Good - California Old Man Strength
When former World Extreme Cagefighting champion Urijah Faber walked away from life as an active fighter it couldn’t have been more fitting. He was facing Brad Pickett, who himself was nearing the end of a storied career. His farewell fight took place in Faber’s backyard of Sacramento, California, and as the cherry on top, he walked away with a win. Riding off into the sunset victorious to the cheers of hometown fans is an end of legendary career that typically only happens in Hollywood. With several of his students at Team Alpha Male on the card, it added to the sense of the “California Kid” passing the torch and settling into his role as a coach and elder statesmen.
Faber seemed like somebody who would defy the cliche of temporarily retired fighters. With several lucrative business interests, a team of high-level fighters to coach and manage and the recent arrival of his first child, the stage was set for a comfortable life devoid of facing a man in a cage. His induction in the Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Fame last summer seemed to set it all in stone. Faber was gone leaving behind a great legacy of high-stake fights rarely seen before him in the lighter weight classes. But this is mixed martial arts after all, and such storybook scenarios rarely go according to plan.
With that in mind, the idea of Faber coming back seemed like a bad idea. Such a glorious exit for the bright lights simply couldn’t be topped and would best left alone. When Faber’s return against Ricky Simon was officially announced, there were plenty of mixed emotions. Seeing Faber make the walk in Sacramento’s Golden 1 Arena to the traditional tunes of Dr. Dre and 2Pac serenading his home state can make the most cynical observers smile, but facing a promising young prospect like Ricky Simon just seemed like too steep of a hill to climb after nearly three years on ice.
At UFC Fight Night 155, Faber not only completely invalidated the extended going away party that Pickett and the UFC held in his honor but actually wrote an addendum to his fairytale. Handling the up and comer with ease, the former champion needed just 46 seconds to make a triumphant return to the Octagon. Amazingly, he looked as if he was simply frozen in time after his last appearance at UFC on Fox 22. The speed, reaction time, fight IQ, and physique were all there. It was as if he hadn’t been gone at all.
Undoubtedly, Faber deserves praise for such a dominating performance. In addition to picking up a “Performance of the Night” bonus, he made it clear that he can still compete in the UFC at 40. However, it would be foolish to forget what exactly led to his initial retirement. If Faber is to be taken at his word and his return isn’t a simple one-off return, an uphill battle awaits if he intends on making a run at the top of the bantamweight mountain. Beyond the obvious problems from a ranking standpoint, the challenges that await him in that hypothetical ascent seem daunting at first glance. As champion Henry Cejudo has opened the doors for a fifth opportunity at a UFC belt, that match up looks particularly dangerous considering the run that the Olympic gold medalist is currently enjoying. Also deserving challengers like Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan pose serious problems from an athletic and style perspective. Even a returning Dominick Cruz would be quite the challenge.
It’s always great to see legends do what they love and succeed. But in the middle of all the nostalgia, it’s important to temper our expectations and maintain a sense of cautious optimism.
Bad - Lost Queen
Nicco Montano needed a win badly. After winning the inaugural UFC flyweight title after being the last woman standing from “The Ultimate Fighter 26” in December 2017, she hasn’t stepped foot in the cage since. Despite being scheduled to defend her belt against Valentina Shevchenko, a poorly managed weight cut resulted in her being stripped of the title while she lay in a hospital bed instead of making the walk for UFC 228. After Shevchenko picked up the vacant belt and recently defended it, it’s clear that the flyweight division has moved on without her. Injuries, illnesses, a USADA suspension and forcibly vacating the crown have made this a particularly difficult time for Montano’s professional life.
It’s no secret the UFC has been unhappy with her as well as well. Look no further than the controversy around booking a title defense and subsequent delays. If that isn’t convincing enough, how about Montano finding out she’s no longer the champion from an Instagram post instead of a conversation with her or her management team. Moving up to bantamweight seemed like a good way to steer clear of weight cutting issues and dropping the extra baggage that would accompany her at 125.
However, she really needed this win. By dropping a decision to the also returning Julianna Pena, Montano set herself back even further from reclaiming lost glory. Initially, the former champion looked surprisingly strong a weight class heavier. Out-grappling Pena is no easy feat and for the entirety of the opening round, she did just that. The tides began changing in Round 2 and Pena managed to wrestle control away from Montano and comfortably cruise toward a decision win.
Whether her initial success was a function of Pena’s two-and-a-half-year long layoff or Montano being overlooked remains to be seen. Whether Montano was outmatched due to facing an elite bantamweight and is in fact too small in the weight class is another uncertainty. The only thing we know for sure is that a loss after such a tumultuous time does her no favors. Don’t be surprised if she is handed her walking papers or feels forced to once again test the waters at 125.
Ugly - So Bad It’s Good
Ryan Hall shouldn’t be successful in the highest levels of MMA. It simply defies logic. Such a weird hybrid of Imanari rolls, leg locks and spinning kicks shouldn’t work. In fact, it probably wouldn’t even work among the most frantic of button mashers on a video game. Yet, yesterday Hall made it work in the UFC against one of the toughest men on the roster.
Hall’s victory over Darren Elkins makes it to the ugly portion of this column because of how absurd it all seemed, but illogically it worked. Elkins seemed confused as spinning heel kicks disguised almost completely random bursts of submission attempts. The notoriously difficult to hurt Elkins found himself on the canvas several times as Hall’s feet accurately collided with his head. The normally overwhelming barrage of offense Elkins would unleash was negated by the most improbable of combinations and footwork. Despite the dissatisfied fans that booed the ugliness of the fight, I found myself thoroughly engaged and excited to see more.
Hall’s long stretches of inactivity have prevented him from truly climbing the ranks. With just over six months since he was seen in a submission of the year performance against BJ Penn at UFC 232, perhaps this is a sign that he will be making more frequent trips to the cage. Of course, six months isn’t a fast turnaround but when compared to the one and two-year layoffs that preceded it, it is a serious improvement.
We can only hope that Hall is back again soon, and this time faces a higher ranked opponent that can really tell us what we can expect from the Virginia native moving forward. A win over Elkins, especially in that fashion, is commendable but doesn’t tell us much about Hall’s ceiling. Coming into the contest riding a two-fight skid, it’s unclear how much of the results were because of his decline, or Hall’s potential as a top contender. If Hall can continue the bizarre and downright ugly tendencies that make him a must watch fighter against the elite of the division, it would be so beautiful.