Facing arguably the toughest challenge of his entire career, Jose Aldo emerged the same way he had his previous 17 fights -- victorious.
The UFC featherweight champion recorded his seventh title defense Saturday night, defeating Chad Mendes via unanimous decision at UFC 179 at Maracanazinho Gymnasium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The five-round bout, a rematch of a championship tilt in January 2012, was an instant candidate for Fight of the Year. Both fighters scored knockdowns in the opening round and both had opportunities to finish it. Ultimately, judges sitting cageside rendered unanimous 49-46 scores for the champion.
"I think every fight is the toughest fight of my career," Aldo said. "I think I deserved to win. He hit me a few times but I him a lot more. But congratulations to Chad Mendes. I have respect for him, his whole team, his family. Inside [the cage] it is a rivalry, but outside we're friends."
Mendes (16-2), who lost the first meeting via first-round knockout, did not immediately protest the judges' scores.
"He rung my bell for sure," Mendes said. "I was rushing to get my wits back. Holy s---, that was fun. I've got to be honest, I was just going so hard that I didn't know what the hell was going on."
One thing Mendes might take issue with once the dust settles is a right hand Aldo landed after the bell following the first round. Visibly charged up from one of the most action-packed five-minute spans of the year, Aldo threw a jab, straight right as referee Marc Goddard moved in to separate the fighters. The punches actually dropped Mendes along the edge of the fence.
No point was deducted -- which ultimately would not have changed the outcome of the fight, but obviously could have had a lasting effect on Mendes' performance.
It was Mendes, 29, who scored the first knockdown of the fight. A well-placed left hook knocked Aldo backward, although he quickly jumped back to his feet and circled off.
Moments later, after an inadvertent eye-poke by Mendes briefly stopped the action, Aldo came roaring back with a knee up the middle to Mendes' chin. He scored a knockdown of his own with 40 seconds remaining in the round, which drew the Brazilian crowd into a frenzy.
Despite the after-the-bell knockdown, Mendes looked fully recovered to start the second frame. Action slowed down a bit from the torrid first, with Aldo establishing his range with a pinpoint, speedy jab. He targeted Mendes' body as well, ripping left hooks to his rib cage and consistently stepping forward with straight rights to the solar plexus.
The third round began with another Mendes eye-poke, which drew a warning from Goddard. Again, on the restart, Aldo came out on fire. He pressured Mendes with left hooks and more jabs. Mendes hung in the pocket, however, and, after slipping an Aldo punch, came back with a counter right uppercut that rocked the Brazilian featherweight.
Sensing Aldo was hurt, Mendes went after him, which prompted the champion to fire back defensively. One of the shots clipped Mendes near the left temple and nearly knocked him down. Suddenly it was Aldo on the offensive in a huge change in momentum that ultimately stole him the round.
The fourth round was all Mendes, as Aldo, who has been known to coast late in championship fights, appeared to take the round off. Mendes caught him with several winging right hands and opened a deep cut just under his left eyebrow. The cut would bleed into Aldo's left eye the rest of the way, but surprisingly didn't have much of a visible effect on him.
Mendes finally scored a takedown in the final round, but did little with it, as Aldo worked to a seated position along the fence and eventually back to his feet. Both fighters looked tired but still capable of throwing fire, despite a pace that saw a combined 270 total strikes landed (Aldo 143, Mendes 127), according to Fightmetric.
Aldo, 28, who originally won the WEC 145-pound title November 2009 and was crowned the UFC's inaugural champion when the two promotions merged in late 2010, moves into a tie for third all-time in consecutive title defenses. Only former middleweight champion Anderson Silva (10) and former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre (9) lead him.
In regard to his next challenge, Aldo did not refer to surging Irishman Conor McGregor, who attended the bout, by name -- but took an unmistakable shot at him all the same.
"I'll face anyone they put in front of me," Aldo said. "I'm here as the champion. The court is complete. I'm the king, Chad is the prince and now we have a joker."
Even in defeat, Mendes mentioned a potential fight against McGregor (16-2), who is scheduled to fight Dennis Siver on Jan. 18 in Boston.
"The one person lucky that decision didn't go my way is Conor McGregor," Mendes said. "I'm still looking forward to whooping your ass, buddy."
