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The fight that closed UFC 236 between Dustin Poirier and Max Holloway isn’t the sort of bout we get all that often, even watching large amounts of MMA. Poirier put it on Holloway in a serious way early in the fight with powerful punches to where it felt like a stoppage might have been the best thing for the Hawaiian’s health and future career. Poirier has been fighting at 155 pounds for years, while Holloway has been competing at featherweight, and the power difference seemed quite pronounced despite the fighters once having competed at the same weight.
Holloway isn’t a fighter who should be easily counted out, and he proved as much as the fight progressed. Holloway displayed remarkable heart and managed to battle back in a fight many thought came down to the final round. Holloway did not have to fight from behind much over the course of a 13-fight winning streak in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but he proved he’s no frontrunner on Saturday in Atlanta, as he nearly overcame a serious power disadvantage through perseverance and work rate. Poirier-Holloway 2 was a clear “Fight of the Year” contender.
Then there was the matter of the fight that preceded it. Poirier-Holloway 2 was a terrific fight, but Israel Adesanya-Kelvin Gastelum was something else entirely. Calling it a “Fight of the Year” contender undersells it because that’s not a fight that comes along every year, let alone multiple times a year. Like Jon Jones-Alexander Gustafsson, Robbie Lawler-Rory MacDonald or Chuck Liddell-Wanderlei Silva, Adesanya-Gastelum was an all-time classic -- a fight with which both men will always be associated and a fight fans will still be mentioning 10 years from now.
Some aspects of MMA, like with other sports, benefit from additional time and context. This is particularly true when it comes to assessing championship reigns. With time, we get a better feel for the quality of opponents the champion faced. Sometimes a win becomes more impressive because of what the challenger did after the defeat. Other times, it becomes less notable because the challenger falls hard after a title loss. Often even more valuable in assessing champions is how their reign ends, which can go a long way towards shaping their overall story.
Classic fights are a different matter. Unlike fight careers or championship reigns, individual fights represent a moment in time and don’t need time to age. Sometimes a fight will rise in stature because of circumstances surrounding it, such as Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar being closely associated with the rise in popularity of the sport of MMA in the United States. Other times a fight will slightly fade because not enough people remember it, such as Kazuo Misaki-Jorge Santiago -- a phenomenal bout that had the misfortune of occurring in the final months of a dying promotion. However, for the most part, fights are recognized for their greatness right as they happen.
There’s no checklist for what makes a great fight, but the best fights have certain traits in common. Stakes are of course key: A fight that takes place first on the card is less apt to be remembered than the main event. Perhaps the most prominent example of the role stakes can play in elevating a fight was Randy Couture-Tim Sylvia. The story of Couture coming out of retirement at age 43 and moving up to heavyweight to shock the much larger heavyweight champion added tremendous excitement to a fight that wouldn’t have stood out without that meaning.
Drama is another factor that frequently comes into play in the biggest of fights. Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen 1 is the perfect example of how drama can make a fight seem epic. As Sonnen was grounding and pounding Silva, there was drama in the idea that he was going to back up all his words and finally stop one of the sport’s most dominant champions. When Silva was down late in the fight, his Hail Mary triangle armbar marked a dramatic turn in a fight where it looked like Sonnen had victory in the bag. Drama made that fight what it was.
Perhaps the most obvious component of a great fight and the one that’s present most often is great back-and-forth action. Two fighters throwing caution to the wind and going for the finish like Nick Diaz and Takanori Gomi or Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayama tends to be well-remembered, regardless of the context heading into the bout or coming out of it.
Adesanya-Gastelum had all of these factors going for it. It had stakes, with both men fighting for a UFC title for the first time. This was precisely the argument UFC President Dana White made in using the top fights at UFC 236 to defend the company against criticism that it was prostituting the meaning of its titles with an endless precession of ridiculous interim championships. Besides a title being on the line, winning sets up a fight between Adesanya and Robert Whittaker that could be a historic event in the history of the sport in Oceania.
Adesanya-Gastelum also had plenty of drama, as it came down to the final round. Unlike Poirier-Holloway 2, which could have been tied going into the final round but was not on any of the judges’ scorecards, all three judges gave Gastelum the fourth round and had the fight even going into a deciding fifth. Adesanya not only won that final round but he did so in emphatic fashion, nearly stopping Gastelum at the close. The arc of the fight was also notable, with Gastelum shocking many in the first round by getting the better of the striking exchanges and hurting Adesanya with punches before “The Last Stylebender” came back late.
Of course, what really separated Gastelum-Adesanya was the action. Both men looked to be on the verge of victory and defeat at different points and took a tremendous amount of damage in pursuit of the win. It was the sort of sacrifice few human beings are willing to make and the sort of sacrifice few sports ask of their participants. That’s a large part of what makes MMA the sport that it is; Adesanya and Gastelum added a memorable moment to its lore.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.