April in Review: UFC

The Ultimate Fighting Championship has just wrapped a whirlwind tour, completing four events in four weeks, and leaving fight fans everywhere relatively happy with what they'd witnessed. An interesting, if eventually underwhelming fight card in Sweden, an Ultimate Fighter finale where the hype surrounding the two finalists actually overshadowed the main event, a FOX card that could only have better if Benson Henderson broke his MO of controversial decisions, and an eerie reminder that UFC 151 will, at least for this brief part of time, be the overwhelming point of interest on Jon Jones career. It's a lot to break it down, so let's look at this month event by event.

The UFC returned to Sweden with the pioneering Swedish fighter Alexander Gustafsson in tow, setting him up against multi-organizational champion Gegard Mousasi, in what was a showcase fight for either man should they win. Not a week away from fight day, however, Gustafsson suffered a cut in training, and was pulled from the event. Stepping up to take his place (and causing internet warriors everywhere to write scathingly about him) was Ilir Latifi. While Mousasi man handled the late replacement, he never searched for a finish. Afterwards it was revealed that he fought on an injured knee that would require surgery.

The real star to break out from the card was Irish fighter, Conor McGregor. He made a statement against Marcus Brimage, and stopped the "Bama Beast" with strikes in little more than a minute. With a post-fight interview that surprised the professionalism off of Kenny Florian, and a date set for his next fight, McGregor has a great amount of hype and interest. Time will tell if he lives up to it, or succumbs to the hype, ala Brandon Vera.

The lesson the UFC should learn, or more importantly, the keyboard warriors, is that if the fights on the card deliver, there is absolutely no reason to write them off for lack of star power. To be fair though, the UFC has a responsibility to deliver to their fans the fighters they want to see. Dana White has said fight cards are not watered down, and while it is far better so far this year than it was in 2013, I'll respectfully disagree. The fight cards, while still very intriguing, are still watered down. If the injury bug stays away from the fight scene for 2013, however, and the projected match-ups come to fruition, the first half of the year is looking promising.

Then, from Sweden, the UFC headed to Vegas for the Ultimate Fighter finale. The entire main card was stacked with talent, and intrigue. Could Uriah Hall live up to the hype thrust upon him? Would Cat Zingano-Miesha Tate live up to the excitement precedent laid forth by Ronda Rousey? Could Urijah Faber best standout Scott Jorgensen?

Short answer: yes and no. Uriah Hall no doubt has some great potential, with some crisp striking to compliment his physical strength, but first he must deal with the mental aspect of the game. After buying into his own hype, he was content to search for the one punch knockout for a majority of the fight, allowing eventual winner Kelvin Gastelum to put forth a busy effort and win the crowd over.

Tate-Zingano was an absolute barnburner, with Zingano storming through Tate’s face with a series of fight ending knees to steal a coaching spot. The addition of the women’s division was by far the best decision the UFC has made in recent memory, and it was supremely evident and on display.

Urijah Faber did his thing, and out-grappled the scrappy veteran Jorgensen en route to a 4th round submission. As impressive as it was, it showed little way in the evolution of Faber’s game, and left the crowd feeling disappointed. The latter effect of the fight can hardly be Faber’s fault. Preceding fights and emotional investment would have made the Ultimate Fighter finale and the women’s bout impossible to follow.

This fight card illustrated the importance of competitiveness over showmanship. When it comes right down to it, this last season of the Ultimate Fighter was better than many in recent memory because there was a focus on drunken idiocy. The main focus was on the ability of the fighters to produce memorable, entertaining fights. Sure, you’re going to need a personality to get behind, but when a show becomes strictly about personalities, you’re going to lose the thing that makes a fight sport so awesome to watch: competent fighters.

The following weekend, the UFC strapped on its metaphorical gloves and did a full autopsy on Strikeforce, and checked to see if the key organs were still usable. They were, and in fact were functioning perfectly. Gilbert Melendez took lightweight champ Benson Henderson to a split decision, and had some people calling for an immediate rematch. It wasn’t meant to be, as the TJ Grant-Gray Maynard was designated as next in line. Regardless of the outcome, Melendez certainly showed several new fans why he is considered top three in the world.

Other fights featuring Strikeforce imports were a complete domination of Frank Mir by Daniel Cormier, and a stunning knockout of Nate Diaz via head kick, courtesy of former Strikeforce champ Josh Thompson. If nothing else, the three names most associated with Strikeforce showed that they were not to be undervalued, overlooked, or taken lightly.

This event proved that, while the UFC may be the standard all fighters will be measured against, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the best in the world will be under the roof Zuffa built. Perhaps eventually, if the UFC continues its expansion, but as for right now, the UFC just proved to itself that some top fighters may lie outside of its walls.

And finally, last weekend was UFC 159. After weeks of coaching against each other on the Ultimate Fighter, Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen were set to square off. These two definitely did not like each other. Definitely not. Even though the promotional material mostly had champ and challenger exchanging compliments. But nevermind that. Fight night came, and UFC 159 started to happen.

The prelims kicked off smoothly. Steven Siler had an entertaining scrap with Kurt Holobaugh, Cody McKenzie effectively (probably) sent Leonard Garcia from the UFC, and an extremely depleted Bryan Caraway choked out a confused Johnny Bedford. Then, the women took the stage, and after a brief hiatus in Sheila Gaff’s guard, Sara McMann crucified her and finished the fight with punches. So far so good.

Then things got weird. Injuries began popping up mid-fight, and things suddenly took a turn for the worse. Ovince St. Preux poked Gian Villante in the eye to win a majority decision, a move that would be mimicked by Michael Bisping against Alan Belcher. Yancy Medeiros suffered a dislocated thumb after recovering from a suplex. But most notably, Jon Jones broke his toe. That might not sound too horrifying, but Google search that, and you’ll see just how gruesome it could be.

If anything was to be taken away from that fight card, it’s that the curse of UFC 151 was not meant to be lifted by a season of TUF. Whether it was the devil’s voice appearing in between rounds, the numerous injuries and fouls, or the scrapping of a fight during the weigh ins (Nick Catone vs. James Head), the curse set forth by Dan Henderson’s knee continued to wreak havoc on the fights concerning and underneath Jon Jones. I don’t know how much longer it will last, but as a fight fan, we can only hope it does not seek too many more bouts.

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