UFC 235 is in the books, and while many didn't get the upset they wanted, we still got a pretty significant upset nonetheless, and as should be expected there was some of the kookiness we've come to expect these days in the UFC. I have a lot to say about this one, so let's just get down to this double-wide edition of what the hell happened!
The Main Card
Smith shows his lion heart, but that's about all Jones allows him to show
Jon Jones (c) def. #3 Anthony Smith by unanimous decision (48-44, 48-44, 48-44)
It wasn't the finish we all thought would result, but Jones still turned in a dominant performance from start to finish. Like essentially everyone else who gets in there with Jones, Smith just couldn't figure it out. That combination of physical advantages and incredibly high fight IQ is just something no one seems to be able to navigate, both literally and figuratively. Everyone sees openings and answers to what he brings to the table, but then they actually fight Jon Jones, and it just doesn't work out for them. No one expected this to go five rounds, and honestly Jones probably could've turned it up and gotten a finish some certain points, but you still have to give some props to how tough Smith is because it shaped Jones' approach. Jones has built a long reputation of being a very dangerous fighter, and he most certainly is, but for a long time he has fought somewhat to the level of his competition. When his opponent really brings it to him he can really turn it up, but at his heart Jones toned things down and has been mainly a grinder for quite a while now. If he senses his opponent breaking he might push for a finish; if not, he's content to keep trying to break them down for as long as it takes. Smith wouldn't break, and Jones even said in a lot of of the more dominant positions he had, Smith continued to talk to him and showed no signs of breaking. Thus, Jones never seemed pushed hard for a finish. He himself even said post-fight that he did a lot of chipping away at Smith in the clinch.
The fight itself gives quite a bit of insight into just how much Jones managed to render Smith timid even if he didn't break him. As per usual, it was a great display of fight IQ and usage of the considerable tools at his disposal. Jones came out immediately in a southpaw stance , which made since with Smith's defensive liabilities and Jones being pretty dangerous with his rear attacks from that stance. Smith did well to switch stances accordingly to throw off Jones' reads. Jones also threw some uncharacteristically hard and wide punches early on, perhaps to get Smith to open up more. Aside from that he really just did Jon Jones things; and really kept the fight at his preferred range by nailing Smith with a wide variety of body and leg kicks, including a spinning back kick that really dug in and appeared to affect him. From there, it appeared Jones really brought Smith to a standstill who did more anticipating Jones' actions than launching his own. As the fight wore on Jones worked in more wrestling, and although it was surprisingly ineffective straight away considering Smith's historically poor takedown defense, he still managed to dominate the clinch and wear continue wearing on Smith. Although the clinch is normally where a lot of Smith's best offense comes, he just couldn't get anything off against Jones because he appeared to worried about what Jones was doing.
It was wholesale domination, but things got interesting in the fourth round after a Jones takedown when he threw a soccer kick at Smith that appeared to be dirty. Referee Herb Dean made no effort to address it so it may not have landed illegally, but it looked to be headed toward Smith's head so it probably deserved a warning. According to Smith it did land, but he didn't want to take his attention off of Jones to protest since Dean was doing nothing about it. Shortly after Jones landed an illegal knee as Smith was rising to his feet against the cage, for with Dean elected to deduct not one, but two points from Jones. A further explanation of this by Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett revealed that not only was it motivated by Dean perceiving it as an intentional foul, but it was indeed influenced by the kick and a couple other borderline offenses prior to the knee. Normally a two point deduction is a huge deal (ask Alex Caceres when he fought Edwin Figueroa...a fight that was also reffed by Dean), but Jones was so far ahead that it really didn't matter, and he was on his way to a 10-8 round anyway, which means this was likely the first 8-8 round in a major MMA promotion. Smith actually had the opportunity to do what so many fighters are at least accused of doing, and that's milk the illegal shot for a DQ, which would have actually won him the light heavyweight title. He chose to fight on and earn his ass-whooping, which is quite admirable. As much as he might get railed on for making a noble, but detrimental decision, I'm sure when we really think about it that's not a very satisfying way to become a champion. But from my position sitting in front of my computer eating key lime pie while typing away about it...I'd take that fraudulent championship!
After all the craziness cleared, Jones just went back to work, and took home a dominant, workmanlike, but not admittedly not incredibly exciting or compelling decision victory. All three judges scored the fight 48-44, which I actually agreed with because even though Jones was pretty dominant throughout, only that fourth round really stood out as a round where Smith just couldn't do anything. Round three was borderline, but all the others I felt were just clear 10-9s. As was mentioned, Smith just really couldn't even begin to get anything off. Jones' reach made it so that Smith could barely get close to him, and when he tried he was met with constant kicks and that he really couldn't muster any rebuttal to with Jones out of his reach. Smith did throw more leg kicks to start the fight off, but as Jones started mixing in his wrestling, more and more techniques went away until Smith just wasn't throwing much of anything.
It honestly shouldn't be too surprising because although he's known for these swarming finishes, Smith is similar to Jones in that he's generally not a natural aggressor. The reason why he has a lot of comeback wins is because he also waits for his opponents to break and/or show weakness, and when he senses it he'll sell out for a finish. Against very shopworn fighters like Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua the opportunities presented themselves early, but against others he normally has to go through the fire a bit. With Jones there was no breaking and no weakness shown, so he really had no recourse but to wait for openings that would never materialize. I said it right after the fight and Smith actually intimated in the post-fight presser that it was incredibly frustrating not being able to get close to Jones on his own terms and just being frozen out at distance. Just watching it, you can sense how annoying it must be to have someone picking you apart while sitting just outside of your reach so you can't retaliate. When the fight does get in close it's rarely on your terms, and in this case Smith spent much of that time up against the cage with Jones delivering hopping shoulder strikes to his jaw. He essentially wore the volume out of Smith, and in the end all Smith could really say was "I don't know" when met with the question of why he didn't push forward and attack when he says Jones didn't throw anything at him he didn't prepare for. Well I think I know why: there's just no real way to fully prepare for what Jones brings to the table without already having experienced it. And as history has taught us, even then he still has all the answers. That or it's just picograms.
Has Jones finally turned over a new leaf?
For any of you that have followed my recaps for a while you might know that this certainly isn't the first time I've written a segment on whether or not Jones is done screwing up and being the bad guy. If we're being honest, at this point it seems to come up every other fight. So once again I have to ask: does he really mean it this time? And I'm not talking about the PED fiasco; I reserve the right not to since the whole thing is so full of unknowns and potential shenanigans. For me it's not particularly worth discussing at this juncture. What I'm referring to instead is just his overall demeanor. He seems much more at peace and just overall more pleasant these days, and again it's not the first time I've said this about him, but he seems to be saying all the right things following his last two wins. He remains respectful while still showing off his actual human personality, unlike in his earlier days where it just seemed pretty obvious he was being disingenuous with his "wholesome Christian family man" facade. It seems like he might actually be in a much better place personally and professionally. Not that I haven't said this before only for some screw up or controversy to come along and turn everything back on it's head where he's concerned.
Honestly, whether he's clean or not, I'm just tired of seeing the guy screw up and having to talk about it, so perhaps the impetus for me always wanting to trust that he's becoming just as adept at adjusting to what life throws at him as he is at adjusting to what opponents throw at him in the cage is that the Jon Jones rollercoaster just doesn't really appeal to me much. The division has been in flux for years solely due to him, and I'd like it to stop. I don't know what the actual deal is with his drug tests or just how legitimate this "pulsing" phenomenon is in his case, but if he's going to be around I want to see him stay busy and continue fighting without all the controversy and baggage we've grown accustomed to.
Karmaru Usman is a PROBLEM
#2 Kamaru Usman def. Tyron Woodley (c) by unanimous decision (50-44, 50-44, 50-45)
To be honest, I don't even consider Usman winning that big of an upset; I maintained in my preview of the fight that Usman has very palpable tools and a feasible path to victory, even though I ultimately sided with The Chosen One in picking the fight. What gave it that "upset of the night" vibe for me was just how Usman did it. Coming into the fight I knew there was a decent probability that Usman's pressure and endless gas tank could create major issues for Woodley down the stretch as long as he withstood some early adversity and came out of the first couple rounds no worse for wear. Usman knew nothing of this adversity. He dominated Woodley for 25 minutes. Jones dominated Smith for pretty much their entire five-round fight as well, but he wasn't this dominant. Compare the levels of Smith and Woodley in their respective divisions and that's even more immensely impressive.
