UFC 156 breakthroughs: Maia joins GSP

February 4, 2013, 1:09 PM

Following each event, I’ll focus our attention on the unheralded athletes who delivered impressive performances over the weekend, introducing you to some emerging talents to keep tabs on in the future and the unsung stars of the last event in the process.

Here’s a look at the under-the-radar athletes who stepped into the spotlight with outstanding efforts Saturday night at UFC 156.

Demian Maia

It’s not that people didn’t think Maia could win the fight. Most pundits — including me — thought of his UFC 156 match-up with Jon Fitch as a coin-flip fight, where the victor would be found in the intricacies of the grappling game and positional struggles.

Instead, Maia blew the doors of Fitch on the ground from Jump Street, charging across the cage right out of the chute to spend most of the first round backpacking the former welterweight title challenger. He similarly dominated Fitch on the canvas in the second and third, earning a clear unanimous decision win by “out-Fitching” Fitch.

What elevates this showing to breakthrough status is that nobody other than Georges St-Pierre had done that to Fitch in the UFC; no one else broke the wrestler down and beat him at his own game so impressively. Whenever you’re in the company of the champion in terms of performance, that’s a good thing, and it should lead to Maia being in the company of the division’s elite going forward.

Tyron Woodley

Woodley’s UFC debut was the most impressive performance of the night for me, trumping Antonio Silva’s knockout win over Alistair Overeem, though the Brazilian heavyweight ended up taking home Knockout of the Night honours.

The former Strikeforce welterweight title contender blistered Jay Hieron with a right hand in the opening seconds of the fight, dropping the veteran to the canvas in a heap. From there, Woodley pounced, and pounded out the victory, earning the stoppage just 36 seconds into the contest.

Entering the UFC with an unjust “blanket” tag, Woodley showed he’s much more than just a top position wrestler on Saturday night. The former University of Missouri standout does have a very strong wrestling base, but brings a strong submission game, and clearly explosive hands to the table as well, and though the 170-pound ranks are already brimming with talent, Woodley deserves to be in the thick of the chase after his stellar performance on Saturday night.

Bobby Green

I have to admit, I expected Green to get suffocated by Jacob Volkmann in his UFC debut, and over the first five minutes, that’s how things played out. But then Green found his groove as Volkmann started to fade, and the former Strikeforce competitor ended up delivering an impressive performance that earned him Submission of the Night honours, and drew high praise from UFC president Dana White at the post-fight press conference.

In the second round, Green put on a “how to do work from inside your opponent’s guard” clinic, landing 30-plus unanswered shots before getting inexplicably stood up by referee Kim Winslow. He mixed it up to the body and head, postured up and landed elbows, and just stayed aggressive and active. Basically, he was the antithesis of Clay Guida last weekend against Hatsu Hioki.

Late in the third, Green was able to reverse a takedown, ending up in mount along the cage, leading to an exhausted Volkmann giving up his back under a torrent of heavy shots. Green took advantage, locked in the rear naked choke, got the win, and then delivered a Triple H-esque water spit as he got his hand raised.

When you have Dana singing your praises after the event, you know you had a very good night.

Dustin Kimura

Young, undefeated, and deft on the ground — what’s not to like about the UFC newcomer?

The 23-year-old Hawaiian made up for missing weight on Friday with a terrific performance on Saturday, earning a third-round submission win over Chico Camus in his UFC debut to push his overall record to 10-0.

Kimura showed a great ground game in his first appearance in the Octagon, winning each of the first two rounds (on my scorecard at least) from the bottom by constantly working for and threatening with submissions. His omoplata sweep was textbook, and the combo triangle choke/armbar he was hunting to end the second was gnarly. Note: gnarly is a good thing.

Coming from the same camp as featherweight prospect Max Holloway, Kimura has a ton of upside, and should be given the time to progress at a natural pace. The bantamweight division has solid depth, and Kimura showed he belongs on the big stage. Now it’s time to start trying to figure out where the young Hawaiian’s ceiling rests.

Francisco Rivera

After an initial 0-2 run split between the WEC and UFC, Rivera has rebounded with a five-fight winning streak, including three consecutive strong performances inside the Octagon.

Rivera started slowly on Saturday night against Edwin Figueroa, getting picked apart on the feet in the early going, and controlled on the grappling side of things. As the fight wore on, however, Figueroa was unable to maintain his pace, and Rivera started chipping away, finding his range and landing with the power that has made him one to watch in the bantamweight ranks over his last five fights.

Late in the second, “Cisco” connected with a serious right hand, and followed up with more strikes to put away Figueroa. Rivera has very good power for the division, and though he has some flaws, his aggressive striking has made him standout from the crowd over his last three outings, with Saturday’s performance being another quality outing that should make even more people sit up and take notice.

(Note: the middle victory of the three was deemed a No Contest after Rivera tested positive for a banned over-the-counter substance following UFC 149.)

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