With a stirring performance at UFC 144 last night (Feb. 25, 2012), Ben Henderson took the UFC Lightweight title from Frankie Edgar in a fight at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, that showcased high-level skill over five intensely contested rounds. With the victory, Henderson capped off one of the best Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) pay-per-views (PPV) in recent years, with a seven-fight main card that delivered the goods.
From Henderson's unanimous decision win, to Ryan Bader's career-boosting win over former Light Heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson, to Tim Boetsch's miracle comeback knockout, the night's action was a fitting return to Japan, where the world's leading mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion hadn't been since Dec. 2000.
Here's a closer look at the action from UFC 144: "Edgar vs. Henderson" and how the participants graded out:
Ben Henderson: A
Bigger and more physically imposing than Edgar, Henderson used a measured approach to wear down the speedy champ, and stuck to it. And while he got the decision on scores of 49-46 (twice) and 48-47, the bout was exceptionally close. Interestingly, Henderson largely dispensed with takedown attempts and stuck to a standing attack, while forcing the whirlwind Edgar to constantly adjust, which Frankie did, varying his angles and using more takedown attempts -- Edgar landed 7 of 14, according to CompuStrike -- but Edgar was unable to keep the wily Henderson on the mat to do extended damage.
What ensued was a captivating fight, where neither man could definitely pull ahead, with constant struggles from both to seize the initiative. A key factor may have been that Henderson put Edgar in trouble on two occasions, including a threatening guillotine attempt, and the banged-up champ bled from the nose with a swollen left eye for much of the bout. Fans will probably argue the decision, but at the end of the day, Henderson was able to do something that B.J. Penn and Gray Maynard couldn't do over four fights:
He beat Edgar.
Henderson's improvement has been astounding since his World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) days, which culminated with his Dec. 2010 decision loss in a classic to Anthony Pettis. He's capable with his stand up and confident, and his blend of takedown defense and the ability to explode off the ground makes him a lightweight version of prime Chuck Liddell (albeit without the numbing, one-punch power).
Edgar took him down plenty, but Henderson simply sprung back up.
In the post-fight buzz, Joe Rogan cited that UFC President Dana White expressed an interest in making Henderson-Pettis II. At press time, nothing's official. But either way, Edgar definitely deserves another shot at the title soon, especially seeing as how he had to give B.J. Penn and Gray Maynard rematches after successfully defending against both.
In the stacked lightweight division, the title could well change hands several times in the next few years, especially since styles make fights. But Henderson's performance guaranteed that the division has another star in its top echelon, as he was impressive tonight.
Frankie Edgar: A-
The ex-champion was typically gritty and unrelenting in defeat, and constantly battled over five tough rounds, landing his snappy right hand repeatedly, and never tiring, despite taking heavy damage early in a fast-paced bout. The key factor in the bout was Henderson's size and strength advantage. Edgar simply couldn't control him in tie-ups and after scoring takedowns, but Frankie's excellent technique and transitions still allowed him to wrestle effectively in the bout. Henderson also absorbed some of Edgar's best shots with little visible effect.
This was a very difficult fight to score, with a constant flux in momentum. Edgar's durability is among the best in the game, but he just couldn't seem to get over the hump against Henderson as he did in the third fight against Gray Maynard, where he dialed in and delivered a game-changing right hand and finishing flurry. Henderson's chin, size and composure make him a stylistically tough match for Frankie, but it's also compelling to contemplate what Edgar could've done if he hadn't been bleeding from the nose with a banged-up eye.
Edgar's style may make that a virtual default for most of his future fights, but who wouldn't pay to see a rematch?
Personally, I think it's a bit dismissive for everyone to constantly ask Edgar if he's going to drop to featherweight, as that's an option that should only be pursued after he can't effectively compete at lightweight. There are a ton of good bouts for him at 155 pounds if he doesn't get an immediate rematch. If you're an ex-champ, being a lightweight contender is a long line to queue up in, but if you're a fan, it makes for great viewing
Ryan Bader: A
Bader's gameplan against Jackson was an inspired bit of tactics and toughness, as he did everything you need to do to defeat "Rampage." Between high-percentage, low-risk leg kicks, careful standup, quickness, and strong wrestling over the second half of the bout, Bader scored the biggest win of his career in a unanimous decision.
It was a huge victory, especially in light of the disastrous 2011 Bader endures, where he was steamrolled against Jon Jones, and then upset by the aging Tito Ortiz. The victory is a nice footnote to how a big win can go a long way to erase negative perceptions of the fighter and where his career is headed.
