There's never been a better reminder that fighting, just like any other sport, is a dirty business. The very best are constantly pushing the margins of the rules, finding out just how far they can go, before the system snaps back and puts them in check. Of course, for MMA the answer is pretty far. Outside of failed drug tests, or (occasionally) a blatant fight ending foul, MMA has a tendency to place admonishment as the first and last stop on the train of fighter punishments. Which, eventually, means that smart fighters foul all the time.
And no fight displayed that ethos better than the UFC 179 main event between Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes. These to men went to battle for UFC gold over a glorious 25 minutes that should enter itself into the annuls of required viewing for any and all fight fans. Beyond that fight, there were some fun subs and a few prospects got vetted (or failed to), however it was an anything but exciting card top to bottom. Over the course, I went 9-2, or 8-3 as I flip-flopped on Arantes/Fili.
Disclaimer Time: So, you'd think with me talking about fight picking and fight odds all the time, that I'm a big gambler who really knows how to find the best odds on fights no-one is paying attention to and win a whole boatload of money. Sadly, this is not the case. I just don't like throwing money at things that so often end up being chance. So, even when I do really well, like with this event, I'm happier in the long run with my theoretical victories. That doesn't mean I won't still be talking odds & picks, because it's a great framework for looking at expectations and fighter development. I'll be using BestFightOdds for the odds on each fight and taking the mode for each fighter.
- These odds felt very right, going in. Hawn has been a top tier guy for Bellator for a little while now. And Jansen, while expected to lose, was not walkover fight. However, the result may speak to Hawn's time as a top contender coming to an end. He's a good athlete and has a decent set of skills, but he hasn't really seemed to evolve much from his early success. Smart, talented fighters tend to move past opponents whose games stagnate, unless they're the very cream of the crop.
- For his part, this was a fantastic comeback fight for Jansen. He'd been on the sidelines for over a year, but it's clear that the layoff didn't do him any harm. As a longtime vet of the sport, it seems that he's fighting with a lot of savvy and that he'd really planned specifically to fight Hawn and take advantage of his weakness to leg kicks and a motion heavy kickboxing style.
- Unfortunately, these kinds of odds and this kind of fight show the difficulty of booking anything at 145 in the women's division. Originally supposed to be Julia Budd (who may or may not have fared better) Bucci was just too one dimensional, and not good enough in that one dimension, to go against a fighter like Coenen. Hopefully Bellator can continue to give both women a platform, because there just aren't that many opportunities for featherweight women to build their careers.
- For Coenen, I'm sure they'll try to re-book her against Budd, but the sooner Bellator can get a belt around her waist, the better. She's an excellent "brand embassador" fighter, and unlikely to lose to any of the potential challengers on her horizon.
- Frankly, I'm a bit stunned at the odds on Bobby Lashley. He's just not the kind of fighter right now, to command this kind of line against anyone with a winning record, no matter how much of a walk over that fight looks to be. Etherington was pretty clearly not a great challenge coming in, but he was undefeated and big and could potentially make Lashley work a bit, as that's been Lashley's worst enemy to date. The fact that he didn't is expect-able, but the idea that Lashley should be expected to destroy all comers is foolish.
- All that said, Lashley is actually improving just a bit. He's been around long enough that he should be really hitting his stride, whatever that may look like. And the result is that while he's still not a "complete" fighter, he's become just good enough of a grappler, wrestler, and striker, to make decent use of his great athletic gifts. It'd be nice to see him against a real legit contender, which Bellator has a few of, but I imagine they're building him for a title fight, or a big money fight of some sort.
- Nothing about Newton's game screams "dominant champ" at any level, but he may find himself riding a wave of success in Bellator if he can get by Liam McGeary in his upcoming bout. He's got a strange mix of skills that will probably never see him heavily favored over any opponent. But, having great cardio and good submission and wrestling defense, and a funky striking style is just a hard package for most fighters to deal with.
- For Linton Vassell, he came damn close to winning this fight, and while he didn't show a lot that's new in doing so, he announced himself much butter to the MMA viewing public than he had before. While he may have been a guy nobody knew before this fight, I'd expect to see him get a few more of Bellator's name LHWs down the road.
- Even odds make some sense to me here, as the honest and most sensible pick was Martin by first round submission, or Camoes by decision. It's one of the few times I've ever felt comfortable saying, if this fight goes longer than one round this fighter will probably lose, so I'll pick him to win in the first round. Hardly a safe bet, but Martin's size advantage and technique-heavy power-grappling led the way against a fighter that's been beat that way in the past.
- In his bout against Jim Miller, Fabricio Camoes showed flashes that he may still be able to win some fights at 155. He didn't even get the opportunity to do that against Martin. And now, at 35 and with 18 years in the game under his belt, it may be time for Fabricio to call it quits. He looked slow in this fight, and at lightweight, you can't afford to be slow.
- Hopefully this win rekindles a little of the interest in Martin as a legit prospect, and hopefully his weight cutting issues give him cause to consider a future at 170. He's a great natural athlete and has a nice wrestle/grappling game. If he can manage his cuts better and find some extra cardio (both of which may require a move to welterweight) it's not hard to see him being a fighter to watch down the road.
- I was a little surprised at how heavy the odds were here in Burns' favor. Not because he's not a great prospect, or because I don't believe in his chances as a prospect, but just because he hasn't really been a dominant fighter lately. He's been making wins happen and generally looking good doing it, but his striking has been more competitive than dominant and his wrestling lacked in his debut at WW.
- Of course, Burns then went right out and totally re-affirmed his blue chip status by utterly dominating a solid athlete and developing fighter in Christos Giagos. I thought Giagos would have exactly the kind of dynamic, well rounded game, to give Burns a bit of trouble in getting the decision, but I was wrong. Burns hit a beautiful double off a striking combination and once the fight hit the mat it was basically over. He's a fighter to watch, without doubt.
- For Giagos, this loss may be a harsh lesson in looking towards being more than a dominant athlete in the cage. His striking isn't really developed enough to hang out at range, and his wrestling isn't strong enough to battle in the clinch. In the past he's gotten by those challenges by being bigger, stronger, and faster than his opposition, but Burns was a quick reminder that there are plenty of guys at 170 who can be fast and strong and big, but are more technical than he is.
- It turns out that waffling was probably the right answer for this fight. Going in I was pretty sure that Fili's over aggression and lack of technique would cost him against a pretty hard striking and potent offensive fighter like Felipe Arantes. Then I watched some more tape and felt like Fili had made enough advances in his technical striking to take advantage of Arantes' inability to deal with good pressure fighters. Both ended up being true.
- Fili really has become a more technical standup striker, and while he got hit a few times coming in, here and there, the standup striking battle was mostly pushed and won by him. Then came the over-aggression. That's a real problem that Fili has to work on. He's not nearly as good a grappler or wrestler as he wants to be yet, and often puts himself in positions that limit his own success. He ended up on his back multiple times because of his pursuit of submissions over position and almost lost the fight because of it.
- For Arantes, he's developed more than I would have anticipated. His striking game is becoming more potent and diverse, but he still responds exceptionally poorly to pressure while on his feet. He's a decent counter wrestler and grappler, but when fighters come after him with a diverse striking attack he tends to just shell up and eat shots. If he can't improve his defensive movement and striking, he's going to end up a very limited action fighter.
- This has got to be one of the last times that Jorgensen is given reasonably close odds against an experienced, winning fighter in his division. There may still be a few too-green rookies he could beat, but the physical side of his game just doesn't seem to be there any more. Couple that with his missed weight cut, and it feels reasonable to start wondering if the drive has gone too. He's been a great fighter for a long time, but time waits for no one.
- For Reis, this was exactly the kind of performance he needed to plant his flag as a solid divisional gatekeeper. He now sits right alongside Chris Cariaso, as a guy that rising talent will have to beat to get their shot in the top 10. He's going to remain limited by his severly basic striking, but his grappling, wrestling, and strong scrambling ability will be too much for a lot of fighters to handle.
