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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday brought UFC 236 to State Farm Arena in Atlanta. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: THIS IS WHY WE WATCH
There are times when being a journalist in this sport feels like an uphill battle. Sometimes, things are so bad that it’s hard to capture the feelings of disappointment, shame and disgust. At other times, what happens is so incredible that words can’t describe the greatness we’ve witnessed. Fortunately, UFC 236 provided one of those latter moments. The dual interim title fights that headlined the event represented everything there is to love about mixed martial arts. It’s times like this that make it hard to think of anything more compelling, dramatic and exciting as MMA when it hits on all cylinders.
The combinations of Dustin Poirier-Max Holloway and Israel Adesanya-Kelvin Gastelum will be talked about for years to come. Poirier and Holloway meeting seven years after their first encounter not only provided a more suitable alternative for the lightweight division while several key players are missing in action, but it also showed the potential in rematches done right. When a green Holloway made his UFC debut against an emerging featherweight contender in Poirier in 2012, we saw a raw talent still searching for his identity face a man who was just finding his stride. The growth in both fighters since UFC 143 was quite clear. Holloway eventually filled the gaps in his game and developed into one of the most dominant champions in the promotion. Poirier found new life at 155 pounds, where he forced his way into the title conversation the old-fashioned way: with his fists and feet, not with the trash talk and sensationalism that has taken over the collective consciousness.
From a technical standpoint, the two men had changed dramatically since their initial bout. Poirier’s boxing skills became much more polished, and his offense became much more measured and deliberate. The spastic high-energy striking attack we saw from Holloway was replaced with high pressure, heavy volume and more answers on the ground. The improved versions of both men combined to form a Voltron of Violence.
While Holloway’s move to lightweight was eagerly anticipated, his first appearance at 155 pounds reminded us all why weight classes exist. At featherweight, his overwhelming storm of offense triumphs over the counterstrikes that inevitably finds their way to his chin. Poirier’s larger frame could not only withstand that pressure but managed to deal out enough punishment with the extra weight to stop the forward-moving Hawaiian dead in his tracks. Even through the massive power differential, Holloway stood strong enough to put the larger man in trouble. While I disagree, a case can be made for his doing enough to earn the decision. No matter how you scored the fight, Poirier is worthy of UFC gold and will play a great part in bringing a sense of normalcy to a chaotic division.
Earlier, the interim middleweight championship showdown between Adesanya and Gastelum cannot be praised enough. Adesanya proved his worthiness of the fast track to stardom upon which the UFC has clearly placed him. Beyond the obvious charisma and personality, his in-cage abilities and evolution have been stunning to watch. Just a year ago, Marvin Vettori managed to neutralize the dynamic kickboxer and earn the nod on one judge’s scorecard. In that short amount of time since, “The Last Stylebender” has handled the grappling skills of much higher competition while maintaining his ability to strike in varied attacks.
The knock on Adesanya during this skyrocketing campaign to a belt has been that we haven’t seen him deal with true adversity. Gastelum provided the toughest test the Nigerian-born Kiwi has faced to date. While Gastelum improbably turned a forced middleweight run in a title challenge, his shorter stature and significant reach disadvantage looked like a clear path to destruction on paper. His wrestling skills would be harder to employ if closing the distance meant going through a hornet’s nest of world-class kickboxing. However, the Arizona native, aided by a masterful game plan from Kings MMA trainer Rafael Cordero, used every bit of his talent and ability to disrupt Adesanya. Gastelum took control in the first round and forced Adesanya to elevate his game and respond accordingly. Gastelum regained momentum briefly in the fourth, prompting his counterpart to rise to the occasion yet again. “The Ultimate Fighter 17” winner made a great fighter better.
The best part about the storylines that emerged from the action was that there are no real losers. Yes, Holloway and Gastelum failed to get their hands raised and now have another tick mark in the L column. Beyond the blemish on their records, how far did their stock drop?
Holloway remains the undisputed featherweight champion, with emerging contenders eagerly awaiting his return to 145 pounds. The gutsy performance against Poirier only makes us want to watch The Blessed Era play out. Gastelum wasn’t supposed to be here. He wasn’t supposed to win “The Ultimate Fighter” against the invincible wheel kick machine that was Uriah Hall. He wasn’t supposed to enjoy sustained success at middleweight while picking off much larger men. Gastelum defied those odds. At this point, it’s safe to assume that continue to defy them while entertaining us along the way.
THE BAD: ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT
Ovince St. Preux has carved out a unique spot for himself in the light heavyweight division. Since making his way into the UFC after Strikeforce was disbanded, “OSP” has continually found himself in big fights with big opportunities while not making much actual progress as a fighter. With a reliance on incredible athleticism, he managed to stay relevant despite his inability to grow beyond his unorthodox combinations and downright bizarre ability to find Von Flue chokes. His loss to Nikita Krylov at UFC 236 might mark the end of that place in the division.
For the first time, it appeared that St. Preux’s physical prowess betrayed him. While successful with his strategy of forcing the fight to the floor -- a tactic that resulted in Krylov being victimized by one of those aforementioned Von Flue chokes at UFC 171 -- his body didn’t let him sustain it for long at all. Before the horn signaled the end of the opening frame, it was clear that “OSP” had nothing left to offer. While he was never known as a cardio machine, this scene played out in stark contrast to the man who managed to see the final horn in a late-notice five-round fight with Jon Jones in 2016.
At 36 years of age and saddled by two consecutive defeats to potential fresh contenders, it seems likely that St. Preux’s best days are behind him.
THE UGLY: ANOTHER CASE OF THE MISSING WHITE TOWEL
The only upside to the lack of corner stoppages in MMA is that it provides a consistent subject for this department. The damage that Eryk Anders absorbed from the hands and feet of Khalil Rountree was unreal, and the fact that his corner allowed it to continue was just inexcusable.
The fight will surely be remembered as a “Beatdown of the Year” contender when we revisit the standout moments of 2019. Rountree established a fast and devastating muay Thai kicking game in the opening round, paving the way for the consistent power punching that dropped Anders a ridiculous four times in the second. This was one of those rare moments where all three judges settled on 10-8 scores. A majority of the media scorers tracked by MMADecisions.com saw it as a 10-7 round.
With Anders being dropped that many times and having the inside of his lead leg hacked so viciously, there was very little need to see the fight continue. While poor officiating is normally to blame when a fight lasts too long, it’s hard to point the finger at referee Blake Grice. While a case can be made that Grice could have stopped it at some point in the second round, Anders absorbed crippling leg kicks but wasn’t always in immediate danger due to his own resourcefulness. “Ya Boi” did what he was supposed to do, kept fighting and never gave up. That is the warrior spirit we all put on a pedestal. However, his cornermen could see what we all could see: a stubborn and beaten man who was too brave to accept his fate.
As a confused and nearly crippled Anders saw his foundation grossly compromised, it was clear to everyone in the building that he had little to nothing left to offer. At that point, it’s highly irresponsible to send a fighter back out to continue limping down a path of destruction. While the referee is empowered to ensure the immediate safety of the fighters, the cornermen should be the ones reading the writing on the wall.