MMA Review: #527: UFC Fight Night 80

-Usually the biggest week of action in the UFC’s calendar is in July – or ‘International Fight Week’ as it’s now become known – but that wasn’t the case with 2015 as the week (ish) beginning on December 10th and ending on the 19th felt far bigger somehow. Of course, all eyes were on UFC 194 – the main course of the four shows, with the TUF 22 Finale acting as the appetiser and the 17th Fox show being the dessert. That made this show the canapés I guess, but I think that’s almost a little harsh – it was a very strong card considering that it was a Fight Pass offering that had only been put together – according to Dana White – to get some of the roster an extra fight. It was also being billed as the ‘Sage N’ Paige’ show – after the two bright young prospects starring on the main card – but they weren’t the only ones looking to make a name for themselves here, with fellow prospects Elias Theodorou, Michael Chiesa and Rose Namajunas also looking to throw themselves into the hat of contenders.

UFC Fight Night 80

Las Vegas, Nevada

-Your hosts are Jon Anik and Brian Stann, and Anik butchers Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s name literally seconds into the broadcast, ha.

Middleweight Fight: Elias Theodorou vs Thiago Santos

I was super excited for this fight as I’ve become a huge fan of Theodorou’s since his TUF: Nations win, thanks to his charisma, his cardio-sapping fighting style and of course his ultra-cool hair. He’d last been seen beating Roger Narvaez in March in a tough fight that saw him basically break Narvaez in the second round, while his Brazilian opponent Marreta had last fought in June, pretty much kicking poor Steve Bosse’s head off. He’d looked excellent in his last couple of fights actually but I was still picking Theodorou, feeling he could replicate the gameplan of takedowns and clinch work that both William Macario and Leonardo Santos had used to beat Marreta during his own TUF run.

Round One begins and Elias opens with a series of kicks, missing on a head kick but landing a solid one to the body. Lot of kicks from Elias early on in fact and he has Santos backing up a bit. Left head kick glances for the Canadian. Hard inside leg kick connects for Marreta. Theodorou comes back with a body kick. Good low kick from Elias. Really hard body kick connects for the TUF winner and he tries a flying kick that misses. Santos seems like he can’t find his range here. Superman punch glances for Theodorou but a leg kick lands cleanly. Another nice body kick lands for Theodorou. Cartwheel kick misses for Marreta and Elias makes him pay with another body kick. Surprising to see Theodorou out-kicking the Brazilian. Another body kick lands for him. Leg kick from Elias and he narrowly misses a big head kick, but Marreta fires back with a spinning wheel kick that connects to the body. Left hand misses for Marreta and Elias drops him with a front kick to the body, but he pops right back up. Pair of hard leg kicks from Santos are replied with a body kick from Elias and from there he clinches and forces the Brazilian into the fence. They break quickly though and the round ends with some more kicks from Elias. 10-9 Theodorou as he landed the far better shots and was more active.

Round Two and both men open with kicks again, Elias to the body and Santos to the leg. Good body kick from Santos and he manages to back Elias up with a big left elbow, but Theodorou catches him and looks for a takedown. Fence grab (boo!) prevents it but Elias tries again and dumps him to the ground. Santos immediately scoots back towards the fence and stands, where he takes a knee to the body. Action slows down a bit as Theodorou can’t seem to muscle Marreta down. Good takedown defense from the Brazilian and he opens up with a series of really effective elbows to the side of the head to block a double leg attempt. Good knee also lands inside for Santos. He’s doing really well to stop the takedown here. Big body shot from Santos and he continues to defend the takedown. More elbows land nicely too. Two minutes to go and Marc Goddard calls a clean break. Body kick from Elias is caught and he eats a right hand. Body kick follows for Marreta and he counters a takedown attempt with a couple of knees. Theodorou manages to drive him into the fence again, but he takes some more elbows. These elbows are really doing well for Marreta. They break off and Santos glances on a spin kick and then clinches himself and looks for his own takedown. Elias blocks it and it looks like he might be going for a guillotine, but he can’t get it and Santos completes the takedown. Elias gives his back in an attempt to stand and takes a knee to the thigh, but Elias reverses up and then slams Santos down. Marreta pops right back up but Elias hits a suplex as the buzzer goes. Close round but I’d go with Santos as he landed the more effective shots in the clinch, especially with those elbows.

