At first glance, UFC on FOX 23 appeared to be quite different from recent Fox cards in some respects. Where we usually get a lot of middle-of-the-pack fighters as an appetizer to fights that establish a likely for a division, we got a main card that some very clear consequences.
All of this leads to a breath of fresh air, as we finally have a clear-cut #1 contender at women’s bantamweight, a monkey wrench thrown into the welterweight machine, and a surging talent that very well could be fast-tracked even further at heavyweight. All of them remarkable stories, all of them excellent exhibitions of talent in high-stakes matches, and all of them outstanding finishes.
So, on with the show.
Valentina Shevchenko - From last-minute replacement after a lengthy hiring freeze at women’s bantamweight to knocking on the door to UFC gold in just over a year? That’s excellent. Her previous two UFC wins were decisions, but they were definitive and left no doubt about who won. This and her loss to current champion Amanda Nunes may have given the impression that she was mostly a point-driven counter fighter with a suspect ground game among some fans and analysts. Yet tonight we saw Shevchenko have a bit of trouble when pressed against the cage and taking knee shots to the body, but she was able to work her way out and gain superior position. After taking some punishment in the second round and ending on her back, she kept her composure and was able to beautifully bait her opponent for the armbar and keep working through Peña’s escape attempts to finish it.
Now she has a shot at both redemption and gold in a rematch with Nunes, in a very intriguing match. This will probably be as anticipated from a skill perspective as the rematch between Joanna Champion and Claudia Gadelha was last year, and for good reason. There will be a lot of interesting dynamics at play, since both have shown some improvements since when they fought last March. Of course, that’s assuming Nunes doesn’t get that crack at the eventual 145lb champ that she’s hoping for. But that’s another story for another day.
Jorge Masvidal - Cuban George is always fun and interesting to watch, and very underrated when it comes to making a list of smartest or most clever fighters at welterweight. This was perhaps his most calculated and intelligent fight we’ve seen him in thus far in his UFC run. He attacked Cerrone’s body, used his timing to great effect in disrupting Cowboy’s rhythm and setups while not being in any serious danger. He ate some shots, but managed to drop Cerrone in the first and really make his body quit in the second. Masvidal came into this fight ranked at #12, and should at least break into the top ten here after beating the man ranked #5. At #11 is former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks, who is moving up to middleweight and has talked about the possibility of his next fight being his last. Rick Story is at #9, and he lost to Cerrone in his last outing back in August. #6 is Lorenz Larkin, who is reportedly currently negotiating with Bellator. All of this makes room for Masvidal to slide on in and continue his impressive three-fight win streak.
Francis Ngannou - I’d like to take this and any opportunity in the immediate foreseeable future to remind you all that Ngannou didn’t even know what MMA was until just about 4 years ago. This is the same man that just absolutely decimated a former champion with brutal violence. Sure, detractors could point to the fact that Arlovski’s ability to take a punch has been a problem for some time. That doesn’t discount how Ngannou was able to capitalize on the opportunity to counter with those heavy shots. It even seems like Arlovski’s left foot went up in the air before he started falling over to his right. Ngannonou has been tremendous fun to watch and has impressed not only with his boxing, but his wrestling defense as well. That’s going to pay off very well against someone like Cain Velasquez, who Francis appears interested in fighting.
Li Jingliang - This kid, he’s grown on me. Now 4-2 with a two-fight win streak, we’ve seen him use his funky movement and timing to set up a great shot for his third knockout win in the UFC. It’s not just his striking that’s unorthodox, his movement overall is uncommon. He’s not afraid to get into a dogfight but uses some explosive counterstriking when he draws his opponent in. Another solid performance by the Chinese welterweight.
Raphael Assuncao - Assunçao manages to win another tense fight, and the only man ahead of him in his division is John Lineker, who just lost to the next title challenger TJ Dillashaw. While this win isn’t the kind of thing that the UFC prefers for someone to get the next title shot, he may be a win away while the Cody Garbrandt takes on his next challenge.
Marcos Rogerio de Lima - Now 4-2 in the UFC, all of his wins have been finishes. Most of them have been great ones, too. Despite alternating wins and losses since 2014, he’s got a penchant for getting into action fights and pushing to avoid going to a decision.
Alexandre Pantoja - It’s a bit disappointing that they didn’t keep everyone from the last season of TUF, because this was the best cast in ages - probably ever. Pantoja nabbed a close split decision win in his UFC debut, setting his record at 17-2 overall. In a division as small as flyweight that just released talents like Makovsky and Bagautinov, He could make some waves here, and this win could be just the start for him to move on up.
Jason Knight notches another win to make it three in a row with his lanky striking style and deceptive wrestling. Solid win against a UFC veteran. Eric Spicely worked his way to a great submission win over a young talent to improve to 2-1 in the UFC. Sam Alvey had a tough fight against a tested veteran in Nate Marquardt, in an affair that wasn’t fireworks but got the job done. Jordan Johnson also put forth a workmanlike performance to win his UFC debut using control and his size advantage. Jason Gonzalez notched a great submission win as well, timing his submission right and keeping position for maximum effect. He moves to 1-1 in the UFC.
