LAS VEGAS – Yet again, Donald Cerrone proved Saturday night that no matter who the opponent, he is the king of the Fight of the Night award. The lightweight impresario dug himself a deep hole against top contender Ed Ratcliff and was headed toward possible defeat (in his own mind at least) as the final two minutes of the fight ticked away. In MMA’s version of the two-minute drill, Cerrone stalked Ratcliff and scored a dramatic rear naked choke submission with little more than one minute remaining.
“I didn’t have no choice but to finish it because I was down two points. I was losing the fight,” Cerrone said afterward, taking time to apologize for the illegal knees that cost him two point deductions on the judges’ scorecards. “My hat’s off to Ed, he could have quit at any time and got me disqualified if he wanted to.”
The suspense brewed early, with Ratcliff, a considerable underdog, buckling Cerrone, a notoriously slow starter, with a powerful left to the jaw. In the first half of the round, the speedy Ratcliff seemed to be having his way with combinations. Midway through, the momentum shifted, with Cerrone gradually picking up steam, stalking the San Diegan with potent leg kicks and sizzling kicks to the rib area. Knees to the body were also scoring but cost Cerrone in a big way; two of those knees missed their mark and referee Herb Dean imposed a one-point deduction.
Again, in the second stanza, a Cerrone knee smashed into Ratcliff’s groin area, sending Ratcliff writhing on the canvas in pain. Dean again stepped in, deducting a second point from Cerrone – effectively meaning Cerrone would have to stop Ratcliff inside of the distance or probably not win the fight.
With Cerrone racing against the clock, the plot thickened. Ratcliff began to noticeably slow under Cerrone’s non-stop stalking and heavy blows. With Ratcliff weakening, Cerrone sunk in a tight guillotine choke near the end of round two. The horn sounded, saving Ratcliff.
In round three, it became apparent that a fading Ratcliff, welts under both his eyes and struggling to circle away from his stalker, only needed to survive. But Cerrone kept coming. A flying knee by Cerrone was true, followed by a left hand that snapped Ratcliff’s head back. Then Cerrone wrestled Ratcliff to the canvas and cinched in a reverse triangle, combining it with a knee bar. Ratcliff escaped. Time was running out, and a determined Cerrone dragged the action to the canvas once more, this time locking in a rear naked choke at 3:47 of the third round that brought the crowd at Palms Casino Resort to their feet.
Cerrone, 10-2, moved closer to a shot at the WEC lightweight title and said he will be pulling for Benson Henderson to beat Jamie Varner in their title clash on Jan. 10 in Sacramento, Calif.
“I hope Ben wins,” Cerrone said. “I realize Jamie is just not a good guy.”
Ratcliff, meanwhile, did not claim the low blows contributed to his defeat.
“I ain’t making no excuses, man, he did what he was supposed to do,” he said. “Big ups to Donald. With the knees, I knew it wasn’t intentional.”
As it turns out, even if Cerrone had not finished Ratcliff, he would still have won the fight. Judges scored the fight 9-9 in both the first and second rounds. Cerrone would have won the third to pull out the fight, but was unaware of that during the fight, especially since the first round was relatively close.
In other action Saturday night:
Chris Horodecki vs. Anthony Njokuani
Don’t dare turn your back on Anthony Njokuani. That is the painful lesson Horodecki learned in his WEC debut when a vicious high kick sent him crashing to the canvas and in a cloudy state of mind. Njokuani sealed the deal with a barrage of ground and pound shots to the bloodied Canadian, prompting referee Steve Mazzagatti to halt the action at 3:33 of round one.
“He just turned his back, I saw the opening and I went for it -- and then, bam! -- right on the button, baby,” Njokuani said. “This was my best performance. I was timid in my (earlier) fights but this time I let loose.”
The outcome was never in question as Njokuani, enjoying a 6-inch reach advantage over the former International Fight League poster boy, opened with a stiff jab and then two crisp straight rights that bloodied Horodecki’s mouth. Though celebrated as a gifted striker, Horodecki wisely tried to take the fight to the mat, but Njokuani turned the tables on the hard-nosed 22-year-old with a surprise judo throw. A scramble ensued, and Horodecki got back to his feet and ran across the cage with his back to Njokuani, setting into motion the match’s dramatic conclusion.
Njokuani, 12-2, scored his seventh TKO victory and has won three straight in the WEC. The lightning-quick lightweight’s stock is rising fast and he now feels at home inside the cage.
“I’m always going to get better because that’s what I do!!” he said.
Joseph Benavidez vs. Rani Yahya
When he needed it most, against the man he least wanted to fight in the WEC, Benavidez demonstrated that big punchers can come in small packages. Reluctant to go to the mat with Yahya, a grappling wizard, the 5-feet-4-inch Benavidez rocked the Brazilian with a monster right hand early in round one, then consecrated his triumph with a furious ground and pound assault at the 1:35 mark.
Yahya (15-5) had impressed with two stiff left jabs early, perhaps to loosen up Benavidez for a takedown, but Yahya’s porous standup defense eventually betrayed him.
Benavidez rebounded from a loss to Dominick Cruz and improved to 11-1.
Takeya Mizugaki vs. Scott Jorgensen
On any night other than when Cerrone is on the card, this might have qualified for fight of the night. The underdog Jorgensen, perhaps feeling that Mizugaki would be primarily concerned with his wrestling, uncorked a sizzling overhand right in the opening seconds of the fight that put his Japanese foe on his rump. Jorgensen hunted in vain for a guillotine choke on his woozy opponent. Mizugaki, known for his heavy hands, recovered from the onslaught and landed some of his patented combinations. The standup exchanges were heated, and Jorgensen clipped Mizugaki with more hard right hands, putting him to the canvas yet again. Somehow Mizugaki survived the assault and the round ended.
Having forced Mizugaki to respect his hands, Jorgensen kept his opponent off-balance with a swift double leg takedown. This round was close, with both men trading combinations, though the blows were not nearly as damaging as the first stanza. The third round saw Mizugaki flex his own grappling skills, scoring two trip takedowns from the clinch. Jorgensen scrambled for a reversal and the action returned to their feet, where both men landed combinations.
In the end the judges awarded Jorgensen a unanimous decision, pushing his record to 8-3. Mizugaki fell to 12-4-1.
Anthony Pettis vs. Bart Palaszewski
A close fight between two high-level Midwesterners ended with a controversial decision that dealt Pettis, a gifted fighter with top contender potential, the first loss of his career. Pettis came out cocky in round one, holding his hands low and flaunting his chin to Palaszewski as if to tease him, “Go ahead, try to hit me. You can’t.” And, for the most part, Pettis was right. He outclassed “Bartimus” with a fancy repertoire that included a Superman punch that landed flush, a spinning backfist that found its mark, a high kick that was partially blocked, and a sweeping kick across Palaszewski’s face. Apparently, Palaszewski had seen enough and tried unsuccessfully to take the action to the canvas. The Jeff Curran protégé even mocked Pettis’ flashy antics, sticking out his own chin and holding his hands low. At the conclusion of the round Palaszewski jumped on Pettis’ back with both hooks in, but did not come close to finishing it.
Round two seemed to be a definite Palaszewski round, as Pettis seemed to find it harder to land punches and Bartimus scored with a double leg takedown, a solid right hand and leg kicks.
Round three was fairly nip-and-tuck. Pettis clipped Palaszewski with a right hand but the Poland-born fighter responded with his own short right that sent Pettis down, but apparently alert and in control of his faculties. Bartimus scored with punches on top. The action returned to their feet and it seemed Pettis needed to come-from-behind to win. With little more than 30 seconds left, the Milwaukee fighter produced in the clutch – cracking Palaszewski with a booming overhand right that sent him thundering to the canvas. The shot seemed to be much more powerful than the one Palaszewski had landed earlier, and Palaszewski seemed far more woozy than Pettis had been. Pettis pounced on his fallen foe, but Palaszewski weathered the assault and got back to his feet. Judges scores were 30-27 and 29-28 for Palaszewski, and 30-27 for Pettis.
