UFC 290 has come and gone and it proved to be one of the better cards of the year. In fact, it was arguably the event of 2023 thus far. The only thing holding it back from taking that title in an indisputable manner was the lack of drama in the main event, which saw Alexander Volkanovski extinguish Yair Rodriguez in the third round. Outside of that, there were four sub-minute finishes in the card and a candidate for FOTY in the co-main event between Alexandre Pantoja and Brandon Moreno.
But who were the real winners and losers of the event? Sure, 13 UFC fighters officially had their hand raised in victory, but that doesn’t always mean they are the true winners of the night. Same with those who didn’t get their hand raised. Just like not all wins are created equal, not all losses are either. I’ll give you the lowdown on who the biggest winners and losers of the event were. I’ll limit it to three in each category, doing my best to avoid having the same combatants of a contest in both categories. Let’s dig in!
I wanted to see Pantoja fight Moreno for the third time when Moreno first claimed the flyweight title. Instead, we got two more fights with Deiveson Figueiredo. While I’m not going to complain about the quality of that quadrilogy, Pantoja proved why I was so keen on seeing them square off earlier. Providing one of the guttiest performances we’ve ever seen, Pantoja scratched and clawed his way to a split decision victory over Moreno. Even more impressive, I don’t know a person who believed Pantoja would be the one with his hand raised if the fight went the full 25.
Given flyweights tend to have a shorter shelf life than other weight divisions, this win kind of reminds me of Michael Bisping’s title victory. Several times, Pantoja was on the verge of a title shot only to have an untimely loss. When he finally gets his shot, it’s against someone he has faced before and secures the upset to claim the title after he’s arguably past his prime. At 33, it seems unlikely Pantoja will have an extended run with the belt, but this victory does serve as a nice capstone to one of the more underrated runs in the history of the organization. Well… underrated up until this point.
Dricus du Plessis
Du Plessis’ road to the top has been one of the ugliest journeys I have ever seen. There hasn’t been a single fight where he was winning from bell to bell. In fact, in most of those fights, he’s either been clearly behind on the cards or on the verge of being put away. And yet, the native of South Africa has managed to remain undefeated through six UFC contests, including his win over former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker. Most impressive is that it didn’t feel fluky like some of his other victories did.
There’s no question who du Plessis is fighting next as Israel Adesanya was in the cage after du Plessis secured his second round stoppage over Whittaker. While it was the most cringe-inducing face off I can remember – through no fault of du Plessis – it is clear this won’t be a run-of-the-mill title fight. There’s bad blood between Adesanya and du Plessis… and if that face off is any indication, du Plessis is already in the head of Adesanya. I didn’t expect it to happen, but I’ll happily take in that fight.
Daniel Cormier kept saying there are no fairy tale endings in MMA. I’m not saying that sentiment is wrong, but there’s always an exception to the rule. I’m happy to say Lawler proved to be the exception. Lawler entered the contest having lost five of his previous six fights, the lone victory coming over a guy who hadn’t stepped foot in the cage in almost seven years before clashing with Lawler in Nick Diaz. Lawler had every appearance of being washed. Instead, he proved to be as good once as he ever was.
Lawler didn’t take any damage in his 39 seconds of work, delivering a series of picture-perfect punches on Niko Price that caused Price to melt right before our eyes. I don’t want to call it a vintage Lawler performance – only because that would require both Lawler and his opponent to be covered in blood by the end – but it was the fairy tale ending that we tend to never see in MMA. It’s good to see the exception to the rule happen, especially to someone like Lawler who has already shed so much blood over his career.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, but this was Rodriguez’s moment in the sun. He had been hyped up as the most unique challenger for Volkanovski’s title heading into the contest. It was hard not to see him in that light given the creativity he has displayed over the years. Remember his jumping kick KO of Andre Fili? I know we all remember his elbow of the Korean Zombie. If Rodriguez could at least make it an entertaining contest, most MMA fans would say Rodriguez did his job. That didn’t happen.
Outside of a brief sequence in the middle of the third round, Volkanovski was successful in stifling Rodriguez. In fact, outside of Volkanovski’s contest with the Korean Zombie, this was the Volkanovski title fight with the least amount of drama/entertainment value. Given the poor showing, it’s unlikely Rodriguez will get another shot at the title, provided Volkanovski doesn’t look like he’s going to be relinquishing it at any time.
I know he didn’t fight, but are you really going to disagree with me? I won’t deny that the heated exchange between Adesanya and du Plessis adds the type of heat that will sell PPV’s. So Adesanya’s continued usage of a particular slur as he faced off with du Plessis will have a positive effect in that sense. However, the issue is he did so by sacrificing all his dignity. I get that he’s upset du Plessis has referred to himself as the true African given he still trains out of the continent, but to result to that slur over and over again? I would expect more from someone who has been praised for their creativity so often.
The question I have is whether he gets a pass. Given what we’ve seen before, I think he will. Adesanya has a history of saying/doing stupid things. For instance, he told Kevin Holland he would “rape” him back in 2021. He mocked Alex Pereira’s son after defeating his dad. Those are just the ones off the top of my head. At what point does straw break the camel’s back? Even if he was drunk – and I believe he was – that’s on him. He knew there was a very good chance he would be stepping into the cage, even if Whittaker emerged victorious.
This might seem to be an odd choice for some. Ross was expected to lose to Jesus Aguilar, so why would he be one of the biggest losers on the evening? If y’all saw the fight, there’s a lot less questioning why Ross is here. If y’all know Ross’ UFC history, that should complete the circle for why he’s one of the bigger losers on the night. Given I can’t find anyone who has said a bad think about his work ethic or his personality, it makes it more painful.
Ross suffered one of the most violent KO’s of the year, eating a massive overhand from Aguilar that had Ross’ head bouncing off the canvas at UFC 290. The stoppage came just 17 seconds into the contest. That follows a 59 second loss in his official UFC debut. His best showing under the UFC umbrella came in his DWCS contest when he was dealing with appendicitis. Given how he has shown in his recent contests, the 34-year-old is at the end of his rope… if he was ever UFC caliber to begin with.
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