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UFC 290 takeaways: A crossroads for Volkanovski, a new flyweight king and a fitting farewell for Lawler

The UFC put on a tremendous International Fight Week finale Saturday night. UFC 290 featured finishes galore, and when the fights didn’t end in a finish, they were memorable with nonstop action. From the first fight on the card to the successful Alexander Volkanovski title defense, this was a night that delivered.

Volkanovski’s victory over Yair Rodriguez was another statement, despite the champion saying afterward he needs to have surgery because of an arm injury. Alexandre Pantoja took Brandon Moreno’s gold in a contender for fight of the year. Robbie Lawler said farewell with a bang and Bo Nickal got another finish, but this time it came on the feet.

Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim, Carlos Contreras Legaspi and Eddie Maisonet react to a standout night in Las Vegas.

What else can Alexander Volkanovski do?

Wagenheim: The last time Volkanovski lost a featherweight fight was… well, never. In February, he narrowly came up short in a challenge of UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev. Prior to that, he had won 10 fights in a row at 145 pounds, including three wins over Max Holloway and one over Jose Aldo — both former champs and all-time legends. Volkanovski made his UFC debut in 2016, fighting once as a lightweight before moving to the division he has since dominated.

But UFC 290 was an MMA bizarro world, with four knockouts in less than a minute, including the feel-good swan song of Robbie Lawler. And right before Volkanovski’s main event against Yair Rodriguez, we’d seen a changing of the guard at flyweight, with Alexandre Pantoja dethroning Brandon Moreno. And then, of course, there was the unpredictability of Rodriguez to consider. His attacks come fast and furious, sometimes from the most unexpected angles.

None of this could stop Volkanovski from making this his night. He stalked Rodriguez from the start, avoiding the challenger’s offense and putting him on the defensive with takedowns in all three rounds. The champ also showed off his tight, effective striking offense. It was an all-around performance of a fighter at the top of his game, capped by a counter right hand that wobbled Rodriguez and led to the finish at 4:19 of Round 3.

For Volkanovski, who is tied with Makhachev atop the ESPN men’s pound-for-pound rankings, this was his fifth defense of the UFC featherweight title he won in December 2019 — he’s the fight promotion’s longest-reigning current champion. With his 11th straight featherweight victory, Volkanovski now trails only Holloway (13) for the longest streak in UFC history. The accolades keep piling up. And so do the masterpieces inside the Octagon.

Who’s next at featherweight?

Okamoto: For Volkanovski, it should be Islam Makhachev. It’s a no-brainer. One million percent. Send the contracts now. Sign me up, baby.

Volkanovski is the single most special athlete in the game right now. Moving up and challenging Makhachev is a ridiculous challenge. It was ridiculous when he did it in February, and he nearly won. It will be ridiculous again in October, when he does it in Abu Dhabi. But if there is one man who is up for comically difficult challenges, it is Volkanovski.

If I’m Makhachev right now, I’m taking this threat from Volkanovski very, very seriously. There might not be a lightweight alive right now who can beat Makhachev, but there could easily be a featherweight who is capable of it in Volkanovski. The story is great. The fight is great. The timing is great. This is the easy one to book.

For Rodriguez, Ilia Topuria should be up next. Tonight, he didn’t get it done, and it was more or less one-way traffic for the champ, but he did show glimpses of why he was considered such a dangerous threat. There’s no shame in losing to Volkanovski right now. And even though the ground work left a little to be desired, Rodriguez didn’t look completely out of sorts against one of the better grapplers in the division.

Topuria is very hot right now and coming off a win, whereas Rodriguez is obviously coming off a loss, but they each have a recent win over Josh Emmett and stylistically, this is a beautiful fight. Let Volkanovski move up again in October to face Makhachev and book Rodriguez vs. Topuria in either a five-round main event on a UFC Fight Night or add it to the numbered event on Mexican Independence Day in Las Vegas.

The wild card for Rodriguez: Aljamain Sterling. Hear me out. If Sterling beats Sean O’Malley at UFC 292 in August, I anticipate him moving up in weight to challenge for a second belt. I don’t know if the UFC will fast-track him straight to a title fight against Volkanovski, especially if Volkanovski does get a second attempt at lightweight in October. That leaves Sterling in a position where he’ll likely need to take a fight and prove he deserves a shot at a 145-pound belt, and this could be a very fun fight for him to try to do that.

Pantoja era begins with another stellar flyweight fight

Raimondi: Has any division had more of a glow-up in the history of the UFC than flyweight? The four fights between Brandon Moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo were all outstanding. And Saturday night, Moreno and Alexandre Pantoja put on simply one of the best fights in UFC history. An absolute classic with both bleeding, throwing big shots and struggling for every position. Pantoja dropped Moreno in the first round. Moreno came roaring back. Pantoja rallied after that. The fight went everywhere and the pace they set was unbelievable. The fans were enraptured by the entire thing. Sure, this was a partisan crowd for Moreno in Las Vegas, a heavily Mexican American area less than three hours from the border. But this fight would have brought the crowd to its feet in any area in the world. It was that outstanding.

Moreno helped change the reputation of the flyweight division. He’s never in a bad fight. This is a far cry from the days when a flyweight title headliner would cause fans to leave the arena before it even began. This is not a shot at Demetrious Johnson, who was a sublime champion, an all-time great and a credit to MMA itself, but he was dominant, almost too much so. And it felt like his big fights were not compelling because of that. The UFC was on the verge of abolishing the entire division just a few years ago. It feels like that was eons ago now after a string of unforgettable flyweight title fights.

The Pantoja era starts now and he has been, for years, one of the most exciting fighters in the division. So, don’t expect this run of excellent title fights to end with him holding gold. There are other action fighters waiting in the wings, too, like Brandon Royval and Manel Kape. Royval weighed in Friday as the backup fighter for the Moreno vs. Pantoja fight. But also, don’t count out Moreno. Yes, he has now lost three times to Pantoja (including an exhibition on “The Ultimate Fighter”). But this co-main event at UFC 290 was incredibly close and could have gone either way. A scorecard for Moreno on Saturday would not have been a bad one. He’ll be back.

And if it’s a fourth fight between Pantoja and Moreno — kind of like the four fights between Moreno and Figueiredo — no one would be too upset.

What’s next at flyweight?

Okamoto: Should the UFC run Pantoja-Moreno back… again? I guess it’s a good problem to have, right? These flyweight title matchups — first it was Moreno-Figueiredo, now it’s Moreno-Pantoja — have been so spectacular, so entertaining, so competitive, there’s an immediate desire to simply run them back one after another. But at what point does that kind of repetition feel a little… repetitive? Personally, I say just run it right back between Moreno and Pantoja, and a lack of other great options is a big reason for that.

If the UFC doesn’t book a third meeting between these two right away (fourth meeting, unofficially, if you count Pantoja’s win over Moreno on “The Ultimate Fighter”), I suppose the next-best option is Amir Albazi. Albazi is a fun flyweight with a lot of talent and a lot of finishing ability, but most observers don’t think he even won his last fight against Kai Kara-France. And even if you disregard that sentiment, Albazi hasn’t done enough to really excite anyone about a title shot. He’s deserving and a matchup between him and Pantoja would be plenty enticing, but there would be next to zero heat attached to it.

I think the UFC would be best served to book a series of high-profile flyweight fights on the same card along with a trilogy bout between Pantoja and Moreno. Really give the flyweights a showcase and set the stage for new matchups moving forward. Because this division does need new matchups at the top. That much is undebatable. But I don’t think now is the time for them. For now, repetition is the way to go.

The Ruthless farewell Robbie Lawler deserved

Wagenheim: Through 47 professional fights over the past 22 years, Robbie Lawler has always been a fan favorite. Of course, he has some company on the UFC roster in that regard. Where “Ruthless Robbie” distinguishes himself from the crowd is in being a fighter’s fighter.

During the lead-up to UFC 290, many of the athletes on the card were asked for their thoughts on the departing Lawler, and every single one of them showed deep respect, even awe. Alexander Volkanovski reflected back on Lawler’s 2015 fight with Rory MacDonald, which on Thursday was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, and called it an inspiration for his own career. Brandon Moreno said of Lawler, “He’s a warrior.” Robert Whittaker said, “He’s an absolute legend.”

So there goes Ruthless Robbie turning UFC champions into fanboys.

