Duane Finley’s thoughts on Saturday’s pay-per-view
In the current era of the UFC, where events are fast and furious, every so often there come an event where time slows down and we get to feel the full effect of the sport’s biggest promotion doing what it does best.
This past weekend in Atlanta, the table was perfectly set for a chapter to be added into the history books as the heralded “future of MMA,” Jon Jones, finally defended his light heavyweight title against former friend and training partner Rashad Evans.
The pre-fight media machine burned hot right up to the first exchange of leather, and UFC 145 had that incredible feeling that made those who were in attendance to witness or at home gathered around a television set feel as if they were about to witness a moment in history. Whether the event lived up to the grand pedestal it had been placed upon is subject to debate, but what cannot be disputed after the smoke cleared was the incredible journey of the youngest champion in UFC history will continue.
Jones defeated Evans in a five-round affair to retain his title, and while it wasn’t the type of flawless display we have come to expect from the champion, Jones handled his business decisively. For five rounds, he outworked Evans as his length and pressure kept the former champion from doing damage. The end result was a third successful defense for Jones and the sellout crowd at Phillips Arena witnessed a card that saw some devastating knockouts, two of the sport’s young stars shine and a few surprises along the way.
Now that UFC 145 is in the books, let’s take a look back at the some of the event’s highs and lows.
Since this kid erupted onto the UFC stage three short years ago, I’ve personally lacked any ability as to where to place him amongst his peers. Where in the beginning of his run, things appeared too good to be true, now I’ve come to the conclusion he may be too good to be stopped. Before Saturday night, Jones’ report card had been aces across the board. He had not only dominated but put away some of the sport’s toughest fighters and managed to do so while making it look effortless. Against Evans, things played out a bit differently. His trademark coolness came and went at times throughout the fight as he struggled to find his groove. During the moments he was able to locate his rhythm, Jones was phenomenal as he improvised his striking and rocked Evans with a series of short but crushing elbows. The champion dictated nearly every aspect of the fight, and aside from the handful of shots Evans was able to land, Jones executed his game plan without taking any severe damage. The victory removes another major contender from the mix as Jones continues to clean out the division. Now with Evans in his rear-view mirror, he will set his sights on MMA legend Dan Henderson. UFC president Dana White made the announcement at the post-fight press conference that Jones and Henderson will square off later this year. Outside of Henderson and rising Swedish star Alexander Gustafsson, there doesn’t appear to be any viable threat to Jones’ title, which creates the very realistic scenario that by year’s end, Jones may sit atop the mountain with no one left to oppose his reign.
Going into the fight, there was a lot of talk about Evans being able to neutralize Jones’ length by using his wrestling to get inside and put Jones down. But such a scenario never came close to materializing. In the onset, Evans engaged the champion and found success with short hooks and a surprising head kick. After the first round, something shifted in Evans and he played into Jones’ biggest strength. During the second round, he paid the price for it but seemed to bounce back a bit in the early stages of the third frame. Ultimately, Evans became stuck in a holding pattern and the fight finished without him ever being able to get within a comfortable range to throw his power again. Undoubtedly, the former light heavyweight champion will walk away from his loss to Jones disappointed. But the best thing Evans can do is jump back on the horse. This defeat is only his second professional loss, and since he emerged with no major injuries, the timing seems right for potential matchups with other former champions. A bout between Evans and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua would be a main event draw for the UFC, but if “Suga” is looking to bounce back in the strongest fashion, a possible redemption of his first loss against Lyoto Machida would make a huge statement.
Being booked into the co-main event slot on a card of this magnitude is a sign the UFC has put its push behind you. That type of attention and pressure has rattled veteran fighters in the past, which only made it that much more intriguing when the 22-year-old Canadian standout stepped into the role in Atlanta. MacDonald has lived up to every ounce of hype, and rather than overlook a game but relatively unknown fighter like Che Mills, he prepared accordingly. Shortly after the fight got underway, Mills landed a solid shot as he put MacDonald into the cage. But after shrugging off the impact, MacDonald put Mills on his back and brought the fight into his world. From top position, MacDonald uncorked a vicious barrage of ground and pound that left Mills battered and bloodied at the end of the first round. Wobbled and cut, Mills didn’t last long in the second as MacDonald once again put him on the canvas and pounded him without mercy en route to a TKO stoppage. The victory over Mills makes it three in a row for the young Tristar Gym product. But perhaps more impressive than the wins themselves is the increasingly brutal fashion of ground and pound he displays. MacDonald has a truly unique ability to generate big power from the top, and when that type of pop is accurate it is extremely dangerous. Where most fighters look to score points or set up submissions from that position, MacDonald has the ability to end fights from the ground and pound alone. Following his win at UFC 145, MacDonald stressed the necessity to fight at least three times a year. With the current regeneration of the welterweight division, MacDonald is in a position to shake things up. The only dilemma he faces is timing as every other elite welterweight is currently booked for a fight. But with Johny Hendricks, Josh Koscheck, Jake Ellenberger and Martin Kampmann all seeing action in the next two months, a fight MacDonald needs could be just around the corner.
