The lightweight division is one of the most talent-rich collectives under the UFC's promotional banner, and Fight Night 45 put the spotlight directly on the heated title race currently raging at 155 pounds.
With the lightweight title held up until Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez handle their business in early 2015, a handful of potential contenders are scrapping their way toward a potential shot at championship gold. On Wednesday night in Atlantic City, top-ranked lightweights Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller stepped into the Octagon to determine who would take a step closer to a title shot and who would be reshuffled back into the highly competitive deck at 155 pounds.
While "Cowboy" has been within striking distance of a shot at the lightweight title on several occasions, setbacks at crucial junctures have kept his title hopes at bay. That said, the 31-year-old Albuquerque transplant has been on a hot streak as of late as he's been successful in four of his last five outings, including the three-fight winning streak he brought with him into Fight Night 45.
Miller is also no stranger to racking up victories inside the cage. The New Jersey native rose to the top of the lightweight division on the strength of a seven-fight winning streak he put together from 2009-2011. But just like Cerrone, the AMA-trained fighter suffered losses in bouts with heavy title implications and was forced to battle his way back up the divisional ladder.
Both fighters had overcome adversity to re-establish themselves as legitimate title contenders, and their meeting at Fight Night 45 was to determine who would remain in the hunt for the 155-pound strap. The bout was figured to be an action-packed affair, and both fighters got after it when the opening bell sounded.
While the opening round was a back-and-forth affair, Cerrone took control in the second as his kicks began to take their toll on Miller. The Jackson/Winkeljohn fighter caused some damage with a kick to the body, then went upstairs to earn the knockout victory shortly after. It was a brutal shot that put Miller away and will certainly be added to Cerrone's consistently growing highlight reel.
In addition to the main event, there was plenty of face-punching ruckus to be found at the Revel Hotel and Casino on Wednesday night.
Let's take a look at the good, bad and strange from Fight Night 45.
Donald Cerrone has been a major player in the lightweight ranks for years, but "Cowboy" appears to be hitting a new level as of late.
The 31-year-old Colorado native had collected three-straight wins coming into his bout with Jim Miller at Fight Night 45 and wasted no time racking up his fourth consecutive victory on Wednesday night. While the New Jersey-based fighter was able to find some success in the opening frame, the second round was all Cerrone as his kickboxing and muay thai skills turned the tide of the fight.
He landed a body shot that dropped Miller to the canvas then followed it up with a devastating head kick that put the gritty veteran away for good.
With the win, Cerrone not only picked up his fifth win in six showings, but carved out his place in the current title picture at 155 pounds. With a handful of his peers already slated for matchups on the upcoming schedule, a showdown between the hard-charging lightweight and Khabib Nurmagomedov makes a tremendous amount of sense.
There is no doubting Edson Barboza is one of the premier strikers in the lightweight division. That said, the issues that can be debated are his ability to perform on a consistent basis and whether his chin will hold up under heavy fire. Both of his losses inside the Octagon have come on the end of the Brazilian eating big shots, and he barely survived a close call with Danny Castillo after "Last Call" landed some clean punches in their bout last December.
Yet, when Barboza is on top of his game, he's a tough man to defeat, and Evan Dunham learned this lesson the hard way at Fight Night 45. The Xtreme Couture fighter came into the bout hoping to put the grind on the New Jersey transplant, but a perfectly placed liver kick from Barboza sent the Oregon native slumping in pain to the canvas. With Dunham hurt, Barboza pounced, and the referee stepped in to wave off the fight after the striking phenom landed several more shots to his opponent.
With the victory over Dunham, the Rio de Janeiro native will bounce back into the competitive lightweight picture, but he'll at least another high-profile win to break back into the divisional top 10.
—Three years ago, Rick Story was figured to be the next big thing in the welterweight division. Yet, the 29-year-old would experience some rough patches and get caught in a "give one, take one" pattern over that stretch. After a change of scenery with a move to the MMA Lab in Arizona, Story came into Fight Night 45 eager to begin a new chapter of his career. And that's exactly what he accomplished.
The Oregon native steamrolled Leonardo Mafra en route to a second-round submission victory via arm triangle choke. It was the most dominant he's looked in quite some time, and Story will have some solid momentum going forward.
—Not only did John Lineker finally defeat the scale in Atlantic City, but he put on one of the best showings of his career against Alptekin Ozkilic as well. The heavy-handed Brazilian made a strong stride on Tuesday by making the 125-pound weight limit without issue then pumped up the volume on the buzz surrounding him by earning the TKO stoppage over Ozkilic late in the final round of their bout.
With the win, Lineker has now won five of his seven showings under the UFC banner and will move up the ladder toward a title opportunity. That said, the 24-year-old will most likely need another victory and make weight at least one more time before he gets a crack at UFC gold.
—The card for Fight Night 45 was light in the knockout department until Lucas Martins stepped in to do some work. The Brazilian made a successful featherweight debut by salting rising prospect Alex White in the third round of their tilt on Wednesday night.
"Mineiro" jumped out to a hot start in the opening frame, but White rebounded in the second to do some damage. Yet, Martins answered the bell in the final round with urgency and scored the knockout with starching right hand shortly after. With the win, Martins handed White his first loss as a professional and picked up his third consecutive victory inside the Octagon.
—Gleison Tibau's tenure in the UFC predates most software companies, but the American Top Team product is still getting the job done. The 31-year-old stepped into the Octagon for the 23rd time at Fight Night 45 when he locked up with Strikeforce veteran Pat Healy on the final bout of the prelims. Both fighters are known for their grinding styles, and the trend continued on Wednesday as each man had moments of success throughout the fight. Yet, Tibau had more success in the early rounds and took the unanimous decision on the judges' scorecards to pick up his 14th UFC victory.
—Getting the first win inside the Octagon is a big step for a fighter to take, and Leslie Smith accomplished this task on Wednesday night. "The Peacemaker" bounced back from her loss in April to crush Jessamyn Duke with an onslaught of strikes in the first round of their tilt. Smith mixed up her strikes to perfection as she battered the Kentucky native to the head and body en route to her first victory under the UFC banner.
—It took a bit for Aljamain Sterling to find his groove against Hugo Viana, but the highly touted prospect eventually got into rhythm and added substance to the hype surrounding him. The Serra-Longo fighter found most of his success on the ground in the first two rounds until he put the Brazilian away via TKO in the final frame. With the victory, Sterling keeps his undefeated record intact and picks up his second win inside the Octagon.
—The card at Fight Night 45 started off with a historic tilt as Claudia Gadelha and Tina Lahdemaki squared off in the first women's strawweight tilt in UFC history. The two 115-pound fighters engaged in a solid scrap to kick off the action in Atlantic City, with the 25-year-old Brazilian dominating her opponent en route to the unanimous decision victory.
With her "Fight of the Season" performance on the 18th season of The Ultimate Fighter and her association with women's bantamweight phenom Ronda Rousey, there was a lot of expectations surrounding Jessamyn Duke entering the women's bantamweight ranks.
Unfortunately for the rangy Kentucky native, she's come nowhere close to living up to that hype.
Despite taking a solid first step by defeating Peggy Morgan at the TUF 18 Finale, "The Gun" has stumbled in her two fights since. Her most recent showing on Wednesday night resulted in a downright drubbing at the hands of Leslie Smith as the "Skrap Pack" fighter put a battery of strikes on Duke's frame until she crumbled midway through the opening frame.
The loss to Smith is the Glendale Fighting Club representative's second consecutive setback—and while that won't result in a pink slip for Duke—it will tremendously damage her prospect status. Furthermore, Duke is one of the members of Rousey's "Four Horsewomen" collective, and the connection to "Rowdy" warrants both added attention and criticism.
While the bout with Smith was only her sixth as a professional, Duke's poor performances as of late are glaring examples of "too much too soon" for the Richmond-based fighter. There isn't a ton of depth in the women's bantamweight ranks in the UFC, but the fighters who are there carry a solid amount of experience, and it is not the environment for Duke to develop her skill set.
With back-to-back losses, the pressure is going to be on Duke to get things back on track, and that is going to be a tough task for her to accomplish.
