Former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson took a huge step toward regaining his title with a fourth-round submission win over Rustam Khabilov at UFC Fight Night 42 on Saturday in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Henderson (21-3), who had been a victim of much criticism of late for his lack of finishes in the UFC, scored his first stoppage since 2010, when he choked out Donald Cerrone at WEC 48.
Against Khabilov (17-2), Henderson faced an opponent who matched up well with corresponding size and strength, something Henderson traditionally has used to his advantage.
Through three rounds, Khabilov was game, stuffing Henderson on takedown attempts and in turn using his skills in sambo to take Henderson down. The first round easily went to Khabilov, who also landed several solid body shots.
By 2:20 of the second round, however, "Smooth" began to apply pressure, tying up Khabilov and taking his back. Although Henderson didn't get credit for a submission attempt, it would be the first of several pressure-induced positions in which Henderson would control Khabilov.
Going into the fight, one of the keys to victory for both men was who could control the scrambles while emerging from takedown attempts. Early on it was Khabilov, but as the fight wore on, the advantage turned to Henderson.
Neither fighter landed much on the feet. However, by 3:46 of the fourth round, Henderson charged forward, throwing a long uppercut that landed flush. He followed that punch with a straight left that downed Khabilov.
Henderson quickly pounced on the stunned Khabilov, took his back and applied the rear-naked choke for the win.
Henderson was pretty clear the no-finish criticism didn't bother him, but there still was a tinge of vindication.
"I do my talking in here [the Octagon]," he said. "The title isn't being defended, so whoever wants to fight for the title, come see me."
Sanchez wins in homecoming, sort of
After 10 years, Diego Sanchez returned to Albuquerque a winner -- albeit a debatable winner.
Ross Pearson (15-7) stayed disciplined -- avoiding the rock 'em, sock 'em slugfest Sanchez prefers -- and clearly outperformed and outstruck Sanchez. Yet Sanchez came away with the split decision.
The judges scored it 30-27 (Pearson), 30-27 (Sanchez) and 29-28 (Sanchez), which elicited the following response from UFC color man Kenny Florian: "Those judges should be ashamed."
Afterward, Pearson expressed his disapproval of the judges.
"What can I say? I'm confident that I won every round," Pearson said. "I didn't get hit once. I guess it's my fault for leaving it in the hands of the judges."
Pearson's boxing was tight, crisp, methodical and accurate. According to FightMetric, Pearson landed 51 significant strikes to Sanchez's 33. Several times during the second and third rounds, Sanchez's trademark wild, brawling style seemed to want to emerge, as he bit down on his mouthpiece and egged on Pearson. However, Pearson remained true to his game plan, continuing to go to the body with kicks and landing short left hooks.
In Round 2, Pearson staggered Sanchez with big right hand, opening up Sanchez above the right eye. He seemed in control for the rest of the fight. Sanchez did very little in response, resorting to repeated reverse roundhouse kicks that were telegraphed and missed badly.
The problem with Sanchez is he remains the same fighter he was when he started his career. He wins his battles in brawls with his chin but formulates little strategy and shows moderate improved skill. There's a lot of showmanship with his berserker craze, but in the end, it was neither his chin nor showmanship that earned him the nod, just a simple gift from the judges.
Afterward, Sanchez made his future intentions clear.
"Now that it's over and I'm still injury-free, I'm hoping to have a quick turnaround and I have something in mind," Sanchez said. "Take me to Mexico. Diego Sanchez versus [lightweight contender] Nate Diaz in Mexico City."
Dodson dominates Moraga
While the flyweight division is constantly maligned for lack of depth, Dodson left little doubt that he deserves another shot at flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. The division also has been criticized for a lack of knockout power, and yet there's Dodson tied with the most knockout wins with three.
Dodson clearly owned the advantage in quickness as he circled the taller Moraga and positioned himself for favorable angles out of the southpaw stance. Dodson's boxing was crisp, landing counter punches off Moraga's flailing misses.
With 35 seconds left in the first round, Dodson landed a huge left knee directly to Moraga's nose, sending Moraga to the mat as he grabbed his nose and forehead. Moraga managed to stand up as the round ended, but the damage was done.
During the break, after consulting the fight doctor, referee Mario Yamasaki called the bout, giving Dodson the TKO win.
In the end, Dodson put up a massive 41-8 strike advantage over Moraga.
If Johnson successfully defends his title against Ali Bagautinov at UFC 174, a rematch with Dodson seems inevitable. And it's all Dodson wants.
"I believe I've done enough," Dodson said in his postfight interview with Jon Anik. "Whoever wins that fight next week better look out for me because I'm the best in the division and everyone knows it."
Dos Anjos' striking key to win
Rafael dos Anjos (21-7) showed just how much his standup game has improved with a second-round TKO of Jason High (18-5). Dos Anjos had rattled off a five-fight win streak before being halted by Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC on Fox 11.
"My background is jui-jitsu, but I am trying to be better every time out, strengthen my weaknesses," Dos Anjos said. "I know he's a good wrestler, and he was able to get me down a few times. My goal was to keep the fight on the feet and take away his advantage.
"I will fight whoever the UFC wants me to. I don't care if it's [UFC heavyweight champion] Cain Velasquez. If they can make 155, I'll be ready for them."
High did his share of engaging the jiu-jitsu specialist, scoring two takedowns in the first round and showing no fear of going to the mat with dos Anjos. In fact, High owned considerable possession of control time in the first round.
Dos Anjos remained active himself, attempting a kimura and triangle at points in the first round, but High's size advantage allowed him to easily power out of both moves.
At the start of the second round, High looked fatigued. Dos Anjos' corner told him to keep the pressure on High. Dos Anjos effectively mixed his strikes with combos and flying knees, until a one-two punch combination scored for dos Anjos, as he landed a big straight left to High's jaw.
Referee Kevin Mulhall stopped the bout at 1:20 in the second as dos Anjos rained down hammer fists while on the ground, much to the chagrin of High, who pushed Mulhall as he got up.
For dos Anjos, the win reasserts his place as a contender. With the improvements he showed while standing, his reputation as a one-dimensional fighter might be fading. Still, he'll need a couple more high-profile wins to really get over that hump.
Hallman sets the pace on Edwards
It might have been the altitude that got to Yves Edwards in his lightweight bout with Piotr Hallman. But it was more likely Hallman's gas tank that secured him a third-round submission finish over Edwards.
Initially, Edwards looked sharp and mobile, scoring efficiently with some short hooks and straight jabs on Hallman in the first round. Hallman, who continued to stalk Edwards, repeatedly gunned for single- and double-leg takedowns.
By midway through the second round, Edwards slowed considerably, falling prey to Hallman's relentless pressure. Hallman connected with a big elbow that took the starch out of Edwards and opened up a gash.
By the third, Edwards had little left; his legs were rubbery and wobbly while Hallman's relentless pace continued unabated as he took down Edwards and applied ruthless ground-and-pound tactics until finally Edwards gave up his back against the cage, allowing Hallman to easily secure the rear-naked choke for the win.
"It's important to get the finish but all I care about is the win," Hallman said. "When I got on top of him, I tried to stay active and look for openings. Eventually he opened up, and I was able to sink in the submission."
Despite displaying a clearly superior striking game, Erik Perez went away from his strength and straight into Bryan Caraway's advantage on the ground, succumbing to a rear-naked choke at 3:09 of the second round.
Caraway (19-7-0) came into the bout a plus-130 underdog after sitting out UFC action for more than a year.
"This was by far the toughest camp of my career," Caraway said. "My body was hurting and it was tough to train for the first six weeks, but in the last two [weeks], everything really came together.
"My plan was to feint a lot of shots out there and keep him guessing and off balance. I expected to wear him down and figured that the pressure of him fighting at home would help me with that."
The rust on Caraway's feet was obvious, as his plodding, straight-ahead movement allowed Perez (14-6) to snap off sharp jabs and connect easily. Still, Caraway was able to score a couple of takedowns and even managed a guillotine choke attempt in the first round. He also took Perez's back at one point but could not complete the rear-naked choke.
In the second round, Perez inexplicably eschewed his advantage and went for a single-leg takedown, which Caraway defended. In the scramble, he ended up taking Perez's back. From there, he simply waited patiently for Perez to leave his neck exposed, and this time, he successfully applied the rear-naked choke for the win. Afterward, Perez was at a loss for words.
"I really don't know what happened out there," Perez said. "I just got really tired at the end of the first round and I made mistakes that landed me in that choke.
"Maybe the pressure of fighting at home and the adrenaline caused me to tire out quickly. I don't know what to say."
Caraway is second in the UFC bantamweight division in submission wins with three, second only to Uriah Faber with four.