UFC 298: 7 biggest takeaways from a historic night in Anaheim

Ilia Topuria is the new king of the featherweights. Yes, after months of trash talk, the confident Spaniard made good on his promises, toppling Alexander Volkanovski and seizing the UFC featherweight strap with a brutal second-round knockout at UFC 298. Topuria’s history-making win headlined an action-packed trip to Anaheim’s Honda Center, which also included the rise of several contenders young and old alike, plus much more.

With so much to discuss, let’s dive right into our seven biggest takeaways from UFC 298.

1. One mistimed back step, one perfect right hook to the jaw, and poof — it’s gone. A castle that took a near half-decade to build, crumbled in an instant. But that is how these things go.

That’s the funny thing about the greatest eras in UFC history — almost all of them are deposed not with a knock-down, drag-out battle, not with a ballyhooed war of attrition, but with a single flash of dazzlingly exceptional violence. Conor McGregor Jedi-mind-tricking an icon. Anderson Silva getting hoisted with his own petard. Kamaru Usman failing to run out the clock. Alexander Volkanovski was neither the first nor will he be the last to suffer this fate, so let us first mourn what has been lost.

UFC 298: Volkanovski v Topuria

Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The former champ’s legacy will be dissected ad nauseam over the ensuing days, weeks, and years, especially if Saturday marks the beginning of the type of slide we often see from aging former champions in similar circumstances. But do not let the bad faith arguments that are sure to come dissuade you from the truths we’ve all witnessed since 2016. Alexander Volkanovski is one of the greatest talents of this MMA era. Full stop. His 1,526 days atop the featherweight division was the fifth-longest consecutive title reign in UFC men’s history, behind only four all-timers: Jose Aldo (1,848 days), Georges St-Pierre (2,064 days), Demetrious Johnson (2,142 days), and Silva (2,457 days). His 12-0 start to his UFC career toppled both an old guard and a new, and he was consistent in his brilliance, a class act through and through, an ideal representative for the sport every step of the way.

Is Volkanovski the featherweight GOAT? For some, no doubt. For me, that mantle still resides with Aldo. But it does not matter. His legend is already far greater than 99.9 percent of fighters to lace up four-ounce gloves over the past three decades. He is one of the 10 greatest talents to ever grace this game. Whatever happens from here will not change that.

But the signs were also there. Already the oldest champion under 170 pounds in UFC history, the 35-year-old legend stubbornly defied the reaper in a way none had before him. Old Man Volk may have taken on a life of its own this past week, but the meme was birthed for a reason, and the cracks in the armor had slowly started to appear. Less than four months ago, he was savagely felled by a shinbone to the skull. Eight months before that, his decade-long win streak melted into thin air. Was Volkanovski’s ill-fated decision to step into the Islam Makhachev rematch in October the catalyst for what we watched unfold at UFC 298? Maybe. History will certainly rewrite the script as if it was, and the damage Volk suffered in a short-notice bout that would’ve never happened in a sport like boxing undoubtedly didn’t help. But this moment was coming sooner or later.

And now? The world belongs to Ilia Topuria.

The charismatic Spaniard dove all in ahead of UFC 298 in a way few era-enders have. Not only did he tell the world what was going to happen, he promised to slay the king with an ease that would shock us all. Hell, he changed his freaking Instagram bio to anoint himself as the UFC featherweight champion well before he ever touched down in Anaheim. That kind of cocksure disregard takes balls. Topuria strapped himself up for the ride — the ultimate face plant or the ultimate rocket ship, a true all or nothing — and he succeeded in a way that nearly defies belief. His one-hitter quitter is the instant frontrunner for 2024’s Knockout of the Year. It’ll take a magnificent effort over the next 10 months to eclipse it. And Topuria now has all the makings of the next UFC superstar.

Dana White already wants to go to Spain for the new champ’s first title defense. If you saw the remarkable way his countrymen rallied around him this past week, you know that should be an all-timer of a homecoming. I just hope two things for this next step: 1) The UFC does not wait. There is gold here. It is palpable. Strike now before people forget. Topuria vs. Movsar Evloev or Aljamain Sterling (if he wins at UFC 300) sounds just fine. Topuria in Spain is the attraction. Whoever stands across from him does not matter. 2) Volkanovski has now been brutally knocked out twice in the past four months. I merely hope he is not rushed into the immediate rematch he’s already asked for. Someone in the UFC or on Volkanovski’s team needs to step in and save the ex-champ from himself. Give his brain and body time to heal and rest, otherwise the ending to this story may get much worse than it already is.

