Madison Square Garden has proven to be the home of the biggest moments in Alex Pereira’s MMA career, and his appearances in the venue have also been a testament to how quickly he has made history in the sport.
In 2021, Pereira made his UFC debut at UFC 268, which marked the promotion’s first Madison Square Garden card in three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In that fight, he picked up a second-round flying knee finish over Andreas Michailidis to score a statement win.
Fast-forward to UFC 281 in 2022, Pereira was back in MSG and fighting for the middleweight title. After picking up two wins earlier that year, he stunned many with a fifth-round upset finish over long-time divisional champ Israel Adesanya.
After losing his belt in a rematch to Adesanya, Pereira looked toward the light heavyweight division, where he could go up 20 pounds and fight with more comfort. After beating former titleholder Jan Blachowicz over the summer, Pereira found himself in the main event of UFC 295 this Saturday, facing Jiri Prochazka for the vacant UFC Light Heavyweight Championship.
Pereira made history once again, stopping Prochazka in the second round to earn a second title in his UFC career. He dropped Prochazka with a left hook on the counter, then followed up with elbows that seemingly caused him to go unconscious at some point. Following this sequence, the referee stopped the fight, and the division had a new champion.
The finish for the fight was argued by many as premature, as Prochazka seemingly had his wits about him after the stoppage. However, the way Prochazka acted after the finish didn’t change the fact that he was dropped and seemingly slumped over while consuming elbows on the ground.
After the fight, UFC promoted the fact that Pereira is expected to face Jamahal Hill, the previous champion who vacated his title after suffering an injury earlier this year. Hill, who was in attendance for the fight, earned the belt in January with a unanimous decision win over Glover Teixeira.
Saturday might have been the starting point of long-awaited stability for the light heavyweight division. The weight class has seen its title bounce around for years, with the past three champions failing to successfully defend their belt once each. With both Prochazka and Hill having their reigns end due to injury, and a fight for the vacant belt ending in a draw last year, a certain amount of bad luck has been around the division since Jon Jones vacated his title in 2020. With the belt in his possession, Pereira has the chance to kick off the first rear era since Jones’ departure.
Aspinall joins exclusive class in UFC history
Tom Aspinall won the way he always does, except it was a performance much more important than any of his prior showings this weekend. In just 69 seconds, Aspinall stopped Sergei Pavlovich with punches to become the new interim UFC Heavyweight Champion.
Aspinall first rocked Pavlovich with a right cross. He landed that same shot right after, causing Pavlovich to land flat on his back. Aspinall went to the ground to follow up, but by then the referee had already decided that the fight was over.
While Saturday was an interim title win for Aspinall, it does count toward the history books for champions in the UFC. Aspinall became the third-ever British fighter to win a UFC Championship (the others being Michael Bisping and Leon Edwards), and the first from the heavyweight division to carry such representation.
Aspinall got into a title position after six wins through seven UFC appearances since 2020. Previous fights on his record include first-round finishes over names like Alexander Volkov and Marcin Tybura.
Pavlovich entered this weekend on a strong, similar run of finishes from recent years. Since early last year, Pavlovich put together four straight wins, all via first-round finishes.
The matchup between Aspinall and Pavlovich came about after the initial main event for UFC 295 collapsed in recent weeks. Long-time UFC Light Heavyweight Champion and current heavyweight titleholder Jon Jones withdrew from his fight against returning talent Stipe Miocic, citing an injury he sustained in training.
Due to the fact that UFC still hopes to match Jones and Miocic up next year once the healing process for the incumbent champ is over, it will likely take some time before the belts in the division can unify.
Jessica Andrade stops skid with boxing showcase
Former UFC Strawweight Champion Jessica Andrade showcased her hard-hitting fists on Saturday’s main card, scoring four knockdowns over Mackenzie Dern before a second-round stoppage.
Punches from Andrade earned her a knockdown in the opening minutes, putting her ahead after one round. She closed out the fight one round later, stringing together a trio of knockdowns. She refused to go to the ground after each knockdown, knowing that Dern has stellar grappling skills. Instead, Andrade kept dropping Dern until the referee had seen enough.
The victory put Andrade back into the win column after a trio of losses against rising contenders earlier this year: Erin Blanchfield, Yan Xiaonan, and Tatiana Suarez all picked up wins on the former champ earlier this year.
Saturday was another example of Dern struggling with step-up bookings. Last year, she dropped a majority decision to the aforementioned Yan. And a year before then, she took a defeat to Marina Rodriguez.
Success after rough starts on display during UFC 295
Benoit Saint-Denis picked up another big victory as part of Saturday’s card, dropping Matt Frevola in the first round with a head kick for a knockdown. After landing a couple of ground-and-pound shots, the referee stopped the fight.
Just before that matchup, Diego Lopes opened the main card with a big stoppage win over Pat Sabatini in the first round of their featherweight contest.
Lopes hurt Sabatini with a right cross while they were both getting up from a ground position. After a rocked Sabatini fell to the canvas, and Lopes pounced on him with ground and pound that caused a finish to the fight in just 90 seconds.
A slight parallel can be drawn between Saint-Denis and Lopes. Both entered the UFC with brutal debut bookings, but have since only been on the rise.
Saint-Denis lost his first UFC fight in 2021 to Elizeu Zaleski. His UFC 267 defeat was especially brutal due to a referee letting the fight go on for much longer than many thought it should have, allowing Saint-Denis to consume a fair amount of damage that some argued was unnecessary. He has since put together an impressive five consecutive wins, all via finish. He has big wins on his record, including a September victory over Thiago Moises.
Lopes, similarly, was assigned then-16-fight undefeated featherweight prospect Movsar Evloev in May. After losing that fight in quite a one-sided fashion, he has now bounced back with two consecutive wins, both within two minutes. Prior to Saturday, he picked up a first-round triangle armbar submission over Gavin Tucker.
Trump cameo underscores politics of UFC
Former U.S. President Donald Trump, who is currently part of four different criminal investigations, received a cinematic walk to his seat alongside UFC CEO Dana White, musician Kid Rock, and former Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, just before the T.V. prelims went off air. Going through the same aisle that UFC fighters appear on during their walkouts, the spotlight on Trump was long and emphasized. “Look how strong that team is,” commentator Jon Anik said. Just a few minutes later on the pay-per-view broadcast, he was shown once again. A couple of hours later, again.
While White was once quoted in 2021 saying that UFC “keep[s] politics out of the sport,” Saturday’s presentation was a direct contradiction of that. White has never been shy about his affinity for the former president, and Trump’s ties to UFC are not a new thing. However, Trump’s visibility at one of the promotion’s biggest events of the year — and as the U.S. is just under one year away from its next presidential election — shows the type of political culture that UFC is trying to attract, even if its CEO is on the record quoted to say the opposite.
Prelims quick thoughts
In the featured prelim of the night, Steve Erceg picked up a unanimous decision victory over Alessandro Costa for his second UFC win. Erceg somewhat came out of nowhere this year: He became a ranked UFC flyweight in his debut for the promotion, winning a short-notice decision over David Dvorak. He previously fought 10 times on the Australian regional scene, and trains out of Wilkes MMA, a gym where he moonlights as a children’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach.
Loopy Godinez capped off an incredibly successful year with a close split decision win over Tabatha Ricci. Godinez, who prevailed Saturday due to a strong, pressure-heavy performance on the feet, ends 2023 with four consecutive wins in the UFC. Having beaten a 10th-place strawweight, Godinez is set to go into the new year with some big matchups on her horizon.
Mateusz Rebecki earned his third consecutive UFC win, submitting short-notice opponent Roosevelt Roberts in the first round with an armbar. Roberts was returning to the UFC after a two-fight run on the regional scene, plus an appearance on Season 31 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” He took this bout on a week’s notice, stepping in for Nurullo Aliev.
While Nazim Sadykhov scored a pair of knockdowns in the second round and nearly finished his lightweight bout, work from Viacheslav Borshchev in the first and third rounds allowed him to walk away with a draw result. This was a tough outing for Borshchev, as he was completely in survival mode for half of the second round.
Jared Gordon handed Mark Madsen his second pro loss on Saturday, stopping him in the first round with a slick combination of strikes. Exiting a clinch position, Gordon rocked and dropped Madsen with an elbow and then a right cross. He closed out the fight with ground-and-pound shots, earning the UFC vet his first win in three appearances. Despite being from New York, this weekend was Gordon’s first UFC appearance inside the state through 14 fights.
John Castaneda returned to the win column with a unanimous decision over 10-year UFC vet Kang Kyung-ho, being the advancing fighter through all three rounds of their 138-pound catchweight contest.
In an impressive stand-up showing, Joshua Van kept a high output of strikes for three rounds against Kevin Borjas to walk away with a unanimous decision win. The former Fury FC Flyweight Champion has now picked up two wins since joining the UFC roster in June.
Jamall Emmers opened the night with a bang, finishing Dennis Buzukja in just 49 seconds with a hard right cross knockdown. It was easily Emmers’ biggest performance since joining the UFC in 2020, as it was just his third win in the promotion and first finish. In a testament to how UFC has changed its programming since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it was his first victory outside of the UFC APEX.
Main Card (PPV)
Alex Pereira def. Jiri Prochazka via TKO, Strikes (RD 2, 4:08) (Vacant UFC Light Heavyweight Championship)
Tom Aspinall def. Sergei Pavlovich via TKO, Strikes (RD 1, 1:09) (Vacant Interim UFC Heavyweight Championship)
Jessica Andrade def. Mackenzie Dern via TKO, Strikes (RD 2, 3:15)
Benoit Saint-Denis def. Matt Frevola via TKO, Strikes (RD 1, 1:31)
Diego Lopes def. Pat Sabatini via TKO, Strikes (RD 1, 1:30)
Steve Erceg def. Alessandro Costa via Decision, Unanimous
Loopy Godinez def. Tabatha Ricci via Decision, Split
Mateusz Rebecki def. Roosevelt Roberts via Submission, Armbar (RD 1, 3:08)
Nazim Sadykhov vs. Viacheslav Borshchev via Decision, Majority Draw
Jared Gordon def. Mark Madsen via TKO, Strike (RD 1, 4:42)
John Castaneda def. Kang Kyung-ho via Decision, Unanimous
Joshua Van def. Kevin Borjas via Decision, Unanimous
Jamall Emmers def. Dennis Buzukja via TKO, Strikes (RD 1, 0:49)