The year’s not over, but when it’s said and done, don’t be surprised to see UFC 164 stand atop as the crown jewel of the promotion’s endeavors in 2013. The main card delivered in spades, with four finishes – albeit one controversial one – and one fight of the night which somehow didn’t manage to win the actual Fight of the Night bonus. But the big story last night was the ascension of Anthony Pettis to the lightweight throne. There has not been a dominant champion in the most talented division in MMA since the downfall of BJ Penn at UFC 112. If last night was any indication, Anthony Pettis is going to the answer to the series of frustrating draws and questionable decisions that have plagued the top of the division in Penn’s absence.
In the fight itself, Benson Henderson’s strategy became immediately clear – clinch, clinch, clinch. The majority of the round saw Henderson use his strength to drive Pettis into the fence and keep him there while working short strikes to Pettis’ legs. Henderson also attempted a number of takedowns, all of which were stuffed. When the two finally separated for a period of time, it became evident just why Henderson was so eager to keep the fighting in close. Pettis, fighting out of orthodox stance as a means of opening up the body kicks that come when two fighters square off in opposite stances, proceeded to capitalize on that particular strategy, landing four kicks to the body which clearly discomforted Henderson. Pettis, perhaps a little too pleased with his work, then attempted a cartwheel kick, only to be taken down by Henderson. Working in Pettis’ open guard, Henderson planted his right arm on the mat. Pettis immediately grabbed an overhook and soon after went for the armbar.
Henderson defended well at first, but as Pettis rotated on his back, the pressure increased on Henderson’s elbow to the point where it popped and the champion verbally submitted. Pettis became the second man to submit a champion since BJ Penn did it to Matt Hughes in 2004, and he did it against a man who is exceptionally difficult to finish in under a round. Considering that it was previously believed that his standup was his main weapon, it should go without saying at this point that Pettis is not only one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world, he could possibly be the best. A fight with Jose Aldo would go a long way to determine that, but a fight with T.J. Grant wouldn’t hurt either. Now the bad news; Pettis claims his knee popped during the fight. Hopefully it’s minor, but it would be a shame to lose Pettis so soon after such an impressive performance. Meanwhile, once his elbow heals, Henderson will be back. He’s insanely tough, well-rounded, athletic, technical… he’s just a level or two below Anthony Pettis. Maybe everyone else is too.
The co-main event lasted about as long as the main event, but was decidedly more one-sided. Josh Barnett bumrushed Frank Mir as the bout began, as the two grabbed single collar-ties and proceeded to do their best impression of two hockey enforcers going at it. It soon became apparent Barnett was getting the better of the exchange, as he pressed his advantage by literally pressing Mir into the cage. Controlling Mir’s head, Barnett made infighting an art along the fence, punishing Mir to the head and body constantly. Pushing Mir’s head down, Barnett landed a knee to the face that collapsed Mir. Here’s where it gets controversial; Mir was out cold for a split-second. He went completely limp, the ref stopped the fight, and Mir woke up and protested the stoppage. It was a bit early; it was a flash knockout, and Mir could have conceivably woken up and absorbed another 15 punches before the referee decided to stop it. His resume dictates that he’s earned that right. But it’s hard to get too angry when that’s probably what would have happened. For Barnett, it was an impressive victory. Now let’s see if he can beat an ever tougher opponent; the pre-fight drug test.
At featherweight, Chad Mendes proved once again why he – and frankly, pretty much everyone at Team Alpha Male – is undeniably the second best fighter in his weight class. He dominated Clay Guida with calm, precise striking, and technically superior wrestling. For once, Guida couldn’t find a way to out-maneuver – or at least out-move – his opponent. Mendes’ footwork, brought along by striking coach Duane Ludwig, was too efficient. In the third, Mendes dropped Guida with a counter cross, attacked the downed Guida along the fence, waited until Guida returned to his feet, and then cracked him with an absolutely vicious right hook. Yves Lavigne stepped in after a few follow up punches. To his credit, Guida was quickly bouncing around the octagon soon after the fight was stopped. Also to his credit, he didn’t protest the stoppage. It was just. If Pettis is going to be out for a while, Mendes looks like he’s ready to take on Jose Aldo again.
Unexpectedly, one of the more interesting outcomes came in the finish to the Ben Rothwell-Brandon Vera bout. It’s an important distinction to make between the finish and the fight itself, for the latter was a mostly dull affair. Vera, evidently cautious of Rothwell’s size and power, constantly circled away from engaging. Stopping only to throw hard kicks to the midsection, Vera managed to take the first round. The second was more of the same, or perhaps less, as Vera’s output diminished and a victor was unclear. It appeared we were heading to a dull decision when midway through the third round, Ben Rothwell decided he had had enough of Vera’s evasive chicanery.
Though accounts may differ on what exactly happened next, I profess that Ben Rothwell summoned the ancient gods of cheese, cheap beer and general whiteness through what appeared to be a cross between a native Wisconsin mating dance and a mild stroke. Vera never stood a chance. Imbued with the power and obstinance of roughly 5,726,398 morbidly obese alcoholics, Rothwell barreled forward, pinned Vera against the fence and unleashed a torrent of pain. Rocking Vera with a strong uppercut, Rothwell followed with punches and a knee from the clinch which downed Vera. Only Herb Dean was able to save Vera from the force of nature Rothwell had become. As soon as it happened, it was over. What entity may have possessed him was exorcized as Rothwell bellowed in triumph, not unlike an elephant seal. Rothwell called out Travis Browne before departing, leaving all who bore witness to his brutality to question what was responsible for the transformation they had just witnessed.
Or they simply ascribed it to the new regimen of TRT Rothwell currently employs. Still doesn’t explain the dancing, though.
The first fight was a back and forth battle between young featherweights Dustin Poirier and Erik Koch. The first round in particular was wild. Poirier quickly dropped Koch, but as he followed up on the ground, Koch immediately grabbed a triangle. It was tight, and Poirier had to fight tooth and nail to survive and escape from it. But escape he did. As the fight resumed on the feet, Poirier landed a right hook that sent Koch careening to the mat. Still, Koch survived. Round two saw the action slow as Poirier still pressed his advantage. However, in round three Koch found his second wind, ultimately taking Poirier down and threatening with a rear-naked choke as the round expired. Poirier took home a deserved decision, but somehow this lost Fight of the Night to Pascal Krauss and Hyun Gyu Lim.
Still, it was an exceptional night of fights. Sure, the residents of Wisconsin could’ve seen as many finishes in the parking lot of a Packers game, but quality counts for something. And there’s something special about a hometown coronation like Anthony Pettis received. There was something special about UFC 164 as a whole; no matter who fought, it always seemed to exceed expectations. Who would have thought Milwaukee would have brought out the best of MMA?