Duane Finley looks back at Saturday’s card in New Jersey
There were questions that needed answering as the UFC rolled into East Rutherford, N.J. When the smoke cleared and UFC on Fox: Diaz vs. Miller was in the books, the original questions were settled and a few surprises created more to be addressed at a later date.
The stacked UFC lightweight division saw a new title contender emerge as Nate Diaz dominated Jim Miller. The Stockton, Calif., native pushed forward from the opening bell until he submitted Miller in the second round. In addition to Diaz’s impressive performance, Johny Hendricks and Alan Belcher made statements of their own as they scored the biggest victories of their respective careers. Those were a few of the highlights from the Izod Center, but let’s take a look at the night that was at UFC on Fox 3.
Since his time on Season 5 of "The Ultimate Fighter," we have watched Nate Diaz’s growth as a fighter and technician. Easily one of the most active on the UFC roster, Diaz has competed in multiple divisions as he’s looked to find his groove. After stopping Takanori Gomi in his return to the lightweight division, then pummeling Donald Cerrone in his next outing, it became obvious Diaz was coming into his own. The lopsided victory over “Cowboy” started the title talk and his domination over a tough-as-nails Jim Miller on Saturday night solidified it. Once again, Diaz was able to force his opponent to fight his fight. And once Miller looked to take the action to the mat, the BJJ black belt was submitted by the Cesar Gracie-trained fighter. In the days leading up to the fight, UFC president Dana White announced the winner would face Anthony Pettis later this year to decide who will be the next No. 1 contender. Following Diaz’s outstanding performance on Saturday, White was singing a different tune as he said Diaz has earned the next opportunity after Ben Henderson and Frankie Edgar settle their rematch. The move is fitting as Diaz left no doubt he’s ready for a title shot inside the Octagon on Saturday. While this will make the second time Pettis has been bumped from the picture, there is no question Diaz has traveled the tougher road over his past three fights.
The stakes were at an all-time high for Miller when he stepped in against Diaz. And unfortunately for Miller, it wasn’t his night to shine. Last year Miller, saw a seven-fight winning streak and his title hopes dashed when he was bested by Ben Henderson. And after losing to Diaz this past weekend, Miller once again finds himself getting pushed down the ladder. Coming into the fight, Miller said his plans were to apply pressure and use his strength to put Diaz where he wanted him. But once the action got under way, Diaz’s overwhelming output and accuracy were too much for Miller to handle. The biggest difference between Miller’s loss to Henderson compared to Diaz is timing. In the divisional picture, the loss to Henderson came during a spell when other fellow contenders also found themselves in the loss column. That doesn’t appear to the case this time around, and Miller will ultimately be reshuffled in the competitive deck of the lightweight division. With the other top lightweights all booked for fights, a possible matchup with Joe Lauzon or a rematch with Mark Bocek would make sense for Miller.
The Team Takedown fighter picked up tremendous career momentum when he knocked out Jon Fitch, and while his victory Saturday night wasn’t as definitive, it still made a huge statement. In the early going, Josh Koscheck appeared to be in control of the fight as he landed several big shots on Hendricks. After the first round, Hendricks found a home for his power as he began to score at will throughout the second. The third round started out much the same, as Hendricks put together two big combinations that snapped Koscheck’s head back. Although Koscheck was able to secure a takedown and spent the final two minutes of the fight in top position, Hendricks’ output in the first half of the round were enough to secure the frame on two out of three of the judges' cards. Ultimately, Hendricks walked away with the split decision victory and put himself smack dab in the middle of the welterweight title picture. At the post-fight press conference, Hendricks said it was a possibility he would take to the sidelines and wait for his shot at the winner of the Georges St-Pierre vs. Carlos Condit, fight which will take place later this year. While the title shot is certainly appealing, the timeline might work against Hendricks in this situation. Where the welterweight division was seemingly cleared out a year ago, now it’s more competitive than it’s ever been. With rising star Rory MacDonald scoring a big win in Atlanta, Nick Diaz’s situation uncertain and Jake Ellenberger vs. Martin Kampmann just a month away, Hendricks may have another test before the UFC puts him into a title fight.
When the judges' decision was announced on Saturday night, Koscheck shook his head in disagreement as he came out on the losing end of the affair. The fight certainly was close, and many in the MMA community tallied the fight for Koscheck when the action came to a close. But the three ringside judges are the only scores that matter, and two out of the three saw the fight for Hendricks. In the beginning of the fight, Koscheck appeared to be getting the better of Hendricks as he applied pressure and was able to land his overhand right. The tide turned in the second as Hendricks found his rhythm and put Koscheck on the defensive. Despite scoring a takedown in the third, it was too little too late. In the weeks leading up to the fight, Koscheck said he wasn’t concerned with a title shot and that things would eventually fall into place. While the loss certainly puts him out of the immediate picture, it shouldn’t do severe damage to his overall ranking. It has been a tumultuous year for Koscheck, as he split with longtime trainer Javier Mendez and moved his camp to Fresno, Calif., where he has lived for several years. Like Nate Diaz, Koscheck prefers to stay extremely active and with Rich Attonito falling out of his fight with Rick Story due to injury, it would be interesting to see Koscheck slide into that spot.
