No matter how you feel about Daniel Cormier’s claim to the UFC light heavyweight title, there is no denying this: The man can grind.
On his feet or on the ground, Cormier is a brawler who refuses to bend. He proved Saturday night at UFC 192 in Houston that he is relentless, adaptable and capable of winning at the other man’s game – on his feet, throwing punches and coming forward.
More from UFC 192: Post-fight bonus recap | Full results | Fight statistics | Fight Night Blog | Cormier outlasts Gustafsson to win by split decision | Bader wins by unanimous decision in co-main |Pena, Benavidez and Magomedov go distance in wins |KO’s, subs and more in UFC 192 prelims | Northcutt impressive in debut | Lewis, S. Pettis win early| Watch: Rose Namajunas talks to Megan Olivi backstage
His split decision win over challenger Alexander Gustafsson belongs in the category of unforgettable fights: two exhausted warriors who simply wouldn’t back down or give up.
Cormier’s first title defense is a worthy start to today’s Talking Points.
1. And still champion
Cormier figured to take the five-round title fight to the mat, but unbelievably, he had just one takedown, as many as Gustafsson. Instead, he chose to stand up against the big striker, a risky strategy against a man with a sizable reach advantage.
“I wanted to prove that I’m not one dimensional,” Cormier said. “I can stand with the best strikers in the world.”
Cormier won by getting inside, throwing effective uppercuts and pressing the action against Gustafsson, who too often was caught running from the champ. But Gustafsson also landed some impressive shots, including a right knee in the third round that was followed by a left uppercut, putting Cormier down and almost out.
The fight was close, and the judging showed it. One judge had Gustafsson ahead 48-47; two had Cormier in front by 48-47 and 49-46 scores. According to FightMetric, Cormier and Gustafsson combined for 260 significant strikes, a record for the light heavyweight division.
Afterward, Gustafsson was absent from the post-fight press conference because he was receiving medical attention. A battered Cormier, who said he believed he broke his foot during the five-round brawl, required assistance to take his spot onstage.
“You have to tell the truth – that guy beat me up tonight, and made me go to a level I didn’t think I could go to,” said Cormier, who offered tremendous praise for Gustafsson. “And I appreciate him for it.”
As long as former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones remains on the sidelines, Cormier’s belt will always be in question by some fans. But after Saturday night, he has every right to hold his head – and his title belt –high.
2. Movin’ on up
Light heavyweight Ryan Bader has been itching for a chance to fight for the title. He may have earned it with his unanimous-decision win over Rashad Evans.
Granted, Evans hadn’t been in the Octagon in almost two years, but Bader was in control for all three rounds, sticking and moving and landing big right hands.
Both fighters were tactical, keeping their distance and looking for opportunities to score. But Bader landed the better shots, scored three takedowns and held a 57-27 unofficial edge in significant strikes.
Despite the layoff, Evans looked good enough to be a factor in the division. But it was Evans who proved that his next fight could well be against Cormier for the belt.
3. One round, two knockouts
On a night of impressive knockouts, we can’t decide which one we liked more – Albert Tumenov’s TKO of Alan Jouban or Adriano Martins’ finishing right hook over Islam Makhachev.
Both came in the first round and both undoubtedly will put the winners in line for bigger bouts and perhaps top-15 rankings.
Tumenov displayed impressive boxing skills, but it was a head kick that marked the beginning of the end for Jouban, whose move into the top 15 in the welterweight class was slowed by the loss. Tumenov (16-2) followed with a big right hand, a body shot and a left that crumbled Jouban to the canvas.
Martins, a veteran of 38 MMA fights, threw a counter right hook at the 1:46 mark of the opening round that dropped Makhachev on his back. Referee Frank Collazo jumped in immediately to stop the bout via KO.
The win was Martins’ ninth in his past 10 fights and could put him on the lightweight radar. His only loss in that span was a first-round knockout at the hands of Donald Cerrone.
4. The education of “El Pantera”
Yair Rodriguez has gone the distance in each of his past three fights, but he’s so much fun to watch that it’s almost worth it to see his progression in the UFC.
“El Pantera” faced a savvy opponent in Daniel Hooker, who pressed forward for the entire three rounds, but he demonstrated how far he’s come under the coaching of Izzy Martinez, Mike Valle and Greg Jackson.
Rodriguez (6-1) won by unanimous decision, but perhaps more important, he was able to keep his distance, use his kicks to slow Hooker and prove he can fight on his back, using elbows to cut the New Zealander.
At the end, the acrobatic Rodriguez suffered a deep contusion to right foot – it was not broken, as feared -- but he was still standing – and is still getting better.
5. A star is born
UFC president Dana White knew he had something special the first time he saw Sage Northcutt, and now we understand why.
Northcutt (6-0) isn’t just a pretty face with a six pack. The kid has phenomenal skills, although he wasn’t able to show off too many of them in finishing Francisco Trevino in 57 seconds of the first round.
But we saw enough to know that Northcutt, despite being just 19 years old, might have what it takes to become a star in the UFC lightweight division. He took advantage of a slip by Trevino, followed with a barrage of punches, then took down his opponent and kept firing elbows until referee Herb Dean stopped the bout.
Trevino protested, but he wasn’t defending himself – and, as Northcutt said afterward, “Herb Dean knows what he’s doing.”
So does Northcutt, who has finished each of his fights.
6. UFC Girl power
A standing ovation to Julianna Pena and Rose Namajunas, who scored victories that are sure to enhance their title hopes.
Pena won a unanimous decision over Jessica Eye, who was hoping for a comeback win after losing to Miesha Tate in July. Eye was the aggressor early, but she had to work from her back in the second and third rounds and was given a one-point penalty after kneeing Pena in her head.
Pena, who endured a 16-month layoff after a knee injury, is 2-0 since winning “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 18 title and had no trouble calling out bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey afterward.
Namajunas used a standing rear naked choke – only the third such submission in UFC history – to defeat Angela Hill in the first round of their strawweight bout. She’s now 4-2 and figures to remain the No. 4 contender.
Michael Martinez is a longtime sports journalist and former staff writer at The New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News and FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMMartinez