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Hindsight - UFC Japan: Barnett vs. Nelson in retrospect

The trail ends in this town. There's no place to go but back.*

In every fight card that's especially true for someone. Most fans and analysts figured it would be Uriah Hall heading back down the way he came up, after a fight with Gegard Mousasi. Instead, it feels more like an end to Mousasi's time as a real potential top contender for the 185 lb belt. He wanted to make a final run at the title, and losing to Uriah Hall is the end of that road, not the beginning. Similarly George Roop and Katusnori Kikuno seem like they hit a hard stopping point, where Roy Nelson just took one more step back down the road he was already on. Oh, and I banked just about even on fight picks going 5-5 (5-4 if you're being generous with a draw).

Disclaimer Time: If ever there were a card to frustrate the gambling crowd, this may or may not be it. The odds weren't that short, but not many that were all that tantalizing either. I almost certainly would have lost something on Mousasi. But, if you bet on Johnson, Hein, Mizugaki, and Horiguchi all to get safe wins you probably did alright. Basically, I lost out on all the tough picks that weren't worth judging and got the easy ones right... oh and totally went to crap over Katsunori Kikuno, but the less said about that the better. Still the disclaimer is here to remind you that I don't gamble, at all. Odds and fight picks are my way of creating narrative out of what would otherwise be a somewhat disconnected series of singular events. Recognizing expectations helps build that narrative. I'm using Odds Shark for the odds on each fight and taking the mode for each fighter. So, let's get to the fights...

Shinsho Anzai (-115) vs. Roger Zapata (-105) (I picked Zapata, I was wrong)

  • The Expectation: The dead even odds here make it a little odd for me to feel like I really went out on a limb to take Zapata. I thought Zapata would win, but it felt like a lot more people were picking Anzai. Which is to say, that I was really nicely surprised by just how much Anzai went to his wrestling in order to keep control of the fight, even though it makes me feel a bit silly for assuming he wouldn't. He still got out boxed handily when the fight stayed standing, but Zapata just couldn't stay upright and eventually couldn't stay uninjured.
  • Fallout for Anzai: He gets to stay in the UFC. I honestly think it's good for the UFC to have a contingent of Japanese fighters in the promotion having even some success. Someone like Anzai winning isn't much, but it's something. Otherwise, he still looks like a throwback wrestler who goes out on his shield every time he decides to throw hands. That won't get him far, but it was enough here.
  • Fallout for Zapata: This is exactly the performance (minus injury) that I expected from Zapata. He looked like a good athlete, his hands were crisp, but Anzai went after him with technical wrestling, and Zapata was never going to be terribly ready for that. He did well and was competitive, and I hope the UFC gives him more fights, because all he really needs is time and experience.

Kajan Johnson (-300) vs. Naoyuki Kotani (+315) (I picked Johnson, I was right)

  • The Expectation: Everyone knew Kotani was going to lose this fight. The odds were off. Something closer to +500 would have been more appropriate. Kajan Johnson was going to win, whether it was by attrition, by knockout, or maybe even submission. Saying that, Kotani taking the third round from him was a minor miracle.
  • Fallout for Johnson: Noting that the odds should have been longer and that Johnson was always going to win makes the actual win itself a bit of a disappointment. For two rounds, Johnson was beating Kotani to a putty. He had him hurt, he barely got hit, he should have finished the fight. But, he didn't and he let Kotani come back and take the third from him. It's a win, it keeps him alive in the division, but it was ugly.
  • Fallout for Kotani: Fighters like Naoyuki Kotani are the reason that I'm happy to see a guy like Shinsho Anzai get even one win. Kotani isn't a bad fighter in his own way, but he is fundamentally unsuited to UFC competition for it's pace, size, and perhaps even rule set. He always fights his heart out, but it's time for the UFC to cut him lose.

Nick Hein (-365) vs. Yusuke Kasuya (+315) (I picked Hein, I was right)

  • The Expectation: You know a fighter is in a weird place when his ability to win a fight is based largely on whether or not he gets hurt badly during the fight. If Hein hurts Kasuya, then Kasuya has a shot. If Hein doesn't, he wins a boring, comfortable decision. Hein didn't hurt Yusuke Kasuya.
  • Fallout for Hein: I feel like Hein is a little bit of a project for the UFC, or at least he should be. He's a very vocal company man, and a fighter with a deep interest in growing the sport in his home country. He's got the personality to be a valuable asset to the company, but he hasn't yet built the fighting tools. He's getting to the point in his career where he should be ready for a step up, but it doesn't look like he is. It'll be interesting to see how long the UFC keeps letting him take the slow road.
  • Fallout for Kasuya: He looked alright in a loss. Good, even, in the first round. But, problems with low output continue to plague him. He has some time to work on that, but it's something he really has to get on, because depending on getting rocked to light a fire under you really isn't a great way to win at the UFC level. Otherwise, he's a good athlete with a well rounded game, just doesn't throw enough.

