A UFC welterweight division that is packed with title contenders appeared to get a new one on Saturday night. Gilbert Burns soundly defeated former champion Tyron Woodley by unanimous decision in the UFC Fight Night main event in Las Vegas. Burns has now won six in a row, including back-to-back victories over Demian Maia and Woodley, the man the UFC considered the division’s No. 1 contender.
Burns’ win capped an action-packed night of fights at the UFC Apex, which contests its bouts in a 25-foot-wide cage, instead of the typical 30-foot cage. Perhaps that helped produce six finishes in the first eight fights on the card.
Several of those stoppages were recorded by high-level prospects, including Mackenzie Dern. The highly touted strawweight returned to the win column after suffering her first loss in her previous fight in October.
ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim break down the main event, discuss the smaller Octagon and tackle other key questions from Saturday night’s card.
What was your biggest takeaway from the main event?
Helwani: Gilbert Burns has officially arrived. He is for real. Yes, he entered the fight on a five-fight winning streak. Yes, he had won seven of eight going into his first UFC main event. But he had never fought a former champion such as Tyron Woodley before. And he stepped up big time. So, the biggest takeaway has to be that there’s a new player at 170 pounds and his name is Gilbert Burns. Is he next for the belt? No. He is still at least a couple of wins away from that discussion because of the logjam at 170. There have been others who have been waiting for a shot for a while now. (Leon Edwards and Jorge Masvidal come to mind, for starters.) But still, he is definitely a contender now, and he looked amazing on Saturday. On the flip side, the other big takeaway was that Woodley lost his big comeback fight. It was a nightmare for Woodley from the jump. Burns hurt and cut him in the first round, and Woodley never quite recovered. Woodley lost every round convincingly. You have to wonder where he goes from here. The road back to the title picture just got a heck of a lot longer for the former champ, who is 38 years old.
Okamoto: Gilbert Burns is a very real welterweight contender. Yes, that’s the obvious takeaway, but it’s also clearly the biggest one. Burns flipped the script on Woodley in every way imaginable. Woodley had the most feared right hand in the division for a while. Burns’ right hand was more dangerous on Saturday. Woodley is known for his speed. Burns was the quicker man. Woodley is a strong, intimidating welterweight. Burns was the more physical of the two when he needed to be. Woodley was unquestionably an elite welterweight coming into this fight, and he was highly motivated — and Burns walked right through him. Burns is for real, guys. For real. And he is a threat to the champion, Kamaru Usman.
Raimondi: Henri Hooft is one of the most underrated coaches in MMA. Look at how he was able to turn Kamaru Usman, an incredible amateur wrestler, into a very good striker en route to Usman becoming the UFC welterweight champion. Now, Hooft is doing it again with Gilbert Burns, who has a Brazilian jiu-jitsu background. Hooft is a Dutch former kickboxing standout, and his strategy for his athletes is very meat and potatoes. It’s all about the basics — nothing flashy. Burns and Usman have the fundamentals of good striking down — both with impressive power — without anything that could get them in trouble from a defensive standpoint. All the credit to Burns here for dominating Woodley, a former champ. But Hooft deserves more than just a nod.
Wagenheim: Woodley got old right before our eyes. The only question, for me: Did it happen Saturday night or did it happen 15 months ago, when he was dethroned and thoroughly dominated by Kamaru Usman? I considered it still an open question back then, as Woodley was swarmed and smothered by Usman, which gradually took the steam out of the then-champ. But on this night, there was no steam. There was no energy. And as Woodley fell farther and farther behind on the scorecards and it became evident the 38-year-old needed a finish, there was no urgency. There was nothing but a glazed look in his eyes, as if he were not even there. The explosive T-Wood who not so long ago was perhaps the second-greatest welterweight in MMA history certainly was not present.
But gosh, I don’t want my takeaway to be entirely about what Woodley did not do. While Tyron was showing his age, Burns was coming of age as a welterweight. Burns has won six straight fights, the past four at 170 pounds, and has to be considered among the elite in the division. A win over Woodley — even this Woodley — is a bigger and better win than anything on the résumés of Jorge Masvidal, Colby Covington, Leon Edwards or any other contender. I don’t expect Burns to get the next shot against Usman, but Burns has certainly staked his place.
Did you like the impact of the smaller cage and should the UFC stick with it?
Helwani: It’s impossible to truly say whether the smaller cage led to better fights and more finishes, but historically, that is the case. As I mentioned earlier this week, just look at those WEC/Palms/Hard Rock cards from back in the day that used the 25-foot cage and you’ll see that this kind of action was the norm. As long as the UFC is holding events at the Apex, I don’t see why they would switch things up. It worked Saturday evening. It usually works. Seems like a no-brainer.
I do hope the fighters are notified well in advance, because they deserve to know as soon as possible how big the cage is. Clearly, it makes a difference.
Okamoto: Short answer, yes. I liked the impact of the smaller cage. It’s more conducive to action, obviously, and when you’re applying that to established, UFC-caliber fighters — and not contestants on The Ultimate Fighter or Contender Series — you’re going to see a high finishing rate. You’re taking the best fighters in the world and putting them in a smaller space. There’s less room to hide, and that was apparent on Saturday. Should the UFC stick with it? Here’s my problem with that: I want to see title fights in the full-size Octagon. Title fights are different. They’re the epitome of the sport. Maybe I’m a purist or I don’t like change; whatever the case may be, I don’t like the idea of UFC title fights taking place in a phone booth. I really want to see skill shine in the fights that are trying to determine who is the best in the world. So, my suggestion is a smaller cage for Fight Nights and a full-sized cage for pay-per-views.
Raimondi: There’s no doubt the smaller cage leads to more action. The first four fights Saturday night ended in a finish, and just about every bout was exciting. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but the fact is that the smaller cage has a higher finishing rate, per MMA statistician Reed Kuhn. I like it for these Fight Night cards. It could lead to more action-packed fights. But I’m not sure I’d want a small cage for the biggest fights, especially with the heavier weight divisions. Jon Jones and his 84-inch reach should be competing in the standard-sized cage, for instance. And it would be weird seeing the Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier heavyweight title trilogy bout in this small of an enclosing.
Wagenheim: Give me the 25-foot Octagon every weekend. I’m not saying it just because there were finishes in more than half of the evening’s fights. It was the fifth fight of the night — which came after the first four had ended by TKO or submission — that sealed the deal for me. Daniel Rodriguez and Gabe Green went the distance in their welterweight bout, but not a second dragged during those 15 minutes. It was full-on engagement the whole way. And that held true for all of the other bouts that went to decision, with the exception of the main event, which because of Tyron Woodley’s lethargy would have dragged even if staged in an even smaller format.
It’s funny. You couldn’t imagine a football field to be anything but 100 yards (unless you’re in my man Ariel’s native Canada), and you couldn’t imagine a major league baseline to be anything but 90 feet. But there always are variables in MMA, and they keep it interesting. This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen fights in a 25-foot cage, and there’s enough anecdotal evidence out there that a smaller Octagon sets the stage for bigger action. I’m all-in.
Did this win help reestablish Mackenzie Dern as a prospect?
Helwani: I never believed Dern stopped being a prospect. Remember, when she lost her previous fight — her first pro defeat — in October, she was four months removed from giving birth to her first child and 17 months removed from her last bout, so it wasn’t surprising to see her look a little rusty. On Saturday, she appeared to be in the best shape of her career, and that is notable considering the issues she has had making strawweight in the past. Her manager, Daniel Rubenstein, confirmed that she was in the best shape of her career. I’m curious to see where Dern goes from here. And if her striking can catch up just a little more to her world-class ground game, she will continue to be a name to watch in the UFC.
Okamoto: Dern was still a prospect, in my mind, coming into this fight, so it didn’t really reestablish her as one for me; but in the eyes of the fans, I’m sure it does. She missed time due to the birth of her daughter and lost her first fight back. I still think she had plenty of momentum and hype coming into this contest, but had she suffered a second loss, she really would have lost a lot of that. Personally, I really like what I see out of Dern. I think she has a winner’s mentality: She finds ways to win, even when a fight isn’t going her way. She seems very comfortable standing, despite the fact that she is a grappler first. She’s naturally gifted. I think she can be really good, but I hope the UFC doesn’t rush her too quickly.
Raimondi: I think so. She’s still only 27 years old, and she looked very good in finishing Hannah Cifers on Saturday night. Dern still has a ways to go before being considered one of the best strawweights in the world following her October loss to Amanda Ribas. But Dern’s trajectory is really dependent on her. Dern has always had all the tools to be an excellent MMA fighter. She was the best female Brazilian jiu-jitsu player for years and highly touted when she made the transition to the cage. Dern started a family, with her first child born last year, but she seems to have come back motivated. Saturday’s kneebar finish — Dern is one of the most dangerous in the world on the ground — was a good indicator of that.
Wagenheim: I don’t think this win “reestablished” anything, because I didn’t discount Dern as a prospect when she suffered her first career loss in October. I mean, just four months earlier she had become a mother. Think about how pregnancy and childbirth change a woman’s body — and then imagine what Dern had to go through, physically and mentally, in order to prepare herself for a fight. She never used that as an excuse. But on Saturday, we saw a different fighter. She showed that you go to the canvas with her at your peril. That might not be enough to boost Dern to among the strawweight elite, but the two-time jiu-jitsu world champion certainly has something spectacular on which to build.
Outside of the main event, who had the most impressive performance?
Helwani: I’ll go with the first fight of the night: Chris Gutierrez obliterated Vince Morales from the moment their fight started. The first round was a 10-8, and I think the second was on the verge of being another one, before Gutierrez stopped Morales at 4:27. The calf kicks were phenomenal, and Morales had no answer for them. That was a tremendous performance. Honorable mention: Katlyn Chookagian. Let’s be honest, Chookagian isn’t considered the most exciting fighter in the game; and with her coming off that title loss to Valentina Shevchenko in February, it was unclear how she would look against Shevchenko’s sister, Antonina. Well, all Chookagian did was look better than she has in her previous six UFC wins. Aggressive, dominant … a great performance by “Blonde Fighter.”
Okamoto: I’m going with lightweight Roosevelt Roberts. This 26-year-old has a lot of intangibles. He is a potentially bad matchup for a lot of lightweights. There’s a lot of swagger to his game. He is getting better fight to fight. He’s lightning quick. I really like his upside, and he checked all the boxes on Saturday. It was a complete performance. Obviously, he has a long way to go before we’re talking about him alongside the elite of this division, but Roberts is a guy whom you hope to see certain improvements and developments from every time out, and he showed them in this one.
Raimondi: Katlyn Chookagian. Antonina Shevchenko might not be the world champion like her sister, Valentina, but she is no slouch. Actually, Shevchenko was the favorite coming in. And Chookagian completely dominated her for three rounds. All three judges scored the bout 30-25. That kind of lopsided decision victory doesn’t happen too often in the UFC. Chookagian had not scored a takedown in nine UFC fights coming in, but she took Antonina down at will. Valentina defeated Chookagian by finish at UFC 247 in February. On Saturday, Chookagian proved herself as a legitimate top-level flyweight in a masterful performance against Valentina’s older sister.
Wagenheim: It was a good night for eye-opening performances. Katlyn Chookagian evened the score with the Shevchenko family with as dominant a beatdown as we’ve ever seen from her. Brandon Royval made his UFC debut against tough veteran Tim Elliott and finished him. But I’m going to cite light heavyweight Jamahal Hill, the only unbeaten fighter on the card. He made quick work of Klidson Abreu, a tough guy with more experience than him. Hill pieced up the Brazilian, dropping him twice on his way to a TKO in just 1 minute, 51 seconds. Hill is now 8-0 with a pair of UFC wins. Impressive. Show us more.
What was your favorite moment from the night?
Helwani: This is a hard one. There’s a multitude of great moments to pick from: Chris Gutierrez’s leg kicks, Casey Kenney’s one-arm guillotine; Jamahal Hill’s knee; Katlyn Chookagian’s aggression; the madness that was Spike Carlyle vs. Billy Quarantillo. Heck, I can even go with the way the event was run. I thought Nevada did a much better job than Florida in terms of being strict enough to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved in the event. But in the end, I’ll go with something that happened after a fight. I enjoyed the moment when Brandon Royval was emotional after his win over Tim Elliott, telling Daniel Cormier that he didn’t think the win was impressive enough and that he dreamed of being able to quit his job to focus on fighting full time. I enjoyed Cormier reassuring Royval that, no, it was impressive. I’m sure that made Royval feel a little better. Imagine getting a legend like DC to praise you after your debut. That’s pretty cool.
Okamoto: How could it be anything but the end of the first round of the Billy Quarantillo-Spike Carlyle fight? When Carlyle inexplicably stood up and sauntered away from Quarantillo … with about 10 seconds remaining in the round. That was hilarious, and of course, out of everyone on the card, it was Carlyle who did it. He is a character. And what makes it even better, there are no fans in the arena! It’s not like he thought he heard a bell or something. What in the world happened? Lol. Hey, even though Carlyle ended up taking a decision loss, I think his stock went up. People will remember that guy.
Raimondi: The entire fight between Tim Elliott and Brandon Royval. Ground scrambles are among the most entertaining things in MMA, especially when done at a high level. Royval vs. Elliott was filled with those — until Royval was able to finish, fittingly, on the mat with an arm-triangle choke in the second round. Elliott is one of the pound-for-pound most exciting fighters on the UFC roster, and this was another fight that reminded everyone that the flyweight division is worth keeping around. The Royval vs. Elliott bout was all action from the first bell, and both men kept an absurd pace. Incredibly fun, even without a highlight-reel knockout.
Wagenheim: As a wild first round winds down, Spike Carlyle hears the woodblock claps from cageside, indicating there are just 10 seconds left … and he stops fighting! He is on top of Billy Quarantillo and gets up and walks away. And Quarantillo gets up too, rushes over and nails Spike from behind, dropping him right before the horn. A brain cramp like that will not serve Carlyle well as he moves up the rankings. Of course, he need not worry about that ascent for a while, as he gassed out, while Quarantillo took charge of what was a close fight and pulled out the win. Carlyle is a treat to watch, and he has physical tools, but if he hopes to stick around, he is going to have to raise the level of his mental game.