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The Ultimate Fighting Championship bid farewell to “Fight Island” with a whopping 15-fight card headlined by a high-stakes middleweight battle between Robert Whittaker and Darren Till. As might be expected of a night in which 30 men and women entered the Octagon, some fighters’ fortunes rose while others fell.
Robert Whittaker: It wasn’t exactly a fast and furious slugfest, but the tense, closely contested main event between “Bobby Knuckles” and Till answered some of the questions hovering over the former champ in the wake of his brutal loss to Israel Adesanya last October. In weathering a couple of hellacious elbow strikes from the Brit, Whittaker showed that his chin remains reliable. His ability to make small adjustments throughout the fight and take what his opponent gave him rather than force things was heartening as well.
Perhaps most importantly, after openly stating that he had been feeling burned out—10 rounds with Yoel Romero might do that to a man—Whittaker appeared to be enjoying himself before, during and after the fight. In his post-fight interview, Whittaker gently steered away from callouts or projecting his own path back to a belt, which is just as well considering that he and Adesanya both have work to do before a rematch feels compelling, and instead talked about getting back to his family to enjoy the win. It sounded like a man with a new handle on work-life balance, and perhaps an indicator that the 29-year-old’s best days remain ahead of him.
Fabricio Werdum: It must have felt slightly insulting for Werdum to come in as a substantial underdog to a less accomplished fighter, moving up in weight for the first time, who had retired a year before after losing two straight at light heavyweight. While the odds were a clear reaction to how listless Werdum looked against Alexey Oleynik in the first fight back from his two-year USADA suspension in May, “Vai Cavalo” needed only half a round to remind us of what we must have forgotten: that he is by far the most accomplished heavyweight grappler in mixed martial arts history.
While Werdum has always been prone to wild variances in preparation, fitness and performance, they typically only affect his striking; the man who calmly pieced up Cain Velasquez and annihilated Mark Hunt with a flying knee is the same man who might walk into a rear-hand uppercut from Alexander Volkov or simply stand in front of Andrei Arlovski for three rounds doing absolutely nothing. His grappling, however, has never been short of stellar, and once the action hit the ground on Saturday, it was on full display. In a sport where the term “world-class” is sometimes thrown around too easily, it was nice to be reminded of the agility and economy of movement—shocking in a man that size—Werdum brings to bear. It was a reminder as well that, just a week shy of his 43rd birthday, the big Brazilian still has something to offer the heavyweight division.
Movsar Evloev: It was a very good night for undefeated Russian-born prospects, as three of them notched emphatic wins, but with all due respect to Ramazan Emeev and the red-hot Chechen-by-way-of-Sweden Khamzat Chimaev, who set a UFC record with his second finish in 10 days, Evloev’s performance was the most impressive. Taking on the visibly bigger and stronger Mike Grundy, a 12-1 former national team wrestler from England, Evloev used superior boxing and conditioning to win going away. Above all, Evloev’s performance was a clinic in the use of scrambles to nullify an opponent’s advantages in strength and wrestling technique. Time and time again, Grundy shot in and took Evloev down with relative ease, only to have him bounce right back up and escape. It was like watching someone try and give a stray cat a bath, and must have been incredibly frustrating for Grundy. It was clearly tiring as well, and once the top gear was gone from Grundy’s level change, Evloev began to open up more on the feet. While Chimaev has dazzled in back-to-back wins over borderline UFC-level opponents, Evloev’s thorough schooling of a very good fellow bantamweight prospect was the real eye-opener.
Alexander Gustafsson: “The Mauler” had a clean slate coming into Saturday—as clean a slate as one of the UFC’s most recognizable stars can get, at any rate. After two straight losses at light heavyweight left him with no good direction to go in that division, Gustafsson had retired, then unretired and made the choice to move up in weight. For his return and heavyweight debut he was given Werdum, a former champ and all-time great who had looked miserable in his last fight. Physically, Gustafsson looked fine: more or less like his light heavyweight self out of training camp, if anything. On the continuum of light heavyweight bodies moving up to heavyweight, he was neither Alistair Overeem nor Jake Collier.
While the fight barely went on long enough to teach us anything, that’s kind of the point. For the brief time that it lasted, Gustafsson was getting somewhat the worse of the striking, and he allowed a nearly 43-year-old Werdum to successfully shoot a takedown. Considering that Gustafsson’s calling card at heavyweight would presumably have been speed and superior footwork, that isn’t a good look. While he did indeed have a clean slate, the onus was on Gustafsson to show that his head and heart were back in the game after his dejected in-cage retirement last summer, and a definitive win over Werdum would have had us talking about his chances against the best heavyweights in the UFC on Monday morning. That didn’t happen.
Jai Herbert: This is somewhat unfair. Herbert’s UFC debut was a bit of a no-win situation, coming in to face a dangerous, underrated and significantly overweight Francisco Trinaldo. However, “The Black Country Banger” was a favorite over the 21-fight UFC veteran for a reason, and for a little over 10 minutes he looked the part, losing a competitive first round before absolutely thrashing “Massaranduba” to a possible 10-8 second. By the time the final round began, Trinaldo was exhausted, beat up and sporting a nasty cut under the left eye, and his most plausible remaining route to victory was a huge haymaker. That Herbert walked right into such a haymaker is something for which he cannot just be let off the hook. The rangy former Cage Warriors Fighting Championship star will have more chances to prove he is UFC material—and perhaps even a contender—but for now, he has gotten off on the wrong foot.
Gadzhimurad Antigulov: If Herbert gets dinged deservedly for allowing his opponent to follow his most obvious path to victory, Antigulov deserves it even harder, as someone who should have known better. A couple of years ago, Antigulov was a solid prospect who had won his first two UFC appearances after cruising into the promotion on a 10-fight win streak in Russia. Back-to-back knockouts by Ion Cutelaba and Michal Oleksiejczuk had taken the shine off, but those were both highly-regarded light heavyweights. Facing Paul Craig on Saturday, Antigulov had an opponent whose modus operandi is as well-known as that of any fighter in the UFC, namely: Craig survives an ass-beating to submit you off of his back. For Antigulov to blithely try and punch out “The Bearjew” as he cinched up a triangle choke instead of, you know, defending the choke, was inexcusable. Antigulov’s cornermen in the immediate aftermath of the fight, looking as if they were about to send their pupil to bed without dinner, said everything.