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The sale of the Ultimate Fighting Championship ushered in a new era that saw the company eager to create interim titles whenever reigning champions were unavailable to compete. While fans enjoy seeing top athletes in the sport go to battle, they also appear to be lukewarm to the idea of “paper titles.” However, what happened at UFC 236 on Saturday in Atlanta could change their minds.
The card was headlined by two interim title bouts. The main event saw current featherweight champion Max Holloway face Dustin Poirier for 155-pound gold, while the co-headliner pitted Kelvin Gastelum against Israel Adesanya for a 185-pound belt. The fighters exceeded all expectations and made the pay-per-view well worth the price tag.
“That’s for all the idiots who don’t like interim titles,” UFC President Dana White said during the post-fight press conference. “Congratulations, you missed a great one. Could you imagine if Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum was a three-round co-main event?”
The four athletes were rewarded with dual “Fight of the Night” performance bonuses and are credited as participants in two instant classics. White called the Adesanya-Gastelum encounter “one of the greatest fights I have ever seen.”
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
With reigning lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov suspended, the sport’s biggest attraction in Conor McGregor seemingly unable to stay out of legal trouble and former interim interim champion Tony Ferguson dealing with some mental health issues, the UFC has been looking for some much-needed stability for its 155-pound weight class. The promotion may have found it in a man who has been with the company since 2010.
After years of scraping by and waiting patiently for his chance to capture gold, Poirier realized his dream by winning an epic back-and-forth war with Holloway. Though he entered the cage as an underdog, he managed to weather every attack from the Hawaiian and fire back with powerful shots of his own to earn the unanimous decision.
“Damn, I feel good,” Poirier said afterward. “It’s been a long time. This is my 22nd or 23rd fight with Zuffa. I have gotten knocked down and climbed back up before. This is my belt. I have earned it. I paid for it in blood, paid in full. This is mine.”
The fight quickly became a slugfest, with the American Top Team representative racing out to an early lead before Holloway started to creep back into the match. Both men had moments in which they hurt the other, meaning both had an argument to have their hand raised. Instead of complaining about the decision, Holloway confirmed Poirier’s standing in the division.
“He beat a world champ; he is a world champ,” Holloway said. “There isn’t no interim s---. It’s the real thing. He beat a world champion. Congrats, brother.”
The loss was the first for Holloway since he dropped a decision to McGregor back in 2013 and snapped a 13-fight winning streak for the Hawaiian.
“Life is chutes and ladders,” Holloway posted on Twitter. “Sometimes we gotta take that slide down to get to the next ladder. It is what it is. We keep playing. We keep fighting. Congrats to Dustin and Jolie (Poirier’s wife), they should’ve already had a belt. Diamonds are forever.”
The win is expected to catapult Poirier to the front of the Nurmagomedov sweepstakes with a chance to unify the titles later this year. While Nurmagomedov was rumored to be sitting out until November, it looks like he could be defending his piece of the championship sooner.
“Poirier will fight Khabib next,” White said, “probably in September.”
Nurmagomedov appears to be on board with the date.
“I don’t agree with the judges 49-46 [scores],” Nurmagomedov tweeted. “I got [a] draw, my respect to both fighters, and Poirier’s achievements, so far cannot be denied, my congratulations. Dustin, see you in September.”
‘STYLEBENDER’ STRIKES GOLD
In just 14 months, Adesanya went from making his UFC debut to winning six fights in the Octagon and claiming interim gold. His historic rise has been so impressive that ESPN analyst and current Bellator MMA fighter Chael Sonnen called him the biggest star in the UFC today. While Sonnen was likely exaggerating due to the excitement surrounding UFC 236, White does think he has found something special in “The Last Stylebender.”
“Do you know who he reminds me of? Conor McGregor,” White said. “That’s what Conor McGregor did. Conor came in, he stayed active, he built up a lot of notoriety, had some great fights and people knew his name and wanted to see him fight. Israel Adesanya is on that same trajectory. Israel Adesanya became a star tonight.”
The City Kickboxing rep was born in Nigeria and remained there until his family moved to New Zealand during his teen years. He still calls the country home. Adesanya now finds himself on a collision course with reigning middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, a New Zealand native who makes his home in Australia.
“That fight [with Whittaker] is going to be the biggest fight in Australasia history,” Adesanya said on the ESPN+ post-fight show. “It is going to be the biggest fight in Oceania history, two champions going at it. [Whittaker] kept on talking some s---: ‘That Israel fella is not as good as he thinks he is.’ Dude, I will show you how great I am. I’m greater than I know I am. I know myself. You don’t know me. When it comes time, I will smoke him like shrimp on the barbie.”
White and his staff are already working on putting the matchup together.
“We are definitely not doing that fight in the United States; it’s going to Australia,” he said. “It will be massive in Australia. We got to figure [out] all that stuff; that is their weekend. Get us an arena -- no, a stadium -- in Australia.”
NOT HAPPY WITH THE JUDGES
While the high points of UFC 236 were the title fights, the low moment resulted from a lackluster clash between Alan Jouban and Dwight Grant. A Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series alum, Grant escaped with a split decision over Jouban in an extremely low-output affair. When the judges’ scorecards were read, Jouban became visibly angry and was shown yelling about not getting the nod. His emotions did not settle down at all after the fight, which marked his third loss in four appearances.
“I want an explanation,” Jouban told ESPN. “I want to talk to the judges. I want to look you in the eye and say, ‘What is your martial arts background? How long have you been doing this? How did you judge this?’ He backpedaled for 15 minutes trying to [land a] counter shot. He got me with a few grazing shots. I took him down twice. I almost finished him in the last couple of seconds. I don’t see how you can score 28-29 him and another judge see it 30-27 [for me] when he backed up all the time. I want to talk to these [expletive] judges.”