Palaszewski improved to 33-13-1; Pettis fell to 7-1.
Zack Micklewright vs. Muhsin Corbbrey
Corbbrey had a golden opportunity to end the bout when he trapped Micklewright in a tight, deep armbar in the first round. But the moment slipped away as Micklewright stood up and shook his arm free. For much of the remainder of the bout, Micklewright was the aggressor, controlling the clinch with elbows and knees and tagging Corbbrey with crisp left hands and opening a gash on the Georgian’s right eye. Despite professional boxing and Muay Thai experience, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Corbbrey never found his rhythm and never showed a sense of urgency.
The judges award Micklewright, a Marine, a unanimous decision by scores of 30-27 across the board.
Chad George vs. John “The Goat” Hosman
Perhaps the busiest person in the cage for this fight, unfortunately, was referee Herb Dean, who repeatedly had to stand the fighters up from the bottom due to inactivity and stalemates.
George’s takedowns defined the match, as did Hosman locking his opponent in a body triangle and a whole bunch of nothing playing out on the canvas. In the third round, for the fifth time, referee Dean forced the fighters to their feet. With minutes remaining, and Hosman clearly losing the fight, the Illinois native showed no sense of urgency. In fact, it was George who landed three nice left hands as the bout winded down, clinching a unanimous decision victory in his WEC debut.
With the win “The Savage” improved to 11-4. Hosman fell to 17-6-1.
Brandon Visher vs. Courtney Buck
The scouting report on Visher was that the stocky Hawaiian hit hard. After Saturday night, Courtney Buck probably agrees. In a wildly entertaining bout, Buck rushed Visher from the opening horn and tagged him with some decent shots and a few solid knees to the grill for good measure. Visher, a blocklayer, answered with a heavy right hand to the head that knocked Buck backward. Visher landed more powerful combinations, then scored a takedown – and it quickly became clear that Buck, who took the fight on short notice, was vastly out of his element (or as WEC commentator Frank Mir politely phrased it, “Courtney’s not doing anything correctly” on the ground). Visher achieved mount and eventually a scramble ensued with Buck on all fours and Visher raining down punches. Then Buck made a costly mistake, he turned flat on his back – failing to use his hips, arms or legs to defend himself. Visher made him pay with several potent hammer fists. At 4:45 of round one, it was lights out for Mr. Buck.
Visher remained unbeaten at 14-0.
Kyle Dietz vs. Brad Pickett
Pickett, a Brit making his WEC debut, notched his 19th win by surprising Dietz with a wicked Peruvian necktie submission. Pickett controlled most of the fight with takedowns and ground and pound, and withstood a furious flurry of blows by Dietz during the first 20 seconds of round two. Pickett, who trains out of London and supplements his workload out of American Top Team, put away his foe at 4:36 in round two. With the win, “One Punch” improved to 19-4. Dietz fell to 13-2.
Jameel Massouh vs. Erik Koch
Making his WEC debut, Koch showed exceptional poise to protect his unbeaten record while grinding out a unanimous decision win over the veteran Massouh. No blows of consequence were landed in the first round by either fighter, but the action heated up in the second stanza when Koch – while defending a single-leg attack – jumped and kneed Massouh in the face with his free knee. Moments later Koch slipped behind the Wisconsinite and slammed him to the mat.
Again, both men spent a lot time pummeling and re-pummeling in the clinch before the best moment of the fight came late in the second round.
Koch slipped behind Massouh and slammed him to the canvas for a takedown then passed guard and landed a few elbows. Everything Massouh did the 21-year-old Koch seemed to have an answer for. The Iowan simply outhustled and outscrambled Massouh at every turn. At one point Koch took Massouh’s back and came dangerously close to securing a choke, but Massouh gamely survived.
The verdict lacked suspense; Koch won a unanimous decision by scores of 30-27 and improved to 9-0. Massouh fell to 21-7 and dropped his third straight in the WEC.