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Hindsight - UFC 222: Cyborg vs. Kunitskaya in retrospect

Take a deep look into UFC 222, from the opening light heavyweight snoozer to another quick and devastating finish by Cris Cyborg in the main event.

I’ll admit, there have been cards I’ve walked away from feeling indifferent about the potential matchups to be made coming out of an event. For UFC 222, I was exceptionally excited. No, it didn’t have anything to do with Cyborg. She was as dominant as ever which was both exciting and boring at the same time. Instead, I walked away from the event drooling at the idea of Brian Ortega challenging Max Holloway for the featherweight title. The UFC was fortunate to have that contest fall into their laps. Regardless, I’m still expecting the UFC to find some way to screw up a good situation. It’s what they do best….

Here’s a breakdown of every contest on UFC 222. I’ll cover the important parts of the fight, some of the techniques I noticed that were either effective or ineffective, and where the fighters appear to be going.

Jordan Johnson defeated Adam Milstead via split decision

Milstead returned to the Octagon at a new home – light heavyweight – after being overpowered by a much larger Curtis Blaydes in his last contest… which featured Milstead blowing out his knee. The move looks like it was the right move as he appeared to be a natural at 205. He moved well, didn’t appear drawn out, and held his own in the clinch… when he was looking to get his back off the fence. Milstead landed the harder and cleaner shots, but was also content to let Johnson outwork him with small shots as he held him against the cage. A couple of takedowns were the final nail in the coffin for Milstead, though it could have gone either way.

Though Johnson remains unbeaten, this was the second consecutive performance in which he narrowly walked out with the win in controversial fashion. He barely outstruck Marcel Fortuna in his last appearance and struggled to take Milstead down in this contest. Johnson has been a pro for only four years and remains a youthful 29, so perhaps I’m jumping to the conclusion that he’s stalling in his development too quickly. Thus, I’d like to see him step up in his next appearance.

Even though he came out on the short end, I walked away from the contest more encouraged by Milstead’s future than Johnson’s. It often requires a bit of an adjustment to cut down to a new weight class and Milstead looked good. With a slightly better IQ, he could have pulled out the win against Johnson. He should look better in his next contest given it will be his second cut to 205.

Cody Stamann defeated Bryan Caraway via split decision

A lot can change in 21 months, when Caraway last stepped into the Octagon. Miesha Tate was his girlfriend, Robert Follis was his coach, and Caraway was in the top five of the division. Going into this fight, Tate was “publicly” pregnant with another man’s kid, Follis has since passed, and Caraway had slipped down the rankings. About the only thing that remained the same: Caraway was still hated by fans.

Caraway didn’t look bad considering the long layoff. His guard passing, top control, and submissions looked sharp. However, his striking has regressed –not by much, but just enough to be noticed -- and his takedowns were largely ineffective. A lot of credit needs to go to Stamann’s takedown defense, but Caraway could have done a better job of timing his attempts. His lone successful takedown came on a blast double in which he caught Stamann off-guard. Caraway doesn’t appear to have declined physically, indicating he should remain a viable gatekeeper even if he shouldn’t be considered to be a top bantamweight any longer.

Stamann has come a looooonnnnngg way from where he was eight months ago, much less the 21 months that elapsed for Caraway. He was a largely unknown prospect making his UFC debut on short notice at featherweight. Now, he has disposed of not only someone who many saw as the top prospect the UFC has brought in for quite a while in Tom Duquesnoy, but a top ten fixture. Stamann did struggle to find his range early, but began landing at will as Caraway began to tire. His short reach will begin to be a bigger problem as he is expected to be facing more established strikers as he continues to climb the rankings. Regardless, he’s proven to be a highly intelligent fighter who will find a way to overcome what is placed before him.

Zak Ottow defeated Mike Pyle via TKO at 2:24 of RD1

Michael Bisping has been called pillow fisted on multiple occasions. Those people clearly haven’t seen Ottow do his thing. About as pure of a point striker as there is in the UFC, Ottow aggressively went after a finish against Pyle. Smart decision given Pyle’s chin has been deteriorating at a rapid pace for quite some time. Having previously announced this was his retirement fight, Pyle had nothing to lose. Then again, neither did Ottow. Though it’s doubtful anyone will fear Ottow’s punching power despite his finishing Pyle quickly with strikes, he did demonstrate the ability to put on pressure, something he hasn’t displayed before. Still, I doubt this does much for his stock as the belief is that Pyle should have retired a while ago.

Given Pyle announced the end of his career prior to the fight, there is no need to guess what’s next for him… his career is over. Pyle’s legacy is that of a gym warrior who never lived up to the expectations when in the spotlight. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have some nice moments over the course of his career, reinventing himself as a hard hitter late in his career after establishing himself as a submission specialist earlier. It’s rare he was in a boring contest, another reason to appreciate him. Here’s hoping the best of luck for him in his future endeavors.

