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UFC Fight Island takeaways — Brian Ortega’s title shot is deserved; Jessica Andrade a contender at 125

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Ortega looked like a different fighter

On paper, Brian Ortega had three things going against him heading into Saturday night:

1. He was coming off the worst loss of his career, a fourth-round TKO (doctor’s stoppage) to Max Holloway.

2. He had not fought in 22 months.

3. He changed the majority of his corner since the last time he competed.

Usually, that concoction leads to trouble.

But, in the end, those three question marks equaled tremendous results for “T-City.”

What a win for Ortega. What a performance. What a fight.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t expect this. Those three reasons above, plus his surprising decision to shave his patented locks on Friday, which usually means a tough weight cut, gave me serious pause heading into this fight. I thought it was Chan Sung Jung‘s to lose.

Boy, was I wrong. Ortega looked like a completely different fighter. Patient, controlled, on point. Truth be told, this was not the fighter who lost to then-featherweight champion Max Holloway almost two years ago in Toronto.

Heck, if you didn’t know better, you’d think Ortega’s background is actually in striking, when in reality his bread and butter is his ground game. On this night, though, he didn’t need any ground skills. He beat Jung at his own game and never wavered. He legitimately outclassed Jung. Color me extremely impressed.

How good did he look? Ortega landed 127 significant strikes against Jung, the most in a fight in his UFC career. His previous high was 110 significant strikes landed in his loss to Holloway. In addition, Ortega landed a personal-best 59 percent of his significant strikes (127 of 212). Heading into this fight, Ortega had an average significant strikes accuracy of 33 percent. Those two stats tell the story: he was dominant and on point.

I said earlier this week on “Ariel & The Bad Guy” that I didn’t think a win for Ortega should equal a title shot, although UFC president Dana White said that’s what awaited the winner. It seemed weird that he would get a crack at the belt after being away for almost two years and not winning since March 2018. That just didn’t make sense to me.

I’ll take that back now. Sign me up for Ortega 2.0 vs. Alexander Volkanovski for the featherweight title. When you consider his vastly improved striking and his ground game, that should make for a very interesting fight. And, for the record, it’s not just the W that makes me feel like Ortega deserves the title shot, it’s that he looks so much better than he did against Holloway. That, plus the fact that he thoroughly dominated the guy who I thought should be next for the belt, makes me think this is the right call after all.

Y’all must’ve forgot? Nah, we learned something new from Ortega on this night. We learned that he could adapt, evolve and overcome. Bravo.

As for Jung, he won’t fall too far down the rankings. He’s too popular and too much fun. I know Edson Barboza is new to the division, but I’d love to see that fight. The timing would work because Barboza just fought. If not, Holloway, who is looking for big fights after going 0-2 against the champion, would certainly be an intriguing option.

— Ariel Helwani

Could Jessica Andrade be the flyweight to shock the world?

So, let’s come right out and say it: The UFC’s women’s flyweight division is not its deepest weight class. It’s wide open. I don’t say that to disparage any of the women currently fighting there, but there’s a reason why Cynthia Calvillo was able to move up from strawweight earlier this year, win one fight, and is already No. 3 in the UFC’s official flyweight rankings.

The champion, Valentina Shevchenko, has not been less than a 6-to-1 betting favorite through four title defenses. No one expects Shevchenko to lose this belt any time soon. However, I can’t think of anyone better suited to pull it off than Andrade.

Consider what makes Shevchenko so good — technique. She’s near-perfect everywhere. No one is going to out-fight Shevchenko at 125 pounds. But maybe, someone can go in there on one particular night and knock her unconscious. That’s the great equalizer in this sport, after all.

And look at what Andrade brings to the table. She’s the type of bullish fighter who walks through feints, is willing to take risks, and has this other-worldly power to deliver an upset. If/when Andrade fights Shevchenko for the belt, she will be an underdog, and I will most likely pick Shevchenko to win. But honestly, I think Andrade might be the only flyweight in the world who even has a chance at knocking off Shevchenko.

— Brett Okamoto

Jimmy Crute impressed in several ways

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Jimmy Crute drops Modestas Bukauskas with a huge right hook and a follow-up uppercut at UFC Fight Night.

Jimmy Crute is a young man in a hurry. He joined the UFC less than two years ago, and on Saturday he got his fourth finish inside the Octagon, which ties him with three others for the most in the light heavyweight division during that time.