Round Three and Elias opens right away with a body kick. Wild wheel kick allows Marreta to close the distance but Elias pushes him into the fence again and looks for the takedown. Good defense again from Santos and he opens up with those nasty elbows again. They exchange some knees before Elias drops for the takedown again, but he still can’t get Marreta down. Ref calls a break and Elias shoots right away, but Santos stuffs it and cracks him with a knee and a left on the exit. Big takedown attempt from Theodorou but Santos again defends and makes him pay with elbows. Looks like Theodorou’s cut badly as there’s blood dripping to the ground. Ref calls time to get the doctor to check him over and it’s a BAD cut over the right eye, Jesus. Theodorou says he’s fine though and they restart right away. Not good for Elias’s modelling career! Back to the clinch and Elias tries to muscle him into a guillotine, but he can’t get it and drops for the takedown again. Good shots from Santos as he defends but he gets away with another fence grab too. They come back up and Marreta opens up with some punches, then drills Elias with a knee from the plum. Theodorou looks like he might be in trouble as Santos opens up on him with a combo against the fence, landing a hard knee and a pair of vicious elbows. Elias shoots again to stop the barrage but Santos stuffs it once more. Big head kick from Marreta and he grabs a front headlock to deliver more knees. Elias is definitely struggling. He keeps coming though and fires back with a knee to set up another takedown attempt. Again Marreta stuffs it though and with just over a minute to go it looks like the Brazilian’s fight. Scramble sees both men end up back in the clinch where Marreta nails the Canadian with some knees to the body. Elias is as tough as nails to take all this punishment. He’s still firing back from the clinch, too. They break and Theodorou takes an eye poke on the exit. Ref calls time but Elias is fine and they restart. Theodorou shoots but fails on the takedown again and eats another really nasty knee for his troubles. Couple of follow-up shots have him stunned, but he still returns fire. Brutal body kick from Santos but Elias catches it and clinches. Round ends in the clinch. 10-9 Santos for a 29-28 mild upset I’d say.

Judges have it 29-28, 29-27 and 29-27 for Thiago Marreta Santos. Big win for him especially after a sticky first round, and it was surprising too in that Theodorou seemed to be winning the fight when he was striking from the outside – an area I’d have given Santos an advantage – but once the fight became clinch-heavy Marreta took over where Theodorou is usually at his strongest. I think more than anything, Elias might’ve been surprised by the physical strength of Marreta as his takedown defense looked phenomenal for a guy who struggled with that during his run at a lighter weight. He doesn’t look at all small for 185lbs these days though. I think Theodorou probably needs to work on his offensive wrestling from the outside more than anything as he could’ve done with a really quick double leg rather than a takedown from the clinch in this fight as he was taking shots every time Santos had his back to the fence. What he definitely doesn’t need to work on is his toughness as he definitely showed he can take a serious shot. Really good, hard-hitting fight even with a lot of clinching and I think both guys have a bright future, with Elias remaining a top prospect while Santos might be a real dark horse in the division.

Lightweight Fight: Sage Northcutt vs Cody Pfister

Well, much to the chagrin of some of the other fighters on the roster all the hype here was on Northcutt, who, for those who’ve been living under a rock since October, had burst onto the scene after starring in the first episode of Dana White’s Lookin’ For A Fight and had followed that with a quick TKO of Frank Trevino in his UFC debut. Oh, and that isn’t mentioning the fact that he’s still only 19 and he looks like a Ken doll on steroids. Opponent Pfister – despite coming off a win in his last fight – looked like a setup for Sage, no offense, and for me the question wasn’t whether Northcutt would win but how and when.

