UFC 296: 8 biggest takeaways from UFC’s roller-coaster year-end pay-per-view

Leon Edwards still reigns supreme. The reigning UFC welterweight champ rose above the noise to fend off a lackluster challenge on Saturday at UFC 296, outclassing Colby Covington to win a one-sided decision and complete the second defense of his belt in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena. Edwards’ victory headlined a wild night that also saw a number of standout performances and headlining-grabbing antics (both inside the cage and out).

With so much to discuss, let’s dive right into our eight biggest takeaways from UFC 296.

1. Considering the saga we’ve been through at welterweight this year, it is a great irony that Colby Covington’s likely final opportunity at a UFC title played out as impotently as it did.

Remember back in March, when Dana White laid the groundwork for the path the division would ultimately travel in 2023? Minutes after Leon Edwards’ second victory over Kamaru Usman, the UFC CEO was unequivocal that “Chaos” would be the next man in line. “He deserves that fight,” White infamously said of Covington. It was laughable even in the moment. If “deserves” is how the sport worked, Belal Muhammad and his 10-fight unbeaten streak would’ve been the shoo-in long before Muhammad dominated Gilbert Burns for five straight rounds at UFC 288. But MMA at its core is sports entertainment, not a meritocracy, and everyone involved understood the score — Covington was the bigger fight, the nastier fight, the more entertaining fight, so welterweight was put on hold for the rest of 2023 so Covington could limp into his third crack at the belt off a near two-year layoff.

And how did that work out?

Bigger? Sure. Nastier? Without question. More entertaining? Absolutely, positively not.

After saying some of the most heinous s*** ever said in a UFC press conference, Covington backed up precisely zero of his words. The cardio monster who promised chaos? The all-action marauder who vowed to bring the fight to the champ? Nonexistent. White said it best: “Colby just looked slow and old tonight.” It was a shockingly bad performance, to the point where Edwards even went 2-of-3 with his own disrespect takedowns just because. Give the champ all the respect in the world for maintaining his composure and fighting a smart fight despite his obviously heightened emotions after Thursday’s presser, but Covington’s performance ranks right up there as one of the most flaccid title showings since Carla Esparza vs. Rose Namajunas 2 redefined championship flaccidity. (To be clear: Worst since, not worse than. Nothing is worse than Esparza vs. Namajunas 2.) Love him or hate him, Muhammad would’ve almost assuredly put up a better fight on Saturday night.

This is what you get when you tempt the MMA gods with fugazi matchmaking.

Edwards continues to be the class of the welterweight division. As for Covington, these are just the facts: He did not deserve this title shot. His best victories all came against fighters either well past their primes or on the verge of retirement. And he stands today as a contender with zero signature wins, zero wins over currently ranked welterweights, who’s lost three of his past five, whose entire reputation was built off two losses, who’s 0-3 in title fights, and who’s on the wrong side of his 30s in a young man’s division. It is what it is.

(And wouldn’t you know it, Covington called out the 40-year-old loser of the card’s other meaningful welterweight fight, rather than the undefeated beast who’s inching closer and closer to being next in line for the belt. This man is consistent, if nothing else.)

Edwards vs. Muhammad in early 2024. Book it and let’s get welterweight back on track.

2. Saturday’s co-main event may not have matched the lofty bar set by Alexandre Pantoja’s thrilling, white-knuckle title win over Brandon Moreno at UFC 290, but what realistically could? The flyweight champ still played his greatest hits against Brandon Royval with plenty of aplomb. Pantoja’s grappling remains a joy to watch, his chin remains one of the great wonders of the modern world, and the pace he sets in these fights remains borderline superhuman. I’m still not sure how the Brazilian manages to look utterly exhausted seemingly every round yet never once actually slows down, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

I feel like a broken record at this point but flyweight is so, so fun right now. I can’t get enough of it. Every possible matchmaking permutation among the 125-pound elite is delectable. (Pantoja vs. the Moreno-Albazi winner? Sure, why not. Pantoja vs. Manel Kape 2? Yes please. Pantoja vs. Kai Kara-France? Hell yeah!) Maybe a day will come where it’s no longer amusing to me that the UFC nearly jettisoned this division into the dumpster just because Demetrious Johnson dared to stand up for himself, but that day is not today. Between an abnormally fun contender class and a loaded next crop of stars rising up the ranks, few talent pools are as primed for a monster 2024 than the UFC’s Lilliputian class.

You love to see it.

3. Eighteen fights. Eighteen wins. Eighteen stoppages.

Some may find him boring, some may think he’s dreadful on the mic, but however you want to slice it, what Shavkat Rakhmonov is doing right now is utterly ridiculous.

Not since prime Carlos Condit have we seen a finish rate as consistent or impressive at 170 pounds as the pride of Kazakhstan’s nine-year MMA run. It’s one thing to able to style on fools on the regional scene — it’s another feat entirely to be able to replicate that omnipresent lethality at the highest levels of the UFC. Think about it. How many contenders have found themselves unable to get these same finishes once they hit a certain point up the ladder? Hell, even Khamzat Chimaev needed the judges against Gilbert Burns. But Rakhmonov continues to be the demon among demons. Stephen Thompson hadn’t been submitted in 13 years as a professional cagefighter. Then he ran into the Kazakh buzz saw.

As I wrote above, Muhammad deserves his shot at the UFC welterweight strap and frankly already should’ve gotten it. I’m not going to take that away from him now. But Rakhmonov is, at most, one fight away — and the moment his title fight is booked, the 29-year-old will be installed as an instant betting favorite. At this point, the belt is just his in waiting.

UPDATE: And now we find out Rakhmonov did all of this with a serious ankle injury that completely hampered his mobility and prevented him from throwing kicks against Thompson. Yeah, this dude is holding the UFC welterweight title by the end of 2024.

4. If I told you Saturday morning that Sean Strickland and Dricus du Plessis, less than 24 hours removed from whatever the hell happened between them at the UFC’s kickoff press conference, were going to be seated five feet apart for six consecutive hours at UFC 296, what kind of odds would you have given me that at least one of those two dudes was getting kicked out before the night was over? -200? -450?? -700???

I mean, silliness of this sort was the lock of all locks, no?

Even the man in charge couldn’t believe what he’d done: “I do every seating assignment every week,” White said Saturday night. “I don’t even know how I missed that.”

So, quickly, let’s run through a top three of the funniest points about this whole thing.

(Honorable Mention: 5-foot-6 human Alexander Volkanovski immediately climbing onto his seat to get a proper of view of the action. Veteran move. This ain’t the champ’s first rodeo.)

3) Bruce Buffer, in the background, solemnly shaking his head like a sad father as soon as Strickland vaults himself into the air. The Buff’s not mad, you guys. He’s just disappointed.

2) Strickland politely asking Gilbert Burns’ children to move a few seats down (and then patiently waiting for them to do so) before flipping his switch all the way to Crazytown.

1) Chito Vera’s face. Majestic. This is all he’s ever wanted. He’s reveling. I love it so very much.

5. I dreaded this day. We all knew it was going to come. And now it’s finally here. Tony Ferguson has tied B.J. Penn for the longest losing streak in UFC history.

What’s worse? Saturday night was the Penn story all over again. Ferguson was too tough for his own good to quit, but had zero tools left in his bag to realistically fight back. The Paddy Pimblett matchup was always my least favorite UFC booking of 2023 for this very reason, and it played out as a true worst-case scenario, with Ferguson being juuuust competitive enough against the Scouser for the UFC to inevitably talk itself into booking him again. Ferguson is probably going to find himself as the sole record-holder for the most unfortunate benchmark in promotional history sometime in 2024.

I’ve written too many words and spoken too many diatribes about this topic over the past few years to be able to muster more now. It is what it is. With each passing fight week and each random anecdote like the one Chael Sonnen shared on Saturday — wherein Ferguson’s father allegedly pulled Sonnen aside and expressed concern over his son marching onward at age 39 without a real head coach — everything about this sucks. And sadly, this won’t be the last time we have this discussion. The legacy of “El Cucuy” and what he meant for the lightweight division deserved better than for a whole generation of new fans to regard him in the same way the previous generation dismally came to regard Penn.

