The UFC’s traditional New Year’s card went off in a very big way last night to usher in a new year of elite level mixed martial arts. With the FOX deal and more new fans than ever before waiting in the wings, it was extremely important that the UFC start 2012 off on the right foot and UFC 141 certainly achieved that goal. To open the card, undefeated newcomer “The Kid” Jimy Hettes (10-0) announced his presence to the featherweight division in emphatic fashion with an extremely one-sided thrashing of TUF alum Nam Phan (19-11). Rising star “The Mauler” Alexander Gustafsson (13-1) continued to impress with a quick KO of long-time gatekeeper “The Janitor” Vladimir Matyushenko (26-6) only to be outdone by Johny Hendricks (12-1) in the very next bout when he blasted top welterweight contender Jon Fitch (22-4-1) from consciousness in only 12 seconds. The co-main saw a “Fight of the Night”-winning performance from Nate Diaz (14-8) who handily out-boxed “Cowboy” Donald Cerrone (16-5) and in the main event, titanic heavyweights “The Demolition Man” Alistair Overeem (33-12) and Brock Lesnar (5-3) squared off with only the Dutch kickboxing machine left standing after 2:26 of action. The event was a clear winner for the UFC and the fans who got more than their $50 worth, but to assess the damage and gains to the fighters themselves, we turn to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Alistair Overeem: “The Reem” told fans he would win before the second round ended. In fact, he purportedly told his fiancée prior to the fight that he would win in the first round via liver kick. He then proceeded to make both predictions come true. Alistair Overeem, long held in the lower reaches of the heavyweight top ten due to poor competition and a perceived lack of takedown defense, came out of the blocks at UFC 141 and destroyed arguably the best pure wrestler in the heavyweight division. Despite an early cut over his right eye, “Ubereem” collapsed the pocket, bullied Brock Lesnar into the cage, blasted away with several knees, and then dropped the former UFC Heavyweight Champion with a vicious kick to the liver that all but ended the fight. Overeem followed up with punches to get the TKO, and then followed with tremendous respect for his opponent in the post-fight interviews, earning himself his first UFC win, a title shot, thousands of new fans, and the respect of his new bosses in the UFC.
Nate Diaz: The boxing display that Nate Diaz put on against Donald Cerrone was nothing short of brilliant when it comes to the level of striking typically seen in MMA. The Stockton, California native may have been aided by the fact that “Cowboy” was obviously off his game last night, but there is no denying that he was accurate, fast with his jabs, and had impeccable timing throughout the bout. If Diaz can put the mercurial nature of his past performances behind him and continue to fight at that level, he will become a force to be reckoned with in the lightweight division.
Johny Hendricks: Twelve seconds is all it took for bearded blue chip prospect Johny Hendricks to do what hasn’t been done since 2002. With one beautiful punch, Hendricks left Jon Fitch completely devoid of his senses and climbed the cage to celebrate a “Knockout of the Night” victory as his foe mechanically attempted to wrestle referee Steve Mazzagatti. The young welterweight had lost a lot of steam following a decision loss to fellow blue chipper “The Horror” Rick Story (11-4) and the definitive win over a long-time top level contender was exactly what he needed to get the hype train back on the tracks en route to the top of the 170lbs. food chain.
Alexander Gustafsson: December 30 was a very good night to be an up-and-coming prospect in the UFC, a fact that held just as true for Alexander Gustafsson as it did for the other blue chippers on the Pay-Per-View broadcast. Like Hendricks, the young Swede had previously lost his hype and his undefeated status to a fellow top prospect and needed something impressive to rekindle the fire fueled by his 4-1 UFC record. Against respected wrestler and supreme gatekeeper Vladimir Matyushenko, he got just that. “The Janitor” was both notoriously durable and entered the cage riding a pair of brutal KO wins and while Gustafsson was a slight favorite, almost no one expected a finish. Gustafsson flashed his foe with a short right hand about halfway through the first and wasted no time in capitalizing on it, scoring the impressive win he needed to get his name back in the hat as a title contender.
