UFC 221: The Real Winners and Losers from Perth, Australia

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2018

UFC 221: The Real Winners and Losers from Perth, Australia

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    The UFC 221 card failed to capture fans' imaginations in the weeks leading up to the show, but Perth, Australia, wound up hosting a generally solid night of fights. 

    From the top to the bottom, those who tuned in or bought tickets were treated to some back-and-forth bouts and some darn good finishes.

    All in all, there were 12 winners and 12 losers on the card. But naturally, not all victories are created equal, and not all defeats sting as deeply as others.

    The most deeply stung, unfortunately, was Luke Rockhold. The former middleweight champion first had the unenviable task of facing the titleholder, Robert Whittaker, on his home soil. When Whittaker pulled out of the event because of injury, Rockhold was given an even more dangerous opponent in Yoel Romero.

    It was a big risk for the former middleweight champion that became even riskier when Romero missed weight. While he could have opted out of the bout, he decided to stay in the headlining spot—and was rewarded with a brutal TKO loss.

    Already a victim of the middleweight division's championship shenanigans, Rockhold stepped up on multiple levels when it came to this event. Now he is going home empty-handed with his place in the division uncertain.

    The flip side to this was Jake Matthews. While the Celtic Kid wasn't fighting for a belt, the pressure was incredibly high for him in Perth.

    After failing to live up to his "top prospect" billing at lightweight, Matthews performed a hard reset on his career in 2017 by jumping up to the welterweight division. While he was victorious in his return to 170 pounds, few were inspired as he narrowly edged out the unheralded Bojan Velickovic in less than inspiring fashion in November.

    That made it hard to be enthused for his bout opposite a surging Li Jingliang, but the Australian managed to pick up a critical win in front of his compatriots. A win that, in fact, helps to solidify him as an upper-tier fighter in his new division.

    That wasn't all, though. Who else won big at UFC 221? And who wasn't so lucky? Read on to find out.

Real Winner: Juicy Victories for Jussier

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    Jussier da Silva is often forgotten, even in the flyweight division. He's historically struggled to mount an extended winning streak, and he always seems to wind up just outside of the title-shot discussions whenever they start heating up.

    Sometimes, though, all a fighter needs to do is give the fans and the UFC a reminder of what they are capable of. And Formiga? Well, he's capable of some extreme violence.

    Facing Ben Nguyen at UFC 221, Da Silva posted what is easily the most brutal (and arguably, the most impressive) win of his UFC career. After two back-and-forth rounds, the Brazilian unleashed a brutal spinning backfist on Nguyen that landed hard. Ground-and-pound followed, and when Nguyen tried to roll away, Da Silva slapped on a vicious rear-naked choke.

    In a scene straight out of pro wrestling, Nguyen was turned to face the camera just in time for fans to see the life choked out of him. The referee, thankfully, was all over the action and broke things up immediately, giving Formiga the technical submission win.

    Unfortunately, the UFC seems committed to making a bout between UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw a reality. Da Silva, though, is a threat to beat Johnson. After this win, it's hard to say he doesn't finally deserve his shot at the gold.

Real Winner: People with Silly Nicknames

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    UFC 221 was raked over the coals by MMA fans. It wasn't deep enough to warrant a premium pay-per-view price. The main event was silly. The card was too heavily tailored to the local audience.

    It was hard to find anything interesting on the show—well, except for Israel Adesanya's UFC debut. The Style Bender is a world-class kickboxer whose specialty is high-flying techniques, and his Octagon bow was the one thing that had everyone enthused. And boy, oh boy—he did not disappoint.

    Facing Rob Wilkinson, Adesanya lived up to any possible expectations with a roundly excellent performance. From start to finish, the former Glory title contender kept the fight standing, avoided damage in the clinch and landed hard, accurate shots at range. The damage added up quickly, and Wilkinson collapsed, netting Adesanya an incredibly impressive win.

    Adesanya may not have done any of the wild, GIF-friendly spinning moves that first endeared him to fans, but that's a good thing. The kickboxing ninja instead proved he is capable of putting in a measured, disciplined performance against a decent opponent.

    Is Adesanya going to be the next big UFC star? Maybe. Maybe not. But he's someone fans should keep an eye on and someone fighters should actively avoid.

Real Loser: Cheaters (Who Don't End Up Winning)

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    Cheating is a constant in MMA. Not trying hard to cut weight, holding the fence, fingers in the gloves, grabbing trunks—there are a lot of ways to get an edge over an opponent that aren't quite on the up and up.

    For the most part, those are just a part of the game. Fighters (the ones who don't do it, at least) might not necessarily like it, but even when stakes are highest, it's rare to see a competitor openly take issue with any kind of gamesmanship.

    There's a line there, though. Phoning it in during a weight cut in order to preserve cardio is one thing. Gouging an opponent's eyes to avoid a submission is another entirely.

