Ariel Helwani’s MMA thoughts – Adesanya’s title win among UFC’s most memorable

Did you miss me last week?

(Don’t answer. I know.)

I missed you, too. A lot.

And what a time to be back.

We have a great Helwani Show lined up for Monday, there’s a new middleweight king in the UFC, and this week’s slate of MMA action is immense.

In fact, this will be one of those rare weekends when UFC, Bellator, ONE, PFL, Rizin and Cage Warriors all hold events.

The UFC card this weekend in Tampa, Florida — headlined by an important strawweight battle between former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Michelle Waterson — is a lot of fun.

It also features Kron Gracie’s highly anticipated sophomore UFC fight vs. Cub Swanson, the return of Mackenzie Dern after the birth of her daughter, James Vick’s welterweight debut and more.

Also of note, ONE Championship celebrates its 100th event with a two-part card featuring over 20 fights total this weekend.

Never a dull moment in MMA, right?

But before we get to all that, here are some thoughts on the week that was in MMA:

The lede


Israel Adesanya catches Robert Whittaker with a big right hand in the final seconds of Round 1. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+

There have been 90 title changes in UFC history.

Some have just come and gone in our minds, byproducts of perhaps an unexciting fight or a fighter we just weren’t emotionally invested in. It happens.

But longtime fans can definitely remember when the big ones happened. We all know where we were when:

You get the point.

Well, now we can add Israel Adesanya beating Robert Whittaker at UFC 243 to that list. And you know what? I’d put it pretty high up, too.

It all went Adesanya’s way Saturday. If we’re being honest, it’s been going his way ever since he debuted a year and a half ago at UFC 221 (still can’t believe his debut was in February 2018).

I remember debating with Chael Sonnen last summer whether they were pushing him too fast when they booked him against Brad Tavares in his third fight. I thought they were. Boy, was I wrong on that one.

Truth is, the UFC has handled Adesanya’s run perfectly thus far. Not since McGregor has it built someone up so well. And not since McGregor has someone made such an impact so quickly. And yes, you’re probably rolling your eyes at the McGregor comparison because it’s the hip thing to do these days, but it’s the most apt one. When’s the last time someone not named McGregor made an impact like this so quickly? (And no, Brock Lesnar doesn’t count because he was already a star in WWE and was gifted a title shot when he was just 1-1 in the UFC.)

So, back to Saturday. The walkout, the prefight theatrics, the first round, the finish in the second, the postfight interview … he nailed every step. Adesanya walked out there like a man who had already seen the movie we were all getting ready to watch for the first time. It’s like he was so sure about how this was all going to play that he was able to dance and smile from beginning to end. It was marvelous.

Remember before his debut when he walked into the cage and mimicked urinating in it like a dog claiming his turf? Remember how some thought that was a little crude? Like, who does this guy think he is? Turns out he had every right to do that. And you know what? I hope we see more of that from Adesanya. I welcome someone who is willing to march to the beat of his own drum — to hell with the haters.

What’s also fun about Adesanya is he talks and acts like a fan. He subtly mentions famous MMA lines when speaking to the media, like GSP’s “I’m not impressed,” or casually references memes and TV shows that go over this 37-year-old’s head.

He is fun and a breath of fresh air. He’s just what the doctor ordered right now for the UFC. Best of all, he seems grounded and comes from a loving family that appears to have a great influence on his life.

Time will tell how the Adesanya era will play out. Lord knows we’ve been guilty of getting too excited about a title reign only to see it last one or two fights. But something tells me Adesanya’s run will be different. It has been unique from the jump, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

What’s next?

Now, title changes are fun, but they are even more fun when we already know who is next. And in the case of Adesanya, we know it’s Paulo Costa, the perfect foil for Adesanya right now. That whole scene after the fight was straight out of 1980s pro wrestling, and that is pretty much the best compliment I could give it. It was sublime. I love the heat between those two. I love how Costa’s disdain for Adesanya is forcing him to improve his English daily and how Adesanya mocks him. The buildup to that fight will be great, and while I don’t think it’ll happen in January, as Adesanya suggested Saturday night, hopefully we’ll get it in the first quarter of 2020.

And don’t get me started on a potential fight against Jon Jones one day. I know we’re at least a year or two before that can (or should be) considered, but man, would that be a spectacle. That is slowly starting to become my No. 1 dream match that currently doesn’t feel close to happening but I hope someday will happen. Could you imagine the hype for that fight? Sheesh.

