UFC Vegas 54: About Last Night...
A sneaky-good fight card produced a number of intriguing results on Saturday before an injury ended the night
Blachowicz Wins After Rakic Injured
Saturday’s main event between Jan Blachowicz and Aleksandar Rakic was shaping up to be the dynamic, back-and-forth battle everyone expected. But a minute into the third, Rakic took a step backwards and when he planted on his right foot, his knee gave out, bringing the fight to an unfortunate, anticlimactic end.
Blachowicz attacked Rakic’s lead leg early and often, taking the sting out of the Austrian’s sharp jab while getting the better of things in the opening round. Rakic countered by putting the former champion on the canvas in the second, controlling things from top position and landing a few shots in tight along the way before the injury brought things to a halt. Prior to the injury, it looked like Blachowicz was getting the better of the exchanges and poised to continue taking it to Rakic, who was sharp throughout as well.
You never want to see anyone get injured and I hope Rakic can make a full and complete recovery from what looked like a major ligament injury, but you also feel for Blachowicz, who doesn’t quite get to put a stamp on his return to action the way that he would have liked.
As it stands, the Polish veteran moves into pole position to challenge the winner of the upcoming light heavyweight championship bout between Glover Teixeira and Jiri Prochazka in Singapore next month.
“Superman” Submits “The Hulk”
As soon as the fight between Ryan Spann and Ion Cutelaba was booked, you knew it was going to be chaotic for as long as it lasts. It lasted just over two minutes and was pure chaos, ending with Spann clamping onto a high-elbow guillotine choke to secure the finish.
The light heavyweights started firing off power shots right out of the chute, with Spann getting the better of things on the feet, but Cutelaba timing up takedowns each time the Fortis MMA product pressed forward. Each time his back hit the canvas, Spann would kick free, stand, charge ahead, and get put back down, including when he chased an ill-advised guillotine attempt. But after a couple failed attempts to grab control, Spann capitalized on Cutelaba over-extending, wrapping up the modified guillotine and going palm-to-palm to torque out the tap.
From a physical standpoint, Spann has all the tools to be a force in the light heavyweight division — he’s a gigantic human being with power in both hands and a deft submission game. He’s prone of rushing and making mistakes, which he showed again on Saturday, but this time, he did well to ease off the gas just in time to find the finish, and if he can do that consistently, he could climb the ranking in the second half of the year and beyond.
For the third straight fight, Davey Grant went through hell, but this time, he pulled out the victory, finishing a game Louis Smolka early in the third round.
Grant put it on the Hawaiian in the opening stanza, nearly finishing the fight towards end of the round, only for Smolka to rally back to even things up after 10 minutes. Early in the third, Grant went back to the outside calf kicks that were effective in the first, hobbling Smolka and sending him to the canvas. From there, the British bantamweight drove home a series of clean follow-up blows that put Smolka out.
The victory gets Grant back into the win column after consecutive loss to Marlon Vera and Adrian Yanez in back-to-back Fight of the Night efforts, and gave him a very good chance at garnering a bonus for the fifth straight fight; he didn’t get it, but he certainly deserved one. After his UFC career began with tons of injuries, it’s awesome to see the affable, talented Grant healthy and having fun out there on a consistent basis, while establishing himself as a truth machine just outside the Top 15 in the loaded bantamweight division.
Chookagian Wins, Ribas Doesn’t Lose Ground
Katlyn Chookagian did what Katlyn Chookagian does on Saturday night, working her stick-and-move, stay technical striking approach in an entertaining scrap with spirited Brazilian strawweight Amanda Ribas, coming away with a split decision win that really shouldn’t have been a split decision.
Ribas had good moments in the first and second, hitting a head-and-arm throw in each frame, while running close to level with Chookagian in the third, but the Brazilian did little with those takedowns, and whenever they were on the feet, “Blonde Fighter” was landing at will and doing so with far greater impact. What she lacks in power, Chookagian makes up for with volume, working at a steady clip that never allows her opponents to really get settled, which is what happened with Ribas on Saturday.
Chookagian is the second best flyweight in the division and now owns a four-fight winning streak, but still remains no real threat to champion Valentina Shevchenko. As for Ribas, despite taking the loss, her stock doesn’t fall. If anything, it should improve, as she pushed Chookagian in ways other flyweights haven’t, which speaks to what she’s capable of back in her natural surroundings. The 28-year-old owns wins over Mackenzie Dern and should be in the mix just outside of the championship pack in the 115-pound weight class going forward.
Welcome to the UFC, Manuel Torres
Mexican newcomer Manuel Torres impressed in his promotional debut on Saturday night, getting into a fistfight with veteran Frank Camacho and getting the grizzled veteran out of there inside off five minutes.
There was no feeling out process between these two — it was all gas, no brakes from the jump, and while Camacho fired back as often as he could, the power coming his way was too much to handle. Torres let loose rockets every time he threw, hurting Camacho multiple times in the three minutes and change the fight lasted, finally putting him down with a lovely one-two from the southpaw stance. While Camacho didn’t go out, he was clearly done, and referee Herb Dean rightfully stepped in.
Torres is one of several Mexican fighters to matriculate to the UFC from Season 5 of Dana White’s Contender Series, but the first to deliver an impressive, victorious effort inside the Octagon. The 27-year-old is 13-2 thus far and pushed his winning streak to four on Saturday with a fourth straight first-round finish, establishing himself as someone to keep tabs on in the lightweight division going forward.
Nascimento Spoils Hadley’s Debut
Brazilian veteran Allan Nascimento controlled the opening two rounds of his main card opener against newcomer Jake Hadley on Saturday night, working through an early and late third period push from the Brit before finishing the contest in top position.
