UFC 290: Six biggest takeaways from the new Event of the Year

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The UFC still knows how to put on one hell of a show. Alexander Volkanovski and Alexandre Pantoja’s title wins headlined the promotion’s latest International Fight Week offering, which took place Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The championship double-header topped a stacked UFC 290 card that also saw Dricus Du Plessis announce his contendership in thunderous fashion, Robbie Lawler’s emotional sendoff, plus a whole lot more.

With so much to discuss, let’s dive into our six biggest takeaways from UFC 290.

1. Eight years ago, I had the honor of being in attendance for UFC 189, a card that lit the MMA world afire and ended with the greatest seven-fight run in MMA history. It’s still my favorite memory in more than a decade of working within this sport. That one night forever cemented the UFC’s annual International Fight Week celebration as the Super Bowl of MMA.

We’ve had some IFW hits and misses since, some good cards and bad cards, and even some genuinely great cards, but none approached the magic UFC 189 gave us in 2015 — at least not until Saturday night. UFC 290 won’t surpass UFC 189 as IFW’s most memorable pay-per-view, but it’s certainly the new frontrunner for Event of the Year, and if it doesn’t win the category once December rolls around, we’ll have had one hell of a back half of 2023.

So let’s start from the top, because the legacy Alexander Volkanovski continues to build is becoming increasingly special. My No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in MMA, Volkanovski essentially stole Yair Rodriguez’s soul on Saturday in a way no one has done since Frankie Edgar in 2017, when Rodriguez was still in his infancy as a martial artist. Considering the Got That Dog In Him levels of heart Rodriguez showed in defeat against Max Holloway a few years ago, it’s an impressive feat. And it was another masterclass. Perhaps the wildest stat: Despite facing one of the most dangerous and unpredictable strikers in the featherweight division, Volkanovski absorbed just 13 significant head strikes over 14 minutes of action.

Yes, Rodriguez hit Volkanovski clean in the head less than once per minute.

The GOAT discussion is beyond tired and I’m uninterested in delving into it here, so I’ll just say I dearly hope the UFC books Volkanovski against Ilia Topuria next. That’s how greatness is defined in these debates. Racking up title defenses is infinitely more meaningful and challenging than the allure of being two-division champion. From a historical standpoint, you’d rather be Anderson Silva than Henry Cejudo. If at the end of his career, Volkanovski has claimed the featherweight title defense record and propelled it high up into the clouds, history will look upon him more fondly than if he beats Islam Makhachev in his second crack.

Lightweight and featherweight are on fire right now. Clogging up two deep divisions for a rematch of a champ vs. champ matchup we just saw in February is not the move. Let the two pound-for-pound kings breathe for a bit, and if they keep winning, Makhachev vs. Volkanovski 2 will only be more impactful when we revisit it sometime in 2024.

2. As Belal Muhammad pointed out on Saturday, it continues to be hilarious in retrospect that the UFC nearly tossed its flyweight division into the trash just because it didn’t like Demetrious Johnson standing up for himself against the promotion’s obsession with T.J. Dillashaw. All the 125ers have done since then is slap together Fight of the Year contender after Fight of the Year contender, and UFC 290 was no different. Alexandre Pantoja’s win over Brandon Moreno was every bit as scintillating as it appeared on paper, and then some.

I scored the bout 49-46 for Pantoja, with Moreno only claiming Round 2, though I can see the case for a 48-47 Pantoja. That being said, the 49-46 Moreno scorecard offered by judge Ben Cartlidge may be one of the worst scorecards of the year. It’s a bit of a surprise considering the source — Cartlidge isn’t an Adalaide Byrd. He’s one of the more respected and consistent judges in MMA, so I suppose everyone can have a bad night. Mostly, I’m just glad it didn’t matter, because Pantoja was brilliant in his long-awaited shot at gold.

No one suffered more than the new champ during the three-year detour the division took as Moreno and Figueiredo continually played hot potato with the belt. Pantoja had been the unofficial Next In Line since 2021, he already had legitimate UFC wins over Moreno (x2) and Kai Kara-France, yet it took until mid-2023 for his time to finally arrive. Considering that he’s now the second-oldest flyweight champion ever, I had very real concerns heading into UFC 290 that he’d stumbled into the dreaded Tony Ferguson Zone and missed his window because of factors outside of his control. But sometimes a man just has another’s man number, and at this point it’s clear Pantoja is the boogeyman of Moreno’s story.

UFC president Dana White hinted that the promotion may try to book a fourth Pantoja-Moreno fight next, but hopefully cooler heads prevail once the dust settles, because Pantoja vs. Brandon Royval 2 just screams chaos in the best possible way.

Long live the flyweights.

3. I’m not too proud of a man to admit when I’m wrong. Happens all the time. And boy, I was WRRROOOOOONNNG about anything and everything related to UFC 290’s No. 1 contender bout.

Before Saturday, the decision to hurl all of Dricus Du Plessis’ seemingly tenuous momentum against the concrete wall that was Robert Whittaker felt ludicrous for a division badly in need of a compelling challenger for middleweight champ Israel Adesanya. There was already heat between Izzy and DDP! Why risk that against someone who was already 0-2 against the champion but 12-0 against every other UFC middleweight since 2014?

