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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Utica

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Fresno-Moraes vs Sterling
Marlon Moraes defeated Jimmie Rivera at UFC Utica.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Marlon Moraes vs. Jimmie Rivera main event on Friday night seemed unusual for a legitimate title eliminator and big-time UFC fight.

We had no controversy whatsoever.

Nobody had a weight issue. The judging wasn’t controversial. Better yet, it wasn’t needed. The officiating wasn’t controversial. Moraes (21-5-1), with 16 wins in his last 17 bouts and coming off first-round stoppages of Aljamain Sterling, taking on Rivera to determine who should be next in line for a bantamweight title shot at the winner of the Aug. 4 bout between champion T.J. Dillashaw (15-3) and former champion Cody Garbrandt (11-1).

You can’t get more decisive than a left high-kick knockout in 33 seconds over a fighter who came in with his own 20-fight winning streak.

Still, there was one negative from a business standpoint. It was the first UFC event ever held in Utica, featured two exciting and dominant contenders, but only drew 5,063 fans — failing to sell out a small New York arena — and did a $322,825 gate, which falls among the smallest numbers the company has pulled in recent years.

The show also garnered little online buzz, as it didn’t even measure as a blip on social media searches on Friday, once again showing that you need a lot more than top contenders winning almost all their fights to create mainstream interest.

That could be significant in a sport where marketability and fan interest isn’t based on wins and losses. The biggest star in the division is the often-injured Dominick Cruz (22-2). Cruz dominated the division, at least when he was fighting, which wasn’t often. It’s been 18 months since his last fight, where he lost the title to Garbrandt, who then dropped it to Dillashaw — the same Dillashaw that Cruz won the title from.

In no way should Cruz get the next shot after being inactive for so long. But with his broadcasting work, he’s stayed in the public eye. He’s one of the company’s best when it comes to promoting a fight. He had won 13 in a row before his loss to Garbrandt. If Moraes or Rivera had won in unimpressive fashion, the scales perhaps could have been tipped in his direction.

Moraes has been on the hardcore fans radar since the debut of the now-defunct World Series of Fighting organization. At the time, the group was looking to revive the career of Miguel Torres, the former WEC bantamweight champion, who along with Urijah Faber were the bantamweight and featherweight champions when those divisions first drew national attention. On the inaugural WSOF show, it was Moraes who won a split decision over Torres. Since then, Torres has long fallen to the past while Moraes has become the future.

In 2014, Moraes became the first WSOF bantamweight champion, and had six successful title defenses before his contract expired at the end of 2016. He came to UFC. Moraes did drop his UFC debut to Raphael Assuncao, but that was a controversial split decision that 94 percent of media scores had Moraes winning.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five Stars at UFC Utica.

MARLON MORAES — As mentioned above, it’s rare when a fighter makes such an emphatic statement in a match to determine the rightful No. 1 contender.

Moraes should sit and wait for the title shot. With training camp injuries and other mishaps happening all the time, and August being two months away, he probably should keep himself in condition because if something happens to either Dillashaw or Garbrandt, he’s the guy who should get the call to save the day.

JIMMIE RIVERA — It took Rivera (21-2) nine years to build up his 20-match winning streak, and it took one high kick to end it.

That’s the nature of the sport, and endings can come at any time. But what is unknown is where Rivera actually stands in the pecking order. His next fight should be with either the Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt loser, or with Cruz.

GREGOR GILLESPIE — In a sport filled with great wrestlers, Gillespie (12-0), who won the NCAA Division I championship at Edinboro in 2007, stands out with four straight dominant performances in the deep lightweight division.

His wrestling was so on point that opponent Vinc Pichel (11-2), who managed to defend a few takedowns, nonetheless spent most of the fight on his back before submitting to an arm triangle in the second round.

It would be interesting to see how Gillespie’s takedown and top control game would fare against champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who is also unbeaten and shares some of the same relentless takedowns. But such a fight is a long way from happening. Gillespie has yet to face or beat a ranked opponent and lightweight has probably the longest line to the top.

Gillespie could go next with the winner of this coming Saturday’s fight between Clay Guida (34-17) and Charles Oliveira (22-8). Another power takedown opponent that would be interesting with Gillespie would be Rustan Khabilov (22-3). David Teymur (8-1), coming off his win over Nik Lentz on Friday, is another possible opponent.

SAM ALVEY — The company’s busiest fighter, Alvey (33-10, 1 NC) won a split decision over Gian Villante in his second bout at light heavyweight, having recently moved up from middleweight. He made an immediate challenge to Corey Anderson (10-4). Anderson makes sense as an opponent, but Anderson noted that he is going through a family tragedy and thus didn’t respond immediately to the callout.

The win over Villante should put Alvey into the top 15 in his new division, and if he could beat Anderson, he’d probably move into the top 10.

SIJARA EUBANKS — Eubanks only has a 3-2 pro record, but she came into Friday as the No. 2 contender in the women’s flyweight division based on going to the finals in The Ultimate Fighter 26 tournament to crown the weight class’ first UFC champion.

Eubanks had a weight issue which led to her not even competing for the championship last year. But after her win over Lauren Murphy, she is deserving of what should have been her match to determine the first champion with Nico Montano (4-2). Still, Valentina Shevchenko (15-3) is a much bigger name and far more proven fighter, having gone five rounds with Amanda Nunes for the bantamweight title and having beaten Holly Holm.

With Shevchenko expected to get the next title shot, Eubanks should next face Andrea Lee (9-2), who is coming off her May 19 win over Veronica Macedo.

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