It may have lost a ton of star power when Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic were pulled from UFC 295 on less than three weeks’ notice, but the promotion’s return to New York’s Madison Square Garden on Saturday produced enough fireworks to create an all-new batch of breakout performers.
None were bigger than Alex Pereira, as the Brazilian slugger became just the ninth fighter in UFC history to win titles in multiple divisions when he knocked out former champion Jiri Prochazka to capture the 205-pound title in the main event. In the co-headliner, Tom Aspinall turned the gamble of fighting on short notice into ato claim the interim heavyweight crown following Jones’ injury.
Let’s take a closer look at the biggest takeaways from an explosive event, which produced knockouts in all five main card bouts.
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1. In just two years, Alex Pereira has entered MMA immorality
Already a two-division Glory kickboxing champion and recent Hall of Fame inductee, the 36-year-old Brazilian slugger essentially just repeated the same feat in MMA. The difference, however, is that UFC 295 was only Pereira’s 11th pro MMA fight overall and just his seventh trip to the Octagon after making his UFC debut two years ago this month. Yet, in seven UFC fights, he has now taken part in three title bouts and owns wins over current or former champions Sean Strickland, Israel Adesanya, Jan Blachowicz and Prochazka. So much of Pereira’s MMA evolution can be credited to the mentoring from head coach Glover Teixeira, who lost his light heavyweight title to Prochazka last year. But Pereira continues to add to his game at a rapid pace and no longer needs to tax his body by cutting down to 185 pounds, where he lost his title by knockout to Adesanya in their April MMA rematch (and fourth fight of their overall rivalry). Pereira, who called out “The Last Stylebender” after finishing Prochazka and invited him to the division, will likely first have to go through former champion Jamahal Hill who, like Prochazka, had vacated the belt due to injury after beating Teixeira. Either way, the only thing more impressive about what Pereira has done in 24 months as a UFC fighter is how unique his overall combat sports legacy truly is.
2. For MMA purposes, MSG has become the house that ‘Poatan’ built
How special is Madison Square Garden to Pereira’s legacy? Saturday marked his third UFC fight inside “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” where he now owns three resounding knockout victories. All three fights also had tremendous sentimental value for Pereira, who debuted at MSG in his first UFC fight at UFC 268 against Andreas Michailidis in 2021. The renowned building also hosted UFC 281 last November, which featured Pereira’s dramatic fifth-round knockout over Adesanya (which was avenged six months later in Miami). Considering the UFC has only hosted events at MSG seven times, largely due to MMA being banned in the state of New York from 1997 to 2016, Pereira now owns two of the biggest moments in company history inside the building. UFC 295 also helped the promotion secure the top three spots for highest live gate in the building’s vaunted history of sports and entertainment.
3. Tom Aspinall is the real UFC heavyweight 2.0
That was the title originally prepared by various media and fans for Cyril Gane, the former interim heavyweight champion who has come up empty in title fights against Francis Ngannou and Jones. Gane was initially hailed for his speed and offensive versatility, which made him feel like a hybrid heavyweight with middleweight quickness who was ready to help evolve the sport’s least technical weight class. But it turns out Aspinall is all that — and more. The versatile native of England accepted his interim title fight against Sergei Pavlovich on less than two weeks’ notice after Jones tore his pectoral muscle while training for Miocic. And he relied on the speed and technique of his hands to finish the Russian slugger amid heavy fire in just 79 seconds. Unlike Gane, Aspinall also has a great ground game, which he never needed to show against Pavlovich. He also has tremendous timing and IQ. After a serious knee injury in 2022 sidelined him for a year, Aspinall used the setback to sharpen his work ethic and make him a complete threat. For a fighter who already owns the shortest fight time average in UFC history, that’s a scary proposition. And with Jones hurt, it might do UFC good to try and convince Miocic to fight Aspinall next for the undisputed title. Jones would need to be stripped, of course, which would be odd considering Jones already owns the UFC record for having been stripped of his light heavyweight title three times for arrests and failed drug tests. But both Prochazka and Hill were forced to do the same over the past year in Jones’ old division. An eventual Jones-Aspinall showdown, should it develop, would be the kind of heavyweight title bout fit for a stadium (particularly in the U.K.) and help ease the pain MMA fans have in not seeing Jones face Francis Ngannou. It’s also a fight that could produce a passing of the torch from the MMA’s G.O.A.T. to its heavyweight 2.0 should the dynamic Aspinall keep winning.
4. Mackenzie Dern finds herself at yet another career crossroads
The 30-year-old grappling sensation has been here before in suffering a difficult defeat just as it appeared she was being groomed for a title shot. The difference, however, between Dern’s previous decision losses (Amanda Ribas, Marina Rodriguez, Yan Xiaonan) and the one she suffered against former champion Jessica Andrade at— the first stoppage defeat of Dern’s 17-fight pro career — was such a dramatic regression. Once Andrade’s takedown defense was able to force the fight to stay standing, Dern showed a willingness to attack Andrade and landed some hard, clean right hands. But her technique and defense took a backseat because of that, as did Dern’s ability to tuck her chin. Dern repeatedly squared up in ways you just can’t get away with against someone with Andrade’s one-punch power, which led to four knockdowns and a stoppage in less than two rounds. After Dern’s gym, RVCA, recently closed near her California home, she parted ways with striking trainer Jason Parillo and the move, combined with the negative fallout of her recent divorce (which Dern admitted during fight week was a frustrating distraction), saw her outright regress in some very fundamental categories. Dern, who dropped to 3-3 in her last six fights, will always get extra chances to succeed by the promotion given her marketing potential and flashy grappling skills. She also has shown a warrior’s heart while accruing damage. But if Dern can’t discover a way to quickly pivot and repair the damage, there are only so many more losses that the validity of her star value can accrue.
5. Benoit Saint-Denis is a lightweight destroyer and star in the making
Nicknamed “The God of War,” the 27-year-old Frenchman is military trained and ready to take on the very best in the world following what should be his last fight as an unranked UFC fighter. Saint-Denis, who only began training MMA for the first time six years, won his fifth straight bout — all by finish — since losing a decision to Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos in his 2021 UFC debut.showcased his power and finishing instincts as he landed a beautiful high kick before pouncing on Frevola on the ground. Saint-Denis not only challenged the UFC to match him with a difficult opponent next, he called out everyone from lightweight king Islam Makhachev and BMF champion Justin Gaethje to top contenders Dustin Poirier and Mateusz Gamrot. With France becoming a hot bed for MMA since it was legalized in 2020, “BSD” could find himself a key player in UFC’s continued advancement deeper into Europe thanks to fighters like Aspinall, Leon Edwards and Spain’s Ilia Topuria.