Why we need more UFC lightweight title fights, and more of Kay Hansen

MMA

It’s safe to say that a familiar face is back in UFC title contention.

In what could be a fight of the year candidate, Dustin Poirier won a brutal battle against Dan Hooker in the UFC Fight Night main event on Saturday in Las Vegas. Both fighters traded wicked shots from the opening bell, and Poirier took control of the fight in the later rounds.

The win was critical for Poirier, who was coming off a loss in September to world champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. Nurmagomedov is expected to face interim champ Justin Gaethje in a title-unification bout later this summer.

Mike Perry also had an impressive win, and apparently all he needed were his physical tools and moral support at the UFC Apex.

Perry looked sharp and in shape in defeating Mickey Gall by unanimous decision, and he won with only his girlfriend, Latory Gonzalez, in his corner.

ESPN’s expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim weigh in on the wins for Poirier and Perry and more.

What’s your biggest takeaway from the main event?

Helwani: That fight was every bit as good as we thought it was going to be. That’s pretty much all that comes to mind. If you recall, earlier in the week, my bold prediction for this card was that the main event would go the distance. Well, early on, that prediction looked like it was going to be off because of the shots they were throwing and landing. However, I knew it would go 25 minutes because of how supremely tough both are. And 25 minutes it went. What a fight. What a show. What a display of toughness, heart and grit. These are the fights that make us love this sport so much. Hopefully Hooker doesn’t get too down after this one. He’ll be back. He can hang with the elite at 155. Also, the curse of Paul Felder, which is that everyone who beats him goes on to lose their next, is alive and well.

Okamoto: We need more consistent lightweight title fights. This can’t continue. Since Conor McGregor won the lightweight championship in November 2016, there have been four undisputed 155-pound title fights. Four. That’s not fair. This division is full of talented and deserving title challengers. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Justin Gaethje was as frustrated as anyone. It took Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson falling apart again for him to get an opportunity to fight for an interim belt and set himself up for a real title shot. I hate watching a fight such as Saturday’s, in which both guys leave a piece of themselves in there, and not knowing what’s next for the winner because this division never moves. The UFC has to do everything in its power to get this division running more consistently.

Raimondi: Dustin Poirier is still an elite lightweight. He’s still evolving. My favorite moment in the fight was when he had Hooker in a Khabib-esque leg ride in the fourth round. Not only is Poirier one of the best people in the sport — honored Friday with the UFC’s inaugural Forrest Griffin Community Award — but he’s also one of the toughest and most cerebral, a true ambassador for the game, and he isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Hooker is excellent. He did work in the first two rounds. But Poirier, hurt and tired, outlasted him as the fight went on. Let’s not forget that Poirier owns a win over current UFC interim lightweight champion Justin Gaethje. Poirier is right there in the division, despite the loss to Nurmagomedov last year.

Wagenheim: If I’m a UFC matchmaker, I’m looking to book someone from American Top Team against a fighter from across the Pacific. That was proven once again to be a magical combination. Back in March, the promotion’s lone champion from China, strawweight Zhang Weili, was put through the fight of the year by ATT’s Joanna Jedrzejczyk. That bout got a run for its money from Poirier, who also trains in the South Florida gym, and Hooker. If Saturday’s main event had been for only a belt, it might have surpassed the glorious 115-pound tussle in my eyes. What a show of skill. What a show of will.

Who’s next for the winner of the main event?

Helwani: I need to see Dustin Poirier vs. Tony Ferguson next. It makes all the sense in the world. Poirier lost to Nurmagomedov recently, and Ferguson just lost to Gaethje. Plus, on paper, it would be phenomenal, with high stakes attached to it. Let’s go. As for what’s next for Hooker, that one is a little trickier. He’ll obviously need some time off. Maybe Kevin Lee, who is currently rehabbing an injured knee? Charles Oliveira would be fun, but he last fought (and won) in March, so the timing doesn’t work. A Drew Dober-type would be fun, but I’m not sure Hooker would take that. And you know what? I wouldn’t hate seeing Paul Felder vs. Dan Hooker 2, considering that I thought Felder narrowly won their first meeting in February.

Okamoto: For Dustin Poirier, why not Conor McGregor? Why the heck not? When I spoke to Poirier this week, he said he has a habit of living and dying with every result in his fight career, and it has put a lot of pressure on him over the years. Having said that, he also believes that way of thinking affected him negatively before the McGregor fight in 2014, when he lost via first-round knockout. McGregor has apparently been frustrated with the UFC because he wants to fight. Well, here it is. Poirier is ranked above him. This is the one. McGregor wants to prove he’s still elite? Fight Poirier.

