Opinion: The Worst UFC Card of 2021

By Lev Pisarsky Nov 22, 2021

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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UFC Fight Night 198, headlined by Ketlen Vieira versus Miesha Tate, was a perfect inversion of its immediate predecessor, UFC Fight Night 197. Whereas the first of the two was a ho-hum card on paper where virtually every fight achieved its best-case scenario, resulting in one of the best UFC cards of the year, 198 was the other side of that coin. A pedestrian card where almost every fight was a worst-case scenario, resulting in the worst UFC of 2021. Granted, we still have three UFC events remaining before the end of the year, but I feel confident in stating none will outdo “UFC Vegas 43” for dullness of for devaluing fighters’ stock.

The inversion of 198 versus 197 can most easily be seen in the main event. Both Max Holloway vs. Yair Rodriguez and Vieira vs. Tate went to a decision where a 48-47 score was the most common. But while the former elevated even its loser, Rodriguez, into a more serious contender, the latter managed to devalue its victor, Ketlen Vieira. I'm a fan of Vieira, a tough, highly skilled grappler who improved her striking a lot against Sijara Eubanks, then got a raw deal from the judges when she faced Yana Kunitskaya. But her fight against Tate destroyed any illusion that she offers a serious challenge to divisional champ Amanda Nunes. Vieira's striking hasn't improved since the Eubanks fight, and against Tate, whose kickboxing is very limited, Vieira was competing on largely even terms. She was getting hit far too often, was too passive, and didn't inflict serious damage until the final round. If that was the case against Tate, what will Nunes do to her? Most likely knock her out in the first round. Grappling was also a disappointment. Against Tate, who is noticeably smaller and was famously outgrappled and tapped by Nunes, Vieira looked to be slightly worse, even being taken down once.

Overall, 10 out of 11 fights went to decision. Now, that's not necessarily bad. Many of the greatest battles in MMA history went to the scorecards, most recently Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington 2, and Adrian Yanez vs. Davey Grant was a lone bright spot, a highly entertaining striking showdown which justifiably won the “Fight of the Night” bonus on a night with no competition whatsoever. But far too many matches were decided by what I like to call “point-wrestling.” Whereas “point-fighting” is usually used to describe strikers who touch their opponent, winning rounds for the judges, but without inflicting heavy damage or even coming close to a stoppage, we are seeing a lot of point-wrestling nowadays. Grapplers will tirelessly latch on to their opponents, not with the intent of a fight-ending submission or inflicting serious damage from a dominant position, but solely for the better position itself. Consider it an evolution of “lay-and-pray” and “wall-and-stall.” It doesn't help matters that while the main criteria for judging is supposed to be inflicted damage, many will disregard that in favor of a fighter who gets a late takedown and does nothing with it, or spends a lot of the round grinding for a takedown in the clinch in moderately better positions, but is unsuccessful. There is a lot of point-wrestling in Professional Fighters League, a promotion which never drew a crowd either in person or on television, even prior to the pandemic. There is some point-wrestling in Bellator MMA, which draws crowds, but doesn't punish fighters for being boring the way the UFC does, for better or worse. However, the UFC, in an era in which it desperately needs bodies to fill out its crazy schedule of 43 events a year — 53 if one counts Dana White's Contender Series — one more than there are weeks in a year, isn't going to cut anyone after a victory, no matter how dull. Thus, we're seeing more point-wrestling in the UFC.

Now, one should distinguish between point-wrestling and a grappling-based attack that goes to decision, but isn't looking to win judges' cards. Rani Yahya's decision victory over Kyung Ho Kang was not point-wrestling; he got takedowns, constantly advanced to dominant positions, inflicted serious ground-and-pound, and tried very hard to pull off submissions. It was a decent striker vs. grappler match.

By contrast, Cody Durden vs. Qileng Aori and Lupita Godinez vs. Konklak Suphisara were absolutely examples of point-wrestling. Note the lack of damage inflicted upon the defeated fighter. If this were one of those old-school, no-time-limit mixed martial arts bouts from the 1990s, there is no reason to believe that either Durden or Godinez would necessarily triumph, or even hold a considerable advantage later in the match. One can't blame either Durden or Godinez for maximizing their chances of victory, especially when their livelihood is at stake, but neither is it interesting to watch.

Why was this card so bad, with so much point-wrestling? Was it just the luck of the draw? No, not entirely.

A lot of the blame has to go to the woeful UFC matchmaking, which I have long criticized. Sean Brady and Michael Chiesa are both exciting fighters individually, but what the hell did the UFC think would happen when they were matched together? Not only do their world-class grappling games largely nullify one another, but so does their striking. Brady has decent boxing, but he uses it to set up his ground game, while Chiesa is an elusive, defensively minded striker who moves well around the cage and is also looking for an opening to grapple. Brady turned out to be the better wrestler, attaining superior position in most exchanges, but he was stymied in his efforts at delivering serious damage or a submission.

Speaking of which, I have also noted how much the UFC sucks at promoting its fighters, and apparently, the organization took my article as a challenge to suck even harder. You have a badass, undefeated fighter in Brady who has one of the most lethal grappling games in the entire sport and absolutely brutalizes his opponents. How did the UFC promote him? By having him talk about wanting to get more tattoos, and how his mom will kill him if he gets any on his face. This wasn't even a lighthearted parody, but a serious discussion.

The main event also made no sense. Why would the UFC pit Tate, one of the biggest stars in WMMA, against Vieira, a relative unknown who nevertheless nullifies her game plan? Why not save Tate for a bigger fight, like a rematch against Holly Holm, or continue building her up, as they did in putting her against Marion Reneau, who was 44, with a major weakness to being taken down? And why would they do this when neither women possesses dangerous striking, practically guaranteeing we would see a close strike-for-strike contest that would go to decision?

Going forward, UFC Fight Night 198 being an awful event will likely fade into obscurity. However, the increasing presence of point-wrestling and the UFC's terrible match-making and promotion will continue to be concerns.