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Making the Grade: UFC 256 edition

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UFC 256: Figueiredo v Moreno Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

It’s almost impossible to remember the original plans for UFC 256, which was supposed to feature a pair of title fights with Kamaru Usman defending his welterweight strap against Gilbert Burns and the consensus women’s GOAT Amanda Nunes putting her featherweight belt up for grabs against Megan Anderson.

Both of those fights fell by the wayside and what was left was a flyweight title fight put together just three weeks before the event as well as a marquee matchup at lightweight as former interim champion Tony Ferguson took on Charles Oliveira.

The UFC 256 main card that took place on Saturday night was a far cry from the promotion’s original plans but part of the reason why it’s been so hard to think about what would have been is largely thanks to a year-end pay-per-view that delivered on every level from the first fight of the night until the very last.

The prelims featured four out of five fights ending by knockout or submission including stunning finishes by Cub Swanson and Rafael Fiziev as well as a Hail Mary submission from Chase Hooper. Then came the main card where Ciryl Gane announced himself as a future heavyweight title contender followed by one of the most ridiculous knockouts in UFC history delivered by Kevin Holland.

A battle of grapplers saw Mackenzie Dern and Virna Jandiroba spend the better part of 15 minutes slugging it out on the feet and then Oliveira took a huge step forward in his career with a one-sided beatdown against Ferguson.

The card was capped off by an absolute war between flyweight king Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno, who both took the fight on short notice yet you’d never know it by their performances.

As we look back at the final pay-per-view card in 2020, let’s talk about the best and worst from UFC 256. This is Making the Grade

PASSES

Pretty Fly for Some Fly Guys

Rather than rave about the flyweight division, which was essentially pulled off a scrap heap two years ago after it appeared the UFC was ready to dump the 125-pounders, let’s talk about the outstanding performances delivered by Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno.

First off, the flyweight king has proven time and again that he’s excitement personified and nothing that happened on Saturday night dispelled that reputation. Figueiredo comes from that hard-charging, old school Brazilian Chute Boxe attitude where he’s going to come after an opponent with aggression and power from the first second of the fight until the very last. But it’s not just blind aggression that makes Figueiredo such an enthralling fighter to watch because he was also able to put together blistering combination while showcasing incredible durability for all five rounds.

Then there’s Moreno, who was the No. 16 seed when he attempted to become the first ever UFC flyweight champion on The Ultimate Fighter. From there, Moreno started to develop into a solid prospect but after back-to-back losses when it appeared the flyweight division was going to be eliminated, he was released from the promotion.

Since returning to the UFC, Moreno has proven not only that he belongs among the best flyweights in the sport but he’s got all the makings of a future champion. He was a heavy underdog heading into the fight but Moreno gave Figueiredo everything he could handle while coming up just short from leaving as the new UFC flyweight champion.

Perhaps the best part of that epic five-round battle was that a majority draw ensures Figueiredo and Moreno are going to do it all again in early 2021 and anybody who was on the fence about watching the first fight should just go ahead and tuck away $65 to buy the rematch.

He’s Still Charlie from Do Bronx

For a huge part of his UFC career, Charles Oliveira appeared to display a lot of potential but he never seemed to be able to cross that threshold from top 10 threat to legit title contender. He had some great wins at featherweight but he just couldn’t win the big fight, which was only compounded by his constant struggles to actually make 145 pounds.

Eventually, Oliveira was more or less forced to move up to lightweight and since that time he’s put together a remarkable 9-1 resume including a current eight fight win streak capped off by a lopsided win over Tony Ferguson at UFC 256.

No one had ever dominated Ferguson the way that Oliveira did over three rounds. Oliveira was smart and tactical on the feet, avoiding any crazy exchanges with Ferguson and then he absolutely suffocated the former interim champion on the ground.

For years the biggest question surrounding Khabib Nurmagomedov’s ability to remain undefeated was whether or not his wrestling heavy offense could succeed against a slick, crafty grappler like Ferguson. It turns out Oliveira might have been the fighter best suited to test Nurmagomedov on the ground after he was relentless with his attacks on the mat against Ferguson at UFC 256.

With an eight fight winning streak compounded by his win over Ferguson on Saturday night, Oliveira has finally realized his true potential as he now becomes a legitimate threat to anyone holding the lightweight title.

Big Mouth Is More Than Just Talk

UFC 256: Holland v Souza Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Kevin Holland joined a very exclusive club at UFC 256 as he earned his fifth win in a year — a feat previously only accomplished by Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, Roger Huerta and Neil Magny. Perhaps even more impressive, however, was that Holland actually picked up five wins inside seven months because his first fight in 2020 didn’t happen until May.

