Call it "Trilogy Weekend," as both the UFC and Bellator MMA promoted trilogy bouts in the main events of their respective cards. The results couldn't have been much different.
On Friday in St. Louis, Daniel Straus finally topped Patricio Freire for the first time in three tries at Bellator 145, regaining the featherweight title in the process. A day later at UFC Fight Night in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Vitor Belfort knocked out Dan Henderson in a rubber match that settled a score that dates back to 2006.
Mixed in along the way, a few prospects continued to climb the ranks, a handful of veterans turned in a mixed bag of performances and -- wait, what? -- Royce Gracie agreed to fight Ken Shamrock in February. Let's dig into a pretty crazy weekend of MMA.
UFC Fight Night (middleweight)
Defeated Dan Henderson (TKO1/2:07)
He did it guys, without testosterone-replacement therapy. Now, he did it against Henderson, who is 45 and well past his prime, but if Belfort ever wants to put the TRT talk behind him (if that's even possible), he has to do it with performance like this one. And Belfort is no dummy. You catch who he set his sights on after the win? Luke Rockhold, who, coincidentally, is fighting for the title next month. Sure, Rockhold has been less than respectful toward him over the years, but I'd guess Belfort's interest in that fight is directly tied to getting a title shot. It was as efficient of a night as you can get for Belfort. He didn't throw much, but what he threw, he made it count.
I'm looking for holes in Brooks' game and am just not seeing any. Held was probably a little out of his league in this matchup, and I didn't expect him to win, but to see Brooks operate so calmly in the guard and win so effortlessly -- after suffering a knee injury -- it's just very obvious this guy has the skill set and confidence that puts his name among the absolute best lightweights in the world right now. I love the fact Brooks has already called out Josh Thomson. That's obviously the fight to make, and it will be an opportunity for Brooks to make a statement whenever it happens.
Thompson was basically done after suffering an early knee injury, but watching Lashley's double-leg shot, it sure looked like it was going to be there at his disposal whenever he wanted it. He continues to rack up finishes (four in a row now), which is an important quality to have, as I still suspect Lashley's gas tank wouldn't exactly be an advantage should he ever book a five-round title fight. The 39-year-old could take fun fights the next three years and probably avoid taking much damage in the process, but he has made it clear he wants to go for a title. If that's the case, let's start him on that path now and see what happens. He's not getting any younger.
Mark this man down right now as someone to watch in 2016. Take out your phone, open the "Notes" page and write in capital letters, "WATCH RASHID." He's not the most excitable lightweight (he could have probably gone harder for a finish on Saturday) but he's good to the point of completely demoralizing his opponents. That, to me, is interesting to watch. Burns is a talented guy, and his coach, Henri Hooft, was pleading with him between rounds not to quit. If you are Magomedov, that's when you know you've had a good night. He is a serious breakout candidate next year.
Birchak did what he promised to do, which was meet Almeida in the middle and not give ground. Almeida reacted by blowing through him with slick, powerful combinations. Did he get hit more than necessary in the process? Maybe ... but if you get in a firefight, you do so at your own risk. He's such a natural finisher at 135 pounds. He comes with one wave of offense after another as his opponents are trying to come up for air. I'm not naive: Almeida's suspect striking defense makes him vulnerable. I don't need to see him against a Top 5 guy yet, but a Top 15? Oh yeah.
Bellator 145 (featherweight title)
Defeated Patricio Freire (UD)
He has proved to be the No. 1 featherweight in the Bellator stables. Straus is still trailing in the all-time series to Freire at 1-2, but if you look at the sum of the nine rounds they fought in 2015, Straus is the better man. It was a little disappointing to see him fade in the championship rounds. That's really the only complaint. You've got a new champion in a very hard-fought fight, but you want to see him rise in those fourth and fifth rounds and put it away, as opposed to hanging on like Straus did. That's the nature of a fight against Pitbull, though; he's not going to make it easy and he's certainly not going to go away.
