Stop doubting Oliveira, 2022 could be the year of O’Malley, Blanchfield a legit prospect


Charles Oliveira had something to prove on Saturday night in Las Vegas. Sure, he was already the UFC lightweight champion, but many still doubted his status, opting to believe that Dustin Poirier was the best lightweight in the world. No longer.

With a third-round submission victory over Poirier, Oliveira secure his place as one of the best fighters in the world, likely moving up ESPN’s pound-for-pound list in the coming days. He also showed his heart, not backing down despite getting rocked time and time again in the first round.

Sean O’Malley also showed us something. As did Kai Kara-France, Dominick Cruz and Erin Blanchfield. UFC 269 was a card filled with standout moments and a few head-turning surprises that will definitely lead us to a memorable 2022.

Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Carlos Contreras Legaspi react to the action in Las Vegas.

Charles Oliveira is no quitter

Okamoto: It’s kind of ridiculous that this needs to be stated, but it does. Charles Oliveira is not a quitter. That’s been the narrative on him for years, and it traces back to a few results he had back at featherweight. But not only has he established himself as, unquestionably, the No. 1 lightweight in the world now — he’s also put that narrative to rest for good. He was forced to come back from knockdowns in both of his championship fights this year, against Michael Chandler and now Poirier. He could have taken numerous outs at UFC 269 on Saturday, and ended up winning the fight in dramatic fashion in the third round.

One of the fighters who pounded this drum the most was Justin Gaethje, who figures to be Oliveira’s next opponent. Time will tell, but I can’t imagine Gaethje keeping up this idea of Oliveira quitting. But in Gaethje’s defense, he wasn’t the only one. I spoke to numerous coaches and fighters ahead of this fight, who agreed Oliveira lacked some “dog” in his fighting ability. At the very least, it was agreed on that no one could “out-dog” Poirier. When a fight turns ugly, is when Poirier shines.

That wasn’t the case on Saturday. Oliveira landed several key strikes, many of them to the body, and that turned the tide of this fight. He fought intelligently in the second and third rounds, when his grappling came into play. And he appeared to be getting stronger as the fight wore on, as Poirier faded — which no one would have predicted.

This champion came from the favelas of Sao Paulo, Brazil, so the idea of him ‘quitting’ should have always been absurd. He told me this week he never had a role model who showed him good things were possible in life. His mother told him to dream big, but that’s what it was — dreams.

He had to visualize all of this himself, and in doing so he’s become a legitimate champion in arguably the sport’s most difficult weight class.

MMA world is O’Malley’s oyster in 2022

Raimondi: Sean O’Malley has this great gimmick working where he calls himself the “unranked champion.” It’s a glib response to fans’ criticisms that he has not beaten any ranked opponents and remains unranked himself. Well, the “Suga Show” might need a new moniker beginning in 2022. After his lights-out TKO win over Raulian Paiva in the first round at UFC 269, O’Malley has a significant chance to be ranked next week. And at this point, if you don’t think he’s one of the top 15 bantamweights in the world, I’d say you might be putting your biases in front of your logic.

Look, not everyone is going to get O’Malley. His multi-colored, curly hair looks like cotton candy. His demeanor is more SoundCloud rapper than MMA fighter. But he taps into a demographic that many others don’t in the UFC: Generation Z. And last I checked, that generation is the one that’s going to be crucial from a marketing and financial perspective in the very near future. O’Malley’s appeal to younger fans is not dissimilar to what Jake Paul has going on right now in boxing. Paul is polarizing, too, but the proof is in the pudding. The guy is drawing new, young fans to boxing. O’Malley has a chance to do that for the UFC in 2022 and beyond.

The tricky part now is to figure out who the UFC will give O’Malley next. They are rightly moving him along fairly slowly, especially since his lost to Marlon Vera last year. UFC president Dana White said last week that O’Malley was not ready yet for that elite-level of competition. That’s OK. Maybe White is right. The UFC has invested in O’Malley since Dana White’s Contender Series. Promotion brass knows his success can equal dollar signs, so he will be put in the best position to succeed.

There will be a step up in competition, though, starting next year. And if O’Malley can start knocking out those guys in one of the toughest divisions in the world like he has been, the UFC could have its next big star on its hands.

Cody Garbrandt drops weight, then gets dropped

Wagenheim: Smaller is not always better. Cody Garbrandt should have been familiar with that plotline.

