That was the theme for so many of these fights tonight. Performances that showed new wrinkles for some fighters, while others refined the items in their toolboxes to put on a show. Despite being primarily set up to be an action card, there was a fair amount of divisional movement and progress as well, with some unexpected moves up and down the ladder as well.
One of the most visible up and coming female fighters in the world took on a gritty veteran, while a former champion tries his fortunes in a different weight class against one of the top threats in the featherweight division. Then there was the main event, with two of the most beloved fighters the sport has ever seen, both of them for very, very good reason. All of this wasn’t just great narratives on paper, but fights that delivered as they played out in real life. On with the show.
Demian Maia - 38 years of age, and yet I struggle to think of anyone that works smarter than Demian Maia. From the stellar initial UFC performances, that mind-boggling championship fight against Anderson Silva, to losing in Chicago against a surging late-replacement in Chris Weidman, Maia’s welterweight run has been yet another of the most inspirational comeback stories we’ve seen in this sport. And the way he did it was impressive, with people far smarter than myself mapping out how this fight could have gone. Now on a six-fight winning streak, Maia is now yet another person with a claim to getting a crack at welterweight champion Tyron Woodley. It’s just sad that one of these guys had to lose.
Anthony Pettis - As I mentioned on Twitter, there goes Pretty Tony tapping out black belts again. First it was breaking Benson Henderson’s will to breathe with body kicks to a slick armbar, now this. Submitting a top-level MMA grappler like Oliveira is no small feat, and is a testament to how Pettis worries his opponents with his striking prowess that they ignore his submission game. Pettis ate some shots, but they didn’t seem to bother him. He landed square on Oliveira a bunch of times, snapping his head back a few times and some devastating body kicks that got some real reactions from Oliveira. Pettis was sure to let his opponent up to keep dominating while standing, and even defended beautifully when grappling in a disadvantaged position. Snapping a losing streak is one thing, doing so against one of the most feared grapplers in the division and one of the most promising young talents? That nets you bonus points in the goodwill department with the administrative folks.
Paige VanZant - Let’s get this out of the way - Paige was not doing very well here. She struggled with Bec’s use of range worse than I thought she would, and insisted on standing and trading without shooting as often as I thought she would. Bec’s strength appeared to play a factor, and Rawlings seemed more than content to counter with her inside strikes when possible, even if it wasn’t the prettiest form. That finish was classic misdirection, and Paige did an excellent job of making sure she had her distance right on to land it. Another highlight reel finish against a legit opponent, and the flashiest win on her record - all of which only bolsters the UFC’s desire to promote her as heavily as they can. You can bet a dollar they will, too.
Jim Miller - Personally, I’m with the crew that thinks Lauzon won that fight. Still, it was a close bout, and I can also see the case for Miller winning despite disagreeing with it. All in all, this wasn’t a robbery, it was a close bout for which any frustration with the end result is justified, but not worth getting enraged over. Miller did a lot better standing than I thought he did, mixing it up with some heavy strikes to the body and making his way in and out as he connected. Miller continues to be game for anything the fight game throws his way.
Sam Alvey - It’s fine to not like Sam Alvey, but you’d better be ready to get some odd looks cast your way if you confess to that in polite company. He defended the takedown threats and didn’t seem to be at the strength disadvantage some of us thought he’d be at, plus he really got things going as soon as he started to let his hands go. Turns out pressuring the way he did caused Casey to open up and end up getting tagged. Alvey ends the fight with yet another finish due to strikes and even looked good clinching and landing knees, even if it wasn’t perfect and he ate some shots in the process. One of the true gentlemen of the sport, he’s entertaining to watch whether fighting or being a lovable goof with a microphone.
Felipe Silva - I expected fireworks for this fight between two guys that are primarily kickboxers, but not this. Silva came in full of venom and had some fun exchanges with Campbell (who makes for fun fights, more on him later), and landed a gorgeous liver shot that made Campbell’s body quit. Even the leg kick that Shane threw after that showed him trying to power through, but it’s hard to move when your torso and limbs have the equivalent of the blue screen of death. There are few better ways to make your octagon debut than by putting away one of the more durable fighters on home turf.
The Welterweight Division - Between Maia’s win tonight, Wonderboy’s win in June and the possible return of Georges St Pierre (no, you shouldn’t listen to Dana on this), Woodley has quietly amassed a lot on his plate. This has always been a very good division, but now it’s almost on par with lightweight as being one of the most interesting and talent rich divisions we’ve got with quality contenders that are deserving of an opportunity to fight for the title. That’s not even considering the very possibility that Lawler could easily bounce back to another title shot with another win (or two), and that Cerrone broke into the top ten with no signs of slowing down. This may be the new most fun division to watch.
Chad Laprise - Snapping a two-fight losing skid, Laprise brings himself to 4-2 in the UFC with wins over Olivier Aubin-Mercier and Bryan Barberena, and his two losses were to Ross Pearson and Francisco Trinaldo. This is of note, because this could very well be another example of another Ultimate Fighter winner that was perhaps brought along at the wrong pace. We’ll see how he continues to do from here.
Alessio Di Chirico - This was a nice win for the young Italian fighter, as he fought a tough opponent that can make any fight ugly. The only drawback is that it doesn’t really gain him much traction in the division. His stock remains pretty much where it was coming into this fight, but at least he gets a much-needed win to level out at 1-1 in the UFC
Jeremy Kennedy - Not sure what to make of this win, other than the fact that Kennedy has good controlling wrestling and wasn’t afraid to trade when he wasn’t going for a takedown since his opponent didn’t really make any strides to get away from the fence. He fought smart, worked hard, and got himself a good win for his UFC debut. Good on him.
Carlos Condit - This was tough to watch. Condit remains a competitor first and foremost, and despite his recent statements and his post-fight demeanor, may still have that desire to fight for a while longer. There’s no shame in losing to one of the very best grapplers to have graced this sport, and Condit can take on anyone in the top five, including the champion - no matter how that particular fight was going last time before the injury. He can come back strong and still be successful, but should he decide to walk away from the sport, we should only hope that he’s happy with his decision. As brutal as this sport can be, it’s only right that fighters leave before they’re too broken.
Charles Oliveira - Oliveira has been fighting for quite some time, and despite only being 26 has faced some very tough opposition while losing only to some of the very best along the way. A submission battle with a prime Jim Miller, lightweight Cerrone, Frankie Edgar, Cub Swanson, and an esophagus injury to Max Holloway - that’s not a list of guys that anyone should be embarrassed to lose to. Oliveira has made efforts to improve and at no point just rolled over, keeping the pace and sticking like flypaper with multiple submission attempts. Unfortunately, facing a great striker while having such defensive liabilities is a recipe for something ugly, and a well-timed but ill-implemented takedown attempt sealed his fate in this fight. In a division like featherweight, this loss sets him back considerably with all the moving pieces.
Bec Rawlings - Despite having picked Paige to win, it wasn’t going to be easy. When the fight came around, it wasn’t. Bec fought hard and smart, and was clearly winning that fight, and she deserves every bit of credit for that. She used her range and timing, tried to keep pushing with her pressure and tagged Paige with a few shots while staying a step ahead. She may be on the losing list, but she doesn’t lose much as she drops to 2-2, and had a decent showing. She’s still a tough fight for pretty much anyone in that division, and could get another shot. Personally, I certainly hope so.
Kevin Casey - Casey originally came into the UFC in 2013 after competing on The Ultimate Fighter in a season largely remembered for producing Uriah Hall and the Floridian Jesus himself, Josh Samman (seriously, buy this man’s book - it’s outstanding). Samman beat him on the finale, which led to Casey getting cut and winning some fights in RFA and coming back to the UFC with a thundering knockout win against Bubba Bush. That joy was short-lived, as he failed a post-fight drug test for Drostanolone and was hit with a one year suspension. He got a decision victory over Ildemar Alcantara before ending up with a no-contest in his next bout against Antonio Carlos Jr due to an eyepoke, a TKO loss to Rafael Natal, a draw against Elvis Mutapcic and now this loss to Alvey. If you’re not keeping score, that’s 1 win, 2 losses, 2NCs and 1 draw. I need to make friends with whoever he knows if he gets another fight.
Thibault Gouti - Welp. Currently 0-3 in the UFC, he’s run out of chances. Back to the European circuit he goes. Now, this isn’t to say he can’t come back in the future, but we haven’t seen much of the guy that was finishing most of his opposition on the regional circuit in the UFC.
Gareth McLellan - 1-3 in the UFC usually means you get asked to leave. You certainly can’t accuse McClellan of being lazy, because he certainly tries to bring the fight to his opponent, but he slows down to a crawl and doesn’t do well as the fight goes on. He can make for a fun fight, but his run ends here.
Shane Campbell - Similarly, Campbell is now 1-4 in the UFC, having dropped three straight. Despite his exciting kickboxing style and calculated striking, he gets his walking papers now.
Alessandro Ricci - Losing your UFC debut in a tough decision isn’t the end of the world, but another loss and he could be on the chopping block. He should definitely get another fight, but lightweight isn’t exactly wanting for too much new talent. We’ll have to see his next bout to assess where he stands.
Joe Lauzon - After a showing like that, does he really lose anything? He finished Diego Sanchez in July and fought his heart out here in a fight that he pretty much should have won. His spot in the UFC will be safe.
Enrique Barzola - No real repercussions here for now, as Barzola drops to 1-1 in a close fight where he was tentative in some frames and relying on the counter game. The UFC likes their Ultimate Fighter winners, and with the way that third round heated up there’s no way his spot isn’t safe.