With the best performance of his mixed martial arts (MMA) career last night (May 5, 2012) in the UFC on FOX 3 main event from the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, N.J., Nate Diaz became the first man to finish Jim Miller, cinching a Lightweight title shot in the process.
His second-round finishing choke was preceded by a fight that was a classic example of the Diaz style. He used a stifling, high-pressure attack where he constantly forced Miller to work. Diaz increased his accuracy and dialed in on the feet, bouncing shots off the game Miller's head before delivering the finisher. The win confirms Diaz's massive improvement over the past two years, shoring up his takedown defense, while his ever-tricky ground game negated Miller's wrestling advantage and forced him into a standup bout that wasn't to his advantage.
In the co-main of the UFC on Fox 3 card, Johny Hendricks battled to a split decision win over former title challenger Josh Koscheck. With cards 29-28 across the board, Hendricks' consistent left hand and a solid second round edged out Koscheck in a close, intensely contested bout.
Here's a closer look at the night's fights, with grades for each performer:
Nate Diaz: A
The much-heralded Diaz style is a fascinating tactical approach, but it only works if you've got some incredibly rare skill sets. Among these are a granite chin, excellent conditioning and a suffocating Brazilian jiu-jitsu game to be fearless in volume-heavy exchanges. Diaz has these in spades, and the quantum leap his striking has taken in recent bouts -- along with his incredibly good defensive grappling -- makes him a tough riddle for any lightweight on the planet, particularly in a five-round fight.
Diaz was especially on point tonight, and you could see him begin to dictate the pace as Miller began to resemble numerous victims of both Diaz brothers halfway through the first round. Winging punches, his expression looking increasingly frustrated, Miller got sucked into Nate's game, which is predicated on making opponents work and constantly punishing them from every position and opening available.
With champ Ben Henderson slated to rematch former belt holder Frankie Edgar, Diaz represents a compelling test against either guy. His guard game and submissions are as stifling and dangerous as anyone in the division, and his ability to wear down opponents mentally and physically on the feet makes him a vexing proposition on the feet. And he's as durable and difficult to stop as they come (his only stoppage loss was to Hermes Franca, early in his career - since then, nobody's come remotely close).
Diaz has waited a long time and taken more than his share of ups and down in a career often plagued by wrestling deficits and a lay-and-pray approach to beating him on the cards. After tonight, it's pretty much established that you're going to have to be one helluva fighter to get the best of him over five rounds.
Alan Belcher: A
An epic performance by the rising middleweight, who can now be considered a legit top-five contender in the 185-pound division. Dodging a terrifying series of leg lock attempts by the dangerous Rousimar Palhares, Belcher adeptly defended each time, correctly picking spots to whack Palhares in the face and soften him up for the eventual ground and pound assault that finished the bout in impressive fashion. With a moniker like "The Talent," Belcher is deserving of it, and with a huge frame for the weight class and a very solid skill set, he finished the division's most feared submission artist while playing right into Palhares hands. Or so it seemed.
A jump up is definitely warranted for Belcher in his next fight.
Lavar Johnson: B+
The hard-swinging heavy is powerful but crude, with a limited ground game despite virtually every indication that he needs to work on it. That said, after getting worked by Pat Barry early -- on the mat, of all places -- Johnson surged with an onslaught of shots as the tiring Barry simply absorbed them on his arms, skull and everywhere else, crumbling en route to a first-round stoppage. A huge win for Lavar, bumping his UFC ledger to 2-0 after his impressive knockout of the usually durable Joey Beltran. It will be interesting to see how the UFC matches Johnson next, however, especially given his grappling issues. If the promotion matches him with another headhunting striker, that's an early Christmas gift. Given his size and power, however, Johnson may occupy the kind of niche Barry has in recent fights -- that of the heavyweight bomber designed to provide early to mid-card fireworks without necessarily being considered a contender threatening for a title shot.
Johny Hendricks: B+
A solid showing by Hendricks, who picked good spots to work from, particularly in the clinch, to outhustle "Kos" to a close decision. This was the kind of test that fans hoped to see him get against Jon Fitch, but Hendricks' massive left hand ended that one barely after it began. A tough, distance-going battle against a proven commodity like Koscheck will only help Hendricks improve, giving him confidence in what he can do. However, he still got outgrappled in spots and looked a little tired in the end, and his standup isn't quite what it will need to be to take on the elite of the division, at least at this point. But he's got plenty of time to improve. Remember, Koscheck used to be a one-dimensional wrestler, too.
Josh Koscheck: B-
Koscheck looked sharp and potent on his feet in the first round against Hendricks, and I thought he did enough to win an exceptionally tough fight by taking the third round. However, Josh ran into a real tough stylistic matchup tonight. His takedown defense and athleticism remain one of the best combinations of pure ability in the division, but the loss to Hendricks puts him in a kind of Rich Franklin territory at this point - a talented veteran who clearly can't beat the champ, and is now in a measuring-stick kind of spot against rising talent.
Jim Miller: C
Miller should hold his head high, as he befell the same fate many Diaz foes (both Nate and Nick) in recent years. The key factor tonight was Diaz' improved takedown defense, as Miller's best shot was planting him on the mat and dictating the action. Exceptionally tough and well-conditioned, Miller fell short nonetheless against a high-level opponent, which also plagued him in a one-sided decision loss to Henderson. He remains a tough opponent for any lightweight, but tonight, styles and overall striking skill showed Diaz to be the better fighter.
Rousimar Palhares: C-
Palhares' dangerous game works both ways, and going for heel hooks, ankle and leg locks brings out all sorts of submission defense flaws against foes unschooled in defending them. But against a well-prepared foe, it also exposes you to getting smashed in the face because you're vulnerable. Palhares' willingness to go for these attacks makes submissions exciting, but you have to wonder how he'll adjust his game in future fights; he remains a physical wonder with a powerhouse frame, and he has heavy hands despite somewhat crude striking technique, along with good takedowns. This was the kind of setback that affirms his place in the middle of the division's pecking order, while affirming how dangerous he can be. In a couple of spots, he looked close to getting a fight-finishing lock on Belcher's limbs, only to have Belcher squirrel out.
Pat Barry: F
With a stand up-oriented foe, Barry had a great match up here, but failed terribly. Perhaps he got caught between styles, as it was somewhat weird to see him get side control and mount repeatedly, and eschew his powerful elbow and fist strikes to attempt submissions, including an Americana, which is a traditionally hard hold to finish. Barry then completely gassed after having Johnson virtually marooned on the mat, and absorbed a huge series of shots before dropping to the mat with the fight being stopped. You gotta love "HD" as he always provides excitement, but this was the kind of stylistic fight he was supposed to win, and instead, he blew a big opportunity.
For complete UFC on FOX 3: "Diaz vs. Miller" results and blow-by-blow coverage of the main card action click here.