And in his final fight, at age 41, Lawler turned in a vintage performance. After walking out to a standing ovation from the fans, then pausing on the apron of the Octagon to look around packed T-Mobile Arena and soak in the moment, Lawler went right to work, like he always has. With the crowd chanting “Robbie! Robbie!” from the start, Lawler almost immediately locked Niko Price in a clinch at the center of the cage and landed a left hook. Then another. Then a left uppercut. Then another left hook, which sent Price collapsing to the canvas.

Lawler raised his arms triumphantly and walked away, then took a knee to bury his face in his hands and take a few seconds to feel the emotions of the 38-second knockout and all of the violently sublime career moments that came before.

MMA is a sport that often sends its legends out the exit door with cruel, sad final acts. Not Lawler. He walks away on his terms, just like he always fought.

Who’s next for Bo Nickal?

Okamoto: I’m leaning Punahele Soriano.

The Tresean Gore matchup really was perfect for Nickal. Gore doesn’t have much experience, but he has shown some promise, which is why he’s in the UFC to begin with. It’s a fight that made a ton of sense. With Gore injured though, and Nickal coming out unscathed once again, I’m looking at other options and my search landed on Soriano.

Soriano is 9-3 and has been competing in MMA since 2015 going back to his amateur career. So, he has a significant experience advantage on Nickal. But Nickal has been competing his entire life at a high level of wrestling, and we’re at a point we might need to see how much that experience translates.

Soriano has a fun fighting style and he’s a knockout threat. If Nickal were to beat him, honestly it would tell us something. That would be impressive. Soriano is a legitimate UFC middleweight.

Julian Marquez is the wild card here. Another middleweight who would have a significant experience advantage on Nickal, but one who has never shown the type of ceiling Nickal possesses (that’s not meant to be a dig, very few prospects have ever shown as high a ceiling as Nickal). This would be a serious test and, like Soriano, there’s a real danger factor with Marquez. All nine of his wins have come via finish. This would tell us something about Nickal, without being too crazy of a step up.

The most shocking upset of the night

Contreras Legaspi: Anything can happen in MMA and Denise Gomes handled the biggest betting upset of the night with a heavy right hand to one of the biggest prospects in the strawweight division.

Yazmin Jauregui had a big hype justified in the great boxing she showed in Combate Global and both of her fights in the UFC. As it happened to Alexa Grasso, the current flyweight champion, this early loss can do good for her career and take pressure off her back. Many see her as a future contender, but at 24 and with just 11 pro fights, she still has a lot to learn.

During this week she was convinced of her improvements since her last appearance and she should turn the page fast, because she can be one of the biggest additions to the Mexican Independence Day card in September, which would provide her with a perfect environment to get back on track.

On the other side, Gomes deserves a lot of credit. She now has six knockouts in eight wins and the last two happened against two of the best strikers who have arrived in the division in the past year, Jauregui and Bruna Brasil, who had one of the best KO’s of last year’s “Contender Series.”

Jamal Murray, Rey Mysterio among celebrities in attendance for UFC 290

Maisonet: The stars are out in Las Vegas as the convergence of International Fight Week and NBA summer league makes for a fun night on The Strip.

On Friday, a sold-out Thomas & Mack Arena hosted the highly anticipated debut of international prospect and San Antonio Spurs’ forward Victor Wembanyama. Rapper J. Cole and NBA legends such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West were in attendance to witness Wembanyama’s time in Vegas.

On Saturday, with two title fights on the card, more big names were out to witness the drama at T-Mobile Arena. NBA champion Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla made the switch from courtside to Octagon-side. Oklahoma City Thunder guard Josh Giddey was in the building to support fellow Aussie Alexander Volkanovski after supporting his Thunder teammates at Thomas & Mack. During Volkanovski’s walk into the arena, following behind him was Murray — champions must have a thing about hanging with each other.

Former United States president Donald Trump made his fourth appearance at a UFC event. Others in the crowd included actors Miles Teller and Mark Wahlberg, WWE Hall of Famer Rey Mysterio and celebrity chef Guy Fieri.

If you’re a fan of basketball and mixed martial arts, Las Vegas on the second weekend of July might be the best place to be on Earth. Thank you, Adam Silver and Dana White.

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