Tuesday, 14 August 2018

UFC icon Georges St-Pierre is shrewd to target winner of Nurmagomedov-McGregor

By Alistair Hendrie

Georges St-Pierre, the former UFC welterweight and middleweight king, recently told Joe Rogan that only three things in life turn him on: “Money, women, and dinosaurs.” Although the latter vice may be hard for many to understand, the first two are slightly more reasonable. Regarding GSP’s love of money, “Rush” is one of the most astute businessmen in the game, a wise old head at 37 years old who will only take the most lucrative bouts available. He doesn’t fight for a love of the sport. He doesn’t fight as an outlet for aggression. He fights to secure his and his family’s future.

That’s why his comments earlier this week, revealing his interest in tackling the winner of Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov, are so intelligent. Indeed, the victor of the October 6 UFC 229 main event – a lightweight blockbuster with Khabib’s belt at stake – represents the most financially attractive contest for St-Pierre, especially considering his inactivity and reluctance to risk his faculties unless the money is right.

Look at it this way: McGregor headlined four of the UFC’s five highest-grossing pay-per-views, while Nurmagomedov’s UFC 223 showcase against Al Iaquinta in April generated a gate of $3m, setting a record for sporting events at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Clearly, fans will fork out to watch “Notorious” and “The Eagle.” Money talks and as such, St-Pierre has used all of his nous to ensure he’s primed to face the next 155 lbs champion.

After all, the Canadian legend is no stranger to raking in the dough, he has earned an estimated $7m in purses over 22 contests with the UFC since 2004. St-Pierre may be minted, then, but his affinity for cash isn’t to do with any airs or graces. It’s more to do with security, safety, and a need to prop up his loved ones later on in life.

St-Pierre against either of the UFC 229 headliners would do huge numbers regardless of its location. Imagine ice hockey chants ringing around the Bell Centre in Montreal; picture throngs of Irish fans singing their hearts out at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium; or, alternatively, think of Nurmagomedov’s passionate fans in Russia. St-Pierre and UFC President Dana White know a super fight when they see one, and this could be exactly what the pound-for-pound great needs to convince him to return.

Truth be told, there’s not much else out there for St-Pierre. Consider the welterweight scene, which St-Pierre ruled in two stints between 2006 and 2013. Today’s 170 lbs king, Tyron Woodley, will defend his title against Darren Till on September 8 at UFC 228. His last two defenses – both by decision, over Demian Maia and Stephen Thompson – failed to get the heart racing and drew more boos than acclaim, leaving him tumbling down the pecking order in the GSP sweepstakes.

Till, too, would be a silly matchup for the former titlist. The Brit is a huge welterweight at six-foot and rather than just clearing up at welterweight, Till has more recently revealed his plans to target the middleweight and light-heavyweight straps. Moreover, given that UFC 228 will be Till’s US debut, it’s unlikely St-Pierre will pick such a wildcard for his return.

Whatever GSP’s next move is, though, you can bet it will be exciting. The Tristar mainstay shocked the world when he submitted Michael Bisping for the middleweight prize last year, and St-Pierre appears to have relaxed with age. He now looks more comfortable with a mic in his hand and prior to the Bisping clash, offered more of his impish, cutting trash talk.

Added to that, which MMA fan wouldn’t want to see St-Pierre challenge for a third title? A shot at lightweight gold, if the UFC allows it, would entail a strict diet and a gradual weight cut, but the sacrifices would be worth it. If St-Pierre can make his way back to the octagon, cement a record third UFC belt, and set up his funds for life, he’ll achieve a sense of closure which few mixed martial artists can hold claim to.

This article was originally posted on The Runner Sports in August 2018. Sample all of my The Runner Sports work here

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

UFC 227 Blog: Should Dillashaw rematch Cruz after shutting down Garbrandt again?

By Alistair Hendrie

TJ Dillashaw asserted his dominance over Cody Garbrandt at UFC 227 on Saturday night, short-circuiting his rival inside a round for the second time to hold onto his world bantamweight title. That win strengthens his case as being the best 135lb’er in history and as such, Dillashaw’s next outing is paramount. Get it right, and he enriches his legacy. Get it wrong, and his heralded run of form – eight wins from nine - could blow up in his face.

A rematch with Dominick Cruz, the former champion who edged their first meeting on the cards in 2016, could be the only obstacle standing between Dillashaw and eternal greatness. After all, Cruz, who has taken the switch-hitting style to the next level, is a legend with scalps over the likes of Urijah Faber and Demetrious Johnson in two UFC title reigns.

In July Cruz announced doctors have cleared him to compete after suffering a broken arm in November 2017. That said, with Cruz returning from a stint on the periphery of the sport, is now the right time for a rematch with TJ? On one hand, fans would flock to a second episode of the rivalry, while Cruz would certainly stir up publicity with his trash-talk and wise cracks. Indeed, as well as being one of the trickiest boxers in the UFC, the Alliance MMA mainstay is a master of psychological warfare who always finds a way to rile up his opponents.

A rematch would not only give Dillashaw a chance to avenge another defeat – which he did against Rafael Assuncao in 2016 – it would represent a historic meeting between luminaries with two of the best fight IQs in MMA. It would be fascinating to see if Dillashaw could catch Cruz like he did Garbrandt, and it would be gripping to watch him attempt to coax Cruz into a brawl.

Moreover, despite Cruz’s lay-off of almost two years, let’s not forget how the UFC granted Conor McGregor a lightweight championship shot despite his 22 months away from the Octagon. It’s clear, then, that the UFC is dedicated to money-spinning mega-fights which put reputations on the line. 

There’s another argument that Cruz should be made to wait, though. Five of his six UFC bouts have been for a title and, let’s face it, his last victory was in June 2016 over a shopworn Urijah Faber. When the UFC insists on rekindling bygone confrontations in favour of emerging talent, it runs the risk of stalling the division.

In light of that, judging by form, Marlon Moraes could be the next contender for Dillashaw. The New Jersey-based Brazilian, an explosive striker with excellent timing, is in a destructive vein of form after stopping Rivera in June with a sledgehammer of a head kick. Then there’s Assuncao, another Brazilian, who also deserves a tilt at Dillashaw more than Cruz.

The wildcard, though, is the newly-minted flyweight king Henry Cejudo, who shocked the world at UFC 227 by outpointing Johnson in a thriller full of drama, twists and intrigue. Cejudo – who only made his MMA debut in 2013, a year into Johnson’s six-year reign – is a world-class wrestler, an Olympic goal medallist in that discipline, and both Cejudo and TJ stressed their desire to square off in their post-fight interviews.

Whoever Dillashaw faces next, it’s difficult to imagine the UFC bantamweight landscape without Cruz leading or at least challenging at its summit. Boasting some of the best footwork and conditioning in the sport, Cruz brought new eyes to the division thanks to his dominance in the WEC and the UFC, not to mention his barbs with Faber. His track record means the UFC could justify giving him a chance to retain the title he’s just lost, but make no mistake about it: the race for number one contender at 135lbs is now a close-run thing.

This article was originally posted on The Runner Sports in August 2018

Monday, 30 July 2018

Who is the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter in the world?

By Alistair Hendrie

To determine the best fighter in the world, you need to take into account plenty of factors: form, skill, opposition and dominance, for example. So, if a champion defends his or her crown via a string of finishes, does that equal or better a run of decisions?

It’s a debate which rings around gyms, television studios, offices and of course pubs all over the world, and that’s exactly why Alistair Hendrie Sport will be releasing its pound-for-pound list at the start of every month.

To qualify for the list, a fighter should be considered active, so although Georges St-Pierre, for instance, is one of the most skilled and dominant fighters on the planet, he vacated his middleweight title, leaving him dormant for the moment.

Now that you know the criteria we’re looking for and pre-requisites for entry, take a look at the pound-for-pound best mixed martial artists in the world.

