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Hindsight – UFC 224: Nunes vs. Pennington in retrospect

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Given the lack of excitement around UFC 224 heading into the event, the final result was about as good as could have been expected. A new record for finishes at a single event was set with 11. Jacare Souza and Kelvin Gastelum put on an epic contest. And given she that is the lone Brazilian champ in the UFC at the moment, Amanda Nunes sent the Brazilian crowd home happy with a dominating defense of her title over Raquel Pennington. Sure, I could find some negatives, but that would be nitpicking and plenty of readers already think I’m a UFC hater as it is, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Here’s a breakdown of every contest on UFC 224. 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.

Markus Perez defeated James Bochnovic via submission at 4:28 of RD1

Though there were few who showed any type of interest in this contest, the expectation was that Perez would emerge victorious as Bochnovic showed less than Perez did in their respective UFC debuts. Bochnovic tried to push the early action, but Perez scored a nice bodylock takedown before eventually finding an RNC victory before the opening frame closed. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but it was a nice showing from the Brazilian nonetheless.

What’s bad for Perez is Bochnovic doesn’t look like he belongs anywhere near a UFC cage. Bochnovic has no idea how to capitalize on his 81” reach, closing the distance on his opponent while looking for the takedown – only for Perez to reverse against the cage and secure his own takedown. Perez showed plenty of toughness in his UFC debut against Eryk Anders, but he isn’t going to turn heads by putting a beatdown on Bochnovic. Though the UFC has been resistant to cutting loose fighters from their contracts early since the ownership change, no one will be shocked if Bochnovic doesn’t get another shot.

Ramazan Emeev defeated Alberto Mina via unanimous decision

Though he has been on the UFC roster for well over four years, this was only Mina’s fourth appearance in the Octagon. Unfortunately for him, the rust was apparent. Emeev bullied the BJJ expert, clinching up at every opportunity and scoring timely takedowns. Emeev let off the gas in the final frame, content to land counters as Mina pressed forward, but it didn’t matter whether he gave the round away or not.

Emeev had fought at middleweight without issue – meaning he wasn’t being outmuscled there — prior to this contest and his size and strength was clear in this contest. Granted, Mina isn’t the best wrestler, but he is a tricky submission expert. Despite that, Emeev had very little issue getting Mina to the ground and avoiding Mina’s low-percentage subs. It is early, but Emeev looks like he could become a big player at welterweight.

Not much to take away from Mina. His wild striking was ineffective at preventing Emeev from closing the distance and his best defense on the ground was the leglocks he attempted. Mina is skilled enough he can overcome inexperienced or less athletic fighters, but that isn’t a recipe to move him up the ladder. Then again, fighting as little as he does doesn’t move him up either.

Jack Hermansson defeated Thales Leites via TKO at 2:10 of RD3

Hermansson has had a schizophrenic UFC career thus far, looking fantastic in his wins and really bad in his losses…much like Leites’ career story arc. It made this contest a bit harder to predict than many of the other contests on the card. Hermansson looked fantastic in the opening round, stifling Leites’ ground attack and maintaining a consistent attack from the outside with the occasional takedown. However, things took a sharp turn when he injured his ribs early in the second in an attempt to stuff a takedown attempt from Leites, allowing the Brazilian to control him for the rest of the round. Though Marc Goddard threatened to stop the contest, he allowed Hermansson to continue into the third. After Leites overcame an early flurry from Hermansson to go for an anaconda choke, Hermansson reversed into the mount and pounded out Leites, becoming the first person to finish Leites from strikes.

While I realize I spent a long time describing the events of a contest that doesn’t have great circumstances in the division, Hermansson overcoming his injury – he said the rib was broken – was a badass narrative that doesn’t happen all that often. It establishes Hermansson as one of the toughest members of the roster too. His dominant first round showed he’s progressing in his skill set too. Hermansson effectively made himself a name to keep an eye on in the process. He is likely to stumble again, but he’s also proven he’s very resilient.

Leites is near the end of his career. He’s been fighting for 15 years and has accumulated a lot of mileage in the process. Being finished for the first time with strikes shows his durability is in decline. Plus, his gas tank has betrayed him in each of his last four contests. There may be a win or two still in him within the confines of the UFC, but it would be against lower level competition. After all, he couldn’t put away an opponent with a severe rib injury that could have ended the contest for most other fighters.

Warlley Alves defeated Sultan Aliev via TKO at 5:00 of RD2

While Alves didn’t exactly excite the audience with his performance, it was a promising development for the former TUF Brazil winner. Fighting intelligently, Alves worked over Aliev in the clinch over the course of ten minutes, resulting in Aliev’s right eye swelling completely shut to the point his corner declared he couldn’t continue any more. The concern for Aliev’s health gave Alves his first stoppage from strikes since before his UFC career began in 2014.

That makes two wins in a row in which Alves has fought an intelligent contest, sustaining a consistent pace without slowing. Granted, it’s a slow pace that he’s been fighting, but it’s a sign of maturity he has only recently developed. While those who believe Alves will develop into a contender has dwindled to next to nothing, these developments are still indicative of progress. It’s easy to forget Alves is only 27.

Aliev hasn’t shown much in his three UFC contests, chalking up a 1-2 record. Alves took the fight where Aliev is thought to be at his strongest and did what he wanted with Aliev from there. True, Alves is a far superior athlete, but clinch work requires a lesser degree of athleticism than most other areas of a fight. Expect the UFC to let Aliev fulfill his contract and let him walk away.

Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos defeated Sean Strickland via TKO at 1:32 of RD2

Though Strickland possessed more natural physical gifts than dos Santos – and most other members of the division – his lack of inactivity has long been a problem. Granted, his jab was on point as dos Santos continued to advance forward, but it felt like a matter of time before dos Santos landed either a shot or a combination that put Strickland on his ass. It ended up being a spinning heel kick, honed by dos Santos’ years of capoeira. It didn’t put Strickland out cold, but the ref had seen enough after dos Santos followed up with some punches.

The UFC finally gave dos Santos a step up in competition when they pit him against Strickland, but it still felt like dos Santos deserved a larger opportunity with four wins in a row. Having increased that streak to five, dos Santos finally secured the highlight reel finish that had been missing from his resume. Given there are three FOTN bonuses in that streak, that’s impressive as hell. Then again, the UFC hasn’t bothered to promote or give any Brazilians a major push. Dos Santos may be pushing them into doing that. Here’s hoping they give in.

Strickland continues to frustrate. He’s got the physical skills to be a major player, but his inactivity and lack of fight IQ are limiting him. He has a nice jab, but never follows up with anything behind it. Dos Santos’ wrestling has long been a major question mark, but Strickland didn’t attempt a single takedown in those three minutes. If Strickland’s wrestling was as questionable as dos Santos’, fair enough. But Strickland’s wrestling is one of his strengths. Strickland has no one but himself to blame for this loss.

Davi Ramos defeated Nick Hein via submission at 4:15 of RD1

No one was debating who was the more gifted athlete; Ramos won that comparison hands down. However, his inexperience in MMA coupled with his need to get into Hein’s range in order to take the fight where he is strongest: the ground. Hein did knock Ramos to the ground to open the contest, but that was the only highlight for the Germany native. Ramos faked a jab into a blast double to get the fight to the ground before using a kimura to transition into a slick back take and work for an RNC. He didn’t find it, but he put enough of a squeeze on it to force Hein to tap to a face crank.

Ramos is progressing faster than many believed he would. A freak athlete, Ramos’ striking has been undisciplined, yet effective thanks to that athleticism. He showed progress with the jab he faked for the takedown. He also showed one of the most impressive back takes in recent memory, using the kimura to get there. Ramos’ creativity on the ground amongst the best in the sport and that alone will take him far even if he doesn’t become a decent striker. The UFC should still use kid gloves on Ramos, but he looks like he could become something special.

Hein’s loss isn’t all that surprising. His stout frame prevents him from being the all-around striker he needs to be in order to be a standout. This performance accentuated his limitations on the feet as the strike he landed to put Ramos on the ground was his only offense of the fight. Plus, he tends to do little more than maintain position during the few times he gets the fight to the ground.

