UFC 210 is in the books after an evening of up-and-down action that culminated in a pair of bizarre bouts.
In the main event, Daniel Cormier retained his light heavyweight title against Anthony Johnson in an almost eerie repeat of their bout at UFC 187 back in 2015, slipping in a rear-naked choke on an exhausted and demoralized Johnson, who retired immediately after the fight.
The co-main event was even stranger, as Chris Weidman fell to Gegard Mousasi by TKO following a controversy over a pair of knees that were initially deemed illegal but were later determined to be valid. That weird finish obscured a crackerjack of a fight and robbed both Mousasi and Weidman of a chance to put a legitimate stamp on a win.
The rest of the card was mostly solid, but it had a few real high points, namely a host of finishes—Charles Oliveira slamming and choking out Will Brooks, Myles Jury finishing Mike de la Torre, Gregor Gillespie flattening Andrew Holbrook and Shane Burgos blasting Charles Rosa in the third round—but we'll focus on Kamaru Usman's breakout performance against Sean Strickland.
Let's dig in.
Kamaru Usman vs. Sean Strickland
Now in his fifth year as a pro, the 28-year-old Usman is coming into his own. He's been a highly touted prospect for years and has lived up to the hype at every stage of the process, winning The Ultimate Fighter 21 and running his UFC record to 5-0.
Strickland, a talented prospect in his own right, was supposed to be a tough test for Usman. Strickland is a long, rangy outside striker who, on paper, could keep Usman at bay with his tricky jab, stay off the fence and compete in the clinch and on the mat if it got there.
That's not how it turned out.
Usman has shown steady improvements in every fight, but the former Division II wrestler finally put his whole game together into one coherent and devastating package against Strickland. This was a washout of a talented and skilled opponent.
Pressure was the glue that held the whole thing together. Usman never followed Strickland as he attempted to circle through the cage; instead, he cut off Strickland's lateral movement at every opportunity, using a combination of outstanding footwork with sharp kicks and looping punches to catch him as he tried to move away from the fence. He feinted level changes constantly, adding takedowns to the threat of strikes.
Every time Strickland threw something to push Usman back and create space, Usman had a counter ready. He laced Strickland with heavy punches and ducked under to grab takedowns or slid into the clinch.
Whenever Strickland's back hit the fence, Usman made the most of the opportunity. He mauled Strickland with combinations and pinned him against the cage in the clinch and in wrestling positions, where he landed hard punches and knees. The takedowns and top control that ate up long stretches of the fight were all a product of this relentless pressure.
What's remarkable about this is that Strickland is pretty good at keeping his opponent at bay. He's long, moves well, stays calm under pressure and knows how to enforce distance with jabs and kicks. None of that mattered against Usman.
The welterweight elite is rapidly aging—only three fighters in the top 15, including Usman, are under the age of 30—and due for a turnover. Usman has a good shot at establishing himself at the top sooner rather than later.
Gegard Mousasi vs. Chris Weidman
Nobody at UFC 210 needed a win more than Weidman. The former champion had lost two in a row, both by stoppage, and was in danger of falling out of the elite of the middleweight division. Mousasi, who had won four in a row in increasingly devastating fashion coming into the bout, wasn't exactly a softball.
Prior to the bizarre stoppage, the two men put on a barn-burner of a back-and-forth fight. That, rather than the strange ending, is what will be focused on here.
Weidman came into the fight with a strong wrestling-oriented game plan, while Mousasi was looking to pepper Weidman with his trademark jab to stick the bigger, stronger American on the end of his reach.
The former middleweight champion's takedowns keyed in on that jab. He did a fantastic job of drawing out the jab and then changing levels and grabbing hold of Mousasi's lead leg either for his preferred snatch single-leg takedown or to start with that and then move to a chain. Even after Mousasi knew it was coming, Weidman was still strong enough and technical enough to complete the takedown.
While both fighters contested every phase, this was the basic dynamic of the fight. Weidman threw strikes to open up his takedown game, while Mousasi grappled in order to get back to striking.
That plan worked well for both fighters, at least in bursts. Weidman's takedowns and top control likely won him the first round and most of the second after a sharp flurry from Mousasi. The tide turned around the two-minute mark of Round 2, though, when a tired-looking Weidman shot twice from too far away and paid for it by eating sharp knees, a series of punches and finally the fight-ending knees.
Whatever the logic or justice of the stoppage, it was Weidman's exhausted level changes and shots that put him in position to take those knees from Mousasi's front headlock; Weidman was still keying on Mousasi's jab but no longer had the energy to drive through to finish the takedown.
Mousasi simply stuck with his game plan. It's exhausting to constantly explode forward, and Mousasi made sure that Weidman always had to cover the maximum amount of distance to get to his takedowns. When Weidman stuck at distance, Mousasi punished him with combinations of power shots. Mousasi gave Weidman nothing for free; he contested every takedown and every moment of top control. That wore Weidman down.
Regardless of the bizarre outcome, the fight was a fantastic back-and-forth scrap. One hopes the two fighters will get a chance to run it back.
Daniel Cormier vs. Anthony Johnson
After 11 years as a professional fighter and two failed cracks at the light heavyweight title, both ending in a rear-naked choke loss to Cormier, Johnson called it quits and retired during his post-fight speech.
The similarity between this fight and their first meeting is hard to overstate. Johnson consistently made poor decisions, hurt Cormier badly whenever he had the chance to unload strikes and paid in the long run for his inability to stick to his game plan.
Johnson's plan was clear: maintain the distance and land power shots whenever possible without exposing himself to Cormier's grinding takedown game. When Johnson stuck to this, as he did for the first 30 seconds of the second round, he performed well. He looked sharp and picked his shots well, slinging a sharp front and oblique kick that kept Cormier at long range.
The problems came when Johnson consented to engage in the kind of wrestling and clinch battles that Cormier favored. He made the decision to dive into takedown attempts in the first round, and he passed on the chance to escape from an exchange Cormier initiated in the second. The latter was the decision that led directly to the takedown, back take and choke finish.
Why did Johnson fight this way?
It was puzzling for everybody watching, including Johnson's corner, who begged him repeatedly not to wrestle and to instead keep his distance and strike. Was it self-sabotage, knowing that he was planning to retire after the fight? Possibly. It's also of a piece with much of Johnson's career, which was repeatedly hamstrung by self-inflicted issues and poor decision-making.
Enough about Johnson, though. Cormier once again showed tremendous toughness and heart in weathering Johnson's dangerous power. Unlike Johnson, he repeatedly made the right decisions in the heat of the moment, especially in the clinch and wrestling exchanges. At 38, he's still making improvements in every outing.
Despite Cormier's victory, though, it's hard to escape the notion that this fight was all about Johnson and the alternating angels and demons of his fighting nature. In this last outing, the demon once again got the better of him.
Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands Podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. For the history enthusiasts out there, he also hosts The Fall of Rome Podcast on the end of the Roman Empire. He can be found on Facebook.