Peace was never going to be an option this weekend.
With Jake Paul and his legion of social media sycophants bearing down on our precious MMA bubble, much of the hardcore fanbase was up in arms over the possibility that Paul’s freakshow fight with Ben Askren would overshadow a compelling UFC Vegas 24 main event featuring top middleweight contenders Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum, and a strong Bellator card headlined by a pair of light heavyweight grand prix bouts.
The Triller Fight Club event undoubtedly drew broad interest from a variety of demographics, but for fight fans who were judicious with their time and chose not to indulge in all three events, here’s a quick rundown of the storylines that played out on Friday and Saturday.
The Reaper’s run
I never understood why there wasn’t a stronger push for Robert Whittaker to get his chance to regain the middleweight title from Israel Adesanya.
Yes, Adesanya won their first meeting in definitive fashion, out-striking an aggressive Whittaker and making it look like his fellow Oceanic warrior didn’t belong in the octagon with him. It was a crowning moment for “The Last Stylebender.” But that loss shouldn’t define Whittaker’s run through the 185-pound division, which included a snake-bitten championship reign.
On paper, Whittaker’s time with the title was composed of only a pair of five-rounders with Yoel Romero. Both memorable contests to be sure and true tests of Whittaker’s mettle, but not exactly an epic stretch of title fights (technically, the rematch wasn’t even a title fight because Romero missed weight, so officially Whittaker has zero successful title defenses). Whittaker was actually only the interim champion at first and was promoted without getting a chance to unify the belts when Georges St-Pierre vacated his newly won undisputed championship and retired due to issues with colitis.
One missed opportunity led to another as that was then followed by the non-title bout with Romero and then an Ultimate Fighter coaching gig opposite Kelvin Gastelum, which ended with their anticipated UFC 234 meeting being cancelled when Whittaker had to get emergency surgery.
It came full circle for Whittaker on Saturday, as he finally stepped into the cage to duel Gastelum and soundly defeated his fellow TUF winner. Whittaker has spoken openly about the burnout he felt during his unbeaten stretch from 2014 to 2019 and the changes he’s made in his life to make sure that doesn’t happen again. His past three outings have been some of the best of his career and he looks more than ready to give Adesanya a fresh challenge.
Maybe Adesanya beats him again and maybe he does it even quicker than last time given that he’ll be freshly motivated for his next title defense after Jan Blachowicz stuffed his attempt to become a two-division champion at UFC 259. But Whittaker has earned the right to find out and if this rematch can happen in Australia or New Zealand, even better.
Bellator does it best
Did Bellator steal the show this weekend?
While that may be overstating things a tad, it is not an exaggeration in the slightest to suggest that Friday’s Bellator 257 card was more entertaining than UFC Vegas 24 and Triller Fight Club if we’re judging strictly on the in-cage product.
In the main event, Vadim Nemkov and Phil Davis engaged in as high quality of a light heavyweight contest as you’ll find anywhere, while the co-headliner saw Corey Anderson show how much his game and maturity have evolved as he solved Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov, the mystery man of the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix.
It was important that those two fights delivered too, since the tournament opener between Ryan Bader and Lyoto Machida was a depressing dud for anyone who wasn’t part of Bader’s immediate family and friends. Had two more opening round bouts fallen flat, the 205-pound grand prix would be dead on arrival. Instead, it’s already given us two quality bouts to whet the appetite for the already highly anticipated May 7 encounter between Anthony Johnson and Yoel Romero.
As much as the light heavyweight division deserves its kudos, we’ve already buried the lede here in not mentioning the Bellator 257 main card opener that produced a Fight of the Year frontrunner. Paul Daley’s 62nd (!) career bout proved to be a worthy celebration of his all-time great scrap with Nick Diaz 10 years ago and plenty of credit has to go to his opponent Sabah Homasi for doing the dance of destruction with him.
A ferocious finisher, Homasi nearly put Daley away in round one only to discover the hard way why Daley has only been finished with strikes twice in his 18-year career. “Semtex” hung in there and shook off the cobwebs before detonating Homasi in round two with his signature left hook to score a thrilling win.
Take the four Bellator main card fights, stack them up against the Triller oddities and the patchwork UFC card, and I’m comfortable giving Bellator a clear 10-9 for this round.
Jake Paul vs. Ben Askren happened
When it was first announced that Ben Askren was actually going to accept Jake Paul’s challenge, the general consensus was that it was an ideal matchup for Paul’s third boxing bout. Askren was a non-striker even as he won world championships in MMA, plus he was already retired from active competition, is 36 years old with a ton of combat sports mileage on the tires, and he nearly had his hip replaced (he instead had a different kind of surgery that would keep the door open for a return to fighting). If Paul wanted to beat up on a credible MMA fighter, he could do a lot worse than Askren.
Even given their gap in fighting experience, it was hard to shake the image of Paul doing to Askren what he did to former NBA player Nate Robinson, a boxing neophyte with approximately 1000 times the athleticism of Askren, and heading into Saturday a Paul knockout victory was a fairly safe bet.
Shocker of shockers: Paul quickly found Askren’s timing, clipped him with a right hand, and emerged with a TKO victory in under two minutes after referee Brian Stutts decided that a wobbly Askren had had enough. Sure, there was at least one supposedly intelligent MMA analyst who thought that Askren’s fighting experience could carry him to a victory, but for the most part this played out as many initially predicted.
Paul is 3-0 as a pro boxer now, with wins over a fellow YouTuber, a three-time NBA dunk contest champion, and yes, a former Bellator and ONE Championship titleholder. He’s maintained that he’s serious about pursuing a career in boxing and at this stage of it, he’s free to keep pursuing these special attraction fights. Who knows, maybe next he takes on a pro wrestler or self-help guru or a famous mime? The world is his oyster. He already has a number of fighters already lining up for that sweet, sweet Triller payday.
As several smarter people than me have pointed out, the way Paul is building up his resume isn’t all that different than how most pros do it. Check out the records of the schlubs some of your favorite boxers roughed up in their first 10-20 fights and have yourself a good laugh. Can-crushing is a time-honored tradition. The difference is that Paul has the resources, influence, and luxury of having a massive built-in audience who will tune in to his developmental fights and he picks his opponents accordingly.
This guy isn’t going away.
but what is a doja cat tho
And now… The Black Keys!
Admittedly, even if you’re completely on-board with Triller’s multi-pronged assault on the senses that included numerous marquee musical acts, celebrity drop-ins, and, uh, Steve Urkel (???), there was definitely some fat that could have been chopped from the proceedings.
Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson vacillated between enjoyably irreverent and outright disdainful of the event that he was being paid to host, an inebriated Oscar De La Hoya was brought in to commentate the Frank Mir vs. Steve Cunningham bout (showcasing De La Hoya in this state was particularly cruel given his history of substance abuse), and the pacing of the show was brutal for those primarily interested in the fights. In the first two hours of the main card, there was just one fight and it was former pro boxer-turned-entrepreneur Joe Fournier taking on Colombian reggaeton star Reykon, who was completely outmatched.
But the spirit of the event kind of ruled and if you had any interest in the musical aspect at all, there was probably at least one act that was to your liking. The Black Keys opened with an energetic set like they were performing in front of a packed crowd, newly formed rap supergroup Mount Westmore (comprised of Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Too $hort, and E-40) ran through a medley of their individual hits before debuting their first single, and Justin Bieber added even more star power to set the stage for Paul and Askren’s clash.
It truly was a welcome distraction from the usual routine of Saturday fight nights, even if there were plenty of cringe-worthy moments that are likely a feature and not a bug given Triller’s throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks strategy. Maybe trim down a couple of sets and skits next time?
On the other hand, at least I finally know what a Doja Cat is.
Don’t you forget about me
While some of us were gleefully rolling around in the finest of mud, there was also a 10-fight UFC card on Saturday that felt thrown-together with the loss of two bouts this week. One of those cancelled bouts was the co-main event that was supposed to feature Jeremy Stephens’ return to the lightweight division. Unfortunately, Stephens went a little too aggro at the official staredowns, blasting opponent Drakkar Klose with a shove that may have resulted in Klose getting injured and removed from the card.
Klose’s withdrawal was officially announced at the start of the preliminary broadcast, which cast a pall over a lineup that was already short on star power. But not only did the main event deliver, we also had the added treat of seeing three veterans pick up much-needed wins to remind us that you can’t count out anyone in this business.
In the de facto co-main event, Andrei Arlovski won a convincing decision over the heavy-handed Chase Sherman to pick up his 20th UFC victory (one of only seven fighters to hit this mark), Jessica Penne fought for the first time in four years and won for the first time since December 2014, and Gerald Meerschaert rebounded from a 17-second KO loss to Khamzat Chimaev with a spectacular submission of Bartosz Fabinski.
We’re all too quick to toss fighters aside in this game, so seeing this trio back in the win column is heart-warming. With a major pay-per-view just around the corner, these victories are soon to be lost in the non-stop news cycle, so let’s take a moment now to appreciate them before our eyes dart to the next bauble that’s dangled in front of us.
What was the best event of the weekend?
This poll is closed
UFC Vegas 24
Jake Paul vs. Ben Askren (Triller Fight Club)