Even though the initial ratings information coming in for UFC on FOX 23 can be considered a downer, what happened inside the cage Saturday night was pretty damned exciting. Sure, not everything went according to script for the UFC as Julianna Pena and Donald Cerrone both fell, but Valentina Shevchenko and Jorge Masvidal aren’t bad options to step up into their place. Of course, those weren’t the only things that took place on the card. There was plenty of other contests that deserve a closer look and even a few that may not warrant it. Nonetheless, I’ll break it down for you.
Here’s my thoughts on the UFC on FOX 23, with every fight and fighter involved broken down. The format is simple. The first bullet covers what was expected to happen and an attempt at a brief summary of what did happen. The next two bullets cover my thoughts on each fighter, how they did, and where they might be headed from here with the winner being covered first.
Jason Gonzalez defeated J.C. Cottrell via submission at 3:54 of RD1
- Expectations/Results: As both lost their UFC debuts as short notice replacements in relatively lopsided fashion, it was a bit difficult to declare one or the other a clear cut favorite. Cottrell was the betting favorite and I picked him due to his wrestling ability. It didn’t really matter. Gonzalez landed some big shots early to rock Cottrell before Cottrell scored a reactive takedown. Gonzalez initiated a scramble after Cottrell was this close to getting the mount position and snagged Cottrell’s neck in the process, cinching in a brabo choke in the process to get the win.
- Gonzalez: I feel pretty much the same way I felt about Gonzalez heading into the contest: he’s a powerful striker with a dangerous guard and good submissions in transition…and terrible defense. I’m not saying he didn’t show some improvement as he most certainly did. His combinations were as sharp as I can recall and his preventing of Cottrell achieving the mount was impressive. The execution of the brabo choke? Beautiful. So long as he can remain exciting and at least win every other fight, he could stick around for a while as an action fighter.
- Cottrell: I’m not going to say everything went badly for Cottrell, but there is a lot more negative to say than positive. He was unable to maintain the mount and didn’t show any real offense on the threat. As deep as the lightweight division is, I don’t see him being able to make it back to the UFC as he assuredly will be handed his walking papers.
Alexandre Pantoja defeated Eric Shelton via split decision
- Expectations/Results: The consensus I had been hearing was that Pantoja was the better fighter now, but Shelton had the brighter future. With that said, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Shelton were able to pull off the upset. He damn near did just that as every round was competitive with most having a hard time deciding who took the first and third round in particular. Pantoja was able to take Shelton’s back in the first and second round, unsuccessfully attempting to sink in a RNC each time. However, those moments were also what swung the decision in his favor as the battle on the feet was pretty even throughout the contest.
- Pantoja: This was huge for Pantoja as he needed this win more than Shelton did. He’s been fighting professionally for ten years and is unlikely to improve too much more. A loss would have put him a step away from being out of the UFC after just barely getting there. Glad to see it. As for the action in the cage, his aggression and body kicks kept him competitive on the feet as Shelton landed the cleaner punches throughout the contest. Pantoja looked a bit slow in there, but Shelton is one of the best athletes in the division and the fight was at high altitude. Expect Pantoja to look better in his next contest.
- Shelton: Encouraging performance from Shelton. He scored some early takedowns on Pantoja and showed some development in his striking. He didn’t press the action the way that he needed to in order to take the decision – Pantoja held the advantage in volume by a sizeable margin – but he did land the harder shots when he landed. His fading down the stretch – likely due to the altitude – cost him in the end. Still, I don’t expect it to be an issue moving forward for the aforementioned reason. At only 25 years old with a pro career less than four years old, Shelton should grow to the point that he could end up challenging for the title someday.
Marcos Rogerio de Lima defeated Jeremy Kimball via TKO at 2:27 of RD1
- Expectations/Results: While de Lima was the favorite going into the contest given his previous UFC contest, the only thing people could really agree on was that this contest wasn’t going to go the distance. It didn’t come anywhere close to that. Kimball was the early aggressor, dancing around on the outside while piecing up de Lima, even scoring a takedown. After using a the threat of a leglock to get back to his feet, de Lima landed a glancing shot on Kimball which sent the Colorado native stumbling to the ground. Punches from de Lima on a turtled Kimball ended up being all she wrote.
