On Saturday in Abu Dhabi, 24 fighters collaborated to show us examples of just about every stop on mixed martial arts’ life cycle.
From the retirement fight of an all-time lightweight great, to a hard-to-watch stomping of a shopworn former heavyweight contender; from a longtime also-ran earning herself a likely title shot, to a proud former champ making a case for a rematch with his successor—as well as some fairly extreme examples of good and not-good Octagon debuts, UFC 254 had a little bit of everything. On such a rich and varied night of caged combat, it goes without saying that some fighters elevated their stock while others took a hit. Here are some notable examples.
Khabib Nurmagomedov: Considering that Nurmagomedov retired in the cage after choking Justin Gaethje unconscious in the second round on Saturday, the only stock in play now is his position in “Greatest of All Time” discussions, but he could hardly have chosen a more emphatic note on which to end his undefeated career. Gaethje was seen by many to present some unique challenges, but instead found himself harried on the feet and overwhelmed on the ground, just as previous challengers Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor had been. As for those “GOAT” questions, whether you believe Nurmagomedov is the greatest lightweight of all time, and wherever you think he falls in the list of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters ever, he helped his case at UFC 254. That’s the very definition of elevating one’s stock.
Robert Whittaker: While he walked into the cage against Jared Cannonier as a pick ‘em, Whittaker had been the betting underdog from the time the matchup was announced, well into fight week. While Whittaker gave no indication that he felt “disrespected” by the odds—that isn’t his style—he surely must have felt he had something to prove. And he did so, outstriking the red-hot Cannonier for three rounds in Saturday’s co-main event. Whittaker walked through Cannonier’s best weapon, the low kicks with which he had finished Anderson Silva, and landed his ramrod jab and straight right nearly at will. Now 2-0 since losing his title to Israel Adesanya last year with measured, convincing wins over Darren Till and Cannonier, and seeming happier and healthier than he has been in years, Whittaker continues to stake his claim on a rematch with “The Last Stylebender.”
Lauren Murphy: A few years ago, after going 1-3 in her first Octagon run, “Lucky” was eliminated in her first fight on Season 26 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Already in her mid-30s by that time, Murphy looked like the longest of long shots to be a future contender. Since returning at the Season 26 finale, however, she is 5-1, the author of one of the more startling mid-career turnarounds in UFC history and at age 37, an unlikely but undeniable title contender. While her current four-fight streak is not completely airtight—most observers thought she lost to Andrea Lee in February—she is winning fights at just the right time in a flyweight division that badly needs challengers for Valentina Shevchenko. Most importantly, on Saturday she faced short-notice debutante Liliya Shakirova and did exactly what a title contender should be expected to do, mauling Shakirova on the way to a second-round submission, the first of Murphy’s career. In so doing, she probably cemented her place on deck for the winner of next month’s Shevchenko-Jennifer Maia title fight.
Ion Cutelaba: “The Hulk” got his rematch with Magomed Ankalaev, after their previous bout ended in controversy. (As a side note, if your strategy consists of trying to convince onlookers that you’re badly hurt, you can’t be too mad when it works.) Unfortunately for Cutelaba, the second go-round ended in a first-round knockout as well, only much more emphatically this time. Cutelaba had his brief moments, as his outstanding athleticism and psychotic aggression will probably always dictate, but was thoroughly outclassed on the feet by Ankalaev, and the final ground-and-pound that left Cutelaba out cold on the canvas puts a definitive stamp on the brief, strange rivalry. Now, as Ankalaev continues his march toward the Top 10, Cutelaba returns to the general population at light heavyweight.
Walt Harris: His is an absolutely heartbreaking story, and if life were Hollywood, Harris would have had a feel-good win at some point since the tragic death of his stepdaughter, Aniah Blanchard, last year. However, in the non-Hollywood real world, Harris has been matched up tough and is 0-2 with stoppage losses to Alistair Overeem and now, Alexander Volkov. Saturday’s loss to Volkov is the more discouraging of the two, for two reasons. One, while Harris had success against Overeem, nearly finishing him in the first round of their meeting back in May, Volkov largely cruised, winning the first round before lancing Harris with a nasty liver kick in the second. The other reason is that Harris came into UFC 254 appearing to be in the best shape of his career, and came back emptyhanded. While the back-to-back losses probably mean that Harris will get an opponent outside the Top 10 next, and perhaps get back on track, it’s possible that we’ve seen the 37-year-old’s competitive peak pass him by.
Alex Oliveira: For nearly six years and over 20 fights, “Cowboy” has been a fair analogue of his American counterpart, Donald Cerrone: an “anyone, anywhere, anytime” madman with good finishing instincts on the feet as well as on the ground. Even this year, as he bounced back from the first losing streak of his career, Oliveira remained a sturdy, entertaining gatekeeper at welterweight, and notably, he was rarely if ever an easy out. Until Saturday, that is, when the debuting Shavkat Rakhmonov outclassed Oliveira everywhere for most of a round before cranking a guillotine choke for the tap at 4:40. Rakhmonov received an unexpected bonus as well, in the form of a percentage of Oliveira’s purse, thanks to the Brazilian missing weight by two pounds. For now, Oliveira’s job is probably as secure as that of anyone in the UFC, but only time will tell whether his double failure at UFC 254 was an anomaly or the beginning of a serious slide.