Fortunes changed for five at UFC 159

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Going into Saturday night, April was looking to be one of the best months when it came to quality of shows in UFC history.

It opened on April 6 with the show in Stockholm, Sweden, that didn't look good on paper, but greatly overachieved. There were mostly entertaining fights, several good finishes, and the debut of a potential star in Ireland's Conor McGregor. The Ultimate Fighter finals the next week was another show that delivered better than the lineup looked. The April 20 show on FOX, from top-to-bottom, was probably the company's best show of what has been a strong year for action.

And then they went to Newark, N.J. At some point, the averages have to catch up. Saturday was that night.

The one-sided nature of Jon Jones' win over Chael Sonnen was expected, but the undercard, with the exception of Pat Healy's win over Jim Miller and Steven Silver's win over Kurt Holobaugh, it was not a big night when it came to entertaining and competitive fights.

It started early. The usually sloppy but exciting Leonard Garcia was completely neutralized, perhaps right out of the company, by Cody McKenzie. Sara McMann's win over Sheila Gaff served its purpose. It exposed the former Olympic silver medal winning wrestler to the UFC audience, and she got a first-round submission. But from an excitement standpoint, it paled compared to the two prior women's fights in UFC.

Ovince St. Preux had been an exciting fighter in Strikeforce, but was having a lackluster battle with another Strikeforce alum, Gian Villante, before the first finish of the night due to an eye poke. Unlike the later Michael Bisping vs. Alan Belcher fight, that ended similarly, this was unnecessarily stopped by ref Kevin Mulhall due to an issue of miscommunication.

The only positive is that maybe it's a blessing in disguise if something good comes of it. Television announcer Joe Rogan was railing for much of the show about the problems with the standard MMA glove, because of the number of eye pokes that result from the open fingers. The problem is even these gloves have an effect on grappling, a key component of the sport. The line between a safer glove and one that won't restrict grappling is a tough one with no easy answer. But it is absolutely something the commissions and glove manufactures should be working on immediately to see if some improvement can be made.

The second aspect is that eye pokes in the rules should be treated the same as low blows, as the fouled fighter should get five minutes to clear their vision. They aren't, even though many fans are of the belief they are, which often leads to confusion.

Villante was poked in the eye. Mulhall heard Villante say he couldn't see. All fighters should know that telling a referee or a doctor, "I can't see," is asking for the fight to be stopped, which Mulhall did immediately. It is not infrequent when a fighter's eye is swelling that they lie when asked if they can see, understanding that code.

Villante just wanted time to shake off the poke. Mulhall stopped the fight even with Villante then pleading for him not to. They went to the cards in a fight that had two close rounds, and St. Preux got the majority technical decision.
Rustam Khabilov, UFC's version of the human suplex machine, tried one, it got blocked and the next thing you know, opponent Yancy Medeiros' thumb was suddenly at an unnatural 90 degree angle. The fight was stopped, before it ever got going, leaving UFC with 20 minutes of air time to fill on FX.

Healy and Miller, who got the fight of the night bonus, looked like they may have been able to save the show after one of the worst undercards in recent memory. But they were followed by wrestling whiz Phil Davis and jiu-jitsu master Vinny Magalhaes in engaging in a bad kickboxing match that the crowd booed significantly.

In the ultimate "can't judge a book by its cover" fight, Roy Nelson, UFC's greatest athlete who visually bears no resemblance to one, used the sledge hammers God gave him as fists to finish Cheick Kongo in less time than it would take him to order fast food at the drive-through.

Given few expected the main event to be competitive, it was up to Michael Bisping and Alan Belcher to save the show. Bisping, the heir apparent to Sonnen's role as best seller of a fight and a confident talking Belcher, built up expectations of fireworks like July 4th.

But when the fight started, Belcher seemed there only in body. He simply couldn't keep up with Bisping's pace, seemed befuddled for three rounds, and delivered very little on offense. He also never seemed hurt as he was repeatedly tagged for almost three rounds with clean shots.

Then, after an accidental poke in Belcher's right eye that he had surgery on twice before, a second fight was stopped due to an eye poke. Belcher had blood coming out of his eye and this one had to be stopped. It went to the cards where Bisping easily won.

The most notable thing about the main event is what could have happened, but didn't. Jones suffered a freak injury, a broken big toe on his left foot that would have resulted in a fight stoppage the minute the referee or doctor saw it.

Fortunately for Jones, he finished Sonnen first. But even Jones thought the referee called the fight early and time was running out in the round. Had the round ended, there was no way officials would have let Jones go out for the second round. It could have been the strangest title change in UFC history.

The only one close was on Jan. 31, 2004, when the seam in Vitor Belfort's glove sliced light heavyweight champion Randy Couture's eyelid in the opening seconds of their fight, which did result in a title change.

In the aftermath of the show that will largely soon be forgotten past the eye pokes and ghastly looking digits, let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five of the stars.

