UFC 268 takeaways: New stars are born, while the champs continue to shine

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The night ended with Kamaru Usman outlasting Colby Covington in another epic five-round fight, but there was no shortage of action throughout UFC 268. Rose Namajunas successfully defended her strawweight title, Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler did not disappoint and Marlon Vera finished Frankie Edgar with a highlight-reel kick that may have changed the course of his tenure in the UFC.

There were also the UFC debuts of Ian Garry and Alex Pereira, two talented fighters with very different backgrounds and very different supporters. Both scored knockout wins and after only one bout, each has plenty to look forward to in the UFC.

Marc Raimondi, Phil Murphy, Carlos Contreras Legaspi and Brett Okamoto react to a very intriguing night at Madison Square Garden.

Namajunas never wanted to be a star, but stardom has found her

Raimondi: Before the Ultimate Fighter Finale in 2014, people were already calling Rose Namajunas “The next Ronda Rousey.” UFC president Dana White used that exact terminology during that season of the show, which was for the inaugural UFC women’s strawweight title. The problem was Namajunas wasn’t able to win the title in the final. Carla Esparza beat her by rear-naked choke submission to become the first women’s strawweight champion in UFC history.

That wasn’t the time for Namajunas, but fast forward to UFC 217 in November 2017 at Madison Square Garden. Namajunas worked her way back and slayed Joanna Jedrzejczyk to finally win the title she seemed to be destined for. After beating Jedrzejczyk in the rematch, it seemed like we’d be looking at a long reign for Namajunas. Instead, she faced another setback in the form of a violent slam knockout at the hands of Jessica Andrade. After that loss, Namajunas said she didn’t even mind losing the title, that it had become a burden.

Maybe that wasn’t the right time for Namajunas, either. However, it sure seems like she is absolutely ready now. Namajunas knocked out Zhang Weili to win the title back at UFC 261 in April and then defeated the powerful Chinese striker via split decision Saturday night. Namajunas has always wanted to be the best, the champion. She just always shirked the idea of being a star. She values her privacy and is someone who is more comfortable talking about the environment and building urban farms than doing mainstream talk shows and the like.

But despite her shyness and reserved nature, there’s no doubt Namajunas is a star now. Just go back and listen to the crowd in New York. She got one of the biggest ovations all night and was treated like a star by the fans all week. Namajunas has never really wanted to be a “star,” but stardom has found her. There’s no going back from here.

Gaethje and Chandler somehow exceed expectations

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Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler kick off the UFC 268 main card with an incredible three-round battle.

Murphy: On one of the deepest cards of the year, Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler stole the show before the show was close to its end. Much like watching Zhang Weili beat Joanna Jedrzejczyk in realtime at UFC 248, fans knew this bout at UFC 268 would stand the test of time.

Gaethje’s decision win was 2021’s version of Don Frye vs Yoshihiro Takayama or Nick DiazPaul Daley. Adrenaline brewed by watching it. On a résumé overflowing with unbridled violence, this may have been Gaethje’s masterpiece. He weathered Chandler’s initial storm — losing the first round in the eyes of two judges — before gaining control. Two men famous for striking rates both exceeded their UFC averages. While margins were small, they were clear. As Chandler began to wear the damage of early stages, Gaethje did not. The former interim champ got stronger as minutes passed, seemingly absorbing the energy from Madison Square Garden that he helped create.

Recency bias — and hopes to have a tweet sneak onto the broadcast — lead to frequent, reflexive claims of “Fight of the Year” on almost every major show. But to make MSG sound like a library for the next hour, through a terrific fight between Shane Burgos and Billy Quarantillo, speaks volumes to how Gaethje and Chandler impacted those watching. And it’s that impact which makes memories indelible.

Marlon Vera Belongs to the top 10

Contreras Legaspi: Thirteen wins and 10 finishes should be enough for anyone to get respect in the bantamweight division, and Marlon Vera has finally arrived at the perfect moment. Seven years ago, Vera arrived from the first UFC development program for Latin America in a class that included Brandon Moreno and Yair Rodriguez. He was a 21-year-old prospect with a good ground game and has developed into a confident fighter that has the nerve to call-out legends like Jose Aldo, Dominick Cruz and Frankie Edgar.

After falling short in a close fight against Aldo, he realized how much he lost by underestimating the future hall of famer. That wasn’t the case at UFC 268, and he was ready to make Edgar pay for every takedown from the bottom position with elbows and up-kicks. He was patient with his striking and disciplined enough to follow the advice from Jason Parillo in his corner.

The front kick finish will make the shortlist among the best knockouts of the year, and it is most definitely the defining highlight of his long UFC career. Vera was a late bloomer, but since the win over Sean O’Malley in 2020 he has been closing in on the best bantamweights. He has finally earned a spot in the Top 10.

Which debut was more impressive: Ian Garry or Alex Pereira?

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Alex Pereira wins his UFC debut with an incredible flying knee in the featured prelim bout of UFC 268.

Okamoto: They were both phenomenal. Garry has a few intangibles working in his favor that you simply can’t ignore and his profile raised considerably in this debut. He got the knockout and then nailed the post-fight speech. Conor McGregor publicly congratulated him on the win — “The step back, back paw an all ahahahaja just absolutely incredible!” It was a home run debut by every measure.

Pereira didn’t nail the post-fight speech, and he doesn’t have the most popular fighter in the world backing him, but that said, I was far more impressed with Pereira overall.

Garry looks good and said all the right things in terms of thanking his team and mentioning he still has a lot to learn. I like that he’s aware of that, because it’s true. I’m as high on his long-term future as anyone. But Pereira just showed me he’s potentially ready to shake some things up now. Beating Andreas Michailidis doesn’t make you a title contender of course, but Pereira just showed me he’s must-watch in this division right now, and I’m very, very curious who he’ll get next.



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