Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was a hell of a long day of fights. Some of them were great, some of them were decent, and some of them were downright bad. Without further ado, let's take a look at the real winners and losers from yesterday's action.
UFN: Marquardt vs. Te Huna
Jake Matthews: At only 19 years old, Matthews still has a ton of time to grow into a top-flight fighter, and his brutalizing of Dashon Johnson was an excellent step in that direction. Goldie and Florian made an extended comparison between Matthews and Rory MacDonald; while the Aussie probably isn't that kind of talent, and normally I'd go with the opposite of whatever they said was the actual case, the parallels are definitely there. Matthews is an excellent wrestler and clinch grappler, a decent striker, and possesses an absolutely vicious, punishing top game. If he finds the right training situation, he could develop into a hell of a fighter.
Robert Whittaker: Aside from Nate Marquardt and James Te Huna, no fighter on this card needed a win more than Whittaker. He was coming off two consecutive losses in which he looked less than impressive, and for a guy who was (correctly, in my opinion) called the best prospect to ever come out of Oceania, that was a long way to fall. After soundly outstriking Biggie Rhodes and showing new facets in his game, however, we can go back to talking about him as a young fighter on the rise. Firas Zahabi and the crew at Tristar have done wonders for him, and if he continues to improve, the fringes of the top 10 are a real possibility before too long.
Charles Oliveira: For a guy many were calling a totally busted prospect around the time he got flattened by a resurgent Cub Swanson, Oliveira has come a long way. He was respectable if not outstanding in a decision loss to Frankie Edgar, thoroughly dominated the durable Andy Ogle, and became the first man to submit the venerable Hatsu Hioki, sharpening and rounding out his game all the while. Already a great athlete and a slick submission artist, he's slowly rounded out his striking and concurrently evolved into a nasty infighter with a deep arsenal of knees and elbows, weapons that suit his long frame very well. Whether he ever becomes a mainstay of the featherweight top 10 or not, and I think he will, he's finally starting to live up to his enormous potential.
Nate Marquardt: Maybe God really does want Nate the Great to be a middleweight. This was the best he's looked since shellacking Tyron Woodley in Strikeforce nearly two years ago, and more than anybody else on the card (or even in the whole UFC), he absolutely had to get a win here. The fact that he did so in impressive fashion, flashing shades of his creative combination striking, serviceable wrestling, and surprising submissions, makes it even better. He's bought himself at least two more fights in the UFC, and for a guy at the end of his career, that's potentially the difference between penury and a start at a new life after fighting.
The fans: This card entertained from top to bottom, and it was effectively the best-case scenario for the UFC. Most events featuring talent of this caliber aren't going to be great - less skilled fighters tend to put on less entertaining fights over a large enough sample size - but occasionally, the stars align to produce a night full of knockouts, submissions, and action-packed decisions. This was one of those times, and we should appreciate it when it happens.
Dashon Johnson: I hate to pile on a young guy making his UFC debut, but getting smashed in the first round, a point deducted for twice-illegal (both to the back of the head AND 12-6) elbows in the second, and getting choked out in the third isn't a good look. In case you were unclear on who he is, Johnson is the guy who fought the worst of the worst competition in Xplode Fight Series before debuting, and that lack of experience against fighters with a pulse came back to haunt him here: he had no real idea how to react to being put in a disadvantageous position. Young fighters, take note.
Mike Rhodes: I've been high on Biggie for a while now, but at 0-2 in the UFC, it seems likely that he'll get his walking papers. That's unfortunate, and I'll tell you why: he's an object lesson for why talented young prospects shouldn't necessarily sign with the UFC the moment the offer arrives. He took his debut on 11 days' notice and had to cut 36 pounds, and got another highly talented young fighter in his second fight, all less than two years removed from his pro debut. He needed more time (at least another year) to develop - he's primarily a counterstriker, a skill that takes endless repetitions in the gym to master - and in the UFC, you're never going to get that slow progression of fights. Rhodes will go to WSOF or Bellator and get his career back on track, but if he'd waited, he could have been the next big thing.
Hatsu Hioki: The loss to Oliveira drops Hioki to 3-4 in the UFC, and with nearly 12 years' experience under his belt, he doesn't have a whole lot of room to continue improving as a fighter. Could he turn things around? Absolutely. With his grappling-heavy style, he hasn't taken much damage over the years, and that's an essential component of an abnormally long career. On the other hand, the odds are absolutely against him ever making his way back to the featherweight top 10. He probably won't be released outright, given the upcoming Japan card, but this next fight is an absolute must-win for him.