I also mentioned in my preview that Woodley's way of allowing himself to be backed into the cage normally works to his benefit because his explosion and power still discourages opponents from moving in on him too hastily, and it also lures them into a false sense of safety and the belief that they're controlling the fight. I figured it would be a matter of time before a big right hand found it's home as Usman was pressuring, and if it didn't put him down it would at least scare him off a bit. No such thing happened, as Usman walked Woodley back into the fence, grabbed a hold of him, and routinely overpowered him at every turn. Usman was clearly the bigger man, but there was some debate over who the stronger fighter was; Usman proved himself in that area. He was the stronger clinch fighter, the stronger wrestler, and the stronger positional fighter. The fight brought back some memories of Woodley's last loss in the octagon to Rory MacDonald; he sat with his back to the cage so concerned about finding the perfect shot that his opponent's pressure rendered him frozen. The most frustrating thing (for both Woodley and myself watching) is that Woodley was apparently aware. I wondered why he didn't at least flash uppercuts with how often Usman was ducking for feints and level changes; in the post-fight presser he admitted that Usman was ducking a lot and he knew he was looking for the clinch, but for whatever reason he just couldn't pull the trigger to throw uppercuts.
Usman dominated Woodley in every phase.
Although Woodley downplayed them, body shots appeared to be a factor as well. It's hard for them not to be when your opponent lands EIGHTY-THREE of them on you, and over half of them came in round three alone. Usman simply outworked Woodley in the most thorough of fashions, including hurting him clearly with an extended salvo in the fourth round that had Woodely against the fence firing back in a bit of a panic.
Woodley was all class following the defeat and said although he didn't feel right during the fight, Usman came in there, did what he was supposed to do, and beat him dominantly. He wants a rematch, but short of an early stoppage it's hard not to imagine Usman just doing the same thing again. Woodely didn't get caught, and although you can definitely say he looked flat, he still employed his usual style of fighting and had it roundly rejected. I really don't think he has the wherewithal to keep up with Usman for five rounds even if he's feeling like he's on his A game going in.
I couldn't be more impressed with Usman here barring a finish. He looked strong as an ox, sharp, spry, his cardio was just insane, and perhaps most importantly he was incredibly composed the whole fight. He never took his eye off the ball or his nose off the grindstone. He fought like a champion, and completely shut down a fighter who may not be the greatest welterweight of all time, but he's right in that he'd earned his way into the conversation. And get this: apparently Usman did it all on virtually one foot! In the post-fight presser he stated that the reason for the comment following one of his wins that he was only operating at 30% (which quickly made its way to the MMA meme elite) was that he's essentially been fighting on an injured leg his entire UFC run, and even through his run on The Ultimate Fighter. He mentioned that he actually has a pretty solid kicking game, but because of the injury he's never shown it, and it also affected his mobility. If true, that's pretty scary because he does not fight like someone nursing an injury. It might seem a bit far fetched, but just imagine if he really is fighting compromised, and now that he's got a title and maybe a little resting time, and he gets that foot healthy. That, my friends, could be a PROBLEM!
So what's next? Woodley wants an immediate rematch, but Dana White said what I'm sure many of us are thinking following the fight, and that's that it's not really warranted because of how the fight went down. Colby Covington was in attendance, and he's pretty much confirmed to be next. Honestly, I like that fight, and not just because I favor Usman and Covington is pretty universally panned as being one of the most annoying fighters in the sport. I just think that when you put two high-level wrestlers with seemingly unlimited cardio, limited but oddly effective striking, and high pace volume-heavy approaches to fights, you have the potential for a very interesting scrap. It might end up being a boring grind-fest; but I think it's about as likely to be highly entertaining. I'm all about this, and it's just the right fight to make anyway.
The UFC has it's first ever African-born champion
Move over Israel Adesanya, Usman has beaten you to it! Kidding, of course; according to Usman, Adesanya actually told him he wanted him to go out and become the first Nigerian champion. It was heartening to hear Usman talk about what the distinction means to him and how he wants to use this platform to help those in the village where he was born, who still don't have running water. It was also pretty cool to hear him talk about his journey to the title, from hanging out with Woodley at his victory party after winning the belt and asking him how it felt to be champion, to actually defeating Woodley so he could find out for himself. He came from humble beginnings, and he's not shy about showing his confidence today, but you can see that underneath it all he's very down to earth and grateful to everyone who helped get him to where he is. I know there are a good amount of people out there who find him boring to watch (Ben Askren, of all people, called him out for it post-fight. Though it's be be expected since he's friends with Woodley), but I think as far as champions go you could do a helluva lot worse; and that's something I also thought was true of Woodley, who received similar criticism. I want to see Usman and Adesanya do well out there and represent. But hey, as someone with Nigerian ancestry (Cameroonian too; we out here) who's probably a little more in tune with it than most in my circumstance, I could also be a bit biased there!
