It used to be that Brazilian cards were stocked with old timers in their twilight years and local up and comers being fed easy victories. (You recall Erik Silva, right?) But this weekend's UFC Fight Night card from Fortaleza was not only a solid work of matchmaking and star power, it delivered a better night of fights than any of the UFC's pay-per-views in 2017 so far. Of course, there was still the sad matter of the aged Vitor Belfort getting knocked out in the main event, but we will only dwell on that a brief moment before diving into some of the more enjoyable bouts.
The story of the bout was Kelvin Gastelum's jab. As a southpaw, Gastelum was treated to a match up which allowed him to work his usually active lead hand far more freely. Belfort, meanwhile, was denied his favourite left high kick and body kick into the open side by this stance match up—now Gastelum's back was there instead. It did, however, make Gastellum a more promising mark for the wheel kick which famously knocked out fellow southpaw, Luke Rockhold. When Gastellum danced himself onto the fence very briefly, Belfort attempted to decapitate him with this same kick.
Belfort uncorked a few good punches in the bout too. But where in his youth he would dash forward on straight lines and pump his hands with incredible speed, he now has to sit back and wait for counter shots. When he does pursue, he looks nothing like as fearsome as the Belfort of old.
Much of Gastellum’s fight was flicking out jabs and immediately moving in hopes of a response. Standard quality outfighting, lead to draw the response, then either evade or counter.
And just like any good outfighter, as soon as Gastellum realized that Belfort wasn't going to counter punch and was being numbed to the flicked jabs, he stepped in and dropped the 'two' to follow the 'one'.
Better fights were found earlier in the night though. Francisco Trinaldo put his remarkable lightweight streak on the line against Kevin Lee. Seven victories back to back at lightweight is damn near impossible, but Trinaldo was too old and unknown for the UFC to ever consider putting him in title contention. The MMA aficionado's favourite old man got up to his usual southpaw antics in the first round, stuffing Lee's takedowns and counter punching with his powerful left hand. The most dangerous consideration for Lee's team was the prospect of Trinaldo 'crossing' Lee's jab with a looping left, and Trinaldo did just that.
Moments later, Trinaldo connected a left uppercut beneath Lee's heart that had the Motown Phenom struggling for air.
Between the first and second round, however, Lee received some quality advice from his corner. More feints, and punches off the successful feints were important. It's one thing to get a guy flinching at feints, but it might not take his finger off the trigger unless he starts getting hit while he's momentarily out of position. Lee began to feint well and use the right high kick and the straight right hand to tag Trinaldo. The old southpaw double attack, mirrored back against the southpaw.
A high kick shook Trinaldo to his boots in the second round and he ducked for Lee's hips. Lee made like Sakuraba and performed a handstand style uchi-mata which wound up in a roll along the fence which saw him come up into mount. Trinaldo conceded his back and Lee picked up the biggest name on his record to date. This bout was a treat for the knowledgeable fan and could certainly have done with being further up the card.
On the subject of cross counters, Gian Villante was teeing Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua up for them all night in the co-main event. Standing static in front of Shogun, Villante would attempt to pump the same jab out multiple times, getting countered each time and insisting on trying again. Rua picked up the knockout in the third round and we all wondered why the UFC let Ryan Bader and Phil Davis go.
The bout between Beneil Dariush and Edson Barboza was hotly contested and ended in spectacular fashion. As expected, Dariush's pressure and aggression gave the more measured kicker cause for concern. Dariush might not have the snapping speed on his kicks and the crisp counter punching, but he gets the job done and has some smarts of his own. The fake overhand to springing knee was a nice touch, landing as Barboza's right elbow came up to block or out to counter, and occasionally landed him in that Cordeiro double collar tie right off the bat.
Dariush also used his well known left round kick to attack Barboza's rear leg. Far less commonly seen than attacks to the lead leg, the rear leg of even a great kickboxer winds up less conditioned and more susceptible to damage. Andy Hug was hobbling world class kickboxers, with considerably more experience than him, with this technique back in the 90s.
As a nice bonus, fighters get in the habit of picking up their lead leg to check low kicks and even body kicks. This does little against a kick to the rear leg.
On the subject of cross checks, which often work better for fighters who want to step in with their right hand off checked kicks, Alex Oliveira immediately tried to exploit Tim Means' repeated use of this defence, stepping in with a right hand, parrying the check with his hand, and attempting to get another right hand in.
Edson Barboza was being forced backwards throughout the fight, something that he hates and which prevents kickers from getting on one leg to do their magic. Barboza did slot in the right hand to the body, however, a great way to slow down an aggressive fighter.
And his remarkable kicking speed was soon paying off. Yes, Barboza kicks hard, but it is more impressive that he can do it with so little lead time. Any break in the pressure, any time Barboza could set his feet momentarily, the Brazilian could snap in a body kick. These too began to take their toll on Dariush's speed and dissipate some of that pressure.
Barboza's footwork saved him in this bout more than anything. His discipline kept him off the fence, kept him at distance, and kept Dariush shooting long takedowns which he could not complete. As soon as Dariush gave Barboza a little space, he would circle to the other side of the cage. The knockout came as Barboza timed perhaps the most gorgeous jumping knee knockout in the history of the UFC. As Yoel Romero regularly proves, jumping knees are like elbows, they're a lot more likely to land if the guy is coming at you. Too many fighters in the modern era think that running across the cage and 'flying' through the air is going to work based on the surprise factor. Barboza's strike worked because it was a well-timed counter to Dariush's forward motion. In fact, Barboza was blinded by the jab of Dariush snapping his head back as he began jumping into the knee.
There is certainly no shame for Dariush, who stepped in with one of the most dangerous lightweights in the world and got the better of most of the fight. More celebrated strikers than Dariush have gotten in with Barboza and been bamboozled. At any rate, it was a spectacular finish and the most memorable moment from a very solid, nay, very good night of fights.
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