Saturday’s UFC Auckland event is in the books, and now that the dust has settled in New Zealand, it’s time to go to the scorecard to see who the big winners were at Spark Arena.
1 - Mark Hunt
Here I am celebrating 39-year-old Daniel Kelly as the hero for all us old folks when 43-year-old Mark Hunt was right here all the time. And while you can certainly claim that Hunt is living proof that the punch is the last thing to go on a fighter, the main takeaway from his fourth-round finish of Derrick Lewis is how patient the “Super Samoan” was in getting the job done. Knowing he had 25 minutes to fight if necessary, Hunt didn’t gas out early in search of the knockout. Instead, he put steady pressure on Lewis, wore him down, and when he had his opportunity to finish, he took it. It was veteran prizefighting at its best, and a statement to the rest of the heavyweight division that Hunt is no gatekeeper. He’s still a “contendah.”
2 - Ion Cutelaba
One of the perks of this gig is that I get into fights for free. But if I didn’t, I would pay to watch Ion Cutelaba fight. A member of the exclusive “Walks it like he talks it” club, the light heavyweight prospect is all offense, all the time, and his intensity is off the charts. Of course, that can lead him to defeat, as it did against Misha Cirkunov and Jared Cannonier, but why put a damper on his blistering 22-second knockout of Henrique da Silva? It was a stark reminder that while this is a sport, it’s also a fight. Cutelaba didn’t need that reminder, saying before the fight, “He will not be able to cope with my blows. He cannot fight with me for more than a round, but if he goes any further, he will pray that it will end sooner with the pain he will have.” Now that’s as real as it gets.
3 - Ben Nguyen
No one will dispute that Ben Nguyen is a young man with a bright future in this sport, but he was going to be the underdog against No. 1 flyweight contender Joseph Benavidez and the man who replaced Benavidez in last weekend’s bout, Tim Elliott. That’s not a slight against Ben “10,” just the reality of the situation. But after Nguyen needed just 49 seconds to submit Elliott, he’s not going to be the underdog against too many 125-pounders moving forward. It was a brilliant finish by Nguyen, but it was his game plan that was even more brilliant. Against an unorthodox fighter who thrives in the eye of the hurricane, Nguyen upped the chaos level himself and beat Elliott at his own game. If he fights a technical, counterattacking fight against Elliott, I don’t think he wins. But he made the right adjustments and delivered the biggest win of his career. And an extra $50k in his pocket doesn’t hurt either.
4 - Dan Hooker
Another young man who left the Spark Arena a little richer Saturday night (Sunday morning in NZ) was Dan Hooker, who scored a devastating knockout win over tough veteran Ross Pearson in his UFC lightweight debut. Hooker always seemed to be that prospect who could beat a certain level of opponent, but then fell short in fights against Yair Rodriguez and Jason Knight. Well, maybe we can chalk that up to him sweating down to the 145-pound weight limit because in his first 155-pound bout in the Octagon, Hooker looked strong, sharp and confident. And what made his win even more impressive is that Pearson didn’t appear to be someone on a three-fight losing streak heading into the bout. “The Real Deal” looked good until the end came; it was just that “The Hangman” looked a little better, and now a tough division has another shark swimming in its waters.
5 - Derek Brunson
Derek Brunson went a long way from North Carolina to Auckland for 76 seconds of work, but I’m sure the middleweight contender isn’t complaining after returning to the win column in impressive fashion last weekend. Showing off a disciplined attack as well as the finishing instincts that now have him winning his last five fights by knockout, Brunson was patient yet emphatic in snapping Daniel Kelly’s winning streak. And yes, Brunson was the favorite going in, but that was the case for a lot of Kelly’s opponents, and the four-time Aussie Olympian still came out victorious. Yet on Saturday, Brunson wasn’t going to let Kelly add him to his victims’ list. Brunson took that favorite status and put a stamp on it, putting himself back on the right track as he chases a middleweight title fight.