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UFC 289: Charlie Olives & Team Canada Over-Deliver in the UFC's Return to Vancouver

The PPV card was rightfully slammed for being light on name value and big fights, yet the UFC's return to Canada ended up delivering anyway

With the UFC's last trip to Canada coming way back in 2019, fans rightfully expected a major lineup when UFC 289 was made official for Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

Considering the price of the tickets when they went on sale, one would have thought they were bringing a card for the ages.

Unfortunately, on paper UFC 289 was a rather poor pay-per-view offering, especially after losing a highly anticipated welterweight match-up between Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson and Michel Pereira.

Originally the top billed fight was a trilogy capper between female GOAT Amanda Nunes and Julianna Pena, which did little to inspire; although Pena's massive upset back in 2021 certainly excited fans for their rematch last year, Nunes clearly avenged her loss and beat the brakes off of Pena for five completely uncompetitive rounds in their second meeting.

The lopsided rematch and Nunes' return to dominance had very few fans clamouring for a a third bout, but the UFC opted to book it anyway.

More than a month before the event however, a broken rib forced Pena out of her headlining spot and in stepped Irene Aldana, a boxing specialist and one of the few fighters in the top ten that hadn't already faced Nunes.

On paper it was a more interesting match-up, with Aldana's solid boxing, high output, and willingness to stand and trade all being key selling points - it also helped that her best friend and longtime teammate Alexa Grasso just pulled off a massive upset to unseat flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko.

With Grasso and Brandon Moreno also holding titles (plus an interim belt for Yair Rodriguez), Mexican fighters currently hold three UFC belts and Aldana would attempt to make that four.

Though a bit more exciting than the planned trilogy, it was hardly a high-profile main event, particularly for the starved MMA fanbase up north.

The co-main event however, between top lightweight contenders Charles Oliveira and Beneil Dariush, was an absolute banger that carried the heavy lifting for the card and was essentially the unofficial main event in the eyes of fans.

The lack of a strong supporting cast though made the UFC 289 card quite thin - the next-most high profile bouts were a bantamweight clash between Dan Ige and fan favourite Nate Landwehr, which although a fun pairing, would likely have been a prelim bout on most pay-per-view lineups, and a middleweight scrap between Nassourdine Imavov and Chris Curtis which was made the top preliminary bout despite the weak main card.

For the UFC's first trip back up to Canada in four years, it was certainly a disappointing slate of fights for fans who had been waiting for live UFC action since before COVID was even a thought.

The exorbitant prices certainly turned away many fans that were on the fence about going, including myself - that is until the week of the event, when the remaining unsold tickets got a sizeable discount. Myself, I decided to say "fuck it, maybe it'll surprise us" and managed to score a couple of seats in the first row of the upper bowl seats for around $200 bucks a pop. And boy am I glad I did.

Canada Sees the Return of the Best Live Event in the World

The night began with a lowly prelim bout between strawweights Diana Belbita and Maria Oliveira.

Though both women had shown promise in their prior outings and still have plenty of room for improvement at just 26 years of age each, neither had managed much success in the Octagon, with Belbita posting a 1-3 record under the UFC banner and Oliveira being just 1-2 herself.

The Romanian Belbita however had spent the last four-plus years living and training in Ontario, making Canada her adopted home. As an honourary Canadian, Belbita kicked off what would be a night of northern dominance.

The "Warrior Princess" harnessed the energy of an already impressively populated Rogers Arena en route to a clear decision victory, her output and pace overwhelming the Brazilian who put up a fair fight (and even landed a pretty nice flying knee in the third round) but ultimately fell short in a fight that was a lot more fun than anyone anticipated.

From there a scrap between #10 ranked flyweight David Dvorak and UFC newcomer Stephen Erceg saw fresh blood enter the flyweight fold.

Dvorak started off well and the Aussie Erceg, who took the fight on just 8-days notice, seemed to have difficulty finding his range as Dvorak stuck him with the more impactful shots throughout the opening round.

Midway through the second, Dvorak clearly appeared to be in the driver's seat; that is until a head kick from "Astroboy" grazed the back of Dvorak's head and sent him stumbling around the Octagon.

