MMA Review: #585: UFC Fight Night 103

-First UFC show of 2017 and it really does feel like the dawn of a new era, what with Mike Goldberg and Joe Silva both gone and all the weird stuff going on right now with regards to the WME ownership going forward, the McGregor/Mayweather rumors, union talk and so on. Who knows where we’ll be this time next year? Given the dearth of headline-level talent right now this one wasn’t exactly as big a show as we started 2016 off with (Dillashaw vs. Cruz, remember?) but hey, BJ Penn can still garner interest even at 38 coming off two years in retirement.

UFC Fight Night 103

Phoenix, Arizona

-Your hosts are Jon Anik and Daniel Cormier. I thought Todd Grisham was supposed to be debuting here? No idea what’s going on there. Anyhow, Jon and DC discuss some rule changes, including making reaching with an open hand illegal. Cormier outright says that’s a win for him in what’s clearly a knock at Jon Jones who was the king of using that shady move.

Flyweight Fight: Sergio Pettis vs John Moraga

This one was moved up to the main card when we lost Jimmie Rivera/Bryan Caraway, but really it was a main card-worthy fight anyway as Pettis was looking to move into the top ten by taking out former title challenger Moraga, who’d lost his previous two fights. Given how he’d looked against Matheus Nicolau (read, pretty bad) and Pettis’s general improvements I was taking Sergio to win.

Round One begins and they circle before Pettis lands with a right hand. Low kick answers for Moraga but Pettis catches him with a straight left that backs him up. Couple of jabs from Pettis and he’s really got Moraga on his back foot here. Left hand connects for Sergio. Big lefts miss for both men and Moraga gets a clinch and forces Pettis into the fence. Pettis manages to shrug him off with a left hand, then glances on a high kick. Big punches miss for Moraga and Pettis lands a swift counter combo on him. Looks like Moraga’s busted open under his left eye. Clean right hook connects for Pettis. Low kick into a high kick follows. Pettis is looking excellent here. He continues to back Moraga up, but Moraga catches him with a hard right hand in an exchange. That allows him forward but Pettis hits a surprising takedown. Guillotine attempt from Moraga is avoided and they wind up clinched on the fence. They break off and Pettis lands with a nice one-two, but has to block a big kick in reply. Beautiful left hand counter hurts Moraga and Pettis follows in with a big flurry. Moraga tries to reply, but he’s badly hurt and Pettis drops him with a right hand right as the round ends. Clear 10-9 for Pettis, great round for him.

Round Two and Moraga comes out firing more punches, but he eats a hard left hand counter pretty quickly. Head kick is blocked by Moraga who comes back with an inside leg kick. They exchange punches and both men land some decent shots, but Pettis seems to be the quicker man and he lands the cleaner blows. Takedown attempt from Moraga and Pettis seems happy to go to his back for a guillotine attempt. Moraga avoids that and stacks up, but Pettis kicks him away. Kick to the legs from Moraga but Pettis springs back to his feet. Right hand from Moraga is countered by a combo, and Pettis stuffs a takedown to follow. Good combination lands for Moraga. Quick counter combo lands for Pettis and is followed by a jab. Right hand from Moraga is walked through by Pettis, who lands a quick combo again. Pettis is beginning to beat Moraga to the punch again. Takedown attempt from Moraga but Pettis works to stuff it by getting his back to the fence. Nice right hand separates for Sergio. Another combo glances for Pettis before Moraga shoots again, but Pettis stuffs it with a high-elbow guillotine attempt. Moraga avoids that, but can’t get Sergio down. Jumping kick glances for Pettis and the round ends shortly after. 10-9 Pettis again although Moraga did a better job in that round.

Round Three and they go right back to exchanging with Pettis tagging Moraga with a double jab into a left hand, but Moraga coming back with a clean left hook. Wheel kick misses for Pettis by a mile. Couple of really clean shots land for Pettis and set up a head kick that Moraga partially blocks. Takedown attempt from Moraga is blocked by a guillotine again. He does push Pettis into the fence this time though. Really good job from Moraga this time as he dumps Pettis to the ground in full guard. He decides to drop back for a heel hook attempt, but Pettis stands and manages to clear his foot to take top position in half-guard. From there he takes the back, but Moraga reverses up to his feet. Pettis forces him back into the fence, and he tries to get Moraga down but somehow winds up practically giving his back. He manages to get back up and they separate with a minute to go. Front kick to the body lands for Pettis. He pops Moraga with a counter right hand and then stuffs another takedown too. Thirty seconds to go and Pettis lands with a clean left hand and a glancing head kick, then follows with a combo. Wild swings reply for Moraga but he gets taken down to end the fight. I’d go 30-27 for Pettis.

