Greetings, fight fans! The UFC returned to Las Vegas this weekend for an event topped off by a pivotal welterweight showdown that crowned a new contender...and some fights underneath it. Not the most stacked card from top to bottom, but true to form, that led to some pretty exciting action. For this entry I'll make it slight express edition, and forgo much of the deeper fight analysis and round breakdowns, because I'd just like to touch more on the conversations and reactions coming out of these fights. And frankly, as I said, the card wasn't exactly stacked! So let's talk about what the hell happened!
The Main Card
Burns arrives as a contender, dominates Woodley for five rounds
#6 Gilbert Burns def. #1 Tyron Woodley by unanimous decision (50-45, 50-44, 50-44)
All I have to say is "Wow!" Burns already had his coming out party when he shellacked Demian Maia in just over half a round, but this performance showed that there's no question he belongs among the top of the division. It's a run that has shades of Robert Whittaker's career turnaround once moving up to 185 lbs and Poirier's since moving to 155. It shows how much draining yourself to make weight can be detrimental to your success, and how putting on size to fit into a higher division can reap much better benefits than shedding it to fit into a lower one. Burns doesn't look that small at 170, and he looks energetic, rejuvenated, and most astonishingly, very powerful. Here, he just completely shut down Woodley from bell-to-bell, starting off with a shockingly dominant first first stanza where he blitzed him in the first 35 seconds, hurting him badly, slicing him open with an elbow, and spent the majority of the round in top position landing punches. It seemed to set the tone for the whole fight, and brought forth the return of "The Frozen One."
For the uninitiated, "The Frozen One" is the unfortunately not-uncommon version of Woodley that really struggles to pull the trigger. It's also a nice play on his now-defunct "The Chosen One" nickname. Particularly during his championship run, Woodley had gotten very accustomed to a low-output style to conserve energy, but it also includes the curious tactic of often allowing opponents to take the center of the cage and dictate the pace, and frequently backing himself into the cage. What's even more curious about this is that while he has the athleticism to blitz himself out of trouble much of the time, the tactic just really doesn't leverage that athleticism best. Woodley is at his most effective when he's on the outside and has room to cover distance quickly. Pushing himself back to the cage gives his opponent way too much of a chance to control how much distance Woodley has to cover, which takes away a lot of his unpredictability. As mentioned, this iteration of Woodley isn't rare. From his title loss to Kamaru Usman, to his winning performance against Stephen Thompson, all the way back to its debut against Rory MacDonald, Woodley has shown a vulnerability to having his offense shut down by pressure and distance management even through his prime.
If this sounds like the result of the fight has more to do with Woodley than Burns, that's certainly not the case. Burns looked to have everything to do with the Woodley that showed up. He put him in big trouble early, showed to be the quicker, more aggressive, and at times stronger man, and although he only went 2 for 8 on his takedown attempts, that is significant because Woodley is notoriously difficult to take down, and the threat of Burns' well-timed level changes just contributed further to Woodley's reticence to throw offense. Just half a minute in he had Woodley in a hole that he just couldn't dig himself out of. According to Woodley, low kicks were a major factor. He said he took a hard kick to the leg early and it just didn't feel the same for the rest of the fight. It'd be easier to latch onto that if we hadn't seen him fight this way several times before, but I wouldn't doubt that he was suffering the consequences of the low kicks as well.
After such an utterly dominant performance against the former champion and #1 ranked fighter in the division, it's hard to disagree too firmly with Burns being up next for a title shot. The issue is that he's just entering a party that already has a few members lying in wait, namely Jorge Masvidal, Leon Edwards, and Colby Covington. If I'm going just purely on quality of opposition, it makes sense for Burns to just leapfrog everyone after beating Woodley the way he did. However, we know it's not that easy in the UFC. If I'm being honest about my personal take, he has a better case than most. Masvidal has hype and fan support, but beyond that his resume is probably the weakest of the bunch. Edwards has the quantity factor with eight-straight wins, and it's nicely capped off with a win over Rafael dos Anjos, but it's still a quantity-over-quality type of run. Lastly, I just don't see a reason for an immediate rematch for Covington. It was a close fight until the final round, but nothing was controversial about it and there are other contenders waiting. He needs to win at least one fight first. But will Burns fight his own teammate in Usman? Well...
