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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday made its way back to Madison Square Garden in New York with UFC 244 -- an event headlined by a hotly anticipated showdown between Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: BACK AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME
Playing the background to the hyper-celebritized pro wrestling-style promotion for the BMF title were several recent championship challengers desperate for redemption. Kevin Lee, Stephen Thompson, Darren Till and Derrick Lewis all found light at the end of the tunnel after falling short recently. The aforementioned men made good on the residual spotlight and impressed while keeping their hopes at climbing the mountain alive.
With an incredible athletic base, wrestling credentials and an ever-developing striking arsenal, Lee was immediately thought of as a future star in the lightweight division when he more than held his own against the vastly more seasoned Al Iaquinta. Although he fell short in that big-show debut in 2014, there was a lot to be excited about in regards to “The Motown Phenom.” Unfortunately, a litany of setbacks, including the sudden death of his head coach, issues on the scale and ill-timed losses betrayed the potential.
Backed by a renewed focus and the guidance of the intelligent Firas Zihabi, Lee showed he’s still someone to be feared at 155 pounds with a memorable first-round knockout. Facing the previously undefeated wrestler and hot prospect Gregor Gillespie, he managed to show something he has lacked since the untimely passing of Robert Follis: an ability to remain disciplined and stick to a game plan. With Gillespie landing a few jabs, the previous iteration of Lee might have abandoned the low stance and invited trouble with grappling exchanges similar to his lone welterweight bout with Rafael dos Anjos. Instead, he settled into his rhythm, used head movement to negate the punches and landed some of his own to set up a head kick worthy of his $50,000 “Performance of the Night” bonus. With the support of Tristar Gym, a camp that has sculpted the careers of Georges St. Pierre and Rory MacDonald, Lee just might be on the verge of finally meeting expectations.
Thompson enjoyed his own bounce back at the expense of the perpetually tough Vicente Luque. The pre-fight chatter centered on what “Wonderboy” had left at 36 years old after meeting a violent end from a superbly timed off-the-cage Superman punch from Anthony Pettis earlier in the year. A compromised chin would be the wrong attribute to have when standing in front of the hard-headed and forward-charging Luque. “Wonderboy” put all those fears to bed in two ways. First, he managed to eat the shots that landed on him. Second, and most importantly, he made it extremely difficult for Luque to land them with any consistency. After a rocky start in the first frame, Thompson looked refreshed and in top form. His signature arsenal of stance switches, side kicks, spin kicks and deceptively good karate-infused boxing skills looked as good as ever against the younger “Silent Assassin.” With yet another “Fight of the Night” at Madison Square Garden, Thompson has left doubts about what he has in the tank firmly in the rearview mirror.
In much less dramatic fashion, Lewis and Till left behind losing streaks and returned to the win column. Lewis maintained his brand of chaotic exchanges and hard punches while eking out a split decision over Blagoy Ivanov. With a severe knee injury dating back to 2015 surgically repaired, Lewis appeared trimmer and less of a cardio liability. That extra gas tank proved useful when Ivanov managed to get Lewis to the floor and stubbornly refused to fall when he was hit with everything “The Black Beast” had to offer. Additionally, Ivanov took a more strategically sound approach than he had in previous UFC outings. Lewis made adjustments and ultimately got his hand raised.
With UFC President Dana White at the post-fight press conference openly admitting to having rushed Till into title contention, the Englishman arguably needed a win more than any other fighter on the card. His win over Kelvin Gastelum wasn’t exactly a thrill ride, but it served its purpose, as Till managed to stop “The Ultimate Fighter 17” winner from developing any real momentum throughout the entire 15 minutes. Wisely leaving behind the grueling process to shrink his large frame to 170 pounds, the middleweight version of Till looked filled in, energetic and at home in a new weight class. While it is possible to jump the gun yet again with Till, it’s hard to deny his place in the division. Defeating Gastelum -- a man who gave current champion Israel Adesanya everything he could handle in April and had taken out other key names in the division -- proves more about Till’s place in the title picture than his previous victories over Thompson and Donald Cerrone at welterweight.
THE BAD: TIMES HAVE CHANGED
The UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts turned a corner. Despite what else was going on in combat sports, MMA took center stage and the rest of the world adjusted accordingly. With the biggest name among active boxers in a crucial main event in Las Vegas, the UFC earned top billing in the Big Apple. Canelo Alvarez put an exclamation point around his claim for pound-for-pound supremacy by knocking out Sergey Kovalev in the 11th round in what looked like a fast-approaching decision loss.
In years prior, Alvarez -- especially with a remarkable move up on the scale to grab a title in a fifth weight class -- would have easily gotten priority over a UFC card. In fact, the UFC has opted to avoid directly competing with the Mexican superstar with pay-per-view offerings in the past. While the promotion has run events on the same day, they were free-TV UFC Fight Nights that weren’t always staged at the same time. White even skipped the Luke Rockhold-David Branch main event to attend Alvarez’s first bout with Gennady Golovkin.