- De Lima: I’m not sure how I feel about de Lima’s new patient approach. He didn’t exactly show good defense despite waiting for his opponent to throw first, which isn’t an encouraging sign that this will work out in the long term. Then again, he has had a habit of gassing even before the first round is out. I can’t see de Lima rising above his role as a gatekeeper to the official rankings due to this conflict. Fortunately, he is fun to watch as none of his six UFC contests have yet to leave the first round. That in conjunction with his natural striking power should keep him around for a while.
- Kimball: I don’t want to come across as a hater, but I flat out don’t think Kimball is a UFC caliber fighter. He’s not very athletic, doesn’t have a lot of power, and is very small at light heavyweight. What does he have going for him? He did take the early advantage by picking his spots on an inactive de Lima, but the finish came shortly after de Lima landed his first real offense. I very much expect him to fall short in his next contest and end up on the chopping block.
Eric Spicely defeated Alessio Di Chirico via submission at 2:14 of RD1
- Expectations/Results: No one was going to count Spicely out this time after his surprising submission victory over Thiago Santos, but most were still picking the younger and more athletic Di Chirico to emerge victorious. Instead, Spicely wasted little time trying to get the fight to the ground. While he wasn’t successful, he did bait Di Chirico into taking the fight to the ground and entering his guard. It wasn’t long before Spicely threw up a triangle choke from there, forcing Di Chirico to tap when the Italian’s best efforts to escape proved futile.
- Spicely: You know, I think I’m gonna have to start favoring Spicely every time he fights someone with questionable fight IQ. Basically, I’m attributing this win more to Di Chirico’s mistakes as opposed to Spicely doing anything that he isn’t known for. With that said, Spicely does deserve credit for the victory as the triangle he threw up was quick and efficient. Well done by the submission specialist. I’m still not crazy about his ability to make a serious run, but he’s doing what he needs to do to make himself a mainstay by not just winning fights, but finishing his opponents in a hurry.
- Di Chirico: Everyone knows that Spicely is pretty much hopeless on the feet. And yet, Di Chirico decided to dive into Spicely’s guard after tripping him up. Why would anyone do that!? I acknowledge that Di Chirico isn’t a great striker, but he does throw with power and is more accurate than Spicely. I thought the path to victory was pretty clear for Di Chirico. I guess not. Fortunately he is still young enough that this should merely be a bump in the road.
Jordan Johnson defeated Henrique da Silva via unanimous decision
- Expectations/Results: Johnson was a heavy favorite for a debuting fighter. I had my reservations due to his lack of solid competition on the regional scene, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about this contest. Johnson absolutely dominated da Silva from pillar to post, bell to bell. Johnson took da Silva down in every round, keeping the Brazilian on his back for the majority of every round to grind out a dominating victory. It wasn’t exactly exciting, but it was hard to be more impressed by what Johnson showed in the cage.
- Johnson: While I can still see plenty of holes in his striking, that’s about the only negative that I can point out. Johnson took da Silva down whenever he wanted, showing excellent savvy in catching da Silva’s kick for a trip takedown. He wasn’t able to do a lot of damage once he got the fight to the ground, but his control was excellent and I’d expect the ground and pound to improve with time. Keep in mind that Johnson only began his amateur career four years ago. As for his striking, I did like his jab and he does have natural power, but his defense still has holes. Regardless, Johnson has a bright future.
- Da Silva: Once I heard da Silva didn’t bother showing up to Colorado until fight week, I immediately regretted picking him. While I love da Silva’s heart as he never stops moving forward, he’s never had great cardio. I don’t think da Silva bothers to game plan very much for any of his contests and this was a perfect example of that coming back to bite him in the ass. Now to state the obvious: da Silva really needs to step up his takedown defense. He tried to rely on his submission ability to dissuade Johnson from hanging out in his guard and it clearly wasn’t effective. I can’t say if da Silva is going to be cut as he is an exciting fighter in addition to being youthful. We’ll have to see.
Li Jingliang defeated Bobby Nash via KO at 4:45 of RD2
- Expectations/Results: This was a pick ‘em for many as Nash had the natural one-punch power to change the course of a fight right away while Jingliang was a more proven commodity. After seeing the fight play out, I can’t help but feel each one would win 50 times out of 100. Both landed heavy punches that stumbled the other at multiple junctures with both employing a slip-and-rip strategy. It looked like Nash was going to get a finish in the first only for Jingliang to survive Nash’s choke attempt. Nash landed some more shots in the second that appeared to wobble Jingliang, though it was Jingliang who landed a right cross near the end of the round that had Nash stumbling to the ground. A follow-up shot to the temple on a grounded Nash put the newcomer out cold and gave Jingliang the win.
