Knockouts in a time of COVID-19

Say what you like about Dana White, the man never says die. Through a blizzard of cancellations and disasters, the UFC kingpin somehow managed to run a fight night. The entire show had a surreal edge – taking place wrapped in secrecy on ‘fight island’ (does anybody actually know where this is yet?), with a crowd attendance of zero, commentators Daniel Cormier and Joe Rogan gave a spooked and at times hilarious play-by-play of one of the most stacked cards in the history of the promotion. “RYAN SPANN” yelled Rogan as he celebrated an undercard winner, “…to nobody in the audience”. At one point they realised, embarrassed, that the silent arena meant the fighters could hear every word of commentary they spoke.

Three major fights marked the event.

First, the return of the terrifying Francis Ngannou to the heavyweight division, lined up against fellow knockout artist Jair Rozenstruik. Both men were coming off a series of out-cold KO victories in the UFC, and everybody billed it as a “Don’t blink” fight. Everyone was right. Within 20 seconds Ngannou had steamed forward, throwing haymaker after haymaker – and he only ever needs one to land. A careful watch of the replay actually shows excellent technique from Rozenstruik, evading and landing twice on Ngannou’s chin, but it didn’t matter. Ngannou is a bona fide freak of nature, and as usual it took only a single significant strike to consign his opponent firmly to the shadow realm. With this result, Cameroonian has taken 2 minutes and 42 seconds to win all of his last four fights by first round knockout. Ngannou at this stage appears to have almost broken the sport, with technical ability proving a meagre defence against his sheer overwhelming power. He is surely now a credible threat to the heavyweight champion, Stipe Miocic – the only man to have ever stopped Ngannou. Miocic won their fight by evading the storm of first round punches and then dominating by grappling, where Ngannou appeared lost. Time will tell whether he’s remedied this hole in his game. If he has, I don’t see anyone stopping him.

Second, Bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo, the cringiest fighter on the roster, stepped up to defend against the evasive long time veteran of the Octagon, Dominick Cruz. Cruz came in as a heavy underdog – he’s spent most of the last decade unable to fight through injuries, and many assumed he would not compete again. To take on Cejudo, who beat both the mighty Demetrious Johnson and a juiced up TJ Dillashaw in his recent tear, seemed a long shot. Cruz looked as fresh as ever – moving in his unique figure of 8 evasive pattern. Cejudo probably took the first round, landing a few leg kicks, but there wasn’t much in it. In the second round Cruz seemed to find his range and start to get the better of some exchanges, before being caught with a knee, which Cejudo pounced on with a ground and pound flurry. As Cruz began to get to his feet (and at the end of the round) the referee called a stop to the fight, on the grounds that Cruz had taken too many punches unanswered and undefended. For a title fight it seemed an early stoppage, and I was disappointed Cruz didn’t get more of a chance to get going.

The main event saw the promotion’s resident fan favourite and certified lunatic, Tony Ferguson, take on Justin Gaethje – a man who has modelled his style around walking forwards with little defence, taking huge damage, and firing power punches. Ferguson came in as a strong favourite. ‘El Cucuy’ is known for his otherworldly cardio (I have never seen him slow down for a single second of a single fight), his killer instincts with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu submissions, and his wild unpredictable striking style (spinning around, forward rolls, sudden superman punches). Many believed that unless Justin blitzed him in the early rounds, Ferguson’s cardio would start to tell in later rounds, and Gaethje would end up another of grisly and battered war trophy on Tony’s CV. In the end nothing of the sort happened. Ferguson looked off and slow compared to normal, perhaps laid low by his double weight-cut. Gaethje, on the other hand, turned in the performance of his life – landing massive power shot after massive power shot, but at the same time learning from previous mistakes and giving a thought to the conservation of energy and to defence. He simply beat the snot out of Ferguson for every round until the referee called a merciful stop to the action in 5th. Many now speculate that Gaethje has the best chance of anyone in the division to take on the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov; his background in wrestling could mean he avoids the usual fate of getting dragged to the mat and mauled, and his stand up game is sharp as a tack. Having lost only a single round in his entire career, it’s hard to bet against the Dagestani – but Gaethje just might do it.

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