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The Ultimate Fighting Championship staged its first card on ESPN with UFC Fight Night 143 and jumpstarted our 2019 prizefighting year. We can never take such a momentous event away from the UFC; it was certainly a happening, as the promotion made its first foray on the “Worldwide Leader.” Nonetheless, for better or worse, this card’s historic fate is up to the MMA populace to decide, and I think that audience has already reached a swift and just decision.
The night on which an Olympic gold medalist earns the biggest victory of his prizefighting career should be in and of itself a big deal, especially if it happens in a mere 32 seconds. Nope. We have to talk about the misadventures of a woman-abusing ex-football player. This is the UFC in 2019, and this is your UFC on ESPN Plus or otherwise, so buckle up.
UFC Fight Night 143 on Saturday gave us a legitimately historic clash between UFC flyweight champion Henry Cejudo, who positively whipped and crumpled bantamweight kingpin T.J. Dillashaw in just over half of a minute. However, sterling fans won’t remember this card for that reason. Unfortunately, when we look back on this particular event, we won’t remember it primarily for a gold medalist putting on the greatest performance of his career; we will remember it for a former edge rusher and woman hitter disqualifying himself in the most pathetic and ridiculous way possible and for an unwitting network that is clearly out of touch with its audience inserting the most polarizing sports talking head on the planet into its broadcast.
UFC, Endeavor, ESPN, is this is how you want to be remembered? Greg Hardy disqualifying himself and Stephen A. Smith more or less disqualifying himself from discourse? Talk about not knowing your audience. There’s a lot we can learn from the first UFC card on ESPN. Let’s just focus on five of them, even though we could probably triple that number with this particular event:
Not Sure About the Message, but ‘The Messenger’ is Here to Stay
I’ve been watching this sport for 20 years now, and I’ve seen a lot of qualified and unique athletes enter the cage and ultimately fail. Cejudo is one of the wildest rides I’ve ever been on. Coming out of the 2008 Summer Olympics, the entire MMA world expected he would dive into this sport and revolutionize the flyweight division. Instead, he flirted with becoming a pro boxer and headed back to the 2012 Olympics, just teasing the MMA world that he would ever be a force.
When Cejudo finally dedicated himself to MMA, he had wanton struggles making 125 pounds and it seemed like he may not exactly be the flyweight torchbearer for which we were hoping, repeatedly blowing weight on the regional level. He finally reached the Ultimate Fighting Championship and UFC President Dana White was haughty about the fact that Cejudo would never fight at flyweight in his promotion after he gaffed his weight cut in the run up to UFC 177 and a slated fight against Scott Jorgensen. At that point, I was ready and willing to throw Cejudo in with the rest of the masses who thought they could fight but really couldn’t get their act together.
I was wrong. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is that made the difference, but if I had to use my intuition, there is something about Cejudo’s fighter-trainer relationship with Eric Albarracin that just made the lightbulb come on. Typically, when it comes to an MMA prospect, the minute you start to see signs of divergence or disinterest, that’s when you know there’s danger ahead. Cejudo had multiple instances where you wondered if he would even enter the sport and if he was truly dedicated once he did. Even if I don’t think he outscored Demetrious Johnson at UFC 227, you can see the clear gains in his overall MMA oeuvre. Cejudo has dedicated himself to the game in a way that everybody hoped he once would. Now that he has put the best 135-pound fighter in the world on his face, where do we go from here?
We still have no idea what the UFC wants to do with its flyweight division, which is troubling enough. However, it has now featured an Olympic gold medalist on its first broadcast on ESPN, and he showed out in spades, ripping Dillashaw to pieces in 32 seconds. Throughout his entire MMA curation, Cejudo has been a man caught between worlds, and now, that’s even more formative. Outside of putting gold around his neck in Beijing, he has the most significant athletic accomplishment of his life and is left floating in the void, waiting for his promoter to figure out just what it wants to do with him, despite the fact that he’s easily one of the most intriguing and enticing promotional bargaining chips it has on its roster. Cejudo has finally figured out his path in prizefighting and made his mark; it’s just a shame his promoter has no idea what to do with him.
Yeah, So About This Production … It Needs Some Work
We’ll start with the obvious: I know ESPN is beholden to whatever Stephen A. Smith’s gargantuan contract looks like and remains dead set on slipping him into every bit of broadcasting it possibly can. With that said, you need to recognize your audience. MMA fans are a fickle bunch to begin with and tend to bristle the minute that the product they’re used to gets morphed in anyway whatsoever. If you’re going to forcefully insert the most polarizing talking head in all of sports media, you’re asking for disastrous blowback.
