MMA Review: #628: UFC Fight Night 124

-The first UFC show of 2018 then and the first UFC show in St. Louis – finally! – but it wasn’t the strongest card, mainly because it was a four-fight Fight Night show with no major main event (sorry Stephens vs. Choi!) and it lost it’s co-main – Uriah Hall vs. Vitor Belfort – at the last second when Hall pulled out due to weight-cutting issues. Still, with it feeling like forever since UFC 219, I was somehow still pretty pumped to see some fights.

UFC Fight Night 124

01/14/18
St. Louis, Missouri

-Your hosts are Brendan Fitzgerald and Paul Felder. Still awesome, btw.

Featherweight Fight: Michael Johnson vs Darren Elkins

This was moved to the main card when Belfort/Hall was cancelled, a move which must’ve pleased Johnson who was apparently furious about being on a prelim in his hometown. He had lost his last two fights though so it was hardly a surprising move. This was his first fight at 145lbs but I was concerned for him as opponent Elkins was on a hot streak – five wins in a row – and had the reputation of one of the toughest men in the division.

Round One begins and Johnson comes out with some serious aggression, winging strikes at Elkins and easily blocking a takedown. Elkins comes back with a body kick but he looks a lot slower than Johnson who tags him with some more punches. Kick attempt sees Elkins literally go flying, and he’s eating punches badly. Looks like he’s already cut up too. Another takedown attempt fails for Elkins. Beautiful shot to the body lands for Johnson and he stuns Elkins badly with a left hand. Johnson is just so much faster. He continues to tag Elkins, but to his credit Elkins hangs in there and looks to fire back. Dude is insanely tough. One minute to go and Johnson looks to be slowing down slightly, but he’s still clearly outlanding Elkins. Huge left hook rocks Elkins badly but he still won’t go down. Round ends on the feet with more success for Johnson. Clear-cut 10-9 round for the St. Louis native.

Round Two and Elkins eats a left hook in the opening seconds. He keeps pushing forward though and manages to catch a low kick to get a takedown. Johnson looks to reach under for a possible reversal, but Elkins sits up to deliver some solid hammer fists and he’s actually in side mount almost, with Johnson in a really open half-guard. Good punches get through for Elkins and Johnson looks a bit lost. Scramble from Johnson but it goes BADLY wrong and Elkins takes the back with a body triangle! Whoa. Johnson tries to hand-fight but he doesn’t do the best job at it, and Elkins manages to sink the choke and FORCE THE TAP!

Wow, tremendous win for Darren Elkins. Almost as big of a comeback as his fight with Mirsad Bektic even as he was getting lit up in the first round, but once he got Johnson down the fight was basically over. Johnson looked good early on but he seems like the second coming of Melvin Guillard suddenly – if you can survive the early rush and get the guy down, you’ll probably win. Sad really because after beating guys like Tibau and Barboza he was showing real potential, but his ground game just looked awful here. Onwards and upwards for Elkins though and post-fight he calls out “the #1 contender” and you know what? A fight between him and Brian Ortega could actually work. Pretty cool opener overall.

-Really emotional segment follows as they bring out Matt Hughes to the Octagon, actually walking himself again following that horrible truck crash last year. Really nice to see him back on his feet again and he’s still a legend and one of the all-time greats.

Welterweight Fight: Kamaru Usman vs Emil Meek

This was some weird matchmaking as Usman – after easily dispatching of Sergio Moraes in September – clearly needed a step up in competition and instead ended up matched against Meek, who hadn’t fought since his debut UFC win back in December 2016. Not that Meek’s a bad fighter or anything of course, but when you compare him to the veterans Colby Covington was matched with on his way up the rankings you can see the point. Apparently all the top guys were refusing to fight Usman though which makes sense – he’s an absolute beast. I was taking Usman to beat down Meek here and send another statement to the upper echelon.

Round One and Usman crawls out of his corner…and almost gets tagged by Meek. He hits an instant double leg, but ends up trapped in a guillotine. Meek looks to tighten it up, but Usman stays relaxed and manages to work his head free. Looks like Usman might have an arm triangle locked up, but it’s from inside Meek’s guard and so the Norwegian fighter looks fine. Few body punches land for Usman and he steps over into half-guard, but that allows Meek to stand. Usman stays on him and lands some knees to the legs, but Meek does a good job of staying up until Usman just SLAMS him down. That was impressive. He lands in side mount this time but Meek again explodes to his feet. Usman is just like glue on him though. He tries a choke from a weird angle, but Meek avoids that and winds up on his back instead. Good shots land for Usman from the top, but Meek opens up with some elbows from the bottom as the round ends. 10-9 Usman, pretty one-sided round.

