Understandably, there wasn’t a lot of excitement around UFC 224. Even though the UFC has had plenty of opportunities to push and promote women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, they have failed to do so, leading to a lukewarm reception to her headlining this card. Despite that, UFC 224 was top-to-bottom the best card of 2018 so far. Eleven of the thirteen contests featured a stoppage, many of them spectacular. The one main card contest that went the distance was one of the better fights of 2018, and the fight of the night between Jacare Souza and Kelvin Gastelum.
As you can guess on a card featuring so many definitive finishes, there wasn’t a lot of middle ground for winners and losers for this card. Here’s what you need to know for the evening.
Amanda Nunes: Remember how the MMA community used to talk about what it would take for someone to dethrone Ronda Rousey? How she was showing new skills in every contest? It’s time to start having those conversations about Nunes. When she took the title from Tate and beat down Rousey, the talk was she can’t go five rounds. When she did that against Valentina Shevchenko, it was that the fight was an extremely slow-paced contest. Those detractors have to shut up now as Nunes pushed a consistent pace for nearly 23 minutes before getting a finish. It ended up being Nunes’ most complete performance, beating up Pennington both on the feet and the ground. Given women’s bantamweight may be more shallow than the light heavyweight division – and that’s saying something – Nunes could be the queen of the division for a very long time.
Kelvin Gastelum: I don’t know where the real Kelvin Gastelum was for the first five minutes, but he was there for the final two rounds. He was looking pretty damn good too. The wannabe welterweight stalked an exhausted Jacare for ten minutes and knocked him on his ass in the second round. Gastelum was hesitant enough that he almost allowed Jacare to take a decision, but did just enough to pull out a split decision in Brazil, no small accomplishment. I’ve heard plenty of talk that Gastelum needs a win over someone at middleweight who is younger than 35, but I’ll take a win over a 38-year old Jacare over a generic 30-year old.
Jacare Souza: This may be a controversial choice to put Jacare here given this was likely his final opportunity to earn a title shot, but the man put on a hell of a performance despite barely being able to stand at points over the final two rounds. He didn’t get the nod, but I don’t think anyone would have complained had the judges. Outside of a UFC title, it could be said the biggest thing missing on Jacare’s resume was a memorable, knockdown, drag ‘em out contest. He’s got one now. Jacare may not be the best version of himself, but he’s still a hell of a fighter.
John Lineker: Lineker didn’t quite look like himself in his contest against Marlon Vera. Maybe it had something to do with it being his first fight since coming back from a broken jaw. He came back with a vengeance against Brian Kelleher, stalking the American with brutal body shots. It may have taken longer than usual before Lineker found the finish, but everything else about it was vintage Lineker. Here’s hoping he’s here to stay for a very long time.
Lyoto Machida: I suppose all we need to do to get a few more highlights out of the Dragon is put him in the cage with another subscriber to AARP. Regardless of how old Machida’s opponent was, his front kick KO of Vitor Belfort was as impressive of a KO as we’ve seen in 2018. It would be foolish to declare him back to being an elite fighter, but it’s nice to see Machida return to form, even if just for one night.
Cezar Ferreira: Ferreira didn’t leave his fight with Karl Roberson unscathed – he had a pair of nasty welts on his leg – but things couldn’t have gone much better. He got Roberson to the ground early and 99% of the fight was spent there after that, maintaining a dominant position the rest of the contest before putting Ferreira to sleep. Quietly, Ferreira has won five of his last six. Regardless of the level of competition he’s been facing, that’s impressive.
Alexey Oleynik: Oleynik may be older than time itself, but he just keeps on rolling thanks to the deepest bag of tricks in all of the sport. Not only did he deliver the second Ezekiel choke in UFC history – the first being delivered by him – he did it from the bottom of a mount position… again! I don’t know why his fellow heavyweights keep sleeping on him as he continues to deliver submissions seemingly out of nowhere.
Davi Ramos: Many might look at a win over Nick Hein and not be impressed. What people forget is how difficult Hein is to take down and Ramos did so effortlessly. Then he followed up with a beautiful back take to score a submission with a face crank. Ramos looks like he could develop into something special.
Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos: Capoeira has been called a useless sport by many within the MMA community. Dos Santos gave a huge middle finger to those critics, delivering a perfect capoeira kick to the side of Sean Strickland’s head before finishing him off with punches on the ground. Now the owner of five wins in a row – including three FOTN bonuses in those five wins – it’s about damn time the striker gets a definitive step up in competition.
Warlley Alves: On the surface, Alves’ performance wasn’t anything impressive. He clinched up with Sultan Aliev and grinded out a largely boring victory. However, Alves has struggled to remain effective past the first round and was able to do so, capitalizing on a HUGE hematoma under Aliev’s eye, attacking the eye until Aliev’s corner had no choice but to stop the fight. It wasn’t fun to watch, but Alves is maturing.
Jack Hermansson: Perhaps the biggest winner of the night, Hermansson not only proved he’s as tough as they come, he pulled out a come-from-behind win that is typically reserved for the movies, breaking his leg early in the fight. Leites dominated him after the break and it looked like the referee would stop the contest at the close of the second. Lucky for Hermansson, Marc Goddard showed some leniency and allowed the fight to go on, providing Hermansson with an unforgettable moment and a big win.
