Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Saturday's UFC 152 gave people a lot to talk about. Jon Jones was still dominant, but for a split second, it looked like the Fedor Emelianenko vs. Fabricio Werdum moment where the unthinkable was about to happen.
But in this case, it didn't.
There was a lot of negativity going into this show on Jones, starting with the cancellation of UFC 151 and his turning down Chael Sonnen, and continuing with his remarks and explanations. The very public back-and-forth with Dana White caused some to get behind him, particularly those predisposed to hate White. But as far as the fans went, it became clear that night those rallying behind him represented a minority viewpoint.
Some had thought going in, given that Jones' actions gave Toronto the main event the original show didn't have, that the area fans would be thankful for getting a stronger show than anticipated. Instead, Jones was booed out of the building every time he appeared on the screen, and when he came out for his title defense against Vitor Belfort.
But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Brock Lesnar made a fortune in his early UFC run in a similar position. As far as future business goes, Jones is now a significantly bigger star. As far as that one moment, when caught in the armbar, that was good as well. For the people who don't like Jones, for the first time, they've seen him as beatable, but still haven't seen him really beaten. While his record of 17-1 shows a loss to Matt Hamill, but that was a disqualification in a fight he dominated and nobody who saw the fight takes that result seriously. There are at least two future money fights out there if the cards play out right, in Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen. And there are contenders like Alexander Gustafsson also on the horizon if things go right.
But if Henderson faces Lyoto Machida next, as Dana White said was planned, Machida would be the favorite in that fight. Sonnen stylistically doesn't look to have a strong chance against Jones, but his mouth will be able to build the fight to top level numbers. But Sonnen still needs to beat Forrest Griffin to even be considered. If pay-per-view numbers for this show come in strong, then Jones has reached a point he can do well with almost anyone. That's a key because even though he finished Machida in their first match, Machida may still be his most difficult stylistic opponent. And as Jones himself said a few times in the past, he wasn't thrilled about facing Machida, because he's difficult to prepare for, and the first Jones vs. Machida fight did the lowest pay-per-view numbers since Jones has been in the title scene.
The flip side of that armbar is the damage that was done to Jones' right arm, still not fully determined. That could both delay his coming back, and in a worse case scenario, leave him with a permanent weakness. Still, a one-armed Jon Jones, aside from those few seconds, had little trouble with Belfort,
But let's look at Saturday's show from the sports, business and entertainment perspective:
Kyle Noke vs Charlie Brenneman: Noke's 45-second knockout breaks a two-fight losing streak at middleweight. The move to welterweight is a fresh coat of paint for him to build from, but this is only step one. Brenneman has now lost three out of his last four fights since he put himself on the map with an upset win over Rick Story, He desperately needs to come back with a win. The finish was a little controversial as far as whether the stoppage was early, but starting the show off explosively is always a good thing.
Mitch Gagnon vs. Walel Watson: Gagnon finished Watson in 1:09, scoring his first UFC win. Watson, a tall bantamweight known as The Gazelle, has not lived up to his promise with his third loss in a row. That puts The Gazelle on the endangered species list. Gagnon took a solid step forward with this kind of a win. For the live crowd, seeing a native of Sudbury, Ont., win in this fashion kept the ball rolling on a strong show.
Seth Baczynski vs. Simeon Thoresen: A third straight first-round finish, with Baczynski scoring a knockout at 4:10. Thoresen was dominating the fight until being caught with a counter left hook to the jaw in a welterweight fight. For Thoresen, it evened his UFC record at 1-1. Baczynski, cut from UFC after losing to Brad Tavares at the TUF season 11 finale, has now come back with six straight wins, four in UFC competition. Not a great fight, but another crowd pleasing finish.
Marcus Brimage vs. Jimy Hettes: Hettes came in on many people's list of being a future player in the featherweight division. He had a 10-0 record at 24 years of age. In his last two fights, he looked very impressive in dominating wins over Nam Phan and Alex Caceres. But it was Brimage, who came out of TUF 14, who dominated the third round to win on 29-28 scores. A major flaw in Hettes' game was exposed here, in that if he can't take his opponent down, in facing even a tired opponent who has solid stand-up, he's in trouble. The fight was good, as Brimage hurt Hettes and nearly finished him in the first. Hettes looked good on the ground and was working for a finish in the second. But Hettes took a major step backward.
Lance Benoist vs. Sean Pierson: Pierson, a crowd favorite from Toronto, won the first two rounds before taking a beating in the third and hanging on to survive with a straight 29-28 win. With a close second round, this could have gone either way. Pierson, 36, has been a journeyman welterweight. Benoist won his first six pro fights and had a strong reputation coming into UFC, but now has lost two close calls, to Baczynski and now Pierson. The crowd was more into this match than anything so far, due to Pierson being local.
T.J. Grant vs. Evan Dunham: Grant won the first two rounds to take the decision in the fight of the night. Since moving to lightweight, Grant is now 3-0, with wins over Shane Roller, Carlo Prater and now Dunham. Dunham came in as a solid name, and this was easily Grant's biggest career win and one that should put him in waters with the real sharks in UFC's deepest division. The loss seriously hurt Dunham. He came in with a 13-2 record, but his decision loss to Sean Sherk was one that UFC officials believed he won and treated it like he was the winner. So he really only had one loss, to Melvin Guillard, and had followed it with two wins, most recent over a tough Nik Lentz. At 30, with so much talent at lightweight, it's hard to rebound after two major losses. This was a great fight, exciting through all three rounds and there was little arguing both getting the $65,000 best fight bonus. This is almost the prototype of what fans and promoters would want out of something on the undercard.
Vinny Magalhaes vs. Igor Pokrajac: Magalhaes returned to UFC after winning five bouts in a row outside, including winning the M-1 light heavyweight title. Magalhaes has some very marketable traits, between the look of a star and fantastic Jiu Jitsu, as a two-time world champion. The question on him has always been his toughness, and he only went 4-5 before starting his win streak. Fans booed the first round of the fight, but the ground work in the second round by Magalhaes made for a strong ending. Magalhaes can scare almost anyone in the division if he can get the fight to the ground. But as Pokrajac showed late in the first, he can be hurt standing. The finish made up for the fans' first-round restlessness.
Cub Swanson vs. Charles Oliveira: Oliveira looked to be a future superstar when he debuted at the age of 20 with some spectacular submission wins. But now at 22, there are real questions regarding his chin after being knocked out cold here. He also missed weight, granted by only 0.2 pounds, but that always leads to questions about discipline. Swanson is making a name for himself in the featherweight division with his third straight knockout. He finished George Roop and Ross Pearson, and picked up his second straight best knockout bonus. For Oliveira, this ground his hype train to a halt in a fight he was expected to win. Swanson is on the rise, but in the past has had trouble with the division's elite, losing to Ricardo Lamas and Chad Mendes, and back in 2009, lost to current champ Jose Aldo in eight seconds. With this run, he's likely to be put back in with people of that caliber. This was a strong start for the pay-per-view.
Matt Hamill vs. Roger Hollett: Hamill came out of a 13-month retirement at the age of 35 to use his wrestling to score an easy decision. This fight had some action in the first round when Hamill nearly finished Hollett with ground-and-pound. But from there, it ended up as the weakest part of the show. Hamill was exhausted after not finishing Hollett with ground and pound. But Hollett, a boxer against a tired wrestler, couldn't get off nor stop his takedowns late. With this performance, one would question what kind of future Hollett would have in UFC. Hamill is a name fighter because he's been around so long, but is not ever going to be a contender again. The worst fight of the show.
Michael Bisping vs. Brian Stann: If there was a story from the start, it was that former ultra-heel Bisping is turning the corner with the fans. Bisping won the second and third rounds against a tough, durable fighter and answered critics who labeled him as overrated and unable to beat top competition. Between his conditioning and ability to mix-up standing and takedowns, this may have been Bisping's most impressive career performance. He's now won five of his last six fights, and the loss, to Chael Sonnen, was a decision many thought he deserved. It was good for business, as Bisping established himself as at least someone who should be under consideration for a future title fight. At worst, Bisping should get a title eliminator next. Stann can be a star, and I don't think was hurt much with the loss. But his time is starting to run out, and he's got to shore up his weakness at defending takedowns if he's ever going to take the next step up. This was a workmanlike fight. Nothing wrong with it, but perhaps because it was hyped up like it was going to be spectacular, it fell a little short.
Demetrious Johnson vs. Joseph Benavidez: This was the most polarizing fight of the night. Johnson became the first UFC flyweight champion, but there was no mistaking that this a lot of people in this crowd were not wanting to see 125 pounders go at a fast pace for five rounds. You had the two best guys in the division, in a split decision fight that ended up being decided when Johnson won the final round. There was only one near finish, by Benavidez in round four. The big message here is that it's going to take time to establish this division to the masses. The smaller guys on top is really a hit-and-miss depending on the audience. Urijah Faber vs. Dominick Cruz wowed them in Las Vegas. Johnson vs. Cruz came across like a top caliber main event in Washington, D.C. But Faber vs. Renan Barao did not get over in Calgary, which led to a Dana White rant about people not appreciating that caliber of fight. White was even madder about this fight, to the point of saying that fans who didn't like this fight, he'd just assume stop watching UFC. From a skill and conditioning level, this was the best fight on the show, but between the size and being put so late on the show, a lot of people didn't see it that way. For business, we are simply not at the point that the flyweight title can headline a pay-per-view.
Jon Jones vs. Vitor Belfort: If it wasn't for the early armbar spot, the fight was one-sided, as it was expected to be. The fight was good for future business as Jones continues to establish himself with Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre as one of the big three of the sport. In hindsight, Jones with his right arm destroyed, gutting it out and winning, can be one of those legacy making moments of his career. But Belfort was injured, and tired very quickly, offering little. It was not a great action fight by any means, but the armbar and the personalities of the two kept it interesting enough.
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