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What mattered most at UFC Fight Night 188 at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas? Here are a few post-fight musings …
1. Rob Font's potential on display
[autotag]Rob Font[/autotag]'s unanimous decision win over Cody Garbrandt in his first octagon headliner was a showcase for his legitimacy as a title contender in the bantamweight division. It wasn't the most high-action fight in the world, but anyone who watched what Font did over 25 minutes had to walk away impressed. Font's (19-4 MMA, 9-3 UFC) jab was nothing short of sublime, and he was able to render Garbrandt largely ineffective as he controlled the pace of the fight en route to his fourth straight victory. It was an eye-opening performance from Font, and now he belongs in that conversation with the top title contenders at 135 pounds. It's clear to everyone, though – including Font, himself – that getting in the octagon with the belt on the line isn't going to be easy. There's still no date for Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan 2, and the winner of Cory Sandhagen vs. T.J. Dillashaw in July is likely ahead of Font in line, too. Font preached patience in the aftermath of beating Garbrandt, and that's a wise move. There's a laundry list of reasons that could alter the title landscape and Font's position in it. The safe money would say he'll need to win again before a title shot, but only a few bounces of the ball need to go in Font's direction for him to have his timeline expedited. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbr7ZQuz2tc
2. Can Cody Garbrandt return to form?
The questions about [autotag]Cody Garbrandt[/autotag]'s future are already audible after he suffered his fourth loss in his past five fights with the decision defeat to Font. Are his best days behind him? Is he even still a top-level bantamweight at this stage of his career? To be fair, the questions do seem valid, but the answers are undeniably complex. Yes, Garbrandt (12-4 MMA, 7-4 UFC) has just one win on his record since his memorable title-winning effort against Dominick Cruz in December 2016. However, the years since then have a lot of underlying narratives. Garbrandt has endured some serious injuries along the way that have required surgeries and extensive rehabilitation. His health was further compromised by a serious bout with COVID-19 that, as he explained pre-fight, took a real toll. It's totally reasonable to wonder if Garbrandt is deteriorated to the point he can't get back to peak form. That's a big concern at age 29, when in theory Garbrandt should just be hitting his physical prime. He was able to go five rounds with Font and take some heavy shots that put to rest some of the doubts around his durability, but offensively he couldn't get out of first gear. Garbrandt, his team, and the UFC brass need to be careful with his career management going forward. All his health issues and the fact he's losing to the absolute best should give him more leash than his 1-4 slump warrants on paper, but the pressure is starting to mount, and there are going to be a lot of curious viewers next time Garbrandt gets in the octagon. [listicle id=612562]
3. Carla Esparza shows up, shows out
[autotag]Carla Esparza[/autotag] is often criticized for her lack of finishes and being too "boring" in her fights. At times it's warranted, but the fact she kept winning helped move her forward in the strawweight division. If Esparza (18-6 MMA, 9-4 UFC) wanted that elusive chance to regain her 115-pound title to come through, however, she needed something more. And did she ever deliver in her co-main event bout with Yan Xiaonan. She brutalized the streaking Chinese contender, who came into the bout undefeated in six octagon appearances. Not only did Esparza hand Xiaonan her first MMA loss since 2010, but she also became the first to stop Xiaonan with strikes – but not before soaking her in blood. It was an A+ effort if you could ever ask for one given the stakes, and "The Cookie Monster" has earned her spot. The road since losing the belt to Joanna Jedrzejczyk in 2015 hasn't been smooth, but Esparza deserves major props for staying the course and building herself back. A title rematch with Rose Namajunas makes all the sense in the world given the history of Esparza winning the first matchup in the division's inaugural title fight. Esparza may not have the flashiest fighting style or a personality that makes headlines, but she is one of the best strawweights of all time. Hopefully the UFC does right by her and gives the chance to etch out her own story by fighting for the belt once more. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEQKL9hXuBc
4. Edmen Shahbazyan's 11-0 to 0-2
[autotag]Edmen Shahbazyan[/autotag] is another example of how quick things can change in this sport. At this time last year he was an undefeated 11-0, preparing for his first UFC main event against Derek Brunson and pegged by many as a future middleweight champion. Fast forward to today, and Shahbazyan (11-2 MMA, 4-2 UFC) is coming off back-to-back losses where a major flaw in his skillset was exposed. Brunson managed to get the best of Shahbazyan on the ground back in August, and Jack Hermansson essentially picked up the baton and ran with it to net the unanimous decision win. It's a dual-sided coin, of course. Shahbazyan had some shining moments in both his losses, but ultimately he didn't get the result. He's fighting elite middleweights, which must be accounted for, but the nature of his losses, where cardio and defensive grappling were defining points, is cause for some concern. Only time will be the teller of truths when it comes to to the 24-year-old Shahbazyan's career. Have we already seen Shahbazyan's ceiling at 185 pounds, or will this stretch be a speed bump in a career that meets expectations? To sit here and act like we know the answers to those questions wouldn't be genuine, especially when you look at the career of someone like newly minted UFC lightweight champion Charles Oliveira, who entered the promotion young and had some low points before evolving into what he is today.
5. Long live Chris Barnett
Many people were likely exposed to [autotag]Chris Barnett[/autotag] for the first time in his bout with Ben Rothwell. Depending on your perspective, what you witnessed from him was either incredible or embarrassing. "Huggy Bear" is a unique individual in our sport. Barnett (21-7 MMA, 0-1 UFC) is unapologetically himself and does things his own way, from his personality to the fighting style to his physique, and everything else that comes with his package. He's something unique and different, but what kind of shelf life does he have in the octagon? Probably not much of one, honestly. Barnett was completely outclassed by Rothwell in pretty much every area before he was finally submitted, and it'll likely be a similar outcome against the majority of the division. Because he stepped in on short notice against a skilled opponent in Rothwell, we shouldn't judge Barnett completely off this performance, though. I'd expect better out of him the next time, and as a heavyweight, maybe he'll clip a couple guys on the chin and extend his tenure with the promotion. Just as easily, though, he could go 0-3 and wash out.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MAY 22: (R-L) Chris Barnett punches Ben Rothwell in their heavyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 22, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)