UFC 230 is now available on Amazon Prime.
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So here we are. After what feels like a lifetime of conjecture, disappointment and musical-chair-esque-matchmaking, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s tertiary showing at the storied Madison Square Garden is finally upon us. On Saturday night, Derrick Lewis will attempt to shock the world by unseating newly crowned heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, whilst four middleweights will attempt to stake their claim to the next shot at Robert Whitaker’s 185-pound title.
In this edition of “Counterpunch” -- an occasional series where I wax lyrical on a litany of MMA headlines -- I’ll recap what happened on the obstacle-strewn road to the Garden, what’s at stake when the cage door closes behind Lewis and "DC," and the potential for UFC 230 to inject some clarity into the middleweight title picture.
To channel the infectious enthusiasm of one Bruce Anthony Buffer: ITTTTTTT’SSSSS TIME!
When Life Gives You LemonsLet’s start off by acknowledging the elephant in the room: the line up for UFC 230 is not what we anticipated it would be. After the meteoric success of the promotion’s first two events at MSG -- where superstars Conor McGregor and George St Pierre anchored respective championship tripleheaders and made history in the process -- the prevailing expectation amongst that fans and media was that a similar embarrassment of riches was in store for New Yorkers the third time around.
Instead, fans endured the combat sports equivalent of blue balls for the better part of six months. Rumored announcements for the main event(s) -- such as Jon Jones’ return fight, or the long-simmering grudge match between Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington -- never came to fruition, and feature bouts that did make the card dropped off like flies. Yoel Romero, Paula Costa, Luke Rockhold, Nate Diaz and Dustin Poirier are just some of the names that were attached to, and then removed from, the card, as the injury bug laid waste to the promotion’s best-laid plans.
Whilst the UFC’s relentless event schedule bears much responsibility for the unenviable position it found itself in a month out from the event, the promotion deserves credit for pulling a rabbit out of the hat with Lewis and "DC," which is as worthy a pay-per-view headliner as any other fights this year. And though the prelims leave much to be desired, there are plenty of reasons to tune in for the main card -- a topic we’ll turn to now.
Navigating the Middleweight LogjamFor a while there, after Michael Bisping shocked the world with his first round knockout over Luke Rockhold to win the middleweight title, it was arguable that the 185-pound division was the deepest on the UFC’s roster. You had former titleholders in Rockhold (Strikeforce, UFC), Chris Weidman (UFC) Ronaldo Souza (Strikeforce), Anderson Silva (UFC) and Gegard Moussasi (Strikeforce, Dream) all vying to recapture championship gold, whilst surging contenders like Yoel Romero and Robert Whittaker did their best to supplant their predecessors on their own journeys to the top.
Ultimately, the organization opted to squander much of the division’s potential by green-lighting a dubious (albeit entertaining) “money fight” involving former welterweight champion Georges St Pierre -- putting the division on hold for the better part of a year and losing one of those names to Bellator MMA -- only for GSP to vacate the title mere weeks after wresting it from “The Count.” In 2018 we’re still suffering a hangover from the whole affair, but UFC 230 promises to provide something of a cure.
To be sure, this isn’t the unofficial tournament that we were initially promised, and anything can happen between now and Robert Whittaker’s first (official) defense of his 185-pound crown opposite Kelvin Gastelum in the first quarter of 2019. But even so, the consensus seems to be that whichever middleweight steals the show on Saturday will probably be setting himself for the next crack at the undisputed title.
Will it be Weidman, the amiable Long Islander who once dethroned the great Anderson Silva and usurped the middleweight crown? Or “Jacare,” whose bagged a performance or fight of the night bonus in four of his last five outings? Or -- and this is the most intriguing one in this author’s opinion -- Israel Adesanya, the undefeated Nigerian kickboxer who will fight on Saturday for the fourth time this year, and posses all the trappings of a bona fide star?
We’ll know this time in a few days, and that’s something, right?
Seizing the OpportunityIn July of last year, everything Daniel Cormier had fought to achieve in his UFC career was ripped away from him in the most humiliating way possible. He lost his light heavyweight title; his long-time adversary Jon Jones emphatically ended their rivalry by viciously knocking him out in their rematch; and an image of an overwhelmed, tear-stricken “DC” became a viral Internet meme. The month prior, a dejected Derrick Lewis announced his probable retirement from the sport, opting to hang-up his gloves after a disappointing TKO loss to Mark Hunt, made worse by a longstanding back injury.
Less than 18 months later, Cormier and “The Black Beast” will look to inscribe their names in combat sports history, when they meet in the centre of the octagon at Madison Square Garden to determine who will carry the mantle of “baddest man on the planet” going forward. The respective path these men have walked to get here -- replete with thundering knockouts, memorable post-fight sound bytes and no shortage of Popeye's-chicken-related banter -- has been as entertaining as it has been improbable, and the sheer weight of both men’s personalities has made for a build-up that’s been more charming than most.
Granted, the fight itself comes with its fair share of asterisks, many of which orbit the short-notice nature of the contest, but the historical enormity of the event, has thus far managed to outweigh those concerns. That MSG is steeped in heavyweight boxing history, hosting some of the greatest pugilists in history including Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson and Jack Dempsey, and that “DC” is vying to become the first ever-simultaneous UFC champion to defend a title, make for appealing dressings on what should objectively be a banger of main event. And Lewis’ proclivity for eleventh-hour, odds-defying comeback KOs mean the fight should be competitive as long as the clock is ticking.
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