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UFC 221 wasn’t a card that likely drew a lot of eyeballs on pay-per-view, but for those who did watch the event, it offered some thrilling moments. It’s often hard to predict which MMA events will stand out the most. Some fights like Dustin Poirier-Justin Gaethje are pretty much can’t-miss ventures, but MMA in general delivers more surprises when it comes to action than other sports. Jake Matthews’ perseverance against Jingliang Li and Tyson Pedro’s deft submission of Saparbek Safarov were highlights on Saturday in Perth, Australia, but arguably the biggest thrills came from three destructive knockout finishes.
Israel Adesanya generated buzz ahead of his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut because of his glossy record: all wins, all knockouts. UFC 221 was a nice teaser of the promise he offers. Adesanya acknowledged himself it wasn’t his most impressive performance, but you could still see all the tools: the speed, movement and precision in his striking. It was also hard to miss the way Rob Wilkinson reacted to his strikes, as even Adesanya’s jabs landed emphatically. By the end, Wilkinson’s face was a mess and he was just covering up to protect himself from Adesanya’s barrage of offense.
If it was a bad night for Wilkinson, it was an even worse night for Cyril Asker, who was tasked with taking on young knockout artist and beer shoe enthusiast Tai Tuivasa. Like Adesanya, Tuivasa has knocked out every opponent of his MMA career. Unlike Adesanya, it has never taken him longer than a single round. That power was on display against Asker, as Tuivasa delivered incredible damage to the Frenchman’s face in very short time. It was the sort of performance that fans love from heavyweight fighters.
The main event of UFC 221 didn’t feature an extended beating like the other two fights, but it featured the scariest finish of the bunch. Yoel Romero rocked Luke Rockhold with a punch so badly that the Hard Knocks 365 rep was left in a vulnerable haze, like a character from Mortal Kombat. It gave Romero the opportunity to tee off with a nasty left hand that brought an emphatic end to the fight and the show. Romero doesn’t come from a striking background like Adesanya and Tuivasa, but his career has been similarly defined by brutal knockouts.
Explosive finishes have always been a big part of MMA’s appeal. Unlike its primary combat sports competitor, boxing, individual fights haven’t tended to go on that long. Smaller gloves and the inclusion of additional weapons like kicks and knees lead to more knockouts. Submissions add another dimension. Fights end suddenly, which adds drama to every moment in a way that few other sports can replicate. Unfortunately, over time finishes have become less common in UFC competition. Reed Kuhn in his excellent book “Fightnomics” laid out the trend a few years back, and it has continued since then. The sport has become more of a standup sport, leading to fewer submissions. However, that increased focus on striking hasn’t led to more knockouts for one obvious reason.
Along with their knockout power, the three standout stars from UFC 221 share something else in common. They’re all from heavier weight classes: heavyweight and middleweight. Back when the UFC exploded in popularity in early 2006, it had four titles: heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight. There was only one fully established division for fighters smaller than Romero, Adesanya and Tuivasa. Now, there are nine. There are as many divisions below featherweight as above it.
Smaller fighters produce fewer finishes statistically than larger fighters. According to Fight Matrix, heavyweights have a 50.2 percent TKO/KO rate, which goes down to 42.4 percent for light heavyweights, 37.0 percent for middleweights, 31.5 percent for welterweights, 25.3 percent for lightweights and all the way down to 8.1 percent for strawweights. The addition of division after division has led to the UFC’s roster getting smaller and smaller. With that, fans get fewer of the finishes that tend to create lasting memories and enduring stars.
This is not an argument against smaller fighters as a whole, although the UFC has gone overboard in the volume of divisions in general. Smaller fighters produce faster action and often superior technique. Moreover, the biggest collection of male talent tends to compete between welterweight and featherweight, while you can find the biggest collection of female talent lower than that. World Extreme Cagefighting is still fondly remembered for its exciting shows, and it was carried by its lightweight, featherweight and bantamweight divisions.
While fighters of various sizes bring value to the sport, there is particular currency in strong fight-ending power. It was on display in Perth, Australia, and it has been there for so many of the sport’s most iconic moments over the years. In an effort to advance alternative goals, the UFC has gradually reduced the propensity of those moments. UFC 221 was a reminder of what still exists there to be tapped.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.