Judges have it 29-28, 29-28 and 30-27 for Sergio Pettis. Surprised they gave Moraga a round to be fair. This was an excellent showing from Pettis to knock off a tough veteran, as he showed the much crisper hands and was also able to mostly outgrapple Moraga too, blocking most of the takedowns and also reversing him on the ground and getting takedowns of his own. I’d put him in the top ten now although I wouldn’t necessarily match him with a fellow top-tenner next. He does call out Jussier Formiga, though, which would be interesting especially if Sergio could stuff the takedowns. Solid but unspectacular fight at any rate.

Welterweight Fight: Ben Saunders vs Court McGee

This was Saunders’ first main card fight since 2010 (!) and his first UFC fight following a very short period outside the company that saw him tap out veteran Jacob Volkmann. McGee meanwhile had last picked up a win over Dominique Steele in August, but with his shorter frame and penchant for clinching, I thought he’d play into Saunders’ hands and lose probably by TKO.

Fight begins and McGee comes out quickly, looking to close Saunders down right away. Body kick from Saunders but McGee clinches and they exchange from close range before separating. Both men throw out some kicks and it looks like McGee’s cut over his left eye already. Head kick glances for him. Saunders comes back with a body kick. Combo glances for McGee but Saunders catches him with a one-two and then lands a knee from a brief plum clinch. Body kick into a combo fires back for McGee. Big body kick lands for Saunders. Overhand right lands for Ben to reply to a glancing head kick. Body kick again from Saunders. He’s firing that off over and over. Another one ends a brief exchange. Good right sets up the clinch for Court, but a knee breaks for Saunders. Exchange continues with both men landing some decent shots. Saunders again lands with the kick to the body. Every time Court gets close he’s taking a knee from the clinch. Body kick lands for the Killa B again. Round ends with a body kick from Saunders and then McGee pressing forward. Close round but I’d go 10-9 Saunders.

Into the 2nd and they trade punches with Saunders getting the better of the exchange. Body kick lands for Saunders but McGee fires back with a head kick. Nice counter right from Saunders. McGee comes back with a strong combination and he backs Saunders up with his pressure too, allowing him to land shots without taking any counters. Big knee narrowly misses for Ben. Inside leg kick from Saunders but he’s slowing down as McGee pressures him back. Takedown is blocked by Saunders though and he fires off with another body kick. Pair of body kicks connect to McGee’s arms. Saunders has this HILARIOUS raspy-voiced coach in his corner yelling at him. Combination from Saunders but McGee comes back with a counter right. Body kick answers that for Saunders. Takedown attempt from Court but Saunders blocks it and breaks with a knee to the body. Not long left in the round now and another body kick lands for Saunders, but McGee dodges the follow-up punches and lands with his own combo. Takedown attempt again from McGee but he still can’t get Saunders off his feet. Crowd sound slightly restless now. They exchange from close range and McGee breaks with a right hand, but eats a pair of knees to the body as the round ends. Super-close round, probably just about 10-9 Saunders as he was more economical with his strikes but did land the better ones.

Final round sees Court come out swinging, but Saunders avoids the early rush and cracks him with a one-two on the counter. Head kick follows but doesn’t land cleanly. Pair of body kicks land again for Saunders. Nice leg kick from Court. Right hand follows in another exchange and Saunders looks hurt. He backpedals a bit and takes a glancing head kick, but it doesn’t look like McGee realises how badly hurt he is and he manages to recover. Spinning backfist misses for McGee. Big takedown attempt follows and he drives Ben into the fence, but Ben looks to wrap up the left arm for a kimura. McGee manages to dump him to the ground and avoids the kimura to take top position in half-guard, but Saunders works back to full guard. He tries to go for a leglock, but McGee avoids and remains inside the guard. Crowd begin to boo a little as the action slows down, with Saunders working a high guard to prevent McGee from really doing much from the top. Round ends with McGee working from the top but still not doing a lot. 10-9 McGee, 29-28 Saunders overall for me.

All three judges have it 29-28 for Ben Saunders, same as me. Could’ve gone either way I guess due to a close 2nd round, and the crowd don’t seem happy, but it just depends on whether you value McGee’s volume or Saunders landing cleaner, harder shots. Fight was a little dull compared to some of the past fights from both men but it wasn’t horrible or anything – both guys were just very tough and didn’t really let up throughout the fight, which meant a back-and-forth deal with neither coming close to a finish. Saunders sounds EXHAUSTED post-fight too showing how hard they must’ve worked.

