PERTH, Australia — The headline act may have been meaningless and Kiwi great Mark Hunt beaten, but Perth fans still enjoyed their first taste of UFC action thanks largely to the salvage efforts of Jake Matthews, Tai Tuivasa, Tyson Pedro and Israel Adesanya.
Yoel Romero‘s knockout victory over Luke Rockhold effectively rendered the bout for the interim middleweight title null and void after the Cuban had missed weight on Saturday. His left hook and follow-up uppercut brought the capacity crowd at Perth Arena to its feet, but it was hard not to feel a sense of injustice given the previous day’s events.
Earlier, New Zealand veteran Hunt was the victim of takedown after takedown at the hands of American Curtis Blaydes. Earlier on in his career, Hunt may well have had the power and endurance to pick himself up from the canvas and regain control of the fight. But at almost 44 years of age, any time he did manage to regain his feet, the American was quick to send him crashing back down.
“That was my game plan. He wants to stand and bang, he’s the better striker, he’s a veteran, but I didn’t want to play his game,” Blaydes said after his victory by unanimous decision. “I want to play my game.
“I’m the wrestler, I’m the judoka master champ, and I’m going to drag him to where I want to be. On the feet, he’s a lion and I’m not a lion. But on the ground, I’m a shark and he ain’t a shark, so I took him to where I wanted to be.”
Blaydes was widely booed by the local fans as he exited the arena where only a short while earlier the parochial home contingent roared in support of Aussie trio Tuivasa, Pedro and Matthews.
The rising trio, at heavyweight, light-heavyweight and welterweight respectively, forged their victories in contrasting fashions with Tuivasa again proving what a brutal striking threat he is becoming inside the Octagon. The 24-year-old Sydneysider, who this time entered to Daryl Braithwaite’s ‘Horses’, fired 39 shots inside three minutes, Frenchman Cyril Asker little more than cannon fodder before the referee rightly intervened.
There was just one problem with the victory, though. There was no $50,000 bonus for Performance of the Night, even with a Daniel Ricciardo-styled celebration ‘shooey’.
“What more do you want us to do?” Tuivasa asked. “I should have got 50K just for the shooey … it made me feel good.”
Asked whether he was surprised Asker was able to take such a barrage of punches before the fight was stopped, Tuivasa replied: “[I was] surprised I didn’t get the $50K”.
Was Tai Tuivasa robbed of the 50K bonus for performance of the night at UFC 221? He certainly thinks so! As for Daryl Braithwaite’s “Horses” as a walkout song, Tuivasa says they played the “funeral version”.
Before Tuivasa ensured Asker will face a fuzzy flight back to France, Melbourne’s Jake Matthews engaged in the “Fight of the Night” with China’s Li Jingliang. Both spilt plenty of claret onto the Octagon floor while there was also a touch of controversy with replays appearing to show an eye-gouge from Li.
Matthews’ victory required persistence and unrelenting toughness while his response to eye-gouging allegations oozed class, the Victorian playing it down as something that can happen “in the heat of the moment”.
While the Tuivasa and Matthews victories showcased the raw brutality of the UFC, Pedro’s win was all about technique as he executed a perfect kimura to submit Russian Saparbek Safarov. With an action-packed first round about to end, Pedro manoeuvred his body superbly to earn the tap-out.
“At first, he was going deep for the takedown and I think I was almost in full splits trying to keep his hands apart,” Pedro said. “I blocked it, trying to get him with the arm, and I felt him release his hands a bit and it just popped that elbow right up.
“At first I was just going to a reversal but I ended up trying to take his arm home with me.”
Pedro and Tuivasa co-host The Halfcast Podcast which no doubt has a lot to do with their surging popularity in the Australian fight scene. Unfortunately, being a fan favourite doesn’t guarantee a cash bonus.
“To be honest, I thought that crowd favourite was going to get us both the bonuses. I’m still a little bit disappointed, I just heard. It’s awesome but it would have been nice, I thought I would have at least got Walkout of the Night Performance.”
For organisers, the 12,437 fans who turned up at Perth Arena meant the venue didn’t quite reach capacity. However, UFC 221 is now the highest grossing sports event it has held.
The card was not without its faults, firstly through Robert Whittaker’s withdrawal and then Romero’s failure to make weight. The Cuban’s knockout of Rockhold gave local MMA fans essentially what they were after, despite it being from the less-favoured protagonist and lacking obvious legitimacy.
Thankfully, there was nothing to fault in the victories of Matthews, Tuivasa and Pedro which all came in their own unique way. Perth fight fans will wait with interest for news of the UFC’s return, and organisers should count their blessings those men helped send supporters home smiling as it could have very easily gone a different way.