Duane Finley looks back at the Friday-Saturday MMA double-dip
The talk around the water cooler this week is going to be fierce in light of this past weekend’s Zuffa doubleheader. On Friday night on FX, the UFC returned to Sydney, Australia, for the opening round of the newly added flyweight tournament and a buzz-worthy throw down between Martin Kampmann and Thiago Alves.
This, of course, came a day before the pre-fight hype train finally reached its destination in Columbus, Ohio, where champion Miesha Tate was going to get her opportunity to silence rowdy upstart Ronda Rousey in the main event of Strikeforce: Tate vs. Rousey.
The stage was set for an epic weekend of fights, and since yours truly was not making the journey around the world to work the fights in Sydney, I instead pulled into scenic Columbus for a little fight week madness. Granted, most fight weeks have their fair share of insanity with the media schedule and quick-turnaround stories, but this particular weekend in Columbus came attached to the Arnold Classic which draws in scores of fitness buffs from around the globe. The stage was set for insanity to unfold, and take it from my first-hand experience – chaos was the main course on the menu.
There were lessons learned, personal perspectives changed and horizons broadened for this not-so-young writer on the fly as I recap the weekend that was.
Martin Kampmann: Since Kampmann decided to drop to the welterweight division, he has been a force to be reckoned with. The Xtreme Couture fighter is undoubtedly one of the most well-rounded and skilled technicians in the division. He currently is the only fighter to hold a win over interim champion Carlos Condit since the former WEC champion crossed over into the Octagon, and if a close decision loss to Jake Shields and a controversial judges' call against Diego Sanchez go the other way, Kampmann is the man to beat at 170 pounds. Coming into the fight with Alves, there were a lot of questions as to which version of Kampmann we would see in Sydney. He has a history of starting out his fights crisp and technical, but after the leather starts flying and things get intense, Kampmann has been known to get drawn into fist fights where things become touch and go. Many figured if this were to be the case with Alves, the night would end abruptly for him. But this wasn’t the case when the two men squared off.
Kampmann showed great patience in sticking to his game plan throughout the fight. After rocking Alves with a front kick in the first, he remained collected and poised. In fact, it could be argued he may have kept his cool too much because the tide began to change in the second and third rounds, when it appeared Kampmann might come out on the downside of another decision. Then in spectacular fashion, Kampann was able to hit a choke late in the fight as Alves took him down to the canvas, and after Kampmann rolled through into top position, he forced the Brazilian to tap. It was an excellent late-surge victory for Kampmann, and solidifies him among the batch of contenders in wait. In our pre-fight interview, “The Hitman” said the interim title doesn’t mean anything, but while the division waits for King Georges St-Pierre to recover, the always-game Kampmann could be primed to clear out one of his fellow contenders in the process. With the timing of all things welterweight, there is a possibility Kampmann either faces Jake Ellenberger or should Rory MacDonald make short work of Che Mills, either one of those matchups make sense at this point.
Thiago Alves: While Alves is receiving criticism for tapping late in the fight, I personally believe he has nothing to hang his head over. With his past struggles public knowledge, Alves not only looked strong throughout the fight, but never drew a labored breath outside of the choke. It was a high-paced affair that saw both fighters give as good as they got it, and Alves looked impressive – especially in the cardio aspect of his game. Alves has been outspoken about his rejuvenated outlook toward his fight career, and while there have been setbacks, I fully expect Alves to bounce back strong.
Joseph Benavidez: When the flyweight tournament was announced, Benavidez immediately shot to the forefront as one of the favorites to claim the initial 125-pound gold. While he had never competed in the weight class, the opportunity to do so offered him a road out of bantamweight limbo and a fresh start down a new path. The Team Alpha Male staple comes from a wrestling background, but it is a strength Benavidez has rarely relied on in recent fights. Coming into the bout with Yasuhiro Urushitani, Benavidez figured his biggest test in the bout would be to make the Japanese fighter engage with him. And after a first round that saw Benavidez apply steady pressure, he began to bring the action into range. Shortly into the second round, Benavidez connected with a crushing shot that dropped Urushitani, and after a few quick follow-ups on the ground, the bout came to an end. The victory places Benavidez into the flyweight finals, where he’ll have the opportunity to become the division’s inaugural champion.
