Silva KO's Belfort, defends title at UFC 126

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Silva KO's Belfort, defends title at UFC 126

Sunday, February 6, 2011, 12:35 a.m.

MMA NEWS

By GREG BEACHAM,
AP Sports Writer

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Anderson Silva stopped Vitor Belfort with a single kick to the face in the first round, defending his UFC middleweight belt for a record eighth time at UFC 126 on Saturday night.

Silva (28-4) knocked out his fellow Brazilian brawler with one magnificently placed kick that caught Belfort squarely on the jaw, bringing a dramatic end to Silva's 13th consecutive victory at 3:25 of the opening round. Belfort's eyes rolled while his knees buckled as he fell flat on his back, and Silva landed two punches to Belfort's head before the fight was stopped.

After little action in the opening minutes of their bout, Belfort (19-9) blamed himself for failing to block the straight-ahead kick from Silva, whose athleticism and well-rounded style have kept him perfect since 2006.

"It's no excuse. He caught me with a kick," Belfort said. "I just got caught up. He faked the body, and he kicked to the head. Anderson is a great fighter."

Jon "Bones" Jones earned a light heavyweight title shot with a second-round submission victory over fellow prospect Ryan Bader on the undercard at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in the UFC's hometown. Forrest Griffin won an unanimous decision over fellow veteran Rich Franklin.

Silva is the longest-reigning champion in UFC history, largely dominating all contenders since winning his belt in October 2006 with a first-round stoppage of Franklin. The fighter known as "Spider" is considered the world's greatest mixed martial artist by UFC president Dana White and most experts.

Yet Silva's aura had lost much of its luster in the past 10 months. He was ripped by White for embarrassing the UFC in Abu Dhabi by barely engaging Demian Maia during a title defense last April, then Silva was largely dominated on the ground for four rounds by Chael Sonnen in Oakland last August before escaping with a fifth-round submission victory.

Belfort was the youngest fighter to win a UFC bout 14 years ago, but the 33-year-old still known as "Phenom" had to fight his way back to the UFC after losing his light heavyweight title to Randy Couture in 2004. After stops with four MMA promotions and his boxing debut, Belfort returned to the UFC in September 2009 with a knockout of Franklin, but hadn't fought since.

Earlier, Jones (12-1) won the bout between elite MMA prospects with a guillotine choke, stopping the previously unbeaten Bader (12-1).

Moments after the bout ended, the UFC announced Jones will get the next shot at light heavyweight champion Shogun Rua's title. Rashad Evans was scheduled to fight Rua at UFC 128 on March 19, but has a knee injury.

"I feel like it's my time," Jones said. "I'm hungry and hopeful."

Griffin capitalized on a strong first round, hanging on for a victory over Franklin in a meeting of veteran light heavyweights and former UFC champions. After Griffin (18-6) controlled nearly the entire opening round, he traded punches and avoided takedowns to grind out a win over Franklin (28-6), the former middleweight champion who has lost three of his last five fights.

"Rusty, rusty," said Griffin, who hadn't fought since late 2009. "It's great to be back. I was so nervous. Camp didn't go right, but I feel good now. It's hard to come back after a year when you haven't gone full speed. Fortunately I got him down in that first round and was able to grind on him a bit."

Jones' bout with Bader matched arguably the top two prospects in the loaded light heavyweight division. Jones is among the UFC's most tantalizing up-and-comers for his athletic, unorthodox approach and dramatic stoppage wins, while Bader forged an unbeaten record with remarkable strength and superb wrestling skills.

Jones dominated the first round on the ground, nearly submitting Bader with an unusual hold. The fighters spent most of the second round on their feet, but Jones took down Bader and landed a difficult guillotine choke, forcing Bader to tap out for the first time in his career.

Griffin and Franklin had never met during their lengthy MMA careers, but both are former UFC champions who rank among the sport's most popular fighters. Griffin recently published his second book, a facetious survival guide for the apocalypse, while Franklin is a former math teacher.

Both returned from injury absences to meet at Mandalay Bay. Griffin hadn't fought for 14 months -- the longest inactive stretch of his career -- while recovering from surgery on his right shoulder, and Franklin needed three months of inactivity after breaking his arm while blocking a kick from Chuck Liddell last June in the final fight of Liddell's career.

In the early fights at UFC 126, several fighters from the defunct WEC made their UFC debuts. Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone stopped England's Paul Kelly with a rear naked choke in the second round, and former WEC champion Miguel Angel Torres won a dull decision over Antonio Banuelos.

NBA Buzz: With trade deadline looming, Bulls' season at a crossroads

NBA Buzz: With trade deadline looming, Bulls' season at a crossroads

With an extremely difficult six-game road trip right around the corner, it's safe to say we'll have a pretty good idea about the Bulls' playoff hopes by mid February, which just happens to be right before the league's trade deadline on Feb. 23.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg says he talks about big picture issues with his players "all the time" but acknowledges the perspective from the coaching staff has to be on preparing for the next game. Still, with Atlanta playing its best basketball of the season and the Wizards also enjoying a New Year's resurgence, we're probably looking at six teams (Bulls, Hornets, Pacers, Bucks, Pistons and Knicks) battling it out for the final three playoff spots in the East.

Yes, the Bulls did go 4-2 on their last extended road trip, but they were playing much more efficiently early in the season. Now, a trip that includes games against the Thunder, Rockets, Kings, Warriors, Suns and Timberwolves looks much more daunting. Even the teams with losing records will be tough to beat, considering Sacramento will be looking for payback after last Saturday's controversial loss at the United Center, the Suns are playing very well right now led by high-scoring guards Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker and Minnesota is also starting to find its way under Tom Thibodeau.

When the Bulls hit the All-Star break on Feb. 17, front-office executives John Paxson and Gar Forman should have a clear indication of which direction to pursue. Will they be looking to add another veteran scorer off the bench for a playoff run or start trading off pieces for draft picks? I'm guessing it's more likely the latter.

Right now, Taj Gibson and Niko Mirotic look to be the most tradeable commodities. Gibson will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and it seems unlikely the Bulls will be of the mind to offer a big money, long term contract to a role-playing power forward who turns 32 in June.

With the experience of losing Pau Gasol for nothing last year still fresh in their minds, look for the Bulls to pursue trades with playoff teams trying to add another piece for the stretch run. The Toronto Raptors immediately come to mind, since they've been interested in Gibson for quite some time and look at power forward as their weakest position in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup against Cleveland. Would the Raptors be willing to give up their late first-round pick for a half season of Gibson's services? If they believe they have a legitimate shot at knocking off the Cavs this season, the answer is probably yes, especially considering their star point guard Kyle Lowry can also become a free agent at season's end.

Finding equal value for Mirotic might be a more difficult proposition, especially considering his reputation around the league has taken a hit since he came over before the 2014-15 season hailed as the best prospect in Europe. Mirotic was billed as a classic "stretch 4," but to this point, he's only shooting 34 percent for his career from 3-point range, and only 31 percent this season.

Anyone who's watched Mirotic play over the last couple months can see he's battling his confidence and that he might benefit from a fresh start with a new team. Plus, it looks like the Bulls have a ready-to-go replacement on the roster in second-round draft pick Paul Zipser, coincidentally, another European import. Add in the fact Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season's end, and you can see why the Bulls might be better off exploring trade options now rather than being faced with the choice of matching a big contract offer this summer.

As for Rajon Rondo, unless he's involved as part of a blockbuster deal, there's little chance any NBA team is going to trade for the money remaining on his $14 million contract for this season. Look for the Bulls to explore buyout talks after the trade deadline.

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

Here are a few stories from around the Association that have caught my attention.

All-Star reserve picks

With the announcement of NBA All-Star reserves coming Thursday, here are my picks.

Remember the coaches from each conference will select two guards, three frontcourt players and two wild card choices from any position.

In the East, I would go with Isaiah Thomas and John Wall at guard, Paul George, Kevin Love and Joel Embiid in the frontcourt and Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker as my wild card picks. I know the East will have a point guard heavy roster, but that's the way the game is trending and Lowry and Walker are more deserving in my opinion than frontcourt players like Paul Millsap and Hassan Whiteside.

In the West, I've got Russell Westbrook and Klay Thompson as my reserve guards, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Gordon Hayward in the frontcourt and Marc Gasol and Damian Lillard as my wild card picks. Apologies to other worthy choices in the West like Draymond Green, C.J. McCollum, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, but in case you haven't noticed, Jordan is having the best season of his career (averaging 13 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks a game while shooting 69 percent from the field) and he's kept the Clippers afloat with the injuries to both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.

Boston's Thomas deserved to start All-Star Game

Back to the East, Thomas really should have been voted a starter. All he's done this season is average 29 points and six assists a game, carrying Boston to the third best record in the conference. But more impressively, the 5-foot-9 dynamo leads all NBA players in fourth-quarter scoring, averaging just over 10 points during winning time.

And, one thing we know for sure, the last player selected in the 2011 draft isn't lacking for confidence. Check out these tweets from the unlikely Celtics' star:

For years now, we've been hearing about Celtics general manager Danny Ainge looking to package some of his haul of future draft picks for a veteran star (like the Bulls' Jimmy Butler). Turns out his under-the-radar deal for Thomas back in February 2015 brought the C's a big-time scorer in one of the league's smallest players.

Stats of the week

Speaking of Butler, our stats "cruncher" Chris Kamka highlights some of the accomplishments that earned Jimmy Buckets the first All-Star start of his career.

— Butler has four games with 40 or more points this season, the most by a Bulls player in a season since Michael Jordan's 12 in 1997-98.

— He is the first Bulls player with three 40-point games over a six-game span since Jordan in January 1998.

— Butler put up 52 points, 12 rebounds and six assists on Jan. 2 vs. Hornets, the first time in United Center history a player had a game with at least 50 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

— He has two career 50-plus-point games, joining Jordan (38) as the only Bulls players with more than one (including playoffs).

— Butler had a streak of 15 straight games with 20 or more points this season, the longest such streak by a Bulls player since Jordan's last 23 games with Bulls (including playoffs).

— His 9.7 free-throw attempts per game this season are the most by a Bulls player since Jordan's 9.8 per game in 1988-89.

— Butler has attempted 10 or more free throws in 24 of his 43 games this season. He attempted 20 or more free throws twice.

Butler has improved his points per game in every year of his career:

2011-12 2.6
2012-13 8.6
2013-14 13.1
2014-15 20.0
2015-16 20.9
2016-17 24.8

Most 40-point game in Bulls history, including playoffs:

Michael Jordan 203
Bob Love 13
Jimmy Butler 7
Ben Gordon 5
Scottie Pippen 5
Reggie Theus 5

Quote of the week

And finally, with so many trade rumors circulating around the league these days, it was refreshing to hear Pistons coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy give beat reporters some candid comments about what actually goes on between front office execs, courtesy of the Detroit News.

"These discussions happen all the time, and I love it when teams say somebody is off limits. I won't lie to my guys. There's no one in this league who is off limits," Van Gundy said. "Who's the most off-limits guy? LeBron? What if the Warriors offered Kevin Durant and Steph Curry? They wouldn't consider that? There's no deal they wouldn't consider?

"Everybody's available. I got asked a question the other day: There's a report out there that Reggie (Jackson)'s available for the right price. Everyone in the league is available for the right price. It's just for your main guys, the right price is a lot steeper and usually doesn't come around."

Interesting stuff from the always-quotable Van Gundy. But I don't think we'll have to worry about that James-for-Durant-and-Curry suggestion getting a lot of play before the deadline.

Forza Blue: Michigan to spend a week of spring practice in Rome

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USA TODAY

Forza Blue: Michigan to spend a week of spring practice in Rome

Forza Blue.

Michigan football is going to Italy. The Wolverines will spend a week of spring football practice in Rome come April, the latest in Jim Harbaugh's globetrotting efforts to expand the Michigan football brand to every corner of the Earth.

According to the school, which announce the Rome trip Monday, Michigan players will spend a week practicing as well as immersing themselves in the Italian culture, visiting historic sites and visiting orphanages and with U.S. service members.

"We were looking to provide our student-athletes with a great educational, cultural and international football experience," Harbaugh said in the announcement. "I am excited that our student-athletes will be able to take advantage of this amazing educational opportunity, be exposed to another culture and be ambassadors for the United States and the University of Michigan during our visit to Rome."

On the surface, this looks like yet another wild stunt in line with Harbaugh's satellite camp tour an offseason ago, where he seemed to hold camps in every state and wear a jersey of every NFL team.

But really this isn't much different than what college basketball programs do all the time. Programs from large conferences routinely take overseas trips to play against pro teams in foreign countries. Michigan State recently took a trip to Italy. Northwestern recently visited Spain. Illinois recently took an offseason trip to Europe.

Of course transporting a college football team across the ocean is a bit more logistically involved than a basketball team, given the roster differences, but this is something plenty of college athletic programs do on a regular basis. And it is an awesome opportunity for these student-athletes, the kind of experiences universities should be providing.

"Over the past few decades student-athletes in other sports have had the opportunity to participate in international training trips to practice and prepare for the upcoming season," Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel said in the announcement. "This is a tremendous opportunity for these young men to learn about and experience another culture, connect with the people of Italy and showcase American football internationally. The University of Michigan has always encouraged our students to gain knowledge through international experiences, and we are so glad to provide them with this opportunity."

Still, because it's Harbaugh, it's sure to draw a ton of attention. And surely that can't be viewed as a bad thing for Harbaugh and his program.