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Hindsight - UFC 216: Ferguson vs. Lee in retrospect

Get the thoughts and musings of Dayne Fox on UFC 216, from Brad Tavares’ workmanlike opening victory to the back-and-forth main event between Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee.

Though I doubt sales for UFC 216 will be impressive, I doubt anyone who purchased the PPV walked away disappointed. Though he is the longest-reigning UFC champion by a longshot, it could be said Demetrious Johnson had a breakout performance…at least in terms of fan appeal. In the course of breaking the record for consecutive title defenses, the crowd was chanting his name…and that was before Johnson ended the contest with one of the most memorable submissions in the history of the sport. Did I mention a new lightweight champion may very well have been crowned? Or that there was one of the better fights of the year? It was a great night of fights.

Here’s my thoughts on UFC 216 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.

Brad Tavares defeated Thales Leites via unanimous decision

  • Expectations/Result: Despite being ranked higher than Tavares in the official UFC rankings, Leites was a firm underdog in the odds as most didn’t think he’d be able to get any takedowns to execute his vaunted BJJ game against Tavares. Those predictions proved to be true. Tavares popped back up any time Leites almost finished the takedown. Even more effective, Tavares picked apart Leites with stiff jabs and leg kicks, causing Leites’ leg to give out late in the contest. Very convincing win for the Hawaiian.
  • Tavares: Easily the best performance Tavares has put on in the UFC when you take into account the level of opposition and overall domination. His jab had a lot more sting to it than I can ever recall it having and the same thing could be said about his low kicks. He did a solid job of avoiding most of Leites’ offense as well. Perhaps what I liked the most was his willingness to go for the kill, throwing a couple of flying knees early in hopes of putting Leites out. They didn’t land, but Tavares’ inability to end fights has been the biggest thing holding him back from advancing beyond his current position. I’ll be watching to see if his aggression level remains high.
  • Leites: Leites hasn’t been the same fighter since he was dominated by Gegard Mousasi. He had a level of confidence he fought with heading into that contest that we haven’t seen from him since. He’ll hang around on the feet for a while throwing fisticuffs, only looking to get the fight to the ground when it’s clear he’s losing the standup. The problem is that he has expended enough energy that his takedowns don’t have the same oomph behind them to finish them. Now he’s getting older and losing his athleticism in small increments. He can still win some fights, but don’t expect him to sniff the top ten ever again.

John Moraga defeated Magamed Bibulatov via KO at 1:38 of RD1

  • Expectations/Result: Easily the brightest prospect the flyweight division has seen since Henry Cejudo, the expectation was that Bibulatov would march through Moraga with ease as Moraga had lost three straight not that long ago. Instead, Moraga came out on fire, throwing low kicks before attacking high. It was a right hand followed by a grazing head kick that set up a brutal left hook that sent Bibulatov crashing to the ground, the back of his head bouncing off the mat. Jason Herzog jumped in before Moraga could do much more damage, giving the former title challenger an emphatic win.
  • Moraga: It was fair to ask how much more Moraga had left in the tank following his losing streak. He looked flat and dealt with concussion issues in the midst of the streak. In getting back on track against Ashkan Mokhtarian and now destroying the heavily favored Bibulatov, he’s letting everyone know he’s not done by any means. It’s too much to expect him to get another shot at the title, but it will be interesting to see how much further he can climb. If nothing else, he has reestablished himself as a gatekeeper to the top ten. As far as his performance, I didn’t know he had that much power in his fists. Interested to see if that power returns or if it was a one-time affair.
  • Bibulatov: Many were happy to see the Russian fall flat given his connection to Ramzan Kadyrov, certainly an understandable sentiment. The loss shouldn’t be looked into too deeply as Bibulatov is still very young in his career and Moraga was easily the toughest opponent he has seen. He’ll likely learn from this experience, probably by showing more caution on the feet, something that has been an issue for him. Plus, the loss throws him off the fast track to a title shot many predicted upon his UFC entry. He’ll be taken along more slowly, though that will likely be more beneficial in the long run.

