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Change is inevitable. Whether we’re talking individual lives or macro-level societal change, everything is in constant flux. Change can be hard to detect day-to-day; in three months of interminable sub-freezing winter temperatures, every day feels the same as the one before it. Spring seems perpetually distant, no closer to reality one week from the next. Then one day, all of a sudden, it’s 50 degrees and sunny outside. It’s like everything is the same until, almost instantaneously, everything changes.
That’s how this weekend felt, like new life was breathed into a coldly inert Ultimate Fighting Championship. Of course, the ranks have been changing across several divisions, but the drag of 2017 made the UFC appear to be more stagnant than it really was. With UFC 222 on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, spring had finally emerged from the winter of last year.
Let’s start with Alexander Hernandez. The 25-year-old entered his fight on short notice against top-15 ranked Beniel Dariush as a heavy underdog. Dariush is by no means the “old guard,” as he is still only 28 years old, but he entered the weekend with a UFC record of 8-3-1; this was Hernandez’ first fight in the UFC. It took the Octagon debutante less than a minute to starch Dariush and earn a cool $50,000 “Performance of the Night” bonus. His pressure and power were almost as notable as his fake-glove-touch-to-front-kick opening gambit. That may or may not have won him fans, but at the very least it put him on the map in the talent-rich lightweight division.
In the fight immediately after Hernandez-Dariush, another UFC debutante put on a good if not exactly pretty performance. The highly touted and undefeated Mackenzie Dern, 24, overcame some mild adversity to take a hard-fought split decision against former “Ultimate Fighter” contestant Ashley Yoder. Before the fight, Dern garnered regular comparisons to Ronda Rousey, and in more ways than one, those comparisons are accurate. Both came from high-achievement grappling pedigrees; both entered the UFC undefeated; and both have hopelessly reckless and aesthetically ugly striking. The enormity of Rousey’s success needs no elaboration, and it’s unlikely that Dern will reach similar heights. However, Dern could very well become a much better mixed martial artist than Rousey in terms of sheer skill. She has more than enough time to develop into a strawweight contender.
In the next fight, a true passing of the guard took place. The 35-year-old Cat Zingano, a former title challenger who was inexplicably ranked No. 6 after nearly two years on the shelf, fell to the up-and-coming and undefeated Ketlen Vieira. The 26-year-old Brazilian has quietly put together a four-fight winning streak in the UFC, effectively crashing the upper-echelon of the women’s bantamweight division. She’s tough, physically imposing and boasts a well-rounded game. In a thin, aging division, the aptly nicknamed “Fenomeno” is a much-needed commodity. Right now, it seems more a matter of “when” than “if” she will get a crack at the title.
The “Fight of the Night” included another young buck with star potential in Sean O’Malley. Against his toughest opponent to date, the undefeated 23-year-old mostly delivered on the pre-fight hype. Beyond his actual performance, which was dominant throughout the first two rounds, the fight concluded with a memorable post-fight moment which saw the injured O’Malley getting interviewed while lying on his back, assuring the crowd that he’d be fine once he got his custom-made “medicine” “medicine” at the after party. This is the type of thing fans remember. It’s unique, weird and endearing. Combined with his exciting style of fighting and out-of-the-cage flair, O’Malley has the signs of becoming something special. At the very least, he looks destined to become a cult favorite action fighter, and you can never have too many of those on the roster.
Yet the most spectacular breakthrough performance belonged to Brian Ortega. Another young undefeated prospect, Ortega stepped in on short notice to fight all-time great Frankie Edgar, who had been prepping for a title shot against Max Holloway. “T-City,” known for his quick and devastating submission savvy, became the first person to finish Edgar -- with an uppercut that sent “The Answer” skyward. It was Ortega’s sixth straight UFC victory, all of which have been finishes. While Edgar is by no means out of the title picture forever, this felt like the final closing of the door on the old guard -- a campaign Holloway started and Ortega has now emphatically joined. Holloway ended Jose Aldo’s time at the top; perennial contender Cub Swanson has now been beaten by both Holloway and Ortega; and the fifth-ranked Jeremy Stephens and seventh-ranked Ricardo Lamas have also been bested by the reigning champ. The division, steadily becoming one of the most exciting and talent-rich in the UFC, is undergoing a rapid transformation from old veterans dominating to young bucks taking their spots. The matchup between Ortega and Holloway is one of the best fights the UFC can put together right now, in any division.
Not only did a new crop of young fighters come up with big wins this weekend, but all three post-fight bonuses went to these same fighters. That’s a positive sign. Though many of these fighters seem like overnight sensations, they aren’t. They just flew under the radar for so long that when they finally got their opportunity, it felt novel to us. After years spent honing their skills in the gym and on amateur and regional circuits, they made the best of their opportunities. It’s no different than how winter feels like forever until it abruptly evaporates into spring.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.