Marina Rodriguez's performance on short notice after travel nightmares and Donald Cerrone's continued decline were two of the key storylines coming out of Saturday night's UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas, and the sustained success of Neil Magny can't be overlooked.
ESPN's Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim offer up their biggest takeaways.
Helwani: Rodriguez drawing comparisons to Jedrzejczyk
Considering Saturday's main event between Marina Rodriguez and Michelle Waterson was finalized on Tuesday, and considering one half of the main event -- Rodriguez -- arrived in Las Vegas on Thursday after a hellacious travel experience, that main event was a lot better than I expected it to be.
It was never truly in doubt. Rodriguez was the better fighter from the get-go. Waterson did have her moments, but it was an entertaining fight from start to finish.
What I truly appreciated was that the most exciting round was the fifth and final stanza. Neither fighter gave up, despite the short-notice nature of the fight and despite fighting in a weight class above their usual division.
Rodriguez, in my opinion, clearly won the first three rounds. Waterson did enough to win the fourth and even hurt Rodriguez in the fifth, but ultimately Waterson didn't do enough to finish off Rodriguez or even steal the fight.
That's now three losses in her last four fights for the popular Waterson, though it's hard to get too hung up about this for the reasons laid out above.
On the flip side, that is now two straight wins for Rodriguez, who defeated the popular Amanda Ribas in January. I'm hesitant to call the Brazilian a contender at 115 just yet -- remember, she lost a split decision to Carla Esparza in July and has draws against Cynthia Calvillo and Randa Markos -- but I think she's close. Her striking is crisp, and she hits really hard. She's big, she's strong, and Daniel Cormier nailed it on the broadcast: she has a style reminiscent of the great Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Of course, she has a long way to go before entering "Joanna Champion" territory, but I think it's safe to say that the deepest women's division in MMA has a new player in Marina Rodriguez. I wouldn't mind seeing her fight Mackenzie Dern in a battle of two strawweights who seem to be on the verge of bigger things. Or, hey, how about Jedrzejczyk herself? No doubt that would be fun.
Okamoto: Donald 'Cowboy' Cerrone needs a retirement fight
Man, I hate this. Hate it. I have spent the last 10-plus years covering MMA almost every Saturday, and how many of those Saturdays involved Cowboy? I remember covering his WEC career, his title fights back in the day against Benson Henderson, his rivalry with Jamie Varner. If you're a new fan and don't know what I'm talking about, go back and learn about it. And if you're an old-school fan who's been around for it all, go back and relive it.
Cowboy has had one of the best careers of any fighter in the sport. He never won a WEC or UFC championship, but I'd take his career over many fighters who did. And all those memories ... they come with a price, eventually.
"Don't know what to answer you on, 'Is it that time [to retire]?' I don't know. I don't feel like it, but how I feel and how I perform are two different things, you know?"— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) May 9, 2021
"Heartbroken" @Cowboycerrone spoke to @bokamotoESPN after his loss at #UFCVegas26 pic.twitter.com/qL2fa4TrCp
Cowboy doesn't have it anymore, as much as we all want him to. He doesn't want to go out like this, and I don't think he needs to. But he and the UFC need to sit down, come up with the right fight, put it in front of fans and then, whatever happens, he needs to ride off into the sunset.
Just one more, Cowboy.
Raimondi: It's not too late for a Gillespie run at lightweight
About 18 months ago, Gregor Gillespie was considered a real problem in the UFC lightweight division. "The Gift" was someone, people thought, who could soon get a top contender bout and potentially fight for the title. Gillespie was 13-0 with five straight finishes going into a fight with Kevin Lee at UFC 244 in November 2019. We know what happened in that bout. Lee blasted Gillespie with a head kick, a knockout-of-the-year contender. Then, Gillespie was all but forgotten. Injuries kept him away from the cage. Even Gillespie himself admitted he wasn't sure he could still hang with the top guys in one of the UFC's best weight classes.
Guess what? The former NCAA wrestling national champion absolutely can still hang. That and more. Gillespie, 34, had some issues against Diego Ferreira in his comeback bout Saturday, but in the end, Gillespie took over and stopped Ferreira via second-round TKO with ground and pound. Gillespie is a tremendous wrestler. But that wasn't necessarily why he won. He just outlasted Ferreira. And that level of heart and perseverance -- combined with that wrestling pedigree, of course -- can still take him a long way at 155 pounds.
"Obviously I believe in myself, but f---, man, you never know. The doubt creeps in sometimes. It's been a year and a half, can I still compete with those guys?"@gregor_the_gift was all heart in the fight and in his interview with @dc_mma after #UFCVegas26 ❤️ pic.twitter.com/38hbNzvMVS— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) May 9, 2021
Think of the division right now. Michael Chandler is fighting Charles Oliveira for the vacant title next week at UFC 262. Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor are fighting in the summer. Justin Gaethje is waiting in the wings. Gillespie's wrestling, and will make him a tough challenge for just about anybody in that group. Khabib Nurmagomedov got to the top of the heap and became one of the best fighters in MMA history with his wrestling. Gillespie isn't quite on that level. But in Nurmagomedov's absence, "The Gift" could end up being the difficult wrestling matchup at the top tier of the weight class.
Wagenheim: Magny's secret weapon isn't a secret at all
Fighters get suspended by the US Anti-Doping Agency if they fail a screening for a PED. But perhaps the most performance-enhancing factor in the game is perfectly legal. Shouldn't all fighters train at altitude?
OK, so maybe those elite MMA gyms down at sea level need not shut down. But Neil Magny sure did show off the benefit of working out in Denver, where the air is thin and the lungs get strong. Over the course of three tireless rounds, he launched 214 strikes at Geoff Neal. That averages out to one every 4.2 seconds. In reality, they were coming even more frequently than that because there were some stretches of grappling.
Magny remained so consistently busy that he gave Neal few openings in which to respond. Neal was loading up with his shots, and while he did some damage, his output came one punch at a time. For much of the fight's 15 minutes, the offense was largely one-way traffic. Magny drowned Neal with volume.
It was a confident, impressive performance by Magny, who has won four of his last five fights. The one defeat during that stretch was January's fight with Michael Chiesa, during which Magny was controlled on the ground for long stretches. This time he mostly stayed on his feet, and he always stayed busy. If he can continue to execute that plan, he's going to be a difficult mountain for opponents to scale.