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After UFC 235 on Saturday in Las Vegas, Jon Jones remains the king of the sport, Kamaru Usman now rules the 170-pound division and Ben Askren owns a 1-0 record in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, though not without controversy. It gave us an awful lot to chew on, so what can we learn from digesting such a spicy dish?
In his first light heavyweight title defense of his latest reign, Jones was between a -700 and -900 favorite by fight time and performed largely as expected against surprise challenger Anthony Smith, who took a savage beating while displaying his toughness over 25 minutes. Jones beat him every which way in a lopsided decision. Packed into this blowout, however, was a tricky moment that could’ve altered MMA history, as “Jonny Bones” became a little too overzealous and committed a foul that easily could’ve lost him his title but, more than anything, highlighted the contemporary foolishness of the Unified Rules, which has become an infuriating misnomer.
With that said, it wasn’t the slipperiest and most unnerving bit of officiating or regulation. In his long-awaited UFC debut, the unbeaten Askren nearly died after getting slammed on his head and pounded by Robbie Lawler, yet wound up choking out the former 170-pound champion; or did he? To say that referee Herb Dean’s stoppage of the fight set folks’ feelings ablaze would be putting it lightly. Nonetheless, regardless of outcome, Askren is not the welterweight ruler, at least not yet. No, that honor belongs to Usman, who blew out Tyron Woodley over 25 minutes to take the UFC crown. What does his performance mean for his No. 1 contender and self-proclaimed “people’s champion” Colby Covington?
Speaking of UFC champs past and present, a bad recent run for former bantamweight titlist Cody Garbrandt just got worse. After starting his career 11-0 and then losing the title via two knockout losses to former stablemate T.J. Dillashaw, “No Love” engaged in an insane brawl and “Round of the Year” contender against Pedro Munhoz that got him knocked out for the third straight time, raising some questions about his longevity. On the other side of things, hot featherweight Zabit Magomedsharipov has been tabbed as a future champ, but while he got his hand raised, his competitive decision over veteran Jeremy Stephens provides something to dissect in divining his immediate future. With further ado, let’s learn a thing or five from UFC 235:
Jones is Great, Smith is Noble and the ‘Unified Rules’ are Trash
Make no mistake, history books and MMA fans’ collective memory will always recall Jones’ title defense against Smith as a complete hammerjob, but we were just a hair away from one of the biggest potential disasters and meltdowns in history -- something that could’ve royally screwed up the 205-pound division for at least the rest of the year, if not indefinitely. In the midst of Jones’ full-body destruction of Smith reaching truly brutal levels in the fourth round, “Jonny Bones” harkened back to that fateful time in 2009, when he had Matt Hamill all but dead, then drilled him with a series of 12-to-six elbows and got himself disqualified. This time, Jones smashed Smith a knee when he had a hand on the mat.
There’s a reason why UFC production is so keen to point out to viewers what version of the Unified Rules is being used in whatever jurisdiction the promotion finds itself. As we know, the Association of Boxing Commissions in late 2016 approved a series of changes that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2017, after which point individual commissions could choose whether or not to adopt the changes. Most have, some have not and some, like Nevada, have opted to use their own hybrid version of “old” and new” Unified Rules. Nevada’s mutant mish-mash of the rules at UFC 235 brought to the forefront the ridiculousness of this situation.
Under the “new” version, in order for a fighter to be grounded, he or she must have both feet and hands or palms down and/or any other body part touching the mat; this was intended to combat fighters gaming the system by placing one paw on the canvas to avoid getting hit with knees and kicks. However, because Nevada did not adopt this provision when it revised its rules in October, Jones’ knee on Smith was illegal, whether inadvertent or not. However, it gets even stickier, as Dean then opted to call for an instant replay to assess the foul, which set off alarm bells for many onlookers.
Under the “new” Unified Rules, the referee can only call for an instant replay on a fight-ending sequence, which we all saw in effect with Gegard Mousasi’s stoppage of Chris Weidman in 2018. Justifiably, many fans were confused when Dean used replay twice before restarting the fight; however, this is yet another provision that the NSAC did not adopt in its rule revisions, preferring to largely stick with the version of instant replay it initially passed back in 2009 after the outcry surrounding Kevin Burns getting a TKO win over Anthony Johnson due to a blatant eye poke. Nevada’s revisions to NAC 467.682 only mildly changed the use of instant replay, primarily specifying that only the in-cage referee can ask for a replay but maintained that “at the conclusion of a contest or exhibition stopped immediately due to an injury to an unarmed combatant pursuant to NAC 467.718.” Essentially, Dean was well within his rights to call for replay.
