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Hindsight - UFC Boston: Dillashaw vs. Cruz in retrospect

People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.*

That's kind of the crux of modern MMA right there and certainly the crux of this evening of fights, where (at least in my estimation) the "talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit" is something akin to fighting smart and safe and with a minimum of the aforementioned blood and action. But, TDPB (as I'm taking it shorthand) has its fan base too. I love smart fighters, I really do. I am just as big a fan of the fighter that knows how to win with the minimum of effort or danger as I am of the fighter who knows that victory lies at the other end of a trial by fire. Because, simply put, both ideologies place the goal of winning squarely at the end of them. The biggest thing I hate seeing is a fighter who doesn't know how to win, because then what's the point? Speaking of not knowing how to win, I went 5-8 for fight picks... It also helps to not play the game.

Disclaimer time: Obviously gambling on this would have been an exceptionally bad idea for me. I would have lost bets on Mutapcic and Dillashaw even if I saw most other fights as a coin-flip, I was pretty sure they'd both do enough to get the respective wins. Dillashaw may have, Mutapcic certainly didn't. But, instead of using picks and odds to get money, or tell you how to, I'm using them to give shape to pre-fight expectations in the cold hard light of post fight realities. I'm getting my odds from Odds Shark for each fight, and taking the mode for each fighter. So, on that note, let's get to the bouts!

Francimar Barroso (+140) vs. Elvis Mutapcic (-160) (I picked Mutapcic, I was wrong)

  • The Expectation: Mutapcic was supposed to be the faster, more active, and just generally more talented fighter when he and Francimar Barroso met in the cage. Instead, he looked gun shy, and perhaps a bit overcome in the moment. Barroso didn't have much success out-wrestling Mutapcic, but Mutapcic still looked very worried about takedowns and as such rarely dedicated himself to throwing combinations. It was a pretty lackluster performance in a loss.
  • Fallout for Barroso: He's hitting that Cathal Pendred territory where he's both been very successful at getting wins in the UFC and very unsuccessful at getting fan interest along with those wins. At some point (much like Pendred did) he's going to start earning fights above his ability. Unless his game really evolves, and does so quickly, it's hard to see Barroso's success continuing past his next couple bouts.
  • Fallout for Mutapcic: He's in the UFC and he'll probably end up needing to move down to middleweight, but this is about as bad a debut as he could have had. Mutpacic is a skilled, competitive fighter, but the likelihood of him ever being a contender is pretty low. If he can't build a reputation as an action fighter at this level, his UFC career may be really short.

Rob Font (-220) vs. Joey Gomez (+180) (I picked Font, I was right)

  • The Expectation: It's not so much that Gomez is a bad fighter, it's just that he's not an experienced fighter, and every advantage he has in MMA, Rob Font has too. Both fighters have big power and a long reach and reasonable offensive and defensive boxing. But given that Font has a kicking game and some wrestling and grappling chops too, it just seemed like the natural pick to expect him to be the guy that got a win here.
  • Fallout for Font: This was a really nice win for him, and a lot more meaningful than it might have been normally, considering he was coming off of a long layoff. Font looks like a good athlete with a very well rounded game. And given his natural punching power, I could easily see him leapfrogging his way up to the edges of the top 15 in short order, if he can get the right bookings.
  • Fallout for Gomez: He lost a fight he wasn't really supposed to win, no shame in that. But it does put him in more of the "another guy at bantamweight" box than the "super prospects" box. Still, he's big, rangy, hits hard, and a reasonable athlete, he just needs more time and seasoning to round out his game, I expect he'll find more success down the road in the UFC.

Charles Rosa (-250) vs. Kyle Bochniak (+215) (I picked Rosa, I was right)

  • The Expectation: Much like the Font/Gomez fight above, Rosa was expected to be the either more (or at least equally) technically skilled fighter just about everywhere. Add on that Rosa is much more experienced, not just in terms of longevity, but in UFC level fights, and he felt like a pretty safe pick. That didn't end up being the case, but he still won.
  • Fallout for Rosa: This is one of those, when is a win not really a win, situations. That's not to say that winning isn't the best outcome, winning is just about everything in the UFC. But, this was a win that exposed more potential problems than it showed clear improvements. Bochniak is an extremely raw fighter in every aspect, but Rosa got severely out-struck for the first half of this fight. His side-on, kick-heavy stance looked unusually unsteady and he lacked a lot of the snap and setup to land solid shots. Eventually he was able to turn the tide and out work Bochniak for the win, but this was a fight he was supposed to have well in control.
  • Fallout for Bochniak: On the flip side, Bochniak's future is looking a lot brighter after a fight like this. He's still not an experienced, technical fighter, but he showed up on short notice and put a limited gameplan and great athleticism to good use. He looks like he's working on solid fundamentals and has good pop in his hands to keep opponents honest while he improves. Hopefully he gets an opponent more his experience level next time out.

Ilir Latifi (-275) vs. Sean O'Connell (+210) (I picked Latifi, I was right)

  • The Expectation: Latifi was going to do bad things... which he did.
  • Fallout for Latifi: He's building himself into solid cult fighter status as one of those guys that's unlikely to ever be any kind of serious title contender, but who will be a hardcore fan favorite every time he goes out. His combination of short stature and absurd strength make him an incredibly strange problem for most opponents to deal with, even while his game is pretty fundamentally limited. And given the state of light heavyweight today, that just might make him a regular top 10 talent down the line.
  • Fallout for O'Connell: I thought the stoppage was a little early, but that doesn't change the fact that O'Connell's first mode of fighting is to brawl with everyone regardless of style, and with no regard for his own defense. He tends to lead with his face and drop his hands (or throw them) as he comes in to exchanges. That makes him a pretty prime candidate for big KO losses. Fortunately for him, he's scrappy and aggressive enough that he can still beat plenty of lower end 205ers, just not regularly.

Paul Felder (-260) vs. Daron Cruickshank (+200) (I picked Felder, I was right)

  • The Expectation: Felder was supposed to be too much for the current version of Cruickshank, a wrestle-striker whose unorthodox style seems to have taken a back seat to a more orthodox and less well developed set of skills. In a battle of two range strikers, I was pretty certain the bigger stronger guy would take it, and since I've been pretty unimpressed with Cruickshank's wrestling in general, I more or less discounted it. I wasn't wrong on the second part, but I was wrong on the first.
  • Fallout for Felder: He still fights like a relatively inexperienced guy who's in over his head against anyone with a more complex game plan than standing and waiting to be hit, or with a good enough chin to not go down on the first big power shot Felder lands. He is big and strong and aggressive, but the more he fights in the UFC, the less that seems to count for. His biggest successes in this fight came when Cruickshank took him down, or tried to, with Felder more or less getting out-worked fighting on the feet.
  • Fallout for Cruickshank: He's a good, capable action fighter, but his wrestling and grappling games have to go. He's just not a powerful enough lightweight to keep from being overwhelmed in scrambles, and not a technical enough one to overcome the size difference. Cruickshank is an above average striker as a lightweight with a fun, flashy game, but he's not just losing grappling battles, he's pushing for them, and then losing them. With three losses in a row now, that may be enough for the UFC to just cut him loose.

Luke Sanders (+100) vs. Maximo Blanco (-125) (I picked Blanco, I was wrong)

  • The Expectation: We all knew there was a chance this could happen. I expected Blanco to win because he's a great athlete, an experienced competitor, and he's not coming in on short notice. But, Blanco has always had the ability to just throw fights out the window and he fought Sanders like there was no chance Sanders could beat him... and well, that didn't really work out.
  • Fallout for Sanders: This is as good a debut win as just about any fighter (and especially a relatively unknown one) could get in the UFC. Blanco may not be ranked, but he's sitting right at the edges of the top 15. And for Sanders to beat him moving up a division and on short notice, it definitely feels like the UFC should take a chance on rushing him up the ladder at 135 to see if he can be a ranked fighter within the next year.
  • Fallout for Blanco: If ever a fight felt like it defined Maximo Blanco's MMA career, this feels like it. He came out of the gate strong, with big, powerful, athletic strikes. He fought with confidence and aggression and dynamism. But, he fought with too much of it all, and too little mind for good defense and fundamentals. Blanco has always been a fighter that lets the moment carry him, and this time it carried him right into a KO submission loss.

