UFC Fight Night 118: The Real Winners and Losers from Gdansk, Poland
The UFC returned after a week off with Fight Night 118 in Gdansk, Poland, on Saturday. It was the most underwhelming card in one of the most underwhelming years in UFC history on paper, but in practice, it managed to overachieve by delivering some decent MMA action.
Officially, there were 11 winners and 11 losers, but unofficially, there is a lot more to combat sports than results.
That was obvious when it came to the show's biggest winner, Darren Till. The 24-year-old Brit was thrown into deep waters by UFC matchmakers and told to sink or swim, with fan favorite Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone tasked with drowning him. It was a tall order for Till, but he was more than prepared to seize his moment, pushing the pace early and scoring a first-round knockout via punches.
The flip side to this was co-main event loser Jodie Esquibel.
Making her official UFC debut after four years in Invicta FC, Esquibel was paired off with former title contender Karolina Kowalkiewicz. It was an amazing opportunity for the 31-year-old, who had the chance to jump directly into the title hunt with a win over the local favorite. Instead, Esquibel was beaten without incident and will be forced to fight her way through the thick swamp that is the middle of the strawweight division pack.
So who else won at UFC Gdansk? And who else lost? Read on to find out.
Real Loser: The Basic Concepts of Fight Promotion
UFC Fight Night 118 took place in Gdansk, Poland. Its first fight, Josh Emmett vs. Felipe Arantes, was between an American and a Brazilian. Its second fight, Aspen Ladd vs. Lina Lansberg, was between an American and a Swede. It was a weak start to the card with no real hook for the live audience and, unsurprisingly, that resulted in near-silence for the entire first half of the event.
That's a shame too.
Poland has one of the deepest MMA talent pools in the world. More importantly for the UFC, it also has one of the biggest, most engaged fanbases—to the point local organization KSW managed to draw 57,000 people to the National Stadium in Warsaw for an event earlier this year.
While the UFC has never been especially great at putting on events overseas, this was a definite low point for the promotion. In addition to its traditional unwillingness to add any local flavor to its international shows, the company seemed barely bothered to even tailor the card to its audience, leaving a number of noteworthy Polish fighters off the bill while making no effort to accommodate the ones who were included with favorable matchups.
The novelty of the UFC as a traveling circus is gone, and without that, events like Fight Night 118 are like an upscale version of the shows that can be found in dimly lit bingo halls or high school gymnasiums. As international combat sports promotions continue to grow by featuring local talent in front of local crowds, it's baffling that the UFC continues to struggle with the basic concepts of fight promotion.
Real Loser: Local Flavor
It wasn't until the third fight of the event that a Polish fighter entered the Octagon. That fighter was Salim Touahri, a debuting welterweight who only made it on to the card as a late replacement for Jim Wallhead. The local fighter was little more than enhancement talent too, as he was heavily overmatched against Brazilian hotshot Warlley Alves.
Obviously, that's not a great way to engage a live crowd. Neither is the generic, by-the-numbers bout they put on (which Alves won in unremarkable fashion by unanimous decision).
It was an uninteresting fight in front of a disinterested crowd and, sadly, the only thing that managed to wake them up was Conor McGregor's arrival and walk to his seat. When the action outside the cage does more to rile the fans than what's going on inside, it's hard not to look at both the competitors as losers.
Real Loser: Helping Out Your Bros
On its own merits, Artem Lobov vs. Andre Fili was a decent fight, with a resilient Lobov trying (but failing) to battle back against Fili's tricky attack. But the story of the fight wasn't what was happening in the cage. The story was what happened outside the cage, as McGregor ran around the Octagon shouting commands to his friend and training partner.
Unfortunately, that's illegal, as McGregor was functionally working as a fourth cornerman (fighters are only allowed three) who could move around (they are called cornermen, not all-around-the-cagemen, for a reason). While many referees would typically ignore McGregor and carry on, the veteran Marc Goddard is not most referees and barked at McGregor to get back in his seat.
Real Loser: Happiness
When he's clobbering people with his right hand, Sam Alvey looks the part of a legitimate contender at 185 pounds. And when he's beating steely veterans like Rashad Evans and Nate Marquardt? Even more so. Sometimes, though, Alvey just lays an egg in the Octagon to remind the world there's a reason he is usually relegated to Fight Night preliminary cards.
That's what happened at UFC Fight Night 118. Facing former M-1 champ Ramazan Emeev, Alvey retreated into a defensive shell in the early going of the fight and never returned, doing little more than circling the cage and avoiding punishment.
It was an ugly showing by Alvey that completely killed the last bit of career momentum he had entering 2017 following a solid four-fight winning streak. Worse, now 1-2 over his past three with each outing being a snoozer, he has likely lost his spot as a go-to "fun action fighter" with UFC matchmakers.
It's unlikely he gets cut following this fight, but he can't be far off.
