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UFC 268 takeaways: Kamaru Usman might be Fighter of the Year, but he’s not the welterweight GOAT — yet

UFC 268: Usman v Covington 2 Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

UFC 268 was one of the best cards of the year on paper, and it certainly delivered. In the end, Team Trevor Wittman scored a 3-0 sweep as Kamaru Usman and Rose Namajunas won their respective title rematches over Colby Covington and Zhang Weili, and Justin Gaethje staked his claim in lightweight contention with an electric win over Michael Chandler. From an action-packed undercard to a behemoth pay-per-view lineup, what mattered most from Saturday night at Madison Square Garden? Let’s hit our five biggest takeaways of UFC 268.


1. Kamaru Usman is the Fighter of the Year for 2021.

There is no doubt about that. With only five UFC events left on the calendar, there’s just one name who could mount a significant challenge to Usman’s claim, and it’d take Dustin Poirier pulling off something otherworldly spectacular in his title bout against Charles Oliveira on Dec. 11 for us to start that debate. Anything less and Usman’s knockouts of Gilbert Burns and Jorge Masvidal alongside his war of attrition over Colby Covington on Saturday still trump the stellar résumé of Poirier’s dual victories over Conor McGregor and whatever the Oliveira result would be.

(The present day version of McGregor is, at best, a lesser fighter than both Burns and Covington, so the quality of competition and the style with which he earned that 3-0 sweep simply nudges Usman ahead on my ballot.)

But it’s funny. In many ways, 2021 has become the year MMA finally realized what it had with the most dominant welterweight champion of the post-GSP era.

Just look at where we stand today with Usman compared with how the sport felt about him heading into the beginning of the year, when that first snoozer over Masvidal at UFC 251 was still fresh in everyone’s mind. UFC president Dana White declared unequivocally at Saturday’s post-fight press conference that Usman is “the best welterweight of all-time.” That would’ve been the most reactionary form of blasphemy just 10 months ago, recency bias at its finest. But after blowing out Burns with surprising ease, scoring the knockout of a lifetime on Masvidal, then fending off a relentless Covington once more, it’s no longer crazy to wonder whether Usman is the greatest talent the division has ever seen.

He very well could be.

He’s transformed into an all-around force under the tutelage of Trevor Wittman and the numbers are starting to look staggering; Usman is now 15-0 in the UFC, just one win shy of tying Anderson Silva for the longest winning streak in octagon history.

The gold standard at 170 pounds has always been Georges St-Pierre, and if the two were paired together in their primes, Usman may very well be favored to win. Does that make him the welterweight GOAT? The average fighter of 2021 would blow the doors off the average fighter of 2008. It’s a young sport and evolutionary leaps in technique are still mounting every few years, but it’s also disrespectful of history to not consider context. St-Pierre ruled over his division at the highest levels for eight years, avenged his only two losses in savage fashion, retired on top, then returned as an elder statesman and won a second title. He defended his belt nine times and won 12 welterweight championship fights. His dominance at 170 pounds was more than a moment or a pretty great run; it was a genuine era.

That time matters. That longevity matters. It’s why Khabib Nurmagomedov can be the most dominant fighter in UFC history but can’t ever truly lay claim to the title of the greatest fighter of all-time. And right now? That time and longevity are the final barriers stopping Usman from overtaking St-Pierre in this race.

But folks, it’s getting damn, damn close.


2. Speaking of year-end awards, it’s a special thing when a fight projects to be a guaranteed banger on paper then actually delivers in reality. But in truth? There was no jinxing Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler.

And for my money, those two lunatics just put on the new front-runner for Fight of the Year.

Their three-round blood-and-guts war not only lived up to the impossible expectations heaped upon it ahead of time, it somehow exceeded them.

I won’t argue if anyone wants to submit Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega as a counterpoint in the discussion. That’s the only other option that gives Saturday’s matchup a good run for No. 1. But for my tastes, the consistent I-can’t-tear-my-eyes-away-from-this-insanity factor for 15 straight minutes of Gaethje-Chandler pushed it past the dramatic peaks of Volkanovski-Ortega. Just minutes after Gaethje’s win, Shane Burgos and Billy Quarantillo combined to throw more than 700 strikes and they still felt like the emotional break of the card.

Volkanovski-Ortega had the Round of the Year, no doubt. But Gaethje-Chandler was the Fight.

“We are living in the wrong times, let me tell you,” Gaethje said afterward. “Me and him should’ve been fighting to the death in the f*cking Colosseum. That’s what should have happened.”

What a madman.

After UFC 268, Gaethje’s status on the lightweight ladder is clear. He’s going to fight the winner of Oliveira vs. Poirier. It’s impossible to deny this man.

He’s the monster laying in wait under the bed at 155 pounds. He’s chaos incarnate. And win or lose, he’s coming to drag whoever’s holding that title next year straight to hell.


3. Crown Rose Namajunas as the queen of Madison Square Garden, because she’s the master of handling the pressure of the world’s most famous arena.

Four years after her brilliance over Joanna Jedrzejczyk, “Thug Rose” pushed her MSG record to 2-0 with a dogged win over Zhang Weili. Candidly, I scored the decision in the challenger’s favor, giving Zhang the first three rounds, but it was one of those fights where it’s impossible to actually be upset with a 48-47 in either direction. Regardless, Namajunas found herself in an early hole against a former champion who’d clearly improved since April and overcame it to win the championship rounds and leave New York with her belt in tow.

That’s impressive no matter the circumstances.

But if I’m being honest, a big part of me is happy UFC 268’s co-main event worked out the way it did, even despite my scorecard, simply because the alternative would’ve led to another Cormier vs. Miocic-esque logjam heading into 2022 as we awaited an inevitable rubber match. Such was the risk of the UFC booking the immediate rematch. Strawweight is too good and too deep to run the same fight back for three consecutive title bouts.

