The moment John McCarthy jumped in to stop the Rafael dos Anjos vs. Benson Henderson fight on Saturday night in Tulsa, the UFC's lightweight championship picture was suddenly muddled up.
Henderson (21-3) was in the Rich Franklin position during Anderson Silva's middleweight title reign, of being arguably the second-best fighter in the division behind champion Anthony Pettis, but not being in contention for a title shot. Pettis had beaten him twice, and did so quickly and decisively in their second meeting in winning the UFC belt. He also beat Henderson for the WEC title. But beating him, something nobody but Pettis had done in the last seven years, would seem like an automatic stepping stone to the title.
Dos Anjos (22-7) didn't just beat Henderson, but finished him via ref stoppage in just 2:31. Henderson had never been stopped by strikes in his career. There was plenty of controversy after it was over as to whether that should have been the first time. But there was no denying he had hurt Henderson before the key punch, and that punch would have stopped most fighters, as Henderson crumbled to the mat the split second before the stoppage.
Afterwards, dos Anjos didn't ask for a title shot. Perhaps, having lost his previous fight in April to Khabib Nurmagomedov, he wasn't as convinced as some people who had never seen Henderson rocked like that.
But in what may be the deepest division in the company, Nurmagomedov (22-0) is out with knee surgery, although he would probably be ready for a fight by the time the Pettis vs. Melendez winner is ready for the next challenge, a fight Dana White this weekend confirmed for Dec. 6 in Las Vegas. With most expecting Henderson to win, the feeling was that the Eddie Alvarez vs. Donald Cerrone winner on Sept. 27 would be next in line. Alvarez (25-3), the current Bellator champion, would be strongly under consideration with a win, but he'd only have one UFC win under his belt.
There are still plenty of variables left, including how Alvarez-Cerrone and Pettis-Melendez go down. Given the schedule, dos Anjos is likely to be asked to fight once more this year, although there is no opponent who stands out on the page as the right match-up for him. Bobby Green, the original opponent of Cerrone, is expected to fight sooner. Ross Pearson, coming off a win over former top contender Gray Maynard the previous Saturday in Bangor, Maine, and a loss nearly everyone in the free world at this point has conceded was a win, against Diego Sanchez, would figure to be on the same timing schedule, but would seem a major step down for a guy who just flattened Henderson in round one.
The Tulsa show was weak on star power, but the winners on the main card couldn't have been more solid, with five stoppages and a clear decision. The other show, in Macau, had a pair of strong marquee fights, including the possible end of the line of Cung Le.
Le, 42, took the worst beating of his career, with one eye swollen shut and the other bleeding profusely, in being unable to see, or keep pace with Michael Bisping. Le's change in physique between the ages of 40 to 42, which he said was due to tightening his diet and no longer being bothered by serious elbow problems, was the major topic of discussion leading into the weekend.
Le didn't mention retirement when it was over, but it had been nearly two years since he last fought. The kind of beating he took is not conducive to the movie career he had transitioned into over the last six years. Plus, stylistically, his former strengths as a fighter, a style based on hitting kicks from unique angles, required strong speed, reflexes and stamina. It's not a style that is going to age well, whether his body appeared from the outside to have discovered a fountain of youth or not. While he didn't fight like an old man, he did not have the speed and timing of his youth, and didn't come close to resembling the fighter in his heyday after posing after weigh-ins.
Le will forever go down as somewhat who came along several years too early. His stand-up style, combined with his strong wrestling base, were great foundations for an MMA career. But his heyday was before MMA exploded. Javier Mendez, who has trained a plethora of the best fighters in the world, years back ranked Le as one of the five most talented fighters ever to walk through the front door of the old American Kickboxing Academy gym in his home town of San Jose, Calif.
But Le fought in kickboxing and San Shou (a sport that combined kickboxing with wrestling takedowns, but no ground work) during his prime years. He was 33 before he had his first MMA fight. Even in his biggest career win over Frank Shamrock, he never showed his strong takedown game to go with his entertaining kicking attack of his youth. Le, due to his thick physique and less than extreme weight cutting, was usually fighting physically bigger men, particularly in the modern UFC.
How Le as a welterweight would have fared against a prime Matt Hughes had he taken up the sport in his early 20s is one of those questions that can never be answered. But even if he never could have won the title, his style and ethnic appeal would have made him a worldwide superstar in this sport if he was ten years younger and came along when MMA first exploded on television.
In Le's prime, the sport for 180-pound fighters, the catch weight class he used to fight in during the late 90s, existed at such a low level that he probably did better for himself as the showcase star on local kickboxing events promoted by Scott Coker, and airing as filler programing on ESPN.
