Jon Jones’ return to the Octagon at UFC 197 didn’t come with a thundering finish or a slick submission. It didn’t come with any type of submission. But there is no doubt that it was a successful return nonetheless. Jones regained a form of gold when he was awarded the interim title. Perhaps more notable but less pressing was Demetrious Johnson remaining the only Flyweight Champion the UFC has ever known, as he disposed of his latest contender within the first round. For all the crap he gets about being a non-finisher, it was Johnson’s fifth finish in his last seven fights. It ended up being a successful night for the UFC as the card offered a little bit of everything without a truly stinker of a bout.
Jon Jones defeated Ovince Saint Preux via unanimous decision
After 16 months away from the UFC, Jones’ return was more of a process of once again feeling comfortable inside the cage than looking to decimate his opponent. Jones landed over 100 significant strikes in the process as he landed a high number of leg kicks (including elliptical kicks), took Saint Preux down at will the deeper the fight went and did a significant amount of damage with his elbows once he got Saint Preux to the ground. Was it crowd pleasing? Not really. It did show that the Jon Jones we all know is still out there and probably won’t be going anywhere for quite a long time.
The more I thought about it the more that the decision finish made sense. Saint Preux landed a couple of hard punches, but nothing that phased Jones. Jones never had any true respect for what Saint Preux could do and wanted to get some cage time in before facing current Light Heavyweight Champion Daniel Cormier. Having spent the full 25 minutes in against Saint Preux, Jones should have fully shaken off the ring rust he had accumulated after his long absence. What was frustrating to see was when he would pass up on submission opportunities looking for more elbows on the ground. Some might say his performance here wasn’t indicative of the greatest of all time, but he knew damn well he didn’t need to rise to the occasion in this fight. Look for Jones to come out on fire when he looks to unite his interim belt with Cormier, and look for it to happen sooner rather than later.
Saint Preux probably walked out of the cage with more respect than he had going into it, with a large chunk of that respect being attributed to going the distance with Jones. Perhaps that respect is a bit undeserved (at least in comparison to the respect usually given to most fighters) as Jones toyed with him without threatening to end the fight. It seems highly unlikely Saint Preux will ever get any sort of title shot again as this title shot was an exception in itself thanks to Cormier’s injury. I’d look to line him up opposite of Alexander Gustafsson next as Gustafsson hasn’t fought since coming up short against Daniel Cormier and he should be due to return to the cage anytime soon.
Demetrious Johnson defeated Henry Cejudo via TKO at 2:49 of the first round
The fight started in a manner that left us questioning whether or not Johnson legitimately had a challenge on his hands. It ended emphatically within minutes. Cejudo landed an emphatic takedown almost off the bat, which led to eyebrows being raised. Could Cejudo actually beat Johnson, who hasn’t had a serious challenge in over three years? The answer was given very shortly after Johnson started landing knees in the clinch. Cejudo started stumbling across cage, clearly hurt. Johnson trailed him and continued the assault, finishing him off in a quick manner.
The win gives Johnson eight straight title defenses with no signs of slowing down, in addition to having cleared out the division. Who else is there left for him to fight? He is easily the most dominant champion in the UFC (undisputed until Jones regains his belt) and should be considered among the all-time greats of the sport. The only reason he isn’t mentioned amongst the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Anderson Silva, and Georges St-Pierre is his lack of popularity. The funny thing is that Johnson really doesn’t give a damn about it. I understand why the UFC was going to award a title shot in this upcoming season of TUF, as there really isn’t a viable contender for his belt now that he has disposed of Cejudo, but I adamantly pray that they discard the idea. Due to a complete lack of viable options, it is possible that Joseph Benavidez could very well get his third crack at the belt, though it would be a tough sell. Then again, Johnson is a tough sell anyway.
I don’t think the loss for Cejudo is a disaster. He is the type of person who thrives at being the underdog and losing in such a manner will add fuel to his fire without question. He’ll need to win a few more fights before he can get another opportunity to face Johnson, and unless he is facing Benavidez he’ll likely be the favorite in all of those bouts. If Ian McCall can ever get healthy he’d be an ideal opponent for Cejudo. John Moraga is another name that will certainly be considered. Otherwise it could be a while before we see the champ again.
