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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday touched down in Mexico City with UFC Fight Night 159 -- a snakebitten event headlined by a featherweight battle between Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: DUAL TRUTH
We knew the co-main event between Carla Esparza and Alexa Grasso would be important for the strawweights. With both fighters ranked in the Top 10, that much was obvious. How important it would be beyond the number subjectively placed next to their names remained to be seen. Esparza was largely dismissed after her brief time as UFC champion. Her mixed results since dropping the belt pushed “Cookie Monster” out of the conversations surrounding what has been a consistently entertaining 115-pound division. Grasso was plucked from what was sure to be an Invicta Fighting Championships title shot to enter the UFC with a fair amount of hype. Unfortunately, the head of steam with which she entered the promotion weakened, as she has alternated wins and losses since her debut. The fact that both women were finished by Tatiana Suarez on her way to becoming the expected heir apparent to the strawweight crown serves as the perfect symbol of how times have changed for Esparza and Grasso.
Their confrontation was about fighting for relevance and a place in those aforementioned discussions about the division’s elite. In what is sure to be one of the more controversial outcomes of the year, Esparza edged Grasso in a majority decision. With her second consecutive win, she gets some much-needed momentum. From a technical standpoint, she also proved her worth as a force to be reckoned with at 115 pounds. Always among the best grapplers in the weight class, Esparza proved that her takedown and top control abilities remain top notch. Controlling large stretches of time with her wrestling and positioning in the first two rounds likely earned the judges’ nod. Additionally, she proved she was at least be respectable enough on the feet to keep Grasso honest.
For her part, Grasso looked about as good as one can look while adding a loss to her record. Known for her sharp boxing, she managed to use her hands effectively and confirmed she was indeed one of the best strikers in the strawweight division. While she had been outdone on the floor in previous UFC appearances, her grappling skills gave Esparza fits. After getting deep on an armbar attempt to close the second round, the dramatic final frame showcased what Grasso at her best looked like. Avoiding the takedown attempts, landing consequential punches and applying a cringe-inducing armbar led one judge to award her a 10-8 round, with all three Sherdog scorers in agreement.
This was a fight where both combatants managed to showcase their strengths and show they were closing the holes in their games. Esparza lives another day as top contender, and Grasso remains one of the bright spots in an ever-evolving division. It was the best of both worlds.
THE BAD: WORLD CLASS?
The push into any new market inherently means that some concessions on local talent have to be met. Building an appetite for mixed martial arts means that choosing homegrown fighters for events will involve picking from a pool of underdeveloped athletes. However, the UFC still prides itself as the place where the world’s elite-level competitors meet. Despite the need for Mexican bodies to slot on the schedule, Martin Bravo and Marco Polo Reyes may not be worth keeping on the roster for much longer. Both men have solidified themselves in terms of exciting appearances and a kill-or-be-killed mentality, but at the end of the day, winning is more important.
Bravo started his UFC journey with a technical knockout of Claudio Puelles to win “The Ultimate Fighter Latin America” Season 3 tournament. Since then, he has experienced nothing but adversity, with two of his three consecutive losses coming by way of devastating knockout. He started hot against Steven Peterson with an aggressive pace and combination striking. During the first six and a half minutes, he looked quite effective and appeared to be on his way to picking up his first win since 2016. Instead, an ill-timed spinning backfist opened him up to an improbable counter spinning backfist. The blow turned out his lights and sent him crashing to the floor.
Reyes enjoyed an even more impressive start to his UFC run. Three victories with two finishes definitely turned heads, as he became a standout among the new lightweights on the roster. That fortune has turned, as Reyes has gone 1-4 since. Each of those four losses involved some form of knockout, and his appearance at Mexico City Arena was no exception, even with Reyes deciding that 145 pounds might be a more hospitable weight class. Kyle Nelson crowded him early, keeping the muay Thai specialist from using his best weapons. Upon the slightest break in spacing, Nelson landed a crushing mix of elbows and punches to persuade referee Jason Herzog to mercifully call for a standing TKO. Now with a .500 record, Reyes’ future in the promotion is in jeopardy.
Mexican fans love someone who is willing to die on his shield. Just take a long look at the list of tough boxers the country has produced. However, the UFC is not promoting that many events in Mexico, even if there is a dedicated effort to cultivate the market there. How valuable are these action fighters if the only purpose they serve on the roster is limited to appearances South of the Border? Before UFC Fight Night 159, the organization had not been to Mexico in about two years. Prior to that, there had been five trips, starting in 2014. At that rate, does it make sense to keep Bravo and Reyes around if they have been unable to string together wins? Do not be surprised if the UFC searches for new Mexican fighters to fill those roster spots next time.
THE UGLY: RETINAL SCAN
For three straight weeks, fights with serious implications have been cut drastically short due to accidental eye pokes. Ryan Bader and Cheick Kongo did not have time to decide the fate of Bellator’s heavyweight title; Todd Duffee’s return from a four-year layoff and brewing slugfest with Jeff Hughes did not make it out of the gates; and Rodriguez raking Stephens across the face only gave us 15 seconds for the two knockout artists to ply their trade against one another.
Once again, it is difficult to point the finger and blame one fighter or another. Sure, Rodriguez committed the foul, but as anyone who has sparred with any level of regularity can tell you, pushing off your opponent’s face is extraordinarily common and the muscle memory response does not change with fingerless gloves. Yes, many fighters continue on after receiving such a blow, but it is grossly unfair and irresponsible to place that burden on Stephens. It was immediately apparent that he could not open his left eye fully. Even if he wanted to pretend like he was unharmed and able to continue, he physically could not do it; and if he did pretend and faced a dynamic kickboxer like Rodriguez with half of his vision compromised, there would have been zero sympathy had an Andre Fili-like flying switch kick met his temple.
In the unpredictable and chaotic collusion of two combat-ready, world-class athletes, bad things can happen. However, it just seems like a curse has plagued consequential fights with an alarming degree of regularity. Between Rodriguez-Stephens, the other aforementioned examples, Donald Cerrone-Tony Ferguson and Matt Mitrione-Sergei Kharitonov 1, the message is loud and clear. We are at the mercy of the MMA Gods. May they grant us mercy in the future and let us enjoy our favorite brand of fisticuffs as it was intended.