The middleweight bout between Thales Leites and Tom Watson at UFC 163 was the very fight Watson wanted. It was ugly, the striking was sloppy and awkward, and the ground game was cumbersome and frustrating.
In the end, the Brazilian came out on top Saturday night from HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Despite it being the kind of fight the Englishman wanted, in the end, Leites simply had too much class on the ground and was able to win via decision based on his ground control and submission attempts.
Leites moved to 21-4 with the win. The bout was a successful return to the UFC after spending time in smaller circuits. He extended his current win streak to four fights and looked like he is prepared to make a run in the cluttered middleweight division.
With the loss, Watson falls to 16-6 in what was a vintage display of grit and toughness. The fight also exposed a lack of a well-rounded fight game.
What Did We Learn About Leites?
We learned that the 32-year-old Brazilian grappler is still at least a quality UFC mid-tier fighter. He was 5-3 in his first stint in the UFC, losing to Anderson Silva and Alessio Sakara in consecutive bouts before being bounced from the organization.
We also learned that he has not lost his ability to control the fight on the ground.
When Leites can take the fight to the canvas, he is clearly on another level than many opponents. After tagging Watson with a punch in the initial exchange, the Brazilian was able to get his opponent's back in under a minute. He then controlled four minutes of the opening round before Watson was able to escape with a minute left.
In Round 2, he had beautiful transitions to gain mount and then nearly had an armbar. He should have been able to finish three or four submissions, if not for Watson's freakish non-defensive defense.
The one negative he showed is that Leites does not have the strongest cardio.
There is no doubt that fighting Watson would put almost any fighter into quicksand. Still, Leites was heavily winded by the end of the second round. An opponent with better takedown defense would have likely picked him apart.
Leites will have to improve his stamina if he wants to make it far in the 185-pound division.
What Did We Learn About Watson?
He is sloppy and unrefined in his game, but he somehow defies reason with his avoidance of being finished.
Watson nearly allowed two or three chokes to sink in within the first round. In the second round, he practically handed Leites an arm triangle and rear-naked choke. Referee Herb Dean was pretty sure Watson's arm was in trouble for a solid 30 seconds when Leites snatched an armbar against the cage in the second round. At the closing minute of the fight, Watson sat in an arm triangle for a good 40 seconds.
In the end, nothing appeared to faze him, and he made it through the final bell.
More than anything, we all learned a Watson vs. Chris Leben bout would please the “Just Bleed” gods to no end.
What Is Next for Both Fighters?
Next for Leites has to be another buildup bout. There are plenty of deadly contenders in the middleweight division. He will have to wait for another two or three fights before he is anywhere near a title shot.
Watson should likely look for quality paydays in crowd-pleasing fights. Bouts against Leben or Wanderlei Silva would suit his style well and earn him a warrior's reputation. Outside of those possibilities, there is always a gatekeeper position.