Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) made its presence known to Philadelphia, Pa., last night (Sat., March 30, 2019) for UFC on ESPN 2. Copying the strategy of the big events on FOX, the second show on mainstream ESPN was focused on entertaining the more “casual” fans with high action fights. Most notably, the main event slobber-knocker of Justin Gaethje vs. Edson Barboza was absolutely guaranteed fireworks, but there were fun fights littered throughout the card.
Let’s take a look at the best techniques and performances of the night!
More Than An Action Fighter
Last night, Justin Gaethje walked to the cage and scored a first-round knockout win over the No. 6-ranked Lightweight in the world, his second monstrous main event win in his last two fights (watch it).
Gaethje may be the most entertaining man on the roster, but his ceiling is not fun fights. In all-time classic wars with top Lightweights Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, Gaethje very easily could have won on a different night. The fights were extremely close before the finishes, but the losses seemed to imply to many that Gaethje was not truly a title contender.
As a result, Gaethje has changed his course. He has not altered his violence-first or all-aggression mindset in any way, but “The Highlight” is smarter nonetheless. Against both James Vick and Edson Barboza, Gaethje was clearly more focused on both closing the distance and cutting off the cage before throwing massive power shots. Previously, Gaethje relied on toughness and aggression to win, and those attributes still play a major role in his style. With this adjustment, however, Gaethje manages to create the same chaotic atmosphere and brutal pace that has always benefited him without getting hit quite so much.
There has never been a need for Gaethje to swing wildly while far away from his opponent and hope for the best. That does not tire his foe out or break down his body, and it’s unlikely to score the picture-perfect one punch knockout that is always a goal. By maintaining the aggression but picking his moments to swing better, Gaethje has drastically improved how often he lands, and that big knockout is appearing as a result.
Gaethje’s chances of carrying UFC gold have greatly increased as well.
Josh Emmett’s last fight was more than one year ago, a truly brutal loss that saw him undergo a year’s worth of facial surgeries to deal with injuries that almost cost him an eye (details). As a member of Team Alpha Male (TAM) alongside Emmett, I saw firsthand just how long it took Emmett to return to the mat at all, then witness his slow return to fighting form.
Making the walk to the Octagon again was a major win on its own.
Once actually inside the cage, the fight proved to be a battle of inches. Both Emmett and Johnson are exceptionally quick and carry heavy hands. As a result, much of the bout was feints and footwork, with each man looking to set up that one shot that would end the fight. However, while both men were searching for their power shots, Johnson was a bit more active with his quick kicks and jabs, seemingly building up a lead on the judges’ scorecards after two rounds.
Emmett adjusted in the third, pressuring and throwing in combination more often. He began to land more frequently as a result, closing the gap a bit. Ultimately, the judges’ scorecards were rendered irrelevant by a picture-perfect overhand, which shut Johnson’s lights off.
From a professional perspective, this was simply an amazing knockout. Johnson has a ridiculous chin and has never actually been knocked out inside the Octagon, let alone stiffened with a single punch. Furthermore, landing that type of knockout in the final minute of the third round? To any doubters, there’s your proof that Emmett can punch.
On a more personal note, Emmett is one of the most reserved and hardest workers in the gym. He’s faced adversity throughout his entire career — getting sidelined by injuries, opponents falling out, his bone ripping through his finger mid-UFC debut, and generally a much more prolonged path to UFC than should have been necessary. All the while, Emmett has calmly moved forward and kept faith. It’s great to see his effort rewarded.
I’ll always remember his last fight on the regional scene. Against a tough UFC veteran (who is now once again on the roster) in Christos Giagos, Emmett went to war. From two front row seats that half of TAM had snuck into (make your own short joke here), we watched Emmett land the loudest and most devastating overhand right I’ve ever seen in person. After his third-round overhand knockout, the crowd unanimously chanted, “UFC!!!”
Here we are three years later, and that same right hand just claimed another victim.
