This time Frankie Edgar made it out of the first round unscathed.
Maybe that was the problem.
Instead of having to impress the judges by digging deep and surging back from the kind of jaws-of-defeat early beatdown dealt to him in his last two fights by Gray Maynard, the lightweight champion merely bobbed and weaved his way through the early stages of the main event of UFC 144 Saturday night in the suburbs of Tokyo, the fight promotion's first event in Japan in 11 years. He landed punches and kicks and takedowns throughout the round and avoided much of what Benson Henderson had to offer. He took care of business.
Edgar looked sharp. And as the rounds wore on, he continued to punch more, kick more, score more takedowns . . . and look no less sharp.
Until you took a good look at the guy. Then you realized he was pretty beat up. Maynard spilled a lot of Edgar's blood in their two title bouts, but he never closed the champ's eye the way Henderson did.
And sometimes what matters most to fight judges, it seems, is not so much what they've watched but what they see. So when the scorecards were read, it was not the bruised and bloody reigning champion who had his hand raised but the largely unmarked challenger. Or, as cage announcer Bruce Buffer referred to Henderson after reading the unanimous-decision scores (49-46 on two cards, 48-47 on the other), "the new UFC lightweight champion of the world."
This was no robbery. It was not even a shocking result. But it does call into question the stock a judge ought to put in the cuts and bruises on a fighter's face, especially when that fighter shows no debilitating effect and ends up having landed more strikes, more significant strikes and a lot more takedowns. How much do you weigh those factors against a bloody nose?
"I thought I did enough to win -- the guys [in the corner] were telling me," said Edgar (14-2-1) afterward. "But those are the breaks, man. Congrats to Ben."
The most telling blow for Henderson (16-2) came in the second round after one of Edgar's seven takedowns (Ben had two). With the challenger on his back near the cage, Frankie stood up to better his position and Henderson nailed him with an upkick. It stunned Edgar, and he fell to the mat, allowing Ben to get a reversal.
"I gotta thank 'Cowboy' Cerrone for that one, because he landed that one on me, and I told him I was going to land it on somebody else," said Henderson. "That hurt bad."
Indeed, it did. The kick especially hurt Edgar in the eyes of the judges, as it connected high on the champ's left cheek, just below the eye, and soon the area was purple and swollen, the eye opening barely a slit. That surely didn't look good to the cageside observers with pencils and scorecards.
Ironic that it would come to that for Henderson. Fourteen months ago he was the WEC champion engaged in a close title fight with Anthony Pettis, who in the final round demonstrated why he's known as "Showtime" when he leaped off the cage with a wild roundhouse kick never before seen in an MMA fight. It knocked Henderson to the mat, and even though Pettis didn't finish him, that kick was simply too spectacular to not be rewarded. Henderson lost the decision and his belt that night.
Now he has a belt around his waist again. With his 14th victory in his last 15 fights, Ben Henderson is the UFC lightweight champion. He'll take the trade.
That was then, this is now: Among the non-Japanese fighters on the card, none received the ovation that Quinton Jackson did. Which makes perfect sense, because he spent much of his career fighting on that side of the Pacific, and his aggressive abandon made him a popular figure among fans. That was when he was "Rampage," a nickname he no longer warrants. Against Ryan Bader, he moved forward with aggression but never landed a telling blow. Jackson did relive one moment from the glory days, picking up the wrestler and dumping him on his head in the second round. But the slam seemed to energize Bader, who dominated not just the rest of that round but the third as well. He spent much of the final two rounds on top of Jackson, beating him up in the second and going for a couple of submissions in the third. In the end, Quinton survived but there was no rampage left in him, just a brief disturbance as Bader got the 30-27 nod on all three scorecards.
Strikingly different: Jake Shields is an awkward standup fighter. You'd think a guy who trains with the Diaz brothers and Gilbert Melendez would have developed some fluidity, but no, Shields's striking always looks like a setup for a takedown. Yoshihiro Akiyama certainly knew that, and the sinewy judoka was able to fend off every Shields shot. And while he was at it, "Sexyama" even put Jake on his back a few times with thunderous judo throws. But somewhere along the way Shields landed enough of those unwieldy punches and kicks to win the judges' favor, which was assured when he finally got Akiyama on the mat late in the third and nearly choke him out. Jake settled for a unanimous decision, and after having suffered two straight losses, he's not complaining.
What a difference 54 seconds make: Yushin Okami was sharp, dangerous and dominant in the first two rounds of his middleweight bout against Tim Boetsch -- so much so that that the bruised and bloodied Boetsch knew his only path to victory was to finish Okami in the third. That's easier said than done, after you've been beaten to the punch for 10 minutes. But Boetsch did it. He came roaring out of his corner aggressively, staggered Okami in the first few seconds with a head kick, and then finished him at 54 seconds of the third with a succession of uppercuts that gave him one of the more improbable comebacks in recent UFC history.
A belated welcome: Oh, there you are, Hatsu. Hioki signed with the UFC last year with a reputation of being one of the top featherweights in the world, based on a resume highlighted by championships in the Shooto and Sengoku promotions in Japan. He won but wasn't so impressive in his UFC debut against George Roop in October, but Saturday night the real Hioki showed up. He dominated and nearly finished Bart Palaszewski in the first round, and after getting beaten to the punch a bit in the second, he again took Palaszewski to the mat in the third and again nearly finished him. It was enough for a unanimous-decision victory and some much-needed reputation redemption.
You've got to get a kick out of this guy: Once again, Anthony Pettis lived up to his nickname. The head kick that "Showtime" used to knock out Joe Lauzon at 1:21 of the first round might not have been as showy as the matrix ninja stuff he threw at Benson Henderson 14 months ago, but it was spectacular nonetheless. Lauzon, who'd won UFC bonuses in his previous six bouts (Submission of the Night four times, Fight of the Night twice), isn't going to get a cent of the KO of the Night bonus Pettis earned with the nasty left shin. What else did Anthony earn himself? He'd like to think he earned the first shot at newly minted champ Henderson, and while a rematch of their 2010 WEC title bout would be a neat story, Pettis hasn't yet staked out his place at the head of the line in the UFC. Maybe "Showtime" should challenge Gilbert Melendez for the Strikeforce belt. On Showtime.
Stoking the Fireball: Takanori Gomi has an unorthodox standup style in which he keeps his hands low and seems to lead with his face. As dangerous as that sounds, it's tough to argue with how "The Fireball Kid" fights, since prior to Saturday night he'd won 32 of his 40 fights. However, late in the first round it appeared as though Gomi's style was about to betray him, as he was dropped by a Eiji Mitsuoka right hand, and the late replacement pounced, taking Gomi's back and locking in a reverse triangle choke. As the final seconds ticked off, it looked like Takanori might tap. But then came the horn. And then, after a minute's rest, here came Gomi, who took it to Mitsuoka in the second and scored a crowd-pleasing comeback TKO at 2:21.
Not safe for a Kid: As recently as three years ago, when Norifumi Yamamoto was more befitting the nickname "Kid," he was 17-1 with one no-contest and considered one of the world's best fighters among those in the lighter weight classes. But since then he's lost five of six bouts, most recently against Vaughan Lee in one of the evening's early prelims. For Yamamoto, who turns 35 next month, it was his third straight UFC defeat. But it also was a first: He'd never been submitted before the British sub specialist caught him in an armbar in the final minute of the first round.
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