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The Ultimate Fighting Championship returned to Madison Square Garden with UFC 230 on Saturday in New York. The event brought with it some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: BENDING THE STYLE OF GOATS AND BEASTS
When it comes time to decide who had the best 2018 in mixed martial arts, you should stop reading and seek medical attention if your answer is not Daniel Cormier. The American Kickboxing Academy captain has had an incredible year. Cormier started by defending the light heavyweight title against a surging Volkan Oezdemir. He then placed himself in rarefied air by becoming the UFC’s second simultaneous dual-division champion. He one upped the history books again at UFC 230, where he became the only champ-champ to defend his titles.
“DC” has not only enjoyed the best year of any other fighter in the sport but the perhaps the best year of any fighter in any year. If he had won by a close decision, the accomplishment still would have been significant. However, the fact that he blazed his trail with quick finishes makes it even better. While Derrick Lewis -- despite what his self-deprecating sense of humor would lead one to believe -- was a worthy challenger who earned his spot, “DC” made it look easy. Avoiding any of the showstopping power for which Lewis is known, Cormier had virtually no trouble getting the fight to the floor and dominating from top position. By the time he took Lewis’ back and began to sink the rear-naked choke near the halfway point of the second round, it seemed like textbook work. If there was any doubt about Cormier’s status among the all-time greats in the sport, his 2018 campaign should put all of those to bed.
Lewis could have found himself as a “Fighter of the Year” candidate had he defeated Cormier. His performance was far from his finest work, but let’s not let the loss distract from the stellar year that “The Black Beast” has put together. Up until UFC 230, Lewis had only seen the win column in 2018. He managed to parlay his spectacular knockouts and comedic persona into a title shot, the biggest payday of his career and a sponsorship opportunity outside of the traditional brands seen in MMA. Lewis may not have had his hand raised after the contest, but he is living like a winner right now.
Lower on the card, Israel Adesanya put his stamp on the middleweight division. The former kickboxing champion handled longtime contender Derek Brunson while barely cracking a sweat. “The Last Stylebender” stuffed every takedown from the All-American wrestler and made him pay for having no answers on the feet. Not only did he deliver a memorable performance worthy of the “Performance of the Night” bonus, but Adesanya showed the personality necessary to draw attention and opportunities in the Endeavor era of the UFC. Like Cormier and Lewis, he entered Madison Square Garden riding the undefeated momentum of 2018. With Robert Whittaker set to defend his middleweight title against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 234 in Melbourne, Australia, expect the New Zealand resident to be nearby, either as a spectator there to scout his competition and hype a fight with the winner or to serve as a backup opponent in case of a late injury. Either way, don’t be surprised if Adesanya becomes the next fighter to have the full backing of the promotion.
THE BAD: HOMETOWN DISADVANTAGE
Chris Weidman has had a rough time since dropping his middleweight belt to Luke Rockhold at UFC 194. Since then, he has had injury woes stop him from competing for extended periods of time and has seldom seen victory when he was able to answer the opening bell. UFC 230 was no exception, as he succumbed to the power punches of Ronaldo Souza halfway through the third round. What makes this particularly difficult is that, for the second time, Weidman found himself on the wrong end of a knockout loss at Madison Square Garden, just a short drive from his hometown.
When the efforts to legalize MMA in the state of New York were in full swing, Weidman was at the center of it all. The UFC placed him front and center for the hearings before the state government to lobby on the sport’s behalf. He was among the fighters used to publicize the cause, as his champion status and college education were perfect to put in front of people as an example of the good things that MMA had to offer. It was even more fitting that Weidman epitomized New York. His accent, his degree from Hofstra University, his training camp -- everything about him screamed New York. It was a no-brainer to put him on the main card for the UFC’s debut at the iconic arena, even without the belt he proudly wore while fighting for sanctioning in his home state.
