With a pair of surprising finishes to its card-topping matches, UFC Fight Night 26, which aired on FOX Sports 1, kicked off the debut of the new sports network in fine style last night (Sat., Aug. 17, 2013).
In the main event from inside TD Bank Garden in Boston, Mass., Chael Sonnen scored a nifty guillotine choke win at 4:47 of the first round over Mauricio Rua (watch highlights here), while Travis Browne survived a brutal gut-check opening assault against Alistair Overeem to rally back by knockout in a four-minute Heavyweight barnburner (watch highlights here).
With four other fights rounding out the live television portion of the main card, here's a closer look at how the UFC Fight Night 26 competitors graded out with the "Shogun vs. Sonnen" first-ever FOX Sports 1 "Report Card:"
Travis Browne: A
Battered by Overeem's punishing knees to the body about one minute into the fight, Browne crumpled against the cage, assuming the pose that so many of the "Demolition Man" foes have taken prior to becoming a highlight-reel addition to his reel.
By my count, Overeem unloaded 30 punches, mostly hammer fists, and a few more debilitating knees, including one that to the head while Browne was on the ground (illegal, but it the action wasn't halted to give a warning). Most people would've been done.
But Browne, to his credit, sucked it up and survived the onslaught. Then, after getting his bearings back, he discovered that Overeem neither had no defense for, nor was simply too hardheaded to avoid a snapping front kick. Browne kept firing it -- about 10 times -- with Overeem simply wading forward, clearly tired from the finishing barrage that wasn't successful.
Finally, Browne landed it perfectly on the jaw, dropping Overeem and finishing him with a couple hammer fists.
Just like that, Browne went from on the cusp of a knockout loss to a bonafide Heavyweight title contender. It wasn't pretty, or technically smooth, but this was the kind of gritty, hard-nosed display that really gives the UFC marketing cache to put him in for championship fight.
It's also a stark reminder that it's not how you start, but how you finish. Especially when you're a Heavyweight.
Matt Brown: A
"The Immortal" has been on a tear, notching his sixth straight win in a 29-second demolition of veteran Mike Pyle. The Brown game plan never varies, as he simply goes right after people, uncorking a bottomless reserve of strikes until something connects hard enough to change the tone of the fight. At which point he keeps smashing you. It's an effective plan if you can't be derailed from it, and Brown's win, following his stellar KO of Jordan Mein in April, makes him a legit top ten contender, in my book.
The road to a title shot still has a few obstacles, but with Brown's style -- which is striking-friendly and wrestling deficient -- UFC should look to capitalize on its positives. Brown against fellow banger Robbie Lawler would be the kind of fight you could put on television and make a killing. It'd also help sort out the bottom half of the UFC's top ten. I'd also say that after the dreary performance that Rory MacDonald put on against Jake Ellenberger, Rory could use a guy like Matt Brown to bring out his best. Why the hell not? You know Brown's gonna bring it, win or lose.
John Howard: A
At 4-1, Howard was the biggest underdog on the card. But he didn't listen, grinding out a tough unanimous decision win over Urijah Hall. Using scrappy striking and bursts of energy when he needed it, Howard prevented the bigger Hall from taking him down after an initial concession to the mat in the opening moments, and proceeded to get the biggest win of his career. Jumping up a weight class and filling in for the scratched Nick Ring, Howard, on paper, should've been a simple notch in Hall's considerable belt of knockouts. But he simply wouldn't cooperate, and denied Hall the ability to dictate the fight in key scramble and takedown battles while working more consistently on the feet.
The decision itself was debatable -- one judge had Howard winning 30-27, which was absurd -- but you have to commend the veteran Howard, who hadn't fought in the UFC since 2011 and was obviously willing to take whatever opening was available.
And he capitalized on it.
Chael Sonnen: A-
Sonnen's wrestling and ability to grind opponents from the top has always been solid, and tonight he threw in a glimpse of his submission game as a capper. After a rousing opening exchange on the mat, where Rua took Sonnen down and had some early success, Chael simply kept working, punching when appropriate and bulldogging the faded Rua into the mistake that ultimately cost him, letting Sonnen set up a slam-bang guillotine to pull guard and finish.
This was a good win for the former middleweight title challenger, whose timing in returning to 185 pounds couldn't be better. With Chris Weidman now ruling the division and slated to challenge ex-champ Anderson Silva on Dec. 28, 2013, in their huge rematch, Sonnen and the rest of the middles are surely pulling for Weidman to keep the top of the division Silva-free, as it adds a fresh set of challengers for the belt.
With his embarrassing but predictable-shtick post fight interview, Sonnen called out Wanderlei Silva. If the UFC makes that match, they'll make some dollars, but the aged Silva isn't the kind of top contender Sonnen should be making his case for a title shot against.
