UFC 285: Unofficial Awards
When I look back at UFC 285 several years from now, I’ll tell myself that it was a great card. Jon Jones solidified his status as the GOAT by easily disposing of Cyril Gane to claim the heavyweight title. Alexa Grasso pulled off what is easily the front-runner for upset of the year by dethroning who was at the time the current longest reigning UFC champion in Valentina Shevchenko. Plus, the slugfest between Shavkat Rakhmonov. And Geoff Neal was fantastic and Mateusz Gamrot and Jalin Turner provided a very interesting chess match.
But right now… I feel kind of cheated. The main event between Jones and Gane was so anticlimactic, so noncompetitive, so… blah. It isn’t so much that the fight was short. Had the end of the contest been an explosive KO, I’d feel differently. As it is, I’m bummed it wasn’t a more competitive fight or that Jones didn’t pull off something more visually spectacular. I know what he did wasn’t easy, but I expected a clash that would better indicate the two best fighters in the division clashing. Regardless, that’s my problem and I’m sure I’ll get over it soon enough. Despite that, I’m not quite to that point yet.
All that said, there’s a LOT more to come out of UFC 285 that needs to be touched on outside of the top of the card. That’s what I intend to do – without ignoring the top of the card – with my Unofficial Awards. Let’s dig in….
For a different perspective, click here. For an audio recap of the event, click here.
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Biggest Jump in Stock
There was a lot of drama on the night, but to me there’s only one choice for this spot: Grasso. She was a HEAVY underdog going into the fight – no one on the Bloody Elbow staff picked her to win – and found a way to snap the long reign of Shevchenko. While Grasso ultimately won with a split second moment in which she grabbed and wrapped up Shevchenko, she was fighting a competitive contest up to that point. In other words, this doesn’t feel like a flash in the pan upset. That’s not me saying Grasso is going to automatically successfully defend against Shevchenko in the inevitable rematch. What I’m saying is Grasso looks like she belonged in the title picture, something many of us weren’t sure of heading into the contest. At the very least, Grasso now has a title that few can achieve and it will never be taken away from her: world champion.
Biggest Fall in Stock
I have a hard time believing Gane is getting another title shot anytime soon. The big Frenchman lost in his first bid at official UFC gold when he was outwrestled by Francis Ngannou. That’s not something anyone expected. While it wasn’t a shock to see him lose the grappling battle to Jon Jones, he proved completely incapable of stopping Jones from getting the fight to the mat whenever the former light heavyweight kingpin wanted. It made for an anticlimactic contest with Jones, leaving Gane 0-for-2 in title bids, neither of them showing him in the best of lights. Given a lot of people already see him as a boring fighter, it’s going to be difficult for Gane to jump to the front of the line again. Anyone else think Curtis Blaydes isn’t chomping at the bit for a chance at Gane?
Could it be anyone other than Bo Nickal? Yes, there’s some controversy given the takedown sequence started with a low blow. Perhaps more concerning was Nickal’s poor BJJ fundamentals. I know I’m not the only one who noticed Nickal wasn’t leaving half guard when he had the opportunity to finish the arm-triangle choke. But natural flow of Nickal’s wrestling and grappling indicates he’s a special talent. The biggest concern is whether the UFC will end up rushing the former D-1 wrestling champion. Nickal is giving plenty of signs that he’ll prove to be the exception as opposed to the rule, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Saved Their Job(s)
Some may disagree with me, but I would have expected Cody Garbrandt to get the axe if he came up short against Trevin Jones. It would have been the sixth loss in seven fights had Garbrandt lost and it would have snapped a three-fight losing streak for Jones. In other words, Garbrandt would have lost to someone whom most believed should have already lost their roster spot. Garbrandt picked up the win, but unfortunately did so at the expense of the aesthetic of the fight. I don’t blame him; a win was more important for him than adding to his highlight reel. But it will keep his critics chirping, even if Garbrandt has added some security with the win.
