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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday brought UFC Fight Night 146 to the Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kansas. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: CIGANO SMOKE
It does not seem all that long ago when we were ready to write off Junior dos Santos. While his fall from grace was nowhere near as sudden as those endured by Johny Hendricks and Renan Barao, he seemed far from his glory days as the UFC heavyweight champion. Since defending his belt against Frank Mir at UFC 146, “Cigano” alternated wins and losses up until his current run. It was not just that he consistently found himself on the wrong side of the win-loss column; it was how those losses happened that provided cause for concern. Each fight saw the former titleholder endure a tremendous amount of damage, and with the exception of his first rematch with Cain Velasquez, he was finished in devastating fashion each time. Crushing knockout defeats to Velasquez, Alistair Overeem and Stipe Miocic were simply difficult to watch. The lone time he lost by decision was even worse.
Dos Santos is now enjoying his first winning streak since 2012. Unlike most other divisions, a run of three consecutive wins is good enough to start declaring a full-fledged rebrand on a fighter who previously would have been considered “Vanquished” by Sherdog’s own Jacob Debets. With Velasquez’s recent loss and continuing injury woes and Miocic’s stubborn refusal to fight anyone but current champion Daniel Cormier, dos Santos is in prime position to impact the title picture in the near future. While Cormier waits to be declared the winner in the Brock Lesnar sweepstakes, contenders like dos Santos and Francis Ngannou are quietly establishing themselves as logical -- and marketable -- next steps in case Canada’s biggest immigrant is just playing the MMA world against his pro wrestling bosses again. Looking at the options after UFC Fight Night 146 gives us hope for great entertainment in the days ahead.
Imagine Cormier being challenged by dos Santos? The Brazilian will have the chance to avenge his brutal losses to the American Kickboxing Academy’s other great heavyweight and re-establish himself as the king of the division. Perhaps dos Santos and Ngannou can meet to decide a true No. 1 contender. The style matchup alone is incredible, and the two men were paired together almost two years ago, before a United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation derailed the fight. By some strange twist of fate, maybe “Cigano” can find himself opposite Lesnar, an often-forgotten booking that had to be taken off the 2011 calendar by the World Wrestling Entertainment superstar’s diverticulitis.
No matter which direction the heavyweight division moves, there should be some fun heading into the potential chaos of the fast-approaching Cormier retirement. In addition to the upcoming birth of his second child, dos Santos has a lot to smile about in 2019.
THE BAD: CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN BLACK BEAST
The flipside to the dos Santos coin is Derrick Lewis. While it is not time to press the panic button just yet, Lewis is now in an unenviable position. What was a three-fight winning streak that culminated in an unlikely title fight has now turned into two consecutive stoppage losses. The dreaded three-fight losing streak is now staring Lewis directly in the face, and with his recent success and the names that likely await him, the road to redemption certainly will not be a cakewalk. “The Black Beast” winning nine of his last 10 before headlining UFC 230 opposite Cormier was improbable in the eyes of most fans. With that in mind, the Houston resident was playing with house money. That house money is quickly running out in this “What have you done for me lately?” environment. Fortunately for Lewis, he has the backing of a devoted fan base that is still trying to manage the temperature of its genitals in an era desperate for legitimate star power.
Lewis was initially dismissive of the idea that his career ambitions were anywhere rooted in the title picture, even leading up to his opportunity in November, but being among the elite of the division has seemed to change his mindset somewhat. Setting his sights on a future Miocic fight and a rematch with Ngannou suggests a more focused approach to maximizing his time in the sport.
Closing the door on Lewis would certainly be premature right now. Just over a year after being finished with strikes by Mark Hunt, Lewis cemented a title shot by coming from behind to do away with Alexander Volkov at UFC 229. Perhaps in another year, history can repeat itself. However, it’s hard to ignore the vulnerabilities he has shown to body shots over his career, and dos Santos reminded us of that reality during their encounter. If Lewis wants to get back in the conversation, this is a hole in his game he must address.
THE UGLY: STICKS, STONES, NOSE AND BONES
This is the hurt business. When people train to do damage to one another and meet to see who can inflict the most punishment, it’s inevitable that someone gets hurt. Watching MMA, or any other combat sport for that matter, without acknowledging this truth is willful ignorance at best.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to cringe when watching certain levels of the grotesque, even if we’re numb to the sight of blood and life-altering concussions. The ankle injury suffered by Tim Means after he was knocked out at the hands of Niko Price is one of those moments. While the head trauma of temporarily short circuiting the brain is what would be the greatest cause of concern for long-term health, seeing a man’s limbs fold over in unnatural ways will never be comfortable to watch.
It’s amazing that this isn’t a more frequent occurrence. Every week, we watch numerous fighters go to sleep on the feet and their bodies fall to the ground in a heap of dead weight. When Mirko Filipovic similarly fell victim to a Gabriel Gonzaga head kick at UFC 70, the frightening sight of his leg bent underneath him represented a potential career disaster. While the initial reports of the aftermath were downplayed, Filipovic took a while before he could return to his prior form. Means may face a comparable uphill battle, as his broken tibia and ankle will require surgery, according to his post-fight Instagram post.
Earlier on the card, Yana Kunitskaya won a hard-fought decision against Marion Reneau and paid dearly for the victory. The mangled mess that used to be the former Invicta Fighting Championships titleholder’s nose certainly left a lasting image for everyone watching. Reneau did exactly what she was supposed to do and targeted an obvious weakness in her opponent. With each punch landed, “Foxy” was left even more disfigured. It’s hard to not be reminded of Rory MacDonald in the second Robbie Lawler fight at UFC 189. The shattered nose plagued MacDonald for quite some time afterward, and to this day, it remains a question mark that surrounds him. Despite her victory and inevitable urge to capitalize on that momentum, it is essential that Kunitskaya and her team make sure she is fully recovered before testing the integrity of her nose on the big stage.