What could’ve been a fitting homecoming against Yoel Romero turned into a devastating third-round defeat. It was a case of deja vu for Weidman at UFC 230. He looked good early, as he peppered “Jacare” with jabs and employed a more sophisticated boxing game than he had in past outings. As the fight went on, Souza found himself landing more, getting hit less, pressuring and negating some of the movement that caused him trouble in the opening frame. Perhaps knowing he was down on the scorecards, “Jacare” came out for the final round like a man possessed. Weidman took the bait and gave him a slugfest. A final shot from Souza put the former champ out and forced the stoppage.
Weidman has only fought in the state of New York since handing over his belt in late 2015. He has only had his hand raised once in those four outings. While he did secure an arm-triangle submission win over soon-to-be title challenger Gastelum at the Nassau Coliseum, every other time he has made the walk to the Octagon within his home state’s limits has been disastrous. Perhaps Weidman should consider his chances at light heavyweight or at least fighting further away from home to refresh a career that is in desperate need of a makeover.
Similarly, David Branch found himself on the business end of fight-ending strikes. Branch, who fell victim to ground-and-pound from Jared Cannonier in the second round after being dropped by a hard right hand, is now 2-2 since returning to the UFC. During that time, he has had high-profile fights with Romero and “Jacare” get scrapped at the last minute. The injury withdrawal of Rockhold forced the shuffling of the card that led to his welcoming Cannonier, a former heavyweight and light heavyweight, to 185 pounds.
Branch’s opportunities to establish himself as a title threat in the UFC seem to have evaded the Brooklyn, New York, native. Losing out on matchups against the known elite in the division and being finished by a divisional newcomer makes his path to the belt that much harder. Before returning to the promotion, Branch had a grossly slept-on run in the World Series of Fighting. Under its banner, he reached champ-champ status and made multiple successful defenses at both middleweight and light heavyweight. It’s a shame that his success has continued to stall so close to his stomping grounds.
THE UGLY: ROTTEN APPLE
The New York State Athletic Commission always seems to find a way to steal the spotlight. Every time the UFC comes to town, there is some controversy involving officiating. UFC 230 was no exception. Once again, with a trip to The Big Apple comes questions about the folks who are in charge of monitoring the safety and fairness of competition. One of those questions that we get to ask again: “Why are we still dealing with judges like Doug Crosby?”
Crosby turned in three scorecards at UFC 230. All three dissented from the other two judges. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a singular judge seeing the fight another way sometimes. Since the judges are placed along different parts of the cage, it’s possible that the vantage point leads to a unique view of the action that may come across when it’s time to play inside the confines of the Ten-Point Must System.
The problem with Crosby is that his interpretation of judging criteria seems to have no sort of consistent logic. His use of a 10-8 score appears to come at random, with no regard for the times he opted to stick to the more common 10-9s he has handed out for more dominant rounds. How else can the 30-26 Crosby had in favor of Sheymon Moraes make sense next to the 29-28s that Derek Clearly and Chris Lee gave to both Moraes and Julio Arce, respectively? Compare that with being the only judge to not award a 10-8 to either Karl Roberson or Jordan Rinaldi. There’s no rhyme or reason to the numbers he turns in. Fortunately, no one was robbed of a victory this time.
Bad judging aside, the worst regulatory error from UFC 230 goes to referee Dan Miragliotta. Normally, Miragliotta a solid official who has done a fine job overseeing some big moments in the sport. However, his late intervention in Souza’s win over Weidman was negligent at best. Weidman was dropped hard and looked helpless while Miragliotta stood over him, even as a confused “Jacare” pleaded for the fight to be stopped. As Weidman gathered himself as best as he could for what looked like a low single-leg takedown on auto pilot, Miragliotta encouraged the Brazilian to land more strikes. After Weidman took a completely unnecessary three-hammerfist volley to the temple, Miragliotta finally stepped in to do his job. This is just the latest in a line of bad decisions -- or indecisions -- made by the third person in the cage. Unfortunately, this is something that has become almost standard practice for every event card.