From there Erceg took control and began to land at will on Dvorak, particularly in the third round when the #10 ranked flyweight began to tire. In the final stanza the Aussie managed to not only stuff Dvorak's takedown attempts but even scored plenty of his own to secure a surprising upset victory.

Despite not getting a finish, Erceg's impressive debut garnered him a well-earned $50,000 performance bonus anyway.

As we moved to the ESPN/TSN prelims, Ontario native Kyle Nelson took on undefeated prospect Blake Bilder at featherweight.

Nelson was a sizeable underdog and for good reason - his UFC career hadn't exactly seen much success leading up to UFC 289 as he held a 1-4-1 record in the Octagon.

A point deduction due to a headbutt from opponent Doo-Ho Choi resulted in a draw in his last outing, that point deduction saving Nelson from a third straight loss and likely a pink slip from the UFC.

Luckily for Nelson, he was given another chance to prove his worth but the UFC did him no favours in the matchmaking department by having him face a highly touted prospect.

Nelson looked to be having trouble early with Bilder's speed, the American landing early and often, although Nelson's size and takedown defense allowed him to neutralize Bilder's takedown attempts and clinch positions against the fence.

Late in the first however, Nelson finally got his bearings and started to land on the undefeated prospect.

From there the fight swayed heavily in Nelson's favour as the Canadian picked up the pace and began picking Bilder apart on the feet, the American trying in vain to gain an advantage in the clinch or take the fight to the mat but being unable to do so and failed to score any damage in the process. It was a surprising upset and solid performance from Nelson that saw the struggling featherweight breathe new life into his UFC career.

Another Canadian made the walk next as Aiemann Zahabi, brother of famed Tri-Star coach Firas, took to the cage against Chinese bantamweight Aori Qileng, who closed as a slight favourite heading into their bout.

It took Zahabi just over a minute to run up Canada's record to 3-0 on the night as the French Canadian countered a leg kick from Qileng with a blitz, his right hand falling short but the left he followed with landing clean.

Aiemann celebrated a tad prematurely as Qileng wasn't quite dead yet from the first shot, but after realizing the ref hadn't seen enough yet, Zahabi landed a few extra shots on the ground to officially finish the fight at the 64-second mark and it sent the Vancouver crowd into a frenzy.

It marked the first finish of the night and thanks to the gap created before the next fight would begin, it made for the perfect opportunity to grab a burger from Triple O's for dinner (which, surprisingly, is still priced virtually the same in the arena as it was four years ago despite the rampant inflation in recent years).

As a quick aside, the UFC's merchandise at events in Canada is criminally overpriced. Paying a premium is expected when getting something directly from an event, but a simple T-shirt with "UFC 289" on the front and the event poster plainly printed on the back should not set anyone back $70. Nor should an un-signed poster that one can order online for less than $15 cost $60, or a very plain grey hoodie with a maple leaf inside an Octagon emblazoned on the front cost a hundred bucks.

It also kind of sucks that physical tickets haven't been used for any events in years - the UFC should consider printing out special old-fashioned event tickets to sell at their merch tables, either a single ticket or a pair in a simple plastic display case. Considering the extremely low cost of producing such a thing it would be a very profitable item and I for one would buy it to commemorate a trip to a UFC card.

Getting back to the action, the penultimate prelim paired 34-year-old Canadian prospect Jasmine Jasudavicius against 25-year-old Miranda Maverick, who has enjoyed a fair bit of hype throughout her UFC career and her only losses in the last four years came against more seasoned prospects in Maycee Barber and current top contender Erin Blanchfield.

Though the crowd was obviously hyped for the Canadian, I have to admit Maverick walking out to the Top Gun theme song while rocking aviators was a pretty cool walkout choice, even if it was met with a chorus of boos.

The Canadian got off to a bit of a slow start as Maverick appeared to enjoy a notable speed advantage, landing potshots before Jasudavicius could respond; her wrestling however, which has always been her bread and butter, was stifled early by Jasmine and midway through the round Jasudavicius scored a takedown of her own.

Unfortunately she found herself locked in a stalemate on the ground, her arm in danger of being armbarred while Maverick held her wrist, content to be awkwardly stacked against the fence for the remainder of the round in the hopes of securing the submission while Jasmine avoided making any mistakes which would end her night early.

The closely contested first round was soon forgotten however as it soon turned into the Jasudivicius show.

