So-called pioneers and innovators are often only relevant for as long as it takes the rest of the world to catch up. In a sport as impatient as mixed martial arts, it doesn't take long for fresh-faced originators to become blurred images on a VHS tape. In the blink of an eye and flick of a punch, younger men update, improve and re-patent the very thing that once provided so many veterans with distinction.
It's 2011 and mixed martial arts is no place for the static or nostalgic. If you're not moving or improving, find another sport within which to revel in mediocrity. An influx of fighters brought up on the sport have replaced and bettered the seasoned old guard and competition within weight divisions has never been higher. Gone are the days when only a handful of characters roamed the sport, promoted fights like sideshow attractions and played pass the parcel with title belts. No, titles and fights mean far more in 2011, and the old guys -- the creators, innovators and bona fide stars -- are beginning to feel the strain.
This month mixed martial arts fans will witness three of the sport's premier pioneers compete in crucial clashes spread across two UFC events. Firstly, former PRIDE destroyer Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua defends his UFC light-heavyweight crown against rampaging New York hotshot Jon 'Bones' Jones on March 19 at UFC 127. Supporting that contest will be an intriguing crossroads battle between famed kick-boxer Mirko Cro Cop and heavyweight newcomer Brendan 'The Hybrid' Schaub. Finally, rounding off the month of March will be another meeting of youth and experience as Antonio 'Rogerio' Nogueira goes up against Phil 'Mr Wonderful' Davis on March 26.
It is, of course, conceivable that Rua retains his light-heavyweight title and both Cro Cop and Nogueira jam the breaks on the rapid development of their respective foes. Still, the sentimental among us must also face up to the very real possibility of Jones, Davis and Schaub heralding the beginning of yet another new dawn in a sport still at the starting blocks of its timeline.
So this begs the question -- have the new breed and the copycats learnt enough from the original templates in order to triumphantly overtake them?
Rua vs. Jones
The Old: Okay, so Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua can hardly be described as 'old' at a mere twenty-nine years of age. However, with a history of injuries and hard slogs behind him, Rua is as rundown as any twenty-nine-year-old fighter can be.
Yet despite this understandable weariness, and a patchy start to his UFC career (defeat to Forrest Griffin and a sleepwalk past Mark Coleman), the former PRIDE prodigy has recently and emphatically established himself in the organization with stunning wins over Lyoto Machida and Chuck Liddell.
At this point in time, 'Shogun' combines just the right amount of experience and ambition, and shows little sign of being on the slide or there for the taking. If anything, when Rua is fit to fight, there is still no competitor more ferocious or intense at 205-pounds.
The New: At twenty-three years of age, Jon Jones has both the time and talent to become the best light-heavyweight on the face of the Earth. The problem? Right now, Jones only has thirteen mixed martial arts bouts to his name and has been training for only two years in total. He now has to prove his worth, not as a future prospect, but as a bona fide UFC champion, when he meets Rua on March 19.
Impatient and implausibly gifted, Jones received his shock shot at the belt following the withdrawal of team-mate Rashad Evans. Either the sudden opportunity merely fast-forwards the inevitable or Jones will become the next rueful victim of premature hyperbole.
As far as clues go, one can only comment on the stunning way in which Jones has folded everybody else presumed to test him on the way here. Brandon Vera, Matt Hamill and Ryan Bader were all supposed to ask questions of Jones' progress, and yet the American tossed each around like dirty laundry. Unorthodox, athletic and so 2011, Jones is too good for the mere also-rans and perhaps even too good for experienced champions.
The Outcome: Jones hasn't just been beating solid fighters, he's been close to disgracing them. That alone is enough to suggest he has some kind of shot at beating Rua, injury-prone and sometimes inconsistent. However, Jones is yet to compete in a five-round fight, let alone navigate the full schedule, and, though he's undoubtedly improved since, seemed to tire and become ragged in the third and final round of a distance fight with Stephan Bonnar in 2009. Rua can go hard and often, and will test Jones in a manner he's never before been tested. Sometimes logic is unnecessary when you're dealing with a special talent, though. Rua was special six years ago. Jones is special today.
