The final UFC pay-per-view of 2021 is now in the books and it will certainly end up as one of the most memorable cards of the entire year.
In the main event of UFC 269, Charles Oliveira defied expectations and choked out Dustin Poirier in the third round to retain his lightweight championship. Heading into the night, Oliveira was the decided underdog going up against Poirier, who many believed was already the best 155-pound fighter in the world — he just didn’t have the title around his waist.
Oliveira — certain to be No. 1 in the next edition of MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings — settled that question emphatically with his performance to dispatch Poirier and push his overall win streak to 10 in a row.
Meanwhile, in the co-main event Julianna Pena pulled off one of the most shocking victories in MMA history when she tapped out Amanda Nunes to become the new UFC women’s bantamweight champion.
On paper, Pena shouldn’t have even been in the cage with Nunes but she was relentless and unafraid to go after somebody universally recognized as the greatest women’s fighter of all time. After toughing out the opening round, Pena dominated in the second before tapping out Nunes to complete her upset victory.
There’s a lot to discuss from the card so let’s see what passed and what failed on Saturday night. This is Making the Grade for UFC 269: Oliveira vs. Poirier.
All Questions Answered
Like it or not, Charles Oliveira had to answer some legitimate questions with his performance against Dustin Poirier at UFC 269.
The narrative built around Oliveira for so much of his UFC career was that he could be a tremendous frontrunner but he struggled to thrive in the face of adversity. It was a problem so pronounced in past fights that No. 1-ranked contender Justin Gaethje called Oliveira a “quitter” and that’s why he believed his reign atop the lightweight division would be rather short.
Well, over his past two performances, Oliveira has survived a near-finish delivered by Michael Chandler and he went toe-to-toe with Poirier for two-plus rounds before ultimately walking out as the winner in both fights. In other words, Oliveira should have satisfied any curiosity if he’s managed to get past those struggles that haunted him through many of his earlier fights in the UFC.
During his current 10-fight win streak, Oliveira has finished nine of his opponents by knockout or submission while completely dominating the only fighter (Tony Ferguson) who managed to make it to a decision. He’s continued to add to his all-time submission record in the UFC and prove that he’s got some serious hands in his arsenal as well while picking up three knockouts along the way.
With the win over Poirier, Oliveira has absolutely defined himself as the best lightweight in the world and there’s no debate about that any longer. Of course, Oliveira also has an added bonus that he’s the new king at 155 pounds who never faced or fell to former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov prior to his retirement.
While that doesn’t mean Oliveira is somehow a better champion, it just helps to separate him from arguably the greatest lightweight in history, who had a rather large shadow still looming over the division considering he had already dispatched Poirier, Gaethje and Conor McGregor during his reign.
Now Oliveira can feel secure in his position as the top dog at lightweight because he took out the man just about everybody was calling the uncrowned champion and there should be no questions regarding his legitimacy any further.
The Lion Tamer
Let’s be honest enough to admit one thing — by just about every measurement when it comes to title contenders in the UFC, Julianna Pena didn’t necessarily deserve to challenge Amanda Nunes for her 135-pound belt.
Then again, she was also the last woman standing.
With a 2-2 record in her past four appearances while riding just a one-fight win streak, Pena almost backed into the title fight after her matchup against former champion Holly Holm fell apart earlier this year. That said, Pena had a justifiable issue with being passed over for a title shot after UFC 200 when former champion Ronda Rousey returned to action only to get steamrolled by Nunes in less than one minute.
Still, Pena walked into her fight with Nunes as a massive underdog — one of the biggest in UFC title fight history — but none of that mattered to her.
Instead, Pena came after Nunes with the kind of ferocity that “The Lioness” typically uses to overwhelm her opponents. Pena showed no fear in the face of danger, but ultimately it was fundamentals and mechanics that helped her conquer Nunes as she established a slick jab in the second round while constantly making the long-reigning champion swing and miss over and over again.
When Pena secured the tap to get the win, she erupted in celebration and rightly so because she defeated a woman who has looked unbeatable for the past seven years. She finished a fighter that no one had even really made stumble during her dominant title reign.
Of course, to prove this win was no fluke, Pena will have to do it again because Nunes will rightfully be afforded an immediate rematch but this time around the onus will fall on the now former bantamweight champion to prove she’s made the necessary adjustments to fix what went wrong.
Pena already had every confidence that she could dismantle Nunes but now she knows it’s possible because she’s already done it. That makes her a dangerous champion who might look even better the second time around.
He’s a Business, Man
You don’t have to like Sean O’Malley but at the very least, it’s time to start appreciating his understanding when it comes to prizefighting in the UFC.
As a fast rising superstar on the roster, O’Malley has figured out branding better than anybody since Conor McGregor as he’s built a fanbase around his colorful hair choices, his passionate love for the devil’s lettuce, and an online persona where he engages hundreds of thousands of people through the video game-streaming industry.
