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The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s second trip to mainland China was far from a perfect card, but in the end, UFC Fight Night 141 provided legitimate entertainment, helped put the promotion’s Chinese prospects on display and got two of its preferred heavyweight hitters back on track. Sure, most of us had to wake up somewhere between midnight and 3 a.m. to watch it, but you can’t win ’em all.
Francis Ngannou and Alistair Overeem got much-needed wins, respectively taking out Curtis Blaydes and Sergei Pavlovich in impressive fashion. The heavyweight division wasn’t the only outstanding division on the night, either, as Weili Zhang’s sterling performance against Jessica Aguilar showed women’s strawweight was among the very best weight classes in the world. Oh, and we got news breaking of a fight announcement during the card? Well, that may be slightly more problematic.
Certainly, there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s figure out the five lessons we can take away from UFC Fight Night 141:
‘The Predator’ Can Still Hunt
It took all of 45 seconds for Ngannou to replicate his April 2016 stoppage win over Blaydes. It certainly wasn’t what I expected, but in a way, the UFC and the heavyweight division are probably better for it.
MMA is a sport that, for better or for worse, thrives on parity. It’s also, in a way, forgiving, as the average age of a Top-10 heavyweight tends to be around 35 years old. Blaydes got blasted with an overhand right, got socked up and never recovered. Sure, it sucks for him, especially since he was riding a six-fight unbeaten streak and had just put himself into UFC title contention. However, the context of his loss can be easily understood. He’s still just a wrestler developing his overall MMA game, and at 27 years old, he has more than enough time to bounce back. Blaydes isn’t going anywhere.
As for Ngannou, his positively embarrassing title fight against Stipe Miocic in January and his horrific fight against Derrick Lewis in July, combined with former coaches and UFC President Dana White haranguing him for becoming arrogant and overconfident, looked like the beginning of another MMA flash in the pan. However, like I said, heavyweight is a forgiving division. If you’re a 6-foot-4, 260-pound dude with this level of athleticism, you have an easier road to redeeming yourself. That may sound like a slight, but it’s not.
The fact is that even if they’re prone to having some awful fights or getting too excited about buying a pair of True Religion jeans, we need dudes like Ngannou. Is he a perfect fighter? Nope, not in the slightest. Is he working the hardest to improve his overall MMA game? Eh, that’s probably a negative, too. However, whatever he has now is already good enough to affirm a nickname like “The Predator,” and he is still just 32 years old, which is basically a spring lamb by heavyweight standards. If you do want some extra silver lining, he came out orthodox against Blaydes and clearly confused him after crushing him from the southpaw position in their first fight. Surely that constitutes a little development.
Plain and simple, a loss would have seen people and maybe the UFC itself write off Ngannou, where people still know Blaydes is a work in progress. Both men will be back and likely better for it, which only means a better heavyweight division that needs perpetual help.
The Return of ‘The Reem’
I was sheepish about Overeem taking on an undefeated 12-0 Russian prospect in Pavlovich. Not that Overeem didn’t have the skill or anything; that’s hardly what lacks with him. Rather, at 38 years old and coming off of two brutal knockout losses to the aforementioned Ngannou and Blaydes, I wondered how much more Overeem could really do in the game. Well, I should’ve checked my own notes about the heavyweight division. Silly me.
Plain and simple, there’s no substitute for skill. Pavlovich was still a great signing by the UFC and will still probably blossom into a Top-10 heavyweight, but Overeem may be the most devastating offensive fighter in the history of the division. Pavlovich is thick as a brick and completely panicked the first time Overeem tagged him. When he clinched up and tried to muscle him to the mat, Overeem went to the collar tie and essentially tossed him to the ground, despite the size and physique of his opponent. From there, “The Demolition Man” brought out the hammer and just pulverized him from full guard, reminding us all of what a historically underrated ground-and-pounder he is.
Is Overeem ever going to get another shot at UFC gold? No, probably not, but since he got on the horse-meat regimen a decade ago, he has been exciting as hell. Actually, part of what makes him so exciting is the simple fact that we know his weakness is his chin and that he could suddenly get clocked and turn a fight on its head. In so many ways, Overeem is the perfect heavyweight fighter. He offers a greater glimpse at what is technically possible for a man his size in MMA, with respect to striking and grappling, but also offers us an almost comical level of fallibility. Every Overeem fight is like walking a tightrope, but with the equal opportunity to watch one of the purest offensive machines in the history of MMA. Given the aforementioned nature of the heavyweight division, I wouldn’t be mad if he fought until he was 48.
‘The Leech’ a UFC Mid-Card Superstar
For promotional purposes, I’m sure the UFC genuinely would love to have a Chinese champion, but that’s probably still a few years away. In the meantime, with the Zuffa-turned-Endeavor goal of trying to take over every little slice of the globe with prizefighting, you at least want to have a few fighters that can rouse the crowd and get people excited. Jingliang Li is that dude.
