On Saturday, the Ultimate Fighting Championship put on its penultimate pay-per-view of 2020, with two belts on the line. Outside the flyweight title doubleheader atop the card, UFC 255 featured three more high-stakes bouts in the 125-pound divisions as well as plenty of examples of red-hot prospects either delivering or disappointing, and grizzled veterans facing down Father Time with varying degrees of success. Here is the stock report for UFC 255.
Brandon Moreno: When Cody Garbrandt’s withdrawal from UFC 255 forced a reshuffling of the men’s flyweight bouts on the card, Moreno’s original opponent, Alex Perez, found himself drafted into a title fight. A good case could be made that Moreno deserved that title shot at least as much as Perez did. Moreno said as much, and then he went out on Saturday and fought like a man with something to prove. While Brandon Royval’s shoulder dislocation hastened the end of their fight, Moreno had been getting very much the better of things for most of the first round already. The first-round TKO victory over Royval—an outstanding prospect in his own right who has the look of a future title contender as well—netted “The Assassin Baby” exactly what he wanted, as flyweight champ Deiveson Figueiredo called for the 26-year-old Mexican to get the next shot at his title. It turns out his day of reckoning is coming right soon, as the UFC booked the two for a three-week turnaround in the main event of UFC 256 on Dec. 12.
Joaquin Buckley: It was just six weeks ago that “New Mansa” authored one of the most spectacular knockouts we’ve ever seen in the Octagon, icing Impa Kasanganay with That Kick. For an encore, Buckley was booked against another fellow prospect in Jordan Wright, a technically undefeated striker who had made his own impressive UFC debut in August. Despite Wright’s striking acumen and glaring size advantage, Buckley walked right through him, putting “The Beverly Hills Ninja” in serious trouble at the end of the first round, and then crushing him with a picture-perfect left hook early in the second. With two sensational knockouts in his first two Octagon appearances, Buckley joins Khamzat Chimaev and Kalinn Williams as one of the breakout stars of 2020, and with a hometown rivalry with James Krause a-brewing, the St. Louis native might even have a name-value opponent coming up soon.
Antonina Shevchenko: “La Pantera” was never expected to match the achievements of her younger sister; aside from a few early one-off bouts, she crossed over to MMA in earnest much later and is simply not the same type of explosive athlete. Even by that standard, however, her 2-2 start in the UFC was not promising; in her two meetings with Top 15-quality opponents, she was completely unable to stop the takedowns of Roxanne Modafferi, and was thrashed by Katlyn Chookagian to the tune of unanimous 30-25 scorecards.
Taking on a fellow disappointment Saturday in former KSW champ Ariane Lipski, Shevchenko appeared to have made some strides. Most notably, she showed a willingness to engage on the ground, and a positional awareness, that will likely serve her well against future opponents. By the time she finished off “The Queen of Violence” with a storm of ground-and-pound, it was the best performance of her MMA career to date. At 36, with her first UFC finish and a “Performance of the Night” bonus, the elder Shevchenko sister is showing some new facets to her game, and may have a new lease on life at flyweight.
Mauricio Rua: “Shogun” is no stranger to being pronounced professionally dead, only to rise from the grave and defy expectations. Perhaps the hottest fighter in the world when he joined the UFC in 2007, he promptly lost his debut to Forrest Griffin, fueling speculation that the injury-prone 25-year-old was already damaged goods. That proved untrue, as Rua would go on to win the UFC light heavyweight title with a shocking knockout of Lyoto Machida two years later. When he lost the title, ushering in the Jon Jones era, most observers assumed his days as a factor in the division were numbered. That turned out to be premature as well, as Rua spent the next nine years as a fringe contender in the division he once ruled. The former Pride Fighting Championships star’s staying power, and the way he has achieved it with conscious concessions to his physical decline, are as inspiring in their own way as his glorious run through the 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix.
However, “Shogun” on Saturday looked like a man who might be all out of rebirths and reinventions. Facing a man in Paul Craig that he had outfought just a year ago—the split draw verdict was due to a very iffy 10-8 first round for Craig on one of the scorecards—Rua looked like a man fighting underwater. Even against Craig, one of the slower-moving strikers in the division, Rua was repeatedly beaten to the punch, and where Craig had been reduced to pulling guard off of blown takedowns in their first meeting, this time he was able to finish those takedowns, whereupon he pelted the Brazilian with strikes and looked for submissions. By the time Rua was tapping the canvas on Saturday, it felt like an act of mercy for us as well. “Shogun” has had nothing left to prove for quite a while, but only now does it look as though he might not have much left, period.
Louis Cosce: It is not time to jump off the bandwagon of the younger Cosce brother just yet. His third-round TKO loss to Sasha Palatnikov on Saturday is not optimal, of course, but there’s a lot going on. Cosce, who had only had to fight past the two-minute mark once in his first seven fights, appeared badly gassed by the end of the first round. That might be an indication that cardio is going to be an issue, but Cosce is young in both age and fight experience, both of which seem to put fighters at higher risk for first-time Octagon jitters and the resulting adrenaline dump. It’s encouraging that despite being obviously exhausted, Cosce never stopped throwing meaningful offense until the very end. There’s also the opponent: Palatnikov, the first fighter from Hong Kong to win in the Octagon, may simply be better than the tape on him seemed to indicate.
However, the old cliché “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression” has never been truer than it is in the UFC in 2020. With many other sports muted, and with the promotion willing to book hot fighters practically weekly, the COVID-era UFC is a launching pad for new stars. Winning one’s debut fight, especially in spectacular fashion, can be the difference between being a Chimaev, “Khaos” or Buckley, and just another guy or girl on the roster. Cosce will get another shot—several, if need be—but this was a step back.