What on earth happened at UFC Vegas 9?
Greetings, fight fans! UFC Vegas 9 was ravaged by the dreaded COVID-19 virus, leaving us with only seven fights and forcing the UFC to do away with the traditional prelim-main card structure in favor of just one big card...and you know what? It was good!
It breezed by, the fights were solid and action-packed, and I didn't have that usual post-UFC fatigue after sitting in front of my screen for the better part of 6-7 hours. Jon Anik read my mind at the conclusion of the event when he said that he could get used to these short cards; I agree wholeheartedly, and not just because it means I don't have to write so much afterward! With fights like Sijara Eubanks vs Karol Rosa, Thiago Moises vs Jalin Turner, and Marcos Rogerio De Lima vs Alexander Romanov falling apart all within a day of the event, and Brian Kelleher shuffling through multiple opponents up until hours before the event, I could write an entire article just on that alone. But this is about the fights that did happen, so let's get down to what the hell happened!
Overeem outlasts, wrestles, and pounds out Sakai
#5 Alistair Overeem def. #8 Augusto Sakai by TKO via strikes (0:26, R5)
What happened?: Overeem weathered the storm and stayed patient, used his wrestling in the second half of the fight, and ultimately wore Sakai down to a late TKO finish.
How did that happen?: This is what has become a pretty classic example of an Overeem type of fight. He tends to start off slow and go through a little adversity, or at least a considerable feeling out process, but once things click with him, he gets into his groove and finds his range, it's a matter of time before a finish materializes. Sometimes this process is quick, other times it's drawn out like it was in this fight, but the broad strokes are generally the same. When he wins, that is; his losses more often than not tend to see him doing well before catching a big shot or a flurry that spells his end. In this instance, Overeem's slow start lasted for pretty much two-and-a-half rounds. He stayed patient and picked his shots as usual, but Sakai was clearly the quicker man and refused to be a moving target for the veteran Dutchman. He used a pretty rinse-and-repeat game plan most of the time, moving on the outside and timing sudden punching blitzes to run Overeem into the cage, where he would then wrap up a Thai clinch and fire knees up the middle. Over time he also took advantage of Overeem's career-long habit of just shelling up in a high guard when pressured with heavy offense by throwing uppercuts and arcing elbows to split the guard. For the most part, Overeem's defense held up and he was able to withstand the barrages, but the shots were definitely moving him and just weren't a good visual if you're judging the fight.
Sakai unloaded on Overeem several times in the first three rounds.
The first two rounds were pretty clearly in Sakai's favor, and he was well on his way to winning the third as well, but everything changed once Overeem decided to finally incorporate wrestling into the fight, taking advantage of a clinching situation against the cage to clasp his hands together on a waist lock and land an outside trip. Sakai was pretty squirrely on the bottom when Overeem tried to settle in, landing an ice upkick and a hammerfist, but once Overeem managed to secure the position, he was able to land some potent ground and pound and bust Sakai's face up a bit before the end of the round, effectively turning the tide. Just that bit of ground work (perhaps as well as a steady diet of front kicks to the body throughout the fight) seemed to take a lot out of Sakai, as he was no longer the fresher looking man and his blitzes looked much, much slower. He would still unload during his blitzes, but there was a noticeable decline in the power of the strikes; meanwhile, Overeem continued to pick his shots and land with power. The beginning of the end occurred when Overeem shot a single leg and somewhat awkwardly just fell back and dragged Sakai with him before rolling through to achieve top position; almost like a "sacrifice" single leg. It was unorthodox and the technique was questionable, but it worked! From there he landed big right hands and elbows, forcing Sakai to go to his knees and turtle, which only lead to Overeem hopping on his back and landing more punches. After Sakai opted to go to his back again, the round ended with the referee taking a very close look at the action as Overeem continued to land elbows on a prone Sakai, who looked slow to get up after the round.
Because dropping hammers is what demolition men do.
Overeem wasted no time in the final round, immediately shooting in and pretty much landing the same awkward takedown, to which Sakai offered no resistance. He similarly offered no resistance to the volley of elbows Overeem was able to land before the referee had seen enough and stepped in to save Sakai. I wouldn't have minded seeing this one stopped by the corner between rounds, but Sakai got every opportunity to turn things around. Just based on how he went to his corner and came out in the fifth, I didn't see him getting anything done from there, and he didn't. Another impressive comeback win for Overeem and his ever-evolving game, showing that the old dog has still got it. Though he's not as old as the UFC's probably intentionally misleading "Four decades in the sport" marketing for him would have you believe.
