For the past two years, the UFC bantamweight division has been a weight class in flux.
When former WEC titleholder-turned-UFC champion Dominick Cruz went down with a knee injury in 2012, the Brazilian wrecking machine, Renan Barao, jumped at the opportunity to step in against Urijah Faber with the interim bantamweight title on the line at UFC 149 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Barao worked The California Kid en route to a unanimous-decision victory and earned his first taste of championship gold under the UFC banner. The Nova Uniao product would go on to successfully defend his interim strap on two more occasions before a long-awaited showdown with Cruz was slated for UFC 169 this past February.
The bantamweight title was set to be unified when the two champions collided in New Jersey, but unfortunately The Dominator was forced to withdraw from that bout as well, and Barao became the undisputed king of the 135-pound collective when he thwarted Faber in their rematch.
A string of impressive title defenses and a 33-fight winning streak put Barao on the verge of breaking through into superstardom in MMA, but he was going to need another strong showing in his next outing to validate that step. That opportunity would come in his main event tilt against talented young upstart-turned-title contender TJ Dillashaw at UFC 173 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
The Baron was determined to make Dillashaw the latest addition to a growing list of victims, and the Team Alpha Male fighter shocked the world. The 28-year-old Californian did the unthinkable by not only defeating Barao, but doing so on the strength of a virtuoso performance on his feet. Dillashaw outstruck and battered the champion throughout the five-round affair to become the undisputed titleholder in the bantamweight division.
Few thought it could be done, but Dillashaw killed the king Saturday night, and he put on a star-making performance in the process.
While the bantamweight title was at play in the main event at UFC 173, the co-main event slot was filled with two men looking to take a big step forward in title pursuits of their own.
Daniel Cormier and Dan Henderson squared off in the penultimate bout on the card to determine who would remain in the hunt for a shot at the light heavyweight title and who would be reshuffled back into the competitive deck at 205 pounds.
The bout between the two former Olympians was a highly anticipated affair, and once the cage door closed and the referee stepped aside, it was all Cormier. The Louisiana native put a drubbing on Hendo for two rounds until he locked in a fight-ending rear-naked choke midway through the third frame.
It was as dominant a performance as anyone has ever put on Henderson, and Cormier's showing at UFC 173 will only add that much more momentum to his push toward a shot at the light heavyweight title.
In addition to the bantamweight insanity atop the card of the UFC's annual Memorial Day event, there were a handful of pairings that certainly brought the ruckus Saturday night. A collection of The Ultimate Fighter alums returned to action, while several savvy veterans battled to keep their roster spots under the bright lights of the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Let's take a look at the good, bad and strange from UFC 173.
Coming into his bout with pound-for-pound ranked bantamweight champion Barao, Dillashaw said all the pressure was on the Brazilian wrecking machine: "I don't feel any pressure coming into this fight. He's the champion and the one who has this huge winning streak and is supposed to be unbeatable, so I think the pressure is all on his side of the table."
The Team Alpha Male product came into the main event at UFC 173 as a heavy underdog, and few in the MMA community believed he would be the one to bring The Baron's amazing 33-fight unbeaten streak to an end.
While Barao was the heavy favorite, when the fight got underway Saturday night, it was 100 percent Dillashaw as he routed the Nova Uniao product to become the new bantamweight champion.
Dillashaw set the tempo early when he dropped Barao with a blistering overhand right and kept his foot on the gas until he put the the 27-year-old Brazilian away with a flurry in the final frame. It was a masterful performance from the Duane "Bang" Ludwig-trained fighter as he completed his ascension from prospect to champion in a star-making turn.
Dillashaw also brings to an end a championship drought at the Sacramento-based collective as he becomes the squad's first champion since Faber's reign over the WEC's featherweight division came to an end in 2008.
Over the past four years, Cormier has been on a rapid rise that has taken him from being a highly touted prospect with outstanding wrestling credentials to a dominant force inside the Octagon. D.C. was blazing his way up the ranks of the heavyweight division until he decided to drop down a weight class and make a run at the light heavyweight throne.
While the Louisiana native only had one showing at 205 coming into his co-main event tilt against Henderson on Saturday night, the AKA staple performed like a seasoned veteran as he steamrolled the former two-divisional Pride champion.
The MMA legend has made a career settling the opposition in brutal fashion inside the cage, but at UFC 173, Cormier made it look as if Henderson had zero business being inside the Octagon with him.
The former Olympian dominated Henderson for two rounds before submitting him with a rear-naked choke in the final frame to claim victory and keep his undefeated record intact.
While Cormier has now put together impressive back-to-back showings, the state of affairs at 205 is somewhat clouded at the present time. Recent title challenger Alexander Gustafsson appears to be in line to get his rematch with champion Jon Jones, and that could put the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner in a position where he will either hit the sidelines and wait for his shot to come around or take one more bout in the interim.
Whatever route he chooses, Cormier's performance against Henderson certainly has solidified him as a major player in the light heavyweight fold.
Robbie Lawler is a beast, plain and simple. "Ruthless" may have come up short in his quest to become welterweight champion back in March when he was edged out by Johny Hendricks via unanimous decision at UFC 171, but the Iowa native wasted no time getting back on the warpath when he agreed to face Jake Ellenberger two months later at UFC 173.
After a 25-minute war with Bigg Rigg where the two men set a new UFC record for significant strikes landed in a title fight, there were questions lingering as to how Lawler would look in such a quick turnaround against Ellenberger.
Those questions were quickly answered as the American Top Team fighter battered the Omaha native early and often throughout the first two rounds of the tilt before putting The Juggernaut away with a flurry of strikes midway through the final frame.
The finish was signature Lawler—brutal and ferocious—as he pounced on a wounded Ellenberger without mercy.
His victory over the Team Reign fighter makes Lawler successful in four of his five showings since making his long-awaited return to the Octagon last February.
While the race for the next title shot at 170 is a crowded situation at the current time, Lawler's performance at UFC 173 in addition to how action-packed the first fight was with Hendricks could very well spell the welterweight powerhouse getting another title shot in his next outing.
While he may be lacking in the name-recognition department, Takeya Mizugaki has a certified reputation for being one of the grittiest fighters on the bantamweight roster. The 30-year-old Japanese fighter has been a staple in the 135-pound ranks for years and has a lengthy track record of action-packed fights with some of the top names to ever compete in his weight class.
Nevertheless, Mizugaki has struggled to solidify himself as one of the elite in the bantamweight fold, but he took a big step toward that goal Saturday night. The savvy veteran outworked Francisco Rivera throughout their 15-minute affair to pick up the unanimous-decision victory and collected his fifth consecutive win in the process.
Although Mizugaki now has one of the longest-standing winning streaks in the bantamweight division, his resume is lacking a win over one of the top names on the divisional hierarchy. While defeating Rivera won't launch him to the front of the title hunt, it will put him in the position to draw a top-five opponent in his next outing.
With his last outing ending in a controversial loss to Bobby Green last November, James Krause came into his bout with Jamie Varner at UFC 173 on a mission to turn things around.
While the bout would ultimately end as the result of Varner suffering an unfortunate ankle injury, the 27-year-old Virginia native looked sharp during his one round of work as he used a versatile striking attack to pepper the former WEC lightweight champion.
Krause's victory Saturday puts him back into the win column and makes him successful in two of his three showings under the UFC banner.
Michael Chiesa has shown marked improvements with every performance inside the cage, and that trend continued against Francisco Trinaldo on Saturday night.
With the Brazilian possessing dangerous power in his stand-up, the Washington native needed to take the fight to the canvas. And that is exactly the route he traveled to earn the victory.
Chiesa used his wrestling skills to put Trinaldo on his back and batter him with ground-and-pound. "Maverick" has now been successful in four of his five showings under the UFC banner, including back-to-back wins inside the Octagon.
The lightweight division is stacked with talent, and Tony Ferguson has been on a mission to establish his footing in the weight class.
El Cucuy had won three of his four showing at 155 pounds coming into his tilt with Katsunori Kikuno, and a victory over the Japanese veteran would help to solidify his place in the highly competitive fold at lightweight.
While Ferguson ate a few big shots early, he ultimately found the range he was looking for and put Kikuno away in highlight-reel fashion late in the opening round.
The first bout after winning The Ultimate Fighter is always a crucial moment for those who have won the six-figure contract, and Chris Holdsworth made the most of his first step into the bantamweight ranks Saturday night.
"Holds it Down" worked an efficient game plan to sweep all three rounds on the judges' cards against Chico Camus to pick up the unanimous-decision victory over the Roufusport fighter. With the victory, Holdsworth keeps his undefeated record intact and will ensure the momentum surrounding him will continue to grow.
Mitch Clarke lived up to his Danger Zone nickname at UFC 173 when he caught a slick d'arce choke submission on Al Iaquinta in the second round of their bout on the preliminary portion of the card.
The New York native dominated Clarke in the opening round, and things appeared to going the same way in the opening minute of the second round until the MMA Lab product found an opening during a transition on the ground.
As Iaquinta attempted to take him to the canvas, Clarke hit the d'arce choke, and the Serra-Longo fighter went unconscious shortly after. His victory Saturday makes Clarke successful in back-to-back showings inside the Octagon.
Holy moly, what a submission for Mitch Clarke— Jeremy Botter (@jeremybotter) May 25, 2014
Establishing legitimacy on the UFC roster can be a difficult process for fighters coming off The Ultimate Fighter, but Vinc Pichel took a big step in that direction Saturday night.
"From Hell" earned a lopsided unanimous decision over savvy veteran Anthony Njokuani and put on the most impressive showing of his career in the process. Pichel used his pressure and wrestling skills to rag-doll the 155-pound staple en route to his second consecutive victory inside the Octagon.
Coming into his fight against Lawler at UFC 173, the pressure was on Ellenberger.
Despite being a staple in the upper tier of the welterweight division for the past three years, a pair of setbacks in crucial bouts and the worst performance of his career in his most recent outing against Rory MacDonald at UFC on Fox 8 last July put The Juggernaut in a position where he needed a victory and an impressive showing against Lawler to reignite his place in the welterweight title hunt.
The race for the next title opportunity at 170 pounds is hotter than it's ever been, and Ellenberger had no room for error coming into UFC 173. Unfortunately for the Omaha native, the exact opposite occurred Saturday night.
"Ruthless" took it to Ellenberger early and often throughout the first two rounds as the Iowa native peppered him with punches and kicks. Ellenberger came into the final round in desperation mode and appeared to turn the tide when he landed two big shots that wobbled Lawler and forced him to take a step back. Yet, in that flurry Ellenberger appeared to injure his hand, and that forced him to fall back on his attack.
No sooner than Ellenberger let his foot off the gas, Lawler cranked up his offense and swarmed in to finish the fight. While the loss to Lawler won't expel Ellenberger from the Top 10 of the welterweight ranks, it certainly does significant damage to his place in the upper echelon in the 170-pound collective.
Staying in the avenue of the unfortunate, Varner has been dealing with some tough times inside the Octagon as of late. And it appears those struggles are going to continue.
The former WEC lightweight champion exploded back onto the scene in 2012 with a stunning upset over highly touted striker Edson Barboza at UFC 146, but the Arizona native has had difficulty regaining that momentum in the two years that have followed.
He needed to turn things around in a big way against Krause on Saturday night, but unfortunately for Varner, his current struggles would only amplify.
Shortly after the action got underway, Varner tweaked his ankle and dropped to the canvas. While he attempted to valiantly fight through the injury, Krause continued to press the action, and Varner wasn't able to land a knockout blow to end the fight. Once the round came to an end, Varner was unable to continue, and Krause was awarded the TKO victory.
While suffering a loss due to injury most likely won't cost Varner his job, the reality of the situation is that he's lost three consecutive bouts and dropped four of his past five showings inside the Octagon. Those are dubious numbers, and they will undoubtedly put Varner in a position where his back is certainly up against the wall.
Mixed martial arts is a sport where anything can happen, and sometimes that "anything" can be of the gruesome variety. We've seen arms and legs snap like twigs inside the cage, and Saturday night, Varner's name was added to the list of unfortunate injuries that have occurred during the heat of battle.
The former WEC lightweight champion suffered damage to his ankle during the opening minute of his tilt with Krause to kick off the pay-per-view portion of the card at UFC 173.
While the exact moment of injury isn't clear, the Arizona-based fighter's plight came front and center when he was standing on the other side of the cage from Krause, then suddenly dropped to the canvas in curious fashion.
Varner hobbled back to his feet as the Virginia native closed in to unleash a combination but was barely able to stand while he defended the flurry.
This process would repeat several times as Varner did everything in his power to not only fight through the injury but mount as much offense he could.
Nevertheless, when the first round came to an end, Varner dropped to the mat and signaled the end of the fight. The 29-year-old told his corner man that his ankle was broken, and the replays that were shown after the fight certainly suggested there was something terribly wrong in that department.
In addition to the unfortunate ending to the fight, what is perhaps more so where Varner is concerned is the loss to Krause is his third consecutive setback inside the Octagon.
The heavy-handed lightweight returned to the sport's biggest stage in a big way in 2012 with a shocking upset over Barboza at UFC 146, but things have gone drastically downhill since as he's dropped four of his last five showings under the UFC banner.
In what was one of the best pre-fight song selections in recent memory, Kikuno used "We are the World" as his walkout song at UFC 173.
While the mid-80s global anthem created a buzz across social media in the lead-up to his fight with Ferguson, the song's good vibes didn't transition into his performance inside the Octagon. Despite the Japanese fighter landing some strong shots early, El Cucuy found his range and put Kikuno away with a blistering right that sent the gritty veteran crashing to the canvas.
On a final note, the broadcast at UFC 173 marked the third consecutive appearance of Joe Rogan wearing a suit jacket. While the addition of formal apparel was initially a shocking change from his signature black button-up, it appears as if the jacket is officially here to stay.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.