Ian McCall and Demetrius Johnson: This was exactly the type of fight someone who had never watched an MMA match needed to see. Both men came out fast and furious, and the action was nonstop from start to finish. Coming into the fight, McCall was ranked as the No. 1 flyweight in the world, and after shaking off the effects of a Johnson right hand, “Uncle Creepy” began to find his groove inside the Octagon. For Johnson, his ability to transition kept him from getting pinned down – until the third round, when McCall flattened him out and poured on the ground-and-pound. Both fighters looked great, and it was a fantastic way to kick off the flyweight tournament. When the judges' decision was announced, Johnson came out on top and appeared to be moving on to the finals. It was later announced one of the judges' score sheet was tallied incorrectly and the actual result was a draw. In full preparation of this scenario to arise, the UFC had implemented a "sudden victory" fourth round if necessary – which would have been used had the scores been tallied correctly. For such a great back-and-forth fight, it was a blemish on the night because now instead of having a smooth transition into the finals of the tournament, McCall and Johnson will have to lock up again to decide who advances.
Costa Philippou: I’m not precisely sure where wins over Jorge Rivera, Jared Hamman and Court McGee put Philippou on the middleweight radar, but a constant progression doesn’t hurt his stock. Since coming to the UFC, he has won three of his four bouts, and in the fights with Hamman and McGee he has earned victories behind solid performances. In Friday night’s clash with former TUF winner McGee, Philippou’s boxing was on point as he used combinations and movement to keep McGee off balance and down on the cards. While he didn’t get the finish he was looking for, handing McGee his first loss under the UFC banner is a nice badge of honor to have, and I fully expect Joe Silva and company to throw a few bigger names in his direction in the near future.
Ronda Rousey: Trash talking is a dangerous game to play in combat sports. If you fail to back up all the pre-fight banter, things take a rapid turn downhill. But when you deliver in impressive fashion, a star-making performance is yours for the taking. Coming into this title fight with Tate, there were so many questions about how Rousey would fair against high-caliber competition. With all of her professional wins coming via armbar, Tate was adamant that not only would Rousey’s favorite submission not come into play, but that the former Olympic judoka wouldn’t be prepared to handle what she brought to the table. After a fast and furious opening minute that saw Tate land some big shots on the feet, the action hit the canvas – with Tate appearing to be in control. Things became tense once Rousey grabbed onto her arm, but Tate worked herself free and attempted to get into her ground-and-pound. Rousey was able to get back to her feet, where once again Tate looked to pour it on. But after over-committing on a three-punch combination, Rousey latched on and used her judo to send Tate flying through the air. It was the exchange that turned the momentum of the fight, because as Tate scrambled to get Rousey out of side control, Rousey found the opportunity she had been looking for and locked in the armbar she has become notorious for. The last thing Tate wanted to do was tap, but once her arm was contorted into a gruesome position, the tap came and a new champion was crowned.
The performance answered a slew of questions about Rousey’s ability to handle top-level competition, and her toughness was on display from start to finish. There was not a single moment during the fight where she wasn’t a threat, and when the opportunity didn’t present itself, she made it happen. Rousey backing up her hype and taking things to the next level is a great service to women’s MMA, and with her next opponent likely to be Sarah Kaufman, fans can expect another all-out war.
Sarah Kaufman and Alexis Davis: With all of the attention focused on the night’s main event between Tate and Rousey, this title eliminator bout was cast off into the shadows. Kaufman was vocal about being passed up for a title shot she felt legitimately was hers, while Davis earned her position in the fight by quietly collecting a three-fight win streak. Their matchup didn’t figure to outshine the majority of the card, but once the opening bell sounded, the next 15 minutes changed some perspectives. Both women have aggressive styles and neither refused to budge as the action got underway. They stood toe to toe, throwing kicks and combinations with Kaufman getting the better of the initial exchanges. The former champion opened up a cut on Davis’ face that had to be examined by the cageside doctor. But once the action resumed, it was right back to business. When the opening round came to an end, the crowd in attendance gave both fighters a standing ovation and continued to do so for every round of the fight.
After coming out on the business side of the first round, Davis began to find a home for her strikes in the second as an elbow opened up a cut on Kaufman’s hair line. While Davis used kicks to the legs and body, Kaufman stuck to her jab, which continuously found a home on Davis’ face. The back and forth was much more even in the second round, but Davis was still down on the judges' cards. Davis came out in the third looking to turn things up a notch, and after eating a few more of Kaufman’s punches, she was able to secure a takedown and put Kaufman on her back early into the round. For the rest of the final frame, Davis worked an effective ground-and-pound, where she used elbows and punches to bust up Kaufman. When the final bell sounded, the crowed in Columbus once again gave both women a standing ovation and it was well deserved for the war they put on. In the end, it was Kaufman who edged out Davis on the cards, and while Kaufman will likely get the next title shot, Davis has nothing to hang her head about. In a fight against a former champion and one of the world’s best, she proved she belongs in the title conversation.
Kazou Misaki: It had been some time since the Japanese MMA veteran had fought under the Strikeforce banner, and there were a lot of questions what type of performance could be expected when he stepped in against Paul Daley. With “Semtex” being one of the most feared sluggers in mixed martial arts, most of his opponents look to take the fight to the canvas. But as soon as they locked horns, it became clear Misaki was going to take the fight into Daley’s wheelhouse. Working behind powerful hooks and body shots, Misaki was getting the better of the exchanges. After taking several punishing shots, Daley displayed his improved wrestling and put Misaki on the mat. He would do so several times throughout the fight without much success until the third round. After a Daley takedown in the third, his ground-and-pound opened a nasty gash to the side of Misaki’s eye. When the action resumed, rather than restart from the ground, the referee resumed the action with both fighters standing – and this could have been the difference in the fight. When the judges' decision was announced, Misaki earned the split-decision victory and placed himself into a position to become a contender for the vacant welterweight strap.
Rounding out the rest of the action were strong showings from Ryan Couture, Pat "Bam Bam" Healy, Lumumba Sayers, Roger Bowling and former champion Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. Each looked impressive during their showings in Columbus, and the victory for Souza should earn him a rematch with middleweight champion Luke Rockhold this summer. In a strange turn of events, the late finish from the tough-as-nails Healy could present him with a title opportunity of his own after the highly anticipated bout between Josh Thomson and K.J. Noons failed to produce fireworks. Healy gave Thomson fits during their last fight, and with “Bam Bam” earning a string of victories behind gritty workmanship, the call to face lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez is something that might come more sooner than later.
While it was a hectic weekend in Columbus, I have to personally say my thoughts on a few things were changed over the course of this journey. I have been vocal about my position on women’s MMA in the past and while it has always been a depth issue more than lack of talent, what I witnessed Saturday has my altered the way I view this current collective at 135 pounds. Coming into Saturday, I wouldn’t have imagined the two best fights on the card would have come from where they did. But Rousey, Tate, Kaufman and Davis have made a believer out of me. Granted, it will take more like them to keep women’s MMA on the upswing, but their respective showings in Columbus definitely has women's MMA on the right track.
On one final note, I also want to share an important lesson I learned last weekend. You simply cannot linger in Don Frye’s presence for too long, because the man possesses mystical and unexplainable powers of persuasion. Maybe it is the mustache? Or maybe it is a power of the universe my mind simply cannot wrap itself around. Fortunately I was to survive long enough to write this wrap-up, and I’m a better man for the lessons learned from my experience.
So long Columbus ... until next time.