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Elite Road Map: New England MMA and The World Stage

September 21, 2015

 

 

There are many methods to reaching the world stage in this sport, be it via achievement in other combat sports, time spent on the reality tv vehicle, or plain old hard work on the local scene and other regions. Is that really all there is to it though? There are several schools of thought on the matter of how a fighter should go about reaching the peak of the MMA world; stringing together an undefeated record, bashing away at every ranked fighter within arm’s reach, or making a highlight reel career that mixes those elements.

 

What I’ve done is taken every fighter in the New England scene who found their way to the elite proving ground in the modern era of MMA, that being TUF 1 and onward. In looking at the data, we hope to see a pattern that will show which method works best when striving for the top of the sport. This will also ask the secondary question of staying power as well though. With so many fighters turned out after one or two losses, does fighting tough before reaching the pinnacle of the sport have an effect on one’s longevity, in a positive or negative way?

 

For the purpose of this project, the “world stage” is defined as: UFC, Bellator’s main card, WSOF’s main card, Post-Fight Pass Invicta, Showtime-era Strikeforce, and TV-era WEC.

 

An explanation of what information we’re looking at:

 

Record: This is the record when the fighter first signed with the major promotion, and will be used to examine if undefeated records play more of a factor than stiff competition, in conjunction with the second criteria of Opposition Grade. If a fighter left the world stage and returned, the record will be displayed multiple times.

 

Opposition Grade: This is a grade based on the level of opposition the fighter faced, with a mind towards the era in question and their performance against said opponents. This is to be used with their record to indentify if the numbers themselves are more important than the adversary, or vice versa, when a fighter is considered for the world stage. This grade is broken into segments for fighters who signed with a premier organization more than once to illustrate the road back to the top. The grade moves from the truly novice (F), flawed yet serviceable (D), mid-level regional (C-, C), Top level regional (C+) and into the realms of elite competition from bottom card (B-) mid-card (B, A-), up to main event and championship levels (A, A+).

 

Elite Grade: This is a rank of how the fighter performed within that elite organization, based on the opposition level and overall performance, and scored the same way as Opposition Grade. Fighters with a long career who peaked and declined within the promotion are graded at their best incarnation.

 

# of Bouts: The number of times the fighter competed at the elite level, to be used in conjunction with their grade to determine longevity. An asterisk after the number indicates they’re still actively fighting, and this number is only accurate up til the publication date.

 

Without further adieu, here is the list of New England based fighters, listed chronologically:

 

04/05 Kenny Florian:

Record: 2-1

Opposition Grade: A-

Competing in the infancy of the sport on the local level, Florian would fight Drew Fickett to a split decision loss, in a time when Fickett was considered one of the best submission grapplers in the sport.

 

Elite Grade: A+

 # of Bouts: 17

 

Florian would go on to have one of the greatest careers of any local fighter on the world stage, and while never holding title gold, would contest for a title on three separate occasions before hanging up the gloves.

 

 

4/05 Alex Karalexis:

Record: 4-0

Opposition Grade: C+ / D

Karalexis fought some of the best of his era locally, including local legend Mike Littlefield, and 8-1 Ted Govola. In a time of limited opposition on the scene, Karalexis soundly defeated everyone available, though never travelled, nor faced travelling fighters.

 

Elite Grade: C

# of Bouts: 10

Karalexis would struggle on the world stage in UFC and later WEC in their lightweight division, dropping fights to other hard-nosed contenders.

 

 

11/05: Marcus Davis:

Record: 3-2 / 8-3 / 21-9

Opposition Grade: D+/ C- / C+

While unsuccessful locally as he transitioned from boxer to MMA fighter, the Maine native would be called up to TUF in a time where invites were gathered from fighters on the roster.  While he’d be expelled following the show, five wins against marginal local talent would see him return.

 

Elite Grade: B+

# of Bouts: 17

Davis’ second stint in the UFC would see him gain a long and prosperous career on the world stage, piecing his skill set together and becoming an all-around killer well into his thirties. Though unable to remain afloat against the young and hungry fighters late in his career, he was rarely entirely out of a fight.

