It would be an understatement to call the UFC’s return to Japan triumphant. We could point to the bevy of exciting finishes as proof enough, but last night’s action seemed to go beyond that. More important to the evening’s success was the way the competitors fought. Surrounded by fans that appreciate the “bushido spirit” above all else, the fighters let it all hang out and battled their way through adversity. The Japanese prefer an entertaining performance over a cautious victory, and from the opening bout to the final bell of the evening, they got their money’s worth.
The final four combatants weren’t able to match the undercard’s highlight-reel stoppages, but the fighters knew the stakes and, to the best of their abilities, showed up to wow the fans.
Quinton Jackson’s hopes to turn back the clock and revive his fan-focused style in Japan faded as quickly as his PRIDE walkout song. Just minutes into his bout with Ryan Bader, as he was pressed against the cage, it was clear that he was battling an opponent whose wrestling prowess promised to stifle whatever energy he’d hoped to bring to Saitama Super Arena. What’s worse, he must have known that there was little he could do about it. Overweight and under-trained, this was the worst Rampage we’ve seen to date. As the second round kicked off he looked slow, sluggish, and outgunned. And that’s when it happened. As Bader delivered a knee toward his head, Rampage caught the leg and scooped him up for a brutal slam. No, it wasn’t as high nor as swift as we’ve seen in the past, but for a man desperately hoping to thrill his fans it was an important moment, and moments like that are hard to come by. Bader was wobbled, but while the effects of the [pretty much illegal] slam were fleeting, Rampage had delivered what was unquestionably the most memorable action in the bout.
Unfortunately for the former Light Heavyweight Champion, that highlight would be his first and last. Bader quickly regained his composure and with it control of the fight. It was a dominant performance that scored him an obvious unanimous decision. Rampage cites a knee injury in training as the reason for his lack of preparation, and while his love of fighting has certainly waned in recent years I’m inclined to believe him. His assertion that he looked better than ever prior to the injury, probably not. At the end of the day, it was a very disappointing performance from Rampage and a notable victory for Bader. The former TUF’er notched a big win against a legend of the sport, and he did so on an important stage.
Before we begin quarreling about the outcome of the main event, let’s all do ourselves a favor and go watch the fight again. Not to see who scored more takedowns in round two, not to count who landed more significant strikes in round four, but to enjoy a damn good fight. In the latest installment of back-and-forth Lightweight title fights, Frankie Edgar showed the heart and determination that earned him the belt in the first place. Those disappointed that he didn’t survive a near-death experience in round 1 got their wish as the second frame wound down. A perfectly placed up-kick dropped the champion, opening his nose like a spigot. But it wouldn’t be a Frankie Edgar fight if he didn’t prove his mettle, and “The Answer” proved once again that he doesn’t have an ‘off switch’, only a ‘reset button’. The champ battled back and looked no worse for wear in rounds 3-5 (aside from his battered face, of course), but at the end of the fight the scorecards didn’t add up in his favor.
For those of you upset at the decision, of whom there are undoubtedly many, take comfort in the fact that Benson Henderson fought like a champion last night. While you may not agree with the judges’ tally, there can’t be any disappointment in having a champion that performs like he does. Henderson exhibited powerful, dynamic striking from the opening bell and he never stopped moving forward. He brought the fight to Frankie standing up and on the ground and was fighting for the finish; it’s not his fault that Edgar can’t be put away. Both men fought beyond expectations and together they earned the $65k “Fight of the Night” bonus.
Edgar’s reign was hallmarked by closely contested battles and instant rematches, and that streak shouldn’t end now. You can argue who won but you can’t argue that it was close, and if anyone deserves a chance to win back his belt it’s Edgar. Dana seems to be leaning toward a different rematch for Henderson in the form of Anthony Pettis. That bout too has an interesting storyline and would yield a night full of fireworks. Either way, the fans will be treated to a blockbuster fight between two competitors that go for broke. If the Japanese fans taught us anything last night, it’s that there’s little else we could ask for.
– Chris Colemon