UFC 178 ended up delivering in two key ways - the action in the cage and the natural creation of a number of fights down the line far bigger than anything on the show itself.
When the show was over, the stage was set for two title fights, T.J. Dillashaw vs. Dominick Cruz for the men's bantamweight title, and Ronda Rousey vs. Cat Zingano for the women's version of the same title. In both cases, these are not just contenders, but arguably the toughest fight either champion has among fighters on the current roster.
A third championship fight may also have been set up, with Conor McGregor challenging the winner of the Oct. 25 Jose Aldo vs. Chad Mendes featherweight title fight in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While UFC President Dana White wouldn't confirm the latter fight after outright saying the direction of the other two, he came across as very receptive to the idea of McGregor being next in line even though he came to Las Vegas ranked only No. 9 in the division.
McGregor has made himself into a major star in his last few fights, particularly his last two. He got his first UFC main event win on July 19 over Diego Brandao in his home city of Dublin, Ireland. Saturday night's fight that was third from the top in bout order, but no matter where it was positioned, McGregor all week long, until well after the event was over, clearly established he was the real main event in a way no fighter in UFC has exploded onto the scene since Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey.
He also claimed, long before any numbers were available, that he was the reason for the success of the pay-per-view.
The pay-per-view number will be interesting. Beset by injury after injury, UFC is having a tough year with almost every champion on the shelf and numerous main events either moved or having fallen apart.
UFC 178 was expected to be a monster event, after the Jon Jones confrontation with Daniel Cormier at the MGM Grand Garden Arena lobby on Aug. 4. Without a doubt it would have been the year's biggest money fight, but when Jones pulled out, the scheduled No. 2 bout for UFC 177, the Demetrious Johnson vs. Chris Cariaso flyweight title fight, was moved to the headline spot on this show.
The marquee value of that fight was almost nonexistent. However, the undercard was the strongest of the year. Historically in combat sports, a weak main event with a strong undercard doesn't equal strong business. Drawing has almost always been about the main event, with the No. 2 fight often aiding if combined with a strong main event. But if the show does well, it would likely be attributed to the marketability of McGregor, and the promise of a lightweight gunfight with Donald Cerrone welcoming the longtime top star of Bellator, Eddie Alvarez, into the UFC, and a show with unusual depth.
The show largely delivered, particularly the last six fights. Not just action, but emotion, direction and controversy left a lot to be talked about. We already know Cruz and Zingano are, provided no injuries get in the way, in line for title matches soon. Both were coming off long absences from injuries. Cruz had two major knee operations followed by a groin tear, and Zingano also came off two major knee operations.
Neither seemed to show any evidence of those knee problems. It was only the second time Mizugaki had been finished by strikes in 30 fights, the last being eight years earlier. But a one-minute fight gives you little time to really examine the full recovery past he had his speed and feints early and was more like a shark when he smelled blood than in fights in his pre-injury career.
Cruz has established he deserves a shot at the title he's never lost. There's a great story to it that will make it the biggest bantamweight title fight in a few years. The new champion is the protege of Cruz's career biggest rival, Urijah Faber. In fact, had Cruz not looked so great, the thinking was that Raphael Assuncao would face Dillashaw next. And if that was the case, Cruz vs. Faber looked like the obvious next direction. And it still could be a fight for next year, whether Cruz does or doesn't win the title.
If nothing else, Zingano is coming off two strong finishes in exciting main card fights to get her shot at Rousey. Alexis Davis didn't look as impressive in getting her shot. Sara McMann didn't have the caliber of wins. Liz Carmouche was debuting in the UFC and hadn't been a top tier fighter to get her shot. And Rousey's highest-profile win, over Miesha Tate, was someone Zingano had finished to originally earn the shot that she never got due to her knee surgeries.
Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five:
DEMETRIOUS JOHNSON - Johnson (21-2-1) dominated and eventually finished Chris Cariaso with a kimura in the main event. That may have been the biggest main event in name only since Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia went on after Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz in 2006.
The big question going in was if fans would leave before or during the fight. There were fans who left after McGregor's win, but most stayed and were still there until Cariaso tapped out in the second round. Whether that would have been the case if the fight went longer is anyone's guess. But after the tap, instead of waiting for the announcement, cheering for Johnson's performance or waiting for his interview, it was a stampede out of the arena.
This was Johnson's fifth title defense of a title only he has ever held. That number puts him in strong company, tied with Tito Ortiz and Matt Hughes, and behind only Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones and Jose Aldo, in UFC history.
The question remains why Johnson doesn't click at a big level. Part of it is because he needs a challenger who can get people excited, and nobody has come along yet. The winner of the Nov. 8 fight with John Lineker (24-7) and Ian McCall (13-4-1) could get the next title shot, as could John Dodson (16-6), who was in line for a shot before undergoing reconstructive knee surgery. But few feel Lineker, who does posses knockout power, has the speed to keep up with Johnson. Johnson already has wins over McCall and Dodson. Kyoji Horiguchi (14-1) is also a possibility. But none of those alternatives are going to capture the public's imagination.