Heading into his fight with Rousimar Palhares, there weren’t too many people giving Belcher a chance at pulling off the victory. “Toquinho” had won six out of his last seven with three consecutive heading into Saturday night’s bout. While Belcher looked impressive in his comeback fight against Jason MacDonald, many figured if Palhares was able to get the fight to the ground it would be a short night for Belcher – and that is exactly where “The Talent” found himself shortly after the fight got under way. Always the wild card, Belcher was content to play where Palhares was most dangerous and after getting his leg out of danger, chose to keep the fight on the canvas as he moved into top position. From Palhares’ guard, Belcher dropped a nasty elbow that dazed his opponent and spelled the beginning of the end. With Palhares rocked, Belcher cranked up the intensity as he scored the first-round TKO victory. In his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, Belcher made his title intentions loud and clear. With Anderson Silva tied up in a rematch with Chael Sonnen and contenders Mark Munoz and Chris Weidman squaring off in a few months, it seems unlikely Belcher will get the next nod. With that being said, there is rumored talk newly signed middleweight Hector Lombard could leapfrog his way to the top should he best Brian Stann, and with the Belcher’s momentum and exciting style, a potential matchup with either Lombard or Stann would deliver. Another potential bout to consider for Belcher would be against the winner of Vitor Belfort vs. Wanderlei Silva.
With his vicious submission style and unhinged antics inside the cage, Palhares had not only picked up momentum in his career but began to build some mystique around himself. Unfortunately for Palhares, that hype was crushed in his loss to Belcher on Saturday night. Not only was he pounded out in the first round, but Belcher was able to survive in a place previously thought impossible to escape. While the loss to Belcher will certainly derail any title talk in the near future, Palhares is far from finished wreaking havoc in the middleweight division. I’d like to see the UFC put together Palhares vs. Yushin Okami later this year.
Since coming over from Strikeforce, Johnson has made it known simply fighting in the UFC has been a dream come true. After two impressive outings and two Knockout of the Night bonuses, the reality of being in the UFC has to be sweeter than the dream for Johnson. The heavy-handed California slugger appeared to be in trouble midway through the first round, as Barry was able to get him to the canvas and secured the full mount position. Barry went for a submission attempt, but Johnson was able to weather the storm and eventually returned to his feet. Once standing, the onslaught began as Johnson backed Barry against the cage and began to unload bombs. Barry went into full defense mode as he attempted to cover up, but with Johnson teeing off with hooks and uppercuts, it was only a matter of time before Johnson landed the shot that collapsed Barry. The UFC is putting a lot of attention on its heavyweight division, and Johnson is in the perfect position to reap the benefits of the situation. With two impressive knockout victories, Johnson has begun to make a name for himself in the UFC. With the majority of the organization’s elite tied up on the upcoming UFC 146 card, there aren’t too many big-name challenges out there for Johnson to step in with. Personally, I would love to see the UFC put Johnson in the fast lane and schedule him against fellow crusher Shane Carwin when he returns to action later this year.
Unfortunately for “HD,” Saturday night ended in the worst possible fashion. Barry’s striking prowess has always been his largest asset, and getting knocked out by Johnson can’t bode well for the former kickboxer. Barry has been a fan favorite since coming into the UFC in 2008, but his record against top competition has left much to be desired. Barry is 4-5 during that time, and while he performs well against fighters attempting to make their way up the ranks, he hasn’t been able to get the job done against opposition in the 10-20 ranking range. It’s unclear what Barry’s future in the UFC, will be but if he manages to survive being cut, it will be interesting to see who he is matched up with. The organization isn’t fond of putting together bouts with one fighter coming off a win and the other a loss, but pitting Barry vs. Shawn Jordan would be exciting to see.
Outside of the main card featured on Fox, there were several other fighters who stepped up to have impressive performances. Michael Johnson continued to show his progression as a mixed martial artist as he bested TUF winner Tony Ferguson via unanimous decision. Since losing to Paul Sass last year, Johnson has put together back-to-back victories inside the Octagon and is looking sharper with each outing. While there was no explosive knockout we’ve come to expect from John Dodson, “The Magician” was successful in his flyweight debut on Saturday night. Dodson won Season 14 of "The Ultimate Fighter" as a bantamweight, but now that the UFC has created a 125-pound weight class, Dodson has a bigger lane to become a star. He found a formidable opponent in Tim Elliot in New Jersey, but Dodson was able to adapt to madness being thrown his way and did enough damage to score the win. With the flyweight title tournament still playing out, Dodson will have to wait to get a top-ranked opponent. The matchup I would like to see the UFC put together is Dodson vs. Louis Gaudinot, who also looked great in his Fight of the Night victory over John Lineker.
It was a great night of fights in New Jersey, as Diaz proved he’s the man to beat in the UFC lightweight division and several other weight classes got that much more interesting. As Zuffa’s packed summer lineup continues to roll on, the divisional pictures will continue to heat up as contenders continue to rise and fall.
Cue the Springsteen ... so long New Jersey.