The first meaningful test of the UFC's Fight Pass platform is in the books, and it delivered oodles of exciting action to go along with fewer snoozers than we've come to expect from the UFC this year. Gustafsson murder-death-killed Jimi Manuwa in the second, Johnson took a clear decision from the no-longer-young Assassin, Melvin Guillard, and Gunnar Nelson barely broke a sweat in thoroughly dominating a solid prospect in Omari Akhmedov. Let's take a look at the real winners and losers from yesterday's card.
Luke Barnatt: The UFC desperately needs more viable fighters from the UK, one of their best non-US markets, to replace the aging Michael Bisping and the likely retired Dan Hardy, and they've found one in Barnatt. He's a tall man who actually has some idea of how to utilize his length, flicking out an excellent jab, solid knees in tight, and well-timed high kicks. Moreover, he's perfectly willing to exchange, and when he does so he does a fantastic job of finding the very edge of his opponent's range. Barnatt is still pretty raw, but he's already an exciting action fighter who has a good shot at becoming much more. The UFC is giving him time to develop against opponents like Nilsson, and the investment will pay dividends down the road.
John Gooden and Dan Hardy: The UFC's newest broadcasting team had a strong debut, which was to be expected given Gooden's stellar work over the last couple of years for Cage Warriors and Hardy's supremely underrated technical grasp of the game. The two men showcased an excellent rhythm, with Gooden actually doing play-by-play (shocker), and Hardy filling in with color (again, shocker). Most importantly, they accomplished all of this without the constant stream of ridiculous hyperbole that we've come to expect from Rogan and Goldberg, and to a lesser extent Anik and Florian. The last piece is especially important given the vastly differing quality of cards the UFC is putting out these days, and not pretending that the product is consistent is a step in the right direction.
Gunnar Nelson: He was favored and I expected him to win, but he absolutely dominated a pretty good prospect in Omari Akhmedov. I still have some questions about the viability of Nelson's striking against the kinds of opponents he'll face at the top end of the division - the ease with which his opponents have landed punches and kicks at the middling ranges is a touch worrisome - but he'll have no trouble brutalizing all but the most accomplished grapplers on the ground. Moreover, his icy demeanor gives him a real if understated swagger, and I dig it.
Neil Seery: Seery was a late replacement, an 8:1 underdog, and an inspiring story with a passel of kids and little time left in his MMA career to make an impact. He came to fight, and showed the combination boxing and gameness that those of us who'd watched him in Cage Warriors had come to expect. Sure, Pickett won the fight, but the surprising fact that Seery hung tough and made it a real scrap made it one of the highlights of the card. Storylines like Seery's are one of the very best parts about MMA and sports in general, and we should take the time to appreciate them when they happen. Whether he puts together a long UFC career or not, I'm certainly excited for his next bout, and so too should be everyone who watched him yesterday. As a side note, the fact that he wasn't publicly awarded a bonus is a travesty, and I hope the UFC cut him a massive check in the locker room. He deserves it.
Michael Johnson: While his fight with Guillard may not have been the barnburner everyone was hoping for and (with good reason) expecting that it would be, Johnson showed real growth as a fighter. He stuck to the gameplan, took what Guillard gave him, and showcased his rapidly evolving and ever more technical striking game. Henry Hooft has taken Johnson's raw athleticism and turned him into one of the tightest and most powerful strikers at 155, and the maturity he showed in not giving into his frustration and diving headfirst into Guillard's counter right bodes extremely well for him as he moves up the ranks. He's earned a shot at a top-10 fighter, and there's every reason to be optimistic about his future prospects.
Alexander Gustafsson: Whatever you might think about the decision to put Gustafsson on Fight Pass, the Swede's performance cemented his status as the second-best light heavyweight on the planet and the toughest contender for Jon Jones' belt. Prior to this fight, there was a meme making the rounds that Gustafsson is some kind of point fighter, and he firmly demonstrated precisely why that was and remains completely inaccurate with his fight-ending barrage of knees and uppercuts. According to Dana White, he'll get the Jones-Teixeira winner regardless of the outcome, and I know I'm stoked to see him try his luck against the division's king once more.
Brad Scott and Claudio Henrique da Silva: For the sake of my own sanity, I don't want to dwell too much on this fight, but it was ten different kinds of awful. From the eye pokes to da Silva's terribad striking to Scott's complete inability to demonstrate even the slightest semblance of a gameplan to takedown attempts that looked like something out of a cartoon depiction of a bullfight, it was bad from start to finish. I don't want to watch either of these guys fight again.
Melvin Guillard: Despite excellent movement and footwork throughout the fight, which consistently gave him the dominant outside angle on his southpaw opponent, Guillard barely did a damn thing with it. For a guy who relies so heavily on his speed and ability to close distance, he looked just a touch slower than he has in the past; whether that's the product of late-career decline or he just didn't get into the kind of shape he normally does, the difference was noticeable. He also didn't look like he had much of a plan B against Johnson if the counter right didn't land, as it didn't for most of the fight. All in all, it was a bad gameplan and a bad performance.
Jimi Manuwa: He didn't look bad, exactly, and it might not be a bit fair calling him a loser in a fight in which he was a 4:1 underdog against an opponent coming off a razor-thin decision loss to the greatest light heavyweight of all time. On the other hand, he's 34, and this was his big opportunity to make a statement in front of his hometown fans. He showed nothing in his game that suggests that he'll ever be able to make a run at the top. Put simply, he didn't have what it takes, and he's not going to get a ton of bites at the apple moving forward. There's nothing wrong with being a solid, action-packed fighter who hovers around the tenth spot in the division, but let's not pretend this wasn't a serious setback for him.
Otherwise, this was an excellent card, and there weren't many real losers to be found. Gunnar Nelson did exactly what he was supposed to do, Brad Pickett struggled a bit and raised some real questions about how he'll perform against the top dogs at flyweight, and the prelims were largely solid. Depending on how you feel about Fight Pass, this was either a huge win - the card went off without a hitch and delivered a great deal of exciting action - or a total loss, if you want to make the argument that an awesome finish like Gustafsson's shouldn't have been buried on the platform.