What a strange night of MMA action. Fights that were supposed to be guaranteed action failed to deliver, and as for the others...well, Sanchez-Pearson was a thing that actually happened, Bryan Caraway stuck his fingers in Erik Perez's mouth, and Benson Henderson got a finish (!). Without further ado, let's take a look at the real winners and losers.
Erik Perez: Caraway had exactly one way to win the fight: takedown, scramble, back mount, choke, and all Perez had to do was stay away. The failure to do so was a huge blow not only to Perez's chances of reaching the upper echelon of the division, but also the UFC's plans for expansion in Mexico. Sherdog's Jordan Breen put it best when he compared Perez to a bantamweight Erick Silva: highly skilled, always exciting, but with no real reason that he'll ever get to the highest level. He's younger than Silva, sure, but with six years of experience under his belt he's not exactly a novice, either. He also possesses the horrendous fight IQ necessary to make every fight far more competitive and dangerous than it needs to be, and that's a hard thing for a fighter to fix. There's nothing wrong with being a reliable action fighter, but embracing that identity puts a hard ceiling on how high you can really go.
Yves Edwards: Skill-wise, Edwards can still compete with all but the very best at 155, and he might even be getting better. Physically, however, his decline is in full swing. When we think of aging, we normally talk about things like a crackable chin or visibly-lessened athleticism, but cardio problems are just as prevalent when your body simply can't take the kind of workload it used to. Combined with the altitude in Albuquerque, I think that's exactly what happened to Edwards last night. He might stick around in the UFC, but going 2-5 (1 NC) in his last eight fights makes it unlikely. Either way, though, he should think about retirement.
Jason High: The Kansas City Bandit looked great in the first round and pretty good for most of the second before dos Anjos' superior technical striking started to take its toll, and eventually RDA landed a huge left hand to put High down. The sequence at the end was controversial - the last four or five shots were clearly to the back of High's head - but the stoppage itself wasn't premature. While referee Kevin Mulhall was pretty obviously incompetent in his handling of the end of the fight, the fact that High shoved him isn't going to win him any friends.
John Moraga: It's becoming clearer and clearer that Moraga's rapid ascent to a title fight against Demetrious Johnson was more about timing than any meteoric potential lying under the surface of Chicano John's game. He's still young enough to have some upside, but he's gotten blasted by every better-than-average flyweight he's faced. Frankly, there were very few positives to take away from this shellacking.
Diego Sanchez: Everything about Diego's performance was bad, and what's worse is that he A) legitimately thinks he won the fight; and B) now has an excuse both to keep fighting and to get bookings against guys who are capable of seriously hurting him. High-level MMA has passed Diego by: he's no longer the athlete he once was, and his game has failed to evolve from its windmill striking and poorly executed takedowns in the slightest since about 2008. Moreover, he was visibly hurt by Pearson's punches on multiple occasions, and while the Brit isn't exactly pillow-fisted, he's not exactly Melvin Guillard or Justin Gaethje either. At this point, Sanchez's durability and gameness are about the only things he has left. When they're gone, it's not going to be pretty.
Judges Jeff Collins and Chris Tellez: Let's take a second to applaud Jeff Collins and Chris Tellez. They managed to take something incredibly simple - a bout in which one fighter clearly won all three rounds, and almost every minute of every round - and make it seem as complicated as the mathematics behind the goddamned Higgs boson. Collins scored the bout 30-27 for Sanchez, which somehow included a round in which the Nightmare was knocked down and taken down. Tellez, at least, managed to score that round for Pearson, though he still gave Sanchez two rounds. This was, in my opinion, the worst decision of all time. The 30-27 card was a particularly clownshoes representation of the sorry state of MMA judging.
Here's a picture of the actual scorecard for the morbidly curious among you.
Patrick Cummins: Let's be clear, Cummins is still extremely raw, and at 33 years of age, I don't know whether he has time to become anything other than a physically imposing wrestler with an absolutely brutal top game. He still has a great deal to learn about setting up his takedowns, but if he can get even a little bit better at disguising his shots and creating offense in the clinch, he could work his way up to the fringe of the top 15 at light heavyweight despite not possessing even the slightest semblance of a game at range. That's how thin the division is, and how few promising young fighters there are right now.
Sergio Pettis: Go ahead and hate away. He got three rounds of cage time in against a game opponent, was never in any serious danger, and showed off improved striking and takedown defense to go along with a broader striking repertoire. The simple fact of the matter is that the UFC should have waited at least another six months or a year to sign him, and he still has a long way to go in terms of his skill and physical development before he's ready to compete against the upper echelon of the bantamweight or flyweight divisions. That's not a Sergio Pettis problem: it's the problem with signing all but the bluest of blue chip prospects (Georges St-Pierre, Chris Weidman, Jon Jones) before they're ready. At an identical stage of his career, Pettis the Elder lost an uninspired split decision to Bart Palaszewski. Give Sergio some time to mature. If he looks uninspiring in a year and a half, then bomb away, but for now any talk of that kind is drastically premature.
