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Five things we learned from the UFC’s return to Fight Island

The UFC’s second trip to Fight Island may have been more bountiful than the first.

While July’s tour of duty in Abu Dhabi presented a slew of memorable moments, it was also an experiment of sorts. Was the UFC truly ready to leave the comforts and, more importantly, controls of its own UFC APEX to venture forth out into the world once more? Even taking into account an abundance of caution, it was a risk, one that mostly paid off with even the loss of a main event resulting in an even more talked-about grudge match between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal.

Coronavirus-related withdrawals were minimal this time around and at no point did any of the cancelations (Thiago Santos vs. Glover Teixeira, we see you) overshadow the bouts that did end up taking place. So after 58 more Fight Island fights, what can we take away from the UFC’s latest visit?

The once and future king of Fight Island

Khamzat Chimaev’s breakout this past summer may have made him the prince of Fight Island, but Khabib Nurmagomedov was always king.

UFC 254: Khabib v Gaethje
Khabib Nurmagomedov
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

It was already known that support for “The Eagle” was rabid in Abu Dhabi ahead of his first fight there in September of last year. When he beat Dustin Poirier, his rock star status was cemented and you got the sense that the next time he competed there the level of excitement would be tenfold.

No one could have predicted that just six months later every sports organization on the planet would become unable to host events in front of a live crowd due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Whenever Nurmagomedov fought again, it wouldn’t be in front of tens of thousands of fans, it would be in front of a few dozen essential personnel and media members.

Yet somehow that didn’t diminish the drama of Nurmagomedov’s dominant win over Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 this past Saturday, nor the sudden retirement that followed. It would have been surreal to see Nurmagomedov depart a packed arena to chants of “Khabib!” but this retirement was memorable in its own way. There was an intimacy to it, which isn’t a word you use when describing MMA moments all that often. It was about Nurmagomedov, his team, his friends and family, his fans, and most importantly his mom and dad.

It was about going out on a win and going out on his terms.

Even if he never fights again in Abu Dhabi or anywhere else, the Fight Island crown is still Nurmagomedov’s until someone takes it. As we’ve learned throughout his career, Nurmagomedov doesn’t give up anything easily.

Israel Adesanya is irrepressible, incorrigible, and (maybe) invincible

There’s no arguing that Israel Adesanya could have handled his triumph over Paulo Costa with more class and aplomb, but really, where’s the fun in that?

Love him or hate him, Adesanya has emphasized time and time again that he isn’t changing for anyone. He marked his UFC debut by, er, marking the octagon as his territory by miming public urination, and he celebrated a lopsided beating of Costa by pretending to hump his rival’s behind afterwards. Oh, he also pretended to ejaculate in the direction of Costa’s cornermen.

UFC 253 was quite a night for Adesanya is what we’re saying.

For the most part, Adesanya once again had people talking about him for the right reasons. His first successful title defense against Yoel Romero had been a dud and in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business that’s all it took for some to wonder if Adesanya had been over-hyped from the get-go. The ease with which he dispatched of Costa deadened that talk (for now) and his post-fight antics kept him in the headlines for weeks after, which may as well be months given the pace of the modern news cycle.

That was helped by Adesanya reigniting a feud with Jones that had passively existed before; now, it’s escalated into a full-blown war over social media, one that has veered into unpleasant and outright stupid territory, but a war all the same. Now Adesanya hasn’t just set himself up for a lengthy middleweight title run, he’s already planted the seeds of a superfight with Jones in the heads of the fans and the matchmakers.

Maybe that’s Adesanya’s greatest gift outside of his fighting ability. He has a knack for occupying that precious rent-free space in people’s heads, whether they like it or not.

Paulo Costa and Israel Adesanya
Zuffa LLC

Year 1, A.B.K.O. (after Buckley knockout)

Everything feels a little different now.

Can you pinpoint exactly when that feeling hit you? I can. It was Oct. 10, 2020, around 7 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. It was in the second round of a preliminary middleweight bout between Joaquin Buckley and Impa Kasanganay. It was about a second after Kasanganay caught a Buckley kick and was preparing a strike of his own.

Then there was a flash. And a crack. And a thunk. And then… pandemonium.

As fight fans we’ve seen it all, I mean, we’ve really seen it all and yet somehow Buckley produced a unique knockout in a sport in which originality is increasingly in short order. You’re expected to fight a certain way, act a certain way, and certainly not risk making a fool of yourself with action movie strikes that you’re probably landing in practice one out of 100 times.

Landing one of those in a fight is more of a one-in-100,000 proposition, but that’s exactly what Buckley did. His improvised spinning kick not only robbed Kasanganay of his senses, it robbed us of our capacity to place limits on what is possible in combat sports. You don’t get spinning kick KOs essentially firing off of one leg. Buckley did.

The UFC’s return to Fight Island was loaded with memorable performances, championship performances, and somehow Buckley topped them. Now we live in a new world, one in which the word “unbelievable” can no longer reasonably be applied to any highlight, because if Buckley could do what he did, anything is possible.

Never say never

UFC 253 Reyes v Blachowicz
Jan Blachowicz
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Three years ago, if you had told people that Jan Blachowicz was destined to become the UFC light heavyweight champion, they would have justifiably laughed in your face. Those were pre-COVID days so I mean laughed right in your face, spittle and all. And you would have deserved it.

Guess what? All of us who doubted Blachowicz’s talents are the ones that look like fools. Since losing four of his first six UFC fights, Blachowicz has ripped off an 8-1 run with two separate four-fight win streaks. The most recent win, a TKO of Dominick Reyes, made Blachowicz the first man not names Jon Jones or Daniel Cormier to wear the 205-pound belt in over 10 years.

There have been more prolonged and unlikely paths to a UFC title—Michael Bisping comes to mind—but Blachowicz’s rise is right up there. In April 2017, he lost a decision to Patrick Cummins; now, at 37 years old, he’s a UFC champion.

Speaking of fighters that can’t be counted out, you can add Germaine de Randamie, Carlos Condit, Holly Holm, Edson Barboza, and Robert Whittaker to the list. We’re so quick to discard veterans and anoint their opponents as the next big thing that we often forget how they earned their reputations in the first place: by winning big, just as they did on Fight Island.

Add in bounce-back wins for Brian Ortega and Cory Sandhagen, and you can understand why it’s best to withhold judgment on how these fighters’ careers are trending and just let the performances speak for themselves.

Fight Island might still be a myth, but what a myth it is

Fight Island Vol. 1 definitely helped the UFC work out some kinks even if it wasn’t the exotic Mortal Kombat-esque locale that many were hoping for, and that work was evident in how Fight Island Vol. 2 unfolded. It wasn’t exactly “all killer, no filler,” but we just saw two of the best fight cards of the year, maybe ever, in UFC Fight Island 5 and UFC 254.

Three title fights, all with memorable finishes. Standout performances for dozens of fighters, most of them international, and some making their UFC debuts. A handful of knockouts and submissions that are likely to litter the year-end Best Of lists. All that was missing was a bonafide Fight of the Year candidate (indeed, two of the five cards didn’t even see a Fight of the Night awarded).

If that’s the worst thing you can say about this series of Fight Island shows, you can bet the UFC will take that. Three of the year’s most-hyped fights (Adesanya-Costa, Ortega-Zombie, Khabib-Gaethje) went off without a hitch in the same month, something that almost never happens even in the best of circumstances. Preliminary fighters stole the show while main card stars delivered as advertised.

UFC Fight Night: Ortega v The Korean Zombie Beach Face-off
Brian Ortega and Chan Sung Jung
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Speaking of which, shout-out to Casey Kenney for winning the “Khamzat Chimaev Award” for competing and winning twice in a span of three weeks or less. If the UFC isn’t stopping, then fighters who want to fight as much as possible don’t have to stop either.

With cards scheduled every weekend until December, there is the potential for viewer fatigue if it hasn’t set in already. But the benefit of holding so many events is that if you load up the chamber with enough bullets, you’re guaranteed to hit something. On its second trip to Fight Island, the UFC not only hit, it delivered some shots to the brain that are likely going to stay stuck in the minds of fight fans for a while.

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