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UFC 298 results, takeaways: Ilia Topuria has the makings of a star; Robert Whittaker still has gas in the tank

A changing of the guard was in the air at UFC 298 on Saturday night in Anaheim, California, as the featherweight title shifted hands in violent fashion. 

Ilia Topuria improved to 15-0 by brutally stopping long-time 145-pound king Alexander Volkanovski in the main event while former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker survived an entertaining scrap with Paulo Costa to keep pace among the 185-pound elites. 

It’s time for a closer look at the biggest takeaways from a memorable pay-per-view card in Southern California. 

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1. Ilia Topuria is the intersection of precision and power

The Georgian slugger, who fights out of the UFC’s next desired international takeover of Spain, is also the right breakout star at the right time as the promotion continues to experience such dramatic turnover of late at the championship level. At 27, Topuria has the look and swagger of an international star and is fluent in multiple languages. But so many title challengers before him have looked the part and still not fulfilled upon their once great promise. Topuria is clearly a different breed as he broke typical fighter protocol during fight week by posing for pictures with the championship belt before the bout and boldly predicted an early knockout. It was the fact that his precision and technique were just as dangerous as his fight-ending power that Topuria was able to command the center of the cage against a former pound-for-pound king and have him backpedaling throughout with such noticeable unease. And what did Topuria do on the microphone immediately following his breakthrough moment: he called out Conor McGregor. That’s how you do it. 

2. They call Robert Whittaker ‘battle tested’ for a reason

Call him the former middleweight champion or call him a living legend, the 33-year-old Whittaker is not done chasing another shot at his old title. Whittaker survived the most focused performance to date for Paulo Costa, who bloodied Whittaker’s nose and tore up his lead leg with calf strikes to make “The Reaper” truly earn such a redemptive victory just nine months removed from a one-sided dismantling he suffered at the hands of new champion Dricus du Plessis. But Whittaker never would’ve even escaped the first round against Costa, let alone had a shot at pulling out a decision, had it not been for the super-human recuperative ability he showed to end Round 1. A spinning wheel kick from Costa in the final minute would’ve knocked out 90% of the fighters on the planet. Not only has Whittaker been through the wars and back, he’s still a legitimate threat to the top of a division that is set up to feature nothing but firecracker matchups at the elite level for the rest of 2024.

3. Workman-like Ian Machado Garry win failed to move the needle

The Irish welterweight prospect showed plenty of veteran poise and a good chin to grind out a mature (yet close) split-decision win over Geoff Neal. From the standpoint of an unbeaten contender looking to keep pace atop the division amid his systematic climb up the 170-pound ladder, this was the exact type of fight you need to win at all costs, which Garry did in intelligent fashion. But for a fighter who has so purposely modeled his rise and parts of his attitude after McGregor, his critics were quick on social media to point out Garry’s inability to score a McGregor-like stoppage to justify the way he talks. At 14-0, Garry is very much on his way towards legitimate title contention and remains a fighter with huge upside that has yet to be spoiled. But this was a performance that failed to announce him as the next big thing in anywhere close to the same manner that Topuria did in the main event. 

4. Who the heck is going to keep Merab Dvalishvili away for 25 minutes? 

The sport’s deepest division just got a whole lot more interesting as Dvalishvili unleashed his trademark absurd pace to overwhelm former two-division champion Henry Cejudo and officially secure the next shot at the 135-pound title. Dvalishvili’s 10th consecutive win was the Georgian’s third straight over a former champion after weaponizing his cardio to wreck havoc on Jose Aldo and Petr Yan. And with teammate Aljamain Sterling no longer atop the division as champion and chief roadblock to Dvalishvili’s title hopes, the question now becomes which fighter in the UFC 299 main event is more likely to be able to prevent Dvalishvili from swallowing them with his spam offense and relentless takedown pursuit? Whether it’s new champion Sean O’Malley or top contender Marlon Vera in their March rematch, it’s hard to imagine anyone at bantamweight preventing Dvalishvili, who weathered the storm of Cejudo’s clean punching in Round 1, from doing whatever he wants in the championship rounds.

5. Mackenzie Dern still can’t find her way

The strawweight title hopeful can’t build enough momentum to get close enough to earn a realistic chance. At 30, Dern suffered consecutive defeats for the first time as a professional after seeing her gamble of a short-notice fight against Amanda Lemos, three months removed from her first knockout loss to Jessica Andrade, end disastrously. As always, Dern’s toughness can never be questioned as she survived a badly damaged right eye to threaten Lemos with submissions and nearly turn the momentum in her favor. She also returned with a determined edge after the Andrade loss and was visibly in tremendous shape. But Dern’s technical flaws continue to leave her in compromised situations on her feet. Although her grappling is still an elite aspect of her game, she’s rarely able to turn top position on the ground into anything offensive. With four losses in her last six fights, Dern continues to trend in the wrong direction.  

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