 

 

11/05 Gabriel Gonzaga:

Record: 4-1 / 12-6

Opposition Grade: B- / C-

While competing for a short time in Brazil before being called up to the UFC, Gonzaga would face two stiff tests, dropping a fight to long-time world talent Fabricio Werdum, with his signature win over Branden Lee Hinkle.

 

Elite Grade: A

# of Bouts: 20*

Gonzaga would punch his ticket to a title shot with a stunning KO win over Mirko Cro-Cop, though he would be broken in search of the strap against Randy Couture.  Gonzaga would never be in line for the title again, but has remained a standard in the tumultuous heavyweight division.

 

 

9/06 Joe Lauzon:

Record 13-3

Opposition Grade: A-

Lauzon faced some of the best locally, such as Mike Thomas Brown, but also played the part of road warrior, taking on three eventual UFC fighters (Raphael Assuncao, Ivan Menjivar, Jorge Masvidal) in their home towns. Lauzon would punch his ticket to the big show with victory in a three fight, one night tournament in Massachusetts.

 

Elite Grade: A-

# of Bouts: 19*

Having spent nearly a decade at the top of the sport, Lauzon has never contested for a title, yet has faced every mid and top level fighter within the organization and continued to be relevant within the elite level of competition.

 

 

10/06 Dan Lauzon

Record: 4-0 / 12-2 / 17-4

Opposition Grade: C- / C+ / B-

The younger Lauzon was matched reasonably well, especially considering a start to his pro career at 18 years of age. His brightest spot in his multiple trips up the ladder was a win over athletic phenom Bobby Green and well-versed journeyman John Gunderson.

 

Elite Grade: C

# of Bouts: 4*

 Poor luck and tough matchmaking plagued Lauzon’s career, tangling with Spencer Fisher in his prime, a come-from-behind defeat against a badly hurt Cole Miller, and catching Efrain Escudero at the height of his success. A brutal loss to Justin Gaethje would see him expelled from WSOF and return to the regional scene.

 

 

11/06 (Final Run) Jorge Rivera:

Record: 6-1 / 9-2 / 12-4

Opposition Grade: A- / B- / A+

Another anomaly with his career starting before TUF, Rivera would have a stunningly difficult road getting into the UFC each time he reemerged with the promotion, facing submission grappling great Travis Lutter, heavyweight wrestling champion Branden Lee Hinkle, kickboxing legend Mark Weir, and even the Greatest of all Time Anderson “The Spider” Silva.

 

Elite Grade: B+

# of Bouts: 15*

Rivera’s career would feature several highlight reel moments, though he would be bested against the top talent in the Middleweight division, closing out his career on his own terms after a win against Eric Schafer.

 

 

6/07 Allen Berube

Record: 2-1

Opposition Grade: D-

Fighting while living in Florida, the Maine native faced very limited opposition, with future WEC and UFC fighter Jonathan Brookins being his only real test before going to TUF.

 

Elite Grade: F

# of Bouts: 1

Given a bout despite being thrown off the show, Berube lost to Leonard Garcia and never found his way back onto the big stage, dropping his last fight in Canada playing the part of road warrior.

 

 

9/07 Matt Lee:

Record:  10-6-1 / 13-9-1

Opposition Grade: B+ / C+

While moving onto the large stage late in his career, Lee fought an impressive list of regional threats, such as Keith Wisniewski, James Edson Berto , and Eddie Alvarez.

 

Elite Grade: D+

# of Bouts:  2

While he’d ultimately wash out on the world stage against the elite in the country, Lee would spend over a decade fighting all over the world and trading blows with household names in MMA.

 

 

2/08 Josh Grispi:

Record: 10-1

Opposition Grade: C+

Grispi faced few strong competitors on the local scene, doing battle with Bombsquad member and eventual TUF contestant 5-1 Spencer Paige, as well as Maine staple 4-4 Paul Gorman.

 

Elite Grade: B-

# of Bouts: 8*

Grispi would surprise the world with his ruthless offensive game, scoring four wins against stiff competition in the WEC before being granted and ultimately revoked a title fight with Jose Aldo. The moment would prove to be the beginning of a downslide in his career, dropping four fights and finding himself on the outs with the company.