UFC 296: Ferguson v Pimblett

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

6. More often than not, the final few UFC events of the year gift us some sort of last-second awards fodder. Something about the holidays just tends to get those violent juices flowing a little extra. And good lord, Saturday night did not disappoint in that regard. Case in point: Josh Emmett’s absurd first-round nuking of Bryce Mitchell. That may be the best right hand anyone in MMA has landed all year. And the sound it made — sweet merciful crap, the sound. That’s the sound a cantaloupe makes when it’s hurled off a skyscraper.

Way back in December 2010, when I was just a wee lad sitting cageside for WEC 53, Eddie Wineland brutally knocked out Ken Stone with a slam on the undercard of WEC’s final event. I still remember it clearly to this day, because it was terrifying. Stone stayed down on the canvas for several minutes, and for at least a few of them, there was very palpable concern within the arena that we may have all just witnessed a man meet his grisly end. Fortunately, that didn’t end up being the case and Stone was alright — or at least as alright as anyone who’s been brutally knocked out with a slam can be — but Saturday was the first time in a long while I can remember feeling that same palpable concern once the camera panned to Mitchell’s seemingly lifeless body going into convulsions on the octagon floor.

(Luckily, Mitchell seems to be alright — or at least as alright as anyone can be who’s been brutally knocked out with a shot like the one Emmett slugged him with.)

After Saturday, there’s a new, clear short-list in my mind for Knockout of the Year: Israel Adesanya’s perfect revenge, Robbie Lawler’s perfect retirement, and now Emmett’s perfect right hand. I still have no idea which direction I’m going with it, but those are the three.

7. Speaking of last-second year-end award entries, anytime you can snap a post-fight hospital photo guaranteed to go viral within an hour of its posting, you know you’re probably going to end up on a few Fight of the Year lists. And y’all, Irene Aldana and Karol Rosa just graced us with the wildest women’s bantamweight fight since … when?

Julianna Peña vs. Amanda Nunes 1? Miesha Tate vs. Holly Holm?

I’m sure there’s an obvious one I’m missing here (it’s late, OK?), but to put into context exactly what kind of heart Aldana and Rosa just displayed, their 349 combined significant strikes over 15 minutes was more than three times the total output Edwards and Covington managed over 25 minutes. Bravo to both competitors. Aldana vs. Rosa likely won’t break past the some of 2023’s heavier hitters in the Fight of the Year sweepstakes, but it’s undoubtedly going to make several top-five ballots later this month, and it should.

Seriously, just look at the second slide on the post below. Legendary.

8. We’re always such prisoners of the moment in MMA, I suppose it shouldn’t have been a shock to see so many folks rushing to proclaim the old Cody Garbrandt as back after his first-round knockout of Brian Kelleher. That’s now two wins in a row for the former UFC bantamweight champ, his first winning streak in seven years. (Somehow, implausibly, Garbrandt hadn’t won back-to-back fights since his iconic 2016 showing against Dominick Cruz.) And while I can’t say I’m a believer yet in this mini-revival, there’s certainly a way to frame Garbrandt’s troubled UFC road in a way that makes the possibility of a post-prime career comeback more palatable: While most of Garbrandt’s setbacks are memorable for their brutality, he still hasn’t lost to anyone you can’t convincingly call “A Very Good Fighter.”

Prime T.J. Dillashaw (x2), Late Prime Pedro Munhoz, Late Prime Rob Font, and Prime Kai Kara-France — there’s not a scrub among that bunch. It’s clear the Garbrandt who took the bantamweight division by storm from 2015-16 and slapped together one of the most impressive changing-of-the-guard performances in UFC history isn’t coming back, but “No Love” is still only 32 years old, and matchmaking like we saw at UFC 296 is exactly what he’s been starving for in order to start recapturing some of the old magic he once had.

I wanted Petr Yan next for Deiveson Figueiredo, but since Yan vs. Song Yadong is already booked, I don’t hate the Figgy callout. Realistically, any matchup in that No. 10 to No. 15 range feels like it’d be a good next step for the former bantamweight champ; whether it’s a younger periphery contender like Jonathan Martinez or Chris Gutierrez, or even a run-back with an old rival like Cruz or Munhoz, Garbrandt should get his chance to see if he can once again swim with the sharks of 135 pounds. Who knows? Considering the year of unbridled insanity we just watched unfold at every possible turn, crazier things have happened.

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