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It wasn’t the “Fight of the Year” candidate for which folks were hoping, but Justin Gaethje found a faster, more efficient route to reaffirming his place as the most electrifying fighter in the sport on Saturday in Philadelphia, needing only half a round to starch Edson Barboza and preserve his brain cells in the process. That’s an uncharacteristic win-win for “The Highlight.”
Strangely enough, despite authoring a resounding knockout in the UFC on ESPN 2 headliner, Gaethje really didn’t get much of a chance to bask in the glow. No, just as quickly as he took out Barboza, the narrative suddenly shifted when fellow lightweight and color commentator Paul Felder took the opportunity to challenge Gaethje to his face, igniting an entirely different conversation as fight fans took to hand wringing and ruing the sport’s call-out culture. Then, just as soon as that dust had settled, a few hours later, former Gaethje opponent Eddie Alvarez made his debut for One Championship and promptly got waylaid by Timofey Nastyukhin in a considerable upset. Can’t Gaethje just have a moment to himself?
In all seriousness, Gaethje’s quick and nasty knockout vaults him ahead in the UFC’s perpetually chaotic 155-pound picture, and the former World Series of Fighting champion will likely be lined up for some serious appointment viewing next time out. Besides, the card didn’t need any ancillary drama anyhow, as it delivered with some brow-raising upsets, nifty finishes and come-from-behind victories. Let’s take stock of what we learned from UFC on ESPN 2:
A Title Better Than Gold
The UFC’s lightweight division to put it mildly is a little anarchic. Ever since Conor McGregor took the 155-pound reins from Alvarez two and a half years ago, it has just been one thing after another, drama begetting drama: McGregor’s constant brushes with the law, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson being scheduled to fight one another every other month, Nurmagomedov dropkicking Dillon Danis and Ferguson’s worrisome personal issues. No doubt, I am excited for the upcoming Dustin Poirier-Max Holloway rematch, but it is sadly emblematic of the state of the division that such a hotly anticipated bout featuring two of the most thrilling fighters in the sport, one in which a champion is moving up to seek a title in another weight class and avenge a loss, still seems hollow and illegitimate. Even if we can accept the messy state of UFC title contention, we still have basic ideas about how a serious sports promotion is supposed to operate.
This is part of what makes Gaethje a godsend for the modern UFC product, a rock in a sea of chaos. Gaethje has built his brand around being the most calculably exciting fighter this sport has to offer. It has worked masterfully for him and will continue to do so. Yes, as a spectator, there is a righteous nervousness to this idea; it’s hard to watch a 30-year-old athlete fight so recklessly that you’re constantly wondering about the toll it takes on his brain and body. While Gaethje’s last two fights have ended in victorious knockouts in less than one round combined, I don’t think anyone believes he’s turned over a new leaf. If Gaethje’s next opponent can stand up to his offense for longer than five minutes, we know it’s going to turn into a vintage brawl. He is what he is.
For his own purposes and those of the UFC, that’s perfect. The company’s lightweight division has been shambolic and unpredictable for nearly three years now, subject to the whims of superstars, the volatility of injuries and other temperamental drama. In 2019, there’s no guarantee that a double-digit winning streak will even get you a title shot, and weirder still, despite the fact that the UFC still desperately tries to use championship bouts as bargaining chips to make audiences care about its events, MMA fans care less than ever about muddied “title pictures.” Is Gaethje next going to be lined up against a Top 5 lightweight in a fight where a win could secure a title shot? Maybe, maybe not. More importantly, does it even matter at this point? There’s no way to screw up Gaethje’s fight booking; it’s appointment viewing regardless of the adversary. For the hardcore MMA fan, what is the more seductive sell: a UFC title fight or a Gaethje five-rounder? I know how I’d prefer to spend a Saturday night.
