The Real Winners and Losers from UFC on ESPN 21

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2021

The Real Winners and Losers from UFC on ESPN 21

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    There was no shortage of sports TV on Saturday.

    The NCAA men's basketball tournament revved up for its first weekend after a one-year hiatus. There were main event boxing matches broadcast from Moscow and Dallas. And that was in addition to five- and 13-game schedules for the NBA and NHL, respectively.

    But that doesn't mean the UFC wasn't worth a look.

    The MMA giant produced a 10-bout show on ESPN+ from its Apex facility in Las Vegas, with an attractive match between ranked middleweights Derek Brunson (7) and Kevin Holland (10) headlining the card.

    The commentary team of Brendan Fitzgerald, Paul Felder and Michael Bisping were on the microphones for blow-by-blow and analysis, while Megan Olivi worked the rest of the room for features and breaking news.

    The card featured narrow decisions, one-sided beatdowns and a dramatic KO that tied a UFC record, coming with a single second remaining in the third round of a preliminary bout at lightweight.

    And as usual, B/R was in its observation post to put together the comprehensive list of the night's winners and losers. Take a look at our picks, and let us know what you think with a comment or two of your own.

Loser: Backing Up the Talk

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    For a Kevin Holland fan, it was a maddening experience.

    Your fighter arrived with the momentum of five victories in 2020, and despite being ranked three spots lower at middleweight—seventh to 10th—he seemed to be the more versatile and dynamic commodity heading into a main event engagement with veteran Derek Brunson.

    And if you hadn't been watching the fight, you might have thought he was far, far ahead.

    Simply because he never shut up.

    The Texas-based middleweight talked during introductions, talked between rounds and talked as he was being taken down and smothered back and forth across the floor through all five rounds.

    What he didn't do was back it up.

    Though Holland landed intermittent strikes that wobbled his compact, muscular opponent, he was otherwise controlled for several minutes in every round and outworked from start to finish in what wound up as a wide unanimous decision for Brunson.

    The judges scored it 49-46 twice and 49-45 once for Brunson, who has the third-most wins in UFC middleweight history (13) and the second-longest active win streak in the division (four).

    "Holland came in with a five-fight win streak," Bisping said. "But [Brunson] controlled the fight and the takedowns were money."

    He's 4-0 since moving his training base to Sanford, Florida.

    "I wanted to knock him out, but every win can't be pretty," Brunson said. "I was so busy trying to punch him in the face that I didn't pick up on [what Holland was saying]. I just wanted to punch him in the mouth to stop him talking."

    Brunson landed 210 overall strikes to Holland's 171 across five rounds, the first time either fighter had gone the full main event distance. He also scored six takedowns to Holland's one and compiled 16:55 of control time compared to 1:47 for Holland.

    "The talk, the fun, enjoying yourself, that's all well and good," Felder said. "But at the end of the day, if you really want to be a UFC champion you've got to show a sense of urgency and you've got to be more upset about it than that."

    Holland, in the aftermath, credited Brunson and hinted at a drop in weight to 170 pounds.

    "He did a really, really good job," he said. "He played it smart. His pressure was really good."

Winner: Making It Brutal

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    Bisping grimaced and said, "Oh my God!" 

    Meanwhile, Felder watched a replay and audibly groaned.

    Needless to say, if it elicited that sort of reaction from the broadcast table, it couldn't have felt good.

    Chinese welterweight Song Kenan was on the receiving end of a brutal series of shots from co-main event opponent Max Griffin, winding up in a face-down position on the mat as referee Keith Peterson waved off the fight and called for the cageside medical personnel.

    "He looked sensational," Bisping said. "Song Kenan is a very, very tough opponent, and he just flatlined him."

    Indeed, following an opening two minutes in which he had been effective with kicks, Griffin raised his target and sent Kenan reeling with a right hand and then connected with a follow-up left/right that dropped him to the mat.