In all honesty, it’s not like Smith is a complete MMA new jack, as he has been off-and-on covering UFC cards for over 15 years, going back as far as his covering Tim Sylvia’s heavyweight title win over Ricco Rodriguez at UFC 41. Even so, time alone doesn’t confer experience, and that’s the problem with “Screamin’ A.” This NFL season alone, he became infamous for referencing Derrick Johnson and Hunter Henry on the Kansas City Chiefs roster, when one is out of the league and the other hasn’t played a down since May. That is a sport he covers every day for ESPN, so never mind the sort of bloviating to which he’s going to be predisposed when it comes to MMA.
Mainstream stick-and-ball sports fans have almost come to tolerate and accept guys in ties spitting ridiculousness about their sports of choice; MMA fans are protective and do not tolerate this level of garbage. Even if he was covering the sport when other major sports journalists were turning up their noses, there’s no place for Smith on an MMA broadcast; his persona and brand are simply too toxic, especially for a sport that has fans incredibly pugnacious and willing to go to bat for the product they love dearly. MMA fans may begrudgingly tolerate a seven-hour, 13-fight card, but you can’t throw Smith out there for a couple of hot takes without having an entire fanbase freak out on social media, skewer your product and cancel their ESPN Plus subscriptions. Know your audience, ESPN.
These were not the only production gaffes. Even if we want to forgive the run time of the card, which is partially on the UFC for routinely having absurd 13-fight lineups, the broadcast was almost 15 minutes late to go onto ESPN, the audio was absolutely terrible and it seemed like the cameramen had never shot a fight in their lives, as they struggled to keep the main card fights in the actual frame. Oh, and ESPN Plus viewers had a 15-minute crash, too.
Now, I expect the latter issues to be rectified in short order, and to be serious, I don’t think all of ESPN’s production ideas are without value. The use of trainer Trevor Wittman rapping in between rounds on what fighters’ corners were advising them was pretty keen and, to my mind, a perk worth keeping. Still, there’s clearly going to be a learning curve here. ESPN is going to have to quickly figure out what works and what doesn’t and in doing so actually listen to MMA fans. This sport has a unique and temperamental audience that simply won’t stand for the usual kind of mainstream foolishness to which “The Worldwide Leader” has become accustomed. If this broadcast deal is going to be fruitful until 2023, you’d be best advised to listen to the fans, especially in this sport.
Hardy is a Muppet and a Mistake
I am iffy on whether or not I want to use the phraseology “the Greg Hardy Experiment,” especially knowing that the UFC isn’t about to throw this baby out with the bathwater. Entering its ESPN deal, I get why the UFC was keen to utilize a former NFL pass blitzer as a heavyweight, especially knowing the kind of immediate impact that a plus athlete could make in the heavyweight division. No doubt, in short order, Hardy showed he could fight. However, it goes to figure that the minute the UFC put him in any position of prominence, he ridiculously goofed up in the most dimwitted way possible.
Has there ever been a more ridiculously mismatched main event and co-feature than having a superfight between two UFC champs after Hardy embarrassed himself against Allen Crowder? Even though Hardy handily won the first round, he still clearly showed that his MMA progression and training isn’t exactly up to spec. He was exhausted within three minutes, gave up crucifix position to a largely anonymous heavyweight and then, in a moment that will live in infamy, Hardy inexplicably drilled Crowder with an illegal knee. It was not one of those “Oh, I thought he was getting up and was off his knees” type of strikes. It was just heinous and absurd, with Crowder clearly on a knee and nowhere near the motion of actually standing up.
Obviously, we can talk all day about how wrong-headed it was for the UFC to even entertain Hardy as a heavyweight prospect, never mind putting him on the same card as domestic violence victim Rachael Ostovich and never mind putting him in a co-main event slot for such an important card. More than anything, this is a classic case of leading a horse to water but not being able to make it drink. Yes, Hardy is a fantastic athlete, and when he is crushing underskilled and outmatched heavyweights, he has looked like a million bucks through his short MMA tenure. With that said, UFC Fight Night 143 revealed that Hardy’s training hasn’t done nearly enough to atone for his most base and foolish instincts. He still has NFL-level cardio, and despite his once putting up 15 sacks in a single season, one sport doesn’t equal the other. Hardy is still a defensive end fighting in a cage, and it’s going to take a considerable effort to transform him into a viable MMA heavyweight, let alone one you’re comfortable putting into a co-main event role.
