It's been a long time. I shouldn't have left you...without a breakdown to schlepp through! It's been a long few weeks for me, but I'm back with another edition of "What the hell happened!" This time the UFC headed over to Nashville with a card that wasn't incredibly strong on paper, and wasn't even consistently strong in practice, but boy did it end with a bang! Underdogs shined through much of the event, the most important of which was in the main event where the welterweight contender picture got a little bit weirder. But let's not spoil the main course before it's served, and dive right into just what the hell happened.
The Main Card
Pettis comes from behind to shut Thompson's lights out with a huge superman punch
#8 (LW) Anthony Pettis def. #3 Stephen Thompson by KO via superman punch (4:55, R2)
At times I feel like I pick on the elder Pettis a bit much when breaking down the limitations of his game, but one thing I've never accused him of being is predictable, and I have to make sure to stress how dangerous he is. Even so, Thompson was the biggest favorite on the card, and even after seeing him knock Thompson out cold it's easy to understand why that was and consider this a significant upset. The consensus was that Thompson was the craftier, more mobile striker and that his size just added onto his advantages. For the most part this showed to be true. In previewing this fight I did highlight the ways Pettis had into he fight, namely his speed and his kicking ability; two things that could give Thompson looks he wasn't used. He leveraged these well, particularly the latter as he landed a high volume of leg kicks both to Thompson's lead and rear legs. However, Thompson was pretty firmly in the driver's seat for essentially the entire fight up until the end, doing well to disrupt Pettis' rhythm with quick jabs and short blitzing combinations, as well as throwing out his usual collection of kicks with his lead leg in high volume.
The two mostly worked from opposite stances, with Thompson favoring southpaw, which is where he typically carries on a front leg attack-heavy offensives style (he normally throws his rear leg kicks from orthodox). I questioned whether or not this was in Thompson's best interest since Pettis enjoys having opponents' bodies and heads open for his power kicks (or...superman punches? How about that?). He did land some good body and leg kicks, but Thompson was able to avoid most strikes up top in general. Though Pettis acquitted himself decently well, he spent almost the entirety of the near-ten minute fight being picked apart by the longer arm reach of Thompson. He did land solid leg kicks at will, and smartly done since Thompson's wide stance makes him vulnerable to them, and they arguably did influence Thompson's decision to fight much of the contest from southpaw. However, Thompson did frequently make him pay for kicking low with jabs and straight lefts up top, and before long Pettis' nose was noticeably bloodied up from the punches splitting his guard. Then it happened. As round two was drawing to a close, Thompson turned up the pressure a bit and backed Pettis up to the cage, but in the blink of an eye his safe range cut down by a sudden superman punch that caught him right on the button. Thompson crashed to the canvas, his head bouncing off the mat, and the two followup punches Pettis landed were in no way needed.
Needless to say, it was pretty insane, and another reminder that you can never rest on your laurels or assume you're in a safe place when Pettis has any room to work on the feet. But how did this happen? What did Thompson do wrong? Well, I didn't get a chance to break down last week's card where Darren Till was brutally knocked out by yet another former lightweight plying his trade at 170 lbs in Jorge Masvidal, but while the knockouts aren't mirror images of each other, there are similarities. For one, both Till and Thompson favor karate stances, which in and of themselves are double-edged swords that can pay off huge or lead to their downfalls. Both are predicated on keeping their heads down, which of course is a huge no-no in most striking arts commonly utilized in MMA; protecting your face is paramount, especially when using such small gloves. Karate stylists try to compensate for this with an almost total focus on superior footwork, distance management, and reflexes. An advantage to this style is that holding your hands low, and therefore not directly in your opponent's line of sight, helps you punch from more unorthodox angles and can also makes those punches harder to see coming in general. However, this still means that much of your defense will boil down to leaning and swaying out of the way of punches, which is just plain not as safe as keeping your hands in the vicinity to guard when needed.
Both Till and Thompson's knockouts came from wide angled punches as they attempted to lean and fade back out of reach. It's a hazard of the karate style that if your opponents cover distance with punches quickly that you may lean right into a punch or simply run out of room to effectively evade (or both, in the case of Anderson Silva's first loss to Chris Weidman). Also because of their stances, neither fighter's hands were in position to mitigate the oncoming attacks other than being outstretched, most likely in hopes of parrying incoming strikes. However, I did mention that there were differences in their losses as well, and they're mainly in how they got to that point. Till was essentially done in by his lack of dynamism and defensive savvy. He relies heavily on floating out ineffectual jabs from southpaw to lead his opponents into a big straight left or occasionally an uppercut. That's pretty much it; that's what he offers. When he's opponent closes the distance on him he pretty much always hops straight back, leans his upper body backwards, and stretches his arms out to limit his opponent's covering of distance. A smart, experienced fighter like Masvidal picks up on these things quickly, and by the end of the first round he was already starting to land on Till, who offered no real adjustments in return. It was a matter of tie before Masvidal figured out how to land something big over the top.
Thompson's loss looked to be a case of him getting caught, but there were some factors that seemed to have tipped Pettis off to the opening for the finish. As per his style he didn't have his hands up and he wasn't able to get out of the way in time, but Pettis' superman punch was likely a reaction to Thompson's lead leg side kick from southpaw. A few times throughout the fight, Pettis would respond to it by throwing a right hand, since the aftermath of the kick leaves Thompson open due to their opposite stances. He never landed it just because Thompson was keen to get out of reach after throwing the kick; he has to be since darting out of range is his primary striking defense. That could be the perfect explanation for Pettis deciding to throw out a superman punch as a response in the waning seconds of the round, just to try it out and see if it worked any better at closing that distance that he came up short in during previous countering attempts. It just so happened to work perfectly when he did it. Moreover, it could all be traced back to the possibility that Thompson stayed in the southpaw stance as much as he did to avoid getting his left leg kicked, and I'll reiterate that I was not a big fan of Thompson choosing to engage Pettis in an opposite stance so often. Despite losing the majority of the fight, Pettis does did well to make solid reads and capitalize big on them in the end.
It's an unfortunate loss for Thompson, especially considering the fact that Kamaru Usman's title win breathed new life into his title contention hopes. Even worse, he's now on a two-fight skid that most believe is undeserved due to a shoddy decision to, coincidentally enough, Till. For Pettis on the other hand, this win opens up a world of possibility for him. Knocking off Thompson puts him firmly in the top 10 and on the short list of potential contenders. He's in a prime space to look to avenge his loss to fellow lightweight-turned-welterweight Rafael dos Anjos (or Kevin Lee if he wins their upcoming fight). Hell, he could even go back to lightweight with some more cachet having toppled a highly ranked fighter a division up. I don't project he'll do well continuing on at welterweight, and much of what happened in this fight supports that feeling (before the knockout, obviously), but it's a huge feather in Pettis' cap at the very least. Score another one for the smaller guys, who are really showing up these days!
Blaydes' wrestling turns 'Big Pretty' to a big pity
#4 Curtis Blaydes def. #10 Justin Willis by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-26, 30-25)
Confidence is often integral to success when you're a professional fighter; some might say a certain level of confidence bordering on delusion about your abilities is necessary just to stick with it in any signifcant way. As such, it's no surprise that trash talk occurs, and even fighters that are at a sizable disadvantage on paper will antagonize their opponents with all the verve and bravado of a 10-to-1 favorite. Sometimes fighters go out there and back up everything they boasted they'd do, and for the most part they're respected for it. Other times, they make for perfect fodder on an episode of "When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong." On that note, enter Justin Willis. He was not shy about his confidence heading into the bout, and didn't hesitate to let Blaydes know just how confident he was either. All this despite being at quite a stylistic advantage and not really being the type of hitter that scares Blaydes off. For as much as we all worried about how he'd handle his stoppage loss in his rematch of Francis Ngannou, Willis is a far cry from the type of power Ngannou wields that borders on dim mak levels of deadliness. Blaydes mostly ignored Willis' his attempts to get under his skin and decided to do his talking in the cage.
He did just that. I know it wasn't a very exciting outing save for a quick straight right that briefly buckled and spun Willis around, but even then Willis was never in any major trouble, which more or less describes his status throughout the fight. That's not to say that Blaydes wasn't utterly dominant the entire time. Willis only managed to land 2 of the 9 total significant strikes he threw, and spent most of the fight just trying to get Blaydes (who landed 7 of 11 takedowns) off of him. It was immediately clear that Willis was just not on Blaydes' level in terms of wrestling, and that it'd be long night for him considering the fact that he's not the biggest finishing threat. And although it was a bit of a slog, it was nonetheless a solid performance from Blaydes, whose wrestling and top control was on point, and whose striking is still showing improvements. If he shows more initiative when it comes to finding potential submissions on the ground he might really be able to get over the hump, and he likely would have found a finish here. Blaydes figures to be right back in the contendership conversation, and threw out Junior dos Santos, Stipe Miocic, and Derrick Lewis as potential next opponents, and I think Miocic or dos Santos would make sense. As for Willis, he'd actually do well to take the advice Blaydes had for him in his post-fight interview: to go home and work on his wrestling.
Or else get used to this.
Makdessi cruises past Pinedo on the strength of leg kicks
John Makdessi def. Jesus Pinedo by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
Make no mistake about it, the above clip does not represent the theme of this fight. Where the co-main event gave us a grinding affair on the ground, this fight largely dragged on the feet. There were pockets of excitement, but by and large this was a very measured and fairly uneventful kickboxing contest. As with many of the fights on the card, it featured opposite stance fighters, and Makdessi made made the better use of this with frequent kicks to the lead leg as well often maintaining superior lead foot positioning to lead Pinedo into his power kick attempts. While Makdessi's jab did decent work, the difference turned out to be how active he was with his leg kicks, landing a whopping 40 of them over 15 minutes, while still managing to outstrike him up top as well. I expected Pinedo to be a lot more aggressive throughout the fight, and it turned out that in the moments he did show some aggression he found a bit more success. The fight appeared decidedly closer than the stats and scores reflect, but Makdessi did appear to be out in front for most of it. Now on a three-fight winning streak, Makdessi is still kind of in no-man's land. Inactivity and a lack of truly meaningful wins have put him in a bit of a holding pattern, though this fight was originally booked to be against top prospect Nasrat Haqparast, and a win there would have done a lot better for him. Instead he's still just a guy to fill out a spot on a fight card for a mid-level lightweight fight, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Formiga halts Figueiredo's momentum with superior grappling
#1 Jussier "Formiga" da Silva def. #4 Deiveson Figueiredo by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)
The first in of a pretty rough three-fight stretch on the card, these two were primed to engage in a relatively anticipated bout with major implications in the title picture of the dying flyweight division. Figueiredo is typically one of the more exciting fighters in the division, but his wild, physical style of striking just didn't cut it against a composed Formiga who very much kept wrestling on the agenda when the fight was standing. His constantly searching for big shots made him easy to predict, and Formiga took full advantage with well-timed takedowns. Once on the ground he exercised his sizable grappling advantage, though Figueiredo's defense was solid enough to stay out of major trouble. Outside of opening up a nasty cut on Formiga's head from the bottom in round two, he had very little to offer. In round three he showed more of a sense of urgency on the feet, but still felt the effects of his technical deficiencies as he chased Formiga around the cage and slung big, single shots up top with no set ups. Formiga would eventually get Figueiredo to pull guard off a takedown attempt and briefly achieve mount, but after Figueiredo escaped he still didn't have much wherewithal to chase that finish in the final seconds.
But hey, at least he cut him real good!
It was a one-sided win for Formiga, and once again proves his status in the division as a gatekeeper to the elite. With the state of the division it's not easy to match him up; he called out the champion Henry Cejudo but that doesn't sound like much to get excited about considering Cejudo beat him pretty handily a few years ago and has only improved since; but he's the #1 ranked guy in the division, after all. Perhaps a rematch with Joseph Benavidez for #1 contendership should be in the cards with all the talk of Cejudo potentially fighting at 135 lbs next. For Figueiredo, perhaps Wilson Reis or Alex Perez would suffice.
Also, is it me or does Figueiredo look like an alternate timeline post-apocalyptic version of Formiga? Just me? Fine.
Pena rolls in not-so-featherweight debut
Luis Pena def. Steven Peterson by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
It's a shame that Pena was not able to make the featherweight limit for this fight, because he looked pretty decent considering. It was a far cry from his previous fight, a loss to Ultimate Fighter winner Mike Trizano where he essentially froze and did next to nothing when he couldn't get his takedown game going. Against Peterson he looked much more comfortable on the feet, and although he struggled to use his considerable, ridiculous-for-featherweight 6'3" frame to impose his reach at distance, he was surprisingly effective with his close range boxing, considering the fact that Peterson is more historically the aggressive, phone booth boxing type. Pena was keen to sneak in uppercuts and knees up the middle when Peterson closed he distance, and soundly outstruck him in every single round. Due to missing weight it was assumed that Pena's cardio was on borrowed time, but he kept a solid pace and high volume throughout, and was actually the fresher fighter in the final round.
Can you guess which one missed weight from this GIF? Me neither.
And it's not as if his cardio wasn't tested by Peterson, who landed several takedowns and forced Pena to carry his weight and scramble on several occasions. Even then, Pena managed to get the better of many grappling exchanges, while Peterson couldn't do a ton with his positions. Peterson certainly isn't the highest grade of opponent, but Pena is still pretty young in his career (and in life), and the improvements in his game are pretty palpable from fight to fight. I wouldn't have imagine he'd win this fight by being the better striker over 15 minutes, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Now all he needs to do is either figure out this weight cut or go back to 155. Of course at 6'3" that weight cut probably isn't healthy, so I would advocate for him returning to lightweight. However, as lame as it make look to some, if he can shore his skills and the weight cut up, he could end up being pretty dangerous at 145. All in all I'm just happy to see "Violent Bob Ross" get a win. Weight snafus aside he's got a lot of potential, especially training at American Kickboxing Academy.
And especially if he keeps channeling this man.
After a couple close shaves, Barber stays perfect
Maycee Barber def. JJ Aldrich by TKO via strikes (3:01, R2)
She had a rough going in the opening round, but Barber's prospect continues to shine and her record stays unblemished. Early on Aldrich showed exactly why she's developed a bit of a reputation as a spoiler. Her sneakily tight pressure boxing game often found a home on Barber, who is a game but still raw striker. She eagerly throws kicks at different levels, but frequently makes the mistake of leaning back when she throws them to avoid counters instead of moving her head off the center line. This caused her quite a few problems, as she was frequently countered off of those kicks, and a couple of them ended with her on her seat (interestingly, they weren't counted as knockdowns, likely because she wasn't sent to the ground directly by the shots, but stumbled after being hit). It didn't help that she continued to gravitate toward naked kicks because her punches were coming up short, and she didn't think to set up her kicks with those punches. For the first five minutes it looked like Barber's hype train was on it's way off the rails toward a fiery death.
Then round two started, and Barber quickly found her range. A counter right visibly rocked Aldrich and had her retreating, which displayed a consistently present part of her game: when she has her opponent hurt, she does a pretty damn good job of going in for the kill. She's aggressive, but not too much to where she loses sight of everything else in the hunt for the finish. The result is that she overwhelms her opponents, but she doesn't get too wild and picks her shots very well. Once she had Aldrich hurt, she went forward with strikes, but stayed cognizant of Aldrich clinching up or shooting a reactive takedown. When that clinch came she was eventually able to get an underhook and reverse position, and once that happened she immediately opened up with left hands as she was angled to Aldrich's side. Aldrich tried to fire back but she was no match at that point. A nice left hook-right hook-right knee combination sent Aldrich into a defensive shell where she ate rights until the ref intervened. Barber is still early in her career and has plenty more improving to do and I have my doubts she'll reach her lofty goals, but I have to say that she's in a decent division in which to improve and she's got some promising talent even if she was just fighting another divisional debut moving up from strawweight. Aldrich was never a particularly big strawweight either, so I'm not sure the move was good for her, but I don't think she's done turning in surprising performances at this point. Either way, both women put on respectable performances here.
Bryce Mitchell def. Bobby Moffett by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
This fun little back-and-forth battle may not have been the prettiest to look at technically, but it was exciting enough to earn Fight of the Night honors. Moffett coming off a controversial but still impressive submission win over Chas Skelly was understandably favored over the less experienced Mitchell, who hadn't really faced much in terms of solid comeptition. It didn't look this way in the octagon, as Moffett just looked really out of his element on the feet and although he was able to frequently score takedowns, he couldn't consistently do much with them, or even maintain position much of the time. One thing that stood out to me in the fight was that neither man seemed to be incredibly adept at blending phases, with Moffett being particular bad in that department. Neither fighter really used strikes to set up takedowns or even used ground and pound to open up grappling situations. In fact, not a single ground strike was thrown the entire fight, and hardly any clinch strikes were thrown despite the significant amount of time the fight took place in those phases. It was a relatively close fight, but I think Mitchell just had the bigger moments over the course of the fight, looked a lot more comfortable, and did more even off his back.
And how can you not like Mitchell after he went full Arkansas in his post-fight interview? This man knows how to represent. I hope he had a nice big steak with his mom, and Reebok better get right on those camo shorts! And make sure they're red, just in case Mitchell has another power drill accident.
Marlon Vera def. Frankie Saenz by TKO via strikes (1:25, R1)
This was a shocker because Saenz is typically a pretty durable fighter, but also not that shocking because Vera is a wizard when it comes to doing exactly what I don't expect him to do. One thing that stood out to me was the size difference; Vera is supposedly only two inches taller, but he looked more than that (perhaps due to their stances), and more filled out as well. Saenz started out aggressive as usual with his herky-jerky, chaotic style of pressuring, but Vera stayed pretty composed and picked his shots when Saenz closed the distance. The striking was pretty even a little over a minute in when Saenz darted in and ran face-first into a Vera jab that crumpled him to the ground. He transitioned right into a single leg attempt, but he was clearly on autopilot, and Vera easily stuffed him down and landed ground and pound until the referee stepped in. Several of the shots appeared to be to the back of the head, but at this point nothing will be done about that since Saenz was already hurt. Great performance by Vera, who maybe one of the more inconsistent fighters in the division minute-to-minute, but has still managed to be consistent in the level of improvement he shows fight in and fight out.
Jennifer Maia def. #5 Alexis Davis by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
As much as I like Davis, I think she's pretty limited as a fighter now that women's MMA has evolved quite a bit in the past several years. She's a product of an era where it was perfectly okay to be totally unathletic, have lackluster striking and wrestling, and be highly successful as mostly a grappler. That has become increasingly less feasible with every passing moment, and it showed here in many of the striking exchanges where she moved glacially slow and was easily beaten to the punch. Maia enjoyed her best success in the opening round where she managed to hurt Davis on the feet, but in round two Davis turned the tables once she was able to score a takedown off a caught kick and controlled the majority of the round. Though this was the case, it still represented the issue that Davis' grappling just isn't the threat it used to be and more women are equipped to neutralize or at least survive it. Round three was the closest of the bunch, and it came down to quality vs quantity. Davis landed a good deal more strikes, so if you're looking at the total significant strike stat it's easy to give the round to her. However, she leaned heavily on leg and body kicks that didn't appear to have a ton of power behind them, while Maia countered many of those kicks with flush shots to the head. A further look into the stats reflects that, but in viewing the fight I saw Davis mostly scoring points and Maia landing more solid shots. There were a few rumblings about the decision, and it was certainly a close fight, I think the right woman got her hand raised.
#15 Randa Markos def. Angela Hill by submission via arm bar (4:24, R1)
A fight between two women whose fights I often lament picking proved to be lamentable again. It's difficult to predict whether or not Markos is going to be an overwhelmingly effective wrestler and grappler or a sloppy wrestler and striker, and this time we got the former. It's also difficult to predict whether Hill will be able to keep a fight at her range and pick her opponent apart, or get dragged into her opponent's world and get worn out. This time we got the latter. Hill was barely able to get going and after breaking away from a clinch, Markos just walked her down throwing wild strikes until Hill sought the clinch. This was exactly what Markos wanted, and she soon threw Hill to the ground with her tried-and-sometimes-true hip toss that landed her right into side control. She then quickly stepped over to mount, then to Hill's back, and while looking for a rear-naked choke she slickly switched to an armbar. Hill fought it off for a while, but Markos patiently waited her out while punishing her with hammerfists until she was able to extend the arm for the tap. I don't know what to really say about either of these women. Hill definitely seems to have plateaued after really looking to have some potential when she worked her way back to the UFC, and while Markos looked good I have no reason to trust that she won't stink up th joint in her next fight because she's never looked good in two straight fights. Her entire UFC career has seen her alternating wins and losses until it was interrupted by a draw in her fight prior to this one; and with this win she's pretty much picking the pattern right back up. Throw Hill in there with Amanda Cooper, and Markos can fight the winner of Poliana Botelho vs Lauren Mueller.
Chris Gutierrez def. Ryan MacDonald by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Although he was the underdog, I actually picked Gutierrez to win this fight; not because I particularly believed in him, but just because I wasn't impressed with MacDonald. What I didn't expect was a damn near flawless performance out of Gutierrez following a disappointing UFC debut against Roani Barcelos. From start to finish he looked smooth and loose, constantly throwing feints to get different looks and switching up the levels at which he threw strikes in great volume. His was an example of an opposite stance karate fighter showing just how effective the style can be, albeit against a much lesser opponent that just wasn't ready for that level of fighting. Leg kicks were a major part of the fight as well, with MacDonald being pretty affected by them down the stretch. Whenever MacDonald tried to get more aggressive, I really liked how Gutierrez would disrupt his momentum with a steady stream of quick oblique kicks to his lead leg as he put weight on it. The speed differential really showed through, and it was made even more obvious as Gutierrez pawed at MacDonald's lead hand from the opposite stance, leaving MacDonald to rely on a rear hand attack that simply wasn't as quick as Gutierrez's and couldn't find its target. Gutierrez turned in a consummate performance here, and although his opponent wasn't a very high level, he showed some skills to look out for.
#14 Jordan Espinosa def. #12 Eric Shelton by unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27)
Yet another underdog I picked to get the W, Espinosa had a much more competitive outing with Shelton. He kept up a high pace for the entirety of the fight, darting in and out and kicking frequently. Shelton did his best to pressure at times, but Espinosa's constant feinting and awkward striking made it hard for Shelton to capitalize. Espinosa started using the jab frequently to disrupt Shelton's pressure, but also opened himself up to potential counters by preemptively leaning back after throwing them. Daniel Cormier actually brought up on commentary that if Shelton threw jab-left hook combinations he could probably catch Espinosa leaning to avoid the right hand counter, which was a solid read that Shelton never picked up on. All in all it was a solid performance from both men, but movement and volume won the day. A tough loss for Shelton, who is a solid talent but still trying to find his way.
And that will do it for UFC Fight Night Nashville! It wasn't the greatest card but as is always the case, that doesn't mean there isn't a rich supply of talking points and analysis to be had. Now we can all look forward to next week's main event when Justin Gaethje and Edson Barboza battle to see who can be the first man to actually kick another man's leg off in MMA! Until then, sado out!