Between the carnival of Jake Paul vs. Tyron Woodley and an eventful UFC Vegas 35 card, there was a little something for everyone over the last few days. What mattered most once the dust settled? Let’s hit our five biggest takeaways from a busy combat sports weekend.
1. The definition of insanity
They sucked me in. They really did. I suspect I’m not the only one.
When the Jake Paul vs. Tyron Woodley circus was first booked a few months ago, most of the MMA community recognized and suspected that it’d just be a more competitive version of the Ben Askren sideshow. It was savvy matchmaking on Paul’s part from the start — go find an aging yet credible UFC opponent with a highlight-reel bursting with knockouts, but one who never really relied on actual boxing fundamentals to dictate his game. The odds were what they were for a reason, and they only widened as the big night neared.
But a funny thing happened this past week — Woodley was convincing. More convincing than he’s been in the last three years.
Throughout fight week, the former UFC welterweight king said all of the right things. He handled every situation, every interview, every adolescent slight, like a grizzled veteran who knew a punchline to a joke that the rest of the the world didn’t, almost as if he couldn’t believe we could be so easily fooled by his internet famous foe. Woodley may be on the back nine of his career, but come on — of course he wouldn’t allow himself to fall down the same rabbit hole of passivity that doomed the end of his UFC run. Of course he wouldn’t hurtle into that same frustration all over again against a guy like Paul. Not on a potentially life-altering night like Sunday, not with everything that should’ve been on the line.
In retrospect, perhaps it was foolish to expect otherwise. Aside from one dramatic moment in the fourth round, the same vexing Woodley who showed up against Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns and Colby Covington showed up against Paul, the Woodley who fights like strikes are a limited currency that he’ll run out if he uses them up too quickly. How else do you explain six punches thrown in round one, eight punches thrown in round two, and an average of just six punches landed per round over an eight-round bout?
No, this is just who Tyron Woodley is at this stage in his career, and there’s something to be said about the old adage about the definition of insanity. We keep falling for it.
Give credit to Paul though: He’s the puppet master of the fight game right now. It’s to the point where Dana White can’t go a press conference without addressing his name and athletes as decorated as top-5 welterweights of all-time are practically begging him for opportunities to degrade themselves with an “I Love Jake Paul” tattoo on national television just to get another bite of the apple. I hate to write this because I have immense, immense respect for Woodley and everything he’s accomplished and overcome, but Sunday’s post-fight was an ignominious scene. In every respect, it was just not a good look.
.@JakePaul doesn't seem overly interested in rematching Tyron Woodley:— MMAFighting.com (@MMAFighting) August 30, 2021
"If he wants to get the tattoo and puts it on his Instagram, then maybe we'll talk about it."
Watch full #PaulWoodley press conference: https://t.co/xbGlmLf7Im pic.twitter.com/93wes6juRt
I want every MMA veteran to make as much money as is humanly possible, but there’s nothing interesting or worthwhile about the rematch Woodley is so urgently trying to set up. It’s over. Chasing a second chance that isn’t likely to come — and leaping at every morsel thrown by a lifelong troll like Paul — is only going to make things worse.
Still, you know who I found my thoughts drifting back to late Sunday night?
Every time we play this game, every time we venture down this circus sideshow road where a decorated MMA fighter looks lost in a boxing ring against a foe who wouldn’t stand a chance against them in an actual fist-fight, it only makes what Silva pulled off this summer at age 46 all the more admirable. Because none of the other MMA athletes who attempted this feat actually looked like a boxer once they stepped into the ring. Woodley certainly didn’t. But Silva? He actually did. And he did so just a few years away from 50.
The lesson, as always? There’s no one quite like “The Spider.”
2. The Georgian takeover continues
Just how good has Giga Chikadze been? This stat uncovered by my friend up north, TSN Sports’ Aaron Bronsteter, says it all: Despite his 2018 loss on Dana White’s Contender Series, the Georgian ninja’s 7-0 octagon record is the best of any alumni who competed on that show and eventually reached the UFC. Considering that 95 percent of you reading this column couldn’t tell me who Chikadze lost to in that Contender Series setback, that’s impressive. (Points for everyone who correctly answered with the immortal Austin Springer.)
Chikadze did it again Saturday with his biggest statement performance yet. He marched down a ferocious fast-twitch striker and tore through Edson Barboza with a second-round flurry. It took some time, but we’re finally starting to see the majesty of that kickboxing arsenal come into full effect. Chikadze was a beast in the kickboxing ring and the slickness of his handiwork is becoming a joy to watch as he acclimates fully to the world of takedowns and four-ounce gloves. He even tested out a few chokes on Barboza during his finishing salvo, which would be a fun wrinkle to add to his game.
It’s always a blast to watch the switch gradually flip in real-time with these type of crossover athletes in combat sports, and right now that switch is flipping hard and fast for Chikadze — less than two years into his UFC career, the same fighter who struggled against Jamall Emmers and Brandon Davis is now ripping through established contenders without a hint of struggle. After three straight knockouts and three straight post-fight bonuses, Chikadze may not get Max Holloway next, but a dalliance with an opponent in the range of a Chan Sung Jung or an Arnold Allen sounds like a fairly delightful Plan B to me.
