An injury-plagued start to 2018 left UFC with a bevy of early fight cancellations, but that proved only to be opportunity for new stars to shine at UFC 221 in Perth.
The absence of notable names on a card headlined by the main event of Luke Rockhold-Yoel Romero for the interim UFC Middleweight Championship gave way for top prospects to showcase their talents on the main pay-per-view card.
Fighters previously relegated to the less popular Fight Night showed out on the preliminary and main cards of UFC 221, reaching a larger audience of MMA fans.
On the FS1 prelims, Israel Adesanya capitalized on his opportunity in the spotlight in Perth. A former Australian Fight Championship middleweight titleholder, Adesanya lived up to the hype with a convincing knockout of Rob Wilkinson.
"The rest of the strikers in this division…you're on notice." — @jimmysmithmma
— FOX Sports: UFC (@UFCONFOX) February 11, 2018
Adesanya then exceeded all expectations on his debut with a confident post-fight promo and claims that he has more hype than Conor McGregor entering the UFC; a clear indication Adesanya is exactly the type of fighter the UFC currently needs while the organization works to develop the next generation of household names.
— FOX Sports: UFC (@UFCONFOX) February 11, 2018
In the co-main event, Curtis Blaydes earned a similar opportunity as Adesanya on an even bigger stage against the veteran Mark Hunt. At 8-1 — and the lone loss in his career coming against Francis Ngannou in his UFC debut — Blaydes went to Australia with the intention that a fight against Hunt served as a stepping stone to further opportunities at the top of the heavyweight division.
First, Blaydes needed to outlast Hunt inside the octagon and survive against an elite striker who has knocked out some massive names in his MMA career. Blaydes did exactly that and neutralized Hunt’s striking with a dominating wrestling performance, showing off the mat skills that made him a high school champion in Illinois.
At one moment in the opening round, it appeared Hunt’s powerful striking pedigree would claim another victim when Blaydes staggered down to a knee from some big punches by Hunt. However, Blaydes immediately countered with the first of a night of takedowns to instantly turn the fight in his favor.
— UFC (@ufc) February 11, 2018
From the first takedown forward, the fight belonged to Blaydes and his wrestling ability. Takedown after takedown, including some impressive suplexes of the hefty Hunt, ultimately earned Blaydes a convincing decision victory and a likely future fight against a top heavyweight opponent.
Without the UFC’s present injury epidemic it is likely Blaydes wouldn’t have received the opportunity to showcase himself at the co-main event level of a PPV card. Now, a fighter who quickly climbed the MMA ranks from junior college wrestling obscurity is a far bigger star than he was 24 hours ago thanks to the position he was placed in due to the circumstance of the UFC’s current lack of healthy household names.
It is entirely likely Blaydes will now find himself in the title contender picture in the heavyweight division in the aftermath of July’s superfight between champion Stipe Miocic and current UFC Light Heavyweight Championship holder Daniel Cormier. Blaydes’ record is relatively unblemished and now commands another test against a top-ranked fighter.
This is a tremendous showing for Blaydes, a 26 y.o. heavyweight prospect whose only loss came in his UFC debut against Ngannou when he was training on his own at a UFC Gym in Chicago.
This is why these cards and these fights matter.
— E. Spencer Kyte (@spencerkyte) February 11, 2018
UFC 221 may still end as a PPV failure in terms of buy-rates, and the convoluted UFC Middleweight Championship situation from Yoel Romero’s knockout win in the main event after missing weight will take a significant portion of the spotlight. Still, the night of fights in Perth elevated two fighters into future stardom at a time where the UFC sorely needs prospects to turn into widely recognized names.
Israel Adesanya is poised for middleweight stardom and could be the answer down the road to the UFC’s need to move beyond the likes of Rockhold, Romero and Whittaker as the staples of the division. Curtis Blaydes is now a top contender in the heavyweight division who could be in line for an intriguing rematch against Francis Ngannou.
Dana White and UFC brass could not have asked for a better result in Perth, given the trying circumstances coming in. Established stars may have exited the card, but new ones gained traction at the perfect time in their respective careers.
Now, it is up for the UFC and the fighters themselves to take advantage. The MMA world will be watching their next moves and the names of Israel Adesanya and Curtis Blaydes are names you won’t want to forget as they begin their climb to main event status after showcasing their star potential in Australia.