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UFC Fight Night 146 came and went … and went. This is not to say that the actual card was not entertaining -- it certainly was -- but it was easily one of the most bloviated Ultimate Fighting Championship shows in recent memory, distinctly exposing why so many fair-weather fans are keen to skip events and only show up with their money when Conor McGregor makes an appearance.
For those of us inveigled by this sport, Junior dos Santos clobbered recent UFC title challenger Derrick Lewis. “Cigano” has now won four of his last five fights spanning nearly three years, improbably putting himself back into heavyweight contention over six years after Cain Velasquez took the title from around his waist. You would think this might move the heavyweight division along, but alas, we need to wait around for Brock Lesnar, as if that is the trophy that will seal Daniel Cormier’s legacy.
No, quite simply, this was the worst UFC card of 2019 so far and may stand the 12-month test of time. UFC Fight Night 146 laid bare how desperate, sprawling and panicked the company is on the whole, with none of the wherewithal necessary to put together a start-to-finish product about which a fight fan would actually care. Then again, the vast majority of us tuned in for the entire thing, so at the end of the day, who are the fools, really? Let’s just figure out what we can learn from such a debacle and wipe the egg off of our collective faces:
You Don’t Need to Watch This
I will applaud the UFC and ESPN for getting cards started earlier. A 5 p.m. ET start time is fantastic, and it quickly seems as though “Fox Sports 1 Pacing” might be an MMA meme that can be put out to pasture. With that said, we’re all grown-ups with things to do on a Saturday night. Maybe you have a hot date, maybe you just want to hang out with some friends or maybe you have something better to do than watch 13 fights over six-plus hours, the majority of which feature bona fide pink slip candidates.
There is an impetus that comes with being an MMA fan where we feel as though we need consume every last bit of content available to us. This only metastasizes and grows as online streaming becomes part and parcel of how major MMA promotions do their business. Nonetheless, there is a bizarre cognitive dissonance that exists when we all recognize the UFC as the foremost fight promotion in the world, yet we still understand that the product has changed in such a way that a single, individual card isn’t necessarily worth our time. Yet here we all are, spending a quarter of a day flicking between UFC Fight Pass, ESPN+, ESPN, pay-per-view and whatever any given Saturday might impose upon us. The fact is that the game has changed and we ought to change with it.
I’m not saying you just simply stick your head in the sand and ignore the goings on at the highest levels of MMA, but be honest with yourself: How could you have better taken in UFC Fight Night 146? If you went out, or stayed in, and simply enjoyed your night however you may prefer, what would you have missed? It would take you all of two minutes to see how dos Santos pieced up Lewis and figure out how Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos choked out Curtis Millender. For years, the UFC wanted to join the stick-and-ball canon, and now it finally has. While we may all pine for an era in which we enjoyed a start-to-finish fight card, in the modern era, there are instances where simply catching some highlights will do.
JDS is Still a Thing
I applaud the fact that Lewis apparently fought with a completely destroyed knee and tried to make the best of things. At the end of the day, if there’s any weight class where you might be able to pull out a victory on a hobbled leg, it’s heavyweight. There’s a reason we love “The Black Beast.”
With that said, we understand the complexion of the heavyweight division; safe to say, it’s not really a surprise that a 35-year-old dos Santos, over six years removed from wearing the UFC title, is still hovering among the divisional elite. In a way, dos Santos crushing Lewis is representative of exactly how this division operates in MMA, for better or worse.
Physically gifted, MMA-attuned athletes are a distinct rarity. If we fight fans are lucky, we get one or two every five or six years. Even if the heavyweight division has a slow turnover rate, we do get interesting players from time to time, and Lewis is absolutely one of them. He was signed to the UFC off of a hot winning streak and quickly ingratiated himself to the MMA populace with a slew of highlight-reel knockouts and his over-the-top, charming personality. Yet even though Lewis is a dangerous striker with a winning persona, he is essentially a stereotype of the division itself. This nature is typically camouflaged, because the majority of heavyweights just aren’t that good and Lewis’ specific skill set is good enough to establish him as a Top 10 talent. However, look at how completely out of his depth Lewis was in his UFC title challenge against Cormier in November, and injured knee or not, look at how hapless he was against dos Santos. Even if we want to be glib and say “there are levels to this,” the cruelty of the heavyweight division isn’t that there are “levels” to it. Rather, there are several standard deviations between folks who can vie for a UFC title shot and the honest-to-goodness crème de la crème star who manages to stick around, year-in and year-out to forge a legacy as one of the best ever.
Dos Santos put Lewis, compromised or not, through his paces and soundly destroyed him. When Stipe Miocic leveled dos Santos in a title fight two years ago, the fight world left “Cigano” for dead, consigning him to the woodheap. He’s now won three in a row, and if not for the UFC’s obsession with getting Lesnar back into the cage, he would be the most obvious No. 1 contender. The moral of the story here is that when it comes to the heavyweight division, real skill dies hard. In the fight game, it’s a standard colloquialism that “power is the last thing to go.” Well, power helps, but when it comes to heavyweight MMA, actual talent is the surviving factor, and the history of this sport tells us that it takes a long time to dissipate.
Welterweight is a Little Bit Trickier
From one dos Santos to another, UFC Fight Night 146 also saw Zaleski dos Santos run his UFC record to 7-1, barely taking half of a round to choke out Millender. Seven straight wins surely get you somewhere, right? Well, not so fast.
