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Hindsight: UFC 178 & Bellator 126 in retrospect

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.*

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Connor McGregor is very much the product of 20 years of MMA violence and mayhem; martial arts skill and diversity melded with personality in a sport that has constantly looked to celebrate both, despite very few true opportunities to do so. The mass consciousness seemed to be looking at McGregor's bout with Poirier, not so much as a test to be passed, but as an expected marker of entry into the divisional elite; a sign that the hype placed upon him had been well and truly justified. In general, UFC 178 was all about expectations, all about the knowledge that this was a card that couldn't fail to deliver, but in ways that were almost impossible to predict. The fact that it still very much did so makes UFC 178 almost singularly remarkable in modern MMA history. The rare card that entirely lives up to the hype.

Disclaimer Time: I went a decent 7-4 on this card, in terms of fight picking it was a solid, if expected return. There was one big upset that spoiled one of my fight picks, and one surprisingly poor performance, the other two ended up being the result of competitive "toss-up" bouts going against me. Still, I'm not much for gambling, so I can't give a lot of great gambling advice, the purpose of this article is more to use the settings of gambling, the fight odds and picks, as a way of discussing fighter development in relationship to expectations. As always, I'll be using Best Fight Odds to get the odds on each fight, and taking the mode (or most common line) on each fighter. So, on to the fights!

Bellator 126

Hindsight: Bubba Jenkins (-400) vs. Thiago Meller (+345) (I picked Jenkins, I was right)

  • It still seems a little remarkable that Jenkins is getting these kinds of odds in fights. Never mind that Meller was basically hand picked to be a good matchup for him, he just doesn't appear to be getting more comfortable outside his wrestling. He gets touched up coming in, because his striking isn't quite diverse enough to be unpredictable. And he still shows signs of having trouble controlling athletic opponents for long stretches.
  • It will be interesting to see if Jenkins makes big jumps in skill soon. I wouldn't be surprised if his development plateaus for a bit as he continues to get tougher opponents.

Hindsight: Alexander Shlemenko (+103) vs. Brandon Halsey (-123) (I picked Halsey, I was right)

  • It appears that I, and a lot of other people, saw a certain tragic inevitability in this fight for Alexander Shlemenko. He's been a great champion for Bellator, and his three successful title defenses made him one of the promotions most dominant champions. However, he'd also fought a notable lack of powerful, accomplished wrestlers and his fight with Tito portended an outcome that Halsey brought about with a swiftness.
  • Now, of course, it will be interesting to see if Halsey's success is the hallmark of a whole new reign of dominance, or an especially fortuitous matchup. He's a huge, crushingly powerful middleweight, but his striking isn't exactly electric. If Bellator can bring in big strong 185ers for him to compete against, he may struggle to find the success of his predecessor. But, that's a big if. Even in the UFC 185 is a weak division outside the top 15. Halsey may rule Bellator with little trouble.

I missed Held vs. Freire and West vs. Richman, so I won't be talking about them.

UFC 178

Hindsight: Manny Gamburyan (+145) vs. Cody Gibson (-160) (I picked Gibson, I was wrong)

  • For a round and a half, Gibson made the odds on his win look excessively poor. He was pretty clearly dominating "The Anvil" on his way to a unanimous decision or potentially even TKO, when suddenly he found himself on the receiving end of a short sharp lesson in defensive grappling. If Gibson and Gamburyan rematched that fight tomorrow, I'd probably pick Gibson to do it at about these same odds, but that doesn't change what happened here.
  • It's a tough loss for Gibson, and a reminder that while talented and aggressive, he's also coming up on six years as a pro fighter and still possess a lot of the defensive liabilities of a raw talent. His striking really looks like it's come along (although he seems more defensive by turns than as a consistent skill), but his defensive acumen in scrambles may need some work, as his past tendencies to leave himself vulnerable and give up dominant positions cost him again.
  • For Gamburyan, this feels a bit like a stay of execution. He didn't look good at almost any point up until his submission win, and it's hard to imagine many people coming out of that fight, feeling like he'd reinvigorated his career. But, it's still a great upset and a great moment and it shows that he can still be a dangerous matchup against mid-range talent in the UFC.

Hindsight: Kevin Lee (-250) vs. Jon Tuck (+210) (I picked Tuck, I was wrong)

  • I am still a bit shocked that Kevin Lee was such a massive favorite over Jon Tuck here. Lee barely scraped by with a split decision over the tough, but underwhelming Jesse Ronson. While Tuck was coming off a fairly dominant win over Jake Lindsey. Still, Lee proved the hype right, by out working and bullying Tuck all fight. He's definitely marked himself as a fighter to watch.
  • I still think that Tuck was the more technical fighter in this bout, but he may be working on a losing battle with his combination of a lanky frame and a less than amazing counter wrestling game. He's a decent striker and he generates real power in his hands and feet and he compliments it well with some grappling, but none of that  came to bear against Lee. When he's matched up against better, stronger wrestlers it's hard to see him winning.
  • The rebuilding of Lee looks to be continuing successfully. He's been working with Xtreme Couture and Drysdale BJJ lately, and they appear to have stripped out everything from his game that wasn't working and replaced it with some simple, functional boxing to compliment his strong wrestling and transition game. Hopefully that trend continues, because he's got all the natural talent in the world.

