Greetings, fight fans! I thought I might be out of commission for this event, but thankfully everything worked and here I am gracing your presence with another edition of 'What the hell happened?' Every now and then a fight card comes along that causes you to call into question all you've learned about fighters and fight analysis, and relentless beats you over the head by dangling correct fight picks in front of your face and yanking them away just...like...that! Okay that's a lie; this happens with ever-increasing frequency in the UFC these days, and it often makes me feel like the more I learn about how to break down this sport, the worse I become at actually predicting fights. Factors that win out "on paper," fighters who are "more proven," and situations that are "more likely" tend to dominate my picks, and acknowledgements of serendipitous happenings remain only as acknowledgements and rarely result in an actual pick in that direction. So with that you get situations as fights going the way you thought until your pick suddenly gets finished, or the fighter you didn't pick showing wrinkles in their game that you simply didn't consider because your analysis zeroes in more on what is than what could be.
And then the main event goes your way big-time, and you feel vindicated in yourself again. HOORAY FIGHT ANALYSIS, FOR I HAVE PREDICTED A RESULT CORRECTLY! All that said, while I was absolutely bludgeoned in terms of predicting how most of these fights would end, it led to one helluva card that makes up for last week being largely a slog-fest. So let's talk about what the hell happened!
The Main Card
Gaethje walks down, flattens Barboza
#8 Justin Gaethje def. #6 Edson Barboza by KO via punch (2:30, R1)
While I was hoping for a more protracted battle between two of the most prolific and vicious leg kickers in the division, this sure was fun while it lasted. The two came out and immediately began firing off their vaunted leg kicks, with Gaethje getting the upper hand there early. While Barboza is easily the better overall kicker of the two and gets much more recognition for using them to destroy legs, I've long thought Gaethje was right there with him in that regard, and in some ways even surpasses him. Gaethje's pressure often allows him to land them more frequently, rather than using speed and different setups like Barboza has to at distance. Gaethje is also more cognizant defensively in that area; Barboza stays heavy on his lead leg almost as if he feels safe doing it because no one is really willing to trade leg kicks with him. By contrast Gaethje is always mindful of leg kicks coming his way, and is quite adept at checking them before firing back with one of his own. He demonstrated that in this fight, checking several Barboza offerings while tenderizing his lead leg and causing him visible discomfort, something we've never really seen from Barboza in that realm.
Of course it wasn't all leg kicking. The two men also let their punches fly, and that's what ultimately did set up the finish. The first time Gaethje waded into close distance he shifted momentum into his favor. Barboza threw a tight left hook to the body, to which Gaethje responded with a left hook over the top, but Barboza was too close to him and he swung his arm into the side of Barboza's head. This essentially acted like a Sambo casting punch, and allowed Gaethje to seamlessly transition from the punch to a single collar-tie, where he belted Barboza with a right uppercut-right hook combo that rocked him. That is usually when Gaethje gets wild and takes a lot of punishment in the process of giving it. However, he actually showed a bit of evolution in his game by picking his shots while he had Barboza hurt; he posted out with his left hand to hold Barboza in place against the cage, and waited to be given openings to launch right hands. He didn't land either the uppercut or the hook that he threw, but that he chose strategy over brawling was a great sign for him. From there he walked Barboza down along the cage, but again he didn't go wild, and when Barboza landed knee to his body, he was wise to clinch just to further take that preferable range away from Barboza, and chip away at him.
Surprise! Gaethje fought a pretty smart fight!
Gaethje did brawl in spots, which generally did him well since his chin showed to still be visibly more sturdy than Barboza's, but all in all he approached this fight much more intelligently. When Barboza made it out to range, he bided his time and preferred to stay out of kicking range until he saw an opening to close the distance, all the while still holding the center of the cage and gradually pushing Barboza back. For as solid of an out-fighter as Barboza is, his footwork still tends to get him trapped up against the cage, and unless the threat of how dangerous he is gives opponents pause, this puts him in bad situations. The ending sequence saw Gaethje intelligently pressuring and landing nice leg kicks, but also checking Barboza's while moving forward, allowing him to easier back Barboza into the cage and force him to escape laterally along it. Historically Barboza mostly opts to circle to his left, which is often a mistake against an orthodox opponent since that is their power side. Here he not only did that, but he did it with his hands down.
James Vick will tell you that retreating along the cage with your hands down is a recipe for disaster, and just begging for a leaping Gaethje hook. As Barboza was pressured against the cage, he feinted a leg kick knowing Gaethje would go to check it and move forward, giving him a shot at escaping to his own left. Gaethje did exactly that and followed it up with a right cross, but Barboza was able get his hands up and tuck his chin so it didn't land cleanly. With Gaethje throwing that right hand, Barboza naturally assumes a left hand or clinch attempt would come from Gaethje's left side, so he escaped to his own left as he normally does. What Gaethje did here was smartly square his body after the right hand, which in this situation equips you to better cut off your opponent whether they choose to move left or right along the cage. More over, that step to square himself reset his power side, meaning Gaethje's right hand was primed for attack. When Barboza escaped to his left, Gaethje was ready with a big leaping right hook that caught Barboza on the button, shut his lights out immediately, and had him reaching toward the heavens.
One lesson to be learned here is that if you don't want to go tit-for-tat against Gaethje and try to escape along the cage, keep your hands up or at the very least prepare yourself for a big shot trying to cut you off at the pass. He covers some distance with those hooks and has solid awareness when it comes to how far out he can reach you. Once thought to be nearing bust status in the UFC (albeit the most exciting bust of all time), Gaethje is suddenly a lot more relevant in the lightweight division. He took the time after the fight to call for a fight against Donald Cerrone, which would be absolutely bananas, though Cerrone already has a date set with Al Iaquinta. The winner of the fight still does make sense for Gaethje, and just going by the rankings that could very well be a title eliminator since the lightweight top 10 is a bit of an exciting mess right now.
As for Barboza, he suffers another tough loss that really has to bring up concerns over his health. He's lost three of his last four, his last two via stoppage, and all three of them saw him take quite a bit of damage. Even the lone win of the lot against Dan Hooker was a relatively punishing fight. There are a lot of fighters ranked around him who can deal some damage so it's hard to just suggest they give him a grappler who won't hit him in the head much, but I think the next best thing is have him fight it out with Vick to see who the better Gaethje knockout victim is.
Hermansson quickly hands Branch his first submission loss in over 8 years
Jack Hermansson def. #11 David Branch by submission via arm in guillotine choke (0:49, R1)
Did Branch even realize he was in a fight? I'm curious because he did absolutely nothing. It started with a very abbreviated feeling out process where the most interesting thing to happen was Dominick Cruz insisting he didn't know what "herky-jerky" meant. C'mon Dom, it was Mike Goldberg's buzzword for Keith Jardine's style in every one of his UFC fights; you can put two and two together. Anyway, a clinch attempt from Branch immediately saw him whipped to the ground with a foot sweep. As he clung to Branch in an attempt to take his back, he found a pretty interesting setup for an arm in guillotine (this one Cruz was hip to) that I certainly didn't see coming. Once he got his grip he fell back and wrenched on it until he got the tap...and Branch pretty much just sat there and took it. One the choke was in he literally just sat there and didn't try to fight the grip, clear his left leg to get to side control, nothing. He sat there and waited until it was time to tap, and it was completely baffling to watch, especially with Branch being a Renzo Gracie black belt (how disappointed must Renzo be over that one?). Nonetheless, excellent win from Hermansson, who should crack the top 15 with the victory. After washing out of the UFC and making a name for himself as a two-division titlist in World Series of Fighting, there was actually a mild amount of anticipation for Branch's return to the promotion. Unfortunately, although he's facing a higher level of competition this time around, he's more or less looking like the same unreliable, if somewhat fragile fighter he was in his first run.
Emmett comes from behind to stiffen Johnson
#10 Josh Emmett def. Michael Johnson by KO via punch (4:14, R3)
I swear I originally wrote this headline with no pun intended, but I decided to keep it because legend has it I'm still cackling about it like a 15-year old internet forum-dwelling, Youtube-commenting, edge lord to this day. The battle of two featherweight punchers was pretty interesting to watch, even if both men missed whiffed on a downright humorous number of strikes. Early on Emmett held the center of the cage looking to pull-counter while Johnson essentially tried to bait Emmett into countering so he could launch counters of his own. What we would get was a lot of instances where Johnson threw, Emmett evaded and threw back, Johnson evaded and threw back, then Emmett evade and then they'd reset to feinting. Both men found moderate success with leg and body strikes, but for the most part they spent the entire fight trying to punch each other in the face and largely coming up short. Emmett shot a single takedown in each round, but Johnson pretty easily rebuffed all of them.
