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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday brought the Octagon to Vancouver, British Columbia, with UFC Fight Night 158, which featured a lightweight showdown pitting Donald Cerrone against former World Series of Fighting champion Justin Gaethje. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: HOMECOMING
Less than seven days ago, Tristan Connelly was enjoying life as the new lightweight titleholder of the Rise Fighting Championships organization. Winning that belt with a stoppage in the final round just weeks ago, he was likely thinking of how his first title defense might play out. Considering he spent his career bouncing between different promotions, Connelly was probably open to a one-off bout in a different organization. With the UFC headed to his home province, perhaps he even intended to join the thousands of fans at Rogers Arena for an up-close look at some of the best fighters in the world. He did, in fact, make his way there, but instead of enjoying a beer in the nosebleed seats, he was sipping water backstage while warming up as an active member of the UFC roster. That improbably turn of events led to a difficult challenge, as he was paired with Michel Pereira in a short-notice callup.
It’s completely understandable why Connelly was so overlooked ahead of his debut. Pereira is an electric and dynamic athletic marvel bursting at the seams with charisma. His complete shattering of Danny Roberts in May was incredible to witness and displayed a killer instinct with style points. An extended walkout complete with a choreographed dance routine, a breakdancing-infused introduction and a wild combination of flying knees and flips made it easy to see past the undersized newcomer who was sitting on his couch a few days ago.
Connelly made the absolute best of the opportunity presented to him and walked away with a clear-cut decision over the hyped Pereira. With the audience spellbound by the acrobatic moves of “The Demolidor,” Connelly simply pressed forward and implemented a game plan that consisted of a steady pace, forward pressure, takedowns and top control. With every spin and jump from the Brazilian, Connelly stuck to his opponent and took away the space he needed to operate effectively. He made sure to grind and force Pereira to use even more energy. It didn’t take long for fundamentals to prevail over flash, as Pereira’s gas tank emptied and the career lightweight snatched away the moment.
Short-notice calls are made quite frequently in the UFC. Regional standouts and journeyman alike can find themselves in the Octagon whenever an injury, visa issues or random United States Anti-Doping Agency test bounces a fighter from a card and creates a vacancy. Most of the time, the routine is pretty simple: Prospects are put in an impossible situation and are expected to lose because they either face someone much more experienced, take a fight out of their customary weight class or enter the fight without being in optimum shape. Of course, the reward is another chance in the UFC under the right conditions. Look no further than the debuts of Lando Vannata and Darrell Horcher as evidence.
Connelly stepped up to the plate and earned another chance. However, unlike most others, his second walk to the Octagon will be done with the momentum of a previous UFC win under his belt.
THE BAD: GLASS CEILING
It seems like the book has been written about Nikita Krylov. Despite having a sensational highlight reel, Krylov has clearly established his ceiling. A split decision loss to Glover Teixeira in the co-main event was just the latest chapter in a story of failed opportunities to break through into true contention. With a 6-4 record in the UFC, Krylov has developed a pattern of running through the Ed Hermans and Cody Donovans of the world while struggling against the names that could cement his place among the elite.
Strangely enough, he has drastically improved while under the UFC banner. With a much-improved ground game and nuanced approach on the feet, Krylov is certainly someone who has developed before our eyes. Unfortunately, that development hasn’t yet given him the edge against top-tier light heavyweights.
When the current champion at 205 pounds is being forced to take on middleweights who moved up while prospects develop, it becomes a crucial time to make one’s presence felt. Krylov, as a veteran with an established name and that aforementioned highlight reel, may have presented a fresh face for Jon Jones in a ludicrously thin division. Of course, beating Texiera wouldn’t have been enough to legitimately leapfrog the Corey Anderson-Johnny Walker winner, but it would’ve been a good start at making a case. Instead, Krylov will have to go back to the drawing board while Anderson and Walker join Dominick Reyes, Chris Weidman, Jan Blachowicz and Ronaldo Souza as potential Jones suitors.
THE UGLY: DOUBLE VISION
Four years and a ton of misfortunate between appearances for Todd Duffee made the results of his fight with Jeff Hughes particularly disappointing. In what was shaping up to be quite the barnburner, an inadvertent eye poke halted the bout before the first frame reached its conclusion. To his credit, Duffee didn’t look like a man who spent that much time away from competition. He didn’t look like a man who recently endured a staph infection while rehabilitating two surgically repaired knees, either. Having retained his power and ability to close distance, he gave Hughes fits during the four minutes they stood in front of each other. Duffee looked renewed, as he dropped the former Legacy Fighting Alliance champion at one point, kept him on his back foot and pressed him against the fence for longer than he likely preferred. Of course, Hughes was no slouch and offered plenty of return fire for the punishment he received.
Just when the action felt like it had reached a critical moment, the eye poke happened and rained on everyone’s parade. While the predictable vocal trolls took to our timelines to accuse Duffee of quitting and being a coward, it’s important to sift through the meaningless noise to get to the ugly truth: Bad things happen in a sport where the objective is to physically hurt the person in front of you. Duffee has stood in opposition to notable names and champions like Alistair Overeem, Frank Mir and Philip De Fries, who happened to defend his KSW title in London hours earlier. When he tells the referee and doctor that he’s seeing double, perhaps he means it.
While my initial reaction -- that Duffee may have been milking the eye poke for some additional rest time -- was one likely shared by others in the MMA bubble, as seconds continued to tick away and it became clear that the remainder of the fight was in jeopardy, this possibility seemed a lot less likely. As the officials debated whether or not Duffee’s eyesight was too compromised to safely continue, his stating that he was “seeing double” was guaranteed to end it. After enjoying such early success against Hughes and battling through his own personal issues to get back in the cage, it’s completely illogical that he’d now suddenly look for a way out.
The turn of events was a sobering reminder of two things from which we can’t fully escape in this sport. The first? The unpredictable nature of MMA sometimes turns into a letdown. The second? An unfortunate number of so-called fans seem to understand or respect the men and women who strap on the gloves.