Justin Gaethje and Ray Sefo

Sunday Morning Cornerman: A Look Back at WSOF 29

In our World Series of Fighting 29 Fight Week Podcast pre-fight interview, Brian Foster said, “This is an unforgiving game, maybe the most unforgiving.” That quote summed up the night at WSOF 29 for several fighters. The crux of what Foster was saying is that in no other sport, not even in boxing, is a mistake so quickly and viciously exploited. Danny Mainus found that out. Cory Devela found that out. Even Foster found that out.

Justin Gaethje vs. Brian Foster

One of the most anticipated fights in WSOF history was over just about as quickly as it started. Justin Gaethje shut the left leg of Brian Foster down in the first round with vicious kicks. The fight had the expectation of going longer, but in retrospect, a short fight makes perfect sense.

Gaethje has an awareness of his professional mortality, and it seems to almost free him up to be as destructive as he is. Not performing at his best is more of a concern for the young star than being defeated. It’s that mentality that leads him to come forward and throw every strike with bad intentions.


Foster, for his part, had a solid game plan. He was not going to let Gaethje bully him. Foster exchanged with Gaethje while avoiding the big head shot. However, in MMA, fights are fought on many levels. While Foster protected the head well, it was the body, and specifically the legs, where the finish was found.

Technique talk: Gaethje knew Foster was going to be aggressive. He may have had an idea that if Foster was going to attack the head, then leg kick counters would be there. The real key for Gaethje was the accuracy of the leg kicks in attacking the knee. He hurt Foster early and was able to find the knee a few more times and absolutely chop it out from under the Oklahoma native. There is much more technique involved in what Gaethje is doing and it’s time he get recognized for it. He likes a gunfight, no doubt, but he puts vicious strikes on his opponents and seems to know where they are vulnerable and how to get there.

What’s next: In Gaethje’s case, the answer seems to be Jason High. They have a healthy respect for each other, even joking at the eight-man tournament about whether or not High would have won it. High is a very skilled opponent and will be the first UFC measuring-stick opponent for Gaethje. High fought and was defeated in two rounds against reigning UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. This fight may give us a better perspective of who Gaethje is across all promotions at lightweight.

First and foremost, we have to know what we have in the damage to Foster’s knee. Foster’s passion leads to a lot going into his fights emotionally, and while he typically can bounce back from a loss, this will be a tough one. If he is healthy, another fight would do him a lot of good on several fronts. If I’m Foster, I take to social media and call out either Luiz Firmino or Ozzy Dugulubgov, both of whom are WSOF top-five fighters who one would think would likely fight to determine who gets the winner of Gaethje-High. If Foster can’t get one of those two, then Mike Ricci or Caros Fodor might be acceptable substitutes. Foster should look to fight in September or October. That’s realistic, but July would be more ideal for him.

Josh Copeland vs. Mike Hayes

With the skid that Mike Hayes was on, it seemed as if this was a fight to showcase Josh Copeland, a local guy, and maybe increase his relevance in the heavyweight division. It did just that. While Copeland couldn’t get the finish — which is more a testament to the durability of Hayes than a condemnation of Copeland’s stand-up — Copeland did look good. The thing that was most impressive was how he was able to control his pace between rounds and ensure that if he had to go three rounds, he would have the gas for them. He didn’t seem as fresh as Hayes, especially in the second, but he was far more efficient and that made the difference in securing the decision victory.

Technique talk: Copeland actually fought a smaller man’s fight — hands low at times, switching stances and darting in and out to land straight jabs. While no one will confuse him for Dominick Cruz, it was a very effective strategy. The jab was really the story. It was used to both bloody Hayes and take him off rhythm. The mystery in this fight was Hayes, the clear fresher man in the second, not pressing a little more. That would have been the round to swing the fight. While Copeland had more gas than we may have thought at the end of the first, Hayes was clearly more spry. The problem was that he never turned it on.

What’s next: Heavyweight is a thin division. If we want to know what we have in Copeland, then a fight with Derrick Mehman would be a good way to find out. Mehman lost his last fight with Blagoy Ivanov, but it was a championship contest. Mehman would be a good test for Copeland and would certainly put him in more uncomfortable exchanges than Hayes did.

Durability and a willingness to fight will always get Hayes fights and put food on the table. However, at some point he has to win some of these fights or he’ll lose credibility as an opponent. This may be where we’re at with Hayes. His fighting spirit is great, but he has to pull the trigger and know when he is at an advantage.

