It was a fight that had all the potential to be weird. Michel Pereira has one of the most unique offensive games in MMA, a repertoire that includes cartwheels and back flips. Diego Sanchez is one of the toughest men -- and most intriguing personalities -- in the sport.
On the bizarre scale, the UFC Rio Rancho co-main event delivered Saturday night at New Mexico's Santa Ana Star Center. There just wasn't a clean finish, which only added to the head-scratching nature of the bout.
Sanchez beat Pereira by disqualification after an illegal knee at 3:09 of the third round. It was the second illegal knee DQ in the span of three fights after there had not been a single one in the UFC in more than a year. UFC Rio Rancho is the first card in UFC history with two disqualification finishes.
In the third round, Pereira rocked Sanchez with a knee to the body, sending Sanchez scrambling. Pereira pounced and threw several more knees, some to the body, some to the head. Sanchez went for a takedown and had at least one knee on the ground when Pereira landed a hard knee to Sanchez's head.
Sanchez was clearly grounded -- he had more than just the soles of his feet on the ground -- making the knee illegal. When referee Jason Herzog paused the bout, Sanchez was bleeding from a cut on his hairline. Herzog brought in the ringside physician to tend to Sanchez. But Sanchez said he could not see and Herzog had no choice but to call for a stoppage.
Pereira had been dominating the entire fight. He was somewhat more measured than in previous fights. He threw flying knees, a Showtime kick, Superman punch off the cage and pulled out a standing backflip onto a prone Sanchez. But Pereira's best offense was really front kicks and knees to the body. And a knee to the body is what nearly led to the end of the bout, what could have been a TKO in his favor prior to the illegal knee.
The first and second rounds clearly belonged to Pereira, and the Brazilian was having his best round in the third.
Sanchez (30-12) has now won three of his last four fights. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, native is 3-2 since moving up to welterweight from lightweight. Sanchez, 38, is a grizzled UFC veteran. He started on the very first Ultimate Fighter season back in 2005. Sanchez has 19 UFC wins, tied for seventh-most all time.
Pereira (23-11) continues to be one of the most enigmatic fighters on the UFC roster. The 26-year-old has now lost two in a row after debuting with first-round flying knee TKO last year. In both of those losses, Pereira probably should have won. Pereira, 26, fell by unanimous decision to Tristan Connelly last September after missing weight and gassing out due to too many flashy, energy-spending techniques.
Dodson was getting clipped early, which was surprising because he's lightning quick and elusive.
But it turned out those punches he absorbed instilled in him the timing he needed to land counterpunches.
And in the opening seconds of the third round, the former title challenger used a crisp left counter to drop Wood before finishing him on the canvas for a TKO.
Dodson capped off the win with a backflip to the delight of the Rio Rancho crowd.
Not every single time, John. Great KO btw, congratulations! https://t.co/U3o54SoDjm— Petr "No Mercy" Yan (@PetrYanUFC) February 16, 2020
Dodson, a native of nearby Albuquerque, New Mexico, ended his two-fight losing streak and also Wood's run of eight straight wins. Wood, a 26-year-old prospect from England, suffered his first UFC defeat.
"Feels amazing to get back into the win column, it wasn't easy," Dodson said. "Nathaniel Wood is a tough opponent, and I want to make sure I continue trashing these young opponents that they are giving me. I keep giving them the wins and then they are getting the title contention spots, and now I want the same thing for myself. This win builds me back up."
Dodson, who twice challenged for the UFC title when he was a flyweight, had not had a knockout since his first fight at bantamweight back in 2016.
"They keep giving me these tough opponents," Dodson said. "When I lost to Marlon Moraes, they started boosting him up. When I lost to Petr Yan, they started boosting him up. I knew they wanted to do the same thing with Wood. This gives me the confidence to say I'm still in this. I'm going to keep punishing them every single time. Competing here at home gave me the extra boost I needed. I had my family and friends out here, and I kept seeing them out in the crowd, I couldn't let them down. For 2020, it looks like I'm going to keep getting some tough opponents and I'm going to keep knocking them out."
