Hindsight: UFC 173 in retrospect

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

This is it! These are the answers. A bolt of lightning has struck the octagon at precisely 10:04 p.m. last Saturday night! If... If we could somehow harness this lightning... channel it into Bloody Elbow... it just might work. This Monday afternoon, we're sending you back to the future!

That was a hell of a thing. At the end of last week's hindsight, I said I'd be in complete shock if I were talking about T.J. Dillashaw: UFC Champion. Well, here I am, and needless to say, I'm shocked. There's just so much to talk about from a night of fights that delivered great highs, terrific lows, and the kinds of narrative shifts that could effect the MMA for years to come. I'm not saying that Dillashaw has come back from the future to change the course of history, but he looks like a whole new breed of fighter out there.

Disclaimer Time: I'm sure there are an insufferable few of you out there that picked Dillashaw to win this fight. That put money on it, and made out like bandits. But, if you tell me that you did it because you really, honestly thought that he was likely to beat Barao... You'll have to excuse me if I don't believe you. I can see a lot of people getting buried on their Lawler, Cormier, Barao parlay there, which sucks and is a fine display of why I continue to not be a betting man. All of which means: Take this article with a grain of salt. I'll provide odds, I'll talk about picks, and I'll try and show that I've learned something from the utterly improbable, but I can't pretend that I'm going to give any great gambling advice for the future. As always I'll be using BestFightOdds for the numbers and taking the mode for each fighter.

Aaron Phillips (+130) vs. Sam Sicilia (-150) (I picked Sicilia, I was right)

  • After talking about Aaron Phillips 5-0 record a bunch immediately post fight, I remembered that he's actually 8-0 (8-1 now). Still, at 24 and with only a few years and fights under his belt he's a couple years, developmentally, away from being a complete fighter. As expected, his biggest problem is volume striking. Sicilia gave him a lot of opportunity to work at range, and he wasn't able to consistently take advantage.
  • It was good to see Sicilia adjust his game a bit after eating some hard body kicks early. Phillips obviously wilted him with shots to the liver, but he toughed out the pain and got back to his strengths which are clinch brawling and ground and pound.
  • That said, this was a fight tailor made for Sicilia to dominate. Phillips low output standup style was made for Sicilia to wade in on and bully him. And he just barely got that done. By the end he looked dominant, but for much of the fight he looked entirely unimproved from past performances and this win doesn't suggest great things for his ability to beat more established featherweights.

Li JingLiang (+115) vs. David Michaud (-135) (I picked Michaud, I was wrong)

  • This fight leaves me a bit at odds in terms of Li's future. Michaud felt like an opponent tailor made to test him, but still get him a quality win... And I still picked Michaud, because I'd never seen Li strike with any sort of consistency or voracity. And that ended up being the difference maker. Li showed that he can outstrike the low end of the welterweight division. I suppose that should make me higher on him.
  • But, and this is a major but. Li also entirely failed to control the grappling (which has always been his strongest skill) against an undersized welterweight with mediocre grappling skills who was absolutely willing to engage him in that area. If Li can't be a solid grappler in the UFC, I can't see his striking alone getting him past many other fighters.
  • I'm assuming that Michaud will drop down to 155 after this loss. He'd been competing at 160 regionally and while he's a little fireplug of muscle, lightweight probably fits him better. The biggest issue for him is going to be range striking, where he's still inactive, and very very hittable.

Anthony Njokuani (-265) vs. Vinc Pichel (+220) (I picked Njokuani, I was wrong)

  • It's hard not to feel like the two early fouls really threw Njokuani off his stride in this fight. It's very possible that they got him thinking and pausing so much that he never really had an opportunity to be competitive in the way he should have. That's an incredibly tough way  to drop a fight and a continuing indictment on the lack of ability for refs to properly punish fouls.
  • That said, by the time the third round hit, it was also pretty clear that Pichel had "solved" Njokuani. Whether it's because he'd just tired him out too much early for Njokuani to stay with a stick and move gameplan, or if it's because Njokuani just isn't a stick and move fighter, preferring to stand and trade in the pocket. Pichel's chaining of takedowns, transitioning between angles and setups, and raw strength really showed that he could be a threat to a lot of guys with just his wrestling chops.
  • And for Njokuani, fouls or no, this fight was one he easily should have won. Pichel is about as one dimensional a fighter as the UFC gets and Njokuani is an old hand as a Zuffa lightweight. If he can't handle a one trick poney, even a fairly talented one, then that's a pretty strong sign that he's not going to be making his way up the ranks anytime soon.

Mitch Clarke (+350) vs. Al Iaquinta (-450) (I picked Iaquinta, I was wrong)

  •  I realize that Al Iaquinta isn't that old (he's only 27), and that he's only been around for 5 years. Heck, he even missed one of those years due to a knee injury. But, with his talent, this loss should never have happened. Iaquinta keeps putting himself in terrible positions, most particularly with his grappling, but in different ways in every fight. And this loss just felt like the natural culmination of past mistakes.
  • If I had to make a guess right now, I'd say we're seeing Clarke begin to peak as a fighter. He hasn't fought much lately, only one bout in each of the last three years, so his record is sitting at a fairly thin 11-2, 7 years into his career. Hopefully he can stay healthy and get some more cage time, because something is really clicking right now.
  • That said, it's hard to imagine the next step for Clarke. He's gotten a couple of matchups against guys who appeared to be checked out enough that they just didn't give him or his grappling any respect at all. Clarke's tough and he stays active in all positions, but it's hard to see how far up the ranks that could carry him, even after a pretty decent upset win.

Chico Camus (+280) vs. Chris Holdsworth (-360) (I picked Holdsworth, I was right)

  • Chris Holdsworth has all the hallmarks of being a pretty legit future talent in the bantamweight division, except that he can't strike a lick. This fight was a pretty clear indictment of him as another in the long run of big, rangy MMA fighters who get potshotted by much shorter opponents on the outside. His wrestling and grappling will get him by a lot of guys in a thin division, but without striking he'll hit a hard wall eventually.
  • I can't help but wonder if Chico Camus is going to drop down to flyweight after this loss. He's teased the idea a bit, in the past, and I wouldn't be surprised if this spurred him to it. The real problem may be that he's an undersized fighter who's best off at range, and flyweight has no lack of guys who will crowd him.
  • Holdsworth could be very close to entering Kelvin Gastelum territory, where the UFC will throw him at a top 15 fighter without much warning.  Bantamweight is thin enough that it may feel like sense to do so, but it could also mean that he's headed for a bad loss early in his career. 

Katsunori Kikuno (+265) vs. Tony Ferguson (-350) (I picked Ferguson, I was right)

  • I don't know if this could be considered some kind of wakeup call for Kikuno, after all he's had 30 fights over the past 9 years, if he had anything to learn in MMA about his style, it's hard to think he hasn't at least been given a lesson before. But this was his first KO loss. Maybe he'll take something out of that and adapt, or maybe this is just what fans needed to see to know that sooner or later defense matters.
  • Ferguson is another of the guys from TUF's awkward, middle years, that actually ended up being a pretty decent fighter. He boxes well, has shown flashes of a nice submission game, and has enough power to be considered a danger on the feet. This was a solid, if expect-able, win in his progression.
  • Unfortunately, it's hard to see him in anything other than a holding pattern going forward. Lightweight is neck deep in guys in his position right now, even former TUF winners. So, I'd expect him to have to take another mid to low tier fights before he gets any dramatic steps up in competition. 

Michael Chiesa (-155) vs. Francisco Trinaldo (+130) (I picked Chiesa, I was right)

  • Speaking of other guys in that exact same position. Michael Chiesa continues to bounce back really nicely from his first career loss against Jorge Masvidal last year, with a solid win over a decent, but not great lightweight fighter. Next step will probably be another decent but not great lightweight fighter... or maybe Tony Ferguson.
  • It's no surprise that Francisco Trinaldo hasn't developed much in the UFC. While he's only had 18 pro fights, he's already 35 and we're probably seeing him at his best. He's strong, his standup is alright, and his ground game is alright (when he's on top) but he's got a lot of holes that aggressive fighters can exploit (and especially aggressive wrestlers) and it's hard to see him patching those up soon.
  • Chiesa has shown consistent development, even his fight against Masvidal was surprising for his early success, but he needs to develop more striking into his skill set somehow. For the brief periods his fight with Trinaldo was upright, Chiesa looked pretty lost. I'm not saying he needs to be a great kickboxer, but more weapons to close distance and stay defensively sound are a must down the road. 

James Krause (+182) vs. Jamie Varner (-215) (I picked Varner, I was wrong)

  • This wasn't really much of an actual fight, so it's hard to draw much in the way of conclusion from it. Varner came out, got hurt and was competitive on one leg for a round. If there's anything to take away, it's that he's a tough bastard and that Krause was either too shocked or not skilled enough to put him away, even on one wheel.
  • Since there's not a lot to take away, let's talk reffing. We see refs stop fights to check cuts all the time, is it really that much harder to stop a fight to check a guys obviously broken leg? I realize that Varner did his best to hide it and fight through it, but when the ref saw his foot roll around like a sock full of change, he should have had a doctor in there to see if Varner could go on. The fact that Varner had to do it himself at the end of the round is a statement to his realism and the general lack of it in MMA.
  • Krause has now had a thoroughly weird UFC career. Two losses to the very elite of competition in the WEC saw him given an early exit. A long win streak brought him back for a pretty decent upset against Sam Stout, and now it's just all been weirdness. I'm still not terribly sure where he is in the lightweight division, so it's going to be very hard to pick him going forward.

