The UFC lightweight division is one of the most talent-rich collectives under the promotion's banner, and the race for future title opportunities is an ongoing affair.
Former champion Benson Henderson is on a mission to reclaim the 155-pound strap, and surging Dagestani Rustam Khabilov is eager to solidify himself as one of the major players in the lightweight fold. Their paths crossed on Saturday at Fight Night 42 when the UFC made its debut showing in the Southwestern MMA stronghold of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Their main event showdown held heavy implications as to which fighter would progress in his efforts for a title shot despite the current paused state of the championship picture.
Current belt holder Anthony Pettis has been out of action since winning the title last August and is not slated to return until December when he will square off with current No. 1 contender Gilbert Melendez. This creates a scenario where there is no direct path to a title opportunity, but that didn't stop Henderson and Khabilov from stepping into the Octagon to battle for supremacy.
It was figured to be a bout between two dynamic grapplers, and that's exactly what it turned out to be. The two lightweights went back and forth in a wrestling-heavy affair with each man finding moments of success throughout the first three rounds of the fight.
In the fourth round, the former lightweight champion blasted Khabilov with a right hand that dropped the Dagestan-born fighter to the canvas. With Khabilov hurt, Henderson pounced and ended the fight with a rear-naked choke.
While the headlining bout determined who would elevate his status toward a title shot, the co-main event between Diego Sanchez and Ross Pearson held much different implications.
Diego "The Nightmare" Sanchez had lost back-to-back outings and three of his last four coming into his bout with The Ultimate Fighter winner.
With a particularly poor showing in his most recent fight and a rough patch that has led many to question whether the original "Ultimate Fighter" still has miles left in his engine, Sanchez needed an impressive showing in his hometown to silence the doubters.
While Pearson wasn't facing the exact same situation as his opponent, the circumstances surrounding his career as of late certainly added an element of pressure coming into Fight Night 42. Where the heavy-handed Brit was once considered a promising prospect in the lightweight ranks, a tough run at 155 pounds led to him dropping down into featherweight waters.
Pearson was automatically figured to become a major player at 145, but after a knockout loss to Cub Swanson in Atlantic City back in 2012, the Team Alliance fighter decided to return to the lightweight division. Pearson immediately validated that decision by winning his next two fights, but a "no contest" against Melvin Guillard last October served to cool his momentum down a bit.
While Pearson wasn't fighting for his job on Saturday night, he was certainly fighting for relevancy in the competitive lightweight mix, and that is a pressure he shared with Sanchez. It was figured to be a wild, action-packed affair, and while the bout certainly had its moments, the end result was one of the worst displays of judging to come across the MMA landscape in quite some time.
Despite Pearson landing crisp countershots and keeping Sanchez on his heels throughout the entire fight, the cageside judges awarded Sanchez the split-decision victory. One of the judges, Jeff Collins, even went as far to call all three rounds for Sanchez despite him being dropped by a big shot in the second round.
The end result was Sanchez breaking a two-fight skid in front of his hometown crowd and Pearson having a hard-earned victory taken away from him by two of the three officials sitting cageside.
In addition to insanity at the top of the card, the UFC's debut showing in Albuquerque was a fine mixture of leather-slinging fun and face-punching goodness. Several veterans battled to keep their roster spots, while a handful of rising prospects looked to keep the buzz around them going strong. And of course, there can't be a UFC event without a few curious happenings sprinkled on top.
Let's take a look at the good, bad and strange from Fight Night 42.
There is no question Benson Henderson has his sights set on getting his hands back on the lightweight title.
While "Smooth" lost the strap to Anthony Pettis at UFC 164 last August, The MMA Lab product has been putting in the work to get himself back into a title opportunity. The 30-year-old barely edged out Josh Thomson in his last fight at UFC on Fox 11 back in January, and he wanted to turn up the heat on his bid to get within distance of another shot at the 155-pound strap.
He certainly took a huge step in that direction with an impressive victory over Rustam Khabilov in the main event at Fight Night 42. While the Dagestan-born fighter had some success with his grappling early, Henderson hung tough and cranked up the pressure in the later rounds of the fight.
It was a close affair going into the fourth, but Henderson kept things out of the judges' hands by dropping Khabilov with two big shots and finishing the Jackson/Winkeljohn-trained fighter with a rear-naked choke.
With the win, Henderson has now won back-to-back outings and bolstered his running total to nine of his last 10 showings. In his post-fight interview with Jon Anik, the former belt holder vocalized his frustration that the lightweight title is not being defended by the current champion and suggested the UFC send any potential contenders his way.
With Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez not slated to fight until December, there is plenty of real estate for Henderson to have at least another showing inside the Octagon. With his current position and the state of the title picture, a bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov to determine the No. 1 contender would be a perfect matchup.
Since his first attempt at flyweight gold was thwarted back in January of 2013, John Dodson has been on a mission to get another crack at the title. While injury has kept that particular run idle at times, when "The Magician" has been inside the Octagon, he's looked like an absolute monster.
The 29-year-old took a step in that direction by starching Darrell Montague at UFC 166 back in October and took a definitive leap to the front of the line with his stoppage victory over John Moraga on Saturday at Fight Night 42. While the beginning of the fight was light on action, the finish was a whirlwind. Dodson crushed Moraga with a knee that broke Chicano's nose and crumbled him to the canvas.
The Albuquerque native pounced on his wounded opponent with a flurry of shots but was unable to finish Moraga off before the end of the round sounded. Yet, in between rounds, the cageside doctor determined Moraga's nose was too damaged to go on, and Dodson earned the win via TKO.
With the win, Dodson has now been successful in seven of his last eight showings, with his only loss on that run coming against current champion Demetrious Johnson at UFC on Fox 6 in Chicago.
Following his win, Dodson used his post-fight interview time with Jon Anik to display impressive microphone skills as he made a strong vocal play for the next title shot. "Mighty Mouse" will attempt to defend his flyweight strap against Ali Bagautinov next weekend at UFC 174, and The Ultimate Fighter 14 winner made it clear he is looking to face the winner.
*** Winning on a consistent basis is an incredible feat at the highest level of MMA, and Rafael dos Anjos has solidified himself in the lightweight upper tier because of it. The Kings MMA fighter's bid for a title opportunity was derailed by Khabib Nurmagomedov in his last outing, but the Brazilian reignited those fires with a second-round finish of Jason High on Saturday night.
Despite the fight being at elevation, RDA remained sharp throughout as he picked up an impressive victory at Fight Night 42. He has now won six of his last seven showings and will certainly face another contender in his next outing.
*** The lightweight division is a difficult place for up-and-coming fighters to establish themselves, but Piotr Hallmann took a big step in that direction on Saturday night. The 26-year-old MMA Lab product submitted 155-pound staple Yves Edwards in the second round of their tilt to pick up his second win under the UFC banner. While Hallmann was coming off a setback in his most recent showing, his win over Edwards will certainly move him a few rungs up the competitive lightweight ladder.
*** Bryan Caraway may be on one lower side of the recognition scale with his girlfriend Miesha Tate, but Kid Lightning is quietly climbing his way up the bantamweight ladder. The Ultimate Fighter 14 alum picked up his second consecutive victory at Fight Night 42 with an impressive performance where he submitted highly touted prospect Erik Perez in the second round of their tilt. With the win, Caraway has now won three of his four showings at 135 pounds and should draw a solid name in his next outing.
*** Ring rust is a very real circumstance in MMA, but apparently Lance Benoist is immune to such things. After being out of action for the better part of two years, he returned to face Bobby Voelker on the preliminary portion of the card.
Coming off back-to-back losses, Benoist definitely needed a win to keep his roster spot intact, and he outworked the former Strikeforce veteran to pick up the unanimous-decision victory. It wasn't the most exciting performance, but Benoist did what he needed to do in order to get back into the win column at Fight Night 42.
*** The pressure was certainly on Scott Jorgensen coming into Fight Night 42. While Young Guns was once challenged for the bantamweight title under the WEC banner, a rough patch led him to make the drop down to flyweight, where he was figured to go on another title run. Yet, his first two showings at 125 pounds ended in losses, and he carried a three-fight skid into his bout with Danny Martinez.
Despite a touch-and-go moment where he was dropped in the second with a strong left hand, the Idaho-based fighter stormed back and used his superior wrestling to pick up the unanimous-decision victory. While his win in Albuquerque was his first as a flyweight, it will keep him relevant in the ever-developing 125-pound fold.
*** Glendale Arizona's MMA Lab had five fighters on the card in Albuquerque, and Jon Tuck was the first representative out of the gates. The Super Saiyan was coming off a loss in his last showing and needed a victory over Jake Lindsey to get things back on track.
While Tuck certainly had moments in the fight where he faded, his power shots and takedowns were enough to hold the advantage over the promotional newcomer. In a strange turn, Tuck landed several heel kicks from the back position that forced Lindsey to verbally tap and took his record to an impressive 8-1.
*** The journey from barista to victory inside the Octagon finally reached fruition for Patrick Cummins on Saturday night. Durkin famously left his job serving coffee back in February to take an ill-fated bout with Daniel Cormier back in February at UFC 170 on short notice and suffered a first-round knockout for his troubles.
He came into his bout with Roger Narvaez with a lot to prove and took at least a small step in that direction by getting the second-round TKO finish. While getting his first UFC win was big in validating his place on the roster, the bout was a sluggish affair and one where Cummins didn't provide much wow en route to the victory.
While it's unusual to deem an entire undercard worthy of mention in this category, the five bouts that led up to the main card were collectively lackluster. The undercard was simply bad. Moving on.
In the 20-plus years mixed martial arts has been in existence, there has certainly been some dubious scoring where fighters emerged victorious when there was no way possible this should have been the case. The best example in recent memory came when Matt "The Hammer" Hamill put a takedown clinic on Michael Bisping at UFC 75 back in 2007.
The Hammer found himself on the business end of a split decision to the brash Brit in a turn that led the MMA community to cry foul and suggest there was "home cooking" since the fight was in Bisping's native country.
While I would love to say such things don't exist in MMA, the judges' score in the co-main event between Ross Pearson and Albuquerque native Diego Sanchez is strong evidence of its existence. Despite Pearson outstriking Sanchez at every turn and dropping him in the second, The Nightmare somehow took the split-decision victory with one judge giving all three rounds to Sanchez.
Where forward pressure has been the determining factor for some judges in the past, Sanchez's typical forward movement was pretty much nonexistent on Saturday. He scored no takedowns, rarely landed clean punches and ate crisp countershots from Pearson on a consistent basis.
There is no doubt in my mind the judges took a hard-earned victory away from Pearson at Fight Night 42. Furthermore, I'm certainly not alone in my train of thought, as the MMA community lit Twitter up when the decision was announced.
The massive consensus is that Pearson won the fight, and it is a shame he lost. Since returning from a dip down into featherweight waters, The Real Deal was starting to find his legs in the lightweight fold, and this awful decision will prove to be a costly setback.
After 16 years as a professional mixed martial artist, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone with a negative thing to say about Yves Edwards.
The Thugjitsu Master has been a staple in the lightweight ranks for nearly two decades and has a collection of notable wins to his credit over that span. That said, Edwards has been in choppy waters as of late, and he was in dire need of a win against Piotr Hallmann at Fight Night 42.
Coming into his bout with The MMA Lab-trained fighter, Edwards had gone 1-3-0-1 no contest over his last five showings. The 37-year-old stepped into the Octagon needing to prove he still belonged on the lightweight roster, and unfortunately for Edwards, Hallmann proved to be too much.
The 26-year-old Polish fighter pressed the action in the stand-up department until locking in a fight-ending rear-naked choke in the second round.
With the loss, the American Top Team veteran has been kept out of the win column in his last four showings, and it could certainly bring an end to his run in the UFC.
The process of building buzz and hype in the fight game is certainly difficult to do and a situation that comes with a unique amount of pressure. The UFC is largely considered to be the place where the best of the best compete, and once a fighter jumps into those waters, there is no going back.
When Erik "Goyito" Perez emerged onto the scene in back 2012, it didn't take long for him to pick up steam. In addition to his two impressive victories right out of the gates, he also became one of the primary points of focus for the organization's push into the Mexico market.
That said, the first two names he added to his resume weren't of the highest quality, and questions lingered as to how well the Albuquerque transplant would do when faced with stiffer competition.
The 24-year-old came up short in his first bout against top competition when he was defeated by Takeya Mizugaki via split decision at Fight Night 27 last August. Perez would bounce back to find victory in his next outing, but the pressure was certainly on him coming into his bout with Bryan Caraway at Fight Night 42.
While he had only lost once under the UFC banner, there isn't much room for error where hyping a prospect is concerned. Unfortunately for Perez, the experience factor played a major role in his fight on Saturday night, as Caraway worked his way to a fight-ending rear-naked choke in the second round.
Perez now finds himself in a position where he has lost two of his last three showings, and while those setbacks won't put him in jeopardy of losing his job, his loss to Caraway will do extensive damage to the buzz that was surrounding the Jackson/Winkeljohn-trained fighter coming into Saturday.
*** While the bout between Sergio Pettis and Yaotzin Meza looked like a high-action tilt on paper, the actual result was anything but. When two fighters are both coming off losses, there is typically some urgency to get down to business when they step back into the Octagon.
But that wasn't the case for Pettis and Meza. The two bantamweights spent the entire first round at distance as each attempted to feel the other out. Pettis moved laterally, and Meza followed along.
In the second round the younger Pettis landed a head kick, and in the final round Meza scored a takedown late. Throughout the 15-minute snoozer, those two exchanges were the only two notable moments. Pettis ultimately took the unanimous decision on the judges' cards while the Albuquerque crowd rained down boos. It just wasn't good. At all.
*** In the gritty world of mixed martial arts, Bobby Voelker is as game as they come. The Kansas City native is notorious for his "take one to give one" fighting style and has put on many exciting fights throughout his career.
That said, his time under the UFC banner has been unforgiving, as Vicious had lost all three of his showings coming into his tilt with Lance Benoist in Albuquerque. Voelker definitely needed a win to keep his spot, and that just didn't happen.
