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Hindsight – UFC 223: Khabib vs. Iaquinta in retrospect

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Look back on the action in the cage of UFC 223, from Devin Clark’s uneventful victory to open the card to Khabib Nurmagomedov’s dominant performance in the main event to claim gold.

UFC 223 will forever be remembered for Conor McGregor stealing all the thunder from the event. It was the most stacked card of 2018 a week before it took place and was left in shambles by the time the event rolled around. Though the in-cage product didn’t turn out to be spectacular, it was solid enough. Only one fight was thought to be ho-hum while a pair of no names turned in one of the best fights of 2018. The big names that were left – Khabib Nurmagomedov, Rose Namajunas, and Joanna Jedrzejczyk – met expectations, though I doubt you’ll find anyone saying they exceeded them. For all the chaos surrounding the event, UFC 223 turned out to be perfectly acceptable.

Here’s a breakdown of every contest on UFC 223. I’ll cover the important parts of the fight, some of the techniques I noticed that were either effective or ineffective, and where the fighters appear to be going.

Devin Clark defeated Mike Rodriguez via unanimous decision

A lengthy marvel with a frame to rival Jon Jones, Rodriguez had many fans and analysts – me included – excited about his future. He showed why during the contest, landing some brutal knees in close quarters in addition to some nice kicks, but he couldn’t keep Clark from grounding him. Clark chipped away with ground shots as Rodriguez attempted to get back to his feet was the lasting visual from a fight that didn’t do much to engage the audience.

Even though he came out on the short end of the stick, I’m still excited about the future of Rodriguez. Yes, his takedown defense sucks and his gas tank was lacking. However, he continually crawled back to his feet and already has a devastating clinch. I don’t know if Joe Lauzon is the best person to be working with to shore up defensive wrestling, but I can’t say Lauzon has done a poor job with him thus far. Learning to make better use of his length would be wise too as Clark had little problem getting inside Rodriguez’s reach. Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but Rodriguez will likely use this as a learning situation and still owns a bright future.

Clark appears to have stalled in his development. Yes, I know he was wise to get back to his wrestling roots in this contest as it picked him up a much-needed win. But his striking is still clunky in all phases and Rodriguez landed almost everything he threw at him. I know I’m being harder on the guy who won, but Clark has been in the sport for longer while fighting a higher level of competition. I expected he’d look better. Despite all that, Clark did what he needed to win, so kudos to him.

Ashlee Evans-Smith defeated Bec Rawlings via unanimous decision

No disrespect to either lady, but very few people cared to see this contest. Neither appeared capable of putting together all their talents, creating a wave of frustration in their wake. However, Evans-Smith looked like she could be breaking that mold. Throwing well over 300 strikes over the course of the contest, Evans-Smith resembled little of the tentative fighter analysts knew her to be, launching her entire arsenal at Rawlings. Outside of a few hard shots, Rawlings didn’t have an answer for Evans-Smith’s overwhelming volume.

I don’t know if everything finally just clicked for Evans-Smith or if it was the drop to flyweight, but this was easily her best performance in the UFC. I still don’t understand why she doesn’t utilize her wrestling more – especially now that she’ll be fighting smaller opposition – but I shouldn’t bitch about that when she didn’t need to utilize it. She was clearly winning the standup battle. If she can maintain her confidence on the feet, Evans-Smith could become a force to be reckoned with.

Marking her fourth loss in a row, it looks like Rawlings could be Invicta-bound. The funny thing about this skid is she has developed into a much more technical striker in that time. She simply hasn’t been able to combine that with the aggression that was once her calling card. According to FightMetric, Evans-Smith threw 136 more significant strikes than Rawlings. Bearing a huge amount of takedowns to make up the discrepancy in striking – Rawlings never attempted to go to the ground – no one is winning a decision that way. Rawlings could make her way back, but there is little doubt she has been a disappointment during her UFC run.