Now in the rarified air of top-10 contenders, Bader's solid showing here invites some interesting matchups. It might not seem an easy sell to rematch him against Jon Jones just now, but given the champ's destructive path through the division's A-list of contenders, a couple more solid wins like this at the elite level could get Bader a rematch.
Anthony Pettis: A
Tonight couldn't have gone better for Pettis, especially with two UFC bouts under his belt where he'd failed to showcase the magic that made him the last of the WEC lightweight champs. Wildly talented and dynamic, Pettis' booming left-kick finisher to Joe Lauzon spelled the end of a solid 155-lb. opponents, and supplied the kind of highlight-reel finish that has "title challenger" written all over it.
It was also somewhat redemptive for Pettis, whose timing was perfect - former WEC rival Henderson, whom Pettis beat in their rousing 2010 bout, decisioned Frankie Edgar in the main event. With the duo putting in stellar performances on the same card, a rematch is an intuitive move on all fronts.
Mark Hunt: A-
There are no mysteries as to why Hunt's beloved by fans. With one of the best combinations of power and chin in the history of combat sports, the former K-1 champion is an ideal heavyweight booking - he brings an aura of menace and potential violence that few heavies can match. With his spotty ground game, he's also a total wild card. But tonight he was in vintage form, whacking out Kongo with a dynamite standup display that showcased Hunt's power. Many of the shots in the finishing assault didn't land on the critical knockout spots - chin, temple or jaw - but Hunt's ability to stun people with even glancing blows is testimony to how hard he hits.
With a three-fight win streak in the UFC, the biggest no-brainer in the history of matchmaking is to pit Hunt against Pat Barry, whether Barry wins or loses against Lavar Johnson May 5. Neither guy will ever develop the kind of world-class ground game required to beat elite heavyweights more often than losing to them, but together, they'd make the kind of bloodbath that could go down as an all-time classic. Even if it's well short of that, it will be a red-meat special welcome on any fight card in the near future. When it happens, don't go to the fridge.
Tim Boetsch: A
The 185-pound division is the weakest of the UFC's weight classes (we're not counting the newly-formed flyweights, who are still taking shape). As such, an impressive win does a helluva lot more to bump you up a few levels. Now 3-0 at middleweight, Boetsch's incredible KO of Okami is an early candidate for comeback win of the year. Outmatched in the standing phase of the bout, Boetsch was beaten and battered. But the tough scrapper simply wouldn't relent. When guys in his position enter the final round and are hopelessly behind, it's a daunting task to know you've got to make something happen against a guy that is dominating you, yet Boetsch's ability to persevere and do just that are why he's the middleweight division's hottest-rising contender.
His heavy hands, never-say-die attitude and decent wrestling make him a natural to take on a solid contender in his next bout. Who wouldn't want to see him throw down against Mark Munoz next?
Hatsu Hioki: B+
Consistent and dominant from top position, Hioki decisioned a tough veteran in Bart Palaszewski. And with featherweight champ Jose Aldo returning to his dominant, seemingly-unbeatable form with his epic knockout of challenger Chad Mendes, the featherweight division is wide open. Hioki may be next in line, especially with the convenient "revenge" storyline of Aldo hoping to avenge stablemate Marlon Sandro's loss to Hioki in 2010. It's a nice sales tactic, but Hioki's standup didn't suggest he'd be any kind of threat on the feet to the dangerous champion, and Aldo's takedown defense is among the best in the game. But all things considered, Hioki did a good job tonight, showing stamina and a good head for transitioning between standing and takedowns.
Bart Palaszewski: B
There are losses, but Palaszewski did so with a combination of toughness and honor tonight, grabbing at least a short-term slot as a featherweight gatekeeper. After a rough first round, where he was trounced and beaten up, he came back hard in the second before getting dominated in the third. "Bartimus" remains a tough customer with 50 fights under his belt, and you can't buy that kind of experience. Expect him to stick around the UFC for a while to come, as he'll be what Chris Lytle was to the welterweights for many years - the measuring stick and litmus test for up-and-comers, as well as an attractive comeback opponent for elite fighters, because he'll always bring it and never quit.
Jake Shields: C+
Coming off two consecutive losses, Shields was workmanlike and his typical, steady self in decisioning Yoshihiro Akiyama. Stifled early by Akiyama's good takedown defense, Shields, as is typical of him, found a small advantage and pressed it relentlessly, outworking Akiyama on the feet. However, Shields' standup remains largely perfunctory and somewhat limited, and his inability to threaten Akiyama in the bout further harms his marketability. A nuts-and-bolts fighter, Shields gets the win here, but the performance did little to generate buzz for his prospects as a welterweight contender. At his best, Shields is good enough to beat many top welters. But with ho-hum showings like tonight, it's unlikely the UFC will cut him any stylistic breaks with whom he faces.