Fight begins and Pfister comes rushing out and walks through a couple of side kicks to wing an overhand right and then get a takedown. Northcutt looks calm from the guard and looks to use the fence to stand, but Pfister smartly spins him around away from it and keeps him grounded. Sage ties his arms up from the bottom and it looks like he’s stalling for a stand-up, but Pfister works to pass and gets into half-guard where he lands an elbow or two. Good hip escape from Sage puts him back in full guard but he hasn’t come close to escaping from underneath Pfister so far. Pfister keeps reaching back with his left arm to shove Sage’s leg down in an attempt to pass, which is wildly risky as it leaves him so open for a triangle, but Sage doesn’t go for it. Three minutes gone in the round and Sage is still grounded. Couple of elbows land for Pfister but he’s not doing too much damage. Referee calls a stand-up and the crowd seem pissed off which is weird. Maybe they don’t like the hype behind Sage. He shoots for a takedown of his own off the restart and gets Pfister on his back, passing into half-guard too. Now it’s Pfister’s turn to hold on and take the odd elbow. Looks like Sage might be working on an arm triangle choke, and he passes into mount too, but Pfister quickly gets back to half-guard. Sage manages to transition to take the back, and from there he lands some hammer fists to end the round. Close round due to the end but I’d go 10-9 Pfister as he spent more time on top and did decently there.

Into the 2nd and Cody comes out swinging again, but this time he finds himself on his back after a brief scramble. Pfister scrambles again and lunges for a takedown of his own, but Sage is looking for a guillotine. Pfister drives him into the fence, but he’s still leaving his neck out and sure enough Sage catches the guillotine TIGHTLY to force the tapout. And of course he celebrates with one of his ridiculous flips. He’s going to hurt himself one of these days!

Not a flawless showing from Northcutt due to that first round, as it’s not like Pfister is an elite fighter, no offense meant as obviously he’d beat me up with ease for instance, but after the Trevino fight people were talking about Sage fighting top-level opponents and he clearly isn’t ready for that yet. Looks like Sean Shelby and Joe Silva agree though as Sage is matched next with Andrew Holbrook, and while he’s 11-0 that isn’t much more experienced than Sage and judging by his fight with Ramsey Nijem (which I thought he lost) I think he’s a beatable opponent. The raw material is definitely there with Sage and with experience he could definitely be something special, as long as he isn’t thrown to the wolves too early. Post-fight Sage cuts a promo that pretty much explains why the UFC love him so much, as he thanks “Mr White and Mr Fertitta” and then plugs Fight Pass heavily, ha. And he also PRAISES THE LORD because of course he does. Not like Yoel Romero though because that’d be shady. Oh, and for the record I thought this fight was fine for what it was – a very slight step up for a very raw prospect. Some people claimed this sort of fight doesn’t belong in the UFC but I mean, it’s not like anyone’s being asked to pay ridiculous money for it ($8 a month or whatever it is for Fight Pass is a bargain) and nor are the UFC claiming Sage is a top contender yet like Elite XC did with Kimbo Slice. I don’t get the problem myself.

Lightweight Fight: Michael Chiesa vs Jim Miller

I was surprised to see this as the co-main event in a way given Miller’s been on a bit of a slide recently (1-2 in his last 3 coming into this one) and Chiesa hadn’t really gotten a big push from the UFC before, but to be fair I think he’s one of the most underrated fighters in the division so it was cool to see him get some spotlight. For me this looked like a very winnable fight for the TUF winner too – he’s a huge 155lber, something Miller had had issues with in the past (Pat Healy) and he’s also a stifling grappler, and for me Miller is a bit past his sell by date at this point.

Big time brownie points for Chiesa for using Stranglehold as his walk-in track. Yeah I know it’s Joseph Benavidez’s theme but a song that cool can get away with being used by more than one fighter I’d say.

