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The week leading up to UFC 223 was absolutely bonkers. Between the musical chairs of finding an opponent for Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor’s now infamous bus attack, there has never been a more ridiculous series of events preceding a fight card. The fact that a proposed UFC Hawaii event fell through went largely unnoticed amid the pandemonium in Brooklyn, New York.
Miraculously, the event went pretty well. There were entertaining and divisionally relevant fights, and while my heart goes out to the fighters who had their bouts cancelled due to McGregor’s antics, having fewer fights made the event as a whole much more watchable. Thus, despite the attendant nonsense of fight week, there is still much to unpack.
In the run-up to the strawweight title fight between Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, there was a battle of narrative interpretation regarding their first fight. Was Namajunas’ first-round knockout a result of a lucky punch or skillful opportunism? There was a case to be made for both. The left hook that Namajunas landed was beautifully timed, and on its face, it did not look or feel like a fluke. On the other hand, Jedrzejczyk had won eight consecutive bouts in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, mostly through patient application of process. Four of her five title defenses went the full 25 minutes; she won fights not because she won every individual exchange but because the totality of her game was so difficult to outmaneuver over an extended timeframe. In that light, getting rocked by a single punch -- especially from someone who was considered to be the lesser talent on the feet -- did seem lucky.
Namajunas thoroughly debunked that narrative in the rematch. She proved she could get the better of Jedrzejczyk across 25 minutes of exchanges. Perhaps more importantly, she proved she could go the full 25 against a game opponent -- the only other time she went into the championship frames was when she dominated Paige VanZant for four and a half rounds -- and overcome adversity along the way. The scorecards were unanimously four rounds to one for Namajunas, but in reality, it was closer than that. The third round was very much up for grabs, and the fourth round clearly belonged to Jedrzejczyk. Momentum was siding with the former champion in the final frame, but Namajunas definitively snatched victory when the fight was on the line. It was a gutsy performance befitting of a true champion.
The strawweight division is increasingly becoming a marquee attraction. The Karolina Kowalkiewicz-Felice Herrig fight on the undercard was an entertaining scrap that saw both of their stocks rise. Kowalkiewicz is on the shortlist of title contenders, and Herrig is a good win or two away from the same. Plus, Jedrzejczyk is still very much in the picture. After the fight, her spirits were high despite claims that she thought she won. That’s by no means a preposterous claim, either. According to Fightmetric, Jedrzejczyk landed more significant strikes than Namajunas in every round and only gave up a single takedown. This isn’t an example of a former champion falling off so much as it’s yet another example of one fighter being a particularly tough matchup for another; there’s a good chance Jedrzejczyk still beats the rest of the division’s elite. If Namajunas loses the belt anytime soon, don’t be surprised if Jedrzejczyk reclaims the title.
Then there was the main event. It nearly blew up on multiple occasions but still somehow managed to hobble into reality. Nurmagomedov, arguably the best lightweight in the world for the last four years, finally got the belt wrapped around his waist. If it felt inevitable, that’s because it was: “The Eagle” has yet to officially lose a round in the UFC. The performance itself may not have been spectacular, but whatever it lacked in flare it more than made up for in sheer dominance. Nurmagomedov controlled every round against late replacement Al Iaquinta, even when he indulged in the standup department for two frames. It was a showcase performance against an overmatched yet game opponent. Iaquinta deserves respect for taking the fight on a day’s notice, and it was clear that he showed up to shock the world, not just collect a check.
Numagomedov also deserves credit for staying focused in spite of several opponent changes. That takes a toll on a fighter. Recall that when Jon Jones fought Ovince St. Preux on short notice, he looked slow and listless. Fans and fighters alike were ready to count him out, but when he came back against Daniel Cormier the following year, he put a beating on “DC.” Although Nurmagomedov didn’t look great, it’s likely that we didn’t see him at his best because of the late-notice opponent changes.
The lightweight division may have a clear champion, but it’s never been more of a mess since it was reinstated in 2006. Nurmagomedov’s title is technically undisputed, but in the real world, there is plenty of dispute to go around. The first in line, of course, would be former champion McGregor, who had never lost the title Nurmagomedov won. Nurmagomedov’s original opponent, Tony Ferguson, also likely has something to say about the newly crowned champion. Until those fights are settled, there will be great debate surrounding the true lightweight king, not that there’s anything wrong with that; the messiness of the title picture means the lightweight division is as exciting as it has ever been.
UFC 223 itself was chaotic, but it ended up delivering nonetheless. For fans and media, the chaos was a reminder of just how absurd this sport can be. That’s part of the fun. Ultimately, UFC President Dana White put it best in the post-fight press conference: “A s--- show turned into something pretty good.”
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.