While Rory MacDonald may have carried the pressure of a higher slot on the card, it’s arguable McDonald’s fight against former WEC featherweight champion Miguel Torres held more implications. The UFC bantamweight division has been dominated thus far by champion Dominick Cruz and outside of his next opponent, Urijah Faber, there isn’t a clear-cut contender waiting in the wings. The matchup with Torres was supposed to answer several questions about McDonald’s ability, and it was a test he answered with vicious authority. The 21-year-old was calm and collected throughout fight week, and as the bout got underway he traded in his pre-fight smile for a game face. With lightning-quick hands and solid footwork he peppered Torres as the veteran attempted to force his offense. This approach led to his undoing – he ducked his head as he leaned in for a jab and caught a McDonald uppercut flush on the chin. Torres was out before he hit the canvas but two additional strikes from McDonald sealed the deal. The impact was so brutal, once Torres was brought back to his senses he left the cage with the physical aid of his coaching staff. Knocking out a savvy veteran like Torres only increases the acceleration of an already rapidly rising star. But the next step for McDonald isn’t clear and it will be interesting to see which direction the UFC looks to push him. The only other bantamweight fighter making a similar ruckus is Renan Barao. The Brazilian currently has a fight of his own coming up against Ivan Menjivar at UFC 148 in July and should he emerge victorious in the fight, a potential No. 1 contenders bout between McDonald and Barao would be huge. This scenario would depend on the UFC’s willingness to sacrifice the progress of a contender to build a bigger championship bout in the future. The most likely step would be for McDonald to get another fight before wading into championship waters, and this could come against fighters like Brad Pickett, Eddie Wineland or Scott Jorgensen.
As soon as Rothwell stepped on the scale for the pre-fight weigh-ins, it became clear some major changes had been made in his overall approach to fighting. He came in looking lean, mean and focused for his fight against Brendan Schaub. A big underdog, many figured Rothwell to be Schaub’s springboard back into the win column after suffering a knockout loss to Antonio “Big Nog” Nogueira last year in Brazil. This may have been the general assumption going into the fight, but Rothwell was having none of it. Schaub came out straight away looking to throw heavy leather, and after backing Rothwell up with a shot that appeared to wobble him, the TUF alum came rushing in for the kill. With his back against the fence Rothwell uncorked firepower of his own, which crumbled Schaub to the canvas and not only notched a much-needed victory for Rothwell but earned him Knockout of the Night honors in the process. In his post-fight speech, Rothwell gave a passionate thank you to his fans and supporters for keeping his career alive. It was his biggest victory in the UFC by far, and it came at a time when much like the final moments of the fight, his back was against the wall. In addition to his good fortune and managing to dispatch Schaub with one minute of work, Rothwell may be in a position to step into the mix at UFC 146. Due to Alistair Overeem being pulled from the card and the lineup being shuffled because of it, Roy Nelson is currently without an opponent. Rothwell and Nelson have locked horns in the past, and a second go-around would certainly be a matchup fans could get behind.
Other fighters who have reasons to hold their heads high leaving Atlanta are Mac Danzig, Eddie Yagin and Matt Brown. Danzig battled through a gruesome ankle injury suffered during the fight with Efrain Escudero to secure the unanimous decision victory. It was a gritty effort and a much-needed win for the Season 6 TUF winner. Much like Rothwell, Yagin came into his bout against Mark Hominick as a heavy underdog and was expected to take his lumps. While the Hawaiian certainly received his fair share of damage throughout the fight, he gave more than he took. There were several moments over the first two rounds when Yagin appeared to be within moments of closing out the fight after dropping Hominick, but each time “The Machine” was able to survive. In the final frame, Hominick finally found his timing, but it was too little too late as Yagin pulled off the upset victory. Brown’s toughness has never been a question, but after his performance against the super-hyped Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, he might consider a change of nickname. Brown was on the receiving end of a barrage of sharp striking, but every round he was able to endure and work his opponent to the canvas. Once the fight hit the deck, Brown abused the prospect en route to a unanimous decision victory.
Several fighters came into Atlanta seemingly locked into victory before their bouts ever took place. But such is the beauty and tragedy of the sport of MMA, where anything can happen when the four-ounce gloves start flying. After notching several big victories, Schaub appeared to be working his way toward the heavyweight division’s upper tier. But now, after suffering consecutive knockout losses to Nogueira and Rothwell, it is difficult to tell where Schaub will fall into the divisional mix. Make no mistake about it, the former pro football player carries heavy hands into the Octagon, but he has paid the price for exchanging and in the world of heavyweight MMA, a touchy chin is a difficult obstacle to overcome. With youth on his side, there is still time for Schaub to refine his skills and make a run back up the ladder. There is no doubt Schaub has the talent and skills to compete in the division, but if he hopes to hang with the best in the weight class it is going to take serious development in the other aspects of his game. Living up to the hype is never an easy task, and Thompson saw his train derailed by Brown on Saturday night in Atlanta. There is little doubt Thompson has an effective striking game, but his takedown defense was non-existent in the fight. While he peppered and picked Brown apart on the feet, once Brown was able to get his hands on Thompson he was able to get the fight to the canvas with ease. In addition to his ability to put Thompson on his back, Brown was also able to keep him there. The saving grace for Thompson is youth and in some instances, a tough lesson in the early stages of a career becomes the best thing to happen to a fighter. Hopefully this fight will be exactly the type of experience Thompson needed.
On a personal note, UFC 145 carried that special feeling it was going to be one of those events you look back at years later and were happy you were a part of. The entire fight week buildup created a special aura, and Philips Arena thrived with a great energy on fight night. As for the trip itself, it was the first Stateside Zuffa card coming off a long layoff, and it was great to see my traveling family and brethren-in-arms out on the scene. The life of an MMA journalist isn’t glamorous by any means, but spending time with old friends and colleagues always gets me fired up and ready for a long stretch of shows. And looking ahead at the calendar, it’s about to get crazy. So in parting, I say farewell to Atlanta. I say thank you for your spaced-out infrastructure and your MARTA transportation network. Thank you for the good times and the memories, but so long.
Next stop — New Jersey!
UFC 145 Post Fight Press Conference Highlights