    That's what happened, though, in the bout between Matthews and Li Jingliang.

    During the second round, as Matthews was applying a tight guillotine choke (see above), Li moved both hands to Matthews' face and began digging with his fingers. The cameras didn't immediately pick it up, but the moment was still captured, broadcast and immortalized on social media, instantly turning Li into a reviled figure. 

    Despite the fact he freed himself from the hold with this incredibly dirty move, Li still walked out of the cage with an L, dropping the fight via unanimous decision.

    In some ways, the eye-gouging helps Matthews' brand, as he not only defeated the solid Li but looked tough as nails by shrugging off the situation. For Li, though, this is a double dose of failure. Not only has his momentum ground to a halt, but he could well be facing a suspension from the UFC and athletic commissions alike.

Real Winner: The Heavyweight Division's Future

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    The UFC likes Tai Tuivasa. And how could it not? 

    He's 24. A bona fide heavyweight. Born in a lucrative market. An exciting prospect who wowed in his debut. He's got it all. With that in mind, the UFC put together a showcase fight for him, pitting him against an undersized and overmatched Cyril Asker in the hopes Tuivasa would build his resume and hype up the crowd.

    It got its wish.

    Entering the cage with a 6-0 record, with each win coming via first-round knockout, Tuivasa kept his streak going at UFC 221. He plodded forward, landed almost at will and forced Asker into a defensive shell immediately. From there, he turned up the volume even more until Asker simply folded up from the pressure, prompting the referee stoppage.

    Like Adesanya, the jury is still out on Tuivasa. But there is cause to be bullish about his long-term prospects. Depending on whom and where he fights next, there may be big things lined up for him.

Real Loser: Pride Never Dying

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    It's tough to say much about the UFC 221 co-main event between Mark Hunt and Curtis Blaydes. And that kind of stinks.

    Usually, a Hunt fight is followed by effusive praise for the Super Samoan. He tends to win in stunning fashion, traditionally knocking out fighters cold with a single punch. And if he doesn't? Well, at least he can hang his hat on the fact he had a good scrap with one of the world's best heavyweights.

    That wasn't what happened in Perth, though. Facing the unheralded Blaydes, Hunt was on the bad end of a standard-issue "embrace the grind" performance, getting taken down repeatedly and struggling to maintain any kind of offense against a smothering wrestler.

    On the one hand, this should have been expected. Blaydes entered the event as the favorite and had a clear stylistic advantage over Hunt. It should have been obvious the younger grappler would take down and wear out the older striker.

    Alas, many fans were blindsided by this loss. Everything we thought we knew about the 43-year-old Hunt—that he basically doesn't age and he doesn't lose to anyone but the elite—was proved wrong in the blandest, most obvious way possible.

    It was a hard, bitter dose of reality for a storybook MMA hero. And it's a tough one to swallow.

Real Winner: Yoel Romero

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    Yoel Romero needed a win here. 

    At 40, every fight is a precious thing for the 2000 Olympic silver medalist. The clock is ticking on his career, and any given bout could be his last. And in the crowded upper echelon of the middleweight division, opportunities of any substance are tough to come by.

    The Soldier of God was incredibly lucky this opportunity against Luke Rockhold fell into his lap and was even more lucky when the promotion's president, Dana White, was oddly chill about his failure to make weight for the bout. Still, he needed to rise to the occasion at UFC 221 and make the most of this gift.

    As was likely gathered from the first slide, he did precisely that.

    The first two rounds featured solid, technical action. Rockhold stayed behind his jab and drilled Romero with leg kicks, while Romero kept the former champion honest with his Olympic-caliber wrestling and punching power.

    To the untrained eye, this was a normal, competitive fight. Those who have studied the tape on Romero, however, knew what was coming. The Cuban fighter's signature strategy is to patiently analyze an opponent's timing, learn his tells and, eventually, destroy him with a single explosion of offense. And that's what happened here.

    After allowing Rockhold to feel overly confident in his jab for two rounds, Romero slipped inside and punished him with a clubbing overhand left and a brutal, fight-ending uppercut. In the blink of an eye, Rockhold was sent into a career tailspin while Romero, once again, was an unstoppable monster.

    That's good news for the UFC, with the promotion indicating this win earns Romero a title shot. The Soldier of God lost to middleweight champion Robert Whittaker in 2017 and needed to look like a killer at UFC 221 in order to ignite interest in a rematch. This flash knockout over Rockhold did just that, and while he might be an underdog against Whittaker, it's impossible to deny his chances.

    The bad news, however, is that it's unclear whether Romero will be healthy enough to get into the Octagon anytime soon. He indicated after the fight that he suffered a leg injury during the contest. That could knock him out of the top contender spot if he is shelved for any length of time.