5 biggest takeaways from UFC on ESPN 22: Robert Whittaker is right, but so is Jake Paul

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John Morgan
·11 min read
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What mattered most at UFC on ESPN 22 at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas? Here are a few post-fight musings …

1. Robert Whittaker is right – Israel Adesanya is next

When [autotag]Robert Whittaker[/autotag] (23-5 MMA, 14-3 UFC) suffered a second-round knockout at the hands of Israel Adesanya in October 2019, I'll readily admit I was among those who believed "The Reaper" may have already seen his best days come and go. That's certainly not the case. With an emergency surgery forcing him out of a planned February 2019 clash with Kelvin Gastelum, Whittaker returned to the octagon seven months later and fought valiantly but was ultimately knocked out by "The Last Stylebender" in front of 57,000 people in Australia at that UFC 243 meeting. Afterwards, Whittaker admitted he was both physically and mentally burned out on the sport. But after a nine-month layoff, Whittaker has looked absolutely phenomenal in wins over Darren Till, Jared Cannonier and now, Gastelum, with his shutout on the cards at UFC on ESPN 22, taking home the clearcut win with scores of 50-45 across the board. Yes, middleweight contenders Marvin Vettori and Derek Brunson have picked up key wins in recent weeks, but Whittaker's current form is the most impressive of the bunch, so when he says, "there is no other fight that makes sense," he's absolutely right. Sign me up for Adesanya vs. Whittaker 2. https://youtu.be/xtuOl6XOPZ4

2. Kelvin Gastelum still has better days ahead

After suffering defeat at UFC on ESPN 22, [autotag]Kelvin Gastelum[/autotag] (17-7 MMA, 11-7 UFC) is now 1-4 in his past five contests. Against Robert Whittaker, Gastelum wasn't able to win a single round. On the surface, it's not a good look, but a cursory examination simply isn't enough. Gastelum deserves praise for stepping up to face Whittaker – a tough assignment under any circumstances – on just one month's notice, when Brazilian contender Paulo Costa was forced to withdraw from UFC on ESPN 22. A lesser fighter than Gastelum would have passed up the challenge following a February win over Ian Heinisch. After all, that result snapped a three-fight losing streak for Gastelum, who could have easily asked UFC matchmakers to find him a matchup more suitable of a rebuilding project. Not Gastelum. And while he came up short on the cards, Gastelum never once backed down in the 25-minute war with Whittaker, drawing praise from the former champion for his durability. “Every strike I would land, he would take two steps forward," Whittaker told MMA Junkie post-fight. "He was a tough guy. I head-kicked him in the first round, and he just made it a war the entire other four. Hat’s off to him.” There's a reason the clash was awarded the evening's "Fight of the Night" bonus, despite the one-sided result on paper. Incredibly, Gastelum is just 29 years old, despite his eight years in the UFC, and his list of opponents is absolute madness: Whittaker, Heinisch, Jack Hermansson, Darren Till, Israel Adesanya, Ronaldo Souza, Michael Bisping, Chris Weidman, Vitor Belfort, Tim Kennedy, Johny Hendricks, Neil Magny, Nate Marquardt, Tyron Woodley, Jake Ellenberger. That's not even cherry picking. That's simply listing his last 15 opponents, in order. Will Gastelum ever be UFC champion? That remains to be seen, but there are plenty of big fights in his future, and you can count on Gastelum to deliver big in them.

3. Jeremy Stephens gonna Jeremy Stephens, even if it breaks our heart

One of the most surprising stories heading into Saturday's event was the newfound peace of veteran slugger [autotag]Jeremy Stephens[/autotag], who said rebuilt family connections and cutting alcohol out of his life had given him a renewed career focus that he would demonstrate in the cage. Unfortunately, he never got that chance. When Stephens (28-18 MMA, 15-17 UFC) faced off with [autotag]Drakkar Klose[/autotag] (11-2-1 MMA, 5-2 UFC) at Friday's ceremonial weigh-ins, the two stood nose-to-nose for a moment before "Lil' Heathen" delivered a two-handed shove to his opponent's chest. At the time, it seemed like just what the card needed to get a little spice. After all, what fan doesn't like to see a little flavor added to the matchups we watch play out each and every week? Stephens later said Klose simply got a little too ... well ... close for his liking. Of course, one wonders if Klose's pre-fight comments that the veteran was past his prime were also replaying in Stephens' head. Whatever it was, there's a reason a UFC official stands between the fighters on the stage, and that security personnel are waiting just outside of the camera's views. As great as the ceremonial faceoffs are for one last bit of hype, each of those moments does have some inherent risk – let the fighters go too far, and one of them may wind up pulled from the fight, which is exactly what we saw here, with Klose diagnosed with a "brain concussion" and a "sprain of cervical neck" after complaining of numbness and muscle tightness following the clash. Sure, there will be internet experts who claim Klose "ducked" Stephens by withdrawing from the card on Saturday, but a fighter vomiting and experiencing migraines should never enter the cage, regardless of cause. It was an unfortunate ending for a co-main event that was already considered one the most anticipated on the card, even before the pre-fight antics made it a little tastier. So let the incident serve as a reminder of what can happen in these moments – the reason UFC president Dana White repeatedly states his lone job in the moment is to make sure two athletes never physically touch in those faceoffs. Yes, it's good drama. But especially in this case, remember who you're dealing with. Sober or not, Stephens is beloved because he's one of the most noted hotheads on the roster. You can't ask the snake why it bit you after you pick it up, no matter how nice the snake may seem in the moments before. https://youtu.be/0iWRs7pHnEU

