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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 197

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
A big weekend of fights with champion and former championship fighters was largely overshadowed by the daily Conor McGregor story, where two sides tell stories about why a fight that could break all revenue records isn't taking place for reasons that nobody can make any sense out of.

But there were a lot of interesting themes inside the cage walls, regarding size, ring rust, and fleeting careers.

The surprise of the weekend took place on Friday night at the Bellator show when former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, who from a fighter quality standpoint was the biggest free agent signed by the company during the Scott Coker era, debuted . Henderson then looked completely out of his league for five rounds when he challenged company welterweight champion Andrey Koreshkov.

From the weigh-ins, the potential problem was staring you right in the face. Henderson looked too small. For all the talk of Henderson being a huge lightweight, that may have been overblown because of his fights with Frankie Edgar, who was such a small lightweight. Henderson moved up to welterweight in the UFC against Brandon Thatch, and that size difference looked even more ridiculous. But perhaps the worst thing for Henderson happened. After some early trouble caused by the size difference, he was able to get Thatch on the ground, where he had a massive skill edge, and finished him.

With Koreschkov (19-1), he couldn't get it to the ground and couldn't deal with either the reach or power differential standing. Henderson, just like Kyle Dake at the Olympic wrestling trials, was simply too small for the elite level at his new weight class. The win opened some eyes on Koreshkov, and at first glance makes UFC's allowing Henderson to leave look smarter than it first appeared.

Henderson hasn't had a dominant win against a top fighter since he was one step ahead of Nate Diaz all night long in a title defense back in 2012. He had close decision wins over Josh Thomson and Gilbert Melendez that could have gone either way, although that works both ways as his loss to Donald Cerrone also could have gone his way, and for a time he was known for the king of getting the nod in close decisions.

Everyone learned quickly on Friday that Henderson's future is at lightweight. That's Bellator's best weight class to begin with, given talent like Will Brooks, Thomson, Michael Chandler, Patricky Pitbull Freire, Marcin Held and Dave Jansen.

Henderson's rival, Anthony Pettis, and partner in putting on one of the legendary fights in MMA history, is also looking for answers. Pettis went from the cover of the Wheaties box and was thought to be one of the new superstars of the sport the way he blasted through Cerrone, Henderson and Melendez. But he followed a one-sided title loss to underdog Rafael dos Anjos, with two more losses to Eddie Alvarez and Edson Barboza. At 29, it shouldn't be an age issue, but he is clearly a very different fighter than he was two years ago.

The return on Saturday of Jon Jones, who has to be in every conversation when you are debating who the single greatest MMA fighter who ever lived is, also wasn't what was expected. The difference between the very goods and the greats is that Jones, on his bad days, still wins, and in this case, won handily.

It's a testament to Jones that he could appear sluggish and rusty, and still completely dominate Ovince Saint Preux and leave him as the latest person who seemed to get into the cage with no answer on how to combat Jones' physical gifts.

If anything, if the weaknesses Jones showed make his next fight with Daniel Cormier, as more sellable. There had been a problem because people who were interested in the fight a fight time, 820,000 buys strong, saw a rather conclusive victory for Jones. But now there is the talking point - if it had been Cormier, and not Saint Preux, in the cage, who would have won?

As time passes, the fight delayed by Jones' legal issues and Cormier's recent injury, Cormier, at 37, keeps getting older, which isn't a good thing for him. So does Jones, but at 28, in theory, it is a good thing for him.

Jones was very willing to criticize himself for not taking advantage of openings, but while everyone else figured it was the ring rust of nearly 17 months off, Jones claimed it was the late change in opponents. In fairness, Saint Preux and Cormier are completely different stylistically.

"I would have beat him up pretty good," Jones said about if Cormier was across the cage from him on Saturday, claiming that for months he's been working with the idea of facing the current champion.

The other theme coming out of the weekend is a topic that always gets debated, because there is almost never an answer - the pound-for-pound rankings.

UFC announcer Joe Rogan led the charge in proclaiming flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson as not only the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world today, but ever, with his argument that fighters are evolving and improving constantly.

Many have given that tag to Jones, and at least on Saturday, there was no argument who was the better on that given night - Johnson.

But what exactly does pound-for-pound even mean?

Inherently, a smaller fighter is likely to be faster, better conditioned and technically superior. The more size, the more the game shifts from speed, reflexes and technique to power. Jones' gift is that with his size, he also has the speed and reflexes, as well as a level of unpredictability and wide variety of attacks.

In a sport where everyone at the top loses, Jones (22-1) is the exception. He's lost rounds, but he's never been in real danger in a fight except for a split second when Vitor Belfort armbarred him. And he ended up dominating that fight as well. He's only seemed human twice, his fight with Alexander Gustafsson and Saturday.

Johnson (24-2-1), seems to have no competition at flyweight, but that's also a weight class with minimal depth. Look at the names Jones has beaten and the names Johnson has, and the advantage heavily goes to Jones.
But as great as Jones is, is he as technically almost perfect like Johnson? No. Is he as fast or as well conditioned? He's not, nor could he be.

If the idea is, if everyone was the same size, who would win? But that's simply impossible because the requirements in each weight division are different. If it's about technical skill and athletic ability, the idea of ratings women with men makes no sense. If it's about division dominance, which is at least a fair tool to work with, because that fits you into the skills needed it the division, then nobody beat people faster than Ronda Rousey until her loss. But nobody considered her pound-for-pound No. 1, because she didn't have the talent level in her division. Plus, if it's about who would win a fight if everyone was the same size, she most definitely was not No. 1.
Jones and Johnson are both nearing interesting crossroads.

