Super Bowl weekend is as big as it gets on the American sports landscape and the UFC has historically put together stacked shows of their own.
This year, with the NFL's grand showcase just across the river in New York, the biggest promotion in mixed marital arts set up shop in Newark for UFC 169. The card was highlighted with a pair of title tilts which featured two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport as they put their respective straps on the line in high-profile bouts.
Long-reigning featherweight king Jose Aldo stepped back into action against surging contender Ricardo Lamas in the co-main event, while his Nova Uniao teammate and recently minted undisputed bantamweight champion Renan Barao squared off with former WEC posterboy Urijah Faber in the showcase fight on the card.
The two fighters in the main event originally met back in July of 2012 with the interim bantamweight title on the line and it was Barao who walked away with the unanimous decision victory. The loss to the Brazilian phenom lit a fire inside the Team Alpha Male leader and he went on a tear in 2013, racking up four consecutive wins, three of which came by way of the finish.
That impressive run put Faber within reach of yet another title opportunity and when champion Dominick Cruz pulled out due to injury, the UFC tapped the perennial contender to step in. On Saturday night, "The California Kid" made his fifth bid in four years to get his hands on 12-pounds of UFC gold but it wasn't in the cards for the title challenger.
Barao caught Faber with a stiff right hand that jolted the surging contender and put him on the mat. While Faber was able to get back to his feet, he was still clearly dazed, and a big overhand right from the champion returned him to the canvas. Despite Faber attempting to cover up from a barrage of Barao hammerfists, referee Herb Dean had seen enough and called waived off the fight.
With the victory, Barao made his third consecutive title defense but his first as the undisputed champion of the bantamweight division.
Where the main event showcased one of the pound-for-pound greats, the penultimate bout featured the most dominant featherweight in UFC history in Aldo. The 145-pound striking machine is largely recognized as one of the greatest fighters on the planet and his 16-fight winning streak coming in to UFC 169 is solid proof to back up that notion.
While Lamas hasn't racked up the numbers of his Brazilian counterpart, his place at the top of the featherweight division is undeniable. The Cuban/American has won all four of his showings since dropping down to 145-pounds and on Saturday night, he got the opportunity he had been campaigning over a year to get.
Once the action got underway Aldo once again showed why he's considered one of the pound-for-pound best in the sport. He used his speed and accuracy to pick Lamas apart and cruise to a unanimous decision victory.
In addition to the chaotic action at the top of the card, the majority of the fights that rounded out the bill on Saturday night brought the ruckus. The leather was flying around the Prudential Center with reckless abandon as fighters from all corners of the roster looked to make a statement.
Let's take a look at the good, bad and strange from UFC 169.
With Georges St-Pierre retired and Anderson Silva's comeback from a gruesome leg break questionable, the world of mixed martial arts belongs to Jose Aldo. The 27-year-old Brazilian wrecking machine has dominated the featherweight division for the better part of the past five years and is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.
While there are plenty of things on Aldo's list of attributes to tout, his patience and efficiency are flourishing, and both were on display in a big way on Saturday night against Ricardo Lamas. There is no doubt the featherweight king's speed gives him an incredible advantage every time he steps into the Octagon, but his increasing ability to pick the spots he wants to unload is bringing his striking game to a place where it is almost flawless.
Against Lamas on Saturday night, he strung together brutal combinations and then backed off and regrouped. This allowed him to keep his gas tank in check all the way through the 25-minute affair. Although he did not get the finish, he beat Lamas handily and picked up his 17th consecutive victory.
The biggest question for Aldo will be what comes next. While there are a handful of ready-made contenders waiting in his division, Lamas was the last of the batch who had yet to face him. There is plenty of talk of Aldo vacating the 145-pound strap and jumping up to lightweight, but there has been no clear commitment from the featherweight king in that regard.
Another fighter high up in the pound-for-pound talk is Aldo's friend and teammate Renan Barao who put on another stellar performance on Saturday night. "The Baron" once again defeated Urijah Faber, only this time around, the victory came in a much more definitive fashion. Barao was able to find his mark early and once he had the Team Alpha Male leader hurt, he swarmed in and pounded out the finish.
With his victory over Faber—who has proven to be heads and shoulders above the rest of the pack at 135-pounds—there may not be a legitimate challenge waiting for Barao. While Dominick Cruz was originally slated to face the Nova Uniao product until an injury forced him out of the matchup, it is borderline crazy to think the Team Alliance fighter could come back from a two-year layoff and compete with Barao. And this isn't a knock to Cruz's talents, it's just the truth of the situation.
Using Faber as the barometer of the situation, it should be clear what type of situation Cruz would be walking into. "The California Kid" steamrolled a batch of tough customers in 2013 and Barao did not even need a full round to get the job done against Faber. When Cruz finally does become healthy, the UFC would be wise to make him take a tune up fight before even considering to contest Barao's reign.
Until then...it's a Nova Uniao world and Barao and Aldo are masters of their domain.
