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It was an emotional Saturday night in Jacksonville as the UFC wrapped up its three-card stay in Florida. In the main event, Walt Harris came out swinging and nearly picked up a knockout victory over Alistair Overeem, only for the veteran Overeem to come back and take over the fight. After Overeem scored a second-round TKO, he embraced Harris, who was fighting for the first time since the death of his stepdaughter in late 2019.
The theme for much of the rest of the night was tight decisions. On the main card alone, Claudia Gadelha edged past Angela Hill by split decision, and Dan Ige did the same against Edson Barboza. Song Yadong won a unanimous decision over Marlon Vera, with all three judges scoring the fight 29-28 in his favor, but that result was equally tight.
There’s a lot to unpack after this UFC Fight Night, and ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim are here to break down the biggest questions that Saturday night’s action raised.
What’s your biggest takeaway from the main event?
Helwani: A couple of things come to mind: First off, my heart breaks for Walt Harris and his family. He has handled this situation with such grace, so it was tough seeing him on his knees after the fight, especially after he looked so good in the first round. Second, I’m not ready to count out Alistair Overeem just yet. If his fight against Jairzinho Rozenstruik lasts four more seconds, he is on an impressive four-fight winning streak right now. The knock on Overeem later in his career was his chin and, well, that doesn’t seem to be an issue at the moment, because he weathered a storm early in the fight when it looked like Harris was on the verge of stopping him. Overeem’s move to Elevation Fight Team has proved to be a huge success — what a run that team has had overall — and all of a sudden he appears to be a couple of wins away from being a player again at heavyweight. Never count out the Reem, who turned 40 on Sunday.
Okamoto: I don’t know if Walt Harris is ever going to figure it out. I really hate to say that, because the man is a terrific human being. I’m sure everybody is aware of the heartbreak he suffered last year, and for him to have even fought on Saturday was inspiring to see. I also hate to say it because he truly does have so much potential. I said this before the fight, as well; I actually remember watching Harris’ UFC debut in Las Vegas back in 2013, and I can specifically remember telling myself to keep an eye on him back then. And he lost that fight! But I saw the obvious athleticism and raw potential he possessed. And I’m not the only one. Din Thomas, a coach at American Top Team who currently trains UFC heavyweight Greg Hardy, told me Harris might be the best heavyweight athlete he has ever worked with. If Harris could put it all together, he could be a title challenger. But if you look at his career, he has never won the big fight, and after all these years, he is 7-7 in the UFC.
After a defeat at the hands of Alistair Overeem, Walt Harris gives an emotional speech in which he thanks all his fans and vows to come back a better fighter.
Raimondi: MMA is the most unforgiving sport in the world. Fairy-tale endings are hard to come by. Not only that, but the price of competition and the cost of defeat are steep. They come with potentially life-altering injuries.
Harris came within one or two more punches of finishing Overeem for what would have been the biggest win of his career — and one that would have meant everything to him, given his stepdaughter Aniah Blanchard was shot and killed just seven months ago.
Instead, the tables turned on Harris quickly, and in the second round, he was the one getting finished after an Overeem head kick. Just brutal. The victory was far from guaranteed. Overeem is a legend and remains a top heavyweight. But Harris came oh so close in that first round to getting that storybook ending. It didn’t happen. Heartbreaking.
Wagenheim: The main event was a testament to how much of the fight game revolves around emotion. When Harris hurt Overeem early but couldn’t finish him, you could almost see his gas tank empty out. Some of that was because of physical exertion — he threw 42 strikes in the first round, every one of them with full power behind it. But it seemed that Harris was emotionally depleted, as well. Fully understandable, considering the hell he has been through. It was gut-wrenching to see him like that, although heartening afterward to see Overeem and referee Dan Miragliotta offer their respect. That’s when the fight game is at its best: when the horn sounds and hostility morphs into honor.
How did you feel about the decision in the Gadelha-Hill fight?
Angela Hill lands a massive right hand in the second round that sends Claudia Gadelha spinning to the canvas.
Helwani: I thought Angela Hill won that fight 29-28. I thought she won Rounds 2 and 3, and I think the stats back that up. She outlanded Gadelha 37-29 in the second and 43-34 in the third. Now, the stats don’t always tell the whole story; I know this, but in this case, they kind of do. You could make a strong case that the judges got the first four main card winners wrong. I guess the one positive to come out of Gadelha winning is that we might see her in a rematch with Carla Esparza. There’s some bad blood there, and I’d be down for that fight.
