Israel Adesanya has decimated or otherwise dominated the entire middleweight division since first arriving in the UFC. But he had one of his toughest challenges on Saturday night at UFC 271.
To retain his title, Adesanya had to vanquish former champion Robert Whittaker for a second time after knocking him out in their previous meeting. A rematch can often be much tougher, especially with someone like Whittaker, who has improved since falling to Adesanya the first time.
While it was a much closer fight, Adesanya still found a way to win, scoring a unanimous decision victory to remain champion. In doing so, he put Whittaker in his rearview mirror for the time being with a pair of victories against him.
In the co-main event, Tai Tuivasa shocked the Houston crowd at the Toyota Center after knocking out hometown favorite Derrick Lewis in a slugfest between two of the hardest hitting heavyweights on the entire UFC roster.
Tuivasa has always been a fun fighter to watch, but his win over Lewis will put him among the roster’s elite heavyweights.
There’s a lot to unpack from Saturday night, so let’s find out the passes and fails from the latest pay-per-view event. This is Making the Grade for UFC 271: Adesanya vs. Whittaker 2.
They Can’t All Be Easy
It’s not always going to be a highlight-reel knockout, and Israel Adesanya’s ability to beat his opposition — no matter the circumstances — is what makes him one of the best UFC fighters in recent years.
Taking on a monster like Robert Whittaker, who’s clearly the second-best middleweight on the roster, Adesanya was forced to make a lot of adjustments on Saturday night to ensure he left Houston with the UFC title. Whittaker looked far better than in their first encounter, where he just charged at Adesanya, apparently without a strategy other than to get punched in a face a bunch of times.
In the rematch, Whittaker was much more tactical, and he stuck to a better game plan that included takedowns. Clearly, he sought to replicate what Jan Blachowicz did to Adesanya in his lone UFC fight at 205 pounds. Despite that improvement, Adesanya still got the better of him on the feet, also showcasing an incredible ability to get up from the ground; he never allowed Whittaker to do any real damage.
In the end, Adesanya retained his title, and he did so against a much better version of Whittaker. Sure, everyone loves when he’s just styling on his opponents – like his first fight against Whittaker, or the night he hit Paulo Costa harder than three bottles of wine – but not every victory will by like that.
In fact, Adesanya needs to have nights where he’s not just torching his competition because that really answers the question of what happens when he faces adversity. How does he overcome it? How does he win on a night where an opponent is truly at their very best?
Adesanya answered those questions on Saturday night with an impressive showing against Whittaker and perhaps the only downside of that win is that he’s arguably put his toughest opponent behind him now that he’s beaten the former champion twice already.
Dropping Them ‘Bows
There’s no way to know if Tai Tuivasa will ever be a serious threat to be UFC heavyweight champion. But he’s quickly become one of the most enjoyable fighters to watch every time he sets foot in the cage.
The always boisterous Aussie slugger has always lived or died by the philosophy of go big, or go home in all of his fights. He’s only gone to decision twice since joining the UFC roster, and there was a stretch where he lost three fights in a row, which could have easily ended with his exit from the promotion.
Instead, Tuivasa came charging back with four straight knockout wins and called for a fight with Derrick Lewis, probably the most terrifying power puncher in the heavyweight division outside of reigning champion Francis Ngannou. Lewis has made a career out of people crazy enough to strike with him – the vast majority end up separated from consciousness.
None of that scared Tuivasa. It might have even gotten him excited to face that level of threat.
Tuivasa went punch-for-punch with Lewis for over one round before landing an inside elbow that sent him crashing face-first to the canvas. It was shades of Mark Hunt vs. Roy Nelson after “Big Country” had earned a reputation of a concrete chin and dynamite in his hands.
The knockout will earn Tuivasa a massive bump up in the heavyweight rankings, and he’ll likely be staring at even bigger fights moving forward. Stylistically, he has some really difficult matchups ahead, especially when looking at a wrestler like Curtis Blaydes or a fast-moving striker like Ciryl Gane. But there’s little doubt that he’ll make it a show, even if he’s not the one walking out with his hand raised.
Sometimes things just work out when it comes to a particular championship race, because Jared Cannonier had an emphatic answer about who will get the next shot at Adesanya.
After falling short in a fight against Robert Whittaker that could have earned him a title shot, Cannonier came back with two more wins, including a vicious knockout over Derek Brunson on Saturday night. He’s been a difficult out for anybody since first arriving at middleweight but now he’s done everything necessary to earn his first shot at UFC gold.
It doesn’t hurt that Adesanya has long pegged Cannonier as the “dark horse” of the division, and now it appears they’ll finally get the chance to meet.
