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This weekend served as a reminder of why this sport is great. Better yet, it was a representation of what makes MMA great. With one 25-minute-long exception, UFC 214 was a gift from the violence gods. By the end of the card on Saturday, even the most cynical onlookers were forced into begrudging applause.
It wasn’t just the main card that was great, either. The prelims had a little bit of everything. There were quick, brutal knockouts for Drew Dober and Ricardo Lamas. There were several entertaining back-and-forth battles: Jarred Brooks-Eric Shelton, Aleksandra Albu-Kailin Curran and the Brian Ortega-Renato Carneiro donnybrook that rightfully won “Fight of the Night” -- no small feat considering the rest of the card. Finally, there was a coming out party/passing of the guard when Aljamain Sterling put a beatdown on former champion Renan Barao. None of the fights were less than good.
For the most part, it only got better on the main card. Volkan Oezdemir continued what is one of the unlikeliest runs into the title picture in recent memory when he blitzed Jimi Manuwa in under a minute. Manuwa had only previously lost to title contenders, likely a sign of things to come for Oezdemir. Beyond being an impressive performance, the ascension of “No Time” is a much-needed proof of life for the light heavyweights. While it’s great that Jon Jones is back -- we’ll get to that later -- his dominance combined with the general dearth of contenders does not bode well for the future of the division. At only 27 years of age, Oezdemir is an invaluable addition to an ever-thinning 205-pound field.
This brings us to the action fighter faceoff between Robbie Lawler and Donald Cerrone. If Michael Bay were the Ultimate Fighting Championship matchmaker, this would have been one of his first bookings. It was as close to certainty as this sport can get that it was going to be a fun fight, and it was. There were shades of divisional relevance, being Lawler’s first fight since losing the title a year ago, but for the most part, it was meant to be what it was: fireworks. It may not have been the “Fight of the Year” candidate that it could have been, but it was a banger nonetheless, with both men trading moments of success. The final result wasn’t quite controversial, but the fight was close enough to seem like it in the heat of the moment, and if that’s enough of a reason to run it back for a second fight, I won’t complain.
Moving along, Cris Cyborg, aka the Queen of Violence, finally got her hands on UFC gold. There’s not much to say about Justino’s journey that Jordan Breen didn’t already cover. In her title-winning performance against Tonya Evinger -- who also deserves a heap of credit for stepping in on short-notice and fighting as tough a fight as possible -- “Cyborg” was not just her usual ferocious self. She was also patient and technical, creating openings and capitalizing on them almost at will against an opponent who was smartly avoiding prolonged exchanges. Even though it’s expected for “Cyborg” to brutally finish all of her opponents, it’s important to note that Evinger had never been KO’d or TKO’d in her 11-year professional career -- until she faced Justino. “Cyborg” has been an inevitability in the cage for so long that it’s easy to forget she’s only 32 and likely has several more years of peerless competition ahead of her. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming closer to her level in the near future, but it’ll be fun to see them try.
I won’t spend much time on the welterweight title “fight,” since it’ll only spoil the mood. I will say this, though: Tyron Woodley is an incredibly gifted fighter who put on a technical clinic, but there’s no way around the fact that his win against Demian Maia was a dud. You can’t blame the guy for shutting down Maia across all 25 minutes and securing his second official title defense, but you can’t exactly cheer for him, either. Ultimately he’s still the champ and that’s more important and lasting than fanfare, but we can only hope -- for his sake and ours -- that eventually he starts to up the output and look for finishes when they don’t come careening into him. It’s only right to allot some blame on Maia’s shoulders, too, but what else can we expect from him? He has always been a one-trick pony whose one trick is exceptional enough to beat most people. Against Woodley, however, he was completely shut down. At least we can say he never quit trying for the takedown.
Let’s forget all that, though. The main event between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier, easily the two best light heavyweights ever in my book, exceeded its high expectations. The funny thing is, despite Cormier suffering the first knockout loss of his career, he actually performed quite well. He made meaningful adjustments, putting constant pressure on Jones, landing big shots from the pocket and dictating the terms of the clinch much better than in their first fight. He arguably won more rounds this time around, too. That’s the fight game, though: You’re doing well until you’re not. More specifically, you’re doing well until you get kicked in the head. It was a tough loss for the former champion, but that’s the reality when you compete at the same time as an all-time great. Just ask Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley or any other NBA player during the Michael Jordan era.
That’s who Jones is: the Michael Jordan of MMA. He simply has too many physical tools, too many technical weapons, too much competitive drive to lose at this point. With all due respect to Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, Jose Aldo and Demetrious Johnson, I don’t see how you can say Jones isn’t the best ever at beating up other people. You don’t have to like him as a person to appreciate the supreme talent he is. In fact, his flaws outside the Octagon make him that much more compelling. He’s like a Greek god in that way. Those ancient myths continue to be objects of fascination today, despite having zero actual religious believers, because of their stories. They were both superhumanly powerful and very humanly vulnerable at the same time. That’s Jones in a nutshell. He is capable of unprecedented feats of greatness when he fights, but the rest of his life is marked by the same types of dumb errors everyone makes. Sure, most of us don’t run red lights into pregnant women, but even if he’s not exactly relatable, he’s eminently understandable on a ground level of humanity. To witness him reach his extraordinary potential and push the limits of what we thought possible in a fight is simply incredible. Love him or hate him, he’s a special talent.
When you’re professionally involved with MMA, it can be easy to become jaded. It’s easier to focus on the myriad of issues the sport faces and try to use whatever platform you have to shed light on constructive changes. That can, and often does, come off as overly negative. In fairness, you don’t exactly need to go looking for things deserving of criticism. Especially nowadays, they tend to pop up on their own. That’s why UFC 214 was as good as it was. It had something for every type of fan and culminated in the type of raw human emotion that taps into something deeper in all of us. I can’t imagine there will be a better event in the next five months of 2017, but I hope I’m wrong about that.
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.