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UFC 271 takeaways: Israel Adesanya banishes Robert Whittaker to the dreaded Benavidez Zone

Israel Adesanya’s reign of dominance continued on Saturday night as he defeated Robert Whittaker via unanimous decision in the main event of UFC 271 to defend his middleweight title and push his record over his rival to a perfect 2-0. Between Adesanya’s win and next step, the breakout performance of Tai Tuivasa, the swan song of a pioneer and more, there was plenty to discuss from UFC 271. Let’s hit our five biggest takeaways.

1. By the end of the night, Robert Whittaker said it best himself.

“Honestly? A third fight between me and Izzy is inevitable,” he declared Saturday in his post-fight press conference. “It’s inevitable, because I’m going stomp anybody who comes in front of me again. And he knows that, too. That’s why he said, ‘I’ll be seeing you in the future.’ And I don’t see him losing the belt anytime soon. He’s good. He is good.”

The former champ isn’t wrong. Israel Adesanya’s latest defense of the UFC middleweight throne may not have been as memorable or jaw-droppingly spectacular as his 2019 romp over Whittaker, but it still cemented a fact many long suspected heading into Saturday night: That Adesanya and Whittaker are the two best 185-pound fighters in the world, and although the gap between them may have narrowed slightly since UFC 243, the gulf between Whittaker and whoever qualifies as No. 3 on any given day has only widened.

At times, Whittaker looked like the most complete version of himself at UFC 271. He found his bearings after a shaky start and nearly cobbled together the perfect game plan to steal away the belt on points. I scored the rematch 48-47 for Adesanya, giving the champ the opening three frames and Whittaker the final two, though the middle three rounds were certainly toss-ups. But in the end, it just wasn’t enough — and now Whittaker is spending his Sunday signing his leasing paperwork for his new residence in the dreaded Benavidez Zone.

It’s a cruel fate. “Bobby Knuckles” is simultaneously too good to be unleashed among the middleweight masses, lest he smash every new hype train to bits before they reach Adesanya, but also not quite good enough to topple his nemesis. Just as Max Holloway and the namesake of this sort of MMA purgatory (Joseph Benavidez) did before him, Whittaker joins the short list as the one of the UFC’s most historically overqualified second bananas.

Benavidez spent nearly the entire second half of his career in this same nebulous zone and basically served as the personal bodyguard to Demetrious Johnson. Ditto for Holloway and Alexander Volkanovski in recent years. Jared Cannonier and Sean Strickland are still sitting out on the horizon as fresh matchups for Adesanya, as are a few far-off prospects — Andre Muniz, Nassourdine Imavov, and Alex Pereira — so the title picture is going to get a fresh coat of paint in the short term. But in the long term, the cupboard is actually surprisingly bare at middleweight. It’s not lunacy to think Whittaker could string together a few wins, clear out the top of the division all over again just as Holloway did (and Benavidez nearly did), and force the UFC’s hand into a third fight despite being down 0-2 in the series.

Of course, that geometry will change overnight if and when Adesanya decides he’s grown tired of life at 185 pounds and looks to test himself again at light heavyweight, as City Kickboxing bossman Eugene Bareman recently indicated on The MMA Hour is a very real possibility. My guess is if Whittaker ever approaches true No. 1 contender status again while Adesanya still holds the belt, that’s when “The Last Stylebender” will look to make the move.

But until that day comes — or Adesanya loses — Whittaker is set to be among the more overqualified Robins to another man’s Batman that we’ve seen in a long, long while.

As for champ’s next step...

2. If any fighter is ever in need of a TED Talk on selling themself as the new No. 1 contender, look no further than Jared Cannonier, because the man just taught a masterclass.

There isn’t a soul alive on this Sunday morning questioning who should be Adesanya’s next challenger, as Cannonier’s second-round massacre of Derek Brunson was one of the most brutal highlights of a brutal night. That the former heavyweight then took advantage of his post-fight mic time and actually fired off a ferocious callout of the champion only made it more perfect. Any casual eyeballs watching UFC 271 likely left the night sold on wanting to see “The Killa Gorilla” get his shot at the strap. That’s all you can ask for if you’re the UFC.

The mutual respect between Adesanya and Cannonier has been apparent for years, so the matchup likely won’t have the promotional fire of Adesanya’s title defenses against Paulo Costa or Marvin Vettori. But it’s still a banger of a stylistic pairing that should lead to plenty of fireworks, because as Whittaker noted in his post-fight press conference, Cannonier never goes out with a wimper. “You can see in his fights, you have to drag him out of that octagon dead to get him out there,” Whittaker said. “He’s going to go out on his shield.”

