Kamaru Usman and the Real Winners and Losers from UFC 258
So much for Valentine's Day lovefests.
The UFC's second pay-per-view of 2021 culminated in a battle of two formerly close friends and training partners vying for welterweight gold in the promotion's initial title fight of the year.
The match between Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns finally occurred after multiple delays and was placed atop a 10-bout card that was broadcast by ESPN+ from the UFC Apex facility in Las Vegas on Saturday.
The show was trimmed from 11 fights not long before the first punches were thrown in the 7 p.m. hour, thanks to a non-COVID illness that kept flyweight Gillian Robertson from meeting Miranda Maverick.
Blow-by-blow man Jon Anik shared the call with analysts Daniel Cormier and Joe Rogan from cageside, and the B/R combat sports team was in its perch to compile a list of the show's real winners and losers.
Take a look at what we came up with and let us know what you think with a verbal strike of your own in the comments.
Winner: Harnessing Intensity
It was all about intensity.
At the beginning, the ferocity was intense.
At the end, the emotion was equally intense.
And in between, Usman's viciousness was intense.
The reigning welterweight champion worked through the discomfort of meeting a longtime friend and training colleague in the cage, shaking off a first-round buzz to brutalize and stop No. 1 contender Burns in the first minute of Round 3 of their pay-per-view main event.
"Gilbert is a guy I knew from the start. I love him," Usman said. "This is my cage. I'm the undisputed welterweight champion for a reason. When you step into my cage, we have to go to work."
The end came after a right jab from Usman—realigned into a southpaw stance—dropped Burns to his back early in the third round after he'd already been punished throughout the second.
Usman pounced and landed a series of punishing ground strikes, rendering the Brazilian unable to either escape or fight back and prompting an intervention at 34 seconds of the third.
Usman instantly began strutting around the cage while Burns rolled to his knees and sobbed loudly enough to be heard by adjacent microphones.
The champion eventually stopped and knelt alongside his challenger, and the two men shook hands and embraced for several moments as a distraught Burns buried his head into Usman's shoulder.
During introductions, Usman walked straight toward Burns and went nose-to-nose with him, and then refused to touch gloves before the fight began.
"This one was a tough one. A very, very tough one," Usman said. "You cannot discredit what Gilbert Burns has done in this division. But I'm the varsity guy. I'm a whole 'nother savage. He saw that tonight."
Burns had his moment in the first round when he landed an overhand right that briefly dropped Usman to his knees. He arose quickly, however, and though he was hit several more times in the round, he was never again in noticeable danger.
"That's the majority of how sparring went. He can buzz you," Usman said. "Anybody else in this division goes to sleep. I was like, 'Oh s--t, OK. Time to go to work.'"
It was Usman's 13th consecutive win in the welterweight division and the third defense of the title he won from Tyron Woodley in March 2019. Burns had arrived with six straight wins, including a demolition of Woodley in his most recent fight.
"I don't know how a guy who's been this dominant can be underrated, but he's still underrated," Rogan said. "Look at what he's doing to the scariest men in the world at 170 pounds. How do you beat that? The guy's in his prime and he's getting better. He's getting better."
Winner: Mastering the 'Future'
It wasn't long ago that Maycee Barber was all that.
The 22-year-old, nicknamed The Future, began her UFC career with three straight victories and was working toward a higher ranking and a title shot last January when she encountered Roxanne Modafferi at UFC 246.
The veteran downed Barber by unanimous decision and injured Barber's knee to the point where she had work done on it. She hadn't fought in the 392 days since the defeat.
Barber nevertheless maintained her No. 10 ranking at flyweight and arrived at Saturday's final run-up bout as a favorite to shut down No. 15 Alexa Grasso.
But while the future may still be coming, it's apparently not here yet.
Grasso used markedly improved jiu-jitsu skills to surprise her heavy-fisted rival, chasing submissions for two rounds before surviving the final five minutes to earn a unanimous decision.
All three judges scored it 29-28 in Grasso's favor, and Barber clapped when the decision was announced.
"Oh my God, I trained so, so hard," Grasso said. "I told you. I told you I am working so, so hard to evolve. I want to be full in all areas to be climbing in the rankings."
Loser: Circling Buzzards
Kelvin Gastelum was fighting for his occupational life.
After all, the California-based fighter hadn't won a bout since defeating Jacare Souza by split decision back at UFC 224 in May 2018. He lost to middleweight champion Israel Adesanya at UFC 236, which was followed by a decision loss to Darren Till and a submission defeat to Jack Hermansson.