Immediately after beating Nathaniel Wood, John Dodson does a backflip off the cage to the delight of the crowd in New Mexico. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Michel Pereira and his team dance on their way to the cage to fight Diego Sanchez. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Jan Blachowicz points directly to Jon Jones after beating Corey Anderson via knockout. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Montana De La Rosa sends Mara Romero Borella to the mat with an overhand right in the third round. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Montana and Mark De La Rosa made history Saturday as the first married couple to compete on a UFC card. It was not all a bouquet of roses, however, as Mark was knocked out in the first fight of the night.
But Montana salvaged the evening, earning a unanimous-decision win. Five hours after watching her husband fall at the hands of Raulian Paiva in the opener, Montana used her wrestling to control her women's flyweight bout. But it was her counter right hand midway through the third round that dropped Borella, put De La Rosa in control on the ground and added an exclamation point to her night.
"It feels great for the night to be over," Montana said with a bruised up Mark smiling as he watched her interview. "It was hard, but it was well worth it."
Valentine's Day was also Montana De La Rosa's 25th birthday. She is 4-1 in the UFC.
"Feels amazing to start the year with a win like that," De La Rosa said. "I felt like a whole new person in there for this fight. I was calm and everything went right. It was better than normal for me preparing for this fight with Mark. We were both on the same page, and it was great having someone with you the whole fight week with the same goal in mind.
"He didn't have the result he wanted, but I was 100 percent prepared for that. You kind of have to be when you are fighting on the same card as your husband, you have to be prepared for anything. I had to be focused on me and be selfish and it helped me come out with a win. It'd be great to break into the top 10 with this win. I just want to keep winning, get a couple more fights in this year and keep the ball rolling."
Vargas seemed to be in a good spot. He landed a nice left hand on Weaver, then took him down with a single leg. Vargas was able to escape a guillotine choke attempt and continue to control Weaver against the cage.
And then something bizarre happened.
With Weaver still seated trying to work his way up to a knee, Vargas landed a hard left knee to Weaver's head. Weaver was immediately rocked by the blatantly illegal knee, and referee Robert Romero jumped in to stop the fight. Weaver was clearly unable to continue, and Romero ruled the bout a disqualification.
New Mexico has not adopted the newest Unified Rules of MMA. But Vargas' knee would have been illegal under the old or the new rules. Under the old rules -- the ones used by New Mexico -- the grounded fighter definition is anything other than the soles of the feet touching the mat. And if a fighter is grounded, a kick or knee to the head is a foul.
Weaver has won eight straight. This was his UFC debut after earning a contract from Dana White's Contender Series last August. Weaver, 28, has not lost since 2016.
Vargas, 34, has lost two straight and is still seeking his first UFC win.
"Illegal knee -- I don't care, where I'm from nothing is illegal. It's a loss in my book," Weaver said. "He came in swinging. I knew he would come in trying to rush me because I usually rush everyone. If I was him, I would have done the same thing, get a fast start on the fast guy.
"I wanted to come out calculated, keep the altitude in mind, get his timing and speed down and take it from there. He got a good takedown in, I figured he would try to wrestle and push the pace. I went for my guillotine, thought it was close, but he peeled it off. I was getting up and he kneed me in the face. It was in the heat of the moment, things happen, we can run it back, I told him that. I hate to get a victory like this, especially for my debut. I felt comfortable, weight cut was perfect, felt great. I had fun tonight, can't wait to be back. Anything can happen in this sport."
Ray Borg controls the fight against the cage, then takes Rogerio Bontorin down to the canvas. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Borg missed the flyweight limit by two pounds on Friday, costing him 20% of his purse and making him ineligible for postfight bonuses. Then he went out and put on a bonus-worthy performance, landing a personal-best 10 takedowns on his way to upsetting Bontorin, who is No. 7 in the ESPN rankings at 125 pounds.
Bontorin, who saw his four-fight winning streak end, did land a few strikes early, but once Borg got his takedown timing down, he seized control and did not let up. He was all over the Brazilian, securing a body triangle on a couple of occasions and fishing for a submission. He never quite got there, but his attempts did not cost him his control.
Borg's familiarity with competing at altitude in his native New Mexico enabled him to set a pace that kept Bontorin on the defensive the whole way. The judges scored it 30-27, 30-27 and 30-25. It was the fourth time Borg has missed weight in his UFC career. He is 3-1 in those fights.
"Feels great to kick off the year with a win. It would feel even better if the weight went my way, kinda sucks, but getting the win was the most important thing tonight," Borg said. "I didn't think the cut would impact me too badly. I knew how good of shape I was in, and it's not like I was cutting 20 pounds or something. The weight cut just wasn't working for some reason.