    One last ground strike grazed the back of Kenan's shoulder and head as he was prone, but no foul was called and Griffin was declared the winner at 2:20 of the first.

    Kenan was up and talking within a few minutes.

    "I had a gang of fun," Griffin said. "I had to hold in the emotions [after the fight was raised to the co-main position]. I'm a star and the world's gonna see it."

Loser: Marital Bliss

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    It wasn't a great night for the Buys family.

    Though fighting spouses JP and Cheyanne Buys were excited and motivated the make their respective UFC debuts on the same card—becoming the first husband and wife team to do so—the results didn't quite measure up with their expectations.

    Husband JP, a 24-year-old flyweight, was kicked in the groin within 15 seconds, thumbed in the eye about a half-minute later and knocked out with a crunching right hand in the second round of his card-opening bout with Brazilian veteran Bruno Silva.

    It was his third loss in a 12-fight MMA career that began in 2015 and took on a new dimension when a coach introduced him to his future training partner.

    "We really feed off each other's energy," he said. "We use each other as motivation. We live the fight game day in and day out. We're each other's safe zone."

    About four hours later, wife Cheyanne experienced the same disappointment, dropping a contentious three-round decision to strawweight Montserrat Ruiz.

    Ruiz won by 29-28, 29-28 and 29-27 counts according to the three judges, and the women continued to jaw at each other and exchange middle fingers after the final horn.

    It was Buys' second loss in seven career fights and first since 2018.

    "It's heated in there," Bisping said. "These thing happen. Emotions and frustrations are high."

Winner: Continuing Momentum

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    The bantamweight bout between Adrian Yanez and Gustavo Lopez was not without drama.

    The 27-year-old Yanez arrived with five straight wins, including two in UFC starts, while Lopez told anyone who would listen that he was a superior grade of foe and would stall the prospect's progress.

    Didn't happen.

    Though Lopez was willing to stand in the pocket and wing hard shots, he was no match for his cool, composed and technically sound opponent, falling victim to a perfectly delivered right hand from Yanez that sent his man to the floor and ended matters just 27 seconds into Round 3.

    It was the 13th victory and eighth KO in a career stretching back to 2014, and it impressed Bisping, a UFC Hall of Famer, in a big way.

    "The precision that he possesses is mind-blowing," he said. "We've got a future contender on our hands. If you're a fan of this sport and a fan of boxing and kickboxing as well, it was beautiful to watch."

    Yanez landed 41 of 103 strike attempts compared to 23 of 51 for Lopez, who was too often caught at the end of shots without an effective way to close distance beyond home-run punch attempts.

    "I knew the whole entire time that Gustavo was dangerous. He's got power in his hands," Yanez said. "I was being very methodical. I had to pick my shots. I felt a couple of his power punches."

    Yanez, who resides in Houston, used his post-fight chat to call out Nate Maness, who had mentioned him following a victory of his own last year.

    "I'm just out here living my dream," Yanez said before relaying a story about his late father, whom he promised that one day he would fight on a show in Houston. "Come on, Nate. Come to my block, and we'll knuckle up and I'll knock you out."

Loser: Running Out the Clock

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    Brazilian lightweight Leonardo Santos seemed in a pretty good spot.

    The 41-year-old was nearly even in striking with opponent Grant Dawson and, at least in the eyes of the commentary team, was not far away from extending a win streak stretching back more than a decade.

    In fact, the last time Santos lost, in May 2009, Dawson was 15.

    But rather than simply letting the final seconds tick away and trusting the judges to decide their three-round prelim bout, Dawson chose to continue working.

    The Missouri-based jiu-jitsu ace flung his foe to the floor with about 10 seconds remaining and, as Santos seized his right leg in search of a heel hook, he stayed busy by raining down a series of hammer fists.

    The impact was clear as the third shot landed, and by the time the fifth blow arrived and the defenseless Santos' mouthpiece flipped out, Dawson was ready for some overtime pay.

    "He was one second away from losing that fight," Felder shrieked. "Incredible!"

