Unless you’re one of the folks who got TKOed or choked out, you’d have to say that the UFC’s return to Madison Square Garden on Saturday night couldn’t have gone better. It communicated the one thing fight fans never grow tired of discovering: Namely, that we don’t know shit. UFC 217 had three title fights at the top, and three titles switched hands. It was loony, unpredictable, and unprecedented. Women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who many considered not only the best striker in the division but the best women’s MMA fighter of all time, got knocked out by a peacemonger who is more known for submissions in Rose Namajunas. Georges St-Pierre, who hasn’t finished an opponent since 2009 (or fought at all since 2013), choked Michael Bisping unconscious. Bantamweight champ Cody Garbrandt, who was on the cusp of breaking through as a star, got starched in the second round by his old nemesis, T.J. Dillashaw.
It was a night of whatever-you-can-do-I-can-do-better escalation, with each fight just kind of out–Hot Damning the last. Belts were coming off like it was the Summer of Love. It was a karmic event, in which the bullies took their comeuppance in front of a paid audience. And it was timely, too, because the UFC was just about ripe for a shake-up in the divisions in question. With all the new champions emerging, UFC matchmakers are free to use their imagination again.
Here’s a look at how the division has changed in the course of one night, and some possibilities of what the UFC can do next.
Georges St-Pierre Cements Himself As an All-Time Great
What happened: After a voluntary four-year absence from MMA in which St-Pierre restored his enthusiasm to fight, he returned a stockier, more imposing version of himself against the middleweight champion Bisping. It ended up being a fight with many counterintuitive narratives. St-Pierre didn’t sell out for the double-leg takedown like so many believed he might, but he snapped his jab and swung his legs and mixed in the wrestling. At intervals, when he did take Bisping down, it was a costly thing to do. Bisping, anticipating he’d be fighting off his back, opened up a gash under St-Pierre’s hairline with his elbows and smashed up his nose.
It wasn’t a clean performance, as the cage rust set in by the second round and St-Pierre was visibly winded. He took his share of licks, and admitted Bisping hurt him “very hard” at least twice in the fight. Still, he landed a wicked left hook in the third round that sent Bisping reeling, and within moments had his neck. It was four days late for Halloween, but GSP — wearing a crimson mask as he squeezed Bisping’s neck — reminded everyone why he is one of the greats in MMA. Bisping didn’t tap; he just drifted into the ether as the oxygen supply got cut off.
Just like that, GSP is the UFC’s middleweight champion.
What does it mean? The UFC had to take some liberties in booking GSP in a middleweight title fight to begin with, given that he didn’t have any experience at that weight. It also had to kind of turn a blind eye on contenders like Robert Whittaker, Yoel Romero, and Luke Rockhold while Bisping dangled the belt for a company icon. If Bisping had won, the idea was fairly simple — have Bisping unify the middleweight title against interim champion Whittaker, and get things rolling in one direction again.
A GSP win would only make things more confusing, and of course he won. As the longtime welterweight champion who was never officially dethroned, this set-up felt like a lark with some historical dividends for GSP to make his return, a nice red carpet back to the octagon. The idea of his remaining at middleweight has always been murky, though, even as he reminded everyone that he was contractually obligated to defend the 185-pound title against Whittaker if he won. To listen to UFC president Dana White, who was asked about it in the post-fight press conference on Saturday night, St-Pierre’s only option is to defend the title against the no. 1 contender, Whittaker.
What does it really mean? White’s declarations and vows are usually more like fiery suggestions, and sometimes just plain old words. St-Pierre may have a contract stating that he’s to defend the middleweight title, but there are reasons to believe he won’t — not against Whittaker, anyway, and not anytime soon. Whittaker, who is from Australia, is a natural candidate to headline UFC 221 in February, which takes place in Perth. St-Pierre is a smart headliner for a venue like Madison Square Garden, but you think he’s going to fly across the globe to Perth to defend that title as the interloper? Before his fight in New York, GSP’s last five fight destinations were Las Vegas, Montreal, Montreal, Toronto, and Montreal. He doesn’t fight in random cities.
There are a lot of interesting ideas out there about what will happen with GSP next. Conor McGregor has been asked about a fight with GSP on numerous occasions, and a non-title fight at 170 pounds would be a compelling reason to just say to hell with titles. If McGregor even flares a nostril in GSP’s direction in the next couple of weeks, that fight will gain immediate traction.
Then again, the elephant was in the room at Madison Square Garden the whole time. Current welterweight champion Tyron Woodley doesn’t yet have a dance partner, and has openly campaigned for a fight with St-Pierre. Even with all the contracts and declarations and pinky swears from White that GSP will stick around at 185 pounds, a return to the welterweight division might be most logical step for St-Pierre, who could make sure the fight takes place in Canada. When Woodley was asked about defending his title against the natural contender Colby Covington last week, he dismissed the idea. His mind is on GSP. So a Woodley vs. St-Pierre title fight checks off a lot of boxes, the “then vs. now” set-up chief among them.
As for Bisping, who vowed that he will fight again, it might be time to let him and Yoel Romero sort out their differences.
T.J. Dillashaw Has a Belt Again — and Wants to Roam
What happened: With a blood feud that goes back to their training days at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw got to finally duke it out for the bantamweight belt on Saturday night, the most natural way to deal with complex emotions. Garbrandt had Dillashaw in trouble in the first round, dropping him with a short right hand late, yet Dillashaw was saved by the horn. It all looked to be going Garbrandt’s way at that moment, but — on a night with so many sliding facts and legerdemain — Dillashaw came roaring back. He downed Garbrandt momentarily with a perfectly timed head kick, and then felled him more severely with a right hook. That was the beginning of the end.
Not long thereafter, Dillashaw was being peeled off of Garbrandt, roaring like a banshee. Garbrandt, who was being celebrated for his overall poise and offensive prowess, had to find out the hard way how his chin would hold if it came into contact with a big punch. (The answer: not as well as he’d hoped.)
This is one of those rock-paper-scissors things that happens in MMA all the time. Dillashaw was the bantamweight champion but lost the title to Dominick Cruz, who then lost the belt to Garbrandt last December, who now coughed it up to Dillashaw. It’s enough to make matchmakers dizzy.
What does it mean? In forecasting their impending success, Garbrandt and Dillashaw were both calling out flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson as their next fight. (They’d both drop down to 125 to make it work.) Now that Dillashaw has prevailed, he made sure to begin his lobby for that match right away, (re)planting those seeds since he and Johnson were linked to a fight that never materialized a few months back.
The biggest proponent of a T.J.-D.J. super-showdown is Dana White, who wanted to see them fight before Johnson broke the all-time consecutive title defenses record against Ray Borg at UFC 216. White publicly called Johnson out for not wanting to fight Dillashaw, insinuating that Johnson, considered perhaps the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, is ducking Dillashaw.
Many fans echoed this sentiment as well, as Johnson took out the inferior Borg with relative ease, making it clear that there wasn’t a lot left for him in the flyweight ranks. Johnson said he didn’t want the Dillashaw fight because (a) it wasn’t a “superfight,” given that Dillashaw wasn’t at the time holding a title, and (b) Dillashaw had never competed as a flyweight, thus ridding him of merit.
That all changed Saturday night with Dillashaw’s victory.
What does it really mean? If there was ever a time for a brand-new champion to stray off in another division for a “superfight,” this is it. Since Dillashaw emphatically finished the non-tenured champion Garbrandt in the second round, there’s little impetus for an automatic rematch. Right now Cruz has a fight lined up against Jimmie Rivera at UFC 219 in late December. The winner of that fight could feasibly be next in line for Dillashaw, if the UFC wanted to play it straight.
But the UFC isn’t interested in that. What the UFC really, really wants is the Dillashaw-Johnson fight, and the reasons why are pretty obvious. White wants to see Johnson challenged, and there’s nobody in the flyweight landscape who offers any real threat to beat him. Besides, the UFC wants people to properly care about a Johnson fight — or care at all — and the only way to achieve that is to make him more vulnerable through matchmaking. If there’s doubt heading into a Johnson bout, there will be compelling reasons to tune in.
Dillashaw not only presents a threat to Johnson, but he becomes a human hurdle — the real obstacle for Johnson to test his greatness against. That’s the strange psychology surrounding Johnson right now, and it’s probably time for him to just wave Dillashaw through.
Rose Namajunas Breaks Through
What happened: After a week of head games from strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk — who told Namajunas that the bogeywoman was coming to get her, and struck many a demon-pose while relaying the message — Namajunas just kind of owned the situation. She showed up speaking soft words to herself (the Lord’s Prayer, she said), and then proceeded to shock Jedrzejczyk with her hand speed, cold precision, and moxie. She dropped Joanna once early, and then, midway through the first, delivered a left hand that put Jedrzejczyk on ice.
If there was a reason that color commentator Daniel Cormier just kept muttering “Thug Rose! Thug Rose!” after the knockout, it’s because Namajunas was an immense underdog against Jedrzejczyk in her quest to tie Ronda Rousey for the most consecutive title defenses in women’s MMA. She had an eerie comportment beforehand, an icy stare with no emotional response to the moment. If she was too mentally weak to handle herself on a big stage (as Joanna insisted she was), she didn’t let on. And even in victory, she just downplayed the achievement, pointing out that people shouldn’t talk so much trash, and that love was a better interior source to draw power from than hate. Her tranquility was so thoroughly yogi-like after an improbable, stunning upset that onlookers just sort of fell in love with her.
Welcome to the cult of Thug Rose.
What does it mean? Jedrzejczyk had intentions of going up to the new 125-pound division to challenge for a second title in the event of a win on Saturday. Now that the unthinkable has happened, she has one goal, and that’s to get her title back. The question becomes: Did Jedrzejczyk have enough tenure as the champion to warrant an automatic rematch? And was Namajunas’s knockout emphatic enough to do away the desire to see one?
Dana White said that Jedrzejczyk has done enough as a champion to get that rematch, but added — as Dana likes to do — “we’ll see what happens.”
What does it really mean? Here’s the truth: Back when “Thug” Rose was coming up as a raw 21-year-old talent from the mean streets of Milwaukee on The Ultimate Fighter 20, the UFC was branding her as “the next Ronda Rousey.” That was a steep comparison, and an overwhelming one for a fighter with barely any experience, but you kind of knew what White meant — with her street attitude, her beauty, and her keen ability to kick some ass in a public sphere, she was a marketing trifecta. Rousey had charisma and an ability to walk a carpet, same as Rose.
But it was too much too soon, and Namajunas ended up losing the inaugural strawweight title fight against Carla Esparza. The UFC kind of filed her away as “work in progress” as Jedrzejczyk began her reign months later by taking out Esparza to win the title. Meanwhile, Namajunas began to go through a metamorphosis in Colorado. She showed up 10 months after the loss — on tippy-toe, really — to beat Angela Hill. Then, when UFC darling Paige VanZant needed an opponent on short notice, Namajunas got the call. She showed up with her hair shorn off, and cast herself as a persona non grata to all the spoils of VanZant’s hype machine. She completely dominated VanZant, hacked away at her features like she was purposely destroying art. That’s when she arrived back on the radar.
She’s rolled along since, scoring wins over Tecia Torres and Michelle Waterson (the head-kick/rear-naked choke that landed her a title shot), but Namajunas hadn’t exactly been hunting Jedrzejczyk along the way. She treated the champ like an Everest that she’d get around to climbing one of these days. And when she got the shot, in part because of her ego-free new life in harmony, she was an intrigue you didn’t quite look in the eye. Many wanted to believe she had a chance but wouldn’t dare, because Jedrzejczyk has destroyed everybody the UFC has put in front of her.
Therefore, Namajunas’s victory was like a secret that everyone’s been in on the whole way, meeting with the revelation that she’s finally there. Though Jedrzejczyk was a great champion, she never headlined pay-per-views, nor did the UFC cater an event to her in Poland. She was always a co-main event, because that operated as a deepening of value for PPVs. People wanted to imagine Jedrzejczyk as a star in the Rousey sense, but it was never the case. Namajunas, on the other hand, can be that star.
And the UFC might not want to throw her back into a fight with Jedrzejczyk before gauging just how big of a star she can be. With Jedrzejczyk having already defeated everyone in the top five, there’s no shortage of options for Namajunas for her first title defense. If Namajunas stole the biggest show of the year at Madison Square Garden, a show that featured the return of St-Pierre and a grudge match between Dillashaw and Garbrandt, she can certainly headline a PPV.
The only way Jedrzejczyk will headline a PPV is if she can get that rematch.