"I like the guy a lot. He motivated me a lot when he became champion. I saw him [come from] zero."@GilbertDurinho says "it will be weird" to fight teammate Kamaru Usman for the UFC welterweight title. pic.twitter.com/v25l0X8sKs— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) May 31, 2020
I dunno about you but I like what I heard here.
Things just got a lot more interesting at welterweight, and although I feel bad for Woodley essentially being pushed out as a contender, it stands for a positive evolution in the division. I've heard people say that Woodley didn't show up for this fight, but he did. In a way you could say this was textbook Woodley. What we're seeing now is that what worked for him before, doesn't work against the guys coming up. It's not as if he couldn't have gotten anything going; Burns is not a flawless fighter. He relies heavily on a high guard that opens his body and legs up to attacks, but Woodley insisted on headhunting. Burns frequently leaps into the pocket with a bit of a hop before throwing combinations, leaving himself pretty open and time-able a lot of the time, but Woodley was too hesitant and focused on defense to ever make him pay for it. These are things that other fighters like Usman or those contenders mentioned previously could take advantage of, but Woodley is a guy whose style no longer accommodates the adaptations he needs to make when he's effectively pressured. That's going to need to change, or we may not see him in the hunt for the title ever again.
See? There's that hop!
Also, shout out to Woodley's cut man. He had a pretty nasty gash over his eye that was bleeding quite a bit in round one, but after that it was like he didn't even have blood left in his body, because that cut didn't seem to shed a single drop from then on! I don't know if it was something specific he did or something about Woodley, but if it's the former, let's get more of that.
Lastly, I'd also love to see more fight losers respond the way Woodley has. This is how you do it, and I think it's more likely to lead to actual improvement than the excusing a loss with anything but "My opponent beat me."
"You can't just get on the camera when you win; you gotta get on the camera when you lose too... I've got a weird peace for somebody that just got their ass whooped."@TWooodley hopped on Instagram immediately after #UFCVegas to speak to his fans about the loss. pic.twitter.com/fdEnC6Ua5Z— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) May 31, 2020
Next for Burns: Usman or one of the three contenders that doesn't fight Usman next.
Next for Woodley: Dos Anjos, or maybe even Nate Diaz since that fight has been talked about prior.
Sakai edges Ivanov with a little help from his fence
#13 Augusto Sakai def. #12 Blagoy Ivanov by split decision (30-27, 28-29, 28-29)
Kinda wish DC didn't quiet himself here!
This just goes to show you that there are instances when close fights can still be robberies. It has nothing to do with the judging itself; I think in terms of the action that took place, both men made solid cases for winning the fight. Ivanov landed more, harder shots up top, while Sakai moved well, beat up Ivanov's lead leg, and went to the body effectively. Ivanov was more accurate, while Sakai was more active. It's a fight that plays well off the subjectivity of judging, as has been the case with a few Ivanov fights in the UFC. The 30-27 score for him was pretty wacky, but there was at least a slight element of closeness throughout the fight. But what really gave way to an unfortunate result in this fight was a blatant fence grab on the part of Sakai to prevent being taken down in round three.
This was not a fence grab to brush off; had he not grabbed the fence, he most certainly would have been taken down. Additionally, based on what we saw when he was taken down in the previous round, there was a solid chance that Sakai would have remained on his back for most if not the remainder of the round, which would have given Ivanov the win. Regardless of that, the fence grab did happen, and referee Jason Herzog essentially did nothing about it. The conversation to get referees to be more assertive with point deductions is ongoing, and this just adds fuel to that discussion. When you see someone grab the fence in a way that unequivocally affects the trajectory of the fight, you deduct a point. There would be an argument that Herzog didn't see it since he was a bit out of position, but that's thrown out the window when you see him briefly step between the fighters to give Sakai a weak warning of "Do not grab the fence" for a transgression that should've lost him a point. The fence grab cost Ivanov a probable win, and the lack of consequences doled out for that fence grab netted him a loss, where a draw would have been more appropriate.
I'd say this was pretty solid grounds to appeal the loss, but we all know nothing ever really comes of that. Instead Ivanov will have to accept a two-fight skid, and will likely be fighting for his UFC career next time out because people have short memories. I guess that's the fight game.
Next for Sakai: I'd like to see him fight Alistair Overeem.
Next for Ivanov: I think Fabricio Werdum is in order.
Quarantillo survives early onslaught, ekes out a decision
Billy Quarantillo def. Spike Carlyle by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Carlyle is an interesting personality and a fun fighter to watch, but his embracing of being a "one-round fighter" and acknowledging that if he doesn't finish quickly the tide will turn is pretty worrying, and it took little time for those worries to be justified courtesy of Quarantillo. Carlyle started out pretty dominantly, earning takedowns and going to town on Quarantillo with strikes and dominant positioning right from the start. Come round two, he was breathing noticeably heavier, and while he was able to secure another takedown and enjoy more top control, Quarantillo found it easier to get offense in on the ground and threaten him. By round three Carlyle was more or less relying on toughness, and gave up positions that he otherwise wouldn't have because it was clear he was just too tired to hold them. There were arguments that Carlyle won the fight, and it's a valid argument that depends on whether you favor his control or Quarantillo's offense off his back, but ultimately I think a loss could be more what Carlyle needed than what he deserved. Emptying out your gas tank early because you just think you'll finish everyone in front of you is not a recipe for success at this level, and one would hope that this loss gets him to calm down a bit.
Helluva way to start a fight though...
Other than that, there was a pretty wild moment at the end of the opening round where Carlyle tried to stroll away near the end of the round as if to get a walk-off finish...without actually earning anything close to a finish, which was...something? He's an eccentric guy, but that's a new one for me.
Spike Carlyle decided to take a leisurely stroll before the round even ended.— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) May 31, 2020
The Alpha Ginger is a mad man -- pic.twitter.com/XxWjQxqRHd
Guess that didn't end up looking as cool as he thought it would.
These guys are so far down the pecking order I won't be bothered to put much thought into who they should fight next. Just throw other lower-ranked fighters with similar resumes at them.
Roberts dismantles a woefully overmatched Weaver
Roosevelt Roberts def. Brok Weaver by submission via rear naked choke (3:26, R2)
From the beginning I thought this was just a really bad match up for Weaver, and it definitely showed here. The main reason for this is pretty simple: Roberts is a long, quick fighter with straight punches, while Weaver is a pretty slow fighter who throws looping shots, and is just pretty rough around the edges. The speed difference was obvious right away, as Roberts constantly beat Weaver to the punch and got out of harm's way before he was countered. Weaver just had nothing for him anywhere, and once the fight went to the ground courtesy of a Roberts takedown, it didn't take too long for him to get to mount, soften him up with some punches, and sink in the rear-naked choke.
Not much else to say about this fight except that Roberts looked impressive, but it's not like it was against the type of opponent who would really test him. He's an interesting prospect though, and I believe he called out Matt Frevola after the fight. I not only think that fight makes sense for him rankings-wise, but it also makes a lot of sense in terms of showing he's fixed some of the issues that got him beat against Vinc Pichel, so I commend him on his matchmaking. Frevola just has to get past Frank Camacho first. Weaver's just too low on the totem pole for me to worry about who he fights next.
Cifers plays with fire, gets burned by a Dern kneebar
Mackenzie Dern def. Hannah Cifers by submission via knee bar (2:36, R1)
Some pun intended in that headline. If there's one bit of advice you'd be given before going into a fight with Dern, it would be to avoid going to the ground with her at all costs. When you don't heed that advice, this is what happens. The fight started out well enough for Cifers, as Dern sought to go right into the clinch and Cifers showed that despite her smaller stature, she was the physically stronger of the two women and got the better of the clinch exchanges. When Dern managed to drag her to the ground, she quickly scrambled to top position, and that's where things went awry. Rather than take the opportunity to get out of dodge and make some distance between them, she hung around for a bit too long, allowing Dern to roll for a leglock, eventually forcing her back to the ground and locking in a kneebar to get the tap. It was early in the fight so neither woman was slippery at that point, but it probably wouldn't have mattered much anyway considering the gulf in grappling ability between them. I'll always root for Cifers' somehow-charming awkwardness, but losing this fight and maybe going to Invicta might be the best move for her, because she certainly has some abilities to build on but is just still raw. Dern rebounded nicely from her first loss, and maybe this is the start of a more focused version of her that takes the process more seriously.
Next for Dern: Virna Jandiroba
Next for Cifers: Invicta. If not, Aleksandra Albu or Mallory Martin
#2 Katlyn Chookagian def. #12 Antonina Shevchenko by unanimous decision (30-25, 30-25, 30-25)
Does the UFC finally understand that Antonina is not her sister? They both come from high level kickboxing backgrounds, but as we were reminded once more, Valentina is the only Shevchenko sister who is well-suited to MMA at a high level. Much of this could be because despite being the younger sister she has a ton more experience in the sport; and although Antonina started MMA earlier than Valentina, she took an over 12-year hiatus from the sport between 2005 and 2017. While Valentina naturally took to trips and takedowns from the clinch (even in kickboxing) and grappling, Antonina seeks out the clinch mostly to use her height and land knees, which tends to just reveal how lackluster her takedown defense is. Chookagian is a decent grappler, but she's never been the type of fighter who could land a takedown and keep her opponent on the ground for essentially as long as she wanted to. She's never been a dominant top position fighter, but that's what she looked like against Antonina, and I doubt it was because she suddenly became one. In the final round she actually decided to stand for a while, and we got a glimpse of the fight most of us probably thought we'd see; a close kickboxing bout where Antonina was actually getting the better of the distance striking at times. But then as if willing it so, Chookagian got another easy takedown and dominated the rest of the action to drive the point home.
Takedown defense doesn't run in the family.
Let's be real, the only reason this fight even happened was because Valentina beat Chookagian so badly last time out. I don't know if Chookagian requested Antonina for revenge on the Shevchenko name or if Mick Maynard just got a kick out of the match up, but other than these scenarios there was no reason to put the #2 ranked fighter just coming off a title fight loss against the #12 ranked fighter who lost to the only ranked fighter she'd ever fought. Either way, I hope this is teaches them that Antonina is not an elite fighter, and it's no good to treat her like one.
Daniel Rodriguez def. Gabriel Green by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
The fight was pretty ridiculous in terms of the pace and action, and the stats tell the story. They combined for 617 significant strike attempts and 302 significant strikes landed. 175 of those were landed by Rodriguez (and 139 of them to the head!) in a pretty dominant performance. Green was beyond game, and brought the fight to him the whole time, but it mostly led to him walking into big shots repeatedly and trying to land back (which to his credit, he did a decent amount). This didn't do much to show us a skill improvement since his upset win over Tim Means, but Rodgriguez continued to show his toughness and composure, and that does go a long way. Or at least it does until you get to a certain level.
Jamahal Hill def. Klidson Abreu by TKO via strikes (1:51, R1)
I knew this one would go one of two ways: either Hill would get a quick finish, or Abreu would survive the early going and wear him down to a decision or late submission loss. The former happened, and Hill looked relatively impressive doing it. A leaping lead right hook to the temple served as an easy transition into the clinch, where he landed a devastating knee to the body that crumpled Abreu to the ground and brought on the finish. I did notice that he frequently dropped his hands after throwing punches and his chin was exposed a lot of the time, but his height and reach did make it difficult for Abreu to capitalize. Still, it's something he needs to shore up if he wants to get further in the division, and having come into the sport somewhat late in age, he doesn't have a ton of time to hone his skills before he starts getting pivotal fights.