Matt Schnell defeated Marco Beltran via unanimous decision

  • Expectations/Result: Though the consensus is that Schnell has the better skill set, his lack of a chin left many questioning if he’d be able to hold up against Beltran. Schnell found his range early, pressing the action and countering Beltran’s naked kicks with ease. Beltran slowly began to increase his offense midway through the second, arguably taking the final round as Schnell’s energy level slowly declined. It wasn’t a pretty fight, but it was enough to keep Schnell in the UFC.
  • Schnell: I did pick Schnell to win as I expected Beltran to struggle with Schnell’s reach. That’s exactly what happened, but it was hardly an impressive performance. However, I didn’t say it wasn’t smart either. Schnell’s previous KO losses had him reluctant to engage in anything beyond short exchanges. Like I said, smart, but I can’t see him finding much success moving forward. I know that flyweights don’t have much power, but they typically end up having lengthy exchanges. Schnell is in bad shape if he can’t survive those. What I really don’t get is why Schnell never made any consistent attempt to get the fight to the ground given his submission prowess. Was Schnell dealing with any injuries?
  • Beltran: To his credit, Beltran didn’t look nearly as bad as he did in his first appearance at flyweight. He arguably took the final round. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. The problem is Beltran is used to having a couple of inches of reach on his opponents and using that to his advantage. He didn’t get that with Schnell, resulting in Beltran struggling to find his range until Schnell started to gas. Though the UFC has been reluctant to cut anyone, three losses in a row may be enough for the UFC to cut ties with the Mexican product. To be fair though, he did find more success in the UFC than anyone ever expected when he came off TUF Latin America.

Poliana Botelho defeated Pearl Gonzalez via unanimous decision

  • Expectations/Result: Though Botelho was a wild card as this was her UFC debut, most expected her to emerge victorious as Gonzalez didn’t look that great in her debut. She looked even worse this time around. Gonzalez found a little bit of success early with her kickboxing before opting to take the fight to the ground, pushing the fight against the fence…and nothing else as Botelho refused to go down. The fight ended up stalled against the cage for the majority of the bout, drawing vehement boos from the fans. It was a horrible contest with Botelho emerging the deserved victor.
  • Botelho: This was by no means an impressive performance from Botelho. She just happened to do more when the fight was stalled. Gonzalez’s head was there, so Botelho just laid in the elbows Travis Browne-style. It’s no surprise she didn’t get the KO weighing in at only 115 pounds, but let’s give her credit for at least taking advantage of what was there. I would have liked to have seen her reverse the situation on Gonzalez a bit more, being the one to press the action against the fence. Then again, maybe I’m only saying that because I think I would have enjoyed the contest more.
  • Gonzalez: 15. That’s how many takedowns Gonzalez attempted according to Fight Metric. You’d think Gonzalez would have changed things up and try fighting in the pocket. Hell, the few times she did, she was winning the fight. For some reason though, Gonzalez really wanted the fight on the ground. I thought she had potential when she first came into the UFC based on her regional showings and I’m sure that potential is still there…but not if she keeps fighting stupidly.

Lando Vannata and Bobby Green fought to a split draw

  • Expectations/Result: Though Green was riding a three-fight losing streak going into the contest, he had also been fighting tough opposition while many still saw Vannata as a top up-and-comer despite a disappointing loss in his last contest. Thus, there was no consensus on this contest. Vannata came out on fire, knocking Green to the mat with a right hand that had Green just barely hanging on. As Green attempted to stand back up, Vannata attempted a knee that missed, though it was difficult to see with the naked eye. Why is this noteworthy? Herb Dean decided to take a point from Vannata for the illegal strike. The final two rounds consisted of Vannata and Green going toe-to-toe, slugging it out in the pocket with neither fighter gaining a major advantage until Green rocked Vannata with seconds to go in the contest. In a bit of an oddity, when the draw was announced, both fighters seemed happy with the outcome in a potential FOTY.
  • Vannata: It has to eat at Vannata that he could have won the contest had he not thrown the illegal knee. Hell, some would say Herb Dean should have stopped the contest before the knee was thrown and they have a strong argument. However, we then would have been deprived of what followed, so I’m glad Dean didn’t. I am very happy with the progress Vannata showed here. He really did a better job of utilizing his fundamentals and set up his high-risk maneuvers, something he completely neglected in his first three UFC contests. His takedowns were timed perfectly too. He didn’t have his hands up for defense for the entire contest, but they were certainly more prominent for this contest. Vannata is coming along beautifully. I’m higher on him than I ever have been even if he didn’t walk away with the win.
  • Green: Green looked bad the first round. Not horrible. He scored some decent offense, but he was listless. His usual swagger was completely missing, almost like he didn’t want to be in there. Apparently getting rocked wakes him up as he looked like a different fighter the deeper the fight went. His cocky attitude returned and he got rolling, walking through some of Vannata’s hard strikes and looking like the up-and-comer he was when he first came into the UFC as he relied heavily on his jab. If Green can find his confidence before going into the fight, he’ll be much off. He’ll never sniff the top ten again, but he should be a solid gatekeeper just outside the rankings for some years to come.

