UFC 298: Ilia Topuria conquers, becomes new featherweight champion

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Southern California’s Honda Center hosted the Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday. The 10th pay-per-view event in Orange County.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Alexander Volkanovski told the media leading up to his title fight not to be surprised by a decisive win. The 35-year-old featherweight champion is a fan favorite for his calm demeanor, self confidence and dedication to the sport. Experience and wisdom led him to the longest reign as champion in the division.

In the sport of MMA you are one defining win or devastating loss away from greatness. On this night, Ilia Topuria bull rushed his competition, winning the featherweight belt in dominant fashion. “El Matador” lived up to hype, dethroning “The Great” Alexander Volkanovski, with a 2nd round knockout.

Topuria (Alicante, Spain) was uber confident leading up to the bout. Changing his Instagram bio to ‘World Champion’ and ‘Undefeated 15-0’ weeks in advance. Pressing the Australian against the cage, Topuria unleashed a life altering right hook, dropping the champ and forcing the ref to step in. The crowd erupted as a new king was crowned. “Trust yourself. Work tirelessly. Have faith and anything is possible,” Topuria told the broadcast.

© Gary A. Vasquez
Ilia Topuria celebrates becoming featherweight champion. (Gary A. Vasquez)

The co-main event was pure fireworks

Robert Whittaker (Sydney, Australia) was looking to find his way back to title contention. The No. 3 ranked former UFC middleweight champion had the daunting task in facing Paulo Costa (Minas Gerais, Brazil). Attacking the legs early and often was Whittaker’s offensive strategy. However, after a lengthy 18-month break, Costa found his form and used his own legs to inflict damage. He nearly finished the fight with a spinning heel kick that bloodied the Aussie. 

Both men stood in the center of the octagon for a majority of three rounds exchanging jabs, calf kicks, and classic taunts by the Brazilian. In the end all three judges scored it for Whittaker (30-27, 29-28 x 2).

‘The Machine’ is ready for his title shot

Coming in with a nine-fight win streak, No. 2 ranked bantamweight Merab Dvalishvili (Long Island, NY by way of Tbilisi, Georgia) wanted to solidify his title shot aspirations and defeat a former champion. Standing in his way was ‘Triple C’ Henry Cejudo (Phoenix, AZ), an Olympic wrestling gold medalist and previous champ of the bantamweight and flyweight divisions.

Early on Cejudo made his presence felt with a stiffening jab. Dvalishvili quickly recovered, taking his opponent down to the delight of the crowd. ‘The Machine’ lived up to his moniker with relentless takedowns and defensive scrambles. He took control in the 2nd and 3rd rounds — punctuated by a massive slam — earning a unanimous decision win (29-28 x 3).

Strawweight contenders go to war

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Lemos (R) connected 41 significant strikes to defeat Dern (L). (Gary A. Vasquez)

The featured prelim bout was a back and forth barnburner. No. 3 ranked strawweight contender Amanda Lemos (Para, Brazil) won a unanimous decision (29-28 x 3) over Mackenzie Dern, fighting out of Huntington Beach, CA. After a close first round, Lemos landed significant strikes in round 2, leaving Dern a bloody mess. To her credit, Dern valiantly fought back in the final stanza. Each woman believed to have won the fight, and both earned a $50,000 fight of the night bonus.

Early prelim card highlights

© Gary A. Vasquez
Zhang Mingyang lands the final blow. (Gary A. Vasquez)

Light heavyweight Zhang Mingyang (Shandog, China) made his debut for the promotion in impressive fashion. He blasted Brendson Ribeiro (Curitiba, Brazil) with a vicious knockout punch in the first round, setting the stage for an electric evening.

Breaking Records in Orange County

UFC CEO Dana White announced in the post fight press conference a gate of $7.26 million, making it the highest-grossing MMA event in state history.

UFC and WWE commit to Anaheim through 2028

Starting this year, each sports brand will bring at least three events to the Honda Center over the next five years. This will include Pay-Per-Views, Fight Nights, Monday Night Raw, and Smackdown shows. Part of this announcement includes OCVIBE, a new one-of-a-kind, immersive district in the center of Anaheim currently under construction. 

What’s on tap for the MMA leader

Fight Night: Moreno vs. Royval 2 (Mexico City, MX) — Feb. 24

UFC 299: O’Malley vs. Vera 2 (Miami, FL) — March 9

UFC 300: Alex Pereira vs. Jamahal Hill (Las Vegas, NV) — April 13