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On paper, UFC Fight Night 197 was a typical fight night offering. It had an outstanding main event between former champion and No. 2 UFC featherweight Max Holloway against another top contender and elite striker in Yair Rodriguez. The rest — on paper — was mostly ho-hum. There was a dreadful co-main in an era full of them, a perplexing main card fight in Felicia Spencer vs. Leah Letson, and several good matchups between potential contenders in Andrea Lee-Cynthia Calvillo, Joel Alvarez-Thiago Moises, Julio Arce-Yadong Song, and Miguel Baeza-Kalinn Williams. And yet, it ended up being terrific fun. Easily a top 10 UFC event for 2021, maybe even top 5. What struck me is how many “best case” scenarios we got out of each fight. Here are some thoughts on the action.
Fans are Fickle
The main event surpassed all expectations. Despite Holloway being a monster -800 favorite on some books, with the expectation that he would systematically beat down Rodriguez the way he had Calvin Kattar in his previous outing, it ended up being a back-and-forth war where Holloway barely edged out a decision, three rounds to two. It was a terrific battle and despite the setback, leaves Rodriguez not only as a serious contender, but even a more impressive one. Holloway also showed his own toughness and consistency, defeating a very talented, unique martial artist.
Despite that, the narrative from many fans is that Holloway is past his prime and possibly even washed up! Admittedly, Holloway doesn't always sound good in pre-fight interviews and has suffered from murky medical issues. But these same concerns were present prior to Holloway’s fight against Brian Ortega, responsible for making Holloway, who at the time featherweight champion on an undefeated stretch of five years and 12 fights, even money against the challenger. And yet, Holloway administered an all-time great ass-kicking. There was plenty of derision when Holloway mentioned his only training for the Alexander Volkanovski rematch had been through Zoom sessions. Despite this, he did far better than in their first fight, and many think he should have regained his crown that night. Kattar was supposed to be an awful match-up for Holloway, matching and even surpassing his boxing, leaving Holloway a modest -150 favorite. We all know how that one went. The lesson? Never count Holloway out. He always rises to the occasion. There is no reason to believe he couldn't beat Volkanovski if they fought for a third time.
It also shows how fickle fan narratives are. After his dominant performance against Kattar earlier this year, fans were showering Holloway with praise, stating that he was better than ever, and that his no-sparring preparation was a stroke of genius: the wave of the future. One whole fight later, after a closer-than-expected win, not even an actual loss, he is washed-up and his training approach is dumb.
The UFC really lucked out on Rothwell-de Lima
The UFC loves making heavyweight fights the co-main event no matter how washed up or pedestrian the combatants may be. To really hammer that home, consider that Carlos Felipe has had two co-main event appearances. For the first one, he was a giant underdog against Yorgan De Castro, who has since been released from the UFC. When he fought Andrei Arlovski in the second one, Felipe could easily have been 1-3 in the organization, as the vast majority, myself included, felt he clearly lost to Justin Tafa and his split decision over Jake Collier could have easily gone the other way. Despite this, against an ancient, slow Arlovski who has long since become a pure point-fighter, there was a decent case that Felipe should have won! Co-main events like Felipe vs. de Castro, Felipe vs. Arlovski, and Arlovski vs. Chase Sherman are eyesores. Not only is the skill level a tiny fraction of what two bantamweights or featherweights offer on any random prelim, but they don't even feature the excitement and knockouts that are supposed to be the allure of heavyweights to begin with. Instead, they're dull kickboxing point fights.
Ben Rothwell vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima could very easily have gone down that road. Rothwell was the favorite and his path to victory was to clinch, put his body on de Lima, tire him out, land some short uppercuts, and win an ugly, grimy decision — exactly what he did against Ovince St. Preux.
Luckily for the UFC as well as the fans, de Lima bailed us out by scorching Rothwell with punches and finishing him in under 30 seconds. Rothwell was once known for a legendary chin and was last stopped all the way back in 2009 by Cain Velasquez, despite facing many heavy hitters since then, including Junior dos Santos, Alistair Overeem, Matt Mitrione and Mark Hunt. De Lima did as well as he possibly could and made an awful co-main on paper into an awesome knockout. That he didn't get a $50,000 bonus check is a travesty.
Joel Alvarez and Yadong Song are Serious, Dangerous Contenders
I wasn't that high on Song despite picking him to beat Arce, as I felt that he had lost to Marlon Vera, as did most, and his draw with Cody Stamann should have been a loss as well. Had those two been judged correctly, Song would have been just 1-3 in his last four heading into the Arce fight. At the same time, I recognized that he is only 23 years old, and loss or not, having close fights with the likes of Vera and Stamann at 22 is very impressive. Against a highly skilled, textbook striker like Julio Arce who never goes away, I figured Song would win a close decision. Instead, he delivered a sensational knockout. There's a big difference between edging out a skilled veteran on the cards and obliterating them with strikes, something no one had ever come close to doing against Arce. To me, the fight signals that Song is now a legitimate, feared contender in the bantamweight ranks.
Similarly, Alvarez announced his arrival with a furious three-minute pasting of Moises, another ultra-tough, well-rounded foe no one had come close to stopping with strikes. Alvarez lost his UFC debut by decision to another excellent rising contender in Damir Ismagulov, but has won all four of his fights since then, all by stoppage. A 6-foot-3 lightweight with brutal strikes who is very fast and athletic but also has good grappling, he presents the same type of nightmare mismatch as Cory Sandhagen does at bantamweight. At 28 and only improving, I'm excited to see what he will do next.
Don't Give up on Miguel Baeza Yet!
After suffering the vfirst loss of his career in a possible 2021 “Fight of the Year” against former elite welterweight Santiago Ponzinibbio, Baeza came back rather quickly against one of the most dangerous punchers in the UFC, “Khaos” Williams. I'm a huge fan of Baeza; I love his calm, silky-smooth, technical striking style, buoyed by a developing and increasingly dangerous submission game, but I recognized that this would very difficult for him. Williams has the better boxing and as good as Baeza’s movement and defense are, he isn't quite the virtuoso he would need to be to consistently elude Williams. In a pitched battle where Baeza had suffered two depleting knees to the groin but largely chopped Williams’ legs down by the third round, he telegraphed his kicks too much and paid for it in the form of a brutal Williams blitz that left him knocked out. It's a tough loss, but don't count Baeza out as a possible future prospect. A small adjustment is all that would be required to defeat Ponzinibbio and Williams, one that a fighter as smart and constantly improving as Baeza can surely make. Furthermore, those are possibly the two biggest punchers at welterweight in the UFC. Don't be surprised to see Baeza as a top contender in a couple of years.
Andrea Lee is Finally Realizing Her Potential
I've long thought that Andrea Lee had all the physical tools required to become the clear second best UFC women’s flyweight and give Valentina Shevchenko the biggest challenge of her title reign. She is tall and big for the weight class, strong and athletic, has technical striking, and solid grappling. Her mind, however, was a different story. Lee had a constant habit of underachieving and fighting down to the level of her opponents. To be fair, as I've written in a past article, Lee's loss against Lauren Murphy at UFC 247 ranks as one of the worst robberies I’ve seen in 26 years of watching MMA. Not only did 100% of MMA journalists and 93% of fans score it in favor of Lee, but the most common scorecard, one that I share, was a 30-27 sweep. However, there was no excuse for Lee's losses to Joanne Calderwood and the second time to Roxanne Modafferi, fighters she was better at in every way except mentally.
Luckily, something clicked after that last setback. Against the best striker she has faced in the UFC, Antonina Shevchenko, Lee fought the smartest, most focused fight of her life and garnered her first UFC stoppage. Despite this, I had picked Cynthia Calvillo to beat Lee at Fight Night 197 since she is literally a much better version of Roxanne Modafferi, both being grapplers who uses strikes to set up takedowns, but Calvillo having the better boxing, wrestling, a more dangerous top game, and being much faster. Unfortunately for Calvillo, she was facing a very different Andrea Lee than the one who had lost to Modafferi just a year prior. This one was tuned into the fight from beginning to end, aggressive without becoming reckless, and showed a vastly improved, well-drilled takedown defense, stuffing every Calvillo attempt with sprawls, underhooks, or angling off. After beating Calvillo up for the first two rounds, Lee was awarded with a TKO triumph in a bout almost everyone expected to be a close decision. I'm glad to see Lee turn her career around and start to realize her considerable talents. If she keeps it up, Lee could give the other Shevchenko sister her first serious challenge in a long time.