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Making the Grade: UFC 263: Adesanya vs. Vettori 2 edition

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UFC 263: Adesanya v Vettori 2 Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Two title fights, and a special welterweight showcase, headlined UFC 263 on Saturday night and all of the marquee matchups delivered in one way or another.

Israel Adesanya returned to the middleweight division after he failed to capture a second title in his bid to become light heavyweight champion but that didn’t deter him from putting on a five-round clinic against Marvin Vettori in the main event. While he didn’t get the finish, Adesanya answered a lot of questions with his performance as he staved off any attempts from Vettori to control him on the ground and he showcased his signature striking to dominate the fight on the feet.

In the co-main event, Brandon Moreno ascended to the top of the flyweight division with an incredible performance against Deiveson Figueiredo in a rematch after their first fight ended in a majority draw. The second fight was nothing like the first as Moreno was superior in every possible way this time around before choking out the Brazilian to claim the championship by third round submission.

UFC 263 also featured the return of Nate Diaz, who ultimately suffered a fairly lopsided defeat in his fight against Leon Edwards but he nearly pulled off the comeback following a near finish in the fifth and final round.

On a 14-fight card, there’s a lot to dissect from the UFC’s latest pay-per-view offering but what passed and what failed during this event? Let’s find out.

This is Making the Grade for UFC 263: Adesanya vs. Vettori 2.

PASSES

Y’all Must’ve Forgot

The trend of fighters only being as good as their last performance is nothing new when it comes to criticism or praise in mixed martial arts but sometimes the reactions feel completely over the top.

Case in point is UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, who ventured up to 205 pounds in an effort to become a two-division champion but came up short after losing a decision to Jan Blachowicz. It wasn’t a bad outing by any means but because Adesanya spent a big part of the last few rounds on his back, unable to escape Blachowicz’s top pressure, there was suddenly a narrative that a strategy had been formulated to defeat him.

Enter Marvin Vettori — the Italian middleweight on a hot streak in the division, who showcased a similar wrestling heavy game plan to take out Kevin Holland in a recent fight. The question then became could he employ the same kind of strategy to ground Adesanya and take the middleweight title away from him?

Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with using that as a way to build attention for the fight but for anyone seriously questioning Adesanya’s credentials after a single loss in a division where he had to gain 20 pounds to face the champion was just ludicrous.

Adesanya came up short against Blachowicz but he didn’t get dominated and he most certainly didn’t suddenly become a mediocre fighter. In fact, Adesanya proved that very point with his performance against Vettori as he dominated on the feet, which is an area of the game where he always seems superior, but he also fought off his back, made escapes and even managed to scramble free from a submission attempt.

It’s possible that as great as Adesanya has been during his UFC career that perhaps he’s just not a light heavyweight but that in no way diminishes his accomplishments or greatness as middleweight champion.

He proved that yet again with a unanimous decision victory over Vettori and now Adesanya will seek to do the same in his next fight, which will presumably come against former champion Robert Whittaker later this year.

Feel-Good Story of The Year

When Brandon Moreno was selected as one of the flyweights on The Ultimate Fighter season 24 with the winner moving onto a matchup against then champion Demetrious Johnson, he received the rather dubious honor of being ranked No. 16 out of 16 fighters.

He lost his opening round fight to Alexandre Pantoja but not without impressing the other athletes in the house, as well as coaches Joseph Benavidez and Henry Cejudo. Despite not winning the tournament, Moreno was still brought onto the UFC roster where he immediately showed promise with three straight wins including an impressive submission victory against Dustin Ortiz.

But after losing two fights in a row, and the flyweight division seemingly being vanquished from the UFC, Moreno was released from his contract.

Moreno then won his only fight outside the UFC as he captured the LFA flyweight title but then he received the call that he was being brought back to the promotion.

He hasn’t tasted defeat since then but no win was bigger than Moreno’s stunning victory over Deiveson Figureiredo on Saturday night to claim the 125-pound title. Following a razor-close first meeting that ended in a majority draw, Moreno shut out Figueiredo in every way, shape and form in the rematch as he was clearly the better striker on the feet, the better grappler on the ground and he left zero doubts this time around after wrapping up a rear-naked choke submission to get the finish in the third round.

Moreno’s emotional reaction afterwards was the kind of celebration you hope for when watching an achievement like this and it’s impossible not to find that kind of genuine joy infectious.

Who knows how long Moreno’s title reign will last, although based on his showing at UFC 263 it’s going to be tough to beat him, but this snapshot in time was just amazing on every level. It’s hard to find anything happening in the sport of MMA that’s universally beloved but Moreno’s championship win certainly felt like one of them.

Good Old-Fashioned Slobberknocker

To quote professional wrestling commentator Jim Ross, the fight between Brad Riddell and Drew Dober on the UFC 263 prelims was a good old-fashioned slobberknocker and wow was it fun to watch.

With both fighters known for throwing heavy leather, Riddell and Dober absolutely slugged it out for the better part of three rounds with each of them gaining the upper hand at different moments during the fight.

In the early going, Dober was really pouring on the punishment and it looked like perhaps Riddell wouldn’t even make it to the second round. But then Riddell made the necessary defensive adjustments and he started firing back to test Dober’s iron chin.

