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If the Ultimate Fighting Championship still employed those snappy tag lines for its pay-per-view cards — “Unfinished Business,” “Locked and Loaded,” etc. — Saturday’s card might appropriately have been nicknamed UFC 259: Never a Dull Moment.
On the heels of last weekend’s frankly dreadful UFC Fight Night 186, even the most intrepid fan of cage fighting might be forgiven for feeling a little apprehensive about UFC 259’s monster 15-fight lineup, capped by three title fights that, while they promised title-fight excitement, also carried the potential of going five rounds apiece. However, while the card did end up being a nine-hour-plus marathon, it was riveting viewing pretty much for the duration. Almost all of the fights were at least good, several were outstanding and the undercard, in particular, was jammed with eye-opening finishes. And that trio of championship fights? Well, only one of them ended up going the distance, and all three gave us plenty to talk about.
On a night of shocking turnarounds, predictable beatdowns and more than one controversial finish, it goes without saying that some fighters elevated their stocks while others took a spill. Here is the stock report for UFC 259: Blachowicz vs. Adesanya.
Jan Blachowicz: As Butch Coolidge, the aging boxer portrayed by Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction once said, “They keep underestimating you — that’s how you’re gonna beat ‘em.” Your undisputed light heavyweight title holder can probably relate. Blachowicz’s improbable run as perhaps the most overlooked, underestimated UFC champ of the last decade has now seen him enter the Octagon as the underdog in nine of his last 11 fights. His record over that stretch? 9-2. In Saturday’s main event against previously undefeated middleweight champ Israel Adesanya, the affable purveyor of “legendary Polish power” defied the odds and the doubters yet again, holding his own in a kickboxing match with one of the most dazzling strikers in MMA history before taking over in the championship rounds with takedowns and methodical top control. Despite being now only the eighth man to defend the UFC light heavyweight title, a feat that some all-time greats including Randy Couture and Mauricio Rua never managed, there is every likelihood that Blachowicz will be an underdog yet again in his next fight. If it is against Glover Teixeira, Blachowicz might be a slight underdog or even, wonder of wonders, even money; if for some reason Jon Jones decides to pay a visit, probably a massive underdog. In either case, write this man off at your own peril.
Dominick Cruz: On the list of post-fight hot takes I did not plan to be espousing on Sunday morning, “Dominick Cruz looks like a Top 10 bantamweight” was way up there. Count me among those who expected this to be a bad night for the former champ. Despite being Cruz’s first unranked opponent in approximately a million years, Casey Kenney figured to be a tough stylistic challenge and Cruz had looked like damaged goods in his last two outings against Henry Cejudo and Cody Garbrandt. Instead, “The Dominator” looked absolutely sensational on Saturday. His vaunted footwork was quicker and more fluid, his chin and cardio on point, and Cruz reaffirmed his status as one of the smartest fighters in MMA history, mixing up kicks, boxing and takedowns perfectly. While the 35-year-old former champ probably needs another fight or two before it’s time to talk about the Top 5, consider the fact that T.J. Dillashaw, whom Cruz defeated and has just as many questions hanging over his head, is about to return to the division, probably on a fast track to a title shot. Even if Cruz managed to burn down his color commentator gig with his hilariously, awesomely pointed takedown of a certain Monster Energy employee on Saturday, at least he has the whole fighting thing on which to fall back.
Askar Askarov: Askarov would be firmly in the “stock up” category if he had made weight on Friday, but at the very least he remains the Most Interesting Man in the (Flyweight) World. The 125-pound division is a fairly shallow one, and “Bullet” is an undefeated prospect, but a matchup with Joseph Benavidez nonetheless represented a rare opportunity. Benavidez, after all, was perhaps MMA’s ultimate bridesmaid, as six of his seven career losses had come against bantamweight GOAT Cruz and two apiece to Demetrious Johnson and Deiveson Figueiredo, probably the No. 1 and No. 2 flyweights in the brief history of the division. By the eyeball test, at least, Askarov placed himself alongside those three, as he outclassed Benavidez everywhere for three rounds, including on the feet. It is still very possible that Askarov will face the winner of the Figueiredo-Brandon Moreno rematch, though it would have been all but a done deal if Askarov had made weight on Friday. However, a weight miss is not the end of the world, or even an insurmountable obstacle. Just ask your champ.
Carlos Ulberg: Behold, the fall of a highly-touted prospect. There’s a reason Ulberg was heavily favored over a younger, bigger, more experienced foe in Kennedy Nzechukwu. Despite being just 3-0 in MMA, the New Zealander had significant kickboxing experience and a charisma and in-cage panache reminiscent of his City Kickboxing teammate Adesanya. In a bit of a showcase fight, Ulberg was doing just fine until he wasn’t. The titanic Nzechukwu weathered the first round, kept applying pressure and caught Ulberg with a one-shot KO in the middle of the second frame. “Black Jag” will almost certainly get at least one more chance to prove himself in the Octagon, but in an era in which the track from Dana White's Contender Series prospect to UFC star is a loaded slingshot, he will never have another chance to make a first impression.
Megan Anderson: It feels like piling on to criticize Anderson’s performance too harshly. She was a borderline contender with one Top 10 win, facing the greatest fighter of all time. However, in previous iterations of this column I’ve pointed out that a heavy favorite has to do something remarkable in order to affect his or her stock. Conversely, it would take a lot for Anderson, a 10-to-1 underdog, to show up here, but…mission accomplished. Anderson’s reaction to the first flush shot she took from Amanda Nunes might best be described as “shock and alarm.” Seconds later, the towering Aussie — whose best chance at an upset was a one-in-a-million strike — was shooting for a takedown. Moments after that, the champ was lining up a beautiful submission that was the literal definition of “Nunes by whatever she wants.” It was all over in barely two minutes.
Again, all of that is a big pile of whatever. Nunes has dominated just about everyone she has faced for several years. For Anderson, the bigger problem is that she is now the featherweight equivalent to bantamweight contenders Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie: the woman that the UFC will struggle to keep busy, as she is good enough to beat just about everyone else, but nobody will want to see her against the champ again.