UFC Fight Night Chiesa vs. Lee: Real Winners and Losers from Oklahoma City
UFC Fight Night 112 didn't look very good on paper. It didn't really pan out much better in practice.
Sure, there were a few high points. The Ultimate Fighter season 20 alums Felice Herrig and Carla Esparza both posted surprisingly good wins. Dominick Reyes looked phenomenal in his UFC debut, taking a 29-second TKO win. Oh, and Darrell Horcher overcame a near-death experience and returned to the cage after a lengthy layoff with a win over Devin Powell.
Unfortunately, that's not what most fans will remember about the card.
Most will remember the painful-to-watch low points, like the latest sad chapter in the career BJ Penn, who posted a saddening performance against a middling, shopworn Dennis Siver. Or like Johny Hendricks once again struggling with his weight cut and once again being dealt a harsh loss. And, of course, the inauspicious ending to the main event between Michael Chiesa and Kevin Lee, which saw the referee wave the fight to a close for, seemingly, no particular reason.
There were some winners at UFC Fight Night 112, but there were many, many more losers.
Real Winner: Comeback Stories
Horcher made his UFC debut in April 2016, facing Khabib Nurmagomedov in a short-notice fight at UFC on Fox 19. A month later, he nearly died in a motorcycle accident.
Looking at what was left of his bike following his collision with an SUV, it wouldn't have been a shock if he never walked again. And heck, looking over his list of injuries—which included lacerated kidneys, a lacerated liver, multiple torn ligaments in both knees, a compound fracture in his right arm—it wouldn't have been surprising if he had died on the road.
Not only did he survive, and not only did he pick himself up, but he willed himself back into fighting shape just 14 months later. At UFC Fight Night 112, Horcher stepped into the cage he thought he'd never see again and ground out a split-decision win over Powell.
While it wasn't an electrifying performance (Horcher earned a workmanlike win with his grappling), it was a feelgood moment to kick off the televised portion of the card. Unfortunately, those positive vibes didn't last for long.
Real Loser: Fairness
For a long stretch of time, Esparza was regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound talents in women's MMA. Her 5-0 (8-0 counting The Ultimate Fighter) run from 2011 to 2014 saw her break off wins over a who's who of strawweight talent and capture gold in both Invicta FC and the UFC.
Unfortunately, during that run, she committed the most heinous crime imaginable (according to UFC decision-makers, anyway). She beat somebody the promotion believed to be more marketable.
In the same way Bryan Barberena was seemingly buried as punishment for beating hot prospects Warlley Alves and Sage Northcutt, Esparza was moved from pay-per-view co-main events to Fight Night preliminary cards overnight after dropping the title in 2015.
It was a sad turn for the former champion and, unfortunately, she had no chance to remedy this at UFC Fight Night 112. Once again fighting on the televised prelims, she was placed into a dangerous contest with Maryna Moroz that offered neither visibility nor any serious potential for upwards mobility.
Objectively speaking, Esparza made lemonade out of lemons. Moroz, a fighter that has bounced in and out of the top-10 rankings throughout her UFC tenure, did little more than survive throughout the fight, struggling to gain any kind of offensive momentum under Esparza's non-stop wrestling attack. It's a performance that should put Esparza right back into the thick of title contention.
Alas, the UFC's grudges run deep and linger indefinitely. The fact that this bout (which happened to be the on-paper best of the night) landed in the worst possible time slot on a nothing card speaks for itself.
Real Winner: Carpenters
Despite everything that has happened over the last six years, Clay Guida remains a fan favorite. Beloved for a long while for his high-energy fighting style, then hated for a brief time for dialing things down, then beloved again for being one of the few survivors from the 2009 MMA boom, the Carpenter has had some high highs and low lows over his 10-year UFC career.
Unfortunately, the lows have been coming much more often than the highs of late. Since his 2011 upset win over Anthony Pettis, Guida has absorbed a number of losses. Worse, with each passing year, those losses became less and less competitive, with his two most recent bouts ending with ugly stoppages.
That made his fight on Sunday night an important one. Facing the struggling Erik Koch in his return to the lightweight division, Guida needed to pick up a win to keep his UFC job safe. He managed to do just that, too, by thoroughly outworking the former featherweight contender and taking a 29-28, 29-26, 30-26 unanimous decision win.
It was a shockingly good performance from the veteran, who showed off improved physicality and an as-strong-as-ever gas tank. While this fight doesn't come close to re-establishing him as a contender, it's a welcome return to form from the bubbly wrestler.
Real Loser: Believers
Few fighters can toy with fans' expectations better than Penn. The former two-division UFC champion has looked terrible in every single fight he's competed in since 2011, but, every single time, Penn manages to woo longtime fans into believing that he's back, even if only for a minute.
His Fight Night 112 bout with Siver was no different.
From the first announcement of the bout, fans and pundits had been dreading this contest. The curtain jerker spot on a free TV card in Oklahoma was no place for the MMA legend. Worse, even in that humble spot against a humble opponent, the expectation was a sad performance.
But once again, Penn has a way of making you doubt everything you know. When he came out of the gate bouncing on his feet and slinging jabs, this writer and many other fans took the bait. And later, when he dropped Siver with an uppercut in the second, we took that hook, line and sinker, too.
But alas, enthusiasm over Penn is inevitably followed by heartache. The Prodigy was noticeably slower at the end of the second round, and when the third kicked off, his gas tank was empty.
Leg kicks and punches landed at will for Siver and, with each blow, Penn's hold on the collective imaginations of his fandom loosened. Once again, the rosy ideas of a Cinderella run or a feelgood ending to his career were replaced with the sight of the man that twice finished Matt Hughes looking old, slow and out of place in the Octagon.
That was then replaced by the sad sight of Penn being shooed out of the cage by officials after being declared the loser without even getting a token post-fight interview.
Legends are slow to fade in MMA, but Penn has successfully fallen down the entire UFC ladder. When he lost to Rory MacDonald in 2012, his fans still held on to the hope that he could beat smaller opposition. When he lost to Frankie Edgar in 2014, that scope was narrowed to him being able to beat to fighters outside the top-10. When he lost to Yair Rodriguez in January, that was narrowed even further to him being able to beat other past-their-prime fighters.
Now, with this loss to Siver, there is nobody left that Penn could be reasonably expected to beat. The dream is dead, and while Penn's career will likely go on, it doesn't matter how much of a softball he gets from matchmakers. As sad as it is to say, Penn should be expected to lose against anyone he steps into the cage against.
Real Winner: Next Big Things
On Saturday night, the most highly touted prospect in recent MMA history was steamrolled in his professional debut. Bellator's Aaron Pico, a wrestling prodigy that the promotion put front-and-center for the biggest event in its history, was dispatched in just 24 seconds by a completely unknown journeyman.
It was a flop that reinforced many fans' longstanding cynicism when it comes to "the next big thing." Whether it's Paige VanZant, Sage Northcutt, Phillipe Nover or Brandon Vera, the "next big thing" rarely pans out the way promotions wish.
While he wasn't placed on the same pedestal that Pico was, Reyes was given a high-profile spot for his UFC debut. Unlike Pico, he made the most of that opportunity by knocking out Joachim Christensen in under 30 seconds.
A 27-year-old former NFL prospect that is now 7-0 in MMA (with six of those wins coming via KO), there is a lot to like about Reyes' future in the UFC. Is he the next "next big thing?" This writer wouldn't dare jinx him with that label. But he's certainly somebody to be bullish about.
Real Winner: Going Legit
Herrig has carved out a strange place in MMA. While she has a strong striking pedigree, a solid resume in the cage and has endured as a higher-end competitor for years now, she hasn't been known for her crafty grappling or Muay Thai skills. She's been known for her borderline NSFW Instagram account.
Over the last year, however, Herrig has rebranded herself in a big way, with convincing wins over Kailin Curran and Alexa Grasso. That rise continued at UFC Fight Night 112, with a dominant win over Justine Kish.
While most fans and pundits were expecting a reasonably competitive bout, Herrig was in firm control of the action from bell to bell. Whether standing or on the ground, the Lil Bulldog managed to bully her opponent around the cage with little difficulty.
In the end, she took a dominant 30-26, 30-26, 29-27 decision win and opened some important doors in the process.
Now riding a strong 3-0 winning streak, she is in prime position to push her way into the title picture for the first time in her MMA career. She should be lined up for a top-10 opponent next and, if she can take another victory there, she could be challenging Joanna Jedrzejczyk in early 2018.
Real Loser: Johny Hendricks' Hopes of a Comeback
It finally happened. Hendricks reached rock bottom.
The former welterweight champion has been on a steady decline since losing the title to Robbie Lawler in 2014. Losses came hand-in-hand with botched weight cuts, and with each fight, Bigg Rigg's reign as champion became a more and more distant memory.
There was some hope that a move to middleweight would cure some of those ills. While he was likely too small to achieve elite status at 185 pounds, the expectation was that he could still reasonably compete with some solid names.
Alas, UFC Fight Night 112 showed that this isn't true. Hendricks' days as a higher-end competitor are completely, 100-percent done.
Facing the aggressively average Tim Boetsch (who entered the cage with a 9-8 UFC record), Hendricks was savagely knocked out early in the second round. That, by the way, came after his third failed weight cut in four fights.
It doesn't get much worse than that for Hendricks, and as somebody that has already openly discussed retirement when speaking to Submission Radio in Australia (h/t MMA Junkie), it's easy to wonder if that was the final chapter of his fighting career.
Real Loser: Anyone Who Has Mario Yamasaki Ref Their Fights
While fans of traditional sports will complain about referees, they often simply complain about "the refs" rather than specific individuals. In MMA, however, fans are oftentimes more familiar with the officials than they are the competitors, and unfortunately, that's usually because they are terrible at their jobs.
Mario Yamasaki, for whatever reason, seems to have steadily unlearned how to officiate fights in recent years, and the latest example of that came in the main event of UFC Fight Night 112.
In what was shaping up to be a back-and-forth war on the canvas, Lee was clinging tightly to Chiesa's back, looking for a rear-naked choke. One of Lee's arms was squarely under Chiesa's chin. The other was free, with Lee looking to seal up the hold and Chiesa grabbing at his wrist to keep his airway free.
With under a minute left, Lee was fighting the clock as much as he was Chiesa, but, after wrestling his arm away, he seemed to have his hands folded together for a Gable grip that may have given him the leverage to put Chiesa to sleep.
The key words there, of course, are "may have."
For whatever reason, Yamasaki stepped in and called the fight then and there, at 4:37 of the first round. Was the choke actually completed? If so, would Chiesa be able to hold out for 23 more seconds? Those questions, unfortunately, will never be answered, and those doubts leave both men worse off after this fight.
Lee now has an asterisk next to the biggest win of his career and his first foray into a main event. Chiesa, meanwhile, has an ugly "L" on his record after amassing a strong winning streak in the wide-open lightweight division.
Despite this, and many other faux pas over the last few years, Yamasaki will continue to find his way into high-profile MMA bouts. Lee and Chiesa both suffered from this on Saturday night. Unfortunately, they won't be the last ones tasked with working past Yamasaki's mistakes.