Peer into all the happenings of the UFC’s trip down under in New Zealand, from the showdown between behemoth’s Derrick Lewis and Mark Hunt to the curtain jerker between JJ Aldrich and Chan Mi Jeon
Though UFC Auckland was weak on paper, I believed there were some fights that would make the card better than it appeared. While I turned out to be correct, it did so in a manner that I couldn’t have predicted. Sure, the main event wasn’t quite as explosive as we all hoped, but it wasn’t a complete dud either. But the four straight finishes leading up to it – three in the first round – were done in a massively entertaining fashion. There were no FOTY candidates, but will anyone disagree with putting Daniel Hooker’s flying knee to Ross Pearson on the list of KOoTY nominees? I didn’t think so.
Here’s my thoughts on the UFC Auckland, with every fight and fighter involved broken down. The format is simple. The first bullet covers what was expected to happen and an attempt at a brief summary of what did happen. The next two bullets cover my thoughts on each fighter, how they did, and where they might be headed from here with the winner being covered first.
JJ Aldrich defeated Chan Mi Jeon via unanimous decision
- Expectation/Results: Having taken the fight with only two weeks notice, the 19-year old Jeon had a tall task ahead of her. She came out the aggressor, landing more punches early in the first round. Aldrich then settled down and found her range, effectively countering and finding a home for her right hook time and again. Jeon had moments, but also spent too much time retreating to put together enough offense to sway the judges to see things her way.
- Aldrich: I’m still very leery about Aldrich’s future. Jeon matched up very favorably with Aldrich as I don’t recall Jeon looking to take the fight to the ground once. Nonetheless, Aldrich deserves credit for maintaining good distance to land her jab and avoid too much return damage from Jeon. Her hook was on point and I liked the few instances where she doubled up on her jab. She deserved the win, but I don’t see her picking up many more in the UFC.
- Jeon: If we’re going to pick an entertaining side of this contest, Jeon wins that hands down. She was very animated, screaming in between rounds and smiling when Aldrich landed some of her hard punches. She had a few nice flurries and counters of her own, but her trademark aggression was pushed aside for large portions. I’m sure that had something to with Jeon taking the contest on short notice, though Octagon jitters could have something to do with it too. At her age, Jeon has a long way to go in terms of her development. Keep an eye on her.
Zak Ottow defeated Kiichi Kunimoto via split decision
- Expectation/Results: There wasn’t much excitement behind this contest. Though it wasn’t very entertaining, it was a competitive contest. Ottow started strong, landing his punches while Kunimoto was unable to get anything besides leg kicks. Kunimoto began to change the tide in the second, landing a takedown and securing some control, though Ottow did the same. Kunimoto scored the only takedown of the third and exercised greater control, likely giving him the round. However, the fight went to Ottow.
- Ottow: Ottow didn’t look any different from his first two UFC contests: jab and leg kicks are his primary weapons while his takedowns are largely ineffective. While I agree with the decision, I get the feeling Ottow isn’t ever going to pull out a definitive decision. That’s three split decisions in three UFC contests. Not necessarily a rip on him, but it isn’t a ringing endorsement either. He’s a smart fighter with great resilience, but he isn’t a very good athlete nor is he very powerful. Still, he’s good enough to hang around the UFC for a while.
- Kunimoto: Kunimoto took a little while to get going and it took too long for that to happen for him to pick up the victory. Once he did figure out Ottow, I was impressed with Kunimoto’s ability to get Ottow to the ground. It’s easy to forget what he’s capable of doing in the grappling department as he is a small welterweight. However, Kunimoto’s style isn’t exciting, he’s not very marketable, and he’s now lost two fights in a row. I don’t see him remaining on the roster.
John Moraga defeated Ashkan Mokhtarian via unanimous decision
- Expectation/Results: Mokhtarian was largely an unknown as he had yet to face any quality competition. We found out how good he is and it isn’t very good. A case could be made that Moraga won every round 10-8, putting Mokhtarian in submission attempt after submission attempt and easily winning the striking battle. To Mokhtarian’s credit, he was able to escape Moraga’s onslaught in order to make it to the decision. As for significant offense, Mokhtarian didn’t score any. Nothing more needs to be said about this one-sided contest.
- Moraga: There were questions whether Moraga could still hang in the UFC. Those concerns have been put to rest. It isn’t necessarily that Moraga picked up a win. It was the manner in which he did. His transitions were very slick and he lit up Mokhtarian when given enough distance to stand and trade. I don’t see Moraga ever jumping back into title contention as his recent losses were very definitive. However, he still has enough to be a quality gatekeeper.
- Mokhtarian: There is no reason to be optimistic about Mokhtarian’s future in the UFC after this performance. Facing someone who has a wrestling background for the first time and Mokhtarian was unable to get anything positive going. I greatly admire his resilience, but that isn’t enough to win against 90% of the roster and it’s hardly a guarantee against the other 10%. I’m sure Mokhtarian will get another opportunity since it’s a rare deal when the UFC gives a fighter a single appearance, but I have very little hope for him going forward.
Luke Jumeau defeated Dominique Steele via unanimous decisions
- Expectations/Result: Steele was a decent favorite due to his ability to get the fight to the ground as Jumeau traditionally struggles to stop takedowns. Early on, the fight played out as planned. Steele used the threat of the takedown to score some effective offense and to score some good offense as Jumeau looked uncharacteristically reluctant to engage. Steele began to slow down in the second round, allowing Jumeau to land his offense as Steele telegraphed his attempts to get the fight to the ground. Jumeau landed a bunch of good shots, particularly in the third round. That allowed the newcomer to pick up an unexpected win.
- Jumeau: It wasn’t a great performance, but it was enough for Jumeau to pull out the win. I am encouraged by his improved takedown defense as Steele is exceptionally strong even if his technique isn’t great. If Jumeau can continue to address that – easily the biggest concern — he might be able to have an extended run in the UFC, something I didn’t anticipate. Hopefully we’ll get to see the brawler in him come out next time, provided he gets an opponent who isn’t constantly looking for takedowns.
- Steele: Steele has no one to blame but himself. This was a very favorable matchup for him and he couldn’t pull it off. Steele’s lack of speed is what cost him as he was unable to transition from one phase to the other without telegraphing his intentions. That’s why he has never been able to develop a consistent striking game from the outside. Now at 1-4 in the UFC, I don’t see Steele coming back. He isn’t so old at 29 that he couldn’t find his way back, but I find that doubtful.
Vinc Pichel defeated Damien Brown via KO at 3:37 of RD1
- Expectations/Result: In a contest few cared about, Pichel and Brown put on an entertaining scrap for how long it lasted. Brown jumped out to an early lead, using his aggressive kickboxing to land some punches that jarred Pichel’s head backwards. Pichel kept plugging despite Brown’s onslaught, eventually finding Brown’s chin despite moving backwards, dropping the Aussie and following up with punches before the referee saved Brown from further damage.
- Pichel: I was shocked at how good Pichel looked. A long layoff like the one he had coming into this contest – three years – typically produces rust. Even when Pichel was taking Brown’s early attack, it looked more like he was finding his timing more than it was rust. It appears Pichel used his time away from the sport well. I don’t see him making a serious run as he does have physical and athletic limitations, but he looks like he could become a fun action-fighter if he continues to fight in the same manner in which he did against Brown.
- Brown: Up until Brown got caught, he looked better than ever. His combinations were sharp and coming quicker than I can ever recall. He simply became overaggressive, rushing in with the same basic combos and he got caught. In retrospect, it isn’t a surprise that Brown was put to sleep as he continued to enter the pocket in a straight line, making it easy for Pichel to counter him. Brown isn’t stupid and has traditionally been durable. I expect we’ll see him work on that and come back even more improved.
Alex Volkanovski defeated Mizuto Hirota via unanimous decision
- Expectations/Result: The biggest question heading into the contest was whether Volkanovski would be able to finish the durable Hirota or if Hirota could push the contest to its 15-minute limit. There were a couple of occasions in which Volkanovski had Hirota on the ropes, first within the opening minutes and again in the second round. Hirota survived and landed a bit of offense, but never hurt the Australian or put him in a bad situation even as Volkanovski showed signs of fatigue in the final round. Dominant performance from the featherweight prospect.
- Volkanovski: Even though he didn’t finish Hirota, I’m more excited about Volkanovski’s prospects for the future than ever. He displayed some technical improvements on the feet which allowed him to catch the durable Japanese veteran and hurt him. Before the contest, I was expecting a finish to come from Volkanovski taking Hirota to the ground and pounding him out. He attempted to do that and had some success with it, but most of the success came on the feet. I’m interested to see what he can do against a counter striker with good takedown defense.
- Hirota: It pains me to see Hirota taken out in such manner. The dude is a consummate professional who is competent in everything and gives it his all every time out. Here, he got absolutely dominated. His fighting spirit has abundant as a case could have been made that he took the final round, but it only goes so far. Now 36-years old with heavy mileage, he could be nearing the end of the road. I’d expect him to be lined up against another up-and-coming prospect as Hirota is the perfect kind of test for those making their way up the ladder.
Ben Nguyen defeated Tim Elliott via submission at 0:49 of RD1
- Expectations/Result: Nguyen knew he was the underdog despite Elliott filling in on short notice. Likely motivating him to make a statement, Nguyen came out very aggressive, stinging Elliott with a head kick after defending a takedown attempt. With his equilibrium off, Elliott went for another takedown – after Nguyen landed a solid punch — only to be reversed by Nguyen who immediately took Elliott’s back. Securing the body triangle before sinking in the RNC as Elliott fell to the ground, Nguyen tapped out the former title challenger in less than a minute for the biggest win of his career.
- Nguyen: Anyone else ever see Nguyen moving to 4-1 in the UFC? I know I didn’t. Not bad for someone whom many expect to wash out upon his UFC entry. It isn’t like Nguyen’s power didn’t exist before coming to the UFC. It was always there. No, it was that he couldn’t avoid the return fire. Now that Nguyen has better learned the intricacies of defense, he’s made himself a viable member of the flyweight division. Given his exciting style and penchant for finishes, he could become one of the flagship members of a division in sore need of fan support. Whoever he is matched up against next, he’d better entertain.
- Elliott: I admit I’m an Elliott fan. This loss hurts. His unorthodox style and don’t-give-a-damn attitude has made him a blast to watch any time he steps in the cage. This time, it cost him. The former TUF winner seemed out of sorts early on, though it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. He had stated just six months ago that he never wanted to cut to 125 ever again and here he is doing it less than two months after he last did it. It isn’t like his win over Louis Smolka was a cakewalk either. That was a hard fought victory! Now he’s put himself back into a bad position. He is fun to watch and still tough as nails, so I don’t see him being released. He does need a win in his next contest, but expect him to receive a step down in competition, making it likely Elliott survives.
Ion Cutelaba defeated Luis Henrique da Silva via KO at 0:22 of RD1
- Expectations/Result: Aside from being entertaining, it was hard to predict this contest. Both have been durable, but both also hit hard and possess a tendency to take a shot in order to give one. Something had to give. Cutelaba came out the aggressor, determined to keep swinging until he put da Silva on his back. He did that very quickly behind a barrage of left hooks, the last one sending da Silva to the mat. Cutelaba followed with some vicious ground-and-pound that soon put da Silva out cold, giving Cutelaba a much needed victory.
- Cutelaba: Hard not to be impressed by Cutelaba’s performance. It was well-known the Moldovian hit hard and was aggressive, but we hadn’t seen a performance like this. What more can be said about it? Given the lack of depth at 205, I fear the UFC will quickly try to give Cutelaba a higher caliber of opponent than he is ready for. Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen as Cutelaba is only 23-years old. Don’t be surprised if the UFC signs someone similar to Joachim Christensen to give 205 prospects a body to get experience against. Isn’t Igor Pokrajac still on the roster? He’s perfect for that role.
- Da Silva: I really didn’t want to see da Silva go out like that. I wasn’t a big fan of his when he signed only for his aggressive style to grow on me. Now he’s lost three straight in a row and is likely on his way out of the UFC. His lack of footwork didn’t allow him to escape da Silva’s barrage of punches, a problem that has long plagued him. The good thing is that da Silva is only 27, meaning he has enough time to go back to the regional scene and come back a better fighter. Here’s hoping he does.
Dan Hooker defeated Ross Pearson via KO at 3:02 of RD2
- Expectations/Result: Even though Pearson had lost three straight heading into this contest, many believed the veteran was getting a sizeable step down in Hooker so that he’d be able to get back on the winning track. I believed Pearson’s decline was steep enough that Hooker would emerge victorious. Happy to say I was right. Pearson struggled with Hooker’s length the entire time, eating a barrage of leg kicks early. Pearson ended up making a number of lunging attempts to hurt the New Zealand native, leading to Hooker timing a counter flying knee perfectly, putting the longtime UFC vet down for the count.
- Hooker: Making his debut at lightweight, Hooker displayed a lot more energy than he did at featherweight now that he no longer needs to cut the extra ten pounds. It made all the difference in the world. Typically, he fades as the contest goes to the point he can’t avoid his opponents attack and telegraphs his own attacks. Not this time. His speed didn’t decline as the contest progressed. His distance management forced Pearson into the reckless charge which put him out. I don’t see Hooker becoming anything more than a mid-level action fighter, but he’s already exceeded the expectations I had of him when he first joined the organization. Doubting him hasn’t proven wise thus far.
