In the wake of UFC 219, after Cris Cyborg rose to her biggest challenge in the UFC and defeated Holly Holm, the question for the greatest fighter in the history of women’s mixed martial arts was simple: What’s next?
Should Cyborg, the featherweight champion, accept the challenge of bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, which would be the most interesting fight that can be made on the women’s side of the sport at this point in time? Or should Cyborg continue to press on while taking challengers in her division, knowing she’s going to overwhelm the majority of her foes?
Surely, no one anticipated that a mere two months later, we’d see Cyborg right back in the cage. Not after Cyborg and UFC president Dana White both dug in their heels in on the opposite directions they wanted to go next. Cyborg, understandably, wanted the UFC to build out the 145-pound division she’s called home for a decade. White, understandably, saw a much bigger money fight in Nunes than anything on the featherweight radar.
But that’s where we found ourselves on Saturday night at UFC 222. Cyborg was brought in to save a show that otherwise might have been canceled or bumped to cable TV had she not agreed to step in and face Yana Kunitskaya at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
This didn’t take long to turn into the one-sided, vintage Cyborg beatdown we were all expecting, as Kunitskaya was added to a list of fighters along the likes of Fiona Muxlow, Faith Van Duin and Charmaine Tweet, who looked psyched out before the fight even started, which assured that it wouldn’t last long.
While that’s not ideal for a main event, simply agreeing to the bout helped facilitate a night in which an entire generation of new stars shined like on few evenings before. If the UFC does end up finally emerging successfully from the turbulence of the transition from Zuffa to WME, UFC 222, with coming-of-age performances by the likes of Brian Ortega and Sean O’Malley and the debut of Mackenzie Dern, could be looked back upon as a major turning point.
A night like this might not have happened had Cyborg not agreed to fight again just two months after a five-round bout with Holm. It might not have happened if White had stuck to his guns and demanded Cyborg take the Nunes fight first.
Instead, we’ve seen a relationship that was contentious at best and hostile at worst grow to the point that, if Cyborg and White aren’t exactly friends -- Cyborg pocketed a half-million for an easy win, while White is a businessman who needed to get on with his show -- then at least it’s no longer counterproductive.
That, in and of itself, is a starting point. And it’s enabling Cyborg to finally receive her due as one of the sport’s greatest fighters of all-time, regardless of gender, on a platform her talents have long deserved.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence Cyborg has a close relationship with Tito Ortiz. Ortiz and White made each other a hell of a lot of money despite a tempestuous relationship. Now it’s Cyborg’s turn to do the same.
UFC 224 quotes
“I took my time in trying to finish him. I knew he was rocked, and when I saw that opportunity to throw an uppercut, I threw it with bad intentions.” -- Brian Ortega explains the sequence in which he became the first fighter to finish Frankie Edgar.
“I just saw [Holloway], he came on The Ultimate Fighter as one of the coaches,” White said. “He looks good, he’s walking good and, I don’t know, we gotta see what his doctor said and when he’s cleared, we’ll make that fight immediately.” -- Dana White is as ready for Max Holloway vs. Ortega as the rest of us.
“Now she’s the champion at 135, she’s calling me out, OK, let’s do this fight. I’m gonna train and be ready and what she’s going to do for me, I don’t think about this. I just think about what I’m going to do to her.” -- Cris Cyborg on Amanda Nunes
”I don’t want the fast track to the top of the division, but I definitely wanna fight soon again,” Dern said. “I’m all about fighting.” -- Mackenzie Dern, after eking out a win over Ashley Yoder in her UFC debut.
Up: Brian Ortega If you’ve been paying attention, then the idea Ortega could become the first fighter ever to finish the Hall of Fame-tough Frankie Edgar wasn’t that crazy. Ortega, after all, long since established that he has every bit the jiu-jitsu game you’d want from the guy who carries the flag for the Gracie Academy of Torrance, Calif., in 2018. That he’d finish Edgar with strikes? Very few saw that coming. But there was Ortega, using a wicked elbow and then patiently finishing Edgar off with uppercuts. Ortega is the complete package, and a match with featherweight champion Holloway is as fine a bout as can be made.
Up: Sean O’Malley O’Malley took a big step toward cementing his status as one of the sport’s true up-and-comers with a thrilling performance in a Fight of the Night victory over Andre Soukhamthath. O’Malley showed off his flashy striking style in the first round of this bantamweight matchup and nearly finished the fight. He had things well in hand when he injured his foot early in the third. And while yes, Soukmahtath made a major mistake in keeping the fight on the ground, O’Malley’s toughness in getting through the round -- he even managed to stand and throw a spinning back elbow during that stretch -- is a sign of his mental toughness. From his propensity for exciting fights to his quirky persona and charisma, the undefeated O’Malley has all the makings of a real star.
Up: Andrei Arlovski The following was noted by my colleague Jed Meshew: “Andrei Arlovski has twice had losing streaks of four (or more) in his career and both times he has rebounded to put together a win streak. That takes some serious heart.” Indeed, it’s not just that Arlovski, who now trains at American Top Team, scored a win over Stefan Struve, it’s the way he did it. He scored more takedowns last night (6) than in his entire UFC career up until that point (3). That shows Arlovski is still learning and growing and passionate at a time when some of his contemporaries are just holding on for a last paycheck or two. While Arlovski’s goal of regaining the heavyweight title is quite a long shot, the fact he’s still plugging away and is still driven is worthy of admiration.
Up: Ketlen Vieira There’s been something of a vacuum in the bantamweight division in recent years. Ronda Rousey ran through a generation of challengers before ultimately giving way to Amanda Nunes, who’s been doing her own job running through the division. But the unbeaten Vieira has done an impressive job picking up steam in a division unduly beset by turnover. While she wasn’t able to finish the always tough Cat Zingano, Vieira put in another strong performance. And coming on the heels of her win over Sara McMann, that gives her back-to-back win over former title challengers. With Nunes likely to fight Cris Cyborg a bit down the road, it’s in Vieira’s interest to take at least one more fight before going for the title, but she’s not far off.
Hold: Mackenzie Dern This sport’s been a bit too eager to find the next Rousey, as has been proven by WME’s attempts to push everyone from Paige VanZant to Michelle Waterson before they’re ready. Dern was the latest to get the “next Ronda Rousey” treatment. But after gutting out a methodical win over Ashley Yoder which both showed Dern is still a work in progress and also her undeniable tenacity, it’s time to pump the brakes a bit and let her grow at her own pace. Fortunately, Dern herself recognizes this and said at the post-fight press conference she should be brought along at the correct pace. Hopefully the UFC recognizes this as well, because the final two minutes of the fight, with Dern dominating on the floor, showed why everyone was so high on her in the first place.
Where do we start? Things got off to an ominous start when word got out that Adalaide Byrd, best known for her infamous 118-110 scorecard in favor of Canelo Alvarez last September against Gennady Golovkin (among others), was back after an NSAC-mandated “vacation.” And Byrd immediately lived up to expectations with a weird 29-28 score in favor of Ashley Yoder in her loss to Mackenzie Dern (check that), one of a UFC record-tying five split decisions on the evening.
Then there was the UFC’s first disqualification of 2018, and a just one, at that. Hector Lombard was DQ’d for drilling C.B. Dollaway with a wicked left to the jaw. Not only was the blow struck well after the horn, but you can also hear referee Mark Smith instructing the fighters to break it up. Smith then went and watched the video replay to confirm his call. Good on Nevada for having instant replay, and good on Smith for making the correct call. We’ve seen way too much leniency from fighters who seem increasingly eager to take advantage of every inch of the rulebook the referees are willing to cede. Lombard was affronted by the DQ, but let’s get real: Sometimes you’re the one guy who gets pulled over for speeding when the cops let a bunch of other people who are speeding go, but that doesn’t mean you weren’t speeding. So let Smith’s ruling serve as a reminder that breaking the pushing the envelope can still have consequences.
Finally, best wished to Mike “Quicksand” Pyle on his retirement. Maybe he didn’t go out the way he wanted in losing to Zak Ottow last night. But the 42-year-old Pyle’s an OG, with a career predating the unified rules. Win or lose, his fights were usually exciting. And it’s rare anyone had a bad word to say about him. Pyle’s time in MMA was well spent.
Fights I’d like to see next: The two obvious ones
No need to get too creative to come up with something after UFC 222. Cris Cyborg vs. Amanda Nunes and Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega are two of the most exciting potential matchups of 2018. The only wrinkles left to figure out are when and where. If that qualifies as a problem, it’s a pretty solid problem to have.
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