One fighter who most likely ran out of real estate on Wednesday night is Pat Healy. "Bam Bam" suffered his fourth consecutive loss in a unanimous decision defeat at the hands of Gleison Tibau in the final bout on the preliminary portion of Fight Night 45.
While Healy rebounded and attempted to steal the fight in the final frame, the damage had already been done, and the American Top Team fighter took the bout on the judges' scorecards. The loss is the fourth consecutive setback for the Strikeforce veteran, and it will be difficult to justify his place on the competitive lightweight roster.
It is somewhat of a crazy turn for the Oregon native as he came to the UFC on an impressive six-fight winning streak under the Strikeforce banner. Healy battled his way to the cusp of title contention before the San Jose promotion officially closed its doors in early 2013. That transition brought him to the UFC where he jumped out to a great start by submitting Jim Miller in the third round of their tilt at UFC 159.
The victory appeared to have Healy poised to do big things under the UFC banner, but a failed post-fight drug test flipped one of the biggest victories of his career into a "no contest."
Since the bout with Miller in New Jersey, it has been all downhill for the former IFL fighter. Healy has dropped all four of his showings since submitting Miller and will most likely be looking for a new job in the coming weeks.
—While it ultimately didn't alter the outcome of the fight, referee Dan Miragliotta is going to have some explaining to do for the call he made in the main event between Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller. During the second round, Cerrone landed a front kick to Miller's midsection, and the New Jersey native dropped to the canvas in pain. "Cowboy" rushed in to secure the finish, but Miragliotta stepped in and sent Cerrone to the opposite side of the cage while Miller recovered.
This process is only in order when the blow landed was of the illegal variety—and if so—the fighter on the receiving end is given five minutes to recover. Yet, the kick Cerrone landed on Miller was actually above the belt line, and Miragliotta realized his mistake and forced Miller to stand back up. That's fine and all, but the moment Miragliotta intervened in the fight, it should have been over, and Cerrone should have been awarded the victory.
Granted, the Jackson/Winkeljohn-trained fighter ultimately still won, but Miller was technically finished twice in the main event.
There is an obvious entertainment factor in mixed martial arts, and that can create some interesting moments in and out of the cage.
Fighters attempt to utilize in a variety of ways, and where some work the microphone in an attempt to up their respective profiles, others put a vested effort into their walkouts or physical presentation. No matter the avenue that is traveled, there is a fine in each realm. When those boundaries are crossed, the poor choices made to get there become painfully obvious.
On Wednesday night, Yosdenis Cedeno squared off with Jerrod Sanders to kick off the action on the Fox Sports 1 broadcast. While the fight itself ended quickly and didn't leave much of an impression, Cedeno's hairstyle (or lack thereof) certainly made its mark. Yet, he did get the victory at Fight Night 45 and sticking with what works is never a bad thing. Well, in most cases that is.
In a recent installment of this series we dove into the curious things that can happen to the human body when the power to the brain has been clipped. In this edition of the column, we will examine what can happen when the body absorbs punches, kicks and knees.
Where broken noses, cuts and the crimson mask have become common elements of the face-punching business, the hematoma still makes people sit up and take notice. On Wednesday night, Boston native Joe Proctor's head went under the microscope as he developed an alien-esque growth next to his left ear during his bout with Justin Salas at Fight Night 45.
Doctors examined the baseball-sized lump after the first round and declared Proctor good to go. The Joe Lauzon protege certainly made the most of the next two rounds as he clipped the Colorado native with a left hook in the third and pounded out the stoppage shortly after. The victory was Proctor's second consecutive win inside the Octagon but his first with a passenger riding shotgun.
On a final note, it may be strange to include the commentary team in this write up, but the team of Jon Anik and Brian Stann certainly deserves a mention. Anik and Stann earned rave reviews in their debut outing last month, and Wednesday night's show in Atlantic City was another shining example of why they are quickly becoming fan-favorites with the passionate UFC fanbase.
The duo bring the ideal presentation as Anik is steady on the play-by-play, and the recently retired UFC veteran's experience perfectly rounds out the call. While Fox Sports 1 and the UFC have tried other teams at the commentary table, Anik and Stann are clearly the right pair to be cageside on fight night going forward.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.