Cody Stamann defeated Tom Duquesnoy via split decision

  • Expectations/Result: As one of the most hyped prospects to enter the UFC in recent years, most expected Duquesnoy to run over Stamann with ease. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I did think Duquesnoy would win. Early on, it looked like an accurate prediction as Duquesnoy marched Stamann down and delivered some brutal body work as he switched stances. Stamann turned it around after the opening round, not only getting Duquesnoy down, but keeping him there and raining down some brutal ground strikes in the middle round. Duquesnoy looked haggard in the final round, allowing Stamann to compete with him on the feet with kicks to the legs and body, jabs, and short boxing combinations to swing enough of the judges in his favor.
  • Stamann: While I believe I gave Stamann more credit than many other MMA analysts, I still ended up underestimating the Michigan Top Team representative. Making Duquesnoy worry about his takedowns opened up the action on the feet for him and Stamann did a fantastic job of keeping Duquesnoy guessing what was coming next. Most impressive was his ability to keep Duquesnoy on the ground for an extended period – something most have been unable to do – and deliver some noteworthy damage from the mount in the second. He’s officially taken the title of up-and-comer worth watching in the division.
  • Duquesnoy: While any loss hurts, this one isn’t going to be as damaging for Duquesnoy as you might think. He has no learned that he can’t just overwhelm everyone with his aggression and that he needs to do a better job of conserving energy. Had he been a bit more judicious when he chose to attack, he probably would have pulled out the decision. Instead, he had nothing left to offer at the end. Then again, Stamann did work his body over pretty good. The other obvious thing Duquesnoy needs to work on that most would point out is his wrestling, but that hasn’t exactly been a secret. Perhaps avoiding staying on his back would be more relevant in his case as his lanky frame makes it difficult for him to dig in and stuff takedowns.

Beneil Dariush and Evan Dunham fought to a majority draw

  • Expectations/Result: Though everyone expected a competitive and entertaining contest, very few seemed to be picking Dunham to secure the win. Dariush showed why early, blitzing Dunham with low kicks and some close-range elbows, staggering Dunham and putting him into survival mode. Dunham held on until the end of the round despite Dariush’s best attempts. It became clear Dariush spent a lot of energy trying to finish Dunham as he didn’t have the same pep in his step from there, allowing Dunham slowly taking the momentum until it was Dariush looking to avoid engaging in the final minutes. However, Dariush’s big opening round was enough to give him a 10-8 advantage in the eyes of two judges, resulting in the draw.
  • Dariush: This feels more like a loss for Dariush as he had this fight firmly in control in the beginning. I don’t know if it was energy conservation or conditioning that prevented him from winning – maybe even both – but I was very shocked to see him struggling to stay in the fight late in the contest as that has never been an issue for him before. Of course, injuries could have been a factor as well. Or he simply could have blown his load going for the finish in the opening round. Regardless, I struggle to see him becoming a true contender if he can’t get a win over Dunham. Despite that, he’s currently a fringe top ten fighter with enough room to improve that he could scratch the top five. That’s hardly a fate to be ashamed of.
  • Dunham: Dunham has long been one of the toughest members of the lightweight division. The problem is the UFC has been reluctant to offer him a ranked opponent after he lost three in a row to elite opponents a few years ago. Again though, his opposition in that streak was elite. Dunham may not have picked up the win here, but his toughness and resilience allowed him to hang in there and snatch away what appeared to be a certain victory away from Dariush. He did struggle to get his wrestling going, securing only a single takedown as his lack of speed makes it difficult for him to disguise his shots. Regardless, he’s the definitive lightweight gatekeeper to the top ten and the UFC would be wise to continue using him in that capacity rather than beating up on lower level lightweights.

