Written by: Remi Se
UFC 215 lost it’s main event of Demetrius Johnson vs Ray Borg just a day before the event, leaving many fans frustrated and unenthusiastic about the leftover card. Those who did choose to tune in however, were treated to plenty of quality action and the emergence of a pair of potential future contenders in two divisions. This card wasn’t an event of the year candidate and it didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it did manage to provide some interesting match-ups that give way to more exciting match-up opportunities in the future.
Ilir Latifi vs Tyson Pedro:
Ilir Latifi put together a workman-like performance behind forward moving flurries of punches and quality wrestling to pick up a unanimous decision victory over up and comer Tyson Pedro. The two were competitive while standing but Latifi was consistently able to back Pedro up and score points with combination punching inside of the pocket. Latifi would pin Pedro to cage and work from inside, mixing in takedowns that helped him decisively take each round. Latifi was steady in a similar manner to when Mark Hunt defeated Lewis; not dominant but clearly in control of where the fight went and how it would be decided. Pedro showed the rough edges around his still developing game. He has to become better at defending the takedown and he needs to sharpen his striking tools to include weapons that he can fall back on when a fight is getting away from him. At this point, it may be less about rounding out his game and more about building on his best skills so that he can better capitalize on his advantages.
Latifi bounced back from a loss to Ryan Bader and cemented himself as a top ten fighter. He still has a way to go before he jumps into the deep end of the division again; but there are some intriguing names above him that would make for good tests. The winner of Corey Anderson and Patrick Cummins’ upcoming bout would give Latifi an opponent with a wrestling background and developing striking game. Pedro’s loss is a setback but shouldn’t remove his up and coming fighter status. Dominick Reyes has the same number of fights and debuted with a starching of Joachim Christenson; a fight between Reyes and Pedro would be an interesting way to push both fighters and set one man up for a shot at the top 15 fighters in the division.
Gilbert Melendez vs Jeremy Stephens:
Jeremy Stephens decimated Gilbert Melendez with leg kicks in route to a unanimous decision victory. Stephens’ gameplan was clearly built on ending combinations with a leg kick, similar to strategies that Edson Barboza, Conor McGregor and Rafael Dos Anjos all employed against Scrap Pack members. By the midway point of the first round Melendez was being knocked down by the attacks to his lead leg. The scrap pack member’s inability to check the kicks combined with Stephens huge power to leave Melendez limping to his corner with a swollen left leg that he would never recover from. Stephens’ recent struggles have had to do with his opponents’ mobility, but by taking El Nino’s lateral movement away, Stephens was able to throw volleys of power strikes without having to chase. Melendez should be lauded for toughness, wading into the pocket in a southpaw stance to protect his leg before switching to orthodox and throwing strikes. El Nino did land in some of these instances but unable to put weight on his lead leg, Melendez lacked the power to do meaningful damage. The third round felt unnecessary, Melendez was showing grit but didn’t have finishing power without his legs underneath him and only stood to take more damage. He still fought hard but Lil Heathen overwhelmed him and made it a clean sweep.
Stephens is at his most entertaining against opponents who are willing to take risks in big exchanges. He has lost in opportunities against many opponents ranked above him however and with his recent record still shaky, he could use another lower ranked opponent to prove he’s ready for another top notch opportunity. Dooho Choi, the Korean Superboy, has had a long break since his epic battle with Cub Swanson. That fight showed all of the qualities that make for Fight of the Night winners against Stephens and would set up one of the two to make another foray into the deeper water of the Featherweight division. Melendez meanwhile showed the same toughness that he’s always boasted, but he has been picked apart by leg kicks on multiple occasions. He’s run into nothing but buzzsaws lately and would likely have it no other way despite the losses. An interesting potential match-up would be with the winner of Lobov vs Fili. Both men would be a step down from recent competition but both are willing to stand and fight which would give Melendez a game opponent and a chance to pick up a sorely needed win. Should it be Lobov, the treat of a Scrap Pack vs SBG match-up would be an added bonus.
Henry Cejudo vs Wilson Reis:
Henry Cejudo finished Wilson Reis in the second round of a performance of the night winner. Cejudo’s growth as a striker was a revelation. He landed counters, combinations moving forward, intercepting knees and an array of kicks all with more snap than he’s ever shown before. Reis was simply overwhelmed from the opening bell, with no answers for the onslaught of the Olympic wrestler. The Olympian’s feints and attacks brought out patterns in Reis’ defense, including habitually ducking toward Henry’s power leg. Cejudo was faster, stronger and his wrestling acumen kept the fight wherever he wanted it. It was only a matter of time before Cejudo would drop Reis with a head kick and close out the bout with ground and pound at a frenzied pace. The performance is made all the more impressive by the fact that Wilson Reis just challenged for Demetrius Johnson’s title in his last bout; Cejudo sent a message to the entire division about where he belongs in the hierarchy of the division.
Cejudo bounced back from a pair of losses to Demetrius Johnson and Joseph Benavidez with this victory. While he looked great, he’s got to continue to put together quality wins if he wants to earn a rematch with Mighty Mouse. The next potential contender for the division is likely Sergio Pettis and he has already shown interest in a match with Cejudo. That fight would be a chance for one of the two young developing contenders to lock in a shot at the Featherweight belt. Wilson Reis is now on his own two fight losing streak. He’s lost to two elite opponents and deserves a shot at someone who isn’t at the absolute peak of the division. A rematch with Iuri Alcantara would be an interesting opportunity for both fighters coming off of losses to pick up some momentum and start working back toward the top of the rankings. If he’d prefer a higher ranked opponent, Brandon Moreno is virtually guaranteed to put on a show.
Rafael Dos Anjos vs Neil Magny:
Rafael Dos Anjos made a statement with his submission victory over Neil Magny. The two men barely began to strike when RDA tripped Magny and dropped immediately into side-control. From this position, Magny had little to do but try to survive as Dos Anjos took his time advancing position to full mount and sinking an arm triangle to close out the fight before the first round was over. It was a huge statement for a multitude of reasons. Magny was ranked sixth in the division; has fought against a number of high level opponents at Welterweight; and the man is a specialist on the ground. RDA however was too fast on the feet and too slick on the ground, dominating every stanza of the competition.
RDA is in an interesting situation having defeated Magny in such dominant fashion. Most of the fighters ranked ahead of Neil Magny are either booked, coming off of losses, inactive or some combination of those factors. That makes choosing an opponent for Dos Anjos tricky, but the winner of Colby Covington and Demian Maia’s bout makes the most sense. Maia is fresh off of a title shot and Covington is looking to win his fifth in a row; the winner is a lock to earn a top five ranking and RDA would be the perfect opponent for a number one contender fight. Although to be fair, Maia probably won’t get a title shot any time soon no matter who he beats. Magny meanwhile, continues to struggle when he gets the big opportunity but he consistently beats the middle tier of the division. It’s about time he meets fellow grappling ace, Gunnar Nelson. Both men are coming off of first round losses that halted big momentum. The potential ground battle would be a delight for any fans of the grappling game.
Amanda Nunes vs Valentina Shevchenko:
Amanda Nunes scraped by a split decision victory over Valentina Shevchenko to retain her title. The five rounds ran in a fairly uniform fashion, with Nunes staying on the outside and focusing on leg and body kicks for points. Shevchenko meanwhile focused on countering when Nunes came in high. Shevchenko found success in these instances, landing several check hooks. When Bullet tried to close distance on Nunes, she was met with quality defense and some solid counters but those occasions were rare. Shevchenko’s best technique to close the gap was a superman punch that she threw multiple times but she was most effective countering and Nunes’ conservative approach meant the opportunities were rare for either fighter to do meaningful damage. Nunes scored a pair of takedowns including a back take that likely secured the fifth round and earned her the decision on two judges’ scorecards in spite of the fact that she did little damage with those positions. I personally gave the fight to Shevchenko who seemed to land the harder blows and was virtually never in danger, but champions get the benefit of a doubt and Nunes kept every round close.
Nunes is on a streak of title defenses now and there’s no clear cut number one contender left. The most consistent performer available would be Raquel Pennington, who has put together a nice run and shown improvement throughout her post TUF career. But the real value fight would be for Nunes to move up and face Cyborg for the featherweight strap. It’s rare that a champion has the luxury of reasonably looking outside of the division for a shot but this would give the bantamweights a chance to set themselves apart. For Shevchenko, losing a second razor thin decision stings but doesn’t drop her far in the division as she has victories over the next two highest ranked women (Holly Holm and Julianna Pena). A fight with Pennington wouldn’t be out of the question, but I would prefer to see her go up against Cat Zingano. Zingano last lost to Pena, but has been a fixture in the division despite a hiatus and more importantly she has a victory over Amanda Nunes.
In Other News, Jon Jones legacy is officially tarnished:
The news looming over MMA this week is that Jone Jones’ B-Sample tested positive for the same steroid as his A-Sample. The GOAT contender will face his second suspension for using a banned substance. This is after a suspension for his hit and run, admission of drug use, sketchy results on a previous drug test and getting his first PED suspension reduced through the infamous “dick pill” defense. At this point, whether this was another accident or not is beyond the point. The man has had too many chances and made too many mistakes to continue to be in the GOAT conversation. He now falls into the “what could have been” zone or worse, the Barry Bonds section of his sport. Bonds was the best homerun hitter I’ve ever witnessed, but his use of steroids has made him an afterthought in many conversations about baseball’s greats. Jones may find himself in a similar situation, drawing the ire of fans whether these were a multitude of accidents or simply acts of arrogance and defiance. The GOAT conversation is probably back to Fedor, Silva, GSP and a handful of others but whenever Jones comes up, an asterisk is bound to follow.