I was shocked at the lack of buzz surrounding the lead into UFC 268, the UFC’s first return to Madison Square Garden since before the COVID pandemic. Fortunately for us, the fighters weren’t aware of any shortage of interest, delivering the new front runner for event of the year, not to mention one of the greatest cards of all time. The heated rivalry between Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington was squashed when Usman defeated the outspoken Covington for the second time. Rose Namajunas eeked out a close win over Weili Zhang, likely closing the door on that rivalry as well. However, it was Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler that ultimate stole the show with their all-time classic. Yes, I feel comfortable calling it that after a single day has passed. It was that damn good. There’s going to be all sorts of analysis on those three events – rightfully so – but I want to look closer at some of the more overlooked story lines of the tremendous event that was UFC 268 with my Unofficial Awards.
Biggest Jump in Stock: I’m open to arguments, but I’m going with Marlon Vera. Had the Ecuadorian lost – and he wasn’t too far from doing that – he likely would have been relegated to a role as a gatekeeper unable to get over the hump. However, a front kick to the face ended the fight – and created one hell of a visual – and should push Vera into a longtime fixture in the rankings as opposed to someone who vacillates in and out. Even if Frankie Edgar is well past his prime, the former champion has enough name value and was relevant recently enough that Vera finally was able to have his breakthrough moment. Vera has had some higher profile contests against the likes of Jose Aldo, but never got past those challenges. Now that he has finally passed one of those tests, he’s earned a newfound respect.
Biggest Fall in Stock: There were several reasonable candidates in this spot, including the aforementioned Edgar. However, given the loss by Edgar only confirms to many that he is who they thought he was, I opted for a different direction. Thus, I’ll go with Phil Hawes. Hawes looked brilliant for most of his fight with Chris Curtis, but suffered a mental lapse that Curtis capitalized on. If this was the first time something like this happened to Hawes, I would say these things happen. However, this has been a habit for Hawes. It doesn’t look like Hawes is ever going to fully climb over that hump at 32. It’s hard to believe he climbs much higher than he was going into the event.
Best Newcomer: This has typically been an award given by default. Not this time. There are three candidates who would typically be shoe-ins on any other event. How to choose? Given the expectation for Alex Pereira and Ian Garry was that they would win, I’ll go with Curtis. A 12-year veteran of the sport, Curtis retired back in 2019 before deciding to continue his UFC pursuit. Finally making it to the big dance, it looked terrible for him as Hawes beat up on him for four minutes before Curtis landed a pinpoint punch to stun Hawes. I will admit Pereira and Garry look like they will have a bigger impact going forward, which should be the basis of this award, but the occasional exception should be made, especially when so much attention has been given to Pereira and Garry.
Start Typing a Resume: The UFC brass has had a soft spot for Gian Villante, almost akin to that of Sam Alvey. That said, it may have been time to pull the plug on Villante even had he not announced his retirement entering the event if he couldn’t secure a win against Chris Barnett. Villante came up short, resulting in his fourth consecutive loss. Given he has let himself go physically to the point he’s an overblown heavyweight – and has been for several fights – maybe they should have pulled the trigger before this point. Regardless, Villante is a good dude whom we should only wish the best for as he moves on from MMA.
It pains me to put Jordan WIlliams on the list given all he overcame to make it to the UFC, but he is now sitting on a three-fight losing streak, being finished off himself two times. Given he was arguably winning the opening round of his contest with Garry until a perfectly timed counter, it makes it even more painful. I’d love to see Williams circle his way back around, but I don’t think it will happen.
There’s a possibility John Allan returns despite his two-fight losing streak, but the UFC has been less lenient in the past few months with all the new talent they’re bringing in with DWCS. For instance, Andrew Sanchez was let go despite being arguably better than roughly half of the other middleweights on the roster. Allan doesn’t appear to be better than half of the light heavyweights, so I’d guess he’s on his way out.
Saved Their Job(s): I don’t know how accurate it is to say Chris Barnett was going to be cut with a loss, but I’m happy to say I don’t have to find out. Barnett’s infectious energy and enthusiasm was one of the brightest highlights in a card full of bright highlights, securing an incredible finish and ensuring he stays on the roster.
