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The first Ultimate Fighting Championship event of the year gave viewers a lot to digest. It was a good card on paper, and in general, it delivered. Nine of the 13 fights obviated the judges’ scorecards; up-and-coming prospects and grizzled veterans put on showcase performances; and it was all anchored by an intriguing superfight that, while short, provided plenty of fodder with which to banter. For the senile fans among us, there were also abundant reminders from the broadcast team that this was the first event on ESPN, just in case you didn’t know what channel you were watching. Those are the four most validating letters in the world of sports, and nothing says “we belong here” quite like the constant, obsequious affirmation that, in fact, we do belong here.
Yet for all the goings-on, a few storylines stood out at UFC Fight Night 143 on Saturday in Brooklyn, New York. Whether they were inspirational, controversial or somewhere in between, each merits further examination.
‘Cowboy’ Weathers the Stampede
I’ll come right out and say it: I thought Alexander Hernandez would beat Donald Cerrone fairly easily. The writing was on the wall. Hernandez is a brash, young, confident prospect on an eight-fight winning streak. “Cowboy,” beloved as he is, finds himself in the wrong half of his 30s and has been inconsistent over the last few years. He said he was gunning for the lightweight belt, but we’ve heard that before. If anything, it looked like another young buck would use “Cowboy” to add to his ledger -- and possibly his highlight reel.
In the opening exchanges, Hernandez looked every bit the legend killer, while Cerrone was his usual slow-starting self, except perhaps a little slower and stiffer. It looked like it would be only a matter of time before Hernandez blitzed his more experienced opponent for the win. However, “Cowboy” is gonna cowboy. He weathered the rush, found his groove and methodically picked Hernandez apart at range with precise strikes and well-timed takedowns.
After the fight, Cerrone tepidly called out Conor McGregor, who seemed interested. This is a great fight for the UFC. It’s a favorable matchup for the promotion’s biggest star, and “Cowboy” remains one of the most recognizable names in the division. Should Cerrone pull off a win, it would catapult him into the title picture again. It’s a win-win for the UFC and, more importantly, a win-win for fans. No matter who Cerrone fights next, though, his latest win further cemented his legacy as one of the best to do it.
Can’t Hardy Wait
Let me get this straight: Greg Hardy, who four and a half years ago allegedly slammed and strangled his girlfriend, is also a dirty fighter? Color me shocked. Who could have seen that coming?
It’s too early to call him that, you say? It was just one mistake in one fight? I don’t buy it. While Daniel Cormier and Jon Anik were quick to give Hardy the benefit of the doubt and blame his inexperience, that explanation doesn’t quite hold up under scrutiny. Sure, Hardy only has a handful of amateur and professional fights, most of which ended within minutes, so he is legitimately inexperienced. However, there was no gray area in his fight against Allen Crowder in the co-main event. Crowder’s knee was clearly planted on the ground, and Hardy’s knee was clearly launched at Crowder’s head. This is MMA 101, people. One needn’t have years of experience to know the basic rules of the sport; it doesn’t take multiple seasons playing soccer to know not to use your hands.
The simpler explanation is likely the more accurate one. We can look at what we know about his temperament -- he’s highly competitive, unapologetic, prone to make excuses instead of admit wrongdoing and unafraid to violate legal boundaries -- and, eiusdem generis, apply those traits to his in-cage behavior. Crowder survived a number of big right hands and started taunting Hardy, who was visibly tiring and even more visibly frustrated. The flagrantly illegal knee was not some misunderstanding or rookie mistake. It was a deliberate manifestation of his inability to appropriately cope with challenges. We did not see an aberration; we saw the raw truth of who Hardy is as a person.
A True Super (Short) Fight
I’m as much of a mark for champion-versus-champion superfights as anyone, and while I would have liked to have seen Henry Cejudo defend his flyweight belt a few more times before facing bantamweight champ T.J. Dillashaw, I was still excited about the matchup. The fate of the flyweights was in Cejudo’s hands, and “The Messenger” put that fate to fast and devastating use. The man sent to euthanize the division ended up getting mauled.
Of course, there was a smidge of controversy, but only for Dillashaw fans. The stoppage was fine, even if it was a little early. Barring extreme exceptions, I’m generally OK with refs erring on the side of caution. Had the referee allowed the action to continue, I’m not convinced anything would have ended differently, and that applies to both the result and Dillashaw’s response to it. Though I hate to simplify a sport that is otherwise far more complex than most people appreciate, if you don’t want the fight to end early, don’t get demolished in the opening 30 seconds. It’s hard to make the case that Dillashaw was going to recover when he started the fight fresh and still couldn’t stem Cejudo’s onslaught for a full minute.
The more interesting questions, however, are what will happen next. Dillashaw is still the champ at his weight -- and an elite champ at that. He and his camp claimed the weight cut didn’t affect his performance, but of course we expect them to say that. Whether or not Dillashaw felt like his normal self at 125 pounds, he was clearly the slower man in there. Personally, I don’t think he should flirt with flyweight anymore. In this case, the champ-champ coquetry was obviously a siren song that led to disaster. Call me old-fashioned, but if your first foray into a weight class is getting steamrolled in half a minute, then perhaps it’s best to avoid that weight class moving forward.
Let’s not forget Cejudo, either. He made a convincing argument to leave the flyweights alone, and with Demetrious Johnson out of the picture, this is by far the most exciting the division has been since its inception. Cejudo, too, is coming into his own as a promotional personality. He has the company man demeanor that UFC brass wants; he’s capable of exciting fights and dominant finishes; and he has a number of narrative contours that could be easily promoted. If there were ever a time to double down on the flyweight division, now would be it.
UFC Fight Night 143 had something for everyone. If this was indeed an introduction to the sport for casual ESPN audiences, it was a fitting one.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.