Hindsight: Brian Ebersole (+200) vs. John Howard (-260) (I picked Howard, I was wrong-ish)

  • This line on Howard felt exactly right going into this bout, and for the first round or so, Ebersole looked to be fighting down to his low expectations. Unfortunately, what we ended up with was a very real reminder of Howard's limitations as a one-off striker that often tries to dominate with his wrestling and grappling. This makes it very tough to anticipate Howard's advantages going forward, especially when facing technical wrestlers and grapplers.
  • Ebersole did not look great in this bout, and it feels a bit like he was gifted by an opponent who was willing to stand in front of him while getting hit, before defaulting to a wrestling game that played right into Ebersole's strengths. He's still got the talent to win fights going forward, but much of that seems like it will be based of how aggressively he's pursued by his opponents. Howard was tentative and let Ebersole fight a very comfortable fight.
  • I can't even start to care enough about this bout to give any scoring controversy any lip service.

Hindsight: Patrick Cote (+300) vs. Stephen Thompson (-400) (I picked Thompson, I was right)

  • Thompson was always going to out work Cote, and there was little going in to this bout that suggested he'd come up on the wrong side of it. That played out perfectly throughout, as Cote never got any significant offense going...
  • But, it can't be overstated how disappointing this performance was from Thompson. He was primed for a showcase win over an opponent who wasn't going to be able to match him on the feet or wrestle him to the ground. And yet, he got nothing done. He seemed happy to potshot Cote whenever Cote overstepped his aggression and came in hard, but otherwise he just sat back and let the fight go. It was an easy win, but it doesn't create excitement for Thompson's next bout.
  • For Cote, the signs are there that he should be looking hard at careers beyond fighting. His once rock solid chin is looking increasingly crack-able and the physical gifts that he relied on to catch up with more technical opponents just don't seem to be there anymore. He wasn't competitive at all with Thompson, and it felt like it was only Thompson's lack of aggression that let this bout go the distance.

Hindsight: James Krause (+287) vs. Jorge Masvidal (-349) (I picked Masvidal, I was right)

  • Krause came in as a pretty significant underdog, but I think many expected him to do better than he did in this bout, especially early, when Masvidal has classically been weak. Instead, he got beat pillar to post by the much more technical fighter, and never really found a way into the bout. It's hard to know if Masvidal is showing himself to be an improved version of his past self, or if this was just an "on" night, but he deserves to be the favorite against practically anyone outside the top 10.
  • This should be something of a capping point for those expecting a run on the top 10 out of James Krause. He's a fighter who has, at times, demonstrated some fun, dynamic skills, but his game is just not terribly fluid, and certain parts of it are very, very rough. He doesn't wrestle particularly well on offense and when he doesn't get the space to set up his striking, his output can be downright anemic. Masvidal was able to control him from bell to bell.

Hindsight: Dominick Cruz (-550) vs. Takeya Mizugaki (+375) (I picked Cruz, I was right)

  • I really expected this to be a much more competitive fight than it was. Cruz was almost certain to show some ring rust, coming back after such a long layoff, and Mizugaki has always been a tough grind for everyone. It didn't play out that way at all, and may represent the most stunning win of Cruz's career.
  • That said, we really didn't see the "classic Cruz" at all. He looked to be moving decently early, but every time he came in he got hit and didn't seem to have the timing and distance on his own strikes down. That's probably something he can work out once he gets back into the rhythm of fight camp training. And, of course, it didn't matter at all, as Cruz used his always dominant takedown game to new effect by blitzing Mizugaki and pounding him into unconsciousness within seconds of taking him down. If that's a new wrinkle in his game, it's a very scary one.
  • Unfortunately, this pretty much dashes Mizugaki's chances for a dark horse title shot. The division has gotten increasingly short on challengers over the past year or so and there was some real likelihood that Mizugaki could slip in to a fight against Dillashaw with Barao out of immediate contention. Now, he's back down at the bottom of the list with Cruz, Assuncao, and Barao ahead of him and it's unlikely he puts together enough wins at the top to step up in line.

Hindsight: Amanda Nunes (+190) vs. Cat Zingano (-225) (I picked Zingano, I was right)

  • I don't know that I'd say I'm surprised Zingano was as much a favorite as she was (there are a lot of fans with a lot of faith in her), but especially considering how tough this bout ended up being on her, I'd say that she was probably a bit heavily favored on the books. Zingano is a great athlete and a very good fighter, but she has a lot of gaps in her skill game that top tier talent can exploit.
  • And Amanda Nunes did exploit them to great effect early. Against 95% of her division, she probably would have walked away a winner in the first 5 minutes. But, like so many strong front-running fighters, she's ended up hitting serious walls as the best fighters can gut through adversity and force her outside her bullying game. Outside her debut, her losses have all come late in fights, and most of her finishes are early. Hard to see that changing after 7 years pro.
  • Zingano is very much a legit title challenger. She's got a wealth of fan support in the hardcore community and the kind of incredible in cage performances that make her a fighter everyone wants to root for. That said, it's hard to watch her come out of this fight and feel she has a snowball's chance of defeating Ronda Rousey. Her ability to get totally overwhelmed and dominated early in fights is all the opportunity that Rousey needs to get her out inside the first round.