Li Jingliang (-310) vs. Keita Nakamura (+250) (I picked Jingliang, I was wrong)

  • The Expectation: For about a round and a half we saw exactly the fight everyone expected. After surviving Nakamura's stifling top game for the first round, Li Jingliang turned his continually improving boxing to full effect. And to that end, it looked like the fight was going to be a 29-28 run for the Chinese fighter, maybe even a stoppage. Right up until he gave up his back. Then he was out like a light.
  • Fallout for Jingliang: When is a loss not really a loss? When you beat 7-shades out of your opponent and get caught in a hail-mary sub. I mean, it's still a loss for Jingliang, but if you're looking at his potential for future development and improvement in the division, this was a pretty good performance. He showed that he can actually dominate a less skilled fighter with his standup. That's a great step for him. Now he just has to work on that defensive grappling and wrestling.
  • Fallout for Nakamura: I'm happy for him, just like I'd be happy for Kotani if he could have gotten a UFC win, finally after a long career. Nakamura has been kicking around forever, his second chance was more than 7 years in the making, and he got a hell of a fun win in his re-debut. Is he going to go on to great success in the UFC? No, but this is a good moment to take with him.

Diego Brandao (-240) vs. Katsunori Kikuno (+220) (I picked Kikuno, I was wrong)

  • The Expectation: Okay, so... If you follow me with any regularity, you'll know I picked Kikuno to win this. Partially, I forgot about Brandao's really next-level speed, partially I still think I had a leg to stand on. Either way, I was way wrong. Brandao shattered Kikuno in an instant and showed that the classic Dream star has a very real ceiling outside the division's top 20.
  • Fallout for Brandao: Slowly but surely, and despite his losses, Brandao is making a charge for the top 15 at featherweight. I don't know how long that'll last, he's been fighting for a decade now, but it's hard for me to argue that he has a worse case than Dennis Siver or Tatsuya Kawajiri for a rankings slot. Hell, I'd even like to see him in with Darren Elkins again. If he gets thrown at a top 10 guy he'll probably lose again, but he's clearly a cut above the rank and file of 145.
  • Fallout for Kikuno: If Silva and Ferguson suggested that there was a consistent style of fighter that would beat Kikuno, Brandao showed that it's really just anyone with power in their hands and the relative knowledge of how to use it. Kikuno's style is broken. There are enough bad strikers in MMA for him to still pick up wins, even in the UFC, but his peak is well outside the elite at this point.

Mizuto Hirota (-280) vs. Teruto Ishihara (+235) (I picked Hirota, it was a draw)

  • The Expectation: I figured HIrota would implement his pressure striking game and maybe some wrestling and top control offense on his way to a unanimous decision. The odds reflected that thought pretty accurately. And, I still think Hirota won the fight, barely. But, he got dropped in every round and Ishihara really worked hard to not get totally outpointed. I'm fine with the draw as a result, even though it once again makes a mockery of the UFC's attempts to pick a tournament winner.
  • Fallout for Hirota: Like Nakamura, Hirota is back again. Unlike Nakamura, he didn't have a thrilling win to escort him back through the doors of the promotion. He looked like a slightly less durable version of the fighter he's always been. That was enough to get him a draw in this fight, but it doesn't bode well for his future in the UFC.
  • Fallout for Ishihara: He showed that he's a great athlete and that he is steadily, slowly improving his game. But the old problems with feinting more than throwing and a lack of consistent or varied straight punching still came back to bite him as the fight went on. He's a good enough athlete to make a real run in the promotion, but he has to improve quickly, because opponents like Hirota are a dime a dozen in the UFC and Hirota, for all purposes, beat him.

Takeya Mizugaki (-240) vs. George Roop (+200) (I picked Mizugaki, I was right)

  • The Expectation: Mizugaki didn't disappoint, exactly. He did exactly what he was expected to do, box up an extremely hittable George Roop on his way to a decision win. But this fight was ugly and bad. Mostly, Roop didn't look like he wanted to fight Mizugaki. And by the third round he was desperately searching for takedowns and a way to just keep his opponent off him. Made for an easy Mizugaki win, but a bad fight.
  • Fallout for Mizugaki: He's still a top 15 fighter, and even top 10 for another minute, but eventually this fight didn't tell us any more than that. Against a shot opponent without a lot to offer in the cage, Mizugaki can win rounds without too much trouble. But he's already started losing to rising talent and there are more young fighters coming up the ranks.
  • Fallout for Roop: I said it on fight night, but I'll repeat it here, I'm not interested in seeing Roop fight again. He can continue fighting if that's what's best for him, but I don't want to see it. He looked slow and shaky in the cage and there's no good reason for him to be in there with top level competition at all.

