The Real Winners and Losers from UFC on ESPN 31

Tom Taylor@@TomTayMMAContributor IIDecember 5, 2021

The Real Winners and Losers from UFC on ESPN 31

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    After a weekend away, the UFC returned to our screens Saturday night with the UFC on ESPN 31 card out of the Apex facility in Las Vegas.

    The card was topped by a high-stakes bantamweight fight between No. 4-ranked contender Rob Font and No. 5 Jose Aldo. After five riveting rounds of action, the latter was named the winner by unanimous decision, taking a big step in the direction of the bantamweight division's ultimate prize in the process. 

    The UFC on ESPN 31 card was co-headlined by a dynamite lightweight clash between top-15 contenders Rafael Fiziev and Brad Riddell. Fiziev won the fight in highlight-reel fashion, stopping his rival with a third-round wheel kick.

    Elsewhere on the card, we witnessed some huge wins from the likes of Jamahal Hill, Clay Guida, and Chris Curtis. But who really won and lost the most ground by the time all was said and done?

    Keep reading for our take.

Winner: The Legacy of Jose Aldo

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    Jose Aldo is the gift that keeps on giving.

    The former WEC and UFC featherweight champion secured his place in the MMA pantheon years ago but still continues to fight at the highest level of the sport at 35 years old and after 39 professional fights.

    Aldo picked up his latest win in the main event of UFC on ESPN 31 in Las Vegas, where he took on New England's Rob Font. Font had some success in the fight—particularly early in the first round—but by the time the fifth round was over, he'd been out-punched, out-kicked and out-grappled by his legendary foe.

    All three cage-side judges scored it in favor of the Brazilian.

    In victory, Aldo is 3-2 since dropping from featherweight to bantamweight. His losses in the stretch were a hotly debated decision loss to Marlon Moraes and a TKO defeat to interim bantamweight champion Petr Yan—certainly nothing to smirk at.

    After his win Saturday, Aldo called for a fight with former bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw. It remains to be seen whether he gets that opportunity, but one thing is clear: His legacy in this sport gets more impressive every time he steps into the cage.

Loser: Long Commutes

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    New Zealand's Brad Riddell and Australia's Jimmy Crute had to make long journeys to partake in their UFC on ESPN 31 fights. Unfortunately, both men made their trips in vain.

    Crute was up first, taking on Jamahal Hill. Despite entering the cage as a slight betting favorite, the Australian was decimated by his American foe, succumbing to a right hook and a follow-up ground strike just 48 seconds into Round 1.

    Riddell was up next, taking on Rafael Fiziev. Riddell had his moments in the early going but was put down by a third-round wheel kick.

    Australia and New Zealand have had some major success in MMA over the past few years, thanks in large part to stars like Israel Adesanya, Alexander Volkanovski and Robert Whittaker. Unfortunately, not all those who make the long flight from Oceania to the United States return home with a win.

    Crute and Riddell learned that the hard way at UFC on ESPN 31. That plane ride home is going to suck.

Loser: Fighting Like a Veteran

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    Leonardo Santos is 41, with a 24-fight resume that dates back to 2006. He sure didn't look the part in his lightweight scrap with Clay Guida on the UFC on ESPN 31 main card.

    Santos, a decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, hurt Guida with a punch early in the first round. He then swarmed his foe in pursuit of a finish but quickly seemed to get distracted, frustratedly looking over to the referee, evidently hoping the fight would be stopped.

    The referee did not call an end to proceedings, meaning Santos still had more work to do. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the Brazilian had burned out his arms in his furious chase for a finish.

    From there, things only got worse for him. Guida survived the first round, and in the second, he took Santos' back to lock up a rear-naked choke. The black belt tapped out at the 1:21 mark.

    The outcome seemed almost inconceivable ahead of the fight and was one Santos seemingly could have avoided had he been just a little more patient in his pursuit of a finish and a little less worried about what the referee was doing.

    Oh, and he's going to want to work on his cardio.

Winner: The Action Man

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    Chris Curtis has had quite a month.

    After being denied a contract on Dana White's Contender Series in 2019, a brief retirement and stints in a long list of smaller organizations, The Action Man finally made his Octagon debut at UFC 268 on November 6, taking on the highly regarded Phil Hawes in a short-notice middleweight fight. 

    Curtis won that fight via first-round knockout, and less than a month after that impressive upset, he returned at UFC on ESPN 31 for another short-notice fight, this time against rising contender Brendan Allen. 

    Once again, Curtis entered the cage as an underdog. Once again, he defied the odds, this time with a second-round knockout victory. Throw in the fact that Curtis is clearly a natural welterweight, and his two short-notice middleweight wins over Hawes and Allen are even more impressive.

Loser: That Plan to Cut the Flyweight Division

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    Back in 2018, rumors were running rampant that the UFC was getting rid of its 125-pound men's flyweight division. The weight class had long struggled to catch on with casual fans, and after the UFC traded its long-time champion Demetrious Johnson to ONE Championship, its demise looked inevitable.

    Thankfully, after purging a sizable portion of the flyweight roster, the UFC elected to keep the division. That was definitely the right decision.

    In the time since, the flyweight division has given us dozens of incredible fights and finishes. We got another one on the UFC on ESPN 31 undercard, when former Rizin bantamweight champion Manel Kape scored a sizzling knockout win in a frenetic, one-round war with Kazakhstan's Zhalgas Zhumagulov.  

    It was the latest reminder of how good the flyweight division can be and how silly it was that the division was ever on the chopping block.

Winner: Early Birds

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    Only the most dedicated fans tune in for the early prelims of UFC cards—particularly under-the-radar Fight Night cards like UFC on ESPN 31. 

    The fans who tuned in for the early portion of Saturday's card were rewarded for their dedication, as the first two bouts of the night both ended in highlight-reel fashion.

    First up, in bantamweight action, Vince Morales shut the lights out on durable veteran Louis Smolka with a vicious overhand right in the first round. In the next fight, Peruvian lightweight Claudio Puelles picked up a huge win of his own, defeating the gritty Chris Gruetzemacher with a third-round kneebar—one of the most damaging maneuvers in the submission grappling arsenal. Both wins immediately stood out as front-runners for the evening's Performance of the Night bonuses, and anyone who skipped the early prelims missed them.

    They say the early bird catches the worm. In the case of UFC on ESPN 31, that adage definitely held up.

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