Hindsight: Tim Kennedy (-135) vs. Yoel Romero (+110) (I picked Romero, I was right)

  • I don't think I quite realized that Kennedy was the favorite going in to this fight, and it's a little surprising, considering, in my own mind, that a Kennedy win was based more on Romero's mistakes. For Romero to win, he just had to stay focused and on his game plan... and inevitably get left on the stool just a little too long after getting rocked.
  • It is a troubling factor, of course, that Romero did show his past propensity to fight at a lackadaisical pace, and that he very much paid the price for it. Whether he is able to spin this win into a title shot, or if he has to face another top 10 fighter on the way, his lapses on offense and defense could mean that his time as a top contender will be very limited.
  • I understand that Kennedy has to feel robbed of a win here, and he has a lot to feel unhappy about. But ultimately, whether it was outside circumstances or just his eagerness to finish the fight, Kennedy came in reckless and paid the price. For a fighter who has been marked by his patient persistence more than anything else, it was a momentary lapse that may haunt him for the rest of his career.

Hindsight: Conor McGregor (-260) vs. Dustin Poirier (+215) (I picked McGregor, I was right)

  • It's alarming to think that Dominick Cruz came in as high as 667 to win, when McGregor couldn't climb above 300. Both men put on similarly and singularly dominant performances, but there was much, much more reason to think that McGregor was capable of it. That said, McGregor has engendered a lot of doubt, hopefully this win silences most of it.
  • Poirier has already gone on record to say that this was a particularly crushing loss for him, and it's hard to see it as anything else. Yes, he can and almost certainly will come back, but it's a firm re-establishment of a ceiling that many (myself included) felt he was primed to knock through. Unfortunately, for him, this is the third time he's faced off against a legit top 5 fighter, and he's come up short each time. While he's been improving in the meantime, the classic defensive holes in his game are still there.
  • McGregor is just one of those talents. Much like Chris Weidman, Jon Jones, or Cain Velasquez, McGregor seems destined to bulldoze his way into a title shot, and it's one he just might win. Of course the fact that he just eats leg kicks is not a good sign for his potential in that fight, but it's undeniably the fight fans are going to want to see. The only roadblock potentially standing in the way of that fight would be Chad Mendes, but with Mendes set to face Aldo, it's very likely that the two men never meet on their way to the title.

Hindsight: Eddie Alvarez (+120) vs. Donald Cerrone (-145) (I picked Alvarez, I was wrong)

  • I honestly thought Alvarez deserved to be a slight favorite going in, due to his movement based, technical boxing style, something that seemed perfectly equipped to take Cerrone down in the ways that he's often been challenged by more technical strikers in his career. It didn't play out that way, but it was close to coin flip odds on a coin flip fight that was generally even enough that I can't find any fault in picking it wrong.
  • Alvarez did show that he could hurt Cerrone with just his boxing in this fight. He had the tools he needed to beat Cerrone, but he didn't have enough of them. That's the biggest takeaway for Alvarez here, is that that against the highest level of opposition he's almost relegated to being "just a boxer." He's an incredibly solid boxer and can beat most UFC lightweights with that alone, but that's just not enough for the top of the division where skill diversity really matters.
  • As such, Cerrone's kicking game really became the star of a close fight between them. I'm not sure if he's better than any time in the past, but he didn't seem to suffer from nearly as much of his slow start in this fight, and on the heels of this big run he's on, it's hard to argue that he's not in perfect position for a title shot. He did lose to Pettis just last year, so that's a mitigating factor, but only Nurmagomedov is smoking high level lightweights with the ease and regularity of Cerrone right now.
  • This feels like a bout that you can't claim you picked right unless you also picked the method of victory and the round. Johnson was always going to win, it was just a case of how and how fast. There's no one in the division primed to beat him at the moment, and only one really competitive looking bout on the horizon. The only question left is, how do you sell that?
  • Cariaso did exactly as well as most had predicted, which is to say, terribly. He had no success in any area of this fight and it's really only his trademark toughness that saw him through the first round. It's not much a setback, however, as he was only really considered a gatekeeper to the top ten and that's exactly the role this sets him back to.
  • For Demetrious Johnson, it's the best possible thing for his career that he's at least establishing some reputation for finishing fighters he's better than. Even he was selling the rest of this card over himself in the lead-up and the only way he gets more marketable is to show that every time he steps in the cage he's going to be a dominant wrecking machine.

Those are my collected thoughts from UFC 178 and Bellator 126. So many of them seem obvious now, but as always, that's the benefit of hindsight. Stay tuned for next week's edition, when I'll be talking about why Nelson was primed to beat Story, why MacDonald is still on the rise at 170, and maybe a few Bellator thoughts... maybe. Until then!

*Today's movie quote courtesy of The Third Man.

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