The UFC’s first fight card on ESPN this Saturday night—emanating from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn—is part doozy, part WTF, part business as usual.
First let’s address the doozy portion: The main card will air on ESPN’s subscription-based streaming service, ESPN+, and feature not just a flyweight title fight between Henry Cejudo and T.J. Dillashaw, but also a defense of the entire flyweight division. That puts us in some uncharted territory.
If current flyweight champion Cejudo is able to successfully defend his title against Dillashaw—the UFC’s bantamweight champion, who is shedding down to his skeleton for this fight—the 125-pound division will stay in business. If Dillashaw wins, the division will be shut down, which means all of Cejudo’s rivals and enemies will be forced into rooting for him. Dillashaw is essentially acting as the UFC’s henchman, going down to flyweight to kill it.
The reason for that is pretty simple: Flyweights don’t sell. They fight like feral cats, but since being introduced to the UFC in 2012 watching the smaller guys fight has been an acquired taste for fans. Some love it. Some hate it. Most are pretty indifferent.
One of the problems was that Demetrious Johnson, the division’s longtime king—despite breaking the UFC’s record for most title defenses (11) and his flare for dramatics—couldn’t build an audience. The UFC made it known how it felt about Johnson’s overall value to the company when it traded him to the Singapore-based One Championship for the welterweight Ben Askren in October.
Even if it’s not being advertised as such, putting a division on the line—rather than just a belt—is a nice way to kick off a new era. This deal with ESPN feels like a graduation for the UFC, which is only 26 years old and still finding its way in a PC world. One thing the UFC has consistently done well is project itself three years down the road. In 2001, when the billionaire Fertitta brothers purchased the UFC and dragged it out of the red-light district of the sports world, Lorenzo Fertitta gave Dana White a couple of years to turn a profit from the initial $2 million investment. The first order of business was to dismantle the stigma surrounding barefoot people in a cage trying to wrest away each other’s consciousness.
That meant getting the sport sanctioned in all the major markets, which the UFC gradually did (the last being New York in 2016), all the while embracing the notion that it was the “fastest-growing sport in the world.” That projection eventually became true. Stars like Chuck Liddell emerged as cult figures, darlings of the underground. Spike TV took a chance on the reality series The Ultimate Fighter in 2005, which blew up when Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin faced off in a fun-loving brawl in the season finale. Any lingering perceptions that the UFC was Bloodsport come to life only fed into the idea of paying for the privilege to see it. The pay-per-views began to skyrocket, and Spike TV essentially normalized an extreme sport—it told America that its squeamish stomach when watching two men slug each other in the face was actually exhilaration.
All of that helped the UFC land on Fox in 2011. The last seven years have been a feel-out period for how to handle the crossover to broadcast TV, and gain (casual) national interest. And what the UFC learned through its foray into the mainstream was this: This isn’t mainstream. And it never will be. It’s a popular niche sport with a rabid fan base that will occasionally feel like the biggest thing in sports thanks to stars like Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor. The idea was always to get SportsCenter to talk about the UFC in the same breath as the NFL and the NBA, even while populating the airwaves at Fox Sports 1 with content. At times, that’s happened.
Now the UFC is entering into a forward-thinking, five-year, $750 million deal with ESPN. The partnership makes sense for both parties. ESPN needs content for its new streaming platform and to get people beyond the ESPN+ pay wall, and UFC fans are used to shelling out to watch fights. Subscribing for exclusive UFC content feels like a deal: Ten fight cards will appear on the ESPN networks per year, with 20 streaming on ESPN+, and 12 events remaining on pay-per-view.
Will ESPN executives freak out the first time the camera pans to Nate Diaz in the crowd and he fake-lights a fat spliff? Stay tuned! … But here’s what I know: Shit always happens in MMA. Crazy shit. The kind of shit that you’d swear is impossible if there weren’t footage to prove it. The UFC knows exactly what it is, and it’s no longer apologizing. It is a roster of world-class misfits and disgruntled extraordinary athletes, with a president who drums up more controversy than the whole lot of them. With the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency constantly testing the fighters and fighters cutting insane amounts of weight, there are red flags everywhere. In that sense, Saturday night’s fight card—which is solid for the most part—is business as usual.
Which brings us back to the WTF part …
Round 1: The Elephant in the Room—Greg Hardy
Fighting has always been a refuge for the wayward, but Saturday night’s co–main event is a tough sell. Hardy, the former Dallas Cowboys defensive end who was essentially banished from the NFL for having a history of domestic abuse, is getting a career mulligan. He has fought only three times professionally—two of them occurring on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series—having won all three inside of a minute by knockout.
So not only is someone who is said to have thrown his then-girlfriend onto a couch covered in guns, he’s also being accelerated into prime spots in his new sport. Why is the UFC sticking an inexperienced fighter in the co–main event on ESPN+ against a guy (Allen Crowder) who nobody’s heard of?
Well, White appears to be through catering to anybody who objects to whatever it is he’s doing. To end 2018, the UFC up and moved a PPV event from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on a week’s notice because the former wouldn’t give a license to Jon Jones (who had an irregularity on his drug test). Rather than postpone the fight between Jones and Alexander Gustafsson, it packed up and left Vegas like carnies in the night. There was a mild uproar from people who bought tickets for Vegas or had their plans ruined, the type of thing that used to keep the UFC from acting impulsively when things went south.
This time? A shrug of the shoulders. Almost the exact reaction that the UFC had when Conor McGregor tried to throw a hand truck through a bus window the last time the company visited Brooklyn.
Here are the facts: The Jones fight did 700,000 PPV buys, which means that the broader sports public didn’t care where the fight took place, nor that Jones has been in some kind of trouble regularly since 2012 (recreational drugs, PEDs, alcohol, hit-and-runs, DUIs, you name it). So you know what the UFC assumes will happen when Hardy fights on Saturday night? People will protest up until the moment they tune in to watch him fight.
Still, the word most used in the media to describe this move is “tone deaf.” Hardy, as the face of domestic violence, doesn’t pair well on the same card with the Hawaiian fighter Rachael Ostovich, whose husband was arrested less than two months ago and charged with attempted murder after police said he assaulted her. White simply doesn’t seem to care how it reflects on his company.
Round 2: Henry Cejudo’s Time Is Now
You could hear the death knell for the flyweight division loud and clear when Demetrious Johnson was traded out of the UFC—but if you were really listening, you could hear it the moment Cejudo beat him at UFC 227 in August. Johnson was the only flyweight champion the UFC ever knew, and also the reason for the UFC’s disenchantment with the weight class. He was so dominant that his fights became foregone conclusions.
The whole division sagged as Johnson’s reign went on, because most of the contenders had already taken their cracks. The UFC kept trying to get Johnson to move up to bantamweight for a fight with Dillashaw, just to cast some doubt on his chances. To spice things up, it even went so far as to make The Ultimate Fighter 24 into a flyweight tournament for the right to face him. That effort played out to relative crickets in the fight world.
So when Cejudo came along for his rematch with Johnson, the flyweights and the UFC already appeared to have an unsalvageable relationship. When Cejudo beat Johnson—titanic as that seemed—it didn’t exactly make UFC matchmakers beam with new possibilities. What it did was set up this last-ditch fight to keep the flyweight shop open. The idea of Dillashaw coming down to face Cejudo at flyweight was weird. But then again, maybe there is an ounce of hope that if Cejudo knocks off Dillashaw, a star will be born.
And why not? Cejudo is a fairly charismatic, trilingual Mexican American champion with nothing but upside. He won Olympic gold in freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Games in Beijing. He cuts a good promo, and seems to piss off a good portion of the existing contenders. He could be a key cog in helping the UFC make headway in Mexico.
If Cejudo wins, the UFC’s flyweight division would be in good hands. Then again, he cuts a lot of weight, so even if he does win, he could take his talents up to bantamweight and challenge the best-known fighters there, away from all the small fry in his natural weight class, which just don’t sell. The guess here is that the UFC wouldn’t protest that idea.
Round 3: Paging Paige
One of the staples of the UFC on Fox shows was Paige VanZant, a young, pretty blond fighter whom the UFC exhibited for its rampaging 18-35 male demographic. The problem with PVZ is fairly straightforward: She doesn’t win all that often. In fact, she’s lost two fights in a row against Michelle Waterson (rear-naked choke) and Jessica-Rose Clark (decision), both of which happened on Fox airwaves.
The truth is, the hype began to fade away the moment she got dominated by Rose Namajunas in 2015. She was just 21 at the time and being prepped to become the Next Big Thing on the heels of Rousey’s transcendent run. But Namajunas showed VanZant that she had a long, long way to go.
Has VanZant found the kind of success she seemed destined for when she won three in a row to kick off her UFC run? Depends on how you look at success. Reebok gave her an independent endorsement deal early on, and she ended up on Metro PCS commercials. She’s done stints on Dancing With the Stars and Chopped on the Food Network, and she penned a memoir when she was barely old enough to drink. The UFC still loves her, and that’s why she’s being trotted out for the first show on an ESPN platform. She’ll meet Rachael Ostovich on the main card.
This could be looked at as a do-or-die fight for VanZant, given that another loss would basically render her an irrelevant player in the rankings sense. Then again, fighting—her original passion—seems to be more of an anchoring gig for her at this point. How much does VanZant still want to subject her face to another woman’s punches? That’s the question. But anybody who thinks she’s not a dangerous out in the strawweight ranks should revisit her knockout of Bec Rawlings in 2016. I was cage-side for that one, and can still hear the sound that kick made when it landed.
Round 4: “Cowboy” Cerrone as a Springboard?
Donald Cerrone is exactly what he professes to be—that is, the “baddest motherfucker” going. Since his days competing in the WEC he’s claimed that he will fight anybody, anywhere, anytime, and he’s been true to his word. This time his opponent is Alexander Hernandez, the young gun who has smashed both guys he’s faced so far in the UFC. What’s the incentive to fight a younger, stronger fighter in his return to lightweight? For Cerrone, it’s just another Saturday night.
Sometimes it doesn’t work out for him. During his welterweight stretch, Cerrone took a fight against the burgeoning contender Darren Till, an idea that was ill advised given Till’s size. He ended up getting finished in the first round. Similarly, he agreed to fight Leon Edwards in Singapore last June, and took the brunt of a beating through five rounds. But just when it felt like he was signing on for doom by agreeing to fight his teammate Mike Perry this past November, he turned in one of his best performances to date. He tapped Perry in the first round with an armbar.
Now at 35 years old and with a record 29 UFC fights (in which he’s gone 21-8), it matters less and less whether he wins or loses. The real marvel is that he’s always ready. The UFC made this the last prelim fight, which airs on ESPN proper, just before the main card kicks off on ESPN+. It is arguably the best slot on the card. The reason for that is simple: both men like to stand in the pocket and trade. It’s guaranteed fireworks.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
Yancy Medeiros vs. Gregor Gillespie—Since debuting in 2016, New York’s own Gillispie has been on a march through the lightweight ranks. He has finished his last four opponents, showing that he can get it done on the ground or while standing (two submissions, two KOs). This fight with Medeiros becomes a true test to see whether he belongs in the upper crust of the division. Medeiros is a bomb-thrower with a ridiculous chin. He’s willing to gamble on big shots, a style that always makes for excitement.
Joseph Benavidez vs. Dustin Ortiz—This is the other flyweight fight on the card, and it’s a little bit of a sad story. It was believed in 2012 that the opening of the 125-pound division was meant for Benavidez to have a place of his own. That was because he’d had two cracks at then–bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and lost them both, leaving him in contender limbo. Well, the same thing happened to him at flyweight; he had two cracks at then-champion Demetrious Johnson and two losses, leaving him with no path back to a title shot. Now that the Johnson era is over and he has a path, the flyweight division is on the brink of being eliminated. Worse: He has a win over Cejudo. If Benavidez beats Ortiz, you can bet he’ll be rooting for Cejudo to pull through in that main event.
Belal Muhammad vs. Geoff Neal—This is quietly an awesome fight. Muhammad has won four bouts in a row, and even though he’s not flashy—all of his wins have come via decision—he is a force at welterweight. Neal, on the other hand, likes to end fights as quickly as possible. He has finished all three guys he’s faced in the UFC, including a highlight-reel KO of Frank Camacho at UFC 228 in September. If it ends early, it’s Neal; if it goes the distance, it’s Muhammad—but either way, it will be entertaining.