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    Max Holloway (left) and Brian Ortega

    Max Holloway (left) and Brian OrtegaJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Every fight week has its twists and turns, but this one was notable even by MMA standards.

    UFC 231 featured a sensational matchup between featherweight champ Max Holloway and dynamic challenger Brian Ortega. As most fans know, the bout was originally set up in July, but a mysterious medical issue forced Holloway off the card at the last moment. As this fight week got rolling, that issue remained a mystery, despite roughly 7,000 questions about it. Shrug emoticon.

    Things got even weirder when the UFC made the inexplicable decision to book former NFL player and alleged domestic abuser Greg Hardy on the same January card as Rachael Ostovich (Fight Night 143), whose husband, MMA fighter Arnold Berdon, allegedly assaulted her not three weeks ago.

    Oh, did I mention this is the UFC’s first card with new partner ESPN? Yeah. It made a lot of waves, with nary a UFC 231 buoy bobbing upon them. There’s plenty to unpack with that situation, and we won’t try to do it here, but suffice it to say that it made the second half of fight week a bit of a dung show.

    On Saturday, fans tried to forget all that. UFC 231 had a great slate from Toronto to help things.

    Holloway and Ortega are two well-rounded, charismatic and exciting competitors. As both fighters are 27 years old, these two talents could well be at the top of the featherweight division for years, making this the first chapter in a potentially epic rivalry.

    The co-main event saw the great Valentina Shevchenko get her title shot, as she competed for the vacant women’s flyweight crown against former strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Plain, old bad luck has stymied the ambitious Shevchenko for some time, and this bout with the undersized but tenacious Jedrzejczyk figured to have plenty of intensity. Add in that they’re both muay thai world champs, and this one sold itself.

    Saddle up and ride. Those are only the top two bouts, and as always the final stat lines do not reveal all. These are the highlights, lowlights and real winners and losers from UFC 231. 

    For the literal-minded among us, full results appear at the end.

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    Max Holloway (right) punches Brian Ortega

    Max Holloway (right) punches Brian OrtegaJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    It’s rare in other sports for fans to stand up after an event and say, “thank you.” It’s not uncommon in MMA, and Saturday was one of the instances where you stand up and say thank you.

    The great Max Holloway successfully defended his UFC featherweight title when Brian Ortega’s swollen eye compelled a doctor stoppage after the fourth round. It was an emphatic statement on whose division this really is.

    “Is there anyone else?” Holloway asked broadcaster Joe Rogan after the fight. “Step forward. Let’s go!”

    For as compelling as it was, it’s a fairly easy fight to describe. Ortega’s elite jiu-jitsu and Holloway’s solid takedown defense were prominent throughout the evening, so the ground phase became a stalemate. Ortega has a good stand-up game, but that is Holloway’s world. The champ was sweet as sugar cane all night, cutting sharp angles and throwing fast combinations to the head and body. Ortega was perpetually a beat behind.

    For a time, the challenger made it interesting. He’s famous for coming on strong down the stretch. A charge was certain. And there it came, as Ortega waded in close and landed big bombs that kept the champ honest. Even so, Holloway kept tagging him with the right. Ortega began to bleed, then his eye began to swell. Before long, it was doubtful that he could see out of it.

    After the fourth, in which Holloway opened up and mercilessly hammered at the injured eye area, a doctor came in. He waved off the fight, possibly understanding that the fearless Ortega had been eating, and would continue to eat, heavy shots for the duration of a bout he was unlikely to win.

    Thanks to the challenger for his heart and courage, and thanks to the champ for being great. Holloway is a ray of sunlight in a shady world. Here’s hoping he gets whatever answers he may need on his health, and that he achieves and maintains optimum fitness. This was a steep weight cut for Holloway. Lightweight is still an option.

    Until then, is there anyone else?

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    Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Cris Cyborg. Amanda Nunes. Rose Namajunas. Valentina Shevchenko.

    Joanna Jedrzejczyk once had a claim to be on the Mount Rushmore of the best of current women’s MMA competitors. Not anymore—at least for now. Shevchenko turned into a fighter in full Saturday night, overpowering the former strawweight champ to become the new UFC women’s flyweight titleholder.

    Shevchenko’s effort was masterful. She was efficient but lethal in all phases. If you thought she was a pure striker, think again. Several takedowns landed, often concluding with Shevchenko in perfect side control. Most of Jedrzejczyk’s early shots found air and then triggered a heavy combination. From the clinch, Shevchenko stung with standing knee strikes flush on Jedrzejczyk’s noggin. That is a long way for a knee to travel, much less with any precision. A spinning back kick knocked Jedrzejczyk halfway across the cage.

    Although both women made the 125-pound weight limit, the fight-night size discrepancy between the two was observable and serious.


    That became a relative liability in the championship rounds. Shevchenko may have driven too hard early, and her limbs seemed heavier in the fourth. Meanwhile, Jedrzejczyk, always known as a cardio machine, appeared to have carried that stamina to the higher weight class. Shevchenko was tired in the final round, but she held on and earned the unanimous decision. And new!

    “I was waiting so long [for] this moment,” she told Rogan in the cage. “Those are the magic words I wanted to hear so long ago.”

    She earned them with a clinic against a respected ex-champ. She had success as a 135-pound bantamweight, but here, 10 pounds lighter, she’s a duck in water. She deserves to be listed along the sport’s other greats, and it looks like nothing but sunny skies ahead. Let the title reign begin.

