The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s debut in Russia is now in the books, so it’s time for us to figure out what lessons there are to be learned. If nothing else, our education process will be less demoralizing than the one Mark Hunt went through on Saturday in Moscow.
For the first few minutes of his UFC Fight Night 136 headliner against Alexey Oleynik, Hunt looked every bit the righteous favorite. The 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix winner had the Russian limping almost immediately with his low kicks and looked to be on his way to a quick and tidy performance. In the blink of an eye, “The Super Samoan” was on the wrong end of that imminent stoppage, with Oleynik latched to his back and strangling him for the tap. While Hunt has never shied away from tough competition since he transitioned to MMA 14 years ago, it’s more bitter than sweet to reflect on such a fan favorite being the best .500 fighter in the sport.
At 44 years old, Hunt’s time in the cage is just about up, but UFC Fight Night 136 also served to point out that your true age and your “fight age” are reckoned differently. On top of that, we were reminded that bad luck can come in many forms in the cage, whether courtesy of a referee or via the judges. Sometimes, you just have to handle business by yourself, and even in an era that has deemphasized the importance of cutting weight as a means to success, occasionally, dropping a weight class can still pay dividends. Here are five lessons learned from the UFC Fight Night 136:
More Than One Way to Skin a Cat (Or Choke a Man)
Let’s be real here: Oleynik is never going to be UFC champion. He’s a 41-year-old fringe contender who, maybe if the stars lined up and a handful of other heavyweights got injured simultaneously, could backdoor his way into a title shot and even that is particularly optimistic. No, Oleynik will go down in the annals of this sport for the fact that on no less than a dozen occasions, he pulled off an incredibly rare, low-percentage choke that really shouldn’t be feasible in a no-gi combat setting. For better or worse, he will always be “the Ezekiel choke guy.” However, even if that’s a well-earned distinction, Oleynik’s first-round submission of Hunt was a reminder that while he might be the Ezekiel choke guy, he’s not just the Ezekiel choke guy.
In 57 career wins, Oleynik has submitted 45 opponents; obviously, they’re not all Ezekiel chokes. He might not have the submission slickness of a prime Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or Frank Mir, but his “Boa Constrictor” nickname is as apt as any sobriquet in this sport. Whatever biophysical gift Oleynik has, it allows him to simply destroy the necks of his opposition. Keep in mind, he got a UFC deal based on neck cranking Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic to hell and back. In his UFC tenure, he did the same thing to Anthony Hamilton, and he also nearly turned Travis Browne’s head on backwards with a broken rear-naked choke that he turned into a face crank.
Is Oleynik limited? Sure. We saw as much even in victory, as Hunt already had him hobbling around on one leg with just a couple of low kicks. He’s lumbering and hardly graceful, but heavyweight MMA isn’t about elegance and grace. Oleynik even joked during fight week that Hunt’s neck was too “big and fat” for him to pull off his vaunted Ezekiel choke. However, what lets him crack wise like that is realizing that he’s got a truly legendary, crushing squeeze that makes him a bona fide submission threat in just about every position. Oleynik has become so known for one single move that it obscures the fact his submission repertoire is much deeper than that, similar to how for years opponents were so scared of Masakazu Imanari’s vaunted leg lock attacks that he was able to bait and switch on them to get the tap with different techniques. Plain and simple, if you give this man something to squeeze or crank, he’ll be more than happy to indulge you, Ezekiel choke or not.
How Old is 34? Well, That Depends
Unless you were comparing their struggling hairlines, would you have ever guessed in a million years that Alexey Kunchenko and Thiago Alves were the same age. Despite both men being 34 years old, UFC Fight Night 136 served to shine a light on the difference between your real age and your “fighting age.”
Kunchenko, M-1 Global’s welterweight champion, had his first pro MMA bout in 2013. By that point, Alves had already been fighting for 12 years and fought Georges St. Pierre for a UFC title on one of the biggest MMA cards in history. Remember, he was arguably the 2008 “Fighter of the Year” with his dominations of Karo Parisyan, Matt Hughes and Josh Koscheck. That’s a decade ago now, and it showed in Moscow. Alves is not a shot fighter by any means, and in the second round, his famous leg kicks were doing damage and tripping up the fresher 34-year-old. At the same time, it’s painful in a way to watch Alves, who in his prime was a portrait of explosion and dynamism, visibly laboring to throw the techniques he once he did with such devastating ease.
Headed into the final round, the fight was up for grabs, but even though Alves kept chopping at Kunchenko’s legs, the Russian was simply faster and sharper, boxing up his counterpart and then cashing in on a late takedown that the “Pitbull” of years past would’ve easily thwarted. Alves has gone through a litany of surgeries over his career, along with pectoral tears, biceps tears, knee tears. He was nearly retired in 2010 after a CT scan revealed an irregularity that forced him to have an artery in his brain surgically separated from a vein. The way we measure time is always relative, but the fight game intensifies that dynamic a million times over.
Hello? Herb? Are You There, Herb?
C.B. Dollaway was in for a rough ride at UFC Fight Night 136 before it ever started. No one likes the unpredictability of an opponent switch, but in the run-up to the Octagon touching down in Russia, things just kept getting worse and worse for “The Doberman.” Originally, Dollaway was set to face Omari Akhmedov, whose bullish wrestling style wouldn’t have been overly threatening for the 35-year-old. Akhmedov wound up injured, so Dollaway was lined up to face M-1 Global middleweight champ Artem Frolov, who presented a more dangerous game due to his slick submissions. Just over a week out from the fight, Frolov pulled out and Dollaway ended up facing Khalid Murtazaliev, a body-head banging striker based right in Moscow. Little did Dollaway know that he would have two opponents in the cage, one of whom was in there to protect him.
Dollaway has had a long, miserable history at struggling to deal with body shots, and the minute Murtazaliev landed a thudding liver kick in the first round and Dollaway desperately grabbed onto an aimless guillotine choke, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before things went south for the former Arizona State Sun Devil. In the second round, Dollaway went for another hopeless series of chokes from the front headlock and wound up mounted. Remember what I just said about time being relative? What ensued felt like an eon. Dollaway was visibly gassed and had nothing more to offer. Murtazaliev began savaging Dollaway. The beating went on for two full minutes, the final 30 seconds of which I can’t even come to grips with.
We can debate all day whether or not you think Herb Dean is the best referee in MMA, but regardless of my personal preference, I think it’s safe to say Dean is easily one of the very best. There’s a reason promotion’s fly this man all over Hell’s creation to referee their fights. He’s smart and he’s a stickler; there are few referees you would rather have in the cage if something strange, shady or wonky goes down. That’s why I simply can’t figure out what I watched at UFC Fight Night 136. Dollaway was fetal and dead to the world; not only was he not “intelligently defending” himself, but he literally wasn’t moving. Murtazaliev just kept punching and punching and punching. Commentators John Gooden, Dan Hardy and Paul Felder began yelling from the booth in disbelief. Most incredibly, it wasn’t even Dean who stopped the fight so much as the clock itself, as he allowed Dollaway to get pummeled until the end of the second-round horn and only stopped the fight when the completely incapacitated fighter couldn’t stand. We all have bad days at the office, but for one of the most judicious and intelligent referees in the game to completely fall asleep at the wheel like this was beyond shocking. Jet lag is no joke, but my God.
Pour One Out for ‘Rajin’ Kajan’
I don’t need to tell you that UFC matchmaking can be a vindictive game at times. From the moment Kajan Johnson stood up at the 2017 UFC fighters retreat and grilled a Rebook executive about whether or not fighters would actually see proceeds from the promotion’s apparel deal, he was a marked man promotionally. On top of that, he was coming off of a host of injuries that kept him out the Octagon for two years. I have no doubt in my mind that the company was trying to get the Canadian veteran off its books as fast as possible, but Johnson upset both Adriano Martins and Stevie Ray in his subsequent return to action. Clearly, Sean Shelby needed to dial it up a notch.
First, Johnson was saddled with a matchup against once-beaten Islam Makhachev, who may turn into a UFC title challenger in the next 18 months. After dealing with one rugged Russian, what was next for the interim vice president of fighter union effort Project Spearhead? Oh, another rugged Russian in Rustam Khabilov, on Russian soil no less. Talk about a hostile workplace.
Sadly, Johnson turned in one of the best performances of his 16-year career. His boxing was on point, as he repeatedly dinged Khabilov with crisp one-two combinations. His jab was the straw that stirred the drink in the fight. By no means am I saying this was some kind of robbery; Johnson clearly won the first round, Khabilov the second and frankly, the final frame likely came down to Khabilov’s late takedown and bullying Johnson against the fence. Nonetheless, I scored the third round for Johnson, who up until the waning moments of the fight was clearly the cage general against a desperate, hunting Khabilov. It’s not a close decision that anyone is going to remember years from now, not even days from now. However, I can’t help but think a long-time veteran -- and, to some extent, a pioneer for MMA here in Canada -- who has always spoke his mind and stood up for his fellow athletes deserved better, especially knowing the malicious machinations behind his matchmaking.
Get in Where You Fit in, Emphasis on the Fit
Once upon a time, between 2004 and 2006 or thereabouts, the entire world of MMA developed a pathological obsession with cutting weight. Cutting weight is still a part of this sport, for better or for worse, but I’m not talking about that kind of weight cutting. I’m talking about Joe Rogan screaming about how it’s a good idea for Joe Riggs to cut to 170 pounds and blow weight for a UFC title fight or lauding Travis Wiuff from transforming from a 260-pound monster heavyweight to a wizened, sickly looking 205er under the pretense it would offer him some competitive advantage.
Fortunately, the very real toll of cutting weight, combined with the success of fighters like Daniel Cormier and Robert Whittaker, who won UFC gold after bumping up a weight class, has helped disabuse folks of the notion that simply dropping a weight class is a panacea. Nonetheless, there are some fighters who, whether it’s because of their physicality or maybe the competition in a weight class below them, are well-served to shed an extra couple pounds. After his blowout of previously unbeaten Adam Yandiev, Jordan Johnson certainly looks like one of those cases.
I’m not going to be overly effusive in my praise here. Despite coming into the fight with a 9-0 record, Yandiev had fought miserable opposition and ended up tapping out to essentially head control. Nonetheless, Johnson looked leaner and meaner in his middleweight debut, noticeably faster and nimbler on the feet, and he seemed to be able to leverage his tough-wrestling style more ably than he was at light heavyweight. The former Iowa Hawkeye wrestler continues to show improvement each fight since linking arms with trainer John Crouch at the MMA Lab, but in this instance, his technical improvements were bolstered by physical improvements and have me deeply curious about how he’ll look when he gets a much-needed step up in opposition.