The UFC went heavy on history and light on current events this weekend.
The MMA conglomerate returned to live action with an 11-bout card from the Apex in Las Vegas, and the ESPN broadcast leaned into the 30th-anniversary theme it’ll be celebrating all year while reaching back to the company’s initial pay-per-view show in November 1993.
And speaking of history, the show’s main event made it as well when middleweight contender Sean Strickland subbed in for the injured Kelvin Gastelum to face Nassourdine Imavov in a five-rounder that was shifted to 205 pounds to allow for the late notice.
The appearance made Strickland just the second fighter in company history to headline two straight live shows. He lost a split decision to Jared Cannonier in 2022’s final Fight Night in December and, with Saturday’s return, joins Tito Ortiz in the record books after Ortiz was perched atop the UFC 32 and UFC 33 events in June and September 2001.
Meanwhile, amid the nostalgia, no mention was made of UFC President Dana White’s recent physical altercation with his wife, Anne, at the outset of either the preliminary or main card shows.
The B/R combat team was on hand from start to finish to take in the action and compile a definitive list of the show’s winners and losers.
Scroll through to see what we came up with, and drop a comment with a take of your own.
All of a sudden, it’s cool to be Strickland again.
The rugged Californian had climbed to the brink of a middleweight title shot with a six-fight win streak through February 2022 but plunged down the mountain later in the year thanks to consecutive losses to Alex Pereira and Cannonier.
But it’s a new year. And perhaps a new, or at least renewed, Strickland.
The 31-year-old jumped in on late notice against a foe with three straight victories but never looked unprepared for the challenge while working Imavov over across five main-event rounds.
Strickland got a unanimous nod with scores of 49-46, 49-46 and 48-47.
B/R agreed with the third card and saw it 48-47 (3-2 in rounds) in favor of Strickland, who raised his hand upon hearing the verdict and immediately walked to the fence and pointed to the judges.
“It was a close fight with Jared, but I won,” he said. “I beat the No. 2 contender. I’m only here because of bad judging. But I’m a company man. You pay me, and I’ll fight [now-former heavyweight champion] Francis Ngannou.”
That won’t be necessary, but a return to the 185-pound precipice is likely for the winner, who fought with his typically effective methodical style, walking forward behind jabs and combinations while frustrating Imavov’s return fire with shoulder rolls and other evasive maneuvers.
Imavov actually started well in the first round but was clipped by a right hand about halfway through and spent the rest of the session in retreat.
He never really regained the aggressive nature as Strickland perpetually plodded forward. Imavov looked exhausted on his stool late in the fight as his corner exhorted him to dig deep and rally.
He had never gone beyond three rounds in a career stretching back to 2016.
Strickland, by contrast, never sat down between rounds though he was fighting his second five-rounder in a month and appearing in a main event for the fourth time in his UFC career.
And in the aftermath, he was, well…himself.
“I’ve got big, old metaphorical nuts,” he said. “I can fight 25 minutes. I can fight 60 minutes. The only reason this man hit me was because I wanted to finish him. Let’s f–king go.”
Dan Ige had plenty of momentum, but nearly none of it was good.
Still, in spite of a stretch of four losses in five fights, the UFC’s 13th-ranked featherweight insisted a showdown with streaking Damon Jackson would provide a turnaround.
It did. And how.
Ige punctuated the co-main event with a dramatic one-shot, second-round KO, countering a Jackson miss with a precise left hook that dumped his foe as he casually walked away.
“It’s repetition. I have great coaches. I rep it daily,” Ige said.
“I have ’50K’ written on my hand wraps. I knew I was going to get it tonight.”
It was Ige’s eighth win at 145 pounds, placing him second in the weight class behind only champion Alexander Volkanovski since 2018 and re-announcing his presence in the division with his first success in 22 months and just his second since mid-2020.
He was effective in pressuring Jackson through most of the first round and landed the more dramatic and memorable shots, damaging Jackson’s left eye with a series of uppercuts and drawing blood above the eye with another barrage early in the second.
Ige stepped back to elude a left hook as Jackson charged in late in the second, then got his own left hook home as Jackson wound up with a right uppercut.
The end came at 4:13 of the second round.
“My identity has lied in winning for a long time. I did anything possible could to get a win for my family,” he said. “When you don’t get it, it sucks, but you’ve got to keep getting up.
“It’s all about getting in the moment. I’ve been training myself and training my mind. I made my world smaller and cut out the noise and cut out the BS.”
The show’s only matchup of Top 5 contenders was predictably competitive.
Both fighters clearly thought they deserved a victory as the official announcement began following the fight between bantamweights Ketlen Vieira and Raquel Pennington, so it’s no surprise the split-decision loser was visibly frustrated.
But Pennington, ranked fifth to her opponent’s second, was happy enough for both.
“I’ve got a five-fight win streak, you guys cannot deny me,” she said. “I deserve respect.”
She got it from the judges, particularly the two who saw her as a 29-28 winner to offset the dissenting 29-28 verdict in Vieira’s favor.
It was the fifth split decision of Pennington’s UFC career and third straight win by that method after the initial two, to ex-champs Jessica Andrade and Holly Holm, went against her.
“Honestly, I wanted to come out and do a little bit more, so I am relieved,” she said. “I have a history with the judges, so my heart dropped a little bit.”
Post-fight stats showed that while Vieira landed more overall strikes (138 to 104), Pennington was more effective with significant strikes, landing 81 of 159 to her foe’s 64 of 152.
More than 70 percent of Pennington’s significant lands came from distance, and she was effective on all levels, connecting 45 percent to the head, 39 percent to the body and 14 percent to the legs.
“I feel like I’m well-rounded,” she said. “I have experience in this. It was just me being me.”
It’s not particularly risky. But it can be particularly profitable.
Laying cash on pre-fight favorites was the way to go for the first seven bouts on Saturday’s card, and none of those favorites was more impressive than Umar Nurmagomedov.
Overall, eight of the night’s 11 favorites cashed in, yielding a would-be $420 profit on a $100 bet.
Already the 11th-ranked bantamweight contender, the Russian-born cousin of former lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov staked a claim for a prodigious ladder climb with a sudden, one-punch KO of Brazilian veteran Raoni Barcelos.
“What can’t this young man do?” analyst Paul Felder said. “That is a statement.”
He arrived as the show’s biggest favorite at -850 and made it stick with a quick sequence that saw him step forward with a jumping left knee that missed the mark. But he followed through with a short left hook that connected flush on Barcelos’ chin and dropped him semiconscious to his back as Nurmagomedov swooped in for one last right-hand chop.
The official time was 4:40 and Nurmagomedov apologized for the gratuitous final blow before shifting gears and calling out the 10 fighters ranked above him at 135 pounds.
“March. I will be ready for March,” he said.
“Where are you guys? I’m here. In the cage. I’ll be ready.”
Also winning in instantly violent fashion was -115 middleweight pick Abdul Razak Alhassan, who scored his sixth UFC KO with a series of brutal overhand rights that felled opponent Claudio Ribeiro just 28 seconds into Round 2 of their prelim three-rounder.
The fighters had a tactical, close-quarters battle in the first round before Alhassan began the decisive sequence with a long right that sent Ribeiro reeling backward. He landed with three more unanswered shots before the final one drove a Ribeiro to the floor and prompted an intervention from referee Mark Smith.
It was the first career KO beyond the first round for Alhassan, who’s finished all 12 of his pro wins.
“Every time in training, I see the best version of myself, but then I come out and see the fans, and I want to entertain,” he said. “My coach told me, ‘Stop that bulls–t. When you’re patient, you see the best version of yourself.’
“I was like, ‘Coach, I got you.'”
Four undercard fighters walked to the Octagon without a loss on their records.
But only one left with the pristine standing still intact.
English-based bantamweight Javid Basharat, a native of Afghanistan, returned to the locker room with a 0 on his resume after a clinical three-round decision over fellow unbeaten Mateus Mendonca in the feature bout of the preliminary card.
The 27-year-old was a winner on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2021 and arrived to Saturday’s bout having won two more in the UFC. Mendonca, meanwhile, had graduated from DWCS with a win in September but dropped to 10-1 with a loss in his formal UFC debut.
Two judges saw it 30-27 and the third card had it 29-28 in Basharat’s favor.
“The performance could have been better, but to be honest with you he is tough,” Basharat said. “It was a little bit messy but I knew that was going to be the case. He’s one of those guys that you hit them and he comes back with two or three.”
A taller, longer fighter than Mendonca, Basharat operated at distance and peppered his wilder foe with clean shots while avoiding the flashier but less effective spinning back fists and cartwheel kicks.
He landed 73 percent (95 of 130) significant strike attempts across 15 minutes and scored three of the fight’s five takedowns to establish better than five minutes of control time to Mendonca’s 2:19.
Two other fighters lost their 0s by one-sided decisions before the prelim feature.
Late featherweight sub Nick Aguirre was smothered for nearly every moment of three rounds while falling to Dan Argueta in the show’s second fight and lightweight Nick Fiore suffered a similar fate two bouts later against Mateusz Rebecki.
Aguirre is now 7-1 after losing all three scorecards by 30-27 margins, while Fiore dropped to 6-1 after two 30-27 cards and one 30-26 in Rebecki’s favor.
Sean Strickland def. Nassourdine Imavov by unanimous decision (49-46, 49-46, 48-47)
Dan Ige def. Damon Jackson by KO (punch), 4:13, Round 2
Roman Kopylov def. Punahele Soriano by TKO (kick), 3:19, Round 2
Raquel Pennington def. Ketlen Vieira by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
Umar Nurmagomedov def. Raoni Barcelos by KO (punch), 4:40, Round 1
Javid Basharat def. Mateus Mendonca by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
Abdul Razak Alhassan def. Claudio Ribeiro by KO (punches), 0:28, Round 2
Mateusz Rebecki def. Nick Fiore by unanimous decision (30-26, 30-27, 30-27)
Allan Nascimento def. Carlos Hernandez by submission (rear-naked choke), 3:16, Round 1
Dan Argueta def. Nick Aguirre by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Charles Johnson def. Jimmy Flick by TKO (punches), 4:33, Round 1
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