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Making the Grade: UFC 245: Usman vs. Covington

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC closed out its pay-per-view scheduled for 2019 with one of the most stacked cards of the year, capped off by Kamaru Usman putting Colby Covington away in the fifth round by TKO.

Usman showcased a game plan centered completely around striking with Covington as neither of the former college wrestlers even attempted a takedown during the fight that nearly made it all five rounds.

The finishing sequence that saw Usman put Covington down and out was one of the best of the year as the welterweight champion defended his title for the first time and simultaneously notched the biggest win of his career over one of the most polarizing figures in the entire sport.

In the co-main event, Alexander Volkanovski was a man of his word as he became the first featherweight since Conor McGregor to hand Max Holloway a loss. Volkanovski slowed Holloway down from the first second of the fight until the last with a strategy that included a steady diet of leg kicks, which kept the Hawaiian from putting on his typical performance where he just continues to pour on the pressure round after round.

The third title fight on the card saw Amanda Nunes have to go the distance with a game Germaine de Randamie, who actually forced the champion to battle through some adversity before showcasing a strong ground game to get the win.

There was to dissect from one of the biggest cards of the year so let’s see what passed and what failed on Saturday night. This is Making the Grade for UFC 245: Usman vs. Covington.

PASSES

King Kamaru

Kamaru Usman had a lot riding on his first title defense at UFC 245.

After dominating former champion Tyron Woodley for five straight rounds back in March, Usman knew he was staring down the barrel of a much nastier fight at UFC 245 when he took on Colby Covington, who had become arguably the most hated man in all of mixed martial arts after trash talking everyone from Jon Jones to Conor McGregor en route to his title shot.

On top of that, Covington was a legitimate threat to his championship because underneath the MAGA hat and the signed Donald Trump Jr. book that he wore like a suit of armor, was a very good welterweight fighter. Covington proved that by standing toe-to-toe with the champion for the better part of five rounds but it was Usman who outpaced him, out struck him and ultimately put him away with a devastating pair of right hands in the fifth and final round.

Usman didn’t have a personal grudge with Woodley back in March so that fight largely slipped under the radar. This time around the world was watching and Usman put on arguably his best performance to date.

The win over Covington won’t necessarily make Usman a superstar just yet but beating a fighter the majority of the mixed martial arts world despised certainly doesn’t hurt. And if there was any question beforehand, Usman absolutely cemented himself as the best welterweight in the sport by dispatching Woodley and Covington in back-to-back fights.

After playing the hero to Covington’s villain at UFC 245, Usman might have to switch roles if his next fight comes against “BMF” champion Jorge Masvidal, but no matter who he faces going forward, “The Nigerian Nightmare” should be a sizeable favorite because he’s definitely earned it.

Alexander the Great

No champion is unbeatable but after watching him decimate Jose Aldo, Brian Ortega and Frankie Edgar in consecutive title fights, it truly looked like Max Holloway was invincible.

And then Alexander Volkanovski came along.

The 31-year-old Australian—who, as the UFC commentators repeatedly stated, was a 200-plus pound rugby player once upon a time—felt like he had the strategy and the skill set to dethrone Holloway. Through five rounds, Volkanovski used a game plan centered around destroying Holloway’s foundation with leg kicks, which in turn forced him to switch stances and abandon his typical high output striking attack.

Volkanovski also stood in the pocket at times and invited Holloway to trade with him while showing absolute confidence that he could take the Hawaiian’s best punches.

In the end, Volkanovski scored a unanimous decision win to become the fourth person in UFC history to hold the featherweight title. To solidify his reign, Volkanovski might have to prove his first performance against Holloway was no fluke because the UFC’s already talking about an automatic rematch.

But for now Volkanovski should just celebrate his handiwork after dispatching arguably the greatest featherweight the sport has ever known.

For Real Neal

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There were a lot of standout performances at UFC 245, but a spotlight should shine down on Geoff Neal after he moved to 5-0 in his career inside the Octagon while becoming the first fighter to finish Mike Perry with strikes.

Neal is a soft-spoken contender, who always lets his hands do the talking for him when it comes fight time but he’s quickly becoming a fighter you can always depend on for an exhilarating performance. Neal has snuffed four out of his five opponents in the UFC by either knockout or submission and Perry seemed to be the test to find out if he was ready for the division’s best.

Perry may not be an elite fighter but he’s absolutely one of the toughest guys on the entire roster with one punch knockout power that can even the score with anybody. To finish him is impressive but to do it in the first round before the two-minute mark really says something about where Neal fits into this division.

Lightweight has always been touted as the deepest weight class in the sport but welterweight is likely the toughest. Neal has now proven he’s a tough out for anybody at 170 pounds but now it’s time for the UFC to test and see if he’s truly one of the best.

FAILS

Calling Your Shot

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There’s nothing wrong with fighters asking for what they want.

In fact, it’s actually encouraged to call your shot after a big win because often times it helps drive the audience to push for that particular fight.

On Saturday night, UFC bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo apparently texted UFC president Dana White and asked him for the chance to face Jose Aldo next. Despite the former featherweight champion coming away with a split decision loss to Marlon Moraes, Cejudo felt like he deserved the victory and wanted to face him next regardless of the outcome of UFC 245.

Now there’s nothing wrong with Cejudo taking his shot—he’s a champion but even then he’s still allowed to voice his opinion on what comes next. The problem is White actually entertaining that matchup while stating he didn’t “hate” the idea of pitting Cejudo against Aldo next.

Listen, Aldo is a legend of the sport and one of the greatest champions in UFC history but ignoring his loss to Moraes while also just looking past contenders such as Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling essentially tells the rest of the bantamweight division that wins and losses don’t matter as much as star power.

Now there’s certainly some truth to that statement because drawing a crowd matters when a high profile fight is being booked but as great as Aldo has been during his career, there’s still no ignoring that he’s 2-4 in his past six fights and 0-1 at bantamweight. Did he deserve the nod against Moraes? That’s debatable because it was a razor close fight, which means Aldo losing was no robbery.

The robbery would be passing over Yan or Sterling in favor of Aldo just because the champion asked for it and White believes he could sell a few more tickets for that particular fight.

EPIC FAIL

Three Times Not the Charm

UFC 245 was stacked from top to bottom.

You know it’s a massive card when Matt Brown, who now holds the record with the most knockouts in welterweight history with 11, is the first fight on the preliminary card. The UFC likes to put together these kinds of jam-packed cards at least once or twice a year and it’s always a highly anticipated event.

At the top of the card on Saturday night were three title fights and all of them were compelling matchups but because the first two championship bouts went to decision, Usman and Covington didn’t even clash until well past 1:15 a.m. on the east coast.

That’s an issue.

Add to that, whenever the UFC books three title fights on one card, that typically means another event is then losing out. Maybe it was planned this way all along but the UFC didn’t even have a pay-per-view card scheduled for January until Conor McGregor announced his return to action.

Make no mistake, UFC 245 was a tremendous event from start to finish but imagine if one of those title fights had headlined an ESPN card instead. That feels like an instantaneous way to deliver bigger ratings and drive interest towards your television partner. Plus often times when there are three title fights on a single card, somebody inevitably gets lost in the mix.

Alexander Volkanovski is a perfect example of a fighter who could have used a bigger boost for such a monumental win. He’s not the loudest guy in the room either so why not shine a brighter spotlight down on him so the next time he fights, hopefully more people will tune in just to see him.

It’s a minor quibble for an otherwise spectacular show but moving forward, it feels like the UFC would be better served with two title fights max on any pay-per-view and then filling up other cards that might need the drawing power a little bit more.