Winning seven fights in a row guarantees you nothing in the modern UFC, because part of being able to get such a massive streak going is largely informed by the promotion burying you on undercards against anonymous talent, so it’s not exactly like you’re ripping it up against movers and shakers in your division. Santiago Ponzinibbio also has a seven-fight winning streak going, and he has actually headlined in two of his last three appearances. How close do you think “Gente Boa” is from a title shot?
Kamaru Usman is now the welterweight king, and it took nine consecutive wins before he even sniffed a title shot; and even then, it required a nasty mess at 170 pounds for him to even slide into that role. This is one of the inherent difficulties with the modern UFC product, as certain fighters get mired on undercards, racking up victories, yet rather than the promotion steadily moving them up the chain of contenders, it continues to match them in a circular fashion, leaving these athletes to simply chase their tails. In the UFC’s quest to create blockbuster main events while trying to ensure that every title fight or headliner is a major bout, we end up with a level of paralysis by analysis, where the most sensible matchmaking gets sidestepped. I’ve never considered the bout until right this very second, but who among us would be opposed to a Zaleski dos Santos-Ponzinibbio de facto title eliminator? Isn’t that how meritocracy is supposed to work?
Welterweight is perennially one of the deepest and most competitive divisions in MMA, so I don’t expect title shots to be determined by someone just winning a fight or two. With that said, remember when Jon Fitch won eight fights in a row and fans were losing their minds in disbelief that the UFC hadn’t blessed him with a crack at Georges St. Pierre? An eight-fight winning streak today promises you nothing; if you’re lucky, maybe you can actually get onto a main card. Despite Tyron Woodley’s protests, it seems like we’re shaped up for Usman’s first defense against Colby Covington. After that, here’s hoping we can get back to good, old-fashioned notions of how this is supposed to work.
Remember When I Said There Were Levels to This?
I’ll admit that it was nice to see Ben Rothwell back in action after nearly three years out of the cage, his absence largely due to his two-year United States Anti-Doping Agency suspension. Regardless of how you scored his bout with Blagoy Ivanov, let’s backtrack to my previous point about the stratification of the heavyweight division. If you need a vivid representation of exactly what I’m talking about, look no further.
In fact, apropos of my previous point about dos Santos, once left for dead, sticking around at the elite levels of heavyweight MMA, consider the fact that he soundly smoked Rothwell and Ivanov over 25 minutes, casually boxing up both men for five rounds on his way to lopsided unanimous decision wins. There’s no denying that Rothwell and Ivanov are legitimate, quality heavyweight talents, but there’s a reason the UFC is so desperate to get Lesnar back into the cage; heavyweight skill may have an exceptionally long half-life in this game, but that’s part of the reason we end up with such stomach-churning, grotesque matchmaking from time to time.
Even with his win over Rothwell, Ivanov is still behind half of the division in terms of the heavyweight title pecking order. He’ll likely be lined up against an Alexey Oleynik. Then if he’s lucky, maybe he can get into more serious contention by facing an Alexander Volkov, Alistair Overeem or Curtis Blaydes. Theoretically, based on the thin nature of the division, you’d think it would be easier to grab a heavyweight title shot in the UFC in comparison to lightweight or welterweight, but in practice, there is an inordinate focus -- perhaps because the heavyweight division has such a cachet in prizefighting -- on trying to turn every other title fight into a major happening.
It’s sad and ironic in a way. Fighters train their asses off in hopes that they can ascend to the throne of their given weight class, and part of that is the idea that they will be the athlete to dethrone the current champion. For fighters like Ivanov and others at heavyweight, the most advantageous route to glory for which they can hope is that Cormier ends up fighting a professional wrestler, retires and abdicates his crown, allowing them to slide into a vacant title fight. That’s not exactly how prizefighting is supposed to work, and that says nothing of the misfortune if said vacant title fight came against, say, Miocic, who has been completely forgotten about but remains very much a part of that elite tier above the Ivanovs of the world.
The Price is Right
I don’t expect Niko Price to ever meaningfully get into the race for the welterweight crown. He’s a defensively flawed brawler, and his instincts tend toward fighting fire with fire. For all intents and purposes, his career trajectory appears to be that of a pure action fighter, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, if you ask me.
Price’s bout with fellow action-oriented brawler Tim Means was created for a reason, and it delivered. More than that, it delivered in the kind of bizarre, surprising way that Price’s UFC bouts have tended to deliver. Means worked his technical striking and reach advantage early, and with roughly a minute to go in the first round, he positively ripped Price with a massive uppercut that would have wiped out most fighters. Fast forward 30 seconds, and “The Hybrid” landed a devastating overhand right that completely crushed Means, giving him a tidy come-from-behind win in less than five minutes.
The UFC giving a long rope to exciting fighters is nothing new, but there is something bizarre and charming about how Price gets it done. He is the epitome of devil-may-care inside the cage, yet his defensive liabilities are offset by the fact that he never seems to turn his brain out of “offense” mode. I mean, his knocking out Randy Brown in July is easily one of the most low-percentage, surreal stoppages in the history of the UFC. It’s not even that he managed to clobber a larger man with a punch from his back; it was that he thought to attempt it. What makes Price so thrilling, fight-in and fight-out, isn’t that he is some reckless brawler but that he seemingly never stops thinking about how to generate offense, regardless of his own condition or position. It will never make him a welterweight champion, but if nothing else, he can be a champion in our thrill-seeking hearts, especially on a slow Saturday night.