Turns out some guys are better under intense, job-saving pressure.
Gastelum was clearly a better fighter Saturday night, controlling matters with both his hands and feet in a unanimous-decision defeat of No. 15 contender Ian Heinisch. One judge gave him all three rounds, while the other two scored it two rounds to one, or 29-28, for the winner.
The triumph was the 10th UFC win against six losses and a no-contest for Gastelum, who's ranked No. 9.
"It's been three years since my last win,” he said. "It's not easy to get motivated again. But you can do it if you put your mind to it. I expected my experience to play a role in this fight.”
Gastelum pressed the action and initiated the exchanges in the opening round, though Heinisch was intermittently successful on the ground while trying to work into an armbar. Similar situations followed in the middle round as well, before Heinisch rallied with better all-around work in the third.
B/R had it 29-28 for Gastelum.
"People forget sometimes how good Kelvin Gastelum is,” Rogan said. "As Roy Jones Jr. says, 'Y'all musta forgot.'"
Winner: Dramatic Finishes
When it seemed Maki Pitolo had all the answers, Julian Marquez changed the questions.
Menacingly dubbed The Cuban Missile Crisis, Marquez found himself in danger of losing as his main card middleweight fight as it entered its final round before he put together a final-minute miracle.
"My coach, James Krause, told me I had to go out there and get it done, so I went out there and got it done," said Marquez, after submitting Pitolo with just 43 seconds remaining in Round 3. "I thought, 'I'm not giving up.' Everyone else gave up on me. James Krause was one of the few who believed in me."
Clearly beaten on both his feet and on the mat by Pitolo across the first 10 minutes, Marquez seemed the fresher of the two as the final round began and quickly made an impact with powerful head strikes—including a particularly brutal spinning elbow to the head.
A badly wobbled Pitolo went for a survival-mode takedown but couldn't complete the shot and found himself vulnerable to a choke. Marquez seized his foe's neck and rolled to his back to secure an anaconda choke, locking Pitolo's arms and leaving him unable to escape and forced to tap out at 4:17.
An exhausted Marquez dropped to his knees in ecstasy, while a crestfallen Pitolo, nicknamed Coconut Bombz, slumped on his stool and apologized to his team.
"That's the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat right there," Anik said. "It tells you how close and how brutal our sport can be. It absolutely is a massive win for Julian Marquez and his team. His team told him what he needed to do in the third round, and he went and did it."
Loser: Knowing Your Role
Hearing Anik, Cormier and Rogan squeal with delight?
The broadcast team was reveling in dropped-jaw glee in the preliminary card's spotlight fight when unheralded underdog Anthony Hernandez survived early peril and rallied to crumble an exhausted Rodolfo Vieira in an epic middleweight encounter.
Unbeaten in seven career MMA fights and a world-class jiu-jitsu practitioner, Vieira got Hernandez to the ground early and looked ready for a quick submission victory before the Californian survived and got the fight back to a horizontal position.
From there, the storyline changed quickly.
"On the ground as I defended, I was like 'Oh, he's not that strong,'" Hernandez said. "I just told myself 'Stay calm. Breathe out of it.' So I stayed calm and listened to the game plan."
Hernandez wobbled Vieira with follow-up headshots in the first round's final few minutes and prompted the favorite to stumble to his corner and exhaustedly sag on his stool. The intermission did the Brazilian no good, however, as Hernandez pressed the attack and again brought the fight to the ground.
Soon after, he locked an arm-in guillotine choke that prompted a tap at 1:53 of the second.
"I knew I was going to do it. I've never felt more ready for a fight," he said. "I knew after the first, I have his ass."
The win was Hernandez's eighth in 10 overall fights and lifted his UFC mark to 2-2.
"Is this not what dreams are made of?" Cormier said. "We're over here giddy; we're like schoolgirls because it was so unexpected. You don't get guys like that to tap. The guy was in there to lose, but he didn't accept that as his place."
Winner: 15 Minutes of Hell
Just watching Belal Muhammad is an exhausting enough proposition.
So the task that Dhiego Lima had on Saturday night, actually fighting the Chicago-based welterweight over 15 cardio-sapping minutes, was certainly nothing to envy.
Ranked 13th at 170 pounds, Muhammad was a big favorite and showed myriad reasons why, pursuing and battering his foe in nearly every exchange across three rounds.
