I know where almost a month into 2021, but what a pay per view to kick off the year! UFC 257 is in the books, and while it wasn't exactly stacked from top to bottom, but you can't deny that there's always a big fight feel surrounding a card headlined by Conor McGregor. The card was very top-heavy, and that top delivered big time in the form of a major upset that reaffirmed a top lightweight contender and a smaller upset that introduced a new lightweight contender. Outside of that there wasn't a ton at stake, but overall the fights delivered, so let's get right down to what the hell happened!
The Main Card
Surprise surprise, the king is dead! Poirier stuns McGregor with 2nd round knockout
Dustin Poirier def. Conor McGregor via KO (2:32, R2)
What happened?: Poirier avenged his 2014 first round TKO loss to McGregor with a rousing TKO of his own over the inaugural UFC double champ. While McGregor got off to a solid start in the opening round, Poirier gradually began to close the gap before debilitating calf kicks took their toll and left McGregor essentially immobile and defensively open to Poirier's offense before eventually succumbing to punches in round two.
How did that happen?: In breaking this one down pre-fight, I had essentially come to the conclusion that the first fight against Nate Diaz fight pretty much established that McGregor's fights come down to toughness; not necessarily who is the tougher of McGregor and his opponent, but rather if his opponent is tough enough to withstand his early offense and still bring the fight to him. This basically turns his fights into two-result match ups, because If they aren't tough enough, he knocks them out relatively quickly; if they are, the quality of his offense and his chances of winning fall dramatically, and if he does manage to win it isn't without it's harrowing moments. In this instance, Poirier represented the latter. True to form, McGregor came out immediately aggressive and landed a left hand before quickly pressuring Poirier back to the cage, which was definitely good initial victory for the Irishman since the one who pressured would be at a marked advantage stylistically. However, Poirier showed pretty quickly how different a fighter he is today when he landed a counter right hook that backed McGregor up a bit to let him off the cage. Dustin then punched his way into range and surprised McGregor by landing a double leg takedown, forcing McGregor to scoot his way to the cage and battle to his feet.
Once there the two of them engaged in a pretty lengthy clinch battle where they traded shoulder strikes (of which McGregor got the better) and positions several times. McGregor took better advantage of his clinch control periods with some nice, hard knees to the body and an elbow on the break. From there, McGregor continued to find a home for his left, including a straight and a hook that stunned Poirier a bit, and had him throwing a bit wild trying to get inside of McGregor's range. With about a minute left in the round, Poirier landed a calf kick started to get McGregor's attention, and a check right hook actually appeared to stun him as well and get Poirier to show a bit of swagger. Within the last minute Poirier really started to rack up low kicks and actually had McGregor flashing his jab more than usual, likely in response so Poirier would have more difficulty timing his kicks. Although McGregor likely claimed the round on the scorecards, the tides did appear to be shifting slightly toward the end of the stanza.
McGregor had his successes early.
The second round saw Poirier immediately continue where he left off with a hard calf kick that buckled McGregor, but he was then met with a slick straight left-right uppercut combo that appeared to hurt Poirier a bit. Another calf kick visibly buckled McGregor, and this was when you really saw his approach being affected by his preoccupation with the kicks. Initially he tried kicking back, and did land a nice low kick of his own, but was immediately met with another hard kick to his compromised leg. He then started to catch and counter off of the kicks with left hands, and although he did manage a couple counters, he still absorbed the kicks, and the weakened state of that leg definitely affected his power. Another low kick really got a reaction out of McGregor, who gingerly stepped forward on it, and from there he really began to alternate between trying to close the distance with punches to make sure he's too close to be kicked, and being somewhat hesitant as he stalked on the outside. The kicks visibly turned him into a much more defensive fighter than we normally see, and he's just not as effective or dangerous in that state. Just then it appeared that Poirier noticed McGregor's preoccupation with the low kicks and started to work his boxing more, popping McGregor with jabs. Still dangerous, McGregor did manage to land a couple hard lefts, but they really didn't have the pop they did earlier in the fight.
The major turning point happened on a very specific sequence: McGregor had just landed a nice left hand and had Poirier's back to the cage while he was at his preferred mid-range. He feinted a right to the body and threw a straight left to the body pretty much a beat behind Poirier kicking his calf again, which caused him to whiff the left hand and eat a counter right hand as Poirier angled away; but having also overextended on the straight left, all of his weight went on that lead leg, and he visibly wobbled on the leg.
Poirier's swagger really showed up in round two.
At that point it was like a switch went off in Poirier and he realized he was on his way to a finish. He closed the distance with variety of shots: straights, uppercuts, and hooks as McGregor did his best slip and counter back. A hard left hook around the guard rocked McGregor, and another volley of punches had him retreating backward along the cage, where he ducked directly into a right shovel hook that dropped him on his butt against the cage, and a couple more shots put him out. It was easily the biggest win of Poirier's career; even big than his interim title-capturing victory over Max Holloway, and he became the first man to finish McGregor with strikes...at least in MMA.
Other thoughts: So many thoughts come to mind for this one that I could sit here and write a completely separate article on it. Firstly, I have to say I'm happy for Poirier not only because he defied the odds and avenged what you could in hindsight call a career-defining loss, but also because it's just great to see him get this win considering he's easily one of the best humans in the sport. From his charming personality to his dedication to his family, to his foundation and all the charitable work he's committed to doing, they don't get much better than Poirier in the sport. It was also great to see that his constant battle with keeping himself in check worked in his favor here. Although he's made quite the transformation since he was a featherweight who easily got sucked into brawls and often paid for them, he does still have his moments of lapsing back into that mentality, and that tendency is the main reason I picked against him once again here. Even in his current form he can get defensively lax and become hittable early, and that's generally a recipe for disaster against McGregor. However, the fact that Poirier did in fact take some solid shots and dealt with them much better than he did in their first fight not only points to him just being a better, more comfortable fighter, but it also points to something that I really never stopped believing: that McGregor's power does suffer a bit at lightweight. Diaz first showed us this but his rousing finishes of Eddie Alvarez (who has never been known for his durability) and a diminished Donald Cerrone at welterweight far from prove how his power fares against the field. Now we've seen Diaz, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and now Poirier able to take his shots and continue coming at him with little issue.
This is something that I think has a pretty visible effect on McGregor that leads to why his fights tend to distill down to that two-result manner. Like many dangerous fighters, it appears he does really build off of his opponents being wary and respectful of his power and precision, and in a sense thrives on intimidation and being in his opponents' heads. This is nothing new, as I've frequently referenced a very similar dynamic in Anthony Pettis' decline as an elite fighter; once Rafael dos Anjos showed that not being intimidated by or showing too much respect for Pettis neuters his offense a bit, more fighters started to have an easier time with him. Even Anderson Silva has suffered a bit of this in his career. I think the same holds true for McGregor, and you see a visible change in his posture and enthusiasm when his offense isn't able to deter his opponent. Once Poirier started to get a bit playful out there, starting from when he pointed at McGregor following a particularly nice check hook, you could sense a drop in his morale, and it's probably exacerbated by cardio being on his mind as well. He does still hit hard and is a hell of an athlete, so it's not like every lightweight can go out there and replicate what Poirier did tonight, but it was further evidence that McGregor essentially needs his fights to follow a certain pattern or he's likely unable to adjust and be dynamic enough to win, or at least win convincingly. Much like with BJ Penn at welterweight, we're finding out that McGregor isn't really "the man" in this division just because he moved up and beat the champ.
As for Poirier, what else can you really say? His journey from a fringe top 10 featherweight to an elite top 3 lightweight has been pretty amazing, and you could say he has McGregor to thank for it since his loss in their first fight was what prompted him to stop draining himself and move up to 155 lbs. Unlike McGregor his power not only seemed to carry over to lightweight, but he actually became a more powerful puncher in the division, and his striking in general has improved immensely, to the point that you almost don't remember when he was a slick grappler who got into brawls. I'm still not sure he's necessarily a better boxer than Holloway despite his most recent win over him because that was mostly on the strength of him being the more powerful puncher rather than the better technician, but his boxing is still absolutely nothing to scoff at, and I think the results prove that.
Lastly, how long have we armchair athletes been saying that low kicks could be the key to beating McGregor? It's never been a hard read to make given his wide stance and reliance on his power left, but it's still a bit surprising that it took this long for someone to actually implement it into their game plan.
Next for Poirier: This is a loaded one. Obviously a performance like this deserves the title talks it has been getting, but there's still so much confusion around just what the title picture is right now. If Khabib isn't returning that's probably the best case scenario for Poirier because after how their fight went, is anyone really interested in seeing that rematch? There isn't much of anything to suggest the result wouldn't be the same. Otherwise, I'd say the best route to go would be to fight Charles Oliveira for the vacant or interim title. However, Poirier somewhat surprisingly indicated that the fights he's most interested in would be a rubber match with McGregor or a fight with Diaz, which are both money fights (though I'm still not sold on Nate in that regard) that don't do anything for his standing in the division. Perhaps he just needs some time to figure it all out, but I think Oliveira is the ideal foe.
Next for McGregor: Love him or hate him and win or lose, McGregor fights are always major events. Not everyone is buying his new more mature persona, but I actually think it's a breath of fresh air and hope it's the real deal. He hasn't abandoned providing a good soundbite and building himself up, but the antics and antagonizing are absent, and honestly I think that's the best personality balance you can ask for in a star. It's also promising that he expressed wanting to be more active since he felt lack of activity contributed to the loss, and Rafael dos Anjos, who took a shot at McGregor and his susceptibility to low kicks following the fight, seems a solid choice. They're both newly returned from welterweight, and were booked to fight for dos Anjos' lightweight strap in early 2016 before injury bounced the champ out of the fight, Diaz filled in on short notice, and the rest is history. Speaking of Diaz, a rubber match with him also makes sense about right now, and according to some reports, that might just be the next move.
Chandler dazzles in long-awaited debut, takes out Hooker in the first
Michael Chandler def. Dan Hooker via TKO (2:30, R1)
What happened?: It was a masterful performance from the former three-time Bellator lightweight champion. He pressured, intelligently minded his distance, and quickly laid the foundation for the finishing blow, a crackling left hook that put the usually insanely durable Hooker down and unable to mount an intelligent defense before the referee had seen enough.
