Israel Adesanya and Alexander Volkanovski left UFC 276 with belts still strapped around their waists, and it really wasn’t ever in doubt. The two dispatched Jared Cannonier and Max Holloway with ease on Saturday night, capping off a stacked International Fight Week offering that also featured an array of standout performances from some of the best up-and-coming talent in the sport. With so much to discuss, let’s hit our five biggest takeaways.
1. Something is missing. At this point, it’s hard to argue otherwise. Israel Adesanya strung together another clear title defense on Saturday night, outclassing Jared Cannonier in a fight that was never competitive, yet it was the third time in a row the UFC middleweight champion left his audience to use thinly-veiled words like “tactical” and “technical” to describe what they saw — the fight game equivalent of calling a performance boring, but in a respectful way. Once is an aberration. Twice is a coincidence. Three times? That’s a trend.
Adesanya took umbrage with the criticism post-fight, but the truth is, the champ has been lacking in moments worth remembering since he lost his bid at two-division glory against Jan Blachowicz. Adesanya’s UFC reign is now five title defenses deep, and there’s maybe one or two defenses actually worth rewatching, depending on your mileage for the Whittaker rematch. And to be fair, Adesanya is obviously not alone in shouldering that responsibility. It takes two to tango, and Cannonier — like past challengers — was frozen by the gravity of the moment and Adesanya’s combination of feints and counters. Cannonier settled into a rhythm where he was content to fight safe and lose a decision. It is what it is.
Our entertainment ultimately doesn’t matter, nor should Adesanya care. He’s a counterstriker and the UFC middleweight king; the onus isn’t on him to do anything but win. He’s still getting paid more than anyone in the UFC not named Conor McGregor, and he’s still achieving the MMA endgame at the end of the day: Escape victorious and unscathed.
But these things add up. “The Last Stylebender” arrived at the belt in 2019 being hailed as MMA’s next breakout star. His fight against Kelvin Gastelum was the Fight of the Year. His follow-up at UFC 243 was one of the most impressive torch-passings in recent memory. He was equal parts theatrical and violent, and the former is still true — look no further than Adesanya’s amazing ode to WWE’s Undertaker on Saturday. But the latter? It’s hasn’t been true for two years now — and there’s a real danger that Adesanya’s lack of highlights could begin limiting his ceiling as a star. Anderson Silva had his Cote/Leites/Maia run, sure, but he still sandwiched the Forrest Griffin jamboree in there to keep us coming back.
I just wonder when the tipping point could be. The casual fan may get burned once or twice on Adesanya events and still return for more. But once that number starts creeping into three or four times in a row where they’ve been sold a bill of goods only to see another listless snoozer for $75 like UFC 276, at a certain point, they’ll inevitably stop believing Adesanya when he promises that next time will be different and he’s going to enact his own version of Silva-Griffin. Maybe Alex Pereira is the guy to break the slump. I tend to believe he is. Either way, we’ve reached a palpable crossroads with Adesanya, and if he’s going to become the superstar he appeared destined to be, something is going to have to change.
Because whenever you have fans flooding out of the arena en masse in the middle of your marquee main event on your marquee week, it’s not a great look.
2. Alexander Volkanovski is the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
I was afraid to say it before UFC 276. I’m not any longer.
It’s impossible to overstate how important Saturday was for the UFC featherweight champion. For the past two years, the shadow of Max Holloway has chased Volkanovski like a dark cloud. No matter what Volkanovski did, no matter who he dispatched and how dominant he became, the conversation inevitably reverted back to Holloway and what played out at UFC 251. I was guilty of it myself. But that disrespect is gone forever now.
From pillar to post, Volkanovski’s supremacy was never in question at UFC 276. It was an all-time, legacy-sealing performance by the champ. A masterclass. An unquestionable rout over one of greatest featherweights to ever live, and the second time Volkanovski has pitched a perfect game in a span of four month. His improvement in every fight continues to be astounding and he’s proven multiple times over now that he long surpassed the field at 145 pounds. We’re living in the Volkanovski era — and we always were. It just took some of us longer to realize it than others.
Which takes me back to his case for pound-for-pound No. 1.
Kamaru Usman has been the knee-jerk answer since Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement, but stack up their records and it’s a legitimate debate. Volkanovski has less UFC wins (12-0 compared to Usman’s 15-0) and less title defenses (four to Usman’s five), but, at least on my ballot, his strength of schedule and level of peerlessness nudges him above. Because for as good as Colby Covington is, Usman has no rival of Holloway’s caliber; similarly, Volkanovski has no gimme title defenses in the vein of Usman’s series with Jorge Masvidal.
To be clear, that’s not an indictment on Usman — he’s obviously an all-time great. There’s no wrong answer here and valid arguments can be made in favor of both men. It’s simply an endorsement of how remarkable of a champion Volkanovski has become.
Because either way, we’re witnessing greatness, folks. Appreciate it.
3. Remember everything I wrote earlier about Israel Adesanya?
Fortunately, Alex Pereira is here to help.
Pereira was undoubtedly the breakout star of the UFC’s Super Bowl weekend. He handled Sean Strickland like a man on a mission. It was a baffling strategy by the American — trying to walk down and out-strike the better striker — and he got appropriately blown up for his poor choices. Pereira’s follow-up shots, in particular, were nasty. The precision of a man who gave up his status as GLORY champion literally just this past year. We often talk about owning the moment. UFC matchmakers teed Pereira up, and he knocked it 500 feet into the bleachers.
Adesanya has been barraged by questions about his old kickboxing rival for years now, but things really came to a head this week in Las Vegas. The champ couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about the night Pereira starched him, and that chatter appeared to actually frustrate Adesanya in a meaningful way at least twice — at both Wednesday’s media day and Thursday’s press conference, he demanded to know whether the offending parties bringing Pereira up had actually watched either of their past kickboxing fights.
But you know what? People were paying attention. If I can peel back the curtain for a second, every ounce of content related to the Pereira-Strickland fight or the Pereira-Adesanya rivalry did numbers that legitimately blew me away this past week. I knew there was interest, but I didn’t foresee a level of interest like this. If we’re talking about the fight to break Adesanya out of this championship malaise, Pereira is mana from heaven. It’s obvious Adesanya needs a dance partner who’s going to be aggressive and who’s not going to be frozen by his wizardry. Pereira has sledgehammers in all four limbs and is the only man in the middleweight division who can meaningfully call scorecard over the champion.
If Adesanya was already annoyed by the number of times he was reminded that Pereira is 2-0 over him, imagine how fired up he’ll be by the time this one comes around? This is Izzy’s next-level fight. This is the one that can inject the heat back into his championship reign.
It’s also a matchup that, at least on paper, could very well feature the highest level of combined striking pedigree for a championship fight in UFC history.
Adesanya vs. Pereira 3 was always destined to happened. It couldn’t come at a more welcome time. Well done to get us here, UFC matchmakers. Now let the countdown begin.
4. We’re in the midst of an old guard exodus.
Just in the past four weeks alone, the MMA world has waved goodbye to Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Felice Herrig, Eddie Wineland, Sarah Kaufman, and now Jessica Eye and Donald Cerrone. These things tend to come in waves, and none of the recent retirements have been all that surprising, but Cerrone, in particular, leaves with the most unique legacy. “Cowboy” never won a UFC title and wasn’t even particularly competitive in his lone attempt, but he was a fight game original through and through. Mr. Anytime Anywhere.
From the moment Cerrone stepped into the UFC in 2011, you knew exactly what you were going to get from him. Anywhere from 3-5 times a year, “Cowboy” was going to show up in his luxury RV to give someone hell — and win or lose, by the end of the night, without fail, he’d be pleading for the chance to do it all over again. From 2011-20, Cerrone competed at least three times a year in every year but one. In six of those years, he rattled off at least four fights. That level of consistency at the highest levels simply doesn’t exist. It’s practically a miracle. Yet even with that massive sample size, you can counter the number of snoozers on Cerrone’s ledger with a single hand.
There will never be another Cowboy. He was one of a kind. And I suspect he won’t have to wait long to see his Hall of Fame wishes fulfilled. When it happens, it’ll be well-deserved.
5. Outside of the marquee three, UFC 276 stood out as a celebration of MMA’s next generation, with an undercard that showed off a youth movement in full effect.
Because folks, the young guns came to play.
All but one of the up-and-coming intrigues passed their respective tests at UFC 276 — Dricus Du Plessis, Ian Garry, and Maycee Barber each leveled up in a noticeable way, and I remain convinced that Andre Muniz may actually have been the second-best middleweight on Saturday’s whole damn card. He’s going to force his way to a title shot soon enough.
Sean O’Malley was the lone outlier, as his prove-it fight against Pedro Munhoz ended prematurely due to an accidental eye poke. But since we have limited space here, I want to focus mostly on Jalin Turner, because my goodness, “The Tarantula” made the kind of statement that is impossible to ignore. Turner had been taking the scenic road through the UFC up until Saturday, a road of quiet ultra-violence a la Vicente Luque. He snuck into UFC 276 on an under-the-radar streak of four straight first-round finishes and appeared to be coming into his own since dropping back down to 155 pounds. Brad Riddell was the quintessential next step to see whether he was ready to make the leap.
Safe to say, his 45-second romp spoke volumes.
Legitimate world-class lightweights have dragged themselves to Hell and back trying to get Riddell out of there, yet Turner took care of business quicker than I can run down the street to check my mail. With more ease too, probably. I’ve been singing Turner’s praises for years, but now it feels as if the world is paying attention. The 27-year-old carries absurd size and length into the cage for the lightweight division (6-foot-3, 77-inch reach), and he actually knows how to use them, which is a rare trait for someone still figuring themselves out. With his speed, timing, preternatural finishing instincts, and multi-faceted offensive arsenal, Turner is the truth. He called his entry into the rankings “inevitable” on Saturday. He’s right.
“The Tarantula” may have taken a moment to find his sea legs in the UFC, but he’s here now, and he’s going to be a problem at 155 pounds for a long time to come. Give him next week’s Rafael Fiziev vs. Rafael dos Anjos loser and let’s kick this rise into overdrive.
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