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UFC 256 Aftermath: A changing of the guard from old stars to new contenders

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UFC 256: Ferguson v Oliveira Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

This past Saturday, the UFC put on their final pay-per-view event of the year, and though it had little fanfare coming in, UFC 256 came through in spades. The main event between Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno is on the short list for “Fight of the Year,” and the card as a whole is probably the event of the year. But though the card delivered on all counts, there was also an undercurrent of sadness, specifically for the lost dreams of once championship caliber fighters.

The sport of MMA is no country for old men, and this past weekend, that lesson was reinforced with authority. Former champions Tony Ferguson, Ronaldo Souza and Junior dos Santos were already on the back end of their careers, and never did the end look closer for any of them than it did on Saturday.

Ferguson damn near had his arm snapped off while losing nearly every second of his fight to Charles Oliveira. Dos Santos was knocked out for the fourth time in a row by a guy who started MMA two years ago, and “Jacare” lost his third in a row to a prospect Dana White openly admits he wasn’t fond of at first. Overall, it was a bad night for the elder statesmen on the card who looked to hold ground against young contenders (except for Cub Swanson, who knocked out the unranked Daniel Pineda), and it could portend even worse things for their future.

In MMA, the young historically feast on the old. But now, that dynamic may be more prevalent than ever. Just last week, UFC President Dana White announced that some significant roster cuts are coming to combat the UFC’s “bloat.” Given some of the high-profile names with which the UFC is parted ways, reading between the lines, it is clear that the UFC is going to double down on building young talent instead of continuing to pay established veterans who are no longer in the title hunt. Given the outcomes at UFC 256, the best guess is that ethos will only continue, meaning the aforementioned champions are all in jeopardy. Ferguson, JDS and “Jacare” went 0-6 in the UFC in 2020, and all three of them are now firmly outside of the title conversation. At 36, 36, and 41 respectively, it won’t be surprising if Dana White decides to cut ties.

On the other side of that coin, UFC 256 was a banner night for the UFC’s class of rising contenders. Charles Oliveira is now a bonafide lightweight contender and, given the quality of his performance, a legitimate threat to actually win the belt in 2021; Ciryl Gane looks to be the next big thing at heavyweight, a division always starving for new, young talent; and Kevin Holland just capped off a year where he made White look foolish for not signing him immediately by going 5-0 and likely finishing as the runner up for “Fighter of the Year.” And then there’s Rafael Fiziev and Chase Hooper, who both scored big wins. All in all, the young guns made UFC 256 their own and, as ever, the sport appears to have a bright future.

But UFC 256 wasn’t just big night for this class of rising contenders – it was also the coming-out party for the UFC’s flyweight division. Since winning the title in July, the talk around Deiveson Figueiredo is that he would be the guy to finally put 125 on the map in the UFC, and while that is a outright insult to one of the greatest fighters of all time, Demetrious Johnson, it also appears to have some truth behind it, because Figueiredo already appears to be connecting with fans and, more notably, his promoter than Johnson ever did.

On Saturday, White called the main event fight between Figueiredo and Moreno the greatest fight in flyweight history and called the division one of the best in the UFC now. That’s a far cry from when he was openly discussing the end of the division. A lot of that can be attributed to Figueiredo, who just capped off his 2020, a year where he knocked out Joseph Benavidez twice, claimed the title and defended it twice by turning in, at worst, the second best “Fight of the Year” on just three weeks’ notice.

Figueiredo is almost guaranteed to be the “Fighter of the Year” for 2020 and now has the perfect rival to build a rematch with for next year. When you do stuff like that, it’s hard for Dana White not to like you, and when Dana White likes you, there’s a world of opportunity in your future.

It’s often been said, but 2020 was a difficult year all around, especially in the world of sports. But despite all the setbacks and problems, the UFC marched forward and, according to White, somehow even managed their best year ever. So it’s fitting that in a year where little was expected and much was gained, the UFC sent it off in much the same way, with a unheralded card that delivered on all counts and set the UFC up well for next year. With fighters like Deiveson Figueiredo, Charles Oliveira, and Kevin Holland, the future is in good hands.


UFC 256 Quotes

“If they want to put him in there again for me, rest assured that this time I’ll do the right camp to neutralize his game. I’m here for whatever Dana wants me to do. Dana White, I’m at your disposal.” - Deiveson Figueiredo on a possible rematch.

“I gotta give it to Mick. Mick went in and restructured and rebuilt that division and it’s one of the most exciting divisions in the UFC now. Tonight, we put on a potential Fight of the Year and potential greatest fight ever in this division’s history. So congrats to Mick.” - Dana White on the flyweight division.

“It wasn’t from lack of trying. We put that fight together five times. It just wasn’t meant to be.” - Dana White eulogizing the final death of the Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson fight.

“I have eight wins in a row. Seven of those, I finished the fight. I don’t let it go to the judges’ hands. I finish fights. I’m in the position to be fighting for the belt.” - Charles Oliveira, the new Kenny Florian.

He fought three times this year, two times against a bum and the other time against Gerald Meerschaert. Gerald Meerschaert isn’t a bum but he was coming of a knockout. He hasn’t beat anybody in the UFC with a win. But at the same time, he’s a good ticket for the UFC so let me stop talking about someone who could help us make money.” - Kevin Holland on wanting to fight Khamzat Chimaev.

“I want to say to everyone in my division, train more. More hard. Every day, more wrestling, grappling, fit, boxing, everything what you can, (because) I’m coming.” - Rafael Fiziev with words of warning to the other lightweights.