August 2018 - Men

1 – Daniel Cormier (USA) (205lbs) (+2)
2 – Demetrious Johnson (USA) (125lbs) (-1)
3 – Max Holloway (USA) (145lbs) (-1)
4 – Stipe Miocic (USA) (265lbs)
5 – Robert Whittaker (AUS) (185lbs)
6 – Tyron Woodley (USA) (170lbs)
7 – Khabib Nurmagomedov (RUS) (155lbs)
8 – Tony Ferguson (USA) (155lbs)
9 – TJ Dillashaw (USA) (135lbs)
10 – Jose Aldo (BRA) (145lbs)
11 – Cody Garbrandt (USA) (135lbs)
12 – Rafael dos Anjos (BRA) (170lbs)
13 – Dustin Poirier (USA) (155lbs) (+5)
14 – Yoel Romero (CUB) (185lbs) (-1)
15 – Robbie Lawler (USA) (170lbs)
16 – Dominic Cruz (USA) (135lbs)
17 – Brian Ortega (USA) (145lbs) (+1)
18 – Stephen Thompson (USA) (170lbs) (+1)
19 – Frankie Edgar (USA) (145lbs) (+1)
20 – Kevin Lee (USA) (155lbs) (+1)
21 – Kamaru Usman (NIG) (170lbs) (+1)
22 – Francis Ngannou (FRA) (265lbs)
23 – Marlon Moraes (BRA) (135lbs)
24 – Darren Till (GBR) (170lbs)
25 – Colby Covington (USA) (170lbs)

August 2018 - Women

1 – Amanda Nunes (BRA) (135lbs)
2 – Rose Namajunas (USA) (115lbs)
3 – Joanna Jedrzejczyk (POL) (115lbs)
4 – Cris Cyborg (BRA) (145lbs)
5 – Valentina Shevchenko (KYR) (125lbs)
6 – Jessica Andrade (BRA) (115lbs)
7 – Tecia Torres (USA) (115lbs)
8 – Holly Holm (USA) (145lbs)
9 – Raquel Pennington (USA) (135lbs)
10 – Claudia Gadhela (BRA) (115lbs)
11 – Nicco Montano (USA) (125lbs)
12 – Karolina Kowalkiewicz (POL) (115lbs)
16 – Carla Esparza (USA) (115lbs)
13 – Tonya Evinger (USA) (135lbs)
14 – Megan Anderson (USA) (135lbs)
15 – Barb Honchak (USA) (125lbs)
17 – Felice Herrig (USA) (115lbs)
18 – Cynthia Calvillo (USA) (115lbs)
19 – Germaine de Randamie (NED) (145lbs)
20 – Alexis Davis (CAN) (125lbs)
21 – Julliana Pena (USA) (135lbs)
22 – Angela Lee (CAN) (105lbs)
23 – Sara McMann (USA) (135lbs)
24 – Jennifer Maia (BRA) (125lbs)
25 – Liz Carmouche (USA) (125lbs) (NE)

Whether you agree or disagree with our standings, join in the discussion and let us know your pound-for-pound lists on Twitter.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

World Cup 2018: French outwit Croatia in thrilling World Cup final

By Alistair Hendrie

In a World Cup brimming with late drama, unforgettable goals and seismic upsets, would the final between France and Croatia live up to expectations? It certainly did. France emerged from 90 minutes of mayhem to win 4-2, clinching their second World Cup since their inaugural triumph in 1998 on home soil. Didier Deschamps’ men may be more functional than flamboyant, but that doesn’t matter when you have the burly Raphael Varane putting his body on the line in defence, the ice-cool N'Golo Kante anticipating every passage of play in midfield, and Kylian Mbappe sprinting past opponents with ease in attack.

At 2-1 down on the hour, Croatia drove forward with the kind of intensity that helped them overcome England and Russia after extra-time and penalties. Ivan Perisic should have gambled to convert Ivan Rakitic’s cross, while the unflappable Varane intervened when Perisic was through on goal again. Once France bagged a third though, through Paul Pogba’s deft finish, chaos ensued in a period which yielded three goals in ten minutes. The second of those came from France too, Mbappe slamming home to make it 4-1. Still the madness continued. France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris gifted Croatia a lifeline on 68 minutes, when Mario Mandzukic capitalised on the shot-stopper’s indecision to block the ball into the net from six yards.

Although France will savour their fourth trophy in a major tournament, it seems ironic that on a night when Mbappe became the first teenager to score at a World Cup final since Pele in 1958, Lloris on the other hand committed an error which may haunt him for the rest of his career. Individual performances aside, France were deserved champions, fending off the adventure and verve of Belgium in the semi-finals and Croatia in the decider. With that, Deschamps follows Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer in grasping the World Cup as a player and a manager.

Croatia can come again, though. Zlatko Dalic’s men played with a fierce togetherness throughout their stint in Russia, with Perisic and Ante Rebic in particular scampering after lost causes as if their lives depended on it. Judging by that kind of fight and endurance, it’s no surprise Croatia scored four goals in the 90th minute or later on their way to the final. And although the talismanic Luka Modric, 33, may be coming to the end of his international career, Mandzukic, 32, is Croatia’s only other outfield regular who is over 30. A tilt at the 2020 European Championships beckons.

It was the Croatians who started the final the brighter, Perisic and Ivan Strinic sending early balls from the left towards Mandzukic. Ivan Rakitic, the Croatian central midfielder from Barcelona, looped a ball toward the penalty area but Perisic’s lunge was short by perhaps an inch or two.

Against the run of play, France struck first. Varane skipped across Antionne Griezmann’s arcing free kick, coaxing Mandzukic into heading beyond Daniel Subasic and into his own net. Although Perisic equalised with a volley inside the right-hand post, Griezmann’s penalty put France ahead for a second time. VAR had a defining say. After a video review from referee Nestor Pitana, Perisic was adjudged to have handled Griezmann’s corner. Although Perisic was too close to the flight of the ball to be guilty of a deliberate offense, that didn’t bother Griezmann, who showed nerves of steel to send Subasic the wrong way.

Croatia festered with a sense of injustice. Tremors of thunder filled the air. A pair of streakers bounded onto the playing area. Suffice to say, the second half was all a bit barmy. France found themselves 4-1 up in a flash, Pogba and Mbappe each converting from 20 yards out on 58 and 64 minutes. Pogba’s finish was as assured as it gets, the Manchester United midfielder finding the bottom right-hand corner and wrong-footing Subasic. Mbappe’s was a peach. The gifted 19-year-old trapped Varane’s squared delivery, nudged the ball out of his feet and slammed hard and true into the bottom left corner of the net in one swift, graceful movement. The world is at his feet as they say, and comparisons with Thierry Henry are beginning to look more justified with each passing week.

As Croatia ran themselves into the ground looking for a way back, spaces yawned all over the pitch for both sides. Then came Lloris’s howler for 4-2. The French number one shimmied one way and inexplicably turned back towards Mandzukic, who couldn’t believe his luck as the ball ricocheted off his left boot and into an empty net. It was a calamitous piece of play from a veteran in Lloris who should know better.

That error, thankfully enough, didn’t have a bearing on France’s coronation as world champions. Instead it was Mbappe’s incisive runs that we’ll remember – his slalom around the outside of Domagoj Vida was particularly breath-taking. Griezmann’s deliveries were as reliable as ever, as the Atletico Madrid goal-getter continues to cement his reputation as one of the world’s most complete forwards. Elsewhere, Varane mopped up everything in his wake, directing play with optimum composure. Sure, Deschamps side didn’t provide as much entertainment over the last month as Croatia or Belgium – or perhaps even the hosts – but that won’t weigh on the minds of the French as they lift the trophy.

Learn about another one of the World Cup's star teams - Belgium - with Alistair Hendrie's blog on how the Red Devils taught England a lesson in attacking football

Saturday, 14 July 2018

World Cup 2018: Belgium down inexperienced England side to land third place

By Alistair Hendrie

England aren’t used to flying home from a World Cup this late. Their stay in Russia came to an end on Saturday as they were defeated 2-0 by Belgium in the third place play-off, and although this setback won’t hurt as much as their 2-1 reverse to Croatia in the semi-finals, it will go a long way to show Gareth Southgate how much his side need to improve if they are to advance further at the European Championships in 2020.

