What a night. Usually I’m more loquacious than that, but UFC 199 was so busy an intersection of storylines that it’s hard not to arrive at some clichéd platitude. The event in its entirety was one of the best pay-per-view cards in recent memory, and it was as great as it was with only a modest amount of star-power behind it. There’s something refreshing about the fact that a fight card can still stand out on its merits of fighting more than anything else, especially given the various change-ups UFC 199 experienced in the last few weeks.
Each of the main card’s winners built themselves up in meaningful ways, and while I usually like to stick to a single theme for these columns, such a night warrants a bit of exploration for each of the narratives that emerged.
1. Poirer’s Resurgence
In his 17th Zuffa appearance, Dustin Poirer had never looked better. He tied his Ultimate Fighting Championship winning streak record (four) with his first-round TKO victory over Bobby Green, and he has finished three of those four fights within a round. It’s not only a testament to the benefits of a less drastic weight cut -- this run started when he returned to lightweight -- but also speaks to his maturation as a fighter. As a featherweight, Poirer lost in each of his high-profile matchups. He was submitted by Chan Sung Jung in a title eliminator, handily defeated by Cub Swanson when he was working his way back up the ranks and of course knocked out in the first round against Conor McGregor. To be sure, Green, who barely cracked the top 15 in the UFC rankings, is not the same caliber of fighter as those three were at the time, but Poirer has been looking better against stiffer competition. He’s certainly ready for a step up in competition, and while title hopes may still be premature, he’s at the very least cementing himself as one of the lightweight division’s premier action fighters; and that’s always a good reason for recognition.
2. Hendo’s Last Hurrah
June 15 will be the 19th anniversary of Dan Henderson’s professional MMA debut. It will also be the three-year anniversary of the last time “Hendo” was in a fight that went to the judges, as he lost a thin split decision to Rashad Evans at UFC 161. Since the Evans fight, he has gone 3-4 in the Octagon, and all seven of those fights concluded within 14 minutes of fighting. Henderson has compiled one of the finest careers the sport has ever seen, with major wins at middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight. Against Hector Lombard, the longtime veteran showed his craft and guile in knocking out the heavy-handed Cuban with a head kick-elbow combination after nearly getting knocked out in the first round. It went from hard-to-watch to must-watch in record time. On the back of such a win, it may be weird to say, but this seems like the perfect time to bow out of the sport. He clearly still has enough to compete and occasionally win against solid opponents, and it isn’t my place to try and tell a fighter when to hang up the gloves. Yet retirement has loomed over each of his last five fights -- and for good reason; this is a young man’s sport, and the 45-year-old Henderson is increasingly on the wrong end of the age spectrum. It’s rare for an all-time great to ride off into the sunset on a win. Hopefully, “Hendo” sees the writing on the wall and makes the right decision before he has to leave on the back of an unceremonious knockout, like so many greats seem to do.
3. Holloway Breaks Through
The spectacular fight between Max Holloway and Ricardo Lamas may or may not have been snubbed for the “Fight of the Night” bonus, but at the very least it gave us the best 10 seconds of the night, as the two men went Rock’em Sock’em Robots in the middle of the cage until the fight ended. The sequence perfectly summed up why Holloway looks every bit the eventual heir to the featherweight throne. The reckless abandon of his early UFC fights has transformed into technical wizardry, and while he has developed into a more process-oriented fighter, he still has in him those moments of don’t-blink dynamism that made him a blue-chip prospect. Now, he is a full-fledged contender, and what is most impressive about his performance was that it came against the highest-ranked and easily most difficult opponent he has faced since he fought Conor McGregor in 2013. At only 24 years of age, Holloway continues to grow and evolve, which is scary to think about. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where he isn’t the featherweight champion at some point in the next 10 years. Currently on a nine-fight winning streak, the only reason he’s not a shoo-in for a title shot right now is the champion’s divisional ADHD. More importantly, once the Hawaii state legislature smartens up about its suffocating regulations, Holloway is the perfect centerpiece for a long overdue UFC card in Hawaii.
4. Cruz Remains Untouchable
What else is there to say about Dominick Cruz? It’s impossible to understate just how rare and incredible it is to rule a division, sit out several years with a series of potentially career-killing injuries and come back without having lost a step. Against longtime rival Urijah Faber, Cruz added another mixed martial arts masterclass to his already sterling résumé. Sure, this wasn’t as impressive as his win against T.J. Dillashaw in January -- Dillashaw is a much better fighter and more difficult matchup than Faber -- but Cruz continues to perplex even the most experienced of foes. Like most people watching, I was more than a little confused by Cruz’s first-round grappling tactics, especially since he’s a longer and more technical striker than Faber. However, as the fight continued on, that first-round strategy started to make a lot more sense. Faber’s biggest moments of success against Cruz in the first two fights came in grappling and scrambling exchanges. This time around, Cruz initiated the wrestling match, and in doing so, he sowed the seeds that a win was inevitable. He willingly engaged in what should have been Faber’s most successful phase of the fight and beat Faber there before going back to his bread-and-butter. It was psychologically deflating and quintessential Cruz. “The Dominator” is a rare breed in the fight game. He has developed his own inimitable style organically and has reached the pinnacle of the sport with no prior roadmap to follow. There are few true innovators in the sport, and though many challenges loom ahead, it will be a while before we start to consider anyone else the greatest bantamweight of all-time.
5. Bisping’s Date with Destiny
Michael Bisping is a UFC champion. Let that sink in for a minute. Though this was probably not an upset on the level of Matt Serra-Georges St. Pierre or even Holly Holm-Ronda Rousey, it certainly belongs in the conversation. Bisping’s unlikely win is special for a few reasons. First, he was coming in on short-notice. Despite the many ways to spin the supposed advantages of a short camp, it’s almost always a net negative. On top of that, Bisping was rematching a man who convincingly beat him not too long ago. Luke Rockhold also happens to possess, on paper, what is perhaps the most stylistically challenging foils to Bisping’s game. Rockhold is six years younger, a superior physical athlete, a vastly more talented grappler and a more diverse striker with a longer reach. Most analysts, myself included, gave Bisping very little chance to win; and since Bisping has never had one-punch knockout power, his only foreseeable path to victory was through patient point-fighting mixed with crossed fingers that Rockhold’s cardio would fade. How wrong we were. Bisping showcased the best striking of his UFC career thus far, and there was no Hail Mary element to it at all. It was a perfectly timed counter and a perfectly placed shot that made “The Ultimate Fighter 3” winner a UFC champion. Almost 10 years after his promotional debut, after falling short in so many title eliminator matches -- often to known and legal steroid users -- it certainly feels like the MMA gods gave the Brit their blessing. I don’t suspect “The Count” will have much of a title reign, but seeing him with the championship belt around his waist was an undeniably feel-good moment.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.