Jones is two wins away, Cormier (17-1) and Anthony "Rumble" Johnson (21-5), from beating everyone in the division of significance. And there is no rising star on the horizon that looks to be a year away. If he can win two more, the challenge would seem to be to move to heavyweight.

Johnson is really no wins away from the same situation. Henry Cejudo was his last real test, and he passed that with more than flying colors.

So the question becomes, what's the future for five stars of UFC 197:

JON JONES - The next step for Jones is very simple. It's Cormier, with the only question being when the fight finally takes place.

And no matter who wins, there is still Anthony Johnson, who Jones was scheduled to meet at UFC 187, only for Cormier to step in when Jones' legal issues led to him being stripped of the title.

Jones would go in as the favorite, as he should, for a fight with Johnson. Johnson, with his power, is the one fighter who has a shot to beat anyone on any given night. The way they match up, even though Cormier beat Johnson, Johnson would on paper have a better shot at Jones, even if Jones was at his best.

DEMETRIOUS JOHNSON - Originally the plan was for Johnson to defend his title in December against the winner of a tournament on the next season of The Ultimate Fighter. But after that announcement was made, everything went quiet on that front. So there is no word if it's business as usual, with Johnson fighting in the fall, or what.

Johnson made clear on Saturday that he's not opposed to going to 135. But he's made it clear he wants big money for such a move, and as great a fighter as he is, he's never proven to be a big money draw. He also said on Saturday his current goal is to break Anderson Silva's record for consecutive title defenses. With eight, Johnson needs three for the record.

The argument that there is no sellable opponent, given Johnson's win steak over everyone, including twice beating John Dodson and Joseph Benavidez, really doesn't matter. The reality is Johnson's title fights have never sold well to begin with, and a third fight with Benavidez wouldn't mean any less than most of Johnson's recent fights. Cejudo, with his undefeated record and Olympic wrestling gold medal seemed to garner more interest than his latest foes, but Johnson ended the threat in less than three minutes.

At this point, it's just putting him in with whoever is the top contender, which is Benavidez with five wins in a row since his second Johnson loss.

The reality, as Henderson showed, there is a reason for weight classes. Johnson started out as a bantamweight and was good enough to get a title shot at Dominick Cruz, but not good enough to win it. He's become a physically smaller fighter since late 2011, but few would argue he's far superior at every other aspect of the game. There is nobody at 135 with his skill level, but he'll be giving up serious size against the top fighters in that division.

Let him go for his record if that's what he wants. But the reality is, for fights people will be most interested in, if he can break the record, his best bet economically is to move up. But from  size standpoint, it isn't fair to him that he should have to.

HENRY CEJUDO - Cejudo was almost in disbelief after the fight. He implemented his strategy, turning the fight into a clinch game where he figured he could wear Johnson down over time. But it backfired quickly.

Everyone knew going in that with exactly one win over a top tier featherweight, that it was rushing Cejudo into a title fight. But Johnson had beaten everyone else of interest. A good next opponent would be former Johnson victim Kyoji Horiguchi (16-2) .

The problem with Cejudo is he needs time before knocking on the door for another shot, so it's tricky. It does the company no good for Cejudo to beat anyone who could have any kind of a case right now for a shot at Johnson. And it does nobody any good to think about a rematch with Johnson until Cejudo gains significant experience.

EDSON BARBOZA - Barboza (17-4), with his blistering kicks, has been an intriguing lightweight prospect from his UFC debut nearly five years ago.

But in the past, with Cerrone, Michael Johnson and Tony Ferguson, every time he seemed ready to step into the championship picture, he faltered.

The win over Anthony Pettis, easily the biggest of his career, isn't enough to put him in the mix yet with Ferguson or Khabib Nurmagomedov as guys ready to face the winner of the upcoming Rafael dos Anjos vs. Eddie Alvarez title fight. But two names that would stylistically make for good but different tests are Melendez (22-5), who will be off his one year suspension for a steroid positive test in mid-June, or Dustin Poirier (19-4).

YAIR RODRIGUEZ - Rodriguez (8-1) had the night's highlight with a jumping left kick to the head of Andre Fili in what was one of the year's best knockouts.

With his creativity, and Mexican heritage, Rodriguez has the shot to become one of UFC's flagship fighters for the Mexico market, the role that Erik Perez was groomed for but never quite lived up to the hopes.

He's 23, born in Mexico as opposed to being an American of Mexican heritage, and won TUF Latin America, which drew strong ratings in that country. Plus he's as exciting a rising fighter as there is on the roster.

The key for him is that he has time, but the promotion should get behind him now. As we've seen with Sage Northcutt, that can often create resentment. You don't want to overmatch him, but in this sport, it's difficult to protect someone. The other key is that in this sport, people are forgiving of losses, so if the goal for him is to be a contender, it's far better off building to that slowly. If he can have performances like Saturday, and be competitive with the top guys in a few years, he can be a major success.

A test would be Doo Ho-Choi (13-1), another fighter with potential to be a signature star in the Korean market. They are similar in age, and both are strong finishers. Both are in a position where a loss won't hurt them, but a great fight will help them.

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