Other thoughts: Who in the sport is better at picking their shots than Overeem? He already came into the fight with a significant striking accuracy of 73.4%, which is not just the highest in UFC heavyweight history, but in UFC history across all weight classes. For this fight, he landed a whopping 80% of his significant strikes! This isn't unheard of in shorter, dominant performances, but to land 92 of 114 significant strikes in a 20+ minute fight where you were anything but dominant for the first 12 minutes or so is pretty incredible. It reinforces that Overeem may not throw much in the way of volume, but when he does throw he generally makes sure that he's going to hit you.
You know what isn't incredible? Sakai's takedown defense. It was pretty highly touted prior to the fight, which I didn't understand because just in his previous fight he was not only taken down by Blagoi Ivanov in the second round of their fight and didn't offer much in terms of offense or ability to stand once down there but if it weren't for a blatant fence grab in the third round it's almost a guarantee that he would have been taken down again and likely lost the fight. Here, Overeem took him down all three times he tried, and two of those takedowns were basically wrestling IQ tests that Sakai failed. Granted he was exhausted and beat up when he gave up the final takedown, but the fight was still a clear indicator that his takedown defense has been a tad overblown.
Next for Overeem: There actually aren't a lot of viable options for Overeem if he wants to keep moving up in the division. A rematch against Jairzinho Rozenstruik has been brought up, which I wouldn't be opposed to since Overeem was on his way to winning a decision in their fight before a highly controversial stoppage took it away from him. Otherwise he could take on Derrick Lewis if he manages to defeat his teammate Curtis Blaydes in November.
Next for Sakai: The loser of Alexander Volkov vs Walt Harris or Shamil Abdurakhimov vs Cyril Gane.
'OSP' faceplants a charging Menifield
Ovince St. Preux def. Alonzo Menifield by KO via punch (4:07, R2)
What happened?: St. Preux used his long frame and trademark unorthodox striking to keep Menifield at bay, and as soon as Menifield showed the urgency to close the gap, he ran right into a fade-away left hook that ended his night.
How did that happen?: There wasn't a ton to it other than that. We all know what Menifield is looking to go out there and do, so the best way to combat it is to just keep him away from you, and St. Preux is generally well-suited to do just that. He used a kick-heavy offense, particularly front kicks to the body to manage the distance, and whenever Menifield would get inside he'd fade away and circle out to reset. He was caught with some solid shots, but nothing that put him in trouble. For all people tend to remember the knockout loss to Jimi Manuwa, St. Preux is historically a pretty durable guy, much more so than Devin Clark, who Menifield failed to put away just a fight prior. Another tool that St. Preux used to keep him at bay was just flashing knees a few times. Menifield tends to dip his head a lot when he's about to move into the pocket, and a couple of times he almost lowered his head right into knees. With that habit foiled, his method for closing the distance was disrupted, leaving him to move in more upright, which he was clearly not as familiar with doing.
Come round two, the work had paid off and Menifield was mostly relegated to the outside eating kicks and clearly at a bit of a loss for how to effectively get inside and hit St. Preux. It was to the point that St. Preux loaded up quite a bit on his punches, but while Menifield was able to easily avoid the punches, he still couldn't muster much in the way of capitalizing. Menifield's corner had actually told him between rounds that he needed to get more aggressive and throw more combinations to get inside instead of just trying to land one or two big shots at a time. This was actually solid advice, but advice he'd need to take cautiously because of St. Preux's ability to land hooks at odd angles on opponents rushing in. It wasn't until relatively late in the round, but Menifield finally started doing what his corner wanted him to and opened up offensively. Unfortunately for him, he didn't watch out for that counter left hand as he went for left hook of his own following a straight right to the body, and ran right into it, sending him crashing to the mat face-first. St. Preux is one of the best in the division when it comes to striking while moving backwards, and Menifield learned that the hard way.
Other thoughts: I anticipated that this fight would be closer than it was, but St. Preux really came through and played to some of his biggest strengths. He knew he was facing an opponent who wants to get inside and land bombs but was a good deal shorter and less rangy, and he made it his top priority to keep him at bay. It's the type of intelligent game-planning that you definitely can't always expect from him, but it'll rear its head now and then.
As for Menifield, there were foreseeable issues and concerns with his game even while he was undefeated, and they've pretty much all been unpacked in these two latest fights. You always have to have a bit of skepticism about the cardio a fighter who finishes all of their opponents quickly, and that much was exposed in his fight with Clark, where he was extremely successful early, but once he couldn't put Clark away he gassed and completely fell apart not just physically, but mentally. There were moments of that fight where it looked like even an exhausted Menifield could still take control of the fight if he had better composure. Naturally, he worked on improving his cardio and slowing his pace ahead of his attempt to get back into the win column, but an over-reliance on patience put him in the hole and forced him to get a bit reckless, leading to being finished. His current skid has shades of Francis Ngannou's so maybe he can bounce back just the same. Like Ngannou, another part of his problem is just a lack of diversity in his striking. Menifield's go-to combo is a 3-2 (straight right hand-left hook), and he tends to go to the well with it far too much. It's likely why St. Preux was able to time that left hook so well; he'd seen similar combinations the whole fight up until then, so he knew as soon as he saw that right hand that a left hook was going to come behind it. It made him predictable, and while he certainly has power, he clearly doesn't have the otherworldly power of Ngannou to put people away at a high level in spite of his issues. But like Ngannou, these are two losses that I'm sure he learned a lot from and will adjust accordingly.
