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Hindsight - TUF 25 Finale: Johnson vs. Gaethje in retrospect

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Look into the in’s and out’s of the TUF 25 Finale, from the opening grindfest between Gray Maynard and Teruto Ishihara to the leading candidate for FOTY between Michael Johnson and Justin Gaethje.

Hindsight

Up until the last half of the main card, this was one of the most lackluster cards of the whole year. Though the next two contests weren’t exactly barnburners, they provided enough drama to somewhat salvage what felt like a lost night for the most part. Then the main event came around and absolutely blew everyone away. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more violence packed into ten minutes of action as Justin Gaethje and Michael Johnson went after each other in aggressive fashion. There were times where it seemed the end was nigh for both combatants only for them to fight their way back into the fight. Just over half of the way into 2017, we finally got a contest that felt like a legit Fight of the Year candidate.

Here’s my thoughts on the TUF 25 Finale, 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.

Gray Maynard defeated Teruto Ishihara via unanimous decision

  • Expectation/Results: As Maynard’s chin has deteriorated, it has been painful to watch him step into the cage, expecting him to crumble to yet another KO blow. Maynard has now fought three times without losing via KO, this time executing the type of vintage performance that he regularly put together on his march to a title shot against Frankie Edgar all the way back in 2011. The problem is that Maynard wasn’t much fun to watch back in the day. Still, it beats seeing Maynard sustaining more brain damage, even if it came at the expense of the charismatic Ishihara.
  • Maynard: About time Maynard got back to what works. He’s at the least risk to have his head taken off when he’s holding down his opponent. It was questioned whether he had lost confidence in his abilities on the ground as his last fight against Ryan Hall saw Maynard refusing to engage the grappling expert. Good to see Maynard still possesses a smothering top game. Worth noting was his ability to take some of the hard shots Ishihara did land. Maynard called out Artem Lobov after the win was announced. Can’t say I’d be against that fight as it’s easy to see either one emerging victorious.
  • Ishihara: Everyone knew Ishihara had very little wrestling upon his UFC entry. Unfortunately, he hasn’t made much progress in that field since moving over full-time to Team Alpha Male. He did show good submission defense, fighting off an arm-triangle choke and a kimura attempt and made good use of his environment. That isn’t going to be enough. Given his charisma, I don’t think Ishihara is going to be cut, but he needs to make some rapid improvements in his takedown defense to extend his UFC career.

Tecia Torres defeated Juliana Lima via submission at 0:53 of RD2

  • Expectation/Results: Despite taking the contest on short notice, Torres was still a sizable favorite thanks to her solid all-around game. However, nobody expected Torres to secure the very first finish of her career against a durable Juliana Lima. She did just that, securing a lightning-fast back take that put her in perfect position for a RNC. That was pretty much the only highlight of the contest as the rest of the contest featured the ladies jockeying for position against the cage.
  • Torres: I’ll admit that I was confused why Torres continued to engage in the clinch against the much larger Lima. Lima has always had clunky striking, so I expected Torres to pick her apart from a distance. I suppose I shouldn’t be second guessing her as Torres not only got the win, she got a finish. There may not have been a fighter on the roster in more need of a finish on their record. Torres called out Michelle Waterson in her post-fight speech, a fight I’d totally be down with. Whether it would be enough to get Torres a title shot should she win… we’ll see.
  • Lima: Considering this was the type of fight that Lima wanted, this was about as the worst possible result for the Brazilian veteran. I loved her immediate takedown, indicating Lima knew what she needed to do to win. Unfortunately, Torres got the best of her, exposing Lima’s lack of speed. Nonetheless, Lima is still a valuable gatekeeper who should still have some good years left, even at the age of 35. Basically, she is what we thought she is.

C.B. Dollaway defeated Ed Herman via unanimous decision

  • Expectation/Results: Largely a pick ‘em contest, it played out much that way as shifts in momentum were the story of the contest. From Herman’s opening right hand that staggered Dollaway to Dollaway exercising a large amount of top control, just about everything that was thrown was landed as neither made much of an attempt at defense. Herman made a bunch of submission attempts from the bottom, including leglocks and a kimura, but Dollaway maintained enough top control to earn the judges’ decision in a sloppy-yet-fun contest.
  • Dollaway: The win snaps a three-fight losing skid, making Dollaway’s debut at 205 a successful one. I’m not predicting good things for his future there if this performance is any indication. Seriously, Dollaway’s defense was that bad. It is encouraging for his chin’s sake that he made it to the final bell as he ate some heavy shots. It was good to see him return to his wrestling roots as well, but what is going to happen when Dollaway faces some of the behemoths of the division? Will he be able to get them down consistently? Will he be able to eat their punches? This win extended his UFC career, but it didn’t really answer any questions.
  • Herman: I really hope the UFC doesn’t release Herman. He’s been around forever and hasn’t been winning very much lately – and probably doesn’t have many wins left in him – but I’ll admit that his recent fights have all been entertaining. Like Dollaway, he took some heavy shots himself and employed a high-risk style with his multitude of submission attempts. If you’re going to lose, that is the way the UFC wants you to lose. Given his deep bag of tricks he’s picked up over his long career, he’s still a good test for a prospect making their way up the ladder.

