Greetings, fight fans! It's been a long time since I've had the pleasure of writing to you all, but we finally got some fights. Regardless of where you fall in terms of your opinion on whether or not this card should have even taken place, it's hard to argue that it wasn't a pretty great card. The event started off with plenty of decisions, though most of the fights were competitive and/or entertaining; and then the main card brought about four finishes in five fights, all of which were pretty exciting offerings. It's not a UFC card without a little controversy, and we got some of that with Jacare Souza being pulled a day out from his fight with Uriah Hall due to testing positive for COVID-19 (and I wish him the best with that, regardless of the foibles with how it was handled), but what we got was a card that really lived up to hype. It was a stacked card on paper, and it's always nice to see those deliver. So let's get down to just what the hell happened!
The Main Card
Gaethje absolutely dominates Ferguson, earns late-fight mercy stoppage
#4 Justin Gaethje def. #1 Tony Ferguson by TKO via strikes (3:39, R5) to win the UFC Interim Lightweight Championship
I did quite a bit of mulling when it came to picking this fight, but for most of the time I sided with Ferguson. I figured he'd do what he always does: take shots early, survive the storm, then turn on his frenetic pace and take over the fight, culminating in a late stoppage or one-sided decision. That would also be in line with how Gaethje has lost both fights in his career. Closer to the fight I really started to think about how Ferguson hadn't really fought anyone like Gaethje; a big puncher and low kicker with great cardio. In fact, he may be the only of his kind in the division. He'd been able to eat shots to deliver his own against guys like Edson Barboza, Rafael dos Anjos, Anthony Pettis, and Donald Cerrone, but none of these men are really known for punching hard. It really didn't hit home until this fight just how much that mattered. The low kicks and punching power began to win me over for Gaethje, and before long I could picture him getting a TKO stoppage in the second round. Ultimately I went with Gaethje, so I expected him to win tonight. What I didn't expect was for him to roundly outwork, outclass, and completely neutralize Ferguson for nearly 24 minutes before stopping him. I knew Gaethje had cardio, but no one out-cardios Ferguson; until now, that is.
So how did he do it? Not by fighting in a way many are probably used to him fighting. Gaethje might have really found his knockout power in his last few fights since the losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, but it really wasn't until his most recent fight against Cerrone that we witnessed, the smart, patient, counter-minded fighter we saw capture the interim title. The Gaethje that beat Barboza and James Vick was still the guy that walked forward throwing bombs between spamming low kicks. The current version of Gaethje stays at mid-range, chops at your legs when you idle, and keeps his head on a swivel, waiting for any opening to launch a big counter punch when you move forward. His multi-layered attack makes him dangerous at pretty much any range, in addition to keeping his opponents guessing whether he'll go high or low, since he's not afraid to launch low kicks even at close range. Another notable change is his no longer relying so heavily on the high guard. In the past much of his method of closing the distance involved him throwing his guard up high and wading into the pocket. This left him open to hard body shots, which slowed him down in his losses. Ferguson was able to land many body shots himself, but most of them were at range with front kicks, and because Gaethje didn't open up his body as blatantly as he used to, Ferguson had few opportunities to really load up and dig into a body shot like others have. Instead, Gaethje is a bit more content to let his opponents come to him, and they often oblige because not closing the distance leaves them to trade low kicks, and that's a losing battle for most. Inside, Gaethje moves with his punches very well, always giving himself the option to turn his hips into a shot if a counter opportunity arises. He just isn't always looking to go first, which has revealed that his talent for quick counter punching is right up there with his low kicks.
The fight certainly lived up to its violent hype.
The fight itself saw him enjoy varying degrees of dominance, but for the most part every round played out similarly. The first couple rounds were characterized by Gaethje's hard low kicks and huge haymakers cracking Ferguson almost at will. Gaethje was so comfortable on the feet that he threw everything with full power and started to load up more, which gave Ferguson his biggest (really only) moment of the fight at the end of the second round when he was able to stagger Gaethje right at the end of the round by landing a tight, flush uppercut before Gaethje could deliver a telegraphed uppercut of his own. From there, Gaethje's coach Trevor Wittman gave him the sound advice to throw less power and pick his power shots more carefully. He did just that, and although Ferguson was able to land quite a bit of volume, it was the power of Gaethje that stood out.
