Some fights are hard to score in any country. The UFC’s first Japanese card in over a decade was filled with flash knockouts, a manic comeback, and of course the standard amount of controversy. The lightweight title changed hands as Benson Henderson was awarded a decision over Champ Frankie Edgar after their five-round clash at Saitama Super Arena. Hatsu Hioki and Anthony Pettis all but locked up No.1 Contender spots in the featherweight and lightweight divisions, respectively. Mark Hunt knocked the sauvignon blanc out of Cheick Congo, and 4 to 1 underdog Tim Boetsch got destroyed for two rounds before KO-ing one of the best middleweights in the world, Yushin Okami. Here is my analysis of the seven main-card fights:
Lightweight Title Fight
Benson Henderson (16-2, 4-0 UFC) vs. Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar (14-2-1, 9-2-1 UFC)
The once stagnant division is now all shook up, thanks to some tireless work by WEC veteran and new champion Benson Henderson. Just a few minutes into this fight, it was clear that scoring the fight would be a Herculean task. When five rounds of back and forth were complete, the judges awarded Henderson the belt with scores of 49-46, 49-46, and 48-47, a unanimous decision. Both fighters came in with crisp stand-up and effective movement. Edgar secured takedowns while Henderson fought back to his feet with minimal damage. The challenger landed numerous kicks to the body, most of which were caught and countered by the champ. Newton’s Third Law states that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. Sir Isaac would have had just as much trouble scoring this fight. Each fighter had an answer for what his opponent was offering. At home I scored the fight 48-47 to Edgar, but only handed out two rounds with confidence: Round 1 to Edgar and Round 4 to Henderson. Rounds 2,3, and 5 can be viewed in many ways. In Round 2 Edgar controlled most of the round but was stunned and nearly finished by an upkick from Benson. From there you can pretty much throw your hands up, as Rounds 3 and 5 were razor-thin. What may have swayed the judges in Benson’s favor is that this fight had two near-finishes: the aforementioned Round 2 upkick and a guillotine that nearly finished Edgar in the 4th. In addition to these near finishes, Edgar’s face may have betrayed him throughout this fight. Early in Round 1, a mouse began forming under Edgar’s left eye and was exacerbated by the nose-breaking upkick in Round 2. Henderson, on the other hand, exited the fight with little damage done. Though this should not be enough to sway judges, Damage is a criteria for scoring a fight under the current rules, and Edgar appeared far more damaged than Henderson. This is not a fight to complain about judging, but to congratulate two men who put on a hell of a show and fought their lightweight asses off.
What’s Next For Henderson:
A re-match? Unlikely. With the Maynard-Edgar trilogy holding up the belt for so long, there are several qualified lightweights ready to take a shot at it. Anthony Pettis appears to be next, according to Dana White, though nothing will likely be confirmed for several more weeks. Nate Diaz-Jim Miller will fight May 5th at UFC on Fox 3, and the victor likely be in play for a title shot sometime in 2012. Henderson is going to be a tough out as champ, though his lack of punching power leaves him susceptible in a five-round format.
What’s Next For Edgar:
Frankie fought his ass off at lightweight, and successfully defended his title three times, once to BJ Penn and twice to Gray Maynard. But now, it appears, it is the right time for Edgar to move down to featherweight. He has been cutting just one or two pounds for the last several years, and has been beating larger opponents in the process. He becomes an immediate contender against Jose Aldo, and that fight would be easy to promote and have MMA die-hards frothing at the mouth. Though I would recommend a tune-up fight at the weight, probably someone looking to make a splash like Dustin Poirier.
Ryan Bader (14-2, 7-2 UFC) vs. Quintin “Rampage” Jackson (32-10, 7-4 UFC)
Rampage hurt his knee in camp. Rampage missed weight by five pounds. Rampage said that expected to lose this fight. WTF dude? It is understandable that the Pride veteran would want to put on a show for a country that propelled him into MMA superstardom, but we are once again left to wonder just what goes on in the mercurial mind of Quinton Jackson. His opponent, Ryan Bader, looked fantastic. He was faster (perhaps 6 pounds faster?) in the exchanges and mixed up his strikes and takedowns, keeping Rampage guessing as to just where Bader’s attacks would be coming from. Bader continues to be the most underrated light heavyweight, and a 7-2 UFC record in a stacked division cannot be overlooked.
What Next For Rampage:
It appears likely that Rampage will fight Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, with both Pride legends and former UFC champs coming off losses. Rua lost an epic battle to Dan Henderson last November and is looking to stay near the top of the light heavyweight division.
What’s Next For Bader:
A stiff uptick in competition, if you ask me. If the UFC is as impressed with Bader’s performance as I am, he should get the winner of April’s bout between Little Nog and Alexander Gustafsson or Lyoto Machida. Bader would be a handful for any of those three opponents.
Mark Hunt (8-7, 3-1 UFC) vs. Cheick Congo (17-7-2, 10-5-1 UFC)
Cheick Congo was not able to take Mark Hunt to the ground and paid the price via first round KO. Hunt’s physique is slowly improving and his kickboxing power is undeniable.
What’s Next For Congo:
More middling fights with heavyweights looking to move up in the division. It doesn’t appear the Frenchman will ever fight for the title, but is a prime candidate for gatekeeping the division.
What’s Next For Hunt:
With guys like Big Nog and Shane Carwin out until the middle of the year, Hunt could wait for one of them or take a fight with another veteran, Mike Russow. Russow would test Hunt’s takedown defense prove wether Hunt should be considered for Top 5 fights in the division.
Yoshihiro Akiyama (13-5, 1-4 UFC) vs. Jake Shields (27-6-1, 2-2 UFC)
Akiyama’s first cut to 170 ended with a decision loss to Jake Shields, who bored his way to a 30-27 decision using his takedown and top control skills to keep Akiyama off balance. The Japanese fighter just didn’t look he had anything to offer Shields other than making him work for his takedowns.
What’s Next For Akiyama:
Sexyama’s stint in the UFC is probably over, and the 37-year-old will need to figure out if it’s time to pack up his tanning bed and ride off into the sunset. Or just keep doing soap operas.
What’s Next For Shields:
Breaking his first career losing streak should reignite the 33-year-old’s confidence, and a similar styles match-up between Shields and Charlie Brenneman could be interesting.
Tim Boetsch (15-4, 6-3 UFC) vs. Yushin Okami (26-7, 10-4 UFC)
Okami appeared on his way to a dominating decision after two rounds of smothering Tim Boetsch. Then Tim Boetsch got serious. Often fighters will be down after two rounds and stubbornly refuse to change their game-plan and go for the finish. But Boetsch entered the third round and staggered the former title contender against the cage before finishing him on the ground. The victory was of the most shocking comebacks in the last few years, and had commentator Joe Rogan screaming at the top of his lungs for a full 30 seconds. Sorry Mike Goldberg, you can talk later.
What’s Next For Okami:
There really isn’t any negative to take away from this performance. Okami remains the strongest guy in the division and is a nightmare match-up for anyone not named Anderson Silva. Even the best fighters get caught.
What’s Next For Boetsch:
Boetsch deserves a borderline Top 10 opponent at this point. The Belcher-Palhares winner or Chris Weidman, who impressed in his defeat of Damian Maia on just 11 days notice.
Hatsu Hioki (26-4-2, 2-0 UFC) vs. Bart Palaszewski (36-15, 1-1 UFC)
As I mentioned in the preview, Bartimus is one tough dude. Hatsu Hioki threw the kitchen sink at him in the first round and he survived. Palaszewski even managed to eke out Round 2 in my mind, but was subsequently taken down and body locked in Round 3, securing a unanimous decision victory for the Japanese figher. Hioki’s stand-up was crisp and his transitions on the ground were a thing of beauty. He threw three submissions at Bartimus in the span of 15 seconds and nearly finished all three. Bartimus’ toughness is the only thing that got him to that third round bell.
What’s Next For Bartimus:
Bartimus seems like the kind of fighter that will always hang around. He’ll be hard pressed to land another big fight but it’ll be damn tough to get him out of the UFC. Picking an opponent is trickier than trying to spell Palaszewski.
What’s Next For Hioki:
It’s official. I’m declaring Hioki the best Japanese fighter in the world. There. Wasn’t so hard, was it? It seemed a title shot against Jose Aldo was looming after his impressive win, but Hioki wants another bout before challenging for the belt. Perplexing to me, there are no guarantees of ever being offered a shot again. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Hioki can beat the likes of Eric Koch or the Korean Zombie.
Anthony Pettis (15-2, 2-1 UFC) vs. Joe Lauzon (21-7, 8-4 UFC)
Joe Lauzon always comes out fast and ready to work. Apparently Anthony Pettis and his team got the message. Both fighters came out swinging, and Pettis was able to land a head kick that put Lauzon out to pasture. Real impressive win for Pettis.
What’s Next For Lauzon:
Lauzon remains a tough out and a borderline Top 10 lightweight. He’ll probably meet someone in the mold of Rafael Dos Anjos, which my friend Dan says is always tough. Why? “Because there’s two of him”.
What’s Next For Pettis:
A re-match with new lightweight champion Benson Henderson. Pettis famously defeated Henderson in WEC title fight with his “Showtime” cage kick sealing the deal. This fight hypes itself if Dana White and Joe Silva don’t decide the Jim Miller-Nate Diaz winner deserves the shot more.
-Takanori Gomi looked stale in the first round, but overcame Eiji Mitsuoka with ease for a ground and pound stoppage in Round 2.
-Kid Yamamoto was submitted by Vaughn Lee after an exciting first few minutes of the fight that saw Kid wobbled by knees to the head
-Riki Fukuda wins a decision over a gassed Steve Cantwell
-Takey Mizugaki falls to Chris Cariaso in a controversial decision. Mizugaki is awarded his fight bonus by Dana White nonetheless.