The UFC took its time in officially announcing a replacement main event for UFC Vegas 26 after the initial headliner, a bantamweight scrap between Cory Sandhagen and former 135-pound champion T.J. Dillashaw fell through. When the promotion announced that the new main event would be a flyweight matchup between top-10 ranked strawweights Marina Rodriguez and Michelle Waterson, it sounded like a strange decision. Strange or not, it turned out to be a good call.
Over the course of five rounds, Rodriguez, who had a size advantage over her opponent, and probably a power advantage with the move to 125 pounds, did her best to finish Waterson. Meanwhile, Waterson showed her toughness and grit. She hung tough with Rodriguez and after spending most of the fourth round in top position on the mat after she scored a takedown, Waterson gave fans a good sweat heading into the final stanza.
Waterson could not get another takedown, but she landed some nice strikes of her own in the last round, but the fight went to Rodriguez.
In the co-main event, Alex Morono kept Donald Cerrone winless in his last six trips to the octagon. Morono scored a first-round knockout over his veteran opponent.
Marina Rodriguez: In the aftermath of Marina Rodriguez’s win over Michelle Waterson, UFC commentator Daniel Cormier declared she delivered a breakout performance. Cormier’s statement seemed like hyperbole. Yes, Rodriguez looked very good on her feet with high output and good power, but she got taken down in the fourth round and she had no answer for Waterson on the mat. That remains a big concern for me when it comes to the 34-year-old Brazilian.
If Rodriguez fights an opponent who’s content to stand and strike with her, Rodriguez will probably have the advantage, but if she faces a strong wrestler with just a decent top game, Rodriguez could be in deep trouble. The good thing for Rodriguez is every round starts on the feet and that gives her a chance to dominate.
The women ranked directly in front of Rodriguez at strawweight, Carla Esparza and Mackenzie Dern fit that bill. In fact, Esparza has a split decision win over Rodriguez. The former champ landed five takedowns in that three-round contest and she racked up nearly nine minutes of control time.
On the plus side, Rodriguez’s takedown defense on Saturday was 80 percent, so that’s an improvement over her pre-fight average of 59 percent.
Alex Morono: Alex Morono took a chance and raised his hand to face Donald Cerrone on short notice. That roll of the dice paid off as Morono used his aggression and slightly reckless striking to stop Cerrone in the first stanza.
Morono counted on Cerrone to continue his history of being a slow starter in this matchup. While Cerrone seemed to be a bit better in getting into the fight, he proved to be an easy target for Morono to hit. Once Morono had Cerrone hurt, he turned things up and earned the stoppage victory. The knockout put the 30-year-old back in the win column following a December loss to former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis.
This was an impressive performance from Morono considering the extremely short notice nature of the matchup, and it should earn him a step up in competition.
Neil Magny: Anyone who thought Neil Magny’s loss to Michael Chiesa spelled the end of his run as one of the best and most underrated fighters in the UFC’s welterweight division, found out they were wrong on Saturday night when Magny outworked Geoff Neal for a decision win. Neal had a good first round, but Magny picked up the pace in the second and third and used his boxing to score points. Magny didn’t have the power of his opponent, but he had pace and output and that carried him to victory. This matchup might leave Neal in the gatekeeper role, but it kept Magny in the welterweight mix. This was a solid bounce back win for Magny.
Gregor Gillespie: Gregor Gillespie had not fought since Kevin Lee knocked him out cold in November 2019. That was the first loss of his MMA career. He had a very tough first round against Carlos Diego Ferreira on Saturday and Gillespie looked tired after those five minutes. He might have been, but he recovered well and came back with an incredible second stanza. As UFC commentator Daniel Cormier said after Gillespie got the second-round finish, “he broke him.” That was not an overstatement. Gillespie just outworked Ferreira and finished him with strikes. Gillespie needed a good comeback performance after the loss to Lee and that’s exactly what he delivered on Saturday. If he can stay active, Gillespie should find himself back in the mix at lightweight.
Phil Hawes: Phil Hawes was once compared to Jon Jones. Those comparisons might have got into Hawes’ head. When he failed to make it into the TUF house in 2016 and got knocked out in 2017 in his first Contender Series fight, it looked as if Hawes might have been all hype. Hawes never stopped believing in himself. He’s now on a seven-fight winning streak and 3-0 in the UFC after a win over Kyle Daukaus at UFC Vegas 26.
Hawes looked very good. His striking has improved, he fought through a rough patch against Daukaus on Saturday and had an outstanding third round where he hurt his opponent with ground strikes. Hawes is still developing, but he’s on the right track.
Jun Yong Park: First, Jun Yong Park’s nickname, “The Iron Turtle” is fantastic. Second, this man is nasty when he can get the fight to the mat and establish solid top position. Park showed a nice jab during the first round. He worked well behind that strike, but he really shined when he stuck a takedown in the third and unloaded a mean mix of ground strikes on Tafon Nchukwi. Those blows left Nchukwi covered and blood and secured Park a nice win in the middleweight division.
Carlston Harris: Carlston Harris made his UFC debut on Saturday and he looked excellent against Christian Aguilera. He worked his clinch wrestling early against Aguilera, and once they separated Harris went to his striking. That striking forced Aguilera to shoot for a desperation takedown, which Harris quickly turned into an anaconda choke that left Aguilera unconscious. A very nice performance to open the card from the 33-year-old Harris.
Michelle Waterson: My big concern for Waterson in this fight was the move to 125 pounds. I thought that Marina Rodriguez would have a power advantage at flyweight. I think she did, but I also think Waterson showed a lot of toughness and grit in hanging in there against her bigger opponent. Had Waterson been able to score more than one takedown, the outcome of the main event could have been different. However, Waterson wasn’t able to land more than one takedown and she got beaten pretty soundly. Waterson may never be a UFC champion, but she is a tough out and she will continue to give her opponent’s problems.
Donald Cerrone: Donald Cerrone said all the right things in the hype videos for UFC Vegas 26, but in the end, he couldn’t get out of the first round as a younger and hungrier Alex Morono finished him with strikes at 4:40 of the first stanza.
Cerrone is now winless in his past six outings and the next call he receives from the UFC matchmakers could be the last call he receives from the UFC.
Geoff Neal: Geoff Neal dropped two fights in a row when he lost a decision to Neil Magny. Neal landed the more powerful strikes of the two, but he fell into Magny’s game. Neal allowed Magny to lean on him in the clinch and wear him down over time.
Carlos Diego Ferreira: Carlos Diego Ferreira came in seriously overweight for his lightweight matchup with Gregor Gillespie. He weighed in at 160.5 for the contest. Ferreira has struggled with his weight since 2019 and the UFC might want to think about forcing Ferreira to compete at 170 pounds.
Kyle Daukaus: Kyle Daukaus did not seem to expect what he got out of Phil Hawes on Saturday, especially after he rocked Hawes in the early moments of the second stanza. When Hawes did not fade, but recovered and increased his pace, Daukaus’ body language seemed to show he no longer wanted to be inside the cage with Hawes. Things got even worse for Daukaus after Hawes hurt him with ground strikes in the third stanza.
Tafon Nchukwi: Tafon Nchukwi is physically strong and that gives him a powerful striking game, but Dana White might have brought him into the UFC fold a bit too soon. Nchukwi came to the promotion from the Contender Series. Before that, Nchukwi only had three pro fights. Nchukwi might need more seasoning outside the promotion.
UFC: How does a fighter make it through the entire fight week in a “bubble” and then test positive for COVID-19 hours before the event? I’m not implying anything untoward, but I do would like the UFC to explain how this happens — more than once.
UFC Commentators: Jun Yong Park walked into the octagon with a nasty sore on his chest. It was obvious and a topic on social media, but none of the UFC commentators mentioned it. C’mon now, ignoring something like that is a pretty big reminder that these folks work for the UFC. It’s hard to believe an impartial commentator would have ignored something like that.
Judges: Let’s just say some of the judges for UFC Vegas 26 seemed to be using some different criteria while scoring the fights.
Michael Trizano: Michael Trizano got the win against Ľudovít Klein, but he seemed a bit too timid during the first 10 minutes of the featherweight contest. He looked good in the final stanza as he controlled the action, kept Klein backing up, landed some heavy strikes and came close to finishing things with a choke in the final stanza. Had Trizano fought the first two rounds the same way he fought the third, this would have been a solid win for him.
Ľudovít Klein: Ľudovít Klein had nice striking and well-timed takedowns during his bout opposite Michael Trizano, but his inability to capitalize on his four takedowns might have cost him the fight. Klein also spent most of the third stanza retreating from his opponent and nearly getting finished as the clock ticked down. A more aggressive ground game and some forward motion in the final round would have helped Klein a great deal.