MMA Review: #625: UFC Fight Night 123

-Despite the presence of a couple of really good fights in Cub Swanson vs. Brian Ortega and Marlon Moraes vs. Aljamain Sterling, this was one of the year’s more throwaway cards, with a bunch of fighters you wouldn’t normally see on televised cards. Still, that pair of fights looked awesome at least.

UFC Fight Night 123

Fresno, California

-Your hosts are Brendan Fitzgerald and Paul Felder, aka the same team who do Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.

Bantamweight Fight: Albert Morales vs Benito Lopez

Like the announcing crew, Team Alpha Male’s Lopez was coming off success on DWTNCS, where he’d put on an exciting fight to gain a UFC contract. He was facing Morales, who’d lost his previous fight to Brett Johns, and the word was that these two didn’t like each other and so fireworks were likely.

Round One begins and Lopez comes out wildly aggressively and lands with a head kick in the opening seconds! Whoa. Both men continue to swing at the other with Lopez pushing the pace until Morales shoots and gets a rear waistlock. Lopez blocks a suplex and they break, and then Morales drops him with a jab! He looks to follow up but Lopez returns fire and drops him with a flying knee! Holy shit. Morales pops back up and they EXCHANGE WILDLY before Lopez drops him with another flying knee! He pounces on the downed Morales and locks up the Urijah Faber one-armed guillotine from the mount, but Morales manages to hang on in there despite this looking tight. Lopez continues to attempt to twist Morales’ head off his shoulders, but somehow he won’t tap out and he manages to reverse to his feet and stun Lopez with a combo! Flying knee misses for Lopez, and Morales drops him with a right and grabs a rear waistlock to land some punches from behind. This round is INSANE. One hook in for Morales and he lands more punches, and it looks like Lopez’s nose is bleeding. Action finally slows down slightly from there, and the impatient crowd somehow begin to boo. What the fuck? More punches land for Morales but Lopez fires back with some back elbows. Round ends in the same position. Close one to score, I’d probably go 10-9 Lopez though as he had Morales closer to being done with that knee/guillotine combo.

Round Two and Lopez comes running out of his corner again and they exchange jabs. Good body punch from Lopez as they continue to exchange. Big kick to the body from Lopez has Morales hurt but he shows a good poker face and fights through it. Left hook lands for Morales as they circle around. Leg kick follows. Spinning back kick connects cleanly to the body for Lopez and Morales has to backpedal. Head kick follows and then Lopez absolutely goes off with combinations as Morales is hurt, but he manages to hang in there and comes forward again. This is such a wild fight. Action slows down a little as they trade jabs, with Lopez continually going to the body as well. Nice combination of punches into a leg kick connects for Morales. Less than a minute to go and it’s more of the same, as it looks like both men might be a bit tired. Round ends with more jabs and a jumping switch kick from Lopez. 10-9 Lopez.

Round Three and Lopez comes out fast again, throwing a glancing head kick. Morales seems to be focusing on the low kicks now and he lands a couple of good ones as Lopez tries to counter. Nice left hook connects for Lopez as they exchange. They trade kicks and Lopez lands with a head kick and follows with a couple of glancing uppercuts. Spin kick glances for Lopez and he follows with a head kick to counter a left hand. Body shots land for Lopez in a combo. Big right hook lands to the body for Morales. Both guys look all marked up now. Really nice leg kick from Morales. Clean combo follows. Morales’s leg kicks are looking great. Both guys seem tired again though. More of the same continues with Morales landing more shots but Lopez getting the bigger ones in. One minute to go and Lopez is still throwing crane kicks and stuff. Morales keeps pushing forward though as Lopez throws more flashy kicks. Big jumping switch kick glances for him. Morales fires right back and pressures him, and lands a hard one-two on the buzzer. 10-9 Morales, but I’d go 29-28 Lopez overall.

