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Diaz taps Miller, rolls into lightweight title picture at UFC on FOX 3

Nate Diaz dominated his third straight fight to earn No. 1 contender status at 155 pounds. (Photo courtesy of Heavy MMA).

East Rutherford, N.J. – Calculating, precise and ultimately devastating, Nate Diaz left no doubt as to where he stands in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lightweight division.

In what could once again be described as the best performance of his career, Diaz defeated perennial contender Jim Miller with a second-round guillotine choke in the UFC on FOX 3 main event Saturday night at the Izod Center.

Diaz’s destruction of local favorite Miller via a second-round guillotine choke gives the Caesar Gracie-trained fighter his third dominating win in a row and the No. 1 contender spot at 155 pounds. UFC President Dana White clarified the lightweight picture in the post-fight press conference, confirming that Diaz would only face Anthony Pettis if he wanted to, which contradicted a report from Friday. Diaz said he would instead wait for the winner of the rematch between current champion Benson Henderson and former champ Frankie Edgar, which is expected to take place in early fall.

“He’s tough,” Diaz acknowledged. “I worked hard and let the training do the talking.”

After a first round in which he got the better of the striking despite Miller effectively countering his reach with clinch work, Diaz flashed his ground work with a slick transition into the guillotine. Miller tried to roll through but  Diaz stayed with him, forced the tap out and improved to 3-0 since his cut back down to 155 pounds. In his last three fights Diaz has submitted Takanori Gomi and Miller with a dominating decision win over Donald Cerrone. Miller lost for just the second time in 10 fights and was finished for the first time in his career.

“Nate controlled the fight from bell to bell,” Miller said. “He took the momentum and never let me get any significant shots in there. He fought a beautiful fight. He had my number.”

Miller immediately looked to close the distance in the first round and was able to get inside and into the clinch not he much longer Diaz. But Diaz manufactured strikes from in tight and eventually stunned Miller with a right jab, straight left combo. Miller escaped danger from a late grappling sequence but the round was Diaz’s on two of the three judges scorecards. Interestingly, judge Bittencourt gave each fighter a 10 in the first round.

The second round sam Miller uncharacteristically respond to taunting by Diaz with a charging, flying knee attempt. Diaz stalked with ranged boxing attacks before sinking in a the guillotine. Miller tried to roll out of it but Diaz secured the choke and forced Miller to tap at the 4:09 mark the second round.

Diaz improves to 16-7 overall and 11-5 in the UFC. Miller is 1-2 in last three fights and fell to 21-4 and 10-3 in the UFC.

UFC on FOX 3 Results

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Miller, Diaz on weight for UFC on FOX 3 clash

Nate Diaz (left) and Jim Miller square off Saturday in a pivotal lightweight contender bout. (Photo courtesy of MMAJunkie.com)

 

East Rutherford, N.J. - Lightweight contenders Jim Miller and Nate Diaz were both on weight Friday for their main event fight at UFC on FOX 3.

Both Diaz and Miller weighed in at an even 156 pounds for Saturday night’s clash, which headlines the UFC’s third network broadcast on FOX. Diaz, who had originally been promised a title shot with a win over Miller, looked lean and healthy for what will be his third fight at 155 since dropping back down from the welterweight division. Diaz is 3-3 in his last six fights, but has turned a corner with thoroughly impressive victories over Takanori Gomi and Donald Cerrone in his two most recent bouts. He earned Submission of the Night and Fight of the Night bonuses, respectively, in those wins.

Miller, a New Jersey native, is 10-2 in his UFC career and is coming off a first-round submission of Melvin Guillard in his previous fight. A loss to current UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson in August 2011 snapped a seven-fight winning streak that dated back to July 2009.

Ariel Helwani reported Friday that, in a last minute change-up, the winner of Saturday’s Miller-Diaz fight will now face Anthony Pettis to determine the No. 1 contender. With Henderson’s rematch with former champ Frankie Edgar likely to take place in September that would leave a nine-month wait for the next No. 1 contender, so another rung on the ladder has been added for the Miller-Diaz winner.

Co-headliners Josh Koscheck (170.5) and Johny Hendricks (170.5) were both on weight for their welterweight battle that is set to give Hendricks a title shot if he can emerge victorious. Hendricks initially weighed in at 171.5 before stepping behind the towel to shed the remaining clothing weight.

The only fighter not to make weight was flyweight John Lineker, who came in one pound over at 127 pounds for his fight against Louis Gaudinot. Fighters typically have two hours to lose the weight, but Lineker was denied the opportunity to cut any additional weight by the commission doctor. He was fined $1,200 for missing weight. That money now goes to Gaudinot.

