UFC 238: Ten things we learned
On paper, UFC 238 was the best event of the year from top to bottom, beginning with a clash between flyweight title contenders, wrapping up with a pair of championship encounters and featuring a whole lot of awesomeness in between. Saturday night at the United Center, that potential turned into performance as the 13 pairs of fighters scheduled to compete rolled into the Octagon and exceeded expectations from the outset.
This also profiled as a card that would have a tremendous impact on how the rest of the year would shape up in several key divisions. That’s exactly how things played out, starting with the opening bout.
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The night of entertaining action and meaningful results delivered a number of major talking points to address and questions to ponder. Here are the 10 biggest takeaways from UFC 238:
1. Henry Cejudo, UFC bantamweight champion
Over the first five minutes of Saturday night’s main event, Cejudo looked like he was thoroughly outclassed and unsure how to contend with the deluge of kicks by Marlon Moraes.
Less than 10 minutes later, Cejudo was being pulled off a busted-up and exhausted Moraes and elevated into rarified air as the fourth fighter in UFC history to hold titles in two weight classes simultaneously.
This was an incredible performance from the 32-year-old Olympic gold medalist, who disclosed after the bout that he suffered a severe ankle sprain in the run-up to the event. He weathered the early assault, made outstanding adjustments between the first and second rounds and beat Moraes through a combination of toughness, heart and sheer force of will.
Many questioned his being moved up into this bout when a handful of other worthy contenders could have challenged Moraes, but Cejudo showed that he might be even better when fighting at bantamweight. He strengthened his case for being the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport.
2. Can we talk about those callouts, though?
Cejudo declared after his win that he wants “heavyweight money” and big fights. He listed the men he’d like to face next – Dominick Cruz, Cody Garbrandt and Urijah Faber.
Cruz hasn’t fought since losing the title to Garbrandt at UFC 207 and isn’t expected back from shoulder surgery until at least the end of the year. Garbrandt has lost three straight, all by knockout. Faber was retired up until a couple weeks ago, he has a fight on deck with prospect Ricky Simon, and his last truly meaningful win came more than five years ago when he beat Michael McDonald.
No one is going to fault Cejudo for wanting to make as much money as possible and chasing paydays – and anyone who does fault him better have been vocally opposed to Daniel Cormier facing Brock Lesnar – but on a night where two men solidified their positions as bantamweight contenders, these callouts are disappointing.
Here’s hoping Cejudo goes the Tyron Woodley route and lobbies for big-name fights that don’t make sense, only to defend against the top contender every time because, with one belt on each shoulder, having him fight anyone other than the No. 1 contender could screw things up in a major way.
3. Valentina Shevchenko flattens Jessica Eye
As far as first title defenses goes, Shevchenko’s initial defense of her flyweight title has to rank among the best.
After an opening round in which she battered Eye with heavy kicks to the body and dominated the challenger on the canvas, the champion walked out of the corner to start the second, crashed another powerful kick into Eye’s midsection and then went upstairs with her next offering.
The kick landed flush, Eye crashed to the canvas and Shevchenko walked off with her hands raised.
Shevchenko is as close to being a ready-made superstar as anyone in the UFC – a wildly entertaining fighter who speaks three languages, trains around the world and is a lifelong martial artist. She went 25 minutes with bantamweight and featherweight champ Amanda Nunes in a fight many believe she won; now she’s down a division and absolutely running through the competition.
Many believed Shevchenko was destined to dominate the flyweight division when it was introduced at the end of 2017. Her effort at UFC 238 made it seem as though that is exactly what will happen for the foreseeable future.
4. Tony Ferguson, Donald Cerrone deliver despite odd ending
For 10 minutes, this highly anticipated lightweight clash, which was dubbed “The People’s Main Event,” managed to exceed expectations. Both men came out slinging, with Cerrone starting well and Ferguson getting loose as the opening five minutes ticked away.
In the second, “El Cucuy” started pulling away, piling up the damage and putting a pace on Cerrone that “Cowboy” couldn’t deal with.
Then things got weird.
After the horn to end the second, Ferguson connected with a clean right hand that was obviously late and stiffened up Cerrone. When “Cowboy” went back to the corner, he blew his nose, which caused his already swollen right eye to instantly blow up and close. Watching the replay, it’s clear Cerrone recognized his mistake as soon as he wiped the blood and snot away from his nose. He reached for his eye and tried in vain to keep it from swelling.
The fight was halted with Ferguson collecting his 12th consecutive victory, a ridiculous achievement in any division but one that is even more impressive in the lightweight ranks. Provided he can stay healthy, there is no way Ferguson should be passed over for the next title shot after Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier battle to unify the titles in September.
5. Petr Yan wraps up impressive rookie year
Yan made his first walk to the Octagon on June 23 of last year; he earned a first-round stoppage win over Teruto Ishihara that night. Saturday in Chicago, the Russian rising star wrapped up his rookie campaign by registering his fifth win in 12 months, a unanimous decision victory over veteran Jimmie Rivera.
This fight was clearly the 26-year-old’s toughest test to date, but it was also the one that showed his championship mettle the most. In each of the first two rounds, Rivera was arguably winning the frame until the final seconds when Yan connected with a big shot that sat the Tiger Schulmann representative down and won him the round.
Now riding a seven-fight winning streak, Yan is in the thick of the bantamweight championship chase. There were thoughts that a dominant effort could elevate him into the next title fight in the 135-pound weight class and he lobbied for the opportunity following the fight, but given how Aljamain Sterling performed earlier in the evening, it’s far more likely that Yan will face another tough veteran next time out.
Regardless of how things line up coming out of UFC 238, this effort and his performance thus far on the roster should make it clear that, whether this year or next, Yan will challenge for the bantamweight title in the not-too-distant future.
6. Tatiana Suarez continues moving forward
Jessica Andrade ascended to the top of the strawweight division just a couple weeks ago; her first challenger may have been determined Saturday night.
Paired with fellow surging contender Nina Ansaroff, Suarez used a handful of takedowns over the opening two rounds to carry her to victory in the final fight on the preliminary card. Although she faded down the stretch and dropped the final round on all three cards, the unbeaten upstart had already done more than enough to salt away the victory.
Though not her most dominant effort, Saturday’s grueling contest with Ansaroff feels as though it will be one of the most important of Suarez’s career. The Californian was forced to dig deep, which should only help her going forward.
While Suarez has clearly established herself as the No. 1 contender, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the UFC hustle Michelle Waterson into a title shot ahead of her. That would give Suarez time to make further improvements that should only strengthen her chances of capturing championship gold in the future.
7. Aljamain Sterling keeps getting better
Sterling delivered the best performance of his UFC career in a bout many expected would determine the next title challenger in the bantamweight division.
Paired with fellow surging contender Pedro Munhoz in a showdown that turned contentious in the build-up, Sterling came out more aggressive than in previous contests while also showcasing more diversity with his strikes and a greater willingness to stand and trade. All of those things led to a clean sweep of the scorecards.
Though Munhoz stayed in front of him and pressed forward the entire contest, Sterling did an excellent job of using his length and his movement to prevent the Brazilian from ever getting too comfortable.
This was a massive victory for the 29-year-old Sterling, who entered on a three-fight winning streak. He is now in good position to possibly face the winner of Saturday’s main event later this year. The Serra-Longo Fight Team member and Long Island product has made terrific adjustments and appreciable improvements throughout his career; he showed Saturday that he’s ready to challenge for championship gold.
8. Welcome back, Alexa Grasso
After more than a year on the sidelines and coming off a mauling at the hands of Tatiana Suarez, Grasso showed why she was once considered a can’t-miss prospect and potential future champion.
The Mexican strawweight put on an impressive display against former title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz. She took the fight to the Polish veteran from the outset and never let off the gas.
Grasso was in Kowalkiewicz’s face at every turn, feeding her a steady diet of clean punches, stiff kicks and nonstop pressure. She left little question who deserved the nod when the final horn sounded. This was a blistering effort from the 25-year-old and a throwback to the performances that first put her on the map.
When she fights like this – moving forward before her quick hands, being the aggressor – Grasso looks like a perennial contender and possible champion. Kowalkiewicz is as game as they come and one of the more experienced fighters in the division, and still Grasso blanked her while putting together a more impressive effort than Waterson put forth against Kowalkiewicz in March.
Grasso needs to replicate this effort next time out to really gain ground in the division, but if she does, don’t be surprised to see her get an accelerated push going forward.
9. Calvin Kattar makes a statement against Ricardo Lamas
Fighting in the loaded featherweight division makes it difficult for new names to gain recognition. Kattar showed on Saturday how to get people’s attention.
The Massachusetts native scored a massive knockout win over the veteran Lamas, connecting with a powerful right hand that put the former title challenger on the canvas and then scrambling for a takedown before referee Dan Miragliotta stepped in to wave off the action.
After stinging the hometown favorite with a stiff jab earlier in the round, Kattar pawed out with a jab to gauge Lamas’ reaction. When he got a read on it, he threw the jab out again and then chased it with a three-two combination that landed flush and put “The Bully” on the floor.
The 31-year-old Kattar hasn’t garnered much attention over the course of his first five UFC fights, but he is now 4-1 in the ultracompetitive 145-pound division with wins over Lamas, Shane Burgos and Andre Fili and his lone loss coming against top-five fixture Renato Moicano.
This win should vault him into the top 10 once the rankings are updated. At that point, he’ll be in a position to keep making noise in the second half of the year.
10. Katlyn Chookagian makes case for championship opportunity
Flyweight contenders Chookagian and Joanne Calderwood kicked off the card with bout that was expected to be a back-and-forth affair, with the winner potentially earning a title shot.
For the majority of the contest, the top-10 fighters stood toe-to-toe and traded blows, with Calderwood beating Chookagian’s legs and Chookagian serving up a steady diet of combinations. Calderwood started well but “Blonde Fighter” seemed to find her footing in the second. She sat down on her punches a little more and pressed the action behind her hands. After seemingly drawing level, the Iron Army representative opened up down the stretch and outworked her Scottish foe in the third.
After the bout, Chookagian called for a title shot, and she has a valid case. The Mark Henry pupil is 3-1 in the division and 4-2 overall in the UFC, with both of her losses coming by split decision, including landing on the wrong side against Eye in her previous fight.
Sweeping the scorecards against the sixth-ranked Calderwood should make Chookagian the early favorite to challenge for the title next, although the winner of next month’s clash between Roxanne Modafferi and Liz Carmouche will have to be considered as well.
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