Calling Out the Call Outs
Of course, the most exciting fighter in the sport clobbering his opponent in an ESPN-televised main event surely couldn’t be the takeaway point from a UFC card. No, instead, we need some much ado about nothing, complaining about “professionalism” and the like, all because Felder apparently tried to steal the spotlight from Gaethje. Right.
First of all, need I point out that this is professional prizefighting, a sport that is largely sold on interpersonal drama? I’ve seen many people take this stance: “Well, you’d never see that in [insert sports league here]!” No, of course not, because in traditional stick-and-ball sports, more often than not, you’re dealing with full teams and not individuals, and in individual sports, you almost never have active athletes working as analysts, let alone interviewing their contemporaries. Now, there may be a conversation to be had about whether or not it’s savvy or “professional” for the UFC to use active fighters in the booth -- or, more specifically, using them as post-fight interviewers -- but really, that’s not what is at stake here.
As Felder was quick and keen to point out after the fact, he made it clear following his February win over James Vick that he wanted to face the winner of the Gaethje-Barboza fight. More than that, it’s not as if he went rogue and got into business for himself without clearance, as he said that he cleared his comments ahead of time with his producers from ESPN. Gaethje felt he was being disrespected and that’s a totally justifiable position, but at the same time, this is exactly the kind of activity for which the UFC suborns and strives. Do you think it’s just coincidental that over the last three years or so every post-fight interview concludes with the interviewer asking the winning fighter who he or she wants to fight next? No, this is a company mandate and the UFC’s PR crew actively cajoles fighters into calling one another out, often pushing fighters to make sure they’ve got a “name” in mind should they emerge victorious. Is this a little hokey and corny? Sure, but that’s exactly what the UFC -- and apparently ESPN -- wants in order to push the product. It may only appeal to the lowest common denominator, but frankly, it’s the lowest common denominator that drives revenue in the fight game.
It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over
The UFC on ESPN 2 main card featured a pair of rousing, come-from-behind wins courtesy of Josh Emmett and Paul Craig, whose theatrics served as a crucial reminder that attempting to cruise to a victory often has deleterious consequences, especially in a sport where one single screwup can put you in the loss column.
For the better part of 14 minutes, Michael Johnson was in control against Emmett. His left-hand counters were on point as he astutely picked off the forward-pressing Emmett and had little issue shutting down the Team Alpha Male fighter’s takedown attempts. In the second stanza, Johnson started putting together combinations, sprinkled in some clever kicking offense and looked to be taking over the fight. Then in the third round, Johnson just seemed content to coast, even as Emmett started swinging away with desperation, which theoretically should’ve given Johnson the opportunity to land more counters. Perhaps emboldened by Johnson’s lazy pot-shotting, Emmett started loading up his right hand with increasing urgency, and with less than a minute to go in a fight in which he was behind, he completely crushed Johnson with an overhand that had him unconscious on impact. Johnson was 46 seconds away from a three-fight winning streak, but instead, we’re now talking about a fighter who is 3-6 in his last nine bouts and wound up on the business end of one the year’s nastiest knockouts.
As for Craig, he seems to have a penchant for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat with these comeback submissions. However, Kennedy Nzechukwu gave him a gift. The fight was dreadful to watch, but there’s no doubt Nzechukwu was in firm command of the contest, easily peppering Craig in the standup while working behind his jab. Craig’s awkward, ineffective wrestling was easily thwarted for most of the fight, and really, the Scottish fighter’s only serious offense was his repeated armbar attempts in the first round. Given how things were progressing on the feet and knowing that Craig’s best asset is his submission game, it would have been sensible for Nzechukwu to keep things standing. Yet, late in the final round of a fight he was controlling, what did Nzechukwu do when Craig shot another ugly single-leg takedown? Why, of course, he dove on top of him, settled into his guard and then completely fell asleep at the wheel, letting Craig throw up a Hail Mary triangle. Like Johnson, all Nzechukwu needed to do in order to win was keep fighting the same fight he had for the previous 14 minutes. Instead, he went off script in a sport where a single strategic error can be your immediate undoing and suffered the first loss of his pro career as a result.
‘The Joker’ is a Wild Card
With his surprising 49-second submission win over former World Series of Fighting dual champion David Branch, Jack Hermansson is now 5-1 in his last six bouts, with his lone loss coming to Thiago Santos, who is now bound for a title fight with Jon Jones at 205 pounds. He has finished all five of those wins, too. Is the Swede considerably improved since making his UFC debut? Absolutely. Does he deserve a step up in competition next time out? No doubt. Just how good is he? Well, I’m still not sure.
The 30-year-old has definitely stepped his game up over the last two and a half years. Go watch him get trounced on the floor by Cezar Ferreira in his second Octagon appearance, and the all-around improvement becomes obvious. That being said, let’s consider his three-fight winning streak since Santos kicked in his guts. A 49-second guillotine against a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who had only been submitted once previously is impressive, but such a short, abbreviated fight doesn’t really tell us a ton about how holistically skilled Hermansson might or might not be; I will give due props for such a sneaky, crafty setup on the choke. Prior to that, Hermansson thoroughly dominated Gerald Meerschaert before choking him out. However, Meerschaert’s scramble-heavy style and lack of both defense and positional wherewithal made Hermansson’s job that much easier. Prior to that, “The Joker” was getting absolutely destroyed by an aged, weathered version of Thales Leites on the floor and needed a miraculous come-from-behind knockout in the third round when his cardio fell off a cliff. Sure, the Brazilian is a fantastic technical grappler, but is a fighter who was being dominated 11 months ago by Leites a threat to the elite at 185 pounds?
This is not a dismissal of Hermansson but rather an admission that I’m just not quite sure what we have on our hands here. I look at how Leites whooped him on the floor and can’t imagine him beating, say, Antonio Carlos Jr. I question whether he could deal with the constant kicking and clinching of Elias Theodorou. I’m skeptical he could get Paulo Henrique Costa to the mat before eating a barrage of strikes similar to his loss to Santos. Still, I didn’t think he was going to beat Leites or choke out Branch in less than a minute, so Hermansson has proved me wrong in pleasant, surprising fashion before. Having secured the biggest win of his career, he’ll soon get a chance to do so again versus a Top 15 opponent.
Waterson’s Waiting Game
Courtesy of her shutout of former UFC title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz, Michelle Waterson is now riding a three-fight winning streak. After the bout, she wasn’t shy about pleading her case for a title shot. Does she have a legitimate claim to being the top contender to the winner of May’s title fight between Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade? Not really, but I don’t think it matters.
First of all, there’s always the chance that Namajunas-Andrade ends in a contentious, controversial manner, which introduces the potential for an immediate rematch; the UFC is never shy about employing those. Secondly, we have the undefeated Tatiana Suarez taking on the surprisingly streaking Nina Ansaroff in June in a fight that has the obvious veneer of a de facto title eliminator. “The Karate Hottie” made her case for contention by simply pointing out that she’s been around the highest levels of MMA for longer than Ansaroff or Suarez, but that’s a fairly specious point that doesn’t have much to do with merit. Fortunately for Waterson and her title aspirations, she has one major thing going for her: The UFC loves her, and that goes a long way.
Ever since signing with the company, Waterson has been put in prominent card positions, used as an on-air analyst, appeared in ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue” and, just recently, was featured on ESPN’s E:60. Suffice to say, the promotion is partial to Waterson, and with her now having won three in a row, the company will more than likely try to manufacture a sweetheart situation for her. For instance, if Ansaroff or Suarez ends up getting injured in training, Waterson is the most likely ringer to fill in. If Ansaroff-Suarez goes off without a hitch, Waterson will likely get lined up for a preferential style matchup that could promote her to a title fight, like say, Randa Markos. Obviously, if she wants to fight for UFC gold, it’s contingent on Waterson keeping up her winning ways, but undoubtedly, the promotion is going to put her in the best possible position to succeed.