The Ultimate Fighting Championship did not do a ton to promote its 25th anniversary show in Denver, so buzz was low. I mean, UFC Fight Night 139 was just that: a UFC Fight Night card on Fox Sports 1. At the end of the day, none of us are going to remember that, because when the fighters actually stepped in the cage, we were treated to some iconic MMA moments, some year-end superlative winners and, in general, lots to learn from.
It is a testament to the depth of the featherweight division that when Frankie Edgar was injured ahead of his slated main event with Chan Sung Jung the UFC was able to replace the former lightweight champion with hot prospect Yair Rodriguez. In turn, Jung and Rodriguez turned in a fight for the ages that will forever live in the sport’s annals and seems certain to take home more than a few pieces of hardware at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Colorado native Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone showed out for the Mile High City, defying many people’s expectations with an emotional first-round submission of Mike Perry after much drama preceded their co-feature. In doing so, Cerrone created one of the most memorable moments in the storied career of the all-action fighter, offering a teachable lesson, too.
It’s not just our two top fights that were instructive. The night also saw some lamentable refereeing, shedding light on how even the new Unified Rules can be improved upon. A local Colorado gym that has been on the scene for a minute took a major step forward into the spotlight, and, as it happens, it just might have the next big thing in women’s MMA on its roster.
The Race for ‘Fight of the Year’ and ‘KO of the Year’ is Over
With all due respect to the rollicking brawl between Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje in April, Rodriguez-Jung was on its way to being the 2018 “Fight of the Year” even before its instantly iconic ending. Poirier-Gaethje was undoubtedly a delicious bit of violent entertainment, but Poirier was in the driver’s seat for the duration of the fight, tagging Gaethje at a much higher rate with repeated, clean head shots, while absorbing the former World Series of Fighting champion’s leg kicks. Rodriguez-Jung simply offered so much more.
Rodriguez-Jung wasn’t just some gruesome car crash like Don Frye-Yoshihiro Takayama; Rodriguez’s use of his high-flying, poetic kicking offense was spellbinding to watch, while Jung, despite being as cutthroat as ever, controlled the punching exchanges with a brilliant jab and clever counterpunches. Was this fight wild and sometimes even a little sloppy? Absolutely. However, it was still rich with both orthodox and exotic techniques, one of which won the fight for the Mexican in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. The main event was a constant ebb-and-flow battle on a round-by-round, minute-by-minute, exchange-by-exchange basis.
To that point, the judges didn’t unanimously agree on the winner of a single round until the fourth, which was still a nasty two-way dust-up. At the time of the stoppage with a single second left, Jung was ahead 39-37, 39-37 and 38-38, and given that “The Korean Zombie” appeared to have Round 5 under control, Rodriguez quite literally needed a last-second knockout to win. The status and importance of the bout may not be adequate to match the “drama” of Fabricio Werdum tapping Fedor Emelianenko or Holly Holm kicking off Ronda Rousey’s head, but no legitimately classic fight in MMA history has had a more desperate reversal of fortune in its late going than this one. The book is shut on “Fight of the Year.”
Part of slamming that book shut is the fact that Rodriguez didn’t just drop the South Korean and flurry on him to a stoppage with one second to go. Rodriguez baited Jung into unnecessarily charging at him and somehow, while looking at the floor, nailed him with a picture perfect up-elbow to the chin and folded him prone -- a perfect exhibition of his natural, instinctive striking creativity and how it only continues to intensify. When the “Fight of the Year” ends with a technique like that, you know you’ve got the “Knockout of the Year” on your hands, too.
Cowboy Can Still Rope, Tie ’Em Up
While he opened as a -130 favorite for his fight with Perry, a confluence of circumstances led to Cerrone closing as large as a +170 underdog before fight time. After the initial line was put out by oddsmakers, many MMA folks instantly pointed to Cerrone being 1-4 in his last five fights and having been more susceptible to damage, with two of those losses coming by knockout. The entire hype for the fight then changed when news broke that Perry would be relocating to Cerrone’s longtime team, Jackson-Wink MMA, for the fight and would be trained by gym co-owner Mike Winkeljohn. This led to immediate and inflamed public acrimony between Winkeljohn and Cerrone, who announced his departure from the team in order to train with his own group of pals at his BMF Ranch, leading to a steady shift in the betting line.