Yoshihiro Akiyama: D
Much was made of Akiyama's cut to 170 and the shredded, impressive physique that ensued, but that didn't change the fact that he had no game plan against Shields. At least nothing discernible. With a few flashy judo takedowns he couldn't sustain, and the occasional fancy backfist or kick, Akiyama's inability to keep pace in a standing battle with Shields wasn't encouraging; it's like getting outwrestled by Mark Hunt.
Yoshihiro has always had stamina problems, and while the first cut down to a new weight class often is the hardest, I'm not sure he's physically or stylistically suited to welterweight. It's also baffling as to why he didn't clinch more with Shields, which would've given him his best chance at takedowns, where he could've worked from top position to steal rounds. These are mysteries Akiyama will be tasked with solving - but honestly I'd be fine with not seeing him take up a valuable main-card slot in the near future. There are better fighters that deserve it more than him.
Yushin Okami: D
Things looked great through two rounds, and Okami's standup was better than ever. In previous bouts, the tough middleweight had largely relied on a steady diet of simple jabs and rangefinder-style striking to open up wrestling. But tonight, he was lighting up Tim Boetsch, committing to punches and doing considerable damage. It was also heartwarming to see Okami performing in such a relaxed, unruffled fashion, considering the frightful pounding he took against Anderson Silva in August. Certainly, the former title challenger was not suffering a letdown here.
Until Boetsch went Boetsch. "The Barbarian" unleashed a furious assault in the third, clearly aware that he had no hope of winning on the scorecards. With a rabid mix of desperation and relentless uppercuts from in close, Boetsch delivered a miracle, come-from-behind stoppage that will not soon be forgotten. Certainly not by Okami, who drops several notches in the sparse middleweight contender ranks by losing a fight he had locked up, until everything went wrong.
Quinton Jackson: D
It's not quite a complete career meltdown, but Jackson's poor showing tonight was probably the product of factors that came into play before he ever got into the cage. Scaling 211 lbs. at the weigh-in, the former light-heavyweight champ explained he couldn't make weight due to a problem that prevented him from training properly, one he declined to specify. That said, Jackson's UFC career has been defined by a limited tactical approach that neglects his great takedowns, relegating him to that of a one-dimensional headhunter.
Bader simply wouldn't be found, using movement and well-timed takedowns over the last half of the bout to stick Jackson to the mat, winning rounds and tiring "Rampage" out. Quinton remains one of the most resilient and powerful light heavyweights in the world, with quickness and tons of experience, but his inability to even use the threat of his wrestling to open up striking seems to cost him more often that it should, especially when you see how he easily hefted Bader and tossed him to the mat.
After his loss to Jon Jones, Jackson needed a solid win, and Bader was clearly teed up for that opportunity. Instead, it backfired (training woes aside). Fortunately, Jackson's marketability and huge potential for a big KO win could have him right back among the elite 205-ers, but if he doesn't start using better game plans, it's inevitable that future opponents will follow the same template Bader did tonight.
Cheick Kongo: F
The perils of facing a dangerous striker with a suspect ground game are obvious, and Kongo learned the hard way tonight. Despite his clear advantages in wrestling and general well-rounded skills, Kongo was simply caught and taken out before he would apply them. It's a testimonial to the strikers' axiom that all fights begin standing up. Kongo couldn't secure his one takedown attempt as Hunt stuffed him, and promptly found himself sucked into standing exchanges, which is only slightly less risky then letting your drunk uncle drove you home from the wedding after he's finished off a fifth of vodka. A tough loss here for Kongo, whose recent showings had carved out a kind of respectable, mid-tier heavyweight niche for the longtime UFC product.
Joe Lauzon: F
On the cusp of top-10 status, Lauzon entered his showdown with Pettis on the heels of his stirring submission win over streaking Melvin Guillard. But, it was for naught, as Joe was caught with a crushing kick and blitzed out in the follow-up salvo. These kinds of caught-and-finished stoppages happen in MMA, but it doesn't change the fact that the loss scuttled considerable momentum Lauzon had built to get this high up the lengthy lightweight ladder.
For complete UFC 144: "Edgar vs. Henderson" results and blow-by-blow coverage of the main card action click here.
Jason Probst can be reached at Jason@jasonprobst.com or twitter.com/jasonprobst.