CB Dollaway defeated Hector Lombard via DQ at 5:00 of RD1

Though the ending was about as unusual as a contest can end, it felt very appropriate for a contest between Dollaway and Lombard. Lombard was picking his points to explode, hoping to put Dollaway out for the count early. Dollaway was able to avoid the heavy shots… until after the bell. Lombard went in motion with a short punching combination after the bell rung. That he was able to complete the combination – putting Dollaway on his ass in the process – is proof enough the referee made no great effort to step between the fighters, leading to a mass of controversy when Dollaway was declared the winner via DQ. Even though the ref didn’t step in, Lombard should still be responsible for his actions and the right decision was made.

It took long enough for a fighter to pay the price for strikes after the bell. Jose Aldo got away with it in his second contest with Chad Mendes. So did Germaine de Randamie against Holly Holm. The reason why Lombard didn’t: it was a finishing blow. If he had only stunned Dollaway rather than concussing him, the contest would have continued, Dollaway likely would have been finished, and Lombard would snap his long losing streak. Perhaps this result coupled with the continued outrage from fans and media that cheating continues to pay off will induce a change… but I doubt it.

It’s difficult to guess what comes of this. Lombard could very well be released from the UFC as this was his fifth straight loss. At 40-years old, it doesn’t seem likely he has enough time to reverse course. Dollaway probably wasn’t in any danger of losing his employment status, but this result does zero to help his standing as a washed up middleweight. The thought has been that his chin is gone and that narrative has only been strengthened. Many have declared an interest in seeing a rematch, but I see no need for it.

John Dodson defeated Pedro Munhoz via split decision

I had been of the belief that Dodson was improving in terms of his fight IQ. After his performance against Munhoz, I feel as though I have to retract from that belief. Though Dodson showed some accuracy with his left hand, it was about the only thing he threw over the course of 15 minutes. Yes, he squeaked out the win, but he had convinced Joe Rogan he had broken his right hand by his refusal to throw it. Is it just me, or isn’t best to use all weapons at your disposal in order to win? Dodson chose not to do that and came thisclose to giving away the fight to Munhoz. And thus, why Dodson continues to be one of the most frustrating fighters to analysts.

I’m not trying to deny Dodson’s talent. He’s still lightning quick, even if he no longer is as fast as he was at his peak. However, it could be argued something has happened to his power as he hasn’t scored a finish due to punches since moving up to bantamweight about two years ago. It may be argued that isn’t that long of a period of time for the smaller weights, but four of his first five UFC wins came via stoppage. Has his power faded or has he struggled to find the kill shot thanks to his own poor strategies? I’m more inclined to believe the latter. Dodson has now fought out his contract, but he also indicated he doesn’t want to go anywhere else.

Munhoz kind of shot himself in the foot as well, not bothering to try to go to the mat despite possessing a sizeable advantage from that phase. It may have conceivably earned him the final round on two of the judge’s scorecard. Would it have earned him another round had he gone to it earlier? There is a strong likelihood it would have, though no guarantees. His lack of defense still hurts him more than anything else, a narrative that doesn’t seem likely to change. I fear he’ll no longer be a viable fighter the moment his durability declines in the slightest. Until that time, he’s going to be a viable action fighter hovering around the top ten of the division.

Alexander Hernandez defeated Beneil Dariush via KO at 0:42 of RD1

I’ll acknowledge I liked what I saw out of Hernandez from the limited amount of film found on him on the regional scene. He appeared to be a raw talent who could become a real standout if given the proper amount of time to develop. The type who could blitz Dariush in a few years. I may have been right, but my thoughts that he wouldn’t be able to do that to Dariush at UFC 222? I was dead wrong. It didn’t take long – less than a minute – before Hernandez knocked Dariush out cold to complete the massive upset. Fortunately for Hernandez, the performance was enough to make most forget about his fake glove touch to start the contest… something fans typically don’t forget about or forgive easily.

Even though the win was impressive, the UFC would be wise not to accelerate Hernandez’s development too much. Dariush did not appear to be prepared for what Hernandez brought to the table and paid the price. Admittedly, the lack of film available of Hernandez makes that an understandable issue for Dariush and the speed in which this fight was finished doesn’t help that conundrum very much. Regardless, a smart coach can find a way to turn Hernandez’s aggression against him. Rather than line him up against another ranked opponent, the UFC should give him a step back. It’s not like there aren’t a lot of options at lightweight anyway. It is a shark tank after all.

