What the hell happened at UFC 246?!

Greetings and happy new year, fight fans! The UFC kicked off 2020 with the return of "The Notorious" Conor McGregor, and what a return it was! As such, they clearly didn't feel the need to bolster the rest of the card with highly anticipated fights or particularly notable fighters, but all in all the event went relatively smoothly with some solid performances, culminating in the biggest star in the sport showing exactly why that's the case. So let's get down to what the hell happened!

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The Main Card

McGregor updates his move set, dusts "Cowboy" in 40 seconds

#4 (LW) Conor McGregor def. #5 (LW) Donald Cerrone by TKO via strikes (0:40, R1)

After 15 months off, McGregor clearly didn't want to savor his time back in the cage, as he wasted no time in mowing down Cerrone. True to form he sprinted out from the start and launched his vaunted straight left hand. Cerrone immediately ducked under it and grabbed for McGregor's legs, and it appears he collided with his thigh and it stunned him a slight bit. Following this they clinched up and McGregor reached into his bag of tricks and unearthed three very stiff shoulder strikes. Seeing shoulder strikes in the clinch isn't anything new, but whereas most fighters appear to throw them to make their opponent uncomfortable, McGregor threw them for damage; and damage they did, leaving Cerrone's nose visibly busted up when they disengaged. McGregor then began putting on pressure with punches, which Cerrone was able to move away from before launching his first and only strike of the fight: a body kick that was blocked by McGregor's forearm. Just seconds after that, McGregor threw a kick of his own up top, which was partially blocked but his foot caught Cerrone right on the chin, visibly wobbling him. From there he smelled blood, and rushed Cerrone with a flying knee and a torrent of left hands until he dropped to the canvas in a defensive shell, covering up while McGregor pounded away until the referee had no choice but to rescue him from further punishment.

It should be no surprise that McGregor got an emphatic win tonight, as he was the prohibitive favorite here; but his return really couldn't have gone any better. Cerrone may clearly be on the downside of his career, but beating him this thoroughly still showed that while the loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov took some sheen off his aura, and recent news about him has been problematic to say the least, McGregor is still a one hell of a fighter and despite some preferential treatment it's no fluke that he's always hovering around or at the top among his fellow fighters. In a lot of people's eyes he was supposed to beat Cerrone tonight, but he still managed to exceed expectations in essentially handing out a flawless performance after the most demoralizing loss of his career. I'm still very much not of the mind that he deserves a title fight in any division following this win, but it's hard to doubt that his skills are elite.

What do we make of Cerrone at this point? As mentioned, he's clearly on the decline as an elite fighter; while he still enjoys a comfortable spot in the rankings and an even higher spot in the hearts of fans, his durability has noticeably faded lately, and the fact that his skills are still more or less on point goes to show how much his durability factored into a lot of his past success. He's always been hittable, but it's getting easier and easier for him to feel those shots in fights, and five of his last seven losses have come by way of TKO. This is his third straight TKO loss, and I think it's definitely time for him to receive a bit of a break from punishing fights. Unfortunately lightweight and welterweight are probably the least forgiving divisions in the UFC, so unless we want to really go digging past the top 15 for his next opponent, he's going to be in a potentially hard fight. I'd say put him in there with the loser of Kevin Lee vs Charles Oliveira, or have him rematch Pettis at 155. If he stays at 170 he can take on the loser of Neil Magny vs Jingliang Li.

As for McGregor, we know what the UFC wants to do with him: they want him to fight for the lightweight title again, and they likely prefer for it to be in a rematch against Khabib to squeeze as much money as they can out of it. Khabib would need to get past Tony Ferguson first, and that's by no means a picnic. Ferguson could very well be the more palatable matchup for him, so I'm sure the UFC is not scoffing at the idea of McGregor vs Ferguson happening instead. As for what should happen, I'm not a fan of someone getting a title shot coming off a loss in that division. McGregor going up and getting a win at 170 shouldn't get him a title shot at 155, and if he wants a shot at the welterweight title, then a win over Cerrone really doesn't earn him that either. For all the talk of him fighting Khabib, welterweight champ Kamaru Usman, and BMF champ Jorge Masvidal, the fighter who makes the most actual sense for him to fight is Justin Gaethje, the previous man to finish Cerrone. Whoever wins that fight will have definitely earned the next title shot. If McGregor decides he wants to be a welterweight now, it gets tricky. He just beat an unranked welterweight, and no way should that net a title shot. At the same time McGregor is a star so you can't put him in there with someone too lowly ranked. I'd get up for a fight with Stephen Thompson or the winner of Rafael dos Anjos vs Michael Chiesa.

