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UFC 269 takeaways: Oliveira’s validation, Pena vs. Nunes’ place in history, Garbrandt’s sad decline and more

What a way to end the 2021 pay-per-view slate. UFC lightweight champion Charles Oliveira defended his title with yet another comeback win, this time over Dustin Poirier, and Julianna Peña made good on five years of promises and threats by dethroning the greatest female fighter to ever live in one of the most shocking results in MMA history.

From an action-packed undercard to an unforgettable pay-per-view lineup, what mattered most from Saturday night in Las Vegas? Let’s hit our five biggest takeaways of UFC 269.

1. Charles Oliveira was supposed to be a front-runner. Remember that? The guy who looks for a way out. The glass cannon who crumbles at the first sign of trouble. Remember how, even after he captured the UFC lightweight strap with a harrowing come-from-behind knockout over a power-puncher who’d just 10-8’d him — the same lunatic who eventually lasted 15 hard minutes with Justin Gaethje — Oliveira still got dragged by his contemporaries as a quitter who didn’t have the heart to fight through?

The champ remembers.

That narrative was already lazy before UFC 269. But now? I don’t ever want to hear anyone repeat the same tired lines about Oliveira’s heart again.

You could see how much it frustrated him throughout fight week, this disrespect that’s come from all sides since he won the belt, and this silly label that’s chased him to no end. His coronation at UFC 262 was a championship in name only, Oliveira was told, a title born of convenience more than merit. Beating Michael Chandler was a nice little story for a former mid-tier contender, but Poirier still lingered out there in the distance, the real heir apparent, the uncrowned king who turned down the first post-Khabib title fight in order to secure the bag. Virtually every top name at 155 pounds picked against him. They all doubted him. Candidly, I did as well. Up until Saturday night, I believed Poirier to be the best active lightweight in the world. They were all wrong and so was I.

There’s no more debate. The man who orchestrated one of the more remarkable career turnarounds the UFC has seen, who strolled into his first title defense as a betting underdog and spent the whole first round eating hammers from one of MMA’s most battled-tested veterans and survived, he’s the furthest thing from a quitter. He’s the rightful UFC lightweight king, and maybe now he’ll get some damn respect.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s likelier Oliveira will be an underdog all over again to Gaethje, and if he wins, then once again to Islam Makhachev, and on and on this train will go.

Something tells me the champ doesn’t care anymore. He knows who he is.

Either way, I’m giddy for what’s next. If the majesty of him vs. Gaethje is indeed booked, we could be staring down the barrel of 2022’s Fight of the Year by the time all is said and done.

As for Poirier, this one stings. Without question. But he’s been here before and bounced back. Just don’t be surprised if we don’t see him until Conor McGregor is ready to return. After UFC 269’s heartbreak, another red-panty payday isn’t the worst consolation prize.

2. Julianna Peña broke Amanda Nunes.

Take a second, consider that sentence, roll the words around in your head once, twice, and really think them through. Because it happened. Peña broke Nunes. Tired her out. Forced her to quit. And now, for the first time in more than five years, there’s a new queen of the bantamweight division. Can you believe it? Hours later it’s still hard to fathom.

Much of the discussion after Peña’s win centered around where it ranked in the pantheon of upsets in MMA history, because what we do when we see supernatural phenomenons we never expected to see. It’s not a very big club: Serra vs. St-Pierre, Bisping vs. Rockhold, Holm vs. Rousey, Werdum vs. Emelianenko, and Sokoudjou vs. Nogueira probably made up the top five in some order prior to Saturday night, with Serra vs. St-Pierre entrenched as the clubhouse leader.

I was around for them all, and to me, the magic Peña somehow pulled off at UFC 269 tops the list. It’s blasphemy not to default back to Serra vs. St-Pierre, I know, but for as shocking as UFC 69 was in the moment, GSP wasn’t considered the all-time GOAT in 2007. He was a promising talent who looked like a surefire future Hall of Famer, but he was still far from the mythical figure we see him as today. But Nunes? Come on. She is that mythical figure — and more. She’s been the consensus women’s GOAT for years. From the moment she knocked out Cris Cyborg in 51 seconds, she’s been that Mount Rushmore mainstay. Peña was supposed to be the latest in a long line of easy nights, yet somehow over the course of three wild minutes in Round 2, a 7-to-1 underdog dragged the consensus women’s GOAT to a point of no return so bleak that Nunes tapped to a no-hooks rear-naked choke.

It happens in MMA. Few champions leave this game unscathed. But I’m having a hard time thinking of how Pena’s win is anything but the most shocking result I’ve ever seen.

