They say everything is bigger in Texas, and apparently that also applies to the number of decisions on a UFC card. UFC on ESPN 4 took place in San Antonio, Texas saw ten fights go to a decision, which is tied with six other events for the most on a single card. Moreover, the event started out with nine straight fights going to the judges scorecards, which also ties it for that record. With that in mind you could probably imagine that the event was a bit of a chore to get through at times, but thankfully all those decisions were juxtaposed with three-consecutive first-round knockouts on the main card and a great technical display in the five-round main event. Although it certainly wasn't the most thrilling event, there were a collection of compelling fights on paper and in practice, so lets get down to what the hell happened!
The Main Card
Sharp counters and strong clinch work carries Edwards to victory over dos Anjos
#12 Leon Edwards def. #4 Rafael Dos Anjos by unanimous decision (50-45, 49-46, 49-46)
I have to say, it's always nice when a fight plays out more or less how you saw it happening. Sure I did play both sides of the fence a bit regarding this fight, and I did think dos Anjos could pose some considerable style difficulties with his pressure and leg kicks against a more passive fighter like Edwards, but ultimately I landed on Edwards because of his size, thoughtful, well-rounded game, and my confidence in his clinch abilities. Also as expected, dos Anjos was relatively competitive throughout. One curious factor of the fight concerned who would have the advantage wrestling, as both men have shown strength in that area. I expected Edwards to have the edge just because he's more subtle and opportunistic with his takedowns, and that much showed early in the fight when he changed levels under the first pressuring combination dos Anjos threw and landed a body lock takedown. From there he showed a solid ability to control dos Anjos and stifle his grappling, which was a promising sign. Shortly before the horn Edwards landed what would be a key technique for him throughout the fight: a tight elbow to the head when breaking from the clinch.
These elbows. All night.
If you've studied any footage of Edwards, these types of clinch elbows shouldn't come as a surprise. It is one of his most prominent underlying weapons, and he's very sneaky with how he sets up and executes them. For example, he often feigns digging for an underhook, and when his opponent brings their elbow in to block the insertion of the underhook he'll come over the top with the elbow while their head is unprotected. It's savvy stuff.
Dos Anjos would find his best success in the following round where he worked heavy low kicks and hooks to the body, the former of which appeared to affect Edwards, and one in particular that dropped him and allowed dos Anjos to get on top for a bit.
Leg kicks were initially effective for dos Anjos.
However, he was cut pretty bad over his right eye by one of those clinch elbows. In the next round Edwards really went to work with hard combinations, particularly 1-2s and a nifty left uppercut-right hook combo that he'd catch dos Anjos coming in with. He also landed several more elbows, as he really started to get his timing down and find openings both at distance and in the clinch. The penultimate round was more competitive, but again Edwards' punching combinations were landing much more accurately up top while dos Anjos went back to attacking the legs and body. Most shots he did land to Edwards' head appeared not to land incredibly flush. Late in the round dos Anjos went for a flying knee, but Edwards avoided it, caught him, and dumped him to the ground in a bit of a statement that a hail Mary shot wouldn't be so easy to come by.
Pretty sure I can see what he's thinking.
Realizing he likely needed a finish to win, dos Anjos turned up the pressure in the final stanza, and again generally stayed competitive even though he had to walk through some shots and ate more clinch elbows off of breaks. In an act of desperation he tried another flying knee late in the fight, but was once again caught and taken down. Clinch elbows were a major tool for Edwards, but really the clinch as a whole served him well. Dos Anjos was never able to push him against the cage long before Edwards got over-unders and reverse position, and often times he was able to work his way to a rear waist lock to slow things and make dos Anjos carry his weight. His size played a significant part in this, but his great use of head positioning and hand-fighting also made a big impact.
It wasn't exactly thrilling, but it was another brilliant tactical performance from Edwards, and further proof that strong clinch work is something that just gets to dos Anjos at this level; he's lost three of his last four and every one of those losses came to opponents who do a lot of their best work in the clinch and can offset his pressure with that clinch game. Edwards has now rattled off eight-straight wins, and this really should put him in the mix. His next move should probably depend on who wins the upcoming Robbie Lawler vs Colby Covington fight; not in that he should fight the winner, but rather if Covington wins that fight it opens the door for Edwards to get his much-desired grudge match with Covington's teammate and the man responsible for the homicide of Ben Askren, Jorge Masvidal, who will likely step aside for Covington to receive a title shot. If Covington loses, Masvidal is wide open to receive a title shot of his own, and if that happens the only choices I see for him would be Tyron Woodley or Santiago Ponzinibbio. Things are a bit tricky for dos Anjos. He's in need of a strong win, and someone like Askren makes sense but is a risky proposition for him. He and Stephen Thompson are in similar places so that fight is plausible, but the UFC might also not want to put either guy too deep in the hole. Still, these fights do make sense if the UFC doesn't want to give him an outright softball matchup, which I can't say I'd mind because I'd like to see dos Anjos get back into the swing of things.