Next for St. Preux: The winner of Johnny Walker vs Ryan Spann, or Misha Cirkunov. Unless it's time for a Nikita Krylov rubber match!
Next for Menifield: He's still a promising prospect even if he isn't incredibly young at 32, so I think he should be given a forgiving bounce-back fight after dropping two straight. Perhaps the loser Dalcha Lungiambula or Klidson Abreu would be suitable. He could also fight the loser of Ed Herman vs Mike Rodriguez.
Pereira dominates Imadaev to last-minute mercy submission
Michel Pereira def. Zelim Imadaev by submission via rear naked choke (4:39, R3)
What happened?: It was wholesale domination for Pereira, as he used his speed, power, diverse striking attack, and of course his over the top unorthodox style to stifle, frustrate, and just plain beat Imadaev up.
How did that happen?: To put it in broad terms, Imadaev was just outclassed the whole way through. He's a pretty solid boxer, but Pereira not only had the clear speed advantage but was much more diverse with his attacks, frequently going to the body and legs while Imadaev mainly headhunted. As such, Imadaev not only couldn't reach his target the majority of the time, but he really wasn't doing anything new to solve that problem; he failed to adjust at all. Whenever he'd try to get inside he was met with stiff jabs, front kicks to the body, well-timed right hands, and a bevy of other attacks that consistently gave him something new to watch out for. When he did close the distance Pereira was usually quick to wrap up a Thai clinch and go for knees up the middle before disengaging and moving back to his preferred range.
Good way to disincentivize someone from rushing in.
And of course, we can't forget about Pereira's real selling point: his crazy acrobatics and unorthodox striking. This fight perhaps showed an evolution in how he implements it and paces himself, something that had shown to be an issue in his last couple fights, and through a lot of his career really. While he did tend to keep a lot of his attacks pretty buttoned-up throughout this affair, there was no shortage of showtime kicks and punches, flying knees, spinning kicks, and plain old showboating. He danced around the octagon before attacking, put his hands behind his back and dared Imadaev to hit him, and often beckoned him to stand and trade. At several points in the fight, he implemented open hand slaps into his arsenal, even making a show out of it by kissing his palm and holding it open before smacking Imadaev on the head with it.
Kissing it first just adds so much more insult to injury.
As you may assume, these sort of antics didn't sit well with Imadaev, which proved to be another notable factor in the fight. Pereira had already seemed to be in Imadaev's head a bit even from the opening weigh-in where they had to be broken up after Imadaev pushed his face during the staredown. Immediately after the first round, he was visibly frustrated and continued jawing at Pereira after the ref stepped in to separate them. Pereira seemed to be in his head before, but after that it was clear that he was living there rent-free, and the fight reflected that because Imadaev looked anything but composed.
Status: gotten to.
While he didn't lose control and get reckless, he didn't look very focused either, and really just looked at a loss for how to solve the puzzle of Pereira. It all culminated in a third-round sequence where Pereira lulled him into a false sense of security with a little showboating, inching toward him while not even looking in his direction, before exploding forward for a takedown, moving around to his back, and landing a beautiful belly-to-back suplex that put Imadaev on his hands and knees. From there Pereira quickly latched onto a rear-naked choke and the fight was stopped immediately thereafter, perhaps questionably, but this fight wasn't going Imadaev's way anyway.
Other thoughts: In regards to the stoppage, I'm still convinced there was no tap. I've seen a lot of fishing to insinuate that it looked like he did a single tap when he went to fight the hands, but unless you're fishing, it really didn't look much different than anyone else who just goes to fight the hands. I didn't see much reason to stop it immediately when the choke had just been put on and Imadaev could have tapped more clearly if he really wanted out, but as I said, he wasn't going to win anyway. The only thing it hurt for me was my online picks that had Pereira by decision (my precious points!). However, I did here that some people got in on a line of over +400 for Pereira to win by decision, so I'd gather those individuals were probably pretty heated about the non-tap. What's even odder about the whole situation is that the referee was Chris Tognoni, who had just recently been developing a reputation for allowing fighters to take a lot of punishment before they came back and won. You figure if anyone would wait until there was no question in the stoppage it'd be him.
Otherwise, a fantastic performance from Pereira in a fight that I thought would be much, much closer. His style is endless entertaining and I appreciate the way he's started to pace himself and not sell out on spamming high amplitude attacks early, leaving himself fatigued if he can't put his opponent away. He's somehow only 26, but I don't anticipate him rising to the top of the division; at the same time, he's someone that I hope wins enough to stick around in the UFC for a long time.