Round Two and Meek comes out with a body kick and looks to push forward and strike. Usman begins to back him up though, only to eat a right hand. Kick is caught by Usman and he tries to step in with an elbow, but Meek almost catches him with a spinning backfist in the process. Takedown attempt from Usman is defended initially by the Norwegian, but Usman gets him down anyway and holds him in a rear waistlock. Suplex dumps Meek down properly, but Meek seems to have enough athleticism to keep getting to his knees and then his feet. Like in the first round though he can’t shake Usman off him at all. He drops for a kimura attempt instead, and the crowd begin to boo as the action slows down with Usman just punching the body. Usman works his arm free and begins to land some hard elbows from the top, so Meek fires back with elbows of his own from underneath. Less than a minute to go and Usman really starts to pound on him, stacking up to drop some heavy punches and elbows. Round ends there and goes to Usman again.

Round Three and Meek tries to get the crowd going as he comes out of his corner. He lands with a nice leg kick early on, but then lands a low blow, forcing Keith Peterson to call time. They restart and Meek comes forward swinging, but he can’t catch Usman and eats a few shots himself. Takedown attempt from Usman is defended by a bunch of elbows from Meek, but Kamaru just picks him up and dumps him down with a BIG SLAM. Full guard this time from Meek and the crowd are not liking this at all, but Usman tackles him right back down when he explodes to his feet. Meek’s face is a bloody mess. Action remains pretty slow as Usman stays all over Meek on the ground, but doesn’t really come close to stopping him. One minute to go and Meek desperately tries to crawl free, but he can’t do it and Usman keeps on mauling him from the top. Big suplex puts him back down when he does stand, and Usman stays in control until the end. 30-27 Usman for sure.

Judges have it 30-27 all round for Kamaru Usman. Crowd hate that result but what can you do? And then post-fight he hardly endears himself to them any further by saying he fought at “30%” (apparently he’d been sick but you don’t say shit like that!) and still dominated Meek before calling out Colby Covington. They really ought to book that fight next too and give the winner a shot at the Woodley/RDA winner. Dull-ish fight due to Usman just controlling and beating Meek up, but then Usman was always onto a lose/lose situation here anyway. I still think he’s the uncrowned champ in this weight class and they just need to give him a higher ranked opponent ASAP.

Women’s Flyweight Fight: Paige VanZant vs Jessica-Rose Clark

This was PVZ’s first fight for over a year – following a change in camp from Team Alpha Male to a much smaller setup in Oregon – and her first at 125lbs too. The word was that the UFC were ready to give her a title shot with a win here which is a bit shady, but I guess it’s a new weight class. Clark for her part was coming off a win over Bec Rawlings, but I thought Paige would have enough to outgrapple her to a decision.

First round begins and they circle and exchange some early strikes with Paige missing with the jumping switch kick she used to KO Bec Rawlings with in 2016. Jumping kick does land for Paige but it hits Clark’s arms. Good punches land for Clark coming forward and they tie up with Paige botching a throw and giving her back for a second. Clark winds up on top and controls her with one hook, then goes for an arm triangle as Paige stands back up. Clark drags her down into half-guard, but can’t seal the deal on the choke and so she settles into top control instead. Action really slows down as Clark does basically nothing from the top, and the crowd are booing furiously with about a minute to go. Round ends there. 10-9 Clark.

Second round and Paige keeps on throwing wild strikes from the outside that come up short. Spinning backfist does glance for her but she comes wading into the clinch with punches and Clark ties her up. Trip is botched by Clark now and VanZant winds up on top in the guard, but the Aussie spins for a leglock and Paige has to stand to avoid it. She allows Clark to get hold of her though and dump her down with a double leg. Action slows down badly again as Clark just holds Paige down in half-guard. This is a pretty awful fight. Paige manages to reverse over into Clark’s guard, but almost lands in a triangle choke. Clark looks to tighten it up and it looks decent actually, but VanZant stands up and manages to hold on. She drops some punches directly onto Clark’s face in fact, but it can’t free her from the triangle. Seconds to go though and it looks like Paige will survive. Clark lands some elbows for good measure, but the round ends there. 10-9 Clark again.

