Greetings, fight fans, and what an event UFC 261 was!
A card that was understandably top-heavy considering it had three title fights ended up not just delivering great action up and down the card, but also providing some genuinely shocking moments, and it was just an insane roller coaster ride of a night of fights. While welterweight and women's flyweight continue to be ruled by iron fists, strawweight sees a return to the throne of a familiar face in even more devastating fashion than she won the title the first time. On a more somber note, a once dominant former champion suffered a potentially career-ending injury that unsettlingly hearkened back to his time on top. Lots to unpack here, so let's get down to what the hell happened!
The Main Card
Usman makes good on his word, knocks Masvidal out in rematch
Kamaru Usman (C) def. Jorge Masvidal (No. 4) via KO (1:02, R2)
Honestly one of the hardest shots I've seen someone take. Usman punched THROUGH him https://t.co/vFTieER68d— caposa (@Grabaka_Hitman) April 25, 2021
What happened?: After showing off some improved striking and a bit of top control in the opening round, Usman uncorked a picture-perfect straight right hand that flattened Masvidal in round two before putting him away properly with hammerfists on the ground.
How did that happen?: Masvidal showed little respect for Usman's striking, and he really should have; not just in hindsight, but also because of what he was able to do in his last defense against Gilbert Burns. Usman came out working his jab while Masvidal was more patient this time around, feinting and throwing low kicks rather than trying to rush the knockout before his cardio ran out. Usman found a home for his right hand early, but Masvidal ate them well. After a Masvidal jumping knee came up short he walked right into an Usman body lock and was lifted up and slammed to the mat. After a brief scramble Usman was able to settle into the guard, where Masvidal refused to be content, going to work with elbows from the bottom. Masvidal just continued to stay heavy on top before eventually getting to his feet and separating. More right hands and stiff jabs landed for Usman, while Masvidal continued landing low kicks as well as finding some counters in exchanges.
Despite the finish, Usman showed he can still outwrestle Masvidal when he wants to.
Masvidal opened up the second round with several low kicks, but a throw-away left hook from Usman wrangled him into a massive straight right hand that pretty much put him out immediately, likely jolted back to semi-consciousness when he crashed to the canvas. It wouldn't be for long though, as Usman pounced on him and fully removed him from consciousness with a torrent of hammerfists to deliver "Gamebred" his first-ever clean knockout loss. Masvidal is certainly no stranger to being defensively irresponsible, and he certainly was doing just that when he got caught, but Usman also nuked him with a perfect right hand on the button, and that was the prize he won for being overconfident in the stand up exchanges. This was just the type of emphatic win Usman needed to gain some of the respect that for whatever reason seems to be hard for him to come by.
Street Jesus with a halo of impact sweat. So much liquid you could call it a baptism!
Other thoughts: Usman is a scary man made even scarier by the fact that he's still improving. The move to Grudge Training Center under Trevor Wittman has thus far proven to pay massive dividends, and it really seems as if he's very much in tune with what he needs to do to be the best he can be. Henri Hooft did great things with him, but he had the clarity of mind and self awareness to realize that he'd probably gone as far as he could go with Hooft, who creates skilled strikers, but isn't exactly a strategic dynamo. Wittman fills that void and appears to be showing Usman what to do stratetgically with the striking he's developed in ways that Hooft hasn't really done with any of his understudies. Usman is using his jab more, going to the body to open up the head, and although he did get sloppy with a few overhand rights, he definitely trusts in his power and timing a lot more now. He's long been known as a cerebral but very stiff striker, and he's looked increasingly more comfortable on the feet in his last couple fights. It was a far, far cry from how uncomfortable he looked against Masvidal standing the first time around. The more time passes, the harder it is becoming to see just who can beat Usman at 170.
I've been vocal about how much I disliked this fight. I get that Masvidal really did the UFC a solid filling in on six days' notice to fight Usman the first time, and that they no doubt wanted a notable name at the top of their first card since the pandemic started with a full crowd; but there are several fighters who were more deserving of this fight than Masvidal. More power to him for riding his record-breaking knockout of Ben Askren to stardom, but even prior to that he essentially conned a lot of people into really believing he had become a new fighter and was an elite welterweight. In reality he's very much the same fighter he's been most of his career except he just decided to get more aggressive and trust in his power and athleticism. Most of the same liabilities that have plagued his career like his tendency to allow himself to be backed into the cage and his overall willingness to accept the fight his opponent brings, perhaps out of some misplaced bravado, still remain. Really the only major thing he fixed was his tendency to let fights slip away by not pushing the pace enough. And as far as winning his way to title shots, the Darren Till win was probably the only one that was really worth mentioning, and there's no good reason for him to be ranked #4 at welterweight. With this loss he'll probably be forced to the back of the line, where he honestly should've been for a while so he can show where he actually belongs in the division.
It's hard not to feel like this fight result was another example of broadcast jinxing. You know the phenomenon: when one or more commentators on assignment repeatedly mention that a certain thing has never happened before, only for it to happen. This was Joe Rogan and his incessant mentioning of how Masvidal had never been knocked out, and we'd never even seen him in trouble or hurt in the UFC. For one thing, it isn't all true. He's been stopped once before by strikes in Sengoku by Rodrigo Damm, but anyone who's seen that fight will tell you that it was a very early stoppage despite him being legitmately dropped in an eerily similar manner to this fight.
Rodrigo Damm showed the way https://t.co/Ew8kGR7Kcc— caposa (@Grabaka_Hitman) April 25, 2021
Bad stoppage or not, Wittman must've gone DEEP into the tape archive.
The egregious untruth is the latter statement, because it's practically a meme among fight analysts that Masvidal has gotten dropped so much in the UFC for someone who's such a durable and skilled striker. Prior to his current "Street Jesus" run, Masvidal frequently got dropped or rocked by inferior strikers on paper; he was even dropped by Michael Chiesa back when he had nothing resembling competent striking. Still, the pure insistence of Rogan's comments would lead some to believe that Masvidal was some titanium-chinned fighter who would just walk through everything like a prime BJ Penn. But even through all that, the fact of the matter was that we'd never seen Masvidal legitimately knocked out, and it was even more surreal seeing it here than it was seeing Conor McGregor laid out on the canvas for the first time after Dustin Poirier put him away in their rematch (or should I say part two of their trilogy?). Undeserved title shots and rankings aside, Masvidal has undoubtedly done well for himself, and it's always good to see someone rise from nothing to stardom.
Next for Usman: It seems crystal clear that they're setting him up for another rematch, this time against Colby Covington, the first man he defended the strap against. I'm not opposed to this rematch, but honestly with how avoided he's been in the division (even by Covington), I wouldn't have balked if they decided to give Stephen Thompson a title shot. It now looks like he's slated to take on Gilbert Burns in July in what will surely be a path to another title shot. Another option would be Leon Edwards should he get by Nate Diaz, but we know just how supportive the UFC has been of his title aspirations.
Next for Masivdal: Edwards if he does lose to Diaz, because there's really no need for a Masvidal vs Diaz 2. Otherwise I think he should probably fight Neil Magny to get a real feel for where he belongs, because there's a very solid chance it's not in the top 5.
Namajunas flattens Zhang with quick head kick to reclaim gold
Rose Namajunas (No. 1) def. Weili Zhang (C) via KO (1:18, R1)
The most beautiful thing about Rose's headkick is that it comes inside the guard of Zhang. Such perfect timing.— Sweet Punch Memories (@SweetPmemories) April 25, 2021
Zhang on the other side saw it coming as an inside leg kick (hips movement pull back)
Beautiful. #UFC261 pic.twitter.com/0uL4GdNAU8
What happened?: Not a ton happened in the abbreviated contest, but for the time it did last, Zhang did pretty well and Namajunas stayed patient on the outside. Seemingly out of nowhere, Namajunas fired a tight lead leg high kick that caught Zhang right on the jaw and sent her to the mat in a heap. She sat up immediately, but Namajunas dove on her and landed punches until she was put away properly.
How did that happen?: To start things off, Zhang worked inside low kicks early as Rose used lateral movement and quick shifts to try and find angles. Zhang was handling it pretty well, catching her with low kicks and jabs coming in, while Namajunas really hadn't landed anything of note. Suddenly, Namajunas stepped into a lead high kick that slipped right between Zhang's guard and caught her on the button. Follow up shots netted the finish, and although Zhang protested the stoppage, there was no question that she was out. A quick, but brilliant performance by "Thug" Rose.
