There’s always something to be learned from a major mixed martial arts card, even if it may seem dull or uninspired. When you get the “Event of the Year” (so far) like UFC 228 on Saturday in Dallas? It’s a full-on crash course and makes it hard to pick only five major lessons to take away.
It may have been all for naught had Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder Tyron Woodley failed to deliver in the main event against challenger Darren Till. After all, the history of this sport is littered with great cards that aren’t fondly remembered because the main event didn’t come through. Think about how the no-contest in Fedor Emelianenko-Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira 2 poisoned the perception of Pride Shockwave 2004 or how the disastrous Anderson Silva-Demian Maia bout led to UFC 112 being held in historic contempt. Fortunately, Woodley came through in spades, as he smacked Till silly in the second stanza before tapping him with a brabo choke and putting an exclamation mark on the year’s finest card to date.
Some of you may be unconvinced on UFC 228’s status as the year’s finest event; let me prove it. Additionally, allow me to illuminate some of the other education that the it gave us. How well-rounded is Woodley’s game? How stable is the immediate future of the UFC’s 115-pound women’s division? What value is there in going for low-percentage submissions and what benefits are there to being a longtime loyal UFC roster fighter when your career is in its twilight?
Get ready and take notes on these five lessons from UFC 228:
You Heard Me: UFC 228 was the Best Event of the Year
Now, this point may not necessarily be controversial, and for most folks, it went without saying that the minute Woodley put a cap on the night and Till put a tap on his buttocks, UFC 228 jumped to the top of the leaderboard of this year’s finest fight cards. However, there are always folks on the fence and outright contrarians who would argue until they’re blue in the face that some Rizin Fighting Federation or Absolute Championship Berkut card was the real “Event of the Year,” so it’s still worth examining just what made UFC 228 so spectacular.
As I already mentioned, Woodley delivered the goods in the main event and that’s crucial to the overall legacy of the bill, because when it comes to how MMA events are remembered on the whole, it’s very much an “all’s well that ends well” proposition. A ho-hum card with a sensational main event is pretty good stuff, but a great card with a disappointing headliner is decidedly wack; that’s just how it has always been in this sport. Having said that, it’s not just Woodley who came through in the clutch here. UFC 228 really ticked all the narrative boxes you could ask for in an event.
Want some pure action fights? Irene Aldana-Lucie Pudilova and Darren Stewart-Charles Byrd had you covered. Want to see some beloved veterans get back on track as underdogs? Jim Miller and Diego Sanchez punched their tickets. Craving a “Knockout of the Year” contender? Geoff Neal went upside Frank Camacho’s head just for you. Want to see not one but two kneebars from back mount compete for “Submission of the Year?” It’s now a dead heat between Zabit Magomedsharipov and Aljamain Sterling. Need some quick and dirty knockouts? Jessica Andrade and Abdul Razak Alhassan have your back. Looking for a glimpse at a future champion? Tatiana Suarez announced her arrival to the elite echelon of 115 pounds by destroying former UFC champion Carla Esparza.
While promoters can never necessarily control how thrilling a card is in practice versus on paper, UFC matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard took particular measures to increase the odds UFC 228 would inspire and entertain. They put fan favorites like Miller and Sanchez in positions to succeed, they crafted brilliant showcases for hot prospects like Suarez and Magomedsharipov and they created pairs of both bantamweight (Sterling-Cody Stamann, Jimmie Rivera-John Dodson) and women’s strawweight (Andrade-Karolina Kowalkiewicz, Suarez-Esparza) fights with relevant contenders that ensured no matter how exciting the fights turned out to be, fans and media alike would be eager to discuss what comes next for the winners and divisions on the whole. Thrilling fights and stoppages may get people talking, but clever card construction keeps people talking and thirsting for what lies ahead.
Woodley, Master of Fight Economics in More Ways Than One
In many ways, it was necessary for Woodley to put on a stellar performance, not just to ensure that UFC 228 went down in the history books as an all-time great event but to emphasize his own value to the promotion and potentially to a buying public that will now be more hyped for his forthcoming title defenses, especially the likely-imminent showdown with rabble-rouser Colby Covington. Lots of fighters devise schemes to get paid, whether that means actively testing free agency, becoming craven in the pursuit of fight-night bonuses or fashioning themselves as agitators and entertainers on social media. Now, Woodley is no shrinking violet with a microphone in his face. Between his own YouTube channel, his Fox analyst desk job, his TMZ “Hollywood Beatdown” segments and his forthcoming single “I’ll Beat Your Ass” with Wiz Khalifa, he has done a great job of raising his visibility. Ultimately, the 170-pound kingpin has shown time and time again that if you are a truly elite fighter the surest way to get paid is just to win at all costs.
That brings us to Woodley’s fighting style. From the outside, Woodley’s performances may have been uneven and mercurial. He bounces from a thrilling knockout of the legendary Robbie Lawler and a “Fight of the Year” contender in his first bout with Stephen Thompson to a dull rematch with “Wonderboy” and a clunker against Demian Maia. It has earned Woodley a reputation as unreliable in terms of entertainment value, if not outright boring in some folks’ eyes. However, his decimation of Till, who was credited with landing just one strike in more than nine minutes of fighting by FightMetric, showed that inside the cage Woodley operates the same as he does outside of it. He will not overexert himself; he will strategize and figure out how to make you do what he wants you to do.
After the win, Woodley remarked that he knew he would find his right-hand counter because he had watched so much tape on Till and noticed him relying on the lead uppercut. Woodley managed to bait his man by repeatedly moving himself backwards to the fence early on, begging Till to attack so he could set up that counter. When he got Till hurt, Woodley reminded us of how ferocious he is when there is blood in the water. However, in order to put the blood in the water, an opponent actually needs to meaningfully engage him, which is the stark difference between the two Thompson fights or the Till triumph and Woodley’s previous defense against a timid and unwilling Maia. To top it off, Woodley even busted out his underrated submission attack -- remember, he nearly guillotined Thompson from mount in their first fight -- which only ever creeps out when he feels he needs to use it. For his efforts, he was awarded his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt from trainer Din Thomas. Plain and simple, Woodley has become a superb tactician in and out of the Octagon. He has underrated skills as a fighter and a professional and has become a master at forcing his opponent’s hand, whether it’s his latest challenger or his own promoter.
The Women’s Strawweight Division: Far From Safe or Settled
If there was one person who had every right to not be enthused by the outcomes at this event, it was UFC 115-pound champ Rose Namajunas. In a 10-month span, Namajunas has conquered previous pound-for-pound queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk twice, drastically reshaping the women’s strawweight division. Despite “Thug Rose” vanquishing Jedrzejczyk, previously presumed unbeatable in the division, on back-to-back occasions, the amount of talent at 115 pounds suggested that Namajunas’ future as champion would be anything but smooth sailing. UFC 228 just made those seas ahead even stormier.
As discussed above, it was a smart strategy for the UFC to pair the Andrade-Kowalkiewicz and Suarez-Esparza fights on the same card to intensify discussion and debate around what comes next in the division. However, in victory, Andrade and Suarez were so good that it has put that division into overdrive, leaving many to wonder if Namajunas’ time as champion is already up, just as she has started to stake her claim.
In what was a de facto title eliminator, Andrade likely earned herself a second crack at UFC gold by absolutely destroying Kowalkiewicz in unprecedented fashion, savagely punching “The Polish Princess” into oblivion in less than a round. In addition to the Brazilian bomber being the most athletically freakish and powerful fighter at strawweight, she continues to hone her skills, amplifying her genetic gifts in a terrifying way. “Piledriver” has no claim to be the top strawweight woman in the sport yet, but the 26-year-old is unrivaled as a physical force at 115 pounds, and that may put her in that position sooner rather than later, unless Namajunas can continue to evolve and elevate her game in short order.
Meanwhile, Suarez, who is just 27 years old, was so insanely dominant over Esparza, the division’s inaugural UFC champion, that a smattering of folks already wants to see her jump into a title fight after just seven pro fights. She has stopped three of her four Octagon opponents and looked increasingly overbearing in each of her outings. The Millennia MMA product secured nine takedowns and outlanded Esparza 136-12 in total strikes before stopping her with relentless, mauling ground-and-pound late in the third round. Esparza is a great athlete and wrestler, yet had absolutely no recourse against the impetuous Suarez. Keep in mind, Suarez is a true world-class wrestler who likely would’ve qualified for the 2012 Olympics if not for a neck injury that was followed by a thyroid cancer diagnosis. With Andrade bound for the next crack at Namajunas, Suarez is likely headed for a title eliminator next time out, and she figures to be a prohibitive favorite. Frankly, given her history of bumps and bruises related to wrestling and the fact this was just her fourth fight in two years, injuries might be the only thing that stand between Suarez and a UFC title in short order. Regardless, Namajunas’ path to a long-term legacy just became more difficult in light of UFC 228’s developments.
Long-Term UFC Loyalist Get Lobs, Layups
I mentioned earlier that part of UFC 228’s shrewd composition was that it featured two longtime UFC mainstays and sentimental favorites, Miller and Sanchez, both getting their hands raised in underdog scenarios. Miller, in his record-setting 30th UFC fight, quickly dropped Alex White and choked him out in less than 90 seconds, while Sanchez, in his 28th Octagon appearance, showed shades of his old relentless ground-and-pound assault, smashing Craig White for 15 minutes. To say that their triumphs were the feel-good moments of the card for most of the MMA populace would be an understatement.
