It was a compelling end to a game-changing month.
The UFC shifted its base of operations from Las Vegas to the United Arab Emirates for the month of July, unveiling Fight Island to the curious masses and putting on four shows in a 15-day stretch at Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi.
Capping off the eventful stretch, UFC on ESPN 14 featured 15 fights across main and preliminary segments that got underway at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday and continued nearly non-stop until second-string cage announcer Joe Martinez made the final result official shortly after 11:30 p.m.
Martinez was once against filling in for Bruce Buffer, and the ESPN crew featured a new face in Dan Hardy, who was subbing in for Michael Bisping. Hardy teamed with Paul Felder and John Gooden.
"It's been a historic month," Gooden said. "No other words do it justice."
The company will head back to its Apex facility in Las Vegas for its next show.
Bleacher Report will be there, but not before finishing off July with another compilation of real winners and losers from a jam-packed card that included seven finishes inside the distance along with two split decisions and six fights the judges deemed unanimous verdicts.
Among them was a match between top middleweight contenders Robert Whittaker and Darren Till.
But there will be no spoilers here.
Instead, we encourage you to take a look at our impressions and see how yours stacked up.
Winner: Bleeding for a Good Cause
As ghastly cuts go, Whittaker's could hardly have come at a better time.
The ex-middleweight champion and No. 1 contender emerged from an engagement with Till with blood pouring down the left side of his head to the point his upper body—and Till's by default—had turned a slasher movie-quality shade of red.
It was precisely the sort of wound that could prompt a queasy official to call a halt to a bout. But fortunately for Whittaker, it occurred with less than 30 seconds remaining in their five-round match.
"You know when you have a cut and you feel the warmth dripping down your shoulders," Whittaker said. "It's so gross."
Still, the New Zealand-born slugger toughed it out and was rewarded with a narrow unanimous-decision victory over Till in the main event of Saturday night's card.
Whittaker earned scores of 48-47, or three rounds to two, on all three official scorecards.
Bleacher Report had it slightly wider, giving the winner all but one round for a 49-46 count.
Either way, it was a successful return in his first bout since last October, when Whittaker dropped his belt to Israel Adesanya by second-round knockout in his initial title defense. Till came in ranked fifth in the division after defeating Kelvin Gastelum following a move from welterweight.
He and Whittaker engaged in significant trash talk via social media heading into the bout but wound up engaging in a highly technical match in which both men were successful in reacting to and countering each other's moves.
Till dropped Whittaker with a left elbow to the head in the opening round, but Whittaker returned the favor with an overhand right in the second and did consistent damage to Till's right leg with calf kicks.
The Liverpudlian was also cut alongside the right eye by an elbow during a ground exchange and had a bloody nose.
"That fight was so stressful," Whittaker said. "That was one of the most technical fights I've ever had to fight. I had to really adapt on the go. He was countering me so hard with strikes, and he was very heavy on his feet, so the leg became a target."
Till complained to his corner team that the leg was preventing him from getting his usual bounce, and he was far less active than Whittaker outside of brief spurts after the first round.
Indeed, Whittaker held a striking advantage in every round beyond the first, including a commanding 42-3 edge in the second. Overall, he landed 100 strikes to Till's 50 across five rounds and scored two takedowns on 13 attempts compared to Till's zeroes in both categories.
"That was an amazing fight," Felder said. "It really showed the skill sets of both. It looked bad for [Whittaker], but he rallied, got himself settled and took it from there. He used a lot of feints, kept changing his options and kept learning and reading on the spot."
Loser: Going Out with a Victory
Antonio Rogerio Nogueira's hopeful smile was replaced with a knowing cringe.
The 44-year-old suggested before Saturday's co-main event that the trilogy fight with longtime rival Mauricio "Shogun" Rua would be his last—win, lose or draw.
So that made the narrowness of the split-decision verdict against him even more difficult.
The veteran was on the short end of two 29-28 counts on the official scorecards, outweighing the one 29-28 verdict in his favor and giving him three narrow losses in three bouts against Rua in a series that spanned 15 years.
"It's not easy to see him go out on that in his last fight," Felder said. "They're veterans. They're legends. They're warriors. He'll go down in history as one of the greatest who ever did it."
Rua beat him by unanimous decisions in the Pride promotion in 2005 and in the UFC in 2015.
This time around, Nogueira fared well in fits and starts across all three rounds but was taken down by the more aggressive Rua, perhaps decisively at the end of the third round in a stretch that subsequently included a decided ground-and-pound advantage for the winner.
Rua established a slight 24-23 edge in strikes in the first round before Nogueira took over with a 34-15 margin in the second. Rua was a 39-18 winner in that stat across the final five minutes and scored the second of his two takedowns for the match.
"I fought very good," Nogueira said. "I thought I did well boxing. I did well with my defense. It was very, very close. He's an all-time great. To me it was an honor to be here at 44 years old. I know I can still fight very well, but I think it's time to leave."
Rua walked to Nogueira's side of the cage and gave him a prolonged embrace after the decision was announced and then showed his respect in the aftermath.
"I won three times against a legend," he said. "I'm very happy. Every fight with Nogueira was a war."
Winner: Defending Heavyweight Turf
Fabricio Werdum was up against it, to say the least.
The former heavyweight champion entered the Octagon less than a week from his 43rd birthday, on a two-fight losing streak and staring down the barrel of a three-time light heavyweight title challenger making a long-awaited debut and looking for success in a new weight class.
But while he conceded great respect for Alexander Gustafsson, the Brazilian never lost confidence.
The older man took the fight to his happy place—the mat—shortly after the start of the scheduled three-rounder and instantly took control of his more dynamic foe. He worked through several chances at chokes before locking in an armbar that prompted an instant submission from Gustafsson at 2:30.
"When you hit the ground with Fabricio, it's going to be a short night," Felder said. "That was just beautiful work."
Gustafsson, a failed challenger against Jon Jones (twice) and Daniel Cormier at 205 pounds, hadn't fought since a submission loss to Anthony Smith in June 2019. He returned from a brief retirement to jump divisions and entered with high acclaim thanks to his superior striking skill set.
Werdum was a champion at heavyweight after beating Cain Velasquez in 2015 and lost to Stipe Miocic the following year in his first defense.
"This was a very important fight for me," Werdum said. "He punches very hard, and he punches a lot. But I've been waiting for it for a long time."
Loser: Denying the Cookie Monster
Marina Rodriguez was unbeaten and held a lofty ranking in the strawweight division.
But she didn't want to keep it as much as Carla Esparza. Or at least that's the way it seemed.
A former world champion in the weight class, Esparza was cut, swollen and battered from the early stages of the fight but steadfastly refused to be denied and rallied in the final 10 minutes to capture a split decision in a competitive three-round battle that served as the midway point of the main card.
The win gave Esparza eight wins in the division, second to only Joanna Jedrzejczyk's 10.
Esparza won the strawweight title with a third-round stoppage of Rose Namajunas in 2015 and lost the belt to Jędrzejczyk three months later.
"I'm inching—I feel like I'm getting a step closer and a step closer," Esparza said. "I pretty much have taken most of the division down. Whoever's gonna get me closer to a title fight, I'm down."
Esparza stood six inches shorter than her Brazilian opponent and was on the short end of several powerful strikes in the opening five minutes, including an elbow that opened her up and caused a significant swelling above her left eye.
She was successful in getting the fight to the floor and landed several ground-and-pound shots of her own in the second, though, taking the advice of her corner team to stop chasing submission attempts and to instead focus on dishing out punishment.
Rodriguez attempted to secure a triangle choke as she again found herself on her back in the final round, but Esparza escaped the position with a strong elbow and landed a memorable knee and secured another powerful takedown in the final 30 seconds.
"You can't help but think if she gets by a rising star like Rodriguez, she'll get a chance," Felder said. "She's got such good wrestling, which is really a problem for a lot of women in that division."
Winner: Turnaround Record-Breaker
It's not infrequent to hear a winning fighter suggest he or she can quickly come back for another.
But Khamzat Chimaev may just have raised the bar to an unreachable level.
