Dominick Cruz (Joe Harrington/Sherdog)

Sunday Morning Cornerman: A Look Back at WSOF 27 and UFC Fight Night 81

It was a busy weekend in the MMA world. The UFC and the World Series of Fighting held events that allowed a number of names to emerge with big wins. A champion who never actually lost his crown regained the throne, a late replacement opened eyes and plenty of names stepped into the spotlight.

Let’s examine these happenings and all the other relevant combat sports of the weekend.

Dominick Cruz vs. T.J. Dillashaw

The real beauty of the UFC bantamweight title fight between champion Dillashaw and challenger Cruz was that it was a microcosm of these two fighters. Cruz was very smooth and elusive, finding shots and angles to hit Dillashaw. Dillashaw was very deliberate in his attacks, telegraphing a lot of them. Much like in the pre-fight hype, when Dillashaw’s shots landed, they were more significant. However, there were fewer of them. It was a great fight, and while either guy could make a case that they won, it still means the other thinks he was robbed.


There’s a collective psyche that may have led media, fans and maybe even judges to think that this was a clear-cut Cruz victory. Cruz fought better than we expected him to, first with Dillashaw being his opponent but second, and possibly more importantly, after the long layoffs he has had. On the flipside, Dillashaw fought a little worse than we expected. That doesn’t mean Dillashaw didn’t win the fight. It means that the perception of Cruz overachieving and Dillashaw underachieving gave us our view of the fight. Dillashaw chasing and missing is what we will remember.

Technique talk: Cruz’s movement was the story. He stayed largely out of harm’s way and mixed in timely takedowns. The real surprise, though, was that he was able to maintain a pace solid enough to keep Dillashaw at bay.

What’s next: For Cruz, it’s Urijah Faber. They hate each other and we love how much they hate each other. It’s the fight that we should have gotten a long time ago. It keeps the very popular Faber more relevant and stands as his last shot at elusive UFC gold.

It’s a tough one for Dillashaw. There are some young guns — Aljamain Sterling, Thomas Almeida, Michael McDonald and Raphael Assuncao — that the UFC may not be looking to derail right now. In that group, I’ll take Assuncao. He hasn’t fought in a while because of injury, so he doesn’t have the juice of the other three.

Eddie Alvarez vs. Anthony Pettis

There was a time when Pettis was thought to be the most exciting fighter with the brightest future. It’s not time to close the book on Pettis yet, but the scouting report on him is clear. If he doesn’t do something to change it, he won’t be finding many wins at the top of the division.

Much like Firmino did against Fodor, Alvarez took everything away from Pettis that was dynamic by taking away the space to create it. In doing so, Alvarez showed real growth as a fighter. While some may have looked at this fight as a grind or as some kind of selling out to the kind of fighter Alvarez typically is, it’s simply a case where he assessed his opponent, came in with a great game plan and executed it. It may not be the type of thing that sells pay-per-views, but it’s how you win belts.

Technique talk: The thing that separated Alvarez in this fight from let’s say Benson Henderson, who has two losses against Pettis, is the space. Not to sound like a broken record, but not giving Pettis room to strike and not giving him the ability to work off his back, the two places where he excels, made all the difference.

What’s next: Well, Alvarez is the No. 1 contender to a belt that is being contended next by the featherweight champion, Conor McGregor. So, he waits. Fans don’t like to hear this, but it makes sense. The title defense for Rafael dos Anjos against McGregor is in March, which means the winner could be ready to go by June or July. No matter who the winner is, Alvarez should clash with dos Anjos in his next fight.

Pettis needs to prove he can win the kind of fight he keeps losing. When fully ready to go, Khabib Nurmagomedov should be his next opponent. It will force Pettis to work that much harder on his wrestling in preparation, and a win keeps him relevant at the top of the division.

Travis Browne vs. Matt Mitrione

It was difficult to love this fight on a lot of levels, but it’s relevant to talk about the fight for a number of reasons.

First, let’s start with the eye pokes. They changed the course of the fight. There’s no two ways about it. Mitrione, whose game plan wasn’t great to begin with, was severely affected by the pokes.

