The TUF Nations finale is in the books, so let's take a look at the real winners and losers from last night's show.
Nordine Taleb: Third time's the charm, I guess. After getting injured mid-fight and losing on TUF Nations and then dropping his preliminary bout on TUF 19, Taleb finally made it into the UFC proper with a win over the properly-unheralded Vik Grujic, who I figured to be one of the two or three worst fighters in the house. I'm not sure why the UFC was so invested in getting Taleb on the roster, but it looks like he's finally there. Yay?
Sarah Kaufman: There were a fair few people ready to write off Kaufman after her back-to-back losses against Jessica Eye and Ronda Rousey, and I'm still not sold on her having the physical tools to compete against the new breed of women's bantamweights. With that said, she beat the everloving crap out of Leslie Smith, showcasing smooth, relentless combination work at range and fantastic knees and elbows in tight. While she might not be able to beat the explosive athletes who are starting to populate the upper echelon of the division, her chin and clean, technical volume striking guarantee that she's always going to be competitive and exciting. That's a recipe for a long and productive career in the UFC.
KJ Noons: Oh yeah, that's why people were high on KJ Noons at some point in the distant past. It's easy to forget that for all his flaws as a fighter, including a reputed lack of motivation, he's been in there with some of the world's best at 155 and 170, from Nick Diaz to Josh Thomson to Donald Cerrone and just about everybody in between. There's no denying that he hadn't looked great for the last couple of years - a 2-5 stretch will do that - but after his last two wins, there's every reason to think that he can stick around as a fairly exciting, durable gatekeeper to the top 15 or 20 at lightweight or welterweight.
Dustin Poirier: Dustin Poirier violence is some of the best violence. I'm not sure his manifest defensive flaws are ever really going to go away, but that's part of his appeal: you know he's going to hit his opponent, and you know he's going to get hit, and the rest is unpredictable awesomeness. Poirier is a fantastic offensive fighter, and he's become appointment viewing in his last few outings whether he's fighting a fellow top-10 guy like Cub Swanson or a tune-up opponent like Akira Corassani. I'd love to see him in there with Conor McGregor at some point in the near future.
Chad Laprise: Laprise came in with a fantastic gameplan that consisted of working sharp angles and movement against an explosive and linear opponent. His execution was even better. I'm really not sure what his ceiling is - he doesn't scream "future champion" to me - in a division as stacked as lightweight, but I do know that I'm excited to see him fight again.
Elias Theodorou: I was impressed by the fact that he dominated Westcott in every phase of the fight, but what really sold me was him saying "Hi mom" while raining down vicious shots on his overmatched opponent. He's a plus athlete, a great infighter - those knees and elbows were nasty - with solid striking, and his wrestling and grappling are nothing to be sneezed at, either. Theodorou has a bright future at middleweight, which isn't exactly stacked with young talent: there's every reason to think that with the proper coaching, he could develop into a top-10 kind of guy
Tim Kennedy: While Kennedy didn't exactly put a beating on Michael Bisping, he did give the veteran absolute fits on the mat, outgrappling BIsping to an extent that we've never seen before. That's an accomplishment that deserves some praise. This was the best version of Tim Kennedy that we've ever seen, and while that's still a fighter with some real limitations, he can certainly win a lot of fights at 185 with his combination of takedowns, top control, and good-enough-not-to-get-killed striking.
Leslie Smith: Sure, she came in on extremely late notice, but considering the number of people who thought she beat Kaufman in their first meeting last summer, there was good reason to think that she'd walk away with the win here. This isn't a huge setback for Smith in the larger context of her career, but it was a pretty tremendous missed opportunity for her.
Sam Stout: Yikes. It's been quite a while since Stout really looked good - the best candidate is probably his win over Yves Edwards almost three years ago - but nothing drives home a fighter's long-term decline quite like a vicious first-round knockout loss. Fighters who get hit a lot, as Stout has for many years, tend to age quicker than average, but even leaving that out of the equation he's been a pro for eleven years. It might be time to consider retirement, but even if he doesn't and the UFC keeps him around, the days of Stout as a solid gatekeeper to the top 15 or even 25 at 155 seem to be gone.
Olivier Aubin-Mercier: No shame in getting beaten by a prospect who's clearly at a more advanced stage of development, but it's clear that Aubin-Mercier has a lot of growing left to do. He has good takedowns and solid grappling to go along with a nasty clinch game; at range, however, he had almost nothing to offer. If he's planning to go to 155, it's impossible to stick around, even at the very lowest level of the division, without being able to strike. He has great physical tools and some real skills, so here's hoping that he makes some progress.
Sheldon Westcott: Speaking of yikes, coming out and blowing your gas tank in the first two minutes of the fight rarely works out well. I still think Westcott has potential, but if he doesn't learn to keep his adrenaline under control, we'll never see it fully blossom.
Michael Bisping: There were a few moments, most notably in the second round, in which Bisping looked like the fighter who's comfortably held down a spot in the bottom half of the middleweight division's top 10 for the last five years. Whether it was the eye problems, the sequence of other injuries that have interfered with his training, the simple fact of the aging process, or some combination of all of those factors, he didn't look like the same fighter tonight. His opponent wasn't exactly a wizard on the feet, but Bisping nevertheless looked hesitant and slow, and his usual lack of one-shot power was especially apparent. While Kennedy is a very good middleweight, this is exactly the kind of matchup - a grappler with good but not outstanding takedowns and low-volume striking - that BIsping would have crushed a couple of years back. I'm not saying that Bisping can't hang around for a while longer, but at 35 and with ten years in the sport, any hopes of him making a late-career run at the title are likely unreasonable.
The prelims weren't especially exciting, though Richard Walsh and Mitch Gagnon looked pretty solid. Mark Bocek didn't, and one has to wonder how long his fine technical grappling and wrestling can overcome his lack of physical tools relative to the rest of the division. Nobody really expected de la Torre, O'Connell, or Corassani to win, so I have a hard time putting them in the "Losers" column; none of them looked especially terrible despite the two finishes, either. Cote and Noke both looked pretty blah in a not-great fight that doesn't do much for either guy's place toward the bottom half of the welterweight division.
Overall, this was a decent show that featured some solid prospects and a few good fights, and it's probably about the average of what we can expect from these midweek filler cards moving forward.