The UFC’s first main card on ESPN was… interesting. For the most part, it felt like the in-cage product was solid. There was a FOTY candidate between Vicente Luque and Bryan Barberena. Aljamain Sterling had a breakout performance. Oh yeah… Francis Ngannou disposed of Cain Velasquez in 26 seconds. Yeah, anticlimactic as it saw Velasquez’s knee buckle and give out. And we thought Velasquez’s loss on the first UFC on FOX was disappointing. I guess he didn’t lose a belt this time….
More than anything, the vibe the live crowd gave off was awkward, proving reluctant to cheer for anything. It made for an atmosphere that didn’t feel appropriate for what we were witnessing. In the end, the UFC’s first main card on ESPN felt a bit more flat than it probably should have. Or perhaps that’s just me disappointed at the flat performance of Velasquez….
Francis Ngannou: Despite his brutal KO of Curtis Blaydes back in November, many felt that performance was flukish due to Ngannou’s previous two performances. While I’m sure there will be some who will call his victory over Velasquez a fluke due to Velasquez’s knee buckling, those people are neglecting the uppercut Ngannou landed prior to Velasquez falling awkwardly to the mat. Ngannou will need several pieces to fall into the proper place – Brock Lesnar not returning, Jon Jones staying at 205 – but he very well may have punched his ticket to a title shot.
Paul Felder: I generally try to be impartial, but Felder has become one of my favorites. From his commentary, to his intensity, to his highlight reel… he’s hard not to like. This time, he turned in a very methodical performance, beating the crap out of James Vick’s lead leg with a couple of solid shots to seal the win. Then he tops it off with an emotional post-fight speech thanking his mom for… well, being his mom. I think we can all get behind that. Hopefully he gets the high-profile contest he’s been asking for.
Kron Gracie: The Gracie name has lost some of its shimmer over the years as the First Family of MMA hasn’t had much success in recent years in the sport many credit them with creating. Kron wasted no time in reestablishing the Gracie name in the confines of the Octagon, securing an RNC finish over Alex Caceres two minutes into his UFC debut. It was the first time a Gracie won a UFC contest since UFC 4… back in 1994. Hopefully the UFC can maintain a positive relationship with Rickson’s youngest as they seem to sour on UFC legends before too long.
Vicente Luque and Bryan Barberena: I can’t separate these two. It doesn’t matter that Luque walked away the winner. These two were prepared to die in that cage and, as a fan, I can’t thank them enough. Luque hit Barberena with everything – including the kitchen sink – and Barberena refused to go anywhere. It wasn’t until a pair of brutal knees in the closing seconds sent an already tenderized Barberena to the mat, awarding Luque a win sans the controversy that would have come had the fight gone to decision. It’s performances like this that draw new fans into the sport. Can’t say enough good things about this performance.
Aljamain Sterling: I’m sure Uncle Dana could have cared less about Sterling’s performance, but I walked away sold that Sterling has arrived. Effective use of his length. Immediately attacking Rivera to throw him off his groove. A nice sweep. Sterling did a little bit of everything to fluster a Jimmie Rivera who has always been well-prepared. Given the mess at the top of the bantamweight division, I doubt this gets Sterling a title fight. Regardless, the Funk Master put on a career best performance and that can’t be ignored.
Andrea Lee: Opinions on Lee have been mixed, some believing she can contend for the flyweight title. Others say she’s nothing more than a mid-level gatekeeper. It wasn’t just that she beat Ashlee Evans-Smith that is swaying more to her side. It was the way she picked her apart, putting on the best striking performance of her career thus far. Keep in mind she did this while still dealing with a husband on the lamb and changing training camps. I have to admit, I’m being swayed….
Nik Lentz: Lentz may be one of the least popular fighters on the UFC roster, but he continues to find ways to hang around the UFC roster. This time, the Minnesota product was able to outwit a favored Scott Holtzman in a gritty affair to score a unanimous decision. Whether you like the dude or not, Lentz knows how to win despite never having the best physical gifts.
Luke Sanders: Perhaps the credit should go to Sanders’ corner as they gave him the advice that led to him destroying Renan Barao just 61 seconds into the second round after dropping the opening round. That version of Sanders hasn’t been seen since he arrived in the UFC. If he can hang around, Sanders’ fortunes are going to improve immeasurably.
Emily Whitmire: I’m not sure if it’s time to start thinking of Whitmire as a fighter to keep an eye on, but the fact she has us thinking about it is clear sign of progress. She wasted no time getting Alexandra Albu to the ground and sinking in a RNC for the fastest submission in UFC women’s strawweight history. I don’t want to pump her up too much as she began her amateur career in 2010, but Whitmire looks better than she ever has.
Heavyweight contenders: A sigh of relief was given by the likes of Curtis Blaydes, Derrick Lewis, and Alistair Overeem as they don’t have to worry about Velasquez coming back to terrorize them. Even if the title hopes of Lewis and Overeem are slim – Blaydes is much younger and has a lot more time – those hopes didn’t get any smaller with Velasquez unable to reestablish himself.
Cain Velasquez: I don’t know what Velasquez did to make his body so fragile – or if it’s all just incredibly bad luck -- but the two-time former heavyweight champion just can’t stay healthy. In his return to action after 31 months away, he couldn’t last a half-a-minute before his body gave out on him. Velasquez gave no indication that’s he’s going to hang up his gloves, but no one would be surprised if that proves to be the last time we see him in the cage. Even though Velasquez reached the pinnacle of the sport, it’s hard not to see him as one of the all-time what-if stories.
James Vick: Felder may not have had a top ten ranking, but he was Vick’s most high-profile opponent outside of his previous attempts against top ten opponents in Beneil Dariush and Justin Gaethje. Vick has now gone 0-for-3 in those contests. Those results make it hard to argue against the idea that Vick has bumped up against his ceiling. I’m not saying Vick is trash, but he’s got to make some defensive adjustments if he wants to advance beyond his current status.
Cortney Casey: Not the best performance from Casey. Her takedown defense did appear to be improved, but her standup appeared to regress in the process. Head movement and footwork were nonexistent, allowing Cynthia Calvillo to run circles around her. It resulted in Casey losing a decision in which she gave up zero takedowns. That’s not supposed to happen with Casey. Perhaps there was an injury we were unaware of…?
Alex Caceres: Caceres should have taken it as a bad sign the UFC was matching him up against a debuting Kron Gracie. It’s good for the sport for a Gracie to be having success, meaning the UFC was looking at Caceres as fodder. That’s exactly what he proved to be. Caceres’ UFC career has been so up and down that I’m sure the brass has lost patience with him. He may not be around too much longer.
Myles Jury: I’m a bit confused. Jury’s base is wrestling, followed by grappling. When he knocked Andre Fili to the ground, Fili couldn’t sweep him. And yet, Jury never bothered to make a single takedown attempts. What the hell? It wasn’t a blowout, but it was a clear loss for Jury in a fight he was favored to win. Disappointing performance from Jury.
Jimmie Rivera: There may not be a more-hard luck bantamweight than Rivera. A 20-fight win streak doesn’t prove enough to get a title fight and now he’s lost two of his last three. Given his penchant for going to workmanlike decisions (i.e. boring decisions), it’s hard to see him climbing back into title talks. MMA is a rough sport. One rough night and your career is altered. Two rough nights and it’s completely derailed. The best laid plans of mice and men….
Benito Lopez: The funny thing about this loss is it legitimately looked like Lopez worked on his submission defense. Nonetheless, he was subbed within a round by Manny Bermudez. I understand preparing for the worse… but what was Lopez’s plan to win the fight? Perhaps I’m being too harsh as Bermudez never gave him an opportunity to play to his strengths, but I’m still waiting to see the Team Alpha Male product put together a consistent strategy.
Ashlee Evans-Smith: Different fight, same old story. Despite having one of the best wrestling pedigrees in the division, Evans-Smith didn’t look to take the fight to the ground until midway through the second round. By then, it was too late as she was well behind on the scorecards. Evans-Smith has improved her striking quite a bit since coming into the UFC, but wrestling should still be her go to. When will she learn?
Scott Holtzman: Holtzman is here not because he looked bad. There were several moments he actually looked great in his contest with Lentz. It’s that he lost a fight he was primed to win. Already 35 due to a late start in his MMA career, Holtzman may have gave away his best chance to advance into the official UFC rankings.
Renan Barao: I saw Barao taking off his gloves shortly after the fight was called and was desperately hoping he was leaving them in the cage. It was the seventh loss in his last nine contests, looking nothing like the dominant champion who terrorized his compatriots at 135. The one positive that could be taken out of his poor stretch was he still appeared to have his durability. This loss may be a sign it has finally given out with the rest of his skill set. Did I mention he missed weight too?
Alexandra Albu: Is there anything more depressing than flying around the world only to be submitted in a minute’s time? Albu’s defense has long been notoriously poor. It finally caught up to her as Whitmire initiated a scramble as Albu tried to get to her feet. Maybe Albu will make a greater effort on defense moving forward….
Phoenix fans: I get that some of the fights weren’t the most exciting. But booing the Felder-Vick contest? That makes no sense whatsoever. There were other fights that received undeserved boos too, but that’s the one that I can’t forgive. Perhaps the Arizona professional sports franchises are all so embarrassing that Phoenix fans forgot how to cheer.
Jodie Esquibel and Jessica Penne: Esquibel is the bigger loser as she was primed to receive a chunk of Penne’s check for Penne missing weight only to have her second UFC contest canceled on the day it was supposed to take place. Nonetheless, Penne’s ankle injury ruined her opportunity to return from a two-year suspension. Penne was about as favorable of a matchup as she was going to get. Then again, Penne was a favorable opponent for Esquibel. Yeah… nobody emerged a winner in this one.
Cynthia Calvillo: This has more to do with my high expectations of Calvillo. Kudos to her performance on the feet as she looked sharper than I anticipated, but where was her wrestling? She couldn’t secure a takedown on Casey, notorious for her poor takedown defense. While I respect Calvillo’s callout of Tatiana Suarez, she isn’t going to win that if her takedown game looks like this moving forward.
Andre Fili: Fili not being in the winner’s column has nothing to do with his in-cage performance. He actually looked very good, putting together a smart performance that had Myles Jury guessing so much that he ended up standing there doing nothing for long stretches. But Fili not having a name and complaining about not getting paid enough might have put him in the UFC’s dog house. It isn’t that I disagree with Fili – fighters absolutely should be getting a bigger piece of the pie – but he’s got to pick his spots. That wasn’t the right place.
Manny Bermudez: Yes, it was a fantastic performance as Bermudez knocked Lopez from the undefeated. But he also missed weight BADLY, coming in at 140 for the bantamweight bout. Given fighters tend to make a habit of missing weight, I have a very short leash for when a fighter misses as badly as Bermudez does. Perhaps he does deserve another opportunity, but lets not turn this into a similar situation that we’ve seen with John Lineker or Charles Oliveira.