Lightweight Fight: Joe Lauzon vs Marcin Held

This one looked like an interesting and probably wild fight on paper, as both guys are super-aggressive – especially in grappling – and look to dive on submissions and stuff constantly. I was giving Lauzon a slight edge as I felt he was a more dangerous striker, but Held’s youth was definitely on his side as Lauzon’s probably on the downswing of his career now.

Round One and they circle and Lauzon glances on an early combo. Left hand lands for Held. Nice right from Lauzon sets up a knee to the body but Held forces him into the fence. He ducks for the takedown but Lauzon hurts him with a series of elbows to the head and he actually takes mount for a second! Held tries to scramble but almost gets armbarred, and then he spins and pops back up to his feet only to eat an elbow on the way out. Crazy exchange. Big flurry from Held but Lauzon covers up well. Clinch from Held and they jockey for position before Held forces the takedown to guard. Nice stuff from the Pole. Action slows down a little as Lauzon ties Held up from the guard, but the Bellator vet manages to move into side mount. Lauzon manages to wall-walk up the fence though and flips over up to his feet. Held keeps him forced into the fence, landing a hard knee to the body before looking for the takedown again. Lauzon breaks off and both men fire out jabs before Lauzon lands with a right hand to set up another clinch. Held quickly reverses position and forces Lauzon back, then breaks with a spinning elbow, but he slips to his back and Lauzon pounces and lands a right into the guard as the round ends. Close round but I’m going 10-9 Lauzon as he did the most damage with those elbows, and Held never really got a dominant position.

Round Two and a wheel kick misses for Held. They exchange some jabs before Held shoots and gets Lauzon down, landing in a guillotine but moving right into side mount. Lauzon manages to get half-guard, but Held swing himself over and takes the back in a really slick move. Both hooks in for Held and Lauzon might be in some trouble. Lauzon manages to get rid of the hooks though and then spins into Held and looks for a double leg of his own. He dumps the Polish fighter to the ground, but Held right away manages to spring up. Elbow from Held but Lauzon grabs onto a possible standing choke. Held avoids that and forces him into the fence, and Lauzon can’t seem to shake him off. They break off and then Held ducks under a combo and hits another beautiful double leg to guard. Action slows down as Lauzon ties him up, and with a minute to go he looks to lock up an armbar, and this is deep! Held’s in trouble, but he drops to his back and manages to free the arm before teasing a leglock. Instead he drops back into the guard where he works to pass. Few hammer fists get through for Held and the round ends there. 10-9 Held to even things up.

Round Three and Lauzon pushes forward throwing punches, but he seems to be finding it hard to get into range and is likely fearful of the takedown. Held pops him with some of his own combinations before Lauzon tries to clinch. Held spins him around but Lauzon escapes free. Again Lauzon ties up in the clinch, but Held dumps him to the ground from a bodylock. Herb Dean calls time for literally like one second to replace Held’s mouthpiece and they continue from Lauzon’s guard. Held strangely decides to allow him to his feet, where he connects on a decent combo. Doesn’t look like he has much power, but he’s outlanding Lauzon right now. Strong right hand does connect for Lauzon though. Held fires back and they exchange into the clinch, and Lauzon tries the takedown and manages to get a rear waistlock. Held spins back into him though and then looks for a takedown of his own. He can’t do it and they break off, and exchange some punches again with Lauzon pressing forward. Both guys look tired actually. Another excellently-timed double leg from Held plants Lauzon on his back in guard, where he looks to advance position. He tries to stand to spin over the top of Lauzon, and we end up in a pretzel position until the buzzer. I’ve got it 29-28 Held giving him the last two rounds.

Judges have it 30-27 Held, 29-28 Lauzon and 29-28 for Joe Lauzon to win the split decision. Wow, did not see that at all. Post-fight it looks like Lauzon didn’t see it coming either as he freely admits that he shouldn’t have won the fight, which is a pretty telling thing to come from a professional fighter. I get that Held didn’t do much damage or come close to a finish, but he had all the positional dominance in the last two rounds – the timing on his takedowns in particular was fantastic – and Lauzon for me didn’t do much to offset that either. Hopefully the two straight losses don’t get Held cut because there’s no way he deserved to lose that fight. Unfortunately it wasn’t nearly as exciting as I’d hoped either as both guys seemed to cancel each other out more than anything else.

Featherweight Fight: Yair Rodriguez vs BJ Penn

So yeah, this was BJ’s big comeback following another two and a half years on the shelf following his one-sided loss to Frankie Edgar – initially he’d been matched with Cole Miller, a much easier opponent in my opinion, but here he was faced with one of the top prospects in the division in Rodriguez, unbeaten in five UFC fights with some fantastic performances in there, and you couldn’t help but feel like the UFC were setting Penn up to lose to the flashy new star rather than look to rebuild the legend. Despite that I was still giving Penn a chance – he was definitely the most skilled opponent of Rodriguez’s career in terms of sheer fundamentals and even past his prime (his last win was in 2010 for Christ’s sake!) I felt like if Yair made one wild fuck-up BJ could take him out. After all, Rodriguez only squeaked by Bruce Leeroy in his last fight! And I was pulling for Penn too as his attitude recently – railing against “money fights” and all of that bullshit – has been a breath of fresh air.

Round One gets underway and Rodriguez lands a body kick instantly. Penn pushes forward and misses with a left hand before dodging a low kick. Spin kick is missed by Rodriguez and Penn manages to force him into the fence, looking for the takedown, but Rodriguez defends it and breaks free. Left hook misses for Penn and Rodriguez throws a low kick into a missed spinning backfist. Jumping kick glances for Rodriguez. Right hand into a knee follows. Penn seems to be moving at a totally different speed, much slower than the Mexican. Right hand connects for Penn as he pushes forward and he manages to clinch again, but Rodriguez breaks off with a knee and then wobbles the legend with a left head kick. Pen backpedals and Rodriguez catches him with another big head kick. Right hand glances for Penn, but he takes a spin kick to the side of the head. Quick flurry follows and Penn looks like a target now. Clinch from Penn but Rodriguez uses a knee and a whizzer to throw him off. Penn is in deep trouble here. Right head kick glances for Rodriguez and he follows with a hard body kick. Low kick drops BJ for a second but he pops back up and eats another one. Tornado kick (!) lands flush for Rodriguez and hurts Penn and a left head kick sets up another flurry. Penn is surviving here but he’s backpedalling badly. Huge left head kick lands and another three follow. Body kick lands clean and Penn is just taking punishment now. Leg kick from Yair. Another two high kicks follow. Leg kick almost drops BJ. Rodriguez just looks totally chilled out with all of this, just throwing kicks at will. Round ends with Yair continuing to land shots. 10-8 Rodriguez and realistically Penn’s done.

Round Two and Rodriguez comes out with a front kick to the face followed directly, somehow, by a right hand to the jaw and PENN GOES DOWN! First time he’s been knocked down in his career in fact. Rodriguez pounces and begins to SMASH HIM with punches and hammer fists from the top, bouncing his head off the ground and Big John McCarthy lets him take a TON of shots before mercifully stopping things. Post-fight BJ tries to claim an early stoppage, but if anything it was a late one as Penn didn’t need to have his head bounced around like that after those first two shots dropped him.

Tremendous win for Yair Rodriguez in terms of name value and it seems to have made him into a semi-star at least, but more than anything this felt sad to me – it was like Yair showed BJ respect for around two minutes and then realized he had nothing for him, and so from there it was target practice for the Mexican until the fight was over. For the most part, it reminded me of Rich Franklin’s 2005 win over Ken Shamrock – a great fighter from the past just totally unable to be competitive with a guy from the next generation. Surely now Penn has to go into retirement for good – anything else would be dangerous to him physically and would largely just spoil the tremendous legacy he leaves – the original megastar of the lighter weight classes and one of the greatest of all time. As for Rodriguez, I’d say he’s the real deal and probably warrants a spot in the top ten now, so why not match him up with Cub Swanson next? Cub had the FOTY last time out and I think a fight between him and Rodriguez would guarantee fireworks.

-Show ends with Rodriguez heading to the back, soaking in the cheers after the biggest win of his career, thus far at least.

Final Thoughts….

Bit of a middling way to start the year I’d say; the main event was entertaining enough but it was also a very one-sided fight, and outside of that, I really liked Pettis vs. Moraga, but both Saunders/McGee and Lauzon/Held were much slower fights than I was expecting even though neither one was outright bad. Rodriguez’s finish of Penn will probably make all of the highlight reels for the year and it’s worth checking the show out for that, but it’s only a thumbs in the middle for me.

Best Fight: Pettis vs. Moraga
Worst Fight: Saunders vs. McGee

Overall Rating: **3/4

Until next time,

Scott Newman: