It was a slow start for Ireland on Saturday night, but Conor McGregor sent all of the travelling fans home happy after dispatching Chad Mendes in the second round of their interim featherweight title bout, and capped off one of the greatest UFC cards in recent memory. McGregor has been calling himself a future champion since he entered the UFC, and now he holds that distinction. Sort of. While the interim title tag was completely unwarranted for this fight (as much as McGregor would have you believe otherwise), there’s no doubt that McGregor was the one driving this pay-per-view regardless of the opponent.
It was an impressive performance from the Irishman, who peppered Mendes with body kicks early and often, and was able to stay composed despite multiple takedowns and heavy elbows from the wrestler. Perhaps the biggest thing to take away from this bout was the absolutely granite chin of McGregor, as he got caught with several big right hands from Mendes, and while he may have taken a step or two back, he never looked hurt from those punches. After a failed Mendes guillotine attempt near the end of the second round, McGregor popped back to his feet and prepared his final salvo. A couple more body kicks followed by his signature straight punches were enough to drop Mendes, and from there it was only a matter of time before referee Herb Dean stepped in to call a halt to things. As for the non-controversy about the stoppage, Mendes was already so tired at that point that he wasn’t going to make it another 15 minutes in the fight, so I find it hard to see how anyone could have much of a problem with it. Next for McGregor will most likely be Jose Aldo, but Mendes’ early success in both the grappling and striking gives ammunition to those who were picking Aldo previously, and perhaps even more credence to those who claim Frankie Edgar would be McGregor’s stiffest challenge. Just as it had been for the months leading up to the event, the co-main event got overshadowed by Conor McGregor even though it ended up being an all-time classic battle. There aren’t enough words in my vocabulary to truly describe what we witnessed between Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald, but it was awe-inspiring. In a fight that was contested entirely on the feet, the two men stayed in the center of the Octagon for the vast majority of the bout, hunting for angles and openings to do harm to their opponent. MacDonald controlled the first round with his jab and right body kick, but the champion figured out the timing in the second round and took over the fight for the next 9:30, shattering MacDonald’s nose in the process. At the end of the third is when this fight went from “good” to “epic”. The challenger caught Lawler with a head kick that had him all out of sorts, stumbling back towards the cage. Although he was firing back valiantly, Lawler was taking a ton of punishment, and was very close to having the fight stopped. The beginning of the fourth was more of the same, but Lawler recovered throughout the round and reasserted control by its conclusion. The final round was quick and painful for MacDonald, as Lawler landed one last left hand to his foe that seemed to further break MacDonald’s nose and forced the challenger down to the mat, prompting the end of the fight. It was truly an all-time level fight, and it was telling that neither fighter was able to attend the post-fight press conference.
Lawler deserves a break after yet another fantastic five-round bout, but he also likes to stay active, so we may see him as early as the fall. His next challenger could either be Johny Hendricks to complete their trilogy, or perhaps MMA’s juiciest possible action fight with former interim champ Carlos Condit. Either way, Lawler has now delivered eight consecutive exciting fights since returning to the UFC, and it’s hard to see him stopping now. Even beyond the title fights, UFC 189 was phenomenal. Jeremy Stephens scored a come-from-behind flying knee stoppage in the third round against Dennis Bermudez. Bermudez seemed to be keeping up a pace Stephens simply couldn’t maintain, especially following his struggles on the scales on Friday, but Stephens’ power never went away and he scored the third third round knockout of his UFC career. Stephens is in a strange spot in the division, as he can either fight a lower ranked fighter than Bermudez in Nik Lentz or Clay Guida, or step all the way up to Ricardo Lamas. Gunnar Nelson finally put together his skills and an acceptable level of activity, and it ended up earning him a first round submission stoppage over Brandon Thatch. Nelson landed a perfect left hook, right straight combination that dropped Thatch, and from there it was academic. The grappling whiz mounted Thatch easily, took his back, and locked in the rear-naked choke. There are two options I like for Nelson next. He can either face the winner of Sunday’s Jake Ellenberger/Stephen Thompson bout, or Dong Hyun Kim if they want to give him a bigger step up. Opening up the main card, Thomas Almeida continued to solidify his prospect status, and showed that he can battle through adversity in the process. Brad Pickett hurt him badly in the first on two separate occasions, but Almeida recovered and was getting the better of the striking to end the round. Just 29 seconds into round two, Almeida landed a picture perfect switch flying knee that completely put Pickett out. Almeida is moving into contention in the bantamweight division, but he doesn’t need to be moved along too quickly, so a bout with Francisco Rivera would produce absolute fireworks and be highly relevant at the same time.
The one other bout worthy of mention was the one-round war between Matt Brown and Tim Means that headlined the preliminary card. Both men hurt each other with punches and elbows during the bout, and the finish was spectacular. Means had just rocked Brown with one of the most solid elbows imaginable, when Brown returned fire with his own eblows, forcing Means to shoot a sloppy takedown. From there, the man who suffered a pair of guillotine losses early in his UFC career slapped one of his own on, forcing the tap. If Carlos Condit doesn’t receive the next welterweight title shot, he and Brown should absolutely be matched in a five-round main event. This crazy week of UFC action will continue with the TUF 21 Finale on Sunday, UFC Fight Night 71 on Wednesday, and UFC Fight Night 72 next Saturday. MMAOddsBreaker.com will have coverage of all those events, so keep checking back in over the coming week.