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Making the Grade: UFC 239: Jones vs. Santos

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On paper, UFC 239 was one of the most stacked main cards of the year but just putting a bunch of great fights together doesn’t always mean it will deliver once the action get started.

Thankfully this event paid off in huge dividends with a slew of exciting performances including a trio of brutal knockouts that decorated the middle of the card.

In the main event, Jon Jones defended his light heavyweight title in a razor-close split decision against Thiago Santos, who walked into the fight as a massive underdog but walked out just one round away from dethroning arguably the greatest fighter in mixed martial arts history.

Meanwhile, Amanda Nunes cemented her spot as champion with a stunning first-round knockout against Holly Holm, which means she has now defeated every fighter who has ever held the 135-pound women’s title in the UFC.

And who could forget Jorge Masvidal’s jaw-dropping performance as he blasted Ben Askren with a flying knee to earn the fastest knockout in UFC history.

There was plenty to talk about after an eventful night in Chicago but what passed and what failed amongst an incredible night of fights? Let’s take a look back in Making the Grade for UFC 239: Jones vs. Santos.

PASSES

GOAT Confirmed

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The words ‘greatest of all time’ gets tossed around in mixed martial arts more than any other sport on Earth but there are moments when those kinds of lofty accolades are richly deserved.

The latest instance of justified praise in the greatest of all time argument falls on UFC double-champ Amanda Nunes, who made short work of Holly Holm on Saturday night to defend her bantamweight title in the UFC 239 co-main event. Nunes was hailed as the future of the sport when she first made waves in Strikeforce several years ago but losses to Alexis Davis and Sarah D’Alelio seemed to knock the luster off this once shining prospect. When she fell to Cat Zingano in a fight she was absolutely dominating, the book on Nunes appeared to be written — a fast starter with huge finishing power but not much for longevity.

Nunes looked to change that narrative with her next three wins in a row before fighting for the bantamweight title against Miesha Tate at UFC 200. It took her less than four minutes to maul Tate on the feet and on the ground to win the title. She then did even more damage to former UFC superstar Ronda Rousey to defend her belt and the legend about Nunes was growing yet again.

Nunes then exploded into the history books when she destroyed Cris Cyborg in just 51 seconds to become a simultaneous two-division champion — a first for the women’s divisions in the UFC. Then came the fight against Holm, who was the only former bantamweight champion remaining on the UFC roster who Nunes hadn’t faced and defeated.

Holm had only been finished once in her career and that came in a late, fifth round submission from Tate in a fight she was clearly losing up to those final few moments. Nunes set out to do to Holm exactly what she had done to so many other opponents before her.

The end came at 4:10 into the opening round when Nunes connected with a devastating head kick — a signature move that helped Holm win the title when she faced Rousey back in 2015 — and it turns out the fight was designed to finish exactly like that.

After the win, Nunes revealed that she had plotted to use Holm’s own head kick against her and the game plan played out to perfection as she earned her ninth straight win overall, her fourth consecutive title defense at 135 pounds while vanquishing the last woman standing as a former champion in that division.

Nunes had already made a pretty compelling case as the ‘greatest of all time’ before Saturday night but finishing Holm in such impressive fashion just settled any remaining debates about her status.

One Round Away

Even in defeat, Thiago Santos deserves massive praise for his performance against Jon Jones at UFC 239.

As a middleweight, Santos was a ferocious knockout artist who never quite climbed the rankings to actually become a legitimate threat to the title. After suffering through years of brutal weight cuts to get down to 185 pounds, Santos decided to try his hand at light heavyweight and the results were immediate.

Three wins in a row earned him a title shot but he walked into his fight against Jones as a huge 7-to-1 underdog according to some sports books. It was almost a foregone conclusion that Santos had a puncher’s chance of catching Jones but that was the only way he would pull off the upset.

Five rounds later, Santos pushed Jones further than any fighter since Alexander Gustafsson put on an instant classic against him back in 2013. While that fight is often recalled when referencing the nearest Jones has ever come to tasting defeat, Santos was actually closer to dethroning him than anybody else in history.

In fact if another judge had opted to score a one more round in Santos’ favor, he’d be standing tall as the new UFC light heavyweight champion today. It didn’t happen and Santos ultimately walked away with a split decision loss but what he accomplished in the Octagon this past weekend can’t be ignored.

The World is Yours

The resurgence of Jorge Masvidal in his past two fights has really been incredible to witness.

From lightweight to welterweight, Masvidal has always been considered a tough out no matter who he was fighting but he never quite made the kind of impact where he was one of the most talked about fighters on the UFC roster. In fact, Masvidal had dropped back-to-back fights to Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson and Demian Maia before taking more than a year long hiatus before making his return.

Earlier this year, Masvidal finally started getting the attention he deserves after snuffing Darren Till with a dramatic second round knockout and then handing Leon Edwards a three piece and a soda afterwards when the two of them engaged in a backstage scuffle.

Then came Saturday night’s performance against previously undefeated Olympian Ben Askren and no one outside of Masvidal and his coaches could have predicted what would happen.

With his hands behind his back as he was released from his corner, Masvidal exploded out of the gate with a flying knee that landed like a bomb on the side of Askren’s head, knocking him unconscious immediately. Masvidal followed with two more punches until the referee could jump into stop the fight with the official time for the knockout at five seconds into the opening round. In reality, Masvidal’s finish probably should have been closer to three seconds if not for the referee needing to run into stop the carnage after the initial knee strike ended Askren’s night.

Afterwards, Masvidal claimed he wasn’t as good with the trash talk as some other fighters but he continues to drop quote after quote that will live on far past this performance.

With Conor McGregor missing in action and Ronda Rousey long since retired, Masvidal has quickly become a star that the UFC desperately needs. He’s raw and authentic and perhaps most importantly he’s real.

Now it’s time for the UFC to put some serious marketing power behind him because in an age where superstars are desperately needed, Masvidal is already shining brighter than just about anybody else on the roster.

FAILS

In This Corner

Diego Sanchez has always been a fighter walking to the beat of his own drum.

The former “Ultimate Fighter” winner is often celebrated for his quirky and unique approach to mixed martial arts, which is part of the reason why fans have stuck by him for the better part of two decades in the UFC. Even after reinventing himself four or five times over by changing weight classes, Sanchez has constantly found ways to keep himself relevant and prove that he still belongs amongst the elite fighters in the sport even as all of the other members of his reality show class have already retired.

On Saturday night, Sanchez lost a lopsided decision to Michael Chiesa in the opening bout on the UFC 239 main card. There was no shame in his performance because Sanchez was never out of the fight and he made Chiesa work for every takedown and every submission or strike landed over all 15 minutes.

The problem Sanchez had was the lone corner man offering him advice between rounds.

After leaving his old team from the Jackson-Winkeljohn Academy, Sanchez turned to Josh Fabia — the founder of the School of Self-Awareness — to coach him through his training camp before serving as the only person in his corner during the fight against Chiesa.

While Fabia’s website boasts that he holds ‘certifications in martial arts, personal training, several military fields, stretch training, breathing and more’ it’s hard to believe he was actually qualified to work Sanchez’s corner on Saturday night.

Now Fabia wouldn’t be the first person to work a fighter’s corner without specific mixed martial arts credentials on his resume. In fact it’s actually rather common that a fighter will have their manager or even a family member working the corner for a fight but that usually comes in addition to a coach or trainer who will actually offer some kind of necessary advice between rounds.

Between the second and third rounds this past weekend, Fabia didn’t give Sanchez any technical advice on how to counter Chiesa’s takedowns or even implore him to look for the finish knowing he was down on the scorecards. Instead, Sanchez was told ‘no more playing’ and that he needed to ‘go 100’ in the final round.

Obviously, Sanchez felt comfortable with Fabia in his corner but perhaps the Nevada Commission or even the UFC should have intervened on his behalf before allowing this to happen. Would the outcome of the fight changed? Maybe not but for all the talk about protecting the fighters, Sanchez stepped into the Octagon without any qualified backup and it didn’t seem to bother anybody before it happened and that’s an issue that should have been addressed long before the fight started.

EPIC FAIL

When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For all the attention that Jorge Masvidal received for his five-second knockout against Ben Askren, there was nearly as much chatter about his post-fight celebration where he taunted an unconscious opponent laid out on the mat.

Afterwards, Masvidal didn’t feel the need to apologize and if anything he sounded like perhaps he didn’t go far enough when he was for all intents and purposes dancing on his opponent’s grave. There were more than a few cries that Masvidal should have shown better sportsmanship in the wake of such a devastating finish, especially considering Askren laid motionless on the canvas for several moments after the knockout.

In theory, taking the high road is probably the way to go but in reality Masvidal did nothing wrong in the face of incessant trash talk coming from Askren in the lead up to the fight.

As dominant as Askren had been through the first 19 fights of his career, he had also become a master at psychological warfare, poking and prodding at potential opponents to the point of infuriating nearly the entire welterweight division. He even drew ire from welterweight champion Kamaru Usman before he even had his first fight in the UFC.

Askren’s brand of trash talk is particularly infuriating because he never raises his voice and rarely bothers to litter his pre-fight banter with four-letter words. Instead, Askren is like a rash, just getting under his opponents’ skin and irritating them so bad that they desperately want to punch him in the face.

Masvidal was the first person who actually made him eat those words — and thus it gives him the right to celebrate his victory even if you don’t agree with it. Even Askren seemed OK with Masvidal’s celebration, although he might want to avoid running into him at the local Whole Foods even now that the fight was finished.

Words often times lead to actions and what happened to Askren is the potential cost when exchanging trash talk with an opponent. Of course everybody hopes that bad blood can be settled inside the cage and a handshake can follow when the battle is over — look no further than the recent rivalry between Artem Lobov and Paulie Malignaggi — but that’s not always going to be the case.

Masvidal didn’t take kindly to the things Askren said about him and he made him pay.

There’s no requirement that he has to be a good sport when the fight is finished and no one gets to tell him otherwise how he should feel about it. Maybe Askren was just trying to promote the fight but Masvidal clearly didn’t take it that way.

If anything this fight should serve as a cautionary tale to the sudden rash of extremely personal trash talk happening in the sport because sometimes a fighter like Jorge Masvidal comes along to remind you that crossing a line can have grave consequences.