On Saturday night at the Toyota Center in Houston, UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya put his title on the line against top contender Robert Whittaker in the main event of UFC 271. It was a competitive affair, and much more hotly contested than their first encounter. But in the end, Adesanya retained his belt with a unanimous decision victory. The rest of the card was equally as interesting, with Tai Tuivasa upsetting Derrick Lewis in dramatic fashion, Jared Cannonier punching his ticket to a middleweight title shot, and the last hurrah of an MMA legend.
It was a tremendous night of fights. And so to honor it, I’m bogarting an article idea from Bill Simmons many moons ago: Handing out awards based on the lyrics of a piece of pop culture. And since UFC 271 took place in H-Town, there is no better way to show my love than by turning this over to the queen of ‘80s and ‘90s love songs, Whitney Houston.
To Israel Adesanya, who is one of the greatest fighters we’ve ever seen, but who still isn’t the greatest middleweight of all-time, and that’s OK.
Heading into UFC 271, a ridiculous narrative emerged of whether Adesanya was close to overtaking Anderson Silva as the GOAT middleweight. After Saturday night, where Adesanya won a clear decision over the undisputed second best middleweight in the world, those calls are only going to increase — and that’s absurd. Adesanya has held the belt for 861 days and defended his title four times. Silva held the belt for 2,457 days and defended his belt 10 times. Adesanya isn’t in the neighborhood, and it’s really that simple. But I’m getting the sense that Adesanya doesn’t want it to stay that way forever.
At the post-fight press conference, Adesanya vehemently argued that he actually has five title defenses because his first fight with Whittaker — a title unification bout where Adesanya was the interim champion — should count as one. It was a strange argument, considering he is already second all-time in divisional title defenses, and it’s one that only really makes sense if he’s looking at the GOAT argument himself. With Adesanya’s coach Eugene Baremen saying last week that they are definitely going to make another run at the light heavyweight title, it feels like Adesanya really wants to distinguish himself apart from anyone else, as one of the greatest fighters ever. He still has a long way to go, but I’m not sure I’d bet against him given what we’ve seen thus far.
To Robert Whittaker, who fought his heart out but came up short for the second time, and now faces a very interesting question: What’s next?
Whittaker is 0-2 against Adesanya, and a third fight between the two is going to be a hard sell for the foreseeable future. Whittaker was decisively beaten in their first encounter, and though he believes he “did enough” to get his hand raised at UFC 271, the reality is that Adesanya won at least three rounds, if not four. If he wants a third crack at the champion, Whittaker will need to stack up some more wins, something he says he’s OK with doing.
But that’s a very difficult task, even for Whittaker. Historically, people in his position — the Rich Franklin predicament, as I like to call it — have not been able to work their way back to a third shot. Mostly, they hang around and face a mix of rising contenders and veteran superfights. Unfortunately for Whittaker, there aren’t that many legends available at 185 for him to face. So instead, he’s going to have to keep staving off new blood. And given his record against Adesanya, he’s going to need more than three wins to get back. He probably needs at least five. Yeesh.
Of course, there’s always the other option available to “Bobby Knuckles”: Changing weight classes. Considering he’s not a huge middleweight, light heavyweight seems like a lot to ask of Whittaker. But the man did previously compete at 170, and he probably isn’t any bigger than many of the top welterweights running around. Perhaps he decides that a run at a second belt is something he’d be interested in. Personally, I’d love to see him fight Kamaru Usman.
To the biggest winner of UFC 271, Tai Tuivasa.
There are not many men in the world who truly want to dance with Derrick Lewis, but Tuivasa maintained all fight week that he was one of them. Tuivasa then backed it all up, brawling with Lewis before knocking “The Black Beast” out cold with an elbow. He then continued his dancing ways by shimmying around the octagon like the hero that he is.
Tai Tuivasa hit the shimmy after knocking out Derrick Lewis pic.twitter.com/iZhh4Uymmw— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 13, 2022
It was a note-perfect performance from Tuivasa who, to cap it all off, then told the Houston crowd that he’s “always down to get down.” Add in that he walked out to Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, and I think there’s no more fitting lyric to celebrate “The King of the Shoey.”
*Side note: Tuivasa should ABSOLUTELY walk out to I Wanna Dance With Somebody for his next fight. Someone ping the man.
To Derek Brunson, who will never challenge for a UFC title.
Heading into UFC 271, Derek Brunson was riding the best streak of his UFC career, and finally, finally on the cusp of a title shot. All he needed to do was rely on his wrestling one last time, grind Jared Cannonier out for 15 minutes, and “Blond” Brunson would at last have the chance to prove he’s the best middleweight in the world. If he had 10 more seconds at the end of Round 1, he may well have done it.
At the end of the opening round, Brunson landed a beautiful counter right hook that floored Cannonier. He jumped on his foe and took the back, sinking in a choke that looked like it was going to end the fight, only for Cannonier to be saved by the bell.
But that wound up being the end of Brunson’s championship dreams. When the second round started, he scored an immediate takedown, but once Cannonier quickly got up, that seemed to be his last straw. His movements became extremely labored, and it didn’t take long for Cannonier to put him away, violently. Afterward, he reaffirmed that his next fight will be his last, effectively ending any hope he had for winning gold.
Made a title push . Number 3 vs 4 in the world . I came up short . Life lessons . Im all good , sad but life will give you theses moments . I’ll pick myself up for one more fight . Blessings all— Derek Brunson (@DerekBrunson) February 13, 2022
Shout out to Derek Brunson, a good fighter who never could quite climb the mountain. You gave it your best shot.
To judge Robert Alexander, who within the span of an hour was the dissenting judge who scored fights for Roxanne Modafferi and Jared Vanderaa. He obviously does not know, and should never trust his feelings.
And speaking of Roxanne Modafferi, this one goes out to her, “The Happy Warrior” who finally said goodbye to the fight game after 20 years and 50 fights.
One of the major storylines coming into this week was the retirement fight of Modafferi, one of the true pioneers of the sport. Modafferi was given a tough task for her final assignment, taking on MMA Fighting’s 2021 Rookie of the Year, Casey O’Neill, a very talented flyweight prospect. Given the gap in athleticism and the fact that Modafferi is perpetually overlooked, many expected O’Neill to run through “The Happy Warrior” — and while O’Neill did get her hand raised, true to form, Modafferi made her work for every inch.
Modafferi never won a major MMA title and lost almost as much as she won. But she has been in this sport from the beginning, and was a tough out every time she stepped in the cage. Moreover, she’s one of the few people who have spent any significant time in MMA who are universally beloved. It’s already weird that she’s gone.