UFC Phoenix was simply amazing, no two ways about it, it was a great card. So good in fact that for a second I almost wasn’t mad about how much time I wasted on Bellator, almost. I’m still pretty mad about that. But let’s not waste anymore time on whatever the hell Bellator was this weekend, and admire UFC Phoenix, an action packed card from start to finish that had a little bit of everything, there was honestly not a dull moment, despite what that awful crowd seemed to think.
The whole atmosphere of the card was great, the return on Cain Velasquez brought a buzz that trickled through the whole event, I constantly found myself being in awe of not only what we had already seen, but just how much we still had left to go. The pacing was great, Bisping and Rashad were great, Dan Severn looking fresh out of a 90s porn scene bought a smile to my face, and the pinnacle of non fight related enjoyment I got was from Dominick Cruz on the commentary team, he was a joy to listen to last night, a genius when it comes to breaking down stand up battles, which is what the majority of this card was all about. The first fight of the night set up the mood for the whole evening, a lightening quick start which saw underdog Emily Whitmire sink a beautiful rear naked choke in on undefeated hot prospect Alexsandra Albu, she took things to the ground quickly with a lovely takedown only 10 seconds into the opening, and only round. Albu showed her inexperience when trying to get to her feet, completely leaving her back and neck exposed and Whittier took full advantage of that, sinking in a beautiful rear naked choke which closed the show exactly 61 seconds in. It was lovely from Whitmire, and stupid from Albu, she will have to spend a lot of time in the gym sharpening up her defence and scrambles because if she keeps on in that fashion she’s going to have to get used to being choked out. The second, and final fight of the ESPN+ prelims due to Jessica Penne pulling out of her fight with Jodie Esquibel due to last minute injury… after missing weight… after coming off a USADA suspension… after coming off of a three fight losing streak. Oh dear. Barat used to be one of my favourite guys, and with good reason, he was an animal, a demolition expert that looked unbeatable. Last night was yet another reminder of his fall from grace. The first round went well for him, the body kicks worked, the cute Sanders and looked to be in control. But in the second round reality reared it’s ugly head and reminded us this was 2019, and not 2013. A one two from Sanders dropped Barao and Sanders followed up with a few brutal unanswered ground and pound shots for good measure that has Barao looking more spaced out than 17 year old me scoffing weed brownies. Barat is now 9-7 in the UFC, he missed weight again (shocking, I know) and I wouldn’t bet on him winning a fight with his opponents hands both tied behind their back anymore. I hate to say it, but his rapid decline seems to tie in perfectly with the introduction of USADA, take that as you will. I know Dillashaw took a piece of Barao in those two maulings, but the subsequent decline in his career stacks up with some of the worse we’ve ever seen, it’s so bad i’m sure it even makes Johny Hendricks feel a little at peace with how his career panned out post GSP.
The prelims continued in the exciting fashion that we’d previously seen with a back and forth war that had it all, clean striking, wild flurries and lovely wrestling and ground and pound to round off a crazy fight on all fronts. Lentz just edged it after a solid display of of wrestling and grinding down Holtzman, Holtzman done well in the third and managed to scrap it out with Lentz more than he managed to in the first two rounds but Lentz was always edging it on our cards. Andrea KGB Lee and Ashlee Evans-Smith continued where Holtzman and Lentz finished off with another high paced fight. Lee was always comfortably ahead, and she was one of the most impressive fighters on the card last night. Everything went well for her, takedown defence was on point, the hands were sharp, the head movement was incredible, and she dished out plenty of offence to the body as well as the head, Evans-Smith was always just one step behind, she couldn’t get in close enough, she couldn’t get the fight to the ground and she just couldn’t read where the strikes were coming from. She always pushed, and you can’t knock her heart, but it quite simply was not enough. Oh and what the hell was that elbow she was looking for, really, what the hell was that? Andrea Lee is going from strength to strength right now as she extends her winning streak to 6 and surely will find herself in top 10 women flyweight rankings now. The fight that topped the prelims card off was Aljamain Sterling vs Jimmy Rivera and this was a walk in the park for Sterling, to put it simply. The gameplay he used coud not have gone smoother. The kicks were used perfectly to keep Rivera on the outside, and when Rivera did managed to close the distance he had takedowns to defend. Jimmy looked flat, he couldn’t figure out Sterling, there was a brief moment in the second round where they did exchange hands but Rivera was quite frankly already beat. Sterlings hands in accurate, quick and he only allowed the fight to get wild when he gauged that most of Rivera confidence and threat were shot. The clear frustration on the face of Jimmy Rivera at the final bell told the story of his night, Sterling was seriously impressive, the best version of the funk master I’ve ever seen, and my performance of the night for sure.
The prelims were fantastic, already the card had shaped up to be amazing, the first two stand up battles both had plenty of excitement, one more than the other but take nothing away from Fili and Jury, their fight was great, but Bryan Barberena vs Vincente Luque was quite frankly something else. Fill and Jury kicked the main card off with a great fight that was tighter than your belt after a 5 course meal. Both guys looks extremely good, plenty of lightening quick jabs that eventually left both guys with bloody noses. Jury wore the worst of the damage and in the end lost the battle after Fili pulled away in the third round, Jury was still dangerous in the third but Fili was much the fresher man and it showed going down the home stretch. The highlight of the fight was Jurys trademark spinning back fist which dropped Fili in round two, but despite the knockdown, and despite the impressive jab he pumped out all night Fili was just a little bit quicker and a little bit sharper, especially in the third. I like Fili, he’s a good character, he’s a great fighter and he still has a lot more to come, I agree when he says UFC don’t pay him enough, because they don’t pay anyone who’s surname isn’t McGregor enough, especially these diamonds they have in the ranks like Fili, who may not be a household name yet, but ha a good buzz about him, has plenty of tools in his locker and is improving every time we see them. Maybe either guy could have done a little more and mixed in some more combinations to really take the win, but none the less, it was a great fight.
Bryan Barberena vs Vincente Luque. Where to even start, honestly, I don’t even know. Fight of the night, fight of the year so far as well, a true gift to all that witnessed it and it was so good it even had the most hard to please crowd in mama history on their feet going wild. b=Bryan Barberena has a knack of making the most out of his underdog status. Many times I, and many others bet against him, and it hasn’t paid off. He’s got great heart, a great chin and hands made of stone. He’s a real crowd pleaser and last night was no different, with his home crowd of Arizona, him and Luque put on a barnburner. Luque, a -500 favourite who has looked amazing in his UFC career to date, and Barberna stood infant of each other and traded bombs throughout. Luque started strong, until Barberena dropped him with a lovely 2 punch combination which looked like it would close the show. A crazy scrambled ensued soon after which saw Barberena escape not one but two tight chokes, and eventually gain top control dropping serious ground and pound to close out round one. We already knew we were in for a serious treat with this one and the momentum kept up throughout the rest of the fight. Barberena pushed forwards with lovely combinations throughout the second and most of the third, and despite Luque landing power shots frequently Barberenas output was much higher, he had some lovely quick combinations and his chin withstood everything thrown at it. That was, until the last 20 seconds of the fight. Luque really turned up the pace at the end of the fight, countering Bryan with a lovely right hand followed by a huge knee has Bryan heading towards the canvas, but not without eating one more knee on his descent for good measure. A few shots from Luque whilst Bryan was on all fours wondering what planet he was on, which saw his mouthpiece land somewhere just outside Arizona closed off an absolute war. Thrre are no words for how exciting that fight was, 332 significant strikes, back and forth action from the first minute to the last, Luque, now on a 4 fight winning streak, all with finished to top it off must find himself among the welterweight rankings now after that one, and for Barberena there’s no shame in losing a war like that, both guys have gained a lot of fans and momentum off of the back of this one, and like I said, even the most unimpressed MMA crowd of all time were on their feet throughout, an achievement in it’s own right.
Next up we had the highly anticipated bout between the heir of the most important, prestigious legacy in MMA history. This family has paved the way for modern martial arts as we know it, and without them, worldwide combat would not be the same as we know it. That’s right. The Caceres family. Going up against Alex was a young Kron Gracie from a relatively unknown outfit, trying to push this weird new take on classic Japanese Ju Jitsu from, get this, Brazil. What a lunatic. I’m gonna end this satire now because it’s honestly hurting my soul. Let’s face it, every time a Gracie is fighting, young or old, the whole MMA world gets excited, and the UFC debut of Kron was no exception. Coming into this contest at an already impressive tally of 4-0 (all 4 coming from submission, surprise surprise) this young prodigy has been making waves, redefining modern BJJ and developing new, effective techniques building on his family’s legacy. Standing across from him was the previously mentioned Alex Caceres who is no slouch, an MMA and UFC veteran who was quite a test for the UFC debutant. Caceres has great stand up, traditionally the Gracie kryptonite, and not bad BJJ himself with half of his 14 wins coming by submission. The start of this contest was a small feeling out process, both fighters throwing a few shots with no one really getting the upper hand. It wasn’t long before Kron got Caceres up against the cage and developed himself into one of the most unique and creative takedowns I’ve ever seen. Using his leg as a lever, he vined it through Alex’s legs. Then, pushing off the cage, transferred his weight and spun nearly a full 360 to the floor getting his back in the process. This creative use of Ju Jitsu to a standing opponent is what we’ve come to expect from the Gracies, and the rest of the fight was a common script. A deep body triangle led to Kron fighting through Caceres’ hair and sinking in a rear naked choke within seconds, putting Kron at 5-0 with 100% of those victories coming from submission. I like Kron. I like him a lot. He seems new, fresh, and his BJJ looks like an absolute revelation. The only question going forward will be his stand up, but if he can continue to creatively get his opponents to ground like he did in Phoenix, I can’t see many people, if anybody at all, surviving there in his domain.
The co main event was a big one, with James “The Most Hated Man on MMA Twitter” Vick going up against Paul “He’s Pretty Good, Well Kinda, We Prefer Him to Vick Anyway” Felder. What a match up this was, Vick was walking into the octogen 10th ranked in the lightweight division and looking to claw his way back up the ladder after his upset loss to Gaethje last summer. Felder, also coming off a loss, made the smart decision to drop weight and make himself known at 155. And wow, what a fight this one was. Vick being a former golden gloves champion was looking to comfortably outbox Felder, keep him at range, pick his shots and eventually score the knockout. At some parts of the fight, it looked like that could happen, with phenomenal 2-1-2 combinations landing flush on Felder. But there’s another side of the coin. This was never sustained, and Felder was constantly getting the better of the stand up. The Irish dragon (like a normal dragon, only ginger, and probably drunk) pushed the pace and really pressured Vick with an impressive piston jab, and right hand coming over the top. It was a true tactical clinic from Felder, he mixed up his combinations often finishing with leg kicks and it wasn’t long before the chopping calf kicks caused Vick severe damage, audibly saying “my calves hurt” to his corner at the end of the first round. The leg kicks continued to build, causing Vick to constantly switch stances in order to mitigate the damage, and eventually caused him a visible limp. This prevented him from using the front foot and slowed his combinations. Felder was in his element here, and from this point he was able to tee off with some nice combinations, hurting Vick on a couple of occasions. This was Felder’s best performance in my opinion, he was patient, tactical and effective. Was it the most exciting Felder fight? No, but it was a great watch and a fantastic performance. Felder suggested after the bout he would love a crack at the title, which is like me saying I’d love a crack at Scarlett Johansson. Don’t get me wrong, his is more likely, but still a worlds’ away. Despite this, it was a great co main and set the stage perfectly for the final contest.
If Bellator Friday and Saturday was you getting fired from your job, this main event was like coming home to find your wife sleeping with your best friend. Maybe that’s an overstretch, I’m a huge Cain fanboy. I think prime, sea level Cain is the best heavyweight in UFC history and I don’t think there’s anyone he couldn’t beat. His shock loss to Werdum broke my heart into the several pieces I was so used to most of his opponent’s faces being in after he was done with them, and his continuous injury was just a twist of the knife. I love Ngannou. I do believe there was a bit of a hype train, but like a national rail hype train, broken down somewhere leaving us sat at the platform for hours wondering where it is. His career’s been up and down, but he’s a humble guy from humble beginnings who is insanely talented. I can’t help but think if he was born in a western, developed country he could be one of the best heavyweights on the planet right now. Literally, no one hits harder than him. In the history of human beings. I honestly thought Cain was gonna do classic Cain. Get him to the ground and pummel him into oblivion. You can argue all you want, was it the uppercut, was it the knee. The honest answer is probably both. He was hit, his knee popped in 982 different places, and Ngannou’s follow up strikes came crashing down harder than Britain’s economy post-Brexit. As I’m sure my girlfriend would agree with, it’s never nice for a man to be finished just 26 seconds in. People are going back and forth about this one, but honestly it doesn’t matter, Cain’s out for a long time and there’s question marks about whether he would or should ever come back. Regardless, it was a great showing from Ngannou, and he’s definitely put himself in line for a high-profile contest. I personally would like to see the Stipe rematch for a title shot, but even a bout with Volkov would be interesting. The possibilities are endless. Regardless, I wish Cain a speedy recovery and hope Ngannou goes on to more high profile fights. Despite the heartbreak of the main event, this card was excellent, and it just goes to show how far Bellator are from this standard.