ALBUQUERQUE, June 7 – It’s often the little things that prove a fighter’s worth in the Octagon. In a closely-contested UFC Fight Night main event at Tingley Coliseum Saturday night, Benson Henderson proved why he’s still one of the best lightweights in the world, upping his game when necessary to submit Rustam Khabilov in the fourth round.
“Anybody who wants to fight for the belt, come see me,” said Arizona’s Henderson, the former UFC lightweight champion who secured his first finish since a WEC submission of Donald Cerrone in 2010.
Using his lateral movement well, Khabilov let Henderson – and the fight – come to him in the first round, and in the process he was able to get off some hard right counters as well as take Henderson to the mat a couple times. It was a good five minutes to be sure for the Dagestan native.
Henderson’s strikes were landing well in round two, but when the former lightweight boss got over aggressive, it opened him up for a Khabilov takedown. Midway through the round though, Henderson took mat matters into his own hands, putting Khabilov on the canvas and taking his back. In a scramble Khabilov got to his feet, but Henderson kept the pressure on in another intriguing round.
Working his kicks effectively, Henderson remained in the role of aggressor in round three, and he nearly locked on a guillotine choke in the second half of the frame. But Khabilov kept doing a bunch of little things right that may not have been building him a lead, but they were showing that he belonged with the lightweight elite. Even when it appeared he was tiring, he was able to effortlessly score a takedown in the final minute, but it was Henderson reversing position and ending on top, making this a difficult round to score.
In the fourth though, Henderson broke open a close fight and ended it, rocking Khabilov with a right uppercut and then sinking in a rear naked choke that finished him off at the 1:16 mark.
With the win, Henderson improves to 21-3; Khabilov falls to 17-2.
SANCHEZ vs. PEARSON
Diego Sanchez got the homecoming he wanted, but probably not the result he deserved, as he received a three-round split decision win over Ross Pearson that didn’t necessarily reflect the action that took place between the lightweights in the Octagon.
Judge Marcos Rosales saw it 30-27 for Pearson, but was overruled by Chris Tellez (29-28) and Jeff Collins, who somehow gave all three rounds to Sanchez, 30-27.
“What can I say?" said Pearson. "I’m confident that I won every round. I didn’t get hit once. I guess it’s my fault for leaving it in the hands of the judges. That’s happened to me twice now. I’m going to have to think only about myself from now on when it comes to what city that I fight in. It’s not worth my record and my career to let this happen again.”
After whipping the crowd into a frenzy during introductions, Sanchez raced across the Octagon at the opening horn, trying to goad Pearson into a brawl. The cool Brit wasn’t having it though, and he calmly picked at the local hero with hard counters that kept Sanchez from getting into a rhythm. And surprisingly, Sanchez didn’t go back to the wrestling that earned him all his early success, relying on single shots and the occasional flurry, most of which were blocked.
It was more of the same in round two, Pearson accurate and economical with his strikes, Sanchez swinging wildly with his fists while also trying to land with head kicks. “The Nightmare” was picking up the pace though, forcing Pearson to use his legs more in order to stick to his game plan. With a little more than a minute to go, Pearson cut and dropped Sanchez with a right hand. The Albuquerque native jumped up immediately and got back into the fray, finishing strong with his attacks in the final seconds.
Pearson’s discipline continued to be the story of the fight in the final round, as “The Real Deal” simply refused to fight Sanchez’ fight. Instead, he stayed just out of harm’s way while drilling his opponent with enough shots to bloody him. In the end though, two of the three judges at Octagonside didn’t see Pearson’s efforts as being enough to earn him the win.
With the decision, Sanchez, fighting for the first time at home since May of 2004, improves to 27-7; Pearson falls to 17-7, 1 NC.
DODSON vs. MORAGA
Albuquerque’s own John Dodson made a strong statement at home for another crack at the UFC flyweight title, stopping John Moraga in two rounds.
The bout was the second between the two, with Dodson decisioning Moraga in a non-UFC show in 2010.