How did that happen?: Hooker never really got going in this one. He spent the entirety of the fight sticking to the outside and landing low kicks, which to his credit did seem to get Chandler's attention shortly before the finish; it may have even prompted Chandler to be more expedient in seeking it. Hooker mostly fought uncharacteristically passive, and Chandler took full advantage by applying copious amounts of pressure and feints, which he was mostly free to do since Hooker sought to recreate distance between them rather than look for counters. Chandler's speed and constant movement also seemed to put Hooker at a loss for what to do whenever they found themselves in striking range. With Hooker mostly retreating and circling out in response to the pressure, Chandler smartly started throwing and landing straight rights to the body because, because when you have an opponent constantly circling and leaning away because they're wary of punches up top, their body usually sticks around in range for a bit longer. This was the decision that directly set up the finish of the fight, and that's raring for a more detailed breakdown here.
Chandler's trap he set by repeatedly going to the body was not only to get Hooker to drop his hands, but also to condition him not to lean back as much and open his body up more to the punches. After eating body punches, the opponent tends to shift away from leaning back to avoid head strikes, instead leaning a bit forward to push their torso back out of the way of the shots. At that point, plan A is usually to change levels like you're throwing to the body, but now that their head is more within range you can throw that punch up top and and have much better chance of landing it. Chandler tried this change up a couple times, and got pretty close on both, but Hooker was just able to slide out of the way. After eating a hard low kick that looked to hurt him a bit, Chandler went right to plan B. He'd already conditioned Hooker to react a certain way to the body shot, and even more importantly, he conditioned him to think that single, right-handed power shots were all that were coming his way. He would throw a right to the body, and then reset as Hooker retreated and circled out. Chandler's first order of business was to push Hooker back closer to the cage so he had fewer options to escape, so he did a heavy level change feint that got Hooker to back up past the mini octagon in the center of the canvas and once again circle away from Chandler's power.
That mini octagon is like a warning track (if you're familiar with baseball) for fighters; when you've crossed it, you know the cage not far behind it. If you're being pressured, once you pass that threshold your options for escape are mostly narrowed down to moving laterally or backing straight up and putting yourself against the fence. Since most fighters don't want their backs against the fence, especially against a dangerous, explosive striker like Chandler, their next response to oncoming pressure will most likely be to to move laterally, and with Chandler's right hand being his main weapon, it was all but guaranteed that regardless of what Chandler did, Hooker was very likely to respond by circling to his own right side, away from Chandler's power. So Chandler once again changed levels and throw a right to the body, not really intending to do damage or even land with it, because all he wanted was to draw out Hooker's usual reaction to the body shot to get him moving in the opposite direction of it. When Hooker saw the right hand, he dropped his lead hand in an attempt to parry it, but also dropped his right hand as well because he was just used to Chandler throwing a right to the body and not following it up. Chandler stepped through on the right hand and squared his stance, which increased the power on the follow up left hand that he launched right onto Hooker's chin and put him down against the cage. Hooker briefly tried to grab for a single leg, but Chandler easily shoved him away and continued landing piston-like right hands until Hooker could only cover up and wait for the stoppage.
Other thoughts: First off, I'm pretty happy that Chandler's long-awaited UFC debut was so successful. He's been one of the best fighters outside of the UFC for years, and there was a long stretch where his loyalty to Bellator made it appear that he's probably never grace the octagon. He had his share of doubters coming in, as pretty much any mainstay of a different promotion will, but he silenced them all in this fight. I've long believed he's one of the toughest match ups for Khabib (of course I also believed this of Justin Gaethje), and even if that fight never happens, he's rightfully punched his ticket into the lightweight elite in the UFC. He has all the makings of someone who could become a star if he stays on the rise: he's well spoken, has personality, stays out of trouble, and he's a finisher who always puts on exciting fights. The last part is also the gamble that could hold his rising star back, as he's also shown that he can be clipped and hurt, and although his performance against Hooker was almost flawless, he does still house a lot of the defensive liabilities that have gotten him in trouble before, and might have even given him some issues if Hooker hadn't shown him so much respect. Part of the reason I picked Hooker to win was because while Chandler does generally move his head fairly well, he tends to dip and change levels a ton; that was on full display in this fight. He's constantly ducking and dipping his head, and Hooker loves to throw well-timed knees up the middle. Chandler also squares up his stance in punching transitions (like he did in the finishing combination) a lot, which also opens his body up to knees. In fact, just moments before the finish I actually thought that Chandler better make sure Hooker doesn't time one of those right hands to the body and meet him with a knee. Obviously he did just that!
Most of the focus here rightfully goes onto Chandler here, but I think Hooker's approach definitely deserves some mentioning because it was very clear from the onset that he had a ton of respect for Chandler's power. Even leading into the fight, Hooker talked about his game plan involving picking him apart from the outside, something that he's become more and more adept at doing over his UFC career, but rarely ever something he formulates his game around or has his best success doing; he ultimately really gets into fights when he can pressure and incite exchanges, and relies quite a bit on his toughness. So it really says something that he not only stated his intentions to build his game around his height and reach, but to actually dedicate himself to it for as long as the contest lasted. He was extremely hesitant to stand in front of Chandler and punch, so he constantly circled away from Chandler's power and sought to break him down with low kicks, which accounted for every strike he landed. That wasn't even an inadvisable game plan against someone so heavy on their lead leg who is reliant on explosiveness like Chandler. We've seen low kicks affect him before, and even finish him when he lost his title to Brent Primus (a screwy finish, but a finish nonetheless). It didn't work out this time though, because Chandler just came in and executed a perfect strategy for the fight at hand.
What was really palpable to me here was the speed difference, and I think it draws on what I thought was probably the most interesting thing to consider coming into the fight: that Chandler had never fought anyone like Hooker before. Of course I expected a speed advantage for Chandler, because he's an athletic, explosive guy and Hooker is definitely not one of the more fleet-footed lightweights by any means. He's pretty plodding and uses a combination of timing and toughness to be effective. But I think that was exacerbated here by the fact that Bellator essentially has no tall lightweights, at least not any higher level ones that Chandler would have fought. I think their tallest lightweights are about 5'10", and most of them at that height are primarily grapplers. Adam Piccolotti is the only one I can think of that hits 5'11" and he's a grappler. Basically, Chandler came into the fight essentially having no experience fighting a tall, long fighter who could use his reach. It was a test I was very interested in seeing him navigate, and he aced the test even better than I would have imagined. All of this is to say that Bellator doesn't really have strikers as lanky and plodding as Hooker, and it made Chandler look that much quicker out there since we're used to seeing him fight guys that are closer to his height and speed.
Showcasing that personality, Chandler cut a promo that would bring a tear to Ric Flair's eye, calling out McGregor, Poirier, and Khabib, and lobbying for a title shot all in one shot. He got his chance to shine on one of the biggest platforms you can have in this sport, and he really made the most of it. There might be big things in the future of Michael Chandler, especially if Khabib truly stays retired and renders the division wide open. I've been watching the man fight and evolve since he debuted in Bellator, and it was great to see him have this moment. Now he has to navigate the rest of the shark infested waters that make up the UFC lightweight division.
Next for Chandler: All in all, I think the fight that makes the most sense here is Justin Gaethje in a title eliminator, which would be absolute fireworks. Another option could be Charles Oliveira, which was actually suggested by Poirier at the post fight pressure, and although I did suggest Oliveira for Poirier earlier, the former interim champ seemed cool on every fight but a Diaz fight or capping off the McGregor trilogy. Poirier also made sure to mention that he absolutely doesn't think Chandler has earned the right to fight him, so that option's off the table too. So for my money, Gaethje it is.
Next for Hooker: This was a rough one for Hooker. He came in expected to halt Chandler's hype in its tracks, and instead was handled rather easily when he's made a career of being anything but easy to handle. It'll be rough to see either of them take a third straight loss, but Tony Ferguson is really the only fight that makes sense right now unless they venture out of the top 10.
Calderwood's diverse striking carries her to unanimous verdict over Eye in grueling affair
Joanne Calderwood def. Jessica Eye via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
What happened?: The two women really went after it in a fight that carried a pretty furious pace and a lot of draining clinch work. Over time Calderwood just proved to be the sharper, fresher, more dynamic fighter, and built on her technical advantages en route to a clear decision win and a personal best for significant strike landed at 148.
How did that happen?: As expected, Calderwood was the better fighter from range with her more varied kickboxing attack, whereas Eye tends to stick mostly to boxing. The fight initially saw Eye aggressively closing the distance with her boxing and Calderwood looking to grab the Thai clinch and land knees when they were in close quarters. Eye sought to counter the Thai clinch with uppercuts, and her pressure even prompted Calderwood to shoot a couple takedowns in the opening round. In the periods the fight was at range there was a clear advantage for Calderwood, who scored with long punches and low kicks. Once Eye was able to get control in the clinch and push Calderwood against the fence, she actually looked to be the more effective fighter in that phase, and definitely made the round much closer than it would have been otherwise.
In round two Eye grabbed a Thai clinch of her own and throw uppercuts, but it was Calderwood who made the intelligent adjustment of just focusing more on keeping the fight at range where she had the most success. In the previous round she landed plenty of good knees in the clinch, but she was also eating return uppercuts and knees herself, whereas the ranged striking exchanges were much more one-sided. Once she started to find her groove, she really loosened up with her strikes, landing nice counter 1-2s that Eye practically walked into, and a slick front kick up the middle flush to Eye's face. She also kept the body work up with front kicks to keep distance and knees whenever Eye got in closer. Whenever they did clinch, Calderwood was much more keen to strike off the break, whereas Eye just looked to separate, and as a result she was frequently eating shots whenever they separated from a clinch. Calderwood also began really finding a home for her counter check hook when Eye jabbed, which seemed to prompt Eye to change levels and jab to the body more. Late in the round Calderwood committed her one big flub, and that was going for a random spinning back elbow, which was ill-advised anyway since Eye had mostly been ducking to punch the body anyway, and it just naturally led her to slipping under the elbow, grabbing a waist lock, and tripping her to the ground. Lucky for Calderwood, it was so late in the round that it really didn't matter.