He no doubt was watching (and probably enjoying what he saw) back in 2019 when his former teammate/friend TJ Dillashaw, the man who had dethroned him as UFC bantamweight champ, lasted all of 32 seconds in a challenge of then-flyweight champ Henry Cejudo.

And in the leadup to his own 125-pound debut, Garbrandt trained with ex-lightweight titlist Frankie Edgar, who in recent years moved first to featherweight, then to bantamweight — and has lost four of his last five fights, four by KO.

Join the club, Cody.

He looked bigger and stronger than natural flyweight Kai Kara-France. He looked crisp in his movement and striking early on. But when the Aussie clipped him with a right hand midway through Round 1, it was downhill from there. Garbrandt got off the canvas and waved him opponent in, and Kara-France obliged with a vicious KO.

Where does Garbrandt go now, after losing for the fifth time in his last six fights, all but one by knockout? Well, he did do a lot of jawing at fight week’s press conference with Sean O’Malley, who won the main card opener and could use a step up in competition. Despite this result, Garbrandt would fulfill that need and then some.

Kai Kara-France is officially a contender

Contreras Legaspi: With a number of powerful shots, Kara-France ended Garbardt title shot aspirations. Garbrandt was supposed to be the flyweight challenger a year ago and now that will probably never happen, his chin a real problem even in a smaller weight class.

Kara-France is known as a very technical striker, but he showed raw power with his right hand several times against the former bantamweight champion before knocking him out. The City Kickboxing fighter proved himself as a real contender with his second consecutive win, which is perfect timing win since Brandon Moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo are facing each other again next month.

Kara-France had a close fight against Moreno back in UFC 245 and he’s now on the short list, along with Alexandre Pantoja and Askar Askarov, for a future title opportunity. The three of them have a history with the current champion and now that the fan favorite Garbrandt is out of the picture, it’s all about being ready.

Even in his loss to Brandon Royval, Kai put a fight of the night performance and can be a good match of styles against whomever is the champion after UFC 270. If the promotion decides to give him another fight before going for the belt, Alex Perez, the former challenger who was supposed to face Matt Schnell on this could be a good option.

Cruz as relevant as ever in bantamweight division

Raimondi: Death. Taxes. Dominick Cruz being near the top of the bantamweight division.

Cruz, a surefire future UFC Hall of Famer, first won a title at 135 pounds in the WEC back in 2010. More than a decade later, Cruz is every bit as good in a division that continues to get better and better. At 36 years old, “The Dominator” doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon.

Cruz defeated Pedro Munhoz, one of the toughest and most battle-tested fighters in the division, via unanimous decision. He came back after taking a ton of damage from Munhoz in the first round to put on a vintage Cruz performance — heavy on footwork, angles and punching combinations — in the second and third rounds. Cruz has now won two straight after falling to Henry Cejudo in a bantamweight title fight in May 2020. He’s probably only one or two wins away from a shot at the belt that he has held twice before, which is remarkable considering he has fought just three times since 2016 due to injuries.

It would be an incredible dream fight if Cruz were to be matched up next with Jose Aldo, a bout between two of the best lighter weight fighters in the history of MMA and a throwback to the WEC days. The UFC might have other plans — Aldo wants former champ TJ Dillashaw next — but it would be a shame if we don’t see Aldo vs. Cruz at some point. Other potential options for Cruz next would be Merab Dvalishvili and Marlon Vera.

But regardless of who is next, Cruz is just as relevant at bantamweight now going into 2022 as he was in 2010. Very few can say that. Cruz has to be on the short list of best 135-pound fighters ever.

Erin Blanchfield is the best prospect in the flyweight division, and a serious future title challenger

Okamoto: One of the very best prospects in all of MMA. If she’s not No. 1, she’s in the Top 5, easy. When you consider the age — 22 — the experience she’s already earned, the composure, confidence, fight IQ, versatility. This female flyweight division has some very good young talent. It’s probably the best division in female MMA in that regard. And right now, Blanchfield clearly stands out as the best up-and-comer.

She just dominated Miranda Maverick. Right now, I’d give her a higher ceiling than Maycee Barber and Casey O’Neil. She strikes me as the full package already, with nothing but time to get better. She has a great grappling base to build on. The versatility and mechanical awareness she showed in various takedowns in this fight was truly impressive. Top control was outstanding. She’s ahead of the curve in terms of what she’s accomplished at a young age. Her prime is probably at least — at least! — six years away. That’s terrifying.

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