The Fight Night card in Abu Dhabi is in the books, and it delivered some solid action on both the prelims and the main card. Let's take a look at the real winners and losers.
Jim Alers and Alan Omer: That was one hell of a scrap between two of the world's best featherweight prospects, and it was my personal pick for Fight of the Night. It's unfortunate that one of them had to lose and take a bit of a step backwards, but both showed that the hype they've received over the last few years was justified. They're both athletic, well-rounded, well-coached, and still young enough to be drastically improving from fight to fight, and we shouldn't be surprised if both of them end up holding down spots in the top 10 of the featherweight division in the future.
Thales Leites: I don't think anybody in his or her right mind expected Leites to do Trevor Smith like that. Smith is a tough, game guy with a fantastic chin - he ate brutal shots from Ed Herman for three rounds without looking dented - and Leites is not, shall we say, going to be confused with Junior dos Santos anytime in the near future. In any case, the former title challenger (how strange does that sound?) is enjoying a real career renaissance in his second UFC stint. 185 is a lot deeper than it was when Leites made an improbable run at Anderson Silva's belt, and he probably won't be reaching those heights again, but he looks like a pretty solid gatekeeper to the top eight or ten fighters in the division. Not bad for a guy who was fighting way down the card on regional shows a couple of years ago.
Ramsey Nijem: After back-to-back losses to the unheralded James Vick and the somewhat more heralded Myles Jury, there was a real sense that Nijem's head was on the chopping block. He's now won two in a row against a solid journeyman in Justin Edwards and an exciting prospect in Beneil Dariush, and once again looks like he could blossom into a talented, reliable action fighter in the middle of the stacked lightweight division. The flaws in his striking defense are still there, given that Dariush tagged him several times, but they're getting smaller. He's also improved his already-effective combination of wrestling and opportunistic submissions.
Ryan LaFlare: It's time to start talking about LaFlare as a potential rising star at welterweight. He's an excellent wrestler, a solid and opportunistic grappler who excels in scrambles, a really good clinch/infighter, and to top it all off, he's more than capable striking at range. What makes him a real threat is his pace. In a division filled with tough, durable guys who can easily last for all three or five rounds, the ability to outwork your opponent becomes absolutely essential. That he hasn't finished his first four opponents in the UFC shouldn't blind us to the fact that regardless of the outcome, his process has been nearly perfect: if he keeps doing what he's doing, the finishes will come. I'd love to see him take a step up against someone like Gunnar Nelson or Mike Pyle.
Clay Guida: Guida's tendency to bounce around without actually creating much offense has been a source of increasing consternation over the years, but it seems to me that he's finally figured out how to use that movement effectively. He cut nice angles against Kawajiri. Moreover, he kept his feet under him when he threw his shots, which is what created the knockdown in the first round. His pace, wrestling, and transition game remains as grueling and hard to deal with as ever, and in the end, Kawajiri had no answers for him. I'm not sure whether Guida has actually turned a corner and set up a nice little late-career run, but that was good stuff from top to bottom.
Roy Nelson: It was good to see Roy working his jab and an occasional left hook to complement the various manifestations of his monstrous right hand. He also moved his head a little bit in the pocket, which was a welcome change from the stationary target he's been content to be for the last...forever. Nelson isn't and won't be a title challenger - his generally limited game and inability to carry his power out of the first round see to that - but the fact that he showed some improvement, any improvement, after four years of stylistic stagnation is an intriguing development. Here's hoping they put him in there with Mark Hunt in a three-rounder, inside an air-conditioned arena, at sea level.
Viewers of Omielanczuk-Rosholt: I'm not sure who thought it would a great idea to put a couple of low-level heavyweights in an outdoor stadium in the goddamned desert, but as with the slopfests at altitude in Denver a couple of years back, this turned out in predictably awful fashion. The real highlight of the fight (aside from Rosholt repeatedly demonstrating his devotion to the oil check) was an exhausted Omielanczuk pulling guard in the third round. Actually, he didn't really pull guard so much as weakly grab an overhook and topple to his back like a felled Christmas tree. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that in the future, maybe we should refrain from putting heavyweights in situations that predictably drain their 1991 Honda Civic-sized gas tanks in the first three minutes of the fight.
Trevor Smith: Getting knocked out by a guy with no real history of power punching is bad to start with, and even worse, the loss drops Smith to 1-2 in the UFC and 2-4 in his last six. Moreover, only one of those victories - against the way-too-raw-for-primetime Brian Houston - has come under the Zuffa banner. They might keep him around, since halfway-decent middleweights don't exactly grow on trees, but it wouldn't be at all surprising if he were cut.
John Howard's genitals: Not Howard himself, mind you - he looked pretty good, and simply got outworked by a slightly more talented guy - but only his nether regions. That was one of the worst groin shots I've ever seen without the fight being stopped, bringing back awful shades of Overeem-Cro Cop, and Howard's screams of pain were just plain horrifying. I hope we don't see another low blow like that anytime in the near future.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: It's time for Nogueira to hang up his gloves. I know, I know, we say this way too often, but this time it's really true. Nog's mind is willing: he's come out with excellent gameplans and his process has generally been pretty good. His body simply won't comply. Whether it's the broken arm, the multiple hip and knee surgeries, the badly dented chin, or the partial blindness in one eye* he just doesn't have the physical tools necessary to compete anymore. There's no shame in retiring as a legend and one of the three greatest heavyweights of all time, but there will be if he tries to keep fighting and the UFC is foolish enough to oblige him.
*This is apparently a well-known thing, though I'd never heard it before today. My Muay Thai coach was one of Fabricio Werdum's training partners for the Nogueira fight, and he told me that throwing looping right hands was part of their gameplan to take advantage of Nog's reduced sight.
I strongly considered putting Bedford on the "Losers" list for his post-fight antics, but a massive adrenaline dump is a pretty good excuse; on the other hand, it's hard to hold a headbutt KO like that against Yahya. Kawajiri was fine in defeat - there's no shame in getting outworked by Clay Guida - but we should probably wonder how much he has left in the tank at this point in his career. 43 fights and 14 years of experience is a lot of wear and tear, even for a guy who's taken pretty good care of himself. Dariush is still a promising prospect at 155 despite the loss to Nijem, though he's a lot rawer than many believed. There's a lot of room for improvement, especially with his striking, and it's going to take some time in the gym with Rafael Cordeiro before his Muay Thai catches up to his venomous BJJ.