Real Loser: Bellator Fighters in the UFC (and UFC Fighters in Bellator)
On Friday night, Bellator MMA told fans that its fighters are every bit as good as the UFC's when its former champ, Alexander Shlemenko, came a hair shy of beating UFC elite Gegard Mousasi. On Saturday afternoon, former Bellator contender Marcin Held functionally disagreed with his former employer by posting yet another unimpressive performance in the Octagon.
Held previously established himself as one of the best lightweights in Bellator, amassing an 11-3 record over five years with flashy grappling skills. When he made the jump to the UFC in 2016, all those tools seemed to disappear.
He never looked especially bad in defeat, with each of his losses coming with a bit of an asterisk, but it was hard not to notice his transition from Bellator grappling whiz to UFC midcarder.
He needed a big win against the debuting Nasrat Haqparast in order to recapture some of the mystique that once made him MMA's most intriguing young talent. He didn't get it.
Despite facing an on-paper overmatched opponent, Held didn't look especially fearsome in any area of the cage. He ate up minutes with dominant positions on the ground and survived the striking exchanges but did little more than the bare minimum it took to win.
In some ways, that's fine. At 0-3 in the UFC, Held was likely facing a pink slip with another loss, and keeping his job was likely more important than winning over new fans.
In other ways, however, it stunk. Held was a special fighter with unique skills in Bellator. In the UFC, he's just one of the dozens of anonymous lightweights.
Real Winner: Jan Blachowicz's UFC Career
Jan Blachowicz was one of the most interesting fighters outside the UFC a few years ago. His accurate strikes and penchant for submissions made him a fringe top-10 light heavyweight, and when he debuted in the UFC with a body-kick KO of Ilir Latifi in 2014, he seemed poised to assert himself as an elite fighter.
Then he lost four of his next five fights.
He was in the same do-or-die position Held was entering UFC Gdansk. Another loss would have led to the gallows, and few would have blamed him for putting in a standard, by-the-numbers performance against Devin Clark.
Instead, Blachowicz used the fight as a stage to announce he's still a dangerous man.
In the first round, Blachowicz looked like a hungry man. Every move he made had an urgency to it and the explosiveness to his grappling and zip to his strikes that seemed to have evaporated returned with gusto. In the second, the opportunistic submission game that once made him KSW champion returned too, with the fight ending via sudden standing rear-naked choke. Check out the submission via UFC on Twitter.
It was an amazing display of power from Blachowicz, and one that did a lot in terms of rebuilding his brand after three ugly years. He isn't a made man, but the ball is rolling in terms of rejoining the top 10 of the division—and maybe, just maybe, making a surprise run for the title. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.
Real Winner: Squash Matches
The one fight on the UFC Fight Night 118 card that made sense from a promotional perspective was Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Jodie Esquibel.
Kowalkiewicz is one of Poland's best fighters. Fight Night 118 was in Poland, a market that should be nurtured. The logical play, then, was to pitch her a softball opponent in an effort to grow interest in her and, by extension, the promotion.
In a rare stroke, the UFC tried to pick that low-hanging fruit. In an even rarer stroke, it all went according to plan.
The local favorite came out to raucous applause, pushed the pace, landed shots and scored points on her foreign opponent. She encountered little adversity during the bout and, as a result, captured a clean unanimous-decision victory. It was a strong performance that gave the fans something to smile about and, as an added bonus, was so clean Kowalkiewicz is likely capable of making a quick turnaround should anything go wrong with the scheduled title fight between old rivals Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Rose Namajunas.
These are good things. This is how combat sports promotion is supposed to work.
Now all the UFC needs to do is put together five or six of these fights per international Fight Night card. Then it might actually be able to steal fans from the promotions that are growing overseas.
Real Loser: Cowboy
The young eat the old in MMA, and the question entering UFC Fight Night 118's main event was essentially "how old is Donald Cerrone?" He's 34 on his driver's license, sure, but in terms of his career, he's considerably older, entering Gdansk with 42 pro MMA bouts and 29 kickboxing matches to his name.
Darren Till, 24 and 16-0-1 in MMA, is considerably younger by every metric.
Looking it over, the Fight Night 118 main event had the feel of a torch-passing matchup. When the cage door closed and the spotlight came on, it had the look of it too.
Till pushed the pace early and found immediate success with straight left hands. Cowboy tried to rally back, shooting for takedowns and throwing punches, but nothing stuck for the longtime contender while Till's output just continued to grow. A hard cross landed flush in the final minute of the first round, and Cerrone could do little more than turtle up.
By 4:20, the referee had seen enough and waved the fight to a close.
Now on a three-fight losing streak, two of which came via technical knockout, it's easy to wonder whether Cerrone is on the bullet train to retirement. He hasn't lost to anybody outside the division's upper echelon yet, but if he can't right the course in his next outing, it might be best if the Cowboy got put out to pasture.