Deiveson Figueiredo dominated Joseph Benavidez to cap off the third main event on Fight Island and become the UFC flyweight champion. The first-round finish featured a tremendous display of striking power, grappling and ultimately a successful submission. Benavidez showed incredible heart, surviving multiple rear-naked choke attempts, but he couldn’t figure out a way to avoid Figueiredo’s grasp.
Figueiredo might be the only man walking away with gold Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, but he was far from the only standout. There were a number of spectacular finishes, including devastating kicks, triangles, a kneebar and more. There were also rising prospects who made statements, and a few surprises.
Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy react to the biggest moments from UFC Fight Night, including Jack Hermansson’s heel hook win over Kelvin Gastelum in the co-main event.
Who’s next for the main event and co-main event fighters?
Murphy on Figueiredo: After missing weight for his title shot in February, Figueiredo’s dream scenario played out Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
Three options stand out for Figueiredo’s first true defense, in order of the UFC flyweight rankings: Brandon Moreno, Alex Perez and Askar Askarov. Recency bias — which is real in combat sports — tips Askarov, who started off the main card Saturday with an eye-opening win over Alexandre Pantoja. For me, though, I’ll pick Moreno for two reasons.
First, “The Assassin Baby” was unlucky to draw Askarov when the two met September in Mexico City. In a sport in which “robbery” gets bandied about for every close decision, Moreno was robbed; he should have won that fight.
Every bit as important, Moreno presents a stand-and-trade stylistic matchup against the aggressive Figueiredo that will make fans salivate. Book it as a pay-per-view co-main or cable main event. Then, go ahead and make out the Fight of the Night bonus checks to those two. They’ll earn it.
Raimondi on Benavidez: I have a policy to not ever say if a fighter should retire. Simply, this is how fighters choose to make a living, and if there is a promoter who is willing to pay them to continue to compete, then more power to them. I can’t fault it. Sometimes there are cases that get uncomfortable, such as when a fighter has been knocked out too many times. That is not an issue here at all. Benavidez is still one of the best flyweight fighters in the world, as he has been for about a decade.
At 35 and with absolutely nothing to prove to anyone, Benavidez could step away right now and everyone would understand. “Joe B” is one of the most beloved fighters on the roster, by the fans and his peers. Benavidez is also an intelligent guy and could do any number of things in the future. His idea to showcase fighter fashion has led to a popular social media following.
If he does want to fight again, great. Someone like Moreno would provide a great opponent, seeing as he’s one of the few elite flyweights Benavidez has not already beaten.
Murphy on Hermansson: Hermansson’s heel hook not only gets him back in the win column, but it leaves him fresh for a turnaround at his leisure — fortunately for Hermansson, he absorbed zero significant strikes. Unfortunately, the result complicates the top tier at 185 pounds.
It’s not quite as simple as “The Joker” laid out in his postfight conversation with Paul Felder.
Former champ Robert Whittaker and Darren Till meet in next week’s main event. The winner puts himself in the conversation for No. 1 middleweight contender. Jared Cannonier — who knocked out Hermansson last September — is also waiting in the wings.
There’s no incentive for Cannonier to face Hermansson right now, nor do I foresee the Whittaker-Till winner looking down the ladder to the dangerous Norwegian-Swede. The loser of Whittaker-Till makes a lot more sense. It provides him opportunity for a quality rebound, and Hermansson can prove he truly belongs among the division’s elite.
Wagenheim on Gastelum: After his third straight loss, Gastelum needs a confidence-builder. Where’s he going to find it? Probably not in the top 10. Gastelum came in at No. 7 in ESPN’s middleweight rankings, ahead of Hermansson, Jacare Souza (whom Gastelum has already defeated) and Bellator fighter Rafael Lovato Jr.
So where can he go but further downward? Maybe Gastelum should fight the winner of next weekend’s meeting between veteran Derek Brunson and young Edmen Shahbazyan — putting Gastelum in either a gatekeeper bout or a showdown of rebuilding 185-pounders.
Which prospect had the most impressive performance?
Murphy: If you tuned in late Saturday, go back and find Arman Tsarukyan dismantling UFC veteran Davi Ramos.
Coming in, the strategy seemed straightforward for Tsarukyan: keep it on the feet and outpoint the Brazilian. Ramos, after all, is a decorated grappler with medals at multiple major international events and has earned seven of eight MMA finishes by submission.
But Tsarukyan looked entirely comfortable in Ramos’ guard and rolled out of an early leglock with apparent ease. On the feet, the Armenian nearly tripled Ramos in strikes, going an unofficial 18-for-18 attacking the legs, and landed enough third-round left hands to summon the cageside physician.
Throw in that Tsarukyan is only 23 — still years away from his prime — his performance generated more excitement for the future than the other impressive prospects Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
Raimondi: I can’t say enough about Tsarukyan. He looked quite impressive in a decision loss to the very good Islam Makhachev last year, but everything clicked for Tsarukyan in the victory over Ramos on Saturday night. Tsarukyan’s striking looked much improved. But what was most impressive was his grappling.
Ramos is a chiseled, well-built Brazilian jiu-jitsu monster. Tsarukyan wasn’t just not afraid of Ramos’ grappling — he actually took him down several times. At 23, Tsarukyan is going to be a real problem. The UFC’s lightweight division is the best in the promotion, but a well-rounded prospect with excellent wrestling and ground work will get a lot of wins.
Wagenheim: Where do we begin? This fight card, like Wednesday’s, did not have the star power of last weekend’s three-title-fight event. But there were prospects up and down Saturday’s lineup, and there are several directions to look, honestly, in deciphering who was most impressive. I’m going with Rafael Fiziev, a 27-year-old out of Kyrgyzstan who coaches Muay Thai in the martial arts discipline’s birthplace, Thailand. He was facing a high-level striker in Marc Diakiese, and Fiziev schooled him. Fiziev lost his UFC debut last year, but two straight wins since then have him solidly on a path upward. Let’s see what he can do against a grappler’s different brand of pressure.
Which flyweight stood out the most?
Murphy: How could a flyweight have impressed more than Figueiredo? Dominating a veteran like Benavidez was spectacular enough — that was the first submission loss of his career — but the obstacles to even reach Fight Island make Figueiredo’s win one of the stories of the year.
Between quarantines in Sao Paulo, Brazil, two transcontinental flights and more quarantine in the UAE, Figueiredo was not able to move freely about the fighter hotel until the evening before weighing in. Rationales for Benavidez winning Saturday’s rematch could be written before the fight.
To endure all that, then drop Benavidez within 45 seconds and provide unrelenting punishment and choke him out cold was truly stunning. The former hairdresser-cowboy-bricklayer might be at the beginning of a long title reign.
Normally, arguments could be made for Ariane Lipski and Askarov. No disrespect to them, both wonderful wins, but there was only one option from this event.
Raimondi: There’s the answer of Figueiredo and then there are only wrong answers after that. Figueiredo is incredible and continues to impress with his power and finishing ability every single time he gets into the cage.
Flyweight is not a division known for knockouts. Demetrious Johnson held the UFC flyweight title for five years and had only two of them. But Figueiredo has three in his past six wins, and has the kind of dynamite in his hands to knock down an incredibly durable fighter like Benavidez three times in a single round. That is no joke.
Figueiredo now becomes one of the most intriguing champions on the roster, a must-watch every time he gets into the Octagon. And that sure is something considering flyweight was a division the UFC recently considered folding up altogether.
Wagenheim: Askar Askarov probably earned himself a title shot with an eye-opening performance against a tough guy ranked above him, and Lipski’s finish was flashy. But this night belonged to Figueiredo. Performances do not get more virtuosic than what he delivered in winning the 125-pound belt.
It was going to be difficult for him to outdo his February knockout win against Benavidez, but he did so in a big way. He sent Benavidez to the canvas with an overhand right hand just 45 seconds in, and two times he nearly had him choked out before finally getting the finish at 4:48. Figueiredo made it look easy against a man who has been second best in the flyweight division since there has been a flyweight division. That’s impressive. Good luck getting the belt away from this guy.
What was the biggest surprise of the night?
Murphy: You could have gotten better than 6-to-1 odds for Joel Alvarez to submit Joe Duffy. Those are incredibly long for someone who, entering Saturday, had 14 of 16 wins via tap.
