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Event of the year it was not, but by the end of 2017, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a card more MMA than UFC 210 on Saturday in Buffalo, New York.
Let’s take a minute to unpack that idea first, since saying that an MMA event was “so MMA” -- and the fact that almost everyone immediately knows what that means -- is telling. It hints at the bizarre, sometimes horrible and often frustrating things we expect from this sport. It’s a particular feeling in the MMA community, somewhere between victimhood and resignation, over-salted with well-earned cynicism. When hyped fights fall through last-minute due to freak injury, a United States Anti-Doping Agency flag for “dick pills” or someone slipping in the bathtub during weigh-ins, or when impossibly bad scorecards turn up after a fight, the most accurate, most succinct way to describe that feeling is to say it’s “peak MMA.” Fighting is a weird and crazy sport, so we expect weird and crazy things to happen.
Though co-main eventer Gegard Mousasi made some fight-week ripples by vocalizing unapologetic opinions about his paystubs -- a point of interest compounded by the fact that the top-5 middleweight’s bout against Chris Weidman was the last on his contract -- the real ridiculousness started at the weigh-ins. Strawweight Pearl Gonzalez was reportedly removed from her fight after hitting weight but not because of a failed drug test or any of the other usual suspects; she has breast implants, which are barred by the New York State Athletic Commission in boxing. She was never officially pulled from the fight and everything ended up getting squared with the commission, but the episode was a portent of just how MMA this card would turn out (online betting).
Then there was “Towelgate.” Daniel Cormier has spent his career fighting uphill, never quitting, embracing the grind, always wearing the impossible on his chin before proving the critics wrong. To many he’s an inspiration, and his overcoming-the-odds mantra inhabited a new, surprising and very MMA soma at UFC 210. After weighing in at 206.2 pounds, he had a few minutes to drop the weight to make it an official title defense. Somehow, he shed 1.2 pounds in 2.5 minutes. Though he was battling against both math and physical reality, he embraced the grind by pushing down on the towels in front of him, displacing the pull of gravity onto the towel and allowing an MMA miracle to take place. Currently suspended Jon Jones said it was the dirtiest thing he’d ever seen, with no hint of irony. UFC 210 was off to a good start. It didn’t get any less weird on fight night.
One-time middleweight title challenger Patrick Cote dropped a decision to Thiago Alves and promptly retired afterwards. It was surprising but not terribly unexpected, either. The career gatekeeper has been a pioneer for Canadian MMA, but at 37 years old, it seems like a good time to hang up the gloves for “The Predator.” Still, it was a weird turn of events considering he never announced anything beforehand, and on most other fight cards, it would have been one of the bigger stories to emerge. Not on the night of Weidman-Mousasi, though.
In a highly anticipated middleweight showdown between former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder Weidman and former Strikeforce and Dream champ Mousasi, everything started out normal enough. Weidman controlled the first round with takedowns while Mousasi had his moments of striking success. It looked as if either Weidman would win via grappling dominance or Mousasi would win via striking superiority. Neither was the case.
In a regulatory meltdown, Mousasi hit Weidman with knees that looked illegal at first but turned out to be completely legal since Weidman’s hands weren’t on the ground when the knees landed. Referee Dan Miragliotta stopped the fight and gave Weidman time to recover, thinking the knees were illegal. Then, defying New York State Athletic Commission rules, he consulted video replay to discover that the knees were in fact legal. Meanwhile, Weidman milked his extra time to recover after being told he was allowed to do so. Doctors came in to check on him while the powers that be scrambled to figure out the correct protocol. At long last, it was determined that taking a timeout after a legal strike was cause to call the fight, which is true in the most legalistic reading of the rules, but it reeked of unfairness and human error. Nobody in or out of the cage wanted to see the fight end like that.
The situation bears commentary, and no doubt there will be an abundance of it in the coming days. Ultimately, it was most frustrating because it wasn’t really anyone’s fault. Sure, the ref made the wrong call, but in the middle of a fight, that’s nearly impossible to get right. He then did the right thing by checking his work on video replay, but the right thing was also against the rules. Bound by the rules -- and, by the way, the “hands down equals man down” rule is stupid to begin with -- the correct thing to do, then, was call the fight. It was a multifaceted but also completely honest chain reaction of mistakes. Alas, Weidman dropped his third straight fight and second in his home state, and Mousasi gained very little bargaining leverage in his final contracted fight. It was a train wreck, and while you’d have to have zero emotive capacity to not feel bad for the parties involved, at the same time the whole thing was absurd to the point of being comical. It was a true “only in MMA” kind of moment.
The debacle was hard to top, but the main event would be damned if it wasn’t going to try. Anthony Johnson broke the ice, employing the least predictable game plan outside of butt-scooting by taking it to Cormier with wrestling. It stunned everyone, including Johnson’s corner and, I’m willing to bet, Johnson himself. While he did have some success, winning the first round on all three judges’ scorecards, he eventually succumbed to the same fate he did the first time he met Cormier. To quote Johnson’s longtime striking coach Henri Hooft, who seemed more frustrated than anyone by what he witnessed: “Why? Why the [expletive] does this happen every [expletive] time, man? Crazy.”
After the fight, Cormier did the chivalrous thing and allowed his defeated opponent to speak to Joe Rogan first. Johnson went and retired on us. Johnson, the consensus second-best fighter in the light heavyweight division right now, the in-his-prime knockout juggernaut who has defeated the top three fighters ranked under him in a combined eight minutes -- that Johnson retired out of nowhere. It was somewhat moving, though mostly surprising, and it instantly sparked speculation as to whether or not Johnson’s retirement had something to do with his game plan and what he planned to do next. Run a gym? Invest in yoga mats? Of course not; this is MMA. Rumors quickly circulated that he was going to play in the NFL, though those were unfortunately shot down by Johnson himself. The mystery persists.
Cormier, too, was in rare form after the fight, looking more comfortable than ever playing the villain. He trash talked Jimi Manuwa before making his way to old nemesis Jones, doing so with more old-man style and swagger than ever; and yet he was still booed mercilessly by the majority of the arena. The defending champ just can’t win with the fans, but that’s a small grievance to have when he continues to win in the cage.
There’s still a lot of 2017 left, but this one was a real gem. UFC 210 was a perfect storm of human absurdity and entertaining intervention from the MMA gods. It’s hard to determine whether it was a gift from them or a sacrifice to them. Regardless, it was relentlessly ridiculous and chaotic. It was so MMA.
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.