Bryan Caraway: That was a huge win for Caraway. He's now 3-1 since dropping to bantamweight, with his only loss a contentious split decision to Takeya Mizugaki in Japan that easily could've gone his way. You may dislike him for a variety of more or less valid reasons, including the blatant fish-hooking tonight against Perez, but don't doubt that he's really good at what he does. In some ways, he's a throwback: he doesn't have an explosive shot, but he chain wrestles beautifully, scrambles to the back mount, and then locks up a rear-naked choke. It's a limited approach - he's not going to beat Urijah Faber or T.J. Dillashaw that way - but it's sneakily effective, and he's earned a shot at someone in the top 10 of the division.
Piotr Hallmann: Yves Edwards came out ready to fight, and he lit up Hallmann at various points in the first round. Eventually, however, Hallmann's pace, surprisingly effective wrestling, and heavy-based grappling took over. He wore Yves down over the second round before eventually taking down and choking his clearly exhausted opponent in the third. Nobody's really talking about Hallmann at this point, but he's a game, tough, and well-conditioned guy with diverse skill sets who's going to be a tough out for anybody. If he keeps developing he could make a real run at the top 10 as a slightly better version of Gleison Tibau.
Rafael dos Anjos: The controversy at the end of the fight aside, dos Anjos solidified his status as a legitimate top-10 lightweight. High came out looking like a better fighter than he has at any prior stage of his career, and after a few rough moments early, dos Anjos took over with his clean, potent striking. When he wanted to strike with power a few years ago, he really had to swing for it, but now RDA's able to generate real pop just from clean, solid technique. His left hand in particular is razor-sharp. Overall, the combination of slick grappling, severely underrated offensive and defensive wrestling, and ever-more-technical striking make him a solid gatekeeper to the top 5 at 155.
John Dodson: That was a straight-up beasting. He showed no ill effects from the knee injury that's kept him out of action for the last seven months, working his gorgeous, explosive movement and landing big shots basically at will. He set himself up for a rematch with Demetrious Johnson, and that's the fight that I and just about everybody else really wants to see at 125.
Ross Pearson: Pearson got robbed. We use that term way, way too much, but in this case I don't think it's actually strong enough to describe what happened. Leaving that aside for a moment, Pearson showed his continued improvement under the direction of the fine coaches at Alliance MMA: his circular movement staved off Diego's takedowns before they happened, his counters were slick and powerful, and the power that he's demonstrated lately was there. I hope the UFC treats him like the winning fighter here, because he certainly earned another step up the ladder at 155.
Benson Henderson: Finally, we come to the biggest winner of the night. This was a lose-lose fight for him unless he did something dramatic, and Henderson delivered with his first victory inside the distance since April of 2010. There are still legitimate concerns about his game - his volume striking at range didn't really look much better than it has in the past - but his wrestling was on point, he looked just as good as ever in the scrambles and grappling exchanges, and he showed off some power in his hands with the shot that put Khabilov down before the rear-naked choke. In short, Henderson reignited some of the fan interest that's been lacking since the second Frankie Edgar fight, and that's priceless.
Roger Narvaez looked...not great, I suppose, coming in on short notice against the immortal Durkin. I imagine he'll get another shot, this time at his natural weight of 185.
Jon Tuck and Jake Lindsey gave battle for the better part of three rounds before Lindsey tapped out to a heel kick to the rib/liver from back mount, which is frankly the first time I've ever considered that as a legitimate outcome in a fistfight between two professionals. I'm not hating, it was just completely weird and unexpected and, in hindsight, kinda awesome.
Scott Jorgensen and Danny Martinez put on an entertaining, back-and-forth fight. It seems clear at this point that Jorgensen's chin has transmuted into some fragile combination of glass and porcelain, and that will prevent him from hitting the top 10 in a division full of guys who can crack; he's still a ridiculously fun wrestler and grappler, though, and as long as he's in there with guys who aren't going to straight-up murder him with punching power, he can keep sticking around. Martinez showed some improvement, but he's still incredibly limited. Speaking of incredibly limited, Bobby Voelker looked terrible, and Lance Benoist didn't look a whole lot better in a fight that's better left undiscussed. Yaotzin Meza is probably done in the UFC after dropping to 1-3, and didn't do much to provide a counterargument.
After a fair bit of thought, I decided not to put Khabilov in the losers' column. He came out and put on an excellent performance up until the very end of the fight against one of the two or three best lightweights in MMA's most stacked division. This was a win-win fight for him, barring a first-round shellacking: he raised his profile substantially, showed that he belongs in the top-10 conversation at 155, and gained valuable experience against the top echelon of the division.
We'll see you back here next week after UFC 174's battle for the shire-weight title in the frozen, Bigfoot-infested lands of British Columbia. Until then, stay woke to shady judging, Nightmares come true, and all other varieties of MMA shenanigans.