Cain Velasquez was his usual dominant self at UFC 166. | Photo: D. Mandel/Sherdog.com
Event of the Year
By Brian Knapp
The results page for UFC 166 tells a story all its own, as eight of 13 bouts ended with a finish, five of them inside one round.
Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez carried the marquee, as the Ultimate Fighting Championship touched down at the Toyota Center in Houston on Oct. 19. The American Kickboxing Academy ace wrote the final chapter in his trilogy with Junior dos Santos, as he battered and assaulted his rival across four rounds before the Brazilian finally wilted in the fifth.
Velasquez’s latest bludgeoning put an exclamation point on UFC 166, Sherdog.com’s “Event of the Year” for 2013. However, the depth, quality and drama present before the headliner made the show truly memorable.
Hardcore fans and pundits alike zeroed in on a featured lightweight battle between former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez and “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner Diego Sanchez, and it did not disappoint. In fact, it exceeded all expectations.
The unforgettable 15-minute war was marked by wild scrambles and even wilder exchanges. Melendez was superior in most of them, opening a horrific horizontal gash on Sanchez’s left eyebrow with a standing elbow in the first round. The referee had the cageside physicians examine the cut twice before the fight was done.
Round three was an extraordinary study in the human spirit, as Sanchez, clearly behind on the scorecards, made his move. “The Dream,” who had been dropped to a knee by a right hand in the first round, floored Melendez with a right uppercut. The dazed Cesar Gracie protégé collapsed to the mat, and Sanchez pounced on his back in search of the rear-naked choke. Melendez wiggled free, perhaps aided by the considerable amount of blood that had been spilled, and the two lightweight gladiators resumed their frenetic dance on the feet. They closed with a throw-caution-to-the-wind exchange, forcing a spellbound crowd to stand and applaud what it had witnessed.
“That’s what Mexicans do,” Melendez said. “We hold our ground, and we fight. I’d rather go down on my shield than run in circles. Diego is a warrior. I respect him so much. I slept on his couch before and trained with him. It was an honor to fight him, and if I can get through a guy as tough as him, I think I get through anybody in the division. I think I’m the uncrowned champ, and I’m coming for that belt.”
Battered and bloodied, Sanchez, like the rest of the MMA world, wanted 10 minutes more.
“I want five rounds,” he said. “I want a rematch.”
Beyond Velasquez-dos Santos and Melendez-Sanchez, UFC 166 also served as a launching pad for prospects Kyoji Horiguchi, Andre Fili and Jessica Eye, all of whom made significant impressions in their UFC debuts.
Eye was a pleasant surprise, as stinging combinations and a consistent jab drove the undersized Bellator MMA veteran to a split decision over former Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman in a preliminary women’s bantamweight encounter. All three cageside judges scored it 29-28, two of them siding with Eye.
Eye established her jab early and unleashed multi-punch volleys with regularity, even mixing in a sharp standing elbow in the clinch. Round two was difficult to call, as Kaufman found her rhythm in the standup with overhand rights and sneaky leg kicks. The Canadian did her best work in the third round, where she staggered Eye more than once with vicious right hands. However, the Strong Style Fight Team export lured Kaufman into the clinch, cleared the cobwebs and settled for the split verdict.
Meanwhile, American Top Team brute Hector Lombard planted his flag in the welterweight division, as he knocked out onetime Strikeforce titleholder Nate Marquardt in the first round; Daniel Cormier cruised to a unanimous decision over Roy Nelson, setting the stage for his move to 205 pounds; Adlan Amagov and Tony Ferguson came through with sterling finishes; “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 14 winner John Dodson bounced back from a failed title bid at 125 pounds to wipe out the highly regarded Darrell Montague; former EliteXC champion K.J. Noons outdueled George Sotiropoulos for his first win inside the Octagon; and resurgent Brazilian heavyweight Gabriel Gonzaga climbed back into the top 10 with his 93-second dismissal of Shawn Jordan.
