There was a lot of hype going into UFC 241. After a string of events that felt underwhelming, UFC 241 had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, it did just that. Sure, the event started out slow enough with a single finish coming in the prelims. However, once the meat of the card arrived, it was just about everything we could have hoped. There was an explosive KO from a young prospect in Sodiq Yusuff. There was a brutal FOTY candidate between Paulo Costa and Yoel Romero. The controversial Nate Diaz returned after three years away to dispose of Anthony Pettis as if he never left. And of course, Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic engaged in barbaric battle with Miocic avenging his loss from last year to regain the heavyweight title. If you don’t believe you got every single penny’s worth for what you spent on UFC 241, you actually don’t like MMA.
Stipe Miocic: There was a lot I was leery of with Miocic. I didn’t like how he handled the loss to Cormier in their first contest. He didn’t look nearly as relaxed in the cage as he usually does. Then he let Cormier take firm control of their rematch after three rounds. Miocic’s chances of emerging victorious didn’t look good. And yet, Miocic was able to walk out of the evening with the commencement of his second reign as heavyweight champion. Whether you want to say he took it – brutalizing Cormier’s body until he round the finish – or that Cormier gave it to him – by abandoning his wrestling and letting off the gas – Miocic is the man with the gold. There are other issues to take coming out of this contest, but for now, Miocic is again the heavyweight champion after one of the more grueling heavyweight contests we’ve ever seen. I don’t know if I’m ready to call him the greatest heavyweight of all time, but he has to be in considerations for any debate about that.
Nate Diaz: I found it funny there were some questioning whether Diaz would be in fighting shape for the contest. Do these people know anything about the Diaz brothers? They run marathons for the fun of it! Three years wasn’t going to be a problem for Diaz. The younger Diaz brother proved to be sharp as ever, dismantling Pettis over the course of 15 minutes. The most impressive part of it was the damage Diaz did in the clinch, devastating Pettis with knees to… well, everywhere. If you’re wondering if Diaz would be in fighting shape, you probably aren’t aware Diaz isn’t known for his clinch fighting. And yet, there he was bullying Pettis in the clinch. Throw in the fact Diaz’s swarming boxing eventually found its grove and his grappling appeared to be as sharp as ever and it could be contended that Diaz has never looked better. Make no mistake, Diaz wasn’t sitting around during his sabbatical.
Paulo Costa and Yoel Romero: It’s impossible to separate the performance of these two. Someway, somehow, Costa and Romero unloaded everything they had in their arsenal – and their arsenal is incredibly impressive – and both were still standing in the end. It isn’t hard to find technical holes in their performances, but given the awesome entertainment value and sheer brilliance of what they pulled off, I’m not even going to try to pick holes in that. As a fan of the sport of MMA, there are some things that are so good that I’m just going to sit back and enjoy it and this was one of those things. Even though Romero was the more established fighter coming into this contest, his stock didn’t take a hit while Costa’s skyrocketed. Plus, the biggest question mark surrounding Costa, his gas tank, was largely answered. Yeah, he grew tired, but he kept fighting. If you’re reading this without having seeing the fight, do yourself a favor and find a way to watch it as soon as possible.
Sodiq Yusuff: Yusuff had a close call when Gabriel Benitez caught him with a counter left that briefly stumbled the Nigerian native. However, Yusuff recovered and quickly went back to his pressuring strategy he had success with prior to getting dropped, eventually putting away Benitez with a brutal right hand to the chin. What I loved about it is Yusuff realized his mistake was tactical, not strategical. He made sure he didn’t get clipped again and stuck with what was working. We already knew Yusuff has physically gifted. We also knew he hit like a truck. Now we know he can stick to a plan at the first sign of trouble. Yusuff may be my favorite prospect on the roster.
Derek Brunson: Where the hell has this version of Brunson been? Known for either blowing the hinges off the door in the opening moments of the fight or breaking mentally when he doesn’t get the early finish, neither of those occurred against Ian Heinisch. Instead, Bruson was methodical and measured, using his significant reach advantage over Heinisch in a way he never had previously. It proved to be the best version that we’ve seen of him. Is he in the midst of a late-career reinvention? He may be 35, but Brunson is still a great athlete. I know it’s a longshot, but fighting this way would be the best way for him to push into legit contention.
Khama Worthy: I’m not going to lie: I wrote off Worthy. Every time he faced notable competition prior to entering the UFC, he got blasted without exception. Instead, Worthy scored a big upset, putting former teammate Devonte Smith to the mat with a pinpoint counter. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t the only one who had written off the newcomer as the betting odds were disgustingly lopsided. However, prior to the finish, the fight was more reminiscent of a sparring session, not a big surprise given they have a history together. Nonetheless, good on Worthy for making the most of his short notice opportunity.
Cory Sandhagen: I’m liking Sandhagen more and more every time I see him. Not just because he keeps winning, this win over Raphael Assuncao being the best win by far. It’s because Sandhagen comes out and executes a perfect game plan every time he steps into the cage. He forced Assuncao to be at the end of his punches and kicks, forcing the veteran into some awkward situations to get the fight to the ground. Even when Assuncao got the fight to the ground, Sandhagen’s length prevented Assuncao from landing serious damage or making real headway for a submission. As long as Sandhagen can keep making 135, he’s going to be a serious problem. The only negative is I don’t think he’ll be able to do that for the entirety of his career.
Drakkar Klose: Klose has been pretty good at winning in the UFC. He’s now 5-1. However, the big difference between his win over Christos Giagos and Klose’s other UFC wins is the win over Giagos was actually a lot of fun. Giagos used his athletic advantage early to put Klose in some bad situations early. The problem with that is Giagos slowed considerably at the halfway point of the fight, allowing the measured Klose to storm back, doing some serious damage to close the second and maintain a more consistent attack in the third to come away with a narrow decision. A lack of action has been the biggest issue with Klose so far. If he can put on a few more contests as entertaining as this, Klose will rocket himself into relevance.
Casey Kenney: It wasn’t a surprise Kenney beat Manny Bermudez. Kenney’s a tough, resourceful SOB. What was a surprise is most of the contest took place on the ground and Kenney was still able to take the W over the submission specialist. In fact, Kenney even put Bermudez in several compromising positions of his own. It is a bit worrisome that Kenney was getting pieced up by the sloppy Bermudez on the feet in the final round, but Bermudez also had a major size advantage and Kenney was tired. Regardless of that, Kenney survived to take the decision, scoring a nice upset.
Hannah Cifers: I don’t want to put too much stock in Cifers win over Jodie Esquibel given Esquibel couldn’t get a single UFC win in four tries, but the quiet farmer did what she needed to do to turn away the opponent put in front of her. It was a workmanlike performance from Cifers, countering Esquibel’s entries and minimizing the damage Esquibel was able to do when she got top position. Nothing flashy, but it’s hard to point out a glaring hole in Cifers performance. Given how young she is in her career, that’s very encouraging.
Sabina Mazo: While I picked Mazo to beat Shana Dobson, I didn’t expect her to obliterate her the way she did. None of the rounds were close as one of the judges gave every round a 10-8 score with no one claiming BS. It was Mazo’s work and the clinch, takedowns, and work on the ground that did the trick. Dobson isn’t a particularly difficult test, but that shouldn’t take away too much from how good Mazo looked. It leaves me very curious to see how much she progresses between now and her next contest.
Daniel Cormier: I don’t know why Cormier let off the gas in the fourth round, but he appeared to be coasting as opposed to hunting for the finish. Given all the damage he had accumulated on Miocic going into that round, it didn’t seem far fetched to suggest a finish was far from the horizon. And yet, Cormier allowed Miocic to find an opening and exploit it by attacking Cormier’s body, eventually leading to the champ’s downfall. Maybe Cormier was tired from the insane pace he had been pushing. Maybe he felt he could withstand whatever Miocic threw at him. Whatever it was, Cormier is no longer the baddest man on the planet. Perhaps this proves to be enough of a ding in Cormier’s legacy that he won’t be considered the greatest heavyweight in the history of MMA, but it doesn’t take away from the fact Cormier was already one of the greatest MMA practitioners of all time. Regardless of whether he retires or comes back, Cormier was already a winner in grand scheme of things, even if he was a loser for this night.
Anthony Pettis: Given the rarified air Diaz reached when he took down Conor McGregor over three years ago, Pettis saw an opportunity to break into that same status by tackling Diaz. He never came close. The former lightweight champion did seem to rock the bad boy from Stockton with a couple of hard shots early, but Pettis’ gas tank ran short, allowing a tireless Diaz to take firm control of the fight before the first round was out. Pettis didn’t seem to make the necessary cardio adjustments in his camp to offset the added muscle on his frame and it showed. He should be commended for enduring the beating Diaz put on him as Pettis remained game until the end, but I can’t remember a time when it felt like Pettis was truly threatening. What’s that? The guillotine he put Diaz in? Please! You’re not catching a Diaz brother like that.
Ian Heinisch: I get the feeling Heinisch’s loss provides an idea of where his ceiling is. I don’t want to say a definitive ceiling as Brunson fought the best 15-minute fight of his career and Brunson is a plus athlete, but Brunson has traditionally been a gatekeeper to the top 10. Given Heinisch’s athletic and striking limitations, that may be about right. Outside of a kick right off the bat, Heinisch struggled to land any decent strikes as navigating Brunson’s reach proved to be too difficult. Heinisch also proved to be limited as a wrestler. He may not be skilled enough to get the fight where he wants, having to take what his opponent gives him.
