There may not be any fights taking place this weekend, but this pause does provide an opportunity to glance in the rear-view mirror and remember a few of the standout moments that have taken place in the Octagon thus far in 2020.
And in that mirror, it’s quite a sight to be seen. From the return of The Notorious One to a pair of epic title fights, there’s been a little bit of everything so far. So let’s recap…
Heading into UFC 246, it was almost startling to realize more than three years had passed since Conor McGregor last won in the Octagon and became the first double champ in UFC history. But that was the reality as he walked to the Octagon on January 18 to take on Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in T-Mobile Arena. McGregor maintained a highly muted approach by his standards, opting to engage in friendly, respectful banter with the veteran record-breaker. On fight night, though, he got right to work. After missing a rocket-launcher of a left hand to open the bout, McGregor knocked Cerrone off-kilter with a few shoulder strikes in the clinch. A stunned Cerrone disengaged, and McGregor landed a left high kick that started the finishing sequence.
After 38 months, “The Notorious” was a winner once again and is very much back in the mix.
Before fighting Herbert Burns, fellow UFC debutant Nate Landwehr believed the Brazilian made it to the promotion because “he’s Gilbert Burns’ little brother, that’s it.” Not long after the fight started, however, Landwehr found himself fighting off an early submission attempt. Once they returned to the feet, Landwehr tried to get back into the fight, but in the midst of his rushed engagement, Burns quickly caught him in a clinch and connected with a flush knee that ended the bout in the first round.
Looking at Michael Chiesa now, it’s a little hard to fathom how he ever made it to 155 pounds. After taking down Carlos Condit and Diego Sanchez in his first two ventures at welterweight, Chiesa took a big jump in competition, squaring off with former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos. Chiesa put together a relatively dominant performance en route to a unanimous decision victory. The fun part came afterward, though, as Chiesa cut his Octagon interview with Daniel Cormier short by calling out Colby Covington to fight him in the summer and immediately running out of the Octagon. That’s how to make a statement.
In what was supposed to be a classic “striker vs grappler” matchup, Curtis Blaydes showed he doesn’t need to secure a takedown to damage his opponent. After Junior Dos Santos stuffed Blaydes’ early attempts, Blaydes relied on his improved striking. JDS looked to counter Blaydes’ shots with a lead uppercut, but eventually, that left him open for a big right hand. That started the finishing sequence, and now, Blaydes is established as a worthy title challenger.
The term “gangster” gets used a lot in mixed martial arts, potentially too liberally, but when James Krause stepped in on a day’s notice to face Houston local Trevin Giles he certainly deserved it. Originally there to corner Youssef Zalal, Krause – normally a lightweight or welterweight – was on weight to compete at middleweight, and so he did. He nearly got the submission finish in the first round, but Giles gutted it out and eventually took home the win over Krause in a Fight of the Night effort. Though the result came with some controversy regarding the judges, what wasn’t disputed was the respect Krause earned across the board.
On Instagram before the fight, Krause wrote, “Everyone says they’re a gangster until it comes time to make gangster moves.”
Gangster move, indeed.
Houston’s favorite adopted son, Derrick Lewis, looked as in good of shape as ever when he welcomed Ilir Latifi to the heavyweight ranks. Lewis came in throwing a barrage of haymakers and flying knees, a terrifying sight from an already terrifying fighter, but Latifi gave him all he could handle. The Swede took Lewis down a handful of times, but ultimately, Lewis did enough to earn the decision win, igniting the Houston crowd.
A quiet feeling of cynicism surrounded Jon Jones’ most recent title defense when it came to his opponent. To the casual fan, who was this Dominick Reyes guy? Was knocking out Chris Weidman in the former middleweight boss’ light heavyweight debut enough to warrant a title shot against one of, if not the greatest of all-time? At their pre-fight press conference, it seemed like Jones didn’t exactly think highly of Reyes, but Reyes, to his credit, didn’t give off any sense of fear. When the two threw down in the Octagon, Reyes did what hadn’t been done in a long time: push Jon Jones to the brink. Using his mixture of long, powerful kicks and quick boxing combinations, Reyes hit Jones flush early and often. Jones, relying on what he describes as his “underrated” chin, weathered the storm early before bringing his own brand of pressure as the fight moved to the championship rounds. Reyes more than hung in there, though, often opening up with big combinations early and fighting off several takedown attempts. Eventually, it was deemed a split decision in favor of Jones, but the close decision did not come without its detractors. It was definitely the most Jones had been pushed since his legendary first fight with Alexander Gustafsson, and Reyes did enough to have people clamoring about a potential rematch down the road.
The week after Jon Jones’ defended his castle at UFC 247, Jan Blachowicz emphatically announced himself as the next guy up with a first-round knockout of Corey Anderson in Rio Rancho. Immediately after knocking Anderson out, Blachowicz scanned the crowd before locking eyes with Jones, who enjoyed the card cageside in his adopted home state. Jones was all smiles when Blachowicz asked for the next title shot, and Jones seemed happy to oblige.
