The Ultimate Fighting Championships pulled off the biggest hat trick in a COVID-19 sports landscape.
They leaned on their five-year partnership with the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism which initially would bring an annual mixed martial arts (MMA) pay-per-view (PPV) event to the capital of United Arab Emirates.
While the NBA is dealing with the biggest one day spike in COVID-19 cases in Florida while attempting to restart their season, the UFC bounced and made it happen.
UFC 251 featured a main event of Kamaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman vs. Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal. It was a grudge match that many believed would be the fight of the year, until it wasn’t.
Here are the Top 5 takeaways from UFC 251:
1. Kamaru Usman Took Away the Cinderella Story of the Year
Jorge Masvidal has been on a rocket ship style rise in mixed martial arts. The former Miami street fighter became a journeyman mixed martial artist who experienced every level of the game except that of a divisional champion.
Masvidal held the BMF belt (Baddest MotherF*&ker) which was a novelty nod for his badassery. But it wasn’t the prized UFC welterweight gold that he coveted.
However, Kamaru Usman and his wrestling style nullified his ambitions.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney wrestling standout does not have the most exciting style, in fact, its downright boring to watch.
But you cannot escape its surgical effectiveness.
Regardless of his opponent’s game plan, Usman puts them all through the grinder sapping the life out of opponents with a tactical mix of clinch-and-grappling technique. It is what gave him the inglorious unanimous decision win and has him at 12-0 in the UFC.
This achievement is only matched by two other fighters in UFC history: Anderson Silva and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Each got off to that exact same start in the organization with Silva being considered the GOAT and Nurmagomedov currently the most dominant next to Jon Jones.
Add to the fact that Usman spent an entire training camp preparing for original opponent Gilbert Burns, who’s positive COVID-19 test brought him Masvidal on six days’ notice.
No Cinderella story for the poster boy of the new EA Sports UFC 4game in Masvidal but a hard reminder that wrestling, although not sexy, is still the boss in MMA.
2. Referees Still Stop Fights Late in MMA
During the first of three title fights, Russia’s Petr Yan handily Brazil’s Jose Aldo to claim the UFC bantamweight title. However, it was referee Leon Roberts who took the biggest ‘L’.
Yan officially stopped the Brazilian legend at the 3:24 mark of the fifth round, but many believe the stoppage should have came much sooner.
Fans were forced to painfully watch Aldo getting dominated from the bottom as Yan unloaded unanswered shots the majority of the fifth round of their bout for the vacant 135-pound title.
Aldo covered up, admitting defeat and not fighting back. Roberts cajoled him to fight back but didn’t immediately concede the finish.
“Horrible, horrible stoppage by the referee,” White told reporters at the post-fight press conference. “It should’ve been stopped way sooner, you know. It looks like we have to tighten up our refs and judges here in ‘Fight Island.’”
Back in 2018, veteran UFC referee, Mario Yamasaki came under fire for his reluctance to stop Valentina Shevchenko’s second-round submission win over Priscila Cachoeira at UFC Fight Night 125 sooner.
At the time, Yamasaki’s explanation was that Cachoeira was responsive to his commands so he allowed her “to be a warrior and keep fighting.” Cachoeira also could’ve tapped from strikes at any moment or had her team throw in the towel. Yamasaki hasn’t been back and Dana White might make the same decision for Leon Roberts.
3. “Thug” Rose is Back and Better Than Ever
Amid all the hype surrounding the men’s main event, Fight of The Night honors went to two exceptional women who delivered the goods.
Two champions kept their titles in Volkanov and Usman and Petr Yan became new titleholder but none of these fights brought that extra cha-ching from performance bonuses.
The first Fight Island ‘Fight of the Night’ bonus went to Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade who stunned with an amazing strawweight performance. They fought a competitive three-round bout with Namajunas winning the rematch between the former champions.
Namajunas outworked Andrade throughout the entire affair, although her face told a different tale. She earned a split-decision from the judges for her efforts. Both competitors took home an additional $50,000 showing that in MMA, women are constantly outperforming their male counterparts.
4. UFC Rules a COVID-19 Sports World
The UFC took all the shot, daggers, and verbal barbs en route to Fight Island. What was once considered an attempt by uber promoter Dana White to upstage the sports world has actually saved it.
Fight Island was a culmination by the company to keep sports alive, keep fans entertained, and keep fighters working. All of which has been accomplished. White has famously revealed that he has had no employee drop off since the coronavirus pandemic began.
With only a handful of sports like soccer in Europe and car racing (NASCAR and Formula One) having restarted, White and the UFC have been the most consistent proving why he owns one of the world’s most valuable sports brands.
5. Bye Joe Rogan?
The one voice that was absent from the UFC 251 broadcast was Joe Rogan with UFC commentator Jon Anik filling in his post-fight interview duties. In addition, former UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping handled the color commentator position.
Rogan’s usual high pitched rasp is a hallmark of the UFC production system until it wasn’t due to his reluctance of overseas travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yu can’t blame him for being cautious, plus the exclusive deal with Spotify, which which will see his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, disappear from all other platforms at the price tag of $100 million helps.
But it sets up a changing of the guar where he no longer is the face of the commentary booth. With fighters like Daniel Cormier, Dominick Cruz, and others clamoring to be tapped in, Rogan might have given a glimpse of a product sans his unique touch.