UFC on FOX 2 didn't exactly hypnotize the network TV audience with thrilling MMA action on Saturday night, and maybe that's okay. Maybe the UFC doesn't need every FOX fight to be a shootout. Maybe both the network and the viewers need to know that sometimes you get a first-round knockout, and other times you get an hour's worth of slow grinds -- especially when five of your six main card fighters are grappling specialists.
For better or worse, both FOX and the UFC learned that lesson in Chicago this weekend. Now that the dust has settled, it's time for a look at the biggest winners, losers, and everything in between.
Biggest Winner: Rashad Evans
Okay, so it wasn't the most entertaining fight. It was, in fact, about as entertaining as a bowl of oatmeal. Regardless, Evans took on an undefeated former national champion wrestler and shut him out on the scorecards. He was better than Davis everywhere -- on the feet, on the mat, and between the ears. In short, Evans took on the next big thing and made him look like a man who was just glad to get out of there and go home by the end. With the win, he earned a title shot (again), and probably also some haters (again). If you weren't an Evans fan before this fight, chances are you still aren't. Chances are you hope Jon Jones will crush him when they meet to finally, hopefully end this rivalry, and chances are that Evans is just fine with that. The "Suga" we saw on Saturday night was one who seemed, perhaps for the first time, comfortable with his role as a methodical spoiler of prospects and deflater of hype. He has the patience of a glacier and is almost as difficult to move once he gets on top of you. Fans won't ever love him for that, which is fine. As long he can live with it, he doesn't need anyone's permission to keep doing what he does best.
Biggest Loser: Demian Maia
Toward the end of Maia's wheezing effort against Chris Weidman, Joe Rogan compared the fighters to two drunks brawling outside a bar. I disagree. Drunks have better game plans. While I can appreciate all the time Maia has put into developing a striking game, it's still not a great one. It's predictable, not terribly threatening, and, worst of all, it distracts him from his true strengths. Remember when Maia was the one-dimensional jiu-jitsu fighter who at least knew he was one-dimensional? He'd look for the takedown and the submission as if he had no other choice. He'd pull half-guard and actually make it work. Much like Rousimar Palhares with his leg locks, people knew what Maia was going to do and they still couldn't stop him. Now they don't need to. By ignoring the ground game in favor of a mediocre striking attack, he's stopped himself. To make matters worse, he also quickly ran out of steam against Weidman, who at least had the short-notice element as an excuse for poor cardio. Maia? He had no excuse. If he keeps this up, he won't have much of a future either.
Least Impressive in Victory: Mike Russow
After grinding out a decision over John Olav Einemo that was the very definition of 'lay-and-pray,' Russow said, "I can't believe I'm 4-0 in the UFC right now." That makes two of us. I suppose he did what he had to do to get his hand raised in front of the hometown crowd, but he sure didn't do anything extra. If his plan was to take Einemo down, hold him there, and stay out of submissions, then mission accomplished. If it was to convince the UFC that he's a heavyweight worth getting behind, then sorry, there's still some work to do.
Most Impressive in Defeat: Michael Bisping
Bisping proved more by losing a narrow decision than Sonnen proved by beating him that way. In part that's because Bisping came in as a 3-1 underdog. No one expected him to stay on his feet long enough to do much of anything, and yet he ended up controlling many of the clinches and even took Sonnen down once. Sonnen pursued more or less the exact same game plan against Bisping as he used against opponents like Nate Marquardt and Brian Stann, and Bisping stood up to it better than either of them. Not bad for a Brit who supposedly has no wrestling skills. Bisping will probably spend the next three decades of his life talking about how he got screwed out of that decision. This time you can't really blame him. The third round was the only one he clearly lost, and the first two could have easily gone his way. To the people who still stubbornly insist on maintaining the conventional wisdom that Bisping is no good, or that he succeeds only because the UFC feeds him hand-picked opponents, it must have been uncomfortable to sit there and wait for the decision, knowing that Bisping could have very easily been declared the UFC's top middleweight contender. Unfortunately for him (or maybe fortunately, depending on what you think about his chances against Anderson Silva), it wasn't to be. But by taking the best Sonnen had and giving it right back to him, Bisping showed once and for all that he deserves to be taken seriously. You don't have to like the guy, but you ought to respect his skills.
Back to the Drawing Board: Phil Davis
Any time the announcers start talking about what a great learning experience this is for you while the fight is still going on, that's a bad sign. It's not that Davis performed badly. Clearly, the man has some skills. He just doesn't have all the skills necessary to be a top light heavyweight in the UFC, or at least not yet. His striking still seems largely perfunctory and his takedowns aren't fooling anybody. That's fine against a lower caliber of opponent, who Davis can muscle to the mat even when they know what's coming, but it's not going to work against the cream of the 205-pound crop. But let's not freak out here. That was just Davis' tenth pro fight. One hopes that he really did learn something from five unpleasant rounds with Evans, and at 27 years old he still has plenty of time to make the most of those lessons. That's the trouble with being undefeated: it can be hard to know what you need to be spending time on in the gym, since no one has been able to make you pay for any of your mistakes. Now he knows. Of course, so does everyone else in the division.
The Carpe Diem Award for Day-Seizing Excellence: Chris Weidman
A lot of UFC middleweights might have declined the offer to drop 32 pounds in less than two weeks and fight a guy like Maia on network TV. But Weidman saw an opportunity to go from the prelims to the spotlight, and he made the most of it. The fight wasn't exactly a thriller, and by the end of it both guys were huffing and puffing like New Year's resolutioners after their first day at a gym in eight years, but hey, at least Weidman had a good excuse. Given his situation, any win would have been a good win. He might not have dazzled new viewers, but he answered the call and got his hand raised. Some nights that's enough.
Most Surprising: Evan Dunham vs. Nik Lentz
It's not the result so much as the method. Who would have guessed, back when he was taking heat for winning fights via wall-and-stall, that Lentz would have two Fight of the Night bonuses in his last three trips inside the Octagon? Certainly not anyone who saw his decision wins over Andre Winner or Tyson Griffin. And yet, now that Lentz has hid the roughest stretch of his pro career, suddenly he's raking in the bonuses. Too bad he had to do so on the losing end, thanks to Dunham. At least this loss is better for Lentz's bank account than the defeat via smothering that he suffered at the hands of Mark Bocek in his last outing. Then again, this one wasn't nearly so kind to his face.
Least Improved: FOX Broadcast
This event didn't feature a frantic Dana White shouting into the camera, but it did include a slightly bewildered Curt Menefee and a light heavyweight champ who was a little too dependent on his notes. The combination made every cut-away to the boys at the desk an awkward little experiment in live TV, while down on the floor Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg reminded us that, yes, it does pay to have a couple guys who have done this before. In fact, whenever the broadcast abandoned the stilted FOX Sports feel and gave way to the regular old UFC routine, that's when it felt smooth and comfortable. It's almost as if the UFC has got this stuff down to a science, and all FOX needs to do is get out of the way.