This was England’s longest stay at a World Cup since 1990 in Italy, where they also finished fourth, but Belgium’s greater quality of resources underlined the marker that has been set for Southgate and his young, inexperienced and hungry side. Eden Hazard tormented the English defence with pesky dribbling and sudden bursts of pace, the Chelsea winger slotting under Jordan Pickford to wrap up the victory on 81 minutes. Another Premier League gem, Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, set teammates free with his range of passing and speed of thought. And although the introduction of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford at half-time provided England with much needed verve and spark, they rarely looked capable of a comeback after Thomas Meunier netted with three minutes gone.

In hindsight, despite the celebratory mood of the last month, it’s easy to forget this Three Lions side still consists largely of young pups. For instance, Dele Alli and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are both only 22; Rashford is still just 19. Furthermore, England’s back three in St Petersburg of Harry Maguire, John Stones and Phil Jones had 72 caps between them, whereas Belgium’s defence – Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Meunier – had 297.

That perhaps fails to excuse an insipid performance from England in their farewell outing. Harry Kane was stilted and absent for long periods. Raheem Sterling, so talented yet so frustrating, was indecisive. The underdogs sat back and let Belgium have the ball, Hazard and De Bruyne directing traffic and attempting to slide in Romelu Lukaku. On a more positive note, Kieran Trippier bent and whipped balls across Thibaut Courtois’ goal with malice, while Eric Dier almost equalised with a dink that was hacked off the line at the last moment by Alderweireld.

The Red Devils took the lead when Hazard crossed low for Meunier, who wriggled goalside of Danny Rose to poke in from six yards. It was an untidy finish, but the pace of Hazard’s delivery made the goal. Belgium thrived from thereon in, De Bruyne looking for Lukaku at every chance. After one such move, Lukaku fluffed his first touch when bearing down on goal and the Manchester United man would regret how he allowed Pickford to intervene.

As Jones struggled to track Hazard, and Belgium’s Nacer Chadli left the game injured for Thomas Vermaelen, Belgium settled in a rhythm and knocked the ball around with the confidence and arrogance of future tournament winners. Some would bet heavy money on them to lift the trophy at Euro 2020. Indeed, keep in mind Germany won the 2014 world cup after finishing third in 2010.

After De Bruyne embarrassed Stones with a nutmeg, England created their best chance of the match on 69 minutes. Rashford wrong-footed every yellow-shirted defender on the pitch with a diagonal ball that set Dier through with an unobstructed path to goal. The Tottenham Hotspur man steadied himself with a touch and floated an audacious chip over Courtois, Alderweireld sliding in on the line to prevent a goal that would have swung the tie in England’s favour.

Having scored the decisive penalty against Colombia in the second round, Dier was suddenly a genuine goal threat. He headed wide, and should have done better, after an improvised cross from Lingard. Although Trippier’s deliveries were handing England hope, Belgium took advantage of how the game opened. Meunier pinged Pickford’s fingers back with a volley, while Hazard settled matters on 81 minutes, darting across Jones and side-footing beyond Pickford with a finish of composure and skill under the circumstances.

It might feel patronising to hail this England team as a group of rookies who huffed and puffed against more seasoned opponents. “Didn’t they do well?”, and all that. We should remember that England avoided the likes of Spain, Brazil and Germany – a quirk which to be fair they had no influence over – and these last two defeats will provide Southgate with more conundrums than clarity. How can the team create more from open play? How can Southgate coax the best from Sterling?

Still, the likes of Maguire and Trippier look tailor-made for international football, while Kane can always be relied upon to score goals. Added to that, Jack Wilshere’s transfer to West Ham could revitalise his career and offer Southgate another option. Youngsters such as Ademola Lookman and Ryan Sessegnon should also be on the radar soon. Perhaps in 2020 we’ll be looking at a team of proven class rather than simmering promise.

To take in more of Alistair Hendrie's insight into the world of British sport, buy his Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain