There's plenty of action across MMA over the weekend with PFL Regular Season: Heavyweights and Women's Featherweights and Bellator 297 in Chicago on Friday night and UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas on Saturday.
In Friday's action, defending champions Ante Delija and Larissa Pacheco got wins, but only one (Pacheco) was able to seal a spot in this year's PFL playoffs. At the same time, Patricio "Pitbull" Freire fell short of making MMA history against reigning Bellator bantamweight champion Sergio Pettis. And Yoel Romero, who tried to find the fountain of youth with a big win over Vadim Nemkov, was unable to win the Bellator light heavyweight title.
On Saturday, middleweights Jared Cannonier and Marvin Vettori gave fans a "fight of the year" type performance. Also, Arman Tsarukyan reminded the world that he's absolutely among the top of the class at lightweight.
Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim, Eddie Maisonet and Andres Waters break down the most interesting and best moments from a dramatic Friday and Saturday in MMA action.
Okamoto: Arman Tsarukyan is the most interesting (non-champion) name at 155
Arman Tsarukyan's ground-and-pound on Joaquim Silva finishes the fight in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night.
Yeah, I said it.
More interesting than BMF candidates Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje. More interesting than the bonus machine Michael Chandler. OK, wait. Maybe not quite as interesting as former champ Charles Oliveira, because Oliveira's style and swagger are two of the best things in the sport right now.
But I say Tsarukyan is so interesting because he is just 26 years old. He is so young and so, so very good. Yes, he went into Saturday's contest against Joaquim Silva, a massive 11-to-1 betting favorite -- and he faced adversity in the second round when he ate a big shot -- but he was still impressive in a third-round finish.
Tsarukyan has it all. His grappling is a true, game-changing trump card. On any given night, that grappling alone can get the job done. But Tsarukyan (again, at only 26) showcased a wicked kickboxing repertoire -- technical boxing combinations to the body and head. He's got a chin, which came up large in the second round, and composure. He already has nine fights of experience in the UFC. Good camp in American Top Team. Fight IQ. Confidence. Cardio and athleticism.
As I said, he's the whole package.
His only two losses in the UFC are a controversial split decision loss to Mateusz Gamrot and a decision loss to Islam Makhachev in his UFC debut, which he accepted on three weeks' notice. I liked the callout of Chandler, who is looking more and more like a man without a real opponent, as Conor McGregor's potential return continues to move back on the calendar. I could also see him getting Beneil Dariush, who came up short in a big one against Oliveira at UFC 289.
Regardless, I'm interested. Of course, Poirier vs. Gaethje II is a huge fight on July 29. And if/when Chandler does get his McGregor matchup, that fight will captivate the MMA world. But when you consider how much of a baby Tsarukyan still is in his career, he's a guy you'd be foolish not to keep close track of moving forward.
Raimondi: Pettis steals the show while derailing history
Sergio Pettis never feels like the focal point. It's something he has probably dealt with throughout his life. Them's the breaks of being the younger brother of a flashy former UFC lightweight champion (Anthony) who once appeared on the cover of a Wheaties box.
Friday was another example of Pettis being a secondary thought. He was the champion defending his Bellator bantamweight title against Patricio "Pitbull" at Bellator 297 in Chicago -- and everyone was talking about Pitbull. Freire was moving down in weight to win a third divisional title, something no fighter in major MMA history has ever done. Pettis was a footnote.
On top of that, Pettis vs. Pitbull wasn't even the main event on the card. Nemkov's light heavyweight title defense against Romero, the ageless, idiosyncratic UFC veteran, got top billing.
Despite all of that, do you know who was the star of the event? Sergio Pettis. While everyone was fixated on Pitbull -- fairly, because he was chasing something unprecedented -- Pettis went out and had the best performance of his career, a poised, sublime outing in which he kept Pitbull at bay, beat his opponent to the punch and proved he's an elite talent at 135 pounds.
The under-the-radar story is that Pettis has not fought since December 2021 because of knee surgery. He had to pull out of the Bellator Bantamweight World Grand Prix because of the injury. Over the past year-plus, it seemed like the division had moved on without him. Patchy Mix won the tournament in April over Raufeon Stots and took home the Bellator interim bantamweight title. Mix has become the new "it" name in the division.
What could Pettis do to gain some attention back? How about a comprehensive victory over Pitbull, the best fighter in Bellator history? Pettis and Mix faced off after the bout in the cage, as that future fight should be incredibly high level.
In his postfight interview, Pettis said he has beaten all of Bellator's poster boys, from Juan Archuleta to Kyoji Horiguchi and now Pitbull. But before he has to worry about Mix, it's time to give Pettis his flowers as one of the best bantamweight fighters in the world. His face might not be adorned on a Wheaties box any time soon like his older brother Anthony, but baby brother has moved out of the shadow of his brother and others and finally come into his own with a career-defining win.
Wagenheim: PFL finding new blood at heavyweight
Denis Goltsov needs just 18 SECONDS to finish Yorgan De Castro
The PFL lost a defending heavyweight champion from its playoff picture but gained a couple of powerful contenders for this year's $1 million prize.
Ante Delija won Friday's main event against Maurice Greene by unanimous decision, but it wasn't good enough to earn him a playoff spot. The problem for Delija is that he had pulled out of his April season opener because of injury, so this was his only opportunity to amass points. He needed to finish within the first half of Round 1, and it didn't happen for him.
Delija will be missed, but not as much as he would have if not for the performances of a couple of other big guys earlier in the night. You might have missed them if you blinked.
First, Denis Goltsov knocked out Yorgan De Castro in a PFL heavyweight-record 18 seconds, using a single straight right hand to get the job done. Shortly after, Renan Ferreira KO'd Matheus Scheffel in 50 seconds with a lightning flurry against the cage.
Those were explosively impressive performances by the pair of PFL stalwarts. For Goltsov, this is the third straight year he has earned a spot in the playoffs; he lost a semifinal to Delija in 2022 but could not compete in last year's semis because of a problem with his visa. Ferreira was bounced from last season's playoffs by Delija; his big PFL moment came the year before, when he TKO'd former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, although the result was changed to a no contest after it was ruled that Ferreira might have earlier tapped out.
Now Goltsov and Ferreira have momentum heading into the playoffs, seeded Nos. 1 and 2. There'll be no Delija standing in their way. No Bruno Cappelozza, either, as the 2021 champ was suspended after testing positive for a banned substance. When the heavyweights begin their playoffs on June 16 in New York, Goltsov will face fourth-seeded Jordan Heiderman and Ferreira will fight No. 3 seed Marcelo Nunes. Both Heiderman and Nunes scored first-round knockouts, too, on Friday.
So expect fireworks in the heavyweight playoffs.
Best MMA miscellany from the weekend
Maisonet: Bones and Ngannou face off in ATL
What a moment at PFL 5. Francis Ngannou, who is set to make his debut with the promotion in 2024, was at the event to discuss his signing with the broadcast team. Meanwhile, Jon Jones was working that night, serving as a coach and cornerman for Maurice Greene during the main event. And then the two came together.
I don't know what's better, Ngannou referring to Jones as "Jonny Boy", or Jones retorting that Ngannou doesn't "want the smoke with the one true king". Kudos to our colleague Brett Okamoto for capturing this 83-second video of pure gold.
Now the only question is -- will it ever happen?
Waters: Novenyi extends unbeaten streak
HE DOES IT AGAIN! 🔥@magicnorbi just keeps getting better and better inside the Bellator cage. Huge KNOCKOUT!— Bellator MMA (@BellatorMMA) June 16, 2023
📺 #Bellator297 @MonsterEnergy Prelims fueled by @superiorgrocers LIVE NOW pic.twitter.com/ld6AD1R3L4
Bellator's Norbert Novenyi Jr. continues to prove he could have a bright future ahead of him. On Friday night, Novenyi needed only 46 seconds to secure the fifth win with the promotion and sixth career win with a knockout over Kamil Oniszczuk. The win was also Novenyi's third consecutive first-round finish.
Maisonet: 'Mr. Perfect' eats punch, returns fire with impeccable rear-naked choke
Kyung Ho Kang finishes Cristian Quinonez via rear-naked choke at UFC Fight Night.
At age 35, Kyung Ho Kang is still trucking along in the UFC, continuing to be one of the tougher fighters in the bantamweight division. On Saturday, one of the best nicknamed fighters in the promotion gave fight fans a "perfect" looking submission, as he locked in an exquisite choke on Cristian Quinonez to earn the submission victory.
Watch out for the elbow!
Manuel Torres throws one of the biggest elbows you'll ever see to secure the knockout victory.