Olivier Aubin-Mercier defeated Evan Dunham via TKO at 0:53 of RD1

It wasn’t necessarily OAM beating Dunham that was so surprising. It was the manner in which the Quebecer did it. Dunham looked like Dunham in the opening seconds, laying on the volume on OAM. Then a single knee in the clinch changed everything as Dunham crumpled into a heap. OAM capitalized as any fighter would and walked away with the biggest victory of his career. Does Quebec have a new star to latch onto?

That question is very difficult to answer. OAM looked about as shaky on the feet as he usually looked heading into the contest, eating a hard left that appeared to leave OAM on unstable ground. Fortunately for OAM, Dunham couldn’t capitalize and didn’t have an issue in clinching up with the judoka. Big mistake. It’s hard to say whether OAM got lucky with the placement of his knee or if he had been working on his technique at Tristar. Regardless, we’ll find out if he’s for real in his next contest as he assuredly is going to get a step up in competition.

Dunham is difficult to figure. He’s been in the UFC for close to a decade with a style that isn’t conducive to a long career. Is he on the decline now? Hard to say. He ate a lot of punishment against Beneil Dariush before roaring back, but it doesn’t take long for a fighter’s durability to fall off. Then again, each of Dunham’s TKO losses featured a shot to the body. Hard to say it won’t be a target moving forward. Much like OAM, we won’t know a whole lot about the legitimacy of this contest until we see the results of Dunham’s next appearance. Sorry if you don’t like that answer, but that tends to happen when a fight ends suddenly.

Karolina Kowalkiewicz defeated Felice Herrig via split decision

Despite Herrig falling short every time she had received a step up in competition, she was expected to give Kowalkiewicz a serious run for her money. After all, she has looked like a new fighter during her recent four-fight win streak. Herrig fought up to expectations, fighting effectively in the pocket to win the striking battle. However, Kowalkiewicz was determined to close the distance whenever she could, allowing her to deliver a litany of elbows and knees. Herrig didn’t allow herself to be completely overwhelmed from there, but she certainly lost nearly all of those exchanges, ensuring Kowalkiewicz came ahead on the scorecards.

Kowalkiewicz appeared to be a million miles away from the title when she lost to Claudia Gadelha last spring. It was her second loss in a row and she wasn’t competitive with Gadelha in the slightest. Now, with Namajunas remaining the champion, she owns a victory over the current champion which could put her a victory away from a title shot. Granted, she’ll need Namajunas to get past Jessica Andrade, who likely poses her next challenge, but Kowalkiewicz is in a very good position get back into the title picture quickly.

I’m a bit mixed on Herrig’s performance. Her standup in the pocket was more than admirable, but she was too accepting of the clinch, a surprising development as she herself admitted Kowalkiewicz was at the advantage from there. Had Herrig fought a bit harder to avoid the clinch, she very well could have stolen the fight away from Kowalkiewicz. Nonetheless, at the very least, she proved she can be competitive with the top five of the division. It will be very interesting to see who the UFC lines her up against in her next contest.

Chris Gruetzemacher defeated Joe Lauzon via TKO at 5:00 of RD2

While it has been no secret that Lauzon has been significantly on the decline, the mystery was just how far he had fallen. Gruetzmacher represented the lowest caliber opponent Lauzon has faced in quite some time, so he posed the perfect test to answer that question. Unfortunately for Lauzon, he’s fallen off quite a bit. Lauzon’s trademark aggression only lasted about a half a round before he faded badly, allowing Gruetzemacher to piece him up. Lauzon’s defense consisted of him hiding behind his forearms, which isn’t much of a defense at all. Fortunately for Lauzon, he possesses a corner that gives a damn about his health and threw in the towel after Gruetzemacher left him a bloody pulp.

This contest says far more about how far Lauzon has slipped than any major improvements made by Gruetzemacher. Lauzon likely would have finished Gruetzemacher with relative ease just two years ago, a point in which he had already passed his peak. Nonetheless, credit needs to go to Gruetzemacher for surviving Lauzon’s early storm before applying his own brand of brutality. It’s hard to say there was much improvement in Gruetzemacher’s performance as it isn’t difficult to keep hitting a guy standing in front of you. Like I said though, he did get the win which saved his job.

I don’t know Lauzon, which gives me no room to comment on whether he should continue his career. However, if someone were to ask me my thoughts, I’d recommend he pack it in. He has already put together a career chuck full of highlights and awesome moments. He has nothing left to prove. However, only he can make that call. If this is the end, he deserves a lot of thanks from the fans for all the times he put his health on the line.

Zabit Magomedsharipov defeated Kyle Bochniak via unanimous decision

Nobody benefited from McGregor’s antics more than Magomedsharipov and Bochniak. They went from opening up the card on Fight Pass to a spot on the main card with the eyes of the MMA world directly on them. They made the most of the situation, putting on a knockdown, drag out, slugfest that had every person in the arena standing and applauding their courageous effort in the end. Magomedsharipov pieced up Bochniak from the beginning, but the American refused to go away. By the end, he was right up in the face of Magomedsharipov swinging fists with Magomedsharipov swinging away in turn. Can’t name a fight fan that doesn’t appreciate fighters willing to stand and trade.

I half expected the Twittersphere to be critical of Magomedsharipov’s inability to put Bochniak away, but fans appeared to be aware of the Russian’s efforts to do so. Bochniak simply wouldn’t go away. Magomedsharipov nailed him with a number of brutal kicks. Bochniak was still there. So Magomedsharipov tried going to the ground. Bochniak scrambled out of the bad situations. By the end of the fight, Magomedsharipov was showing signs of fatigue, unable to throw at the same clip as Bochniak to close the fight. Fortunately, the lanky youngster showed he has a hell of a chin and he survived the late surge which preserved the win. Otherwise, the highlight reel he put together for the contest wouldn’t have meant that much.

Prior to his last contest at UFC 220, I was expecting Bochniak to be released soon. He hadn’t shown anything to impress me and I didn’t think the UFC would be missing anything. His performance against Brandon Davis combined with this one against Magomedsharipov has completely flipped the narrative. Bochniak showed the discipline to win a fight against Davis while showing the toughness to endure a beating here against Magomedsharipov. That’s a far cry from the tentative point fighter who took an undeserved decision over Enrique Barzola. I’m intrigued to see Bochniak’s continued progression.

Renato Moicano defeated Calvin Kattar via unanimous decision

Though Moicano is more athletic and younger, Kattar has been the one receiving the attention from writers and analysts due to his improbable wins in his first two UFC contests. This was a guy who took a voluntary two-year break from the sport after all, so it makes sense to put a bit of a spotlight on the underdog. Following a reasonably close first round, Moicano began putting his combinations together effortlessly to easily pull away from Kattar. To call the performance anything short of brilliant would be underselling Moicano.

I get why people overlook Moicano. He had a total of two fights over the first 28 months of his UFC career thanks to injury. When he began fighting more regularly, his breakout win was a very blasé performance over Jeremy Stephens, Moicano’s jab doing most of the damage. Then he lost to Brian Ortega. Well, now we know just how good Ortega is and Stephens has made a hell of a run himself following his loss to Moicano. Moicano is legit. The most impressive thing against Kattar was the seamlessness of Moicano’s combinations. There was no thought to it, they just flowed out of him as if they were the most natural thing in the world. His attack on Kattar’s lead leg was brilliant too as Kattar couldn’t move out of the way of Moicano’s offense the deeper the fight went.

Kattar has nothing to be ashamed of. He was game, never giving up, even when showing frustration in his inability to swing the fight in his favor. After Moicano damaged his leg and limited his mobility in the process, Kattar was limited to hoping for a miracle. In the process, it looks like we found a ceiling for Kattar as it seems highly unlikely he’d be able to beat another fighter at or near the same level of Moicano. Kattar isn’t an old man by any means – he only recently turned 30 – but he is lacking in special physical skills. Nonetheless, he’s a guy that’s difficult to cheer against.

