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Four fighters, who were or are among the biggest names of the 600 or so on the UFC roster, will have plenty to think about on the long flight home after the completion Saturday of the first of four cards in two weeks at Flash Forum on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
Aldo may have reached the end
Jose Aldo, who was stopped in the final round of his fight for the vacant UFC bantamweight title against a dynamic 27-year-old named Petr Yan, must decide whether it’s time to walk away from the sport he’s ruled for so long.
Aldo was outclassed and outgunned by the aggressive Russian in the first of three title fights at UFC 251. He wasn’t the same guy he was even five years ago. He was nearly finished by a body shot in the waning seconds of Round 1 as Yan was on top delivering ground-and-pound.
After a good second, Aldo just absorbed increasingly more punishment in Rounds 3 and 4 until it became an avalanche in the fifth. Referee Leon Roberts’ inaction allowed Aldo to take far more significant strikes than his 33-year-old body needed to absorb.
Aldo has the toughest decision among the once Fab Four. While he’s still a credible fighter, he’s no longer a superstar and no longer able to deal with the quick, fast and hungry fighters the UFC keeps finding in different spots around the world.
Yan came from Siberia, and he’d shown signs of potential stardom in racking up six wins in his first six tries in the UFC. But he raised his game two levels on Saturday, and it was one that Aldo simply couldn’t get to anymore, at least not for any appreciable length of time.
Aldo has lost three in a row, five of seven and six of his last nine. The sport hasn’t passed him by, but the elite fighters in the world certainly have. He’s a good fighter in a stacked division. If he left bantamweight and moved back to featherweight, it would be even more difficult as the featherweights may be the UFC’s best.
Holloway move to lightweight?
Max Holloway’s trip home must include plenty of soul-searching. Holloway looked good Saturday, far better than he had in December in Las Vegas when he dropped his belt to Alexander Volkanovski.
He dropped a split decision Saturday after judges Mark Collett and Clemens Werner gave Volkanovski Rounds 3, 4 and 5. It was a fight he could have won, and judge David Lethaby had it for Holloway 48-47. Yahoo Sports favored Holloway 49-46.
Holloway’s problem isn’t like Aldo’s in that he has come to the end of the line, even though he has lost three of his last four. It’s that he’s already lost twice to the champion and in a division loaded with studs like Zabit Magomedsharipov, Brian Ortega, Chan Sung Jung, Yair Rodriguez, Calvin Kattar, Dan Ige and Josh Emmett, among others, it’s going to be a long time between title fights for him.
He has to decide whether he wants to be another guy in a loaded division or bulk up a bit and make a run at lightweight. Lightweight is no less loaded than featherweight, and it has one of the sport’s most dominant fighters, Khabib Nurmagomedov, as its champion.
But Holloway, who has intermittently had difficulty making 145 pounds, could bulk up and be a player at lightweight far sooner than he will at featherweight.
VanZant testing free agency
In the opener of the pay-per-view card, Paige VanZant, who is increasingly becoming known more for being Austin Vanderford’s wife rather than anything she’s done in the cage, was mauled by Amanda Ribas and submitted in the first.
She fought out her contract and said she wants to find out her worth on the open market. Vanderford fights for Bellator and there has been speculation for months that VanZant is headed there, as well.
There will be a lot she must weigh, not the least of which will be money. For a long time, VanZant has eyed opportunities outside the Octagon, and perhaps Bellator, given its affiliation with CBS, can provide her the opportunities she seeks.
Lucrative bouts ahead for Masvidal
And then there’s the unquestioned star of Saturday’s show, Jorge Masvidal. In a sense, he saved the show when it looked for all the world on July 3 that UFC 251 was about to lose its main event after Gilbert Burns tested positive for COVID-19.
After a little more than 48 hours of negotiations, Masvidal accepted the opportunity to fight Kamaru Usman for the title in the main event of a show that suddenly caught fire.
The intrigue that surrounded Fight Island and the brilliant marketing the UFC did around that meant that UFC 251 was going to sell more than the average number of pay-per-views.
But the public was intrigued by Masvidal’s insertion into the show. He proved in his last three fights prior to Saturday, wins over Darren Till, Ben Askren and Nate Diaz, that few know how to sell a fight better.
Sales went crazy and on Friday, White said the show was tracking on a level that the Nurmagomedov-Conor McGregor fight hit in 2018, which did a UFC-record 2.4 million on pay-per-view.
UFC 251 won’t hit that, and probably won’t hit 2 million, but a show with a sale of more than 1 million pay-per-view shows the public cares about Masvidal and is interested in his fights.
He would have been a far bigger star had he won, of course, but his unique personality and his ability to, as they say in the wrestling business, cut a promo guarantees he’s going to be one of the UFC’s more visible stars.
He has plenty of options. A bout with McGregor, while not as big as if it were for the welterweight title, would still be a massive sell. So, too, would a rematch with Diaz, whom he defeated at UFC 244 in New York in November for the BMF title.
And who can forget Masvidal getting into it with Leon Edward backstage after his win over Till while he was doing an interview with Laura Sanko? Edwards was ranked fourth, one behind Masvidal, prior to the fight Saturday. With Burns getting the next title shot against Usman, a Masvidal-Edwards fight would be appealing.
He needs to pick where he wants to go. A fight with ex-teammate and current enemy Colby Covington would be another big seller as they’re two of the sport’s best talkers, but Covington’s wrestling game doesn’t mesh well with Masvidal’s.
He has options, but needs to figure where he goes next.
UFC 251 is the rare show where four major stars lost and face difficult and even career-altering decisions.
Their futures will be different, no doubt.
How different depends upon what they come up with on that long plane ride home.
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