- Pearson: Pearson hasn’t looked totally shot coming into this contest as he had been at least moderately competitive in each of those contests. This time, Pearson looked like he had clearly lost a step this time around. His doggedness allowed him to get some good punches in there, such as when he caught Hooker’s kicks, but he was taking damage all along the way. With four losses in a row, there is a good chance that is the last time we see Pearson in the Octagon. Kind of sad as Pearson has been one of the better representatives for the UFC.
Derek Brunson defeated Dan Kelly via KO at 1:16 of RD1
- Expectations/Result: Nothing against Brunson, but everyone wanted to see “Dad-Bod” Kelly continue his improbable run. An underdog in every one of his UFC contests, Kelly’s 6-1 record has been one of the better stories in a tumultuous year for the UFC. The uber-athletic Brunson wasn’t having anything to do with that. Timing his explosion perfectly, Brunson rushed at Kelly with a powerful overhand left and connected perfectly on the Aussie. Kelly landed facedown with a number of hammerfists following up to ensure that Kelly was out, snapping Brunson’s two-fight losing streak.
- Brunson: Brunson badly needed this win to stay relevant. His reckless style cost him against Robert Whittaker in a contest many felt was winnable for him. Then he was too tentative against Anderson Silva, again losing even though many felt Brunson was the rightful winner. Considering this was a fight Brunson had no business losing, his days as a potential contender would have been over had he lost to Kelly. Fortunately for his career, he destroyed Kelly in impressive fashion. Now he should once again be relevant against the top contenders of the division.
- Kelly: Even though Kelly’s momentum was stopped dead in its tracks, I don’t think the excitement around him should be completely dissipated. It was known that there was a ceiling to how high he could climb. Now we’ve found it. That doesn’t mean that Kelly can’t continue his upset party against opponents who should be beating him. I find it hard to believe he doesn’t have any fight left in him. Though he has struggled against powerful strikers in Brunson and Sam Alvey, I still would love to see him against perennial underachiever Uriah Hall. I haven’t seen that mentioned, but it’s what makes the most sense in my mind.
Mark Hunt defeated Derrick Lewis via TKO via 3:51 of RD4
- Expectations/Result: Hunt has engaged in a legal battle with the UFC, seemingly distracting him from the happenings inside the cage. Couple that with his advancing age, most were picking the massive Lewis to continue his lengthy win streak and launch himself into legit title talks. Lewis had his opportunities. Hunt patiently stalked the American, picking his spots wisely to attack. Lewis picked his spots too, but maintaining his position against the cage gave him far less room to operate than Hunt had. Lewis began to get more desperate in the third round, looking for the kill in desperation. Unable to find it, he was completely gassed in the fourth. Hunt took advantage, picking apart the big man until Lewis huddled underneath his arms, seeking cover until the referee ended the contest. After the fight, Lewis tentatively announced his retirement, citing a back injury and wanting time with his family.
- Hunt: Even though Hunt is 43, he hasn’t slowed significantly. About the only thing I’ve noticed is that his chin isn’t the block of granite that it once was. Given the technical advantages he held over Lewis – plus owning greater experience in five-round contests – I saw the big man finding a way to beat the behemoth that is Lewis. Even though the walk-off KO that I was expecting didn’t happen, the way the fight played out didn’t surprise. Hunt was able to avoid Lewis’ kill shots and didn’t expend nearly as much energy as his opponent. That was exactly what he needed to do to pick up the win. Hunt has indicated he wants to fight out his contract before calling it a career. At his age, I’d like to see him get one last run to claim the title. As such, I don’t want to see him playing gatekeeper. I’d rather see him against opponents that would move him up the ladder. One of the few top heavyweights he has never faced is Cain Velasquez. If Velasquez can ever get healthy, that’s a fight should be made.
- Lewis: Evan though Lewis had fought into the fourth round before, I didn’t think he looked great when he fought Shamil Abdurahimov into the championship rounds. I’ll admit that I’m surprised this fight went that long, but once it got to that point, I didn’t expect Lewis to outlast Hunt. Though he has come a long way in his energy conservation, he still has some progress to make if he hopes to be effective in the championship rounds. Given his post-fight comments, he doesn’t appear to care. Though Lewis declared he is probably done, I disagree with that assessment. He’s too valuable to the UFC for him to walk away when he could still be working his way up the ladder. Expect the UFC to call him into their offices and to negotiate a new contract that will make it worth Lewis’ time to continue fighting. He’s made it clear money is the only thing motivating him in this career. The UFC is short on marketable figures. Lewis is very marketable. Throw in the barbs Travis Browne and Francis Ngannou have thrown at him, I very much expect Lewis’ retirement to be short lived, even if he takes some time before securing his next fight.
Well, those are my thoughts. Until next time….