The Chechen-born welterweight made his UFC debut just 10 days before UFC on ESPN 14 with a two-round choke-out of John Phillips, but he was back for more in the Fight Island finale and was even more impressive in splattering newcomer Rhys McKee in barely more than three minutes.
"Two in a row in the last couple weeks," Felder said. "You can't ask for more than that. This is his island."
The 10-day span is a UFC record for the quickest turnaround between victories, bettering the previous mark of Chas Skelly by three days.
Matched with a heralded prospect from Northern Ireland, Chimaev was in full-on attack mode from the opening horn and immediately grabbed his foe and carried him across the mat while going for a takedown. He was able to get McKee horizontal soon after and bombarded him with strikes from all angles for several minutes as his hapless opponent, just 24, vainly scrambled to escape.
Referee Rich Mitchell warned McKee several times that he would need to get out of danger or risk being stopped, and the end finally came after several more failed attempts at 3:09 of the first.
UFC stats had Chimaev with a 68-0 edge in strikes.
"I don't want to jump the gun," Hardy said. "But I think he's a special individual."
Chimaev, hardly the shy type, agreed.
"I'm gonna smash everybody," he said. "It doesn't matter. How many fighters are in my division? I'm gonna smash all of them. Everybody knows these guys aren't on my level. Give me a champion. Easy work. Easy money."
Loser: The Black Country Banger
Given how impressive he had been over most of 10 minutes against veteran Francisco Trinaldo, the ascension of lightweight Jai Herbert was sure to be a significant takeaway from Saturday night's show.
Trinaldo, after all, was cut, tired and looking every bit of his nearly 42 years—he will celebrate his next birthday in August—as the fight headed to its third and final round.
But all of a sudden, the story changed.
The Brazilian countered a strike attempt with a looping left hand that landed high on the younger man's forehead and sent him flailing backward to the canvas. Trinaldo immediately swooped in and looked to referee Herb Dean to intervene, and when the official failed to act immediately, he landed four more thudding strikes to his defenseless foe before Dean finally ended it 1:30.
The win was Trinaldo's 15th as a lightweight in the UFC, tying him for fourth in the promotion's history.
"It's easy to hit someone," he said. "It's harder to stay in a fight when you're getting hit. Look at my face. I'm cut. I'm beat up. But I'm still fighting."
The tardy stoppage earned the instant ire of Hardy, who verbally accosted Dean afterward, yelling "You've got to look after these fighters. My goodness."
Felder, too, took his frustration to the post-fight microphone.
"That pisses me off," he said. "[Trinaldo] saw what we saw. That fight should have been stopped. [Herbert] falls back the way he falls back. He was clearly out. [Trinaldo] didn't want to hit Herbert anymore."
UFC on ESPN 14 Full Card Results
Robert Whittaker def. Darren Till by unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 48-47).
Mauricio Rua def. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29).
Fabricio Werdum def. Alexander Gustafsson by submission (armbar), 2:30, Round 1.
Carla Esparza def. Marina Rodriguez by split decision (29-28, 30-27, 28-29).
Paul Craig def. Gadzhimurad Antigulov by submission (triangle choke), 2:06, Round 1.
Alex Oliveira def. Peter Sobotta by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27).
Khamzat Chimaev def. Rhys McKee by TKO (punches), 3:09, Round 1.
Francisco Trinaldo def. Jai Herbert by TKO (punches), 1:30, Round 3.
Jesse Ronson def. Nicolas Dalby by submission (rear-naked choke), 2:48, Round 1.
Tom Aspinall def. Jake Collier by TKO (punches), 0:45, Round 1
Movsar Evloev def. Mike Grundy by unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27).
Tanner Boser def. Raphael Pessoa by TKO (punches), 2:36, Round 2.
Pannie Kianzad def. Bethe Correia by unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27).
Ramazan Emeev def. Niklas Stolze bu unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27).
Nathaniel Wood def. John Castaneda by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27).
Performances of the Night
Fabricio Werdum, Khamzat Chimaev, Paul Craig, Tanner Boser, Jesse Ronson, Tom Aspinall