It’s tough to remember a time when Holland was passed over for a UFC contract when he appeared on Dana White’s Contender Series. He won a unanimous decision that night but the UFC president felt like Holland spent too much time talking and not enough fighting.

Fast forward just over two years later and Holland has gone 8-1 in his past nine fights including finishes in four out of his five wins in 2020. Holland welcomed viral sensation Joaquin Buckley to the UFC earlier this year and promptly sent him packing with a third round TKO.

Holland slammed Charlie Ontiveros to the ground in dramatic fashion back in October, which counted as his second sub-one minute finish this year. He then picked up the biggest win of his career by knocking out Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza while working from the guard as he faced off with one of best grapplers in the history of the UFC. It was a jaw-dropping finish as Holland moved to 5-0 in 2020 while also earning his third Performance of the Night bonus of the year.

It appeared for a short time that perhaps Holland’s greatest claim to fame would be his verbal battles with opponents as he refused to stop chattering even in the middle of a fight. Now Holland has proven to be appointment television every time he competes while simultaneously becoming a threat to the top fighters in the middleweight division.

FAIL

Time Waits for No One

It’s never enjoyable watching legends falter at any point during their career but it’s particularly difficult when seeing it unfold on numerous occasions over a short period of time.

Former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos suffered his fourth consecutive loss at UFC 256 while also falling by knockout or TKO for the fourth straight time. His loss to Ciryl Gane was also the third time in 2020 that dos Santos has been knocked out without a single fight making it past the second round.

At 36, dos Santos isn’t actually past his prime when considering the way heavyweights are seemingly the only age-proof division in the sport but the amount of damage he’s taken lately has to be concerning.

It’s only compounded by the fact that dos Santos booked three fights in 2020 and all of them ended by knockout.

Now it must be said that dos Santos is an adult and a professional athlete so he’s more than capable of making tough decisions regarding his career. Dos Santos also surrounds himself with an incredible team, whose experience and dedication to his career is unquestioned.

Add to that, the UFC also has a contractual obligation to offer fighters a certain number of bouts each year but perhaps now is the time to proceed a bit more cautiously when it comes to dos Santos’ future in the sport.

He’s taken a lot of damage during his UFC career including a pair of grueling battles with Cain Velasquez that probably shaved off years of longevity after absorbing 484 total strikes in just those two fights alone.

It’s too soon to say dos Santos is done and it’s unfair to call for his retirement regardless of four consecutive losses. But four straight knockouts with three of those happening in 2020 requires those who care about dos Santos to ask him to take a break to allow his brain and body to heal before booking his next fight in the UFC.

EPIC FAIL

2020 Isn’t Over Just Yet

OK, let’s just get this out of the way right now — there really wasn’t anything to complain about when UFC 256 was over.

The fights were amazing. There wasn’t a single forgettable matchup on the entire 10-bout event. The referees and judges even delivered on Saturday night — well Junichiro Kamijo might want to explain a 10-9 score for Brandon Moreno in the fifth round in the main event — but overall it was a solid performance from the officials.

So what “failed” at UFC 256?

It’s a really minor quibble but UFC president Dana White, who is undoubtedly one of the best promoters in the history of promotion, somehow forgot to do his job with another card still left to take place in 2020.

At the post-fight press conference, White was adamant about not looking ahead to next year until he finally put 2020 behind him.

“This is the last pay-per-view of the year,” White said. “I’m going on vacation tomorrow. When I get home we’ll get all this stuff squared away and get everything done.”

There’s only one problem with that statement — there is still one more UFC card left in 2020 and it’s really, really good.

Stephen “Wonderboy Thompson takes on Geoff Neal in a welterweight showcase in the main event while former champion Jose Aldo returns against rising bantamweight star Marlon “Chito” Vera. Always exciting contender Marlon Moraes takes on Rob Font and Michel Pereira takes on Khaos Williams in a fight that is almost guaranteed to produce fireworks.

The card is absolutely stacked and that’s not even speaking to the sheer number of fights taking place because so many cancellations and postponements due to COVID-19 kept pushing more and more matchups to this year-end event.

Make no mistake, White knows how to sell a show — he’s arguably the best in the business when it comes to that ability. There’s also absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a well-earned vacation — after a year like this, we could probably all use it.

But White missed out on a golden opportunity to sell that upcoming event on Dec. 19, which will close out the UFC’s year with an outstanding card that’s arguably even more stacked from top to bottom than the pay-per-view except this one only costs you an ESPN+ subscription to watch it.

Overall Grade for UFC 256: A+