    The finish was the second-latest in UFC three-round history.

    As it turned out, Dawson was the one just a moment away from a decision victory after two judges awarded him both the first and second rounds, while a third judge had it 1-1 heading to the third.

    "That's 50 G's, baby," he said. "Last second of the fight. We had no idea who was winning. Come on, Dana. I'm not happy with that performance, but I will be happy with those 50 G's."

Winner: Defending the Middleweights

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    Roman Dolidze was tilling new ground.

    The unbeaten Georgian spent the first eight fights of his career at light heavyweight but decided after his previous fight to shed 20 pounds to try his hand as a UFC middleweight.

    But Trevin Giles wasn't feeling particularly hospitable.

    The Texas-born 185-pounder fought his way through five minutes of punishing leg kicks before establishing himself with a variety of strikes, outworking the newcomer over the final two rounds to secure a narrow but unanimous decision in an entertaining prelim bout.

    "Whenever you go to decision, you just don't know," Giles said of the scoring, with the judges giving him the victory via matching scores of 29-28 across the board. "If he would have taken it, I wouldn't have been mad."

    It was that close, as the two men alternated between Dolidze's repeated attempts at heel hook and kneebar submissions and Giles' cleaner, sharper shots from a vertical base and some powerful ground strikes to Dolidze's head while the former 205-pounder was attacking legs.

    "I had enough confidence that he wouldn't submit me on the ground," Giles said. "He was tough enough not to get knocked out. Hats off to him."

    Bleacher Report agreed with the judges, giving Giles the final two rounds and a 29-28 edge.

    The winner out-struck Dolidze to the head and body by 32-15 and 10-6 margins, while Dolidze landed 57 leg strikes to Giles' two.

    "A very close fight. Certainly not a robbery had it gone either way," Bisping said. "Even though Dolidze had the control, it was Giles who did the most damage."

Loser: Going According to Plan

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    When the lights went on, Saturday's card didn't look quite as expected.

    In fact, no fewer than four bouts were affected by various factors—leading to two full-on cancellations, one postponement and an altered matchup with a substitute opponent.

    The scheduled co-main event between lightweights Gregor Gillespie and Brad Riddell fell victim to COVID-19 protocol, being nixed several hours before the show went live.

    The match will be rescheduled, according to the UFC.

    Meanwhile, an unsettling scene at Friday's weigh-in led to the scrubbing of a bantamweight duel between Julija Stoliarenko and Julia Avila.

    Stoliarenko fell twice during a pair of trips to the scale, initially collapsing against a backdrop while stepping backward and then, after a respite in a chair, falling into the arms of a security official.

    She made weight at 135 ½ pounds but left the room on a stretcher and was taken to a hospital.

    Additionally, a bantamweight bout between Johnny Eduardo and Anthony Birchak was canceled because of visa issues, and an injury to Don'Tale Mayes led to his scratch from a heavyweight bout with Tai Tuivasa.

    He was replaced by Dana White's Contender Series alumnus Harry Hunsucker in his UFC debut.

UFC on ESPN 21 Full Card Results

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    Main Card

    Derek Brunson def. Kevin Holland by unanimous decision (49-46, 49-46, 49-45).

    Max Griffin def. Song Kenan by KO (punches), 2:20, Round 1.

    Montserrat Conejo def. Cheyanne Buys by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-27).

    Adrian Yanez def. Gustavo Lopez by KO (punch), 0:27, Round 3.

    Tai Tuivasa def. Harry Hunsucker by TKO (punches), 0:49, Round 1.

                        

    Preliminary Card

    Macy Chiasson def. Marion Reneau by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28).

    Grant Dawson def. Leonardo Santos by KO (punches), 4:59, Round 3.

    Trevin Giles def. Roman Dolidze by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28).

    Montel Jackson def. Jesse Strader by TKO (punches), 1:58, Round 1.

    Bruno Silva def. JP Buys by TKO (punches), 2:56, Round 2.

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