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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday paid a visit to Ottawa, Ontario, with UFC Fight Night 151 at the Canadian Tire Centre. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
DANGER, I AM YOUR FATHER
Some gain weight and buy a minivan. Others, like Donald Cerrone, take fatherhood as a reason to go on a remarkable run towards the top of the UFC’s incredibly competitive lightweight division. “Cowboy” has firmly rebounded from an uncharacteristically inconsistent stint at welterweight and once again established himself as one of the best 155-pound fighters in the world. By defeating Al Iaquinta in the main event, Cerrone’s place in the division is as high as it was leading up to his efforts against then champion Rafael dos Anjos.
From an Xs and Os standpoint, Cerrone’s performance represents a clear shift in his strengths and weaknesses as a fighter. A quick glance at his record shows a common thread between most of the men who have managed to beat him: good boxing ability mixed with a strong wrestling base. Yes, there are exceptions -- Anthony Pettis remains an outlier to this blueprint -- but one if not both of those qualities is represented with most of the opponents who hold victories over “Cowboy.”
In previous Cerrone incarnations, Iaquinta would have been a stylistic nightmare. His uncanny ability to close the distance and force the boxing range, when paired with often-overlooked grappling skills, would have had the potential to stymie “Cowboy.” Heavy hands and the former Jackson-Wink MMA rep’s willingness to take a punch can make for a bad combination. Add that to the relentless pressure the most dangerous real estate agent likes to impose, and the Cerrone of old may have wilted in one way or another. Instead, “Cowboy” found several ways to shut down what his opponent had to offer. The methodical approach was remarkable. Building momentum based on leg kicks and varied attacks forced Iaquinta to reevaluate his approach and ultimately succumb to the devastating offense. While his fifth-round efforts and urging from his Serra-Longo Fight Team corner should be applauded, it was too little too late, as Cerrone’s earlier work chipped away at the signature toughness and diehard attitude piece by piece.
One of the biggest advantages to the niche “Cowboy” has carved out for himself in the UFC is the amount of flexibility he brings to the table. He has always enjoyed a particular fluidity with matchmaking. As someone who has proven to be one of the best available options at 155 pounds, it’s easy for him to justify a high ranking and to demand high-profile opponents who carry consequences in the title picture. Simultaneously, his desire to stay as active as possible for the next paycheck and his fan-friendly style mean he can be a constant source of entertainment on almost any fight card. No matter who is standing across from him, people will watch.
As far as ambitions of divisional dominance go, the possibilities are endless. Assuming Dustin Poirier has the chance to make good on a unification fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov in September, a No. 1 contender bout between Cerrone and Justin Gaethje sounds like the most exciting pairing possible while maintaining meritocracy. Additionally, if Tony Ferguson is cleared to compete, it would be logical pairing for both men. The often-discussed Conor McGregor fight is the best potential blockbuster for “Cowboy” and would serve as a great addition to his bank account and profile. Either way, we will be entertained, and the longtime veteran will have some major opportunities in his future.
THE TRISTAR PLANS ARE NOT IN THE MAIN COMPUTER
The House That Firas Built had a rough time in Ottawa. Tristar Gym products Elias Theodorou and Aiemann Zahabi came up short in tepid contests, their outings representing lost opportunities for two notable names who call the Montreal-based camp home.
Despite going into his co-main event with an impressive 16-2 record (8-2 in the UFC), Theodorou was never given the opportunity to capitalize on his winning record, with his best-known opponents, Thiago Santos and Brad Tavares, falling outside of our Top 15 middleweights at the time he lost to them. In Ottawa, “The Spartan” was finally granted a chance to break through the ceiling of largely unheralded opposition and toward being viewed as a legitimate force at 185 pounds. Unfortunately for Theodorou, Derek Brunson utilized his superior wrestling and athletic ability to snatch the golden ticket from the Canadian’s hands. Additionally, what happened in the cage left a lot to be desired.
While the part-time Invicta Fighting Championships ring boy was never known as an explosive finisher, his latest performance was particularly bizarre and resulted in little about which to get excited. Odd strike selections -- multiple spinning combinations and ineffective hammerfists, for example -- coupled with evasive footwork left a lot of onlookers scratching their heads in confusion. Unlike the grit shown by Iaquinta or the adjustments made by John Lineker at UFC Fight Night 150, Theodorou showed nothing that figures to bring him another good opportunity to stand out in his division anytime soon.
Earlier, the younger brother of Tristar Gym head coach Firas Zahabi offered a similarly disappointing performance. Much like teammate Theodorou, he did not show much that was worthy of praise. Unlike Theodorou, Zahabi does not have the tenure and proven track record on which to fall back. Zahabi is now 1-2 in the UFC. Combined with his appearance at UFC 217, where he was knocked out in style by Ricardo Ramos his latest setback looks particularly damning for his hopes of remaining on the roster. He dropped a unanimous decision to Vince Morales in a rather uneventful encounter that provided few thrills. Morales also finds himself on shaky footing with the organization, but he at least has the benefit of a win.
THESE AREN’T THE SCORES YOU’RE LOOKING FOR
Yes, this section is normally reserved for the ugly parts of each weekend trip into the world of sanctioned violence. However, this time it’s more of an observation than a condemnation. UFC Fight Night 151 had some strange occurrences happen in relation to scorecards. Of course, we had some rather puzzling scorecards -- here’s looking at you and your 30-27 nod in Cub Swanson’s favor, David Thieren -- but the real story was the action in the cage and how judging some of it presented some odd scenarios.
Let’s take a look at the first two rounds of Matt Sayles-Kyle Nelson. Round 1 was a surefire 10-8 in Sayles’ favor, with all three Sherdog scorers, myself included, submitting those numbers. Nelson took a hellacious amount of punishment in the opening frame, so much in fact that a stoppage from referee Todd Anderson wouldn’t have been out of the question. The second round also saw near total domination, but this time, Sayles was on the receiving end. Nelson had close submission attempts and grossly outgrappled his opponent. While 10-9s for Nelson followed, there was serious consideration to the idea that he did enough to earn a 10-8 of his own. Had there been just a bit more damage put on Sayles, there could have been opposing dominant rounds tying the fight going into final round.
The opening bout presented another oddity, as 10-10 rounds are grossly underutilized in MMA. If neither fighter gained a real advantage, how can we so dogmatically insist on handing out either a 10 or a nine? When a 10-10 does happen, we often try to remember the most forgettable affairs. We tend to think more along the lines of the opening frame of Cheick Kongo-Shawn Jordan when a round is indecisive. However, the final round of the curtain jerker between Cole Smith and Mitch Gagnon showed the exact opposite. The two engaged in a dramatic back-and-forth brawl complete with heavy punches and submission attempts. Each man hurt the other multiple times and from my perspective fought to a stalemate in the most compelling way possible. Boxing analyst Max Kellerman’s thoughts about scoring a round are quite simple and can be summed up by answering one question: “Who would you rather be?” I doubt anyone of sound mind wanted to be either Smith or Gagnon in that final round.