James Te Huna: Te Huna needed a win just as desperately as Marquardt, and unfortunately for him it didn't work out. I wouldn't be surprised if the UFC hung onto him for another fight - guys with some name value in Oceania aren't exactly common - but it wouldn't be a shock if they cut him, either. This was a big opportunity, and he came up short: on paper, Marquardt seemed like a matchup that favored Jimmy Tuna, and he probably won't get a chance to put himself back on the map like this again.
Gian Villante took a split decision from Sean O'Connell in a not-pretty but fairly entertaining slobberknocker in the opener. While Villante probably won't turn into the top-flight fighter people thought he might a couple of years ago, he'll continue to hang around the bottom of the UFC's light heavyweight division. Next, Daniel Hooker elbowed a few years off Ian Entwistle's life while the Englishman unwisely held onto a poorly-executed heel hook for about two minutes longer than he should have. It was bloody, violent, and hellaciously fun while it lasted. Neil Magny showed the continuing development of his striking game with some long, nasty punches that knocked out Monstro de Lima after a rough first round. He's is going to stick around for a long time as a mid- or high-level gatekeeper in a brutally hard division, and that's no small accomplishment.
Vik Grujic knocked out Chris Indich in a better-than-expected matchup that went back and forth until the finish. Neither of them is a world-beater, but it was entertaining in a mid-level regional MMA kind of way. Roland Sancha-an may have dropped a decision in his debut to Richie Vaculik, but there's no question that he's a young fighter to watch with his excellent combination of explosive athleticism, diverse and entertaining striking, and more-than-serviceable wrestling and grappling. Jared Rosholt took a not-particularly-entertaining, grinding decision from Soa Palelei. All credit to Rosholt, who looks to have solved his problem of reacting poorly to getting hit and drastically improved his scrambling, control, and infighting games.
UFN: Swanson vs. Stephens
Carlos Diego Ferreira: Hit a sick hip toss? Check. Sneak in a too-cool-for-school rear-naked choke from the leg ride? Check. Do it all against a guy who's widely disliked? Even better. That was an incredibly impressive debut from Ferreira, who had flown under the radar as a prospect (including mine), but he just put his name on the map in a big way. While Smith obviously isn't a world-beater - the fact that the UFC included his three TUF wins on his record is a microcosm of his whole underwhelming career - Ferreira's performance was definitely praiseworthy.
Joe Ellenberger and James Moontasri: Yeah, the third round was an ugly gasfest, but the first two were pretty awesome. Moontasri did everything but beat Ellenberger with a spiked club in the first, the Nebraskan roared back in the second with takedowns and sub attempts, and the third was...not great. The fight should have been a draw, and it was an impressive UFC debut for both fighters.
Ricardo Lamas: The decision was more than a bit controversial, but Lamas badly needed to get back in the win column, and this counts. As I said in my pre-fight prediction, I'm not sold on Lamas as a top-5 or even necessarily a top-10 fighter - there are too many holes in his range striking and his wrestling isn't really that great - but if you have to grind it out, go ahead and grind it out. He's worked his way back into the conversation at featherweight after getting the brakes beaten off him by Jose Aldo, and that makes him a winner.
Kelvin Gastelum: Yes, he missed weight, and yes, he looked pretty not-great in the first round. After that, however, he settled down and looked like something resembling the guy who soundly beat Rick Story back in March. It's worrisome that he left Reign to train at a tiny, no-name gym back in Yuma - there are few things less conducive to career growth for a young fighter than working with sub-par coaches - but he nevertheless showed off his ridiculous speed, power, and surprisingly technical game in spades once he got unwound a bit. If he gets back to a real gym, the sky is literally the limit for a fighter with Gastelum's potential.
Cub Swanson: Aside from a rough stretch in the second round, Swanson was a cut above a peaking Jeremy Stephens for the entirety of the fight. It's impossible to overstate how much he's improved over the last few years, not necessarily in highly tangible ways, but in his command of the hard-to-grasp subtleties of the striking arts such as distancing, pacing, rhythm, and timing. This is Cub's time: I don't know whether he can beat Jose Aldo - I doubt it, frankly - but with six straight wins against excellent competition, he's more than earned another shot at the featherweight king.
Colton Smith: And thus ends the UFC career of the worst TUF winner in history...to a no-hooks rear-naked choke from a debutante. His whole time after the Ultimate Fighter was one long spiral downward, and now it's almost certainly over. The UFC did him no favors with matchmaking - he went from Mike Ricci to Robert Whittaker to Michael Chiesa to Ferreira - but he didn't exactly help himself with his commitment to the grind, either.
Andrew Craig: Aside from about ten seconds in the third round, Craig got soundly beaten by Mutante. The loss drops him to 1-3 in his last four, with the only win being a closer-than-expected decision over an utterly and completely shot Chris Leben. He might get another fight in the UFC, but I'd be surprised if he did, and either way it's hard for me to get too worked up about it.
Jeremy Stephens: I hesitated to put Stephens in the Losers column. Despite suffering some kind of injury to his left hand in the early rounds, he fought to the very limit of his abilities for almost the entirety of the fight, landing enormous shots that would've put almost any featherweight to sleep. Still, it's hard to see this as anything other than a substantial setback for Stephens. He's looked resurgent at featherweight and become an infinitely more technical striker, with a real command of distance and timing that he lacked earlier in his career, but I'm not sure he has what it takes to rise any higher than the middle of the top 10. This was a huge opportunity for Stephens to put himself in the conversation at the top of the featherweight division, and I don't know if he'll get back there.
The fans: As great as most of the New Zealand card and portions of the prelims for this card were, long stretches of the main card were absolutely brutal. With this many fights in an event, it doesn't take much to turn the crowd off, and that has a ripple effect on the viewers watching from home, destroying any enthusiasm they might have left by the time the main even rolls around. Swanson-Stephens was an awesome, high-level fight, and it barely seemed to register either with the fans in the arena or those watching at home.
Oleksiy Oliynyk made a quick statement in his long-awaited debut against Anthony Hamilton with an unusual scarf hold neck crank submission. He's probably not going to be beating top-10 guys with that, but it was fun and not something you see every day; Hamilton looked...not great at anything, and I can't imagine he'll be sticking around for very long if that's what he has to offer.
Ray Borg choked Shane Howell unconscious after a brief fight that he completely dominated. His contentious, competitive debut against Dustin Ortiz wasn't a fluke: Borg is the real deal, with unreal instincts in scrambles, great phase-shifting, and a ton of time to continue developing. Howell isn't great or anything, so it's hard to put too much weight on this, but now is the time to hop on the Borg bandwagon.
The Texas Department of Licensing gave us its first instance of gross judging malfeasance, but not the last, in scoring Guimaraes-Enz 30-27 in favor of the Alaskan. Guimaraes isn't great, but he was good enough to beat Enz in a solidly entertaining fight, so I guess that's something.
Cody Gibson acted as karma's handmaiden by knocking out Johnny Bedford. Whether it was a bad stoppage or not, it's hard not to see that as payback for his classless response to headbutting Rani Yahya a couple of months back. Leaving aside the stoppage, however, Gibson is a talented, athletic guy with a ton of upside.
Hester-Braga Neto was definitely a thing that happened, and it had a few LOL-worthy moments, most notably when Hester dropped himself onto the ground whilst throwing a ridiculous, Dragonball Z-type punch. It wasn't a terrible fight, and it wasn't a great one; a few people were upset about Hester getting the split decision nod, but it's not like Neto did much when he had top position to offset Hester's striking in the second round. Speaking of the Atlantan, Hester is getting better every time out: the fact that Neto didn't insta-sub him the moment the fight hit the ground was impressive in itself. Neto's apparently dropping to 170, and I'd imagine that he'll do well there since he won't be giving up as much size to guys like Hester.
I'm not putting Hacran Dias in the Losers column, simply because I thought he fought up to the best of his abilities; it simply wasn't enough to beat Lamas. Nico Musoke did better than anyone expected him to in taking the first round from Gastelum and then promptly lost the second and third just as everyone expected him to. I'm not putting Cezar Ferreira in the Winners column for the opposite reason: he won, but didn't exactly look fantastic doing it in a fight he probably should have finished.
Thanks for sticking with me for this monster of a recap, friends. I'll be back to these Winners and Losers pieces in three weeks' time for the Lawler-Brown card, barring some unforeseen disaster with my wedding and honeymoon. See you then.