Usually I preamble my report cards with an overall impression of how they fared in terms of capturing the attention of fight fans and delivering on the promises of the sweet, sweet violence.
But considering we're hours away from the third UFC card in less than 72 hours when UFC 194 prelims get underway, I'm going to jump right in.
The main events
UFC Fight Night 80
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Women's Strawweight: Rose Namajunas def. Paige VanZant via submission (rear-naked choke) at 2:25 of Round 5
In the past several months one thing had become apparent for UFC president Dana White. He had taken a disproportionate level of interest in several fighters, most notably Ronda Rousey, Conor McGregor, Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt. Two of the four have since fallen in spectacularly one-sided fashion, while another was somewhat exposed. Could the fourth chosen one follow suit tonight? We'll find out.
With her girlish good looks, smiling exuberance and marketability, Paige VanZant rose from an inexperienced fighter to main event star practically overnight. And her UFC resume seemed to partly back the decision of matchmakers, dominating her first three opponents en route to a spot under the bright lights against Rose Namajunas.
As for Rose, prior to the fight her career seemed to be going in the opposite direction. After ripping through the TUF 20 girls in 2014, she appeared on the finale riding a three fight winning streak, all by way of submission. But her loss to Carla Esparza in the finale was so one-sided, such an utter beatdown, that it looked as though all the wind had been sucked from her sails.
Headed into Thursday's fight, Namajunas didn't sound like somebody who had adjusted well to defeat. She shaved her head in melodramatic fashion, to counter the "beauty contest" hype of placing two attractive women in the main event of a fight card. And her interviews showed somebody who sounded like she wanted to convince herself, more than anybody else, that she was focused and ready to win this fight.
Frankly, I thought she was going to get wrecked.
I was wrong. Namajunas destroyed VanZant in a way few fighters have ever been destroyed inside the Octagon. The only other comparison that comes to mind is Rich Franklin's five round thrashing of David Loiseau at UFC 58, a fight in which one judge scored it 50-42. I had it 40-33 headed into the final frame and I would have been very surprised if we didn't see a similar score if VanZant had survived. She was utterly and completely exposed and she knows it.
The good news for VanZant is that although she was dominated she's still only 21 and fights at a world class mixed martial arts camp. She can come back from this.
TUF 22 Finale
Esther Lin photo.
Featherweight: Frankie Edgar def. Chad Mendes via KO (punch) at 2:28 of Round 1
All the talk in the featherweight division for the past two years has surrounded one man and the question of whether he can upend the kingpin. We'll find out the answer to that question soon enough, but last night there was another Answer to a question nobody had asked: Frankie Edgar might just beat either winner.
To quote the Eminem song, ya'll mofos forgot about Dre.
Edgar, a man with just four losses on his record, all by extremely close and controversial decision, took on Chad Mendes in the main event of TUF 22 Finale in a fight billed as an eliminator match to contend for the Featherweight belt. On paper it looked like a big test for Edgar, who was matched in wrestling, inferior in punching power, and facing a guy who had recently given Jose Aldo a stiff test.
Turns out the paper was wrong. Edgar starched Mendes in just over two minutes, faster than anybody had knocked out the Team Alpha Male fighter before, and certainly more impressively than either McGregor or Aldo. It took just one brutal left hook to shut out the lights and definitively set Edgar up as the challenger for whoever takes possession of the belt later tonight.
Mendes was not without his moments out there, despite the short timespan of the fight. He landed several impressive leg kicks that looked to limit Edgar's notoriously quick movement, was moving well himself early on, and didn't look overmatched before the finish.
Unfortunately, I have no choice but to hand him the "F" for getting knocked out so quickly and recently after his last loss. There is a real fear from where I'm sitting right now that Mendes might be in the Gray Maynard zone, where repeated knockouts will prematurely end his career. We can only hope that isn't so.
As for Edgar, he's made UFC 194 that much more interesting.
UFC Fight Night 80 main card
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Lightweight: Michael Chiesa def. Jim Miller via submission (rear-naked choke) at 2:57 of Round 2
I think that the TUF 22 Finale showed just how diluted the talent is these days from the reality TV show, which seems to get worse with each passing year. However, it's undeniably produced some of the best fighters on its roster as well. Such a man is TUF Live (15) winner Michael Chiesa, who followed up a disappointing TKO doctor stoppage loss against Joe Lauzon 14 months ago with two wins, including the impressive one over Jim Miller on Thursday night (Dec. 10, 2015).
