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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday brought UFC 238 to the United Center in Chicago. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: ALL GOLD EVERYTHING
It has been a crazy run for Henry Cejudo. Exactly one year ago, the UFC announced that he would get his second chance to dethrone longtime flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson after having rebounded from his ill-fated first attempt at UFC 197. This narrative of the ever-improving Cejudo’s quest for redemption served as background noise for the often-discussed superfight between Johnson and then bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. Both Dillashaw and Johnson occupied the red corners in respective main and co-main event bouts at UFC 227, with Cejudo largely being overshadowed. The talk beforehand centered squarely on the never-ending champ-champ conversations.
Cejudo played spoiler by defeating Johnson in a razor-thin split decision and wasted no time trying to insert himself into those superfight discussions. While the rubber match between “Mighty Mouse” and “The Messenger” seemed like the most logical route to take due to the close nature of the contest and Johnson’s historic success as champion, an unprecedented “trade” sent the Matt Hume protégé to One Championship and derailed those plans. We were left with Cejudo-Dillashaw by default, but since the flyweight division looked to be in jeopardy anyway, there was a sense of acceptance for the illogical pairing between the two champions. Cejudo made good on his opportunity, as he finished Dillashaw in just over 30 seconds on ESPN and denied Dillashaw’s bid to “kill off the 125 division.” The Disney-owned brand must have liked its shiny new toy, as he joined a growing list of contenders in the bantamweight division. Dillashaw’s surprise United States Anti-Doping Agency suspension only added another layer of chaos to the picture.
With the fate of the weight class over which he lorded in jeopardy and the opportunity to make history through the pile of rubble that existed at 135 pounds, it made sense that Cejudo opted to take a shot at the bantamweight crown, even if Dillashaw was no longer part of the picture and had left the throne vacant. All the while, Cejudo insisted that flyweights deserved a spot in the world’s premiere MMA promotion, though temporarily leaving the division behind seemed counterproductive to his efforts to preserve it. By knocking out former World Series of Fighting champion Marlon Moraes in the third round of their UFC 238 headliner, Cejudo managed to kill multiple birds with one stone. Not only did he construct one of the more spectacular comebacks in title fight history and succeed in his quest for immortality in terms of all-time significance, but he may have also given the flyweight division another stay of execution.
Moraes, one of the more underrated pure athletes in the sport, came out on fire. Lightning-fast punch combinations, thunderous leg kicks and excellent movement gave him the first round. The adjustments Cejudo made, in addition to the fatigue Moraes admitted to feeling, dramatically turned the tide in Round 2. He closed the distance, initiated clinches complete with devastating knees and relied on his increasingly effective boxing skills to put Moraes through a hellish gauntlet that ultimately proved too much for him to handle.
Two UFC belts being hoisted simultaneously has become a more common sight -- Conor McGregor broke the seal at UFC 205, and a total of four people have now pulled off the unthinkable -- but make no mistake, it remains an insane achievement. Bundled with the Olympic gold medal about which Cejudo constantly reminds us, his claims of being the greatest combat sports athlete of all-time deserve serious consideration. Oddly enough, his detour to 135 pounds may have given the UFC reason to keep the flyweight division operational, at least for the time being. While Cejudo struggled to make 125 pounds in the past, his altered strength-and-conditioning regimen seemed to iron out those wrinkles. In recent weeks, UFC President Dana White has been conspicuously unwilling to give a straight answer regarding plans for the flyweight class.
Unlike with McGregor and Daniel Cormier, White expressed confidence in Cejudo’s ability to defend both belts with regularity. With Joseph Benavidez and Jussier Formiga -- both men fought Cejudo to close split decisions -- set to square off at the end of this month, a clear No. 1 contender in the weight class can be declared, giving more weight to White’s words. Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan, who won bantamweight bouts at UFC 238, are obvious choices for challengers at 135 pounds.
