On a card that saw three underdogs derail favorites, UFC 156, which took place at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, last night (Feb. 2, 2013) closed out with a hard-fought main event, as Jose Aldo outlasted an ever-game Frankie Edgar to retain his featherweight title by unanimous decision.
For while the middle of the pay-per-view (PPV) card contained surprises aplenty with how winners Demian Maia, Antonio Silva and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira performed, Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar went down pretty much according to conventional wisdom.
In a tough, intense bout where Edgar closed an early gap by pushing the pace as Aldo's output dropped, the champ held on tough for an impressive decision win. For Alistair Overeem, a disastrous third-round knockout blitz at the hands of "Bigfoot" scuttled his much-awaited title shot and years of much-deserved hype for the destructive striker.
Here's a closer look at Saturday night's fights and how the competitors graded out:
Jose Aldo: A-
Patient, measured, and brutally accurate, Aldo's bout with Frankie Edgar played out much like his decision over Mark Hominick. Blitzing his man with big strikes in the first two rounds, he held on down the stretch as his output waded, using his resolve and toughness to pick spots while getting outworked in spots.
Aldo, even when tired, remains incredibly hard to take and keep down, as Edgar's rare openings for tie-ups and takedowns where something the former lightweight boss could never really translate into an advantage. Aldo simply popped back up and resumed countering, using thumping leg kicks early that clearly took something out of Edgar. Though Frankie rallied over the final three rounds, he never hurt Aldo, and couldn't nail a decisive takedown, which might have been enough to swing a round or two his way.
The two judges' cards that had it 49-46 for Aldo (the third was a more appropriate 48-47) were a little wide for my tastes, but I've always believed you have to clearly take the title from the champion in a close bout. Also, when one guy is clearly getting visibly moved by punches and isn't returning the favor, it's hard to argue Edgar won. That said, it was a close, tactically fascinating bout. And given Edgar's penchant for adjusting in rematches, who wouldn't want to see it again? Especially given the gap between Aldo and the rest of the division. It's a bout that promises to be every bit as fascinating as this one, especially as Edgar makes his customary tweaks - and there's nobody tougher than "The Answer." If someone's gonna beat Aldo at 145, they will have to be nearly perfect, and incredibly durable to survive his opening-rounds artillery.
Antonio Silva: A
Grossly overlooked by fans and writers (and I'm as guilty as any of them), Silva played his cards correctly in taking measure of Overeem early, hanging in there, and waiting for the former K-1 superstar to drop off in output before making his move. As the duo opened the third, Silva, who really hadn't been caught with Overeem's signature bombs and was in good shape, popped a nice head kick in to get Overeem's attention, and then bashed him silly with a half-dozen right hands as Alistair's senses exited the building. It was brutally effective, as Silva's ham-sized hands simply smashed Overeem into la-la land.
This makes two times that Silva has played promotional spoiler to a big-time addition. In his previous upset for the ages, he steamrolled Fedor Emelianenko to ruin the PRIDE legend's entrance into the Strikeforce Heavyweight tournament. He isn't pretty, and his standup will forever be raw and plodding, but his huge size and natural strength make him a tough assignment if he can apply those assets in a fight. If Silva manages to stick around in a fight and you don't blitz him out early (as Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez did), he's a big problem. Literally. Given that Velasquez is the champ and Overeem is no longer a viable title challenger - for now - I'm not sure that Silva is the next best option for the champ, but he's certainly given his career a huge boost. And nobody should ever take him lightly again (including smarmy interwebs writers like myself).
Frankie Edgar: B+
Gritty, resilient and ever-persistent, Edgar survived Aldo's opening-rounds onslaught and made the champ miss with more strikes than anyone previously has. His movement and timing were outstanding, but the enduring storyline was that he simply came up a little short in a tough bout against guy that was better tonight. Though I had Edgar pulling it out 48-47 on my card, the third round really could've gone either way, and maybe the fifth, both of which I had for Frankie but Aldo certainly made a case in.
However, Edgar clearly established himself as the second-best fighter at 145 tonight. Given more time to acclimate to the weight, he'll be a betting favorite against anyone, and it will be interesting to see what the UFC does with him next. Ideally, I'd give him a confidence-builder fight and then pit him against Aldo, which benefits Frankie in two ways - it gives him time to build a case for a title shot, while Aldo's battle against his biological clock in making 145 is extended. Jose still obviously has trouble making the 145-lb. limit, as he has great cardio for two rounds, and then, essentially, falls back on reflexes, toughness and picking occasional spots to explode. It's enough to beat any 145-pounder in the world. But a future version of Edgar would certainly be another handful, and it's a great rematch for the UFC to build toward.
Antonio Nogueira: B-
Old warhorses die hard, and Nogueira, a 4-1 underdog, showed that he's still got some kick in him. Though it was a dreadful bout for much of the three turgid rounds, Nog outpointed Rashad Evans and discouraged him by stuffing key takedown attempts, which essentially set the table for him to win a standup-based decision.
Nog's ability to bang him sharp boxing combinations has always been excellent, and like a veteran, he didn't let the sleepwalk-style action get him out of his groove. He knew how to do just enough to take two rounds and get the duke and he did just that, as Evans faded in the third and was largely flummoxed with how to attack him. Nog's not close to a title shot, but it'd be nice if the UFC put him in with a striker instead of yet another wrestler - given his ability to take a shot and deliver one, who wouldn't want to see him in a rematch of his classic Pride brawl with Mauricio Rua? The two veterans deserve the chance to generate fireworks, especially as both are late in their careers.
Demian Maia: B+
Maia's ascent up the 170-lb. division continues, as he steamrolled Jon Fitch in a one-sided grappling clinic that had everything but a finish, which is a tribute to Fitch's incredible submission defense. That's the good side, in that Maia dominated the gifted Fitch, who is rarely if ever outgrappled. However, Maia, whose submission of Rick Story was pretty much striking-free, seemed content to win rounds by threatening positionally and with possible subs, and did little striking on the ground despite Fitch being rendered pretty much in defensive mode.
It was a dreadful fight for the casual fan, and it's hard at this point to build a case for Maia as a threat to champ Georges St. Pierre based on this. But, increasingly, it's hard to see too many other guys not getting overwhelmed by Maia at 170. The guy is a genius on the mat and a class above almost everyone else.
He's still got time to develop, his takedowns are great at 170, and he's got room to build - GSP has plenty on his plate with Nick Diaz and top challengers like Johny Hendricks and Rory MacDonald. Next up for Maia, the highest ranked available contender is Martin Kampmann, which isn't a bad matchup for him, and Kampmann's striking makes him a live wire against anyone at 170.
Joseph Benavidez: B+
Accurate and clearly the faster man, Benavidez took a hard-fought, well-deserved unanimous decision over fellow flyweight contender Ian McCall. Using quick strikes and the best bottom-scrambling in the game, Benavidez won the first, lost the second and close the bout with a clear-cut third to grind out a meaningful win. This was Benavidez at his classical best - speedy, creative and intense, as McCall was a beat behind in the two rounds Joe won. He also showed his trademark resilience and solid chin, eating McCall's best shots and refusing to stay planted on the ground.
Benavidez vs. John Dodson would be a brilliant match for the flyweight division, and to do it true justice, they'd best schedule it for five rounds. Champ Demetrious Johnson remains a vexing assignment for anyone hoping to take the belt, and the guess here is that the winner of Dodson-Benavidez would be sufficiently exciting in generating natural hope to see either of them rematch the champ.
