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It’s taken a few days for the dust of UFC 227 to settle, partially because so much of it was stirred up. The most dominant champion in MMA history was upset in a fight that was close enough to resemble controversy if you squint hard enough, and another champion slammed the door shut on a rivalry while simultaneously cementing his spot atop the division. There were numerous ways to dissect these two fights. Expectedly, some dissections were more levelheaded than others.
Given the events that took place -- and how they took place -- it’s no wonder how exaggerated some of the analysis has been. When people attempt to wrap their heads around new realities, it’s natural for convictions to funnel into hyperbole. Alas, they still deserve to be challenged.
Let’s start with the co-main event. When Henry Cejudo’s arm was raised at the end of the fight, it was a shocking upset and a fantastic narrative coalescence for the youngest-ever American wrestling gold medalist. “Mighty Mouse” not only looked unbeatable at flyweight but absolutely dismantled Cejudo in their first match two years ago. Thus, when Cejudo managed to recover from a bizarre early injury to not only test Johnson but actually control him and take rounds, the stakes became much more real. It was Johnson’s most exciting fight in years, strictly because it was the first time he’d been tested in years.
Fans and media alike quickly churned that excitement into a declaration that it was the best flyweight fight ever, and while no one can argue another man’s tastes, that claim reeked of either recency bias or good ol’ fashioned historical ignorance. Johnson’s first fights with Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson were certainly more action-packed, and there have been non-title fights that have been at least as exciting. If you don’t believe me, check out Louis Smolka-Tim Elliott or any number of John Lineker fights. Had Johnson’s title defense streak not been snapped, it is doubtful that anyone would be talking about the fight in such elevated terms.
In the main event, T.J. Dillashaw snuffed out former champ Cody Garbrandt with greater ease than he did the first time. It was the most sensational win of Dillashaw’s career, proving he deserves to be mentioned alongside the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport today. After the fight, talks quickly took a predictable turn to the oft-discussed Greatest of All-Time topic. Dillashaw, it was said, has quite possibly done enough to be considered the best bantamweight to do the damn thing.
There’s a segment of MMA fans that groan whenever the topic is brought up -- and for good reason: It gets brought up all too often. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. However, whenever the G.O.A.T. discussion rears its head, it’s important to remember a few things. First, it’s a fun hypothetical, especially since MMA is such a young sport. The sub-lightweight divisions are particularly prone to this, as a few title defenses will automatically put anyone in hallowed territory. Perhaps more to the point, though, is that combat sports have always been steeped in history. Vigorous, impassioned debate about whether Fighter X could beat Fighter Y if both were in their primes is stitched into the DNA of the sport.
With that being said, it’s simply too early to call Dillashaw the G.O.A.T. That designation belongs to the man who ended Dillashaw’s first title run: Dominick Cruz. Not only does he currently have the head-to-head win over Dillashaw, but Cruz also had an unprecedented 12-fight winning streak in the division and the most total title defenses; I’m including World Extreme Cagefighting wins here because, why wouldn’t you? Don’t get me wrong: Dillashaw will likely surpass Cruz by the end of his career, but you can’t take “likely” to the bank. For instance, should Dillashaw lose again to Cruz or get dethroned by Marlon Moraes or Raphael Assuncao, the G.O.A.T. claims will no doubt cool down.
Which brings us to the final example of us in the MMA-sphere getting too ahead of ourselves: the idea of a superfight between Cejudo and Dillashaw. I understand the allure of a champ-versus-champ fight and have nothing against them in a vacuum, but this is not a fight that needs to happen just yet. If there is any champion who deserved an immediate rematch after losing his belt, it’s “Mighty Mouse,” especially since he lost in a razor-thin split decision that really could have gone either way. A rubber match between him and Cejudo is by far the most compelling fight at flyweight, and it would lose a great deal of luster if Cejudo were to move up to bantamweight and lose. If he were to beat Johnson again, however, that fight becomes much more interesting. On the other side of the superfight, Dillashaw has now broken the rock-paper-scissors situation at the top of the bantamweight division and has no shortage of worthy challengers. It’s best for both divisions to sort themselves out first, and ultimately, it is best for the Ultimate Fighting Championship to allow that to happen, as well.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.