The Real Winners and Losers from UFC 251

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2020

The Real Winners and Losers from UFC 251

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    Jon Anik hit the nail on the head.

    "What a week. What a sport. What a life," he said, closing out the ESPN+ broadcast of a long-awaited UFC 251 pay-per-view show from the ballyhooed "Fight Island" venue on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

    The 13-fight show began shortly after 6 p.m. ET, and its main event didn't start until after Bruce Buffer was making the official introductions nearly seven hours later, but Dana White's pandemic-prompted concept seemed a winner on a card crammed with three title fights and some of the promotion's biggest stars. 

    Anik said the company put its people up at 2,220 rooms in seven hotels and conducted more than 8,500 coronavirus tests on its trip, which covered better than 8,000 miles from Las Vegas. 

    He joined Michael Bisping at the microphone for a two-man broadcast team.

    The fights themselves featured a controversial decision or two, a highlight-reel stoppage or two and more than enough compelling storylines amid one of the few three-title cards in UFC history.

    Bleacher Report was on hand from the first fight to the last, and in keeping with our weekend tradition, we've assembled a list of real winners and losers—not just regurgitated results—from the entire card.

    Read on to see our thoughts and let us know how we matched up with your takeaways.

Winner: Playing to Strengths

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    Going in, it appeared to have everything. 

    This bout featured arguably the UFC's most interesting fighter in Jorge Masvidal and a respected champion in Kamaru Usman, who was aiming to both defend a belt and prolong a win streak.

    And, oh yeah, the main event at the most unique venue that the promotion has ever seen.

    But when punch came to kick, it veered anticlimactic.

    Far from the fireworks the fighters promised during a brief run-up, their welterweight title fight instead turned into a technical grind in Usman's grappling wheelhouse, and he did everything necessary to win a somnambulant unanimous decision across five rounds.

    Two judges gave Usman all five rounds, while one scored it 4-1 in his favor.

    Bleacher Report agreed with the third judge and deemed it 49-46 for Usman.

    It was the champion's 16th consecutive win overall, his 12th straight win in the UFC and his second defense of the 170-pound championship he took from Tyron Woodley at UFC 235.

    But even Bisping conceded it was hardly thrilling.

    "Is it the most exciting thing for the people watching? No," he said. "But is it effective? Yes. And the main thing for Usman is winning this fight. Neither man cares how they do it. All that matters is winning. Winning the fight is the most important thing. Winning the fans doesn't count."

    The statistics illustrated the one-sided nature of things.

    Usman landed 94 significant strikes and 263 overall strikes compared to Masvidal's respective totals of 66 and 88. The champion scored all five of the fight's takedowns as well and finished with 10 minutes, six seconds of clinch control time.

    Masvidal was never in serious danger of being stopped, but he also never mounted much offense beyond a flurry of punches and kicks in the first round. Usman's corner team seemed to sense their foe's subsequent weakness and urged their fighter to close distance and grind on him whenever possible.

    Masvidal took the fight on less than a week's notice after Usman's scheduled challenger, Gilbert Burns, tested positive for COVID-19. The champion heard Masvidal being given significant credit for taking the fight with little planning but pointed out that it wasn't an easy transition for him, either.

    "Gamebred is the biggest, baddest dude out there right now, and I had to switch gears and prepare for him on six days' notice," Usman said. "I had to make a mental shift. He is tough, and he showed it out there.

    "I'm just a level better. I have more tools in the toolbox, and when I need to I can pull them out and use them."

Loser: Premature Exuberance

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    Max Holloway looked pretty sure of himself.

    Upon hearing the final buzzer of his featherweight title rematch with 2019 conqueror Alexander Volkanovski, the giddy Hawaiian climbed to his feet, strutted to the center of the cage and made the signature waist gesture as if the UFC title belt he'd previously held for two-plus years was coming home.

    But the judges had another viewpoint.

