With four champions in action, UFC 259 was always going to have an outsized fallout compared to almost any other UFC card.
And while Amanda Nunes continued to bolster her GOAT credentials with a thorough defeat of Megan Anderson, that's as close as pre-show expectations for the three pay-per-view title fights came to reality.
Jan Blachowicz used his size and power to suffocate Israel Adesanya's standup game in the main event with a pair of stifling takedowns on his way to a clear decision win. Petr Yan had Aljamain Sterling reeling in a fight that started close, only for Yan to connect with an illegal knee against a grounded Sterling that triggered the first DQ title change in UFC history. There was talk of an immediate rematch after, although Sterling seemed to start warming to the idea of facing Henry Cejudo, much to the chagrin of Yan.
Earlier in the night, Islam Makhachev showed his mastery of the suffocating ground game that brought his coach, Khabib Nurmagomedov, to the top of the lightweight division. Dominick Cruz proved he still has something to offer in a deep UFC bantamweight division with a victory that appeared more decisive than the split decision he ultimately won against Casey Kenney.
So where do we go from here?
Our MMA panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy set out to separate fact from fiction in this week's edition of Real or Not.
We will never see Israel Adesanya vs. Jon Jones
Helwani: I have been covering this sport long enough to know better than to say "never" regarding anything, but yeah, it isn't happening for a very, very long time, if ever. I feel confident in saying that.
I also feel confident in saying Jones and Adesanya should have fought Saturday night. And no, this isn't some Monday morning quarterbacking.
Go back to September, after Adesanya beat Paulo Costa. I said the time was right now to fight Jones, because Adesanya didn't have any good options at 185 and Jones had nothing doing at the moment at 205 or heavyweight. They were going back and forth on social media, the fans were into it, it was perfect timing and it was the kind of fight that didn't need a belt attached to it. Jones vs. Adesanya at 205, non-title fight: Who wouldn't have loved to see that?
I'm afraid it will go down as one of those great "what if?" fights in MMA history. Again, crazier things have happened, but they are no longer in each other's orbits: Adesanya is moving back down to 185 and Jones is fully committed to heavyweight. A big win by Adesanya on Saturday could have changed things dramatically, but alas, it was not meant to be. Unfortunate.
Petr Yan will recapture the title when he faces Aljamain Sterling again
Sterling leaves belt in Octagon after victory due to illegal knee from Yan
After Petr Yan lands an illegal knee to the head of Aljamain Sterling, the fight is called off and Yan is disqualified, making Sterling the new bantamweight champion.
Murphy: Real. The illegal knee disqualification at UFC 259 robbed viewers of a lot. It took the most from guilty party Petr Yan, as he lost his belt. Aljamain Sterling has not been able to fully enjoy the aftermath, either. His social media is under assault from the dregs of MMA Twitter, calling Sterling a "paper champion."
The bright side of the dubious conclusion to perhaps the event's most anticipated fight is that a rematch was likely in the cards in coming years for these elite bantamweights no matter the result. Controversy just put it on an accelerated timetable, one that may not bode well for the new champion.
Paper champ ducking the rematch already 🤦🏻♂️ https://t.co/bHygmTbGcB— Petr "No Mercy" Yan (@PetrYanUFC) March 8, 2021
Whenever Sterling-Yan II takes place later this year, it will be a functional Round 5 from March 6. Opportunities for evolution directly correlate with time passed and opponents faced. The new schedule speeds up the deadline at the drawing board for Sterling and Longo-Weidman MMA coaches against an opponent no one in the UFC has come close to figuring out.
Illegal strike notwithstanding, Yan was moments from a 39-37 lead on any sensible scorecard -- two judges had Yan up 29-28 after three rounds while the other had it 29-28 Sterling -- and starting to pull away. A finish -- a legal one -- seemed as likely as a Yan decision at that point. Sterling exhausted his tank in the opening rounds, while Yan began winning both the striking and grappling exchanges in the latter two.
Opening betting odds agree: While the first fight closed as a functional coin flip, Yan is a 2½-1 favorite in the presumed rematch. At age 31, Sterling could've afforded a traditional rebound after a title-fight loss. Wins over top-five competition would've reasserted him as a worthy challenger. Instead, he'll stand in the red corner after weeks of answering questions for a mistake he didn't make, and he will have to train to solve a puzzle in Yan in less time than his first fight against Yan suggests is likely.