Ali Bagautinov has championship ambitions and he took a big step closer to earning a title opportunity at UFC 169. The Dagestani worked an effective game plan as he took the fight to John Lineker throughout the course of the 15-minute affair. Bagautinov won the exchanges when the fight was standing and was able to put Lineker on the mat when he chose to switch up the pace in route the unanimous decision victory.
With the win, the Jackson's MMA fighter moves to a perfect 3-0 under the UFC banner and boosts his running total to 11 conscecutive successful showings. With the current state of the flyweight division and the lack of depth in where contenders are concerned, Bagautinov put himself in a great position to be considered for a title shot with his victory over Lineker.
There was nothing remotely technical in the fight between Abel Trujillo and Jamie Varner, but it was pure awesomeness for as long as it lasted. Both fighters were throwing fire with the worst intentions and each had the other staggered on numerous occasions. Toward the end of the first round the momentum appeared to be swinging in Varner's direction as he clipped the Blackzilians fighter with a heavy left hand.
Trujillo came out aggressive to start the second round but Varner continued to get the better of the rapid-fire exchanges. The former WEC lightweight champion started to pile up the punishment, and appeared to have Trujillo on the ropes until "Killa" lived up to his nickname and unleashed a right hand that starched Varner cold.
After the punch landed there was no need for any follow up shots as the Arizona laid face-down on the canvas. With the knockout, Trujillo picked up his second consecutive victory and made sure fans will tune in to watch the next time he fights.
*** The road to the upper-tier of the flyweight division is wide open and Chris Cariaso is steadily making traction toward the top. The Californian snapped a two-fight skid in his last outing against Iliarde Santos back in October, and took another stride in the right direction by defeating Danny Martinez via unanimous decision on Saturday night. While the 32-year-old is still a few steps away from getting a title opportunity, back-to-back victories will keep him moving up the rankings.
*** Clint Hester moved to a perfect 3-0 under the UFC banner as he defeated Andy Enz on the preliminary portion of the card. Enz got off to a quick start, but the Georgia native's power turned the tide as he battered the MMA Lab fighter with heavy shots that put his opponent on the mat on multiple occasions. With the win, Hester has now notched six consecutive victories and continues to look impressive in the process.
*** Neil Magny needed a win in the worst way coming into UFC 169. Fortunately for the TUF alum, not only did he defeat Gasan Umalatov via unanimous decision, but put on the most impressive performance of his career in the process. Magny used his length and improved striking to keep the Russian on his heels throughout the three-round affair as he put the brakes on a two-fight skid.
Frank Mir has hovered around the top of the heavyweight division for the better part of the past decade, but those days appear to have come to an end. Heading into his bout against Alistair Overeem on Saturday night, the former two-time heavyweight champion had dropped three consecutive fights and was desperately in need of a victory against the former Strikeforce heavyweight champion.
Unfortunately for Mir, nothing went his way when the cage door closed as "The Reem" earned a lopsided unanimous decision victory. The loss—which is the fourth consecutive for Mir—will certainly put him in a dubious position where his career is concerned. Where four straight defeats would typically spell unemployment for most UFC fighters, Mir has been a staple of the organization during the Zuffa era.
It would seem highly unlikely Mir would receive his walking papers from Dana White, but a stern talk about his fighting future is certainly in order.
Missed opportunity is starting to become the tag line for John Lineker. The powerful Brazilian is undoubtedly one of the most talented fighters in the 125-pound weight class, but his inability to actually make the weight limit has become the more highlighted than his actual in-cage performances.
In four of his six showings under the UFC banner, Lineker has failed to hit the mark when he initially stepped on the scale. Despite coming in a pound heavy at Friday's weigh-in, Lineker was able to utilize the additional hour provided to shave the final pound and make the official limit. That said, the 24-year-old coming in heavy once again, put a negative spin on the fight with Bagautinov before the bout ever got under way.
As for the fight itself, Lineker was a step behind the Dagestani throughout the three-round tilt. He was never able to find a home for his signature power and was pretty much at the mercy of Bagautinov for the duration of the fight. While losing to a tough opponent like Bagautinov is nothing to hang his head over, failure to capitalize on the opportunities he's had is certainly cause for concern.
Had Lineker come in on weight for either of his two previous showings before Saturday night, he very well could have earned a title opportunity. But with his loss to Bagautinov at UFC 169, and continued weight troubles still plaguing him, it will be a tough road to travel if Lineker ever hopes to get a shot at the flyweight crown.
Outside of a questionable stoppage in the main event where referee Herb Dean could not see the thumbs up Urijah Faber was throwing up as Renan Barao was pounding away on the side of his head, and John Lineker getting pre-fight manicure at the check-in circle, there weren't too many strange occurrences to report at UFC 169.
There were no farting cameramen or digestive mishaps by a heavy-handed middleweight, which made the action on Saturday night pretty much as straight up as it gets. Then again there was Alan Patrick.
Everything about the enthusiastic lightweight seems strange. From pulling off over-excited back flips at the weigh-ins to dancing around confidently after a lackluster performance where the decision most likely should not have gone his way; strange seems to be Patrick's thing.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.
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