James Krause defeated Tom Gallicchio via unanimous decision

  • Expectation/Results: Despite Gallicchio’s impressive run in the TUF house, Krause was heavily favored to pick up the win. Gallicchio had a moment of success, securing an early takedown and getting Krause’s back for a RNC attempt. After Krause shook him off, he dominated the rest of the contest. He got his jab working and threw a high number of head kicks. However, Krause largely kept the contest on cruise control, never actively seeking the finish. Nonetheless, Gallicchio kept moving forward, earning the respect of the crowd as Krause picked up an easy win.
  • Krause: I don’t feel like there was much learned from about Krause in this contest. A far more talented fighter than Gallicchio, it seemed like his friendship with Gallicchio affected his willingness to go for the kill as Krause is usually far more aggressive. Nonetheless, he did what he needed to do and picked up the win. Now the hope is that he can get a step up in competition… so long as Krause can make it to the cage given his injury history.
  • Gallicchio: No one can say that this result was unexpected. Gallicchio is the ultimate try-hard limited mightily by his lack of athleticism. Krause isn’t a supreme athlete himself, but he was running circles around Gallicchio. Kudos to Gallicchio for moving forward and not giving up, but this was very one-sided. There is a good chance this is the only opportunity that Gallicchio will get in the UFC Octagon. I hope not as Gallicchio would be an excellent test for someone like Sage Northcutt.

Angela Hill defeated Ashley Yoder via unanimous decision

  • Expectation/Results: Finally receiving an opponent who isn’t top five, Hill was expected to get a win over an inexperienced Yoder. Yoder pushed for takedowns and had some success with that, securing a takedown in every round. However, she couldn’t do much once she got the takedowns and Hill was able to escape back to her feet. The standup was controlled by Hill’s short boxing combinations and high volume of leg kicks. Though Yoder was scrappy, it was an easy decision for the judges.
  • Hill: It was about time Hill got an opponent closer to her experience level. She picked apart Yoder, showing off her kickboxing experience as she chewed up Yoder’s legs. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the fight was watching Hill get out from underneath Yoder as well as executing her own takedown in the third round. Hill is developing nicely, becoming a mainstay in what is easily the most competitive division in women’s MMA. I don’t believe she will ever become contender, but a high-level action-fighter is a role Joe Lauzon has made a nice living out of.
  • Yoder: I enjoy watching Yoder. She’s a try-hard scrapper who doesn’t quit. Her striking is still very clunky, but she didn’t shy away from exchanges with Hill even as she lost every one of them. Yoder has made slight improvements, which may or may not be enough for the UFC to keep her around combined with her high energy. I admit that her ceiling is relatively low and that it won’t affect the divisional picture if she’s let go, but I’d like to see her get one more opportunity.

Jared Johnson defeated Marcel Fortuna via unanimous decision

  • Expectation/Results: Given Fortuna’s lack of wrestling and Johnson’s decorated collegiate background, Johnson was being picked by a majority of fans and writers. Johnson stumbled Fortuna early, making the difference in a close first round. Fortuna turned up the activity in the second and had Johnson hurt at one point, though Johnson made a strong case for the round with a slam takedown and the harder punches. The final round was very close too, though Johnson’s harder shots swayed the judges enough to pick up the decision.
  • Johnson: Though Johnson’s sweep takedown in the second round was one of the best takedowns of 2017, I was disappointed in Johnson’s inability to get Fortuna to the ground consistently. Fortuna hasn’t ever been a great wrestler, but Johnson wasn’t able to get his bread-and-butter going. Fortunately, his striking looked improved, adding power to his punches and hurting Fortuna at least once in every round, something he struggled to do in the past. He picked and chose his spots wisely rather than expending unnecessary energy. Even though his wrestling stalled, Johnson is progressing overall. Expect him to get a ranked opponent in his next contest.
  • Fortuna: Even though Johnson won – and deservedly so – I was more impressed with Fortuna’s progress. He showed improved takedown defense and more fluid striking. I’m not saying he had impenetrable takedown defense or that his striking wasn’t clunky at all, but he’s improving. I never would have predicted he would have outlanded Johnson on the feet in pure numbers, but he did. Fortuna isn’t going to become a contender at 205, but I think he can be a fringe top fifteen 205er. In other words, a gatekeeper.