In a move consistent with the cringe-worthy material fans have come to expect from Cejudo, his post-fight callout of Dominick Cruz, Urijah Faber, Cody Garbrandt and the featherweight division was a head-scratcher that probably should be taken with a grain of salt. Cruz’s inability to remain healthy rules him out. Faber comes out of retirement in a month but has no legitimate claim to title shot, even if he were to defeat Ricky Simon. Garbrandt has been knocked out three times in as many outings, although Dillshaw’s troubles with USADA affix an asterisk to the first two losses. Any plans to enter the featherweight division, while fun, are grossly premature and do not deserve any serious consideration. Expect Cejudo to make a realistic decision on what comes next based on the results of the Benavidez-Formiga fight and the medical situations involving Sterling and Yan, both of whom were transported to the hospital following their bouts. There is also the subject of Cejudo’s own health, as he suffered an ankle injury during fight week.
THE BAD: BLOWN NOSES, BLOWN OPPORTUNITIES
Just like that, the latest resurgence of Donald Cerrone comes to an end. A simple exercise in proper hygiene and unrestricted breathing stopped the fan favorite fighter in his tracks, with his renewed ambition to rule the lightweight division left in pieces. It’s going to be easy to simply point the finger at him and question why an MMA veteran of 13 years would blow his nose knowing it could potentially swell his eye shut. However, there’s little reason to believe he had anything left to offer Tony Ferguson.
After a close first round that seemed to be more the product of their penchant for slow starts, the middle stanza saw the two fighters fully warmed up and prepared for the challenge before them. In those moments, “El Cucuy” clearly separated himself from Cerrone as the superior fighter. His unorthodox offense, strange dance-like movement and deceptive power gave the Colorado native fits, as Cerrone’s textbook techniques looked insufficient to solve Ferguson’s puzzle. Even though he managed to sneak in his often-overlooked offensive wrestling, it did little to stop the punishment.
It was fun to watch and gave everyone exactly the sort of action they expected. Ferguson further secured his spot as the unofficial lightweight king, and Cerrone remained a star with the ability to mix and match himself through multiple weight classes for big paydays against other name-value fighters. It was also a reminder that results in this sport are comprised of many small and seemingly meaningless decisions, and some of those decisions lead to unfortunate conclusions.
THE UGLY: HOLLOW-POINT BULLET
The truth can be ugly, and one need only look at Valentina Shevchenko’s performance against Jessica Eye in the co-main event for further proof. No matter how we pair Shevchenko for future defenses of the women’s flyweight championship, they will all be mismatches that heavily favor “Bullet” on paper. The mere fact that Eye was the rightful challenger said everything about a division that seems to have become a desert between the thriving oasis at strawweight and the marquee names that populate the bantamweight class. Eye earned her spot almost by default, a title shot banked by meritocracy without the intrigue that normally accompanies a challenger-worthy run.
For example, watching Anthony Smith’s emergence ahead of his efforts to unseat Jon Jones at 205 pounds added some excitement about the possibilities. While nearly everyone favored “Bones” to retain his championship at UFC 235, the idea that a knockout artist whose best path to victory relied on throwing caution to the wind brought with it a sense of suspense that was normally lacking. Rinse and repeat for the upcoming Jones-Thiago Santos showdown.
The women now in position to challenge Shevchenko all seem ill-equipped for the task at hand. Katlyn Chookagian barely walked away from her decision win over Joanne Calderwood. If Calderwood could batter her legs and take her down multiple times, what could Shevchenko do? The Liz Carmouche-Roxanne Modafferi winner might get the call. However, the appeal of both women seems more rooted in promotional angles than what they can offer inside the cage. Carmouche’s calling card of being the first woman to enter the Octagon far outweighs the threat her wrestling attack poses. The fact that Modafferi handed Antonina Shevchenko her first loss seems much more intriguing than her chances as an athlete. As of right now, “Bullet” seems to be in a class all by herself.