The official UFC on FOX 3 weigh-in results include:

Main card: (FOX, 8PM ET/5PM PT)

Nate Diaz (156) vs. Jim Miller (156)

Josh Koscheck (170.5) vs. Johnny Hendricks (170.5)

Alan Belcher (186) vs. Rousimar Palhares (186)

Pat Barry (244) vs. Lavar Johnson (253)

Preliminary card: (Fuel TV, 5PM ET/2PM PT)

Tony Ferguson (154.5) vs. Michael Johnson (156)

John Dodson (126) vs. Tim Elliot (125)

John Hathaway (169) vs. Pascal Krauss (169)

Louis Gaudinot (126) vs. John Lineker (127)

Danny Castillo (155) vs. John Cholish (155.5)

Dennis Bermudez (145.5) vs. Pablo Garza (145)

Preliminary card: (Facebook, 4PM ET/1PM PT)

Roland Delorme (135) vs. Nick Denis (135)

Mike Massenzio (184) vs. Karlos Vemola (185)

*Lineker was fined $1,200 for missing weight and was denied the opportunity to cut any additional weight by the NJ commission doctor.

UFC on FOX 3: Weigh-in Results

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Sean McCorkle makes successful first stop on the road back

Sean McCorkle began to work his way back to the big show (Scott McKinley/MMADieHards.com)

It was the biggest opportunity of Sean McCorkle’s career and was supposed to be one of the best nights of his life.  But after just four minutes of fighting, McCorkle was taking the long walk from the Octagon to the locker room, devastated by his TKO loss to Stefan Struve.

It was the first loss of his career, snapping a 10-fight win streak, and it came in front of a massive and frenetic crowd in Montreal.  Even the unabashed jokester in McCorkle (Twitter: @BigSexyMcCorkle) was crushed, and then he got a text from his brother.  McCorkle’s entrance song is “All I Do is Win” by DJ Khaled so his brother had an idea for him.  He said he had a friend that was a DJ, and he could remix the song to call it “All I Do is Win…Most of the Time.”

He had just suffered the first loss of his MMA career and was obviously in a sour mood, so his reaction was predictable.

He laughed.

“Funny is funny, even if it’s at my expense,” McCorkle said.

That may be the best example of why fans love McCorkle’s style, and why he has a good shot to get back into the UFC if he puts together a solid run.  After starting his career with 10 straight wins, including taking his UFC debut with a first-round submission against Mark Hunt at UFC 119, McCorkle dropped consecutive fights to Struve and Christian Morecraft and was recently released from the promotion.

The 6’7″, 300-pounder has landed on his feet with Championship Fighting Alliance and quickly overwhelmed Cameron Befort in Saturday’s main event at CFA 2.  McCorkle was originally scheduled to face Mike Hayes, but Hayes couldn’t get written permission from Bellator, with whom he is under contract, to participate in the event and pulled out less than a week before the fight.

“To be honest I don’t know a thing about the guy, but I assume he’s not as good as me,” McCorkle said leading up to the fight on MMA Beatdown on the MMA DieHards Radio Network. “And I assume he’s not as good as Mike Hayes, but it’s tough getting a change at the last minute not having seen a guy fight.”

Turns out he was right.

McCorkle’s obvious goal is to make it back to the UFC, and he figured at the time to be about three wins away from getting a second chance.  That number is now two, and it sounds like an accurate assessment.

Even though the UFC has had to reign him in on a couple occasions for his antics, there’s no doubt he is a pro at hyping fights.  He and Struve engaged in a war of words on Twitter prior to their match, and McCorkle was able to get the usually reserved Struve to fire back and issue a contest for his fans to Photoshop a picture of McCorkle.  The result was a fight that came with a lot of hype and delivered with an exciting finish, even if it didn’t go McCorkle’s way.

“I (trash) talk to every single guy before I fight,” McCorkle said, but noted that he left Hunt alone because he was going through some legitimate personal problems at the time.  “I talked to Struve, I talked to Morecraft.  I said, ‘Listen man, if it’s cool with you I’m good at hyping fights and I’m going to say some things so don’t take it personal.’ Because they’re not very not very good at it they get mad at me.  Sometimes the line gets blurred and guys get really upset.  Nothing is meant to be mean spirited or hurtful, it’s just meant to be fun.”

For Saturday’s fight at US Century Bank Arena in Miami, McCorkle weighed in a 295.75 as a super heavyweight while Befort (6-4) tipped the scales at 298.75.  Befort, fighting out of Rochester, Minn., still has never been to a decision.  He has four wins by TKO and two by submission, but has an obvious hole in his game having been submitted in all four of his defeats.