Other thoughts: It appears talk of the Zhang superfight with flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko were premature, as Namajunas ensured that won't be happening anytime soon. I guess the other shoe was bound to drop for Zhang at some point; despite how dominant she was in her own quick stoppage win over Jessica Andrade to capture the title, and how impressively resilient and ravenous she was in her war of a title defense over Joanna Jedrzejczyk, she's still a developing fighter who lacks a lot of finesse on the feet, and hasn't built much of her success off of exemplary striking defense or strategy. She is a quick, hard-hitting, physically strong specimen, and although she certainly does have solid technique, she often does get away with a lot via being the bigger, stronger, quicker, tougher athlete. As Namajunas proved, sometimes there's just no accounting for poor defense.
When Namajunas stepped forward to throw the kick, Zhang reacted as if an inside low kick was coming by sliding her own lead leg out of the way. This was a totally cold read since Rose hadn't thrown any low kicks up to that point. In sliding her leg back, she found herself completely stationary, head bolt-upright and on the centerline, and her guard wide open. While it's overall impressive that Rose threw and landed a perfect high kick through the middle of Zhang's guard, she wasn't exactly threading a needle there since Zhang's hands where nowhere near her face. Zhang is an aggressive counter puncher by trade, and looks to draw out opportunities to land counter left hooks; but even in pressuring, it's important not to act hastily on assumptions of what your opponent is doing before you recognize patterns and make reads. There were ways Zhang could have anticipated an inside low kick coming without leaving herself wide open defensively, but the way she reacted meant she really didn't prepare for the possibility that any other attack was coming her way, even though there was no precedent for the strike in the fight. It's a lesson she learned the hard way, and one that I'm sure will lead to her fighting smarter defensively next time out; so while it's unfortunate and devastating for her, it could lead to a better fighter in the near future that has a much better chance of becoming champion again.
Lastly, can we possibly do away with "Thug" Rose? Not necessarily the nickname itself, but the persona; at least a bit. She's never really personified it, and at least at one point wasn't a fan of the nickname. My biggest gripe, and I dunno if the name choice has anything to do with it, is that she very much presents a stern, stoic vibe. She's got the stone-cold killer stare, she calmly chants to herself, and really tries to pull off this unflappable, Fedor-esque vibe. She's not unflappable or Fedor-esque. She exhibits very anxious behavior at times, she gets emotional and makes rash decisions, she goes crazy celebrating and crying when she wins; and then you see these moments where it's almost as if she remembers that she's supposed to embody this steely persona who isn't affected by things, and does a 180. It really makes the "Thug" persona seem disingenuous, and I think it'd be a more endearing character if she didn't obviously bottle things up because of what she feels she's supposed to be. Even after this title win, she jumped around and screamed jubilantly, and then it was as if she caught herself and rememered her "brand." Now obviously some of this centering of her energy likely has a positive effect on her mentality in the cage, and I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to distance yourself from your emotions during a fight, but it seems like she tries to be that person 24/7 when she's clearly not. I mean of course I'm just some dude; she has no reason to listen to me. It just strikes me as odd every time I see it.
Next for Namajunas: The winner of Carla Esparza vs Xiaonan Yan. That seems as good a title eliminator as any. I wouldn't be surprised if the UFC pushed for an immediate rematch, but I think this is the right fight to make.
Next for Zhang: She could fight the loser of the aforementioned fight, or Mackenzie Dern.
Shevchenko ragdolls and finishes Andrade, apparently just to prove a point
Valentina Shevchenko (C) def. Jessica Andrade (No. 1) via TKO (3:19, R2)
What happened?: It was wholesale domination for Shevchenko. Andrade proved early on not to have an answer for her distance management, but not even that mattered, because Shevchenko decided to silence all the naysayers who said Andrade had a wrestling advantage by taking her down at will before securing a topside crucifix and elbowing her until the referee had seen enough.
