On Saturday night at UFC 259, UFC light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz silenced the doubters, winning a competitive decision over middleweight champion and rising superstar Israel Adesanya. Coming into the bout, there were a number of questions about the legitimacy of Blachowicz’s title and his prospects of holding onto the belt. Now there can be none. Jan Blachowicz is the rightful king of the light heavyweight division and the man deserves his respect.
It’s easy to dismiss Blachowicz’s late-career renaissance as little more than smoke and mirrors. After all, in his run to the title, Blachowicz faced a pair of middleweights, Corey Anderson, and Dominick Reyes. It was a solid stretch, but it’s hardly the stuff legends are made of. Yes, he had the fun “Legendary Polish Power” schtick, but this is a man who had one TKO in his previous 11 UFC bouts. Clearly that was more about branding than truth, and when he faced a better fighter, all of the artifice would come crashing down around his head.
Except he just faced “a better fighter,” and all the smoke and mirrors were revealed to have a surprising amount of substance behind them. Like Bugs Bunny hiding an anvil behind his toreador cape, beneath the Legendary Polish Power there is also an exceedingly competent mixed martial artist.
Israel Adesanya is widely regarded as the best current striker in MMA, if not in history, and it was generally assumed that if this fight stayed on the feet, it was Adesanya’s to lose barring one big shot of Legendary Polish Power. However, for the first half of the fight, Blachowicz didn’t go for takedowns and didn’t try to take Adesanya’s head off. Instead, he kickboxed with the middleweight champion and more than held his own.
Though the commentary team was often blind to it, predisposed to believing any exchanges on the feet favored Adesanya, Blachowicz did a spectacular job of limiting the offense of his more technically superior foe and attacking the openings given to him. Blachowicz checked Adesanya’s kicks, parried jabs, and threw back cleanly enough to disrupt Adesanya’s rhythm and keep him from building combinations. In the end, Blachowicz landed 55 percent of his significant strikes, BY FAR the greatest percentage anyone has against Adesanya, and then when the middleweight champion was forced to entirely respect the striking coming back at him, that’s when Blachowicz started going for takedowns. When Blachowicz landed his first true takedown on Adesanya in the fourth round, the fight was functionally over. From that point forward, Blachowicz knew he could get takedowns as needed, and Adesanya was then forced to account for too many possible scenarios. There was nothing he could do. He was beaten by a man with more tools in the box and 20 more pounds on his frame.
And therein lies the excellence of Jan Blachowicz. Many people in MMA are good kickboxers or wrestlers or grapplers, and many people in MMA are large human beings, but fewer are large human beings who are good at one or two of those things. An extremely limited number are all of those things that are smart enough to know how best to apply their myriad skills. On Saturday, Blachowicz showed unequivocally that he fits among those limited few. He didn’t just out-fight Adesanya, he out-thought him before the event even began, and then brought that to bear against the man that most pundits assumed would walk through him on his way to the Jones-Adesanya superfight everyone has been clamoring for. That’s championship stuff.
Yet, in the aftermath of UFC 259 fans are already undermining Blachowicz’s accomplishment and the predictable narratives are arising: “Izzy was too small, he still hasn’t beaten Jon,” etc. Pay no mind to the fact that Blachowicz won the title by destroying the man who gave Jones hell just a few months prior, or that Blachowicz himself wanted the Jones fight, but it was Jones who chose to abandon the division. Anything to discredit the “paper champion” now sitting atop the UFC’s marquee division. Fans will never give Blachowicz the credit he deserves until he knocks out Jon Jones, and judging by how Jones looks since announcing his move to heavyweight, it seems highly unlikely that Blachowicz will ever get that chance.
I’m not here to say that Blachowicz is a force of nature who will reign for a decade. Neither of those are true. But he’s a good fighter and a deserving champion, and all the criticisms levied against him and his reign are entirely outside of his control. Did he take the title from the current champion? No, Jones vacated the belt. Has he mostly fought former middleweights? Yes, so did Jon Jones. Has he been the beneficiary of good timing? Certainly, but the same can be said of a vast majority of UFC champions. Only the true all-time greats, the ones who spanned generations, can credibly say their reigns were inevitable. Everyone else got lucky a time or two. At least Blachowicz actually successfully defended his light heavyweight title, something Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Mauricio Rua, and Randy Couture never did.
To call Blachowicz the most unlikely champion in UFC history wouldn’t be a stretch. At 38 years old, he’s far from a spring chicken, and despite a seven-year career in the UFC, until this most recent run he was never considered a serious title threat. Moreover, he competed in the same division as likely the greatest fighter of all-time, Jon Jones. The idea that Blachowicz would ever supplant Jones was inconceivable. Yet, here we are. Jan Blachowicz rules the roost at 205 pounds and Jon Jones is never coming back. Unlikely and undeserving are two very different things, and while Blachowicz may be the former, he is by no means the latter. The man with the Legendary Polish Power has earned his time at the top.
UFC 259 Quotes
“He’s one of the best in the world. Now I’m gonna be one of the best in the world. I’m the first one to defeat him, so that’s very good.” - Jan Blachowicz on Israel Adesanya.
“If I was going to lose to anyone, what better guy to lose to than a guy like Jan. A classy champion. A cool dude. A very nice guy. A guy who has a great story himself. On his way to getting cut from the company, comes back and then dominates, becomes light heavyweight champion and then hands this guy, a future legend, his first loss. If I’m going to lose to anyone, I’m glad I lost to him.” - Israel Adesanya on Jan Blachowicz.
“The lion is always dangerous but when she has a baby, nobody can stop her. Ever. I’m more dangerous now with my little girl. Nobody’s gonna stop me.” - Amanda Nunes on the effect motherhood has had on her.
“Everything I worked for, man, to this point, and to have the fight go like that... I thought the fight was very close. I was down two rounds, that’s not the way I wanted to win. That’s not the way I envisioned this. I just took the belt off.” - Aljamain Sterling reacting to his DQ win over Petr Yan.
“It sucked. It was a good fight. That was a fight that everybody was excited about. Everybody knew it was going to be good. That was a bad one.” - Dana White on the Aljamain Sterling-Petr Yan ending.
“I know I deserve somebody from top-5. Now, I cannot be quiet because I have seven-fight win streak. I need some top guy. Tony Ferguson’s free. I’m ready. I will be ready for anyone.” - Islam Makhachev channeling Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Jan Blachowicz: The Legendary Polish Power just went toe-to-toe with the best striker in the sport and arguably won the kickboxing battle. Blachowicz is the true 205-pound champion, and everyone has to take notice now.
Islam Makhachev: Coming into UFC 259, the talk was that Makhavchev would assume Khabib’s mantle, and while he maybe didn’t go that far, the Dagestani showed he’s a legitimate threat to anyone in the division.
Dominick Cruz: Cruz certainly looked a little older, but the former bantamweight champion proved he’s still got it.
Kyler Philips: Welcome to the rankings, “Matrix.”
Askar Askarov: Askarov blew weight, so that dampens the enthusiasm here a bit, but he still completely dominated the second-greatest flyweight ever and may well have earned a title shot as a result.
Israel Adesanya: The middleweight champion remains a UFC belt holder, but losing like that certainly takes some of the shine off of the UFC’s Next Big Thing.
Megan Anderson: Anderson looked like a deer in headlights once the cage door closed, and she didn’t fare much better once the fight started. Nunes ran Anderson over in such a way that the UFC may just close down the featherweight division entirely.
Petr Yan: Yan was on his way to retaining his belt and then threw it away in the stupidest way possible. Yan has been a pro fighter for over six years. He knows better than to throw that knee.
Thiago Santos: It’s astonishing that the same man who arguably beat Jon Jones is now losing fights like that to Aleksander Rakic.
Joseph Benavidez: Simply put, Joe B should retire immediately. Askarov was a fight tailor made for him and he not only lost, he was dominated.
So many things to cover from UFC 259. First, a pair of records that are worth noting:
- The event featured the first time a UFC title changed hands due to disqualification.
- Amanda Nunes is now the first champion in UFC history to defend multiple belts multiple times. Daniel Cormier and Henry Cejudo only successfully defended one of their titles once.
On that first point, major props to referee Mark Smith, who handled the Sterling-Yan situation very well, for the most part. Smith reminded Yan that Sterling was down before the knee was thrown, removing all doubt about the possibility that it was an unintentional strike (a rule which remains dumb, but that’s not the point). When it was clear Sterling could no longer continue, a DQ is the just result for that bout. HOWEVER, it was a bit unfortunate that Smith ultimately attempted to put that decision in the hands of Sterling, asking if he was OK. Sterling was clearly compromised, and Smith should have in no way allowed that fight to continue, regardless of what Sterling said. Ultimately, we got to the right result, but there’s a world where Smith’s reluctance to make the unpopular call could have been disastrous. Thank God it wasn’t Herb Dean in there.
And speaking of Herb, the Kai Kara-France/Rogerio Bontorin ending was nearly a fiasco, and that’s on him. Though Dean did lightly grab Kara-France around the waste, he obviously didn’t do a good enough of a job declaring the fight over. I know while watching it live I wasn’t sure if he had stopped it, and then KKF got confused and nearly came and clobbered the downed Bontorin. This all was easily avoided, and Dean just botched it.
Finally, it was once again a poor showing from Joe Rogan during his post-fight interviews. First, he wrote off Dominick Cruz’s odd post-fight call out of the Monster Energy guy, calling it “political” when it clearly was not, and then cut Cruz off to end the interview. Then he erroneously declared that Jan Blachowicz used to compete at middleweight, which Jan then had to correct him about. It would behoove the UFC to have Anik or Cormier start doing the post-fight interviews.
Fights to Make
Jan Blachowicz vs. Glover Teixeira: Glover is the top contender, both men want it, and it makes sense. Simple.
Amanda Nunes vs. Julianna Peña: Peña was supposed to fight Holly Holm, but since Holm was forced to withdraw, might as well go for this one. No such thing as bad cannon fodder.
Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan II: There’s no way the UFC doesn’t run this back immediately.
Islam Makhachev vs. Tony Ferguson: Makhachev called for it and why not? It’s a hollow facsimile of what Khabib vs. Tony could have been, but it’ll do in a pinch.
Aleksander Rakic vs. the winner of Dominick Reyes-Jiri Prochazka: This fight determines who faces the winner of Jan vs. Glover. Clean, linear title progressions are a beautiful thing.
Final Thoughts and Reflections
- Israel Adesanya handled his first professional MMA loss like a champion, but his preoccupation with muscles is weird. In each of his last three fights, Adesanya has made statements about proving that being a big muscled-up guy doesn’t make you a good fighter (paraphrasing), and while that’s kind of true, it also kind of isn’t. Historically, being swoll AF has proven to be a pretty good advantage in fighting. It’s why fighters cut weight in the first place. Now, it’s not the be-all-end-all of combat, but everyone watching the UFC knows that already, because it’s literally the core concept the organization was built upon. Continuing to bring it up is very weird. (Also, in two of those last three fights, Adesanya looked terrible, seemingly at least in part due to the fact that the huge dude’s hugeness proved threatening enough to force a more cautious style from “The Last Stylebender”).
- The UFC needs to s*** or get off the pot with the women’s featherweight division. There is no one for Nunes to fight there, so they need to either shutter the weight class as a whole, or actually devote the time and resources to building it. But this half-ass version needs to go.
- While MMA rules are not the most simple things in existence, they’re also not very complex. If every NFL player can keep track of the 5,000 different rules that govern their game, at the very least we should expect a UFC champion to know how NOT to get DQed. The refs also go over exactly that with fighters backstage before every fight.
- That being said, the knee to the head of a downed opponent rule is BY FAR the dumbest rule in MMA. The legality of strikes should not be predicated on the opponent’s body position. Either all kicks are legal or they aren’t. All knees are legal, or they aren’t. But having most knees be legal, but then some aren’t if it’s the third Tuesday of the month and Mercury is in the Fourth House? That’s asinine.
- Even so, Aljamain Sterling should 100 percent go full heel and refuse to fight Petr Yan after that. Say he’s not going to tarnish the title by putting it on the line against a blatant cheater and then call for a rematch with Cory Sandhagen. It would be an elite heel move and build interest in their eventual rematch and also, perhaps, serve as a lesson to all fighters that being an abject moron has real, tangible consequences in this sport.
- Also, when Sterling and Yan do rematch, Sterling should work the body much more. It’s clear he can’t keep up the pace he was using early to unsettle Yan, but Yan’s high guard leaves him open to rib roasters. Sterling should put a premium on body work to mitigate Yan’s later round advantage.
- Dominick Cruz is either the worst great fighter I’ve ever seen of the best bad fighter. I’m not sure which, but the regularity with which he does stuff that would get any rookie laughed out of a gym and makes it work is astonishing. He’s a truly singular fighter.
- Joseph Benavidez had a phenomenal career, arguably a Hall of Fame one. But he is now completely past it and should hang the gloves up immediately. He was getting hurt with shots that shouldn’t have hit him, much less hurt him, and his reflexes seem nearly entirely shot. I hope Joe B moves on to other things.
- Islam Makhachev is undoubtedly good, but let’s pump the brakes on the Khabib comparisons. Makhachev had his way with Drew Dober, but that’s still a long way off from embarrassing guys like Justin Gaethje and Dustin Poirier. That being said, I’m still very much looking forward to Makhachev’s next fight.
- It’s a shame Khabib is retired because after watching the last two pay-per-views, The Eagle of Dagestan might have the best chance of anyone in UFC history to become a three-division world champion if he wanted to try for it.