With yet another rousing first-round armbar finish, Ronda Rousey delivered a big-time performance in defending the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) women's Bantamweight title for the first time ever Saturday night (Feb. 23, 2013) in the UFC 157 main event from the Honda Center in Anaheim, California.
After surviving a threatening rear-naked choke attempt from challenger Liz Carmouche, Rousey closed the first women's fight in the UFC's history in impressive fashion, a blend of dangerous and vulnerable that surely guarantee dramatic promotional mojo for her next outing.
In the co-main event, Lyoto Machida outpointed Dan Henderson in a razor-thin split decision win, while Urijah Faber took old veteran Ivan Saldivar with an impressive submission on the pay-per-view (PPV) main card.
Here's a closer look at this historical female-led mixed martial arts (MMA) event and how the competitors graded out:
Ronda Rousey: A
It was a night of firsts for women's MMA, and Rousey shouldered the burden impressively. While the de-facto pick was a trademark armbar blitz, what made the first defense of her UFC title compelling was the early trouble that materialized once Carmouche scrambled out of a side headlock and took her back. You could almost hear Dana White and the brass at Zuffa groaning at the horrific implications of Rousey getting taken out, but she soldiered through, shucking her way out and dumping Carmouche on the deck to eventually transition into the finish.
Rousey showed some subtle technical improvements last night. Her willingness to punch in close was evident with some solid dirty boxing in the clinch, and she obviously carries decent power in her fists. Her penchant for holding on to low-percentage positional advantages -- such as the side-headlock from side mount -- is something that could cost her against better opponents, as Carmouche showed. It simply isn't a sustainable position in MMA, but Rousey's core and grip strength make her an exception (most of the time). Simply pounding away at Carmouche from there probably wasn't as tactically smart as solidifying side mount, but Rousey's willingness to physically dominate foes is part of her appeal.
What's most important is that she had a stretch of legitimate adversity and worked through it, making her all the more vulnerable ... and marketable. As her competition develops, she'll be greatly served by developing stand up, and footage of her in the UFC "Primetime" special shows some solid power, at least hitting the mitts. Once Rousey gets comfortable striking at distance instead of closing the gap with brute force, she may be virtually unbeatable at this point outside of a fluke submission or knockout.
And with women's MMA now established on the sport's biggest stage, she's in a great position to make waves to draw in tons of talent.
Urijah Faber: A
Forever in the mix because of his ability to destroy non-championship foes, Faber proved again tonight that he's probably the worst guy in the sport to give your back up to. Prior to doing that against Menjivar, Faber also showcased the violent, high-energy ground-and-pound that made him a star in the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) and one of the more powerful little guys in the game. He also remains one of the toughest guys to keep on his back -- planted there early, he quickly reversed position on Menjivar before working him over and eventually landing the finishing submission.
Faber's going to remain a force at 135 pounds and probably land a title shot some way, especially if Dominick Cruz is in position to give him a rubber match for the championship belt. Cruz has to settle matters with interim champ Renan Barao, who proved a vexing opponent for Faber (who was clearly slowed by a rib injury in his loss to Barao), but from what Faber showed tonight, it's hard to see too many Bantamweight competing with his blend of athleticism and power at this weight.
Robbie Lawler: A
Lawler notched his first UFC win in nine years tonight, which is more than some guys' careers last. Yet for all the time that's passed since he was a once-touted prospect at welter, Lawler's return showed that the more things change, the more the same principles still apply - particularly when you can bang like hell and the disposition to apply it.
After getting taken down, expectably, by the smart-minded Koscheck, Lawler stayed calm, ready to pick his spots. Eventually working his way into a position to explode, he did, stunning Kos and landing a finishing barrage - the stoppage might have been a tad quick, except for the fact that Koscheck was too dazed to even protest - and just like that, Lawler's a player at welterweight.
Next up, I'd love to see him against Court McGee, another welter who's made a good transition to the lower weight, and has the kind of exciting style that would make real fireworks against Lawler.
Liz Carmouche: B
You have to appreciate how Carmouche came out, fearless and game, and took Rousey's back after getting popped in the face numerous times in a position many fighters would have given up on. Carmouche was the exact kind of challenger the game needed as women's MMA debuted at the championship level, demonstrating that this is a sport, not a spectacle.
What's nice is that what was quite possibly a blowout match was instead a dramatic, very exciting bout, and Carmouche did an excellent job with the promotion, coming across as a likeable challenger with a great back story as a former Marine. She definitely helped her career tonight, and who knows? Given the moments of trouble she gave Rousey, a rematch may be quite viable in the near future.
Lyoto Machida: B
Beating Dan Henderson isn't easy, and Machida showed his trademark sense of smart gameplan and masterful timing tonight, pushing ahead down the stretch of what was a very close fight - one that could've been swung for Henderson had he landed just one of his trademark H-bombs. But to his credit, Machida didn't let that happen, taking a close decision win in a fight that was tense fare without a definitive, climactic sequence.
It wasn't enough to make him a no-brainer for a rematch with Jon Jones, however. Being content to ride out a close judge's win over a 42-year old legend is a nice achievement, but it hardly is much to build on given how Machida fared in his first go at Jones. On the flip side, he's also the only person to drill Jones standing and represent the slightest bit of trouble the champ has ever had on his feet, which is enough to build a rematch on (no doubt, if it's made, they'll show the first-round clip of Machida popping and Jones retreating over...and over...and over again).
Here's hoping if Machida does get the rematch, he's able to find the zenith of his masterful ka-ra-te style and really put his best foot forward. Because Jones, for all his gifts, remains talented enough to take virtually anyone down and smash them into Bolivia. Which is a nice fallback position when you're a 6'4 light heavy with an 84-inch reach that can be barely hit, to begin with.
Court McGee: B
It's tough to drop down in weight for any fighter, and McGee's transition to Welterweight looked very good last night, as he was incredibly busy and outworked Josh Neer in the first two rounds, while holding on in a tough third to take a decision. McGee's sense of timing and diversity of strikes remain big-time assets, and his basic boxing is very solid. You also have to like his work rate, especially for a guy debuting at 170 pounds -- he figures to get more comfortable as his body adjusts to the weight cut.
We'll definitely know more about his prospects at 170 pounds when he faces someone who can execute more effective standup than Neer, who was game but somewhat limited, and McGee's cardio would definitely be tested against a grinding, ground-and-pound style opponent, but he was very solid tonight and figures to build on a solid performance based off what he showed here.
Dan Henderson: B-
Forever dangerous with his big-time right hand and granite chin, Henderson was barely outpointed tonight in a bout where you waited for one big shot that never really arrived from either guy. Not for lack of trying on Hendo's part, as he unloaded numerous bombs that Machida slipped, or couldn't quite connect solidly enough with.
It's tough as hell to look good against "The Dragon," much less shut down his offense, but Henderson achieved modest results on both of these scores. At times, Machida's wariness had him relegated to cherry picking occasional kicks and pecking shots, so wary was he of Henderson's numbing power. But it was enough to get the job done, as Machida's volume and better-rounded attack won the bout on a split duke of 29-28 across the cards.
I'm not entirely sure that Machida did enough to warrant a title shot, but I'm happy to conclude that Henderson did enough to not disqualify himself from the Jon Jones Sweepstakes down the road. Hendo still is the last of the old-school veteran contenders that Jones hasn't faced at 205 pounds, and with another signature win, especially one showcasing his awesome power, he's eminently promotable against the game's most dominant champion. Simply because nobody punches and takes a punch in a pound-for-pound sense as well as the old legend.
Josh Neer: B-
Neer's probably my favorite gatekeeper-style veteran, as he fights in two divisions and always brings the ruckus. After taking a sound thumping in the first round, he simply kept pressing, landing some solid haymakers as he put McGee on the defensive and really made him work to survive over the final round.
Neer's boatloads of experience make him one of the most reliable guys in the sport given his niche, especially as he gives guys a solid test in fights where there's never, ever a chance to relax and rest.
Ivan Menjivar: D
Steamrolled by a classic Faber performance, Menjivar will likely rebound from last night, where he simply got beat in an early transition and never really got untracked. After Faber got top position, and rung his bell a few times, Menjivar simply couldn't get back in the game.
A match up against a young stud like Michael McDonald would be a great next test for both guys, namely because Menjivar deserves big fights at this point, given how much of his career he spent toiling against larger foes. His loss tonight was a clear setback for short-term title hopes, but he has the talent to propel himself back up the ranks given the right opportunities.
Josh Koscheck: F
You could probably hear Dana White chuckling, as he simultaneously hangs yet another loss on the talented Koscheck, whose status at 170 is murky, despite his considerable achievements and talent, mainly because he's never getting another shot at champ Georges St. Pierre again.
Too good to be a gatekeeper prior to tonight, I'm wondering if the UFC releases Koscheck just to make a point, like it did earlier in the week in letting go the talented but always-at-odds-with-management Jon Fitch (through no fault of own, Fitch committed the crime of being efficient, effective and not quite toeing the company line enough).
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Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst