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Grading the Card: UFC 259

I will spare the likes of you here. Typically, you’d see me fire off some shots and crack some stupid jokes in the intro because, well, I don’t write a great many articles as frequently as I once did. So, there’s really no point in me patronizing you all by claiming that this time, I’ll be writing more consistently “for good”, because truthfully, given the perpetual chaos that characterizes my life, I cannot in good faith make that assertion. I hope I return to a more consistent pattern of frequent writing, but I just don’t know.

With that being said, however, I’m not here to drag the mood down because of my nonsense. No, I’m here to do what I do best, and that’s judging cards based off of initial perception and name value. You know, because when does that approach ever fail us?…

It’s only March, but it seems that UFC 259 is in shape to be the greasiest and juiciest card of 2021. Three title fights, as well as ranked contenders up and down the card has mixed martial arts aficionados all over the blue marble frothing at the mouth at the prospect of what this megacard could offer. And with that, for the first time in 2021, allow me, the spiritual leader of the mixed martial arts world, to hand out some grades and give out a report card in the latest edition of Grading the Card.

UFC Light Heavyweight Championship: Jan Blachowicz vs. Israel Adesanya

Oh boy, where to start with this one. So many in the MMA world, rightfully so, are exuberant at the thought of what this fight could produce. Both Blachowicz and Adesanya are certified knockout artists, in what is by far the best form that either has been in in their careers. Amazing right? Well, I encourage you to hold off momentarily. While this fight could, and we’re all hoping will, result in either an unforgettable war or a highlight reel knockout, both men are most comfortable when counterstriking. Translation: We could be in for Adesanya vs. Romero part 2 if both men stick entirely to their preferable style to counter strike. Do I think that will happen? Probably not, at least I certainly hope not. But this is just typical Johann being the glass half-empty kind of guy he is. What makes me shutter even more is the prospect of the immediate future of the division if Adesanya wins. As I’ve stated on here before, I’m really not big on the whole “champ-champ” thing, unless it’s the only thing that makes sense in that moment, like Cyborg fighting Nunes when neither one had any meaningful challengers left. Otherwise, you run into potential issues like the ones we may face if Adesanya wins and decides to hold up two divisions because he can’t decide which belt he wants more. Will that happen if Adesanya wins? Again, I don’t know. I’m clearly too pessimistic. Anyways, Glover Teixeira should’ve gotten the title fight. Let’s leave it there.

Grade: B

UFC Women’s Featherweight Championship: Amanda Nunes vs. Megan Anderson

This one I can wrap much more quickly that its predecessor. I’ve long been an advocate of abolishing the women’s featherweight division, not because I have an inherent issue with that division, but rather because it seems that the UFC does. Even the minimal attempts the company has made to make this division even fractionally viable, whether it be by giving both Cyborg and Nunes numerous main event slots or forcing natural bantamweights and flyweights to compete on the lowest rated season of The Ultimate Fighter, have fallen flat. So, fair play to the UFC for booking yet another title fight in this practically non-existent division. I seriously wonder what will happen next after Amanda Nunes inevitably blasts Megan Anderson back to Invicta. Are we waiting for Danyelle Wolf to get a win and then throwing her in with the monster? Are we waiting for another inexplicable trade that brings one or both of Kayla Harrison and Claressa Shields to the Octagon? Seriously, what’s the gameplan here? This division’s been on life support since it’s inception, and Amanda Nunes is the last thread keeping it from being extinct.

Grade: C-

UFC Bantamweight Championship: Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling

Alright, now we’re talking, kids. This is the best fight on the card by a substantial margin, for the sole reason that it’s the only fight on the card that pits the two genuine best in a single division against one another. And it just so happens in this case that the division getting its due is one of the hottest in the sport. Petr Yan has become somewhat of a cult legend amongst the deepest corners of MMA fandom online, due to his stoic demeanor combined with a Justin Gaethje-esque style of brutalizing his opponents. Aljamain Sterling has been among the UFC’s elite bantamweights for some time, but has blossomed skill-wise since 2018, paired with the undoubted toughest resume among any bantamweight contender, Yan included. And if even the fact that this really is the matchup between the two best bantamweights in the world doesn’t get you rolling, then maybe the stylistic matchup between these two will. While in a base sense this is a striker vs. grappler matchup, both men are extremely well-rounded. While Sterling is seen as the superior grappler, Yan has a takedown defense percentage topping out almost at 88% and has one of the best sprawls in the division as evidenced in his title winning affair against Jose Aldo. On the flip side, while Yan is seen as being the superior striker, Sterling has one of the highest striking accuracy rates in the division. Essentially, if I have to spell it out for you, this is going to be a crazy fight everywhere it takes place. This, for my money, will be the proverbial show stealer.

Grade: A+

Islam Makhachev vs. Drew Dober

The featured non-title affair on the card features two lightweights vying to be considered the future of the division. In the red corner is Islam Makhachev, the protégé of Khabib Nurmagomedov and his late father, Abdulmanap. Makhachev is very similar stylistically to Khabib, in that his primary goal is to drown his opponent with a relentless, cardio-crippling offensive Sambo wrestling attack. The one thing Makhachev lacks that Khabib did not is that he hasn’t been a consistent finisher, although his knockout of Gleison Tibau in 2018 was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Dober, the American, is very much a new style of test for Makhachev, in that he has exhibited strong anti-wrestling and has vehement knockout power in both hands. My only gripe with this fight is a minor one, and that is the inevitability of killing off a promising young talent in a very strong division. Had I had my way, I would’ve rebooked Makhachev and Rafael Dos Anjos and given Dober someone like Diego Ferreira. Nonetheless, can’t be mad when a fight that pits two monsters against each other comes together organically like this one did.

Grade: A-

Thiago Santos vs. Aleksandar Rakic

And opening up this massive main card is a fight that could very well decide the next light heavyweight title challenger- or, at the very least god forbid, Glover Teixeira’s opponent in an inevitable interim title fight… This in many ways is a crossroads fight for Thiago Santos, who’s coming off of two consecutive losses- albeit to Jon Jones and Glover Teixeira. Santos always has fight ending power in his hands but has shown in recent outings a real susceptibility to elite grapplers. Which brings me to Rakic, perhaps the light heavyweight division’s most well-rounded contender in the current top five. Rakic has unbridled knockout power, combined with a smothering wrestling game if used, which I would comfortably bank my money on occurring. This fight could end up being a repeat of Santos’ fight with Jimi Manuwa, being that it could turn into an all-out striking war for five minutes with even the loser gaining fans in the process. Nevertheless, as fans of both, I’m excited for a top five light heavyweight showcase between two guys both more deserving of the title being contested later in the night than that of the current middleweight champion.

Grade: A

BONUS: Because UFC 259 is so damn good up and down, I’m giving a bonus. Here are some very brief summaries and grades for every other fight on the card.

Dominick Cruz vs. Casey Kenney

For everyone who hates Casey Kenney after his braindead remarks on Sean O’Malley’s podcast, tune into this one. You’ll either hate him more for beating a legend or love the fact he’s progressed so much in his career to have gotten to this point. Either way, a card with Dominick Cruz as the featured prelim has to be amazing, right? Grade: A

Song Yadong vs. Kyler Phillips

A hardcore’s delight. Yadong is one of the most powerful strikers at 135, while Kyler Phillips is maybe the most dynamic bantamweight that doesn’t have a number next to his name. If Phillips pulls this one off, get ready for his name to start surging up the latter for both fans and UFC brass. Grade: A

Joseph Benavidez vs. Askar Askarov

I would call this the de facto flyweight title eliminator if it weren’t for the fact Joe B already has two losses to the current champion. Nevertheless, this is the number two contender vs. the number three contender in a division that’s currently hotter than it’s ever been. Grade: A

Rogerio Bontorin vs. Kai Kara-France

Another incredible flyweight fight between two gentlemen poised for a top contender fight with a win. Bontorin is returning from an extended layoff, prior to which he had won three of his first four UFC appearances. Kara-France has lost two of his last three, albeit to Brandon Moreno and Brandon Royval, two of the division’s top challengers. Of the three flyweight fights, this one is probably the most competitive. Grade: A

Tim Elliott vs. Jordan Espinosa

Yet another incredible flyweight fight. This one is striker vs. grappler, to a degree. Anytime Tim Elliott is involved, you know some weird, herky-jerky moves and methods are imminent. Espinosa has knockout power, but Elliott had a resurgence in his last fight against Ryan Benoit. Grade: B

Kennedy Nzechukwu vs. Carlos Ulberg

Notable for one purpose: Ulberg looks to be a special prospect at 205. As has become commonplace in combat sports, he’s paired with a can to boost his hype. Needless, in my mind, because he’s probably already capable of beating the lower half of the top 30 already in his young five fight career. Grade: B-

Sean Brady vs. Jake Matthews

One that’s flown under the radar given what is the utter chaos of this card. A very intriguing clash between two welterweight prospects on the precipice of top 15 contention. Brady has shown to be one of the most physically gifted welterweights on the roster already through only three UFC appearances, while Matthews has won three consecutive dominant decisions, as well as six of his last seven. Grade: B+

Livinha Souza vs. Amanda Lemos

A fight to determine a brighter women’s strawweight prospect moving forward. In what is undoubtedly the best women’s division in the sport, a brawler with the savvy of Souza or a knockout artist like Lemos each could make the talent-prosperous division that much more entertaining. Grade: B

Uros Medic vs. Aalon Cruz

Similar to the showcase for Ulberg is this for Medic, a Contender Series alumnus who stole the show with a staggering knockout last season. His UFC debut comes against Aalon Cruz, a fellow Contender Series alumnus, except unlike Medic, Cruz hasn’t exhibited traits of a UFC caliber fighter yet. Granted, he’s also only had one fight. Grade: B

Mario Bautista vs. Trevin Jones

Opening the card at 3 PM Vegas time will be a rather interesting bantamweight bout between Bautista, whose sole career loss came against Cory Sandhagen, and Jones, a former short notice replacement who shocked the world when he finished super prospect Timur Valiev back in August of 2020- all to have it overturned because of NSAC’s absolutely draconian marijuana rules. Nevertheless, this should be a fun prospect showcase that should kick off this stupidly stacked card in a fitting fashion. Grade: B

I mean, holy hell. The lowest grade here is a C-, and that’s only because it’s an absolute mismatch featuring the greatest female fighter of all-time. I’m not gonna even bother averaging it out, it gets an A. Also worth noting, 15 fights would be a record for an individual UFC card. This card is so ridiculous, let’s just hope it all stays together.

Follow Johann on Twitter: @thejohanncastro

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