UFC Philadelphia’s main event of Justin Gaethje vs. Edson Barboza was one of those rare matchups that as soon as you saw it on paper — and if you were a fan of heavy thrill-ride fights — it ranked high on the can’t-miss list.
That fight only lasted 2:30, but every second delivered the expected ferocity from both sides until Gaethje scored the knockout win.
Gaethje vs. Barboza earned a Fight of the Night bonus and also put Gaethje into the thick of things in the UFC’s lightweight division, arguably the most exciting division for any organization in the sport.
Yet there were two other fights outside the UFC, that for different reasons, may be bigger news stories when we look back on the weekend.
One night earlier, in Bellator’s main event from Temecula, Calif., Brandon Girtz had a war with Saad Awad that delivered three straight rounds of what Gaethje and Barboza brought for half of one. When the year is over, if Girtz vs. Awad isn’t strongly under consideration in fight of the year discussions, then we are in for some great fights before the year is out.
But perhaps the biggest story was on the other side of the world. ONE Championship, after its giant cash infusion, held its Japan debut at the famed Ryogoku Sumo Hall. The company went to Japan with arguably its biggest signings, record-setting flyweight Demetrious Johnson, and one of the most exciting fighters the sport has ever seen, Eddie Alvarez.
Alvarez’s long career included a run as the star foreigner lightweight with DREAM in Japan, then becoming the face of Bellator. He eventually came to UFC, and after a rough start, ended up winning the lightweight championship belt and had classic fights with Gaethje and Dustin Poirier.
Considering those credentials, Alvarez was a heavy favorite to win ONE’s lightweight tournament. Enter Timofey Nastyukhin, a fighter so unheralded he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. And in one of the biggest upsets in recent memory, Alvarez was the victim of a first-round knockout.
Alvarez has been dropped often throughout his career, and knocked out before, but he has always come back. It’s one thing when the knockout is by Nick Thompson, when Alvarez was fighting up a weight class and giving up considerable size, and it’s another when the knockout loss is to Conor McGregor, or Poirier, who are championship-level fighters. But it’s something else altogether when it’s an unheralded figure like Nastyukhin.
Anyone who follows the sport knows that everybody — well, except Jon Jones — loses. One loss, even early, is hardly the end of one’s career at the top. Nor does one loss in most cases erode a fighter’s fan base. There will probably be the same level of interest whenever Alvarez fights again, but all eyes will be on him to prove what happened wasn’t a fluke.
But there are certainly questions regarding ONE’s big investment in “The Underground King.” Just as true an axiom that everyone loses is that everyone also has a career expiration date.
So the question is whether Nastyukhin is a great fighter that nobody knew about, or whether Alvarez is done as a top-tier fighter.
But after it happened, several realities were suddenly notable.
Alvarez is 35. That’s not a good number in the lightweight division, where speed is king. Plus, he’s been fighting for 16 years, which is an even worse number. Plus, during that period he has been in multiple wars, the kind that don’t help in the longevity department. The question going forward is which of the axioms that the 2019 Alvarez is closer to. And the answer to that question won’t be able to be discernible until his next fight.
Let’s look at how fortunes changed and what could be next for five stars of Saturday’s UFC event in Philadelphia.
JUSTIN GAETHJE — With two straight sub-three-minute wins, Gaethje (20-2) is back into the thick of things. The direction of the lightweight division at this point has Dustin Poirier (24-5) facing featherweight champion Max Holloway (20-3) for an interim championship. The winner of that fight would be likely to be the next contender for Khabib Nurmagomedov.
For Gaethje, there are a number of possible opponents that could help him get a title shot.
If that falls through, another good opponent would be the Holloway vs. Poirier loser, or even the winner if the winner isn’t getting a title shot. Another possibility would be the winner of Donald Cerrone (35-11) against Al Iaquinta (15-4-1) on May 4 in Ottawa, Ontario.
EDSON BARBOZA — Barboza (20-7) has plenty of different fights available to him to rebound. Possible next opponents would include Paul Felder (16-4), who is now a bigger star because of his commentary work, submission king Charles Oliveira (26-8), or testing unbeaten wrestler Gregor Gillespie (13-0).
JACK HERMANSSON — Hermansson (19-4) has to be taken seriously with his quick submission win over David Branch (22-6). Hermansson should next fight the winner of Derek Brunson (18-7) against Elias Theodorou (16-2), which takes place May 4 in Ottawa.
JOSH EMMETT — Emmett (14-2) looked like he was about to lose a decision to Michael Johnson (19-14), but with 46 seconds left in the bout, he landed a powerful overhand right to score a knockout worthy of replays all night on SportsCenter. Because of how devastating the finish was, he could be put in to test the impressive record of Zabit Magomedsharipov (17-1), or to have a second go-round with Ricardo Lamas (19-7), who Emmett knocked out on Dec. 16, 2017 in a bout for which Emmett missed weight.
MICHELLE WATERSON — Waterson (17-6) scored perhaps the most impressive win of her career over former title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz (12-4).
Waterson immediately aimed high, asking for a title fight. It’s not out of the realm of possibility. The strawweight division has champion Rose Namajunas (8-3) defending against Jessica Andrade (19-6) on May 11 in Rio de Janeiro. The best bet for a next contender would come from the winner of Tatiana Suarez (10-0) vs. Nina Ansaroff (10-5).
Waterson does have the intangibles and the charisma — which led to ESPN doing a special on her recently — to get the shot at the winner. But more likely, she’s one more win away. The right opponent for a subsequent contender fight would be Weili Zhang (19-1).