UFC 144 brought us some exciting finishes and set a new standard for translator style, but now that it’s all over and the smoke has cleared it’s time to sort through the mess for the biggest winners, losers, and everything in between.
Biggest Winner: Ben Henderson
Usually when a fighter brags to his trainer about how many more rounds he could go at the end of the fight, it’s either a) an obvious lie, or b) meant to distract us from how poorly he did in the rounds he already fought. With Henderson it was neither. He really could have gone 15 more minutes, and would probably have only solidified his lead on the scorecards. There’s room to argue the decision, but you can’t look at Edgar’s face and call it a robbery. Henderson took it to the champ and never seemed starstruck by the scope of the moment or the opportunity. In short, he looked like a champion in there, and now he is one. His history with Pettis makes a WEC-themed rematch seem like an attractive option, and Bendo has said that he wants that fight eventually. For now, maybe we should let him get used to being champion. Like Tito Ortiz, he might want to spend a few weeks sleeping with the belt before putting it on the line.
Biggest Loser: Quinton "Rampage" Jackson
He didn’t look terrible in his decision loss to Ryan Bader. But if that’s the nicest thing you can say about the former champ’s performance, it’s probably not a good sign. The question with Jackson is how badly he really wants to keep doing this, and for how long. If he has no realistic hope of reclaiming a title, and if he doesn’t especially enjoy the day-to-day aspects of the fighter’s life (and he doesn’t), then why keep putting himself through the meat-grinder for a few superfluous paychecks? Not that we should expect it to be an easy decision. He’s not getting knocked out over and over again like Chuck Liddell, but he also doesn’t seem to have the same passion for the sport that Liddell did. If he’s going to show up overweight and get out-worked by younger, hungrier fighters, what’s the point? Hopefully, that’s the question Jackson is asking himself this week. No one wants to watch a former great fighting like he'd rather be filming an action movie.
Best Career Resurrection: Mark Hunt
While I admit I was pleased to see that it’s not just me who has trouble getting more than a couple words at a time out of the former K-1 champion, I wasn’t terribly surprised with the outcome of the fight. Hunt has improved his grappling and his cage awareness enough to force other heavyweights to stand and trade with him at least a little bit. When you can take it and dish it out as well as Hunt can, that’s a recipe for some knockouts. A win over Cheick Kongo might not qualify you for a title shot these days, but with three straight wins in the UFC Hunt has definitely pulled off an improbable career turnaround at 37 years old. From July of 2006 through the end of 2010, he couldn’t buy a win (though, with bouts against guys like Josh Barnett, Fedor Emelianenko, and Alistair Overeem, it’s not as if he fought a bunch of chumps). But Hunt didn’t give up, and didn’t even give in to an offer of free money from the UFC. He wanted the chance to prove himself, and now he’s making the most of it. It’s the feel-good story that everyone except Hunt wants to talk about, but that’s okay. His performances of late speak for themselves.
Least Impressive in Victory: Jake Shields
He spent three full rounds using his striking as little more than a diversion to aid his takedowns, and he still struggled to get Akiyama down and keep him there. Granted, Akiyama’s a tough guy to haul to the mat, especially now that he’s dropped to welterweight, but if Shields is going to depend so heavily on his ground game he has to be able to force the issue more. He’s now four fights into his stay with the UFC, and he’s yet to pull off a truly convincing win. He’s too good a fighter to be content with lackluster decisions, and yet maybe not quite good enough to go out there and dominate tough competition. I don’t know where that puts him in the UFC’s welterweight class, but it’s nowhere good.
Most Impressive in Defeat: Frankie Edgar
Once again, MMA’s Rocky shows that he can take his licks and keep coming forward. There’s absolutely no quit in this guy, and seemingly nothing he can’t fight through. You can’t blame him for wanting to stick around at lightweight and get his belt back, nor can you blame him for feeling like he deserves a rematch. You don’t get to be UFC champion by being someone who is easily convinced to seek out easier challenges. Still, with his quickness and resiliency I think we’d all like to see what he could do against Jose Aldo. All of us except, perhaps, Edgar himself. Give him time to come around to the idea. If it’s between an immediate title shot at featherweight and getting thrown back into the hopper at lightweight, he might change his mind soon enough.
Biggest Boost: Anthony Pettis
The stars couldn’t have aligned any better for the former WEC champ. After a stunning head kick finish against Joe Lauzon and a victory for his old rival in the main event, Pettis might have somehow managed to vault to the top of the UFC’s most crowded division. Does he totally deserve the title shot after only two wins in the UFC, one of which was a forgettable split decision? Maybe not, and if he didn’t have that history with Henderson, you can bet that no one would be talking about it right now. None of that changes the fact that a Henderson-Pettis rematch would be an exciting option right now, and one the UFC likely knows it could sell. Maybe other fighters have to win five or six in a row to get a shot at the title, and maybe it’s a little unfair for Pettis to cut in line thanks to two memorable head kicks, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
Most Refreshing: Joe Rogan admits to getting carried away
Okay, so Rogan freaked out a little bit when Tim Boetsch pulled off a surprising comeback against Yushin Okami. It was a great come-from-behind win for Boetsch, but probably not the greatest comeback in the history of the universe, as Rogan initially seemed to suggest. Most color commentators would breeze right past that, but Rogan calmed down and admitted that, yes, he’d gotten caught up in the moment. When’s the last time you heard a sports broadcaster correct his own mistakes that quickly? In a job that often requires speaking before you have a chance to think, the occasional flub is going to happen. Props to Rogan for admitting it on the air. Now all he has to do is tone it down in those pre-PPV shouting matches with Dana White.