Browne was the bigger man who was doing a good job of keeping space to throw big hands with straightforward kicks, but Mitrione didn’t have an effective plan for working around the strikes. He had moments, but not enough. We know there are holes in Browne’s game because Arlovski found them. Mitrione didn’t.

OK, back to the pokes. The two things in the fight game that fighters don’t get nearly enough flak for are eye pokes and training-camp injuries. Both are the responsibility of the fighter. If you can’t measure your preparation to the extent that you aren’t missing huge chunks of your career sitting out fights, then maybe your reach exceeds your grasp in terms of who you are supposed to be. Also, if we can’t find a way to penalize the guys who are committing these pokes, then they will continue to do it. It is a fight changer. The only way to stop it is to penalize fighters. If that means taking a point on the second one, so be it.

Technique talk: Browne is just the cleaner striker. Mitrione has big power, but he sometimes chases knockouts and doesn’t let them come to him through patient, organic striking. The power is there, but the technique might protect him better and not make every fight a “him or me” situation.

It might be time for Browne and Alistair Overeem to mix it up again. This lets us know where both fighters stand now and can maybe set up the next year or so of heavyweight fights. Stipe Miocic could be thrown in here too, but he’d be crazy not to wait out a title shot.

Mitrione should mix it up with Mark Hunt. He needs to face someone who is going to force him to either clean up the striking or get blasted all night.

Luiz Firmino vs. Caros Fodor

Going into this World Series of Fighting 27 headlining contest, people didn’t know what to think about the late change in which Mike Ricci was out due to injury and Firmino was installed as his replacement.

Firmino had a history fighting some big names, but we had been waiting for Fodor for some time and he entered the promotion with a lot of promise. Do a little research, though, and you’ll realize that Firmino is legit and just hasn’t found his level yet, promotion-wise. Well, this may be it. He came in with a solid game plan and stuck to it. Fodor was finding a home on his feet for strikes, so Firmino did what had to be done. He closed the distance and neutralized Fodor’s effectiveness.

In doing so, Firmino established himself as a real threat at 155 pounds. He was billed on the telecast as the second-ranked fighter in the promotion. That’s a change to the rankings, which initially had Jason High at No. 2. Firmino showed himself well on short notice and added even more depth to the talent-rich lightweight division for the World Series of Fighting.

Technique talk: The fence work from Firmino was excellent. He controlled his opponent and minimized what Fodor’s options were. It doesn’t get the crowd super excited, but this sport is about getting wins. You have to respect Firmino for understanding Fodor’s weakness and countering it effectively.

What’s next: For Firmino, it’s clear. He’s at the top of the division, so he should face the aforementioned High or Ricci. High would be the prime choice, although it feels a little like Firmino’s jumping the line. That’s what happens when the promotion ranks him second and he wins. High vs. Firmino and João Zeferino against Ozzy Dugulubgov works. That way we get WSOF lightweight champion Justin Gaethje’s next three opponents locked down.

Meanwhile, let’s just make the Ricci fight happen for Fodor. Fodor didn’t win, but the WSOF still needs to know what it has in this kid. Ricci will stand with him. We can see what Fodor can do with slightly more favorable terms, and we can see if Ricci belongs in the top five.

Shamil Gamzatov vs. Teddy Holder

When Holder was asked about Gamzatov, he said he really didn’t know too much about him. That’s never a good sign. It was indicative of things to come. Gamzatov landed a huge right hand that dropped the hometown fighter. The Russian threw a couple of academic strikes in to make certain he had the finish.

Now, the controversy — the eye poke. There was an awkward moment in the fight when Holder was poked and both fighters didn’t know if they were stopping or going. Here’s a little bit of a contrarian take on this: if it gets weird like that, it is the referee’s responsibility to step in and restart the fighters from equal footing. Technically, the official may not have believed there was a foul, but the confusion disrupts the timing of a fight and then we have something like we had between Gamzatov and Holder. This isn’t to take anything away from Gamzatov, because that right hand was as hard as a hammer and as quick as the sickle and therefore deserves props, but it was too close to the awkwardness to not think it wasn’t helped by it.

