Even though Saturday’s two UFC events were separated by more than 12 hours and 7,000 miles, they did share one common trait: featherweights ended up being the most exciting fighters on the card. In San Antonio, Cub Swanson and Jeremy Stephens breathed some life into a very stale main card, while in Auckland Charles Oliveira and Hatsu Hioki put on a sublime display of grappling.
Aside from those bouts there were some individual high spots interspersed in the 21-bout ledger for the day, plenty of controversy over in Texas, and 3 hours, 44 minutes and 14 seconds of total fight time during the course of a day which flew by at some points and dragged horribly at others. Rather than going in any sort of chronological order, let’s look at the fights in terms of relevance. At the top of that list would be Cub Swanson’s (21-5) decision victory over Jeremy Stephens (23-10) in the main event of the San Antonio show. This was a very nice way to cap off the night, although I must admit I didn’t watch this bout until Sunday morning, as the rest of the main card had worn my patience thin by the time this rolled around at approximately 1am. Fights that feature momentum changes always seem better to me than a quick finish or a dominant decision, and this fight had a few of them. Swanson came out early and stifled Stephens’ offense with his volume kicking game, but Stephens began to find his range towards the end of round one and hurt Swanson in round two to even things up. Swanson answered back in the third with some excellent body work which clearly gave him the round. The fourth was another close round, and Swanson went back to the body in the fifth to clinch the victory.
It was a good showing by both men, and Swanson has to be deserving of a title shot at this point given his win streak. Stephens is still only 28 and definitely has time to regroup and make a run up the featherweight ladder again. In the meantime, watching Stephens fight other strikers is so much fun that I could see Robbie Peralta, Max Holloway, or Chan Sung Jung (if he’s still alive) all being fantastic fights. The best bout on the Auckland card — even though it didn’t win ‘Fight of the Night’ — was the fantastic grappling battle that saw Charles Oliveira (18-4, 1 NC) become the first man to submit Hatsu Hioki (27-8-2) as his unending torrent of submission attempts finally netted him an anaconda choke near the end of the second round. Although I respected Oliveira’s skills before this fight, due to Hioki’s own grappling pedigree I had dismissed the possibility of a submission win for Oliveira, but the young Brazilian truly is something special on the mat. Even though Hioki was not ranked heading into this fight, a win over him — especially in the manner that it occured — means that Oliveira belongs with the elite of the featherweight division, and a bout with Dustin Poirier would send one of the youngsters rocketing towards title contention. As for Hioki, he’s now 3-4 in the UFC, with losses in four of his last five, and could very likely be cut. The third most relevant bout of the day featured another pair of 145ers in Ricardo Lamas (14-3) and Hacran Dias (21-3-1), and while it didn’t produce the fireworks of the preceding two, it was a closely matched, quality fight. Lamas broke his hand early in the fight which forced him to pursue a more grappling oriented gameplan, although I contend that Dias was the superior striker early in the bout anyways. Lamas controlled enough of the grappling exchanges to earn the decision on the judges cards.
Kelvin Gastelum (9-0) seems to be making things harder on himself than they need to be, both on the scales and in the cage. On Friday he missed weight for his bout with Nicholas Musoke (12-3, 1 NC) and on Saturday night he let the first round slip away before coming back to win the final two and take the decision. I don’t know if it’s a focus issue or something else with Gastelum, but the UFC is doing the right thing in building him slowly because he’s simply not ready to be a contender at this point. The talent is certainly there, but the whole package hasn’t come together yet. Because of that, I think a veteran like Mike Pyle or Josh Koscheck (if he’s even still fighting) would be an appropriate fight for him, as either man could make Gastelum look fantastic, or make him pay for coming in unprepared. This is a generous placement for the Auckland main event in the hierarchy of the day’s bouts, but Nate Marquardt (33-13-2) put on the best performance we’ve seen from him in perhaps five years in his return to middleweight. The same cannot be said of James Te Huna (16-8) who looked massive for 185lbs but didn’t seem to bring much else to the table as the faster Marquardt beat him to the punch on the feet, and dominated on the ground as we’ve seen so many times throughout Te Huna’s career. Perhaps Marquardt could rematch another of middleweight’s old guard in Thales Leites since their first fight had so much controversy and both men are looking for a resurgence at 185. Some of the other notable performances on the day belonged to a group of young prospects. 23-year-old Robert Whittaker (12-4), 20-year-old Ray Borg (7-1), and 19-year-old Jake Matthews (6-0) were all dominant in their victories, which were good ways to get back on track for all three following recent losses either in the octagon or on TUF. Carlos Diego Ferreira (10-0) also made his UFC debut a memorable one, most likely sending Colton Smith (3-4) out of the UFC with a 38-second no-hooks rear-naked choke. Also, it wouldn’t be an event in Texas without some Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation officials stealing the spotlight on a few occasions. The most egregious of their transgressions this time around were referee Kerry Hatley’s stoppage in the Cody Gibson/Johnny Bedford bout, and the decisions in the first two main card fights of the evening as Joe Ellenberger and Clint Hester were awarded very controversial decisions over James Moontasri and Antonio Braga Neto, respectively. The Hester/Neto decision was particularly bad, as Hester was awarded a round in which he was on his back, mounted, for the final two minutes of the round. While the idea of two events in one day seems like it could be good, there are still nine fights from the day’s action that I haven’t even mentioned in passing (some of which I haven’t even watched yet), and most people couldn’t care less about those bouts. If the UFC wants to continue proving that they can put on such a high volume of fights, they need to at least start making fights that people are interested in tuning into. The other option is that fans will get in the habit of tuning fights out.