Marvin Vettori and the Real Winners and Losers from UFC on ESPN 19
It was a UFC Fight Night, but the pandemic landed the most impactful blows.
Not only was the card's main event altered a week ago when middleweight Kevin Holland pulled out following a positive test for COVID-19, but the virus nixed two more fights shortly before Saturday's show began.
The UFC said main card bouts between featherweights Nate Landwehr and Movsar Evloev and flyweights Montana De La Rosa and Taila Santos were scrapped because of positive tests, while a flyweight prelim involving Jimmy Flick and Cody Durden was also canceled because of a non-COVID medical issue with Flick.
The changes left an eight-bout show in their aftermath, with three fights as prelims to set up a five-bout main show that went on with Jack Hermansson in the headliner against Holland fill-in Marvin Vettori.
Hermansson entered as the UFC's fourth-ranked middleweight, nine slots ahead of Vettori at 185 pounds.
Jon Anik served as point man for ESPN's broadcast from the UFC's Apex facility alongside colleagues Paul Felder and Dominick Cruz, while celebrated trainer Trevor Wittman was on hand to provide technical analysis.
It was the penultimate Fight Night show of the year.
UFC 256 will take place next weekend before the Fight Night finale on Dec. 19.
The B/R combat sports team was on hand, too, taking in the night's events and compiling a list of the show's real winners and losers beyond the mere results. Click through to see what we saw and go ahead and try to land a significant verbal strike of your own in the comments section.
Winner: Dreaming Italian Dreams
Marvin Vettori already felt it to his core.
The 27-year-old fought off tears in the aftermath of his bout with No. 4-ranked middleweight Jack Hermansson, dropped to his knees in the middle of the cage and cradled the Italian flag.
And when the official decision was announced, giving him a unanimous decision in their middleweight main event on Saturday, he felt it a little more.
"This is for every Italian that believes in me, for all the Italians that are struggling," said Vettori, nicknamed the Italian Dream.
"I was very tired in the third, but I dug deep in the fourth and fifth."
Indeed, after controlling the first two rounds with cleaner, sharper striking, Vettori saw the gap narrow after Hermansson took the initiative in the third with more effective aggression and cleaner shots.
Still, the favorite recovered from the adversity and landed 89 of his 136 significant strikes in the final 10 minutes. In fact, the combined 248 significant strikes are a new UFC middleweight record.
"What I loved about it is he brought his stock up not just the fans, but with himself as well," Cruz said. "He faced a top-level opponent, he knows it, now he's ready for the top-five run that's coming. This is what you live for. It was incredible. Incredible."
The official scores were 49-46, 49-46 and 49-45.
Bleacher Report also scored it 49-46.
"This essentially makes him the face of Italian MMA," said Felder of the winner, who was the first native Italian to appear in a UFC main event and will be the first to be a top-five middleweight. "The only crime tonight is that there are not fans to give them the cheers they deserved."
Loser: Sleeping Soundly
His opponent's nickname was Sweet Dreams.
But UFC veteran and former title challenger Ovince Saint Preux was nevertheless certain he'd overcome the challenge of upstart light heavyweight wannabe Jamahal Hill.
Turns out he was wrong. In a nightmare-inducing manner.
Rather than schooling his younger foe, the burly Tennesseean was on the receiving end of a persistent series of second-round strikes from the unbeaten 29-year-old and turned away from the fray.
He ate one more winging left hook before referee Jason Herzog waved things off at 3:37.
Saint Preux had entered the fight as the 15th-ranked contender at 205 pounds.
"What a statement," Felder said. "He dismantled him. He finished him. He'll have a number next to his name and a lot more money, too."
Now 8-0 with a no-contest and four KOs, Hill began the fateful sequence with a right hand that backed his opponent to the cage. He continued with frequent, precise shots and fought through Saint Preux's attempts to get free, then forced the veteran to lurch to his right after a violent combination.
Hill pursued, landed the aforementioned left and got the stoppage.
"He got through some adversity. That's what I like to see with a guy like Jamahal Hill," Cruz said.
"Come on, that's must-see TV. At first, Saint Preux was being vey elusive, but (Hill) kept that pressure on, kept going to be the body and kept finding the range. When you get a guy like OSP to turn away, you've got power."
Winner: Working the Body
Talk about your collective cringes.
At precisely the instant Gabriel Benitez's left knee made contact with Justin Jaynes' midsection, their three-round lightweight bout was over. And everyone watching was gasping with a grimace.
The 13-year MMA pro answered a wild right hand with a precise, well-timed counter, sapping Jaynes' oxygen and sending him tumbling to the floor, where he was saved by referee Mark Smith.
The end came after a concerted striking attack from Benitez, 32, who scored particularly well with leg kicks that compromised Jaynes' ability to maneuver. He also landed well with his own fists and was in the perfect position to drive the knee home when the opening was presented.
"He went in there and fought like he was going to get his opponent out of there," Cruz said. "Justin Jaynes didn't know what was coming."
Jaynes took the knee and fell, then was strafed with a series of quick ground strikes before Smith's arrival.
The end game at 4:06 of the first round, giving Benitez his 11th first-round finish.
"I felt great today. I knew it was my night," said Benitez, last seen in May when he suffered a ghastly gash to his shin in a loss to Omar Morales. "I want to fight again. I'm ready. I'm here."
Winner: The Monkey King
The nickname is catchy but not exactly menacing.
Doesn't matter, because whatever Monkey King Jordan Leavitt lacked in pre-fight intimidation on Saturday night, he made up for in shudder-inducing violence.
Leavitt made his lightweight debut in abruptly concussive fashion, rendering Matt Wiman unconscious with a powerful slam that ended their fight by KO after just 22 seconds.
"What can you say about it, it was just mean and aggressive," Cruz said. "That's as violent a finish as we've seen this year. That looks like a straight concussion."
It was also just the 12th slam KO in UFC history.
It came after Leavitt seized control of Wiman in a clinch, picked him up and walked him across the cage. Then, just before the decisive drop, he laid his left forearm across Wiman's neck to amplify the impact when the right side of his foe's head hit the floor.
Wiman was immediately rescued by referee Chris Tognoni and laid motionless for several seconds before eventually sitting up and appearing to regain his senses. Meanwhile, Leavitt left the cage, hugged Wiman's stricken wife and fist-bumped UFC boss Dana White on his way back to the post-fight interview station.
"It's pretty brutal, but this is the fight game. It happens," he said. "That slam is something I practice. I don't have any fears out there. I put in the work in the gym."
Winner: Georgian Invaders
It sounded as if Jon Anik was veering toward the hyperbolic.
Setting up a bout matching featherweights Ilia Topuria and Damon Jackson, he breathlessly referred to the arrival of Topuria and countryman Roman Dolidze as a "Georgian Invasion."
Upon further review, the mic man's hyperbole was probably a bit too understated.
Just 23 years old, Topuria staked his claim as the UFC's next big thing by staging a striking master class on the way to a first-round prelim KO of 20-plus-fight veteran Damon Jackson. Three fights later, Dolidze kept his own unbeaten record in tact with a grinding split decision over light heavyweight foe John Allan.
He's now 8-0. Topuria is 10-0.
"He was patient. He was methodical. He fought perfectly," Cruz said of Topuria, who stopped Jackson with a series of punches at 2:38 of the first round. "He knocked [Jackson] down like a tree. Picture-perfect striking 101. That's how you strike in MMA."
Not to be outdone, Dolidze, 32, was equally memorable in his main card opportunity against Allan.
He got the better of the action when the fighters exchanged strikes from a standing position and controlled things on the mat as well, going through a series of submission attempts and landing several strikes.
He landed 60 ground strikes, scored three takedowns and had more than seven minutes of control time.
"I was thinking the fight would be easier," he said, "but this guy is really strong and tough."
Loser: The New Math
No one questioned that the right guy won.
But when Dolidze was forced to settle for the aforementioned split decision in his light heavyweight match with Allan, the broadcast team's ire was instantly raised.
And judge Chris Lee was officially put on notice.
Lee had the dissenting scorecard in the verdict, somehow seeing Allan as a 29-28 winner while the other two arbiters had it 30-27 and 29-28 for Dolidze, respectively. B/R saw it clearly for Dolidze as well, 30-27.
"This particular judge does not have an understanding for the grappling game," Anik said.
Curiously, Lee was also the dissenter in a Fight Night main event on Nov. 14, when he scored Felder a 48-47 winner over Rafael Dos Anjos while two other judges gave Dos Anjos all five rounds.
Felder conceded he'd been beaten convincingly beaten.
"I don't know. I think we need to show [Lee] what MMA is," he said. "It isn't a case where they can pay attention when they're striking, but when they go to the mat they're like 'Eh, they're grappling I don't need to pay attention.'"
Dolidze scored three of the fight's four takedowns, landed more than twice as many overall strikes and had 51 significant strikes to Allan's 29.
Cruz saw his colleague's line of reasoning, and raised it.
"They're boxing judges," he said. "It's a fact, they don't understand grappling. They need to be held accountable. You see the fighters' names on the screen, you see the referee's name on the screen, you see our names on the screen and you should see their names on the screen, too.
"Chris Lee, there you are."
Winner: Fighting the Good Fight
The UFC did its bit to fight like hell against cancer.
The octagonal conglomerate dedicated its Saturday show to the Stuart Scott Fund, made a $100,000 contribution to life-saving cancer research made possible by the organization named for the late ESPN anchor and encouraged fans to support the campaign throughout December.
In fact, the event was christened "UFC Fight Like Hell Night."
The V Foundation for Cancer Research, a top-rated cancer research charity, is hosting the 14th annual V Week for Cancer Research across ESPN platforms through next weekend.
Scott, who died in 2015, had a strong connection to mixed martial arts and even trained during his treatments after being diagnosed in 2007. He began working at ESPN in 1993.
"People whose lives have been touched by cancer can take enormous inspiration from ESPN during V Week," said Susan Braun, CEO of the V Foundation. "During this time, we can focus on both the tribulations and also the triumphs that cancer hands us."
UFC on ESPN 19 Full Card Results
Full Card Results
Marvin Vettori def. Jack Hermansson by unanimous decision (49-46, 49-46, 49-45)
Jamahal Hill def. Ovince Saint Preux by TKO, 3:37, Round 2
Gabriel Benitez def. Justin Jaynes by TKO, 4:06, Round 1
Roman Dolidze def. John Allan by split decision (30-27, 29-28, 28-29)
Jordan Leavitt def. Matt Wiman by KO, 0:22, Round 1
Louis Smolka def. Jose Quinonez by TKO, 2:15, Round 2
Ilia Topuria def. Damon Jackson by KO, 2:38, Round 1
Jake Collier def. Gian Villante by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Performances of the Night
Gabriel Benitez, Jordan Leavitt
Fight of the Night
Marvin Vettori vs. Jack Hermansson