Nobody likes flyweight headliners, but fortunately for Louis Smolka and Paddy Holohan, people hate cancelled fights and Reebok errors even more. The build up to Fight Night was notably light of moaning over the headline fight as it was much more focused on Dustin Poirier's willingness to take on Norman Parke at the last moment and Reeboks willingness to stoke regional tensions. Add on to all of that a crowd that was willing to carry any hometown fighter on their shoulder and you got a reasonably solid atmosphere for a pretty lackluster card. Oh, and if you have to know that sort of thing, I went 7-2-1 on fight picks.
Disclaimer Time: I don't bet, and even though I did really well on this card, I don't think it had a lot of value. A lot of short odds a lot of close fights, a lot of difficult winners to pick-ish... I mean it couldn't have been that hard, I did alright. Basically I'm just trying to excuse myself for not putting money on some picks I got right. Especially Smolka by submission, round 2... Still it's not about the money, it's about the narrative. Odds are just a way of marking expectations. I'm taking these from Odds Shark for each fight, and taking the mode for each fighter. Now, on to the fights!
- The Expectation: Bubba Bush was supposed to use his strong wrestling and top control grappling to take McLellan down, work him over, and probably sink in a submission as McLellan tried to scramble back to his feet. For the first round, that's more or less how it worked. But, one cage grab into mount for McLellan later, and the whole fight was put in disarray.
- Fallout for Bush: His defense is bad. When he's working for takedowns or working from top position he's a reasonably decent, if not overly dynamic or destructive fighter. But the moment he gets put on his heels, put on his back, or put up against the cage, it just seems like he doesn't know what to do. He's been around long enough that his game should be more developed than it is, so this loss to McLellan represents a big problem going forward. Improve fast or get cut.
- Fallout for McLellan: He gets to live another day, is the short answer. After a poor debut to probable welterweight Bartosz Fabinski, he more or less had to get a win here. And with just a little bit of help, he did. No hate for McLellan, his job was on the line and it's on the ref to punish him. I'm not sure how much room for improvement he has left, so getting wins may be all about the matchup from here on out.
Darren Elkins (-155) vs. Rob Whiteford (+130) (I picked Elkins, I was right)
- The Expectation: I hoped I'd see an ever improving Whiteford that was ready to stay active, maintain range, and keep Elkins off balance... But, I expected Elkins would track him down take advantage of his inconsistent striking, and put him on his back over and over. Whiteford has improved, but not enough to deal with someone like Elkins.
- Fallout for Elkins: He's still at top 15 featherweight, and fights like this are the reason why. Give him a rank and file talent in his division and he'll grind out a tough win. Some day his chin will fade, but that hasn't happened yet. Until it does, he's still something of a lock against all but the elite.
- Fallout for Whiteford: Unfortunately for him, this is probably something of a ceiling for Whiteford. In his early 30's and just entering the prime of his career, Elkins was a "get over" fight for him. A tough guy without many striking tools who has a very straight forward offensive style. There's still time for him to re-tool a little win a couple fights, and get another crack at a top 15 fighter, but this was a serious setback and a loss that it feels like other top 10-15 fighters could replicate against him.
- The Expectation: Since Pendred wasn't going to be the bigger man in the cage, it felt very unlikely that he would be able to grind out a win here. The real test of this fight for Breese was going to be finding out just how potent his offense can be against a big, tough opponent without a lot of tools to hurt him. It turns out Breese can be pretty damn potent under those circs.
- Fallout for Breese: This is very likely his introduction to the fast lane in talent development. Pendred may not be a top 15 (or even particularly close to it) fighter in the UFC, but he's a fantastic litmus test. Knocking out a fighter like him and making it look easy is the mark of a fighter with designs on the top of the division. I'd compare it to Tumenov KO-ing Jouban, or more classically Chris Weidman D'arce-ing Tom Lawlor. Not an upset win, but meaningful for its efficiency.
- Fallout for Pendred: I feel a little bad for Pendred, just because it seems like reality is crashing down hard around him. He became one of the first ever fighters (if not the only), to go 4-0 inside his first calendar year with the UFC. And he did it with a wall and stall style that made him no fans. That's a strange place to be, but everyone could see it was probably coming to an end. The more fighters see him, the more they prepare for him. And when the physical advantages aren't on his side... things get ugly. He can still win fights in the UFC, but I have the feeling it's only going to get tougher from here.
