The Real Winners and Losers from UFC on ESPN 22
Call it a socially distanced calm before the back-to-normal storm.
The UFC cranked out one last crowd-free show in the Nevada desert Saturday night before packing up the Octagonal circus and heading east for a pay-per-view show in Jacksonville, Florida, that will feature a full complement of fans in a U.S. building for the first time since COVID-19 pandemic-related lockdowns began last spring.
Calm, however, does not always mean uneventful.
The main event pitted former middleweight champ Robert Whittaker and ex-title challenger Kelvin Gastelum in a crossroads bout matching two fighters who had lost previous main events to Israel Adesanya.
Whittaker, now ranked first at 185 pounds, had won two straight fights since losing his championship to Adesanya via second-round stoppage at UFC 243 in October 2019.
Gastelum, meanwhile, had dropped a decision to Adesanya for an interim title six months earlier and went on to lose twice more before rallying to outpoint Ian Heinisch in a three-rounder at UFC 258 in February.
He arrived Saturday ranked eighth at middleweight.
Nine other bouts rounded out the ESPN+ card. Announce duties were handled by the familiar team of Brandon Fitzgerald, Michael Bisping and Dominick Cruz. The B/R combat sports team was also on assignment to produce its authoritative list of the show's real winners and losers.
Veteran UFC executive Marc Ratner was also on hand for timely rules analysis in the featured prelim bout.
Click through to see what was called out, and drop a comment to let us know how you saw it.
Winner: Old and Improved
Most fighters don't make you anticipate a rematch with a guy who had scored an early KO in the first bout.
Robert Whittaker, as evidenced by Saturday night, is not most fighters.
Though he was beaten into a second-round stoppage by Israel Adesanya when they met at UFC 243 in October 2019, the Australian took another step toward legitimizing a return bout with a unanimous five-round decision over Kelvin Gastelum in a long-delayed main event.
"When you look at what [Adesanya] did to him, he made it look easy," Bisping said. "But this is a new and improved Robert Whittaker. That was a masterpiece. That was truly a masterpiece. And I truly can't wait for the rematch with Adesanya."
Now 30, Whittaker has won three straight since dropping his middleweight title belt. He returned nine months later to defeat Darren Till by unanimous five-round decision and then scored a three-rounder over Jared Cannonier at UFC 254 in October.
Gastelum, meanwhile, has dropped three of four since losing to Adesanya in April 2019. He was supposed to challenge for Whittaker's title belt in February 2019, but the champion pulled out a few hours before the bout and had to undergo surgery for an abdominal hernia of the intestine and a twisted and collapsed bowel.
"Robert Whittaker is more diverse in his approach. There are more kicks, more punches," Cruz said. "I think this is the best performance we've seen from him. He looks sensational. He put on a masterclass. The little things that against Adesanya you would call mistakes, he didn't do them again."
All three judges scored it a 50-45 shutout—or five rounds to zero—for Whittaker, who landed 103 total strikes and connected with Gastelum's head no fewer than 72 times.
He also had four takedowns to Gastelum's one.
"I'm feeling on top of the world," Whittaker said. "I think [Gastelum's] one of the best fighters in the division. Speed was the key. I worked my standup a lot."
Winner: Heavyweight Throwback
Bill Clinton was still in the White House. Tom Brady was still at the University of Michigan. Lebron James was still in high school.
And Andrei Arlovski, on a spring day in Saint Petersburg, Russia, became a professional MMA fighter.
Now at 42, he's still doing it. And doing it well.
A former UFC heavyweight champion, Arlovski landed the sharper punches and repeatedly drilled his opponent's legs with calf kicks on the way to a unanimous decision over Chase Sherman—who was nine years old when Arlovski debuted—in their co-main event bout.
All three judges scored it 29-28 for the winner.
It was Arlovski's 20th win in UFC competition, tying him with Bisping for fourth all time.
"It's absolutely unbelievable the way he keeps going and going and going," Cruz said. "Instead of heading him off, Sherman was getting frustrated because he kept following him around."
Indeed, Sherman outdistanced Arlovski by a 31-21 when it came to significant strikes in the first round but was less effective when the veteran changed tack and became a more mobile target. Arlovski landed 32 significant strikes to Sherman's 25 in the second round and established a 37-28 edge in that statistic across the final five minutes.
Sherman had grown increasingly frustrated toward the end and was imploring him to stand and fight, but tensions cooled, and Sherman actually asked for an autograph in the aftermath.
"It's pure genius right there by Arlovski," Cruz said.
Winner: Flyweight Future
On the lookout for a women's flyweight prospect?
You might want to consider Tracy Cortez.
The uber-aggressive 27-year-old Arizonan went the full 15 minutes to boost her UFC record to a pristine 3-0, grinding out a split decision over 10-year pro Justine Kish and earning kudos from Bisping.
"You get these fights, and you go to a decision—they help a lot," he said. "Fights like that are essential in her development as a fighter. You need adversity if you're going to get better, and you're going to learn from your mistakes."
An alumna of Dana White's Contender Series, Cortez formally debuted in the UFC with a win in November 2019 and followed it up with another in October 2020. She started fast against Kish and controlled most of the first round after getting the fight to the floor and landing punishing hammerfists.
Additional takedowns followed in the second and third rounds, and though Kish did find some success while the fight was vertical, Cortez was able to avoid serious damage and wound up with three takedowns and nearly six minutes of ground control time.
She also landed 50 significant strikes to Kish's 38.
Cortez got nods of 29-28 and 30-27 from two judges, while Kish got a 29-28 edge from the third.
"I wanted to mix it up—not fight her fight, but fight my fight," Cortez said.
"I was able to stand up when I wanted, and I took it to ground whenever I wanted as well, so I'm happy with that. I have no quit in me. I got heart, and if you knock me down, I'm going to get back up. I'm not one to stay down. I can't be broken. I'm going to keep coming back, and you're going to have to kill me in there to stop me."
Loser: Beginner's 'Luck'
It was a first-time thing for Alexandr Romanov.
But the mammoth Moldovan is not looking forward to another.
The 30-year-old heavyweight went to a decision, sort of, for the first time in his 14th career bout, capturing a split technical nod over once-beaten Juan Espino after the final round was shortened by an unintentional knee that struck Romanov below the belt.
The 264-pounder was unable to continue after the foul, and the judges were ordered to score the two complete rounds and the 65 seconds of the third that had elapsed before the premature ending.
Two judges gave Romanov a 29-28 nod, while the third saw the same margin for Espino.
Romanov had finished each of his 13 previous bouts, all but five in the first round, including eight by submissions and five by knockouts.
He had his opponent on the mat with a takedown just 60 seconds into the opening session this time too, but he was dumped to the mat himself when Espino used a judo throw about three minutes in.
"This is the most adversity he's faced in his entire career," Bisping said.
The back-and-forth competition continued through the second and into the third until the foul, which left Romanov writhing for several minutes. A cageside physician was summoned, and the fighter told him, through an interpreter, that he was unable to straighten his leg.
The fight was consequently waved off after a delay of four minutes, 11 seconds.
Winner: A Happy Return
Jessica Penne smiled, threw her hands up and hesitated.
Being that it had been nearly four years to the day since her previous UFC bout—and closer to seven years since her most recent victory—you couldn't blame her for not recalling the routine.
"I don't really have words—I just want to say thank you," said Penne, 38, a former strawweight title challenger whose failed drug test led to a prolonged ban by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. "It was really nerve-racking, but I left my heart and soul out there, and I'm just really happy."
Initially a four-year suspension, the penalty was reduced to 20 months and enabled Penne to resume competition. She was scheduled to compete at UFC 260 in March before Hannah Goldy pulled out with a positive COVID-19 test. That bout was rescheduled for Saturday before Goldy withdrew again and was replaced by former LFA strawweight champion Lupita Godinez.
Penne was awarded a split decision, winning two cards by 29-28 and losing the third by the same score.
She landed 98 strikes to Godinez's 68, amassed 31 significant strikes and had better than four minutes of ground control time. It was the 13th win in 18 career bouts for the Californian, who lost a strawweight title bout against Joanna Jedrzejczyk in 2015 and had last appeared on a Fight Night show on April 22, 2017.
"I have heart. I'm durable and dedicated," she said. "There are obviously things to work on and things that I didn't execute the way I wanted to, but the only way I can do that is through experience." She continued:
"I'm happy to get back in there and happy to get some momentum. It's hard coming off of a four-year layoff and getting back in there, but I'm proud of myself. I see myself competing again soon and just trying to stay busy and stay active. I can't get back the time that I lost, but I learned and grew from it. I'm happy to keep learning and growing from every experience."
Loser: Pithy Turns of Phrase
The creative types had them all cued up.
With a fighter named Drakkar Klose set to fight in the co-main event, throwback references to the old-school L'Oreal cologne—an '80s staple of nightclub men's rooms—were essentially writing themselves.
And then, in a poof of spicy, dark mystery, they were gone.
Klose was scheduled to meet Jeremy Stephens in a three-rounder at lightweight but pulled out shortly before the 7 p.m. broadcast began thanks to an incident that occurred at Friday's weigh-in.
A catchweight women's bout on the prelim card was also scrubbed after Zarah Fairn missed the agreed-upon 139-pound limit, weighing in at 147 to opponent Josiane Nunes at 136.
Fitzgerald labeled it "an injury on the Drakkar Klose side of things" upon announcing the main-card cancelation, and both Cruz and Bisping quickly came to the absent fighter's defense.
Cruz suggested Klose deserved "the benefit of the doubt," and Bisping insisted no fighter would pull out without good reason after a grueling training camp.
Klose went public with a statement as well, saying a two-handed shove by Stephens during the weigh-in faceoff left him with a numb hand and a tightened neck. Two hours with the UFC's physical therapy staff followed, he said, but he woke up early Saturday morning with a migraine and nausea.
"The only thing that made me feel better was laying in the dark," Klose said. "UFC got me medicine, and I rested for a couple hours before getting up and vomiting. It was at that point we called the UFC doctor and he made the decision to send me to the hospital."
UFC on ESPN 22 Full Card Results
Robert Whittaker def. Kelvin Gastelum by unanimous decision (50-45, 50-45, 50-45).
Andrei Arlovski def. Chase Sherman by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28).
Jacob Malkoun def. Abdul Razak Alhassan by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27).
Tracy Cortez def. Justine Kish by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27).
Luis Pena def. Alexander Munoz by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28).
Alexandr Romanov def. Juan Espino by split technical decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28).
Jessica Penne def. Lupita Godinez by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28).
Gerald Meerschaert def. Bartosz Fabinski by submission (guillotine choke), 2:00, Round 1.
Austin Hubbard def. Dakota Bush by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28).
Tony Gravely def. Anthony Birchak by TKO (punch), 1:31, Round 2.