Aleksandar Rakic earned a career-best victory to insert himself into the light-heavyweight title picture against an underwhelming Anthony Smith in the main event, after active welterweight Neil Magny and new flyweight contender Alexa Grasso had statement wins during a interesting card from UFC’s Apex overnight.
Rakic earns dominant win against an underwhelming Smith
30-26, 30-27, 30-27: Aleksandar Rakic defeats Anthony Smith by unanimous decision
In the pre-fight promo, Anthony Smith said: “I’m no stepping stone for others in the division. Everything he does, I do better. I’m top five for a reason.”
With 48 professional fights to his name (33-15), beforehand, perhaps such defiance against a motivated up-and-comer in Aleksandar Rakic is justified.
Then again, after a forgettable 15-minute showing here, Smith didn’t do himself any favours against Rakic – who improves to 12-2 and was quick to call for a title shot too.
That callout speaks volumes for where we’re at in a busy light-heavyweight division, after news of Jon Jones vacating the title for a heavyweight run was official last week.
In the biggest fight of his career to date, Rakic was dominant from the opening bell and you could be forgiven for expecting more from the 28-year-old.
He said he was going to shock the world again, but instead, we’re left with more questions about whether it was smart for Smith to get such a quick turnaround.
After all, it’s only been 108 days since he was beaten to a pulp by #4 ranked Glover Teixeira back in May. He could have easily been finished again here too.
The pair exchanged stinging leg kicks to start the first round, though Rakic landed the more powerful strikes as Smith was knocked down to the mat in obvious pain.
To his credit, he recovered from a dangerous position while almost managing to reverse into a chokehold before Rakic sensed the manoevure and postured up.
Smith’s corner urged him to stay away from kicking range, which almost seemed like common sense given how much damage Rakic was inflicting with those strikes.
It proved easier said than done though.
They again both landed big shots to start R2, Smith’s big hook had Rakic in a bit of danger before the Austrian-born Serbian’s strength came to the fore as he went defensive.
He responded by shoving the former title challenger to the ground again and did enough to continue landing strikes from top position before the bell sounded.
Smith needed KO, but Rakic was content to frustrate with UD win
Smith’s cornermen didn’t sugarcoat the situation: he was down two rounds and desperately needed a knockout victory in a three-round main event.
Again, he tried an aggressive approach but was greeted with another brutal leg kick and there was more of the same from Rakic.
He landed a head kick combination in quick succession, which again saw Smith stagger back towards the cage and back to the ground they went.
The issue from an aesthetic standpoint was simple: Rakic was dominant in their stand-up battle, but Smith wasn’t going to give up on the ground – as evidenced by his May defeat.
This made for a frustratingly safe R3 from Rakic, who technically didn’t complete any takedowns yet found himself on top on the ground.
As for referee Herb Dean, he stood by and was expecting more activity. Threatening to stand them up a few times, Rakic did just enough to avoid that with persistent knees to Smith’s thigh as you could hear his corner screaming at him to push through and get up.
Rakic prevailed against a top-five contender here, but Smith was poor and didn’t look like he had much more than a puncher’s chance of winning after those R1 leg kicks.
Rakic’s title shot callout reiterates a busy LHW division
By contrast, his opponent was pleased with his display post-fight. He spoke about how people underestimated his skills, before angling for a title shot sooner rather than later.
“It feels amazing. I had a lot of pressure but I’m happy with my performance against a veteran and former title challenger. Everyone underestimates my wrestling and grappling!
I’ve been working for a while – especially for this fight – I showed the world and division that I’m not only a dangerous striker, I can dominate on the ground and am in the top five now.”
He said he’s eyeing the winner of Dominick Reyes vs Jan Blachowicz as his next challenge, but that probably won’t happen after a divisive display like that.
The rankings aren’t always so clear-cut, especially in a division like LHW.
The fact this was a three-round main event doesn’t help his case, so it’d instead make sense to pair him up with another top-five contender to see just how good he is.
Neil Magny stifles returning Lawler to earn impressive scalp
30-27, 30-27, 30-27: Neil Magny defeats Robbie Lawler by unanimous decision
Neil Magny doesn’t have time to waste. Having turned 33 earlier this month, the Haitian Sensation earned his third successive victory in 2020 – across just a six-month period.
Against a future Hall of Famer in #13 ranked Robbie Lawler, the 6ft3in fighter was determined to derail the 38-year-old’s ambitions for a triumphant Octagon return.
After all, he’s only won once since his second welterweight title defence against Carlos Condit in January 2016 – a decision victory against Donald Cerrone the following July.
