There was much to love about Saturday night's UFC on FX 8 event from Jaragua do Sul, Brazil. Former Strikeforce champions made their MMA debuts, flyweights shined and there was a spinning heel kick that ended up on ESPN's SportsCenter. Then again, the card wasn't overly impressive and the main event featured a fighter, fairly or not, who is reigniting the debate about the role of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) in MMA.
It's time to separate the winners from the losers, the best and from the worst and the signal from the noise.
Credit Where Credit Is Due Award: Vitor Belfort
We'll get to the TRT issue in a moment because it's inextricable from the situation at this point. For now, though, let's talk about the kick. Under no coherent concept of 'good' was that kick anything but. The timing, set-up and ferocity of it all was positively sensational. Moreover, it's one thing to want to spinning heel kick a reporter. It's quite another to be able to do it to one of the best middleweights on earth. The kick ultimately found it's way onto ESPN's SportsCenter's Top Plays, which is the least it deserved in available accolades. If nothing else, Belfort is now in the running for Knockout of the Year while Rockhold is sent to the kind of career drawing board he's never been forced to saddle up to. Not bad for an old man.
Questions Where Questions Are Due Award: Vitor Belfort
Sorry, but this discussion of Belfort's achievements is impossible to have without a frank discussion of the impact TRT is having on his late-career resurgence. His physique looks dramatically improved and he's beating competitors in ways he did not at light heavyweight or heavyweight. Moreover, he's doing so at an age when skill development - particularly for techniques like a spinning heel kick that require a fair amount of athleticism - almost exclusively tapers off or gets worse. And let's not forget it's not as if he's still performing at a high level that is slightly less high than his previous high. He's winning in MMA after spending several years being, at best, highly inconsistent.
None of us are able to quantify just how much TRT is impacting his game. Others who've used the drug found the potency or effect to be less than inspiring. But what we can say for certain is this idea of a compartmentalized impact, e.g. it benefits training but didn't cause the kick, is complete nonsense. While it's hard to pinpoint the precise contribution of TRT in any one scenario, it's essentially omnipresent. The impact is fluid as it pertains to training, recovery, reflexes, athletic skill development, speed, power and more. These are just as relevant in camp as they are in the first round of a middleweight main event.
There's a debate to be had over whether the attention Belfort receives for TRT use is fair relative to his peers, but there's no arguing that there's not been a better poster child for the drug than Belfort himself. And frankly, trying to explain his success at this juncture in his career without a nod toward TRT is a task I've yet to find anyone capable of competently answering.
Good Ref/Bad Ref: Leon Roberts, Kevin Mulhall
Let's not overstate either the good or the bad. Generally speaking, the refereeing and judging on Saturday night was agreeable. Not perfect or even great necessarily, but relatively good. On the bad side, there were a series of highly dubious stand-ups from referee Mulhall that are difficult to understand. On the good side, referee Roberts performed his job ably, stopping fights right on time and not interfering in ways that changed the bout's complexion. Some of the judges' scoring created a few head scratching moments, but mercifully there wasn't anything in outlier territory.
I wouldn't call this an officiating 'win', but there also isn't a ton to bellyache about. They did well enough to not rage with righteous indignation and that's often better than normal.
Best Proof Flyweights Deserve Better Card Placement: John Lineker
I've long argued that while I personally enjoy the flyweight fights in the UFC, I understand why others don't. They sometimes do a lot without doing a lot to their opponent to change the complexion of the bout. Mercifully, Lineker does not have this problem. His style may be a bit on the reckless side, but no one can accuse him of being unable to make something happen. That's why his placement on the fight card is hard to understand. UFC is already dealing with a situation in Demetrious Johnson-John Moraga that is not advisable, namely, having the champion defend his title against a challenger who has only fought on Facebook preliminaries.
In Moraga's case, you can at least argue on the cards he was on, his placement was relatively justified (although he could have been placed at different events). No such argument is available here. Rafael Natal vs. Joao Zeferino wasn't terrible, but I cannot possibly fathom what the upside was in putting decent middleweights on the FX portion of the card over elite and far more exciting flyweights. Jussier Formiga is probably wondering the same thing.
I doubt it's intentional, but Lentz is beginning to resemble Fitch more and more every fight. He was getting close at lightweight, but ultimately was a bit too small and could be muscled some. At featherweight, he's a dead ringer for the World Series of Fighting welterweight. From his pressing wrestling attacks against the fence to his top game to the ability to defend seemingly unbreakable frames of a locked-in submission, Lentz is following the Fitch blueprint perfectly while putting together quite a run. Of course, he's also positioning himself in the same way Fitch did as a promotional entity, which is to say not much. Lentz will likely continuing winning, making a strong case for himself a fighter deserving of bigger fights against better opposition, but his style could make UFC brass want to wait him out until he loses in the process of knocking off challengers.
Least-Pleasing Retirement to UFC Officials: John Cholish
It's one thing for Ken Shamrock to rail against Zuffa. He might have all the evidence and the best argument in the world, but he simply isn't accepted or viewed as a credible speaker on the matter. But replace Ken Shamrock with a young, Ivy League-educated energy trader on Wall Street and the equation begins to change a bit.
Cholish announced on Twitter before his bout Saturday against Gleison Tibau that no matter the outcome, he was retiring from MMA. As he explained after the bout (which he lost), he loves the sport of MMA, but it wasn't really worth it for him to continue competing. In short, there was no money in it and he had a steady job, anyway.
As he later broke down on Monday's The MMA Hour, a fighter at his level of the game was either breaking even or losing money just to compete in the UFC. While he has the luxury of walking away because of full-time employment, many other fighters do not. Cholish is now openly advocating for the UFC to raise their pay for all fighters, but particularly those at the bottom of their pay scale.
The claim of low fighter pay being an issue in the UFC is not new, but thus far the 'movement' has lacked any truly credible speakers. It's not clear if Cholish is that guy or even cares to be long term. But while broke, faded stars who lack a post-secondary education can he dismissed with the wave of a hand, Cholish's claims are not so easily dispatched.
This is another one of those fights where the claim of 'robbery' seems misplaced given how close the contest actually was. There's nothing in the stat sheets (whatever that is worth) that indicates a decision for dos Anjos is some sort of crime of ineptitude. Debatable, certainly, but hardly some egregious error.
I scored the bout 29-28 for Dunham and felt he did enough to win the second round and clearly take the third. The Brazilian ever-so-slightly outlanded Dunham in the second frame, but was taken down twice. We don't have any FightMetric numbers on 'riding time', although the American is not credited with any submission attempts or passes. Dos Anjos did a good job of controlling posture with collar ties and overhooks while he held position.
The long and short is that Dunham is the rightful winner insofar as I can tell, but as we've discussed over and over (and as Frankie Edgar's fights against Ben Henderson demonstrate), if you fight opponents close in MMA, you're going to eventually get screwed. It's a consequence of using a less-than-refined scoring criteria as much as suspect judging. It's also not going away anytime soon. Beating the top guys in the world in your weightclass is easier said than done, but if you want any hope of a decision going your way, make sure the judges have positively zero choice but to award the bout to you.