Gaethje couldn't fully give up those Homer Simpson tendencies. He needed a reminder.
I mentioned earlier how Gaethje being a bigger hitter than most of Ferguson's opponents really affected how the fight played out, and it was clear to see when Ferguson's trademark volume and pressure wasn't really present here. There were a couple reasons for that, and both had to do with the difference in power. For one, the low kicks really did do a number on Ferguson. He actually landed more of them over the course of the fight, but the difference in power was crystal clear, and Gaethje was able to check most of the kicks launched at him. He really just isn't someone you want to play that game with, not even if you're out there kicking metal poles in practice. The more notable factor was that even though Ferguson showed some all-time great level chin display in his ability to eat some huge bombs from Gaethje with surprisingly little effect, the power shots stopped his forward momentum like no one else's really have. It's interesting, because other fighters have dropped him and put him in trouble with shots, but he recovered quickly, squirmed out of any bad spot he was in, and came back with relentless pressure they couldn't handle. Against Gaethje he was able to withstand some serious power, but although that power didn't put him down, it stopped him from moving forward and attacking. We've often seen him just sort of eat shots and not allow it to stop him from launching counters of his own and pressuring as if nothing happened. Here when he got hit he ate the shot, but it halted his offense and his pressure. Because of this his pressure was constantly impeded because he always had to pause after taking a shot, and that gave Gaethje a chance to reset, so he could just repeat the process over again.
And repeat it he did.
It was a lot of rinse-and-repeat from there. Ferguson would try to close the distance, Gaethje would be waiting for him with a big left or right hook counter, and sometimes both. The left hook was especially tethered to Ferguson's face throughout the fight, as he was landing it at will for stretches of the fight. At one point Ferguson's corner told him to really mix things up and go for crazy things like Imanari rolls, but it was too late for any of that to work. Ferguson doesn't really have the wrestling to take Gaethje down, and at that point in the fight he was too beat up to really make a sudden submission work for him. In a lopsided fifth round that saw Ferguson rocked on multiple occasions, a final jab broke his nose and sent him wobbling away shaking his head out, and that was enough for referee Herb Dean to save him from more punishment. I'm sure Ferguson could've kept going for longer and maybe even survived through sheer will, but there's no need for that. He'd taken enough punishment and there was nothing to indicate he could've turned things around. Dustin had not only landed a ton of big shots, but did so to the tune of 72% accuracy, which is pretty insane. By the end of the fight Ferguson looked like he'd been run through a wood chipper, which is somewhat ironic considering that's what is said of his opponents after fighting him.
Pretty sweet leg sweep though!
It was a complete drubbing, and one that not only puts the rest of the division on notice, but really makes Gaethje look like a particularly scary individual. No one had ever done that to Ferguson, who was already considered one of the most dangerous lightweights on the planet. He didn't just show that he was the better man that night, but that he was just better, period. This might just put the final nail in the coffin on Ferguson ever fighting undisputed champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, but it opens up perhaps an even more intriguing fight. For years I've thought Gaethje could be the toughest match up for Khabib, and after this fight I don't think it'd be crazy at all to even favor him in that potential match up. That's another breakdown for another time, but obviously it's the next fight to make for Gaethje. As for Ferguson, as tough a loss as this is, the man still went on the longest streak in the division and is a nightmare for a lot of the division. If Conor McGregor has any designs on coming back to 155 and trying to get his shot at regaining the belt, Ferguson is the man he should have to contend with. If not, Dustin Poirier makes even more sense rankings-wise.
Cejudo dismantles a game Cruz with smart, tactical approach...then retires?
Henry Cejudo (c) def. Dominick Cruz by TKO via strikes (4:58, R2) to retain the UFC Bantamweight Championship
Love or hate his cringey persona, Cejudo is a special talent. Not that we didn't already know that; the guy skipped the collegiate wrestling circuit and eventually won a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It really seemed like MMA was something he didn't take all that seriously until a humiliating loss to Demetrious Johnson really whipped him into shape. From there he improved dramatically from fight to fight until he avenged his loss to capture the flyweight title before also capturing the vacant bantamweight title, making him the fourth "double champ" in UFC history. All that said, this fight is a bit of a bummer in my eyes, because although Cruz is in a surprisingly good place after his laundry list of injuries, he's clearly on the downside of his career, and isn't by any means near his peak. I would've liked ot see how a prime Cruz would fare against Cejudo; even more, I would've liked to have seen how actual bantamweight contenders would fare against Cejudo. As good as he may be, Cruz is still a faded champion coming off a loss that happened three and a half years ago. He couldn't out-speed or out-scrap Cody Garbrandt, so I wasn't too confident he was going to suddenly be able to do that against a faster, even scrappier Cejudo.
Of all that didn't particular surprise me about the fight, I was actually a bit shocked that Cejudo actually fought smart right out the gate. Normally he spends the first round or so trying his hand at being a technical pressure striker, and even though he's shown some improvements, that's not really his strong suit. We saw that result in him losing the early going pretty handily against Johnson and Marlon Moraes, and I expected him to spend a lot of the early part of this fight whiffing at a gnat-like Cruz, who picked away at him with his reach. Instead, Cejudo stayed calm, and learned from previous Cruz fights, most notably his bout with TJ Dillashaw, that Cruz has a bit of a weakness for low kicks since so much of his style isp predicated on movement. Cejudo with his wide stance also has a bit of a low kick vulnerability, so I actually thought it'd be Cruz landing them with aplomb at the end of his combinations; instead, they became the focus of Cejudo's opening round strategy and were clearly the most significant strikes of the round. He also flashed his vaunted wrestling (which is curiously rare for him), catching Cruz while he rushed in with a knee, before lifting and slamming him to the mat. He wasn't able to keep him down, but it established the wrestling hierarchy for the rest of the fight. Cruz's size and timed shots would be non-factors in the fight, and I've long said that Cruz owes a of his success against his most formidable challengers to those things.
For as unorthodox as he's known for being, Cruz has a bit of a pattern to his stand up: he goes into a bit a bit of a decoy phase where he uses a lot of footwork, feints, and superfluous movement to draw out reactions and get reads on his opponents; then when he finds an angle he moves in with a combination or a counter shot before angling off and retreating, and starting the whole thing over again. Where a lot of people make mistakes is that they really try to land on him in that decoy phase. That gives him the read on you and allows him to do things like counter effectively, evade your shots when he closes in, or time a level change. If you play counter striker, he gets doesn't get much out of the decoy phase, and starts to take the lead without having a sufficient read on you. Alternatively, low kicks disrupt this decoy phase and cause him to have to reset, or they also force him to lead early. Cruz has never been the best defensive fighter in the pocket, so when he's in there without having gotten the proper timing on your shots down, he takes shots because he relies so much on head movement and reaction time. Additionally, when you wait until he ends a combination and looks to retreat, you can also have success against him because he often retreats with his hands down and doesn't always expect to be pursued. Also notable is that when Cejudo did come forward a bit, Cruz didn't seek to counter him, which is likely due to the lack of reactions he was being given, and additionally opened him up to low kicks because he was focused on evading punches.
In round two Cruz came out more aggressive, and it did net a bit more success for him, but it ultimately brought out the flaws in his game because it was Cejudo being patient, kicking his legs, and not giving him much to pick up on that forced him to pressure and blitz without having Cejudo's timing down. What's more, once you force Cruz into that mode, he becomes a lot simpler of a puzzle to solve. He becomes easier to pressure because he uses less lateral movement and a lot less drop-shifting, instead moving more in a straight line and inviting exchanges.
Cruz found some success coming forward to start round two.
