Excellence on display. If there was a theme for UFC 216, this has to be it. What we witnessed was an event that had a little bit of everything and included performances that truly elevated certain fighters above their peers.
Not all winners broke away from their respective packs by far, of course. Yet this card accomplished everything it aimed for. We got another historic milestone with Demetrious Johnson breaking the title defense record, not just against a game opponent, but in a sensational manner. The main event broke the logjam at the top of the lightweight division, and should theoretically set the stage for the return fight for Conor McGregor. The rest of the card had fun engagements, last-minute reshuffling, and some fun shenanigans with moving pieces in different divisions.
It’s what the UFC wanted, and what it needed in terms of delivering in practice with what they had on paper. Whether or not it translates to PPV success is obviously another matter, but this appears to have been mostly geared towards fans that are more dedicated than the casual or average MMA fan. It throws us a bone until the next major event while keeping fighters active, and that’s perfectly fine.
Tony Ferguson – I started to think Tony was going to lose this one. Lee was able to get some English on those counters, set up his 1-2s nicely. Lee not only nailed Ferguson with good shots in the first round, but looked totally dominant in the end of that first. After slowing down some and struggling with Lee’s offense, he started chipping away at Lee and got him to make some mistakes on the ground while in Ferguson’s guard. The triangle setup itself was interesting, as he pushed through with his left leg to secure position after clamping down with his right, and left virtually no space for Lee to maneuver as he raised his hips. It was basic but with a lot of attention to detail, and got him a shiny new belt for his title. With the UFC’s race to rake up as much money as possible in little time to handle their financial obligations, it’s not a guarantee that Ferguson can fight McGregor next, but there’s no real doubt who the real guy at the top of the mountain is now when it comes to getting a crack at the champion. Even with the fact that this is an interim title couldn’t take the shine off this performance from both fighters, and they should be commended for lighting it up after that legendary co-main finish. And now that we’ve mentioned that…
Demetrious Johnson – I figured that Borg’s speed and wrestling chops would give DJ some trouble, but at no point did Borg look like he was turning the tide in a big enough manner to dominate or actually win. Johnson stayed ahead for so much of the fight, and much like the fights against Kyoji Horiguchi or John Moraga, Johnson could have easily coasted in the final round. Instead, he took yet another arm home in a finish that will be replayed and talked about forever. That’s his third 5th round armbar finish as champion. Now, this kind of fight isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but when you’re that dominant as a champion, you really have to take the time to enjoy the fact that you are witnessing what this sport can offer on the highest level from a fighter. No matter what happens now, that record is in his back pocket. The only valid complaint here is the fact that the UFC has barely lifted a finger to give him the mainstream attention a fighter like him deserves, but at least fans know what’s real.
Fabricio Werdum – Well, at least he still got to fight. While Derrick Lewis is a more dynamic and explosive athlete with better boxing technique and a ton of power, I’m not sure he’d have fared much better against Fabricio’s ground game. Even if the fight hadn’t been cancelled, he’d still be dealing with the back injury against a cagey former champion. Werdum made quick work of Harris in this one, and may not really gain any major traction. That’s not to say that this fight doesn’t do him any favors, though. He stays present in the minds of fans while beating a very tough (yet raw and less experienced) heavyweight talent on ultra-short notice, and stays fresh enough to have a quick turnaround for another fight and potentially notch another title shot with another win. This fight was good for him, but it won’t be the one to do it for him. At least not yet.
Lando Vannata and Bobby Green – As I was watching, I thought only Lando would be in this category. He threw everything at Green with kicks, punches, spinning attacks and knees, even fun but brief exchanges on the ground. But Green came so dangerously close to finishing the fight at the end, and busted up Vannata’s face like an oil drum from Final Fight. I have to admit I’ve been a bit down on Green as of late. Not that you can blame anyone for that – the man came into this fight with three straight losses and suffered a torn ACL and a torn quadriceps in 2015 (and withdrew for personal reasons against Josh Burkman last year). Tally all of this up, and you get the impression he may not have much time left in the sport and question how he looks upon his return. Instead, we got a fight of the night, and both guys fought their hearts out. The fact that it ended in a draw was fine, and this kind of fight elevates both of them in the eyes of fans and management.
John Moraga – Moraga’s had some ups and downs in his UFC tenure, but this was exceptional. This was his second UFC knockout, the first being his promotional debut against Ulysses Gomez five years ago on Facebook. Remember when that was a thing? Good times. Moraga took out a sneaky fighter known for his speed, wrestling, and more well-rounded game, and made it look relatively simple. In a division that’s this dense with talent, this solidifies him in the top ten to possibly net him another title shot with another win.