If the UFC has shown leniency early in a fighter’s run with the company, they will often have a shorter leash down the road. Given they kept Marc-Andre Barriault around when he could secure a win in his first four UFC appearances – in part because of a failed PED test – I expected they’d hand him his traveling papers if he lost to Julian Marquez. That looked like the case in the first round as Marquez pieced him up for the entirety of the round. However, Marquez fell off a cliff in a hurry the next round, Barriault’s pressure breaking him. Barriault has a very defined ceiling, but the UFC has need for fighters like him on the roster. He should have another couple of years as a mid-tier gatekeeper before he begins to fall off a cliff.
Start Typing a Resume
I’ve already touched on this, but a quick rehashing. There was some surprise Trevin Jones was still on the roster after he lost his third consecutive fight. Were he to come up short against Garbrandt, it felt like a sure thing he was going to be handed a pink slip. There’s no doubt about it now. For two-and-a-half rounds, Jones did next to nothing. I get that he was looking to counter, but his number one objective should have been to touch Garbrandt’s questionable chin. When Jones finally did let his hands go, he began to find success. Alas, it was too little, too late. The fight was the least aesthetically pleasing contest on the night
I’d like to see him return, but there’s no promise the UFC will bring Da’Mon Blackshear back given he’s been unable to secure a win in his first two UFC appearances. However, looking at it that way is a bit too black and white for my tastes. Blackshear fought to a draw against Youseff Zalal in his debut. Zalal wasn’t exactly hyped, but Blackshear didn’t have a lot of notice for that contest. And while he lost to Farid Basharat, Basharat was one of the more hyped bantamweight debutants we’ve seen in a while. Blackshear had plenty of nice moments in the fight, including catching Basharat in a triangle-armbar combination in the closing seconds.
Biggest WOW Moment
If I take this award literally, there were two moments that I stated “wow” out loud. Those were at the conclusion of the two title fights. Neither of the finishes were the type of moves that you only see something of the sort every ten years or so. With Jones, it was because I wasn’t expecting the fight to be so one-sided, ending in a fashion that was devoid of drama. With Grasso, it was that she did it; she pulled off the upset. Granted, if I pull back a bit further, the speed in which Grasso jumped on the back of Shevchenko following the botched spinning attack was amazing, a moment Grasso had clearly prepared for as she suggested in her post-fight interview. Given that added nugget, I’ll lean towards that as the most deserving “wow” of the event.
Worst Fight Discipline
That he was able to walk away with a victory is indicative of how talented he is, but Cameron Saaiman has a long way to go before he begins reaching his full potential. The 22-year-old has secured enough fouls in his two UFC contests that he has had points docked in both contests. He even came dangerously close to having it happen a second time in his contest with Mana Martinez for a bad eye poke, but the referee showed him some leniency. Saaiman probably would have benefitted from another year on the regional scene to help work out some of the kinks, but he’s here and has to perform on the big stage. He’ll be eyeballed in his next contest to see if he can avoid a point deduction, perhaps over his next several contests.
Sloppiest Win Streak
At some point, the piper will come for his due for Dricus Du Plessis. The promising middleweight has benefitted from favorable matchups and a lot of luck to remain undefeated for his five UFC contests. He was losing to Trevin Giles before he wasn’t. He lucked out when Darren Till wasn’t able to finish him despite Du Plessis being dog tired. This time around, it was weathering an early storm from a 39-year-old Derek Brunson before benefitting from Brunson’s poor energy management. Du Plessis hasn’t had greatest the best stamina himself, but the South African has managed to work through his exhaustion, in part because he’s faced some opponents who have had poor stamina themselves. I don’t want to call Du Plessis a fraud. He’s still young with room to grow. It also sounds like he might be able to remedy his stamina issues some with a surgery on his nasal cavity. As it is, Du Plessis has been very advantageous of the situation he’s been presented. I can’t fault him for that, but I’d say I’m justitifed in having my doubts about how well he’ll do if given someone else in the top five.
