MMA Review: #473: UFC Fight Night 49

-Before a flurry of injuries took out some of the better fighters on this card (Brandon Thatch, Demian Maia, Mirsad Bektic) this arguably looked like the best Fight Night card of 2014 on paper. As it ended up it still wasn’t bad at all, with six mainly intriguing bouts and a major main event in the form of former champion Benson Henderson against dangerous contender Rafael Dos Anjos.

UFC Fight Night 49

Tulsa, Oklahoma

-Your hosts are Jon Anik and Brian Stann.

Featherweight Fight: Chas Skelly vs Tom Niinimaki

Both of these men were coming off losses in their previous fight, although Skelly’s – to arguably the best prospect in the division in Mirsad Bektic – didn’t feel quite as bad as Niinimaki’s, as he’d lost in a major upset to Niklas Backstrom, by submission too – supposedly his strongest area. Despite that I was still leaning towards the Finn to pick up the win here, as I thought the Backstrom loss might’ve been a bit of a freak mistake from him given the tight grappling he’d shown in his UFC debut against Rani Yahya.

Round One begins and both men swing aggressively to begin before Skelly shrugs off a clinch. Skelly closes him down and goes for a takedown of his own, forcing Niinimaki into the fence before getting him down. Mistake from Niinimaki allows Skelly to take his back, and he hops into the lemur position and slaps in both hooks. Niinimaki manages to get rid of one hook, but Skelly forces him down and works to get the hook back in. Looks like Niinimaki’s going to manage to turn into Skelly’s half-guard, but after a real struggle he drops back for a guillotine instead. It looks quite tight, but Skelly has an arm in and he manages to pop his head free. Another scramble sees Skelly take the back again and this time he slaps the rear naked choke on right away! Both hooks are in for Skelly this time and despite the choke not looking quite sunk, Niinimaki surprisingly taps!

Well, that was a surprise as I certainly didn’t expect a guy like Skelly – known for his ground-and-pound and wrestling – to tap a grappler the calibre of Niinimaki, but it just goes to show that the slightest error in MMA can cost you big time. Fun opener and a big win for Skelly who might’ve been underrated as a prospect actually just based on a really horrible match for him in his UFC debut.

Lightweight Fight: James Vick vs Walmir Lazaro

This was the elusive Vick’s first fight in over a year, pretty disappointing in that the previous win – while very impressive – had also been his first appearance in a year. Still, the guy had looked like a hot prospect during his 2012 (!) TUF run so I was glad to see him back. Opponent Lazaro was someone I hadn’t heard of previously although you can never sleep on the Brazilian prospects Joe Silva unearths these days. Still, I was taking Vick to use his monstrous reach advantage to pick up the win somehow.

Round One and both men open with leg kicks. Left hand lands for Vick and Lazaro has to circle out. Leg kick connects for Lazaro. Vick looks like he’s trying to work his jab here but he doesn’t seem to have a complete grasp of the distance. Couple more leg kicks from Lazaro and he connects with a long right hand too. Good left hand from Vick. Flying knee connects for the TUF veteran but Lazaro takes it and fires back with a right hand. Great chin there as it sounded like that knee landed flush. Jabs connect for both men. Overhand right from Lazaro and that draws Vick into a trade. Blatant knee to the groin lands for Vick but Lazaro ignores it and lands with a right hand. Into the clinch and they trade knees before Vick slips to the ground. He pops back up though right away. Overhand right from Lazaro glances off Vick’s head. Good right hand from Vick and Lazaro has to shoot in and take him down. Full guard from Vick and he hits a beautiful sweep, which allows him to stand back up. Nice pair of knees into a head kick from Vick but Lazaro fires right back with a combo. This is becoming a dirty brawl. Wild right hand from Lazaro sets up another takedown but Vick pops back up and forces him into the fence with knees. They break off and Lazaro lands a couple of shots but he looks tired already. Body kick from Vick and it sets up a guillotine, but Lazaro pulls free. Crude trade follows and the round ends there. Really close round to call so I’d go 10-10 I think.

