When the book is closed on 2021, UFC 268 may go down as the combat sports event of the year.
A stacked main card, combined with a number of great fights on the prelims, and the card in New York City was just non-stop action with high stakes in several of the key matchups, including two title bouts headlining the event.
In the headliner, Kamaru Usman proved yet again that he’s the best welterweight in the sport with a five-round decision over Colby Covington as he defended his title for the fifth consecutive time. Usman definitely had his hands full after Covington forged ahead with an incredible comeback after he was nearly finished with punches at the end of the second round.
Usman’s resilience proved yet again why he’s the elite of the elite 170 pounds, and while it’s probably little comfort to Covington, he has to know without a doubt that he’s the next best guy in the division.
In the co-main event, Rose Namajunas had to fight tooth and nail to retain her title despite a valiant effort from former champion Zhang Weili. The rematch was unlike anything that happened the first time around with Zhang giving Namajunas everything she could handle but still coming up short in a split decision loss.
Of course the main card started with what will likely go down as the Fight of the Year as Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler engaged in an absolute war that will certainly be remembered among the best scraps in the history of the UFC. Sometimes the fights with the most hype around them don’t play out the way most expected but Gaethje and Chandler lived up the billing and somehow managed to actually exceed expectations.
With that said, let’s talk about what passed and what failed during the latest pay-per-view. This is Making the Grade for UFC 268: Usman vs. Covington 2.
The Best of the Best
It’s not hard to heap a bunch of praise on Kamaru Usman after yet another successful title defense, but rather than just laud his accomplishment, let’s talk about how the UFC welterweight champion was made even better by the level of competition he faced on Saturday night.
At this point, Usman has clearly defined himself as the best fighter in the world at 170 pounds — anyone who argues different is just doing it for the sake of being argumentative — but a legacy like the one he’s building will truly be defined by the contenders attempting to take his throne. On Saturday night, Usman faced the closest thing to his equal as exists in mixed martial arts as Colby Covington gave him everything he could handle over five rounds.
Despite a vicious knockdown in the second round that seemingly spelled his doom, Covington not only recovered but he actually started winning in the latter half of the fight. To his credit, Usman continued to dish out punishment until the final horn, which allowed him to secure the victory but he was made that much better because Covington was valiantly trying to take everything from him over the course of 25 minutes.
As Usman said during his appearance at the UFC 268 post-fight press conference, Muhammad Ali needed Joe Frazier in order to define himself as a once-in-a-lifetime champion and as much as Covington didn’t like that comparison — undoubtedly because Frazier lost in two out of three fights to Ali — the analogy actually works pretty well, all things considered.
Usman is putting together one of the greatest runs in the history of the sport but just winning and collecting title defenses isn’t nearly as impressive if your level of competition isn’t up to snuff. There’s a reason that despite all the amazing things Demetrious Johnson achieved while he was in the UFC, his resume is rarely mentioned alongside other legends such as Anderson Silva or Jon Jones.
Johnson was so far ahead of everybody else at flyweight that his wins were almost a foregone conclusion until Henry Cejudo finally came along after he had already defended his title 11 times. Thankfully Usman has Covington because that’s exactly the type of challenge that raises the bar for a championship legacy and given how good both of them have been over the past few years, it’s hard to imagine they won’t meet again in the future.
Innovator of Violence
Expectation is a funny thing, especially when things don’t turn out as originally planned.
There was a time when Ryan Leaf was lauded as a future champion in the NFL and Sam Bowie was considered a better prospect than Michael Jordan. Just like those cases, nothing is guaranteed in mixed martial arts no matter how much of a sure thing something seems before it actually happens.
Well at least that might be the case unless Justin Gaethje is involved.
On Saturday night, the human highlight reel once again stole the show — this time sharing the cage with former Bellator champion Michael Chandler — as they unleashed a kind of savagery that essentially unmatched in combat sports today. Over three rounds, Gaethje and Chandler beat the living hell out of each other with both fighters having moments that nearly led to a finish.
When it was over, Gaethje and Chandler had combined for more than 230 significant strikes landed over three rounds. Neither fighter actually spoke to the media afterwards because they were rushed to a local hospital for precautionary reasons and that’s where Gaethje and Chandler posed for a photo together after trying to destroy each other for the better part of 15 minutes.
Of course, Gaethje continued his reign of terror over the UFC post-fight bonus system where he collected another paycheck for Fight of the Night, although truthfully an extra $50,000 still doesn’t seem nearly enough for the damage he dished out and absorbed while trading bombs with Chandler.
The old saying goes nothing in life is certain except death and taxes but Gaethje delivering a jaw-dropping performance every time he sets foot in the cage is just about as close as you’ll ever get to a guarantee in combat sports.
Embarrassment of Riches
On any other night, fighters like Alex Pereira, Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera, Shane Burgos and Billy Quarantillo as well as Bobby Green, Chris Curtis, Chris Barnett and Ian Garry would be all the buzz on a Sunday morning after a big event. Unfortunately for them, every fighter listed was competing at UFC 268, which also featured a pair of epic title fights as well as the afore mentioned human car crash known as Gaethje vs. Chandler.
While the UFC handed out more bonuses than usual — two extra for Performance of the Night — just about everybody competing after the first three fights of the night probably deserved an extra zero on their paycheck.
Barnett brought some much needed enthusiasm to the early prelims after he uncorked a wild spinning wheel kick to knockout Gian Villante and then Garry lived up to some considerable hype by blasting Jordan Williams with a punch that earned him a first round knockout.
Nassourdine Imavov looked outstanding as he dismantled once promising prospect Edmen Shahbazyan followed by Curtis’ stunning upset win to knockout Phil Hawes. Bobby Green continued his career resurgence with an impressive finish against Al Iaquinta while Alex Pereira — you know the guy who beat Israel Adesanya twice in kickboxing — proved why there was so much attention being paid to his debut after he laid waste to Andreas Michailidis with a flying knee knockout.
On any other night, Burgos and Quarantillo probably would have gone home with an extra $50,000 a piece after they engaged in a three-round battle … that just so happened to take place minutes after Gaethje and Chandler left the cage.
The recurring theme here is that just about everybody competing at UFC 268 brought their ‘A’ game and that deserves to be applauded even if not all of them are getting a bonus.
What Did Carla Do Wrong?
It’s tough being in the Carla Esparza business right now.
Despite five wins in a row, including a statement performance over Yan Xionan in her last outing, the former strawweight champion can’t get much consideration from her boss at the UFC or even the broadcast team calling the fights at UFC 268.
During the Rose Namajunas-Zhang Weili title fight, UFC color commentator Joe Rogan callously stated that there was no other compelling title bout in the division than those two clashing in back-to-back battles. Of course, Rogan failed to even mention Esparza by name despite the fact that she actually holds a win over Namajunas from a previous meeting.
Then it was White’s turn to drop a cinder block on Esparza’s head when someone at the post-fight press conference made the egregious suggestion that she would be next in line for a shot at Namajunas.
Rather than give his typical “we’ll meet with the matchmakers in a few days and discuss everything” answer, White actually criticized Esparza for daring to sit and wait for a title shot and then adding that the promotion has another option available to them when it comes to the strawweight title race.
Chances are former champion Jessica Andrade is the surprise that White teased on Saturday night but it’s incomprehensible how disrespected Esparza has been despite doing nothing other than winning her past five fights in a row to get into position to fight for the title.
Would Esparza vs. Namajunas 2 sell out an arena or make a huge impact on pay-per-view? It’s highly, highly doubtful but that can’t be the only metric by which title shots are earned or given in the UFC.
Wins and losses have to matter at some point and Esparza has certainly done more than enough to gain consideration where the strawweight division race is concerned.
Even if she’s going to be passed over again for a title shot, Esparza certainly deserves better than the way she’s been essentially disregarded by her promotion.
Who’s Watching the Watchmen?
Let’s be clear — UFC 268 was a triumph on just about every possible level … it just would have been nice if Dana White saw it all.
While Namajunas and Zhang were battling it out with the strawweight title on the line, White was captured cageside with his eyes glued to a monitor as he watched the boxing match between ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and Caleb Plant.
Now White is a longtime boxing enthusiast so there’s certainly nothing wrong with being intrigued by a big fight but watching that event while a UFC championship fight is happening three feet away seems inconsiderate at best.
White later explained that he placed a $100,000 bet on ‘Canelo’ to win by knockout, which he then revealed netted him winnings of more than $41,000. That’s great and all but it’s still not a good look that White was distracted by the boxing match while there was a UFC title fight happening at the exact same time.
Some will argue that White could easily pay attention to both or watching the boxing match out of his peripheral vision isn’t a slight to Namajunas and Zhang but the optics of that moment sure seem that way. Showtime Sports president — and frequent recipient of White’s verbal jabs — Stephen Espinoza definitely enjoyed seeing that the UFC boss was watching his event while a title fight in his own organization was happening at the same time.
White can absolutely spend his money however he wants and it’s clear he loves gambling so once again, there’s no shame in placing a wager on the ‘Canelo’ fight but perhaps next time he can take advantage of round-by-round updates rather than actually watching what unfolds while a UFC title is being defended directly in front of his face.