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mma / Columns

Changing of the Guards at UFC 225

June 13, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Curtis Blaydes

Divisions evolve, stars fall, and young blood rises. These are unceasing, natural progressions in the fight game, but it’s still striking when a constant face near the top of the sport falls hard.

UFC 225 was a night featuring one of the best middleweight title bouts in history, as well as the end of the UFC-CM Punk experiment. But the theme of the night that stuck with me most was the fall of divisional staples, and beyond that, the last remnants of an earlier era being swept away.

The most notable bucking of the elite came in the night’s third bout, when Sergio Pettis edged Joseph Benavidez. Since the UFC introduced the flyweight division in 2012, Benavidez has been its second-best fighter. He beat everyone there was to beat at flyweight save for Demetrious Johnson, and prior to that, he beat everyone he faced at bantamweight save for Dominick Cruz.

For more than four years, Benavidez had been on the road back to Johnson, who bested him in two championship matches. He came within striking distance of a third chance after narrowly defeating Henry Cejudo in December 2016, but then an ACL tear pushed him to the sidelines.

Saturday’s bout against Pettis was Benavidez’s return from the Cejudo bout. Perhaps he was rusty. It’s tough to expect a fighter to come back from that injury and from that layoff at 100%. But it was still a surprise when the 24-year-old Pettis edged out Benavidez.

Pettis hurt Benavidez early, was crisp on his feet, and showed good takedown defense. It was a defining win for Pettis, who came out flat against Henry Cejudo in a disappointing December performance, but it now back on the road to a title shot.

For Benavidez, this is a noticeable stumble, but not the end of the road. He could still come back strong, but after his controversial win over Cejudo and now this loss to Pettis, he stands on shaky ground near the top of the division.

Not long after Pettis topped Benavidez in a split decision, Mirsad Bektic took a split decision over Ricardo Lamas. This one was no surprise; Bektic was favored and has had an excellent UFC run. Were it not for a late stoppage loss to Darren Elkins in a fight he had been winning handily, Bektic would have carried an unbeaten record into the Lamas fight.

However, the fight sticks out as Lamas, a top-five mainstay in the featherweight division, has now lost two in a row. The 36-year-old was upset by Josh Emmett in December, and it seems unlikely he’ll return to a position to challenge for the title again. Prior to these losses, Lamas had only fallen to Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes, and Max Holloway in the UFC.

The win is meaningful for Bektic, as he now dips his toe into the title picture for the first time.

In the final preliminary bout of the main card, Curtis Blaydes stopped Alistair Overeem in a very good performance. Blaydes won each of the first two rounds by planting Overeem on his back, and then amped up the pressure in the third to score the stoppage.

Overeem has been stopped before, but he is now 38-years-old coming off back-to-back knockouts. Saturday’s knockout loss marked the sixteenth (T)KO loss of Overeem’s combined MMA and kickboxing career. He also submitted to strikes against Ricardo Arona in 2006. That is a unsettling amount of damage, but despite it, Overeem appears to have every intention to continue fighting.

Overeem came back strong from the first fourteen knockouts. The heavyweight division is weak enough that he could still make some noise after numbers fifteen and sixteen, and probably a future number seventeen, too. However, it’s at a point where someone should step in. Enough is enough.

That doesn’t take away from Blaydes’s performance on Saturday. He was far from the unpolished fighter that fell to Francis Ngannou two years ago, and he now has significant momentum coming off consecutive victories over Overeem and Mark Hunt. Blaydes still has some work to do before he’ll be a strong challenge to heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, who would be able to match his wrestling, but he could be on his way.

In the evening’s other two matches that saw former big stars fall, 39-year-old Andrei Arlovski was competitive with Tai Tuivasa, and 38-year-old Rashad Evans went down quickly to Anthony Smith.

Although he lost to Tuivasa, Arlovski has been remarkable in his ability to dig himself out of tremendous holes. In the twentieth year of his career, he fought closely with a dangerous, much younger fighter.

Evans has now lost five in a row, and he can’t reasonably compete on the UFC level. Smith stopped him in just 53 seconds on Saturday. It was only the third knockout loss of Evans’s career, but he has shown nothing worth getting exciting for since beating Chael Sonnen five years ago. This should be the end of an excellent career for Evans, one of UFC’s last remaining big stars of the initial Ultimate Fighter boom.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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