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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 224

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On a show that featured a legitimate top tier middleweight fight and a championship women’s bantamweight fight, it appeared most of the talk in the days leading up to UFC 224 centered around Mackenzie Dern, who fit into neither of those categories.

Dern also didn’t fit into what was supposed to be her strawweight division.

Dern arrived in Rio de Janeiro at 139.5 pounds for a fight at 115. The fact that things proceeded from there makes one question the protocol of all involved, because no matter how you slice it, cutting 23.5 pounds, to a 116-pound max, is hardly healthy for a woman of that size. It was also clear, as compared to her other fights, that she came into the fight out of shape. That didn’t play into the result of the fight, as she defeated Amanda Cooper with a quick knockdown and a choke submission.

It was Dern’s third miss at 115 in seven pro fights. After missing by as much as she did, getting down to 123, and her having missed multiple times, the decision should be made for her to move to flyweight.

While an in-shape version of Dern (7-0) may be slightly small for that division, it’s also a division that lacks depth compared to strawweight at this point. She would probably be able to challenge for the championship in that division quicker than at strawweight.

For Cooper (4-4), and all fighters who lose to fighters who miss weight, particularly by that much, the sport should be more proactive and fair, rather than stuck in how it has always been done. Cooper lost, and quickly. But losing to someone who missed weight by that amount should hardly be held against her. This wasn’t a near miss. This was outright cheating, whether intentional or not. In a sport where wins and losses are of importance and bouts are infrequent, something like this can easily change one’s career trajectory.

Perhaps there should be a rule that if someone misses weight by five or more pounds and the opponent agrees to take the fight, they should be in a position to where it’s ruled a no-contest if they lose. That does put the heavier fighter who violated the weigh-in agreement in a position where they can’t get a win, but how is cheating by getting an unfair size advantage any different from cheating by using PED’s, or cheating by winning via foul? It allows the smaller fighter to still fight and get paid, which they wouldn’t if they backed out and then all of their work and sacrifices is for naught. But it also has less of a negative effect on their long-term career if they lose.

Such a move may make no difference for fighters who let their weight get out of control for their division, since those fighters already take a financial hit for a weight miss. But it will at least allow them not to benefit from it.

Let’s look at how fortunes changed for five stars from Saturday’s show in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

AMANDA NUNES Nunes (16-4) is quickly turning into the female version of Demetrious Johnson, a superb all-around fighter who seems to convincingly prove she’s the best in the division almost every time out.

But at the same time, she doesn’t capture the interest of the public. Nunes’ lack of drawing power violates most rules, given her convincing wins over Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey on shows that drew some of the biggest numbers in UFC history. It’s not that people don’t know her and haven’t seen her win impressively in high-profile bouts. It’s not that she fights boring fights. The fact is the public has seen her win big, and she continues to improve her all-around game. But the masses don’t care.

There’s no easy answer to make them care, because it’s not like she hasn’t gotten big exposure in prior fights.

There are two directions Nunes can go from right now. There’s a fight that will draw far better than any other, which would be against featherweight champion Cris Cyborg (20-1). She would be giving up significant size and go in as a major underdog. She’ll make the most money in that fight. And if she could win, it could be the one thing where people would take notice. For better or worse, in the Rousey and Tate fights, to the public, the story was more Rousey and Tate losing and not Nunes winning. If she could beat Cyborg, there would be no way to downplay that accomplishment.

Still, weight classes are there for a reason and it’s not a fight she should be pressured to take. Within the bantamweight division, the next challenger should be Ketlen Vieira (10-0). But with the Vieira fight, to the public, it will be business — or perhaps, lack of business — as usual.

KELVIN GASTELUM Gastelum (16-3, 1 NC) got his hand raised in winning as close a decision as is possible over Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (25-6, 1 NC) in a battle of top middleweight contenders.

Souza clearly won the first round. Gastelum probably won the second due to a knockdown, but if that knockdown hadn’t have happened, Souza probably would have had that round. The third round was a pick-em. Gastelum had a 22-19 edge in significant strikes, but Souza’s strikes seemed to land more solidly. Gastelum seemed fresher, but still did not dominate the round at all.

Media scores from had it 43 percent for each fighter and 14 percent had it a draw. It doesn’t come any closer than that. Nobody was robbed. In a fight like that, the decision comes down to luck as much as anything, and Gastelum was the luckier of the two in getting the split nod.

The middleweight title is at stake on June 9 in Chicago, with Robert Whittaker (19-4) defending against interim champion Yoel Romero (13-2).

The next contender to face the winner of that fight should be either Gastelum or Chris Weidman (14-3). Weidman has two advantages in that discussion. The first is that he beat Gastelum on July 22 via third-round stoppage. The second is that he’s the bigger name of the two.

For Gastelum, a fight with Luke Rockhold (15-3) would make sense, but all the talk is that Rockhold is moving to light heavyweight. If Rockhold is out of the picture, Gastelum facing the loser of Whittaker vs. Romero would make sense. Another opponent that he could face would by Paulo Costa (11-0).

JACARE SOUZA Souza, had he won, would have probably been the clear top contender since he didn’t have a loss to Weidman, the other big contender. He shouldn’t be hurt badly by the loss, but there was the issue of him getting tired and being 38 years old, which plays more into a five-round fight. He could next face David Branch (18-6) or Lyoto Machida (24-8), since Machida is back in the game with his knockout of Vitor Belfort on Saturday.

JOHN LINEKER Lineker (31-8) scored his eighth win in his last nine fights over Brian Kelleher (19-9). The only loss was via decision to current champion T.J. Dillashaw.

Lineker should face either Aljamain Sterling (15-3) or Dominick Cruz (22-2) next. The winner of that fight, and the winner of the June 1 Marlon Moraes vs. Jimmie Rivera fight — whoever looks more impressive in winning should get the Dillashaw vs. Cody Garbrandt title match winner.

ALEKSEI OLEINIK Oleinik (56-11-1) scored his 44th submission win, a number unheard of for a UFC heavyweight. People really don’t see Oleinik as a title contender since he just lost to Curtis Blaydes before Saturday’s win over Junior Albini (14-4). But him against Fabricio Werdum (23-8-1), who is one of the best submission heavyweights in history, would make for an interesting style matchup of older fighters.

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