"That's my thing," he said. "I needed to come out fast and early.
"I went out there and did what I wanted to do."
Indeed, Muhammad finished with a career-best 124 significant strikes to Lima's 64, frequently wobbling his foe and never staying stationary long enough for Lima to mount a significant rally.
Forty-three of those strikes came in the final round, his highest total in any of the three sessions.
"His game plan is to break him, to stay on top of him and break him," Rogan said. "He's such a pit bull."
The win was the fourth in a row for Muhammad, lifting his active streak to the fourth-longest among welterweights behind Usman, Leon Edwards and Burns.
He used a post-fight chat to call out Li Jingliang, ranked one spot ahead of him at No. 12.
"He continued to try," Cormier said of Lima, "but he melted in front of Belal Muhammad."
Loser: Lead Leg Stability
It's one thing to get punched in the mouth.
But the early card fights showed just how devastating a less heralded form of striking can be.
Calf kicks to the left legs of opponents Andre Ewell and Philip Rowe were the unspectacular, but certainly effective, methods of victory for winners Chris Gutierrez and Gabe Green in the first two fights.
Gutierrez ran his UFC record to 4-1-1 with a unanimous-decision win over Ewell, whose legs were significantly struck 32 times, leaving him wobbly and unable to evade his foe's follow-up punches, particularly in a dominant third round that clinched the win on two of the three scorecards.
The 32 leg strikes were 49 percent of the winner's 65 significant strikes overall.
"He did exactly what he needed to do to put his stamp on this fight," Cormier said. "This young man has a great way of finding that low leg kick. When he gets going with his striking, he is so dangerous. It's going to be hard for anyone who can't just ground him to beat him."
One bout earlier, Green connected with 19 significant leg strikes against Rowe, also rendering him less effective and leading to decisive knockdowns in a narrow unanimous decision.
"The low leg kicks have revolutionized the sport," Rogan said. "That method of attack changed everything."
Winner: First Fight Suspense
Bruce Buffer said it was a unanimous decision.
But none of the guys on the ESPN announce team knew who'd earned it.
That's how mysterious the opening preliminary bout between welterweights Gabe Green and Philip Rowe was before Buffer broke the news, announcing Green as a narrow winner on all three cards.
The Californian earned his first Octagonal victory by two counts of 29-28 and one of 30-27 in a bout that featured three rounds with razor-thin margins. B/R agreed with the majority and had it 29-28 as well.
"I wasn't as good as I wanted to be, but I definitely felt a hell of a lot better," said Green, who'd lost a three-rounder to Daniel Rodriguez in his UFC debut in May and hadn't actually won a fight since August 2018 in California XTREME Fighting. "It's been a long time coming."
Blessed with significant advantages in height and reach, Rowe did well early with sharp punches from distance, but he never dissuaded Green from applying pressure and sustained significant damage to his lower leg left from Green's powerful kicks. Two low blows—one on a kick and another on a punch—seemed to weaken Rowe as well, and continued kicks to the leg yielded a knockdown late in Round 2.
Rowe smartly got matters to the floor in the third, but he was unable to put his foe in significant submission danger before the fighters got back to their feet.
Once upright again, the blows to the legs became the most telling offensive optics in the final two minutes, including another apparently decisive knockdown with 45 seconds left.
Rowe rolled his eyes when Buffer finished his announcement, while Green smiled broadly but initially headed straight back to the locker room rather than moving to the interview area for a chat with Rogan.
"I've been waiting a long time to talk to you," Green said, to which Rogan laughingly replied, "Then why did you walk away?"
UFC 258 Full Card Results
Kamaru Usman def. Gilbert Burns by TKO (punches), 0:34, Round 3
Alexa Grasso def. Maycee Barber by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Kelvin Gastelum def. Ian Heinisch by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)
Ricky Simon def. Brian Kelleher by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Julian Marquez def. Maki Pitolo by submission (anaconda choke), 4:17, Round 3
Anthony Hernandez def. Rodolfo Vieira by submission (guillotine choke), 1:53, Round 2
Belal Muhammad def. Dhiego Lima by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Polyana Viana def. Mallory Martin by submission (armbar), 3:18, Round 1
Chris Gutierrez def. Andre Ewell by unanimous decision (30-26, 29-28, 29-27)
Early Preliminary Card
Gabe Green def. Philip Rowe by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27)