Illustration: Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com
Two weeks ago, I dedicated this space to discussing three things that sucked. They weren’t all-time, sport-threatening disasters or travesties but simply three regrettable, stupid or unfortunate things happening in the sport at that moment. It’s notable that all three have slid out of our collective consciousness in just two weeks. Such is the nature of news.
At that time, I promised that in the interest of balance and fairness, my next column would be all about things that ruled. I ended up being unable to deliver on that promise because Nicco Montano’s failure to make weight for UFC 228 and the looming possibility that the Ultimate Fighting Championship might strip her of the flyweight belt rather than rebook the fight -- a possibility that became reality a day or two later -- sucked so bad that I couldn’t let it pass without commenting.
Now that the dust has settled from that, I present to you three Things That Rule, right now, in combat sports.
Illustration: Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com
The Most Appropriate Nickname in the Game
“Bate Estaca.” Jessica Andrade, whose nickname translates to “pile driver” in English, was already well-suited to that handle when she got out of bed on the morning of Sept. 8. By the time her work day was over, there were grounds for a legal name change. Andrade’s starching of Karolina Kowalkiewicz at UFC 228 was possibly the most brutal one-punch knockout ever in a fight between Top-10 women -- certainly at strawweight.
Generally, I have no interest in judging women’s fights by the standards of men’s fights, any more than I would hold larger male fighters to the same standard as smaller ones. If I judge flyweights for not knocking each other out as often as heavyweights or heavyweights for having worse gas tanks than flyweights, I’m only sapping my own happiness. Fights are either interesting to watch or they aren’t. Nonetheless, if you had a friend who claimed he couldn’t get into “the girl fights” because they lacked the brute physicality or physical brutality of their male counterparts, Andrade’s highlight reel would be a good antidote, and it just picked up its signature clip.
Andrade is far from a finished product or a perfect fighter, but she seems to be growing in technique as well as in confidence, all without diluting the Hulk-smash instincts that made her so interesting in her initial bantamweight run. Plus, she’s only about to turn 27.
The Unlikely Character Arc of ‘T-Wood’
So that’s all it took? Two rounds of uncustomary aggression and a masterful handling of a much longer opponent who was surprisingly resistant to his vaunted takedown game. A blistering counter right hook, some eye-popping ground-and-pound and a python-tight brabo choke, and Tyron Woodley was a hero. Divisive to fans, openly loathed by his own boss, yet the arena roared with approval as the aforementioned boss, looking as if he had been chewing on whole lemons, strapped gold around Woodley’s waist for the fifth time. The world of pro wrestling only wishes it could engineer a face turn like that in nine minutes, and MMA managed it with real, unscripted human drama.
Din Thomas, Woodley’s head coach, believes that his star pupil isn’t disliked by fans so much as frustrating to them, as he had not been delivering the type of performances of which they knew he was capable. Normally, a fighter’s coach is the absolute last person to whom I would look for an unbiased, insightful assessment, but Thomas is an ultra-sharp guy and I think he’s on to something there.
Something I have always respected about Woodley, even if the in-cage results aren’t always easy to watch, is his refusal to pander. I don’t believe for a moment that has changed. Woodley’s electrifying win over Darren Till was not borne of any sudden desire to “give the fans what they want.” He fought the way he did because he felt it was the clearest path to victory, same as his crushingly dull shutout of Demian Maia last summer.
I fully understand that the outspoken and fiercely independent welterweight champ is one tweet or one ho-hum decision away from being Public Enemy No. 1 all over again for many fans, but I will enjoy this while it lasts. If “T-Wood” is truly on a collision course with former interim champ, still-relevant contender and aspiring heel Colby Covington for later this year, maybe this abrupt face turn and new character arc will have some legs after all.
A One-Trick Pony, but It’s A Really Awesome Trick
To be fair, Alexey Oleynik has a lot more than one trick. One does not rack up 44 career submission wins without at least a modicum of stylistic variety.
It makes me happy beyond all reason or dignity that “The Boa Constrictor” is set to headline the UFC’s first-ever event in his kinda sorta home country -- while he carries a Russian passport, he is Ukrainian by birth and has lived in the US for years -- on Saturday in Moscow. While it isn’t the main event we planned or hoped for -- thanks for nothing, Fabricio Werdum -- the Mark Hunt-Oleynik matchup at UFC Fight Night 136 has a humble, odd and very Russian charm all its own.
The less I say about Hunt being in this fight, the better. If this were another Things That Suck column, Hunt continuing to fight after openly admitting to textbook signs and symptoms of traumatic brain injury would absolutely be a topic.
In some ways, Oleynik is the anti-Hunt. While Hunt has become a folk hero and an unlikely success story across two sports thanks in large part to one of combat sports’ all-time greatest chins, Oleynik has achieved improbable longevity by avoiding having his chin checked very often. More than mere longevity, he is actually the best he has ever been, a real live Top-10 heavyweight at age 41. Since landing in the UFC, he has refined the style of his early career into one that doesn’t place undue demands on his waning athleticism, makes the best possible use of his physical gifts and exposes him to very little damage by heavyweight standards.
Oleynik is almost a throwback, a 90s-style oddball specialist in an era of ever-growing homogeneity in mixed martial arts. He has a strangler’s chance against all but about five or six men on the planet, and he certainly has one this weekend in Moscow. Perhaps an unheard-of third win by Ezekiel choke would be the best of all endings: a storybook win for an unlikely star, and if Hunt has to lose, at least it’s a loss that didn’t involve getting punched in the head another 50 times. Win or lose, the Hall of [email protected]#$%&g Awesome awaits Oleynik with open doors -- that is, assuming he retires before I do.