We officially have a frontrunner for event of the year in UFC 261. All three title fights saw emphatic finishes, the other two main card contests featured memorable finishes – even if they weren’t memorable in the good way – and the prelims exceeded expectations on the whole. While it always takes a while for the legacy of an event to truly be written, at this time, there’s a very strong likelihood it could be when Kamaru Usman established himself as… wait. I don’t want to spoil it. Keep reading….
Welcome Back: Ariane Carnelossi and Liang Na wasted no time in reminding everyone why a live audience adds so much to the atmosphere, even for those watching at home. Na burst out of the gate with a takedown attempt and the action never really slowed down from there. There were enough haymakers, submission attempts, and scrambles to fill up an entertaining 15-minute fight, even some 25-minute fights, all in less than 7 minutes. Carnelossi and Na couldn’t have done more to set the tone for the evening, welcoming back the live audience in the process.
Not to be Outdone: The opening contest between Carnelossi and Na was absolute fire. However, Jeff Molina and Aoriqileng weren’t going to be one-upped by the curtain jerker, following up Carnelossi and Na’s barnburner with an absolute inferno. Aoriqileng stalked Molina for the entirety of the contest, firing haymakers and landing his fair share. Molina didn’t go anywhere, patiently getting in his offense, and thoroughly outstriking Aoriqileng down the stretch as the native of China slowed after the heavy pace he pushed.
Biggest Jump in Stock: Had he just grind Masvidal into the ground much the same way he did in their first contest, Usman’s stock wouldn’t have moved very much. Instead, he became the first person to stop Masvidal since 2009 with an absolutely brutal right hand that became a front runner for KOoTY, instantly moving him into the top spot for talks as the present pound-for-pound best in the sport. After all, he is undefeated in the UFC after 14 fights with four successful title defenses who seems to be getting better? 14 fights into his UFC run and it was clear Anderson Silva was on the downside. Usman could very well go down as the GOAT.
Biggest Fall in Stock: I feel miserable saying this, but it has to be Chris Weidman. There’s always a question whether a fighter can successfully return from a broken leg. Perhaps recency bias plays a part in my thought process, but Weidman’s leg break appears to be worse than most other similar leg breaks committed in a similar fashion. Through in the fact Weidman appears to have been dealing with psychological issues prior to this contest given his propensity to being KO’d and something like this won’t help that out in the least. The obvious hope here is the former champ can bounce back strong, but there is no guarantee of that… provided he does bounce back.
Best Newcomer: The early prelims were chuck full of fresh blood, each of the debutants showing reason to believe they could be around for more than just a cup of coffee. However, only Molina is the only one who walked out of the event with a W. He also walked away $50K richer. Only 23, the youngster shows the poise of a veteran already. He may not have the physical toolkits of the other newcomers, but he knows what to do with what he has and should only continue to accentuate that.
Start Typing a Resume: There aren’t any guaranteed releases, but Kevin Natividad and Stefan Sekulic should be aware of the possibility they could hit the chopping block. Natividad in particular appears to be on shaky ground as he suffered his second KO loss in as many appearances. He didn’t really look competitive in either outing either, though it could be argued he didn’t have the time this time around. Sekulic can at least fall back on having an argument he deserved the win over Dwight Grant, but the only excitement in that fight occurred in the last 30 seconds. That could very well negate his argument he deserved the win in terms of his employment status. Regardless, like Natividad, he’s now 0-for-2 in the UFC.
Saved Their Jobs: Kazula Vargas looked like he was being brought in to be fodder for the youthful Rongzhu, but did enough to take home the win. Granted, he’ll keep his job because Rongzhu decided to do as little as possible the first two rounds rather than Vargas looking like he’d made any major strides. I know it won’t happen, but Vargas wouldn’t be out of place sending Rongzhu a thank you card.
Cure for Insomnia: Easily Grant and Sekulic putting on their snoozer. Until the final 30 seconds, both were reluctant to make any serious exchanges, Sekulic due to his respect for Grant’s power and Grant out of his natural inclination to wait for the perfect counter. Thus, there was a lot of staring with feeling out jabs being pumped out more than anything. The contest may have been damaging to Grant’s stock as well even though he walked out with the win.