Technique talk: Early, the short counter hook looked as if it may be the thing that could find a home and rock Holder. In the end, it was the overhand right. Holder likes to keep the jab hand — his left — low. He couldn’t get it up in time on this night.

What’s next: Gamzatov is in the same position Holder was in after Holder knocked out UFC veteran Thiago Silva. A high-profile win is a big shot in the arm to a career. Holder’s win led to a shot at the title. That’s probably not what comes next for Gamzatov. The likely next opponent for David Branch at 205 pounds is Vinny Magalhães. Gamzatov, meanwhile, is probably looking at Kelvin Tiller or Jake Heun. Either fight is intriguing.

Holder should face the guy that doesn’t fight Gamzatov. This fight will determine if Holder still belongs in the top five and deliver some clarity as to whether the Gamzatov fight was a fluke. Holder is a solid guy and the top five is where he belongs, but whether it’s to be the keeper of the gate or to go after the title again remains to be seen.

Jaleel Willis vs. Chauncey Foxworth

This fight is of note because it brought high expectations. It didn’t reach them, but it’s easy to understand why.

This was a big spot for these two gentlemen. While it’s important to make a big impression, you have to dance with the girl that brought you. For Willis, this was the ground game, and he dominated it. The telecast was a little misleading in proclaiming him as some kind of knockout artist, as most of his finishes came on the ground. Willis was at a disadvantage in the stand-up to Foxworth and conducted the fight accordingly.

Technique talk: While it would have been nice to see a much more dynamic Willis put on a show, Foxworth was game. His back pocket had a high kick that could end the night for Willis. So, as much as I hate to say a fighter did what he had to do, that’s how it went down. Respect Willis for that.

What’s next: First, a full-time gig for Willis with the WSOF. He’s not ready for the top of the division, obviously, but the question becomes whether he draws a veteran fighter next or if another prospect makes sense. A fight with Danny Davis, Jr., would be interesting on the veteran side. Or there’s Khabib Nurmagomedov’s brother, Abubakar, on the prospect side.

Foxworth isn’t necessarily ready for the big show yet. He’s got a ton of talent and it’ll be interesting to watch him develop, but that can’t be accomplished in the WSOF. He needs to fight three times a year, but he won’t do that at this level and with this promotion.

Trending up

Bryce Mitchell. He looked good in his 62-second finish of Jorge Medina on the WSOF 27 undercard. A super-quick, super-slick finish and an interview that went viral. This kid is going places.

Wade Johnson and Justin Hartley. These two guys put on a really good fight in a big spot en route to a split decision nod in Johnson’s favor. If the WSOF were giving performance bonuses, this would have been “Fight of the Night” for sure.

Ed Herman. Herman had been alternating wins and losses for a couple of years now, but his fight with Tim Boetsch was big. It showed he could carry his power up a weight class, albeit against a guy who toils in both divisions as well, but Herman did it.

Trending down

Anthony Pettis. Sometimes two straight losses is just a case where a fighter ran into two guys who were better than him. Sometimes, though, two straight losses means the fighter has been exposed. For Pettis, it might be the latter.

Tim Boetsch. This is three losses in a row. It’s been against Thales Leites, Dan Henderson and Ed Herman — not exactly bums — but sometimes three in a row is three in a row no matter how you spin it.

Teddy Holder. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in suffering losses to the champ and a fighter who may be fighting for the belt soon. However, Holder is falling out of the top five. He needs to get a victory over one of these guys soon.

Not for nothing, but…

…the WSOF has been putting on some pretty good shows and not getting a ton of credit for it.

…someday, Fedor Emelianenko and Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino will look back on the way they negotiated and regret the fact that they lost prime years over money they would have ultimately made had they just went to the UFC and won.

…the first guy that compliments Conor McGregor in the pre-fight hype is going to be the guy that wipes away the lack-of-respect card that McGregor plays all the time.