Don’t Call It a Comeback

By Eric Stinton Feb 4, 2019

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UFC Fight Night 144 on Saturday in Fortaleza, Brazil, was just the seventh event in Ultimate Fighting Championship history to be headlined by two Brazilian fighters. “Generally, they don’t like to do that, Brazil versus Brazil,” commentator Michael Bisping said during the main event, “but the problem is they produce such good fighters that at some point it’s going to happen.” Indeed, it happened in three of the six main event fights.

Brazil is vital to the history of the sport, and it has always produced a significant stream of talent, but in a way, this event was a much-needed boost for Brazilian MMA. At a time when there is only one Brazilian champion, albeit in two divisions, it showcased a strong present and bright future for Brazilian fighters.

Former Invicta Fighting Championships strawweight titleholder Livinha Souza took a hard-fought decision over previously undefeated countrywoman Sarah Frota, who unintentionally made her flyweight debut by coming into the bout seven pounds over the limit. Women’s strawweight is one of the most stacked divisions in the promotion, and Souza is shaping up to be a worthy addition to the ranks. At 27, she still has time to develop into a legitimate contender. As for Frota, she may yet have a future at flyweight.

Then came the man who launched a thousand terrible puns. Johnny Walker added an eighth straight win by flattening flat-earther opponent Justin Ledet in 15 seconds. He pushed his UFC record to 2-0, with a total fight time of 2:12. Thus far, his post-fight celebratory acrobatics have posed the potential for more serious harm than his opponents. Walker is without question the most exciting Brazilian light heavyweight prospect to come along in a long time, possibly since a 23-year-old Mauricio Rua crashed the Pride Fighting Championships middleweight grand prix in 2005. That’s lofty praise but deservedly so. Walker is young, freakishly athletic, skilled and offensively dynamic. His physical tools alone peg him as a future title contender, especially in a division as old and as thin as 205 pounds. Add a charmingly weird persona into the mix, and it’s easy to see why so many are -- apologies -- buzzed off his performance.

Former future phenom Charles Oliveira put on his most impressive showing to date, as well. When he made his UFC debut as a 20-year-old with a 12-0 record in 2010, it was assumed that he would eventually become a contender, especially after back-to-back “Submission of the Night” bonuses. His career has been inconsistent ever since, in ways both banal and bizarre. A slew of lightweight setbacks sent him to featherweight, where he handily lost to the division’s best and missed weight four times. His decision to return to lightweight has so far boded well: He’s 5-1, with four straight “Performance of the Night” wins. You can never say never with a 29-year-old with as much experience and talent as Oliveira, but even if he doesn’t pan out to be a champion -- a reality not unimaginable, given the depth at lightweight -- he’s becoming a more consistent action fighter, which is always wanted and welcome. Personally, I’d be happy to see him spend the rest of his career twisting low- and mid-level opponents into ever more creative contortions.

Let’s not forget the sport’s most gentlemanly strangler: Demian Maia. It was almost like his three consecutive losses to stout wrestlers never happened and he simply picked up where he left off before that, casually absorbing minimal damage on his way to an effortless rear-naked choke submission of Lyman Good. Amazing how decline can look a lot like three fights in a row against the same worst possible style matchup. Not that the quadragenarian will vie for a title again anytime soon, or ever, but with two fights left on his contract, Maia is primed to sail off into the sunset on a winning streak, which would be a happy ending for all.

What is there to say about Jose Aldo that hasn’t already been said? He’s an undeniable great of the sport and continues to add to his legacy after losing his status as champion. By defeating Renato Carneiro in the co-main event, he has now done what few others have in any division: defeated fighters from three distinct generations. He sent the old guard packing as an up-and-comer in World Extreme Cagefighting, wiped out all of his contemporaries and now holds a win over a solid prospect from the generation that came after him. Yes, “Moicano” is only three years younger than Aldo, but he made his professional debut six years after. By the time he was 1-0, Aldo was 16-1 and already the best featherweight in the world. It’s hard to say where he’ll go from here. Aldo is still elite and certainly good enough to beat just about anyone other than the division’s very best. Even though he’s still in his prime fighting years, he has nearly 15 years of professional fighting behind and within him. That takes a toll. What’s most impressive about post-championship Aldo, though, is that his technique is still good enough to befuddle opponents, even as his reflexes have started to slow. Whatever he decides to do next, it’s a gift to see him do what he does, from picking apart opponents in the cage to swimming in a sea of fans outside of it.

Moving on from Aldo, the most recently deposed male Brazilian champion, we have Marlon Moraes, who looks most likely to be the next male Brazilian champion. He avenged his sole UFC loss in devastating fashion, extending his streak of first-round finishes to three. It was the first time Raphael Assuncao had been finished since 2011. Moraes is hitting his stride as a fighter, a terrifying prospect for the rest of the bantamweights. Reigning champion T.J. Dillashaw is not one to underestimate, but Moraes has the skill set and athleticism to render any talk of a Dillashaw-Henry Cejudo rematch obsolete. He has distinguished himself as the clear No. 1 contender at 135 pounds and should have the opportunity to prove it before anything else happens with the bantamweight belt.

The main card of UFC Fight Night 144 showcased former and future title contenders, a former champion and very possibly a future champ or two. Brazilian MMA at the highest levels will never go away, but as it cycles through dry spells and doldrums, this action on Saturday proved that this generation hasn’t gone anywhere and the next one is already on its way.

Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at Advertisement
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