Magomed Ankalaev's game plan, a bit perplexing as the fight unfolded, finally made sense as he was being interviewed inside the Octagon after his unanimous-decision victory over Thiago Santos in the main event of Saturday's UFC Fight Night card in Las Vegas.
"I wanted to fight five rounds and see if I'm ready to test myself, if I'm ready to go all the way to the top," Ankalaev said.
It was his eighth straight victory, and while it wasn't a thrill-a-minute performance, he delivered an efficient and impressively in-control 25 minutes on a night when expectations for him were high. Ankalaev was the biggest favorite on the card, despite it being his first UFC main event and despite his opposition being a onetime light heavyweight title challenger.
Ankalaev (17-1) pushed forward for the whole fight, but he did not take that aggression to the next level. He threw one strike at a time -- when he threw anything. Mostly, he waited to counter Santos, and he paid the price in Round 2, when he was dropped by a left hand from the Brazilian fighter and spent the round's final seconds absorbing punches on the ground.
But that was about the only glimmer of success that Santos could muster, and the judges' scores (49-46, 49-46, 48-47) reflected that degree of control by his Russian opponent.
Ankalaev called for a title fight after his win. But the 29-year-old would be better served by testing himself once more against a contender before challenging the winner of Glover Teixeira's June 11 title defense against Jiri Prochazka. Perhaps Ankalaev, who entered the night at No. 8 in the ESPN light heavyweight rankings, should take on seventh-ranked Anthony Smith. (Smith said as much as part of his analysis on the postfight show, and he wasn't necessarily being self-serving.)
Even though Ankalaev's championship callout seemed premature, he does now own the second-longest light heavyweight win streak in UFC history (tied with Lyoto Machida, five behind Jon Jones). And according to ESPN Stats & Information research, only four fighters in the UFC's modern era have won eight in a row and not competed for a title (Arnold Allen, Islam Makhachev, Leon Edwards and Michel Prazeres). As is the case for some of those fighters, Ankalaev's time is near.
Song was on target, in his fight and his callout
The Team Alpha Male vs. Dominick Cruz rivalry lives.
Cruz fought Alpha Male team leader Urijah Faber three times. After Cruz lost a WEC title challenge against Faber in 2007, Cruz won twice in the UFC in successful defenses of the UFC bantamweight championship -- in 2011 and 2016. Cruz became a two-time champ before the second Faber win in 2016 over then-Alpha Male fighter TJ Dillashaw. Before that, Cruz beat Alpha Male's Joseph Benavidez. And Cruz even lost the belt to a Team Alpha Male fighter, Cody Garbrandt.
On Saturday, after the latest Alpha Male contender, Song Yadong, scored a first-round knockout of Marlon Moraes, he made a callout: "I want to fight next Dominick Cruz. ... I have a lot of respect for him. ... I want to fight with him."
That would be an appropriate step up in competition for Song, the 24-year-old from China who has won three fights in a row, has just one loss in his past 13 fights and is already 8-1-1 in the UFC. Those dizzying numbers are a big reason he was voted No. 1 in ESPN's rankings of the top 25 MMA fighters under age 25.
And while Song had some nice wins before Saturday's inside the Octagon, this one was his biggest. Moraes is a former world champion in the World Series of Fighting and competed for the UFC bantamweight belt as recently as 2019.
So for Song to call out a former two-time UFC champ who is in a bit of a career resurgence makes a whole lot of sense, both in terms of the 135-pound pecking order (Cruz is No. 9 in the ESPN rankings) and in extending an Alpha Male storyline. Plus, it would be a fight not to miss.
Song simply took apart Moraes, who has been known as a fast starter who fades as a fight wears on. Moraes came in having lost three in a row and four of his previous five, and talking about a resurgence. But Song did not give him an inch. The Chinese fighter was all over Moraes from the start, and it took him just 2:06 to score the knockout with a three-punch combination punctuated by a crisp uppercut.
It was an exclamation-point finish that should get a lot of fans' attention -- and hopefully Dom Cruz's as well.
Pereira is headed in the right direction in middleweight division
Pereira's unanimous-decision victory over Bruno Silva in the main card opener was just his sixth MMA fight. But there's already intrigue surrounding his future prospects.
Pereira is a former Glory kickboxing champion at both middleweight and light heavyweight, and while his transition from that sport has taken a while, the minute he signed with the UFC last fall to compete at middleweight, there was interest in seeing him in a collision against a fighter who is already at the top of the mountain.
That's because two of Pereira's 33 victories in kickboxing came against Israel Adesanya, who now reigns as UFC middleweight champion. In 2017, Pereira knocked Adesanya out. It was the only KO loss in Adesanya's 75-5 kickboxing career.
In order to get to Adesanya inside the Octagon, Pereira is going to have to show he's more than a kickboxer. He did so against Silva by fending off six of eight takedown attempts, and getting back up without taking damage on the two occasions when he was taken to the canvas.
But Silva, while he is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, doesn't typically feature grappling in his arsenal. Lots of other middleweights do. The big question that will be answered in Pereira's next few fights is whether the grappling chops that Pereira is refining while training with light heavyweight champion Glover Teixeira keep him on his feet long enough for him to rise through the 185-pound ranks.
Maverick bounces back into prospect status
Miranda Maverick gets Sabina Mazo to tap out
Miranda Maverick defeats Sabina Mazo via rear-naked choke to win her bout at UFC Fight Night.
Remember when Miranda Maverick was a young flyweight prospect ... until she wasn't? Well, she is again.
In December, the 24-year-old was voted No. 6 in ESPN's ranking of the top 25 MMA fighters under age 25. (She had been No. 13 on our 2020 list.) But a week after those rankings were published, Maverick lost her second fight in a row.
It wasn't just the defeat that doused Maverick's hype. She was dominated by another young prospect, Erin Blanchfield, and the five-fight winning streak that had preceded Maverick's skid seemed like a distant memory.
On Saturday, Maverick wasted no time in reminding everyone why she had so much promise. Facing Sabina Mazo, who also brought in a two-fight losing streak after being an under-25 prospect (No. 12 in the ESPN ranking), Maverick was aggressive from the start, putting Mazo on her back foot and then on her back. Maverick didn't dish out much ground-and-pound in Round 1, but when the second round began, she took the fight right back to the canvas. And this time she sunk in a rear-naked choke to get the tapout at 2:15 of the round.
Maverick is strong, technically sound, efficient and, above all else, confident. It's going to be fun to see how far that will take her.
Prelim performer of the night didn't throw a single punch
The evening started with five flashy finishes in a row, but the prelim performance of the night belonged to Chris Tognoni.
Referees take heat every week for their timing on fight stoppages. Too soon. Not soon enough. And when a ref does get it right, fans seldom recognize a job well done. Often, they forget the ref is even in there.
Tognoni got one right in the card's second fight -- and it easily could have gotten away from him. Midway through Round 1 of a bantamweight bout, Kris Moutinho had just been hurt by Guido Cannetti, who was swarming him against the cage. Moutinho is tough, though. He'd shown that last summer in his UFC debut, in which he took a beating from Sean O'Malley for 27 seconds short of three brutal rounds. He was showing off his chin again against Cannetti, who was swinging big punches on him and not missing.
Moutinho didn't go down, but it soon appeared that he might be out on his feet. And Tognoni jumped right in, waving off the bout as a standing TKO.
The most bloodthirsty among the fan base no doubt were dissatisfied. Could Moutinho have maybe launched a comeback? It's unlikely, but sure, it's possible. But the most important obligation entrusted to a combat sports referee is to protect a fighter. Sometimes that means protecting a fighter from his own toughness -- and Tognoni did his job.