Stop me if you’d heard some variant of the following comment in recent weeks: UFC Philadelphia was saved by the closing contests. It took six fights into the event before a contest didn’t go the distance. Not that all of the contests were terrible – Casey Kenney and Ray Borg was awesome – but finishes are a decent indication of how well a card is going. Nonetheless, things picked up down the stretch, just one fight on the main card proving to be a stinker. Most notably, Justin Gaethje once again delivered a badass performance, delivering a one-punch KO to Edson Barboza at the midway point of the opening round. Gaethje and Barboza packed enough action in that half round of action to pick up a FOTN bonus. To say the night went out with a bang would be an understatement.
Justin Gaethje: Obviously. Name the last time Gaethje had a boring fight. I’m still waiting. Each and every time Gaethje steps into the Octagon for combat, the fans walk away feeling satisfied with his performance. Even if this contest only lasted half a round, they felt like they got their money’s worth. The win over Barboza has launched him into potential title talks. Whether it’s Khabib Nurmagomedov or the winner of Dustin Poirier-Max Holloway has yet to be decided, but Gaethje has stormed back from his back-to-back losses, securing first round wins over James Vick and now Barboza. If Gaethje continues to perform like this, he could prove to be the poster boy for the UFC.
Jack Hermansson: While I thought Hermansson would be a solid addition to middleweight division, I never thought he’d be a top ten level fighter. I’m happy to say he’s proven me wrong. Hermansson knew exactly what he wanted to do against Branch, executed it to perfection, and walked away with a submission win over a reputed grappler. Given I’m not the only one who is surprised by Hermansson’s progress, I think it’s fair to say his stock improved more than anyone else’s from this event.
Josh Emmett: The Team Alpha Male rep was well on his way to a loss, getting outpointed by a slicker Michael Johnson. All it took was a single punch and Emmett’s return to action from his yearlong absence proved successful. I will admit that I considered placing Emmett in a different column as he didn’t get the performance bonus he so rightfully deserved – proof fighters should never ask the UFC for a bonus – but I couldn’t find it in myself to take away such a wonderful moment from the guy. Not that my articles have an impact on his life in any way….
Michelle Waterson: I’ve been harsh on Waterson. I’ll admit it. Not that I don’t like her. I just haven’t been sold on her abilities against the elite at strawweight given Waterson found her best success at atomweight. I may have to rewrite that narrative. Waterson put together a flawless performance against Karolina Kowalkiewicz, never allowing the Pole to fight from where she was most confident. Plus, did you see the top control of Waterson? I didn’t know she could do that against the likes of Kowalkiewicz. Waterson is at her peak. Expect the UFC to take advantage of that by putting her in a highly visible contest.
Paul Craig: I don’t want to throw too much praise towards Craig as his contest with Kennedy Nzechukwu was incredibly ugly. But I have to give the Scot mad props for pulling out the second last-minute submission victory in a fight he was losing in his UFC tenure. I may have hated the whole of his fight with Nzechukwu, but I loved the ending. Sometimes, that’s all that matters.
Sodiq Yusuff: There have been a lot of products from the Contender’s Series who have fallen flat on their face. Nzechukwu is a perfect example. Yusuff is one of those who has exceeded the expectations that were placed upon him. His contest with the underrated Sheymon Moraes was close through the first two rounds before Yusuff blew open the contest in the final round. The Nigerian native still has a lot of room for growth. If you want a reason to advocate for the Contender Series, look no further than Yusuff.
Marina Rodriguez: There wasn’t a lot of hype behind Rodriguez when she joined the UFC out of Contender Series: Brazil: She turned a few heads when she took Randa Markos to a draw, but not many. Damn near everyone in the MMA community took notice as she decimated an uber-tough Jessica Aguilar, brutalizing her body with knees and kicks. Aguilar may have survived, but there were a couple of occasions where the referee could have jumped in and no one would have complained. Rodriguez looks like she could emerge as a contender in the near future.
Des Green: After a string of bad luck – multiple opponents missing weight by a long ways, a car accident shortly before a scheduled contest – Green finally secured the type of stylish win he needed to give him a push. Sure, Ross Pearson may not be the same fighter he was a few years ago, but Daniel Hooker has been the only other fighter in recent years to stop the tough Brit. Turns out Green is pretty good when competing on an even field.
Kevin Aguilar: I know there were many who disagreed with my assessment that Aguilar’s defensive wrestling would hold up under Barzola’s consistent barrage of takedowns. I felt vindicated when Aguilar successfully defended every one of the Peruvian’s attempts, though Aguilar’s stiff jab had more to do with that than anything. Any time Barzola got within range of a takedown, Aguilar was there with offense to prevent him from doing so. Great performance from Aguilar.
Casey Kenney: Whether you agreed with the decision or not – I didn’t – Kenney looked very good given he fought just eight days previous to UFC Philadelphia. He took the fight right at Ray Borg, not giving a damn about Borg’s reputation and it paid off as the judges believed Kenney was the more effective fighter. Again, I disagreed, but I can’t take away from such an awesome moment – and an awesome fight – just because I didn’t like the outcome of a close contest. Major props to Kenney.
Maryna Moroz: If I were to guess, I’d say the time away at a different camp than she had spent in the past was a bigger benefit for Moroz than the move to flyweight. Nonetheless, both moves looked beneficial as she secured a clear decision over the debuting Sabina Mazo. Moroz has been around for a while now – about four years – so it’s easy to forget she’s still just 27 and just five years into her professional career. It’s plausible those changes could launch her up the rankings.
Alex Perez: Good to see the former flyweight rebound after an overwhelming loss to Joseph Benavidez near the end of 2018. Perez didn’t push the same relentless pace he pushed in his previous wins, but he played to his strengths and demonstrated he won’t be physically dominated at his new home. In fact, Perez was the bully against Mark De la Rosa.
Contender’s Series alum: There were seven members of the UFC Fight Pass show who were in action in Philly. Out of those seven, six emerged victorious. The lone exception was Nzechukwu, who was on his way to victory before tapping with less than a minute to go. Not every card has had the alum find this much success, but it does prove the series is having enough success in finding worthwhile talents that the UFC might want to consider expanding the program. Contender’s Series Europe, perhaps?
Edson Barboza: While the loss effectively eliminates Barboza from title contention for many, those that didn’t believe it did so had already taken Barboza out of the picture based on his back-to-back losses against Khabib and Kevin Lee. Barboza is as dangerous of a striker as there is at lightweight, but he crumples under pressure. I’m not trying to say Barboza sucks. He’s just not on the elite level of lightweight. Given the violent nature of this KO combined with the beatings he received in his aforementioned losses, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he ends up taking a break for a while. He’s consistently been an active fighter and it would probably do him some good. Nonetheless, it appears this loss will effectively eliminate him from being in any top high-profile contests for the time being.
David Branch: It’s safe to say Branch’s transition from the WSOF has been a flop. The loss to Luke Rockhold was understandable, but this loss to Hermansson and his previous loss to Jared Cannonier should have been competitive at the very least. Instead, he’s been finished very quickly in his last two contests. I’m not saying he can’t salvage the latter years of his career – I think his best chance of doing that is moving to 205 – but he’s got to make some immediate changes.
Michael Johnson: Johnson was less than a minute away from turning his drop to featherweight into a career revitalization. A single minute. That’s all. That’s why you can’t let your guard down for a single second. Not saying that’s what Johnson did, but Emmett made him pay for exposing himself for just a split second. It feels safe to say Johnson is nothing more than a gatekeeper to the ranked fighters at this point.
Karolina Kowalkiewicz: It’s safe to say Kowalkiewicz is no longer a top strawweight. The former rival to Joanna Jedrzejczyk has now dropped four of her last six, her two wins coming against a pair of women arguably outside the top ten of the division. The entire contest with Waterson, Kowalkiewicz looked like she was stuck in neutral and never got going. The performance proved symbolic of where her career currently is as she hasn’t advanced in quite a while. The saying is if you aren’t going forward, you’re going backwards. That’s the unfortunate case for Kowalkiewicz.
Kennedy Nzechekwu: I picked the youngster on the basis of him being a far superior athlete to Craig. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have any apprehension as Nzechekwu had next to nothing of value on his fight record. What we got was one of the ugliest fights I can remember seeing in a long time. While Craig deserves just as much blame as Nzechekwu for that, the Scot needed to make it ugly if he hoped to win. Thus, the blame falls on Nzechekwu. I’m hoping it’s a while before we see the youngster again as he needs a LOT of seasoning.
Sheymon Moraes: Moraes was immediately fighting an uphill battle in the UFC when he debuted against Zabit Magomedsharipov. After dropping that contest, he put together two nice wins. Now, with his loss to Yusuff, even if it was competitive, he’s unlikely to ever be seen as nothing more than another face in the crowded featherweight picture. He’s better than that.
Jessica Aguilar: Y’all remember when Aguilar first came to the UFC in 2015? There were many – myself included – who believed she’d be challenging for the strawweight title at some point. Instead, she has gone 1-4 since joining the organization. Aguilar didn’t look bad early against Rodriguez, but she wore down and scored very little significant offense after the opening round. The end of the line is very close….
Ross Pearson: It’s hard not to be a fan of Pearson if you’ve followed the sport for a while. He’s consistently been one of the more entertaining competitors on the UFC roster, rarely taking an extended absence. However, he has now dropped six of his last seven contests. The lone victory in that stretch came against a similarly shopworn Mizuto Hirota. Only Pearson can decide when he retires, but I don’t have any desire to see him continue to give it a go at this point.
Enrique Barzola: I may not be as big of a mark for Barzola as my colleague Connor Ruebusch – I did pick against him after all – but I have been high on his abilities. Nonetheless, I worried about his abilities to ground someone who has proven themselves capable of defending takedowns against a decent wrestler. Barzola is dogged, but his lack of explosive athleticism is going to limit him. I’m not saying he can’t improve from here, but his ceiling is limited.
Ray Borg: I know I already said it, but I strongly believe Borg won over Kenney. However, I’m trying to figure out how a fighter of Borg’s caliber ended up in such a close contest against a debuting fighter who last competed just eight days previous. Borg had damn near every advantage you can think of. Hell, Borg didn’t even make weight, despite having last competed at flyweight. I feel for Borg given the health issues of his son, but this was not the way to make his bantamweight debut.
Mark De la Rosa: This isn’t a good sign for De la Rosa. Not necessarily that he lost, but that he was completely overpowered by a former flyweight. I understand De la Rosa is a former flyweight himself, but how will he respond against an opponent who is larger than Perez? There is plenty of them out there. I fear half of the first husband-wife duo in the UFC might be on their way out.
Conor McGregor: I’ll admit McGregor’s placement here has less to do with the happenings of this event than a cumulative of events, but what happened here doesn’t help him either. First, the sexual abuse allegations are obviously troublesome. Given I wouldn’t want anyone to be guilty of that crime, here’s hoping they aren’t true. Secondly, since the UFC’s move to ESPN, they don’t need McGregor as much as they once did, hurting him in his negotiations with the UFC. Some of you may claim he’s retired, but I don’t believe that for a second. He retired three years ago, though it only proved to be a leveraging technique in negotiations. So how does this event hurt McGregor? Gaethje will never become the star McGregor is/was, but he can sure play a big part in a cumulative effort to replace him. Performances like the one Gaethje had here won’t do McGregor any favors in terms of his leverage.
Kevin Holland and Gerald Meerschaert: I didn’t know what the hell to make of that fight. Through the first two rounds, that was a good thing as their grappling exchanges entertained the hell out of me. Things went to crap after that when neither fighter had much energy left. It was incredibly difficult to judge too, meaning I really could have cared less how the judges scored the contest. Nonetheless, Holland walked out the victor while many viewers walked away wondering what they just saw.
Sabina Mazo: I’m giving the 21-year old a bit of a pass. Mazo looked flat in the first two rounds, but she woke up in the final frame and easily took that round. Mazo looked like a deer in the headlights over the first two rounds, so I’ll attribute that to jitters as opposed to not being prepared. She’s almost assuredly going to get better.