The UFC began their 2021 on Saturday evening, hosting their first event of the year at the Etihad Arena on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Notably, this was the UFC’s debut card on ABC, which marked the first time that ABC has aired MMA, and the UFC’s first card on major network television since leaving Fox in 2018. This card was also notable for being the first UFC event with a limited number of fans in attendance since March of last year. The card was headlined by a featherweight bout between the divisions former champion Max Holloway, and Calvin Kattar, who was coming off of a pair of solid wins against Jeremy Stephens and Dan Ige. This was Holloway’s first non-PPV appearance since August of 2015, and after coming out on the losing end of three of his last four fights, this was a must-win for Holloway to keep his spot as the top ranked featherweight contender. For Kattar, a win over Max Holloway would almost assure him a title shot, and this marked the biggest fight of his career thus far. In the co-main event, former WEC Welterweight Champion and UFC Interim Welterweight Champion, Carlos Condit, faced “The Immortal” Matt Brown.
A middleweight bout between Phil Hawes and Nassourdine Imavov was cancelled hours before the card began, due to a Hawes leg injury.
Jon Anik led the commentary team for this card, alongside Daniel Cormier and Dan Hardy. Performance bonuses were awarded to Alessio di Chirico and Jingliang Li. Fight of the Night bonuses went out to Max Holloway and Calvin Kattar.
*Austin Lingo def. Jacob Kilburn by unanimous decision (30-26, 30-26, 30-27)
*Vanessa Melo def. Sarah Moras by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)
*Ramazan Emeev def. David Zawada by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)
*Carlos Felipe def. Justin Tafa by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)
*Joselyne Edwards def. Yanan Wu by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
*Punahele Soriano def. Dusko Todorovic by TKO at 4:48 of Round 1
*Alessio Di Chirico def. Joaquin Buckley by KO at 2:12 of Round 1
*Jingliang Li def. Santiago Ponzinibbio by KO at 4:25 of Round 1
*Carlos Condit def. Matt Brown by unanimous decision (30-27 all)
*Max Holloway def. Calvin Kattar by unanimous decision (50-43, 50-43, 50-42)
JACOB KILBURN (8-3, 145) VS AUSTIN LINGO (7-1, 145) – FEATHERWEIGHT
Lingo quickly knocked Kilburn down with a right hand, but he bounced right back up and they brawled alongside the cage. Lingo was walking Kilburn down, and he landed another right hand that hurt Kilburn. He continued to tee-off on Kilburn, and it looked like the referee Marc Goddard was thinking about stopping the fight, but Kilburn shot for a takedown that managed to quell Lingo’s offence. Lingo got back to work near the end of the round, and I scored the round 10-8 in his favour, despite a solid spinning backfist from Kilburn before time expired.
Lingo’s right hand continued to find its target in the second round. Kilburn took Lingo down in the center of the cage, but he wasn’t able to keep him there for long, and he ate some more big shots when they made it back to the feet. Kilburn was doing better work this round, but he was still eating those solid right hands, and while the striking discrepancy wasn’t what it was in the first, I thought this was still a clear round for Lingo.
Kilburn came off of his stool with some fire to begin the third round, and brought the fight back to the ground with a hip-toss. He went for Kimura, but was unsuccessful, and Lingo escaped. The production team put up a statistic showing that Lingo had defended 14 of Kilburn’s 15 takedown attempts throughout the fight. This was the closest round of the fight, but yet again I thought Lingo took it. 30-26 Lingo.
WINNER: Austin Lingo by unanimous decision (30-26, 30-26, 30-27)
Lingo really dominated this fight on the feet, and showcased some phenomenal takedown defence, defending 95% of Kilburn’s attempts to bring the fight to the ground. Despite only having three career knockouts, Lingo clearly has heavy hands, and this was a much-improved performance from his UFC debut. He is now 1-1 in the promotion.
