Following last weekend's spectacular night of entertainment, the question on everyone's lips was how would UFC Fight Night 30 compare to UFC 166, described by Dana White as 'The greatest card ever in UFC history?'
High-profile UFC events don't come to the UK often, so when they do British MMA fans bust their balls to get tickets. This event was originally built around local hero Michael Bisping, but unfortunately he was forced out of the fight after suffering a detached retina in training. The UFC then pulled off a masterstroke by drafting in ex light heavyweight world champion Lyoto Machida to headline the card against Mark Munoz. But I'm getting ahead of myself, there was much more to this card than the headline fight. There's no point talking about who couldn't be here. We're much better off talking about who could...
The prelims were stacked with names familiar to most British fans, kicking off in the middleweight division with English hope Brad Scott of TUF: The smashes fame, against Dutch judo specialist Michael Kuiper. This promised to be an exciting fight, and it didn't disappoint, Scott tapping out his opponent in the very first round. Elsewhere, the first Scot in the UFC, Robert Whiteford, took the fight against Jimy Hettes at a week's notice, and it showed as he was heavily outclassed by the American, and Cole Miller spoiled what could have been an impressive victory over Andy Ogle by making some disparaging comments about judges and European fighters, before literally running away flanked by minders. Maybe that's why he's still on the undercard at big events, if he's lucky.
Next, Brit pioneer Rosi Sexton came up against Brazilian Jessica Andrade in the women's bantamweight division. With both coming off losses, there was a lot on the line here with the loser possibly facing the dreaded cut from a loaded division. Not surprisingly, the crowd was right behind Rosi, and the smile on her face as she entered the Octagon was a joy to see. However, the smile didn't last very long as she was picked apart over three rounds by a younger, faster opponent. Nobody could fault the heart of the Manchester native, as she did well to go the distance, the referee almost stepping in to save her several times. It was heartbreaking to watch, but the sad truth is that maybe Sexton is out of her depth at this level.
Someone who is certainly not out of his depth is TUF 17 finalist Luke Barnatt, who had a real tear up with highly-rated Andrew Craig. The Cambridge upstart floored his more experienced opponent twice with strikes before ending the fight with a submission. Any observers couldn't help but be impressed by his striking. Perhaps less-so by his habit of celebrating prematurely. Twice he turned away with his arm raised in triumph, before actually finishing the fight. Headlining the prelims (if such a misnomer exists) was Al Laquinta v Piotr Hallmann in the lightweight division. I like Laquinta, but he hasn't really proved himself at the top level yet, and here he was up against some stiff opposition in the Pole, who despite flying under the radar up until now, has accumulated a pro record of 14-1-0. His submission rate would indicate that he loves taking fights to the ground, but he didn't have much of a chance against the classier Laquinta who won the judges decision.
First up on the main card was a flyweight clash between Portsmouth's Phil Harris and the Brazilian John Lineker (who, allegedly, is named after Gary!). These two have been destined to meet each other for some time, and were originally scheduled to face off in August at UFC 163 where Lineker fought (and beat) Jose Maria when Harris was forced out. Here, they finally clashed. Anyone who was expecting a floor battle would have been disappointed as Lineker lived up to his 'Hands of Stone' monicker and rocked Harris with punches several times in the first round before finishing the fight with a solid body shot. Game over for Harris. Perhaps his only saving grace could be the fact that Lineker failed to make weight, not for the first time in his career, which didn't cast him in a good light with the UFC hierarchy.
Next up was Italy's Alessio Sakara against Sweden's Nicholas Musoke at Middleweight. Sakara is the wrong side of 30 and has lost his last three match-ups, admittedly against world-class opposition, so he was probably fighting in the last chance saloon tonight. Despite wins becoming increasingly rare, Sakara usually puts on an exciting fight but in the opposite corner, Musoke, taking his bow in the Octagon, is a largely unknown quantity. Both fighters came out swinging to roars of approval from the crowd, and both were clearly rocked in some frantic opening exchanges. After a spell against the cage, Musoke then took Sakara to the ground, where again it was a see-saw battle with both fighters going for subs. Sakara seemed to be getting the better of it and was throwing some serious leather from the top, until he left an arm out and quick as a flash, Musoke grabbed it and held for an arm-bar. Welcome to the UFC, Nicholas.