Round Two and both men come out swinging again. Defense is not exactly the strength of either guy judging on this. Beautiful combo from Lazaro ends in a winging body kick. Good right hand from Vick but he still can’t get Lazaro on the end of his jab. Lazaro in fact lands some stiff jabs of his own. Vick’s face looks marked up. Beautiful jab from Lazaro prevents Vick from lunging in with a knee. Wild exchange sees both men land punches crudely with their chins up. To be fair this is an entertaining fight though despite the somewhat sloppy nature. Combo from Lazaro ends in a leg kick and he repeats it well too. Left hook from Lazaro sets up another hard leg kick. Another nice combo lands for Lazaro. He’s definitely outstriking Vick so far in this round. Takedown attempt is stuffed by the Texecutioner though. Two minutes to go and Vick looks badly cut on the left side of his face. Suddenly though a BIG RIGHT HAND lands for Vick and Lazaro stumbles around like a drunk on ice. He manages to go for a takedown, but can’t get Vick off his feet and he’s in trouble here. Big combo from Vick and Lazaro’s all over the place. He tries to fire back but suddenly Vick’s in control now. Lazaro manages to slow him down with sloppy punches and both guys look gassed. Jab snaps Vick’s head back. Combo backs the Brazilian up and holy shit these guys are leaving their chins wide open. Takedown from Lazaro and he ends the round on top in half-guard. 10-9 Lazaro for me.

Round Three and Vick opens with a left head kick. Stiff jab lands for Lazaro. Good one-two from Vick has Lazaro’s legs wobbled again. Body shot from Lazaro. Big right hand connects for Vick again. Takedown attempt from Lazaro responds, but Vick works to defend and they end up clinched. Lazaro is getting really wild with his shots now. Vick muscles him across the cage and lands with some knees before they break. Right hand lands again for Vick. Both guys are swinging wild again. Vick’s right hand is landing at will at this point. Jabs from Lazaro but Vick’s landing the more telling shots in this round for sure. BIG LEFT HEAD KICK drops Lazaro and Vick pounces, looking to grab a guillotine, but Lazaro somehow scrambles to his feet and forces Vick into the cage. This dude’s chin is insane. Low blow from Vick and the ref has to call time. Good for Lazaro as he looks absolutely out of gas. They restart and Lazaro connects with a hard right hand. Another overhand right lands for the Brazilian but Vick takes it and fires back with a flurry. Beautiful running knee lands flush for Vick but somehow Lazaro eats it right up. This guy is as tough as fucking leather. Exchange continues and man, still no defense from either guy. Seconds to go and both men keep on landing, with Vick landing a flying knee and ending up on his back as the buzzer goes. 10-9 Vick for a 29-29 draw in my eyes. All depends on how you scored the first round.

Judges have it 29-28, 30-27 and 29-28 for James Vick to take the unanimous decision. Well, I guess they gave Vick the first round. 30-27 is bullshit though as there’s no way he won the 2nd, but whatever. This was a tremendously entertaining fight but there’s no way it’d win any awards for technical striking as it was crude like a brawl involving Brad Imes and really only the incredible chins of both men kept them going. Vick’s still a very good prospect I think but like Stefan Struve before him (and Kendall Grove before that in fact) he’s got to learn to actually use his range better and not keep his chin as high because I think a real good technical striker (think Rafael Dos Anjos or Donald Cerrone) would eat him alive right now on the feet. But that’s why he’s a prospect I guess. I have to admit I’m excited to see Lazaro fight again too purely for the entertainment aspect!

Featherweight Fight: Max Holloway vs Clay Collard

Initially, neither of these men were supposed to be on this card – this fight would’ve seen Mirsad Bektic taking on Ernest Chavez, but when Chavez got hurt, Holloway stepped in – looking for his third win of 2014 – and then when Bektic also pulled out, newcomer Collard ended up taking the fight on late notice. With Collard on such short notice and Holloway looking better every time he steps into the cage I was fully behind the young Hawaiian in this one.

First round begins and Collard comes out swinging for the fences, but Holloway dodges him nicely and lands a pair of knees from the clinch and a head kick. Push kick to the body from Collard. Another head kick lands for Holloway. He’s showing a lot of good movement too to avoid the offense from Collard. Left hook connects nicely from Holloway. Hard knee to the body follows but Collard catches the leg and lands a counter right hand. Beautiful combo from Holloway. Holloway is looking really crisp here. Body kick lands for the Hawaiian but Collard catches the leg and connects on a counter flurry. Nice combo lands for Holloway and he trips Collard down as he throws a knee. Surprisingly he lets him right back up though. Collard is just swinging wild here. Good combo lands for him but he misses on a spinning backfist. Another one misses too and Holloway lands a counter right. Spin kick to the body from Holloway. Collard clinches and lands an overhand right but Holloway separates. These guys are swinging almost as wildly as the fighters in the previous fight! Big combo from Holloway and Collard looks a bit gassed to me. Spinning back kick to the body from Holloway. Nice right hand and knee from the clinch for Holloway. Collard is leaving himself wide open for shots here. Spinning back kick sets up another combo for Holloway. Collard tries to fire back but he’s being picked apart. Big right hand sets up a flying kick from the Hawaiian. He’s all over Collard now as he totally has his timing down. Spin kick again hurts Collard and Holloway flurries on him, but holy shit is Collard tough as he swings right back. This is an awesome fight. Round ends with a body kick from Holloway. Collard looks exhausted. 10-9 Holloway.

Second round and holy shit are the crowd into this. Good low kick into a combo from Holloway opens the round. Collard is ridiculously aggressive but he’s walking right into sharp counters from Holloway again, eating a hard left hand. Front kick to the jaw glances for Holloway but a body kick lands flush. Good knee to the body follows. Counter right snaps Collard’s head back but the dude is still standing. He’s being eaten alive standing here though. Slip sees Holloway go down for a second but he pops up and shoves Collard right away from him. Jumping kick misses for Collard. Nice jab from Holloway. Beautiful combo has Collard rocked and Holloway follows in with a flying knee, but somehow Collard takes that too and keeps pushing forward. Takedown attempt from Collard and he gets deep on a single, but Holloway defends it well. He uses a kimura to counter it and then breaks free. Collard’s hands are worryingly low now due to exhaustion it looks like. He’s coming up way short on his punches too. Kick to the body from Holloway. Scramble sees Holloway leap right onto the back and he gets both hooks in, but Collard squirms free when they hit the ground. Into the clinch and Collard punches the body but the Hawaiian breaks. Can’t fault Collard’s heart, that’s for sure. Beautiful combo from Holloway ends in a left head kick. Takedown attempt is stuffed and another head kick lands. Collard attempts another takedown and gets it, but this time Holloway squirms and almost takes the back before going into a triangle attempt. Collard looks safe to me, and sure enough he postures his arms through to avoid. Seconds to go and Holloway tries the triangle again, and this time it looks sunk, but the buzzer goes before he can finish. 10-9 Holloway.

Third round and Holloway lands a snapping jab right away. Low single by Collard is easily stuffed. He’s really chasing Holloway now though, swinging as he knows he needs a finish. Holloway keeps his distance smartly though. Takedown attempt from Collard again but Holloway again stuffs it and lands a nice elbow to the side of the head en route, Travis Browne style. Good knee to the body from Holloway. He circles out and lands a hard counter right as Collard bulls forward. Collard looks FUCKED, stumbling forward somehow like a zombie. Takedown attempt is easily stuffed and Holloway lands a knee to the shoulder that drops Collard to his back. Holloway follows him down into the guard but he seems a bit tired now too. Beautiful pass to back mount from Holloway and he looks for the rear naked choke as he flattens Collard out. Punches to the head follow and it doesn’t look like Collard’s capable of defending. He tries to roll but can’t get out from under Holloway, who lands some vicious elbows to the head. Big shots begin to get through for Holloway from mount and then back mount and finally Dan Miragliotta shows some mercy and stops it.

Well, that fight was exciting as hell as while Collard didn’t really display much in terms of skill he more than made up for it with a ridiculously hard chin and insane amounts of heart, as he took everything Holloway could give for almost three rounds before finally giving up the ghost more due to exhaustion than anything else. Holloway might be my pick for the most improved fighter in 2014 though as that was his third win in a row and he looks bigger and stronger now – seems like he’s filled his frame out – and his ground game and wrestling seem to be catching up to his already venomous striking. Sure, he’s had some losses already but incredibly he’s only 23 and I can see him breaking into the top ten next year perhaps. Tremendous entertainment value in this one.