Julianna Pena - It’s possible that the altitude may have played a factor in this loss, but Peña didn’t seem to be slowing down at all. If anything, she was just getting her pace established with elbows and punches from the guard. The fight started off with a decent tactical decision of pressing Shevchenko against the cage and working the body with knees to break her down and sap her cardio. She got punished for it after she got greedy, but scored the takedown in the second round after various attempts that seemed more reliant on physicality and strength. Once on the ground, she didn’t make an attempt to pass guard or improve position in any way. It also doesn’t help that she was content to keep her hands in a position that opened her up to the submission, a sign that Julianna may have underestimated Valentina’s ground game.
Despite losing the fight, Peña’s standing in the division doesn’t take a major hit here. She could learn from this loss and could easily rebound to either get another shot at Shevchenko or get a crack at Nunes herself. Peña came in ranked at #2, but #3 is Holly Holm - a woman that has cited difficulty making it to 135lbs and will be fighting on the next PPV card for the featherweight title instead. #4 is Ronda Rousey, and whether or not she returns to the sport is up in the air. #5 is Raquel Pennington who recently defeated the now-retired Miesha Tate, and #6 is Cat Zingano whose last outing was a loss to... Julianna Peña. She has some work to do, but is still one of the bigger talents in her division and a tough out for anyone in the top ten.
Donald Cerrone - Here’s another interesting case. After moving up from lightweight, the only man to slam the brakes on Cerrone is another guy that came up from lightweight and started making waves at 170. Cerrone didn’t look like he was going through a slow start. Masvidal’s ability to take what Cerrone dished out seemed to be enough, and Cerrone got stopped for the first time since his lightweight title fight against Rafael dos Anjos. Much like the Masvidal scenario, there’s a bit of a logjam in the top five of the welterweight division but a bit of disarray outside of that. His stock doesn’t drop that much here, nor does his standing in the division. He will be required to get some serious rest before his next fight, and that’s for the better.
Andrei Arlovski - Even in a division as random as heavyweight, it’s hard to see a path for Arlovski in the sport moving forward. No, I don’t just mean the UFC. Four straight losses, all of them by finish. The only one where he didn’t suffer a significant amount of damage was his loss to Josh Barnett in September, which ended with a rear naked choke. He’s cleaned up his defensive liabilities in most of the fights he’s won, but now the amount of damage suffered in recent years could possibly be a problem for his long-term health. It’s not even just getting knocked out, it’s the fact that he’s getting nailed by some of the most brutal strikers in the sport. In this fight, he overcommitted and got caught off base, hard. Miocic, Overeem, Ngannou (shudders), all of them can hit like a truck. He may have another 2-3 fights in him, but it gets increasingly difficult to watch with each outing. With this loss and the winner of the upcoming Travis Browne/Derrick Lewis fight to be determined, he’s bound to fall to the lower end of the top ten, if not completely.
Aljamain Sterling - Tough loss for Aljo. A split decision loss in a fight in which he barely used his wrestling at all. Second straight loss for Sterling, and he could easily take a tumble in the rankings here. Right behind him are Michael McDonald, John Dodson and Thomas Almeida, with Almeida and McDonald coming off wins. Sterling’s still young and growing, there’s plenty of upside for him. His game hasn’t been clicking right in recent fights, and he needs to show some new wrinkles in his next outing.
Alex Caceres - Tough to see a fighter that’s progressed and evolved the way Caceres has take a loss like this, but that’s the fight game. Knight began to pull away, and Caceres seemed to be playing catch-up after that. Then he was worked into a deficit he couldn’t recover from to be outwrestled and eventually submitted. Despite this being his second straight loss, he may not be in danger of being cut due to his reliability as an action fighter and overall record.
Nate Marquardt had a not-pretty fight against Sam Alvey, and it was what it was. He continues to alternate wins and losses as he’s done since the Gastelum loss in June of 2015. Bobby Nash loses his UFC debut, and it probably wouldn’t hurt his stock as much if it wasn’t such a rough knockout. He’s got a bit of ground to make up for after that, especially at welterweight. Luis Henrique da Silva loses his second straight fight, putting his UFC record at 2-2. His last fight was the submission loss to Paul Craig, and he didn’t look great here, either. Alessio di Chirico drops to 1-2 with a submission loss, but middleweight is pretty chaotic. He can bounce back from this. It pains me to say this, but Jeremy Kimball simply did not look like a trained professional fighter here. No disrespect to him, but seeing his record and bits of previous fights, he should be able to acquit himself in his next fight. JC Cottrell got caught with a slick submission and is now 0-2 in his UFC run. He may get cut by virtue of losing his second fight by finish and in a competitive weight class like lightweight. That said, it would be great if he at least got another shot at it.
Eric Shelton - One of the best talents from the flyweight season of TUF went up against another fantastic fighter from that season and lost his UFC debut. Putting the pieces together, it really isn’t a net loss or gain. Again, this is flyweight. The division is small as is, and you have an exciting talent like Shelton coming in while others are leaving the organization. This loss won’t hurt him, and he’ll only get better.