UFC 203 went down this past weekend (September 10, 2016) from Cleveland, OH, and what a strange and perfectly emblematic event it was.
The evening showcased the best and worst the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has to offer. UFC 203 was representative of the wild carnival nature of combat sports in many ways, but it also featured some truly excellent fighting performances. Unfortunately, we also saw some of the things that can turn people away from or against MMA. Let’s recap what made UFC 203 a “very MMA” night.
The highlight of the evening was the main event, which lived up to the anticipation, and then some. Though it lasted only one round, it packed plenty of high drama into those five minutes. The champion was tested early, as Overeem dropped Miocic with a left and pounced on a guillotine that seemed to have him on the verge of capturing UFC gold. Miocic extricated himself, though, and returned to his feet. He pressured the challenger, hurt Overeem and had him on the defensive, before getting clipped again. The Ohio native would persevere, eventually winding up in top position after an ill-advised Overeem sidekick. From there, he quickly pounded his adversary into unconsciousness.
That kind of gutsy performance, the dramatic shifts in momentum, and the bout featuring the highest possible stakes are exactly what make MMA so compelling.
But that wasn’t the only positive storyline to come out of UFC 203. Elsewhere on the main card, rising bantamweight prospect Jimmie Rivera took on grizzled veteran and perennial top-five 135-pounder Urijah Faber.
What transpired between the two combatants was a passing of the torch, a time-honored tradition in combat sports. Faber has been ridiculed in recent years for his inability to bring home the big one, but he has been dominant in non-title fights his entire career. Rivera can now add his name to that of Frankie Edgar as the only two men to defeat Faber in non-title bouts.
“The California Kid” has been a marvel for years, prolonging his prime far beyond the time most fighters in the lighter weight classes fall off significantly. He clearly isn’t the same fighter he was in the WEC or when he first entered the UFC, but he has been a stern test for everyone at 135 pounds ever since downshifting from featherweight. Rivera found himself on the periphery of the top ten coming into the fight, but can now boast a marquee name on his resume.
MMA is still a young sport. But it has been around long enough now for this kind of transition – a hungry, young fighter directs the former champion toward the exit – to occur regularly. It is the very nature of combat sports. Fans may be sad to see the veteran have to come to grips with his own mortality, but it is also exciting to watch the up-and-comer graduate from prospect to contender.
And of course, discussion about UFC 203 would not be complete without at least mentioning the fight between CM Punk and Mickey Gall.
I’ve placed this in ‘The Good’ category, but you could definitely make an argument that it belongs in ‘The Ugly’. Punk got decimated, pretty much exactly how everyone thought he would. But there is a silver lining.
The presence of Phil Brooks on the card brought more eyeballs to the screen, and (almost) anything that does that for MMA is good in my book. More people got to witness the magic of the main event, and that’s a positive.
And unlike many other “freakshow” fights, Punk actually gave it an honest go, and for that, he should be commended. Not many people with no combat sports background and just a year and a half of dedicated training would be able to stomach the idea of fighting for the first time under the brightest lights.
Yes, he was soundly defeated by a far superior fighter. But he proved the doubters wrong by showing up, fending off the choke for a reasonably long time, and toughing out some punishing ground and pound. His training footage may have been unflattering and strongly hinted at what the final outcome would be, but Punk kept his word, went out, and fought. Kudos to him for doing the damn thing.
The UFC’s latest offering on pay-per-view (PPV) was not without its warts, though.
The undercard barely resembled the one we thought we’d see when the card was finalized. Fortunately, the PPV portion held together for the most part, but a variety of strange and unfortunately common circumstances conspired to wreak the preliminaries.
An illness and a freak elevator accident nixed two tussles in the 48 hours leading up to the event. About a week earlier, visa issues forced two other fighters from the card. One was replaced at UFC 203, the other’s fight postponed to a later date. An injury to another fighter a month out necessitated yet another substitute.
The need for these late-notice replacements is the primary reason the UFC roster is so expansive. New fighters need to be signed on an almost weekly basis to keep others on their scheduled events. It has become so bloated that only the hardest of hardcore fans will recognize more than half of the fighters on the undercard.
There were other common and frustrating problems on fight night as well. Competent judging and refereeing – or a lack thereof – are near-constant topics of conversation within the MMA community. Another referee mistake in a high-profile bout reared its head this weekend, this time in the co-main event between Fabricio Werdum and Travis Browne.
When Browne blocked a Werdum overhand with his open hand, he appeared to dislocate one of his fingers. He then seemed to ask for a timeout to pull his finger back out, something that is obviously not allowed in a fight. Referee Gary Copeland called time – after Werdum rightly tried to press the attack on a distracted Browne – calling in the doctor to have a look at the finger. The respite gave Browne a chance to try to mitigate and adjust to the injury. Since it did not occur as the result of a foul, he should not have been granted any such reprieve.
The referee needs to call in the cageside physician at times to assess cuts and other injuries to determine if the fighter is safe to continue. But he needs to wait for a break in the action to do so, not halt it in the middle. While the mistake did not change the outcome of the fight – Werdum won by unanimous decision – things could have turned out differently. The human element of judging and refereeing never will allow a perfect system, but clear oversights such as this will make improved training a constant request from fans and pundits.
Speaking of Werdum, he was involved in a reprehensible post-fight scrap with Browne’s head trainer Edmond Tarverdyan. More on the Glendale Fighting Club head in a moment.
Blows that come after the bell are an uncommon but not unheard of occurrence in MMA. Paul Daley and Jason High were both ousted from the UFC for post-fight infractions. The full-scale brawls that can erupt between opposing fighters and their corners, like what the Werdum-Browne situation nearly devolved into, are the worst case scenario of these types of offenses.
That kind of lawless and unsanctioned violence is a major hindrance to the growth and acceptance of MMA. The infamous brawl at Strikeforce: Nashville between Jason ‘Mayhem’ Miller and Jake Shields and his Diaz brothers cornermen torpedoed the deal Strikeforce had with CBS. Having MMA on network TV was a big deal at the time, but it was ruined by idiotic and short-sighted actions by a few people.
There is no excuse for Werdum initiating a physical exchange with an opposing cornerman, and a veteran like he should know better. Those kinds of extracurricular shenanigans are what make people think this sport is populated by dangerous thugs rather than the true martial artists who dominate the sport’s highest levels.
And while we have the opportunity to fire shots at the worst coach operating at the UFC level, let’s go ahead and get them in.
The fact that Edmond Tarverdyan can claim to be the head coach to one of the most dominant athletes in MMA history is a travesty. It is clear after some of the “advice” he gave Browne Saturday night that he has no business being a cornerman in the sport’s big leagues. With strategic gems like “He’s just a little baby,” perhaps he doesn’t belong in the minor leagues either.
We’ve seen him fail to help his fighters make adjustments mid-fight before. Who can forget Rousey resuming her ill-advised forward charge in the second round of her fight with Holly Holm? Nevermind that she failed to show marked improvement in his supposed area of expertise: boxing.
The fact that he instigated the bruhaha with Werdum only emphasizes the point that high-level fighters should look elsewhere for expert coaching. Whatever he took umbrage at Werdum for is irrelevant; you can’t start screaming at an opposing fighter or his seconds immediately after a fight.
UFC 203 was wild and weird, but ultimately “so MMA”. This circus disguising itself as legitimate sport can provide those watching with indelible and enthralling moments. But it can just as easily become a freakshow portraying scenes that make us cringe and queasy. For MMA fans, we’ll have to keep taking the good with the bad, and hope that the former usually outweighs the latter.