- Jack Hermansson defeats David Branch via round-one guillotine (highlights): Hermansson absolutely went after Branch from the first bell, which proved the right decision. Before long, Hermansson landed in the clinch and scored a gorgeous foot sweep, prompting Branch to turn away and attempt to stand. For a detailed recap of the “insta-tap” click here.
- Paul Craig defeats Kennedy Nzechukwu via round-three triangle choke (highlights): First and foremost, this bout should never have taken place in UFC because it was low-level and terrible. Craig is really good at crazy, low percentage Brazilian jiu-jitsu … and almost nothing else, but it was enough to score another late fight triangle choke while moments away from a loss. Perhaps Craig’s biggest issue is his God-awful wrestling technique: the Scot routinely dives for takedowns with terrible posture, looking down toward the mat and bending at the waist. Even when he gets in on the hips, Craig tries to finish from his knees, which very rarely works out well. In truth, Craig’s jiu-jitsu is good enough — and Light Heavyweight is bad enough — that he can still succeed without becoming a slick kickboxer, but the man needs to find a good wrestling coach and do nothing else but improve his takedown technique for a few months. Credit where it’s due, though, hitting a Z-Sweep into a triangle choke is a rare technique in high-level jiu-jitsu, let alone a professional fight.
- Marina Rodriguez defeats Jessica Aguilar via unanimous decision: This bout turned out to be a brutal contest that demonstrated the importance of earning an opponent’s respect. Aguilar had no way to threaten Rodriguez, as the Brazilian denied her takedown attempts and walked through her right hand. Rodriguez really recognized that in the second round, spending the entire five minutes forcing clinch work on her opponent, battering Aguilar with elbows and knees. At that point, Aguilar’s objective was forced to shift into survival, as she was being abused badly. By the end of the fight, Aguilar’s face was destroyed, and her white shirt was stained completely red.
- Desmond Green defeats Ross Pearson via round-one knockout (highlights): It may be true that Pearson’s best days are behind him, but the Englishman looked sharp early — which only served to make Green’s subsequent stoppage win even more impressive. In fact, both men were kickboxing smartly for much of the fight: Green looked to use his range advantage to land hard counter punches, while Pearson threw and landed extra kicks to make up for said disadvantage, even mixing in a takedown attempt. Unfortunately for “The Real Deal,” Green’s takedown attempt proved much more fruitful. As soon as Pearson hit the mat, he attempted to turn away and stand, but he found himself trapped between Green’s forward pressure and the clinch. Pearson continued working to stand up, but his head was wide open as both hands pushed off the mat. Once the punches began, they simply did not stop, and Pearson was unable to recover.
- Kevin Aguilar defeats Enrique Barzola via unanimous decision: Aguilar did an exceptional job last night. Barzola has a tricky game, made up of in-and-out combinations, strong takedowns, and funky kicks. On its own, his awkwardness mix is difficult, but Barzola’s incredible pace and conditioning makes him much more dangerous. Aguilar managed it well though, circling and forcing Barzola to come to him beneath a hail of counter strikes. More than anything else, Aguilar won because he answered each attempt from Barzola — he never allowed his foe to attack without answer. The most common reaction to a failed shot or missed hook from Barzola saw Aguilar fire back with a cross-left kick. Finishing his follow-up combinations with a kick helped a ton as well — even if the punches miss, the last kick will most likely land and ensure Aguilar won the exchange.
- Kevin Holland defeats Gerard Meerschaert via split decision: This is an odd one. On one hand, Holland really looked the better fighter, doing more damage and routinely denying Meerschaert’s submissions. However, Holland also fought like an oddball, allowing a greatly fatigued “GM3” to gain and control top position — it probably should have earned Meerschaert the win despite Holland seeming the more talented fighter. Regardless of all that, the reason I’m writing about this fight was definitely the fun scrambles. Both men attempted a dozen submissions, trading guillotine attempts and back takes. No one managed to secure the tap out, but it’s always fun to watch willing grapplers do more than stall from top position.