What mattered most at UFC on ESPN 23 in Las Vegas? Here are a few post-fight musings …
1. Jiri Prochazka has arrived and is title ready
For anyone who followed Jiri Prochazka through his run in Rizin FF, his UFC success shouldn’t come as any surprise. His rapid rise up the promotion’s light heavyweight ranks, however, is definitely a little bit unexpected.
In the span of two octagon appearances, Prochazka (28-3-1 MMA, 2-0 UFC) is thumping on the door of a title shot following his absolutely savage spinning back elbow knockout of Dominick Reyes. That thing was brutal, and will certainly be a finalist for the “Knockout of the Year” when the 2021 calendar wraps up.
Prochazka gave off the vibes of a future star all through fight week. From his demeanor to the unique hairstyle to showing total disregard for defense in the cage, and following it up with spectacular, fight-ending offense – what more could anyone want out of this man?
Given the landscape of the 205-pound division, Prochazka absolutely deserves to fight the winner of the September title fight between champ Jan Blachowicz and challenge Glover Teixeira, as he stated post-fight. The only downside to that scenario is that we might not see Prochazka fight again until 2022, and after what he offered up, that may be too long a wait.
2. Can Dominick Reyes rebound from this?
No matter how many times we see it, the cruel and ruthless nature of the fight game never ceases to amaze me. This sport doesn’t care who you are, where you came from, what you accomplished, or, in the case of Dominick Reyes, almost accomplished.
Less than 16 months ago there was a good portion of fans who thought Reyes (12-3 MMA, 6-3 UFC) had deservingly handed Jon Jones his first real loss in MMA competition. He gave Jones hell at UFC 247, losing a highly controversial decision. Even though it didn’t go his way, the expectation was Reyes would be a force to be reckoned with in the light heavyweight division, and if he didn’t get the belt on that night, he certainly would in the future.
But then Reyes got his second opportunity in September, when he fought Jan Blachowicz for the vacant 205-pound belt at UFC 253 after Jones departed for the heavyweight division. He was dropped and stopped by Blachowicz, once again coming short of his title dream. It was an unexpected result as the betting favorite, but one that taught us to appreciate Blachowicz more so than discredit Reyes.
Now, though, it’s time to raise questions about where Reyes is at. He was positioned as the favorite once again in the bout with Prochazka, and although he fought like an absolute warrior in slugging it out and trying to get the win, the end result was his most horrific defeat yet.
The impact of the spinning elbow, as well as Reyes’ fall to the canvas, was not pretty to watch. It took him a while to get up afterward, and that’s the type of finish that can change a man forever. The question going forward, though, is how much will it change Reyes?
The onslaught on Reyes on this Sunday is disappointing, but typical, of MMA fans. The responses to my matchmaker article claiming Reyes should retire or go fight “lesser” competition in Bellator or PFL are comical, as though Reyes didn’t lose to the absolute best his weight class has to offer.
In terms of the names Reyes has lost against, he has zero to be worried about. The manner in which they happened, though, with the damage of a grueling five-rounder against Jones paired with two finishes, is the big red flag. Many fighters have been at this crossroads before, and now we’re about to find out what Reyes is really made of.
3. How good is Giga Chikadze?
Fighters making bold and borderline delusional claims of self-grandeur is commonplace in the sport, and although Chikadze (13-2 MMA, 6-0 UFC) definitely has a decorated striking background, that seemed like a pretty wild pedestal to place himself on going into his co-main event fight with Cub Swanson.
But then Chikadze got in the octagon with Swanson and blew the doors off the veteran with a body kick finish just 63 seconds into their featherweight bout, and it makes you rethink whether it was wrong to question his statement?
There is, of course, no defining measurement to determine the “best striker” in the game, but Chikadze is certainly up there. He dispatched of Swanson exactly as he needed to if he wants anyone to remotely buy into his comments, and now he’s still unbeaten in the UFC through six fights and on the rise at 145 pounds.
The quick finish of Swanson squashed hopes of getting additional answers about Chikadze’s game in this fight. He didn’t have to stop takedowns or fight out of tough positions, and many had hoped to see Chikadze tested in that way. The fights are only going to get harder from hereon out, though, so those answers will be coming.
Chikadze called out Max Holloway, Calvin Kattar or Yair Rodriguez after his win. Holloway is a stretch, but the other two could be realistic. There’s some talented strikers at the top of the division, though, and if Chikadze can consistently be putting them away like he did Swanson, we’ll have no choice to accept what he’s selling.
4. Sean Strickland finding his form
Sean Strickland might be the most underrated fighter in the UFC right now. He’s been really impressive during his current four-fight winning streak, and was again in his unanimous decision win over Krzysztof Jotko.
The fact we are even talking about Strickland (23-3 MMA, 10-3 UFC) as a UFC fighter – let alone one on the rise as a contender in the middleweight division – is quite remarkable. If you’re asking yourself why, then you might not be super familiar with his story and the fact the fight game was nearly ripped away from him just a few years ago.
Strickland was in a serious motorcycle accident in December 2018 that he revealed doctors said might keep him from ever fighting again. He wasn’t content with that as his reality, though, and worked his way through recovery to get back in the octagon. And somehow, he became an even better fighter through that hardship.
He’s yet to prove himself a big-time finisher in his fights, but the soundness of Strickland’s fundamentals can’t be denied. His striking game is solid, and his grappling has come a long way, too. He just turned 30 in February, and everything seems to be coming together for him at this stage.
The climb has been long and difficult for Strickland, but every time he gets out there he looks more and more like a future title contender at 185 pounds.
5. The curious case of the upkick
Did Luana Pinheiro embellish the significance of the fight-ending illegal upkick from Randa Markos? Only she knows for sure, but many outside spectators seemed to think so – including cageside commentator Paul Felder.
Even if the blow was far harder than it looked and her reaction wasn’t oversold, can we really blame Pinheiro for taking the path of least resistance here? I certainly don’t. There’s a massive difference in the financial consequence of winning and losing for someone like Pinheiro, who is competing on an entry-level UFC contract. It’s probably not what she was thinking about in the moment … but maybe it was?
It wouldn’t be fair to point the finger at Pinheiro and give someone like Aljamain Sterling the benefit of the doubt – even though the circumstances are vastly different – and we shouldn’t be accusing any professional fighter of “acting” or being intentionally dishonorable.
Regardless, the ending played out how it did. Markos shouldn’t have thrown that kick, and she put herself in position to be DQ’d by doing do. The way in which Pinheiro treated things after that means little, honestly. We’ve seen harder fouls where fights went on, and we’ve seen lesser ones where fights end. It is what it is.