This year has been a great one as far as lessons about what the public is buying.
Saturday's UFC 185 was the deepest show, as far as name talent went, so far this year. But it also lacked the huge drawing card of the first three pay-per-view shows. All early indications are that the interest level in the show was the least of what has been a big pay-per-view year for the company. It's still about the attraction on top, whether it be the right dynamic of a match, or the right star. UFC 182 had the biggest UFC fight in a long time in Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier. UFC 183 had the returns of Anderson Silva and Nick Diaz. UFC 184, which was almost shocking in how well it did, had a non-marquee undercard, but the show really showed just how big a star Ronda Rousey is.
This time we had two title fights and lot of name fighters all the way down the card. But we didn't have the big attraction or fight that the casual viewer wanted to see. The hope was that lightweight champion Anthony Pettis could catch on and be that kind of attraction. Skilled in every aspect, and marketable enough to be on a Wheaties cover, Pettis looked to be a key part of future company marketing. But then he ran into a freight train.
In losing the title to Rafael dos Anjos, in hurts in a division that UFC hasn't been able to get a major drawing champion in since B.J. Penn dropped the title.
But with that negative, there were also a lot of positives, as Saturday was a star-making and star-enhancing show.
When it comes to the number of people coming off a show and having significant matches that could be set up, this show looks to have been the most interesting and most newsworthy as it pertains to the future.
We can start right at the top, with two title changes, both in fights where the challenger was a significant underdog and ended up taking one-sided wins. That, by itself, made the show noteworthy, as the last time there were two title changes on the same show was more than six years ago.
Dos Anjos, a one-time journeyman fighter who got the title shot mainly because Khabib Nurmagomedov needed knee surgery, won every round, solidly, in a straight 50-45 decision win. Dos Anjos did that while going in with an MCL tear three weeks before the fight, which led to him curtailing all grappling training. Yet his grappling was more than on point, taking Pettis down almost at will, while also outstriking him.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk got the women's strawweight title shot due to a decision win over Claudia Gadelha that could have easily gone the other way. Jedrzejczyk had an even more dominant title win, if that was possible, making champion Carla Esparza look like she didn't even belong in the same cage.
It was a rare show with nothing close to judging controversies. Every fight ended via stoppage, or as a one-sided victory where the winner took every round. In almost every fight, it looked clear from early in the fight that one fighter was going to outclass the other. And in those situations, only a shocking punch by Ryan Benoit, who had been dominated up until that point by Sergio Pettis, led to the only comeback of the night.
Instead of Fortunes Changing for Five, let's look at six. Some weeks you may struggle to find five stars anywhere near contender or title status coming out of a show. This time, you struggle to limit it to six.
RAFAEL DOS ANJOS - It wasn't just the title change, but dos Anjos took a champion who had been demolishing people. Anthony Pettis had stopped Donald Cerrone in the first round, which was unheard. He stopped Benson Henderson via submission in the first, and then finished Gilbert Melendez. Cerrone had only been stopped once in his career, by a quick submission, and never by strikes. Henderson had only been stopped once at that point, and that was very early in his career. Melendez, who had fought all over the world at the top level for more than a decade, had never been stopped. Pettis appeared just entering his prime, and dos Anjos, who had to be taken seriously because he smashed Henderson, was still a -450 underdog.
So what happened? Perhaps it was the punch that left Pettis with no depth perception early. Dos Anjos had come into the fight winning eight of nine, including one-sided wins over Cerrone, Henderson and Nate Diaz. The Henderson fight, a first-round knockout, sent a message to the world that this guy was no journeyman fighter any longer.
As far as what is next, there are two options. One is a rematch with Pettis. On paper that's a tough one because Pettis lost all five rounds convincingly. But dos Anjos vs. Pettis was very similar to T.J. Dillashaw vs. Renan Barao. Barao was even finished in the first fight, and is less marketable than Pettis, but UFC made the rematch. And when that fell through, they made it again. But the difference was that Dillashaw had no other viable contender. Dos Anjos does.
