It was a tough act to follow.
Just a week after a three-title show in front of a packed house in Florida, the UFC was back in the Saturday night combat business with a lower-profile Fight Night show at Apex in Las Vegas.
Two-time light heavyweight challenger Dominick Reyes battled streaking fifth-ranked contender Jiri Prochazka in the main event of an 11-bout show that featured five other ranked contenders too.
Brendan Fitzgerald captained an ESPN broadcast team that also included Michael Bisping and Paul Felder, while Laura Sanko worked the rest of the room for breaking news and feature content.
The B/R combat sports team returned to its position and took in the card's highest and lowest points while putting together its comprehensive weekly list of the real winners and losers. Click through to take a look at what we came up with, and make sure to drop an opinion or two of your own in the comments.
Until he couldn't.
The two-time light heavyweight title challenger was rendered instantly unconscious by the point of Jiri Prochazka's spinning left elbow, toppling face-first to the canvas to end Saturday's show with what's sure to be one of the year's most memorable knockouts.
The official end came at 4:29 of Round 2.
It was the third spinning back elbow KO in UFC history and a 13th straight overall victory for Prochazka, who turned down an initial offer to make an Octagonal debut until he felt he was ready for the world-class competition.
He finally arrived with a second-round KO win at UFC 251 last summer on Fight Island and then took on Reyes, who had won 12 straight himself before consecutive losses to Jon Jones and Jan Blachowicz in title fights at 205 pounds.
"Everything he throws is with maximum intensity and maximum power," Bisping said. "And he put it on Dominick Reyes tonight."
The Czech had the better of the violence through the first nine minutes, frequently wobbling Reyes with a variety of strikes but also taking a number of counter shots upon charging in to continue his own flurries. In fact, Prochazka shook off the effects of a hard left and escaped from a guillotine choke attempt early in the second and then regained his feet and drove Reyes back to the fence.
He grazed Reyes' chin with an overhand right elbow, and then he paused only a moment before spinning and catching his foe clean with the left elbow. Reyes fell straight to the floor and referee Herb Dean immediately waved off the fight as cage-side physicians came in to tend to the stricken fighter.
Reyes regained consciousness and was sitting within a few minutes.
"It was a very nice fight," Prochazka said. "I just want to show the beauty of the art. I'm learning still from fight to fight."
UFC President Dana White said ahead of the event that Saturday's victor would fight the winner of the upcoming title bout between Blachowicz and Glover Teixeira, a match Prochazka is eager to make.
"I'm ready," he said. "I'm ready. Let's do that."
Moments after landing a decisive kick to the body of Cub Swanson, the jubilant Georgian ran across the mat and attempted to spring to the top of the cage. Instead, he fell short and had to scramble up the fence before finally swinging a leg over and celebrating in style.
But the awkward execution shouldn't take away from its origin.
The streaking featherweight landed a perfectly placed left-leg kick to Swanson's liver area, forcing the veteran to crumple to his knees and inviting a series of ground strikes until referee Jason Herzog intervened after just 63 seconds of the opening round.
It was the night's first stoppage after eight decisions and a disqualification in nine fights.
"I have ton of respect for Cub, but it is what it is—I had to do it," said Chikadze, who won his sixth straight in the UFC and eighth in a row overall. "I'm here. If you didn't know my name, now you know."
Indeed, Chikadze, a former professional kickboxer, established himself with kicks to the head in the earlier going and forced Swanson to protect himself from those strikes. That created the opening for the body shot and enabled the winner to score his eighth knockout in nine career finishes.
In the aftermath, he called out ex-champion Max Holloway and contender Calvin Kattar.
"Ohhh," he groaned, upon watching a replay of the finishing kick. "I knew. That's why I kind of stopped. But the ref didn't stop it, so I had to step in and throw a couple of punches."
After Dustin Jacoby was taken down eight times in the first five minutes of his main card bout with Ion Cutelaba, the prospect of him even finishing the fight—let alone not losing it—seemed remote.
But the Colorado-based veteran wasn't quite ready to concede matters.
Jacoby rallied gamely across the final 10 minutes, taking advantage of his foe's emptying gas tank and landing enough significant blows of his own to earn a draw in the three-rounder at 205 pounds.
Each fighter got a 29-28 score in his favor, while a third judged cemented the draw with a 28-28 count.
"Both men deserved a victory," Bisping said. "They both put out a lot of punishment, and they can both claim the momentum is still going."
Cutelaba, who arrived with four wins in nine UFC appearances, tied an Octagonal record with his takedown pace in the first round but was significantly less effective in Rounds 2 and 3. In the meantime, Jacoby began establishing himself at distance and frequently landed jabs and long right hands.
The Moldovan finished with a 111-100 edge in strikes and 9-1 advantage in takedowns, though Jacoby was up 84-71 in significant strikes and was able to stay off the mat after the first minute of the second round.
