It’s predictable that most top-shelf MMA events are going to end up being exciting. This has been borne out time and time again over the past decade and a half. The sport’s entertainment value is one of its greatest attributes, and the top MMA organizations have largely opted for fan-pleasing styles in the way they promote. However, what’s unpredictable is which cards will be the standouts and which ones will disappoint. The wildness of the sport and the number of anticipated fights on each show means it’s harder to select which events on the calendar will thrill and which will sputter.
Take UFC 199 and UFC 200 as examples. UFC 200 was the blowout event, stacked from top to bottom with intriguing contests. Unfortunately, a great many of those fights didn’t deliver in the way that was expected. Fight cancellations didn’t help matters, but the final lineup still looked strong and the action was lacking. Meanwhile, UFC 199 looked like just another show but turned out to be one of the most exciting cards of the entire calendar year thanks to stunning and emphatic upsets by Michael Bisping and Dan Henderson, plus a completely unforeseen war between Marco Polo Reyes and Dong Hyun Kim.
There was lot of discussion about the strength of the card leading into UFC 211 on Saturday in Dallas. It had the most depth on paper of any recent show, and hopes were high. However, that was no guarantee the card wouldn’t go the way of UFC 200 or for that matter the highly anticipated Tyron Woodley-Stephen Thompson rematch. That uncertainty makes it all the more satisfying when a card like UFC 211 delivers on its promise. Even then, it wasn’t necessarily the expected fights that stood out the most.
Some fighters announce their presence in the sport very early on. Mark Coleman was being talked about as a future longtime UFC champion from the evening of his first fight. Cain Velasquez joined the Ultimate Fighting Championship after only two fights because he couldn’t find inexperienced fighters on smaller shows willing to take him on. That wasn’t the case with Stipe Miocic. The Strong Style Fight Team star snuck up on fans, garnering respect over time but not a lot of hype. That has changed in a big way. After his fourth straight first-round knockout, Miocic has taken control in a once wide-open heavyweight division.
When Miocic won the UFC heavyweight title from Fabricio Werdum, much of the post-fight discussion centered on Werdum’s reckless attack that left him open to be countered. In Miocic’s first title defense against Alistair Overeem, the Dutchman’s unique approach to the fight and claim that Miocic submitted to him detracted from the champion’s win. There were no such distractions at UFC 211. Miocic was calculated, precise and devastating. He took out Junior dos Santos quickly and made an impressive statement in the process.
MMA generally benefits from strong champions. Miocic took another step in that direction in the main event, but the other champion on the card put on a masterclass in the co-feature. Joanna Jedrzejczyk was only a narrow favorite against Jessica Andrade because the challenger was perceived to be a tough stylistic matchup. Andrade was anything but. Jedrzejczyk’s striking was a sight to behold. She peppered Andrade with precise punches and kicks before ducking out of range when the Brazilian attacked. The accuracy disparity was reminiscent of a prime Anderson Silva. Jedrzejczyk was spectacular; hopefully, she’ll reach a level of star power at least remotely comparable to her level of skill.
Frankie Edgar is now 35 years old and has been through more than his fair share of wars over the years. One might expect Edgar to be slowly fading at this stage of his career, but if anything, he’s moving in the other direction. He put on a clinic against a dangerous, hungry fighter a decade his junior in Yair Rodriguez. Edgar’s pressure and cardio overwhelmed Rodriguez. It was another defining win in a career full of them.
Given what impressive performances Jedrzejczyk and Edgar put on, it’s telling that they didn’t even get performance bonuses; neither did James Vick, who found stealing the show at UFC 211 to be as difficult a task as generating buzz in the shark-infested lightweight waters. That’s because of a pair of fights that stole the show early on: Jason Knight-Chas Skelly and Chase Sherman-Rashad Coulter. Knight beat Skelly in a war -- the biggest win yet for “Hick Diaz.” Even that couldn’t compare to the unexpected treasure that was Sherman-Coulter.
Because of fights like Sherman-Coulter, heavyweights continue to hold a special place in the hearts of many combat sports fans, even during long stretches where they don’t deliver. The spectacle of two massive men swinging for the fences is undeniable. Coulter could barely stand after the onslaught of kicks by Sherman, but he refused to give up in the biggest opportunity of his career. Coulter made a remarkable comeback, but somehow Sherman was able to withstand massive blows right to the jaw and finally put out his counterpart with a huge elbow of his own. The fight was three times as good as the wildest expectations going in.
When a card truly comes together, it not only provides the highs that were expected but adds some pleasant surprises, as well. UFC 211 offered up excellent championship performances, impressive wins in key supporting fights and some matchups that over-delivered. Fans who tuned in expecting what was advertised as the first big card of the year likely left fulfilled. What’s nice about MMA is the next big hit won’t necessarily be the next big show circled on the calendar; it could be a non-descript TV event nobody’s thinking much about right now.