1. Respect to Anthony Smith
Although Smith (36-16 MMA, 11-6 UFC) came into this one as the betting favorite, the matchup had similar vibes to his past two fights with Jimmy Crute and Devin Clark in that the promotion was trying to build a newer name at Smith’s expense. He’s made it quite clear at this point, though, that he’s not going to roll over for anyone.
Not only did Smith beat the aforementioned names, but he stopped all of them inside the first round. It doesn’t get much better than that.
I’ve said it publicly before and said it to Smith personally, as well, that I was among the group concerned about his career stability after his back-to-back losses against Glover Teixeira and Aleksandar Rakic. He’s been in the fight game for such a long time it seemed everything caught up to him, and there was genuine concern he was trending downhill in terms of performance and results.
Full credit to Smith in that scenario, though. Instead of putting his eggs in one basket and trying to get another highly ranked name to try to cut straight back to the top, he opted to take the scenic route and agree to a step down in competition. Those can be risky fights, but on the flip side, they can also be confidence-building.
It was the latter for Smith, and he’s now getting rave reviews for racking up some of the best wins of his career.
That’s how it’s done.
2. The Aleksandar Rakic rematch
Staying with Smith, it seems like he’s perfectly set the table to rematch Aleksandar Rakic in the wake of his submission win over Spann.
It’s hard to poke holes in Smith’s logic on this one. Rakic (14-2 MMA, 6-1 UFC) is the last man to beat him, as he did by unanimous decision at UFC Fight Night 175 in August 2020. It was a terrible fight, though, and Smith has opened up about how he wasn’t in a good place mentally for that fight and felt he wasn’t present inside the octagon.
Even on his best day, Rakic is not the greatest matchup for Smith, and “Lionheart” knows that. Still, he wants to show a better representation of himself.
Generally speaking, a rematch like this is not something the UFC has a history of booking. It wasn’t a title fight, wasn’t particularly close and had no controversy involved. However, given the divisional landscape and 205 pounds, it might just work.
Rakic had previously been talking about fighting for the title next, but with champion Jan Blachowicz defending against Glover Teixeira at UFC 267 in October and the winner expected to face Jiri Prochazka, that leaves Rakic in a bit of a holding pattern.
He can’t wait for all that to play out, and will have to take another fight. So, why not Smith? There was a lot of concern around Smith going into their first fight because of the beating he took from Teixeira. The fact it was a dull fight took a lot from Rakic’s performance, as well.
There’s no guarantee it plays out more entertaining a second time around, but given Smith’s current form, a win for Rakic might be even more meaningful than the previous one. It’s certainly worth considering.
3. Devin Clark’s teeth
If you haven’t seen the way Clark’s (12-6 MMA, 6-6 UFC) teeth and gums were utterly disfigured in the three-round light heavyweight co-main event, then you can check it out here. However, it’s not for the faint of heart.
There’s not much more to point out in regards to this topic. Clark is seriously beyond tough to not only fight with that injury, but actually come out and won the third round against Cutelaba (16-6-1 MMA, 5-5-1 UFC).
We’re reminded basically every Saturday how durable these athletes are with inhuman feats of toughness. Clark provided that service to us this week, and hopefully it’s not too drastic or painful of a recovery.
4. Arman Tsarukyan’s breakout
There was a lot that happened on this stupidly long 14-fight UFC lineup, but one of the biggest winners of the night was Arman Tsarukyan because of his breakout performance against Christos Giagos.
Tsarukyan (17-2 MMA, 4-1 UFC) was rightfully a massive betting favorite coming into the lightweight bout, and he treated it as such. He needed just over two minutes to knock out Giagos (19-9 MMA, 5-5 UFC), which was a gratifying way to get his hand raised after going to the judges in his previous three UFC wins.
After losing to Islam Makhachev on short notice in his UFC debut in April 2019, Tsarukyan has now rattled off four straight wins and looks like he’s going to be among the new group of players at 155 pounds.