Louis Taylor vs. Cory Devela

Well, to state the obvious, Louis Taylor looked impressive. He got Cory Devela’s neck with the speed of Mike Swick and choked him with the strength and viciousness of Jon “Bones” Jones up against that cage, complete with the Lyoto Machida drop. This is one of those fights where it was over so quick, it’s hard to assess what it means moving forward.

Technique talk: To say Devela walked into the choke is an understatement. He had designs on a takedown. When Taylor held his ground and made a move on the choke, Devela stuck with the takedown attempt too long. He didn’t clear his head, and his hands were still working the takedown. Taylor had the leverage once the choke was sunk, drove Devela to the cage, hit the light switch and dumped him.

What’s next: Here’s the problem. The champ of Taylor’s division, David Branch, has a middleweight title fight next month. Branch also has another belt, the light heavyweight championship, to defend. It may be the end of the year before Branch defends the 205-pound belt, so defending the belt at middleweight again could happen as late as next year. Taylor can’t wait that long for another fight. The fighter who Clifford Starks defeated before he got his title shot was Krasimir Mladenov, and Mladenov makes sense for Taylor as well. Even though the WSOF power rankings are new, something should come of beating the No. 2-ranked guy. Taylor takes the title path of Starks.

Devela took a loss. It was a quick one, too. Whether that’s because of an error or a skill disparity, it’s difficult to say. For that reason, the WSOF should give him third-ranked Vagab Vagabov. This way we can see what we have in both these young men.

Ian Heinisch vs. Tyler Vogel

Ian Heinisch came out like he was on fire. A hometown guy with a lot of support in the crowd, he must have been riding the adrenaline of the moment in the first frame. He was attacking Tyler Vogel on all levels with a full complement of strikes. Then the second round arrived. Heinisch seemed gassed, but he is a skilled kid from a great gym and he had enough with Vogel not establishing himself in the fight to find a way through the second and third rounds en route to a unanimous decision victory.

Technique talk: There were a lot of openings for Vogel to make this fight interesting, but he let Heinisch off the hook to some extent. However, credit goes to Heinisch for staying out of harm’s way in the second round and getting the takedown in the third. Even more impressive was how he got the takedown and stayed active to avoid the stand-up.

What’s next: Heinisch is young. He’s not ready for primetime just yet, but he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on. The fact that he found a path to victory when he was gassed out says a lot.

Vogel’s got a couple of pro knockouts, so it’s not time to give up on the kid just yet. He shouldn’t get called up either, but if this is the audition, he left a lot to be desired.

Trending up

Justin Gaethje. His stock continues to rise. Foster was supposed to be the guy who would really test him, but it was over in the first round. Now, Gaethje’s talking free agency. There might not be as much out there for him as he thinks, but he’s a high-level guy, that’s for sure.

Brandon Royval. Royval fought on the preliminary card and scored a big highlight-reel finish over Danny Mainus. He had some good personality in the post-fight celebration, too. Gotta love this kid.

WSOF Digital and Joey Varner. What the WSOF has done with its Facebook page and especially how the company is using Varner in that medium has been great. Varner is a star. Listen to him for two minutes and it’s obvious that he has knowledge and charisma. He is the most versatile guy the WSOF has. He literally has the same media skill set as Chael Sonnen. He’s just not as well known.

Trending down

Brian Foster. This is for only one reason: we don’t know what’s next. He had a lot put into this fight, and understandably so. However, how he moves forward will determine a lot. He could call out the rest of the WSOF top five, take them out and say the loss to Gaethje was a fluke and he deserves another shot. Or he could just move on. It’s totally on him. For now, he’s on the shelf and just lost in the first round. The talent is there, but will the body cooperate?

Cory Devela. To be the second-ranked middleweight, a fighter needs to do more than be on the wrong end of a quick exit.

Magomed Bibulatov. It’s not the flyweight champ’s fault that his fight with Tyson Nam was scrapped, but this would have been a nice spot to put on a good performance against a name opponent. Sometimes missed opportunities can have a bigger impact on a career than the fights you have — which, in Bibulatov’s case, turned out to be a tournament quarterfinal-round decision victory over Irmeson Oliveira at Akhmat Fight Show 15.

Not for nothing, but…

…Kenny Rice, you got to get the WSOF CEO’s name right.

…Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael dos Anjos might be a better fight than we think.

…sure was a lot of Justin Gonzales talk surrounding that fight. The kid brought a lot of fans out and then delivered with the first-round knockout finish of Patrick Davis.

…the media seems to hate on the WSOF a lot. Hopefully, it’s not because they’re in someone else’s pocket.