UFC 276 was set to be the MMA event of the year – and in many ways, it succeeded. The card featured a number of highly anticipated fights, as well as a few surprising performances from relative newcomers, who solidified themselves as rising stars in the UFC world.
The card immediately opened with an unexpected highlight as we watched Julija Stoliarenko, off the back of four consecutive defeats, claim her first victory in the Octagon against Jessica-Rose Clark. Stoliarenko effectively manoeuvred her opponent to the ground where she forced an armbar submission in an impressive 42 seconds.
Not to be outdone, Jalin Turner, having landed two devastating blows to Brad Riddell’s face, locked Riddell into an unbreakable guillotine choke, landing the Men’s Lightweight #14 spot, marking the second Round 1 submission of the night.
One fight everyone was looking forward to was that of two veteran welterweight fighters: Robbie Lawler and Bryan Barbarena. Round 1 did not disappoint. Both fighters exchanged punch after punch. Other than a quick slip by Barbarena, he and Lawler looked evenly matched.
Round 2 started off much the same until Barbarena connected a punch on Lawler, followed by a barrage of shots to his retreating and dazed opponent. Lawler briefly managed to regain himself, but it was clear he was tired and badly hurt after another brutal right hand from Barbarena.
Finally, as unanimous chants of “Robbie!” could be heard from the crowd, Barbarena delivered blow after blow to Lawler before the referee stepped in to save him.
By contrast, the next match, Alex Pereira vs Sean Strickland, was much more reserved. Both fighters mainly kept their distance, testing each other with the occasional kick or punch – until Pereira saw his opportunity to strike. A single left hook knocked his 185lb opponent to the ground, securing the Brazilian the position as one of the most promising middleweight fighters in MMA.
The final match before the big fight – Alexander Volkanovski vs Max Holloway – was my highlight of the event. This was the third time these competitors have faced each other, and they have history.
I’m cautiously optimistic that this next middleweight championship challenge looks set to make up for the last unsatisfying bout
Holloway, the former featherweight champion, lost his title to Volkanovski in 2019, and failed to retake it the next year in a close split-decision defeat. Despite having a five-inch height disadvantage, it was clear that Volk had the upper hand from the first round, inflicting a cut above Holloway’s eye, and despite his cutman’s best efforts, it would continue to be a problem throughout the fight.
It was not the tenseness of the fight that made it interesting – everyone knew that Volk was on track to win. What made the fight interesting was seeing an exhausted Holloway, steeped in blood from his injuries and an incredibly skilled fighter himself, keep on fighting until the end, against an opponent with barely a scratch on him.
Now was time for the main event: the Men’s Middleweight Championship. The champion Israel Adesanya defended his belt from world number two, Jared Cannonier.
Ever the showman, Adesanya walked out dressed as The Undertaker to his iconic theme, complete with an urn marked for Cannonier’s ashes – certainly a welcome homage to old-school wrestling in the presence of WWE frontman Vince McMahon. However, Adesanya’s unrivalled showmanship could not make up for the disappointment that was the fight ahead.
It was a pretty standard first four rounds, with Adesanya exemplifying why he’s the current world champion, generally out-striking ‘The Killa Gorilla’, interrupted by small bouts of clinching, where Cannonier had Adesanya pressed against the cage. However, Cannonier could not convert this into a ground fight.
Throughout the fight, Adesanya effectively used his four-inch height advantage to deliver precise but powerful strikes from range. Cannonier, who himself demonstrated his top-two credentials, had a good third round but otherwise failed to come near knocking the proverbial crown off Adesanya’s head.
Other than a brief moment where an inadvertent eye poke threatened to end a second fight of the night, this was a pretty consistent trend for the first 20 minutes of fighting.
The fifth and final round arrived. By everyone watching’s estimates, Izzy was up three rounds to one: Cannonier has to make a bold move. He needed a stoppage to win the match or risk handing Adesanya the free victory by decision. Cannonier knew this; he was told by his team to “Get the job done!” between rounds. Everyone tried to anticipate what Cannonier would do.
And… nothing. More clinching but ultimately Cannonier failed to manifest it into an advantage. Adesanya easily escaped, and other than delivering a few more powerful strikes, it was clear that Cannonier had all but resigned.
Adesanya vs Cannonier was a bout between two of the greatest fighters currently on the MMA scene, weight irrespective. Both fighters showed unquestionable stamina, technique and the ability to get hit constantly for 25 minutes straight, yet I couldn’t help but feel that this fight played second fiddle to earlier fights on the card.
Not that entertaining fights can’t end in a decision – that was most of the enjoyment of Volkanovski vs Holloway 3, the rightful headliner for an event stacked with promising match-ups.
In his victor’s interview, Adesanya challenged Pereira, a relative newcomer to the UFC, but closer in height and a promising rising star after his first-round knockout of Sean Strickland earlier that night.
Adesanya also has a history with Pereira, having lost to him twice before (albeit many years ago in their kickboxing days), including one by knockout. I’m cautiously optimistic that this next middleweight championship challenge looks set to make up for the last unsatisfying bout.