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UFC Fight Night 145 came and went. Apart from being the Octagon’s debut in the Czech Republic, there was not an awful lot for us to report on, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from the event, does it? Yes, class is still in session, especially as it pertains to mythological hammers.
First of all, we gained some measure of clarity with the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s light heavyweight picture in the main event, where Thiago Santos moved into a second-place tie for the most knockouts in UFC history despite only having 18 fights inside the Octagon. Is there anything better than a certified hitter who can speed up our afternoon on ESPN Plus? I am loath to worship any man with Thor’s hammer tattooed on his chest, but it could always be worse; he could have Brock Lesnar’s phallic sword.
Jokes aside, UFC Fight Night 145 on Saturday gave us more to chew on than perhaps we expected. Is Stefan Struve really going to hang up his gloves? Is John Dodson the most upsetting fighter to watch in this sport? Is Valentina Shevchenko going to hold the women’s flyweight title forever? We have some issues to explore coming out of the UFC’s debut in Prague, so let’s explore them:
The Hammer That Light Heavyweight Needs
It’s easy to make fun of any MMA fighter based on his questionable tattoos. For whatever reason, it seems infinitely easier to poke fun at Brazilian fighters, whether it’s their bio-mech half-sleeve tattoos or, in Santos’ case, having Mjolnir covering the majority of his chest. With that said, if any MMA fighter is going to have the most famous mythological hammer on his chest, I’m cool with it being “Marreta.”
Time flies when you’re having fun, which in part, may explain how Santos is already 18 fights into his UFC career. Does it really seem like he has been in the Octagon for five and a half years? Still, that’s not the stat that will knock you off your feet when it comes to Santos. Courtesy of his crumpling Jan Blachowicz, he now has 11 knockouts in UFC competition, tying him for second place in UFC history, along with Anthony Johnson and Anderson Silva, just one knockout behind Vitor Belfort, who took almost two decades and a full testosterone regimen in order to grab that top spot. He may never be a champion, but it’s time we start recognizing Santos as one of the most devastating hitters in MMA history, and frankly, the 205-pound division needs that sort of excitement right now.
We’re staring down the barrel of Anthony Smith fighting Jon Jones for the title, which, while totally appropriate at this point, still seems like a bit of a fever dream. The light heavyweight division was the marquee weight class in this sport for years, but recent history has muddied that mantle quite a bit. Between Jones’ repeated malfeasance and a lack of new contenders emerging, things have become stagnant. Daniel Cormier can’t beat Jones; Johnson got whipped twice by “DC” and retired; Alexander Gustafsson got smoked by Jones in the rematch; and Ryan Bader was allowed to walk into free agency and two Bellator MMA titles, so here we are. Unless a once-in-a-lifetime prospect just lands on the planet and changes the landscape at 205 pounds, we need to make the best of what we have at our disposal. If that means exciting 185-pounders bumping up a weight class and adding some spice to the recipe, we ought to embrace it.
After smashing Blachowicz and being set up for the promotion’s mandatory “Anyone you want to call out?” question, Santos wisely said he planned to watch Jones-Smith and would be keen to step up against whoever comes out of UFC 235 with the gold. Does it pack the punch and thrill of when Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva finally squared off? Is it as intriguing as when Randy Couture dropped to 205 pounds to foil Liddell and Tito Ortiz? Is it as historically significant as when Jones and Cormier squared off for the first time? No, but you have to play the cards you’re dealt, and realistically, the UFC couldn’t do a better job at trying to keep the 205-pound division going after two solid years of boondoggling foolishness. It may not be the best of times, but at least it’s entertaining, which is why we watch.
Speaking of That Hammer …
I already pointed out that Santos has racked up an incredible number of knockouts during a comparatively brief UFC tenure. It only seems fitting that we explore and explain how this guy can accumulate such vicious knockouts when he’s rubbing elbows with the Anderson Silvas and Anthony Johnsons of the world.
I think at this point we all get the physiology and mechanics that inform how to throw a hard punch. It starts in your stance, you plant your feet, you transfer force with proper hip and shoulder rotation, yadda, yadda, yadda. The fact is that some people can simply transfer that force in a way that you or I cannot, and Santos is one of them. There is almost a beautiful irony in how Santos cracked Blachowicz. He attempted to work a diligent, counterstriking game for the first two rounds, which was definitely a muted version of the predatory striker he normally presents as. When the third round started, Blachowicz felt it was time to shoot his shot, and he rushed Santos. Bad move. Standing on one heel while backpedaling, “Marreta” ripped Blachowicz with a countering hook and dropped him on his face. It may have taken two dozen hammerfists to seal the deal, but the damage was done in the most low-percentage way possible.
It’s why people still obsess over Mike Tyson and how such a tight frame could deliver such world-shattering force with just the slightest rotation of the hips and upper body. There’s a reason that in this game some fighters are able to create otherworldly knockouts with minimal effort. Santos, whatever his physiology, is built for MMA. Keep in mind, his go-to strike is a kick to the liver, yet he is a naturally orthodox fighter who can flick out his lead leg so hard that it pauses your body function. As if you needed more proof, he is the kind of dude who can moonwalk backwards with almost no proper stance and still knock you silly while standing on half of his heel.
Does any of this make him a legitimate threat at 205 pounds? Probably not. Is he the guy to foil Jones? Doubtful. However, the measure of any given fighter isn’t whether or not he’s a champion or the righteous terrorizer to one of the greatest fighters ever. If Santos winds up simply being another title challenger for Jones, throwing some liver kicks and heavy hooks before going down in flames, so be it. At 35 years old, Santos may have another half-decade of body-crunching excitement and $50,000 UFC bonuses left in him. It almost seems a foregone conclusion that he’ll take the all-time UFC knockout record. There’s nothing wrong with simply enjoying an athlete for what he can provide. It may not be greatness, but violence isn’t a poor consolation prize.
Pour One Out for Stefan Struve
Since he laid down his gloves in the Octagon in the most noncommittal way, we can’t be sure that a 31-year-old Struve is really done fighting. Given that we’re going on six years of knowledge that Struve has an enlarged heart and a leaking aortic valve, it almost seems overdue, yet this is MMA, and it seems hard to believe that any halfway decent fighter won’t creep up out of the grave.
Make no doubt, the best path for Struve is to become the right-hand man for his trainer, Bob Schrijber, helping to train future generations of Dutch folk that want to ply their trade as fighters. On top of the fact that Struve has a heart issue, there’s also the fact that he has been knocked out in highlight-reel fashion inside the Octagon several times over the last decade. Incredibly, he managed to submit Marcos Rogerio de Lima in the co-main event, yet did so without landing a single significant strike by FightMetric count. On the one hand, it reinforces that he can still compete in the heavyweight division, but at the same time, it harkens to the fact that not every fight will go so smoothly; this is a statistical outlier. Struve is just as likely to get folded in half from a power puncher the next time out.
It makes all the sense in the world for Struve to hang up the gloves and just become the top lieutenant for “Dirty Bob.” We know that heavyweights can run their physical advantages well into their late 30s, but Struve is a more contemplative man who clearly prizes his health and realizes that there’s not a necessity to put himself in harm’s way. If his legacy is going to be “Oh, hey, he’s that tall guy who got folded like an accordion by Junior dos Santos,” that’s fine. Regardless of if he chooses to let his gloves lay in the Octagon or pick them up once again, it’s clear that Struve has a smart strategy to get out of the fight game; and regardless of whether or not it entails another fight or two, he will get out of the racket healthier than most fighters and with an eye toward what comes next in his career. He might be MMA’s goofy fighting giraffe to us, but make no mistake, he is considering his career more intelligently than the vast majority of our fighting idols.
John Dodson: The Worst
Over the last three years, Petr Yan might be the most exciting fighter in all of MMA. When you sit down and tune into a Yan fight, you know you’re going to get wall-to-wall thrills and chills, with spinning and flying techniques, non-stop attacks and whirlwinds of offense. What fighter on the planet could possibly ruin such a well-trodden path of animated .gif excitement? Yes, of course, it’s Dodson.
I’m not even critiquing UFC matchmaking in this case. I totally understand why the promotion’s brain trust would want to size Yan’s free-wheeling offensive style against a fighter like Dodson. If you’re a matchmaker, you want to understand what you have on your hands and see how he can deal with a buttoned-up, defensive fighter. With that said, there are moments where smart matchmaking comes at loggerheads with what fight fans want to watch. If your fans have already seen Yan flex, they want said flex. If they haven’t, you’re likely wiser to let the man flex in his usual fashion. What you don’t want to do is take one of the most exciting prospects you have on the roster and bury him against one of the most non-negotiable fighters in MMA history.
To be clear, at least from a journalistic side, Dodson is an absolute gem. He’s a great interview, he’s candid, he’s self-effacing and he’s comedic as hell. Wit that being said, he may very well be the most frustrating fighter in MMA history. Who else could rack up a 10-8 round against Pat Runez, who puts vinyl siding on housing for a living and then blow the next three rounds? Who could drop Demetrious Johnson umpteen times in the first 10 minutes and then completely piss away the final three rounds?
Dodson is one of the most incredible athletes I’ve ever seen compete inside of a cage, and he could easily be a dual-division threat at 125 or 135 pounds. It’s certainly not physicality holding him back; it’s his blithering lack of strategy. Watching him hop on his bicycle and run away from his opponents at every turn represents the main reason he has lost so many close contests, and it’s not as though his coaches don’t recognize the problem. While I can reconcile the UFC’s use of Dodson as a gatekeeper, it’s nonetheless annoying and crippling to watch such a gifted fighter fritter away his talent by pretending he’s in an episode of Dragon Ball Z.
Someone Please Help the Women’s Flyweight Division
UFC Fight Night 145 only featured two women’s flyweight bouts, but it was still enough to wonder whether or not Shevchenko will just be able to dance as long as she wants without any possible threat of anyone knocking her off the throne. Liz Carmouche muscled Lucie Pudilova and Gillian Robertson flexed her cutthroat grappling game against Veronica Macedo, but neither one of these outcomes gave us any greater clarity as to the pecking order at 125 pounds, and they most certainly didn’t get us any more excited about the UFC’s most nascent division.
I fully appreciate that the women’s 125-pound weight class has long been an outsider division and that the UFC’s attempts to fill in that gap has had its painful issues. There’s a reason Nicco Montano will be an MMA punchline for years to come. With that being said, the UFC is in an awkward place. Sure, the company essentially expected Shevchenko to grab 125-pound glory and reign over the division, but there’s something that’s supposed to come after that, right?
At the same time that the UFC is running out strange contender bouts and profiling flyweight champion Henry Cejudo in the audience, it is frantically trying to build worthy contenders for Shevchenko. Plain and simple, it’s awkward and goofy, especially knowing that “Bullet” was a judge’s round away from dethroning Amanda Nunes. The UFC’s flyweight women’s division is built on opportunists who recognized their best weight at which to compete, but it has been immediately ruled by one of the best fighters in the game. While I applaud the UFC for grinding the gears and getting the 125-pound women’s division together, but it still leaves the company in an unenviable position. Shevchenko is poised to reign for as long as she wants, and there is no matter of hot-talking foibles who are going to dethrone her. You better turn her Kazakh folk dance into a meme for ESPN to grab some viewers.