The race for title contention in the ranks of the UFC’s middleweight division is more competitive than it’s been in years, and Fight Night 72 on Saturday was set to play a major role in how the upper tier would look heading into the second half of 2015.
With dominant champion Chris Weidman figured to face No. 1 contender Luke Rockhold sometime before the end of the year, the opportunity to move up the divisional ladder is there for the taking. Perennial title threat Michael Bisping and resurgent Brazilian finishing machine Thales Leites have both set their sights on claiming the 185-pound crown, but the state of affairs in the middleweight fold have left little room for error.
While The Count has never been out of striking distance from earning his long-awaited title opportunity, he has alternated wins and losses for the past two years. Setbacks in three of his past six outings have jeopardized his elite-level status, and the Manchester native came into his tilt with the former title challenger in need of a victory to keep his future championship hopes alive.
Where Bisping came into the UFC’s debut in Scotland looking to hang onto his place in the divisional hierarchy, Leites has been trying to regain a place he once held in the 185-pound collective.
Six years ago the Nova Uniao standout faced former middleweight king Anderson Silva, but a rough showing against The Spider and a loss in his next outing would cost Leites his spot on the UFC roster. He would not only earn his way back to the UFC by winning all but one of his seven showings outside the Octagon, but he returned to title contention by notching five consecutive victories in his second run under the UFC banner.
Both men came into Glasgow determined to take the next step toward a title shot, but it was Bisping who wanted it more. The 36-year-old Englishman worked his signature high-volume striking attack and weathered powerful flurries from Leites en route to picking up the split-decision victory.
With the win, Bisping will remain a major player in the crowded middleweight title picture as he notched back-to-back victories for the first time since 2011.
Let’s take a look at the good, bad and strange from Fight Night 72 on Saturday.
Going into Fight Night 72, Bisping knew more than just a notch in the win or loss column was on the line in Glasgow.
The savvy veteran has spent the past seven years as a major player in the middleweight division and has been on the verge of title contention at several points over his time in the 185-pound mix. Yet, he’s come up short in critical moments, and his foothold in the upper tier of the weight class has started to slip.
That was certainly the case when he suffered a setback against Luke Rockhold last November, but he was stopped his slide by defeating CB Dollaway in his next outing five months later at UFC 186 in Montreal. Nevertheless, the top level of the middleweight division is cluttered, and a fighter in Bisping’s position could not another misstep.
Those circumstances painted a pressure-filled situation for the outspoken Brit coming into his bout on Saturday, and he absolutely stepped up to answer the challenge in front of him in Leites. The Nova Uniao product has evolved from his days of being a single-dimension ground fighter, adding a power striking game that gave Bisping fits at times.
Even though he was wobbled in multiple exchanges, Bisping’s big-fight experience allowed him to persevere through rough patches and use his high-paced striking attack to wear his opponent down. It was anyone’s fight going into the final frame, and Bisping’s accuracy and output sealed the deal on the judges’ scorecards.
While a hard-fought split-decision victory over Leites won’t launch him into a title shot, it will keep him holding strong in the upper portion of the middleweight class. It will also guarantee he will face another top-ranked opponent in his next outing.
Granted, there are no easy fights on the top shelf of the 185-pound collective, but his championship hopes are still alive, and that will be enough for Bisping.
*** Evan Dunham’s time competing in the UFC has come with plenty of ups and downs, but the veteran lightweight is in the midst of an upswing. The once highly touted grappler has bounced back from a career-low three-fight skid against a collection of the division’s best, earning back-to-back victories. The 33-year-old ground out British knockout artist Ross Pearson in the co-main event on Saturday en route to taking the unanimous decision.
Where Dunham had shown a penchant for being baited into wild exchanges in the past, the current version of the Oregon native is an efficient one. He set out to grapple Pearson from start to finish, and that’s exactly what he did every step of the 15-minute affair. The end result was another victory for Dunham as he once again proved he’s one of the toughest outs in the lightweight fold.
*** There is a ton of hype surrounding “Irish” Joe Duffy, and it is absolutely for real. While the Tristar fighter has garnered attention for being the last man to beat fellow countryman Conor McGregor, the 27-year-old lightweight is making a different type of noise as he climbs the 155-pound ranks.
On Saturday in Glasgow, Duffy picked up another first-round finish, submitting Ivan Jorge via triangle choke to cap off another outstanding showing.
The Dublin native has now closed out both of his fights inside the Octagon in quick and dominant fashion, and the excitement surrounding him will only amplify in the aftermath of Fight Night 72. Duffy will be a talent to keep an eye as he continues his run under the UFC banner.
*** There was a lot on the line for Joanne Calderwood coming into Fight Night 72. Not only was she returning to compete in front of her hometown crowd in Glasgow for the first time in two years, but after a loss in her last fight knocked her out of talk of a title shot, the Scottish strawweight’s bout against Cortney Casey was a high-risk affair. That said, Calderwood answered the challenge, going toe-to-toe with the promotional newcomer for three rounds and winning a unanimous decision.
*** While his teammate Conor McGregor has commanded the majority of the spotlight during the Irish invasion of the UFC, Paddy Holohan has done enough to earn some acclaim of his own. The Hooligan has developed a knack of dropping quality banter, and his scrappy fighting style has led him to success in three of his four showings inside the Octagon.
The most recent came at the expense of Vaughan Lee at Fight Night 72, where Holohan put forth a dominant performance to secure another win in the flyweight ranks.
