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Aside from Cris Cyborg’s continued dominance and Brian Ortega’s electrifying knockout, youth was the key talking point to come out of UFC 222 on Saturday in Las Vegas. When the smoke cleared, some of the younger prospects made their presence felt to varying degrees. While it’s no secret that youth plays a major part in the chances of winning and losing in any competitive athletic endeavor, appropriate matchmaking is the component that differentiates mainstream team sports from its combat-based brethren. Cultivating younger fighters into the future stars of mixed martial arts is an art form that was on full display. With the exception of Alexander Hernandez, whose 42-second knockout of Kings MMA standout Beneil Dariush was the product of an extremely short-notice injury replacement, the prospects were able to score victories due to being pitted against proper opposition.
The first high-profile newcomer to make an impression was Mackenzie Dern, who made her Ultimate Fighting Championship debut against Ashley Yoder. Much has been made about Dern’s credentials in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and rightfully so considering her list of accomplishments, which includes world championships at every belt level and a gold medal at the 2015 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships.
Needless to say, a woman with a highly respected background in submission grappling and entering the UFC with an undefeated record would immediately be reminiscent of former bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. However, matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard were wise not to place Dern on a similar trajectory to that of the famed pioneer. While Rousey was already well-established -- she had a Strikeforce title and wins over veterans like Miesha Tate and Sarah Kaufman -- before stepping foot in the Octagon, Dern is nowhere near as experienced. Despite the fact that her jiu-jitsu skills are world-class and make her an instant threat in MMA, throwing her in against a more accomplished fighter could have been disastrous if the UFC intends on propelling the Arizona native to stardom. Yoder is a far cry from the deep end of the strawweight division on multiple levels. Seeing as though Dern barely pulled out the win and showed glaring holes to her game, Maynard and Shelby did the right thing. Now her record remains unblemished and she will be given the chance to continue adapting to her newly adopted sport.
Meanwhile, Sean O'Malley made quite the splash after his appearance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. Sporting an unforgettable look and flashy striking, he knocked out Alfred Khashakyan in the first round and promptly took the opportunity to partake in the devil’s lettuce with color commentator and rap star Snoop Dogg. It doesn’t take much brainpower to see the star potential in O’Malley. When he was paired with Terrion Ware at “The Ultimate Fighter 26” Finale, many expected another highlight-reel knockout. Instead, O’Malley took a decision and showed some moments of vulnerability against another respected but much more fundamental striker. The lessons were learned, as evidenced by his latest outing. Andre Soukhamthath is a textbook striker and has shown himself to be a tough out. Avoiding the temptation to put the exciting personality with an exciting style against a highly ranked opponent for a sexier fight paid off. O’Malley showcased that excitement with high kicks and spinning attacks that electrified the crowd. When he injured his foot in the third round, O’Malley stayed in the fight to the final bell -- with the help of Soukhamthath’s ill-advised takedowns -- and scored a decision. O’Malley remains undefeated and can continue polishing his skills with the world watching.
The results of continuous appropriate matchmaking were showcased by Ortega. Another late-notice replacement, Ortega stepped in for featherweight champion Max Holloway to battle former lightweight titleholder and perennial contender Frankie Edgar in the co-main event. Ideally, facing a legend like Edgar would warrant a full camp of preparation. This is especially the case when the famously well-conditioned New Jersey native was originally training to fight in a five-round title fight. However, Ortega made the most of his opportunity and became the first fighter to ever finish Edgar, as he scored a dramatic first-round knockout. This star-making performance and the now highly anticipated showdown between Ortega and Holloway would not have been possible without proper fight bookings leading up to it. Ortega was another prospect noted for jiu-jitsu skills. While the technique in his standup was given a chance to improve, he was not thrown in against poor stylistic matchups. Gradual technical improvements to his game were shown in bouts against Diego Brandao, Clay Guida and Renato Carneiro. By the time he faced a well-rounded elite fighter with a preference for kickboxing in Cub Swanson, Ortega wasn’t in over his head. Against Swanson, he showed just enough striking to employ his strong submission game and secure a victory. Those experiences were vital in besting Edgar, known for a slick boxing style that complemented his wrestling. Matchmaking to build Ortega gave the UFC a highlight-reel finish and buzz for an upcoming main event.
While boxing promoters have been known to build their potential star fighters over years, MMA hasn’t always been on board with this line of thinking. The best fighting the best is a phrase often cited as the mantra of the UFC. Needless to say, this has a great appeal and losses are quickly often forgiven by observers. On the other hand, boxing has been known to pad records with mediocre opposition in attempts to manufacture stars and big paydays since a loss can do major damage to future options. However, there is a middle ground.
At UFC 222, Maynard and Shelby appeared to hit that perfect median. Instead of fast-tracking Dern like they did Paige Van Zant and thrusting O’Malley with full promotional force like they did Sage Northcutt, the pair seemed to be allowed to develop at much more natural pace, even with prominent placement on the fight card. Continuing down this path will organically produce more Ortega-type moments. This is one of the keys in creating stars who can carry the torch into a new era of MMA, not just new faces for Metro PCS and Corn Nuts commercials. This formula isn’t foolproof -- the fighters still have to go out and win against increasingly tougher opponents -- but the chances of success greatly improve. This is the difference between the unrealized potential of a Brandon Vera and the championship run of Jon Jones. If the UFC wants to have long-term mainstays, it is vital that matchmaking casts an eye to the future.