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Hindsight - UFC Rotterdam: Struve vs. Volkov in retrospect

Take an in-depth look into the UFC’s return to action this past weekend, including Alexander Volkov’s impressive win over Stefan Struve and Mairbek Taisumov’s one-punch KO.

Hindsight

After a long absence, the UFC returned to action in Rotterdam. The contests on paper were certainly underwhelming, but the action in the cage exceeded the meager expectations place upon them by the fans. Two-thirds of the contests were finished before the 15-minute time limit. It isn’t like the fights that went the distance weren’t entertaining either. Well… the majority of them were at least. Regardless of how heavy the implications of the card will turn out to be, UFC Rotterdam has to be considered a success as the product produced inside the cage was exceptional.

Here’s my thoughts on UFC Rotterdam, 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.

Thibault Gouti defeated Andrew Holbrook via TKO at 4:28 of RD1

  • Expectations/Result: A very close contest on paper, I noticed most were picking Holbrook as he had proven he can win in the UFC. Holbrook was unable to secure an early takedown and decided to abandon the ground game after that, leaving Gouti where he is most comfortable. Gouti’s striking was as sharp as ever, landing some hard, single shots before a head kick floored Holbrook. Holbrook got back to his feet before being finished by more punches from Gouti.
  • Gouti: I was unaware the Frenchman had been working at Jackson-Wink, which may have influenced my decision making prior to the contest. Gouti looked sharp, staying in the pocket and answering every exchange Holbrook initiated with a counter. Most encouraging, he showed improved takedown defense and picked up his first UFC win. Good win for Gouti, but he still has a long road ahead of him if he hopes to become a roster mainstay.
  • Holbrook: For someone whose biggest strength is his submission grappling, Holbrook has never made much of a commitment to take his fights to the ground. That has never made any sense to me, especially given his inability to hurt his opponents with his striking. I don’t know if he’ll stick around as it appears the brass has been giving more opportunities than ever before – Bojan Mihajlovic got a third fight for hells sake – but I wouldn’t be upset if Holbrook was cut loose.

Abdul-Kerim Edilov defeated Bojan Mihajlovic via TKO at 2:32 of RD2

  • Expectations/Result: As I’ve stated, Mihajlovic shouldn’t even be in the UFC, making the debuting Edilov a very heavy favorite. Using crushing body kicks and knees in the clinch, Edilov brutalized Mihajlovic standing and continued the slaughter with brutal ground-and-pound when the fight hit the ground. It wasn’t competitive at all, with Mihajlovic’s toughness being the only thing that sent the fight into the second round.
  • Edilov: Edilov was dominant, but any other type of performance would have been a disappointment, even if the end result was a win. I don’t know if the UFC views Edilov as a future contender – it is too early to tell – but the result couldn’t have been better for the Russian. His relationship with Ramzan Kadyrov will probably keep the UFC from pushing him too hard, but Edilov has both the talent and the frame to be a player at 205 for a long time.
  • Mihajlovic: Can we please stop pretending Mihajlovic is a UFC fighter now? I have nothing against the dude, except for some poor tattoo choices. He’s just not good enough to be competing in the UFC and never was. Enough is enough.

Zabit Magomedsharipov defeated Mike Santiago via submission at 4:22 of RD2

  • Expectations/Result: Santiago looked very impressive last week on the Contender’s Series, knocking out a tough Mark Cherico. However, it was just last week and cutting weight twice in a short amount of time is difficult. It appeared to affect his performance as he didn’t exhibit the same energy level he had last week, allowing Magomedsharipov to throw a wide array of strikes and have his way with the American once Santiago began to fade. Looking to make a statement and submit the submission specialist, Magomedsharipov sunk in a RNC to finish of Santiago.
  • Magomedsharipov: The Russian came out looking to entertain, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Santiago. A lot of those high-risk strikes didn’t land, but it sure set a precedent for the newcomer moving forward. His lanky frame will cause a lot of problems for his opponents as the youngster knows how to use his length, something most fighters don’t pick up this early in their career. I didn’t like how he responded to the body shots Santiago landed, indicating his midsection could be a target of opponents moving forward, but there was very little to complain about for Magomedsharipov’s debut. Look for him to move up the featherweight ladder in a hurry.
  • Santiago: Santiago was competitive in the first round, putting together some good punching combinations and avoiding Magomedsharipov’s high impact strike attempts. Once he faded though, he didn’t stand a chance. I’m not going to put too much stock into this performance as Santiago had everything going against him. Remember that he was also having to make plans to fly to Europe with about a week’s notice. Long distance travel can be just as difficult to deal with as cutting weight. Look for Santiago to carve out a spot as an action fighter.