4. Are the judges on the same page?

Look, I don't intend for this to be some bashing of the judges in our sport. Especially in the states that run as many events as Nevada, these judges are getting plenty of repetitions to practice their craft, and I know first-hand from speaking to many of them behind the scenes that they are far more passionate about getting things right than many might want to believe. That said, four consecutive split-decision results on a single card is not a good look, yet that's exactly what we saw here, with [autotag]Jessica Penne[/autotag] (13-5 MMA, 2-3 UFC), [autotag]Alexandr Romanov[/autotag] (14-0 MMA, 3-0 UFC), [autotag]Luis Pena[/autotag] (9-3 MMA, 5-3 UFC) and [autotag]Tracy Cortez[/autotag] (9-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC) all picking up wins despite one of three assigned judges to each bout scoring it for their opponent. For what it's worth, I was on press row at the UFC Apex, maintaining the MMA Junkie play-by-play. Full disclosure, I was also doing so with an AirPod in one ear and the Triller Fight Club pay-per-view pulled up in a small corner of my laptop screen, so the assigned judges to each fight were both closer to the action than me and clearly not thinking about whether or not Mt. Westmore really counts as its own musical group if they just play all the individual artists' songs. That said, I also awarded the bouts to Penne and Cortez, though I actually sided with the dissenting judge in the cases of Romanov and Pena. Disagreements are going to happen among officials, and MMA judging is a very inexact science, at times. But four straight split-decision results is not a great confidence builder for anyone involved. I think it's fantastic that commissions release the scorecards after each contest. I love that we have a resource like MMADecisions.com to track the judges' work, as well as compare it to the findings of media knuckleheads like me. But I think we need to be working to move one step forward: Let us hear why the judges made their selections. Perhaps it's a commission rep that addresses the media. Maybe it's a prepared statement that commissions distribute the day after an event. I'm not suggesting every single judge needs to be grilled in the press room after their calls. But the more transparency we get – not to mention chances to educate fighters, fans, media and officials on the process – the better. Was a judge wrong in their score? That's OK, but let's hear it. Was criteria applied in a different manner? Was there an observation made, whether correctly or not, that perhaps most of us missed? Get it out there. Why was THAT the score given? Even if I disagree, it would be nice to know that judges are all on the same page in how they are evaluating action and issuing their verdicts. [vertical-gallery id=604018]

5. Stop worrying about what's 'good for the sport'

At MMA Junkie, we don't publicly share our website's traffic numbers, but it doesn't take an analytics expert to figure out where fan interest lied in this past weekend's combat sports lineup. Triller Fight Club's pay-per-view event, which saw Jake Paul knock out Ben Askren in the opening round, crushed the UFC, Bellator, ONE Championship and everything else in terms of fan interest, as witnessed by the social share count you see attached to our stories. In some ways, it's a little ridiculous. Comedian Pete Davidson was incredibly blunt in his pre-fight analysis of the matchup on the night's official broadcast when he said, "They both suck, but at least somebody's gonna get hurt." While Askren's accomplishments as a former Olympian and collegiate wrestling champion are enough to ensure that he doesn't "suck" as an athlete, part of the schtick heading into the boxing contest was that his striking is subpar, at best. Meanwhile, Paul is suddenly one of the most discussed names in the sport of boxing despite not yet actually facing a real professional boxer. Is it a little crazy? Yeah, it absolutely is. But it's nothing new. I thought this Saturday morning tweet from former longtime UFC employee Ant Evans – who can often be a little cantankerous but is as well-versed as anyone you'll find on the intricacies of combat sports – was on the money. https://twitter.com/AntEvansMMA/status/1383484922757672973?s=20 Hardcores realized how great of a fight Whittaker vs. Gastelum was going to be, and we were rewarded with an epic clash. But it takes casual fans' attention to get the type of draw that Paul vs. Askren represented, and the humble, blue-collar approach of the two UFC headliners was never going to stand a chance in a head-to-head hype battle with the bombastic online personality. Did the sport of MMA take a hit for how Askren performed in the contest? Absolutely not. Askren was hand-selected as a Paul opponent for a reason – he represented a recognizable name in the combat sports space who offered very little in terms of real threat in a boxing match. According to every expert previewing the bout, Askren's hopes hung on factors like "veteran savvy," not "devastating knockout power" or even "ability to overwhelm with volume punching." And in truth, many people picking against Paul didn't really have much technical reason for their choice, either. It seemingly boiled down more to, "That guy's a douche," or, "I hope Askren kills this clown." In short, it was perfect matchmaking by Triller Fight Club because it incited emotion in potential viewers, and a vested interest will always deliver better numbers. Like it or not, Paul has this marketing gimmick figured out pretty damn well, and he's got at least enough boxing skills to win fights over people who don't have much depth in the "sweet science." Was Triller Fight Club's madcap event everyone's cup of tea? No, it certainly wasn't. But don't expect it to have some type of longterm impact into how the sausage is made behind the scenes. Just sit back, let people enjoy the chaos, and wait for Paul's next fight to give you lesson No. 382,987. In the meantime, definitely don't let your mind wander down the rabbit hole considering what Conor McGregor's next move might be should he fall to Dustin Poirier in their summer trilogy fight. It's not wise to let one's mind consider how a reality can exist in where a man could simultaneously be one result away from either a UFC title shot or boxing a YouTube star. https://youtu.be/BxcKFvXculE

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