The Remix, Vol. 27: Light heavyweight upheaval in Stockholm

Every week, we’ll release a new MMA mix tape entitled “The Remix” that looks back at not only the biggest stories of the last seven days, but some of the ones that aren’t getting enough attention too, with some weekly awards and a prospect to watch going forward added in for good measure.

After a relatively quiet weekend in MMA last week, things picked back up this week and while Andy Ruiz Jr.’s shocking upset of Anthony Joshua has stolen the combat sports headlines (and rightfully so), there is still a bunch to discuss from inside the cage over the last handful of days.

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From some serious upheaval in the UFC light heavyweight division and a couple brilliant returns to some new names to remember and the usual assortment of goodness that comes from a RIZIN event, here are my thoughts on the biggest moments of the weekend.

Anthony Smith, Aleksandar Rakic earn statement victories to shake up top of light heavyweight division

Anthony Smith was in an unenviable position heading into his headlining assignment on the road in Stockholm, Sweden this weekend. Coming off a decision loss to Jon Jones at UFC 235, where he didn’t offer much offense whatsoever, the outcome of his main event matchup against Alexander Gustafsson was either going to prove he was a real deal, top of the food chain fighter in the 205-pound ranks or give folks even more reason to question his credentials and the depth of the division.

After taking the fight to Gustafsson in the opening two rounds, Smith slowed in the second and let the hometown standout back into the fight, only to rebound in the fourth, where he took advantage of a scramble and landed on Gustafsson’s back. Following some deft adjustments, he flattened out the three-time title challenger and sunk in the rear-naked choke finish.

Given that the only people to better “The Mauler” prior to Saturday night were Jones (twice), Daniel Cormier, Anthony Johnson and Phil Davis, it seems safe to say that Smith is definitely a threat near the top of the division. Saturday’s contest showed his ability to make adjustments mid-fight and his under-appreciated submission game, while he earned the type of signature victory that cannot be disputed or diminished.

One fight earlier, Aleksandar Rakic needed just 42 seconds to make his case for a spot in the Top 10 and a major opportunity next time out, leveling British finisher Jimi Manuwa with a blistering head kick that sent the veteran crashing to the canvas in a heap.

Rakic has made major strides over his last three fights and has now earned back-to-back first-round stoppage wins to run his record to 4-0 in the UFC and 12-1 overall. The 27-year-old, who splits time between Gym 23 in Vienna, Austria and American Top Team in South Florida, has all the tools you look for a potential contender and definitely looks like someone ready to make even more noise in the division later this year.

Alexander Gustafsson calls it a career

“The show is over, guys,” Alexander Gustafsson said as he tossed his gloves to the canvas, signaling the end of his career as a mixed martial artist.

While MMA retirements don’t often last long and rarely stick, this one feels different. Saturday was another heartbreaking moment in a career defined by heartbreaking moments for Gustafsson, who just came around at the absolute worst possible time to be trying to capture gold in the UFC light heavyweight division.

After three failed attempts to win the title, Gustafsson went into his main event showdown with Smith saying all the right things – that he wanted to fight more frequently and didn’t care about the title; he had put Jones and their drawn out rivalry behind him; he was excited, happy and pumped to be fighting on home soil once again.

You could see on his face as he fought back tears following the contest that all of it was true, which made the loss all the more crushing, because none of it mattered. Physically, the talent is still there and his mindset was right heading into the cage, but as soon as the fight started, Gustafsson looked like a guy who was going through the moments.

He gave away the opening two rounds by throwing a limited number of strikes and being on the defensive, and the finishing sequence felt more like him accepting his fate than Smith really leaving him no other outs.

The revisionist history buffs have already been out in full force picking apart his resume and questioning who he really beat, but make no mistake about it: Alexander Gustafsson was a world-class fighter who gave Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier all they could handle when the lights were shining bright and no one will ever be able to take that away from him.

Leonardo Santos delivers this week’s reminder that lightweight is loaded

Not too long ago, I mentioned how I used to do a “10 Reasons to Watch” series and included “This Week’s Important Lightweight Matchup” or something to that effect as one of the 10 reasons every week.

It started out as a playful nod to the depth of the 155-pound weight class, but became a true commentary on the complexion of each card and the lightweight landscape and even though I’m no longer writing that series, it still holds true today.

Leonardo Santos proved that on Saturday in Stockholm.

Fighting for the first time in two years and eight months, the 37-year-old strolled into the Octagon and slept Stevie Ray with a clean right hand that you’ll hear more about a little later on. Not only was it a blistering return after an extended absence, but it was also Santos’ fifth consecutive victory in the Octagon and advanced his unbeaten run to seven straight in the UFC and a dozen overall, tracking all the way back to when he dropped a split decision to Kazunori Yokota at World Victory Road Presents: Sengoku 8.

He literally hasn’t lost a fight in a decade, is unbeaten in the UFC and even with his blistering effort over the weekend, there is still no way you’re hustling him into the Top 15 because that’s how deep the division is at the moment.

Alexander Hernandez is stationed at No. 13 right now and he did what Santos did to Ray to a Top 15 fighter, Beneil Dariush, in his promotional debut last year. As great as Santos has looked – and looked again in Sweden – he still needs a couple more strong efforts against more established guys before breaking into the upper tier.

Hopefully it doesn’t take another 32 months for him to get back in the cage.

Fight of the Weekend: Ayaka Hamasaki vs. Jihn Yu Frey at RIZIN 16

Traditionally it’s a back-and-forth, close fight that gets mentioned in this space, but this week, there weren’t any really crucial, tight contests or absolute barnburners that stood out, so I wanted to spotlight an under-appreciated dominant talent who scored another victory over the weekend.

Ayaka Hamasaki has an 18-2 record overall that includes wins over (clears throat) Seo Hee Ham (twice), Mizuki, Emi Fujino, Mei Yamaguchi, Herica Tiburcio, and Amber Brown. She’s now also beaten Frey, the reigning Invicta FC atomweight champion on two different occasions.

This was a rematch of their clash at Invicta FC 19 that was halted after Frey suffered a bad cut in the second round and Hamasaki made it clear that she was the superior talent. She dominated the action throughout to register her fourth straight victory and even at 37 years old, she’s still going strong.

On a related note, as much as everyone thinks they want to see champions from two different organizations square off, this was the second time Frey has faced off with a champion from another promotion and she’s now 0-2 in those contests, having previously lost to Seo Hee Ham, the Road FC atomweight titleholder. As much as it’s cool exposure, chances are Invicta FC isn’t all that pumped about its champion catching a loss elsewhere and entering into her next title defense after being on the business end of a one-sided fight.

Submission of the Weekend: Makwan Amirkhani def. Chris Fishgold at UFC Stockholm

Makwan Amirkhani needs to fight more than once a year.

“Mr. Finland” is an entertaining, charismatic talent and a hell of a fighter too, as he proved again on Saturday by returning for the first time in just over 12 months to submit a game Chris Fishgold in the second round.

The entire sequence leading up to the finish was outstanding, as Amirkhani timed another entry beautifully to put the former Cage Warriors champ on the canvas before calmly extricating his head from the guillotine choke Fishgold was hunting out. From there, Amirkhani laced up the anaconda choke and followed the British featherweight step-for-step as he tried to circle away and create space:

Amirkhani has the “it factor” needed to be a star, but he’ll never get there if he continues to put 12 months between each appearance. Featherweight is brimming with talent right now, so the opportunity is there for him to make a hasty return, take out another up-and-coming name and start making a run at the Top 15; he just needs to grab it and run with it.

Knockout of the Weekend: Leonardo Santos def. Stevie Ray at UFC Stockholm

Aleksandar Rakic’s finish of Jimi Manuwa was fierce and there were a few knockouts on the regional circuit over the weekend that were very much GIF-worthy, but the one that really stood out the most was Leo Santos melting Stevie Ray with a clean right hand on the UFC Stockholm prelims:

Context is a big part of what makes this an incredible finish.

First, Santos is a renown Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt, so the fact that he connected with an absolute no doubt about it, one-hitter-quitter like that is always a stunner, even though he has done it before.

Secondly, this was his first fight in over two years. Seriously. The last time he fought was at UFC 204 in Manchester, England, where he won a split decision over Adriano Martins. With a layoff like that, you’d expect to see some rust, but instead, all you saw was sparks fly when he planted his right hand on Ray’s chin and sent him tumbling to the floor.

Lastly, Ray had only been stopped by strikes once before in his previous 30 fights, when Paul Felder, who was on the call on Saturday, finished him with a series of elbows a couple years back. So, for him to get absolutely folded into himself by a BJJ ace was shocking and shocking earns you Knockout of the Weekend honors.

Prospects to Watch after this Weekend: Raufeon Stots and Cyril Gane

If MMA were like MLB, Raufeon Stots would be that guy tearing the cover off the ball in Triple-A who everyone knows should be playing for the big league team, but somehow still hasn’t been called up. Calling him a prospect at this point feels a little dismissive because he’s polished and proven, as opposed to being a bundle of untapped potential.

The Roufusport product has nothing left to prove on the regional circuit after collecting his fourth straight victory and pushing his record to 12-1 overall Friday night at LFA 68. His only loss to date came against current UFC bantamweight Merab Dvalishvili, who caught him with a spinning back fist 15 seconds into their fight. Otherwise, he’s been perfect, and that includes wins over respected veterans like Jeff Curran and Rob Emerson, as well as fellow prospect Levi Mowles.

The fact that he’s already 30 probably works against him, but that’s the only possible knock on the guy and it’s not really even a knock because 30 isn’t particularly old and it’s not like he’s got a ton of miles on his tires either.

Stots should be in the UFC. He probably should have been there before his lost to Dvalishvili and he definitely should be there now.

Now if we’re talking about untapped potential and obvious upside, that brings us to Cyril Gane, the 28-year-old French heavyweight who went 3-0 under the TKO banner, registering three finishes and establishing himself as one of the most intriguing big men on the rise.

There were some social media rumblings that he had signed with the UFC following his win two weeks ago at TKO 48, although nothing was confirmed by the promotion. But whether it happens now, six months from now or another year down the road, Gane will be fighting on the big stage at some point soon and he’s the kind of prospect who could make rapid gains and turn into a full-blown monster real quick.

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