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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday staged UFC on Fox 31 at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, while Bellator MMA visited Hawaii with a doubleheader -- Bellator 212 on Friday and Bellator 213 on Saturday -- at the Neil S. Blaisdell Center in Honolulu. With them came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: PRIME REAL ESTATE AT 155 POUNDS
In a busy weekend of mixed martial arts, the lightweight division took center stage. While the events were loaded with talent all across the spectrum of weight classes, the 155ers main evented in two of the weekend’s high-profile fight cards.
“Ragin’” Al Iaquinta once again proved his worth by getting the better of Kevin Lee in a hard-fought decision at UFC on Fox 31. After a razor-close first round, Iaquinta clearly lost the second and third to “The Motown Phenom.” However, Iaquinta rallied late with a varied and effective striking game to pull out the victory. His usually solid boxing was accompanied by head kicks and unyielding pressure that slowed Lee’s surge and had him desperate for solutions as the championship rounds commenced.
Iaquinta concluded 2018 in memorable fashion. After having long stretches of inactivity due to contract disputes, the Serra-Longo Fight Team member was expected to get to the old routine of fighting fringe contenders, which included his scheduled meeting with Paul Felder at UFC 223. Of course, we know the story. A rogue cable in a television studio, an interim champion, a late-notice superfight and a bad weight cut later, Iaquinta found himself facing Khabib Nurmagomedov for the undisputed lightweight title on only a day’s notice. While he did not get his hand raised, seeing the final bell proved to be a moral victory in the eyes of many and established that he belonged among the elites at lightweight. That paved his way to the UFC on Fox 31 main event.
Although he held a previous win over Lee, things have changed a lot since 2014. Lee is no longer a newcomer making his UFC debut. The unpolished wrestler who relied almost entirely on his athletic prowess has been replaced with a well-rounded and crafty veteran who also had his own chance to capture gold inside the Octagon. Lee was a worthy representative for the elite of the division. By once again getting in the win column against Lee, Iaquinta can expect to move upwards toward even tougher opposition and even more prominent placement on future events. What makes that even more interesting is the oftentimes adversarial relationship he has had with UFC officials. His contract holdouts and efforts to unionize the roster with Project Spearhead have earned him no favors with the promotion. Look no further than the ousting of Leslie Smith and the matchmaking that preceded the release of Kajan Johnson.
The turnaround even manifested itself in the $50,000 check Iaquinta will be cashing from his efforts in Milwaukee. The “Performance of the Night” bonus officially ends the ban UFC officials placed on his eligibility for earning the supplemental check. Saving the aforementioned pay-per-view in April, headlining the final UFC on Fox card and earning a post-fight bonus seems to point to the promotion changing its view on the Long Island native. Expect to see more opportunities thrown his way.
Meanwhile, Michael Chandler managed to restore the established order in Bellator by recapturing the lightweight title from Brent Primus at Bellator 212. Not only did Chandler avenge his unexpected loss from last year’s Madison Square Garden pay-per-view outing, but he also secured his third title reign in the promotion. Reclaiming the top spot could not come at a better time, as his longstanding rivalry with Patricky Freire seems to have spilled over to featherweight champion Patricio Freire. A champion-versus-champion superfight would be another career highlight for one of the rare men who has achieved universal respect without fighting in the UFC.
THE BAD: LAST TO THE LUAU
Bellator made its presence felt in Hawaii. Promoting two events on two consecutive nights in the historic Neal S. Blaisdell Arena was a great move for an underserved market that has consistently produced top-level talent. While fully embracing the culture of the islands, Bellator managed to spark much-needed life in a fanbase that has been largely ignored since EliteXC made its last visit in 2008. Grass skirts on the analysts’ desk and Hawaiian shirts on the commentators and crew made for nice touches to celebrate the return of high-level MMA to a place that has contributed so much to it.
Bringing flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane to defend her title in the second main event of the weekend was the right call by Bellator President Scott Coker. The walkout rooted in Hawaiian tradition made the crowd wild, as the camera panned to teary-eyed fans. MacFarlane was exceptional in her performance. Visibly excited and emotional about her homecoming party yet poised and patiet, the undefeated fighter confirmed she is among the elite females in the sport. Finishing Valerie Letourneau with a slick third-round triangle choke to the backdrop of screaming hometown fans was definitely one of the more unforgettable moments in the history of the promotion. It was a great success for Bellator, and by all accounts, it was an enjoyable time in a place that was long overdue for such a big event.
What makes this bad is that it could’ve been so much bigger. Had the UFC listened to the starved fanbase of Hawaii and the elite champions who hail from the state, this moment could have had even more emotion and gravity. B.J. Penn, who at the time was a consistent draw and dominant fighter, campaigned for the UFC to make a visit to his home state. Max Holloway, who has since emerged as the heir apparent to Penn, has been very vocal about his desire to main event in Hawaii, as well.
Imagine either one of these men defending their belts with the full support and attendance of fellow Hawaiians. While Penn’s days as a top-tier competitor have clearly passed, Holloway looks like he is only starting to touch his prime years at the age of 27. While the logistics of putting on a big show in such a remote location and issues with Hawaii’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs have been cited as the major reasons why the UFC has never held an event there, it’s clear that making it happen should have been a top priority.
Of course, the UFC can still make the trip. Holloway would still rightfully receive a hero’s welcome, as the local community would undoubtedly show up in droves to support him. However, there is a certain novelty in being the first. While the UFC is usually the first to break down borders and forge a path for other promotions to follow, it looks like Bellator took the lead this time.
THE UGLY: THE CASE OF THE MISSING WHITE TOWEL
I’m tired of it. I’m sick of taking the final segment of this regular post-fight analysis column to call out the ineptitude of the officials and cornermen when it relates to fighter safety. Just last week we watched Brian Ortega take an unreal amount of damage before the cageside doctor intervened. At UFC 229, we saw Duke Roufus mercifully throw in the towel to prevent Anthony Pettis from once again proving how tough he is after breaking his hand against Tony Ferguson.
Dan Hooker’s corner and referee Rob Hinds did not look to those examples at UFC on Fox 31. While the fight was competitive in the first round, the second and third frame between Hooker and Barboza took an ugly turn. Barboza landed at will, causing the Kiwi to noticeably wobble. As Hooker seemed to stay barely composed enough to throw an occasional counter, all bets were off once the body kicks started. After the first spinning back kick landed cleanly to his midsection, it was clear to everyone but Hinds and the corner that Hooker had nothing left to offer. A combination of left roundhouses followed against the fence. Nothing seemed to get the attention of the ref or corner. After Hooker awkwardly stumbled, Barboza continued his onslaught and landed even more body shots and punches to the head. It took Hooker to finally fold in pain for Hinds to step in and call an end to the action.
Earlier, Hinds showed excellent judgment by not waiting for Jared Gordon to lifelessly fall to the canvas to stop the offense of Joaquim Silva. His stoppage in that fight was nearly perfect and didn’t allow Gordon to take unnecessary blows when it was clear he could no longer intelligently defend himself. Somehow between fights that same vigilance was lost and Hooker suffered as a result. As far as his corner is concerned, there is simply no excuse. As a culture, MMA can learn from its sister sport of boxing. A fighter’s camp throwing in the towel is much more commonplace and should be adopted much more often.
The idea that one shot can turn the tide of a fight has provided some incredible highlights at rare times. However, the overwhelming majority of the time, mixed martial artists take more unwarranted punishment in the hopes of such low-percentage outcomes. The juice just isn’t worth the squeeze. Let’s hope that we don’t have to learn this the hard way with someone being permanently harmed due to negligence and unrealistic hopes.