After Derrick Lewis and Tai Tuivasa finish flinging menacing leather in each other’s direction on Saturday night in Houston, in the co-main event of UFC 271, it will be time for the real show.
That’s not a reference to the main event between UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and former champ Robert Whittaker, although their rematch promises some serious fireworks. But right before that fuse is lit, what happens in the immediate aftermath of the co-main will be no less of a spectacle.
If Lewis wins, he might celebrate by removing his too-hot shorts, like he did after defeating Alexander Volkov in 2018, or by flinging his protective cup into the crowd (remember his post-fight presser after stopping Chris Daukaus in Round 1?). If Tuivasa wins, someone’s going to walk home in a soggy shoe.
Looking at their performances inside the Octagon, it’s hard to fathom either of these sluggers producing anything as crowd-pleasing as his fisticuffs. Lewis has 13 knockouts in his UFC career, more than any other fighter in the promotion’s history, in any weight class. Among Tuivasa’s seven wins in the UFC, all but one have come by KO/TKO. But right after these guys turn out someone’s lights, they upstage themselves by shifting the spotlight to the celebration.
Relatively few fighters do postfight right. The occasional callout zinger or backflip off the top of the fence draws attention, but nothing gets a rise out of the crowd quite like Lewis shedding his fight gear at center cage, or Tuivasa doing his signature shoey all the way to the dressing room. Sure, there’s a gross-out element to watching someone chug beer out of a shoe or reach into a jockstrap, but is there anything more MMA than that? You will not see a celebration like these at the conclusion of the Super Bowl.
These heavyweights have made their postfights uniquely memorable by thinking outside the box. Or maybe what makes the antics so refreshing is that they don’t appear to involve forethought. The fighters’ expressions of joy or discomfort derive from emotions to which fans can relate. Until the day comes when either fight turns these celebrations into an endorsement these will be among the most organic moments in the sport. And the most highly anticipated.
So, which big guy will steal the show this time?
Elsewhere at UFC 271 …
Adesanya vs. Whittaker by the numbers … and words
When Adesanya knocked out Whittaker in October 2019 in Melbourne, Australia, to take away his UFC middleweight championship, these two produced some impressive — and telling — numbers:
57,124: Attendance at Marvel Stadium, the most ever for a UFC fight.
484: Layoff for Whittaker, in days, going into the bout — the longest of his career.
18-0: Adesanya’s record after the win, at the time the second best undefeated mark in the UFC, behind the 28-0 of Khabib Nurmagomedov. Adesanya has since lost for the first time, but that was in a bid for the light heavyweight title. He remains undefeated at middleweight.
2: Knockdowns by Adesanya, one in each round. The second was the beginning of the end in his TKO victory.
25: Percentage of Whittaker’s Round 1 significant strike attempts that connected (17 of 66). Adesanya was especially elusive when his head was being targeted. Whittaker threw 49 strikes toward the head in the round and landed only six.
7: Leg strikes landed by Adesanya — on seven attempts. He was nearly as accurate when targeting the torso, connecting on six of eight.
1: Choreographed walkout by Adesanya, which he totally nailed.
And here’s Whittaker speaking to ESPN over a year ago about his approach to an Adesanya rematch:
“I think he’s a puzzle that I just want to work at and I want to try and beat. I don’t know how I’ll do it because he’s so good, man. He’s so bloody good. And it may be a repeat of what happened last time, but god I wanna try, mate!”
Yes, Arlovski is still fighting
When Jared Vanderaa made his UFC debut last year, he was able to go backstage afterward and watch fellow heavyweight Andrei Arlovski fight later on the card. It most definitely was not Arlovski’s debut. In fact, it’s safe to say that Vanderaa, who faces Arlovski on Saturday, did not see his opponent’s UFC debut live. It was way past his bedtime. Vanderaa was 8½ years old on the night in 2000 when Arlovski first stepped inside the Octagon.
For Arlovski, Saturday’s bout will be his 37th in the UFC, which will tie him with Donald Cerrone for second most all time, one behind Jim Miller. The 42-year-old Belarussian, who now calls Chicago home, has been in 54 pro fights overall in a two-decade career. He won the UFC heavyweight championship during a six-fight winning streak way back in 2005.
Since that reign, Arlovski has been on a roller-coaster ride, through now-defunct fight promotions such as Affliction, EliteXC and Strikeforce, a one-fight cameo for One Championship and the World Series of Fighting (now the PFL) — and, in 2014, back to the UFC. Three years after his return, Arlovski was mired in a five-fight losing streak. The first four of those defeats came at the hands of Stipe Miocic, Alistair Overeem, Josh Barnett and Francis Ngannou, each of whom has reigned as heavyweight champ in the UFC or Strikeforce. The stiff competition propelled Arlovski into a skid that produced just two wins in 11 fights.
But he just kept fighting, and now the man known as “Pitbull” is in a career resurgence. Arlovski enters the fight with Vanderaa, 29, having won four of his last five. Just like the old days.
O’Neill cannot allow history to repeat
Casey O’Neill is one of the most promising young fighters in MMA. At age 24, the Australian flyweight is 8-0 overall, 3-0 in the UFC. Last month she came in at No. 3 in ESPN’s top 25 fighters under age 25 rankings.
On Saturday, O’Neill faces Roxanne Modafferi, who has lost two in a row and three of her last four. A breeze for O’Neill? Maybe not.
In the fight right before Modafferi’s current skid, she faced Maycee Barber, who like O’Neill was 8-0 overall and 3-0 in the UFC. Barber, who was 21 at the time, had been ranked No. 6 on that year’s ESPN top-25-under-25 list. Barber was a huge favorite, her closing odds hitting -900. But Modafferi pulled off the upset.
So watch out, -360 betting favorite Casey O’Neill.
Perez has a winning way
When Alex Perez steps in with Matt Schnell on Saturday night, it will be Perez’s first fight since Nov. 21, 2020 — the night he fell short in his bid to dethrone UFC flyweight champion Deiveson Figueredo.
That was just the second defeat for Perez in nearly six years. The other came in 2018 against Joseph Benavidez, who at the time was firmly positioned as the No. 2 125-pounder in the world.
Other than two losses to the elite, it’s been nothing but victories for Perez in his last 13 fights.
Undefeated but at a loss?
Maxim Grishin, who fights William Knight in a light heavyweight prelim, arrived in the UFC in 2020 riding a nine-fight unbeaten streak. The last six of those fights were in the PFL, where the Russian went undefeated for two seasons — but did not walk away with a $1 million championship check.
How is that possible? In both 2018 and 2019, Grishin made it to the playoffs but was eliminated by a tiebreaker. Back then, PFL playoff quarterfinals were two-round fights, and if each fighter won a round, the one who took Round 1 would advance. It was an odd rule, making results feel totally random. The PFL eventually changed its format. But it was too late for Grishin to cash in.