Third round and Paige tells her corner beforehand that she’s broken her arm in the first round. Can’t fault her toughness I guess. She throws some more kicks from the outside, but they don’t really land cleanly and Clark just keeps stalking forward. VanZant throws the jumping switch kick a couple more times too with little effect. Decent head kick does land for her at one point but Clark shrugs it off. To be fair Paige is actually outlanding Clark in this round even if she isn’t really hurting her. No clue why Clark hasn’t gone for a takedown yet. Decent one-two connects for Clark from close range, but Paige comes back with a glancing flying knee. Clark comes right back with a counter combo. Exchange continues with Paige landing kicks and Clark catching her with punches as she comes forward. Round ends on the feet. 10-9 VanZant, 29-28 Clark overall.

Official scores are 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28 for Jessica-Rose Clark. Bit of a yawner though as Clark outgrappled Paige for two rounds without really doing much damage, while the third round was all kicks from the outside from Paige with the odd punching combo from Clark. You can excuse both women a bit as Clark had a horrible personal situation coming in (a violent burglary) and obviously Paige broke her arm, but I dunno, I wonder what happened to the Paige who dominated Felice Herrig in the scrambles, you know? I just don’t get how her game’s devolved so badly to being a flash kicker from the outside with no grappling. It’s just odd. Big name win for Clark I guess but this was a totally forgettable fight.

Featherweight Fight: Jeremy Stephens vs Doo Ho Choi

Well, this was one of those fights that practically guaranteed action at least, even if it was a bit weird for the main event slot. Choi hadn’t fought since December 2016’s FOTYC against Cub Swanson, while Stephens had last beaten Gilbert Melendez in one of his career-best performances. I was taking Choi as I thought he was more technical than Stephens, but it was a tight call in a fight that could go either way.

Fight begins and Choi opens with a low kick. Another good one connects for Choi before Stephens comes back with one of his own. Couple of wild swings glance for Stephens. Another leg kick lands for Choi and he quickly gets out of range before delivering a knee from the clinch. Choi’s doing a great job of controlling the distance thus far. Nice combo lands for Choi. Big counters miss for Stephens but a knee and a leg kick do land for the veteran. Good right hand from Choi. Stephens seems to be telegraphing his punches a bit too much. Big overhand right misses for Stephens and Choi backs him up a bit and lands another leg kick. Choi avoids another haymaker and clinches, but Stephens breaks with a hard right elbow. Beautiful combo lands for Choi. He lands another as he avoids another swing from Stephens too. Couple more nice counters land for Choi as the round ends. 10-9 Choi for me as he controlled the range well, avoided Stephens’ big swings and landed the better shots.

Into the 2nd and Choi opens with a hard front kick right to the jaw that rocks Stephens. He recovers well though and lands with a big counter uppercut. Flying knee misses for Choi and Stephens comes in with a nice body kick, an uppercut and a knee from close range. Wild right hand just misses for Stephens and now both guys are really swinging. Both men land shots, literally throwing from their waist, and the crowd are well into this. Stephens is definitely feinting more in this round though and smartly setting up his shots rather than wildly swinging. Beautiful counter right hand lands for Stephens off a leg kick from Choi, and he follows with a jab that snaps Choi’s head back. Pair of nice leg kicks follow. Good jab again from Stephens and he’s walking Choi down now but setting up his shots much better. Jab from Stephens and he walks through a combo and NAILS CHOI WITH A RIGHT HOOK! The Korean Superboy goes CRASHING DOWN and Stephens looks to capitalise, dropping some shots before DESTROYING HIM WITH A DIVING HAYMAKER and a few more shots finish it off.

Brutal finish from Jeremy Stephens and an excellent performance from him – he lost the first round pretty clearly but once he settled down, started setting up his punches with feints and jabs, and using his low kicks, he was able to piece Choi up and finally put him away. Post-fight he calls out Brian Ortega too, but I wouldn’t risk Ortega on that fight as Stephens already has pretty one-sided losses to both Max Holloway and Frankie Edgar – so why not do Stephens vs. Josh Emmett, who’s coming off that big KO of Ricardo Lamas? As for Choi, I think he’s got his military service up next so he’ll be gone for some time. Hopefully he’ll come back stronger after his last pair of losses too. This mostly lived up to all the hype it had going in actually, which was cool.

-Show ends after Stephens’ post-fight interview, as he celebrates in the cage.

Final Thoughts….

Not the best show to begin 2018 with if I’m honest – the main event and Elkins/Johnson were fine, but Usman/Meek was too one-sided to be any good and VanZant/Clark wasn’t a good fight at all. It wasn’t a terrible show, but was just largely forgettable in the end. Hopefully next week’s PPV is a bit better!

Best Fight: Stephens vs. Choi
Worst Fight: VanZant vs. Clark

Overall Rating: **

Until next time,

Scott Newman:
NewmanMMA@gmail.com