I've been away for a couple weeks, but I'm back to tell you all what the hell happened in the latest offering of the UFC's brand of mixed martial artistry. We've just witnessed UFC 243 from Marvel Stadium in Melbourne Australia, where an undisputed middleweight champion was crowned in Israel Adesanya, Dan Hooker threw his hat into the ring of potential lightweight contenders, and...a lot of fights happened that don't really matter. Outside of the main and co-main event this was a pretty shallow card, but as is usual with Aussie cards, we got some solid action out of it. So let's get down to what the hell happened!
The Main Card
Adesanya doesn't fear the reaper, puts Whittaker down in the second
Israel Adesanya def. Robert Whittaker by KO via strikes (3:33, R2) to become the undisputed UFC Middleweight Champion
I've mentioned before that for me personally, nailing the analysis is more important than nailing the fight pick, and this was a perfect example of that. I pegged Whittaker to win the fight (with no real certainty), and although that didn't come to fruition the story of the fight played out more or less as I thought it would, with the exception of Whittaker fighting more recklessly than I expected and paying dearly for it. In said pre-fight analysis, I singled out Adesanya's ability to land accurate counters when opponents miss and overextend on their punches as perhaps his most dangerous trait, as well as Whittaker's defensive flaws in the pocket making him susceptible to being caught by said counters once Adesanya found his range. That's exactly what ultimately led to Whittaker's downfall, which was likely sped up further by some shoddy strategy on his part and just a great performance from Adesanya.
From the beginning Whittaker's arsenal mostly consisted of occasional side kicks to the lead leg to keep the distance, and lunging power punching combinations with a head kick thrown in here and there. His urgency to crash into Adesanya and take his range away was more than understandable, but his aggression, volume, constant loading up of punches, insistence on headhunting, and lack of diversity in his entries gave Adesanya a relatively quick read on him. This lead to him being countered while Adesanya leaned and pivoted safely out of the way of most of his offense. In a bit of foreshadowing of what was to come, the first round ended with Whittaker lunging in for a 1-2, which Adesanya sidestepped with a glancing left hook before crushing Whittaker with a huge right shovel hook, sending him crashing to the canvas right at the horn. It was one of the starkest examples of a fighter being saved by the bell; had the fight gone on just a second longer that likely would've been it.
The horn only prolonged the inevitable.
Having found his range, Adesanya was a bit more aggressive in the second round and this actually allowed Whittaker a bit more success with his punches, though he was keen to roll with a lot of the strikes so not too many of them landed cleanly. The ball really began rolling for him when he stunned Whittaker with another counter right hook and started turning up the volume with combinations to the body and head of the Australian. Whittaker, as has become customary remained tough and found homes for his jab and left hook, but once again Adesanya's speed and accuracy proved too much for him, and this time it did him in for good. He snapped Adesanya's head back with a jab but missed the followup right, overextending and once again getting tagged by a right hook counter. This one didn't stun him too badly, but when he tried to retaliate with a left hook, Adesanya caught him flush on the chin with his own left hook that sent him stumbling backwards onto his seat, where the referee mercifully intervened after a couple hammerfists.
As mentioned, it was another great performance from Adesanya. He remained calm in the face of a Whittaker that was even more aggressive than usual, and even though he typically isn't adept at hair-trigger counters, it didn't matter much here since his head movement and positioning gave him plenty of opportunities to counter off of missed strikes. As also mentioned, Whittaker didn't exactly fight well. It was odd because while I do think he fought worse than he normally does, many of his usual bad habits contributed significantly to the loss as well. Headhunting is nothing new for him, but this was a fight where it was imperative that he adjust once it stopped working and Adesanya started punishing him for it. Attacking the body and at least putting the threat of wrestling out there can go a long way in un-conditioning Adesanya from his safety net of just being able to lean and pivot out of the way anytime Whittaker closed the distance. He knew that when Whittaker tensed up to throw a combination, he'd just have to avoid two or three punches up top, so it not only made him more comfortable with his defense, but it also allowed him to stand his ground more and stay in the pocket to land harder counters, which is precisely what happened in the finishing sequence.
The exchanges became very dangerous for Whittaker because Adesanya's positioning prevented him from effectively rolling under when he threw hooks, so his head was often stuck on the center line when he threw combos in the pocket. That lack of head movement just further exposed the fact that Whittaker's defense is pretty lacking in the pocket and on his exits, and he doesn't protect himself well while striking by bringing his hands back up to re-chamber his guard. These are defensive liabilities that are somewhat engrained in the style of "karate-boxers," and we should look no further than Kyoji Horiguchi's recent TKO loss to Kai Asakura for further evidence of that, but in both cases those liabilities could have been lessened with body work and wrestling. I mentioned in my breakdown that the last time Whittaker fought a high level kickboxer with similar countering ability in Stephen Thompson he was wrecked, but I thought that since so much had changed and improved in him since that fight he wouldn't suffer the same fate. Well, old habits die hard because he was dealt with pretty similarly by Adesanya.
Hey, we got another Nigerian champion! I can dig it, having it in my blood and all, and they'd be undefeated in the UFC if Kennedy Nzechukwu wasn't unfortunate enough to fight Paul Craig and get wrapped up in his improbable comeback vortex.
Whether you love or hate Adesanya, you can't deny that he's a pretty damn fantastic fighter, and he still appears to be getting better out there. He's got a killer waiting for him in the wings in Paulo Costa though, so he'd better be on his game for his next bout. Alternatively, all that back-and-forth trash talk with Jon Jones could also materialize into a fight, especially since Dana White recently said he's open to it. Either fight would be interesting, but I'm pretty keen on seeing the middleweight title defended and not risking having another double champ holding up divisions. As for Whittaker, he's still only 28 years old and has a lot left in the tank. He'll be back, and this probably won't be the last time we see these two square off in the octagon. Next up for him should probably be the winner of Kelvin Gastelum vs Darren Till or Jack Hermansson.
Also, this happened.
Hooker dominates Iaquinta, steps into the ring of contenders at 155
Dan Hooker def. Al Iaquinta by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-26)
Coming into this fight I though a lot of Hooker's success would depend on his ability to stick to a gameplan and keep Iaquinta out of range; he has all the ability to do it, but often wavers when it comes to the will to keep it going. He showed an impressive level of discipline and strategy in dealing with Iaquinta in this fight, and it was punctuated by frequent and devastating low kicks that pretty much took Iaquinta out of his game entirely. I've seen some comments that Iaquinta should have used his wrestling more, but this fight was more or less par for the course for him on that front. He actually did tease wrestling early by faking level changes, but he typically uses those to get reactions out of his opponents so he can come over the top with right hands, and rarely actually uses his wrestling until he's forced to. All was for naught anyway since Hooker leaned heavily on the jab to stop him from pressuring effectively and continued chopping down his legs, an intelligent strategy given how heavy Iaquinta is on his lead foot.
Iaquinta did manage to catch a leg kick (which was actually a groin kick) in the first and drag the fight to the ground in spite of the referee looking to pause the action, but Hooker immediately nailed him with a torrent of elbows while defending a single leg that forced Iaquinta to his back, where Hooker used a guillotine to step into mount. Iaquinta gave up his back and was nearly caught in a rear-naked choke, but managed to survive and scramble back to his feet. To put a stamp on the round, Hooker landed a few more leg kicks, one of which took Iaquinta off his feet and left him desperately lunging in to close the distance.
This more or less set the tone for the fight. Iaquinta turned up the aggression in an attempt to get inside, but Hooker stayed composed and continued to chop him down with leg kicks, forcing him to switch stances. Iaquinta did steadily have more success over the course of the fight as Hooker was more willing to trade with him, but with his left leg battered and being forced to fight much of the bout in southpaw, he couldn't really find the power to give him any pause. When attempting to use his wrestling in the second round, Iaquinta just found himself reversed and on the bottom once more,only to be dropped with a massive counter right hook as he awkwardly threw a straight left from southpaw. Comfortably ahead on the cards, Hooker eased up a bit in round three and stuck to mostly countering a charging Iaquinta with constant jabs and check left hooks. Iaquinta never stopped going for it until the final horn, but he was just really out of his depth.
Wrestling didn't exactly work out for Al.
This fight played out in much the way I thought it would, albeit more dominantly on Hooker's part. Cerrone really revealed the blueprint on how to handle Iaquinta if you're a reedy striker, and it would've been crazy for Hooker not to follow it. Much of that blueprint lies in just how much a good jab can disrupt Iaquinta's entries, and how he gets increasingly tentative and/or desperate when he can't close the distance effectively, which just makes him easier to read. It was a consummate performance from Hooker, and he seems to be turning out more and more of those these days.
Next up for Hooker should be Paul Felder. He called out Dustin Poirier following the win, but Felder makes sense rankings-wise and it'd be a helluva fun fight given the style matchup;not that I'd be opposed to the Poirier matchup. Iaquinta should probably get a break from tall, rangy strikers, and Alexander Hernandez might be the one to fit the bill for him if not Edson Barboza, who would likely give him a lot of the same problems he faced against Hooker.
Spivac throttles a bullheaded and woefully unprepared Tuivasa
Serghei Spivac def. Tai Tuivasa by submission via arm triangle choke (3:14, R2)
This was one of the worst performances I've seen in a while on Tuivasa's part, and Spivac did well to take advantage. I didn't think he'd be able to handle another athletic hard-hitter coming after him, but he dealt well with Tuivasa's firepower and punished him for frequently launching himself into combinations that put him in bad positions. It started off well for him when he dropped Spivac with a huge leg kick and had him on the defensive with big punches and elbows, but another leg kick was caught and turned into a takedown by Spivac, and it was just a sign of what was to come. Tuivasa did well getting back to his feet quickly but was again taken down. Spivac settled into a seated neck crank position and worked to a headlock, but Tuivasa was able to slip out. Once on his feet Tuivasa advanced right into the clinch and this time he was hip tossed for his efforts into the same position, which he again escaped. The round would end shortly after, but not before another Spivac takedown.
Spivac ragdolled Tuivasa whenever he got close. And Tuivasa constantly got close.
Round two was all Spivac. He immediately dumped Tuivasa to the ground with a double leg, and although he was able to work his way back to his feet and separate, it was just a matter of time before Spivac bowled him over with another against the cage and into side control. He easily stepped into mount and busted Tuivasa open with elbows. Hard punches followed, and an exhausted Tuivasa turned to his side where Spivac took the opportunity to wrap up an arm-triangle choke. The cage was actually in his way, making it more difficult for him to step off to side control to turn the clock and finish the choke, but Tuivasa kindly scooted his body away from the cage and handed Spivac the choke on a silver platter. I haven't seen such lack of knowledge on the position since Travis Browne locked in the choke on Chad Griggs from mount, and Griggs actually pushed him off into side control, allowing him to finish the choke. Tuivasa appeared to go out cold, but I'm not so sure he just wasn't so tired he didn't do anything.
Extremely poor work from Tuivasa, who once had a good deal of hype behind him and has now dropped three-straight fights mostly due to strategic gaffs. He attacked Spivac with no setups and no feints, and it just made him easy to read and time. Next up for Spivak should be the winner of Andrei Arlovski vs Jairzinho Rozenstruik because, I dunno, heavyweights. Tuivasa badly needs a win, and the best way to get that would be to put him in there with someone who will strike with him. If Junior Albini is still on the roster they'd make for a good "loser leaves town" fight. Otherwise, Cyril Asker seems right in a "pink slip derby" kind of way.
Lima out-techniques Jumeau over three rounds
Dhiego Lima def. Luke Jumeau by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
This fight was an odd one to break down because the only thing I was very confident about was that Lima is just a much better fighter overall than Jumeau, who isn't particularly great anywhere. However, I couldn't be supremely confident in picking him because historically his chin is just so fragile, and Jumeau does have punching power. Throughout the fight, Lima just did well to keep the action at his preferred range and deny Jumeau the pocket exchanges he searched for. He showed good defensive footwork, worked leg kicks at distance, and jabs to keep his opponent at bay. Jumeau really didn't have an answer for it and mostly followed Lima around the cage without being able to trap him or land much of consequence. He did manage to wobble Lima a bit with an uppercut in round two, but rushed in recklessly and ate a right hand that backed him off. Lima also kept him honest in that round with a couple well timed level changes that put Jumeau on his back, but the majority of the fight occurred on the feet where Lima was still firmly in the driver's seat.
Lima really seems to be putting it together after a pretty rough stretch in the UFC. He's always been a solid technical fighter, but his main liability was his durability, and he seems much more mindful when it comes to protecting himself out there. I've seen Belal Muhammad suggested for him, and I think that's actually a very good fight, though I'd have to favor Muhammad to eventually find his chin. Jumeau has alternated wins and losses over his four UFC fights, and he could fight any number of welterweights coming off losses, so I'll just go with the loser of Court McGee vs Sean Brady.
De Castro derails a hard-charging Tafa
Yorgan De Castro def. Justin Tafa by KO via punch (2:10, R1)
Tafa was only three fights and a little under two-and-half years into his pro career at the time of this fight, so maybe it's not such a bad thing that he got his prospect loss out of the way early. The lesson here: defense is pretty useful at heavyweight. I admitted prior to this fight that I didn't know either fighter, just that Tafa was generally considered the better prospect. They both have a string of nobodies on their records, but De Castro had just beaten more of them. Tafa came out stalking immediately and landed a quick straight right that stunned De Castro, who clinched up before separating to land a hard body kick. Tafa stayed aggressive and invited the clinch, where he landed some body shots and a hard uppercut before separating again, only to rush forward loading up on a huge right hand that he telegraphed from miles away to launch with his chin all the way front and center. You can probably guess what happened next. De Castro threw a short right hook moving backward that landed right on the button and sent Tafa sailing forward to the canvas with a sickening thud. He was obviously not getting back up anytime soon, so De Castro walked off for style points.
Let's not ignore the most important factors of this fight: 1) A fighter with the nickname "The Mad Titan" equipped the power stone to secure a victory in Marvel Stadium, 2) It was a terrible night for anyone who looks just like Tai Tuivasa and 3) The dreaded Eminem curse apparently does not apply in Australia, as De Castro boldly walked out to the octagon to the sounds of "Till I Collapse" by the Detroit rapper. Not much else to say about this one.
Jake Matthews def. Rostam Akman by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
This was not at all the most exciting affair, and according to Matthews it was because before the fight he heard Akman was a striker and decided he wanted to strike with him. I'm sure his hometown crowd, as well as the rest of us watching would have appreciated it more if he just used his wrestling and scored a submission instead. Also, Akman is a striker? Could've fooled me since all he really did was rush forward and headhunt with wild hooks and not land any of them. It was a measured but not very rousing performance from Matthews that was helped along by Akman just not looking good or being able to adjust at all other than attacking the body a little bit more in the latter half of the fight. But hey, at least we all got to make fun of how insanely hairy he is.
Callan Potter def. Maki Pitolo by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
This was a pretty fun, close fight through two rounds and an example of one fighter just pushing harder to force his style of fight. Pitolo got off to a good start throwing some beautiful high-volume combinations where he'd use several low power strikes to set up sneaky power shots, much like the Diaz brothers tend to do. It makes sense seeing as how his longtime training partner is UFC welterweight Yancy Medeiros, who has been heavily influenced by his training with Nick and Nate. Pitolo was in control for most of the first round, but things started to unravel after a big takedown late in the round by Potter. From there he was able to more easily lure Pitolo into brawls, where he wasn't afraid to take a few to give one bigger. Over time his sheer tenacity just caught up to Pitolo, and he was able to get on the inside to land takedowns in the final round with the fight up for grabs. Pitolo just didn't appear to have the wherewithal to get off his back, and ended the fight mounted to solidify a clear-cut 29-28 victory for Potter.
Brad Riddell def. Jamie Mullarkey by unanimous decision (29-27, 30-26, 30-26)
It was at times incredibly sloppy, but I'd say it was worthy of the Fight of the Night honor it received just due to the sheer craziness of the fight. Though it was clear Mullarkey was outgunned after a relatively close first round, he never stopped attacking and consistently came forward. Round three was where Riddell really put the stamp on the victory, hurting Mullarkey several times and forcing him to shoot desperate takedowns, where he was able to sprawl and punish his foe. Mullarkey seemed to spend the majority of the round rocked, but still managed to land some nice counters throughout it all. To cap off a wild fight, round three ended with both fighters on their knees and Riddell landing a hard right hook just before the horn. Quite entertaining stuff, and although it wasn't exactly the highest level of MMA, it does make me look forward to future entertaining scraps from these two.
These two went to war!
Megan Anderson def. Zarah Fairn by submission via triangle choke (3:57, R1)
Anderson showed a bit of a developing wrinkle in her game with a nice triangle choke victory here. Fairn is a striker who isn't exactly well-versed on the ground, but it was nice to see some grappling from Anderson when that area had shown to be a huge weakness for her throughout her career. Fairn immediately rushed into Anderson with punches to start the fight and was immediately clinched taken down from the rear waist lock position. Anderson soon worked her way to mount where she stayed heavy when not posturing up to land elbows. Fairn managed to power up to her feet and cause Anderson to slide off to her back, but she immediately began working for a triangle. Once it was locked in Fairn didn't do much to defend it besides punch her way out, and once Anderson was able to turn the angle of the choke and tighten it, she had to tap. I think we all expected a win out of Anderson, but it's nice to see her changing things up a bit.
Ji Yeon Kim def. Nadia Kassem by TKO via strikes (4:59, R2)
It was nice to see a bit of karma pay off immediately after Kassem decided to come out with the ol' fake glove touch technique, opting to land a side kick to the body instead. As she advanced following the kick she was promptly dropped to her hands and knees with a left hook, but recovered quickly. Kassem had a clear speed advantage during the fight, but technically she looked horrible, throwing a ton of "garbage" strikes with seemingly little rhyme or reason. These type of strikes aren't inherently bad, as fighters like Holly Holm use them as distractions to set up bigger shots like her high kick, but Kassem didn't appear to be setting up anything; she just threw random strikes that seemed to harbor little intention of doing real damage. As such she was able to land decently just from speed alone, but her strikes had no power because they were just random and flailing. Kim stayed eerily composed throughout, and just picked her shots until her counters started to land with more frequency. In the second round she began countering Kassem's leg kicks with hard right hands. Kassem began to slow, and that's when Kim turned up the heat, tagging her with a right hand that knocked her mouthpiece out and swarming her.
Curiously, the referee decided right then and there to stop the action to put Kassem's mouthpiece back in, which would have been a horrendous blunder if she'd managed to get back into the fight. She didn't, as Kim began to force her into more prolonged exchanges with her back to the cage where she had little room to escape the punches flying her way. Kassem was tired and rocked, and a stiff jab snapped her head back and caused her to cover up, leading Kim to swarm her and hurt her badly with a shot to the body. Another immediate right hand to the body put her down for the count. Kim will always have limitations due to her lack of speed, but her power and composure did her well here. Kassem is still relatively raw as a fighter, but she has left a lot to be desired in her UFC run, and really needs to tighten up her technique.
She might want to work on her sportsmanship too; at least getting dropped won't be as embarrassing.
Khalid Taha def. Bruno Silva by submission via arm triangle choke (3:00, R3)
Taha impressed here with a third round submission of BJJ black belt Silva. Although he was taken down and controlled for a good stretch of the second round, Taha showed great balance and takedown defense, and superior power on the feet, putting Silva down in both the first and second rounds with a left hook and straight right respectively. In the third round Silva shot for one takedown too many, and was punished with right hands after Taha denied him. Taha managed to get to Silva's back and land more punches, and as Silva tried to roll to his back he locked in an arm-triangle and lowered his body to elicit the tap. It was a pleasant surpirse as I didn't expect Taha to get it done in that fashion, and in fact I thought he might be in a bit of trouble if he had to fight down the stretch.
Prior to the finish, most of Taha's success was on the feet.
And that does it for UFC 243! As mentioned it wasn't a very strong pay per view card, but it largely delivered the goods from an action standpoint and the Australian fans were fantastic, which also helps the overall experience. It's always nice to see fighters actually get cheered for good performances even if they beat the hometown faithful, and not booed just because they're not local. Next up the UFC is in Tampa, Florida when former strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk takes on aspiring "mom champ" Michelle Waterson in what looks to be a fun card. Until then, sado out!