*** The light heavyweight division is wide open, and Ilir Latifi took another big step up the 205-pound ranks on Saturday. The Sledgehammer starched Hans Stringer with a blistering right hand to pick up his third victory in the UFC. While getting the highlight-reel finish will be a nice addition to his resume, Latifi’s victory in Glasgow was crucial since he suffered a setback against Jan Blachowicz in his previous outing.
With his wrestling skills and proven knockout power, the Swedish powerhouse could be an interesting addition to the upper tier of the light heavyweight fold. If Latifi keeps winning the way he did in Scotland, then he could be a fight or two away from facing one of the bigger names in his weight class.
*** It was a triumphant homecoming for proud Scotsman Robert Whiteford at Fight Night 72. The Glasgow-based featherweight electrified the hometown crowd with a first-round knockout victory over Paul Redmond to kick off the televised portion of Saturday’s card.
Not only did The Hammer live up to his name by battering his Irish opponent in the stand-up game, but he gathered a bit of momentum in the process, notching his second consecutive victory inside the Octagon.
For as gritty a fighter as he’s proved to be, the idea of Pearson ever becoming a championship contender in the UFC may have finally evaporated at Fight Night 72.
After winning the ninth installment of The Ultimate Fighter, The Real Deal appeared poised to do big things inside the Octagon. Yet, six years and two weight class shifts later, the British slugger has never shown any type of consistency inside the cage. He’s had stellar performances against tough competition, but alternating wins and losses is never going to produce an elite-level fighter.
The 30-year-old Team Alliance member suffered his most recent setback on Saturday when Evan Dunham outgrappled and outclassed him at Fight Night 72. The Scottish crowd may have booed the Oregon native’s wrestling-heavy game plan, but that didn’t stop Dunham from exploiting Pearson’s greatest weakness.
Pearson did show a tremendous amount of heart when he battled his way out of a deep armbar attempt from Dunham in the opening frame, but the heavy-handed striker still found himself in the loss column after the final bell. With the loss, he has now been defeated in two of his last three bouts, and any momentum he had in the lightweight ranks has vanished.
Yet, just because he may never be a title contender, that doesn’t take away from Pearson’s ability to put on exciting and entertaining fights. He has proven knockout power and crisp boxing skills that will allow him to trade with anyone in the 155-pound division, and his willingness to engage makes him a fun fighter to watch.
*** There is no definitive formula for how a fighter loses his spot on the UFC roster, but Marcus Brimage could have run out of real estate on Saturday. The veteran bantamweight was finished in the first round of his bout against Jimmie Rivera to notch his second consecutive loss, which makes him unsuccessful in four of his past five showings.
To make matters worse, Brimage has been put away by his opposition in three of those fights, which never reflects well with the UFC brass.
*** Another thing that won’t bode well is the type of performance Vaughan Lee put on at Fight Night 72. The veteran Brit came into his flyweight debut against Paddy Holohan having lost two of his past three showings, and he desperately needed to turn things around against the scrappy Irishman. What transpired was anything but, as Lee showed zero sense of urgency as The Hooligan cruised to a clean sweep on the scorecards.
Even worse, it wasn’t so much that Holohan dominated the fight but that Lee exerted little effort to thwart The Hooligan. The 32-year-old refused to battle out of ground exchanges, and even though he came into the final frame down two rounds to nil, Lee was hesitant to go after the victory during the last five minutes of the fight.
With a showing that went far beyond lackluster, and his inability to find success at a constant clip, it’s safe to say Fight Night 72 will be Lee’s last Octagon appearance for the foreseeable future.
With the breakneck pace the UFC has been hosting events over the past three years, fight fans are conditioned to set aside their Saturday nights to get their fill of face-punching goodness. Therefore, when the biggest promotion in MMA heads into international waters and throws down the occasional Saturday morning card, it serves as a nice change of pace.
This rang especially true for Fight Night 72, as bodies were hitting the deck at a solid clip in Glasgow. Three of the initial four bouts ended in brutal stoppages in the opening round, with six in total ending by finish. There are few things that MMA fans love more than seeing fights end in violently abrupt fashion, and when they get plenty of that flavor, it’s never going to be a bad day of viewing.
When said viewing comes early in the day and leaves the evening open to actually enjoy a weekend away from the ruckus, it’s a welcome break from the normal routine the MMA world has fallen into.
While the action inside the Octagon went off without a hitch on Saturday, the performance delivered by longtime commentator Mike Goldberg didn’t take long to go flying off the rails. Granted, Goldie has been knocking it out on a regular basis for more than a decade, but any time the promotion heads into a new market, things have the potential to get interesting.
It was linguistic warfare for Goldberg in Glasgow as he took liberties with fighter names early and often and even flexed his creative muscles by flat-out creating a moniker or two along the way.
By no means is play-by-play commentary an easy field. Furthermore, it is a thankless and nearly invisible job when done correctly. Yet, when bumps in the road are hit the way Goldberg cruised into guardrails on Saturday afternoon, it is going to stand out.
In addition to the rapid-fire violence that unfolded at Fight Night 72, the event also marked yet another appearance of the enigma more commonly known as Ilir Latifi. The Sledgehammer has developed a feverish following since his UFC debut back in 2013—one that has continued to grow with each rung he climbs up the ladder of the light heavyweight fold.
And why wouldn’t it? The Swedish powerhouse is in the express lane to legendary status in the MMA realm, and the picture below stands as proof of Latifi being in a class all his own.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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