McCorkle’s 11 wins include 10 stoppages, including the kimura it took him 70 seconds to secure against Befort.  A couple more, and big opportunities might once again be in “Big Sexy’s” future.

UFC Matt Mitrione eager to test Christian Morecraft’s “meddle”

Matt Mitrione (Hector Castro/MMADieHards.com)

Matt Mitrione is never afraid to speak his mind and tell it like he sees it, which, along with his aggressive and exciting fighting style, has endeared him to UFC fans since his Octagon run began in late 2009.

His latest opponent, Christian Morecraft, hasn’t been bashful in claiming his intentions for this Sunday’s heavyweight bout at UFC on Versus 4.  But instead of engaging in a war of words Mitrione is pulling a Mark Cuban, laying (relatively) low and waiting for his actions in the cage to state his case while his opponent does all the yapping.

“If you say you’re going to beat the piss out of me on a video then I’m really excited to see what you’re going to come up with,” Mitrione said during his appearance on MMA Beatdown radio on the MMA DieHards Radio Network. “If you want to start writing checks (with your mouth) then I’m going to make you try to cash them.

“I don’t talk trash, but if people ask me I’m going to say I’m going to try to punch him in the face until he goes to sleep. I’m witty and crafty, and I can rip on him in so many ways and really tear into him, but I feel that’s really overrated.”

This bit of pre-fight antagonizing should make Sunday’s tilt even more interesting, but once the cage door shuts at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh it’s going to, as always, come down to which man can impose his will. Mitrione might be pretty eager to drop a couple shots on Morecraft’s chin, but there’s no disrespect on his end. He knows he’s going to have to bring his best and fend off Morecraft’s strengths if he wants to improve his perfect record to 5-0.

“Morecraft brings a unique skill set that I haven’t seen at all,” Mitrione said. “I think everybody knows this and I’m not surprising anybody when I say this: he doesn’t want to stand with me. He wants to get me against the fence and throw me down and maul me, and I really haven’t seen that in a fight. That was Tim Hague’s game plan but he never got his hands on me. Hopefully that’s the same way this fight goes.”

Thanks to his NFL career, Mitrione is no stranger to dealing with opponents who bring substantial size to the table. Morecraft stands 6-foot-6 and has an 81-inch reach, so he’ll be well-equipped to grab a hold of his opponent and put him to the mat. Once there, his length and weight cause problems, just as they did to Stefan Struve in the first round before the towering Dutchman knocked him out early in the second round. Morecraft, a 24-year old Washington, D.C. native, began his career with six straight wins in regional promotions out of Plymouth, Mass. His UFC debut came against Struve at UFC 117 and his Octagon record currently stands at 1-1 after he choked out Sean McCorkle with a standing guillotine at UFC Fight Night 24.

Mitrione has only known the bright lights and big stage of the UFC in his mixed martial arts career. After competing on the 10th season of The Ultimate Fighter, Mitrione fought and defeated Marcus Jones via knockout during the season’s finale. He has since gone on to defeat Kimbo Slice, Joey Beltran and Hague, earning Fight of the Night honors for his win over Beltran.

A win on Sunday would push Mitrione to 5-0 and allow him to continue climbing the ladder in the heavyweight division. He knows opponent selection isn’t up to him, so there isn’t anyone particular he is looking to get into the cage with.  It may be cliché, but he’s taking the approach of simply beating the next man in line and going from there.

“I’m not trying to put the cart before the horse and get greedy,” Mitrione said. “I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given. This is a serious fight for the fifth one of my career. I’m not trying to fight (UFC heavyweight champion) Cain (Velasquez) yet. I understand Rome wasn’t built in a day and I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’m no spring chicken – I’m 32 turning 33 soon (July 15) – but I’m ready to scrap. I bust my stones and prepare for everyone the same way. I travel to get the best coaching in the world and from that I prepare to be successful.”

Morecraft has certainly ticked off Mitrione with his comments and claims, but “Meathead” is aiming to smartly use those digs as motivation. He’s going to let Morecraft put the pressure on himself, then make him back it up.

“To be honest, I’m really excited to see what kind of game Christian Morecraft brings,” he said. “I want to see how aggressive he is, how much he’s going to push the pace. I’m a grown-ass man and if you’re ready to scrap then I’m going to make sure I touch your chin once or twice. If you’re fortunate enough to win you’re never going to want to fight me again, I promise that.”