The round was relatively back-and-forth in the punching exchanges until Cruz changed ducked right into a knee that sent him stumbling back onto his butt. From there Cejudo smelled blood and jumped on top of him, landing several unanswered shots as Cruz posted up on his hands an knees attempting to stand. The shots were too many, and the referee stepped in to call the fight right as Cruz was making it to his feet. At first glance the stoppage was questionable, but I think it was borderline at best. Cruz didn't really start to pop up until the referee already looked committed to stepping in, and at that point you can't really expect him to pull back in time. Before then Cruz ate a lot of shots to the head without much movement, so it was easy in the moment to think he was perhaps more hurt than he actually was. It would've been nice to see a historically tough guy like Cruz have the opportunity to gut it out, but he was certainly not in a good way.
What was interesting about the stoppage was that I've pictured the way someone would likely stop Cruz with strikes since way back when he was in the WEC, and this was pretty much exactly what I pictured. Particularly, I thought that at some point someone would catch him with a knee when he ducked into the pocket; something he does very often when throwing punches. He throws wide hooks, and then often does an exaggerated dip leading either into his next punch or him angling out. He does it so much I thought it was a matter of time before someone caught him with a knee. I didn't think it would take so many years for it to happen, and after all this time I'm surprised it actually ended up happening at all.
While I still take Cejudo's retirement with a grain of salt for now, it looks like he's successfully avoided defending against any of the actual contenders waiting in the wings (something now-Hall of Famer Georges St. Pierre also managed to do at middleweight). For as formidable as Cruz and Jose Aldo still are, they aren't at the top of their games, and Cruz should've been fighting someone who was. One would suspect that his motivations for calling out faded legends centers around the payday, but I wonder how much more he'll actually earn from fighting Cruz instead of a Petr Yan or Aljamain Sterling. Surely Cruz's name didn't translate to a lot of buys, and Aldo's probably wouldn't have either. But speaking of the aforementioned two real contenders, Yan and Sterling should fight next for the vacant title if Cejudo's retirement is real. If not, Sterling should fight Cejudo. It's hard to say what's next for Cruz considering how little he fights, but I see no reason not to re-book his fight with Jimmie Rivera if he wants to get back in there soon.
Rozenstruik asks for Ngannou, gets a 20-second nap
#2 Francis Ngannou def. #6 Jairzinho Rozenstruik by KO via strikes (0:20, R1)
As if Ngannou wasn't already scary enough, he just made short, easy work of the other big scary striker in the division. Not only that, but he did while showing absolutely no respect for Rozenstruik's power, which I did not expect. In breaking down the match up, I actually leaned toward it being a pretty lackluster affair, similar to Ngannou's bout with Derrick Lewis. Ngannou, knowing that Rozenstruik has big punching power himself, would opt to be the counter striker, Rozenstruik would do the same, and we'd end up with neither guy throwing too much offense. That was true for all of a few seconds, as Ngannou appeared to settle into his counter striking role before perhaps realizing that Rozenstruik probably stands a better chance in a technical kickboxing match, and instead launched a huge overhand right just past Rozenstruik's head. He immediately followed this up with a flurry of hooks with his chin straight up in the air that also didn't connect, until a left hook made contact square on a retreating Rozenstruik's chin, putting down and out against the cage, where the few followup shots Ngannou landed weren't even necessary.
Former champion Daniel Cormier was on commentary and seemed to want no part of Ngannou, and I don't blame him. Why would you want to fight this man? Why did Rozenstruik call him out? He paid the ultimate price for this foolish endeavor. It almost isn't even fair; Ngannou has a great chin, and enough faith in it to rush down a seasoned striker with form devoid of technique and still just put him to sleep like it's nothing. His next fight should be for a belt, which I assume means he'll be fighting the winner of whenever Cormier and champion Stipe Miocic have their rubber match. And if Cormier wins, who knows? He may just follow St. Pierre and Cejudo, and retire on top. It might be a helluva lot better than stepping in there with Ngannou at this point. And what of Rozenstruik? Well, he shouldn't be calling anyone out anytime soon, but I'd throw him in there with Shamil Abdurakhimov.