The other option is dos Anjos defending against the May 23 winner between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Cerrone. Nurmagomedov threw dos Anjos around on April 19, 2014, to win a clear decision. If he beats Cerrone, making him 23-0, it would be impossible to justify him not getting the shot. If Cerrone (27-6) wins, depending on how the fight goes, that could open the door for Pettis.
ANTHONY PETTIS - The big question with Pettis is, What went wrong? Was it just a bad night, or was it the early eye injury that changed the course of the fight? It's easy to say Pettis was overhyped, but if you look at his last four fights, the three prior against three of the most proven and best in the history of the division, you can't come to that conclusion. It could be a bad night, or it could be that dos Anjos is at a different level.
Writing him off would be a mistake, given heavy favorites have lost huge upsets, look no farther than Georges St-Pierre, and have come back more dominant than before.
Because of his past performances, Pettis, if he's not getting an immediate rematch, is still likely only one win away from a title shot. The question is who would be the right opponent? Most of the top fighters in the division have upcoming fights. The biggest available star is Henderson, but Pettis has beaten him twice. That leaves the likes of Michael Johnson (16-8), Edson Barboza (15-3) or Tony Ferguson (18-3). Given how Johnson looked in beating Barboza, he against Pettis makes the most sense as a fight to create a title contender down the line.
JOANNA JEDRZEJCZYK - With a 9-0 record, the new women's strawweight champion looks to be the best stand up fighter in the division. But the way she tore up Carla Esparza in winning the title makes it look like she may have no competition, with the exception of Gadelha. Gadelha fought her more than close on Dec. 14 in controversial split decision that earned Jedrzejczyk this shot.
The next step looks to be the April 11 show in Krakow, Poland. Joanne Calderwood (9-0) faces Maryna Munoz (5-0), while Gadelha (12-1) faces Aisling Daly (15-5). The most impressive winner of those two fights makes sense for the next shot.
JOHNY HENDRICKS - Hendricks (17-3), was at first told he was getting an immediate rematch after losing the welterweight championship in a close fight to Robbie Lawler on Dec. 6. With the win over Matt Brown, Hendricks' next fight should be against the winner of the Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald title fight on July 11.
The only thing that should change that would be if the winner is injured and wouldn't be able to defend for a lengthy period of time. At that point, Hendricks could either face the July 11 loser, or face Tyron Woodley (15-3). Woodley has been clamoring for Hendricks ever since he got into the UFC, still looking to avenge his loss at the 2005 Big-10 wrestling championship meet.
ALISTAIR OVEREEM - Overeem (39-14, 1 no contest), looked like he was done as any kind of serious contender after losses to Antonio Silva, Travis Browne and Ben Rothwell. But the heavyweight division is limited at the top. His win over Roy Nelson was his most impressive since the monster version of Overeem took apart Brock Lesnar.
Nelson was a dangerous opponent for Overeem because of his power. While Overeem figured to be quicker and more versatile his conditioning and chin had been a question mark. Down to 247 pounds, he fought smarter and more methodical, and for the most part was able to avoid getting caught. Overeem controlled almost the entire fight, except a couple of points when he was hit. What was strange is that when Nelson would have Overeem in trouble, Nelson would immediately try for takedowns, with no success. This gave Overeem a chance to clear his head in the second round, and allowed him to stay alive until the end of the third round.
The clear best opponent who is free, and the one Dana White has already talked about for Overeem, is former heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos (17-3). It's a fight that can be a strong television headliner, and a solid No. 2 fight on a pay-per-view.
White had tried to make that match before but with no success.
HENRY CEJUDO - The toughest opponent Cejudo (8-0) had over the weekend looked to be the scale. Few expected him to lose to Chris Cariaso. But making flyweight, the odds seemed a lot longer.
Cejudo made it with a pound to spare, after going on a strict diet. And with one win, people are already talking about him getting a title shot. Part of the reason is champion Demetrious Johnson has run through most of the top contenders. Cejudo is a fresh face who came into the UFC with the notoriety of being an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling in 2008. Of Mexican descent, Cejudo has asked to fight on June 13 in Mexico City. Jussier Formiga (17-3) and Wilson Reis (19-5) are experienced contenders who would be a step up from Cariaso that would make sense next.
With a win, he could very viably challenge for the championship by the end of this year.