Israel Adesanya continued his dominance over the UFC’s middleweight division with another convincing win versus Robert Whittaker on Saturday in Houston at UFC 271. Adesanya stifled Whittaker’s offense in the rematch affair to earn his fourth successful title defense. With Whittaker finally removed from the title picture, who will get the next shot at Adesanya’s title?
Could it be Jared Cannonier, who impressed with a big win over Derek Brunson and then called out Dana White to book a fight with Adesanya this summer. Could Tai Tuivasa also be getting a title shot? His highlight reel knockout over the hometown favorite Derrick Lewis made for a thrilling co-main event, and of course the shoeys continued for the rising star from Australia. In fact, the region of Oceania held it down in Houston, with the Aussies and Kiwis (from New Zealand) securing five big wins at UFC 271.
But it may have been a loss that was the most defining moment on Saturday as Roxanne Modafferi said goodbye to the sport. After nearly 50 fights, the “Happy Warrior” fought her heart out and placed her gloves in the center of the Octagon.
Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim, Sam Bruce and Carlos Contreras Legaspi react to a big night in Texas.
Okamoto: Who’s next for Stylebender, The Reaper and Bam Bam?
Who’s next for Adesanya: Jared Cannonier. The man did his job. And he’s been doing his job — his resume speaks for itself — but he also needed to do something impressive on Saturday to solidify his case. That knockout win over Derek Brunson did the trick.
It was a highlight finish, a violent finish. He also did great on the mic afterward, demanding the shot from Dana White. He’s 5-1 in his last six bouts, with the only loss coming to the unquestionably second-best middleweight in the world in Robert Whittaker. Adesanya vs. Cannonier, book it.
Who’s next for Whittaker: He’s in a tough spot. Losing to the same champion twice can be a bit of a death sentence for future title shots, but he’s still one of the best fighters in the world, and he’s in his prime. Whittaker never put too much value on the title itself and he wasn’t in a rush to win it back after losing it. He never made it a priority when he was asked repeatedly about rematching Adesanya after he lost.
That said, I’ve got an idea for him. Consider a move back to welterweight. I say that with hesitation because, like most, I favor fighters not cutting too much weight. But Whittaker deserves to be in big fights, and I want to see him in them. He’s already beaten everyone at middleweight except Adesanya. If he could make the weight safely, imagine he fights a top 5 welterweight and asserts himself as a new challenge for Kamaru Usman, who is on his run of rematches at the moment? If he can do it, it’s a great move for his career.
Tai Tuivasa does a pair of shoeys after his epic knockout win vs. Derrick Lewis at UFC 271.
Who’s next for Tai Tuivasa: He just beat the No. 3 guy in the division. And the two guys ranked ahead of him — Ciryl Gane and Stipe Miocic — are both coming off losses. Not saying Tuivasa is next up for a title shot, but this division is wide open right now.
There’s a fight on April 9 between Jairzinho Rozenstruik and Marcin Tybura, and Tuivasa against the winner of that bout makes a ton of sense to me. Tuivasa’s stock is high right now. He might only need one more marketable fight against a highly ranked opponent to start thinking about that title shot. If you’re in the UFC, you like heavyweights with rising stock.
Put him in another ranked fun fight. Put him in there with someone who will throw with him, which I believe Rozenstruik or Tybura would do. There are a ton of options for Tuivasa’s next fight because he hasn’t fought many of the Top 10 guys yet, but for me, Rozenstruik or Tybura would be the top choices.
Raimondi: The time is finally here for Cannonier
Jared Cannonier finished Derek Brunson in brutal fashion, elbowing him on the ground until the referee stepped in and Brunson’s corner threw in the towel. And yet, it wasn’t nearly as emphatic as his postfight interview with Daniel Cormier.
Cannonier shouted into the microphone for UFC president Dana White, who was cageside, to turn around and look at him. It took a few people around White to get his attention. But when he did, Cannonier said — loudly — that he was the one who should be next for the UFC middleweight title shot. Cannonier is right, and I’m not just saying that because I was a few feet away from his vicious stoppage of another top-of-the-line fighter in Brunson. Cannonier is the guy now that Adesanya has retained the title. Adesanya even called out Cannonier after his win over Robert Whittaker for a possible title bout in June.
Let’s dial it back a bit, though. What Cannonier has done is nothing short of remarkable. He started in the UFC back in 2015 at heavyweight. Over the last seven years, the MMA Lab product has completely changed his lifestyle and physical form. He went down to light heavyweight and had a bit of success there. But then he made the move to middleweight in 2018 and has won five of his six fights there, with the only loss coming to Robert Whittaker. Cannonier has finished four of those five victories, by the way. He’s not exactly just skirting by. He gave Whittaker all he could handle, as well.
Adesanya called for Cannonier before that fight with Whittaker last year, but Whittaker pulled it off to set up the trilogy fight. Fair play. But now it’s finally Cannonier’s time, and if you’re sleeping on him at this point, it’s time for someone near you to grab your attention the way UFC chief business officer Hunter Campbell had to rouse White after the fight. Cannonier is the real deal, and now there’s no one standing in his way.
Wagenheim: The Happy Warrior drops her gloves for good
I’m with Robert Alexander (sort of). He’s the cageside judge who puzzlingly scored the Casey O’Neill-Roxanne Modafferi fight for Modafferi — even after O’Neill landed 72 significant strikes in Round 1, a record for a women’s flyweight round, then broke her brand new record with 86 more in Round 2. In all, O’Neill got the split-decision victory with a record 229 significant strikes — over a hundred more than her opponent — to remain undefeated.
O’Neill earned the win, no question. In just his fourth outing as a UFC judge, Alexander was way off base on his 29-28 scorecard. But considering that it didn’t steal the victory from O’Neill, I’m going to chalk it up to Modafferi receiving a retirement gift in her final fight. I don’t know that I could have turned in a scorecard like Alexander’s, but hey, no one in the sport is more deserving of that myopia than Modafferi.
With Modafferi leaving the sport after 45 fights in a 19-year career, she thus vacates her long-held title of the nicest person in MMA. But “The Happy Warrior” was no pushover, and she worked hard on her game over the years and was doggedly competitive. She had some notable wins, including an upset of then-undefeated prospect Maycee Barber in 2020.
It might seem hyperbolic to say MMA will miss Roxanne Modafferi. She was never a champion or even close to that level. But in a sport often fueled by fabricated grudges, it’s been refreshing to watch a competitor who treated her time under the spotlight as an opportunity to lift not just herself but her dance partner. Bravo and happy trails.
Bruce: The Oceania takeover in H-Town
This was a huge night for mixed martial arts in Oceania, specifically Australia and New Zealand. Excluding the main event — which was an all Oceania contest between Adesanya and Whittaker — there were five other fighters in action from the region in Houston. Here’s how we ranked their performances.
1. Tai Tuivasa: What a win from the Australian heavyweight in the co-main event. After suffering two takedowns in the first round and taking heavy punishment, Tuivasa saw his opportunity midway through the second, catching Lewis with a devastating elbow that ended the fight. The win is easily the biggest in Tuivasa’s career and catapults him into immediate consideration for a title shot. There will be plenty of shoeys in Houston tonight.
Tai Tuivasa breaks down his knockout victory over Derrick Lewis, and what it does to propel his career forward.
2. Casey O’Neill: O’Neill continued her unbeaten streak in the UFC by outlasting veteran Modafferi in a controversial split decision victory. O’Neill dominated the match by breaking the record for significant strikes in a three-round women’s fight, landing 174 blows across the three rounds. Shockingly, one of the judges scored the fight for Modafferi, but O’Neill was a clear winner while remaining a promising UFC prospect.
3. Jacob Malkoun: Malkoun made it back-to-back UFC wins as he overpowered AJ Dobson. Malkoun said he was dealing with “nervous energy” early and took some damage in Round 1. However, he turned the fight around with a series of excellent takedowns and ground and pound. Malkoun earned a unanimous decision victory and will look for a ranked opponent in his next match.
4. Carlos Ulberg: Ulberg earned his first UFC victory on Saturday with a technical dismantling of Fabio Cherant. The Kiwi overcame a late knockdown from Cherant in Round 1, and picked his opponent off with a series of jabs and kicks. Ulberg’s reach advantage was the difference as he earned a unanimous decision victory
5. Mike Mathetha [Blood Diamond]: It was a poor UFC debut for Mathetha, who was submitted late in Round 1 by Jeremiah Wells. Mathetha had no answer for Wells’ wrestling, which prevented the Zimbabwean from showing off his striking ability. A teammate and long-time friend of Adesanya, Mathetha has plenty to work on to replicate a successful kickboxing career in the MMA arena.
Legaspi: How good can Kyler Phillips become?
Kyler Phillips gets Marcelo Rojo to tap with the slick submission in Round 3 of their bout.
At 26 years old, Phillips made a statement with his performance against Marcelo Rojo in Houston. He looked fast and used every element to hurt the Argentinian with his striking before submitting him with a perfectly executed transition from kimura to triangle and then locked the armbar.
Phillips is coming from the same Dana White’s Contender Series 2017 class that saw Sean O’Malley arrive in the octagon, but even a first-round KO was not enough to get him signed immediately. Instead, he went to The Ultimate Fighter and ended up signing two years ago.
Five fights later, he holds a 4-1 record in the UFC, with his only loss in a majority decision which earned a Fight of The Night bonus, one of the three he has so far.
‘The Matrix’ has proved again that he can finish his opponents in various ways and will likely make the promotion reconsider him as a main card fighter for his next fight.
The bantamweight division is packed at the top and has a bunch of upcoming talents, but Phillips has earned some credit after UFC 271. The question is, how high can Phillips rise among the best fighters in his division?