The injury bug loves the taste of UFC lightweights.
First, it took a bite out of T.J. Grant last August, waylaying him with a concussion prior to a scheduled title fight with Benson Henderson. In his stead, Anthony Pettis won the 155-pound championship, only to suffer a knee injury before his first defense against Josh Thomson.
Both Grant and Pettis are still on the mend, and so it has fallen to this: Henderson and Thomson meet on Saturday at UFC on Fox 10 in what might as well be billed as a sort of bizarre last-man-standing match.
The stakes are uncertain, as Henderson just lost to Pettis at UFC 164 and Thomson’s claim to No. 1 contender status likely depends on the future health of Grant. Honestly, it might be enough if this bout can deliver a clear-cut winner who doesn’t need some sort of surgery and months of rehab.
In any case, there will be winners and losers. If you feel like you can’t wait until the weekend to find out the results, MMA lead writers Chad Dundas (that’s me) and Jonathan Snowden are here to give you Sunday’s headlines right now.
Read on, although know in advance that we can’t guarantee your health...
Chad Dundas: Despite amazing physical attributes and an impressive winning percentage (.857 UFC, .864 overall), Benson Henderson isn’t exactly a human highlight reel.
After stoppage victories in 10 of his first 13 pro fights, he’s become a virtuoso of the scorecards in the UFC, running off seven straight decisions to begin his Octagon career. Because of that tendency to go long—and the fact a few of those fights were razor close—a segment of fans never warmed up to him during his 18-month reign as lightweight champion.
Don’t look for him to alter that trend against Josh Thomson on Saturday. Thomson comes in as a bit more than a 2-to-1 underdog, but he’s as tough to finish as a Russian novel. He hasn’t been stopped in a fight since UFC 49 (August 2004), when Yves Edwards dropped him with a first-round flying knee in what would be Thomson’s final Octagon appearance until 2013.
That fight was No. 36 for Edwards and Thompson’s ninth, so you do the math.
Moral of the story? Even if Henderson manages to hold serve here, he’s not likely to put Thomson away before the end of the full 25 minutes. For my money—and despite his claims that he had one of the worst training camps of his career—"The Punk" will manage to make it close.
So close that maybe for the next few months we will still have no idea who the No. 1 contender for Anthony Pettis’ title should be as we await the return of a brain-healthy T.J. Grant.
Jonathan Snowden: At his very best, Josh Thomson is every bit as good as Benson Henderson. Dynamic, quick and multi-talented, Thomson is a fighter who can do almost anything in the cage.
Although he will live in infamy as the victim of an amazing Yves Edwards highlight-reel knockout, to true fight connoisseurs, Thomson has plenty to be proud of in a 13-year career. He fought Gilbert Melendez neck and neck, giving the former Strikeforce champion everything he could handle and ultimately falling just short in one of MMA's all-time great trilogies.
That's a good thing.
But Thomson is also 35 years old. That's not typically an age when fighters get a second wind, though Vitor Belfort's special sauce makes anything possible in this wondrous age of science.
Thomson has likely seen his best days. But, and it takes one to know one, old dogs can be tricky sometimes. When Thomson says he had the worst camp of his career, I believe he doth protest too much. He's got something for Henderson—and, later this year, for Anthony Pettis as well.
Snowden: One day, perhaps soon, Donald Cerrone will be a cautionary tale, the stock example of a fighter spinning out of control, unable to resist the siren song of his worst impulses.
Cerrone's addiction—more common than prescription pills or even steroids, the twin scourges of MMA—is the impulse buy. Everything he's made in his fighting career has passed through his bank account without ever getting a chance to sit down and get comfortable.
Horses, ranches, boats, guns—Cerrone has lived the fast life. Now, by his own account, that money is all gone.
"I’m just out of control," Cerrone told the Examiner.com's Ryan McKinnell. "It’s hard to have money in the bank, want something and not get it. I just [expletive] buy it. I have no idea what saving money is.”
Cerrone wants to fight six times in 2014. He needs to fight just to keep his head above water. But MMA is a hard grind. No one is going to make it for long with the wrong motivations. He is thinking ahead and worried more about his bank account than the bottom line—winning.
That's not the path to success. I expect Adriano Martins to start Cerrone on the path to Bellator. He won't survive the year in the UFC.
Dundas: That’s a pretty bleak story you tell, sir.
Personally, I’m not worried about Cerrone.
For all his bluster, he’s actually a fairly serious, hyper self-critical professional who keeps himself in stellar shape and—even after an up-and-down 2013—sports an 8-3 record in the UFC. He’s also a hard-nosed, strike-first fighter who typically only has one question for matchmaker Joe Silva: What time does my plane leave?
In short, he’s exactly the type of dude the UFC will let get deep, deep into a losing streak before letting him go.
Also? The man is pretty good at what he does. Four of Cerrone’s six career losses have come to dudes who once adorned themselves in Zuffa championship gold. The other two are to a former No. 1 contender (Nate Diaz) and a guy currently riding a five-fight win streak in the Octagon (Rafael dos Anjos).
What I’m saying is that Cerrone has a well-established track record as a competitive UFC lightweight who doesn’t serve up easy wins to lesser competition.
Sorry, but I’m just not sure which part of that leads you to think he’s headed for an epic flameout sometime during the next 342 days.
If he loses to Martins, I might have to rethink my opinion, but for right now I’m sticking with the existing scouting report, which has more positives than negatives.
Dundas: Jeremy Stephens has been wearing the black hat since Oct. 2012, when Minnesota police scuttled his planned bout with Yves Edwards by popping him on a years-old (and allegedly nasty) felony assault beef the day of the event, according to MMA Fighting.
Dana White went to the mattresses to try to get Stephens out of the hooskow in time for the fight—truly one of the weirdest PR moves in UFC history—but ultimately failed. Once he made bail, Stephens had to wait more than two months to get knocked out by Edwards in one minute and 55 seconds at UFC on Fox 5.
In the wake of that loss, however, he has been on a tear. He departed the lightweight ranks for featherweight and promptly won back-to-back bouts in 2013.
The second of those was a wicked 40-second head-kick knockout of Rony Jason at UFC Fight Night 32, which would have easily netted Stephens a $50,000 KO of the Night bonus if not for Vitor Belfort posterizing Luke Rockhold in the evening’s main event.
On Saturday, Stephens will get a stiff test from Darren Elkins—who is 6-1 since moving down to 145 pounds in 2011—but when Stephens wins via another impressive KO, we’ll all be forced to re-evaluate his prospects.
It’s possible he might be a person of questionable morals and judgment (who copped a plea on his assault charge last July, per MMA Fighting), but is Stephens also a Top 10 featherweight?
Snowden: Yes, Jeremy Stephens has been quite successful since his brush with the law in Minnesota. And, quite frankly, for a wee man, he's awfully terrifying.
He carries with him an air of real rage. I'm not saying he is the kind of man who would commit an act of heinous violence—but I wouldn't bet against it either.
In this business, strangely enough, that's what passes for a compliment.
I'm old school, though, and Stephens' lofty record is built on a flimsy base. His impressive record, on second glance, is a bit of a facade. Yes, he has a collection of wins. But look more closely.
He's actually beaten a collection of also-rans. Almost every time he's stepped up in competition, he's come up short. When Darren Elkins takes him down and pounds him, it will be just another in a string of disappointments.
Snowden: Sergio Pettis, the 20-year-old wunderkind and younger brother of UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, got less than a warm welcome from Will Campuzano in his Octagon debut in November. Arguably the top prospect in the bantamweight class, Pettis was shouldering huge expectations. Despite winning a unanimous decision, his failure to obliterate Campuzano in mere minutes left some, including me, underwhelmed.
But UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby must have seen something in young Pettis that intrigued him. Because Alex Caceres is no mere opponent. Discounting a positive marijuana test that turned a victory into a no-contest, he has won four in a row in the UFC.
He's the real thing.
Matching up a young fighter like Pettis with a bona fide fighter can mean one of two things. Maybe Shelby doesn't think Pettis has it—and this is his way of sussing that out before the promotion wastes any additional marketing muscle on a fighter who isn't going to make it.
Shelby thinks Pettis is a future champion, and the Cacares fight is his way of fast tracking the young prospect toward a title shot. I predict a Pettis win—and that he'll be in the mix for a world title shot by the end of 2014.
Dundas: If anything, Caceres strikes me as exactly the right litmus test for Pettis at this point in his fledgling career.
Yeah, Caceres is riding a four-fight win streak, but his opponents over that span have a combined UFC record of 4-7 (a pathetic 1-5, if you exclude Roland Delorme’s three wins). With a middling 4-3-1 promotional record of his own and that positive test for la lechuga de la muerte, it’s hard to tell what kind of talent the UFC really thinks it has in the former The Ultimate Fighter 12 contestant.
Pettis, on the other hand, is gaining a reputation as the next big thing at 135 pounds. Is it too much, too soon? Maybe. When anything short of winning UFC gold means you’ve fallen short of your potential, that’s a pretty tall order.
Compound that with the advantage/pressure of having an older brother who is also the lightweight champion, and Pettis’ career seems like a high-stakes venture, no matter how it turns out.
Regardless, I doubt Caceres is going to be the one to stop the hype train. With his first-fight jitters out of the way, look for Pettis to do something impressive here.