- Naoyuki Kotani provides a strong example of the kind of odds a Japanese fighter with no name value gets these days in the UFC. I mean, it was entirely reasonable to assume that Yan Cabral would be able to beat Kotani one way or another, but it's really rare to see two guys who have yet to make any sort of name for themselves in the UFC separated by odds this long.
- Unfortunately, it's hard to picture Cabral, even off a submission win (something he'd had trouble getting in the UFC) developing into a much bigger talent than he is right now. He has a good arsenal of kicks and a very dominating ground game, but 7 years into his career it's hard to think he's about to turn a corner and become a really lethal fighter.
- Another blow for catch wrestling as Kotani has probably seen his last UFC fight in his career. Its hard not to feel a little whistful when you see practitioners of a little-used martial art fail to find success at the highest level, but his combination of limited output and strength based athleticisim just wasn't a favorable skill set for a fighter who's going to need the majority of his fights on the ground in order to win.
- Neil Magny was definitely the deserving favorite headed into this bout. Not because he'd shown himself to be a much, much better fighter, but because in a "styles make fights" sort of way, he didn't have to change his style to win. Magny's high output range kickboxing was exactly the right thing to take Macario off his game and he used it to perfection to do so.
- For Macario, he was only going to win this fight if he showed some different skills than he had previously. It's becoming harder and harder for a striker who only works in one dimension to find consistent success at the highest levels of MMA. Without even a mediocre kicking game, Macario is going to constantly risk getting stuck at the end of kicks and punches against fighters who work well on the outside. He's still a decent prospect, but a serious hole in his skill development has been exposed.
- Going 5-0 in a single year in the modern UFC is totally unheard of. Donald Cerrone couldn't do it, Jon Fitch couldn't do it. In fact, only Roger Huerta has been able to equal that feat in the UFC's modern iteration. Which, unfortunately also suggests it's not the most meaningful stat in the world. However, Magny's established himself as a workhorse high output kickboxer and fans should expect to see a lot of him.
- This fight nicely highlights the terrible failures of MMA math. Ramsey Nijem convincingly beat Beneil Dariush, Carlos Diego Ferreira convincingly beat Ramsey Nijem, thus Carlos Diego Ferreira should convincingly beat Beneil Dariush. That wasn't the totality of my thinking, but there's no denying that it was at play in favoring CDF in this fight. He wasn't significantly bigger or more skilled, but it seemed like he would be the faster, more powerful man in the cage.
- What this shows instead is how MMA math really works. Dariush isn't a powerful fighter. He's got a decent, very well rounded skill game, and he sticks to it incredibly well. As such, Nijem, a very wild and big lightweight, was able to march him down and work him over. Against Ferreira, who throws a lot of wild shots as well, Nijem's tendency to come in wild got him caught over and over again, until he finally went out. When Ferreira and Dariush fought, the fact that Ferreira isn't actually physically dominating and that he throws so much into his strikes, and that they aren't that technical, allowed Dariush to slowly wear him down and grind him out, with his patient, studied approach. MMA math!
- Unfortunately, the fallout is that neither man really has much hype at the moment, and it's going to take another solid performance from Dariush before I'm really ready to jump on his bandwagon as a serious prospect to watch.
- From the outset, this was a weird fight to throw Lucas Martins into. No matter how much analysis one could do of their respective styles, it was hard to come down on the side of a Martins win. He was just too inexperienced and had a way of fighting that tended toward Elkins' strengths. Eventually, the result did no one any real favors as Martins suffered another setback and Elkins got little from a workmanlike performance.
- Martins is only about 3 years into his career at this point. So, this really shouldn't do much to dim his prospects, beyond potentially being a bit demoralizing for him. The big takeaway is that his takedown defense has improved quite a lot (more than I thought it would), but that he hasn't integrated his striking with that defense. He can stop a takedown, or he can strike, but he can't do both. Without that, he'll be very limited in the FW ranks.
