(Rashad returns to his roots. Click here for the full UFC 108 gallery.)
The main story line coming into the UFC’s first event of the decade was, strangely enough, the quality of a card ravaged by illnesses, injuries and a consistent shuffling of fighters from one opponent to the next. Things got so bad that when Vladimir Matyushenko’s oppenent Steve Cantwell had to withdraw the week of the fight, UFC President Dana White told Matyushenko to be ready to cut weight just in case anything happened to either of the main event fighters in the remaining days before the event. Who could blame him? Hell, the cursed card even claimed matchmaker Joe Silva as a victim when he tore a ligament in his knee right before Christmas. Silva should get a big New Year’s bonus, not to ease the pain in his knee but for putting together what turned out to be a great card, against all odds.
Without a title fight or main event star power, fans and media alike panned the event and complained that it wasn’t Pay-Per-View worthy. Referring to message board aficionados and overly critical media members, White got the last laugh. “All these guys are always talking about respecting fighters, but more disrespect was thrown at the fighters than ever. Listen, I think they were trying to take shots at the UFC, but what they’re doing is taking shots at the fighters…we put together the best fights we can and we go promote it. Saying that this card sucked, or that it was lackluster, or that it didn’t live up to being a New Year’s Eve card…these guys always deliver.”
And deliver they did. A solid “Fight of the Night,” seven finishes, six in the first round, and an array of submissions and knockouts that turned a supposed foul ball into a homerun. And then there was the main event between Rashad Evans and Thiago Silva.
Besides their weight and employer, the two had a few more things in common coming into the main event. Both had only one loss on their record, knockout losses to the same man, UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida. They were both thrust into the spotlight when several main events went by the wayside and they both had their moments in the fight, but one failed to capitalize.
If you watched Evans’ last three fights coming into UFC 108, no one could blame you if you forgot that he was a decorated collegiate wrestler. In fact, you’d have to go back over two years to his fight with Michael Bisping at UFC 78 to get any real indication of his mat skills. His huge KO of Chuck Liddell and championship win against Forrest Griffin showcased vastly improving stand up skills while his vicious KO loss to Machida was an indication that standing up with everyone in the division might not be a good idea. One had to wonder how Rashad would come back from that knockout. Some become gun shy while others have short term memory and come out fearless as if it never happened.
And some revamp their game plan and go back to what got them there.
It was clear in the first thirty seconds of the fight that Rashad was going to bring wrestling back into his repertoire when he used his speed and movement to throw a few punches moving forward and immediately change levels and take Thiago down. The first ten minutes of the fight were like déjà vu all over again with Rashad repeatedly employing that strategy with great success. While he didn’t inflict any real damage and Silva was able to get up rather quickly after each takedown, he clearly dominated rounds one and two, complete with a few big slams. It was a great strategy against a bigger opponent with very dangerous hands and plenty of power, even if the fans were growing restless toward the end of the second round.
The third started the same way and then a frustrated Silva started to give Rashad the Rashad treatment. After egging on the crowd by repeatedly throwing his hands in the air as if to tell Rashad “how about you stop holding me against the fence and taking me down and stand here with me and fight”, Silva started sticking his chin out, dropping his hands and shaking his shoulders to entice Rashad to get out of his wrestling-centric game plan. It worked, at least for a moment, when Thiago rocked Rashad with a 1-2 combination that had Evans on rubbery legs. Thiago closed on him and landed a few more blows, and then, inexplicably, he let Rashad off the hook. With only a minute left, Silva slowed down, taunting Evans again, even casually walking away and giving Rashad time to recover. Thiago looked like he was a punch or two away from ending the fight, but whether it was his cardio, a rumored ankle injury or he just chose a bad time to forget he needed to finish the fight to win, he let a golden opportunity slip through his fingers.
For Rashad, this fight showed the maturity of an athlete who went back to his roots to get a win over an opponent that he could have taken lightly after the fight he was supposed to have with Quinton Jackson fell through. The game plan was solid and he executed it perfectly for about twelve minutes. He also came out fast and strong, seeming to overcome a tendency he’s shown in the past to give away early rounds. On the down side, Rashad’s less flamboyant performance brought the boo-birds in force when the decision was read. Will he succumb to his own internal desire to strike and hear the cheers against Jackson, a fight Dana said was likely to take place in May? And most importantly, Rashad got rocked in his second consecutive fight and came very close to losing this fight in the third round. Is he over Machida putting him to sleep or does getting rocked here add a layer of doubt to his psyche? Only time will tell and Jackson might just be the test case.
• Paul Daley’s left hand is for real. The brash Englishman scored a brutal knockout of submission artist Dustin Hazelett that left “McLovin” unconscious on the canvas. Daley now has two first-round knockouts over quality competition while the UFC now has a very marketable title contender if he can win another fight, probably against Fitch or Koscheck. Daley, however, would like to face Thiago Alves, lobbying for someone who isn’t going to want to take him down as soon as possible. Call me crazy, but I’d want to match him against GSP as soon as possible if the Canadian beats Dan Hardy in March. Does he deserve a title fight already? Probably not. But it has to be easier to promote a fight with a new, trash-talking opponent for the champ than someone he’s already dominated with no reason to believe it’s going to be any different than the first time.
• Sam Stout looked the best we’ve seen him in upsetting the return of Joe Lauzon after an eleven month absence from the cage. The rust showed, as Stout dominated the second and third rounds by putting on a striking clinic after getting bloodied and almost submitted in the first. “J-Lau” looked like he got slower as the fight went on and his takedown attempts became easier and easier for Stout to shrug off. Each fighter made an extra $50,000 for “Fight of the Night.”
• It was a good night to be a Miller (and a bad one to be a Lauzon) as Lightweights Jim and Cole Miller (no relation) both pulled off slick first round submissions against Duane Ludwig and Dan Lauzon, respectively. Cole transitioned from an inverted triangle to a fight-ending kimura that got him the Submission of the Night bonus.
• Don’t look now but the heavyweight division is becoming one of the UFC’s most exciting. Thank Junior dos Santos for taking Gilbert Yvel out in the first round and making the fans itch to see him against Carwin, Mir, Velasquez and others. The Black House product is now 4-0 in the UFC.
• Jake Ellenberger showed that almost beating Carlos Condit was no fluke as he overpowered Mike Pyle for his first UFC win. Martin Kampmann rebounded from a Daley knockout to submit Jacob Volkmann and probably get him cut from the UFC for a while. And props to Mark Munoz who finally looked like the fighter we kept hearing about from the experts. The dominant ground and pound was in full force against Ryan Jensen who had to tap from strikes in the first round.