Making the Grade: Passes/Fails from the UFC doubleheader weekend
The doubleheader weekend for the UFC kicked off with "The Ultimate Fighter Finale" on Friday night, where Carla Esparza was crowned the first UFC women's strawweight champion. Then, Saturday night ended with a bang as Junior dos Santos and Stipe Miocic put on one of the greatest heavyweight fights in recent memory.
The UFC has gotten pretty good at doing these back-to-back shows, although this was a rare treat where both cards took place in the United States instead of one happening overseas.
The results are in and everybody knows those already. So today we dig a little deeper into these two fight cards and see who made the grade from "The Ultimate Fighter Finale" and UFC Fight Night on FOX: dos Santos vs. Miocic.
The Cast of 'The Ultimate Fighter'
Say what you will about the latest season of "The Ultimate Fighter" -- there was too much focus on the drama, same format as past seasons, etc. -- the cast this year brought it when it came time to fight, and the winner Friday night was the entire segment of women who do mixed martial arts.
The strawweight division is already deeper than the bantamweights, and the fighters in the division really know how to go for it when it comes time to fight.
Angela Hill, who had one pro fight on the reality show, came out and looked like a Muay Thai wrecking machine against Emily Kagan. Joanne Calderwood had an absolute scrap with newcomer Seo Hee Ham, and Felice Herrig put a stamp on her rivalry with former housemate Lisa Ellis with a devastating armbar submission.
The main event showcased one of the best women's fighters on the planet as Carla Esparza systematically dismantled Rose Namajunas, despite Namajunas being billed as the next Ronda Rousey going into the fight. The extra hype helped to sell the fight, and Esparza seemed to be the only one not buying into the belief that Namajunas was the next big thing.
The women ruled the night, and it's further proof that they aren't just here to take part -- they're here to try to take over.
A Phoenix Rising
The UFC doesn't get to land in many new markets in the United States these days because by this point it's already gone to most of the viable locations where a big fight card will take place (sorry, Wyoming, but UFC Butte won't be happening any time soon). UFC president Dana White always said logistically doing a show in Phoenix was tough because it was only four hours away from Las Vegas, which is their home base and where the majority of their cards take place anyway.
Happily, White was finally persuaded to give Phoenix a chance, and boy did the crowd show up in a huge way.
From the first fighter on the card who was announced as being from Arizona, the local crowd was frothing at the mouth. Arizona State wrestler John Moraga got a huge ovation, and things only got more heated when he ate a sucker punch from opponent Willie Gates in the first round. When Moraga got a fight-finishing choke in the final round, the U.S. Airways Center sounded like it was going to collapse on itself from all the noise.
The same could be said for all the other Arizona fighters, and the intensity didn't die down when the main card began either. The crowd was engaged, lively and didn't jeer when the fights hit the ground or got stuck in the clinch -- only when it finally came time to make their voices heard, and then did they ever let the fighters know what they wanted to see.
Sure, there were like nine fights in the crowd during the UFC Fight Night card, but I'll just chalk that up to an insanely passionate bunch of Phoenix-ites who just wanted to see some serious face-punching.
The UFC would be crazy not to go back to Phoenix in 2015, especially considering it has a roster filled with local fighters -- Ryan Bader, C.B. Dollaway, Benson Henderson -- who would probably guarantee a huge attendance once again.
Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown
For many years, the UFC heavyweight division was mostly focused around only the champion and a few contenders because the lower parts of the division were just abysmal when it came to talent and performance on the big stage. Lately, however, the division has been transformed into one of the best and most exciting weight classes in the sport.
Junior dos Santos and Stipe Miocic showed on Saturday night -- as did Mark Hunt and Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva a year ago -- that heavyweights can not only be exciting for more than a one-punch knockout, but they can go five hard rounds. The heavyweight division has always produced some of the sport's biggest stars -- Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar, etc. -- but now the entire weight class should be proud.
Alistair Overeem put on a big finishing show against Stefan Struve. while Matt Mitrione punishing Gabriel Gonzaga was a passing of the torch in many ways. Both fights helped make the UFC Fight Night on FOX card one of the most crowd-pleasing shows of the year. The heavyweight division is no longer the laughingstock of the UFC when it comes to fighters outside the top 10, and that's a big win for everybody involved.
Bet You Were Wrong
Hype is a funny thing in MMA. It can be created overnight for any number of reasons. Conor McGregor did it with a sharp tongue and knockout skills. Chael Sonnen did it with a big mouth and a career resurgence. For Rose Namajunas, it took just three fights and three finishes on "The Ultimate Fighter" to negate the fact that she had only a 2-1 record going into the show, she was 22 years old, and was going to face the best 115-pound fighter on the planet in Carla Esparza.
Unlike the other two examples, Namajunas didn't build the hype for herself by talking trash, so none of this is her fault. All she did was go out and win fights, which is exactly what she was supposed to do. By the time the fight rolled around, Namajunas was instilled as the betting favorite, which is not how the lines started out from the odds makers. It meant people were laying heavy sums of money down on Namajunas to get the win.