Holm beats Pennington again, and this time more clearly

#3 Holly Holm def. #5 Raquel Pennington by unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27)

If you caught my breakdown of this fight, you might have read me saying that I didn't find this rematch interesting at all. Now with the benefit of hindsight, my mind is completely unchanged. It played out more or less just as I expected, and pretty much confirmed what I suspected coming in: that Pennington has improved more overall since their first fight, but the style matchup in general still just favors Holm. Pennington has improved a good amount on the feet and in her pacing, but her lack of speed and athleticism will always make it difficult for her to handle a tall, long, and mobile kickboxer like Holm who prefers point fighting from the outside rather than spending any appreciable time in the pocket. What's worse is that Pennington's respite from an unfavorable time on the feet has always in the clinch, where she's generally pretty strong and effective. The clinch just happens to be the one area where Holm has improved dramatically over the years. She's not particularly dangerous there, but with her size and strength she's been able to stall out her opponents for long stretches and essentially win those portions by default. This was pretty much the story of this fight, as it was pretty much Holm throwing long kicks and occasional blitzes before grabbing a clinch and mostly trapping Pennington there. It visibly frustrated Pennington, who would turn up the volume on the feet in response, only to be pressed up against the cage once again. Her successful attempts to reverse position were mostly reversed back immediately by Holm, and the most success she had in the fight was in the second round, where she made the best of a bad situation with repeated knees and punches in the clinch. Not that it was enough to win her the round on any scorecard but judge Michael Bell's.

This was easily the worst fight of the night, not that it's surprising. Holm's fights have been slogs save for her getting finished early by Amanda Nunes, and Pennington has looked pretty uninspired in her current 1-3 run, with that win being a split decision over Irene Aldana that many felt she didn't deserve. So while both women have improved from a skill standpoint, they also both appear to be on a bit of a decline physically that hurts their dynamism. So what do you do with Holm next? Certainly not another title shot. I would say Aspen Ladd or Julianna Pena...which actually might get her another title shot with a win. Or if they really want to put her right there in position she can rematch Germaine de Randamie. Pennington can fight Yana Kunitskaya.

Oleinik manages to make even an armbar win unorthodox and weird

#12 Aleksei Oleinik def. Maurice Greene by submission via arm bar (4:38, R2)

It took longer than expected and got dicey for him in some parts, but Oleinik managed to snag his 46th career submission with a rare (for him) armbar. Not that he didn't try his patented no-gi Ezekiel chokes and scarfholds, but Greene proved to be extremely tough to put away for the "Boa Constrictor." As expected, his striking wasn't pretty and he struggled for the brief times he was on the feet with Greene, a tall, rangy kickboxer. Oleinik took every opportunity to get inside, first forcing his way after ducking under a Greene head kick and grabbing a rear waist lock. One trait of Greene that I suspected would do him harm here was his willingness to grapple, and it did just that here; in attempted to grab a kimura from this position, Oleinik dragged him to the canvas. Greene stayed busy working for triangle chokes, but it just gave Oleinik opportunities to pass guard and continue working for scarfholds. Once Greene made it back to his feet, his search for a kimura once again saw him taken down, where Oleinik went for a Ezekiel choke before jumping to side and locking in a tight scarfhold neck crank that Greene managed to survive for quite a while before being saved by the horn.

Greene showed some toughness. Not every day you see Oleinik unable to scarfhold someone.

In round two both men were pretty tired, and while Greene had some success on the feet, he soon found himself on his back again following a double leg takedown. After an unsuccessful attempt at a kimura sweep, Greene found himself mounted. Oleinik was a bit too high on the mount and immediately switched to an armbar before going belly-down with it. Fortunately for Greene, his thigh turned out to be in a position that blocked Oleinik from achieving full extension, but ultimately that didn't matter, as he slowly applied more pressure until Greene was forced to tap. I normally don't like pitting fighters coming off wins with those coming off losses, but I'd be up for seeing Oleinik take on Blagoi Ivanov. As for Greene, he can fight perhaps the only man in the UFC taller than himself, Stefan Struve.

Kelleher guillotine forces Osbourne to tap with his foot

Brian Kelleher def. Ode Osbourne by submission via guillotine choke (2:49, R1)

Because sometimes your hands are tied. Osbourne did show that when they aren't, he can be quite tricky and dangerous, as he started the fight out low to the ground before leaping into the air with a right hand. From there he showed a clear speed advantage on the feet and some solid use of his reach advantage, but then Kelleher shot in and double legged him to the mat. Once on his back, Osbourne landed some pretty hard elbows, but Kelleher stayed composed and maintained position. As Osbourne got his back up against the cage and attempted to scoot up it, Kelleher grabbed a hold of his neck and gradually adjusted an arm-in guillotine while stacking up Osbourne against the cage. Once it was in deep enough (see: right when Joe Rogan says Osbourne's head is almost out), Kelleher dropped to his back and locked up Osbourne's arms with his legs, leaving him no way to defend the choke. In short order, he was furiously tapping the mat with his right foot.

This was one of those fights that could've gone either way, but one thing that was almost guaranteed was that it'd end in a first round finish, and Kelleher got there first in impressive fashion. It was a much-needed win for him and next I'd put him up against Eddie Wineland or the winner of Brett Johns vs Tony Gravely. Osbourne can fight the loser of Andre Ewell vs Jonathan Martinez.

Ferreira dominates and strangles Pettis on the ground

Diego Ferreira def. #11 Anthony Pettis by submission via rear naked choke (1:46, R2)

The decline of Pettis has been precipitous since losing his lightweight title, and it only continued here. The cause seems to be a combination of physical and mental problems, combined with him just not being able to adjust to pressure. Pressure was the keyword in his title loss to dos Anjos, a fight where many believe the blueprint for defeating him was forged in full. Since that fight we've seen little to indicate that the blueprint is any less valid today than it was back then, and Ferreira really drove that home here. Prior to Ferreira's win over Mairbek Taisumov I would have given Pettis perhaps a moderate chance of winning because I would have considered him the superior striker capable of capitalizing on Ferreira's many defensive holes on the feet. However, against Taisumov, a better, more technical counter striker than Pettis, Ferreira showed a much more intelligent pressure game, well-timed leg kicks, and an educated, frequent jab that eventually broke Taisumov down over time. If Taisumov wasn't able to offer him much on the feet once Ferreira got into his comfort zone, I just really didn't see Pettis posing too much of a challenge since he's so much worse at dealing with pressure. Ferreira was apparently wary of Pettis' leg kicks, and spent most of the time on the feet switching stands and raising his lead leg while sliding into range to close the distance so that Pettis essentially couldn't line up kicks to his lead leg. Though Pettis did have some success on the feet, Ferreira did a good job of keeping it close and mitigating any real damage.

There was interest in seeing how these two would stack up on the ground, but while I definitely regard Pettis a very talented grappler, I do think it's oversold a bit. When he faces high level grapplers, he's usually been at a marked disadvantage. He's had his moments against the likes of Chiesa, Gilbert Melendez, and Charles Oliveira, but all of those wins are him catching quick submissions after hurting or wearing out his opponents, and none of those fights had prolonged grappling exchanges. When those are present, we see instances like his fights with Nate Diaz, Dustin Poirier, dos Anjos, and this one, where he's more or less forced into grappling situations and dominated. Ferreira dragged Pettis to the ground twice in the first round and once in the second, and essentially threatened with rear-naked chokes the whole time until he sunk it in less than seven minutes into the fight. Looking at the two of them on the ground it was clear Ferreira was just a cut above, as he really didn't have much trouble controlling Pettis and passing to his back at will.

Much of the general thought about Pettis in recent years is about how he just doesn't stick through adversity the way he used to, and takes a way out of fights when it presents itself. Although it may have looked that way here (especially with Rogan again declaring that a choke wasn't tight right before a tap), I attribute it a bit more to Ferreira just having a helluva squeeze. Still, before the choke was locked in Pettis already looked like he sort of didn't want to be there and was done putting forth maximum effort to resist. It was difficult to know where he stood because he could always pull off something spectacular and appear to be back on track, but his recent performances have been making it harder to trust that he still has it in him.

But this is not to take anything away from Ferreira, who has improved so much at Fortis MMA and looked great in the fight. I never thought of him as someone who'd reach the elite of the division, but at the rate he's improving he might have a chance, and I could actually see him potentially giving someone like Khabib a tough fight. If I'm being honest I saw this as a bit of a showcase fight for him, and I'd like to see him take a nice step up. I know he's been fighting a good deal of Russians of late, but I'd love to see how he fares against Islam Makhachev. It's tough to know what to do with Pettis, but perhaps he can take on another fighter desperately in need of a win in Olivier Aubin-Mercier, or the loser of Lando Vannata vs Yancy Medeiros; all winnable fights for him.

The Prelims

#7 Roxanne Modafferi def. #9 Maycee Barber by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-26)

Once again she was doubted, and once again Modafferi derails another hype train, proving that not just any talented up-and-comer can step over her. It's always good to see MMA's resident weeb master supreme get a victory, especially when the odds are stacked so highly against her. While Barber was understandably favored, this win didn't come as a big surprise to me. Barber has mauled all of her opponents in the end, but in the process of getting there she'd shown plenty of holes and sloppy technique, and despite making her bones as a striker, her actual biggest strength is her top control and ground and pound. This means that in order to get where she's strongest, she has to engage Modafferi where's she's strongest. On top of that, Modafferi's striking looked the best it ever has, and she was able to tag Barber at distance several times in the first round before taking her down and dominating her positionally. Things just got worse for Barber in round two when she was dropped by a Modafferi jab, apparently injuring her knee in the process. This handicapped her for much of the rest of the fight, and although Modafferi was clearly the better grappler, I'm sure the knee injury widened the gap that much more. She was still able to pull off a reversal in every round, but all favorable positions were short-lived, including a scenario where Modafferi hit a very nice sweep to mount when Barber was in her full guard.

Tough break (or tear) for Barber with that knee injury.

In the end, Barber was blooded (courtesy of an elbow in round two), battered, and injured, but I have to tip my hat to her toughing out that injury for the better part of two rounds and not letting it affect her too muhc. She took the loss in stride when she took the mic after the fight and gave a classy tribute to Modafferi as well, which shows that she's probably got a good head on her shoulders as well. The good news for her is that she's still extremely young and has a lot of time to improve, but she may miss out on that goal of breaking Jon Jones' record of being the youngest champion in UFC history. As for Modafferi, she'll keep on chugging along. I assume she'll be booked in another fight that most will expect her to lose; we'll see if she can upset the books again.

Sodiq Yusuff def. Andre Fili by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)

I'd say this was probably the most anticipated fight on the prelims, and it definitely delivered. Initially Yusuff's speed advantage gave Fili some issues, but Fili's underrated wrestling was able to keep Yusuff honest, even if he wasn't able to hold him down for any appreciable amount of time. Once Fili did get him down he was able to sweep with a kimura and actually threaten the submission, but once Fili escaped Yusuff controlled him and landed elbows from on top. The second round was an even bigger round for Yusuff, as he swept Fili off his feet with a low kick and spent most of the round dominating the positional game, landing shots from on top, and passing Fili's guard. In the final round, Yusuff appeared to take his feet off the gas while Fili clearly felt the pressure to turn up the volume and show some urgency. Fili normally switches stances a lot, but in this round kept it mostly southpaw, and it turned out to be very effective for him. He tagged Yusuff many times with straight lefts that he threw more like jabs, and to top it off he took Yusuff down just before the horn. It was a clear round for Fili, but Yusuff had already banked the first two rounds and it wasn't enough for the victory. Still, both men acquitted themselves well and put on a fun fight. Yusuff is a Lloyd Irvin guy so part of me is inclined to root against him, but he's shown some solid skills and is still improving. Fili's stock didn't go down much with the loss here; he's shown marked improvements in his game and I expect him to continue to have success over mid-level featherweights.

