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Neither UFC Fight Night 142 nor “The Ultimate Fighter 28” Finale could win the weekend in terms of fighting excitement, courtesy of the unfathomable hype and drama of the Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury heavyweight title fight in the boxing ring. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of things to take stock of in MMA, though.
As far as the Ultimate Fighting Championship is concerned, the promotion’s weekend peaked on Saturday, as former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos made a sudden, dramatic comeback to knock out the previously unbeaten Tai Tuivasa in front a partisan crowd in Adelaide, Australia. Heavyweight wasn’t kind to the Oceanic audience, as a faded Mark Hunt lost a one-sided decision to Justin Willis in what will likely be “The Super Samoan’s” last fight in the Octagon. Not all is lost for fans pining for the era in which Japan was the center of the combat sports universe, though, as former Pride Fighting Championships star Mauricio “Shogun” Rua seized victory from the jaws of defeat, knocking out Tyson Pedro in a wild affair.
Pedro didn’t fight the smartest fight, and frankly, neither did several other competitors at UFC Fight Night 142. Plus, if we’re talking about silly strategies, UFC President Dana White had an awful lot of lamentable thoughts to express over the weekend, too.
This weekend offered an almost poetic overlap of themes. The curious nature of heavyweights. The thrill and heartbreak of nostalgia. Questionable decision making. Here are five morsels to digest from “The Ultimate Fighter 28” Finale and UFC Fight Night 142:
Heavyweight Skill: Hard to Birth, Harder to Kill
Tuivasa was an undefeated prospect heading into UFC Fight Night 142, as he fought in front of a home Australian crowd and spent the week winning over the larger fight public with his colorful sense of humor -- and language. By fight time, he was barely an underdog at +110 and immediately took the fight to dos Santos, who hadn’t won two consecutive fights in over six years. Everything was going “Bam Bam’s” way, until it wasn’t.
For my money, dos Santos-Tuivasa was such a quintessential heavyweight fight. People were particularly high on Tuivasa because dos Santos has been viewed as progressively deteriorating due to his epic beatdowns from Cain Velasquez and subsequent knockout losses to Alistair Overeem and Stipe Miocic. Early on, Tuivasa’s pressure and forward bursts saw him eat short shots from a retreating dos Santos, only to drill “Cigano” with hard, clean replies on the inside. The Aussie was throwing accurately and powerfully when he lunged into close range, but despite rocking dos Santos, he was giving him a chance, albeit a dangerous one, to figure out his crude timing and rhythm. Dos Santos predicted publicly he would feel out Tuivasa in the first round and knock him out in the second, which is precisely what happened.
Tuivasa kept up with the exact same attack in Round 2, but Cigano came off the fence faster and blasted him with a counter right cross. “Bam Bam” wobbled, then lunged right into the Brazilian’s two-hook combo, went down and got pounded out. Just like that it was over. It was a reminder that power and aggression have enormous purchase in the heavyweight division, but in this weight class, a better athlete -- and yes, I know Tuivasa was a pro rugby league player -- with superior technique will still win more often than not, even if has doesn’t have the fresher legs. Tuivasa is nine years younger than dos Santos with less tread off his tires, but even at 34, dos Santos is still right around the average age of an elite heavyweight in this sport. Truly athletic, technically gifted heavyweights are rare as hell and afforded an astonishing longevity in this sport; look at 38-year-old Alistair Overeem, left for dead in his career on multiple occasions, smoking previously unbeaten hulk Sergei Pavlovich just over a week ago. It seems paradoxical, but elite heavyweight MMA is, weirdly, usually an old man’s game.
… But No Heavyweight Can Last Forever
Easily the most rueful and depressing moment belonged to beloved heavyweight slugger Hunt, who simply went through the paces in what is almost assuredly his last bout in the Octagon. At 44 years old and after nearly 80 combined pro prizefights in his combat sports career, he looked listless and lethargic in losing a one-sided decision to Justin Willis, much to the chagrin of a quieted, anguished Adelaide crowd.
“The Super Samoan” looked like a shell of himself. His trademark ability to deftly slip jabs and explode with power punches seemed like a distant memory, as Willis simply circled around the cage for 15 minutes, ringing up Hunt with every jab he threw. The surprising athleticism and feistiness that often resulted in the former K-1 World Grand Prix winner catching opponents off-guard with kicks? Non-existent. This was sadly nothing more than a payday for one of the most beloved brawlers in kickboxing and MMA history, a fighter who looked like he would rather be anywhere else on the planet.
Hunt has been a pro fighter for nearly two decades, and they haven’t been kind ones. Keep in mind that for the vast majority of his career he was celebrated for his indefatigable chin. Given his age and open admissions to struggling with memory loss, this should be the end of the road for him. Yet, as we just grimly witnessed with Chuck Liddell, natural fighters like this can often only fight the itch to stay away for so long. Given the global MMA landscape right now and Hunt’s career-long discussion of always hunting for the next paycheck, it sadly seems almost inevitable that we’ll see him catching some major money from Rizin Fighting Federation or One Championship. It never feels good to say farewell, but this is a case where the best outcome for everybody is an honest goodbye.
Fight Hard, but Above All Else, Fight Smart
There was surely some solace for the “Pride never die!” crowd, as the card also saw another all-time MMA fan favorite, “Shogun” Rua, overcome a hellacious beating from Pedro and miraculously pull off the win via third-round stoppage. However, there was more to Rua’s win than simply his toughness and resolve. I will concede that Rua’s legendary toughness was an operative factor in his taking an easy 10-8 -- if not 10-7 -- beatdown in the first round from Pedro, but this fight shouldn’t even have made it out of the first five minutes. Just beyond the midway point of the opening frame, Pedro had beaten the Brazilian nearly to his knees and was almost certainly one or two heavy blows away from getting a stoppage; and Pedro dove in for a takedown. What? Rua survived the round as a result, and then everything changed.
In the second stanza, the veteran Rua knew he had to change tactics, so he took a visibly tiring Pedro to the mat. The Australian made no real attempts to get up, despite his proximity to the fence. Instead, he went for repeated fruitless kimuras, only for Rua to pass to side control and beat him up. In the round, Pedro literally landed zero strikes in five minutes. “Shogun” survived, and early in the final round, he landed an overhand right that caused Pedro’s leg to buckle, collapsing him to the mat under heavy fire and giving up the L. He was one salvo of punches away from beating a legend just minutes earlier, but courtesy of terrible fight IQ, the Aussie has now lost three of his last four.
There were other instances of physically talented fighters doing questionable stuff all over this card. Once-celebrated Australian prospect Jake Matthews got choked out cold by Anthony Rocco Martin because he can never seem to stop shooting inopportune takedowns, scrambling to his knees and giving up his back; Jim Crute stayed unbeaten by tapping Paul Craig late but could’ve done so much earlier if he didn’t repeatedly go for arm-triangle chokes on the side that squished him into the fence with no room to finish the technique; and most hilariously, Alex Gorgees made the night’s opener memorable by getting stuck beneath Damir Ismagulov and repeatedly throwing up his hands, gesturing to referee Neil Swailes and immediately getting punched in the face for not protecting himself. I appreciate that these fighters are in the heat of battle, but MMA is not a sport where a gaffe just gets you laughed it. It usually puts you in the loss column.
If Only the UFC Had a Strategy for the Flyweights
One of the other cruel aspects of this fight weekend was that just after the promotion started teasing the dissolution of its 125-pound men’s division, the two UFC cards featured a great slate of flyweight bouts.
Even if it was marred by horrible officiating from Yves Lavigne, Joseph Benavidez’s return to form against Alex Perez was fun while it lasted at “The Ultimate Fighter 28” Finale. The next night featured another strong performance from Wilson Reis against the always-entertaining Ben Nguyen, and the debut of Kai Kara-France, who overcame an early knockdown to dynamically dominate Elias Garcia, earning both men $50,000 for “Fight of the Night.” It was a bitter reminder of the misguided nature of so many of the contemporaneous UFC brain trust’s decisions.
“The commentary, I’m just trying to change it,” Benavidez said after his win over Perez. “Everybody’s like, ‘When’s it leaving? Is this the last fight? Are they still doing it? Are you going up?’”
Benavidez was also keen to point out one of the more absurd aspects of choosing this moment for the UFC to oust the division, as we are finally about to get a long-desired clash between UFC flyweight and bantamweight champions when Henry Cejudo faces T.J. Dillashaw.
“Why aren’t people talking about how exciting it is?” Benavidez asked. “We’ve got a pound-for-pound champion in T.J. coming down to our weight to fight an Olympic champion who just beat the greatest ever. I have a win over Henry, [and] T.J.’s an ex-teammate of mine; the story’s there. The skill is obviously there, as much as in any division.”
These two events were just another couple of stinging reminders of how aimless and flailing the UFC has been to promote the division, as virtually no non-Demetrious Johnson fights ever make UFC main cards, especially on pay-per-view.
And Now, Some Crazy Talk from UFC President Dana White
White weighed in on several recent topics after “The Ultimate Fighter 28” wrapped up on Friday, including the flyweight division. Predictably, White’s answer was muddled and non-committal, but that was really the least of the wild words the head honcho offered up. There were a couple of things he did offer affirmations on, and both of them are, well, highly questionable.
Now, we know the state of flux contention and title shots within the promotion, but White was unequivocal in confirming that middleweight legend Anderson Silva will in fact be granted a shot at regaining the title he held for nearly seven years if “The Spider” can defeat unbeaten dynamo Israel Adesanya at UFC 234 in February.
“I flew out to Los Angeles and we sat down and talked,” White said. “I told him I wanted the Israel Adesanya fight, and he says, ‘I’m just coming back. How does that make sense for me?’ I said, ‘It makes sense for you because if you win, I’ll give you the title shot.’”
On top of those two lovely tidbits, White was also quick to reaffirm statements he made in August that when the UFC switches over to the ESPN family next year, the sagging, puttering “Ultimate Fighter” series would continue.
“‘The Ultimate Fighter’ isn’t going anywhere,” White said. “We’re going to keep going. The design of the new facility that we’re building has ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ in mind, too. We have the money for it, so it’s already done. It’s part of the money we have right now for content.”
All three major components of White’s scrum were like five fingers across the face of MMA fans and the UFC’s own current roster. No one wants any of these things. Obviously, most people who are truly passionate about MMA want flyweights in the UFC. Secondly, I’ll concede that while it’s not the fight I would have made personally, I have noticed a particular online enthusiasm for Silva-Adesanya among both fans and media. However, the idea of giving Silva a title shot for beating “The Last Stylebender” is preposterous. What if Kelvin Gastelum wins a controversial decision to take the belt from Robert Whittaker? What if Luke Rockhold comes back with a big win? What about Ronaldo Souza and Paulo Henrique Costa? Silva is 1-4 with one no-contest over the last five years -- that’s half a decade -- and by the time he fights Adesanya, it will have been three years since his last fight, a win over Derek Brunson that the vast majority of people had him losing.
As for “The Ultimate Fighter,” Season 28 drew just over 163,400 viewers per episode, a paltry figure. The numbers get worse and worse every year, and when the UFC lands on ESPN, the show is going to probably end up sunk on its over-the-top service ESPN+. Furthermore, the show is increasingly neutered by Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contenders Series, which routinely features better talent that in years gone by would have been on “The Ultimate Fighter.” To hear White use buzzwords like “content” and ass-backwards rationalizations like “We have the money for it, so it’s done” just reinforces how bloated and vain the UFC product has become. How about just paying fighters better?