Because who doesn't want more of this?
Next for Pereira: Definitely not Jorge Masvidal, though I have to commend him for trying. I think Alex Oliveira would be an awesome match up. It would also be interesting to see the man who uses so many Showtime kicks/punches square off with the man who popularized the move: Anthony Pettis.
Next for Imadaev: In all likelihood, he's getting cut from the promotion after going 0-3. If not, I guess Peter Sobotta or Brad Scott would work.
Andre Muniz def. Bartosz Fabinski by submission via arm bar (2:42, R1)
Welcome to the only fight I managed to pick incorrectly on the card! I expected Fabinski to just pressure and grind his way to a decision, but his arm had other plans. He started out aggressively and had success with punches before he ate a left hook and shot in shortly afterward. Muniz based out and spread his legs to stuff it, but Fabinski continued to work hard for the takedown and eventually got it. However, he landed right into a guillotine that appeared to be pretty tight. He managed to stay composed and gut through it before freeing himself, but Muniz wasted no time transitioning into an armbar and getting a quick tap.
Brian Kelleher def. Ray Rodriguez by submission via guillotine choke (0:39, R1)
In an even quicker submission victory, Rodriguez essentially started out with intense pressure and shot a takedown right into a guillotine. Unfortunately for him, that's one of Kelleher's signatures, so he wasn't long for this fight and tapped just 39 seconds in. Not an ideal way to make your UFC debut (albeit on super short notice), but a nice way for Kelleher to get back in the win column.
#8 Viviane Araujo def. #11 Montana De La Rosa by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
After taking a look at the stats for this fight, this is probably a prime example of a fight that illustrates statistics not at all telling the story of a fight. Overall De Le Rosa actually out-landed Araujo, and their strike totals were dead even outside of her the former landing three more low kicks. Even round-by-round, every round's strike totals were very close across all categories. You'd think by looking at them that this had split-decision written all over it, and De La Rosa actually pointed to the stats as an argument for why she deserved to win the fight. If you actually watched the fight it was pretty clear who landed the better quality offense and who was largely in control of the fight; it was not De La Rosa. One clear example is with the low kicks. As mentioned, it was the one metric where De La Rosa out-landed Pereira overall. However, Araujo's kicks were the only ones that appeared to actually do damage and hurt De La Rosa, forcing her to switch stances and limp on more than one occasion.
De La Rosa also ended the face looking by far the worst for wear with a pretty busted up face, and while visual damage definitely isn't the ultimate indicator of who the more effective striker was, here it just reinforced that Araujo landed the cleaner, harder shots throughout the fight. De La Rosa was game and looked better on the feet in this fight than she ever has before, but she was pretty clearly outgunned here on the feet, and her takedowns were slow and ineffective. At the conclusion of the fight, to most it was an obvious 30-27 for Pereira, and that rang true for two of the three judges while Derek Cleary scored the final round for De La Rosa, which isn't the most egregious since it was the round where she did have the edge in every striking category. Still, even in that round Araujo landed the better quality shots, so most opted to side with her. Araujo bounced back from her first UFC loss with a pretty solid performance here, and it'd be interesting to see her take on someone like Alexa Grasso, who recently made a successful debut at 124 lbs.
Hunter Azure def. Cole Smith by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Our abbreviated fight card opened up with an entertaining scrap that saw Azure start out hot, even dropping Smith in the first, and Smith slowly work his way into the fight a little too late to get the win. Azure's wrestling got the job done, as he was able to get Smith to the mat and control him for considerable portions of the fight, and to his detriment Smith often welcomed it. I heard an analysis of Smith coming into this fight that all he does is kick and take people's backs, and true to form that was about 80% of what he did in this fight. He'd spam (and often miss) kicks at range to keep Azure away from him, and when he did get close he'd try to scramble and work his way around to Azure's back, which he was able to achieve a few times over the course of the fight. It wasn't a winning recipe, and although he even said he anticipated that Azure would go back to his wrestling after his most recent loss, he wasn't able to combat it for long enough and lost a clear-cut 29-28 decision because of it.
And that's it for UFC Vegas 9! A short, but refreshing fight card that sent us all home satisfied, especially with the last five of the seven bouts ending in finishes. It's good to see veterans like Overeem and St. Preux showing that they still got it, and prospects like Pereira (can we really call him one?) and Azure continuing to show wrinkles in their games. There isn't much else to say about this one, so let's get set for next week, when we're back to a 12 fight card (for now) headlined by Michelle Waterson vs Angela Hill. It was originally to be headlined by a pivotal light heavyweight clash between Thiago Santos and Glover Teixeira, but you guessed it, COVID-19 had other plans. Until then, sado out!