Benoist used kicks and his clinch game to keep Voelker in check as he picked up the unanimous-decision victory. While Voelker's style certainly yields exciting fights—that wasn't the case on Saturday night—it is difficult to make a case for retaining employment on four straight losses.
*** First impressions under the UFC banner are crucial, and newcomer Jake "The Librarian" Lindsey didn't do himself any favors on Saturday. While his undefeated track record and gritty fighting style created a bit of buzz coming into the fight, his performance against Jon Tuck will be memorable for all the wrong reasons.
After being outworked by The MMA Lab-trained fighter for the opening two rounds, The Librarian verbally tapped in the final round due to a series of heel strikes Tuck dropped on his rib cage from the back position. While those shots were undoubtedly uncomfortable, Lindsey took the first loss of his career in a fashion in which few fighters ever do.
*** Jason "The Kansas City Bandit" High could be facing some serious trouble in the aftermath of his bout with Rafael dos Anjos. While The Kansas City Bandit was upset that referee Kevin Mulhall stepped in to stop the fight after the Brazilian dropped him and was raining down punches, his post-fight shove on the referee is something that is going to land him in hot water.
There is no doubt that emotions run high inside the cage, but shoving an official is an out-of-bounds move for a fight-game rookie. And certainly so for a veteran like High.
Let it be noted that Saturday night's card being the UFC's first visit to Albuquerque just sounds strange in nature. With the gym at Jackson/Winkeljohn's producing so many high-level fighters for such an extended period of time, MMA and the dusty desert city seem to go hand in hand.
But with Las Vegas being a short clip away and the city not considered a major sporting market, the organization was slow to pull the trigger on bringing an event to the ABQ.
Nevertheless, Saturday marked the first time the Octagon touched down in The Duke City, and the fighting faithful were apparently welcomed with a massive grasshopper invasion. The hop-friendly insects were present by the score and proved to be a nuisance during the fight-week festivities.
Much to the surprise of this writer, it had nothing to do with hometown hero and faith-inspired warrior Diego Sanchez's walkout. How cool would that have been if he could have found a way to work that one in?
Moving on to the action inside the cage, it didn't take long for the strange to start rolling inside Tingley Coliseum on Saturday. During the second bout on the card between Jon Tuck and Jake Lindsey, the action was a solid mixture of back-and-forth throughout the first two rounds.
Tuck had a slight edge going into the third, but he wouldn't have to expend much more energy, as the bout ended in the opening stages of the final frame.
Tuck put Lindsey on the canvas once again, and took The Librarian's back while looking for the choke. While he was attempting to find the submission, The MMA Lab product started dropping heel kicks to Lindsey's rib cage in an effort to soften his opponent up.
Even though shots of that nature are typically more of an annoyance than an actual threat, Lindsey looked to the referee and issued a verbal submission to bring an end to the fight.
The referee waived his arms, and confusion reigned supreme across social media. Covering this sport I've personally seen many fights end in curious fashion, but this is the first time I've ever witnessed a fighter verbally tap due to heel kicks from the back mount.
While the action inside the Octagon ultimately dictates who wins and loses on fight night, there was another element at play on Saturday in the form of Albuquerque's elevation. Where Denver's mile-high setting is a notoriously difficult place for fighters to compete, The Duke City's 6,700-foot elevation certainly had the potential to create problems at Fight Night 42.
Although a large portion of the bouts went off without a hitch on Saturday, there were a handful of tilts where the fighters involved were zapped of their energy after the opening round—the most noticeable of which came in the bout between Bobby Voelker and Lance Benoist, where the two welterweights battled with the ferocity of two out-of-shape heavyweights inside the cage.
Despite altitude having its way with the fighters on the card at Fight Night 42, the elevation didn't seem to bother Mel Gibson who was sitting cageside with a collection of UFC talent on Saturday. Yes, you read that right. Captain Martin Riggs was in the house to watch some face-punching in Albuquerque.
If an appearance by Mr. Gibson didn't stamp the overall strangeness of what went down in Albuquerque, the Russian accent taken on by Greg Jackson certainly did.
The MMA guru was in the corner of Rustam Khabilov during his main event tilt with Benson Henderson, and the notorious Fram Cam picked up Jackson talking to the Dagestani in English but with a peculiar Russian accent. If that isn't strange then I just don't know what is.
The final entry I'll make into my musings about Fight Night 42 is the new addition of my "Tweet of the Night." As I stated in my "Good, Bad and Strange from Fight Night: Berlin," Twitter is a lively place when the action is rolling inside the cage.
As you can obviously tell, I've started to include many of the gems I find on social media during the ruckus. With that in mind, I'm going to end every GBS column with one tweet I felt won the evening.
The winner of Fight Night 42 "Tweet of the Night" is Matt Brown @MattBrownM2. Congrats, good sir, your scientific mind is fantastic.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.