Octagon jitters—it’s an infamous term. The first time a fighter steps into the UFC’s eight-sided cage, there will always be talk of whether the emotional rush and the nerves surrounding his debut will have a profound impact on his performance.
Pundits and fans making predictions on fights will cite the jitters as a reason to doubt a fighter’s chances. And in the aftermath of a defeat, these same jitters will take part of the blame for the fighter’s downfall.
So, following each UFC event, The MMA Corner will look at the fighters who made their Octagon debuts and provide impressions on their performances and their future potential under the UFC banner. In this edition, we focus on the three newcomers from UFC 149.
There’s no doubt that Hector Lombard’s Octagon debut was the most highly-anticipated arrival in the UFC since Alistair Overeem stepped into the eight-sided cage. Much like Overeem, Lombard was expected to come in, decapitate an opponent and jump to the front of the line for a title shot. Well, not so fast.
Lombard’s usual ferocity was lacking on Saturday night in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Perhaps it was the truest case of Octagon Jitters we’ve seen since the launch of this column. The hype for the Judo specialist’s arrival was extreme, with many suggesting that an impressive win would immediately secure Lombard a date with UFC middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva. However, maybe Lombard knew to temper those expectations—he targeted Mark Munoz, who recently lost to Chris Weidman, as the next opponent he felt he should face.
Lombard is a very muscular and strong middleweight. That muscle mass and his explosive starts can lead to him fading as the bout gets into deeper waters. At first, his hesitancy against Tim Boetsch suggested that he was playing it smart to preserve his energy for a 15-minute affair. The only problem was that he never turned up the intensity once the fight entered the second and third stanzas. It wasn’t really a case of Boetsch picking up a win, but rather one of Lombard securing his own loss through his inactivity.
The lack of Lombard’s usual sense of urgency really hurt him. He actually performed quite well in the opening stanza, other than his lack of an explosive forward-moving assault. However, he still failed to land more significant strikes than his foe, a trend that extended to the second and third rounds.
Lombard’s flat-footed stance in the opening five minutes, and throughout the contest, left him waiting for Boetsch to play the role of the aggressor. Yet, the American Top Team fighter did not effectively counter Boetsch’s attacks or truly explode at any point during the contest. The former Bellator middleweight champion appeared content just to make it to the final bell, with little interest in actually using his fists or Judo to state his case for a victory. He did scoop Boetsch up with double-leg takedowns twice during the battle, but this was another area where he should have upped the aggression but did not do so.
It was obviously a dismal showing from the man that many had pronounced as the next big threat to Anderson Silva. If Lombard entered the cage against Silva and put on a similar showing, “The Spider” would eat him alive. Also troubling is the fact that Lombard couldn’t turn the tide after Boetsch suffered a broken foot. The fact that Boetsch continued to get the better of the exchanges after the injury further highlights Lombard’s complacency in sitting back and waiting for Boetsch to bring the fight to him. It wasn’t a good strategy in this case.
However, it’s not yet time to put in a final judgment and say Lombard has been miserably overrated. The 34-year-old has to be given the benefit of the doubt—the adrenaline dump and the pressure of carrying such high expectations into his debut could definitely factor into his showing. If the Cuban fighter has a repeat performance in his sophomore outing, there’s genuine reason for concern. But at this stage, we’ll write this off as a bad debut and nothing more. Lombard’s other fights, and the relatively even outcome in this debut bout, still suggest he’s a top middleweight who can bounce back and find success inside the Octagon.
You would think that a seven-second knockout would make for an easy analysis of a debuting fighter—just say “Wow!” and predict future knockouts, then move on. But for Canadian Ryan Jimmo, the performance makes analysis of his future potential even more complex.
Jimmo would have been the last man expected to pocket $65,000 for a ‘KO of the Night’ bonus. This is the same guy who ruled the Maximum Fighting Championship light heavyweight division through a number of decision victories. He could not finish Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou in five rounds. Ditto for Zak Cummings. He also went three full rounds with Wilson Gouveia, Mychal Clark and Emanuel Newton, not to mention the fact that he just squeaked past Marvin Eastman via split decision. Yet, he stepped into the Octagon, landed a single punch and his foe, Anthony Perosh, was out. Had referee Josh Rosenthal been closer to the action, Jimmo never would have had to throw a follow-up punch.
The one aspect of his past that must be noted is the level of competition he has fought—a split verdict over Eastman and a five-round affair against the notoriously cardio-deficient Sokoudjou do not speak well of his ability to challenge the high-caliber fighters he will eventually encounter in the UFC should he continue to win.
The knockout of Perosh was definitely an impressive first statement in the UFC for Jimmo, but the question really lies in his ability to keep it up. Can he turn from a decision-oriented fighter into a consistent finisher?
The answer is that he most likely cannot. Jimmo was a titleholder in the MFC, which gives him legitimacy and credibility—and his time there also suggests that he should be able to grind out victories against some of the mid-level competition he faces—but don’t expect a highlight reel of knockouts in the future. Jimmo is the type of fighter that will likely stick with the UFC, but only in the role of a gatekeeper.
Whereas UFC 149′s other newcomers entered the league with high profiles and even higher expectations, Mitch Gagnon was the more typical variety of a fighter making his UFC debut—a fighter with just ten bouts under his belt, no significant levels of hype and a resume where Ringside MMA served as the largest promotion in which he had plied his trade.
What the 27-year-old demonstrated in his UFC debut against fellow bantamweight Bryan Caraway was the potential to make a permanent home for himself in the promotion. Gagnon’s primary failing came in the form of his conditioning and pacing. After a strong opening frame, the Canadian fighter steadily faded. The first round, and even parts of the second, gave us a glimpse of Gagnon’s skills, but the final stanza highlighted his lack of cardio.
Gagnon’s strength is definitely not his striking attack, but he held his own in the stand-up, and used it to set up a takedown attempt early in the contest. From there, the Team Shredder product displayed his primary talents—good transitions and scrambles, patience while in trouble and good submission defense, and a powerful ground-and-pound attack. In the second round, he was also effective in utilizing strikes while separating in the clinch. Finally, even as he started to fade, he showed great awareness in reversing positions on the ground, going from being on bottom to taking Caraway’s back.
Gagnon looks like a strong and powerful 135-pounder, but he’ll need to learn to relax and realize that he needs to go for 15 minutes rather than five. Outside of his conditioning, Gagnon’s biggest holes appeared to be a sometimes reckless attack and lapses in his takedown defense. He also seemed far from comfortable when on his back. Some, or most, of that might be attributed to the aforementioned lack of conditioning.
Once Gagnon finds the proper balance between conditioning and an aggressive attack, the sky could be the limit. With Gagnon and Caraway picking up the $65,000 bonus for ‘Fight of the Night,’ we can be pretty certain of seeing the Canadian in a second outing under the UFC banner. He’ll do even more with that chance than he did with his rookie effort.
Potential: Medium to High
Top Photo: Hector Lombard (James Law/Heavy MMA)