UFC 231 didn’t have the pomp and circumstance an MMA fan in 2018 would expect. However, this doesn’t mean the event didn’t deliver fireworks with a grand finale.
The card’s headliners didn’t pump up the event with a great deal of trash talk. Sure, there were confident statements made by the four individuals atop the card, but it was a far cry from the over-the-top norm that seems to be driving pay-per-view business for the UFC. Conor McGregor reinvigorated his MMA career with some classic performances on the mic prior to his fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov. The UFC seemingly pushed Devin Till and Derrick Lewis into title contention at inopportune times, based more on their charisma than on their in-ring deeds. UFC 231 presented fans with something new, but it was a throwback at the same time. It was simply a night of good fights.
Max Holloway and Brian Ortega finally met in one of the most anticipated featherweight title bouts in recent memory. This headlining fight didn’t feature a young lion attempting to unseat a dominant veteran, and it wasn’t built upon layers of mental warfare. Instead, it represented a clash between two of the best 145-pound fighters in the UFC. Holloway and Ortega were on incredible rolls heading into the contest. Instead of building the contest around the two men trading one-liners, the title match was constructed upon the idea of two dominant fighters, in their prime, going head-to-head. This is a classic example of the UFC actually delivering on its “we put on fights the fans want to see” cliche, something other combat sports sometimes fail miserably at accomplishing.
In the evening’s co-main event, the UFC finally got the women’s flyweight title on the person it wanted all along. When the division was created, it was all but assured Valentina Shevchenko would drop down to flyweight and wreak havoc. She was essentially crowned the champion, despite the fact she didn’t have UFC gold around her waist quite yet. At UFC 231, the company put on arguably the biggest fight currently available in the division to crown a new champion after stripping Nicco Montaño of the belt prior to UFC 228. The fight between Shevchenko and former strawweight champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk was fairly one-sided, but the organization is no doubt happy with the outcome: a seemingly unstoppable Shevchenko as the new division’s new champion.
Both the welterweight clash between Gunnar Nelson and Alex Oliveira and the middleweight affair between Thiago Santos and Jimi Manuwa delivered in style. Nelson ended his contest with a rear-naked choke after making Oliveira’s forehead explode in a shower of blood from a nasty elbow. Seriously, the images of Oliveira’s forehead leaking blood looked like something you’d see in a horror movie or an old ECW pro-wrestling pay-per-view. Meanwhile, Santos and Manuwa wasted little time in feeling each other out. The two light heavyweights traded shots and put each other on the verge of a loss. Like a pair of high-powered offenses in sports, the team that scored last — in this case, Santos — ended up being the winner. The Brazilian floored Manuwa with a single punch in the second frame.
Was there some disappointment? Sure. The two top-billed fights ended up being one-sided affairs, but given how dominant Holloway and Shevchenko looked against elite competition, it’s hard to focus too much on the negatives. The scrap between Hakeem Dawodu and Kyle Bochniak looked on paper to be a sure “Fight of the Night” contender, but it ended up being a forgettable affair. That’s not something common for either man, and both fighters can be expected to continue to provide entertaining fights down the road.
The Fox Sports 1 card also featured four decisions, including some that were extremely questionable. It’s not good for the fighters on the losing end of a questionable decision, but it does create talking points for fans moving forward. As a fighter, buzz with the fans, both good and bad, is a major key to getting noticed by the UFC brass.
UFC 231 won’t go down as one of the best events of the year. It’s surely not going to be a major draw in terms of pay-per-view buys. However, it did provide a nice reprieve from the talk-first, fight-later promotional model we’ve become so accustomed to in today’s MMA. We can dig the larger than life characters like McGregor, but sometime it’s nice just to have an event built around the idea of great fighters competing against one another.