The UFC returned to Detroit, Michigan last Saturday night and it delivered a highly-entertaining card. Packed with quality fights, the main card provided three exciting stoppages.
Yet, as the dust settled on what was an action-packed event, a sense of what could have been lingered. There can be no doubt that the fighters on the right side of the stoppage clashes are elite level athletes at the peak of their powers, yet could those who suffered a knockout loss have done more?
Firstly, we can take a look at Justin Gaethje versus Eddie Alvarez. The 33-year-old spoke extensively pre-fight detailing how he was going to bring a fresh approach to this fight. He wanted to go back to his roots of being a brawler and declared that the man who had his hand raised when it was all said and done would be declared the ‘most violent man in the UFC’. Likewise, Gaethje built up the fight and spoke about how he would rather lose by knockout than win through a boring decision. The writing was on the wall.
Yet, when the bell rang there was a clear difference in the styles of both. Alvarez utilised the octagon space and his fast head movement attempting to avoid being hit while Gaethje took the approach of covering his head and walking towards Alvarez, leaving his body exposed and gaps in his head guard. Gaethje is extremely tough, perhaps the most durable fighter on the roster, and up until Saturday night, this had been enough to maintain an undefeated professional career. But in the Underground King, Justin faced an opponent of a certain quality that he had not encountered before. The approach Gaethje and his team took varies from confident and courageous to ill-prepared and arrogant, depending on your outlook.
He took on Alvarez like he had anyone of his previous eighteen professional opponents, with one tactic and one tactic only, to stand and bang. Was this approach effective? Yes, absolutely. His opponent was severely injured. Yet when Gaethje was not attacking, he stood there and accepted the battering he received. And this is what ultimately cost him as he was slowly broken over the course of three rounds until the former lightweight champion landed the decisive knee to the face of Gaethje.
The next knockout was that of heavyweight veteran, Alistair Overeem, who got to witness first-hand why Francis Ngannou is the most powerful puncher in the world. As the opening bell rang, Overeem made a reckless charge on the African fighter and swung a huge left which narrowly missed. This set the tone for the fight. After a brief clinch, the fight returned to the centre of the octagon and Overeem made several rash swings. In the process, he left his chin completely exposed and Ngannou took full advantage returning a huge upper left that left Overeem instantly unconscious.
In the build-up to this bout, the expectation was that the Reem would take a cautious approach and use every inch of the mat to avoid being caught by the 6ft 5in fighter. In fact, Overeem set out to do the exact opposite, trying to catch Ngannou off guard and impose his will early on. And while there is logic to this, it is tough to imagine why Overeem did not look to tire out his opponent first. Ngannou has never had to go past two rounds while Overeem has over 50 professional fights. The former heavyweight champion could have used his experience and taken a more wily approach to this match-up.
The final finish, and arguably the most frustrating performance, came from Jose Aldo. The reason this was particularly difficult to watch is because, unlike Gaethje or Overeem, Aldo had faced his opponent only a matter of months ago and yet there were so many similarities between both fights. In both, Aldo started strong before tiring and getting finished with less than a minute remaining in the third round. The height advantage of Holloway was evident from the off as he held his hands in a wide karate stance while Aldo held a more traditional boxing stance. In the exchanges, Aldo was powerful and fast and threw in a few leg kicks that we had not seen first time around for good measure. Holloway controlled the distance and was more active but this was still a very competitive contest.
The second round continued in this fashion until, in the last minute of the second round, Aldo got sucked into a momentary brawl where both men swung like their life depended on it. This was the moment many knew that the fight was destined to go in Holloway’s favour. Aldo has a muscular physique, biceps bulging as he holds that aforementioned boxing stance. On every exchange, the Brazilian exploded with power, draining his energy supply.
Holloway, on the other hand, has very little muscle to carry and has much superior cardio. This we learnt when they fought first time around. Yet, Aldo got dragged into Holloway’s game and persisted on trying to meet his opponent with the same level of volume and intensity. And for this, the former featherweight champion paid the ultimate price. Aldo gassed out, exactly as Holloway had intended. The Hawaiian upped the ante until Aldo could not cope and tried a takedown. Holloway shrugged off the attempt and took full control until the referee was forced to dive between both fighters with a mere nine seconds left on the clock in the third round.
For all three main card fighters who did not make it to the final bell, there is a sense that ego and adrenaline overcame strategic and technical fighting. With a capacity crowd roaring for blood, these men returned to the primitive nature of the sport and gave the fans exactly what they wanted.
They marched forward with reckless abandon like gladiators in the ancient coliseum, and paid for it with their consciousness.