Dariush hasn’t won a fight since November 2016, a span of three fights. At 28, he’s still young enough that he hasn’t peaked, but he has also been fighting as a professional for eight years. It’s unlikely he’s going to have any sudden bursts of improvement. My guess is he’s pretty much who he’s going to be. That doesn’t mean Dariush is a disappointment. He’s a fantastic grappler, one of the best in the division. But doesn’t have the athletic gifts possessed by those at the top of the division. Nonetheless, he’s still a great action fighter.

Mackenzie Dern defeated Ashley Yoder via split decision

Being labeled the next big thing in women’s MMA can be overwhelming. Despite that, Dern has been comfortable in the spotlight. That’s clearly a good thing, but her comfort on the feet might be a bad thing. Dern’s striking was wild, reckless, and will be rendered ineffective the moment the UFC decides to give her a step up in competition… provided she doesn’t improve. The good thing for Dern is she pretty much only has one direction for her to go. She did land some heavy shots on Yoder, but Yoder isn’t known for being much of a striker herself. I don’t know who Dern is training with, but if she has been working with them for a while, she should consider moving to a different camp.

Another thing Dern needs to work on is her wrestling. Much like the striking department, Yoder isn’t a wrestling savant and she was able to stop Dern’s takedowns with ease. Perhaps some judo would be wise for Dern to consider. To Dern’s credit, her grappling did look as sharp as ever when she did get the fight to the ground near the end of the fight, proving her credentials in that department are legit.

Yoder is probably going to be on the outside looking in as this was her third UFC loss in three attempts. It was clear from the beginning of her UFC run she never had the physical tools to hang around for very long. However, she faced some tough competition in Justine Kish and Angela Hill, taking them to decision as well. Yoder could be brought back as a short-notice replacement if she picks up a few wins as no one doubts whether she’s willing to throw down, which is more than can be said for some.

Ketlen Vieira defeated Cat Zingano via unanimous decision

MMA fans in general love Zingano. She has overcome so much in both her career and personal life only to seemingly come back stronger every time with a smile on her face, it’s hard not to root for her. Despite that, most believed Vieira was going to blow past her in what would be a changing of the guard. Zingano didn’t appear to have a plan, barreling at Vieira at every opportunity. Vieira was ready for it, either countering with punches or getting Zingano to the ground and keeping her there. The contest had it’s moments, but was ho-hum for the most part.

Even though Zingano lost as most expected, it felt like a fight she could have won had she exercised a better strategy. Her striking was exceedingly wild. She had no plan once she got in the clinch either. In many ways, Zingano is her own worst enemy. Perhaps the worst part about all of this is her window as a contender may have closed with this loss. She’s now 35-years old with some serious wear and tear on her body. It isn’t from the fights either. She’s endured numerous serious injuries and the human body can only endure so much before it gives out. There are still a lot of winnable fights for Zingano, but she’s no longer a title contender.

Learning after the contest that Vieira had a rib injury makes her performance more impressive. Not that it had people screaming for her to get a title shot before, but a win over Zingano does mean something. Vieira’s top control over Zingano may have been the most impressive thing as Zingano is one of the stronger bantamweights on the roster. Vieira slowed down in the final round, though it is likely the rib injury can help explain that. The question now is whether Vieira gets a title shot with this win as she is now 4-0 in the UFC. Whether she gets the title shot likely depends on whether or not the UFC can put together the contest between Cyborg and Amanda Nunes, which may cancel Nunes’ scheduled contest with Raquel Pennington. All that can be said is stay tuned.

Andrei Arlovski defeated Stefan Struve via unanimous decision

There was a lot of fear that Arlovski and Struve would put on a stinker given their chinny natures leading to passive performances. Unfortunately for viewers, that’s exactly what they did. Struve didn’t commit to any strikes outside of a variety of kicks… and a series of fouls. He grabbed the fence and poked Arlovski in the eyes at various occasions. It isn’t like Arlovski’s striking was much more effective, but the Belarusian showed improved takedown ability, scoring more takedowns in this contest than he had in his entire UFC career prior to the bout. In the process, Arlovski tied the UFC record for wins at heavyweight.

While I’m not impressed by Arlovski’s overall performance, he deserves credit for his willingness to continue to improve by adding the takedowns to his arsenal. The longtime vet is determined to remain relevant even if the odds are significantly stacked against him to become a challenger. If nothing else, Arlovski proved he is still a gatekeeper to the top ten of the division and should remain so for the next year or two.

There have been a very select few who believe Struve can capture the magic of his winning streak from six years ago that saw him notch the first loss on Stipe Miocic. This loss should solidify that will never happen. There are a few reasons, but the primary one is his inability to fight effectively from range despite his exceedingly long reach. It isn’t that he hasn’t tried, it’s simply too much against type for him to do so. He’s been a gatekeeper for a few years now and will continue in that capacity… perhaps for the rest of his career.

Sean O’Malley defeated Andre Soukhamthath via unanimous decision

Uncle Dana believes O’Malley is going to be a huge star. Why else would he put the youngster on a main card spot on a PPV? Early returns indicate he is right. O’Malley put on a hell of a show, rocking the typically durable Soukhamthath at multiple points and coming this close to finishing him at the end of the opening frame. It wasn’t just the fact that O’Malley nearly finished Soukhamthath. It was the way he did it, keeping the counter puncher at the end of his range and landing kicks and punches with extreme creativity. He displayed some toughness too, surviving a bad leg/foot injury that left him unable to stand to talk with Joe Rogan after the fight was over. It worked to his advantage as it produced a memorable interview with O’Malley laying flat on his back.

Though Soukhamthath showed resilience by remaining on his feet despite O’Malley’s onslaught, he also showed poor judgement by taking O’Malley to the ground late in the contest when O’Malley could barely stand. Granted, Soukhamthath was likely concussed and had been hurt by O’Malley shortly before he secured the takedown. Regardless of what the reasons were, it cost him an excellent chance to emerge victorious. Despite his 1-3 UFC record, Soukhamthath is exciting enough that I expect he’ll get another fight on the big stage.

As for O’Malley, there is no doubt he captured the attention of fans with his performance. His fluid combinations before he hurt his leg were exceptional. There was nothing rote about the combinations. His natural feel for the fight game is going to take him very far. It’s unknown how long his injury is going to keep him on the shelf, but it may be a good thing that he’s on the sideline as the UFC has been mishandling many of their prospects since the ownership change from a few years ago.

Brian Ortega defeated Frankie Edgar via KO at 4:44 of RD1

One of the most durable and resilient fighters in the history of the UFC, Edgar easily represented the biggest challenge Ortega has faced. It could be argued Ortega has lost every round he has completed in the UFC, only remaining unbeaten thanks to his innate ability to finish his opponents. Could he finish the unfinishable Edgar? Not only did he finish Edgar, he did so emphatically, sending Edgar’s head into the nose bleed section with a devastating uppercut. I was stoked to see Edgar face off with Holloway, but I can’t begin to describe my excitement to see Ortega square off with the champ.

Thinking back to Ortega’s contest with Clay Guida less than two years ago, his striking has grown by leaps and bounds. He got a read on Edgar’s striking and capitalized in a way no one expected when he landed his slick counter elbow that began the finishing sequence. His durability is one of the biggest keys to his success – I can’t remember him being rocked or hurt at any point – as he takes a lot of damage in his pursuit of openings. There are few who can compete with him on the ground… and he didn’t even need to use that to defeat Edgar. Ortega has the look of an all-time great in the making.

The loss likely killed Edgar’s last opportunity to get a title shot. I understand there are many who are tired of seeing him in title fights that he seemingly can’t win – he’s lost his last four fights with a belt on the line – but he had earned that contest with Holloway only to lose it with the loss to Ortega. There is a chance he could get a shot if Holloway holds onto the belt against Ortega as Holloway has beaten every other featherweight near the top of the division. Otherwise, Edgar is probably going to be used as a gatekeeper to the top of the division for the last few years of his career.

Cyborg Justino defeated Yana Kunitskaya via TKO at 3:25 of RD1

Let’s not kid ourselves, we all knew Cyborg was going to destroy Kunitskaya and that’s what she did. But… let’s also give credit to Kunitskaya for her creative takedown. Cyborg came out looking to make a statement after Kunitskaya was critical of Cyborg’s punching power and Kunitskaya turned it into an opportunity to get Cyborg down off a power strike that first appeared to drop Kunitskaya. The Russian nearly got Cyborg’s back to submit her, but Cyborg was on her feet by that point. Translation: it was elementary by that point as Cyborg laid into her.

There wasn’t anything we didn’t learn about Cyborg in this contest. She’s still the most dominant force in women’s MMA, perhaps in all of MMA. However, if she is the most dominant figure in the sport, it’s because there is a severe lack of competition. There isn’t a women’s featherweight division. There’s Cyborg and whoever is willing to move up from bantamweight to face her. Cyborg’s destruction of these smaller and underqualified opponents is already beginning to wear thin. She needs a serious challenge. The superfight with Amanda Nunes everyone seems to want will have to wait until Nunes takes care of business with Raquel Pennington… if it ever happens. Otherwise, Megan Anderson appears to have next.

Kunitskaya came closest to finishing Cyborg than anyone else has in years… and it wasn’t close at all as she never even secured her hooks. Nonetheless, the former Invicta champion did better than most expected and at least had a semblance of a strategy that didn’t involve standing in front of Cyborg. At least she was able to get a nice payday out of the beating she received. She’s a welcome addition to bantamweight, but it is doubtful she’ll evolve into a title challenger.