Conor McGregor was the star of stars at UFC 189. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
LAS VEGAS -- It was everything Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao was supposed to be, a night where months of hype and expectations collided to form a scintillating tapestry of beautiful destruction. Where most events can never exceed the lofty expectations placed on them, UFC 189’s main card of brutality -- mixed in with new production packages, the introduction of the Reebok era and one of the most raucous crowds ever packed into an arena -- did so with every pint of blood spilled on the canvas.
Although Mayweather-Pacquiao will go down as the richest fight in the history of combat sports, it will also forever be remembered as an absolute dud in the action department. Mayweather’s one-sided boxing brilliance was a tough pill to swallow for casual fans that expected the pound-for-pound boxing king to face adversity in the form of a dogfight with Hurricane Pacquiao, but it just did not happen. Instead, everyone left feeling empty, as did their bank accounts thanks to the hefty price tag placed on tickets and the pay-per-view itself.
Two months and nine days later, UFC 189 delivered what everyone wanted in spades, from the casual viewer to the diehard fan. It was not just the Chad Mendes-Conor McGregor main event that delivered, nor the Robbie Lawler-Rory MacDonald co-headliner featuring a chess match that dissolved into two guys smashing boards over each other’s heads. No, it was every single fight on the pay-per-view portion of the card. If you were left unsatisfied by five fights that all ended in brutal fashion, then perhaps combat sports are not for you.
It was the perfect storm of hype, heart, spectacle and gorgeous violence presenting itself in a variety of ways that puts UFC 189 at the top of the list of great events. Quite honestly, it is the greatest Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view of all-time. Sure, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to an incredible lineup of fights, but when you stack it up against other stellar cards, the description fits: UFC 52 (Matt Hughes-Frank Trigg 2, Randy Couture-Chuck Liddell 2), UFC 92 (Quinton Jackson-Wanderlei Silva 3, Frank Mir-Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Rashad Evans-Forrest Griffin), UFC 100 (Mir-Brock Lesnar 2, Georges St. Pierre-Thiago Alves, Dan Henderson-Michael Bisping), UFC 116 (Lesnar-Shane Carwin, Yoshihiro Akiyaka-Chris Leben) and UFC 187 (Daniel Cormier-Anthony Johnson, Chris Weidman-Vitor Belfort, Travis Browne-Andrei Arlovski).
It is a rare feat indeed when an event can actually exceed the expectations. Fight cards with a lot of hype rarely live up to it. Conversely, it is the show without the fanfare that ends up surprising. UFC 189 somehow managed to exceed the surrounding hype on so many levels.
Zuffa’s job was to create an event that fight fans would not want to miss and then cross its fingers in hopes that fans were left satisfied by the end of the night. The anticipation for the McGregor-Jose Aldo title fight had reached its boiling point months ago. A world tour and one of the promotion’s best-put together commercials signified as much. However, when Aldo went down with a rib injury two weeks before the fight, it appeared the UFC would be once again TKO’d by the injury bug.
Thanks to a one-man hype machine like McGregor and the fearless Mendes, who stepped in on short notice, the card was rescued. McGregor and Mendes wasted no time verbally jousting, as they kept interest levels at a ridiculous high. Even though the highly anticipated featherweight title fight went up in smoke, McGregor’s penchant for cutting a World Wrestling Entertainment-style promo at the drop of a hat had already made him must-see television. The only thing that mattered now was whether he could back it up.
From the moment the pay-per-view began with a brand new graphics package and the much-maligned introduction of the Reebok fight kit, everything about UFC 189 felt different than previous events. Plus, the MGM Grand Garden Arena was nearly stuffed to capacity with rowdy fans -- 20-25 percent of them were Irish who made the journey to see McGregor -- from the moment the PPV started. Anyone that has been to a boxing or MMA event knows how much of a rarity that can be, especially in Las Vegas. UFC 189 looked important. However, everyone on the card still had to fight, and oh did they fight.
Kicking it off was a bantamweight tussle between unbeaten Brazilian knockout artist Thomas Almeida and scrappy Englishman Brad Pickett, who never met a barroom brawl he did not like. The ingredients were present for a brutal display of pugilism, and both fighters delivered. Pickett came to fight and perhaps surprised Almeida in the first round with a scintillating exhibition of punching power that nearly sent the Brazilian into the loss column. However, an ungodly flying knee in the second wiped out Pickett and sent 16,019 fans into a frenzy. Almeida took home a “Performance of the Night” bonus and gained Internet fame as GIFs and Vines of his devastating work filled up social media timelines. Little did everyone watching know that it was just getting started.
A welterweight scrap between McGregor’s Straight Blast Gym teammate Gunnar Nelson and Brandon Thatch followed. Nelson, with his stoic gaze and Viking-like beard, received a hero’s welcome as he entered the cage to the doom and gloom of Hjalmar’s “Leidin Okkar Allra.” Much to the glee of the chanting crowd, the Icelander and his karate stance fed Thatch a two-piece combination and followed up with a rear-naked choke that ended the fight in the first round. On any other night, their bout would have competed for a “Performance of the Night” award, but not on this night. For the sake of cynicism, it was the “worst” fight on the card -- and that is saying something.
Jeremy Stephens had the second-best flying knee finish at UFC 189 and could have vouched for a “Fight of the Night” bonus had he not missed weight in his wildly entertaining showdown against Dennis Bermudez.