- The Expectation: I wasn't exactly sure what kind of fight we'd see from either party, frankly. Almeida's sub game was built for the regionals, and Daly's control is highly subjective to the athleticism of her opponent. I figured Daly would win out just by being craftier and more consistent. While the fight was spirited and competitive all the way through, I feel justified in thinking Almeida's inexperience would be the biggest factor. I have to say that I'm shocked Daly was any kind of underdog.
- Fallout for Alemida: She's not ready for the UFC. In a couple years, she probably wins this fight. Daly had little to no effective offense for the bulk of the first two rounds. She controlled the clinch, landed the occasional shot in dirty boxing range, and had some limited ground and pound. But, Almeida could never assert herself against Daly. She didn't have the technical knowledge on how to deal with constant pressure and aggression from someone who wouldn't break the first time Almeida hit her. That takes time, and she won't get much in the UFC.
- Fallout for Daly: She's a very functional gatekeeper in a that is still trying to find the identities of most of its competitors. I'd say that she's probably not liable to turn that into a title shot, but in a world where Chris Cariaso gets a title shot, anything is possible. In the mean time, she's setting the bar for the top 15 at 115 lbs.
- The Expectation: I really thought that Askham would be able to press his strength advantage considerably on the inside and pick Jotko off with single strikes at range. Jotko's boxing has really never looked like more than winging power punches into the clinch and I didn't see him having the practiced technical depth to put Askham on his back. Parts of that were more right than wrong, but Jotko's striking has leapt forward, and Askham's really hasn't.
- Fallout for Askham: This fight exposed some major problems in his striking style. Most importantly, he's really not good at leading an exchange with his hands. He's not really a counter fighter either, which means at range, he's either kicking or he's getting beat up. That has to change, one way or another, because while his clinch isn't bad, it's just not powerful enough for him to depend on taking over fights with it.
- Fallout for Jotko: He looked a lot better technically than I thought he would. I still have a lot of questions about Jotko's physicality at 185. He looks small and doesn't seem to have the ability to control opponents or hurt them consistently. But, his technical striking has taken leaps forward. He maintained distance well, threw a nice variety of strikes, and landed some good shots. At the very least he's morphing himself into a fun action fighter for the division.
- The Expectation: Neil Seery wasn't exactly and underdog against Delos Reyes, but it's really strange to see the two men running just about dead even. Dan Hardy made a lot of noise pre-fight about Reyes' grappling, so maybe the thought was that Seery would have to keep it standing to win. I figured if Reyes didn't get the "punchers chance" early KO, he was going to lose.
- Fallout for Delos Reyes: Unfortunately for Reyes, unlike Almeida him not being ready for the UFC probably puts a much more meaningful limit on his career. Reyes has been fighting for a while now and he just hasn't picked up the kind of well rounded game he needs to compete at this level. He's a great athlete with power, but everything he's good at is also something that can be taken advantage of. Most flyweights are too technical for him to beat with physicality alone.
- Fallout for Seery: He got the win he was supposed to get, and frankly he looked better than most expected. Seery's got the perspective just right on his career. He's a fun action fighter who can compete with anyone everywhere, but doesn't quite have the physical tools or technical mastery to be a title contender. As those physical tools start to go, he's going to struggle more with less refined flyweights, but at the moment, he's just putting on a good show every time out.
- The Expectation: The odds on this fight were wild, at least in my eyes, although the fight both confirmed and denied the spread. I figured Ray's athletic gifts and punching power would give him the edge he needed to win, but Lebout would make it ugly and make him work hard for it. Honestly, for most of the fight, Ray was just able to coast and rack up points landing the harder shots. But Lebout rallied a bit in the third and put more pressure on Ray. Not enough to sway the outcome, but enough to suggest that Ray hadn't put much of a stamp on it.
- Fallout for Lebout: He lost, and it's not terribly surprising. I hope the UFC keeps Lebout around, if for nothing more than European cards, because I have a soft spot for him and his workman-like style. But at the root, Lebout is tough enough for the UFC, but lacks the physicality to do really well there. He'll probably be a win/loss fighter as long as they keep him around.
- Fallout for Ray: The big question for Ray is, when does it all really click? It looks like he's close. His past two fights really showed the potential for something special. But here, faced with an opponent who didn't have a ton to offer, but who wouldn't go away once he'd been cracked, Ray just seemed to not have a lot of ideas on how to produce meaningful offense. He took opportunities when they were given, but the best fighters create their own. Hopefully TriStar can keep improving his game, because it's just not quite where it needs to be to be a top tier fighter yet.
