UFC 235 delivered seismic shift for welterweights, thrilling moments galore

Kamaru Usman upstaged everyone on Saturday, and that's saying a lot. UFC 235 was a gloriously old-school night of fighting, packed with everything from the pound-for-pound No. 1 to several talents on the rise; from a high-profile debut to an old-timer's rejuvenation, to an ex-champion's continued fall from grace (as well as consciousness).

Amid all of what went down at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Usman stood tallest, not merely by becoming UFC welterweight champion but by seizing the belt away from Tyron Woodley with a shockingly dominant performance -- and by kind of coming out of nowhere to do it.

It has been a turbulent past 10 days for the UFC's 170-pounders, with Usman's win just a part of the equation. First came the retirement of the greatest ever to step in the Octagon, Georges St-Pierre, who said au revoir in style a little over a week ago with a gala news conference in Montreal. Another all-time welterweight great, Matt Hughes, was in the news under darker circumstances, as his wife and brother filed for restraining orders following accusations of domestic violence against the former champ.

But UFC 235 brought the focus back on the welterweight division as it stands today, and did so in a big way. The imminent debut of Ben Askren drew a whole lot of attention during fight week, because the undefeated former Bellator and ONE world champion, in his flip-flop casual way, is always good for a few utterances worthy of raised eyebrows, to say nothing of what he does once a fight starts. A less loquacious presence on the scene in Vegas was his opponent, Robbie Lawler, with the former champ's ruthlessness locked and loaded and needing no introduction.

Then there was Colby Covington, with his now-faux title belt still forever slung over his shoulder and a red MAGA cap tauntingly positioned on his head, popping up everywhere like a comic-relief Greek chorus -- kind of like Jonathan Richman in "There's Something About Mary."

All the while, little was heard from the welterweights who mattered most. Woodley's title defense against Usman was to be the co-main event, but on a card with Jon Jones atop the marquee, the 170-pounders flew under the radar the whole week. And when fight night finally came, the champ remained all but invisible, while his challenger transformed into an immense presence before our very eyes.

Usman had his way for practically every second of the five rounds he spent inside the Octagon with Woodley. He out-grappled Woodley, an All-America wrestler in college, and while controlling the champ against the cage and on the canvas, Usman continually landed punches, elbows and knees that largely went unanswered. It was as if Woodley was sleepwalking, staring out into nothing while the fight played out around him. He even said afterward, "It felt like a bad dream. You want to throw punches, you see opportunities, but you don't take them."

It's always unsettling to see the dethroning of a champion, especially one who had reigned since 2016 and made four successful title defenses -- more than any current champ. But it was especially stunning to see the fight play out in the way it did. Usman landed 336 total strikes, the most in modern UFC history, according to UFC Stats. Usman made history in another way as well, becoming the UFC's first African-born champion. You might say Usman beat Israel Adesanya and Francis Ngannou, both in the title hunt in their own right, to the punch.

You might also say a star was born, as Usman reached 10-0 in the UFC with the most dramatic of performances.

Usman wasn't the only one to light up the sky on Saturday, though. On a night when Jon Jones won an anticlimactic main event, putting in a workmanlike performance to defend his light heavyweight belt with a unanimous decision over Anthony Smith, there were plenty of fireworks leading up to the finale. Brazilian light heavyweight Johnny Walker looked scary in scoring his third straight blink-and-you'll-miss-it victory, having spent all of 2 minutes, 48 seconds in the cage over the course of his three first-round KOs. Zabit Magomedsharipov survived being put through the three-round grinder of sharing a cage with thunder-fisted veteran featherweight Jeremy Stephens. And then there was the strawweight who won her 19th straight fight, yet remains largely unknown by a lot of MMA fans. Raise your hand if you'd ever heard of China's Weili Zhang before she beat Tecia Torres. Didn't think so.

In addition to those rising talents, UFC 235 also offered a showcase for 37-year-old Diego Sanchez -- winner of Season 1 of "The Ultimate Fighter" way back in 2005 -- as he earned his first stoppage win in more than a decade. Then there was Askren being tossed on his head and nearly finished before turning things around on Robbie Lawler, answering a long-lingering question: Yes, Askren belongs in the UFC.

Along with rediscovered glory, though, came a reminder of the cruel reality of the fight game, as Cody Garbrandt, who just 16 months ago was an undefeated bantamweight champion, suffered his third straight knockout defeat.

UFC 235 was a six-hour roller-coaster ride, a thrill a minute. The fight that the most customers paid to see, the Jon Jones title defense, provided very few of those thrills. But this night represented a return to old-school MMA -- the kind of night that long ago set this sport apart from boxing and its main event-centric fight nights. More, please.