On Saturday night Henry Cejudo, the champion of the flyweight division that the UFC allegedly wants to cut, knocked out T.J. Dillashaw, the champion of the UFC’s bantamweight division in under a minute. In the UFC’s debut on ESPN, Cejudo overwhelmed Dillashaw and underwhelmed fans, and in doing so drew some remarkable comparisons to the UFC’s first night on FOX eight years ago. On that occasion the UFC booked out a whole hour of television time to show only one fight, the ultra hyped bout between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos for the heavyweight title, which ended up lasting a total of sixty-four seconds. While that was all pretty funny, the comparisons to the UFC’s shambolic FOX debut end there because Saturday night’s card was completely televised and delivered some scrumptious combat sports action.
Cory Sandhagen is the rising name of the bantamweight class, but he had the rug pulled out from underneath him twice in preparing for this card. First Sandhagen was looking to fight the dangerous Thomas Almeida, then the iron-jawed John Lineker, and finally found himself fighting the unknown Mario Bautista. When the fight started Sandhagen immediately established the jab, and then began playing the jab and left hook off each other. Each time Bautista reached to parry, the left hook would slap around the side of his hand and keep him honest. Sandhagen quickly built this into a jab, left hook to the body, and right low kick combination which he found several times. Hooking off the jab is the sign of a smart fighter, hooking to the body off the jab is a level up from that, and adding the low kick on the end is tantamount to striking pornography.
When Sandhagen found his man against the fence he jumped into a bicycle knee and knocked Bautista down. We sometimes call the bicycle knee the “Groenhart knee” in reference to the kickboxer Murthel Groenhart, who has used it in almost every round through a hundred bouts. The best time to attempt it is while along the boundary of the ring or cage because the ropes or fence will cut off the opponent’s retreat, giving him only the options of circling along the fence or covering up. Not only does this massively increase the chances of the fighter scoring with his flying knee, but it also means that if he connects on his opponent’s guard—as is more likely—he can come down onto his feet in boxing range and continue swinging with the opponent pinned against the cage or ropes.
Bautista recovered admirably and took Sandhagen down (putting himself into a reverse triangle choke attempt in the process) and Sandhagen was ultimately able to pick up the submission with an armbar at 3:30 in the first round. While Sandhagen was robbed of the chance at a truly top tier bantamweight opponent, he did get a nice showcase in this one.
Minutes after the brilliance of Cory Sandhagen, the ESPN+ audience was treated to some of the absolute worst striking you will see in a major MMA promotion courtesy of Vinicius Moreira. Moreira is almost exclusively a grappler and was matched against the hard hitting Alonzo Menifield, almost guaranteeing a finish one way or the other. Menifield stormed out the gate and caught Moreira with stiff right hands as Moreira simply covered up. When Moreira recovered it became apparent that he had no ability to move quickly on the feet and would simply try to shield himself when Menifield threw. Rather than pursuing a clinch with urgency, Moreira slowly walked up into naked low kick attempts and ate right hands straight up the center while on one leg. Worse still, Moreira repeatedly attempted a back kick… without looking. On the third effort he was mercifully knocked out.
Joanne Calderwood provided one of her best showings in years against the largely unheralded Ariane Lipski. Calderwood was immediately caught in a whirlwind of punches from Lipski, but pushed forward to the clinch and showed off her grappling from top position through the first round. Having established the fear of the clinch in Lipski, Calderwood was able to work more freely on the feet. Confronted by that Wanderlei Silva inspired windmill of punches, Calderwood worked behind her front kick and her jab.
The front kick needled Lipski in the gut and broke her posture at the hips when she started swinging. The jab—an underused weapon for Calderwood until now—shot down the center of Lipski’s swings, often as Calderwood got her head off line and ducked down behind her lead shoulder.
When the two hit the mat, Calderwood was a constant threat with submission attempts, repeatedly up on her shoulders and threatening arm-bar attempts until the final horn. While it is anyone’s guess how good Lipski actually is (remember, Priscila Cachoeira was somehow an 8-0 undefeated prospect on the regional flyweight scene), Calderwood continued to surprise on the ground and looked far less sluggish than usual on the feet.
Gregor Gillespie ran through his first name opponent, Yancy Medeiros, with no difficulty. It seemed like Gillespie spent the entire fight with his hands locked around Medeiros, and while Medeiros could fight his way up to his feet he could never get free and was always returned to the mat again.
There were a couple of interesting ideas from Medeiros, though. When behind an opponent, Gillespie will often drag his man down into a crab ride, with both shins behind his opponent’s knees. This is an old wrestling staple that has become better melded with the submission grappling game in recent years. Each time Gillespie dragged Medeiros down to the crab ride, Medeiros attempted to scoot back and drag one foot through to attack a leg.
Kazushi Sakuraba famously did this against Carlos Newton in a loose scramble, but with more grapplers now using the crab ride, the opportunities might be there more often. In pure grappling one of the more popular answers to the Miyao brothers’ crab ride game has been trying to pull one leg through and start attacking it instead of trying to scrape them off the back altogether. But a couple of ideas and some grit couldn’t save Medeiros against Gillespie and he was flattened and pounded out from back control in the second round.
Sakuraba’s back scooting knee-bar against Carlos Newton.
Finally, Donald Cerrone saw off yet another young up-and-comer in Alexander Hernandez. Hernandez clearly had the speed on Cerrone and hurt him early with punches. We have written about Cerrone many times at this point because he fights so often, but every time we do the main point is “he struggles if fighters get inside and fluster him, but his intercepting knee can often stop that happening.” Lo and behold, after swinging wildly after Hernandez and going even in the wrestling through the first couple of minutes, Cerrone began timing Hernandez’s charges with the intercepting knee. This was compounded by the fact that Hernandez noticeably stopped escaping out the side door after his attacks and began backing straight up—literally “in and out” on a line. So Hernandez would eat the knee, retreat a step and eat Cerrone’s loopy right hand on the way out despite having the quicker, sharper boxing.
And the slower the rushes got, the more Hernandez was punished. Suddenly Cerrone was able to catch a hold of Hernandez behind the head and hammer home some elbows and knees from a long clinch for every time Hernandez stepped in. Rather than landing a pot shot and getting away clean, Hernandez was landing a pot shot and eating three or four knees, elbows or punches in return as Cerrone bogged him down before he could exit.
There was even some trademark Cerrone rough-housing. When Hernandez entered on punches in the second round, Cerrone performed a "cheeky nodder," getting his head below the much shorter Hernandez’s and making sure the top of his head was at about face level. After grabbing a single collar tie here, he began controlling Hernandez’s right hand in a cross grip.
Last year when Leon Edwards was beating Cerrone to the punch, Cerrone tried to hit a high kick by holding the inside of the glove in the same way.
When a high kick connected midway through the second round, Cerrone followed Hernandez to the floor and achieved the knockout. This marked Cerrone’s 40th fight with Zuffa owned promotions (UFC / WEC), his 30th in the UFC, and his 28th victory inside a major promotion, a stunning figure considering the level of opposition he has faced since he met Danny Castillo in just his eighth professional fight in 2008.
All in all it wasn’t at all a bad start for the UFC on ESPN, and the early numbers seem to indicate an encouraging amount of interest in the UFC on its new network.