Fortunes changed for five at UFC 173

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

While not getting a lot of publicity going in, the Renan Barao unbeaten streak that ended on Saturday night was among the most impressive in the history of the sport. And the man who conquered the streak was someone only got the title shot because the logical contender was injured.

Saturday night appeared to be a pay-per-view show with a lot less interest than most. Few surmised going in that it would end up being a night that would end up significant from an historical perspective. The bantamweight title and the longest active unbeaten streak in the sport were at stake. Well, at least they were on paper. But few took either being in jeopardy seriously.

T.J. Dillashaw (11-2), the challenger, was a wrestler coming into the sport, and a very good one. But he never won the state championship in high school (he placed second as a senior in 2004).  He went to Cal State-Fullerton, where he never placed higher than fourth in his conference. He went to the NCAA Division I tournament twice, but never won a match there. He lost in the finals of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) to a much smaller John Dodson via first round knockout, who now fights a weight class lower. Dillashaw came into his title fight with only one truly significant win, over borderline top-10 fighter Mike Easton. He only got his title shot at champion Renan Barao because Raphael Assuncao, who beat Dillashaw via split decision on Oct. 9, was injured, and because former champion Dominick Cruz's physical issues continued to plague him. Barao had beaten the other top contenders. So Dillashaw, who was the most logical contender under the circumstances, only got the shot because he was the best alternative available that day, not that he was the top contender in the division.

Barao had the second longest unbeaten streaks in MMA history, and really the longest in the modern era. He had gone either 33 or 35 fights, depending on if you are looking at records from outside sources, or his UFC record that credits him with two wins more than everyone else. The streak dated back to losing his debut on April 14, 2005. He had 32 or 34 wins, and one no contest, during that period. The magnitude of that number is a lot more impressive when you look at it from an historical perspective.

The only longer streak among major league fighters was that of Russian Igor Vovchanchyn, who went unbeaten in 36 fights between 1996 and 2000, a very different time period in the sport. His level of competition during the streak was far below that of Barao. The fierce heavyweight puncher was dominant in Russia, and a star in the early days of the Pride Fighting Championships. But his biggest streak wins came against journeymen fighters like Gary Goodridge and Carlos Baretto, and a win against a much smaller Kazushi Sakuraba, who had, amazingly, came back in a tournament after already fighting a 90 minute fight earlier that evening.

To put 33, or 35, into perspective, the amazing streak of teammate Jose Aldo (2006 to the present), is only at 17 right now. The most famous streak in UFC history, that of Anderson Silva, was also 17 straight wins (16 of them in UFC, a record) when he lost last year to Chris Weidman. The only other fighters who were competing at the top major league level during their streak who ever hit 20 were Fedor Emelianenko (28), Hector Lombard (25), Bas Rutten (22) and Khabib Nurmagomedov (22).

As far as comparing streaks, it's probably not the greatest streak of all-time. Barao had good fighters in his streak, including twice beating Urijah Faber, as well as wins over Brad Pickett, Scott Jorgensen, Eddie Wineland and Michael McDonald. His streak is more impressive for its length than top-tier victims. But he went nine years between having a bad fight day. If you look at the competition level of victims, Silva, Aldo,  Emelianenko (28 fights from 2000 to 2009 and one could argue it really should be 33 based on a cut loss that should have been ruled a no contest), and Rutten can all lay a claim to the argument for the most impressive MMA streak in history. But still, the longest active streak, that of Nurmagomedov, would probably need a good four more years of staying unbeaten to get to the same number as Barao. Given the depth of competition in the UFC lightweight division, It would be hard to envision that happening, or any fighter in this sport at the championship level of beating it. It's almost a lock that years from now, the Barao streak will look even more amazing than it does right now.

The combination of the two backgrounds led to Dillashaw being roughly an 8-to-1 underdog come fight time. But whatever the factors, this was not one of those weird wins that often happen in MMA, where when it's over, you question the significance, or whether the winner could ever repeat it. This was a five-round domination. There was no question of a fluke, or a question over who was the better fighter.

It was completely different from the other biggest upset in UFC title history, when Matt Serra beat Georges St-Pierre. History now can look back at that match and chalk it up to things that can happen when the right punch lands, given that St-Pierre dominated Serra when they fought a second time. St-Pierre is rightfully now regarded as one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport.

Was Barao's record overrated?  Did Dillashaw simply improve in the last year to where he's the incredible fighter he seemed to be, because he had never fought at that level previously? Was Barao bothered by a hard weight cut or was it that first round beating Dillashaw gave Barao that he could never recover from?

Like with St-Pierre vs. Serra, history will eventually answer these questions.

A look at how Fortunes Changed for Five headliners of UFC 173:

T.J. DILLASHAW - The bantamweight division was completely shaken up since the common belief was not just that Barao was the best, but after the way he handled Faber in his previous fight, that nobody was going to beat him for a long time, nor even be competitive with him.

Because of that, Dillashaw is the most surprising UFC world champion in any weight class dating back to Serra. Discussions after the fight as far as Dillashaw's next opponent centered around three names--Assuncao (22-4), Barao and Faber (30-7).

There are different ways of looking at this. From a public interest and money standpoint, Barao and Faber stand well above Assuncao. But Assuncao beat Dillashaw in the past, and was the guy who originally had this title shot had he not been hurt. While Faber may be the biggest money fight because of the story involved, teammates, teacher vs. pupil, Dillashaw made it clear Saturday night that he would never fight the guy who got him into the sport. But if there is any fairness, that fight shouldn't even be thought about until Faber gets a string of wins. He just lost to Barao on Feb. 1, in a first round stoppage. He's had five title fights losses since 2009. So even though he was actually ranked still as the No. 1 contender in the UFC rankings on Saturday, he shouldn't even be in the discussion until he picks up a few more wins.
The Barao vs. Assuncao argument as the next contender, from a business standpoint would favor Barao, but the one-sided nature of the fight on Saturday works against it in the idea of something new and intriguing. UFC precedence in booking clearly favors Assuncao.

It was not a close decision that people argued (B.J. Penn's immediate rematch with Frankie Edgar; Edgar's with Benson Henderson) nor a crazy moment (which led to Anderson Silva's immediate rematch with Chris Weidman). St-Pierre, already a huge superstar, needed a win to get another shot at the title after the Serra loss. Junior Dos Santos, who had as impressive a heavyweight run as anyone in UFC history, needed a win before getting his rematch with Cain Velasquez. Now legendary champions like Matt Hughes, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell didn't get rematches after title loss, nor did box office sensation Brock Lesnar. Even Faber, who put smaller guys on the map and had a multi-year title run, needed a win to get his first title rematch.

But Dillashaw vs. Assuncao, as the only alternative, is more suited to a FOX show, and even there it wouldn't be a guaranteed ratings winner. On pay-per-view, it will not do well unless paired with another title match or a super strong bout that is really the one carrying the show. With Barao, it's not doing great either, but would have more intrigue and interest because of the questions being asked after the first fight.

Dana White after the fight seemed open to any of the three possibilities, indicating either Assuncao or Barao could be next. White was definitely talking with his promoter's hat when the idea of the Faber fight was broached.

RENAN BARAO - In the world of "What have you done for me lately?," Barao (34-2, 1 no contest), is the latest to fall from one of the greatest fighters in the sport to questions of overrated.

Even though 37 pro fights in nine plus years can take its toll, Barao is only 27. But even before he took the punch that changed the complexion of the fight, he seemed off. Perhaps it was the scouting by camp that has been training fighters for Barao for years that learned to nullify his strengths. At most, Barao should be one win away from a title opportunity.
If Assuncao gets the shot, the fight to put Barao in would be with Takeya Mizugaki (20-7-2), who beat Francisco Rivera on Saturday. It's the perfect kind of title eliminator. If Barao wins, he's beaten a strong all-around fighter and earned his shot. If he doesn't, Mizugaki, with six straight wins, would be worthy of a title shot.