Raimondi: Poirier is still on the outside looking in as far as the upper echelon at lightweight goes. Nurmagomedov will defend the title against interim champ Gaethje next. McGregor is still out there lurking, with the UFC wanting him to fight Nurmagomedov as soon as it’s feasible. Perhaps McGregor would be interested in a Poirier rematch. That could be a lot of fun. If not, Poirier is probably stuck with another rising contender next, someone like Hooker. Charles Oliveira comes to mind as a possibility.

Wagenheim: If life were fair, Poirier would be in position to wait for the winner of Nurmagomedov’s title defense against Gaethje. Short of that, he would get the opportunity to avenge his 2014 loss to McGregor and make a huge bank deposit afterward. But all is not fair in love and war and money-fight promotion. Considering that Poirier lost to the champ less than 10 months ago, I’m thinking he will be passed over if Nurmagomedov retains his throne. If the challenger wins the belt, maybe the storyline of Gaethje trying to avenge a 2-year-old TKO loss to Poirier will carry the day, but an immediate Khabib rematch seems more likely. Poirier might be left to fight a guy ranked above him who’s coming off a loss (Tony Ferguson) or one ranked below him who’s on a seven-fight winning streak (Charles Oliveira).

What did you think of Mike Perry’s corner experiment?

Helwani: Hard to hate on it because Perry won and looked good. I have heard from fighters who have said they don’t put a lot of emphasis on corners during fights, so I guess Perry backed that claim up tonight. But in all seriousness, I don’t think this is something that should be replicated, and it’s a little weird that a week after telling me they’d investigate the Robert DrysdaleMax Rohskopf situation, Nevada was OK with this. In any event, it worked out for Perry, and it generated attention, but I think he knows this isn’t sustainable. I suspect Perry will join another team before his next fight. Maybe it’s American Top Team, as his manager Malki Kawa suggested on Twitter, or maybe it’s elsewhere. Who knows with Mike Perry. He always keeps us guessing, and that’s why so many love him. But one thing is certain: Latory Gonzalez is undefeated as a corner woman. Put some respect on her name.

Okamoto: You know what? I am 100 percent good with it. I think it was a brilliant move, actually.

Now, I’ll add to that: I don’t think it’s the smartest thing moving forward. At the end of the day, is it a good idea for a UFC fighter to go into a high-caliber matchup with no one in his corner who can offer advice, recognize injury or provide expertise? Of course not. But I think most of us would agree that Perry looked … different … all week. Maybe he needed to do this one time — prove a point, do it for himself, whatever the case was — so that he could go out on his own and get a win this weekend.

If he moves forward with this peculiar strategy, again, I don’t think it’s a good idea, but the truth is Perry is probably never going to win a championship. He’s an entertainer. To borrow his words, “He knows how to fight.” If, from a mental standpoint, he feels most confident going in there with his girlfriend, that isn’t something I would ever advise someone to do, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world, either.

Raimondi: It worked, mostly because Mike Perry is flat-out better than Mickey Gall. Perry’s strength and athleticism were just too much for Gall, and that had nothing to do with who was in Perry’s corner. The biggest takeaway for me was that Perry was in great shape, and he was polished. Yes, his girlfriend, Latory Gonzalez, was in his corner, but it was clear that Perry took his conditioning and training seriously.

Overall, though, one inexperienced person in a fighter’s corner is a bad precedent. It’s something the commission should take a look at if it happens again. It was funny tonight because Perry is such an over-the-top character. But it’s also a health and safety issue. A corner person is a state-licensed position. It should be taken seriously by the commission, with those licenses going to experienced people who are there to take care of their fighter. MMA isn’t a game; it’s a brutal, dangerous sport.

Wagenheim: Perry fought a more disciplined fight than I’d ever seen from him. Maybe coaching complicates things for the guy, gets him out of his instinctual rhythm. Then again, maybe what we saw was something of a mirage, a deceptive byproduct of an experienced veteran of high-level opposition being in the Octagon with an opponent who had fewer than half as many pro fights. Would Perry have been able to get by without coaches in his corner if he were competing against someone the caliber of Donald Cerrone or Paul Felder, to cite two names on his résumé? Who knows? Let’s chalk this up to Mike Perry being Mike Perry.

Which prospect made the biggest statement?

Helwani: I know Tanner Boser is now 18-6-1 following his vicious, first-round knockout of Philipe Lins on Saturday, but he’s only 28, and that was just his third UFC fight, so I’ll go with the native of Bonnyville, Alberta. In my eyes, he’s still a prospect. How much fun is Boser? The hair, the teeth, the Western Canadian accent … it’s a wonderful package. He’s now 2-1 inside the Octagon, with his lone loss to uber-prospect Ciryl Gane, so I think he’s a name to keep an eye on at heavyweight. Now, if we want to talk about who has the highest ceiling of the bunch, I’ll go with 20-year-old Kay Hansen. In case you missed it, Hansen, who is the youngest woman in the promotion and the second youngest overall (behind Chase Hooper) was signed just six days ago. She’s a big-time prospect and will be a player at 115 for years to come. It was a great win for her Saturday against former Invicta atomweight champion Jinh Yu Frey. That armbar submission was a beaut.

