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The Ultimate Fighting Championship announced this week that its upcoming event at Madison Square Garden, UFC 230, finally had a headliner, in the form of two-division champion Daniel Cormier defending his heavyweight belt against the hulking and hilarious Derrick Lewis. As an excuse to write about anything but the UFC 229 brawl, I welcomed this announcement. As a piece of mixed martial arts matchmaking, it has me groaning and pinching the bridge of my nose.
Anytime the UFC makes this kind of short-notice, high-stakes fight, I picture someone at the organization’s headquarters -- probably UFC President Dana White, but perhaps he delegates the job to Sean Shelby or Mick Maynard -- descending via private elevator to a bunker many floors below ground level, where he presses a comically oversized, bright red button labeled “PANIC.”
If you’re reading this, you probably already have a general idea of the timeline and dynamics involved here. The UFC is strongly averse to putting on a numbered, pay-per-view event without at least one title fight on the card. The reasons that is no longer healthy or practical would make a column all their own, but for now it suffices to say that the promotion hates to do it and has only done so a handful of times in over 200 numbered events in the Zuffa and WME-IMG eras.
For that reason, an otherwise awesome-sounding matchup between Dustin Poirier and Nate Diaz wasn’t good enough to headline UFC 230, never mind their abortive effort to proclaim their fight the inaugural title bout of the nonexistent 165-pound division; nor was a rematch between former champions in Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman, who happens to be from nearby Long Island to boot.
Instead, as the event drew nearer, the UFC started mashing the panic button. First, flyweight queen-in-waiting Valentina Shevchenko was pulled from December’s UFC 231 card, where she had been set to meet former strawweight champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and slotted into the UFC 230 headliner against Sijara Eubanks. While it made some small amount of sense from a competitive standpoint, it did not exactly move the needle with the casual fan base, the hardcore fan base or even the employee base, as color commentator Joe Rogan flatly said he knew nothing about Eubanks. Worse, it was placing yet another main event in the hands of a fighter with a history of missing weight, as Eubanks would likely have been the UFC’s inaugural flyweight champion if not for her failure to make weight for “The Ultimate Fighter” final.
The matchup was scrapped and Shevchenko was moved back to UFC 231, in a rare case of the UFC appearing to heed the popular outcry of its customer base, but the fact that the fight was ever booked in the first place is disturbing. Shevchenko has all the earmarks of a star waiting to happen. She is an elite fighter with an exciting, striking-oriented style. She’s physically attractive. She has a weird but weirdly compelling personality. Yet the UFC was perfectly willing to throw her into a situation where the time window to promote the fight and put the fighters in front of the public eye would have been truncated by a month. Considering that one of the primary problems with the oversaturated schedule of today’s UFC is that there isn’t enough time to get to know up-and-coming fighters or get excited for the next card, it’s worse than counterproductive.
Which brings us to Cormier-Lewis. Before all else, let me say that Lewis is awesome. As a fellow Houstonian, I also know what it’s like to have difficulty managing the thermal equilibrium of my testicles. However just like the doomed Shevchenko-Eubanks matchup, this one does no favors to Lewis or really even to the event. The only one unquestionably benefitting from this matchup is Cormier, who has alluded to the hefty payday he’s getting for accepting the short-notice booking while being frank in admitting he would not have accepted a fight with a more well-rounded fighter like Stipe Miocic on a similarly short turnaround.
I’ve seen people criticizing this matchup on the grounds that Lewis doesn’t deserve the title shot or that he will be an easy matchup for the champ, the latter a point of view that Cormier himself appears to share to some extent. The first assertion is wrong and the second is irrelevant. Lewis is 9-1 in his last 10 fights, with seven knockouts. Even if the Francis Ngannou fight was an all-time stinker and the Alexander Volkov fight on Oct. 6 probably should have been a first-round TKO loss for Lewis, if you go by the official results, there’s nobody more deserving who is available Nov. 3; and if Lewis has earned a shot at the crown, it is nobody’s problem but his if he’s an underdog facing a hard style matchup.
No, my problem with this match is the timing. There’s nobody more deserving on Nov. 3, but there’s also no particular reason Cormier has to fight on that date, other than the UFC’s need for a title fight on the UFC 230 card. Of course, Lewis accepted the bout, in spite of openly stating in his UFC 229 post-fight interview that he in no way deserved a title shot. One imagines that, like Cormier, Lewis received a tidy financial incentive above and beyond his usual pay scale, but if you believe he truly deserves a shot at the heavyweight title -- which I do -- he deserves better than this.
Even if Cormier is a better overall fighter than Lewis and a brutal stylistic challenge, this booking makes it worse: Lewis, who reportedly cut from 285 pounds for UFC 229, will have to do so again in short order, likely sapping his already-shaky cardio. On the other hand, Cormier, for all his achievements in the sport, is a middling pay-per-view draw who largely rises or falls to the level of his opponent, and Lewis now has a shortened span of time in which to work his ridiculous magic -- though he is making up for lost time with truly heroic effort. If Cormier sticks to his stated plan to retire next March and ends up fighting Lewis and Brock Lesnar before then rather than defending either of his titles against the newly eligible Jon Jones, will anyone be truly happy with that?
I’ll be buying UFC 230 next month, of course, and will watch its ad hoc headliner with rapt attention. However, as is the case with so many hastily thrown-together UFC main events, I’ll be lamenting what could have been if the organization had just relaxed and taken a deep breath rather than mortgaging future matchups and talents at a fraction of their potential value, out of an outmoded and impractical need to have some kind of title fight at the end of each and every pay-per-view. The day that the world’s premier mixed martial arts promotion stops confusing a belt for a Band-Aid, the whole sport will be better off.