Mara Romero Borella defeated Kalindra Faria via submission at 2:54 of RD1

  • Expectations/Result: Long a staple of women’s MMA outside of the UFC, Faria was a sizeable favorite over the less experienced Borella as both were making their UFC debuts. Once the fight began though, it was clear that most of the MMA community underestimated Borella. A trip takedown was followed by brilliant guard passing from Borella, moving from an arm-triangle choke, to the mount, to the back. Borella soon secured the win with a RNC.
  • Borella: Borella has never shown skills like that in any of her previous contests. That’s even more impressive considering her last appearance in the cage was less than three months ago. If Borella can continue to improve at a similar rate, she could end up being a dark horse contender. To be honest though, I’m not expecting her to continue looking this good moving forward. Yes, she took the contest on short notice, but so did Faria and I can’t help but feel like Faria was affected by it more than Borella. Nonetheless, Borella couldn’t have asked for a better start to her UFC career.
  • Faria: Some felt Faria had the potential to immediately come into the division as a potential title contender in the new division. Apparently not. Faria looked horrible, delivering absolutely no offense and showing very little in terms of grappling defense. I do believe the short notice nature of the contest had something to do with her poor performance, but it can’t explain away everything about Faria’s poor performance. She’ll need a strong rebound performance to avoid washing out in a hurry.

Fabricio Werdum defeated Walt Harris via submission at 1:05 of RD1

  • Expectations/Result: Thrown together just before UFC 216 kicked off after Derrick Lewis withdrew, Werdum was expected to crush Harris. After a quick single-leg takedown, Werdum put on a clinic in grappling. Getting the mount, Werdum quickly transitioned to the back before snatching an armbar with grace rarely seen in the heavyweight division. It was quick, dominant, and entertaining as hell.
  • Werdum: The big man needed a dominant performance here to remind people just how good he still is. He looked flat against Overeem, though it could be argued that he should have been the victor in that contest. Regardless, there were questions about whether age had caught up to him. Most of those concerns have been assuaged as he looked spry as ever on the ground. Harris had no chance and Werdum gets himself back in the win column less than three months after his loss to Overeem. Considering he didn’t take any damage, he’d be wise to try to get back in the cage as quickly as possible if he truly hopes to regain the title. Remember that he is 40 years old.
  • Harris: While I never thought Harris would develop into a title contender, I did think he could become a top-ten stalwart in a division where many of the top fighters will be aging out soon. Despite this performance, I still believe that he could develop into that. Yes, he was decimated in every way on the ground, made to look foolish. But he also was training for a brawler in Mark Godbeer, meaning he didn’t prepare at all for someone to just blow him up on the ground. I’m sure he still would have lost to Werdum had he prepared for him, but not in such an embarrassing nature. I’m sure he’ll rebound just find in his next contest.

Demetrious Johnson defeated Ray Borg via submission at 3:15 of RD5

  • Expectations/Result: Going for sole ownership of the most consecutive title defenses, Johnson was a very heavy favorite going into his contest with Ray Borg. Borg heard the naysayers, but chose to ignore them. Despite showing loads of heart and toughness, Borg was utterly destroyed as his critics suggested he would be. Johnson took Borg to the ground with ease, often keeping him on the mat for long periods of time. When the fight was standing, Johnson picked him apart with the standup. When all was said and done, Johnson outlanded Borg 64 to 13 in significant strikes and 172 to 22 overall. Johnson had already made a large statement with his domination of Borg, but it wasn’t enough as he wanted the finish in the final round. Transitioning from a suplex into an armbar, Johnson pulled of something never before seen in MMA, much less the UFC. Borg didn’t want to tap, but was ultimately forced to do so unless he wanted to suffer severe damage to his arm and shoulder.
  • Johnson: Even if Jon Jones wasn’t facing a long suspension from his PED failure, Johnson’s performance would have had many declaring Johnson as the pound-for-pound king. When Johnson wanted a takedown, he got it. When he wanted a more dominant position on the ground, it was achieved without issue. When he wanted to pick apart Borg on the feet, he did so in a surgically precise fashion. There was nothing Johnson couldn’t do to Borg. Now that he has the record for consecutive title defenses with the flyweight division continually scrambling to present him with a worthy challenger, it would be the perfect time for him to look outside of 125. While going for the bantamweight title would be ideal for him, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to book him opposite of Dominick Cruz and offer him a chance to avenge his last loss. Regardless, Johnson has done all he can do at flyweight. Even if he loses at bantamweight, the damage to his legacy would be minimal. For someone all about minimizing risk, Johnson should be all over the opportunity.
  • Borg: There aren’t many people who can say they didn’t see this coming. Borg wasn’t ready for this shot and we all knew it. The problem is that Johnson had cleaned out the rest of the division. Hell, even perpetual #2 flyweight Joseph Benavidez wasn’t an option for a third crack at Johnson as he is recovering from a torn ACL. Now that Borg has been beaten down, the question is whether he’ll end up being mentally shattered from this. I don’t think he will. He showed all sorts of mental fortitude by refusing to quit despite being dominated. Hopefully he can take this loss and learn from it. At 24, he still has a lot of time before he hits his prime.