- Jingliang: I really don’t want to point out the faults in this contest as that was a lot of fun to watch. Instead, I’d rather point out Jingliang’s toughness and head movement – when he remembered to use it -- as being very impressive. He was pretty quick to get back to his feet when Nash took the fight to the ground too, showing much improved defensive wrestling. And that strike on the ground that put Nash out cold? One of the best single shots to the ground that I’ve ever seen. But, I can’t just look at the good. Jingliang’s head movement disappeared at various points which resulted in him eating a lot of unnecessary damage. Still, he continues to improve and he’s gaining more fans in the process. No doubt Jingliang is trending in the right direction.
- Nash: Nash is who I thought he was: a hard hitter with poor defensive skills and a great killer instinct. He seemed surprised that Jingliang was still around after some of those hard shots, which seemed to throw him off a bit. Nash could very well end up sticking around for quite a while as his one-punch power gives him a chance in any contest and he took some hard shots before finally going out. But his long-term potential? I don’t know. There are raw skills to work with. Here’s hoping the UFC looks to square him up against a fellow action fighter for his next contest.
Raphael Assuncao defeated Aljamain Sterling via split decision
- Expectations/Results: A lot of people were excited about this contest as Assuncao and Sterling are two of the best bantamweights on the planet. What we got was pretty damned disappointing. Sterling didn’t land a clean punch until the third round, his sole source of offense the first two rounds being kicks to the legs and body. Even worse, he couldn’t get his vaunted wrestling game going at any point in the fight. You’d think Assuncao would have cruised to an easy victory knowing those factors, but there is a reason it went to a split decision. Assuncao largely waited for Sterling to present countering opportunities. He landed enough of them when they were presented that he took the decision, but they weren’t thrown at a very high clip which resulted in a very unhappy chorus of boos from the crowd.
- Assuncao: While I’m sure that Assuncao is happy to walk out of Denver with a win, he acknowledged himself that was an underwhelming performance. Given the nature of the contest, he’s treading water. Not necessarily a bad thing considering the other option was a step backwards had he lost. Still, Assuncao turns 35 this year and needs to get back in the cage quick if he hopes to make a title run as he is unlikely to be at the top of his game for much longer. I’m good to see him lined up against either Dominick Cruz or Jimmie Rivera. Either way, it eliminates someone who is making a legit claim for a title shot. Now we just have to hope it isn’t a replay of what we got here.
- Sterling: This loss hurts Sterling, but it is far from derailing the youngsters career. If anything, it should be encouraging as he hung in there with someone who has been at the top of the division for a number of years now. Hell, there is a sound argument that he won the fight. He did show improvements in his striking, particularly when he started committing to his punches in the third round. He isn’t ever going to become one of the elite at throwing fists, but if he can continue to make steady progress, he’ll be right there with the best. Even if he can provide the threat of just a decent striking attack, it will provide more openings for his takedowns, something he learned he can’t rely on in this contest.
Sam Alvey defeated Nate Marquardt via unanimous decision
- Expectations/Results: Alvey was a solid favorite, though many were hesitant to bet against Marquardt following Marquardt’s pasting of Tamdan McCrory in his last contest. But given Alvey’s power combined with Marquardt’s weakening chin, it felt like a foregone conclusion Alvey would win. While Alvey won, it wasn’t in a manner anyone was expecting. Marquardt was reluctant to push forward and play into Alvey’s counter game which resulted in a very tedious contest in which both were reluctant to throw. In all honesty, the less said about this contest the better.
- Alvey: It’s clear Alvey has made minor adjustments – i.e. a bit more aggression, some leg kicks -- to be less reliant on his counterpunching. They’re just enough that he is able to pick up a win over Marquardt, but I don’t see it being enough to beat a ranked opponent…something that would make sense to match him up with given that he has now won four fights in a row. He’s never completely out of a contest given his rare power and his takedown defense, but he isn’t a very good athlete nor is he a very active striker. I know he called out Jack Marshman – I don’t get it either – but I’d like to see him get a step up and see just how far his limited style can take him.
- Marquardt: I don’t want to rip on Marquardt too much for his reluctance to engage. He’s aware how delicate his chin is at this point and knew he wouldn’t be able to stand punch for punch with Alvey. So he utilized a patient strategy that minimized the damage he took and damn near picked him up an upset victory. I was hoping to see him place a greater emphasis on his wrestling as he had good success in out-grappling Alvey when they went to the ground, but he only tried to get the fight to the ground twice as far as I can recall. I never thought I’d say this following Marquardt’s loss to Kelvin Gastelum, but he still has a bit more to offer as a gatekeeper.