Jimy Hettes: “The Kid” came into the Octagon undefeated but still the underdog against an impressive featherweight striker with more than double the number of professional bouts to his name. The young Judoka had a bright future surely, but wasn’t on the fast track in the eyes of most pundits and it appeared he was to be sacrificed to pad Nam Phan’s highlight reel. He made sure that wasn’t the case. Phan was the first fighter to make it the distance against Hettes, but with two judges scoring the fight 30-25 and one handing in a 30-26 that is hardly something to be proud of. Hettes didn’t just upset a favorite, he completely and utterly dominated one, out-landing his opponent 221-25 in total strikes over three rounds.
Brock Lesnar: Love him or hate him, Brock Lesnar always brought an excitement to the UFC that was practically unrivaled. That excitement will be absent from the Octagon now following Brock’s retirement from the sport after his one-sided beating at the hands of Alistair Overeem. Lesnar opened the fight with a jab that cut the K-1 star but then failed a single-leg attempt and it all went downhill from there. Brock did show an improved ability to handle the shock of getting hit, but it wasn’t enough to save him against the most feared striker in the division, if not the sport. Back-to-back losses over a two-year span is hardly the way a fighter wants to go out, but considering his issues with illness and the competition he has to face given his relative inexperience, retirement was likely the best call for Lesnar.
Vladimir Matyushenko: At this point in his career, a loss doesn’t really do a tremendous amount of damage to Matyushenko. He is a gatekeeper, is happy in the roll, and is seen as one of the absolute stiffest tests for up-and-coming light heavyweights in the UFC. However, a brutal KO loss is never a good thing and served as a pointed reminder that “The Janitor” is an aging fighter who isn’t able to compete at the absolute highest level anymore, which in turn takes away from the fighters who managed to beat him to earn their stripes.
Donald Cerrone: “Cowboy” did a tremendous amount of smack talking prior to his bout with Nick Diaz and did almost nothing to back it up. Though the fact that Nick Diaz had the best night of his career and the added healing salve of a “Fight of the Night” bonus do ease the sting a bit, Cerrone still had a terrible performance. The Muay Thai world champ showed no footwork or head movement, was slow to counter, had trouble putting together combinations, and failed to follow up on the damage he caused with leg kicks. The killer instinct that Cerrone built his career on was not present at all in the Octagon against Diaz and damage caused by the lackluster showing will take several solid wins to erase.
Jon Fitch: It is said that a fighter can survive losing if he is exciting, and can survive being boring as long as he wins, but no man can sustain a career as a boring loser. Jon Fitch may find himself on the wrong end of that appellation following his 12-second KO loss to Johny Hendricks. Fitch has been denied more title shots due to a lack of fan interest in seeing him fight than possibly any other fighter in UFC history, but his lengthy winning streaks have always kept him on the main card. A very poor showing in a Draw, followed by an extended leave for injury capped off with a brutal first-round loss will likely be a lethal career cocktail that lands Fitch on the prelims fighting newcomers until he manages another lengthy win streak. Given his age, Fitch will have to start finishing fights convincingly if he wants to even glimpse a title shot again. At 33, he can hardly afford another four-year stretch if he wants to have a chance of beating a welterweight champion in his prime.
Nam Phan: Nam Phan has put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to earn his chops in the Octagon. He came up short on The Ultimate Fighter, then opened his career with a loss that seemed to leave him destined to become another TUF house washout. Back-to-back strong performances against “Bad Boy” Leonard Garcia (15-8-1) seemed to reenergize the young kickboxer’s career and he had a lot of fan support heading into a bout against Jimy Hettes. Then the wheels fell off. The only thing worse for a fighter’s career and reputation than a quick, brutal first-round loss is a totally lopsided decision in which it is painfully obvious that said fighter has no chance. That is exactly what happened to Phan. Hettes looked as if he were just done warming up when his hand was raised after dishing out multiple 10-8 rounds on every judges’ scorecard, leaving Phan looking like a scrub instead of an underdog story come to life.