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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday invaded the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, with UFC on ESPN 4. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: ROCKY DANGERFIELD
It’s about time to give Leon Edwards some respect.
By earning a clear-cut decision at the expense of Rafael dos Anjos in the main event, Edwards extended his impressive winning streak to eight fights and made us wonder why he’s the most overlooked fighter in the welterweight division. With a victory over a highly respected former champion now on his resume, Edwards should be fully accepted as an elite competitor at 170 pounds. Previous wins against Gunnar Nelson and Donald Cerrone should have ushered in more respect but seemed to fall short. The victory over Nelson was overshadowed by Jorge Masvidal’s upset of Darren Till and the infamous three-piece-and-soda backstage altercation that followed. Despite beating a fan favorite in Cerrone in a headlining assignment, the fact that the fight took place in Singapore buried what could have been a breakout performance from “Rocky.” This time, no outside drama, far-off locales or resulting time zone irregularities should get in the way of Edwards reaping the rewards.
As seems to be the case when Edwards walks away the winner, his all-around skills and adaptability serve as the talking points. An extended ground battle with an expert grappler like Nelson? No problem. A kickboxing match against a premier striker like Cerrone? No problem. Dos Anjos attempting to impose his signature high-pressure, high-volume attack? Once again, another day at the office for Edwards. Nevertheless, he has a steep hill to climb in order to reach champion Kamaru Usman, who also happens to be the last man to defeat him. The challenges will only get bigger and opponents like Masvidal, Tyron Woodley and Santiago Ponzinibbio are likely to make his path much more difficult. However, with every win, Edwards moves upward and gets another chance to earn his just due.
THE BAD: DOUBLE CHINS
It’s always difficult to see a fighter unable to absorb a punch with the same resilience, as it’s typically a warning sign that either a career could be ending or an approach needs to change. Whether it’s time to start considering life after prizefighting or reevaluating training situations and technical holes, the race against the Father Time’s stopwatch begins. It seems likely that James Vick and Alexey Oleynik will look in the mirror soon and wonder where their next steps will take them.
Vick suffered a first-round knockout thanks to the aggressive blitz of Dan Hooker. This marks his third consecutive defeat, and the second time he has been slept inside the Octagon in less than a year. An unforgettable one-shot kill against Justin Gaethje in August, a 15-minute war with Paul Felder and his encounter with a Hooker left hook has added a number of miles to Vick’s odometer. At the top of the lightweight division, it appears that Vick is unable to capitalize on his imposing 6-foot-3 frame. Perhaps a fresh start is what’s needed to right the ship in the midst of this three-fight skid. Maybe he should add fresh eyes to his coaching staff. New minds might be able to construct better game plans or prepare him in a more suitable fashion. It’s also possible that Vick simply does not belong at lightweight anymore. With an increasingly worrisome chin, a huge weight cut might be doing more harm than good. Ironically, his opponent learned this lesson in his seesaw experience as a featherweight. Hooker’s rough road to 145 pounds depleted him far too much for him to fully benefit from his lanky build and long reach. Vick seems to have hit a similar wall. Maybe Vick has reached a point where he’s leaving too much in the sauna.
Similarly, Alexey Oleynik might have to reevaluate the direction of his career. Just three months ago, Oleynik succumbed to a brutal first-round onslaught from Alistair Overeem, and an even earlier barrage from Walt Harris ended the Russian’s latest outing just as violently. Unlike the 32-year-old Vick, Oleynik is much farther along on the Danny Glover “getting too old for this s---” scale. While 42 isn’t as extreme an age in the heavyweight division, Oleynik’s style makes his advancing years and recent inability to withstand strikes much more of an issue. Oleynik is without a doubt one of the sport’s most dangerous submission artists and can snatch a limb or a neck at any given moment. Unfortunately, the process usually involves sustaining a certain level of damage before being able to employ the best parts of his game. For example, his patented Ezekiel choke quickly forced Junior Albini to tap at UFC 224 but only happened after he endured several significant blows that quickly bloodied his face. Against Mark Hunt, the submission win required enduring a good amount of punishment, as well. As the strength of his chin diminishes with every power shot landed on him, the likelihood of surviving the exchanges long enough to tie up his opponents also diminishes.
THE UGLY: THE PRINCE OF WAR NEXT DOOR
As the backlash for Greg Hardy’s inclusion on the UFC roster reignites with every booking, it’s clear that we must get used to the wave of publicity that accompanies him to the Octagon. It looks like he’s here to stay. His fast finish of Juan Adams proved that the disgraced former NFL star has legitimately carved out a spot for himself among the heavyweights. We’ve gotten to watch Hardy develop right before our eyes since his first raw appearance on Dana White’s Contender Series. With each subsequent outing, a few more wrinkles were added to his game, usually resulting in some poor soul being beaten mercilessly. Where previous opponents were clearly hand-picked to pave the way for this moment, Adams was a true test who posed a real threat to the UFC’s efforts to force Hardy into our living rooms every few months. While Adams wasn’t exactly knocking on Daniel Cormier’s door for a title fight, he had proven himself capable of defeating credible opponents.
Until now, the same could not be said for Hardy. In the wake of Dmitri Smoylakov doing his best crash test dummy imitation, Adams represented a tremendous step up in competition. In just 45 seconds, Hardy passed that test with flying colors. Needless to say, this win doesn’t cement Hardy in a contender’s role. It’s unlikely to even earn him a Top 15 ranking. However, what it does cement is his ability to handle higher-level opposition, and puts him in position to work his way up the ladder.
There are still some obvious skill gaps from what we’ve seen, and there are surely some we haven’t seen. Hardy has shown that elite athletic ability can overcome those gaps. Backed by a stellar coaching staff led by American Top Team’s Din Thomas, expect those skill gaps to close further; and expect him to figure out more ways to take advantage of his athleticism as his experience level and fight IQ grow, as well. Love him or hate him, the ugly truth is simple. Hardy is now a full-fledged UFC fighter.