Alvarez’s avenue to victory was clear, but Duffy signified a step up in experience and boasts jiu-jitsu credentials that should have been a roadblock for the 27-year-old from Spain.
Yet Alvarez saw Duffy’s neck exposed on a takedown attempt. Alvarez grabbed his own opposite wrist to threaten a guillotine. Without even getting Duffy fully into his guard to maximize leverage, Alvarez secured the tap. Alvarez shrugged his shoulders — almost surprised — walking away.
Duffy admitted postfight in an Instagram post announcing his retirement, “I think it’s time to realize that I haven’t got what it takes any more.”
Duffy evidently expected more from himself. The ease of Alvarez’s win was enough to prompt “Irish Joe” to call it a career.
Raimondi: If you would have told me a few months ago that Jack Hermansson would finish Kelvin Gastelum with a leglock in a pivotal middleweight contest on a desert island at the crack of dawn (local time), I would have said you were having a fever dream. But yes, that is exactly what just happened. Hermansson got Gastelum in a precarious position on the ground — perhaps Gastelum underestimated it — and Hermansson locked in the heel hook, getting the tap. Leglocks are so rare in MMA at the highest level. Hermansson is an excellent grappler, but few could have foreseen this result. That will be on the submission-of-the-year list when 2020 is over.
Wagenheim: For me, it’s a tie between two lookalike results. In the co-main event, Hermansson made quick work of Gastelum, and he didn’t do it with his usual high output in stand-up fighting (he came in with a 2.57 strike differential, highest in UFC middleweight history). No, this time Hermansson got the job done on the canvas and did so in just 1:18, even after Gastelum reversed his takedown and put him on his back. That changed the way I look at Hermansson.
Likewise, Ariane Lipski put a new twist on her “Queen of Violence” nickname by getting her first UFC finish not by knockout (she has six of those in her career), but by submission. Applying a kneebar that made Luana Carolina scream her verbal submission at 1:28 of Round 1 was totally on brand for the Lipski nickname.
What was the best finish of the night?
Murphy: Ariane Lipski arrived in the UFC as the KSW flyweight champion, a hype train barreling full-steam ahead. I made a bold prediction in a previous “Five Rounds” she would earn a title shot against Valentina Shevchenko in 2019.
Losses in Lipski’s first two Octagon appearances derailed any hope of that, but she impressed enough in a November decision win to ink a new four-fight contract. Now at 26, Lipski performed Saturday with the confidence of somebody with promotional backing, tapping Luana Carolina to a kneebar in less than 90 seconds.
Lipski’s combination of composure and killer instinct stood out. She essentially conceded her back to a grounded opponent to go hunting for Carolina’s knee. Within seconds, concern shifted from Lipski leaving herself vulnerable to a heel hook or calf slicer to Carolina screaming in pain from a kneebar and the referee diving in.
Lipski torquing that knee will remain etched in fans’ minds, giving her the momentum to finally ascend a division in desperate need of compelling challengers.
Raimondi: There was only one knockout or TKO on Saturday night’s card and it was a doozy. Roman Dolidze, making his UFC debut, starched Khadis Ibragimov with a kick that really ended up being a knee. Dolidze, a southpaw, went for a switch kick with his left leg. At the same time, Ibragimov was leaning in with an attack of his own. Dolidze’s knee connected flush with Ibragimov’s jaw. Right on the button. Ibragimov was out and Dolidze, a native of the country of Georgia, earned his first UFC win in absolutely spectacular fashion.
Dolidze, a grappler by trade with politics as his family’s business, seems like someone to keep an eye on in the UFC’s light heavyweight division.
Wagenheim: Half of the evening’s dozen fights ended in finishes, and there were some beautiful ones. But I have to factor in strength of competition and the stakes of the fight, so Figueiredo gets the nod. He was taking on Benavidez, the second-greatest fighter in men’s flyweight history, a man who had fought 34 times before and not been submitted once. And it took Figueiredo only 4:48 to choke him out.
Now, the submission was the direct result of a discombobulating knockdown just 45 seconds into the fight, but he got it done via submission and is a world champion. Bravo to the Brazilian dynamo.