Saturday’s result paves the way for 115 pounds to keep moving. Like perhaps, say, moving toward a much-deserved rematch between two former rivals with shared history? The same two women who sit tied for the second-most UFC wins (9) in the weight class and whose backstory traces all the way back to the very origins of the UFC strawweight division itself?

To steal a phrase from Justin Gaethje, if the UFC doesn’t book “Thug Rose” vs. Carla Esparza next, we riot.


4. Of the three debuting fighters who dug themselves early holes on UFC 268’s undercard before separating grown men from their consciousness, as fun as it was to revive the nostalgia of the early McGregor era with Ian Garry’s ferocity, and as absurd as it was to watch Alex Pereira pull off his best Sagat cosplay, let’s talk for a moment about Chris Curtis, because who knows if we’ll ever get another chance.

If Saturday was your introduction to him, just know that “The Action Man” owns one of the more fraught and determined journeys to the UFC you’ve probably ever seen. Before 2018, Curtis toiled for nearly 10 years as one of the regional scene’s standout welterweights who could never quite get over that final hump that’d get him to the big show. From Tom Gallicchio to Belal Muhammad to Nah-Shon Burrell, a future UFC veteran always seemed to pop up to send Curtis packing the moment he reached the precipice of breaking through.

Then, at long last, Curtis finally got his chance in 2018 with a spot on the UFC’s Contender Series — and let’s go Cliffs Notes style from here, because it’s almost too much to recount.

1) In that spot? He absolutely delivered. Curtis’ hook-kick knockout of Sean Lally in 2018 was one of the highlights of his Contender Series season, yet Dana White skipped over him to award a contract to his card-mate — who else? — Greg Hardy, who was just two years removed from his NFL exile. Curtis promptly retired, declaring his dream to be dead.

2) The winds of fate blew him back to MMA — because of course they did — and over to PFL, where Curtis instantly drew more atrociously bad luck. Right away, he was matched up in back-to-back-to-back fights against the only men to ever be crowned PFL welterweight champions: Magomed Magomedkerimov (twice) and Ray Cooper III.

3) That PFL run was in fact so unlucky that it ended with Curtis fighting Magomedkerimov and Cooper on the same night. First, Magomedkerimov decisioned him out of the PFL playoffs, which led a frustrated Curtis to announce his retirement again — only to get dragged back into an alternate spot a few hours later and get KO’d all over again by Cooper, which led to Curtis’ second retirement on the night and third over a two-year span.

4) Curtis eventually reconsidered for one last try and signed with Bellator — only to get immediately released after a positive COVID-19 test sunk his contendership fight with Austin Vanderford.

5) After rattling off four more regional wins, the moment of truth finally came a few weeks ago when the UFC offered Curtis to step up against Phil Hawes on just two days’ notice. He did just that, and even made weight — only for Hawes to turn down the fight hours later.

“I was super sick, man. My contract was dependent on me fighting and I did my part, I showed up and he said no,” Curtis bemoaned to BJPENN.com in the aftermath. “My first thought was like you got to be kidding me, man. They are going to drop me. It was at the point where everyone was freaking out and then Sean Strickland called Mick Maynard to plead on my behalf to not cut me. My manager is then talking to Mick to let me fight. You know it’s crazy when Sean Strickland calls and goes out of his way to save you.”

But you know what? It all worked out.

At the age of 34, after three different retirements and even more false starts, Curtis finally got his moment. He was a near 3-to-1 underdog to Hawes at UFC 268 — and “hilariously broke” to boot — yet he did it. He fulfilled his 13-year journey to MMA’s biggest stage.

What’s more? He did it with the performance of a lifetime. Things you love to see.


5. It’s going to get lost amid the wealth of riches on Saturday’s card, but good God ... can you believe what the hell Chris Barnett pulled off?!?

I don’t know if the physics-defying spinning wheel kick that retired Gian Villante at UFC 268 is the new Knockout of the Year. It’s certainly in the conversation, even if that honor usually goes to something more consequential. But what I do know is that I’m having trouble recalling to mind many knockouts that were more impressive on the sheer “WTF JUST HAPPENED” scale. Barnett could show a clip of Edson Barboza’s iconic finish of Terry Etim to 100 people off the street and there’s a 100-percent chance that every single one of them would scoff at the idea of their rotund interviewer being capable of the same.

I mean, seriously just watch this one again — Barnett had to post his left arm on the ground for his foot to even reach high enough to hit Villante’s head. Unreal.

Combine that majesty with any of Barnett’s many impromptu dance routines and his all-class promo on behalf of the retiring Villante in his post-fight interview, and the 35-year-old just had himself a 10/10 night. In a matchup that was a total afterthought coming in, no less.

Only in MMA can the seemingly inconsequential moments so consistently turn into memories that’ll stick around forever. Only in MMA can a hirsute, 5-foot-9, probably 285-pound man who goes by the nickname “Huggy Bear” nearly burn Madison Square Garden to the ground with his best Eddie Gordo impersonation. God, I love this stupid sport.

Poll

Whose UFC 268 performance stood out most to you?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Usman def. Covington
    (77 votes)
  • 3%
    Namajunas def. Zhang
    (38 votes)
  • 67%
    Gaethje def. Chandler
    (640 votes)
  • 3%
    Vera def. Edgar
    (33 votes)
  • 1%
    Burgos def. Quarantillo
    (17 votes)
  • 15%
    Undercard (Barnett, Garry, Pereira, more)
    (150 votes)
955 votes total Vote Now