Israel Adesanya finally did it. “The Last Stylebender” reclaimed his UFC middleweight title in ferocious fashion with a second-round knockout at UFC 287, which took place Saturday at the Kaseya Center in Miami, Fla. Adesanya’s long-in-the-making revenge headlined a busy night that also saw Gilbert Burns send Jorge Masvidal into retirement, plus a whole lot more.
With so much to discuss, let’s hit our five biggest takeaways from UFC 287.
1. I can’t lie — as we sit here on this Sunday morning, I find myself more fascinated than ever by this rivalry between Israel Adesanya and Alex Pereira and what it’s become.
It’s really something.
Somehow, some way, for the fourth time in a row, the man with all the in-fight momentum wound up losing in the blink of an eye on Saturday. Only, at long last, it was Adesanya’s turn to twist the knife. And it couldn’t have been more perfect. With his back stuck against the fence in a scene eerily reminiscent of UFC 281’s finishing sequence, “The Last Stylebender” flipped the series’ script with a rope-a-dope that would’ve made Ali proud, sending his nemesis straight to the land of wind and ghosts just as it felt like history was repeating itself all over again and Pereira was on the verge of completing a 4-0 sweep. Plenty of top fighters would’ve crumbled under the weight of the Brazilian’s power and pressure in that moment, but Adesanya bit down on his mouthpiece and delivered a highlight for the ages.
Altogether, it’s truly one of the most bat-s*** combat sports rivalries I’ve seen, Shyamalan-esque with its twist endings and unexpected turns, with few parallels really to speak of.
That’s why, to me, this is a layup. You have to run the trilogy fight back.
The scoreboard is either 3-1 for Pereira or tied at one apiece, depending on how you view their kickboxing matches. But more so than anything else, this story just feels unfinished. Right now we’re at the Empire Strikes Back portion of this timeline after another shocking, paradigm-shifting night. How could you not want to see how Return of the Jedi ends? I understand why the champ may not share my sentiments, but is running Robert Whittaker back out here for a third crack at Adesanya when he’s down 0-2 really more interesting? Or throwing Khamzat Chimaev into the title mix without a single ranked win at middleweight?
Adesanya vs. Pereira is easily the best thing going right now at 185 pounds and is somehow even more captivating today than it was just 48 hours ago. Every time these two meet, it’s pure magic. Two violent technicians at the top of their games who bring the absolute best out of one another, only with increased levels of fervor and desperation in each successive fight. Rivalries like this often don’t come around often. One final go-round for all the marbles, all the glory, all the bragging rights — how is that not the obvious next move?
Dana White seemed ready to shove Pereira up to 205 pounds on Saturday, but until I hear the words straight from the former champ’s mouth, he’s a middleweight — and now isn’t the time to mess around. Adesanya at his post-fight press conference sounded like a man who only has a few fights left before he rides off into the sunset, never to be seen again.
A saga this unique demands its epic conclusion before we move on to whatever is next.
2. At some point later this year, Bellator is going to fly past the 300-event mark on its promotional calendar. But do you happen to know who headlined Bellator 1?
Mannnn! Another one gone from the fight game!! another one of my all time favorite fighters! Father Time catches up to all of us. Shout out to Jorge Masvidal! A real OG of the fight game! You will be missed!! #UFC287
— Aljamain Sterling (@funkmasterMMA) April 9, 2023
Not only did he headline, it was already his 20th professional MMA bout. For context, Adesanya’s 20th MMA fight came just three years ago against Paulo Costa. That’s wild.
In truth, Masvidal exits the sport as one of its great overachievers, if only because the way in which his career played out simply does not happen in this game. Remember, “Gamebred” was on Year 16 of a 20-year run before everything changed. Prior to 2019, he was who he was — a well-traveled veteran who, while fiercely competitive, was also prone to lackluster decisions and never quite stood out from the crowd. Hell, from April 2010 to July 2016, Masvidal saw the judges’ scorecards 16 times over 18 fights — six of them splits — and lost to most of the bigger names he faced. He was a fighter mostly beloved by MMA hardcores, a frustrating talent whose destiny appeared set as a dependable veteran to fill out a card.
All of which is to say, the way Masvidal was able to reinvent himself for the final chapter of his MMA run is frankly astounding. There aren’t many examples you can point to throughout the sport’s history of long-time names who were able to manufacture game-changing momentum so late into their careers and propel themselves into genuine mainstream superstardom. Chael Sonnen and — ironically — Nate Diaz are really the only other two examples that spring to mind, but even their star turns didn’t arrive as late as Masvidal’s.
If you injected a 31-year-old Jorge with truth serum in 2016 right after his split decision loss to Lorenz Larkin and asked him whether he foresaw himself retiring with life-changing wealth to show for all of this, he likely would’ve scoffed and said no. Plenty of his peers from his era ended up broke and broken, so the fact that he was able to avoid that fate is very much worth celebrating. Masvidal may not have captured a major title late like Michael Bisping or Glover Teixeira, but he still won the race. And unless he keeps wasting gigantic wads of cash on Gamebred Boxing cards, he’s likely going to be set for the rest of his life.
Kudos to you, “Gamebred.”
One of the few true OGs who actually got the reimbursement he deserved.
It’s highs and lows in this game — and there have been few lows as difficult to watch unfold over the past five years as the spiral of frustration and self-doubt that consumed Gastelum’s career. Make no mistake, he was fighting for his MMA life on Saturday night. Between a seemingly never-ending streak of bad luck and an inexplicable career downturn in what should’ve been his prime years, Gastelum at times looked like a broken man during his 1-5 slide, a fighter who barely resembled the same marauder who once taught Adesanya a life lesson or two in his first title opportunity. One more dud at UFC 287 and Gastelum could’ve been shopping his services elsewhere come next week — and he knew it.
No wonder all that emotion erupted from him a champagne cork that’d been shaken for five years straight. But Gastelum looked sensational. He attacked Curtis more confidently, fluidly, and violently than he has in years. Don’t be surprised if their three-round war catches an honorable mention in 2023’s Fight of the Year voting once awards season rolls around.
MMA is a better place when Gastelum is in the title mix, and while he’s not there yet, he’s at least climbed free from the career quicksand that felt inescapable until Saturday. Give me the Nassourdine Imavov fight we never got and let’s see if Gastelum 2.0 is here to stay.
4. A few years ago, I wrote a silly little story about the dumb naming conventions the UFC used to give its pay-per-views. If you’re an old-school fan, you probably know what I’m talking about. UFC 34: High Voltage. UFC 50: The War of ’04. UFC 76: Knockout (which is really the best of all for an event that had zero knockouts). The UFC smartly ditched the gimmick sometime around 2010-11, but if it hadn’t, Saturday may as well have been called UFC 287: Experience Matters — because for a balmy night in South Beach meant to serve as the coronations for Adrian Yanez and Raul Rosas Jr., it wound up being anything but, courtesy of grizzled vet Rob Font and grown-ass man Christian Rodriguez.
Of the two upsets, Font’s brutal ‘Y’all Must’ve Forgot’ moment was — by far — the more notable to me. Any 18-year-old who steps foot in the UFC as Rosas does has a good chance to lose to a trained adult, but if we’re putting together 2023’s Roy Jones Jr. All-Stars at the end of the year for the most disrespectful pre-fight chatter, there’s a good chance Font vs. Yanez hangs around to claim a starting spot. Heading into Saturday, the New Englander was being treated as a mere footnote on Yanez’s inevitable climb to title contention, their fight nothing seen as more than a formality to get through. But not only did the 35-year-old Font prove he has a few gallons of gas left in the tank, his résumé also sneakily holds up better than you’d expect — he’s only lost to one currently active UFC bantamweight since 2018.
Yanez is young and he’ll learn from his mistakes. He’s still going to be a title contender before all is said and done. But in the meantime, if Font wants to welcome Deiveson Figueiredo to the bantamweight division next, as he requested on Saturday night — hey, I don’t hate it. Also though, a striker’s delight against Petr Yan sounds pretty, prettttty tasty.
5. All of that being said, there was at least one prospect who dodged the UFC 287 curse.
Joe Pyfer, you already had my curiosity. But now? Now, sir — now you have my attention.
I raved pre-fight about Mick Maynard’s matchmaking for this sophomore effort, and wouldn’t you know it, Mr. Bodybagz tackled his first UFC prove-it moment even more deftly than expected. Showing up to South Beach noticeably hulked up since his debut, Pyfer tore through the division’s all-time submissions leader like he caught Gerald Meerschaert kicking his dog. All in all, it was one hell of a win for a 26-year-old prospect in his second UFC fight. Meerschaert’s closet back home in Wisconsin is filled with scalps of supposed Next Big Things; in terms of gatekeepers to the top 15, he’s as good of a barometer as exists at 185 pounds. If you beat “GM3” decisively, you tend to become someone who matters.
Earlier this week, I called Pyfer a Rocky story come to life, but it bears repeating — we’re talking about a man who would’ve been sleeping on the streets of Philadelphia after his Contender Series experience had Dana White not paid for a year’s worth of his rent. Anyone who can persevere over misfortune of that scale and show out on as grand of a stage as the UFC once they finally get their shot? That’s someone worth keeping an eye on.
As middleweight continues to reload its coffers for the next generation with new names like Bo Nickal and Khamzat Chimaev, Pyfer (and his imposing 91-percent finishing rate) continues to prove that he belongs in the conversation. He wants to avenge his Contender Series injury against Dustin Stoltzfus next, so who am I to argue with the man? But if Chapter Three of this UFC run follows the same scripts as Chapters One and Two, then Mr. Bodybagz is going to have a number next to his name sooner rather than later.