Draws are rarely palatable in any sport, but put that down as just one more way UFC 256 went down as a special night of fights.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s final pay-per-view offering of 2020 is a late candidate for the year’s best event, with a lean, mean, 10-fight card that offered a fantastic balance of fireworks and relevance. While the topic of discussion next week will certainly be the flyweight title draw between Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno and the point deduction that brought it about—to say nothing of Figueiredo’s post-fight revelation that he had been hospitalized the night before the fight—a majority of Saturday’s fights featured contenders or prospects with something to prove. Some made the grade while others did not. Here is the stock report for UFC 256.
Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno: There have now been four draws in UFC championship fights in the 27-year history of the promotion. Some, like B.J. Penn vs. Caol Uno, were no great shakes as fights, and disasters for the division. Others, like Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson, were great fights that simply needed to be run back. Put UFC 256’s headliner firmly in the latter category. It was a “Fight of the Year” contender, and the likely immediate rematch is no problem, considering there isn’t exactly a queue of deserving contenders waiting.
There is more than that, however: Figueiredo and Moreno gave us the rare example of a fight that may have raised both men’s stock, as champion and challenger alike dispelled some of the questions hanging over them. By making weight twice in three weeks, looking healthy in the cage and winning the fifth round with striking volume and a late takedown, Figueiredo put to bed the idea that his weight cut and frenetic pace could be exploited. For his part, Moreno made weight on the same exact turnaround, withstood the full arsenal of perhaps the division’s scariest finisher ever and proved that he’s more than just a “right place, right time” title challenger. 24 hours ago, I couldn’t have imagined an outcome that would make me want to see these two rematch immediately, on a full training camp. Now I can.
Kevin Holland: It isn’t just that he won; Holland closed as a slight favorite, so that was more or less expected. It’s isn’t even that he won by finish, even if that is about as badly as we’ve ever seen Souza hurt in a 35-fight career. The most impressive thing about Holland’s first-round knockout of “Jacare” is how confident he was, and how natural and effortless he made everything seem. On the ground, the 28-year-old Texan showed no fear whatsoever of one of the greatest grapplers in MMA history, calmly working for position and even throwing up submission attempts from his back. The finish was pure Holland: a series of arcing punches from his back that no coach would ever draw up on the blackboard, yet go down in history as “fearlessly creative” rather than “suicidally stupid” because…they worked. While it’s fair to wonder whether part of the result was due to the 41-year-old Souza’s decline, we're talking about a man who a year ago arguably defeated current light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz. It seems fairer and more logical to attribute Saturday’s stunning result to Holland’s continued improvement.
Tony Ferguson: For most of their respective UFC careers, Ferguson seemed like the most miserable matchup imaginable for Charles Oliveira. "El Cucuy” was a maniac in the most awesome sense of the word, an offensive juggernaut who overwhelmed one opponent after another with bewildering, unorthodox striking, lethal grappling and an unmatchable pace. Meanwhile, Oliveira was, to put it bluntly, a head case. “Do Bronx” was one of the scariest grapplers in the sport, but something of a defensive liability on the feet, and above all, appeared to wilt when hurt or pressured. Those problems, coupled with one of the UFC’s worst histories of weigh-in issues, seemed to pigeonhole Oliveira as a fun fringe contender with a hard ceiling.
What a difference a few years make. Coming into Saturday’s co-main event, Oliveira had been on a seven-fight win streak at lightweight, characterized by better weight management and sharper, more confident striking. Ferguson, on the other hand, finally saw his incredible 12-fight tear come to an end courtesy of Justin Gaethje. Nonetheless, Ferguson was the betting favorite at UFC 256, due in part to his higher strength of schedule and probably due in part—certainly in my mind—to a sneaking suspicion that even the new and improved Oliveira might fold under the onslaught of “El Cucuy.” Instead, not only did Oliveira win a lopsided decision that deserved at least one 10-8 round and probably more, but he did to Ferguson what Ferguson used to do to others: overwhelm him. Ferguson simply never got his bizarre and terrifying striking game going, because Oliveira began tagging him immediately and never gave him time or space. On the ground, Ferguson’s venomous and opportunistic “snap-jitsu” was similarly foiled, again by the simple fact that Oliveira forced him to defend himself constantly. If the 36-year-old Ferguson wishes to remain relevant in the UFC lightweight title picture, all the onus will be on him to prove it in his next fight.
Junior dos Santos: “Cigano” is barely older than Ferguson—he turns 37 next month—but his decline has been in the cards for a while. Two hellacious five-round battles with Cain Velasquez essentially chewed up and spit out dos Santos’ athletic prime, and it’s frankly impressive that the Brazilian has accomplished as much as he has in the last six years. However, the bottom has now fallen out of the idea that the former champ is even a Top 10 fighter anymore. After his second-round TKO loss to Ciryl Gane on Saturday, “JDS” is on a four-fight losing streak, all by knockout or technical knockout. On the one hand, Francis Ngannou and Curtis Blaydes were both Top 10 fighters, Jairzinho Rozenstruik became one after knocking out dos Santos, and Gane is likely to follow suit. None of those are embarrassing losses. However, dos Santos has not been remotely competitive in any of the four fights, and the finishes have ranged from depressing to alarming. It’s entirely possible that the UFC’s promised roster cuts will take the decision out of his hands, but in either event, it might be time for one of MMA’s most prematurely aged former greats to look to his future outside the cage.