It turns out that none of that matters when one fighter is an all-time underrated MMA grappler and his opponent is a bafflingly impulsive meathead.
Early on in the bout, “Cowboy,” usually a slow starter, looked to be rushing his attacks, especially as he looked for tepid takedowns against Perry, who showed none of his usual aggressive, forward pressure, which has long been Cerrone’s kryptonite. Perry then inexplicably barreled in for a takedown that seemed to shock “Cowboy” as much as it did the rest of the world. In a few mere scrambles, Cerrone swept and dominated Perry on his way to locking up the fight-ending armbar with absolute ease, creating an indelible, emotional moment for the fan favorite in front of his hometown crowd.
Cerrone, 35, has stated he’s bound for a return to 155 pounds for his next fight and promised an exciting opponent is already in the works. Whomever the UFC lines up next, the Perry fight is a reminder that Cerrone, while he is on the backside of a highly accomplished and thrilling career, is still a dynamic enough fighter to threaten the vast majority of lightweight and welterweight fighters, even if he’s not going to be a Top-10 competitor again. We’ve always defined Cerrone by and praised him for being one of the sport’s action fighters; it’s clear he can still hold up that end of the bargain more than adequately, especially when faced with technically inferior opponents.
Time to Review Instant Replay
Normally when we complain about officiating in the sport, it’s bad judges who draw the most vicious and consistent ire of MMA fans. With that said, neither are perfect, and the cruelest part of UFC Fight Night 139 was that on a night when there were four split decisions, all rightful winners got their hand raised, yet there was still an unbelievable ripoff featuring a referee.
The record will state that Bobby Moffett tapped Chas Skelly via second-round brabo choke, but the fact of the matter is that more than anything -- and not to detract from Moffett’s slick submission attempt -- Skelly was defeated by referee Tim Mills, a veteran official in Colorado.
After Skelly racked up a 10-8 round by taking “The Wolfman’s” back for most of the first period and threatening with repeated rear-naked chokes, his opponent delivered a takedown of his own in the second. Skelly promptly reversed and wound up in a brabo choke. Skelly fought like hell to escape, spinning around like Curly from The Three Stooges. When he became impeded by the fence, he relaxed for a moment, and Mills, checking his arm, stopped the fight while thinking he was out. Skelly instantaneously complained, and moments later, Mills was summoned by Colorado State Boxing Commission inspectors to review instant replay. Under the Unified Rules, it would have been possible for Mills to take a second look at the end of the fight and overturn his initial ruling to the far more righteous no-contest outcome. Instead, Mills anxiously and self-righteously argued that he grabbed Skelly’s arm because the fighter was “in distress” and appeared to go limp; in fact, Skelly’s arm had been defending against Moffett, and the entire reason Skelly’s arm slackened was that Mills literally ripped it off of Moffett’s body.
This is not a case where we can blame an untrained or inexperienced referee. Mills may not be a great referee, but he’s well-tenured and a lifelong martial artist and former MMA competitor. Referees and the commissions that govern them are never going to want to admit fault and look like they screwed up, so it ends up being a situation where everyone covers for one another. I can’t think of a way to erase that personal and professional human deficiency entirely, but I do think there is a way to potentially alleviate it. Since the rule was introduced into the Unified Rules in 2009 following the Kevin Burns-Anthony Johnson debacle, video replay can only be used to review fight-ending sequences; and if they are overturned, a fight is automatically deemed a no-contest. Now, there’s difference between replay used in a case like this, where Skelly was demonstrably fine, and something like Gegard Mousasi’s win over Chris Weidman, where a doctor likely wouldn’t have cleared the latter to continue. The best step forward -- and one that would take the pressure off of officials fearing the appearance of incompetence -- is to adjust the use of instant replay, whereby a fight can be restarted when a “losing” fighter is judged to be medically able to continue. Will it solve all the problems in the world? No, but it might help us get some more proper fight outcomes and make referees less terrified of accountability.