Edson Barboza defeated Anthony Pettis via unanimous decision
Pettis wasn’t exactly dominated, but there is little doubt as to who won this contest in what seems to be a coming out party for Barboza. It didn’t feature the type of flashy spinning kicks that most were expecting (largely because Pettis was unable to land any of them), but there was a high level of technique from both with Barboza owning the better strategy: attacking Pettis’ legs from the outset with his vaunted kicks. Pettis did land some good shots of his own through the first two rounds, especially after making a few minor adjustments in the second round. Realizing that he was behind on the scorecards, Pettis turned up his aggression looking for a finish. Barboza kept him in line the final frame by upping the ante of leg kicks while mixing in a stiff jab to prevent Pettis from getting close to finishing the fight, including the last ditch flying knee Pettis attempted.
Barboza isn’t getting a title shot next, but he vaulted himself into the elite of the division with his victory over the former champion. He stuck to his strategy perfectly, having clearly scouted Pettis as the former champion was unable to land any of his high impact offense. Barboza had been unable to make adjustments in some of his earlier losses. Being able to beat Pettis using a sound game plan as opposed to a flash technique that put him to sleep is even more impressive. What to do with him next is difficult to figure as he has fought a number of the higher ranked lightweights as it is. I anticipate him taking a bit of a break as he has been pretty busy for the last two years. Pettis is in a horrible situation as he has now lost three in a row. The only comforting thing about that is that he has only been fighting elite competition. After all these losses though there doesn’t seem to be any choice other than to give him a sizeable step down in competition if the UFC wants to get him back on track. I don’t want to speculate where the UFC goes for him next as there really is a vast sea of options at this point.
Robert Whittaker defeated Rafael Natal via unanimous decision
I admit that this fight made sense on paper as both had won four fights in a row (including both owning victories over Uriah Hall). But as soon as I heard this fight was made it sounded like a very lopsided affair and that is exactly what it turned out to be. The only thing that was surprising is that Natal was able to survive to the final bell as Whittaker had him rocked multiple times throughout the fight, including at least once in every round of the fight. Natal wouldn’t quit though and may have dispelled rumors of him having a glass chin in the process.
Whittaker probably deserved a step up in competition before this fight rather than fighting off an opponent ranked below him. Now there is absolutely no doubt about it. His boxing looked sharper than ever indicating that he has continued to progress even as he gets nearer to the top of the division. About the only thing that was disconcerting about his performance was that he was unable to finish off Natal. Still, he did try throughout the fight rather than just coasting to a finish. I don’t know if Tim Kennedy would be willing to come out of his hiatus to fight Whittaker, but that would be a hell of a fight if it were to happen. The winner of Gegard Mousasi and Derek Brunson would be another fight worth his time. Natal seems to have hit his ceiling as a bottom dweller in the rankings. At 33, he seems to be nearing the end of his physical prime and if he is to make a run he needs to rebound quickly. With that in mind, it would seem fair to give him an opponent who is still ranked as opposed to a sizeable step down in competition. That’s why I’d love to see him squared up against Thales Leites in his next fight. Leites would probably be a considerable favorite, but it would still be a winnable fight for him.
Yair Rodriguez defeated Andre Fili via TKO at 2:15 of the second round
It may not have been fight of the night, but it sure as hell produced the ending of the night! In fact, it was an instant contender for KO of the Year. The first round was good action as well as Fili was aggressive from the beginning, which Rodriguez was able to work against him by getting him to the ground and landing some hard punches. The second round wasn’t much different, only instead of going for a takedown, Rodriguez landed a jumping switch kick that put Fili out cold and into the highlight reels for the rest of Rodriguez’s career.
Rodriguez has looked very good in his three victories since winning TUF Latin America and has the look of a future star. There are still holes in his game that he needs to fill in before he can get to that point. The issue is that the UFC has had an issue of rushing their young talent into the furnace before it is ready, which is why I expect him to get a fight with a ranked opponent. I’d rather see him face another young prospect such as Makwan Amirkhani, Godofredo Pepey, or Doo Ho Choi. Fili seems like he is going to be stuck in his current pattern of win-one, lose-one as he shows flashes of his talent only to flush it down the drain in the course of his fights with poor fight IQ. It seems to be a strong likelihood that he isn’t going to be able to progress with Team Alpha Male in its current state of flux. If they don’t stabilize their coaching situation, it would probably be best for him to find a different team.
Sergio Pettis defeated Chris Kelades via unanimous decision
This fight went very much according to expectations. Kelades tried to pressure the more athletic Pettis and did have limited success with that, scoring a takedown in the second round. For the most part though Pettis did whatever he wanted as he successfully stuffed most of Kelades takedowns to keep the fight on the feet where he pretty much did what he wanted, even showing an improved wrestling game by scoring several takedowns of his own. Overall it was a good fight for Pettis to demonstrate his growth.
Pettis put together the most complete performance thus far in his UFC tenure as he had had moments of success in every match thus far in the UFC only to slip up at some point, even in his victories as he would give away at least one round. Not this time. While he might be worthy of a step up in competition, there doesn’t seem to be a fight that makes sense for him. Waiting for the winner of Paddy Holohan and Willie Gates in a couple of weeks seems to be the best option, but there shouldn’t be a rush to get him back in the cage quite yet. Kelades will maintain his role as a veteran test for the youngsters in the division. Dustin Ortiz or Ryan Benoit seem to be ideal with the strong possibility of the loser being let go.
Danny Roberts defeated Dominique Steele via unanimous decision
Not many people expected this to be a competitive fight, but it actually turned out to be a hell of a fun back-and-forth slugfest. Most figured that Roberts, the former boxer, would knockout Steele with relative ease. Instead Steele’s chin held up to the high volume of strikes Roberts landed while landing a few bombs of his own. Steele actually had a hell of a case for the victory as he took Roberts down every round, controlling a good chunk of the fight. Steele pretty clearly took the first round with a knockdown along with a few takedowns. Roberts recovered the last two rounds and easily outlanded Steele from that point, though the last round was very close as Steele took down Roberts three times along with some heavy strikes.
I really didn’t expect Roberts to have the amount of problems he did with Steele, which is probably a combination of both Roberts not being as advanced in his progress as we all thought in addition to Steele being vastly improved. Roberts was thrown off by the threat of the takedown and wasn’t able to prevent Steele from getting him down when it really mattered. This isn’t a big worry as Roberts still has plenty of time to develop his takedown defense. As for Steele, he has been a pleasant surprise thus far as very little was previously expected of him. He is perfect for the lower level of the division as he is a beatable action fighter.
Carla Esparza defeated Juliana Lima via unanimous decision
Not the most exciting fight. In fact, it very much exemplifies why Esparza is a bit of a hard sell for fans despite the fact that she is one of the best in the world at strawweight. She spent the vast majority of the fight grinding out Lima with over half the fight being spent in top position. There was never a serious threat of the fight being stopped as she couldn’t posture up enough to land any serious power shots. Lima started to turn the tide a bit in the third round by sweeping with a reverse triangle and attempting to submit Esparza. Time ran out though and Esparza was able to walk out with a clear decision.
Esparza needed the win badly as memories of her getting decimated by Joanna Jedrzejczyk are still very vivid in the minds of fans. She’ll still need to win at least two more fights before anyone will even consider her for a title fight, and it could be much longer if Jedrzejczyk remains the champion. She didn’t show off much in terms of improved striking as most of the fight was spent on the ground, but that is what everyone will continue to look for out of her. The UFC probably doesn’t want to knock any potential contenders off course against Esparza, so expect her to be matched up against someone who has already had their shot like Valerie Letourneau or Claudia Gadelha if she falls short of her title bid. This was probably Lima’s only real chance at jumping into contendership. Though she showed durability and heart by continuing to go for the win, Lima is pretty much established as a gatekeeper to rankings.
James Vick defeated Glaico Franca via unanimous decision
I’m very curious how this fight would have turned out had Vick not poked Franca in the eye towards the end of the first round. Don’t get me wrong, Franca still put up an active fight after that, but he wasn’t the same fighter that he was in the first round. Franca was the aggressor early in the fight, landing a bunch of early takedowns. Once the eyepoke happened (and doctors debated whether to stop the fight as he struggled to see), Vick started to piece him up throughout the fight. Vick landed some hard knees and overhands that could have easily floored Franca only to see Franca keep moving forward. Franca found a second wind about midway through the third round and began stalking Vick, but it was too late for him to take the round and potentially the fight by that point, and Vick was still landing hard
Vick has now picked up five wins in five UFC appearances and is due for a serious step up in competition. After the early part of the fight in which he couldn’t avoid Franca’s takedowns, he settled down and did whatever he pleased. With his long frame, he has serious growth potential to become a contender. He needs to fight an opponent that has a quality win or two on their resumes. Franca isn’t very well known as his only previous UFC appearance came in the TUF Brazil 4 final. He did make a good impression on most fans as he was competitive and aggressive while showing a good chin. I thought Vick was a surprisingly stiff challenge for him in his sophomore effort. He’s still young enough that he should improve quite a bit. Expect him to get a step down in competition and to be the favorite in that fight.
Walt Harris defeated Cody East via TKO at 4:18 of the first round
That was the type of heavyweight slugfest that fans love to watch! Harris pulled off the upset in beating Dana White’s latest prospect, and the win came after East controlled the early parts of the fight with savvy counters and picking his shots wisely. The tide started to turn when Harris landed some hard shots amidst a flurry of punches from East (most of which missed early) before landing a hard counter that sent East to the ground. Harris swarmed with some hard shots to East on the ground, but East was still conscious and alert to defend himself and it looked as though Harris would punch himself out. A couple more shots later the ref had seen enough and called the fight, East stumbling as he tried to get to his feet to validate the call.
I wish I had the balls to stick with my gut in order to pick Harris on my prelim preview. I’ve loved his potential since his UFC debut over two years ago. The problem is that it was as long ago as it was and I was resigned to the fact that he wouldn’t tap into that potential. I’m happy to see him prove me wrong (not just because of East’s shady background) as the UFC needs new blood in the worst way at heavyweight and he is a very likeable character. The win likely buys him at least two more fights in the UFC and I’m anxious to see if he can continue to improve. There are enough middling heavyweights at this point that he won’t be thrown into the fire. East will have a lot of haters rejoicing after this loss (aforementioned background). He showed his potential in this fight as well as a lot of toughness. The UFC has put some promotion behind him and will give him an opponent that offers a great opportunity to get back on track. At 27, he is a baby in a division in which the youngest member of the top ten is 32.
Marcos Rogerio de Lima defeated Clint Hester via submission at 4:35 of the first round
Not exactly the fight that many were expecting out of these heavy hitters. De Lima peppered Hester with kicks to the legs and body to open the fight. Hester went for an ill-advised haymaker that he whiffed on and de Lima countered to knock Hester to the ground. De Lima leaped on top of him for top control and never relinquished it from there as he peppered Hester with hard shots to the body and shorter shots to the head to wear down the former boxer before cinching in the arm triangle choke for the victory.
De Lima looked like an absolute beast out of the gate and even though commentary was thinking that he would have been wise to let Hester back to his feet, he showed patience on the ground that he hasn’t shown as he softened up Hester. It looks like he has found a formula that works for him which means he could very easily make a run into the ranks of the top 15 in the shallow light heavyweight division. Hester is on his way out of the UFC as that was his third loss in a row. This was a surprising turn of events after he won his first four appearances in the promotion showing real promise. He could make his way back with a few impressive wins on the regional scene (like I just said, light heavyweight is shallow), though that won’t happen if he comes out resembling the same fighter in the cage we just saw.
Kevin Lee defeated Efrain Escudero via unanimous decision
A sound curtain jerker without any real standout moments, Lee’s takedown and top control in the third round ensured that he walked out with a victory after they split the first two rounds. The first two rounds largely consisted of boxing with Lee starting out hot to take the first round. Though it was too late to take the first round, Escudero started to turn the tide late in that round and carried the momentum into the second to take that round. Escudero opened the third round with clinch control against the cage before Lee landed the slam takedown to get himself back on the winning track.
I liked the change in Lee’s demeanor this time as opposed to the overly cocky attitude he carried into his loss to Leonardo Santos. He showed Escudero the respect he deserved and didn’t leave himself wide open to being taken down or being caught with his hands down. Escudero did score some offense, but Lee made him earn it. It’s easy to forget he is only 23, as this was his seventh UFC appearance and he has plenty of time to develop into a standout. No need to rush him as he still shows plenty of room for development. Escudero put up a better fight than many expected. There are enough fighters on the roster that he could beat that he could stick around, but I expect the UFC to cut him loose just as they have two times before to make room for a prospect who could turn into something.
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