#12 Askar Askarov def. #7 Tim Elliott by unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27)

This fight was an example of Elliott's "wild man" style of fighting really not working for him. He was able to get the better of the wrestling exchanges, but wasn't able to do much of anything with his takedowns. On the feet he mostly alternated between throwing a lot of volume but not landing much, and just walking forward into shots. He also did a considerable amount of taunting and goading Askarov on, which is never a good look when your opponent is just tagging you in response and you aren't hitting them back. Askarov just stayed calm and composed the entire time, and picked Elliott apart for most of the 15 minute affair. The most notable moment was in the first round when Askarov caught Elliott with a huge right hand that appeared to have him out on his feet and teetering for a second, though he was able to tie Askarov up and recover. Elliott is tough and always fun to watch, but his style largely doesn't pay off anymore. He gets too wild out there and opens himself up to losing position or being submitted on the ground, and to being out-maneuvered on the feet by patient strikers.

Drew Dober def. Nasrat Haqparast by TKO via strikes (1:10, R1)

This was another upset for the night, but it also marks just how sneakily good Dober has become. He's won five of his last six, and even that one loss (to Beneil Dariush) was one he was winning handily until he made a simple mistake that got him submitted. Here he stopped the momentum of vaunted prospect Haqparast in a little over a minute. There wasn't much of a feeling out process here, particularly for Haqparast, who hopped around on the outside and launched big punches at a composed Dober, who stalked and gauged the distance with jabs and hard straight lefts. A couple naked leg kicks gave Dober all the information he needed to find his overhand left, as he landed a thudding one with perfect technique as Haqparast chopped at his leg with no setup. This sent him down to his butt, where a short hook put him on his back, and a volley of punches eventually forced the referee to intervene. Dober has won two straight since the misstep against Dariush, and has rattled off a pretty impressive 7-2 run over the last four years while still steadily improving. I can't say I see contendership in his future, but Dober has definitely become a fighter to watch at lightweight.

Aleksa Camur def. Justin Ledet by unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27)

This was an odd fight to watch in general, and although Camur won he showed that he has a ton of room for improvement not just technically but in terms of his fight IQ. He mixed it up with his striking quite well, but often paid no mind to conserving energy or staying balanced, and caught many short punches from Ledet as he lunged in unprotected. He did consistently throw a good amount of volume in all three rounds though, and he's still young enough to round out his game much more. It was Ledet's third consecutive loss, but he didn't look particularly bad; he actually did pretty well in the fight overall, and it was a relatively close fight despite the two 30-27 scorecards for Camur. Still, it's hard to imagine the UFC keeping him around too much longer.

Sabina Mazo def. JJ Aldrich by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)

This was the close, if not controversial fight of the night. Many were dismayed at the decision, as they thought Aldrich did enough to win the first two rounds before Mazo did what is now becoming her calling card of letting loose in the final round. The stats tell a different story, with Mazo pretty much doubling up on Aldrich in significant strikes, but you can definitely argue that Aldrich landed the harder shots in the first two rounds. It's also an example of how judging is subjective though, because it's hard to ignore the frequent volume landing for Mazo, even if her shots weren't quite as hard. Still, it appeared the majority of people scored the bout for Aldrich, including eight of the fourteen media sources on MMA Decisions.
The real standout thing about the fight was that Mazo really does seem to be built for five round fights. In all of her UFC fights she's essentially started off slow and ramps up to a big third round where she suddenly realizes that her best asset is her clinch game. Once she gets a hold of it, it's like a vice grip, and she's very quick and dexterous with her knees, which she used to batter Aldrich pretty good in the final stanza. Mazo is clearly a talented fighter, and hopefully her next time out she shows a little urgency in strategic spots so she doesn't cut it close with these decisions.

And that about wraps it up UFC 246! It was about as top heavy as a card can get, but we still got some decent fights out of it. Still, not too many talking points coming out of the event other than who wins the Conor McGregor sweepstakes next, and I'm sure everyone's waiting with bated breath. Either way, Cerrone didn't throw this fight and if you're an idiot if you think he did; just had to throw that out there. Next up his a heavyweight main event clash between perrenial contender Junior dos Santos and rising contender Curtis Blaydes, live from Raleigh, North Carolina. Unfortunately, other obligations will keep me from watching it live and recapping, but it looks like it could be a fun one. Until then, sado out!

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