Saturday’s UFC 224 event is in the books, and now that the dust has settled in Rio de Janeiro, it’s time to go to the scorecard to see who the big winners were at Jeunesse Arena.
1 – Amanda Nunes
Guess that thing about Amanda Nunes not being a five-round fighter has been settled, eh? Once seen as a terror in the opening rounds who could be counted on to fade late, UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes has proved in back-to-back fights that she’s just as dangerous in the championship rounds as she is in the first two. That doesn’t just come with maturity as a fighter, but with the title of “champion.” Nunes means it when she says she’s not letting go of that belt anytime soon, and with her punishing stoppage of Raquel Pennington on Saturday, who’s going to doubt her?
2 – Kelvin Gastelum
After a rough first round on the mat against one of the best groundfighters on the planet, Kelvin Gastelum got up and began to walk back to his corner like he was finishing up a trip to the supermarket. No stress on his face, no anxious looks or deep breaths. It was then that I thought, “Jacare is going to be in for hell over the next two rounds.” And he got hell from Gastelum for the next 10 minutes, and while it was a back and forth battle in rounds two and three, leaving this as a fight that could have gone either way, I had no problem with the judges’ verdict for Gastelum, and I’m in for him getting the next shot at the middleweight title. Gastelum vs Whittaker or Gastelum vs Romero? Those are both intriguing fights I’d love to see.
3 – Lyoto Machida
If someone told me after Lyoto Machida’s October 2017 loss to Derek Brunson that he was planning on retiring in May 2018, I would have said, “Good call.” Three consecutive finishes at the hands of Brunson, Yoel Romero and Luke Rockhold, along with him approaching 40…Well, it may have been time for “The Dragon” to walk off into the sunset. But now he’s started the year with a decision win over Eryk Anders and an early candidate for Knockout of the Year over Vitor Belfort, and what do you know, Machida may still have some gas in the tank in a tough division. Could he make another run at the belt? Stranger things have happened.
4 – John Lineker
I wrote on Saturday night that with his third-round knockout of Brian Kelleher, John Lineker handed in his best performance since his July 2016 finish of Michael McDonald, and two days later, my opinion hasn’t changed in the slightest. And yes, he delivered wins over John Dodson and Marlon Vera in that period, but he wasn’t John Lineker in those fights. On Saturday, he was the hookmaster once more, digging to the body and head with little regard for what was coming back at him. And when those “Hands of Stone” hit the mark, Kelleher knew it. This is the version of John Lineker that can give nightmares to anyone at 135 pounds, and I hope he’s here to stay.
5 – Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos
Are you onboard the Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos bandwagon yet? Sure, Lyoto Machida got all the press for his front kick finish of Vitor Belfort, but man, the spinning wheel kick knockout “Capoeira” delivered against ultra-tough Sean Strickland will find its way onto the Best Knockouts of 2018 list at the end of the year for sure. More importantly, it was another reason why the Brazilian should be on your must see list. Since a split decision loss to Nicolas Dalby in his UFC debut in 2015, ZDS has put together a 5-0 record with two knockouts and three Fight of the Night awards. Let’s see him in with a top 15er the next time out – maybe Alex Oliveira or Santiago Ponzinibbio. It’s time.