Middleweight Fight: Thales Leites vs Francis Carmont

Interesting clash here as Leites – the forgotten man at 185lbs – had come back into the UFC with a serious bang, looking bigger and better than ever in wins over Tom Watson, Ed Herman and Trevor Smith, while Carmont seemed to be on his way down after a run in the top ten following losses to Jacare Souza and CB Dollaway. Despite his imposing style I thought Carmont was in trouble with Leites – Thales has always been wildly underrated and I was actually giving him the advantage wherever the fight went, picking him to win by submission.

Leites gets my pick for entrance of the night thus far easily – Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds should not work as an entrance theme and yet it DOES.

Fight begins and Leites is almost as jacked up as Carmont which is pretty wild. Low kick opens for the Brazilian. Good right cross lands for Leites too as he slips Carmont’s jab. Carmont looks really focused on establishing his jab. Quick rush from Leites allows him to clinch and he works for an inside trip. Whizzer from Carmont allows him to defend nicely and he pops back up. Combo from Leites backs Carmont up a bit. Good inside low kick from Carmont but Leites fires back with one of his own. Carmont throws another and this time it drops Leites, but he pops right back up. Another good leg kick from Carmont. Good one-two connects for Thales. Hard leg kick follows. Nice duck from Carmont and he shoots on a double, but Leites shows some remarkable takedown defense and remains standing. Leites muscles him into the fence but Carmont spins him around and separates. Another nice leg kick almost takes Leites off his feet. Wild overhand right misses for Thales. Jab to the body from Carmont and he follows with a glancing overhand right. Hard right lands for Leites to set up the clinch. They exchange from close quarters and muscle for position, then Carmont separates. Seconds to go and Carmont lands an inside leg kick, but he eats a quick combo from the Brazilian. Round ends there. 10-10 round for me.

Into the 2nd and Leites opens with an outside leg kick. He backs Carmont into the fence and lands a BIG OVERHAND RIGHT that rocks the Frenchman, and from there he OPENS UP and swarms on him with a flurry that drops him face-first! Carmont is OUT OF IT and Leites quickly seals the deal. Wow.

I’ve said since he returned that Leites looks like a different fighter in this UFC run and man, this totally showed it as he’d never displayed striking power like that before and yet once he had Carmont hurt he DESTROYED him. I think he’s a legit contender at 185lbs now regardless of his past performance against Anderson Silva. Dude is flying under the radar and could definitely have a big 2015. As for Carmont, talk about a turn in fortune – this was his third loss in a row and he’s since been cut which is wild given he started his UFC career with like six straight wins! Still, with his Tri-Star connections I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return in the near future after a win or two outside of the UFC. Hell of a knockout for Leites.

Welterweight Fight: Jordan Mein vs Mike Pyle

This one was thrown together by injuries; initially Mein would’ve faced fellow prospect Brandon Thatch while Pyle was matched with fellow veteran Demian Maia, but when Thatch and Maia both got hurt, it made clear sense to put the prospect against the gatekeeper. Despite Pyle looking really good recently outside of one loss to Matt Brown (and there’s no shame in losing to that guy!) I was behind Mein here. Dude is incredibly aggressive and Pyle had traditionally struggled with opponents like that in the past.

Round One and Pyle opens proceedings with a chopping leg kick. Takedown is easily stuffed by Mein and another single leg attempt is avoided too. Spin kick misses for Pyle. Good leg kick from Mein. Pyle comes back with one of his own. Exchange follows and Mein WAYLAYS Pyle with a HUGE LEFT HOOK! Pyle looks out but Mein manages to stiffen him up on the ground before Big Dan can stop things.

Holy shit was that violent. Looked like the first shot knocked Pyle unconscious but he came round when he hit the deck only to get his lights switched off again. Scary stuff. Mein is a bad dude and I think he might be the dark horse at 170lbs given how tricky a test Pyle had been for other young prospects. I’m massively interested to see how he gets on next against Thiago Alves, massively interested. This knockout won him a nice $50,000 bonus and quite rightfully so as it was one of the scariest of 2014.

Welterweight Fight: Ben Saunders vs Chris Heatherly

This was a prelim taped earlier in the night. It was Saunders’ comeback to the UFC following a mostly successful three-year stint in Bellator, and although he’d suffered some losses there (namely two to Douglas Lima) he was clearly worth another shot in the Octagon. I’ve been a big fan of Ben’s since his TUF run back in 2007 and as I hadn’t heard of Heatherly and his record didn’t look great this sounded like a nice showcase return for Killa B.

Round One and Saunders stalks forward and throws a couple of head kicks early. Heatherly catches a kick though and gets a quick takedown to half-guard. Saunders gets back into full guard and looks to use the rubber guard to tie him up, and it looks like he might have a possible triangle too. Heatherly might be in trouble here. Elbows from Saunders and he switches off into an oma plata. Looks like it might be sunk, and Saunders manages to GRAB THE WRIST AND FORCE IT FORWARDS! The angle on the arm looks DISGUSTING and sure enough Heatherly taps out.

Beautiful submission from Ben Saunders – never seen an oma plata in the UFC before as far as I’m aware and that one was even nastier as Saunders managed to force the arm into an even worse position by using his own arms as well as his legs. Slick stuff and I still maintain Ben has enough skill to break into title contention at 170lbs or in the very least give us some awesome fights there.

Lightweight Fight: Rafael Dos Anjos vs Benson Henderson

After Henderson had taken out Rustam Khabilov in June, I sort-of expected him to stay on the shelf for a while and look for a title shot against the winner of the Anthony Pettis-Gilbert Melendez title fight, especially given he was pretty much the de facto #1 contender, so I was very surprised when this fight was announced. I mean, RDA was coming off an impressive win over Jason High and was on a good run (loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov notwithstanding because that guy is a fucking monster) and was clearly due another step up, but I didn’t expect Bendo to take a fight with such a dangerous guy. I was still taking Bendo though – given he’d beaten practically everyone except Pettis how could you pick against him?

Fight gets underway and they circle as the crowd chant for Bendo quite loudly. Low kick lands for RDA. Nice low kick from Henderson answers. High kick misses for RDA. Big right hooks just come up short for both. Left from Bendo is answered by one from Dos Anjos. Good combo from Henderson ends in a body shot. RDA comes right back with a body shot into a leg kick. Dos Anjos is scary quick. Front kick to the body knocks RDA down but he pops right back up. Low kick from RDA and he follows with a HARD body kick. These guys are swinging heavy shots here. RDA backs Henderson up and lands with a left hook. Combo follows and Henderson appears to be struggling. Clinch attempt is shrugged off and RDA lands FLUSH with a SICK FLYING KNEE! Somehow Bendo’s chin holds up and he dives for a takedown, but Dos Anjos stuffs it and then NAILS HIM WITH A LEFT HAND! Henderson goes crashing down and right away Big John McCarthy stops it! Unbelievable.

Post-fight Henderson is furious, claiming an early stoppage, but the replay seems to show him go out like a light when the left hand landed so I’ve got no problem with it. Hey, if Big John hadn’t stopped it there RDA would’ve dribbled his head off the mat. Great refereeing from the veteran. And man, an even better performance from Rafael Dos Anjos. He found his range early on and just made Henderson pay, and given that Bendo had taken shots from the likes of Gilbert Melendez, Anthony Pettis, Josh Thomson and Donald Cerrone before without going out, it’s even more impressive. With his brand of sick ground skills and a solid wrestling game to go with his nasty striking it looks like RDA might be the most dangerous man out there at 155lbs – which is crazy and shows a monstrous improvement curve since his UFC debut in 2008. Incredible main event to cap the show off.

-Show ends with Brian and Jon waxing poetic about a possible Pettis/RDA showdown, and man, who wouldn’t want to see that?

Final Thoughts….

I said this looked like a contender for best Fight Night card of the year on paper prior to a couple of changes, and in reality even with those changes it turned out to be a definite contender for the best one. We didn’t get one boring fight and six finishes in seven fights is always great. When the only fight to go the distance was a wild (if sloppy) war like Vick/Lazaro and the other fights were wildly exciting stuff like Holloway/Collard, RDA/Bendo and Mein/Pyle, you’ve got one hell of a show. Highest recommendation.

Best Fight: Holloway vs. Collard
Worst Fight: None

Overall Rating: ****1/2

Until next time,

Scott Newman: