For a card that came in with changes aplenty and low expectations, UFC 153 sailed over the bar with some rollicking action. And the main event, showcasing Anderson Silva, merely reinforced the middleweight champ's greatness as he added some memorable clips to his highlight reel in starching Stephan Bonnar.
Rounding out the card in addition to the Silva-Bonnar bout were five matches. Here's a closer look at the participants at the event, held in Rio de Janeiro's HSBC Arena.
Anderson Silva: A
Deadly, accurate, and eerily calm, Silva seemed amused by Bonnar's opening-moments attempts to take him down, even going to far as to smirk at his corner during a tie-up that there was nothing to worry about.
Silva's ability to remain completely unfazed by opponents, even when they're seemingly doing well, is a fascinating plotline in his fights. It's as though he's giving kudos to foes for giving it their best effort, seemingly charmed at their attempts to wrest themselves out of a situation that usually turns Really Freaking Bad in a matter of moments. I can't recall a single fighter in the history of combat sports who could turn on the destruction button, at will, against world-class opponents. Yet Silva does it nearly whenever he wants.
You got the feeling that Anderson wanted to give his Brazilian fans a meaningful glimpse of his magic, hence it lasting 4:40. Watching his plant his back to the fence and dare Bonnar to fire away at him, then laughing off the few shots that landed, reminded everyone watching why it will be little more than spectacle to see him continue dusting off 185-lb. challengers. He needs Jon Jones and needs him now. Time's a-wastin' for both.
Jon Fitch: A
Fitch has been forever on the outs with the mainstream fan base, and at times with the UFC due to past management squabbles. But last night reinforced why he's one of the most underappreciated fighters in the game. Taking on the wunderkind Erick Silva, Fitch soldiered through an incredibly tough first two rounds, with his experience and unreal cardio ultimately carrying the bout. Silva's insanely strong upper body and athleticism made Fitch work constantly to control him, and the dangerous Brazilian seemed to have a fight-finishing rear naked choke sunk in the second - unless you're a longtime Fitch-watcher, in which case you would surprised if the dude didn't get up from a shotgun blast. After a breathtakingly long struggle, Fitch ultimately wrested himself free, as he did in the second round of a very similar predicament against B.J. Penn, and at that point, he came back strong to nearly take Silva out with an armbar before the round ended.
The epic swings and turns of momentum in the bout made for outstanding action.
More importantly, the win, capped off by a blood-and-guts pounding in the final round where Fitch basically battered an exhausted Silva, who gamely refused to break, reestablished Fitch as a top-ten welterweight. He's in an exceptionally difficult position, as his name brings serious credibility to anyone that can beat him, yet the UFC has obviously put him on a track to be beaten in order to build up viable 170-lb. challengers (see Johny Hendricks). In that position, Fitch won't get the credit he deserves (which is by design, as the UFC has little desire to see him build a groundswell toward a title shot). Silva will likely be dismissed by some as too green, too wild, and a hype job - but the 28 year-old put on one hell of a performance himself. Silva's lack of distance fights against world-class competition definitely was a factor and that's precisely how Fitch game planned in, looking to force cardio-intensive grappling exchanges that ultimately drained Silva down the stretch.
Jon Fitch wasn't supposed to win last night. Not by the conventional wisdom of the UFC, which obviously recognizes the huge star quality in a wrecking-machine-with-charisma product in Silva. But Fitch's nuts-and-bolts approach and huge reservoir of guts and experience proved the difference. He's a hard guy to get rid of, and whomever the UFC matches him against next will indicate if they've warmed to him somewhat after the most exciting bout of his career. The stylistic challenge is giving him someone he can beat in the exciting fashion with which he battered Silva.
Demian Maia: A
Scary-good on the ground, Demian Maia made some serious noise last night in submitting Rick Story in a mere 2:30. It's the kind of welterweight showing needed by Maia, whose debut against Dong Hyun Kim was aborted in the opening moments with Kim unable to continue after 47 seconds due to a muscle spasm. It was an anticlimactic debut at 170.
But last night, Maia showed the brilliant shades of his grappling game. There's jiu-jitsu and then there Maia-level jiu-jitsu, where a mat master is so many moves ahead of his opponent that is brings a thrilling sense of foreboding whenever his opponent is on the floor - even in top position. Story's a tough customer, too, as he's survived the withering guns of Thiago Alves and Martin Kampmann, and been one of those reliable types that always come 100 percent prepared. But Maia's dazzling display of intricate positional improvements, switching up his attacks and ultimately cranking home a perfectly baited neck-crank finisher showed how cerebral his grappling is. Knowing how incredibly game Story is, I seriously wondered if we were going to see the first decapitation in the history of MMA. Thankfully, he tapped.
Next up for Maia are some big things. He's improved his standup from non-existent to decent, and his takedowns are exceptionally good for a jiu-jitsu stylist. At 170, he's gonna be a helluva lot of fun to watch, as nobody in their right mind will want anything but the soles of their feet touching the mat when in the cage against him. Style-wise, he could be a real antidote to almost everyone in division. It will be interesting to see whom the UFC pits him against next. If the UFC is truly brave, they'll pit him against Jon Fitch.
Phil Davis: A-
Overwhelming on the mat, Davis put on a display against Prado, using excellent, chained-takedown attempts to blitz the Brazilian and ultimately put him to sleep with a nice choke in the second. It was a good win for Davis, whose wrestling chops are enough to neutralize all but the best light-heavies, and his submission game is outstanding as well. Davis came up flat in his five-round decision loss to Rashad Evans, but he'll definitely get better with added seasoning. Plus, he's getting more comfortable with the standup game. And his lightning-fast takedown shot allows him to close the gape at ridiculous lengths, ones few fighters would even attempt.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: B+
Old dogs don't need to learn new tricks when they know some great ones. And Nog remains an ever-dangerous submission artist with good standup. He didn't start exceptionally fast, taking some time to figure out the awkward but raw Dave Herman, but you knew when it hit the floor that vintage Nog would be on display, and it was, with a great finishing arm bar that sent Herman packing.
At this point, Nog is clearly in the twilight of a brilliant career, and he'll be a name draw for whatever cards he's on. But it's also obvious that he's slowed considerably, especially in his standup-reflexes. Against Herman, it wasn't a huge concern. But against a better heavyweight striker, it definitely will be. For now, however, we can content ourselves with a win by a legend in front of his home countrymen.
Glover Teixeira: B+
There are beatings, and then there are the horrific displays like the one Teixeira put on against Fabio Maldonado. Offhand, I can't recall the most amount of punches landed in a fight from mount position, but this one should rank right up there. Teixeira basically battered Maldonado for two brutal rounds, in a bout where many referees might have stopped the thumping at multiple points. But here's the twist - the uber-game Maldonado landed a doozy of a left hook in the first round after absorbing a frightful pounding, wobbling Glover. It essentially bought Maldonado a fresh license to keep taking shots on the ground, and he did.
It was an impressive display of sustained intensity from Teixeira, a rising force at light heavy especially in light of the fact that its biggest names are either again, have been brutally taken out by champ Jon Jones, or both. However, he did look a little vulnerable in the standup portion of the game. Perhaps he was so hittable due to overconfidence. The big hook was a definite reminder that he'll probably put in his back pocket moving forward.
Last night didn't suggest any threat to Jon Jones, but it did show off a tough contender that none of the big names have wanted to face. After this pounding, that will change, because they'll ultimately have to. Next up, I'd like to see Teixeira face Ryan Bader. They have a little time to develop him and build his name, but not too much.
Fabio Maldonado: B+
Quantifying "heart" is an eminently subjective exercise. But after Maldonado's insanely game showing tonight, you'd probably have to go back to Tim Sylvia-Cabbage Correira to find an example where someone took as much horrific punishment as Maldonado and didn't quit on their own volition (Correira's corner threw the towel in, effectively stopping the massacre - but if he'd had his druthers, Cabbage would have gotten himself killed before giving up).
Maldonado was so badly beaten that when he was on his feet, he was stepping in postholes. Offhand, I can't recall a guy being that badly hurt and lasting so long. Mercifully, after the second round, the doctor intervened on the wobbling Maldonado. It was a phenomenal display of guts. Thinking back on the card, Maldonado would be an ideal next foe for Wagner Prado, another aggressive slugger. Both were finessed and ground down by superior grapplers, but against one another, that's a lock for fight of the night.
Erick Silva: B
The talented Silva showed a ton of ability and mojo last night, taking Fitch deep in a battle of wills where Silva's didn't break, although it bent enough for him to ultimately gas in a brutally one-sided final five minutes. But there were some very encouraging signs. First, Silva got more meaningful experience in this fight than the rest of his career combined. Second, he now knows what it takes to go the distance, and will make stylistic adjustments accordingly. His ability to make Fitch, an outstanding top-control specialist, fight for every phase of the ground battle was fantastic, and the foot sweep he hit on the former title challenger to put him down in the second was a slick piece of judo.
Silva's an exciting fighter with a bright future ahead of him. After three UFC bouts, all of which ended in the first round, he needed a long, tough fight. he didn't get the W, but he showed in incredible amount of heart. With a few more fights under his belt, I wouldn't bet against him in a rematch.
Stephan Bonnar: B-
"The American Pyscho" opened exactly where he need to, pushing Silva against the cage, and in position to force the kind of down-and-dirty bout that offered his best chance to win, however slight that opening was. And Stephan didn't shrink from the opportunity, working his best to wrest Silva to the mat, and keeping an eye out for the middleweight champ's dangerous penchant for exploding into big strikes in transitions. But you kind of knew exactly where the fight was headed once Silva fended off the first series of takedown attempts, and then walked exactly back to the spot against the cage where Bonnar had initiated them.
It was a serious "WTF" moment.
That's when you knew Bonnar, like the rest of Silva's 16 felled UFC foes, was doomed.
It only got worse when Silva ratcheted up his Bruce Lee-like antics, stepping disdainfully out of the way as Bonnar attempted a spinning back kick (has anyone seen the Chael Sonnen tape? Why do people try risky, low-percentage moves against Silva?) and it thumped off the fence.
To his credit, Bonnar kept scrapping, even landing a couple shots on Silva, who mostly seemed amused by these pithy attempts to disrupt him.
Then, in a flashing sequence, Silva flung Bonnar across the canvas and onto the mat, and delivered perfectly timed knee to end matters. And that was that. Bonnar's only previous stoppage loss in his career was due to a cut against Kristof Soszynski in 2010, avenged later that year. If anything, he's been exceptionally durable. The beating he took against a then-green Jon Jones was tremendous. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if he retired, as he's never gotten realistically close to a title shot, and his legacy is forever secure as half of the game-changing bout he had on the TUF finale with Forrest Griffin.
So why a B-? Well, unlike Silva's previous two foes at light heavy, Bonnar landed a few shots and was in the fight long enough to make it relatively interesting. And like Forrest Griffin and James Irvin, he ultimately was overcome by the greatest fighter the game has ever seen.
Rick Story: C-
A tough loss for Story last night, who was simply overwhelmed by Maia's phenomenal grappling. Rick had resurrected some of the career momentum he'd enjoyed off his six-fight win streak, that culminated in his thumping decision win over Thiago Alves, prior to dropping two in a row against Charlie Brenneman and Martin Kampmann, with a decision over Brock Jardine.
Next up? Who knows. For Story, he's an exciting, aggressive fighter with a strong wrestling background that doesn't mind trading shots. I'd love to see him against Diego Sanchez, in a high-energy bout that would be fan-fan friendly, to boot.
Wagner Prado: D
Powerful but a little raw on the feet, Prado had a grappling clinic run on him last night against Davis. It wasn't much of a surprise for anyone who's seen Davis steamroll B and C-level UFC opponents, and last night will definitely send Prado back to the drawing board. Despite a few wild strike attempts by Davis that left him exposed for counters, Prado didn't capitalize, which was pretty much the only chance he had to win this one. He didn't, and got taken down and submitted instead.
Expect Prado to be matched against an aggressive standup-stylist for his next UFC bouts. He needs a Lavar Johnson or Pat Barry-style foe at 205.
Dave Herman: D
Herman's sloppy standup technique and habit of leaving his chin in the air cost him dearly last night. Taking on an aged but crafty warhorse Nogueira, Herman's gimmicky standup lost to the more fundamentally sound approach of Nog, who simply picked his spots and ultimately submitted Herman with a nice armbar. Herman, who weighed in the low 230s in his first UFC bouts, bulked up to 244 for this bout, but his technique remains wild and unpolished. He's got some obvious physical gifts but fights like a wrestler trying to be a striker. last night, the shortcomings of that approach were obvious.
Jason Probst can be reached at www.twitter.com/jasonprobst.