    One official scorecard indeed had Holloway a 48-47 winner, but the other two judges created a majority that resulted in a split-decision victory for Volkanovski and a win in his first title defense since beating Holloway at UFC 245 last December.

    Bleacher Report agreed with the solo judge and had Holloway a narrow 48-47 winner.

    "It was a tough one. Max brought it. He made it tough for me," Volkanovski said. "Going into the last round, it was 2-2, and I had to win that last round. It was hard work. We're both hard workers, but I got the job done."

    Holloway seemed to control the initial two rounds with sharper punches from the outside, augmented by leg, body and head kicks and interior knees whenever Volkanovski tried to work in close.

    He had 31-20 and 34-26 edges in significant strikes through the first two rounds while scoring two knockdowns with punches and then had a thinner 28-24 advantage in the third round.

    Volkanovski turned up the aggression in the final two rounds with wrestling while consistently shooting for takedowns. He had 40 significant strikes to Holloway's 32 in the fourth round and held another 38-26 advantage in the fifth.

    "In the third, Volkanovski turned on the gas, turned on the pressure and started to turn the tide of the fight," Bisping noted.

    Volkanovski won by unanimous decision in the first bout, and Saturday's win gave him nine in a row in the UFC, trailing only Usman, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Amanda Nunes.

    "We've had 10 rounds now and I've dominated him," Volkanovski said. "Max has won his rounds, but I got the job done."

Winner: Tough Women

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    Anyone out there who still thinks the UFC women aren't rugged and violent?

    Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade would like to have a word with you.

    The repeat strawweight rivals put on a 15-minute display of technique, guts and brutality in their main-card rematch on Saturday. This time, it ended with former champ Namajunas reversing the previous result and scoring a split decision in a match of the first- and second-ranked contenders at 115 pounds.

    The two had met 14 months ago in Brazil, where Andrade worked Namajunas into a clinch and proceeded to slam her onto her head for a KO victory that resulted in the challenger winning the title.

    Andrade went on to lose in her first defense against Zhang Weili three months later.

    This time around, Namajunas was determined to exploit advantages in hand and foot speed, keeping the fight at a distance and scoring with precise, sharp blows. She controlled the initial two rounds in terms of significant strikes but was clipped a few times in the third and ended the fight with a hideous purple lump under her left eye and a jagged, bloody cut on her nose.

    Nevertheless, it was good enough for 29-28 scores in her favor on two cards, while a third judge saw Andrade winning by the same count.

    "Early in the fight I was great," Namajunas said. "She turned on the desperation button and started really unloading. But I just stayed strong."

Loser: Doubling Up the Belts

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    Jose Aldo rose dizzily to his knees, then plunged forward face-first back to the mat.

    And that was after the fight.

    The former featherweight champion was seeking a title in a second weight class against No. 3 bantamweight contender Petr Yan, but the younger, stronger fighter surged violently in the final two rounds on the way to brutally stopping Aldo with 96 seconds remaining in their title bout.

    The win was Yan's 10th in a row overall and seventh straight during an unbeaten run in the UFC since 2018, and the securing of the belt made him the second Russian in the promotion's history to win a championship, following lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov.

    "He was totally vicious, composed, and when the time was right, he took Aldo out in style," Bisping said.

    Indeed, Aldo was successful in the initial three rounds with sharp punches and strong leg kicks, but he looked noticeably more tired as the fight entered the fourth round. He was bleeding from the nose and gulping for air in his corner prior to the final round, and the session began with a right hand from Yan that ultimately drove Aldo to his back about one minute into the fifth.

    He landed heavy ground strikes after gaining side control, then took Aldo's back and landed dozens of thudding fists and elbows to Aldo's head as Bisping hollered for the fifth to be stopped.

    Referee Leon Roberts exhorted Aldo to defend himself, then intervened when the Brazilian failed to rally.

    In the aftermath, the canvas was smeared with blood from where Aldo's face had been. 

    "I expected it to be a hard fight," Yan said. "In the beginning, I wanted to put pressure on him, make him tired and after that happened, start attacking."