Jan Blachowicz will finally shed the underdog label the next time he defends his title, against Glover Teixeira
Felder compliments Blachowicz's game plan vs. Adesanya
Paul Felder details why Jan Blachowicz's strategy to fight Israel Adesanya worked so well and explains how Blachowicz impressed him in the stand up.
Wagenheim: I imagine this is real, in terms of betting odds at the very least. When you win nine of 10 fights, as the UFC light heavyweight champ has done over the past 3½ years, the oddsmakers eventually are going to catch on.
That "eventually" took a while, of course -- Blachowicz was favored to win only two of those 10 bouts. But Blachowicz's work over the past year or so -- knockout wins over top 205-pounders Corey Anderson and Dominick Reyes, and then a smothering victory over middleweight champion Israel Adesanya on Saturday night -- has been eye-opening. When he steps in with Teixeira, his expected next challenger, Blachowicz presumably will be the darling of those who like to bet the chalk.
Will that translate into a surge of star power for the 38-year-old? I doubt it will, at least not by a significant measure. The fight game's spotlight falls not necessarily on those who fight the best, but rather on those most adept at talking a big game. That's not Blachowicz. He's the gentleman champion, an excellent fighter, period. No flair. No frills.
Real fight fans appreciate the elite excellence of a champion. On the other hand, the masses who are fascinated by fake feuds, clever wordplay and the other shiny distractions of life in MMA are simply going to have to look elsewhere for their gaudy entertainment. Maybe that makes Blachowicz an eternal underdog. But that's OK by me, and I suspect it's OK for him.
Dominick Cruz was good enough to keep title hopes alive
Raimondi: I have some reservations about this one, but I'll say "real" here because counting out Cruz is foolish. The guy has come back from so many injuries, so many bouts of inactivity and won fights. He did it again Saturday night against Casey Kenney, an up-and-coming fighter who was favored going in. Cruz had not fought in 10 months -- which paled in comparison to his comeback after three years in 2014, or after two years in 2016 to win the bantamweight title -- and he still beat Kenney by split decision. One judge even gave Cruz every round, which I could totally see.
By the way, Dominick Cruz vs. Jose Aldo is the fight to make. WEC royalty. Dominick Cruz vs. Frankie Edgar is your Plan B. Gotta be one of those. Please.— Brett Okamoto (@bokamotoESPN) March 7, 2021
The obstacle that would keep Cruz from winning -- or even fighting for -- his old title again isn't so much him. He is still incredibly skilled and capable of giving fits to any other bantamweight in the world. The problem is the bantamweight division he has come back to is the deepest weight class in the UFC. And beating Kenney doesn't get Cruz within striking distance of another title shot. Cruz lost to Henry Cejudo in a title fight at UFC 249 last May.
Aljamain Sterling is the champion now, and a rematch against Yan should be next. The winner of that is likely to face the winner of a rumored bout between former champ TJ Dillashaw and Cory Sandhagen. The likes of former champion Cody Garbrandt, legend Jose Aldo and up-and-coming striker Rob Font are just below that group. And then there's Cruz, who is 35 years old now. He could still theoretically win one more fight and vault into that conversation. But he's not getting any younger, and the division is bulging with top-tier talent.
Cruz is a future Hall of Famer. He's one of the greatest bantamweight fighters of all time. Is he on the path toward another title shot? If you squint hard, you could maybe see it. I'm just not in the business of saying Dominick Cruz cannot do something.
Islam Makhachev will get a title shot by this time next year
Okamoto: Real. All the ingredients are there. For starters, he's really, really good. I said this on Saturday and I'll repeat it here: Who in the lightweight division would be favored to beat him right now? I'd have to consult with oddsmakers who obviously know better than I, but it legitimately would not surprise me if Makhachev opened as a betting favorite against every single lightweight in the world right now.
It's that Nurmagomedov/Dagestani grappling style that sets him apart. Nobody ever solved that puzzle when it was Nurmagomedov, and now you wonder who, if anyone, can solve it with Makhachev. He's also got a marketable storyline as Nurmagomedov's protege. And he has a strong, international fan base behind him.
At most, he's two wins away from a UFC title shot, and I think he ends up fighting two more times in 2021. So as long as he wins, there's no reason to think he won't be fighting for a lightweight championship by the first half of 2022.