How did that happen?: It wasn't even a contest. Shevchenko is one of the best, if not the best distance manager in the game; she kept Andrade at her range with kicks, and as soon as Andrade tried to close the distance with her usual sweeping hooks, she ate a tight counter right hook for her troubles, followed by a crisp 1-2. The champion then changed levels, grabbed a body lock, and whipped Andrade to the ground rather easily. Andrade made it to her feet a few times, but would just get dragged right back down before Shevchenko chose to separate. A stiff 2-1 followed by another jab landed for Shevchenko, and after a bit of clinching, she tripped Andrade to the ground once more and into half guard. She grabbed a rear naked choke as Andrade turned to her side, but couldn't get all the way to her back even though the choke did appear tight. Andrade managed to get back to her feet but once again found herself tripped to the mat, where Shevchenko managed to pass to side control before the horn.
Valentina circled to her left then changed directions as she feints the lead hook (to drop Andrade's lead hand) and take the outside lead foot position to land the left hand and exits safely with the jab behind it. Beautiful pic.twitter.com/dyfSnOhHRs— Sweet Punch Memories (@SweetPmemories) April 25, 2021
That Valentina, she's pretty good.
Shevchenko started round two with a clean check right hook, and ate a glancing one in return. She then wasted no time closing the distance to grab a waist lock and tripped Andrade to the mat and into side control once more. Andrade did well to get to half guard and stand up to attempt her patented power high crotch lift, but Shevcheko just dead-weighted her and she couldn't even get close. Right on cue, Shevchenko then grabbed the body lock and outside tripped her to the mat yet again. From there she stepped into a mounted crucifix position and rained down punches, and then elbows that busted Andrade open. After turning up the volume on the elbows, it was clear Andrade had nowhere to go with too much time left on the clock, and the fight was mercifully halted. Utter dominance for the champ.
Other thoughts: By no means is it a hot take to say I thought Shevchenko would win this fight; she's clearly head and shoulders above everyone else in the division. However, if you asked me how the fight would look, I definitely wouldn't have imagined this. And it's not that I didn't think Shevchenko could work her wrestling and grappling. It was mentioned on commentary that Andrade had the perceived wrestling advantage on paper, and I just never believed that. Andrade also apparently said that her plan was to get the fight into the clinch where she'd take over. However, she's not a notably good wrestler, clinch fighter, or grappler; she's just very strong. Shevchenko may only exhibit a limited bag of tricks with wrestling, but she does those tricks extremely well and more often than not (7-of-7 times in this case) they work. Andrade just grabs a single leg and tries to high crotch lift and dump opponents with brute force; other than that she really has little in the way of wrestling. Her clinch work has been exploited by Angela Hill and in her title loss to Zhang, while her grappling has been exploited at 135 lbs not just because she was a smaller woman, but because she was technically overmatched and couldn't power her way out of situations.
I had no reason to believe anything related to "getting her hands on" Shevchenko would be her key to victory. What did give me a slight bit of pause was in just how much Shevchenko's distance management might crack against an opponent who pressures as relentlessly as Andrade with little worry about taking shots coming in. I saw it compared to Julianna Pena, who managed to bulldoze her way in to get takedowns against Shevchenko. I thought there was a chance Andrade could do the same thing to land punches and at least make things interesting. But alas, Shevchenko shut her down in every way possible.
It's not even fair anymore for the rest of the division. It's getting to the point where the UFC needs to start booking her in handicap matches against two women to even out the scales a bit. In my opinion if Andrade couldn't make something happen the division was effectively cleaned out, and she not only couldn't make something happen, she was made to look like she had no business even being in the division. Shevchenko is too good, and much like her rival and ruler of both women's bantamweight and featherweight, Amanada Nunes, it's tough to see who else can offer a remotely interesting fight.
Next for Shevchenko: The winner of Lauren Murphy vs Joanne Calderwood, though it really doesn't matter who it is. Neither one of them seem equipped to give her much trouble. Otherwise there's always a third match up against Nunes, the only woman who has had anything for her.
Next for Andrade: Assuming she stays in the division, she could fight the loser of Murphy vs Calderwood or winner of Jennifer Maia vs Jessica Eye.
In a cruel twist of irony, Weidman breaks his leg low kicking Hall
Uriah Hall (No. 9) def. Chris Weidman (No. 11) via TKO (0:17, R1)
Yeah if you want to see it in action, look elsewhere. I'm not showing it.
What happened?: Literally the first strike landed in the fight, a hard low kick by Weidman, ended up being the last, as his shin snapped on impact and bent grotesquely as he went to step back on it.