Perhaps the only stain on an otherwise sublime event was the controversial split decision awarded to Tim Boetsch in his three-round scrap with C.B. Dollaway. However, not even that hiccup could curb the enthusiasm surrounding the UFC’s return to Space City.
2. UFC 165
Elevated by Sherdog’s “Fight of the Year” between light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and Swedish thoroughbred Alexander Gustafsson, UFC 165 can stand on its own merits.
Jones retained his 205-pound title with a unanimous decision Sept. 21 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, but Gustafsson largely succeeded where all other challengers had failed. He became the first man to take down Jones in the first round. More importantly, he stuffed 10 of the champion’s 11 takedown attempts.
Trapped on the feet, Jones absorbed more punishment than he had in any of his 19 previous professional bouts. He sprang to life in round four, however, where he badly stunned Gustafsson with one of his trademark spinning elbows.
In the fifth, with both men clearly exhausted, Jones scored with his only takedown and unleashed a series of head kicks that likely secured the victory. The win pushed him past Tito Ortiz in the record book and gave him the all-time record for consecutive title defenses at 205 pounds with six.
Jones was not the only champion to prevail in the Great White North. Renan Barao kept a firm grasp on the interim bantamweight crown with a sensational stoppage, as he put away the notoriously durable Eddie Wineland with a spinning back kick to the face and follow-up punches in the second round.
UFC 165 also featured a pair of technical submissions, as Brendan Schaub turned out “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 10 castmate Matt Mitrione’s lights with a first-round brabo choke and Mitch Gagnon choked Dustin Kimura unconscious with a first-round guillotine.
3. UFC on Fox 7
It had it all, from a hotly contested five-round title fight and a first-of-its-kind finish to an Olympian’s debut, a slew of brutal knockouts and a marriage proposal.
Then-lightweight champion Benson Henderson and Gilbert Melendez were front and center for UFC on Fox 7 on April 20 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. Low kicks, standing elbows and the ability to hold his own in wild standup exchanges carried Henderson to a split decision over Melendez, as he retained his 155-pound title in a thrilling headliner.
All three cageside judges scored it 48-47: Derek Cleary and Michael Bell for Henderson, Wade Vierra for Melendez. Afterward, the victorious Henderson dropped to a knee, ring in hand, and proposed to his girlfriend. She said yes.
According to FightMetric figures, Henderson out-landed the challenger in terms of significant strikes in all five rounds and held the edge in total strikes in every round but the second. The 29-year-old MMA Lab representative did the majority of his damage with step-in standing elbows and kicks to the upper and lower sections of Melendez’s legs.
Another former Strikeforce champion had much better luck. Josh Thomson became the first man to ever finish Nate Diaz with strikes, as he stopped “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 5 winner with an exquisite head kick and follow-up punches in a pivotal lightweight clash. Thomson brought it to a close 3:44 into round two, as he returned to the Octagon for the first time since August 2004.
Diaz spent a majority of the bout pursuing his nimble foe. Thomson leaned on leg kicks, picked his spots with punches and secured a well-timed takedown in the first round. The damage exacted from the kicks was visible on Diaz’s left knee, which became grotesquely swollen. Thomson also connected on a head kick, and though only his foot landed, it served as a precursor for what was in store for Diaz.
Thomson added standing elbows from the clinch in the second round, opening multiple cuts on Diaz’s face. With roughly 90 seconds to go in the frame, he fired another head kick, and this time, shin met skull. Diaz staggered and back pedaled, with Thomson closing in. A series of unanswered punches forced referee Mike Beltran to step in.
UFC on Fox 7 also served as a staging point for Daniel Cormier’s entry into the UFC, as he captured a unanimous decision from former heavyweight champion Frank Mir. Elsewhere, Matt Brown, Chad Mendes, Joseph Benavidez and Yoel Romero Palacio put some of their best work in the UFC archives with highlight-reel KOs.
4. UFC Fight Night 26
As the Ultimate Fighting Championship helped launch Fox Sports 1, Chael Sonnen reminded the mixed martial arts world that there is plenty of substance behind his over-the-top shtick.
Sonnen submitted former light heavyweight titleholder Mauricio Rua with a first-round guillotine choke in the UFC Fight Night 26 headliner on Aug. 17 at the TD Garden in Boston.
Rua reluctantly tapped out 4:47 into round one.
The two men traded takedowns in the first round, though Sonnen eventually wound up in top position and settled in half guard. From there, he softened Rua with ground-and-pound and generally made life miserable for the 2005 Pride Fighting Championships middleweight grand prix winner. As the frustrated Rua attempted to rise to his feet, Sonnen snatched the guillotine, dropped into guard and coaxed the tapout.
Travis Browne’s exploits were every bit as noteworthy.
The Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts export recorded the most significant victory of his career, as he knocked out onetime Strikeforce and Dream champion Alistair Overeem with a front kick and follow-up hammerfists in the co-main event. Browne drew the curtain on the decorated Dutchman 4:08 into round one.
Overeem cracked the Hawaiian with wicked knees to the body, one of which drove Browne to the canvas. The “Demolition Man” swarmed with punches and appeared close to forcing a stoppage, but referee Mario Yamasaki allowed the bout to move forward. Browne rose to his feet and started chipping away at his monstrous adversary. A swift front kick to the chin put Overeem on the ground, and two thudding hammerfists made sure he would not get up.
UFC Fight Night 26 was also the site of Urijah Faber’s comeback victory over Iuri Alcantara, Matt Brown’s 29-second demolition of Mike Pyle, Michael McDonald’s textbook triangle submission of Brad Pickett and a pair of sub 60-second finishes, as Steven Siler knocked out Mike Thomas Brown and James Vick submitted Ramsey Nijem.
5. Invicta Fighting Championships 5
The MMA world was supplied with a contender for “Fight of the Year,” “Beatdown of the Year” and “Submission of the Year” but the unlikeliest of events: Invicta Fighting Championships 5.
The promotional debut of Cristiane Justino drew the lion’s share of attention on July 13 at the Ameristar Casino Hotel in Kansas City, Mo., but Michelle Watterson’s riveting atomweight title capture stole the show. A +400 underdog according to some oddsmakers, “The Karate Hottie” unleashed a wide array of MMA skills.
The Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts export, though known primarily for her standup prowess, threatened Jessica Penne with armbars and triangle chokes from the bottom.
Their wildly competitive grappling battle found another gear in the third round. There, Penne grounded, pounded and punished Waterson, ultimately settling on a tight armbar. Waterson refused to yield and instead bit down, allowed her elbow to pop and escaped to fight another round. Penne tried to carry her momentum into round four, but her takedown attempt was unsuccessful. Watterson moved to her back, transitioned to an over-the-top armbar and took the title in dramatic fashion 2:31 into the fourth round. Penne had never before been finished.
Meanwhile, Justino did as she was expected, as she wrecked Fiona Muxlow in less than four minutes.
An unfortunate replacement for the injured Ediane Gomes, Muxlow was outgunned from the start. Once “Cyborg” dropped her with a right cross, the rout was on. Hooks and uppercuts savaged Muxlow, who wound up on her back absorbing hellacious amounts of punishment. The 35-year-old Australian tried to move out of danger and attempted to defend herself, but Justino would not be denied. After Muxlow returned to her feet, a final volley of knees from the clinch and hooks along the cage forced referee John McCarthy to intervene 3:46 into round one.
The signature highlight at Invicta FC 5 belonged to Rose Namajunas, who paid homage to Rumina Sato at the expense of Kathina Catron. The girlfriend of heavyweight slugger Pat Barry, Namajunas rocked Catron with immediate punches, clinched and landed a picture-perfect flying armbar. The tapout came just 12 seconds into the match and earned the 21-year-old a standing ovation from those in attendance.