SARAH MORAS (6-7, 136) VS VANESSA MELO (10-8, 136) – BANTAMWEIGHT
Both fighters were spending a lot of time swinging at air to begin the fight. Melo was the aggressor, and she was able to connect with some solid hooks to the body. Moras circled and attacked the lead leg of Melo, but she wasn’t able to get much going for her throughout the round. Not a great round. Moras landed a bit more, but Melo landed a bit harder. I gave it to Melo.
An early shot from Melo knocked Moras’s mouthpiece out. This round was looking very similar to the previous round, and I was surprised that Moras didn’t attempt to bring the fight to the ground. Melo busted Moras’s nose open, and she continued to press forward and occasionally tag Moras with her right hand. With thirty seconds remaining in the round, Moras shot for a takedown, but Melo defended it well. 20-18 Melo.
The commentators had a laugh regarding Moras’s corner advice to feint for takedowns, as opposed to actually shooting for one. UFC mid-fight statistics are often off, but Anik stated that there have been over 250 missed strikes throughout this fight, and I can think of no greater way to describe this bout then that statistic. Moras aggressively swung at air to end the fight. 29-28 Melo.
WINNER: Vanessa Melo by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)
Moras was shocked by the decision. I am unsure what to say, other then this was one of the worst fights in recent memory. This was Melo’s first UFC win, after a 0-3 start to her tenure with the promotion. This was the last fight on her contract, so despite the quality of the fight, getting a win here was big for her.
DAVID ZAWADA (17-5, 170) VS RAMAZAN EMEEV (19-4, 171) – WELTERWEIGHT
Emeev landed a solid shot early, that left its mark below Zawada’s right eye. Emeev took Zawada down, but Zawada quickly made it back to his feet, and fed Emeev body shots in the clinch. Emeev managed to bring Zawada back down to the ground, and he landed some huge shots as Zawada picked himself up against the cage. They exchanged low kicks, and Zawada got caught by an elbow. 10-9 Emeev.
Emeev changed levels and brought Zawada back to the ground in the opening minute of the second round. Zawada partially landed an up kick, and picked himself up after creating the separation. Zawada connected with a solid right hook as Emeev moved forward, and he continued to attack the leg. Zawada’s leg kicks were starting to turn the momentum of the fight, and he managed to defend a takedown from Emeev late in the round. Emeev connected with a hook as time expired that cut Zawada open. This was a very tough round to score, but I gave the edge to Zawada.
Emeev began the third round with yet another takedown, and he was aggressive with his ground and pound, clearly looking for a finish. You could clearly hear the crowd for this fight, and it was a bit jarring after nearly a year without an audience. About halfway through the round, Zawada worked his way on top, and began to work from full mount. He tried to take his back, but Emeev spun out of it and they returned to their feet. They traded shots to end the round, and I ultimately scored the round, as well as the fight, for Ramazan Emeev.
WINNER: Ramazan Emeev by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)
This was a close, hard fought fight, but Emeev landed more strikes, the strongest strikes, as well as four takedowns, so I definitely agreed with the decision here. I thought Zawada looked good despite the loss, and both men showcased a lot of toughness here. Emeev is now 5-1 in the UFC, and ranked competition may not be far off.
CARLOS FELIPE (9-1, 264) VS JUSTIN TAFA (4-1, 265) – HEAVYWEIGHT
Tafa connected with a few strong kicks to the body early in the first. He connected with a leg kick that got a reaction from Felipe. Tafa was the more active fighter throughout the round, and he avoided almost everything Felipe threw his way. Tafa ended the round with a few more leg kicks, and he clearly won this round. 10-9 Tafa.
Tafa landed a solid body shot, and he followed it up with an uppercut. He caught Tafa with another kick to the body, Felipe landed a counter hook not long after, his best shot of the fight thus far. Tafa responded with a strong combination of his own, and Felipe was issued a strong warning concerning his outstretched fingers. When the action resumed, Felipe went on the attack, and had Tafa badly hurt following a right hand up top, and a pair of brutal body shots. Tafa looked like he was about to crumble, but Felipe went for a takedown, which allowed Tafa time to recover. They brawled for the next minute, and this was a very entertaining end to the round. 19-19.
Felipe began the third round with a body kick, and Tafa responded with a straight left. Felipe had found his confidence, and he was marching forward with combinations to the body. They were trading hard shots in the pocket, but an accidental eye poke from Tafa separated them momentarily. Tafa shot for a takedown when the action resumed, but Felipe defended it, and they continued to trade body shots. They separated with thirty seconds remaining in the round, and they traded wildly to end the fight. I scored the fight 29-28 Tafa.
WINNER: Carlos Felipe by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)
My expectations were greatly exceeded here. This was a very entertaining fight (at least the last two rounds were), and you could really feel the energy from the crowd. The Holloway/Lamas spot (so to speak) will always get a great reaction, and seeing heavyweights trade like that was wild. Felipe is now 2-1 in the UFC, and this was far and away his best performance thus far.
YANAN WU (11-3, 136) VS JOSELYNE EDWARDS (9-2, 135) – BANTAMWEIGHT
High pace to begin this fight. Wu took Edwards down about a minute into the round, and Edwards was trying to set up an armbar from the bottom. She was doing excellent work here, and she won three minutes of this round from the bottom by sticking with it. Wu did eventually break free, but Edwards defended herself well, took Wu’s back momentarily, and this was her round.
After the events of the first round, Wu seemed more interested in keeping the fight on the feet to begin the second round. She landed a few strong right hands, but when Edwards put the pressure on, Wu shot for a takedown and ended up on her back. Edwards connected with some powerful ground and pound shots, before Wu returned to her feet. Edwards stumbled to the ground at one point, but when Wu tried to jump on her, Edwards connected with an up kick that knocked her back. Edwards ended the round charging forward with a combination of hooks. This was another strong round for Joselyne Edwards.
Wu connected with a left hook in an exchange, which was probably her highlight of the fight to that point. Wu was having a much better round here, but she wasn’t putting the pressure on that she needed to in order to overwhelm Edwards either. I thought Wu took the round (although it was close), but either way, Joselyne Edwards won this fight.
WINNER: Joselyne Edwards by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
Edwards took this fight on short notice after Bethe Correia was forced to withdraw, and she made the most of her opportunity here. I thought she looked fantastic on the feet and on the ground, and I think she’ll be someone to keep your eye on at bantamweight. For Wu, this was a tough result as she has really failed to get any momentum going in the UFC, and her promotional record is now 1-3.
PUNAHELE SORIANO (7-0, 186) VS DUSKO TODOROVIC (10-0, 186) – MIDDLEWEIGHT
This fight kicked off the main card portion of this event.
Soriano connected with a right hand early, but Todorovic began to take control of the striking, landing a number of kicks to the body. Todorovic was just leaning out of range from the majority of Soriano’s big shots, although when he would get tagged, it always seemed like a big hit. The biggest of those hits came when Soriano floored Todorovic with a straight left hand, and he just swarmed Todorovic for the remainder of the round. It looked like Todorovic was on the verge of being finished multiple times, and after being dropped two more times, Herb Dean had seen enough, and Punahele Soriano picked up the first-round stoppage.
WINNER: Punahele Soriano by TKO at 4:48 of Round 1
After the first knockdown, the remainder of the fight was a beatdown. Soriano clearly has legitimate power, which is evidenced by his five first round knockouts. This was a solid way to kick off the card, and Soriano is now 2-0 in the UFC, with two first round finishes.
Dana White proceeded to join Jon Anik to discuss Khabib Nurmagomedov’s future. White stated that Nurmagomedov thought that Charles Oliveira looked impressive against Tony Ferguson, and is going to watch the Dan Hooker/Michael Chandler and Conor McGregor/Dustin Poirier fights at UFC 257 to see if something excites him. This was hardly an announcement of any sort, but White seemed optimistic about Khabib returning to the octagon.