Urijah Faber: A-
Faber is the master of escaping from dire positions, and the opening moments of his battle with Alcantara were certainly that. One of the best scramblers in the game, Faber edged out Alcantara in some key positional battles that ultimately left him in guard, blasting away with elbows and using his top-notch cardio to wear the Brazilian down in a rousing fight.
The win was a definite statement for Faber, who dispatched a very talented and huge 135-pounder while he waits for the top of the bantamweight division to shake itself out. After having lost title shots to Dominick Cruz and Renan Barao, Faber has now notched three impressive wins in a row over solid opposition. He's clearly not done taking a run at the belt, as it's apparent that only the best in the division are going to beat him.
Michael Johnson: A-
Johnson used some slick striking, movement and wonderful variety to beat up and decision Joe Lauzon. After a big opening round where he nailed Lauzon, nearly scoring a knockout, Johnson downshifted for a languid second, then turned it up in the third, closing the show with a great display of footwork and shots, including some excellent body punches.
Johnson's a fun fighter to watch and he can strike effectively. Spotty performances cost him in his previous two fights, where he simply didn't put it all together. Last night, he did.
Yuri Alcantara: B
Alcantara showed a ton of ability early, threatening Faber after scoring a gorgeous hip-toss takedown in the opening moments, and then threatening with a string of submissions. But after the former WEC champ wrested himself clear and got on top, Alcantara simply couldn't dislodge him for much of the fight, absorbing taxing shots and showing a boatload of toughness.
Alcantara kept battling down the stretch, at times coming close to winning out on some key scrambles, but Faber ultimately outhustled him. This was a gritty, hard battle, and Faber's edge against world-class competition showed. Alcantara is a big bantamweight and exceptionally tough -- with more time to acclimate to the weight drop he could really become a force in the division.
Urijah Hall: C-
Hall has a ton of talent and natural gifts, but, as shown in his decision loss to Kelvin Gastelum, the bad habit of waiting and thinking too much when he should be exploding. That cost him tonight, as he squandered a perfectly winnable fight against the much smaller John Howard. After getting sucked into the trap of trying takedowns, Hall was stuffed on a string of them, and ditched his solid jab, which was very effective early. This was a considerable setback for a guy that notched some amazing wins on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) and looked a couple echelons above most of the finalists that emerge from that show.
For Hall to take it to the next level, the physical part is there. He just needs to make better tactical decisions and dictate more.
Joe Lauzon: C-
Battered early by the spry Johnson, Lauzon never really got fully untracked. Though he had a good second round, he could never take down and control Johnson the way he needed to to apply his advantages. On the feet, he never really could gauge Johnson's timing, and this was the second tough decision loss in a row, following his war with Jim Miller. Lauzon's always going to be exciting, and at this point the UFC will probably put him in against rising prospects to build their names.
Mauricio Rua: D
Shogun is shopworn and done. I'd give him an F, but he did score a nice takedown of Sonnen prior to blundering into the submission that finished matters. UFC has gingerly milked Rua's name value for all its worth, at this point - they used him to build Alexander Gustafsson for a title shot, got a rousing performance on network TV in his KO win of Brandon Vera, and he helped provide marquee power tonight. But this really should be it for him.
Alistair Overeem: D-
Overeem's a classic dangerous front-runner, and tonight was the full reminder of why he can seem like the most dangerous heavyweight in the world, only to look woefully human moments later. After uncorking a brutal opening attack on Browne, Overeem couldn't finish his opponent, and downshifted with that heavy-armed, walking-in-mud persona that he showed against Antonio Silva in a similar situation.
The worst thing about the way Overeem lost was that Browne basically threw the same amateurish snapping front kick ten times in a row, and Alistair simply refused to counter or adjust, walking into it time and again. Do it enough, and something's going to get turned off, and it did, dropping Overeem for the finish. Clearly not the same fighter now that he's facing non-tomato can opposition and either not juicing or having to modify his cycle (he was 255, 10 pounds lighter than recent bouts), Overeem still lacks stamina and can't recover after shooting his opening bolt. It'll be interesting to see what the UFC does with him from here.
I'm guessing Mark Hunt is the perfect next opponent.
Mike Pyle: F
Pyle had his work cut out for him against Brown. Everyone knew what Brown was going to do, and he did it. Which sucks for Pyle, who turns 38 next month and had scored a big win over Rick Story in his last outing. Pyle's striking has always been virtually non-existent, and he relies on wrestling and good jiu-jitsu for success. Wouldn't be surprised if he were released after this, or put in against someone likely to send him on his way out.
For complete UFC Fight Night 26: "Shogun vs. Sonnen" event coverage be sure to check out our comprehensive results stream right here.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst