Friday, October 7, 2022

6 Positives & 5 Negatives From UFC 278

On Saturday night, the MMA leader returned to our screens for its latest pay-per-view event, UFC 278.

For the past week, PPV fever has been in Utah for the very first time, culminating with Salt Lake City’s Vivint Arena playing host to a number of intriguing contests inside the Octagon, including one title fight and two bouts towards the top of the middleweight and bantamweight divisions.

Whilst Kamaru Usman was searching for the sixth defense of his gold in the main event, England’s Leon Edwards was looking to shock the world by becoming the UK’s second-ever UFC champion.

With intriguing showdowns like the return of Luke Rockhold against Paulo Costa and the latest appearance for the legendary José Aldo, as well as exciting names like Tyson Pedro and Alexander Romanov taking to the cage, the promotion’s ninth PPV of the year looked set to be a memorable one.

So, did it mark itself as an event that fans will be talking about for months to come? Let’s find out with the positives and negatives from UFC 278.

Positive – Starting On The Right Foot

There’s nothing like two fighters setting the tone early, and that’s the case at any event, let alone for a stacked PPV card.

At UFC 278, flyweights Daniel da Silva and Victor Altamirano opened the proceedings with a wild and entertaining fight for as long as it lasted. They quickly set the tone for their bout in the opening few seconds, with the Mexican bursting out the gates and the Brazilian narrowly missing a slick head kick.

In typical 125-pound fashion, things didn’t slow, with both men exchanging before da Silva dropped his rival with a clean right hand. With normal service quickly resumed on the feet, Altamirano survived a spinning back fist before flooring “Miojo” with a vicious knee to the body.

From there, the Mexican delivered a display of elbows that would no doubt act like a trigger for Alistair Overeem (see UFC 225). Eventually, the referee had seen enough and cemented a stoppage that had seemed inevitable for about a minute.

Wild on the feet and brutal on the ground to — in the words of the victor — welcome Salt Lake City to UFC 278? Magnifico.

Positive – Both Ends Of The Spectrum

There was no slowing up on the early prelims, with Jay Perrin and Aoriqileng seeing Altamirano’s quick TKO and raising him a wild three-rounder.

If Aoriqileng’s debut loss to Jeff Molina taught us anything, it’s that he’s always down for a war and a few memorable phone-booth exchanges. At UFC 278, “The Mongolian Murderer” had another willing dance partner in the form of Perrin, who fought hard throughout despite appearing hurt on a number of occasions, even initiating a truly ferocious period of action to end the final round.

After a rapid and vicious finish to begin the night, a 15-minute back and forth was exactly what the doctor ordered, and Aoriqileng was rightfully awarded the decision victory.

Considering that the 29-year-old’s last three-round barnburner came at UFC 261, can we agree to stick “The Mongolian Murderer” on every Kamaru Usman undercard moving forward?

Positive – A Contender Emerges

Welcome to the flyweight elite, Amir Albazi.

After a TKO and decision, Albazi made it a full house on the early prelims by ticking off ‘submission’ from our bingo cards (does anyone do that? Because that sounds like fun). The Iraqi’s appearance at UFC 278 was his first since January. But whilst some failed matchups stalled his rise, Albazi well and truly picked up where he left off.

After catching a kick and grounding opponent Francisco Figueiredo, Albazi threatened with submissions and ground-and-pound. That turned out to be a sign of things to come, with “The Prince” capitalizing on his Brazilian foe’s decision to give his back in pursuit of a leg lock, securing a rear-naked choke.

With that, Albazi moved to 3-0 under the UFC banner and reminded the flyweight division of his presence. In his post-fight interview, the Iraqi called for more black belts to submit — Albazi versus Matheus Nicolau anybody?

Negative – The Absence Of Fight IQ

Never has someone blown a finish and a win quite like Luis Saldaña did at UFC 278.

Halfway through the first round, the 31-year-old had the fight won — twice. First came a check left hook that sent Sean Woodson back to Missouri. But whilst the rocked and dazed Woodson fell to the ground and slowly regained his bearings, Saldaña was meters away inviting some more exchanges.

That’s most likely one of two regrets for the 31-year-old. The second came shortly after.

Soon after the first knockdown, it appeared that Saldaña wouldn’t be punished for allowing his rival back to the feet after he sent him down again. This time, his inactivity wasn’t what cost him, his choice of activity did.

Saldaña rushed in and threw a knee (mostly thigh), which connected to the head of the downed Woodson. To make matters worse, he perceived Mike Beltran’s intrusion as a victory-securing one and swiftly climbed the cage wall to celebrate. The possibility of fighting two more rounds for a split draw would have been unthinkable for him at that point.

Alas, that’s how it played out and the Fight Ready featherweight was left with egg on his face. Hopefully the result will be a lesson in fight IQ for Saldaña, who lost what looked to be a certain victory, along with his win money and a possible bonus.

Negative – One Free Fight-Altering Fence Grab Per Fighter?

I don’t tend to agree with Daniel Cormier all too often, but he’s spot on when it comes to the utterly pointless warnings given after fence grabs.

In the preliminary lightweight clash between Jared Gordon and Leonardo Santos, the Brazilian was robbed of taking the bout to his wheelhouse in the second round by a blatant fence grab. The response from referee Herb Dean? “Don’t grab the fence.”

If you’re planning on robbing a store, do it with Dean guarding it, because he’ll tell you not to do it as you’re running away with the goods. Of course, this isn’t exclusively an issue when Herb is the third man in the Octagon. At UFC Vegas 55, Mark Smith’s response to Felipe Colares grabbing the fence to prevent a potentially compromising position against Chase Hooper was to stand them up.

It’s essentially been made clear that the first fence grab, no matter how blatant and possibly fight-changing, will come with just a warning. So why wouldn’t a fighter do it? It’s like a lifeline on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

When a former jiu-jitsu world champion has the chance to utilize his area of expertise taken away from him by a foul, we need more than warnings.

The main event saw an even stranger display, with Herb allowing Usman to get away with multiple fence grabs, but penalizing Edwards. Is consistency too much to ask for?

Negative – POTN Goes To Altitude

I hadn’t really paid much attention to talk of the altitude that the fighters would be competing at on Saturday night, but boy did it make a difference.

After a fast and furious start on the early prelims, things quickly became fatigue-invested. First came AJ Fletcher and Ange Loose. While the first two rounds were fought at a good pace, with the second being truly memorable owing to Loosa’s ability to survive an onslaught, the third was essentially a four-minute hug on the ground, with both men too tired to mount any offense.

The trend continued on the prelims, with the fast start in Saldaña and Woodson’s clash quickly dithering into a sloppy and slow contest, and Gordon and Santos’ lightweight bout seeing both men fade.

The featured prelim put an exclamation point on it, with Alexandr Romanov quickly turning from a mauling and dominant force in round one into truck running on fumes 20 kilometers from a gas station in two and three.

While these kind of fights happen wherever events take place, it certainly felt heightened at UFC 278, and became evident that a force outside the Octagon was playing a major role. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken this long for the promotion to bring a PPV to Salt Lake City?

Negative – Why Even Have 10-8s?

Whilst Romanov’s display in the final round — showboating rather than fighting — means he only has himself to blame for the defeat he suffered having practically given up the third frame, he can count himself seriously unlucky to be leaving Utah with a loss on his record.

Before his stamina fell off a cliff in round two, “King Kong” had an absolutely dominant stanza, bullying Tybura with imposing takedowns and ground-and-pound. To put that dominance into perspective, the Polish heavyweight failed to land a significant strike in the opening five minutes.

To pitch a complete shutout like that and not earn a 10-8 is wild. I’ve not felt as strongly towards the ‘more 10-8s’ argument as many, but if the first round of the featured prelim isn’t considered so in the eyes of two judges, something needs to be adjusted.

For some more perspective, had Romanov repeated that performance in every round, limiting his opponent to 0 significant strikes in 15 minutes, judges Sal D’Amato and Mike Bell would have had it 30-27. That’s not right.

Positive – Pedro Gets His Moment

This is more of a sentimental positive, because the result was never really in doubt.

In the main card opener, Tyson Pedro collided with Harry Hunsucker, who entered the fight with an 0-3 UFC record and 7-5 overall professional slate. This is no disrespect to “The Hurricane,” but he was simply outmatched in every area.

So although the finish — a stiff jab to rock Hunsucker and flush body kick to close the show — was impressive, it was expected. The true positive here was seeing Pedro, who was absent from the Octagon between December 2018 and April 2022, secure a heartwarming moment in front of the fans, with his father in tow to celebrate an arena win that had been a long time coming.

While his return victory in April was special, this one felt like the real comeback.

Negative – Aldo’s Late Surge Ends

Firstly, credit has to go to Merab Dvalishvili for continuing his win streak and adding the name of a legend to his record. But it’s hard not to be disappointed that José Aldo’s late-career push for a second title has likely ended, especially in the manner it did.

Given the Georgian’s display against Marlon Moraes last September at UFC 266, most would have been expecting more from this bout. While the decision that came after 15 minutes of fairly lackluster action was correct, you’d guess that Aldo will be extremely frustrated watching it back.

On my card, Aldo took round one, whilst “The Machine” edged the final two — “edged” being the keyword. Dvalishvili employed a game plan that involved suffocating the Brazilian against the cage and landing small shots to keep ticking away with some form of effective offense. While it was ultimately enough, rounds two and three were the kind of frames where one or two significant shots would have swayed them to Aldo.

Considering he appeared to mostly take the third round off, giving very little output, it was a very anti-climactic way for former featherweight king Aldo to fall short of a title shot. It seemed like the Brazilian’s camp dismissed the fact that defense doesn’t score in what is an offensive sport.

Positive… I Think?

Was the co-main event between Paulo Costa and Luke Rockhold the best worst fight of all time? And does that equal a positive? Who knows.

After the first round, things quickly descended into an absolute fatigue fest, with the returning former champion even resting his hands on his knees mid-fight. While Costa was certainly fresher, he didn’t boast the speed and power throughout that we saw him display across five rounds last time out.

But while that low-level stamina and oftentimes sloppiness would normally lend itself to a negative, something about this fight wasn’t, and a lot of that was down to Rockhold.

From his screams of “f*ck you” through a bloodied mouth whilst throwing a wild hook that stumbled Costa to his late reversal and blood-smearing show on the ground, Rockhold went above and beyond with a display of heart and strength.

And although the fight perhaps wasn’t a clear-cut positive, the aftermath was. In 2019, Rockhold looked like he could exit the sport off the back of another knockout loss that left with it some less-than-flattering images of a dazed former titleholder.

Instead, Rockhold looks like he’s leaving the sport following the cheers of an adoring crowd and a 15-minute show of grit and will. Even in defeat, the new end chapter written to Rockhold’s storybook was a positive.

Positive – And New!

It’s hard to put into words what played out in the UFC 278 headliner. In a metaphor for his life and career, Leon Edwards was doubted right until the knockout shot that brought him to the top.

As Daniel Cormier said post-fight, his obituary had been written. He didn’t look his coach in the eye, so he was broken, he was accepting takedowns, he was fatigued, he’ll never be a UFC champion, he’s not evolved enough to dethrone Kamaru Usman, he doesn’t deserve a title shot, he’ll never reach the Octagon, he’ll never escape a criminal lifestyle — “Rocky” has been doubted for years, so it’s only fitting that his championship crowning came amidst the same.

Down on the scorecards and a minute away from a defeat, Edwards launched the perfect head kick. In doing so, he became the second European to snatch a title from the jaws of defeat this year, with Jiří Procházka doing the same at light heavyweight in June.

Speaking as an MMA journalist, this was a monumental moment for the sport. Speaking on a personal level, this was by far the greatest moment I’ve witnessed since covering the sport, and I imagine my fellow British reporters will say the same. To see Edwards culminate a tough and grueling journey to the top with a come-from-behind victory was a real tear-jerker.

The first Jamaican-born UFC champion and the second UK UFC champion — Leon “Rocky” Edwards.

What were your positives and negatives from UFC 278?

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