Davis delivers against Teixeira
For the second time in three fights, Phil Davis outpointed a heavily favored Brazilian in Brazil.
Davis (13-2) executed a wrestling-heavy game plan to perfection against former No. 1 contender Glover Teixeira, earning unanimous 30-27 judges' scores.
"Tough fight; Glover was way bigger than I thought he was," Davis said. "I can tell he´s been working on some wrestling.
"He has a power punch and waited to try to land some big shots. And he did land some shots, I pretended it didn't hurt, but it did."
In August 2013, Davis handed Lyoto Machida a narrow unanimous decision loss at UFC 163 in Rio de Janeiro. Overall, Davis is undefeated in three trips to Brazil.
It took Davis less than 15 seconds to shoot his first takedown, which would prove to be the theme throughout the 205-pound bout. According to immediate cageside stats, Davis attempted 18 total takedowns, converting nine.
Davis did well circling away from the Brazilian's stinging right hand and repeatedly ducked under punches and drove into Teixeira's hips. Once taken down, Teixeira elected to turtle up and try to break the grip of Davis as he stood to his feet. That proved to be a tiresome strategy, as Davis, a former All-American NCAA wrestler, rode his back and landed countless unanswered right hands.
Midway through the first round, Davis buzzed Teixeira with a front kick to the face, followed by a left hook. Teixeira, who has been finished only once (in his professional debut), ate the shots well but never managed to respond with offense of his own. The knockout artist landed just 14 total strikes.
In the third round, Teixeira, clearly knowing he was down 0-2 on the scorecards, aggressively stalked forward with lead left hooks and his right hand. Davis intelligently slipped the punches as he had all night and pushed Teixeira to the fence. He took him down moments later in the center of the cage.
After scorecards were read, Davis requested a fight against former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, who attended the event. Silva is scheduled to return from a yearlong absence due to a leg injury against Nick Diaz at UFC 183 in January.
Fighting out of Alliance MMA in San Diego, Davis rebounds from an ugly loss against Anthony Johnson at UFC 172 in April. He is 9-2 overall in the UFC. Teixeira loses back-to-back fights for the first time in his career.
Maldonado surges past Stringer
Maldonado (22-7) leaped onto the cage wall following the stoppage, where he was joined by Silva, who was sitting front row during the performance.
"It's really good to win, especially after my last fight, where I was beat in only 30 seconds," Maldonado said. "Hans has more fights than me, but I have more experience.
"I received a shot at the beginning, but was able to recover. I actually like to get beat [up] a little bit. It makes the victory better."
For Stringer (22-6-3), it has to be a disappointing result after he dominated the first half of the light heavyweight fight. He took Maldonado down in the opening seconds and easily controlled him from top position to jump ahead on the scorecards. He failed to score much damage, but did cut Maldonado on the top of the head with elbows.
The 205-pound Dutch fighter brought Maldonado down again in the second round with a double leg in the center of the cage and appeared to be in good position to repeat his success in the first. Maldonado, however, reversed position and wrestled Stringer to his back near the fence.
From there, Maldonado went to work on Stringer's head and midsection with punches from his opponent's closed guard. Stringer quickly went into survival mode and once it was clear he was hurt and not escaping the bad spot, referee Goddard moved in to stop the contest.
Maldonado will likely finish 2014 with a 2-1 record. He moved up to heavyweight on short notice to fight Stipe Miocic in May, and lasted only 35 seconds in a TKO loss. Inside his weight class, however, Maldonado is 4-0 in his last four fights. Stringer, who signed with the promotion this year, suffers just the second knockout loss of his career.
Elkins edges past Martins
Elkins (18-4) wrestled his way to a split decision in a featherweight bout, earning 30-27 scores from two judges. A third judge inexplicably scored the bout 30-27 for Martins.
The 15-minute fight was dreadful to watch, as Elkins spent most of the time holding a complacent-looking Martins (15-2) up against the fence. When he had space, the Brazilian clearly was the more dynamic striker, but he was completely thrown off by the relentless takedown attempts by Elkins.
"I didn't feel like I fought the best. They weren't exactly the most exciting rounds," Elkins said. "The first round had good action; I think I won that round. The second was a little more slower, but I think I controlled the fight.
"I took advantage of the clinch, used my boxing. I controlled him and wore him out there."