Ian McCall: B
"Uncle Creepy" has nothing to hang his head about, as he gave Benavidez a tough go tonight, but was simply outpointed and outworked. His heavy hands and solid wrestling were effective in spots, but Joe's quickness and more-diverse striking ultimately swung the bout in his favor. As the flyweight division fleshes itself out and adds talent and depth, McCall remains a marketable fighter with personality that can go a long way. Like most of the top-shelf flys, he's also probably better in five-round fights, especially with his good power and top-game potency. The fact that he couldn't hold Benavidez down should be a knock, as Joe's the toughest guy to keep planted on the mat in MMA. Lesser guys would've been overwhelmed.
Alistair Overeem: F
A complete dude for the ‘Reem tonight, whose overconfidence cost him a title shot against champ Cain Velasquez. Looking off the mark in the standup department, Overeem did not attack early as is his penchant - he simply stood around, dropped his hands and posed, as though the sheer fury of his presence would generate openings instead of making them on his own merit.
That cockiness didn't scare Silva, who hung around, and exploited the opening in the third, drilling Overeem with a series of right hands as Alistair took a one-way trip to la-la land, his title shot snuffed out in a grim sequence that will resonate as the upset of 2013, unless something complete insane happens (and, hey, we've still got 11 months to go!). Long derided by his critics as a front-runner that'd built a five-year, 11-fight win streak on soft opposition, Overeem pretty much did nothing but reinforce that perception tonight, falling apart against a guy that nobody in the world thought would outstrike him.
The bright side is that, with the loss, the UFC will look to rebuild Overeem, who is their biggest free-agent acquisition in years. That means a striker versus striker match will definitely be on tap next, which guarantees an exciting comeback bout for him. Cheick Kongo would be the perfect opponent, especially with his style and willingness to bang. It's also always a wild card (at least for me) when a guy who is coming off getting busted for performance-enhancing drugs has to show what he's got (ostensibly) without them - and tonight ‘Reem looked exactly like a guy missing his mojo. The cocksure arrogance was there, but the explosiveness and athleticism clearly weren't.
Time will tell, but Overeem lost millions tonight against a guy that was tailor-made for him.
Or so it seemed. Of course, I thought that about Fedor against Silva, too.
Rashad Evans: D
Uninspired, listless and completely unable to translate his wrestling into effective points on the judges' cards, Evans was outpointed by time-tested vet Nogueira in a bout which cemented the need for "Suga" to drop down to 185, though for different reasons than coming into the bout. Talk of him as a possible challenger for Anderson Silva's middleweight belt had some real interest around this one, but instead, Evans came up flat and dropped what should've been a serviceable win.
I've come to believe that fighting Jon Jones takes a lot out of a guy, and thus far, it's a pretty solid hypothesis. Shogun Rua was clearly on the fade before Jones decimated him, and has been every bit a shell of himself since. Quinton Jackson has gone south, and Rashad seems to have befallen the same fate. It's a little early to assume he's faded, especially since he'll drop a weight class and see an increase in relative pound-for-pound capabilities, but tonight his fire and accuracy simply weren't there. He couldn't pull the trigger against an aged veteran, and that's a bad sign if you're even dreaming about fighting Silva, much less doing it. The good news is that he'll get a test-the-waters style bout at 185 if he does drop, which he should, because there's no way he is getting a title shot at 205 in the foreseeable future. It makes no sense to stay at 205, but the line at 185 just got much longer for Suga after tonight, and it shouldn't have been.
Jon Fitch: D
I'm giving Fitch a D and not an F tonight because he spent about 12 minutes with Maia on his back and didn't get submitted, which is something few welterweights (at least on this planet) could ever do. That said, he was unable to get untracked in any phase of the game, and got outhustled on the mat, especially in transitions to key positions. Fitch's career-boosting decision win over Erick Silva in October went a long way toward resurrecting his status as an elite welter, and tonight was a serious blow to that rebuilding effort. However, given his toughness and style, the guess here is that he still beats some pretty good welterweights. Maia's style, however, was in every way superior tonight, and Fitch may be one of many 170-pounders that can't find an answer on the mat against the superbly gifted Brazilian mat monster.
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Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst