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If you like to watch grown men punch each other, you almost certainly had a good weekend. Between UFC Fight Night 116 and the boxing match between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, there was plenty of violence to go around.
The UFC Fight Night card on Saturday in Pittsburgh was almost entirely action. All but two of the fights ended within the distance, and the main event saw former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold get back in the mix for the first time in over a year, against a top 10 opponent, no less. On the other side of the combat sport spectrum, the fight between Golovkin and Alvarez was rightly hyped as one of the most important bouts of the year, pitting the two top middleweights in the sport against each other in the primes of their careers. Both middleweight bouts -- in boxing and the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- were exciting, entertaining affairs between talented fighters. Yet in the aftermath of both events, there were some undeniably sour notes.
In his post-fight interviews, Rockhold was quick to mention the clog in the UFC middleweight division due to the upcoming title fight between Michael Bisping and Georges St. Pierre. It’s a strange situation in that it is a super fight between the current middleweight champion and the greatest welterweight of all-time, but there are some mitigating circumstances that quell the excitement that super fights usually generate. For starters, Bisping has yet to face a top contender as champion. You may remember that his first and only title defense was against a 46-year-old Dan Henderson who was barely ranked in the top 15, while top contenders like Gegard Mousasi, Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero were busy working their ways up ranks that apparently didn’t matter. Now, with Whittaker as the interim champion -- the “interim” here being the time between Bisping’s fights against legitimate challengers -- and Rockhold staking his claim as a rightful contender again, the division is on hold for a 36-year-old welterweight who hasn’t fought since 2013 and has never competed at 185 pounds. For a division that’s better than ever, the matchmaking at the top doesn’t exactly reflect it.
Then there was the scorecard controversy for the Alvarez-Golovkin bout. When the fight was officially ruled a draw, I was in the “robbery” camp. On first watch, I thought Golovkin had at least eight rounds in the bag, possibly nine. On second watch, however, there were several swing rounds that I didn’t pick up on, where Alvarez landed cleaner, harder shots even if he wasn’t landing the same pure volume of punches that Golovkin was. Here’s my takeaway: The actual result wasn’t that bad. To see the bout as even or close to even is reasonable. The specific scorecard of judge Adalaid Byrd, however, was absolutely indefensible. She scored it 118-110 -- 10 rounds to two -- for Alvarez. Even if you concede that the resulting draw was more or less accurate to how the fight transpired, it’s hard to defend the process through which that result was determined. Unless you’re former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis, who insinuated what most people were thinking, claiming the fact that Alvarez is managed by the same company promoting the fight influenced the outcome.
These are both problematic situations, but there’s a tendency to overblow their significance to the big picture of their respective sports. Boxing no doubt gets it worse, since every big match is viewed through the lens of boxing needing to be saved or revived from the same imminent demise that has loomed over it for decades. As a result, in the minds of a lot of fans there’s a pressure for boxing matches to be All-Time Classics, lest the sport itself completely collapse. This mindset is part of the reason why so many boxing purists hated the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight; it was by far the biggest boxing match that could be booked, and at the same time, it was completely devoid of meaning.
A great deal of fans who generally don’t watch boxing tuned into Alvarez-Golovkin, believing the justifiable hype of two of this generation’s best boxers going at it in their primes. A lot of those fans, upon hearing the draw announced, exclaimed that this is why they don’t watch boxing, not because the fight was bad but because one of the scorecards was. I’m not denying that scorecards are important, but as a fan, did anyone really walk away from the match angry? Do we watch sports solely for the results or for the action that brings about those results? Or, to appropriate a Jay Z quote: “Do you fools watch boxing or do you just skim through it?”
The UFC has its doomsday prophets, as well. Whether shucking rankings aside for the most short-term profitable fights, letting top contenders slip away to other promotions or relying on stars to carry the financial burdens of the promotion despite the current dearth of said stars, these are all structural issues in the sport’s most significant entity that need to be addressed. Still, the organization and the sport as a whole aren’t going anywhere. This year more than ever I’ve seen and heard the same empty threats: “I’m never going to watch the UFC again!” Yes you are. Whether it’s the UFC’s myopic business practices or its supposed lack of competitive hierarchy, there are reasons to be frustrated. Ultimately, however, if you’re a fan of MMA, you’ll keep watching, because the fights are still mostly good. Not all of the fights, of course. I won’t blame you for skipping the Yushin Okami-Ovince St. Preux card coming up. Then again, I don’t pay attention to the NFL until the playoffs, and the league is doing just fine without me.
Perhaps it’s the surrounding context of things. The Mayweather-McGregor spectacle was so engrossing that the goalposts of hyperbole were in constant motion -- a phenomenon generated by both fighters. Compared to that, the Alvarez-Golovkin fight paled in comparison, even though the fight itself was much better. It may not have been the All-Time Classic it was billed as, but that’s a pretty ridiculous litmus anyway, and it was still a very good fight.
For MMA, the last two events of note were UFC 215 and UFC 216, no disrespect to the Fight Night cards in between which generated very little buzz one way or another among hardcore or casual fans. When fights are so casually promoted by the greatness of fighters, it’s hard to get excited for a fight like Rockhold-David Branch, even though it was a very good example of matchmaking that delivered a very good fight. Rockhold is one of the sport’s most dynamic and multiply talented fighters, and the win over Branch put him back on the shortlist of contenders. It should be enough to say that.
So much promotional weight hangs on angles of greatness. Mayweather is the greatest of his generation, possibly the greatest ever; McGregor is the biggest star in MMA ever; Jon Jones is the greatest ever, until it’s time to promote Demetrious Johnson, who is also the greatest ever; Amanda Nunes is en route to becoming one of the greatest female fighters ever. Great, great, great. Greatness sells, and boy is it ever sold.
Greatness is special to behold, but it’s rare by definition. There’s nothing wrong with the Very Good, and that’s what we got this weekend.
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.