Judges have it 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28 for Benito Lopez. Definitely the right call for me although Morales looks furious after the announcement. I guess you could’ve argued he won the first and third maybe. Anyway, this was a tremendous fight to watch – first round was one of the best of the year and although they slowed down afterwards it was understandable! Lopez needs to do a LOT of work to become a contender but the raw talent is clearly there – he just needs to be a bit less flashy at times to keep a fuller gas tank I think. He was like Yair Rodriguez on speed at times here hence why he blew up. But yeah, as an exciting action fighter he’s definitely up there with the best newcomers we’ve seen in a while and I look forward to seeing him again.

Middleweight Fight: Eryk Anders vs Markus Perez

Former pro football player Anders had made a big splash in his UFC debut, literally knocking veteran Rafael Natal into retirement, and so I expected him to be matched with a bigger name next time around. Instead he was faced with newcomer Perez, who was bringing an undefeated record in including wins over UFC vets Paulo Thiago and Ildemar Alcantara. I was picking Anders as I’d been impressed with his debut, but I didn’t know much about Perez admittedly, even though he’d been on TUF Brazil 3 before being eliminated in the pre-house fights (which don’t count on a fighter’s record).

Round One and Perez opens with a glancing head kick. Anders stalks forward and lands a counter left off a Perez leg kick. Clinch from Anders and he forces Perez into the fence, then drops for a single leg and dumps Perez down. The Brazilian pops back up, but he can’t get off the fence. Anders is a big dude at 185lbs. Perez keeps trying for a judo throw, but he can’t get it and Anders breaks off with punches. Big head kick from Perez but Anders stuns him with a right hand and then clinches again. They jockey for position and trade knees to the body, and now Perez drops for a takedown. Anders blocks it but finds himself slammed to the ground into guard anyway. Impressive strength from Perez and he looks to set up a D’Arce. He locks up the legs for good measure and drops back for the D’Arce, but he can’t get it and Anders winds up on top. They come to their feet and a big knee lands for Anderson. Spinning backfist misses for Perez and they trade wildly to follow it up before Anders clips him with a left and a knee. Perez has a hell of a chin. Nice left to the body from Anders and he lands a heavy left, only to walk into a spinning back elbow. Rear waistlock from Anders and he looks to land some punches from behind, but Perez turns into him. Combo breaks for Anders and he literally chases Perez around the cage with strikes before Perez hits a takedown on the buzzer. Close one to call but I’d probably go 10-9 Anders.

Round Two and Anders backs Perez up with punches and sends him literally on the run again. Huge combo lands for Anders but Perez’s granite chin holds up and he misses a Harold Howard rolling kick and then taunts his opponent. Anders doesn’t give a shit though and he comes in with a heavy knee. Good low kicks land for Perez. Big left to the body for Anders and he continues to walk the Brazilian down. Huge combination from Anders but Perez somehow comes back with a knee. Another big left connects for Anders. Big body kick answers for Perez but Anders drops him with a left hand and then lands with a kick as he stands. Kick is caught by Anders and he drills Perez with the left again. More big shots from Anders but Perez is just absorbing them all. He looks gassed, though. Anders keeps on pressuring him with punches but he’s looking a bit tired now too. More shots from Anders and Perez is struggling but somehow he remains vertical. He dives for a takedown, but Anders stuffs it and puts him on the run with heavy shots again. This is almost becoming target practice for Anders. He drops Perez with a left and then follows him down, dropping some BOMBS to the head, but Perez gives his back in order to stand. He even tries to roll for a leglock, but that goes badly wrong and he eats a bunch of short elbows. Big punches land for Anders from half-guard, but Perez is doing enough to survive. He manages to stand even, and then drops for a kimura attempt, but the buzzer sounds with them on the ground. 10-8 round for Anders.