The final round saw the pace slow a bit, mostly from Eye, who decided to work takedowns and spent a lot of the round in the clinch pushing Calderwood up against the cage. It probably went on for a bit longer than it should have before the referee separated them, but once they did Calderwood went right back to work landing low kicks, knees, and straight punches. Eye started to get a bit more desperate and telegraphed with her takedown attempts, which Calderwood easily sprawled and made her pay for off the break. Calderwood invited the clinch more in the latter portion of the round, probably sensing fatigue in Eye, and landed hard knees to her body before stunning her with a knee up the middle that caused her to shoot and get sprawled on again before the horn. Eye had a bit of success early on in the fight, but once Calderwood fought in her best interest and focused more on keeping the fight where she was most effective, she began to run away with it. It was a solid effort by Eye, but a clear loss that continues to highlight her limitations as a fighter.
Other thoughts: It's nice to see Calderwood still making improvements out there. A lot of her style throughout her career has been defined by her being effective either all the way in or all the way out. She could kick well with opponents from range, do some great work in the clinch, but tended to suffer a boxing range, both with striking and dealing with takedowns. In recent years she's become a lot more comfortable in the pocket, and it has served as the glue that connects her range and clinch games together more effectively. I think a few years ago I would've been much more accepting of the possibility that Eye could've gotten inside and cracked her with punches. She still does look slightly uncomfortable in the pocket, as commentator Daniel Cormier pointed out when he noticed she was closing her eyes at times at that range, but overall she performs much better there than she once did, and I think it makes her clinch game more difficult to avoid and more effective.
Eye was pretty much herself. Against certain opponents her simple game can shine and net her victories, but against others it's exposed for how underdeveloped it can be. She lacks diversity in her entries into exchanges, and when her opponent starts countering, her usual response is often just to get more aggressive and try to clinch more than to change her striking approach. There were several times where she just walked right into punches because she doesn't really move off the center line when she's entering or when she's exiting an exchange. She deserves props for stringing together the wins to earn a title shot, which is further than many thought she'd be able to go even in a division as thin as women's flyweight, but despite her insisting this is the best version of her, I doubt she's getting back into the top five again. And honestly, she might not be wrong that she's at her best right now; the problem is that she's just never been consistent or effective enough to reliably win at a certain level.
Next for Calderwood: It was a very unfortunate turn of events that she was once booked for a title shot, but an injury to champ Valentina Shevchenko led to her opting to take a fight in the interim that she ended up losing emphatically. While on that principle it's hard to recommend she be thrown right back in the mix, the shallowness of the division may demand just that. Most of the women ranked above her are women that have already beaten her; in fact Lauren Murphy is the only one who doesn't fit that description. That's a fight I wouldn't scoff at, but I also think Murphy's next fight should be a title eliminator. Otherwise, her next bout could be an attempt to avenge her loss to Cynthia Calvillo, who dropped a decision to Katlyn Chookagian late last year.
Next for Eye: Eye is in a rough place in the division because we're starting to see women she beat show more upside than her. I think Roxanne Modafferi would probably be the best fit. Andrea Lee would also make a for a decent scrap, but that might be a bit much of a dip in the rankings for Eye.
Muradov breaks Sanchez down before putting him down in the third
Makhmud Muradov def. Andrew Sanchez via TKO (2:59, R3)
What happened?: Patience and dedication to countering is a cornerstone of Muradov's game, and it once again netted him an impressive result. He chopped away at Sanchez's legs and body early, and landed plenty of sharp counter punches throughout, gradually getting closer and closer with his big overhand right until he landed it and put Sanchez on wobbly legs, eventually leading to a late TKO.
How did that happen?: Sanchez has made strides as a striker throughout his UFC run, but here was was just fighting a markedly superior one. That's not to say the fight was completely one sided; Sanchez was able to land with decent accuracy early, but his accuracy dropped off quite a bit after the opening round once Muradov got into his groove. A large part of this might be because Sanchez's striking usually sees him bouncing around on the outside with a wide stance and leaping in with punches, and Muradov saw fit to attack his lead leg early and often. Over time you could see his stance narrow, his mobility lessen, and he became more flat-footed. One weapon that was there repeatedly for Sanchez that Muradov should do well to watch out for in the future was the counter right hand, which Sanchez landed surprisingly often.
Other than that, it was essentially more than 12 minutes of Muradov just being sharper on the counter and having a lot of success just touching Sanchez with straight punches not thrown at full power. He would often miss his wide power punches, but found a good home for his jab even in response to Sanchez's feints since he'd often drop his hands when doing so. Muradov utlized a lot of the common traps as well, such as attacking the body to open up the head to strikes. Nearly three minutes into final round, Sanchez landed a pretty hard right hand, but just when it seemed he was able to demand a bit more respect on the feet, a huge right hand from Muradov came his way and basically cuffed him behind there, backing him up and putting him on extremely wobbly legs. Muradov smelled blood and leapt in with a flying knee, followed by a volley of punches that had Sanchez covering up until the referee had seen enough.
