We knew there were gonna be a couple of new contenders who emerged at bantamweight at this UFC Fight Night 88 event… it just wasn’t who we all thought it was going to be. Cody Garbrandt and Bryan Caraway managed to pull off upsets over Thomas Almeida and Aljamain Sterling, respectively, staking their claims as some of the names that could be floating around the top of the division over the next few years. In Garbrandt’s case, he may have saved the final verdict on the card as he scored the lone finish on the main card with a few of the fights lacking much in terms of drama. It wasn’t that the card had been disappointing up to that point, but his finish of Almeida ensured that fans went home happy with what they saw.
Cody Garbrandt defeated Thomas Almeida via KO at 2:53 of the first round
It had been well stated that Almeida starts slow. Though I didn’t say that it wasn’t true, I did disregard it. Maybe next time I’ll learn. Almeida didn’t land any serious offense as Garbrandt had no problem finding his range early, unleashing a torrent of boxing combinations on the previously unbeaten Brazilian that wore him down in a hurry. Almeida would recover enough to throw some punches here and there, but none of them hurt Garbrandt, who continued to stalk Almeida until finding just the right combo to put him out of his misery less than three minutes into their battle.
Garbrandt was a curious case going into the fight. No one could deny his physical talents, though his quality of competition could easily be called out as his best win heading into the fight was Marcus Brimage. Garbrandt’s confidence was never shaken though, even as he received a massive step up in competition, and was rewarded with a dominant performance over one of the most hyped youngsters seen in the UFC in recent years. He will undoubtedly be in the top ten after being un-ranked heading into the event and will command another high profile fight. The question is who? The general consensus is that the winner of this fight would meet the winner of the Caraway-Sterling fight. While Garbrandt-Caraway still makes sense, Caraway has a history of training with Team Alpha Male and I don’t see either being willing to fight one another. There are other options out there such as the winner of Michael McDonald and John Lineker, the loser of T.J. Dillashaw and Raphael Assuncao, or John Dodson.
While I didn’t see Almeida going undefeated on a march to claim the title, I didn’t think his improbable run would end here. Perhaps it is for the best as it will certainly relieve a lot of pressure no longer having to carry that mantle, and will allow him to take a step back and focus on his development rather than taking a win-at-all-costs approach. He could be matched up against Sterling next, but I don’t think it would be wise for the UFC to set it up so that one of their two brightest prospects is assured of a second loss in a row. If Johnny Eduardo can remain healthy enough to step into the cage, he’s a perfect opponent for Almeida to rebound against. If not, perhaps Iuri Alcantara will be up for the job.
Jeremy Stephens defeated Renan Barao via unanimous decision
My choice for FOTN, I’m still not sure if this says more about Stephen’s abilities or how far Barao has fallen. The fight was following the script perfectly for Barao in the first round as Stephens struggled to find his range while he looked for the kill shot, allowing Barao to pick his spots wisely. Everything changed in the second round as Stephens found the range he had been looking for, landing haymaker after haymaker that left almost everyone amazed that Barao was able to remain on his feet. Somehow he finished the round, perhaps only saving himself with his takedown at the end of the round. The third round went better for Barao, but not good enough, as Stephens continued to bully him around the cage even if he wasn’t landing the kill shots he had the previous round. It was close enough that there was some curiosity when the judges had their verdict read, but Stephens was rightfully awarded the decision.
I’ve got to give Stephens credit. Like the Dennis Bermudez fight, this was a contest he wasn’t supposed to win, only for him to dig down deep after falling behind early and pulling out the upset. His swing for the fences style makes it damn near impossible for him to be a contender, but it also explains why he wins fights he probably shouldn’t. This win doesn’t put him in contender status, but it should give him a chance to get a win against one. Regardless of how his bout with Max Holloway turns out this upcoming weekend, I’d like to see Stephens fight against Ricardo Lamas next. Lamas seems to be the quintessential gatekeeper for contender status at 145. Otherwise he could get the loser of Jose Aldo-Frankie Edgar or Chad Mendes if Mendes has had enough time to get his head where it needs to be.