Round Three and they begin with a BRO HUG before Perez starts swinging some hooks. Anders drops him with a huge combination though and he ends up seated by the fence. The Brazilian looks to hold on and then goes for a takedown, but Anders blocks it with brute strength more than anything. Big knee to the body lands for Anders. Perez stands and eats another knee, and he’s looking wobbled. He keeps on swinging, but Anders hits him with some more heavy shots. Standing guillotine attempt from Perez but Anders dumps him to the ground and pops his head free. Perez gets half-guard but he looks absolutely exhausted. Anders doesn’t look much fresher mind you. Action slows down badly as Perez holds a weak guillotine attempt, but Anders breaks his head free to land a couple of shots. Just over a minute to go and Anders continues to work from the top with Perez just trying to hold on. Triangle attempt is avoided by Anders who stands over the Brazilian before dropping back down to land some more. Round ends with more clubbing blows from Anders. 10-9 Anders, 30-26 overall.

Official scores are 30-26, 30-25 and 29-28 all for Eryk Anders. Well, it was an entertaining fight for sure even if it got sloppy at times. If we’re honest, 9 times out of 10 Anders would’ve gotten a finish here, but Perez just had a crazy chin and could take insane punishment even if he ended up too gassed to do much on offense. Not sure how far Anders can go but his sheer power could make him a fringe contender until he faces the top guys I think. And post-fight he calls out Lyoto Machida and surprisingly enough they’ve actually booked it! I think he wins just because Machida’s chin is shot at this point.

Lightweight Fight: Scott Holtzman vs Darrell Horcher

Not sure how this made the main card, but ah well. Horcher – best known for losing as a late replacement against Khabib Nurmagomedov – had beaten Devin Powell in his previous fight, while Holtzman had beaten Michael McBride, but yeah, I can’t say I had much interest really.

First round begins and they circle with Holtzman landing a combo in the opening seconds. Takedown attempt from Holtzman and despite it being a bit sloppy, he manages to put Horcher on the fence. They jockey for position on the cage and trade some knees for good measure, as I’ve now come to the conclusion that Fitzgerald and Felder are AWESOME on commentary and I want to hear more of them. Takedown from Holtzman and he lands in Horcher’s guard. Holtzman stacks him up and drops some really good punches from above before passing into half-guard, and he keeps Horcher down despite a lot of squirming from the bottom. Few solid elbows and punches land for Holtzman as Horcher attempts to stand up. Horcher gets to his feet and Holtzman throws a knee, but it gets caught and Horcher gets a takedown. Holtzman pops back up to his feet and throws another knee, but again it causes him to end up slipping to his back. Horcher settles into the full guard this time but can’t do a lot from the top, and Holtzman reverses to his feet. Uppercut breaks for Horcher but Holtzman glances on a head kick to end the round. 10-9 Holtzman.

Second round and they trade off with a few early strikes before Horcher wobbles Holtzman pretty badly with a left hand. He recovers quickly, but eats another hard combination from Horcher. He continues to beat Holtzman to the punch, but Holtzman switches it up with a pretty easy double leg into guard. He instantly moves into half-guard too and begins to work from there. Few pretty clean punches land for Holtzman from there as Horcher desperately tries to wall-walk up to his feet. Good job from Holtzman to keep Horcher down, but he finally works to his feet. Holtzman keeps him clinched though and trips him back down pretty easily. Half-guard again for Horcher but he doesn’t appear to have anything from his back in terms of offense. Nice shots land for Holtzman from the top, as he works with some elbows and slashing hammer fists. Ref decides to call a bit of an odd stand-up, and they trade punches before Holtzman gets a third takedown. No idea why the ref stood them up as Holtzman was working hard. Big punches come over the top for Holtzman and he ends the round on top. Hot beginning for Horcher but Holtzman clearly won the round.

Third round and Holtzman opens with a body kick. Good left hand gets through again for Horcher, but Holtzman shoots for the takedown and forces Horcher into the fence. Horcher defends it and remains on his feet, where he lands some decent shots before eating an elbow from Holtzman. They break off and Horcher stuns him with a combo, but Holtzman drops for the takedown again and forces him back. They jockey for position and Horcher separates with a combo briefly, but Holtzman gets right back on him and won’t let him off the fence. Trip from Holtzman plants Horcher down into half-guard again, and from there Holtzman continues to grind on him. Horcher looks visibly frustrated here and in a criminal move, the ref calls them up as Holtzman works into mount! Fuck this ref. Big knee from Holtzman but he gets stunned by a left hand that forces him to shoot, and sure enough he gets the takedown again. He moves into half-guard again too but this time Horcher rolls for a kimura. At least he’s trying. He can’t lock it up though and the round ends with Holtzman landing punches from the top. 30-27 Holtzman for me.

All three judges have it 30-27 for Scott Holtzman. Bit of a dull fight with the odd decent moment, but I guess most of the dullness came from the fact that both guys are so generic. Like, you could’ve whacked both men in balaclavas and not known any less about who they are and how they fight. It was perfectly acceptable MMA, sure, but I don’t think we really needed to see it on the main card of a 2017 UFC show, you know?

Bantamweight Fight: Marlon Moraes vs Aljamain Sterling

Outside of the main event this was clearly the best fight on the card, and weirdly it was caused by an injury, too – Sterling was initially booked against Rani Yahya, but when the Brazilian pulled out, former WSOF champ and consensus top ten contender Moraes stepped in, fresh off a November win over John Dodson. I was taking Sterling to win just because I liked him a bit more I guess, but yeah, great fight on paper.

Fight begins and Sterling opens with a low kick. He circles on the outside as Moraes swings some heavy leather at him. Kick is caught by Moraes and he dumps Sterling down, but allows him back up right away. Nice jab to the body from Moraes and a quick rush puts Sterling down although he doesn’t look hurt. Armbar attempt from Sterling looks pretty good, but it’s a little sloppy and Moraes manages to pull free and stands up. Sterling joins him and lunges in for a takedown….but dives right into a HUGE LEFT KNEE that turns out his lights and it’s OVER. Good lord.

Post-fight poor Sterling looks stiff as a board and has to be stretchered out of the cage, although thankfully he was fine later on after a trip to the hospital. This was an unbelievable knockout – the best of 2017 for my money and somehow even better than Francis Ngannou’s knockout of Alistair Overeem a week prior. It reminded me a lot of Anderson Silva on Carlos Newton actually in the way Moraes actually threw a kick, but it was his knee and shin bone that landed on Sterling and knocked him silly. Moraes had been saying we’d see the “real” version of himself in this fight and shit, he wasn’t wrong. One more fight and a title shot then?

Featherweight Fight: Jason Knight vs Gabriel Benitez

This sounded like a fun fight given Knight had made a name for himself as one of the most exciting up-and-comers on the roster, with an aggressive style on the feet and the ground, and an attitude reminiscent of one of the Diaz brothers. Benitez had put together a solid 3-2 UFC record but he’d lost his last fight to Enrique Barzola and so I was taking ‘Mississippi Mean’ to get back on the winning track by probably subbing him.

Round One and Knight comes out swinging, but Benitez lands a heavy leg kick in the opening seconds. Knight’s keeping his chin worryingly high as he’s throwing these haymakers. Couple more low kicks land for Benitez as he seems pretty calm. He eats a big right hand, but seems okay somehow and grins at Knight. Takedown attempt from Knight is successful, but Benitez pops up….before screaming in pain as he tries to hold a guillotine. Ref calls time and Paul Felder thinks Knight’s been busted for the dreaded SMALL JOINT MANIPULATION, and the crowd are fucking furious with this. It actually turns out that Knight BIT Benitez, which is pretty shameful to say the least. Ref Mark Smith takes a point for the infraction as Knight apologises, but lord knows what he was thinking.

They restart and Benitez lands a big head kick that stuns Knight for a second. Knight keeps pushing forward, winging huge punches, but Benitez stays on his bike and lands a few more kicks from the outside. Takedown attempt from Knight and he drives Moggly into the fence, but can’t get the Mexican off his feet, and instead Benitez winds up on top. Knight gets to full guard, and then looks for rubber guard, but he misses on an oma plata and Benitez calls him back up. Nice inside leg kick from Benitez. Left hand follows too as Knight just seems too stiff on his feet, like he’s trying to force the knockout. Beautiful combination from Benitez tags him hard. The jab is getting through for Benitez too. Big left hand connects for the Mexican. Knight is being picked apart. Takedown attempt fails again for him although he glances on an uppercut as they separate. Round ends with Knight continually coming up short with his strikes from the outside. 10-8 round for Benitez with the point deduction.

Round Two and Benitez tags Knight in an early exchange. Decent right hand does get through for Mississippi Mean though. Benitez continues to pop him with combos, while dodging the majority of Knight’s more telegraphed strikes. Looks like Knight’s sporting a bloody nose. Clean leg kick lands for Benitez again. Beautiful level change allows Knight to put Benitez on his back finally, but the Mexican reverses right back up to his feet. Knight keeps him against the cage and gets him down again, but a reversal puts Benitez on top in guard. Rubber guard again from Knight but Benitez shrugs it off and stands. Two clean jabs land for Benitez as he tries to wave Knight on, and as he comes forward Benitez tags him with a combo. This is a tremendous showing thus far from Benitez. Beautiful left hand lands for him, set up by the jab. Body shot follows as he avoids a combo from Knight, but he takes a finger to the eye and the ref calls time again. Looked totally unintentional to be fair to Knight though. Doc decides Benitez is fine to continue, and they restart with about 1:30 to go. Huge front kick knocks Knight backwards and Benitez follows with a combo. Knight comes swinging back, but he’s still coming up short and he goes down for a second but Benitez forces him back up. Crisp counter right lands for the Mexican. Big combo follows as Knight tries to push forward. More shots have Knight badly hurt, but he manages to recover well. Can’t fault Knight’s heart although the aggression isn’t helping him here. Round ends with a hard leg kick from Benitez. 10-9 Benitez and Knight needs a stoppage.

Round Three and Knight comes out aggressively again, but gets tagged by a counter left as he throws a low kick. Nasty head kick lands for Benitez. Clean counter combination follows. Angle change allows him to land a left hand and another head kick too. Knight just can’t seem to handle the movement. He keeps on walking into jabs and counters, and Benitez won’t allow him to force him back towards the fence. Basically the classic anti-Diaz gameplan from Benitez. Wild jumping punch misses for Knight and he eats a heavy combination on the counter. Takedown attempt from Knight, but Benitez throws him down and backs out. More of the same follows as Benitez just keeps picking Knight off as he walks forward. Big left into a head kick outright has Knight turning his back at one point. This is unbelievable from Benitez. Takedown attempt fails for Knight and he stumbles to his back, but Benitez is having none of it and he forces the ref to call Mississippi Mean up. Less than a minute to go now and Knight continues to walk into punches while being unable to land his own. Jumping knee just misses for Benitez, but he ends up on top in mount as Knight botches a takedown. Big elbows from Moggly but Knight rolls for a leglock, but it’s unsuccessful and that’s the fight. 10-9 Benitez, 30-26 on my card.

Judges actually have it 30-26, 30-26 and 29-27 (?) for Gabriel Benitez. How the hell one judge gave Knight a round I don’t know, that’s shameful. Benitez fought fantastically here – easily the best performance of his UFC career – as he refused to be drawn into a firefight and picked Knight off from the outside for the full fifteen minutes. Knight probably didn’t help himself, as he just seemed to be trying too hard to force the knockout and allowed Benitez to cut him up with counters, but yeah, Benitez was awesome. This should probably get him a slot against a top fifteen or even top ten opponent next time. Really fun fight overall.

Featherweight Fight: Cub Swanson vs Brian Ortega

This sounded like a hell of a main event – Ortega’s first opportunity against a legitimately top-level opponent after finishing all five of his previous UFC foes. Swanson for his part had been calling for a title shot, but this was actually the final fight on his UFC contract and he was refusing to sign another claiming he’d been unfairly overlooked. I wasn’t buying that – he’d always lost when he got near the top (vs. Frankie Edgar and Max Holloway) and while he’d been entertaining recently, his last two wins were over Doo Ho Choi and Artem Lobov – not exactly top five opponents. Here I felt he was overlooking Ortega, and so I picked T-City to win by submission – sending Swanson likely over to Bellator.

Fight begins and the crowd are HUGELY into this as Swanson is usually a popular guy anyway but Ortega has this weird aura that just draws you in somehow. Guy comes off like he’s partially stoned all of the time but it’s cool as fuck. They circle to begin with both men looking pretty calm, and both trade with low kicks. Wild exchange sees Ortega really holding his own with the more noted striker. Exchange continues and Ortega appears to be the aggressor. Big combo lands for Swanson though and forces him back a bit. These guys are SWINGING. Another combo lands for Cub but Ortega seems okay. Just over a minute to go and a nice counter right hand gets through for Ortega. Swanson fires back with a hard shot to the body. Clean right hand gets through for Swanson and he opens up with a combo into the clinch. Ortega suddenly locks up the neck from there and drops for a possible anaconda choke, but Swanson just about manages to last until the buzzer! Holy shit that was close. Ortega is DANGEROUS. 10-9 Ortega for the near submission as it was a super-even round until then.

Into the 2nd and they exchange blows from the outside, with Cub landing the better shots just about. Really nice leg kick connects for Swanson. Ortega comes forward, but he eats a pair of hard right hands on the counter. Ortega’s chin is great. He’s definitely eating more strikes in this round though. Big head kick glances for Ortega. He keeps on pushing forward with punches before Swanson breaks a brief clinch with a right. Big punches land for Swanson. Crowd are going apeshit now. Clinch from Ortega is shrugged off and Swanson NAILS him with a right hand. Ortega totally shrugs it off and comes back with a partially blocked head kick, then shoots and finds himself in the clinch. Swanson looks to control him, then lands a knee and an uppercut, but Ortega suddenly locks up a guillotine! He jumps to guard in an attempt to finish, and then it looks like Cub’s free, but Ortega ADJUSTS THE GRIP IN MID AIR and Cub taps out before he collapses down! Unbelievable.

That was some fucking tremendous skill from Brian Ortega. Not many people tap Cub Swanson like that and the way he managed to switch his grip while somehow clinging onto Swanson was just phenomenal grappling. I know Frankie Edgar likely has next dibs on Max Holloway’s title, but shit, Ortega/Holloway is the fight I want because T-City just offers something totally different with that crazy grappling skill. He’s totally marketable too, dude just somehow gives off the superstar aura without even trying. As for Cub, he just got outworked by a more skilled grappler here and it was a bit unlucky, so I hope he can sort something with the UFC as I don’t want to see him walk away to Bellator. Really fun main event at any rate!

-Show ends with Ortega and his team, including his dad, celebrating. You’ve got to love this guy, honestly. And one final thing, I must say that Brendan Fitzgerald and Paul Felder were FANTASTIC on commentary on this show and I hope to see the UFC use them more often as they’re both brilliant.

Final Thoughts….

For a throwaway show this turned out pretty great – contenders for knockout of the year (Moraes) and submission of the year (Ortega) as well as a pair of super-fun fights in Benitez/Knight and Lopez/Morales. Holtzman/Horcher was slow as was expected and Anders/Perez was a bit sloppy albeit entertainingly so, but yeah, got to go thumbs up for this one for sure, even if you only check out the two big wins for Moraes and Ortega.

Best Fight: Ortega vs. Swanson
Worst Fight: Holtzman vs. Horcher

Overall Rating: ****

Until next time,

Scott Newman: