UFC 180 was not a strong card on paper, but the top three fights provided some of the best performances I have seen in months.
At the ridiculous altitude and amid the awful pollution of Mexico city, I was quite ready to watch every fight devolve into mouth breathing with hands on hips, but the fighters adapted to the trying circumstances wonderfully. The main event turned on a dime with a stellar, one strike comeback from Fabricio Werdum against a dangerous looking Mark Hunt. The co-main event showed Kelvin Gastelum's continued improvement, and the bout before that showed Ricardo Lamas' grappling savvy and an unexpected moment of good boxing.
With that to talk about, let's crack on
In Lamas versus Bermudez, we saw two of the division's stronger wrestlers going head-to-head. With these sort of matches the main questions are always:
⁃Who can get the takedown
⁃Who can work better from their back?
⁃Will any of this matter, could it turn into a mediocre kickboxing match?
What was interesting about this match in particular was that I am forever talking about wrestlers who can comfortably kick having such an advantage on strikers who are aren't keen on going to the ground. If you can wrestle well, you can normally kick with confidence because you can fight off any singles the other guy picks up once you bounce your shin off him.
Both men kicked comfortably and that changed the bout to show a major principle of Muay Thai. Even a weak push kick, when an opponent is kicking, is enough to knock him off balance. You will see push kicks used slow the pace of Muay Thai bouts all the time. Saenchai, Giorgio Petrosyan, Buakaw—if they want to slow the pace, they time a few teeps to off-balance the opponent.
Moments into the fight, Bermudez made to kick, Lamas threw out a push kick, and Bermudez went “arse-over-tits”. Lamas ended up in a tight front headlock that is a terrific position for a grappler as strong as him, and one which he would have had to fight desperately for through wrestling alone.
Very few kickboxers or Nak Muay have a teep which they would consider their most punishing strike, but used at the right time it can jam the more powerful kicks of an opponent wonderfully. Seeing this exact eventuality play out last night makes me wonder if—now that fighters are more rounded—we will see a rise in the use of counter kicking as we saw a surge in the use of handfighting and trapping.
I have never been impressed by Lamas' hands, and his kicking game is largely wheel kicks and little else on most occasions—but then I am probably biased from the Aldo fight because all I can remember from that bout is a dozen failed wheel kicks and nothing else. Just as I was thinking “Lamas is looking sharp, if only he had decent hands” he landed a basic, textbook jab as Bermudez lunged in, and sent Bermudez to the mat, following to finish him with a guillotine choke.
It didn't look to be a thought out counter, but it shows the force a connection can have if you jab with good form, bouncing off the back foot and using the weight in the blow. I don't think there will ever be a time when I see too much jabbing in the UFC, but knockdowns like this and Donald Cerrone's versus Edson Barboza should tell you that there's real power there in this non-committal, deceptively fast blow.
Gastelum versus Ellenberger
I like Kelvin Gastelum more every time I see him. In his dismantling of Jake Ellenberger, Gastelum looked as intense as ever, and I was reminded of a young Diego Sanchez. A smarter, sharper Diego Sanchez. The aggression, the desire to overwhelm rather than look for openings, the dangerously low lead hand in southpaw stance... the eating of blows on the way in.
Gastelum might struggle when he meets a real quality counter puncher, but he ate Ellenberger's best blows while charging in and they didn't shake him.
Gastelum stayed on offence, and his blows leaked through Ellenberger's rigid guard like rain through a sky-light. He overwhelmed Ellenberger and choked The Juggernaut out in the first round. There's not much more to say, Gastelum is a legitimately great welterweight who looks better every time we see him.
In the main event, Mark Hunt performed admirably with so little time to prepare and had the notoriously crafty Fabricio Werdum reluctant to do anything for much of two rounds. Both men's tendencies were on full show—Hunt refused to check the low kicks, as he did against Antonio 'Bigfoot' Silva, while Werdum attempted to kick from directly in front of Hunt and got smacked with a right for his troubles, as we spoke about last week and as happened against Roy Nelson and Travis Browne.
Early in the first, Hunt found the mark with his classic 3-2 set up. After flicking out the jab a couple of times, into Werdum's palm, Hunt went around the outside to make Werdum panic and came straight down the centre with the right hand. Just as he did to Antonio Silva, Chris Tuchscherer and others.
After some time in Werdum's guard, not allowing an inch to the grappling prodigy, Hunt was back on the feet. Little happened for the rest of round one, and in round two, Hunt dropped Werdum off that kick. Werdum was looking desperate—he couldn't volume strike against Hunt as he had down against Browne and Nelson. He shot a takedown and Hunt sprawled on him. Werdum got up, looked down and feinted the shot again, this time he jumped into a knee strike.
It was one of the most beautiful set ups I have seen all year and it won Werdum the interim title. With another terrific name added to his record, Werdum has finished more top ten heavyweights than the actual champion, Cain Velasquez, has even faced.
There might be some bitterness about the way the fight played out—especially with Hunt being such a fan favourite, but Werdum proved a great deal. Jack Dempsey said it best, a champion is someone who gets up when he can't. Werdum got his arse kicked from pillar to post, and while Hunt's cement fists were bashing into his head, he kept the clarity of mind to set up that fight ending knee. He deserves to be called the UFC heavyweight champion.
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