Cannonier will surely be a sizable underdog in that fight. But at least he’ll present a fresh new option, because Adesanya has already dispatched everybody else at the top of the division — some of them he’s even beaten twice.
Now, Cannonier will hopefully get his shot. Sean Strickland arguably is one more win away from potentially earning his own opportunity, and that will finally give Adesanya a chance to add to his legacy and literally wipe out every challenger at 185 pounds.
It Texas, Even the Screw Ups Are Bigger
Yes, it’s that time again where judging in MMA earns another fail, but it’s impossible not to shine a light on some of the egregious scoring issues at UFC 271.
Now, thankfully none of the mind boggling scorecards cost someone a win. But that doesn’t mean these judges shouldn’t be held accountable. In fact, sometimes it’s even more important to call out these errors because there’s typically far less people paying attention when one scorecard is completely wrong but thankfully the right fighter still gets the win.
First things first, let’s start with the back-and-forth battle between Douglas Silva de Andrade and Sergey Morozov from the prelims.
While de Andrade made a miraculous comeback and ultimately earned a submission victory, that only happened after he was nearly finished on several occasions in the opening round. Morozov punished de Andrade throughout the first round with a knockdown and a near submission where he was just seconds away from ending the fight on both occasions.
Despite a completely lopsided performance, only judge Patrick Patlan gave Morozov a 10-8 score for that round. Judges Dan Miragliotta, who is also a referee, and Douglas Crosby both decided that Morozov inexplicably only deserved a 10-9 round.
Then there’s judge Robert Alexander, who somehow scored Roxanne Modafferi winning her fight against Casey O’Neill despite the Scottish-Australian flyweight landing more strikes against her than any athlete in the history of the 125-pound women’s division. Modafferi definitely made a good showing for what will be the final fight of her career, but that doesn’t mean she somehow won multiple rounds.
While Alexander’s scorecard was the worst, judges Ivan Guzman and Kerry Hatley, who was also refereeing on Saturday night, also managed to give Modafferi at least one round each, which is equally as bad. Every single media member scoring the fight via MMA Decisions gave O’Neill the win with a flawless 30-27 performance. Yet somehow, these three judges were apparently watching a different fight.
Listen, judging in MMA is a thankless job, because there’s rarely praise for getting it right, and you get raked over the coals when calling it wrong. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be consequences.
Commissions need to do better when vetting and training these judges — a shining example is what Andy Foster has implemented in California. According to UFC Hall of Famer Frank Trigg, who now works as a referee in California, Foster requires all officials to go through extensive training as well as scoring or refereeing an exorbitant amount of fights at the regional level before getting the chance to work at bigger shows such as the UFC.
Here’s hoping Texas will at least attempt to do similar or more of these scoring problems will continue to haunt the athletes, especially now that the UFC has called the Lonestar State a second home since the pandemic started.
Missing In Action
Ahead of UFC 271 this past weekend, Joe Rogan was part of the broadcast team set to call the fights. But then suddenly, he had a “scheduling conflict” that prevented him from appearing in Houston. While that was the official statement from the UFC, Dana White quickly dispelled that rumor by calling it “bullsh*t” — he said Rogan just didn’t appear at the event, and it had nothing to do with this supposed scheduling conflict.
So what exactly happened?
Well, that’s the problem, because nobody actually knows, and it sure feels like something had to happen behind the scenes that prevented Rogan from calling the fights alongside Jon Anik and Daniel Cormier on Saturday night.
Of course, Rogan has been swept up in a number of controversies lately — all attached to his popular podcast on Spotify — where he was accused of spreading “dangerous misinformation” about the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, there was a video that surfaced that showed him using racial slurs numerous times over the years. Rogan later apologized, calling it the “most regretful and shameful” moment in his entire career.
While Spotify condemned Rogan’s use of racial slurs, the streaming platform stuck by him, and the $100 million deal he signed to bring his podcast there in 2020.
Meanwhile, the UFC has always stuck by Rogan — White has been one of his most vocal supporters over the years — and it’s difficult to believe the promotion would pull him from a broadcast. But what about ESPN and/or their parent company at Disney? Did the powers-that-be at ESPN decide that Rogan was too toxic to put on a broadcast amid all this controversy?
If that’s the case, why was this “scheduling conflict” message cooked up to explain his absence?
Neither White nor the UFC has provided any further context, and maybe it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. But there was definitely something happening behind the scenes that prevented Rogan from appearing at the event.
If he pulled himself and decided not to serve as a distraction to the fights, why not just say that?
The whole situation was handled just about as poorly as humanly possible, especially after White eviscerated the statement his public relations department released. It might be much ado about nothing, and if that’s the case, then why was Rogan on the schedule to call the fights and then suddenly wasn’t?
Perhaps Rogan just had something important happening backstage, and he couldn’t get away.