Biggest WOW Moment: This is the hardest time I’ve ever had figuring out this award. At times, I’ve created a second Biggest WOW Moment, but I’d have to create four, maybe five more given the amount of moments that brought people out of their seats. It could be this moment. Or this one. Maybe even this one. I can’t ignore this one either. Or this one. See what I mean? However, I’ll go with the entirety of the fight between Gaethje and Chandler as I was enthralled almost the entire time. Chandler playing more to the crowd over the final minute is about the only time they lost me, but the rest of the contest was authentic drama that had everyone on pins and needles. I don’t believe words can do the fight justice, so if you didn’t see the fight, I encourage anyone to go see it.
Worst Side Gig: It’s no secret Al Iaquinta has transitioned into a successful career as a realtor. That’s the reason we haven’t seen him in two years. In fact, the only thing that lured Iaquinta back into the UFC was an opportunity to fight in Madison Square Garden. However, that also was a huge red flag he was going to fall flat on his face against Bobby Green. MMA isn’t a sport to be partaking in at a high level if one isn’t going to give it their full attention. This is a sport that is dependent upon doing bodily harm. In the short amount of time the fight between Green and Iaquinta, Iaquinta never looked anything like he did in his prime. If Iaquinta isn’t interested in fighting full-time, I’d rather not see him come back.
Worst Job in the World: Speaking of jobs, Shane Burgos and Billy Quarantillo had the unfortunate duty of following up Gaethje and Chandler. They put on a performance that wins a FOTN bonus on 80% of the UFC cards out there and the crowd appeared to be sitting on their hands for most of the contest. Trevor Wittman is indirectly to blame as he would have been working three consecutive fights in the corner of his fighters had Gaethje and Chandler stayed in the third spot on the main card. Regardless, at that point, Namajunas and Zhang would have had the worst job in the world....
Never Seen That Before: Along the lines of proving they had the worst job in the world, I’ve never seen a crowd so silent for such an amazing fight as Burgos and Quarantillo provided. I hope to never see that again. To the credit of Burgos, he didn’t seem to be let down by the lack of reaction from the audience, just happy to get the win in his post-fight interview. I also understand the audience needs time to catch their breath. After so many incredible finishes in a row, followed by Gaethje and Chandler, the audience needed some recovery time.
Ultimate Good Guy: There are some competitors on the roster that are impossible to cheer against given their good nature. Roxanne Modafferi. Court McGee. Stephen Thompson. Chris Barnett can be added to that list. After his win over Villante, Barnett insisted Villante stay in the cage after the contest so Barnett could encourage the live audience to shower cheers upon the retiring fighter as Barnett also played up his accolades outside the cage. The world could use more people like Barnett.
Breaking Kayfabe: The only thing Covington wants is for people to care. If you know his name, you care enough about him to know his name. If you hate him, you care enough about him to hope he loses. Thus, he developed his MAGA persona. Not that there isn’t an element of truth to it – I’m sure he really is a Trump supporter – but he turned up his persona to 11 and people began to take notice. Even though he was finding success early in his UFC run, he wasn’t getting attention as his grinding style isn’t a crowd-pleaser. However, when he turned it up, people began paying attention. There have been moments where Covington “broke kayfabe,” letting everyone know it’s all a schtick. He proved it at then end of the fight with Usman, showing the reigning champion some love and respect after their fight. Of course, he’s picked his schtick right back up, but we should have all expected that.
Silent Efficiency: If you haven’t heard of Nassourdine Imavov, you can be forgiven, even after he delivered an impressive performance against Edmen Shahbazyan. Imavov didn’t do anything flashy in a night that could rewrite several parts of the UFC’s highlight reel, but his surgical approach shouldn’t be overlooked by those who follow the sport closely. Shahbazyan may now be on a three-fight losing streak, but he’s incredibly talented with wins over the likes of Brad Tavares and Darren Stewart, nothing to sneeze at. Imavov picked him apart with ease. Given his fight IQ, you wouldn’t know Imavov is still only 25. I won’t make predictions regarding title shots, but could I see him breaking into the top ten by next year and hanging out there for a long time? You bet your ass I can see that.
The Time is NOW: Not to rip off the John Cena track, but Pereira needs to move with expediency if he wants his MMA run to be more than just a footnote in his storied career. After all, he is 34-years old. Thus, despite entering the UFC with just four professional MMA fights, they can’t spoon feed him. Not that Andreas Michailidis represented a bear of a debut, but he wasn’t a layup either. In fact, Pereira landed almost no offense of note in the first round. While Pereira did turn things around instantly in the second, the first round shouldn’t be ignored by him or his team. Pereira still needs a LOT of work, but he doesn’t appear to be one to doubt and has welcomed the challenge. Good thing, he has no time to waste.