With UFC 103 getting dramatically upstaged and outsold by Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Juan Manuel Marquez, direct conflict was usually avoided. The first UFC on Fox event, which was headlined by Cain Velasquez-Junior dos Santos, was timed around Marquez-Manny Pacquiao 3. The Benson Henderson-Nate Diaz title fight was planned around the fourth bout contested between Pacquiao and Marquez.
Despite this tradition, Golden Boy Promotions and Dazn announced on Friday that fight fans wouldn’t have to choose between the various forms of face punching. Instead, they made sure that their main event took place after Diaz-Masvidal wrapped. They made way for the UFC. This was remarkable enough. However, when Ryan Garcia made extremely quick work of Romero Duno in the boxing co-main event an absurd hour and 15 minutes before Alvarez and Kovalev expected to make their walks to the ring, the UFC allowed the crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena to enjoy the UFC 244 main event while it waited. Many boxing pundits have criticized the move, and understandably so, but the motivations were clear. MMA put on the event that mattered to fight fans the most.
With World Wrestling Entertainment performer turned action star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson carrying the new BMF belt to the Octagon and a sea of celebrities in attendance at Madison Square Garden, the platform for the sport had never felt bigger. Most notable among those celebrities was President Trump. With a slew of viral videos of fans in the arena furiously booing Trump in a scene eerily reminiscent of Washington Nationals fans during Game 5 of the World Series and several fighters speaking about him, as well, it was clear that the reach of the sport has drastically changed since the dark days of the early UFC.
Hollywood stars and famous mainstream athletes have frequently made their presence known cageside for years. The point guard or linebacker of the (insert city) home team can be spotted waving and smiling on the big screen in the arena nearly every weekend. While Trump has been among the prominent personalities in the past, his status has clearly changed since 2016. It may say more about the man than the office itself, but the Secret Service interrupting backstage coaching and rituals in the name of national security is the polar opposite of the government attempts to banish human cockfighting at small assembly halls in Dothan, Alabama.
THE UGLY: SCAR TISSUE
It has been difficult to follow the sport of mixed martial arts in the buildup to UFC 244 without thorough examinations of what it means to be the Baddest Motherf-----. Whether it was Masvidal’s understated swagger and gift for trash talking without saying much or Diaz’s incoherent yet intelligent rants and defiance in the face of USADA and UFC brass, BMF can mean a lot of things. One thing that it meant to many during the main event was a willingness to fight with reckless abandon. The insistence on walking forward in spite of anything being thrown was one key ingredient to earning the fictional crown, so when the cageside doctor decided the cut above Diaz’s right eye was too severe to continue, there was bound to be backlash.
How could the BMF title, made to forever enshrine the combined gangsta leans of Masvidal and Diaz be decided by a cut? Since Diaz always gets cut, why didn’t they let them keep fighting? Seeing as though Diaz always pours it on in the later rounds, why couldn’t they let him keep fighting? Those questions ignore one simple and indisputable fact: Masvidal and Diaz are human beings. There are clear limits to the human body, and Diaz was fast approaching that line. Yes, Diaz always gets cut, and seemingly worse cuts on other men haven’t stopped previous fights, but according to a well-educated medical expert who had the benefit of looking much closer at the wounds, it had to be stopped. Whether you were sitting in Madison Square Garden, on your couch at home, eating BMF wings at Buffalo Wild Wings or on press row, you didn’t have a better view than the doctor. Even if you did, I’m willing to bet you don’t have the education to know exactly what you were looking at.
Even if the cut wasn’t that bad, was there any need to see more? Masvidal had his way with Diaz, and it wasn’t even close. He beat him to the punch repeatedly, dominated in the clinch, landed devastating ground-and-pound and easily shrugged off any submission attempts. Masvidal even earned the elusive 10-8 in the second round, and a strong case can be made for him earning one in the first, as well. “Gamebred” was showing zero signs of slowing down and Diaz showed nothing aside from the occasional landed punch to warrant anything more than blind hope for a comeback. Without the doctor interfering, perhaps it was time for Team Diaz to make a hard decision.
For all of the issues surrounding fighter safety lately, the chrome and black belt with the curse word engraved on it sure did make a lot of people forget. Patrick Day just died two weeks ago after sustaining too much punishment in the ring. Maxim Dadashev never recovered from the damage he took in the ring in July. There are more men who never made it home to their families after lacing up their gloves in the past several months alone. While these artificial stakes were attached to a fight that guaranteed action and additional fanfare, let’s remember that action has consequences.
The words Bad Motherf----- don’t insulate anyone from the limits of the human body. They don’t make up for the absence of a loved one or mean much of anything outside of our traditional bloodlust. The doctor did what those entrusted with fighter safety are supposed to do: He saved a fighter from himself. Plus, does the result make either Diaz or Masvidal any less of a bad motherf-----? If you think so, I dare you to say it to their face. Just let me know in advance so I can post up with a camera phone ready to yell “WorldStar.”