At just 24 years old, the future is bright for this guy. I’m not sure he’s going to get his wish for a Dan Hooker or Tony Ferguson fight because that wouldn’t do much for the other side, but Tsarukyan’s moxie in already going after the top names is to be admired.
5. Rong Zhu ushers in a new era
Lastly on the UFC front, let’s offer a shout out to the most notable statistic of a busy MMA night (to me at least as the numbers nerd): Rong Zhu became the first fighter born in the 2000s earn a UFC victory.
Does it mean anything really? Probably not, but at minimum it’s a good piece of trivia, and shows that while we’re all getting older, the sport is getting younger.
Zhu’s (18-4 MMA, 1-1 UFC) third-round TKO of Brandon Jenkins (14-7 MMA, 0-1 UFC) was his 22nd career fight, which is ridiculous considering he’s just 21 years old. He’s part of this next wave of Chinese MMA fighters, where the skill level of rapidly evolving by the day.
After losing his UFC debut in April, Zhu delivered a much more complete and tenacious performance against Jenkins. What can this kid ultimately become? It’s too soon to tell. But given his age and experience, he at least factors in to what we could describe as the “new” generation of fighter.
6. Yoel Romero’s Bellator debut falls flat
As we move on to the Bellator front, it’s hard not to be anything but blunt.
Everyone who had concerns about the way Yoel Romero’s promotional debut was put together had their worst fears realized. Matching him up against Phil Davis was a recipe for disappointment from the outset, and it played out as just that in a split decision loss.
Not to say I was rooting for Romero (13-6 MMA, 0-1 BMMA) to win or am hating on Davis (23-6 MMA, 10-3 BMMA) in any way, but as I said pre-fight: This was perhaps the worst and most puzzling booking Bellator could have done for Romero’s debut.
You would think given Romero’s name value and following, it would be best to put him a position to thrive. He came in on a three-fight losing skid and fresh of a UFC title fight loss to Israel Adesanya in a very forgettable affair, and this was the chance to get some momentum back behind him. For me, the solution was placing him in a favorable matchup where he can shine.
Davis, however, is exactly the opposite of that. “Mr. Wonderful” is probably on the back nine of his career, but he’s still very good. Davis is rarely beaten, and when he is, the opponent almost never looks impressive in doing so. He’s never been finished and knows how to get through a fight absorbing minimal damage, and Davis isn’t scared to participate in a low action, low output affair.
This is the recipe for what we got Saturday. To his credit, Davis did fight hyper aggressive in the third round by relentlessly taking Romero to the ground, but it’s not what the majority of people who tuned in wanted to see.
That’s no blame on Davis. He did what he had to do to win, and against someone as scary as Romero, that’s the approach one needs to take. But that was what was wrong with this fight from the moment it was put together.
Romero has now lost four consecutive fights and hasn’t had his hand raised since February 2018. I’m quite curious to know what Bellator’s plans are for him now. It’s probably fair to guess Romero is being paid a pretty penny, and at 44 years old, there’s always questions about how many more fights we’ll get out of him.
The bigger question, too, is to what degree this is salvageable. The hype and anticipation around Romero’s debut was noticeable, but that’s a one-time shot. If he’d won spectacularly he would’ve been the star of the night. Instead, we were given a preview of his ceiling in Bellator.
7. Neiman Gracie has hands
There’s some other stuff that happened on the Bellator card that we don’t need to run over in depth. Just have to give a quick shout out to Neiman Gracie for his destruction of Mark Lemminger.
We know the Gracie’s are all about the jiu-jitsu. Gracie (11-2 MMA, 9-2 BMMA) has racked up the second most submission wins in Bellator history by putting it to good use, but against Lemminger (12-4 MMA, 2-3 BMMA) has shown that’s just an element of his game.
Gracie didn’t need a second of ground control to win this one against Lemminger as he stormed his way to a first-round TKO, and that goes in big credit to coach Rafael Cordiero of Kings MMA, who has put in hard work with Gracie to round out his game.
As Gracie said post-fight, going to the ground with him is always a bad idea. Lemminger isn’t the best barometer , but if Gracie can consistently make opponents uncomfortable standing, he’s going to be a real problem.