Ramazan Emeev: I really wanted to demote Emeev to the neither category as he coasted in the final round, but he did tag a loss onto an undefeated fighter who had stayed that way despite three previous UFC appearances. It was boring, but the efficiency in which Emeev fought needs to be noted. He might be able to make some loud noise at 170.
Markus Perez: While most were picking Perez to win, they weren’t expecting the Brazilian to ragdoll James Bochnovic in the manner he did. Throwing the Wisconsin native to the ground before finding a RNC for the win, Perez bought himself some needed breathing room by securing a finish for his first UFC victory.
Brazil: Not only did the Brazilian fans get treated to eleven finishes in thirteen fights, but the crowd favorites finished 8-4 on the night. Some may want to knock them as a good amount of the crowd seemed to leave either before or during the main event, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the fights they were privileged to witness.
Raquel Pennington: Never let Pennington’s heart be doubted as she took a hell of a beating and continued to keep fighting, even when she didn’t want to. Nonetheless, Pennington heeded her corner’s advice and went back out there for the fifth round after she declared she was finish, only to end the fight in a puddle of her own blood from a badly broken nose. The argument can be made her corner realized the chances of her receiving another title shot were slim provided she walked away from the contest, but it still feels like they failed in their job to protect their fighter. But those are just my feelings. Even though Pennington’s performance was admirable, she took a LOT of damage with very little ground being made up in the fight. Not a good night for the challenger.
Amanda Cooper: To be fair to Cooper, she was in an impossible situation. Her opponent secured a HUGE advantage over her by failing to make weight. Then she has to fight the pro-Dern crowd. Then after a strong start to the fight, Cooper eats a right haymaker that would have put down an elephant to get subbed. Cooper has my sympathy.
Karl Roberson: Don’t misinterpret Roberson’s position here for disappointment. He’s still very inexperienced in MMA, so it’s no surprise he was completely dominated on the ground by a longtime UFC veteran in Ferreira. But just because something isn’t surprising doesn’t mean it isn’t a bad night. Refusing to tap to the triangle choke doesn’t help things out either.
Junior Albini: I don’t think Albini watched any film of Oleynik. Why would he trip up the old man when the Russian had Albini’s head wrapped up? He did it and ended up being subbed in the process. Albini’s career is still young, so we shouldn’t give up on him, but his star isn’t half as bright as it was heading into his contest with Andrei Arlovski.
Nick Hein: I’m a fan of Hein, so I was really hesitant to put him here. He was expected to lose, right? But I had to throw him here as he didn’t do anything positive in this contest. He didn’t land a significant strike. He didn’t stop Ramos’ takedown attempt. He did stop the RNC… but it was turned into a face crank. Yep, Hein was a loser for the evening.
Sean Strickland: This was Strickland’s second loss to an exciting striker from South America, the first coming to Santiago Ponzinibbio. It’s less that he lost to another striker and more that he hasn’t appeared to learned anything from the loss to Ponzinibbio that is disturbing. Regardless, Strickland appears to have hit his ceiling, a sad development for someone at the tender age of 27.
Sultan Aliev: I had to put Aliev here not because he lost; he was the underdog for a reason. It wasn’t because his eye swelled completely shut either, though that looked very painful. No, the reason I had to put him here is Alves beat Aliev where Aliev is supposed to be best: the clinch. If he can’t win fights there, he isn’t going to win many fights.
Thales Leites: For how awesome Hermansson’s win was, it came at the expense of Leites, confirming that Leites is finished as a viable middleweight. I have a hard time finding a name on the roster I’d feel confident in picking Leites to win at this point seeing he couldn’t finish off a guy with a broken leg. Leites has had a solid career, but it looks like his time is drawing to a close.
Alberto Mina: It’s one thing to lose the 0 in the loss column in a close contest. It’s another when you can’t get anything going. Mina was only reasonably competitive in the final frame when Emeev was merely looking to kill the final five minutes. Not a good sign. Even though this was Mina’s first loss, his lack of activity may be enough for the UFC to let him go.
James Bochnovic: Given the UFC couldn’t have done much more to give Bochnovic a favorable contest, losing in the first round doesn’t bode well for his fortunes. He simply doesn’t have the athletic ability to compete against UFC caliber fighters – even those on the lower rungs. This may be the last time we see him in the Octagon.
Mackenzie Dern: She missed weight in an epic fashion – SEVEN F’N POUNDS – so she’s not going to get full credit for her impressive finish. Then again, that finish really was that damn awesome! Dern had better continue her career at flyweight as she has missed weight for the strawweight limit two times prior to this contest. Nonetheless, despite the holes in her defense and striking technique, Dern showed why there has been so much hype behind her.
Brian Kelleher: Kelleher may not have stood in front of Lineker and threw punch-for-punch with the man known as Hands of Stone, but no one else has ever eaten as much punishment as Kelleher did before he was finally finished by Lineker with just over a minute to go. It’s rare to see someone get finished in such a violent fashion and still have his stock raised. And yet, Kelleher did it. Still, that finish was BRUTAL!!!
Vitor Belfort: Given this appears to be Belfort’s last contest in a UFC cage, I can’t put him in the loser’s column. Whether you’re a fan of his or not – and there are plenty who can’t stand him – he’s accomplished a lot in this sport… a sport he helped to grow into what it is today. Belfort showed a lot of class in his post-fight interview and he was clearly taking it all in before he made his final walk to the Octagon. Though I’m sure Belfort’s fighting career is hardly over, he deserves some credit for his accomplishments in the UFC.