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UFC on FOX 22 Aftermath: Urijah Faber, Bernard Hopkins, and fighter retirements

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UFC on FOX 22 photos Esther Lin photo

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- On the rare occasion when a legendary fighter gets to call his shot and close his career in a pre-planned retirement match, it tends to go down like the one we saw on Saturday night in California.

The one in the boxing ring in Southern California, that is. Bernard Hopkins, one of the sweet science’s most dignified warriors, had his career come to a most undignified conclusion, as he was knocked through the ropes and out of the ring by an opponent whose name only hardcore fight fans knew.

It’s enough to make you all the more appreciative of what we saw a couple hours prior about 400 miles north, up in California’s capitol.

Urijah Faber, too, had decided to call it a career, and his hometown came out in force to turn the night into a memorable celebration.

From the moment a well-done career retrospective aired on television and the Golden 1 Center’s big screens, all of the noise we’ve been subjected to this year -- from the UFC sale to USADA follies to stillborn fighter unions to whatever the hell Bellator 149 was -- disappeared for about a half-hour.

This was about remembering an era when hundreds of thousands of new fans tuned in to see this funky little dude in the small blue cage do things we’d never before seen, and do it with a smile. It was about the ride we’ve all taken since, as Faber’s career has intertwined with the ups and downs of this roller coaster of a sport.

It was about a city honoring one of its own. You have to visit Sacramento to truly appreciate that Faber is as big a part of the fabric of his community as any modern era fighter is in their hometown. The 13,000-plus fans in attendance Saturday rocked for Faber like any hometown crowd worth its salt -- think Georges St-Pierre in Montreal or Stipe Miocic in Cleveland.

And Faber upheld his end of the bargain. Round one felt like we had all been transported in a time machine back to 2007, as Faber relentlessly pushed forward, initiated the action, and hunted for the finish. It wasn’t there, but he went for it all the way up to the final horn.

We don’t get these moments too often in MMA. There was Mark Munoz going to the Philippines, winning his final fight, and leaving his gloves on the mat ... and then there was, well, Mark Munoz in the Philippines.

Part of what made Munoz’s finale special is that he hasn’t returned. He had his moment, and it is still remembered as a poignant and beautiful evening.

Let’s hope Faber does the same. No one wants to turn on their TV in 2026 and see Faber go out the way Hopkins did last night. Instead, a former world champion who blazed the path for entire weight classes and also founded one of the sport’s premiere gyms also got to call his own shot, go out in his hometown, and turn back the clock in the cage for a little while. It will never get any better than that.

UFC on FOX 22 quotes

“I was in the back and they were sharing special moments in my career and everything and I had to turn my back on it. I’m getting ready to go fight this dude who is going to try to take my head off, and I’m getting choked up and everything.” -- Faber on the prefight video package

“I was meant for the spotlight and I’m gonna continue to be in the spotlight,” PVZ said. “And I will be back and I’m gonna have the belt one day. I’m 22 years old. I have a long time.” -- Paige VanZant, on rebounding from her loss to Michelle Waterson

“When he stood up from my guard he was like, ‘Get up, get up,’ and he was standing right over me, so I was like, ‘Why don’t you come down? I thought you said you jiu-jitsu is better than mine,’ because he said that in the show. And the when I got up I was like, ‘What? you’re tired?’, and he was like, ‘Nah, I never get tired.’ I got to say, I like Sage with an edge. And when he blackened my eye and then he cut me, he was like, ‘Oh, that was good.’ He was talking some crap, I like that he came out a little bit.” -- Mickey Gall, on Evil Sage in the cage

Stock report

Up: Mickey Gall Yes, his UFC wins are over Mike Jackson, CM Punk, and Sage Northcutt. And yes, there’s no doubt it’s going to be tough booking Gall from here, since they’ve run out of gimmicks and fellow “Lookin’ for a Fight” competitors, and he’d probably benefit from a good half-dozen or so fights against indy-level competitors before tackling the sharks at either 155 or 170. Still ... there’s no doubting Gall is a legit prospect, and there’s no doubt he’s done everything right along the way. He trains with some of the most grounded and respected folks in the game in the Miller Brothers. He’s serious enough about his craft that he went up to Montreal and spent time learning at TriStar. And he clearly understands the self-promotional aspects of the game. It’s a simple fact of life that some people get handed better opportunities faster than others. When someone does get that break, all you can ask of them is to handle it right and make the most of it. And that’s what Gall has done.