Round One begins and Chiesa tags Miller with a combo in the first exchange. Miller comes back with a counter left in the next though and he backs Chiesa up a little. Clinch from Chiesa and he swings Miller into the fence and then dumps him down into half-guard. He begins to grind with some elbows as it looks like Miller’s reaching under to attempt a possible sweep. Good job from Miller to create some space but he can’t shake Chiesa off and the TUF winner lands some elbows. Again Miller kicks him off, but Chiesa stands over him and then drops back into the half-guard. Leglock attempt from Miller though and he rolls for it, but Chiesa seems really calm. Miller gives it up though to take top position and he avoids a triangle from there. Chiesa stays active from his back and goes for the triangle again, but Miller again avoids it and this time he uses the transition to scramble and take the back with both hooks! That was awesome. Body triangle from Miller and Chiesa’s in trouble. Chiesa works to defend any possible choke attempts, but he can’t shake Miller off his back. Round ends with Miller in control. 10-9 Miller as he took over the round after a tricky beginning.

Round Two and Miller opens with a nice inside leg kick. Counter left hand lands for him too as Chiesa steps forward. Body kick glances for Chiesa but he takes another counter. Miller’s swinging pretty wildly here but Chiesa ducks under and hits a beautiful takedown to butterfly guard. Full guard now for Miller but Chiesa rears up to land a vicious elbow through the guard. Hammer fist follows as he avoids a possible armbar. Rubber guard from Miller now and it looks like he might be transitioning for a triangle, but Chiesa avoids to deliver some more ground-and-pound. Looks like someone’s busted open. Chiesa drops a couple more elbows and then passes into half-guard and it looks like both men might be cut in fact. Chiesa attempts to pin Miller’s left arm down, but Miller uses the opportunity to grab the leg and spin for a kneebar! Chiesa rolls with it and then begins to drop some bombs which force Miller to let go. In the process he gives up mount, and he’s in deep trouble. Chiesa OPENS UP with more big shots and then LOCKS IN THE CHOKE!~! Miller tries to hang on but it’s too deep and he has to tap. Massive win for Chiesa.

So yeah, I said I thought Miller was a little past his prime but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a game opponent and Chiesa did really well to go with him on the ground and eventually outwork and catch him for the submission. You honestly can’t say enough about how impressive it is to tap Miller – it’s a huge feather in Chiesa’s cap. I hope they move him up the ladder again next time out as I think he’s a legit contender in the division – a match with anyone like Beneil Dariush, Michael Johnson or Edson Barboza would work for me. This fight ruled, also, with some tremendous grappling exchanges and a high pace throughout.

Women’s Strawweight Fight: Rose Namajunas vs Paige VanZant

Despite her young age (21) and relative inexperience, VanZant had proven herself to be one of the UFC’s fastest rising stars in 2015, and not only because of her good looks – a dominant win over a proven talent like Felice Herrig is nothing to sneeze at. This was to be her first crack at a main event, and originally she was matched with Scottish kickboxer Joanne Calderwood in what sounded like a cool striker vs. grappler fight. When Calderwood picked up an injury and dropped out though, she was faced with an even tougher opponent in TUF finalist Namajunas – a fighter less experienced in number of fights but also a ruthless finisher who’d actually beaten Calderwood during TUF and had also taken out rising contender Randa Markos too. For me she’s probably the most underrated girl in the division at this point – she doesn’t make the top ten on Sherdog for instance despite having beaten Calderwood (#9) pretty thoroughly. This was a tough fight to pick simply because we’d seen Rose fall prey to a relentless grappling game against Carla Esparza and there aren’t many fighters more relentless than PVZ, but I was taking Namajunas because while she’s definitely relentless, Paige has a tendency to leave herself open due to her sheer aggression and Rose is one of those fighters who, if she has an opponent hurt, she’s likely to put them away.

Side note but I can’t say I’m a fan of the shaved head look for Rose. Never been a fan of that look on women to be honest!

First round begins and they circle before Rose counters a leg kick with a hard right hand that tags Paige. Another right follows and lands cleanly too. She counters another kick with a combo before PVZ answers with a side kick to the body. Another combo tags Paige and Rose clinches and hits a takedown to half-guard. Big elbows land for Rose and she works a pass into side mount pretty easily. More elbows and hammer fists follow and Paige is in trouble. She does a great job of using the fence to roll to her feet though, and she counters a knee with a combo of her own that puts Namajunas on the retreat a bit. Looks like VanZant is cut open already. Beautiful right hand lands for Rose right through the guard. Another one follows and lands flush. Counter combo from Namajunas sets up a clinch and she counters an attempted shoulder throw and takes the back with both hooks. Paige scrambles but winds up underneath mount, and then she gives her back again. Choke attempt from Namajunas but Paige defends and shakes off the hooks, allowing her back to her feet. They remain clinched and wow Paige is bloody. Takedown again from Rose and she lands in full guard this time. Rose stands over her and then drops a big right hand through the guard, then lands some laser-accurate punches before passing into half-guard. Big elbows end the round for Namajunas. Clear-cut round to score there, 10-9 Namajunas. Looks like it’s Paige’s right cheek that’s cut.

Second round and PVZ pushes forward but walks right into another sharp combo from Rose. Paige tries to clinch and again goes for the head-and-arm throw, but Rose blocks it and muscles her into the fence. They jockey for position before Rose slams her down into side mount. Knee-on-belly follows and then she steps into full mount and lands a flurry that forces Paige to give her back. Paige manages to roll, but she can’t get free and winds up underneath side mount. She does get to half-guard but she’s being outclassed here. Rose stands over her for a second before dropping a right hand back into half-guard, and then she traps the left arm behind Paige’s back as she works to her feet. Big knee from Rose as Paige turns into her, and from there Rose looks to get another takedown. This time Paige does work the head-and-arm takedown, but Rose reverses as they hit the ground and takes top position again. She lands some solid shots from the top and then takes the back again before going for a standing arm triangle. Paige avoids that, but a left hand opens her cut badly again as they break off. One minute to go and they circle, before Paige pulls guard in an odd move. Looked like she was maybe going for the Cat Zingano overhead suplex. It’s half-guard again for Rose though and she works some more elbows to end the round. Another one in the books for Namajunas.

Third round and Paige comes sprinting out of her corner before leaping into the clinch, but again Namajunas takes her down and lands in half-guard. VanZant manages to block an attempted mount, but Rose postures up to land some harsh knees to the body. Reversal from Paige allows her to hit a single leg of her own, but somehow Rose reverses that and almost takes the back before standing. Good knee from the clinch from Paige and she begins to push forward, but Rose tags her hard with a counter right when she tries a spinning backfist, and it allows Namajunas to clinch. They break quickly though and Namajunas continues to land the sharper shots in the exchanges. Hard overhand right connects for Rose. Head kick glances for her as she continues to pick Paige apart as the younger fighter comes forward. Back into the clinch with two minutes remaining and Rose uses a whizzer to force Paige to the ground, where she looks to take the back. Paige rolls but only into half-guard, where she takes some more hard punches and elbows. Namajunas works into side mount and continues to land, and then takes the back again off a failed scramble. Wild moment follows as Paige stands, but can’t shake Rose off her back and Rose somehow launches her to the ground and slaps the hooks in on the way, ala Hughes vs. Trigg in the first fight! Looks like the choke is sunk, but Paige somehow fights it and hangs in there. Her face is a MESS. Somehow Paige survives and Rose lets it go to land some more shots before the round ends. 10-8 round for Namajunas for me due to the close finish.

Fourth round and Paige actually comes out pushing forward, but Namajunas quickly clinches and takes her down again. She lands in half-guard and immediately works to pass that as Paige tries to scramble from the bottom. Looks for a second like Rose could get an armbar but she doesn’t go for it and PVZ manages to get back to full guard. Is it wrong that I feel bad that a pretty girl like Paige is getting her face messed up and I don’t really care when it happens to one of the male fighters? Probably yeah. Sweep attempt from VanZant but Rose switches out and looks to lock up a kimura. She switches that to an armbar attempt and it looks pretty deep. Paige is in deep shit. Somehow though she guts it out and twists and turns free until she almost stands. Jesus that was close. Single leg attempt now from Paige but Rose sprawls out and then spins back into top position. This girl is an animal. Nasty elbows land to the side of Paige’s head and then Rose takes the back again with no hooks. Looks like she might have the choke sunk, but she gives up on that to bomb on Paige’s head again. Knees to the body land for Rose but Paige stands back up. Paige has as much heart as her mentor Urijah Faber which says a ton. They go back down and it looks like Paige is trying an inverted triangle, but Rose avoids that and goes for another armbar. Again it looks fully extended but again Paige squirms and despite the arm going at a SICK ANGLE she escapes! Holy shit. Paige gets on top for a second but Rose goes right into an oma plata and she uses it to take the back again. This time she looks to slap both hooks in and looks for the choke again, but Paige won’t give it up at all. Massive respect for her. One minute to go and Rose remains in firm control. They come back to their feet but Rose still has a rear waistlock, but Paige manages to turn into the regular clinch. Rose stays right on her and lands with a nasty knee, and they break with seconds to go. Big right hand lands for Rose and sets up another takedown to end the round in side mount. Another 10-8 for Namajunas.

Fifth round and Paige again comes out swinging, but Rose tags her with a combo and then looks for a takedown and gets it. Beautiful stuff and right back into half-guard. She works to pass that and manages to take the back in a nice transition. Looks like she might be going for some sort of leglock for a second, but VanZant manages to avoid that and winds up underneath side mount. Paige works back to half-guard, but Rose continues to work from the top to pass and she manages to step to mount. She takes the back again and then goes back to mount as Paige squirms. Paige gives her back again and Rose again slaps both hooks in and wrenches her to the ground. This time she sinks the choke tightly and with no way out, Paige finally gives up the ghost and taps.

Outstanding main event. It was one-sided for sure but the sheer heart and toughness of VanZant made it strangely watchable, as for the most part it was just Namajunas running right over her with her superior grappling, from takedowns to slams to guard passes and submission attempts. Really incredible showing from Namajunas – a lot of people tried to pass Paige off as the product of nothing but hype after this but I disagree, her wins over Herrig and Chambers were both very impressive and while she might’ve been very slightly overrated in terms of people talking her up for a title shot, for Rose to totally destroy her in all aspects of the game is pretty amazing. It’s probably too early for another title shot for Rose – there’s too many girls ahead in the queue right now (Claudia Gadelha, Tecia Torres, Karolina Kowalkiewicz) when you consider she lost in her first attempt – but I could definitely see one in the future and I’d say if she keeps working on her overall game she could be a tricky test for Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the future – assuming of course Joanna holds onto the title. Perhaps a match with Jessica Penne or Jessica Aguilar would work next? As for Paige, she’s young and she’ll bounce back. She just needs to work on closing the defensive holes in her game and tightening up her offense to make it less reckless, and I still think she’s a contender in the future – just not right now.

-Prerequisite plug for UFC 194 and then a nice highlight reel end our night.

Final Thoughts….

After the Korean show this was another fantastic Fight Pass card, with four excellent fights for different reasons – a hard-hitting, gritty opener between Santos and Theodorou, a decent test for Northcutt, a really fun grappling match between Chiesa and Miller and then a one-sided yet entertaining main event that moved Namajunas right back into title contention. No bad fights and the showcasing of some really bright prospects make this one an easy thumbs up card. One of the best Fight Nights of 2015.

Best Fight: Miller vs. Chiesa
Worst Fight: None

Overall Rating: ****

Until next time,

Scott Newman: