Last weekend’s cards in the two biggest organizations in North American MMA provided quite a few significant occurrences. The UFC’s 26th effort on its broadcast home of Fox and Bellator 191 on Spike TV delivered results that could have a big impact as we move forward.
UFC veteran Valérie Létourneau made her long-awaited debut in Bellator. Her fight against Kate Jackson was a fairly paint-by-the-numbers affair. Létourneau’s seasoning, physicality and work rate allowed her to control the center of the cage and dictate the pace of the fight on her way to a three-round decision nod over her British foe.
Given Bellator’s run of big names falling victim to upsets or lackluster showings in what were essentially showcase fights, the Bellator MMA brass had to be relieved to see a dominant, if somewhat unspectacular, performance from “Trouble” in her promotional debut and return to action in the cage.
The question now is what to do with the flyweight fighter. As the most established and well-known fighter in the division, it would seem that a title fight with champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane would be the best way to maximize Létourneau’s value. It would put the belt around her waist if she could unseat Macfarlane, or it would give Macfarlane the rub if she could convincingly defeat an established veteran who has competed at the highest levels in the biggest organization.
The move up a division is supposed to refresh Létourneau, but a move in weight doesn’t turn you into a new fighter. While Létourneau looked good against Jackson, she didn’t look great. So, what is best for Létourneau?
She should take at least one more fight before challenging for the title. The Canadian-born fighter hasn’t been active for the better part of a year, and the only thing worse for a veteran fighter than getting older is to sit on the sidelines. Naturally, Bellator wants to make the title fight, as it’s a no-lose situation, but Létourneau probably won’t get multiple shots at the belt. So when she gets her chance, she has to make the most of it. The fight with Jackson has not done enough to prepare her for that challenge.
In a very tough spot at UFC on Fox 26, Tim Elliott decided to pass on a fight when his late-notice replacement, Pietro Menga, missed weight. Fans, media and even some people in the WME-IMG organization probably weren’t too pleased with Elliott’s choice, but it’s not his job to please fans or save cards. Elliott’s job is to win fights. If he can’t win, then his job is to put on a performance that says he needs to be back in the cage as soon as possible.
By “performance,” I mean a show of skill and strategy that proves him worthy of fighting in the “Super Bowl” of combat sports. Too many times guys see the letters U-F-C and they lose all sense of what it means to be a professional athlete. What’s worse is their camp, their management and sometimes their family following suit. This leads to fighters shortening their careers and losing title shots because they did the company a favor or took care of the fans.
If a fighter wants to do the company a favor, then they should take a fight against a guy no one wants. If they want to take care of the fans, then talk to them, appear on podcasts and talk the fight game even when they don’t have a fight scheduled. Don’t take chances for short money. There is a time to do that — usually it’s when facing a name or getting a title shot — but that time is not when the opponent is lacking in name and upside. That’s when a fighter can essentially ruin their career if they lose.
Elliott made a tough decision in playing the long game, but he made the right choice. Think I’m wrong? Ask Ricardo Lamas about taking a replacement fight with Josh Emmett, an unranked guy who missed weight. Or ask Will Brooks about taking a fight with a low-profile, unranked fighter like Nik Lentz.
Rafael dos Anjos showed an all-round game, cardio, volume, physicality, durability, seasoning and savvy in out-hustling former UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler to a decision win.
Was it dominant? Yes. Was there some drama? Yes. Was it surprising? No. Not even close!
As dynamic, skilled, experienced, durable and powerful as Lawler may be, he has some consistently obvious technical flaws, including an inability to defend leg kicks. More importantly, Lawler has some consistently obvious strategic flaws, such as starting slow and giving away rounds. This isn’t new. These are problems Lawler has exhibited since day one, and he hasn’t really addressed them.
Melvin Manhoef almost ripped Lawler’s leg off with leg kicks. Johny Hendricks punctuated combinations with them. Even Pete Spratt landed them at will. So did Tiki Ghosn all those years ago at UFC 40. So, is it any shock that dos Anjos was so successful landing them? The former UFC lightweight champion took it to Lawler early, like Tyron Woodley did, and then took it to him in the middle rounds like Donald Cerrone and Carlos Condit did. This isn’t to slam Lawler. I’m a fan of his skill, experience, level of craft and the dramatic swings whenever he fights. Yet, we can’t ignore things we have seen him do or not do for the length of his career and then act shocked when a guy exploits them.
There were things Lawler needed to do and not do to win the fight. Go back and watch the fight closely and you’ll see that he didn’t really do any of them. Meanwhile, all the things he shouldn’t have done, he did.
Lawler is a good, name win for dos Anjos, but it would be so much more meaningful if we saw a better version of Lawler than the one we saw on Saturday night. Lawler is still a force in the division, to a degree, but he faced a multi-faceted, well-conditioned, world-class, durable, active, punishing former champion who was built to exploit the very real holes in his game.
Ricardo Lamas took a fight against Team Alpha Male fighter Josh Emmett. Emmett, on top of hailing from a camp against which Lamas was already 0-2, was the complete opposite of his originally scheduled opponent, former UFC featherweight champion José Aldo.
In Aldo, Lamas was set to meet a faded champion who had been stopped in two of his last three fights. While still elite, Aldo was clearly in decline and more vulnerable than he had been at any other point in his tenure with the WEC and UFC. In that fight, a win for Lamas would be a step forward and add to the argument that Lamas could be a potential title challenger. Meanwhile, a loss would have just reaffirmed what has been routinely known about him — that at a certain level he can’t compete. It wouldn’t have pushed him to the back of the line. Hell, it probably wouldn’t have even impacted his ranking. Aldo had only lost to two fighters, both of whom cut a swath through his division before putting coffin nails in against him. So the risk/reward on a rematch with Aldo was as good as a fighter could hope for, especially one in Lamas’ position.
Instead, though, Lamas ended up opposite Emmett, who wasn’t a high-profile fighter, wasn’t highly ranked, wasn’t a former champion and, most importantly, wasn’t a fighter on the decline. Emmett is a fighter with a solid wrestling background who trains at the camp for smaller fighters. He’s a top-end athlete who trains with two guys who beat Lamas. Emmett has dynamic striking ability and improving striking skills. He’s the worst kind of match-up for Lamas, who has a hard time with athleticism and an even harder time initiating offense at all, much less in a manner that doesn’t expose him to getting smoked by an opponent.
Remember when Max Holloway was all guts and heart by demanding Lamas exchange with him? No? That’s because Holloway outclassed Lamas. He baited Lamas into extended exchanges and promptly beat him to the punch in closing out the round and the fight. Holloway recognized that Lamas has an issue with physical attributes. He recognized that Lamas is a well-schooled and disciplined fighter who isn’t giving anyone free shots or putting himself in bad spots. You got to get Lamas to open up and give you something, the same way he gets guys to do for him. If you get Lamas to do this, then his limitations become very obvious.
Lamas gave Emmett something. The former title challenger got into a bit of an exchange with Emmett. He got greedy offensively against a faster, more explosive and harder-hitting opponent, and he paid for it. Now Emmett is considered a potential top-five fighter in the division, while Lamas is back to the drawing board and the end of the line after being stopped in devastating fashion by a guy no one had pegged as a potential title challenger or champion.
While I admire Lamas’ courage, his professionalism and willingness to perform, I have to ask the question: Was this a smart fight to take, especially after his opponent missed weight?