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Signal to Noise: UFC on FOX 13's, TUF 20 Finale's best and worst

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

UFC on FOX 13 and The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale offered a lot to like. There were standout performances, a new champion was crowned, fighters showed tremendous development, a prospect proved his worth and more. Yet, there were fights with ugly health consequences, an overstatement of success and more.

It's time separate the good from the bad, the winners from the losers and the signal from the noise from the UFC weekend.


1. Best Fighters on the Cards: Rafael dos Anjos, Carla Esparza

The Fighter of the Card (FOTC) is something akin to soccer's Man of the Match. Who was the best fighter? Or, who was the best fighter with the best performance?

On Friday, it was Esparza. She never let Rose Namajunas build any offensive momentum, demonstrated incredible tenacity, showcased veteran experience in terms of decision making and was the more physical of the two athletes. When the bout was over, there was no one who could even cast the slightest of doubts about who was better between she and her foe. To do that against a surging contender in the most important bout on the card - one where a UFC title was up for grabs - merits special praise.

Dos Anjos was easily the best fighter on Saturday night. I sincerely doubt the Nate Diaz we saw was the best version of himself, but it likely wouldn't have mattered. Dos Anjos is too good in too many areas for there to be much debate about this. He can wrestle, scramble, pass, back take, jab, leg kick, push kick, clinch, threaten with submissions and more with an ease that is hard to overstate. His offense is nearly universal in its threats, which is hard to come by at any weight class. To be that potent at lightweight is a minor miracle.

2. Most Alarming Damage Absorbed: Junior dos Santos

Dos Santos is literally going into fights and getting his face hammered into different shapes over the course of 25 minutes, each time. This is probably also the least of his concerns. It's cosmetic, after all. One can only speculate as to what that bludgeoning is doing to his vital organs.

I don't know what the answer is here. In the short run, more time off is a must. Beyond that, though, what do we do with Cigano? Do we let him compete again at all? Do we match up him up with tough fighters, but flawed ones like Overeem who cannot go the distance? Do we let his merits speak for themselves and continue to push him as a contender against other top contenders or the winner of Cain Velasquez vs. Fabricio Werdum?

This is a mess. We have a person who is the embodiment of the idea fighters are a danger to themselves. He also happens to be extremely talented and with few peers at the top of the division. He is also mangling his appearance and risking long-term health in the quest for something that is very easily argued as unattainable. There are no good answers here. I do not envy the UFC's place in having to make a judgement call.

Honorable mention: Joe Riggs

3. Best Photo of the Nights: It's All Over

I like the photos that show the opposite reactions of the fighters once the bout is over. One fighter is elated, the other despondent. This photo, though, shows a bit of commonality between them. The fight and outcome were one-sided, but you can tell there's a bit of exhausted relief on both their faces. if only for this very fleeting moment.

Check out all of Esther Lin's photos from the TUF 20 Finale.

4. Most Improved: Charles Oliveira, Felice Herrig, Matt Mitrione

Three fighters with three different stories, each valuable in their own right.

Oliveira has found a way to manage distance more expertly, both on the feet and when wrapped in various executions of jiu-jitsu guards. That has helped bring his already creative energies to even further heights, making him more of a unique threat as well as fan favorite to watch.

I called Herrig's pro debut against Iman Achhal in Fairfax, Virginia five years ago. To see Herrig's grappling and wrestling against Lisa Ellis is to see nothing without knowing where she started. For whatever reason, that progress didn't quite translate on the show bouts. In the Finale, it was undeniable and impressive.

Mitrione finally looks physically comfortable, emotionally settled and has enough technical prowess in his back pocket to match a wide variety of situations. His process has been as slow as it has undulating, but it has never stopped.

How far these fighters can go, no one knows. Mitrione is closer to 40 than 30, Herrig still lacks the technical refinement of her elite peers and Oliveira doesn't elect to strike much. We have to manage our expectations. But we also should take a moment to applaud hard-fought progress.

5. The World Is Your Oyster Award: Henry Cejudo

The Cejudo we've all been waiting for showed up on Saturday. Quite the relief. He gave us everything we could want from him, given his experience level in the sport. Even outsized, Cejduo had plenty of punching power, crisp boxing combinations, capable defense, three-rounds of energy and more. A couple of his shots were stuffed, but they were half hearted and towards the end of fight he was winning comfortably. When interviewed after the fight, he had no trouble talking to the crowd or about himself (which also includes a Spanish-language interview backstage). He asked the UFC for the opportunity to drop to flyweight after botching it on his first try months ago.

We often talk about how to get fans to care about flyweight. It's not magic. There has to be something there for them to care about. While the division is filled with talented competitors, none of them appear to be the kind of phenomenon to turn heads enough or consistently. Cejudo, by contrast, has the raw ingredients to fill in what's missing. He's how you fix flyweight. That requires he drops the weight and continues winning, which is a rather large presumption. Yet, Cejudo is nothing if not a dreamer and vehicle for others like him. The ambitions are lofty. And with them, the possibilities are endless.

6. Stock Up in Loss Award: Stipe Miocic, Rose Namajunas

These two fighters lost in the two UFC main events this weekend. Yet, both of their stocks are at career highs. Why?

For Miocic, it's because he performed far past expectations against Junior dos Santos. UFC commentator Joe Rogan was accused of being overly favorable towards Miocic and there might be some validity to the argument. But what Rogan articulated was unbridled and pleasant surprise at the level of talent on display by Miocic. He exceeded expectations by a wide margin even if he couldn't defeat the Brazilian. Perhaps verbally Rogan should have reined it in, but one can hardly be upset at his organic enthusiasm that so many others in the MMA community were feeling as well.

As for Namajunas, she offered little in the way of opposition for Esparza, but that's of marginal long-term consequence. The reality show was a strong platform for her to demonstrate technical growth and excellent finishing instincts.

They say in MMA you're only as good as your last fight. Maybe that's true or, at least, maybe a lot of people believe that. But what's also true is fans are endlessly forgiving of loss if you demonstrated something new to them they either didn't see or believe was there before. Miocic and Namajunas have done precisely that. Suffering loss is never easy, but they walked out of the cage over the weekend as changed fighters.

7. Least Changing in Victory: Alistair Overeem

There's no denying the value of Overeem's win on Saturday in terms of preventing career catastrophe. It's also worth acknowledging Overeem's potent (if somewhat underrated) ground and pound was on proud display. Yet, drawing sweeping conclusions about his future is misplaced.

Overeem's problems of late have little to do with what he can dish out. We know he's an offensive dynamo. He doesn't have the division's best gas tank, but his fatigue isn't his true liability. Rather, it's defense. That's as much for being out of position as it is recovering from a big shot. On those terms, nothing was answered on Saturday. Stefan Struve didn't just have an extended layoff, but one filled with as much professional uncertainty as can be crammed in the time frame. He never really pushed Overeem in a way that told us a great deal about the very things that have been plaguing him of late. That's partly a credit to Overeem for not putting himself there. Yet, we have to be very careful in measuring the upside of this win. Overeem needed and earned it, but has not satisfactorily put to bed the lingering doubts.

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