"Fighting at home can bring extra pressure, but also extra motivation. There was the weirdness of having to tell myself that I was actually fighting today and not just hanging out at home. It was a lot of emotions, but ultimately the pressure helps me. I'm a pressure fighter, and I perform well under pressure. I have to talk to the UFC and my manager to see what comes next. It's obviously a big thing with my weight issue. I know I can make the weight, it wasn't a discipline thing how it normally is, I just need to find a system that works for my body."
Lando Vannata starts off Round 3 strong, even a spinning kick that conencts to the face of Yancy Medeiros. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
The fight ended with Medeiros' nose bloodied, but the more telling sign of Vannata's dominance was far less visible. Vannata was elusive the whole way, engaging on only his own terms. That frustrated Medeiros, who was able to land to the tune of only 36% in Round 2 and 28% in the third.
The Hawaiian fighter had a hard time finding Vannata with anything significant. All three judges gave Vannata every round, as the Albuquerque local never allowed any momentum to mount for Medeiros, who lost his third straight. It was not the action fight fans have come to expect from these two, who combined for nine postfight bonuses in their first 21 UFC outings. But Vannata showed the poise necessary to remain in control the whole way.
"Getting this win is massive for my confidence and reminds me that I am what I think I am and that I belong here on the big stage," Vannata said. "I thought I was going to get a finish here tonight. I've seen him finished before, and I really thought I could put him away. He tough, he's durable, he's funky with weird defense, he was a great opponent, and I'm happy with how it played out.
"I loved fighting here at home. I woke up this morning in my own bed, I was cuddled up with my dog, I ran sprints in my front yard. It was like another day of training, it was great."
Daniel Rodriguez lands a left hook on Tim Means that leaves Means limping back to his corner at the end of the first round. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Rodriguez cashed in as a +270 underdog, and he did it after taking the fight on short notice after Ramazan Emeev withdrew on Jan. 27.
Rodriguez, who extended his winning streak to seven in his UFC debut, produced his 10th finish in 11 career wins by setting a strong pace. The first round was statistically close, but Rodriguez landed the more telling blows at the end of the first round and early in the second, keeping Means off balance and setting up the standing guillotine choke at 3:37 of Round 2.
"This is long overdue. I've been thinking about this since the first day I stepped into a MMA gym," Rodriguez said. "When I got the call on short notice, I thought to myself, 'Who am I to turn down the UFC?' I was going to fight regardless.
"I knew when I stunned and dropped him at the end of the first that it would take a whole lot longer than a minute to recover. Coming into the second round, I wanted to see how his movement was and just stuck to the game plan and didn't rush it to try and get the finish. It worked out perfectly. I feel like Tim Means is a very respected guy and I took him out. I always rise to the occasion, when the pressure is on I perform way better. I don't break under pressure, and that's what I showed. I believe in myself and my team and I know I can keep showing I belong in there with anyone."
Rodriguez earned a performance-of-the-night bonus.
Fight of the night
Jim Miller has nowhere to go as Scott Holtzman lands a flurry of punches and kicks at the end of the second round. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Holtzman absorbed some straight punches early on but soon got his counterpunch timing zeroed in. He then became the aggressor in damaging Miller and scoring his biggest UFC victory, his fifth win in his last six fights.
Both men were wearing the bloody effects of the heavy exchanges of punches by the end, but it was Miller who took the worst of it, as the 36-year-old saw his two-fight winning streak end. It was Miller's 34th trip inside the Octagon, tying him with Donald Cerrone for most ever. And like "Cowboy," he's entertaining every time.
Miller started strong but was worn down by Holtzman after a close first round. Miller kept throwing punches and kicks right to the end, but Holtzman continually answered them with more.
Miller suffered his 13th UFC loss, tied for second-most in company history.
"I don't think there's anything more I can say about Jim than hasn't been said already," Holtzman said. "He's a legend, going in to the Hall of Fame. I didn't know if I could win, if I'm honest. I wasn't sure, but my team believed in me. They got me prepared to beat someone like that, someone so special.
"I've had a checkered past here in the UFC, but I think this proves that I belong with the upper echelon of guys. I wanted to neutralize how well-rounded he is. I wanted to put the fight where I thought I had the big advantage, which was not letting him grapple and grind me out. I thought I had the best chance on the feet, controlling the pace and distance. I hit him with some shots where I knew he had to be hurt, but he's New Jersey tough."
Devin Clark proves to be too much for Dequan Townsend as he lands multiple takedowns in their UFC Fight Night prelims bout. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Clark recorded his fifth UFC win and has now won two of his past three fights.
Townsend moved to 0-3 in the UFC. He took this fight on short notice and is now the first fighter to fight and lose twice in 2020. Fighters who go 21 days or fewer between fights are now 3-6 in the UFC.
"The last-minute opponent change definitely impacted the game plan," Clark said. "We were preparing for a tough, Dagestani wrestler and now it was a rangy striker, which I lost to in my last fight. It played with my head a little bit, but I just stuck to the game plan and focused on takedowns and it worked.
"I've been doing this win-loss thing recently, so I have to find my groove and put a win streak together. I don't want to be a journeyman fighter, I want to go for the prize."
Merab Dvalishvili puts Casey Kenney on the ground twice with a spinning backfist and a takedown in the second round. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Dvalishvili set a personal best with 12 takedowns to control Kenney the whole way and hand him just his second career loss and end the Arizona fighter's six-bout winning streak. It was the third win in a row for Dvalishvili, a native of the country Georgia who now trains at Serra Jiu-Jitsu on Long Island, New York.
He was after and on top of Kenney the whole way, showing pace and skills that suggest he won't be fighting on early prelims in front of small crowds for long. That's too bad in a way, because more fan noise will drown out the incessantly entertaining coaching of Matt Serra. One judge gave Kenney a round, but the other two had it a clean sweep for Dvalishvili.
Dvalishvili's 12 takedowns set a UFC bantamweight division record and tied for fifth-most in a UFC fight. The record is 21 by Khabib Nurmagomedov.
"I have my groove and I keep winning because I train with the best team, Serra Longo, and I have the best sparring partners," Dvalishvili said. "My team gives me so much motivation, I never stop training, I'm always ready for a fight, I want to stay busy and keep fighting. I train my jiu jitsu with Matt Serra, and they have great black belts there, so I was very prepared.
"My main training partner is Aljamain Sterling. He made me like this. Years ago, when I was an amateur, Aljo made me his punching bag and now we have great sparring. I owe him so much."
Macy Chiasson and Shanna Young go toe-to-toe and exchange some big strikes in the opening seconds of their bout. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Chiasson, who was the biggest favorite on the card at -750, gets back in the win column after suffering the first loss of her MMA career last September. The win is Chiasson's second by decision.
Chiasson ties Irene Aldana with the most wins at women's bantamweight in the UFC since the start of 2019 with three.
Young took the fight on Monday after Nicco Montano was removed from the card.
"Feels really good to get back into the win column," Chiasson said. "I knew she'd come forward and pressure me out of the gate like that. It was a last-minute fight, and she didn't really have time to game plan. Neither did I, to be fair, but I was ready for anything.
"I got the call from my coach on Monday after one of my sessions. I said it's fine, whoever they find is good with me. I was calm about it because I prepared so well. I'd still love to run it back with Nicco once she is all recovered. She's a former champ and ranked, so I'd love that. Maybe some time in May if it works out for everyone."
Couples Night at the Fights did not get off to a good start for the De La Rosas as Mark -- whose wife, Montana, won her fight later in the evening -- was dropped and finished by a straight right hand at 4:42 of Round 2. It was the first UFC victory for Paiva, who was 18-1 when he joined the promotion a year ago but lost in his first two trips inside the Octagon.
The fight was all stand-up, and both men landed crisp shots. But De La Rosa, who lost his third in a row, had a reach disadvantage and it caught up with him. His punches often fell short while Paiva's landed, bloodying his nose and setting up the one-punch finish.
"We knew that he had a very good grappling game and that his wrestling is very good, so a lot of the camp was focused on takedown defense and keeping the fight standing," Paiva said. "I believe in my jiu jitsu, I know that I could compete with him there, but I know that my stand-up is on a different level than his. I hope that this shows the UFC that I am worthy of being here and that I get more opportunities to show how good I am and how far I can go in the division."
Paiva was born on Oct. 17, 1995, and the 24-year-old was the youngest fighter on the card.