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Making the Grade: UFC 259: Blachowicz vs. Adesanya edition

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UFC 259: Blachowicz v Adesanya Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

With three title fights headlining the card, UFC 259 was expected to be one of the biggest events in 2021, and the show delivered in some ways. Yet it came up short in others.

At the top of the bill, light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz thwarted Israel Adesanya’s attempt to become a two-division champion as he successfully defended his title, and in the process, defeated one of the UFC’s biggest superstars.

Meanwhile, Amanda Nunes continued what might be the most impressive run in the history of the sport as she notched her 12th consecutive victory by dispatching Megan Anderson in such lopsided fashion that the odds on the fight — she was a 14-to-1 favorite — almost seemed underwhelming.

Sadly, the bantamweight title fight did not play out like anybody expected after Petr Yan threw an illegal knee striking in the fourth round and Aljamain Sterling was unable to continue. Because Yan’s blow was a deliberate foul rather than an accident, he was disqualified and now Sterling is the champion, though judging by his reaction, he certainly didn’t feel like a winner.

There’s plenty more to talk about from this card, so let’s see what passed and what failed from the latest UFC pay-per-view. This is Making the Grade for UFC 259: Blachowicz vs. Adesanya.

PASSES

Put Some Respect on His Name

There was a time not that long ago that Jan Blachowicz was arguably fighting for his job in the UFC after suffering losses in four out of five fights. Now less than four years later, he’s cemented himself as the UFC light heavyweight champion while building an impressive winning streak with the latest victory coming over one of the fastest rising superstars in the entire sport.

Matched up with middleweight champion Israel Adesanya at UFC 259 — a fight that was proposed to him as he flew home to Poland just after he won the title this past September — Blachowicz had to know he wasn’t going to be favored to win. That’s not even as much about the matchup as it was the desire to see Adesanya crowned as a two-division champion, which would have set up even bigger fights and potentially an eventual showdown with Jon Jones.

Instead, Blachowicz blocked out all the talk about Adesanya and just kept his focus on defending the title he spent a lifetime to capture.

After five hard-fought rounds, Blachowicz defended his throne and sent Adesanya packing back to 185 pounds. It was an impressive victory in so many ways, but none bigger than Blachowicz destroying the narrative that this was supposed to be Adesanya’s crowning achievement in becoming a two-division champion.

Now with five wins in a row, and a title defense under his belt, Blachowicz can truly feel like he’s the UFC light heavyweight champion. Perhaps now he’ll finally get the respect he’s due. He already had to move out from under the shadow that Jon Jones cast over the division after he vacated the belt to pursue a championship at heavyweight. He then took out Dominick Reyes, who many believed was the uncrowned champion at 205 pounds. Then Blachowicz was booked against Adesanya in a champion versus champion fight that hardly anyone expected him to win.

Blachowicz has earned this moment to celebrate, and just as he demanded on Twitter, it’s time to put some respect on his name.

Cleaned Out

There’s an awful lot of time spent in this sport asking and/or declaring who is the “greatest of all time,” but only one fighter has truly earned that moniker without any question.

Amanda Nunes dispatched yet another contender coming for one of her titles on Saturday night, and this time, she made it look even easier than many of her most dominant wins. From the first exchange, former Invicta FC featherweight champion Megan Anderson just looked out gunned as she struggled to deal with Nunes’ punching power. Once the fight hit the floor, Nunes dismantled her.

Obviously, Nunes was expected to win, but expectations are a funny thing in this sport, and sometimes even the most dominant of victories against an overmatched opponent still come with criticisms.

In Nunes’ case after Saturday night, there was no justifiable blemish on her performance considering the way she mauled Anderson from start to finish. The fight barely made it past the two-minute mark of the opening round.

With 12 wins in a row, including title defenses at both bantamweight and featherweight, and wins over every single athlete to ever touch UFC gold at 145 or 135 pounds, Nunes has separated herself from the rest of the pack by a wide margin. The toughest part about her job going forward is finding worthy competition to put in the cage.

There was talk on Saturday night about former Ultimate Fighter winner Julianna Pena getting the next shot at Nunes. But the betting odds on that one will be just about as lopsided as Anderson’s chances to become featherweight champion. A top prospect like Aspen Ladd returning from a knee surgery is pretty much the only other hope for either the bantamweight or featherweight divisions to offer Nunes a challenge she hasn’t already seen.

Just to put that into perspective, both Pena and Ladd are currently riding a one-fight win streak, but that still might be good enough to earn a title fight against Nunes right now, because otherwise the cupboards are bare when it comes to contenders she’s already demolished.

That’s the definition of dominance and there’s no debating Nunes’ status as the best women’s fighter in MMA history.

Smashing Machine

Fighters touting their teammates as “the next big thing” can set unrealistic expectations when it comes time to perform. Israel Adesanya said his training partner Carlos Ulberg was a future light heavyweight champion, but then he got knocked flat on the UFC 259 prelims.

That brings us to Islam Makhachev, who has long been touted as a future contender at lightweight. The amount of praise he received leading into Saturday night was overwhelming, especially considering the people banging the drum for him were UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and former two-division UFC champion Daniel Cormier.

Both of those fighters knew Makhachev incredibly well after training alongside him for many years, and considering the long list of accomplishments they earned, it was smart to listen to what they had to say.

That can still put a lot of pressure on a fighter to perform. But Makhachev proved everything his colleagues have said about him is right on the money. On Saturday night, he overpowered Drew Dober at every turn, earning multiple takedowns each round before finishing the fight with an arm-triangle choke in the third round.

Makhachev looked every bit the part of a future contender at lightweight, and now, it’s time for the UFC to truly test him.

With eight wins in a row on his resume capped off by the dominant performance at UFC 259, Makhachev deserves a chance to prove he’s ready to face the best of the best in arguably the toughest division in the sport. Here’s hoping the UFC finds him a worthwhile opponent ranked somewhere in the top five or six spots in the division so we can continue to test Makhachev and see if he’s a king just waiting for his crown.

FAIL

Kneed No Explanation

UFC 259: Yan v Sterling Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

The bantamweight title fight at UFC 259 was arguably the best matchup out of three championships going up for grabs on Saturday night. But unfortunately, the bout ended with the least favorable results.

After staving off early attacks from Aljamain Sterling to start the fight, Petr Yan appeared to be in control and cruising towards his first successful title defense. With Sterling’s conditioning fading, Yan was teeing off with strikes. But just when it looked like he had truly taken over, the Russian unleashed a vicious knee strike to an opponent who was clearly still down on the ground.

The illegal shot blasted Sterling and sent him crashing back down to the canvas where he was unable to continue. The blatant foul didn’t cost Yan a point or even result in the fight being declared a no-contest. Instead, referee Mark Smith determined that Yan’s knee strike was deliberate rather than accidental, and he was disqualified, which meant Sterling was crowned champion.

Of course as soon as UFC President Dana White wrapped the belt around Sterling’s waist, he removed it and put it down in the cage – that was not how he wanted to win a championship. Afterward, Sterling essentially said ‘I’m sorry’ for the way the fight ended, yet he had no reason whatsoever to apologize to anybody for what unfolded.

Yan threw an illegal strike. It landed. He was disqualified. It really is as simple as that.

Sadly afterward, Sterling had to field accusations that he was faking his way out of continuing the fight with Yan in order to escape with the championship. Former champion T.J. Dillashaw, who is coming off a two-year suspension for doping, took an unnecessary shot at Sterling and he’s probably the last person who should be casting aspersions at anyone.

Thankfully, there were also a number of fighters who stood by Sterling after he was unable to continue due to the illegal strike.

These kinds of situations have unfolded before, and the same thing seems to happen every single time — somebody always has to question the legitimacy of the fighter who is unable to continue. That needs to stop.

Remember back in 2017 when Dustin Poirier ate an illegal knee strike from Eddie Alvarez and he wasn’t able to continue so the fight was declared a no-contest? Afterward, Poirier faced similar criticism that he somehow wanted out of the fight and took the easy exit by saying he couldn’t continue.

Nearly four years later, is there anybody on Earth who would actually question Poirier’s heart and determination? No, of course not. That’s absolute lunacy.

The same should be said about Sterling, who absolutely did not want to win the title from an illegal strike. But the reality was he could not continue, nor should the referee have even contemplated letting him restart the fight. If there’s blame to be dished out for this disaster, let Yan shoulder that burden, because ultimately he’s the one who threw and landed the illegal knee.

EPIC FAIL

Champ Status Is Enough For Now

Remember when the crowning achievement of a fighter’s UFC career was winning a championship?

Well, somehow these days that just doesn’t seem to be enough any longer, because after Conor McGregor was able to capture gold in two divisions simultaneously, everybody wants the chance to become a “champ-champ.” But the novelty is really starting to wear off.

Back in the day, Georges St-Pierre would often hear questions about moving up to middleweight to fight for a second UFC title, and his answer was almost always the same: When he could officially clear out all of the contenders at 170 pounds, he might consider it.

That attitude should be adopted more often, because we’ve seen more champion versus champion fights over the past few years than any time throughout the course of history in the sport, and it rarely feels earned any longer. But worse yet, it’s starting to feel less special whenever these moments happen.

After winning the undisputed UFC middleweight title, Israel Adesanya said numerous times he wanted to clean out his division and then he would test himself at 205 pounds. Now you could argue that he already dispatched every legitimate contender at 185 pounds after knocking out Paulo Costa this past September but that was still just his second consecutive title defense overall.

That said, based on an overall resume, Adesanya’s shot at the light heavyweight title can still be justified. But it just wasn’t necessary.

Instead, what’s wrong with Adesanya becoming the greatest middleweight champion in the history of the sport? To accomplish that feat, he would have to trump Anderson Silva’s legendary career. Silva was never a two-division champion.

The obsession over winning titles in two weight classes needs to slow down until a champion has truly earned that opportunity. We as the media also need to take more responsibility to stop pushing that narrative after every single title fight.

Zhang Weili barely had time to shine up her belt after knocking out Jessica Andrade, and she was already being asked about moving up to flyweight to challenge Valentina Shevchenko. Kamaru Usman put on one of the best performances of his career against Gilbert Burns, but inevitably, the subject turned to a potential move to middleweight, even though he’s never really shown an overwhelming interest in pursuing the 185-pound title.

The one person who probably deserved a chance at “champ-champ” status more than anybody else in the UFC was Jon Jones, and he actually vacated his belt in order to pursue a second title.

Being a champion in one division should be enough to satisfy the greatness quota that we constantly want to see filled with every fighter holding a title in the UFC. Adesanya is the best middleweight in the sport, and that’s more than enough for now.

Overall Grade for UFC 259: B-