The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 238 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.
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Hyperbole is so common in this sport that it can be hard to make in-the-moment sense of what we see. This is especially true when commentary and fight promotion tilt us further in the direction of unreality, where every other week there is a new Greatest of All-Time coronation. When the aim of the Ultimate Fighting Championship is to simultaneously appeal to casual sports fans and keep the attention of diehard MMA purists, it isn’t enough to simply say a performance was “great” or that a fighter is “really good.” Fights have to be epic on a near-weekly basis, and fighters have to be not just “once in a lifetime” talents but “once ever in human history.”
Yet at UFC 238 on Saturday in Chicago, three genuinely special performances occurred. In a sport where hyperventilating hyperbole is normal, Tony Ferguson, Valentina Shevchenko and Henry Cejudo were all exceptionally dominant.
First up was Ferguson, a former interim champion who has yet to be disproven as the sport’s best lightweight in the last seven years. His win over Donald Cerrone, while somewhat overshadowed by a punch after the bell and an amateur nose-blowing by “Cowboy,” was an overall masterful performance. After a competitive first round, Ferguson took control, painting Cerrone’s face bloody with a whip-like jab and trigonometric elbows. Even if Cerrone hadn’t shut his own eye in between rounds, “El Cucuy” was well on his way to doing it himself.
The technical knockout of Cerrone was Ferguson’s 12th consecutive win in what is by far the most talent-rich division in the UFC. That puts Ferguson in the record books with the longest streak in lightweight history -- just one ahead of current champion Khabib Nurmagomedov -- and the sixth-longest win streak in UFC history in any weight class. He’s not just beating scrubs, either. He’s beating former champs and contenders and divisional mainstays, and he’s not just beating them; he’s finishing them, with three knockouts and six submissions in his streak so far. He’s not just finishing good fighters, either. He’s absolutely smashing them. The faces of his last seven opponents say all that needs to be said. He is and has been authoring a special kind of dominance.
Then there was Shevchenko, the reigning women’s flyweight champion. In the runup to the event, Shevchenko was one of the largest favorites in UFC history, briefly listed with 20-1 odds over opponent Jessica Eye. While those odds slightly narrowed by the time she entered the Octagon, she proved that the initial assessment was accurate, deconstructing Eye in the first round before kicking her into instant unconsciousness in the second. It was by far her most sensational performance in the UFC thus far.
“Bullet” is now in an awkward position. With only one title defense, it seems like a forgone conclusion that she will reign over the flyweight division until whenever she feels like stopping. That’s partially because the division is new and thus fairly thin but also because Shevchenko is just that good. Only four other fighters have been more lopsidedly favored to win in a title fight than Shevchenko: Ronda Rousey, Cristiane Justino, Demetrious Johnson and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Shevchenko already defeated Jedrzejczyk and nearly beat Amanda Nunes at UFC 215 in a fight many believed she won, myself included. She is lightyears ahead of her flyweight competition, with only Liz Carmouche on the horizon as a possible threat; she beat Shevchenko in 2010. It’s a crazy sport and anything can happen, but it looks like we’ll only be hearing more from the Trilingual Terror in the near future.
In the main event, Cejudo became the latest two-division champion by beating Marlon Moraes for the vacant bantamweight belt, battling back from a rough first round and a fight-week ankle sprain -- which is perhaps better than the in-fight ankle problems he had against Johnson. This was the flyweight titleholder’s first undeniable performance. His win against “Mighty Mouse” was debatable, and the 30-second drubbing of a desiccated T.J. Dillashaw left room for doubt, but there were no asterisks this time. Cejudo looked completely out of his element in the first round, while Moraes was battering his legs from range and punishing every attempt to close the distance. Yet in the second, Cejudo changed the trajectory of the fight, as he took the fight to Moraes by marching forward and increasing the number of landed strikes by nearly eightfold. He continued to turn it up in the third, and Moraes withered, “melting in front of him,” as commentator Daniel Cormier aptly put it. Eventually, the referee was forced to intervene. In a career full of come-from-behind performances, this was one of Cejudo’s finest.
The hyperbole crept back into the picture in the aftermath. You may not have heard, but Cejudo is an Olympic gold medalist wrestler, and now with two UFC straps on top of that achievement, his claim as the best combat sports athlete of all-time was given more consideration than it deserves; he may not have even been the best combat sports athlete on the UFC 238 card, as Shevchenko’s combined records in MMA, muay Thai, kickboxing and boxing arguably trump Cejudo’s three-piece gold combo. Yet there is no denying that Cejudo is among the best pound-for-pound mixed martial artists in the world right now. On paper, he has certainly done at least as much in his last three fights to stake that claim as Nurmagomedov, Cormier or Jon Jones.
Although it is difficult to escape the sport’s inherent inclination to exaggerate, it is not so farfetched to argue that UFC 238 showcased the best lightweight in the world, the best female fighter in the world and the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. There are certainly some people in their weight divisions who would argue otherwise, but at this point, those claims have gained plenty of validation and have yet to be convincingly disproven.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.