Stock Report

Stock up

Deiveson Figueiredo: Though he didn’t win on Saturday, the flyweight champion retained his title in a “Fight of the Year” contender while setting the record for fastest turnaround for a UFC champion, which is more than enough to cement his status as 2020’s “Fighter of the Year.”

Brandon Moreno: For a +260 underdog, Brandon Moreno didn’t do half bad. Pushing the champion to a majority draw in one of the best fights of the year and basically guaranteeing himself another crack at Figueiredo in early 2021 is the next best outcome to winning the title.

Charles Oliveira: Welcome to the shark tank, Chucky Olives. Oliveira’s domination of Tony Ferguson surpassed anyone’s expectations and elevates him from dark horse in the division to bonafide title threat.

Kevin Holland: After knocking out Jacare Souza on Saturday, Holland may well be the runner up for Fighter of the Year this and even if he isn’t he’s now earned himself a crack at the elite of the elite in the welterweight division.

Ciryl Gane: Knocking out a former champion is always a feather in your cap, even if that champion is on a pretty bad run at the moment. Especially when the fighter in questions has only been competing in MMA for two years. Gane is a real problem at heavyweight.

Neutral

Mackenzie Dern: Dern’s striking looked improved, working with Jason Parillo, but it’s still a far cry from good. The BJJ champion needs a lot of work to become the title threat the UFC obviously wants her to be.

Tecia Torres: Torres looked good in her outing on Saturday, but through no fault of her own, it came against an unknown fighter who likely won’t be known any time soon. Torres still has title aspirations and needs to get back in there soon against a ranked opponent.

Stock down

Tony Ferguson: It’s hard to say whether it was age, the Justin Gaethje loss, or just a bad style matchup, but Ferguson is now on the first losing streak of his career, and this one wasn’t even a little bit competitive. El Cucuy’s days at the top seem to be over.

Jacare Souza: At 41 years old, it’s hard to envision Jacare working his way to a title shot, meaning he will have the unfortunate status as one of the best fighters to never win a UFC title.

Junior dos Santos: The former heavyweight champion is now on a four-fight losing streak with all four loses by KO or TKO, and many are going to call for Cigano to retire. That being said, this is still heavyweight so perhaps he can right the ship, but 2020 has been a year to forget for JDS.

Daniel Pineda: Going into his fight with Cub Swanson, Pineda said he was either going to finish Cub or get knocked out. Well, those who say they can and those who say they can’t are both right. When you predict your own method of defeat, that’s not great.

Chase Hooper: Hooper is a young and talented grappler, but even though he pulled off the win on Saturday, it’s clear he doesn’t need to be in the UFC right now. Hooper is a one-trick pony and needs time to develop his other skills against lower caliber fighters.


Official Matters

I suppose the big thing to address here would be the point deduction Jason Herzog levied upon Figueiredo in the main event, as it would up creating the majority draw instead of a Figueiredo win; however, given the severity of the low blow and the fact that earlier, Figueiredo had a pretty severe eye poke, I’m totally comfortable with that deduction (you will notice that after the deduction, no more fouls occurred). But to me, the bigger story is Junichiro Kamijo scoring the fifth round for Brandon Moreno. In that round, Figueiredo out-landed Moreno 16-8, his strikes were obviously the more damaging, and he ended the round on top. There is no reasonable world in which Moreno won the fifth round, and awarding it to him reeks of a post hoc make-up.

Then there is also the matter of Ciryl Gane’s KO of Junior dos Santos, but that can be summed up pretty neatly because aside from being a legal blow, it also didn’t make one bit of difference to the outcome. JDS was done either way, so no need for anyone to lose any sleep over this.


Fights to Make

Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno I: No need to overthink this. One of the fights of the year, and it ended in a draw. Run it back when both men are healthy enough to do so, and this time they’ll both get a full training camp.

Charles Oliveira vs. Rafael dos Anjos: Oliveira wants the winner of Dustin Poirier - Conor McGregor II but thats unlikely, especially with Justin Gaethje rumored to be facing Michael Chandler next. With RDA’s recent return to the division, this is a good fight to put either man in the vacant title shot conversation.

Tony Ferguson vs. Paul Felder: I would have preferred to go with the loser of Poirier-McGregor, but there is no chance Conor fights Tony now ever. So if Poirier loses to McGregor in January, then scratch this fight and make Poirier vs. Ferguson. But if not, Felder seems like the right fit. It would be a “Fight of the Night” almost guaranteed.

Mackenzie Dern vs. Tecia Torres: A good style matchup for both women and fits the needs of both right now as well.

Kevin Holland vs. Jack Hermansson: Both men had already been preparing for one another, and now Holland will be ranked fairly highly, meaning it’s a more appealing fight for Hermansson, even coming off a loss.

Ronaldo Souza vs. Yoel Romero II: Call it a hunch, but given how the UFC has been letting older fighters on losing streaks go, Jacare is probably getting his walking papers soon. If so, a rematch in Bellator with another contender for “Best To Never Win The UFC Title” is pretty appealing.

Ciryl Gane vs. Alistair Overeem. Heavyweight is formulaic - you beat one past-his-prime guy, keep moving up the ladder until you find one of the few young prospects. Next in line for Gane would be Overeem, who is still trying to make enough noise for one last title shot.

Junior dos Santos vs. Andrei Arlovski: Did you know these two have never fought each other? Seriously, they’ve never even been booked to face each other. Let’s fix that.