How did that happen?: As pointed out on the broadcast, Weidman kicked Hall right below the knee, the hardest part of the leg to strike. Hall didn't even really check the kick, but instead planted his leg, so the lack of give and the placement, angle, and power of the kick was just so that it led to the unfortunate injury.
Other thoughts: Of course the aforementioned irony is that this was the same injury Anderson Silva suffered against Weidman in their rematch at UFC 168. Overall it just adds another odd connection the trio share; Weidman was the first man to defeat Silva while Hall was the last, and the way Weidman defeated both Hall and Silva in their initial fights with long left hooks as they moved to their right was eerily similar. All in all you just hate to see this sort of thing. Those that know me know I've been a Weidman fan for ages, and I hated seeing that happen to Anderson; obviously I hate it a bit more seeing it happen to Weidman. I think it's a bit more tragic this time around because while Silva had an illustrious career prior to the injury that was winding down, Weidman has had a career plagued by injuries and just plain unfortunate luck, and a resurgence seems nigh impossible even if he does manage to continue fighting. It was clear he trained hard for this fight and was highly motivated, and from all accounts he looked great in the gym leading up to the fight, but it ended horribly as soon as it started. It comes with the territory because it's the fight game, but again, you really hate to see it happen. I feel for him and his family, but his surgery apparently did go well. While I wish for a speedy recovery, I know it won't be and there's a lot of long, hard work before he can even seriously consider returning.
Obviously most of the attention is on Weidman here for good reason, but you have to feel a bit for Hall too. He didn't want to win this way, I'm sure he feels horrible about what happened, and it all happened so quickly he has to also have a feeling that nothing was resolved in any sense tonight. He was a class act in victory, and I think he showed a lot of maturity not just in the way he addressed it all live, but just in his ability to compose himself, which is something I think he really had issues doing for most of his UFC run. I'm not sure how much his move to Fortis MMA contributed to that overall mental change, but it definitely seems to have embedded more focus into his game and turned him into a fighter who himself could be having a bit of a late-career resurgence.
Update: You know, I facetiously thought that maybe this was part of some weird leg injury curse and that Hall better watch out in his future fights...but former Silva opponent Patrick Cote may have just confirmed it.
Sorry but I think I did start this leg injury curse chain .... Wallace vs Côté , Côté vs Silva, Silva vs Weidman, Weidman vs Hall ... if I’m Hall I don’t feel safe ... #UFC261 pic.twitter.com/mZTEMjQ4Yb— patrick cote (@patrick_cote) April 25, 2021
Next for Hall: I imagine he'll want to get out there pretty soon, but there really isn't anyone for him to jump in with immediately who is near his ranking. I say he fights the winner or loser of Jack Hermansson vs Edmen Shabazyan, depending on how the fight plays out. That fight is next month so he may not have to wait too long.
Next for Weidman: Lots of recovery, potentially an early retirement. Hopefully he can make it back to some semblance of the fighter he used to be, but otherwise it doesn't make sense to speculate what's next for him. I just hope he can get back to good health relatively quickly.
And he's still my boy!
Smith low kick dead-legs Crute to a doctor stoppage win
Anthony Smith (No. 6) def. Jimmy Crute (No. 13) via TKO (5:00, R1)
What happened?: The dreaded 'foot drop' struck again! This time the victim was Crute, and although he'd landed several good low kicks prior, it took only a single well-placed one from Smith to in a roundabout way end the fight. Crute survived until the end of the first round, but the continually compromised state of his leg led to the fight being called just before the start of round two.
How did that happen?: It was shaping up to be an interesting scrap before the finish. Smith diligently worked his jab, which is something he never really committed to doing before, and it worked out rather well with his considerable range and snappy technique. He stunned Crute early with one, and landed them frequently throughout the round. Crute responded with hard low kicks that actually did appear to do some damage and get Smith's attention. After a couple back-and-forth exchanges, Smith landed a two low kicks in succession, the second of which sent Crute awkwardly stumbling down as he stepped back on it. Crute responded by popping up and immediately securing a takedown. Smith managed to stand, but Crute grabbed a rear waist lock and just dragged him back to the ground, and after standing again he was returned to the mat in the center of the cage. At the conclusion of the round, Crute showed the nerve damage effects we've became all too familiar with given the rise in popularity of calf kicks in MMA. He could barely put weight on his foot without his ankle awkwardly rolling, and after standing up to start the round, being asked to walk in a line by the cageside physician, and rolling it again, it was decided that the fight needed to be called then and there.
