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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday returned to Sweden with UFC Fight Night 153 at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: TRANSITIONING TO THE FUTURE
The light heavyweight division was once the gold standard of mixed martial arts, as Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz carried the UFC into the collective consciousness of North American audiences. Names like Rashad Evans, Forrest Griffin, Mauricio Rua and Quinton Jackson kept that spirit alive, as the glamour division continued to carry more than its fair share of big names and box-office drawing power. Jon Jones arrived to wreck shop against anyone put in front of him, and his dominance coincided with a sudden lack of viable talent ready to carry on the storied legacy for a new generation of light heavyweights. While recent performances from the likes of Johnny Walker and Dominick Reyes gave us reason for hope, UFC Fight Night 153 felt like a turning point for the division. The newer names to the company’s 205-pound roster all staked their claims for future glory while the older guard seemed to sign over the deed to that territory.
Anthony Smith in March was thoroughly dominated by Jones and looked overwhelmed by the variety of offense presented by the champion. Despite it being his fourth turn at light heavyweight, not much was really known about how good he truly was in the heftier division. Shopworn versions of Rua and Evans can’t be considered definitive tests, and although he managed to finish Volkan Oezdemir on the way to his UFC 235 title challenge, the odd nature of many of Oezdemir’s fights left some question marks as to how reliable a gauge he was. Being shell-shocked and inactive against Jones doesn’t say much, either, considering his status among the all-time greats in the sport. However, defeating Alexander Gustafsson in the latter half of a five-round fight answered many of those questions. Smith proved he could stick to a game plan, maintain his cardio while handing out offense and get a finish against an elite fighter, making a more emphatic statement for what he can offer the division than any of his previous outings put together.
Meanwhile, a quick and brutal head kick knockout of longtime contender Jimi Manuwa helped Aleksandar Rakic establish himself as a name worthy of our attention. Having shown his ability to win clear-cut decisions with various tempos in his first two UFC bouts and a clear finishing proficiency at a high level, there is much about which to be excited with the 27-year-old Austrian. Despite his recent downturn, Manuwa represented a huge step up in competition and an opportunity for Rakic to insert himself somewhere in or near the Top 10. Passing that test should open up doors to areas where new blood is desperately needed.
Similarly, seeing Devin Clark get his hand raised against Mirko Filipovic protege Darko Stosic had an air of importance to it. While Clark and Stosic have some development ahead of them before they can be considered true contenders, their contest was not only entertaining but could serve as a key piece in that development. Don’t be surprised if the two meet each other again with much more at stake.
THE BAD: SHADOWS OF GOATS
The only thing bad about Gustafsson’s was the timing of it. The Swede showed time and time again that he was among the best light heavyweights the UFC has to offer. His success opened doors for European fighters, as evidenced by the number of high-level Swedish fighters who competed at UFC Fight Night 153. When he laid his gloves on the Octagon floor to symbolize his retirement, it was hard to not think about what could have been.
Gustafsson was just a stone’s throw away from ending Jones’ historic first title reign. He was even closer to dethroning another G.O.A.T.-worthy champion when he dropped a split decision to Daniel Cormier. Had a couple of rounds been scored differently in both fights, we’d be talking about a completely different career trajectory. Considering the close nature of both contests, that difference could have been determined by just two respective moments.
Had the out-of-the-cage issues that ultimately snatched the belt from Jones played out differently, perhaps their rematch would have happened sooner and Gustafsson may have fared better. Maybe even the sudden relocation of that rematch provided enough distraction to negatively affect things. Maybe none of that matters. The point is we simply don’t know. What we do know is that when presented with the biggest moments against the biggest names placed in front of him, Gustafsson came up short in terms of getting his hand raised. In an alternate universe, we’re placing his legacy next to the Liddells of the world.
It’s possible this retirement announcement will wind up being an extended hiatus, as Gustafsson can still physically perform well against the best in the world. Retirement in mixed martial arts rarely means much more than a vacation, and it’s possible he could continue fighting and add to his legacy. However, if “The Mauler” is truly calling it quits, we can only hope he’s remembered for the times he got his hand raised instead of the times he almost did.
THE UGLY: YOU MISSED IT, YOU WERE KNAPPING
Tonya Evinger’s decline has been disappointing to watch. After running through the ladies who challenged her Invicta Fighting Championships reign, Evinger was an obvious candidate to test herself inside the Octagon, especially when you consider the UFC’s habit of snatching up the best and brightest fighters Shannon Knapp has groomed. Unfortunately, Evinger remains winless in the big show and shows signs of not being the same fighter who dominated Invicta.
Where her lost to Cristiane Justino was expected and seemed more like the result of her being a sacrificial lamb, her next two losses paint a more damning picture. Aspen Ladd managed to take down and pound out a finish at UFC 229, and at UFC Fight Night 153, Lina Lansberg managed to out grind, outgrapple and outmaneuver Evinger to earn a decision win. Those two contests resulted in the same tactics that Evinger used during her Invicta run being utilized against her. Where “Triple Threat” had previously won gritty and grueling battles that were heavy on clinch battles, wrestling and dirty fighting, she found herself on the receiving end of that very same treatment.
It is possible that the knee injury that sidelined her for over a year after the “Cyborg” loss at UFC 214 took away something from Evinger that she may never regain. At 37 years old and with 13 years of professional experience under her belt, the end may be near. Much like Julie Kedzie, who went winless in the UFC after being a pioneer in women’s MMA, Evinger’s best work hasn’t come under the bright lights of the big show.