UFC 97 Redemption: Post Fight Insights

Take TenCorrespondent IApril 20, 2009

UFC 97 Redemption fight card featured, among many things, the fall of an MMA icon (Chuck Liddell) and a star reborn (Shogun Rua). Also, we watched as a Champion (Anderson Silva) confounded perhaps by his own dominance, discovered that sometimes you can’t win, even when you get a win. How did all fighters do and what did we learn?

Luiz Cane (10-1) defeated Steve Cantwell (7-2)

The night started out with a highly competitive slug fest between two strong young contenders in an already crowded Light Heavyweight division. Steve Cantwell came into the fight highly regarded so far in his young career. He is a well built, tough young fighter who is resourceful and well rounded. Luiz Cane, is a Brazilian fighter who is quickly rising up the ranks in the Light Heavyweight division.

When it comes to Brazilian fighters, there seems to be two flavors: Either they are deadly ground based Brazilian Jujitsu tacticians or they are maniacal stand up strikers. Luiz Cane, would fall under the former category.

This was evident from the very start as Cane rained punches in thunderous combinations putting Cantwell on the run early. Cane was very effective in weaving jabs while moving forward to set up a death dealing uppercut.

Cantwell to his credit demonstrated a great chin throughout the fight which stood up to some repeated tough blows. Cantwell’s pose and toughness allowed him to stay in contention throughout the entire three rounds despite what seemed like a solid beating from Cane. Early on, Cantwell was no match as even Cane’s jabs seemed to do more damage than anything Cantwell could muster.

But, Cantwell seemed to find his game during the second round when he stopped backing straight up and began to utilize head movement and well placed roundhouse kicks to frustrate the head hunting Cane. Cantwell’s roundhouse should be noted as it is a very nice motion which is deceptively quick but sufficiently powerful, but most importantly leaves him balanced and protected.

Cantwell even unleashed what is best described in Tae Kwon Do as a jumping roundhouse kick which was on target although it was blocked by Cane. Compared to Cane, who’s powerful punches are more telegraphed, Cantwell also showed good compact form and discipline. This allowed him to take advantage of Cane as the fight wore on and he became increasingly sloppy.

Overall, this fight was Cane’s all the way. What impressed me most about Cane is his ability to generate fearsome power in both hands seemingly without effort. His jab is just about as powerful and damaging as anybody else’s straight right punch. For Cantwell, who was squarely beaten but showed some good skills, I think the biggest problem was lack of experience and game planning.

Cantwell showed he could fight, but it wasn’t until late in the second round that he managed to begin hurting Cane enough to stagger him, and by then it was too little too late. In the future, he’ll adapt better and bring a better game plan to go with his extensive talent.

Cheick Kongo (14-4-1) defeated Antoni Hardonk (8-5)

This was a fight I was looking forward to very much. Nothing beats a fight between two goliaths. Both Kongo and Hardonk are accomplished Heavyweight fighters of similar age, weight and height, yet vastly different in style.

Hardonk’s 6’4” frame is a powerful athletic specimen, especially his legs, which give him a powerful base from which to deliver some of the most devastating leg kicks in the game as well as thunderous punches.

Kongo, on the other hand, is equally impressive in appearance but his relatively longer slender legs allow him to deliver kicks and knees with uncommon quickness and ferocity, yet once he’s on the mat, his immensely powerful upper body is a force in the ground and pound game as long as he’s got the upper position.

It’s a classic Heavyweight thunder vs. lightening matchup of style preferences that was bound to produce a fighter who could be seen as a real possible Heavyweight contender.

After initially pushing each other around the ring and throwing, but not landing, big strikes, Kongo and Hardonk looked like they were struggling with one another’s significant size and strength.. More than a few times the two giants ended pressed up against the fence without many results.

In the end however, lightening proved more dangerous than thunder as Kongo’s constant attacks found their way home and eventually the fight found itself on the ground with Kongo in dominant position against the stunned Hardonk. The predictable blows by Kongo came down in rapid succession finally forcing and ending of the fight.

Kongo mostly showed some considerable skill in this fight. His kicks and striking in general was top notch as always, but I think he used his strength very well in controlling the fight against a very strong opponent who does not easily get pushed about. Kongo’s performance might have been helped by the fact that Hardonk really didn’t want to take Kongo to the mat.

Instead, I think Hardonk really was outclassed by a superior striker, and then perhaps surprisingly found himself overpowered. This was a strategic mistake for Hardonk. In the end, Kongo’s overall ground game is still questionable, but as with many dominant fighters, Kongo is finding his own groove and he’s becoming increasingly good at what he does.

Krzysztof Soszynski (18-9-1) defeated Brian Stann (6-2)

This was a short one, courtesy of a kimura by the Polish Experiment midway through Round 1. I like Soszynski a lot from what I’ve seen of him. He’s got great attitude and confidence, but also the appropriate amount of realistic class and respect for his opponents and the sport.

Brian Stann is a good solid fighter in real life as a marine and in MMA, he’ll bounce back. But Soszynski, looks to be yet another fighter in the Light Heavyweight division that can be a factor.

His application of the kimura was a nice example of toughness, adjustment, and savvy. As Joe Rogan, described quite well, the final submission was actually a second attempt on the same arm.

Soszynski had attempted the kimura from the half mount seconds before, but realized the perilous nature of his position and adjusted himself out of the struggling Stann’s guard. He then expertly reapplied the submission with devastating results to end the fight. Stann, on this occasion didn’t stand a chance against someone so knowledgeable, experienced, and tough.