Down: Sage Northcutt. If it wasn’t clear already, it glares like a neon sign now: Northcutt needs to get out to a top-tier MMA gym and fast. He’s one of the nicest and most polite people you’ll ever meet. He’s got raw striking skills that could really be turned into something special. And he’s also woefully out of his element whenever the fight hits the ground. As long as that doesn’t change, all of Northcutt’s good attributes are going to go to waste.

Up: Michelle Waterson Anyone who saw “The Karate Hottie” defeat Jessica Penne to win the Invicta atomweight title in what might have been 2013’s most underrated fight, raise your hand. Alright, those with your hands up already knew that Waterson can do when she’s healthy. Now, the whole country knows. Waterson looked every bit a JacksonWink-trained killer in dismantling Paige VanZant last night. If she can string together an active year in 2017, then watch out.

Down: Paige VanZant It’s hard to get too down on PVZ, because we all know the drill. She’s only 22. She’s tough as nails. She’s handled the spotlight and the promotional end of the game like a seasoned pro. But she’s also come up short twice when she’s been put in main event situations. I’m certainly not going to write PVZ off, but it would be quite prudent to slow things down a bit and let her rack up solid wins against a bit lower level competition.

Up: Leslie Smith It’s as if the lesson Smith drew from her loss to Cris Cyborg in May was that she should go out and fight like Cyborg herself. Smith was a whirlwind against Irene Aldana, pushing forward and attacking for the better part of 15 minutes before getting the unanimous decision win. Don’t let Smith’s 9-7-1 record fool you: She’s made a career out of stepping up to every challenge, whether it’s new weight classes, short-notice fights or challenges like Cyborg. So it was great to see her shake off the loss like it was no big thing and pocket a Fight of the Night bonus while she was at it.

Interesting stuff

So, we’ve had two “Paige and Sage Shows” in the past 12 months, and the VanZant-Northcutt combo went a combined 0-4 during those events. The first of those card, of course, went down during the Zuffa era and was put on Fight Pass. But Saturday night was the first time we saw something like this on network television (And it was quite a contrast to the emotion invested in Faber’s final fight).

The early returns as I write this on Sunday morning are that UFC on FOX 22 did the show’s best ratings in awhile, so as a one-off gimmick, emphasizing inexperience worked. But since Paige and Sage again came up short when pushed as a promotional package, will the UFC’s new Hollywood overlords have the fight-game instincts to roll with the results? Can they turn Michelle Waterson into a star instead, given the exposure she got on in front of a national audience? And can they find the next right fight for Gall? These are the little details that are going to start to add up as we assess the WME-IMG regime’s grip on their product.

Beyond that, we had another night off solid judging and clearheaded refereeing, including John McCarthy making the right call in letting Faber-Pickett go on when Faber was close to the finish. Let’s hope this run of non-controversy extends into UFC 207.

Fight I’d like to see next: Shrugs

For the first time in four and a half years of Aftermath, there’s no obvious, must-see fight coming out of a major event. Alan Jouban’s win was over Mike Perry was nice, but it’s going to be awhile before he’s ready to the top welterweights. Faber is retired. Mickey Gall vs. Dan Hardy? OK, cool, but I’m not circling that one on my calendar (wow, that’s a dated reference. Umm ... I’m not setting a reminder on my iCalendar).

That leaves us with the main event of VanZant vs. Waterson. If things went as the UFC pretty obviously hoped, PVZ would have been cemented as a drawing card. But that didn’t go according to plan. Fortunately, there are plenty of interesting options for Waterson. Hopefully, the new-era UFC resists the urge to rush Waterson into a matchup with Joanna Jedrzejzyk simply because of the exposure she got. Another fight or two for Waterson, considering she’s just off a long layoff, seems prudent. Rose Namajunas just seems like the right fight.