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Saturday’s UFC 258 was a fairly thin pay-per-view offering, at least in terms of divisional relevance and familiar names, even before losing two fights in the 72 hours before go time. With Jim Miller vs. Bobby Green and Gillian Robertson vs. Miranda Maverick off the card, the onus was on Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns more than ever to put on a show worth our—checks notes—70 dollars.
While it’s up to the customers to decide whether UFC 258 was a suitable test case for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s newest price hike, the two friends and onetime teammates who faced off in the main event did their part and then some, putting on the most riveting welterweight title fight the Octagon has seen in several years. As always, from the curtain-jerker to the headliner, some fighters raised their stock while others saw it plummet. Here is the stock report for UFC 258: Usman vs. Burns.
Kamaru Usman: Facing his most dangerous title challenger — probably his most dangerous Octagon opponent, period — “The Nigerian Nightmare” put on a magnificent performance. In his third-round TKO victory over former teammate Gilbert Burns, Usman displayed the poise and confidence that have long characterized his game, while at the same time displaying some of the new stylistic wrinkles he has been developing under the tutelage of Trevor Wittman. Even those of us who expected Usman to prevail on Saturday probably did not expect him to do so without needing to employ the elite wrestling or crushingly heavy clinch work that brought him to the pinnacle of the division. Instead, Usman weathered an early sequence in which the challenger rocked him badly with several clean overhand rights, recovered and then won a nearly pure standup battle. In particular, Usman’s jab, which has long been a solid tool for the champ, has been honed into a serious weapon, one which he used to sit Burns down on multiple occasions, from both stances. It should give future challengers pause that the 33-year-old champ is showing new ways to win even as he shoulders his way towards the divisional GOAT spot occupied by George St. Pierre (for the record, Usman and anyone else is still quite a way off from overtaking “GSP”).
Alexa Grasso: Two fights into her venture at 125 pounds, Grasso has made a believer out of me. Her unanimous decision win over Ji Yeon Kim last August was an encouraging start, but Kim obliged Grasso with the kind of standup fight she prefers, and in any event is not known for brute physicality. Thus, the question remained of whether Grasso would be able to cope with bona fide flyweight bruisers who wanted to push her around. Enter Saturday’s opponent: Maycee Barber, who, whether or not you bought into her self-appointed mission to become the youngest UFC champ ever, is undeniably a big, strong, athletic 125-pounder who bullied her way to a 7-1 record in large part due to her physicality and aggression. Grasso passed the test with flying colors. It was no surprise that she got the best of the punch exchanges, tagging Barber with clean jabs and counters while Barber swung at air. However, it was a revelation to see Grasso owning the clinch, using underhooks and good head position to deny Barber the takedowns and dirty boxing that she had used to such great effect on other opponents. And perhaps most surprising of all was the grappling exchange that closed out the second round, in which Grasso threatened with an armbar from the bottom, swept to top position and worked for chokes until the horn sounded, with Grasso still in back control. While Grasso should probably get at least one more win before being matched up with a Top 15 opponent, the 27-year-old Mexican looks like a real threat in her new division, and may finally be ready to live up to the potential the UFC saw when it poached her from Invicta FC all the way back in 2016.
Kelvin Gastelum: Speaking to Joe Rogan immediately after his unanimous decision win over Ian Heinisch on Saturday, Gastelum said he believed he had been fighting for his job. That may well have been true, since even in the era of COVID-19, and even for a well-known fighter like the Season 17 “TUF” winner, four straight losses usually mean a pink slip. What is beyond debate is that Heinisch was Gastelum’s last chance to hold on to any sort of contender status. For a man whose last three fights had seen his fortunes fall from giving pound-for-pound talent Israel Adesanya the fight of his MMA life, to losing a close decision to a contender in Darren Till, to getting embarrassed by a contender in Jack Hermansson, a borderline Top-15 fighter like Heinisch was a must-pass test, unless Gastelum wanted to become “just another guy” at middleweight, possibly for good. Gastelum passed that test, showing composure and cage IQ in the process. He also reminded us of some of the things he seems to do so effortlessly when he’s on his game: the hand speed, the elite wrestling that allowed him to throw a visibly bigger man all over the place for much of the fight, and the underrated gas tank despite somehow looking soft and undersized at the same time. Gastelum is still not even 30 years old, he is still a Top 10 fighter, and if he can string together a few more performances like this, he has an inside track on a rematch with “The Last Stylebender” that none of Adesanya’s other opponents have, given how competitive (and amazing) their first meeting was.
Rodolfo Vieira: There have been quite a few Abu Dhabi Combat Club world champions that have passed through the UFC. Of those who have won gold at the world’s most prestigious submission grappling competition, some did great things in the Octagon (Fabricio Werdum), some fared just okay (Marcio Cruz) and for some, the jury is still out (Rani Yahya). However, in over two decades of ADCC winners crossing over to the UFC with varying degrees of success — over 100 fights’ worth, hat tip to Sherdog stat man Jay Pettry — only one had ever lost by submission in the Octagon. Until Saturday, that is, when Vieira, the 2015 ADCC 99-kilogram champion and 7-0 middleweight prospect in MMA, tapped out to a second-round guillotine choke from Anthony Hernandez. Now there are two, and at least Roberto Traven can point out that at back at UFC 34, he was facing a much younger, much bigger man in Frank Mir, who also happened to be on his way to becoming one of the greatest heavyweight grapplers in MMA history. The problem for “The Black Belt Hunter” isn’t the loss, or even the specific result; MMA is an unpredictable sport. The alarming element is the speed with which Vieira appeared to become completely exhausted, to the point of being incapable of defending himself against an admittedly scrappy underdog in Hernandez. Whether it was due to some kind of adrenaline dump, trying too hard for the quick finish or simply the inevitable drawback of Vieira’s muscular build, it was one of the worst exhibitions of cardio in a non-heavyweight UFC fight in a long time. It’s probably fixable, but Vieira has his work cut out for him.
Mallory Martin: Martin entered the cage at UFC 258 as pick ‘em or slight favorite, depending on your sports book of choice, against Polyana Viana, a dangerous grappler who had thus far struggled to get her submission game going against stronger, more athletic strawweights. Martin seemed to fill that bill perfectly, but it still hinged on using that strength to stay out of Viana’s wheelhouse, or at least dictate when and how the fight went to the ground. Instead, Martin allowed “Dama de Ferro” to pull guard, and after defending herself well for a few moments while her opponent threw strikes from the bottom, fell behind as Viana began chaining submission attempts and soon found herself trapped in the fight-ending armbar. There’s no great shame in losing to Viana, who kept her perfect 100 percent finish rate in victory and will probably tap out quite a few more women before she’s done, but one suspects that Martin will watch the tape and really, really want a do-over on this one, as it was a very winnable fight for her.