Adesanya wants to be active this year and it low-key seems as if he’s gunning for a Fighter of the Year style campaign à la Kamaru Usman’s 2021. That means at least two more title defenses in 2022. Book this baby for June and let’s keep this division rolling.

3. Look, I’ll be honest — I doubted Tai Tuivasa would be able to pull this off, if only because Derrick Lewis’ career is littered with the bones of fallen up-and-comers who dared to swang and bang with the UFC’s all-time knockout king. But folks, “Bam Bam” has arrived.

Tuivasa obliged Lewis at his own game at UFC 271 and left with the shoeys a’flowing inside Houston’s Toyota Center, as “The Black Beast” was once again forced to relive his personal Groundhog Day hell. Don’t look now but heavyweight has an unexpected new title contender. It’s wild to consider. At this time just two years ago, Tuivasa was in the midst of a three-fight slump and seemingly on his way out of the UFC. He was the fun prospect who got pushed too hard too soon, and it looked as if he’d paid the price. But now? He’s a winner of five straight, a fan favorite and genuine life of the party (his conga line of shoeys as he dances his way backstage after a win has become an event unto itself), and he’s likely one fight away from an actual shot at a UFC championship. It’s one heck of a turnaround.

Tuivasa showcased some sneaky evolutions to his clinch game against Lewis, but most impressive of all was his chin. The majority of heavyweights wind up asleep from the ground-and-pound Lewis unloaded in the opening minutes, or any of those second-round exchanges. Tuivasa ate it all though and answered back with glee. Not many can claim that.

Lewis was our No. 4 big man in the world, so Tuivasa is officially among elite company. And honestly, doesn’t that just sound delightful? Heavyweight is too much fun right now.

4. Back in November, when Roxanne Modafferi announced that her next fight would be her last, the news came and went without much fanfare. The tepid reaction wasn’t necessarily surprising — our sport does a remarkably poor job of celebrating its history — but it made the outpouring of love directed her way over this past week all the more heartwarming. Because in truth, during my reporting for our recent retrospective about her, one word came up more than any other when I asked MMA folks about Modafferi: “Anomaly.”

There’s a reason for that. She was always a 1-of-1. I had at least another 3,000 words worth of quotes that were left on the cutting room floor with all the stories people rushed tell me about how Modafferi’s positivity and resilience touched them over the last two decades.

Just reading off records from Wikipedia or Tapology won’t do it justice, so let’s throw out some quick context to help explain how remarkable Modafferi’s run has been. The women we generally consider OGs — Cris Cyborg, Miesha Tate, and company? Modafferi predates them all. When she laced up her first pair of four-ounce gloves, Kanye West was still just a producer, The Lord of the Rings was still in the midst of its original trilogy, and women’s mixed martial arts was simultaneously nonexistent and regarded with ridicule. Modafferi and her peers never imagined they could make actual careers out of this; instead, they subjected themselves to scorn and years of trash takes simply for the love of the game. And sadly, most have been forgotten. Her lost generation is flush with names 99 percent of today’s fan base wouldn’t recognize — the Jennifer Howes, Judy Neffs, and Amanda Buckers of the world — yet “The Happy Warrior” was the one woman who outlasted them all, even after getting written off during a slump in 2010-13 when it looked as if her time had passed.

Modafferi may never have been a champion, but she survived 20 years in this game and racked up more fights than any woman ever, never relented with her warrior spirit, and ultimately challenged for a UFC title before all was said and done. She embodied all the old intangibles of heart and hard work, and stayed that way up through Saturday, a fitting finale that saw Modafferi push a likely future title contender for 15 hard minutes.

As evident as her love of the game was in obscure Japanese promotions in MMA’s dark ages, it was still on display at UFC 271 at age 39. What a career. Thanks for everything, Roxy.

5. It’s always a roller-coaster of a time whenever you’re relying on Texas officials to actually do their jobs, but good lord — take a bow, Robert Alexander.

The local judge had an all-timer of a stinker on Saturday night. In back-to-back fights, Alexander turned in what may ultimately be two of the worst scorecards of 2022, becoming the only person in the world who gave Roxanne Modafferi and Jared Vanderaa wins over Casey O’Neill and Andrei Arlovski in their respective undercard fights. Both were inexcusable scorecards, but Modafferi 29-28 over O’Neill was a special kind of bad. (For context, 19 of the 19 media scores recorded on scored it 30-27 O’Neill.)

Alexander had judged a grand total of three meaningful professional MMA bouts prior to UFC 271, yet he somehow landed work on one of the most important nights the Texas state athletic commission is going to handle all year. And, of course, there will be no recourse for his obvious ineptitude, no opportunity for an outside party to question him over an end product that defies belief. It’s all so silly. If nothing else, Alexander’s embarrassing night shows us that even a rocket scientist can’t crack the riddle that is MMA judging.

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