3. The majority of folks who watched on Saturday probably didn’t realize it, but Raulian Paiva is a fairly decent scalp for Sean O’Malley to hang on his wall. Paiva is no world-beater, but he’s also no schmuck — the 26-year-old has fought close with quality names and has never been anyone’s easy out. Well, at least not until O’Malley blew through him like Kendall Roy blows through nose beers and goodwill at the world’s saddest 40th birthday party.

Not every UFC fighter will be able to replicate the Suga Show strategy — in fact few of the rank-and-file will ever have the popularity or cachet to do so — but the unranked champ gimmick is obviously working. O’Malley is already tied for the second-most knockouts in UFC bantamweight history (5), his highlight reel is already one of the gnarliest in the division, he’s cashing checks and drawing more impassioned reactions — both positive and negative — than 95 percent of the UFC roster, and he hasn’t even taken that next step.

Want to see what I mean? Quick, who’s the No. 15 bantamweight on the UFC rankings? How about No. 14? If you can answer either without peeking at that link, you’re in the top one percentile of UFC fans. Most can’t. But they can tell you all about The Suga Show.

There’s a shelf life to this unranked champ gimmick, and it feels as if we’re nearing the end of it, but few prospects have navigated the early legs of their UFC careers savvier than O’Malley. UFC President Dana White said on Saturday that it’s time to get O’Malley paid and get him into some big fights. That sounds delightful to me.

Funnily enough, his timeline matches up with two men who have histories in the “Suga” orbit, both of whom could make for quite interesting options...

4. Speaking of, it’s silly to write anyone off this early, but it’s really starting to look as if the saga of Cody Garbrandt will be one of the more difficult careers to explain for the next generation. After UFC 269, we’ve reached a point where Garbrandt’s win over Dominick Cruz — which remains one of the most brilliant performances from a title challenger in UFC history — is becoming a footnote for a fighter who peaked at age 25. The numbers tell it all: Garbrandt has lost five of his six bouts since. He’s been knocked down seven times over that stretch. His latest, a savage beating at the hands of Kai Kara-France on Saturday, came after Garbrandt dehydrated his brain worse than ever before to make the cut down to 125 pounds. It resulted in him adding two more knockdowns to that growing total.

That’s not the stat you want to see from a 30-year-old athlete. In retrospect, maybe this was the natural outcome for someone who’s struggled historically with defensive issues. Either way, it’s a sad outcome for a fighter who at one point looked like a future Hall of Famer.

It’s also an unusual counterbalance on the same night Cruz shined, preserving a stat that’s becoming one of the great iron man stats in MMA. Cruz is undefeated in non-title fights — 17 years with 17 non-title walks and 17 wins. That was true on Saturday morning and it remains true on Sunday, even if it took a Herculean effort at UFC 269. Cruz’s ability to summon his wits after an early flash knockdown by Pedro Munhoz and stage an incredible 10-minute comeback was a sight to behold. True throwback stuff from the bantamweight GOAT, who’s one of the last pillars of the WEC old guard still competing at a high level.

Cruz may never be a title contender again, but his continued stubbornness to survive at age 36 in MMA’s most talent-rich division after all he’s overcome is genuinely inspiring.

Maybe it’s just because both Cruz and Garbrandt beefed with O’Malley during fight week, but I don’t hate the idea of “Suga” drawing either of these former champs for that long-awaited next step.

5. I wish Ryan Hall fought every weekend. I mean that, and it will forever be baffling to me why so many fans view him with such disdain. Sure, he’s a grappler. Yeah, he’s a bit of a weird guy. But how is that bad? It’s not as if he’s going out there to Jon Fitch people. He’s always attacking or looking to advance position in some way, and everything about him is unique. His entries, his transitions, the little traps he sets from the bottom, the lack of any discernible emotion on his face aside from abject boredom in the midst of a firefight — there’s really no one else like him.

Think about how many fighters are carbon copies of the same wrestler-kickboxer clone, how many fights follow the same interchangeable script on a long event night. That’s never the case for Hall. You could paint over his bouts with black silhouettes and he’d still be instantly recognizable. How many athletes you can say that about? Not many.

In this era of UFC uniformity, that’s a compliment in and of itself.

Saturday was no different. Hall was riveting against Darrick Minner, relentless in his transitions and a genuine demon on the bottom in ways we rarely see anymore. Evolutions in modern MMA have essentially rendered the bottom game into a futile proposition, but Hall was tearing Minner up from the supposedly inferior position. You almost felt bad for coach James Krause, who was on the verge of having a coronary watching Minner repeatedly take the fight back to the ground for reasons no one could fathom.

MMA needs more ultra-specialized weirdos like Hall, not less. And if the blood gods want to give me one small holiday gift, can we please just let 2022 be Hall’s busiest year yet?

The 50/50 hive thanks you in advance.

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