UFC 218 will no doubt be remembered as one of the most exciting nights for MMA in 2017. Fans saw featherweight champion Max Holloway defend his belt in a rematch against longtime titleholder Jose Aldo, Eddie Alvarez and Justin Gaethje go to absolute war (as expected) and Francis Ngannou cement his place as the next heavyweight hopeful. Oh, and quite possibly the Fight of the Year between Yancy Medeiros and Alex Oliveira.
Which performance stood out as the most impressive? We asked our panel — ESPN MMA reporter Brett Okamoto, ESPN MMA editor Greg Rosenstein, SportsCenter hosts Max Bretos and Phil Murphy, and digital contributor Eric Tamiso — for their takes.
Okamoto: Eddie Alvarez defeats Justin Gaethje
Tough decision here, but I have to lean Eddie. He hadn’t won in 16 months. He lost the title to Conor McGregor in a performance he’s said will probably haunt him the rest of his life. And then he was badly hurt by Dustin Poirier in a no-contest.
It’s not easy to mentally and physically recover from those kinds of fights, especially against an undefeated, ironman brawler like Justin Gaethje. Alvarez impressed me all week in Detroit. He knew it had to be a dog fight against Gaethje and he came prepared. His strategy was on point (the body work!) and this guy’s will is just off the charts. He’s had a long, distinguished career, but this is one fight he should be exceptionally proud of.
Rosenstein: Francis Ngannou defeats Alistair Overeem
Ngannou knocking out Overeem at UFC 218 was expected by a lot of people. After all, we heard constantly about his punching power and saw it on display in his 10 consecutive victories. But to do it that way? Ngannou surpassed even the loftiest expectations put in front of him by striking Overeem — a former Strikeforce, DREAM and K-1 World Grand Prix champion — to the ground and finishing him off with a vicious hammerfirst to the face. I momentarily feared for Overeem’s safety.
Going into the bout, many thought Ngannou was a top contender on the rise. But mediocre competition raised some doubts of how good he really was. On Saturday night those questions were all erased. Ngannou is quite possibly the most exciting heavyweight prospect ever and deserves a shot against Stipe Miocic in 2018.
Bretos: Francis Ngannou defeats Alistair Overeem
Yancy Medeiros vs. Alex Oliveira and Eddie Alvarez vs. Gaethje were exceptional, but what Francis Ngannou did was unforgettable and, potentially, historically significant.
At UFC 218 Ngannou illuminated the top of the normally lean heavyweight division. By making Alistair Overeem turn into a rock’em sock’em robot with that punch, “The Predator” set the table for what is feeling like the biggest heavyweight title fight (with Stipe Miocic) in UFC history. I have not been this excited for a heavyweight matchup since UFC 100 with Frank Mir vs. Brock Lesnar II.
Phil Murphy: Yancy Medeiros defeats Alex Oliveira
This isn’t to discredit the main or co-main event winners. My living room filled with involuntary profanity when Francis Ngannou’s left hand delivered a finish straight out of Mortal Kombat. Max Holloway picked apart the greatest featherweight ever with ease. But impressions are made by what we learn. Ngannou’s power, Holloway’s skill and Eddie Alvarez’s toughness shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
For me, the most impressive performance Saturday was the other pride of Wai’anae. From the same small community as Holloway, Yancy Medeiros was nearly stopped by Alex Oliveira twice in the first round. But Medeiros’ chin outlasted Cowboy’s cardio, as the Hawaiian kept marching forward and swinging.
Medeiros even gave up his back in the third. But the 30-year-old reversed course, got the fight to its feet and finished it via TKO with a ruthless, unending combination against the fence. The undercard bout split Fight of the Night honors with Alvarez’s slugfest against Justin Gaethje. It makes Medeiros’ name one anyone watching will remember, and a must see the next time he steps into the Octagon. That’s an impression.
Max Holloway topples Jose Aldo by TKO to pick up his 12th straight win and retain the featherweight title.
Tamiso: Max Holloway defeats Jose Aldo
Holloway used a great early jab to bloody Aldo and distance control to avoid serious damage. Even after taking a punch late in the first, Holloway smiled and clapped at the man who formerly owned the division. As the fight grew on, Holloway showed off his technical approach, picking apart Aldo before finishing the fight in the third round to defend his strap.
The performance even drew a response from the man who used to hold that belt.
If this puts him in the running for the McGregor money fight sweepstakes, it has to be the biggest takeaway from the event. Any Conor bout is an easy sell, but one with their history between two currently world champions would be very interesting, and would carry more weight than any other potential title fight to come out of UFC 218. Since they fought over four years ago, one fighter has transcended the sport. The other has run amok of the 145-pound division and won 12 in a row. Sign me up.