The first Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view of 2023 was a curious one.
The last PPV of 2022, UFC 282, had featured a match for the vacant UFC light heavyweight crown between Magomed Ankalaev and Jan Blachowicz. When it was declared a draw, despite virtually everyone believing Ankalaev won, Dana White randomly declared that two completely different men would fight for the championship: ex-champ Glover Teixeira and Jamahal Hill.
Teixeira is 43 and noted that he would likely retire, win or lose. Despite his age, no one was counting out the legendary Brazilian going into the fight, as wise and tough a martial artist as mixed martial arts has ever seen. After being dominated by Corey Anderson in 2018 when he was already 38, most had written off the Brazilian as a top contender. And yet, after an improbable 6-fight winning streak, he choked out Blachowicz for his first UFC crown, at the age of 41. He lost it the following year to Jiri Prochazka in one of the most exciting and dramatic fights of all time, seemingly having the win wrapped up before being submitted with 28 seconds left in the match. Would he tap into the magic one more time against Hill?
Hill, after all, is one of the most dynamic, explosive strikers in MMA. With furious handspeed and knockout power in both paws -- not to mention devastating kicks and brutal knees -- his destiny as a future champion seemed apparent for a long time. He has been 5-1 in the UFC since his knockout of Klidson Abreu was changed to a no contest due to marijuana use, the lone blemish an aberrant submission defeat to Paul Craig. Hill came into the Rio de Janeiro arena a small favorite.
As soon as the fight began, Hill repeatedly tagged Teixeira with his pinpoint accurate punches and thunderous kicks. However, the Brazilian showed his legendary toughness yet again, refusing to succumb, despite being brutally crushed with blow after blow, round after round. Nor was it simply a matter of survival, as Teixeira would occasionally score big power punches of his own that snapped Hill's head back, and connected with two clutch takedowns in Rounds 2 and 5 that signaled a possible rally. But Hill showed his much improved takedown defense and ground skills, staying on his feet and avoiding major damage and submissions both times he was on his back. Hill won a dominant unanimous decision and is the new UFC light heavyweight king.
The co-main was an even bigger fight, as current champ Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno met for a fourth time to determine the destiny of the UFC flyweight title. Of course, their first fight was a draw: Moreno won the rematch by submission, and in the third Figueiredo came back to win via decision. All three were instant classics, and the fourth was no different. Moreno left no doubts this time, controlling the fight with outstanding takedowns and boxing that looked sharper than ever. After a left hook right to the eyeball caused Figueiredo's eye to close, the cageside doctor had no choice but to stop the fight after Round 3. Moreno is now a champion for a second time. Figueiredo vowed to move up to 135 pounds after the contest.
In an important welterweight contender's bout, Gilbert Burns reminded the division of how dangerous he is by easily taking down and submitting the incredibly tough, capable grappler Neil Magny.
Elsewhere, Jessica Andrade delivered a hellacious 15-minute beating to Lauren Murphy, which was shamefully allowed to make it to the final bell. Johnny Walker also got back on a winning streak by knocking out Paul Craig halfway through the opening frame.
Here are some tantalizing future matches that need to be booked following Saturday’s outcomes:
Tyron Woodley. Pitted against Burns’ superior power and superior technique -- especially his right cross -- is beyond intriguing. Cardio will also be a factor, as Covington is among the best in MMA in that regard, while Burns has faded in the third round of multiple bouts. I'm plenty excited just writing about it, and hope MMA fans will get a chance to see it.
Jessica Andrade vs. Weili Zhang 2Andrade called Zhang out during her interview, and why not? Andrade has improved tremendously since their first fight, when Zhang shocked everyone by winning in just 42 seconds as an underdog. Of course, the Chinese champ has also gotten better. Both fighters love coming forward and are willing to exchange big punches in the pocket, so it should be very exciting; a stark contrast to the recent strawweight title fight rematch between Rose Namajunas and Carla Esparza. And Andrade is a more interesting challenge, with a bigger name than any contender except for Namajunas. But unlike Najamunas, Andrade won her last strawweight outing, a first-round submission of Amanda Lemos.
Magomed Ankalaev. Walker is trying to restore his lost hype and has now won two in a row, including a throttling of No.9-ranked Craig. But more than that, this is a fantastically exciting fight for fans. Will Walker's dynamic, unorthodox striking turn Smith's lights out early? Will Smith's toughness and mix of muay thai and outstanding submissions allow him to get the finish in later rounds? Or will something completely different and crazy happen? With these two men, anything is possible.
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