Other thoughts: This finish was basically destined to happen from a stylistic standpoint. You have a fighter in Muradov who is a dedicated counter striker that looks to break his opponents down over time before finishing them off; and on the other side you have a fighter in Sanchez who tends to flag and get progressively worse defensively as the fight goes on. It's a recipe for a third round finish if I've ever seen one. Muradov hasn't turned many heads, but I think with this win he might get onto a few radars at middleweight. Sanchez is someone who is definitely still improving and putting it all together, but consistency and fundamentals are his biggest challenges nowadays. It might do him well to take a step back and dive into his striking fundamentals a bit because he basically went from a wrestler to strapping on an unorthodox karate-inspired style overnight, and while he's had some success with it, I feel like he almost skipped some substance in favor of style.
Next for Muradov: I don't think it's out of line for him to get a shot at getting into the top 15 with this win, and sitting at #15, Ian Heinisch would make for an interesting test with his high-intensity pressure and grappling.
Next for Sanchez: If Karl Roberson can stop testing positive for COVID-19, I think this would be a good next step for both men. Otherwise, Tom Breese might fit the bill.
Rodriguez upsets Ribas wtih a TKO so nice, she had to do it twice
Marina Rodriguez def. Amanda Ribas via TKO (0:54, R2)
What happened?: After being taken down and largely dominated on the ground in the opening round, Rodriguez wasted no time catching Ribas with a right hand in an exchange that faceplanted her on the canvas prompting referee Herb Dean to rush in as Ribas struggled to hold on and regain her wits. Rodriguez assumed the fight was stopped, but Dean informed her that he had not in fact stopped the fight, so she went right back to a still-stunned Ribas, and after a couple more hard shots that showed Ribas was still in a bad way, the fight was properly halted.
How did that happen?: Things went pretty swimmingly for the bubbly Ribas in the first round. After a cautious engagement on the feet that really didn't see either woman land anything of note other than a decent right hand from Rodriguez, Ribas caught her overextending on the next right hand and ducked in for a takedown attempt. Rodriguez tried to use her momentum against her and roll through the takedown, but Ribas was able to lower her hips and keep the waist lock to end up on top and prevent Rodriguez from slipping out to take her back. Once on top, Ribas frequented the can opener position to open up Rodriguez's guard, and delivered a steady stream of short shots, though Rodriguez did well to mitigate any notable damage. Rodriguez attempted to walk her legs up for triangles a couple times, but Ribas easily avoided them and maintained control.
Ribas got off to a great start in the opening round.
In round two things changed in a hurry. Ribas' repetitive head movement got her caught with a right hand within the first 15 seconds, and Rodriguez immediately landed another right over the top into the Thai clinch were Ribas fired a nice uppercut to her jaw to get her to release the hold. Rodriguez began to get a bit more aggressive, but Ribas was still the one pressuring, and she looked to stick herself into a holding pattern of taking a couple steps forward, jabbing, and taking a couple more steps forward. Rodriguez first jabbed with her, but then waited a beat after a jab, to feint one of her own and come straight down the middle with a right hand. Ribas attempted to counter the jab feint with a right hand of her own, but Rodriguez's got there first and sent her awkwardly faceplanting to the canvas trying to maintain her balance. Rodriguez jumped right on her and immediately belted her with a right uppercut that dropped her to her face again as she reached for a leg, and Ribas was left to cling to the leg while eating hammerfists. That would've been a decent place to stop it, and Dean seemed to feel the same way, which was why he ran in and stepped over the two women as if to stop the fight. However, he pulled away at the very last second, and Rodriguez had already read it as a stoppage of the fight so she got up and started to walk away with Ribas clinging to her leg. As she shook herself free and walked to the other side of the cage, Dean notified her them that he hadn't stopped the fight and they needed to continue.
Ribas, still wobbly on her feet, braced herself as Rodriguez closed in on her and grabbed a Thai clinch. Ribas tried to hip throw her out of it unsuccessfully, but still managed to grab an over-under and push Rodriguez against the cage briefly. Rodriguez then framed up Ribas' head with both of her hands and caught her with a short elbow that backed her up, and a huge right hand once again rocked her before Dean had finally seen enough. It was an emphatic upset win for Rodriguez, who few seemed to give a chance at winning here.
Other thoughts: It's difficult to say whether this was the result of overrating Ribas or underrating Rodriguez, but it's most likely a combination of both. Ribas was clearly being pushed hard because of endearing personality and recent wins, which are likely the only reasons this fight made it onto the main card. That's not to say none of that is warranted. She genuinely does have a standout personality that attracts fans, her own upset win over Mackenzie Dern made a big statement, her subsequent win over Randa Markos showed that she could perform well against a tough UFC veteran, and she got some obvious shine off of dismantling Paige VanZant in under half a round, even if the fight really didn't mean anything in terms of divisional relevance. I don't think people were necessarily seeing her as the next champion, but she definitely made some noise in the division and proved that she was worth at least some hype.
Rodriguez actually constituted a decent step up in competition, but you'd never know it from the way the fight was handicapped. Perhaps a loss to the also often-underrated Carla Esparza (and a close one at that) really dulled her prospects in some people's eyes. She did struggle with the wrestling of Esparza and Markos, who she drew with, and that was a good amount of the logic behind why Ribas was favored. It did play out that way in the opening round with Ribas able to clearly take over the round with wrestling and grappling, but in hindsight it's also good to remember that Esparza and Markos are wrestlers, and Ribas is not. She has takedowns, but she's not the type to chain attempts together or dig deep into a bag of techniques in that phase before bailing and choosing to reset and/or strike. Those prior performances I think led to Rodriguez's own abilities on the feet being a bit overlooked because Ribas hadn't really looked vulnerable on the feet, even if her past opponents are nowhere near the level of striker Rodriguez is. Ultimately, I think Ribas' abilities were a bit overvalued, while Rodriguez's were undervalued.
This win just makes Rodriguez more difficult to read, as it seems she can go from looking like a contender to looking a bit flat from fight to fight. If she really is turning a corner, it'd be nice to see her shore up her defensive wrestling, because she's been extremely effective when she can keep the fight upright and use her striking. As for Ribas, I think she'll be fine, and she immediately didn't appear to let the loss get to her. She still matches up favorably with plenty of women in the division, and she'll only tighten up her striking even more after this fight.
And I'd be rimiss if I didn't mention the stoppage. Honestly, after subsequent views I'm not as down on Dean. He rushed in because he thought it was over, but apparently saw enough to change his mind, and he halted at the last second. It's not the first time he's done it, and I can't really blame that reaction to the situations he's been in. He never actually touched Rodriguez intentionally, and if they did make contact, it was because Rodriguez saw him approaching, took it upon herself to stand up, and brushed against him on her way up. If she just kept fighting he likely would've held back enough not to make contact.
Next for Rodriguez: Michelle Waterson. She's ranked one spot ahead of Rodriguez, should entertain her in the striking, and if things get dicey she's not afraid to wrestle. If not her, then my next bet would be Claudia Gadelha, who is coming off a decision loss to Xiaonan Yan.
Next for Ribas: I think Virna Jandiroba would make for a fun match up, given the improvements Jandiroba has made to her game. She did just lose to Dern, who Ribas beat, but I think stylistically it should be a competitive scrap.
Arman Tsarukyan def. Matt Frevola via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-26)
After both fighters' opponents didn't make it to the weigh ins for very different reasons (I won't even get into the Ottman Azaitar situation), the obvious solution was to pair the two of them together. While it wasn't as compelling as either of the original match ups, especially Tsarukyan vs Nasrat Haqparast, it ended up being another impressive display by the Georgian-born Russian-Armenian (his background is as diverse as his skill set!). Frevola is always scrappy on the feet and squirrely on the ground, which makes for entertaining bouts and has netted him upsets in his previous two fights, but he really just had no answer for Tsarukyan's relentless wrestling and grappling control. He was frequently able to scramble to his feet, but Tsarukyan was always a step ahead of him to return him back on the mat or stifle a reversal. It was a nice effort from Frevola, but he was simply outmatched here. Tsarukyan is now 3-1 in the UFC, and he's looked impressive in all four of his fights, even his exciting decision loss to the highly regarded Islam Makachev, which was closer than anyone thought it would be. Lightweight is the most stacked division in the sport, and the fact that Tsarukyan isn't even ranked is a clear indicator of that.
Brad Tavares def. Antonio Carlos Junior via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
In what was easily one of his best performances to date, Tavares showed veteran poise and composure, sharp striking, and incredible takedown defense in a clear-cut decision win over Carlos Junior. The Brazilian got in deep on several takedown attempts, but Tavares displayed excellent balance, sturdy hips, and exemplary technique in fending them off. He defended 11 of 12 attempts, and the one time he was taken down in round two, he worked his way back to his feet before Carlos Junior was able to do anything with it. It was a very promising performance for Tavares, who snapped a two-fight losing streak and was coming off over a year away from the octagon. At this point he sort of is who he is as a fighter, but he's still a solid mid-level gatekeeper.
Julianna Pena def. Sara McMann by submission via rear-naked-choke (3:39, R3)
I pretty much distilled this fight down to a contest between two fighters who have a tendency to self-destruct mid-fight, and it was a race to the bottom to see who did it first. McMann won that race, and it's not at all surprising. Both women have those self-destructive tendencies, but in pretty different ways. McMann has the more dangerous version of it, because she tends to freak out and lose her drive when she's made to be uncomfortable. If you survive what she throws your way and put her in a bad spot, it's almost as if she mentally resigns and is no longer interested in fighting hard to improve her situation. Pena is mostly the opposite; she remains mentally strong and determined, but if she gets a bit tired, her already shaky tactical game just gets worse, and she's that much more likely to inexplicably forget about submission defense.