Jason Knight defeated Alex Caceres via submission at 4:21 of RD2
- Expectations/Results: Knight has picked up a bit of a cult following with his don’t-give-a-damn attitude and in-cage trash talk. I thought that may have been swinging the pendulum too far in his favor for this contest as Caceres was the most skilled striker Knight had faced. I didn’t take into account Knight’s youth and potential for improvement. Knight showed improved timing in his striking, catching Caceres on the attack time and again, stumbling the longtime vet late in the first. The biggest improvement was in Knight’s wrestling, utilizing trips to take Caceres down. That allowed Knight to execute his vaunted BJJ game and forced Caceres to tap to a neck crank as the arm wasn’t completely under the neck.
- Knight: When Knight first came into the UFC, he was so reliant on his guard game that I didn’t think he’d last very long. He’s completely changed the narrative as he has transformed himself into a complete fighter. I’m not saying he’s an incredible wrestler or an elite striker, but he’s shored himself up enough in all of those areas that he isn’t going to be trucked over by anyone in any single area any more as he was by Tatsuya Kawajiri at the end of 2015. At only 24 years old, Knight should continue to improve. Given his attitude, he should be someone the UFC could push to the public as somewhat of an anti-hero similar to the Diaz brothers.
- Caceres: While we still don’t know how far Knight can go – which means we don’t know exactly how bad this loss is for Caceres – we have a pretty good idea of Caceres’ ceiling at this point. He’ll never be a contender, nor will he be a consistent threat to anyone in the official UFC rankings. I’m not saying it isn’t possible for him to take a win from a ranked opponent, but more often than not he’s going to end up on the short end of the stick. He doesn’t have the power in his striking to threaten consistently and his wrestling – something that has suffered since moving back up to featherweight – is an overall negative as well which prevents his above average grappling ability from being used to its highest efficiency. That leaves him outpointing his opponents almost solely with his striking. Not a solid plan to work your way to the top.
Francis Ngannou defeated Andrei Arlovski via TKO at 1:32 of RD1
- Expectations/Results: From the moment this contest was announced, everyone agreed that Ngannou was likely to blast Arlovski out of his senses. I certainly agreed with that sentiment, but I also wasn’t going to be surprised if Arlovski was able to use his veteran guile to find a way to sleep the inexperienced Frenchman. What did happen was what we all thought would happen. The first time that Arlovski tried to seriously exchange punches, Ngannou landed a combination that launched Arlovski to the ground and finished him off with a few ground shots to end the contest in a sudden and violent fashion.
- Ngannou: The biggest complaint about Ngannou heading into this contest was that he hadn’t beat anyone who had accomplished anything major in the sport. Arlovski may not be the same guy that he was in his prime, but he is still a valid heavyweight with an impressive resume. Now it can be said that Ngannou has been someone with a certain level of notoriety. The manner in which Ngannou did so is absolutely frightening for anyone ahead of him in the rankings. Ngannou is already so dangerous and he should only continue to improve for the next few years as he gains more experience. I’ve seen many proclaiming that Ngannou could end up fighting for the title before the end of the year. I’m not going to disagree with that sentiment at this point.
- Arlovski: This marks the fourth loss in a row for Arlovksi which would be the end of the line for most. Maybe it should be for Arlovski, but he isn’t losing to sub-par competition. He’s been losing to the best, those who were once the best, or those who were on their way to being the best. So should he continue to fight? I don’t know. It is worth noting that the UFC brought Frank Mir back after he had dropped four in a row only for Mir to experience a minor resurgence after that. We didn’t see enough to determine if he still has anything to offer in this contest. I’d be fine with him fighting the likes of Daniel Omielanczuk or Alexander Volkov as a gatekeeper, but I don’t want to see him fighting opponents of a similar ilk to those he has been losing to. Only time will tell what happens with Arlovski’s career.
