UFC Vegas 44 proved to be a very welcome return for the UFC after taking a hiatus during the Thanksgiving break. Jose Aldo turned in his best performance in several years, maintaining control throughout his fight with Rob Font to the point there was no question who won by the time the fifth round expired.
If one were to strictly look at the numbers, it should have been competitive at the very least as Font landed 63 more significant strikes than Aldo. However, not all significant strikes are created equal and while Font’s strikes were effective, they were merely touching Aldo up whereas Aldo was blasting Font damn near every time he landed. It was an incredible performance from an all-time great. Of course, that wasn’t the only thing that happened at the event. Let’s touch on that more with my Unofficial Awards.
Biggest Jump in Stock: Even though he was the underdog, it wasn’t a major surprise when Jamahal Hill walked out of the event with a win over Jimmy Crute. It was the manner in which he won that caught everyone off-guard. Crute is one of the most physically gifted youngsters in the division with a track record just as proven as Hill’s, if not more so. Didn’t matter. Hill bulldozed him in less than a minute, knocking down the Aussie on two occasions and brutalizing his face. While Hill wasn’t seen as a powerhouse striker before this contest, his performance may lead some to rethink that. Given Hill is still inexperienced – this was just his 11th professional contest – I’d probably give him one more opponent outside of the top ten to ensure this performance wasn’t a fluke, but it’s hard to say he wouldn’t be deserving of that opportunity.
Biggest Fall in Stock: Brendan Allen might want to stop thinking about a rematch with Sean Strickland since that won’t be happening. The 25-year-old Allen has been talking about getting that loss back since it happened over a year ago. To be fair, he certainly did look improved in his wins over Karl Roberson and Punahele Soriano, but he hit a big wall in the form of Chris Curtis, getting finished in the second round of their fight. It would be one thing if he lost to Curtis on a KO out of nowhere, ala Phil Hawes from last month. Instead, Allen didn’t give Curtis any respect and the well-traveled veteran was arguably winning up until the finish. It’s easy to forget Allen is still just 25, but he has enough experience under his belt that these type of mental errors shouldn’t be happening. It’s an indication of a hard ceiling.
Best Newcomer: There was only one debutant on the card, but it’s safe to say Darian Weeks made a positive impression, even in a loss. Facing the best version of Bryan Barberena we’ve seen in years, Weeks didn’t back down an inch. What proved to be the separating factor was Weeks’ faulty gas tank, but given he accepted the contest on short notice, most are willing to forgive him. With his power and explosion, Weeks looks like he’ll be a strong bonus candidate on every card he appears on.
Start Typing a Resume: Many were surprised Maki Pitolo got another fight in the organization as it was. After all, he entered the event with a 1-4 UFC record in the first place. After a solid start against Dusko Todorovic, things went south in a hurry once the fight hit the mat, resulting in a first-round stoppage in Todorovic’s favor. It’s hard to see Pitolo making his way back to the organization.
It could be argued Mallory Martin put together her most complete performance in a losing effort to Cheyanne Vlismas. Unfortunately, the loss dropped her to 1-3, her lone victory coming by way of a submission that put an end to a fight she was losing up to that point. At 27, Martin is young enough she could make her way back to the organization, so I wouldn’t be so sure this is the last we’ve seen of her in the Octagon, even if she ends up released.
Normally, I wouldn’t be putting someone like Chris Gruetzemacher here, but given the likes of Impa Kasanganay was cut recently, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Gruetzemacher is given a pink slip. The gritty veteran has never been anything more than a low-level gatekeeper and he appears to be slowing down. Losing by a late kneebar doesn’t help his chances either.
Saved Their Job(s): If Barberena turned in another flat performance, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see him on the chopping block. At 32, Barberena may not be that old, but his blood and guts style has put his body through the wringer and he’s already had a pair of major surgeries that appeared to contribute to his recent listlessness. If his win over Weeks is any indication, all he needed was some distance from those surgeries. I’m sure he’s closer to the end than the beginning, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more vintage Barberena performances before all is said and done.
Best/Worst Referee Call: Some may be willing to give Keith Peterson credit for allowing Clay Guida to stay alive in his fight with Leonardo Santos and score the come-from-behind victory. Others will contend he ripped a rightful win from Santos, costing the Brazilian a win bonus and delivering him his second consecutive loss. I lean more towards the latter as I’ve seen a truckload of fights stopped long before the point where Guida was at in terms of ring awareness and damage taken, but I also acknowledge it would have taken away one of the bigger talking points of the night as Guida’s comeback was pretty special. Given a referee’s job is to be concerned about the welfare of the fighters and not creating moments, I maintain the fight should have been stopped. But hey, it is what it is.
Biggest WOW Moment: There were several moments that made this difficult to choose from, but ultimately I had to go with Rafael Fiziev’s spinning wheel kick that literally stopped Brad Riddell dead in his tracks. Fiziev had just ahead of Riddell throughout their slugfest, his advantage in the power department being the separating factor. When the kick landed, Riddell stopped moving and looked like he didn’t know where he was or what he was doing for a bit. He came to, but Fiziev was swarming him and the fight was declared over. Along with his Matrix-like evasion and his left hook on Renato Moicano, Fiziev is building a hell of a highlight reel.
Living Legend: This is an obvious ode to Aldo as the former featherweight kingpin really turned back the clock in his dominance over Font, but it can’t be stated enough how great Aldo looked. That’s after a decade of fighting the best 145 had to offer and dropping down a few years ago to 135 after several difficult weight cuts at a weight class where he was cutting ten pounds less. Against Font, Aldo hurt Font several times, scoring knockdowns in the first and fourth round and coming close to securing an RNC in the final round. There was obviously more to the fight than that, but there’s plenty of other articles out there discussing the awesomeness that is Aldo. Given the point of this article is to try and touch on other less discussed topics from the event, it doesn’t feel right to go too in-depth on this, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least say something about it.
Missed Opportunity: I’m not saying Manel Kape didn’t give a good promo in his post-fight interview. In fact, it was a very good promo, stating he doesn’t call people out because they should be calling him out. But it wasn’t the right time, resulting in a wasted opportunity. Yes, his flurry of punches to overwhelm a game Zhalgas Zhumagulov was the type of moment that gives a fighter a lot of leeway in what they want to say post-fight, Kape dropped his first two UFC contests. This wasn’t the first time Kape had been seen in the Octagon. That was a big part that allowed Conor McGregor to maintain the mystique he had on his rise to the top was most people had never seen him lose. Those two losses in the UFC aren’t hard to find on Kape. Perhaps with a few more wins, Kape could put enough distance from those losses, but both occurred earlier this year. Throw in that Kape had missed weight in his previous win and this was his first official flyweight win. I expect big things from Kape and agree he has the talent to win the title, but he would have benefitted from delivering that promo on a bigger stage against a higher profile opponent. Just for the record, I think he should have asked for Jeff Molina, another rising up-and-comer with a penchant for bonus money.
Coming Out Party? Many MMA analysts have liked particular aspects of Vince Morales for a long time. With slick boxing techniques that even untrained eyes could notice was impressive, it was everything else that seemed to come up short. It looks like Morales is starting to figure it out. It could be argued he was deprived of a deserved bonus as he flatlined Louis Smolka with a hard right hook off the break from a clinch, becoming the first to put away Smolka with strikes. I’m not declaring Morales is about to go on a run that turns him into a contender, but he’s been dancing with the chopping block for a while. It looks like he’s grown past that stage.
Cure for Insomnia: I’ll admit the first round between Alonzo Menifield and William Knight was a lot of fun, but the rest of the contest was a prime example of dangers of pitting two explosive athletes with limited arsenals and gas tanks together. They tepidly exchanged strikes in the second and spent the majority of the third against the fence as Menifield looked to stall until the final bell, hoping to win the judges’ favor with control. It didn’t work as Knight broke away in the final minute and his flurry of strikes – most of which missed – proved to be enough to get him the decision.
Worst Commentary: Speaking of Menifield and Knight, Daniel Cormier opted to double down on being wrong after the decision for their contest was read. Cormier seemed positive Menifield was going to take the decision at the conclusion of the fight, only to be challenged by Michael Bisping pointing out Knight’s late flurry could have been seen to do more damage in those fleeting moments than Menifield did during his clinching against the cage. Cormier dismissed him and when the scorecards were read and Bisping had his told-you-so moment, Cormier was defiant, wanting to see the scorecards himself before conceding anything to Bisping. I understand Cormier comes from a wrestling background and thus leans towards a wrestler’s strategy in how he scores fights, but MMA isn’t wrestling. He’s been around the sport long enough to know that. All he had to say was it was a close fight that could have gone either way and his bases would have been covered. Instead, it’s hard to believe he won’t continue to frustrate me and thousands of others who listen to him, likely being the least liked of the UFC’s regular color commentators in the process.