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The Scorecard: The (Re)match of the Year

Garbrandt-Dillashaw 2, Johnson-Cejudo 2, and all the surprisingly nonrepetitive reasons to watch UFC 227

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UFC broadcast the sequel to Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez last weekend on Fox (Poirier won in a slugfest), but the UFC isn’t done with the big-time rematches. They return this week at UFC 227, which is selling a pair of championship rematches on pay-per-view from its lightest weight classes. Henry Cejudo and Demetrious Johnson will vie for the flyweight belt, and Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw will get reacquainted in a bout for the bantamweight title. It’s the summer of redos in the UFC!

It’s also a summer of record low numbers for the UFC, which is causing more trauma than drama among those who #JustBleed MMA. Last Saturday’s UFC on FOX 30 card drew a mystifyingly all-time-low average of 1,678,000 viewers — down nearly 20 percent from last year’s far more flaccid Chris Weidman versus Kelvin Gastelum event in Long Island — despite the fact that the first Poirier-Alvarez was two grenades shy of a classifiable war and former champions Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Jose Aldo were on the card. This trend is not new. UFC 226 on July 7 featured a heavyweight title fight between Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic and fetched just 380,000 PPV buys even after it was heavily promoted as a superfight clash between champions. UFC 225, which featured a middleweight title fight between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero — also a rematch — did around 250,000 buys.

So what does this mean for UFC 227, which quietly arrives at the Staples Center in Los Angeles featuring a traditional non-draw phenom like “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and a mostly milquetoast champion in T.J. Dillashaw? Let’s just say that there will be more crickets than UFC president Dana White feels comfortable admitting.

Two things to keep in mind, though, especially for adventure-seekers looking to get some bang for their buck. It’s prizefighting, yes, but it’s also a vanity art, and sometimes the lack of buzz for what’s supposed to be a major event pisses the participants off to the point that they put on over-the-top ridiculous fights. My theory on this: While prideful fighters can take a punch in the nose from the strongest opposition, they can’t handle a slap in the face from an indifferent public.

The other thing is there’s plenty of intrigue in the idea that the second verse won’t be the same as the first. Cejudo returns a much-improved fighter than the one that faced Johnson back in 2017 at UFC 197, and Garbrandt’s vendetta against Dillashaw has dilated to an inky black since they squared off at UFC 217 last November. The players are the same but the script isn’t. These are good fights between principals at the very peak of their careers.

Here’s a five-round break down of UFC 227.

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Round 1: Garbrandt Gets a Second Crack at Dillashaw

Heading into his first fight against T.J. Dillashaw, Garbrandt might as well have been Rembrandt. He was an artist that represented a generational shift in UFC stardom, a fast and furious blend of attitude, youth, and in-cage nastiness. With bewitching speed and brilliant counter ability, he completely schooled Dominick Cruz to win the bantamweight title at UFC 207, a feat that no other fighter had come close to accomplishing before him. At just 26 years old and sporting an 11-0 record, Garbrandt was on the verge of breaking through into a stratum where only phenoms like Jon Jones reside.

But the fight game is funny, and the UFC’s gloves are gauzy little things. Just as the hype was swelling up around him, and it felt like a foregone conclusion that he was going to smash his Judasesque former teammate Dillashaw, he found himself on the receiving end of a short right hook that floored him midway through the second round. Within moments, Dillashaw was howling in Garbrandt’s face and trying on his belt. Just like that, Tomorrow’s Star had suffered his first loss, and Dillashaw was the new champ.

If there’s cause for an immediate rematch, it’s in the details. Having been teammates at Team Alpha Male before Dillashaw followed coach Duane Ludwig to Colorado—an act of betrayal, as far as Garbrandt was concerned—they’ve grown to truly hate each other. The bad blood has gotten even worse since November, particularly because that first fight featured narrative swings to match the real-life drama. Dillashaw, holding his right hand in the air as if it were a cobra coming up out of the basket, was the aggressor early, pushing the action and forcing Garbrandt to react. It was a close first round until Garbrandt landed a right hand just seconds before the horn, which dropped Dillashaw and left him stumbling toward his corner on unsteady legs, like a newborn giraffe.

At that point, it looked on the verge of being over. But then, just as Garbrandt was taking on the cocky air that he displayed in the Cruz fight—at one point mocking an errant Dillashaw kick that zoomed over his head, to the delight of the assembled fans at Madison Square Garden—he got kicked in the face with a high left kick. He recovered enough to engage a close-range gunfight midway through and, just as his own left breezed by Dillashaw’s nose, Dillashaw’s right crashed into his chin. Garbrandt fell. After receiving a series of follow-up shots on the ground, it was all over. An inch the other way and Garbrandt washes his hands of Dillashaw for good.

The built-in hatred along with the twists in the first fight prompted the UFC to run it back. Some people didn’t like the idea of a rematch, given that Garbrandt hadn’t previously defended the title and was therefore undeserving of an automatic rematch. But the UFC likes Garbrandt, and — at a time when new stars are desperately needed — saw no reason to delay. Besides, the UFC isn’t in the business of adhering to whatever you or I consider “fair.”

Miocic broke the UFC’s all-time record for heavyweight title defenses (three) and won’t be given an automatic rematch with Cormier, who knocked him out a month ago. Why? Because Brock Lesnar is returning to the UFC and wants Cormier next. Fair? The UFC can’t direct deposit fair. It can, however, cash out the extra eight figures it’ll earn by scooting Lesnar — who did 1.6 million PPVs for his fight with Frank Mir at UFC 100 — in front of Miocic for the next title shot.

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Round 2: ‘Mighty Mouse’ Looks to Extend Title Defense Record

The biggest knock on flyweight Demetrious Johnson is that he keeps fighting challengers that everybody expects him to beat — which, when you think about it, is a pretty cool trick for a 5-foot-3 gaming nerd to pull off. Johnson has defended his title a record 11 times, having surpassed the great Anderson Silva (10) and Georges St-Pierre (nine), yet — perhaps because of the shallow pool at 125 pounds — he carries the onus of being too good.

So Johnson has gone about the business of recycling conquests, which he’ll do again against Cejudo, who he beat in the first round at UFC 197. That was a little over two years ago, when Cejudo, who won Olympic Gold in 2008 in freestyle wrestling, had only four UFC fights under his belt. He couldn’t last a full round with Johnson then, as he got hit with a big knee that spelled the beginning of the end. Yet after losing a split decision to Joseph Benavidez in his next fight, Cejudo has looked better than ever with back-to-back wins over Wilson Reis and Sergio Pettis. Will it be good enough to dethrone Johnson, who saps the will out of everyone he faces?

Well, Cejudo’s striking has improved, and he’s learned to use his wrestling to better advantage, and … OK, let’s face it, Cejudo is facing an uphill battle. It’s not just uphill — it’s a vertical mountain face, and he’s pushing a boulder like every other Sisyphus in the flyweight division, hoping it won’t flatten him entirely when it comes rolling back down. Cejudo is the UFC’s last chance for a challenger of ordinary stripes to get the job done. If he loses — and especially if he loses spectacularly — public pressure will be for Johnson to either move up to bantamweight or to accept an existing brand name bantamweight — like the winner of Garbrandt-Dillashaw — to come down to flyweight and challenge him. When all else fails, go for the superfight.

One thing that is certain when discussing Johnson: What he’s doing is unprecedented in the UFC. Cleaning out his own division not once but twice is half-amazing, half-monotonous, to the point that it just feels like he can never truly be appreciated. Reality can never meet the expectations of greatness. No other fighter has ever inspired such reverent yawns.

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Round 3: The (Irish) Elephant in the Room

Technically Conor McGregor has nothing to do with UFC 227, but when declining numbers are in the news and generating buzz begins to feel like a lost art, you can’t help but think about the UFC’s biggest star-in-absentia. Do the declining numbers have to do with his two-year absence from MMA? It’s hard to draw a straight line to connect those dots, but in many ways, yes. McGregor was given such special handling and was such a colossal self-promoter that he lifted up the possibilities of everyone within three divisions (featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight). Since he’s been gone, all the vibrant hypotheticals turned gray.

McGregor spoiled a fanbase as much as he did himself, and — with Ronda Rousey gone and Jon Jones still suspended — the UFC has not found anybody who comes anywhere close to moving the needle like that. Heading into UFC 227, there’s a pinch of excitement in the air that he will soon return. Last week, he resolved his legal issues in New York (following the Dolly Incident at UFC 223), and is free to fight again. Not only that, but the expectation is that he’ll face current lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov — the man he was trying to throw the dolly at. The bout will likely take place either at Madison Square Garden in November or at the year-end show on Dec. 29 at UFC 230 in Las Vegas.

That fight will almost certainly be the biggest in UFC history. Bigger than either of McGregor’s fights with Nate Diaz, bigger than UFC 205 when he beat Eddie Alvarez for a second title, bigger than anything Rousey, Jones, or Lesnar ever did. It is big enough to raise the PPV average for the year and get the UFC back into the pop culture conversation. It’s big for a company that could use Something Big, and in Los Angeles this weekend, his seemingly imminent return will be in the air. Or in the octagon—it wouldn’t surprise me if they announced his return live on the PPV Saturday night. Whenever they set the date, it’ll be like the first flowers growing back at Chernobyl.

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Round 4: Renato Moicano vs. Cub Swanson

Nobody can ever accuse Cub Swanson of taking the easy route. Heading into his fight with Brian Ortega last December, he was riding a four-fight win streak and on the verge of free agency. He was gambling on himself to beat the most dangerous featherweight going, and thereby leverage his surging contender status into a big payday. It backfired. Ortega choked Swanson to within an inch of is life with a guillotine, and dumped him there like a sack of sardines.

Rather than bolting UFC, Swanson re-upped with a new contract and promptly took a rematch with Frankie Edgar — another rematch! — who had dominated him three years earlier. He lost again, this time via unanimous decision. So what does he do, now in the midst of a two-fight losing streak and needing a victory in the worst way? He signs on for a fight with Renato Moicano, who is a veritable monster in the ranks.

The Brazilian Moicano is 4-1 in the UFC (11-1 overall), with his only loss also coming against Ortega. He is coming off the most impressive fight of his career against Calvin Kattar, whom he picked apart for three rounds at UFC 223 in Brooklyn. Before his fight with Ortega, he beat Jeremy Stephens — the very same that nearly knocked out Jose Aldo last week in Calgary. Swanson has to win, and Moicano is exactly the kind of guy you avoid in a must-win situation.

But that’s not Cub’s mind-set. He is an old-school brawler who doesn’t turn away fight requests, and who genuinely expects to beat any man the UFC sticks in front of him. Given the stakes here, the fuse is lit for this one to go off. The UFC was smart to make it the opening fight on the pay-per-view, because this is the kind of fight that sets a tone.

Round 5: The Best of the Rest

Brett Johns vs. Pedro Munhoz — This is the way the UFC used to book fights: two guys who were riding red-hot winning streaks coming off of losses being directed at each other. The Welsh fighter Johns suffered his first loss ever against Aljamain Sterling in April, but at 26 years old, he can use it as experience. Both he and Munhoz have refined ground games, which will make every topple to the canvas an adventure. Johns, who had a beautiful calf-slicer finish of Joe Soto last December, will have to watch his neck. Munhoz loves the guillotine to the point that he should wear a black executioner’s hood. Three of his last four victories have come that way.

Thiago Santos vs. Kevin Holland Before his April loss against David Branch, Santos was on one hell of a spree, having won four straight fights via TKO, the last two which involved body kicks that made the arena groan. At just 25, Holland is a young up-and-comer who emerged through Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. He definitely has some power of his own, as he demonstrated through stints in Bellator and the LFA. This will be his first big-time test and, given each man’s track record for finishes, the fight doesn’t seem destined for the judge’s scorecards.