5 biggest takeaways from UFC Fight Night 221: Is Dana White right about Merab Dvalishvili?

What mattered most at UFC Fight Night 221 at The Theater at Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas? Here are a few post-fight musings…

Happy trails, Raphael Assuncao

Raphael Assuncao

One of the greatest fighters in UFC history to never compete in a championship bout said farewell to MMA when [autotag]Raphael Assuncao[/autotag] announced his retirement following a third-round submission loss to Davey Grant.

Assuncao (29-9 MMA, 12-7 UFC) was never the most flashy fighter or a spectacular finisher, but he was a workhorse and knew how to use his skill set to his advantage. That allowed him to pile up a dozen wins in the UFC bantamweight division over the course of his career, and the only people with more victories in the weight class are current champion Aljamain Sterling and former champion T.J. Dillashaw – both of whom Assuncao beat inside the octagon.

It’s a shame Assuncao never got his title opportunity during his prime when he’d put together a seven-fight winning streak in the promotion. Unfortunately for him, bad timing, an unwillingness to be overly vocal and a general difficulty selling his brand caused more hurdles than if he was someone else. But that’s part of Assuncao’s story. He did things his own way and stuck true to it from beginning to end, and that’s extremely admirable.

At 40, Assuncao seems to have picked the right time to hang up his gloves, and we wish him the best in the next chapter of his life.

Mario Bautista breaking out of his shell

Mar 11, 2023; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Mario Bautista (red gloves)reacts after defeating Cuido Cannetti (blue gloves) during UFC Fight Night at Virgin Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

[autotag]Mario Bautista[/autotag] continued to garner some more attention around his name in a loaded bantamweight division after quickly dispatching of Guido Cannetti to extend his winning streak to four.

Usually one to stay away from being overly outspoken, Bautista (12-2 MMA, 6-2 UFC) was bolder than ever in the aftermath of his first-round finish. He made it clear he wants a top 15 name and also mentioned a potential fight with former UFC champ Cody Garbrandt next.

That’s exactly the attitude someone like Bautista needs to bring to the table if he wants to make real headway at 135 pounds, because there’s arguably no tougher division to do so right now.

Jonathan Martinez quietly keeps on winning

Mar 11, 2023; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Jonathan Martinez (blue gloves) reacts after the fight against Said Nurmagomedov (red gloves) during UFC Fight Night at Virgin Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Take everything I just said about Bautista and double it down on [autotag]Jonathan Martinez[/autotag], who racked up his fifth consecutive victory with a unanimous decision over Said Nurmagomedov.

After beating Cub Swanson in his previous outing, Martinez (18-4 MMA, 9-3 UFC) got a matchup with the highly touted Nurmagomedov. He might be quiet and awkward when the cameras are on him outside the octagon, but when it’s proving time inside the octagon and the lights are bright, he keeps showing a better version of himself.

Martinez is never going to send the crowd into a frenzy because of a bold or eloquent post-fight interview, but he’s going to bring them out of their seats with some entertaining bangers in the bantamweight division.

With five consecutive wins to his name, Martinez is deserving of a step up and rightfully should get it.

Nikita Krylov make amends

Mar 11, 2023; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Nikita Krylov (red gloves) fights Ryan Spann (blue gloves) during UFC Fight Night at Virgin Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

After illness forced him to cancel his originally scheduled main event with Ryan Spann two weeks ago, [autotag]Nikita Krylov[/autotag] showed his withdrawal only served as a stay of execution when he scored a first-round submission to extend his winning streak to three fights.

The fight was booked at a 215-pound catchweight, so it doesn’t technically count toward Krylov’s light heavyweight records. However, it still counts in the sense we all know Spann is part of the 205-pound division, and came in with some momentum.

It feels like Krylov has been in the UFC for an eternity, because he kind of has. He made his octagon debut all the way back in August 2013, and because of some bad performances in his past, it almost seems like he’s consistently overlooked going into many of his fights.

Time for everyone to wake up, though. Krylov has finished his opponent in the first round of 22 of his 29 career wins, and he appears to be shedding some of his flaws and adding to his strengths with each bout. Can he ever become champion? I don’t think the odds are in his favor, per se, but in such a wide-open weight class where the belt is consistently a hot potato, it’s not impossible.

Friends still fight, says Dana White

Merab Dvalishivili

It’s been a minute since we had a teammate vs. teammate dynamic like the one going on between [autotag]Aljamain Sterling[/autotag] and main event winner [autotag]Merab Dvalishvili[/autotag] after his one-sided domination of Petr Yan.

There’s plenty to go over from the fight itself. Dvalishvili’s (16-4 MMA, 9-2 UFC) conditioning and relentless approach were beyond impressive, and he seems to have the stronger “why” to win this one compared to Yan, even if you don’t like his reasoning for formulating a beef between them pre-fight.

The more compelling discussion, however, is the predicament Dvalishvili now finds himself in after recording a ninth consecutive win. Dvalishvili and Sterling (22-3 MMA, 14-3 UFC), who are both part of Team Serra-Longo and have spent years as each other’s primary training partner, have been able to avoid getting serious about this conversation, but the walls are closing in.

That’s largely courtesy of UFC president Dana White, who put Dvalishvili on notice post-fight. White said Dvalishvili better think long and hard if he’s going to draw a line in the sand about not fighting Sterling, stating it would be a “really bad idea” that would turn out poorly for him.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I know the personal in and outs between Dvalishvili and Sterling’s relationship. From everything I’ve seen from them both on-camera and behind the scenes while at events, it’s genuine. They consider each other among the best of friends.

In White’s opinion, Dvalishvili is doing nothing wrong in going after Sterling’s belt and it should have zero impact on their relationship, but it rarely works out that way. Maybe it’s just not worth the sacrifice for either side, and while that may bother White, he’s also jumping the gun.

This isn’t a real conversation just yet, and that’s why White should sit on his hands for a bit before expressing frustration. First and foremost, Sterling has a scheduled title defense against Henry Cejudo on May 6 at UFC 288. If he loses that, this entire thing is moot. If he wins, then the UFC has already promised the next shot to Sean O’Malley.

Assuming Sterling is able to get past O’Malley, too, with Dvalishvili likely having to win another fight in the meantime, then this becomes more real. But that’s no less than nine months to a year away. Then the onus would have to fall on the UFC to actually try to book the matchup in good faith.

White can say whatever he wants about Dvalishvili’s position, but the reality is he hasn’t yet made an honest attempt to sway him away from it. If all the pieces fall in place and we reach a point where Sterling vs. Dvalishvili is the only sensible title fight and neither man wants to change divisions, as has been teased, then let’s see the UFC give them both a good enough offer that they’re incentivized to give it further consideration.

Until we get to that spot, none of this other noise really matters.

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie