What mattered most at UFC on ESPN 43 in San Antonio? Here are a few post-fight musings …
A comeback for the ages
He was only the second fight of the night, but CJ Vergara produced a moment that will have people talking at the water cooler on Monday morning with an absolutely electric Comeback of the Year contender against Daniel Lacerda during their flyweight bout on the early prelims.
The fight did not start well for San Antonio’s Vergara (11-4-1 MMA, 2-2 UFC). Not at all. He got hurt in the first round by Lacerda, which created a visual of Vergara sprinting around the octagon as if he was running for his life at multiple points. It was a bad look for him, but clearly an effective recovery method, because he was able to survive the opening five minutes and make it to the second, where everything changed.
Lacerda’s gas tank dwindled, while Vergara’s inspiration to thrive turned up as he was uplifted by a supportive crowd en route to battering Lacerda until he got the TKO late in the second frame. It was a remarkable turnaround, and one that – barring some utterly insane stuff through the next nine months of the year – should hold up in the Comeback of the Year conversation.
Donald Cerrone joins the UFC Hall of Fame
A surprise UFC Hall of Fame announcement to Donald Cerrone led to a heartwarming moment in the midst of the event, and there are few fighters in history who are more worthy of the position.
If you wanted to make an MMA Hall of Fame with much tighter restrictions, then maybe “Cowboy” doesn’t make it. He never won a major title and stumbled in almost every truly big-fight opportunity he had inside the octagon. However, that’s not a fair way to paint a picture of what Cerrone (36-17 MMA, 23-14 UFC) contributed.
He was legitimately one of the faces of the UFC for multiple years. His ridiculously active schedule, signature look, as well as his thrilling fighting style, made him must-see TV for the overwhelming majority of his time as a UFC fighter. He did things that will not be matched in future eras, and that came from his “anyone, any time and any place” attitude.
Cerrone’s accolades are unique to himself, and he was the definition of what it means to be a fighter. Athletes in this area don’t have the same mentality toward the sport that Cerrone made famous, and he truly deserves to be enshrined in the UFC Hall of Fame.
Maybe the end of his career got a bit ugly in terms of results, but it goes that way for most in the sport. It doesn’t take away from the countless memories he provided to us, and for that, he deserves all the respect.
Maycee Barber’s win – fair or foul?
Maycee Barber’s split decision win over Andrea Lee is more controversial because she is a polarizing personality. That’s just how it is. Did she win? I thought so. It was by the narrowest of margins, though, and I certainly don’t agree with Dan Miragliotta’s scorecard of 30-27. She definitely lost at least one of those rounds.
Anyway, the goal of this fight was obviously to find more about how Barber (12-2 MMA, 7-2 UFC) is developing as a prospect. Lee is a proven top 15 fighter and not someone who is easy to look good against. Barber found that out the hard way, and in Texas on a card with some sketchy judging, she should probably be thankful she escaped with this one.
She did get her hand raised, and now Barber’s winning streak is at four. That’s the good news. The less positive news, I suppose, is our fight-by-fight assessment of whether Barber truly is “The Future,” as her nickname claims. She didn’t break Jon Jones’ record as youngest champ in UFC history, but at 24, is she where she should be?
Barber came into this fight on the fringe of the top 10 in the official UFC rankings. She’ll move up a bit now, and has put herself in position for another tough fight. I don’t think there’s a ton of people she can’t be competitive with, but if it’s going to be a three-round coin toss like it was against Lee, that’s a tough way to make way to the top.
It’ll be on Barber to find more ways to create more separation in these results, because consistently going to the judges with close fights is an easy way to get your heart broken.
Holly Holm still has something
At 41 and coming off a long layoff with some pretty serious health issues, it was hard to know what we were going to get out of Holly Holm in her return to competition against Yana Santos in the co-main event.
Turns out, she hardly lost a step. Holm (15-6 MMA, 8-6 UFC) was solid from beginning to end, leaning heavily on her superior wrestling to take Santos down and batter her from top position en route to a lopsided unanimous decision.
The frustration people seem to have with Holm’s presence as a top contender in 2023 is a bit puzzling. It’s not as though there are some overwhelmingly better alternatives out there. She is still elite and is giving a hard fight to everyone at both women’s bantamweight and women’s featherweight Are the fights always exciting? No, but that doesn’t mean she should abandon her goals.
Would I pick this version of Holm to do any better against Amanda Nunes in a rematch? Probably not. She got smoked with a head-kick TKO in the first round back in July 2019, and hasn’t shown dramatic improvement since then. However, it would be a more significant fight than most others, and if Nunes keeps winning, she’s going to have to fight someone.
The bantamweight conundrum continues
The top of the bantamweight division simultaneously got clearer and muckier with Cory Sandhagen’s near-perfect performance against Marlon Vera to win the main event.
Coming into the fight, we didn’t know exactly what was at stake between Sandhagen (16-4 MMA, 9-3 UFC) and Vera. We just knew it was a super meaningful fight for the division, and the winner was going to be in position to ask for something big.
That’s exactly what Sandhagen did after his split decision win, using his platform to call out Merab Dvalishvili, who is essentially the boogeyman at 135 pounds. In a normal world that would’ve been perfect, and from a matchmaking perspective, it’s the most logical fight to put together.
Once again, however, the relationship between Dvalishvili and current 135-pound champion Aljamain Sterling rears its ugly head. If the two won’t fight, putting Dvalishvili in position to derail Sandhagen’s momentum as a contender would be foolish. It would be a move with no positive end game, and the UFC isn’t in that business.
For a long time, it seemed like Sterling and Dvalishvili could maintain individual success without much crossover. But as the fights play out and the cream rises to the top in this weight class, it’s becoming more and more clear it’s unsustainable for them to co-exist.
With Sterling’s title defense against Henry Cejudo just around the corner at UFC 288 on May 6, the date needs to be circled on the calendar as one where lines in the sand are drawn. Depending on whether Sterling successfully defends or not is going to lay the blueprint for how the division moves forward, and more specifically for Sandhagen, what his path to a belt truly looks like.
For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for UFC on ESPN 43.