A short elbow by Martins opened a cut on Elkins' cheek early, but the 30-year-old went straight back to tying Martins up along the perimeter of the Octagon. Even when Elkins was unsuccessful at bringing Martins down (which was often), his awkward striking and double-leg shots frequently froze Martins.
In the second round, Martins landed a left hook to the body and then a right head kick to Elkins' temple that appeared to stagger him. Perhaps tired by the grind of the first round, however, Martins didn't aggressively pursue him and actually instigated a clinch of his own, despite having Elkins in trouble.
The final round was the worst of the fight, as Elkins tucked his chin and bullied Martins to the fence for five minutes. Referee Eduardo Herdy was forced to break up the "action" twice, with two minutes remaining in the bout and then again with 90 seconds left. The Brazilian crowd booed the end of the featherweight contest.
Elkins rebounds from a unanimous decision loss to Jeremy Stephens in January. Prior to that loss, Elkins had won six of seven. Martins drops to 3-2 in the UFC.
Dariush denies Ferreira
Dariush (9-1) wasn't flashy in victory, but he was effective. The 25-year-old controlled Ferreira on the floor for large portions of the three-round affair, en route to unanimous 30-27 judges' scores.
"I was really nervous to be honest," Dariush said. "He felt really strong. He hit me a couple of times, and I thought, 'This guy is really strong; he has a lot of power.'
"I tried to keep a good distance, but he did his job well, too. Then I started to think about changing the game a little bit and started to look for the takedowns because I knew in the first round, he got used to my standup game. So, I thought if I changed my game plan it would help me -- and it did."
A southpaw, Dariush consistently punched his way into the clinch and put Ferreira (11-1) on his back. The strategy clearly made Ferreira uncomfortable, as it was hard to discern his game plan most of the fight. The Brazilian grew exceedingly reactionary to everything Dariush did.
Dariush did his best offensive work in the second round, scoring with a kick to the body and several takedowns. He never threatened much with submissions from top positions, but landed a few elbows to cause swelling under Ferreira's left eye.
Sensing he was down on the scorecards, Ferreira finally let his hands go in the final round -- to good result. He went after Dariush with a string of six to seven punches. Dariush successfully blocked the majority of them, but one grazing right hand caught him on the chin. The aggressiveness prompted Dariush to shoot hard for a takedown, which he got one minute into the third.
Dariush basically rode out the decision win from there, conservatively throwing elbows from top and never giving Ferreira a chance to sweep. It is only the second time Dariush has gone the distance in his career. Ferreira, 29, suffers his first professional loss and drops to 2-1 in the UFC.
Magny wins fifth of the year
Neil Magny owns the longest active win streak in the UFC welterweight division with five in a row -- all of which have come in 2014.
Magny (13-3) continued to build on an outstanding year with a third-round TKO over William Macario. The finish came at 2:40 of the final round.
The win marked Magny's fifth of the year and his second finish. A former contestant on "The Ultimate Fighter," Magny improves to 6-2 overall in the Octagon.
"It was a good fight. I wanted to come out here and do a better fight than the last one I had here in Rio," Magny said. "I was here last year [at UFC 163], and I let the guy [Sergio Moraes] get the best of me. I wanted to come back here, dominates and prove myself as a fighter."
It was a strong performance from Magny, who scored the cleaner strikes on the feet and proved to have a major advantage on the ground. The lead right hand was a big weapon for Magny, as was the jab. Fighting out of Denver, Magny stayed busy against the Brazilian, who started to wilt under the pace of the welterweight bout.
In the second round, Magny gritted his teeth and motioned his opponent forward after Macario landed a combination near the fence. After Macario appeared to hurt him with a left hook, Magny managed to dodge a few uppercuts from a kneeling position near the fence before taking Macario down with a big outside trip.
Magny kept the pressure on Macario in the third round, setting up the right hand with the jab. He scored his best punch of the fight with a right hand, before taking Macario down again and throwing left hands from side mount. Macario managed to move back into half-guard, but that did little to slow Magny down and referee Eduardo Herdy was forced to step in.
The 27-year-old Magny has expressed interest in fighting a sixth time in 2014, which would give him a shot at setting the modern UFC record for most wins in a calendar year. Macario, also a former TUF contestant, falls to 1-2 in his last three fights.