Three fights, three entertaining finishes, and we still had two title fights left on the card. Surely, one of the two would manage to find a way to ruin what had already been an enjoyable run of fights, right? Wrong.
After a new production package introduced the two championship fights, we were gifted with the “forgotten” welterweight title showdown between Lawler and MacDonald. Clearly overshadowed by McGregor, Lawler and MacDonald became afterthoughts due to their inability to generate interest with their words. Lawler and MacDonald represented the antithesis to the verbal fireworks McGregor had set off with Aldo and Mendes. They let the mouthy Irishman sell the card for them and let their fists and feet do the talking.
In what UFC President Dana White called the “Fight of the … ever,” the “Ruthless” one and the Canadian of many nicknames engaged in a likely frontrunner for “Fight of the Year.”
After a slow start between two fighters who respected each other’s ability to end things early, the action bubbled up in the second round, with Lawler assaulting the counter-minded MacDonald with powerful strikes. MacDonald had suffered a broken nose in round one, and blood gushed from his face, helping him earn the moniker “Red King.” However, a series of head kicks in the third round turned the fight on a dime and nearly put Lawler out. Somehow, the champion survived MacDonald’s ruthless rifling of elbows and kicks, and the two continued to duke it out in the fourth, even as the lumps and cuts grotesquely formed on their faces. Lawler’s lip was split in a manner that would make The Joker proud, and MacDonald no longer resembled the man who walked into the Octagon.
Little did Lawler know that he was down 39-37 on all three scorecards heading into the final frame and in danger of losing his welterweight crown. All MacDonald’s face had to do was keep it together. Unfortunately, it had endured enough. A pumped-up Lawler screamed at the crowd at the start of the final stanza, and the energy in the arena was nothing short of madness. With MacDonald still fighting valiantly despite the inability to breathe and what appeared to be a pint of blood spilling from his face, Lawler took advantage and cracked his foe with a straight left that shattered what remained of the Canadian’s nose and sank him to the canvas. It was over, and the words “instant classic” flashed across timelines everywhere -- along with grotesquely deformed images of MacDonald’s face.
Four fights, four finishes, one war for the ages and we still had the marquee fight to go, the one that had everyone excited in the first place. McGregor was on the verge of becoming the UFC’s biggest star and had countless skeptics trailing behind him. Much was at stake for the promotion and the Irishman, as the threat of it all evaporating in a matter of minutes seemed very real. Mendes had the potential to earn the new nickname of Chad “F------ Up the Money” Mendes, as he possessed the tool set necessary to violently derail the Irishman’s hype train. Nobody knew how McGregor would respond to a world-class wrestler. Seeing as though his only two losses had come to Aldo, Mendes was a legitimate threat to squelch the rising tide of McGregor.
The significance of the moment was captured by the grandiose entrances of both men. McGregor was ushered in by a live performance of “Foggy Dew” by Sinead O’Connor, while Staind frontman Aaron Lewis strummed “Country Boy” on an elevated platform as Mendes marched to the cage. The building was shaking from the palpable energy that bounced off the walls of the arena. Mendes and McGregor’s stare down was equally as epic, and the moment of truth had arrived. Despite all of the fascinating action earlier, the price of admission was paid to see this fight. A dud would unfortunately ruin everything.
The mouthy McGregor wasted no time rushing Mendes and offering a spinning kick to the gut to get things started. From there, McGregor jawed at his opponent, who clocked him with overhand rights that have separated lesser opponents from their senses. The two exchanged heated blows with a frenetic pace, until Mendes finally dumped the Irishman on his back late in the first round. He seemed to find a formula to halt McGregor’s vaunted striking game, and it worked ... for a little while, at least.
Heading into the second round, it was clear that a two-week training camp had not been enough to get Mendes ready for a 25-minute fight. The energy he had to spend grounding McGregor and keeping him there was more than he wanted to invest. Mendes took down McGregor in the second and opted to settle in his closed guard while springing up and lowering vicious elbows. McGregor, being the ball of energy that he is, would not let Mendes rest and assaulted him with palm strikes and his own string of elbows from the bottom.
Mendes made the crucial mistake of pouncing on a Team Alpha Male trademark: a guillotine choke. McGregor found his opening and scrambled to his feet with a Cheshire-cat grin stretched across his face. The crowd roared with approval, and Mendes visibly gasped for air. The tide had changed and the end was near. Mendes was spent, and McGregor knew it.
A series of extraordinarily accurate punches was punctuated by a left straight that landed and dropped Mendes to the canvas. McGregor pounced, the building rumbled and referee Herb Dean knew Mendes had nothing left in the tank as he mercifully waived off the bout. The arena was showered with beer as fans celebrated the victory. McGregor collapsed in a fit of tears. The new interim champion had been crowned. The naysayers shrank back into their caves while the UFC powers that be likely breathed a sigh of relief.
UFC 189 provided an eventful run of fights that exceeded all expectations and gave rise to the sport’s newest superstar. It does not get much better than that and will go down in history was one of the greatest nights in combat sports. In short, it was everything that Mayweather- Pacquiao was supposed to be but was not.
Andreas Hale is a content producer for Jay Z's LifeandTimes.com and Editor-In-Chief of PremierWuzHere.com, as well as a frequent Sherdog.com columnist. Check out his archive here.
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