Strikeforce: Jeff Monson’s quest for a title starts with Cormier

The aging warrior vs. the young(er) up-and-comer. That’s what Saturday’s fight between Jeff Monson and Daniel Cormier may look like on the surface. But the grizzled veteran Monson is out to prove, among other things, that experience, not age, will be the deciding factor in his quest for a world championship.

“I’m a lot more experienced than him and I’ve had a lot of time in the cage to make my mistakes,” Monson said in a recent interview with MMA DieHards. “I also know what it feels like to lose – something he hasn’t experienced yet – so I know what I’m fighting for.”

What Monson yearns for is a return to prominence and the same high-level mixed martial arts success he enjoyed during a pair of stints in the UFC, which culminated with a heavyweight title fight against Tim Sylvia at UFC 65. Cormier enters this fight with a perfect 7-0 mark as one of Strikeforce’s top prospects, so Monson knows a victory during Saturday’s Strikeforce: Overeem vs. Werdum card could vault him back into Zuffa’s plans at either heavyweight or light-heavyweight.

“I’m really hoping (a win) puts me back on the map,” Monson said. “I’m on an eight-fight winning streak and I have had run since I left the UFC. Now that I’m 40 I really want to prove that it doesn’t matter how old you are, you can still be a champion.”

When Monson fought Sylvia at UFC 65 it was billed as a classic “striker vs. grappler” match. This time it will be strength vs. strength as both Monson and Cormier are elite grapplers with both domestic and international pedigree.

Cormier was a dominant high school wrestler in Louisiana, winning three state championships from 1995-1997. He attended Colby Community College in Kansas where he won a pair of NJCAA national championships before transferring to Division-I power Oklahoma State. He was a Big 12 Conference and NCAA runner-up in 2001 wrestling at 184 pounds. After graduating college Cormier competed on the national stage with USA wrestling, winning the USA Senior Freestyle National Championship six straight times from 2003-2008. He was a member of the 2004 and 2008 US Olympic wrestling teams, including the captain of the 2008 squad in Beijing. Cormier, however, could not compete in 2008 due to suffering from kidney failure shortly after weigh-ins. He has also won several FILA tournaments.

Few fighters, especially in the heavyweight division,can come close to that kind of grappling prowess. Monson, however, is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace who is considered among the best submission grapplers in the world. Monson also has a wrestling background at Division I Oregon State where claimed a PAC-10 title during his senior season. After college, Monson also competed at the senior level of USA Wrestling. But Monson’s bread and butter is his outstanding jiu-jitsu. The BJJ black belt is a two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Champion, having won the over 99 kg title in 2005 and the under 99 kg title in 1999. He also placed third in 2009 and second in 2001. Monson is also a multiple event winner for NAGA, Grapplers Quest and FILA. Jiu-Jitsu also gave him his nickname of “The Snowman”. He entered the 1999 ADCC tournament as a relative unknown before beating four Brazilian competitors in a row to secure the title. During his run to the championship, his opponents compared him to a snowball, saying he was white, compact, rolling and getting bigger and strong as the tournament went on.

“He is a great wrestler with excellent takedown skills,” Monson said of Cormier. “He likes to fight from the top position, and for most opponents that is the hardest to fight against. However, my BJJ is excellent and I enjoy fighting from my back to I’m not worried.”

“I expect that he will try to take me to the ground and dominate me there, but I’m ready to stand up with him as well. I’m ready for whatever happens. At the end of the day I have a strategy going into this and I’m going to stick to it.”

Monson has had 53(!) professional MMA fights and owns an impressive 42-11 record. Since leaving the UFC after his loss to Sylvia, Monson has fought everywhere from Pride to Dream to Sengoku and everywhere in between. He’s fought in the US, Japan, The Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, France, Northern Ireland, United Arab Emirates, Australia, England, Israel, Canada and Switzerland. When the time comes when civilians can travel to Mars, he’ll surely have the frequent flier miles. Since back-to-back losses to Travis Wiuff and Shamil Abdurahimov in a three-week span in 2010, Monson has won eight straight fights with five coming via submission.

Cormier can’t match Monson’s experience, but he knows only winning in his brief MMA career. He began his career with a second-round TKO of Gary Frazier in September 2009 at Strikeforce Challengers: Kennedy vs. Cummings and rattled off five more wins all by stoppage. His lone decision came in his most recent win over Devin Cole in January.

Whether it be Monson showing he still has what it takes to be a champion or Cormier validating his status as a rising star, Saturday’s fight is going to be a turning point in both fighters’ careers. Monson knows he can’t fight forever and that he’s closer to the end than the beginning, but his drive to compete still burns fiercely. Until that’s not the case, “The Snowman” will continue to fight and fight often. Asked where he sees himself in the ranks of Zuffa, his response was swift and simple.

“Holding a title.”

Henry Cejudo: The Return of the King

The champ has returned.

United States Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo has not stepped onto a mat in competitive fashion since becoming the youngest American wrestler to capture Olympic gold during the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. At one time it looked as if Cejudo had grappled for the final time at just 21 years of age, but in late 2010 he announced he would be making a run at a second freestyle gold medal in 2012.

Fans won’t have to wait until the London games to kick off to catch a glimpse of one of the greatest wrestlers in U.S. history, however, because Cejudo will make his return today in New York City during the 2011 Beat the Streets Gala in Duffy Square.

As part of a USA vs. Russia freestyle dual meet, Cejudo will square off against Rasul Mashezov at 121 pounds as one of seven matches for the event.

Beat the Streets is a non-profit organization that reaches out to students in New York City and creates opportunities for them to participate in after-school wrestling programs, providing them a safe haven and a way out of some of the poorest and toughest neighborhoods in the The Big Apple.

“It’s a great cause and it’s something I help out with during the year because I was an inner-city kid too,” Cejudo said. “I’m excited to be here to show kids that they have a way out and to use it as a platform to elevate kids to be better people and accomplish their dreams.”

It feels right that Cejudo, who became a national darling in both the United States and Mexico after winning the 2008 55kg Olympic gold medal, has decided to continue his competitive wrestling career. He’s just 24-years old, and was once considered the future of USA wrestling.

But his career nearly took a turn in a couple of different directions following his triumphant rise to glory.

Growing up in a Mexican community as the son of Mexican immigrants, boxing was one of the most popular sports around and one of Cejudo’s earliest passions.

“Being brought up in a Mexican community all people talked about and watched was boxing,” Cejudo said. “And to me it was always something I wanted to do but never had a real chance to attempt.”

So after his Olympic championship and the whirlwind media tour that followed, Cejudo began to dabble in the sweet science. Eventually he became just as immersed as he had been in wrestling. He slept at the boxing gym, training at least twice a day. He competed and won tournaments in his home state of Arizona and even trained with iconic trainer Freddie Roach. Cejudo was set on going back to the Olympics, but the catch was he was going to do it with gloves on.

“That was my initial goal, to go back to the Olympics for boxing,” Cejudo said. “I wanted to blow Michael Phelps out of the water.”

This wasn’t just a wacky dream being chased, either. Cejudo was getting very good, very quickly, and still feels he could have turned professional and found early success.

“I was sparring against a pro boxer and within a month I was getting the best of him,” Cejudo stated. “I was going up against some of the best guys in the country and they were surprised I was right there with these people in just a month and a half. My defense, my jab, how to move; it was all there.”

Boxing wasn’t the only sport that threatened to pull Cejudo away from the wrestling mat. Not surprisingly, mixed martial arts came calling early in 2010 when Bellator Fighting Championship showed interest in signing Cejudo for its Season Three Bantamweight Tournament. The list of wrestlers who have made a successful transition to MMA is a long and distinguished one, and it seemed a logical path for Cejudo if he wasn’t going to wrestle anymore.

But in the end, neither boxing nor MMA could pull Cejudo away from the sport that has reciprocated so much good in his life.

“I was close enough to signing with Bellator that they faxed the papers over and I was ready to sign them,” Cejudo said. “I thought about it for a day and during that time I got a call from USA wrestling about me coming back. I had a decision to make, and I think I just see myself with another gold medal and maybe doing MMA afterward.

“MMA will always be there, but wrestling is such a high-caliber sport that once you leave it you can’t come back. I think I can have a bigger impact right now by winning another Olympic gold and going down in the history books.”

Long considered the best base to have when entering mixed martial arts training, Cejudo certainly has the wrestling aspect down pat. Even though he balked at an MMA offer, that doesn’t mean he’s closed the book on a career in the cage. In fact, Cejudo will be 25 after the 2012 Olympics and has already trained in jiu-jitsu and thai boxing in addition to his standard boxing training. An MMA career is certainly a possibility for Cejudo after the next Olympics.

Henry Cejudo catching up with Urijah Faber at Ultimate Fitness. (photo courtesy of UrijahFaber.com)

“My goal never was to become an MMA fighter while I was training, I just wanted to become a student of all the (disciplines),” Cejudo said. “I can always come back to MMA. It’s a new sport. It’s a baby. Nobody in the UFC or in MMA is at their full potential right now because everybody is still learning.”

For now it will be like it was for Cejudo in the not-so-old days: all wrestling, all the time. His 18-month training camp began in February and will take him all the way to the summer of 2012. He will eventually move out to Iowa City, Iowa to train with his former Olympic coach Terry Brands, who was USA Wrestling’s national freestyle coach in Colorado Springs, Colo., when Cejudo trained there. Brands is also an associate head coach for the University of Iowa wrestling team under his twin brother and head coach Tom. Cejudo will also make a trip overseas to train with the Russians, seeking out the best to eventually be the best just as he did four years ago.

When Cejudo takes on Mashezov this evening he will be squaring off against one of the best 121-pounders in the world in his first high-profile match in nearly three years. Cejudo has never faced him before.

“He’s a competitor and any top-three guy at a weight is among the best in the world,” Cejudo said. “It’s going to be extremely hard to beat him, but it’s about competing against the best and he’s one of the best. I’m not scared, I just have to be ready and I’m ready now.”

Adversity and sacrifice are nothing new to Cejudo, not to a man who battled his way out of poverty and left home as a sophomore in high school to pursue a dream most couldn’t begin to fathom at that age.

“The thing about success,” Cejudo said. “Is that sometimes you have to sacrifice family and friends.”

Those are the words of a champion that has climbed to the very top from the very bottom. For the time being, he’s back where he belongs.

Welcome back, Henry Cejudo.

UFC 129: Pablo Garza – The Choice to Persevere

Pablo Garza (UltimateFighter.com photo)

Pablo Garza’s love for mixed martial arts is unquestionable, but a mountain of unpaid bills and a desire to further his education had put “The Scarecrow” in a position where the only choice was the one he didn’t want to make.

What a difference a year makes.

Garza had contemplated retirement in January 2010, even though his professional record stood at a perfect 5-0. Training full-time has it disadvantages, and Garza was experiencing them first-hand.

“I love martial arts; I’m a fighter,” Garza said when he was a guest of Joe Rizzo and Jeremy Fullerton on Rear Naked Choke on the MMA DieHards Radio Network. “I love to compete and I was putting so much time and effort into my training, and it was delaying me finishing up school and bills were piling up. I wasn’t financially stable to be training full time so I was ready to hang it up and not fight anymore. My trainer, Dylan Spicer, said I should give myself one more year and if it still doesn’t work out then move on to something else, and I agreed.

“This past year has definitely been pretty intense.”

Since Garza’s decision to continue fighting, he has pushed his record to 10-1, and earned his way into the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s featherweight roster. He got his foot in the door by earning a spot on The Ultimate Fighter: Team GSP vs. Team Koscheck. He lost to eventual runner-up Michael Johnson in a preliminary-round fight and did not gain entry into the house, but his name was now out there. Then, after a third-round TKO of Aaron Steele at Crowbar MMA – Fall Brawl in September he got the call from the WEC to face “The Mongolian Wolf” Zhang Tie Quan. Garza took the fight on just five days’ notice, knowing that this was the chance he had been working toward.

“I believe I gave Johnson one of the toughest fights he had on the show and the same year I get a call to fight the ‘Mongolian Wolf’ on five days’ notice,” Garza said. “I figured that was my second opportunity to get my foot in the door and I had to take it.”

Garza lost to Tie Quan by first-round guillotine chock at WEC 51: Aldo vs. Gamburyan. His willingness to accept a fight that was not only on short notice, but also just 19 days after his win over Steele, earned him enough credit to be chosen to participate in the UFC’s first ever featherweight matchup.

At the Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale, Garza squared off against Brazilian Fredson Paixao and delivered one of the most brutal knockouts of the year. His devastating flying knee at 51 seconds of the first round floored Paixao for nearly two minutes and sent him out on a stretcher.  Garza had made his mark, and also earned a $30,000 Knockout of the Night bonus in the process.

“I was really upset about getting guillotined but I got another chance to fight against Paixao and this time I had three months to train,” Garza said. “I feel pretty blessed that one year ago in January I was thinking about not fighting anymore and now this.”

Garza will get another chance at moving up the ladder on Saturday when he squares off against Canadian product and WEC veteran Yves Jabouin in the first fight of UFC 129: St. Pierre vs. Shields. UFC 129 takes place at the Rogers Centre in Toronto and will be the first Zuffa event held in the province of Ontario. It will be the biggest crowd in UFC history with an expected 55,000 fans for the historic card that also features featherweight champion Jose Aldo making his UFC debut in a title defense against Mark Hominick and the legendary Randy Couture competing for the final time.

