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After over a year without substantial live crowds for MMA, UFC 261 on Saturday was a shot of adrenaline between the energy, the fights and all the news developments. It was the most newsworthy Ultimate Fighting Championship event in quite some time, with no shortage of talking points. The fallout is likely to continue for the foreseeable future considering all the different angles for various fighters on and at the card.
The tragic injury to Chris Weidman will be a key marker in his career, just like when he was on the other side and the same thing happened to Anderson Silva. Rose Namajunas’ victory was a heartwarming moment for a fighter who has had real highs and lows. The crowd itself was a major story, both in terms of the benefits those crowds provide and UFC President Dana White’s vitriol towards media outlets that questioned the wisdom of doing a full indoor crowd now rather than waiting a couple months for healthy adults to have time to be immunized. The Jake Paul-Daniel Cormier confrontation could end up meaning nothing in the world of MMA, but for those hoping that’s the case, there are no guarantees. Here are a few other key points stemming from the event:
Usman’s Pound-for-Pound Spot
In the wake of Kamaru Usman’s explosive knockout of Jorge Masvidal, discussion quickly turned to his spot in the pound-for-pound hierarchy. In a sport where we often get ahead of ourselves in showering great fighters with accolades, Usman’s claim to being the pound-for-pound best, if anything, was undersold. No male fighter is exhibiting the same dominance fight in and fight out. Usman is clearly the pound-for-pound best right now, with one caveat.
The caveat for Usman is that different people have different criteria when it comes to pound-for-pound rankings. For some, it’s more about who’s fighting the best right now. For others, legacy and overall resume plays more of a role. That’s where Jon Jones comes in. The Jones who fought Dominick Reyes and Thiago Santos didn’t exhibit anything resembling the dominance that Usman has showcased in recent fights. Still, Jones is ostensibly unbeaten over the course of his career and has a solid claim for being the GOAT. It’s thus going to be difficult for some to place him second behind Usman without Jones having lost.
This parallels a situation that arose around 13 years ago. At that point, Fedor Emelianenko, like Jones now, had one official loss under controversial circumstances. He had been considered the pound-for-pound best but had struggled more recently against subpar opposition. Some felt he deserved the crown until he lost, while others felt Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre had stronger claims based on fighting a higher caliber of competition and winning more impressively in recent fights.
Emelianenko’s claim to being the pound-for-pound best ended with a submission loss to Fabricio Werdum, and Jones was soon in the new mix with Silva and St. Pierre. Silva and St. Pierre left that group, leaving Jones as the lone holdover from that era. Given the trajectory of Usman’s recent performances and Jones’ recent performances, it seems likely that the same pattern could repeat itself in the next couple years.
The Growing Potential of Nunes-Shevchenko III
It was not that long ago that the idea of Amanda Nunes-Valentina Shevchenko III as a major attraction would have seemed completely fanciful. Nunes and Shevchenko are of course both exemplary talents, two of the best champions in women’s MMA history. However, Nunes has never caught on with the general public to the level of her talent. Shevchenko likewise has flown under the radar. Moreover, they have fought twice already, with the larger fighter Nunes winning both times, so there wouldn’t even be a rubber match hook to the potential bout. Nunes-Shevchenko III certainly felt like a possible future fight, but it didn’t feel like a fight that fans would rally behind seeing.
Perhaps it’s an overreaction to the boisterous Jacksonville, Florida, crowd loudly chanting “Valentina” as she completely dominated another opponent, but that Nunes-Shevchenko rematch is starting to feel like something that might end up having major public demand. It won’t be a St. Pierre-B.J. Penn II level mega fight. However, just as GSP-Penn II did over triple the business of GSP-Penn I, it’s not hard to imagine Nunes-Shevchenko III being many times as big as Nunes-Shevchenko II.
Nunes and Shevchenko’s recent careers have been marked by two key common attributes: total dominance over the competition and the sense that there’s nobody in their weight classes that can touch them. The big challenge for Nunes was Cristiane Justino. After Nunes quickly knocked out “Cyborg,” she has become a progressively bigger favorite for each successive fight. Meanwhile, Shevchenko has been a sizable favorite in every bout since her last fight with Nunes. Shevchenko has been so dominant that it’s starting to become hard to imagine her losing, even though we’ve seen her lose to Nunes. It feels like that Shevchenko was a different fighter, exactly the sense you want leading into another rematch.
Nunes-Shevchenko III feels unlikely to happen next, as both women have challengers set up. However, if the two champions win impressively again, it doesn’t feel fanciful to imagine them fighting again late this year or early in 2022. For a fight that’s gone the same way twice already and meant little to fans either time, I’m becoming quite bullish on the potential for the third.
The Return of Diaz
There were a lot of surprises at UFC 261 and a particularly satisfying one for a lot of longtime fans was the reappearance of Nick Diaz looking to return to action. It has been over six years since we’ve seen Diaz in the Octagon, and part of his legend involves the difficulty in getting a read on the man. His name will pop up, nothing will come of it, six months will pass and the same cycle will repeat itself. Diaz traveling across the country to attend a show and meet with White is the strongest signal of his seriousness in a very long time.
If Diaz is ready to return, there are countless intriguing fights for him at middleweight or welterweight, depending on where he prefers to fight. Almost all of his top career rivals are retired, leaving a whole slate of fresh opponents. Part of the hook of future Diaz fights will also be the rarity of them; the enigmatic Stockton, California, native could decide to stop again at any time, just like he did before. A few months from his 38th birthday, the clock is ticking on Diaz anyway.
Being given a reason to think about Diaz’s career again, it’s hard not to feel a tinge of sadness from a fan standpoint about the course of his career. When he fought Carlos Condit in February 2012, he hadn’t even reached the age of 29. There was every reason to believe we’d be seeing his entertaining style of fighting for many years to come. Instead, we only got two more fights in nine years. We may never see the Diaz of that period again. He may do better than other fighters in their late 30s because of all that time off, but that will only make a difference for so long.
There are of course major positives for Diaz in the way his life progressed. He got a few big paydays that allowed him to do what he wanted with his time. It was likely good for his physical and mental wellbeing. Assuming he’s been smart with his money, it’s a happy story. Still, memories of the way he fought with vigor and bravado few fighters ever have make it hard not to wonder what could have been. That feeling will be particularly pronounced if he takes a number of fights in the coming years and struggles in a way that would feel less likely if he were 32-34 rather than 38-40.