Harris punches Oleinik's big ticket to the ether
#14 Walt Harris def. #9 Aleksei Oleinik by KO via strikes (0:12, R1)
And just like that we have the third fastest finish in UFC heavyweight history. Coming into this fight we knew what it would be: Oleinik would either rush in and get things to the ground where he'd lock in some ridiculous submission you don't see from anyone else, or Harris would prevent that long enough to score a knockout. The latter happened, and faster than expected. Oleinik came out lobbing his usual sloppy punches and Harris was ready to counter from the jump, flashing a left hook in response to a lazy right body jab from Oleinik. Following a brief exchange, Harris jumped forward with a knee that hit Oleinik in his right armpit as he threw a punch, and as he attempted to back away Harris landed a huge straight left to the temple that caused Oleinik to fall awkwardly on his leg and either twisted his knee or broke his ankle before a couple more punches properly removed him from consciousness.
Harris seems to be coming into his own as a fighter. He's unbeaten in his last four fights, and really hasn't properly lost in his last five, since a rather embarrassing submission loss to Fabricio Werdum almost two years ago. I imagined he might make a similar strategic gaff to what he did against Werdum and allow Oleinik a pathway to victory, but lately he hasn't been opening himself up to as many iffy situations, if only because he's knocking people out faster. After seeing their two performances back-to-back it's hard not to think a fight with Greg Hardy could be worth visiting. Of course what would make more sense would be a fight with Alistair Overeem. Oleinik has had a bit of a rough go after losing his second straight stoppage loss, but he could still be a solid measuring stick for the division. Tai Tuivasa could be next for him.
Hardy keeps rolling, pounds out Adams in short order
Greg Hardy def. Juan Adams by TKO via strikes (0:45, R1)
I won't rant about why I and many others don't particularly care for Hardy, but you can't deny that the man must have some life-changing power in his hands to go with his high level athleticism. Even aside from his finishing shots (which were essentially arm punches), it seems like the first punch he lands with any flushness immediately discourages his opponents from wanting to strike with him. This leads to them taking poor takedown shots, and it's all downhill from there. It's also important to once again mention that this is heavyweight MMA; Hardy's lack of experience and skill will go much further there than in any other division so long as he has big power. Here, after trading a couple hard jabs Adams decided that was enough striking for the night and shot a single leg. This was actually a bit perplexing to me as a viewer because Adams seemed to get the better of couple exchanges they had. Hardy stuffed it easily, grabbed onto a whizzer, and flipped Adams onto his side before throwing a torrent of hard right hands to Adams' head as he clung onto the single leg. After literally 30 unanswered shots and no attempt to move or improve position by Adams referee Dan Miragliotta moved in to stop the fight, much to the chagrin of Adams, who protested the stoppage.
Adams was wobbly as he got up, but even if he wasn't truly done he has no one to blame but himself. You can't just cling onto a leg and make no visible attempt to change your situation and not expect the fight to be stopped, regardless of whether or not you're hurt. The referee couldn't see his face so all he had to go by was the fact that Hardy was launching right hands to the head of someone who appeared to be doing nothing to prevent taking more of them. I understand his frustration if he really felt the stoppage was premature and he could have kept going, but when you're taking shots you have to give the referee a reason not to stop the fight. As mentioned previously, Harris came to mind as an opponent for Hardy, and I've seen suggestions of Derrick Lewis and even Francis Ngannou. I don't think those make much sense outside of a desire to see Hardy taken out. Don't get me wrong; I'd like that too (and so would Miragliotta, judging from his reaction acter raising Hardy's hand), in terms of fights that make sense I'd go with Jairzinho Rozenstruik. I thought Adams was robbed in his previous fight against Arjan Bhullar, but he's still only seven fights into his career and he's lost two-straight. If Dmitry Smoliakov is still in the UFC he might be prime for Adams to bounce back against.
He should be mad, he was probably another 20 shots to the head away from landing that single.
Vick's defense still an issue, Hooker left hook puts him down
Dan Hooker def. #15 James Vick by KO via strikes (2:33, R1)
There were two main reasons I couldn't pick Vick to win this fight: 1) I can't stand the fact that he still strongly associates himself with coach Lloyd Irvin, and 2) his combination of horrible defense moving away and a fragile chin give me no faith in him against anyone who pressures and can throw long punches. An interesting factor to look forward to in this fight was the fact that neither of these men had faced someone as tall or long as the other, and it presented some good questions about the style matchup. Hooker seemed aware of Vick's tendencies right off the bat, quickly pressuring him into the cage and flurrying, but Vick immediately came back with a punching combination of his own and a straight right that backed Hooker up. It didn't deter him though, as he consistently looked for the left hooks up top while moving forward, and it wasn't long before one landed right on the money and dropped Vick to the canvas, where a few more right hands put him out cold.
We'll dive a bit deeper into this finish since I think it illustrated good examples of good and bad strategic moves. This is of course what happens when you have an opponent whose primary idea of head movement is to fade back when their opponent advances and attempt to parry and counter. It's especially dangerous for that opponent if they fight tall, and no lightweight fights taller than Vick. With that knowledge it call becomes a matter of getting inside enough to land on them while they're backing up with their chin exposed. Hooker lead with leaping left hooks and couldn't land flush enough, so knowing that Vick would back up standing straight, he feinted a right hand to draw the reaction out of Vick, and stepped through to land the southpaw left hook before Vick could react. The sequence was shades of Masvidal's knockout of Darren Till as well as Anthony Pettis' knockout of Stephen Thompson. In all three situations the winners gathered their distance information and opponents' reactions and realized all they needed to do was cover more distance to land a big shot while their opponents backed straight up.
Also notable in Vick's and Thompson's losses are the significant mistakes they made when backing up. It's not just that their chins were exposed or that their hands were down or outward instead of guarding their heads, but they both made the mistake of initially stepping off their rear leg to retreat. Doing this not only limits the amount of distance you can cover going backwards in that initial burst, but it also forces your legs closer together since your front leg immediately moves back to meet your back leg, which makes you that much easier to knock off balance and forces you to stand up even taller and expose yourself more. Stepping off your lead foot allows you to move out quicker as well as better control your balance and head movement. Stepping off your back foot leaves you unprepared for anyone who manages to close the distance on you suddenly.
Stellar performance from Hooker, even if it was quick. I'd like to see him fight Charles Oliveira now that he's likely moved into the top 15, in what would definitely be a fun fight. Vick has dropped 3 fights in a row and is surely ousted from the top 15. I guess if they really want to get him a win and Devin Powell or Darrel Horcher are still on the roster they could go that route.
Hernandez gets a little help from the hometown judges
#13 Alexander Hernandez def. Francisco Trinaldo by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
This was not only the worst fight of the night, but resulted in a pretty controversial decision that saw Hernandez get a decision he perhaps didn't deserve in front of his hometown; on MMA Decisions 11 of 13 media outlets sided with Trinaldo. In processing the fight, it's hard to really feel too passionate about the decision though, as neither man really did much over the course of 15 minutes; Trinaldo just appeared to do less nothing than Hernandez. The fight was mostly characterized by Hernandez moving a lot on the outside and occasionally exploding forward with strikes, but mostly throwing when out of range. Trinaldo threw considerably less but was much more accurate as he tended to wait for countering opportunities and goad Hernandez on. The problem is that those opportunities weren't plentiful with Hernandez appearing hesitant to trade. Also, urging your opponent to fight when you're not doing much yourself just isn't a good look.
The overall stats were dead even with both fighters landing 25 significant strikes, but Trinaldo held the edge in head strikes while Hernandez landed more to the legs and body. Through the fight it did appear that Trinaldo landed the slightly better shots, including and spinning back kick that swelled up Hernandez's eye when Trinaldo's knee connected with his face.
Might have been the only damaging strike of the fight, and it was an accident.
Still, there wasn't a ton of meaningful offense in the fight, so it's hard to feel too strongly one way or the other. This still doesn't mean the scoring wasn't a bit baffling, as two judges thought Hernandez won every single round, which is pretty hard to reconcile.