Chico Camus (+325) vs. Kyoji Horiguchi (-450) (I picked Horiguchi, I was right)

  • The Expectation: Camus was going to be a tough out. That's something that anyone fighting him or trying to handicap his upcoming fights should know. He's a very good, skilled fighter at the fringes of the flyweight top 10. But, that's not enough to beat a top flight athlete like Horiguchi and his ever improving run of form.
  • Fallout for Camus: If you're Chico Camus, this is the moment where you start figuring out what the best monetary angles in your career are, because getting the title probably isn't going to happen. He's very good and he can be a very good fighter for a while yet, but just getting to fight for the title would be a major accomplishment in his career. He's got an exciting style and he has more time to show it, however, Horiguchi and Cejudo have put a cap on just how far up he's going.
  • Fallout for Horiguchi: He had to win this fight. It would have been nice if he could have gotten a big KO to go with it, but Camus is a capable talent in his own prime, so that wasn't terribly likely. Still, Horiguchi cruised and looked sharp doing it. That's what he has to be doing right now in order to build toward another shot at the belt down the road. Strong win, nothing unexpected, just staying the course.

Urijah Hall (+325) vs. Gegard Mousasi (-400) (I picked Mousasi, I was wrong)

  • The Expectation: Round 1 was pretty much the expectation of everyone for this fight, and I was shocked at just how easily Gegard made it happen. He was working Hall over to a pretty easy decision, or even possibly a submission, before his world fell apart around him. To say that Mousasi was Hall's best shot at grabbing a top tier MW win, does not mean that it was expected that Hall would blast Mousasi into orbit with a spinning heel kick, but he did and here we are.
  • Fallout for Hall: Watching him get booked like a top 10 MW for the rest of his career is going to be an interesting experience. He's now graduated from the world of Rafael Natal and Ed Herman, into the world of Tim Boetsch and CB Dolloway. And there's no real going back. Once you win a fight like this, the UFC books you against top competition for the rest of your career. I'm not confident that makes Hall more than .500 fighter.
  • Fallout for Mousasi: This isn't a sign of the end of days for "The Dreamcatcher" quite yet. After all, he got caught by an amazing technique. The kind of thing that even Hall has shown himself capable of only occasionally replicating... But, this is a sign that fans should start watching Gegard's next few fights very closely. He's been in this sport longer than most, already, and this is his first KO loss. Not time to panic, but maybe time to think about the realities of where he's at in his career.

Josh Barnett (-330) vs. Roy Nelson (+265) (I picked Barnett, I was right)

  • The Expectation: Man, I am shocked Roy Nelson was as competitive as he was. I figured once the fight got past round 1, this would all be down hill running for Josh Barnett. But, Nelson arguably took the 5th (at least in my book) and kept Barnett off balance with his first wrestling heavy performance in years. Great fight and surprising performance even if the result was predictable.
  • Fallout for Barnett: He's still got it, and frankly looks like he's in the best shape of his career. Something about heavyweights, most of them just seem to age at a much different rate than the rest of the game. Despite a couple years on the shelf, Barnett came back looking trimmed down and more technically varied in his offensive striking than ever. His clinch work was masterful. He's got to be considered a realistic top contender right now, especially with so few others around.
  • Fallout for Nelson: So, this is a major conflict for me with Nelson. On the one hand, he looked better than he has in a loss in a long time. This may even be the best losing performance of Nelson's career. But this loss may leave him dead in the water in terms of the heavyweight division. He's lost 5 of his last 6, and Big Nog is his only win since early 2013. Mostly, it just seems like opponents have "solved" him. Even when he's fighting his best, they know how to neutralize him, and the likelihood of him having a late career renaissance is slim. So, I wouldn't be shocked if the UFC keeps him, I wouldn't be shocked if the UFC cuts him, but I would be shocked if Nelson gets a relevant win anytime soon.

Those are my collected thoughts from UFC Fight Night: Barnett vs. Nelson. As always, so much of what I wrote seems obvious now, but that's the benefit of hindsight. Until next time, when I think I'll be talking about why Alexander Gustafsson is the next man to fight Jon Jones and Johny Hendricks is still in the title hunt. See you then!

*This week's quote from the movie "Day of the Outlaw."