Chiesa's considerable size and reach advantage has begun to pay dividends in the lightweight division as he develops his striking, and the ground game that earned him the TUF Live trophy has only improved in the years since he won. He's also matured as a fighter, demonstrating patience in the face of adversity and the sort of warrior spirit that will get him the top 15 UFC opponent he so badly craves.
Despite starting the first round well by scoring a takedown and using his size to ground and pound Miller, the wily veteran swept Chiesa with a leg lock attempt and stole the round by finishing on top. Chiesa was so furious with himself that he refused to sit between rounds. A refocused Chiesa started the second round intent on finishing what he started.
After scoring a similar takedown to the first round, it looked as though Chiesa was going to be swept by the same leg lock attempt, but he fought tenaciously to hold position, battered Miller with hammerfists and then sunk in his signature submission. Scoring a win like this over a high level black belt is no small feat. Chiesa may look awkward and unrefined on the feet but he has proven his mettle.
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Lightweight: Sage Northcutt def. Cody Pfister via submission (guillotine choke) at 0:41 of Round 2
I guess it counts as a win but frankly I think this was the moment Sage Northcutt was exposed. Cody Pfister is a third rate 1-2 UFC fighter whose only win comes against a 1-3 UFC fighter who's already been cut. This was what you might call a squash fight, UFC matchmaking meant to build the confidence of the 19-year-old and keep him on track to fuel the hype train.
But make no mistake. Despite the fact Northcutt received the bulk of the UFC promotion (while Chiesa and Miller were all but ignored), the kid is incredibly raw. He showed an inability to get back to his feet in the first round without significant help by the referee, whose standup was inexplicable. And his striking and wrestling and ground game showed much to be desired.
Not that this means Northcutt can't cut it as a UFC fighter. He is only 19-years-old with incredible strength and a good martial arts background to build on. But if they feed this kid to anybody who isn't on a level of Cody Pfister (as in, a Bellator prelims fighter), he's going to get smashed. Completely and utterly humbled. And while some might think that's a good thing, good fighters have been ruined by being pushed too hard, too early. See: Lawler, Robbie.
As for Pfister, the guy showed heart. That's pretty much all. He's a wrestler without much else going for him. Officially speaking, he was the can for which Northcutt was obliged to crush.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Middleweight: Thiago Santos def. Elias Theodorou via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-27, 29-27)
I wrote the play-by-play for this fight and at one point I compared this one to Adolf Hitler's siege of Stalingrad, Russia.
A little history lesson for the kids:
Hitler invaded Russia June 22, 1941, using the Nazi's famous blitzkrieg to take vast territories quickly. Against the advice of his generals, he pursued the capture of Stalingrad. It was a personal thing. Hitler felt if the meaningless city fell it would strike a morale blow that would end the war. But the Russians cut the Sixth Army off from its supply lines via a pincer attack and Hitler's generals begged him to retreat and regroup. He refused, and the loss is seen as the turning point in the entire Second World War.
Similarly, Elias Theodorou began his fight with a blitz, landing perhaps the most kicks I think I've ever seen in one round, and dominating Thiago Santos. And then, suddenly and in the most peculiar fashion, he began trying to get the fight to the ground. Santos battered him and punished him for every takedown attempt, and yet he persisted. His corner pleaded with him to abandon the takedown attempts that were tiring him out but he refused to listen.
The third round was a complete collapse for Theodorou. Like the Sixth Army trapped in Stalingrad with no retreat, he took a ridiculous amount of abuse, left with no other option but to continue trying to get a takedown, long after it was pointless to try. It was an object lesson in the futility of sticking to a doomed strategy and it ended the Great White Hope for Canada in the middleweight division.
As for Santos, he looked fantastic, weathering the first round storm and wearing down the durable Canadian.
Quick hits from the UFC Fight Night 80 undercard
- Tim Means (A) battered John Howard (D) with a relentless attack of elbows, kicks and punches, showing his loss to Matt Brown was but a temporary setback.
