The last time the UFC visited New York it was Upstate for UFC 7 in 1995, back when it was still being marketed by its previous owners as a regulations-skirting taboo for voyeurs of the macabre. That original approach — two men enter, only one man leaves — left a deep scar on the sport that’s still visible in 2016.
Come-lately media, curious to have a fresh look at MMA and give it full context, like to default to Senator John McCain’s "human cockfighting" reference from 1997 to show just how far the sport has come (at this point, all the "human cockfighting" mentions could make for a drinking game). The UFC’s timeline back to New York is ridiculous. It’s 21 years of rule changes, sanctioning, lobbying, education, immunization, deification, introspection, masochism, mixed feelings, and hyperbole.
Finally, in March, New York became the last of the 50 states to sanction the mixed martial arts. To celebrate the end of such enduring chastity, the UFC is bringing perhaps its biggest, most excessive card to Madison Square Garden for UFC 205. Three title matches, three former champions, and a bunch of familiar contenders, all on display on Saturday night to celebrate the occasion. In that way, "history" is the loose word in play for UFC 205. As in, it’s historic simply because it’s happening.
It’s a toast to the ban being lifted, as well as to the UFC’s dedicated, decadelong contributions to getting MMA legalized in the state. The UFC is cribbing generously off the golden aura of the venue itself. Though it usually stays away from boxing (and pro wrestling) comparisons, it’s letting the vapors of the MSG’s greatest bouts drift over its marketing, as if we’ve been heading towards this moment all along. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier put on the "Fight of the Century" in 1971, and now there’s a sense of fraternity to such Big Moments. Forty-five years later the UFC arrives as a culmination of something. Walt Frazier likely won’t be there in his fur coat and Frank Sinatra won’t be shooting photographs ringside for Life, but it’s a chandelier affair, and tickets are selling for thousands of dollars.
Back in 1995, nobody would have thought the UFC would be a $4 billion business that’s shown on broadcast television and legal throughout North America. Back then, when Oleg Taktarov fought Ken Shamrock to a draw in Buffalo, MMA (still called "No Holds Barred" back then) was on the verge of being outlawed. Now it’s at the Mecca of the fight world.
What’s really being celebrated on Saturday night is the achievement of its own improbability — 23 years to the day since UFC 1 took place in Denver, the UFC will have finally chased down the thing it’s been going after the whole way: the air of legitimacy.
Yet it’s not just the sheen of history being made on Saturday. UFC 205 is actually historic in more obvious ways, too.
Conor McGregor’s Attempt at Two Titles
In some ways, Eddie Alvarez feels like the challenger heading into his fight with Conor McGregor, even though it’s his lightweight title that’s up for grabs. When the UFC booked McGregor for the MSG card, the event became an event. With Ronda Rousey still not ready to come back from the spiritual woods she entered after losing to Holly Holm last November, and Georges St-Pierre still in limbo with his comeback (and contract), McGregor was the presence needed to give MSG an fitting magnitude. And Alvarez, despite having defeated three former champions in a row, was somewhat incidental in the booking, just like anybody who McGregor faces these days not named Nate Diaz. The UFC wanted McGregor to defend his dormant featherweight title against Jose Aldo in New York, but McGregor — understanding the UFC was in no position to deny him — was fixated on Alvarez, who of course wanted the fight because that’s the lottery jackpot fight of 2016.
It’s all really a redo for something that didn’t happen in the first place.
McGregor was supposed to fight Rafael dos Anjos for the lightweight title back at UFC 196 in March, in an attempt to become the first UFC fighter to hold belts in two weight classes at the same time. dos Anjos fell out with an injury, and Diaz stepped in on just 11 days notice. That set up the greatest segue rivalry in UFC history. Diaz choked out McGregor at an agreed-upon weight of 170 pounds, and McGregor demanded they do it again (at the exact same completely arbitrary weight). They did at UFC 202 in August, and McGregor won, which now sets up a massive trilogy.
In that time, dos Anjos lost his belt to Alvarez, and here we are. As with everything dealing in McGregor, it’s one of those intersections of fates and whims. Philadelphia’s Alvarez, who isn’t above aligning himself with the city’s own perpetual underdog, Rocky, had better take advantage of the moment. The McGregor train only comes around a second time when McGregor loses. If he wins, people have a tendency to shrink in his rear-view mirror before he gets out of the parking garage. Just ask Jose Aldo. And Chad Mendes. And Max Holloway, who has peeled off nine wins in a row since losing to McGregor in 2013, and still can’t see him with high-powered binoculars.
And through it all, McGregor — whom they call "Mystic Mac," the fighter who controls the range and has a tendency to do crazy shit at the biggest possible moment — does have a chance to become the greatest fighter to ever take off his shoes in the UFC. People like to make the comparison between him and Muhammad Ali because of the ability to talk and then blow up the already-heightened expectations come fight night. McGregor has a chance to do that again, this time in the city that he says the Irish built.