Both men raised their hands at the final horn.
"It was an action fight, back and forth," Felder said. "Jacoby turned the tide. He came back and looked fantastic. I'm not a judge. I don't score these things. I don't know who should have won."
The Californian wore an impassive look on his face for the duration of a three-round middleweight bout against Krzysztof Jotko, coolly stepping forward while delivering monotonously effective aggression and punishment on the way to an easy-to-score unanimous-decision victory.
It was the 10th win in 13 UFC bouts for the 15th-ranked contender, who wasted almost no motion while standing tall and consistently walking down Jotko—landing 87 strikes to his Polish foe's 42.
Two judges gave Strickland all three rounds on the scorecards, while a third saw it 29-28 in his favor.
"Four wins in a row, four great performances," Bisping said. "He looked sensational. Walked him down the entire time, starting mixing in low kicks. Very effective."
Strickland landed at a 53 percent clip on strikes and successfully defended Jotko's one takedown attempt. The two men briefly jawed at each other at the final horn before shaking hands.
Jotko is 9-5 in the UFC and saw a three-fight win streak come to an end.
"The way he fights it's so hard to connect," Strickland said. "The way he was backing up made it way too hard to put hands on him. Every day I wake up, I'm grateful. It doesn't matter who it is. As long as I'm in the Octagon I'm happy."
One was the irresistible force. The other was the immoveable object.
And by the end of 15 minutes, it was difficult to tell which was which.
Bantamweights Merab Dvalishvili and Cody Stamann were consistently engaged within striking distance for the entirety of their three-rounder, beating each other's faces to a swollen, reddened tinge before both men raised their arms in anticipation of a victory at the final horn.
The 12th-ranked Dvalishvili, ranked one spot ahead of Stamann at 135 pounds, earned the competitive albeit unanimous verdict by scores of 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28.
It was the third time the fight had been scheduled after a postponement in 2020 and another delay early this year.
"It's the best version of him we've ever seen," Bisping said. "A high-paced takedown machine, and the hands looked better than ever. If Cody wasn't as tough as he was, perhaps we would have seen a finish."
Dvalishvili landed 172 strikes to 72 for Stamann and had a 5-1 advantage in takedowns as well.
It's the sixth straight victory for the Georgian, who dropped a decision and was stopped in his first two UFC fights in 2017 and 2018. He's 13-4 overall in a career that stretches back to 2014 and called for a match with Dominick Cruz or another former champion during his post-fight interview.
"I showed a lot today, and I have so many things more to show," he said. "I want to be back as soon as possible. Top 10. Top five. To be honest, I deserve a big name. I'm ready to fight, and I'm hungry."
Winner: Delayed Satisfaction
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Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
It took 23 fights over better than seven years, but TJ Brown finally got his Octagonal moment.
The 30-year-old featherweight provided the highlight of a six-bout prelim card—all but one of which went the three-round distance—with a consistently entertaining split decision over Kai Kamaka III.
"He's a dog, just like myself," Brown said. "One thing that was for sure is that I fought my heart out."
Indeed, the winner was in question throughout the whole 15 minutes, during which both had spells controlling the action on the feet and had positional advantages on the mat.
Kamaka scored the fight's lone knockdown with a strike, while Brown had the only two takedowns and recorded the lone submission attempt while he unsuccessfully chased a kimura at the end of the first round.
Brown, who graduated from a win on Dana White's Contender Series in 2019, lost his first two UFC appearances in 2020 by submission and decision. He was on the short end of a 30-27 count on one scorecard Saturday but earned 29-28 margins on each of the other two to improve to 15-8 overall.
"I was not 100 percent positive, but I gave up everything I could, and I put up a hell of a fight," he said. "This is what I've worked for my entire life."
Both Felder and Bisping labeled it an early contender for Fight of the Night, while Felder went one better and tabbed it as an early contender for the year's best match, though he wasn't thrilled with the decision.
"I'm not a judge. I don't see a 30-27," he said. "I'm not gonna argue with that decision. It's one of those fights where I hate to see that somebody's going to be disappointed."
UFC on ESPN 23 Full Card Results
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Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
Jiri Prochazka def. Dominick Reyes by KO (elbow), 4:29, Round 2.
Giga Chikadze def. Cub Swanson by TKO (kick), 1:03, Round 1.
Ion Cutelaba drew with Dustin Jacoby (29-28, 28-29, 28-28).
Sean Strickland def. Krzysztof Jotko by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28).
Merab Dvalishvili def. Cody Stamann by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28).
Luana Pinheiro def. Randa Markos by disqualification (illegal kick), 4:16, Round 1.
TJ Brown def. Kai Kamaka III by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 27-30).
Luana Carolina def. Poliana Botelho by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29).
Loma Lookboonmee def. Sam Hughes by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28).
Andreas Michailidis def. KB Bhullar by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28).
Felipe Colares def. Luke Sanders by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28).