Biggest WOW Moment: There were a LOT of WOW moments in this card, not all of them good. Watching Jimmy Crute stumble around on a malfunctioning leg was genuinely jaw-dropping. Given two things can be true at once, Weidman’s leg break, though the definition of squeamish, was also a type of wow, even if it wasn’t in the traditional sense. Not even Rose Namajuna’s brutal head kick to put away Zhang Weili was enough to take the claim. As simple of a maneuver as Usman’s right hand was, it was one of the most brutal KO’s coming to memory, putting to sleep Masvidal, a person with the reputation as being largely indestructible. The water/sweat that burst from Masvidal’s head upon the impact only added to the moment. That’s something that will be playing on highlight reels for the rest of the UFC’s existence.
Never Seen That Before: I think we all knew the live audience was going to be excited to take in a live sporting event from the opening bell. But I can’t recall a live audience being so fired up for the opening fight of the evening, especially when Carnelossi and Na had a combined zero UFC wins coming into the contest. Given how people have been pent up for a year, it’s totally understandable. Even if it wasn’t surprising to have that reaction, it doesn’t make it any less notable or special.
Craziest Injury/Never Seen That Before Part II: No, this isn’t in reference to Weidman, as crazy as that was. Unfortunately, we’ve seen that before. No, it was Crute losing all feeling in the lower half of his left leg following a precise low kick from Anthony Smith. He stumbled to the mat as losing the feeling killed his base… and was still able to score not one, but two takedowns despite a leg that clearly wasn’t functioning as the human body is designed to have it function. Limbs were bending in ways they weren’t meant to, making it squeamish to even watch him try to walk as his foot kept turning over as he tried to walk. It was grody, but it wasn’t as hard to watch as Weidman’s shattered leg. Regardless, it was certainly crazier.
Best/Worst Referee Call: It shouldn’t stand out given it was the obvious call to make, but the wild opposition Zhang Weili makes it impossible to ignore Keith Peterson stopping Rose Namajunas from delivering further punishment from being the right call. Zhang may have been conscious and moving when Peterson stopped the fight, but she wouldn’t have been much longer. Perhaps Zhang will recognize that a few years from now, but she’s still upset about it for now.
Best/Worst Doctor Call: It’s safe to say Crute did severe damage to his leg following his injury, but it could have been far worse if the doctor looking him over between rounds let him back out there beyond the opening round. Crute, caught up in the moment, likely would have been willing to sacrifice his MMA future for the chance to win that fight. Lucky for him, that doctor wasn’t about to let that happen.
Forgotten Dominance: There were a lot of memorable performances on the evening. Of course, given the top of the card features the more notable names, thus those lower on the card that put on impressive performances are being forgotten. Thus, Danaa Batgerel, Brendon Allen, and Randy Brown’s first round finishes have all largely been forgotten about less than 24 hours after the end of the event. Typically, they would all be considered for Performance Bonuses. They didn’t get a sniff this time around. Batgerel’s counter right put away Natividad. Allen secured the increasingly rare ankle lock. And Brown rocked Alex Oliveira before putting him away with an RNC. While they may have already been forgotten about, they shouldn’t be.
Forgotten Dominance Part II: It doesn’t feel right not mentioning Valentina Shevchenko given she turned in her fifth consecutive title defense. Not only was it the fifth consecutive successful defense, none of those defenses saw her remotely challenged. In this defense, most saw Jessica Andrade as her biggest challenge to date, but it was apparent very shortly into the fight that Shevchenko was going to do whatever she wanted. People often forget to mention Shevchenko when they talk about the best MMA fighters in the world. They shouldn’t.
Subtle History: It was mentioned during the broadcast that Namajunas became the first woman to regain a title that she lost, but very little was mentioned of that possibility heading into the event. The first person to do so overall in the UFC: Randy Couture. Not bad company to join. Namajunas has a long way to go if she hopes to have a career tract similar to the all-time great, but she’s off to a great start to do just that.