Written by Ty Reynolds @MMAtylander
The UFC made its first trip to Australia for 2016 last Saturday night, bringing a heavyweight showdown between perennial contenders Mark Hunt and Frank Mir as its main event to the city of Brisbane. The madness that ensued during the contest and the rest of the card was inescapable, so let’s take a look at what it all means and what could come next.
ON THE RISE:
Mark Hunt’s Title Aspirations: After suffering consecutive TKO defeats against UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum and current title challenger Stipe Miocic, it appeared that Mark Hunt’s time as a legitimate contender in the the UFC’s heavyweight division was all but over. His loss to Werdum was forgivable due to his willingness to take the bout on short notice and the fact that he actually acquitted himself quite well before being finished by the Brazilian ace in the 3rd round, but his bout with Stipe Miocic was far harsher. Miocic scorched Hunt in their 2015 encounter, landing an amazing 361 strikes to Hunt’s 46, before ending the fight in the 5th. Hunt, however, has rebounded nicely since his most recent losses by picking up consecutive 1st round finishes of his own, including his walk-off victory over Frank Mir. Now Hunt once again finds himself in the mix for a title shot, which is amazing considering his age and the numerous setbacks he has experienced in his career. There is still a large amount of work for “The Super Samoan” to finish before he can land another crack at the belt, but the possibility is certainly within reach.
Neil Magny’s Place in the WW Division: It didn’t come easily and certainly required more attrition than should’ve been necessary, but Neil Magny’s comeback victory/mauling of Hector Lombard is definitely the signature win of the surging welterweight’s career and proves he belongs in the discussion of being an elite 170 lbs’er. Magny has now emerged on top in 10 out of his past 11 contests and is on a 3-fight winning streak after allowing a submission to grappling wizard Demain Maia at UFC 190. At only 28 years of age, it’s quite possible that Magny hasn’t even hit his prime yet, so it’s far from irrational to expect his rise up the rankings to continue.
Jake Matthew’s March Towards the Rankings: Matthew’s exclusion from the UFC’s lightweight rankings is a testament to just how stacked their 155 lbs. division really is, but don’t expect to see him left out in the cold for much longer. Currently holding a 4-1 record in the promotion at the stunningly young age of only 21, “The Celtic Kid” is on the verge of cracking the Top 15 and more than likely remaining there for years to come. His performance in Brisbane was his best to date, coming against fellow super-prospect Johnny “Hollywood” Case and earning him his first POTN bonus award. Matthews looked sharp on the feet, especially with body kicks, before submitting the talented Case with only seconds left in the bout. After achieving all of this in front of his hometown fans, Matthews proved to the UFC that they have a future contender and possible superstar on their hands when it comes to him. Expect the promotion to take heed and push this kid hard.
Daniel Kelly’s Career Ceiling: For some reason, it’s become exceptionally easy to forget that Australia’s Daniel Kelly is 11-1 with a 4-1 record in the Octagon. Whether it be due to his age, his somewhat odd looking style, or bookmaker’s habit of listing him as an underdog, MMA fans and media have somewhat unfairly categorized Kelly as a fighter who is on the always on the verge of being cut from the UFC and abandoned to obscurity. Kelly, however, continues to buck those assumptions by constantly finding ways to prevail when nearly everyone has counted him out. His TKO victory over Antonio Carlos Junior in Brisbane at UFC Fight Night 85 is yet another example of his ability to cast his doubters aside. While it is still far-fetched to view him as a future contender, Kelly has already achieved more success in the cage than almost anyone could’ve predicted and is on the verge of becoming something of a cult hero to his countrymen and fans of the sport. If he keeps finding ways to win, that title won’t be far behind.
SLIPPING INTO DESCENT:
Frank Mir’s Time as an Elite HW: We’ve seen him rebound plenty of times before so this assertion may be a tad premature, but Frank Mir is on the verge of slipping from the realm of relevancy yet again. His knockout loss to Mark Hunt in the main event of UFC Fight Night 85 could’ve happened to just about any heavyweight on the roster, but the fact remains that Mir has now lost 6 out of 8 in the UFC and is in desperate need of some notable success if he expects to continue fighting at the highest level. With the statistics of his current run in mind, it can easily be argued that Mir ceased to be an elite fighter long ago, a fact that has been hidden by the lack of depth in the 265 lbs. division. He’ll certainly see himself slip from the Top 10 after this setback, and will probably be lucky to remain in the Top 15. At this point, another run at the title seems to be nothing but a pipe dream.
Hector Lombard’s IQ/Steve Perceval’s Credibility: What happened in the co-main event in Brisbane Saturday night should be nothing less than unacceptable. Steve Perceval’s decision to allow Neil Magny to relentlessly batter a clearly defeated Hector Lombard only so Lombard could answer the bell for the 3rd round and receive even more punishment will be a stain on the referee’s resume forever and very likely did substantial damage to Lombard’s health and career trajectory. That was the type of beating that can change a fighter’s life, let alone his ability to compete, and it never should’ve happened. Hopefully, Lombard will be able to recover and continue to perform at the level he is accustomed to, but who’s to say that is possible when considering that he is 38 years old and just suffered through 40+ unanswered blows? Regardless of what happens with Lombard’s health, though, Perceval should be forced to endure at least some sort of punitive action. It needs to be made crystal clear to him that something like this can never happen under his watch again. He neglected to perform his most important duty, which is to protect the well-being of the fighters. There absolutely should be harsh consequences for that failure.
James Te Huna’s Chances of Remaining Employed: It’s been a rough road for Te Huna recently. The Australian has competed 4 times since 2013, and hasn’t emerged victorious from any of those trips into the cage. In fact, he hasn’t even emerged from Round 1…Te Huna has suffered through 4 consecutive 1st round finishes that he can’t even claim to have been competitive in. The first three came against Glover Teixeira, Nate Marquardt, and Shogun Rua, so his level of competition can at least be noted as an excuse, but not so with his recent defeat. No disrespect intended to Steve Bosse, but he’s not yet on the level of the men mentioned above. A violent loss to the former hockey enforcer is a far cry from losing to the Shogun Rua’s of the world, and very possibly could be Te Huna’s final chance with the promotion. The light heavyweight division does lack depth and Te Huna is a regional draw (for now), so there is at least a small chance he stays under contract, but it’s very unlikely that anyone will complain if Te Huna’s most recent setback proves to be his last under the Zuffa umbrella.
MMA Judging: It’s far from a secret that the judges in MMA have been delivering strange, if not downright incorrect, verdicts for year after year, but it still needs to be mentioned and touched upon until the disturbing trend is corrected. Unfortunately, the decisions rendered in Brisbane is another example of this seemingly perpetual issue. Because of the decisions to award Ross Pearson 30-27 and 30-28 cards, to deny Rin Nakai the advantage in the 2nd round of her bout with Leslie Smith, and the failure to score even one 10-8 round in the Magny/Lombard massacre, it’s clear that some of these officials simply do not know what they are witnessing. It really can’t be said any more politely than that. It’s reached the point of exasperation. Something needs to change quickly when it comes to how theses contests are being scored, because MMA fans are losing more and more faith in judges by the event.
WHAT COMES NEXT:
Mark Hunt: Due to the landscape of the division, it’s very likely that Hunt will be forced into a rematch the next time he is ready to compete. It’s also likely that he will have to fight more than once to earn another crack at gold. Cain Velasquez is booked to fight Travis Browne at UFC 200 and it looks like the winner of that will be next in line for a title shot. Alistair Overeem, who is taking on Andrei Arlovski in May, could also jump into the position of title challenger if he defeats the former champion, so contests with a victorious Velasquez, Browne, or Overeem seem unlikely. If Arlovski wins, however, that would be an interesting bout for the New Zealander. The most likely outcome, though, is that Hunt faces the winner of Junior Dos Santos and Ben Rothwell after their fight in Croatia next month. Either would be a repeat of prior bouts, but Hunt voiced no complaints about participating in a rematch during the post-fight press conference in Brisbane. A win over either man would likely set him up for a title eliminator sometime later this year or early in 2017. Or, if fortune favors him, Hunt could find himself as a replacement fighter if any of the men mentioned above find themselves injured. So, based on that possibility, Hunt’s best decision would be to stay ready in case his services are needed sooner than expected.
Frank Mir: If he continues to compete, which probably isn’t a guarantee at this point, Mir is going to have to start at the bottom of the Top 15 again, or maybe even venture out of it for an opponent. Considering his name value, though, the UFC will likely look to match him with someone they feel has potential to be a top fighter, so expect him to get a ranked, if not well known, opponent. Ruslan Magomedov, who was recently scratched from a bout with Gabriel Gonzaga, would fit this criteria nicely if he is ready to go before too long and Mir decides he wants to continue.
Neil Magny: The UFC might behoove themselves to break away from their habit of matching winners with winners and losers with losers when it comes to Magny. He definitely deserves to fight above his current rank, but many of the elite welterweights who are coming off of victories are already tied up in pivotal match-ups. Tyron Woodley isn’t booked, but he could be next in line for a shot against UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler and has already shown a willingness to wait for an opportunity at the title. It may be difficult to convince him to risk his spot in line against a tough out like Magney until he knows for sure that he won’t be receiving a title shot next. That leaves Dong Hyun Kim, Carlos Condit, and Johny Hendricks left in the field. Kim would be a good fight, but Magny deserves a bigger test, and Condit may very likely retire if he doesn’t get a rematch with Lawler. Only Hendricks remains. The former champ is coming off of a 1st round loss, but is still ranked in the Top 5 and in need of an opponent. Hendricks has the name value that Magny deserves to have a crack at, as well, so he seems to be the best fit for what comes next for Magny.
Hector Lombard: It’s hard to say when Lombard will be ready to fight again considering he just had a long layoff and suffered a horrendous beating, but if he is ready to get back at it soon, another man to recently fall to Neil Magny would be a good next step. Kelvin Gastelum is currently ranked one slot above Lombard (at least for the moment) and is in need of a quality opponent to get his own career back on track. The winner of the bout would be ready to try their hand at the Top 10 again, so there would be something on the line if these two were to meet up next. To add to the motivation, the loser would surely slip from the rankings and would probably find themselves being used to bolster the record of a surging prospect. Neither would want that fate, so a contest between them could produce some memorable action and propel the winner back in the right direction.
Jake Matthews: Matthews deserves an opportunity to test himself against a ranked opponent, but it shouldn’t be too stiff of an evaluation. Lightweight is so deep that even someone like Al Iaquinta, who is on a 4-fight win streak but not in the Top 10, could overwhelm the young prospect, so it’s best to be careful here. Ruslan Magomedov is ranked at #15 and has a fight with Chris Wade coming up at UFC Fight Night 87 in the Netherlands. The winner of that contest would be a fine next step for Matthews, even if it turns out to be the currently unranked Wade. With either outcome, however, a win for Matthews in his next bout should be enough to get him into the Top 15.
Johnny Case: Case had his moments Saturday against Matthews, but found himself lagging behind before being submitted late in the fight. It’s not time to panic for the prospect, though. Losing to Matthews in a FOTN performance is nothing to be ashamed of, especially since it was his first defeat in 13 fights. Case just needs a rebound fight to get back on track, which shouldn’t be hard to find for “Hollywood.” Damien Brown, who was defeated in the Fight Pass opener on the same card, would be a good foe for Case to set his sights on next. Assuming neither took too much damage, they will be ready to fight again around the same time so this should be a quick match-up to book and Case will be a heavy favorite.
Daniel Kelly: It’s not quite time to see if Kelly can survive with a ranked opponent. Even though he came out on top in front of his countrymen once again, there are still plenty of holes in his game that need to be seen to before he even considers a big jump in competition. We probably won’t see Kelly in the cage again until the UFC returns to Australia later this year because of other duties he mentioned in his post-fight interview, so there is plenty of time for him to wait and see what develops. If Kevin Casey can get a win in that time, he could be both a slow step up and a solid test for Kelly later this year.
Antonio Carlos Junior: Losing to Kelly was quite the blow to Carlos Junior’s career. It’s likely that he would’ve found himself flirting with getting a well known opponent in his next outing if he had been able to put Kelly away early, but he let the opportunity slip away and now finds himself in a bad spot. The BJJ specialist is 2-2-1 in the UFC and hasn’t picked up a victory since defeating Eddie Gordon last June. Another loss would be crushing to his time with the promotion, so he needs to choose his next steps carefully. If he puts himself in a situation he can’t handle, the UFC may not see much of an upside with him for much longer. Maybe a return to Brazil against Chris Dempsey would be a good way for “Cara de Sapato” to regain some momentum. Dempsey would provide an aggressive style that would lend itself well to an exciting fight, but would be unlikely to threaten Carlos Junior at all if he can take it to the mat. Both an entertaining fight and a good style match-up would be very beneficial for the Brazilian at the moment.