DANIEL CORMIER - Cormier (15-0) fought the perfect strategic fight against Dan Henderson. Going in, few gave Henderson much of a chance past his right hand gives him a chance if he lands in any fight. Cormier turning it into a wrestling match took Henderson's big weapon out of the game. While Cormier - bigger, quicker and younger - was going to have the wrestling edge, it was really a statement in just how one-sided that aspect of the game was considering Henderson's own background as a two-time Olympian in that sport.

Cormier made it clear he wants the title. He took a steady aim at Jon Jones, even though Dana White made it clear Alexander Gustafsson is getting the next shot. Cormier said he wants to sit and wait for the winner.

The flies in the ointment would be an injury, which is always the game changer depending on who gets hurt, or if Gustafsson beat Jones in a way that would necessitate an immediate rematch. Even Jones winning close is going to lead to Cormier getting the shot. Cormier did say that if Jones-Gustafsson needs an immediate rematch, then he would be open to taking another fight.

Cormier, in his interview, said that Jones made a mistake of not fighting him earlier before Cormier had more time to improve. But at 35, the longer the delay time, the more it favors Jones.

DAN HENDERSON - Even though Saturday was Henderson's fourth loss in five fights, nobody on the show was more popular. But he'll probably be 44 by the time he fights again.

The respect for Henderson is such that nobody wants to be the one to say that it's time to move on. After his loss, he pushed how much he loved the sport, and accepted that a move to middleweight may be in the cards. Given his age, the ban on TRT is clearly a factor as he was smaller than he had been in prior fights at light heavyweight. While a sure-fire Hall of Famer in this sport, the last time Henderson looked like a Hall of Famer in a fight was his legendary first match with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, which was nearly three years ago.

But even though his size says otherwise, Henderson (30-12) has been more successful as a light heavyweights. His upper body wrestling was able to neutralize strength of bigger foes, and his main weapon, the right, can knock out anyone of any size. Speed is less of an issue with bigger guys, who he may have a better shot at catching with that right than smaller foes. Even though he's no bigger than a lot of welterweights walking around, and would be a small middleweight, he had, even when younger, not appeared to have the same strength when cutting to 185.

The good part about a move is there is seemingly endless supply of opponents for Henderson in a new weight class, with Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Luke Rockhold, Tim Kennedy and Yoel Romero all being potential first tests. UFC running so many shows works in Henderson's favor. Henderson is popular enough and well known enough that he can still headline a television event against any of the aforementioned names at a time when there are more TV events than strong headliners to fill them. he was outwrestled and finished, but he didn't take the terrible damage that can affect you later in life.

But even so, unless he comes in with a victory, or looks very impressive with a loss, you can only push father time back for so long.

ROBBIE LAWLER - In finishing Jake Ellenberger in the third round, Lawler (23-10, 1 no contest) looks to have punched his ticket to a rematch with Johny Hendricks for the welterweight title later this year.

White heavily pushed Lawler as being ready for a title shot, with an injury or an ultra-spectacular performance by Tyron Woodley on June 14 in Vancouver, B.C. against Rory MacDonald as seemingly the only possible things that could get in the way of it. Even if MacDonald looks good in winning, Lawler's win over MacDonald on Nov. 16 should put him ahead in any kind of battle for a title shot.

Lawler came within one round of beating Hendricks on March 15. The two have the kind of styles where a match-up is as close to a guarantee of a great fight as you're going to get this side of Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler. On one hand, Hendricks fought Lawler with a torn biceps which clearly hurt his punching power, so a healthy Hendricks is likely to be a tougher opponent. But Lawler looked in better shape for Ellenberger. Based on the first fight and Saturday, Hendricks vs. Lawler II would look to be a fight that could go either way and would be a solid pay-per-view headliner.

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