 

 

2/08 Tim Boetsch

Record: 6-1 / 11-3

Opposition Grade: C+ / B-

Fighting as a heavyweight in his early career, Boetsch’s best win came against East coast killer Brendan Barrett, with a bout against Vladimir Matyushenko IFL gaining him national exposure and allowing him to jump to the UFC.

 

Elite Grade: B+

# of Bouts: 17*

Coming into his own late in his career, Boetsch reinvented himself as a middleweight, and while in a rough patch as of late, still holds substantial power and wrestling acumen to keep up with the pack.

 

 

6/08 Mike Thomas Brown:

Record 9-1 / 18-4  

Opposition Grade: B+ / A

An anomaly in this article, Mike Brown would fight in the UFC prior to our timeline and largely outside New England, becoming a world roving fighter as the sport gained steam; riding the wave into the WEC for his second run in an elite organization.

 

Elite Grade: A+

# of Bouts: 14

Brown would hold a title in WEC and best pound for pound great Urijah Faber twice, though miles and years would see his peak come before the stiffer tests of his career, closing out his time as a fighter in a downslide.

 

 

7/08 Dale Hartt:

Record: 5-0

Opposition Grade: C+

With his most impressive wins playing spoiler in Washington state against 6-3 Wesley Welch and beating Matt Lee.

 

Elite Grade: D

# of Bouts: 3

Hartt would go 1-2 in the UFC, his signature win being the infamous leg break of the late Corey Hill.

 

 

12/08 Tom Lawlor

Record: 4-1

Opposition Grade: D+

Lawlor would fight outside his true weight class for much of his early career, picking off heavyweight opposition, with his best win coming against Maine based Travis Bartlett.

 

Elite Grade: C+

# of Bouts: 10*

Lawlor has had major ups and downs in his career, a stunning upset over CB Dollaway offset by an embarrassing loss to Joe Doerksen, both early in his stint with the company. Still active, Lawlor has potential to make additional waves in the light heavyweight division moving forward.

 

 

1/09 Mike Campbell:

Record: 6-0

Opposition Grade: C

Campbell faced a solid 3-1 Tim Pinney and travelling NJ toughman Rich Moskowitz, amongst other mid-level regional talent before moving into the WEC’s lightweight division

 

Elite Grade: D

# of Bouts: 2

Campbell operated as a huge lightweight, but the elite level talent in WEC was too much, too soon for the fighter who had yet to hit his peak, going 0-2 against Danillo Villefort and future champion Anthony Pettis.

 

 

1/09 John Howard:

Record: 10-4 / 20-8

Opposition Grade: A- / C+

Howard would battle through scads of solid fighters in both his times working towards the UFC, facing three eventual UFC fighters in his first trip up the ladder.  The second time around, Howard’s trip would be a bit lighter, though studded with substantial road blocks in Dennis Olson and Todd Chattelle.

 

Elite Grade: C+

# of Bouts: 13*

While still fighting with the promotion, Howard has seen his share of losses against middling UFC talent, staying float with conservative wins in his second stint.

 

 

11/09 Will Kerr

Record: 8-1

Opposition Grade: B-

Though the majority of Kerr’s local bouts would be against low level professional talent, a victory over the stalwart Marc Stevens would stand out, with his greatest test being in his lone loss to powerful boxer/wrestler Ian Loveland.

 

Elite Grade: C-

# of Bouts: 3

Kerr would have the misfortune of fighting two monstrously powerful punchers in his WEC career, being dispatched by both Danny Castillo and Kamal Shalorus. Kerr would find victory in being part of the destruction of flash-in-the-pan Karen Darabedyan, hitting an armbar submission for his sole win.

 

 

12/09 Ricardo Funch:

Record: 7-0 / 8-2

Opposition Grade: C+/ C+

Funch would find his way into the UFC largely with wins over overmatched opposition, with his only notable wins against submission specialist TJ Waldburger in Texas and solid local talent Chandler Holderness. A single win over Ryan Quinn would see him return to the UFC for his second run.

 

Elite Grade: D-

# of Bouts: 4*

Funch would find the world stage an unforgiving mistress, going 0-4 between his two stints and primarily beaten at his own game of pressure grappling.

