Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: lots of fans don’t really get excited about Flyweights, so the whole concept of a Flyweight hype train is more abstract than tangible. The average UFC fan was not champing at the bit for Manel Kape’s debut.
Given that disclaimer, however, Kape’s debut was a big deal by Flyweight standards. Hardcore fans knew of his accomplishments, his knockouts and title win in RIZIN. Between his explosive style and flashy nature, certain fans — you know, the ones who tweet about Japanese MMA a lot and educate the rest of us — were really excited about his potential.
For what it’s worth, UFC were clearly believers as well. In a similar situation to Michael Chandler, Kape served as the back up for a Flyweight title fight even prior to his debut. Kape was poached from RIZIN, and his contract was unlikely to come cheap. It was a rare investment into the Flyweight division.
Enter Alexandre Pantoja, a man excited to ruin it all.
Again, like Chandler, UFC is not going to throw softballs at fighters pulling significant salaries. It doesn’t pay fighters big only to build them up like prospects — high-profile signees get thrown to the deep end.
Pantoja was the perfect difficult fight. The No.5-ranked Flyweight has been in there with the champion and has actually beaten the most recent title challenger, Brandon Moreno ... twice. He’s a savvy black belt with solid wrestling, and he’s always been an aggressive, confident kickboxer.
As quickly became apparent, that mix proved a perfect antidote to Kape’s counter punching style. Kape has really considerable athleticism, but he doesn’t always take advantage of those physical gifts in a traditional manner. It could be argued there’s a bit too much style over substance in his game, but then, that hasn’t stopped Kape from knocking out talented foes in the past.
Pantoja can swallow Deiveson Figueiredo’s bombs, however, so the durable Brazilian was not going to be scared off by the occasional clean connection. Instead, Pantoja stepped straight to his opponent, inviting exchanges and trusting in his fundamentals (and chin) to win the day.
Perhaps more important than his willingness to trade int he pocket was his willingness to kick. A willingness to kick the leg, kick the body, lead with kicks, feint then kick, and power kick straight into blocking arms if need be.
A huge part of Kape’s inability to get his offense going stemmed from the kicks of Pantoja. The BJJ ace did not fear having his kicks caught, and his opponent’s flowy style often left him out of position to answer in classic Muay Thai fashion. Instead, he was forced to absorb the kick, reset, and then fire back (and Pantoja was happy to trade at that point, on his own terms).
Kape did some things well. His takedowns were a surprising and reasonably effective back up plan, and when he really pushed in the third round, he was able to fight out of his comfort zone and rally. Those are great traits from a young, improving fighter, one who is not going anywhere just yet.
At the moment, however, Kape’s opportunity to make an immediate splash was spoiled by a brilliant performance from an underrated contender.