As the pair squared off Saturday night (Feb. 4, 2012) in the UFC 143 main event, expectations were high for a grueling dogfight, given both men's recent showings. But, Condit flipped the script, using movement and picking spots expertly to take the duke on scores of 49-46 (twice) and 48-47.
At press time, it was unclear whether the newly-minted interim champ would wait until November to square off against injured champion Georges St. Pierre, whose recovery from a knee injury temporarily vacated the title. But regardless of whom he faces next, "The Natural Born Killer" showed a heady blend of composure and toughness in turning back a determined Diaz, who pressed forward for most of the bout in search of meaningful exchanges that rarely materialized.
In the co-main event, Fabricio Werdum showed improved striking and a potent Muay Thai clinch in a unanimous decision of Roy Nelson. The heavyweights spent most of the fight on the feet, with a tiring Nelson unable to effectively land his trademark overhand right for much of the fight.
Instead, Werdum used kicks and workmanlike hands to pile up a points lead that carried him to an impressive and much-needed win in his return to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Here's a closer look UFC 143 competitors graded out:
Carlos Condit: A
Perspective is everything in assessing a fighter's performance, especially in the context of how he'll execute compared to previous opponents' failure to do so. And on that score, Condit aced the test. It's been 11 fights and four years since anyone had much success standing against Nick Diaz, when K.J. Noons cut and stopped the Stockton battler. Using movement and constantly attacking Diaz's lead leg, Condit refused to be sucked into the kind of extended, mano-a-mano exchanges that almost always leaves Diaz' opponents the worse for wear. Carlos seemed to have an alarm that went off whenever his back was against cage, prompting him to slide off, and he stuffed Diaz' handful of weak takedown attempts, to boot.
This was an outstanding gameplan designed to maximize Condit's strengths in leg kicks and a move-diverse attack, while minimizing Diaz's tendency to win volume-based exchanges and gritty punchouts. It worked perfectly.
The downside is that while he looked pretty good tonight in defusing the ultra-tough Diaz, there weren't many stylistic clues to compare how he'd do against St. Pierre. The longtime welterweight kingpin is a completely different style, suffused with overpowering wrestling and explosive athleticism, but Condit will need a great gameplan to win that fight, as well. Tonight, he came up in a high-pressure situation and executed to the letter. He also kept his cool in the closing moments of the fifth, as Diaz finally got him down, took the back and attempted a rear naked choke. Tonight was the culmination of a long road for Condit, proving he belongs with the elite of the 170-pound division.
Fabricio Werdum: B+
A rejuvenated Werdum has always lacked solid stand up, but he put it together tonight against Roy Nelson. With perhaps the best bottom game in the heavyweight division, his campaign at heavyweight might go as far as his stand up takes him.
He's no prime bomber just yet, however, and seemed conscious of doing just enough to win rounds and dictate exchanges -- a future match against a heavy-handed wrestler might reveal more from Werdum. He's a very talented heavyweight who seems to evolve only to come up flat in performances, but tonight was one of the better performances of his career given low expectations coming off his dreadful decision loss to Alistair Overeem.
Mike Pierce: B+
The hard-nosed welterweight fought an excellent, overachieving-style bout against Josh Koscheck, and nearly won it, losing a razor-thin split decision. Pierce mitigated Koscheck's strengths by forcing a rough, down-and-dirty fight. Using his quick, heavy hands to get off first, he mixed in enough takedown attempts to keep Koscheck off-kilter in spots, though the former UFC title challenger did enough to nick the decision on the judges' cards. Coming in as a heavy underdog, Pierce did better than most people thought, and with a meaningful exchange his way, could have easily won this fight.
The UFC's welterweight division is definitely in flux right now with GSP's absence and Condit as the interim champ. Pierce should definitely be in line for another big-name fight to show his mettle once more; with all five losses via decision, he's a tough customer that showed it tonight.
Ed Herman: B+
Veteran middleweight got his third win in a row against upstart Starks, after eating some heavy leather in early exchanges. Herman's been around the block twice and then some, and his experience proved a huge factor here. After getting nailed readily in the bout, Herman used a nice trip-takedown after Starks' mental lapse offered the opening in a clinch, which was essentially the beginning of the end which led to a rear-naked choke submission win in the second. Herman's standup has improved from non-existent to semi-reliable, but his defense against strikes is presently backed up by a strong chin and little else. He'll head a lot more head movement and stand up to succeed against the better class of the division.
Renan Barao: B+
With a clear-cut decision win over Scott Jorgensen, Barao upped his record to 28-1, and steps into the elite of the 135-lb. division. The victory wasn't easy, as his early dynamism and excellent lower-leg kicks couldn't discourage the resolute Jorgensen, who simply kept coming and forcing him to work. With a wonderful talent like Renan, the first thing you want to see if how he adjusts in a tough bout he can't win early; those adjustments are precisely what he'll need if he gets a title shot, which may be later this year after Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber finished their rubber match next spring.
