Thursday, 3 September 2009

UFC 102: Couture v Nogueira on ESPN - TV Review

It’s the stuff dreams are made of, two of the top heavyweight MMA fighters in the history of the sport finally facing off against each other, and it finally happened when “The Natural” Randy Couture squared off against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 102, shown live in the early hours of this past Sunday morning on ESPN here in Britain, with Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan handling commentary duties.

The broadcast began with Brandon Vera taking on Kryzysztof Soszynski in a light heavyweight contest. Vera has done really well since stepping down a division, and this was another great example of that. The Polish Experiment tried to stay up with Vera, but as the fight progressed Vera proved to be both technically and tactically better than Soszynski, so when the fight went the three round limit it came as no surprise when Vera got the unanimous decision, and rightfully so.

Middleweight action, with Chris Leben facing former WEC star Jake Rosholt, followed. Leben was the home town hero in this one, and was looking for a convincing win. Sadly, things didn’t go to plan. Leben showed some good skill, particularly on the ground, but I guess someone didn’t send Rosholt a copy of the script as, in the third round, he locked in an arm triangle. Leben tapped, but for some reason the referee didn’t see this, and he only stopped the fight when Leben slipped into unconsciousness. This tapped off a very impressive display from Rosholt, who looks like he could go far in the division.

The big boys came out to play next with Tim Hague and Todd Duffee in the heavyweight division. This was a quick one. A Duffee left sent Hague crashing down to the mat. Duffee went in for the kill, and the referee quickly stepped in when Hague was knocked out. The official time - just seven seconds, a new UFC knockout record.

The feature light heavyweight clash followed, with Keith Jardine facing Thiago Silva. This was another one that was relatively quick. Both guys got in their shots before Silva sent Jardine down with a left hook. The Brazilian went in for the ground and pound, with the referee quickly calling a halt to proceedings, giving Silva the victory. I’m now left to wonder just where Jardine will got in the UFC’s marquee division.

Filler material in the form of Ed Herman taking on Aaron Simpson at middleweight followed. This was another great match up that had a rather unfortunate ending. Both men put in a great account of themselves, in particular Simpson, who definitely looks like a star in the making. However, when Simpson scored with a takedown late in the first round, Herman suffered a knee injury, and even though the doctors checked him over between rounds, Herman insisted on going on with the fight. He lasted just a few seconds of the next round. After Simpson caught his right kick attempt, Herman crumpled to the ground clutching his knee, and the referee stopped the fight immediately, giving Simpson the win. It’s a shame that the fight had to end this way, but who knows, when Herman’s back up and running we might see these two go at it again.

Then it was on to the main event, the dream match, pitting Randy Couture against Antonio Nogueira. This is the kind of fight that makes you feel great about being an MMA fan. It looked like it was going to end early, with Nogueira locked in an arm choke, but releasing the hold when he realised he wasn’t going to get the submission. It was a statement of intent for the rest of the fight, a truly wonderful encounter with the Brazilian once again proving just why he’s one of the best heavyweights in the history of MMA, and even though you knew he was winning, you couldn’t help but hope that Couture would somehow come out on top, finding that one big punch or move that would give him victory. But sadly, the sentimental favourite just didn’t do enough for the judges, who gave the unanimous decision to Nogueira. It’s a shame that this wasn’t fought over five rounds. Perhaps the Natural would have been able to fight his way back then.

The final fight of the show saw more filler material, a lightweight battle between Marcus Aurelio and Evan Dunham. This was the proverbial game of two halves as it were. Dunham looked great in the stand-up game early on, and his defence against Aurelio’s take downs was top notch. With both men having their moments in the second, the third proved vital for Aurelio, who finally asserted his ground game, with the fight ending with both men exchanging blows. In the end the judges gave the split decision to Aurelio, a decision you can’t really argue with, although it really could have gone either way.

In conclusion - a very good show from the Ultimate Fighting Championship here. Of course, everyone will be talking about the Couture/Nogueira fight, but from top to bottom this was a very strong card, another example of just why the UFC are the best they are at what they do.

ESPN’s handling of the event was a vast improvement on last month’s outing. We still had commercial breaks, but instead of putting them in between the rounds, they saw sense and put them in between the fights. Goldberg and Rogan were still cut off in mid-sentence at times, but this time we were able to see what was happening in the corners between the rounds.

So in all, well done UFC, and to ESPN. Let’s hope that Rich Franklin and Vitor Belfort can continue the good work in a few weeks.

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