September 16, 2016

UFC 203: New Contenders Emerge From UFC's Cleveland PPV

By Adam Martin

A lot happened at UFC 203, to say the least. In the main event, UFC Heavyweight Champion and hometown hero Stipe Miocic knocked out Alistair Overeem in brutal fashion to defend his belt and send the fans at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio home happy. It was one of the best heavyweight fights of the year, and made up for the bland co-main event bout between former heavyweight champ Fabricio Werdum and Travis Browne,
an ugly fight that will best be remembered for Browne calling a timeout midway through the fight -- one that referee Gary "Mini Brock Lesnar" Copeland somehow allowed -- as well as for Werdum's post-fight teep kick to Browne's coach, Edmund Tarverdyan. Oh, and one can't forget to mention arguably the most anticipated fight on the card, between Mickey Gall and Phil “CM Punk” Brooks, a fight which saw the former WWE superstar get battered into submission in the first round.

Those three fights were the main attractions on the card, and while only one of them, the main event, lived up to expectations, fortunately there were other less heralded fights on the undercard that made up for the lack of action in the big-name bouts. The two fights in particular that should be mentioned are the bantamweight bout between Jimmie Rivera and Urijah Faber and the women's strawweight bout between Jessica Andrade and Joanne Calderwood, fights that essentially created brand new title contenders in two of the UFC's lower-weight divisions.

In the case of Rivera, the long-underrated 135-pounder defeated Faber, the #2 bantamweight contender, and he did so flawlessly, winning every round en route to a clear-cut 30-27 victory. Rivera, who is now 20-1 in his MMA career and riding a 19-fight win streak, was fairly unknown heading into this fight, but if fans didn't know who he was before this contest, they certainly do now. Other than Renan Barao and Dominick Cruz, no bantamweight has been able to dominate Faber like Rivera did, making his performance all that more impressive. In fact, it was Faber's first non-title loss in his UFC career, save for a featherweight superfight defeat to Frankie Edgar. The fact that Rivera was able to go in there and shut out Faber on the scorecards speaks to his ability as a fighter, and in a seemingly-stacked bantamweight division, Rivera is now a bona fide title contender.

Cruz is the champion, and he's proven he's the best in the world, but there are a bunch of hungry, young up-and-comers coming for his belt, including Rivera, Cody Garbrandt, John Lineker, Thomas Almeida, and even former champ TJ Dillashaw. Not to mention veterans like John Dodson and Bryan Caraway. The bantamweight division has never looked better, and the UFC has tons of options now for Cruz' next opponent. While Garbrandt would figure to be the favorite due to the bad blood he and Cruz have, Rivera is probably the most deserving, considering he just beat the #3 guy in the world and should theoretically take his spot in the rankings. Regardless of whether he gets the title shot next, however, it's clear that Rivera, who is only 27, is an incredible fighter who is finally getting some respect. Don't be surprised if he holds gold around his waist one day -- he's that good.

As for Andrade, the former bantamweight dropped down 20 pounds following an up-and-down career at that weight class, and since moving to 115 lbs, she has looked absolutely incredible,
taking out Jessica Penne via TKO and now Calderwood via submission. Andrade, just 24, is extremely strong for the strawweight division and has all the skills needed to make a run for the belt. Armed with powerful volume striking, a slick ground game, and underrated wrestling, Andrade is already one of the most well-rounded fighters in the weight class, and has arguably emerged as the next title contender after Karolina Kowalkiewicz for champion Joanna Jedrzeczyk's throne. She might have to take one more fight while she waits for those two Poles to fight for the belt, but it's clear Andrade is a top fighter in her division, and she's quickly become a fan favorite, someone fans want to see fight, which you know the UFC matchmakers love.

With UFC cards basically every weekend now, there are so many important fights, and that's why impressive performances like Rivera's and Andrade's are so special, because they really stood out. What Rivera did to Faber, no one besides champions do, and what Andrade did to Calderwood was extremely impressive as well. These are the types of victories that get fighters noticed, and in divisions where the UFC is hoping for someone to stand out and become a fighter fans will pay to watch fight, both Rivera and Andrade are clearly on the right track. It will be interesting to see how the UFC matches these two up next, but they are both deserving of title shots at this point. UFC 203 wasn't the best card ever, but when we look back at this event in a few years' time, we can point to these standout performances as the turning points of Rivera and Andrade's respective careers.


UFC 203: Miocic vs. Overeem took place on September 10, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

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