And the winner is ...
Not the UFC's light heavyweight division, as a fearsome contender did not emerge from the main event of UFC 161 on Saturday night at MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
The heavyweight division made out OK, though, since it'll probably soon be fortified by the addition of one of the most luminous stars of mixed martial arts. Jon Jones has climbed most all of the mountains he can climb in the 205-pound division. If he gets past Alexander Gustaffson come September, who would be standing between "Bones" and the big boys?
Not Rashad Evans or Dan Henderson, that's for certain. The two fought a close three rounds in the main bout -- or at least the sum of its parts was a close fight, with Henderson the clear winner of the first round, Evans unquestionably the man in the third, and the middle five minutes being all that separated them. And -- once again -- the winner is ...
Evans. By very little. And with not the kind of authority that is likely to have fans clamoring for a rematch with Jones, who easily handled his former friend and teammate in their title fight a little over a year ago.
The good news for Evans (18-3-1) is simply that he's back. He's back in the win column after dropping his previous two bouts, including a woeful performance against Antônio Rogerio Nogueira. He had alluded afterward to an existential crisis -- questioning his own motivation to fight. So it helped to see Evans back as "Suga Rashad," the fleet, fearless fighter ready and willing to mix it up. He didn't get a whole lot done against Henderson, but he was the aggressor in all three rounds.
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That forward movement nearly cost Evans in the first round when he walked into a jab that put him on the canvas. "I didn't know who hit me," he said afterward. "I thought the referee kicked me or something. I didn't know what happened. I was asking my corner. I said, 'Who hit me? Who hit me? Who hit me?' They said, 'He caught you with a punch.' I said. 'No [expletive]."
Evans escaped, taking a few more shots as he scrambled out of harm's way. He looked no worse for the wear, and as the fight wore on, Rashad had more energy left than his 42-year-old opponent. In the third round, he expended much of what remained in him. "After getting dropped in the first round, I knew I had the second," Evans said. "But I knew I had to come out strong in the third."
Henderson (29-10) saw the fight differently, saying he felt he had the first two rounds "in the bag." As a consequence, he did not fight with urgency in the third. "There's nobody to blame but myself," he said. "That third round, I slowed down. I should have got a bit more active."
OK, so the fighters agree on the first and third rounds. What about that close second round?
Early on in the five minutes, Evans took Henderson to the canvas. "Hendo" popped up to his feet so quickly, though, that the official Fight Metric stats did not credit Rashad with a takedown. (He failed on his other two tries in the round, and was 0-for-8 in the fight.) Perhaps the cageside judges marked down something positive for Evans there. And maybe they saw a mid-round exchange on the feet going his way, too, as Rashad landed a few good punches early but then took a couple from Henderson before the fighters separated. Beyond that, there was a lot of stalking and not much landing in what turned out to be the decisive round. There were a few boos at the verdict, but that's because Henderson is loved by the fans. There was no legitimate stink to be made, no matter how the round was scored.
For Henderson, it was a second straight split-decision loss. But he said afterward that he found this one easier to swallow than his February defeat to Lyoto Machida. "Rashad's a tough guy," he said. "He stood there. He fought me. He did a great job tonight, I can't say that about the last guy I fought."
Forget the last guy. Who's next? Will there even be a "next?" Henderson gave no indication that he's hanging up the gloves. But what's been keeping him around, he's said, is a goal of winning a UFC belt. A man in his 40s riding a losing streak is not exactly within grasp of a title shot.
But in the light heavy class, who other than the big Swede is lurking?
Notes from the undercard
Ruler of the Country: What Stipe Miocic did to Roy Nelson in the co-main event is what many unknowing observers, upon seeing the grizzly, rotund, mulleted heavyweight in the cage, probably envision every opponent doing to him. On most nights, we see none of it before the lights go out on another knockout victim, courtesy of Nelson's looping right hand.
Miocic (10-1), coming off his only career loss, tamed that big punch not by fearing it but by fending it off when it came his way and relentlessly getting to Nelson before Nelson could get to him. In a lopsided unanimous decision, Miocic landed more than four times as many significant strikes as Roy. He invaded "Big Country," looted him, burned his villages, and subjugated his citizenry.
One would think Dana White would have been smiling at the fate of Nelson (19-8), who is not exactly a friend. But the UFC president seemed to come away with respect for Roy. He mentioned at the post-fight press conference that Nelson had set a UFC record: Most significant strikes absorbed without being KO'd. Miocic clipped him 437 times, some of them staggering punches. But like a Weeble, Nelson wobbled but did not fall down.
Talk the talk: The less said about Ryan Jimmo's hum-drum unanimous-decision win over Igor Pokrajac, the better. But let's allow Jimmo to have his say. "I was coming off a loss, I fought conservatively," he said after outstriking the Croatian in what was not so striking of a bout. "I came to fight. I won the fight, But I'm so sorry to all the fans and the UFC brass for putting on not such a great fight."
As he was speaking, the crowd began cheering. Lest Jimmo believe the fans were giving him his due for his effort and humility, he was told that there was a fight in the crowd. He smiled and said, "Probably more exciting than that one, huh?"
Words fail to describe: In trying to describe the fight, the one word that comes to mind may seem ludicrous to use in this case. Would grammarian MMA fans look unkindly on the use of the term "manhandling" to describe what Alexis Davis did to Rosi Sexton?
It's not that Davis mauled Sexton over the course of her unanimous-decision victory. But she used her strength and jiu-jitsu know-how to seize controlling positions throughout the three rounds. Even when she was on the bottom, Davis was a threat. And yet Sexton, the smaller woman, never stopped going at her.
That's what friends are for: The first thing Pat Barry did when he stepped into the octagon was wave to the crowd in every direction. The second thing he did was shake the hand of Shawn Jordan, hug him, whisper something in his ear and share a laugh. With his opponent. This was enough to convince me I was going to love what followed, because both fighters sure intended to.
As it turned out, we didn't see the two friends from down in bayou country tussle for long. A little less than a minute in, Jordan caught Barry with a head-snapping uppercut, then another, then floored him with another couple of shots and followed with a quick dozen left hands to finish the job at 59 seconds.
Then the 248-pounder, a former LSU fullback, did a graceful backflip, and the two heavyweights hugged once again. Jordan was asked whether it was tough to punch his good friend. "You know what? Everybody else has normal jobs, go to work every day," he said. "He's a friend, and this is our job. We had to come and go to work."