Chris Wade (-450) vs. Mehdi Baghdad (+350) (I picked Wade, I was right)

  • The Expectation: Wade was supposed to struggle a little with Baghdad's size and power while eventually wearing him down in the clinch and in prolonged scrambles to get an unenthusiastic decision. That seemed safe. If you go back over Wade's record, you'll find a bunch of fights like it. Instead, he bulldozed Baghdad with the first takedown and worked him over for a quick sub. Really nice fight.
  • Fallout for Wade: Over-performing expectations is always a good sign. Wade's never really had that killer instinct in his career coming up through the regionals. When faced with tough opposition he was the kind of fighter who either ground out the win, or got ground out himself. This time, against a fighter he was supposed to beat, he showed up looking like he'd made significant strides in his overall game. Coupled with his strong early winning record under Zuffa, there's a chance he becomes a darkhorse ranked lightweight. Not a certainty, but a chance.
  • Fallout for Baghdad: He got called out by Wade for being a one-dimensional striker before the fight, and he didn't do much to change that perception in it. This is something of a moment of truth for Baghdad. Did he lose badly because it was short notice, or did he lose badly because he's a flatfooted power-puncher without a lot of secondary tools? I'll be watching his next fight in hopes of finding out.

Ed Herman (+145) vs. Tim Boetsch (-175) (I picked Boetsch, I was wrong)

  • The Expectation: There was a time, and it doesn't feel that long ago, where Tim Boetsch was a notable clinch boxer and Ed Herman was notable mostly for not being notable. That's not to say Herman was bad, but he seemed like the kind of guy who cut his teeth on being tough and grinding. In a battle between a powerful clinch striker and a reasonable grinder, it felt reasonable to pick the powerful clinch striker. It wasn't.
  • Fallout for Herman: It looks like, slowly but surely, he's been improving. Not the kind of big leaps that would suddenly turn Herman into a contender, but the kind of leaps that would turn a longtime grinder into a guy who can actually finish a fight on the feet. Herman looked rock solid fighting in the clinch and as a guy who has typically spent a lot of time working there, that's a great development. It may make him a tougher out than expected for future match-ups outside the top 10 at LHW.
  • Fallout for Boetsch: What was once a stupid tough upper tier MW brawler seems to have slowly eroded. In part, I wonder if it's a lack of technical evolution as other fighters have continued building their infighting skill set, in part I wonder if he's just getting shopworn from his brawling style? It's tough to say, but he's 2-6 in his last 8 fights and it seems like he's losing to lower levels of opposition. Hard to see him staying in the UFC.

Patrick Cote (+130) vs. Ben Saunders (-150) (I picked Saunders, I was wrong)

  • The Expectation: I could say that I expected Ben Saunders to win handily. But if I'm being real for a second here, I wanted Ben Saunders to win handily. I kind of expected him to get KO'd. Saunders is a fun action fighter, but he's defensively averse and he's not the kind of guy who's been un-crackable over the years. Cote is big and durable and hits hard and has shown enough technique to not throw caution to the wind in a sloppy brawl. It was a bad matchup.
  • Fallout for Cote: He's somehow turned being a decent, but limited power puncher into being a well rounded, crafty veteran talent. In part, that has to be physiological luck. He's always had the kind of chin that could deliver him through fire, and with it still intact, he's been able to develop nuance in the rest of his game. He may not have the same speed or explosive power he used to, but he might be a better fighter now than he's ever been.
  • Fallout for Saunders: This isn't a major setback for "Killa B" the action fighter. He started his second stint in the UFC 3-0. Running into a tough loss isn't any kind of end, unless fans out there felt like Saunders was running for a title shot. I'm just happy to see him in fun action fights, and this doesn't put a damper on that for me. It's just a bump in the road.

Francisco Trinaldo (+120) vs. Ross Pearson (-150) (I picked Pearson, I was wrong)

  • The Expectation: Ross was supposed to win this fight if it was a kickboxing bout and potentially lose it if he was forced into a grinding clinch and grappling exchange. The fight Pearson showed against Felder was one of the best of his career in terms of technical advancement and footwork. Color me surprised then, that in this fight, Pearson looked more like his flat footed linear attacking self and lost a pretty pure stand-up battle.
  • Fallout for Trinaldo: Getting time and money to train like an honest professional has done wonders for "Massaranduba." His game still isn't pretty, but it's gotten more controlled and it's all clicking together much more comfortably. Coupled with his innate toughness and powerful build, he's become a remarkably successful force in the UFC. Ranked lightweight still feels a little unlikely, but he certainly has a spot as a top tier gatekeeper.
  • Fallout for Pearson: One step forward, one step back seems to be the hallmark of Pearson's UFC career. Every time it looks like he's found a little more power, a little better technique, some advancement in his fighting style, he then comes out and loses. Most of those losses are to real top tier fighters, but not all of them. This fight against Trinaldo may be the least impressive. I don't know that that will mean anything for his next fight, he could easily come out and look great and get a win. But, if he does, it's worth knowing that another fight like this may be around the corner.