Sucks to fail a foot sobriety test in front of all those people.
Other thoughts: It was an anticlimactic stoppage, but Smith did look pretty solid through most of the round in working his jab. However, even though Crute's foot was clearly very compromised, I wasn't 100% on board with the stoppage because he still managed to land all three of his takedown attempts after his leg was already damaged. Smith historically doesn't have very good takedown defense and we'd seen before that someone can recover from drop foot mid-fight when Henry Cejudo overcame it in the first of five rounds he fought to capture the flyweight championship from Demetrious Johnson. I don't think it would've been unreasonable to see what Crute could've accomplished in the second round, and of course the referee would keep a close eye on him and stop the fight at an indication that he was just too damaged to continue.
Smith's jab was on point.
To me this is actually a very similar situation as Michael Chandler's title loss to Brent Primus, where he also suffered the same effects of the nerve damage but managed to land takedowns on compete well with Primus despite it, only for the fight to be stopped between rounds when it was demonstrated that his leg was still compromised. I can't say for sure that Crute couldn't have just gotten another takedown and managed to hang out until his leg was good enough to fight on again, so I wasn't the biggest fan of the stoppage. Either way, it was still a solid performance from Smith, who finds himself on a bit of a possible resurgence at light heavyweight.
But he still got outwrestled by a one-legged man.
Next for Smith: The winner of Dominick Reyes vs Jiri Prochazka makes sense, as would Magomed Ankalaev.
Next for Crute: The winner of Ovince St. Preux vs Maxim Grishin.
Randy Brown def. Alex Oliveira by submission via rear-naked choke (2:50, R1)
It's a shame that there was so much insanity tonight that it took some shine of "Rude Boy's" stellar performance that ended in a rare one-armed rear naked choke. Brown started out the fight focusing on kicks make use of his considerable size and reach advantage, but it was Oliveira's low kicks in return that started to give Brown issues and managed to buckle him. From there he switched gears and countered a low kick with a right hand, and another right hand shortly after dropped Oliveira hard against the cage. He started to recover fairly quickly and threw his legs up to defend against the follow up strikes, but Brown managed to stay on top of him and looked to pass to mount. As Oliveira turned to attempt to get back to his feet, Brown secured a 3/4 mount while working his way to the back, and kept working for that position once Oliveira did get to his feet. While the two were tangled against the cage, Brown wrapped his left arm around Oliveira's neck, relinquished his one hook to step around and fully take Oliveira's back, then he secured a hook on the opposite side to pull Oliveira's base from underneath him and fall backward against the cage, where Oliveira was quickly forced to tap. He did all of this while Oliveira worked a two-on-one grip to prevent Brown from having a free arm to finish the choke, but it turned out he only needed one. Very impressive stuff from Brown, who is really starting to come together as a solid gatekeeper at welterweight.
Dwight Grant def. Stefan Sekulic via split-decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
My initial reaction to this decision was pretty unfavorable, but I think it's less egregious the more time I have to process it. The clearest round of the fight was definitely the third, where Grant landed his only takedown of the fight, only to quickly back out and stand up before doing anything effective, only to eventually be badly rocked by a Sekulic right hand, taken down, and saved by the bell while caught in a very tight guillotine that he showed no signs of escaping. Sekulic left no doubt in anyone's mind that he won that round, but the first two were iffy just because there really wasn't a ton to go off of. Grant pressured the entire time and threw lots of volume, which the judges surely did factor in given the fact that not a whole hell of a lot of note happened on the feet. Grant was definitely landing more, and outstruck Sekulic in every round, but the stats belie how uneventful the striking exchanges actually were. Sekulic landed takedowns in the first two rounds as well but really did nothing with them, so while I understand the impulse to give him those closer rounds based on late takedowns, they arguably didn't negate the fact that while it was close and uneventful, Grant was edging out the stand up, dictating the fight, and throwing a lot more offense. In the end I can't really call it a robbery, because sometimes things are going to vary when the judges simply don't have a ton to go off of. That said, Chris Lee is still a bad judge, and when I heard his name as the deciding factor I had a feeling it was going the opposite of how most people saw it.
The fight did have its moments though.
Brendan Allen def. Karl Roberson by submission via heel hook (4:55, R1)
In another impressive performance that was overshadowed by the abundance of quality action on the card, Allen showed some promising improvements in his striking while Roberson displayed a lot of the same disappointing choices that have turned him from a promising middleweight prospect to an inconsistent, up-and-down fighter. For the time the fight took place on the feet, Allen looked more comfortable striking and his technique has noticeably cleaned up to the point that he doesn't look like a fighter that urgently needs to get the fight to the ground before bad things happen to him. What was on paper a marked striking advantage for Roberson ended up being a fairly even stand up battle until Allen managed a body lock takedown and stepped into the leg-trap mount popularized by Khabib Nurmagomedov. As Roberson scrambled to his feet, he was quickly tripped with an outside sweep and found himself in half guard. He impressively exploded into a leg lock sweep, but rather than use the opportunity to kick away and get back to his feet, he actually tried to hunt for the submission, which landed him in the 50/50 position with a much better grappler. Allen crossed his feet, which pretty much kept him safe from a leg attack, but it didn't deter Roberson from trying, and meanwhile Allen found a deep ankle lock and wrenched it until Roberson had to take a break from his fruitless search for a leg lock to yell out in pain and tap. Great stuff from Allen, and the very opposite of inspiring from Roberson, who has a lot of tools to be better but lackluster fight IQ and poor ground defense tend to do him in more often than not these days.
Patrick Sabatini def. Tristan Connelly via unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)
He didn't light the world on fire with his debut, but Sabatini managed to take this one clearly through workmanlike means. Connelly was aggressive from start to finish, and it got him in trouble immediately when Sabatini slipped under a punch and cracked him with a right hand that dropped him to the mat, where he would stay the entire round defending while Sabatini was on his back with body triangle secured. Connelly's aggression got him into trouble once again in round two, where Sabatini managed to time a level change again, this time to land an easy double leg takedown. The rest of the round again would play out on the ground with Connelly on the defensive, even having to work his way out of a slick banana split at one point when he tried to stand with Sabatini on his back. Connelly actually proved to be the fresher man in the final round, as he continued his high pressure approach while Sabatini seemed to look to circle on the outside and coast. He spent a lot of the round chasing Sabatini rather than exhibiting good cage-cutting footwork, but he was still able to stuff every takedown and even land an outside trip of his own late in the round. However, that takedown pretty much killed any chance of winning the fight since he needed a finish.
Danaa Batgerel def. Kevin Natividad via TKO (0:50, R1)
Batgerel may be someone to look out for in the bantamweight division; he's an exciting fighter with a knack for counters and power in his hands. Only 50 seconds in, Batgerel launched a tight front kick up the middle that switched him southpaw and glanced Natividad's jaw, followed by a right hand to the temple that prompted Natividad to rush in on him. Then while retreating backward and switching back to orthodox, he landed a check left hook right on the money that dropped Natividad hard. It looked effortless, but that's not an easy thing to do. Natividad tried to grab a leg but a right hand put him down again, and a couple hammerfists had the referee feverishly diving in to stop the action.
Kazula Vargas def. Rong Zhu via unanimous decision (30-26, 29-28, 29-28)
In the last of the disappointing trio of Chinese upstarts, the now-youngest fighter on the UFC roster struggled to get going in the early going of his UFC debut. Much of his difficulty in the opening round seemed to be that he just wasn't throwing enough or with much diversity. He spent the round mostly headhunting while Vargas was the busier more dynamic striker, racking up points with strikes to the legs and body as well, including calf kicks that definitely got Rong's attention. Round two was much closer and mostly controlled by Rong, but he spent a significant amount of time caught in a tight guillotine that gave Vargas the edge. The final round was relatively close, but Rong opened up a lot more and began to stun Vargas with right hands, including a nice counter that dropped him to a knee briefly. Vargas started to land his jab frequently as the round went on, but Rong punctuated the action with a nice takedown that looked to be stuffed, but he smoothly rolled through to end up on top, where he landed some ground and pound before the horn. All in all it was a relatively close fight, but it didn't go Rong's way and showed that while he's pretty composed he still has a ways to go. He was too tentative early, and he really relied on looking to his corner for instruction far too often, to the point that it prevented him from consistently attacking at times. At just 21 years of age however, he's got nothing but time.
