Greetings, fight fans! UFC Fight Island 5 has wrapped up, and while it went 50/50 with finishes and decisions, those finishes definitely made their presence known, with two clear Knockout of the Year contenders.
Or should I say one clear Knockout of the Year, and another that was top five, because I don't see Joaquin Buckley's insane knockout of Impa Kasanganay being topped in the next few months. The top story of the night is Cory Sandhagen dashing Marlon Moraes' hopes of another bantamweight title shot anytime soon in our second-best, and most surprising knockout of the night. But enough chatter, let's get down to what the hell happened!
The Main Card
Sandagen tricks "Magic," puts him away early with specular wheel kick
#4 Cory Sandhagen def. #1 Marlon Moraes by TKO via strikes (1:03, R2)
What happened?: Sandhagen's brand of constant volume and movement prevented Moraes from ever getting into his groove and finding his range, and his frequent feints and unpredictablity opened up a slick wheel kick that clipped Moraes on the side of his head and sent him reeling. A couple follow up shots were needed, but it was academic.
How did that happen?: Like Dominick Cruz and TJ Dillashaw before him, heavy movement, feints, and angles were the key to his success. He's a little looser and more willing to throw flashy techniques than the aforementioned two, but the general outline is similar: use constant footwork, directional shifts, and feints to throw your opponent off, confuse them, make them miss, and close up their offense to in turn open up your offense and countering opportunities. Sandhagen differs in that he's not as good a wrestler, but he makes up for it by being a more wily grappler. All of this just really gave Moraes fits. The Brazilian has already had his fair share of issues with pressure, and he can at times be stuck between a rock and a hard place because his style often works best at range, throwing heavy counters and rarely more than one or two shots at a time. That gave Sandhagen a good amount of time and space to draw out reactions, make his own reads, and test out the range. For the most part he did it all pretty masterfully.
His game worked surprisingly fast, with Moraes immediately whiffing on his low kicks while consistently eating them in return. The power differential in those kicks was clear in Moraes' favor once he did land, but his inability to land them as reliably was a testament to Sandhagen's superior distance management in this match up. He constantly kept a jab or lead hook in Moraes' face to utilize his reach, and it led to Moraes missing big on a lot of hard counters, including a left hook that he threw so hard it spun him around when he whiffed. Moraes definitely looked to be pacing himself a bit in this fight after slowing down in recent offerings, and while that wasn't the worst gameplan given Sandhagen's cardio and durability, it did nothing over the opening round to let him into the fight. This is not to say he had no success. He was able to land several flush counter hooks up top, but they were rarely ever free; he often had to eat hooks or kicks to the body to get inside. Additionally, he was really only able to land those shots when Sandhagen got reckless. Anytime Sandhagen set his attacks up, Moraes basically played into his game and overcommitted to a target that was rarely there.
In the second stanza, Sandhagen came out pumping jabs and lead hooks and both fighters trading low kicks. Moraes looked to be hurt by a slick question mark kick just prior to the finish that might have broken his orbital bone, and after both man landed hard body shots, Sandhagen came forward, flashed a jab, and spun. As this is most frequently a setup for a spinning back kick to the body, Moraes backed away and dropped his hands to deflect it, but PLOT TWIST: Sandhagen went high with a wheel kick that just caught him on the temple above his right hand, which he did manage to keep up...just not quite high enough. The shot sent Moraes backward somersaulting into the cage and onto all fours, where a follow-up right hand put him on his side. After a couple more punches, that was all she wrote, and Sandhagen is back in the win column with a spectacular finish of the #1 ranked fighter in the division. The finish was nicely set up throughout the fight with Sandhagen's jabs and hooks, which he would use to get Moraes covering up or parrying before attacking the body. Once Moraes came to expect that, it was no surprise that he thought Sandhagen would follow that jab up with a spinning back kick to the body. Great stuff.
Other thoughts: While I don't necessarily think things would have gone differently, I did think the stoppage looked a bit early. Moraes really didn't have any time to get his bearings back before the fight was called, and didn't appear to go out from any of the shots. It didn't look totally unfeasible for Moraes to regain guard from there and survive, but perhaps referee Marc Goddard, who I definitely consider one of the very best in the sport, saw something in his eyes that I couldn't. Moraes also didn't offer much in the way of protest, so perhaps he thought it was a just stoppage as well.
It brought an end to what I thought was an extremely close match up on paper; one where my gut told me Sandhagen would win, but there were a lot of variables that could easily lead to a Moraes victory. In practice, I was surprised that Sandhagen essentially outclassed him, and he looked like a relatively comfortable favorite out there. It was a great performance from him and a stark reminder of what can happen if you go out there looking to work a power striking game against him.
Next for Sandhagen: This win gives him new life and new hope for his title aspirations. He'll have no choice but to fight someone ranked below him at this point, but he's got great options even then and he pointed them out himself following the win in Frankie Edgar and returning former champ TJ Dillashaw. Rebooking the fight he was originally slated for against Frankie Edgar makes a lot of sense right now, as does a fight with Dillashaw, who never officially lost his title, making a fight between them a potential #2 contender fight (behind Aljamain Sterling). I initially thought the two had been training partners, but given how young Sandhagen is, he might have come to Elevation Fight Team right around the time Dillashaw split to form his own team in California. Either way, that would be a very interesting match up since they're both such cerebral strikers when it comes to their setups, and while Dillashaw has the wrestling advantage, Sandhagen has reach and in my opinion slightly better striking.
Next for Moraes: It's hard not to feel bad for Moraes, who was so close to winning the bantamweight title, and has thus far fallen apart spectacularly in biggest fights. He's still a highly ranked fighter in the division, and a bout with Pedro Munhoz could go down with a top 5 spot at stake. Otherwise, he could fight Dillashaw if Sandhagen doesn't.
Barboza rights the ship, batters Amirkhani for the better part of 15 minutes
#14 Edson Barboza def. Makwan Amirkhani by unanimous decision (30-26, 30-27, 29-28)
What happened?: Barboza proved to be to big and strong for Amirkhani to bully with his wrestling, and easily outclassed his foe on the feet. Amirkhani managed to land one of his two takedown attempts in each round, but it wasn't until the final round that he was able to land it early enough to bank any real control time. Even with that, he wasn't able to capitalize with any significant damage, losing a clear-cut decision and handing Barboza his first win at featherweight.
How did that happen?: Amirkhani did a much better job pacing himself this time, which may or may not have been a good idea in retrospect, and I think it went a long way in providing him the gas tank to make the third round his strongest in the fight. Early on the two engaged in a pretty patient kickboxing match, with Barboza taking center and applying pressure, and Amirkhani appearing to wait for him to throw kicks to turn them into takedowns. Barboza stayed composed and mostly kept out of boxing range, preferring to land kicks and hooks to the body and opportune low kicks while mostly missing up top. Amirkhani stuck to working his jab most of the time, but managed to catch a hard body kick and trip Barboza to the mat before the horn.
Round two was Barboza's best, and although there were even less overall strikes landed in the round, Barboza made his count much more. Almost halfway through the round, he uncorked a lightning-quick straight right hand that dropped Amirkhani on his butt, and sent him scrambling for a takedown, where Barboza snapped him down and attempted Amirkhani's own singature submission, the anaconda choke, on him. Amikhani managed to break free and get back to his feet, but two minutes later, he was caught and dropped with the exact same punch, and this time Barboza latched onto the anaconda and rolled through. The choke appeared tight, but Amirkhani was able to escape again and land another late takedown before the horn.
That fist flew right into his head. Like it couldn't avoid it. Hope we have some Seinfeld fans in here haha.
In the third round he was finally able to land a takedown with a considerable amount of time on the clock, but Amirkhani wasn't able to do much with it but land some punches to the body and a few decent elbows while Barboza mostly worked to tie him up and occasionally threw his legs up for a submission. After a questionable stand up by the referee, Barboza went right back to work, landing a hard left hook to the side of Amirkhani's head, and dropping him to his knees briefly with another left hook. Another left hook appeared to rock Amirkhani before the horn, and the sequence stole the round for the Brazilian on two judges' scorecards. It was a slightly and understandably more subdued performance by both men until later on in the fight, but Barboza handed in a solid performance to procure a much needed win after some very unfortunate luck with the judges that saw him lose his previous two fights via controversial decisions.
Other thoughts: I had to laugh a bit when I heard Amirkhani thought this was the perfect fight for him and actually requested it. This whole time I had been thinking the UFC booked this fight because it was nearly a surefire win for Barboza. The style match up favored him immensely, and it showed. Barboza is leagues better on the feet, has historically solid takedown defense against bigger, better wrestlers, and is a solid grappler to boot. Amirkhani had no advantage anywhere clear enough to instill confidence in picking him to win. All in all I'm just really glad to see Barboza pick up the win, as he was in much more danger of losing his fourth-straight in bouts with Sodiq Yusuff and Jeremy Stephens that have since fallen through. I don't necessarily see a title run in his future, especially not this far into his career, but he looks good enough to be an interesting foil for a lot of guys in the division.
Next for Barboza: I see a few choices for him. Although Shane Burgos is coming off a loss to Josh Emmett, I don't think a fight with him is out of the question; it'd be guaranteed action and Burgos puts on the kind of pressure that forces volume out of Barboza. Otherwise if they want to move him up the ladder faster he could fight the Stephens if he beats Arnold Allen, or Allen if he loses that fight. Alternatively, the Yusuff fight could be rebooked as well.
Next for Amirkhani: A bout with Zubaira Tukhugov would be interesting, since neither man is averse to a grappling-heavy fight.
Rothwell punches himself out, a fresher Tybura takes over down the stretch
Marcin Tybura def. Ben Rothwell by unanimous decision (29-27, 29-27, 29-27)
What happened?: Rothwell enjoyed early success with intense pressure and unending volume, but it came at the cost of his cardio, which waned as the fight went on, allowing Tybura into the fight with slicker combinations, better movement, and a punishing top game.
How did that happen?: Rothwell came out in the opening round with the type of pace that isn't even advisable for heavyweights that historically have great cardio. In that round he threw 134 significant strikes, more than double that of Tybura, while constantly moving forward and only landing 34% of them in a round that mostly took place standing at range. These are the types of stats you see in divisions 155 lbs and below. Tybura stayed composed, and while he also threw at a relatively high clip for a heavyweight, he picked his shots better so as to not tire himself out. Although the round was a pretty clear win for Rothwell, in the next round Tybura began to show that he was notably fresher, and Rothwell's already not-so-exemplary head movement was pretty much nonexistent. Still not having learned from the pace he pushed in the first round, he still came out with unyielding pressure despite being the more tired party, and the result was Rothwell consistently walking forward, but eating counters and missing his own shots. In the second half of the round Tybura started to run away with the striking while Rothwell continued to slow.
Round three was all Tybura. Looking surprisingly fresh, he showed some solid head movement to cut down Rothwell's accuracy even further, while throwing quick combinations and counters as Rothwell closed the distance. Following a hard uppercut against the cage, Tybura finally managed to land a takedown, and from there battered Rothwell from top positions and bloodying him up for the final three minutes of the fight to cap off a dominant round. At the end all judges awarded Tybura the fight 29-27 for the slight upset and a rather impressive performance.
Other thoughts: While I definitely give credit to Tybura for an overall solid performance that showed his composure under pressure and some laudable cardio, I also have to question Rothwell's fight IQ, and what that took away from him here. He's typically been a fighter who never exactly kept a slow pace, but would increase it as the fight wore on. This is generally a smart idea for a fighter his size, as that cardio can be pretty important to have later on in a fight when your opponent isn't as fresh and you can start to wear on them with that extra size. Instead, he decided to come out immediately throwing the type of volume you'd see in a flyweight bout, and unsurprisingly tired him out pretty quickly. Being as tough as he is, he still kept up his pressure, but as we've seen in some of his other losses, when he's tired that aggression just leaves him open to getting hit more. One has to wonder how differently this fight might have played out if he focused more on wearing Tybura out in the clinch early on and increased his volume down the stretch instead of blowing his energy early and being a sitting duck when Tybura was still around.
Next for Tybura: Now on a three fight winning streak after losing four of his previous five, Tybura is primed for a top 15 fight. Sergei Pavlovich or the winner of Cyril Gane vs Ante Delija seem like good options.
Next for Rothwell: He could take on the loser of Greg Hardy vs Maurice Greene or the winner of Philipe Lins vs Don'Tale Mays.
Du Plessis catches Perez spinning with a sneaky left hook
Dricus Du Plessis def. Markus Perez by KO via strikes (3:22, R1)
What happened?: Perez came out very aggressive start, and had Du Plessis on the defensive for much of the abbreviated contest. Once De Plessis got a bit more comfortable moving forward, he caught Perez attempting to land a flashy elbow that moved him right into the path of a short left shovel hook that put him down.
How did that happen?: Not much more than to add than what's mentioned above. Perez came out like a house on fire, feinting heavily and throwing big punches at a retreating Du Plessis, who fired off low kick after low kick in an attempt to keep him away. Perez kept his pressure game going, throwing counters over the top in response the kicks to the legs and body. Du Plessis took a few opportunities to surge forward with punches, but rarely landed anything during his blitzes. Following one unsuccessful combination, he landed a body kick before throwing a straight right hand, and Perez got a little too creative for his own good in responding to it. He slipped under the punch and attempted to counter with a Yair Rodriguez-style no-look back elbow, but ended up ducking right into a short left hook that dropped him to his hands and knees. A follow up left hand face planted him, and another woke him back up as the referee stepped in.
Other thoughts: You can always count on Perez to put himself in a bit of trouble with some low fight IQ flashiness, but this is the first time in his career it got him finished. That he got caught and dropped with a punch while trying a no-look elbow isn't surprising at all, but he's usually durable enough to take what his opponents throw at him. Perhaps finally getting finished will force him to rein things in a bit and realize that while he's a fun and flashy striker, his best work is done in grappling exchanges, so he should put a little more focus there. As for Du Plessis, it's hard to take a ton away from this win other than that he can hit hard and handled Perez's pressure decently well. However, when he came forward he was defensively porous and his punches were sloppy and inaccurate, so that's something he'll need to be careful of in the future.
Next for Du Plessis: I see no reason he can't fight Tom Breese, who picked up a very impressive win earlier in the card.
Next for Perez: He's usually good for a fun fight, so he'll probably get another shot following a 2-4 run. He can fight the loser of Trevin Giles vs Bevon Lewis.
Aspinall tires of Baudot's spinning and mauls him on the ground
Tom Aspinall def. Alan Baudot by TKO via strikes (1:35, R1)
What happened?: There was no feeling-out process, as Aspinall immediately began pressuring, but Baudot sought to surprise and back him off him with spinning backfists. This worked initially, but Aspinall made his way in with a short right hand to the jaw, and after nearly eating a couple back elbows, he clinched up, landed a takedown, jumped straight into mount, and poured on the punches and elbows until the fight was stopped.
How did that happen?: There wasn't much more to it than that. Baudot tried his best to be unorthodox and unpredictable with spinning attacks and back elbows, but once Aspinall got a hold of him he was out of his element. He was easily taken down, mounted, and once the ground-and-pound started coming, he couldn't do much but cover up and wait for things to be over. Aspinall gets another quick finish in the UFC, and although they've been against a severely blown up middleweight and an unproven blown up light heavyweight, he's taken them out easily and impressively.
Other thoughts: I'm still figuring out what to make of Aspinall just because his last two opponents aren't heavyweights. Jake Collier fought most of his career as a relatively lean middleweight before jumping up to light heavyweight, then disappearing for nearly three years before coming back to fight Aspinall looking unrecognizable as a rather portly heavyweight. Baudot tipped the scales a couple pounds heavier than Aspinall, but typically fights at 205 lbs and has fought competition that has not only been pretty dreadful (the majority of his opponents have sub-.500 records), but several of his wins have been against smaller men. His only notable opponent is current UFC fighter Dalcha Lungiambula, who knocked him out in 26 seconds. So with all that said, Aspinall's UFC run so far doesn't really tell us much, especially considering that he didn't exactly face great competition prior to is octagon debut either. Still, it's heavyweight and a prospect is a prospect. He's shown some solid ability, and I'm curious to see how he does against a legitimate heavyweight.
Next for Aspinall: The winner of Marcos Rogerio de Lima vs Alexander Romanov. And yes, I'm aware that if it's de Lima, that'll be another former light heavyweight, but at least this one has made a dedicated move to heavyweight and has been there for his last few fights.
Next for Baudot: I imagine his next fight will be at light heavyweight, where he could fight Marcin Prachnio, assuming he's still under contract. If not, he can fight the loser of Dustin Jacoby vs Justin Ledet.
Topuria grounds a wily Zalal
Ilia Topuria def. Youssef Zalal by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
This was literally the closest thing to fight footage they provided. C'mon UFC, this fight was full of good moments!
What happened?: Topuria displayed his better grappling chops and control, taking Zalal down and forcing him to fight off a constant stream of submissions en route to a clear decision win.
How did that happen?: Zalal has made quite the splash in the UFC with his evasive lateral movement and striking, but Topuria has having none of it, as his wrestling and grappling won the day. Though the striking statistics favor Zalal overall and were pretty close on paper, Topuria's control and submissions made for a dominant showing. Despite his grappling advantage, Topuria was actually the more potent fighter on the feet in first 10 minutes, displaying some quick hands and catching Zalal off guard on several occasions. It wasn't until he landed a nice belly-to-belly slam and stepped right into mount that the story of the fight really began to be written though. In the opening round he switched from an anaconda choke, to a guillotine, to another anaconda, and all seemed pretty close to ending proceedings, which calls for credit to Zalal's submission defense. In the second round Zalal curiously sought to wrestle, but Topuria showed good defense before shooting right through a Zalal knee to get a takedown of his own. From there Zalal found himself in trouble again with a mounted guillotine that he miraculously managed to escape. Zalal looked to slow a bit, but willingly engaged in grappling exchanges with Topuria.
In the final round Zalal's corner told him he was down and needed to keep it standing, but once again he threw a knee and Topuria just shot through it and took him down. Zalal looked for a kimura sweep, but Topuria was still a step ahead of him, working his way to Zalal's back and threatening with a rear-naked choke. Once they made it back on the feet, Topuria shot in again and Zalal managed to lock in an arm-in guillotine, but Topuria stayed calm and was able to escape. He passed to mount and briefly looked for a mounted triangle, but Zalal managed to scramble out, but Topuria immediately spun around to his back looking for another rear-naked choke. Zalal spun into his guard, and once they stood he landed a left hand to a now tired Topuria, who began backing up. Zalal saw the opportunity to go after him but Topuria was able to clinch up and stifle much of his offense before shooting in and narrowly dodging a knee for another takedown.
Other thoughts: Despite Topuria's claim that he looked like a white belt on the ground, Zalal was able to thwart all of his submission attempts and reverse position several times. However, Topuria was ultimately still dominant on the ground and surprisingly potent on feet. It was another impressive win for Georgian fighters, who are quickly making their presence known in the UFC. Zalal had his chance to be the only fighter thus far to win four fights in 2020, but it was not meant to be. It seems to often be the case that fighters who stay busy tend to falter at the end of a busy year.
Next for Topuria: I'd love to see Topuria tangle with another tricky grappler in Chas Skelly, or he can take on recent fight winner Ludovit Klein.
Next for Zalal: He's got plenty of options, from Ricardo Ramos, to Shane Yong, to the loser of Brian Kelleher vs Ricky Simon.
Tom Breese def. KB Bhullar by TKO via strikes (1:42, R1)
Amid all the doubts that had been cast on once-top prospect Breese prior to this bout, he couldn't have come away with a much better victory. A few years ago no one would have picked Bhullar over him, but prior to this fight I saw several picks in Bhullar's favor. Breese essentially proved that Bhullar didn't belong in the octagon with him. Bhullar worked low kicks early, and was quickly countered for his efforts, with Breese's straight left landing at will. Suddenly, a stiff jab dropped him hard and it was clear that he didn't want anymore punishment as he covered up while Breese threw hammerfists until the referee stepped in. As far as first impressions go, being stopped by a jab is one of the worst you can have, but it looks like Breese is back on track. This was an important win for him considering how much the mental aspect of the game has plagued him in recent years, and it's good to see him pick up an impressive victory.
Chris Daukaus def. Rodrigo Nascimento by KO via strikes (0:45, R1)
I stepped out for for just a matter of seconds, totally not expecting that the big left hook that got ball rolling on the finish would land right as I laid eyes back on the TV screen. Daukaus followed him to the ground and landed some hard ground-and-pound, but Nascimento managed to fight back up to his feet, only to put him right back down with a left and right hook, and that was all she wrote. Daukaus has shown some quick hands for a heavyweight, so it'll be interesting to see what his ceiling is.
Joaquin Buckley def. Impa Kasanganay by KO via spinning back kick (2:03, R2)
And here we have it, the best knockout of the year and easily one of the best knockouts in UFC history! Buckley and Kasanganay had already put on a helluva a fight prior to the conclusion, with Buckley showing the speed advantage and surging forward throwing heavy leather, and Kasanganay having success with counters. Both men landed hard, but it was Buckley that came away with the better offense of the two, including a nice inside trip that led to a couple nice elbows on top. In the second round, both men worked body kicks, while Kasanganay landed a couple low kicks from the outside. Buckley then threw a head kick, which was blocked and caught by Kasanganay, but Buckley leapt up and launched a spinning back kick with the opposite leg that clobbered Kasanganay to the face, putting his lights out immediately, and sending him falling to the canvas in slow motion with his eyes rolled back in his head. It doesn't get any better than that, and what a way for Buckley to rebound from a stoppage loss in his UFC debut?
Yeah we're gonna need a few more angles on that one.
Tony Kelley def. Ali Alqaisi by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)
In bantamweight action, Kelley took a relatively close decision from Alqaisi. The highlight of the fight was probably in the latter half of the first round, where Kelley found himself in an awkward triangle choke position, where he appeared to have his legs locked around Alqaisi's neck tight and also threatened with an armlock.
That was...an interesting one.
This was moments after Alqaisi looked to nearly have the fight finished himself with a mounted guillotine. In the last two rounds, Alqaisi worked hard for takedowns and had a decent amount of control, but ultimately lost key moments that cost him the fight, including being hurt by knees up the middle when changing levels. In the end, although Alqaisi actually outstruck Kelley from distance and outwrestled him, the quality of his strikes and control weren't enough to sway the judges.
And of course no fight tonight would be complete without some spinning sh*t.
Giga Chikadze def. Omar Morales by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
I thought this would be a much tougher fight for Chikadze, who more or less styled on Morales for the better part of three rounds and never let him into the fight. Low kicks appeared to set the tone for the Georgian, but he mixed his strikes up rather well and beat up Morales' body in the final round. Also in that final round, Chikadze landed a huge overhand right that dropped Morales, who showed a solid chin throughout, but more or less got lit up the entire time. There were some concerns for Chikadze based on his gas tank in previous fights and just how close he fought his opponents he was projected to beat more easily, but here we had a fight where he was the underdog and he exceeded expectations on all fronts. Perhaps he's one of those fighters who is more motivated when he is the underdog and fights up or down to his competition.
Regardless of how he fights to his competition, Chikadze always brings it.
Tracy Cortez def. Stephanie Egger by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
I actually waffled a bit on this one leading up to the fight, and I'm glad I settled on Cortez, because for the most part she cruised past Egger, showing superior striking, dominant top control, and the ability to stay one step ahead of Egger the whole way. In each round she managed to find her way to Egger's back, locking in a body triangle and hunting for rear-naked chokes, which were a testament to her ability to out-scramble the Swiss fighter. Egger tried for several takedowns, but Cortez was always keen to reverse with a takedown of her own or thwart Egger's attempts by lowering her hips, sprawling out, or even rolling through an Egger hip throw and ending up on top. The only real dicey moment for Cortez was when she stood up in Egger's guard and ate a hard up kick to the side of the head that rocked her. Other than that, Egger fought hard, but just had no answers for Cortez's wrestling or grappling.
Tagir Ulanbekov def. Bruno Silva by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)
The opening bout saw Khabib Nurmagomedov training partner Ulanbekov earn a close decision victory over Henry Cejudo training partner Silva. Things didn't start off too smoothly for the Dagestani fighter, as Silva worked hard low kicks that clearly affected him, and actually had him limping pretty early into the fight. However, he gritted through it and by the final round really began to find his range on the feet with long jabs and right hands, which helped him stand out among the back-and-forth wrestling and grappling exchanges. Add one more name to the Dagestani invasion in the UFC.
And that does it for UFC Fight Island 5! The quality of finishes will be hard to top, but they'll certainly try next week when Brian Ortega and The Korean Zombie Chan Sung Jung finally clash in a card that contains quite a few finishers. Until then, sado out!