Irishman Norman Parke was up next, the 26-year old fighting John Tuck at lightweight. The popular and talented Parke is a familiar name to most UFC followers after winning The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes last year, beating fellow Brit Colin 'Freakshow' Fletcher in the final, but since then has been used sparingly by the UFC, his last appearance coming at UFC 162 where he got an impressive decision win over Kazuki Tokudome. Fellow prospect Tuck was a less familiar name, being relatively new to the UFC, but the MMA Lab product started the night with an impressive career record of 7-0-0, including six first round victories, the only blemish being a defeat to Al Laquinta during the entry rounds to TUF: Live, but as those fights are classes as exhibitions it didn't go on his record. All eyes on Parke, then, who did a decent enough job. He threw some good combinations and was never in serious trouble, winning a unanimous decision. Parke, who's record in the UFC now stands at 3-0-0, seems to have all the tools in his locker, but by his own admission he needs to start finishing fights if he is going to make an impression.
Among light Canadian heavyweight Ryan Jimmo's claims to fame is tying for the fastest knockout in UFC history (7 seconds, against Anthony Perosh at UFC 149). Here he took on London's Jimi 'Poster Boy' Manuwa, the former BAMMA and UCMMA champion going in with a faultless record of 13-0-0, with none of his fights ever requiring a judge's decision. Fair to say, then, that this was a 'blink and you'll miss something' kind of fight. The opening round was less than explosive, but Manuwa took the center of the cage and delivered some killer knees and kicks at close quarters. To the frustration of the crowd, Jimmo seemed determined to use spoiling tactics, and time and time again the pair were separated by the referee. Then, with just 25 seconds left in the second round, Manuwa caught Jimmo with a knee to the face. He reeled backward, bounced on his heels, and then slumped to the floor holding his leg in the air. Legitimate injury or not, Manuwa walked away with the TKO.
Ross Pearson has won himself a lot of fans with his tireless work ethic and constant desire to improve, myself included. His co-headliner slot on the bill is well-deserved. However, the Sunderland lightweight faced his stiffest test yet against American striker Melvin Guillard, veteran of 46 professional fights and perennial title contender, but with four defeats from his last six, there were signs that the Young Assassin was on the slide. Plus, tonight he wasn't just fighting Pearson, he was fighting every member of the 21,000 crowd. This was many people's pick for Fight of the Night. Shame it didn't pan out that way. After a frantic opening flurry, Guillard pushed Pearson against the cage and caught him with two brutal knees, opening up a nasty gash on the Englishman's forehead. The only problem was, at least one of those knees were illegal blows. Marc Goddard stepped in quickly and pulled the two apart, while the crowd looked on in bemused silence. From here, the result could have gone a number of ways. Judging by his protestations, Pearson must have thought he'd been TKO'd. Guillard probably thought he was going to get disqualified. But in the end the decision was a No Contest. Another strange and slightly disappointing end to a fight. I'm already looking forward to the re-match.
And so here we are at the headline event. Machida v Munoz. Despite an unimpressive record of three wins against three defeats since losing the world light heavyweight championship to Mauricio Rua in 2010, the Brazilian karate specialist remains one of the most popular fighters in the promotion. Who could forget that front-kick on Randy Couture which one Knockout of the Year in 2011? Coming off the back of a controversial split-decision loss to Phil Davies, Machida could not afford another slip-up tonight. This was his first appearance at middleweight after spending his entire career thus far at light heavy, a move welcomed by many in the sport. His opponent, the Filipino Wrecking Machine, is certainly no slouch, having won five of his last six against some of the best opposition in the world (the defeat coming against current champ and Anderson Silva-slayer Chris Weidman) and fresh from a decision win over Tim Boetsch in July. His game plan coming into the fight would have been simple; clinch, grapple, take the fight to the floor. Basically, grab hold of Machida, known as one of the most elusive fighters in the sport, and don't let go. Of course, having a game plan and seeing that game plan through are two very different things.
Already a favourite, Machida endeared himself to the crowd still further (and showed some impressive local knowledge) by coming out to the Oasis track Fuckin' in the Bushes and some delirious cheering. At middleweight, he looks lean and mean, and wasted no time taking the center of the cage and immediately embarking on his traditional 'feeling out' period. Not that there was much feeling out to be done, with these two being regular training partners. Munoz attempted to stay on the outside, trying to be as elusive as his opponent, and there were early signs that he could have been trying to beat the Dragon at his own game. But then, at about two minutes in, he walked straight into a devastating high kick which dropped him to the canvass. Machida pounced, fists ready, but hesitated, knowing the fight was over. He knew before the referee did, and certainly before Munoz did.
In summary, maybe it wasn't such a good night for the British fighters, but there was hardly a dull moment in a fine night's entertainment. Here's to hoping the UFC comes to these shores again in the not-too distant future. We have some unfinished business, ya'll.