Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card started with three first-minute flash knockouts and ended with Cynthia Calvillo making an emphatic statement in her UFC women’s flyweight debut.
Calvillo soundly defeated Jessica Eye and instantly put herself in the conversation among the best in the division. Merab Dvalishvili made an impression of his own, both inside the Octagon, where he put on a wrestling clinic in a one-sided victory over Gustavo Lopez, and outside, when he attempted to jump out of the cage.
One of the biggest takeaways thus far from the cards at the UFC’s Apex facility has been the impact of the smaller Octagon — 25 feet vs. 30 feet at other venues. UFC president Dana White doesn’t believe it has had an effect, but the fact is that the beginning of Saturday’s card set a record. It was the first card in UFC history in which each of the first three fights ended within a minute, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and it tied the record for most finishes in less than a minute on a card. Coincidence?
What does it all mean? Our expert panel featuring Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi is here to break down the night’s biggest questions.
Where does Cynthia Calvillo’s victory put her in the flyweight pecking order? Whom should she fight next?
Helwani: Cynthia Calvillo is just what the doctor ordered for flyweight, one of the UFC’s most shallow divisions right now. She’s a legit player who just improved her UFC record to 6-1-1 (1-0 at 125). I like the move to 125 a lot for her because she was clearly having trouble cutting to 115, missing weight in two of her previous three fights. Calvillo’s performance showed that this is the weight class for her. She scored a great, dominant win over the gritty veteran Jessica Eye. Did she run out of gas toward the end? Sure, but that was her first five-round fight, and she took it on three weeks’ notice. Not bad.
Is Calvillo ready for Valentina Shevchenko? No. But most 125ers aren’t. She has work to do before entering that conversation, and she doesn’t have to worry about the champ anyway because Shevchenko’s next foe is likely going to be Joanne Calderwood. Shevchenko was going to fight Calderwood in June before that fight got delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic and Shevchenko’s knee injury. I really hope they don’t push Calderwood aside because Calvillo just won. That would not feel right. So I’d like to see Calvillo fight the winner of Roxanne Modafferi vs. Lauren Murphy next. That fight is happening next Saturday, by the way, so the timing works out perfectly. I think the winner would represent a solid challenge for the 32-year-old Calvillo. If not, I liked seeing Katlyn Chookagian, who looked amazing two weeks ago, call out Calvillo after her win tonight, too. I wouldn’t mind that matchup either.
Okamoto: I anticipate Calvillo skyrocketing up the rankings after this result, which she should. Jessica Eye was 4-1 in the UFC’s flyweight division coming in, with her only loss to Valentina Shevchenko. I don’t think Eye was ever going to topple Shevchenko for a title, but she is a proven, elite flyweight with wins over the likes of Katlyn Chookagian and Viviane Araujo. And Calvillo nearly won every round against her. I think the UFC could pair her with someone such as Chookagian, who wrote on social media “gimmie gimmie,” but I don’t know if that’s what the promotion should do. Flyweight needs new blood and new contenders, and booking Calvillo against Chookagian, who has already fought for the title, might stunt her momentum with not much payoff. I wouldn’t mind seeing a rematch of a fight from 2017 between Calvillo and Montana de la Rosa. De la Rosa is highly ranked, and she and Calvillo have evolved from that first meeting, which took place at strawweight. That’s the one I’d make.
Raimondi: Calvillo is very much in the title mix in what is a wide-open division, aside from champion Valentina Shevchenko. Eye was the UFC’s No. 1 contender and came in at No. 6 on ESPN’s women’s flyweight list. Katlyn Chookagian called out Calvillo on Twitter after the bout, but that might be a bit soon for Calvillo. Chookagian is a former No. 1 contender coming off an impressive win over Valentina’s sister, Antonina. Next week, there is a flyweight fight between Lauren Murphy and Roxanne Modafferi. Both are on the cusp of being contenders. I wouldn’t mind seeing Calvillo face the winner. She needs to continue to prove that she can beat bigger flyweights. Like Valentina Shevchenko and Eye, Murphy and Modafferi are former bantamweights.
What was your reaction to Merab Dvalishvili’s challenge to Sean O’Malley, and what do you think that fight would look like?
Merab Dvalishvili lands a big right hand and then a massive takedown of Gustavo Lopez early in the second round of their bout at UFC Fight Night.
Helwani: That’s certainly a high-level fight and an interesting one, too, but I’d be surprised if the UFC made it happen next. Simply put, O’Malley is too hot right now to book against a beast such as Dvalishvili. It would be a classic striker vs. grappler matchup, and though I’m not saying O’Malley would definitely lose, there’s no upside in booking him against Dvalishvili right now. Save that one for later. Dvalishvili is too good, too strong and not very known.
I think it’s an easy fight to predict: Dvalishvili would try to take the fight to the ground immediately, and O’Malley would want to keep it standing. If it were to happen in the smaller cage, it would certainly favor Dvalishvili because there’s less room to maneuver in there. Anyhow, if I were in charge, I would go with O’Malley vs. Marlon Vera and Dvalishvili vs. Song Yadong next. If they keep winning, they’ll surely meet down the road.
— UFC (@ufc) June 14, 2020
Okamoto: I don’t think he’s gonna get his wish. A lot of people are calling out O’Malley these days, which is a testament to what he has built. He’s one of the biggest names in the division, but he’s still unproven. Maybe he’s a future champ. Maybe he’s a flash in the pan. I lean more toward the former than the latter, but the point is we don’t know yet. His name is bigger than his résumé right now, and that means he has a target on his back. It makes sense that Dvalishvili would throw his name in the hat, but it wouldn’t make sense from the UFC’s standpoint to book that fight. There might come a time when O’Malley needs to face one of the better wrestlers of the division, but I guarantee you that time is not now if you’re the UFC. I said last week that I’d like to see O’Malley fight Marlon Vera. Maybe Dvalishvili fights Raphael Assuncao.
Raimondi: My first thought? It would be a terrible promotional mistake by the UFC. O’Malley is a red-hot prospect who has looked sensational with his striking, knocking out two opponents in the past three months via highlight-reel finish. Dvalishvili, meanwhile, is a bantamweight prospect who has been impressive with his ability to take his opponents down — he scored 13 takedowns on Saturday, which broke his UFC bantamweight record. It’s way too early for them to fight each other before either is a legitimate title contender. Down the road, O’Malley vs. Dvalishvili could be a lot of fun. But now? Too soon.
Which of the three first-minute knockouts impressed you most?
Helwani: I loved the Tyson Nam knockout for a couple of reasons. First, it was a beautiful, clean knockout, a vicious overhand right. Although I didn’t love the extra punches on the ground because his opponent, Zarrukh Adashev, was clearly out (shoutout to referee Herb Dean for stepping in there to separate Nam), that doesn’t take away from the fact that it was a great KO. It’s also significant because it was Nam’s first UFC win (and knockout). The 36-year-old has been a pro for more than 14 years and has fought all over the world.
For a while, it seemed as though he’d never fight in the UFC and was destined to be one of those classic journeyman fighters. But Nam got a short-notice opportunity late last year against Sergio Pettis, and it was great to see him in the UFC after all these years. Unfortunately for Nam, he lost his first two UFC fights via unanimous decision to Pettis and Kai Kara-France, so you could make the case that he was fighting for his UFC job on Saturday. No more. Nam is here to stay for at least a little longer, and he proved his worth in emphatic fashion.
Okamoto: Tyson Nam’s monster right hand, just 32 seconds into his bout against Zarrukh Adashev. It was incredible that it wasn’t a walk-off. I don’t know how Adashev managed to sit back up from that initial shot, and it probably would have been better had he stayed down because sitting up gave Nam the green light to light into him with a second shot. It was a highlight-reel knockout, and Nam badly needed it. His job very well could have been on the line. Nam actually was very shaken up in the Octagon afterward, after Adashev had trouble getting to his feet. Adashev did eventually make it out of the cage on his own.
Raimondi: Nam, hands down. There’s nothing quite like a one-hitter quitter in MMA. Nam put Zarrukh Adashev to sleep with a big right hand in just 32 seconds. What made it even better is that Nam has been a pro since 2006. He has bounced around multiple promotions, including Bellator, World Series of Fighting and Fight Nights Global in Russia. Nam never had a UFC win before Saturday night, and it happened in absolutely spectacular fashion. What made it even better is that Adashev is a legitimate prospect with an excellent kickboxing background, including appearances in Glory.
Which prospect made the biggest impression on this card?
Mariya Agapova lands a perfectly timed kick on Hannah Cifers’ chin in Round 1.
Helwani: Does 29-year-old Merab Dvalishvili count? If so, him. He’s a freight train. He scored 13 takedowns in his victory over Gustavo Lopez (a personal record), which means he has 52 total in his UFC career. That ties him for 16th all time alongside Randy Couture and puts him past the likes of Matt Hughes, Sean Sherk, Gray Maynard and Ryan Bader, per UFC Stats. He also has 10 more than Jon Jones. That’s wild.
In case you’re wondering, Georges St-Pierre holds the UFC record for takedowns with 90, and it took him 22 fights inside the Octagon to get them. Dvalishvili has 52 in six Octagon appearances. Furthermore, per ESPN Stats & Info, the record for takedowns in a fighter’s first 10 UFC fights was 50 by Karo Parisyan, and Dvalishvili has already broken that in four fewer fights. If you ask anyone who trains with Dvalishvili at Serra-Longo on Long Island about him, they will tell you that he’s a future title contender and one of the nicest teammates they’ve ever had. Nice or not, he appears to be a force to be reckoned with at 135 after picking up his fourth straight win.
Okamoto: Mariya Agapova. It’s not often that you remember someone who lost on the Dana White Contender Series, but I definitely remember Agapova. UFC president Dana White compared her to Joanna Jedrzejczyk that week, and you can see why. She’s tall and long for the weight class. She’s a wicked striker at range. What she lacked in that Contender Series bout was a polished ground game, as she was out-grappled by the gritty Tracy Cortez. Well, she’s at a great camp at American Top Team, and she’s young — only 23. I see a very high ceiling on Agapova. I’m guessing that anyone who saw her on Saturday agrees.
Raimondi: I’m not sure if she qualifies as a prospect, but Julia Avila has a chance to make a major mark at women’s bantamweight. She was extremely impressive in steamrollering past Gina Mazany on Saturday via TKO in just 22 seconds. Avila has won both of her UFC fights, and her only career loss came in 2018 due to a gnarly hand injury. She has never really been beaten. “Raging Panda” has the size, the power and the poise to beat a lot of opponents at 135 pounds. Plus, she can be an excellent ambassador for MMA, which is her second job. Her first is as a geologist for an oil company in Oklahoma City.
What was the most entertaining non-fighting moment of the night?
Andre Fili manages to survive Round 1 after getting knocked down by Charles Jourdain.
Helwani: A few come to mind: First, I’m really enjoying the “new” postfight interviews. Initially, I didn’t like them, but I have completely changed my mind. They remind me of old-school pro wrestling interviews in which the wrestlers would go back to the “locker room” huffing and puffing and cut a promo about what just happened in the ring. They’re also like those between-intermission hockey interviews.
I find that waiting a couple of minutes after the fight provides for different answers from the fighters. All in all, they were solid once again. It also provides for moments such as the one with Mariya Agapova, whose energy afterward was infectious. I also enjoyed when Dvalishvili was scolded for jumping on the cage, and his response was that he was “just happy.” Also, when he found out during the postfight news conference that he broke his personal record for takedowns and let out a massive scream — that was fun, too. Lastly, I enjoyed Andre Fili‘s patented postfight victory dance. I hope he’s somewhere eating a large pizza right now. He’s a pizza aficionado, after all.
Okamoto: I’m going to go with the magical trio of Merab Dvalishvili, Aljamain Sterling and Al Iaquinta. It was a real good week for that team. Sterling solidified his case for a shot at the bantamweight championship by submitting Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250 a week ago, and then Dvalishvili followed that with a standout performance against Gustavo Lopez. The best part was when Dvalishvili leapt onto the top of the cage as fighters often do after a win, and the Nevada State Athletic Commission was having none of it. Referee Mark Smith ordered Dvalishvili down, assertively. Luckily, it didn’t seem to dampen Dvalishvili’s mood too much.
Raimondi: Charles Jourdain‘s reaction while the result of his fight with Andre Fili was read. It was a split decision. Octagon announcer Joe Martinez read first that Jourdain had won 29-28 on a judge’s card. Jourdain looked back incredulous — even he couldn’t believe that a judge thought he won the fight. When Martinez read that the other two judges scored the bout for Fili, Jourdain nodded his head and clapped. Jourdain knew he lost the fight by decision and didn’t want to see Fili robbed of a victory. That’s an incredibly classy and self-aware moment from the Canadian featherweight. In the heat of the moment, with so much emotion going into these fights, it was cool to see the clarity Jourdain had after a hard-fought, three-round battle.