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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday made its way Down Under with UFC 243 -- an event headlined by a middleweight unification bout between champion Robert Whittaker and interim titleholder Israel Adesanya. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: DO NOTHING, COLLECT CHECKS
The UFC accomplished a lot in Melbourne, Australia. The company reportedly set a new live attendance record by packing over 57,000 people into Marvel Stadium. It also has a clear-cut superstar with Adesanya, who did nothing but amaze as he captured the undisputed middleweight title. This was all made possible by the UFC doing something it rarely does: getting out of its own way. Having the two best fighters in the Oceanic region headlining a card in the area seems like a no-brainer, but look at the cookie-cutter approach the promotion has taken with fight placement in recent years and you’ll see what appears to be a random shotgun pattern. The big fights usually take place in Las Vegas or New York. Most of the time, champions are slotted on cards regardless of where they come from and the product largely remains the same.
Recently, we’ve seen a few UFC Fight Night cards, like Weili Zhang’s recent title challenge in China and Yair Rodriguez headlining in Mexico City, break that mold. It’s also worth noting that the two previous attempts to feature Robert Whittaker in title defenses on Australian soil were derailed by late-notice withdrawals. Despite early speculation that UFC 243 would take place in Las Vegas, the most important fight for Australia and New Zealand followed in those footsteps. Instead of forcing a moment to fit in the UFC machine, the UFC quietly sat back and allowed the moment to happen. Additionally, the cookie-cutter approach extends to the way it handles the showmanship element of combat sports. It has stripped away fighter individuality by mandating Reebok-branded uniforms and mundane entrances on the arena floor. Sure, CM Punk is a UFC veteran, and the element of popularity creeps its way into matchmaking. However, this time it allowed entertainment in a way that didn’t compromise the sport.
A simple act like allowing Adesanya to add some extra flair to his walkout adds a star quality to what would otherwise have been a longer version of the typical cage entrance. At the post-fight press conference, he was told that the company quickly shot down the idea for his decision win over Anderson Silva at UFC 234. Instead of butting heads about injecting personality, the UFC just let him do it a favor of entertaining the audience. While flashbacks to Michel Pereira’s recent choreographed routine before his ill-fated Tristan Connelly bout were hard to ignore, the calculated risk paid off in what will surely be a memorable moment for years to come. When Conor McGregor finished Chad Mendes at UFC 189 after having Sinead O’Connor provide the simultaneously triumphant and haunting soundtrack, it was a clear sign that we were witnessing a different type of star. The hip hop-infused haka that preceded “The Last Stylebender” stepping into the Octagon felt eerily similar.
A fighter with Adesanya’s charisma and fan-friendly style doesn’t come around very often, so if everyone had the opportunity to add some panache, it wouldn’t always translate to what we witnessed in Melbourne. That’s OK. This is a sport filled with eccentric, varied and oftentimes puzzling personalities. When you combine letting those traits shine with the right setting, magic can happen. Abracadabra, we want more where that came from.
THE BAD: ALL THE RAGE
It was a rough night for Al Iaquinta. Over the 15-minute distance, Dan Hooker had his way with the 20-fight veteran. His celebrated high-pressure mixture of solid boxing fundamentals and relentless takedowns was stifled with relative ease. This would be a fine time to celebrate what Hooker managed to accomplish against a well-established perennial contender, all with a record crowd waiting for Adesanya and Whittaker to take the cage. However, Iaquinta’s recent streak of tough times is the focus here.
For the first time in his career, Iaquinta is on the wrong side of a two-fight skid and appears to be drifting further away from the edge of title contention. Additionally, it is the second time in a row that his tried-and-true method of overwhelming with a meat-and-potatoes strategy proved futile. Jabs, leg kicks and stuffed shots neutralized everything he tried.
After a rough first round that saw Iaquinta dropped by a low calf kick and elbowed furiously in response to single-leg attempt gone wrong, it didn’t get any better for the Long Island native. He even appeared uncharacteristically gunshy, as Hooker fell into a comfortable rhythm of range striking. Attempts to drag the action to the floor were easily avoided, and his defense eroded quickly as the leg kicks forced Iaquinta to stand southpaw. By the final round, not even a classic profane pep talk from Ray Longo and Matt Serra could right the ship. A significantly slower and damaged Iaquinta looked helpless, as Hooker did almost anything he wanted. The one trait that looked to be intact was Iaquinta’s signature toughness, as he made it to the final bell after enduring punishment worthy of a 30-26 scorecard from one of the judges.
It would be premature to send the 32-year-old out to pasture just yet. His losses have only come from encounters with the very best in the very best weight class in all of mixed martial arts. Late in 2018 he turned back former title challenger Kevin Lee for a second time. However, it may be time for Iaquinta to do some serious soul searching about his future in the sport. Unlike many others in his position, he has a successful real estate career awaiting his undivided attention. Unless he is content to gate keep the upper half of the Top 10, he may have to make some hard decisions.
THE UGLY: REGIONAL PPV
When the lineup for UFC 243 was finalized, one thing was quite clear: It was built solely around an epic main event. The UFC made sure the residents of Australia and New Zealand were able to see their top two names meet one another for the highest stakes. However, that was really all there was to it. Of course, Hooker-Iaquinta sounded great on paper and Tai Tuivasa was an expected addition to the lineup after being featured on previous PPV main cards and one UFC Fight Night main event in the region. Aside from that, this was barely worthy of the UFC banner.
Yorgan De Castro rightfully earned his place on the roster after winning his bout on Dana White’s Contender Series, but an unheralded 5-0 fighter doesn’t belong on the PPV portion of a card. The same can be said of his previously 3-0 opponent, Justin Tafa, who didn’t even experience beyond local shows. Similarly, Dhiego Lima and Luke Jumeau seemed wildly out of place behind a $60 paywall. While Jumeau has been a staple of Oceanic UFC events since his debut in 2017, his mixed results and lack of ranking don’t translate to main-card material right now. Lima is enjoying a hot streak of late, but he too doesn’t exactly seem like someone who warrants a move towards the wallet.
It’s clear that UFC 243 was intended to cater to the live attendance. The stadium being filled with lawn chairs serves as evidence. Just like the pieced-together nature of the live experience, the promotion did what it could to stack locally based fighters who otherwise would’ve been less prominent on high-profile cards or fighting in lower-tier organizations altogether.