- The Expectation: I know a part of me was just a hater. That's a certainty. Whenever I'm presented with a version of a fighter that I just don't see, my reaction is to rebel a bit. And I just didn't see the top-flight potential in Darren Till yet. At least not the way a lot of people were talking about him. This sold me.
- Fallout for Dalby: He's still very much the fighter I scouted coming out of Cage Warriors and he's running into some trouble against the big, elite athletic talent of the UFC. Essentially, Dalby has crafted himself into a high output grinder. He throws a lot of strikes, he moves forward, he has multiple dimensions to his game. But he's not putting most fighters away in a hurry, so he's very dependent on them not being able to control him and his pace. That's good enough for him to beat a lot of fighters, but not good enough to crack the elite.
- Fallout for Till: A little more time and seasoning (and maybe just one less injury) and Darren Till wins this fight. He's taken his momentum and confidence from his regional MMA career and translated it directly to facing UFC opposition. He's got a great control of range, a powerful enough kicking game to force fighters to come to him, and he's developing the counter-punching to make them pay when they do. The fact that he's not a terrible defensive wrestler as well makes the whole package pretty special. It's on him now to just keep refining the pieces and filling in the gaps.
Reza Madadi (+185) vs. Norman Parke (-220) (I picked Parke, I was right)
- The Expectation: This seemed like a stylistic layup for Parke, even if Madadi hadn't been coming out of prison and a long layoff. Parke has great takedown defense and serviceable kickboxing. Madadi is a solid wrestle-grappler who depends largely on getting takedowns. Unsurprisingly, Madadi couldn't get Parke down and lost a pretty uninspiring decision.
- Fallout for Madadi: The UFC brought him back because he's a more popular than expensive fighter in Sweden. That seems like a rough interpretation, but it's the best I can come up with after his performance here. He's at the tail end of when athletes in MMA can compete effectively, at his best he's never been a terribly thrilling fighter, and he's carrying a lot of baggage. I honestly hope he gets another fight or two and does well, because I don't want to see anyone down and out, but the odds on that feel long.
- Fallout for Parke: For a little while, he looked like the best fighter that he's ever been. He looked light on his feet, he cut angles, he still wrestled at an exceptional level, and he answered every ugly punch from Madadi with two or three crisp ones in return. And then he hit a wall in the third round. Parke got a win here, but he gassed hard, and coming off two undeniably poor performances, it's hard to see this as a major step forward. It's a win, but not one that answers all his questions.
Paddy Holohan (+160) vs. Louis Smolka (-175) (I picked Smolka, I was right)
- The Expectation: Holohan was always going to have a tough run of things in this fight. He offers a variety of range strikes, but rarely if ever maintains distance well. Beyond that, most of his game is predicated on his ability to be the faster, more dynamic grappler. He may have been faster than Smolka for a bit, but not at a level he could maintain. As Holohan's cardio began to fade, Smolka's stronger, more technical grappling took over.
- Fallout for Holohan: I'm glad he's such a hometown hit, because he's probably hit his ceiling as an action fighter outside the flyweight top 15. Fundamentally, Holohan doesn't seem to have the physical tools to be a top flyweight. He's capable of pushing his body to be competitive with good athletes, but it doesn't seem like he can maintain the pace or output. Without having great knockout power to fall back on, that pretty much leaves him to the whims of matchmaking. Against similarly gifted fighters he's a solid favorite to win. Against better athletes, not so much.
- Fallout for Smolka: What exactly to make of Smolka right now is a little trickier. As thin as flyweight is, he's a probable contender. He's rounding out his game to meet his scrambling & submission skills and the product is an intriguing prospect at 125. I still don't think he's a top 5 athlete, but since the majority of flyweight bouts go anywhere and everywhere he doesn't necessarily have to be, he just has to take advantage when the fight comes to him. I still doubt he's ever able to out-wrestle or out-grapple the very best. But if DJ just has to get a fresh challenger, someone like Smolka may find themselves next in line.
Those are my collected thoughts from UFC Fight Night: Holohan vs. Smolka. As always, so much of what I wrote seems obvious now, but that's the benefit of hindsight. Stay tuned for next time when I'll be talking about Vitor Belfort and why he's a step ahead of Dan Henderson, or a step behind... Whichever means less shot.
*This week's quote from the movie Lone Star.