Chuck Liddell (21-7) vs. Mauricio Rua (18-3)

This is the latest installment of fights that should have happened years ago, but are instead being marketed now by the UFC when the fighters are at a much diminished state in their careers (other examples ie. Rich Franklin vs. Dan Henderson UFC 93, Matt Hughes vs. Matt Serra UFC 98.) In the coming years, we might actually look back at this fight and see it as a real turning point for both fighters.

This turned out to be as good of a fight as anybody could have expected. The two men at UFC 97 with perhaps the most “redeeming” to do fought like they meant it. Liddell, came out eager as ever throwing his usual brand of dangerous punches.

He demonstrated relatively good movement around the octagon and most impressively managed to escape the aggressive takedown attempts (one of which was successful) by Shogun and even landed a take down of his own.

On the other side, Rua showed up with better conditioning than we’ve seen in years. Unlike his last fight against Mark Coleman, the Shogun showed no signs of letting up as he exchanged blows with the Iceman and pressed forward with the tenacity that made him once the most dangerous Light Heavyweight in the world.

As in three of the last four previous fights for Chuck, old problems and perhaps an old body ended his fight. Recently I noted in my Fight Preview UFC 97: Chuck Liddell vs. Shogun Rua the following concerns about Chuck Liddell:

“His once legendary hands are not finding their mark. His footwork is now more of a plodding gait compared to younger faster fighters. Liddell's preferred hand position considered "unorthodox" because they hover below his shoulders are now suicidally low considering his entire head is open to a variety of attacks he can no longer react to or is unable to stop because his hands are so low.”

Near the end of an exciting first round, Shogun lunged forward with a sweeping left hook which cleared over both of Liddell’s gloves before crushing the Iceman’s face.

Devastation was all that followed as Rua pounced and pounded on a semi conscious Liddell causing a stoppage. Essentially, it was Shoguns better explosive footwork and striking, and once again, Chuck’s inability to cover up and block such a blow that ended this fight.

To Liddell’s credit, the he apparently tried to work on a few things to update his game. He was in good condition and seemed light on the balls of his feet. He was obviously fully prepared to take Shogun to the last round if necessary.

I’m not sure if it was just me, but it seemed like Chuck was also trying to tweak his glove position a bit by place them slightly higher than usual and a bit further away from his head too it seemed. Whatever Chuck was trying, in the end, it didn’t work out very well.

For Shogun fans, this fight was very encouraging. It’s obvious that the Shogun of Pride, still has enough pride to work on his conditioning and come prepared for prime time fights. This writer is not overly convinced that Shogun is really ready to contend yet, but he fought a very impressive fight. Shogun’s punching looked crisp and powerful and as we saw with his K.O. left hook, he’s extremely accurate.

Shogun was also impressive with his conditioning. He pressed the fight against a fighter who’s hard to fight moving forward and looked more than ready with an arsenal of tactics. Shoguns standup defense, strike blocking, and head movement were also great. Chuck is still a great striker with devastatingly heavy hands, but Shogun never seemed bothered by anything Liddell could offer.

Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva (24-4) vs. Thales Leites (14-2) 

Leites, despite his impressive record, had everything to gain and nothing to lose in this fight. Anderson Silva who has strictly dominated his division and his opponents with dictatorial authority was in some ways, looking to bounce back with a definitive defense of his belt.

Leites who is essentially a lesser known contender, was essentially playing with house money going into this fight, but he instead fought like he was gambling with his kids’ college savings.

Leites had the opportunity to stun the world or at least make a case for his own abilities if only he had pressed the action, perhaps winning a couple rounds by points or attempted even some semblance of an offensive maneuver. Instead, what we saw was one of the worst displays of timidity and conservative game planning in recent MMA memory.

Round after round melted away, as the Montreal crowd was treated to an embarrassing cat and mouse game between Silva and Leites. The “challenger” was absolutely unable to even bring himself to touch Silva let alone land solid take downs or attempt a submission.

And when Silva would advance the action, what we often saw was Leites quivering against the fence or resorting to sliding onto his butt like a quarterback avoiding a devastating sack. I feel sorry for both fighters, as the sport deserves better than this.

A silver lining in this disappointing fight was that Silva managed to keep MMA enthusiasts (and perhaps himself) entertained during the match by practicing a few new moves. Most notably was his vicious targeting of Leites’ left knee. I’m not sure if I’ve ever quite seen a single knee being struck this many times by kick strikes.

Quite frankly, I was surprised his knee wasn’t blown out after half a dozen kicks as instant replays showed the knee nearly hyper-extending grotesquely after each impact.

Imagine the “sweep the leg” scene from karate kid, if you want imagery of how pathetic Leites looked as his knee was being torn down one kick at time. Come to think of it, a crane move would have been perfect in this instance, since it might have been the only thing that could have beaten Silva at this point.

I was also pleased to see another seldom used martial arts move utilized by Silva, which was a leg sweep done with masterful timing and strength. One of the sweeps put Leites on his rear end, but in retrospect, Leites so frequently ended up on his behind during this fight, I question if this is as significant as it seemed at the time.

Overall, UFC 97 featured a very deep collection of talented fighters who have much of their careers left in front of them rather than behind them. It will be a pleasure to see these fighters continue to progress and develop their careers in the near future. The notable exception might have been of course Chuck Liddell, who has likely seen the last fight of his prolific career.

I’m not sure what happened to Liddell during the past few years, because it’s not obvious why he has deteriorated so dramatically. The fact of the matter is that he was once a great fighter who had a magical ability to avoid the biggest hits and come back with bigger hits to end fights in dramatic fashion.

Chuck never hid from the hard fights and even in defeat he always went down swinging as the saying goes, and for that you have to respect him


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