We like to imagine that elite athletes can quickly assimilate all the skills and lessons necessary to become a productive and thoughtful MMA fighter, but it almost never works like that. Frankly, Hardy seems like a bit of a moron and someone whose athletic gifts may be the totality of what he can offer. Is there any more obvious foul in MMA than drilling a guy in the face with a knee when he’s downed? We’re going to subjected to the “Greg Hardy Experiment” for much longer than this, but if the Crowder fight offers any illumination on what we’re in for, we’re headed for an ultimate failure in the laboratory.
The Death of ‘Cowboy’ Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
I like to fancy myself a smart cookie, but in recent memory, nothing has been easier -- and worth some cash -- than picking Donald Cerrone to school up-and-coming talent. This is like taking candy from a baby. No doubt Cerrone is in the twilight of his career, but that doesn’t make him an invalid. Seeing the MMA populace act as though the man suddenly fell off a cliff and can’t fight is patently ridiculous and, fortunately, it continues to pay financial dividends for me and wins in the column for Cerrone.
Considering the way he bumrushed Beneil Dariush and outgrappled Olivier Aubin-Mercier, there’s no doubt that Alexander Hernandez is a legitimate prospect. However, there’s a reason Cerrone has been a perennial Top 10 contender for a decade; this kind of skill and poise doesn’t just dissipate with age. Within two minutes, “Cowboy” was taking Hernandez to school, tagging him with right hands, confusing him with takedowns and going upside his head with kicks, which would ultimately mark the end of their bout.
Experience showed through here. As soon as the second stanza started, Cerrone smashed Hernandez to the body before parlaying his work into elbows and knees. He then went to his opponent’s head with his shin, and the night was over for “Alexander the Great.” At 26 years old, Hernandez is likely smarter in the game after getting a serious lesson from a crafty, offensively gifted fighter. We need to consider the other side of that equation, too. The world wanted to resign “Cowboy” to the trash heap because he lost to the likes of Jorge Masvidal, Robbie Lawler, Darren Till and Leon Edwards. You see any similarities in those losses? They’re elite fighters with a special knack on the feet and have exactly the style to pressure and take Cerrone to task. These young cats who are just getting their marbles together? Wild swinging fools like Mike Perry? Cerrone, going on nearly 36 years old, is going to take these sorts of opponents to the woodshed 10 times out of 10, and that’s without even considering his ground game.
No, he’s never going to be champion, which ultimately and perhaps unfortunately will be his legacy. However, don’t get it twisted: “Cowboy” can still ride on these dudes.
Gillespie Deserves Some Glow
Is it too much to ask that Gregor Gillespie get some flex? The man is an NCAA wrestling champion, and after pounding out Yancy Medeiros, he owns a 13-0 record as a professional prizefighter. That makes him 6-0 inside of the Octagon. When is the UFC going to stop burying him?
Granted, Gillespie is a lightweight, and when you’re in the toughest and thickest division of them all, it’s hard to work your way up the ladder. However, “The Gift” has effortlessly passed every single test any promoter has thrown in front of him, and in terms of his UFC run, he has done so with five straight stoppages.
There’s no two ways about this: It’s time for the UFC to stop dragging its feet. Is Gillespie the guy to take out Khabib Nurmagomedov, knock off Tony Ferguson or ultimately do something else to throw a monkey wrench in to the 155-pound division? Maybe not, but it’s time to find out. At 31 years old, he is the prime of his athletic career and has more than shown he’s ready for the big time. Entrenching him on undercards against B-level fighters is insulting at this point and a waste to the UFC’s actual product; if you have elite talent, harness it and use it.
Gillespie’s predicament just goes to expose the wrongheaded and confused nature of the UFC’s present matchmaking. He is a bona fide Top 10 talent with serious amateur wrestling credentials and has positively crushed every opponent any promoter has put in front of him. He is well beyond the point of “paying his dues,” and he has more than shown he’s ready to compete at the highest level. Anything less than a Top 20 opponent -- and that number is only so flexible because the lightweight division is so good -- is simply an insult. The nickname is no joke. Gillespie is truly “The Gift,” and the UFC would be wise to recognize that fact after seemingly ignoring his exploits across a half dozen fights in the promotion.