Takeya Mizugaki (-165) vs. Francisco Rivera (+135) (I picked Mizugaki, I was right)

  • Francisco Rivera very likely is what he is as a fighter, and that's exciting, but not technical enough to beat the best. It's hard to hurt very good fighters when you can't rely on your technique to continually land strikes. He throws a nice variety and he throws it with power, but the accuracy and the consistency just isn't there.
  • Listening to Joe Rogan wonder why Rivera "didn't look like the same fighter who fought George Roop" was all kinds of depressing from an analysis standpoint. The idea that George Roop is every bit as talented as one of the top 5 fighters in the bantamweight division and the Rivera should thus be able to find as much success, is really at the heart of the UFC's "all fighters are the same" mantra. And it suggests that Rogan honestly sees that mantra as truth.
  • Some people are bringing up the idea of Mizugaki being in the title picture, and as a huge fan of his, I'd love to see it. But, the reality is that he's got to be last in line right now. Assuncao makes the most sense because of his recent win, and the shot is Cruz's for the taking if he wants it. After that, Barao could very well be in position to try for a rematch. Mizugaki is probably not getting a sniff at the belt this year, unless there's some major injury trouble. 

Jake Ellenberger (+160) vs. Robbie Lawler (-175) (I picked Lawler, I was right)

  • Some people have said that too much of Ellenberger's offense got overlooked in the commentary for this fight. I can understand that. Ellenberger really did have his moments in every round. But, there was just an aura coming of Lawler in the cage at UFC 173 and it's almost impossible to imagine ignoring the sense that he was in complete control for the few moments when Ellenberger wrested some of that control from him.
  • Ellenger now officially has an output problem and there are two culprits that I could see as probable. The first is cage wear. He's had almost 40 pro fights in his 8 year career. That's a ton of wear and tear on a guy who's only 29. The second possibility is that he's just not, nor has he ever been a top 5 talent. He's lost almost every time he's gotten a chance at the divisional elite, and it just may be that his striking is too mechanical and predictable to work well against the best fighters.
  • It's hard to know what would work best for Lawler right now. On one hand, as has been suggested by others, he's taken a lot of shots lately and should consider using some time to heal up. But, he's also very obviously on a roll at the moment and keeping that roll going may be the best possible thing he can do. Lawler looked like he was invincible for 90% of that fight, if he can maintain that it's hard to argue against him charging right back out there. 

Daniel Cormier (-800) vs. Dan Henderson (+555) (I picked Cormier, I was right)

  • This fight really benefited from the Varner vs. Krause fight being the night's "Ugh" moment. That helped overshadow the fact that there wasn't really a competitive 20 second stretch in this match. Most notably, when Cormier hulked Hendo to the ground, and then kicked his leg to trip him and drag him to the floor as Hendo got up and tried to scramble away. I expect Cormier's mom got a call from Hendo's mom after the fight, to discuss the way her son has been bullying young Henderson, because that was a school yard assault.
  • And with that, it feels like Henderson's time as a relevant top fighter is done. Since his time fighting isn't, he'll be drifting off into Rich Franklin territory, where we see him take a few "fun" scraps before eventually drifting out of the scene entirely.
  • While Henderson wasn't competitive for Cormier, this still felt like a bout that really established Cormier's cred as one of the top three fighters at light heavyweight and a serious contender for Jones' belt. Cormier asks questions that it's hard to imagine any fighter being prepared to answer. But I'm really looking forward to watching them try.

Renan Barao (-1000) vs. T.J. Dillashaw (+550) (I picked barao, I was wrong)

  • So, remember that fight T.J. Dillashaw had against Mike Easton? You know, the one where he used Easton as a mobile heavy bag for three rounds? It turns out, as much as that may have been a further indication that Easton is not an elite bantamweight, it was also a great indication that Dillashaw was something that we as fight fans just haven't seen before. No one's to blame for believing that Dillashaw couldn't do to Barao what he did to Easton, but he did and in hindsight, the indications that he could were there.
  • I am racking my brain to think of an MMA striker who looks as capable in his offensive output as T.J. Dillashaw does when striking. Even the great Anderson Silva was 9/10ths a counter fighter. Dillashaw goes after his foes and he does so with such an astounding blend of effective footwork and strikes, that he practically beggers comparison to other fighters.
  • It is hard to know what the effect on Renan Barao will be from this loss. I expect he'll bounce back as more or less his old self, but I also doubt that he can shore up the kind of holes that Dillashaw exposed. Barao has often been hittable early as he tends to stalk foes until he can time their movment and entries and start blasting. Even against Dominick Cruz this type of game could have been effective, because Dominick Cruz doesn't have a lot of stopping power. But Dillashaw not only flustered him and kept his timing off, but hit him hard enough to create caution where it never used to exist. I'm not sure how Barao solves that problem.

Those are all my collected thoughts from the last weekend of fights. So much of them seem obvious now, but as always, that's the benefit of hindsight. Until next time, when I just might be talking about Fabio Maldonado's miraculous upset (probably not) and Gegard Mousasi's dominant dissection of a striking show (probably), see you then.

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