2. Now that Volkanovski’s iron grip on the featherweight division has been released, do you know who the UFC’s longest-reigning current champion is? Go ahead, hazard a guess.

It’s Leon Edwards.

A champ who has sat upon his throne precisely 35.84 percent as long as Volk did and who’s defeated exactly one challenger aside from the man from whom he took the belt.

I don’t know how many times it bears repeating, but the hardest thing to do in MMA is not winning titles in multiple divisions. It’s defending one title over and over and over again until multiple eras have fallen in your wake. Not only will it be a long time before we see anyone match what Volkanovski accomplished, but our current frontrunner (Edwards) would have to keep his welterweight title for three more years before he surpassed “The Great.”

Keep that in mind the first time you see some moron this week arguing that Volkanovski was never as good as people tried to claim, because I promise you those takes are coming.

3. You know what? It’s frankly absurd that a man with as many wars under his belt as Robert Whittaker can still eat a flush spinning wheel kick to the face from a concrete slab like Paulo Costa and maintain his bearings well enough to win the next two rounds.

At this point, the dogged staying power of Bobby Knux has become something to truly behold. Few contenders at 185 pounds have been through the meat grinder as ferociously and as often as Whittaker. Heck, the carnage he suffered in his back-to-back brawls with Yoel Romero would’ve ground most fighters’ chins into dust. And that was six years ago! Yet still Whittaker is standing stubbornly in the pocket and turning back monsters like Costa with razor-sharp aplomb. Somehow, the old warhorse has plenty of fight left in him.

I’ve been telling anyone who would listen for a while that middleweight has, against all odds, become a top-four fun division in the UFC right now. (It’s lightweight, bantamweight, featherweight, then middleweight, in that order.) Whittaker’s staunch steadfastness only adds to the rollicking revolving door of stars we have trading places at the top. I don’t know how much longer Whittaker can keep this going — I suspect not very, though I’d love to be wrong — but for as long as he’s still holding his ground around this elite mix, he’s never far from the title picture. So how about Robert Whittaker vs. Sean Strickland next?

Throw that fight on a card in Strickland’s adopted home country (and Whittaker’s actual home country) of Australia and bang, we’re in business. It makes too much sense.

4. Rarely do I do this, but I’m certain about this one: Merab Dvalishvili is the best bantamweight in the world. Belts be damned.

But more important, at least for the short term, is that Dvalishvili implausibly pulled off the impossible this past week: He made people care. And that’s not meant to be a slight.

Consider how the MMA world seemed to view Dvalishvili until recently. One year ago he systemically destroyed Petr Yan and the collective response from the community was one giant “meh.” Seven months before that he ended Jose Aldo’s final title run and the broader fan base couldn’t have cared less. You know I’m right. Nary a tear was shed when Dvalishvili was passed over for a wholly undeserving Marlon Vera as Sean O’Malley’s first title defense, just as nary a tear was shed when Dvalishvili was coerced into taking a wholly unnecessary fight against Henry Cejudo despite already owning (at the time) the second-longest win streak in the history of the UFC bantamweight division. Them’s just the breaks in Dana land.

Yet by the end of the night on Saturday, Dvalishvili had everyone eating out of the palm of his hand! He flipped from being the Belal Muhammad of the bantamweight division into having an entire arena frothing at the mouth to see him get what he’s long deserved. UFC 298 somehow became his Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Michael Johnson moment. We often throw out the cliche that a fighter was doing anything they wanted in there, but Dvalishvili was quite literally doing anything he wanted in there. He clowned a former two-division king as easily as he would’ve sparring my 18-month-old son. At some point between watching Dvalishvili peacock for a cageside Mark Zuckerberg and hoist an Olympic champ above his head to pull off the old Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg running slam just because he could, that fight ceased being a mere fight and transformed into actual theater. Cejudo should consider himself lucky that sucker didn’t have an extra 10 minutes tacked onto it, otherwise things might’ve gotten genuinely embarrassing in there.

Coming into this past week, I would’ve bet a lot of money that nothing Dvalishvili could’ve done at UFC 298 would’ve resulted in Dana White guaranteeing his next fight as a title shot in the post-fight presser. He’s simply too bad of a matchup for the division’s cash cow and White still seemed to hold plenty of resentment from his unwillingness to fight his friend Aljamain Sterling. Yet here we are: Dvalishvili is now tied with Sterling for the longest win streak in the history of the UFC bantamweight division, and White announced Dvalishvili as the unequivocal next man in line for the winner of O’Malley vs. Vera. Unbelievable.

Kudos to you, Merab. You forced your way out of the MMA doghouse through sheer fun and undeniable force of will. Some other folks out here may want to take notes…

5. Speaking of that…

Look, I understand what Ian Machado Garry is trying to do right now. He’s leaning into the hate. It’s really all he can do considering the circumstances, so I don’t begrudge him for it. But after another strange week of grand proclamations followed by ho-hum follow through, I’m not sure if the great Irish hope is reaching “I Really Want To See This Guy Lose” type of heat or just straight “Go Away” heat. The former gets you paid. The latter leads you to becoming the next Belal. And hey, I’m no expert, but getting booed out of the building throughout your entire fight and post-fight interview, then defiantly marching up to your post-fight press conference and acting like it was the most masterful win anyone has ever seen? That may not be the move if you want the fan base to get behind your title run.

One of the biggest things people tend to forget about Conor McGregor’s success is that his shtick worked, sure, but he was also must-see television in the cage on his way up. Garry is a fine technician, but no one is going to be dialing up UFC Fight Pass in five years to watch him circle around Geoff Neal and jab his way to another anticlimactic win. I even appreciate the Colby Covington callout — and if that’s not an option, Sean Brady is a fantastic Plan B — but nothing about what I saw on Saturday dissuaded me from thinking the future of welterweight belongs firmly in Shavkat Rakhmonov’s hands rather than anyone else’s.

6. At this point, even Albert Einstein would be tired of dredging up his old definition of insanity every time Mackenzie Dern fights.

UFC 298: Lemos v Dern

Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

I wrote last week that if Dern was ever going to evolve past this “well, if she can figure out a takedown or two, then look out” phase of her career, it needed to start at UFC 298. Shocker: It did not. And yet, Saturday was the perfect representation of why I just can’t quit the jiu-jitsu phenom! Not only does Dern remain a human cheat code on the mat, she clearly has power in her hands, and is also one of the most inhumanely tough people on the planet. Hell, she survived through like three different knockouts against Amanda Lemos and somehow nearly won anyway with her face looking like a Jackson Pollock. She has enough tools to be a world-beater. It just never comes together in the way you’d hope.

I was an early driver of the Dern bandwagon. I stubbornly held on through all of the various stops and starts, weight misses and turning-of-the-corners, failed shots at contention and snapshots of sublime brilliance. And yet, here I am once more, fresh off another loss, doing it all over again. There might be three people still holding property on Dern Island — against my better judgement, I’m somehow one of them. She’s still only 30 years old and can win or lose against anyone on any given day. Just, for the love of God, please, learn a few effective entries into takedowns and master a double-leg against the fence to fulfill the potential that’s obviously in there before the odometer on that obscene toughness runs out. Fights like Saturday’s are crazy to watch, but Dern’s window to become more than this is fast closing.

(This entire section is such an all-time bad take and I hate myself for it. Oy vey.)

7. The Tafa brothers’ short-notice switcheroo may not have paid off, but hey, the fact that it happened at all is still a hilarious testament to what makes MMA so unique and special.

Think about it: In what other mainstream professional sport could we see something like what Junior and Justin Tafa pulled off over the past 48 hours? Seth Curry isn’t stepping into Game 6 of the NBA Finals if Steph Curry suddenly slips and falls on a cable wire. We’re not seeing Tiger Woods’ half-cousin fill in on day three of a major if the PGA legend eats some bad gas station sushi the night before. Yet the reality that, in 2024, more than 30 years removed from the anarchy of UFC 1, on the eve of a multi-million dollar night for a multi-billion dollar industry, Junior Tafa can say “I gotchu bro” and step up and swing hammers at Marcos Rogerio de Lima in place of big brother Justin just because everyone sort of unanimously decides, “well, this would actually be pretty rad” — it warms my cold, jaded heart.

UFC 298: Rogerio de Lima v Tafa

Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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