There’s more -- the part that had the most potential for disaster -- as many were also surprised that Dean immediately deducted two points from Jones. NAC 467.698 outlines that if a referee deems a foul intentional, he or she should immediately take two points, and if the injured combatant cannot continue, it should result in a disqualification as a matter of rule. By Dean immediately taking a deuce from Jones, it implies that he believed the foul was intentional. That means if Smith, who had already taken an insane beating, simply said that he could not continue, he would’ve won the UFC light heavyweight championship. I know there’s a lot to chew on here, so here’s the Reader’s Digest version. Dean did nothing wrong, as his actions suggest he judged the foul to be intentional, and Smith lived up to his “Lionheart” nickname by immediately saying he wanted to fight on and not take a cheap, controversial win. More than anything, it showed this era of the “old,” “new,” and “oldish-newish” versions of the Unified Rules is confusing, ridiculous, potentially catastrophic and requires serious fixing.
Speaking of Herb Dean and Controversy …
No doubt, by Nevada’s messed up modern rules, Dean nailed the Jones-Smith call, but earlier at UFC 235, Askren-Lawler ended in a major brouhaha, where I think it’s more than appropriate to ask, “What were you thinking, Herb?”
By now, you’ve seen the clips. Lawler hit a Death Valley driver straight out of pro wrestling on Askren, dumped him onto his skull, destroyed him with ground-and-pound and nearly stopped him before getting caught in bulldog choke along the fence. Dean stepped in and halted the bout without a tap, only for Lawler to immediately protest. Before we deep dive on my disagreement with the call, the usual caveats when discussing stoppages like this are in play: Referees in any sport have it tough, but MMA produces especially difficult, split-second situations for officials that have greater impact on the overall outcome of fights. Also, the positioning of Askren and Lawler, plus the nature of the submission attempt, gave Dean a difficult vantage point. His position is not an enviable one in this case.
Those defending Dean’s decision point to the fact that he acted appropriately because Lawler’s right arm appeared to go momentarily limp. There’s a bevy of strategic reasons for a fighter to allow the slackening of his arm while defending a choke, and Lawler was still clearly basing his body; it’s not as though he flopped onto his face. The bulldog choke was actually on Lawler’s chin, but even if that was obscured from Dean’s vision, Lawler clearly gives the veteran official a thumbs up after he checks his arm.
Finally, you can tell Askren, a highly experienced grappler, is completely confused when Dean grabs him to break the choke. Dean almost has to yank apart his grip. If Lawler was out, it would be considered horrible sportsmanship, but Askren, for whatever you think of him, is far from a dirty or malicious fighter who would hold a choke on an opponent he knew was unconscious. Even if you want to cling to the idea of “His arm went limp,” why did Dean not stop the fight earlier when Askren hit the deck and remained unresponsive for two seconds as Lawler rifled him in the face? Considering how heinously Dean let C.B. Dollaway get beaten by Khalid Murtazaliev a few months ago, what message is being sent here? That a fighter potentially passing out incontrovertibly is infinitely more dangerous than a fighter taking dozens and dozens of unanswered blows while not defending himself? That’s absurd.
In a fairer world, Lawler would have a legitimate case for appealing this and getting it overturned to a no-contest, but that will never happen in Nevada for fear of a setting a slippery slope-type precedent; the NSAC will simply make the argument that Dean acted responsibly and in good faith. Even then, it would be nice for Dean himself to at least admit he screwed up by showing the same sort of fortitude and humility that contemporary Marc Goddard showed a few weeks ago when he apologized to Sam Alvey and admitted he made a mistake by stopping his bout with Jim Crute prematurely. I don’t demand perfection from referees -- these sorts of situations are inevitable in MMA -- but it’s nonetheless fair to criticize officials when they blatantly screw up, point out the uneven concept of fighters being in danger due to strikes versus submissions or just ask for individual accountability.
A Different Kind of Welterweight ‘Nightmare’
Not every major 170-pound clash at UFC 235 was marred by such controversy. In the co-headliner, Usman made good on his pre-fight tough about dominating Woodley. In fact, Usman dominated Woodley so thoroughly that he probably exceeded his own expectations. I must confess, it certainly shocked me.
Woodley looked listless and flat, but frankly, it was Usman who made him look that way. “The Nigerian Nightmare” immediately took advantage of Woodley’s low-output counterpunching and tendency to move straight backwards. Usman put him on the fence and never looked back. More importantly, Usman did not just outwrestle Woodley in a pure sense; he filled in all the little gaps. His performance was not just dominant and thorough but quietly brilliant and technical, as he exposed every weakness and shortcoming Woodley had been so good at camouflaging.
For instance, though Usman may have chided himself in his post-fight interview for not being “the greatest striker,” he was masterful at landing short elbows inside the clinch and on the break. He also managed to use tight uppercuts from the same position and essentially had Woodley out on his feet in the fourth round. In a distance kickboxing match, Woodley could have slowed the pace, feinted, thrown fastball rights and probably eventually knocked out the challenger, but Usman found a way to outstrike him by changing the distance and parameters of the encounter. Look at the numbers: Usman outlanded Woodley 141 to 34 in significant strikes, the sixth-largest differential in UFC title fight history. However, if we look at total strikes, that number jumps to 336 to 60, the largest differential in any title fight ever. It is ironic that all those little body shots Usman landed are technically “non-significant” by FightMetric count, but I think it’s clear the kind of impact they had on Woodley over the course of the fight.
More importantly than simply clinching the title from Woodley and ruling the roost at 170 pounds now, the athleticism, style of game and strategic cleverness that Usman showed lines him up as a major favorite against his most likely future challengers. No matter how much he may bluster and act a fool, Covington has to realize after watching Usman’s physicality and tactics that he’s likely in for a long night when he gets a real shot at the UFC title. Meanwhile, after the way he looked against Lawler, Askren might regret all his “Marty” comments sooner rather than later.
‘No Love’ has No Fear, and That’s a Problem
After starting his career 11-0 and getting the royal treatment from the UFC, which was obviously grooming him to be a star of the future, Garbrandt has now lost three in a row, all by knockout. While his stoppage losses to Dillashaw have been explained away in a variety of ways, the way in which he went down -- no, let himself go down -- against Munhoz laid the greater issue bare and poses some tough questions about the future of the 27-year-old former champion.
The thing that brought him such shocking success against Dominick Cruz is the same thing that has ruined him against Dillashaw and Munhoz. No doubt Garbrandt can box, and at his best, he can be an effective boxer who knows when to put everything into his power shots. Unfortunately, that’s almost never his primary instinct, and things simply get worse when he gets hit by anyone with power. When Cruz opened up with his trademark brand of high-volume, low-power punches, Garbrandt was willing to actually use technical boxing and head movement to land potent counter shots rather than swinging to kill him, and it resulted in the best performance of his career. However, when Dillashaw and Munhoz managed to actually hit him with some sting, Garbrandt abandoned the crucial element of keeping his cool, swung for the fences and ended up getting burned.
Garbrandt claimed that the accidental headbutt that rocked him against Munhoz had him on autopilot. If that’s the truth and Garbrandt was working purely off instinct, it goes to show that his instincts are indeed self-destructive. The finishing sequence of the Munhoz fight was thrilling, but while both men were swinging wild, look at the difference in head movement between the two, notably how Garbrandt’s head stays in the exact same place as Munhoz rolls with the shots. It’s exactly what got him drilled against Dillashaw. Being young and offensively gifted, Garbrandt is far from chopped liver as a competitive bantamweight, but if he’s going to ever reach elite status again, he’s going to have to have to find some way to either suppress his reckless instincts or find a way to rewire his fighting brain.
‘Zabeast’ Isn’t a Cub, But He’s Not a Lion Quite Yet
Magomedsharipov was lined up against Stephens for a reason. The Dagestani is one of the hottest prospects in MMA over the last two years or so and has shown a prodigious knack for well-rounded offense. Stephens has settled into a role as a gatekeeper to the stars, tasked with taking on the difficult but critical task of separating the wheat from the chaff at 145 pounds. Magomedsharipov may not have dominated affairs and Stephens may not have been able to pull off the upset, but everyone played their part. That’s a good thing.
Unsurprisingly, the best offense of the fight belonged to Magomedsharipov, who wisely and cleverly switched up his game, used his wrestling and banged up Stephens from back control. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the finish and saw his output drastically drop in the third round. Against less skilled and hardened opponents, that might have been OK, as he could’ve just used his counter left cross to pick them off while circling. Stephens, however, being the rugged veteran, was unrelenting, chasing around the blue-chipper and repeatedly tagging him with hard punches in combination.
It’s an old truism in sports, MMA included, that you learn the most from losses. With that said, when you’re trying to go to 5-0 in the UFC and 17-1 overall and move a major step closer to a title shot, it’s infinitely more valuable if you can learn something from a close, competitive fight and still get your hand raised. Better still, between his Dagfighter Team and working with the likes of Mark Henry, Ricardo Almeida and Nick Catone in New Jersey, Magomedsharipov has all the resources to improve as a direct result of how the Stephens fight unfolded. Sometimes matchmaking makes a prospect look like a million bucks, but compared to the potential future earnings, it’s a wise investment for any promoter.