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We’re a week away from Christmas, but if you’re a combat sports fan, you probably had your shopping postponed to last-minute status on account of the fight-filled weekend we just enjoyed. Even if you’re the most savviest shopper in the world, the mixed martial arts world had you glued to your screen and disrupting your schedule. The chief culprit? The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s final card on Fox’s family of networks: UFC on Fox 31.
Going into Saturday’s card in Milwaukee, things seemed rather mundane, which was almost apropos; viewership numbers have been slumping across the platform for years now, and the UFC was all-too-happy to jump over to ESPN and try to expand its product -- a far cry from the way MMA folks envisioned this relationship seven years ago. However, the UFC on Fox era didn’t end in a T.S. Eliot fashion: Al Iaquinta ensured that the end would come not with a whimper but a bang.
On top of a main event that tipped over the apple cart in the 155-pound division, we got some exciting fights. More than that, if you cast your gaze beyond the Octagon, the entire weekend offered some extra fruit and something upon which to chew. Let’s break down this pre-holiday extravaganza and figure out what we learned, not just from UFC on Fox 31 but an incredibly rich and informative weekend of MMA action:
Lightweight is Heavy
If we’re having historical MMA debates, almost every division has a slam dunk “greatest” fighter. We know Georges St. Pierre as the best welterweight ever, we know Anderson Silva reigns at 185 pounds and so on. At worst, we can safely narrow it down to two fighters in a given weight class, should you want to debate whether or not Max Holloway now deserves the mantle at 145 pounds over Jose Aldo. However, no division is as consistently pernicious and difficult to pin down as lightweight, and Iaquinta’s upset of a Top-5 fighter in Kevin Lee was a reminder of that reality.
Headed into UFC on Fox 31, Iaquinta closed as high as +300 on some sportsbooks. “Ragin’ Al” was 1-1 in the previous three years and had become known more for his Twitter antagonism and real estate exploits than actually fighting in the cage. In that same timeframe, Lee was 8-2 and established himself as most certainly one of the best 155-pounders in the world. All it took to turn things topsy-turvy was for “The Motown Phenom” to be overly reliant on his striking for the better part of 25 minutes instead of forcing the grappling game, and poof, we have a major upset that changes the complexion of the entire division. Yet this sort of occurrence is really part and parcel of the weight class itself.
Meanwhile, Michael Chandler on Friday took the Bellator MMA lightweight title for the third time, but only because he had to avenge a freak upset loss to Brent Primus. Chandler himself first came to prominence at 155 pounds by upsetting Eddie Alvarez -- another fighter with a legitimate claim to being the best lightweight ever -- for the throne in one of the best fights in MMA history. On top of that, two of Chandler’s losses put Will Brooks on the map, only for him to completely flame out in the UFC and now seem like a historical aberration for the ages. Such is the 155-pound class.
Alvarez, B.J. Penn and Takanori Gomi are all routinely mentioned in the conversation as being the best lightweight of all-time, yet their careers are filled with unexpected screw-ups and botches. Year-in, year-out, I still vouch for lightweight being the best division in the world, and with that level of talent comes a lack of stability. The division gives us the lion’s share of any year’s great fights and routinely has a level of shake-up you don’t get anywhere else in the sport. That’s what makes something like Tony Ferguson’s 11-fight winning streak not just incredible but an all-time noteworthy MMA accomplishment. Never mind the recent political climate for lightweights in the UFC, with Conor McGregor, interim titles and the like. When you fight at 155 pounds, you’re constantly in peril, period.
What comes next for Iaquinta? Who knows and who cares? The chaotic, anarchic nature of the 155-pound class makes simple matchmaking exercises basically irrelevant, which is part of why it’s so much fun. Is Nate Diaz going to come back anytime soon? Will Dustin Poirier actually get to a title shot? Five years from now, will we be able to actually settle on who is the best lightweight ever? Unlikely. Lightweight is almost too skilled for its own good. It is one of the few weight classes that can serve up so many great fighters that every major promotion ends up having the same “too much talent” problem on its hands, leading to difficult booking scenarios, unforeseen upsets and a lack of clarity about which individual truly is the best in the division. Of all the problems inherent to MMA, this is probably the sweetest one.
Dan Hooker: Proof Positive of the Lightweight Tempest
You’re a 28-year-old fighter who has just come into your own, in the prime of your career. You make the wise choice to bump up in weight to a division that suits you better physically. You rip off four straight stoppages in highlight-reel fashion and get set up in a co-main event on network television against a fighter coming off two nasty, brutish losses. The world is your oyster, right? You’re cruising for a title shot, yes? No, you’re headed for a comprehensive beatdown from Edson Barboza. Such is the life of Dan Hooker.
Ahead of their encounter, Hooker and Barboza were essentially even money on most sportsbooks, with some late money on “The Hangman” making him a slight favorite on some betting outlets. What happened? He got absolutely savaged to the head, body and legs, as the Brazilian took the upstart to task every which way. Now, none of this invalidates the Kiwi as an entertaining fighter and legitimate threat at 155 pounds, but it is a stark reminder that for all of the division’s constant volatility and upheaval, there is a cruel irony in that accessing the elite ranks at 155 pounds is extremely hard to do.
The co-feature of UFC on Fox 31 was beautifully emblematic of the lightweight division itself. Barboza, 32, isn’t exactly in the twilight of his career but is largely assumed to be in a holding pattern. While he was considered someone who would someday challenge for the UFC title, no one expects that anymore in spite of the fact that he’s the only dude I can think of to author two surefire unanimous “Knockout of the Year” winners. He is simply the “Gatekeeper to the Stars” at 155 pounds, which sounds like a diss on some level, but frankly, being in the lightweight division, that is actually a terrifying, menacing persona to inhabit.
If I am a spry up-and-comer in this division, have an entertaining and exciting winning streak behind me and am trying to figure out how I get to a UFC title shot, the last thing on Earth I want to have to do is mess with a dude like Barboza, just so I can prove to my promoter, the media and fans that I’ve actually got the mettle. Think about any other division in MMA and what it takes to earn a title shot. Jessica Eye may be next in line for a 125-pound title shot against Valentina Shevchenko after ho-hum wins over Kalindra Faria, Jessica-Rose Clark and Katlyn Chookagian. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Ferguson is one of the 10 best fighters on the planet, has won 11 in a row and still hasn’t been given a legitimate shot at a UFC title, interim foolishness aside.
Lightweight reality is burdensome: Hooker will continue to put on awesome fights and hone his craft, hoping he gets another hot streak together that gives him another chance to prove himself against an elite opponent. Barboza will continue to patrol the gates to title shots, separating the 155-pound wheat from the chaff. Those who can actually get a crack at gold need an otherworldly combination of patience, skill and unfailing excellence, because one slight screw-up in one fight may put them back in line behind dozens of other talented fighters in the same predicament. It’s a Kafka-esque arrangement, but again, it’s part of what makes the lightweight division so intriguing and thrilling.
Speaking of That UFC Women’s Flyweight Title …
Such a wall-to-wall weekend of MMA action is an assault on a fight fan’s senses alone, but for me, there was one certain moment where, watching three screens of fights, I sat back and rued the modern MMA landscape.
In her native Hawaii, Bellator MMA women’s flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane showed out against former UFC strawweight title challenger Valerie Letourneau, eventually ensnaring her in a triangle choke in the third round for her second successful title defense at Bellator 213. Watching this was complicated for me. On the one hand, it was uplifting to watch a fantastic fighter stay undefeated, defend her throne in front of a partisan crowd and do it with a resounding, technical finish. Plain and simple, Macfarlane’s natural knack for grappling has made her one of the low-key, reliably thrilling fighters in MMA. She may actually be the most intriguing and exciting fighter Bellator MMA has on its roster right now. Yet, another part of my brain forced another agenda.
Just a week prior, I sat at a post-fight press conference for UFC 231, where Shevchenko defeated Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the promotion’s vacant women’s flyweight title. Now, it’s safe to say the UFC’s launch of its women’s flyweight division has been fraught and frankly embarrassing. There was the ad hoc title match after the 26th season of “The Ultimate Fighter” where Sijara Eubanks missed weight, and later, inaugural champion Nicco Montano was conveniently stripped when she was hospitalized while cutting weight ahead of UFC 228 in September. The newly minted Shevchenko was brought before the media after UFC 231, where she was asked, “How would you feel about facing the first champion?” Shevchenko’s response: “Who is that?”
Contrast this with everything I just said about the lightweight division. What makes 155 pounds so awesome is that there’s so much talent to spread around that, globally, three or four promotions can all have a serious stable of lightweight talent and put on great fights. Women’s flyweight has always been a bizarre, bastard division that fell between the well-populated 115-pound and 135-pound weight classes. The promotional emphasis on strawweight and bantamweight still resounds. Despite the UFC and Bellator getting behind women’s flyweight now, historically, the division has been so deemphasized that its development is slow and requires a concerted effort to grow and acquire talent and make fans care about it. Watching Macfarlane win such a professionally and personally rich victory in front of a Hawaiian audience and further showcase just how good she is, I couldn’t fully appreciate it the way I should. I sat there just thinking, “Why can’t she just fight Shevchenko? This is the fight we care about; this is the fight we want. Why can’t we have this?”
Obviously, I know why we can’t have it. However, it doesn’t make my longing as a fight fan any less real, and I suspect the vast majority of spectators feel the same. It’s one thing when the lightweight talent pool, as deep as it is, gets divided all over the planet, but when it come to a division like women’s flyweight, it’s hard to see the two top promotions in the world have such skilled champions along with a complete paucity of contenders. Bellator is in better condition than the UFC at this point, since it has Juliana Velasquez on deck to challenge Macfarlane, which is an infinitely more interesting bout than Shevchenko winning unanimous 50-45 scorecards against Eye. If the men’s lightweight class is the best division to raise your spirits, for the foreseeable future, women’s flyweight will continue to plague you and make you wish for something different.
Charles Oliveira, the Golden Glass Cannon
For those unfamiliar with the term “glass cannon,” it’s a cute little phrase related to gaming where a particular character has incredible offensive ability but complicatedly low defensive statistics; essentially, it’s the video-game version of being able to dish it out but not take it. Naturally, we can apply this to MMA, and in the past, I’ve usually bestowed the ultimate MMA glass cannon award to recently retired Anthony Johnson. At UFC on Fox 31, Charles Oliveira stunted all over a shopworn Jim Miller to avenge a loss from eight years ago and made a case to trump “Rumble” as MMA’s finest example of shatter-prone artillery.
It took all of 75 seconds for Oliveira to get a rear waistlock, slam Miller to the mat, take his back and, after multiple grip switches, lock in a fight-ending rear-naked choke, presumably erasing the humiliation of Miller almost turning his leg inside-out with a kneebar at UFC 124. Sure, Miller is 35 years old and has struggled with physical travails of Lyme disease, but he’s still gritty and a fantastic grappler. “Do Bronx” made him look like a rank amateur who needs to hang up the gloves. With his rear-naked choke on the New Jersey native, Oliveira extended his UFC record for submissions, now having tapped out 12 men inside the Octagon.
When I first saw a teenaged Oliveira, training inside a garage in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and owning grown men inside a cage, I thought he was a surefire future world champion. Well, that hasn’t exactly panned out, for a variety of reasons. “Do Bronx” sucks at cutting weight and has routinely goofed up on the scale; he is a horrible strategic fighter; and in general, he just finds ways to trip over his own feet and lose fights for himself. However, there’s a reason why the UFC has never cut him and why MMA fans are always excited to see him ply his trade. He is a virtuoso once the fight hits the mat. Excluding Rumina Sato, who managed to hit dazzling, highlight-reel submissions on fighters who had barely trained before, Oliveira is quite seriously the most scintillating, thrilling submission artist in the history of modern MMA outside of Shinya Aoki. Even if he is never going to be a viable title contender at 145 or 155 pounds, this sport is still called “mixed martial arts” for a reason. Yes, we are compelled by the idea of who the best fighter is, but when someone like Oliveira can offer us mind-blowing insights into the grappling game, we need to keep him at the forefront.
Even at just 29 years old, Oliveira has become a bittersweet entity in this sport. We know he’ll never reach the heights many foresaw. If only he could make weight, block a punch or not pretend he tore his esophagus in half 90 seconds into a fight. Still, we can and will forgive his foibles because he is just that good when it comes to flexing submission offense inside the cage. In a world where so many MMA fighters are replaceable and fungible, Oliveira not only earns his keep but is constant appointment viewing, because you always know he is capable of doing something breathtaking that you’re going to want to try at jiu-jitsu class tomorrow.
A Requiem for Bobby Green
At UFC on Fox 31, veteran Bobby Green dropped a unanimous decision to Drakkar Klose. On the surface, this seems like the natural progression of fighting life: Solid veterans test out up-and-coming talent, and when said talent is good enough, they take the L. With Green, I feel like things are a little different and more sympathetic.
First, I think Klose is an incredibly interesting prospect. He is an awesome athlete and has a natural knack for the clinch and dirty boxing game. I was shocked when David Teymur was able to piece him up the way he did a year ago. Yet, even if Klose is still a plus-athlete learning the ropes of the fight game, he’s got the right trainer in John Crouch and a support system around him at the MMA Lab that should, at bare minimum, allow him to flourish as an above-average 155-pounder. Green is far more complicated than that.
In his last six fights, Green is 1-4-1, which seems ridiculous when you consider how talented he is. At the same time, the Californian is like a great, tragic MMA figure. He talks openly about the sport saving him from a life of gang violence, yet still treats his fights as a stage to prove gang-type bravado. He is a slick southpaw boxer, a skilled wrestler and has underrated submission chops, but he has lost so many fights over his 10-year career by mean-mugging his opponents, trying to execute James Toney-type shoulder rolls and essentially engendering fights that don’t emphasize his own skills. It’s infuriating to watch as a spectator; you see that this fighter has all the skills to compete with the division’s elite, yet there is a psychology behind him that completely prohibits him from putting his best foot forward.
That is what makes what took place at UFC on Fox 31 so brutal. In the third round, yes, Green got tired and regressed to his worst instincts. Yet I thought he took the first two rounds handily by outmaneuvering Klose, tagging him with counters and getting the better of the clinch battle. However, all three judges gave Round 2 to Klose. For 10 minutes, Green fought in exactly the way that all of his harshest critics thought was possible for him, and it still amounted to nothing. Apropos of my early points about the 155-pound division, Green will remain one of those dangerously talented gatekeepers to size up the blue-chip talents of the future. However, when you watch him in 15-, 30- and 60-second blips, it’s hard to believe this guy hasn’t achieved more, because all the skills are there. I suppose it’s just another one of those cruel indices of the lightweight division.