For at least the third time this year, a less-than-deserving, hand-picked challenger dethroned a seemingly dominant champion by knockout in the first round.
Luke Rockhold had yet to defend his title, but his impressive run and a previous win over Michael Bisping made the outcome seem all but certain. Bisping had just come off his third split-decision win in a row; I personally scored the Thales Leites fight against him, he barely squeaked by CB Dollaway, and he was actually knocked out by Anderson Silva before somehow winning an amazing decision. Then, Bisping promptly knocked Luke out with a newly-minted left hook.
Rafael Dos Anjos, who had been beating every other famous lightweight out there, was a 4 to 1 favorite over an Eddie Alvarez who was two split decisions removed from a thumping at the leg kicks of Cowboy Cerrone. Yet, Alvarez nullified his pressure brilliantly and cracked his chin with a simple right hand, following up with a barrage of punches to end the high-pressure lightweight king’s reign.
Amanda Nunes was a worthy contender, but she had one chance at victory, and that was getting an early stoppage; her cardio always fades in the later rounds. She did exactly that, with Miesha Tate falling victim to an opponent she picked over a more lucrative rematch with Holm or waiting for arch-nemesis Rousey’s return.
All of this, especially the Nunes fight, seemed eerily familiar on Saturday night when Tyron Woodley took his one good path to victory in what analysts Patrick Wyman and Connor Roebusch refer to as a “two true outcome fight”. Either Woodley would knock out Robbie early, or, like Nunes, he would gas in the championship rounds and Lawler would turn up the pace, likely finishing him en route to a third title defense. Lawler, like Tate, had made his late career resurgence an experiment in brinksmanship, frequently getting rocked, and saving his most vicious, Herculean effort for the last round, where he bested Johnny Hendricks, Rory Macdonald, and Carlos Condit. Woodley had been on the shelf since a lackluster split-decision win over Kelvin Gastelum, only two fights removed from being dismantled by erstwhile challenger Rory Macdonald. Like the short-notice Bisping fight or the RDA-Alvarez bout, Tyron’s title shot seemed more like a career achievement award than one based on recent performance. In actuality, like Meisha, Robbie chose this fight over a rematch with Carlos Condit or a bout with an objectively more deserving Stephen Thompson, and Tyron made sure that good deed did not go unpunished, walloping him with his one real threat, his bombing right hand, to end Lawler’s incredibly entertaining championship run.
What does it mean? In other words, what happens next? Well, Woodley would like to face Nick Diaz or Georges St. Pierre, brushing off the eager challenge of Stephen Thompson with the cool shade of a man who has been underestimated: Thompson said before this that he would rather fight Lawler? Well, he can still do that. I’m going to make this money in the meantime.
However, a championship fight with Diaz makes no sense, rankings wise or even ratings wise. Likely, more people would tune in to see Diaz vs. Lawler 2, even with no belt on the line. Diaz is without a win since 2011, and would likely find himself stifled by Woodley’s wrestling, killing what star power he still has. Woodley’s other callout does make some sense. Twitter user @Grabakahitman pointed out that GSP may be older now, but he can f*** up right-handed wrestle-boxers in his sleep. Woodley would probably be the most powerful puncher and athletic specimen he has ever faced, but from GSP’s perspective, the matchup still makes sense. If Rory and Jake Shields were able to diffuse Woodley, St. Pierre stands a good chance of it as well, with an intelligent gameplan and that piercing jab of his. Unlike a fight with Lawler, Woodley isn’t likely to put in an extended beatdown on the aging legend; it’s either a quick finish for the new champ or a five-round clinic for the old master. Woodley isn’t the draw Lawler was, either, but if St. Pierre is looking to get a belt back, he might be thinking that the path of least resistance could be through Woodley.
Knowing Woodley, he will be willing to wait for that fight, but much depends on how far the negotiations with UFC brass St. Pierre spoke of, have come along. If they aren’t, Woodley may not have the leverage to keep the belt on the shelf in a division rife with hot challengers. One can’t blame him for calling out bigger money fights, but the most likely scenario is still facing Stephen Thompson next. Thompson would probably be the favorite in that bout, as his defensive wrestling has been perfect in his seven-fight run and his distance striking style is more likely to have an answer for Woodley’s explosive blitzes. Or, Woodley could continue to ignore the doubters and defend his belt with all violence.
In the co-main, a back-and-forth scrap saw the clinch knees and Mona Lisa calm of Karolina Kowalkiawicz make me learn how to spell another difficult Polish last name, or at least google it repeatedly. “Thug” Rose Namajunas took her to the clinch over and over in the second round looking for another takedown like the one she got to seal round 1, but Karolina proved impossible to off-balance, and landed gut-crumpling knees and sharp elbows to wind the American and win a close but clear decision, even dropping Namajunas in the third and showing off some smooth ground-and-pound. Hopefully, the all-Polish showdown between Karolina and Joanna actually takes place in Poland; it seems too great a chance to continue cracking open a talent-rich market to pass up. Namajunas, at 24, will be back; she might have won this one if she had avoided the clinch and stuck to range striking, which she was winning. Perhaps a few more fights before facing off with Joanna Champion is a blessing in disguise for the female phenom; she wouldn’t be favored now, but Namajunas picks this fight thing up pretty fast, minus some questionable decision-making. Rose also got some loud cheers at the sports bar I was at, so she has some star potential too. Hopefully, the new owners take the chance to build her up further.
Matt Brown was the victim of a trap fight of sorts, pitting his come-forward, defensively porous style against an unranked Jake Ellenberger who still has all the power and seems to be rediscovering how to throw it. A huge knockdown from Ellenberger early saw Matt Brown recover and begin to put on the pressure, only to find himself crumpled by a body kick that took the air, and fight, clean out of him. Brown has any number of entertaining matchups at welterweight, such as Albert Tumenov or the loser of Cowboy-Story, but his chance of being a contender seem done. Ellenberger gets to hang around a while longer with this win, perhaps as a gate-keeper to the upper echelon.
Perhaps the best tangential outcome of the Woodley-Lawler fight is that it makes certain Conor McGregor won’t continue pursuing career suicide at welterweight. Lawler was the medium draw and stone-cold killer we had a morbid fascination seeing him pitted against. Now, Eddie Alvarez is probably a bigger fight and a better matchup for either Conor or Nate Diaz with a win at UFC 202, but that’s another discussion.
Perhaps the most disappointing loss at UFC 201 wasn’t even on fight night. Justin Scoggins lost out to his weight cut, his body refusing to cooperate. Not only does he miss his chance to crack the challenger’s table at flyweight, but he likely changes weight classes entirely, moving up to bantamweight, where the contenders are a little denser and the air a little thicker. Like John Lineker, he will need to start his contender journey over again. Scoggins-McCall had all the makings of a technically brilliant fight, as well as a battle of great hair against a great mustache, Luke Skywalker against Doc Halliday. Hopefully, Scoggins finds a more forgiving weight cut at bantamweight and regains his form of late.