A lot of us got into MMA because we grew up as professional wrestling fans and wondered “What if it was real?” We woke up every Saturday morning and raced to the television to watch cartoons and, eventually, some dudes body slamming each other afterwards from whatever local wrasslin’ territory we happened to inhabit. We’d root for whatever top faces or heels we loved and ultimately made the show, but in between, there would always be that one wrestler that just pulled it together, put on an awesome performance and won a place in our hearts. Again, Li is that dude.
Initially, I was loathe to use the pro wrestling analogy, but really, his third-round knockout of David Zawada was a perfect iteration of exactly that, with Li struggling to find his rhythm early, getting dropped almost right out of the gate, then roaring back to power over the last two rounds and eventually smashing him with a side kick to the solar plexus in the waning moments of the third round. Sure, the worm was already turning and Li was well on his way to victory, but the late stoppage offered that extra level of panache that made things a little more special.
One of the difficulties for the UFC over the last several years is its desire to colonize new territory and sign local talent it thinks can sell tickets. Unfortunately, not everyone is Mirko Filipovic. Li isn’t the most skilled fighter in the world, but he constantly makes for an entertaining fight and has a natural thrill-seeking personality that bleeds through into his appearances. If we have to spend the next few years watching the UFC try to make inroads to China, at least “The Leech” will be there to entertain us.
Zhang is Something Else
Li might be the fan favorite when it comes to notable Chinese MMA fighters, but in no way is he the best fighter the country has to offer. That honor at this point has to go to hang, who completely savaged Aguilar in a complete blowout.
Aguilar has always been a conflicting fighter for hardcor fans. While she has been successful, she’s generally sterile and miserable to watch. In this case, she came out aggressive, got smoked with an elbow to the face and taken down. “Magnum” took her down in a heartbeat, and then the horror show started. Zhang swarmed her with elbows, hacking her open, taking full mount and taking a topside triangle. Normally, this could be considered poor strategy if you weren’t going to sink the choke, but even after Zhang botched the triangle, she effortlessly switched to an armbar and forced Aguilar to tap in less than four minutes. To describe the bout as “one-sided” would be an insult to Zhang, who made a 12-year veteran look like a rank amateur.
As MMA expands globally, the difficulty with most Chinese fighters is that they come from sanshou gyms that actively discourage cross-training, because it would bring a level of martial disgrace to the artform. Zhang, out of Black Tiger Fight Team, has an obvious traditional martial arts base but with legitimate trainers behind her who have turned into a well-rounded, offensive dynamo. I can’t act as though she’s Tatiana Suarez and a serious threat to knock Rose Namajunas off her throne yet, but she’s damn good and entertaining as hell, with a finishing ability seldom seen with women that weigh 115 pounds.
Oh, Now a Matchmaking Announcement
This is a little bit fiddly, because technically, the UFC didn’t make this announcement during the card. Nonetheless, in the middle of UFC Fight Night 141, news broke that UFC 234, headlined by a middleweight title bout between Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum, would also feature a 185-pound bout between legend Anderson Silva and rising star Israel Adesanya. Really, it’s just not a good idea.
There are obviously many considerations when it comes to making a fight, but I think the basic three are the promotion’s consideration and stake, the fighters’ individual interest and how the stylistic match appeals to the two aforementioned categories. This is an overwhelmingly one-sided equation. I get wanting to put Adesanya, who trains out of New Zealand, in Australia. I get wanting to put an all-time MMA superstar in Silva on an Australian card, too. On the surface, it makes sense, but if you do some dissecting, it’s a witch’s brew and entirely emblematic of the UFC’s current desperate approach to matchmaking.
The whole idea is that it’s a prospect and a legend, which gets the UFC to the pay window. It seems like it pits two flashy, exotic strikers against one another, but will it really play out like that? Adesanya, now 15-0, has everything to lose with the slightest screw-up or even just being underwhelming in victory. Silva has literally won one fight not overturned by an athletic commission in the last six years, and it’s a fight against Derek Brunson that the vast majority of the MMA public agree he lost. Silva has nothing to lose, and Adesanya has everything to lose; this is a template for bad matchmaking. If you have a potential star you want to flourish, you don’t put him in the worst position possible because you have no idea how to sell tickets and want to trot out a star from yesteryear.
On top of that, what’s maybe worst of all is that it won’t be an entertaining fight. The whole first reveal is this: “Oh, wow, look at them strikers!” Look at Silva in the last half decade. Look at how much is at stake for Adesanya. This fight is going to be a 15-minute snoozer, because Adesanya doesn’t want to mess up his career and Silva is here to collect a paycheck. It’s wrong-headed on every level. It’s the most basic kind of cash grab for which you could ask, and the only people it sacrifices are the actual fighters. Y’all should’ve listened to Leslie Smith.