Coming off a pretty deflating and humiliating loss to Donald Cerrone, I knew there was a decent chance the loss could have a negative effect on Hernandez's style in his next fight, and although he managed to eke out a win it was apparent that the loss still affected him. Although there were holes that Cerrone exposed in his physical, aggressive style, there's no denying that it was effective in his career. Sometimes when fighters lose badly they feel a need to completely revamp their style and it ends up removing things from their arsenal that really worked prior. In this fight he went from an aggressive wrestle-boxing pressure fighter to a long range point striker, and not a particularly good one. He did show some decent movement and switched up his stances frequently a la TJ Dillashaw (which I now call the Dilla-shuffle) to throw Trinaldo off, but he seemed to lack the ability to build on that to create effective offense the way Dillashaw does. Luckily for him it was enough to convince the judges anyway. Though it wasn't an inspiring win, it's onward for Hernandez, and he should take on the Islam Makhachev vs Davi Ramos winner. At 40 years old Trinaldo is still a pretty high level gatekeeper in the division, so there's no shortage of fighters for him to face next. I'd recommend David Teymur or Nik Lentz.
Arlovski turns back the clock and batters Rothwell
Andrei Arlovski def. Ben Rothwell by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
I officially can't pick Arlovski fights to save my life; he never fails to do the opposite of what I predict. Sure, it's a heavyweight fight so it's not at all surprising that he won, but he looked much better than I thought he would in dominating Rothwell in a rematch almost 11 years in the making. What's more, it wasn't just a case of Rothwell looking bad (because he did), but most notably of Arlovski looking pretty damn good. We all knew he'd have a speed advantage over Rothwell, but he was able to time him and beat him to the punch constantly, and he threw way more volume than we've become accustomed to seeing him throw. He blew his personal best for significant strikes thrown (75 in his previous fight) out of the water in outlanding Rothwell 152-to-70. After a string of pretty competitive decision losses (the last of which I thought he deserved to win), it was nice to see him put his foot on the gas and really take command of the fight instead of doing what I expected, which was engage in a moderately slow-paced kickboxing match and clinch against the fence a lot. He beat up Rothwell moving both forwards and backwards, showed a good amount of variety in his attacks, and save for the third round where he tired a bit and got rocked with a couple shots, he showed decent defense and a sturdy chin (which to his credit he's been showing for a while now).
This did look promising for Rothwell though.
I said leading up to this fight that my impetus for picking Rothwell was that Arlovski seems the more shot of the two, and after watching this fight I was pretty wrong on that one. Rothwell is the one who really looks shot. He was even more slow and plodding than usual, and just appeared out of sorts against a quicker, more technical fighter. With this win Arlovski now owns the most wins in UFC heavyweight history with 17, and his significant strike total of 152 is also a heavyweight record for a three-round fight. Perhaps he could fight Blagoy Ivanov next. Rothwell has now dropped three-straight after almost working his way to contendership off a four-fight win streak; he can take on the loser of the upcoming Marcin Tybura vs Augusto Sakai fight.
Alex Caceres def. Steven Peterson by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)
You know, I honestly didn't think Caceres would ever make it to 21 UFC fights, but here we are! Even through the noticeable improvements he's shown through his run, one thing that hasn't changed is his high level of inconsistency, which lends itself to his now 10-10 (1 NC) UFC record. When he's on he looks very sharp and the flow of his style is pretty fun to watch; and when he's off he goes down in flames. It also helps that him that he has a likable persona. This fight represented one of his "on" nights, and it was a pretty solid showing. Outside of a significant scare in the first round where Peterson managed to take him down get his back, and lock in a pretty tight rear-naked choke, the fight took place mostly standing and heavily favored Caceres, who threw a steady diet of body kicks and hooks moving backwards and laterally to a pressuring Peterson. Caceres spent most of the fight landing these shots and escaping off to his right, something that Peterson just didn't seem to know how to adjust to. Caceres clearly paid mind to foot positioning where Peterson didn't, making sure that since they were in opposite stances his lead leg was on the outside of Peterson's that helped draw Peterson into his power side while also giving him a path to move off to his right away from Peterson's. This could have been mitigated if Peterson tried himself to step on the outside of Caceres' lead foot, or if he simply threw some outside leg kicks to impede Caceres' right side movement. He didn't, and thus Caceres just went to that well until he secured a decision. Oh yeah, and he also broke his hand early on, so kudos to him for sticking it out and still looking good in the process.
#6 Raquel Pennington def. #10 Irene Aldana by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
This was a much-needed win for Pennington, and a pretty decent showing by both women in a close contest. The action was pretty competitive on the feet, with Aldana showing a lot of movement from the outside and Pennington stalking and looking for counters. Pennington seemed to fight with a bit more energy in this one, and she closed the distance several times with 1-1-2 combinations and superman punches, likely having picked up on Aldana's tendency to just throw up a high guard in the face of heavy pressure. Although not the level of improvement we've seen in her teammate Alexa Grasso, Aldana has definitely seemed to cut down on the superfluous and predictable head movement and combinations that get her countered more often as fights go on.
With the fight arguably tied up going into the final round, Pennington got a big break in catching a kick and landing an outside trip. Aldana immediately went on the offensive from her back, rolling for a heel hook and transitioning into a calf slicer in a nifty bit of grappling from the boxer. I think the big mistake in the transition was Aldana not focusing on using the leg locks to sweep and get back to her feet; instead Pennington was able to escape the calf slicer and end up on top, where she was able to maintain good top pressure and threaten with an arm-triangle. Aldana stayed active on the bottom, but that top control pretty much won Pennington the fight. Like I said, it was a solid performance by both women and a pretty close fight, so Aldana shouldn't really fall in the rankings. Pennington and Julianna Pena seem to line up nicely with each other, while Aldana can take on Marion Reneau.
Klidson Abreu def. Sam Alvey by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
Such technical mastery.
I don't really have much to say about this one outside of Alvey being upset at a decision he pretty clearly lost. I know the cut to 185 lbs is apparently hard on him, but he just doesn't really have it at light heavyweight; his power isn't translating and he's just as slow and unathletic. He's lost three straight and it arguably should be four. Abreu looked...fine? Sure. Onto the next one.
#6 Jennifer Maia def. #5 Roxanne Modafferi by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
I saw a lot of picking for Modafferi in this fight, and although I didn't agree, I guess I could understand why. Since their first fight, a split-decision win for Maia for the Invicta Fighting Championship flyweight title, Modafferi has improved more. However, her issue is still her lack of athleticism and coordination on the feet, and I really didn't see that not being a problem once more against Maia. Having already fought, Maia knew to focus on keeping the fight standing first and foremost, and from there Modafferi wouldn't be a threat. I know Modafferi got a good amount of shine from beating Antonina Shevchenko, but Shevchenko is not a particularly well-rounded fighter, and certainly not a better defensive wrestler or grappler than Maia, so I couldn't see Modafferi having the same success. Thus, the fight was essentially Modafferi charging into counters, getting reversed and battered in the clinch, and whiffing on takedowns. She's a much better fighter than she used to be, but she's still not a good striker and struggles against opponents who are physically strong, athletic, and/or have a decent IQ when it comes to defensive wrestling and grappling. Although she did actually blossom a bit late into her career, this is a spot I don't see her rising up out of because it's who she is as a fighter.
Ray Borg def. Gabriel Silva by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
After some truly trying life events and a controversial decision loss, Borg finally righted the ship; and against Erick Silva's little brother! Silva got the better of the grappling in the first round, and actually showed why I thought Silva was a live dog in the fight. However, over time Borg just tired Silva out (something the brothers have in common there) with constant pressure, takedowns, and scrambles to the point that he was able to impose his will more and more thoroughly as time passed. It was a pretty solid performance from Borg strategically, knowing that he had the cardio to outlast Silva on the ground and just making him work until he slowed down and couldn't be as effective. Borg also gave quite the emotional octagon interview concerning hydrocephalus, a condition from which his infant son suffers.
Mario Bautista def. Jin Soo Son by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
It took them a little bit to get going, but I knew this was the dark horse contender for Fight of the Night, and it delivered. After a close first round, the two of them really started to let loose, with Son coming out aggressive to start the second round. At this point they exchanged much more freely, with both men landing good shots, the best of which was landed by Bautista when he briefly dropped Son to a knee with a right hand. Son of course is insane and spent a lot of the fight responding to getting tagged by smiling and having fun, which is always a plus in a fight. Great performance by Bautista, who showed all the trappings of a promising MMA Lab prospect. Hopefully Son gets a bit of a setup fight next, because I want that guy to stick around the UFC for a bit; there's never a dull fight with him.
Felipe Colares def. Domingo Pilarte by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
I think this decision would have been a bit more controversial if people knew who either of these fighters were. Apparently 10 of 12 outlets from MMA Decisions scored the fight for Pilarte, and it was a relatively close fight. Pilarte certainly didn't help himself by constantly backing himself into the cage and allowing Colares to be the aggressor, and round two appeared to be the swing round where both men had stretches of success. Honestly it could've gone either way.
And that's it for UFC on ESPN 4 in San Antonio! I tried to make this recap shorter than usual, but that pretty much never works. Regardless, I'm glad we got this one out of the way so we can get onto more pressing matters: UFC 240 next weekend! Until then, sado, out!