Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
There was plenty of learning to be had at UFC Fight Night 148 on Saturday in Nashville, Tennessee, and lucky for us, we were blessed with a surprise: Class was in session with guest lecturer Anthony Pettis.
It was an up-and-down affair, but the former Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight king ended things on a high note to say the least, shocking our senses and igniting our imaginations in the main event. In his proper welterweight debut, “Showtime” became the first man to knock out Stephen Thompson with a scintillating Superman punch, instantly inserting himself in the “Knockout of the Year” conversation. Having gone 2-3 over his previous five bouts, he garnered a crucial career win with his back against the wall. Suffice to say, there’s plenty to glean from Pettis’ surprising leap into the 170-pound dialogue.
First of all, it was a reminder that not all underdogs are created equal and that MMA fights aren’t contested “on paper.” More than that, Pettis’ upset has unlocked new and exciting possibilities for the welterweight division, while illustrating that in 2019 most fighters are better served to move up a weight class rather than down. Speaking of moving up in weight, hot prospect Maycee Barber moved up to 125 pounds and grabbed the biggest win of her career, emphasizing the importance of smart matchmaking for up-and-coming talent. On the other hand, as flyweight heats up for the women, Jussier da Silva’s successful night’s work called more attention to just how depressing the 125-pound landscape is for men.
Professor Pettis’ highlight-reel lecture gave us a lot of notes to examine and study, so let’s size up five lessons learned from UFC Fight Night 148:
There’s a Reason Why They Fight ’Em
Pettis opened at around +200 as an underdog and on average closed around +300, though at various periods you could get “Showtime” at +380. No part of me, at any point, had any desire to bet Pettis. Sure, maybe his getting close to being a 4-to-1 dog was a bit silly, but I firmly believed this bout was in Thompson’s wheelhouse and a poor choice of first welterweight opponent for Pettis. For the better part of 10 minutes, things mostly went according to plan, though I was surprised by Pettis’ aggression. However, with five seconds left in Round 2, Pettis made a fool of me -- and most of us -- in highlight-reel fashion. Like I said, that’s why they fight ’em.
Prior to the bout, I commented that the Pettis-Thompson main event was a headliner that revealed where the UFC product was at in 2019, where there are so few fighters with real drawing power that the promotion will slap together anything it can reason and label it a headliner. I stand by that, but not all of these things are created equal. Certainly, it’s a departure from years gone by when the internal focus was on win-win matchmaking between serious contenders, and in this case, we were looking at a struggling ex-lightweight champion moving up to face a rebounding two-time welterweight title challenger. If Thompson had won, what good would it have done him knowing he would be roundly critiqued for having beaten a floundering 155-pounder? All this being said, Pettis-Thompson was, if nothing else, an intriguing, technical style clash, and this dynamic bore thrilling fruit. Sure, maybe this fight wouldn’t have been made and certainly wouldn’t have headlined a card of any stature five years ago, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the process at this point; we’re not talking about Cub Swanson-Artem Lobov here.
The first two rounds played out as I thought in the sense that Thompson was winning and bloodying up “Showtime,” but I never anticipated Pettis’ surprising aggression. I thought Thompson’s stance switching and three inches of reach would negate Pettis’ body kicks, and they did no such thing. I never anticipated the efficacy of Pettis being able to nail Thompson’s back leg with low kicks. With the right styles and fighters involved, no fight is simply pro forma, regardless of expectation.
I think the concept of upsets lurking around every corner in MMA tends to be overrated, predicated on selective memory and the mythology of the sport. However, Pettis-Thompson is a great reminder that in an era in which the UFC will continue to be desperate to find viable main events and appropriate fights for notable athletes, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with taking a chance on a bout that seemingly doesn’t make sense. The real necessary element is to include fighters -- such as Pettis in this case -- as underdogs only when there is a legitimate way for them to pull off the upset beyond simply the trite wisdom of “Anything can happen!” MMA is a sport constantly proving us wrong, but it takes the right sorts of fighters and matchups to shock us, correct our thinking and legitimize matchmaking that may seem questionable on paper.
Futures of Pettis, Thompson Unclear, but 170 is Now More Fun
Even at the championship level, it can be exceedingly difficult to forecast what comes next for any fighter. Even after a “Knockout of the Year” candidate and a triumphant victory, Pettis was non-committal about what he wanted next in his career. Just as soon as he talked about the draining process of making 155 pounds and how strong he felt at welterweight, he left the door open for a lightweight return. Despite beating a recent two-time title challenger in his welterweight debut, in his post-fight media blitz, he was quick to say that he wouldn’t fight former training partners Tyron Woodley and Ben Askren, nor the suddenly hot Jorge Masvidal. In fact, he committed the lamest callout sin by suggesting a pipe dream fight with Conor McGregor.
It’s a shame, as the online fan community immediately seemed to have its heart set on Pettis-Masvidal after their recent exploits. Even still, whether or not Pettis has a list of elite fighters he’s not keen to face, the sudden flux at 170 pounds still affords the UFC a ton of flex to line up “Showtime” with someone intriguing who can keep the division chugging along. In fact, Pettis’ name value can offer a lot of shine to an opponent in desperate need of such a thing. How many sensible, entertaining opponents with star power are there for someone like Santiago Ponzinibbio? How about Leon Edwards, Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos and Vicente Luque? All of these are outstanding, exciting pairings. Sure, Pettis blustered that he only wanted big fights and didn’t want to “go backwards,” but there are only so many options if he’s unwilling to face the top dogs in the division. However, Pettis being matched with the up-and-comers on the second tier of the division looking to make the big jump to the top may provide not just smart matchmaking for the UFC but even more compelling style clashes.
As for Thompson, he’s 1-3-1 in his last five bouts, which is an unenviable position in which to be, but in an ironic twist, it may help him get his very own wish. Before the Pettis bout, he was already looking to the future, eyeballing the UFC’s debut in his home state of South Carolina for UFC Fight Night 153 on June 22, calling out former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler. Fans would have been receptive to a Thompson-Lawler clash regardless of whether or not “Wonderboy” won against Pettis, but after such a surprising knockout loss, a back-against-the-wall showdown with “Ruthless,” 1-3 in his last four, makes all the more sense.
In a moment where trying to simply make fun, promotable fights with notable names reigns supreme for the promotion, it’s hard to believe the UFC wouldn’t be down for the cause, so long as both fighters were willing to lock horns. Even if we concede that rhyme and reason may take a backseat to convenience and entertainment in contemporary UFC matchmaking, there’s no denying that welterweight is electric right now, and Pettis’ win may have upped the wattage.
You Want to Get Down? Try Going Up
A decade ago, it was still fashionable to think and practice the notion that dropping a weight class below wherever you were competing would immediately confer a competitive advantage. Go back and listen to any Joe Rogan color commentary from, say, 2004 to 2010 and listen to him gush over how enormous particular fighters are and what a great career move it was for them, despite the fact we already had the likes of Joe Riggs blowing UFC title opportunities on account of this wrongheaded approach. Fortunately, through both hard evidence and promotions taking extreme weight cutting more seriously, this behavior has been curbed to some extent, but nonetheless, some vestiges of this disproven philosophy remain. UFC Fight Night 148 offered some brilliant side-by-side case studies that help strengthen the notion that in 2019 an MMA fighter is more likely to be aided by bumping up than cutting down.
Our main card featured two fighters jumping up in weight. We know how Pettis fared. Meanwhile, coveted prospect Maycee Barber, who was eating 500 calories a day to make 115 pounds, moved to flyweight and, after a rocky start, clobbered J.J. Aldrich in the second round, committing to a weight-class shift likely necessary to continue on her path toward potential stardom. At the same time, we had Luis Pena, who, despite being 6-foot-3, decided to attempt dropping to featherweight; and while he did take a unanimous decision over Steven Peterson, he also blew weight by three and a half pounds. “Violent Bob Ross” disclosed before the bout that he decided to try cutting to 145 pounds after seeing ginormous lightweight Davi Ramos on the scale and second guessing whether he was big enough to compete in the division, which is both lamentable and insane. Dude, (A) you’re 6-foot-3 and (B) don’t be scared, homie.
Look at the current MMA environment. Who is the top heavyweight in the world? Daniel Cormier, former light heavyweight. Who just fought for the UFC title at 205 pounds and who is the next contender on deck? Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos, two former middleweights. Who is the best middleweight in the world? Robert Whittaker, former welterweight. Who did Khabib Nurmagomedov just fight for the UFC lightweight title? A former featherweight champion in McGregor. What happened when the best bantamweight woman in the world Amanda Nunes moved to 145 pounds? She made history as the UFC’s first two-division women’s champion, destroying the most feared woman in MMA history, Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. Who is Bellator MMA’s dual-division champion? Perennial top light heavyweight Ryan Bader, who has easily smashed everyone he has faced at heavyweight. What happened when former UFC flyweight title challenger Kyoji Horiguchi moved back to bantamweight? He’s now the focal point of Rizin Fighting Federation, a Top 5 fighter in the division and just tapped Bellator champion Darrion Caldwell.
Regardless of some fans’ utopian wishes, weight cutting on the whole is going nowhere in this sport. The material question is how much any fighter should be cutting. The truth: It will vary from case to case. We will always have some instances of fighters whose styles or bodies will in fact fare better in a lower weight class; however, the reflexive prescription for any fighter to simply drop a weight class to gain an edge is a dead, dispelled concept. Get in where you fit in, keep your body fit and healthy and, more than likely, your fight career will follow suit.
Present Problems for a Positive ‘Future’
Barber managed to up her up her pro record to 7-0 with a second-round knockout of Aldrich, but the highly touted Coloradan had more than her fair share of troubles in the first round, struggling mightily against Aldrich’s jab and superior boxing and even eating the canvas. It was easily the most adversity Barber has faced in her short career and certainly exposed some holes in her game. You know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.
First of all, this fight was made for a reason: The UFC has obviously taken a shine to Barber and has begun trying to rocket her to stardom, but the best way to assure her success, like any prospect, is to match her smartly and appropriately by giving her different stylistic looks. Aldrich, in addition to being the best fighter “The Future” has faced so far by a considerable margin, was the smartest fighter with whom the UFC could have paired Barber at this point, given her recent accomplishments and sharp boxing. In fact, Aldrich’s boxing looked further improved and better than ever in the opening five minutes, as she showed sharper footwork and an even harder, cleaner jab, which really served to illuminate Barber’s iffy tendency to pull straight back from punches and her inattention to cutting off the cage with her feet.
Still, Barber has been a pro for less than two years, and this is her sixth stoppage in seven bouts. The minute she actually decided to come forward rather than circling aimlessly in Round 2, she landed a nasty left cross that rocked Aldrich, and she never stopped teeing off until referee Keith Peterson stepped in. Between her youth, charisma, power and killer instinct, she has a multitude of vital assets that you simply can’t teach. As for the teachable aspects, between splitting time with Factory X and Marc Montoya in Colorado and Duke Roufus in Milwaukee, along with working with noted boxing coach Matt Pena, Barber has all the training resources necessary to correct her technical flaws as they present themselves. The Aldrich bout kept Barber’s momentum going but also gives an instructive blueprint on exactly how she and her coaches need to shore up her game and how the UFC needs to continue to match her.
I appreciate that in the wake of the UFC’s obsessive pushing of Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant -- you can even go back to the days of Roger Huerta -- there is a tendency for fans to bristle against the hype of any promotional pet project, perhaps even outright scorn them. There’s nothing wrong with healthy skepticism, but every individual case deserves its own assessment. For now, the UFC, perhaps learning from past mistakes, is being shrewd with its handling of Barber, who in turn is making smart decisions about her career and training. It’s still too early to say if she will truly be “The Future,” but her skills and intangibles already suggest that at bare minimum she’ll be a major part of it.
No Love for Ants and Flies
With Valentina Shevchenko holding the gold, prospects like Barber and more talent flooding into the division, the UFC’s women’s flyweight class is starting to bustle after years of 125 pounds being the forgotten, neglected division in women’s MMA. On the men’s side of things, however, things aren’t nearly so rosy and Jussier da Silva’s unanimous decision win over the previously unbeaten Deiveson Figueiredo was a cruel reminder of that.
Da Silva, the UFC’s No. 1 contender at 125 pounds, won his fourth fight in a row by knocking off his fellow Brazilian, who entered the bout at 15-0 and as the betting favorite. In a just world, he would be headed into a UFC flyweight title fight, no questions asked. Yet two major circumstances have conspired against “Formiga.” The UFC is openly deemphasizing its men’s flyweight division despite not formally shuttering it. At the same time, T.J. Dillashaw’s vacating the bantamweight title has created the opportunity for 125-pound titlist Henry Cejudo to jump back to bantamweight, likely to face Marlon Moraes for the vacant belt. After UFC Fight Night 148, UFC President Dana White all but confirmed that Cejudo-Moraes is what was next on tap. What did White suggest he had in mind for da Silva? A de facto flyweight title eliminator against Joseph Benavidez, who knocked out “Formiga” back in September 2013; and to think, if Demetrious Johnson had retained his title against Cejudo in their rematch, da Silva would be fighting for the title, if he hadn’t done so already.
On the one hand, I can’t fault the UFC -- or Cejudo himself -- for trying to manufacture a star out of “The Messenger.” An Olympic gold medalist with a rags-to-riches story vying to become a two-division UFC champion? It’s a rare opportunity, and I don’t begrudge the promotion or the fighter for wanting to capitalize on it. However, due to the UFC looking to leave the men’s flyweight division behind, it gets trickier. For instance, what if Cejudo wins the bantamweight title? We know -- using fighters like McGregor and Cormier as precedents -- that the company will all but force Cejudo to stay at 135 pounds. At that point, if we’re to believe that the flyweight division is on death row, do you really think da Silva will get a chance to fight for a vacant title? Highly unlikely. If anything, da Silva would be forced up to bantamweight? Then what? Does he just jump up in weight class and get a rematch with Cejudo, a man to whom he dropped a narrow split decision just over three years ago? Again, highly unlikely.
The fight game is inherently unfair, so this is nothing new. If anything, da Silva has it better than some in that, despite the shambles of the flyweight division, he seems personally driven and inspired to chase Cejudo to avenge his defeat, even if the UFC is keen to throw any and every possible hurdle in front of him. There are still dozens of other flyweights on roster, though, all of whom are essentially fighting in limbo, completely in the dark as to what the fate of the division holds. No matter what you think of the UFC’s decision to potentially shutter the men’s 125-pound weight class, its execution is silly and deleterious to its own product. When you rob your own roster of morale and motivation and fighters are made to feel like tangible goals are unattainable, everybody winds up suffering.