UFC 270 takeaways: Francis Ngannou’s gamble paid off, but his biggest fight still lies ahead

    Francis Ngannou is still the Baddest Man on the Planet, though few could’ve foreseen the route he’d take to get there. With his standoff against the UFC taking center stage, Ngannou wrestled his way to a unanimous decision victory over Ciryl Gane to defend his UFC heavyweight title in Saturday’s main event in Anaheim, Calif. Between Ngannou’s win and uncertain future, the latest masterpiece by flyweights Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno, and an all-around action-packed night, there’s plenty to discuss from UFC 270.

    Let’s hit our five biggest takeaways.

    1. Let us start with the performance, because ultimately, everything about the story that’s destined to dominate 2022 depended on it. UFC 270 meant more to Francis Ngannou than a simple title defense, that is no secret. There was a reason Ngannou’s head coach Eric Nicksick likened it last Wednesday to the champion’s Jerry Maguire moment. Ngannou was Rod Tidwell. He was the high-stakes high-roller, the man betting it all on himself. Look back in history at the parade of fighters who dared to challenge the UFC’s business practices in the midst of their peak earning windows. It’s not a list that is kind the working class. My MMA Fighting colleague Ariel Helwani mentioned this phrase several times last week, but it’s apt: Generally, when you gamble against the UFC, the house always wins.

    That is what Ngannou was up against heading into UFC 270 — the same cacophony of outside noise and internal pressures that has cut down countless names before, along with an apparent knee injury Ngannou suffered three weeks ago which left his MCL and ACL in need of immediate surgery. The champion said post-fight that his doctor advised him not to fight because he could’ve suffered “irreversible damage.” Yet with the deck stacked against him — and in many ways, his career on the line — the most dull win of Ngannou’s MMA run also proved to be his most important, and most ballsy.

    No longer can the champion be called one-dimensional. No longer can he be questioned about whether he can go the distance and win. Ngannou racked up more cage time on Saturday than he had over his previous five victories combined, he became the first man to ever wrestle Ciryl Gane onto his back and did so repeatedly, all on one leg — but most vital of all, he left the cage with the UFC heavyweight title still wrapped around his waist.

    Perhaps Saturday’s performance wasn’t the most exciting showcase of Ngannou’s skills, but if there was ever moment to give the champion a pass, it’s now. He gambled on himself on multiple fronts, and though things looked dicey in the early going, he actually pulled it off.

    He still holds the most important card.

    Which leads us too…

    2. It’s still early, so we’re in the speculation hours, but it’s hard not to read into Dana White’s absence on Saturday for any of the usual post-fight fanfare. The UFC boss wrapped the belt around Deiveson Figueiredo’s waist after the co-main event but was conspicuously nowhere to be seen to do the same for Ngannou. White then skipped his usual post-fight interviews with the UFC’s partner media and even no-showed the post-fight press conference for the first pay-per-view of the year — which, by the way, considering how much fun UFC 270 ended up being, would’ve been a golden chance for White to bust out his favorite refrain and boast about how YOU GOOFS CAN NEVER JUDGE A CARD UNTIL IT HAPPENS.

    All in all, on a night where the discontent swirling around Ngannou dominated the discussion of UFC 270, and the combined purse payout for a 22-athlete card headlined by two championship bouts totaled more than 16 times less than Tyson Fury earned to face Deontay Wilder last October, White’s absence was deafening. And telling.

    Ngannou was decidedly less invisible. The reigning champion showed up to his post-fight press conference and was upfront about his unclear future and his treatment from the UFC. “I don’t feel it’s fair,” Ngannou said at one point. “I don’t feel like I’m a free man. I don’t feel like I’ve been treated good, and it’s unfortunate.” Ngannou went on to add, “The only reason why were are here, I think, is because at some point, I wasn’t respected. [White] could have taken way less to get this deal done, but he went to a power position and got everybody frustrated, get me frustrated, get me to lose the desire of doing things.”

    All along, Ngannou’s team has maintained a belief that the terms of their champion’s contract will be fulfilled at the end of 2022. Ngannou reiterated that stance Saturday when asked. The murky nature of UFC deals make it impossible to know if Team Ngannou is correct, but we could very well be barreling toward a standoff the likes of which we’ve never truly seen.

    A long-awaited matchup with Jon Jones dominated much of the post-Saturday matchmaking about what could be next for Ngannou, but because of the champ’s injuries and his inevitable knee surgery, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that Ngannou will be sidelined for most of 2022 anyway. If that’s the case, we could be soon reaching a scenario where the Baddest Man on the Planet attempts to leave the UFC for greener pastures and bigger paydays with the championship belt still sitting atop his mantlepiece.

    Can you imagine?

    One way or another, the heavyweight division came out of Saturday night with far more questions hanging in the air than answers — and things are likely only going to get more interesting from here. Buckle up, folks, because 2022 could be a wild ride.

    3. Remember where we were with the flyweights at the end of 2018? The writing was already on the wall. A gradual trickle of 125-pound names had been cut, the GOAT had been stunningly shipped out to ONE Championship, and after six years, the experiment of the UFC’s lightest men’s division was seemingly dead. In the eyes of UFC officials, it just hadn’t worked. They didn’t believe fans cared, and maybe they were right. There was certainly enough anecdotal evidence to back that notion up.

    How crazy it is to look back on now.

    On this Sunday morning, it’s a different world. The 125-pound division is in a healthier place than ever before, thanks in large part to Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno, two kindred spirits who were seemingly born to fight one another for the rest of time. Every step of their trilogy has been exhilarating, and Saturday was no different. Just as last summer’s rematch was Moreno’s chance to learn and evolve from the lessons of his first outing, UFC 270 became Figueiredo’s time to reciprocate and make amends. He changed teams, coaches, and even the country he called home. He reemerged striking a new balance between patience and his patented aggression, and ultimately he pulled off the upset he needed to drag the series back into a 1-1-1 split just as he was being counted out most.

    In terms of theater, it was sensational. But more than that, the tapestry being woven by these two men over the past 14 months has elevated 125 pounds in a way Demetrious Johnson’s brilliance never managed to do. Think about what is happening here. Moreno was received like a genuine star by the Anaheim faithful. He and Figueiredo are probably going to fight four times in a row, and it’s totally deserved. Not only are the majority of the fan base supportive of it — they’re genuinely excited by the idea. There are no parallels for what’s happening here in UFC history. Figueiredo and Moreno could fight 20 times in a row and I’d be among the first in line to watch the chaos. Everything about this is crazy.

    For what it’s worth, I scored Saturday’s co-main event three rounds to two in favor of Figueiredo, though I know some disagreed. But give all respect to the champ either way, because in his moment of glory, Figueiredo not only called for fight No. 4 as soon as fight No. 3 concluded, he actually asked for it to be held in Mexico, of all places. If Figueiredo, that madman, thought he was drowning in boos in Phoenix or Anaheim, just imagine what Mexico City could be like. The scenes. I love it. Book it tomorrow. I can’t wait.

    (And in case you were wondering, a series of four is apparently called a tetralogy. The obscure vocabulary you learn following this sport never ceases to amaze.)

    4. I just want you to know that for one brief, glorious moment, I considered devoting this entire column to be a lovefest to Said Nurmagomedov, because holy hell did that man do justice to his surname on Saturday night. Cody Stamann likely isn’t topping many people’s lists of favorite fighters, but he is still a beast of a grit-and-grind competitor who has faced a murder’s row at 135 pounds, and more often than not, lived to the tale.

    In other words, Stamann is no one’s easy mark — and he knew he had his back against the wall.

    So anytime you can go out there and bully your way into the third-fastest submission in UFC bantamweight history against a legitimate, desperate contender like that? That’s the type of statement win that opens eyes in a hurry.

    From the wicked diversity of strikes in his early barrage, to his sweep off a single-leg defense into the perfect power guillotine, Nurmagomedov’s 47 seconds was basically a flawless victory. No has ever handled Stamann like that — not Song Yadong, not Merab Dvalishvili, and not even the current UFC champion Aljamain Sterling.

    Nurmagomedov is on Year 13 of his MMA run, but he’s still only 29 years old. After being out-of-sight, out-of-mind during the last 15 months, he’s suddenly one of the most intriguing members of Dagestan’s second wave. He asked for Marlon Vera next, and though that may not sound very appetizing to “Chito,” I definitely don’t hate the idea.

    5. On a card where almost 40 percent of its athletes were making their UFC debuts, Saturday wasn’t exactly the kind of pay-per-view night we’ve come to expect, especially after the monster run that closed out 2021. The UFC isn’t absolved of blame for that, but one look at the War and Peace length of UFC 270’s list of canceled fights at least allows for some sort of understanding. So let’s use our final spot here to go all NHL with it and highlight three stars from the undercard who may have been unfamiliar to most fight fans.

    Our first nod has to go to Matt Frevola, who made history by tying the UFC record for knockdowns in a single round (4) with one of the gnarliest three-minute stretches you’ll ever see. Not only was Frevola’s win over Genaro Valdéz pure lunacy, it was also a great example of how damn difficult it is to be an MMA referee. Even with the knockdowns, Valdéz defended himself throughout most of the onslaught. It’s easy to jump on Twitter after the fact and gripe about what referee Mike Beltran should’ve done when you have no skin in the game, but much tougher to call a sequence like that in real-time.

    Our second star was made for Australia’s Jack Della Maddalena, the much-ballyhooed 25-year-old whose knockout of Pete Rodriguez was basically a work of art. I don’t understand the first thing about NFTs, but if I did, I’d snap up that slip-and-rip right hand post-haste. Welterweight is always a shark tank, but Maddalena is going to give a lot of guys problems.

    Lastly, it’d be a disservice to forget Vanessa Demopoulos, the 33-year-old strawweight who sealed an early entrant for Submission and Comeback of the Year with her first-round absurdity against Silvana Gomez Juarez. Demopoulos admitted it herself: She was out from Juarez’s grenade of a right hand before waking up, somehow turning the tables, then getting joyously carried around the octagon in Joe Rogan’s arms.

    Demopoulos came to the sport late but explained post-fight that she recently quit a 13-year run of being an exotic dancer in order to focus on her UFC career. “A lot of my jiu-jitsu actually comes from my expertise as a pole dancer,” she said.

    Only in MMA. How can you not love it?

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