- For Elkins, the only big takeaway is that he probably shouldn't be on PPV cards anymore. I can't fault his style, he is the fighter he is and he wins doing what he does. But, a wild, volume kickboxer with a grinding clinch game is just not pretty to watch, especially when he's only landing about 20% of his distance strikes.
- The fact that the odds on this fight were as close as they were, and that Maldonado is currently the #15 ranked LHW, should tell you everything you need to know about the division. In reality, Maldonado is not a great fighter, but he's almost always going to win these bouts over guys in the bottom third of 205. He's got a weird skill set that works better than it should, and LHW doesn't have enough of the right kind of fighters to challenge him consistently.
- To his credit, Hans Stringer gave it a good try. He was easily taking down and resting atop Maldonado for the entirity of the first round. Even in the second round, where he was expected to have more trouble implementing his game, he got Maldonado down with ease. And then something changed. I'm not sure if it was a punch I didn't see, an injury that went unremarked, or just Stringer missing a throw and landing on his face, but he went down hard and stayed there. A big setback for one of the few younger LHWs in the division.
- For Maldonado it's just another case of him doing his thing. I think he even took home a POTN bonus out of it, so he's got to be pretty happy with the results of another weird fight. It's too bad both Henderson and Rua are coming off a loss, because those seem like natural next step bouts for him.
- Coach Mike deserves a shout out here, for being one of a very few people to envision Phil Davis winning this fight. I'm not sure he expected Teixeira to look as poor as he did losing it, but it's a testament to the style matchup idea, and the fact that even in the prognosticating community we often get very caught up in narratives.
- Speaking of which, what is going on with Glover? Speculations about the quality of training he's getting in his own gym ran wild after his poor performance against Davis. And, as weird as it seems, it's hard not to give some credit to the UFC gambling analysts take that Glover may have lost some motivation with his loss to Jon Jones. Without the goal of a title shot staring you in the face, it can be a little harder to get back in the gym each day. If Glover can't right the ship quick, his time as a top 5 guy may be over.
- Phil Davis is a very good fighter. This needs to be repeated like a mantra every time he fights, because way too many people have gotten sold on the narrative that he's some kind of bum. He's a very good fighter and a very talented athlete, and he has the skills to beat almost anyone at 205. He has major, major skill gaps too, but light heavyweight allows for those kinds of fundamental flaws in its fighters.
Hindsight: Jose Aldo (-215) vs. Chad Mendes (+185) (I picked Aldo, I was right)
- The odds were there, the analysis was there, the final score matched up well with everything, but I haven't heard from anyone who felt like they expected Chad Mendes to do as well as he did in this bout. Or, at the very least, didn't expect him to have success the way he was able to, by striking with Aldo. Credit to his camp, they knew what their best shot at dethroning the champ was, and they went after it. It almost worked, but in the end we're just left with one of the greatest champions this sport has ever seen.
- And that's ultimately a problem, and a weird one for the UFC to have. It's obvious to anyone who's watched MMA, and who watched Aldo vs. Mendes 2, that Jose Aldo is an amazing fighter. He's just not one anybody cares about. Hopefully the UFC sees fit to keep pushing Conor McGregor, even if he doesn't "deserve" the shot, and even if he loses, he may be able to do for Aldo what Sonnen did for Silva.
- For Mendes, it's very tough to see where he goes from here. He's one of the very best featherweights in the world, but he's not getting another shot at the belt without a change in who's holding it. He's not big for 145, so it doesn't make much sense for him to try 155. But, of course, his teammate TJ Dillashaw is the champ at 135, and Uriah Faber is his gatekeeper. For Mendes now, his goal has to be, to become a must watch headliner, even out of title contention. People have to want to watch him, without a belt on the line, and that's a tough task to accomplish.
That sums up my thoughts on another busy weekend in combat sports. As always, much of what I was thinking seems obivous now, but that's the benefit of hindsight. Until next time, when I talk about Luke Rockhold and Jimi Manuwa and the biggest wins of their careers. Until then!
*This week's quote courtesy of the movie Champion.