Jorge Masvidal defeated Donald Cerrone via TKO at 1:00 of RD2
- Expectations/Results: Given his four-fight win streak in which he finished all of his opponents since moving up to welterweight, it was hard to pick against Cerrone. He looked healthier and fresher, giving the impression that he was the best version of himself that we have ever seen. So even though Cerrone wasn’t even a 2-to-1 favorite, a very small percentage were picking Masvidal to win (props to Stephie and Dave for their picks). What we got was by far the best version of Masvidal we’ve ever seen. Pressuring Cerrone in a way that has been uncommon for him, Masvidal pursued Cerrone aggressively and put together slick combinations. Even then, Cerrone’s offense wasn’t completely shut down, landing a lot of kicks to the legs and body. At the end of the first round, Masvidal put together a combination that floored Cerrone and appeared to finish the fight only for Herb Dean to declare the end of the round. Somehow, Cerrone was allowed to come back out for the second round despite clearly being dazed only for Masvidal to floor him again. Cerrone got back to his feet, but wasn’t defending himself which finally ended the contest.
- Masvidal: The reputation of Masvidal is someone who does just enough to win, which has cost him fights in the past as he has taken his foot off of the gas. He didn’t let up one bit in this contest, actively pursuing the finish. While I love this newfound aggression, I’m trying to figure out why it took him so long to pick up this approach considering how many close decisions he has dropped. I’m prone to believe Masvidal was motivated to put on a good showing against Cerrone. Not only had Masvidal called him out, he was also fighting in front of a pro-Cerrone crowd. Masvidal appears to be the type to thrive when he has detractors. As he continues to climb the ladder, he should continue to find proper motivation as there will be plenty saying he can’t climb much further. I’m stoked to see where he goes next.
- Cerrone: I’m not about to jump off of the Cerrone bandwagon…if you could say I was on it. I never thought he’d actually be able to win the title, but I thought he would be able to replace Carlos Condit as the preeminent action fighter at welterweight as Condit seems to be phasing himself out of the sport. I still think he is in position to do that. The loss didn’t reveal anything that we haven’t known about Cerrone in that he doesn’t respond well to pressure. He did land some significant offense on Masvidal, but Masvidal wasn’t responding to the offense Cerrone was throwing at him. Cerrone has been able to pull out a finish in that type of situation before. He simply wasn’t able to this time. He’ll be back.
Valentina Shevchenko defeated Julianna Pena via submission at 4:29 of RD2
- Expectations/Results: Originally a relatively 50/50 contest when first announced, Shevchenko slowly began to pull ahead for a couple of reasons. Her ability to adapt over the course of a fight was the biggest reason for the sway over to her side by pundits. That proved to be the difference. Pena expended a lot of energy in a hurry, kneeing Shevchenko in the clinch rapidly and attempting numerous takedowns. When Pena finally got Shevchenko down, she was unable to land any significant offense as Shevchenko had exhausted her. Shevchenko eventually found the opening she was looking for and secured an armbar from the guard that Pena no longer had the strength to properly fight off, eliciting a tap.
- Shevchenko: The only time in that fight where Shevchenko didn’t seem to be in control was at the end of the first round when Pena attempted an armbar. Even then, Shevchenko seemed to be aware that the bell was about to ring, never showing any panic. As Pena pinned Shevchenko up against the fence, Shevchenko had a look that indicated this was all a part of her plan. That was proved even further when Shevchenko landed a pair of trip takedowns as Pena continued her attack. While the first round was extremely close and I was leaning towards giving the second to Pena before the finish, it felt like a flawless performance from Shevchenko. Now the question is whether or not the UFC is excited about setting up a contest against Amanda Nunes for the title or if they will try to set up a superfight between Nunes and whoever wins the inaugural featherweight title at the next PPV. Indications are that they will be setting up the rematch with Nunes based on Shevchenko and Nunes having their post-fight exchange.
- Pena: Things looked bleak for Pena when her head coach, Rich Little, pretty much admitted that they had done nothing to prepare for elevation as Pena was an animal. Really? Cain Velasquez is as dominant of a champion the UFC has seen at heavyweight. Not preparing for the altitude in Mexico City cost him his title in June 2015. Why would Pena’s team think she would be immune to the thin air? She expended a lot of energy early and didn’t help herself with her attempts to take Shevchenko down with brute physicality as opposed to sound wrestling technique. Pena’s effort never wavered, but it appeared to me that her strength and energy flagged as she couldn’t fight out of the armbar by Shevchenko. I did think Pena’s strategy to win was sound, but how she executed that strategy – i.e. poor wrestling technique, not adapting to what Shevchenko was doing in the cage – leaves a lot of questions with regards to her ability to contend for a title. She may be in position for the most high-profile fight of her career… but that completely depends on whether or not Ronda Rousey wants to continue her career.
Well, those are my collective thoughts. Until next time....