JOAQUIN BUCKLEY (12-3, 185) VS ALESSIO DI CHIRICO (12-5, 186) – MIDDLEWEIGHT
Buckley waved off the glove touch to begin the fight. He was pressuring forward to begin the fight, and he walked right into some counter shots from Di Chirico. A couple minutes into the round, Buckley ducked down to presumably guard his body, and Di Chirico connected with a brutal head kick that knocked Buckley unconscious. He followed it up with some short ground and pound shots, but the fight was over regardless.
WINNER: Alessio Di Chirico by KO at 2:12 of Round 1
Wow. This was a spectacular head kick knockout victory over last years unanimous knockout of the year recipient. Di Chirico was riding a three-fight losing streak going into this fight, so the importance of this finish for him cannot be overstated. This was a finish that might very well be discussed among the best knockouts of the year, and Di Chirico has improved to 4-5 in the UFC with this win. For Buckley, he has compiled two knockout wins, as well as two knockout losses thus far into his UFC tenure. This loss will do nothing to impact his reputation as an explosive and entertaining fighter.
SANTIAGO PONZINIBBIO (28-3, 171) VS JINGLIANG LI (17-6, 170) – WELTERWEIGHT
This marked Ponzinibbio’s first fight since November of 2018.
Both men were a bit hesitant to begin the fight, but Li was a bit more active, and thus was getting the better of their early exchanges. Li connected with a few straight right hands. With a minute to go in the round, all the output continued to come from Li, and when Ponzinibbio finally committed, Li caught Ponzinibbio with a huge left hook that floored him, and the fight was over.
WINNER: Jingliang Li by KO at 4:25 of Round 1
Jingliang Li has put together an impressive resume these past few years, and this was his biggest win yet, ending Ponzinibbio’s win streak and ruining his big return to the octagon. I would imagine that Li will be back to facing ranked opposition in his next fight, considering Ponzinibbio would be a highly ranked welterweight if not for inactivity. How high ranked of an opponent the UFC would be willing to give him right now remains to be seen, but there are no shortage of options available for him at 170lbs. Li has won 8 of his last 10 fights.
MATT BROWN (24-17, 171) VS CARLOS CONDIT (31-13, 171) – WELTERWEIGHT
Unsurprisingly, these fighters wasted no time before they began trading. Condit cut Brown open with a short elbow, and Brown took Condit down with a body lock. Brown racked up some control time as he smothered Condit, and while Condit was active off of his back, he was unable to create the separation necessary to get back to his feet. Condit worked his way up with thirty seconds remaining, and got a takedown of his own to end the round. I scored the round 10-9 Condit; I didn’t think Brown did enough with his control time to earn the round over Condit’s activity.
Brown caught Condit with a solid elbow to begin the second round. Condit responded with a hook and a body kick. Condit defended Browns next takedown attempt, but ate a kick to the body himself. Condit connected with a combination of hooks, and Brown pressed Condit to the cage in search of another takedown. He was unable to find it, and Condit took Brown down with a slick trip of his own. Condit connected with a few elbows from Brown’s guard, and moved into half guard. Condit ended the round on top, and I had him up 20-18 going into the third.
Condit immediately kicked Matt Brown low to begin the third round. The action quickly resumed, and Condit defended a pair of takedown attempts, and he seemed to be getting the better of the exchanges on the feet. Brown shot for a single leg, and Condit was able to climb over Brown to take his back. Condit moved into half guard with Brown trapped against the cage, and landed some solid ground and pound shots, before he attempted to take his back and go for a rear naked choke. He slipped off, and Matt Brown moved into full mount. Brown looked exhausted, and Condit was able to get back to his feet. Condit landed a big elbow, and went for another takedown, but Brown reversed it and ended the round on top. I scored the fight 30-27 Condit.
WINNER: Carlos Condit by unanimous decision (30-27 all)
This was a fight that has been scheduled multiple times throughout the past decade, yet never came to be. While both fighters are in the twilight stages of their respective careers, this was still a matchup that made a lot of sense to make, and the fight delivered. Condit is now on his first winning streak since 2012, and while the commentators suggested a fight against Vincente Luque, I don’t think a ranked opponent is in the best interest of the former WEC and Interim UFC Welterweight Champion. There are plenty of popular fighters in a similar position to Condit right now, that would make for more sensible matchups. Just off of the top of my head, Donald Cerrone, Diego Sanchez and Robbie Lawler would all make for marketable fights.
MAX HOLLOWAY (21-6, 146) VS CALVIN KATTAR (22-4, 146) – FEATHERWEIGHT
Lots of feints from both men early. Holloway’s combinations were getting through Kattar’s guard, although Kattar’s jab was finding its home in response. Max was attacking the body a lot in the first round, and he looked fantastic early in this one. Kattar seemed to be playing the long game though, attacking the lead leg of Holloway. Holloway tagged Kattar with a hard right hand, and he connected with a spinning back kick to the body. Max landed another hard right hand near the end of the round, and this was a great start to the fight for Max Holloway. 10-9 Holloway.
Holloway began the second round strongly. He was landing combinations, getting out of the way, and taunting in classic Max Holloway fashion. They exchanged kicks to the body. When ever it felt like Kattar was getting something going for himself, Holloway would swarm him and take the momentum back. He looked like he was overwhelming Kattar, and he rocked him with an elbow. Max swarmed him and went for the finish, but Kattar showcased some incredible toughness, surviving the sequence, even as it repeated itself. Kattar was cut open badly by the second elbow from Holloway, and was rocked one more time by a head kick with about a second left in the round. This was a 10-8 round for Holloway.
The third round was looking as though it was going to be more of the same, but about a minute in, Kattar tagged Max with a huge uppercut that made him back off momentarily. Holloway recovered quickly, and landed an uppercut of his own, before Kattar responded with a powerful right hand. Holloway’s output hadn’t wavered at all by the third round, and he continued to dig into Kattar’s body. Holloway connected with a big right hand, and taunted before tagging him again to end the round. 30-26 Holloway.
Holloway was giving a masterclass in striking here. His body shots were beginning to have an effect on Kattar, and Holloway backed him up against the fence with a seemingly endless combination. Kattar was barely standing as Holloway was teeing off on him, but he just wouldn’t go down, and he was still returning fire to keep Herb Dean from stopping the fight. Somehow, Kattar survived and recovered, and he went back on the attack momentarily. Holloway didn’t take much time off however, and he ended the round with a head kick. 40-34 Holloway
I was unsure if the fight would continue after the previous round, but Kattar got off of his stool and the fifth round began. Kattar tagged Holloway a few times, but Max just seemed to laugh them off. Kattar was a bloody mess, and the commentators stated that Holloway had set a new record for most attempted strikes in a fight. At one point Holloway stopped paying attention to Kattar, and began talking to the commentary team while he slipped shots from Kattar, all while barely looking at him. This was incredible, and Holloway clearly won this round, as well as the fight. 50-43 Holloway on my scorecard.
WINNER: Max Holloway by unanimous decision (50-43, 50-43, 50-42)
We are all susceptible to hyperbole in the immediate aftermath of a fight, but I don’t think I’m saying anything wild by stating that this was one of the most incredible performances in MMA history. Holloway completely outclassed Kattar at his own game, and was on the verge of finishing him countless times throughout the fight. There will be many who will criticize Herb Dean as well as Kattar’s corner for not stopping the fight, but I will acknowledge Kattar’s immense toughness and durability, and it seems almost impossible that he didn’t go down once throughout this fight. Going into this one, Max Holloway had lost three of his last four fights (albeit close title fights), and he needed a performance like this to remind people of his ability. I’m honestly unsure as to where Holloway will go from here, but I have to imagine it’ll be a big fight regardless. If Brian Ortega defeats Alexander Volkanovski, I think it is almost a certainty that Holloway will have rematch Ortega for the title, but if Volkanovski retains, things may not be as clear cut. In his post-fight interview, Holloway let everybody know he would be sticking around for the next week, in case either Poirier or McGregor don’t make it to next Saturday’s fight.