Well, the breakout we saw on Saturday night is why you risk it. After running roughshod over Whittaker in a way no middleweight but the champ had ever done before, DDP’s grudge match against Adesanya is suddenly 10 times bigger and more compelling than it was 24 hours ago. Well done, UFC matchmakers. You certainly got this one right.

Perhaps Nose-Breathing Dricus Du Plessis really is more than a meme? The South African looked more dangerous and capable against Whittaker than he had his entire UFC career. If you’re Adesanya, this is manna from heaven. Not long ago, his title reign was stuck in its Anderson Silva Circa 2008-09 malaise, with few intriguing contenders on the horizon and (justified) complaints of listless performances nipping at his heels. Fast-forward to today and Izzy just finished off one of the wildest rivalries we’ve seen in years and already has a tailor-made rival awaiting him next. Adesanya vs. Du Plessis is going to be huge. I can’t wait.

(If Saturday was any indication, it also has the potential to become the ugliest rivalry since Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor. I’m not sure the Disney machine is ready for what’s ahead.)

4. Nine times out of 10, the UFC gets its legend retirements dreadfully wrong. Mauricio Rua getting sparked out by no-namer. Frankie Edgar getting kneed to oblivion in his hometown. I could go on, there’s plenty of examples. But let’s also give credit where credit is due, because what we saw from Robbie Lawler on Saturday night? Every single element from the matchmaking to the performance to the post-fight highlights package? It’s not hyperbole to call that one of the most perfect retirements in MMA history, if not number one.

Twenty-three years into his incomparable run, Lawler galloped off into Valhalla with the third-fastest knockout of his Hall of Fame career, a 38-second barrage of left hands that left Niko Price sleepily floating to the land of wind and ghosts. As fate would have it, Bob Violence was ruthless until the end. It’s cliche to call any fight “the end of an era,” but UFC 290 was a rare occasion where the cliche actually applied. Lawler was the lone fighter left on the UFC roster who had fought under the Pride FC umbrella. He represented a different era, a more lawless time for MMA when he and his fellow Bettendorf boys gallivanted around the world striking fear into hearts as the scourge of the American Midwest.

I wrote earlier this week that in a sport plagued by uniformity, Lawler was a true one-of-one. That’s even truer now than it was last Sunday. He is undoubtedly the most violent competitor to ever lace up a pair of four-ounce gloves, a shoo-in for any Mount Rushmore of MMA’s most entertaining fighters, the only competitor to ever gobble up three consecutive Fights of the Year awards from this website (Johny Hendricks, 2014; Rory MacDonald, 2015; Carlos Condit, 2016), the victor of at least two of the greatest fights of all-time, and the owner of one of the most unexpected yet spectacular second acts in UFC history. I watched Lawler plod around the Strikeforce middleweight division losing five of eight from 2009-12. I never could’ve predicted the all-timer he’d eventually become.

On a night flush with chill-inducing moments, Stone Cold Robert fighting back tears in the cage as he watched a highlight reel of his career was the most emotionally affecting of all.

All hail the King of Violence. Now and forever. The one man even the blood gods wouldn’t dare defy on his way out. Thanks for the memories, champ. It was a hell of a ride.

(Also, kudos to Lawler — the man has always been sneaky great chooser of walkout music. “Hold On, I’m Coming” was a legendary walkout track for his title reign, but The Last of the Mohicans theme for his farewell? Beautiful. Too fitting for one of the last remaining OGs. Hopefully the UFC sees the profound reaction Lawler’s fight received Saturday night and adjusts its strategy — and matchmaking — for retiring legends moving forward.)

4b. Also also, this remains one of the coldest lines ever dropped in an interview.

Robbie Lawler. What a legend.

5. Spoiler alert: Similar to Saturday’s co-main event, go ahead and pencil in Dan Hooker vs. Jalin Turner onto your Fight of the Year short lists, because there’s a 98 percent chance we’re also going to be talking about that one as well once December rolls around.

Hooker’s zombie-esque revival after a brutal opening round was beautifully emblematic of the career revival “The Hangman” has undergone since his 1-4 stretch from June 2020 to March 2022, which nearly sent his UFC livelihood to an early grave. At times, Hooker looked cooked after his war with Dustin Poirier. Three first-round stoppage losses, accompanied by the mandatory desperation drop in weight that usually signals the last gasp of a drowning ex-contender.

But Hooker once again showed the foolishness of writing off a proven commodity still in their early 30s who simply hit a tough stretch against top, top, top competition. Man’s still tougher than an overcooked buffet steak — and this post-fight exchange was just delightful.

Joe Rogan: “Did you break your arm during the fight?”

Dan Hooker: “Just a scratch.” (Cackles maniacally.)

(By the way, yes, Hooker did indeed break his wrist in the second round.)

Never forget that fighters are a different breed of human than the rest of us mere mortals.

6. This is just an all-time sequence from an MMA referee.

Tatsuro Taira had absolutely no idea what Herb Dean was trying to communicate here.

Take a bow, Herb. Just tremendous stuff.

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