Rashad Evans backed up his talk at UFC 133. | (AP Photo/The News-Journal, Suchat Pederson)
Rashad Evans is back. And with an impressive technical knockout of Tito Ortiz in the main event of UFC 133 Saturday night, “Suga” solidified his standing as the next logical challenger for the light heavyweight championship.
Using a smart game plan, Evans weathered a strong start by the ex-champ before planting Ortiz on the ground and battering him with strikes, including a crushing knee to the body that set up the finish.
In the semi-main event, Vitor Belfort registered a retro performance with a first-round blowout of Yoshihiro Akiyama. Coming off his highlight-reel loss to middleweight ace Anderson Silva, the win was exactly what Belfort needed to jump-start his campaign for another title shot.
Here’s a closer look at the participants and results with the UFC 133 Stock Report.
Rashad Evans: The former 205-pound king has had a rough year; first losing his title shot to then-beltholder Mauricio Rua, only to see former teammate Jon Jones step in and take the shot. Jones maintained a hand injury prevented him from defending against Evans while the two feuded in interviews and Twitter. Now that Jones is set to defend against Quinton Jackson Sept. 24, Evans had little to gain and everything to lose in taking on Ortiz, a late sub for the injured Phil Davis.
But being a fighter is about taking care of business and the task at hand, and Evans did just that. Rashad is never going to be an overpowering wrestler: he’s a tad undersized for the weight class, and there are better strikers.
But he puts the elements of MMA together exceptionally well, and exploits the advantages available with relentless consistency. That’s precisely why he was able to outstrike and outwrestle Jackson, and he took the same approach in his rematch with Ortiz by working from top position and steadily wearing Ortiz down. The finishing knee to the body while Ortiz was grounded with his back to the cage was a perfect move, crumpling Tito en route to a finishing stream of right hands that were pretty much academic.
Whatever happens with Jones-Jackson, Evans has definitely “got next.”
Vitor Belfort: If there’s a defining theme of Belfort’s career, it’s that he can win like few others against top competition, while enduring heartbreaking defeats when he’s not blowing people out. Belfort’s steamrolling of Akiyama was facsimile of his blitz over Rich Franklin -- Belfort finishes as well as anyone in the sport once he’s got his man in trouble. Whether a title shot is in the immediate picture is a tough sell, but matched properly, with Belfort’s physical gifts, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of the title picture for long. Especially if he’s the better striker and wrestler in a given matchup. If you can’t take him down, and you aren’t a phenomenal striker, he’s probably going to beat you.
Brian Ebersole: One of the UFC’s most viable feel-good stories going, Ebersole’s 63rd recorded fight was just his second in the organization, but he’s now 2-0 in the Octagon. With a nice recovery after a rough start, Ebersole used his top control and solid ground-and-pound to batter Dennis Hallman en route to a first-round stoppage. Ebersole’s “hairrow” on his chest makes for some good pre-fight comedy, but he’s a tough customer, especially if he’s got you on your back.
Rory MacDonald: When I interviewed MacDonald coming into tonight’s fight, I asked him if he’d ever fight teammate Georges St. Pierre, with whom he trains on a daily basis. Such questions are important for posterity, especially if delicious conundrums present themselves; MacDonald said absolutely not, as did Firas Zahabi, who trains both welters.
But MacDonald’s dynamic showing against Pyle tonight made that an increasingly relevant question, particularly given he’s just 22 and improving with each showing. Given GSP’s vice-like grip on the title -- and MacDonald’s progress -- it’s an increasingly relevant question.
On paper, Pyle presented a tough skill set, but MacDonald coolly dissected his prey en route to a vicious ground-and-pound stoppage. With former conqueror Carlos Condit slated to take on B.J. Penn in a title elimination bout, and Jake Ellenberger squaring off against Jake Shields, it’ll be interesting to see who MacDonald gets next.
Chad Mendes: The featherweight plugger moved to 11-0 with a workmanlike decision over Rani Yahya. Using enough standup to establish better strikes, and then switching to takedowns and stifling control, Mendes neutralized Yahya over the course of 15 minutes. With the Jose Aldo-Kenny Florian title tilt match for Oct. 8, this was a good keep-busy/developmental fight for Mendes. If he’s to challenge for the title, he’ll need more experience; especially against a striking dynamo like Aldo, whose takedown defense and explosiveness punish mistakes as few fighters can.
Alexander Gustafsson: After dispatching a sluggish Matt Hamill in the second round, Gustafsson’s progress is obvious. He used all 6-foot-five of his frame to create range and angles, ultimately cracking Hamill with a nice uppercut. He’s something of a light-heavyweight version of Stefan Struve; with height, submissions and range working in his favor.
Tito Ortiz: Fighting on less than three weeks’ notice, Ortiz had nothing to lose against Evans following the Huntington Beach Bad Boy’s career-resurrecting submission of Ryan Bader July 2. Tito fought like it, too, going right after Rashad before ultimately being outmatched standing and pounded via punches on the ground. The ex-champ took the fight on short notice and still has a huge fan base, and his performance was nothing to hang his head about. We’ll know a lot about how much the UFC wants to keep Ortiz around depending on whom they match him with next.
Constantinos Phillippou and Jorge Rivera: Split decisions where all three cards read 29-28 are part of the game, and usually indicate a decent fight. This one was certainly that, but it left little to suggest that Philippou is ready to move up in competition, while simultaneously keeping Rivera with a fingertip-width grip on the UFC gangplank. The decision could have gone either way in a fight that was exciting, but hardly had future opponents of either guy losing sleep.
Rani Yahya: Yahya did exactly what he was expected to do. He had little standup and spent much of the fight trying to set up submissions that he came nowhere close to implementing, much less finishing. However, given his scrappiness and potent jiu-jitsu, he remains a compelling test for up and coming talent, particularly with the ability to compete across two weight classes.
Yoshihiro Akiyama: The crushing loss to Belfort definitely gives Akiyama’s stock a hit, especially given the opportunities a win would have provided. “Sexiyama” can take heart, though. In getting blitzed in one round by “The Phenom,” he joins storied company in Wanderlei Silva, Matt Lindland and Rich Franklin. It happens. The “Old Vitor” shows up from time to time. Akiyama will have to put it behind him and rebuild.
Dennis Hallman: With a long-running career that’s seen a resurgence in recent bouts, Hallman started strong against Ebersole, threatening early by taking the back only to get reversed and ground-and-pounded into a KO loss. It’s a definite setback for Hallman, who may be in a must-win situation in his next UFC bout.
Mike Pyle: Most people were probably picking MacDonald to win this one, but few could have predicted a first-round win for the Canadian. That’s because Pyle is a veteran who figured to ask tough questions; MacDonald’s stoppage obliterated that premise before Pyle could get untracked.
Matt Hamill: Taking the bout as a fill-in for Vladimir Matyushenko, Hamill looked out of sorts and lost against Gustafsson. He was unable to set up a single decent takedown attempt, and instead was relegated to trading strikes and hoping to land a game-changing shot on the feet. That shot happened -- with Gustafsson landing it -- and Hamill absorbing a brutal loss in the process. “The Hammer” didn’t look as physically toned as he usually does either, indicating the short prep-time for the bout left him at less than his best.
Jason Probst can be reached at Jason@jasonprobst.com or twitter.com/jasonprobst.