Welcome to “Shots After The Bell,” our new post-event wrap-up that touches on the action we just witnessed at UFC Fight Night: “Phoenix” (full results here) and all the fallout that will come from it. I’m Ryan Harkness, better known to many of you as the artist formerly known as Fightlinker. I’ll be here the morning after every fight giving my two cents, and I look forward to arguing with you all in the comments section. Let’s get this thing rolling, shall we?
In MMA, A Rising Tide Doesn’t Raise All Boats
Last night marked the return of B.J. Penn to UFC competition after a 2.5-year retirement, and we have to wonder whether UFC matchmakers booked it to send a message to the aging “Prodigy” that the game had passed him by. Or, considering this was the fourth attempt from the promotion to put him back in the cage, maybe it was just bad luck of the draw. People going into this fight thinking UFC was giving Penn a soft comeback fight clearly never saw Yair Rodriguez fight before.
The lanky up-and-comer hit Penn with kicks from every angle, working his way through a seemingly endless variety of attacks that ended with his foot in Penn's face or soft midsection. By the end of the first round, the message (whether intentionally sent or not) was clear: It's no longer just the very top guys in the sport who can manhandle Penn. Yair came into this fight ranked No. 10 in the featherweight division.
A year or two from now he'll probably be in the Top 5 (see it) and this whooping of Penn won't seem like such a stain on BJ's record. But, that could have been any hungry young up and comer and the result would have likely been the same. Penn not only didn't get better since the last time we saw him, he seems to be actively losing the skills he once possessed. Gone is the B.J. of a decade ago whose ground game was feared whenever it came out.
And I suppose considering he never got inside to use his boxing, you have to say his formerly touted boxing is no longer what it was, either. Or rather, it may still be, but the game has moved forward so much that UFC will have a hard time justifying keeping Penn on the roster. Whether it will take another night like UFC Fight Night: “Phoenix” for B.J. to realize his era is over remains to be seen.
TUF Noob Nostalgia
Last night was a blast from the past not just because of Penn's participation, but because the main card was full of fighters from the Spike TV era of the sport. Joe Lauzon, Court McGee, and Ben Saunders all come from that TUF Noob time where all you had to do to watch some UFC was switch to Spike. There's a certain comfort to seeing an event with so many familiar names in a time where UFC has more than 500 guys, many of whom have been toiling on FOX Sports 1 or TSN 5 or whatever other exotic three digit cable channel the promotion is currently helping to build up.
It's like hearing old Top 20 songs on the radio. You may not like them, but by golly you remember all the words because there wasn't anything else to listen to but the same five stations. If stacking Fight Night cards with familiar names from the Spike era is a new booking strategy akin to how they're putting the prettiest people on UFC on FOX events, I'm okay with it. Having guys like Lauzon and Saunders on there makes it more likely that friends will come over and watch the fights with me. And when new talent like Yair Rodriguez or Marcin Held put on clinics against those old favorites, it makes them stand out more than if they're facing one of the other 500 fellow nameless killers on the roster.
The Champ Is Here
On one hand, we've got Floyd Mayweather scoffing at UFC's $25 million offer to fight Conor McGregor and guys like Nate Diaz refusing to answer the phone for less than $20 million. On the other, we've got light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier working his butt off calling 6.5 hours of fights on a Sunday UFC Fight Night. Let's be clear here: I'm not a big fan of the C.R.E.A.M. mentality we're witnessing seep into the sport of mixed martial arts. But maybe, just maybe, UFC’s light heavyweight champion should be making enough money that UFC can't afford to have him in the commentary booth for a small show out of Phoenix.
I'd say the same about UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, but he's not the champion any more and there have always been different rules about what's acceptable for the big guys and the little guys. But light heavyweight is supposed to be UFC's marquee division. Cormier is obviously a smart and driven guy looking to set up a post fight career, but isn't that the problem? That he still has to think about what's next after four years at the top of the sport?
Considering Oleksiy Oliynyk is known as The Boa Constrictor, it shouldn't have shocked us that he'd choke out his opponent Viktor Pesta during their fight. But, it's how he did it that left us all with our mouths gaping wide open: Olinyk pulled off the first Ezekiel Choke in UFC history (watch it), and he did it while his opponent was on top of him in full mount. As far as I'm concerned, seeing a new move successfully pulled off in the Octagon is a really big deal. One of the biggest enjoyments I get out of the sport is seeing martial arts evolve right before my very eyes. We've come a long way from the days of lay'n'pray and bad kickboxing.
He's not Alexey "The Boa Constrictor" Oleynik for nothin'!— FOX Sports: UFC (@UFCONFOX) January 16, 2017
What a submission!!#UFCPhoenixhttps://t.co/gVkOl1jhSY
Now you've got guys like Yair Rodriguez throwing kicks right out of a Bruce Lee flick, and using them to effectively dismantle a legend like Penn. And here's Oleksiy Oliynyk to remind us there's still a lot of underused weapons in the Brazilian jiu-jitsu arsenal just waiting for a skilled practitioner to dust off and start attacking people with. Here's hoping the Ezekiel Choke ends up as popular as the front face kick became after Anderson Silva knocked out Vitor Belfort with it.
The End Of An Era ... For Eyepokes
This was one of the first events featuring the new and improved not so Unified rules of MMA, and my absolute favorite part was referees warning the fighters to keep their fingers out of the faces of their opponents. The move, known to many fans as the Jon Jones Special, is now illegal -- fighters must keep their fingers tucked or straight up to avoid a warning, and we can only hope that means points will be taken should they 'accidentally' end up eye poking their opponent on account of floating their fingers out there. We really have Jon Jones to thank for the rules change. Not only did he popularize the move to the point where it was hard to ignore, he bragged about its effectiveness in the recent documentary The Hurt Business. Now it's illegal. Whether that will stop Jones from using it remains to be seen.
We’ve got even more results and analysis from UFC Fight Night: “Phoenix,” so make sure to check it out right here.