He didn't waste time getting to work here though.
Brandon Royval def. #11 Tim Elliott by submission via arm triangle choke (3:18, R2)
I talked about it with Carlyle earlier, but Tim Elliott has made a career on a somewhat similar gameplan. Being at flyweight he's not overly dependent on the quick finish, but he does put a lot of emphasis on bringing a frenetic pace from the opening bell and overwhelming opponents, and much like Carlyle it often leads to him getting tired and sloppy in short order. That turned out to be a dangerous plan against a fighter that's basically a younger version of himself who may be smaller, but doesn't get tired as easily. Elliott managed to land three takedowns in the opening round in eight attempts, and he very likely took the round on the scorecards, but you couldn't help but notice how hard he was breathing in between rounds. That all came to a head in round two, where Elliott slowed down considerably and found himself in an arm-triangle he couldn't escape. Elliott is no stranger to making mistakes that put him in bad positions, but when he's fresh he's wily enough to reverse or escape, and that approach has been working less and less for him. After his second three-fight losing streak in the UFC, he'll probably be cut again. Meanwhile, Royval picks up a solid win that'll earn him some intrigue moving forward.
Casey Kenney def. Louis Smolka by submission via guillotine choke (3:03, R1)
Like Roberts vs Weaver, this was a fight were speed made a difference. Smolka is a tall, long, gutsy fighter, but he's pretty slow even for a flyweight that has moved up to bantamweight. Kenney nearly doubled up on him in significant strikes standing (31-to-16), and had a 15-to-4 edge in head strikes. Smolka held the same edge in strikes to the body, which made sense and was perhaps a wise decision since it's a much easier target for the slower fighter to hit. In the end it didn't matter though, as a counter right hand stunned Smolka almost three minutes in, causing him to shoot in and find himself in a guillotine. He went to his back and tried to elevate Kenney off of him for relief, but Kenney stayed on top and didn't even need to get to full mount before Smolka quickly tapped. While it was nice to see Smolka overcome his addictions and make it back into the UFC, at this point he's hit his ceiling. I think he's a guy who can stick around a while, but he'll always be that win some-lose some type. Kenney is showing to be a pleasant surprise in the division, and he's probably a fight away from a top 15 pairing.
Chris Gutierrez def. Vince Morales by TKO via leg kicks (4:27, R2)
This was a consummate performance from Gutierrez, as he diligently chopped down Morales with low kicks until he had enough, earning the 11th finish by way of the technique in promotional history. Though low kicks were the weapon of choice, it was wholesale domination with Guitierrez holding a 60-to-8 advantage in significant strikes over nearly 10 minutes, 36 of which were low kicks. He used them to knock Morales down twice before the fight was mercifully stopped. If it weren't for it being the curtain-jerker Gutierrez may have been in the running for a performance bonus, but you know how things are in the UFC, especially when you have a good number of great performances to choose from.
That does it for UFC Fight Night: Woodley vs Burns! It was a far cry from the cards we were treated to a couple weeks ago on paper, but in practice we saw a lot of action and a good deal of finishes. One could say that was due to the use of the smaller, 25-foot cage for this event, as that has been statistically linked to more action and finishes. I think there should be an additional consideration for the level of fighters participating in the cage. The UFC typically uses the small cage for smaller venues, which mostly house cards filled with mid-low level talent. The higher up the rankings you travel, the harder it generally is to finish fights, so it would make sense that an event filled with lesser known, often debuting fighters would lead to action-packed, finish-heavy fights. It's why regional shows, Bellator prelims, and the like tend to feature a lot of finish. It shouldn't be any surprise that the higher level fights on the card all went to decision. Either way, the action delivered and next we're off to UFC 250 where Amanda Nunes will defend her featherweight strap against Felicia Spencer. Until then, sado out!