Winner: Memorable First Impressions

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    It took all of five minutes to leave Bisping smitten.

    The former UFC middleweight champ couldn't get enough of Czech native Jiri Prochazka through the first round of his promotion debut against former light heavyweight title challenger Volkan Oezdemir.

    And by the time the second round was done, it had evolved to full-on infatuation. 

    Prochazka shucked, jived and chatted his way though the initial round before getting to violent business in the second, laying out the No. 7-ranked 205-pounder with a crushing right hand after just 49 seconds.

    "The star is bright for this young man," Bisping said. "He is going to go a long way. He couldn't have trotted out much better than that. That was absolutely sensational. Nobody has done that to Volkan Oezdemir."

    Indeed, Oezdemir had lost four times in 21 fights but hadn't been KO'd since a second-round loss to then-champion Daniel Cormier at UFC 220 in Boston.

    That streak ended after a sequence that began with a high kick to the left side of Oezdemir's head that left him wobbling backward toward the fence. Prochazka charged in but aborted an attempt at a high knee, then stepped back and landed a left jab followed by an overhand right that reduced the ex-challenger to competitive mush and prompted an instant intervention by referee Marc Goddard.

    "This man is crazy, but I love it," Bisping said during a first round dotted by strange gestures and awkward footwork from the 27-year-old muay thai specialist. "He's a very unusual man to watch.

    "If you get one chance to make a first impression with this large an audience, that's the way to do it."

    Prochazka had been a champion in another MMA promotion and put off an original offer to join the UFC in order to be a more complete fighter when he arrived.

    "I expected more wrestling from him. But that was lucky for me. That was good," he said. "I want to take a title. That's my mission."

Loser: Sensitive Anatomy

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    It was a recurring theme throughout the preliminary card.

    No fewer than three of Saturday's initial five bouts were stalled—sometimes briefly, sometimes for several minutes—thanks to a barrage of low blows that left fighters, announcers and fans cringing.

    Nowhere was the collective grimace more pronounced than a lightweight bout between Leonardo Santos and Roman Bogatov, which was stopped twice by knees to Santos' groin and again when Bogatov launched an illegal knee that hit the 40-year-old Brazilian in the head while he was down.

    "There's not a male fan in the world who didn't feel those," Bisping said. "And probably the women, too."

    That final knee-to-head infraction drew the ire of Goddard, who docked Bogatov two points on the scorecards. It wound up widening the official result, which went to Santos by three matching scores of 29-26.

    Santos was also impacted by an inadvertent finger poke to the eye in the first round that prompted a visit from the cageside doctor.  

    In earlier bouts, heavyweight Maxim Grishin took some time to recover following a low shot from Marcin Tybura, and Zhalgas Zhumagulov was halted twice in the third round by direct-hit low shots from 14th-ranked flyweight Raulian Paiva.

    Both Grishin and Zhumagulov ultimately lost by unanimous decision.

Winner: Anaconda Behavior

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    Anacondas are clearly nothing to fool with.

    In the wild, the mammoth water-friendly snake tends to float beneath the surface before striking when prey passes by, then coils around its victim until suffocation ensues.

    In the Octagon, the finishes created by Makwan Amirkhani are only slightly less brutal.

    Now based in Finland after relocating from Iran as a child, Amirkhani became the third fighter in UFC history to score a second win via anaconda choke, wrapping up a hapless Danny Henry until he went limp just three minutes, 15 seconds into their scheduled three-rounder at featherweight.

    "I'm pretty slick with the move," Amirkhani said. "My coach is always laughing at the gym when I'm doing this to everybody."

    Henry's inglorious sequence began when Amirkhani landed a knee, got a body lock and spun his foe to all fours on the floor. He was able to get behind and lock his right arm under Henry's chin, then clamped it on with the left arm as he rolled to his back and eliminated Henry's means of escape.

    A few seconds ensued before referee Leon Roberts came in to check Henry's arm, which fell limply and immediately prompted the stoppage and the arrival of cageside medical and team personnel.

