UFC Vegas is in the books and with 8 of the 12 fights going the distance; Fight Night 88 certainly lived up to its billing as one of the most tightly matched cards of the year so far. However if you thought that a distinct lack of finishes meant there weren’t many stories to come out of last nights’ fights you would be wrong. Here are a few of the things we have learned from UFC Vegas.
“No Love” Has Put The Entire Bantamweight Division on Notice
Cody Garbrandt once again proved why he is one of the most highly touted prospects in all of Mixed Martial Arts with a quick and decisive 1st round knockout of fellow young prospect, number 7 ranked Thomas Almeida. Prior to this weekend, the Ohio-born Garbrandt had looked nothing short of perfect in his fledgling MMA career, flying out to an impressive 8-0 record, finishing 7 of his 8 opponents. Despite this string of victories, “No Love” was not even ranked inside the top 15 of the UFC’s Bantamweight division; that will surely change when the rankings are next released. This victory against Almeida, who was previously unbeaten in all 21 of his pro MMA bouts, will not only bring with it an official ranking, but also a step up in competition for 24-year-old Garbrandt. His next opponent will almost certainly be another top 10 fighters and may even come at UFC 203 in Cleveland, Ohio, Garbrandt’s home state. It remains to be seen if that will come to fruition, however, one thing is for sure, Cody Garbrandt put the entire UFC Bantamweight division on red alert with his performance on Sunday.
Jeremy Stephens is Ready For a Top 5 Opponent Next
Before this weekend the UFC had Jeremy Stephens at #9 in the Featherweight rankings and given some of the fighters above him in that list, that seems a fair spot for the Iowa-born, Alliance MMA product. However those that draw up the rankings may have to assess Stephens’ position after his performance in Las Vegas on Sunday, because not only did Stephens take home a unanimous decision victory, he got that W against a very dangerous man in Renan Barao. This is a big scalp for Stephens and whilst it cements his place in the top 10, it also furthers his claim for a fight against a top 5 ranked opponent in the near future. In his post-fight interview “Lil Heathen” stated he was ready to step in if one of Frankie Edgar and Jose Aldo get injured before they fight for the Interim UFC Featherweight Championship at UFC 200. Whilst he may not be the first to get the call should that happen, it must be said he has earned a big name fight next and with Chad Mendes currently without an opponent, I believe that Joe Silva will look to set up a fight between Stephens and Mendes in the near future.
It’s Back to the Drawing Board for the Brazilians
Both Thomas Almeida and Renan Barao had high hopes of igniting a title charge with victories this past weekend; instead, they were left assessing what went wrong as both fell to defeats at the hands of their American opponents. Former UFC Bantamweight champion Barao moved up to Featherweight in the hope of starting a fresh run at UFC gold and a win over Jeremy Stephens would have been a great first step in that quest. However in a hard fought contest he ended up losing a unanimous decision to Stephens, furthermore his weight cut still seemed to be an issue even though he went up 10lbs for this fight. Since suffering two losses to TJ Dillashaw, Barao has looked like a shadow of the fighter that won the 135lb belt and this loss to Stephens will leave the Brazilian scratching his head as to what he should do next. The question for him is whether he can ever replicate the type of performances that saw him go 32-1 to begin his MMA career. For Thomas Almeida the damage of his loss is not of the same scale, as a young fighter who has looked fantastic in the UFC up till this point, he has only to look at his first loss to Cody “No Love” Garbrandt as a learning experience. The knock on Almeida coming into this fight was his lack of head movement and how much he gets hit as a consequence of that. This proved to be his downfall against a fast and powerful striker in Garbrandt and though this first career loss will hurt the young Brazilian prospect now; long term it should only serve to make him a stronger fighter, providing, of course, he and his coaches make the appropriate adjustments to his game going forward.
Bryan Caraway Is Not To Be Underestimated
It would seem that Bryan Caraway said it best in his post-fight interview, “I am the underdog in every single fight and I keep winning… you can keep doubting me. But eventually, you are going to have to deal with me and recognize my talent”. No longer can anyone at Bantamweight underestimate Bryan Caraway, he certainly proved that much as he ground out a tight split decision victory over up-and-comer Aljamain Sterling. After a back and forth first two rounds, it was Caraway that bit down on his mouthpiece and controlled the pivotal 3rd, to take home a W that will taste all the sweeter given Sterling’s trash talk prior to fight week. The animosity made for an interesting spectacle at the weigh-ins when Caraway refused Sterling’s hand and pre-fight when the two did not touch gloves. In defeating Sterling who is ranked at number 4 in the Bantamweight standings Caraway, like Garbrandt, sent a message out the every 135-pounder on the roster this past weekend.
Jessica Eye May Be On The Brink
With only 1 win in her last 6 outings; that coming against Leslie Smith at UFC 180 in Mexico City, it is pretty safe to say that Jessica “Evil” Eye’s UFC career is teetering on the edge. Simply losing to Sara McMann on Sunday may not have put her in this position; however the manner in which she went down to the former Olympian was so passive that Eye has left herself in a situation whereby her next fight, will likely be to remain on the UFC roster. Whether it was because of their past, or the pressure of having her teammate Stipe Miocic recently win Heavyweight gold, only Eye will know. But she looked highly tentative to mount any significant offense whether on the feet or on the mat, in the end, it was a case of what might have been as McMann controlled the fight and handed the Ohio native her 3rd straight loss. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Sunday may be the last time we see “Evil” Eye compete inside the octagon for a while; however it is far more likely she will get one last chance to prove her worth, here’s hoping she take it with both hands.
Erik Koch is Back Looking Sharp
Early in the night, the Vegas crowd witnessed the return of a somewhat forgotten fighter; his name, Erik Koch. In the 3rd fight of the evening, Iowa-born Koch returned from a two-year injury layoff to face Shane Campbell in a Lightweight collision with big implications for both men. For Koch this was the end of a long road that was filled with disappointment, as injury had derailed a promising start to his UFC career and denied him a title shot with the then Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo. Koch has long been considered as having all the tools to compete for UFC gold but has been held back by a string of injuries, something he hopes is now behind him. If that is the case then the UFC’s Lightweight division, where he now plies his trade, has just gotten a little tougher. On the basis of his performance on Sunday, when he finished Campbell via rear-naked choke at 3:02 of the 2nd round it seems Koch is back with the same sharpness he showed a couple of years ago. If this man stays fit and healthy and continues to progress as many experts believe he can, there is no reason why we won’t see him mixing it up with the top 10 or 15 of the UFC’s 155lb division very soon.
With the up and coming fighters on this card, UFC Vegas was most certainly a glimpse into the future of the Bantamweight division. However with the wins for Cody Garbrandt and Bryan Caraway and the potential of Thomas Almeida and Aljamain Sterling, it was also a look at the present for a division which has enjoyed a lot of good coverage recently. Coverage which is unlikely to stop anytime soon, since the champ Dominick Cruz has his rubber match vs Urijah Faber just next week at UFC 199 and the rematch between top contenders TJ Dillashaw and Raphael Assuncao will take place at UFC 200 in July. As far as competitive divisions go, Bantamweight is stacking up quite nicely against the rest these days, UFC Vegas showed us that if nothing else.
Exclusive: Mike Ekundayo, “He could come with anything, I don’t care”
In a little less than a week, Rise of Champions crowns its inaugural bantamweight champion. The crowning of the first 135 lb. champion marks the young promotions first champion. It makes sense why the promotion owned and operated by UK MMA star, Brad Pickett, and Team Titan head coach, Mickey Papas plan to crown the promotions first champion in the bantamweight division. Pickett competed in the division throughout his tenure with the WEC, and ultimately the entity which absorbed the light weight promotion, the UFC. Even more-so, two young and rising prospects of the division. One undefeated in his professional and amateur career, the other riding a seven consecutive victories, five by submission. The two meet February 17th, Mike Ekundayo puts his career unbeaten streak up against Jonas Magard’s at ROC 5, for the aforementioned, inaugural bantamweight championship.
Speaking to the undefeated Ekundayo before his fight, he believes this opportunity to be inevitable. Born in Hackney, (a borough of London) early in life, Ekundayo was no stranger to cramming his belongings into large cardboard boxes. At the age of 7, he moved from Hackney to Herne Hill, a district located in South London. Two years later he found himself in similar situation, moving from his vaguely new home in Herne Hill to Brixton. A road trip in the car to his new home, took approximately 5 minutes.
It is admittedly, not an easy life. In a harrowing article describing the horrors of gang life in London by the metro.uk, former gang member turned community activist, made the claim, “When you are from Brixton, from Peckham, west London, anywhere in London, you are seeing hardship where a lot of communities can’t reach their full potential”.
In his own words, Ekundayo describes his home as, “not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing”. But that couldn’t matter any less for him. Not only does the London resident consistently work to grow his potential, he gets to see it every day. His coaches Brad Pickett and Mickey Papas hold the knowledge as well as first-hand experience, increasing his limits with every session. “We’re all close”, speaking of his coaches and team. “My head coach is Mickey Papas, he’s very knowable in the game. He’s been around for a very long time. He teaches me a lot, I can learn a lot of stuff from Mickey Papas. Sometimes I just think, how does he know all of this? Where did he get this information from?”
He continued, “While I was coming up through amateur, Brad (Pickett) was still an active fighter, but nowadays he’s taken a coaching approach. So he’s coaching us prospects getting us to where he got to and further… He’s been through it all, gotten to the top, and stayed at the top”.
Further discussing his coach, “For UK MMA, you could definitely call Brad a legend. He’s done a lot in his career, and someone who I rate highly as an MMA fighter is Demetrious Johnson, and of course Brad has got a win over (him). I feel like just being surrounded by someone like Brad, you’re working towards the right things. When he passes information onto you, you respect it that bit more because of far he got in his career. He’s definitely given me the right guidance, I trust his guidance”.
When it comes to the upcoming title fight, confidence poured out from where praise and respect had once been. “I just think it’s my time, to be honest. I really do believe it’s my time for all of this. The work I put in, certain things become inevitable”, he said. “I actually called this after I won my third fight, I called for belts and big shows. I spoke it to existence”. He continued, “It’s my time to finally to get a strap of some sort. All the straps is what we’re going for, all of them. We’re going for every one”.
“Rise of Champions is my show… That’s how I feel when I’m performing on ROC, it’s just my show, it’s my time to shine. Everyone knows who there here to see, there not really there to see the other guys. It’s my time, it’s my show and I’m going to put on a show on February 17th and I’m going to win that belt”.
The infectious nature of his positive attitude was palpable. Although we only spoke through small rectangular devices, I could feel his energy in the room. His attitude shined brightest when talking about what it would mean to be the first ever ROC Bantamweight champion. Ekundayo claimed, “It just means a lot to have my first belt in anything to be honest… Within myself, I call myself a champion, every day. But now, other people would have to call me a champion because I’ve got a belt… And one thing I really want to do is, which sounds a bit weird, I just want to take the belt home to my area, to Brixton.”
“I just want to take it to my area, and just show the people of that area what hard work can achieve… I want to just take it to my people and show them that not for nothing, we are from Brixton, it’s not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing but you can rise above it and you can achieve your goals and that’s what the belt will mean”.
When the conversation shifted to the topic of his opponent, Ekundayo had less encouraging words rolling off his tongue. Jonas Magard, the second half of the ROC 5 main event, holds a record of 7-4. Currently he owns a seven fight win streak after starting his career 1-3. Ekundayo thought, “He did fight quite decent guys in his three loses… but in the seven fight win streak, none of his opponents have been of caliber”.
He elaborated further, “What’s in my thoughts is more me, then it is of him. So, he could come with anything, I don’t care. I’m just focused on how I’m going to be picture perfect. How I’m going to paint a masterpiece, how I’m going to make it a beautifully perfect performance. That’s what my primary focus is on, so what he does to me is irrelevant, I’m just going to focus on how I’m going to be perfect on the night of February 17th”.
UFC 222 Re-Worked with Cris Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya, and Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega
UFC 222 has been saved, and it didn’t take a superhero to lift the burning boulder which was Max Holloway’s injury and withdrawal. All it took was a female named Cyborg and a man with a demeanor so smooth, he could be mistaken for an alter-ego. Cris Cyborg now serves as the UFC 222 main event when she defends her featherweight belt against Yana Kunitskaya. Frankie Edgar bumped down to the co-main event to face Brian Ortega in what is likely a title eliminator. The news of the UFC 222 revival originally stemmed from a report by MMAFighting.com and confirmed later in the evening by the UFC.
— UFC (@ufc) February 8, 2018
Over the course of the week, reports surrounded the Las Vegas card and whether it would survive. Multiple options were reportedly being mulled over; cancelling the card outright, changing the pay-per-view (PPV) to a ‘Fight Night’ with an Edgar vs. Ortega main event, Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt 2 main event, among others. Ultimately, the promotion landed on Cyborg vs. Kunitskaya as the new main event, while also booking Brian Ortega.
This adjustment of the card places their women’s Featherweight champion in the second PPV main event in three months. Cris Cyborg recently put her undisputed Featherweight title on the line against Holly Holm at the year ending card, UFC 219. She successfully defended her belt by unanimous decision, in what was an amazing technical display from the Brazilian. In her octagon career, Cyborg is undefeated in her four appearances with three KO/TKO stoppages.
The second half of the new main event, Yana Kunitskaya, makes her UFC debut against the scariest women on the roster. If the 145 lb. champion was not enough of a challenge, Kunitskaya also makes her first appearance in the division since defeating Cindy Dandois in December of 2010. Of Russia descent, her most recent performances came inside the Invicta FC cage. At the female-only promotion, she posted a record of 1-1, with 1 No Contest. Her loss and no contest, both came at the hands of former UFC Featherweight title challenger, Tonya Evinger.
Turning to the co-main event, both fighters have been relatively inactive but, for good reason. Brian Ortega amazingly forced perennial men’s Featherweight contender, Cub Swanson, to tap in the second round of their ‘Fight Night: Fresno’ contest. Ortega fought twice in 2017, but more-so stayed inactive following his stoppage victory over Swanson. The Californian contender announced his desire to wait in line for the next title shot following the recent victory.
For Frankie Edgar, his last fight took place at UFC 211 when he absolutely demolished young and rising star, Yair Rodriguez. A card which took place last May. While Ortega holds an undefeated record, Edgar is undefeated in his previous 9 fights, excluding people named Jose Aldo.
UFC 222 takes place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 3rd.
UFC Middleweight Champion, Robert Whittaker Announces Birth of Third Child
Times seem dull and dreary for the UFC’s Middleweight Champion, Robert Whittaker. The New Zealand born fighter withdrew from the promotions event debut in the eastern region of his residence, Australia. UFC 221, which takes place this Saturday, booked Whittaker to defend his title for the first time against former division champion, Luke Rockhold. His withdrawal was due to mistreatment of a serious staph infection inside of the Australians stomach.
It couldn’t get much worse, having to disappoint fans, and missing the first UFC event in eastern Australia. As it turns out, it could not get worse for Whittaker. Life only got better, as he had the pleasure of announcing the birth of his third child.
His new child is the champions third and first girl. Information regarding his child is limited as this moment is a tender and special time for the Whittaker family.
UFC 221 takes place in Perth, Australia at Perth Arena on February 11th. The cards main event features Whittakers short notice replacement, Yoel Romero taking on Luke Rockhold. Much to the satiety of fans, an interim belt is not in the equation in this instance.
Thank God. Excuse me, thank Dana White.
UFC 221 also features the ‘Super Samoan’ Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes, Tai Tuivasa faces Cyril Asker, Alexander Volkanovski vs. Jeremy Kennedy and more.
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