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I’m honestly surprised that UFC 226 went off as smoothly as it did. Maybe it’s just me, but going into last weekend, I couldn’t shake the unhappy memories of Brooklyn in April and a feeling of “Aw sh*t, here we go again.”
First, Max Holloway was forced to withdraw from the card. Then Daniel Cormier face-planted on a dais and came up limping. On that topic, I have to ask: How does this keep happening? Why does the Ultimate Fighting Championship insist on making its athletes navigate dimly-lit obstacle courses -- in street clothes -- days before the fight? I’m not saying they should do away with media events, I’m saying they should maybe have a contractor walk the event space in advance and make sure it’s free of tripping hazards or, at the very least, refrain from actively placing hazards in the way, as was apparently the case with Cormier.
It suffices me to say that after Cormier’s fall, I expected the worst of UFC 226. I figured Cormier would either pull out of the bout or, more likely, fight while obviously impaired. I was waiting for another out-of-the-blue catastrophe like the dolly incident. I was prepared for anything and everything that could go bad to go wrong. I’m glad to report that despite my feelings of impending doom and to my mild surprise, the building didn’t collapse. And what a card we got. I don’t know if it was a great event, but it was sure a weird one. I’m not certain off the top of my head whether last Saturday’s event was the first UFC main card where all of the betting favorites lost, and in fact it probably isn’t, but I’m sure it’s been quite a while.
Some of the bouts were duds and others were entertaining primarily for the shock value of their unexpected outcomes: Did you put money down on Khalil Rountree splattering one of the five most decorated kickboxers ever to cross over into MMA inside of two minutes? Me neither. In the end, however, we were witness to one of the more transcendent moments I can remember in mixed martial arts, as Cormier put another huge tally in his ledger and elbowed his way even closer to the center of the “Greatest of All-Time” discussion. “DC” then capped off his evening with what was clearly the true going-to-Disneyland moment for him; the ear-to-ear grin he wore was that of an eight-year-old kid with a crayon in hand, writing “Dear Santa, this year I want the real Brock Lesnar to come and cut a promo on me and push me at the end.”
As Eric Stinton said eloquently earlier this week, this is a feel-good story because it represents, at least for one fleeting moment, the ascendancy of the “good guy” and the vindication of hard work and doing things the right way. If you’re scrolling to the comment section right now to tell me all about the weigh-in towel, be my guest; but if that’s the worst thing you can find to say about the man, you’re helping make my point for me. On a night that “DC” was fighting not only one of the greatest heavyweights in MMA history but, as he freely alluded to both before and after the fight, the looming specter of his longtime foil and tormentor, Jon Jones, any other outcome would have been disappointing compared to the one we got.
None of this should be construed as me rejoicing in Miocic’s loss. He’s another good guy, and that has only been amplified by him turning out to be probably the most gracious dethroned UFC champ I have ever seen. All of Miocic’s public statements and social media comments since the moment Marc Goddard raised Cormier’s hand in the Octagon have been the picture of class. He made no excuses, called Cormier the better man in their fight, expressed the respectful wish for a rematch before “DC” retires and then generally avoided making the moment about himself. If one man had to lose in this good guy vs. good guy matchup, better that it be the much younger Miocic, who pointed out on Twitter that the road to “GOAT” status can have some bumps in it. The man has time that Cormier does not.
Speaking of men who have time and of the ill-fated UFC 223, Saturday night was also a pretty good one for Anthony Pettis, as he lured Michael Chiesa into a beautiful triangle armbar. In doing so, he notched his best win at lightweight -- well, “lightweight plus,” let’s say -- since his breathtaking title reign.
Leading up to that fight weekend back in April, as the UFC scrambled to salvage the lightweight title contest, news was changing by the hour. The universe -- the little world of MMA, at least -- collectively spent a ludicrous amount of time staring at a live feed of an empty weigh-in room in which literally nothing was happening. As I had written a column about Pettis that week, I was left no option but to file multiple versions, with the working titles “Pettis fights Chiesa,” “Pettis fights Khabib Nurmagomedov” and “Pettis fights nobody,” which of course ended up being the version used (well, I suppose I had the option to write a whole different piece, but I was too happy with the image I’d made for that one.)
That article, talking about Pettis’ competitive decline and prospects for recovery, ended on the same thought: The man had time. Time to get it back, time to figure things out. I was derided for it at the time, especially once he fell through as a short-notice opponent for Nurmagomedov in a way that did not look very good on Pettis and his team.
As it turned out, the postponed Pettis-Chiesa fight ended up vindicating me, for the moment at least. I won’t tell you that I called it; “it” being the specific outcome of that fight, because I didn’t. I did not favor Pettis to beat Chiesa, although I thought last week, as I did in April, that Chiesa was probably the top-10 lightweight against whom Pettis matched up most favorably. I felt vindicated because Pettis, win or lose, looked like a guy with a lot of fight left in him. When he did win, it was another feel-good moment featuring another apparently decent guy with tragedy in his past.
I don’t need every UFC title fight from now on to include an upstanding family man with a heart-wrenching personal story and an incredible work ethic reaching the competitive pinnacle of his career. I don’t need every event to feature a likable, polite former champ who seems to have lost his way achieving some competitive redemption and a new lease on life. I’m not even sure I want that; it sounds emotionally exhausting. But I’m delighted to have it happen every once in a while, and I’m pleased to bask in it this week. Next Friday, I’m sure we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming, including “Weight Cutting: Threat or Menace?” and “Is MMA Better Off With Or Without Felons?”