After another debatable decision in a key UFC lightweight fight, it's time to start looking for signs.
What's come over the 155-pound weight class? Maybe it's still suffering from some sort of karmic deficit in the wake of Benson Henderson's decision over Frankie Edgar at UFC 150, a train robbery of a decision if there ever was one. Maybe Edgar looms over lightweight the way Babe Ruth was once said to haunt the Red Sox.
How else to explain some of the things which have gone down since? First Gilbert Melendez was jobbed against Henderson. Then T.J. Grant was elevated to No. 1 contender status after smashing Gray Maynard, only to get concussed training jiu-jitsu. He's yet to return to action. Anthony Pettis decided to go after Jose Aldo's featherweight belt, got injured, magically healed in time to take Grant's spot against Henderson in Pettis' hometown of Milwaukee, and then provided only the second finish we've seen in a lightweight title fight since 2009. Then Pettis was back on the shelf, taking out a promised title shot for Josh Thomson with him.
The only things which could have helped propel the division forward in the UFC on FOX 10 main event between Henderson and Thomson on Saturday night would have been 1. a Thomson victory, which would have solidified his claim to a title shot; or 2. Henderson defeating Thomson in a manner which leaves no doubt that he deserves a Pettis rematch, despite Pettis beating him twice.
Neither happened. Thomson appeared to gut his way to a victory despite a broken hand, but Henderson's spell over the judges remains one of MMA's most powerful forces. At this point, it's hard to get too outraged over the decision, simply because this is what we've come to expect when Henderson enters the Octagon.
"Hey, getting a 'W' in the UFC? Let's see how you take it," Henderson said at the post-fight press conference. "I like Ws. I like getting my hand raised, and I'll take it any way I can get it. You slip on a banana peel, by the skin of my teeth, by any means."
So where does that leave the division from here? Pettis is expected to be out until the summer. Henderson has wins over Melendez, Thomson, and Nate Diaz. Melendez needs another solid win before being considered for a title shot. Thomson is pondering his future. Diaz is too busy Twitter mean-mugging Dana White. No one wants to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov. If Grant gets healthy, he could hypothetically re-emerge in time for that title shot he was supposed to get.
Of course, the way things have panned out over the past couple years, it's not too hard to envision whomever gets the title shot falling out, and Henderson getting the fill-in nod because he's the only big name available. And, well, you know what's likely to happen from there.
UFC on FOX 10 quotes
"This might be it, man." -- a frustrated Josh Thomson
"He's a talented fighter. He's just one of these guys -- he's a grinder, he's not a finisher." -- White's assessment of Henderson
"I want to set the record for the most fights in a year, so if I get six this year, it would be f- great. There are fighters out there who say they can't get fights? Hey, man, I'm your guy." -- Donald Cerrone's take on 2014
Stock up/Stock down
Stock up: Josh Thomson We're flipping the script here. The loser doesn't always fall in esteem. "The Punk" showed great heart in digging down after suffering a broken hand. Both Thomson and his Strikeforce lightweight frenemy, Melendez, have done justice to their track records since finally getting their UFC breaks. Here's to hoping that was just frustration speaking when Thomson said he might retire, because he's still got plenty left to give.
Stock down: Gabriel Gonzaga. Last night represented the veteran heavyweight's last, best chance to make a divisional run. While Gonzaga is no longer the same fighter who used to crack at the first sign of pressure, he simply had no response when Stipe Miocic turned up the heat in rounds two and three. Gonzaga mentioned he took a pay cut to return to the UFC, so it's not likely he gets cut, but he's going to be a gatekeeper at best.
Stock up: Donald Cerrone. Cerrone could have eased his way into "fun fight" territory for the remainder of his career. Instead, over his past two contests, Cerrone has looked like a fighter determined to remake his legacy. There's no getting around the fact that Cerrone, while exciting, has been the sort of fighter who comes up short against top competition. But if his fights against Evan Dunham and Adriano Martins are any indication, "Cowboy" is ready to make one more big run, and if nothing else, he's earned the right to test himself against the best.
Stock down: Darren Elkins. Pin this one in part to improvement on the part of Jeremy Stephens, whose time working with elite wrestlers at San Diego's Alliance MMA is paying off. But Elkins, who a year ago appeared on the cusp of a title shot, simply hasn't been able to cut it against the best. His loss last year to Chad Mendes was excusable, since, well, a whole lot of fighters have lost to Chad Mendes. But, fighting in his own backyard, Elkins simply had no Plan B after Stephens was able to stuff his takedown attempts. Elkins will have to go back to the drawing board.
Neither up nor down: Sergio Pettis. Yup, Pettis lost a fight he by all likelihood would have won when Alex Caceres finished him in the closing moments of their bantamweight fight. But if the 20-year old and his camp handle this right, Pettis' first career loss will be a valuable learning experience. At times during the fight, Pettis looked like his brother, as he mixed up his strikes and kept Caceres off-balance. He also passed a gut check in the second round when he dusted himself off after getting blasted by Caceres and got back into the heat of things. If letting this fight slip away makes Pettis work a little harder on his cardio and on maintaining his focus in deep water, then losing to the underrated Caceres will be more valuable in the long run than if he had gotten his hand raised.
Give it up to the Cowboy for easing off when after he saw that Martins was laid out cold by his big head kick. John McCarthy, while still one of the best referees in the game, is nonetheless a half-step slower than he was during his prime, and Cerrone could have gotten a gratuitous shot or two in before the McCarthy officially waved it off. But he didn't, and good on him for it.
First, there's the obvious one: Sal D'Amato's 49-46 card in favor of Henderson. You expect 48-47s in either direction when Henderson fights. But D'Amato's 49-46 last night is the continuation of a series of eyebrow-raising calls: D'Amato was one of the infamous two who gave Georges St-Pierre the decision over Johny Hendricks at UFC 167, and he also might have been the only person alive who thought Uriah Hall defeated Kelvin Gastelum last year. At some point, you wonder when the bigger commissions will stop hiring judges who continually get them wrong.
Anyway, time for a little tangent: Can we please stop using "total strikes" as an argument for or against a fighter in a tight fight? It's as close to a useless statistic as we have.
MMA fights are not judged on the whole. They're judged round by round. A fighter could significantly outland his opponent in one round and be even in each of the other two (or four), and come out looking like he had a giant striking advantage if you use the totality of the fight.
For that matter, Yves Jabouin racked up all sorts of cheap "total strikes" numbers with an onslaught of pitter-patter punches that did little damage, and throwing kicks which were clearly checked but still counted in the total. Right up until Eddie Wineland, who knew exactly what he was doing by executing great movement and counterstriking, ended the fight in a hurry.
And that doesn't take into account the fact that striking is but one aspect of MMA. Especially in a fight like Henderson vs. Thomson, a complex battle filled with takedowns, submission attempts, trips, and fierce positional battles in the clinch.
So stop trotting out "total strikes landed" as an argument for your fighter. It's the most meaningless exercise this side of MMA Math.
Fight I want to see next
For the most part, Saturday night's card felt more like an FS1 Fight Night than a "Big FOX" card. Nothing coming out of last night screams "Fighter A vs. Fighter B is a must."
But the three main-card winners aside from Henderson -- Miocic, Cerrone, and Stephens -- all had the type of victories that beg for a challenge from someone up on the next rung of the ladder. So let the chips fall where they may in their division, then give Cerrone and Stephens Top 10 guys and maybe the winner of Frank Mir vs. Alistair Overeem for Miocic.