Kattar blasts a game Stephens with a hellacious elbow
#9 Calvin Kattar def. #7 Jeremy Stephens by KO via strikes (2:42, R2)
With his string of decisions coming into the UFC, Kattar's "Boston Finisher" moniker was starting to become the sort of inside joke that Sam Stout's "Hands of Stone" nickname had become, but in recent fights he's really lived up to it. Stephens marks his fourth finish in as many wins, and is extra impressive considering how hard to put down Stephens is historically. It certainly didn't come easy, as Stephens showed some effective pressure, speed, and smart use of low kicks in the opening round. Kattar has struggled on-and-off with slow starts, and Stephens really looked to capitalize on it. However, in the latter half of the round he began to find his range, and things became much more competitive as he found a home for his straight 1-2 combinations.
Kattar's slow start didn't last too long this time.
Stephens continued chopping at Kattar's legs to start round two, but Kattar started being more diligent at throwing them back. Suddenly, the tide changed after a beautiful 1-1-2 followed by a big left uppercut landed for Kattar. After that he began to tag Stephens frequently, though Stephens managed to land a couple quality shots of his own as well. A little more than halfway through the round, they met in the pocket with Stephens partially landing a tight right hook, but at the same time being flattened by a big right elbow that dropped him awkwardly on the canvas. Kattar followed up with elbows and punches, including an elbow that split Stephens open pretty badly, but I didn't think any of that was really needed. It was clear Stephens was essentially out right when Kattar missed his initial followup punch. Stephens hardly even reacted to it, and just stared up past Kattar. That should've prompted the stoppage right there, and I actually think it was the elbow on the ground that woke Stephens back up enough to cover up.
Kattar is back on the winning track after a loss to Zabit Magomedsharipov where he looked impressive in defeat. He may always have issues with fighters who can really attack his legs and stay defensively savvy in the pocket, but he's still a pretty slick boxer who's developed some solid power, and he's not to be overlooked. After this win it'd be fitting to take on the previous man to defeat Stephens, Yair Rodriguez. I think that would be a helluva a fight. For Stephens this is a tough loss, as he's 0-4 with 1 No Contest in his last 5 fights. They're all against solid competition, which should prompt a more forgiving match up for his next fight. I think it's time he step out of the top 15 and take on Mirsad Bektic or Ricardo Lamas.
Hardy wins a lackluster decision in head-scratcher of a fight
Greg Hardy def. Yorgan De Castro by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
So is this what we're getting with Hardy now? A fighter is either going to win by quick knockout scare his opponent enough to cruise to a tepid decision? Well, when he's not getting disqualified or his wins overturned by ignorance of the rules. It does fly in the face of some actual improvements he's made in his short career, but it's hard to justify such a green fighter constantly being put on main cards if he's going to have fights like these. The main card opener is designed to be an action fight that builds on the entertainment of the prelim main event to get viewers excited for the rest of the card, and instead this ended up being the worst fight on the main card (if not the whole card) by a mile.
Part of what made it worse was the puzzling nature of De Castro's performance. He came out in the first round clearly not afraid of Hardy's power, and doing all the better for it. He landed a couple big right hands out of the gate, and powerful low kicks that definitely compromised Hardy's lead leg. The tide seemed to turn a bit when Hardy had De Castro against the cage and managed to use his height and reach advantage well, popping him with punches while being out of the reach of counters. From there he pressured until the end of the round and didn't meet much resistance.
In round two De Castro tried what ended up being his last effort to push the pace, launching a punching combination at a retreating Hardy without landing anything. Shortly after that Hardy checked a low kick that appeared to hurt De Castro, and that essentially ended his attempts at effective offense for the rest of the fight. For the remainder of the next two rounds he didn't land much of anything but the odd low kick here and there. Altogether he landed only nine strikes in those final ten minutes. Meanwhile Hardy ran away with the fight on the strength of his pressure and volume, but not by way of landing anything really significant outside of some hard low kicks of his own. It was a pretty confusing performance from De Castro, but could probably be explained as a combination of him perhaps feeling some of Hardy's power late in the opening round and being a little more hesitant, and his injured foot completing the sapping of his will to push the pace. Either way, from the outside it looked like a fight he had a shot at winning, but resigned to losing less than halfway in.
I never quite know where to go with Hardy because he really doesn't deserve much rankings-wise, but you can't give him someone ranked too low because he's going to be on the main card. I'll take a suggestion I heard earlier, and match him up against Marcin Tybura, a crafty veteran with enough holes to give Hardy avenues to victory. For De Castro, let's go with Tanner Boser.
#15 Anthony Pettis def. #6 (LW) Donald Cerrone by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
This was a very close fight, and you know what that means: lots of MMA fans crying robbery! This was essentially a fight to determine who the more washed up fighter was, and while neither of them looked anywhere near their primes, neither fighter really performed as badly as some might have suspected either. I didn't really think this rematch would go too much differently than their initial meeting, where Pettis melted Cerrone with a body kick in pretty short order, simply because I think stylistically Pettis just has the advantage of being both the better kicker and the faster puncher, and we've witnessed a sharp decline in Cerrone's durability. A couple things flew in the face of that notion: 1) Cerrone's chin held up pretty well, and 2) Pettis curiously chose to keep the fight relatively boxing-centric. Neither man is particularly known for their sharp boxing, and given how the first fight went, I was sure Pettis would be looking to make the left body kick a major weapon. Instead we saw Cerrone start off using his jab well, but as he started to push the pace and close in with combinations more, Pettis found a home for hook counters, something Cerrone is notoriously vulnerable to these days since he's not very defensively responsible exiting off his combinations. It's what got him consistently countered by Ferguson, and what got him finished by Gaethje.
Arguably both of their best moments came in the final round, with Pettis swarming and landing several shots on the strength of what turned out to be an inadvertent eye poke, and Cerrone landing a flush head kick that Pettis was somehow able to eat, but he admitted post fight that it rocked him pretty good.
Well Pettis' chin definitely still works.
The fight ended in a whirlwind of action from both fighters that capped off a pretty comforting performance if you're a fan of either guy and hope they have a bit more left in the tank as quality fighters. In the end the decision could've gone either way, and MMA Decisions recorded 7 media scores to 6 in favor of Cerrone. One has to wonder how the fight may have gone if Pettis fought more at his preferred range, but this made for a pretty entertaining scrap. I've seen suggestions for Pettis to fight Geoff Neal next, which I think is great if you hate Pettis. Given the rankings, he or Vicente Luque, who won earlier in the evening, might be the only fighters who make sense. Cerrone needs a softball after dropping his fourth-straight, but there aren't many of those at 170. I've always wanted to see him fight Tim Means, who is looking similarly declined these days, or perhaps Bryan Barbarena.
#12 Aleksei Oleinik def. Fabricio Werdum by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
If Cruz is the poster boy for ring rust not being real, Werdum just made a pretty strong case against him. In his return following a USADA-mandated vacation, he looked pretty terrible in this fight, both physically and technically. On the other side, Oleinik looked noticeably leaner than usual, though his technique on the feet was as wild as ever. Usually pretty keen to use his reach and deceptively quick striking at his disposal, he essentially allowed Oleinik to walk him down and land winging hooks and uppercuts, while mostly trying to wrangle him into the Thai clinch to land knees. That's not the worst strategy given how Oleinik was finished by Alistair Overeem, but he wasn't able to capitalize well enough, and consistently ate hooks over the top for his troubles. The opening round was a drubbing that could have warranted a 10-8 score, and following that round Werdum was able to get into the fight much more since Oleinik slowed. In the latter two rounds, he was able to get his takedowns going and end up in some dominant positions, threatening with a couple armbars and a topside straight armbar, but it wasn't enough to offset the strikes Oleinik was able to land on him through much of the fight. There's an argument to be made that Werdum won rounds two and three, but they're not especially strong given how much damage he was taking between stretches of solid ground work. Honestly he should've pulled guard once the striking wasn't working.
He could've done more of this.
I imagined Werdum would have the edge on the feet, but I really didn't expect him to be so lethargic out there. Perhaps I should have, given the nature of his layoff; he now joins the ranks of fighters who have been "USADA'd." He's arguably the all-time best heavyweight grappler in the sport, so I wasn't surprised he was able to handle Oleinik there even in his diminished state, but I imagined it'd be less risky for him to just deal with him on the feet. As it turns out, that's where he lost the fight.
#7 Carla Esparza def. #8 Michelle Waterson by split decision (30-27, 28-29, 27-30)
It wasn't the most thrilling fight, but it turned out to be a fairly typical closely-contested Esparza fight. She's 5-3 in her last eight fights, and you can make the argument that she should be 7-1, 3-5, or just about anything in between. In several ways she can be compared to a female Frankie Edgar (and before you flip your table, boxing ability isn't one of them), and one of those ways is that her style lends to some pretty close fights. Here it was a classic case of the long distance fighter in Waterson squaring off against the close range righter in Esparza. Waterson favors a long range, dexterous kicking game to keep opponents at bay mostly because her boxing isn't very strong. She does have a pretty solid clinch game and strong hips, so she tends to excel either all the way in or all the way out. Long distance is Esparza's bane, and she'd most prefer to be in close where she can work her wrestling, or settling for boxing range where she can use her improved punching to close the distance and mask her takedowns a bit. When she can't consistently close that distance with blitzes, she tends to shoot pretty telegraphed takedowns, and because Waterson was able to read them and get her hips so far out of the way, Esparza didn't even have much recourse when it came to attempting to chain takedowns. Instead, over time she relied on blitzing more often and just being the quicker boxer, and once you can get on the inside of Waterson's kicking range, her boxing defense just really isn't great. Esparza might have benefited greatly from throwing kicks at the end of her combinations since Waterson constantly faded back from the blitzes with her hands down. Waterson landed many kicks to the legs and body as expected, but not many of them had much steam on them, and she was consistently countered up top, leading to Esparza more than doubling-up on her in head strikes over the course of the bout.
As close as the fight was, we all know that when the totals are close and neither fighter is notably hurt or damaged, head strikes tend to take precedent over leg and body strikes. If Waterson had a little more sting on her kicks, she may have been given more credit by someone other than judge David Tirelli, who somehow gave her all three rounds. That's still slightly less crazy than Howard Reichbach giving Esparza all three rounds. You know it's bad when the only judge who appears to be thinking clearly is Sal (thinking he's fooling us by going with 'Salvatore' for this event) D'Amato, who scored the fight 29-28 Esparza. I wouldn't have been mad at 29-28 Waterson at all, an the media scores at MMA Decisions do favor her ever so slightly at 9-to-8. Either way, it wasn't especially exciting, and really wasn't incredibly important to the division either.
#13 Vicente Luque def. Niko Price by TKO via doctor stoppage (3:37, R3)
This might have been a shoe-in for Fight of the Night had it not been on such a stacked card, because these two really went at it! When you look at the stats, the strike totals almost identical (130-to-129 for Luque overall), but the difference came in the power and accuracy of Luque's shots. Price definitely had his moments, and hurt Luque in a few instances with well-timed counters and shots up the middle, taking advantage of Luque's reliance on the high guard much of the time. That reliance was actually lessened here, as he does seem to be more cognizant of the need for him to move his head more. For as back-and-forth as the action as, and for all the success Price did have, Luque's shots seemed to be landing with just a bit more impact, and the effects were showing on Price's face.
Let's just appreciate the violence these men bring to the table.
The third round was proving similarly back-and-forth, which Price actually landing many quality low kicks and having success in the punching exchanges, but a sudden left hook counter to a Price jab sent him staggering and falling backward, and had it not been for a bit of hesitation on Luque's part (he probably didn't want to end up up-kicked like James Vick), we might have seen a proper finish. Instead he settled in on top and landed some followup shots, but as it turned out, the left hook busted his eye up badly enough to prompt a pause in the action, leading the ringside physician to call a halt to the fight. It was anticlimactic, but it was the right call, since his eye was closed shut and a bloody mess. Not that it stopped Price from having a grand ol' time, even in defeat.
I don't think I've ever seen someone so hyped to look like he was hit by a bus.
Bryce Mitchell def. Charles Rosa by unanimous decision (30-25, 30-25, 30-24)
After Gaethje in the main event, this was easily the most impressive performance of the night, as Mitchell just ran roughshod over Rosa in 15 minutes. Rosa is a black belt in BJJ, and a quality one at that, and Mitchell made him look like he didn't belong down there with him. He landed a single takedown in each round, going 3-for-3, and Rosa just couldn't do a damn thing from there but survive. I don't know how this ranks among UFC fights, but five submission attempts and fourteen(!) guard passes is pretty ridiculous, especially when you consider the stats only count relatively tight submissions as attempts. Mitchell certainly came at least somewhat close on submissions more than five times. He wasn't able to get the finish, but he was able to constantly transition and find answers for every Rosa defense and attempt to initiate scrambles, and he practically didn't give him the opportunity to do anything offensively. Mitchell was the favorite for a reason, but I don't think anyone expected that thoroughly dominant of a performance, which prompted 30-25s from two judges, and the even rarer 30-24 from another. He almost made history on a couple occasions as he got impressively close to being the only fighter to pull off two twister submissions in the UFC (or maybe in MMA?). How insane would it have been if he managed that.
And of course, befitting of such an exemplary performance, it appears Reebok may have finally agreed to make Mitchell some camo shorts! I'm sure he considers that as big a win as anything.
HE'S GETTIN' HIS CAMO SHORTS!
Ryan Spann def. Sam Alvey by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
The curtain jerker turned out to be a decent fight that was a lot closer than I imagined it would be. Spann started off very well, landing a takedown and locking up a tight standing arm-triangle as Alvey made his way back to his feet. Alvey managed to relax and gut it out, and it appeared Spann may have gassed his arms out a bit. Ever the stagnant counter punching type, Alvey spent much of the first two rounds waiting for openings and landing counters here and there, but Spann got the slight better of the exchanges. Alvey finally upped his output in the final stanza and had much more success, stunning Spann with a hard right hand and forcing him to shoot a takedown that nearly got him guillotined. Once they made it to their feet, Alvey began repeatedly landing left hands and being pretty rocked by the time the horn sounded. However, it was too little, too late for Alvey, who somehow still lost a split decision because judge Chris Lee thought one good right hand won him the first round. Alvey was the first of three fighters on the card to lose their fourth-straight fight, and of the three I think he's the only one that probably won't get a chance to lost a fifth in the UFC, unless someone in the UFC brass really likes the Smile'n Sam character.
And that does it for UFC 249! I said it after the last card in Brazil, and I'll say it again, I enjoy fights with no crowd. In fact for me it's a net positive. Don't get me wrong, I definitely miss the crowd because they do provide that awesome atmosphere, but as someone watching fights like an analyst, I absolutely love being able to hear the corners, shots landed, heavy breathing, all of that stuff. There were shots that I might not have known landed as flush as they did live if there was a noisy crowd on hand. Obviously the UFC is going to get those crowds back in there as soon as they can, but until then I'm enjoying the empty arena fights. Now if they can somehow provide a way to drown out the commentary in the arena so the fighters don't get some impromptu coaching from them it'd be perfect! After so long away from the sport it looks like the UFC is looking to make up for some lost time (and I've made up for lost article length apparently), as they'll be right back in Jacksonville, Florida on Wednesday May 13, as well as on May 16 for Fight Night cards before supposedly returning to Vegas on May 23. You'll see me back here for at least one of those, but until then, sado out!