Steven Marrocco
Monday March 28th, 2011

Things look so clear now in the rear-view mirror.

Phil Davis was supposed to cement his reputation as the next big thing in the light heavyweight division. Instead, we saw a pretty talented guy who, after being pressed into a shorter-notice fight, punched the clock with a workmanlike decision against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.

The incredible shrinking man Anthony Johnson and Dan Hardy were supposed to concuss each other with great relish for 15 minutes to the exclusion of jiu-jitsu and wrestling. Instead, Johnson played it safe on the mat and smothered the Brit on the way to a scorecard win.

There was no decision for Chan Sung Jung and Leonard Garcia, who met one year ago in one of the most electrifying fights since lighter-weighted fighters leaped into public consciousness with the WEC. Still, we wanted something of a replica of that fight and were consoled -- quite happily -- with Jung's twister submission victory in the bottom of the second frame.

So UFC Fight Night 24 fell short of expectations. But it's obvious they were a little out of whack to begin with.

Davis' fight Saturday was his fifth in 13 months. He was supposed to fight Matt Hamill in April at UFC 129, a matchup considered to be his entry point into the upper tier of the 205-pound division. He swapped that out for a fight one month earlier against the most dangerous and accomplished opponent he'd yet faced in Nogueira, who'd been training to meet beleaguered former champ Tito Ortiz.

Nobody forced Davis to do this, mind you. He wanted the experience. The UFC was more than happy to give it to him with the wrestling pedigree he brought to the Octagon, and he showed flashes of brilliance in a very short time frame. But he was made into a future contender long before he proved his worth against top talent, and all because a quick scroll down the list of light heavyweights pegged him as the only guy who's grappling could give new champ Jon Jones a challenge.

With all the wear and tear on Davis' body and mind, it's no wonder he struggled to meet expectations.

Johnson, too, carried a heavy burden. He was coming into the cage after a 16-month layoff courtesy of a slow-healing knee. What's more, he'd come up short in his most recent performance, a submission loss to Josh Koscheck that halted his rapid rise in the welterweight division. Still, the UFC saw a great matchup on paper and gave him someone who promised to threaten brain damage at every turn. Given his career circumstances, it wasn't a sexy gamble.

"Deep down inside, I wanted to finish the fight," Johnson told MMAjunkie.com. "But in reality, I just needed to win. I've been out for a year and some change. I needed to get back in the groove of things and just get the win. I didn't really need to go for a knockout or a submission."

Nor did Garcia or Jung, who fought this time around with their hands high and heads screwed on straight. Garcia wanted to follow a game plan for once in his life, and Jung badly needed a win after getting knocked out cold in his most recent fight and losing to Garcia in the one before that. So they fought a mostly conservative affair until "The Korean Zombie" wowed us with a twister.

The point is, we rarely see great fights and great events from a distance. They sneak up on us.

Phil Davis (9-0): So "Mr. Wonderful" is a mere mortal. He got the win over Nogueira using his stock and trade and controlled the fight after a slow start. He'll continue to build his skill set in striking, particularly when it comes to his footwork and defense. He'll work on better transitions into takedowns. And he'll be more confident with a big win under his belt.

Hopefully, he'll get a vacation, too.

At this point, it's best to level off a bit on the steep upward trajectory of his recent career. Get him the winner of Jason Brilz vs. Vladimir Matyushenko, the winner of Ortiz vs. Ryan Bader, or Thiago Silva (if and when he's available). Those are good intermediaries to the former champions who fill the upper deck of the light heavyweight division.

Give Davis a year and he'll earn the hype so many have bestowed upon him.

Amir Sadollah (5-2): He's had some setbacks since he won The Ultimate Fighter 7 in his professional debut, but Sadollah has quietly built momentum in a crowded welterweight division. He picked up more steam on Saturday with a dominant win over DaMarques Johnson, whom he pounded out in the second round by gaining mount position and trapping Johnson's arm around his own neck while throwing nasty elbows.

The performance showed big improvement in Sadollah's ground game, though it will be a while before he's ready to tangle with wrestling-based standouts who will take him down and pound him into mincemeat. Judo specialist Dong Hyun Kim routed him not too long ago on the mat, and the grappling expertise only gets better further up the ranks. A fight against the winner of Nate Diaz vs. Rory MacDonald, which takes place at UFC 129, could be a good stepping stone. So would a meeting with Kyle Noke, who's similarly on the rise.