The fight was fairly typical of both women: McMann started out well, outlanding Pena from distance before taking her down a couple times and establishing some strong control. Then round two happened, if if you're not thrown off by McMann's offense at that point, it's almost as if she becomes discouraged. Pena came alive like she usually does in the middle stanza, giving up a takedown, but threatening with a tight guillotine and constantly looking for triangles while landing shots from the bottom, which is the kind of activity second-round McMann really doesn't want to be bothered with. Once Pena made her way to her feet, the dynamic had clearly shifted and she was able to get to McMann on the feet for the remainder of the round. She carried that momentum into the third, and hit a nice trip against the cage right into side control. At that point it was clear to see that this was disastrous for McMann, and it was a matter of time before Pena managed to get both hooks in get her arm under McMann's neck, and elicit the tap.
If it's past the first round McMann is in a bad spot, it's almost a guarantee that she's not winning the fight because by then she's lost all her resolve. Similar to McGregor, she's a frontrunner in that way. The main difference though is that she's nowhere near as dangerous, so she basically has to count on her opponent not having any meaningful success past the first round. If they gain momentum past that point, it's an uphill battle for her mentally that does a real number on her physically, because it's mind boggling how much she gets outworked in wresting and grappling exchanges when she's an Olympic silver medalist. As for Pena, her whole career has been defined by the grind, and this was no different. Following the win she called out the champion Amanda Nunes, who she then (in true Pena form) accused of ducking her for dismissing it. Perhaps if she was on a win streak or appeared to have any chance whatsoever of beating Nunes, someone would take her call out seriously.
Marcin Prachnio def. Khalil Rountree Jr. via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Prachnio sported a new beard and a new attitude, as he used an ever-increasing volume attack to outwork Rountree. He constantly used feints, which really seemed to throw off Rountree, who is mostly a single-strike fighter at range. The two of them threw serious leather when in the pocket, but only Prachnio would throw in combination when they were at range. Roundtree sought to counter him, but never really could land that big shot that Prachnio's previous three UFC opponents did. As we've seen in Rountree fights, the passage of time yields diminishing returns for him. Although he was able to badly wobble Prachnio with a nice check right hook in the second round, he was unable to finish him, and had slowed dramatically by the final round.
Prachnio's win wasn't without its difficulties.
Prachnio only brought a more furious pace, which forced Rountree to up his in order to keep up, and led to his strikes just being more labored and missing their mark for a paltry 20% accuracy rate. I think most people expected Prachnio to catch a fourth-straight first round knockout loss and a pink slip, but it looks like he's drawn on some legendary Polish power himself, and we'll see how he does from here.
Movsar Evloev def. Nik Lentz via split-decision (28-29, 29-28, 29-28)
This turned out to be Lentz's last pro fight (at least for now, because you know MMA), as he retired following the loss, stating he'd lost 40% of his vision from an eye injury prior to the fight, and he just can't compete with that handicap. You have to give Lentz his props for his longevity in the UFC, his toughness, and his frequent reinventions of his style; even if he usually ends up focusing on a new area at the expense of an old one. Here he was predictably outgunned, but he was at least able to make it a fun, scrappy affair. The opening round was close, with Lentz scoring a bit on the feet early before getting in on an extremely tight guillotine that saw him reverse to top position. It looked like Evloev was close to succumbing, but he stayed calm and waited it out. Soon after he would sacrifice throw Lentz to the mat and settle into guard, where he was threatened with yet another guillotine, but this one didn't put him in any immediate danger like the first. This was a round that most gave to Lentz for his work on the bottom, though I personally gave the round to Evloev on the strength of his wrestling and ground and pound, while the first guillotine scare was really the only significant thing Lentz did.
Lentz looked a bit slower from that point on, which was understandable considering how much squeezing he did on the guillotine, but it didn't stop him from going back to it a couple more times in the second round. However, from the second round you could see where the momentum was headed in the fight, with Evloev being the better wrestler and that slicker striker on the feet. In round three he was especially dominant, almost doubling his output and really putting on Lentz exchanges, bloodying him up and outlanding him 47-to-19 in significant strikes. It was a crystal clear decision for Evloev in the eyes of everyone but judge Eric Colon, who somehow scored round two for Lentz...despite him being clearly outlanded and everything else being mostly a wash. Maybe he really likes guillotines.
Amir Albazi def. Zhalgas Zhumagulov via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
We opened the night with a fun scrap where Zhumagulov started off quickly to some good success, but over time Albazi found his timing and used his jab to disrupt Zhumagulov's big power shots, and sealed it in the final round with a takedown that kept him on top for most of the round. Once Zhumagulov made it to his feet, he fought the way you want to see someone who is down on the scorecards fight: he pressured hard and threw everything he could at Albazi. Unfortunately for him, he was unable to cut Albazi off and land anything of note, and he couldn't do enough to pull the fight back into his favor.
And that's it for UFC 257! I'm sure the MMA community will be reeling from the main and co-main event results, and the chaos that is the top of the lightweight division right now, which is probably part of the reason why we're getting next week off. This was one to let marinate for a bit, and not to mention the fact that we coming off the third event in an eight-day stretch. It's been a solid week of fights, and we'll pick things back up in two weeks when Alistair Overeem and Alexander Volkov clash on February 6. Until then, sado out!