It’s been a steady slide down the proverbial slope for a former champion, who was previously training partners with Magny.
So this clash – even at three weeks’ notice – always presented intrigue for nostalgic fans interested to see whether Lawler could beat a fellow top 15 contender here.
After landing a handful of bruising body punches and shooting for a takedown, Lawler immediately regretted his decision as it backfired drastically.
Instead, Magny established himself on top and was dominant on the ground in a round that promised much from the opening exchanges but offered little from Ruthless.
Unsurprisingly, there was more of the same from Magny in R2.
He got to work on the ground again after his cornermen stressed the technique surrounding submission attempts. Landing knees while increasing control time too, it was clear he was en route to a dominant victory.
Lawler’s corner knew it too. They passionately urged more activity from him, admitting he needed a knockout in the final round – otherwise he’d lose. Their pleas were futile.
Despite landing a good punch early in R3, back to the ground they went and Magny continued to thrive there. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it right?
They returned to the feet momentarily, providing enough time for Magny to showcase his own stand-up skills while showing that Lawler’s slow reactions were a big problem.
Neil landed a beautiful knee and despite Lawler visibly closing the distance, he wasn’t connecting often enough nor applying pressure when he needed to finish the fight.
It made for an underwhelming finish to what could have been a more entertaining bout, had Ruthless been less gun-shy and actually let his hands go, challenging Magny.
All credit to Magny though, who said he shouldn’t be underestimated in the pre-fight promo and effectively nullified Lawler.
So much so that confidence was coursing through his veins in the final round – he knew the job was done, so displayed his boxing after extended periods on the ground.
Statistic: Neil Magny now has 17 UFC wins, just two behind future Hall of Famer Georges St-Pierre (19) for the most in welterweight history.
Afterwards, he was understandably itching for a higher contender next and didn’t mince words as he wants a fourth fight before 2020 is over.
“It’s definitely a feather in the cap, he’s done amazing things in the sport, it was an honour to face him. Feels good to execute a game-plan, I’m doing the right things and it’s only a matter of time before I am a world champion.
Active on the outside, forced him to throw heavy shots, miss, clinch and look for submissions to finish him. I’m right there for top ten [contenders], let’s not waste any time – there’s plenty left this year. Get me a fight and run to the title.”
Alexa Grasso passes first flyweight test against ranked Ji Yeon Kim
30-27, 30-27, 30-27: Alexa Grasso defeats Ji Yeon Kim by unanimous decision
After losing by majority decision to #7 ranked strawweight Carla Esparza last September in Mexico City during a Fight of the Night bout, Alexa Grasso was slated to face Claudia Gadelha (#6) at UFC 246.
However, failing to make 115lbs saw the bout scrapped and prompted a move up to flyweight. As evidenced by her all-round display on this occasion, that decision has the potential to be a career-defining move going forward.
Initially expected to face Ji Yeon Kim in June on the Poirier-Hooker card, travel restrictions saw it rescheduled for this event.
Unlike the subsequent two bouts, this didn’t disappoint as Grasso immediately went to work, picking apart her #14 ranked opponent.
In R1, Grasso landed more and showed variation with leg kicks as the more aggressive striker. Kim, by contrast, appeared comfortable to counter and pick her punches.
Midway through R2, it was apparent that strategy wasn’t working for Fire Fist – who was initially content absorbing Grasso’s punches but were beginning to take their toll.
She was adjusting her nose, audibly breathing heavier and not landing enough offense of her own against a motivated opponent whose confidence continued to grow.
Quicker on the feet and able to dictate the fight’s flow with good combinations, Grasso staggered Kim with an overhand right and was producing a striking clinic at times.
Jabbing the 30-year-old at range, while continuing to kick at distance, was important to help establish herself as the more dominant fighter whenever they exchanged in close.
In R3, Kim started to increase her urgency and tried to back Grasso into the fence.
They clinched for more than 90 seconds but there wasn’t any substantial work being done by the South Korean, who should have sensed her opportunity to wrestle.
Instead, Grasso took the initiative with a clever outside trip to secure her first takedown since debuting in 2016 – before unleashing some nasty hammer fists to finish strong.
Post-fight, she was happy with her display – rightly so – while discussing the adjustments she’s made recently, especially after securing the aforementioned takedown.
“I feel amazing, starting from zero [in a new weight class].
I just wanted to show that I’m a very hard-working person, I love my job and every time I step in the cage, it shows that I’m evolving. The UFC always give me a name, I’ll be ready.”
Next week, she’ll be ranked inside the flyweight’s top 15 and eyeing a way into the upper echelon of a division that features fellow newcomer Cynthia Calvillo – ranked #2.
Ricardo Lamas survives spirited Algeo to win, is mulling retirement
29-27, 29-27, 29-27: Ricardo Lamas defeats Bill Algeo by unanimous decision
In a Fight of the Night contender to kick off the main card, Ricardo Lamas showed grit and true veteran nous to edge a gritty 15-minute featherweight battle against debutant Bill Algeo.
It was quickly apparent this would be a closely-contested affair: Lamas landed calf kicks that were clearly destabilising Algeo, though the 31-year-old wasn’t fazed in the slightest.
Algeo found himself in potential trouble twice, on the receiving end of a choke hold in the clinch, but once they separated, he continued to charge forward with exuberance.
Instead of being intimidated by a high-quality veteran across the Octagon, he connected with quick punch combinations during an entertaining back-and-forth exchange.
Four minutes into the first round alone, there were more than 100 strikes thrown with both said to be landing at a 40% success rate.
R2 was where Lamas made adjustments to stifle his fast-starting opponent: shooting for an early takedown, which he secured, but Algeo managed to recover from quickly.
Algeo continued to earn success with his elbows in the pocket and as the fight wore on, his confidence was visibly increasing as that striking success was apparent.
Lamas was stunned twice – first with a left hook near the cage, then a bruising knee to the head saw him do a 180 and stagger towards centre-ring.
Did I mention adjustments? Well, Lamas needed to make more and importantly did so in R3, by loading up on leg kicks early and succeeding in taking the sting from Algeo.
Although the debutant’s takedown defence was commendable, Lamas earned another takedown before going to work on the ground with some big ground and pound strikes.
Two more takedowns were completed as Ricardo frantically searched for a submission before reverting back to a swarming flurry, landing ferocious strikes galore.
Algeo, who was entertaining and certainly came to fight, was perhaps lucky to survive the final bell against Lamas – who could have easily been knocked out in R2.
Instead, he displayed more in his arsenal prepared for a gamely debutant, while landing more significant strikes (81) in those 15 minutes than any of his 17 UFC fights to date.
Afterwards, the 38-year-old was in good full spirits during the post-fight interview but admitted it might be his last outing as retirement has been on his mind recently.
“I feel like I look, beautiful! My coach told me my son’s waiting at home to bring home this W, I had to do it. Took him down, showed what I could do. I was trying [to finish it], maybe rushing the submissions.
It’s been a long time, I’ve been wrestling with the idea of hanging the gloves up, but I’ll talk to my family before making a decision. If this is the final time you see me, thank you to all the fans.”
If that was the last time we saw him, it was a fitting way to finish a busy career for the former title challenger – who was surprisingly 1-3 in his last four fights before tonight.
There were two middleweight contests, back-to-back, to end a six-fight prelim card which featured four submission victories.
Impa Kasanganay – awarded a contract on Dana White’s Contender Series this month – marked his UFC debut with a comfortable UD victory (30-27 x 3) against Maki Pitolo.
Pitolo, who has fought on three occasions in the last three months, has now fallen to 1-3 in the UFC after a TKO finish on last summer’s Contender Series 19.
Darren Stewart submitted him with a guillotine choke during the Lewis-Oleinik main card on August 8, having beaten Charles Byrd on the UFC 250 prelims on June 6.
That immediately followed Zak Cummings‘ decision win over Alessio Di Chirico, with the 36-year-old earning his first win since May last year.
This result is the Italian’s third successive UFC defeat – all of which have come from the judges’ scorecards.
In a catchweight (151lbs) bout, Alex Caceres (17-12, 1 NC) earned his second victory in three months – with a 30% pay bonus after Austin Springer missed weight.
Earning a R1 victory via rear-naked choke, this was the 32-year-old’s first submission win since January 2014, against Sergio Pettis.
Sean Brady (13-0) continues making waves in the welterweight division, earning a Performance of the Night bonus for his R2 submission victory over Christian Aguilera.
In the women’s strawweight division, Polyana Viana (11-4) snapped a three-match losing streak with her seventh-career submission win to overcome Emily Whitmire (4-4) early in R1 – this stoppage came via armbar.
She’ll certainly be hoping this propels her towards a win streak, as her last win came against Maia Stevenson in February 2018, on her UFC debut.
Pictures’ source: MMAFighting.com, Cageside Press and Zuffa via Getty Images