In recent months, O’Malley has openly admitted that he wasn’t looking to face the best fighters in the bantamweight division but it had nothing to do with a lack of confidence that he could hang with them. Instead, O’Malley has made it clear time and time again that he wants to get paid more to take those higher risk opportunities.
While so many fighters clamor for the chance to compete for UFC gold or get that elusive ranking next to their name, O’Malley figured out long ago that in order to have a successful fighting career, he first has to understand what it means to be a successful businessman.
Now that approach isn’t for everybody — some athletes openly admit that the money doesn’t matter much to them anymore than the fame because glory and legacy are the only things they’re pursuing. That’s perfectly fine but O’Malley’s approach can’t be ignored, especially when he’s one of the few fighters who has openly criticized the UFC for its business practices in the past.
Typically those kinds of rants are reserved for ex-UFC fighters who are no longer worried about reprisal or retribution for biting the hand that feeds them. O’Malley doesn’t seem to worry about any of that because he truly understands his value as a name brand and what he’s worth to the UFC.
There’s a reason why O’Malley was featured on the UFC 269 pay-per-view main card while an established former champion like Dominick Cruz was relegated to the prelims. O’Malley brings eyeballs and that kind of attraction can’t be denied but even more importantly he knows it and he’s using that to leverage himself into bigger contracts and higher paydays.
There’s no telling if that will help O’Malley become a UFC champion but it will likely assist him in pursuing one goal that’s been nearly unattainable for most fighters in this sport — retiring wealthy.
Dropping down to a lower weight class in MMA is nothing new but it’s rarely the fix-all that so many athletes hope it will be.
The latest example comes from former UFC bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt, who argued that he’s always been better suited to compete at 125 pounds so he finally decided to make the move to flyweight for his most recent fight against Kai Kara-France.
To be completely fair, Garbrandt didn’t look depleted on the scale when he weighed in and he certainly appeared healthy when setting foot in the octagon while maintaining a rather noticeable size advantage over his opponent.
The only problem is Garbrandt was still facing many of the same issues that plagued him at bantamweight with a few new issues tacked on while making his flyweight debut. Yes, he was much bigger than Kara-France in the cage but Garbrandt was no longer the faster fighter with the kind of quick, explosive hands that defined him at bantamweight.
He faced the same defensive deficiencies that led to three knockout losses at 135 pounds except on Saturday night, Garbrandt was trying to figure out that problem while also having his brain potentially dehydrated from draining the extra 10 pounds to compete at flyweight. There’s no definitive proof that the weight cut diminished Garbrandt’s durability but it also can’t be ignored.
The larger issue here is that weight cutting is rarely the solution to fix what’s broken in a fighter.
Sure, there are great examples where it’s worked — Jose Aldo continues to prove that every time he competes at bantamweight — but there’s a much longer list littered with the names of athletes who tortured their bodies cutting weight in a feeble attempt to right what was wrong in a different division.
While a 1-5 run over his last six fights isn’t compelling proof, it’s still far too early to just give up on Garbrandt but here’s hoping he doesn’t end up as another cautionary tale when it comes to dropping down a division to try and fix what ails him.
There’s No ‘I’ in Team
One of the biggest stories that dominated the headlines ahead of UFC 269 was Dominick Cruz taking a shot at his broadcast partner Daniel Cormier while criticizing him for not doing his homework before commentating a fight. In fact, Cruz went as far as saying he muted the television whenever Cormier was speaking because he just couldn’t take his attempts at analysis while calling fights.
Cormier later confronted Cruz and his issue wasn’t that the former bantamweight champion had a problem with his commentary — it’s that he addressed it in a public setting like media day rather than talking to him personally in a closed door setting.
When appearing on The MMA Hour on Monday, Cruz expressed regrets about the situation but not regarding what he said — just where he said it.
As juicy as it may have been to feast upon Cruz’s criticism when it came to Cormier, he still managed to break an unspoken rule where teammates are involved. Sure, Cruz and Cormier aren’t training together as fighters but they are now co-workers and that’s pretty much the same exact thing.
In fact, Cruz and Cormier transcend the typical co-worker dynamic because they also have to co-exist in order to help enhance a broadcast rather than serve as a distraction to the audience watching at home. Because they work so closely together while calling fights, Cruz confronting Cormier over what he perceives as shortcomings could be considered as nothing more than constructive criticism but that should have been a private conversation — not one addressed in the middle of a media day.
Perhaps that’s a problem the UFC will need to address when it comes to active fighters serving as part of the broadcast team. Cruz is currently the only person calling fights who is still actively competing in the UFC so he’s not only sharing a microphone with Cormier but he has to listen to the former two-division champion dissect his performances.
In fact, Cruz’s criticism came just two days before Cormier was set to call his fight and that only created even more tension whether it was discussed on the broadcast or not.
As play-by-play man Jon Anik said when addressing the situation, it’s never good when the broadcasters are taking shine away from the athletes they’re talking about and that’s exactly what Cruz did when he took issue with Cormier in a public setting rather than showing him a little bit of professional courtesy.