Totally not the event we expected
As far as the hierarchy for events goes, the numbered pay-per-view events have historically been the pinnacle of prestige. In theory, they’re what fans have been conditioned to expect to be the very best. Yet despite everyone’s best intentions, we’ve learned that unpredictability can ruin any and all good plans that fans might have had when it comes to high-stakes bouts. We didn’t get the most hotly anticipated lightweight fight in recent history, and the main event wasn’t anywhere near the classic that the first fight was. The “card subject to change“ disclaimer on tickets and pay-per-view screens was made for stuff like this.
So when it comes to UFC 209, the kindest and most diplomatic thing we can do is give high praise to the fights that we didn’t expect to be that good and ended up being really fun affairs with surprisingly great performances.
David Teymur and Lando Vannata – For all the moaning and griping about this not being a proper co-main event, there’s two points on that. First, the classic notion of a co-main event as we used to know it is dead. Not every event is going to have a stellar bout under the main event, and that’s been the case for years now. The fact that this was a bigger deal for this event is easy to see, considering we lost a massive bout and in reality there was nothing that could replace it. And that’s the second point, what fight could have been inserted in that slot to make fans happy? That’s a fool’s errand. So we got two guys that haven’t been in the UFC that long (with Teymur entering TUF in 2015 and Lando debuting last year) putting on an insane back and forth bout with some heavy flash and even more amazing substance. Both fighters put everything on the line and raised their stock significantly here, and I suspect both will have a more elevated presence and face higher-profile opponents. Teymur ends up with a three fight win streak, and Vannata 1-2 in the UFC. Believe me, that’s not going to be held against him in any way whatsoever. Big surprise from these two, and they could very well end up facing each other again down the road.
Daniel Kelly – Talk about a turnaround. The Aussie Olympian used a disruptive and hard-nosed style to beat a former light heavyweight champion and look great for big chunks of that fight to gain a hard-earned victory. He popped his jab, used hand traps, sat on his punches, kept pushing forward and tried to sneak in some of his world-class Judo to keep Evans guessing. And it worked. He landed shots, ate punishment, but clearly landed more strikes and appeared to have much more control of the fight. Kelly is not as dynamic an athlete as the last few fighters he’s faced, but he’s made up for it with technique and wily performances that just seem to work. Sure, Evans may not be what he was at the height of his career (and yes, we’ll get to him), but this was massive, and he’s riding a great wave of momentum between this win and the Camozzi fight. Even at age 39, he’s making inroads in the most chaotic division outside of heavyweight.
Cynthia Calvillo – Who? Yeah, her. Another fight that people complained about when announced for the main card, but delivered with a great grappling exhibition in a short fight. Nothing to complain about here, as Calvillo got to work once they were entangled and reportedly improvised the front choke to the back-take before initiating the rear naked choke sequence. If you’re going to get so much heat for making your debut in a spot you’re not perceived as being “worthy“ of, at least do it in style and drop some fire on the microphone for your interview. All the boxes here were checked, and with one fight she gains a ton of goodwill.
Alistair Overeem – Look, I’d love to put him higher up here, but no. Yes, his last fight was for the title, and therefore his last loss was to the champion. Yes, he fought smart, didn’t wilt under pressure and finished with a massive finish. He still showed flashes of wilting once he got his chin touched, and there was more shock and disbelief than there were cheers. Is this enough to net him another shot at Stipe? Yeah, maybe. It’s heavyweight. The same division that not too long ago had a guy that almost had a .500 record fighting for an interim title. That guy was Mark Hunt, and his reputation for being nigh-interminable got shaky after the big knee loss to Werdum, but is totally dead now. Overeem adds another one to his highlight reel, but he’ll probably need one more win, especially with the title being fought for in May.
Marcin Tybura – Tybura channeled the power of Ivan Putski to put an exclamation point on this one. After arriving from M-1 and losing in his UFC debut to Timothy Johnson (jeez, remember that one?), he scored a massive headkick win over Viktor Pesta and had a string of cancelled bouts to pull off a big win where he was able to land some great shots, stuff takedowns and never look like he was pressured. This should move him up a few spots in the strangest and most random division in the sport.
Darren Elkins – Despite his tattoo choices, you really can’t count out a guy like this. I figured the fight would go the other way around, with Elkins controlling most of the bout and showing some wrinkles in his game that Bektić hadn’t seen. Instead, it was Elkins playing catch-up while his face looked like ketchup (don’t @ me). But all things considered, he turned up the heat late, landed the big right hand and the kick missed the mark, but still made a statement. That’s four in a row for Elkins and his first finish since 2013. Featherweight is really so much better than a lot of people think, and it’s stuff like this that makes it great.
Iuri Alcantara – From one surprising comeback to another, Alcantara was controlled in turtle position for stretches of the fight until he found an opening once Sanders got comfortable. That was a lovely setup that almost looked too good to be true, since he set it up with relative ease and not even in a hurry. That’s two wins a row for Iuri, and both are submissions. Another fighter that’s always interesting to watch, because the potential for something like this is always there.
