The last 12 months gave voracious fight fans much to consume, whether it be the most Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts in history (516), more Bellator MMA offerings than ever before (400), another Professional Fighters League tournament, record years for Rizin Fighting Federation and Invicta Fighting Championships or a smattering of blockbuster shows from One Championship. It took a herculean effort to stand out from the pack, and one event did so, largely thanks to a pair of breathtaking interim title tilts atop a card that delivered exquisitely.
Some other shows worthy of consideration include the dynamite UFC 239, which showcased Sherdog’s 2019 “Knockout of the Year”, as well as two dynamic championship defenses; UFC 244 and all its bluster involving the divisive BMF title and the first appearance of a sitting United States President at an Ultimate Fighting Championship card; the pay-per-view that followed it in UFC 245, giving fight fans their money’s worth with over 74 minutes of intriguing championship action and a few stellar performances from rising stars; Bellator 225 and its perfect 14-for-14 in terms of finishes; and One Championship “A New Era,” featuring a whopping four title fights and two major ex-UFC champs making their way through tournaments.
However, none quite possessed the same magic that UFC 236 displayed to the masses on April 13 in Atlanta, as it started strong and ended in outstanding fashion.
The very first fight saw Brandon Davis take on Randy Costa in the bantamweight division. Costa, a perfect 4-0 with four first-round finishes at that point, was well on his way to another dramatic win until he ran out of gas. After giving up the first round, Davis stayed composed to earn the comeback victory, tapping the previously unbeaten Massachusetts resident in the second stanza. The emphatic win substantially warmed up the crowd and set the stage for what was to come.
Elsewhere on the card, rebounding bantamweight prospect Khalid Taha laid waste to rising Hawaiian standout Boston Salmon in under 30 seconds, while Alexandre Pantoja smashed Wilson Reis with a clean right hand in the first round to further cement himself as a top flyweight contender. Drowned out by the excitement from the marquis matchups were additional impressive victories for Belal Muhammad, Max Griffin and Matt Frevola, to name a few.
Everything truly went to the next level when the main card kicked off. At light heavyweight, Ovince St. Preux gained the upper hand in the opening round with his powerful wrestling. Not to be outdone, Nikita Krylov switched gears in Round 2, slamming the Tennessean with the force of a Ukrainian miner before wrenching his neck until enough was enough. Following that skirmish, Dwight Grant edged Alan Jouban by contentious split verdict, with the Grant doing enough to nullify the power strikes of the competitor from Louisiana.
That welterweight encounter gave way to an instant “Beatdown of the Year” contender, as Khalil Rountree unleashed his newfound muay Thai skills on a hapless Eryk Anders. In an exceedingly dominant performance, Rountree ravaged Anders in the second round, dropping the former University of Alabama football star an incredible four times—tying a single-round record with Josh Emmett. Although all three judges proved reluctant to issue an elusive 10-7, such a score was certainly merited for the unexpected new prospect from Tiger Muay Thai. Anders somehow reached the final horn, as both men were greeted by appreciation for the violence that was on display over 15 minutes.
After the one-sided beating administered by Rountree, fans did not know what they were in store for next. In this case, UFC 236 bestowed upon the world not only the Sherdog 2019 “Fight of the Year” in the Israel Adesanya-Kelvin Gastelum co-main event but another “Fight of the Year” contender in the back-and-forth mayhem of the Dustin Poirier-Max Holloway headliner.
In the first of the two classics, Adesanya and Gastelum met in the center of the Octagon for the interim middleweight strap, with reigning champion Robert Whittaker on the sidelines due to injury.
Very few observers expected this kind of fight. Adesanya, an unbeaten Nigerian-born kickboxer, closed as a favorite against “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 17 winner, and conventional wisdom held that the superior striker would capitalize on a reach advantage by keeping his distance to pick up a relatively one-sided victory and possibly even score a stoppage. Much to the delight of the crowd, this was not the case, as both men rarely took a backwards step, slugging it out as the rounds went on. Shockingly, it was Gastelum who drew first blood when he nearly sat down Adesanya with a vicious right hand in the first round. Adesanya recovered instantly, clearly caught unaware by the quick hands from the former welterweight.
Unintimidated by the power of the California-based wrestler, “The Last Stylebender” returned fire early and often to tie the escalating affair 10 minutes in. The third frame saw both men experience success, as Adesanya seemed to find his range with kicks, while Gastelum scooped up the City Kickboxing star and set him down, if only for a moment. With Adesanya likely up two rounds to one, it was time to move on to the championship rounds, where they turned up the action to 11.
For perhaps the first time in his MMA career, an opponent truly damaged Adesanya. Gastelum, who may have sensed his deficiency on the scorecards to that point, nearly doubled Adesanya’s output in the fourth round and landed some blows that would have felled lesser men. His strikes—which prior to that point had not been nearly as impactful as they were in the opening round—found their home frequently and opened a cut underneath Adesanya’s eye, but one such strike made a major difference. With roughly one minute to go in the fourth period, Gastelum fired up a left head kick that wobbled Adesanya and sent him careening backwards, stumbling against the cage while in a state of retreat. Gastelum rushed towards his rocked adversary but could not finish the fight, which headed to the fifth and final round with everything up for grabs.
One round can show the cloth from which a fighter has been cut. Grit, determination and perseverance in the face of sheer exhaustion can emerge, and that is precisely what Adesanya accomplished in the last round. In the early going, Adesanya found himself on his back, where he attempted and nearly cinched a triangle choke. When Gastelum escaped and the two returned to their feet, “The Last Stylebender” styled on him with piston-like right hands that put Gastelum into “No Can Defense” mode. The final 90 seconds of the round were unquestionably the longest in Gastelum’s life, as Adesanya knocked him to the canvas three times—each knockdown worse and more damaging than the one preceding it—until the bell mercifully sounded for a shellshocked Gastelum.
The two had done it. They had engaged in a battle for the ages. All three judges awarded 48-46 scores to Adesanya, with that last round a 10-8 for each of them. The crowd welcomed both men as heroes, and commentators and fans alike were flabbergasted at what transpired over 25 miraculous minutes. However, the night was not yet complete. One battle remained for interim lightweight gold, and a surging Holloway opted to move up a division to pursue the increasingly common two-division champion mantle.
To stave off his former opponent in their rematch, all Poirier had to do was snap a 13-fight winning streak for the Hawaiian and go punch-for-punch with a man known for his incredible volume. Although the strike totals ended with Holloway atop in the end, Poirier’s power could not be overstated, as he repeatedly landed clubbing shots that sent “Blessed” reeling at multiple points during the fight. Holloway’s durability and tenacity carried him to the end of a 25-minute war that would have been the best fight of the night if not for the battle that preceded it. Poirier got his hand raised by unanimous decision, as the two lightweights concluded a night that will not soon be forgotten.
UFC 236 takes its place alongside previous Sherdog “Event of the Year” winners in UFC 229, UFC 214, UFC 206, UFC 194, UFC 178, UFC 166, UFC on Fox 5, UFC 134, WEC 53, UFC 100 and UFC 84.