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UFC Boston: 'Dillashaw vs Cruz,' The Report Card

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

There are moments in the history of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) that transcend the banal technical details of how many punches and kicks were thrown and landed, and should instead be appreciated as a graceful ballet of violence in perpetual motion.

We were treated to such a fight last night (Sun. Jan. 17, 2016) in Boston, Mass. during the main event of UFC Fight Night 81, pitting bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw against former champion Dominick Cruz.

For those who could appreciate the fight for what it truly was, we watched the ceaseless ebbing and flowing attack of two men at the absolute pinnacle of their sport in a contrast of styles for which the slow motion replay was invented. As I'm sure you'll agree by now, those who said prior to the fight that Dillashaw was little more than a copycat of Cruz's style were surely proved wrong by last night's display.

Cruz fought with superior quickness and elusivity, using his counterpunching to connect with an overreaching Dillashaw again and again in the early rounds. But as the cage rust began to appear in the championship rounds, the champion began to demonstrate why he had earned the belt in the first place, pushing Cruz to the absolute brink of his abilities and forcing a split decision from the judges.

We could argue for the rest of our lives over who won the fight -- for my money it was Cruz -- but I'm not altogether interested in that debate. I'm more interested in the storyline of the comeback, one of the most alluring fairy tales in pro sports.

Cruz spent most of the last four years on the sidelines, during his physical prime as a fighter, witnessing other bantamweights win and lose, triumph in glory and fall in bitter defeat. And all he could was sit there and watch and pray that his injuries would heal.

The mental fortitude required to come back and reclaim a belt against the world's elite after a four year absence from the very top takes a special sort of person. The fact he not only pushed Dillashaw to the limit, but arguably won back his belt is the kind of story for which legends exist. I cannot overstate how impressed I was.

Anyway, we've got some fights to grade here so let's get going, shall we? Who got top marks and who failed to pass in this week's "Report Card"? Find out below:

Photo: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Bantamweight championship:  Dominick Cruz def. T.J. Dillashaw (c) Decision (split) (48-47, 46-49, 49-46)

First of all, let me say this. I scored the first three rounds for Cruz and the final two rounds for Dillashaw. Did I agree with the decision? Yes I did. Do I think Dillashaw came close to winning? Yes I do. Don't get me wrong. This was a close fight.

But the reason I'm giving Cruz top marks in this one is for the reason I gave above. The man was gone for four years from the sport and returned to defeat the top ranked fighter in his division. In that context his performance was nothing short of absolutely remarkable.

Highlights! Watch Cruz outlast Dillashaw in Boston

As far as the fight went, I thought that Dillashaw was far too aggressive in the early rounds, rushing in on Cruz and getting caught and countered. Cruz utilized his famous lateral movement to near perfection, not getting trapped against the cage like Renan Barao, and keeping things unpredictable by scoring takedowns.

The cage rust began to show early on as the notorious cardio monster was breathing heavily after the first round. But so was Dillashaw. I expected Cruz to take the champion into deep waters and drown him. Instead, Dillashaw got his second wind and began capitalizing on his kicks and punches, hurting Cruz's lead leg and reducing his effectiveness in dancing and striking.

Don't get me wrong. It was a razor thin decision for Cruz to take, with the striking practically dead even. In my mind I saw Cruz landing more cleanly and effectively the entire fight (all five rounds), but when Dillashaw landed it was clear who was packing the bigger wallop.

Now that the "Dominator" is back on top it would be nice to see some fresh faces vie for the title. I hope there won't be another immediate rematch as I don't believe one is warranted. I would prefer to see either Raphael Assuncao (who has been waiting for a title shot forever) or Aljamain Sterling next, followed by the Urijah Faber trilogy if he wins. By then, if Dillashaw wins his fight or two, we can have the rematch.

The great thing is that both guys are still relatively young and we could very well see that go down in 2017 or 2018. In the meantime, welcome back to the era of The Dominator.

Photo: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Lightweight: Eddie Alvarez def. Anthony Pettis Decision (split) (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)

If you want my honest opinion, I wasn't impressed with either guy. Anthony Pettis looked dreadful and Eddie Alvarez looked like he was doing his best Johny Hendricks impression. I gave both the first two rounds to Pettis (who very clearly outstruck Alvarez) because despite being taken down he landed the far better strikes and absorbed no ground and pound.

I thought it was a very obvious 29-28 for Pettis. Having said that, Alvarez did what Robbie Lawler did when he was losing to Carlos Condit at UFC 195. He went out in the last round and gave it his all and dominated the former lightweight champion. And for that, at least, I can give him some credit.

Highlights! Watch Alvarez Split Pettis In Boston

In the first two rounds Alvarez looked to impose his wrestling on Pettis, whose career weakness has been the takedown. And for most of those two rounds he was stifled, unable to get Pettis down, and when he succeeded it was only for moments. He took a tremendous amount of punishment for his efforts though, and it seemed to me that he needed a finish in the third.

Eddie's corner tried to motivate their fighter between rounds by pointing out his family was the stands watching and cheering for him. It seemed to light a fire under the Philadelphia native, and he came out in the third and put it on Pettis, the same way he did to Gilbert Melendez in his previous fight. It was the most one-sided and convincing round of the entire lackluster fight.

Although I felt Pettis won the fight he certainly didn't win any fans. Where is the "Showtime" of old who used to go for submissions off his back? The Showtime who would do jumping kicks off the fence? The Showtime who would try and do a crazy flying switch kick? Did Rafael dos Anjos murder that dude and dump his body under the canvas at UFC 185 in Dallas? Because that wasn't Showtime out there. That was more like a VHS tape that's been recorded over too many times.

Photo: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Heavyweight Travis Browne def. Matt Mitrione TKO (punches) 3

Why does Travis Browne get an "F" despite winning the fight via stoppage? Because it's not hard to win when you cheat. And whether or not he did it on purpose, the fact remains he eye gouged Matt Mitrione twice at critical moments in the fight and to deny that it changed the outcome is preposterous.

I'm beginning to wonder why people even follow the rules in UFC. I mean, if the first few kicks to the ballsack or pokes to the eye are legal, why not go for it? I don't mean that they're actually legal, but without consequences they may as well be. I actually think Cheick Kongo realized this technicality early in his career, which is why he always made sure to land two knees to the balls in every fight he participated.

We don't know what would have happened if Browne didn't gouge Mitrione in the eyes. Twice. We can only guess. He might have still won. He might not. All I know is that he used dirty tactics that allowed him to gain an unfair advantage in a fight and I have no respect for the dubya on his MMA record now.

As for the fight itself I just have one word. Sloppy. These guys were wading in with their hands down and chins up, throwing and hoping something would connect. It was ugly and undisciplined and reminded everybody of just why the heavyweight division is so shallow. There was very little of value in this fight and what remained was wasted by two illegal strikes. End of story.

Photo: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Lightweight: Francisco Trinaldo def. Ross Pearson Decision (unanimous) (30-27, 29-28, 30-27)

I've always been a big fan of TUF Brazil 1 competitor Francisco Trinaldo. He's a gutsy and crafty veteran who continuously surprises me when he fights. His four wins in a row weren't against elite competition but he proved himself a versatile fighter who can mix it up on the ground and the feet and has gotten a handle on his cardio, one of the knocks against him in the beginning.

The problem with picking him in this fight was that he was taking on Ross Pearson, who had looked fantastic in his last outing against Paul Felder. In retrospect I suppose this was silly simply by looking at Pearson's record. The Brit has mainly traded wins and losses on his record since 2010 and a two fight winning streak would look ridiculous on Pearson's resume because he is the poster child for inconsistency.

How a fighter can go from outclassing Paul Felder on the feet to being outworked by the rudimentary (but aggressive) striking of Trinaldo is simply a fucking mystery we may never unravel. Pearson simply looked off in his fight. He chased Trinaldo a lot but walked straight into the 1-2 combo followed up by a leg kick or knee to the chest. It happened over and over again like clockwork.

Pearson's sole tactic seemed to be pressuring Trinaldo, which seemed to work a bit in the third round, but was far too late to make a difference of any sort. Trinaldo had been evasive when he needed to be, devastating when wanted, leaping in to land a combination before jumping out again and letting Pearson get comfortable just following him around. Rinse, repeat. Which is bizarre, since it's more or less how he defeated the aggressive Felder.

Either that or I'm just not giving enough credit to "Massaranduba" who is now on a five fight winning streak and is 6-1 since 2014. At the age of 37 he's likely never going to get even close to a sniff of a title shot but he's made a strong argument for a big step up in the extremely deep 155 pound division. He's certainly earned the opportunity to prove he has more to give.

Photo: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Quick Hits From The Undercard

Speaking of old men, Patrick Cote (A+) looked absolutely phenomenal in knocking out Ben Saunders (C) for his third win in a row. The last hope for Canadian humanity, Cote is now 6-1 since 2012 and has looked nearly unbeatable since dropping a weight class.

Ed Herman (A) barbarianed the Barbarian Tim Boetch (C-) with a gorgeous Muay Thai knee in the clinch. We talk so much about wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that aside from a robotic Mike Goldbergism about Anderson Silva and Rich Franklin we don't hear enough about how beautifully deadly the Thailand martial art can really be.

He was fighting a guy on 10 days notice but Chris Wade (A) looked fantastic smothering and finishing Mehdi Baghdad (D). Wade called out pretty boy Sage Northcutt after the fight in the hopes to be the first to derail the hype train. Sounds good to me.

It's one thing to get a win in your UFC debut, and another to get a finish in that debut, but even more impressive to get it in the first round against a veteran like Maximo Blanco (F). Luke Sanders (A+) wasted little time dropping and finishing the Strikeforce veteran, demonstrating his 11-0 record is not padded with scrubs.

Paul Felder (B-) rallied in a hard fought scrap with Daron Cruickshank (C-) by using his notorious pressure to grind down the kickboxer. What was surprising was the way Cruickshank began by using his wrestling to control Felder and his kickboxing to land devastating strikes in the standup. But Felder's iron chin held up long enough to take Cruickshank to deep waters and drown him. It's unlikely we'll see "Detroit Superstar" back in UFC.

Ilir Latifi (A+) Conor McGregored Sean O'Connell (F). No more need be said.

The relentless pressure of Charles Rosa (B-) paid off in the eyes of the judges in a hard fought war with short notice replacement fighter Kyle Bochniak (A). I'm not sure whether to be impressed by how well Bochniak performed on a few days notice or how poor Rosa looked with his weird wimpy side kicks.

Rob Font (A) looked very impressive in his second UFC fight, putting together scores of combinations that finally found a home on Joey Gomez (C+) who demonstrated a hell of a chin but not a lot of offense. Font is yet another exciting prospect to emerge in the bantamweight division and I see nothing but good things in his future.

Francimar Barroso (F) lumbered around heaving slow overhand rights on Elvis Mutapcic (F) who seemed only too grateful to eat each and every one. This is the sort of fight that makes you wonder why a world class fighter like Ramsey Nijem is unemployed but these two talentless twerps are wasting space on a prelim.

That's a wrap, folks! For a free card this one was quite the bargain. I'll see you in two weeks for UFC Fight Night 82 when Ryan Bader kisses his title aspirations goodbye against Anthony Johnson.

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