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While last-minute bout changes and cancellations have become the new normal for the coronavirus-era UFC, UFC Fight Night 176 was absolutely shredded even by today’s standard. The seven fights that made it into the Octagon on Saturday made it the shortest UFC card in over a decade, and would have been six if not for the promotion’s wise choice to have Ray Rodriguez weigh in as a standby fighter. Nonetheless, the event took place, treated us to candidates for “Knockout of the Year” as well as “Submission of the Year,” and some fighters’ stocks rose while others fell.
Alistair Overeem: “The Demolition Man” lived up to his nickname in Saturday night’s headliner, weathering a storm of early offense from Augusto Sakai to pull ahead in the later rounds, laying a vicious beating on the Brazilian in the fourth and stopping him early in the fifth. Just as important as the win is how Overeem managed it. From a man saddled for years with the reputation of having a suspect chin and poor gas tank—though the latter is more a holdover from those insane days when he still cut to light heavyweight—it has been stunning to see back-to-back wins in which he survived early onslaughts from younger opponents, outlasted them and then went to work. Against Sakai on Saturday as well as against Walt Harris in May, Overeem has defied the popular perception of his strengths and weaknesses. In both cases, Overeem navigated perilous situations calmly and leaned on his underrated and long-underused takedowns and top game. Against Sakai, he also invested in copious body work every time the opportunity presented itself. While Overeem still feels like a longshot as a title contender as he nears his 41st birthday, he is a bona fide Top 5 heavyweight, which is remarkable considering that many observers believed his best years were already behind him when he signed with the UFC over nine years ago.
Ovince St. Preux: Perhaps feeling some umbrage at being the underdog to a prospect coming off of a loss, St. Preux’s performance at UFC Vegas 9 parallels that of Overeem in some ways, as both men showed veteran poise in coming back from adversity to earn definitive wins. In the co-main event, St. Preux gave as well as he got in a wild first round that saw both men in trouble at times. The second round seemed to offer more of the same, though the pace slowed as two fighters with known cardio limitations began to feel it. However, St. Preux was the one who found himself in the perfect place at the perfect time to land a perfect left hook as Menifield came barreling in. The younger man faceplanted—no follow-up needed—and “OSP” celebrated one of the best knockouts of 2020 with a “Wakanda Forever” salute. While the light heavyweight title picture has a lot of moving parts in the wake of Jon Jones’ abdication, and St. Preux remains prone to losing in strange ways at inopportune times, he reminded us that he is still a very relevant, very dangerous man at 205 pounds.
Michel Pereira: Whether you were picking Pereira to win or lose on Saturday night, you probably didn’t relax at all after Round 1. From the breakdance routine in the Octagon as his name was being announced, to winning the round in spite of—or perhaps because of—his frenetic pace and constant barrage of unorthodox techniques, the first five minutes was pretty much what everyone expected. The differences of opinion were all regarding what came next: Would Pereira keep landing enough Showtime kicks and flying knees to win the fight, or would he gas out, wear down and be put in his place by the more conventional and heavy-handed Zelim Imadaev? Pereira ended up answering some nagging questions about himself and his Octagon limitations, as he not only lasted three rounds, but actually picked up momentum as the minutes ticked by. If Imadaev had been waiting for the kind of cardio collapse that had bedeviled the manic Brazilian in his previous UFC appearances, it was in vain. Much will be said in the coming days and weeks of the controversial finish—and if referee Chris Tognoni’s stoppage with 20 seconds left costs Pereira a win after such a dominant performance, that is a serious travesty—but hopefully it does not distract from the fact that this was the first time “Demolidor” looked like a contender rather than a curiosity.
Augusto Sakai: It’s never a good time to lose a fight, but for Sakai, who entered Saturday’s main event riding a six-fight winning streak in a division starving for new title contenders, it would have been a really, really good time to win. For a little over two rounds, it looked as though he was on his way to doing exactly that. Against a 40-year-old all-time great in Overeem, Sakai was both visibly bigger and quicker to the punch in the early going. On numerous occasions, he got Overeem shelled up against the fence and unloaded long punch combinations, with more than a few of the punches landing cleanly, and each time it was hard not to think, “OK, one of these is going to put Overeem down.” Instead, Sakai found himself outlasted and out-strategized by the older man, who poured it on in the third round and was bashing Sakai mercilessly with elbows at the end of the fourth. In the final round, the way in which Sakai wilted the second the fight hit the canvas may be an indication of some damage he took earlier in the fight, but in any event it was not a good look for a man who appeared to be on the cusp of contention.
Montana De La Rosa: With a unanimous decision loss to Viviane Araujo, De La Rosa falls to 4-2 in the UFC. That record sounds pretty good on the face of it, but the underlying pattern is that she has dominated the women she has faced that are borderline UFC level, while being dominated by the good ones. Upon even closer examination, she has looked fantastic when she is consistently able to get the fight to the ground, where her excellent grappling can take over, and not so much otherwise. She dropped all three rounds to Araujo in the Apex on Saturday, as she did against Andrea Lee last June, but the difference is that in the Lee fight, she never stopped at least trying for takedowns. In contrast, against Araujo, De la Rosa did not appear to make an earnest attempt to get the fight to the floor in the latter half of the fight, instead wading in gamely and getting much the worse of the striking exchanges. While there is something to be said for gutting it out in a fight she was clearly losing, the lack of adjustment between rounds points to a hard ceiling for the Texan in the UFC flyweight division unless she changes things up significantly.
Alonzo Menifield: A year ago, Menifield was the new terror of the light heavyweight division, a heroically-built muay Thai wrecking machine whose nine-fight streak of vicious finishes had carried through to his first two UFC bouts. While he lost to Devin Clark in June, there were positive takeaways from that fight. Yes, he had gassed out badly, allowing Clark to get back into the fight and win the final two rounds, but even in the final minutes he had been there, gamely throwing offense and trying to win the fight as his body gave out on him. There were clear lessons to take back to the drawing board, and it was an indication of the public’s confidence in him that he came into UFC Fight Night 176 as a slight favorite. His knockout loss on Saturday was more problematic. Cardio was not the issue, as he and St. Preux seemed to slow the pace of the fight by mutual assent, but the fact that Menifield was so wild and defensively porous. Against a fighter in “OSP” whose game often relies on finding small openings, Menifield repeatedly left large ones. While it was a jaw-dropping moment when St. Preux caught Menifield coming in for the left hook that ended the fight, it was also not the first time he had presented such an opportunity. The man we are now calling “Atomic” still has a ton of potential, but this time he has things to work on that can’t just be fixed by more time on the stationary bike.