 

 

8/10 Christian Morecraft:

Record: 6-0

Opposition Grade: B-

Coming into the scene as a true monster, Morecraft made his way into the UFC on the back of strong wins over Josh Diekmann and Eric Foley; squeezing as much competition out of the region as possible.

 

Elite Grade: C-

# of Bouts: 3*

Taking a substantial step up in competition from the limited nature of the New England heavyweight scene, Morecraft had a serious learning curve to contend with that saw him go 1-2 before being cut from the promotion, a submission win against Sean McCorkle his sole victory.

 

 

10/10 Rick Hawn:

Record: 8-0

Opposition Grade: C+

Hawn would face a handful of local talent in Dennis Olson and BJJ ace Tom Gallicchio, as well as legendary journeyman Shonie Carter.

 

Elite Grade: B-

# of Bouts: 14*

Hawn would compile a series of solid wins against Bellator’s top talent, though the bar for his division relatively low in comparison with the UFCs.  While unable to gain a title in his stint, Hawn remains active and on the fringe of another run in a world organization.

 

 

12/10 Ken Stone

Record: 9-1

Opposition Grade:  C-

Stone would have a near immaculate record leading into his WEC career, besting some of the more durable fighters such as Jason Bennett and Chris Simmons.

 

Elite Grade: C-

# of Bouts: 5

Stone’s career would be known for a series of horrific knockout losses, starting with a slam KO at the hands of Eddie Wineland in his debut. His final loss to Erik Perez would close out his professional career.

 

 

6/11 Chuck O’Neil:

Record: 8-3

Opposition Grade: C-

O’Neil’s early career was defined with a great deal of soft opposition, with Ryan Schielding and Anthony Kaponis being his brightest spots.

 

Elite Grade: D

# of Bouts: 1*

While short –lived in his UFC career, he’d prove that iron sharpens iron in his return to the regional scene, standing as one of the best welterweights holding it down in New England, and often a win or two away from being called back to the big leagues.

 

 

5/12 Joe Proctor

Record: 7-1

Opposition Grade: B-

Even with the benefit of an amateur career, Proctor seldom tested himself in the cage leading into his UFC career, beating Matt Bessette, and Reality Fighting product 4-0 Oz Pariser, with his only other notable opponent being a loss to CES champ Luis Felix.

 

Elite Grade: C+

# of Bouts: 6*

Proctor has managed to keep afloat against the bottom of the UFC’s roster, standing as a solid gate keeper to main card status within the promotion.

 

 

2/13 Jon Manley:

Record: 7-1

Opposition Grade: C

Manley would face lower to mid level regional talent on his way into TUF, with his hardest battle being a decision loss to Dennis Olson.

 

Careel Grade: D

# of Bouts: 1*

Part of the hardest season of TUF, Manley would hold his own in the TUF house, losing out on his shot at the contract after a controversial decision loss to Colton Smith. In UFC proper, Manley would drop a decision to Neil Magny. Now back in the regional scene, Manley is running undefeated and potentially near the top of his game.

 

 

4/13 Jimmy Quinlan:

Record 3-0

Opposition Grade: F

A victim of his own success, Quinlan was forced to face the worst of the worst locally due to his accomplishments in the grappling world, his three career wins being in place simply to gain access to TUF and start his career on the level.

 

Elite Grade: F

# of Bouts: 1*

Being thrown into the deep end from the kiddie pool, Quinlan found the jump in competition staggering, performing poorly on TUF before suffering his first professional loss at the finale.

 

 

8/13 Nick Newell

Record: 9-0

Opposition Grade: B-

While admittedly handled with kid gloves early in his career, Newell would be tested on his way into the big show, snatching the XFC title from a legit battler in Eric Reynolds.

 

Elite Grade: B+

# of Bouts: 4*

While still an active competitor in the WSOF, Newell has faced some serious competition, coming up short against the highly underrated Justin Gaethje, with his signature victory being over submission ace Joe Condon.

 

 

9/13 Brennan Ward 

Record: 6-1

Opposition Grade: C+

Ward would find himself fighting in Bellator’s “basement” for much of his early career before being brought onto the main card on short notice, though his toughest opponent came in the form of Harley Beekman in CES.

 

Elite Grade: B+

# of Bouts: 7*

Still actively competing in Bellator, Ward has been tested by former title holder Alexander Shlemenko and current UFC fighter Tamdan McCrory, yet bounced back and continues to improve under the hot lights of the elite cage.

 

 

11/13 Peggy Morgan

Record: 2-0

Opposition Grade: B-

Though WMMA is notoriously thin no matter what region a fighter resides, Morgan tested herself against two legitimate fighters just the same, facing heavy hitting Kaline Medeiros before playing spoiler to Revelina Berto’s own ascension in Florida.

 

Elite Grade: D+

# of Bouts: 4*

Morgan would find herself thrown in against a new breed of female fighter on the world stage, unable to athletically compete despite her size advantage.

 

 

11/13 Roxanne Modafferi

Record: 15-10 (UFC)

Opposition Grade: A

Modafferi sticks out on this list, due to the fact her lack of inclusion in elite MMA was due to the era she was active in not having a world stage for females. As such, she fought the best of her time and held her own, scoring signature wins over Dutch talent Marloes Coenen, Brazilian slugger Vanessa Porto, and old school killer Jennifer Howe.

 

Elite Grade: C-

# of Bouts: 5*

The sad fact is, Modafferi missed the boat in terms of being competitive on the world stage, her peak years before, and with what was once a unique ground game being somewhat antiquated. With the young talent having caught and surpassed her physically, it’s unlikely she will recapture her old fire.

 

 

1/14 Sean Soriano:

Record: 8-0

Opposition Grade: C+

Soriano relocated to Florida for the latter half of his career outside the UFC, posting his best wins against Victor Delgado in a raucous title fight that showed the maturity of the budding fighter, as well as dispatching Elvin Brito on his way out of the CFA promotion.

 

Elite Grade: D

# of Bouts: 3*

Soriano would go 0-3 in his UFC stint, finding himself outgunned by the lower level UFC talent before being sent packing by fellow New Englander Charles Rosa, landing on his feet in LFC.

 

 

2/14 Matt Bessette

Record: 12-4

Opposition Grade: B-

While he wouldn’t make it into the big leagues unblemished, Bessette made a reputation for himself as someone willing to fight all comers, going toe to toe with some of the best local talent. Bessette holds a signature win over BJJ specialist Saul Almeida, while putting away several sturdy competitors on the local circuit.

 

Elite Grade: B-

# of Bouts: 2*

 While his stay on the main card of the promotion would be short lived following his loss in the tournament, Bessette’s win over Diego Nunes in a stunner and strong work on the local scene show he has the goods for another trip to the world stage.

 

 

7/14 Rob Font

Record: 10-1

Opposition Grade: B-

Font made it a point to challenge himself locally, putting together solid wins again local terrors like Saul Almeida, Lucas Cruz and Chris Foster. His signature win would come by way of KO of the Year candidate against elite striker Tristan Johnson, sealing the deal as he moved into the UFC.

 

Elite Grade: C

# of Bouts: 1*

Though only one fight into his career due to a string of injuries, his debut was a highlight reel destruction of the serviceable George Roop, in a bout that promised much more from the budding fighter.

 

 

7/14 Pat Walsh

Record: 4-1

Opposition Grade: C

Walsh would compete outside his weight class and score wins against Eric Bedard on two occasions, with his hardiest opponent, Keith Berish, handing him a defeat.

 

Elite Grade: C-

# of Bouts: 2*

Walsh’s career in the UFC would be short, sent packing after a lackluster loss against Dan Kelly, though given the nature of his division, it’s likely he’ll see a return within one or two fights.

 

 

9/14 Tateki Matsuda:  

Record: 10-5

Opposition Grade: C+

Matsuda has struggled on the local scene, though he was able to post wins over 3-0 muay thai fighter Matt Doherty and 5-4 wrestling specialist Robbie Leroux en-route to a call up from the UFC.

 

Elite Grade: D+

# of Bouts: 2*

Though going 0-2 before being cut from the promotion, Matsuda showed excellent skills against competitors Chris Beal and Joby Sanchez, hinting that the best may be yet to come for the flyweight.