    Amirkhani, in fact, briefly propped up Henry's legs to get him stimulated and bowed respectfully alongside him as the crews worked on him. Henry was up and conscious by the time Buffer was in the cage to make the official announcement.

    "I'm just way too good at this. This is no defense for it," Amirkhani said. "This was something that I was waiting for since my last fight. Everything went terribly wrong my last fight [a TKO loss to Shane Burgos last November]. I got a new opportunity to show that I belong here. This is what I'm about."

Loser: Early Prelim Weight Cuts

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    On a 13-fight card, it's hardly a surprise when some fighters miss weight.

    Only two of 26 failed to toe the line in advance of Saturday night's show, and it'll cost them a fair bit in the bank account, too.

    Fourteenth-ranked UFC flyweight Raulian Paiva came in three pounds over the 126-pound limit and was thereby required to surrender 20 percent of his $12,000 purse, or $2,400, to his opponent prior to a three-round unanimous decision over Zhalgas Zhumagulov in the show's third early prelim bout.

    Paiva won by 29-28 margins on all three scorecards.

    Meanwhile, the night's second early prelim bout also featured a fighter who'd come in heavy, this time in the form of women's bantamweight Vanessa Melo, who came in five pounds past the 136-pound target.

    She incurred a 30 percent penalty on her $12,000 and was mandated to give up $3,600 ahead of what wound up being a unanimous-decision loss to Karol Rosa. Melo was on the short end of 30-26, 30-26 and 30-27 verdicts on the scorecards.

Winner: Making His Mark

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    Davey Grant may wind up a star in the UFC. Or perhaps he won't.

    But no one will erase the impact he made Saturday night.

    Because, for a little while at least, the 34-year-old Englishman owned Fight Island.

    A father of three heading toward his 12th anniversary as a pro, Grant scored the first victory—and the inaugural highlight-reel knockout—in the location's history when he laid out Martin Day with a vicious two-punch combination in the third round of their card-opening bantamweight bout.

    The fighters appeared competitively even heading to the final round of the scheduled three, with Grant frequently making his mark thanks to heavy hand strikes from the outside against the 31-year-old Hawaiian.

    The go-home blows finally landed just past the midway point of the third, when Grant ripped an overhand right, followed by a left hook that connected squarely and rendered Day out cold as he tumbled to the mat.

    In fact, referee Rich Mitchell began waving his arms before Day was fully horizontal, at which point Day's corner team and assembled medical officials quickly entered the cage to attend to the fallen man.

    "I wanted a fight like this in the UFC," said Grant, a former Bisping training partner who jumped to 3-2 in the promotion. "I felt like I was being too cautious. I wanna be a main card fighter."

UFC 251 Full Card Results

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    Main Card

    Kamaru Usman def. Jorge Masvidal by unanimous decision (50-45, 50-45, 49-46)

    Alexander Volkanovski def. Max Holloway by split decision (48-47, 48-47, 47-48) 

    Petr Yan def. Jose Aldo by TKO (punches), 3:24, Round 5

    Rose Namajunas def. Jessica Andrade by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)

    Amanda Ribas def. Paige VanZant by submission (arm bar), 2:21, Round 1


    Preliminary Card

    Jiri Prochazka def. Volkan Oezdemir by KO (punches), 0:49, Round 2

    Muslim Salikhov def. Elizeu Dos Santos by split decision (30-27, 29-28, 28-29)

    Makwan Amirkhani def. Danny Henry by submission (anaconda choke), 3:15, Round 1

    Leonardo Santos def. Roman Bogatov by unanimous decision (29-26, 29-26, 29-26)

    Marcin Tybura def. Maxim Grishin by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-26)

    Raulian Paiva def. Zhalgas Zhumagulov by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)

    Karol Rosa def. Vanessa Melo by unanimous decision (30-26, 30-26, 30-27)

    Davey Grant def. Martin Day by KO (punches), 2:38, Round 3