Chan Sung Jung (11-3): The spinal-lock submission known as the twister is like an obscure musical scale: It's there, but it's almost never used on stage. Big credit goes to Jung for being smack in the middle of improvisation with Garcia and finding a place for the obscure hold. As Jung told Joe Rogan, he had been watching a lot of DVDs from grappling guru Eddie Bravo and caught a flash of inspiration that prompted him to give the twister a try. Purists will say Bravo merely co-opted an old wrestling move, one of many techniques on which he's slapped a new (and weird) name. Whatever. Jung saw an opening and took it. Deviation from a standard diet of armbars and triangles is always welcome.

Mackens Semerizer (6-3): As it turns out, the real Bruce Leroy isn't much of a performance-enhancer. Alex Caceres brought to the cage his nick-namesake Taimak -- the actor who starred in The Last Dragon -- and still got handled by Semerizer, who undoubtedly saved his job after a three-fight skid in the WEC. Semerizer made Caceres look like he didn't belong in the Octagon when the fight hit the ground and cinched in a rear-naked choke in the first frame.

Michael McDonald (12-1): The youngest fighter in the UFC has some bright days ahead of him. The 20-year-old looked 10 years older in experience and was a revelation in the first third of his bout with Edwin Figueroa. McDonald's work in the submission department wasn't bad, either; he had Figueroa in all kinds of trouble in the second round. Had he faced someone less tough, the bout would have been over then. That wasn't the case, though, and he was forced to grind out the fight on the mat after his legs began to fail him. He still won a unanimous decision, and the contest won Fight of the Night.

McDonald should take a big step up in his next appearance. He's ready for it, and next time he'll pace himself a little better. My picks are Takeya Mizugaki and Brian Bowles.

Edwin Figueroa (7-1): He stepped in on six days' notice against McDonald and found himself quickly outclassed by the youngster. But whatever he lacked in technique he made up in heart, taking shot after shot and escaping submission danger to stage a late-fight surge that had his opponent worried. It was one of those fights where you can see the victor thinking, "Man, I'm glad that's over." Not an official victory for Figueroa, but a good start to his UFC career.

Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (19-5): "Lil Nog" deserves credit for doing what, on paper, he shouldn't have been able to do: Stop the takedown. Davis was 0-of-5 in attempts in the fight's first frame, and a straight left hand made his life difficult. Eventually, the NCAA wrestling champion got the fight where he wanted it and kept it there. But Nogueira didn't make it easy.

That's an issue with "Lil Nog" moving forward. He's a tough fight for anyone in the division, but he's not going to be able to get by younger and faster guys who are great wrestlers. What do you do with him? Feed him the new guys? Keep him as a gatekeeper? I see a multitude of options in the middle of the division and a lot of barriers to entry to the top.

That said, a fight with Rich Franklin or the loser of Matt Hamill vs. Quinton Jackson might be a win-win for the UFC. If he wins, it puts him back in the mix. If he loses, he can intercept an up-and-comer.

Dan Hardy (23-9): There was automatically talk of Hardy being cut by the promotion following his third consecutive loss, but UFC president Dana White quickly shot down that notion after Saturday's event. The British striker has a marketable look, loves to stand and bang, and avails himself well in front of the microphone. Yes, he has a glaring weakness in wrestling that will keep him from the top of the division -- Johnson and welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre proved that. But he'll be back -- he just needs to rebuild his confidence against a guy who can give him the type of fight he wants. Chris Lytle, Duane Ludwig and John Howard all come to mind.

Jon Madsen (7-1): The Ultimate Fighter 10 cast member saw a four-fight winning streak come to an end when doctors called off his fight with Mike Russow between the second and third rounds after his left eye swelled shut. Before that came to pass, though, Madsen got manhandled both on his feet and on the ground. Russow's aggressive style may, in fact, have caused the eye injury when he butted heads with Madsen. But it's unlikely that the result of the contest would have been any different.

Alex Caceres (4-3): His youthful swagger has won the affection of White, but Caceres may not be ready for the big leagues. From the way he got handled on the mat by Semerizer, it appears he doesn't have the ability to hang with high-level grapplers. And in the scramble-heavy world of the featherweights, that's going to be his demise.

Kris McCray (5-3): The runner-up on The Ultimate Fighter 11 looked great in the first round against John Hathaway. In Round 2, he was running on fumes. And in Round 3, he was gassed. There were some flashes of greatness on the mat; McCray swept the Brit on several occasions despite obvious exhaustion. But not having enough in the tank for three rounds indicates to me that he was either injured or hadn't prepared properly. Either way, he's 0-3 in his Octagon career and is likely headed back to the minor leagues.

Sean McCorkle (10-2): Few heavyweights talk as good a game and get the fans as riled up as McCorkle. But he just looked like he didn't want to be in the cage against Christian Morecraft and went to sleep on a standing guillotine -- a move rarely pulled off at the highest levels of the sport. He's now 1-2 in the UFC and is fighting for his job in his next outing.

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