Also, a fun fact: The lone loss on Usman's impressive 15-1 ledger came at the hands of Jose Caceres via rear-naked choke. You may have heard of his younger brother Alex.
Askren scores a controversial comeback win over Lawler in long-awaited UFC debut
Ben Askren def. #6 Robbie Lawler by submission via bulldog choke (3:20, R1)
The face of a winner.
Oh boy, this fight. How appropriate is it for someone as controversial and divisive as Askren has been to come in and get a win like this? It didn't quell the arguments of those who support or are against him, because the fight didn't truly answer the question everyone had about Askren: how wouldt he handle a real UFC caliber opponent. He essentially hadn't been tested prior to the fight, and although he was tested in a big way in the short time this fight lasted (so much so there's argument about how it should have been stopped), he nonetheless came out on top...for the most part? Let's talk about what happened here in some detail.
But first, I have to thank the UFC's various social media platforms for not providing a single bit of footage of this finish. Coincidence? You decide! So with that, I'll just continue analyzing a crazy finish with no visual aid to back me up! Try to follow along.
Askren came out of the gate doing exactly what we knew he would, and immediately shot under a Lawler right hand for a double leg. The shot was well timed, but Lawler was still able to get an underhook and sprawl. As Lawler got back to his feet Askren tried to move around to his back; Lawler did a good job of preventing it, but they momentarily found themselves in a stalemate. Askren had his left leg interlaced with Lawler's so at one point Lawler stumbled forward, allowing Askren to reach over him and get grab his head and arm. To prevent his back from being taken Lawler hooked his arm behind Askren's near leg, and from there he executed what was the highlight of the card for me: a friggin' ANGLE SLAM. It was incredible. Askren was jostled from the slam, but Lawler also managed to trap his left arm from top position and landed some absolutely brutal ground and pound that actually appeared to put Askren out for a second.
The UFC made damn sure to include this footage though...
As mentioned, there have been claims that the fight should have been stopped right then and there. Askren's head was getting rocked back in a sickening way, he took several unanswered blows, and he did seem out of it for a second. However, I have to give Askren a ton of credit here, because he somehow managed to recover, make his way bak up, and shoot a double leg to back Lawler into the cage. So while it did look like there could've been probable cause to stop the fight, Askren clearly had more fight left in him. He managed to take Lawler down and pass into side control against the fence, but then Lawler channeled a bit of Derrick Lewis and decided to...just get up. This left his neck open, which Askren immediately pounced on for a rear-naked choke attempt. He didn't have any hooks in (and therefore no body control) so Lawler was able to turn his body and make his way to his knees. Askren held onto the choke, which then became a bulldog choke, as Lawler attempted to make his way back to his feet. Lawler attempted to push Askren's head away to break the grip, and then he inexplicably dropped his arm.
This is where things got confusing. The way the arm dropped there's certainly reasonable cause to think Lawler might have gone unconscious. The choke wasn't around his neck and wasn't a blood choke; instead it was around his head, which has raised questions about whether it's even feasible that Lawler went out because at that point it's mostly the pain you're dealing with. Askren is known for having immense grip strength, but is it good enough to put Lawler to sleep in this instance? Shortly before the stoppage we see Lawler move the hand that dropped forward, indicating that he might have had some life in him after all, but it was too late and Herb Dean had already stopped the contest. Following the stoppage Lawler immediately jumped up to angrily argue the stoppage, which also suggests he was okay. I've been choked unconscious a few times, even to the point that I was only out for a split second, and when coming to there was always at least a bit of confusion. Lawler didn't really miss a beat at all between the stoppage and disputing the result. He looked fine.
Alternative video angles (that unfortunately I can't provide here) have shown that once Lawler's arm falls and starts to move forward, Dean checks it to see if he's out by grabbing a hold of the arm as referees are supposed to do. When he does this, Lawler immediately pulls his hand free of Dean's grip and gives a thumbs up before putting his hand back down on the mat (not limply this time). This shows that not only did Lawler have his faculties about him, but that Dean himself had enough evidence presented to him that Lawler was fine as well. According to Lawler, he put his arm down just to relax himself and think about whether to let Askren burn his arms out or to try and pick him up for another slam. Both of his ears were blocked (one pressed against Askren's body, and the other by the choking arm) so he couldn't hear anything that Dean may have said to him. Not that he needed to hear anything because he reacted appropriately to Dean checking his arm. This was simply a bad call, and even Dean himself appeared to admit to Lawler that he messed up.
Refereeing is a hard job. We've all now had the benefit of looking at the stoppage many times from different angles, in slow motion, etc. Referees don't have that luxury. Wait, they do? Instant replay is available? Well, then I guess there are no excuses. But still, refereeing is a tough, thankless job. If you're doing it well people barely know you're in there, and if you make one slip-up everyone hates you. Although Dean was given the proper response from Lawler NOT to stop the fight, I can imagine that in the moment he just slipped up. It just would have been nice if he, apparently knowing he might have made the wrong call, at least consulted the tape to make sure instead of just saying "Well, I screwed up. Nothing I can do about it," when there are potential solutions available.
Not that I anticipate it'll go anywhere (because athletic commissions), but this result has plenty grounds to be appealed and overturned. Lawler, as classy as always, didn't dwell on things too long, and when asked about an appeal simply said he has handlers who do that sort of stuff for him if they feel it's necessary. All the evidence is there, we just need the NSAC to be competent for a change (and judging from Bob Bennett's thoughts on this situation from the post-fight presser, this may be a challenge).
Whew! Enough about that. So what's next? I can only say they run it back. Lawler obviously wants this, and Dana White echoes that sentiment. Askren on the other hand seemed pretty adamant about not wanting to rematch, claiming that he didn't even want to fight Lawler in the first place, but accepted it so as not to be difficult (which seems so uncharacteristic of him). That may be true, but Lawler gave him the most adversity he's seen in his entire career over the course of three minutes and his win is hotly disputed, so a rematch could go a long way in quieting some doubters. Otherwise, Askren stated that he wanted the winner of the upcoming Jorge Masvidal vs Darren Till fight, which I don't have an issue with if the rematch can't be made.
Zhang passes her first big test with flying colors, makes her way into the top 10
#15 Weili Zhang def. #7 Tecia Torres by unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27)
When this fight was made I was worried it might be too much, too soon for Zhang, and that Torres' high level experience could give her issues. It turns out those worries were pretty unwarranted, and now we have much more of an idea of just how good Zhang is. What was noticeable right away was the size difference. Torres is a small strawweight, so it's not uncommon to see her fighting bigger opponents, but during the weigh ins it actually appeared that there wasn't too much a size difference between the two. However, once in the cage the difference was clear, and not only was Zhang bigger, but just as solidly built, which is something not many of Torres' opponents can claim.
From the beginning Zhang demonstrated her physical strength advantage in close quarters and looked to have a decided advantage in the grappling exchanges as well, including a nice back take in the first round.
This back take.
At distance Torres' was a tad sharper with her punches early, but contrary to her usual style she mostly head hunted. This was likely a result of Zhang's pressure and volume. Torres normally finds success when she's able to throw kicks from the outside and plant herself before rushing in with punching combinations. Zhang just refused to give her the space to kick freely or settle down so she could consistently dart in and out; she was essentially on her bike retreating and circling for most of the fight. Torres found more openings for diversifying her attacks as the fight went on, but she could never land anything significant enough to stop Zhang's forward movement.
Torres had a nice break in the second half of round two where she was able to get on top and land a couple nice shots, making for a close round. She carried some of that momentum into the final round and actually appeared to be getting the slight better of Zhang on the feet, but after succumbing to a body lock takedown it was all Zhang from then on until the final horn. It was an impressive performance that shows Zhang could be the best Chinese fighter in the UFC at a time when that actually means something. I imagine she'll land right in Torres' #7 spot in the rankings, so the winner of Michelle Waterson vs Karolina Kowalkiewicz or Claudia Gadelha could be next for her. As for Torres, she needs a softball. She has now lost-three straight, and two of those were against top-level competition. This loss showed more about Zhang's skills than about Torres really being diminished, and I think she needs a fight with Felice Herrig or someone else in the top 15 to show where she belongs these days.
Garbrandt continues to be his own worse enemy
#9 Pedro Munhoz def. #2 Cody Garbrandt by KO via strikes (4:52, R1)
I picked Garbrandt to win this fight, but I had a ton of trepidation in doing so for the exact reasons that ended up justifying it. Major questions lingered about how how well he's handled his last two losses to TJ Dillashaw and what he has learned from those defeats. Now we have answers: not well at all, and pretty much nothing. Garbrandt has the physical tools and skills on paper; his hand speed might be the fastest in the division, he has good reflexes and head movement, his footwork is pretty solid, and he does a fine job of pulling counter opportunities out of his opponents. And then he gets mad. Once this happens all those positive attributes I just mention go out the window, into the trash, and set on fire.
