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UFC 235 Aftermath: Tyron Woodley’s path back to Kamaru Usman’s title not looking too good

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There are a few examples of titles changing hands after going the distance that were as lopsided as the one that went down between Kamaru Usman and Tyron Woodley on Saturday night, and few of them bode well for the former UFC welterweight champion’s future prospects.

Usman put on a paradigm-changing performance, one that seems to harken the start of a long title reign, in dominating one of the game’s great wrestlers in Woodley. Usman used 17:51 of control time in a 25-minute fight to take the UFC welterweight title in UFC 235’s co-main event bout at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

The judges’ scores of 50-44, 50-44, and 50-45 do not do justice to the way Usman, who apparently fought with a broken foot, absolutely manhandled Woodley en route to going 10-0 in the UFC.

In fact, we can only think of a few such instances in which a champion got so thoroughly dominated while still managing to go the distance:

*Randy Couture dropped Tim Sylvia with a huge overhand right in the opening seconds, then out-wrestled his stunned foe for 25 minutes to come out of retirement and claim the heavyweight belt at UFC 68 in Columbus.

*Cain Velasquez put a shocking beatdown on Junior dos Santos at UFC 155 in Las Vegas to regain the heavyweight title JDS had taken from him in 2011. In this case, the fact that the fight went the distance was a failure on the part of the referee, ringside doctors, and dos Santos’ corner, any or all of whom should have put a stop to the carnage.

*Rafael dos Anjos battered Anthony Pettis, who some had been calling No. 1 pound-for-pound, for five lopsided rounds to claim the lightweight title on across-the-board scores of 50-45 at UFC 185.

And that’s about it (Technically speaking, T.J. Dillashaw’s career-altering wreckage of Renan Barao to take the bantamweight belt at UFC 173 was stopped in the middle of the fifth round so doesn’t quite qualify).

Woodley is a man of zero excuses, as he immediately owned his loss, which comes as zero surprise to anyone who has followed the former champ longer than a day. He also wants a rematch for the title, which is understandable based on his body of work.

But a look back at what happened to the previous recipients of bad 25-minute title losses — all of whom except Sylvia were considered dominant champions going into their career-altering losses — doesn’t bolster Woodley’s cause.

Sylvia’s loss to Couture started a run of four losses in five fights, the last of which was a knockout at the hands of Ray Mercer. He was out of the big leagues by 2009 and hung on to diminishing returns to 2013.

Pettis is 3-6 beginning with the dos Anjos loss, bouncing from lightweight to featherweight and back. He’s recently regained some mojo as a fighter who’s going to go out hunting for Fight of the Night bonuses win or lose, but the days in which he was considered revolutionary are never coming back.

Barao, if we want to go ahead and include him, is the saddest of them all, a former killer who now crumbles at the first hint of adversity. He’s 2-7 in his last nine.

Only JDS managed to escape this fate to a degree, partly because he was only 28 at the time, and partly because top heavyweights have longevity like no one else. But he, as the best-case scenario, is just 5-4 going back to the Velasquez beatdown, and came up short when he fought his way back to a title shot against then-champ Stipe Miocic.

Woodley, on the other hand, turns 37 next month. He’s been in there with everyone from Nate Marquardt to Jake Shields to Carlos Condit to Kelvin Gastelum to Rory MacDonald to Robbie Lawler to Stephen Thompson. Eventually, those battles add up.

Maybe Saturday night was a blip. Maybe he’ll buck the trend and regain the title. Maybe he’ll go on a Rich Franklin-like, post-championship respectable run while a new sheriff asserts himself. Maybe UFC 235 was the night he suddenly got old.

But history doesn’t suggest things get any easier from here.

UFC 235 quotes

“Can I curse up here? I want to f*ck that guy up so bad. I can’t be in a room with that guy. I can’t be in a room with him. It’s like, I just can’t. I can’t wait to be healed up and really put my hands on him. That’s one I’m really gonna enjoy, brutalizing him.” — Usman can’t wait to fight Colby Covington.

“That’s a beatable man. I didn’t walk out of there thinking, ‘Wow, he’s a lot better than I thought.’ Like when (Quinton) ‘Rampage’ (Jackson) lost to Jon and he stood there and said. like, ‘This kid’s for real, this guy’s good,’ like almost laying out to Jon. I don’t feel like that. I’m not gonna take anything away from him because he did a phenomenal job of doing what he had to do tonight, but I don’t have the feeling that’s a guy that I can’t beat.” — Anthony Smith on his loss to Jon Jones.

“We know what I’m capable of. I’m just looking to rematch and run it back, man. It was my fifth title defense, and I feel like, I’m the champion and what I’ve done for this organization, man, the performance may not have voiced for a rematch but I think my resume does.” — Woodley wants his rematch.

“I feel great. I went and did my job. I watched the video, I saw the arm go limp, I know he said he was trying to relax himself, but I don’t know any conscious person that just goes... (mimes going limp). I mean, it just doesn’t happen.” — No apologies from Ben Askren over the finish to his fight with Robbie Lawler.

Stock report

Hold: Jon Jones What’s there to say about Jones’ fight with Anthony Smith that we don’t already know? He’s a dynamic striker. He uses his reach and length like no one we’ve ever seen. He has a knack for, umm, let’s be nice and say utilizing the gray areas in the rulebook. And when you strip away all the controversy and noise that usually surrounds him, he’s heads and tails above the competition in the cage. Maybe Jones will go up to heavyweight someday and push himself into a new and exciting challenge. Maybe a new feud will emerge to spice things up. Until then, we’ll watch Jones run through a thin division, and night’s like Jones’ win over Smith will continue to feel like been there, done that.

The fighter nicknamed “Lionheart” reminded us there is still honor in defeat.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Hold: Anthony Smith No, the main event obviously didn’t go the way Smith intended it last night. His offense never got untracked and he was never able to find a second gear. But there’s no way we’re going to get too down on Smith after he declined to accept what would have been the cheapest championship win in the history of the sport after being fouled by Jones in the fourth round. Yeah, Smith would have ended up with PPV points and a rematch with Jones if he had done so. He also would have considered it stealing the title and couldn’t have looked himself in the mirror afterwards. There’s still some honor left in this traveling carnival of a sport, and as long as there is, Anthony Smith should have a respected place in it.

Up: Ben Askren Yes, I know, the finish of his fight with Robbie Lawler left something to be desired. We’ll get into that more in a bit. But there’s no denying Askren, who was the standout in the buildup to UFC 235, left T-Mobile Arena a bigger star than he entered it. Askren was on the wrong end of an all-time great slam -- we’re talking, in the realm of Matt Hughes carrying Frank Trigg across the ring and Daniel Cormier launching Dan Henderson into orbit -- and then was on the wrong end of Lawler rifling punches with bad intentions. He somehow survived all that, cleared the cobwebs, and had turned the fight in his favor. After the controversial call, which was out of his hands, he brilliantly trolled Dana White on the mic. Askren displayed vulnerability, tenacity, and charisma, and was embroiled in controversy to boot. The Demetrious Johnson-for-Ben Askren trade is working out for the UFC already.

Up: Johnny Walker Three UFC fights. Three sub-two minute knockouts. The last two of them four weeks apart. The latest one, a perfectly placed running knee which took out Misha Cirkunov in 36 seconds on Saturday night. Somewhere along the way, we’re going to see how Walker gets tested under fire, and that will determine whether he makes the final leap into the stardom for which he seems destined. Until then, his explosiveness, his willingness to seize the day, his undeniable charisma give the Brazilian light heavyweight all the trappings of a can’t miss star. Now let’s hope he doesn’t injure himself in the process.

Up: Pedro Munhoz We could have just as easily gone with Cody Garbrandt as a “down,” here, since he just decided to firefight his way into a knockout for his third straight fight. But that would take the shine off a competitor who has been one of the sport’s low-key standouts for quite some time. Somewhere along the way, Munhoz’s got tagged as “just a jiu-jitsu guy,” someone who could beat you if he catches you on the ground, but something of a one-trick pony. Now he’s proven he can also wreck you standing, not just in last night’s battle with Garbrandt, but also in his first-round finish of Bryan Caraway in the prior fight. Bottom line, after plugging away in the UFC for five years, Munhoz is finally breaking through in a crowded bantamweight division.

Official matters

Where do we start? Color commentator Joe Rogan called Herb Dean’s stoppage of the Askren-Lawler fight a missed call, but an understandable missed call, and I’m inclined to concur. Askren had Lawler in a position by the fence for the bulldog choke which made it difficult to get a good vantage point. Lawler didn’t answer Dean (also for understandable reasons), and with his limited view of the situation, Dean saw what appeared to be Lawler’s arm going limp. This one simply needs to be chalked up to “sometimes these things happen in MMA.”

The judge who saw that Usman-Woodley fight and decided there wasn’t a 10-8 round anywhere to be found, on the other hand, should have been escorted out of the building and should also have his picture posted by security at the entrance to arenas worldwide so he’s never allowed anywhere near a judges’ table ever again, however. At least the other two judges way paying enough attention to nab one of the 10-8 rounds in a bout which could have been scored 50-42.

And finally, as for Dean’s two-point deduction on Jones: Yes, docking two points for a foul is legal. No, I’m not convinced Dean’s two-point call would have happened if Jones wasn’t so far ahead on the scorecards. And maybe, the two-point deduction was a warning to Jones from the referees: Jones has already been disqualified in a fight, and he’s gotten away with a whole lot of eye pokes since. Maybe that was a message from the officials telling Jones enough is enough, and in that regard, it might have been exactly the right call.

Fight I’d like to see next: Kamaru Usman vs. Ben Askren

Yeah, I’ll go there. I know Woodley wants his rematch, which is hard to go straight to after a fight which could have been scored 50-42. I know Usman wants the chance to punch Colby Covington in the face, and who can blame him for that? And I know that the UFC and a lot of fans want to run back Askren vs. Lawler. But, the mouthy Askren going for revenge for his teammate and best friend against an opponent who has steamrolled everyone in his path? Yeah, sign me up.