Me? I was a little mad at myself, honestly. I had thrown a little scratch on Miller at +130, suspecting that his recent 0-4 skid was more a product of high-quality opposition to which “The Spartan” did not measure up. However, I had to kick myself a little for not having the nerve to plunk down some coin on Sanchez at +180, suspecting that, even if shopworn, he was not facing a fighter with the kind of power and defensive wrestling that has troubled him recently. My belief in Miller and Sanchez wins was not born out of “gut feelings.” It was predicated on a long-observable UFC matchmaking trait: promotional loyalists, when they’re faded and slumping, are given soft touches to give them the greatest chance to succeed and rebound.
With 58 UFC fights and 23 years of Octagon experience combined, all-action styles and career-long “I’ll fight anyone” mentalities, Miller and Sanchez have long been favorites, both for the promoter and fans. Yes, they’re in the twilight of their careers, but more than ever, the UFC needs the help of fighters like this to bolster undercards with some name value and recognition. This is why Miller was given a hunt-and-peck striker with a below-average submission game and Sanchez was paired with a foe who lacks even rudimentary defensive wrestling skills. This is not to say that every fading veteran will get treated with kid gloves. Thiago Alves, 1-3 in his last four appearances, is about to face 18-0 prospect Alexey Kunchenko, while Donald Cerrone, 1-4 in his last five outings, is due to face Mike Perry. Even so, ask yourself: Why is the UFC bringing back 39-year-old B.J. Penn, who hasn’t won a fight in almost eight years, to face grappling star Ryan Hall, one of the most preferential style matchups for him on the entire roster? Not every dimming star will get such treatment, but the most beloved and cherished UFC veterans will always be put in positions to prosper when they desperately need it, so long as the promotion can still make some money with them.
Play the Percentages, Even the Low Ones
UFC 228 wasn’t just exciting because of consistent in-cage action and a slew of stoppages. A key component to what made the event so intriguing and entertaining was the specific techniques that generated that action and those stoppages.
One of the aspects that will ensure UFC 228 is fondly remembered for years to come is that we improbably saw not one but two kneebars from back control courtesy of the ever-funky Sterling and the ever-dynamic Magomedsharipov. I was once spellbound and shocked when a random International Fight League card featured two traditional kneebars, but two kneebars from back control? It was unthinkable and unfathomable in my mind, until I saw it. In 25 years of Octagon action, there had only been one such successful submission previously, as Kenny Robertson tapped Brock Jardine with the maneuver at UFC 157 back in February 2013. While Sterling and Magomedsharipov each finished their variations differently -- Sterling torqued Stamann’s knee inside, while Magomedsharipov used more of a straight hamstring ripper on Brandon Davis -- both are essentially the same move, often called “The Suloev Stretch,” in honor of deceased UFC and Pride Fighting Championships veteran Amar Suloev, who first brought the technique into the MMA consciousness with his 2002 submission of Paul Cahoon.
While this move will pop up in local results from time to time on small, obscure shows, it’s seldom attempted in high-level MMA. To that end, I simply ask “Why?” Yes, it can be difficult to secure and it is fundamentally a “low-percentage technique” in the grand scheme of MMA. Often when we talk about low-percentage techniques, there is a suggestion of self-sacrifice, implying that if the attacking fighter is unsuccessful, he will be compromised. However, the Suloev Stretch requires the attacking fighter to have already secured a dominant position like back control; it is a technique that fundamentally prizes position and security over recklessness. Also, it’s purported low-percentage status makes it an even more attractive option, as a defending opponent is less likely to see it coming and may be even more easily trapped due to its obscure nature. Earlier at UFC 228, Jarred Brooks demonstrated against a savvy Brazilian jiu-jitsu player like Roberto Sanchez that even traditional leglock attempts from guard -- techniques often vilified for opening the attacker to clean ground-and-pound -- can be used to neutralize and sweep opponents effectively.
Part of what makes MMA so beautiful and engrossing is the freedom of attack; fighters are technically bound only by their creativity and imagination. Better still, while some techniques like a jab or a low kick may have a wider fundamental use and purpose in a fight, the dynamic that permits MMA to have these incredible stoppages with exotic offense is that in some moment, even if just for a split second, there is always a perfect technique to answer your opponent and render him helpless. The more of these maneuvers a fighter has and the better he can recognize those ephemeral moments to attack, the more successful he can be and the more we can experience the joy of picking up our jaws off the floor.