Tyson Pedro – If you missed his debut or dismissed his success as a one-off, you need to disabuse yourself of that notion immediately. Pedro is relentlessly tough, and he’s only getting better as a fighter, and this was another brutal win for him. Here’s hoping he’s not rushed into anything soon, because the UFC have something good on their hands here with a solid, young prospect. Still undefeated as a professional and now 2-0 in the UFC, this is yet another bright spot for a hit-or-miss light heavyweight division.
Albert Morales used his boxing and ground control to spoil the debut of Andre Soukhamthath, leaving him with 1 win, 1 loss and 1 draw so far in the UFC. He’s better than that record may indicate, so let’s see what they do with him next. Mark Godbeer evens out to 1-1 in the UFC after his November loss to Justin Ledet with a gritty decision win over Daniel Spitz. The UK veteran used some slick boxing and excellent pressure to earn the win, and will most likely end up on a UK card in the near future.
Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson – Well, he won. After the dramatic and sensational first fight, there was no way this one would disappoint, right? Well, about that… yeah. Woodley appeared gunshy and content to keep his back to the cage and feint for most of the first two rounds. While there was the occasional flurry here and there, there was nothing major until a takedown later in the fight and the final sequence in which he clearly hurt Thompson and almost had him dead to rights. Yet this is Woodley, and his fights are sometimes amazing and sometimes tentative affairs. As a man who has garnered tons of hate for things he has said and for some of his fights not being what they could have been, the heat on him is definitely going to be magnified, especially when you’re a champion that fights like that. But in his defense, he’s fighting Thompson, one of if not the most dangerous striker in the division. And let’s clear this up right away – it takes two. Whenever you see a fight like this and hate it, don’t just slam one guy for it, and I refuse to give Thompson any slack for this. He was tentative as well, engaging sparingly and being even more reserved than in the first fight. It appears as if his plan were to play the counter game and they ended up in a strange stalemate. So Thompson ends up being 0-1-1 against Woodley, and didn’t take too much damage. This does absolutely nothing for his profile. He won’t drop too low in the rankings, but will likely be forgiven by many fans on account of the fact that Woodley attracts a ton of heat. But as far as UFC management goes, he stays in the top 3 unless something massive happens. As for Woodley, he still has the belt and a win on paper, but when it looks like the UFC might want to pull the trigger and market him more, we get a performance like this. It does him no favors, and any hope for a money fight evaporates right here, right now. The cold reality of this sport is that even if you’re the best in one of the most competitive and talent-rich divisions in history, the business end will not be kind to you when there’s an unexciting performance. And that’s a shame.
Rashad Evans – I’m not shy on telling fighters to retire, although I understand and respect those that refrain from doing so. And in this case, I’m not ready to see Rashad retire just yet. He can still be competitive and loves to go out there and compete at this point in his career. That and the fact that he still has some name value should get him at least one more opportunity to go out there and do what he loves. Yes, he was still a step behind in a lot of the exchanges, but while Rashad hasn’t been at his best lately, I’m willing to chalk most of it up to what Kelly did right as opposed to what Evans did wrong. He may not belong in the top ten, but he’s not done yet. Rashad hasn’t won a fight since 2013, with three straight losses and long periods of time off due to injury. It’s understandable that he’ll have some difficulty finding his footing. Still, he’s a veteran that hasn’t taken a ton of damage and may still have it in him to put on some solid performances. Give him at least one more.
Mark Hunt – OK, this one is a different matter. Maybe Hunt should retire. It brings me no pleasure to say this, but it brings me even greater sadness to see a guy like him faceplanted like that. With the lawsuit mess and his record and age being what they are, we shouldn’t really want to see him continue to take more damage. He rebounded nicely from the KO loss to Werdum and absolute drubbing from Miocic, but this… no. Just no. His health and family life should take priority here. Let it be over.
Luis Henrique – Now 2-2 with his only other loss being to rising phenom Francis Ngannou. Maybe this shows where his ceiling is, and it’s not the worst thing in the world. He seems to think his wrestling is better than it actually is, and his striking defense is still a problem. These are things he can still improve, though.
Amanda Cooper – This one’s puzzling, because even with a 2-3 record, management appears quite fond of her. She got some good wins on TUF, but will it be enough to keep her around? I’m not sure, really. On paper, this is enough to get most fighters cut, but she may get another shot.
Andre Soukhamthath and Daniel Spitz made their promotional debuts, so these losses won’t really work against them. Decision losses in your first fight won’t hurt your standing badly unless you look absolutely terrible in your second fight. Luke Sanders moves to 1-1, and was en route to a decision win, in all likelihood. This won’t hurt him that badly. Paul Craig also ends up 1-1 in his UFC run in a tough fight where he was initially giving as well as he could take it. Mirsad Bektic got crumpled, but was winning most of the fight and won’t be likely to suffer much for it as far as his standing in the organization. It should be noted that Spitz, Bektić and Sanders and Craig all suffered their first professional losses as well. This shouldn’t count heavily against them.