Modern MMA was built on the backs of men who participated in one-night, eight-man tournaments. Equal parts test of endurance/will and sideshow, these tournaments may be the most legit — and, to some degree, least legit — way to find out who the toughest man is in a given arena on a given night.
In the beginning of the UFC, the tournament format was everything. Royce Gracie won UFCs 1, 2 and 4. However, the winner of UFC 3 was Steve Jennum, an alternate fighter who hadn’t fought previously in the night. He beat Harold Howard, another fighter who was an injury replacement.
So, what’s the best strategy? Is it the long game or the short game? Royce Gracie, Dan Severn and Marco Ruas didn’t necessarily work quickly, but all won tournaments. Don Frye and Mark Coleman ran through their opponents like buzzsaws on the way to victory. Both styles have worked, but both styles have failed, too, and they failed men who had won before. Gracie won a battle of attrition with Kimo Leopoldo, but was too battered and beaten to continue. Frye ran through everyone to get to Coleman, but going for the kill failed him when he couldn’t land strikes and finish Coleman. Frye wore himself out in the process (Coleman’s wrestling helped, too).
That’s what makes these tournaments so great. The unknown variable of the toll each fight will take on the fighter. The World Series of Fighting has taken some steps to ease the toll with its one-night tournament format at WSOF 25, which takes place on Nov. 20 at the Comerica Theatre in Phoenix and airs live on NBC Sports at 11 p.m. ET. The first two fights of the lightweight tourney bracket have a two-round duration and elbows are not allowed. This may save both worn-out fighters and also prevent cuts that would leave a fighter unable to continue.
Two biggish names at 155 pounds will meet in non-tournament action in the co-headliner. American Top Team product Jason High meets Arizona Combat Sports fighter Estevan Payan. While neither fighter is on the tip of WSOF matchmaker Ali Abdel-Aziz’s tongue to be the fight after “the fight” that this tournament brings about, if either is more impressive in victory the fans will call for them to get a shot at the belt.
It’s been awhile since we have seen High in the cage. It will be 531 days since his last fight when he walks into the Decagon in Comerica Theatre. Ring rust may be an issue for the Kansas City native. That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: When last he was in a cage, it was an Octagon and the man across from him was current lightweight kingpin Rafael dos Anjos. And High hung with the champ. OK, that may be a little generous. For the most part, dos Anjos was doing his thing. However, High did open the Brazilian up and also took dos Anjos down in the round where High would eventually be finished. Oh, and about that finish. It might have been a little quick of a stoppage by referee Kevin Mulhall. High was curled up into dos Anjos as he was taking strikes and immediately protested the stoppage. High is a good, well-rounded fighter with a nonchalant striking delivery and some solid takedowns.
Payan is no dos Anjos, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still win the fight. Payan has been the more active fighter as of late, but it’s been on a lower level. In his last five fights, he has won in Rage in the Cage twice and lost fights in the UFC, Bellator and Titan FC. This could mean nothing or it could mean that he has found his success level. Not everyone is meant to play in the big leagues, or even Triple A for that matter. Payan fights a lot locally and that could inform us. Would this fight get booked in High’s hometown? Maybe not. It’s a coin flip as to whether Payan can finish a fight or leave it to the judges, but when he loses he gets cracked more often than not.
This fight is High’s for the taking. He is pitched a little higher skill-wise. I have a ton of respect for the World Series of Fighting, but the competition level is higher in UFC, which is where High should be.
The fight will go the distance. Payan’s chin can be had, but High doesn’t have that kind of pop. Payan will take one round because of the hometown juice, but the other two go to High for the decision win.
Now, on to the tournament. Listening to the WSOF brass talk about this tournament, it’s obvious they are super excited, as they should be. WSOF commentator Chael Sonnen has said in the build-up to this tournament that we don’t know how many more of these we are going to see. He’s right. The risk/reward of these tournaments just isn’t good enough for fighters to subject themselves to the type of night they could be looking at.
Islam Mamedov’s resume isn’t the most impressive one ever in terms of name opponents. However, his ground game and grappling are impressive. Mamedov likes the armbar, and he has great balance and control when seeking out submissions. Once he gets an opponent down, that’s likely where they’ll stay. He’s from Russia and fights out of “Brick City,” Jersey City, N.J., so good luck breaking him. He hasn’t lost since 2009 and has a finish rate of 83 percent.
There is nothing his opponent, Jorge Patino, hasn’t seen. Patino has fought legends, including Pat Miletich, Jose Landi-Jons and a young Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, while competing in the United States and Brazil. He’s also had more than 50 fights in all. He’s won in every way imaginable and lost every way too. He’s a skilled guy — he wouldn’t have been around this long if he weren’t. He’s good on his feet and on the ground, but his preference is the ground. He’s 4-1 in his last five fights. Patino’s last loss was to fellow tournament competitor Luis Palomino.
While Patino has seen everything, he probably hasn’t seen something like this kid in a while — maybe not since Jacare. Mamedov is part of the current crop of Dagestani blankets that are tormenting the MMA world and not giving anyone a second or any room to breathe.
Patino is skilled, but he’ll feel some urgency on the floor and leave something open. Mamedov will keep Patino away on the feet and find a submission on the ground.
Three of the fighters in this tournament have faced Justin Gaethje. Brian Cobb is one of these fighters. His fight with Gaethje is the one that happened the longest ago, all the way back on June 14, 2013. It was the last time Cobb was in a cage, so everything we know about Cobb needs to be taken with a grain of salt. At his best, he went three rounds with both Gaethje and Antonio McKee in losses and scored wins with a TKO of Drew Fickett and a split decision over Ronys Torres. Cobb is good in scrambles and has some submissions, but he hasn’t fought in two years. We don’t know who he is now, and that is scary.
