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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday kicked off its 2019 campaign with UFC Fight Night 143 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: THE GOVERNOR’S CALL
Just a few days ago, I answered a question in my weekly mailbag column about whether or not the future of flyweight division was in the hands of Henry Cejudo. I ended it by saying the 125-pound weight class had an execution date and the governor wasn’t calling. Now it sounds like the phone may be ringing after all.
Ahead of UFC Fight Night 143, Cejudo did everything short of beg UFC President Dana White to keep the division over which he reigns open if he managed to get his hand raised against bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. While White was non-committal while speaking to Cejudo and the media, the Olympic gold medalist has done his part. Winning in dramatic fashion with a first-round stoppage of Dillashaw certainly states a strong case to keep the smaller men operational.
Cejudo used the perfect balance of aggression and careful shot selection to handle the 135-pound titleholder. In just over 30 seconds, repeated punches floored Dillashaw twice and prompted referee Kevin MacDonald to halt the action. Even with Dillashaw and White expressing their displeasure with the stoppage, the result was definitive.
Initially, most expected the champions to meet at the higher weight class. Cejudo briefly fought at 135 pounds when he repeatedly failed to make weight earlier in his career, and Dillashaw had never competed as a flyweight. The decision to book the fight at 125 pounds after the promotion appeared to be doing away with the weight class inspired lots of head scratching. If Cejudo won, it would devalue Dillashaw as champion and force a rematch at bantamweight anyway. If Dillashaw won, it would likely be the nail in the coffin for flyweight, as he would almost certainly vacate the title and move back to his natural weight class. Of course, it makes a lot of sense for Cejudo to now challenge Dillashaw for the bantamweight crown. However, if the 135-pound champ gets his wish for a rematch at flyweight, it prolongs the existence of the division for just a bit longer.
Earlier at UFC Fight Night 143, Joseph Benavidez and Dustin Ortiz put on an impressive display to make their own statement about the value of the flyweight division. They put on a showcase of high-level mixed martial arts, with skilled standup and entertaining scrambles on the ground. When Benavidez earned the victory, he did more than just put yet another W on his already stellar resume. Instead, he staked his claim at a shot at the champion. Beyond his merits as a fighter, Benavidez has a backstory with either Cejudo or Dillashaw that can be sold to the public. Benavidez owns a win over the champion in the form of a controversial split decision. Another chance at UFC gold for Benavidez and a shot at redemption for Cejudo is a no-brainer. On the other hand, Benavidez was a longtime Dillashaw training partner at Team Alpha Male. Dillashaw’s boasts of killing off the flyweight division appears to have caused a rift between the two friends. As Dillashaw once proved with another Team Alpha Male member in Cody Garbrandt, former teammates make for great rivals.
At the very least, Benavidez and Cejudo have given enough reason for the UFC to at least temporarily reconsider the presence of the flyweight division. Whether Cejudo and Dillashaw run it back and Benavidez remains an alternate or Cejudo just rematches Benavidez to defend his title, there are at least more options available than simply nuking the entire weight class. With any hope, the same general public that chose to ignore the reign of Demetrious Johnson will find enough reason to request either one of these scenarios.
THE BAD: ESPN MINUS
There was a lot to like to about the first event Ultimate Fighting Championship event on ESPN. Overall, the fights delivered with the full sampler platter of submissions, knockouts and hard-fought decisions. After a slow start during the early prelims, the pacing was vastly superior to any Fox Sports 1 card. The graphics makeover was welcomed, and the additional commentary from Trevor Wittman and Megan Olivi provided a nice touch; and for all the flack he gets for lack of MMA knowledge, even Stephen A. Smith performed adequately. However, it would be impossible to talk about the viewing experience without mentioning the problems with ESPN Plus.
A brief glimpse on social media during the event revealed the host of problems with the streaming service. There were repeated interruptions in the feed, as many viewers complained of being kicked off the platform. Others had their web browsers and ESPN apps crash after losing the picture. Some had random skipping and loops. While there were some who found solutions that involved either rebooting their computers or switching devices, many were left to check their Twitter timelines to keep up with the fights.
Of course, there is likely some among the affected that can’t blame ESPN for those issues. Problems with computers, poor Internet connectivity or human error certainly can take the blame in some cases. With that said, judging by the amount of people that complained relative to the complaints about a Bellator MMA broadcast on DAZN or the simultaneous Manny Pacquiao-Adrien Broner pay-per-view, ESPN and/or the UFC shoulders most of the responsibility. This isn’t the first time that a UFC stream has become unreliable. While UFC Fight Pass typically has few issues, those who ordered the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor boxing match on the service were blacked out temporarily. There were reportedly similar issues for UFC 229.
ESPN+ is a new platform and the partnership with the UFC is even newer, so we can expect some growing pains as they work out the bugs in the technology and work to improve their capabilities. However, being unprepared doesn’t help either brand put its best foot forward in convincing fight fans to part with even more hard-earned money.
THE UGLY: HARD(L)Y (K)NEEDED THAT
The aesthetics of the third incarnation of the UFC championship belt leave a lot to be desired. My initial impression when looking at the pictures that were released with the official reveal was that the criticism was overblown. After seeing it placed upon Cejudo’s waist, my opinion quickly changed. It looked out of place and unbefitting of the best fighters in the world and their quest to reach the top of the mountain. While the new belt is quite literally the embodiment of the third segment in this column, it is not nearly as ugly as the elephant in the room.
The UFC put a lot of confidence in Greg Hardy. After being ousted from the NFL after his well-publicized domestic violence incident and behavioral issues, Hardy sought out mixed martial arts as another way to monetize his world-class athletic talents. When the UFC extended an opportunity to Hardy via Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, it was clear the red carpet was being rolled out to welcome the controversial athlete to the highest level of the sport. Needless to say, this generated tons of publicity, both negative and positive.
However, the decision to feature Hardy in his official UFC debut alongside the inspiring return of Rachael Ostovich -- she was back in the cage after the recent alleged assault by her husband -- was puzzling to say the least. When it was announced that he would be in the co-main event, the backlash intensified. Much has been written about that decision, and I don’t think it needs to be rehashed here. From a basic public-relations standpoint, it was important that Hardy simply prove himself as a fighter worthy of this preferential treatment. Hardy certainly validated himself as a prospect at heavyweight. While he showed glaring holes in his game, he showed enough ability to get out of a dominant position and survive a submission attempt. That’s where the praise ends.
Throwing an illegal knee at such a crucial moment in the contest is perhaps the worst possible outcome. That one error in judgment effectively undid whatever positives can be taken away from his performance. To his credit, Hardy was apologetic when addressing the media after the event. While he insisted the knee was the result of his misunderstanding the rules, he assumed full responsibility for the incident. Ironically, this is what many skeptics wished to see in regards to his aforementioned domestic violence issues.
No matter where you stand on Hardy’s intent when throwing the knee, it didn’t look good at all. While there has been confusion about the differing sets of unified rules, the strike is illegal in every North American rule set. Hardy will be given another chance to make good on his fast track to UFC acclaim. However, first impressions tend to last.