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    Alex Oliveira (center) and Gunnar Nelson (right)

    Alex Oliveira (center) and Gunnar Nelson (right)Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Goodness gracious. No one needed to see that.

    Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira started aggressively against Gunnar Nelson. He even held his own on the ground for a while with the vaunted Icelandic grappler. Heavy shots, mainly in the ground phase, kept Nelson on his toes and likely put the first frame in Oliveira’s column.

    In the second, more striking exchanges opened a cut on Nelson’s face. Cowboy’s 4.5-inch reach advantage paid big dividends. 

    But then, Nelson hit the big takedown he’d been seeking. As he worked in mount, he landed a hellacious elbow across Oliveira’s face. The way it split the skin, it may as well have been a cleaver.

    The blood poured out. I watch a lot of MMA, and I can tell you without hesitation, that was a lot of blood. It was the rare cut that probably would have earned a stoppage on its own.

    That wasn’t needed. A seemingly and understandably distressed Oliveira immediately rolled over and gave up his back. Nelson latched on a rear-naked choke, which sent blood tumbling onto the canvas like someone was squeezing a sponge. A big sponge. Oliveira tapped, and that was that.

    “I knew he’d be covering up pretty well after that shot,” Nelson told Rogan after the fight. “I went for the neck, and the blood makes things slippery as well.”

    Indeed. And here’s hoping Cowboy likes horror movies. He was just in one.
   

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    Thiago Santos (left) and Jimi Manuwa

    Thiago Santos (left) and Jimi ManuwaVaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Thiago Santos has gone 2-0 since he moved up to 205 pounds. And that is a pretty authoritative 2-0.

    In his light heavyweight debut earlier this year, he handed Eryk Anders a TKO, marking the first time Anders has been stopped.

    On Saturday, he went to war with Jimi Manuwa and pulled out an electrifying KO in a clear favorite for Fight of the Night.

    It was a back-and-forth frenzy from the opening second, following the Santos model to which we are well-accustomed. But Manuwa was game, pounding away from longer range and right inside the phone booth. It was a wild first round.

    The beginning of the end came in the second, when Santos landed a short punch while the two were in the clinch. Manuwa looked to trade even as he wobbled, until Santos lowered the boom with a massive punch that planted the Englishman face-first on the canvas.

    It was a wonderful fight, and a great win for Santos, who moved to 20-6. Hard to believe it was his 17th contest in the UFC. He may have finally found a home at 205 pounds, and the rest of the light heavies should be afraid. Very afraid.

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    Elias Theodorou (right) hits Eryk Anders

    Elias Theodorou (right) hits Eryk AndersVaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Toronto’s Elias Theodorou used his trademark unorthodox point-striking to nab two rounds against hard-hitting Eryk Anders, sandwiched around a violent barrage—some might call it a beating—that he survived in impressive fashion to emerge with the split decision.

    Despite the hometown arena, there were still a few boos for Theodorou after the decision announcement. They turned to cheers when he took the mic, though.

    See, Theodorou is an outspoken advocate for cannabis, medical and otherwise. (Remember, it’s legal in Canada.) He has consistently attempted to get an exemption for medical marijuana use, though he hasn’t won over the powers that be yet.

    It didn’t stop Theodorou from essentially inviting Anders to indulge with him after the show (no comment from Anders); the winner then said he was “a big believer” in cannabis.

    So, I don’t know. Party at Elias’ house later? You know, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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    Dhiego Lima (left) lands on Chad Laprise

    Dhiego Lima (left) lands on Chad LapriseJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    The Canadian crowd was left stunned, but not as stunned as countryman Chad Laprise.

    It only took 97 seconds for the Round 1 knockout. Dhiego Lima landed a shot that would have felled a medium-sized maple, and that was that.

    Afterward, Lima took to the mic to beg for the post-fight bonus—never a good look for a company whose president trucks in snow for his driveway—so he could better support his family. Even if he doesn’t get it, it’s a huge victory for Lima, who had lost three straight before this one. 

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    Nina Ansaroff defeated Claudia Gadelha on the evening's undercard.

    Nina Ansaroff defeated Claudia Gadelha on the evening’s undercard.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Main Card

    Max Holloway def. Brian Ortega by TKO (doctor’s stoppage), 5:00, Rd. 4 (retains UFC featherweight championship)

    Valentina Shevchenko def. Joanna Jedrzejczyk by unanimous decision (49-46, 49-46, 49-46) (wins UFC women’s flyweight championship)

    Gunnar Nelson def. Alex Oliveira by submission (rear-naked choke), 4:17, Rd. 2

    Hakeem Dawodu def. Kyle Bochniak by split decision (28-29, 30-27, 30-27)

    Thiago Santos def. Jimi Manuwa by KO, 0:41, Rd. 2

               

    Preliminary Card

    Nina Ansaroff def. Claudia Gadelha by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)

    Gilbert Burns def. Olivier Aubin-Mercier by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)

    Jessica Eye def. Katlyn Chookagian by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)

    Elias Theodorou def. Eryk Anders by split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)

    Brad Katona def. Matthew Lopez by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)

    Dhiego Lima def. Chad Laprise by KO, 1:37, Rd. 1

    Carlos Diego Ferreira def. Kyle Nelson by TKO, 1:23, Rd. 2

    Aleksander Rakic def. Devin Clark by TKO, 4:05, Rd. 1

                    

    Scott Harris covers MMA and other things for Bleacher Report.

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