You can sign up for a free seven-day trial of ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream UFC on ESPN+ live on your computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
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.
Before the epic interim title fights at UFC 236 began, former Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight titlist Rich Franklin was announced as the promotion’s next hall of fame inductee. Franklin’s work in the cage merits the honor by itself, but one of the reasons he stands apart from other former champions is that he was one of the UFC’s finest ambassadors. At a time when most people only saw the sport as brutish barroom brawling, the educated and erudite Franklin -- a former teacher with a master’s degree -- was a congenial face and articulate voice behind the violence.
This was a fitting prelude to the fights at the top of the card. At a time when ugly feuds and domestic abuse allegations have overshadowed the sport, the fights at UFC 236 on Saturday in Atlanta and the individual combatants in them were ideal ambassadors of what mixed martial arts is at its best. They showcased the thrill of competitive violence but also transcended their immediate entertainment value to demonstrate different contours of what makes fighting beautiful.
Unless you’re a jiu-jitsu purist, I’m not sure what more you could ask for in a fight. That goes for both of them, the co-main and the main event. They were technical and action-packed, stylistically dynamic and narratively compelling. Both were tied going into the final round on my scorecards and came down to the final five minutes to determine the winner. It was Game 7, overtime stuff, the type of make-or-break homestretch that renders sports clichés nearly impossible to avoid: It came down to grit, determination, “who wanted it more.”
Going into the fifth round, Israel Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum had both won two clear-cut rounds and put the other in visible danger several times. “The Last Stylebender” dictated the action at range with a deeper and more diverse striking arsenal, but when Gastelum pushed the pace and got inside of Adesanya’s reach, he landed the kind of flush power shots the unbeaten kickboxer had never dealt with before in an MMA fight. It was technique vs. tenacity, patience vs. pressure. With everything on the line, Adesanya dug deep -- I told you, these clichés are hard to avoid -- and put on the type of definitive, virtuous performance that defines a career, scoring three knockdowns and nearly finishing the fight in the fifth round. It was a sensational performance and a perfect conclusion for an early “Fight of the Year” contender.
In the main event, the scorecards were a bit mystifying after four rounds. All three judges had it three rounds to one for Dustin Poirier, despite the fact that Max Holloway landed more strikes in three of those four rounds. Of course, the difference between strikes was visible: Poirier’s were substantially more powerful, and it would be an understatement to say Holloway did not wear the damage well. Still, Round 4 was, in my opinion, a pretty cut-and-dry win for the featherweight champion. Aside from an empty split-second takedown and a knee that sliced open a gash on Holloway’s forehead, Poirier enjoyed very little success in the round, while Holloway peppered him with volume for four of the five minutes. Regardless of the official scorecards, the fight felt like it was up for grabs going into the fifth. Poirier was visibly tiring, and Holloway is known for fight-ending barrages in the championship rounds. Poirier, however, battled back from the brink -- again with these accurate clichés -- and not only won the striking exchanges but also effectively stalled Holloway against the fence to seal the round. It was a gutsy performance and showed an impressive presence of mind. Though it was somewhat upstaged by the co-main event, this, too, is worthy of “Fight of the Year” consideration.
More than the brilliance of the fights, however, the fighters themselves demonstrated what makes this sport so special. Both Gastelum and Holloway walked away with losses on their records, but neither of them feels like a loser. Gastelum’s story of being undersized and overlooked is easy to appreciate, just like Holloway’s humility and sincerity. Adesanya has an optimistic buoyancy that isn’t overbearing and is nerdy without being wimpy or annoying. Poirier has earned everything the hardest way possible and has made countless tiny improvements that, in aggregate, have made him a completely different fighter. Each man is unique and interesting and easy to root for, in and out of the cage.
What made these fights so resonant was how they contrasted the go-to grudge match angle that is so frequently and nauseatingly trotted out to promote fights. The main event in particular proved that you don’t have to manufacture a rivalry: Genuine respect and goodwill can be just as compelling as bad blood, and neither means much without a great fight underpinning it. Poirier and Holloway stood face-to-face in the cage after the final bell before bloodily bro-hugging it out. When Poirier was announced the winner, he embraced Holloway and apologized for cursing at him at the weigh-ins before saying “nothing but respect.” Poirier, along with his wife Jolie, have dedicated their efforts to building a playground for kids with special needs, and Holloway donated his fight gear to help them reach their goal. The ugliness of combat sports is only matched by the beauty to which it’s capable of ascending.
Part of what makes fighting great is how it’s a vehicle of discovery. As spectators, we learned a lot about these fighters. Poirier can sustain insane power for 25 minutes. Holloway can take ridiculous punishment and keep going. Gastelum has no quit in him. Adesanya has fire to match his flash. Yet the fighters themselves learned more than that, something deeper that only they can fully comprehend but something we were able to access vicariously. Experiencing a fight of that intensity changes you, and while we weren’t in the cage, witnessing it can be transformative in its own way, the same way the dimensions of our interior lives can expand after reading a book, watching a movie or listening to music. Just as Franklin redefined what a fighter could be for a generation of fans, these fights and fighters demonstrated what the sport is capable of becoming on its best day.
The buzz of UFC 236 will eventually fade if it has not done so already, but that’s OK. We were lucky to have been able to bask in its glow for a few hours, to have been a part of something larger than our individual experiences and to have lost ourselves in emotions we didn’t earn.
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.