Jeffrey Molina def. Aori Qheng via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-27)
If Rong started slow and took a couple rounds to get going, it might have been in response to his countryman Aori starting out hot and losing steam down the stretch. Oddly it wasn't a case of a fighter just gassing late; his cardio held up quite well and he upped his output in each round. Instead, his defense and depth of offense got shallower and shallower while Molina only got better with his boxing as the fight progressed. Aori had Molina mostly backing up during the round, and though the striking numbers were close, Aori definitely landed with more power and hit a high amplitude takedown to put the round firmly in his favor. Round two was also pretty close, but with much more action, and it was essentially one moment that lost Aori the round and the fight, where a bit of recklessness got him dropped by a counter straight right as he threw a lazy front kick with seconds left on the clock. It appeared that he got lackadaisical since he knew the round was ending, and he paid for it. The third round was even more insane than the previous two, and although Aori immediately started off well, it was as if his defensive switch just flipped off, and he completely stopped moving his head, essentially leaving himself as a sitting duck for every other shot Molina threw. He definitely landed himself, but he would eat multiple shots for everyone one he landed, and just got badly boxed up in the round. Molina landed a whopping 127-of-220 significant strikes in the round to Aori's 57-to-125. Both men were impressive in their own right, as evidenced by the fight rightfully earning their Fight of the Night honors; but Molina's composure, volume, and technical proficiency down the stretch was the most laudable aspect of the either performance.
This one moment essentially lost Aori the fight.
Ariane Carnelossi def. Liang Na via TKO (1:28, R2)
The live crowd exploded for the first fight of the night in a release of jubilation from finally being allowed to attend UFC cards, but the fight itself was certainly something to rave about as well. It certainly wasn't the most technical bout, but it was definitely one of the most action-packed fights in recent memory. Liang immediately landed a big right hand that dropped Carnelossi to a knee, and that spurned a brawl in the clinch that saw Liang trip her to the mat and nearly get swept immediately. In her losing effort Liang showed a lot of positive traits, such as her strength and great balance on the ground, where she was able to float along with Carnelossi to remain on top. Once the Brazilian did manage to escape out the backdoor, the women engaged in a wild, back-and-forth grappling battle that saw both women going for armbars they clearly didn't have before Liang actually did lock on a tight one.
The night started off with an insane pace.
In a sign that fatigue might have been starting to take it's toll even just a couple minutes into the fight, Carnelossi essentially was able to just pull her arm out of it, and after some wild scrambles, the round ended with her landing big punches while Liang covered up and tried to grab a single. The combination of the punches and the fatigue left Liang slow to rise, and she had to be helped to her corner between rounds. Still exhausted in round two, Liang still managed to run into the clinch and land a hip toss, but Carnelossi just escaped out the back and eventually took top position, undoubtedly spurned by how tired Liang was. She proceeded to land punches from on top until the referee stopped the fight. The stoppage did seem early in that Liang wasn't eating a ton of damage, but she was so exhausted that she was pretty much done, so I can't balk at the stoppage in that regard.
And that does it for UFC 261, which seemed to have a bit of everything, for better or for worse (but mostly for better). The UFC's China expansion took a big hit with Chinese fighters going 0-4 on the night. The opening three seemed clearly brought in to ride the wave of the UFC's first Chinese world champion in Zhang, but not only did they all come up short, but Zhang lost her title in spectacular fashion. On the plus side, the title loss didn't portend bad things for Zhang's future, and Rong, Aori, and Liang all did show promise in their UFC debuts, mostly coming up short due to tactical gaffs rather than skill deficits. With the proper development they can still be successful, as they did show solid raw talent. Other than that, we saw dominant champions do dominant things and a couple gnarly leg injuries, if you're into that sort of thing (I certainly am not). All in all a definite contender for card of the year, and although I still mostly prefer hearing the action in the cage to general crowd noise, I admit it was nice to have them back most of the time. Now if we could manage a nice hybrid between American and Japanese crowds where we get the American crowd intensity with the ability to shut up unless something worth cheering happens, I'd be in heaven. Until then, sado out!