 

 

10/14 Charles Rosa

Record: 9-0

Opposition Grade: D+

Splitting time between fighting in Florida and New England, Rosa constantly fought above his level, even with a substantial amateur career under his belt; his signature win over journeyman grappler Jake Constant.

 

Elite Grade: C-

# of Bouts: 3*

Currently running at 1-2 in the UFC, Rosa remains employed based on the strength of his efforts; snatching two FOTN awards in his losing efforts, with the big show working as a crucible to forge a better fighter.

 

 

12/14 Emily Kagan

Record: 3-1

Opposition Grade: B-

Relocating to the Midwest, Kagan had the opportunity to mix it up with world talent before Invicta was absorbed by the UFC, having a strong showing against Rose Namajunas in her only loss.

 

Elite Grade: D

# of Bouts: 1*

While still under contract, Kagan has had a rough start to her UFC career, being soundly defeated by Angela Hill in her debut, though she’s likely to get another chance at a win in the coming months.

 

 

4/15 Juliano Coutinho

Record: 6-1

Opposition Grade: D+

A big fish in the thin waters of New England heavyweights, Coutinho faced low level opposition, though this was likely all that was provided or willing to step up against the BJJ black belt.

 

Elite Grade: D

# of Bouts: 1*

One fight into his career in WSOF, Coutinho had a flat performance against high-level wrestler Steve Mocco, but will look to return shortly and change his fortunes in the premier organization.

 

 

7/15 Dennis Olson

Record: 14-8

Opposition Grade: C+

The story of Olson’s career is “always the bridemaid, never the bride” having crushed almost the entire local scene, but falling short against the very top fighters whom largely made it to the next level through victory against Olson.

 

Elite Grade: D+

# of Bouts: 1*

One fight into a Bellator contract, Olson was thrown against world-ranked striker Paul Daley, coming up short in a strong effort. His next fight could prove to be the make or break moment of his career.

 

 

Results:

There’s a lot of data to consider here, so I will break this into three categories based on the all important “Opposition Grade” score.

 

Top Tier: A+ to B+

Average career length at elite level: 12.8 fights

Average Elite Grade: B+

Average Record Upon Entry: 11-4

 

Not surprisingly, those who fought tougher competitors before moving onto the world stage have had the best staying power and more impressive careers overall. This can likely be attributed to having experienced serious adversity in their path to the top, as well as having tested themselves against a variety of styles and opponents. With the sole exception of Roxanne Modafferi, who was ahead of her time in WMMA and peaked before the world platform was created, every fighter in this tier has enjoyed ten or more bouts at the top of the game.

 

We also see something interesting regarding records here. While the common conception is that undefeated fighters are “better”, it appears that experience is the major factor here, regardless of wins and losses. As a matter of fact, not a single fighter in this category walked into the elite cage with an undefeated record.

 

Middle Tier: B to C

Average career length at elite level: 5.16 fights

Average Elite Grade: C

Average Record Upon Entry: 7-1

 

A tier comprised of the lion’s share of fighters in New England, we see a definitive swing away from the top tier. For one, the length of careers for people who faced only B to C talent is cut by 60%, indicating a rough ride trying to stay afloat at that level of competition.

 

Interestingly, this is the tier with the largest population of undefeated fighters with 37.5% walking onto the world stage without a blemish on their records, and 45.8% having suffered only one defeat at time of signing.

 

Lower Tier: C- to F

Average career length at elite level: 4.88 fights

Average Elite Grade: C-

Average Record Upon Entry: 6-2

 

Our lowest tier of fighters, largely made up of short notice fighters thrown into the fray or those who used the vehicle of The Ultimate Fighter to jump the line. While the raw data makes it appear to be nearly on the same level as Middle Tier, this is largely due to Marcus Davis and Tom Lawlor’s inclusion; both TUF competitors who have carved out long careers despite “artificial” induction into the UFC. Removing those two entities sees all respective scores plummet.

 

In conclusion, we can see several paths to the peak of the sport over the last decade, with perception not matching reality. While it is often assumed the undefeated fighter will shine on the world stage once graduating from the local ranks, it is they who often have the shortest careers; unable to secure wins against formidable fighters. However, the road warriors of New England, scarred as they may be, have carved out successful runs, the rate of opposition increasing gradually to the top of the sport.

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