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It was exactly the shot of adrenaline the Ultimate Fighting Championship needed.
Though UFC 225 on Saturday in Chicago was the organization’s 17th event in 2018, it was its first truly good card of the year. The recent run of events, from UFC 224 to UFC Fight Night 131, felt like one torturously long undercard that stretched across four consecutive weeks. Not that it was anyone’s specific fault -- good matchmaking can still fall apart or manifest in dull, listless performances -- but a spade is, in fact, a spade. Fans needed something to get excited about, and UFC 225 delivered.
For a card that had four split decisions that were all good fights and 11 fighters who had previously fought in UFC title bouts, a lot can be said. I’ll settle for just four things.
1. Bullet Dodged
The main event between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero was as good as the sport gets, minus Romero’s missed weight. His 0.2 extra pounds may have taken the middleweight title off the line, but it didn’t salt the experience of watching the two best middleweights fight for a second time. The bout went full-tilt from the opening ding and continued to teeter in opposing directions for its duration. Whittaker went ahead on the scorecards early behind diverse flurries of clever punch-kick combinations. The tide turned midway through the fight, as Whittaker was dropped by the newest addition to MMA Mythology: “Third Round Romero” -- the most dangerous man between minutes 10 and 15 in UFC history. The champ bounced back in the fourth, only to barely make it out of the fifth with his legs under him. It was dramatic, fun and compelling from start to finish.
Yet the fight itself wasn’t the only reason why it was the ideal outcome. When Whittaker’s hand was raised, it was accompanied by a unique sense of relief. Not that he necessarily deserved the win -- I scored it a draw -- but it was a relief that the middleweight picture emerged from the event still intact. Had Romero won, Whittaker would have still been the champ despite losing, creating another mess atop the 185-pound division. After the extended period of disarray following Michael Bisping and Georges St. Pierre’s back-to-back jaunts of championship tourism, the middleweight title only clarified when Whittaker was promoted from interim champion six months ago. Such stability and clarity is refreshing. It’s unfortunate that a third match between Whittaker and Romero is unlikely, but at least the division did not descend into chaos once more.
2. Making Welterweight Interim Again
Speaking of chaos, let’s talk Colby Covington. The man is polarizing to say the least, but his performance was undeniable. Against his toughest opponent to date, “Chaos” gutted out a victory to take the interim welterweight strap. How Covington wins fights -- like how he gives interviews -- can be hard to watch, but with six straight wins, at least there’s no question about the effectiveness of his fighting. It’s reasonable to say his 80s-movie jock-villain, #MAGA schtick isn’t working; he certainly seems to rile up a particular segment of the MMA bubble, but it’s yet to be seen that he’s on any wider sports radar. From what I’ve seen, more fans tune him out than get triggered into the seething virginal rage for which he so transparently hopes.
Still, the gimmick is paying off in its own way. Now that he has a title -- and without distinguishing himself the way he did, it’s not a guarantee he would have been given a title shot in the first place -- he’s sure to attract a larger, brighter spotlight. This is especially true if he does end up going to the White House to meet President Trump, which UFC President Dana White said he could arrange; I’ll wait to see if the “stick to sports” crowd angrily disapproves of such political intermingling. If there’s any truth to “fake it till you make it,” Covington is at least halfway to making it.
Annoying audiences into submission may not be the most sustainable professional strategy, but what is? In a game where a decade of hard-fought work can be upended in less than a minute -- see: Jimmie Rivera vs. Marlon Moraes -- fighters have to milk as much as they can however they can. Now that a grudge match with Tyron Woodley is set to unify the belts, it’s hard to say that Covington isn’t getting exactly what he’s going for. As hollow as his gimmick feels to me, maybe he’s on to something.
3. Youthful Exuberance
One of the more obvious patterns that emerged from UFC 225 is how younger fighters prevailed. Out of the 13 total fights, 11 of them were won by the younger fighter. That’s a good thing, especially for the heavyweight division, which saw Tai Tuivasa and Curtis Blaydes defeat longtime stalwarts Andrei Arlovski and Alistair Overeem. Turnover is a good thing. It pushes divisions out of the past, creating new excitement as opposed to recycling rusted nostalgia. Plus, the former glory of veterans gives weight to the newjacks. Alongside the aforementioned heavyweight victors, Mirsad Bektic and Sergio Pettis validated their divisional positions in meaningful ways.
Yet one of the outliers is just as noteworthy as the trend she bucked. Holly Holm put on a clinic against Megan Anderson, earning a lopsided decision against a legit up-and-coming talent. When Holm was pressed by the larger fighter, she took down Anderson and punished her from dominant positions. That’s real progress, especially for a 36-year-old who has almost exclusively been an at-range striker for her entire MMA career. She completed more takedowns in 15 minutes than she had in her previous 150 minutes in the UFC. On a night when Ronda Rousey was announced as a UFC Hall of Fame inductee, it was fitting to see the woman who dethroned her quietly put on one of the finest performances of her career.
4. CM Punk’d
The second time was not the charm for Phil Brooks, yet I get the feeling he’s not taking the loss all that hard. He survived the onslaught of pattycake punches from Mike Jackson, hearing the moral victory of the final bell. For a 15-minute cardio session that somehow ennobled his embarrassment as some honorable martial arts journey, he took home a cool half million bucks. Only Overeem and Whittaker made more, and both of them will be wearing their fights for the next several weeks. We got punked. There’s a saying for this sort of thing. How does it go again? Something about who should be ashamed after getting fooled by the same trick twice?
Yet I can’t hate the player, nor do I hate the game. Seeing famous people in real fights is inherently interesting, and I’ll continue to support the UFC’s efforts to TMZ-ify the sport so long as it makes one adjustment: Move to full-on Celebrity Death Match. Why pair celebrities with someone of roughly comparable skill? This is the UFC, where the best fight the best. At least half of that deal should remain inviolate: Where the best fight someone. Why not pit “CM Punk” against Jorge Masvidal next? On the same card, book 50 Cent vs. Jimi Manuwa and Justin Bieber vs. John Lineker. I’ll gladly fork over money to see those fights, and none of them will drag on for 15 minutes. Everyone wins. You’re welcome, UFC.
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.