3. The downward spiral
I don’t know what to think about Kevin Lee anymore other than to be bummed out by the place we’ve reached with his story. The one-time interim title challenger looked lost in spurts once again after a strong start against short-notice replacement Daniel Rodriguez on Saturday night. Lee’s record now sits at just 2-5 over his last seven UFC fights — a run that’s bordered on Michael Johnson levels of inconsistency considering his lone wins were vicious KO/TKOs of legitimately good fighters, Barboza and Gregor Gillespie.
Lee is stuck in the worst kind of UFC no man’s land right now. He doesn’t look like a real welterweight and he’s clearly not able to cut to lightweight anymore in a healthy manner. His skill set seems to have plateaued and his in-cage confidence simply doesn’t resemble the swaggering prospect who ripped through a 9-1 run of destruction early in his UFC run.
Sadly, Lee has never fully gotten his career back on track since the tragic death of his coach and mentor Robert Follis. Injuries have only made an already difficult task even harder in that regard. My MMA Fighting frenemy Jed Meshew suggested to me Saturday night that if he were Lee’s agent, he’d advise Lee take a step back and spend his next five fights rediscovering that old swagger against foes who are significantly worse fighters than Rodriguez, and honestly that’d be the right call. But it’s also one that would never really happen in the UFC.
It’s hard to believe Lee is going to figure this out as long he’s being fed to young lions in a division he doesn’t truly belong in, which is sure to be his path from here — and that’s if he even sticks around the UFC at all. MMA is a cruel mistress, my friends.
Still, one man’s loss is another man’s gain, and Rodriguez’s six wins since the start of 2020 are the most of any fighter in the UFC. After carving himself a big-name scalp on just two weeks’ notice this weekend, he’ll be landing a well-deserved spot in the rankings soon.
4. Thank you
It’s rare to see two points taken away from a fighter in rapid succession, so let’s take a moment to applaud referee Chris Tognoni for his handling of the Wellington Turman vs. Sam Alvey bout from Saturday night’s UFC undercard. After a few warnings, Tognoni stepped up and took a point from Turman midway through the third round.
Then he did it again just 12 seconds later once Turman immediately reverted to his eye-poking ways.
Having a referee take a point away for a foul in MMA is already akin to seeing snowfall in scorching hot downtown Phoenix, so you know plenty of officials would’ve been hesitant to pull the trigger a second time in less than 15 seconds of actual fight time. But Tognoni was decisive and immediate; he’d didn’t waffle through his decision, and instead upheld the expectations of his role as the third man in the cage beautifully.
Of course, it didn’t actually matter in the end — Turman still won a split decision with two utterly bizarre-to-look-at 28-27 scores, and in doing so, may have signed the death note on Alvey’s 22-fight UFC run — but considering how often we pile on MMA officials for their bad calls, and how thankless their jobs often are, it’s only right that we praise them when praise is due. So in the spirit of positive vibes: Bravo, Mr. Tognoni. More of this please.
5. Pros and cons
UFC 268 is absurdly good. It really is. If you include interim belts, the seven fights announced Saturday night already feature eight former UFC champions, along with a litany of storylines and compelling stylistic matchups up and down the card. As long as everything stays intact, it’s going to be a great time.
But somebody has to be that guy — so right now I’m going to be that guy.
Carla Esparza got jobbed. She did.
She should be the one rematching Rose Namajunas for the strawweight title, and it’s disappointing — but not surprising — that she’s become yet another victim of the UFC’s endless fascination with immediate rematches. The whole thing is silly. Namajunas vs. Esparza 2 had the perfect narrative attached to it, a chance for two women to come full circle seven years after they launched the UFC strawweight division into existence with its inaugural title fight. That night back in December 2014 is a flashpoint that changed both Namajunas and Esparza’s lives and careers in vastly different ways. Both women have transformed immeasurably since and overcome their own hardships to get back to the top.
Their story is primed for the telling.
So of course the UFC did the thing it loves to do by potentially locking a marketable former champion in the Benavidez Zone for the foreseeable future by rushing them into an immediate rematch simply because it’s slightly more marketable than Option B. They did this with Cody Garbrandt and he never really recovered. Zhang Weili is still only six fights into her UFC career. If history repeats itself and Namajunas wins again, you’ve completely thrown away any chance for Zhang to become the star she still could be. Her ceiling at 115 pounds suddenly becomes hard-capped before she even gets to her fourth year in the UFC.
The impatience and shortsightedness is maddening. There’s something to be said for letting these things marinate — drama builds when a former champion actually earns their way back to the belt. Think about how much more interesting Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker 2 is today compared to how it would’ve sounded right after UFC 243. If Namajunas and Zhang were allowed to go their separate ways, win a fight or two while eyeing each other from afar, then reunite with new questions and dueling momentums colliding, it’d be an incredibly compelling story to follow into 2022.
But hey, UFC 268 is still cool and stacked and all of that, and nothing I just wrote over these last couple hundred words is surprising. So let’s just enjoy a fun card for what it is.