With a boatload of experience and now 5-0 under the Zuffa umbrella, Barao may competing for a belt fairly soon. Like most Nova Uniao fighters, he has outstanding striking with great takedown defense, with an uncanny ability to dictate range and the timing of exchanges. He'll need to improve on those to challenge for a title, especially against the wily champ Cruz, who is the master of those tactics.
Scott Jorgensen: B-
An honest product that always gives you a full day's work, Jorgensen came on strong down the stretch against the dynamic Barao, forcing trades after it was clear a takedown simply wasn't going to happen. Outmatched in terms of striking ability, the former world title challenger kept pressing, as Barao tired somewhat, and landed some decent shots in a revealing bout. As was evident in his decision loss to champ Dominick Cruz, Jorgensen's limited reach and size make it tough to him to strike at distance against rangier foes, but he's durable and persistent enough to make them work throughout, because he never quits.
This was a piece of matchmaking designed to force Barao to prove he's ready for the elite of the 135-lb. division and show what kind of resilience he'll have in tough distance match, and it succeeded on both counts.
Josh Koscheck: C+
Kos had little to gain and everything to lose tonight, especially as he's lost twice to Georges St. Pierre and is nowhere near another title shot as long as GSP is champ. But the talented welter bit down and rode out a surprisingly tough challenge from the motivated Pierce. Like fellow veterans and victims of GSP in Jake Shields and Jon Fitch, Kos will probably have to face a long line of upstart talent at 170, and as Johny Hendricks showed against Fitch, a loss could be a major setback in an already-uphill campaign to get a title shot. Kos didn't shoot for takedowns early enough in the bout and apply his amazing wrestling abilities, and looked somewhat flustered in exchanges. Veterans know how to grind out a close win, which he ultimately did, but this wasn't Kos at his best tonight.
Flipping off the crowd in his postfight interview didn't help, either, as he could've taken the high road in making nice with fans. If there's any mystery as to why they boo the talented Koscheck, he's the only one contemplating it after tonight.
Nick Diaz: C+
Diaz has never been satisfied when the judges' decision goes against him, and tonight was no different. Saying he's "done" with the sport in his postfight interview is hopefully a heat-of-the-moment statement, because he remains one of the game's most talented and exciting fighters. That being said, he was outstruck and outworked tonight just enough to lose a convincing decision. If there's a definite hole in the "Stockton Style" that Nick and brother Nate Diaz use, it's the availability of the lead leg to be repeatedly punished, followed by movement to force him to chase and reset.
Denied the pocket-range exchanges that have defined his signature wins in recent years, Diaz was unable to get extended combinations off, while Condit piled up points as he picked spots, landed cleanly and scooted away. Another longtime Diaz weakness, takedowns, flared up against as he was unable to get Condit to the mat until the final moments of the bout. His outstanding jiu-jitsu might have been able to swing the momentum of close rounds his way if he'd been able to get Condit to the mat.
Retirement talk aside, this was a somewhat flat performance by an outstanding fighter facing a guy with a great gameplan. Diaz remains a highly bankable fighter with a loyal fan base. It will be interesting to see future opponents try and replicate the Condit gameplan. Attempting to do so is probably easier said than done.
Clifford Starks: C-
Unbeaten coming into the bout, Starks showed much-improved standup, drilling Herman and planting the seeds for what seemed a huge win over the veteran. However, as Herman simply refused to bend, Starks came a bit unraveled, and paid for it, with a takedown that led to the fight-ending submission. A huge middleweight with solid wrestling, Starks' first loss is a good learning experience for him and should motivate him to work on correcting the mental lapses that led to the takedown and defeat. He's got some good basic tools, but didn't utilize them in a fight that was very much winnable until it went south on him. Fortunately for him, 185 pounds is the UFC's thinnest bench in terms of depth, so he'll have time and leeway to develop as he continues to learn the game.
Roy Nelson: C-
A relatively svelte 246, Nelson never recovered by a first-round barrage of knees and numbing punishment from Werdum, and was reduced to heaving the occasional punch with few effective weapons. Nelson looked somewhat like the tired and heavier version that was decisioned by Frank Mir, and Werdum's outstanding guard work on the one occasion Nelson did get top position stifled future considerations of going there later in the fight.
A very flat showing by Nelson, who was unable to adjust to Werdum's surprisingly good standup, especially with his kicks. This may have been a bad style matchup for Roy given the fact that he couldn't fall back on wrestling to ride out rounds and the decision. That's something that's definitely an option against future opponents he can't outstrike, but it wasn't one tonight.
For complete UFC 143: "Diaz vs. Condit" results and blow-by-blow coverage of the main card action click here.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst and Jason@jasonprobst.com