Munhoz is a pretty winnable style match up for Garbrandt before the transformation. He's pretty aggressive and never afraid of a brawl, but he's defensively porous and relies on his toughness. Good strikers who don't willingly stick around in the pocket with him can pick him apart; this normally describes Garbrandt. Until he gets mad. Munhoz did well to throw some hard leg kicks early to throw Garbrandt off much like Dillashaw did, but Garbrandt was able to respond with shots of his own. When Munhoz rushed in with a combination that dropped Garbrandt, it was apparently a clash of heads that did the real damage. Garbrandt was still with it enough to point this out even as he was going down, but there was no acknowledgement of it. This apparently made him mad. And we know what happens when he gets mad.
Rogan pretty much sums it up here. And I would've liked to have seen Cruz's face at this moment.
Garbrandt managed to scramble to his feet and immediately sprung up with a flying knee that rocked Munhoz, which was pretty impressive. From there Garbrandt chased after Munhoz swinging wild hooks, which Munhoz happily returned. Garbradnt landed a few big hooks that rock Munhoz, but his durability held up as it normally does, and he recovered quickly. Now when this crazy brawl happened, I knew it would be bad for Garbrandt, and his only hope would be that he survived to the end of the round. The last time he fought like that, he fell for the same right hand multiple times from Dillashaw. Once he gets into a crazy brawl, all of his head movement disappears, his chin stays up unless he's ducking to set up another wild hook, and even then he's fairly upright and just there to be hit. Munhoz's defense wasn't good either, but at least he moved his head. Garbrandt over-committed on a right hand and just turned right into a huge right from Munhoz right on the button that put him down. A few extra shots sealed the deal as Garbrandt has now lost his third-straight fight due to just plain abysmal fight IQ. The most frustrating thing about it is that we know he can be better; but at this point you can't trust that he can continue fight smart when he faces any adversity. You have to figure Munhoz moves into the contender conversation. He's definitely behind Marlon Moraes and Aljamain Sterling, so it would actually make sense for him to fight Sterling or even Petr Yan. I don't like to match winners and losers (though the UFC has no problem with it anymore), but a rematch with the main who spoiled his UFC debut, Raphael Assuncao, could also work; though it's a risky fight for Munhoz if he wants to stay on the contender track. Honestly there are plenty of viable fights for him. Garbrandt is going to need a confidence-builder next, and off the top of my head I don't even know who that would be. My first thought was John Dodson, but it'd probably be a good idea not to put him in there with someone who who is durable and hits hard again.
This just needs to be seen.
#13 Zabit Magomedsharipov def. #6 Jeremy Stephens by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
In our featured preliminary bout, Zabit (I gotta save characters here) largely outsmarted Stephens to a tidy decision win. Outsmarting Stephens isn't quite as easy as it once was, but it's still very much doable for any high-level fighter, which Zabit has proven he is. Right from the start he fought from a southpaw stance and pawed at Stephens' lead hand; a tried-and-true tactic used to mitigate your opponent's jab and make it much harder for them to set up power shots. He also landed some pretty brutal leg kicks and did a great job of navigating and managing distance. An out-and-out power puncher like Stephens needs to plant before throwing his right hand, and Zabit would stand still just long enough to get Stephens to think he has a shot lined up, and when he Stephens planted to throw the right hand he was slip out of the way and get him to miss. Stephens as usual was more content to chase his opponent down than to cut him off and lead him into his right hand.
Zabit curiously didn't use his wrestling incredibly much throughout the fight, which seemed to be the clearest path to victory for him. Once he did in the second round he was completely dominant, and pretty much just ragdolled Stephens around. In the final round he was mostly right back to standing with Stephens, and actually disengaged much less, leading to him getting hit a lot more than in the previous rounds. Stephens' corner had some solid advice going into the round for him to throw more combinations and focus on putting his power into his third shot rather than just looking for a single big punches. He didn't heed this advice much and kept looking for a big shot, and he really did himself a disservice because he was already having more success in the round as it was. Sensing he was up on the cards comfortably and no longer fearing Stephens' power as much, Zabit decided to indulge Stephens a bit for the remaining seconds of the fight.
Zabit's chin held up excellently when he did get hit, but the worrying thing is that once again he looked fatigued down the stretch. As great as he looks in the first couple rounds, flagging later on the way he does could be very detrimental when facing guys at the top of the division like Brian Ortega, Frankie Edgar (who he won't fight anyway), and Alexander Volkanovski. It's a downright lethal flaw against the champion Max Holloway, who only ramps up his attack as the fight goes on. I could see Zabit doing very well against anyone for a round or two, but if he's getting tired in the third it doesn't bode well for him against the finishers at the top. Hopefully he works on that and fights Renato Moicano next, which I think is a very good match up that makes sense for him. For Stephens I can really only think of one man: Chan Sung Jung. That fight would be bananas.
Also there was a Showtime kick.
#15 Johnny Walker def. #14 Misha Cirkunov by KO via flying knee strike (0:36, R1)
Walker does it again! Three UFC fights, three quick and devastating knockout wins that occurred before his opponents even knew what was happening. I thought Cirkunov could actually have a shot at slowing down the fight and making it ugly, but Walker refuses to grant anyone a chance at that. Walker is so athletic and disguises his shots behind so many seemingly random feints that you just don't know when he's about to explode with an attack. Being 6'6" and long, it's hard enough to figure out how to attack him as it is, let alone having to worry about some crazy strike flying at you from any angle on top of that. Walker simply came out of nowhere with a well-timed flying knee that dropped Cirkunov and immediately had him covering up before the fight was stopped. That's pretty much all there was to it.
Apparently the only person who can hurt Walker really is Walker himself, because he then proceeded to injure his shoulder during his victory celebration, which honestly isn't surprising considering it starts with him falling flat on his face. Walker is quickly becoming a favorite in the division (I wouldn't mind seeing him fight every month), and since he filled in for Ovince Saint Preux here, I think a fight with "OSP" makes a lot of sense. Saint Preux is also long and unorthodox, and might just be the guy to last long enough to test Walker's grappling.
#12 Cody Stamann def. #13 Alejandro Perez by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27)
The most notable moment of the fight.
While it wasn't exactly a terrible fight by any means, its placement on the card and relative lack of action made it probably the most apt fight to be considered snoozer of the night. The fight was unspectacular to the point that I actually don't remember too much of it. From what I do remember it was a fairly close fight, and although Stamann was the wrestler he failed to register a single takedown while surprisingly being taken down by Perez late in the fight (a pretty sick slam onto Stamann's head). The striking was close, but Stamann appeared just a slight bit ahead and was able to frequently slow down the action and control the pace with takedown attempts. Perez really turned up his volume in the final round, and arguably took it on some scorecards just based on that and the takedown he landed. Not a very compelling fight to say the least, but it was also sandwiched between two crazy scraps that likely made it look worse than it actually was.
Diego Sanchez def. Mickie Gall by TKO via strikes (4:13, R2)
Diego's still got it! Another young prospect tried to make a name of Sanchez, and another young prospect turned away in dominant fashion; this time via stoppage. The last time Sanchez even registered a stoppage was over 10 years ago in 2008 against Luigi Fioravanti (remember that guy?). This one I called. I couldn't really understand why Gall was a relatively comfortable favorite, as his main strength has always been his grappling, and he's pretty inexperienced to boot. Grappling has never been Sanchez's undoing; in fact, grappling with him is generally how you lose a fight with him. Gall looked a little improved on the feet, but it's still clear that he isn't a striker at this point. It's easy to forget that there are levels to this when you have an inexperienced fighter who has looked good against lesser competition fighting a veteran who has had a rough patch (or a few) against actual legitimate competition.
I really couldn't see how Gall could get it done outside of Sanchez just being shot beyond reproach, and his previous fight with Alex White showed us he most definitely is not. Gall has made his bones as a dangerous grappler, but he's still a brown belt; most people probably don't consider the fact that Sanchez is a legitimate black belt who has never been submitted. Cardio and inexperience definitely hastened Gall's undoing here. He fought well in the first round, but made a grave mistake in overrating his own finishing ability on the feet and underrating Sanchez's durability (which may be forgivable with his last two losses being via clean knockout). He teed off on Sanchez against the cage, while Sanchez just weathered the storm until he was able to clinch. After Sanchez dragged him to the mat and made him feel his weight Gall looked visibly tired, and took deep breaths in his corner between rounds.
In round two it was all downhill for Gall. A hard knee up the middle hurt him and brought him down the mat, where Sanchez eventually settled in on top and began to land heavy shots. He then passed to mount on an exhausted Gall and continued the steady stream of punishment. Once he secured back mount and flattened Gall out, it was a matter of time before the fight was stopped. I loved seeing Sanchez turn back the clock, but I still don't want to see him against upper-level competition in the division. Then again, he did talk about how he was getting into the anti-aging game, and if he's been his own guinea pig it looks like it's been working!
Edmen Shahbazyan def. Charles Byrd by TKO via elbow strikes (0:38, R1)
Shahbazyan keeps making me eat my words, and it's very annoying! Aftera short career of quick knockouts against negligible competition, I didn't expect him to do well against opponents who could withstand his early onslaught. Then he turned around and used wrestling I didn't even know he had to take a decision from Darren Stewart. Having still looked fairly lackluster in that win, I expected Byrd take him out when he tired down the stretch. What I didn't expect was for him to hang onto a takedown attempt while elbows rained down on his skull. Training out of Glendale Fight Club, it's clear Travis Browne taught him a thing or two about those elbows, and they worked like a charm. What's more, in the brief time before he was shot in on, his striking did look crisp and was likely what made Byrd so adamant on pushing for that takedown. I think it's time I give Shahbazyan his props and recognize that he might just be a worthwhile prospect, especially at the young age of just 21. Of course this just means I'll pick him to win his next fight and he'll lose.
Macy Chiasson def. Gina Mazany by TKO via strikes (1:49, R1)
It was no surprise that Chiasson got the finish, or even that it happened in the first round, but she's really showing a well-rounded game in her recent fights. Just when I think she's a striker she dominates and submits Pannie Kianzad on the ground; then just when I think she'll get job done on the ground, she rushes Mazany for an impressive TKO win. She started off managing the distance well with long kicks. Once she got into the clinch she never let up on Chiasson, and on the break she just continued her onslaught, chasing Mazany down with punches as she tried to retreat. When Mazany found her back to the cage she tried to throw back, but the rangy Chiasson was just out of her reach while being firmly within her own punching range. A left hook found it's mark and Mazany toppled to the mat where a few followup punches sealed the deal. Chiasson's striking still has holes, as her chin was pretty upright during the salvo and her head didn't move off the center line at all (similar to Garbrandt before he was knocked out later on). However, she still has a lot of promise, as she's a very tall and long bantamweight who fought the entirety of her career prior at featherweight.
Hannah Cifers def. Polyana Viana by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
Because every card has to have at least one, here was the decision I didn't agree with. It was a close fight, so any calls of robbery would be unwarranted, but I think Viana did enough to take rounds two and three. Even the first round was relatively even most of the time, but Cifers managed to land a nice right hand counter to a Viana teep that put her on her seat momentarily. In round two Viana must have gotten the memo that she was at her most successful when being aggressive on the feet, and once the fight hit the ground she wasn't able to do a ton because Cifers' defense was solid, but she was able to keep top position. In round three Viana was again successful on the feet, but surprisingly didn't elect to drag the fight to the ground when the striking exchanges started becoming closer. It looked as if being the taller fighter was a disadvantage for her in this case when it came finding opportunities to change levels, and it was further exacerbated by the fact that she stands pretty tall while striking. Still, I believe she got the better of the action overall on the feet and deserved the nod (13 of 21 media outlets on MMA Decisions agree). There seemed to be a little bit of excitement behind Viana, but now two fights in the hole, how they match her up next is important. She has work to do on her striking, and her wrestling and grappling aren't as potent in MMA as perhaps once believed. JJ Aldrich is one of the least athletic strawweights on the roster and she struggled in the wrestling and grappling there as well.
That's it for UFC 235! It was an incredible card on paper that turned out not to be quite that incredible, but it delivered overall. Light heavyweight may have some consistency and a smidgen of intrigue, welterweight has a new king and an interesting challenger, and although the co-main and main events slowed things down, we had quite a bit of action throughout. We have a pretty fun card to look forward to next week when Junior dos Santos and Derrick Lewis clash in the main event, but unfortunately I will be out of town for that one and the Till vs Masvidal card following week, which means it is highly unlikely there will be recaps for those two events. I'll probably be watching Till vs Masvidal live so there's a chance I could get a recap out, but no promises. Until next time, sado out!