Mara Romero Borella – Welcome to the UFC, Borella. Her time at ATT really has boosted her game, as she kept her composure standing but really turned it up on the ground with better control than in previous fights. The Italian/Honduran fighter is great addition for the nascent women’s flyweight division, and she makes a statement coming against a more experienced fighter.
Cody Stamann improves to 2-0 in the UFC, taking on a clever submission grappler with accurate striking. He was able to control most of the fight, stay busy and land good shots on the ground. Things could be very good for him if he decides to stay at bantamweight for good. Matt Schnell landed some really fun combinations and kept himself ahead to snap a losing skid and notch his first UFC win to end up 1-2 under the UFC banner. Brad Tavares did better than expected to outbox Thales Leites and break him down with leg attacks. This earns him a three-win streak after losing to eventual interim middleweight champion Robert Whittaker in 2015. Poliana Botelho landed more strikes and stayed busier in a somewhat ho-hum affair, but gets a win in her debut and is another good addition in an already talent-rich strawweight division.
Ray Borg – As I’ve said before, there’s no shame in losing to someone this legendary. I can’t knock him for his performance against a man that could possibly be the greatest of all time. He’s mostly here because there are a lot of moving pieces in this division right now, and he may not get a rematch anytime soon. Henry Cejudo (#2) is facing Sergio Pettis (#4), and recent wins from Jussier Formiga (#5), Ben Nguyen (#8), and Dustin Ortiz (#9) complicate things after you get finished like that. Not impossible, but very difficult.
Pearl Gonzalez – This one also pains me, because Gonzalez is pretty talented. She falls to 0-2 in her UFC run in a loss that saw her basically pin her opponent against the cage for most of the fight. Sure, it takes two for a fight to be bad. Still, to be in a controlling spot for that long and still lose while in a boring fight? Not a good look, and management doesn’t look kindly upon that.
Marco Beltran – Three straight losses, two of them finishes. Beltran lost by decision this time, but seemed to be playing catch-up for most of the bout. Yes, his overall UFC record is 3-3 – it may not be enough to keep his spot with the way these performances have been.
Thales Leites – While is UFC win/loss record is good at a respectable 7-4, it’s been a strange year for Leites. A decision loss to Krzysztof Jotko last November, a mostly lackluster win over Sam Alvey this past April, and now this. Leites did fine early, but got picked apart and chewed up by the end. It may be safe to say he’s hit his ceiling here at age 36. He’s probably not in danger of getting cut, but this hurts his standing.
Dana White – Every few weeks I wonder if the UFC’s success in promoting certain fighters is purely accidental. If you figured that with WME|IMG’s purchase of the company White would be a little smarter about his choices when talking about fighters, rejoice! He has come to disabuse you of that notion and bash a fighter that not only had a tremendously difficult weight cut, but a staph infection during the process. Guess what? Kevin Lee STILL stepped up and fought. Not only that, he fought like a true warrior only to get dumped on by the boss. There was never any place for this in the sport to begin with, but it’s especially egregious in 2017. Stop treating the fighters like cattle and humiliating them in public, and they might not be as vocal about being underpaid.
Or I dunno, refrain from stuff like that out of common decency. Seriously, guy.
Kevin Lee – Lee had so many really good moments in a fight that many thought he was neither ready for nor truly deserved, and he did away with those thoughts with an excellent performance. His body kicks and counters were great, his scrambles on the ground were beautiful. Ferguson didn’t style on him, and in fact was in very real danger in a few spots of this fight. In the end, he got submitted by a fighter with one of the most dangerous submission games in the division – all after a brutal weight cut made more difficult by a staph infection. To look that good against Tony Ferguson with all of those factors at play is a major deal. This loss shouldn’t be held against him too harshly, as it’s a matter of an exceptional fighter that simply wasn’t ready yet.
Evan Dunham and Beneil Dariush – Both top 15 guys just outside the top 10 orbit that also put on very good performances in a fight that was very close. The biggest problem here is that neither one really moves up the proverbial ladder much, if at all. At least they gave some solid performances and showed improvements.
Tom Duquesnoy – His UFC record is now 1-1, and there’s still a staggering amount of upside to him as a prospect. At age 24, he’ll be just fine.
Kalindra Faria – Faria’s experienced and has taken on some pretty good names, even if she’s fallen short against the better opposition on her record. She’s still a very good addition to the flyweight division, and this loss should not be the metric to judge her by.
Walt Harris – As my man Barry would say, you gotta shoot your shot and live your best life. Walt aimed big and helped keep a big name on the PPV, and lost to the #2 guy. Can’t ding him for that. He should be fine after doing them a solid like this.
Magomed Bibulatov – Still a force in an already small yet talented division, but he suffers his first professional loss here. Part of me wonders if Moraga’s setup and approach could be a blueprint on how to beat him moving forward, but we’ll find out over time. For now, he’s safe.