UFC 268: Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington 2 was one of the most loaded events of 2021, and it delivered tons of action inside the octagon.
With two title fights and numerous top contenders in action, UFC 268 had high stakes for several fighters, and so there were plenty of big winners.
So who came up trumps in New York’s famous Madison Square Garden last night?
#5. Nassourdine Imavov – defeated Edmen Shahbazyan in a UFC middleweight bout
UFC 268 saw plenty of fighters looking to climb up the ladder in their respective divisions. The likes of Bobby Green, Chris Curtis and Shane Burgos did just that, while Alex Pereira made an explosive impact in his octagon debut.
However, the fighter who made the biggest impact on the preliminary card was probably Nassourdine Imavov.
The French-based Dagestani had already looked impressive once in 2021, stopping the tough Ian Heinisch. However, last night looked like a big step up for him against his first high-level opponent in the UFC.
He faced Edman Shahbazyan, one of the hottest prospects in the world at 185lbs. With ‘The Golden Boy’ looking to bounce back from two losses, it seemed likely that Imavov would be in for a tough night.
However, ‘The Russian Sniper’ turned the tables and dominated Shahbazyan, eventually finishing him off with a series of brutal elbows from a mounted crucifix.
Sure, ‘The Golden Boy’ had shown weaknesses in his wrestling before, but even Derek Brunson hadn’t really dealt with him with as much ease as Imavov did. Shahbazyan couldn’t stop his striking, couldn’t stop his takedowns, and on the ground, ‘The Russian Sniper’ beat the hell out of him.
This was an eye-opening performance from him, and given that Shahbazyan was ranked at No.11 in the UFC middleweight division prior to last night, it should net him a spot in the rankings next week. Whoever is next for him definitely has their hands full.
#4. Marlon Vera – defeated Frankie Edgar in a UFC bantamweight bout
While Marlon Vera has long been recognized as one of the most improved fighters in the UFC bantamweight division, prior to last night ‘Chito’ had never quite been able to beat an elite-level opponent.
His most recent attempt at doing so – a clash with Jose Aldo last December – saw him come up slightly short. However, last night, the native of Ecuador finally stepped up and delivered the biggest win of his UFC career.
Sure, Frankie Edgar isn’t the same fighter he once was, but he’s still a very tough out, even at the age of 40. After all, ‘The Answer’ was able to defeat Pedro Munhoz – himself a high-level contender – in 2020.
Early on, it looked like he might have his way with Vera, too. He won the first round with his wrestling, grounding ‘Chito’ and neutralizing him. By the second round, though, Edgar began to slow down – allowing Vera to take over with his striking.
While it looked like Vera was on his way to a win in the third round, few fans expected him to deliver a highlight-reel knockout in the form of a front kick to the jaw.
The win should elevate him into genuine title contention in the UFC bantamweight division. It may end Edgar’s UFC career, but it also won Vera a bonus of $50k – clearly making him one of the night’s biggest winners.
#3. Justin Gaethje – defeated Michael Chandler in a UFC lightweight bout
The two action heroes exchanged bombs from the opening seconds of their clash right the way through to the final buzzer. While Gaethje ended up with his hand raised, Chandler probably gained just as many fans for his sheer toughness.
However, it’s ‘The Highlight’ who will likely go onto better things from here. In his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, he essentially demanded a shot at the UFC lightweight title – the only question is whether the UFC will give it to him.
Much may depend on who wins the upcoming title bout between champion Charles Oliveira and challenger Dustin Poirier. If Oliveira wins, then it might be hard to deny Gaethje his shot.
If Poirier comes out on top, though, ‘The Diamond’ already has a win over Gaethje – meaning Islam Makhachev may well leapfrog him.
For now, though, the fact is that Gaethje is clearly, at worst, the fourth-best lightweight in the world at present. The crazy win over Chandler only cemented that further.
#2. Rose Namajunas – defeated Weili Zhang to retain the UFC strawweight title
After all, Zhang had been knocked out badly by Namajunas in their first bout and wasn’t really a legendary champion who warranted an instant rematch.
However, the UFC decided to go in that direction. In the end, the two women produced an excellent – and far more competitive – second bout that ended with Namajunas doing just enough to pick up the win.
With her victory last night, it’s hard to dispute the idea that ‘Thug Rose’ is the greatest strawweight in UFC history. Not only is she the only woman to hold the UFC strawweight title on two occasions, but she’s also got two wins over both Zhang and Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Who is next for her? With any luck, it’ll be Carla Esparza. ‘The Cookie Monster’ is currently on a five-fight winning streak and has more than earned a shot at the title she lost in early 2015.
More to the point, Esparza won the inaugural UFC strawweight title bout back in 2014 by defeating Namajunas – meaning that a rematch would give ‘Thug Rose’ a chance to avenge that loss.
#1. Kamaru Usman – defeated Colby Covington to retain the UFC welterweight title
The biggest winner at UFC 268 was undoubtedly Kamaru Usman. The reigning UFC welterweight champion made the fifth successful defense of his title by outpointing his bitter rival Colby Covington, hopefully ending their feud for good.
Unlike in their first fight at UFC 245, Usman couldn’t put Covington away, despite having ‘Chaos’ hurt badly in the second round. If anything, Covington actually did better in this fight than he did the first time around, clearly winning the fourth and perhaps the fifth rounds.
However, based on the damage Usman did early on, there was no disputing that ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ was the better fighter – something even Covington appeared to accept when all was said and done.
Who’s next for Usman? Most likely, it’ll be Leon Edwards if he can get past Jorge Masvidal at UFC 269. If he can’t, then it becomes a very interesting question, with the UFC likely to be tempted to fast-track super-prospect Khamzat Chimaev into a title bout.
Either way, UFC President Dana White probably isn’t too far off in proclaiming ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ as the greatest welterweight of all time.
Even if he hasn’t matched the accomplishments of Georges St-Pierre, it’s arguable that he’s equally as dominant as ‘Rush’ was in his heyday. This was one of his biggest victories yet – making him UFC 268’s top performer.