This was a terrific grappling battle filled with sweeps and transitions, with the larger, more seasoned Nascimento essentially big brother’ing Hadley on the canvas. While the former Cage Warriors champ had some positive moments — a slick omoplata sweep early, the pushes in the third — he was simply stuck in with a superior grappler that saw all his setups coming and had counters at the ready. After landing on the wrong side of a questionable split decision verdict last time out, the Brazilian picks up his first UFC victory and spoils Hadley’s debut at the same time.
While this is certainly a blow for the 25-year-old Hadley, it’s also a very good learning opportunity and something that will certainly make him a better fighter going forward. He’s undeniably talented, it’s just he needs more seasoning and to acclimate to the skill level and overall physicality of the competition at this level, but he’ll get there. This was always the risk with a rugged assignment like this to start out, and now we’ll see how Hadley grows from this experience next time out.
Preliminary Card Thoughts
After a wild opening round, Viviane Araujo showed the diversity in her game, turning a poor takedown attempt by Andrea Lee into a full round of ground control, never relinquishing momentum the rest of the way.
Lee came out firing, hurting the Brazilian early in the opening stanza, staggering Araujo with a right hand before planting a high kick on her neck. But Araujo weathered the storm and had quality moments of her own in the second half of the first before capitalizing on Lee’s poor decision-making in the second and dominating on the ground the rest of the way.
Araujo came into this fight off a loss to flyweight silver medalist Katlyn Chookagian, and showed she’s the perfect fighter to occupy a place just outside of the elite class in the 125-pound weight class. She has a complete skill set, proven toughness and tenacity, and the skills to continue turning back hopefuls with holes in their game like Lee whenever they step to her.
One other thing: following the first round, Lee’s lead corner, her boyfriend and UFC bantamweight Tony Kelley, offered a racist comment about Araujo, calling her a “dirty fucking Brazilian” who is going to cheat, because “that’s what they do.” There is absolutely no place for those kinds of statements in this sport — don’t tell me “it’s the fight game!” either — though it’s in no way surprising from the guy who chose to drive from Louisiana to Las Vegas rather than wear a mask on a plane while traveling for his previous fight.
Kelley fights next month against Adrian Yanez, who was already a fan favourite, but is sure to have more people rooting for him on June 18 now.
Michael Johnson collected a much needed victory on Saturday night, doing so in impressive fashion with a second-round knockout of Alan Patrick.
Following a close, competitive opening round where each man landed a heavy shot that stung the other and attacked aggressively, Johnson started gaining control in the second, catching the Brazilian coming in and making him pay off lazy kicks. Midway through the round, Johnson let go of a four-punch combination where the final left hand landed on Patrick’s chin. Johnson followed him to the deck, drove home two coffin nails, and called it a day.
It’s been a rough couple years for the former Ultimate Fighter finalist, who has fought a ridiculous strength of schedule throughout his career. He entered Saturday’s contest on a four-fight slide and with just three wins in his last dozen fights, but he departs Las Vegas with a massive knockout back atop his resume and a renewed confidence heading into the second half of the year.
Virna Jandiroba dominated Angela Hill on Saturday night, threatening with deep and dangerous submission attempts in the first and second before grinding out the majority of the third round in top position.
While the broadcast team was effusive in their praise of Hill’s submission defence, it was only on display because the Brazilian was in such control on the canvas throughout, setting up a gnarly kneebar attempt in the first with a gnarly entry and getting deep on a kimura and armbar sequence in the second that forced Hill to do nothing but work to avoid getting tapped.
Jandiroba has solidified her position in the strawweight division over the last couple years, settling into place in the lower third of the Top 15 while alternating wins and losses over her last five outings. She’s only lost to top-flight competition, and should continue to be an absolute menace on the mat for anyone looking to climb the rankings at her expense. As for Hill, she remains a perennial tough out and fan favourite, but she’s now lost three straight, leaving her in a bit of a bind heading into the second half of the year.
Outstanding debut performance from Tatsuro Taira, who took the fight to Carlos Candelario from the outset, earning a clean sweep of the scorecards.
The 22-year-old newcomer controlled the majority of the opening stanza, showing varied striking and slick entries as he looked for takedowns before dominating the second with his grappling, threatening with multiple submission attempts. While Candelario looked to initiate the grappling in the third, Taira quickly shifted the control into his favour, finishing the round by pounding on the DWCS grad from mount.
While the analysts spent large portions of the fight applauding Candelario’s toughness and resolve, the story of the fight was Taira, who won gold under the Shooto banner and is now 11-0 as a professional. He has excellent size for the division, showed an impressive blend of speed and power with his striking, and a deft grappling arsenal, remaining one step ahead of Candelario throughout and establishing himself as a must-watch prospect in the process.
Andre Petroski being the biggest underdog on the card never made sense to me (go check the PDPs) and he showed why in Saturday’s opener, putting Nick Maximov to sleep in just 76 seconds, taking his unbeaten record along with his consciousness.
Maximov was the first to shoot, reaching for a low ankle pick with no setup, resulting in a scramble where Petroski ended up in a front headlock position. Stationed right in front of his corner, the former Ultimate Fighter contestant followed instructions perfectly, settling heavy on Maximov’s head, neck, and shoulders before lacing up an anaconda choke. When he rolled and tightened his squeeze, Maximov went out, and the fight was stopped.
The betting line always felt like a reflection of Maximov training with the Diaz Brothers more than anything else, as Petroski had finished each of his first two UFC appearances, while Maximov went the distance, showing good wrestling control, but little else. Petroski, who trains with a quality crew himself alongside guys like Sean Brady and Pat Sabatini in Philadelphia, made that abundantly clear on Saturday, bouncing Maximov from the ranks of the unbeaten and allowing savvy punters to cash quality tickets right out of the chute.