With both the Australian and American versions of Ultimate Fighter finishing up, leading to televised finals on Friday and Saturday night, the weekend theme turned out to be a lot of lesser known fighters producing matches that far exceeded almost any expectations.
Colton Smith, a U.S Army Ranger out of Fort Hood, Tex., won the U.S. version of the show in a welterweight tournament, and then hinted at a move to lightweight. On the other side of the world, lightweight Norman Parke
and welterweight Robert Whittaker
took Australian honors. Whittaker, from Sydney, Australia, bested Bradley Scott
of England in the most notable of the three fights. But at this point it's way too early to even speculate on where any of the three will fit in going forward.
A number of other fighters on the card had notable performances, as they are trying to grab the brass ring. So let's look at five weekend notables:
RUSTAM KHABILOV - A lot of Russian fighters have been brought into the major U.S. promotions sporting impressive win-loss records, but they have had mixed results. But few people have opened eyes as quickly as the former Combat Sambo world champion did on Saturday.
Khabilov (15-1) took on Vinc Pichel
from season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter. Pichel came into the house last year with a 7-0 record, with every fight ending via knockout. Khabilov got behind Pichel, and threw three consecutive back suplexes. While suplexes in MMA fights are crowd pleasers, there is the argument that they take a lot of strength, use up a lot of energy, and often aren't worth the effort. But Khabilov's throws were not only a great visual, but they were finishers, with the third knocking Pichel out.
It's way too early to know where Khabilov, now training at Greg Jackson's camp in Albuquerque, N.M., will fit in. But on a weekend with almost 30 fights on four televised shows, a lot of newcomers blended into the scenery. But whether everyone remembers his name yet or not, everyone watching Fuel will have a clear memory of the Russian with the suplexes.
HECTOR LOMBARD -
Lombard came into UFC on July 21 as the unbeaten Bellator middleweight champion. He had one of the longest unbeaten streaks in the sport, dating back 25 fights. He walked in with people talking about a potential showdown with Anderson Silva
. And when it was over, all the talk was gone.
He came in with some questions. The first was how he would fare against the higher level of competition that he really hadn't been tested by in years, and there were questions regarding stamina. He had a number of explosive knockouts. And even though he hadn't lost, in fights that got into the later rounds, he slowed down greatly.
He debuted against Tim Boetsch
, a tough, durable guy who figured to give an indication of what level he's at.
The end result had people almost immediately writing him off.
But Lombard was completely different from his usual self. Instead of coming out and exploding, he did almost nothing on offense. The only thing that kept him in the fight is Boetsch didn't do much more. Boetsch got the decision, and while it could be argued Lombard deserved it, he hardly looked like a title contender nor an entertaining fighter.
A few weeks later, Lombard said that came into the fight with a fractured sternum that kept him out of training for six weeks. While the usual reaction in the fight game is that everyone comes in hurt, and if you agree to fight, after losing, you shouldn't then start citing injuries as excuses.
Still, the Cuban-born former Olympic judoka was so completely different in the cage than in every other fight that no other explanation, even the dreaded first-time UFC jitters, could explain his performance.
Put in there with a dangerous Rousimar Palhares
(23-5) on Friday in his adopted home country of Australia, it was immediate in Friday's match that Lombard was not a paper tiger. He dropped the Brazilian leglock specialist three times in 3:38 before finishing him with punches on the ground. He immediately issued a challenge to Michael Bisping
. With Dana White saying Bisping is likely to get the next shot at Silva if he beats Vitor Belfort
, Lombard isn't likely to get his wish right away.
But he did largely erase the Boetsch match memory with his performance. The winner of the Dec. 29 Alan Belcher vs. Yushin Okami
bout, or Strikeforce's
top middleweights coming over, like Luke Rockhold
or Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, could be next in the cards. At 32-3-1, a win there would likely elevate him to a consensus top three contender status.
ROY NELSON - In the early moments of Saturday's main event, Nelson (19-7) looked like he was in for a tough night with Matt Mitrione (5-2). Mitrione, with a huge reach and height edge, and good movement, showed greatly improved striking at first, landing a strong attack of body and head kicks mixed with punches and elbows. But, as he's shown before, the man whose photo should be in the dictionary next to the phrase, "You can't judge a book by its cover," is almost impossible to put away, and all he needs is one shot to end it. He landed that shot - a strong uppercut - and Mitrione's night ended in just 2:58.
As for where Nelson goes next, it's a tough one. His big claim to fame was going the distance with champion Junior Dos Santos, but he also lost all three rounds and never had Dos Santos in any jeopardy. He took a brutal beating from Fabricio Werdum
, a fight that was most notable in proving just how difficult he is to finish, since he again lasted three rounds but at no point was a threat to win.
He's only been stopped once in 26 fights, years back by Andrei Arlovski at a time his game wasn't nearly at the level it is now. If his original opponent for Saturday, rival Ultimate Fighter coach Shane Carwin
can get healthy, that would be a natural fight, since it already has three months of buildup. History has shown with Matt Hughes
vs. Matt Serra
and Rampage Jackson vs. Rashad Evans
, that if the coaches fight gets delayed by a few months, fan interest still remains. But Nelson said on Saturday that he's moved past Carwin.
At 36, Nelson seems like a very dangerous opponent that young stars on the rise would be best served avoiding. But he's also someone who is unlikely to be a true threat to the championship level fighters.
UFC has plenty of heavy hitters in the heavyweight division, like Mark Hunt
, Travis Browne
or perhaps Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva that fit into the same category, and could keep him busy for the next year.
DUSTIN POIRIER -
Poirier, at 23, seemed on the verge of a featherweight title shot when he was derailed by The Korean Zombie, Chan Sung Jung
, on May 15, in a strong fight-of-the-year contender. Poirier lost that one via D'Arce choke in the fourth round.
On Saturday, former Ultimate Fighter champion Jonathan Brookins
(14-6) came out and hurt him early, and looked like he was going to knock him all the way to the back of the featherweight line.
But Poirier (13-2) regrouped, and turned things around late in the first round, finishing Brookins with the same D'Arce choke, showing the truest application of the phrase learning from ones mistakes.
While the featherweight division doesn't have the list of marquee names the heavier divisions have, it has really grown as far as depth, particularly UFC star lightweights like Frankie Edgar
and Clay Guida
moving down. The division has four big fights over the next few months. The first pits Nik Lentz
, another former UFC lightweight, against Diego Nunes
on Jan. 19 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
, a former No. 1 contender whose career record has been flawless aside from his title match loss to Jose Aldo
, finished late sub Yaotzin Meza on Friday night in Australia, and can be argued is still No. 2 in the world.
MIKE PYLE -
Well-known as a guy who had great skills in the gym but didn't fully show his ability in the cage, Pyle (24-8-1), after coming from behind to finish James Head
(9-3) after a devastating knee in just 1:55, is starting to live up to his insider reputation.
But at 37, time is running out on his trying to make his move in the welterweight division. Pyle walked the walk in the cage with an impressive finish after being hurt early. He also talked the talk, using expletives to decry any welterweight rankings that don't have him already in the top ten, a category most probably wouldn't have him in just yet.
He's won six of his last seven, losing only to Rory MacDonald
. But he still needs a win over an elite level fighter to make a case for that level of a ranking. But he did make enough of a statement that he may at least get that chance.