The Canadian scrapper began to find her range on the feet and then took the fight to the floor, where she was able to control and land ground and pound on the heavy favourite. The third round was even more dominant for Jasmine as she landed flurries on the feet that hurt Maverick and was again able to get the best of her on the floor as well, keeping her pace high to the closing bell as the American wilted under the onslaught.

It was another impressive outing for team Canada and the second heavy underdog win (Zahabi was only a slight underdog at just +100), and another fight that was far more entertaining than most expected.

The final prelim featured ranked middleweights Chris Curtis and Nassourdine Imavov in a fight most fans argued should have opened the pay-per-view. Considering how the fight turned out, it's probably best it didn't.

Curtis, often a slow starter, struggled to get his offense going early against the Frenchman, who was landing combinations and even takedowns on the difficult-to-control "Action Man".

The second round saw Imavov again leading the dance on the feet, though Curtis was beginning to land his trademark body shots and claw his way back into the fight - that is, until a clearly accidental clash of heads put a pause on the action.

The head clash opened up a gash over Curtis' eyebrow after which Chris stated that he couldn't see, and despite his protests to allow him more time to recover, the doctors stepped in to call off the action and thus rule the fight a No Contest.

Curtis would reveal afterward in his trip to the hospital that he has a possible corneal abrasion, so it's likely a good thing the fight was stopped, but it marked an unfortunate ending to what was one of the better match-ups on the card.

It was also especially unfortunate for Curtis given that a major headbutt in his last fight against Kelvin Gastelum caused a knockdown that went unnoticed by the referee and likely cost Curtis the fight on the scorecards.

Though they may not have ended on a high note, the prelimary portion of the card more than delivered and with that, it was time for the epic UFC pre-main card montage set to the tune of The Who's "Baba O'Reilly".

The main card opener between Eryk Anders and Marc-Andre Barriault was expected to be another run-of-the-mill middleweight fight between two solid, if unremarkable 185-pounders.

Both men are certainly capable of being entertaining, but more often than not middleweight bouts outside of the top-10 produce rather middling fights, and many (including myself) questioned how this match-up in particular made it to the main card ahead of Curtis vs. Imavov.

Luckily for the fans in Vancouver, Barriault and Anders turned in an absolute war from the opening bell.

Normally a slow starter that picks up the pace as the fight wears on, "Powerbar" Barriault landed a heavy right kick to Ander's midsection before blasting him with a right hook that sent him to the canvas less than 30 seconds into the fight.

The Canadian swarmed his wounded prey but "Ya Boi" was able to survive the early onslaught and claw his way back into the fight, landing shots of his own to try and turn the tides.

That same right body kick-to-right hand landed clean for Barriault all night, clearly something he's picked up under the tutelage of Henri Hooft down in Florida.

The two middleweights traded bombs for the full fifteen minutes, with Anders regularly mixing in takedown attempts but being unable to take down the Canadian, the two would then exchange heavy knees, elbows, and punches against the fence.

Unlike most fighters, Barriault seems to love fighting with his back on the fence, inviting the clinch so he can hammer away from up close and personal, while Anders was happy to oblige given that he can usually overpower his opposition there. Unfortunately for Anders, Barriault was more than comfortable in the clinch and did some of his best work there, and combined with his more effective boxing, he earned himself a unanimous decision victory in a thrilling back-and-forth contest.

The fight would go on to win Fight of the Night honours and secured Canada's fifth win on the night, this time with Barriault being a slight favourite.

With just a single Canadian left on the card and that Canadian being heavily favoured to win, things were certainly looking good for us up north as fans, particularly for anyone that decided to throw some money down on an all-Canadian parlay.

But first came an exciting featherweight battle between Dan Ige and Nate Landwehr. Landwehr of course has become a fan favourite thanks to his last few thrilling performances, while the heavy-handed Ige has been working his way back up after a string of losses to top-10 opposition.

The bout was yet another 145-pound match-up that more than delivered its share of violence, with a slow-burn first round that turned up the volume right at the end of the opening stanza.

The very close first five minutes was punctuated by a big left hook from Ige that sent Landwehr stumbling back into the cage, and from that moment on, the two exchanged in a firefight for the remainder of the fight.

The incredibly tough Landwehr continued pressing forward and tried to land combinations on the more powerful Ige, his few takedown attempts being stuffed and effectively forcing him into a boxing match. Though he was landing plenty of his own shots, Ige simply had far more power and this was once again hammered home in the closing seconds of round two, where a massive left hook collapsed Nate "The Train" to the floor.

Ige tried his best to finish the fight but the ridiculously tough Landwehr managed to survive to hear the bell.

In the third, it was once again Nate pressing forward, undeterred even after nearly being finished just moments earlier, and he proceeded to arguably have his best round - unfortunately for the Train, it was too little, too late as Ige took home a well-deserved decision in an exciting performance.

The final Canadian on the card, welterweight prospect Mike Malott who was 2-0 in the UFC, was then set to take on Adam Fugitt in a showcase bout. Given his 9-1-1 record with all of his victories coming in the very first round, Malott was a highly entertaining prospect that certainly had shown potential to break into the top ten in the future and thus was given prominent placement and a favourable match-up on the UFC's trip to Vancouver.

After his opponent made his way to the cage, Malott's walk to the Octagon was made extra memorable thanks to a railing in Rogers Arena giving way as fans leaned over it to take pictures or get a high five from the approaching fighter. Luckily no one suffered any serious injuries and the railing (and all the falling people) missed "Proper" Mike, who no-sold the bizarre incident and continued his way to the cage without missing a beat.

Laser focused on holding the Canadian line, Malott showed a clear technical and athletic advantage over Fugitt from the opening bell, landing several solid shots and controlling Fugitt on the ground following a pair of explosive takedowns.

Surprisingly Malott went to the second round for the first time in his UFC career, but if Fugitt thought it would get easier once he made it out of the first five minutes, he thought wrong.

Early in the second Malott shifted his stance beautifully to land a stepping right hand, then from his new stance landed a lancing southpaw straight that sent Fugitt crashing to the canvas.

As Fugitt tried to return to his feet, the Team Alpha Male-trained Malott immediately pounced on his prey's neck, securing a tight guillotine choke and transitioning into mount with a one-arm guillotine to force the tap.

It was a star-making performance for Canada's top prospect made all the more memorable by his amped up post-fight speech.

With Canada scoring a shutout at a perfect 6-0 on the night, the people's main event and most highly anticipated fight on the card was up next.

The lightweight division has long been one of the best in mixed martial arts but has truly become ridiculous in recent years, stacked so full of talent and exciting fighters that even men outside the top ten could be champions in a "normal" division.

In UFC 289's co-main event, former lightweight champion Charles Oliveira returned to the cage for the first time since losing his title to Islam Makachev late last year, which snapped his remarkable 11-fight winning streak.

The beloved veteran Oliveira was set to face a fellow fan favourite fighter in Beneil Dariush, who himself was riding an eight-fight winning streak (including four finishes, three performance bonuses and a Fight of the Night) that in any other division would have seen him fighting for a title by now.

Right before Beneil Dariush made his walk to the cage however, there was a brawl in the middle of the floor seats, with several drunken idiots slugging it out outside the Octagon. Imagine dropping several thousand dollars on a ticket to an event, only to get yourself kicked out of the arena right before the biggest fight on the card takes place. Vancouver, I hope you never change.

Moving on to the professionals, Dariush got a solid reception (despite some heavy boo-ing from the pro-Oliveira crowd), but one would think Charlie Olives was born in Vancouver given the reception he enjoyed at Rogers Arena.

As a longtime fan both of the sport and of the humble Oliveira it was definitely a heartwarming sight to see Oliveira given a proper hero's welcome - he then proceeded to show exactly why he is one of the most exciting and beloved fighters in the UFC today.

From the opening bell "Do Bronx" applied the pressure just like he did on his exhilarating title run, snapping Beneil's head back with sharp combinations and forcing him onto his back foot. An amazing grappler in his own right, Dariush opted to take Oliveira to the ground, willing to engage where most other fighters would avoid like the plague.

Though he established top control, Beneil was unable to mount any meaningful offense on the mat, with Oliveira instead landing more off of his back including some rather nasty elbows. Eventually making his way back to his feet, Oliveira once again poured on the pressure and immediately his exhaustive forward momentum paid dividends.

A powerful right high kick, despite being blocked, got through just enough to rattle Beneil near the cage, with a left hook following shortly after that bothered the slight betting favourite.

As Dariush attempted to circle out, Oliveira stepped into a right hand and transitioned to southpaw, where he followed his retreating victim with a series of right hooks that clipped the chin; then, a massive right hand sat Dariush down and put him in pure survival mode, desperately trying to grab hold of the Brazilian and turn the fight into a grappling match so he could clear his head.

Instead, Oliveira flowed with Dariush's transitions and quickly secured half guard where he proceeded to rain down hellacious ground and pound that further damaged the already stunned Dariush.

Now standing over his victim as a concussed Benny tried to push away to escape the onslaught, several more massive punches sent Dariush in and out of consciousness before the ref finally stepped in to save him.

The emphatic victory blew the roof off of the packed Rogers Arena, with Charles hopping over the cage to embrace family members and friends in the front row. After delivering a passionate post-fight speech (including some English!) and calling for another crack at Makachev, Oliveira hopped on the cage and soaked in the appreciative Vancouver crowd.

It was another thrilling and highly impressive performance in the lengthy and storied career of the 33-year-old, the TKO extending his UFC record of most finishes to a whopping 20 (he also holds the record for most submission victories at 16).

As most expected, the true main event had delivered in spades and with an over-performing undercard, UFC 289 was a surprising and resounding success.

Of course, the "official" main event was still to come, with most fans either hoping that A) Aldana would shock the world and send Nunes into retirement, or B) Nunes would score an emphatic finish like she regularly did earlier in her career.

Unfortunately, fans got neither as Aldana wilted under the spotlight and Nunes fought conservatively to a decision.

Aldana looked eerily reminiscent of her only other headline bout when she faced Holly Holm, a fight in which she looked gunshy and refused to adjust or try anything new for the entire 25-minutes despite clearly losing rounds and having her corner plead with her to let her hands go.

From the opening bell Aldana looked wary of Nunes' power, which is understandable, but at some point, when you're in a world title fight, especially when your only hope left is to score a finish after dropping every round, you've got to go forward and take risks.

Instead, Aldana seemed content to throw almost nothing, the lone significant strike she committed to being a beautiful counter-right hand late in the first round that stumbled Nunes when the champion got overly aggressive.

The counter was enough to remind Nunes not to get careless for the rest of the fight, which she took a little bit too much to heart as she could have certainly gotten a finish had she gone a bit harder (particularly late in the fight when saving her cardio was no longer a concern), but she still asserted her dominance and walked away with a lopsided decision.

Aldana for her part was given a pass by most for her prior Holm performance given the pressure of her first main event and the step up in competition, but now with another similar performance where she simply mentally was not there under the bright lights, it seems like her goal of becoming another Mexican title holder has disappeared with a whimper.

Irene simply didn't give herself a chance to win or even to make things competitive, and at 35 years old it's unlikely the normally exciting bantamweight will even get back into contention let alone receive another title shot.

Then again, Amanda Nunes opted to retire following the lopsided victory, vacating her titles in the process (the featherweight title is likely to simply be dissolved as there's nobody good in the weight class - the only decent featherweights are bantamweights who simply cut less weight in order to skip the line and get a title shot, or are outside of the UFC). With how shallow the 135-pound division is, a few solid wins could see Aldana get another crack at gold to see if she can get over her stage fright.

Though it wasn't following a very good fight, Nunes' retirement (if it lasts of course) at least provided a historic moment as she retired with the best resume of any female fighter to ever compete in the sport, and also managed to piss off the insufferable Julianna Pena as she now doesn't get a chance to get back her loss in their rematch.

Now that the bantamweight belt is vacant, it sets up a fight between the top two contenders, Julianna Pena and Raquel Pennington, for a UFC title...suddenly another Amanda Nunes title fight doesn't sound so bad.

Overall, UFC 289 was a card that was rightfully blasted for being light on pay-per-view worthy fights and featuring a weak main event, but the people's main event more than made up for the dull headliner and the supporting cast far exceeded expectations.

From the opening prelim to a star-making performance leading into the people's main event, the fights over-delivered at almost every turn.

All in all it was a highly successful night for UFC's return up north - here's hoping we don't have to wait another four years for the next one.


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