Mike Ricci was once thought to be the third star in the Tristar holy trinity behind Georges St-Pierre and Rory MacDonald. He is a former finalist of The Ultimate Fighter who is good everywhere, as most Tristar guys are, but does struggle getting out of the gates. He also struggles against the better wrestlers. The X-factor with Ricci is how much a fighter can grow when they train with such high-level guys. Leaps and bounds can be made from camp to camp. The most impressive part of Ricci’s TUF run was that it came a weight class that was really too heavy for the natural lightweight. It would have meant a lot had he been more dominant at 155 pounds. In his defense, Ricci’s last six fights are all against notable names — Neil Magny, Colton Smith, Colin Fletcher, Myles Jury, Jorge Gurgel and George Sotiropoulos — and he was 4-2 while only losing to Smith and Jury, the dominant wrestlers of the group.
Ricci has more paths to victory. He can go the distance with mid- to high-level guys, submit them and also knock them out. Unless Cobb had some college eligibility left and has spent the last two years wrestling at Iowa under a fake name, he may be in trouble. The pick here is Ricci for the victory via stoppage.
When Brian Foster knocked out LaRue Burley at WSOF 23 and I did the post-fight interview, I was sure I was next. Foster was fired up and ready to take on the whole division. On Nov. 20, he gets the chance. Foster is telling anyone that is listening that he’s the favorite, and he just might be right. The kid has dynamite in his hands as a lightweight, and since dropping weight, he has tucked in both of his opponents. He’s like Ricci in the sense that he’s still young enough to make a real run, but he’s also got a ton of experience. He’s the guy in this tournament who could knock out two guys in the first round en route to the finals and be fresh as a daisy for the last fight. He’s 5-1 in his last six outings, with only a loss to Jake Shields, and he finishes at a 96 percent rate.
João Zeferino is no stranger to the subject of finishing fights either. He has 18 wins, and someone was tapping in 12 of them. He’s aggressive in the striking to find openings for takedowns, and he’s also aggressive in submissions. Zeferino is on a five-fight winning streak with four submissions, all in the first round. He could get a breather in this tournament just by submitting guys early. Zeferino is that he fights a lot in Brazil, however, so it remains to be seen if the skills travel.
This is the fight that is most intriguing to matchmaker and Senior Vice President Ali Abdel-Aziz. He thinks both of these guys could win and feels it’s the hardest quarterfinal match-up. This begs the question of which fights he thinks are easy match-ups, but moving on… Maybe I’m biased because I thought Foster was going to kill me in that post-fight interview, but I can’t imagine after all Foster has done to get to where he is in his career, that it would get derailed with a loss this early in the tournament. Let’s be clear, he could have maneuvered to a title shot without this tournament, so he stands to lose a lot if he falters early. However, he won’t fall. Instead, Zeferino’s aggressiveness gets the Brazilian caught and Foster gets the finish.
Let’s keep it short with Luis Palomino. The reality is that he is going into this tournament as the No. 2 lightweight fighter in the WSOF. He stood toe-to-toe with Gaethje, traded with the champ and rocked him in both fights. Obviously, the stand-up was on full display against Gaethje, but Palomino has a ground game that never really presented itself. Not only is he one of the favorites for this tournament, but he is the barometer for the division since he fought the champ most recently. If he goes out quickly in the first or second fight, the division may be more on Gaethje’s heels than we may think.
Rich Patishnock is probably in this tournament on the same grounds as Cobb. He has a history with the champion, and a tournament win translates into a rematch. However, he has just a puncher’s chance at best. His last fight was against Gaethje in January 2014, and it was a quick one. Patishnock’s feet didn’t even smell like the cage canvas by the time he was out of there. That’s meant as no disrespect to Patishnock, but it’s just that, in assessing him, the prior loss to Gaethje and the layoff stand out the most.
To say Patishnock has long odds in this one is kind of an understatement. This is the only fight where the victor is sort of obvious, but that is the time when the openings are there. It’s impossible to quantify pre-fight how much a guy with such a long layoff has changed as a fighter based on training or mindset. It’s also impossible to really quantify how much his opponent is sleeping on him.
Palomino looks at this as a gift from the powers that be and wipes out Patishnock in quick fashion to get some rest for the second round of the tournament.
There’s not a lot here. LaRue Burley may be the exception. He is head and shoulders above the other guys — some people thought Burley was gonna beat Brian Foster before they fought — so don’t sleep on him. If there is an injury in the semifinals, Burley could be a handful for the guy in the finals.
The semifinals are pretty cut and dry — Mamedov, Ricci, Foster and Palomino. What scares me is that is what they call in the NCAA tournament, chalk. That’s where all the favorites win. So, if there’s gonna be an upset, where’s it coming from? Zeferino is the most likely candidate, and maybe Patino. Foster is a tempting pick, but he has the toughest road to the final in Zeferino and Palomino. Ultimately, Ricci and Foster will advance to the final, with Foster winning. The dark horse is Mamedov outpointing Ricci and beating a worn-out Foster.
|LW Tournament Alternate: LaRue Burley (6-1) vs. Joe Condon (12-8)||Burley by knockout|
|LW Tournament Alternate: Benny Madrid (8-3) vs. Ramil Mustapayev (3-1)||Mustapayev by decision|
|165-pound Catchweight: Jimmy Scully (3-3) vs. Roberto Yong (2-3)||Yong by second-round TKO|
|BW: Joe Barajas (11-1) vs. Erik Villalobos (5-4)||Barajas by decision|