Saturday, October 25, 2008

Who Are the Most Terrifying MMA Fighters Out There?

OK, I'll say it. Michael Bisping looked impressive against Chris Leben.

To be accurate, he looked more impressive than I expected. And, having seen Bisping at middleweight against a decent and dangerous opponent, it makes sense that the UFC is grooming Bisping as Anderson Silva's next "challenge."

Bisping just dropped down from light heavyweight where he was holding his own. He got an absolute GIFT in the form of a decision over Mark Hamill. Then, he went the distance against Rashad Evans. Now he's looked pretty damn good in two fights at his more natural weight. Plus, he's English, which fits into the UFC's bizarre scheme to reignite 18th Century hostilities.

That's an effective sales pitch right there.

Of course, it's nonsense.

Leben is a punching bag for any disciplined fighter. Evans is the least inspiring undefeated fighter out there. And Hamill, who isn't exactly a top contender, came across the Pond and into Bisping's backyard to beat him had the judges been scoring the same fight we all watched.

Yet this guy truly is as realistic a challenger as any middleweight out there. Both coaches tabbed as Bisping's potential opposition for the upcoming season of the Ultimate Fighter (Rich Franklin and Dan Henderson) have already lost to Silva. Franklin's gotten dominated twice while Henderson won the first round before getting carved up in Round Two.

Which is what go me thinking. If I had to pick the three most terrifying fighters in the world of mixed martial arts, who would they be?

Three seems arbitrary but it's not. It had to be at least three to be interesting because of FedorEmelianenko and Silva.

The most terrifying is obviously the Last Emperor. His virtues have been sung extensively in this space and numerous others so there's no need to cover old territory. He is in a class by himself until someone shows he's mortal. The same is true of the the Spider except his unique class is the slightest of notches below Fedor's.

So it had to be at least three and five seemed like too many. If you add too many more guys, it diminishes how exceptional Emelianenko and Silva actually are. Because, in reality, no other fighter out there is even close. They all have glaring weaknesses.

For instance, a guy like George St. Pierre looks awesome. He's good on his feet, has a smooth ground game, is insanely strong for a welterweight, and has great cardio. But GSP got knocked out by Matt Serra. Kicking Matt Hughes a couple times as he starts to slide down the other side of the hill doesn't make up for that. Neither does a decision over John Fitch. One more signature win and I'm sold. A win over B.J. Penn would do the trick. Until then, he's not making the cut.

With the exception of Penn, nobody else from the lighter weight classes is gonna scare anyone.

However, the best of the big boys - guys like Forrest Griffin, Randy Couture, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira - are such professionals that they don't really inspire fear. Each is a great fighter in his own right, but each is a consummate professional. I don't imagine a real MMA fighter is scared of losing to a pro. If he's scared of anything, it's getting hurt and/or humiliated.

And that's what I'm looking for here. Fear.

You can see it when a guy steps into the cage with the Spider. The prospect of vicious strikes that seem to find soft spots on their own literally scares guys off their gameplans.

You can see it when a guy talks about the Last Emperor. Part of it is Fedor's nasty habit of dispatching even decorated foes without breaking a sweat.

But I think the really unsettling thing about him is his emptiness.

It's not intimidation. It's not a mental game. He either just doesn't care or the idea of defeat doesn't occur to him. It perhaps can account for that notch he has on Silva.

One of my favorite poems is "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats (I've used it before). Part of the reason I love it is because of the biblically eloquent language Yeats uses to describe a universal moment of doom. Regardless of your faith or if you have none, every person has an idea of what the End will look like.

And we can see it in Fedor's eyes. In Fedor's walk. He has Yeats' "gaze, blank and pitiless as the Sun." He is the rough beast with slow thighs, slouching towards his opponent. I know it, you know it, and his opponents know it.

So the question remains, who else has it?

Guys like Chuck Liddell, Henderson, Quentin Jackson, and Wanderlei Silva had that threatening edge. But it's been extinguished by too many surprising and thorough losses.

I say it has to be Damien Maia, B.J. Penn, or Brock Lesnar (I had Lyoto Machida here but his most impressive wins are all decisions so I bounced him).

Remember, we're not talking the best MMA fighters. We're talking guys who make you think twice about stepping into the Octagon.

Maia's unheralded in the UFC and hasn't really beaten anyone yet. But he hasn't lost either. He's been credited with having the best MMA jiu jitsu in the game (ability to use strikes to damage and soften his opponent while opening doors for submissions). Damien smoothly transitions between his standing strikes and excellent ground game.

But what gets him the discussion is that same cold emptiness that Fedor shows. Maia's got it (compounded by the fact that his first name is Damien). He just needs the body count.

The Prodigy is small, but those legs don't seem human. That makes him scary. Plus, Captain America says he struggled dealing with Penn's strength. I haven't been able to conjure a reason why Couture would lie or even exaggerate about this so I believe it. But Penn can't be the guy until he proves the cardio that proved fatal in his fight against Matt Hughes is no longer a vulnerability.

Yep, it's gotta be Brock Lesnar.

His biggest weakness is that he hasn't beaten anyone yet. But he's unnaturally huge, strong, and quick. That doesn't seem to be hype. When guys like Frank Mir and Heath Herring are comparing you to a truck or a drowning force of nature, it's saying something. And the guy swings wrecking balls on the end of his impossibly large arms. The size of his hands has to be an advantage like B.J.'s legs, Anderson's accuracy, and Fedor's...well no, not like Fedor.

I could very easily be jumping the gun here. Lesnar's fight with Couture will go a long way towards answering that question. But make no mistake, Brock Lesnar is not Kimbo Slice. He is not some novelty act here to try to launch a fight league. He may very well beat the Natural, but his future does not depend on it.

And I can't imagine too many heavyweights are thrilled at the thought of sharing eight sides with Lesnar. Considering that he is getting better quickly, that makes him special.

Not as special as Fedor or Anderson, but let's see what time and training turns him into.

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