Few gyms in the world are on the run that matches what City Kickboxing has done over the last couple of years. Highlighted by the success of Israel Adesanya and Alexander Volkanovski, the Auckland-based gym has also churned out several contenders of late. So, when the Octagon returned to Auckland, City Kickboxing had three athletes competing. Brad Riddell, Kai Kara-France and Dan Hooker sought to repeat what the team had done at UFC 243 – go 3-for-3 on the night. And like UFC 243, City Kickboxing walked out of the arena with another “three-peat” thanks to a trio of exciting performances.
In a bout that would propel the winner into a matchup with someone in the lightweight division’s daunting top-5, Dan Hooker and Paul Felder brought it for a full 25 minutes in the main event in Auckland. The two men showed technical ability matched by their toughness, with the momentum never staying with one athlete long enough to seem significant. Hooker landed most of his damage at range, while Felder landed bombs inside, but in both circumstances, the fighters gave as well as they took. As the fight neared its end, Hooker landed a late takedown attempt that prompted the Auckland crowd to cheer on its hometown fighter. Hooker came away with the razor close decision, prompting Felder to wonder aloud whether that was the last time he would compete inside the Octagon. Hooker, who refused Felder’s offer to touch gloves before the fight, raised his opponent’s hand and led the crowd in an ovation for “The Irish Dragon.” It was an emotional moment, and whether or not Felder returns, it was a fight to remember for both men.
Luis Pena had an emotional fight week in Norfolk that included meeting a lot of his biological family for the first time, including his biological brother. “Violent Bob Ross” also toured the Naval base where he has plenty of family history. Before the fight, he admitted to feeling a little different for this fight than others because of his biological family’s presence, but he was able to put those nerves aside and come away with a unanimous decision win over Steve Garcia. Afterward, Pena used his Octagon interview to inspire anyone who is looking for their own family that the pursuit is worth it, but that anyone on that venture is still their own person anyway. Pena then went to hug his biological brother in the crowd, an emotional moment to cap an emotional week for Pena.
What was supposed to be a flyweight title fight turned into Joseph Benavidez fighting for the elusive title while Deiveson Figueiredo fought to tack on another impressive win on his resume after missing the 125-pound limit. That didn’t stop the Brazilian “God of War” from doing his best to finish the fight in the first round, sinking a deep armbar in before Benavidez escaped. In the second round, though, Figueiredo poured on the pressure. Though Benavidez threw heavy shots back at him, Figueiredo got the defining punch of the night, flattening Benavidez with a lightning right hand. A clash of heads a few moments before put a little bit of doubt into the outcome, but what really mattered was that the flyweight title remains vacant. Whether a rematch plays out between the two or if Henry Cejudo chooses to fight at 125 pounds again is up in the air, but there are a pack of young flyweights making their way up the ladder, as well.
It feels like few prospects have the amount of hype that Sean O’Malley does. Never shy from the spotlight, “Sugar” was a rising 10-0 prospect before suspensions and surgeries kept him out of the Octagon for two years. When he did return, it was like he never left. Sporting a stronger physique and touting the mental work he dedicated time to while out of action, O’Malley showed the dynamic, calm arsenal he carries in his first-round dismantling of Jose Quinonez. It was a long-awaited return, and you couldn’t have written it any better.
UFC President Dana White was adamant in the lead-up to UFC 248 that he felt most excited about the strawweight title fight between Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and they delivered on his faith by putting on one of the greatest title fights ever. In her first title defense, China’s Zhang didn’t back down from any of Jedrzejczyk’s intimidation, even telling the former champ to “shut up” during their media day face-off, getting some laughs from those in attendance. Once they were in the Octagon, though, both women brought their best. Jedrzejczyk looked as good as ever, sticking and moving while setting a high pace in the first round. In every exchange, though, Zhang fired off fast and powerful shots right back at Jedrzejczyk, staggering her a handful of times. When it seemed like Jedrzejczyk was gaining momentum as the fight entered the championship rounds, Zhang responded in turn and kept landing heavy shots to Jedrzejczyk’s head, leading to some major swelling on Jedrzejczyk’s forehead. In the end, Zhang secured her first successful title defense in undoubtedly the greatest women’s mixed martial arts fight ever.
One of the many questions ahead of Israel Adesanya’s title fight against Yoel Romero had nothing to do with the action inside the Octagon. After doing a dance routine with his childhood friends ahead of his title unification against Robert Whitaker, many wondered what he’d pull off next. Adesanya played it down, opting to focus his answers on his opponent, but on fight night, he delivered once again. Two women flanked Adesanya while throwing rose petals at his feet – a nod to the movie Coming to America. Adesanya said afterward he felt it was appropriate since the card was his first time headlining a pay-per-view in America, adding that it was inspired by the death of his cat. The walkout was much more understated than what he did at UFC 243, but it sent the message all the same: Nobody does it like “The Last Stylebender.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, sports leagues across the world either postponed play or held contests without fans in attendance. UFC opted to hold its card in Brasilia with no fans, which was well-received by the mixed martial arts world. Among the highlights of the night was Gilbert Burns’ knockout win over Demian Maia, as well as Charles Oliveira’s third-round submission of Kevin Lee in the main event, which essentially announced the arrival of “Do Bronx” as a real rising force at 155 pounds. That said, the best moment might’ve come after Renato Moicano scored a first-round submission in his lightweight debut. As Michael Bisping interviewed Moicano, he ended by asking the crowd to “make some noise,” something he made fun of himself for afterward. It was a perfect note to those unique circumstances.