With an impressive first-round stoppage of Brock Lesnar, Alistair Overeem secured a title shot in his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) debut last night (Dec. 30, 2011) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
And given the heavy-handed fireworks "Demolition Man" and UFC Heavyweight Champion Junior Dos Santos are likely to spark, the sport -- and its fans -- have another huge superfight to look forward to in early 2012.
In other UFC 141 mixed martial arts (MMA) action, Nate Diaz hammered out an impressive, hard-nosed decision win over Donald Cerrone, while Johny Hendricks' left hand finally revealed the answer on how to finish perennial welterweight contender, Jon Fitch.
That's not all.
The pay-per-view (PPV) main card featured 10 fighters, who aced, passed and/or failed their respective tests in "Sin City." Here's a closer look at each of them graded out with the UFC 141 "Report Card:"Alistair Overeem -- A
With much-hyped credentials coming into the bout, the K-1/Dream/Strikeforce champion didn't disappoint, cooly analyzing angles and distance before peeling Lesnar like an onion. After the first aborted takedown attempt -- where Lesnar was unable to secure Overeem's leg -- you could sense the Dutchman's confidence surging.
And after some well-placed knees in close that preceded the fight-finishing liver kick, it seemed inevitable that Overeem was going to finish it.
Style-wise, Overeem's imposing stand up is a great riddle for dos Santos, who thus far hasn't been forced to take down opponents as a matter of tactical survival. Overeem has the firepower and tools to pose serious problems for the champ, but dos Santos' overlooked and outstanding ground game might be the swing factor. Either way, it's everything you want from a promotional perspective with two powerful heavyweights battling for a championship, and Overeem did his part to build toward it with a flawless victory tonight.
Johny Hendricks -- A
Coming into his bout with Jon Fitch, Hendricks figured to have better wrestling credentials with a huge deficit in experience, especially against elite-level competition. But, with one dynamite left hand, he starched the eminently durable Fitch, whose last knockout loss was nine years and 25 fights ago. With the new guard emerging in the welterweight division, Hendricks' win was a huge boost for positioning him as a top contender. It's also a feather in his cap that few others can rival, because Fitch's track record makes him one of the toughest "outs" in the game.
Nate Diaz -- A-
Diaz slings leather like few others in a style that puts opponents in a defensive trance as he bounces shots off their heads. After an unsuccessful stint at welterweight, where he was decisioned by bigger guys who outwrestled him, Diaz's showdown with Cerrone figured to be a "Fight of the Night" candidate, and it was. But though Cerrone, on paper, brought the reach and stand up to conceivably give Diaz some problems standing, Diaz simply overwhelmed him with volume and consistency.
In the stacked lightweight division, the elite talent is a murderer's row of talented fighters, virtually all of whom have excellent takedowns and wrestling. Diaz's weakest point has always been vulnerability to getting taken down, camped on, marked up a bit, and then decisioned in the kind of fight he doesn't want to have -- but can't prevent from -- happening. Ditto for brother Nick. It'll be interesting to see who the UFC matches him with next, as he's evolving into a veteran, mid-tier contender at lightweight. But tonight was a near-perfect performance, with his rock-solid chin carrying him through the few occasions when Cerrone could get off.
Alexander Gustafsson -- B+
He's not quite a top-10 light heavyweight yet, but Gustafsson did pretty much everything perfect in dispatching veteran Vladimir Matyushenko. The stoppage seemed a tad quick, albeit inevitable, as Matyushenko bumbled into a jab, collapsed, and turtled up. Gustafsson's lanky frame and decent striking are his key selling points as a viable future contender. However, wrestling and takedown defense remain question marks, so tonight's win over an aged former contender can't be taken as anything other than what it was.
Donald Cerrone -- C+
A gutty showing in defeat for Cerrone, whose first-round drubbing by Diaz was one of the better arguments for a 10-8 round without a knockdown that you'll see. Rallying in the second, Cerrone couldn't sustain it, tiring in that stanza and then getting outpointed in the third. Interestingly, despite knocking Diaz' legs out from under him on several occasions, Cerrone declined to go to the ground, though at certain points if may have offered him an opening to keep it there and win the round. The former WEC star has had an excellent 2011, stringing together four wins prior to tonight's defeat. Tonight was the kind of wake-up call for a fighter to make adjustments in training and style, and Cerrone remains one of the more exciting guys on the roster.
Vladimir Matyushenko -- D
Vladdy's stand up has never been a strong point, despite the knockout win in his last outing against Jason Brilz. The gameplan going into the Gustafsson fight was obvious to anyone familiar with both men, but Matyushenko never got close. Turning 41 next week, the long-time veteran is now 4-2 in his latest run through the UFC, but age and stylistic limitations are obvious.
Brock Lesnar -- F
In his post-fight interview, Lesnar said he's retiring from MMA. And I believe him.
The knock on Lesnar was harsh, but had credible evidence: He simply never seemed comfortable in the stand up phase of the game. When you're fighting heavyweights, it's an especially big problem.
Unable to get close to a credible takedown attempt, and seemingly adrift in his 2:26 of Octagon time against Overeem, Lesnar's old wounds from the Cain Velasquez fight were seemingly re-opened once he started eating knees in the brief times the two huge heavies were in close. It wasn't as though Lesnar didn't show a little stand up improvement -- he threw a couple of leg kicks and shot out some hard-looking jabs that bloodied Overeem's eye. But the overall package was that of a supremely talented wrestler who's never really had the time to develop a comfort level with the game that he should.
And in Lesnar's defense, he's faced ridiculously tough competition in eight fights.
Perhaps the larger indicator for the reason Lesnar lost is that he'd decided to retire if he fell short tonight. That's almost always the sign of someone with one foot out the door. UFC pay-per-view sales were phenomenal with Lesnar as a headliner, and his departure leaves something of a vacuum to be filled.
Jon Fitch -- F
A disastrous loss to Hendricks puts him in the same promotional doghouse as Jake Shields, as both former title challengers would be betting favorites over most top welters, yet are nowhere near getting a title shot precisely because a rematch with Georges St. Pierre would be unmarketable.
The UFC took a gamble tonight hoping to get Fitch knocked off, and it paid off huge.
For the former title challenger, the loss should be put in perspective, as he simply got caught. It wasn't as though he were dominated or outmatched in a distance bout. There's a silver lining, however, the loss may incentivize Fitch to finish future opponents simply because he'll have to in order to create buzz for a title shot. That may not be the best tactical move for him, given his strengths, but that's the reality of the situation, especially after a loss like tonight. For what it's worth, I'd still pick Fitch in a rematch. But that doesn't change the fact that tonight was the worst of all possible worlds for him.
For complete UFC 141: "Lesnar vs. Overeem" results and blow-by-blow coverage of the main card action click here.