The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday returned to its home base in Las Vegas for UFC Fight Night 181, featuring the farewell fight—perhaps—of one of its greatest champions.
“UFC Vegas 12” was characterized by lopsided matchups; eight of the 11 fights featured a 2-to-1 or greater favorite, and for the most part they paid; the lone upset among those eight was a contentious decision. When most of the fights on a card play out more or less as expected, it can be more difficult to identify instances of fighters elevating or lowering their stock, but they’re out there to be found. Here is the UFC Fight Night 181 stock report.
Adrian Yanez: If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the UFC in the year of COVID, it’s that first impressions are everything. As the promotion scrambles to fill cards decimated by the pandemic, a constant stream of hopefuls from regional and international promotions as well as Dana White's Contender Series have found their way to the Octagon. In this crowd of new faces, a splashy debut and availability to fight as often as possible go a long way. Just ask Khamzat Chimaev.
Enter Yanez. As one of the most memorable human stories from the Contender Series this year, Yanez made the most of his moment in the spotlight, blitzing Brady Huang for one of the fastest knockouts in series history to secure a UFC contract. Then, on Saturday, Yanez made his Octagon debut a memorable one, lighting up Victor Rodriguez with boxing combinations before leveling him with a completely unblocked left head kick like a bantamweight Mirko "Cro Cop". With the highlight-reel knockout, the 26-year-old Texan made sure he won’t be just another face in the crowd as the UFC surges towards 2021.
Sean Strickland: Heading into Saturday’s prelim tilt with Jack Marshman, Strickland was that rarest of breeds: a 4-to-1 favorite who had all sorts of question marks hovering over him. It was his return after a two-year layoff due to a horrific motorcycle accident and just his second fight at middleweight after spending the bulk of his UFC career at welterweight, and while he was expected to handle Marshman, the onus was on “Tarzan” to prove he was more than just a feel-good story or a footnote. Strickland made a statement, sweeping all three rounds with ease. More than simply outstriking the Welshman—who fell to 3-5 in the Octagon and may not be long for the promotion—Strickland picked up some style points. As the fight wore on, Strickland started jawing at Marshman, not the typical insults or dismissal of the opponent’s offense, but urging him to swing his hardest, of all things. It felt and sounded almost joyous, like a man happy and relieved to be back in the cage. Despite the long absence, Strickland is still just 29, and the promotion should be happy and relieved that he’s back as well.
Bryce Mitchell: If you watched Saturday’s broadcast for even five minutes, you probably heard that “Thug Nasty” is now just the second fighter of the Reebok era to be allowed custom fight wear. The first? Conor McGregor. While that is indicative of the extent to which the UFC sees the 26-year-old Arkansan as a potential star, the good news is that like McGregor, he is being brought along gradually as a potential contender. On paper, Andre Fili presented a suitable step up for Mitchell: a well-rounded, athletic and very game featherweight who might test Mitchell’s striking and takedowns. Mitchell passed the test, showing a persistent and pesky wrestling attack that succeeded in getting Fili to the ground, as well as holding his own on the feet.
On a night that he fought directly after Greg Hardy, who was matched prematurely with a Top 10 opponent last year and got embarrassed by Alexander Volkov, and only a few weeks before Chimaev will take on a title contender in just his ninth professional fight, Mitchell is a refreshing example of a promising fighter being developed sensibly by his promotion. Having said that, he’s earned another step up, and the next one might be a ranked contender.
Anderson Silva: It feels bad to fade “The Spider” here for losing to a younger, heavily favored, ranked contender in what Silva claimed would be his swan song. However, even as the future hall of famer extended his recent stretch of misery to 1-7 with one no-contest, his knockout at the hands of Hall provided a reminder of how much worse some of those other losses could have been. Since dropping a unanimous decision to Michael Bisping nearly four years ago—incidentally, the last time he showed us even momentary flashes of his former razzle-dazzle—Silva has gotten by largely on reverence and deference. His UFC 200 meeting with Daniel Cormier was a snoozefest rather than a mauling, likely because of Cormier’s gratitude for Silva stepping in to save the fight, combined with the motivation to get out with the “W” in such an extreme no-win scenario. Similarly, Israel Adesanya practically proclaimed their fight a bucket-list item and fought like it, treating us to a slightly chippy sparring session devoid of the killer instinct he brought to bear on Robert Whittaker or Paulo Costa.
Hall, like Adesanya, openly proclaimed his hero-worship for the 45-year-old Brazilian, and obliged him with two and a half rounds’ worth of staring contest before finally getting into gear. Once he did, the finish was quick in coming, and showed just how far Silva’s reflexes and chin have slipped since his title days. While only time will tell whether Silva is truly done with fighting, his performance on Saturday should effectively snuff out the idea that he has anything left for the contenders.
Kevin Natividad: Natividad is the flip side of the Yanez coin. While Yanez provided a clinic on how to exceed expectations as a favorite and leave a lasting impression in one’s UFC debut, Natividad did largely the opposite. As the slight underdog against Miles Johns in the opening prelim, “Quicksand” was expected to lose, and was on his way to dropping a straightforward decision in a pretty good fight when in the third round, Johns crushed him with a right uppercut as they separated. In an instant, a unanimous decision loss is now instead a knockout loss on his ledger, and the sight of Natividad out cold as his mouthpiece rolls to a stop halfway across the Octagon will be part of Johns’ highlight reel for as long as he is in the UFC.
This is by no means the end for the 27-year-old Natividad, who is still a solid prospect and should get several more opportunities to show he belongs in the UFC. However, whether he’s a contender or a washout two years from now, he will likely look at this fight as one he really wishes he could have back.
Priscila Cachoeira: “That isn’t fair, she didn’t even fight,” you may say. However, making weight the day before the fight is half the job…and sometimes nearly half the paycheck; just ask Cole Williams. In bringing hotel bathtubs to a perfect 3-0 in the UFC—hat tip to Renan Barao and Zak Cummings—Cachoeira, already one of the least competitive fighters to make it to four fights in the Octagon in recent memory, may have done herself more harm than she would have by simply going out and losing to Cortney Casey as scheduled. While the UFC has been giving fighters extra-long leashes this year—never mind a living legend like Silva, Justin Ledet just lost his fourth straight—it has never had much tolerance for non-contenders who miss weight or pull out of fights. And even if Cachoeira gets another chance in the Octagon, Casey was “only” a -250 favorite. Most UFC flyweights will be an even worse look for the Brazilian. Ouch.