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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday brought UFC 235 and its two title bouts to T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: PEAK MMA
When we look back and reflect on UFC 235, we will probably remember it as peak MMA. We managed to hit that sweet spot between bizarre, entertaining and exhilarating. Emerging stars, resurgent veterans and dramatic upsets blended with officiating mistakes and pro wrestling-style promotional tactics to compile a gumbo of everything we love and hate about the sport.
Jon Jones continued his dominant ways, as the PED controversies become harder to see in the rearview mirror. Anthony Smith became yet another man seemingly snake-charmed into letting the champion do whatever he felt like doing in the cage. It appeared that Jones enjoyed playing with his food, opting to prolong the beating rather than mercifully ending it. He did not commit on takedowns repeatedly, found but gave up on multiple chokes and had sudden moments of explosive offense mixed with sustained pressure that he did not exploit as expected.
Perhaps a freedom and willingness to experiment was to blame for his close calls in the fourth round. A soccer kick came close to jumping outside the confines of the Unified Rules, but his blatantly illegal knee to a downed Smith left no room for interpretation. It almost would have been fitting for such a strange event to end on that note. A setback reminiscent of Jones’ only loss -- a disqualification due to illegal elbows on Matt Hamill -- could have become another wrinkle in his complex legacy. Instead, Smith forsook the dubious win and championship pay that would have come with the inevitable immediate rematch and elected to continue on in his losing effort.
Meanwhile, Ben Askren’s UFC debut resulted in the strangest moment of a strange show. With one takedown worthy of World Wrestling Entertainment Chairman Vince McMahon’s approval and a savage display of ground strikes, Robbie Lawler looked poised to spoil the “Funky” one’s coming-out party. Askren sustained more damage in matter of minutes than he had through the majority of his previous 18 fights, yet still managed to get Lawler to the floor and show off the abilities that led to his undefeated record and title runs in Bellator MMA and One Championship.
Referee Herb Dean’s stoppage does deserve scrutiny. Lawler seemed conscious and responsive immediately after the contest was called and Askren released the fight-ending bulldog choke. However, in real time, it was easy to understand why Lawler’s arm dropping so fast and appearing to go limp would prompt a referee to jump in and call it a night. Dean did not have the benefit of slow-motion replay from multiple angles when making his decision. In fact, among many media members seated cageside, it looked as if the former welterweight king lost consciousness. Despite the vocal outcry about the incident, I am willing to bet that many watching the broadcast thought the same as the action was unfolding.
This probably represents the best-case scenario in establishing Askren as a draw. Had he done what we have seen him do several times outside of the UFC and out-grappled his opponent to a decision, it could have darkened his shine a bit. A definitive wrestling-based win that does not involve inflicting severe punishment usually goes unappreciated among fans. Askren would have been left with only his skills on the mic to keep the average viewer interested.
Instead, we saw what can happen if Askren cannot get his man to the floor. This adds a sense of danger and suspense to future contests that would not have otherwise existed. Between his wild fight with Lawler, controversial ending and comedic personality, Askren has positioned himself for at least one more opportunity at proving his worth as a member of the UFC roster.
THE BAD: THE REJECTED ONE
Tyron Woodley vocally proclaimed his ambitions about being the greatest welterweight of all-time. Unfortunately for him, Kamaru Usman had other plans. While Usman’s win in the co-main event could easily occupy The Good for this piece for multiple reasons -- primarily the potential to explore the underserved African market -- what comes next for the deposed Woodley deserves some attention.
Woodley did not simply lose the fight and drop his belt. “The Chosen One” was on the receiving end of a sustained and systematic destruction. What Usman did stands as one of the most dominant performances by a title challenger in history. “The Nigerian Nightmare” deserves endless praise for defying the expectations of many observers, as he managed to pressure Woodley and negate his potent offense while dishing out plenty of his own. However, it would be hard to tell the complete story without mentioning how flat Woodley looked. After enduring a difficult opening round, it appeared that he just could not get into a rhythm and establish anything of consequence. After the fight, he acknowledged what sounded like a mental block that he was unable to break before being swarmed by his opponent.
In the past, we have seen a fair number of dominant champions be given immediate opportunities to regain gold after it was lost. Ronda Rousey, Cody Garbrandt, Jose Aldo, Renan Barao and Joanna Jedrzejczyk all come to mind. With the exception of Stipe Miocic, it feels like a near certainty that champions will get a chance at redemption. Judging by the tepid relationship Woodley has with the UFC, it does not appear he will be given that opportunity. Aside from the fact that Colby Covington’s presence and obnoxious behavior during fight week paid off -- he is believed to be next in line -- the UFC appears to have wanted to oust Woodley for quite some time. The preference to put its promotional muscle behind challengers like Stephen Thompson and Darren Till was not a well-kept secret. Usman has done the job that previous contenders could not.
At 36, Woodley faces multiple factors that may prevent him from reclaiming championship glory: age, the ire of UFC brass and a few contenders waiting for their chance. In order to defy those odds, Woodley needs to make statements in subsequent performances and hope for the best. He may not have eclipsed Georges St. Pierre as the all-time greatest welterweight, but he still ranks as one of the best champions ever in the weight class. It’s just a shame that most of his reign was spent at odds with his bosses and unappreciated for his efforts.
THE UGLY: AIN’T NO LOVE IN THE HEART OF THE CITY
Garbrandt enjoyed an incredible run to the top of the bantamweight division. His unexpected dismantling of Dominick Cruz still holds up as one of the more surprising title challenges in recent memory. However, “No Love” has not been able to maintain those winning ways. By falling victim to a first-round knockout at the hands of Pedro Munhoz, the former champion now finds himself on the wrong side of three-fight skid. To make matters worse, all three of those losses were violent stoppages with plenty of time left on the clock.
When T.J. Dillashaw defeated the Ohio native and regained the belt at UFC 217, one could easily cite the longstanding feud between Team Alpha Male and its exiled star. With emotions running high, an error in judgment turned an opportunity for Garbrandt to capitalize on hurting his rival into a scene where he was looking up at the lights at Madison Square Garden. The rematch at UFC 227 was nearly identical, except for the fact that the finish happened faster and on the other side of the country.
There was none of the same blinding animosity between Garbrandt and Munhoz. Leading up to UFC 235, the two men were extremely respectful and genuinely friendly with one another, so without the ill will that could lead a fighter who has proven himself capable of being calculated to abandon sensible strategy, another cause must be found. Whether it’s the result of the same temperament that makes him a dangerous fighter simultaneously acting as a curse or simply a lack of game planning paving the way for wild exchanges, it does not matter.
Garbrandt needs to reassess his approach to fighting. His commitment to Team Alpha Male is well-documented and rooted in a sense of duty to the Sacramento, California-based fight team, but it may be time for another set of eyeballs to help guide his career. In the four years since Garbrandt made his debut in the UFC, the coaching staff has rotated several times over. While mainstays like Chris Holdsworth and Danny Castillo have stepped up to handle the bulk of the duties alongside team founder Urijah Faber, it’s hard to imagine that the departures of Duane Ludwig, Justin Buchholz and Martin Kampmann had no impact on a talented fighter still under development.
While three losses in a row will always be a cause for concern, three consecutive defeats by knockout represents a crisis. At this point, Garbrandt’s record should not be the motivation for change. Instead, his health should be the primary concern. Such a sharp downturn stands as a sad occurrence in a career that seemed so promising after he dominated the greatest bantamweight of all-time in a star-making performance.