UFC 216 Recap: Grappler’s Delight

Written by: Remi Se

Kevin Lee had barely managed to make weight the night before and Derrick Lewis was removed from the card just hours before it started, yet UFC 216 managed to exceed expectations. The main card started with a battle from start to finish and was followed by 4 consecutive submission finishes that highlighted the beauty and creativity of the ground game. The less interesting match-ups were over quickly while the main events were technical showcases for some of the most talented fighters on the planet. This was a card for fans of the submission game but also a card for the fans in general, after many disappointments this one was a pleasant surprise.

Evan Dunham vs Beneil Dariush:
Beneil Dariush nearly finished Evan Dunham in the first, but the cagey veteran Dunham fought his way back to a majority draw with a combination of grit and pressure. Dariush opened the bout looking like the superior striker, backing Dunham up early and dropping him with an elbow. Dariush was vicious with his ground and pound and would have finished most opponents but Dunham managed to just barely survive and even get back to his feet with 20 seconds left in the first round. Whether the blitz drained Dariush or snapped Dunham into focus, he followed a clear 10-8 round by stealing the momentum with a takedown in the second and putting the Dariush on his back foot by the end of the third round. The fight ended in a draw on two of the scorecards with Dariush claiming the third, the majority draw was a rare occasion where the decision really felt justified.

As the draw would suggest, neither fighter was able to really separate himself in this bout. Dariush looked spectacular early but he left the door open for Dunham and used up his cardio in the effort. They put on a really exciting bout and showed every aspect of MMA, but as far as their place in the rankings goes; neither fighter gained much ground. If the two men don’t rematch, Al Iaquinta could be an interesting and exciting opponent to test either one of them. Lando Vannata who co-starred the fight of the night would also make an intriguing opponent for either one of the talented vets.

Mara Romero Borella vs Kalindra Faria:
Mara Romero Borella put on a clinic, submitting Kalindra Faria in just under 3 minutes. Borella scored the takedown before either fighter could show off much on the fight and quickly progressed from half guard to full mount. The native from Italy used ground and pound to quickly take Faria’s back and score the rear naked choke, the fifth submission victory of her career. Borella was overwhelming from start to finish. There isn’t much to say here except that Borella looked very strong on the ground. The gap between the two fighters in grappling was too pronounced to come to any further conclusions. With the 125 lbs. division only just beginning and the fight being so quick, it’s hard to say anything more than keep to an eye out for Borella.

Fabricio Werdum vs Walt Harris:

Walt Harris went from planning to face Mark Godbeer to Fabricio Werdum with just hours to go before the bell rang. It was a huge opportunity for Harris, but ended exactly how a match between the number two ranked Heavyweight in the world and an unranked heavyweight who prepared for a completely different opponent is supposed to. Werdum threw one head kick, shot a single leg, took Harris down, passed to side guard and then took Walt Harris’ back all inside of one minute. From there Werdum locked an armbar within seconds and the fight was over faster than the walkouts. Just as with Borella and Faria, the talent gap was too wide on the ground for either fighter to show any new wrinkles or developments.

Werdum showed that there are levels to the jiu jitsu game. Walt Harris is a strong and talented fighter but as soon as the fight hit the mat Werdum was advancing. There isn’t a heavyweight in the UFC that wants to go to the ground with Fabricio Werdum, yet he stands all too often against elite competition. After his recent performances, this fight served as a reminder that Werdum is a threat to EVERYONE as long as he’s focused on taking the fight to the ground. As far as where he goes from here, he’s already booked another bout with Marcin Tybura in Australia on November 18th. Walt Harris is still a solid fighter with a lot to learn, his best bet would be to rebook the fight with Godbeer. Considering how quickly this match ended, Harris could probably make an upcoming card just as easily as Werdum already has.

Demetrius Johnson vs Ray Borg:

There isn’t enough hyperbole to lob at Demetrius Johnson’s submission victory over Ray Borg. Borg was outclassed everywhere, including in scrambles and sweeps where he figured to have his only advantages. That’s not to say that Borg didn’t put in one hell of an effort. He scored multiple takedowns throughout the fight, but was continually swept and lost position. Johnson spent a chunk of each round transitioning from submission threat to submission threat and seemingly choosing whichever position he wanted which was a lot of side guard. On the feet, Mighty Mouse was faster but also appeared stronger in spite of being the smaller fighter. This left Mighty Mouse the faster, stronger and more technically gifted fighter against an opponent who survived on heart and savvy for four rounds. The submission finally came in spectacular fashion. This has been a year where we’ve seen a Boston Crab submission victory and a helicopter armbar from Diego Brandao; Mighty Mouse managed to grab the clear submission of the year by pulling off a combination to a submission that left everyone on their feet. In the fifth round, Mighty Mouse took Borg’s back from standing position. Johnson lifted Borg off the ground in what looked like a suplex and slammed Borg down. As Borg slammed into the mat, Demetrius Johnson leapt into an armbar. It was like a reverse flying armbar accomplished off of a slam. It looked like someone was playing the UFC video game and it glitched. King from Tekken doesn’t chain submissions as smoothly as DJ did and Mighty Mouse is a gamer so maybe it was Twitch inspired; regardless that move was more video game than anything we’ve seen in reality. Johnson has plenty of highlights but this was the best finish of his career and a must-see MMA moment.
The GOAT conversation just got a bit more complicated. Jon Jones, Anderson Silva and Mighty Mouse seem to be the top three choices with GSP and Fedor rounding out the most commonly named fighters recently. Of the group, Mighty Mouse likely has the weakest strength of schedule. Unlike the rest of the list, Johnson’s reign began as the division itself began which means he hasn’t had an opportunity to beat any fellow UFC champions and a chunk of his opposition was thrust into title fights prematurely. But Mighty Mouse has never failed a PED test which both Anderson Silva and Jon Jones have. Mighty Mouse has been more dominant as well, with his first John Dodson bout and the Tim Elliot match being his most competitive fights but he’s come no where near as close to losing as Jones did against Beltor or Gustaffson or as Silva did against Chael Sonnen not mention actually losing to Weidman. It’s impossible to handicap the resumes of these fighters and they all share a trait in the fact that they were dominant in their primes. Perhaps the results of the Jon Jones Turinabol investigation will shift the debate further, but at the moment Mighty Mouse is at a minimum right there with the greatest fighters and at best he is the GOAT. As far as what’s next for him? The winner of Pettis versus Cejudo is the obvious contender to take on, but with Cejudo suffering a foot injury leaving a burning building; that fight might be delayed. In that case, Mighty Mouse could have a choice between calling out the winner of Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw which would easily be his most hyped bout as champion or going directly to Pettis who has put together a streak of wins over good competition and established himself as a valid contender.

Tony Ferguson vs Kevin Lee:

It’s only right that a main card full of impressive grappling closed with an exciting bout that finished with one last submission. The first round opened with a brief feeling out period that ended abruptly enough with a Kevin Lee body lock leading to a takedown. As the two hit the mat, Ferguson looked to sweep but Lee’s strength and wrestling helped him stay in top position. Ferguson is always a joy to watch from the guard as he mixes his approach up, sometimes using his guard to trap opponents for strikes and other times setting up submission attempts or sweeps. His attacks from the ground are just as diverse as his striking but Lee was unshaken, making his progressions to side-control and then mount. Not only was the Motown Phenom able to advance position, but he threw heavy attacks and by the close of the round was striking with such intensity that he threw a punch well after the bell landed. Lee clearly took the round but nearly lost a point thanks to his behavior at the bell.

The second round opened with Ferguson doing a much better job of avoiding takedown attempts and establishing his rhythm as a striker. Both fighters were able to land effective jabs but Ferguson was getting the best of exchanges. At one point Ferguson beckoned Lee in with a taunt only to throw a jab with same motion he had been taunting from. In another moment Ferguson caught Lee with an elbow counter as Lee’s jab became increasingly lazy. Fatigue appeared to be a factor for Lee but Ferguson was also uncharacteristically flat footed at times. El Cucuy is known for constant motion and diversity but in this fight, he seemed to stop at times perhaps intentionally to bait Lee into using up more of his reserves. This round was fairly competitive but clearly Tony’s and the momentum seemed to be shifting his way.

Ferguson came off of his stool pointing to the mat and appearing to say “this is my house.” Lee obliged the taunting by quickly attempting takedowns which Ferguson was able to avoid early. The stand-up was similar to the second with Lee looking even more depleted. Right as Joe Rogan pointed out Ferguson appearing to stand still more often however, Lee exploded for a takedown. This time on the ground however, Lee didn’t have the energy or strength to avoid Ferguson’s aggressive tactics. El Cucuy quickly moved to an armbar and as Lee defended, Ferguson transitioned to a triangle choke that forced a tap from a visibly frustrated Lee.

Lee showed that his stand up is formidable by standing with Ferguson and the Motown Phenom’s ground game was a real treat, especially in the first round scramble. He did plenty to show he belongs against the best fighters in the division but Tony Ferguson is on an otherworldly tear. This made 10 wins in a row for El Cucuy with 7 being stoppages. There really isn’t a match-up other than Conor for Ferguson, he’s earned that unification match and if Conor would like to fight Diaz then he should be forced to vacate the belt. In the instance that Conor does indeed choose a Diaz match, then Ferguson should seek a high profile opponent to continue establishing his claim as the true best lightweight in the UFC. The winner of Gaethje and Alvarez could fit that bill, otherwise a superfight with the winner of Holloway and Frankie Edgar might make sense as both men have beaten the majority of contenders in the 145 lbs division already. Holloway vs Ferguson is one of my dream matches and if El Cucuy can’t get his date with McGregor, I guarantee that Holloway wouldn’t back down. Kevin Lee really shouldn’t be punished after a great performance. The question for him is whether or not it’s time to move up to the Welterweight division as the weight cut was a nightmare for him with Staph Infection to boot. At 155, he really should get that shot at Khabib Nurmagomedov but that match up is shaky because both men had weight cut woes ironically with the same opponent booked in Ferguson. At 170 there are a ton of slew of options but I’d start him with a similarly styled wrestler who has developed his striking by lightyears in Kamaru Usman. Either winner would be aligned for a big name in their next opportunity.

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