Alexey Oleynik defeated Junior Albini via submission at 1:45 of RD1

Oleynik has a horrible gas tank with little hope of outpointing Albini over the course of 15 minutes. In other words, everyone knew he needed to secure a submission in the opening five minutes if he hoped to win. All Albini had to do was avoid going to the ground with the old Russian if he wanted to pick up the W. Oleynik clinched up at the first opportunity he got after some unsuccessful striking sequences…and was subsequently tripped to the ground by Albini. Obviously, Albini didn’t watch any film on Oleynik as Oleynik submitted him the same way he submitted Viktor Pesta: an Ezekiel choke from the bottom when Albini had a mount position.

Oleynik shouldn’t be winning these fights. He has never been a good athlete and he may be the worst one on the roster now that he’s in his 40’s. His striking is janky as hell with little chance of it consistently finding a home. Any fighter who signs up to fight him simply needs to look at his record that is littered with submission victories to know they don’t want to go to the ground with him. They don’t even need to watch film! And yet, Albini instigated the trip. As long as the heavyweight division is littered with dumb fighters, Oleynik is going to keep winning fights. His limitations will prevent him from becoming a contender, but he’s an effective gatekeeper at the very least.

Albini’s physical skills still make him a heavyweight to keep an eye on. However, this loss is far more damaging to his stock than his loss to Andrei Arlovski. He looked lethargic against Arlovski, but conditioning is something that could be fixed. This loss was simply attributed to idiocy. At 27, Albini is young enough that he could still mature into a more intelligent fighter. But there is no guarantee of that. Given how likeable Albini is, the hope is that he does mature.

Cezar Ferreira defeated Karl Roberson via submission at 4:45 of RD1

There were many who were excited about Roberson following his UFC debut, excited enough to pick him over Ferreira despite Roberson’s lack of experience. Ferreira has become a grizzled veteran over the course of his UFC career, far from the raw prospect he was upon his entry. In other words, Ferreira knew what he needed to do. More important, he knew how to do it. Roberson landed a few HARD kicks to Ferreira’s legs, but didn’t do anything after that. Ferreira took him down, dragged him back down when Roberson stood up, and eventually found a triangle choke that Roberson refused to tap to, eventually going to sleep.

Ferreira has quietly developed into one of the most effective gatekeepers in the middleweight division, having won five of his last six. Yes, he may be the chinniest fighter at 185, but he has developed an awareness of how to avoid being touched up. In fact, he has become one of the division’s most efficient wrestlers in the process. Is he going to become a contender? Not with that chin. However, his role as a gatekeeper has been solidified.

Roberson reminded everyone just how inexperienced he is with this loss. Ferreira was the first experienced grappler he has faced that was able to get him to the ground. The results proved disastrous as Ferreira methodically advanced into the choke. However, this loss should be good for Roberson’s long-term development. Fighters tend to learn more from their losses than they do their victories. His ceiling hasn’t been affected by this loss at all. The only thing that’s different is the timetable the UFC will put him on.

Lyoto Machida defeated Vitor Belfort via KO at 1:00 of RD2

Though Machida and Belfort are both legends of the sport, they were also many years past their prime. At 39, Machida was the younger fighter in this contest, which is all fans need to know. Nonetheless, this contest felt appropriate as no one wanted to feed these geriatrics to younger, more aggressive fighters. The first round was a lot of staring as neither wanted to commit, though the consensus was that Machida did more with his kicking arsenal. That kicking arsenal came into play again in the second round when he suckered Belfort into eating a rough front kick that rivaled the one Anderson Silva brutalized Belfort with seven years ago. Belfort was out cold as Machida put his hands on his hips to admire his handy work.

This contest was the last fight on Belfort’s UFC contract. The UFC has shown no signs of wanting to re-sign him, but that hardly means Belfort is done fighting. He has repeatedly indicated he’s wants to continue his career, meaning he’s likely to end up in Bellator or Rizin. Given he has lost five of his last seven – if you count the loss to Kelvin Gastelum that was overturned – with him being finished in every contest, most would prefer Belfort call it quits completely. Then again, Belfort has never been one to do what others want him to do.

Following a string of four losses in five contests, Machida has now put together two wins in a row. The hope is that he hasn’t fooled himself into believing he can contend for the title again as wins over Anders and an aged Belfort only prove there are still fighters Machida can secure wins over, neither of them anywhere near the elite level. His call-out of Michael Bisping is something most fans approve of as Bisping is just as much a part of the senior circuit as Machida. Then again, Bisping doesn’t seem likely to take any fights at this point.

John Lineker defeated Brian Kelleher via KO at 3:43 of RD3

It’s always nice when a fight everyone expects to be a slugfest lives up to expectations. It didn’t take Kelleher long to realize he couldn’t stand punch for punch with the Brazilian slugger, leading to Lineker stalking him for the duration of the contest. Lineker did an excellent job mixing in his punches to the body beautifully. To his credit, Kelleher didn’t seem to slow down despite the attack to his frame and even landed some stiff shots of his own. However, when they didn’t phase Lineker, it appeared to only be a matter of time before Lineker landed a killshot, which he did with just over a minute to go.

Lineker appeared to be psychologically affected by his broken jaw at the hands of T.J. Dillashaw in his last contest against Marlon Vera. He was reluctant to take damage against Vera. That wasn’t a concern here. Whether it was that he respected Vera’s power over Kelleher’s or that he had been affected psychologically, he looked like his old self. If he wants to earn a title shot, he’ll need to make some adjustments – such as not getting hit so much – but he’s fine using this strategy against talents like Kelleher.

Kelleher shouldn’t have his stock affected in any way. If anything, it may have gone up, as he showed loads of heart in his greatest opportunity on a big stage in a contest most expected him to lose. He simply doesn’t have the physical gifts to hang with the elite. Yes, he does make up for that with his heart, toughness, and willingness to take risks, but that will only carry him so far. In the span of a calendar year, he has fought five times in the UFC. Given this was the first time in his career he was KO’d, expect him to take a bit of a break before we see him in the cage next.

Mackenzie Dern defeated Amanda Cooper via submission at 2:27 of RD1

Cooper was already an underdog before it was revealed Dern missed weight by seven pounds. Given Dern didn’t look dehydrated in the least for the contest, it’s clear she didn’t make every effort possible to make weight. Cooper had a damn-near impossible task in front of her. She did look sharp on the feet for the first two minutes, but Dern’s athleticism and power were too much for her to overcome. Dern landed a massive overhand right that sent Cooper sprawling to the ground. A few punches on the ground was followed by a choke attempt from Dern that resulted in Cooper tapping out to an RNC.

I can’t help but feel bad for Cooper. She continues to be used as fodder for the UFC’s latest hot prospect at strawweight. First, it was Tatiana Suarez to crown the champion of TUF. Then the UFC pits her against Cynthia Calvillo. This time, it was Dern. Admittedly, Cooper isn’t the special talent any of those ladies are, but it’s going to be hard to develop her when she’s being set up to lose time and again. Nonetheless, she deserves props for being willing to step into those contests. The one thing that continues to cost Cooper in every contest: her defense. She can’t stop takedowns and she can’t control distance very well. Until those are addressed, she isn’t going to be anything more than fodder.

Though it appears the UFC is going to allow Dern to remain at strawweight – they haven’t said anything publicly – I believe that is a huge mistake to allow the youngster to continue trying to make 115. She already botched two previous weight cuts to 115 on the regional circuit and this occasion wasn’t an inconsequential amount of weight that she didn’t cut. It was SEVEN pounds. That’s almost another weight class! Those with a history of missing weight continue to miss weight. For example: Kelvin Gastelum, John Lineker, and Michel Prazeres all missed weight at least three times before the UFC finally booted them up another weight class. Even if two of Dern’s follies came on the regional scene, they should still count.

Dern did display why so many people are high on her talents as she effortlessly took the back of Cooper. Plus, there was a lot of power behind the strike that put Cooper down. But that strike was also telegraphed so badly it’s amazing Cooper didn’t see it coming. Dern has a LOT of kinks to iron out before she can consider facing a contender.

Kelvin Gastelum defeated Jacare Souza via split decision

Each combatant had a major question mark coming into this contest. Jacare is now 38, meaning his peak years are well behind him, even if he looked good in dispatching of Derek Brunson. In the other corner, Gastelum had been manhandled by a much larger Chris Weidman this past summer and Jacare is also a big and strong 185er. Something had to give. What we got was one of the best contests of 2018. Jacare dominated Gastelum in the first round, getting the overblown welterweight to the ground and coming this close to submitting Gastelum with an armbar. Jacare had blown his wad by then, coming out gassed in the second. Gastelum took advantage piecing up the Brazilian and knocking him on his ass about midway through the round. Even though it would be too much to say Jacare found a second wind, the BJJ expert fought back, closing out the round strong and continuing to throw everything he had at Gastelum in the third. Gastelum exercised patience in the final frame – almost too much – picking his spots to chip away, making the final frame too close to definitively call. Amazingly enough, the judges didn’t give the decision to the Brazilian, awarding Gastelum the biggest win of his career.

Jacare has had a lot of awesome submissions over his career, but he’s never had a fight that leaves fans remembering the contest as a whole a few years down the road. He has one now. That may have done more for the career resume of Jacare than a quick submission win over Gastelum would have. That may sound ludicrous, but those type of fights are usually more memorable than career accomplishments. Even though he came out on the short end of the stick, Jacare showed enough to prove he has something left in the tank. He may not ever get the UFC title shot he should have received years ago, but his status as one of the all-time great middleweights shouldn’t be debated. Given the potential for injuries in this sport, Jacare would be well served to stay ready for a potential title shot as there isn’t anyone aside from Gastelum who looks like they could get a title shot anytime soon.

While Gastelum probably would be best served fighting at welterweight, he’s proved he’s more than capable of competing with the best at 185. Yes, his size is going to prove problematic from time to time, but this wasn’t one of those contests. Jacare had to rely on savvy to get Gastelum to the ground in the first round, dropping for a leglock before advancing to a better position from there. Gastelum’s takedown defense held up this time. However, what wasn’t smart was him allowing Jacare to clinch up with him at ease in the opening frame. He appears to have learned some lessons from his loss to Weidman. If he continues to learn from past experiences, it won’t be a shock to see him hoist a title over his head.

Amanda Nunes defeated Raquel Pennington via TKO at 2:36 of RD5

Though Nunes was an overwhelming favorite in the betting odds – and rightfully so – very few were discounting the durable Pennington. If she could find a way to empty Nunes’ gas tank – a feat that had been accomplished in the past – she stood a great chance of pulling off the upset. Instead, it became apparent Nunes had fixed her stamina issue, putting together a complete performance from the opening bell up until the point the referee called an end to the contest. Takedowns, low kicks, punching combinations… Nunes did whatever she wanted to Pennington. Pennington got in a few nice punches and had some ground control in the second, but mostly looked like she didn’t want to be there. That fact was confirmed when she told her corner after four rounds she wanted out. Instead, they talked her into going back out there in the final frame only for Nunes continue to attack an already broken nose, leaving Pennington laying in a massive puddle of her own blood when the fight was called.

Nunes’ dominance wasn’t a surprise, though it did catch many off-guard to see it carry on into the fifth round. Sure, she went all five rounds against Valentina Shevchenko, but that contest was also fought at a snail’s pace. She pushed a nice pace on her American opponent this time, doling out 124 significant strikes. There is so little depth in women’s bantamweight right now, there isn’t a single candidate who looks like they could be a decent challenge within the next year. The division was never deep to begin with and the opening of flyweight has only made things worse. The UFC would be wise to let a candidate develop by allowing Nunes to step away for a bit and challenge another champion without an obvious next opponent: Cyborg.

All of the focus on Pennington has been regarding her corner telling her to go back out there. She has defended them in that time, but that’s going to be the focus for quite a while. I disagree with her corner throwing her back out there as her heart clearly wasn’t in it. When a fighter isn’t into the fight, all there are asking for is further damage. Nonetheless, I think the Pennington’s 18-month layoff played a big part of why she didn’t look like her usual self. She didn’t come forward the way she usually did and looked unsure of herself for big chunks of the contest. Asking out of the fight only solidifies that argument. Though many have been saying she’s unlikely to get another title shot, it isn’t out of the question for her to put together another winning streak similar to the one that earned her this one…provided she doesn’t have any long-term effects from this contest.


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