Devonte Smith: What the hell? Smith wasn’t properly prepared to face his opponent and it showed. I’m not saying he didn’t prepare for the fight. I’m sure he did. But Worthy proved to be the third opponent he was pitted against and Smith wasn’t ready for it. Not because he didn’t know Worthy, but because he did know him and appeared to be reluctant to hit a friend in the face. Whatever it was, Smith can’t perform like that again in the future. Regardless, he should learn from this performance.
Raphael Assuncao: It didn’t look like Assuncao was diminished at all despite being 37. Sandhagen is just ungodly large for bantamweight and Assuncao doesn’t have the tool bag to deal with what Sandhagen brings to the table. In fact, it could be argued Assuncao did about as well as he could. He scored some takedowns. He landed a few nice counters. He even neutralized a lot of Sandhagen’s offense in the last round. Nonetheless, it wasn’t enough and may very well have permanently knocked Assuncao out of the title picture at 135. It’s a shame as Assuncao is arguably a historically top 5 bantamweight in the annals of UFC history and never got a title shot. He can still be a top gatekeeper, but it doesn’t have the same ring as top contender.
Manny Bermudez: There are plenty of positives to take out of this for Bermudez. He had some success on the feet against Kenney and was the more effective fighter in the final round. Given his gas tank has long been suspect, that was encouraging. The problem is Bermudez got the type of fight he wanted: a grappling contest on the mat. And yet, Bermudez wasn’t able to walk away with a victory. I’m not saying Bermudez’s stock took a hit in my eyes as Kenney proved to be far more game on the mat than anyone predicted. But I also can’t give him a pass for dropping a contest that stylistically favored him.
Jodie Esquibel: No doubt, this is the end of the line for Esquibel. With four losses in four tries, there’s no reason for the UFC to bring her back. She ended up swinging at the air a lot instead of actually connecting with Cifers’ chin. Esquibel appears to be to scared to take the shots necessary to score her offense. Not that I blame her as there’s still a good chance she loses that type of fight, but it would be better than swinging at air.
Shana Dobson: About the only thing that can be said that’s positive for Dobson’s performance is that she’s tough given she absorbed a lot of damage. The problem is a fighter never wants to walk away from a contest with that being the only thing people can say about you. Dobson took a year off to work on her game. If this is the result, she may want to take a permanent vacation from the cage and focus on her teaching career.
Jon Jones: I know Jones took to Twitter to declare Miocic the greatest heavyweight champion specifically to troll Cormier. However, there has to be a part of Jones that is disappointed to as Cormier losing also takes some of the wind out of the sail of a potential trilogy contest, regardless of weight it would take place at. Like everyone else on this planet, Jones would love to maximize his capital and the best way for him to do that is by making Cormier his dance partner once again. The loss makes it appear less likely to happen.
Aljamain Sterling: The guy can’t catch a break. Not only did Sandhagen’s performance create another viable title challenger – perhaps forcing Sterling into a #1 contender’s fight or taking the title shot outright – but he also had to deal with the news Frankie Edgar is dropping to bantamweight earlier this week. When Sterling beat Pedro Munhoz in June, it seemed very likely he’d be the next to challenge for the gold at 135. Instead, it now appears he has some more work to do if he wants it.
Gabriel Benitez: Sure, Benitez got knocked out. What people need to remember though is that’s what the UFC set Benitez up for. He was supposed to be fodder. While that ultimately proved to be his fate, he put up a better fight than many expected before Yusuff put him down, even dropping him at one point. The performance wasn’t good enough to boost his stock, but it should hold as Benitez also upheld his reputation as a sound action fighter.
Christos Giagos: There were a lot of people who just expected Giagos to wash out of the UFC after he was re-signed to be sacrificed to Charles Oliveira last year. Instead, he’s shown more discipline and consistency and won two fights. When given a big step up in competition in Klose, Giagos came thisclose to securing the upset. Giagos executed a perfect strategy that only came up short due to Giagos slowing after taking a lot of damage to close the second round. Giagos has made some serious strides since his first UFC run. He may have lost, but he was expected to and he looked better than anyone expected. I can’t call him a loser after that.
Kyung Ho Kang: There was a lot to like in Kang’s win over Brandon Davis. He established a jab early, got some advantageous positions on the mat, even landed some decent ground and pound. However, Kang also tired in the second round, allowing Davis to begin teeing off and take the round. Then, Kang nearly gave away the closing round with inactivity despite great positioning. This should have been a statement win from Kang, stating he wanted tougher opponents. Despite the win, I’d be reluctant to give it to him.
Brandon Davis: On the flip side, the major concern I had about Davis were largely answered. Would the cut to 135 affect his gas tank? Not one bit. He even showed some better than expected takedown defense early and supplemented his sloppy boxing with low kicks. While Davis did begin finding success with his fists beginning in the second, it wasn’t until Kang was tired. Nonetheless, Davis did better than I expected, nearly stealing the win with his higher activity level.