Cris Cyborg crushed Yana Kunitskaya in the main event of UFC 222 to ensure the women’s featherweight strap remained tightly wrapped around her waist.
The 32-year-old decimated the Russian challenger in the first round of their makeshift short-notice bout with any threat of an upset buried by the Brazilian’s booming right hand.
But a devastating right is what led to a shock win in the co-main event as Brian Ortega poleaxed Frankie Edgar to put himself in line for a title shot of his own.
CYBORG IS RUNNING OUT OF COMPETITION
It is Cyborg, however, who finds herself in unfortunate territory. The Brazilian’s hegemony over the women’s featherweight division means she is fast becoming a fighter who with each dominant victory, loses.
Unbeaten and relatively untested in the UFC, Cyborg hasn’t lost since her first pro fight, beating senseless one victim after another.
She is one of the best ever to do it, regardless of weight class or gender and yet therein lies the tragic irony to the Cyborg narrative. She is an apex predator in short supply of the sustenance required to translate her undeniable skill and dominance to a widened audience.
Her superiority has become boring, the entire notion of competition eroded with each passing contender failing to mount a legitimate challenge.
Kunitskaya was the latest example but she won’t be the last. The Russian’s expression when Cyborg’s first right-hand landed was that of a panicked deer.
Every strike, she shrunk and this wasn’t a case of an undersized 135-pounder moving up to slaughter.
The former Invicta champ was broader, taller and even stronger in some of the grappling exchanges. But she genuinely looked like someone who had never been hit in the face before whenever Cyborg landed.
"She called me out, and when you call Cyborg out, you have to handle it."— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) March 4, 2018
Amanda Nunes is next up for Cris Cyborg...
We've got a Champ vs Champ superfight on our hands 🙌 pic.twitter.com/FeyTPcSpLP
The reality is, the champion’s power is such that the force is like of no other female fighter and while Amanda Nunes is next line, the narrative won’t change. A brave effort will earn the bantamweight queen applause, but for Cyborg it will be another shrug of the shoulders in victory.
It’s difficult to know who to pity more the challengers, or the unchallenged.
But the contrasting complexion of the men’s 145lbs to the women’s were laid bare by the fight proceeding Cyborg’s main-event mauling.
Indeed, Ortega might just be the next featherweight champion and that is not a hot-take solely presented because of the coldest knockout you will see this year.
You guys, Brian Ortega's easiest fight in the UFC was Frankie Edgar.— Luke Thomas (@lthomasnews) March 4, 2018
Is this real life?
The 27-year-old did what no other fighter has managed yet, stop Frankie Edgar, and he did so by virtually decapitating his head with an uppercut of raw violence.
Ortega is a nasty submission artist, but his striking is developing at such a rate he has to be considered a legitimate contender to dethrone Max Holloway.
Physically, he has the attributes critical in matching the long and rangy Hawaiian with his super-slick composure on the feet or the mat making for a fascinating fight.
With Holloway 26 and Ortega 27, the pair represent the fresh-faced new look of the UFC.
Conor McGregor’s star-pull won’t last forever, but the promotion is already showing there is plenty of new blood to continue the lineage of talent.
The women’s featherweight division is crying out for just that.
Yoel Romero planted two sledgehammer left hands on Luke Rockhold, then sealed victory with a kiss.
In an illustration of the Cuban’s beauty and the beast persona, the 40-year-old phenom positioned himself for another crack at middleweight title holder Robert Whittaker with a third-round knockout of the former champ in UFC 221’s headline slot.
In the end, Romero’s eruption of violence negated the legitimacy of the interim belt – only on offer to Rockhold after he missed weight – as the volcanic nature of the UFC’s Middle Earth continues to quake.
Indeed, the 185lbs division is among the UFC’s most muddled. Georges St Pierre vacated after deciding his foray would be a brief one, promoting Whittaker from interim – a title he claimed by beating Romero – to undisputed champ.
Rockhold was then initially slated to fight Whittaker in Perth on Saturday only for the Australian to pull out through injury allowing the dangerous Romero to slot in on four-weeks notice.
Obviously he would go on to miss weight, and the empty interim belt lost all gravitas the UFC desperately attempted to give it. Yet, victory for either was always likely to place them in line for a shot at genuine gold.
Despite the fact Romero turns 41 in a couple of months time, he is left as the only real challenger for the only man who legitimises the division after sending Rockhold into a turbulent slumber before awakening him with a kiss of life on the cheek post-fight.
However, the signature KO came at a cost.
“I think in the first round I took two kicks and I’m pretty sure it broke my leg,” the Olympic silver medallist said through an interpreter post-fight.
“Life is like the weather. Sometimes you have a lot of sun. Sometimes it rains. You need to be prepared for these weather changes.”
Right now, the middleweight climate is stormy and for a division which for so long was dominated by one man, Anderson Silva, it has failed to find any real consistency since the Brazilian was dethroned.
Chris Weidman always came with the caveat of two victories against Silva tinged with fortune until he lost the belt to Rockhold. His subsequent defeat to Michael Bisping threw the division into disarray before GSP’s victorious return. Now we are here, with a 40-year-old veteran as a sole challenger, one already defeated by Whittaker.
At least the route for Romero appears obvious, the next step for Rockhold is less so.
His talent is undeniable but in equal measure so is the ability hit him. There might not be another elite-level fighter quite as hittable as Rockhold – a hard man in name only it seems.
Respect to Yoel that man is made of steel.— Luke Rockhold (@LukeRockhold) February 11, 2018
As Bisping has proved, Rockhold is open when he throws a right hook and after feinting with a double jab, Romero exploded from docility to seat him in similar circumstances.
The American will be left contemplating his position because in one sense, the cut to 185lbs is brutal but in the other, his chin is clearly suspect.
Granted, light-heavyweight is wide open and with Daniel Cormier retiring next year it’s something to consider.
But Jimi Manuwa, Volkan Oezdemir and a potentially returning Anthony Johnson are all frightening prospects for him.
Still, nightmares don’t come much worse than being on the receiving end of death’s kiss.
Before the soul was sucked out of Rockhold came the injection of much-needed youth into the heavyweight division.
Curtis Blaydes smothered Mark Hunt to a unanimous decision in the co-main event while Tai Tuivasa increased his burgeoning reputation with another first-round knockout.
At 26 and 24, respectively, the duo’s victories help the turnover of talent in a division which has struggled with stagnation.
Francis Ngannou was billed as the next big thing – figuratively and metaphorically – to the point his hulking frame dominated the UFC 220 promotional spotlight and left the heavyweight champ in the dark.
But Miocic dimmed the Cameroonian’s incandescent hype with a dominant performance and in the process became the division’s longest reigning champion.
In truth, the fight wasn’t even close and it ultimately came down to one heavyweight first round.
Miocic survived the challenger’s early onslaught and escaped the session with only a swollen left eye to show for.
‘The Predator’ was on the hunt in the opening minutes with his violent combinations backing Miocic up against the cage wall.
But wearing the same unmoved, deadpan expression he carried into the Octagon, Miocic maintained his composure to impose his way by landing takedown after takedown.
— UFC (@ufc) January 21, 2018
He practically breezed through the four remaining rounds with the element of danger diminishing by the minute as an exhausted Ngannou ran out of steam.
In the end, Miocic’s versatility and experience sucked the super from Ngannou’s superhuman athleticism. The punishing defeat provided the promotion a painful reminder that star names are born rather than manufactured and while you have to admire Ngannou’s heart for enduring a five-round suffocation, respect has been a hard commodity to come by for Miocic.
Indeed, the currency of breaking title defence records has far more weight, merit and value than the gimmick of owning the hardest punch despite UFC president Dana White’s infatuation to add gravitas to Ngannou’s world-record strike.
While he justifiable hits like a Ford Escort – see his previous knockout of Alistair Overeem – the UFC forgot that the champ has the ability to halt the vehicle carrying any hype and after adding Ngannou to Overeem and Junior Dos Santos in his list of title defence successes, Miocic offered his own reminder.
“It was the Stipe show tonight,” Miocic said post fight.
“It wasn’t about him. It was about me, because I’m the champ. I broke the record. I’m the best.”
— Stipe Miocic (@stipemiocicufc) January 21, 2018
He added: “Yeah, I do (feel like the best ever). I had a killer’s row to get to it. I had a hard path to get to the title, and I had a hard path to defend the title. Nothing’s ever easy, but I’ve never had an easy road.”
The nature of Miocic’s title win over Fabricio Werdum at UFC 198 was a shock unto himself but his progression as a fighter is hallmarked the confidence he exudes now.
Nothing about his achievement is a surprise to him and having cleared out practically the entire top five there is no immediate obvious challenger.
The perennially injured Cain Velasquez’s return is TBD with a potential comeback not expected until the backend of 2018.
However, Miocic’s next opponent could be right under his nose, or rather right on his UFC 220 undercard.
Light-heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier’s situation runs parallel after he mauled Volkan Oezdemir to a second-round stoppage in Boston’s co-main event.
With Jon Jones heading for a suspension after a doping violation, Alexander Gustafsson is the sole challenger at 205lbs. The Swede, however, is out of action until at least the summer after shoulder surgery and it means Cormier could head north of his division for a fascinating superfight with Miocic.
White floated the idea when talking to FOX and Cormier, who fought his first 13 pro fights at heavyweight, offered his reply in the post-fight press conference.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said.
“It’s hard for me now, because Cain’s in the gym more. Cain’s in the gym now getting back, preparing to do what he does best.
“If he’s getting prepared to get that belt back, then I have nothing for that division. That’ll never change.”
— UFC (@ufc) January 22, 2018