Travis Browne (-170) vs. Matt Mitrione (+150) (I picked Mitrione, I was wrong)

  • The Expectation: I picked Mitrione because he has more technique to his game, especially standing, where this fight was likely to stay. Both fighters have power, both have been KO-able. In a coin-flip fight why not take the underdog. But, Mitrione got eye-poked a couple times and from there it was a pretty rough outing.
  • Fallout for Browne: He got a win he absolutely had to get after losing a fight that most people thought he would win. Just because of his size, cardio, and general athletic ability, Browne is still something of a force of nature in the heavyweight division. I'm not sure when that will make him a contender, it could be next year, it could be 5 years from now, HW is weird. But as long as he keeps fighting in that strange division, he'll be a dangerous out.
  • Fallout for Mitrione: I get the feeling his UFC career is at an end. For the past couple of years he's seemed more and more like a fighter at odds with the promotion. Especially with his intention to test the open market (something that the UFC doesn't seem to love their fighters doing), he just feels like a fighter they'd be willing to let walk right now.

Eddie Alvarez (+295) vs. Anthony Pettis (-350) (I picked Pettis, I was wrong-ish)

  • The Expectation: We all knew Alvarez was going to come out and try to duplicate the Melendez/RDA gameplan, but it seemed a lot more likely that the fighter with a long history of getting dropped and a decent but not electrifying wrestling game would end up on the Melendez side of things, rather than the RDA side. And, Alvarez did get tagged up. I thought he might have lost, but Pettis absolutely let himself get controlled by a fighter who had one set path to victory. That's a bad sign.
  • Fallout for Alvarez: Believe it or not (and especially with Ferguson's plan to fight Johnson and then take some time off) Eddie Alvarez is now a potential UFC title contender. Obviously that will depend on what happens between Conor and RDA, but he's proved that he can dig deep enough to win the tough fights, and fight smart enough to win the ugly fights. Khabib could leapfrog him or even be Alvarez's next bout depending on circumstance, but Alvarez has shown that he's absolutely a top 5 guy and that surprises the hell out of me.
  • Fallout for Pettis: The former lightweight champion is looking less and less like a return contender by the day. He just seems fundamentally unchanged from the guy that really convincingly lost the belt and needed to make big changes to get it back. He looks totally devoted to the idea that, no matter how limited his opportunities are to strike, he will get enough done in those brief moments to win. At the highest level, that's just not a style that wins consistently and against fighters like RDA and Khabib, it may not be a style that wins at all.

Dominick Cruz (+140) vs. TJ Dillashaw (-160) (I picked Dillashaw, I was kinda wrong)

  • The Expectation: Dillashaw was going to solve Dominick Cruz, just like RDA solved Pettis, just like Velasquez solved JDS... I thought Dillashaw won this bout. I scored it 3-2 in his favor, but Dillashaw didn't solve Cruz. He got his shots in when the rare opportunities presented themselves, but mostly, he fought Cruz's fight and lost a decision because of it. I don't hate the decision, right or wrong, because the fight was excruciatingly close and nobody knows how to score it. But, it's worth noting that Cruz still hasn't been figured out.
  • Fallout for Cruz: He's now the champion, four years after leaving, just like he'd never gone at all. Win or lose, Cruz's game did look evolved. His movement is built more around his opponent now than before, when it seemed like he was working through a flowchart of potential options. Now it seems like he's done homework on what the right moves for the fighter in front of him are, and he executes them perfectly in the moment. He's also picked up his punching volume, actually sitting down on a few prolonged combinations in the bout. His output is still low relative to his opportunities, but he's improved enough to compete with the new elite and that's damned impressive.
  • Fallout for Dillashaw: I don't know if Cruz was in his head, if Dillashaw just wasn't quite ready for the actual genuine article in front of him, or if this fight went about as well as Dillashaw had planned (as he feels like he won and I agree). It's hard to tell. Either way, it does feel like there were opportunities lost. Dillashaw seemed to get sucked into playing Cruz's game. He did a lot of headhunting, didn't take enough advantage of real opportunities when they opened up, and found himself trying to chase Cruz down a lot. It seems like, to take a decision of Cruz, you have to be really definitively, obviously better, and Dillashaw wasn't that.

Those are my collected thoughts from UFC Boston. 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 why Anthony Johnson is still in spitting distance of John Jones and why Ben Rothwell winning is like throwing darts blindfolded. Until then!

This week's quote from the movie Birdman.