Cro Cop vs. Schaub
The Old: Mirko Cro Cop was once as feared for his penetrating stare as he was for his patented left-high kick. Right kick hospital, left cross cemetery, so the pre-fight mantra went. Nowadays, however, it's more like right kick forgotten and left kick in rehab.
It's 2011 and Cro Cop, while still a legendary name with astonishingly large and powerful thighs, stutters along the periphery of the UFC heavyweight scene. Wins over the likes of Pat Barry and Anthony Perosh pale in comparison to past scalps in PRIDE, while defeats to Junior Dos Santos and Frank Mir have exposed the passing of the torch. Cro Cop is thirty-five years of age now, his tools have blunted and the Croatian favourite often resorts only to a stiff left cross as means of attack. He is now only a mere serviceable shadow of the old head-kicking master.
The New: Unproven and rough around the edges, Brendan Schaub went some way to backing up the hype last October, with a solid, albeit unspectacular decision win over Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert Gabriel Gonzaga. That victory followed first-round knockout wins over Chris Tuchscherer and Chase Gormley and saw the American leap from prospect to contender.
Nicknamed 'The Hybrid', Schaub is a solid, well-rounded athlete, a former professional footballer for Utah Blaze, and a perfect mould for a mixed martial artist in 2011. He has priceless athletic foundations from which to work with and, at twenty-seven years of age, is young enough to carve a noteworthy career for himself. A knockout defeat to veteran Roy Nelson in the finale of The Ultimate Fighter doesn't bode well for Schaub's future world title aspirations, but he'll no doubt mark the blip down to inexperience.
The Outcome: Is Brendan Schaub a Junior Dos Santos or a Pat Barry? That is the question. Cro Cop is still strong and scary enough to fend off and intimidate the pretenders to the UFC heavyweight throne, but is way past the point of matching bona fide top tier guys in competitive two-way action.
If Schaub has genuine ambitions of one day competing for and winning the belt, he'll cut through Cro Cop the way many others have recently done. If he does manage something along those lines, we'll know 'The Hybrid' is far more than just an interesting nickname. While still unsure just how good Schaub is, I'm confident he's hungry enough to outwork and frustrate a slowed down Mirko for three rounds, if not destroy the Croat the way Mir and Dos Santos recently did.
Nogueira vs. Davis
The Old: The twin brother of former UFC and PRIDE heavyweight king 'Minotauro', Antonio Rogerio Nogueira is still not exactly young -- at least not in a fighting sense. The 34-year-old, nicknamed 'Little Nog', has been a professional for over a decade and has traded blows with most of the best light-heavyweights of that time period.
Since joining the UFC in late-2009, Nogueira's form has ranged from the promising (a knockout of Luiz 'Banha' Cane in his opener) and lucky (a controversial decision win over Jason Brilz) to disappointing (a decision loss last time out to Ryan Bader). A threat with his southpaw boxing and ground nous, Nogueira's biggest problem right now seems to be time and the realization that, while he naturally begins to slow down, everybody else seems to be getting quicker.
The New: Known to some as 'Mr. Wonderful', Phil Davis has looked exactly that in his UFC career to date. Submissions of Alexander Gustafsson and Tim Boetsch protrude from his record like warning beacons, while decision victories over the dangerous Brian Stann and Rodney Wallace are equally noteworthy. With a body seemingly grabbed straight from a brochure, Davis is a 21st century athlete enjoying all the perks that come with it.
While rudimentary stand-up skills may one day lead to his comeuppance, very few will have the nerve or strength to argue with his plans to take fights to the ground anytime soon. Too big, too strong and too good.
The Outcome: A far better alternative than the originally planned match-up of Nogueira and Tito Ortiz, Harrisburg's Davis brings an element of excitement and potential that wasn't previously there. Moreover, the blend of styles is far more intriguing now, as one figures Davis will finally be tested on his feet by the technically sound boxing of his Brazilian foe.
If 'Little Nog' can keep the fight standing, he'll have a great chance of picking Davis apart and exposing the bulky American's shaky striking. However, if Davis continues his knack of putting his opponents in whatever drawer he wants them in, there looks to be only one winner. Despite Nogueira's black belt, it's hard to see the veteran coping with Davis' youthful tenacity or explosiveness on the ground, should the fight eventually get there.