Aleksander Rakic defeated Francimar Barroso via unanimous decision

  • Expectations/Result: A tough contest to predict, I picked Rakic as I liked his range and activity level to outperform Barroso’s low output style, perhaps even hurt the Brazilian. Rakic never hurt Barroso, but he sure did land far more volume. Barroso struggled to deal with Rakic’s length, eating low kicks and jabs over and over again as he looked to get inside Rakic’s range. Overall, an uneventful contest that was nonetheless an impressive debut for the young Austrian.
  • Rakic: I may have picked Rakic to win, but I didn’t expect him to look this composed. He never felt compelled to look for a finish, content to pick apart the durable Brazilian with little concern about the return offense. Given Barroso’s history of inactivity, it was the perfect strategy. Most impressive was his takedown defense, forcing Barroso to shoot from too far out to effectively get underneath his hips. Rakic is still a raw product the UFC has to handle with care, but this is about as good of a debut as he could have made.
  • Barroso: Barroso had his chances to win the fight, but he didn’t show any urgency. Even in the last round, he was content to sit back and wait for something to develop. It isn’t that Barroso doesn’t have any power or submission abilities either; he was a finishing machine before coming into the UFC. He did seem to find success with low kicks, but he never made it a point to up the output on something that was working well for him. Curious performance from the veteran that doesn’t bode well for his future.

Rustam Khabilov defeated Desmond Green via unanimous decision

  • Expectations/Result: The odds were heavily in favor of Khabilov, far more than they ever should have been given Green’s impressive UFC debut against Josh Emmett. Khabilov started strong, landing some kicks and punches and a trio of takedowns in the opening round, including a suplex. Green started pushing back in the final rounds, landing some counters and a late takedown, but still allowed Khabilov to dictate the pace. That proved to be the difference as it proved to be difficult to decipher whose striking was more effective over the last two rounds.
  • Khabilov: It wasn’t blatantly obvious, but Khabilov showed some progress in his striking. He’s almost always been a single-shot specialist, but he put together a few short combinations that landed. I don’t know if he would have been able to secure the decision without that. Nonetheless, Khabilov still needs to progress in that area if he hopes to open up his wrestling and move up the lightweight ladder. Given each of his victories in his five-fight win streak has been a decision, the UFC is reluctant to give him a high-profile contest. Thus, expect him to continue to tread water.
  • Green: Khabilov may not be the name he was about three years ago, but hanging tough with the Dagestani is still a hell of an accomplishment. Once he got Khabilov’s timing down on his takedown attempts, it became his fight to lose. I didn’t understand why he went away from the leg kicks in the final round as he found a lot of success in the second with those and he never looked comfortable pushing the pace even when it was clear he needed to do so. Nonetheless, it very much looks like Green is going to be a divisional mainstay as he appears to still be improving.

Michel Prazeres defeated Mads Burnell via submission at 1:26 of RD3

  • Expectations/Result: Given Prazeres is a grinder and Burnell a natural featherweight still in development, this felt academic. Bright moments for Burnell were few and far between. Prazeres took him down whenever he wanted and kept him down, passing guard whenever he pleased and putting on a top control clinic. Burnell showed heart as Prazeres pursued a finish the entirety of the time, but Prazeres eventually found what he was looking for, finishing with a north-south choke in the third.
  • Prazeres: Prazeres did everything he needed to do to get a step up in competition – dominate, get a finish – except for one thing which is probably the most important thing: make weight. Prazeres weighed in at 159, so it wasn’t a minor miss either. Five-fight winning streak be damned, fighters need to make weight for the organization to trust them with high profile contests if you don’t have the name value. Prazeres doesn’t have the name value. He’s in a similar position to Khabilov… which might make a matchup between the two ideal. Hmm….
  • Burnell: This was a horrible matchup for Burnell from the moment it was announced. He hadn’t faced any decent competition before jumping into the UFC and is still developing his wrestling and striking skills. It was going to take a minor miracle for him to win. He did show some heart, indicating he could make good on his potential, though it’ll be a while before that happens. Look for him to return to featherweight.

Mairbek Taisumov defeated Felipe Silva via KO at 1:24 of RD1

  • Expectations/Result: Even though Silva looked great in his lone UFC contest, he made that debut over a year ago, leading most fans to forget who he was. Some fans forgot who Taisumov was too – despite a longer track record – as it had been an even longer period of time since he stepped foot in the Octagon. He quickly reminded everyone who he was, putting Silva out with a single punch as the Brazilian charged forward, putting him in contention for KOoTY.
  • Taisumov: All the injuries and Visa issues have kept Taisumov from becoming the star that he could be. It isn’t too late for him to make good on his potential at 29. His combination punching had been on display before this contest, but now he’s showing one-punch power. I’m not ready to call Taisumov a contender as his best win in his five-fight win streak was Alan Patrick. However, calling him a dark horse wouldn’t be a stretch. Can we please get Taisumov a top 15 opponent? I’ll even settle for a contest in North America!
  • Silva: This could be devastating for Silva. A very confident fighter, this is the type of loss that could end up shattering a previously undefeated fighter’s world. It sucks when you realize you aren’t invincible. Silva may be 33-years old, but he’s still young in his career. Perhaps I’m being callous, but the UFC doesn’t need to commit too much to Silva given all the depth already in the lightweight division if he doesn’t appear to have recovered in his next contest. I’d like to see him recover as Silva’s win over Shane Campbell was a lot of fun.

Darren Till defeated Bojan Velickovic via unanimous decision

  • Expectations/Result: Both Till and Velickovic are big, tough, and durable welterweights. What separates them is Till’s athleticism and striking technique. Till scored a knockdown in each of the first and third rounds, landing hard strikes on Velickovic. It appeared Velickovic would be finished on both occasions only for the Serb to find a way to survive each time despite significant damage being done. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t do much else outside of surviving as it was a dominant performance by the young Englishman.
  • Till: It can never be said that Till lacks for confidence. He was taunting Velickovic throughout the contest and called himself the best fighter in the UFC in the post-fight interview. If he wants to get the attention of those ranked ahead of him, he’s taking the appropriate strategy as I guarantee someone will want to try to shut him up. He’s not a contender yet, but he is making strides to become the fighter he believes he is. I don’t want to say he needs to eliminate his cocky attitude as that could be a crucial part of his mind frame, but he does need to be careful it doesn’t cost him.
  • Velickovic: I don’t think anything short of a Mack truck is going to stop Velickovic. The step-in elbow Till landed in the first was brutal enough that I thought Velickovic was finished. Instead, he showed signs of intelligent defense right before the referee stepped in to end the contest. It did serve to scare Velickovic off a bit as he was reluctant to commit to his strikes or takedowns after that, leaving him almost no chance of winning as he isn’t physically gifted enough to win without anything other than full effort. I’m not saying he quit. I’m just saying he didn’t have the same burst he exhibited earlier.

Leon Edwards defeated Bryan Barberena via unanimous decision

  • Expectations/Result: A superior athlete, striker, and wrestler, you’d think it’d be an easy call to pick Edwards to win. But we’re talking about Bryan Barberena here! There is no one tougher and no one who comes harder than Barberena and he put that on display. Edwards landed some hard kicks and took Barberena down at various points, nearly securing a RNC on multiple occasions only for Barberena to fight free. However, it was Barberena who came closest to ending the contest, landing an uppercut that dropped Edwards in the second round, forcing the Brit to scramble to stay alive. He inevitably did, recovering enough to take the last round much the same way he did the first and secure a victory.
  • Edwards: While I was disappointed Edwards didn’t display more of the combination punching he teased in his victory over Vicente Luque, I can’t say that he looked bad in delivering his body kicks and stiff jabs. His wrestling – his primary weapon in recent contests – was as sharp as ever and he showed great back control too, controlling Barberena for long periods of time. I don’t know if he simply underestimated Barberena when he got caught with the uppercut, but he’ll need to tighten up his defense if he hopes to fight a ranked opponent next. Regardless, I think he’s ready for it.
  • Barberena: That was a classic Barberena performance that had everything you’d expect… except the upset victory. As usual, Barberena was physically outmatched, but refused to go away, fighting, scratching, and clawing all the way to the final bell. Really, there isn’t anything else that needs to be said about Barberena as that is what he has always done and what he will always do. Expect him to settle in as a gatekeeper of sorts as he has dropped two of his last three, ensuring that the fighters who advance past him have enough heart to find further success as you need plenty of it to beat Barberena.

Marion Reneau defeated Talita Bernardo via TKO at 4:54 of RD3

  • Expectations/Result: Given notice less than seven days before the contest, Bernardo didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for the contest, making Reneau an even bigger favorite than she would have been otherwise. However, Reneau had also been prepping for former kickboxer and Bernardo is a submission specialist. Reneau started slow as Bernardo got the 40-year old to the ground early and kept her there, though Reneau was in control at times too. Bernardo started to fade in the second, leading to Reneau slowly taking control. Bernardo was intelligent in her energy use to survive as long as she did, but it appeared to be an inevitability before the end came, which it did with seconds to spare.
  • Reneau: Reneau got the win and the finish, which you would think is all she needed to declare the night a success. I disagree. Bernardo was the perfect opponent for Reneau to open up on the feet and she was as reluctant to do so as she has ever been. She made up for it with her excellent grappling prowess and unleashing her ground-and-pound once Bernardo gassed, but she needs to progress on her feet if she hopes to move up the ladder. Even if Reneau is 40-years old, I think she has it in her to do it.
  • Bernardo: Good debut by the newcomer. She took the fight right to Reneau and had a leglock attempt that looked like it might lock in if only for a brief moment. She also escaped Reneau’s many submission attempts. It’s no surprise she got tired as the fight went along considering how much notice she had, so she gets a pass in that sense. As for her future, I’m curious if she might be better off dropping to flyweight as her 5'4" frame is quite short for bantamweight. Nonetheless, she’s young enough in her career that I see her continuing to progress.

Siyar Bahadurzada defeated Rob Wilkinson via TKO at 3:10 of RD2

  • Expectations/Result: Even though Bahadurzada was fighting above his normal home of welterweight, he was still a sizeable favorite given Wilkinson’s lack of experience against quality competition. However, Wilkinson had a huge size advantage and did everything he could to utilize that, keeping Bahadurzada at range and securing a couple of first round takedowns. It felt like an inevitability that Bahadurzada would land one of his overhand bombs before long. It wasn’t overhands, but the straight punches Bahadurzada landed were hard enough floor Wilkinson. Wilkinson scrambled back to his feet only for Bahadurzada’s assault to continue until the ref stepped in.
  • Bahadurzada: I was worried at first that Bahadurzada was going to be moving to middleweight permanently, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Apparently, he’s been dealing so much with injuries that he didn’t think he’d be able to cut to welterweight in time, so this fight is an aberration. Aside from being taken down to the ground, Bahadurzada looked great. He was mixing up his strikes. He was quick to get back to his feet when he was taken down. Hell, he nearly locked in a choke in a scramble. Bahadurzada has fixed a lot what plagued him in losses to Dong Hyun Kim and John Howard. Now he just needs to stay healthy.
  • Wilkinson: I wasn’t crazy about Wilkinson’s chances of being a long-term member of the roster going into the fight and I’m still not crazy about his chances after the fight. He’s not a good athlete. He doesn’t have a lot of power. He’s not a great wrestler either. What he has going for him is his height and reach, two things he hasn’t completely figured out how to use. Perhaps that could change with more experience, but letting someone as small as Bahadurzada bully him and get within his range doesn’t bode well for his future.

Alexander Volkov defeated Stefan Struve via TKO at 3:30 of RD3

  • Expectations/Result: Though the odds were very close, there was an overwhelming sense that Volkov was going to emerge victorious given his history of durability and Struve’s history of being KO’d. The fight started well enough for Struve, as he landed a number of hard shots on Volkov. At the end of the round, Volkov got Struve to the ground and unloaded with shot after shot that nearly finished Struve. Struve had a few more moments after that, but most of them were fleeting as Volkov worked over Struve on the feet after that, with Struve covering up for a good chunk of the contest. Struve finally wore down near the end of the third round, collapsing to the ground before the contest was stopped.
  • Volkov: While this was the biggest victory of Volkov’s career – literally and figuratively – it doesn’t do much to further his cause… at least in my mind. He showed durability in absorbing Struve’s early offense and excellent stamina too, but those were things we already knew about him. The question to me is how much more does a win over Struve mean as opposed to a win over Tim Johnson or Roy Nelson, his two previous victories. I’m not convinced he’s a contender yet. Regardless, the win is nice and solidifies his status as a top ten heavyweight. The question now is: what to do with him now? Do they really want to throw him in there with Francis Ngannou and destroy the momentum of one of the ascending young heavyweights? Is he ready for either Cain Velasquez or Alistair Overeem? I don’t think he’ll find success amongst the elite.
  • Struve: Struve is no longer trying to be the distance fighter that many have called for him to be over the years due to his long reach… and it’s clearly for the better. He had some success early when he was aggressive and not concerned about Volkov’s return fire, but that changed after Volkov took him down late in the first and landed some heavy ground strikes. Struve wasn’t the same after that and it felt like an inevitability that Volkov would eventually get the finish. This loss to Volkov defines the type of loss that have littered Struve’s career. Five of his six previous UFC losses were KO/TKO losses, all of those losses to fighters who were at least dark horse contenders at some point in their UFC career. With the win, it’s safe to say that Volkov is a dark horse at this juncture, placing him on the same level of the others. Struve is still a sound gatekeeper to the top ten and it appears he will be so for a number of years to come.

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