Brad Tavares defeated Elias Theodorou via unanimous decision

  • Expectation/Results: Expectations were split between these middleweights on the fringe of the rankings. Both have shown promise, but both have also shown limitations. This contest lived up to expectations as neither could secure dominance over the other. Tavares secured a takedown in the first to secure an otherwise close round while the second was very close with a takedown for Theodorou likely being the difference. Theodorou attempted to take the last round with his wrestling, trying maniacally to get and hold Tavares down. Though he got Tavares down, he was unable to do anything with the takedowns and probably gave away the round – and the fight – when Tavares briefly took Theodorou’s back and went for a RNC, the most significant offense of the round.
  • Tavares: This feels like your typical Brad Tavares performance: doing just enough to eek out a win over good-not-great competition. Though I’ve known he’s had good takedown defense, I had either forgotten how good of a scrambler Tavares is or never took notice as the final round was full of pivotal sequences where he emerged in the advantageous position. I feared his inability to dictate where the fight took place would cost him when the scorecards were read, but he held his own in the clinch and scored just enough when at a distance. Still, I also see this as right about where his ceiling is at. Some may point out he’s still only 29, but he’s also been in the UFC for seven years.
  • Theodorou: Unlike the Santos loss in which Theodorou simply didn’t have any respect for what Santos was capable of, Theodorou seemed prepared for what Tavares would do in the cage. It may have resulted in a loss, but I’m feeling better about Theodorou’s long-term future. Not that he’s going to be a contender or anything, but his last two contests were tailor-made for him to stylistically frustrate and dominate. He couldn’t do that with Tavares and still turned in a smart and competitive performance. I’d like to see Theodorou sit down on his strikes at some point as opponents haven’t shown any fear of his kicks.

Jared Cannonier defeated Nick Roehrick via TKO at 2:08 of RD3

  • Expectation/Results: Filling in for Steve Bosse on a few days notice, no one was giving Roehrick a chance against the hard hitting Cannonier. As the fight played out, it became more obvious why. Cannonier mixed in some power shots with his jabs, rocking Roehrick’s head back throughout the contest. Roehrick didn’t have an answer, continually missing with his return fire as he didn’t have the speed or timing to respond to anything Cannonier landed. It became a minor miracle Roehrick was still standing after a while. Eventually, he succumbed to vicious elbows on the ground from Cannonier in a lopsided, but entertaining contest.
  • Cannonier: The only thing I feel strongly about is that this contest put Cannonier back on the winning track. He did what he was supposed to do against a physically inferior opponent, picking him apart and not expending large amounts of energy looking for the finish. His footwork did look a bit sharper and he does deserve credit for turning in a smart performance, but it’s hard to get excited about him beating someone who wasn’t on the UFC radar until a few days before the event.
  • Roehrick: I didn’t think Roehrick deserved to be in the UFC before the contest and I still don’t. Despite that, I know he’s going to get another opportunity and I’ll admit that it is well-deserved. Roehrick took some incredibly heavy punches, yet he was there until the very end trying his damnedest to win. Given his path to victory was through wrestling and he couldn’t even get a single takedown attempt according to Fight Metric, he’s in some serious trouble. He’s perfect fodder for someone like Dominick Reyes who needs experience.

Drakkar Klose defeated Marc Diakiese via split decision

  • Expectation/Results: One of the most naturally physically gifted talents to come around in recent years, Diakiese was heavily favored to truck over fellow prospect Klose. Klose had other plans. Diakiese came out looking for a highlight reel finish out of the gate and had a few impressive moments such as a slam takedown and a jumping switch kick. However, Klose outmuscled him in the clinch and tore up the Englishman’s calves with kicks, prompting him to fall to the ground several times. Diakiese settled down a bit in the final round, but had given up the first two rounds meaning he needed the finish. He didn’t get it as Klose scored the upset.
  • Klose: Klose is going to have a lot more eyes on him now. He had the appearance of a guy that can round himself into a fringe top fifteen fighter before this contest. Now the ceiling on him has changed. No one is saying he’s more physically talented than Diakiese, but he isn’t a talentless try-hard by any means either. His smarts defy his youth, sticking very close to a game plan as he methodically picked apart Diakiese. In the process, Diakiese lost some of his explosion. That’s a big deal for someone who relies so heavily on their physical skills as opposed to technique such as Diakiese. Very interested to see who Klose is matched up with next.
  • Diakiese: Call me crazy, but this could end up being the best thing for Diakiese. His confidence grew with each passing win to the point where it morphed into cockiness. It seemed inevitable a loss like this was going to happen to the youngster and the sooner he got it out of the way, the sooner he could begin learning from his mistakes. Now that Diakiese realizes he isn’t unbeatable, look for him to finally start showing his opponents some respect. The sting of losing sucks, but it can also be great motivation. I hope it drives him.