Halfway through round two Johnson started to find that comfort and swagger that usually gets him into his groove during fights. He started moving and bouncing around better, and throwing much more in combination. Johnson was the much busier fighter in the round, even if he did only land 10 of the 51 strikes he threw that round; by comparison, Emmett went 7 for 18. Going into the final round I had Johnson up two rounds and figured he'd cruise his way to a decision. Emmett perhaps sensed this and turned up the aggression. Both fighters continued to make the other miss on counters a lot and Emmett was finally finding his rhythm late, but he was not content to let it go to the scorecards. A feint level change into a massive overhand right shut Johnson's lights off immediately and he sailed to the ground like a freshly chopped tree. It was a classic move: the level change gets your opponent to drop their hands anticipating a takedown, and they're left wide open for the overhand. Emmett only landed seven head strikes the entire fight, but he only needed one double his money. The knockout was probably all the more satisfying for him considering the fact that Johnson was vocal leading up to the fight about Emmett not being a knockout artist. Add that to the list of trash talk Johnson wishes he could take back.
Not an artist? Jackson Pollock would be proud of that saliva splatter.
With the win, Emmett more or less stays where he is in the division and has plenty of choices among the top 15 since he finds himself firmly planted at 10. How he didn't get a bonus for this finish is beyond me. With the loss, Johnson leaves us to remain befuddled about why he even thought moving to featherweight was a good decision in the first place. His biggest asset at 155 was his speed, and not only has he lessened his advantages where that is concerned, but he seems less durable from the weight cut and his once-considerable power seems to be dulled by his inability to out-speed his opponents quite as much. It might be best for him to give up on this middling featherweight run and go back to lightweight.
Waterson still showing improvements to her game, soundly outworks Kowalkiewicz
#9 Michelle Waterson def. #6 Karolina Kowalkiewicz by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Waterson just loves proving me wrong. In the past I made no secret of the fact that I thought she was a bit overrated; I stand by my assessment that she was not quite as good as she was made out to be at the time she came to the UFC, but over time she's surprised me with the strides she's made pretty well into her career. One of the key aspects she's improved is her strength. She's never really been one to be especially strong in the clinch or on top, and being overpowered was part and parcel to her obtaining her two UFC losses. She was even being taken down and largely outworked by Jessica Penne before pulling out a clutch submission to win the Invicta atomweight title. Lately she's been a much more composed fighter who is better at blending her striking and clinch work than just a couple years prior.
Waterson does tend to call to her "Karate Hottie" namesake with a multitude of quick lead leg kicks from many different levels and positions, but she had the most success early against Kowalkiewicz countering leg kicks with punches up top. Kowalkiewicz would start to find success in her awkward and aggressive striking toward the end of the opening round and early in round two, stinging Waterson with a few shots, but Waterson came back strong with hard leg kicks. As soon as Kowalkiewicz initiated the clinch, Waterson tossed her to the ground with a slick head-and-arm throw to land in side control. From there not much happened as neither woman did much to improve their situation. Waterson seemed mostly content to stay on top and not attempt passing to mount when there were openings, and Kowalkiewicz seemed uninterested in or unaware that digging for a nearside underhook could help her get to half guard and into a more favorable position. As time ran out Waterson locked in an armbar that appeared to be very tight, but Kowalkiewicz was able to survive until the horn.
Well you can't ever say Kowalkiewicz isn't tough.
In round three Kowalkiewicz, likely wise to the head-and-arm throw, tended to pull back on her clinch attempts, which put her in position to lower her hips and prevent being thrown when Waterson tried again. Now able to spend some time in the clinch, I was pretty shocked that Waterson looked to be the stronger clinch fighter of the two, seeing as how that is typically Kowalkiewicz's strongest area. She lands another takedown, and while Kowalkiewicz was able to get to her feet, it almost seemed like the fight was out of her at that point.
With the improvements Waterson has seen in recent fights, the most noteworthy over change they have brought to her is that she's just a better round winner these days. Waterson has historically been a fighter who sells out for big finishes but can struggle from minute-to-minute if she doesn't get into the lead early. In her current three fight winning streak she's shown that she can take and keep control of a fight, and just make smarter decisions that don't land her in trouble anymore. She may finally be the title contender people said she was when she arrived in the UFC. Kowalkiewicz is now in a really tough spot after having lost four of her last six. Despite being the last woman to defeat champion Rose Namajunas, this loss has ousted her from the contender's list for the time being. Tecia Torres is probably the logical next step for her, but neither one of them can really handle another loss at this point.
Paul Craig pulls out yet another last-minute submission
Paul Craig def. Kennedy Nzechukwu by submission via triangle choke (4:20, R3)
First and foremost: this fight stunk. Paul Craig has surpassed Derrick Lewis in the ranks of fighters who make me angry because they're not very good but they win anyway in the most dramatic of fashion. This is the kind of thing that keeps the sport fun and unpredictable, but it's also the kind of thing that makes me feel like an idiot for trying to intellectually analyze people hurting each other for money. Nzechukwu came out with a very twitchy stance that ticked the "herky-jerky" box, but outside of a few leg kicks, Craig wanted nothing to do with the striking and instead constantly pursued takedowns that he mostly failed at because 1) he's not a good wrestler, and 2) Nzechukwu grabbed he cage a bunch (but I'd argue mostly the former). He often resorted to pulling guard, which wasn't terribly unsuccessful, but didn't really yield any notable results either. The fight was essentially Nzechukwu landing shots at distance, Craig barreling through to attempt a takedown, pulling guard when he didn't get them, eating some ground and pound until Nzechukwu escaped, and repeating the whole thing over again.
Then of course it happened. Down on the scorecards, Craig manages to take a break from getting hit in the face off his back to literally pull Nzechukwu by the arm into a tight triangle and force a tap (that Nzechukwu seemed to initially deny despite obviously tapping). I mentioned that Craig isn't a very good fighter, but Nzechukwu deserves credit for being pretty low level as well. His inability to cut off the cage, instead opting to just follow Craig around cost him a lot of effective striking offense, and he engaged on the ground far too long when he had a relatively easy fight on the feet. He did not fight well even though he won the majority of the fight designed for him to look good.
This is light heavyweight, people. It's slowly improving, but there is still a ton of dead weight disguised as promising prospects, and yet another was exposed tonight. Moreover, much of my grumpiness about Craig not being good might stem from the fact that them man has had six UFC fights and I have literally not picked a single one of them correctly. I give up.
Yusuff passes his first big test, steals decision away from Moraes late
Sodiq Yusuff def. Sheymon Moraes by unanimous decision (29-27, 29-28, 29-28)
I knew this would be a close fight, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with how technical it was. Both men were very adept at getting reads on each other and acting accordingly and appropriately. Much of the fight went way I thought it might, and showed me why I decided to roll with the underdog in Moraes, but key periods at the bookends of the fight sealed the win for Yusuff. Early on Yusuff stalked and pressured with calf kicks, and both men mostly stuck with single shots. Toward the end of the round the action picked up, but I really expected Moraes to move around more on the outside and not get caught up in range too long with the powerful Yusuff. In round two the Moraes I expected to show up did, as he used a lot more footwork and opened up his striking considerably. He overextended on several strikes, but he still remained effective with body punches head kicks to keep Yusuff away, and elbows over the top when Yusuff would close the distance.
The momentum had shifted into Moraes' favor as the fight entered the 3rd round, and it was anyone's fight to win. Sensing this, both men threw hard and often but still remained composed. Moraes continued to vary up his strikes, and even did some neat things with his reactions to attacks. In one instance he caught a Yusuff kick, faked an overhand right almost in slow motion as he closed the distance and threw a right elbow instead. I love to see stuff like that. He also started throwing upward reverse elbows a la Anderson Silva vs Tony Fryklund with some success, but this was actually what ended up losing him the fight. With little more than a minute left in the fight Moraes threw an upward elbow and a counter right hook caught him right on the jaw and dropped him, where was mounted and nearly finished with follow up shots. Moraes impressively made his way back to his feet, but he was still wobbly pretty much up until the final horn and couldn't do much to try and win the round back. While close, I did believe Moraes was on his way to winning the third round before that right hand landed, and would have likely gotten the decision had it not landed. He was certainly taught a lesson about going to the well too much with low-percentage strikes that leave you wide open if you miss.
Sometimes normal elbows are enough.
Both men acquitted themselves well, and Yusuff proved that he's a well-schooled prospect worth keeping an eye on. Of course he's also a Lloyd Irvin guy, which I can't support so I'm in that odd head space of being intrigued by him as a prospect and wanting to see him build upon his skills while also wanting to see him lose because he chooses to be affiliated with a scumbag coach. But on a lighter note, did anyone else see this fight as a battle between small, fighting versions of Dwayne Wade and Jeremy Meeks? You're welcome for that.
Marina Rodriguez def. Jessica Aguilar by unanimous decision (29-26, 29-27, 29-27)
The decline of Aguilar continues, this time at the hands of rising prospect Rodriguez. Unlike Waterson, Aguilar is one of those fighters whose bandwagon I could never get on that I turned out to be completely justified in feeling that way, because she certainly hasn't looked like a top strawweight since coming to the UFC after many claims that she was the best featherweight in the world prior. She started off well enough, staying aggressive and controlling the action in the clinch, and even nearly scored an armbar after Rodriguez made the questionable decision of trying to slam out of the attempt and got herself in deeper. However, she was practically bloodied by the first punch she took, and proceeded to get dominated over three rounds with well placed jabs and brutal knees and elbows in the clinch. Whenever she thought about getting aggressive and closing the distance, Rodriguez pelted her with a teep to stop her in her tracks. A couple inadvertent eye pokes in the opening round got a point deducted from Rodriguez, but it showed not to matter one bit. Round two was especially dominant, and Aguilar was a bloody mess who looked on the brink of being finished by the bevy of body shots slamming into her. In the end this fight, like her other three UFC losses, just saw her roundly outclassed by women who are simply bigger, better fighters than she is.
Rodriguez looked great, and Aguilar continues her late-career punching bag phase.
Not that Rodriguez doesn't still have work to do.
Desmond Green def. Ross Pearson by TKO via strikes (2:52, R1)
Speaking of declines, Pearson may looks to have finally hit his hard after many false alarms. He's lost six of his last seven, and his durability failed him here in a hurry. Green is a capable fighter but has never been known as a hard hitter (or finisher for that matter), and he still managed to drop Pearson ducking in with a counter right hook. The end happened suddenly when Green landed a quick double leg takedown, and as Pearson gave up his back to scramble to his feet, Green just unloaded with right hands. It wasn't quite a Branch move, but Pearson did almost nothing to protect his head from the shots and just took them until the referee had no choice but to save him. Now 12-13 in the UFC, Pearson is getting to that point where he might want to consider calling it a career; he's stuck around surprisingly long given how the past few years have gone for him, but he must at least be on the chopping block after this one.
Block with your hands!
Kevin Aguilar def. Enrique Barzola by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Overall this was a pretty fun, competitive fight. Barzola spent much of the time pressuring and working his wrestling, but Aguilar's takedown defense was sterling as he defended all eight of Barzola's attempts, which means something since Barzola's wrestling has led him to quite a bit of success in the UFC. Aguilar responded with tons of volume and hard counters that got Barzola's attention. In the final round Barzola started to find his stride a bit. Even though his wrestling still didn't do the trick (as pointed out by the commentary, he never set up his takedowns), Barzola picked up on the Aguilar frequently dropping his hand after jabbing, and landed several left hooks to counter them. Unfortunately for him it was too little, too late, and it Aguilar took him a tidy decision.
Kevin Holland def. Gerald Meerschaert by split decision (29-27, 28-29, 30-27)
Kevin Holland is an odd and entertaining man out of the cage, and while this fight wasn't the most exciting, it still applied in the cage here as well. Even so, I didn't believe he deserved this decision. The fight presented the typical conundrum of whether to favor the fighter who lands more strikes or the fighter who exhibits more control. Holland both threw and landed many more strikes, but often found himself being out-scrambled and caught in tight submissions in the latter two rounds. Not that this was an easy fight to score anyway; the two men were constantly scrambling and fighting for position. It just appeared Meerschaert did more to win, especially since he wasn't in any danger from Holland's strikes. Holland did counter a choke with a choke, which I'm sure curried favor with the simpleton judges in attendance, one of which (Cardo Urso. Shame this man) gave Holland all three rounds.
Countering a choke with a choke is an automatic round win. Check the unified rules.
Holland winning was perfectly fine though, because it meant he got to be interviewed after the fight, and show just how damn weird he is. In his own eclectic way he basically complained that he wanted to strike to entertain the fans but Meerschaert only wanted to wrestle, when of course that could be avoided if he had better wrestling defense. Hell, he even asked DC for pointers between rounds.
I mean where is it, DC?
#15 (FlyW) Casey Kenney def. #3 (FlyW) Ray Borg by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27)
Another bad decision here, and this one is really unfortunate given what Borg has already been going through in the past year-and-a-half. Although it wasn't quite as wild with the scrambles as Holland vs Meerschaert, there were a high volume of takedowns that led to scrambles and a number of reversals, which just seems to confuse judges. Again, Kenney landed the better strikes, but he never had Borg in trouble, and the grappling encompassed so much more of the fight than the striking. Borg maintained control for larger swaths of the fight, had Kenney's back and searched for chokes countless times throughout, and never stalled out on the action. Kenney did perform well, but I didn't think he deserved this one.
The fight was 90% grappling the UFC wants to highlight the striking?
Maryna Moroz def. Sabina Mazo by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)
Just when I think Moroz is a stepping stone for prospects and veterans who needs wins, she moves to American Top Team, jumps up to flyweight, and looks better than she ever has! Mazo on the other hand seemed to have a bit of the octagon jitters, and really didn't seem to get going until the final round. As pointed out in the broadcast, it may have also been due to her being so used to pacing herself for five-round fights. Moroz, who is usually a comically ineffective, kiai-ing distance striker, instead decided to work in the clinch to stifle Mazo's striking, and in the opening round eventually landed a takedown and did good work from on top (but don't worry, there was still plenty of kiai-ing). She also immediately bloodied Mazo's nose with a jab, and kept the blood flowing the whole fight with solid counters up top to make Mazo pay for her tendency to drop her hands and not move her head when kicking. Moroz only got better in round two, as she pretty soundly outstruck Mazo on the feet.
This was there all day for Moroz.
It wasn't until the final round that Mazo finally came alive. She had shown a bad tendency to just pull out of the clinch without striking on the break, but in the final found she started throwing knees up the middle to discourage Moroz from moving into clinch in the first place. She really did look like a different fighter late, and pretty easily took the round with much increased striking volume and better movement. Someone should've told her it was three round fight, because she fought like someone gearing up to win the championship rounds. Mazo takes her first career loss here, but if she learns how to balance out her effort she can get right back on track as a prospect. As for Moroz, she gets some new life at 125, which is starting to fill up with many more former strawweights. She definitely looks better in her new division both physically and strategically, so we'll see how she pans out.
#7 (FlyW) Alex Perez def. Mark De La Rosa by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
The curtain jerker saw a bantamweight fight between two flyweights, as has become normal lately with everyone preparing for the impending destruction of the flyweight division. Although De La Rosa acquitted himself well on the feet, this was mainly a dominant effort from Perez, who landed more than double the significant strikes of De La Rosa, many in the form of some pretty great ground-and-pound. Much was made of it on the broadcast (I swear Cruz and Cormier make analyzing fights so much easier because they're just that damn good), but Perez's use of wrist control, posture, and angles from on top really put him a cut above a lot of fighters when it comes to striking on the ground. And it didn't help De La Rosa's case that he was all too happy to stay on his back and engage him. It helped even less that De La Rosa's corner told him that he "might be down 0-2" before he headed out for round three when his problem was his lack of urgency. Perez was a pretty easy pick to win here, but De La Rosa does does deserve credit for hanging in there and making things more competitive than expected on the feet.
And that does it for UFC Fight Night Philadelphia! A highly anticipated main event delivers on the violence it promised a new strawweight contender emerges, and a prospect continues to rise. Plus we got a few shocking upsets and a couple questionable decisions thrown in for good (read: bad) measure. We get a respite next week, but I'll be right back here in two weeks for UFC 236. Until then, sado out!