Speaking of Brunson, he threw up this tweet following his loss:
Thanks for all who watched my career . Crazy fight tonight . My corner decided to stop it in the after the second rounds. Congrats to my opponent .
— Derek Brunson (@DerekBrunson) March 5, 2023
The longtime UFC vet talked last year about his retirement, indicating he was already one foot out the door. He reneged on that recently, saying he had three or four more fights in him. If his performance against Du Plessis is any indication, he’s probably best getting out now. Brunson took a LOT of damage against Du Plessis, unable to present much in terms of defense after his gas tank depleted. His stamina has never been great, but it was worse than usual. If it is the last we see of him, I only wish him the best. He’s been one of the more entertaining middleweights on the roster for the last decade while consistently fighting some of the bigger names. He always came up short against the best in the division, but a 14-7 UFC record in that time is nothing to sneeze at. Happy trails Derek. May your life after MMA be fulfilling.
A Tale of Two Fights
The first round between Viviane Araujo and Amanda Ribas saw a calm and collected Araujo patiently countering Ribas with a jab and the occasional power shot. Not that Ribas didn’t have her moments — the numbers indicated she was easily the busier fighter — but Araujo was getting the fight she wanted with the more damaging shots and was in the driver’s seat. Ribas hurt Araujo early in the second round, putting Araujo in survival mode for the rest of the round. Araujo did survive the early onslaught from Ribas’ strikes, but spent the rest of the time focused on stopping Ribas from advancing position or limiting the damage she threw down. No surprise, Araujo wasn’t the same fighter after the round. The third round saw her listless in her punches. She did land some strikes, but they didn’t have the same zip her punches in the first round did. As a result, Ribas operated without fear in the third, more than doubling up on the amount of significant strikes. It was the first time we’d seen Araujo hurt. If the contest was any indication, she doesn’t respond well.
Most Impressive Overcoming of Adversity
It was supposed to be a cake walk for Ian Machado Garry. Song Kenan hadn’t fought in two years and was never considered to be a major prospect in the first place. And if we’re being fair to Garry, most of the fight was a cake walk for him. He ended up more than tripling up on the striking advantage he held over Song in the second and third round. The issue was Garry gave all of those who threw him into their parlays into a panic when Song sent him sprawling to the canvas with a counter left. Garry was able to maintain his composure while Song was unable to put the finishing touches on Garry. Not that he didn’t try, but the discipline to do so wasn’t there. Garry still worries me with his defense, but he proved he can not only survive a rough situation, but he can come back with a vengeance.
There’s some controversy here due to a fifth bonus being handed out. Typically, I’m in favor of more than the typical four being awarded, but I’m not happy to see Neal pick up an extra $50K despite having missed weight. If the UFC wants to award him a win bonus for the performance, I’d be fine with that. That’s their prerogative. But a Performance Bonus? There’s going to be guys yelling to be the exception to the rule time and again after this. I acknowledge both fought their asses off, but the rules are there for a reason. If they wanted to hand out extra bonuses, they should have looked at Loik Radzhabov and Esteban Ribovics. Those two also fought their ass off while Radzhabov made weight despite having roughly a week’s notice he’d be on the card. How about respecting the hell out of having the professionalism to make weight on short notice?
Regardless, it turned out to be the third bonus for Neal, not to mention the third for Rakhmonov. Given it was just his fifth UFC appearance, that’s impressive as hell. In terms of most overall for those participating at the event, Jones added to his total, leaving the event with nine. Grasso secured just her second while Nickal secured his first in his debut. In terms of drought, Barriault still hasn’t picked one up after ten appearances since May 2019. In terms of length of time, Brunson last picked one up in October 2017, a span of nine appearances. Araujo has yet to pick one up either, this being the ninth appearance of her UFC career.
About the author: Dayne Fox is a contributing writer and analyst for Bloody Elbow. He has been writing about combat sports since 2013 and a member of Bloody Elbow since 2016. Dayne primarily contributes opinion pieces and event coverage. (full bio)