As with every major event, Saturday night’s UFC on FOX 5 show had a lot of answers, and created a new series of questions for almost fighter on the show. But with a network audience, the largest television audience to see a UFC event in the U.S. in nearly a year, the ability of the fighters to change how they are viewed by the public was magnified more than on most shows.
With that, we’ll take a look at five people whose fortunes have changed coming out of the show, including lightweight champion Benson Henderson, B.J. Penn, Rory MacDonald, Alexander Gustafsson and the fighter who lit up the Key Arena in Seattle in the prelims, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 16’s Daron Cruickshank.
BENSON HENDERSON – The lightweight champion dominated challenger Nate Diaz in all five rounds, even picking up a 50-43 scorecard, one of only a few cards that one-sided in UFC title history.
On paper, Henderson has credentials that should make him a major star. He’s won 16 of his last 17 fights, nine of which have been against legitimate title contenders. His lone loss, to Anthony Pettis, was a close decision that likely came down to the incredible “Showtime kick” in the last minute of the match. His fights are generally exciting, including classics with Pettis and his first fight with Donald Cerrone. He survives bad situations. He’s escaped more near submissions without every being tapped than any fighter in Zuffa history with 30 submission attempts made on him with zero successes. He won the World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight championship three years ago and has been a frequent headliner.
Between his record, a number of main event wins, being champion in UFC’s most talent-rich division and so many great fights, one would think he should be among UFC’s biggest stars. But that hasn’t been the case. His last fight, defending the title against the man he won it from, Frankie Edgar, drew the lowest gate for a UFC pay-per-view event in seven years. It’s also believed to have been the least purchased pay-per-view headlined by a title fight in years.
Henderson also came into Saturday’s fight with a lot of people feeling he was champion in name only, believing Edgar deserved the decision in their Aug. 11 match in Denver.
But almost everything fell into place. Promoted as the local star, since he grew up in Federal Way, Wash., the show sold out well in advance and the hot crowd treated him like a superstar. He performed at that level, and then some. The fast national ratings listed that 4.78 million people watched FOX from 10-10:30 p.m. on Saturday, a period that included the first four-and-a-half rounds of the fight. When final numbers come out, it will likely end up being more than 5 million people on average saw his fight. Such as number would make it one of the top 15 most watched live MMA matches in U.S. television history.
Becoming a genuine drawing card is a tricky proposition. There was every reason, from fight quality to being undersized, that one could have argued the public would get behind Edgar in a big way. But something was missing and it didn’t happen. Really, only one lightweight in history has ever really become a top-tier star to the public, B.J. Penn.
After the fight, Henderson offered no opinions regarding what he wants next. The most likely contenders would be Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez, currently nursing a shoulder injury, and the winner of the Jan. 26 battle on FOX from Chicago with his former WEC rivals, Pettis vs. Cerrone. Cerrone was the man Henderson beat to win his WEC belt on Oct. 10, 2009. Pettis beat him for the title. Still, even when pressed, Henderson didn’t express any special interest in trying to even the score with Pettis, and would say little more than he was open to anyone.
Given Pettis vs. Cerrone is on the FOX stage next, the winner has a leg up on who gets the next shot. It really won’t be until Henderson’s next fight materializes that we’ll be able to see how much this match on this stage elevated Henderson as a star to the public.
B.J. PENN – The Penn vs. Rory MacDonald fight was billed as only third from the top on Saturday. But in Seattle, it was clear the last few days and even more so in the building the public viewed it as the real main event. The story of Penn’s quest to regain his lost standing as being one of the guys in the conversation when the subject of who is the greatest fighter of all-time seemed to strike a nerve big-time with an audience that has largely been watching him for years and realizes his hour glass is running low.
But this story didn’t have a happy ending. Penn’s mentality that martial arts is about the little man overcoming the big man is what he was taught. This is a guy who years back, actually asked for a match against then-heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski to prove that theory. While there is truth to it when the little man is well trained and the big man isn’t, in modern UFC competition he is simply too small to beat a top-tier welterweight. The sport and its talent pool has evolved too much since that point.
He was facing a big welterweight in MacDonald, who has talked of an eventual move to middleweight. Against a 23-year-old from Canada’s best MMA camp, Penn was probably giving away 20 pounds once the cage door locked. Between size, strength and youth, Penn put himself in an almost impossible position, and when it was over UFC president Dana White talked about hoping Penn would retire.
Penn was hospitalized after the fight, but according to his team, the injuries were not serious and were limited to some stitches. It was feared he had suffered fractured ribs from MacDonald’s strong second round body attacks.
Only Penn can answer what is next. He turns 34 on Thursday. He announced his retirement once before, after losing to Nick Diaz last year, and this was his first time back in the cage since. What was clear against Georges St-Pierre, Diaz and now MacDonald, is that Penn’s skill is not going to overcome the top welterweights. At 168 pounds in condition, he is on the small side for modern lightweights and there are featherweights today who cut from where he is.
It’s really impossible to judge how much Penn has left until he’s in his element against fighters of his own size. MMA fans are very forgiving of legends losing, particularly when the story can be told that Penn is finally back fighting guys his size. Even today, Penn is probably one of the five most popular fighters in the organization so it’s not like this loss should kill future marketability.
RORY MACDONALD – MacDonald’s win over Penn is the classic evolution in the fight game where the younger fighter on the way up makes his name beating the older legend.
MacDonald first opened eyes when he was a 20-year-old who won two rounds before losing in the third against Carlos Condit. He threw around an undersized Nate Diaz at one of UFC’s biggest shows ever, the debut in Toronto at Rogers Centre last year. That win gave him the unofficial label as Canada’s next major superstar.
There were two things notable about his win over Penn.
The first was his improvement in the stand-up game, particularly his body work. It was known that MacDonald was a strong guy who could muscle people around, but there were questions as to what would happen if he faced someone he couldn’t throw around. The crowd, into every nuance of this fight, exploded when MacDonald failed on an early takedown, but the jubilation was short lived when it was clear MacDonald could hold his own and more standing.
The second is the crowd in Seattle all week hated him. A lot of that was because of the love for Penn, but the amount of booing toward MacDonald was among the most in UFC history, every bit the level of a Josh Koscheck in his fights with St-Pierre. But the difference was, Koscheck was also working at antagonizing crowds for his reaction, and he had far more exposure going into the fights. MacDonald was getting it naturally. It’s the combination of his look and almost robotic reactions that bring about comparisons to a cold-hearted movie villain. That kind of reaction is good because it shows people know him, recognize him, and will have an interest in seeing him again.
But at 23, he’s ready to break out. But his situation is different than almost any current top star in UFC.
He made it clear after the fight that he would not fight St-Pierre, the champion in his division. He felt he would be back stabbing someone who taught him so much. He noted he didn’t want to have to leave the Tristar Gym, which would happen if he challenged the gym’s star fighter.
The problem with that position is UFC now has to avoid putting him in with not only St-Pierre, or anyone who they feel is in line for St-Pierre. It serves no purpose for MacDonald to knock off a promising contender because it eliminates a title match with no upside.
In that sense, MacDonald’s call out of Condit, even suggesting the fight on a proposed March show in Montreal, makes the most sense. Condit already had his title shot, and he’s the only opponent to have beaten the 14-1 native of Kelowna, British Columbia.
ALEXANDER GUSTAFSSON – From a physical standpoint, and because he’s 6-foot-5, some have talked about the intrigue of Gustafsson against light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. That fight came closer to reality as Gustafsson won what was billed as a top contenders fight.
Of course, history has shown that winning what is billed as a top contenders fight and getting a title shot in the UFC are often not the same thing.
The combination of his size and better conditioning gave Gustafsson a win over former champion Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, surviving a couple of early scares both standing and on the ground. Gustafsson is taller than Jones, which would be a first for the current champion since he’s been in UFC. But Jones still has the same huge reach edge he takes into every fight. Jones’ ridiculous 84-inch reach compares to 76 1/2 inches for Gustafsson. There are also still questions of Gustafsson against a mid-level wrestler, since Phil Jones handed him his only loss in 2010.
With Jones fighting next on April 27, provided he retains and isn’t injured, a title shot won’t be coming until probably the late summer or early fall. Plus, there is always the chance of a Jones vs. Anderson Silva match which could move a subsequent title defense back several more months. Gustafsson said he doesn’t want to wait that long to fight.
Gustafsson noted after the fight that he wasn’t hurt. Dana White threw out the idea of Gustafsson perhaps facing Lyoto Machida if Dan Henderson’s knee doesn’t fully recover, which would be a Feb. 23 date. Gustafsson, when asked about that, only said he would have to talk it over with his team.
Overall, it was a performance that likely put him on the map with a lot of fans, but he was not a show stealer.
DARON CRUICKSHANK – Cruickshank, who came off season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter, had his first fight since the finale tearing down the house with his knockout win over Henry Martinez. Aside from winning what was arguably the best fight on the show, Cruickshank seemed to have a handle of a lot of little things most fighters don’t.
The way he came to the cage, what he did before the match, and after, like the back flip after winning shows someone who thinks about his entire presentation. In MMA, things like that get you remembered. But they also mean little unless you can actually perform.
But when you combine it with a right high kick knockout that was one of the most spectacular of the year, coming off a brawl that had the crowd going crazy for two relatively unknown preliminary fighters, the “Detroit Superstar,” as he’s nicknamed, did as good as possible with his position on the show. But there are limitations in how much he could move his star needle.
He was in a preliminary match that few were anticipating ahead of time against a relatively unknown opponent. The fight was on FX, likely with a much smaller audience than FOX.
On the live The Ultimate Fighter, Cruickshank’s kickboxing game, particularly his strong body kicks, looked impressive in fighting to get into the house. But after controlling much of the action against James Mick in his first fight once getting in the house, he was knocked out by a knee on a takedown attempt.
Whether this was just a moment in time, a big reaction to a great fight and knockout, or the beginning of something a lot bigger is very much a question. But at least he’s now somebody people are asking questions about.
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