TUF 25 Finale
1 – Justin Gaethje
After 22 fights on Friday and Saturday, it’s clear that the big winner of the weekend was Justin Gaethje. Living up to all of the advance hype on his UFC debut and pretty much surpassing it, the former WSOF champion won a back and forth brawl with Michael Johnson that will be a tough act to follow when it comes to determining 2017’s Fight of the Year. Perhaps more importantly, Gaethje did everything he said he would when it comes to laying it all on the line once the Octagon door shut, and the only negative about his performance is that now we have to wait for his next fight and can’t get one every week.
2 – Jesse Taylor
The feel good story of International Fight Week was clearly Jesse Taylor, who lived up the “Redemption” theme of this season of The Ultimate Fighter by winning the show many believed he would have won nine years ago if not for some out of the Octagon antics that caused him to be pulled from the TUF 7 final. Any even though the redemption provided by his victory over Dhiego Lima was the prevalent storyline, some may forget how good he looked on the show and against Lima, making his win last Friday not just the culmination of a journey, but perhaps the start to a new story for the 34-year-old veteran.
3 – Tecia Torres
When breaking down the strawweight matchup between Tecia Torres and Juliana Lima last week, I wrote “While Tecia Torres and Juliana Lima have yet to set the division on fire in recent bouts, a big showing on the first fight of International Fight Week could do wonders for their second-half schedule in the Octagon.” Well, Torres put together than big showing, not just beating Lima, but submitting her for the first finish of her career. All of a sudden, Torres is a major player at 115 pounds, and yeah, a fighter between the “Tiny Tornado” and Michelle Waterson has a lot more heat behind it now.
4 – Gray Maynard
It hasn’t been an easy time for Gray Maynard over the last five years. On two occasions in 2011, he was a punch or two away from dethroning Frankie Edgar and becoming the UFC lightweight champion, but since then, it’s been rough in the Octagon for the Las Vegan. Following the final two fights of his trilogy with Edgar, Maynard went 1-4 before moving to the featherweight division in July of last year. On Friday, he made it 2-1 at 145 pounds, but in defeating Teruto Ishihara, he finally looked like the old Gray Maynard again. For one of the good guys of the game, that was a pleasant surprise, and hopefully a rebirth for him in his new weight class.
5 – Michael Johnson
Yes, Michael Johnson lost to Justin Gaethje on Friday night, but it takes two to make a Fight of the Night, and “The Menace” more than did his part against the Octagon newcomer. I’m sure that post-fight bonus check is of little consolation to the ultra-competitive Johnson, but I guarantee that he gained a lot of fans that can’t wait to see him back in action against any of the top 15 of the lightweight division.
1 – Robert Whittaker
Newly crowned interim UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker said it best when he told Joe Rogan, “Champions are made of this stuff.” He was right. Only a true champion suffers a knee injury in the first round of a five round fight and not only battles on, but wins the last three rounds against a terrifying finisher like Yoel Romero. In doing so, “The Reaper” took a belt home to Australia and set up a future battle with sidelined 185-pound titleholder Michael Bisping. And given the fact that Whittaker is seemingly getting better with each fight, the longer it takes for that fight to come off, the worse it may be for “The Count.”
2 – Anthony Pettis
There have been few falls from grace as notable as that turned in by former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis. Following a December 2014 win over Gilbert Melendez, Pettis went on to go 1-4, with that stretch capped off by a disastrous late 2016 loss to Max Holloway that put an end to Pettis’ featherweight experiment. Returning to lightweight at UFC 213, Pettis needed a win – badly – but that was seemingly going to be an uphill battle against 155-pound truth machine Jim Miller. But then the cage door closed and “Showtime” was back. Pettis looked to finally be back in form, and at 30, he has plenty of time to get his title back, making an interesting division even more interesting.
3 – Aleksei Oleinik
It’s easy to look at Russia’s Aleksei Oleinik and assume that he’s just some 40-year-old veteran who is around to make up the numbers in the heavyweight division. But let’s look past the surface and see that he’s won 13 of his last 14 bouts, has some of the deadliest submissions in the UFC, and has the stopping power in his fists to put anyone in the division on the canvas. And…he puts on action fights. So, after taking Performance of the Night honors in his victories over Jared Rosholt and Viktor Pesta, he finally got some spotlight against Travis Browne on Saturday, and he took advantage of it, submitting Browne in the second round. It was the kind of performance that should have casual fans taking notice, and he’s going to be a tough out for any of the big men ahead of him in the rankings.
4 – Rob Font
One day, Rob Font may look back at his Saturday victory over Douglas Silva de Andrade as the most important of his young career. Why? Well, it not only showed that he was ready for prime time when the bout got moved to the UFC 213 main card, but that he’s more than a knockout artist. Sure, his striking set up the submission finish, but isn’t that what MMA is all about, using all your weapons to get the victory? That’s what Font did, and if he can keep busy and keep evolving, he’s got the tools to make a lot of noise at the upper reaches of the 135-pound division.
5 – Trevin Giles
Trevin Giles may not have a nickname at the moment, but if he needs one after his knockout of James Bochnovic, “Smooth” may not be a bad moniker because that was the one word that came to mind after the UFC 213 opener. Coming in on short notice against fellow debutant Bochnovic, Giles looked like he had fought in the UFC twenty times already, and as he took control of the bout, his game seemed almost effortless. It may not have been the kind of debut Justin Gaethje turned it, but it was impressive and makes Giles a must see prospect when he moves down to middleweight for his next bout.