Pep Talk: Shades of Gray At UFC Fight Night 20

(Maynard emphasized the boxer in boxer-wrestler last night. Check out the full gallery here.)

The main event of Ultimate Fight Night 20 featured a lightweight showdown between top contender Gray Maynard and Nate Diaz, winner of The Ultimate Fighter Season 5. Maynard came into the fight undefeated in his MMA career, if you don’t count his exhibition loss on the The Ultimate Fighter to – you guessed it – Nate Diaz, including a 6-0 tear in the UFC. He was rumored to be one of two fighters in line for a title shot despite the fact that he carries the stigma of being a winner who doesn’t have a penchant for finishing fights.

Of Gray’s six UFC wins before Monday night, five had come by way of decision, one of those being a split decision win over Roger Huerta. In fact, rumors started to circulate as early as a week ago that the promotion was leaning toward Frankie Edgar for the next shot at Penn and that Gray would have to put on a convincing performance against Diaz to leapfrog Edgar. If those rumors are true, the smart money is that New Jersey’s Edgar is next in line.

Diaz started his UFC career on a nice five fight winning streak, four by submission. Then he lost two in a row, a split decision to Clay Guida and a unanimous decision to Joe Stevenson. Both fighters used superior wrestling to frustrate and control Diaz and establish what looked to be a clear blueprint for any wrestler to beat Nate, especially one with the pedigree and ability of a three-time All-American like Maynard.

But “The Bully” chose to box. Maybe Gray didn’t want to risk getting caught up in Nate’s long limbs again or perhaps he felt the pressure of scoring a big finish to cement his spot as a number one contender. Or maybe, as he put it, “The gameplan and technique went out the window once I saw that dude across from me and I just wanted to throw. I saw his face and I wanted to fight. It was stupid but I hope you guys enjoyed it.”

The pair exchanged verbal and physical taunts for three rounds and engaged in a largely standup battle that saw Maynard throwing the bigger, harder shots. Nate employed the signature Diaz family striking style of pawing and volume punching that did leave his opponent looking the more damaged of the two when the final bell rang. It was enough to convince one of the three judges that he won the fight and Gray walked away with a split decision.

Was it enough to earn a shot at the title? If he only needed a win, yes. An impressive win, probably not. There’s no black and white answer to the number one contender question. Maynard holds a unanimous decision win over Edgar, but it may be that Frankie’s style is considered a potentially more exciting matchup for Penn than the man he coached on Season 5 and introduced to the sport of mixed martial arts. If so, seven straight wins in the UFC won’t have earned Maynard a title shot, but perhaps eight will be enough.

Closing Shots

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over…Aaron “A-Train” Simpson almost had his undefeated record derailed in the first round by a very impressive Tom Lawlor. Simpson was rocked repeatedly and barely made it out of the round. He narrowly won the second round but came on strong against a gassed Lawlor in the third to win a narrow split decision victory. Lawlor, in his second fight at 185 after coming down from 205, looked very impressive and his striking looked vastly improved. Even in the loss, he established himself as one to watch. Simpson, who utterly dominated his first two UFC opponents, Tim McKenzie and Ed Hermann, struggled with the larger Lawlor. Does that raise questions as to how he’ll do as he moves up the ladder or does it speak more to Lawlor being a much better middleweight than we realized? Time will tell.

(Evan Dunham armbars Efrain Escudero at UFC Fight Night 20.)

It Really Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over…On a night when the expected headliners fell short of expectations, one fighter may have served notice that he’s a contender in waiting. Undefeated Evan Dunham was a clear underdog against TUF champ and also undefeated Efrain Escudero and looked like it in the first round. He got rocked and floored by Efrain, ultimately ending up in a guillotine near the end of the round. Dunham came back to win the second round decisively, setting up a fight-deciding third. After escaping an Escudero choke, the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu brown belt sunk in a slick armbar. Efrain did his best Benson Henderson impersonation, holding out as long as humanly possible until his arm was torqued so far that he suffered an injury and had to leave the cage. Lightweights be warned…Evan Dunham is loaded with potential and deepens an already stacked division.

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