Did we all forget how good Esparza was or what she was capable of doing?
Apparently so, but she certainly didn't forget. Esparza went out and picked apart Namajunas and used her vast experience to overwhelm and finish the young upstart in the third round, as she brought the hype train to a decided halt. Esparza now reigns as the best strawweight fighter in the world -- once again -- and we all look a little foolish in forgetting that fact going into Friday night.
Namajunas is still a star on the rise, and there's little doubt she'll find her way back to a title fight at some point down the road. But for now, she's going to have to bow to the queen known as Esparza.
What Are You Doing, Nate Diaz?
Nate Diaz had one of the most bizarre fight weeks leading up to his bout with Rafael dos Anjos at UFC Fight Night on FOX. It all ended in Diaz virtually no-showing in his fight with dos Anjos on Saturday night as he got pummeled for three straight rounds in the equivalent of a shutout performance. In other words, Nate Diaz was Johnny Football, and dos Anjos was a whole lot of Cincinnati Bengals.
Diaz's long, strange trip began months ago when he sat out in protest of his contract, saying he was underpaid and should have been fighting for the title. Like it or not, Diaz signed the contract just one fight earlier, so it's unclear how he's being underpaid if he agreed to the terms? It's not to say he doesn't have a point about fighter pay, but maybe make it going into a title fight like he had against Benson Henderson or maybe before renegotiating your most recent deal. It's hard to feel sympathy after just re-signing with the promotion, and now there's sour grapes because you didn't get enough just one fight into the deal.
Then Diaz missed weight, but he didn't just miss it. He air-balled it.
Diaz came in nearly five pounds over the limit for a lightweight, which in turn cost him 20 percent of his purse -- the exact kind of money he was complaining about a few months ago.
Listen, Diaz has a lot of legitimate gripes (preach on about C.M. Punk!) and probably about fighter pay as well, but there's still a line of being a professional when it comes down to the actual fight. Say what you will about the Diaz brothers, they always show up when it's time to scrap.
Nate failed to do that this weekend.
Weekend of the Weird
There were plenty of odd things that happened during the two-fight-card weekend, although most of it took place at the show in Phoenix.
Not to be outdone, "The Ultimate Fighter Finale" got things started with the lightweight fight between KJ Noons and Daron Cruickshank, which started out as one of the best and exciting bouts of the weekend. It ended with a big thud after an eye poke from Noons to Cruickshank stopped their fight in the second round.
The strange occurrence picked up on Saturday night when Derek Brunson fell off the UFC Fight Night on FOX card because of food poisoning just moments before he was supposed to enter the Octagon to face Ed Herman. David Michaud opted for a Taylor Swift walkout song, much to my own personal horror.
Then Jamie Varner went for a takedown in his fight against Drew Dober and ended up knocking himself out in the process. Seconds later, he decided to retire from the sport all together. Let's not forget John Moraga complaining to the referee about a low blow, the referee telling him to keep fighting, and then Willie Gates doing his best Floyd Mayweather/Victor Ortiz impression by punching his opponent when he wasn't looking.
Oh yeah, and Joe Riggs' night ended when he took Ben Saunders to the mat and injured his neck in the process.
Then there was the post-final-bell-face-punching episode between Claudia Gadelha and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, which brings us to our epic fail of the weekend.
Claudia Gadelha Gets Nothing?
At the end of the fight between Claudia Gadelha and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the final horn sounded and it seemed like the two competitors forgot to stop going. Jedrzejczyk definitely threw a punch well after the final horn sounded, which clearly angered Gadelha.
In response with the referee now clearly between the two fighters, Gadelha swung around the official and punched Jedrzejczyk right in the mush. The crowd in Phoenix rained down with a chorus of boos, and it seemed like the Brazilian strawweight was going to be seriously admonished after the show was over.
Unlike past situations -- like when Paul Daley took a cheap-shot sucker-punch at Josh Koscheck after their fight ended that earned him a lifetime ban from the UFC, or when Jason High shoved a referee at the end of his bout against Rafael dos Anjos that also got him 86'ed from the promotion forever -- Gadelha got a free pass from UFC president Dana White because she said I'm sorry.
I'm not saying Gadelha should be dropped from the promotion or receive a lifetime ban like the other two, but there was no doubt whatsoever that the fight was over and she took a swing at an opponent after the bell. To make matters worse, a referee was standing in between them when she took the punch, so in a way Gadelha managed to take bits from both Daley and High when she committed her infraction.
The fact is Gadelha should have been punished in some way for her actions. Whether that means a seriously heavy fine or a six-month suspension, something should have happened. Jason High apologized profusely after his incident and he's still banned. Daley has been apologizing for years and he's never getting back in the UFC. Gadelha doesn't need to join them on the banned list, but she certainly shouldn't get off with a slap on the wrist just because she said she was sorry.