pierre, one of the nicest guys in the sport.

3. The case for Kimbo. Cutting Paul Daley was an easy call after the postfight shenanigans, though it’s hard to believe the word “never” in reference to a guy still in his 20s.

The tougher call Dana White announced Saturday night, first with some hesitation and then more emphatically: Kimbo Slice’s loss to Matt Mitrione would be his last UFC bout.

At Bloody Elbow, Luke Thomas has a typically well-stated post giving several reasons to applaud the move. In short: White is showing his determination to keep the UFC as the unequivocal home of top-flight competition, even if that means cutting a fighter who’s a ratings draw.

Valid point. Here’s the case for keeping Kimbo:

1. Exposure for more fighters on Fight Night cards. Kimbo won’t sell pay-per-views if he’s not winning, but if you put him on a free card on Spike or Versus, he might draw some of the millions of casual fans who tuned in to see him on CBS’ prime-time shows or The Ultimate Fighter. And then those viewers will be exposed to the talents of other UFC fighters.

2. He’s a great spokesman for the sport. One of the greatest surprises about a guy who came from backyard brawls staged for the benefit of a porn site is that he has a likable, easygoing personality. He did well in a comedy sketch with Jimmy Fallon. His journey to learn more about mixed martial arts tells us all about the sport.

3. He’s not the only UFC fighter with no hope of contending. Sure, Kimbo will never be the UFC heavyweight champion. He’s making a great effort to round out his skills and has a better ground game than quite a few heavyweights, but he’s still too far behind. His edge in athleticism will fade with advancing age, especially with the knee problems that surfaced on The Ultimate Fighter.  But other weight classes have plenty of guys past their contending prime, some of them actually headlining cards. (Chuck Liddell and Rich Franklin are both a good ways down the light heavyweight ladder these days.) Guys like Stephan Bonnar, James Irvin and Marcus Davis are in the organization because they push the action. Phil Baroni is in the UFC with a 13-12 record.

4. The heavyweight division still isn’t that strong. As Thomas is saying at this very moment on his radio show, the heavyweight class is the UFC’s weakest. And there aren’t a lot of prospects outside the UFC aside from the small collection at Strikeforce, many of whom White wouldn’t want back. This isn’t lightweight, where Japanese promotions are loaded. The 24th-ranked heavyweight in the USA TODAY/SB Nation consensus rankings is Ray Mercer, who was demolished a couple of years ago in an exhibition … by Kimbo Slice. BEFORE Slice took up serious study of the sport.

The heavyweight season of The Ultimate Fighter had a weak collection of fighters. Sadly, some of the better fighters from the show won’t have much of a career. Marcus Jones, who had a great aptitude for learning the sport and tremendous athleticism, may have suffered too much of a beating in his long NFL career. Mitrione told me two weeks ago he can’t always train all out because of the wear and tear from his football days. Roy Nelson and Brendan Schaub may be the only guys from that season who make an impact in the UFC.

Given all that, I can still see a place for Kimbo in the UFC. A limited one, perhaps. But enough of one that Dana White might want to reconsider letting Strikeforce or someone else get the ratings boost Kimbo will still bring for another couple of fights at least.

Update: Many thanks to Luke Thomas for talking with me a few minutes ago on his MMA Nation show. Luke raises the point that the UFC is trying to put its best foot forward while regulation efforts are still going in Ontario and elsewhere, and that Kimbo and the UFC may have already taken the best of what each has to offer the other. It’s a good discussion and not an easy call for Dana White to make either way.

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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

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