If you had to boil down the fallout of the final Ultimate Fighting Championship event of 2020 to two words, it would be hard to top “triumphant return.”
While UFC Fight Night 183 featured 24 fighters at almost every imaginable point of an athlete’s career arc, from former title challengers to promising debutants to struggling also-rans fighting for their jobs, the biggest impressions on Saturday night were delivered by two fighters returning from year-long layoffs due to injury. With all of the expected question marks hovering over them as they fought for the first time in 2020, Stephen Thompson and Rob Font passed with flying colors, announcing their presence not only in the UFC, but in the Top 15 of their respective divisions. Here is the stock report for the event nicknamed “UFC Vegas 17.”
Stephen Thompson: Facing the young, dangerous and slightly favored Geoff Neal in Saturday’s main event, it only took “Wonderboy” about two minutes to remind us of how hard it is to beat him in a pure standup battle. In the last seven years, Thompson’s only setbacks had been against a prime Tyron Woodley, whose striking was bolstered by fearsome natural power and the threat of the takedown; Darren Till, the recipient of home cooking of both the literal and judging varieties; and Anthony Pettis, who had landed a one-in-a-million killshot after getting schooled for most of two rounds. Thompson’s effort against Neal was a virtual no-hitter, as the karateka kept Neal guessing with movement, stance switches and a steady diet of kicks to the body and head. Even in the fifth round, when an apparent knee injury stifled Thompson’s movement and kicks, reducing him to boxing—theoretically Neal’s wheelhouse—“Wonderboy” got the better of five minutes spent in the pocket exchanging with the heavy-handed Texan.
What does it all mean? It means that even as he approaches his 38th birthday, the two-time welterweight title challenger—and likely pound-for-pound nicest guy in the UFC—is still Top 10 material. His decisive wins against Top 15 fighters Neal and Vicente Luque in his last two fights have made that much clear. And while he is still at least a couple of wins away, the idea that Thompson might still have another title shot left in him seems far less preposterous than it did two years ago.
Rob Font: Font is—frankly speaking—ridiculous. It’s hard enough for a fighter to fight once a year for three years, as Font has, with no apparent drop-off in performance. It’s even more difficult when the fighter in question is 33 years old and the most recent year-long hiatus was due to a knee injury, especially in the “speed kills” environment of the bantamweight division; just ask Dominick Cruz. However, in his complete destruction of Marlon Moraes on Saturday, Font appeared not only to have been untarnished by the layoff, but actually improved. It’s fair to speculate on whether some of Font’s performance was due to a decline on the part of Moraes, who is now 1-3 in his last four fights with three knockout losses and a questionable decision win. However, even a fading Moraes represents the best win of Font’s career, and by the eyeball test, he is only growing sharper. Font’s jab, always one of the better examples in the division, has gone from tool to weapon, as it was a stinging jab that set up the brutal and seemingly endless finishing sequence. Font himself may have completed the subtle, but significant transition from “very exciting, good fighter” to “very good, exciting fighter.” While the 135-pound title picture is an absolute logjam right now, as things play out, Font has positioned himself as perhaps just a win or two away from a title shot. The only limiting factor, really, is his health.
Jose Aldo: Finally, Aldo has an official win at bantamweight. Yes, his loss to Moraes in his 135-pound debut a year ago had been questionable, and yes, he had put in a surprisingly solid performance in his title shot against Petr Yan this July, but two moral victories and $850 will get you a nice replica belt from the UFC’s online store, just the same as it would for him. By defeating Marlon Vera on Saturday, Aldo finally has a definitive win over a very good bantamweight to go along with the eyeball test, which has been saying for over a year now that Aldo may actually be one of the 10 or 15 best in the division. Even beyond the mere fact of the win, there were other encouraging signs. Aldo employed his leg kicks—one of the most feared weapons in MMA during his heyday as featherweight champion—in a way we had not seen from him in quite some time. He then dominated the third round using another underutilized weapon, his offensive wrestling and Nova Uniao-certified top game, an incredibly savvy move for a veteran fighter who surely knew the fight might be tied at a round apiece going into that final frame. Winning the third round with no sign of gassing out also indicated that it is high time for the early doubters—count me among them—to recognize that Aldo is doing just fine as a bantamweight, against all logical expectations. Consider my mind changed.
Greg Hardy: Twice, the “Prince of War” has fought his way to a showcase against a heavyweight contender, and twice he has been turned away in humiliating fashion. Hardy’s loss to Alexander Volkov last November was understandable; a short-notice appearance against a fringe Top 5 contender was a ridiculously tall order for a fighter as green as Hardy, and even to make it to the final horn was a victory of sorts. Hardy’s matchup against Marcin Tybura on Saturday was a more realistic test of his progress as a mixed martial artist, and for that reason, his second-round TKO loss was a more damning indictment of that progress, or lack thereof.
Going into the fight, I felt, as did most of the people I talked to, that Hardy-Tybura was a two-outcome fight: either Hardy splatters Tybura early, probably on the feet, or Tybura grinds Hardy down late, probably on the ground. Hardy did all right in pursuit of the first outcome, beating Tybura up for most of the first round and—most importantly—punishing him for most of his takedown attempts, but there was nothing close to a finish, nor even anything to merit a 10-8 round. Tybura took over in the middle of the second round, securing a clean double-leg takedown. From there, the problems in Hardy’s game were laid bare. Yes, he was tired, but he has been more tired before, even in fights that he ended up winning, and Hardy’s ground defense and positional awareness were some of the worst I’ve seen in the modern UFC. As Hardy lay on his back like a tortoise, the end was a foregone conclusion.
The problem, going forward, is this: Hardy is, on paper, a respectable 4-3 with one no-contest in the UFC and still has never lost back-to-back fights. Heavyweights, in particular, generally get a far longer leash before picking up a pink slip. However, the flip side is that Hardy is an eight-fight Octagon veteran who shows signs of improvement in some areas—he is becoming a decent striker by heavyweight MMA standards—while stagnating everywhere else. The gas tank will always be a problem until he makes the necessary changes to start walking around closer to 265 pounds, and his ground game is hideous. In an era in which the UFC is shedding Top 10 fighters like Jussier Formiga, Corey Anderson and Yoel Romero simply because they cost too much and aren’t in the immediate title picture, how much longer will the UFC humor the Hardy experiment?
Deron Winn: It is exceedingly rare that a fighter makes the “Stock Down” list off a victory, and in fact this may be the first time, but it is well-deserved. Facing a fighter in Antonio Arroyo who had yet to notch a UFC win, at a 195-pound catchweight obviously set up to accommodate Winn, was close to a no-win situation, pun fully intended. Simply eking out a victory would not be nearly enough in such a case. However, that is exactly what the former college wrestling standout did, winning the second and third rounds over an increasingly gassed and inert Arroyo to pick up the W.
Similar to Hardy, here is the problem. While Winn is now 2-2 in the UFC, his losses are to two middling 185-pounders in Darren Stewart and Gerald Meerschaert, while he has wins over Arroyo and Eric Spicely, who was 2-4 in the UFC when he was brought back more or less expressly to be an opponent for Winn. In his post-fight interviews, the 5-foot-6 Winn appeared irritated over the constant scrutiny of his height disadvantage, but at this point he has yet to notch a victory over a real, live, UFC-quality middleweight.