In a weekend chock full of good fights, it would have been easy to overlook this first card where personality was the main drawn for the main events. But with an incredibly entertaining and dramatic undercard, a couple of quality finishes, and a battle in the headliner, this card was a wonderful appetizer for Friday and Saturday night.
Santos Punishes a Pressuring Theodorou
Coming into this fight, it was a given (amongst pundits) that Theodorou would try his best to take this fight to the ground, utilizing his wrestling and top game to take the win. But Theodorou showed a different, more dynamic, standup look and for a majority of the fight pushed the pressure and pacing.
The first round was a shock, not only because Theodorou was acting outside of his skillset, but because Santos seemed to have no idea how to react to it. Theodorou was very much the catalyst in the first five minutes, controlling the octagon and throwing punches in waves. Santos, who prior to the fight could have wished for nothing more than a standup battle, looks entirely befuddled. And with good reason. Theodorou's striking technique seems to come from the quantity not quality class, and many of his setups were—unorthodox.
The second round reset normalcy within this fight. Theodorou looked to keep his pressure up and score small shots to push Santos further off-balance. But Santos, presumptively after his corner repeatedly yelled “hit him!” over and over, looked more relaxed and landed a few good combinations. Theodorou, having exhausted his game plan, went back to his strength and took Santos down. The men scrambled, got back to a standing clinch, where Santos laid down punishment. The men trade takedowns and the bell sounded. This round was much more in the realm of what everyone expected to happen. Theodorou looking like he had the edge with his grappling, Santos striking well and accurately, even landing strikes from a less-dominant position.
In the third, Santos, apropos to nothing, decided to throw a spinning kick and Theodorou locked him up. In the clinch, Santos went back to work, with Theodorou high along his body. In so doing, Santos opened up a cut that could be used as a storage container over Theodorou’s eye. After a ref stoppage, Santos pushed his opening, landing a huge knee. With clock winding down, Theodorou looked to survive and in the final minute Santos landing knees and kicks almost at will.
This fight, save the first round which was anomalous, was what everyone expects from a grappler matched against a thunderous striker: Theodorou tried his best to hold Santos against the cage. But given the maturity that the UFC has found itself in, Santos operated well in the clinch, opened a cut and ultimately got the decision victory. Another round and Theodorou would have been bricked or the doctor would have had to stop the fight.
Thiago Santos def. Elias Theodorou by Decision (unanimous) in the 3rd round (5:00)
Sage the Wunderkind Guillotines Pfister
Sage Northcutt is one of the most talked about young fighters in the UFC, the nineteen-year-old waylaid his opponent in his UFC debut and made social media rounds as the fighter who did a backflip in the Octagon. Cody Pfister, although more experienced in terms of record and age, looked outmatched from the very first bell.
Early in the first round Pfister, touted as a solid wrestler who would take Northcutt down, did exactly that. In the very first minute Pfister put Northcutt on his back. And while Cody didn’t seem to have any follow up to the takedown that could have pressed his advantage, this is the first time in his incredibly brief career that we saw a hole in Northcutt’s game: he did not perform well off his back. Pfister worked to pass to half-guard, Northcutt wriggling him back to full, but the whole time, both young men looked incredibly uncomfortable with their positioning. After a ref standup, Northcutt showed some of the aggressiveness that he is quickly becoming known for, and secured his own takedown. From this position, we see that strength of Sage, landing heavy elbows and sinking a slightly out-of-position arm triangle.
The second round was where the explosion happened. Northcutt, intelligently, brought the wrestling to Pfister. Cody scrambled, not allowing the positional advantage, before his wrestling muscle memory kicked in and he pushed forward into Sage. And demonstrating what made him one of the most talked about premier fighters in UFC history, Sage capitalized on a Pfister error. In a traditional wrestling setting, Cody’s reversal and push for a takedown would have been well-executed and probably successful. But in the world of mixed martial arts, his head being the lead, chin up, was a fatal error. As he pushed forward, Northcutt slipped his forearm under Pfister’s chin and pulled hard while falling backward. The guillotine was locked before Sage’s shoulder blades hit the floor.
Sage Northcutt def. Cody Pfister by Submission (guillotine choke) in the 2nd round (0:41)
Chiesa, Bloody, Chokes Miller
Coming into this fight, Jim Miller seemed an easy favorite. Being ranked, with some tough fights under his belt, and at a young(ish) thirty-two, Miller started the fight exactly as expected. But with Michael Chiesa, the Ultimate Fighter 15 winner, toughness is guaranteed and quit doesn’t exist.
The first round started off with a bang from Jim Miller, countering with a hard left the Chiesa ate on the chin. On another day, another night, this punch was a fight ender. And it happened in the first minute. But Chiesa simply responded with taking the fight to the ground with a well-executed takedown. From the ground, both men looked solid technically. The round ended with Miller in top position, but the grappling had yet to create too many chances.
Round two starts in roughly the same fashion as the first, both fighters looking to find the range. Miller, showing experience and patience in his standup, sneaks another straight left through a soft guard of Chiesa. Chiesa once again shot for the takedown, snagging a single leg and dragging his ranked opponent to the ground. Chiesa postured up, trying to pass or rain strikes, but Miller worked a rubber guard to try and control the position. And then Miller found another way to win the fight, off his back and with a bleeding Chiesa, Miller rolled into a leg lock that was both well-executed and deep. And again, on any other night, that would have been it. The knee would have buckled and Miller would have another W. But Chiesa is tough as they come and calmly scrambled and took the back. With blood raining off his face, pooling on the mat, Chiesa sank in a rear naked that was hellacious and unrecoverable for Miller.
Michael Chiesa def. Jim Miller by Submission (rear-naked choke) in the 2nd round (2:57)
Technique Over Tough: Namajunas Outclasses VanZant
Paige VanZant is one of the darlings of the UFC. Not because she’s particularly sweet, although plenty charismatic, but because she fights in a truly gritty and crowd pleasing style. The lead up to this fight, and within the arena during the fight, was heavily in VanZant’s favor. But Rose Namajunas is ranked number three in a tough division for a reason. And when someone unexpectedly shaves their head the week of the fight, they aren’t there for the photo opps.
Round one was tough for VanZant. Paige is a tough fighter, a push the pace, get in your face fighter. But her technical ability is lacking (even for someone as young as she is). And that became readily apparent very quickly in the fight. VanZant has a tendency to do a head and arm step-through takedown, very reminiscent of high school wrestling. Typically, with her strength and tenacity, it is an effective technique. Coupled with a solid clinch game, her style is very gritty. But Rose Namajunas was prepared for that and simply outclassed Paige. In the standup, Rose was landing combinations. A slick transition into a takedown and two massive elbows later and VanZant was bleeding heavily from a cut below the eye. The first round ended in a beating, but Paige proved to be tougher than we’d previously seen and held on.
Round two passed in a very similar fashion, Namajunas decimating VanZant in every angle of the game. Paige tried to throw, Rose steps forward and lands a combo. Paige clinches up, Rose works dirty boxing and takes her down. Paige tries to transition, Rose is fluid and gets dominant position. Between the second and third round Namajuna’s coach is overheard saying, “don’t go for the finish, look for it. [Paige] will give it to you.” And that’s how the fight felt. Anticipatory. Building to a climactic finish that Paige was staving off through sheer force of will.
Round three should have been that end. The fight went the same way, VanZant with awkward technique, Namajunas taking her to the ground. And in the body jockeying and scrambling, Rose with roughly a minute left took VanZant’s back. And for forty-five seconds, Paige became the pinnacle of mental toughness. The cut under her eye wass roughly an inch and a half, but when Rose sank in the rear naked choke, it started gushing blood. VanZant went from the beautiful killer of the strawweight division to the blood drenched victim of a beating. But the remarkable happened: she didn’t tap. She took long slow breaths and embraced the violence. With Rose’s choke sunk in deep, blood pouring down her face, and another round going against her, VanZant holding out may have been a pyrrhic victory, but one that had the audience on their feet.
Round four was a clinic in technique (Namajunas) and toughness (VanZant). Namajunas takedown count jumped up to seven and her submission attempts rocketed to four, with her utterly dominating her opponent. But Paige fought out of each and every one, including an arm bar that had her elbow bending the other way. The crowd, reacting to the view on the monitors, audibly groaned during the hyperextension.
Round five was the end. A takedown in the first minute followed by some slick grappling on Namajunas’ part eventually gained her the back for her second rear naked choke attempt. Exhausted, outclassed, and beat, Paige didn’t have another three minutes of being choked in her remarkable will and Namajunas took a well-deserved victory.
Rose Namajunas def. Paige VanZant by Submission (rear naked choke) in the 5th round (2:25)
FULL FIGHT RESULTS
- Rose Namajunas def. Paige VanZant by Submission (rear naked choke) in the 5th round (2:25)
- Michael Chiesa def. Jim Miller by Submission (rear-naked choke) in the 2nd round (2:57)
- Sage Northcutt def. Cody Pfister by Submission (guillotine choke) in the 2nd round (0:41)
- Thiago Santos def. Elias Theodorou by Decision (unanimous) in the 3rd round (5:00)
- Tim Means def. John Howard by KO (punches) in the 2nd round (0:21)
- Sérgio Moraes def. Omari Akhmedov by TKO (punches) in the 3rd round (2:18)
- Antônio Carlos Júnior vs. Kevin Casey results in No Contest (accidental eye poke)
- Aljamain Sterling def. Johnny Eduardo by Submission (guillotine choke) in the 2nd round (4:18)
- Santiago Ponzinibbio def. Andreas Ståhl by TKO (punches) in the 1st round (4:25)
- Danny Roberts def. Nathan Coy Submission (triangle choke) in the 1st round (2:46)
- Zubaira Tukhugov def. Phillipe Nover Decision (split) in the 3rd round (5:00)
- Kailin Curran def. Emily Kagan by Submission (rear-naked choke) in the 2nd round (4:13)