On what was the best network television card since it signed the seven-year deal with Fox, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) delivered big-time Saturday night (Aug. 4, 2012) with a fantastic quartet of fights from the Staples Center in Los Angles, California.
From the opener, a stirring back-and-forth tussle that saw Mike Swick rally with an out-of-nowhere knockout of DaMarques Johnson, to the dramatic main event with Mauricio Rua outgutting a game Brandon Vera in a four-round war, UFC on Fox 4 hit the rarest of bull's-eyes. It delivered fan-friendly viewing, while showcasing mixed martial arts (MMA) at the peak of its potential.
With swings of fortune galore, this card was simply the best the sport has seen in years. And Lyoto Machida's brutal knockout of Ryan Bader, which clinched the Brazilian the next 205-pound title shot, was the crown jewel of the promotion's blockbuster.
Here's a closer look at last night's fights, with analysis and grades with the UFC on Fox 4: "Shogun vs. Vera" report card:
Measured, eerily calm and ultimately accurate to lethal effect, Machida reminded us why he's one of the most dangerous strikers in the game with a brilliant slam-bang counter-shot knockout of Ryan Bader. After taking a round to figure out Bader's timing, Machida, briefly, looked in the opening moments of the second like he might be headed for a nightmarish repeat of his title-losing knockout to Rua, as Bader drilled him with a solid right hand that clearly shook the Brazilian.
But like the calculating tactician he is, Machida set a trap, knowing Bader would surely double-down on another overhand right, which also happens to be the Arizonan's go-to punch. Sure enough, moments later, Bader closed the gap and fired another big right, only to get clothesline by a perfectly timed smash to the jaw. Machida, eminently satisfied with his handiwork, delivered only one insurance shot on the crumpled Bader, stepping away as though to say "My work is done here."
Machida's still the only fighter to give UFC champ Jon Jones any remote kind of trouble, with his impressive first round against "Bones," where his mercurial style and sneaky left hand were effective. That was all readily scuttled in the fateful second round, when Jones promptly amped up the aggression and submitted him, but on the heels of the Bader stoppage, Machida earned a title shot tonight according to UFC President Dana White.
Given his excellent timing, unorthodox attacks and ever-baffling blend of strikes, odd sweeps and underrated takedown defense, Machida still poses the best chance to beat Jones. Especially after tonight, where in victory, Rua's conditioning seemed once again sub-par, and his work rate a stark departure from the wrecking machine he was in his prime. Tonight also reinforced the fact that "The Dragon" occupies a rarified air in the sport. He's one of the few guys that that carries the Muhammad Ali aura, making opponents wonder what the hell he's going to do next, even when it appears he's just clowning around. Right before the knockout, some fans were starting to boo as Machida juked and moved his hands about, seemingly posing to amuse himself. Moments later, after Bader had been laid out like a head-shot steer, nobody was booing. That's badass.
Mauricio Rua: B+
A gritty stoppage win over Vera put a capper on a fantastic bout, where Shogun surged early only to gas badly by the end of the second round. One thing about Rua is that he's never in a boring fight. That's the good news. The bad news is after multiple, career-threatening knee injuries, he simply may not be able or willing to train at the level required to have conditioning against elite opponents. Against Vera, he was able to muster off enough consistent strikes and pick spots, while resting in others, to grind out a memorable win. But tonight's performance didn't suggest that he'd be anything more than a heavy bag for Jones with the way he looked.
Shogun's heart is unquestioned, and it carries him through dire situations, when you start to worry about other fighters getting stopped. But at some point, with age, mileage and eroding skills, the wars are going to catch up to him, and that time could be a lot sooner than you might think. Marketing-wise, this was a big win for Rua. But in the context of his career and what he needs to compete at this level, it was simply another war that didn't have to be this hard, and will likely be a Pyrrhic victory.
Brandon Vera: B
In defeat, Vera did a huge favor to himself by showing a ton of resilience, and giving Rua the kind of fight where you're sure one guy is finished, only to see him rally with gusto and put the other man suddenly on the defensive. There were two occasions in the second round where I was sure Vera was doomed. Badly wobbled, gassed and visibly in pain, he looked a strike away from crumpling. But he kept fighting back right when it looked like he'd be pushed off the precipice, slamming Shogun with brilliant elbows in close, and mixing in classic punch-kick combinations. Vera also survived numerous bad spots on the ground, in addition to threatening with a thrilling guillotine attempt that Shogun had to valiantly battle out of.