Bellator 145 (featherweight title)
Lost to Daniel Straus (UD)
You never want to make "miracle comebacks" a habit in MMA. It's impossible to not have an overwhelming amount of respect for Freire's toughness, but the fact he has now been dropped in three consecutive fights is very worrisome. He's neglecting head movement and opponents are making him pay for it. He lost a solid chunk of time in the second and third rounds, when autopilot came on after he went down from the straight left. Freire is 28, and when you look up and down Bellator's featherweight roster, it has talent but certainly Pitbull has not been relegated to the far back of the line. He'll be in this opportunity again before long, but he needs to defend himself better.
He didn't look spectacular off his back, to put it nicely. That's not a great sign, considering he was fighting Hallmann, who is nowhere near the top of the division in terms of wrestling ability. Oliveira is a mean striker when he has the opportunity though. He's a physical presence in there, essentially grabbing Hallmann by the neck and the back of the head while delivering knees and elbows. He has improvements to make, and at 27 he does have some time to do so. In the meantime, my guess is the UFC keeps running him out there in front of the Brazilian crowd. He's not ready to make a title run, but beat up a Northerner in Rio de Janeiro on March 5? That he can do.
Cummins was basically knocked out at the end of the first round and he still managed to tie Teixeira up a bit in the second round. On one hand, who cares? Teixeira won and it was never in question. On the other hand, really? How can you let a hurt Cummins take you down, Glove? Anyway, I thought Teixeira took advantage of a matchup that favored him. He gave up takedowns but always bounced back to his feet. Teixeira vs. Alexander Gustafsson seems like the obvious next step here.
Maldonado, respectfully, is a bit of layup at this point for any legitimate light heavyweight -- particularly one who is willing to wrestle him, which Anderson was. There's not a lot to say about this one. Anderson is still very raw, but Maldonado wasn't in any kind of position to take advantage of it. Credit Anderson for the win, and it's never a bad thing to pick one up on short notice, fighting a Brazilian in Brazil. Noted. Moving on.
The fight was fine, especially when you know Case went through training camp with a fractured hand. The postfight call-out though? Boo. Case wants to fight 19-year-old Sage Northcutt. Good choice. But he called him out by not looking at the camera, never identified him by name and relied far too heavily on a "Saved by the Bell" reference -- which places the joke on you, Case, since Northcutt is a baby and has no idea what a Zack Morris is. It was just poorly executed, man. We expect better from a guy with a name like Johnny "Hollywood" Case. On a serious note, Case wasn't outstanding here but, again, the injury might have had something to do with that. The arrow is still pointing up on the 26-year-old.
UFC Fight Night (light heavyweight)
Lost to Glover Teixeira (TKO2/1:12)
I wrote on Twitter after the fight that I have questions about Cummins' chin. It received a lot of responses to the effect of: "What are you talking about? Did you see how many shots he took and was still standing?" I see that, but a suspect chin doesn't have to equate to a fighter going unconscious. When I watch Cummins fight, I'm sort of always waiting for something bad to happen. A big part of that is his shaky defense for sure, but it's also tied to how much he stiffens up after getting his and how long it seems to take him to recover. I like Cummins. He does a lot of things well -- but things tend to so south in a hurry when he's hit and that's a big problem to have in this sport.
Anyone can get caught, but a veteran of nearly 50 fights like Guida shouldn't be getting caught like this. Tavares is a talented submission artist, but that's actually all the more reason for Guida to be aware of his positioning in a takedown attempt, especially that early. I guess it just wasn't his night. On a side note, how about Guida's Reebok shorts nearly coming off during his struggle to defend the choke? Between the spelling and geographical errors and wardrobe malfunctions, this UFC/Reebok deal is (to say it nicely) still finding its way.
UFC Fight Night (middleweight)
Lost to Vitor Belfort (TKO1/2:07)
We've returned to a familiar spot with Hendo. It's his decision when to hang it up -- 100 percent -- but what is left, Dan? You could make a full-length film about his athletic accomplishments and still have enough left over for a sequel. I hate to put this so bluntly, but it's important to say: Brain trauma is real. Henderson can't defend himself against the best anymore. He went 16 years without suffering a knockout. It has now happened three times in 24 months. No one really wants to see Henderson retire, and it doesn't look like he plans to, but it's the right call.