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In the aftermath of any big fight card, hyperbole is certain. It’s as inevitable as a George St. Pierre victory or MMA’s capacity to entertain and surprise us. Yet in the wake of UFC 217 on Saturday, it is no exaggeration to say that it was easily the best card of the year and one of the most memorable shows in a long, long time.
There was a lot to like about the undercard, from Ricardo Lucas Ramos’ spinning elbow knockout to Ovince St. Preux’s lights-out head kick, but the true highlights belonged to the three title fights at the top of the card. Only two other UFC events have ever had three title fights on the same card: UFC 33 and UFC 205. At UFC 33, often considered one of the worst cards in Ultimate Fighting Championship history, both Tito Ortiz and Jens Pulver retained their titles while Dave Menne won the inaugural middleweight belt. At UFC 205, the company’s first event at Madison Square Garden and one of the most memorable shows in recent memory, two of the three champions retained their titles. Then, at UFC 217, all three titles switched hands. That alone made the event special, but more than the mere swapping of belts, the ways in which the fights went down made UFC 217 truly great.
Each title fight was a story unto itself, and each offered a different reason to love the sport. The headlining bout between St. Pierre and Michael Bisping was a circus fight but about as high-level as a circus fight can be. While it was rightly criticized for holding up the middleweight division, the fight itself turned out to be excellent.
St. Pierre looked as smooth and as crisp as ever. The four years away from the sport didn’t appear to have any adverse effects on his game, nor did the additional 15 pounds he wore for his middleweight debut. His previous seven fights had all been decision victories, and while his dominance was never questioned, his safety-first approach to winning was. Against Bisping, St. Pierre took risks and fought with more opportunistic killer instinct than he has since UFC 94 in 2009. Ironically, most of the damage he suffered resulted from taking down Bisping, his smothering top game and alleged lay-and-pray tactics being the very part of his game that drew the fans’ ire. The sharp-elbowed adversity that Bisping provided forced St. Pierre to make adjustments that made the fight more exciting. The win coming in St. Pierre’s first fight in four years and his first fight at middleweight ever was ridiculous. Tying the record for most UFC wins and becoming the fourth person in UFC history to win belts at two weight classes was remarkable. More than anything, though, it was a spectacular, action-packed fight.
Leading up to the event, the bantamweight title tilt between Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw was probably the most anticipated fight on the card. From a competitive standpoint, it doesn’t get much better: former teammates with legitimate beef and exciting, technical styles, and yes, they also happen to arguably be the two best fighters in the division. On paper, that’s a recipe for an incredible fight, yet somehow it exceeded expectations. Garbrandt took an early lead, punctuating the end of the first round with a big right hook that collapsed Dillashaw to the canvas at the bell. Had there been a little more time in the round, there is a good chance the fight would have ended with Garbrandt retaining his title via technical knockout. In the second round, Garbrandt started settling into his rhythm. He never got the opportunity to display much of his Octagon dance moves, though. Dillashaw dropped him with a head kick and, shortly after, finished Garbrandt with a clean right hook and follow-up punches. The back-and-forth nature of the fight was wild, and the display of sportsmanship between both men afterwards was awesome, but the rivalry set up for the future will go down as the best part of it all.
Then we have the women’s strawweight championship bout. Of the three titles on the line, Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s was the most secure to me. I picked St. Pierre and Garbrandt with shrugging reluctance, open to any possibility that might have materialized, but I was confident that Jedrzejczyk was going to win -- even certain. That’s no disrespect to Rose Namajunas. Jedrzejczyk had just been so brilliant during her title reign that it was hard to see how anyone could beat her, even someone as talented and dangerous as “Thug Rose.” Namajunas didn’t just win the fight, though; she absolutely steamrolled Jedrzejczyk. It was stunning and the type of performance that could end up ringing in a new era in the most stacked women’s division in the game.
Yet Namajunas didn’t simply remind us of MMA’s wonderful ability to shock and surprise us. In her post-fight speech, she reminded us that this is at the end of the day just entertainment. There are more important things in life, even for professional fighters. “This belt don’t mean nothing, man. Just be a good person,” she said. It’s a simple message, so much so that it’s easy to dismiss. However, there’s something special about fighters recognizing the pinnacle of their professional lives as the existential triviality that it is, and to express it so bluntly. More important than any of our professional accomplishments and ambitions is how we treat people. It’s a fundamental truism, but somehow it’s also easy to forget. The actual fights make MMA entertaining, but its ability to provide a space for people to come together and enjoy a full spectrum of human emotion makes the sport something more.
I want to linger on something else Namajunas said, since it has been lingering with me. When asked how it feels to be a UFC champion, she said “I feel like a normal person, man. That’s it. I’m just regular. Ain’t nothing special here.” This struck me as a strange thing to say given the performance she had and the industry she’s in, neither of which are at all ordinary. Her openness and vulnerability allowed us to witness something beautiful in real-time: a person accepting herself for who she is. It takes courage and sacrifice and incredible focus to chase your dreams, and realizing them in front of thousands of people and TV cameras can be intimidating. Namajunas didn’t become a character or revert to boring professionalism for the microphone. She became her own person and looked like she had never been more comfortable to be that person.
UFC 217 was a rare culmination of the things that make us love MMA. It was surprising, exciting, and relentlessly entertaining. It deserves every adjective it will be adorned with in the coming days.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.