JON JONES - With his fifth consecutive successful title defense, Jones (18-1) tied the record set by Tito Ortiz (2000-2003) for the light heavyweight division. The only fighters ahead of him are Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre, the other two greatest fighters in UFC history. Given the dominant nature of his wins, having lost a total of two rounds in 13 UFC fights, Jones right now has to be in the discussion as one of the greatest fighters in UFC history. You simply can't yet put him ahead of Silva or St-Pierre because of the longevity issue. But neither of those two fighters were as dominant as Jones is at the same stage of their career.

Every fight adds to that legacy. A number of names, including Lyoto Machida, Daniel Cormier, and the one Jones asked for next, Alexander Gustafsson, have been mentioned as a next opponent. Jones asked for Gustafsson, citing he wanted to prove something to critics by facing someone of similar size. But with Jones needing time off due to the injury, fights are likely to be made that may change where the top names in the division stand.

It's impossible to have watched Saturday's fight and not come out of it with the feeling you're watching the guy who someday all the future greats will be compared to.

CHAEL SONNEN - At 36, questions were swirling all week regarding Sonnen's future, given few gave him much of a chance to win. UFC President Dana White did nothing to douse speculation of a Sonnen retirement and move to broadcasting. Sonnen (28-13-1) seemed to entertain the thought as well, noting at the press conference he didn't want to stick around without a path to the title. With three failed challenges, didn't see another one in his future.

While one should never take fighter retirement talk after a loss too seriously, Sonnen is likely to make the business decision. What has to be weighed is what FOX does or doesn't really offer him as far as full-time announcing goes, and what UFC can offer him.

With the number of shows UFC runs, Sonnen can still be a viable television headliner against a variety of top names, either as a light heavyweight or a middleweight. He can also be a viable late replacement, since he's proven he's willing to be that person, if a main event in either of those two divisions, falls apart.

UFC has a lot of shows and a finite number of major name stars, so there is a place for Sonnen. But is there a place for him in matches to earn the type of money he likely will earn on Saturday? He'd need a winning streak to get there, and somebody to knock off Silva or Jones. That doesn't look likely.

ROY NELSON - Nelson (20-7), who turns 37 on June 20, picked up his third straight knockout win, all in less than three minutes. White outright said that Nelson could face Cormier next, or perhaps Mark Hunt, if Hunt beats Junior Dos Santos on May 25.

A win over Cormier would make a strong case for Nelson to get a title shot at whoever is champion. With Nelson's killer right hand, he would appear to be a threat to any heavyweight. But even if we throw out the Frank Mir loss because Nelson was battling walking pneumonia for weeks and wasn't himself that night, when Nelson faces the top-level heavyweights, he's never landed that punch. In particular, he was battered badly by Fabricio Werdum, showing great heart in going the distance. He also clearly lost a decision to Dos Santos.

Until age catches up with him, Nelson has established himself as someone who people will see as a fun fighter on any main card and this win is likely to add to his popularity.

PAT HEALY - Many questioned whether Healy could survive at the UFC level, given the 31-16 career record he came into Saturday's fight with. But anyone who can finish Jim Miller, the No. 4 contender in UFC's deepest division, has more than earned a spot for the long haul.

Healy's performance on Saturday, combined with what Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson showed the previous week, has done wonders for the history of Strikeforce in hindsight.

Healy's record hardly suggests top-tier lightweight, but it's deceptive because he fought most of his career at welterweight.

His takedown and grinding style based on being bigger and stronger than his opponents has given him a 9-1 record as a lightweight. The only loss, to Thomson, was a fight he was ahead on the cards in until falling victim to a choke with 33 seconds left in the fight.

With his $130,000 in bonuses for best fight and best submission, Healy had the biggest night of his career both financially, and in securing his future.

LEONARD GARCIA - When Garcia (19-11-1) lost to Max Holloway on the Dec. 29 show in Las Vegas, his fourth in a row, White gave him a vote of confidence. He quickly dispatched any thoughts of cutting Garcia, noting UFC wants guys like Garcia who come to fight.

Garcia had six fight of the night bonuses between his UFC and WEC days, including one of the wildest fights in modern times in his 2010 fight with Chan Sung Jung. What he had going for him is amidst the sea of largely interchangeable faces you'd see on most undercards, when you saw the Garcia name, the immediate thought is, "wild brawl alert" and "fight not to be missed."

But his loss on Saturday to Cody McKenzie was not an entertaining brawl. He was controlled on the ground for three rounds and got virtually no offense in. It was his fifth loss in a row. Given that his 2010 win over Nam Phan was an outright mind-boggling decision, his victory against Jung in his most famous career fight is one most thought he lost, and his draw with George Roop was another strange decision, he realistically should be on a ten-fight losing streak.

The fact a guy with so many great fights and with a name was relegated to the Facebook fights didn't bode well to begin with. With a loss in a fight he wasn't competitive in, and no post-show vote of confidence, he's on the endangered species list.

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