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Hindsight - UFC Atlantic City - Barboza vs. Lee in retrospect

Take a look back on all the action at the UFC’s stop in Atlantic City, from Tony Martin’s successful debut at welterweight in the opener to Kevin Lee’s brutal destruction of Edson Barboza in the main event.

UFC Atlantic City had a bit of a cloud around it given the cancellation of two contests the day before the event – with shady dealings from the UFC behind the scenes – but fortunately for fans, it didn’t affect the performances in the cage. Sure, there were a few stinkers – more and more, that seems to describe almost every Ryan LaFlare contest – but overall the fighters delivered. Kevin Lee showed the UFC didn’t push him onto the main stage too quickly. Frankie Edgar proved he isn’t washed up. David Branch showed he has power. And Aljamain Sterling proved we shouldn’t give up on him yet.

Here’s a breakdown of every contest on UFC Atlantic City. 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.

Tony Martin defeated Keita Nakamura via unanimous decision

Even though Martin was most recently fighting at lightweight, most expected him to be the larger fighter and to use his size advantage to secure a victory over the Japanese import. While it did play a part in his victory, it was his jab that played biggest part in the contest. It wasn’t an exciting contest, but it was a sign of progress and maturity from Martin to secure a win over an experienced and tricky veteran.

I expected Martin to push a faster pace given that he isn’t dehydrating himself to make 155 anymore, but he took his time looking to outpoint Nakamura. Not that it was a bad performance, nor was it the slowest pace possible - just different from what I expected. I also liked how he focused on defending Nakamura’s grappling as opposed to selling out to stuff the takedown. The guillotines he latched onto at the end of the first two rounds? Those were more about ensuring Nakamura didn’t do anything to steal the round or fight as opposed to looking for a finish.

Nakamura didn’t look like himself. I don’t know if he simply didn’t know how to handle Martin’s physicality – which would be surprising as Nakamura has faced opponents of a similar size – or if his many years in the fight game are catching up to him. Not that he’s particularly explosive or athletic, but he seemed to be missing the quickness he usually uses to catch his opponents by surprise. Think of his win over Kyle Noke when he clipped the Aussie with an unexpected punch. None of that was evident here.

Corey Anderson defeated Patrick Cummins via unanimous decision

This contest was supposed to be a close bout. It was anything but that. Anderson found some success on the feet early, rocking Cummins and keeping the pressure on him. When Cummins proved to tough for Anderson to finish off with strikes, he opted to take him to the ground again and again…and again. Anderson set the record for takedowns in a light heavyweight contest, taking Cummins down twelve times.

Anderson deserves credit for making his wrestling game work against a former All-American wrestler in Cummins. Hell, he deserves a lot of credit for hurting Cummins on the feet too as Anderson’s standup has been criticized as well. However, that criticism has been leveled at his lack of defense, not his offensive output. Cummins wasn’t exactly the guy to test his defensive improvements, so those questions are still abound. Nonetheless, if his wrestling works as well as it did here, it will open up his striking a lot more.

Cummins has shown an improved ability to roll with punches, making him far more likely to survive his opponent’s attack. However, that’s about the only thing positive that can be said and that comes with the caveat that he got hit a lot to prove he has a chin. Plus, when the hell did he forget how to stop a takedown? I’m not saying I didn’t expect Anderson to not be able to get him down at some point, but only stuffing one takedown out of thirteen with Cummins’ track record is ridiculous. Perhaps his 37 years is catching up to him.

Siyar Bahadurzada defeated Luan Chagas via KO at 2:40 of RD2

Bahadurzada has slowly been making himself into a hell of an action fighter. Could he dispose of a young upstart with a higher level of athleticism than himself? Bahadurzada put his years of experience on display in the first half of the opening round. He pieced up Chagas and secured a takedown…only for Chagas to sweep him and finish the round fishing for a RNC. Bahadurzada did put his power on display when he drilled Chagas in the liver with a front kick punctuated with an uppercut to put out the young Brazilian.

I don’t believe Bahadurzada improved as much from his UFC losses, as he has been given favorable matchups. Chagas’ sweep and ability to control Bahadurzada for the remainder of the round is indicative of the same problems that plagued the Afghani in his losses to Dong Hyun Kim and John Howard. If Bahadurzada can keep the fight upright, he’s stands as good of a chance as anyone to win. His power is a major plus, his hands are exceptionally quick, and most tend to underestimate his athleticism. He just needs to avoid being taken to the ground.

Chagas has the physical skills to find success in the UFC. Anyone can see that. The problem is he continues to trust in his physical abilities over technique to allow him to avoid danger or catch his opposition off-guard. It worked for him on the regional scene and against Jim Wallhead, but it isn’t going to work for him against most UFC competition. If anything, he should have been trying to continually get the fight to the ground, especially after he controlled Bahadurzada for the final half of the opening round. Chagas could be on his way out the door.

Ricky Simon defeated Merab Dvalishvili via TKO at 5:00 of RD3

While this is unlikely to be the most debated outcome in recent years simply because neither Simon or Dvalishvili are notable names quite yet, it may be the most controversial if you look at it strictly from what happened. After winning the first two rounds on two of the three judges’ scorecards, Dvalishvili scored a takedown with just under a minute to go. Dvalishvili drove his own head into the ground, knocking himself out. However, both Simon and the referee were unaware of that and the action continued as Simon swept Dvalishvili’s limp body into a mount position as Simon sunk in a guillotine. Dvalishvili awoke as the choke was applied and began kicking in hopes of keeping his blood flowing as Simon had the choke in tight. As the fight neared its expiration, all of Dvalishvili went limp…except his legs. Was it his nerve endings still firing or was Dvalishvili out? When the horn sounded, Simon told the referee as he was standing Dvalishvili was out…only for Dvalishvili to respond that he wasn’t. Regardless of Dvalishvili’s response, the referee ruled he had gone out and ruled in favor or Simon…despite the time expiring for the contest. I’m not saying the ref was right. I’m not saying he was wrong. What I am saying is that the whole situation is a mess.

Everything else about this contest has largely been forgotten because of the controversial ending. It’s unfortunate as Dvalishvili looked much better prior to knocking himself out. He was far more controlled, showing more accuracy in his strikes and having some energy by the end of the contest, something he was missing in his UFC debut. It wasn’t long before Simon was unable to keep up with Dvalishvili’s insane pace. However, he clearly still needs to work on his control as it was him knocking himself out that led to the controversial ending sequence.

Simon has the excuse of taking the contest on short notice, meaning he didn’t have a full camp to prepare for the fight. Perhaps that’s why he possessed such a short gas tank. Then again, Dvalishvili pushed an insane pace. Regardless, he kept looking for the win until he found it, a trait that is needed if he hopes to climb high on the ladder. Stopping Dvalishvili’s takedowns when Simon was tired was also an impressive feat. But he also didn’t show much of a striking arsenal or much top control. Simon needs to show more if he’s going to live up to the expectations many have placed upon him.

Ryan LaFlare defeated Alex Garcia via unanimous decision

LaFlare was KO’d for the first time in his career in his previous outing while Garcia put together the most impressive – and complete – performance of his career in his. Was this a crossroads meeting for the two of them? Nope. LaFlare’s descent doesn’t appear to be a precipitous as it originally appeared while Garcia is still very matchup dependent to look like a million bucks. The contest turned into a boring wrestling contest with Garcia doing nothing with the takedowns he secured and LaFlare scoring more points on the feet.

LaFlare still has the smarts to know what he is capable of and did what he needed to do to win. As he took the least amount of risk possible, it resulted in a very tedious contest. Still, he made Garcia expend a lot of energy in the process of getting him to the ground. That made dealing with Garcia an easy prospect by the end of the contest. I don’t know how much longer LaFlare will remain in his gatekeeper role, but he showed he still has enough in the tank to separate contenders and pretenders.

I think its safe to say Garcia is what he is. He looks great against people who struggle with wrestling as he can bully them without expending too much energy. However, when anyone makes him work to get him to the ground, Garcia tires and loses his explosion that makes him such a threat. You’d think for as long as he’s suffered from these issues that he’d have made some sort of adjustment by now. Nope. Thus, Garcia is what he is.

Daniel Hooker defeated Jim Miller via KO at 3:00 of RD1

Though Miller had lost three in a row coming into this contest, he had been facing tough competition. Thus, he was seen as the toughest opposition Hooker had seen. Regardless, Miller tied the record for Octagon appearances with this contest. In other words, he’s seen a lot of battles in his day and is on the decline. The contest started out fairly standard, leg kicks being the theme of the fight from both competitors. Before long though, Hooker delivered a brutal step-in knee that put Miller out cold, giving Hooker the biggest win of his career.

Despite being somewhat inconsistent in his fighting style, Hooker continues to prove he’s one of the better action fighters on the roster. Every one of his victories in the UFC has produced a finish and he’s proven extremely difficult to put away. It’s the second contest in the UFC he’s finished with a knee, the first coming against Ross Pearson. While both Pearson and Miller were well past their prime when Hooker put them away, both have still shown they possess some durability. Hooker produced a memorable moment when he called out the man interviewing him, Paul Felder. Effective way to produce a moment fans remember. Hooker is making the right moves

I’ve made comments about how Miller’s durability is declining before only for him to prove me wrong. Given how brutal the knee he ate way, it’s plausible Miller’s durability hasn’t declined at all. Nonetheless, his skills clearly have faded as he has struggled to land takedowns – often a big part of his game – and has been outstruck by a sizeable margin in each of his last four losses. There are still winnable fights for Miller, but he can’t function as the gatekeeper to the official rankings any more.

Aljamain Sterling defeated Brett Johns via unanimous decision

Given Sterling’s losses, the shine of his star had been dimmed to the point many – myself included – picked Johns to emerge victorious. That was done with the knowledge that Sterling was the superior athlete in addition to having faced far superior competition. That should have weighed more heavily into our thought process as Sterling dominated the contest from bell to bell, putting boxing combinations on display that he had never put on before. It was the type of performance that reinforced Sterling as a potential title contender in the near future.

To be fair to those who picked Johns, Sterling’s improvement in his boxing was totally unforeseen. Sure, he’d shown steady progress up to that point, but that was largely him throwing his jab to keep his opponent on the outside. He was actually delivering combinations! It doesn’t matter they were simple combinations, they did what they were supposed to do. He still had the variety of kicks that has long been the staple of his attack, plus his wrestling and grappling. This was easily the most complete performance of his career.

Johns has nothing to be ashamed of in terms of his effort. He kept coming at Sterling despite clearly being overmatched for the entirety of the contest. However, this performance does put a cap on his ceiling. He simply isn’t physically skilled enough to become a contender. Nonetheless, he’s a very skilled grappler, willing to scrap, with toughness for days. That in itself will make him a stiff test for anyone. He may not like the idea of him becoming a gatekeeper – and he’ll do everything in his power to be more than that – but it isn’t the worst fate. Especially when one considers his physical skills.

David Branch defeated Thiago Santos via KO at 2:30 of RD1

The last time Santos won four in a row, he ran into a roadblock known as Gegard Mousasi. This time, he was given a challenge that appeared more manageable in Branch. Santos started strong, attacking Branch’s legs. The problem is he didn’t respect Branch’s power and paid the price when Branch delivered a powerful overhand right. A KO in this contest wasn’t exactly a surprise, but coming from Branch? Yeah, no one saw that coming.

If the addition of the power is permanent, Branch could end up developing into a title contender. He’s about the most fundamentally sound grappler in the division – though he isn’t willing to take the risks necessary to secure submissions on a regular basis – and has shown the ability to take a fair amount of damage. Another thing to keep in mind is Branch used to be the light heavyweight champion in the WSOF. That’s notable as it indicates he’s got a lot of strength at 185. Here’s hoping the UFC gives him a notable opponent in his next appearance. For all Branch has going for him, he’s already 36.

Santos has been determined to make himself a title challenger, taking contests at a rapid rate. This was his eighth contest in the last two years. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. He just didn’t respect Branch’s power as he didn’t do everything in his power to keep Branch on the edge of his attack. Then again, most people wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with that strategy prior to this fight taking place. I would think a break might serve him well, but he doesn’t seem likely to do so.

Justin Willis defeated Chase Sherman via unanimous decision

Like most heavyweight contests, this wasn’t expected to go to decision. Early on, it didn’t look like it would. Willis caught Sherman with several hard shots before left hand sent Sherman to the ground. Several hard shots from Willis followed but Sherman wouldn’t go away. The problem for Willis is he emptied his gas tank trying to put away Sherman. Fortunately for him, he was able to use his boxing fundamentals to keep Sherman at bay, allowing Willis to cruise to a victory.

Sherman had every opportunity to take this contest away from Willis. The problem is he has never developed the defensive fundamentals to keep himself from getting blasted. Aware of this issue, Sherman was scared to capitalize on Willis’ lack of energy. I know Sherman has been training at Jackson-Wink, which has traditionally been one of the better camps. However, I don’t know if it’s the best environment for him given his defensive issues.

Willis continues to show great technical skills. He found a home for his left hand time after time before switching to the jab over the course of the last two rounds. Hell, he even mixed it to the body with great effect. But a long-suspected Achilles heel popped up: his conditioning. His flabby frame has long been a source of concern. He just hadn’t been in a contest that forced him to push any kind of pace over the course of an entire contest. It isn’t so bad that it cost him a fight; he did win after all. But he’s going to have to address it if he hopes to fulfill the potential he continues to flash.

Frankie Edgar defeated Cub Swanson via unanimous decision

I can’t say for sure, but I get the feeling the UFC put this together as bait to bring Swanson back. He wanted revenge for his most embarrassing loss while Edgar wanted to get back in the cage as soon as possible to erase the memory of his loss to Brian Ortega. Thus, things worked out in the UFC’s favor and we got a rematch that felt unnecessary. Nonetheless, it was a contest that determined which one of these guys would remain relevant at the top of the division. Edgar put on the type of workmanlike performance we’ve come to expect from him, outworking Swanson with low kicks and the threat of the takedown.

I’m more disappointed by Swanson’s performance than I am impressed by Edgar. Swanson wanted this rematch badly, but didn’t fight like he did. He was reluctant to open up, likely due to memories of Edgar taking him to the ground at will in their first contest. Regardless, aside from the occasional spurt of violence from him, Swanson didn’t fight like a man who wanted to be fighting the man he was in the cage with. If he can return to his normally aggressive form, he’s still a hell of a doorman to getting a title shot. Who knows, maybe he could even find his way to getting that ever elusive title shot. Remember how everyone – myself included – was convinced Michael Bisping would never get a title shot? I’m just saying, crazy things happen in this sport.

Edgar is in a similar situation to Swanson in that he’s likely to serve as a doorman to the title. The problem for the UFC is he’s already proven he’s too good for that role as Brian Ortega has been the only one to pass that test since Edgar dropped to the featherweight division. It’s plausible that age has caught up with Edgar a bit, but there was no sign of that against Swanson. Much like Swanson, Edgar played it safe, though he fought closer to his typical strategy than Swanson did. No surprise given he was coming off the first KO loss of his career. Unless age begins to take its toll on Edgar – a real possibility given he is 36 – expect him to loosen the reins a bit in his next appearance. Given he has fought twice in less than two months, expect Edgar to take a break.

Kevin Lee defeated Edson Barboza via TKO at 2:18 of RD5

There were reasons to pick against both competitors. Lee had lost to Leonardo Santos when he didn’t respect the Brazilian veteran’s striking. Barboza may be the most powerful striker in the division. Then again, Lee’s loss to Santos was over two years ago. As for Barboza, he was mauled by Khabib Nurmagomedov in December and Lee presents a similar style to the lightweight champion. Recency bias should have been made as Lee smashed Barboza for the first two rounds, digging as deep of a hole for Barboza as anyone can remember a fighter being in. Despite that, Barboza fought back, wobbling Lee in the third with a spinning wheel kick. Lee recovered and outside of a brief period where Barboza brutalized Lee with kicks in the fourth, Lee reasserted his dominance. About midway through the fifth, the doctor waved off the contest after inspecting Barboza’s cut and swollen face.

Lee made a hell of a statement. There were questions about how well he’d perform without his coach Robert Follis, who passed in December. The answer was resounding that he’d be just fine. Lee had a brief period of time where he fancied himself a boxer. He appears to be done with that, going back to his roots. He wasted no time in the opening rounds getting Barboza to the ground and threw down some GNP that was so brutal, only Khabib’s violent brand can be compared to it. Hell, Lee’s was worse in my opinion. He did get a bit cocky in the third when he allowed Barboza to score with the wheel kick, but Lee recovered just enough to get the Brazilian to the mat.

Now, Lee needs to get his weight under control. He missed weight for this contest and had a very difficult weight cut in his previous contest against Tony Ferguson. If he can’t get that straightened out, Lee could find himself at a size disadvantage at welterweight.

There were some who questioned Barboza’s heart early in his career. Nobody can do that now. It’s hard to think of a fighter who has taken a more brutal beating over the culmination of two consecutive bouts as Barboza has here and his fight with Khabib. I don’t want to rip on his takedown defense either as nobody has been able to stop Khabib or Lee when they want to take someone down. I would say he simply couldn’t get the opening he was hoping for…but he had that opportunity when he landed the wheel kick. Lee just proved to be exceptionally tough. It appears unlikely Barboza will ever receive a title shot, but he should remain a top notch gatekeeper and action fighter.