- Sergio Moraes (B-) pulled a rabbit out of his hat against Omari Akhmedov (C) by scoring a knockout in a fight he was likely down 2-0 in rounds.
- Antonio Carlos Junior and Kevin Casey can't be graded because of an 11 second no contest due to accidental eye poke.
- UFC embarrassed itself putting the green Northcutt on the main card while one of the bantamweight division's hottest prospects was buried on a free fight card. Aljamain Sterling (A+) absolutely dominated Johnny Eduardo (C-) like no man has ever dominated the veteran fighter.
- The pressure fighting tactics of Santiago Ponzinibbio (A) was too much for the inexperienced Andreas Ståhl (D)
- Danny Roberts (A-) made a great debut against Nathan Coy (D) by demonstrating a balance of solid standup and slick Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I definitely want to see him again.
- I didn't think the fight between Zubaira Tukhugov (B) and Philippe Nover (C-) was particularly close at all, as the Russian punished the TUF alumni with aggressive striking the entire fight. If there's a knock against the Chechen fighter it's that he followed Nover instead of cutting him off.
- Emily Kagan (D) threw away a fight she was winning in a moment of extreme sloppiness against a very unimpressive showing by Kailin Curran (C-)
TUF 22 Finale main card
Esther Lin photo
Lightweight Ryan Hall def. Artem Lobov via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-26, 30-26)
Some people might disagree but whatever. This wasn't UFC co-main material. It wasn't even prelims material. I wouldn't sign either of these scrubs to wash my dishes, let alone a so-called six figure contract. In fact, I'd pay them not to show up, if only to fulfill the contractual obligations.
Lobov, a .500 fighter with 11 wins and 11 losses, shows up to a finale and throws no strikes and demonstrates no awareness of grappling, or even a basic concept of time. He walked around with his hands down and his chin up. He might just be the worst TUF finalist in the history of a reality TV show that should be fed into a woodchipper out back, Fargo style.
As for Hall, the kid won but that's not saying much. You know who else won TUF? Colton fucking Smith. So Hall is the next Smith. Good job. He was great at hanging onto Lobov and squeezing pointlessly, but not much else.
After the fight, even Dana White summed it up:
I don't disagree with any of u— Dana White (@danawhite) December 12, 2015
Esther Lin photo
Lightweight: Tony Ferguson def. Edson Barboza via submission (D'Arce choke) at 2:54 of Round 2
A candidate for fight of the year on a fight card that is candidate for worst of 2015. Interesting.
Tony Ferguson and Edson Barboza came to bang, bro. Bang, dude. It was a bang festival. These two threw down like few have ever thrown down in UFC history. It was eight minutes and 54 seconds of poetic violence and bloodsoaked beauty. This kind of fight is how we survive all the Ryan Halls and Colton Smiths of the world.
Ferguson came out in an ultra aggressive style, rolling from across the cage to search for leg locks, wading and trading with one of the deadliest strikers in the 155-pound division. Despite getting absolutely smashed dozens of times flush on the chin, Ferguson kept coming like some kind of Mexican terminator.
Barboza, bless him and his crazy spinning shit, wasn't able to contend with Ferguson's relentless forward pressure. And so, the division's most definitive gatekeeper to the top five fell. The Brazilian has been the benchmark for earning a spot into the elite at lightweight, shucking aside such pretenders as Evan Dunham, Bobby Green and Paul Felder, but falling to the cream of the crop: Donald Cerrone and Michael Johnson (who despite being robbed against Beneil Dariush deserves his number five ranking).
Now one can only dream of what that fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov would have been like. Could Ferguson's ultraviolent attack stop the Eagle's sadistic Sambo? God, I really want to find out.
Esther Lin Photo
Lightweight: Evan Dunham def. Joe Lauzon via unanimous decision (30-26, 30-27, 30-26)
The problem I usually have with UFC commentators is that after every fight they always say to the winner, "this is your most impressive victory to date." And I'm usually sitting there like, "meh, I've seen better." Not last night. Evan Dunham was on point last night, dispatching veteran Joe Lauzon in such one-sided fashion that the judges were compelled to reflect that in their scores.
I've seen a few fighters throw multiple combinations like Dunham did last night, notably T.J. Dillashaw and Nick Diaz back when he wasn't retiring after every fight. But the volume attack by this once highly-touted prospect of the lightweight division was surprising and completely unexpected. Dunham didn't just throw the 1-2 or follow up with a single leg kick. He waded in with four, five, six punch combinations and then landed kicks and followed up with more punches.
Dunham's attack is the sort of fight that all striking coaches want to see. A diverse array of punches from all angles and opportunities, maximizing the guesswork for Lauzon and minimizing the chance of getting hit. It was really a complete display of striking from a fighter who in the past has been known to coast in fights. Whatever changes he's made since his slide from 2013 to 2014 seem to have worked.
As for Lauzon, it doesn't look like there's many miles left on the old Jalopy. Although the chin is still there, he did little more than wade in and get countered. Even when he did land some impressive shots (and he did), Dunham landed four or five return strikes to completely undo whatever momentum he may have gained on the scorecards. Based on that performance and the accumulated wars he's been through in his career, you've got to wonder aloud if the end is near.
Esther Lin photo
Featherweight: Tatsuya Kawajiri def. Jason Knight via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
I can't help but feel bad for Jason Knight. A talented grappler, the minor leaguer was making his short notice primetime debut against a fighter whose style was the worst possible matchup. Knight showed nothing that Kawajiri hasn't already seen in the thousands of miles he's already travelled inside the cage over a span of 15 years against the likes of elite fighters such as Takanori Gomi, Josh Thomson, Gilbert Melendez and others.
He may be 37 years of age, but Kawajiri was more than up to the task of dispatching the 13-1 youngster from Titan FC and Atlas Fights. Kawajiri kept a tight top game, smothering Knight, but not really doing much in the way of trying to finish the fight. Part of that is to the credit of Knight, but I couldn't help but feel "Crusher" was cashing a paycheck here.
As for Knight, although he demonstrated some hip movement and attempts to attack off his back early on, the fighter became visibly demoralized as the fight wore on, to the point where you could see he was just trying to win a moral victory by surviving to the bell against a legend. It's never a good sign when you see a fighter mentally break, and certainly not something that gets you a callback to fight in the UFC.
Esther Lin photo
Lightweight: Julian Erosa def. Marcin Wrzosek via split decision (28-29, 29-28, 29-28)
Can I be brutally honest with you guys for a minute? My fucks to give in this fight were near zero. Yes, perhaps that's because I didn't watch any of TUF 22 and didn't know the first thing about either fighter. And yes, perhaps it's because neither guy has done anything to warrant a Wikipedia entry yet despite combining for 30 "professional" fights.
But look, I know C-list talent when I see it. I may not be a fighter or a coach or a talent scout. But neither of these guys has a hope in hell of winning a fight against anybody relevant in the UFC. Not a chance. Nothing.
Sure, the fight was a decent scrap, the kind you might find on the World Series of Fighting prelims or Resurrection Fighting Alliance. But the "main card" of a UFC event? Gimme a break. You bumped Ryan LaFlare and Mike Pierce for these kids? Don't make me laugh.
Quick hits from the TUF 22 Finale undercard
- Gabriel Gonzaga (F) and Konstantin Erokhin (F) put on the worst fight of 2015. Hands down. If I were UFC I wouldn't just cut them, I'd sue them for breach of contract.
- Ryan LaFlare (A) looked sharp in picking apart the rusty Mike Pierce (C) over the course of three rounds. This is a new element to LaFlare's game, where the fighter had previously been seen only as a grappler.
- Geane Herrera (A-) quietly weathered the tenacious attack of Joby Sanchez (B), but eventually his accuracy and power found a home on Sanchez's chin. I am quite happy about Herrera, who I think has a very high ceiling.
- Chris Gruetzemacher (B) was the only TUF scrub to really make me want to invite him back after demonstrating a blistering attack against the durable Abner Lloveras (C+). He's the sort of fighter who could eke out a very Court McGee-style career in UFC.
Well, that's a wrap! For now. In a few hours time we're back for UFC 194.
Until then, rest up. You're gonna need it.
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 194 fight card below, starting with the Fight Pass "Prelims" matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET, and then the remaining undercard balance on FOX Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.