A little over a year ago, it appeared that maybe Crute was in too much of a hurry. At age 23, he was booked against veteran light heavyweight Misha Cirkunov and ended up getting submitted for his first career defeat. Despite that, an ESPN panel soon afterward ranked Crute as the No. 7 MMA fighter under age 25.

Then, in February, Crute got back on track with a first-round submission victory over a fellow prospect, Michal Oleksiejczuk. And on Saturday, the Australian, who won’t turn 25 until March, took another step toward being a contender. Crute looked fully in control during every second of his first-round knockout of Modestas Bukauskas, who came in having won seven fights in a row.

The most impressive thing I saw in the bout: Even though Crute got the job done in barely two minutes, he did not appear to be in a hurry this time. He looked relaxed and poised, countering every Bukauskas attack but not forcing anything. The finish came on a wind-up right hook counter-punch and a follow-up left. It was a thing of beauty.

And so was Crute’s work right afterward. He immediately put his arm around his fallen opponent, then jumped the cage to thank UFC president Dana White for keeping the fights going during the pandemic, then issued a respectful challenge of Nikita Krylov because “I reckon that’d be a banger.”

Nicely done.

— Jeff Wagenheim

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Murray still perfect at AT&T Stadium as Cards roll

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All Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray does at AT&T Stadium is win.

Murray improved to 7-0 all-time at the stadium through high school, college and, now, the NFL after leading the Cardinals to a 38-10 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night.

He went 5-0 in high school there, including three straight state championships in Texas’ highest level of prep football; 1-0 in college after leading Oklahoma to a Big 12 championship; and now 1-0 in the NFL.

AT&T Stadium is 41 miles from Murray’s hometown of Allen, Texas.

Last week, in the run-up to Monday night’s game, Murray said the stadium “means a lot” to him.

“There’s been a lot of memories there, a lot of great memories,” Murray said. “Obviously, playing back home in Texas in front of friends and family, but even it being on Monday night with COVID happening, everybody will be able to watch.”

Murray made another memory Monday night.

He threw for 188 yards and two touchdowns on just 9-for-24 passing, including an 80-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Christian Kirk, the second of two touchdown passes to Kirk, who had 164 yards and six touchdowns in three games at AT&T Stadium while at Texas A&M. Murray also hit DeAndre Hopkins for a 60-yard pass in the fourth quarter.

But it wasn’t just Murray who had a meaningful return to AT&T Stadium.

The last time Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury coached in AT&T Stadium was his last game at Texas Tech, a 35-24 loss to Baylor on Nov. 24, 2018.

On Monday, when the Cardinals’ offense couldn’t find its rhythm early in the game, Murray took it upon himself to make something happen.

He had runs of 15 and 10 before converting a fourth-and-1 with an 11-yard run. He finished with 74 rushing yards and a touchdown, which was his 10th rushing touchdown since the start of 2019, his rookie season. That was second most among quarterbacks in that stretch behind Buffalo’s Josh Allen, who has 12.

Monday was the fifth time this season that Murray had a passing and rushing touchdown, the most in the first six games of a season in NFL history. It was also the sixth time since the start of last season that Murray had a passing and rushing touchdown, the second most during that stretch.

Murray also became the third player in league history with 30 passing and 10 rushing touchdowns in the first 25 games of his career. He did it in 22 games, tying with Daunte Culpepper for the quickest to do it.

It got to a point Monday night that the Cardinals were seemingly able to do what they pleased on both sides of the ball.

Kirk had 2 catches for 86 yards and 2 TDs. Hopkins finished with 73 yards on two catches. Running back Kenyan Drake had 169 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.

The Cardinals forced Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott to fumble twice and scored on both possessions, which were on short fields. The first was caused by safety Budda Baker, who also had his first career interception and a sack, and was recovered by Jordan Phillips, who forced the second one which was recovered by cornerback Byron Murphy Jr.

Outside linebacker Haason Reddick had two sacks in place of Chandler Jones, who was put on injured reserve last week after undergoing surgery to repair a torn biceps.

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Lawyer for group of ex-players fires back at Iowa

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The attorney representing eight Black former Iowa football players who allege racial discrimination during their time with the Hawkeyes said Monday night that the university’s rejection of their demands, which included a payment of $20 million, is not the end of the matter.

Civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons of Tulsa, Oklahoma, had stated the players’ demands in a 21-page letter to university officials dated Oct. 5. In addition to $20 million, the players called for the firings of head football coach Kirk Ferentz, offensive line coach Brian Ferentz and athletic director Gary Barta.

The university general counsel’s office issued its response Sunday, saying it would not give in to the demands and that work had already begun to create a more welcoming environment for Black athletes. The general counsel’s response was issued to the media along with a copy of Solomon-Simmons’ original letter.

“In response, it appears Iowa released our confidential letter to the media with the sole intention of trying to shame and intimidate our courageous clients,” Solomon-Simmons said in a statement. “It did not work. In fact, Iowa’s move has not only strengthened the resolve of our clients to continue to stand up for their rights and the rights of their teammates.”

The former players who have said they were mistreated are Akrum Wadley, Aaron Mends, Jonathan Parker, Marcel Joly, Maurice Fleming, Reggie Spearman, Kevonte Martin-Manley and Andre Harris.

Solomon-Simmons did not respond to an Associated Press request to interview the former players. Other attempts to reach the players were unsuccessful.

Solomon-Simmons’ original letter said if the players’ demands were not met by Monday, the former players would file a lawsuit seeking damages.

The university in June hired an outside law firm to review the culture of the football program after dozens of former players, most of them Black, spoke out on social media to allege racial disparities and mistreatment. Their activism came as protests against racial injustice swept the nation following the death of George Floyd and after attempts to raise concerns inside the program resulted in only minor changes.

The athletic department cut ties with longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, who received $1.1 million in a severance agreement. Several players had accused Doyle of using racial slurs when addressing them, an allegation he denied. Brian Ferentz, the son of Kirk Ferentz, also was alleged to have been abusive to players.

The review, which included interviews with 111 current and former players and employees, found the cultural problems were systemic.

The players’ demand letter called for the university make a payment of $10 million “for the loss of earning capacity, loss of professional opportunities, defamation, pain and suffering, mental conditions, mental anguish, PTSD, humiliation, and overall emotional distress that our clients have incurred.”

In addition, they sought $10 million to set up a fund established for athletes, not including the eight former football players, to compensate them “for the discrimination and ongoing severe and pervasive acts that constitute intentional discrimination where Defendants intended to treat African-Americans differently.”

The players also wanted mandatory annual anti-racist training for all athletic department staff, the creation of a permanent Senior Black Male Administrator position and tuition waivers for Black athletes who attended Iowa during Kirk Ferentz’s 22 years and did not graduate.

“Our monetary demand for our clients and the over 100 other impacted African-American athletes may be shortsightedly characterized as a money-grab by some,” Solomon-Simmons said in his statement. “But our demand is just because the need for vindication and accountability is just. The need for meaningful change, and not mere administrative shuffles of Black employees for the sake of public relations, is just.”

Solomon-Simmons said the issue of racial discrimination won’t be erased with “diversity councils, grandiose statements of support, helmet decals, ‘unity’ walks, prepaid expensive reports, kumbaya implicit bias seminars, and tokenizing of a few Black faculty, athletes, and staff.”

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Cowboys OL Martin out vs. Cards with concussion

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ARLINGTON, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys have lost another starter on their offense with Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin suffering a concussion with 5:07 left in the first quarter against the Arizona Cardinals.

He was ruled out as the second half began with the Cowboys trailing, 21-3.

Martin spent a considerable amount of time in the blue tent getting looked at by the medical staff. He headed to the locker room at the start of the second quarter.

The Cowboys are playing their first game without quarterback Dak Prescott, who suffered a compound fracture and dislocated right ankle in last week’s win against the New York Giants. The Cowboys placed Prescott on injured reserve on Monday and he faces a 4-6 month recovery period.

A once-vaunted offensive line is now gutted. Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick retired in the offseason. Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith had season-ending neck surgery last week. Right tackle La’el Collins is on injured reserve because of hip surgery and did not play a down this season.

Joe Looney, who replaced Frederick, is on injured reserve with a knee injury but expected to return. In the season opener, the Cowboys lost tight end Blake Jarwin to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

The Cowboys current offensive line, from left to right is: Brandon Knight (undrafted free agent, 2019), Connor Williams (second-round, 2018), Tyler Biadasz (fourth round, 2020), Connor McGovern 9third round, 2019) and Terence Steele (undrafted free agent, 2020). McGovern entered the game with two offensive snaps in his career.

The Cowboys scored a season-low 3 points in the first half.

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