The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s second residency at “Fight Island” got off to an explosive start, as UFC 253’s title doubleheader gave us two eye-popping finishes. One of the championship fights featured a significant upset while the other did not, but we learned that it is equally possible to make a big impression while hearing “and still” or “and new.” Here are some fighters who helped—or hurt—their stock on Saturday.
Israel Adesanya: With his second-round dismantling of Paulo Costa, “The Last Stylebender” became just the fourth man to defend the UFC middleweight belt more than once, joining Anderson Silva (10), Chris Weidman (3) and Rich Franklin (2). While Adesanya was favored going into the bout, even those who expected him to win may not have expected the completely dominant fashion in which he did so. The “Eraser” was thought to present some unique dangers, but it was simply not the case: Adesanya won every minute of the fight, right up to and including the finish. On Saturday, Adesanya blew away not only a proud and previously undefeated challenger, but any lingering stench from his lackluster fight with Yoel Romero earlier this year.
Jan Blachowicz: Raise your hand if, when Blachowicz lost a miserable decision to Patrick Cummins at UFC 210 to go 2-4 in the UFC, you thought you were looking at a man who would be UFC light heavyweight champion three and a half years later. If your hand remains unraised, you’re far from alone, as nobody seemed to see this coming—including the oddsmakers, who still have yet to catch on. Consider that since that loss to Cummins, he has gone 8-1 despite being the underdog in all but one of those nine fights. That preposterous run continued right up to Saturday’s co-main event, in which the 37-year-old Pole fought for the vacant title against Dominick Reyes, the younger, bigger and more athletic contender who had given Jon Jones all he could handle in February. As a 2-to-1 underdog, Blachowicz made it look easy, punishing Reyes with kicks and evading the worst of the return fire for a round and a half before smashing his nose with a beautiful left hook to mark the beginning of the end. In the wake of the title win, Jones tweeted a bemused reply to Blachowicz’s callout. If Jones came back, he would of course be a significant favorite, but...
Brandon Royval: If you were privileged to see Royval during his run in Legacy Fighting Alliance, your impression was probably along the lines of, “Wow, this guy is a maniac. His style might not hold up at the UFC level once he gets there, but it’ll sure be fun while it lasts.” Two fights into Royval’s Octagon career, his go-for-broke, scramble-oriented grappling assault has held up well enough to tap out two solid UFC flyweights in former title challenger Tim Elliott and, now, Kai Kara France. Saturday’s clash with Kara-France condensed an impressive number of highlights into just under six minutes, including a double knockdown in a front-runner for “Round of the Year.” In a men’s flyweight division suddenly hungry for stars—and always starving for finishers—“Raw Dawg” is winning fights in the right way at the right time.
Paulo Costa: There is no shame in losing to Adesanya; after all, Costa is the 20th man to try unsuccessfully to derail the Nigerian-born Kiwi, and there may be quite a few more before all is said and done. However, “Borrachinha” might be feeling the sting more keenly, and for longer, than some of the champ’s other victims, for two reasons. One, Costa was himself undefeated before Saturday night’s main event; and two, so much of Costa’s mystique depended on aggression and intimidation. The first of those two things, the perfect record, is gone forever and unrecoverable. The second will hinge on how he bounces back from such a definitive thrashing, but for now, Costa may have even further to go than Robert Whittaker before anyone is calling to see him in the Octagon with Adesanya again, which is saying a lot.
Zubaira Tukhugov: Tukhugov’s split-decision loss to Hakeem Dawodu on Saturday was not, in itself, disastrous. Dawodu was a similarly promising featherweight prospect, the first two rounds were individually difficult to score and the majority of professional observers actually scored the fight for Tukhugov. However, there are a couple of reasons for alarm. Tukhugov missed weight by a whopping four pounds, which is never a good look for someone who presumably wants to fight for a title one day. Worse, he might have cost himself the fight by mounting next to no offense in a dismal third round, while Dawodu alternated between piecing him up, chasing him around and gesticulating in genuine frustration at Tukhugov’s passivity. Whether the poor showing was due to a misguided impression that he had the first two rounds in the bag or because of some underlying injury or ailment that also contributed to the weight miss, it was a very bad look in a division where the road to the Top 10 is long and unforgiving, and the margin between contender and also-ran is razor-thin.
Khadis Ibragimov: It feels bad to pile on here, but there’s simply no way around it: Ibragimov may just have closed the book on one of the worst UFC runs ever. It takes something extraordinary for a fighter to lower his stock when he enters the Octagon 0-3, but Ibragimov managed it. Not only did the former M-1 Global light heavyweight champ get a fourth chance, the UFC managed to find in Danilo Marques an opponent so unproven that Ibragimov was a substantial favorite. Fifteen minutes of cage time later, Ibragimov was 0-4 in the UFC, having lost all four fights decisively and given no glimmer of hope, no reason to think he’s about to turn a corner and become even borderline Octagon material.