Former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson needed an impressive victory over an unheralded Rustam Khabilov to keep his name relevant in the 155-pound title picture, and he delivered, submitting the gritty challenger in the fourth round.
The bout served as the headlining matchup of Saturday's "UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs. Khabilov" event, which took place at Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque, N.M.
Khabilov (17-2) was impressive to start the fight, utilizing powerful strikes and impressive grappling to rattle Henderson (21-3) in the early going. But as the bout wore on, the former champion gained steam and the Russian began to slow.
In the fourth round, southpaw Henderson clipped Khabilov with a tricky lead uppercut-left cross combination that sent his opponent toppling to the canvas. Henderson immediately jumped on his opponent's back and locked in a rear-naked choke. Trapped, Khabilov had no choice but to tap out 76 seconds into the frame.
"Anybody who wants to fight for the belt, come see me," Henderson said after the win.
In the night's co-feature hometown lightweight Diego Sanchez (25-7) delivered a typical crowd-pleasing performance, moving forward from start to finish and looking to brawl with British slugger Ross Pearson (15-7). And while it appeared he had come up short at the end of the three-round affair, judges awarded Sanchez a controversial split-decision win.
The three-round matchup was a contrast in styles, as Pearson looked to remain technical and move in and out of range. Meanwhile, Sanchez looked to punch, kick and wrestle his way to victory any way possible. As Pearson's strikes started to add up, blood trickled down Sanchez's face. It was an entertaining scrap, but one that Pearson appeared to have won.
Two of three judges saw it differently, much to Pearson's dismay.
UFC president Dana White, who watched the fights on TV from his home in Maine, called the fight a "robbery."
"What can I say?" Pearson asked after the surprising result. "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."
In a key flyweight matchup, top contender John Dodson (16-6) made his claim for a second crack at the promotion's 125-pound belt with a scintillating win over John Moraga (14-3).
While the pace was moderate for much of the match, Dodson exploded when the opportunity presented itself, eventually rattling off a series of punches punctuated with a knee that broke Moraga's nose. While Moraga made it to the end of the second round, the attending doctor waved off the fight before the third round began.
"I really wanted to go to that third round, so I'm a little disappointed," Dodson said. "I feel like we cheated the fans out of another five hard minutes. I was landing my shots very well, and it seemed like a caught him with everything I threw."
Current UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson puts his belt on the line against Russian slugger Ali Bagautinov at next week's UFC 174 event in Vancouver. Dodson could very well be in line for the winner.