Okamoto: I had 29-28 for Hill. It was close — wouldn’t call it a total robbery — but I did disagree with the outcome. And it’s tough, because Hill loses a lot here. The difference between this fight going down as a win or a loss on her record is big, especially when it comes to her immediate future. If she would have won, she would be looking at four victories in eight months, with the latest coming against a former title challenger. Hill might have been looking at a top-5 opponent in her next bout. Compare that to coming off a loss and seeing the momentum of a three-fight winning streak disappear. Tough pill to swallow. But if there’s any good news, I do think the UFC will give her a meaningful fight next. It’s clear she is a real contender after this, even if it did result in a loss.
Raimondi: I thought Hill won, but it was a close fight. Gadelha definitely won the first round, and Hill dropped Gadelha and won the second. The third was tight. Watching it in real time, I felt Hill did more damage than Gadelha did in the third. Two of the three judges, Chris Lee and Dave Tirelli, clearly thought otherwise. Both are good judges. Lee is one of the most prolific and solid judges in the world. Neither are Florida officials, so the location or commission can’t be blamed. It was a close fight, and things can look different cageside than at home. To quote the wise philosopher Gus Johnson, “These things happen in MMA.”
Wagenheim: The judges got that one wrong, which seems like the theme of the night. (And actually, the decision that elicited the most online outrage, Song Yadong vs. Marlon Vera, I thought they got right, since I saw Song winning Rounds 1 and 2, as did the judges. But I digress.) In the co-main event, Gadelha clearly won Round 1 with her takedown and control on the canvas, and Hill sewed up Round 2 with a knockdown and by getting the better of stand-up exchanges. But how in the world did two judges score Round 3 for Gadelha? She landed just 34 of the 92 significant strikes she threw in that round, a paltry 36% accuracy. Hill connected with 43-of-78, for 55% accuracy. It was a clear example of an elite standup fighter — Hill once was a 16-0 kickboxer — controlling a round on both offense and defense. Gadelha deserves respect for showing skills beyond her jiu-jitsu black belt, but that decision should not have gone her way.
What does Edson Barboza’s future look like in the featherweight division?
Late in the third round, Dan Ige takes down Edson Barboza and then connects on a couple of punches.
Helwani: Despite the loss, I’d like to see Barboza stick around at 145 pounds. First off, I thought he won the fight 29-28. I was worried the weight cut would deplete him and slow him down, but that didn’t seem to be the case at all. I think if he can cut the weight in a safe and healthy manner, he can have a major size advantage against a lot of featherweights. Typically, I don’t like it when a vet moves down to put a fresh coat of paint on his career, but I was impressed with his debut, so I think he should stick with the featherweights for at least one more fight and see how that goes. I know Jose Aldo moved down to 135, but how much fun would Barboza vs. Aldo be at 145?
Okamoto: Pretty similar to what it looked like at lightweight, in my opinion. Barboza is very, very good. His skills on the feet are nothing short of sublime. That knee he landed to Ige’s body in the second round was a thing of beauty and nearly won him the fight. But Barboza was never a title contender at lightweight. And to think he is going to be one at featherweight … I just don’t see what the big change is that would lead to that. Featherweight is just as stacked as lightweight at the moment. There are still some bad matchups Barboza would have to overcome to make a serious run at the title. I think he is a very, very fun addition to this weight class, and he is going to win his fair share, just like he did at lightweight. He is going to be entertaining. But I wouldn’t predict more than that.
Raimondi: Barboza’s past two fights are very hard to analyze. In both — on Saturday against Ige and at UFC 242 in September against Paul Felder — Barboza did enough to win. Both ended up being split decision losses. We could be talking about Barboza being on a winning streak right now. Instead, he lost his featherweight debut, and he has dropped five of six contests. I don’t think there’s any doubting that he’ll be one of the most dangerous guys in the featherweight division. He looked very good Saturday night, and Ige is the real deal. But until Barboza starts figuring out a way to win these close fights — and maybe it’s not entirely his fault — it’s hard to envision him being more than a gatekeeper at 145 pounds.
Wagenheim: Barboza looked good at 145 pounds, not at all depleted or weakened. I thought the judges got the decision wrong (and that wasn’t the only time I felt that way on this night). But a loss is a loss, and this one was his third in a row and the fifth in his past six fights. That’s not the kind of run that allows you to sit among the contenders in any weight class. So Barboza should be honest with himself and assess whether he believes sticking around at featherweight will breathe life back into a career that was sagging at lightweight. Barboza was in with a fast, strong 145-pounder and seldom appeared to be beaten to the punch. He was the one who dealt out more damage. Even though this one goes on the record as an L, it’s something to build on.
Which potentially overlooked fighter impressed you the most?
Song Yadong and Marlon Vera go back and forth in the third round trading powerful blows in an extremely close fight.
Helwani: This is a really hard one. You could make a strong case for every single winner on the prelims — that’s how good the performances were. In the end, I’ll go with Kevin Holland, who had the quickest finish on the undercard when he defeated Anthony Hernandez via TKO at 1: 39 in Round 1. That elbow to knee sequence was vicious. I know Holland is a UFC veteran at this point with six fights under his belt, but I think we have yet to see his best inside the Octagon. Second place goes to Cortney Casey, who scored an impressive armbar in guard position off her back. You don’t see that often. Here’s hoping she sticks around at 125 pounds for a little bit.
Okamoto: I want to cheat and go with two: Song Yadong and Marlon Vera, who fought each other in a very close featherweight affair. If I can only pick one, I suppose I’ll go with the winner, Yadong (even though I scored the bout for Vera). And look, there were impressive performances up and down the card. The prelims were pretty strong on Saturday. But the reason I was most impressed with both of these fighters, who typically compete at 135 pounds, is that this was a very high-level fight. The bantamweight division is a very intriguing one right now. You’ve got new, but established, blood in guys such as Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling and Cory Sandhagen. You’ve got a number of vets adding themselves to the mix, including Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar. This is not an easy division to make a run in. But watching these two young bantamweights (Vera is 27, and Yadong is 22), I was very impressed with where they are at, and I believe either one of them can make a future run in this division.
Raimondi: Out of every fighter on the prelims, the one I most look forward to seeing again is Nate Landwehr, who scored an incredibly fun win in a unanimous decision over Darren Elkins. Not only was Landwehr wildly entertaining with his fighting style, bloodying Elkins up with fearless striking, but when he would land big shots — like a second-round elbow — Landwehr would yell out, “Dana!” to UFC president Dana White cageside. Landwehr, a Tennessee native who made his bones in MMA fighting in Russia, is definitely unique. And Elkins is no easy out for anyone at featherweight. That was a very good victory and a strong performance as a whole for Landwehr, including a zany postfight speech.
Wagenheim: Kevin Holland had the early evening’s most jaw-dropping performance with his 39-second TKO of middleweight Anthony Hernandez. But what always impresses me most while watching fights is when someone perseveres through adversity. So I’m going to go instead with Miguel Baeza, who withstood a first-round onslaught by one of the most violent forces in MMA, Matt Brown. After surviving Brown’s succession of elbows, Baeza turned their welterweight fight around dramatically, dropping “The Immortal” with a gorgeous left hook for a KO 18 seconds into Round 2. That the win kept the 27-year-old Baeza unbeaten was icing on the cake.
What was the biggest surprise of the night?
Nate Landwehr shows off his confidence as puts one of his arms behind his back while fighting.
Helwani: Marlon Vera was an underdog going into his fight against Song Yadong, so him losing isn’t a surprise on paper, especially considering how good Song has looked in the UFC. However, I thought Vera won the fight 29-28, so that final result was a bit surprising to me. The judging has been a little wacky all week long in Jacksonville, so maybe I shouldn’t be all that surprised. You know what has been surprising, though? How much I enjoy these fights with no fans in attendance. No annoying “wooo” chants, no booing, no disrespecting fighters who win a close decision; and most importantly, I love hearing the corners and the strikes so clearly. I didn’t think I would mind the crowdless fights so much, but I also didn’t think I would enjoy it so much. The product hasn’t suffered one bit.
Okamoto: The judging in general. These were all close fights, so I’m not going to make too much of a fuss about it, but just personally, I had Marlon Vera, Edson Barboza and Angela Hill winning their respective bouts — and all three are going home with an L. Again, they were close fights, but if you’re asking me when I was most surprised on Saturday, it was when the judges’ scores were being read.
Raimondi: Miguel Baeza stopping Matt Brown. That fight was initially booked for Brown’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio, before the coronavirus pandemic dramatically altered the UFC’s schedule. On paper, it seemed to be one to get Brown, an exciting fan favorite for many years, a win against an inexperienced opponent. Baeza clearly didn’t treat it that way. The Dana White’s Contender Series alum weathered an early Brown storm, hurt Brown at the end of the first round and then knocked him out with a left hook and shots on the ground in the second. That was really impressive. Most people didn’t know who Baeza was coming into this fight. They know now.
Wagenheim: Nothing surprised me in a big way, honestly. I was a little nonplussed to see Song Yadong perhaps reaching his ceiling or at least a plateau. He won his fight with Marlon Vera, and that’s no small feat. But Song has been surging as one of the UFC’s young prospects, and I was expecting to see him roll past Vera with the kind of statement victory a rising contender often authors. Instead, this fight ended up being the second in a row in which Song escaped by the skin of his teeth. In December, Song kept his unbeaten run alive with a majority draw against Cody Stamann. And Saturday’s decision over Vera was as slim as decisions get. That’s no disgrace. Vera is a tough and skilled. But I expect extraordinary things out of fighters I view as special, such as Song.