Fun fact. Mike Brown has been the betting favorite for seven of his past eight fights, even over current 145 champion Jose Aldo. Less fun fact, he's lost half of them in fairly convincing fashion. So what happened? Is the former 145 lb. kingpin just experiencing a string of bad luck, or has the division simply passed him by? Will be be able to muster up another title run, or will be be relegated to gatekeeper status in the division he once ruled?
Brown burst onto the scene after a stunning first round KO of former featherweight champion Urijah Faber in November of 2008. Many fans and pundits probably considered this a fluke victory for the ATT product. After all, Faber had been undefeated at 145 up to that point, and was seemingly caught by a "lucky" punch while throwing a no-look back elbow. Regardless, Brown won the fight and the WEC now had a new champion.
His next test would be against Leonard Garcia, a former UFC lightweight who seemed to be reborn in the 145 lb. weight class with two consecutive first round KOs. Some thought he posed a significant standup threat to the champ due to his significant knockout power, but Brown knocked him flat with his signature right hand early on and managed to lock up an arm-triangle choke and get the submission victory in under two minutes. At the time, this was viewed as a pretty significant win for the champion. Garcia had never been stopped in any of his fights before, and was riding a pretty big wave of momentum coming into his title shot.
Up next for Brown was a rematch with the man he had beaten seven months prior, Urijah Faber. Even though Brown had emerged victorious the first time these two had clashed, the champ was the betting underdog coming into the bout. Faber won the first round but due to a broken hand, the champ was able to mount a comeback and win the fight with scores of 48-47 and 49-46 twice. Brown seemed poised to reign over the division for a very long time to come. Jose Aldo had different thoughts, though. The champ was dominated by the Brazilian both on the ground and standing, and lost via TKO in the second round. Since then, he has gone 2-3 in his past five fights, with those wins being a questionable stoppage over Cole Province and a first round submission victory over a guy nicknamed after a sandwich. His latest performance saw him get out-grappled by Rani Yahya for three straight rounds, whom he had significant advantages over in the size, strength, and standup departments, and even though he had fought (and lost to) Diego Nunes only three weeks prior, most expected him to knock the former bantamweight out before the final bell.
Why has this happened? After his WEC 48 KO loss to Manny Gamburyan, rumors circulated that he was having personal problems, and that these negatively affected his training for the fight. Are they still plaguing him today? Is the quality of fighters in the UFC featherweight division evolving too fast for him to keep up? The win over Leonard Garcia has lost a lot of luster in my eyes due to his recent performances, and who knows what would have happened if Faber hadn't broken his hand early on in the rematch at WEC 41. Has he lost the desire to train at the elite level, or did he not take Gamburyan, Nunes, and Yahya seriously? Or was he even champion material to begin with? No one knows the answers to these questions, and no one likely ever will.
I think an appropriate matchup for Brown at this point would be against former contender Josh Grispi. Both fighters have something to prove at this point, and since Grispi will be on the shelf until the June-July timeframe, this would give Brown a good amount of time to recover from the hectic pace he has put himself through. I am a huge fan of his, and I hope he can mount another title run in the future, but with new contenders such as Mark Hominick, Chad Mendes, Diego Nunes, and Michihiro Omigawa, the road back to the top isn't going to be an easy one.