DONALD CERRONE - The perennial contender, and all-time Zuffa bonus king, failed to get his usual $50,000 reward for the first time in his last five fights. Cerrone (25-6, 1 no contest) and Alvarez could have easily picked up the best fight bonus on a night filled with competition. This makes five wins in a row for Cerrone since his loss to Rafael dos Anjos, all within the last 12 months.
Cerrone's track record has been to win, all the way up until the fight that decides the title challenger, and then lose. He's in the position where he could challenge the Dec. 6 winner of Anthony Pettis vs. Gilbert Melendez, and would probably create the most interest of any contender out there. Still, both dos Anjos (22-7), who faces Nate Diaz on Dec. 13 in Phoenix, and Khabib Nurmagomedov (22-0), should be ahead of Cerrone, and Nurmagomedov has a win over dos Anjos.
Cerrone wants to fight once more this year. Given that he's not getting a title shot next, and Nurmagomedov probably won't be ready after knee surgery by the time Cerrone wants to fight again, Cerrone's most logical next foe is Myles Jury (15-0), coming off a win last week over Takanori Gomi.
EDDIE ALVAREZ - Alvarez (25-4) was the face of the Bellator promotion and its biggest from its first show in 2009, until Viacom opened the checkbook and brought in Rampage Jackson and Tito Ortiz. He left the promotion as a lightweight champion, and came into UFC and clearly lost.
It's the second time the UFC has made a big play for a Bellator champion, the first being Hector Lombard, putting them in a position to get one big win and follow with a pay-per-view main event title shot. It's also the second time it didn't happen. One can't help but compare how the Bellator stars have done coming into UFC as compared with the top Strikeforce and WEC stars, most of which remain in the top ranks in their divisions.
Alvarez has two very obvious next foes, for fights that could easily headline a television show and be solid No. 2
fights on a pay-per-view They are Benson Henderson (25-4) and Josh Thomson (20-7). The Henderson fight would rehab the winner back into title contention. The Thomson fight, stylistically, would be the kind of war that makes for a great television fight, so there are advantages to each.
CONOR MCGREGOR - At 26, McGregor (16-2) has the potential to be the elusive star that can turn the featherweight division into a money weight class.
In the history of the sub-155 pound men's divisions, the only true needle mover has been Urijah Faber in the WEC days as champion or perennial top contender. If McGregor has the goods to be half the fighter he claims to be, his charisma is such that he could be the biggest thing the UFC has seen as a champion since Georges St-Pierre.
As far as what is next, the reality is guys like McGregor come along rarely. The featherweight division has plenty of top-of-the-line fighters, with champion Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes, Frankie Edgar and guys like Dennis Bermudez and Cub Swanson right on their heels. All are proven commodities to a degree, but none have anywhere close to the potential star power that McGregor brings.
You have to strike while the iron is hot. McGregor should get the next title shot. Some would argue the Swanson vs. Edgar winner deserves it. But there is a lesson of something similar, which points to the big picture.
When Rousey showed up in Strikeforce, and Miesha Tate was champion, the logical next contender was Sarah Kaufman. Rousey, like McGregor, talked her way into getting the front of the line and being the fight people wanted to see. They made themselves stars. There were never-ending complaints, from fighters, reporters, and fans about fairness. But the benefit of hindsight tells a big picture story.
Rousey got the shot and won the title, but far more importantly, elevated women's MMA and got the women into the UFC. The arguments for Kaufman, as well meaning as they were, showed an inability to grasp the big picture of what a struggling aspect of the sport needed and its historical ramifications.
McGregor's shot at beating Aldo is probably not as good as Rousey's was as beating Tate. And featherweights are locked into the UFC and going nowhere, so the ramifications aren't as high. But neither Edgar nor Swanson as a contender, or champion, will make featherweights a marquee division. McGregor as champion, and the odds may be against it, but he's passed every test with flying colors so far, has the chance to elevate everyone in the weight class.
Romero (9-1) was done after round two. The only thing that could save him was the bell, and when he went to the corner, he looked like a guy whose night was over. But after getting an extra 28 seconds to rest, he came out, and shocked everyone in blasting Kennedy out in the third round.
Romero, 37, is an incredible athlete, an Olympic silver medalist in wrestling whose wins over Cael Sanderson, the best American wrestler of this generation, are spoken of frequently. But he's got thunder in his fists, and a unique style that lulls his opponents into complacency. This has led to three of his last four fights ending in third-round knockouts in fights that he had his troubles in.
Romero is ready to be tested by the top tier middleweights, but there really was an issue with this win. It's doubtful the win will be overturned, but Romero did not get off his stool when the third round was supposed to begin. His corner created confusion, which bought him time to recover.
Romero was winning most of the fight with Kennedy and would probably be favored in a rematch. But Kennedy deserved that win. For that reason, before either man moves on, a rematch should be made. The good thing is the interest in the rematch would be far more than the first match had. For a company that has more dates than it has viable main event television matches, this has a story, a reason, and a rematch promises to be a great fight. Fans also know going in it's a fight either man is capable of finishing the other out in since they both did it the first time.