“Kicking off the largest crowd in UFC history and coming off that awesome knockout, it’s going to be pretty hard to top that,” Garza said. “It’s going to be a surreal experience and I’m really looking forward to it. From what I can tell, Canadians are really into MMA and love the UFC. GSP is fighting so they’re going to try to get there and pack the house, so it should be great.”

In Jabouin, Garza will be facing a 31-year old Haitian-Canadian who is known as a hard-hitting striker that has won 11 of his 15 pro fights via knockout or TKO. After competing in Canadian regional circuits, Jabouin dropped his first two WEC fights to Rafael Assuncao (split decision) and Hominick (TKO) before bouncing back with a unanimous decision win over Brandon Visher at WEC 52. Jabouin also trains with coach Firas Zahabi at Tristar Gym in Montreal, which is most notably home to St-Pierre.

“Jabouin will have the home advantage and I’m expecting that and not really worried about it,” Garza explained. “I’ve been the underdog before. Against Paixao everyone was expecting me to lose, so it doesn’t effect me. People booing me just energizes me more.

“Maybe at the end of the fight it will be like Rocky IV where everyone will be cheering for me.”

A North Dakota native who has since graduated form the University of North Dakota with a degree in exercise science and personal fitness, Garza proudly carries the torch for MMA in the Roughrider State along with TUF 12 alum Dane Sayers and veteran heavyweight Chris Tuchscherer. He still works at UND as a kickboxing and mauy thai instructor and has witnessed the growth of MMA in his home state.

“The North Dakota fight scene is booming right now,” Garza said. “Everybody loves going to the fights and watching them because there are not pro sports teams in North Dakota, so all the fans are trying to find something to hook onto. The link to MMA is the thing people are really enjoying and the shows get packed with a couple thousand a show. Me, Tuchscherer and Sayers are three North Dakota guys that made it to the UFC, so there’s a passion for it.”

Garza originally fought at lightweight before realizing he could get down to 145 without putting too much strain on his body. But it doesn’t look pretty, which is where he got his nickname from.

“I’m 6-foot-1, so when I get on the scale the day of weigh-ins it looks pretty gross, it looks really bad,” laughed Garza. “I’ve fought at 145 a few times already and I can make it pretty easily. Now I have the weight advantage that guys had against me when I was at 155.”

Garza feels so comfortable making 145, in fact, that he has entertained thoughts of moving to bantamweight (135).

“I think if I push and I diet really well maybe I can be the biggest guy ever to fight at 135,” he said.

Being the biggest bantamweight isn’t the history Garza is looking to make, however. It is likely he will fight in front of the biggest crowd in his career on Saturday in a historic moment for mixed martial arts. This card is going to be remembered for a long time, and Garza has the chance to start it off with a bang.

If you don’t think a lot can chance over the course of the year, just ask him.

Chad Robichaux: The Time is Now

Chad Robichaux (photo courtesy of fighterportraits.com)

He has been training in martial arts since he was just five years old, competition becoming a way of life. But in his MMA career, finding a willing opponent has been tough for Chad Robichaux.

On occasions it’s been because of his undefeated record, other times because of his submission prowess. Then there was his time in the military that took him overseas. Upon his return, fighters just didn’t want to square off with him. Robichaux has always been willing to take a step up in competition, he just couldn’t find an adversary.

That all changes Saturday night.

The undefeated 35-year old jiu-jitsu ace will make his Bellator debut in grand fashion when he takes on bantamweight champ Zack Makovsky in a non-title super fight at Bellator 41. An August 2010 victory over touted prospect Humberto DeLeon at “Strikeforce: Houston” pushed Robichaux’s record to an unblemished 11-0 and endeared him to the Bellator brass, who thought enough to sign him to face the promotion’s first bantamweight champ in Makovsky.

“(Bellator) was interested in signing me and I wanted a tough opponent,” Robichaux said. “They offered Zack in a super fight and it was the perfect matchup. Because of my record I’ve had a hard time getting tough matchups. I get mostly guys looking to make a name for themselves by cutting into my record and trying to knock me off.”

After fighting in regional circuits in the southern United States since 1999, Robichaux got his biggest chance when Strikeforce came to his home town of Houston. He defeated DeLeon by split decision at a catchweight of 130 pounds, and six months later got the call from Bellator. Now he gets the step up in competition he has been seeking in Makovsky. A former EliteXC competitor, Makovsky became Bellator’s inaugural bantamweight champion by winning the season three bantamweight tournament via a trio of unanimous decision victories. The former NCAA Division I wrestler for Drexel University is 12-2 in his MMA career with seven wins by decision and five by submission.

