The whole thing went down on national television Saturday from The House That Jordan Built, the United Center in Chicago. And it unfolded before what was purportedly (and from the couch, certainly looked and sounded like) a not-exactly-full arena. Maybe that's just Chicago in January working its special magic, but it may also have something to do with the relatively low-profile and objectively low-stakes lineup.
And yet, there was intrigue to be found. Cause for optimism, you might say. First of all, because it's MMA, fireworks may be poised around any corner. Second, the slate did contain some reasonably tasty matchups, especially in a free TV context.
In the main event, former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson took on the hard-charging Josh Thomson. In the co-main event, Stipe Miocic tried to reach the next stratum of the heavyweight division with a win over Gabriel Gonzaga. Also, there was Donald Cerrone.
It's all in the books now, but the stat lines, they only reveal so much. Here are the real winners and losers from up and down the fight card.
A rather bland undercard was moving at an amble until human hot sauce Eddie Wineland joined the proceedings.
He rebounded from his September title loss to Renan Barao by pummeling Yves Jabouin into a TKO. A wary Jabouin worked hard to stay clear of an extended standup battle, but Wineland simply plowed toward him, outlanding Jabouin each time they exchanged.
In the second round, Jabouin (19-9) lost some bounce in his step, and Wineland (21-9-1) dropped him with a right hook. The ensuing ground-and-pound included some sharp elbows and eventually brought down the curtain. It was a good and exciting win for one of the UFC's most popular fighters.
Can we talk about a drop to flyweight now?
Coming down the stretch, Sergio Pettis had an edge on the scorecards. And that's no surprise; "The Phenom" was heavily favored to win, and he was regularly lighting up Alex Caceres with sharp kicks and counterpunches.
But he was decidedly undersized against Caceres and definitely the greener of the two. In the bout's final minute, a botched Pettis takedown attempt led to a scramble, during which Pettis gave up his back, allowing Caceres to gain position and wrap a rear-naked choke around Pettis' throat. The Phenom tapped with just 21 seconds remaining. It was his first defeat as a pro.
At age 20 and fighting at bantamweight, he (10-1) is still a monstrously talented and promising fighter, but Caceres (10-5-1) was too much too soon. Pettis may want to consider returning to the 125-pound division, which is where he made his bones and attracted the UFC's attention in the first place.
Mike "Wolverine" Rio
We can do better. Like, as a community. We are so much better than this.
Nickname problem? Don't know what to do? I can help. All consultations kept strictly confidential.
The evening's lowlights:
- Mike "Wolverine" Rio
- Hugo "Wolverine" Viana (and seriously, how many people had to fall asleep at the switch for this faux pas to occur?)
- Jeremy "Lil' Heathen" Stephens
- Chico "King" Camus
- Sergio "The Phenom" Pettis
- Yves "Tiger" Jabouin
It was wire-to-wire dominance from Jeremy Stephens on Saturday night.
For all the blue-collar imagery and work-ethic superlatives heaped on Darren Elkins, it was Stephens who outworked and outperformed his opponent this time. It was not the best Elkins we've ever seen; he seemed to shoot for takedowns from all the way across the cage and never before sending an invitation first. His stand-up strategy was rife with lumbering around.
Stephens (23-9) hit first, hit harder and marked up Elkins for the win with his trademark power. He got a little wild at times and didn't finish Elkins (17-4) as he clearly wanted to. But the bottom line is that "Lil' Heathen" got a convincing win over a tough customer in Chicago.
Donald Cerrone (right) lands a fight-ending kick on Adriano Martins
There were some folks, including, uh, this one, who believed Adriano Martins had a real shot to upset Donald Cerrone.
Cerrone (22-6-1) tenderized Martins (25-7) with leg kicks throughout the first round. Then, as the round came to a close, "Cowboy" went upstairs, planting his shin right along Martins' jawline. Martins stiffened immediately and collapsed to the mat.
I don't know whether Martins actually plays chess or not. That blow could not have been good for his brain, is what I'm really trying to say here.
And I must also say that I was wrong about Donald Cerrone. I won't doubt you again, sir. And your $50,000 Knockout of the Night bonus should help you clear up your recent money troubles.
Gabriel Gonzaga was who we thought he was: not good enough to beat Stipe Miocic.
The Brazlian (16-8) worked his jab and generally fought respectably in the first round. But it was all downhill from there, as Gonzaga began to gas badly. Very badly. From the halfway point on, he looked like he just didn't want to be there anymore.
The 34-year-old remains popular, and he can always steal an undercard fight with his jiu-jitsu or a good home run swing, but he's not a factor at this level of the division.
Stipe Miocic is another story.
Against Gonzaga, Miocic (11-1) did very much what logic suggested he would do. He outboxed his opponent, stayed on his horse and worked the big guy over with combinations. Most importantly of all, though, he was still doing it at the end in much the same way he'd done it at the beginning. It wasn't especially exciting, but it was effective.
After beating up Gonzaga and Roy Nelson before him, Miocic is ready for a bona fide contender.
Josh Thomson has spent much of the past three years battling injuries. Now that that appears to be behind him, it's time for everyone else to watch out. And though he (20-6-1) came up on the wrong end of a split decision, he showed the kind of stuff that could keep him in the UFC's upper echelon for some time. (Assuming his health cooperates, of course.)
After taking Knockout of the Night honors for his spectacular dismantling of Nate Diaz in April, Thomson got this shot with Henderson. With a takedown and a tourniquet of a body triangle, he was off and running in his bid to get this win and, in so doing, earn a lightweight title shot.
Much of the fight moved methodically, as the men stayed clinched together or grinding for position control along the fence. But it all happened at a high level, and it was clear Henderson wouldn't have an easy time of it in this one.
As the fight wore on, though, familiar trends emerged. Henderson's athleticism began to take over and, per usual, he looked like the fresher fighter in the championship rounds.
Meanwhile, the old injury bug took yet another bite out of Thomson, who told his corner between the second and third rounds that his right thumb was broken. He threw noticeably fewer punches after that, and it changed the complexion of the contest.
Even so, the fight was close and competitive throughout, and Thomson played to the assembled Chicago crowd and the national TV audience to win fans and showcase what he can do when he's (kind of) healthy.
He didn't get the win or the title shot, but he positioned himself to stay at the top of the lightweight division for as long as his body allows it.
Another Benson Henderson fight, another close and controversial decision. So it goes for "Bendo."
But Henderson (20-3) is not a loser here because I disagree with the decision. He's here because he was in a no-win situation Saturday night.
There are no wins in no-man's land. Henderson has lost twice to current champ Anthony Pettis. If that track record doesn't outright eliminate the chance of a third matchup between them, it certainly reduces the likelihood and ensures it probably won't happen anytime soon.
He looked good in Chicago against Thomson. He did his thing—where he has a game plan and a lot of technical expertise and endurance and sets about eking out a victory. I don't fault him for that.
But the fact is, he can eke out or manhandle all the Josh Thomsons until he's blue in the face and not see a lot of forward movement, because he's already above everyone else except the guy with the belt, who doubles as the only guy he can't beat. Unfortunately for Bendo, barring an eventual loss from Pettis to another opponent or an epic win streak from Henderson, the No. 1 contender will probably find himself treading water.
In the meantime, bring on Gilbert Melendez. There's nothing saying fans can't get some good out of this.
Benson Henderson def. Josh Thomson by split decision
Stipe Miocic def. Gabriel Gonzaga by unanimous decision
Donald Cerrone def. Adriano Martins by KO, 4:40, Rd. 1
Jeremy Stephens def. Darren Elkins by unanimous decision
Alex Caceres def. Sergio Pettis by submission (rear-naked choke), 4:39, Rd. 3
Eddie Wineland def. Yves Jabouin by TKO, 4:16, Rd. 2
Chico Camus def. Yaotzin Meza by unanimous decision
Hugo Viana def. Ramiro Hernandez by unanimous decision
Daron Cruickshank def. Mike Rio by TKO, 4:56, Rd. 2
George Sullivan def. Mike Rhodes by unanimous decision
Nikita Krylov def. Walt Harris by TKO, 0:25, Rd. 1
Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. For more stuff like this, just with more music and movie talk thrown in, follow Scott on Twitter.