Jesse Taylor defeated Dhiego Lima via submission at 0:43 of RD2

  • Expectation/Results: Discovering what the final in the TUF tournament was just two days before the fight was to take place, analysts were all over the place on their picks. In the end, I saw a few more for Taylor given Lima’s struggles to stay vertical against wrestlers. Taylor didn’t waste any time trying to get the fight where he wanted. Lima fought him off for almost half of the round before finally succumbing, though he managed to survive Taylor’s attempts to grind and submit him. Lima landed a hard left hand to open the second round, knocking down Taylor. Taylor recovered quickly, scrambling onto Lima’s back after the ATT representative almost had taken his, sinking in a RNC that Lima wasn’t escaping from.
  • Taylor: No doubt that Taylor was the ultimate redemption story as he blew his chance to become the Ultimate Fighter nine years ago due to recklessness on the Vegas strip. No one has ever doubted his talent as he traversed the world fighting a who’s-who of names, some recognizable and others no one has heard of. Outside of getting tagged to begin the second round, Taylor executed a perfect strategy, knowing Lima isn’t a great wrestler. His style isn’t going to take him to the top of the division – nor is it that exciting – but he’ll be a tough test for those looking to knock on the door of the official UFC rankings.
  • Lima: My belief is that Lima will get another shot in the UFC, though I also realize that isn’t a guarantee as Taylor dominated this contest thoroughly. If given the right matchups, Lima can be a very entertaining striker. For instance, does anyone else think he’d be fun to watch with fellow striker Jessin Ayari? How about Sabah Homasi? Both are prospects who may or may not have what it takes to stay in the UFC. Lima would certainly help to sort things out. He’ll never find the level of success that his brother Douglas has, but I know that we haven’t seen the best of his abilities inside a UFC cage yet.

Justin Gaethje defeated Michael Johnson via TKO at 4:48 of RD2

  • Expectation/Results: Everyone expected this to be an awesome fight. Nobody expected it to be as awesome as it was. Given Gaethje’s lack of quality opposition, most expected Johnson to give the former WSOF champion the first loss of his career. The fight opened fast and furious, Johnson dancing around Gaethje and finding some openings for his fast hands. Johnson hurt Gaethje early before being dragged into the style of fight that Gaethje favors. Trading fists for a while without anyone gaining a major advantage, Johnson nearly scored a finish at the end of the round, Gaethje merely looking to survive to the bell. The second round picked up right where they left off, trading punches. It wasn’t long before exhaustion began kicking in for both, though it was affecting Johnson more, slow to stand after going to the ground multiple times. Gaethje sensed the end was nigh, unleashing a barrage of strikes ending with a flying knee that Johnson had no answer for, causing John McCarthy to step in.
  • Gathje: Well, I think it’s time to start declaring Gaethje one of the divisional elite. I’ve never seen anyone consistently overcome adversity the way this kid does, pushing forward even when it is clear he’s on unstable ground. It takes a unique individual to keep fighting when taking as much damage the way Gaethje does. The win should launch him into title contention – quite the feat after a single fight within the UFC. Gaethje called out Tony Ferguson in hopes of making that a reality. Ferguson stated he’d be willing to take the fight… so long as the UFC puts an interim belt on the line. That may be the only contest I’d be willing to bet could be more entertaining than this one was. It probably won’t happen, but given Gaethje’s entertaining nature, don’t be surprised if it does.
  • Johnson: Johnson’s ability to get sucked into his opponent’s fight cost him again. He was loose and dancing around Gaethje for about a minute before opting to stand in front of his less athletic opponent, giving Gaethje the type of fight that he excels in. I’m not saying that Johnson didn’t have any success in the process. He looked good at times and came about as close as you can to finishing Gaethje before the first round was out. I liked his strategy of attacking the body too, an underrated tactic by most fighters. But Johnson was the one that ended up having nothing left in the tank. With this marking his fourth loss in five contests, he’s getting a definitive step down in competition regardless of whether each of those losses came against top competition. His days of being a top fighter are over.

Well, those are my thoughts. I’ll have my thoughts on UFC 213 available tomorrow.