Tony Ferguson defeated Kevin Lee via submission at 4:05 of RD3

  • Expectations/Result: Though Ferguson was a sizeable favorite – and rightfully so – most MMA journalists wouldn’t have been surprised had Lee found a way to pull off the upset. Then Lee came out with a mark on his chest that looked suspiciously like staph infection. Admittedly, I told myself it couldn’t be that as there was no way the UFC would let him compete with that…right? Then I had to remind myself how many main events the UFC has pulled last minute this year and realized they absolutely would allow it. When the action started, Lee took the early advantage. Though Ferguson and Lee traded hard punches – including stumbling one another at various points – Lee achieved the mount to end the first round and unloaded some brutal ground-and-pound. Lee started out the second round with good energy too, but slowly started to fade as the infection and a difficult weight cut began to take their toll. Ferguson began picking him apart methodically waiting for the right time to finish off his tiring opponent. Lee began relying on takedowns, but couldn’t do anything once he got Ferguson down. Recognizing the moment, Ferguson sank in a triangle choke after a failed armbar attempt and forced the youngster to tap.
  • Ferguson: It was hardly a flawless performance from Ferguson, but it was impressive nonetheless. Knowing there are few who can match his cardio, Ferguson bided his time, waiting for Lee to get tired and that’s exactly what happened. Ferguson is lucky he has one of the sturdiest chins in the sport as his style wouldn’t be nearly as successful if it wasn’t. Regardless, I’m impressed with the man and everyone else should be too. Even if this is an interim belt, Ferguson deserved a belt a long time ago. However, with Conor McGregor tying up the real lightweight strap while he does whatever the hell he wants, Ferguson wasn’t getting a sniff at his belt. Given his dominance over his now ten-fight win streak and his call-out of McGregor afterwards, he may very well get it. Dana White says it’s happening…but then Dana White says a lot of things. Don’t be surprised if McGregor potentially tries strong-arming a mini-tournament in which he gets to face Nate Diaz first. Ferguson would defend his interim strap against Khabib Nurmagomedov in the meantime. Remember when the UFC did that with the heavyweight strap when Randy Couture and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira both held belts? That worked out pretty well for them. Considering McGregor would get a crack at Diaz first before being forced to ultimately unite the belts, I can’t see where either he or the UFC would be upset with that scenario.
  • Lee: Given the circumstances surrounding the fight, Lee showed well. He gave Ferguson a run for his money and had a chance to finish the contest at the end of the first round. It just didn’t pan out his way as the staph infection took its toll on the normally deep gas tank of Lee. He talked about potentially moving up to welterweight as the weight cut was a nightmare for him. However, I would think the worldly circumstances around the event with the recent shooting as well as the staph likely made things more difficult than they normally would be. I understand he’s maturing physically which is making it harder for him to make lightweight, but I’d anticipate he still has a few more years of making 155 if he makes some adjustments to his cut. I’m expecting he’ll be back at lightweight. At 25 years old, he’s should only continue to improve. Perhaps more important, he has every chance of being the next big thing at lightweight given his personality.

Well, those are my thoughts. Until next time...