Cabral cuts down Kotani
Yan Cabral would simply not be denied in his UFC lightweight debut.
A former welterweight, Cabral (12-1) submitted Naoyuki Kotani at 3:06 of the second round via rear-naked choke. The finish came after Cabral repeatedly shot in on Kotani and wore him down earlier in the fight.
"It was a great fight," Cabral said. "I felt the pressure a little bit at the beginning, but I got the submission, the first of many here [to come in the Octagon].
"Fighting in Rio de Janeiro is incredible, especially because my daughter was born just a month ago. This win is for her and for my wife. Let's go to the next one!"
Kotani (33-12-7) did well defending takedowns initially, but started to visibly tire from the effort. He slipped on a leg kick attempt in the first round, which gave Cabral an opportunity to land elbows from top position. One of them opened a small cut near Kotani's right eye.
The second round was similar to the first, as Cabral repeatedly tucked his chin and rushed into Kotani, looking to drag him down. The strategy did not lead to a lot of offensive action, but it did sap Kotani's energy.
For Cabral, the finish is the 11th of his career.
Fighting out of Nova Uniao, Cabral moves to 2-1 in the UFC. He elected to drop to lightweight after suffering a unanimous decision loss to Zak Cummings in his last bout in May.
Kotani, 32, is now 0-2 since re-signing with the UFC earlier this year. He is 0-4 all-time in the promotion.
Reis ravages Jorgensen
A left kick to his opponent's ribs eventually led to an arm-triangle submission for Brazilian flyweight Wilson Reis.
Reis (19-5) hurt Scott Jorgensen with a body kick early in the first round, took him down and quickly produced a tap at the 3:28 mark. It is Reis' first finish in the UFC.
"I started well in the fight, but got hit and started to fight on automatic," Reis said.
"I was pretty hurt and could only feel that he was coming my way, but I was able to get back to the fight. When I found the space, I kicked him and noticed that he felt it. Then I took the opportunity and finished the fight."
Jorgensen (15-10) stalked Reis from the opening bell and successfully sprawled on a couple early takedowns by the submission specialist. He offered a quick attempt at a guillotine after one sprawl, but was never close to locking it in.
One left kick to Jorgensen's midsection spelled the beginning of the end of the bout. Jorgensen tried to circle away and recover but his body stiffened and he retreated backwards to the fence. Reis recognized it and dropped for an easy double leg takedown.
On the ground, Jorgensen turtled up into a defensive position. Reis dropped right hands on him with referee Marc Goddard looking on, before moving Jorgensen onto his back and isolating his right arm. Reis quickly hopped into side control and finished the choke from there, good for the ninth submission win of his career.
Jorgensen did his best to explain the negative outcome.
"I felt great. Our striking plan was working," Jorgensen said. "I dropped him early and didn't want to rush it and put myself in sticky positions because he is so good on the ground. But he caught me with the body kick that ended everything. By the time I realized I could breathe again, he had the arm-triangle."
Reis, 29, has now won two in a row. He outpointed Joby Sanchez via unanimous decision in August.
Jorgensen, 32, drops to 1-4 in his last five fights.
Fili overcomes Arantes
Fili (14-2) outworked Arantes throughout the 15-minute bout, pressuring him with takedowns and beating him to position in countless scrambles. All three judges scored the bout for Fili, 29-28.
A member of Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California, Fili suffered a cut on his forehead early in the fight from an Arantes (16-7-1) elbow. Fili surrendered a takedown after missing on a guillotine attempt during an Arantes takedown. He managed to scramble back to his feet moments later, but not before the Brazilian scored with several elbows.
Undaunted, Fili continued to come forward after the cut, throwing straight punches and shooting relentlessly on double legs. He hit a reverse from his back on Arantes in the second round, which led to him scoring with elbows of his own from top position. He was warned by referee Osiris Maia later in the round for an accidental illegal upkick to a downed opponent from his back.
The pace caught up with Arantes in a big way in the third, as he appeared less explosive and heavy-armed during key scrambles. Fili scored several takedowns late and briefly threatened with a triangle-armbar off of his back before eventually seeing out the fight in top position.
Fili, 24, improves to 2-1 in the UFC. He rebounds from a submission loss to Max Holloway in his last bout, at UFC 172 in April.
Arantes drops to 3-3-1 in the Octagon.