Okamoto: I have to go with Kay Hansen, and it isn’t particularly close for me. Although I wouldn’t say her victory over Jinh Yu Frey was one of the most memorable of the card — there were plenty of other finishes on Saturday that stood out more — a 20-year-old, making her UFC debut, against an opponent with much more experience against better opposition? This result says a lot. Khama Worthy, Tanner Boser, Youssef Zalal, all of them had big wins on the undercard, but there’s something impressive about seeing a 20-year-old win in the Octagon. Not to mention, Hansen’s best skill (at least right now) — her wrestling — should continue to serve her well as she progresses through this division and grows into her body.

Raimondi: Kay Hansen. It wasn’t just that she beat former Invicta FC atomweight champion Jinh Yu Frey with a slick armbar in the third round of her UFC debut. It was that Hansen was able to battle adversity to do it. She clearly had a game plan of getting the smaller Frey down and imposing her will on the ground. Frey had none of that for most of the first two rounds, and she was making Hansen pay for her aggression, popping her with hard left hands. Hansen, to her credit, stuck to her strategy, finally got Frey down in the third and finished the bout that was tied heading into the final round. Hansen is just 20 years old, the second-youngest fighter in the UFC. There is immense potential there.

Wagenheim: It’s tough to go against Kay Hansen, who at 20 years old took out a far more experienced fighter who has been a champion in another fight organization. But I was most impressed by Khama Worthy, who scored his second straight eye-opening UFC win. Last summer he was a humongous underdog when he won his UFC debut. Was that just a matter of his having the night of his life? No, it was not. This time, he took on Luis Pena, who came in with six fights in the UFC, including wins over some seriously legitimate opponents. After a good start by Worthy, Pena put on a dominant display of wrestling in the second round. But Worthy persevered, and when the fight went back to the canvas in Round 3, he was ready. Worthy sunk in a modified guillotine choke to squeeze the air out of any lingering doubts.

Which fighter had the best finish?

Helwani: There were so many good ones to choose from tonight, as this was a fun card with great finishes. In the end, I’ll go with Julian Erosa‘s D’Arce choke. First of all, the fact that he took this fight on four or so days’ notice and was a +400 underdog against the previously undefeated Sean Woodson is impressive in its own right. However, that D’Arce was as slick as can be and came at the end of a phenomenal fight. I love stories such as Erosa’s: Former “The Ultimate Fighter” alum, released in 2016 after going 1-1, gets a second chance on Contender Series two years later, wins that fight, gets signed again, goes 0-3 in the UFC, gets cut, wins a fight on the regional scene and then capitalizes on this opportunity after a visa issue precluded Canadian Kyle Nelson from competing Saturday. Way to persevere, Julian.

Okamoto: Julian Erosa. Four days’ notice against arguably the most promising prospect on the card in Sean Woodson. Was it the “highlight reel” KO we usually think about when it comes to best finish? No. Not at all, actually. But taking everything into consideration — fighting on four days’ notice, the biggest betting underdog on the card, losing the first round, the fact that he has been cut from the UFC before — it’s incredibly impressive. Erosa knew after that first round against Woodson that he had to bite down, eat shots and make the fight ugly, and that is way easier said than done. Not only did he have the intelligence to acknowledge that, but he also had the courage and heart to do it. It’s difficult to not feel happy for him.

Raimondi: I won’t soon forget Tanner Boser, sporting an absolutely glorious mullet, starching former PFL heavyweight champion Philipe Lins with a punching combination for a knockout win. Boser, from Alberta, Canada, is unassuming. Maybe he caught Lins by surprise. Boser let loose with a fast combination and clanged multiple punches off Lins’ head. Lins was out when he hit the ground, spurring referee Herb Dean to dive in and hit a near-judo throw to get Boser off an unconscious Lins. It was a memorable knockout for a fight — and a fighter — many people didn’t have circled coming into this event.

Wagenheim: The second- or third-best finish on this night would have been in the running for top honors on many fight nights. At one point, there were five straight finishes, each a thing of beauty. But I have to go with Julian Erosa’s third-round D’Arce choke, which handed prospect Sean Woodson his first career defeat. Erosa, who twice has been cut by the UFC, came in on four days’ notice and was the biggest underdog on the card. He looked the part in the first round, absorbing a steady diet of straight left hands. But he ate them all and kept coming for more, and when he finally got Woodson on the canvas, he did not waste the opportunity, efficiently and stunningly eliciting a tapout.

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