The UFC utilizes the cards that feature Conor McGregor as a way to shine the spotlight on some of its rising stars.
Tai Tuivasa capitalized on the moment with a huge knockout of Greg Hardy and during the early prelims, Dricus Du Plessis scored a memorable second-round knockout of Trevin Giles. Both earned bonuses for performances of the night. Irene Aldana dominated her fight with Yana Kunitskaya as well, but even though Gilbert Burns defeated Stephen Thompson and Sean O'Malley stopped Kris Moutinho, neither gained massive value from their efforts.
Burns was able to solve Wonderboy, a feat that not many can boast, and as the boos reigned down as Burns held Thompson to the ground, a quick return to the title picture was slipping away. O'Malley remains a star, and he beat someone who he should beat, but despite the 230 significant strikes he landed, the highlight KO didn't come and perhaps raised more questions about his finishing ability.
Marc Raimondi and Phil Murphy react to a busy night in Las Vegas.
Conservative approach wise but costly for Burns
Murphy: In one of the UFC's deepest divisions, the stakes could hardly be higher in a non-title environment than with Gilbert Burns' co-main event win over Stephen Thompson. Slips on this ladder prove costly, particularly for men in their mid-30s who understand that their clocks are running out on title opportunities. That thought process bred tactical conservatism from Burns -- too much for coach Henri Hooft's liking, as we eavesdropped on the corner between rounds. While timely grappling against a decorated, crafty kickboxer is wise -- if not necessary -- it failed to instantly regain momentum Burns built last year to originally earn a title shot.
Burns accounted for himself well enough in February against Usman that a rematch has always remained a possibility. There's a direct correlation between high-profile, indelible moments and title-fight shortcuts. On a McGregor card with the world watching, a bonafide statement might have allowed Burns to bypass the queue.
"I'm very confident right now because I was able to beat a guy that a lot of guys lost to," Burns said after the win. "A lot of guys don't want to fight [Thompson]. Colby [Covington] doesn't want to fight him, Leon Edwards doesn't want to fight him. They offered it and I said let's go. I was able to get a win. That puts me right back in the title picture. I have a little bit more work to do, but I'm right there."
He's right, and in his calculated solving of the Wonderboy puzzle, Burns undoubtedly remains among the welterweight elite. However, the decision over Wonderboy -- smart and complete as it was -- likely requires Burns to do it all over again against another top welterweight talent to access the real prize and a shot against Usman once again.
O'Malley did the job, but we didn't learn anything new
Raimondi: Sean O'Malley was supposed to fight Louis Smolka at UFC 264. Unfortunately, Smolka had a staph infection and was forced out of the fight a little more than a week ago. In stepped Kris Moutinho, who was not even in the UFC, on short notice. O'Malley, one of the hottest prospects, was expected to smoke Moutinho. And for the most part, he did just that. O'Malley ran a striking clinic on the New England newcomer over almost three full rounds until referee Herb Dean mercifully called it off. Moutinho, too tough for his own good, came forward the whole fight. O'Malley, for his part, made him pay just about every single time with counterpunches and kicks.
O'Malley looked spectacular -- and he should have in this situation. But we didn't learn much new about "Suga" here, at least not much more than we found out when O'Malley knocked out Thomas Almeida at UFC 260 on March 27 in another very strong performance. Kudos to Moutinho for all of that heart and that steel chin. There wasn't anything wrong with what transpired here. It wasn't O'Malley's fault that Smolka, a steeper challenge, couldn't go and the UFC had difficulty finding other opponents at 135 pounds. There will be a day, probably in the near future, when O'Malley gets another big-time test. He called out Rob Font in his postfight interview with Joe Rogan, and that would certainly represent a massive step up.
O'Malley, at just 26 years old, is one of the most electrifying young fighters on the planet. But we knew that before he connected over and over with Moutinho's face Saturday night.
Top Mexican fighters continue to excel in 2021
Raimondi: Alexa Grasso put on arguably the best performance of her career at UFC 258 in February in beating Maycee Barber by unanimous decision. Brandon Moreno followed last month at UFC 262, beating Deiveson Figueiredo by submission to win the flyweight title -- the first Mexican-born fighter to ever win UFC gold. And now, Irene Aldana picked up a huge first-round TKO win over Yana Kunitskaya at UFC 264 on Saturday night to cement herself as a top women's bantamweight contender. Moreno, Grasso and Aldana are all ranked in their respective divisions and, of course, Moreno is now a champion. Mexico is on a roll in the UFC right now. Might as well throw in Montserrat Conejo's March win over Cheyanne Buys as well.
Moreno is the first to win a UFC title from Mexico, taking the torch from Mexican-American superstar Cain Velasquez, the former dominant UFC heavyweight champion. Before long, Aldana and Grasso could get their opportunities as well. In a recent interview, UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told me that Mexico is at the top of the list for a UFC Performance Institute and that as soon as COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted, the UFC will start making further inroads into building one in Mexico City. UFC president Dana White, in particular, has been bullish on Mexican fighters in MMA. He's a longtime fan of Mexican boxing, and the country has a tremendous combat sports culture.
If the start of this year is any indication, we will be talking a lot more about Mexican MMA in the near future.