Sometimes there is defeat in victory, and victory in defeat. Vera's always known he had a boatload of talent. The problem was harnessing it and putting everything together, especially at light heavyweight, where he's been wildly inconsistent. Tonight was a helluva showing in defeat, and maybe it's the spark to finally get Vera, mentally speaking, where he needs to be. He has nothing to hand his head about, because he fought a war tonight against an all-time legend, and damn near pulled it off.
Ryan Bader: C-
A big setback for Bader tonight, who was cursed with perhaps the most difficult style in the game. Lyoto Machida reminds me of vintage Phil Niekro, whose puzzling knuckleball and general scuffed-ball tomfoolery left hitters confused, frustrated, and whiffing on air. Machida's pretty much the MMA equivalent of that.
To Bader's credit, he did most of the things a guy with his style should do against Machida. He circled to his left, keeping his feet outside of Lyoto's whenever possible. He moved his head and changed angles readily. He didn't get too aggressive early and show too many cards in his hand. But, perhaps with his confidence surging after landing a good right hand early in the second, Bader went for it again and was subsequently drilled. It's very hard to get away with the same move twice against a wily counter artist like Machida, and those who fail pay a steep price.
Joe Lauzon: A-
One of the most entertaining scrappers in the game, Lauzon showed serious pluck in surviving the early barrage of the resurgent Jamie Varner to take a thrilling triangle choke submission win in the third round of a rollicking fight. This was, quite simply, and outstanding exhibition of MMA. Varner opened with dedicated body punching and solid footwork carrying him in and out, even wobbling Lauzon with thudding punches. But Lauzon kept coming, and Varner, who came in on a couple weeks' notice, clearly seemed to have conditioning for a couple minutes of each round. He'd start fast, then downshift trying to save his bullets. Lauzon threatened in a pair of exciting sequences in the bout, taking Varner's back as the two battled dramatically, Lauzon threatening submissions and Varner, gassed but stubborn as all-hell, somehow digging his way out.
Finally, in the third, Lauzon set up a slick triangle, stuck with it, and adjusted it perfectly to get the tap. It was a back-and-forth classic, and the kind of cable-TV excitement you pray for, so everyone that isn't a hard-core fan can get a dose of how exciting this sport can be.
Jamie Varner: B+
The former WEC champ gave a great effort on short notice tonight, showing his wonderful commitment to body punching and solid takedowns. One thing that's always impressed me about Varner is how smart he can be when he wants to be; he shifted gears nicely against Lauzon, getting aggressive early in rounds, and then switching up to takedowns right when Joe started getting dialed in as Varner tired on the feet. Jamie's fantastic upset win in May over the previously unbeaten Edson Barboza still stands as an upset of the year candidate, and Varner's performance tonight showed that he's back to his vintage self. And don't think the UFC won't reward him, either. Short-notice soldiers are not forgotten, and Varner, with the benefit of a full camp to train and peak on fight night, is going to be a handful for a lot of guys at 155.
Mike Swick: A
Tonight was a classic, sudden victory for Swick, whose two-year absence from the sport is suddenly old news. Battered in spots by the aggressive DaMarques Johnson, and seemingly on thin ice on a few occasions, Swick came out of nowhere on the opening fight of the card to knockout Johnson in a rousing finish.
Swick started the bout looking his old self, tossing in fast one-twos and a blazing right hand that caught Johnson several times. But Johnson, who, to his credit kept gunning despite eating some hard shots, delivered some big-time ground and pound as Swick was planted on the mat. It appeared that the tide was turning, and Johnson showed a persistence that would make a lesser man crack, especially a guy with ring rust.
But then, suddenly, Swick struck. Catching a kick and flinging Johnson to the mat, he drilled home a perfectly-placed right hand to the face, following up with a couple of insurance shots. Just like that, battered, wobbly and smiling, Mike "Quick" Swick was back.
DaMarques Johnson: B
The exciting Johnson rarely fails to deliver value in fights, and he came after Swick as promised. Though beaten tonight, he played a big part in kicking off the live telecast with an outstanding fight, on a card defined by memorable action. At least three of the bouts could be Fight of the Night winners on an average card, and Machida's KO of Bader will be a highlight-reel moment for years to come. Johnson is a TV-friendly fighter, if not a top welterweight, and as long as the UFC-Fox deal is in place, chances are they will find a spot for him if he continues to bring the ruckus like he did tonight.
Be sure to check out the complete UFC on FOX 4: "Shogun vs. Vera" results, including our live blow-by-blow coverage, right here.
Jason Probst can be reached at email@example.com or twitter.com/jasonprobst.