It feels like the loss here completely solidifies Barao’s fall from grace. He had previously only lost to T.J. Dillashaw in the last 10 years, which isn’t a damning verdict, but his struggles against Mitch Gagnon and the loss here both are. He was in the pound-for-pound best conversation just over two years with his last loss coming in 2005. Now he has dropped three of his last four with a move up in weight class being unable to solve his issues. I don’t know if a move up in weight was what he needed as he looked small next to Stephens. What I would guess he would need is a nutritionist to help him in his cut to 135 lbs, as Nova Uniao fighters have had issues cutting weight a number of times before. If he stays at 145 lbs perhaps he’ll be the one to get Mendes who is riding his own two fight losing streak. If he decides to return to bantamweight a bout with Takeya Mizugaki seems appropriate.
Rick Story defeated Tarec Saffiedine via unanimous decision
As often as these two have been injured, I’m a bit surprised this fight even took place. It did, and though it wasn’t exactly a fan friendly fight, it had its moments with Story’s grinding style proving to be superior to Saffiedine’s outside striking. I probably enjoyed the chess match between the two more than the casual fan as Story’s strikes worked over Saffiedine’s body more than anything without ever threatening to end the fight with a kill shot. Saffiedine did land some front and leg kicks, but Story kept coming. As he did, Saffiedine would try to implement his clinch offense only for Story to bull through his attack and continue to attack the body while also controlling the pace of the fight, making the judges’ decision easy to make.
It had been almost 20 months since we had seen Story in the UFC, and considering he was coming off of neck surgery it was hard to guess how he would look upon his return. It could be said that he looked better than ever. The only part of his strategy that wasn’t working was his takedowns, but he can still eat a punch (or kick) with the best of them and few if any work over the body better. He has paced himself much better in his last few contests than he previously did which is a hell of a good sign for him and leads me to think he is a major dark horse in the division. Perhaps it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as many predicted big things for him about five years ago. Remember that Robbie Lawler took a while to fulfill his potential too. I’d be happy to see him fight either Dong Hyun Kim or Neil Magny.
Saffiedine badly needs a statement win. His last three victories have come against Nate Marquardt, Hyun Gyu Lim, and Jake Ellenberger, two fighters who’ve seen better days and another who has yet to prove that they were ready for prime time. His performance against Story did have a number of positives to it, which says to me that he is a quality fighter even if he isn’t a contender. His health has been his biggest enemy and he’d be making a massive statement if he can squeeze in a third fight within this calendar year. Win or lose, I think a fight with Albert Tumenov would do wonders for him in the view of the fans as I think it would be a striking battle that would be a favorite for FOTN on any card.
Chris Camozzi defeated Vitor Miranda via unanimous decision
This was such a middleweight fight. It wasn’t pretty, and certainly wasn’t much fun to watch, but it was definitely a fight. Camozzi pressured Miranda for vast majority of the fight with great success, landing a number of takedowns and preventing Miranda from launching many of his powerful kicks until the final round when Miranda knew he needed stoppage and began launching them with little worry about being taken down. Camozzi eventually got the takedown which ensured that Miranda didn’t get the KO shot that he was looking for, while Camozzi continued to land accumulating punches that chipped away at Miranda.
Camozzi has now won three straight since returning to the UFC on short notice to have his ass handed to him by Jacare Souza (again). Though it might pain some to hear it considering he was riding a five fight losing streak inside the UFC before beginning this current winning streak, he might be deserving of a shot against a ranked opponent. I won’t complain if he doesn’t get it as that losing streak also showed that he has limitations, but I do think he deserves it. The issue is that I don’t see much that makes sense for him there. Thiago Santos appears to be the best option there, but I’m thinking Santos deserves his own opportunity to face a ranked opponent. So perhaps the winner of Tamdan McCrory-Krzysztof Jotko or Magnus Cedenblad? Miranda just had his own three fight win streak snapped and I got a feeling that streak will end up being the highlight of his career as he is already 37. He could very well be a loss away from being cut, but I still feel he has a win or two left in him… provided he gets the right stylistic match.