Of course, we all know how fleeting such generous comparisons are in MMA. People were calling Ronda Rousey the next Mike Tyson because of how quickly and crudely she was putting away opponents for the first couple of years in the UFC. For Rousey, people were paying for the how fast, not the drama of if. It took one head kick to turn her into the sport’s version of J.D. Salinger. One well-timed hook from Alvarez, and the whole industry will feel the blow. It doesn’t get much more symbolic than that.
That’s the Big Apple–sized drama that the UFC has with Conor McGregor.
"Wonderboy" vs. Tyron Woodley
The co-main event between Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson and welterweight champ Tyron Woodley is a classic style-versus-power matchup. Woodley utterly destroyed Robbie Lawler back in July to take the belt. His right hand is a boom box that’s playing emergency broadcast tones. If he hits you with it, you’re going to sleep. His wrestling is good enough that he can control a fight, too, with toil and strength.
Yet what he draws in "Wonderboy" is an aerodynamic, soul-snatching sniper who has seen versions of Woodley before. His victory over Johny Hendricks, a punishing wrestler with a big left hand, during Super Bowl weekend remains the most mesmerizing performance of the year.
It wasn’t just that Thompson ruined Hendricks in three and a half minutes (which he did; Hendricks hasn’t been the same since). It was that Hendricks, who had been so strong and competent in his bouts with Lawler and St-Pierre, looked lost in there. Completely adrift. Switching back and forth in his sideways stances (which he calls "blading"), Thompson put on a striking clinic that had the measured, mental ease of a rehearsal. It was a thing of balletic grace. He flowed into Hendricks with a series of body kicks, side kicks, counters, long jabs, and head kicks.
And though he’s all Southern manners, Thompson — who began training at 3 years old — can be kind of a dick about it:
"To be honest with you, it was easy," he told me a couple of months afterwards. "That fight seemed very easy. I did more drilling for that fight than I actually sparred. Because if you’ve seen Johny Hendricks fight once, you’ve seen him fight 100 times. He doesn’t evolve, he doesn’t change, he does the exact same thing. So we just drilled over and over that big left hand, takedowns off the cage, and it just worked to a T."
When I asked him if he saw similarities in Woodley:
"Yes, it’s one of those," he said. "If you watch all of his fights, he’s pretty much done the exact thing he’s done all along. He’s got that blitz, that mean right hand, and then he looks for a blast double."
Though Woodley is the champ, this fight feels like it’s Wonderboy’s fight to lose.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz
The third title fight is a civil war between Polish champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Polish challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz. They have a history going back to their days as amateurs (with Jedrzejczyk winning via rear-naked choke), but this is one of those fights in which Joanna Champion can showcase a little bit and perhaps morph into a star. It helps that she always shows up to the cage looking like Iggy Pop — all sinews and electricity — but she kicks ass in a way a 115-pound woman isn’t likely to do.
It started with Carla Esparza back at UFC 185 in 2015. Jedrzejczyk just owned the inaugural strawweight champion from the start, to the point that Esparza’s despair became an existential slice of hell for the audience. There was a moment in that fight where Esparza looked completely bewitched, as if she had come face to face with the devil himself. That’s when Jedrzejczyk really arrived.
She backed that up by opening up Jessica Penne’s face in Berlin, leaving a full crime scene of blood on the canvas. Overall, she has defended the belt three times, and beating her compatriot Kowalkiewicz would put her just three title defenses away from catching Rousey. Of the three title fights happening at MSG, there’s a good chance that Jedrzejczyk steals the show. She’s vicious. And she handles a mic well.
"I know that I’m not the prettiest one, I’m not having big boobies, or I’m not American," she said on the UFC 205 conference call last week. "But I want people to remember me as the best female fighter, undefeated in MMA, and the UFC champion of the world."
There’s something refreshing about Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
UFC 205 is the kind of card that won’t happen often, because it can’t. With so many events, the UFC has to distribute stars to other cards (look at UFC 206 to see how one card’s jubilee becomes another card’s suffering). It wanted to hit Manhattan with a bang, and it is. Long Island’s Chris Weidman is on the card — the only native New Yorker to make the cut — fighting in what could turn out to be a no. 1 contender’s bout in the middleweight division against Yoel Romero. Former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, who is from New Jersey but trains in New York frequently, is on there too. It’s a loaded card from top to bottom, and the card is bigger than the 3 title fights and McGregor’s chance at history. It’s a late arrival to a long-raging party at a house that was built for fighting, where people like Ivan Putski, Rocky Marciano, James Braddock, and Evander Holyfield have all been guests. It’s absurd that it took this long, but UFC finally gets to join the party. And make no mistake, the spirit of UFC 205 is all about just that sort of belonging.
Chuck Mindenhall is a senior writer at MMA Fighting.