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The UFC Rebuild Starts Here

A year into new ownership, at UFC 213, the UFC remembers its roots

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

It has been a year since the Fertitta brothers — casino magnates Lorenzo and Frank — sold the UFC to the WME-IMG conglomerate for $4 billion. That means it’s also the anniversary of the final hootenanny that closed out the Fertitta era, the big milestone pay-per-view known as UFC 200, which, looking back, feels less like a celebration than it does a thousand red flags flapping in the wind.

The promotion tried to distinguish UFC 200, the capstone of its fifth annual "International Fight Week," from the average PPV, first by booking the sequel between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, and then by pulling Brock Lesnar out of retirement about a month before the card. That ace in the hole looked good in the lead-up but the result was, to put it delicately, a disaster.

After losing to Diaz at UFC 196, McGregor didn’t want to do a publicity tour during his training, and was therefore yanked from the event. In McGregor’s absence, the interim featherweight title fight between Frankie Edgar and Jose Aldo felt like a fresh squeeze of lemon juice on the open wound. The headlining light heavyweight title fight between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier fell apart during fight week, when it was learned that Jones had failed an out-of-competition drug test. With just 48 hours to figure it out, he was replaced by a 41-year-old Anderson Silva, whom everyone knew wasn’t likely to show well against the wrestler Cormier, especially under such circumstances.

(In short: He didn’t.)

Lesnar, who showed up to press appearances as the same pink-faced bullygrump that left the UFC in 2011, didn’t exactly stop the presses with his victory over Mark Hunt, either. The only waves he made in his comeback fight were (a) he was granted a USADA exemption to the usual four-month testing window, an allowance that fell somewhere between risky and unethical, and (b) he ended up testing positive for the steroid-masking agent clomiphene afterward, which was the least surprising development of 2016.

The whole thing played out as a tragicomedy. By the time Lesnar fought, the commemorative gold canvas just seemed yellow, as if a million dogs had hiked their legs at once. On the whole, even with Amanda Nunes plowing down Miesha Tate to win the bantamweight title in the main event, UFC 200 sucked in spectacular ways.

And though the card did numbers — selling more than a million PPVs, and producing a nearly $11 million gate — the UFC took a black eye on the Fertitta swan song that’s still a little visible today. A card that was to be a showcase of the UFC’s best and brightest became a cautionary tale of all the shit that can go wrong. Two days after UFC 200, on July 11, the Fertittas turned their $2 million investment into $4 billion, and fought back laughter on the way out the door.

A year later, as we arrive at the first International Fight Week under the new ownership, the new UFC owners are still sorting out the many messes they bought into. Ronda Rousey, one of the UFC’s most transcendent stars (who was originally penciled in for UFC 200) is in all likelihood gone. Jon Jones has served his suspension and returns later this month against Cormier at UFC 214. Though Lesnar is now safely back in the WWE, Mark Hunt’s lawsuit (oh yeah, there was a lawsuit, too) is following him and the UFC around. There have been subtle changes over the course of the year, shifts in philosophy. The search for new stars has been ongoing, while the prioritization of money fights over practical ones continues to plague Fertitta-era fans who still believe in such romantic things as "pecking orders."

There have been a couple of nice events (UFC 205: McGregor vs. Alvarez at MSG) and some real dogs (UFC 208: De Randamie vs. Holm). There have been some cheap thrills (UFC 204: Bisping vs. Henderson II), and some experiments (UFC 203, the debut of CM Punk). In all, it’s been an identity-seeking year in the UFC, with all the change and uncertainty of direction and increased grousing among fighters about pay.

So what does a UFC event look like a year into the WME-IMG era? Ordinary. This time, with the loss of two fights — the bantamweight title fight between Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw and the butcher’s delight between Donald Cerrone and Robbie Lawler — the UFC’s summer blowout amounts to two pretty normal-looking cards, Friday’s The Ultimate Fighter 25 finale and Saturday’s UFC 213 PPV, featuring some fairly decent matchmaking.

In some ways, that’s the biggest difference for this year as opposed to last: the workmanlike feeling of … nothing special. With Conor McGregor’s looming billion-dollar circus bout with Floyd Mayweather dwarfing all action within a calendar mile, perhaps nothing will look big until after August 26. Then again, there are two title fights this weekend and the debut of a fighter that can be described without hyperbole as a human buzz saw.

Here are some of the highlights:

Justin Gaethje Crashes the Party on Friday

Though he’s not about to strike fear in anyone by outward appearances, it’s been fun for the past couple of years to contemplate how Justin Gaethje, a fear-nothing, knuckles-first, throwback brawler from the copper mines of Morenci, Arizona, would fare against the shrewder competition in the UFC. Gaethje is the reigning World Series of Fighting lightweight champion, and he’s bringing a remarkable 17–0 record to the UFC for his debut Friday night against Michael Johnson. Remarkable not because he’s undefeated, necessarily, but because he fights with the kind of reckless abandon that’s considered by most self-preservationists to be … well, unsustainable.

As in, his go-to move is forward. He eats whatever projectiles come his way with relish, and he sometimes gets dropped. That part seems to excite him, the sportsman gamble of "his head or mine." But, like a cross between a slasher-film killer and an action hero, he gets back up. Bloodied, hobbled, and manic-eyed, he just keeps coming. Only one man under the WSOF banner was able to make it the distance with him, and that was UFC veteran Melvin Guillard. Otherwise people get caught in his brand of blender play, finding themselves in the wilderness of his wheelhouse, getting chopped down with leg kicks, straight punches, elbows, and uppercuts. How will that play out against the UFC’s most sensible roster?

That’s the intrigue as he draws Johnson at the TUF 25 finale on Friday. The bad blood between Johnson and Gaethje has been in evidence since they engaged in a back-and-forth during a kickoff press conference in May. Johnson hasn’t been afraid to land below the belt ever since. "Did your mom have sex with her brother to have you, or was it her cousin?" he asked Gaethje this week in broad daylight. "[You’re] the most inbred piece of shit I’ve seen in my life."

Now, normally that might hurt somebody’s feelings. But not Gaethje. I saw him bust open a training partner in Colorado during one training session where he was working a rotation of fighters in succession. He was genuinely concerned that he might have hurt him, sure, but I can say with fairly good certainty that his eyes shone a brighter blue at the sight of the blood.

So long as he gets to punch Michael Johnson, words don’t matter. That’s what’s fun about Justin Gaethje. He knows the game he’s in leads to the flagpole, and in this case that flagpole is in the UFC. This one should be fun.

Post-Rousey, Amanda Nunes Is the New Tyrant

Women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, one of the few bright spots on that UFC 200 card a year ago, is once again headlining the big PPV to close out International Fight Week, this time against Valentina Shevchenko. Nunes has been a steady beam of light in an otherwise dark year. She smoked Tate to win the belt, then — after donning a lion mask at weigh-ins like something out of Kubrick — teed off on Rousey’s head as if each punch was debunking a goddamn lie.

She’s also openly gay with a warm disposition, always willing to talk to media and ready to throw down with anybody. In other words, Nunes should be a little further along in prizefighting stardom than she is, but so far she’s more like the end point of a distraction. She’s basically suffering from what Luke Rockhold did. Rockhold beat the man (Chris Weidman) who beat the man (Anderson Silva) to rearrange the pantheon of MMA idols.

Similarly, Nunes is an aftershock to some distant unresolved trauma. She beat the woman (Miesha Tate) who beat the woman (Holly Holm) who beat the woman (Ronda Rousey). Then she beat Rousey herself in December, and that’s what’s bringing her into focus.

Her fight with Shevchenko is a rematch from a fight a year and a half ago at UFC 196, in which Nunes won a fairly pedestrian decision. Yet bookending that fight is Nunes’s best work. She scored first-round finishes over Shayna Baszler and Sara McMann before Shevchenko, and has since blown right through Tate and Rousey.

This fight should solidify Nunes as one of the best UFC champions on the roster. That is if she wins and does so emphatically. If Shevchenko prevails, well, what a cast of rotating strangers women’s bantamweight will become.

Whittaker-Romero — Sneakily One of the Best Fights of 2017

The UFC 213 co-main event between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero is technically for the interim middleweight title, even if that’s just some promotional costume jewelry to catch the eye. The truth is, with current middleweight champion Michael Bisping recovering from an injury and waiting on a WME-IMG special money bout with Georges St-Pierre for his next title defense, this fight becomes the real deal. It’s two high-flying contenders meeting at the height of their powers, right at a moment when it’s hard to imagine either one losing.

It helps that there’s a general gut feeling that either guy would/will beat Bisping if/when the time comes, but this fight sells itself. The Cuban Romero, who even at 40 years old looks like he sprung from Frank Frazetta’s mind, has never lost in the UFC, going a perfect 8–0. He has finished six of his opponents, including a devastating flying knee victory over Weidman at Madison Square Garden. He is beyond contender status at this point. Romero is the most unsung force to never carry a belt.

The Australian Whittaker is just 26 years old, and appears to be the future of the division. He is coming off the biggest win of his career against Ronaldo Souza, and has won seven straight overall. His victories over "Jacare" and Derek Brunson came as the result of ridiculous head kicks, and he looks more comfortable in the cage each time out. Should he beat perennial contenders Souza and Romero back-to-back, that would qualify as one of the best non-title sequences in UFC history.

It’s an old-school setup, the kind of fight that has been the bread and butter for the UFC going back to when the Fertittas bought the promotion in 2001, back when everything was heading somewhere and the best fought the best to satisfy a growing collective curiosity.

Whether it was intended or not, if UFC 200 succeeded a year ago in tarnishing its stars under the old regime, UFC 213 is quietly trying to build things back up under the new one. A fight like Whittaker vs. Romero may not captivate like McGregor vs. Mayweather but, at a time when the sport desperately needs to remember its foundation, at least in this one there is an eye toward tomorrow.