Lorenz Larkin defeated Jorge Masvidal via split decision
I don’t know what the hell the judge who gave the win to Masvidal was watching, but at least Larkin rightfully walked out of the cage with a victory in the end. Masvidal exhibited the same calm that he always displays in the cage which has often haunted him as he doesn’t show enough urgency and leads to him giving away decisions. What was weird is that he showed it at the beginning of the fight this time as opposed to the end. Larkin was easily out-landing the longtime veteran in the first two rounds, including a number of kicks to the head and body with some smack on them that had the crowd reacting in pain at the sound. Masvidal turned up the pressure in the final round, going for guillotines and working some good offense in the clinch. Too little too late by then and Larkin picked up the win.
Larkin dropping to welterweight has been the best thing for his career as he has looked good in every appearance, including his loss to Albert Tumenov. He is no longer being overpowered by his opposition and he showed signs of expanding his own arsenal as he landed a takedown at the end of the second round, something he hadn’t done in any of his previous eight UFC appearances. I don’t foresee him becoming a contender at the weight class (despite owning a win over champion Robbie Lawler). I’m sure there aren’t too many who would agree with me on this, but I’d love to see him against Bryan Barberena as Barberena has shocked many with his recent run. Barberena wants a ranked opponent and though Larkin isn’t a ranked opponent, he isn’t far from that and perfectly reflects the flashy style of which Barberena’s grit and grind is the antithesis.
Masvidal has now dropped two out of three since moving up to welterweight and three of his last four overall. Will he drop back down to lightweight now? I don’t know whether that would be the best move for him as he reportedly had a hard weight cut to 155 lbs, but I do know that he looked much better there than he has at 170 lbs, with his situation being similar to the man he had last faced before this contest in Benson Henderson. If he can safely make the weight cut he should go back to 155 lbs, but we’ll have to see what happens from here.
Paul Felder defeated Josh Burkman via unanimous decision
Though there were a few lulls in the fight, this was overall a solid opening bout for the main card as both fighters had their moments, though in the end the right fighter earned the decision victory. Burkman surprised Felder with a strong opening round, easily out-landing the Irish Dragon and getting the better of a wild flurry between the two to take the opening frame. Felder responded with a solid second round in which Burkman started to show signs of fading, allowing Felder to become the aggressor. The third saw more of the same as Felder had the energy to land the harder shots. Burkman tried to steal the round at the end with a couple of takedowns, but the judges weren’t having it, awarding the win to Felder.
These are the type of fights that Felder should have been fighting last year following his win over Danny Castillo, rather than contests with Edson Barboza and Ross Pearson. Felder did acquit himself well in those fights, but also walked away with a couple of losses. Fights with savvy vets (like Burkman) are the best options for him at this stage as he is bound to learn a trick or two in those contests. UFC 200 will have a couple of fights Joe Lauzon-Diego Sanchez and Jim Miller-Takanori Gomi where Felder could be lined up with one of the winners. Burkman could very well be cut as he is now 1-3 in this latest UFC run, and would be 1-4 were it not for Hector Lombard failing a drug test. I’m not sure why, but the UFC brass seems to like him, so I think he’ll get one more shot to hang onto his job.
Sara McMann defeated Jessica Eye via unanimous decision
Just as I feared. The contest between McMann and Eye was largely a boring grinder as McMann imposed her will on the lighter Eye in a fight that lacked much sizzle. Eye did have a few bright moments such as kicking out McMann’s leg to send her sprawling to the ground in the second round, but those moments were far too infrequent. McMann didn’t have many bright moments either as she largely used positional control thanks to her wrestling to prevent Eye from doing much damage, doing just enough herself to keep the fight from going to back into a standing position. She got an easy decision for a win that both ladies needed in the worst way.
McMann had lost three of her previous four which had effectively eliminated her from title contention. This performance did nothing to convince anyone that she’ll be able to return to that lofty status despite her claims she wants another shot at the title. While it doesn’t seem likely she will fulfill the expectations many had for her, she is still a tough out and can be a high level gatekeeper. Both Liz Carmouche and Raquel Pennington represent fair tests for her in her next opportunity, though I’d prefer to see what Pennington can do against her over Carmouche.
Eye could very well be cut as that was her third loss in a row, and fourth in her last five, to bring her UFC record to 1-4, 1 NC. That’s Tito Ortiz and Leonard Garcia territory in terms of remaining on the roster despite an atrocious record. What might save her is that she fights a fan friendly style (when allowed to execute her strategy) and has only lost to top talent in McMann, Julianna Pena, Miesha Tate, and Alexis Davis… the current champion, two title challengers, and another who seems destined to challenge in the near future. If the UFC brings her back she’ll need a huge step down in competition to get back on the horse. I think Bethe Correia would be the perfect test for her if she is brought back.
Abel Trujillo defeated Jordan Rinaldi via unanimous decision
Most expect Trujillo to score an early finish in the fight as Rinaldi was a short-notice opponent who has been victim to a highlight reel finish before. Trujillo has scored a few of those himself which is why the expectation was there, but he had to settle for a decision that wasn’t notable for really anything. Trujillo was looking for the kill throughout the fight and was able to take the first and third rounds due to his greater volume of strikes. Rinaldi tried to use a grappling approach which was good enough to take the second on the strength of a few takedowns and submission attempts, but it wasn’t enough to take more than that single round which gave Trujillo the win.
The win doesn’t really do anything to improve Trujillo’s standing in my book. He needed an impressive win here for that to happen and lackluster would be a better way to describe this victory. Nonetheless, this was his third straight UFC win – the longest streak of success that he has had in the organization – which means there is a good chance that he’ll get a solid step up in competition (deserved or not). Strong wrestlers have been his Achilles heel, so I’d like to see what he can do against Nik Lentz. Lentz is typically a grinder, though he has been drawn into entertaining brawls from time to time. I think Trujillo can bring that out of him. Rinaldi looked better than expected in my book (and probably in most others) as he avoided the kill shot from Trujillo in addition to putting him in some sticky situations. He’s likely to end up in a fight against a lower tier fighter with their jobs on the line.
Jake Collier defeated Alberto Uda via TKO at 1:06 of the second round
Considering Uda doesn’t do much fighting at range, he didn’t allow Collier to take his time to feel him out and find his range. That resulted in Uda breaking Collier’s nose with a knee from the clinch early in the fight in addition to temporarily being rocked by the damage that Uda was accumulating. Collier began to make a comeback in the second half of the first round, and though it may not have been enough to steal the round, he did swing the momentum in his direction. He finished the job early in the second with a barrage of punches that started with a spinning back fist and ended with a spinning back kick to the gut of Uda, who fell to the ground and ate a few punches before the ref was able to jump in and save him from any further damage.
Collier likely saved his job with the win, as he has been unable to find any sustained success thus far in the UFC. This win was certainly more encouraging than his previous UFC win as he overcame a broken nose and was able to secure a finish. I have a hard time seeing him escaping the lower-to-mid tier level of the division, as he is a limited athlete and has shown durability issues, but I do think his grit and tenacity will allow him to stick around longer than previously thought. Uda’s debut wasn’t all bad despite taking a loss. He started fast and did a lot of damage to the American, he just didn’t have a deep enough skill set to do anything of consequence outside of the clinch and it cost him. There are certainly winnable fights for Uda in the UFC, but he’s in the same boat as Collier in that he isn’t going to escape the middle of the division… if he is even able to stick around long enough to get that chance.
Erik Koch defeated Shane Campbell via submission at 3:02 of the second round
It was hard to know what kind of Erik Koch we’d get after a two year absence from the cage, which is why so many people were picking against the Roufusport representative. Koch showed absolutely no signs of ring rust as he was in control for all but a very short portion of the fight, utilizing his often forgotten about grappling to dominate the former kickboxer. Even when the fight was on the feet, Koch was the better fighter as he closed the distance to negate Campbell’s range striking and turn the fight into a boxing match. Koch scored an early takedown in the second round and was able to manipulate Campbell into giving up his back; Koch was able to sink in a rear naked choke to score a much needed victory in order to save his job.
Many people forget that Koch was scheduled to fight Jose Aldo back in 2012 for the title, as he promptly lost three of his next four in addition to prolonged absences due to injuries. His talent hasn’t been in question, it has been his chin and durability instead. The win helps answer some of those questions, but it certainly isn’t going to silence all of the critics, and it shouldn’t. Campbell couldn’t get on track and thus Koch’s chin was never truly tested. I’m glad to see him find success from the long layoff, but I’m not convinced he is back in full force yet. Campbell is probably going to be cut as the loss drops him to 1-3 in his UFC run. He could make his way back as he isn’t that old at 29, though it won’t be easy as lightweight is the deepest division in the sport.
Bryan Caraway defeated Aljamain Sterling via split decision
I admit that I picked Sterling to get the win and felt even more confident in that pick after the first round, but it wasn’t all that surprising to see Caraway walk away with a hard fought victory over the young phenom. Sterling dominated the first round by getting Caraway’s back and never gave it up, though he was unable to sink in the choke to finish the fight. The second round started out close only for Caraway to get the takedown later in the round and control Sterling to even up the fight at one round apiece. Sterling started the third round controlling the distance before Caraway was able to close in on him to get him to the ground. Sterling got to his feet once only to be taken down in short order as Caraway controlled the rest of the round to take the fight and score the upset.
Caraway is in prime position to make himself the number one contender in short order. His lone loss in the last three years is to Raphael Assuncao who is currently lined up in a number one contender fight of his own against T.J. Dillashaw. Caraway’s talent shouldn’t have him fighting at this high of a level, but he somehow is able to find a way to get the job done against better athletes thanks to his gritty style of BJJ and wrestling. Usually he is just able to dig deeper than his opponent just as he did against Sterling. As I already discussed with Cody Garbrandt, it isn’t completely clear where to go with Caraway. He hasn’t fought often in this stage of his career, but I’d imagine he might want to change that trend right now as he might want to take advantage of his proximity to the title. He’s a candidate to face the same group of fighters as Garbrandt (Lineker-McDonald winner and John Dodson, but probably not the Dillashaw-Assuncao loser due to his relationship with Dillashaw and already losing to Assuncao), though I’d expect the UFC would give him a tougher test than Garbrandt due to Garbrandt still being young in his career.
The loss may hurt Sterling’s marketability a bit, but he hasn’t lost any sheen for his long term future in my opinion. He hadn’t faced much adversity in his career thus far as he had matched up well against his previous ranked opposition. Facing someone who could combat what he does well made for the first true challenge of his career and he came up short. With coaches like Matt Serra and Ray Longo, he’ll get the guidance he needs to rebound and get back on track to earn a title shot sooner rather than later. I think the loser of McDonald and Lineker in July would make for a good opponent next. Like I already stated, I don’t want to see him face Thomas Almeida as that would ensure two losses in a row for one of the brighter prospects the UFC has on their roster.
Adam Milstead defeated Chris de la Rocha via TKO at 4:01 of the second round
There wasn’t a whole of technique in this one, but there was a hell of a lot of blood in addition to being pretty fun to watch. After the heart shown by both competitors, you really don’t want to see the loser of this one get cut. There really weren’t any defining moments of the fight, though the images are pretty easy to keep in your head. Milstead was the more technical striker which allowed him to land greater volume in addition to cleaner strikes which allowed him to bloody up the larger de la Rocha about a minute into the fight. De la Rocha would push the action against the fence from time to time while trying to get the fight to the ground with little success. He landed some good shots too but it was clear Milstead was getting the better of that. It was a sound boxing combination that stumbled da la Rocha that ended the fight. He never hit the ground, but the ref had seen enough.
Milstead is hardly a sure thing as a prospect, though this did add a bit more credibility to that status. It isn’t so much due to the punching technique he showed when he stayed technical (most of the fight was a brawl), but more due to the chin that he showed which is a big necessity for him to survive against the big boys. Even if your chin is granite, the heavyweights can crack one another at any time. It’s still too early to make any concrete judgements, but this is certainly a good start for the youngster. De la Rocha will probably be cut with his second consecutive loss though I wouldn’t be surprised to see Uncle Dana give him a third chance after putting on the show that he likes to see.
[Photo (c) Joshua Dahl via USA Today Sports]
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