American Airlines paid to have its logo attached to the arena in Dallas. But on Saturday night the building might as well have been renamed Buckingham Palace. Like the royal residence in London, this venue deep in the heart of Texas treated visitors to a changing of the guard.
Two title fights. Two new champions.
The coronations of Rafael dos Anjos as king of the lightweights and Joanna Jedrzejczyk as strawweight queen were just the most prominent landscape alterations that took place at UFC 185. We also saw the emergence of a flyweight who could be as good as gold for a low-profile division, a heavyweight finally living up to the huge expectations once heaped upon him and a former champ rumbling with a hunger to reclaim what was taken away.
But it was a night that belonged to dos Anjos and Jedrzejczyk, who provided a double jolt of what it is to fight like a champion. This was the first time in the UFC’s 21-year history that two championship belts changed hands on the same night. It’s true that seven years ago, at UFC 92, Rashad Evans and Frank Mir captured brass-and-leather straps, but Mir’s symbolized merely an interim title. And two years earlier, when Anderson Silva and Sean Sherk were crowned at UFC 64, Sherk laid claim to a title that had been vacant. This was the real thing. Anthony Pettis and Carla Esparza had walked into the octagon as reigning champions. They walked out battered and beaten.
Dos Anjos and Jedrzejczyk didn’t simply win their fights. They dominated from start to finish. These were improbable results.
[daily_cut.mma]That was especially so in the main event. Pettis had been lightweight champ for a year and a half but had defended the belt only once. Yet with his flashy style and his ability to finish—he’d submitted his last two opponents, KO’d the two before that—the 28-year-old was a rising star, his face spashed across cereal boxes to sell "The Breakfast of Champions."
But dos Anjos was the one with all of the snap, crackle and pop. (I know, different cereals. But what do Wheaties do?) Right from the start, the challenger closed in on Pettis, landing a couple of body kicks before nailing the champ with a left hand to the face. Every time "Showtime" tried to create distance in order to lift the curtain on his creative arsenal of kicks and other strikes, the Brazilian kept close pursuit.
And when the takedown was there, dos Anjos took it. In all, he was 9-of-10 on his attempts to take the fight to the mat, and whenever Pettis’s back was feeling canvas, his face was feeling leather. The more the fight wore on, the more the challenger wore on the champ. By the fifth round, Pettis was telling his cornermen he couldn’t see out of his puffed-up right eye. When the final horn sounded, all three judges gave every round to dos Anjos.
No judges were needed in the other title bout, which was even more of a beatdown while it lasted. Jedrzejczyk, a six-time Muay Thai champion from Poland, put a big bull’s-eye on Esparza’s face and peppered away, especially in the second round, in which she landed 42 strikes (to the champ’s one) before referee Don Turnage mercifully intervened at 4:17.
Esparza was attempting to hold onto the belt she’d captured in December at the end of Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, a reality show charged with establishing a 115-pound weight class in the UFC. She’d cruised through on the strength of her relentless wrestling, but on this night her first challenger stood up to that test. Esparza tried to take the fight to the mat 17 times, and Jedrzejczyk stuffed the attempt all but once. And Esparza had no Plan B.
These stunning title bout upsets capped a night on which Alistair Overeem battered Roy Nelson with uncharacteristic patience, perhaps due to his having joined the training camp of Zen master Greg Jackson, and set up a fight long in the making with Junior dos Santos. That’s a path to a title fight.
Johny Hendricks blazed one of those, too, beating up the endearingly enduring Matt Brown. And Henry Cejudo, a 2008 Olympic freestyle wrestling gold medalist, was sharp on his feet as well as on the mat in handling former flyweight title challenger Chris Cariaso. He appears to be on his way to bigger things.
Where do the lightweight and strawweight divisions go from here?
Dos Anjos would seem to have a formidable challenge ahead. Khabib Nurmagomedov, the only man the Brazilian has lost to in his last 10 fights, has a May date with Donald Cerrone, and if the Russian wins we surely would see a rematch of the fight nearly a year ago, when Nurmagomedov took dos Anjos to the mat and was all over him for three rounds. If Cerrone wins in May, it’ll spur another rematch. "Cowboy" has won all seven fights since do Anjos beat him by decision in 2013.
As for the strawweights, it’s a brand new weight division with a lot of jockeying going on. And among those elbowing their way into position, the training camp focus has suddenly shifted from takedown defense to keeping the guard up. This changing of the guard has brought about a striking difference.