Dodson kept the fight right where he wanted it in the opening round, tossing off Moraga takedown attempts and landing enough quick shots to put the first five minutes in the bank.
In the second minute of round two, the bout did go to the mat briefly, but it was Dodson retaining control, firing off a fast series of strikes before getting back to his feet. And while the bout settled back into the familiar pattern it had set, in the final minute a left knee to the face bloodied Moraga’s nose and sent him to the deck. Dodson ferociously tried to finish, but the gutsy Moraga made it out of the round.
The Octagonside physician had seen enough though, halting the bout between rounds due to Moraga’s injured nose, causing the crowd to erupt in cheers for their hometown hero.
With the win, Dodson, who lost a close decision to current flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson in 2013, improves to 17-6; Moraga falls to 14-3.
DOS ANJOS vs. HIGH
Brazilian lightweight contender Rafael Dos Anjos scored one of the most impressive wins of his career, spoiling the lightweight debut of Jason High by stopping “The Kansas City Bandit” in the second round.
After a brief feeling out process, High picked dos Anjos up for two takedowns, landing both impressively. Dos Anjos fought well off his back, seeking out submissions until he was able to scramble to his feet. The Brazilian kept the momentum going while standing, landing several solid strikes and then finishing up with a takedown in the closing minute which he followed with a varied array of attacks.
The lightweight traded hard kicks early in round two, with an accidental thumb in the eye from Dos Anjos halting the action briefly. After the break, Dos Anjos continued to tag High with his strikes, High responding with a quick takedown to slow his foe’s momentum. The two shot back up quickly, and it was Dos Anjos jarring his opponent with a left before putting High on his back. High fought his way back up, Dos Anjos trying for a guillotine choke, but when the Kansas City native broke free, he was able to briefly control the action. A hard left by Dos Anjos moments later ended all that, and after High hit the deck, a series of unanswered strikes prompted referee Kevin Mulhall to halt the fight at 3:36 of the round.
With the win, Dos Anjos moves to 21-7; High falls to 19-5.
HALLMANN vs. EDWARDS
Polish lightweight Piotr Hallmann put a significant feather in his cap, submitting veteran Yves Edwards in the third round, marking the biggest win of his career.
Hallmann’s aggressive attack forced the 37-year-old Edwards into a fast-paced battle from the start, but the Texan eagerly stood in and traded with his foe on even terms. Where the Gdynia native pulled ahead was on the mat, where he was able to control matters whenever the bout went there.
Early in round two, Edwards (42-21-1, 1 NC) was inadvertently poked in the eye for the second time in the fight, bringing a halt to the action, but when the bout resumed, so did the back and forth stand-up action, at least until Hallmann (15-2) received an accidental poke in the eye from Edwards. After the fighters were waved back into the fight, it was the same pattern as the first round: Edwards and Hallmann fighting evenly on the feet, but Hallmann surging ahead on the ground.
The third was all Hallmann, but he wasn’t content with a decision win, instead taking Edwards down and submitting him with a rear naked choke that ended the bout at 2:31 of the final frame.
CARAWAY vs. PEREZ
Despite being the “bad guy” against Albuquerque favorite Erik Perez, bantamweight contender Bryan Caraway got the job done in impressive style against “Goyito,” submitting the Mexico native in the second round.
In the classic striker vs. grappler battle, the fighter winning the fight is the one who puts the action where he wants it to go. In the first round, Perez (14-6) won the stand-up battle, while Caraway did his best work on the ground thanks to two submission attempts, making the round a tough one to score.
Getting the bout to the mat early in round two, Caraway (19-7) again sought the tap out as he took Perez’ back, and after some patient ground work befitting his veteran status, “Kid Lightning” got it, sinking in a rear naked choke that forced Perez to tap at the 1:52 mark, silencing the packed house.
The bout was the injury-riddled Caraway’s first since a UFC 159 win over Johnny Bedford in April of 2013.