Somehow, Dober was able to absorb punches that would have likely knocked out most lightweights but he just ate them and kept coming forward. Of course, Riddell was more than happy to continue dishing out his fists of fury until he finally cracked Dober’s armor in the third round as he looked for the finish.

To his credit, Dober gutted his way through a tough final round to make it to the decision, but even in defeat, he should be very proud of the 15 minutes he shared in the cage with Riddell.

To no one’s surprise, Riddell and Dober were rewarded with Fight of the Night honors, which was a well-deserved bonus after these two lightweights absolutely stole the show.

Considering the kind of fight these two put on Saturday night, Riddell and Dober should both be rewarded with high-profile opportunities for whatever comes next. They’ve definitely earned it.

FAIL

If He Didn’t Have Bad Luck, He’d Have No Luck At All

It’s almost impossible not to feel bad for Leon Edwards but perhaps even more so after what happened at UFC 263.

The past year and a half has not been kind to Edwards, especially when you start listing off all the things that have happened to him. He missed out on a main event showcase against former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley in March 2020 that was supposed to serve as his opportunity to secure a title shot.

Instead, the global pandemic shut down travel and ultimately shut out Edwards from competing for the rest of the year. He did book a fight against rising star Khamzat Chimaev — a matchup seemingly every other fighter was avoiding — but even that backfired after Edwards contracted COVID-19 and then the same fate befell the Chechen prospect.

When Edwards finally did return, he ended up drawing a late replacement opponent in Belal Muhammad, and while he started off strong, the action ended after an accidental eye poke ended the fight. It was just about the worst-case scenario for Edwards outside of a loss because he not only didn’t get to move forward in his title pursuit but his night came to a close with an unsatisfying no contest added to his record.

Then came the fight against Nate Diaz at UFC 263.

It was supposed to be a showcase for Edwards against one of the biggest names in the sport and for 20 or so minutes, that’s exactly the way it played out. Edwards was fast on his feet, showing superior striking and doing a lot of damage to Diaz whenever the fight hit the ground.

By the start of the fifth round, Diaz was covered in his own blood thanks to a pair of cuts opened on his head from Edwards’ punches and elbows. If anything, those final five minutes were supposed to give Edwards a chance to put Diaz away and leave the octagon with a finish on his record.

But then with less than two minutes remaining, Diaz blasted Edwards with a devastating straight left down the middle and the British welterweight was suddenly on wobbly legs with the Arizona crowd essentially rooting for his demise. Edwards was able to hang on long enough to get to the end of the fight but because Diaz nearly pulled off the miraculous fifth-round comeback, that’s all anybody could talk about afterwards.

It was almost like the first four rounds didn’t even happen.

Now as Edwards finds himself on a ridiculous 10-fight undefeated streak, he’s still sitting in no man’s land without a title shot anywhere in sight.

Colby Covington, who suffered a broken jaw in his previous meeting with Usman, has already been declared as the No. 1 contender in the division. Never mind the fact that Covington has only competed once since falling to Usman, he’s obviously the more magnetic personality and no one can deny the first fight between the champion and challenger was an amazing battle right up to the end.

That said, it’s still an unfortunate set of circumstances for Edwards, who will likely have to fight yet again while seeking an 11-fight unbeaten streak before he gets his opportunity to compete for UFC gold. Even then, let’s be honest, nothing seems guaranteed.

EPIC FAIL

Stop the Fight

Referees definitely have one of the most thankless jobs in all of MMA but that doesn’t change how crucial a role they can play in a fight.

Typically speaking, referees are rarely praised for doing the right thing like stopping a fight at the correct time but it’s impossible to ignore when one of them screws up royally.

That’s a difficult spot for anyone but mistakes still need to be called out and there was an egregious error made during the UFC 263 fight between Paul Craig and Jamahal Hill.

After securing an armbar from the bottom, Craig went belly down on the canvas as he locked up the submission despite Hill’s best attempts to escape. Once Craig really cranked on the submission, he actually popped Hill’s arm out of socket yet somehow referee Al Guinee didn’t see it.

To make matters worse, Craig then adjusted, reapplied the armbar and then moved into a triangle choke as he was forced to continue looking for the finish against a compromised opponent. At one point, Craig had the triangle choke in place and Hill couldn’t really defend himself because one of his arms looked like an overcooked pasta noodle just dangling from his shoulder.

Even Craig began looking up at the referee, wondering when exactly he might stop the fight.

Mercifully, Guinee finally waved off the fight but the stoppage came about 30 seconds after Hill’s arm was already fully compromised. While Guinee isn’t the most experienced referee, this particular incident was made even tougher after discovering that he’s actually an experienced Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner and coach in the Tucson, Ariz. area.

If there was one piece of good news surrounding this ordeal, it’s that Hill only suffered a dislocation and not a broken bone, which means his recovery time won’t be quite as severe. Still, Hill took undue damage and things could have been much, much worse thanks to Guinee’s incompetence.

Even worse than judges who can’t score a fight properly, referees who put fighters in danger like this situation with Craig vs. Hill should face some sort of punishment from state athletic commissions. That doesn’t mean Guinee should never be allowed to referee again but there needs to be at least an effort to inform and educate him before putting two more athletes under his purview for a future fight.

Hill definitely deserved better on Saturday night and here’s hoping no one else has to suffer under Guinee’s watch until he has to answer for his anger-inducing error.

OVERALL GRADE FOR UFC 263: C