The Factory X-Factor
Factory X in Englewood, Colorado, is hardly a new team on the scene, as owner and head trainer Marc Montoya has been pumping out local talent for years. However, for most of its existence, most people imagined the gym as just that: local. By and large, it was simply just the place where Brian Rogers and the Camozzi brothers trained. All of a sudden, that is rapidly changing, with Factory X and Montoya’s prowess as a trainer stepping into the spotlight.
At UFC Fight Night 139, the team went 3-0 in its backyard, with wins from Mark De La Rosa, Devonte Smith and Maycee Barber, all of whom scored impressive victories, especially in the case of the latter two. What’s most intriguing is that all three of those fighters are recent transplants to the gym. They are not alone.
Brian Foster made the switch to Factory X while competing in the World Series of Fighting back in 2015 and got his career back on track with a series of impressive wins; Chris Camozzi went on a three-fight winning streak back in the UFC; and Matt Brown unretired and made the switch to Factory X and procured even more exposure for the gym by destroying Diego Sanchez 12 months ago. Since then, there has been a steady influx of talent. UFC vets Zak Cummings and James Krause made the jump from their St. Louis base. Factory X also added Steven Siler, who will fight for $1 million in the Professional Fighters League featherweight final later this year, and Anthony Smith, who won six of his last seven in the UFC and emerged as a Top-10 light heavyweight, most recently choking out Volkan Oezdemir three weeks ago in the UFC Fight Night 138 headliner. This is all in addition to the three aforementioned fighters who showed out in Denver. Montoya gained even more exposure for the gym when Stipe Miocic selected him as one of his trainers for “The Ultimate Fighter 27.”
Colorado has been a hub for MMA for a while. When MusclePharm fell off the map as a company, closed its swank gym and forced many of the fighters it had brought in under the Elevation Fight Team banner to relocate to other local gyms, it was a ripe opportunity to snatch up talent in the state. However, that is not what’s happening here: The vast majority of the fighters relocating to Factory X have no real prior connection to the state. Initially, I was suspicious and wondered if most of these fighters had the same management funneling them to the gym, but after some research, that’s not the case at all; these fighters are represented by a diverse set of management teams. As best as I can tell, word of mouth and friendly relations with other gyms simply put Montoya on the map as a great trainer. Now, as his higher-profile charges show obvious improvements under his tutelage, more and more fighters are making the jump to the Rocky Mountain state to see if they can do the same, and UFC Fight Night 139 was some premium advertising.
Speaking of that X-Factor, Maycee Barber Has It
In her official UFC debut, the 20-year-old Barber obliterated Hannah Cifers, who served as a late replacement for Maia Kahaunaele-Stevenson. Cifers is not only a better and more dangerous fighter than Stevenson but has a legitimate kickboxing background and uncommon power in her right hand. Barber positively shredded her, shoving Cifers into the fence and hacking her face apart with elbows before getting her on the mat in the second round and pulverizing her into a puddle of plasma. It was not unlike how Barber punched her ticket to the UFC, destroying Jamie Colleen on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series in July.
Now would not be a bad time to grab a ticket aboard the hype train. Barber is the real deal -- an outstanding athlete barely out of her teens who has been training her striking and grappling since her childhood and has a natural inclination for fighting. She has outstanding striking technique and power, along with a strong ground game that features vicious ground-and-pound and submissions. Her demolition of Cifers was a representation of her athleticism and bloodthirsty style. Given her age and recent relocation to Factory X, there’s no telling how good she might be a year from now.
Barber used her post-fight fight speech to call out Mackenzie Dern. That may be a little premature and likely not a fight the UFC would want to pursue at this point. Fortunately for Barber and the promotion itself, the women’s 115-pound division is both deeply talented and distinctly stratified, meaning the UFC should be under no pressure to push her too far, too fast. Moving Barber along against Top-15 or Top-20 talent in her subsequent outings should be able to provide intriguing and entertaining bouts that can flesh out whether or not she really is “The Future.”