Breakthrough Stars And Performances from UFC 191

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship has gone through a bit of an overhaul in recent months. UFC 189 was the genesis of a new chapter in the evolution of the UFC. Cleaner look, simpler graphics, the Reebok kits, a remix to Stemm’s “Face the Pain” that some folks find more abhorrent than the original. It felt as if the UFC had turned the page promotionally and the success of both 189 and 190 would bring in some of the numbers that were being produced during the MMA boom five to seven years ago; pump the brakes on that for a minute.

UFC flyweight champion and arguable pound for pound king Demetrious Johnson was put in an all too familiar situation, headlining a card that didn’t have much to offer in relevance or interest. The drawing power of Johnson is unsurprisingly lacking, and it will be a while until it improves, if it ever does. Nevertheless, he’s the embodiment of the highest of high levels in mixed martial arts, and amid the booing at the MGM Grand Saturday night there are a number of athletes who deserve praise in a card that was both underwhelming, yet strangely satiating.

 

BREAKTHROUGH

JOHN LINEKER

If you watched the bar fight that occurred Saturday night between John Lineker and Francisco Rivera and weren’t yelling, shouting obscenities or uncontrollably laughing with nervous energy, you should seek medical attention immediately. This fight played out the way we all thought it could play out and then some. Rivera was quite tactical in the opening seconds of the fight and Lineker was minding his distance ever so cautiously, but it took less than a minute for those antics to stop. Rivera began as usual, staying at range and looking for opportunities to counter and found some success early on, but the moment he began circling, Lineker capitalized. Rivera put his back near the fence and before he even had time to realize that he might be in a compromising position, Lineker began winging hooks to the body that pressed Rivera against the fence and led to a ridiculous exchange of haymakers that might have made Diego Sanchez cry tears of joy. Lineker dropped Rivera twice almost getting a TKO on the first occasion and finishing the fight with a guillotine following a desperate takedown attempt from Rivera after getting rocked.

John Lineker, power puncher extraordinaire, generous donor to athletic commissions worldwide, was a small underdog against Rivera, which would be expected with the tremendous size advantage he was giving up and unknown aspects of fighting out his weight class might bring, but he left a remarkable impression. Questions of his power translating to a heavier division were gone 90 seconds into that fight, his ability to take a shot from bigger men vaporized, as he took huge blows from one of the biggest punchers in the division. Most importantly, Lineker made weight and as strange as it may sound to praise a man for making a contracted weight that was above his usual weight class, there are Anthony Johnson’s out there who move up in weight and still miss the mark, in fact, a fellow undercard fighter from UFC 191 named Joe Riggs knows about that struggle all too well.

At this point, there may be a few naysayers that would not wanna buy stock in Lineker being an elite bantamweight, but the division is so shallow there is no good reason to hold him back. A fight with Raphael Assuncao could be great to determine a next title challenger and if that’s a bit too high on the totem, Aljamain Sterling could be a solid litmus test. Weight issues aside, Lineker was a legitimate top five flyweight and a dangerous matchup for anyone in that weight class, and it seems pretty clear that should still be the case at bantamweight.

 

STAR

DEMETRIOUS JOHNSON

Demetrious Johnson really seems stagnant in going over with the fans. Nevertheless, he is expressing a bit more personality than in the past, but his reputation as a boring, bland, generic cookie-cutter mixed martial artist proceeds him, the funny truth is “Mighty Mouse” as a fighter is anything but. Sure, wild brawls like Lineker/Rivera are fun and exciting but the pinnacle of mixed martial arts mastery resides in the diminutive stature of Johnson. Johnson is not a perfect fighter, but he is as close to perfection that we can witness right now.

Demetrious Johnson seemed absolutely ready for everything John Dodson could throw at him. Even with Dodson’s speed and exceptional power there was no significant success for him like the first fight. Dodson definitely worked much more on his takedown defense and it took Johnson until the latter half of the fight to get him down to the mat, but Dodson could not generate any strikes to hurt Johnson. Johnson was much more patient in his approach this time and adapted beautifully by using elbows in the clinch when Dodson would be pinned against the fence defending a takedown and used a straight right to stun and negate Dodson’s powerful counters.

“Mighty Mouse” performed brilliantly and is still showing signs of improvement both in the cage and on the mic. If his condescending smirk while congratulating Dodson or his post fight interview of him claiming he’s “prettier than a motherfucker” didn’t make you laugh or amuse you, there’s nothing that might change you’re mind. Given his skill relative to his competition, it’s clear Johnson is a step above the rest. Unless some young phenom emerges in the next two years, it seems very likely that he will keep winning and we may witness history if and when he breaks Anderson Silva’s ten title defense record.

 

PERFORMANCE

RAQUEL PENNINGTON

This seems to be the tale of Raquel Pennington’s entire career, win one, lose one, look listless in one fight and spectacular in the next, fortunately for “Rocky” she got one of those spectacular wins on Saturday night. Ironically, the tables turned on multiple fronts for “Rocky’s” opponent Jessica Andrade. A rematch from UFC 171 that Pennington took on short notice after Andrade’s original opponent Julianna Peña bowed out with an injury was flipped this time, as Andrade was the one taking the call after Leslie Smith and Liz Carmouche both pulled out with injuries.

Andrade seemed to take an identical approach as she did in the first encounter. Andrade won the first fight by using her clinching and grappling skills to grind out Pennington, that was not the case this time. Pennington was more than aware of what Andrade was bringing to the cage and she adapted nicely. Pennington was taken down early on but used some brutal knees and elbows to show Andrade that would not be a good gameplan this time around. Andrade won a lot of the second round but didn’t manage to do any major damage. Pennington managed to get Andrade to the floor and land some ground and pound late in the round and after desperately getting up off the mat, Andrade left her back exposed and Pennington jumped on her and secured a rear naked choke with seconds left in the round.

“Rocky” has said she’s going on a “revenge tour” a la Kill Bill, Andrade was first on the list and she has her sights set on Leslie Smith, Cat Zingano and Holly Holm as well. Pennington also stated she doesn’t want to bring any more of the judges’ scorecards to her bouts and is using her split decision losses as motivation to finish girls from now on. It’s great to see Pennington motivated, not to say she’s lacked any motivation in the past, but seeing her take this approach is very refreshing. Obviously Holly Holm is out of the picture for the time being with her scheduled title bout, but both Zingano and Smith are due for a return fairly soon. She’s made Sean Shelby’s job easier and it’s intriguing, Pennington always comes to fight and her toughness always makes her fights fun and adds an element of thrill due to her propensity to get in back and forth fights that she could win at the drop of a hat. It’s time for some new contenders at women’s bantamweight, so here’s to hoping Sean Shelby listens and grants “Rocky” another name on the list.

 

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images