The UFC returned to Georgia for the fifth time in the organization's history on Wednesday for UFC Fight Night 35.
While the card didn't receive a ton of push in the lead-up, the event was stacked with interesting tilts from all corners of the promotion's roster. The most prominent of the group came in the main event battle between Luke Rockhold and Costas Philippou, which featured a clash between fighters looking to remain in the hunt for the middleweight title.
With both men coming off losses in their most recent showings, there was no lack of hunger heading into their bout at UFC Fight Night 35. The AKA-trained fighter was eager to get his hand raised for the first time inside the Octagon, and the Cyprus-born fighter was looking to keep his spot in the divisional hierarchy.
Once the action got under way, it was all Rockhold.
The former Strikeforce champion steamrolled the former professional boxer, as he used his kickboxing skills to tip the scales. After backing Philippou up with forward pressure, Rockhold unleashed a series of body kicks that dropped his opponent to the canvas and brought an end to the fight.
Where the main event featured two fighters looking to keep their title hopes alive, the co-main event between Brad Tavares and Lorenz Larkin put two fighters looking to break through into the next tier of the division under the spotlight. The 25-year-old Hawaiian brought a four-fight winning streak into the fight and was seeking to take the definitive next step in his young career.
While Larkin had not racked up the same amount of success as his opponent inside the Octagon, the fight was equally as important for the Strikeforce veteran, who was hoping to establish himself as a major player in the middleweight fold.
The bout was touted as a matchup between two of the division's most promising young talents, and the fight lived up to the billing as both fighters looked to establish dominance on the feet.
At the end of the 15-minute affair, Tavares took the unanimous-decision victory to pick up his fifth consecutive win. Larkin had his moments throughout the fight, but Tavares set the tone with his striking, and his forward pressure kept the normally unpredictable Larkin relatively at bay. With the win, Tavares has now had his hand raised in seven of his eight showings inside the Octagon.
In addition to the middleweight action, there were plenty of solid performances from the other fighters on the card. A high-paced flyweight tilt set the tone for the prelims on Fox Sports 1 and set up a main card where the leather flew at a fast and furious pace.
While a good number of fights went to the judges' scorecards, the overall outcome was still a good night of fights that didn't receive much attention.
Let's take a look at the good, bad and strange from UFC Fight Night 35.
Luke Rockhold has been eager to get the bad taste out of his mouth left from suffering a knockout against Vitor Belfort in his UFC debut in 2012, and he succeeded in doing just that at UFC Fight Night 35.
The former Strikeforce champion drubbed Costas Philippou in their main event tilt, earning a first-round knockout via body kicks. While many thought he would take the fight to the canvas in order to avoid Philippou's boxing, that wasn't the case as the AKA fighter was game on the feet. He used his range and footwork to sting Philippou from a distance, as he set up the body kicks that ended the fight in abrupt fashion.
Immediately following the victory, Rockhold told Jon Anik he wanted a rematch with Vitor Belfort. While "The Phenom" is slated to face Chris Weidman later this year for the middleweight title, there is no doubt Rockhold's next opponent will also come from the contender's table at 185 pounds.
One fighter who is climbing the ladder one impressive rung at a time is middleweight Brad Tavares. The 26-year-old Hawaiian striker has put together a solid winning streak over the past two years and picked up his fifth consecutive win at UFC Fight Night 35 against Lorenz Larkin.
While the knock on Tavares thus far has been his inability to land the big finish, he has performed at a consistent level inside the Octagon, which is difficult when competing at the highest level of the sport. The Ray Sefo protege has continued to work effective game plans as he's climbed the divisional ladder on the strength of winning seven of his eight UFC showings.
Where earning the unanimous-decision victory over Larkin isn't going to put him into title contention, it should open the doors to the next tier of competition in the 185-pound fold, which is where Tavares set his goal for the year ahead.
If he continues to develop at the rate he's shown, there is no doubt he will get where he's looking to go. That said, if he doesn't start finishing his opponents along the way, it will remain difficult for him to get a major push from the UFC.
Team Alpha Male's T.J. Dillashaw is turning into some kind of monster in the bantamweight division. The former The Ultimate Fighter finalist has shown a rapid development since joining the UFC in late 2011, picking up victories in five of his seven showings inside the Octagon. On Wednesday at UFC Fight Night 35, he notched his most recent win by battering a game Mike Easton and took another strong step toward title contention in the process.
With the only loss during his post-TUF stretch coming in a razor-thin split decision against Raphael Assuncao back in October, there have been very few negatives to mark on Dillashaw's rise. He's shown improvements every time out, and his victory over Easton should put him in a position to draw one of the division's best in his next outing.
There is a lot of room for an up-and-coming fighter to make his mark in the middleweight division, and Yoel Romero is on his way to carving out his place in the 185-pound fold. The Olympic silver medalist pulled off a stunning comeback on Wednesday, as he rebounded from being down two rounds to stop Derek Brunson in the third round of their bout.
The North Carolina native was working a near-flawless game plan against the Cuban powerhouse until Romero clipped Brunson with a big left hand in the third.
Once Brunson was wobbled, Romero turned up the intensity to secure the finish. With the TKO stoppage, Romero is now a perfect 3-0 under the UFC banner and has finished each of the three opponents he's faced under the UFC banner.
While a victory over Brunson won't secure him a place in the divisional Top 10, it will put him in a position to draw a bigger name in his next outing.
When Cole Miller's name is on a card, fans know they are going to see a good scrap, and that's exactly what he delivered against Sam Sicilia. The American Top Team product used his reach to keep Sicilia on his heels until he could use his jiu-jitsu to finish off the TUF alum.
While "Magrinho" has experienced mixed results at featherweight (3-3), his style and talent level make him dangerous in every fight. If his performance wasn't enough of a highlight, he used his post-fight interview time to call out longtime rival Donald Cerrone for a future featherweight showdown.
Ramsey Nijem needed a victory in a big way coming into UFC Fight Night 35. The 25-year-old had dropped his past two outings and was up against the proverbial wall heading into his bout with Justin Edwards. Fortunately for the California-based TUF alum, he was able to stay one step ahead of the Ohio native. Nijem pulled off the unanimous-decision victory to pick up his first win since December 2012.
There were questions surrounding Elias Silverio's ability to pull off a solid performance in his first cut to lightweight, but he delivered on all fronts as he defeated Isaac Vallie-Flagg on the preliminary portion of the card. The Brazilian kept his undefeated streak intact as he outmuscled the Jackson's/Winkeljohn fighter for 15 minutes to pick up his second victory under the UFC banner.
The flyweight division is still in its relative infancy, which leaves a lot of room for fighters to move up the ranks in quick fashion. Both Louis Smolka and Alptekin Ozkilic were looking to make the most of the opportunity to make a statement, and the 22-year-old Hawaiian edged out the Turk in a three-round scrap. Smolka earned the unanimous-decision victory, but Ozkilic has nothing to hang his head about.
Where a five-fight winning streak once had Costas Philippou on the verge of breaking into title contention, back-to-back losses have all but erased those hopes for the time being.
He was smothered by Francis Carmont in his last outing at UFC 165 last September and needed a victory over Luke Rockhold on Wednesday to turn things around. That never came close to happening as the former Strikeforce champion handled business in a big way by scoring a first-round knockout against the Cyprus-born fighter.
While two consecutive losses won't put Philippou in the unemployment line, the increasingly competitive waters of the middleweight upper tier will push the Long Island, N.Y. transplant to the back of a stacked deck at 185 pounds. There is no doubt he has the talent to make the climb back into the Top 10, but it is going to take some serious work on his part.
While Mike Easton made a bunch of noise during his impressive introduction to the UFC fanbase, things have taken a sharp turn south over the last year. "The Hulk" broke out of the gates by picking up three consecutive victories, but the Team Alliance fighter has been defeated in his past three showings.
He had his latest setback on Wednesday against rapidly rising prospect T.J. Dillashaw. The Team Alpha Male fighter used his speed and footwork to pepper Easton with shots as he cruised to a clear victory on the scorecards. Where losing to the caliber of talent that Easton has been coming up short against is nothing to hang his head about, a slump of this magnitude is never a good thing.
Justin Edwards was looking to get back into the win column against Ramsey Nijem at UFC Fight Night 35. Unfortunately for "Fast Eddie," his fellow TUF alum beat him to the punch at a high percentage over the course of the three-round affair. When the fight went to the cards, Edwards came out on the business end of a unanimous decision, collecting his second consecutive defeat. He has now lost three of his past four outings and will likely be fighting for his job in his next showing.
While taking a fight on short notice can hardly be held against him, UFC Fight Night 35 was a bad look for Charlie Brenneman. The Spaniard had been tearing up the regional circuit on his quest back to the Octagon as he racked up four consecutive victories. He was looking to make a fresh start at a new weight class on Wednesday, but things couldn't have gone worse for him.
The Pennsylvania native became the latest victim of undefeated prospect Beneil Dariush, who submitted him via rear-naked choke in the first round of the fight.
And the night was going so well.
Anytime there is a UFC card on the docket, there are usually a few curious happenings to discuss in this portion of the article. Yet, eight fights into a 12-fight card, there was nothing remarkably strange to note. Then former flyweight title challenger John Moraga and prospect on the rise Dustin Ortiz got to work, and the result produced the only entry into this dubious category.
While the MMA Lab product taking the split-decision victory over the Duke Roufus-trained fighter isn't an unfathomable offense, it still seems like a stretch. Ortiz clearly dominated the opening frame and appeared to have done enough to take the third round as well. Moraga bounced back in furious fashion in the second where he battered Ortiz on the feet and then handed out some punishment on the ground as well.
Nevertheless, Moraga was largely on the defensive in the third round, and that should have tipped the balance in Ortiz's favor on the judges' scorecards. But when the final tallies were read, two of the cageside judges saw the fight in Moraga's favor.
Again, this decision is not out of this world and nothing close to some of the travesties we've seen in recent years, but this writer—along with many of my colleagues on Twitter—scored the fight in favor of Ortiz.
That said, if a close decision going a certain way is the strangest thing that happens on a fight card, then it's a calm night in the MMA universe.
Then again, there was a punch below the belt in the bout between Derek Brunson and Yoel Romero as well as the Soldier of God potentially having some digestive issues mid-fight. Those are two things we don't see every day in the fight world, and I would personally be fine without ever having to see them again.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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