A tale of two years

I think this year started off slowly for the UFC, and the timing wasn’t great, what with the debut on ESPN and all.

Henry Cejudo-TJ Dillashaw ended too quickly. The January pay-per-view got canceled thanks to a lack of a main event; Whittaker pulled out of UFC 234 hours before the event; UFC 236, which featured two great fights, earned the dubious distinction of being the first card headlined by two interim title fights; Rose Namajunas lost and hinted at retirement. … It just seemed like a bit of a down year, especially in terms of star-making moments.

But I’d say things have changed dramatically in the second half of the year, and all of a sudden, there’s a nice crop of champions percolating on the roster:

Israel Adesanya: See above. Khabib Nurmagomedov: a massive star across the world. Jon Jones: the king still draws. Colby Covington: We’ll see how he does on Dec. 14, but there’s no denying he’s got nuclear heat right now. Henry Cejudo: has done a great job of building himself up during his time off. Max Holloway: really coming into his own but has a tough test on Dec. 14. Amanda Nunes: the greatest female fighter ever. Zhang Weili: the face of Chinese MMA. Valentina Shevchenko: a budding star, especially back home in Eastern Europe.

And that doesn’t include the (hopefully) returning Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz, Jorge Masvidal Tony Ferguson, Stipe Miocic (who’s currently nursing an eye injury) … See what I mean? This is good stuff. All in all, I think the future is bright for the UFC, and the days of two interim title fights on a card should hopefully be a thing of the past.

Nigeria, stand up

How about Nigeria? Who could have predicted that the African country would produce two UFC champions at the same time? In fact, how about this nugget: Nigeria is now the first country not named the U.S. or Brazil to have two UFC champions at the same time. Pretty remarkable.

The heat is on

I plan on talking about this on today’s show, but with awards season coming up, I feel like we’re about to have a real tough decision on our hands for Male Fighter of the Year, especially if Masvidal beats Nathan Diaz next month. You’ve got Adesanya, Masvidal and Cejudo as the main candidates, and all very good ones, too. Cejudo might lose because he will have fought only twice this year and both of those fights were in the first half of the year, but they were both incredibly impressive wins. Then you have Masvidal, who has reinvented himself with (thus far) two amazing performances. And then, of course, Adesanya. I could make a very strong case for all three. And how about Coach of the Year? How do you decide between Eugene Bareman of City Kickboxing and Eric Albarracin, head coach for Cejudo, Patricio Pitbull (Bellator’s double champ), Paulo Costa and others? Tough choices.

The agony of defeat


Robert Whittaker tips his cap to Israel Adesanya, calling him “crafty,” and says he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+:

I’ve said this before, but I need to repeat it again: Nothing impresses me more than when MMA fighters handle a particularly tough defeat with grace and class. I’m such a sucker for this. Of course, we hate to see these men and women at their lowest, but time and again they amaze with the way in which they are able to be honest, reflective and classy in defeat.

Whittaker, as one would expect, was all that and then some Saturday night. It was clear he was hurting inside. How could he not be? His title reign came and went without an official successful defense (Yoel Romero is to blame for that, but alas) and was littered with bad luck and health problems. Yet, here he was in front of 50,000-plus fans with a chance to cement his place among the greats of this sport. Instead, he fell in his adopted home country … and he fell hard. But there he was in the aftermath, gracious as ever. Inspirational as ever. Truth is, the fact that he was even able to fight just eight months after suffering a collapsed bowel is pretty darn inspirational in its own right, but just seeing him handle a heartbreaking loss like that was so admirable. Thankfully the poor sports are anomalies these days. For all the talk of the money fight era, there isn’t enough talk about the fact that MMA champions have learned to handle defeat better than most athletes on the planet. We’ve all seen the footage of the rude athlete giving short answers after a loss that won’t necessarily define their legacy. They just lost a team sport. In MMA, this will forever be a blemish on Whittaker’s record. Yet there he was, facing the music and doing so with a smile. Respect to him.

Shoot your shot

Dan Hooker looked phenomenal in his win over Al Iaquinta. His game plan was flawless. It felt like Iaquinta could never really get going. But afterward, he raised eyebrows when he said this:

“Dustin Poirier, I’m going to smash your face in. Meet me in New Zealand, 2020, and I’m going to end you!”

Now, the moment this happened, I had a bunch of people tweet me something along the lines of, “What did you think of that callout?” Or, “You must be pretty happy with that, right?” That’s because I gave a tutorial on the art of the callout on last week’s ESPN MMA Snapchat show (cheap plug), and Hooker pretty much did everything I said you should do in that moment. I said I dislike when fighters just leave the “What’s next?” question up to the UFC, because history has shown if you shoot your shot, good things happen. Just ask Nathan Diaz.

Now, there is something called overshooting your shot, too. Kevin Lee did that years ago when he called out Khabib Nurmagomedov. It didn’t work. And that’s what Hooker did last night. I’d be shocked if he gets Poirier next, but hey, now he’s being discussed in the same breath as a guy who just fought for the belt. Poirier even tweeted about him. He gets the rub just by calling him out, and now they are in the same orbit. See how that works? High marks all around for “Hangman.”

Here are a few more things I loved about UFC 243:

I loved Adesanya’s walkout. Have we seen more elaborate ones in MMA history? Absolutely. But I loved that it was different and represented who he is and what he’s all about. Can we please have more of that? Fun is good. Different is good. Not every event or walkout needs to look the same.

I loved that thing he did before the fight where he pretended to write something in a book. Do I have any idea where that is from? No. I think I’m too old. But it was great showmanship. Love that stuff.

I loved how Adesanya gave his belt to his mom upon winning.

I loved the joy on Adesanya’s father’s face when he greeted his son in the cage.

I loved that shirt Costa was wearing and that he was flanked by his coach Eric Albarracin, who’s turned into something of a cross between Bobby Heenan and Greg Jackson.

I loved seeing Megan Anderson have her best performance in the UFC in her home country of Australia. Anderson has said she’s dealt with self-esteem issues and anxiety, so to see her perform that well — in what was her first fight in Australia in almost five years — was special.

I loved watching that Brad Riddell-Jamie Mullarkey fight. Riddell is something of a Muay Thai icon out of New Zealand and another City Kickboxing product. What a way to fight in his debut. What heart.

I loved that walk-off knockout by Yorgan de Castro. It was Mark Hunt-esque against a Mark Hunt protégé. The UFC seems to have something with the undefeated de Castro (6-0), who also works as a security guard at Durfee High in Fall River, Massachusetts. Hope those students give him a nice, warm welcome in his return to work.

I loved the promo that aired for the Michelle Waterson vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk fight this weekend.

I loved the fact that Rostem Akman is proud of his full body hair armor.

I loved that Daniel Cormier referenced WrestleMania 3 at the end of the broadcast. If there’s one thing this week taught us, it’s the similarities between MMA and pro wrestling are alive and well, and I love that Cormier isn’t afraid to make that connection.

Speaking of which …


After Brock Lesnar wins the WWE championship, Cain Velasquez confronts him in the ring and takes him down.

I very much enjoyed seeing Cain Velasquez on WWE SmackDown on Friday night. As you may know, there were rumblings all week long that he would appear on either WWE television or for the upstart AEW promotion. But to actually see Velasquez — who has competed in only two pro wrestling matches — appear to confront his old UFC 121 foe Brock Lesnar was a little surreal. I guess it felt like that since this career renaissance seems like it has come out of nowhere and because Velasquez was never considered a charismatic guy while in the UFC. In fact, that always seemed to be the knock on him. “Yeah, he’s great,” critics would say, “but he has no personality.” Well, guess what? He’s now on the verge of a WWE run.

Now, can I play armchair booker for a second? I thought they botched his debut. I would have had Rey Mysterio and his son Dominik run in to exact revenge on Lesnar after he won the WWE title. And then I would have had Lesnar beat them up really bad again. And only then would I have Velasquez crash the ring to break it up and save his friends. I think that would have been a lot better than him just walking down the ramp with Mysterio. I thought Lesnar’s “I’ve just seen a ghost face” was solid, but I wish it was a little more dramatic. Nit-picking, I know.

So, is this the end of Velasquez’s UFC career? Maybe. He hasn’t closed the door publicly on a return, but it doesn’t seem like we’ll see him back anytime soon. I don’t get the sense he’s itching to come back soon, either. He’s loving every minute of this. And when you consider how poorly this year started for him, it’s nice to see him happy again.

Remembering Josh

Saturday marked the three-year anniversary of former UFC fighter Josh Samman’s death. Samman was one of the nicest people I have ever met covering fights. He was an open book who wore his thoughts and emotions on his sleeve. Sadly, he died from what the Broward County, Florida, medical examiner described as a probable drug overdose. Samman was a fascinating guy who liked to write and also helped run a local promotion in Florida. He died at 28 — far too young. His family and friends are keeping his legacy alive with the Josh Samman Foundation, which helps support young fighters and get their careers off the ground. It’s a wonderful idea that has helped many fighters so far. Josh was a guest on my show once, and we texted from time to time afterward. I really liked him a lot. His last text to me came after we saw each other at a UFC event in Florida in April 2016. “Good running into you tonight,” he wrote. “Hope you are enjoying our state. Catch up next week?” I wrote back, “Great seeing you too, man. Deal!” Unfortunately, that catch-up never happened for one reason or another, and I regret that.

Hear and there

Does anyone travel to more UFC events than Henry Cejudo? My word. … Sergio Pettis is a free agent. I won’t be surprised if ONE makes a strong run to sign him. Pettis vs. Demetrious Johnson is a solid fight. … Kevin Lee vs. Gregor Gillespie is a fine fight — and UFC 244 has really come together nicely, unlike last year’s MSG card — but I wish Lee would have stuck around at 170 longer. I don’t think it’s healthy for him to cut to 155.


Khabib Nurmagomedov, right, defeated Conor McGregor a year ago, but the rowdy scene after the fight is what MMA fans will be talking about for years to come. Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile/Getty Images

Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor. Usually I like to commemorate fight anniversaries, but not this one. This fight brought out the worst in both men, and I don’t remember much of it fondly, from the buildup to the actual fight to the aftermath. The fight itself was actually entertaining, but it feels like a footnote in the story of this feud at this point.

Instead, let’s celebrate another anniversary, shall we? Oct. 4 marked the 11-year anniversary of Seth Petruzelli’s improbable win over Kimbo Slice in Sunrise, Florida. Now that is a night I’ll never forget.

As you may recall, Slice, then the face of the upstart EliteXC promotion, was originally scheduled to fight Ken Shamrock that night. Hours before the event was set to air on CBS, I got word something was up with Shamrock and that he might be out of the fight. That would be disastrous, I remember thinking. By the time I got to the arena, I was hearing more whispers that Shamrock was out. I finally confirmed that he had officially withdrawn thanks to a cut above his eye a few minutes before the card was about to start, and that Petruzelli, the former UFC veteran who was scheduled to compete on the undercard, was getting bumped up to fight Slice on an hour’s notice. I was very excited to get this scoop because I was in the embryonic stages of my MMA reporting career, so this was pretty massive for me. I remember writing the story for the late, great while sitting on press row next to the other media in attendance. Back then, Twitter wasn’t really a thing, so I had no way of getting the word out about the big story other than to email every media outlet I could think of. I remember sending that email and sitting back, just waiting to see what the reaction would be. Seconds later, slowly but surely, I saw a bunch of the media members look at me, look around and frantically start going to work. I remember feeling pretty proud in that moment. Nothing boosts a young reporter’s confidence quite like a juicy scoop, and I remember feeling especially cool when the voice of EliteXC, the great Mauro Ranallo, quietly came up to me to give me props on the scoop.

You know what happened next: Petruzelli knocked out Slice in 14 seconds, and EliteXC never put on another show. One of those wild nights that you’ll never forget if you lived it. Just like the night Israel Adesanya made good on his promise to become UFC champion. (See how that all tied together?)

Monday’s Helwani Show lineup:

The undefeated Mackenzie Dern will fight for the first time since last May on Saturday. AP Photo/Leo Correa

1 p.m. ET: Weekend recap

1:25 p.m.: Jared Cannonier will look back at his recent win over Jack Hermansson and discuss what’s next.

1:45 p.m.: Mackenzie Dern will preview this weekend’s fight against Amanda Ribas

2:05 p.m.: Legendary boxer Mike Tyson will stop by to talk about his many projects and the state of the fight game.

2:35 p.m.: Miesha Tate will preview this weekend ONE Championship 100 event.

3 p.m.: Max Holloway will look ahead to his title fight against Alex Volkanovski at UFC 245.

3:20 p.m.: Bellator’s Jake Hager will discuss making his AEW debut last week and his next Bellator fight later this month.

3:35 p.m.: Brad Riddell will talk about his action-packed UFC debut on Saturday night.

3:50 p.m.: Dan Hooker will reflect on his win over Al Iaquinta at UFC 245 and talk about what’s next.

4:05 p.m.: New undisputed UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya will look back on his win over Robert Whittaker and talk about his future.

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