Rose Namajunas defeated Joanna Jedrzejczyk via unanimous decision

There was a camp that believed Namajunas’ win over Jedrzejczyk was a fluke and Jedrzejczyk would come back with a vengeance to reclaim her belt. Part of that was true as Jedrzejczyk came out looking for revenge, though it appeared to be to her detriment early on. Jedrzejczyk didn’t settle into a groove until the third round as Namajunas landed the cleaner punches on the former longtime strawweight champion. However, Jedrzejczyk’s long game began paying off in the third and fourth rounds as Namajunas’ mobility was strongly affected by Jedrzejczyk’s low kicks. Namajunas recognized the outcome of the fight could rest on her performance in the fifth and threw some timely shots that visibly affected Jedrzejczyk, countering Jedrzejczyk’s volume to take a tight contest.

Though I don’t have an issue with Namajunas being declared the victor, I scored in favor of Jedrzejczyk. Over the course of the fight, it was obvious the amount of damage her kicks inflicted on Namajunas wasn’t valued in the early rounds the way it should have been. In fact, there wasn’t a round that she didn’t land more significant strikes than Namajunas. Unfortunately for Jedrzejczyk, Namajunas produced more memorable moments for the judges. What really sucks is she is unlikely to get another chance at Namajunas given she has lost to her twice now. So does Jedrzejczyk stick around at strawweight or does she move up to flyweight? Given how difficult her weight cuts have been, I’m banking on the former.

Namajunas proved her first win wasn’t a fluke, even if you didn’t agree with the decision. At the very least, it can be declared she took the former champion the distance in a competitive contest. Her offense may not have been quite as consistent as Jedrzejczyk’s but it was consistent enough — when mixed with her penchant for big moments — she did get the decision. Her fight IQ needs to be lauded too as the takedown with less than 30 seconds to go prevented Jedrzejczyk from landing anything significant to potentially take the fight. What hasn’t been tested is her wrestling defense… something that is most likely to be tested in her next appearance against Jessica Andrade. Stylistically, Andrade will be a much more difficult test for Namajunas than Jedrzejczyk was. I’m not willing to proclaim Namajunas is ready for a long reign, but I will should she get past Andrade.

Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated Al Iaquinta via unanimous decision

Though there wasn’t a lot of time to analyze this contest for predictions – it was made less than 36 hours before it took place – the consensus was that Khabib would dominate Iaquinta before finishing him off before the championship rounds. While Khabib didn’t finish his opponent, he did do whatever he pleased. The first two rounds saw Khabib searching for takedowns. Once he got Iaquinta to the ground, Khabib either tried to pound him out or secure a submission. Khabib took a different approach the rest of the fight, testing his standup against Iaquinta, a solid standup fighter himself. However, Iaquinta was so wary about Khabib’s takedowns that he never went for broke despite opportunities to do so. Instead, Iaquinta pieced him up with a jab to cruise to an easy decision victory.

Khabib is now the undisputed lightweight champion after the UFC stripped both Conor McGregor and Tony Ferguson of the gold they possessed. Here’s hoping Khabib gets to fight one or both of them at some point, but it appears unlikely he’s going to face either one in his next contest as McGregor has legal issues to sort out and Ferguson’s injury should keep him sidelined for a while. No one else aside from one of those two appears likely to take the gold from Khabib. His wrestling was as good as advertised against Iaquinta – he secured takedowns simply by getting a hold of Iaquinta’s ankle – and he showed some new wrinkles to his standup. His defense does have some holes as he has complete trust in his chin, which is the biggest reason for concern moving forward.

Iaquinta received a lot of praise for his performance, but I’m not sure the praise was deserved. He was reluctant to go for broke, allowing Khabib to do whatever he wanted. I will give him credit for his defense when Khabib had him on the mat over the first two rounds, but Iaquinta never presented himself as a credible threat to Khabib. Nonetheless, I don’t think any less of Iaquinta as he wasn’t given adequate time to prepare for an incredibly difficult opponent to prepare for. Where he goes from here is a mystery as his profile is raised from getting the bump to the main event, but he also showed he isn’t an elite fighter… yet.

Well, those are my thoughts. Until next time….

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