When the fight was over, Le noted that he did the best he could, and felt he fought well for a 42-year-old. But as he was covered in blood, with both eyes swollen and with lumps all over his face, it was the sad reminder that the Octagon is not a place for 42-year-olds, except in rare situations. Someone may snap back and bring up Randy Couture, who was still winning world titles at that age, but a valuable rule of thumb for all aging fighters is, you're not Randy Couture or Bernard Hopkins.
Here's a look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars of the weekend events:
MICHAEL BISPING - After his win over Le, Bisping (26-6) was once again trying to talk his way into a middleweight title shot. To his credit, Bisping, who appeared to be on the way out as a fighter after his loss to Tim Kennedy on April 16, did a complete turnaround. The difference wasn't just the opposition, as Bisping's striking was crisper, his movement was more fluid and his conditioning was back to its usual top-notch level.
The win, the 15th of his UFC career, tied Bisping with Josh Koscheck and Tito Ortiz for sixth place for most UFC wins, behind only Georges St-Pierre, Hughes, Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell and Couture. All those fighters not only had title shots, but with the exception of Koscheck, long title reigns and Hall of Fame careers. Bisping is still searching for that one signature win that earns him a title shot.
Bisping had choice words for Luke Rockhold (12-2) after the fight. Both have talked about the other for a couple of years, stemming from Bisping joking about a sparring session between the two when Rockhold was champion at Strikeforce. Bisping claimed the results of the session meant there was a new Strikeforce champion, pretty well violating the code about what happens in the gym, stays there.
The fight makes sense for Rockhold, since Bisping is a major name and such a fight would be in a featured position. It makes sense for Bisping, because there would be more of a spotlight on a Rockhold fight than one with Thales Leites, giving him a bigger platform to get the title match that has eluded him. And from a matchmaking perspective, either Bisping or Rockhold could face Lyoto Machida, but Machida lost solidly to Chris Weidman. But against just about anyone, Machida would be favored to eliminate a potential title contender without creating one.
BENSON HENDERSON - Henderson becomes a tough fighter to match make for right now. He shouldn't fight an up-and-comer, because he'd be favored against most and risk cutting out their legs. Fighting a top contender would be difficult, because he's coming off a loss and is not likely to be booked in a title match any time soon.
His best bet may be the loser of Alvarez vs. Cerrone. A fight with Alvarez would be a must-win for both. If Alvarez beats Cerrone, even though Henderson has two wins over Cerrone, that can be a viable fight. The first Henderson vs. Cerrone fight in 2009 fight was among the best MMA fights ever. The rematch was over in 97 seconds, and while there is no fluke about a submission win, still left people feeling that they never really got the big rematch.
THALES LEITES - Leites won his seventh in a row, and fourth in the UFC, when he knocked out Francis Carmont early in the second round on Saturday. In doing so, Leites (24-4), who most of his career was known as a light-hitting Jiu Jitsu expert, finished a fighter who had never been knocked out in 32 pro fights.
Leites hadn't scored a finish by strikes since early in his career, prior to his April 11 fight with Trevor Smith that he ended in 45 seconds. So now you've got a guy with world class Jiu Jitsu who has added knockout power.
The way things look to be working out, Leites looks to be in a pack where he'd need one more big win to face the big guns in the division and be considered as a strong title contender. He could next face the winner of the Sept. 27 fight with Tim Kennedy (18-4) vs. Yoel Romero (8-1). Another potential opponent would be C.B. Dollaway (15-5), who is a wrestler who of late has shown improved stand up. From a timing standpoint, Tim Boetsch (18-7), who scored a come-from-behind knockout over Brad Tavares on Aug. 16, would be a third choice.
TYRON WOODLEY - After a disappointing performance in a one-sided loss to Rory MacDonald, Woodley (14-3) came back to finish Dong Hyun Kim in 1:01 on the show in Macau. Woodley continued his last two plus year streak of either blowing his opponent out and looking like a potential champion in doing so, or losing in lackluster fashion.
There seems to be an obvious opponent for Woodley in Matt Brown. Both came one win from a potential title shot, with Brown falling short against current No 1 contender Robbie Lawler. Hector Lombard, who Woodley replaced in the fight with Kim, would be another potential opponent, as would Demian Maia.
JORDAN MEIN - Mein won the co-main event in Tulsa with a crushing knockout of Mike Pyle, taking place one day after his father, and trainer, Lee Mein, was arrested on a sexual assault charge on a housekeeper at the UFC host hotel.
His father was banned from his corner. That could have easily rattled a young fighter, the younger Mein didn't let his affect him. Mein is likely the most experienced 24-year-old fighter in the company. Groomed by his father, he was fighting amateur bouts at 14 and his win over Pyle was his 38th pro bout.
Mein has won 11 of 13, with his only losses in the last four years coming against Matt Brown and Woodley.