UFC 101, WEC 42 and Strikeforce: Carano versus Cyborg — three events in two weeks featuring five title fights — struck enough gold to make San Francisco green with envy. But as Randy Couture and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira proved with their fifteen-minute masterpiece, not every champion wears a belt.
A nascent fighter, Brian Bowles’ entered the WEC in mid-2007 at 3-0 and won four bouts—all against top-10 opponents—before challenging bantamweight champion and pound-for-pound club member Miguel Torres at WEC 42. The build up asked if Bowles, however impressive at 7-0, could offer anything the 36-1 Torres hadn’t seen and conquered?
The answer was yes—knockout power.
Bowles ascent puts him in the elite “zero to hero” club, in which a fighter becomes a high-level champion before losing. Bowles is the fourth in the modern era alongside Tim Sylvia, Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida to accomplish the feat.
Bowles has fought the best available opponents at all times, ferociously finishing five elite guys in five WEC showings. The bantamweight strap belongs to “The Georgia Bulldog” and he won’t let go of it until a bigger, badder dog comes along and takes it.
Bowles may be praised now, but should he ever lose his belt, he’ll be subjected to a barrage of criticism.
Take Miguel Torres. Before the Bowles fight he was on most top five pound-for-pound lists. But as fast as Bowles turned his lights out, fans started chattering about Torres’ place in the sport. No matter a champion’s body of work, his or her public perception receives a Matt Hughes-style bodyslam following a loss.
While Bowles represents the ascent of a champion and Torres its counterpoint, Gina Carano occupies the special space that links sports and celebrity. Her girl-next-door-who-can-kick-your-ass persona endeared her to fans and earned her “the face of women’s MMA” billing. However, her foil, Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos secured the inaugural Strikeforce female lightweight (145-pounds) title, leaving Carano a pretty but battered face.
It’s no secret that Carano’s appearance was a major motivator for the title’s creation. Even without a belt, Carano was the people’s champion. Her inability to take the gold when given the opportunity doesn’t lessen her accomplishments to date or her popularity. It simply means we’ll watch more intently the next time she guns for the belt.
Two champions fought under unique circumstances at UFC 101. BJ Penn was coming off a loss in his welterweight superfight with Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva was facing criticism for his too-dominant title defense victory over Thales Leites.
Even UFC President Dana White said they were not living up to their potential. Popular opinion had Florian’s Boston work ethic besting the Hawaiian’s laid-back approach in a lightweight title clash and Forrest Griffin untangling the “The Spider”’s web at 205-pounds by making it a dogfight.
Exit Florian. Exit Griffin.
“You’re only as good as you’re last fight” is a truth of the sport, but it is at best a halfway house between reality and revisionism. Accomplished champions like Penn and Silva shouldn’t need reminders about their greatness because there’s a difference between a one-and-done champion like Dave Menne and the Penn’s and Silva’s of the world.
Criticism abounds, but a lot of it can be rooted in genuine concern. It’s impossible not to ask about 46-year-old Randy Couture’s abilities or if the old-beyond-his-years Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira can sustain any more punishment. However, there’s a difference between posing those questions and billing their bout as a retirement fight.
The two legends silenced all with a fifteen-minute battle—a championship caliber legacy fight with no title on the line, the type of war that leaves viewers speechless. Couture and Big Nog proved that there is more to being a champion than trophies and belts. Once you achieve that status you never really lose it.