Styles make fights, as the saying goes, and Saturday night’s showdown between Robichaux and Makovsky is ripe with possibilities of how the fight will go based on who can impose their will. Makovsky has been able to use his wrestling skills to bully opponents around the cage and then take them down and work them over. Nine of his fights have made it to the final round with three others ending in the second round. Makovsky has proven he can finish with a submission, but is more than comfortable using his wrestling and cardio for the full 15 minutes.

Robichaux’s career line has been a polar opposite. His split-decision win over DeLeon was the first time he had seen the third round in his career. His prior 10 bouts each ended by submission with just two reaching the second round.

Something has to give.

“The short version of my game plan is just to keep it active,” Robichaux said. “(Makovsky) is a really smart guy and a very talented fighter, and he tries to drag fights out and win by decision. I want to try to put constant pressure on him.

“To me, when I look at the matchup, it’s certainly a contrast of styles. It’s about who can get their game plan going. Can he drag it out, or can I force him?”

Makovsky’s wrestling has been a factor in almost all of his fights as he has been able to take his opponents down at will and then control them on the ground. Robichaux doesn’t fear Makovsky’s biggest strength, however. In fact, if the fight goes to the ground, it falls right into the hands of Robichaux, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under the legendary Carlos Gracie Jr.

“I don’t think he’s had anyone come at him like I will,” Robichaux said. “People have been afraid of his wrestling to the point where they are scared to go after him and they just stall out.

“If he thinks he can take me down, great. If he does, even better. I definitely think I’m the superior grappler. His wrestling is great, but I don’t think it’s stages above mine, and I’m certainly comfortable on my feet.”

Don’t be surprised if the fighters remain standing for a good portion, though. There’s a good chance their grappling will cancel out and they’ll have to trade strikes. If that’s the case, Robichaux is eager to show the striking aspect of his game that is often overlooked because of his great jiu-jitsu.

“That’s what I’m really excited about, people finally getting to see my entire skill set,” Robichaux said. “It’s actually a bit frustrating because in the past organizations classify me as a jiu-jitsu guy and they don’t want to give me an opportunity because of that label. But if you look past my record and watch the fights you would see I knock people down before I submit them. I’ve been striking as long as I’ve been grappling and that’s 30 years.”

In preparation for facing Robichaux it is obviously a good idea to work on jiu-jitsu, but if that is the only area a fighter focuses on against him they are going to be vulnerable to his “secondary” arsenal.

“The way Zack trained for me, I think he may have not had the clear picture of who I am and might not have been training accurately for me,” Robichaux said. “I’m going to throw some things out there that he doesn’t expect. He’s a pretty composed dude, but I’m going to shock him in some areas.”

Robichaux is also eager to take his game to the next level after what he deemed to be a bit of a disappointing victory against DeLeon. Robichaux normally wouldn’t have fought at 130 pounds because it is a difficult weight cut for him, but saying no to a bout in Strikeforce just wasn’t an option.

“It was a good performance but it wasn’t my best, and mentally I almost took it as a loss.”

It was the first time Robichaux had not finished his opponent, and he was frustrated to see his streak broken. But on the positive side (besides it being a victory) was that Robichaux picked up the experience of fighting for a full 15 minutes.

“I do it in the gym all the time, but if you don’t have that experience in a fight you’re always going to wonder in the back of your mind if you can do it,” Robichaux said. “At the end of the last fight I was just getting started and I felt great, so it helps to know I can go out there and still perform if it goes the distance.”

Another advantage Robichaux has is the perspective he has in a fight. He has served as a member of the United States Marine Corps, Special Operations Force Reconnaissance Marine and as a Federal Agent. There isn’t anything in a fight that is going to scare him and there isn’t much that can throw him off his game mentally.

“MMA is a sport and the consequences aren’t as high as some of the things I’ve done in my life in the military,” Robichaux said. “I’ve had a lot of life experience and that has poised me and made me really downplay the seriousness of something like a fight. I think I’ve always had that composure because I’ve been competing so long, but the military training definitely helped.”

It’s safe to say Saturday’s fight with Makovsky is the biggest of Robichaux’s career. A win over the bantamweight champ would obviously throw him right into the title picture. For the longtime martial arts competitor who is finally getting his big chance, this is his time to announce himself to the MMA world.

“For me (a win) would just validate me and everything I claim, that I’m at the top level and that I belong there,” Robichaux said. “I know I’m not getting the belt if I win but I don’t care. I just want to show I can compete and win, and not only win but clearly show that my skills are on that level.”

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